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Monthly Archives: November 2010

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Weekly Mishmash: November 7-13

Antichrist (2009). Lars Von Trier’s attempt at a horror movie winds up being what I’d imagine is a typical Von Trier outing — impenetrable, at times creepy and effective, but mostly pointless and just plain gross. The plot concerns a couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who also have the only speaking parts) who cope with the devastating loss of their infant son by escaping to a mountain cabin. Dafoe is a psychologist who uses therapeutic activities to help cure Gainsbourg of her depression. However, he gradually finds that the woman, much like the seemingly tame forestry around them, has a hidden pathological side. The film is beautifully photographed with remarkably fearless performances from Dafoe and Gainsbourg, but Von Trier’s imagery is not very subtle. The film’s graphic sex and violence is also used to random, puzzling effect. The image of homely Gainsbourg pleasuring herself on the forest floor is something I can’t easily escape. Thanks a lot, Lars.
The Edge Of Heaven (2008). Fascinating cross-cultural foreign drama, reminding me of a less ambitious and heavy-handed Babel. A Turkish prostitute living in Germany takes refuge in the home of one of her clients. Before dying in an accident, she confides to the man’s college professor son (Baki Davrak) that she wants to see her daughter again. The younger man journeys to Turkey to find the daughter, not knowing that the woman is living in Germany as an activist in a lesbian relationship with one of his students. The story goes off in different directions with the kind of (contrived, I know) coincidences that have become a staple of films of this ilk. The acting is uniformly good, however, and the film did take off in ways this viewer didn’t expect. Mostly I enjoyed how it offered a peek at the intersection of two different cultures. Writer-director Fatih Akin seems to know the subject well and explores it here in an absorbing way.
Midnight Mary (1933). Part of the Forbidden Hollywood Volume 3 DVD set that my spouse gifted as a birthday present. I’m so jazzed to have this one, since it focuses on the work of one of the better Pre-Code directors, William Wellman. Most of the films in this set are underrated gems (the only one I don’t remember enjoying much was Barbara Stanwyck in The Purchase Price, but even that is worth a revisit), with the crackling “girl gone wrong” drama Midnight Mary being a good example. In a role that seemed tailor made for Joan Crawford, Loretta Young is exceptionally fresh and natural as Mary Martin, a woman who is awaiting her fate in a murder trial as the film opens. In brilliant, kinetic style, the film flashes back to her hardscrabble girlhood through being romanced by a snakelike gangster (Richardo Cortez, typecast but great) and finding refuge in the employ of an industrialist’s son (Franchot Tone). This is brisk and enjoyable as most Pre-Coders are. What makes it unusual, besides the direction, is that it was made by MGM with a production that strikes an odd balance between gritty and luxe. I also enjoyed the lively comedic support of Una Merkel and Andy Devine. This is one brisk corker of a movie. One other noticeable thing was the uncredited extra playing a nightclub hat check man. Who he is remains a mystery, but the wavy-haired gent would certainly fit into an “unknown hotties of 1930s flicks” photo montage.

still_midnightmary

Miss London Ltd. (1943). One of the nice suprises of our TiVo Premiere is that we can download videos from Archive Classic Movies, a not-so-frequently updated site that offers clean digital copies of public domain movies and serials. Most of their offerings tend towards the weird/campy, and this wartime British musical is no exception. The plot concerns an American blonde (Evelyn Dall, who looks bizarrely like a glamour puss version of character actress Gladys George) who comes to London to claim ownership of a crumbling escort service run by hyperactive Arthur Askey and goofy Max Bacon. Deciding to kick the business into gear, Dall and the two men go on a hiring binge in an effort to find the loveliest birds in town, all the while singing a number of forgettable tunes. This film mostly has interest to demonstrate how the British approached the musical form. The rapid pacing and overly strident songs are really something to behold, and the UK beauty ideal tended toward the curvy back then — including the downright chubby singer Anne Shelton. Arthur Askey’s mannerisms are a trip (apparently this guy was huge in Britain, land of blood pudding and questionable dental hygiene). A perfectly lousy film, all told, but I’m glad I watched it at least once.

poster_misslondon

Somebody Loves Me (1952). Needing some entertainment while Christopher retired to bed early fighting a stomach bug (which he caught from me), I happened upon this Betty Hutton musical on Netflix streaming. This was Hutton’s last starring vehicle, it turns out. Mostly it piqued my interest since Ralph Meeker also appears and I wanted to check him out in an odd non-drama role (he’s pretty decent, even with a horribly mismatched dubbed singing voice). Hutton and Meeker play 1920s vaudeville star Blossom Seely and her husband, Benny Fields in this typical biopic/jaunty period piece. The splashy, brassy production is befitting of Hutton’s screen persona. There’s even an uncomfortable “nostalgia for the Old South” number with all the players strutting around in brown face. Jack Benny pops up as himself in a cameo, making no attempt to appear as a younger version of himself. Also of note is Billie Bird as Hutton’s secretary/gal pal; having mostly known the actress as an older lady in a variety of ’80s movies and sitcoms (the Patty Duke/Richard Crenna show It Takes Two comes to mind), it’s interesting to see her much younger but basically in the same wise cracking mold.

Dig, Dig, Dig, Remix, Remix, Remix

“Wishery” is another Disney video mashup from (I think) the same person who did similar treatments for Alice In Wonderland and Mary Poppins. Snow White’s trilling voice sounds weird enough on its own, mixed up like this it is truly mesmerizing.

Weekly Mishmash II: October 31 – November 6

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). I’ll say it now: I buy too many cheap DVDs. Another Big Lots! markdown find was the Busby Berkeley vol. 2 set, four 1930s musicals for a cool nine dollars. These honestly aren’t the greatest movies ever made, but they are fun and brimming with fizzy vitality. Gold Diggers of 1937 was a new discovery for me; the film is actually a slight improvement over the mediocre ’35 edition. Although the songs were getting a bit stale and unmemorable at this point, director Lloyd Bacon lends a lively touch and the plot retains a bit of the Depression-era grit that the classic early ’30s flicks had. The plot deals with sassy chorines Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell teaming up with insurance salesman Dick Powell to write a policy on a flighty millionaire (Victor Moore) that will net them the huge landfall they need to mount a Broadway show. The only catch is that the man needs to die to get the money. Somewhat routine overall, but Blondell sparkles in the lead (and she has great chemistry with then-hubby Powell), and Berkeley’s climactic “All Is Fair In Love And War” number is suitably huge and impressive. The DVD also contains two cute Merrie Melodies cartoons based on the film’s tunes and some fascinating early color footage from 1929’s Gold Diggers On Broadway.
Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross by Craig Seymour. This biography was a cheap find at the grocery store (free with a charity donation). Since it was written just prior to Vandross’ death in 2005, the hopeful note it strikes at the end seems a bit off, but otherwise it was a good examination of one of contemporary R&B’s finest performers. Seymour recounts the singer’s life from his years as a shy and overweight but music crazy kid to being a consummate arranger and backup singer in the ’70s New York music scene to solo stardom and his never fulfilled quest for lasting companionship. The subject of Vandross’ covert gayness is constantly alluded to but never dwelt upon, which oddly comes out in the book’s favor. Even if his writing style tends towards the pat and simple, I liked Seymour’s restraint and his admiration of the subject is obvious. A sense of total professionalism defined Luther’s career, and yet I also found myself identifying with the man consuming himself with work as a way of avoiding personal relationships. Another thing he yearned for and never got was a number one pop hit single, which surprised me at first. After listening to a greatest hits package covering his 1981-94 output, though, clues emerged as to why that chart topper eluded him. Although his voice is smooth and among the best of that era, his arrangements lacked a certain spark. Probably the most valuable part of this book is the discography of not only everything Vandross recorded, but his production, arranging and backup singing duties for other artists as well (this continued well after he found success in his own right).
Splice (2009). Creepy, ultimately unsatisfying sci-fi scare tale with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley as a pair of rogue scientists who create a new lifeform. Brody and Polley work at a firm splicing together animal DNA to make creatures that would aid in medical research; when they secretly decide to make something using their own DNA, a tiny reptilian emerges. The horrified Brody wants to kill it, but Polley sees it as their surrogate child and decides to wait and see how it develops. It rapidly matures into a weird woman/reptile hybrid, and that’s where the fun begins. Director Vincenzo Natali sets up an effectively moody atmosphere at the start, placing the characters in an underlit, grungy world similar to David Fincher’s work. Also working in the film’s favor are the two leads, whom I’ve liked in earlier stuff and are perfectly fine here. Unfortunately, the film takes a bizarre/creepy turn midway through and subsequently bogs down in cliché-ridden dialogue. Not to mention an ending that defines ridiculousness. At least the Brody/Polley apartment had some nice decor:

splice_scene

Weekly Mishmash I: October 31 – November 6

We’ve got more entertainment than usual in the past week, so once again I’m splitting the Mishmash in two:
Fireball 500 (1966) and Thunder Alley (1967). A double bill of AIP stock car racing flicks from the ’60s starring Annette Funicello and Fabian. These have been on DVD for a few years now, but I finally got to catch them when they got shown on our local This TV HD channel, which seems to be a haven for exploitation, action/adventure and cheesy TV movies from the ’60s-’80s (Beverly Hills Madam, anyone?). Just my style, in other words. Both of these movies are honestly pretty dull, but they’re interesting if only to check out how American International morphed from perky teens on the beach to motorcycle/rebel schlock over the course of the ’60s. The earlier Fireball 500 owes more to the Beach Party template, with Annette and Fabian joined by Frankie Avalon and Harvey Lembeck in a tale that uneasily mixes lowbrow yuks, campy songs and lots of stock footage of NASCAR crashes. The same footage seemingly popped up the follow year in Thunder Alley, a film that still wallows in action clichés but boasts a more cohesive story and an improved, appealing cast. A refinement, if you will. The film also has lovely Annette singing one of her best tunes, “When You Get What You Want”:

The House of the Devil (2008). Every Halloween, we have a tradition of turning off the porch light to ward off trick or treaters (why should a bunch of strange kids take our candy?), hide off in the back room, and watch a scary movie. This year’s offering was the recent indie The House of the Devil, writer/director Ti West’s modest yet affectionate tribute to early ’80s “babysitter in peril” flicks. The film concerns a cash-strapped college student (Jocelin Donahue) who accepts a job looking over an infirm old woman in a cavernous home while the woman’s creepy caretakers (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are out for the night. The film initially sets up a nice, period-accurate vibe with grainy film stock, correct clothing and vehicles, and Donahue’s blank countenance which seems right in line with every ’80s horror actress from Jamie Lee Curtis on down. Unfortunately, the film isn’t very exciting or suspenseful with its never-ending scenes of Donahue padding around the house. Once the action does hit in the final 20 minutes, it’s also a huge, cliché filled letdown. Well intentioned, but a bore. I need to pick something better for next Halloween.
cd_nippongirlsVarious — Nippon Girls: Japanese Pop, Beat & Bossa Nova 1966-70. An import compilation CD of tasty girl-led Japanese pop from the ’60s as compiled and annotated by Sheila Burgel of Cha-Cha Charming magazine. This is a delightful set, all the more enjoyable since Japanese music in general is still something of an enigma to these ears. This set concentrates on the Group Sounds movement, an Asian response to the British and American rock scene of the era. On the whole it’s energetic, wonderfully kitschy music that would fit nicely into a go-go discotheque scene from a particularly groovy Godzilla flick. It’s surprising to hear so many women with strong, authoritative voices here, something that must have sounded mighty progressive in ’60s Japan. Highlights include Ayumi Ishida’s dramatic, harpsichord driven “Taiyou Wa Naite Iru” (a cousin to Procol Harum’s “Conquistador”) and Mari Atsumi’s sweepingly seductive “Suki Yo Ai Shite.”
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). Over the course of a week in tony London, a prickly divorcée (Glenda Jackson) and a Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) share both a party line and an artist lover (Murray Head) while trying hard not to acknowledge each others’ existence. I’ve always been curious about this acclaimed domestic drama from director John Schlesigner. It’s a shrill, confusing film with the leads seemingly thrown into a chaotic world against their will. The gay angle must have seemed shocking in 1971. It’s nicely handled, however, with Finch and Head delivering subtle, blessedly non-stereotypical work. As a matter of fact, luminous performances are the most timeless aspect of this film; Jackson and Finch especially come across as flawed, funny and above all human here. If ever a film rode on the work of its leads, it’s this one. The film is very hard-hitting and realistic, dealing with themes similar to that of a more durable musical of the era, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It goes into strange territory in the second half with Finch seemingly having a revelatory moment at a family member’s bar mitzvah ceremony, then delivering an odd monologue directly to the camera. That seemed unnecessary and makes this effort more maddening than anything else.

Sketches of Dusty

I drew these sketches shortly after downloading a massive BitTorrent package containing basically everything Dusty Springfield recorded from 1961-1995. This will be an interesting project to digest slowly over time. It begins with Blossom Dearie’s sweet 1970 ode “Dusty Springfield,” followed by a trio of charming acetates the erstwhile Mary O’Brien recorded as a youngster. As of now I’m just getting into the material she did with her brother Tom as folkie trio The Springfields. This music is actually quite lively and shares a lot in common with the jumpier cuts Ms. Springfield would do later on in the ’60s. Anyhow, these pages are my little tribute to Dusty in all her magnificent blondness over the years.

dustysketches_1110_sm

Craft Fair Day

Salutations, everybody… I’ve had a busy week that included setting up my very first craft fair to sell LitKids prints. This was the annual employee craft fair at Christopher’s workplace. It was fun, I got to meet a lot of new people and seemingly got to recite my spiel on what LitKids are about 100 times. We sold quite a few matted and bagged prints this way, including all of the Laura Ingalls prints I brought. Here are some pics of the table setup:

Craftfair

Craftfair

Craftfair