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Weekly Mishmash: December 5-11

Hollywood Hotel (1937). Another splashy musical from the Busby Berkeley volume 2 DVD set. Berkeley directed this frothy Hollywood sendup with Dick Powell as a toothy singer who crosses paths with a temperamental movie star (Lola Lane) and the unknown (Rosemary Lane) who is employed as her double when the lady refuses to attend the premiere of her own film. The film opens with a bang with the supremely odd Johnnie “Scat” Davis performing “Hooray for Hollywood” as Benny Goodman and band ride in on a cavalcade of motorcars. It doesn’t bode well when the most memorable moment is in the first five minutes, however, and what follows is a grab-bag of funny moments interspersed with lots of filler numbers and even needless supporting characters (why the “goofy” supporting roles played by Hugh Herbert and Mabel Todd were included is anyone’s guess). The many self-aware digs at Hollywood are quite a kick (in a proto-Singin’ in the Rain twist, Powell even winds up dubbing the singing voice of a fatuous movie star), but the film’s only nod towards anything outside the Warner studio gates is stiff Louella Parsons playing herself — who was certainly no rival to Hedda Hopper in the acting department. Oh, there’s also legendary makeup man Perc Westmore in a fascinating bit in which he turns Rosemary Lane into a glamour puss. Berkeley directs smoothly, but the film has little of his usual panache and a dearth of memorable tunes. Lola and Rosemary Lane are both disappointingly bland, but I can’t think of anyone else who could have played a vain actress and her pretty lookalike at the time (maybe Ginger Rogers and the third Lane sister, Priscilla?). Anyway, I think I’m being too harsh for what is essentially a fun, undemanding flick. Let’s check out some more of the indescribable Johnnie Davis:

Rome Adventure (1962). Rented this lushly filmed Troy Donahue/Suzanne Pleshette romancer hoping for something soapy and escapist a la The Best Of Everything. Pleshette plays a rebellious teacher (named Prudence!) who is expelled from her workplace for distributing the same dirty book this film is based on (how meta can you get?). She takes off for the relaxed mores of Italy and becomes the object of affection for both native Rossano Brazzi and dreamy American Donahue. The film is pretty much half romantic drama, half travelogue. The romantic parts are nothing but trite dialogue (“I’m hungry.”) and predictable plottage, but I enjoyed the miles of footage showing Pleshette wandering about a strangely clean and deserted Rome. Had they ditched all the mush, it might have been a halfway decent film. Pleshette is beguiling in her movie debut, but Donahue always struck me as a shallow, brooding James Dean wannabe and here he’s no different. Angie Dickinson is around for about five minutes playing Donahue’s former flame.
Synecdoche, New York (2008). Knowing this is the directorial debut for screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation), I knew to expect something at the very least quirky and interesting. Synecdoche was all that, but the film is too ambitious and spottily done to be a complete success. The story opens with theatrical director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), 40, depressed, and with a crumbling body, as he deals with his prickly artist wife (Catherine Keener) and an infatuation with the perky ticket taker (Samantha Morton) where he works. After his wife leaves him and totes their daughter to Europe, he becomes the recipient of a grant which allows him to stage a huge autobiographical play inside a warehouse containing a life sized replica of New York City and hundreds of extras who seemingly have nothing better to do. The never-completed production goes on for decades, as Hoffman’s life and art become intertwined. Such a cool concept for a movie (wondering what legacy we leave behind), having a profoundness that is rarely done anywhere. Too bad the film itself is overlong, overly pretentious, and filled with obtuse flourishes (Morton’s burning dwelling, random shifts in time) that have no rhyme or reason. Hoffman was very good, and there are several clever/funny bits (such as when an extra asks the harried Hoffman for coaching on how to walk properly), but it became a draggy, depressing mess in the second half. It does score points for sheer originality, but Björk and director Michel Gondry did a strikingly similar thing in 1998 for her “Bachelorette” video. Check out that one instead.
Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). One of my favorite films of 2005, a DVD of which will be proudly gifted to my 8 year-old nephew this Christmas. Upon this second watching, I hadn’t realized some of the more subversive, adult-oriented gags in the script. When the character of Lady Tottington (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter) bemoans that her boyfriend “hasn’t noticed my melons” whilst hoisting two huge fruits to her chest, that raised an eyebrow. Another funny moment occurred when the nude (don’t ask) Wallace hoisted a box over his midsection with a “Might Contain Nuts” sticker. Those Brits, so cheeky!

One Thought on “Weekly Mishmash: December 5-11

  1. Brad In Worcester on December 12, 2010 at 10:53 pm said:

    Hey Matt!
    For so long I used to think of ol’ Dick Powell as a pretty little nothing, but dang if you didn’t convince me that he was a solvent Leading Man.
    I dig him.
    Thanks.

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