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Monthly Archives: December 2010

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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!

Island of Misfit Animated TV Specials

Came across this lesser-known Ralph Bakshi project while viewing and researching his Mighty Mouse, the New Adventures series. During the second Mighty Mouse season, he directed an hour-long special called Christmas In Tattertown. Apparently it was supposed to serve as the introduction for a Tattertown series, but only the special (which was repeated on Nickelodeon in the early ’90s) was completed. In the intro below, I like the various homages to 1930s Fleischer cartoons; perhaps it was too visually sophisticated?

Weekly Mishmash: November 28 – December 4

poster_lastmileThe Last Mile (1959). The instant watching options on Netflix are still somewhat spotty at this point, but things have been improving over the last few months with a large dump of lesser-known, older flicks that never got a DVD release — including this intense little prison break drama. The film is set almost entirely in a single prison room as several death row inmates ponder their fates and the shabby treatment they’re getting from the guards. The clever use of limited sets, luminous black and white photography, and a soundtrack that is the very epitome of Crime Jazz all work in the picture’s favor, but mostly what elevates this otherwise routine movie is Mickey Rooney chewing the scenery like nobody’s business as a feisty fireplug of an inmate. The better Rooney performances always had an unhinged quality, going back as far as his hyper Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one is no exception: even when the film gets too draggy and overly religious in its second half, the ever hammy Mickey remains at its fascinating center. TCM will be running this one on December 30th as part of their month-long Rooney tribute.
Palooka (1934). Another offering on my 50 public domain comedies DVD set. As I make way through these films in chronological order, 1934’s Palooka arrives at the tail end of the pre-Code era. While this boxing drama based on a popular comic strip doesn’t win any awards for originality, it is pleasantly jazzy and reminiscent of the Warner Bros. product of the time. The film follows nebbishy Stuart Erwin as he goes from country bumpkin to boxing star. His success is due somewhat to good genes (parents are boxing champ Robert Armstrong and spitfire ex-showgirl Marjorie Rambeau), but mostly it’s a result of underhanded doings by gangsters and his manager, played by Jimmy Durante. Also on hand is Lupe Velez as Irwin’s gold-digging hussy of a girlfriend, whose impossibly low-cut gown is the first clue that this is pre-Code stuff. The film gets draggy at times, and Irwin is seriously miscast, but it’s also a good opportunity to see Durante and Velez at their most dynamic. The two share the movie’s closing gag, which is priceless.
album_partridgeuptodateThe Partridge Family — Up To Date. As far as TV’s made-up musical groups go, the Partridge Family have never truly gotten their due. Their 1971 album Sound Magazine is, no joke, friggin’ fantastic. Total bubblegum for sure, but the elements that made them special (David Cassidy’s creamy voice, sharp production, white bread backup vocals and harpsichords galore) were at the top of their game on that particular platter. Up To Date, which preceded Sound Magazine by a season, isn’t quite as diverse or memorable but it does boast the dreamy hits “I’ll Meet You Halfway” and “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.” Other notable tracks include the guitar fuzzy “Lay It On The Line” and the delightful “That’ll Be The Day.” Written by frequent P.F. contributor Tony Romeo, it’s the one track that anticipates the wonderfulness of Sound Magazine. Another thing — Suzanne Crough rocks some good tambourine here.
Seventh Heaven (1927). Classic silent romance from director Frank Borzage and stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The epic story is set into motion when waifish Gaynor is thrown onto the street and taken in by kindly street cleaner Farrell. As the two share Farrell’s humble seventh-floor abode, they fall in love and marry — only to have the arrival of World War I separate them. First impression of this film is that it’s rather long and stodgy (and no match for F.W. Murnau’s contemporary Sunrise), but it’s also charming with a beautifully nuanced performance from Gaynor. Between this, Sunrise and Street Angel, it’s no wonder she was the recipient of the first Best Actress Oscar. I also enjoyed the charismatic Farrell and several of the supporting actors. The petite Gaynor and gangly Farrell always seemed like an odd physical match, but they do have an undeniable chemistry. I suppose this would be considered the 1927 edition of a Chick Flick. Borzage’s direction is assured and passionate, most notable for his still-impressive vertical pan up seven flights of stairs. What a set piece!
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009). Absorbing documentary deals with Disney Animation’s journey from irrelevance and near-death in the early ’80s to its second golden age starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid through 1994’s The Lion King. Surprisingly for a Disney-endorsed product, the film casts an admiring but not entirely flattering view of studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. It also generously uses contemporary news footage and shots of press clippings to show how the studio’s inner dealings were communicated to the outside world. Eisner and Katzenberg come across like canny Hollywood players who are willing to learn but constantly at odds with creatives. It’s a very old story, but the fact that it covers a relatively recent period and all the major players are on hand to speak works in the film’s favor. I was very suspicious that the film might come across as too cozy and complimentary of that era’s offerings (which are entertaining but a shade too Broadway-ish for my personal tastes), but that wasn’t the case at all. Despite all the executive-level turbulence, the film actually makes Disney look like a fantastic place to work!

Exploring the Billboard Hot 100

Recently our internet service provider sent us a holiday gift of three free song downloads. At first I envisioned an iTunes-like array of music to pick from, but the actual choices were restricted to this list of the current Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. Hmm. Current pop music isn’t something I usually gravitate towards, but I sensed a challenge here and decided to at least sample the clips of all 96 songs they had available. Man, this made me feel old. It really says something that Pink (or more precisely, P!nk), whose jumpy #2 hit “Raise Your Glass” is one of the chart’s better entries, is considered one of the veteran pop performers in the Hot 100… her first album came out a mere 10 years ago. Other observations:

  • The top 40 is filled with the usual teen-oriented, overly produced swill, but there were a few notable goodies. Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” is a certified smash with the kind of classic, Motown-inspired melody that will likely stay durable in the next 10 or 20 years (personally I prefer the bluntness of the radio unfriendly version). I get a similar vibe off Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” although her other charting single “Firework” did nothing for me. Both of these share chart space with their corresponding Glee cover versions. The Glee stuff is fun and all, but it comes across as too shrill outside the TV context.
  • Below the top 40, bucketloads of Country. This surprised me. I would expect to find crossover-friendly artists like Taylor Swift in there, but many of the tunes were hardcore, intense, soul-searchin’ twangy stuff from people who would have never escaped the CMT ghetto only five years ago. What happened?
  • Speaking of which, what very few veteran performers reside in the Hot 100 are said Country stars — Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley (whose unborn baby narrative “Anything Like Me” might be the most cloying thing in the 100), Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire (!) and George Strait (!!!). The only non-Country veteran to land on the chart is the ghost of Michael Jackson, whose collaboration with rapper Akon “Hold My Hand” appears at #84.
  • And hip-hop. Lots of hip-hip, but it leaves the impression that the genre has changed little over the past decade. And when did Eminem get so damn depressing?
  • A few songs from people you’d expect. Ke$ha? Annoying and bratty sounding as ever. Kanye West? Meh. Rihanna? No longer sings like a robot, but not terribly interesting either.
  • Out of the singles ranked outside the top 40, the only ones that halfway appealed to me were the Plain White T’s “Rhythm of Love” at #66 and “Strip Me” by Brit songstress Natasha Bedingfield, which barely made it in at #100. Like I said, lots of dreadful Country/Hip-Hop to slog through.

That said, let’s move on to the three tracks I finally settled upon:

Bruno Mars — Just the Way You Are (#7). This one’s a bit on the mawkish side (I predict many wedding plays), but it boasts a killer hook and Mars’ voice is sweetly pure against a blessedly simple production. The charismatic Mars, who also co-wrote “Forget You,” certainly has the goods to have a long-lasting career.

Enrique Iglesias featuring Pitbull — I Like It (#21). A cheeseball party anthem that made its debut on MTV’s Jersey Shore, what’s not to like? It might be considered a desperate move to grab a mass audience on Iglesias’ part, but this one feels similar to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” in having an immediate, appealing hook that grabs you from first listen and never lets go.

Edward Maya & Vika Jigulina — Stereo Love (#35). Probably the most unusual song in the Hot 100, this sinuous dance track (from Romania!) topped charts all over Europe last year. The synth-based groove is as cold and robotic as anything a U.S. artist could come up with (actually, it’s very reminiscent of Robin S’s ’90s dancefloor hit “Show Me Love”), only the results are somehow more organic and sexy. I’m loving this one. It’s gotta be the accordion. I guess Weird Al Yankovic isn’t the only one who knows that any pop song can be improved with accordion.