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Monthly Archives: January 2011

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The Queen of Everything

One of the Christmas gifts from my spouse was a code for 50 free song downloads at the iTunes store. What to get? Instead of downloading full albums, I ended up using many credits on miscellaneous songs needed to fill out albums — including Aretha Franklin’s Soul ’69. This was an unusually bluesy/jazzy collaboration between Aretha and her usual Atlantic producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. The fact that the album didn’t spawn much in the way of hit singles (only her exquisite take on Smokey & The Miracles’ “The Tracks Of My Tears” charted) actually works in its favor. Listening to it is like sitting in on a casual late night session with ‘Ree and band playing around, undoubtely puffing lots of Kool cigarettes to boot. Aretha’s voice is in top form as usual, but I also dug her piano playing in this hot, early Atlantic era (I always wondered why she abandoned playing piano on her records, starting in the mid-’70s). Here’s a nice little video summary of Soul ’69 from another appreciative Aretha fan:

On a similar note, here’s another video from the same YouTube user/Aretha fan. On their recent reunion album History Of Modern, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark did a cool remix using vocals from Aretha’s ’67 track “Save Me.” This self-penned tune was a perennial fave of mine, if only for the stanza “Call in the Caped Crusader/Green Hornet, Kato too.” OMD’s treatment adds electro-funk synths to the original’s gritty vocal and guitar — it cooks!

Flick Clique: January 9-15

The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Tasty melodrama with a severe-looking Joan Crawford emoting through the role of Ethel Whitehead, a woman whose journey from hardscrabble housewife to glamour puss gangster’s consort makes Mildred Pierce look like a plate of chopped liver (or perhaps fried chicken). I used to think of this gritty flick as little more than a post-Mildred cash-in for Crawford, but a second viewing reveals a heated, fast paced yarn that showcases the actress at her histrionic best. It really feels like three mini-movies in one. The early scenes with Joan slaving away under a controlling husband (Richard Egan, appropriately menacing) while coddling her little son have the nicest acting. Then the film goes into tawdry, noirish territory when Joan ditches the meddling in-laws and becomes a dress model for a sleazy garment-making outfit. At this point, her character befriends a meek accountant (Kent Smith) and the two become entrenched in the world of crime kingpin David Brian. Things then kick into high gear as Ethel poses as a rich oil heiress and gets into a tangle with a surly rival gangster (Steve Cochran). I think what makes this film work so well is that director Vincent Sherman (he of cult fave The Hard Way) constantly keeps his restless characters in motion — no contemplative moments for these folks, ever. Joan handles her stuff with aplomb, being at the point where she’s just about to go overboard into the heavy-browed kitsch queen she’d shortly become. I also loved the performances by her co-stars: intense, silver-haired David Brian has a strong talent for not blinking for long stretches, and Steve Cochran is the very embodiment of a sexy, brooding gangster.
dvd_gointoyourdanceGo Into Your Dance (1935). Another Warner Archive purchase — by the way, I’ve joined their affiliate program and added a link to their shop along the right side of the weblog. Go Into Your Dance was Al Jolson’s final star vehicle at Warner Brothers, and the only film in which he co-starred with his then-wife Ruby Keeler. As far as Al goes, he delivers a surprisingly subdued performance here (who knew?), and the relative lack of black-faced hamminess makes it a better bet to modern viewers. Here he plays an eccentric former Broadway star who lives exiled in Mexico. Al’s snappy sister (Glenda Farrell, always terrific) persuades him to go back to work, a situation where he is so emboldened he opens a nightclub funded with shady gangster money. At some point, he also deals with a sweet dancer (Keeler) who is stuck on him but doesn’t know quite how to express it. This is a typically predictable yet super-slick outing with a lively cast and a few polished, Busby Berkely-ish numbers (particularly “A Quarter To Nine”). Ruby Keeler is cute as always and rises to the occasion despite her shortcomings in the acting department; singer Helen Morgan actually outshines the leading lady as a salty gangster’s gal. There’s also Patsy Kelly doing her delightful thing as an eager vaudevillian who keeps crossing paths with Jolson. My fave daffy blonde Joyce Compton is supposedly here as well — she has a screen credit and is listed on the IMDb as “Showgirl in cafe,” but I’ll be darned if I ever saw her, even in a bit. Perhaps her role was recast with a different actress?
poster_gulliverGulliver’s Travels (1939). I have vague memories of seeing this film on TV as a kid and wanted to check it out anew. This is the first non-Disney animated feature ever released, coming on the heels of the legendary Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Watching it now, it’s plenty clear that Max and Dave Fleischer tried to emulate that Disney classic for all it was worth, and because of that it remains more of an interesting curio than a great watch, even on its own modest terms. Disney himself supposedly said the film looked as if didn’t even meet the standard of the second-stringers at his own studio. I’d have to agree. The film plays more like an extended, gag-driven short cartoon than a full fledged feature. The dated animation is merely Silly Symphonies quaint rather than mind-blowing, and the decision to give over so much screen time to a shrill little pest named Gabby was a fatal blow (the Fleischers also tried to star Gabby in a series of shorts, to no avail). Gulliver himself is a rotoscoped dullard. Most of the visual excitement here lies in the scale contrast between the normal-sized man and the tiny kingdom he was unwittingly swept into. Still, the filmmakers decided to waste a lot of footage in an already slight story on a cheesy romantic subplot and several segments that take an eternity to accomplish not much (Gulliver’s prone body getting tied down by the Lilliputians, for example). An A for effort, but the Fleischers fared slightly better with follow-up Mr. Bug Goes To Town — which I’m also looking forward to revisiting.
Women In Love (1969). In 1920s England, a pair of free-spirited sisters (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) take on contrasting fates when they fall for two best friends (Alan Bates and Oliver Reed). This was an interesting, not very successful adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel by renegade director Ken Russell. It meanders too much and there are too many segments that seem to scream ’60s (including a love scene shot sideways). Jackson, Bates and Reed are all attractive performers, doing the best they can with the material (only Jennie Linden seems of her time) amidst a sumptuous production. The film kind of lurches from one scene to the next without particular aim, and by the second half it devolves into pointlessness when the leads take a Swiss holiday in the snow. Perhaps the most notable scene is the much discussed nude wrestling match with Bates and Reed. I thought it was very well handled, serving the purpose of affirming the characters’ masculinity while strengthening their bond in a quasi-homo way (others disagree). Despite that one great scene, it’s not a film that I’d want to revisit any time soon. Glenda Jackson won a Best Actress Oscar for this; she’s good, but the competition that year must have been very weak.

Our StoryCorps Day

StoryCorps is a unique program in which average people record stories from their own lives. The recordings are stored for posterity by the Library of Congress, and a few of the more intriguing ones are excerpted for broadcast on NPR. When a Story Corps van was scheduled to come to Phoenix, Christopher immediately jumped online and booked us a reservation. He wanted the two of us to talk about ourselves — how we met, the details of our marriage in 2008, and the confusing aftermath of it. To be honest, the whole experience sounded about as fun as a root canal, but he was so enthusiastic about it I just went along (to be a supportive hubby).

We arrived at our local library to find a vintage style Airstream trailer in the parking lot. There was a nice young lady outside who smiled in recognition at our names being given. When it was finally our turn, we were greeted by another nice young lady who led us into the trailer and gave us a basic briefing on the StoryCorps concept while setting us up for recording. We sat in comfortable chairs facing each other in an intimate room with low lighting, a setting which allowed me to relax and just let the words flow. Christopher did most of the talking (of course), but I also got plenty in as well and moved things along in my role as moderator. We even had a few minutes at the end to talk about our midcentury modern designer-named pets, Eero (cat) and Aalto (dog).

After we finished, we stepped outside and found a local TV reporter who had arranged a story on StoryCorps with us. She interviewed each of us on the experience. Our story should end up on the 9 p.m. Channel 3 broadcast next week!

Here’s Christopher’s account of our exciting day.

No Country For Small Men

I love miniature dioramas, especially when they’re photographed well — Gizmodo spotlighted one such collection recently. Florian Tremp’s flickr set with insanely detailed recreations of scenes from No Country for Old Men (the book, apparently) is full of wonderfully evocative images. Check it out!

diorama_ncfom

Flick Clique: January 2-8

Holá, amigos — I’m starting a new tradition here. My Sunday “Flick Clique” posts will focus on the films we’ve watched over the past week. Writeups on books, music and other subjects will continue to be shared throughout the week.
still_eachdawnidieEach Dawn I Die (1939). Browsing the varied end title cards from Warner Bros. films at the Movie Title Stills Collection (warning: huge time suck) reminds me of how even the most mundane product from that studio’s golden age had a certain specialness that separated them from the rest. The James Cagney vehicle Each Dawn I Die is a typical prison flick, corny and straining credibility at times but watchable all the same. Cagney plays a news reporter who is framed a crime and sent to the slammer. While his co-workers (including sweet Jane Bryan) attempt to free him, he finds an unlikely ally in fellow prisoner George Raft. The two scheme an intricate break, which of course fails to come off as planned. George Raft is his usual typecast self, but what lifts this film above the average is Cagney himself. He was always a committed actor, but the way his character gradually evolves from scrappy do-gooder to a haunted, hollowed out shell of a man is a wonder to watch. Given the frenetic pace of classic era studio filmmaking, the work must have been tough to pull off. I also enjoyed Jane Bryan, the unpretentious young lady who seemed to be in every other circa 1937-41 W.B. production, then promptly disappeared (she married young, retired and never looked back). The pair have a good, easy going chemistry which makes up for a strictly OK script.
Inception (2010). We re-watched this on DVD; my original review is here. Mostly what stood out upon second viewing is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance. He’s excellent, so much so that I’m surprised at the way he’s been largely bypassed in the plaudit/awards arena. And I still think the snowy fortress dream level was contrived “action movie” stuff that ultimately hurts the film’s momentum.
Ugetsu (1953). I tossed this one on my Netflix queue, not knowing much about it other than how it’s considered a landmark Japanese film. It’s actually a moving, at times profound anti-war domestic drama, beautifully acted and photographed. I’d compare it to Akira Kurosawa’s work of the same period. This was directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, who was apparently Kurosawa’s equal in the master filmmaking department. The story concerns the contrasting fates of two married couples as their small village is besieged by marauders in the 16th century. One man, a potter, escapes to a larger city where he is seduced by a wealthy lady with an ethereal glow. Despite having a wife and child at home, the two marry. The other male villager, an egotistical but none too bright sort, becomes so wrapped up in becoming a samurai soldier that he abandons his wife (who falls into prostitution) and all common sense for that one shot at fame. The film is very well done — from a technical standpoint, the sheer craftsmanship on display bests even the nicer Hollywood product of the time. The acting is also uniformly subtle and beautifully done, notable for having several good female roles (especially nice, since many Japanese female parts tend towards the passive). It also moves well and comes to a great conclusion with a “twist” ending. An achievement like this makes me curious to check out Mizoguchi’s other films.
Wild Boys of the Road (1933). I remember seeing this gritty Depression drama on TCM about 7 or 8 years ago and being blown away. I got a chance to enjoy it again as part of the William Wellman gems collection on the Forbidden Hollywood Vol. 3 DVD set. The film stars pint-sized actor Frankie Darro as a fun-loving teen whose life is turned upside down when pa Grant Withers gets laid off. As the cash-strapped family attempts to get by, Darro and best pal Edwin Booth decide to take to the rails and join thousands of other teens in a hobo lifestyle which seems glamorous on the surface, but turns out difficult and even deadly. The two befriend a spunky girl (Dorothy Coonan) and form a New York shanty town before the authorities clamp down. Potent film is sympathetic to the lead characters’ plight, but never romanticizes their way of life. It’s also quite funny and lighthearted at times, with an amazing lead by Darro (a Mickey Rooney type who should have been a bigger star). I also liked the appealing work done by unknowns Booth and Coonan (who promptly became Mrs. William Wellman and retired from the screen). I can’t vouch for the realism here, but the story is so potently told that the movie really ought to be required viewing in every high school history class.

Starting Off The Year Very Neat

Sharing a little video treasure I found on the Facebook news feed of artist/legend/ohmygodhe’smyfacebookfriend Gary Panter — a clip from Susan’s Show, an early kiddie show hosted by an impressively poised young girl by the name of Susan Heinkel. Panter cites the set design of this 1957-58 show as an inspiration for his Pee Wee’s Playhouse set — I can see that! Besides the set, the clip is an interesting window into what childrens’ TV was like in the ’50s … sweet, ultra-earnest and with absolutely no signs of Disney sitcom shrieky-ness. Observe: