Archive for February, 2011

Flick Clique: February 21-26

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Body Rock (1984). I’m always on the lookout for ridiculous movies that reflect a passing trend through a funhouse mirror. With that in mind, 1984′s Body Rock must be the Rosetta Stone of trendy youth-oriented movies gone horribly wrong. This opus stars meatheaded Lorenzo Lamas as Chilly, a New York City rapper/break dancer/graffiti artist whose fly moves are only matched by his oversized ambition. He comes under the wing of of sleazy promoter Ray Sharkey, who gives him a stage show at his nightclub. Chilly soon finds that success isn’t the same as keepin’ it real, however. This movie is bad in the best way, very watchable and with a stylized take on East Cost hip-hop culture executed so wrongheadedly it makes Breakin’ look like a documentary. Lamas is about as awful as you’d expect, but the miscasting extends to supporting roles and even bit parts (one of Lamas’ homies is a chubby dude with a mustache!). The soundtrack is pretty fun, and bad (no match for Breakin’, again) — with Lamas doing a slow ballad that counts as a jaw-dropping, moribund lowlight. The number below, with skeleton-costumed dancers under black light, sums up the kind of cynical “let’s copy what the kids get on MTV” visuals you can bet on:

poster_merrilyThe Cheat (1931) and Merrily We Go To Hell (1932). Two intriguing pre-Code melodramas recently issued on DVD (from Paramount, who really needs to open up their vaults a lot more). The Cheat has slightly more appeal to modern audiences due to Tallulah Bankhead in an early starring role. Bankhead plays a well-heeled wife who flirts with, then wrongs, a mysterious Chinese man (the Paul Muni-ish Irving Pichel). In the film’s most potent scene, psycho Pichel brands her in the shoulder. She then shoots Pichel in his shoulder, with her husband Harvey Stephens gallantly taking the rap for the crime. Admittedly the film is undone by a storyline that was hoary even done as a 1915 silent. Bankhead is okay if somewhat too stylized an actress. Many say that Bette Davis ripped off Bankhead’s style, but in reality it was a more modern refinement on what Tallulah was doing. The more subdued Merrily We Go To Hell is the better bet, an intelligent domestic drama with terrific performances from Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March. Sidney plays a reckless heiress who meets offbeat newspaperman March at a swanky party. Despite her family’s protests and his predilection for the bottle, she marries the man. Even as March descends further into an alcoholic haze, eventually getting his play produced (with an ex-flame in the lead, no less), Sylvia finds the strength to keep the marriage going. A typical “women’s picture” in many ways, but the dialogue is especially good and smart. The film also offers an opportunity to check out the work of director Dorothy Arzner. The many scenes of characters bonding/sharing reveals that Arzner had a special gift for conveying human closeness onscreen (I just wish she and other women of her time had done more films!).
Demolition Man (1993). A nostalgic favorite of Christopher’s, we decided to watch it (first time for me) after discussing the movie at Taco Bell. This film has got to be one of the oddest depictions of the future I’ve ever seen, but the film is ultimately undone by typical action movie stupidity. Sylvester Stallone stars as a 1990s L.A. cop who is cryogenically frozen, then re-animated when his nemesis Wesley Snipes goes on a crime spree in a peaceful and renamed San Angeles in the 2030s. The city of the future is a strange utopia filled with brain-dead citizens who revere old commercial jingles and think the aforementioned Taco Bell is haute cuisine. Among the cops aiding Stallone is Sandra Bullock as an eager recruit and history buff whose chief talent is misquoting 20th century turns of phrase (“You can take this job, and you can shovel it.”). This had a lot of potential to be a good popcorn flick, but the humor is overdone, the characters lack any back story of note and there are too many explosions ‘n crap. This definitely has the imprint of action schlockmeister Joel Silver. Certainly a concept that can and has been done well (see Total Recall), but this particular enterprise is just noisy, choppy and dull. Stallone is too old; Snipes is a shallow, laughing idiot. Sandra Bullock’s gee-whiz character is the one bright spot.
Gyspy Girl (1966). Always on the lookout for unknown/underappreciated gems to check out on Netflix streaming, I came across this British coming-of-age drama, an excellent vehicle for the teen Hayley Mills directed by her own father, John Mills. In a role miles away from her Disney vehicles, Hayley plays Brydie White, a slow-witted country girl who lives with her alcoholic ma in a tiny English village. The girl is an outcast in her town (due to a tragic accident a few years earlier), with only the children of the village understanding her ghoulish preoccupation with animal deaths. She finds a kindred spirit in handsome gypsy Ian McShane; the two bond against the judgmental adults around them. Rather slow moving at times, and many of the adult characters are poorly rendered archetypes, but worthwhile viewing all the same. Hayley Mills is great, and it was cool to find McShane looking attractive in an earlier role. I also enjoyed the British country scenery. The many scenes with Mills interacting with the youngsters in the cast are the highlights, however. A genuine sleeper — Netflix customers need to seek this out!
poster_joanJoan Rivers: A Piece Of Work (2010). As a longtime Joan Rivers fan (despite the fact that the woman’s face is approaching Jocelyn Wildenstein-scary levels of overwork), I was looking forward to last year’s acclaimed documentary on how the now 77 year-old comedy legend is doing. It was very interesting. I think the key word for her is “restless,” since this film finds her constantly on the move, questioning herself and her place in show biz, forever seeking ways for an older woman to stay relevant in that arena (really, though, The Apprentice?). Oddly enough, it doesn’t reveal a whole lot about Rivers that I didn’t already know. Only the appearance of a long-time assistant now grappling with a drug problem was a revelation. There are a lot of absorbing, revealing scenes, such as when Rivers does a charity meal delivery to a housebound, frail woman who was once a brilliant photographer. We also learn a lot about Rivers’ past, including her husband’s depression and suicide — although her notorious flop screenwriting/directorial debut Rabbit Test from 1978 is oddly never mentioned. She’s tenacious, for sure, but also insecure, overly pampered and too concerned with surface appearances vs. reality. From start to finish, I enjoyed this documentary… but strangely enough I ended up admiring Kathy Griffin (who appears among the chorus of famous fans here) a lot more for basically doing the same thing. The first season of Griffin’s My Life on the D-List reality show reveals much more about the toughness of struggling in show biz than this film attempts to convey.
Leaving (2009). Fantastic French marital drama is another notable non-English leading role for Kristin Scott Thomas (after her devastating turn in I’ve Loved You So Long). In this film, she plays a doctor’s wife who leads a comfortable upper middle class life in a with the couple’s two teen children. When the woman connects with a Spanish handyman (Sergi López) working on her well-appointed home, a friendly flirtation turns into a torrid affair. She decides to divorce her husband, but the man (a nicely intense Yvan Attal) will not let her go, even cutting off the family bank account when she decides to live with her lover. This was an absorbing film, with another winning performance by Scott-Thomas. I liked the varying emotions of her character as she gets further into the affair. The offbeat yet hunky López is a good match for her in the acting department, and the two share some realistic and tastefully depicted sex scenes (unthinkable in an American production). The story itself doesn’t cover any earth-shattering ground, but as far as domestic dramas go this is top notch stuff. Interesting to note how differently this situation plays in France (perhaps due to differing divorce laws?) than in the States.

Book Review: America’s Doll House

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

book_doll1I had just about given up with the idea of reviewing books here until America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford arrived from Princeton Architectural Press. This was a fascinating little book on a historic doll house that still attracts admirers at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. The first half consists of author William L. Bird’s chronicle of dollhouse enthusiast Faith Bradford and her efforts to find permanent homes for her intricate (and rarely played with) creations. Although the narrative deals plenty with the life and eccentricity of archetypal spinster Bradford, it takes an interesting and more worthwhile detour in detailing the Smithsonian’s growing pains in the ’50s and ’60s. “The Nation’s Attic,” it seemed, had an ambivalent attitude towards Bradford’s popular yet historically suspect flights of fancy.

Turn to the book’s second half and you get to see what the fuss was about: close-up images of the rooms in Bradford’s magnum opus, The Dolls’ House. The four-story, 20 room Dolls’ House is a nostalgic early 20th century manor inhabited by Peter and Rose Doll, ten children, two grandparents, five household staff, and twenty assorted pets. Bradford’s charming handiwork extended beyond the home’s walls, as she also gave each family member a back story and cataloged tiny swatches of curtains, rugs, wallpapers and such in neatly typed notebooks (pages from which are also shown in the book). In our instant age of internet-fueled, out-of-context idiocy, such meticulousness is to be admired.

Buy America’s Doll House: The Miniature World of Faith Bradford at Amazon.com here.

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Flick Clique: February 13-19

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

The King’s Speech (2010). Christopher had the week off, so we spent it doing day trips (hello, Wickenburg and Queen Creek) and fun excursions — such as seeing this recent Oscar nominee at the local cinema. Going in, I knew what to expect: a genteel period piece with finely wrought performances. The actual film, however, is all that and much more. As history, the story it tells puts a personal spin on an already engrossing Royal sidebar (I had no idea about King George VI’s stuttering problem). The production design and score are both top notch, but what impressed me the most was the acting. Not just Colin Firth (amazing) and Geoffrey Rush (does an accomplished job with what could have been a hammy role), but Helena Bonham Carter (wonderful and every bit as deserving of a statuette) and Guy Pierce, who has been somewhat overlooked as Edward VIII. The more familiar Edward side of the story with him abdicating the throne for Wallis Simpson (slyly played by Eve Best) takes a back seat to the potentially more hackneyed angle of George overcoming a speech impediment to triumph over England. It’s a fabulously made film, and the climactic speech is nicely orchestrated. Alexandre Desplat’s music is subtly invigorating, just the way a great score ought to function (see below). Side note: this movie had the oldest crowd I’ve ever seen at the theater. The median age must’ve been in the 90s!
Let the Right One In (2008). In this Swedish scare flick, a shy, picked-upon boy named Oskar becomes infatuated with Eli, the creepy girl who moved in next door at their icy suburban apartment building. She gradually teaches him to face up to his bullies, while a series of random killings in the area reveal that the girl is a vampire. What a great, unsettling film (remade in the U.S., apparently), one that turns an overdone subject on its head. At first it seems too deliberately paced and talky, but eventually I was sucked in (…) by the storyline and the terrific young actors playing the leads. Director Tomas Alfredson perfectly sets off the odd doings by placing the characters in a remote environment in which everything has a disconnect — chiefly adults and kids. It also takes place in 1982, but the period details are so subtle that it only adds to the off-kilter surroundings (gee, people sure dress clunky in Sweden, I thought). Except for a few dull stretches and some scenes using obvious CGI, this was a thoroughly engrossing film.
poster_littlegiantThe Little Giant (1933). The Little Giant holds a nostalgic place in my heart, since it counted among the handful of nifty, lesser-known early Warner Bros. movies that my local UHF TV station aired late nights circa 1993. The movies (which also included James Cagney in The Mayor of Hell and Bette Davis in Bureau of Missing Persons) served as a nice antidote to the often geriatic American Movie Classics in that pre-TCM era, and even seen with commercial breaks on rotting VHS tapes I am thankful they were around back then. Getting re-acquainted with The Little Giant via the recent DVD edition was an interesting experience. The brief and breezy comedy was a change of pace for Edward G. Robinson, still in Little Caesar mode but seemingly relishing this turn as a Chicago bootlegging kingpin who turns over a new leaf by desperately trying to fit into California high society. He falls for manipulative dame Helen Vinson, whose affection he tries to favor by buying an impressive mansion from realtor-turned personal secretary Mary Astor (elegant Mary also carries a torch for Eddie, somewhat unbelievably). This probably isn’t as good as my nostalgia colored it, but the film is a great example of likable, economic storytelling enacted by an appealing cast. There’s something encouraging about the fact that all the characters are not who they appear to be at first, and only by revealing their true selves does happiness prevail. It must have been a comforting theme for Depression-era audiences; even now, it gives a lift to what would otherwise be a hokey effort. Oh, and Edward G. Robinson (one of my faves) does an excellent job here!
The Untouchables (1987). Another one of those ’80s blockbusters that I’ve never seen (was I living under a rock then?), so it got put on the DVR. Brian DePalma’s romanticized depiction of the prosecution of Al Capone (a hammy Robert DeNiro) by a ragtag team of cops headed by earnest Fed agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) was a critical and commercial hit, capped by Sean Connery’s Oscar-winning turn as the crusty mentor on the good guys’ side. This one had a few good moments, but mostly it seemed bombastic and more than a bit choppy to me (perhaps due to ThisTV’s pan-n-scan, profanity dubbed broadcast version?). I enjoyed the oddball teaming of Costner, Connery, Charles Martin Smith and Andy Garcia as the only cops willing to take on Capone’s stranglehold over Prohibition-era Chicago. It was also neat to see a young Patricia Clarkson as Costner’s wife. The direction came across as ham-handed, though, and Ennio Morricone’s weirdly synchronized, obtrusive score doesn’t help at all. For a period piece, it also seems firmly rooted in ’80s action movie turf. Wonder if Tim Burton’s Batman suffered a similar fate?

Cheap Thrill: Junior Deluxe Editions

Thursday, February 17th, 2011

For years I’ve seen these colorful ’50s hardbacks known as Junior Deluxe Editions in antique and thrift stores, but I’ve never given them much thought before coming across the beautiful Flickr group devoted to them. Though the books are not particularly rare or collectible, the covers have a charming, folk-meets-modern sensibility — and they look dynamite sitting on a shelf. From what I’ve gathered, the Junior Deluxe Editions were a mail-order based program from Doubleday in which customers signed on to receive new volumes on a monthly basis. In a plan similar to the Columbia House record club, the highlighted book of the month was automatically shipped to customers unless they specifically asked to opt out. There were about 90 titles in all, issued from the mid ’40s up to 1962 or thereabouts.

My official quest began a year ago at our local VNSA used book saleorama. Surely they would have a few Junior Deluxe Editions. I didn’t find any, however, until this year’s sale on February 12th. For fifty cents to a dollar apiece, I managed to snag nice copies of National Velvet, Sherlock Holmes, Tales from Shakespeare, Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe. Even the volunteer lady who helped me check out was impressed. Coincidentally I also got a rather beat-up library copy of Bible Stories for Young Readers this week at a Wickenberg, Arizona thrift for two quarters. Score!

I set up a little Flickr set for my collection, adding to it as it grows. I suppose they’ve been an inspiration for LitKids as well (and, who knows, might serve as the background for future prints). Enjoy!

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Either Orient Proposition

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

The 1935 cartoon The Chinese Nightingale was part of the “Happy Harmonies” series produced by Rudolph Ising and Hugh Harman for MGM. Once one gets past the stereotypical characters, it’s quite a charmer with a uniquely decorative look rendered in orange and turquoise two-strip Technicolor (apparently at this point Disney still had the exclusive rights to three-strip Technicolor, which produced a more realistic spectrum of color). The Happy Harmonies at their worst were totally derivative of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, but they had lots of appeal on their own. They’ve popped up individually as extras on random DVDs, but I’m dreaming that Warner Archive will assemble all onto one easy-to-play set.

Flick Clique: February 6-13

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

Dreamgirls (2006). Watched this a second time after finding the deluxe DVD edition at Big Lots (that place again?) for five bucks. Four years on, it’s still a very impressive and perfectly cast movie musical extravaganza. I’ve never seen the stage version, but have been a fan of the original cast recording for years. The arrangements for the movie have been snazzed up somewhat, but they’re still powerful in telling the story of a ’60s girl singing trio’s rise to fame aided by an ambitious R&B label owner with more than a passing resemblance to The Supremes, Berry Gordy and Motown. One of the fun things about this movie is spotting the Supremes/Motown references in the album covers, costumes, etc. Though it doesn’t aim to be a realistic depiction of ’60s R&B music, I can accept the stylization and even dig the many liberties it takes (the overblown “Fake Your Way to the Top Number” comes to mind). The casting couldn’t be more perfect — Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy all seemed to be at the right stages in their careers/singing abilities to play their roles to excellent effect (well, the ladies appear too old to play teens, but that’s just in the beginning). My only quibbles is that the film is too long and several of the new songs written for the film are inessential, including Beyoncé’s “she won’t sign on unless Deena gets her own diva moment” tune “Listen.” The feature length “making of” documentary on the DVD only makes me appreciate more all the hard work that went into this — it really shows!
Money Means Nothing (1934). A modest little programmer with the usual “rich girl marries poor guy and tries to make it work” storyline. Wallace Ford and Gloria Shea play the serviceable leads. This is the third Wallace Ford vehicle I’ve seen on the Comedy Kings 50 Movie DVD set. Although it’s earliest and most enjoyable of the three, Ford’s wishy washy personality places him closer to Comedy Peon than anything else. The film is a breezy, low budget affair typical of the Monogram studio. Probably the most watchable aspect to modern viewers is Edgar Kennedy as the couple’s neighbor. Kennedy was well-known for playing frustrated cops and the like in several Hal Roach shorts at the time. He’s no different here, and even gets to do one of his famous slow burns.
Monsters (2010) and Paranormal Activity 2 (2010). A pair of recent low-budget films that put special effects to creative (and scary) effect. Monsters deals with an alien invasion in a Mexican quarantine zone, and the efforts of two Americans to journey northward by boat, car and foot. This was shot on videotape by a tiny British crew. Shooting in verdant, impressionistic small towns with native Mexicans as extras, the lush photography and subtle CGI in some scenes strike me as a District 9/Cloverfield hybrid. Unfortunately, the film plods along with two awful, unsympathetic leading actors. Combine that with some truly wonky geography (they can see the U.S.-Mexico border from atop a Mayan pyramid?) and an unsatisfying finale and you have a film that might be better served as nourishment for a giant octopus creature. Paranormal Activity 2 improves on its predecessor with more scares and better production values, otherwise it’s more of the same. This one is a prequel taking place in yet another San Diego McMansion where the sister of the P.A.1 woman lives with her husband, step-daughter, infant son and Rin Tin Tin (okay, it’s just a regular German Shepard but the resemblance is striking). Weird things ensue in between long stretches of home movie-esque boredom (but not as much boredom as the first one). Unlike the somewhat stilted actors in the first one, the participants in this go-round are actually believable as a real-life, casual family. The scary parts are also much scarier in 2, for what it’s worth.
Not Without My Daughter (1991). Sally Field in the true story of an American woman married to an Iranian doctor (Alfred Molina), who carts her and their kid to his homeland and its oppressive, woman-hating society that she is unable to escape. I always wanted to see this one, which is a well made drama despite the seemingly Lifetime, Television for Women®-derived plotting. As Betty Mahmoody, Sally Field delivers a solid performance, even if she does this petulant thing in her scenes of anger which make her look like a young girl throwing a fit. Alfred Molina is even more impressive, giving his character more depth (and even some sympathy) than what would have appeared on paper. The film drags a bit and Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds jarringly dated, but overall I found this a compelling, top rate drama.
The President’s Analyst (1967). Another Big Lots find, for three bucks! This patently ’60s satire has a cult following and is a good vehicle for James Coburn, one of the more subversive leading men of his day. He plays a New York psychiatrist who is recruited by the secretive Federal Board of Regulations (F.B.R.) to be the president’s personal shrink. He goes along with the plan, then becomes paranoid and makes an escape, which doesn’t sit well with the government or the phone company/covert wiretapping organization they’re in cahoots with. This film is very much of its time, with plenty of groovy scenes with Coburn doing things like hanging out with a hippie rock group, getting chased by goons, or making sweet love to his willowy, straight-haired girlfriend. It does have a few sharp lines, but mostly I found it shrill and interminable. The one scene I liked the most was an animated demo of how the film’s omnipresent phone company intends to take the leap of invading its own customers’ brainwaves. Seen in the context of the iPhone/Twitter/Facebook generation, that was some forward thinking, indeed.