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Monthly Archives: March 2011

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Betty Boop in So Does An Automobile (1939)

With my Flick Clique post yesterday, I (once again) forgot to mention that I’ve taken to having certain movies preceded with a vintage cartoon from the same year the movie was released. For Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, I selected the late-period Betty Boop So Does An Automobile. At this point Betty was redesigned to have more human proportions, and she’s considerably less saucy than in her early ’30s efforts. It’s still a charmer, however, with lots of the jazzy anthropomorphic gags that Max and Dave Fleischer were famous for.

Flick Clique: March 6-12

Chris & Don: A Love Story (2007). Fascinating, touching documentary on the loving, 34-years long relationship between author Christoper Isherwood (Cabaret, A Single Man) and portrait artist Don Bachardy. The film is reflected through Bachardy’s perspective as he recalls meeting Isherwood and the life they forged together in ’50s-’80s L.A. The film has a lot of heart and humor, and the fact that these two could make a go of it despite their age difference and the struggle of having an openly gay relationship (even in the liberal Hollywood scene where they lived) is really inspirational. It was very illuminating to this older writer/younger artist combo. The Chris/Don relationship survives lots of bumps along the way, illuminated with home movie footage and animation (which doesn’t get too cloying). Bachardy is really quite amusing, even in his ’70s, as he recalls his star-struck young self mingling with leading figures of the literary and film worlds. As he develops into a talented artist himself, we’re left cheering. Definitely a heart warming, life affirming film.
Never Let Me Go (2010). In an alternate version of 1970s Britain, children at a private school are instructed that they are very special for reasons that are so vague it drives them batty trying to uncover why. As three of the classmates form complex bonds and mature into Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley and Andrew Garfield, they come to accept the shocking reality of their existence. More of a moody drama with subtle sci-fi undertones, Mark Romanek’s feature is certainly nice to look at. It must have been quite an effort to make three lively young actors look and behave so drab and listless. Charlotte Rampling ups the energy level a bit as the formidable school headmistress. On the whole, the movie just lied there, patiently biding its time for a revelation that never arrives. I can appreciate its quiet artistry, but even on that level it never really resonated with me. Christopher loved it; your mileage may vary.
Ninotchka (1939). Another (re)visit with Greta Garbo courtesy of the huge DVD set I recently bought. Garbo is pretty fabulous here as a Russian emissary sent to Paris to investigate a cache of stolen jewels in the possession of an exiled dutchess (Ina Claire). In the process of attempting to return the jewels to her homeland, she falls for Claire’s friend, Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas). A lot of the film’s appeal lies in Billy Wilder, Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s sparkling dialogue, of course. Garbo is pretty funny, but I also liked the routinely under-appreciated Douglas as well. Would it be too nit-picky of me to say that the film becomes overstated and even downright draggy in the second half? Even so, the film makes one wish that Garbo did more light comedy in the Claudette Colbert/Jean Arthur vein.
poster_plunderroadPlunder Road (1957). Another film noir gem that I got to check out on Netflix’s streaming. Plunder Road opens with a long, dialogue free sequence of men hijacking a train in a fierce rainstorm. Eventually we find that it was valuable bricks of gold that was stolen, with ringleader Gene Raymond arranging to move the gold out of California on three trucks taking different routes to Mexico. Even if the picture quality wasn’t so hot (blurry and pan-‘n-scanned), this was a gritty, interesting little flick. The characters have that totally noir quality of accepting their fate when things turn bad — and it wouldn’t be a true noir without that, right? I liked Raymond (whom I’d mostly known from lighter ’30s romances and comedies); even better are Elisha Cook, Jr. and Wayne Morris as another pair of drivers on the team. Oddly, their characters make a quick exit, and the ending comes hastily as well. It still makes me curious to check out the two-dozen odd, lesser-known noir films on my “Watch Instantly” queue. If anybody has recommendations, share ’em here. I’d appreciate it!

What Shall We Eat?

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General Foods’ Home Meal Planner from 1961 was a booklet that Christopher found on the Free pile at his workplace. It outlines how to plan your meals smartly and efficiently — involving lots of General Foods products, of course. Amongst the tips and recipes are some wonderful typography and illustrations depicting a perfect housewife preparing meals for her nuclear family. For dealing with something as mundane as meal planning, the whole thing is incredibly elegant and Betty Draperish. Several images from the booklet were scanned and posted in my Cool Vintage Illustration flickr set.

Speaking of Betty Draper, we’re finally getting into Mad Men. Seemingly everyone I know was raving about the show when it first premiered, and I subsequently checked out an episode. It was … just okay. Beautifully crafted with a committed cast, but also cold, excessively dour and (worst of all) having a smug, revisionist attitude about the ’60s. I decided to give it another try when Amazon had a sale on the DVDs last year. Although the first few episodes still have that annoyingly smug tone, both of us were soon wrapped up in the drama and storylines. There were still a few so-so episodes from that year, but now we’re halfway through the second season DVDs and there’s a noticeable improvement in the acting and plot development. Can’t wait to check out the following two seasons — what an enthralling drama.

Anyhow, let’s indulge in something that Betty Draper would obviously find quite handy (whenever she isn’t fretting about her heel of a hubby):

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Flick Clique: February 27-March 5

dvd_elnorteEl Norte (1983). When I first saw El Norte in high school Spanish class, its tale of two siblings’ danger-fraught journey from Guatemala to the promised land Los Angeles made quite an impression. The film has been somewhat hard to find over the years, but thanks to Criterion’s recent DVD set I got to check it out anew. It actually holds up beautifully, with the central theme of immigrants unable to feel at home in an indifferent and at worst exploitative U.S. resonating even more strongly today. As the main protagonists Enrique and Rosa, actors David Villalpando and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez make up for what they lack in polish by striking the perfect note of inner strength and bewilderment at what they’re going through. Another thing that struck me were the scenes shot in the Guatemalan village, wonderfully composed with an eye for colorful details. There’s also a lot of humor, such as when Rosa is stymied by a complicated American washing machine. Great film, and my admiration for it is strengthened by Criterion’s making-of on the DVD explaining all the hoops director Gregory Nava and producer/co-screenwriter Anna Thomas has to jump through to even get it made. The film can get a bit overstated at times, sure, but for the most part it’s still a moving and strikingly relevant piece.
Foolish Wives (1922). Erich Von Stroheim’s high silent melodrama was so lavishly made that publicity of the time trumpeted it as Hollywood’s first million-dollar movie. That was an exaggeration, but the film’s full-scale recreation of post-WWI Monte Carlo still impresses. We actually saw this about 10 years ago, and that set with all those dress extras milling about was the only thing I remembered about it. Unfortunately, the story is typical fake-royalty-deceiving-the-rich stuff, stretched out to two interminable hours. Von Stroheim plays “Count” Karanzim, who teams up with his aunt and cousin (Maude George and the ever popular Mae Busch) to defraud the gullible rich out of their millions. His most prized victim is played by the fabulously named Miss DuPont, a diplomat’s wive who falls under the man’s snaky charms. This silly stuff is made all the more strange when Miss DuPont is seen absorbed in a book called Foolish Wives (maybe she should’ve paged ahead a few chapters to learn her fate?). Von Stroheim flexes his directorial muscles with the exciting conflagration at film’s climax, but most of what precedes it is florid and dull. Silents-wise, this proves that the later stuff from circa 1925-29 holds up better. A curio at best.
Street of Shame (1956). In Tokyo’s Yoshiwara district, a group of prostitutes of varying ages and self-worth levels react to the pressure of local lawmakers to ban their livelihoods. Another Criterion Eclipse release that I had low expectations for (we’ve been seeing lots of iffy old Japanese films lately, seemingly half about prostitutes), but this one was surprisingly cogent and brilliantly filmed. Director Kenji Mizoguchi keeps things moving with several subplots, but all of the characters are vividly portrayed, from the older lady coping with an embarrassed son living in another town to the Americanized girl with a cynicism that belies her young age. The women portrayed here are multi-layered, assertive and ultimately deserving of our respect, right up to the devastating ending. I’ve heard that this film actually changed the prostitution laws in Japan. On a more shallow note, I enjoyed the wild modern/traditional clothing, patterns and objects on display (if only this was shot in Technicolor!). Only debit: a weird score that belongs in a sci-fi tale.

Weblogs of Note 2

When it comes down to it, I don’t leave much time for reading weblogs anymore. Blame Facebook and Twitter (where I follow my fave bloggers anyhow), but a weblog has to be something truly special nowadays to catch my eye. The experience of running a weblog and finding topics to write about makes me appreciate even more when someone else does it well. Like, f’rinstance, these three:

  • Dear Old Hollywood is the handiwork of Los Angeles resident and classic movie fan Robby Cress. This is a very nostalgic weblog to this reader, not just for the films and stars he writes about (obviously) but for our love of L.A. and the luster it holds even today. A former studio page, Cress covers a variety of Old Hollywood topics with enthusiasm and a friendly vibe (hallmarks of many a great blog). Most impressive are his posts examining various filming locations of flicks both legendary and obscure around the L.A. area. Astonishing legwork in action!
  • The Obscurity Factor is a relatively new enterprise from Ben Sander, the New York-based performer better known as domestic doyenne Brini Maxwell. The weblog chronicles Ben’s celluloid discoveries, rated on an “Obscurity Factor” scale of 1 (easy to find but unsung amongst the general public) to 10 (a filmic hen’s tooth). Many of the films covered are studio-backed dramas and comedies of the ’60s-’80s lost in the shuffle of passing time, territory very similar to what I’m doing on my weekly Flick Clique posts. I’ve found a lot of stuff to watch on Netflix and such via Ben’s posts, and urge others to check it out as well.
  • The Second Disc is a fantastic music reissues weblog curated by two diehard fans, Mike Duquette and Joe Marchese. For those of us whose consumption of Classic Pop albums also encompass finding as many b-sides, remixes and outtakes related to said album, this place is a goldmine (it’s also somewhat disillusioning, since in a roundabout way it reveals how routinely the major labels neglect their own back catalogs). My favorite parts are the Reissue Theory posts delving into what could be included on deluxe reissues of various beloved albums. Earlier this week, stuck in the waiting process of jury duty, I spent hours delving into those Reissue Theory archived posts — they’re delightful.

P.S. I wasn’t picked for jury duty.

Anybody Remember Del Amitri?

A clip of David Letterman introducing Scottish rockers Del Amitri performing their 1992 hit “Always the Last to Know” is notable for two things: how youthful Letterman looked back then, and the fact that he’s holding a CD long box (remember those?). I’ve gotten reacquainted with Del Amitri’s music recently when our local used music emporium had several of their albums on sale. They seem like the perfect candidate for the cutout bins; their likable, country-influenced pop was exceedingly professional with occasional moments of brilliance. Despite that, their currency over the years has faded to the extent that the band’s three charting hits from 1990-95 rarely get heard (even the ’80/’90s playlist at the local Safeway, a good barometer of the lesser lights of yesteryear, seems to have eluded them).

The three albums I got were Waking Hours (1989), Change Everything (1992) and Twisted (1995), supplemented with an iTunes download of their non-LP 1990 single “Spit In The Rain.” Generally speaking, it’s good stuff. Not particularly innovative, but warm and reassuring. The hook-filled Waking Hours contained lots of deja-vu moments (I must’ve owned it when it was new), Change Everything (with “Last to Know”) is the most solid and surprising thing they’ve done, and the grunge-influenced Twisted seems overbaked and painfully short on good melodies, perky hit “Roll To Me” notwithstanding. For less than ten bucks, I got a nice little crash course on a band that deserved another look.