Archive for May, 2011

Dumpster Diving Monday

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

We came across a box of dozens of DVDs one of our neighbors tossed in the trash yesterday. The people who owned them decided to keep the movies themselves and trash everything else, including those supplementary bonus discs filled with “making of” featurettes. We ended up taking the discs, separating the packaging from the inserts, and depositing the rest in our alley’s (usually empty) recycle bin. It was mostly bonus material from Spider Man 2 and the like, but we did get widescreen editions of Finding Nemo and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. Apparently these neighbors didn’t favor the fancy-pants widescreen movies, either.

Really, why are people so wasteful? And why don’t they know about recycling? We’ve met at least two neighbors who were completely gobsmacked when told that the blue bin is for recycling. Sheesh.

Flick Clique: May 22-28

Sunday, May 29th, 2011

dvd_atomicage8Atomic Age Classics, Vol. 8: How to Be a Housewife (2011 DVD). I like ephemeral films and try to find any way possible to get them, whether it’s on YouTube or Archive.org. One of the cheaper ephemeral film collections on the market is Alpha Home Video’s Atomic Age Classics, which collects 1940s-70s films in themed DVDs which run around 90 minutes apiece. These have been around since 2005, with the latest two volumes just out this year. I jumped at the chance to pick up the How to Be a Housewife volume, which for the most part delivers on its kitschy promise of industrial shilling disguised as benign how-tos geared toward the Donna Reed wannabe set. The subjects covered within How to Be a Housewife certainly belong to a different era: would today’s hausfrau really want to know the best ways to prepare lamb (Now About Lamb, 1965) or how to get the most out of a fashionable fur coat (Fashion in Furs, 1964)? The films are unrestored and pretty blandly presented, but totally fascinating all the same. One has to wonder why these big companies bothered to make films in which their product is barely mentioned at all. This couldn’t be more evident in the set’s last two films. Paging Women, made by SC Johnson in 1962, plays like an extended lifestyle/homemaker news segment complete with overly perky host (and a fashion segment filmed at Eero Saarinen’s stunning TWA terminal!). Meanwhile, Pepsi Cola’s Women of the World from 1974 looks at various progressive ladies from around Europe and Africa in a way that would make Bea Arthur’s Maude beam with joy (if she overlooked the Pepsi product placement, of course). What a riot. For more Atomic Age goodness, kindly check my review of the Hygiene, Dating and Delinquency volume from 2007.
Come Next Spring (1956). I gave this one a curious check on Netflix streaming, since it stars one of the handsomest actors of the ’50s, raven-haired Steve Cochran, alongside one of my personal faves from that era, Ann Sheridan. Cochran and Sheridan are both very good in this understated period drama, shot in color against grassy fields meant to evoke the midwest of a bygone period. Cochran plays an ex-alcoholic who, returning from a decade-long bender, finds a not-so-welcome homecoming. Wife Sheridan is attempting to run the family farm while raising a daughter (Sherry Jackson) who went mute from the family disappearance and a son (Richard Eyer) whom Cochran never knew. He’s completely clean and willing to make amends, but even the townsfolk treat him like a leper. Heartwarming Americana which calls to mind Friendly Persuasion (1956), or perhaps a less cloying Pollyanna (1960). Cochran, who was usually cast as swarthy heavies, does a great job. I also enjoyed the opportunity to see Sheridan in a later role, when she matured into playing more poised, level-headed types. Both of the kids were quite natural and appealing. The colorful supporting cast includes Walter Brennan, Sonny Tufts and an unrecognizable Mae Clarke. Worth seeking out if you have Netflix!
If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). I always wanted to see this silly film based on its title alone, so I bit when it popped up on ThisTV recently. The film attempts to do European travelogue, gag-driven comedy and romance, all in one chaotic package. Whether it succeeds depends on how much you can stomach lowbrow humor and cute, but dated, ’60s kitsch. The film follows a diverse group of American tourists as they take a European bus tour guided by scrappy Brit Ian McShane, who has an eye for beautiful tourist Suzanne Pleshette. Oddly enough, I thought the scenes with McShane and Pleshette held up best — they have an appealing chemistry and make a nicely attractive pair. Comedically, the film plays up “Ugly American” stereotypes with predictable results, although there are a few memorable gags (an American and a German WWII vet simultaneously describing the same heroic battle they fought in the same way, for example). This would-be extravaganza was produced by David Wolper just before embarking on the more memorable Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, by the way. If the idea of a proto-Love Boat/’60s Euro travelogue sounds appealing to you, by all means check this out.

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Manpower (1941). This Edward G. Robinson movie has a strangely magnetic pull on me; I first saw it in the early ’90s on one of my local UHF outlets’ pre-TCM version of the “Late Late Show,” then jumped when the film finally became avaialble on DVD via the Warner Archive. Part of its appeal it that, although it’s not an especially standout film in any particular area, it has a bit of something for everything mashed together in a way that somehow comes together beautifully. Robinson plays a power line worker who shares his dangerous vocation with a bunch of rowdy buddies which include Alan Hale, Frank McHugh (who does his signature nasal laugh a few times), Ward Bond, and best friend George Raft. Robinson is something of a big brother to the crew and takes it upon himself to aid the daughter of an older co-worker who dies in an accident. The daughter is an exotic beauty and ex-con played by Marlene Dietrich, whom the earnest Robinson falls for despite cynical pal Raft’s knowledge that she belongs in the sleazy clip joint where she sings and dances for tips. Seeing it for the fourth or so time, I can see that the ending is rather ludicrous, but otherwise it’s a pip that just oozes with 1940s verve. Part of that verve lies in the camaraderie that director Raoul Walsh sets up with Robinson and his onscreen buddies; all that onscreen clowning looks kind of obnoxious, but it’s also spontaneous and real (and strangely not common in studio-bound pictures from this era). I also enjoy the few scenes with Dietrich and her oddly cast (but wonderful) fellow hostesses, played by Eve Arden and my gal Joyce Compton. Walsh also has a good eye for interesting setups and places, with scenes in a nightclub, hospital, dressing room, hash joint and even a department store ladies’ fashion section brimming with flavor. It’s a swell picture, all right.
The Vanishing (1988). Efficient Dutch thriller that turns several serial killer tropes on their heads (this was remade in 1993 with Kiefer Sutherland, as well). A young man is vacationing (and occasionally arguing) with his girlfriend when they stop at a roadside convenience store. The woman disappears seemingly without a trace, despite having dozens of customers around as witnesses. This prompts the man’s three-year effort to locate the girlfriend and her abductor, an otherwise ordinary fellow with a wife and two teen daughters. Despite getting poky at times, this was an intriguing film with excellent characters. Tim Krabbé’s screenplay takes a lot of chances with the formal structure of the story, with scenes darting back and forth in time. Once the abductor (a chilling Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) is found, his recounting of the incident is absorbingly told in flashbacks. The characterization of the killer as a regular guy who methodically takes on the kidnapping as a sick experiment recalls Joseph Cotten in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, one of many nifty echoes that this film evokes. The twist ending was also very effective.

Lunch with Martha

Saturday, May 28th, 2011

I’ve been subscribing to Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food magazine for a year now and am surprised at how much I’m enjoying it. Cooking has become something of a mini-hobby with me (especially soup, which I do in a big pot and eat over the following 3-4 weeks). The appealing, seasonal, intriguing but not too exotic stuff found in Everyday Food is perfect for my experience level. Usually upon receiving an issue, after drooling over the photography and layouts, I wind up trying one or two recipes a month. I’ve had the June issue for barely a few weeks and have already done four recipes. Yeah, I’m Martha’s kitchen bitch!

The first recipe I did was a Pizza Bianca with hand-rolled dough, a white sauce of ricotta and olive oil, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I also added some fresh chopped oregano and rosemary. After it’s cooked, you top with arugula for some bitter crunch. I forgot to add the parmesan before baking, so it got sprinkled atop the arugula. This was just as good cold as piping hot – yum!

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Each Everyday Food has a section of recipes that use veggies or fruits currently in season — the June issue spotlights cucumbers, which I love. I did this cold cucumber and buttermilk soup with olive oil drizzled on top. It tastes like liquid cucumber, really delicious! With the rest of the buttermilk, I made my own ranch dressing (a huge improvement over store bought) from a recipe elsewhere in the issue.

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Another cucumber recipe I tried was this side salad with English cucumbers, celery, tuna and poppy seeds, tossed in a rice vinegar and olive oil mixture. We’re bringing this to a Memorial Day weekend lunch with some friends. If it’s as good as the other stuff I’ve made, it should be a hit.

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Everybody Loves a Clown

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Here’s an interesting New York Times article on the Internet-age rediscovery of 1969 short Winter of the Witch and obscure elementary school-screened shorts of long ago. I posted this on my Facebook profile yesterday and it prompted some good discussion — which led me to seek out my ‘Winter of the Witch’ equivalent, a short I saw in the first or second grade about a boy who loses his dog. The film was screened for multiple classes at an assembly, so we knew it was important. I remembered that it had no dialogue, seemed vaguely European, and had an ending so monumentally sad and puzzling that it left me crying for the rest of the day!

Well, some brief snooping around has located the identity of that long lost film memory: Clown, a 1968 French short written and directed by Richard Balducci. The ending still pisses me off, but on the whole it’s a charming little bit of melancholy filled with some great scenery of Montmartre in the springtime. Those French really know how to manipulate, don’t they (sniff, sniff)?

Flick Clique: May 15-21

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

Wow, I haven’t posted anything here since my last Flick Clique — that’s unusual. I’ve been busy with work and a LitKids project that’s hit a snag, but in addition there hasn’t been too much inspiring stuff out there to share. Hopefully that situation will improve soon. On to the films!
Robocop (1987). I remember thinking this movie was a big kick back when it was new. Seeing it now, it seems like Paul Verhoeven was doing a dry run for the far more violent and subversively funny likes of Total Recall and Starship Troopers. I do think it’s funny how Peter Weller’s cop-turned-killer-robot is given bland, authoritative lines like “I will direct you to the nearest rape crisis center.” The movie seems cheap, however, and for a futuristic thriller it has both feet firmly planted in the ’80s (dig all those clunky TV sets and cars!). Not as satisfying an experience these days, though it still has moments of pulpy pleasure (gotta love when a meanie gets coated in toxic waste, then splatters on a windshield).
book_twicetoldTwice Told Tales (1963). A trio of chilling Nathaniel Hawthorne tales, all starring Vincent Price, was our latest spur-of-the-moment viewing from the This channel. The first segment, Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, is the most entertaining with Price and roly-poly Sebastian Cabot as elderly scientist friends who discover that the corpse of Cabot’s long dead fiancée is perfectly preserved. The two investigate a liquid dripping into the woman’s coffin and find that it has miraculous age-reversing properties which can even bring the dead woman back to life. The three breifly enjoy being young again, until jealousy and the dreaded Ironic Twist sets in. Quite fun. The other two segments are merely okay. All three play like overly static, time-travel Star Trek episodes (particularly boring ones), complete with harsh lighting, stagey sets, garish photography and leading ladies who look not so much 19th century England as March 1963 Mademoiselle magazine. There are a few campy cheap thrills to be gleaned from flicks like this (Price’s grimace while a skeletal hand strangles him, f’rinstance); your mileage may vary.
We’re in the Legion Now (1936). More micro-budgeted hilarity from the gift that keeps on giving. Actually, “hilarity” might be too generous a word for this foreign legion comedy which strangely casts the very British Reginald Denny as a tough American gangster. With his buffonish pal Vince Barnett, Denny eludes pursuers by enlisting in the French foreign legion and getting shipped to a remote Moroccan outpost. Something of a slog to get through its 56 minutes, but there is some interest in the film being shot in an early color process called Magnacolor (which wasn’t intact on my DVD, alas). Intriguingly, this film has credits for choreography and dance costumes despite having no musical numbers — unless you count the brief scene with a circle of Moroccan folk singers. I’m working my way through these public domain comedies chronologically. The other 1936 film in the set — The Milky Way with Harold Lloyd — holds a lot more promise than this sandy dud.
Winter’s Bone (2010). Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect of this critically acclaimed indie. What little prior exposure I had of the film consisted of a few glum scenes (including the one that accompanied Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar nomination) caught here and there. In it, a poor Minnesota Missouri girl (Lawrence) attempts to find out what happened to her missing drug dealer father, all the while dealing with the man’s skanky associates who know more than they initially let on. Meanwhile, she must also care for her ailing mother and two younger siblings while local law enforcement threatens to take it all away from her. Considering that it’s a small budgeted indie, the filmmakers did some amazing stuff here — not just in giving it a burnished, creepy atmosphere but casting it with actors who have such a feel for rural dialect/mannerisms that it often feels like a documentary. Jennifer Lawrence was a great lead, and I love the rapport she had with the two young kids playing her siblings. The other characters are pretty reprehensible, and the story dips into a mumbling fog at times, but overall this was a worthwhile effort. Not something I’d want to see over and over, mind you, but a bracing evening all the same.

Flick Clique: May 8-14

Sunday, May 15th, 2011

poster_fleshandthedevilFlesh and the Devil (1926). My exploration of the Greta Garbo DVD set continues with one of her best-regarded silents. This was originally conceived as a star vehicle for John Gilbert (see poster), but the tangible chemistry between Gilbert and Garbo upped her cachet considerably, sparking a romantic screen pairing for the ages in the process. Gilbert and Lars Hanson play military school cadets, best friends since childhood, whose blood-brother bond is tested when the alluring (and married) Garbo enters their lives. This is one of the most well-mounted silents I’ve ever seen — Clarence Brown’s direction is pitch-perfect and lovely to behold (especially scenes with falling snow). The panache on display certainly makes up for the hokey script. The film actually has a lot of surprisingly adult elements: Gilbert and Hanson’s bonding has a bit of a homo-vibe to it, and some of Garbo’s suggestive looks and movements (seductively drinking from a communion cup, for instance) have the power to shock, even today. I can also see why Garbo was such an in-demand actress at this time — she’s totally magnetic, something that can’t quite be said of Gilbert (handsome and charismatic in some shots, strangely ugly in others) or Hanson (horse-faced and somewhat bland). If you’ve never seen a silent before, make this your introduction.
For All Mankind (1989). Absorbing, critically acclaimed documentary on the early missions to the moon. This film uses copious amounts of footage NASA shot in the ’60s and ’70s, along with current voice-overs from the astronauts involved, to recount early moon landings and space walks in a dreamlike, fragmentary manner. The unique presentation takes some getting used to, but the film really captures the awe and wonder of those early missions — and I think most of it is due to that dynamite footage. Brian Eno’s understated score also helps enhance the mood. The astronauts and technicians at NASA seem humbled at being involved in the space program at such an important time. Watching this today makes the film somewhat melancholy, however, now that NASA is prepping the last Space Shuttle mission.
The Illusionist (2010). Beautiful hand-drawn animation from the same director of the weird and wonderful Triplets of Belleville (2003). What I didn’t know was that The Illusionist was made from a previously unfilmed script by the great Jacques Tati — the title character is modeled on Tati’s Monseur Hulot character, and a live action clip from Tati’s hilarious Mon Oncle is even seen at one point. In this 1959-set film, a washed-up French magician journeys to Scotland to perform at a dingy pub. He attracts the curiosity of a young girl who helps clean the pub, and when it’s time for the magician to return to Paris she secretly tags along. The two learn to adapt to each other in the man’s apartment complex filled with eccentric entertainers. We both found this enchanting and totally charming, with a level of craftsmanship on par with Hayao Miyazaki’s stuff. The character of the girl seemed needy and disappointing to me, but maybe that was the filmmaker’s intention? The magician needed to grow (same with the girl, actually), and perhaps they were each others’ perfect catalyst. On a more superficial note, the film has some ravishing visuals of the Paris streets and the character designs (not quite as bizarre as Belleville) are charmingly lifelike. The bunny was our favorite.
poster_repulsionRepulsion (1965). Roman Polanski’s first English language feature concerns a damaged young beautician (Catherine Deneuve, willowy and cool) whose fragile psyche comes undone when her sister/London flatmate goes off on holiday. Left alone, the woman has nightmares of being raped and begins to hallucinate that her apartment’s walls are crumbling (a simple yet effective trick). The thought of men leaves her queasy, agitated and even violent. Weird, creepy flick employs a lot of stuff that has since become terror film clichés — but Polanski’s direction is assured and Deneuve is a marvel. I had a slightly more positive reception to Polanski’s previous film Knife in the Water, but this was a good psychological thriller with several elements that are shocking in their bluntness (the sounds of a woman making love on the soundtrack, for instance). The whole film has a startling “off” quality, befitting of a collaboration between a Polish director and a French actress in England.
State of Play (2009). Underwhelming thriller about a U.S. senator (Ben Affleck, out of his league) who is under investigation by a pair of journalists (Russel Crowe and Rachel McAdams) when his mistress dies under mysterious circumstances. I wasn’t sure why I added this to my Netflix queue, honestly, until a scene came up with McAdams and Crowe tramping through the Westin Bonaventure substituting for a Washington DC locale (I added a bunch of Bonaventure-set flicks to my queue, on a whim). The film is convoluted and miscast and really not worth a thinking person’s time. Helen Mirren is also in it, but she’s wasted. Oddly enough, the newspaper printing sequence shown during the end credits beats everything else it preceded in sheer entertainment value.