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Monthly Archives: May 2011

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Here and Now

Today’s video is the 1991 short film Here, based on the Richard McGuire comic first published in Raw Vol. 2, No. 1 in 1989. McGuire’s influential comic explores a home’s various occupants while staying focused on one living room corner. It jumps around in time (often multiple times within a single panel), depicting the various, sometimes banal events that happen in that space. The film nicely captures some of the poignancy of the graphic version. Color me gobsmacked that somebody attempted filming it in the first place! Via Robot 6, who gives more background on the original comic’s awesomeness.

Mad About Clifton’s

While catching up with Mad Men, we noticed a locale that looked strangely familiar in the season 3 opener, Out of Town. It was the quasi-Victorian restaurant where Don and Sal have dinner with two stewardesses and a pilot from the airline flight they just took. I couldn’t pinpoint the place until I heard one of the show’s actors on the commentary describing the perfectly preserved, Disneyland-like ambiance of the eatery. Right then I knew it as the third floor of Clifton’s Brookdale in downtown Los Angeles. How fun!

Contrast the publicity still below with the photos we took during our October ’09 visit. It looks like the Mad Men set dressers replaced the Clifton’s memorabilia on the walls with various old-style paintings, but they kept the lighting fixtures and the flocked wallpaper the same — not to mention the arches and the dark wood stair banisters (click the images for a closer view).

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Flick Clique: May 1-7

poster_behindthemaskBehind the Mask (1947). One of a series of films that b-movie studio Monogram made to showcase popular radio detective The Shadow — I also queued this up on Netflix Instant because it contains one of Joyce Compton‘s later film appearances. This is a strange, grimy little film that awkwardly injects comedy into an otherwise unremarkable whodunit. The story concerns the murder of a blackmailing newspaper reporter. Witnesses believe it was the Shadow who committed the deed; the Shadow’s alter ego Lamont Cranston (Kane Richmond, sort of a poor guy’s Phillip Terry) must prove otherwise with the help of his daffy girlfriend Margo Lane (Barbara Read). Having never heard a radio ep of The Shadow, I can’t tell how much fidelity this film has to the source material (Christopher assured me that it was never this goofy or superficial). This is an OK time waster whose one (tiny) distinction is Read’s chucking of all demure femininity in a proto-Lucille Ball turn. Joyce appears briefly as a flirty nightclub employee attempting to rope Cranston into a sting operation.
Black Orpheus (1958). Another Netflix Instant offering on my “want to see” list (although the pixelated picture left lots to be desired), Black Orpheus was the lilting Brazilian hit that introduced the sounds of Bossa Nova to the world. It’s actually quite a lovely picture, despite not a lot happening within its 100 minutes. The film cast the myth of Orpheus and Eurypides into current-day Rio de Janero during their festive carnaval. The film has a casual vibe more in tune with the ’60s. The acting, done by a local theatrical troupe and a host of charming villagers as extras, is surprisingly good overall. Breno Mello and Marpessa Dawn are both very good as the leads, but I also enjoyed the women who played Mira (Orpheus’ feisty fiancee) and Serafina (Eurypides’ cousin). Of course, the music and scenery is wonderful. The film drags in certain spots, but otherwise it’s a summery delight. Perhaps I should check out the Criterion DVD.
poster_catonahottinroofCat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). After reading J. Randy Taraborelli’s bio on Elizabeth Taylor, I put a bunch of her movies on my Netflix queue. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof finds Liz and co-star Paul Newman at the peak of their beauty, good enough, but it’s also an excellently staged and acted adaptation of the Tennessee Williams stage hit. Taylor plays Maggie, sultry, no-nonsense lady who married into the rich and stereotypically Southern family of Brick (Newman). They’re gathered at the mansion of “Big Daddy” (Burl Ives) after the man finds he hasn’t long to live. Tensions erupt as Maggie and Brick deal with Big Daddy as his oblivious wife (Judith Anderson) as they contrast their childless marriage with that of Brick’s milquetoast brother (Jack Carson) and his gossipy wife (Madeleine Sherwood). Very well played, and an oddly nice fit for the glossy MGM production style of 1958 — all that harsh lighting seems to underscore the harshness of the people onscreen. Taylor and Newman are both dreamy to look at, but they also seem to relish doing something that requires sharp acting teeth to pull off. On a superficial note, I love the cream and white gothic decor in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom set (swoon).
Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards (1963). Another wild and wooly Seijun Suzuki/Jo Shishido collaboration from the ’60s — yeah! Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards follows a similar pattern to the others, including a somewhat incomprehensible story about policemen and the gangsters who love to stalk them outside their place of work, baseball bats at the ready. The main difference here is that Detective Bureau was beautifully filmed in color using a widescreen process known as NikkatsuScope (similar to the TohoScope used in Godzilla flicks of yore). Suzuki really seems to go to town with the photography, especially evident in a couple of musical numbers set in Westernized nightclubs. One even has the charismatic, chipmunk cheeked Shishido dancing along. Fizzy and fun.
Gable and Lombard (1976). I purchased this for three bucks on Oldies.com, mostly out of morbid curiosity to find out how awful it is. I wish I could say that James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh reenacting (as the DVD box says) “the wildest, wackiest love affair Hollywood ever knew” was some kind of misunderstood diamond in the rough, but it is not. Even by trashy ’70s Hollywood biopic standards, it’s pretty noxious, taking liberty upon liberty with basic facts (including moving their first meeting up a few years — and having mischievous Lombard play a prank on the Gone with the Wind set!). The worst aspect of the movie is the casting: Clayburgh’s trash-talking Lombard is way too contemporary (I know the real Lombard was a “just one of the guys” type, but her performance is ridiculous), and Brolin settles into a laconic groove that is more impersonation than characterization. I also have to mention that this film has the de regeur “leads chatting on a backlot while extras dressed as cowboys and indians walk around” scene. Several of them, in fact!
Let Me In (2010). American remake of the Swedish creeper Let the Right One In (see Flick Clique: February 13-19 for my appraisal). This one is slightly more honed than the original, eliminating a few outside characters and strengthening the human bonding theme. The only marked difference I saw here is that the child leads in the U.S. production seem a bit more poised and “Hollywood” (but effective all the same); even the kids playing the bullies seem less menacing. Richard Jenkins, great as always, plays the one prominent adult. I’m glad they kept it an early ’80s period piece, which only seems to up the creepiness of the material. Despite being marketed as a typical scary flick, this is really a story about the human need for companionship, even when one of the characters is something less than human.
A Man for All Seasons (1966). The sixties were an odd time for the Oscars, as exemplified by the beautifully produced but stodgy A Man for All Seasons taking the Best Picture statuette over Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (to be fair, the other three nominees were pretty iffy). A historical drama about Thomas More’s persecution under Henry VIII’s fickle kingdom, this handsome production came off as similar to the contemporary The Lion in Winter but not nearly as soapy (or interesting). Paul Scofield gives a committed performance, alongside a cream of British talent that includes Wendy Hiller, Robert Shaw, Susannah York and a young John Hurt. Orson Welles’ corpulent Cardinal Wolsey is probably the best character, however, and he’s gone in the first 30 minutes. The rest is a lot of inert, high-minded speechifying about staying true to one’s values, etc., best appreciated in high school history class. A shame, since I really wanted to like this.

The No. 1 Song in Heaven

Spent the last few days getting reacquainted with a great ’80s album, Savage by the Eurythmics. This one blew me away when it came out in 1987, then my CD copy got stolen by a family member in the Great Theft of 1993. Hearing it now, I’ve noticed the disc does contain a few mediocre tracks (“Wide Eyed Girl” is just annoying), but it’s never been topped as a vehicle for the fabulous pipes of Annie Lennox. She’s in peak form here, assured but not yet the overly-stylized diva she’d become during the solo years. Savage also about a hundred times more risky than what came before (the shrill Revenge) or after (the slick/commercial We Too Are One). I can see why Eurythmics fans treasure this particular album.

One of the most interesting aspects of Savage is the fact that Lennox and Dave Stewart teamed with director Sophie Muller (and a few others) to film videos for all dozen of the album’s tracks. The resulting video album was one of the earliest examples of its type. The clip below, “Heaven,” is one of my favorites. I could totally picture it being played on the runway at a swanky ’80s fashion show:

Flick Clique: April 24-30

Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008). A young couple in a small Northern California town deals with inexplicable bird attacks — no, it’s not Hitchcock’s The Birds but James Nguyen’s micro-budgeted Birdemic: Shock and Terror. In many ways, this film is the polar opposite of The Birds. Where the earlier film was genuinely suspenseful, well-paced and eerie, Birdemic lops along with a “romantic” plot involving the cardboard lead characters, a seemingly brain-damaged business shark and a model who goes from strip mall photo shoot to Victoria’s Secret catalog cover within a single day. Nguyen appears to have edited the film himself — with awkward pauses, sound droupouts and other gaffes left intact. He also devotes lots of screen time to irrelevant things like a swanky Asian restaurant, a pumpkin festival, and a guy singing “hanging out, hanging out” to the two robotically gyrating leads. When the birds finally show up, they’re hovering (and hilarious) computer clip art images. Bad Movie Gold, in other words, but there is something charming about how the film reflects this one man’s vision, right down to its ham-handed ecological message. In an age when every Hollywood product seems to be groupthunk and market tested to death, that’s something to chew on. For the non-masochistic among us, this four minute highlight reel of Birdemic action scenes might do the trick:

My Dinner with Andre (1981). I remember first hearing about Louis Malle’s divisive film, basically a long filmed conversation between theatre director Andre Gregory and playwright Wallace Shawn, when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert discussed it on PBS’s Sneak Previews. I also checked it out back then, but I don’t recall much of it except when the two excitedly discuss the subject of electric blankets (a memory that always comes back whenever Christopher rhapsodizes over his own electric blanket, natch). We finally got to revisit the film when Criterion reissued it on DVD. Hmm, this is actually a pretty dull movie. I can respect it for taking chances and addressing topics that are rarely explored on film (the fact that people tend to busy themselves on unimportant matters to avoid facing the crushing blow of their own mortality, for one). The film opens with nebbishy, struggling Shawn dreading meeting Gregory, who is of more comfortable means, at a fancy restaurant. Sure enough, once we get acquainted with Gregory he proves to be something of a pompous ass. His droning on about nature retreats and such dominates the film’s first half; it never fully recovers by the time the slightly more satisfying second half (with the likable Shawn participating more, thankfully) comes. Sadly, I think this film’s most lasting legacy is in providing source material for one of Waiting for Guffman‘s funniest gags. I wouldn’t want to own this film, but I sure do covet those My Dinner with Andre action figures!
poster_ponyoPonyo (2008). Another beatiful Hayao Miyazaki film that we experienced the way it was intended, in its original Japanese. Ponyo centers on a young boy in a picturesque seaside village who finds a mysterious, goldfish-like creature that he dubs Ponyo. Ponyo is actually the offspring of a wizard and a sea goddess who escaped her dad’s undersea lab, however, and befriending a boy has given her a troublesome yearning to become a human being. Such a visual feast, and I loved the parallels between this and The Little Mermaid. The story is more essentially Japanese than other Miyazaki efforts, not quite as accessible but endearing all the same. Of course, the awe-inspiring hand drawn animation is the real reason to catch this — especially wow-able scenes in which the town is flooded with an array of sea creatures. It was also interesting to watch some scenes with the American soundtrack along with the subtitles that accompanied the original Japanese script. Certain details were changed for Disney’s version, such as renaming the adult woman figure “Mom” from the original “Lisa.”
Small Town Boy (1937). Another Joyce Compton flick that just got a welcome DVD release! This was a routine, low budget ’30s “hick does good” comedy with screendom’s eternal bumpkin, Stuart Erwin, as a guy whose world turns upside down when he finds a thousand dollar bill. Compton is a treat as Erwin’s girlfriend, however, and there are several cute/funny scenes. I have a full review of this posted at Joyce Compton News & Notes.
The Wolfman (2010). Benicio Del Toro as the eternally hapless guy who has to deal with a hairy problem every time there’s a full moon. This was just okay. It seemed awfully overproduced to me, from Danny Elfman’s da-da-DUMMMM score to the swampy color palette to the hammy back-and-forth between Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins as his malevolent father. The trials of being a snarling werewolf boil down to basic unresolved Daddy issues, apparently. The creature effects, a combination of CGI and Oscar-winning makeup sorcery, are pretty well done and there is one effective scene of the creature wreaking havoc on 19th Century London’s cobblestone streets. Otherwise, it’s a ho-hum deal.