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Flick Clique: June 12-18

Animal Kingdom (2010). Acclaimed Australian indie draws a lot of parallels with Winter’s Bone, at least in terms of having an absorbing storyline despite the generally repellant characters onscreen. This one opens with an apathetic teen (James Frecheville) who finds his druggie mom dead of an overdose. He gets put under the care of his four uncles, all men in their 20s and 30s and criminals of varying psychotic disturbance, living under the roof of their manipulative, Dragon Lady-esque mom (Jacki Weaver). A cop murder case brings the family under the intense scrutiny of investigator Guy Pearce. Riveting film with an amazing performance by Jacki Weaver (no wonder she got a Supporting Actress Oscar nom). I just noticed that the imdb lists 2008’s Italian petty criminal drama Gomorra as a cousin to this; I do get similar, despairing vibes off both. The incestuous way that Weaver’s character deals with her sons would give even a corpse the willies.
The Black Dahlia (2006). From boffo to p.u.: bought this one for Christopher when I spotted it at Big Lots for $3 (and it wasn’t until getting home that I realized the DVD was full screen. Yuck). I knew that Brian De Palma’s film was roundly panned, but it has enough unique elements (L.A. in the ’40s; the promise of tawdry gore/sex) to make it at least worth a peek. But oh, what a stinker! This thriller was based not on the real “Black Dahlia” murder case, but on James Ellroy’s impressionistic 1987 novel which used the lurid case as a backdrop (in its favor, the book did help expose people to the quintessentially Hollywood tragedy of Elizabeth Short). Although it has some nice photography and production design, the film is all over the place and ultimately comes across as a limp rehash of earlier, better films ranging from L.A. Confidential to Chinatown. That schizophrenia applies to the acting, as well, with performances ranging from overheated (Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank) to snoozy (Scarlett Johanssen, never more boring). Josh Hartnett has a strange lack of charisma as the leading detective investigating the case. The story takes on such ridiculous twists that one has to wonder how Ellroy’s book became a best-seller — bored airline travelers needing something to read? Dumb film, but C. did keep the DVD for the one shot of Hartnett’s butt.
Frost/Nixon (2008). Ron Howard’s retelling of the contentious, hype-filled TV interview of journalist David Frost and a grouchy President Nixon. I tend to be iffy on Howard’s films, but I think he tends to be better when dealing with overlooked episodes in recent history, as with Apollo 13 and now this project. The first hour is pretty swell, with Michael Sheen’s Frost battling criticism that a puffball talk show host would take on such an endeavor (and the difficulty getting sponsors for an unprecedented syndicated TV special) and Frank Langella’s Nixon approaching the deal like a retired boxer ready to take one last swing. The characters are vividly portrayed and excellently played, which helps when the film gets more predictable and stagy in the second half when the interviews actually occur. Strangely, the film doesn’t have an overreaching political agenda and both sides are presented fairly (if anything, Frost seems shallow and over his head at times). Fascinating flick.
poster_herecomethenelsonsHere Come the Nelsons (1952). I caught this light comedy on the ThisTV schedule and was surprised at how cute and appealing it was. Here Come the Nelsons was the first (and only) feature film for the wholesome Nelson family — Ozzie, Harriet and sons David and Ricky — coming after their radio show but preceding their long-running TV sitcom by a few years. When their town is fully booked for a centennial celebration, the family must house a pair of attractive boarders (Barbara Lawrence and a young Rock Hudson) who have a strained romantic history between them. There’s also a subplot in which David and Ricky get mixed up with gangsters at the town carnival. It’s interesting to see the two boys being so young here, and with excellent comic timing. Ozzie and Harriet was often maligned for being a symbol of bland ’50s American culture, but it was actually a sharply written show with Ozzie being a perfectly lovable doofus and Harriet the paragon of smart, sensible moms everywhere. David and Ricky come across as natural kids with a nice, gently mocking rapport. Smoothly directed by Frederick De Cordova, Here Come the Nelsons feels a bit pat and sitcom-like but at the same time I found it warmly appealing — mostly due to the Nelsons’ apparent enjoyment of working together.
Not Quite Hollywood (2008). Freewheeling documentary covers the phenomenon of “Ozploitation” movies — sexy, violent, taboo-pushing drive-in fare that was a mainstay on Aussie screens in the ’70s and ’80s. The film is presented in a dizzying, hodgepodge manner with many speakers getting reduced to soundbites and clips hurled at you like ninja stars. Of course, Quentin Tarantino is on hand as well, doing his usual hyper-fanboy thing. The approach is a little too ADD for me, but I enjoyed it overall simply because it explores a side of the movies I never knew about. The genre started in the ’70s with jiggly sex comedies that bordered on softcore porn, then moved into Halloween-style slasher flicks, twisted Outback adventures and dated oddities like the stylish giant-pig-on-a-rampage opus Razorback (which I really, really want to see now!). These films (Mad Max excepted) generally look like utter crap, and even the participants acknowledge it — but their humorous outlook make the film a wild trip, even in its overproduced state. I had a similar reaction to Dog Town and Z-Boys, another doc which celebrates something that doesn’t seem all that different or revolutionary. If you like deliciously bad movies, this is like the $5.99 Golden Corral all-you-can-eat gorgeathon equivalent.
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The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). This was my other Big Lots find, where I stocked up on cheap DVDs to watch over the summer. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was an oft-filmed property whose 1936 edition is historically significant for being the first Technicolor feature shot in an outdoor setting. The story is a typical “back country feudin’ families” affair with Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda as cousins whose more-than-familial bond is tested when engineer/city slicker Fred MacMurray comes through their picturesque mountain community for the coal mining opportunities. The plot unfurls in a routine way, but one can easily forget that and relish in how all that Northern California scenery was captured in muted, natural colors (much less showy than what we’d expect — but beautiful, as the shot of Sidney above proves). One of the more enjoyable aspects of this film is the colorful supporting cast, which includes Nigel Bruce as MacMurray’s stuffy co-worker, Beulah Bondi in one of her typical sufferin’ ma parts, Spanky McFarland as Sidney’s cute little bro, and Fuzzy Knight as the town’s singing yokel. A keeper in my collection, faults and all.

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