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Monthly Archives: June 2011

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Flick Clique: June 5-11

poster_attackpuppetAttack of the Puppet People (1958). Cheap-o, typical AIP scare flick in which the most passionate effort appears to have gone into the poster artwork — need I say more? This film revolves around a demented doll maker (John Hoyt), who has perfected a way to shrink humans down to doll size. He keeps these special dolls in glass containers where they remain in suspended animation, only being released for special “parties” for his own enjoyment. Pretty cruddy flick, and strangely not very eventful — the “attack” promised in the title turns out to be a rather limp attempt at self-defense. Hoyt is a creepy, effective villain, but the script is a bore, especially when it involves bland June Kenney and John Agar as the lead dolls. The special effects are the usual giant prop stuff used in countless bad movies. On the plus side, there is a hilariously awful rock ‘n roll dance sequence.
I Am Waiting (1957). Another offering from Criterion’s Nikkatsu Noir Eclipse box, I Am Waiting is earlier and more leisurely paced than the other films in the set. It is interesting to watch, however, just to check out how Japanese filmmakers covered the Western crime thriller genre. This one deals with an ex-boxer turned restaurant owner who comes across a beautiful yet despondent young woman who is about to kill herself. He gives her a job in the eatery, finding that she is a former nightclub singer who still owes her mobster boss time on her contract, a situation that intensifies once the boss and his fellow henchmen track the woman down. Pretty fun, low on camp but high on tense action (when they eventually come around, that is). The incredible coincidence revealed at film’s climax is a bit far fetched, but the film is tightly directed with a capable, attractive cast. All of the Nikkatsu Noir Criterion flicks are worth checking out, in their own goofy way.
dvd_mogulsMoguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (2011 DVD). I was excited about this epic documentary series upon its first broadcast on TCM in late 2010, and now that it’s gotten a home video release I can finally see what the fuss was about. The seven-hour Moguls & Movie Stars covers a wide swath of film history, from the age of nickelodeons up through the turbulent late ’60s, with a special emphases on the Hollywood studio system and the brilliant, coarse, often contradictory men who ran them. You can’t fault the filmmakers for being ambitious, and the end result is very well crafted for what it is. Film clips are well-chosen, the narration is sturdy and informative, if given voice by the strangely pompous choice of Christopher Plummer. Unfortunately, the “one size fits all” approach makes for a vaguely unsatisfying watch. A lot of the material covered was already familiar to me and Christopher; I imagine it would go over better with the Hollywood history neophyte (speaking of which, is it me or does this series seem better pitched to a PBS audience, or perhaps the pre-ice trucker History Channel?). Most of the interviewees are film authors, generally an insightful bunch but lacking the eyewitness punch of those who were there in person. Interestingly, some of the better commentary comes from actress Marsha Hunt, one of the few remaining survivors of the classic Hollywood studio system. One of the other speakers I enjoyed was author Thomas Schatz, whose book The Genius of the System is perhaps the definitive chronicle on the subject.
Rhythm in the Clouds (1937). And now, the other cheapie musical! I bought this and the similarly threadbare Sitting on the Moon on a double-bill DVD recently, since they both contain appearances by my fave dumb blonde Joyce Compton. With Rhythm in the Clouds getting more prominent billing on the DVD’s package, I found it surprisingly the weaker film of the two (although Joyce has a bigger part in this one, as a ditsy secretary). The story concerns pretty blonde songwriter Patricia Ellis, who makes an impulsive decision to crash a well-known songwriter’s apartment, submitting her own compositions as collaborations with the better-known but oblivious man. Meanwhile, neighbor William Hull is annoyed with his noisy gal next door, but faster than you can say “unbelievable coincidence” he is selected to be the lyricist on her next would-be hit song to be premiered on the hit local radio show. Rather tedious, actually, with a drought of memorable tunes (at least Sitting on the Moon had one good song). This was an early production for b-movie powerhouse Republic Pictures, and from a historical perspective it is at least somewhat interesting to see what (lame) stuff they came up with to compete with the big guys.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2010) and True Grit (2010). Two acclaimed films that have little in common except that both were well represented at this year’s Oscars (Secret took home the Best Foreign Language trophy, while Grit garnered multiple nominations and failed to net a single award). I enjoyed both, a lot. The Argentinian Secret in Their Eyes concerns a retired police detective played by Ricardo Darín, the grizzled actor who made Four Queens and The Aura so compelling. Darín comes back to his former workplace for a friendly meeting with Soledad Villamil, a colleague whom he secretly loved from years back. The meeting inspires him to write a story based on a grisly murder that he worked on in the ’70s, rekindling his feelings for Villamil in the process. Via flashbacks, the case is compellingly told with vivid characters, and the Darín/Villamil relationship is given a real, nuanced treatment. There are also a lot of exciting, tense scenes, such as when the accused killer shares an elevator ride with the leads. True Grit also served as satisfying, if a little safe, entertainment. I never saw the John Wayne version, but I did read the Charles Portis novel years ago. Joel and Ethan Coen’s exacting, naturalistic touch is a good fit for the material. In the film, headstrong 14-year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld, excellent) sets out to capture the man who killed her father, enlisting the help of aging yet still tenacious “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and transplanted Texas ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon). This is the kind of film that hinges on the likeability of the lead actors, and in this aspect we weren’t let down. Steinfeld is something of a revelation, actually, conveying a smart, no-nonsense quality that never delves into the precocious. Christopher found the postscript at the end somewhat pointless, but I enjoyed seeing how the characters turned out. What I liked most about this film was that it had that indefinable, classic quality that made it feel like it harkened from a different era (whether that time is circa 1952 or the 1800s, I can’t yet tell).

She’s Got Legs

A couple of months ago, I took all of the Hasbro Toys commercials in the Duke University AdViews Archive and burnt them onto two DVDs for the household to enjoy. As far as I can tell, all of the commercials are from the ’70s. Multiple ads for iconic toys like G.I. Joe, Weebles, Mr. Potato Head, the Snoopy Sno-Cone Machine, Charlie’s Angels dolls and Hungry Hungry Hippos make up a big chunk of the set. There are also quite a few delightful obscurities, however, including the commercial below (which I also uploaded to YouTube). According to their Wikipedia page, Leggy Fashion Dolls were on the market for just one year, in 1972-73. Sue, Jill, Nan and Kate dress in different groovy styles, but what they all share in common are their freakishly long legs. Love it!

Sister Lovers

For Your Musical Entertainment: Swing Out Sister’s groovy music video for their 1992 single “Notgonnachange,” from the album Get In Touch with Yourself. They sure used a lot of washed out photography in ’90s videos, didn’t they? As huge S.O.S. fan, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t heard this particular effort of theirs until… earlier today.

The Wikipedia entry for that album quotes singer Corinne Drewery: “I find it difficult to form opinions about a lot of modern music because my head’s buried in the past. A lot of my favourite records seem to have been picked up in the discount rack at Woolworth’s. I’ll be quite happy if our records end up in the Woollies bargain bin in 10 years time.” I find this funny (and quite true, actually), since my copy of Get In Touch With Yourself came from trawling the 75 cent bin at the local F.Y.E. store (which also netted ’90s goodies by k.d. lang and Shakespear’s Sister). Your wish came true, Corinne!

Flick Clique: May 29-June 4

Good Hair (2009). Fun, if somewhat frustrating, Chris Rock-directed documentary on black women’s hair and the lengths they go to straighten and style it. Rock interviews a not-too-diverse group of subjects (mostly models and actresses) who opine on why the caucasian ideal of straight, “perfect” hair has such a pull on the African-American community. He also examines the phenomenon of women getting costly weave treatments and having disgusting, goopy chemicals slathered on their heads, all in the name of beauty. His message doesn’t go any deeper than “Can you believe what these crazy bitches are doing to themselves?” but it’s an okay doc with a few funny moments. Most of the absurdity comes from an annual hair care convention and a competition in which some stylists compete to see who could mount the most flashy ‘do cutting production number.
The Last Days of Disco (1999). An oddity of a film which forms the final chapter in writer-director Whit Stillman’s trilogy on witty Manhattanites (Metropolitan and Barcelona were the first two). Period piece Last Days takes place mostly in the confines of a chic disco as sexy assistant book editors Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny deal with men and the search for fulfillment as their favorite music genre and lifestyle fades into the yuppie ’80s. The film is beautifully scripted but all over the place, story-wise, and suffering from a crucial lack of fidelity to the period it takes place in (Beckinsale’s ’90s bob being the main offender). I actually enjoyed this a lot more than the often dry Metropolitan, however, and I think it’s due to the appealing leads, that fabulous soundtrack, and above all the witty script. I also thought the club itself was a wonderful setting, even if as veteran clubgoer Christopher notes, no real disco would have had plush conversation pits — much less a place where people could actually hear each other talk. One has to wonder if Stillman already had his script prepared before the studio imposed a nostalgic, glittering disco theme over it. The disco/club setting is almost incidental to the characters’ musings, some of which are gold (the conversation on Lady and the Tramp and what it symbolizes is a highlight). Strange, like I said, but worthwhile all the same. Now I’m really curious about Barcelona — and Stillman’s forthcoming Damsels in Distress.
poster_purchasepriceThe Purchase Price (1932). Another hard-hitting William Wellman melodrama from the Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 3 DVD set. This one stars Barbara Stanwyck, doing one of her usual hard-bitten dames. She’s a torch singer who, fleeing some New York baddies, decides to take another woman’s place as the mail-order bride of a lonely farmer (miscast George Brent). Most of the film consists of Stanwyck trying her best to ingratiate herself with befuddled Brent and his rowdy, uncouth neighbors. I remember not being too impressed with this when I first saw it, but now I find it enjoyable, if far from prime Pre-Code Stanwyck. The stars are attractive together and Wellman keeps things moving with several offbeat supporting characters (the shy farm girl played by pre-fame Anne Shirley, for instance). This set was a great gift that helps satisfy the lack of TCM in my life!
The Sandpiper (1965). Another Elizabeth Taylor movie I put on my queue. This time Taylor plays a free-spirited Big Sur artist and proto-home schooler whose son is forced to attend a parochial school overseen by Richard Burton. Faster than you can say “Liz and Dick,” the two embark on a torrid affair in between heavy conversations on the nature of love and ownership. I knew this Vincente Minnelli romp was pretty bad going in, but I was hoping it would be campier than the plodding end result proved to be. Most of the film’s misguidedness comes from its treatment of Taylor and her quasi-hippie friends, which are about as wild and threatening as a bunch of Hulaballoo dancers. Taylor and Burton get a lot of meaty dialogue to chew on, but it’s ponderous stuff. What little I dug here came from Taylor’s wardrobe (it couldn’t have been easy costuming the lady, entering her blowsy stage at this point) and the fabulous from the outside, stagy from the inside “shack” that her character resides in. Many IMDb reviewers praised Johnny Mandel’s score (which includes the inescapable EZ-listening classic “Shadow of Your Smile”), but I found it as dull and TV movie-ish as the rest of the film.
Sitting on the Moon (1936). Brief, airy musical that has found its way onto many a public domain DVD set (viewable online here, as well). Sitting served as a vehicle for pretty actress Grace Bradley, who married Western star William Boyd shortly after this film came to be. Bradley plays a singer whose career is on the outs when her songwriter boyfriend pens a jaunty melody for her (the title tune, repeated ad nauseam) which lands the woman a featured singer gig on a top radio hour. She becomes a star while he lands in obscurity, until another song and complications involving a gold-digging hussy (Joyce Compton!) change things around for the hapless guy. Pretty forgettable fluff — this is a musical built around two songs, remember — but it does have a cute lead and the title tune is quite a charmer. See for yourself: