Monthly Archives: September 2011

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Who’s the Boss?

I’m sticking this one up since I’ve been grooving to Diana Ross’ 1980 LP diana today (not to be confused with 1970′s Diana Ross, or 1976′s Diana Ross, or 1978′s Ross. Miss Ross had a thing for egotistical album titles, eh?). Back when that album first came out, she did a TV special with Michael Jackson that I have vague memories of. Thanks to YouTube, I’ve found some of it.

I remember the footage of Diana and Michael doing “Upside Down” in concert, but this segment of Miss D. and Larry Hagman crooning together is totally new to me. Yeeks!

Flick Clique: September 18-21

Amer (2009). A lot of raves have been filed on this recent, stylized take on Italian Gallo horror films of the ’70s from filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani. The film is divided into three impressionistic segments featuring the same character as a young girl, an adolescent and an adult woman. I don’t want to get into too much detail here (my DVDTalk take should be filed soon), but it’s certainly a unique film. Actually, the lack of dialogue and overly stylized photography (lots of closeups, especially of eyes, lips and other body parts) makes it more reminiscent of abstract, experimental filmmakers like Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger than anything else. There are a few frightening/bizarre moments, but the film is mostly a hollow exercise in style over substance. I wasn’t too impressed, and I will be articulating my feelings more in the actual review (which will hopefully be done by Friday).
The Asphalt Jungle (1950). A film noir classic that, surprisingly, I haven’t caught until this past week. A complex story, hard to get into at first, becomes absorbing over a tense 90 minutes thanks to vivid characters and John Huston’s crackling dialogue. The story concerns a brilliant, recently sprung criminal mastermind (Sam Jaffee) who wants to pull of one last heist before retiring. He employs a colorful array of men to abscond with some valuable jewels in a vault — burly tough guy Sterling Hayden, safe cracker Anthony Caruso and lookout James Whitmore. The heist is generally a success, but complications arise when Jaffe and crew take the jewels to Louis Calhern as the wealthy lawyer who agreed to buy them. Calhern is short on cash, and the men are left scrambling to basically fend for themselves. Most of what people know of The Asphalt Jungle is that it’s one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles, and she’s pretty good as Calhern’s opportunistic mistress. The other performers are just as good if not better, however — Sterling Hayden rocks, and Jean Hagen contributes a vulnerable turn as Hayden’s boozy girlfriend. Jaffee, Calhern and Whitmore are also excellent. The story unfolds in a great way to a terrific ending, too.
Eating Out: Drama Camp (2011). This was among the first batch of DVDs I selected from DVDTalk. The Eating Out films, of which Drama Camp is #4, are bawdy gay comedies which tend to show up on the Logo channel. I’d previously seen the first one (which sucked), but none of the sequels. Surprisingly the film turned out enjoyable in its own cheesy way. The full review is here.
The Egg and I (1947). As an introduction to the Ma & Pa Kettle Complete Comedy Collection, one can’t get any better than the Kettle’s first outing as supporting players in this breezy laugh getter. The film has a typical “city slickers go country” theme with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray as newlyweds who get more than they bargained for when MacMurray impulsively decides to start an egg farm in the woods of Washington state. Most of the humor revolves around fetching Colbert attempting to adjust to farm animals, primitive kitchen appliances and loopy neighbors. Awfully cute, but not too cute. Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma & Pa Kettle are a delight. I’m going to be seeing a lot more of them as I run through the nine (!) films they starred in (actually, Kilbride bowed out for the final two, which are making their DVD debut on this set). My full, Kettle-riffic writeup will be appearing soon.
Howl (2010). Netflix streaming view (Christopher’s choice). Howl details Allen Ginsberg in the fifties, how he came to write his gritty, poetic tour-de-force Howl and the subsequent obscenity trial for the book, in which Ginsberg was not involved. The film shifts between James Franco as Ginsberg, emoting in a fake beard, colorful and visually striking sequences in which Franco narrates Howl to animation, and the trial itself with Jon Hamm as the defense attorney and David Strathairn representing the prosecution. This film was a mess, really. Franco is too stylized and actor-y as Ginsberg and his readings are unbelievably pretentious. Ginsberg’s language is unsparingly tough and ahead of its time, spitting in the face of ’50s conformity, so there’s definitely a movie to be had in that. Although the Franco scenes fail, I somewhat enjoyed the trial section and found the animation interesting (I’m a sucker for good, weird animation). All in all, a well-intentioned, ponderous bore.
Lost Empires (1986). This miniseries follows the goings-on in a British music hall performing troupe in the years prior to World War I, with a young/dashing Colin Firth as the protagonist. I will have a detailed review of this up shortly at DVDTalk, but in a nutshell I really enjoyed this. The series is in seven parts, with the longer first part being the least satisfying. It is necessary, however, in detailing the evocative characters and stage milieu that Firth enters. After his last surviving parent dies, Firth as regular bloke Richard comes under the employ of his Uncle Nick (a wonderful, menacing turn by John Castle), who does an exotic magic act under the stage name Ganga Dun. The cynical Nick introduces Richard to the world of jugglers, comedians, singers and dancers — performers who are at the lower strata of English society and yet have a social hierarchy of their own. The concept shares some similarity with the recent Downton Abbey, which even takes place in the same time period. The reissued DVD edition is coming out Tuesday; hopefully I will have my more comprehensive review ready by then!
One Night in the Tropics (1940). The film that introduced Abbott & Costello to moviedom was shown one recent afternoon on ThisTV, so I recorded it and watched it in bits and pieces over a week or two. Not the best way to take in a movie, I’m sure, which might explain why I found it so disjointed and horrible. A&C pop in at inopportune moments, doing their stage bits (including the “Who’s On First” routine). They have little to do with the main plot of the film, a trifle about buddies Allan Jones and Robert Cummings, who hatch a plan to take out an insurance policy on Cummings’ upcoming marriage to socialite Nancy Kelly. The policy is financed by nightclub owner William Frawley, who hires Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to make sure the couple marries and he doesn’t have to pay up. A herky-jerky comedy with forgettable musical interludes and a dumb script. I always found Cummings an unappealing, ultra-smarmy character and he’s no different here. Allen Jones was an interesting figure from this era, an appealing opera singer with a jazzy, current image; his character is almost as bad as Cummings’. Blecch.

Little Miss Moffitt

In honor of my Vidal Sassoon: The Movie review getting published at DVDTalk, here’s a cute short of model Peggy Moffitt parading around in some mod, mod ensembles designed by Rudi Gernreich. In the Sassoon film, Vidal Sassoon and designer Mary Quant talk a bit about Moffitt and her amusing propensity for “acting out” whatever fashions she tried on (like in this film!). What a cool chick.

Christopher tells me that he met Moffitt and her husband, photographer William Claxton, at an L.A. function in the ’90s. He didn’t know who she was at the time, however — he would have gotten an autograph if he did!

Flick Clique: September 11-17

Father Is a Bachelor (1950). A blandly sweet, forgettable William Holden comedy that came out on made-to-order DVD last spring. This was my very first review for DVD Talk and the complete piece can be read here. Please check it out and tell me what you think. Thanks!
The Hurt Locker (2009). You know the drill: Jeremy Renner as a bomb diffusing expert in Iraq, critically acclaimed but under the radar release, eventual winner of Best Picture and Best Director Oscars (hooray for Kathryn Bigelow). I somewhat enjoyed this, and somewhat found it lacking and more episodic than any film has a right to be. On the plus side was Renner’s performance — he really captured the love/hate thing with combat duty that the best of soldiers have to deal with. Bigelow’s direction is fine, also, if too reliant on the shaky cam. Actor Anthony Mackie contributes another good job as the sergeant who attempts to keep the eccentric Renner in line. The film is generally unsatisfying because it lopes from storyline to storyline without accomplishing much. It opens with a stirring scene with Guy Pierce as another bomb expert, which only ends up demonstrating what a dangerous job he’s got. The film then moves to Renner as he ventures from one peril-fraught situation to the next. I’ve always heard that combat duty is 5% combat and 95% preparation, and in that respect the film is a realistic portrayal. It was a smidge too draggy and talky (not to mention episodic) for our tastes, however.
The Princess and the Frog (2009). Netflix Instant viewing. I was a little leery of this one (current Disney movies leave me cold), but surprisingly it ended up being a total charmer and a gorgeous return to Disney Animation’s Little Mermaid/Beauty & The Beast days. The film follows Tiana (voiced and sung terrifically by Anika Noni Rose), a poor black woman in 1930s New Orleans who desires to open her own restaurant. The town is atwitter with the arrival of Prince Naveen, but the prince has a run-in with a voodoo magician that transforms both him and Tiana into frogs! Was this movie’s disappointing box office due to the fact that both leads are amphibians? Who knows, but the film flows beautifully and is chock full of wonderful music (surprisingly by Randy Newman) and sumptuous visuals. The animation was fluid, if a bit too cartoony at times. I also loved the vivid supporting characters which include a trumpet playing alligator who yearns to be with the humans, a lovelorn firefly and a blind voodoo priestess. This was a fun movie, and if it doesn’t rank with the truly great animated movies from Walt Disney’s time it is at the very least a good companion with the likes of The Lion King and Little Mermaid. For a taste, check out the sunny, stylized imagery in Anika Noni Rose’s “Almost There” number:

Return to Peyton Place (1961). The sequel to 1957′s Peyton Place, which I unironically enjoyed a few weeks back, treads in the same soapy waters as its predecessor but isn’t nearly as satisfying. The most glaring change, four years later, is that all of the roles from the previous film have been recast with inferior actors. Diane Varsi’s inquisitive teenaged writer from the first film is now essayed in a smarmy manner by Carol Lynley. The role of her Ice Queen ma, formerly Lana Turner, is now played by a trembly Eleanor Parker. Mostly the film revolves around Lynley’s character (a stand-in for P.P. author Grace Metalious) attempting to find a publisher for the steamy novel she wrote about the residents of Peyton Place. The manuscript catches the eye of suave Jeff Chandler, who takes her under his wing and painstakingly grooms her into publishing’s New Hot Thing, one of several “huh?” moments in the film. One of the film’s b-stories relate to young lawyer Ted (formerly David Nelson, now Brett Halsey) attempting to ingratiate his Italian bride (flat actress Luciana Paluzzi) with his formidable, steel-veined mother (Mary Astor, whose character didn’t appear in the first P.P.). The other details the fallen Selena (formerly Hope Lange, now Tuesday Weld) as she attempts to mend her broken reputation with the townspeople while a horndog skiier (Gunnar Hellström) attempts to woo her. A dull time is had by all. Probably the most disappointing thing about this flick is that the wonderfully evocative location shooting from the first P.P. is trashed in favor of a mountainous, pine tree-laden locale that looks more like Aspen, Colorado than any New England town. It’s just one of many things about this movie that brings about a “what where they thinking?” reaction.
Thor (2011). Did you suffer from superhero fatigue over the summer? I sure did, and yet I ended up going to see one of them (the loose and surprisingly assured Captain America) in the cinema itself. Thor was a dicey proposition from the get-go, starting with the goofy concept of muscle-bound Norse lunkhead as superhero (he ranks right down there with Aqua Man and The Wonder Twins in terms of street cred). Still, one can imagine a good film possibly coming out with Kenneth Branagh directing, all the whiz bang CGI money can buy, and Natalie Portman as the leading lady. Not so, alas. The main problem I had was that the scenes on the Thor planet were too pretentious and grandiose, with everyone (including an embarrassing Anthony Hopkins) speaking in the same quasi-Shakespearian manner. That, and special effects that are like George Lucas at his most self indulgent, add up to one huge, overinflated slog. As if to counter the overabundance of the Thor planet (I don’t remember the name, sorry), the earthly scenes are all done a little too flip, with Portman’s scientist being a scatterbrain in a way that’s supposed to be charming, but ends up looking idiotic. As some consolidation, at least she’s not a thoroughly annoying dumbell like the graduate student played by Kat Dennings. As Thor, Chris Hemsworth has the rockin’ bod and growling voice down pat, but he’s curiously lacking in charisma. I was also distracted by his painted-on blonde eyebrows and facial hair. The film has a few exciting set pieces, however, and some of the designs (like the Thor planet’s spinning room) have an elegant panache.
Vidal Sassoon: The Movie (2011). One of the other films that are among the first batch of DVDs I received for review from DVD Talk. A probing documentary of legendary hair sculptor Vidal Sassoon that goes into similar, stylish territory as The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor. What’s not to like? I will go into more detail in my official review, but in a nutshell I dug this portrait of a very interesting gentleman. Unlike the other two films mentioned, this one focuses less on the intersection of fashion and commerce and is more about the power of single-minded creativity and what one individual can accomplish. Very inspiring.

Book Review: Lifestyle Illustration of the ’60s

The decade of the ’60s seems to conjure up a lot of images of femininity to me — slinky James Bond gal, mod miniskirted model, Donna Reedy housewife, hippie chick, California beach bunny. All of those archetypes, and many more, are on full display in Lifestyle Illustration of the ’60s, a brick-like volume of vintage magazine illustrations expertly selected by Rian Hughes. Sure, there are some men pictured within these pages, but since the illustrations come from various popular British women’s mags of the era (Woman, Woman’s Own, Homes and Gardens, Woman’s Journal to name a few) they tend to focus on the fairer sex rendered in every color of the rainbow. The women are generally seen in swooning, romantic poses with body language and facial expressions that hint at some intrigue or outside danger (what is the trench coated beauty on page 322 looking at?).

What most impressed me about this book is how craftily the illustrators worked with white space and printing techniques to make a visually stunning statement. The artwork is presented in chronological order, reproduced in graphic layouts that punch up the often stunning color palettes the artists used. The earlier examples are more conservative subject-wise, with prim ladies emoting in billowy dresses, but the art is surprisingly daring in technique. As the ’60s move along, we see wilder colors and looser, more artfully sketch-like renderings, until 1966-67 brings on a mod, Carnaby Street influence with a graphic punch. Cartoons, collage, surrealism, revival and psychedelic styles all get their due, but by 1969 we’re back in the realm of glamorously swooning ladies rendered in washy paints. Some things never change, it seems.

This book focuses solely on British publications, which honestly let me down a little, but many American artists of the era are represented here with quality work by the likes of Coby Whitmore, Andy Virgil and Lynn Buckham. One of my favorites from that period, Bob Peak, is represented only once — a striking image of a kissing couple dominated by the black space between their profiles. Wow!

Lifestyle Illustration of the ’60s is available at Amazon.com, of course. I got my copy at discount seller Edward R. Hamilton for much cheaper, however. Fiell is set to release a companion volume, Lifestyle Illustrations of the ’50s, later on this month.

Boys Life

Occasionally I will get into a certain musical artist’s output during a specific time period — lately it’s been the Pet Shop Boys’ 1999-2004 output. I started off with ’99′s Nightlife, the last PSB disc I bought when it was new. This one got a mixed reception from fans, but I enjoyed it at the time and found on re-listen that it still holds up nicely, thankyouverymuch. Most of the album’s appeal comes from the airy, almost cinematic production by Rollo and Craig Armstrong. Some of the tunes have this beautiful, orchestral feel — which really comes in handy during the times when Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s dry irony gets laid on too thick (as on “Vampires”). As on other albums, they often go for the jugular in terms of emotion, something rarely heard in synth pop. The pathos of “You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk” is a good example of just how moving they can be.

Defying expectations, the Pet Shoppers followed Nighlife with 2002′s Release, a laid-back, guitar-oriented effort. This album was greeted with perhaps the worst reception of the boys’ entire career. People wanted nothing to do with a glum, introspective PSB, apparently. It’s actually not all that bad, but the shortage of memorable tunes doesn’t exactly make this a keeper, either. “Home and Dry” was the oddly bland choice for first single, with the anthemic (thanks to Johnny Marr’s guitar) “I Get Along” being a much improved follow-up. I ended up getting a cheap used copy of the deluxe Release recently. The album is pleasant chill out music, marred by the dated (and unnecessary) vocoder effects on several tracks. One highlight is “The Night I Fell In Love,” Tennant and Lowe’s airy tale of bedding a macho rapper who bears a striking resemblance to Eminem. That and “I Get Along” belong on a PSB’s Greatest compilation. The rest, not so much.

Completing my Pet Shop Boys journey meant downloading the two new tracks off their 2003 compilation, PopArt: The Hits. The sleek “Miracles” was a good stab at relevance, but the real stunner was “Flamboyant”. This and its b-side, “I Didn’t Get Where I Am Today,” count as two of my favorite PSB tracks. I’m also loving the “Flamboyant” video, a dizzying montage which includes clips of Japanese game show contestants making cleverly choreographed shapes from their bodies. Like the Pet Shop Boys themselves, it’s bizarre and brilliant at the same time.