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Monthly Archives: September 2011

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Flick Clique: September 4-10

Good, somewhat unexpected, news: I am now one of the reviewers at the great online home video resource DVDTalk.com. Although I’ve been reading that site for years, it was only recently that I found the main editor’s solicitation for reviewers posted on the reader forums. Using some of my 2005-06 reviews from Mindjack Film as samples, I submitted an application — and was accepted! I’ve always liked the concise, totally thorough (yet fun) reviews at DVDTalk and can’t wait to contribute my own. On to this week’s Flick Clique:
By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009). Amy Rice and Alicia Sams’ acclaimed documentary follows Obama on his historic campaign from its first conception in 2006 up through election day, two long and exhausting years later. Somewhat absorbing (due to the amazing access Rice and Sams had) if not exactly mind-blowing. What struck me the most is how contrived most political campaigns are, and despite all attempts to market Obama as the “different” choice, his route to the White House basically mirrored the ones who went before him. Obama himself seems like a decent, down-to-earth fellow, and I appreciated the scenes capturing him, Michelle, Sasha and Malia relaxing at home. It would be interesting if the filmmakers did a follow-up with the youthful, optimistic campaign volunteers who propelled Obama to victory — what would they think of him now? Personally, I think he’s doing the best he can, despite the disappointment of his being way too conciliatory toward certain congressional Republicans who deserve a severe bitch slap. But back to the campaign scenes — my heart sank when the filmmakers visited the Iowa State Fair. Whether it was Hillary Clinton flipping burgers or Michelle Bachmann awkwardly chewing on a corn dog, the entire sequence stank of deja vu.
Final Destination 3 (2006). When it comes down to it, the Final Destination flicks are really about seeing ever more creative ways for teenagers to kick the bucket onscreen. FD3 is no different, and on its own terms I got a gleeful kick out of the crafty death scenes. Whether it’s snooty social queens fatally fried on a tanning bed or an arrogant jock who succumbs to some workout equipment gone horribly wrong, the characters are painted in such broad, evil stereotypes it’s not so bad when they’re offed. Actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead makes an appealing lead as the one teen that senses the doom of her classmates from the start, although she’s let down by a dopey script that doesn’t leave room for any character depth. Wouldn’t anybody get suspicious when the girl just happens to witness all these gruesome deaths?
It’s in the Bag (1946). This loose, wacky comedy starring radio personality Fred Allen counts as yet another curio that showed up unceremoniously on Netflix streaming. Allen plays a flea circus proprietor who finds himself the unlikely heir to a fortune when a rich relative drops dead. Allen and wife Binnie Barnes immediately spend the fortune on a new wardrobe and swanky apartment, only to find that the deceased millionaire actually hid the fortune in one of five antique chairs, which Allen foolishly dispatched to an antique store. With the aid of precocious son Dickie Tyler, Allen goes on a wild goose chase to get the sold chairs back from their scattered owners, which include Jack Benny (a funny bit with Benny playing himself in full-tilt Jack Benny mode), a scatterbrained old woman, a Gay ’90s nightclub proprietor, and a bunch of hoods. Quite cute, moderately funny time waster. The film opens with Allen as himself, addressing the audience and deconstructing the opening credits in a forward thinking way. What follows is not nearly as ballsy, but the film benefits from enjoyably loopy appearances from guest actors including Benny, Robert Benchley, William Bendix, Sidney Toler, Don Ameche, Rudy Vallee, and Victor Moore (the final three are a hoot as three quarters of a singing barbershop quartet).
Julie & Julia (2009). While Julia Child endeavors to master the art of French cookery in the ’40s and ’50s, contemporary office worker Julie Powell writes a weblog on attempting every recipe in Child’s magnum opus. I enjoyed this, mostly for the sumptuously filmed food shots and amazing performances by Meryl Street and Stanley Tucci, who are warm, engaging and surprisingly sexy as Child and her adoring husband, Paul. Nora Ephron directs the Child scenes as a romanticized fantasy, filtered through the impressions of the contemporary character, a stark contrast from the workaday life in Queens and Manhattan for Amy Adams’ struggling writer Powell. There was a lot of criticism for the mundanity of the “Julie” segments, but as a fellow blogger I got a kick out of the scenes with her setting up a blog and the anticipation of whether people could relate to her writing (is this the first mainstream movie about blogging?). Unfortunately, as our appreciation for Julia Child and her effervescent joie de vivre grows, the more Powell comes off as a big, narcissistic whiner… even the normally wonderful Adams can’t make her appealing! At their cores, cooking and blogging are both mundane activities that can be extraordinary if you approach them with the right mindset. From that standpoint, the film is a success.
Playhouse 90: The Comedian (1957). I rented the Criterion Golden Age Of Television set recently just for this production, a Rod Serling scripted saga of an egotistical TV star (played by a manic Mickey Rooney) and his downfall. This was a pretty typical production of the era, preserved on clunky kinescope that doesn’t adequately convey the technical accomplishment that went with live dramas of this ilk. For a project that left no room for error, John Frankenheimer’s direction is incredibly smooth and even daring, with pans and cuts that relied on split second timing from the actors. This was also worth watching for another wild, uninhibited turn by Rooney (see also: The Last Mile). What a dynamo that man was!

You Had Me at Meow

Watching an episode of The Bob Newhart Show on MeTV last night got me thinking about the famous MTM Enterprises kitten logo. MTM put the kitty (named Mimsy) through many variants over the years. By far the sickest one came at the final credits of the last St. Elsewhere, which has poor Mimsy lying down with a heart monitor going into flatline mode. Noooo!

P.S. As a kid, I always thought that MTM was the television branch of MGM. It always made sense to me.

Flick Clique: August 28 – September 3

Affairs of Cappy Ricks (1937) and Double Or Nothing (1937). A double feature of Depression-era escapism, separated only by what must have been several thousand dollars of budget. Affairs of Cappy Ricks is yet another modest yet entertaining b-flick from my Comedy Kings DVD set. An early effort by Republic Pictures, Cappy stars Walter Brennan as a crusty sea captain/entrepreneur who returns from a long voyage to find that his chiseling family has overtaken his business to the point of attempting a merger with a rival company. He decides to take them on a sea voyage and fake-crashes the boat near a deserted island, hoping the experience will teach them some humility. The plans go awry when the boat really crashes, however, and a screwball Gilligan’s Island situation ensues. Suprisingly appealing in a low-rent My Man Godfrey way — Brennan and low-wattage co-stars Mary Brian and Lyle Talbot deliver cute, un-showy performances. The film is also interesting in its anti-progress attitude, especially in the scene where Brennan is befuddled to find that his ship’s kitchen is equipped with push button technology. Double Or Nothing is another bit of musical fluff found on the Bing Crosby Screen Legend Collection DVD set. Like Waikiki Wedding, it co-stars brassy Martha Raye in a story that seems to evaporate off the celluloid. This time, Bing is a regular guy whose chance encounter with some found money puts him in an unusual inheritance scheme in which he has a chance at taking over a dying millionaire’s estate — but only if he can double his $1,000 bill within thirty days. Crosby teams up with fellow investors Raye, Andy Devine and William Frawley to open a luxe nightclub, an effort that continually gets stymied by the rich man’s greedy relatives. Rather endearing and unoffensive froth with Bing crooning a couple of pleasant if unmemorable tunes. Most of the appeal is in the great photography, costumes and production designs and definitely not in the goofy specialty acts that pad out the film’s second half. There is a certain weirdness to the segment with the guy who can make evening gowns in a few seconds flat, viewable here in a later TV appearance. (By the way, Affairs of Cappy Ricks is viewable online at Archive.org — cute movie if you have an hour to spare.)
(500) Days of Summer (2009). (500) Days of Summer is the kind of “quirky” romantic comedy that one would either find incredibly cloying or charming — although I can see both sides of the argument, I tend towards the latter. The film follows twentysomething greeting card writer Tom (a winning performance by Joseph Gordon Levitt) as he recalls being charmed by an alluring new co-worker, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). The two begin a friendly flirtation, then start dating despite her warnings that she’s a commitment-phobe. The relationship ebbs and flows, but eventually they find that they’re not right for each other (not really a spoiler, I suppose). The film flashes back and forward in time at various points during the 500 days they were involved (hence the title). This was a nice, funny film with some great comic timing from Gordon-Levitt. Deschanel, whom I normally find way too cutesy, does a nuanced job as an appealing yet flawed woman who realizes soon that she can’t live up to Gordon-Levitt’s idealized version of her. This was the first feature for director Marc Webb after a background in music videos, and it shows in the choppy, multi-textured way he approaches these vignettes. It’s at its most awkward in the Glee-ish segment with Gordon-Levitt enacting a sunny musical number to the tune of Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True,” but for the most part the film is slick and non-intrusive. Thanks to the lead performers, the couple seems real and the script thankfully avoids the usual romantic comedy clichés.
Peyton Place (1957). Plush, impressively mounted soap about a New England town whose residents are less idyllic than they appear on the surface. I’ve been watching a lot of guilty pleasure soapy melodramas lately (From the Terrace being the latest), which serve as great camp at the least, and at the most tell us profound stuff about how people saw themselves in the past. Peyton Place fits more into the latter area. It’s long, overwrought, hokey at times but totally absorbing — exactly what a good soap ought to be! Though I can’t go into details about the complicated plot, the film contains several noteworthy performances, including Hope Lange as a dirt poor girl and Russ Tamblyn as the misunderstood neighbor boy with an overly attached mother. I also enjoyed Lana Turner as the town Ice Queen, even though she fared much better in the superior Imitation of Life from a few years later. Unlike that tear jerker, this one pretty much sticks to normal small town life although the widescreen photography is just as sumptuous. There are some odd touches (the director’s focusing on a hungry kid at a picnic, for instance), but for the most part Peyton Place is a load of soapy fun.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). Saw this one in the theater this week — pretty fun. Like Captain America, I wound up being modestly impressed even if the film doesn’t break any new ground. This is a prequel to the Planet of the Apes saga set in contemporary times, although the strangely inconclusive conclusion might make this more of a Rise of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Affable James Franco plays a Big Pharma researcher who is especially attached to a brilliant test monkey, a subject for an anti-Alzheimer’s drug that sharpens the mind. After the monkey dies, he takes the creature’s baby home to live with him and his ailing father (John Lithgow). The monkey grows up, turns out to be a genius, causes a disturbance, and ends up in a cruel primate house. Eventually the miracle drug gets exposed to all the repressed monkeys who express their monkey rage by taking over the Golden Gate Bridge (a lot of other stuff happens, including several lovey-dovey bits with Franco and girlfriend Freida Pinto, but that’s the basic gist). The monkey is a CGI creation with motion capture enacted by actor Andy Serkis, and the most noteworthy aspect is the emotion that Serkis manages to breathe into this otherwise digital creature. As with a lot of other CGI, I find myself looking closely at what they got wrong — how the movements are a little too smooth, for instance — but the facial expressions were magic and surprisingly touching at times. I especially loved the scene where Cesar, separated from Marsden, draws the outline of the window in his bedroom on the wall of his cell. The ending seemed rushed and suffers from franchise-itis, but otherwise I was entertained.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009). This was pretty much what I expected — bloated, overlong, overproduced drivel made by morons, for morons. This apparently continues the story laid out in the first Transformers, with Shia LeBeouf moving on to college and the evil Decepticons in pursuit of an ancient robotic artifact hidden in an Egyptian pyramid (one whose precise location can only be divined from deep within LeBouf’s brain). LeBeouf continues to be the slack-jawed doofus, Megan Fox as his girlfriend juts her chest out impressively, and the parents are actually even more idiotic than in the first Transformers (really, their scenes are so embarrassing, I felt for poor Julie White and Kevin Dunn). The only new additions were several tiny Transformers, and a pair of jive-talking robots that I immediately wanted made into scap metal. Somebody please stop Michael Bay from making any more movies, please?

New at LitKids: Box ‘o Note Cards

My summer LitKids project has come to fruition — a spiffy box set of blank note cards! This project actually started last spring, when the proprietor MADE Boutique here in Phoenix brought up the fact that note cards always sell in her shop. From the beginning I thought I’d use the popular Anne of Green Gables, Jo from Little Women and Alice In Wonderland images on the cards, but I put off printing them until the Tom Sawyer one was finished (I knew it would come out nice, and it’s good to have a boy to add to the three girls).

Once the cards were designed, it was pretty easy getting them printed at Overnight Prints. Add in boxes, clear plastic sleeves, and labels on the back and voilà — eight LitKids cards in a box!