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Monthly Archives: October 2011

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Flick Clique: October 9-15

Contagion (2011). A modern update on the all-star disaster epics of the ’70s, this is. We saw Contagion in the theater last week, and every time an audience member coughed (which was often), I got chills. Steven Soderbergh’s film chronicles what might happen if a lethal virus capable of knocking out 25% of the world’s population broke out. Some viewers were disappointed that it wasn’t an actioner like the trailer promised, but I found it effective the way the tension gently escalates as the virus goes from clusters of the sick to worldwide epidemic. The film begins with Gwyneth Paltrow’s business woman coming down with a bug on a return trip from Hong Kong. Coming home to husband Matt Damon, she gets sick and expires so quickly that it barely registers with Damon. Their child soon gets the virus and dies, then Damon is put under quarantine. Meanwhile, other lethal cases are spreading in Hong Kong. Lawrence Fishburn at the CDC sends Kate Winslet to investigate the rash of infections in Minneapolis (where Paltrow and Damon live), while World Heath Organization official Marion Cotillard is sent to Hong Kong. As the sickness spreads into a panic, a crusading blogger (Jude Law) investigates whether the virus was planted by the government, or worse (this film is not very nice to bloggers, natch). Excellent atmosphere and performances, especially from Winslet and Jennifer Ehle as a CDC doctor attempting to decipher the rapidly mutating virus. If anything, the film is pro-government but anti-regulation. It seems to have faith in the good characters like Damon and Winslet keeping things sane for the hysteric masses. The only negative thing I found was the Cotillard storyline, which seemed a bit tacked-on and routine. She’s excellent, however. I also loved the tense, minimalist synth-based score by Cliff Martinez.
Sadko (1953). Whatta trip — the 1953 adventure Sadko was a colorful retelling of the Sinbad story with a grandiose, distinctively Russian visual style. We saw the dubbed U.S. version, titled The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. The movie plods a lot, and the print we saw was muddy. Strange and surreal, it reminded me of the MST3K episode Jack Frost (as it turns out, Sinbad was also given the MST3K treatment). The film details bearded do-gooder Sinbad as he attempts to help the comrades in his small Russian village by catching magic fish and the like. He gathers a motley band of men as they journey to India to find an ethereal creature with the body of a hawk and the head of a woman. On the way back, Sinbad has a sojourn in Neptune’s underwater kingdom, when he is forced into marriage with Neptune’s beautiful daughter. Eventually they get back to Russia and all is well. This has potential to be a camp riot — and it is, in spots — but mostly it’s strange, with outsized acting and inconsistent pacing. It does have some gorgeous visuals to recommend it, however (those shots of the Phoenix woman in her cave are unforgettable). I’d love to see a restored version of the Russian original. Criterion, are you listening?
The Wolf Man (1941) and Dead of Night (1945). We spent most of last week on the road, going to various spots in Northern Arizona. It didn’t leave much time for movie viewing, but we did manage to check out some good vintage stuff when Turner Classic Movies (which I still miss!) had a 1940s horror film fest on October 10. Amazingly, I’ve never seen The Wolf Man. It’s a short, tight, excellent example of Hollywood studio craft of that era. I could carp at Lon Chaney Jr.’s vagueness as the title character, but he’s given great support by Claude Rains, Maria Ouspenskaya, Ralph Bellamy and Warren William (really?). Universal really knew how to conjure up atmosphere with smoke, gnarled trees and a few old Euro-style sets. The only quibble I have is that it’s too brisk, leaving the film with a rushed feeling. We stepped out for dinner during the next film, The Uninvited, but got back in time to catch all of the crack British anthology Dead of Night. This was quite an interesting film, with a bunch of mini-stories connected by the character of a nervous architect (Mervyn Jones) who is certain that he’s already met all the residents at a country estate that he innocently stumbles into. The stories themselves are hit or miss, but I enjoyed checking out the more muted, creepy-crawly tone set forth in this very British take on the haunted house genre. Among the better segments is one with Googie Withers as a lady who buys an antique mirror for husband Michael Cortland, which turns out to be haunted. Another good one has Sally Ann Howes as a Christmas party guest who discovers a crying child in the attic of a mysterious house. The most memorable sequence concerns a creepy ventriloquist played by Michael Redgrave — which is a funny coincidence, since I’m reviewing a documentary on ventriloquists for DVD Talk. Thank you, Best Western, for having TCM in the rooms!

Piggies

Before we took in Contagion at the theater today, this animated commercial for the Mexican food chain Chipotle was playing. As they describe it:

The film, by film-maker Johnny Kelly, depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future. Both the film and the soundtrack were commissioned by Chipotle to emphasize the importance of developing a sustainable food system.

It’s totally charming, and the Willie Nelson song playing on it adds a haunting edge to the cute-style animation.

Phoebe and Franklin

I don’t have a Flick Clique this week. Sorry ’bout that – I spent much of yesterday afternoon working on the Ma & Pa Kettle Complete Comedy Collection review at DVD Talk. Please check it out. Ma and Pa Kettle’s first names make up the title of this post, by the way.
This weekend was also busy due to it being my birthday. I wanted to celebrate by playing Goofy Golf — since, really, is there anything more pleasurable (pants on division)? Christopher took me to our local mini golf ‘n game emporium and we had a blast.

Pishtosh, Bullwash & Wimple

Jim Flora is a great artist who made a lot of wacky, gorgeous album covers in the ’50s. He also illustrated a few books that are out of print, and extremely hard to find. While looking through the kiddie bookshelves at the Deseret thrift store in Mesa last weekend, I saw a blue hardback with the name “James Flora” printed on the spine. The book was a good condition copy of Flora’s 1972 tome Pishtosh, Bullwash & Wimple. For only 99 cents.

This is such a sweet book. I wasn’t aware that Flora did commercial illustration into the ’70s. Some photos of this thrift store treasure have been posted in my flickr photostream.

Flick Clique: September 25 – October 2

Caught (1948). I’ve been curious about this film ever since reading about it in Entertainment Weekly 20 (!!) years ago. One of the few American flicks helmed by European Max Ophüls, Caught details the story of good girl Barbara Bel Geddes, who is first seen gathering her meager savings for a charm school class that may someday snag her a rich husband. On her job as a department store model, she meets the associate of a rich industrialist who invites her to an exclusive party on a yacht. She reluctantly agrees to go, but arriving late at a dock she meets ruddy sailor man Robert Ryan — who winds up being the rich, rather eccentric man holding the party. The two date and get married, but Bel Geddes finds herself trapped in a huge home with a workaholic who doesn’t care much for her. She escapes to New York City, finds a little apartment, and gets a menial job as a secretary for two doctors. One of her employers, James Mason, falls for Bel Geddes, who faces the choice of escaping again or exposing her secret. More of a tense melodrama than a true film noir like I hoped, but I found the film fascinating nonetheless. Bel Geddes is wonderfully natural — at least up until her character got maddeningly passive. I loved her relaxed interplay with James Mason (best seen in the nightclub scene below). This also has some cool camera work from Ophüls. Ryan is wonderfully menacing as the husband, a character supposedly based on Howard Hughes. This film is available on Netflix streaming — quite a treat if you have that service.

Climates (2006). I added this Turkish drama to my Netflix queue a few years ago, probably because it was acclaimed at the Cannes film festival that year. It’s a sensitive, deliberately paced drama about an upper middle class Istanbul couple played by director Nuri Bilge Ceylan and his real life wife, Ebru Ceylan. The film’s essence is encapsulated early on in a scene that’s an uninterrupted take showing Ms. Ceylan staring off into the distance, a single tear falling down her cheek. We see the couple’s relationship falling apart, the man not comprehending as the woman’s emotions spiral out of control. They separate, then the man (in a creepy scene) forces himself upon an old friend. The woman accepts another job in a smaller town, then the man follows her in a pursuit that is awkward and uncomfortable to watch. This was a beautifully photographed film, but I couldn’t truly get into it because the characters ended up being so vague — and ultimately unappealing. By film’s end, you wish the woman grew a spine much earlier and avoided putting up with this creep.
The Final Destination (2009). Fourth and lamest of the Final Destination films. Like the other F.D. flicks, this one follows a teen who has visions of his friends’ deaths which somehow portend their own early, ever-complicated ends. The lackluster script and lazy dependence on cheap CGI in this one puts it more on the cheesy level of cable TV’s 1,000 Ways To Die — which is about 1,000 times more fun than this sorry mess.
Ma & Pa Kettle (1949), Ma & Pa Kettle Go to Town (1950), Ma & Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Ma & Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953) and Ma & Pa Kettle at Home (1954). Seven down, three to go in the Kettle movie-a-thon (I’m reviewing a set of their complete filmography for DVD Talk). Remember, this is the comedy franchise with wonderful Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as the parents of an unruly brood of 15 kids in Washington state (not the deep South, as I previously thought). The Kettle films tend to work better if they stay with the family and their oddball neighbors — whenever they take off to a far-off locale (as in Go to Town or Vacation), the movies tend to get pokey. The original Ma & Pa Kettle is a fun little outing in which the family wins a dream home in a jingle-writing contest that Pa entered — and probably all most casual viewers would want. Digging deeper, I’m finding that I’m enjoying these flicks. Universal Studios didn’t lavish a lot of money on them, but they are efficiently directed, fast paced and breezy affairs that one could consume like potato chips. If there’s a bad one in the bunch, just move on and you will find a good one. My favorites so far are At The Fair, which contains probably the funniest, most sitcom-esque gags in the series, and the first Ma & Pa Kettle. I also found a lot to like with the strangely sedate At Home, a film whose climactic Christmas party scene presents the family as a well-adjusted and even downright normal bunch. Go to Town is routine and On Vacation is entirely skippable, but even those have the marvelous chemistry of Main and Kilbride to recommend. I’m curious to see what the final two entries, minus Kilbride, will be like.
A Rage to Live (1965). This adaptation of a pulpy best seller by John O’Hara held a lot of promise as a campy delight; it ends up being a serious examination of a young woman’s sexuality that generally works thanks to a sensitive performance by Suzanne Pleshette. The gorgeous Pleshette plays Grace Caldwell, an heiress whose out-of-control libido has the people in her town pegging her as a slut (sometimes the truth, sometimes inflated by gossip). She meets nice young man Bradford Dillman at a holiday party and the two hit it off. They marry and have a child, but the tranquil family life is shattered with the reappearance of Ben Gazarra as a construction worker who once had a casual acquaintance with Pleshette. Will they have an affair and start the town talking? A soapy delight that is let down by an unsatisfactory ending, but Pleshette is great. I got a kick out of the scenes with her and Peter Graves as the married newspaper editor who has the hots for her — Emily Hartley and Jim Phelps having a forbidden tryst? No way!