Archive for January, 2012

Flick Clique: January 22-28

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

Bonnie and Clyde (1967). I just finished reading Mark Harris’ terrific book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. The book examines the simultaneous productions of the five films nominated for 1967′s Best Picture Oscar — Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, and Doctor Doolittle — and how this particular slate of films challenged America’s film industry to become more edgy, small and youth-oriented after years of churning out bloated, creaky epics and musicals. It inspired me to check out those films again, starting with perhaps the most admired of the bunch, Bonnie and Clyde. I’ve liked this film ever since seeing it in college as part of a course on Warner Bros. movies; seeing it again after reading the Harris book revealed to me even more how different this film was in ’67 and the risks Warren Beatty and the other filmmakers were taking in doing it. The film does have a much more European outlook with its fatalistic lovers, straightforward violence, evocative, nontraditional music score, location filming, etc. I also seemed to take more notice of Faye Dunaway’s nervous energy as Bonnie. She wasn’t the first choice for that role, and was going through something of a rudderless period after having unpleasant experiences on her first two films. It really shows. That climactic shootout still blows me away, too.
Eames: The Architect and the Painter (2011). This one had been on my wish list at DVD Talk for some time, but we ended up watching it on Netflix instant instead. Narrated by James Franco, this documentary delves into the lives of legendary designers Charles and Ray Eames. Actually, “designers” is too limiting a term for them, since they worked across a wide swath of disciplines (industrial design, film, education, architecture). The film goes comprehensively into their marriage, their office in Venice, California, and that collective’s many projects (the Midcentury Modern chairs they’re so well-known for actually make up a tiny portion of the film). Although The Architect and the Painter rightfully reveres them as the Renaissance Couple of the 20th century, it also had the odd effect of changing my mind on them, individually. I always admired Ray, but the film reveals her as a brilliant but scatterbrained, eccentric pack rat. Charles comes through as a deep-thinking, endlessly curious fellow with charisma to spare — and I actually ended up liking him more than his wife. It’s not a completely glowing portrait, thankfully. The film goes into the strife that came with Charles and Ray taking credit for what people in the office did, and the filmmakers also interview the woman who was Charles’ mistress for a time. What most struck me is the sheer variety of stuff they worked on, and this film has the dizzying array of clips to prove it.
Final Destination 5 (2011). From the IMDb: “Survivors of a suspension-bridge collapse learn there’s no way you can cheat Death.” You know what that means — more beautiful people dying spectacular deaths!” These Final Destination flicks are pretty interchangeable, but this one has a few things in its favor (and it’s a huge improvement over the gimmicky, CGI-reliant part 4). The scene with the characters stranded on a suspension bridge while assorted flying construction debris, hot tar and strategically placed watercraft off them one by one is a wild ride, among the series’ most memorable set pieces. There’s also a neat twist, which reveals itself subtly (why are the cell phones so clunky?) over the film’s running time. The acting is still somewhat b-grade, but even that is part of the fun. I enjoyed seeing the guy who looked like the love child of Tom Cruise and Ben Stiller go progressively batty as the movie went on, for one.
Mildred Pierce (2011). Forget all those superhero blockbusters — this was the Film Event of 2011 that I was most eagerly anticipating. I was a bit leery of the idea of remaking Mildred Pierce for HBO, but as soon as I heard Todd Haynes was directing and Kate Winslet was starring, I was in. For the most part, it’s fantastic — subtly paced and performed, full of wonderful 1930s period detail, and completely faithful to James M. Cain’s original novel. That faithfulness, ironically, is what makes it somewhat less-than-perfect viewing. The 1945 Joan Crawford version took lots of liberties with the story and characters, but at least it was gritty and energetic (and a stunning example of high ’40s W.B. melodrama). Haynes’ rendition takes its own sweet time. For the most part it works beautifully, but it also makes the dated, soapy aspects of the story that much more apparent. Veda is a more cunning, evil child here, but also strangely sympathetic (both Morgan Turner and Rachel Evan Wood do great jobs playing her at different ages). Kate Winslet is a bit wimpy as Mildred, but I think that’s mostly because she’s written that way in the book. She does have two excellent scenes — when she’s tramping the streets of Depression era L.A. seeking a job (the lady does tired very well), and when she’s hearing Veda’s singing voice on the radio for the first time. I also enjoyed Guy Pierce, Brían F. O’Byrne, and James LeGros as the men in Mildred’s life. It was very evocative and absorbing. The contemplative pacing was totally appropriate — those 5-1/2 hours seemed to fly by.

Flickr Friday: I’m Alvin

Friday, January 27th, 2012

The examination of kiddie books from my youth continues with these scans from I’m Alvin, the story of a baby squirrel who is fished out of a river and nursed back to health. It seems weird that my mom decided to get us this book, since squirrels were nowhere to be found in Scottsdale, Arizona where I grew up. Published in 1967, the book was written and illustrated by one Elizabeth Rice. Our copy was very well-used, as you can see:

Although this book isn’t the greatest example of ’60s illustration style, it is pretty funny for the “annotations” I made in it. Apparently I decided that Alvin the squirrel needed some dialogue:

I couldn’t spell right (gimme a break, I was only 4 or 5), and had some trouble drawing normal looking cartoon dialogue balloons:

In the book, Alvin ventures out into the forest and meets all sorts of woodland animals. Saying “hi” to each and every one of them, of course!

Flick Clique: January 15-21

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

Aftershock (2010). China’s Great Tangshan Earthquake of 1976 is the catalyst for this ambitious family drama that we checked out on Netflix streaming this week (it was also one of the DVDs available for review at DVD Talk, but one of the other reviewers got to it first). It opens with vignettes showing a simple but loving family with two kids, a boy and a girl, in a semi-urban setting. While the parents are outside their modest apartment one night, a terrifying earthquake strikes. The quake instantly kills the father and levels the family’s apartment, leaving the frantic mother digging through the debris to find her children. With the help of rescue workers, the kids are found, alive but injured. The mom is relieved, but her devastation reaches a new low when the rescue workers tell her that they must kill one child to save the other. She tearfully chooses to save her son. While the daughter is left for dead with the other quake victims, she is actually alive and eventually ends up being adopted by a married pair of Maoist soldiers. How the family lives apart over the next thirty years makes up the bulk of the film, made in a more typically soapy (but still engrossing) way. The film is sparked by searing performances, especially from Fan Xu as the mother and Jingchu Xhang as the adult daughter. The direction and CGI effects in the earthquake scenes are exciting, but it’s the emotional resonance of the later scenes that affected me the most.
All Over Town (1937). I decided to check out another offering from the Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack this week. Going in chronological order, my next flick wound up being this plodding backstage yarn starring the team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Olsen & Johnson were best known for their Broadway and film success Hellzapoppin’, a supposedly hilarious and ground-breaking work (the film has been out of circulation for several decades). The considerably more low-profile All Over Town has them as a pair of luckless vaudevillians who, mistaken for millionaires, end up getting involved in mounting a variety show at a theater where a murder occurred. Like the other O&J film I’ve seen (Country Gentlemen, co-starring Joyce Compton), the plot is a paper-thin excuse for Olsen’s mugging and Johnson’s annoying, never-ending giggle. The film is a pretty dreadful affair, overall, but it does rebound somewhat with a frenetic finale that has Olsen giving a play-by-play rundown of the cops attempting to catch a killer running loose in the theater while the other actors, musicians and playgoers scramble to get out of the way.
Bigger Than Life (1956). I’ve always wanted to check out this Nicholas Ray-directed, James Mason domestic drama of prescription pill taking gone awry, going all the way back to my regular American Movie Classics (r.i.p.) watching days. Diehard movie buffs have a soft spot for Bigger Than Life, insisting it’s an overlooked treasure on par with Ray’s better known films like Rebel Without A Cause and They Live By Night. I finally got to see the Criterion edition and, well … it’s a pretty good (if overwrought) drama with some cool production design and camerawork. Scenery-chewing, miscast Mason plays a typical American schoolteacher who, stressed with two jobs and a family to support, ends up taking the experimental drug Cortisone to calm his nerves. The medication has deadly effects when not taken correctly, however, and sure enough Mason is scheming, lying and abusing his terrified wife (Barbara Rush) and son (Christopher Olsen) in the claustrophobic home-turned-sanitarium they share. The film is interesting, more campy than good (but not quite the screaming camp-o-rama that is Ray’s Johnny Guitar). What I liked most about the film is the design of the house set itself with its moody shadows and travel posters/maps on the walls that mock the closed-in, mounting dread the family undergoes. It also has some neat touches, like the bright red living room couch and the foyer rug with a chaotic stripe pattern. Mason (who also produced) is frankly awful, however – and the passivity of Rush’s character would drive anyone up a wall. It’s a watchable enough drama, but in terms of coded social commentary it doesn’t live up to something like Douglas Sirk’s glossy family dramas. All that Heaven Allows could kick this movie’s butt any time.
Private Hell 36 (1954). Like Aftershock, this was another Netflix stream that we caught this past week — and, triumpantly, it’s another winner! The grittyPrivate Hell 36 deals with a common theme in noir, what happens when men in authority are tempted into doing something they’re not supposed to (in this case, stealing laundered money). Howard Duff and Steve Cochran play cops who bust up a drugstore robbery and find that it involved a counterfeit fifty dollar bill. Tracking the bill to a seedy bar where Ida Lupino sings, they enlist Lupino’s help to find the man who trafficked the money. That man is eventually found, but the officers run his auto off the road, killing the driver. Finding a boxful of stolen money at the scene, Cochran (who has fallen for the manipulative Lupino) decides to steal some of the cash. Cochran convinces the straight-laced Duff into sharing the loot and hiding it in a trailer — could they get away with it? This was a nifty little crime drama that benefits from excellent casting and an absorbing storyline. Lupino and the shifty, swarthy Cochran have a dynamic repartee in this.

Flickr Friday: The Secret Hiding Place

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Since I no longer have the webcomic occupying my time, I’m going to introduce a new feature here called Flickr Fridays. Each week, I’ll share an image or more that’s been added to my Flickr photostream. I have a lot of “catch up” work to do with my flickr, anyhow, so we’re not in danger of running out of material.

What do we have for today? Recently I went back to my parents’ home and came across a bunch of dog-eared old books that I loved as a kid. One of them, I vaguely recall, had a family of hippos and a lion. It was called The Secret Hiding Place, written and illustrated by Rainey Bennett and published in 1960. Here’s the cover:

This was an old library book, which holds its own potential for surprises. Like this sticker on the title page:

“Please wash your hands before you read me and keep me clean” — sound advice, then and now! As with most of my childhood books, I don’t remember the stories so much as the pictures. This particular book had a nice, loose drawing style with the animals rendered in black ink, surrounded by wispy watercolor clouds printed in red, blue and yellow. The book is now very yellowed and old, but the scan below captures some of the colors:

I remember one part in the book where the little hippo hides in the cave and is totally black. This kinda freaked me out as a youngster. Turn the page, quick!

I will be sharing more childhood books (and other stuff) in future installments of Flickr Fridays. Thanks for readin’!

Flick Clique: January 7-14

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Since my server has been having connecting issues, I’m publishing the Flick Clique today. It’s been a crazy week — Two Bunnies & A Duck has published its 100th, and final comic. I enjoyed drawing the bunnies and coming up with gags, but I’ve also realized that I’m not a gag cartoonist and never will be. It was too much work, and there wasn’t much incentive to keep going on (but I am thankful for Christopher’s cheerleading). With Bunnies, there were times when I was disappointed with the drawing but had a good gag, and other times when the drawing/coloring went well on a cartoon where the gag didn’t work. The entire run of Bunnies will be collected in a book, and that will be the end of that.
East Side of Heaven (1939). Fluffy Bing Crosby musical teams him up with pert Joan Blondell as a pair of romantically involved city dwellers who wind up involved in a wealthy family’s spat when he becomes the unwilling guardian of a kidnapped baby. Crosby is a singing taxi driver, Blondell his switchboard operator girlfriend, and Mischa Auer plays the goofy amateur astronomer who rooms with Crosby. The film has a bit of jazzy verve with some tasty production design (dig the Deco café below!) and tuneful if slight songs. The plot swings into action when C. Aubrey Smith’s millionaire wants to take possession of the baby grandchild belonging to his irresponsible son Robert Kent and his daughter-in-law Irene Hervey. Hervey, not wanting to lose her son, decides to abduct the baby and place him in the care of the most trustworthy person she knows, Crosby (who had just been fired for speaking out of turn on her behalf). Quite a cute film, but be warned that it ends up being All About The Baby in the second half! Personally, I have a strong aversion to babies in movies. The baby in question here is quite a happy ‘lil guy, but the filmmakers milk his cuteness to an annoying degree. Universal loved this one enough to star it in several “Baby Sandy” comedies, apparently. Go figure.

Harvest (2011). This understated German indie drama was a film I selected from the reviewers’ pool at DVD Talk. My review was just completed and can be seen here.
In Time (2011). Another disc that arrived from DVD Talk, surprisingly enough (I’ve requested a few mainstream films with them, but haven’t gotten too many as yet). You may recall that In Time was the Justin Timberlake “people with stopwatches on their forearms” sci-fi opus that came and went in theaters last Fall. We kept our expectations dialed a bit low for this one, but actually it’s a thoughtful and well-made film whose interesting premise only gets derailed a few times. In near-future L.A., time is a commodity. Upon their 25th birthday, people are given a certain amount of time for the remainder of their lives until the green stopwatch implanted in their wrists runs out. These stopwatches also have the ability to stop physical aging, so most of the population looks 25. These advances have created a quasi-police state in which the rich are sequestered in safe zones where they live out lives of leisure, while the less fortunate are forced into hard labor, crime and desperation to cling on to their remaining time. Timberlake’s character is part of the latter scene, eking out a living with his mom in a dingy apartment. When he comes across a suicidal rich man who gives him 100 years before offing himself, however, he winds up getting into the forbidden wealthy district with the cops in hot pursuit. He eventually meets bored rich girl Amanda Seyfried and the two go on a crime spree, hoping to unleash the time banks that are controlled by Seyfried’s powerful father (Vincent Kartheiser of Mad Men). Will they bring equilibrium back to society? This was an interesting film, casting-wise, with similarly aged Timberlake (b.1979) and actress Olivia Wilde (b.1981) playing a child and parent, for instance. It doesn’t have a lot of showy CGI like other sci-fi outings, but I think the central concept is strong enough to stand on its own. The only weak link I found was Timberlake, who doesn’t bring a lot of depth to his character. This was written and directed by the un-prolific Andrew Niccol, whose earlier Gattaca shares a lot of similarities with In Time. There are a few flaws with the execution (like, why isn’t there more murder in this place where time is so easily exchanged?), but overall I found it intriguing and not nearly as bad as the reviews suggested.
Stonewall (1996). One of those ’90s gay films that has its adherents, I put this on my Netflix queue mainly because Guillermo Diaz (whom I enjoyed in Weeds) is in it. Diaz plays La Miranda, a fiery drag queen in 1969 New York. He meets Matty Dean (Frederick Weller), an out-and-proud midwesterner on his first foray in the city. The two become boyfriends amidst the turmoil of the emerging gay rights movement. Despite the title, the Stonewall Inn figures primarily as the setting for La Miranda and his drag friends to put on lip-synch shows set to campy girl group records by The Shangri-Las (these scenes, although pretty fun, aren’t too relevant to the story). The riot itself is confined to the final 10 minutes or so, which is disappointing. The film, on the whole, is an okay if disjointed effort with a distinct British feel (it kinda reminded me of gritty UK films from that period like Let Him Have It or Prick Up Your Ears). Most of the cast was all right. For a historical recreation of the Stonewall riots and what led up to them, I’d go for the recent PBS American Experience program on the subject. It’s much more illuminating and a whole lot less drag queeny.

Z-Ro, My Hero

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012

One of the Christmas gifts I got for my spouse was the 12-DVD Classic Sci Fi TV: 150 Episodes set from Mill Creek. This set has a ton of old, really cheesy but entertaining TV dramas and serials, mostly dating from the 1950s. These hoary old kinescopes with wooden acting and predictable plots are not for every taste, but we’re digging them.

One of the more intriguing curios on the set is the show Captain Z-Ro. The show was produced locally for a San Francisco station in 1955-56, then syndicated nationwide. It followed the mustachioed Captain Z-Ro and his young sidekick, Jet, as they traveled through time and learned about various historical events on Earth. I was expecting pure cheese from this one, but the show is actually quite fun and nicely produced for a local early TV effort. The Mill Creek set includes a total of 24 episodes of this particular opus, so it should keep us plenty busy.