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Flick Clique: January 1-7

Apollo 18 (2011). A “found footage” look at what may have happened to the final Apollo moon landing mission in the early ’70s (hint: it involves interstellar crustaceans). The film follows three astronauts as they explore the moon’s surface in what was supposed to be a routine NASA mission. Soon they find evidence of an aborted Russian lunar landing, and then the mens’ real troubles begin. Much too contrived for my taste, and the methods the filmmakers used to make the footage look old came off as too artsy and deliberate (more like a music video than any real ’70s footage I’ve ever seen). Boring.
Cimarron (1931). Another Best Picture Oscar winner that I haven’t seen, and one I jumped at getting when the DVD edition turned up at Big Lots for three bucks! This was an all right, awfully creaky but enthralling Western saga about a family who journeys West during the Oklahoma land grab of the 1880s to settle in a town that literally grows right before our eyes. The cast is headed by blustery Richard Dix as a combo newspaper editor/lawyer named Yancey Cravat, with Irene Dunne as his supportive wife. This was based on a humungous Edna Ferber novel; like Ferber’s Giant it follows the story of family’s triumphs and tragedies from a past that many in the 1931 audience would have remembered right up until the present day. The direction is at time wondrous and stagy, and Dix’s acting style dates it (Dunne is only moderately better and miles away from her peak as a light comedienne). Still, I found it enjoyable in a campy way. The supporting cast is pretty good, including personal fave Edna May Oliver as the town’s clucking gossip. The finale, in which the townspeople gather to honor the now-elderly Dunne, is quite unintentionally funny. Keep in mind, however, that back in ’31 it must have been thrilling to see the massive changes that America underwent in such a short time, dramatized in the then-new medium of talking pictures.
Following (1998). This early, low-budget film from director Christopher Nolan is one of those things that we stumbled across amongst Netflix’s instant offerings. Shot in black and white and on a miniscule budget, Following is about a young British guy (Jeremy Theobald) who feels compelled to follow strangers around London hoping to get a peek into their lives. One of the people he follows catches on to his “hobby” and confronts him about it. The followed man turns out to be an arrogant petty thief named Cobb (Alex Haw), who eventually teaches the man how to break into peoples’ apartments without getting caught. One of the apartments they burgle belongs to an enigmatic blonde woman (Lucy Russell) whom the following man gets to know. Little does he know that it’s all part of a devious plan that Cobb (who already knew the woman) has set in place. Intriguing, Memento-ish film does a lot of interesting things on a tiny budget. It’s basically a student film with indie-level acting, but very well done and worth seeking out on Netflix.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011). Since this is Christopher’s first week of freedom after quitting his job, we celebrated by trucking down to the local cinema and seeing this lastest M:I entry. Although I’m still not much of a Tom Cruise fan, I have to admit that these Mission: Impossible movies keep getting better and better. The first one was okay if convoluted and too long, the second was something of a high tech Scooby Doo episode, but I was totally caught off guard by how exciting and fresh the J.J. Abrams-directed third installment was. Abrams still has a hand in this fourth one, only now the directing has been turned over to Brad Bird, the whiz behind The Incredibles. Was this Cruise’s idea? Because, wow, this is one tightly plotted, intricately done film. Bird seems very interested in depicting high-tech gadgetry that comes off as amazing, yet still plausible within this I.M.F. secret agent world. Cruise is back, of course, joined by a funny and adorable Simon Pegg from the previous installment. Rounding out the quartet of I.M.F. agents is Jeremy Renner as an accountant who proves to be much more kick-ass than he initially lets on (it seemed as though they’re grooming Renner to take Cruise’s place) and Paula Patton, who is a real find as a gorgeous yet intelligent agent who has revenge on her mind — the baddies’ hired assassin (Léa Seydoux) killed her agent boyfriend (Josh Holloway of Lost). There are some fun set pieces in Dubai and India, along with some clever plot twists that set the action forward in an interesting way. This is probably the best action film I’ve seen since Casino Royale (2006), or perhaps MI:3 (also 2006).
The Phantom of Hollywood (1974). This mostly forgotten TV movie was a recent purchase of mine from Warner Archive, which seems to be digging even deeper to bring its back catalog to made-to-order DVD. The film, about a menacing masked killer (played by Jack Cassidy) who stalks a crumbling old movie studio backlot which is about to be demolished, isn’t really much on the surface. There’s isn’t much of note from the cast, headed by Cassidy, Peter Lawford, Broderick Crawford and a few other oldsters. The story is also pretty bland and predictable. What’s amazing about this film is that MGM made it as a document of their Backlot 2, which really was in the process of being sold off and destroyed. Characters walk around the lot and describe the rusty building false fronts and what films they were in, which is really neat. There’s also a bit of sadness (and interest, in a train wreck way) when these historical structures are shown getting bulldozed down. That’s Hollywood for ya! Christopher got a great book about the MGM lot as a holiday gift; this film (as cheesy as it is) is a wonderful companion for that. Buy The Phantom Of Hollywood at Amazon here, and help a starving artist.
The T.A.M.I. Show (1964). As a confirmed ’60s music nut, I have been waiting for years to see this legendary concert film, a project that I’ve seen clips of but never the entire thing until its overdue DVD issue. The T.A.M.I. Show was filmed on a single night at the Santa Monica Auditorium to an audience of screaming kids and teens. They had every right to scream, too, since this one concert attracted every big pop music name at the time (minus The Beatles and Elvis!) – The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, Lesley Gore, Smokey & The Miracles, and James Brown (who delivers the most sweaty, feverish performance of the set). The film is loads of fun, if only to check out where music was at this transitional time. Squeaky clean acts like hosts Jan & Dean were the hottest things going at the moment, but their time was fading fast to the more complex Rolling Stones (who look utterly young here) and the Motown sound. Speaking of Motown, I particularly dug Marvin Gaye’s set backed by L.A. girl group The Blossoms, and the Supremes’s set is an early gem with the ladies performing from what was by then only their second album! Not everything in this film is a winner (stiff Billy J. Kramer, where did they find him?), but by and large it was a blast from the past worth waiting for.

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