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Monthly Archives: January 2012

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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.

Flick Clique: December 25-31

Hollywood Cavalcade (1939). Every New Year’s Eve, we have a brilliant idea of watching an older film that neither of us have seen previously. This year’s offering was this nostalgic 20th Century Fox musical melodrama (it looks like a musical, yet there’s no singing and little dancing) which delves into the early days of filmmaking. Alice Faye plays a budding Broadway actress who is induced to move West for the glory of early flickers by fast talking Don Ameche. Hearing that Ameche is a minor player in this bustling scenario nearly turns Faye off and back East, but she relents and ends up being groomed into a popular slapstick comedienne by the determined Ameche. She winds up falling for him, too, but he’s such a workaholic that he doesn’t notice until Faye skips off with her handsome co-star, Alan Curtis. This film was pretty to look at (shot in Technicolor) and quite amusing for vintage film buffs. I kept expecting it to go horribly wrong with the historical details as so many of these escapist flicks do, but surprisingly it gets the freewheeling spirit of early Hollywood right. The script contains lots of clever references to stars of the era, even going as far as casting people like Buster Keaton in small roles. Cute movie!
Home for the Holidays (1995). A movie that I recorded off our local ThisTV station just after Dec. 25th, commercials and all, but I always wanted to see this one. Jodie Foster directs, and in her favor it does have enthusiastic performances from a talented cast. The film is somewhat all-over-the-place thematically, but overall I enjoyed it. At the film’s start, Holly Hunter, as an art restorer, suddenly finds herself laid off as Thanksgiving approaches. Hunter is also coping with being single and nearly 40, dealing with a daughter (Claire Danes) who is ready to lose her virginity, and finally prepping to go back to Chicago to interact with her family and their assorted problems. The family includes nagging ma Anne Bancroft, patient pa Charles Durning, dotty aunt Geraldine Chaplin, manic gay brother Robert Downey Jr., straight-laced sister Cynthia Stevenson, and doormat brother-in-law Steve Guttenberg. There’s also Dylan McDermott as Downey’s guest, whom Hunter feels attracted to but is unsure to make a move since he might be her brother’s boyfriend. David Strathairn has a nice bit as an old friend of Hunter’s who still carries a torch for her. There are a lot of nice scenes here, peppered with zingy dialogue. The action gets a bit too cartoonish at times, and a little of Downey goes a long way (apparently he was strung out on heroin when making this), but I found that I could totally empathize with the Hunter character and her familial woes. It’s brutally honest about families and people who can’t relate to the seemingly random people whom they come from and the idea that we’re supposed to bond simply ’cause we’re family.
Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989). Watched this for a DVD Talk review. This animated opus looked really intriguing to me — I picked it mostly to see if it had any fidelity to the classic Winsor McKay comic strip it’s based on (not much), but watching it reveals a lot of other fascinating things. The film follows a young American boy in early 20th century America as he (and his pet squirrel) are invited into a dream kingdom called Slumberland, to be the official playmate of a spunky princess. After they arrive, circumstances cause the kingdom to be under attack by a nightmare catcher. Since Nemo winds up losing a precious key given to him by the princess’ father, it’s up to him and his new cigar-chomping pal Flick (voiced by Mickey Rooney) to find the demon before he threatens the state of reality itself. First and foremost, this felt like a conflicted movie that was torn between a Japanese aesthetic and a more commercial American feel. The characters were very Disneyfied and somewhat contrived, yet the lush animation and surreal imagery was distinctively Asian. As it turns out, the film had a thorny production — going all the way back to 1982! I can certainly see why this film has its adherents, it’s beautiful to look at and the Nemo character is an appealing hero. The script is a mess, however, with a vaguely defined villain and lots of aimless padding in the latter half. There’s also the regrettable touches to “Americanize” the film, including forgettable songs and stock characters (including that cute but ultimately pointless squirrel). Like Disney’s ’80s flop The Black Cauldron, this is a decent enough, one-time watch for animation fans. I wouldn’t go as far as recommending it, however. The test footage of this film, currently on YouTube, hints at what the film could have been:

Nancy Drew, Trouble Shooter (1939). Our first film of a 1939 double feature we did on New Year’s Eve. We actually came across the DVD with all four of the Warner Bros. Nancy Drew films at a local Goodwill recently. These little b-movies are quite zippy and fun, mostly due to the great casting of vivacious Bonita Granville, who is the very personification of the spunky sleuth. In all four flicks, she is joined by a regular cast of supporting actors including Frankie Thomas as her boyfriend and John Litel as her dad. Trouble Shooter is honestly the weakest of the films, with a lightweight plot in which the central mystery is almost an afterthought and too much silliness (including scenes with Willie Best as a stereotypical ghost fearin’, chicken stealin’ farmhand). The plot revolves around Nancy and her dad coming to the aid of an old family friend who has been wrongly accused of murder in a small country town. As always, Nancy is on the case! The marvelous chemistry between Granville and Thomas keeps this one afloat — until the pair get stuck on a capsized sailboat at film’s end, that is.
Séraphine (2009). Unexpectedly fantastic French biopic about a lowly cleaning woman who has a secret passion for creating wild paintings of flowers and fruit. In a rural town in 1914 France, portly, put-upon Séraphine (Yolande Moreau) is cleaning the home of a woman who is renting a room to a German art critic named Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur). The man stays out of the way of the chatty yet prepossessing Séraphine, until he sees one of her artworks tossed on the floor of his landlord’s dining room. After finding out from the landlady that the art was Séraphine’s, he encourages the woman to make more art by buying her better quality supplies. Her talent is nurtured, but the onset of WWI prompts Uhde to flee the town. Several years later, Séraphine is still scraping by cleaning homes while privately painting. Uhde tracks her down, astonished to find her still living and working on her art. He arranges for the woman to have a monthly stipend and takes some of her pieces to France to sell to naive-art collectors. As her fame builds, however, her mental capacity decreases and she is institutionalized. Excellent film, played with a muted yet compelling truthfulness. This is one of the best artist bio flicks I’ve ever seen, actually. Yolande Moreau’s performance is unflinchingly raw as a woman whose creativity comes from a sphere beyond herself. She’s matched by Tukur as the sympathetic art critic. Highly recommended.
Wing and a Prayer (1944). This was a movie that I impulsively picked on Netflix instant one morning — I wanted to check out another movie with William Eythe, the handsome 1940s actor whose career was cut short when he entered into a same sex relationship with another actor. Eythe was pretty good in this 20th Century Fox patriotic flag-waver, playing an actor who is lying low serving on a Navy aircraft carrier during WWII (based on James Stewart?). The film is more of an ensemble piece depicting daily life on the carrier in a realistic manner. Along with Eythe, there’s Don Ameche as the commanding officer, Dana Andrews as a more experienced pilot, Charles Bickford as the gruff captain, along with Kevin O’Shea, Harry Morgan and Richard Jaekel as Eythe’s shipmates. Some of the characters dip into cliché (including the lovelorn, tragically fated guy who might as well be named “Ensign Deadmeat”), but overall I found this very enjoyable. The film was shot mostly on location at an aircraft carrier using extras who looked like real WWII soldiers, something which helps the film immensely even during its less believable moments (the climactic battle uses lots of backscreen projection). On a shallow note, there’s also a lot of hunky men in this film — mostly the extras, although dreamy actor Richard Crane is one of the more substantially seen hunks.