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Monthly Archives: April 2012

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Flick Clique: April 8-14

I’m No Angel (1933). Having some extra time to myself this week, I decided to check out some older unwatched DVDs in my (modest) collection. I’m No Angel was part of the Mae West Glamour Collection, and it is truly a star vehicle for the curvy, bawdy actress. It really strikes me just how different and weird West was, and this is no exception. In a story written by West herself, Mae plays a hootchie-cootchie dancer turned famous circus lion tamer named Tira. As she works her way up the showbiz ladder (innocently enough) she befriends many men including a horny Texan (William B. Davidson), a New York dandy (Kent Taylor), and the latter’s handsome lawyer cousin (Cary Grant). A scandal involving Taylor and Grant embroils her in a court case, but Mae being Mae she ultimately prevails with all her jewels and gowns intact. This was actually quite a funny, jazzy film with a few odd, spicy songs sung by Mae. It’s interesting to watch how she interacts with her maid and servants in this picture. While the role of Tira’s maid Libby is stereotypical as usual, the role is played in a nice, empathic way by actress Libby Taylor. There seems to be an understanding between Tira and Libby (and the other servants she eventually employs) that women need to do whatever they can to get by, preferably with a lot of sass and humor. Fascinating stuff.
The Last Command (1929). Last week’s Flick Clique included Underworld from the recent Criterion/Josef Von Sternberg silent set; this week we turned our attention to The Last Command. Although this film also stars the enigmatic Evelyn Brent, it’s best known for being one of the performances that got burly Emil Jannings awarded the first Best Actor Academy Award. I’d say Jannings deserved it – he does a nuanced, outstanding job here as a Russian general whose twisted past leads him from his motherland to Hollywood and bit parts as a hollowed-out old man. The film is slickly made and beautifully photographed in that rich way that silents achieved just before sound came in and messed things up for a while. Co-starring a young William Powell as Jannings’ adversary, Last Command benefits from several memorable set pieces, including a train wreck effectively done with detailed model work.
Nothing Sacred (1937). The other vintage comedy I watched with some extra time on my hands. The pleasant yet unexceptional Nothing Sacred follows Carole Lombard’s Hazel Flagg, a simpering small town girl who is diagnosed with a terminal disease. A second visit with her doctor (Charles Winninger) reveals that it was a false alarm. Before she can reveal the truth, however, scooping reporter Fredric March sells her on a gala tour of New York which exploits her sob-sister appeal on the city’s masses to the approval of March’s editor (Walter Connolly). Cute film, somewhat too brisk and short. As in My Man Godfrey, Lombard’s character got on my nerves but she somehow pulls it off in the end. I was going to have an embedded video here of the picture’s sweet opening credits sequence, but you can actually watch the entire film (including the opening!) on YouTube in a nice-looking print.
Salomy Jane (1914). Confusing but moderately interesting early silent is the only still-extant film from the California Motion Picture Corporation, a unique company that operated out of the state’s northern region, making ample use of the redwood forests for its production. Salomy‘s unengaging story concerns a 19th century girl (Beatriz Michelena, the first Latina film star) who rebuffs the advances of an unsavory young man. Instead, she falls for another man (the interestingly monikered House Peters) who comes to her rescue and ends up being wrongly accused in the other sap’s killing. Quaintly filmed and filled with mannered performances, this film definitely feels 88 minutes long (epic-length in 1914 terms). The scenery held our attentions, a little. This was part of a great 3-DVD set, Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938, a collection of lost/ephemeral films that explore the American West with copious notes and documentation/background info. Although Salomy might make one believe it’s full of Westerns, it’s actually a treasure trove of mostly silent documentaries, home movies, newsreels and other fun stuff. This was my “I paid way to much on taxes, but fuck it I’m getting it anyway” gift to myself.
Where Love Has Gone (1965). Trashy, expensively produced soap opera with Susan Hayward as a San Francisco sculptress who is embroiled in scandal when her sulky daughter (Joey Heatherton, terrible) is accused of killing Hayward’s boyfriend. The girl’s architect father, Mike Connors, is brought in to intervene, leading to an extended flashback to when Hayward and Connors first met and their constant disagreements with Hayward’s imperious dowager mom, Bette Davis. This has all the ingredients for a campy, fun ride, but something intangible is missing here. Perhaps it’s the script, which is full of cringeworthy dialogue that never quite reaches the amusing levels of hysteria in something similar like Portrait in Black. Unlike Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in that flick, Hayward and Heatherton have a strange lack of chemistry which drags the film down. There was also not a lot of believability in the Hayward/Davis relationship, either. Hayward herself was enjoyable enough in this watchable yet curiously unmoving soap.

Flickr Saturday: Batiste Madalena Cinema Posters

On our Flickr Friday Saturday, we have some images that I scanned from a fascinating article in the December 1983 issue of American Heritage magazine. These beautiful film posters from the ’20s were painted by Batiste Madalena (1902-1988) for George Eastman’s movie palace in Rochester, New York. Madalena was employed as the house artist at this theater until it changed ownership in 1928. Shortly thereafter while riding his bike through town, he happened to come across all his handiwork stacked in a heap of trash behind the theater! He managed to save 225 of these beauties, which have since been displayed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere.

Some of the posters reproduced in the American Heritage article are included below; check out the full set in my Batiste Madalena flickr set.

Doing Time at the Piggly Wiggly

I was going to write about the first ten songs that came up when my iTunes shuffled, but instead let’s take a look at this mesmerizing short that envisions 1960s Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli shopping for groceries. And look, there’s 1970s Ann Miller working the check-out register! It’s clever how they matched the lip movements with the new words. Gay as all get out – and funny, too.

Flick Clique: April 1-7

The Hunger Games (2012). This was our special movie-day movie from last Wednesday. We’ve never read the books, but the dystopian-future/kids-in-peril concept sounded intriguing enough so we decided to check it out. Although the film has a few flaws, we generally enjoyed it. In case you live under a rock, the story is set in a near-future time where society is split into wealthy cities surrounded by poor communities. The city has a yearly televised competition/reality show in which a boy and girl from each of the twelve local districts between the ages of 12 and 18 (Why? It’s not really explained.) are randomly picked and plopped into a wooded area to survive, fight, kill and rely on their wits until one victor is crowned. Jennifer Lawrence as protagonist Katniss was really good, striking a good balance between inner strength and girly vulnerability/youth (I thought she was even better here than in Winter’s Bone). The story kept my interest, even though it was filled with shallowly drawn characters like Katniss’ boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth) and the smarmy TV host (Stanley Tucci). Things I didn’t like so much were the costumes (everybody looks like Lady Gaga in this world?) and the shaky camera, which was probably used to soften up the violence so the film would get a P-13 rating and safely get all those tweens in the theaters. The game itself suffered from too much outside manipulation by the TV producers. This film also contains one of those terribly cliché scenes where the killer is this close to offing the main character, but then she has to offer up the reasons why the other person deserves to die – we all know how those scenes end up, right? Other than all that stuff, we really enjoyed The Hunger Games.
1911 (2011). Mammoth, hard-to-follow Chinese historical epic stars Jackie Chan as an officer in the Nationalist forces which overthrew the Qing Dynasty in the eventful year of 1911. It’s basically the same story that was partially told in The Last Emperor, only more heavily weighed towards the non-royalty side. The film supplements the narrative with subtitles introducing every character and copious liner notes, giving it a stuffy and impenetrable air. Although Chinese actor Winston Chao has a good gravitas as the Nationalist leader Sun Yat-Sen, he struggles through several English language scenes with laughable dialogue that is phonetically (and weirdly) spoken by the actor. Chan is decent, although too old for his role – and he does an inappropriate scene where he rocks the kung-fu moves. Battle scenes, negotiations, history of suspicious accuracy… what a strange, overproduced film.
Underworld (1927). This early film from Marlene Dietrich svengali Josef Von Sternberg has more interest as a historic curio than anything else, being one of the first contemporary gangster films. Fiery George Bancroft plays a bruiser named Bull, who with his moll Feathers (Evelyn Brent) helps rehabilitate vagrant Rolls Royce (Clive Brook) to be part of his gang of racketeers – headquartered in a flower shop! Rolls Royce and Feathers end up falling for each other, which complicates matters when Bull is sent to the slammer and needs help breaking out. The story is pretty typical, but the film is fast-paced and beautifully photographed. I loved watching this one just for Evelyn Brent’s wild outfits, all of which involve feathers (of course). We have a framed photo of Miss Brent in our living room, by the way – which is perfect, since our home was built in the same year this compelling silent was originally released.

Flickr Friday: You Look Ridiculous

I came across another great kiddie book from the ’60s when looking through my mom’s collection. You Look Ridiculous Said the Rhinoceros to the Hippopotamus (1966) was written and illustrated by Bernard Waber. Best known for Lyle the Crocodile, Waber has dozens of books to his credit (and he’s still going in his 80s). This book has lots of wonderful, expressionistic drawings of the title characters. I dig the orange, green and gray color scheme and the endpapers seen at this post’s bottom.

Although this book wasn’t part of our family’s library when we were kids, I was immediately taken by the artwork and snatched it for myself (my nephews will just have to live with one less book to look at!). These scans are part of my Childhood Books, ’60s-’70s Flickr set.

Flick Clique: March 25-31

Boardwalk Empire: Season 1 (DVD, 2012). I love this show! Great acting, great production design and a plot that keeps you guessing about what will happen next. Like Mad Men, it took a few episodes to truly suck us in. It might be that the idea of Steve Buscemi as a powerful treasurer who rules 1920s Atlantic City takes some getting used to – but he adds the right amount of snark to the role. I could even believe him as a chick magnet (power is a great aphrodisiac). There’s also a ton of interesting supporting characters – Shea Whigham as the police commisioner/Buscemi’s brother, Michael Pitt and Gretchen Mol as a mother/son with a weirdly incestuous relationship, Michael Shannon as the IRS agent with borderline psychotic puritanical values, Kelly Macdonald as the “not as virtuous as she appears” suffragette widow … can’t wait for the next season.
The Million Dollar Duck (1971). Over the past few years I’ve been exploring Disney’s live-action comedies from the ’60s and ’70s, this Dean Jones/Sandy Duncan opus was the last (and definitely the least). This one concerns a special duck that, through a combo of radioactive exposure and a toxic applesauce recipe, winds up laying eggs with yolks made of pure gold. The hijinks involving the main couple’s greedy pal Tony Roberts and the U.S. Treasury are lame and totally unbelievable. I could see why Gene Siskel walked out of it, but at least the climactic chase scene (filmed in and around Burbank and Toluca Lake, near the Disney studio) was kind of fun – and the duck was cute.
A Night To Remember (1958). Reviewing this for DVD Talk (the first Criterion disc I got from them!). I won’t elaborate too much — this wound up being much better than I remember. Criterion gives this film, still the most realistic telling of the Titanic disaster, the classy treatment it deserves. I enjoyed comparing/contrasting this with James Cameron’s Titanic – although the more recent film conveys the enormity of the shipwreck better (Night‘s obvious use of miniatures and models are a slight hindrance), this one has a better grasp on the events as they really happened. In the end, the decision of the filmmakers not to focus on any particular character works out for the better and ultimately makes it the more touching, emotional experience of the two.
The Straight Story (1999). Also known as David Lynch’s most atypical film, this heart warming drama tells the real-life chronicle of Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight, an old Iowan who undertakes a multi-state journey to visit with his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton, only seen in the final few minutes). Unable to drive and unwilling to have someone else transport him, he decides to travel on a vintage 1966 tractor with a specially fitted trailer. The slower mode of transport allows him to meet a variety of folks along the way, including a sulky runaway, a kindly couple and a fellow WWII vet. Lynch seems to enjoy conveying the quirkiness of these salt-of-the-earth folk, but it’s rarely condescending. The film is rather slow and talky at times, but Farnsworth delivers an excellent performance, aided by Sissy Spacek as his learning-disabled daughter. I also enjoyed the long, loving pans of midwestern farmland, the homey soundtrack, and the bit with the woman who was distraught at her car hitting a deer
The Thirteenth Guest (1932). A harmless little quickie, this early Monogram Studios production has Ginger Rogers in one of her earliest roles as a young woman who revisits an old house left vacant from a party she attended 13 years earlier. At the party, various members of a family were invited to find out who inherited the mansion owner’s estate, but the 13th guest failed to show up – and the host croaked. All these years later, someone is murdering the other guests. Will detective Lyle Talbot find the killer before Ginger and the rest become worm food? Silly, hard to follow, occasionally fun. The nicest thing about films of these vintage is that they’re short — barely over an hour, in this case.