Hackers (1995). About a year ago, I started putting all these ’90s cyber-thrillers on my Netflix queue just to finally see what they were like with the benefit of more hindsight. Do they hold up at all, or are they all dated cheese fests? Hackers was the last one I checked out, after The Net, Sneakers and Strange Days. It is definitely the most dated of the bunch (although the hateful, unpleasant Strange Days comes awfully close), and probably the least informed about real internet/cyber culture. Hackers stars Johnny Lee Miller as a computer genius and former felon who, along with his “alternative” hacker friends, uncovers a diabolical plot to perform terrorist acts on oil tankers. He and his buddies (including pre-stardom Angelina Jolie, looking vaguely alien in close-cropped ‘do and Crayola makeup) attempt to foil the virus planted by crazy corporate dude Fisher Stevens before the U.S. Secret Service close in on them. While certainly watchable in an odd way, the movie’s totally obnoxious characters, garish graphics, and heavy-handed, rave-ish fashions give it the noxious feel of something decided upon by focus groups assembled by smug studio execs trying to decide what’s “hip” in 1995. Back then, of course, the internet mostly meant waiting several minutes for the dial-up modem to reach AOL. Not exactly the most scintillating premise for a movie, eh? Instead, we got this:
Funkytown (2011). It’s fitting that we saw this period disco drama around the same time we caught the season-concluding episodes of the CW’s terrific The L.A. Complex. Both are guilty-pleasure Canadian productions about the disillusioning aspects of showbiz, told in an episodic, implausibly performed but highly addictive fashion. Funkytown doesn’t quite hit the dramatic highs of L.A., but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. This one is set in the orbit of Montreal’s hottest disco, The Starlight, during the headiest days of boogiedom of 1976-1980. Performed in English and French (sometimes within the same sentence), the film follows the ups and downs (mostly downs) of a diverse group of people in a way that approximates a milder Boogie Nights. I was expecting cheese, and there is some to be had, but mostly it’s a straightforward, nicely performed Altman-esque patchwork. This was a DVD Talk screener; I will have a more detailed review posted there in the next week.
Carrie (1952). A good turn-of-the-century drama from director William Wyler with some outstanding performances by Jennifer Jones and Laurence Olivier. Jones’ character, Carrie Meeber, is a naive young woman who moves from the tiny midwestern town she grew up in to live with her sister in Chicago. When circumstances force her to find lodging elsewhere, she turns to a brash salesman (Eddie Albert) whom she met on the train arriving in town. He invites her to live at his apartment, and they (implicitly) become lovers. Dining at the fanciest restaurant in town, they become friendly with the manager (Olivier), who eventually becomes smitten with Carrie. The two fall in love, despite his never revealing that he’s married. After they escape to New York City, she winds up discarding him like a used tissue and moving on. Based on a scandalous Theodore Dreisel novel, the film was evidently watered down a lot to fit the Production Code, but it still has some surprisingly candid aspects. The fact that Jones has two lovers and faces no punishment for it is an eye-opener. Although I normally find Jones too mannered, she’s excellent here. So is Olivier, who is especially touching and vulnerable in the film’s achingly beautiful final scenes. The Company of Wolves (1984). Neil Jordan’s cult retelling of the Red Riding Hood folk tale supplied our Saturday night viewing. I always wanted to see this film. It was weird. Taking the form of a pre-teen girl’s dream, the film takes place in a rural English wood as a ripe young woman (Sarah Patterson) is advised by her superstitious grandmother (Angela Lansbury) not to trust any man with one eyebrow. She then tells the tale (a flashback within a dream?) of a young newlywed couple whose lives were altered when the man (Stephen Rea) got bitten by a cursed wolf on their wedding night. It certainly is unique, with interesting production design that uses a ton of vegetation and animals galore to create a world that shares a few similarities to Tom Cruise’s stomping grounds in Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985). Like that overproduced opus, Company is flawed yet interesting enough to watch simply because it takes a lot of stylistic risks. It had a lot of confusing scenes, however, which are (sort of) explained on the film’s IMDb faq. Kassim the Dream (2008). Sometimes compelling, often inconsistent documentary about champion boxer Kassim Ouma. This was reviewed for DVD Talk, where my impressions of the film are reported in more detail. World on a Wire (1973). Bizarre, long but worthwhile sci-fi: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s multi-part German TV production depicts a near-future society in which computer programmers have been able to create a virtual reality so realistic that its inhabitants believe they and the world they inhabit are real. An ambitious project its authors call Simulacron, the leader on the project suddenly goes crazy and kills himself. His successor, a Dr. Stiller (Klaus Löwich, something of a German Ralph Meeker), eventually comes to figure out what was gnawing at him – perhaps this world is a constucted virtual reality, as well. This film, which mostly went unseen since its original broadcast until Criterion released the home video version this year, is not without its faults. It’s willfully offbeat, dialogue-heavy, plodding (especially in the second half), having weird, canned music and clunky performances (the latter of which was probably on purpose). Still, Fassbinder’s unique touches (women who look like drag queens! A chef played by a black bodybuilder!) and the retro-futuristic production design (lots of spacey Italian plastic and scenes filmed in gleaming shopping centers and offices) makes it worth a peek for fans. World on a Wire‘s source material also formed the basis for the 1999 feature The Thirteenth Floor, which I enjoyed a little more than this one – despite this production’s lead actor being sexier.
A Double Life (1947). Strangely enough, the only film we watched all the way through this past week was this George Cukor drama with Ronald Colman as a stage actor whose creeping madness prompts him to murder a trusting waitress (played by a young Shelley Winters). Since the film is being reissued by Olive Films, this was a DVD Talk review. I went on a Cukor kick in the ’90s after reading Patrick McGilligan’s biography (which is named after this film), yet even then I never caught this particular one. I thought it was a moderately good drama, well-scripted by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon with an knowingness about what really goes on with theater folk. Cukor’s direction is notable as well, with some scenes taking on an impressionistic, dreamlike quality as Colman descends further into the abyss. The thing that tips Colman’s Anthony John over the edge is playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello, which is dramatized by a long (too long, actually) montage which emphasizes both the repetition of stage acting and the audience’s slavish devotion to their favorite performers. It’s an interesting, demanding role and Colman plays it decently, but not spectacularly (I can see why his Best Actor Oscar win is one of the more contested ones). I was more impressed with Signe Hasso, who plays Colman’s ex-wife and fellow stage actor. After Colman offs Winters, the film becomes a more pedestrian investigative tale in which Colman’s publicity manager (played by Edmond O’Brien) pieces together bits of information which point to Colman as the culprit. If anything, this film demonstrates the pain and horror of swanky parties:
I picked up Norman Rockwell’s 1960 memoir My Adventures as an Illustrator at the yearly book sale we have near our house early this year, thinking it might be interesting. Having just finished it, I can say it was quite enjoyable. Rockwell is surprisingly engaging and self-deprecating as a writer. With someone like Rockwell, it’s often difficult to separate the man from the iconic imagery he’s known for. From Rockwell’s perspective, he was merely a working artist who filled a need for magazine editors and clients hungry for that sentimental, apple pie Americana. The only regret that he seems to have is that he entered the field a little later than the true Golden Age of Illustration in the early 1900s, when the men he admired were in full bloom. His own body of work was nothing to sneeze at, of course. When he wrote this book, at the age of about 66, he was still thinking he had some refinements to do with his painting technique. Incredible! And this was a few years before he did some of his more stunning works, such as the one of the little black girl walking to school.
Interestingly, I always hated Rockwell’s stuff as a kid. My mom used to have the Rockwell placemats, coffee mugs, plates, etc. all around the house and it made me want to gag. She also gave me a book with large-scale reproductions of his work, when I was in high school and into much cooler artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein. I read that one, however, and begrudgingly came to admire the guy and his incredible technique. When a Rockwell retrospective came to the local art museum a few years back, we went and enjoyed it thoroughly. It was truly a window on another era.
My Adventures as an Illustrator is a little too rambling and inconsistent to totally recommend, but it does have a few absorbing chapters – and I enjoyed the looser, cuter art he did for the chapter headings. One highlight comes where he recalls his friendship with the great illustrator J. C. Leyendecker, and the sad decline of his career due to changing tastes and the stranglehold that his lover/business partner Charles Beach had on him. Another interesting chapter takes the form of a daily diary chronicling the making of what was then his newest Saturday Evening Post cover (and a personal favorite), The Family Tree. In the preliminary sketch and final art below, one can see the various details he adjusted along the way.
The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (2006). Thought-provoking documentary that we caught on Netflix streaming follows a group of men in their 20s who work at the Rakkyo Café in Osaka, Japan. The café’s owner, Issei, is a well-dressed, cocky type who strings along his female clientele into thinking he’s in love with them. He also grooms the other café employees to do the same. The customers, mostly local prostitutes, keep coming back for more reaffirmation while Issei makes wads of cash on the bottles of champagne they buy. It’s an elaborate role-playing game, really (even the customers seem in on it), which makes this doc doubly fascinating. At times Issei and the men are so steeped in the ritual of primping themselves and flattering the customers that they wonder if real love is even a possibility for them. Certain elements of this doc are disturbing, such as the way the guys pressure female passers-by into coming into their club, and the pseudo-hazing rituals they perform to get the regulars to imbibe more alcohol. I wind up feeling sorry for the women – but on some levels, they’re playing the game, too. The Grissom Gang (1971). A DVD that I picked up very quickly from the Big Lots $3 shelves, The Grissom Gang was the final film that director Robert Aldrich (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) made at his own studio before after a series of flops drove them under. It’s pretty much a sweatier, more violent Bonnie & Clyde cash-in with Depression-era heiress Kim Darby getting abducted by a twisted family with three lusty sons and an obnoxious, potty mouthed ma (Irene Dailey) who all have their eyes on a huge cash reward. Overly padded with draggy dialogue between Darby and Scott Wilson as the more fragile, brain-damaged son, this is mostly a sad and dull film. The most notable thing about it is how everybody sweats – a lot! This has to be the most sweat-drenched movie ever made. Street Mobster (1972). Another violent early-’70s crime picture, but this one fares much better than Grissom since it is Japanese and has the stylistic stamp of its director Kinji Fukasaku (who years later did the faboo Battle Royale). This follows an excitable young punk, recently sprung from prison, as he and other cons start their own yakuza organization to take on the establishment. Sporting a kinetic, fragmentary style, the film is ahead of its time which makes up for the so-so story and drawn-out fighting sequences. The main character, Isamu, is supposed to be a likable cad, but they needed someone more charismatic than actor Bunta Sugawara to truly pull it off. Where was Jo Shishido when we needed him? At any rate, a fun, pulpy Japanese revenge flick to enjoy. Man-Trap (1961). Another Olive Films disc which I am reviewing for DVD Talk, Man-Trap stars hunky Jeffrey Hunter as a Korean War vet whose routine existence changes when an old Army buddy (David Janssen) comes back into his life. A contractor stuck in a loveless marriage with a boozy, vindictive party gal (Stella Stevens), Hunter is approached by Janssen to help him abduct a suitcase full of stolen cash belonging to some Central American criminals. Since Hunter saved Janssen’s life, Janssen decides to return the favor by cutting his buddy in on the reward money. It can only work by executing a perfect heist at the San Francisco airport, however, and Stevens’ character is too hell-bent on destroying her husband to let him get away with it. An intriguing late-period film noir which counts as the only feature directed by actor Edmond O’Brien (D.O.A.), the film was interesting at times, absurd at other times with some decent work from Hunter and Janssen. Stella Stevens is pretty terrible, however (partially the fault of the script, granted, which makes her into a one-dimensional harpy). O’Brien’s direction is okay if flat and closely resembling TV dramas of the day. The most unique aspect of the movie is its depiction of Hunter’s suburban world, sunny on the outside, full of obnoxious, predatory moochers when examined closely. Mildly recommended.
John Scheinfeld’s terrific 2010 documentary on Harry Nilsson, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talking About Him?), counts as one of the films I watched last week (which would have been included in the m.i.a. Flick Clique; sorry). I got a ton of insight into Nilsson’s life and music from the film, since I’d only known him as an eccentric songwriter, John Lennon buddy and singer of “Without You” and the theme from The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. I’m also surprised that nobody’s done a film on him until recently, given the dramatic arc of Nilsson’s life. He was a brilliant talent in the ’60s, becoming a go-to songwriter of the day (like Jimmy Webb, who speaks about him in the doc) – but also being vocally talented enough on his own to score huge hits like 1968′s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (which ironically wasn’t a Nilsson-penned song). He also did entire albums devoted to Randy Newman, the American Songbook, and a children’s cartoon soundtrack (1971′s The Point!). There was a rampant self-destructive streak in him, however, which led to ever-more eccentric albums in the ’70s and alarming drug and alcohol abuse. It was nice to see him finally get some stability later on in his life (he died in 1994) being a loving husband and stay-at-home dad.
The timing of this came right when I decided to sign up for the basic plan with Spotify, which allows me to check out his albums one by one. Of course, Spotify’s vast music library only derives from what is currently in print from most major and some indie labels, but even then the selection is impressive. For Harry, they had three or four compilations and most of his ’60s-’70s LPs (except 1969′s Harry, for some reason). It seems to me that something like Spotify is more conducive to listening to albums as opposed to buying a CD and copying to your hard drive (where Greatest Hits, singles and compilations are more welcome). Sure, Spotify’s program is clunky and a big memory hog (I have to remember to pause it when opening other programs), and their integration with Facebook is something I don’t particularly care for, but so far I’m enjoying it enough to scale back my eMusic subscription. Having zillions of albums on hand to dig through is quite a joy. I’m not even done with Harry yet.
What else have I been listening to there? Expanded reissues from Blur and Aretha Franklin. Soundtracks to obscure old Broadway musicals like Seventeen and New Faces of 1952. Vintage Brazilian music by Chico Buarque and Quarteto Em Cy. Live albums by The Supremes and Firehouse Five Plus Two. Daryl Hall and John Oates’ folksy sounding first album. A newer release by British indie pop group Allo Darlin’. And a lot of playlists set up by friends and other Spotify users.
Here’s a couple of Nilsson tunes, for your enjoyment: