Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2007). During some down time this week, I caught this documentary on Netflix streaming. It’s a sleeper, similar to the acclaimed The King of Kong (many of the same figures appear in both). Chasing Ghosts tracks down the World Videogame Champions of 1982, a diverse group of geeky boys who gathered in a tiny Iowa town to be photographed for Life magazine (the year-end issue, a mag that I personally remember well). The film catches up with the men, now mostly in their 40s and 50s, and their laid-back, hippie-ish mentor, Walter Day, the first person to coordinate and track high scores on the early coin-op arcade games on a nationwide scale. The director, Lincoln Ruchti, seems to enjoy highlighting the eccentricities of the guys – and yet they always appear natural and grounded. Surprisingly, most of them drifted away from videogaming after their early ’80s day in the sun. Personally, I wasn’t much into coin-op back then (being an Atari kid and all), yet this one inspired a lot of nostalgia. The film is a bit schizophrenic at times (it’s sort of admiring and patronizing at the same time), but I enjoyed it all the same. A Fine Madness (1966). Ever wonder what Sean Connery was doing in between James Bond flicks? One of his outside efforts was this “kooky” comedy with Sean as an unhinged Scottish poet living in New York City. Connery’s boorish mannerisms alienate everyone except his coarse wife (Joanne Woodward), who has him hook up with a celebrity psychologist (Patrick O’Neal) to cure his writer’s block. Connery’s eccentricity and swarthy appeal grabs the attention of O’Neal’s colleagues, but it gets a little dicey when he goes after the doctor’s icy but beautiful wife (Jean Seberg). This was listed in Entertainment Weekly‘s 1991 issue spotlighting great films that “you’ve never heard of.” I’d apply a lot of words to this one; “great” ain’t one of them. How about shrill (especially Woodward’s shrieking performance), stupid, unfunny, pointless and obnoxious? It does have some nice shots of mid-’60s New York, and Connery is quite handsome, that’s about it. The Gang’s All Here (1941). Another cruddy yet somehow fascinating old b-movie from my Comedy Kings public-domain-o-rama DVD set. With a title like that, you might expect a barrel ‘o laughs, but in actuality this is a rather straightforward, leaden-paced truck driving melodrama bolstered (slightly) by youthful stars like Frankie Darro, Marcia Mae Jones and Jackie Moran. Darro and pop-eyed Maintain Moreland are job seekers who land a produce-hauling job with a firm that has had tussles with a rival trucking firm. This was pure product from poverty row studio Monogram, sticking together pairs of proven actors (Jones and Moran had played apple-cheeked lovers before, and Darro and Moreland also headlined a few buddy comedies) and hoping things would somehow click. They often didn’t work out (like in this one), but the films were so cheaply and quickly done that it really didn’t matter. That slapdash quality was part of what made them interesting.
Yep, we only watched two films this week. Much of our viewing time has been spent with the new TV season, including Last Resort, 666 Park Avenue, and the already cancelled Animal Practice (not a fantastic example of sitcom artistry, sure, but we always dig the funny animals). We also started watching season five of Mad Men, the first season of British public school drama Waterloo Road (a DVD Talk screener pool selection), along with episodes of Warehouse 13 on Netflix. On my own time, I watched the Frontline productions on Texas high schools and Mitt Romney/Barack Obama this week. Plenty busy!
Broadway (1929). This splashy early-talkie musical probably should have been the focus of Criterion’s recent Lonesome/Paul Fejos release. Though it’s not a particularly outstanding example of filmmaking, it’s very evocative of the ’20s and Hollywood’s rush to capitalize on sound. Considered a lost film for several decades, Broadway‘s appearance in semi-complete form on Lonesome came as an unexpected surprise. The film is a typical, razzle-dazzle affair with hoofers, gangsters, con-men, an intrepid detective, a virginal chorine and an ambitious vaudevillian. There are some fun if dated numbers and good performances from now-forgotten names like Glenn Tryon (Lonesome‘s lead) and silent star Evelyn Brent. The real star of the show is the gargantuan set for the film’s entertainment venue, The Paradise Club, and its awesome craning shots filmed from atop an unprecedented, giant crane (one of the blu-ray’s extras explains the origins of this crane, apparently a huge deal in the 1920s, and its ignoble fate on the Universal Pictures backlot). Director Paul Fejos still displays some of his inventiveness and playful spirit on this one, but it’s also apparent that filmmaking was becoming routine to him. Shortly after Broadway premiered, he returned to Hungary and pursued his first love in anthropologist studies. Pete’s Dragon (1977). Yeah, I saw this one four years ago. I saw it again this weekend, however, when DVD Talk sent the blu-ray for me to review (my first for that site!). It’s still a bloated, overlong mess. I still enjoyed it, however (nostalgia getting in the way?). My complete review will be posted there in a few days.
Chico & Rita (2010). Like most everyone else, we first caught wind of this musically inclined Spanish production when it became a surprise nominee for the Best Animated Feature Oscar award earlier this year. In telling a sweet and energetic story that spans Cuba and the U.S. across several decades, the filmmakers contributed a lot of beautifully staged shots accented with terrific salsa/mambo music (which was by and large newly recorded). The story follows an aged musician, Chico, as he recalls his years with Rita, a beautiful singer whom he falls for in 1940s Havana. She joins his jazz combo and shares his bed, but before you can say A Star Is Born, she is swept away to New York City and groomed to be a recording star and big-time actress. As Chico and his band-mates follow her to the U.S., she lets it be known that she no longer carries a torch for him – but their loyalty towards each other often says otherwise. This was such an interesting feature with several awe-inspiring scenes (usually involving characters moving from place to place in a detailed landscape) – definitely deserving of the nomination, although its simplistic (OK, trite) story puts it a notch below stuff like The Secret of Kells or Persopolis. It does have a striking, graphical look with fluid animation that was accomplished via a digital version of rotoscoping. The characters have a unique, thick-lined and colorful design (although we wondered why Rita had full frontal nudity while Chico was modestly clad in long pants), perhaps not quite as facially expressive as they should have been, but tenderly drawn. And the soundtrack was wonderful. Death Race 2000 (1975). Cheesy fun. In the year 2000, five teams of hotshot racers aim to complete a heavily hyped televised cross-country race, scoring points for running over people and eliminating the competition along the way. But wait, a renegade band of subversives is trying to stop them! Not too sci-fi in tone, very drive-in downmarket, and there are some annoying characters – yet Roger Corman did right by emphasizing the comic aspects of the story. I enjoyed Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov as particularly obnoxious participants in this groovy ride. Lonesome (1928) and The Last Performance (1929). Criterion’s recent blu ray of the visually daring part talkie Lonesome (1928) came along as a special birthday gift to myself. One of the main reasons why I grabbed it for my collection – besides the allure of that transitional period in Hollywood, of course – is that the disc actually contains three films by its director, Paul Fejos. Probably the only anthropologist in history to have dabbled in film directing, Fejos certainly is an intriguing figure worthy of Criterion’s examination. This deluxe edition of Lonesome serves as a nifty little portrait of silent-to-sound transitional film, as well! The film Lonesome is quite charming, detailing a pair of young people as they meet-cute at Coney Island, share a memorable evening together, then get separated within the garish mass of humanity surrounding them. It seems like a slighter version of The Crowd or Sunrise, but the main performers (Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) were appealing and Fejos’s technique brims with playfulness and invention (the color-tinted sequences are a wow). Not quite the revelation that film fans have been trumpeting, perhaps, but sweet and definitely worth seeking out. Fejos’ previous effort, The Last Performance, is a more conventional melodrama with a notably intense Conrad Veidt as a magician who is crestfallen to find that his assistant (Mary Philbin) has fallen for the petty thief (Fred MacKaye) that Veidt hired to help out with the act. The main attraction for this one is Veidt’s creepy performance, but there is some interest as well with the Fejos touch of double exposures and other disorienting effects. This disc contains a third feature, 1929′s lavishly mounted talkie musical Broadway, which will appear in next week’s F.C.
Yesterday, Christopher and I had a “business” meeting out in Scottsdale. On our way out there, we stopped at the local Goodwill. The ‘will in Scottsdale is a pretty interesting place, since it’s huge and tends to have some older stuff (78 RPM albums, pre-WWII era books) that one usually doesn’t find in thrifts. One such item I picked up is this paperback book, H. L. Mencken’s Prejudices: A Selection, with a cover designed by modern design icon Paul Rand. Although I’ve seen this cover reproduced in design books, one thing I didn’t notice until buying this copy is that Rand actually put his signature in the design. How unusual is that? Either Rand had a big ego or the book’s publisher thought his name would help sell books.
In looking through his work, I noticed that Rand signed his work as early as 1938. I suppose he was an early adopter of the concept of branding.
This post dovetails into the fact that I left a movie off the last Flick Clique – 1957′s The Big Caper, which we caught on Netflix streaming. I’m not surprised it got left out, actually, since it was a pretty forgettable late noir with Rory Calhoun and a bunch of sleazeballs attempting to break into a bank vault. It’s a decent enough flick to pass the night away, all right, just one without any especially outstanding qualities. The film does boast a rare onscreen leading lady turn by Mary Costa, best known for being the voice of Aurora in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
Speaking of Costa and Calhoun, I came across this oddity from The Jack Benny Show in which Mary and Rory sing a duet and do a bit of shilling for The Big Caper. I actually think current talk shows would be much more worthwhile if they had movie stars doing a bit of song ‘n dance. All the better if it comes out as silly as Mary and Rory’s “Mutual Admiration Society.”
Today I turn 44, hooray! It’s an unwritten rule that the older you get, the longer amount of time you are allowed to have your birthday celebration. That in mind, we already did a lot of fun things already (like going to the amazing Musical Instrument Museum last week), so today was relatively low-key. Still, I did get some great stuff from the wonderful Christopher – he surprised me today with a Mad Magazine Super Special that I once mentioned enjoying as a kid, along with two Wii games, a framed Joyce Compton cigarette card, and a shiny metal business card holder adorned with a photo of Diana Ross & The Supremes. What a guy! The Blu Ray was a gift to myself from Criterion‘s recent half-off sale.
We also shared a slice of yummy berry cheesecake this afternoon.