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Category Archives: Roundup

Weekly Mishmash: December 21-27

The Cheaters (1945). We gave this a cursory viewing when it showed up on Turner Classic Movies — twice — on Christmas night. From Robert Osborne’s glowing introduction, you’d think we were in for an undiscovered Yuletide cinematic gem. Instead, what we got was a dismal screwball comedy that tried way too hard to please. The plot revolved around a rich, dimwitted family who adopt a down-on-his-luck actor (shades of My Man Godfrey), all the while attempting to thwart a family inhertance. In the process, they learn What Life Is Really About and the viewer tries to suppress an upchuck. True, Billie Burke and Eugene Pallette are their usual, delightfully stereotypical selves as the parents, but this one only proved that Republic Pictures was better off sticking to Westerns.
I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951). This musical biopic was very competently directed by that powerhouse of Warner Bros., Michael Curtiz. Danny Thomas was an odd choice to star as lyricist Gus Kahn, but he’s surprisingly good and Doris Day is her usual perky self as Kahn’s supportive wife, Grace. This is the usual sort of malarkey in which songs seemingly spring up out of thin air, but (aside from being too long) it was fun and sweet without being too sickeningly sentimental.
Mamma Mia! (2008) and ABBA — Voulez-Vous. What to say about the film version of Mamma Mia!? I’m a true blue ABBA fan, but I’ve never seen the stage version before — something about it (the estrogen-heavy cast?) just seems so unappealing to me. The film version confirms those suspicions. First off, this exists as a plea to Hollywood to please stop casting non-singing actors in musicals. Meryl Streep has a thin but decent singing voice (even turning in a lovely performance with “Slipping Through My Fingers”), but these tunes are way out of her range. To compensate for what she lacks in voice, she overplays everything else to an embarrassing degree. This applies to the rest of the cast as well. The music is fun (if unimaginatively arranged) and having it filmed on a real, picturesque Greek island was an excellent idea — but those are about the only positives going for this lousily directed thing. Having sat through the movie, I downloaded ABBA’s 1979 LP Voulez Vous and now it is my second favorite album of theirs (after The Visitors). Fans call this one their “disco album,” but in actuality its the usual ABBA brilliance adapted to the disco sound, impeccably arranged and sung with an almost creepy perfection. Except for the drippy ballad “I Have A Dream” (that and “Thank You For The Music” are the only two ABBA tunes that I really can’t stomach), it’s a perfect album. “Does Your Mother Know” and “Kisses Of Fire” elicit strong deja vu feelings, since my dad actually bought that single for me when it first came out nearly thirty years ago. Why bother dealing with Mamma Mia! when the real thing is so easily available?
Model Shop (1969). This intriguing but ultimately disappointing film served as the only American venture from famed French director Jacques Demy. It follows an aimless young man as he deals with the possibility of being drafted and breaking up with his wannabe actress girlfriend in sun baked late ’60s L.A. Eventually he meets a mysterious French woman who works in a place where pervy guys can rent cameras and take photos of models in private rooms. Demy has a unique visual flair and I enjoyed his views of tacky California streetscapes (in that respect, this is of a piece with Point Blank and Targets), but the script is endlessly dull and they couldn’t have had a more charisma-free leading actor than Gary Lockwood. Anouk Aimée is fetching as the object of Lockwood’s fascination, but even she is wasted. There’s a fine line between conveying moods of cool detachment and utter boredom — this movie crossed that line too many times to count.

Mildred Pierce Italian Poster

Mildred Pierce (1945). Shortly after we met, Christopher and I bonded over our mutual love of Joan Crawford and everything else about this particular film. Yeah, it is pretty much the apex of studio film making in its Golden Age — but how does it hold up when shown to friends who only have a casual interest in old movies? We had some company over yesterday and decided to show them this DVD as denouement to a savory ham meal at our place. Although they generally enjoyed it, they also found the film overlong and filled with too many unlikable characters. Can ya believe that? We might need to find some new friends.

Weekly Mishmash: December 14-20

Time for another mishmash, and all I want to do is try and figure out why the shooting victim in Trauma Center: New Blood keeps dying on me. Oh well…
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969). Another live action Disney discovery courtesy of TCM. This was the first of three films starring Kurt Russel as happy-go-lucky college student Dexter Reilly. This outing finds an electrical accident giving Dexter the knowledge of a computer, in a plot that appears to be Tron in reverse. Silly hijinks of the type found in a typical I Dream of Jeannie episode ensue. Overall, I preferred the third Dexter Reilly movie (The Strongest Man In The World) to this one, but like Ivan I found this a pleasantly brainless experience. Hands down my favorite part of the movie was the opening credits sequence, featuring vintage computer-y visuals and a title theme with some of the weirdest tongue-twisting lyrics ever. “Never met a groovier dude, an electric kind of guy” — yeah, baby!

Oh, and everyone needs to check out TCM’s beautifully done documentary The Age of Believing: The Disney Live Action Classics. It repeats on December 28th. Don’t be fooled by the toothache-inducing subject matter; it’s excellent.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Heard a lot of good things about this when it turned up on several critics’ “Best of” lists last year. This grim Romanian drama follows two college co-eds as they attempt to arrange an illegal abortion. Although the film is a period piece set in the ’80s, it reaffirms the fact that Romania is one of the few places on earth doing original, thought-provoking films. Not an uplifting piece, for sure, but I loved the aching, lovingly detailed milieu Cristian Mungiu sets forth with a small cast of fascinating characters. The film is deliberately paced but never boring, and beautifully photographed with many long unedited takes. One scene in particular, with actress Anamaria Marinca dutifully attending her boyfriend’s family dinner party while her mind is obviously elsewhere, is an understated marvel.
Sprecher Cherry Cola. I’ve been falling behind on my soda reviews, but just wanted to mention this super-sweet delight from a bottler in Wisconsin. Ever have a Coke with a shot of cherry at Sonic? This concoction is like one of those with ten shots of cherry. It’s cherrilicious to the point that the cherry taste bludgeons the cola taste to death. Just thinking about it again makes my mouth water.

Sprecher Cherry Cola

10,000 Maniacs — In My Tribe and The Ramones — Ramones. A couple of classic albums to fill out my iTunes library. Amazon had the digital edition of In My Tribe, an album whose grimy cassette I wore out during my college years, for just $1.99 this week. Revisiting confirms that it has not a single dud track, although Natalie Merchant’s earnest preachiness grates more easily now than it did in ’87. This particular download lacked the band’s cover of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” but I did manage to find it elsewhere (sure, it seems like a label-induced sales gambit, but the album doesn’t feel complete without it). I always wanted to hear the Ramones’ debut. Although the album cuts don’t measure up to iconic tracks like “Blitzkrieg Bop,” the album is as raw and goofy and fun as everyone has said. I liked the extras on the CD edition, too — strangely enough, the early version of “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” might be the only example of a song where the demo is more polished sounding than the final product!

Weekly Mishmash: December 7-13

The Black Cauldron (1985). This Disney animated effort has a small cult of fans, although after watching it I don’t really know why. The characters and story are unmemorable, and the animation lacks the usual Disney polish (apparently this was the first film after Disney’s old guard was let go and they needed to train new animators). Although I never saw it in theaters, I do remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s review in which they go on about the fortune telling pig character. Maybe those fans were impressionable kids when they first viewed this, but overall the movie was just kinda “blah” to me. Which is definitely not what Disney animation ought to do.
Man on Wire (2008). Solidly enthralling documentary about Philippe Petit, who made headlines in 1974 by orchestrating a covert wire walk across the two World Trade Center towers. Given the rapturous critical reception this film has gotten, it never really bowled me over. It’s certainly a fascinating story, and the 60ish Petit has a puckish energy lacking in men even half his age. The film, however, doesn’t gather steam until Petit gets to the wirewalking itself — well into the proceedings. One thing that works in the filmmaker’s favor is the fact that Petit and his cronies shot a lot of home movie footage of themselves, which is skillfully integrated into new interviews with the participants (see also The Devil and Daniel Johnston from last week).
Old YellerOld Yeller (1957). I expected corniness aplenty with this Disney feature, but the film resonates a lot more than I ever expected. Despite poor Yeller’s ultimate fate, this is well-crafted and non-sentimental entertainment with an uplifting message — one that gives the phrase “family film” a good meaning for once. I loved the warm performances by Tommy Kirk and Dorothy McGuire, which somewhat makes up for that shrill little hellion Kevin Corchoran (why was that kid in so many Disney flicks, anyhow?). By the way, surely I cannot be the only person on earth who is excited about Turner Classic Movies’ month-long live action Disney film fest, right? Well?
Princess Raccoon (2005). Put this on my Netflix queue because I’ve enjoyed the wacky ’60s films of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki and was curious about what the guy was capable of in his ’80s. Well, this is one bizarre movie — and not in a good way, either. An indecipherable tale of a prince and princess from warring families finding love, interspersed with incongruous musical sequences (characters even rap at one point). Ziyi Zhang is a complete waste in the title role. Although we normally love weird Asian movies, we couldn’t make it through the whole thing this time. Sorry, Seijun.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). I never even heard of this movie until recently, but now I believe it’s one of the best thrillers of its time. A serious Walter Matthau is excellent as a New York City port authority supervisor trying to stop a hijacked subway car. This one really gives a good sense of gritty NYC in the ’70s, the acting is uniformly good, and the plot has an irresistible momentum. I could definitely imagine audiences watching this in ’74 and being utterly swept away by the action. My only complaint lies with the weak ending, but overall this was an unexpectedly fantastic film.
Treasure Island (1950). Walt Disney’s first all live action film is so quaintly British that it actually plays more like an airy Technicolor Powell and Pressburger bauble than anything else. Chipmunk-cheeked Bobby Driscoll is the only indication of Disneyness on display here. Though I was somewhat disappointed in the poky pacing — truly, this movie does have a lot of dull, talky stretches — this would be a fun way to kill an afternoon, I imagine. Robert Newton as Long John Silver has that quintessential “arr matey” pirate voice down pat.

Weekly Mishmash: November 30 – December 6

The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). Exceptional documentary on the cult musician Daniel Johnston. Johnston’s art is a love-it-or-hate-it thing, but the beauty of this film is that it’s still compelling despite the divisive nature of its subject. The film doesn’t shy away from Johnston’s mental illness and the fact that people might be exploiting him. The way it slickly weaves interviews with audio tapes and home movies from its obsessively self-chronicling subject reminds me a lot of the great 2003 doc Capturing the Friedmans. The Johnston who emerges here comes across like a complex man, equally childlike and playful, ambitious, self-centered and intensely creepy. But, in the end, you end up loving the guy.
Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978). Another enthralling documentary, although Criterion’s DVD leaves a lot to be desired. It’s funny that we saw this in the same week as the Johnston doc, since there are a lot of similar things going on here. I remember reading about Koko back in the ’70s. Her interactions with scientist Penny Patterson are a wonder to behold, but under the surface one has to wonder how much of the sign language is truly learned as opposed to being merely trained by repetition. There’s a slight subplot here about the San Francisco zookeepers who want to return the borrowed Koko to her less intelligent gorilla habitat mates, but most of the film is made up of surprisingly non-boring footage of Koko and Patterson “talking.”
Lace (1984). “Which one of you bitches is my mother?” Yep, I actually sat through all four hours of this once-steamy miniseries when it popped up recently on the Lifetime Movie Network (they really need to play more of this cheesy older crap — one can only take so much Jennie Garth in trouble, after all). This plays a bit like an ultra-luxe, ultra-long episode of Dynasty. Phoebe Cates is spectacularly awful as a famous actress trying to figure out which of three women birthed her years earlier. I think she’s supposed to be French, but her accent is so weird she might as well be a Martian! I could blame this on Miss Cates’ youth and inexperience, but lo and behold Angela Lansbury appears speaking in another unplaceable tongue. The three lead actresses (Brooke Adams, Arielle Dombasle, Bess Armstrong) are competent enough, but mostly I watched to gawk at their impeccable Euro-chic wardrobes. Oh, and the identity of said bitch mother was of no surprise at all to this discerning viewer.
Possessed (1947). a.k.a. The one where Joan Crawford goes crazy. This was a good palate cleanser after the dreadful Daisy Kenyon from last week. It’s been a few years since I last saw this pulpy, guilty pleasure. Joan is still good, delivering an Oscar nom-worthy performance even if the viewer is left wondering why her character went gaga over the charmless and average looking Van Heflin. This movie is held hostage by an absolutely soapy and unbelievable at times plotline — but the movie is so seamlessly made, with an expert cast giving 100%, that you can’t help but get sucked in by it. C. and myself both noticed how much the young actress (Geraldine Brooks) who played Crawford’s stepdaughter resembles Natalie Portman.
Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Vengeance Is Mine (1979). I actually first saw Reservoir Dogs shortly after it came out, and a recent re-viewing tells me how time changes one’s perceptions. Back then it was an amazingly visceral and different experience. Now the violence and language seems a bit softer, but you can’t argue with that dynamite cast and Quentin Tarantino’s still dazzling direction (his f-bomb laden script, not so much anymore). Previously, for instance, the cop torture scene was an agonizingly long (but weirdly enjoyable) segment. Now, it’s not so bad — have I become numbed to violent movies? Speaking of which, the equally barbaric Japanese flick Vengeance Is Mine must have been a huge influence on Tarantino. Director Shohei Imamura’s chronicle of a notorious serial killer (coolly played by Ken Ogata) boasts a lot of bracing scenes that are uncompromising in their ugliness. One segment in particular, in which Ogata attempts to knock off a truck driver, reminds me of similar scenes in Torn Curtain and Heavenly Creatures that memorably demonstrate how difficult and messy committing murder can be. Especially when the victim will. Not. Die. Besides that and a few other good scenes, however, this film gets bogged down into an overlong talkfest.
Storyline by Lenore CoffeeStoryline: Recollections of a Hollywood Screenwriter by Lenore Coffee. A breezy yet frustrating read, I borrowed this out of print 1973 bio from Christopher. The prolific Ms. Coffee counts as one of Classic Hollywood’s more overlooked screenwriters, and this bio offers scant bits of insight into her working methods — in between breathless accounts of the many self-absorbed personalities she encountered while the film industry was in its infancy, that is. Coffee was in her early seventies when she wrote this, but the book’s many aimless passages and Pollyanna-ish recollections make it read more like a schoolgirl’s diary. Overall it serves as a solid document of the silent era, becoming sketchy for the early sound era and winding up with no coverage at all for the latter half of her career (maybe she was aiming for a sequel?). Hollywood history buffs should seek this out.

Weekly Mishmash: November 23-29

Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984). Chez Scrubbles was abuzz this week with a mini film fest of Brian De Palma thrillers. Although I didn’t find either of these movies particularly great, they do stand as quintessential films of their time in all their lurid, sleazy fun. Dressed to Kill was the standout from this period (still haven’t seen Scarface, natch), but Blow Out was a cheesy blast on its own. John Travolta stars as a movie sound engineer who inadvertently records an auto accident which may have been a case of murder; Nancy Allen is the airhead hooker caught up in the conspiracy. Both actors are amazingly awful to behold, honestly, but it’s fun seeing them slogging through early ’80s Philadelphia and De Palma contributes several chilling, effective scenes. Body Double, from three years later, trods a similar path (De Palma even opens the film with a similar movie-within-a-movie). It’s even sleazier, more violent, and more blatantly a ripoff of earlier, better movies. In a Rear Window/Vertigo pastiche, doofusy Craig Wasson plays a struggling actor who gets sucked into spying on a beautiful woman from inside John Lautner’s Chemosphere in the L.A. hills (hats off to the set designer for making the place look like an ’80s cokehead’s dream palace, missing only a framed Nagel print). Before you can say “totally eighties,” he acts in a porno movie with Melanie Griffith and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, and eventually unravels the mystery. Ridiculously entertaining trash.
Daisy Kenyon lobby cardDaisy Kenyon (1947). I remember seeing this a long time ago on American Movie Classics, with vague memories that it was a bore and a half that not even La Crawford could save. A recent DVD viewing confirmed my earlier view. Joan couldn’t have been more miscast as a bohemian Greenwich Village artist caught between a slick but married Dana Andrews and a single but wishy-washy Henry Fonda. All the cutesy peter pan collars in the world couldn’t hide the fact that she was too old for the part. I enjoy a good-bad soapy melodrama every once in a while, but this film doesn’t know what it wants to be, with a silly and dull script that takes a lot of unwarranted side detours (look, child abuse!). Oddly this does have the bones of a good film, and you can see the attraction director Otto Preminger had for these admittedly complex characters. It just doesn’t work — at all. For such an ignoble effort, Fox actually supplied the DVD with a couple of good “making of” docs that are more enjoyable than the film itself.
House (1977). Could this possibly be the weirdest movie ever made? This Japanese-schoolgirls-stuck-in-a-haunted-mansion romp plays like a first-season Facts of Life episode on crack. In the beginning it comes across like a frenetic comedy, with awful jokes and shallow characters defined by their English nicknames (Gorgeous, Prof, Melody, Kung Fu, etc.) — then it abruptly turns into a bizarre and gory fright fest. Apparently this was the debut feature for the director, whose background in commercials is readily apparent with all the “throw something onscreen and see if it works” tricks on rapid display here. Gaze in slack jawed wonder at the scene below involving a killer light fixture. I mean, wow. A must-see for weird-ass Asian film fanatics, others beware.

Let Him Have It (1991). A deeply compelling film about one of the most notorious executions in Great Britain. Derek Bentley (nicely portrayed by Christopher Eccleston) is a mentally challenged 19 year-old who falls in with the wrong crowd. In a robbery gone wrong, his friend accidentally shoots and kills a police officer — but it’s Bentley who got the more severe punishment of death by hanging. Not the brightest moment in British history, but this film has an excellent sense of a particularly austere time in the UK (and it’s not quite the overwhelming bummer I’ve made it out to be). Well acted and similar in tone to Dance With A Stranger (which was about the last woman executed in Britain). Christopher picked this from the IFC schedule, an excellent choice.

Weekly Mishmash: November 16-22

Bully: Scholarship Edition. I’ve rented and enjoyed this game before, but as an anniversary gift from Christopher it got added to the Wii library this week. Gamers play teenaged Jimmy Hopkins, a little hellion who gets sent to a dismal private school by his uncaring mom. As the school year proceeds, you help Jimmy advance in his classes, beat up the meanies, kiss the girls (and some of the guys, too), and perform various tasks for money, new clothes, better weapons and other stuff. I’m a particular fan of these unstructured “explore” games, and with that in mind Bully is one of my favorites. Try sending Jimmy to school wearing only a wife beater and tighty whities, heh.
Belinda Carlisle — Heaven On Earth. The kind of album that I wouldn’t pay five bucks for, but for 99 cents bring it on! This slick el-lay pop wasn’t the kind of stuff I was into back in ’87, but now it plays like cheesy but impeccably produced fun. Belinda can sing the heck out of even the most mediocre of songs. Circle in the sand, round and round …
Children of Paradise (1945). One of those films that is regarded as a masterpiece, year in and year out. The layman’s description of this as a French Gone With The Wind is surprisingly accurate — like GWTW, it deals with human relations on a grand scale, with a huge cast of characters and a sweeping milieu. Instead of the Civil War, what we have is a troupe of 1830s French theatrical performers whose distinctly fatalistic point of view mirror that of the 1940s French. I found it fascinating and lovely, but the extreme length and frou-frou flavor were like nails on a chalkboard for the s.o. Personally, just watching the subtle expressions on actor Jean-Louis Barrault’s face was enough for me.
Simpsons Season 9 DVD SetThe Simpsons: The Complete Ninth Season. Although I swore I’d stop buying the Simpsons DVDs after season 8 (heck, I swore to stop at season 7), I couldn’t resist when a used copy popped up at a good price on a recent shopping trip. This season contains a handful of still hilarious episodes, but it’s clear that 1997-98 was the year the show downshifted from classic sitcom to pedestrian Fox franchise. The revelation that Skinner was a fake in The Principal and the Pauper signaled a harbinger for the show’s current, desperate form — and listening to the ultra-smug commentary for that episode makes it clear that the writers have their collective heads up their own asses. On a different note: I absolutely love the package design on this volume, with each DVD designed to look like a cheeky vintage record label. Real classy.
Something To Sing About (1937). This fluffy and forgettable low budget musical would have vanished into thin air were it not for the magnetic James Cagney in the lead. As a bandleader turned movie star, he’s a joy to watch. Because he didn’t get to do many of the musicals he so craved, Cagney tears into this role with invigorating gusto. As for the rest, from shrill and boring Evelyn Daw as Cagney’s wife to a strange little shipboard catfight scene … well, it made for a pleasant diversion while attempting to wake up last weekend.
The Young In Heart (1938). I think it’s pretty cool that Turner Classic Movies did a prime time night dedicated to Janet Gaynor last week, don’t you? This one, a lush David O. Selznick production, served as Miss Gaynor’s last starring role before going into an early retirement. This is more accurately an ensemble piece, with attractive cast making up for the film’s ho-hum script. Gaynor plays the daughter in a family of con artists headed by Roland Young and the priceless Billie Burke as the parents and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the brother. Salty Paulette Goddard and a gorgeous young Richard Carlson play love interests; stage actress Minnie Dupree is really good as the family’s victim, Miss Fortune. That cast and the wonderful production design by William Cameron Menzies almost make up for the predictable to the extreme story. Love that streamline moderne car.