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Category Archives: Roundup

Weekly Mishmash: September 14-20

The Forsyte Saga (2002). The result of finishing season one of The Wire and wanting something different — from drug dealers to repressed Victorian socialites. This was a well-mounted and adequately done miniseries, well-cast (I think the leading actress got the part solely due to her close resemblance to John Singer Sargent’s Madame X) and absorbing throughout. There were two small things that bothered me. One, the director seemed to enjoy using lots of unsettling extreme closeups on faces, a technique which didn’t fit with this material. Two, having the young architect (portrayed by Fantastic Four‘s Ioan Gruffudd) be visionary to an extraordinary degree was off-putting. To say the least. Although the scene takes place in the 1880s, Gruffudd builds a strikingly designed country house in the “Prairie” style — which was considered new and different 20-30 years later. It would be having a Depression-era film architect building Ranch houses. I think way too much about this stuff.
Fringe (Fox). Eh.
The Great Escape (1963). One of those classic films that I’d assumed I would get to eventually; this week was its time. Good film that really hums based on the letter-perfect cast and the script’s just-this-side of believable happenings. It certainly doesn’t feel like a three-hour movie, the ending was not as pat or happy as I feared, and Elmer Bernstein’s score was fantastic. Now I have to check out the way this film was parodied in the “Streetcar Named Marge” Simpsons episode again.
Passion Flower (1930) and Mary Stevens M.D. (1933). All told, will September 2008 be remembered for a cataclysmic stock market plunge or an escalating presidential campaign? No, not really — it will be marked for the time Turner Classic Movies finally recognized it has Kay Francis fans! I took the opportunity to TiVo a couple of the raven-haired one’s early soapers that I’d previously never seen. Passion Flower is a creaky early talkie that Francis made on loan out to MGM. Despite the predictable storyline, the film surprisingly held my interest. It’s not often that one sees earthy Charles Bickford in a leading man role, and the forgotten Kay Johnson is solid as the pure-hearted woman who loses her husband to conniving Kay. For support, Zasu Pitts (“Oh, dear”) is on hand doing an odd dramatic role. Mary Stevens M.D. treads the same waters, but it’s much better due to its zippy pacing, Warner Bros. pizazz, and pre-Code raciness. At this point, the formula is still fresh and Kay approaches this admittedly different role with gusto. This time, she plays a lady doctor who (among many other things) gets pregnant out of wedlock from the hunky and married Lyle Talbot. The film has a lot going on in only 72 minutes, but Lloyd Bacon directs it with breathtaking efficiency. That man really was an underrated powerhouse at Warners in the ’30s (I think I know who TCM needs to focus on next).
Toy Story 2 (1999). I remember being somewhat disappointed with this when it was originally released. Most people I knew at the time thought it improved on the original Toy Story, a reaction that made me want to find new friends. It just seemed faster and dumber, and with a lot less heart than the original. Luckily the film is much improved from my perspective now. The movie plays like a smarter precursor to the avalanche of snarky DreamWorks-style animated efforts that followed. In that light, this is a fun and engaging ride — not Toy Story quality, but good nonetheless.

Weekly Mishmash: September 7-13

Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. I was inspired to pick this up after reading Slate’s glowing re-evaluation from a couple of months ago. Anne Shirley comes across as a grating goody-goody at times, and the book plods a bit after she matures into a bland teenager. The book is also more episodic than it needs to be, but I do believe that Montgomery has created one of the great, plucky little girls of early 20th-century fiction. It was a delightful read, and now it makes me curious for further exploration. Not for the later Anne of Avonlea books (in his spoiler-filled intro to this 100th anniversary edition, Jack Zipes dismisses all of them and Ms. Montgomery for making Anne a “conformist”), but for the various film adaptations. Coincidentally, Turner Classic Movies will be broadcasting the 1936 film starring the only actress who renamed herself after a character she played (Anne Shirley!) on my birthday, October 8th.
Audition (2000). Scary Asian movie about a middle-aged widower who decides to select a new wife by holding a cattle call audition. This particular one starts off as a rather competent but uninspiring thriller, then it devolves into ugly and misogynistic torture porn. This was another recommendation from Christopher’s Japanese co-worker, but after sitting through it I can confidently say that I’m getting tired of scary Asian movies.
Christmas In July (1940). Every time I get sucked in by a bloated modern movie, I’ll think about this Preston Sturges gem — which conveys everything it needs to say in a brisk and efficient 67 minutes. This one came across as typical Sturges for me, meaning it’s not as great as its reputation suggests. Still, it’s a breezy and enjoyable soufflé which further proves that Sturges was one of the best in using excellent supporting actors. As exhibit A I submit Franklin Pangborn as the radio announcer. One could likely have a good movie with Pangborn and no one else, but here he fits in perfectly with the zany ensemble behind appealing leads Dick Powell and Ellen Drew.
Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). An underrated French New Wave effort follows a vain singer (Corinne Marchand, who resembles a blonde and curvy Carolyn Jones) over the course of two hours as she awaits the results of a cancer test. Over the course of the film, the heroine learns to cast away the artificial (a silly hat, a wig extension) and learns to enjoy life for the simple pleasures it gives. Languid shots of Marchand walking the streets of early ’60s Paris as city life obliviously bustles about her make for the most memorable parts. This scene was my favorite, when director Agnès Varda moves from candid rehearsal to an intense shot of Marchand against a black background, singing a lovely song. Probably not the greatest French New Wave ever, but damn cool nonetheless.
If You Could Only Cook (1935). When TCM had a Jean Arthur day, I TiVo’d this enjoyable trifle. Miss Arthur plays a woman desperately looking for a job. She convinces Herbert Marshall to apply for a maid/butler position as a couple, unaware that he’s a slumming auto magnate. This was cute, undemanding entertainment. Like Christmas In July, it’s a reminder that (pardon the cliché) they don’t make ’em like they used to.
What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969). Gothic horror produced by Robert Aldrich, who was really milking the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane association by this point. Geraldine Page plays a desperate widow who extorts money from her housekeepers before knocking them off, one by one. That is, until smart cookie Ruth Gordon comes under her employ. Although generally the movie plays like an overlong Night Gallery episode, Page’s spirited performance keeps it fun. I also like how her house was, for no apparent reason, out in the middle of the Arizona desert. The setting adds a bit of weirdness to an otherwise unremarkable story.

Weekly Mishmash: August 3-9

Man’s Castle (1933). Having this rarely-screened Frank Borzage gem show up on TCM recently came as an unexpected treat. In it, Spencer Tracy plays a ne’er do well who barely attempts to make things work with penniless Loretta Young in their shantytown shack. Borzage’s films are almost always about love triumphing over adverse circumstances, and this one is no exception — it’s both despairing and starry-eyed in equal parts. In the beginning, Tracy’s character comes off as an unlikeable jerk, and Young is miscast (I would have loved to have seen Barbara Stanwyck play that part). Eventually, however, both actors overcome their faults and deliver memorable performances. A brisk pace and intelligent script make this one of the best Depression-era movies I’ve ever seen, actually. Is it too “hopeless romantic” of me to wish Sony/Columbia puts this out on DVD?
Panic in the Streets (1950). When Christopher and I were at the local library to check out some DVDs this week, this Elia Kazan noir was among our choices. I don’t know if I had heard of this before, but I guess it flew under my radar before now. It’s a good, solid movie with a compelling plot about keeping a super-contagious virus bacteria under control, with New Orleans on-location filming and a lot of non-actors in smaller roles lending a gritty realism to the proceedings. The enigmatic Richard Widmark plays the hero, Jack Palance (in his first film) plays the heavy, and Zero Mostel is around to remind us of the horrible comb-over hairstyle he had.
The Puppetoons Movie (1987). Another library find. I remember hearing about this upon the film’s original release (I recall Leonard Maltin doing an Entertainment Tonight segment on it) and being intrigued by the stylized stop motion animation done by George Pal in the ’30s and ’40s. This is a basic compilation of vintage shorts, bookended with corny segments with Gumby and Pokey dealing with a timid dinosaur (the last role for legendary voice actor Paul Frees) who appears to have prefigured the Toy Story dinosaur by a few years. The shorts themselves, although dated and filled with groan-inducing stereotypes, are colorful delights brimming with amazing (and painstaking) animation. But there’s also an added weirdness about them that reminds me of the Max Fleischer Color Classics shorts — the DVD extra Jasper and the Haunted House is a good example. Overall I’d say the movie is pretty much for animation buffs only, but personally I had a ball.
Stray Dog (1949)Stray Dog (1949). After Scrubbles reader Tim recommended this as one of the better Akira Kurosawa films (thanks, Tim!), we snatched this DVD up from the library bins. Indeed, it does rank as one of his better films — which surprises me since it’s not as well-known as some of his other stuff. This was an unusual-for-its-time contemporary police drama starring a young and thin Toshiro Mifune as a cop who sets off on an arduous investigation after his gun gets stolen. Although overlong and slow at times, I found this interesting because of the postwar Japan setting and Kurosawa’s creative work with framing and camera angles. The acting was very good, too, and Criterion’s DVD has a good segment on the making of the film.
The Ugly Dachshund (1966). Another step in my exploration of Disney’s live action movies from the ’60s and ’70s. With Dean Jones and Suzanne Pleshette essaying a straightforward plot filled with contrived mishaps and such, I often forgot I was watching a Disney movie (Jones seems like a very “Disney” actor; Pleshette does not). Often the film plays like the kind of undemanding fluff comedy that one is likely to forget as soon as the end credits roll. Still, the dogs were all incredibly cute… and isn’t that what really counts here?

Weekly Mishmash: August 24-30

Youth of the Beast (1963)

Futurama: The Beast with a Billion Backs (2008). It pains me to say it, but this second direct-to-DVD Futurama movie is a big fat bore. What may have been a semi decent TV episode has been stretched into a feature-length slog, padded out with stupid Family Guy-style gags. Sure, I laughed a few times, but at this point Matt Groening and company really need to give the franchise a rest.
The Hidden Fortress (1958). I hate to sound redundant, but uh … this was also kind of tedious. Which makes me feel guilty since it’s vintage Akira Kurosawa and a big influence on George Lucas’ Star Wars script (although even Lucas himself admits it’s not his favorite Kurosawa). Interesting story, and one can obviously tell that Kurosawa is having a field day with the widescreen format, but the characters seemed cardboard-thin and it plods along with little variety in the landscape or tone. On the plus side, I did enjoy Toshiro Mifune (what an intense actor) and the birdlike woman who played the princess. Still, I’d take Rashomon or High and Low over this any day.
Scaramouche (1952). Plush, swashbuckling classic with luscious color and a youthfully attractive cast (yep, even in horrid stage makeup Eleanor Parker looks so lovely). What really counted here was the famous climactic sword battle — director George Sidney executes the long, long scene beautifully. It moves fluidly from a theatre balcony, though the side hallway, out to the lobby, through the audience, then up on stage — boggling the mind as to how many rehearsal hours Stewart Granger and José Mel Ferrer needed to execute it flawlessly.
Winchell (1998). Somebody needs to make a good flick about the notorious gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Although this made-for-HBO effort is fun and breezy, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. Stanley Tucci is appropriately smarmy in the title role, and Paul Giamatti is good as Winchell’s put-upon ghostwriter. Unfortunately director Paul Mazursky covers too much ground (some 60 years) and can’t resist using every cliché in the retro-biopic book, including the spinning newspaper headline. The spinning newspaper headline, people!
Youth of the Beast (1963). A dazzling, at times incomprehensible mob action flick from Japanese cult director Seijun Suzuki. Often I couldn’t keep track of what was going on, but the director’s lurid “film noir meets ’60s pulp” sensibility keeps things going at a breakneck pace. Very similar to Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter, although I think I slightly prefer this one due to the magnetic and oddly chubby-cheeked leading actor Jo Shishido. Oh, and I have to mention the wonderful sets in this movie — the nightclub, the movie theater, and the geometric establishment pictured above with separate operator booth, neat sculpture, and bi-colored phones at each table. Groovy!

Weekly Mishmash: August 17-23

Crime of Passion (1957). This late-period Barbara Stanwyck melodrama looked like a tawdry treat when it popped up on her TCM Summer Under The Stars day. The only thing it taught me, however, was that even the great Miss Stanwyck can act awful in an awful movie. In the film’s first half hour, her character goes through enough transformations to make Sybil envious: first, she’s a plucky reporter, then she meets L.A. cop Sterling Hayden and becomes his subservient wife. As the movie progresses, she morphs again into a conniving and heartless woman in a series of actions that sets the plot in motion. As it is, the story is not very compelling and the fact that Stanwyck is screechy and unappealing throughout doesn’t add much to the film’s enjoyment. With junk like this, no wonder she would leave movies behind shortly thereafter.
I Was Stalin’s Bodyguard (1989). A dull and artsy documentary intersperses 1930s Russia footage with new interviews of Josef Stalin’s last living bodyguard. The kind of thing your local PBS outlet might have as a time killer at three a.m. One of Christopher’s rentals — and although he’s made some good choices (like Nightfall from last week), this alas was not one of them.
My Favorite Things — John Coltrane. I like my jazz sweet, melodic and not too noodly, so when this classic popped up on Amazon’s download service for only a dollar it was a perfect choice. I was only familiar with the title track before, but the other three selections are in the same vein; good background music for the next time I’m busy doing a manga book design project.
1939 and the Lost World of the Fair1939: The Lost World of the Fair by David Gelertner. I actually bought the hardcover edition of this book as a gift for C. when it first came out in 1995. Yes, it’s taken me thirteen years but I finally got around to reading it. Now that I’m done, I can see why it took so long since Christopher warned me that the book wasn’t very good. Gelertner’s central idea is solid — presenting the 1939 New York Worlds Fair as both a straightforward history and an impressionistic, novelized view from a “typical” visitor — but unfortunately it fails to succeed on either point. Gelertner’s main problem is that he digresses too much, and as a result the book often gets bogged down with his Grampa Simpson-like diatribes over how much more favorably he perceives the America of 1939 versus contemporary times. The diary portions, detailing the memories of a woman who got engaged to her boyfriend at the Fair, go so far afield that at times I wanted to scream “I don’t care!” This lady goes on and on about her conflicted inner feelings with nothing of substance about the Fair itself. It’s very symbolic of this frustrating book — guess I’ll have to keep waiting until this fascinating subject gets the comprehensive book it deserves.
The Raw and the Cooked — Fine Young Cannibals and The ABBA Generation — The A*Teens. Speaking of the ’30s, wasn’t it Noel Coward who wrote something about the power of cheap music? I got these two CDs for a buck fifty each at a thrift store where the proceeds benefit local animal shelters. That princely sum was about how much I’d pay for them, but both are enjoyable nonetheless. I remember digging The Raw and the Cooked in college before the damn CD got stolen just a few years later. This one was big stuff in 1989, producing two #1 hits and an Album of the Year Grammy nom, but in the years since it’s somewhat fallen out of favor. A shame, really, because the album mixes various styles stunningly well and doesn’t have a single bad track. The only thing about FYC I didn’t like was Roland Gift’s limited voice, but he has a quirky charm that elevates the material. The A*Teens was one of a gazillion turn of the Millennium Teen Pop acts which currently clog thrift bins, but I love ABBA’s music and the Eurodisco Hi-NRG treatment they get on this CD is too cheesily irresistible. Plus, the version I got was the limited Target edition with an extra megamix and two videos. Yeah, I know you’re jealous.
Red Garters (1954). An unusual musical parody of Westerns starring Rosemary Clooney and some super stylized indoor sets. This was fun at times, slow going at others, buoyed by Jack Carson and a bunch of bouncy yet forgettable songs. Clooney is fetching when she breaks the fourth wall during her vocal numbers, but she’s not a good enough actress to carry a film (even with a better than average supporting cast). In the end, I’d recommend this only for hardcore fans of weird, genre-bending ’50s flicks.
Thank God It’s Friday (1978). My expectations for this mirrorballed bomb were at a basement level, so it came as a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed this comedy for what it was (a modest, Car Wash-y period piece, basically). The film follows a diverse group of people as they convene for one evening at L.A.’s hottest disco. It’s Robert Altman in polyester and gold chains, only with a groan-inducing script and acting that ranges from decent to abysmal. Donna Summer’s meek wannabe singer takes the stage with “The Last Dance” at the film’s climax, but the scene is actually kinda blah. It’s cool seeing then-unknown actors like Debra Winger and Jeff Goldblum working beneath their talents, but probably the best thing about the movie is its delirious soundtrack (a unique collaboration between the Casablanca and Motown labels). I really gotta find that album somewhere.

Weekly Mishmash: August 10-16

Yasujiro Ozu’s Good Morning (1959). Interesting and subtle film about the goings-on with several families in a Westernized ’50s version of a Japanese suburb. Adults gossip and fret over their impending retirements; children goof off, learn English lessons and throw tantrums over not having a TV set. It’s a movie about nothing, and yet Ozu is so finely attuned to every nuance of the people onscreen so that a gesture speaks volumes. Lovely use of color and composition, too.
Kylie Minogue — Hits +. Got this really cheap and only because I was curious about Ms. Minogue’s “wannabe indie rock chick” period from 1994-97. For a hits compilation, this is awfully skimpy — six singles and a bunch of previously unreleased stuff which deserved to stay in the vaults. Those six singles are pretty good, however, so I don’t feel like the two bucks spent was a waste. Highlights: “Some Kind of Bliss,” “Breathe.”
Nightfall (1957). A late-period film noir from Jacques Tournier got a rare screening on Anne Bancroft’s Summer Under the Stars day. This was Bancroft’s film debut, but the movie really belongs to the brooding Aldo Ray as an ordinary guy who is accidentally drawn into the world of two sick criminals (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond). This had an excellent screenplay with several suspenseful scenes, several swell location shoots in and around ’50s L.A., and Bancroft gets to wear a few swanky Jean Louis gowns. I haven’t seen too many Aldo Ray films, but boy he was a hottie and this underrated gem was a good showcase for him.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960). Funny that I saw this Doris Day vehicle in the same week as Good Morning, both domestic comedies from the same era but as different as night and, er, day. Where the Ozu was small and pleasurable, this one is overblown and artificial. Day and David Niven strain credibility as a married couple coping with a home renovation, a brood of bratty boys, and his job as a New York theatre critic. I never once bought Day and Niven as marrieds, and their stories are so separated from each other that it renders the whole film into a vaguely dull mess. The only part I wholeheartedly loved came when Doris sings “Any Way the Wind Blows” in the manner of Elvis Presley musicals of the time. There’s no reason why her character would perform an impeccably arranged pop tune in the middle of a small town theatre rehearsal — with dumpy looking extras clapping and singing along — but that’s why the number is so bizarre and good.
Quiz Show (1994). Haven’t seen this one since it came out in the theatres. Still good.
The Youngest Profession (1943). A forgettable bit of b-movie fluff in which a star-struck teen (Virginia Weidler) and her daffy friend (Jean Porter) track down visiting Hollywood celebrities while keeping a hyperactive family and snoopy housekeeper at bay. The movie star cameos are amusing, but the rest of the movie was ultra-contrived and boring as all get out. One can tell that MGM was trying to launch a female version of the Andy Hardy series here, with the family having the stock wise dad (nicely played by Edward Arnold), patient mom and bratty little brother. Only it doesn’t work, and the giddy enthusiasm of Weidler and Porter is the sole element which keeps the film afloat.