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Category Archives: Roundup

Weekly Mishmash: August 3-9

Marvin Gaye - Let’s Get It OnMarvin Gaye — Let’s Get It On. A horndog classic. Amazon had the no-frills download edition of this album recently for $1.99, so of course I had to get it. I can remember having this on an ’80s CD, paired up with What’s Going On. Compared with that one, Let’s Get It On is a brief and rather slight affair — but on its own it holds up pretty well. I like how over the course of the LP Gaye goes from sounding horny as hell (title track) to being desperate and somewhat creepy (“Just to Keep You Satisfied”).
Min and Bill (1930). The fact that TCM had a Marie Dressler day during its Summer Under the Stars was ample reason enough to TiVo the box office hit which propelled her into unlikely stardom and a Best Actress Oscar. It’s an odd and short little tale of seaside tawdriness, one that lurches from slapstick comedy to heavy drama. Dressler is good at both — as are supporting players Dorothy Jordan, Wallace Beery, and Marjorie Rambeau — but it sure is a strange and creaky little movie in which the sums of its parts come off better than the whole.
The Mist (2007). At first, this had all the elements of a fun tribute to glorious ’50s monster movies, complete with b-movie style acting (and in Marcia Gay Harden’s case, overacting) and a building sense of dread. It’s tense where it should be and the special effects were effectively creepy. Eventually, however, it gets derailed with weighty metaphors. And the ending … sucked.
Olympics Opening Ceremonies (NBC). I approached this baby with trepidation, having fresh memories of Athens 2004 and the way NBC royally screwed the broadcast up by having Bob Costas and Katie Couric inanely babble on at every opportunity. I wanted to slash my wrists after that. Luckily, the Beijing ceremonies surpassed my expectations in every possible way — gargantuan, thrilling, beautiful, at times weird. Seeing hundreds of Chinese men in green light-up suits isn’t something I’ll likely forget anytime soon. Thankfully, NBC handled the broadcast appreciably better this time around. Costas, Matt Lauer and a needed Chinese cultural expert kept the color commentary to non-obnoxious levels and actually had a few interesting things to say. Check out the SFGate.com photo gallery of the events.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (2006). Using the words “heart warming” and “old fashioned” to describe a movie doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, but this uplifting Julianne Moore film fits that description to a tee. Moore (playing a ’50s housewife for the third time) excels as Evelyn Ryan, a real lower-middle class woman who supported her husband and ten kids by entering dozens of contests and sweepstakes. I also enjoyed Woody Harrelson as the jerky, selfish hubby Kelly. At times this movie is directed in a self-conscious method imitating kitschy old commercials and industrial films, when a more straightforward handling would have been more appropriate. Aside from that, I enjoyed this wholesome tribute to the pluckiness of the American spirit.

Weekly Mishmash: July 27-August 2

Crap Shoot: The Documentary (2007). A constantly behatted midwestern guy and his buddy journey to Hollywood and Las Vegas to find out just why current movies are so awful. Speaking of awful … director/writer Kenneth Close obviously fancies himself a Michael Moore type, but the guy has zero charisma and his strained attempts at humor give me the hives. It has all the style and panache of homemade camcorder footage from the ’80s, and furthermore I’m convinced that all the rave reviews this thing got on IMDb were penned by Close and/or his friends. Yuck!
Pete’s Dragon (1977). One of those movies that I loved as a kid. From an adult perspective, I’d say the movie is deeply flawed — but worth watching just to check out what the Disney studio was cranking out during its most anachronistic period. First off, it’s too long and suffers from many dull spots (usually when the dragon, Elliot, isn’t around). Though nicely animated by Don Bluth, the character of Elliot is a bit of a cypher. The cast hams it up like crazy, and young Sean Marshall as Pete is about as generic a little kid as ever headlined a big budget musical. It goes against logic that non-actor Helen Reddy as the lightkeeper Flora delivers the most subtle and nuanced performance. Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s songs are a delight, and I’m surprised at how well I remember many of them — “The Happiest Home In These Hills,” “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too),” “It’s Not Easy,” “Candle On The Water.” Perhaps Disney could do a tighter remake using the same score, updated with snazzy CGI effects. And don’t forget the “Win a trip to Disneyland” promotion …

Pete’s Dragon Sunkist Ad

A Private View — Irene Mayer Selznick. The 1983 biography of a woman best known for being daughter and wife to two of classic Hollywood’s most powerful moguls. Both Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick come across as sympathetic and stubbornly human men who influenced Irene’s life in countless ways. Irene is an excellent writer with a gift for observation and a pragmatic viewpoint, traits that especially shine in the earlier chapters of her book. Unlike many other bios where childhood memories make up the dullest parts, Irene shows herself to have been a remarkably poised and precocious little girl almost from birth. She’s a stark contrast to her vain and impetuous older sister, Edith (who is by far the least likable person in the book). After Irene divorced Selznick in the ’40s, she went on to forge a thriving career in the New York theatre scene as producer of A Streetcar Named Desire and several other plays. It’s a fitting coda to an uplifting book.
Romance on the High Seas (1948). Doris Day’s first movie is a lively Technicolor musical filled with excellent swing music, gay misadventures, and some truly gorgeous costumes and sets. Fluff, to be sure, but this is the best fluff there is! Seeing it makes me realize that Warner Bros. could often outdo MGM in the musicals department. While MGM’s stuff reveled in schmaltz, Warners piled on the panache with a distinctly modern sensibility. The ace supporting cast includes Jack Carson (great comic timing), Janis Paige (what a dish), and S.Z. Sakall (best jowls in classic moviedom).
Salesman (1968). The one DVD that I’ve been pestering Netflix to carry since 2001 recently became available to rent — finally! This documentary by Albert and David Maysles focuses on a group of door-to-door bible salesman as they struggle to meet sales quotas. Some find the Maysles’ straightforward style boring, but I found the entire film enthralling and very evocative of ’60s America and its dashed hopes. We see the salesmen as they work snowy Boston streets and dingy Florida suburbs with desperate zeal. Most of the would-be customers are families who are barely getting by, captured with the resigned sadness of a Diane Arbus photograph. The main salesman the filmmakers follow, an older guy with a vacant stare, reminded me of Jack Lemmon in Glengary Glenn Ross (or better yet, Gil from The Simpsons). Worth the wait for sure.

Weekly Mishmash: May 4-10

The Complete Peanuts 1959-1960 by Charles M. Schulz. Fantagraphics’ two volume a year, two years in each volume Complete Peanuts series is still in full swing with the 1967-68 volume having just been released, but I’m still playing catch-up with this earlier volume. The strips from 1959-60 find Schulz at the peak of his talents, a huge asset for the book making up for Whoopi Goldberg’s lousy introduction (in reality it’s just an interview, and a pointless one at that). This was the period that saw the debuts of Lucy’s psychiatry booth, “happiness is a warm puppy,” and Charlie Brown’s baby sister Sally (interestingly, the other characters talk about her for at least a month before she’s actually seen). It also contains one of my very favorite strips, one that was also singled out in Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker Schulz appreciation from 2004. It’s the total Peanuts philosophy summed up in four panels:

Peanuts Strip

Grave of the Fireflies (1988). I saw a good chunk of this anime classic when it showed up on the IFC channel a few years back, but didn’t get to see the whole thing until Christopher just rented it. The story of two children orphaned in WWII Japan is beautifully told, powerful and at times too bleak. The gorgeous animation and powerful story are things to admire; too bad I wasn’t affected all that much by it at the end of the day.
Network (1976). I haven’t seen this in years, decades maybe, and was a bit taken aback at how prescient it was. What originally played as a farce on the TV industry in ’76 looks pretty realistic today. A script as smart as Paddy Chayefsky’s doesn’t come along very often. I was also struck by how the part of Diana is one of those “once in a lifetime” roles, and Faye Dunaway really grabs hold of it and makes it entirely hers. William Holden and Robert Duvall were also excellent.
Various — Atlantic Unearthed: Soul Sisters. Picked up this compilation in the same record shopping trip that netted the B-52’s disc from last week. In a selection very similar to the 1992 comp Atlantic Sisters of Soul (the two discs even share a track, Laura Lee’s “What a Man”), these sixteen female-led soul nuggets were either previously unreleased or languished on single b-sides. Although padded with some nicely performed but nondescript R&B, I enjoyed this one a lot. It opens with Aretha Franklin’s stunning cover of “My Way,” recorded in 1970 during the Spirit in the Dark LP sessions. Other highlights include Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles’ “(1-2-3-4-5-6-7) Count the Days” (kinda old-fashioned sounding for 1969 but lovely nonetheless) and Bettye Swann’s seductive, proto-disco “I Ain’t That Easy to Lose” from 1973.
A Very Brady Sequel (1996). Tivo’d this, a rare sequel that’s better than the movie it spawned from. The Brady Bunch Movie was mildly amusing but it milked the “Bradys stranded in the ’90s” theme too much; this one just plays it for laughs and lays on the in-jokes at a fast pace. Not all of it works, and the ending was lame, but I liked it — especially Christine Taylor as Marcia and Jennifer Elise Cox as Jan. Those two are the grooviest!

Weekly Mishmash: April 27-May 3

Lots of B&W movie watching this week:
The B-52’s – Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation. Spotted this for $7.99 (new) at the local indie record store and had to get it, since an old copy of Cosmic Thing was only other thing I had by them. This is a good, solid — albeit flawed — collection. The only song I felt was slighted is “Legal Tender”, a medium-sized hit that made such an impression that I can even remember my high school’s pom squad doing a routine to it. Luckily I already had that song and easily downloaded the other two songs unjustly missing off the CD (“Girl from Ipanema Goes to Greenland” and “Housework”, off 1986’s Bouncing Off the Satellites). I wonder if their new project is worth getting?
The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. I took this brisk little 1964 potboiler, the first of MacDonald’s popular Travis McGee series, along with me to Florida. Appropriate, since these detective novels are evocatively set in a Fort Lauderdale that is changing and growing before McGee’s world-weary eyes. Although set in the ’60s with a macho, bed-hopping hero, the book has a surprisingly contemporary feel. MacDonald was such a gifted writer — and McGee is such an indelible character — that they’re great exceptions to my usually non-fiction reading list.
The Devil Is a Woman (1935). An odd entry in Marlene Dietrich’s filmography and the last of her collaborations with Josef von Sternberg. The star herself cited this as her favorite film in the 1984 documentary Marlene — but when Maximillian Schell pressed her to explain why, she snapped something to the effect of “I just like it the best, that’s all!” To its credit, the film is beautifully photographed with tons of stunningly baroque sets and costumes. Miss Dietrich, playing a Spanish seductress who attracts men and perfect key lighting wherever she goes, gamely inhabits her role but she looks a bit overdone and trampy. She also has this weird tic of moving her head constantly, like a demented bobblehead doll. Despite its several flaws, I actually enjoyed this one a lot. A shade less fulfilling than The Scarlet Empress perhaps, but similarly dripping with artistry during every scene.
A Lady Without Passport (1950). An intriguing looking melodrama which got Tivo’d as part of a Hedy Lamarr month double feature on Turner Classic Movies. I never realized it before, but I’ve never seen a truly great Hedy Lamarr movie. My favorite movie of hers would definitely be Ziegfeld Girl — and that’s mostly due to Judy Garland and Lana Turner, not the blank-faced Lamarr. This one, in which she plays a Cuban refugee desperately trying to escape to the U.S., didn’t change my opinion of her much. It was boring. At least Miss Hedy fared better in the other film —
Hedy Lamarr and Bob HopeMy Favorite Spy (1951). A silly diversion with Lamarr and the hammy, overbearing Bob Hope as competing spies in pursuit of — does it really matter? The film benefited from having a good supporting cast, although the abundance of long scenes played on cheap-o sets made it appear like a trumped-up “B” movie. The exciting slapstick chase scene at the end nearly makes up for the poky hour that preceded it.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Gritty bank heist thriller was one of the last film noirs and probably the only one with a black protagonist (ably played by Harry Belafonte). Robert Ryan and Ed Begley are also really good as the other bank robbers, older men willing to take a chance on one last, great job. This one was pretty good even if individual elements came off better than the film as a whole. Robert Wise’s direction is assured yet heavy-handed, and Shelley Winters and Gloria Grahame could’ve been so much better if their roles weren’t so limited. The film takes a long while to get going, but the climactic bank robbery scene is excellent.
Pinky (1949), a.k.a. the one with Jeanne Crain as a light-skinned black woman returning to her Southern home to care for her aunt (Ethel Waters). Starts off too ponderously with the then-controversial racial identity plotline, then gets appreciably better with a secondary plot involving Ethel Barrymore’s rich old lady character and a subsequent courtroom drama. Crain, always a bit of a cream puff of an actress, was a lot better here than I’ve ever seen her. She definitely deserved the Oscar nomination she got, as did Waters and Barrymore.
Zoot Woman — Living in a Magazine. I can’t believe this little gem of an album passed me by when it came out in 2001. This Europop combo rocks an only somewhat ironic retro-’80s groove and proudly cites Hall & Oates as an inspiration. They remind me a lot of Phoenix and Tahiti 80; “Jesse” is the highlight. Strangely enough, I plopped “Two of Hearts” by one hit wonder and Facts of Life guest star Stacey Q right after this album in its playlist, where it fits like a (fingerless lace) glove.

Weekly Mishmash: April 20-26

Chalte Chalte (1976). Sometimes I like to check out old Bollywood musicals. This particular one is no classic — with clumsy direction and some really bad, overwrought performances — but it’s almost worth watching for the parade of garish ’70s fabric patterns on display. The plot involves a woman stalking a guy and his fiancée, since the man in question is the mirror image of her missing husband. In contrast to the hideously awful fashions seen throughout the film, the main woman eventually goes on a crazed rampage while wearing an understated white and gray sari. There might be a message in that, right?
Doris Day’s Vanishing Act by David Kaufman (Vanity Fair, May 2008). Coming across this long excerpt from a forthcoming Doris Day bio in Vanity Fair was a pleasant surprise. It basically outlines the 86 year-old legend’s journey from the peak of her success with Pillow Talk through various personal turmoils (finding her fortune squandered after her third husband Marty Melcher died chief among them) to being a dog-loving recluse in Carmel, California. Fascinating piece.
Helvetica (2007). A bunch of famous designers explain their love/hate relationship with the world’s most ubiquitous font. I found this documentary enthralling, yet Christopher was bored. It’s contains lots of visually stimulating examples of graphic design in its natural setting of city streets around the globe, yet I can see where the endless babbling might be alienating to non-designers. Four stars for those in the profession; three for everyone else.
Hula Girls (2006). An award-winning Japanese drama about a troupe of women who take up hula dancing to save their embattled coal mining village. If it sounds like I described an Asian female Full Monty without the stripping, you got the right idea. A heartfelt film with several notable performances; affecting even if it gets way too teary-eyed and touchy feely at times.
Scanners (1981). For some reason I always grouped this Cronenberg film with Altered States and Videodrome as some kind of early ’80s psychological sci-fi troika. One down, two to go. Except for the guy’s head exploding and some spooky sounds on the synth-based soundtrack, it’s pretty dull.

Weekly Mishmash: April 6-12

Bush’s War (Frontline, PBS). We finally finished watching this five-hour extravaganza last Sunday. Favorite moment: when a commentator notes Condi Rice’s “overjoyed” reaction to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, the producers show a photo of Ms. Rice in a characteristic sour-faced look.
Junebug (2005). I have so many movies on Netflix that they’re sending DVDs I first selected two or three years ago — including this one. I was expecting typical indie fare, but the movie’s slightly better and deeper than that. The Southern family gets a refreshingly non-cliché portrayal in a film that deals with how people perceive one another versus how they really are. Amy Adams was excellent, as was the entire cast.
Mrs. Harris (2005). A rental which grew out of a vague interest in Jean Harris and the Scarsdale Diet murder. I remember reading some of the mixed reviews which came after Mrs. Harris premiered on HBO, but I enjoyed it a lot. Set among ’70s New York’s country club set, the story is told in a kitschy and semi-farcical way that at times reminded me of the Bette Midler bomb Isn’t She Great? (though it’s not nearly as awful as that monstrosity). To be honest, the story is a bit ridiculous, but what keeps the film on terra firma is Annette Bening’s performance. She blew me away. Bening portrays Harris as a thoroughly selfish and unlikable person, but she still manages to give her a measure of sympathy for her motives — cool.
Sweeney Todd (2007). Having never seen Sweeney Todd onstage (or anywhere), I wasn’t sure how I’d react this this one — but I was utterly wowed. Tim Burton has made the musical over in his quintessentially gothic style, yet the material remains so faithful to Sondheim’s vision that I’d characterize it as more of a filmed Sondheim work than a Burton piece. I’d even go as far as ranking it the best of the Burton/Johnny Depp collaborations. Despite the imperfect singing voices of Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, they really inhabit their roles. The musical arrangements, costumes, and art direction are all top notch. See it, people!