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Category Archives: Vinyl

Weekly Mishmash: November 28 – December 4

poster_lastmileThe Last Mile (1959). The instant watching options on Netflix are still somewhat spotty at this point, but things have been improving over the last few months with a large dump of lesser-known, older flicks that never got a DVD release — including this intense little prison break drama. The film is set almost entirely in a single prison room as several death row inmates ponder their fates and the shabby treatment they’re getting from the guards. The clever use of limited sets, luminous black and white photography, and a soundtrack that is the very epitome of Crime Jazz all work in the picture’s favor, but mostly what elevates this otherwise routine movie is Mickey Rooney chewing the scenery like nobody’s business as a feisty fireplug of an inmate. The better Rooney performances always had an unhinged quality, going back as far as his hyper Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This one is no exception: even when the film gets too draggy and overly religious in its second half, the ever hammy Mickey remains at its fascinating center. TCM will be running this one on December 30th as part of their month-long Rooney tribute.
Palooka (1934). Another offering on my 50 public domain comedies DVD set. As I make way through these films in chronological order, 1934’s Palooka arrives at the tail end of the pre-Code era. While this boxing drama based on a popular comic strip doesn’t win any awards for originality, it is pleasantly jazzy and reminiscent of the Warner Bros. product of the time. The film follows nebbishy Stuart Erwin as he goes from country bumpkin to boxing star. His success is due somewhat to good genes (parents are boxing champ Robert Armstrong and spitfire ex-showgirl Marjorie Rambeau), but mostly it’s a result of underhanded doings by gangsters and his manager, played by Jimmy Durante. Also on hand is Lupe Velez as Irwin’s gold-digging hussy of a girlfriend, whose impossibly low-cut gown is the first clue that this is pre-Code stuff. The film gets draggy at times, and Irwin is seriously miscast, but it’s also a good opportunity to see Durante and Velez at their most dynamic. The two share the movie’s closing gag, which is priceless.
album_partridgeuptodateThe Partridge Family — Up To Date. As far as TV’s made-up musical groups go, the Partridge Family have never truly gotten their due. Their 1971 album Sound Magazine is, no joke, friggin’ fantastic. Total bubblegum for sure, but the elements that made them special (David Cassidy’s creamy voice, sharp production, white bread backup vocals and harpsichords galore) were at the top of their game on that particular platter. Up To Date, which preceded Sound Magazine by a season, isn’t quite as diverse or memorable but it does boast the dreamy hits “I’ll Meet You Halfway” and “Doesn’t Somebody Want To Be Wanted.” Other notable tracks include the guitar fuzzy “Lay It On The Line” and the delightful “That’ll Be The Day.” Written by frequent P.F. contributor Tony Romeo, it’s the one track that anticipates the wonderfulness of Sound Magazine. Another thing — Suzanne Crough rocks some good tambourine here.
Seventh Heaven (1927). Classic silent romance from director Frank Borzage and stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The epic story is set into motion when waifish Gaynor is thrown onto the street and taken in by kindly street cleaner Farrell. As the two share Farrell’s humble seventh-floor abode, they fall in love and marry — only to have the arrival of World War I separate them. First impression of this film is that it’s rather long and stodgy (and no match for F.W. Murnau’s contemporary Sunrise), but it’s also charming with a beautifully nuanced performance from Gaynor. Between this, Sunrise and Street Angel, it’s no wonder she was the recipient of the first Best Actress Oscar. I also enjoyed the charismatic Farrell and several of the supporting actors. The petite Gaynor and gangly Farrell always seemed like an odd physical match, but they do have an undeniable chemistry. I suppose this would be considered the 1927 edition of a Chick Flick. Borzage’s direction is assured and passionate, most notable for his still-impressive vertical pan up seven flights of stairs. What a set piece!
Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009). Absorbing documentary deals with Disney Animation’s journey from irrelevance and near-death in the early ’80s to its second golden age starting with 1989’s The Little Mermaid through 1994’s The Lion King. Surprisingly for a Disney-endorsed product, the film casts an admiring but not entirely flattering view of studio heads Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. It also generously uses contemporary news footage and shots of press clippings to show how the studio’s inner dealings were communicated to the outside world. Eisner and Katzenberg come across like canny Hollywood players who are willing to learn but constantly at odds with creatives. It’s a very old story, but the fact that it covers a relatively recent period and all the major players are on hand to speak works in the film’s favor. I was very suspicious that the film might come across as too cozy and complimentary of that era’s offerings (which are entertaining but a shade too Broadway-ish for my personal tastes), but that wasn’t the case at all. Despite all the executive-level turbulence, the film actually makes Disney look like a fantastic place to work!

Exploring the Billboard Hot 100

Recently our internet service provider sent us a holiday gift of three free song downloads. At first I envisioned an iTunes-like array of music to pick from, but the actual choices were restricted to this list of the current Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart. Hmm. Current pop music isn’t something I usually gravitate towards, but I sensed a challenge here and decided to at least sample the clips of all 96 songs they had available. Man, this made me feel old. It really says something that Pink (or more precisely, P!nk), whose jumpy #2 hit “Raise Your Glass” is one of the chart’s better entries, is considered one of the veteran pop performers in the Hot 100… her first album came out a mere 10 years ago. Other observations:

  • The top 40 is filled with the usual teen-oriented, overly produced swill, but there were a few notable goodies. Cee-Lo Green’s “Forget You” is a certified smash with the kind of classic, Motown-inspired melody that will likely stay durable in the next 10 or 20 years (personally I prefer the bluntness of the radio unfriendly version). I get a similar vibe off Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” although her other charting single “Firework” did nothing for me. Both of these share chart space with their corresponding Glee cover versions. The Glee stuff is fun and all, but it comes across as too shrill outside the TV context.
  • Below the top 40, bucketloads of Country. This surprised me. I would expect to find crossover-friendly artists like Taylor Swift in there, but many of the tunes were hardcore, intense, soul-searchin’ twangy stuff from people who would have never escaped the CMT ghetto only five years ago. What happened?
  • Speaking of which, what very few veteran performers reside in the Hot 100 are said Country stars — Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley (whose unborn baby narrative “Anything Like Me” might be the most cloying thing in the 100), Alan Jackson, Toby Keith, Reba McEntire (!) and George Strait (!!!). The only non-Country veteran to land on the chart is the ghost of Michael Jackson, whose collaboration with rapper Akon “Hold My Hand” appears at #84.
  • And hip-hop. Lots of hip-hip, but it leaves the impression that the genre has changed little over the past decade. And when did Eminem get so damn depressing?
  • A few songs from people you’d expect. Ke$ha? Annoying and bratty sounding as ever. Kanye West? Meh. Rihanna? No longer sings like a robot, but not terribly interesting either.
  • Out of the singles ranked outside the top 40, the only ones that halfway appealed to me were the Plain White T’s “Rhythm of Love” at #66 and “Strip Me” by Brit songstress Natasha Bedingfield, which barely made it in at #100. Like I said, lots of dreadful Country/Hip-Hop to slog through.

That said, let’s move on to the three tracks I finally settled upon:

Bruno Mars — Just the Way You Are (#7). This one’s a bit on the mawkish side (I predict many wedding plays), but it boasts a killer hook and Mars’ voice is sweetly pure against a blessedly simple production. The charismatic Mars, who also co-wrote “Forget You,” certainly has the goods to have a long-lasting career.

Enrique Iglesias featuring Pitbull — I Like It (#21). A cheeseball party anthem that made its debut on MTV’s Jersey Shore, what’s not to like? It might be considered a desperate move to grab a mass audience on Iglesias’ part, but this one feels similar to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass” in having an immediate, appealing hook that grabs you from first listen and never lets go.

Edward Maya & Vika Jigulina — Stereo Love (#35). Probably the most unusual song in the Hot 100, this sinuous dance track (from Romania!) topped charts all over Europe last year. The synth-based groove is as cold and robotic as anything a U.S. artist could come up with (actually, it’s very reminiscent of Robin S’s ’90s dancefloor hit “Show Me Love”), only the results are somehow more organic and sexy. I’m loving this one. It’s gotta be the accordion. I guess Weird Al Yankovic isn’t the only one who knows that any pop song can be improved with accordion.

Weekly Mishmash: November 21-27

Belle and Sebastian — Write About Love. Given this album’s mixed reviews, I was leery but decided to give it compulsive download off eMusic (their label was leaving the site). Belle and Sebastian’s fans tend toward two camps: those who love the early, twee indie stuff and those who love the later, more polished sound. This new album seems to have alienated both. On first listen, the album seems pleasant if exceedingly safe and half-baked. Further exploration ought to reveal more depth to the songs, but mostly they come across as throwaways. I totally dug The Life Pursuit (2006) and Dear Catastrophe Waitress (2004), but it’s been nearly five years and I was expecting much more than a formless grab bag of folskiness and jumpy, ’60s tinged pop. This outing is a bit different in allowing guest performers: Norah Jones is her usual scintillating self on “Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John,” but she’s simply too unique to fit into the B&S universe. It’s a jarring presence and the fact that the song is underwhelming doesn’t help at all. At least the chipper singing voice of actress Carey Mulligan is more smoothly integrated on the title cut (one of the better tracks, actually). This isn’t a horrible album — three or four tracks would be a great addition to a “Best of B&S” mix — but it isn’t terribly distinctive or great, either.
Gold Diggers In Paris (1938). My second offering from the Busby Berkely vol. 2 DVD set is the last (and weakest) of the Warner Bros. Gold Digger musicals. Exchanging Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler/Joan Blondell for the considerably lower-wattage Rudy Vallee and Rosemary Lane is the first clue that we’re in for a more grounded, less glitzy time. The slight story opens on a South Seas-themed nightclub run by cash-strapped Vallee and the wonderful Allen Jenkins. When French emissary Hugh Herbert mistakenly visits the club and invites Vallee’s chorus girls to perform at that year’s Paris Exhibition, Vallee and Co. must hurredly get the troupe trained in classical ballet and hope that Herbert doesn’t notice. Meanwhile, Vallee deals with a chiseling ex-wife (Gloria Dickson) and falls for the elegant lady (Lane) who works at the ballet school. Silly nonsense, basically. There’s still some fun to be had, especially in the scenes with Jenkins and stocky Edward Brophy as a dim-witted gangster who tears up at the sight of beautifully performed ballet movements. The film also has goofy faced, mugging blonde Mabel Todd, an odd novelty jazz combo called The Schnickelfritz Band, and a subplot involving a talking dog — signs that this once-elegant series was taking a turn towards the lowest common denominator.
poster_mutiny35Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Rented this for the simple reason that it was one of the few 1930s Best Picture Oscar winners I had yet to see. I don’t know why it was avoided so long; the picture is a swell maritime adventure and a good example of Hollywood studiocraft in its prime. As for the story, you know it by now — a British shipping vessel bound for Tahiti is commanded by the fierce Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton). As the voyage goes on, his increasingly tyrannical behavior causes first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) and midshipman Byam (Franchot Tone) to stage a revolt and stay on the tropical island. What’s interesting about this film is the pacing — the first and last fifths are dense and plot-heavy, while the middle part takes its time in showing both the escalating tension caused by Laughton and the idyllic paradise once the men land in Tahiti. I liked both that and the acting (especially Laughton, who is a formidable presence). The film also seemed refreshingly non-stagy. The boat scenes are as realistic as possible, and I don’t know where they filmed the tropical scenes but they put the viewer right there with the swaying palms and such. The only cheesiness came in one brief special effects shot when a crewman was dragged underneath the ship (it looked like a doll in an aquarium). As history it’s questionable, too, but when it comes to good old fashioned storytelling the film is tops.
Opening Night (1977). Searing John Cassavetes film about an actress (Gena Rowlands) whose boozy life spirals downward after witnessing the accidental death of one of her fans. This was typical Cassavetes/Rowlands territory, on the unpolished, long and meandering side but engrossing all the same. I had a similar reaction to A Woman Under The Influence in wondering how the actors held up after playing characters who are put through an emotional ringer scene after scene. Unlike Woman, this film spends a lot of time exploring the mechanics of the characters’ workplace — it is interesting (and cool) to watch various play scenes being acted out from both backstage and the audience’s point of view. On the acting side, Rowlands, Cassavetes (who plays a fellow actor) and Ben Gazzara (as Rowlands’ director) are all very good. I also relished seeing an older, matronly Joan Blondell in the cast and acquainting herself well with a casual ’70s indie milieu. This was a good film, with a notably uninhibited lead performance, but with more editing it could have been truly fantastic. One gets the feeling that Cassavetes was too invested in the footage to step back and trim at least a half hour from his own movie.
Suicide Squad (1935). Another poverty row Joyce Compton picture, and one of her worst (having sat through the likes of Escape To Paradise and King Kelly of the U.S.A., that’s saying a lot). This was a routine (boring) and modest (dirt cheap) fire fighting drama in which Compton co-stars with Norman Foster as an overly confident firefighting recruit. I have a more thorough writeup on the Joyce Compton News & Notes weblog.

Weekly Mishmash: November 14-20

poster_aelita

Aelita, Queen Of Mars (1921). A Russian silent film that deals with a colony of martians and the comrades back home who are attempting to reach them. The lengthy terra firma portions of this film drag along in dogmatic Commie propaganda, but if anything this is a must see for the eye-popping martian sequences. These were designed by Yuri Zheliabovsky and Alexandra Exter in high Russian Constructivist style, with angular staircases, wild costumes and amazing theatricality. If nothing else, the boxy, contrasty 1921 version of robots must be seen. It’s Art Deco before Art Deco came along, and quite a visual feast. We watched this streamed on Netflix, too.
Billy the Kid (2008). Jennifer Venditti’s first documentary follows 15 year-old Billy, an awkward teen who lives in a Maine trailer with his single mom and toddler brother. We follow the boy as he philosophizes on life and attempts to make a crazy-eyed girl working at the local diner his first girlfriend. The camera’s presence makes things more uncomfortable, however. Billy seems like a bright kid, a bit weird but needing to find his way in a manner typical of boys his age. The camera’s presence is uncomfortable, however, and many scenes linger on way too long. I have nothing against Billy or his prosaic surroundings (school lockers, dingy store fronts, bicycles and message t-shirts abound), but the subject is much too banal for a feature length doc. Perhaps a more skilled filmmaker could have made this a nice “slice of life” episode of Independent Lens on PBS, but as it is this was a huge bore.
Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Werner Herzog’s recent documentary on the South Pole and the oddball scientists studying there was very highly regarded, but I can’t remember an instance where I was so let down by a doc. This was especially disappointing since I found Herzog’s Grizzly Man one of the most compelling things I’ve ever seen. For this project, Herzog journeyed to the pole with only the vague promise that he wouldn’t focus too hard on the penguins. He narrates throughout in his charming German-accented voice, hanging around a dingy settlement populated with a variety of likable, hippie-ish folk who are there to spelunk in freezing waters, study the shifting climate and discover new microscopic species daily. Worthy subjects to film, sure, but the end result could have used some added finesse and a lot more tight editing. Not necessarily MTV-style cutting, but Herzog seems to linger around these people to an uncomfortable degree. There’s also a lot of supposedly beautiful underwater footage oddly scored to chanting and droning violins (which prompted much turning down of the volume). In between, Herzog does lots of tiresome speculating about how mankind is doomed to extinction, mustn’t mess with nature’s force, etc., points he covered more concisely in Grizzly Man.
Exam (2009). Understated British indie that does wonders with a diabolically simple concept. At a pharmaceutical conglomerate headquarters set in an unspecified future, eight job applicants are locked in a windowless room with vague rules that they must answer a question within a specified time. The nature of the question is not given; they are only given strict instructions not to soil the papers they each have on separate tables, nor can they address the attending security guard or the company official (observing them from another room). They are given 80 minutes to find out the question (or questions). What follows is an increasingly tense test of wills in which the applicants cooperate, connive and eventually struggle for their own lives. The unusual premise is effectively handled; director Stuart Hazeldine gets several good performances out of a mostly unknown cast (I only recognized actor Jimi Mistry, playing a role very different from his affable gay man in Touch Of Pink). Some of it unfolded predictably, but overall both of us were very impressed. It reminded me of Moon in demonstrating what quality acting and a nice, tightly written script can achieve.
poster_hisdoublelifeHis Double Life (1933). Another offering from the Comedy Kings 50 Movie Pack set, this farce might be considered a pleasantly quaint relic if it weren’t for the two stars, Roland Young (Brit best known for the two Topper movies) and Lillian Gish. Young plays a famous, reclusive artist who winds up inadvertently assuming the identity of his own valet after the man dies. The artist’s passing sends shock waves through the community. Things are further complicated when Young meets spinster Gish, who had been having a romantic correspondence with the valet. This is a creaky property which gets fairly ridiculous in the final courtroom act, but it’s interesting if only to see Gish in an early talking role. She’s as luminous here as she ever was in silents, and the actress refreshingly plays the role as a strong, sensible woman. It’s no wonder Young falls for her.
album_stetienneSaint Etienne — Tales from Turnpike House. eMusic purchase. Retro pop trio Saint Etienne was one of my fave ’90s groups — but after the rudderless techno noodling on 2000’s Sound of Water and 2002’s Finistierre, they fell off my radar. When Tales from Turnpike House arrived in 2005, I honestly barely noticed. Even so, a Pandora station dedicated to the groovy trio seemed to favor several Turnpike tracks. I delighted in them in the same way Jacqueline Susann enjoyed a new Pucci print pantsuit. The tracks were light and effortlessly chic, harking back to the good old Saint Etienne and yet with a refinement suitable for a new era. The album itself is a suite revolving around the various goings-on in a typical British neighborhood, smartly observant and exactly what I’d expect of them. Much of it takes on a gentle, bossa nova influenced groove, only with bits of Beach Boysish harmonies and current electro-dance pulses (as on “Lightning Strikes Twice”) to liven up the proceedings. It’s fantastic. Why did I miss out on this for so long? This is the latest Etienne album to date, sadly, but all nine of their long players have recently undergone the deluxe reissue treatment in the U.K. Me want!

Weekly Mishmash I: October 31 – November 6

We’ve got more entertainment than usual in the past week, so once again I’m splitting the Mishmash in two:
Fireball 500 (1966) and Thunder Alley (1967). A double bill of AIP stock car racing flicks from the ’60s starring Annette Funicello and Fabian. These have been on DVD for a few years now, but I finally got to catch them when they got shown on our local This TV HD channel, which seems to be a haven for exploitation, action/adventure and cheesy TV movies from the ’60s-’80s (Beverly Hills Madam, anyone?). Just my style, in other words. Both of these movies are honestly pretty dull, but they’re interesting if only to check out how American International morphed from perky teens on the beach to motorcycle/rebel schlock over the course of the ’60s. The earlier Fireball 500 owes more to the Beach Party template, with Annette and Fabian joined by Frankie Avalon and Harvey Lembeck in a tale that uneasily mixes lowbrow yuks, campy songs and lots of stock footage of NASCAR crashes. The same footage seemingly popped up the follow year in Thunder Alley, a film that still wallows in action clichés but boasts a more cohesive story and an improved, appealing cast. A refinement, if you will. The film also has lovely Annette singing one of her best tunes, “When You Get What You Want”:

The House of the Devil (2008). Every Halloween, we have a tradition of turning off the porch light to ward off trick or treaters (why should a bunch of strange kids take our candy?), hide off in the back room, and watch a scary movie. This year’s offering was the recent indie The House of the Devil, writer/director Ti West’s modest yet affectionate tribute to early ’80s “babysitter in peril” flicks. The film concerns a cash-strapped college student (Jocelin Donahue) who accepts a job looking over an infirm old woman in a cavernous home while the woman’s creepy caretakers (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are out for the night. The film initially sets up a nice, period-accurate vibe with grainy film stock, correct clothing and vehicles, and Donahue’s blank countenance which seems right in line with every ’80s horror actress from Jamie Lee Curtis on down. Unfortunately, the film isn’t very exciting or suspenseful with its never-ending scenes of Donahue padding around the house. Once the action does hit in the final 20 minutes, it’s also a huge, cliché filled letdown. Well intentioned, but a bore. I need to pick something better for next Halloween.
cd_nippongirlsVarious — Nippon Girls: Japanese Pop, Beat & Bossa Nova 1966-70. An import compilation CD of tasty girl-led Japanese pop from the ’60s as compiled and annotated by Sheila Burgel of Cha-Cha Charming magazine. This is a delightful set, all the more enjoyable since Japanese music in general is still something of an enigma to these ears. This set concentrates on the Group Sounds movement, an Asian response to the British and American rock scene of the era. On the whole it’s energetic, wonderfully kitschy music that would fit nicely into a go-go discotheque scene from a particularly groovy Godzilla flick. It’s surprising to hear so many women with strong, authoritative voices here, something that must have sounded mighty progressive in ’60s Japan. Highlights include Ayumi Ishida’s dramatic, harpsichord driven “Taiyou Wa Naite Iru” (a cousin to Procol Harum’s “Conquistador”) and Mari Atsumi’s sweepingly seductive “Suki Yo Ai Shite.”
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971). Over the course of a week in tony London, a prickly divorcée (Glenda Jackson) and a Jewish doctor (Peter Finch) share both a party line and an artist lover (Murray Head) while trying hard not to acknowledge each others’ existence. I’ve always been curious about this acclaimed domestic drama from director John Schlesigner. It’s a shrill, confusing film with the leads seemingly thrown into a chaotic world against their will. The gay angle must have seemed shocking in 1971. It’s nicely handled, however, with Finch and Head delivering subtle, blessedly non-stereotypical work. As a matter of fact, luminous performances are the most timeless aspect of this film; Jackson and Finch especially come across as flawed, funny and above all human here. If ever a film rode on the work of its leads, it’s this one. The film is very hard-hitting and realistic, dealing with themes similar to that of a more durable musical of the era, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It goes into strange territory in the second half with Finch seemingly having a revelatory moment at a family member’s bar mitzvah ceremony, then delivering an odd monologue directly to the camera. That seemed unnecessary and makes this effort more maddening than anything else.

Sketches of Dusty

I drew these sketches shortly after downloading a massive BitTorrent package containing basically everything Dusty Springfield recorded from 1961-1995. This will be an interesting project to digest slowly over time. It begins with Blossom Dearie’s sweet 1970 ode “Dusty Springfield,” followed by a trio of charming acetates the erstwhile Mary O’Brien recorded as a youngster. As of now I’m just getting into the material she did with her brother Tom as folkie trio The Springfields. This music is actually quite lively and shares a lot in common with the jumpier cuts Ms. Springfield would do later on in the ’60s. Anyhow, these pages are my little tribute to Dusty in all her magnificent blondness over the years.

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