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Category Archives: Vinyl

Weekly Mishmash: October 17-23

George Benson — Give Me The Night. Downloaded this album along with an array of Mr. Benson’s hits from 1981-84. The Quincy Jones production Give Me The Night was Benson’s full fledged leap out of jazz guitar and into R&B stardom; the title track is one of those tunes that’s so distinct I recall the first time I heard it (in my mom’s car, going somewhere at night). The album has feet in both pop/R&B and jazz, with some tracks bringing on the funk like a sequel to Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall and others in a less commercial vein (his duet with Patti Austin on “Moody’s Mood,” for example). Burdened with a few too many lover-man ballads to be truly excellent, it’s still a good showcase Benson’s smooth voice and smoother guitar riffing. All in all, I actually prefer Benson’s pop stuff, but instrumentals “Off Broadway” and “Dinorah, Dinorah” are surprising highlights.
dvd_bugsbunnyBugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire (Looney Tunes Super Stars). A birthday gift from Christopher. Bugs Bunny: Hare Extraordinaire (along with companion Daffy Duck volume, Frustrated Fowl) represents Warner Home Video’s dip back into the Looney Tunes DVD game after the company announced it was ceasing the acclaimed Looney Tunes Golden Collection box sets. Unlike the grand Golden Collections, these sets contain a mere 15 cartoons each — all new to DVD but dating from the less than inspired 1950-64 period. Although it contains a few gems (Chuck Jones’ Lumber-Jack Rabbit was a sentimental fave), the blandness of Hare Extraordinaire is pretty familiar to anyone who noticed the quality of the Bugs discs in the Golden Collections going down with each successive volume. The DVD contains no commentaries or extras of any kind. Adding insult to injury is the fact that two thirds of the cartoons are presented in fake anamorphic widescreen, with the tops and bottoms of the picture lopped off. I’d definitely rather buy a Warner Archive set of scratched up Bosko cartoons than this shoddy product. Minor plus: nice cover design.
Children of a Lesser God (1986). William Hurt as an idealistic teacher at a small New England school for the deaf meets willful ex-student Marlee Matlin; Hurt attempts to teach Matlin how to speak while the two gradually become lovers. This was an interesting film; very well acted and not nearly as soapy as originally suspected. This film was adapted by director Randa Haines from Mark Medoff’s successful Broadway play; instead of feeling stagey, however, it nicely captures the atmosphere of a small town/workplace and its residents. Even the young deaf actors playing students were natural. I suppose Matlin’s Oscar was something of a P.C. gesture, but she’s startlingly good (especially playing pissed off, which comes often) and has a lot of screen presence. I was amused to see Linda Bove, best known as Linda the deaf lady on Sesame Street, in the cast. This film explores issues of the deaf community assimilating while retaining their own sense of specialness, a theme that’s even more resonant today with developments in cochleal implants, etc. It would be cool to see how the characters and situations would be handled in a contemporary setting.
The Small Back Room (1949). A minor Powell and Pressburger film, somewhat moribund and talky in spots but compelling nonetheless. In 1943 England, an embittered bomb diffusion expert (David Farrar) deals with alcoholism and a concerned girlfriend (Kathleen Byron) before being assigned to defuse a cutting edge bomb left on a pebbly beach. This is a low-key drama, at times nicely acted by the two stars of Black Narcissus. The alcohol angle seemed like a Lost Weekend ripoff to me, however, and other elements of the story didn’t have enough bite to truly keep us interested. The climax was well paced, however.
Temple Grandin (2010). Excellent movie on a woman of whom I’ve previously known very little (basically snippets of an NPR interview). Temple Grandin is a scientist and animal rights activist who overcame autism to develop innovative ways of immunizing and slaughtering cattle. The film chronicles Grandin’s life from childhood through her difficult college years and eventually making her mark in the male-centric cattle industry. Claire Danes as Grandin is nothing short of wonderful, and if you’d seen the two at the Emmy awards you’d notice that Danes’ somewhat mannered performance is actually a perfect mimicry of the real Grandin (which makes it all the more extraordinary). The film covers a lot of territory in a concise way, skillfully using special effects and overlaid animation to convey Grandin’s obsessive, detail oriented viewpoint. It’s an incredibly moving story, beautifully told. Danes has been getting most of the acclaim, but Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara and David Strathairn also contribute great work to this movie that needs to be seen. I’d even think that Ms. Grandin is one of the unsung heroes of our time.

Weekly Mishmash: October 10-16

Esquire magazine iPad app. Needing something to read for the long plane trip back home from Hawaii, I decided to spring for Esquire‘s grab at the burgeoning magazine app field. This was the October issue, opening with a subtle title card and footage of cover subject Javier Bardem fading into an image of that issue’s cover. Color me impressed: instead of magazine pages merely transferred to digital, each article is designed to fit with the iPad. The app is organized around a interface that brings the issue’s contents to the fore with one tap. The editors include just enough interactive content to be snazzy yet not obnoxious. I ended up reading the entire issue (save the long, long Philip Roth profile) on that plane trip.
album_ebtgworldwideEverything But The Girl — Worldwide. Everything But The Girl is one of my fave groups. Part of the appeal of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn’s back catalog is that it’s so eclectic, ranging from quasi-Smiths jangle to mellow jazz-pop to techno. 1991’s Worldwide dates from the duo’s maligned Adult Contemporary period, and since it spawned zero hit singles it remains the only EBTG album not currently available for download. Despite the sometimes dated production styles, it’s actually a nifty little album which generally sticks with the pensive acoustic pop of classic EBGT. As usual Watt and Thorn contribute songs both as a duo and separately, with Watt’s material tending towards the sentimental and Thorn’s writing being diamonds in the rough (her two tracks, “You Lift Me Up” and “One Place” are highlights). Opener “Old Friends” is awash in mawkish synths reminiscent of something like the Force M.D.’s “Tender Love,” but the song itself is a lovely paean to the power of friendship. Typical of an album that grows on you with each successive listen.
Last Tango in Paris (1972). Controversial in its time, this is the film that inspired Pauline Kael to write a rapturous New Yorker review proclaiming it a cinematic game changer. After finally seeing it this week, I have to wonder what the fuss was about. It does boast a powerful, uninhibited performance by Marlon Brando as an American expatriate who is grieving his Parisian wife’s suicide. While squatting in an empty apartment, he meets a pretty college-aged girl (Maria Schneider) and the two have a torrid affair which over time turns into an unpleasant power struggle. This was directed and scripted by Bernado Bertolucci, coming out two years after his superior WWII drama The Conformist. Although the film does have a few interesting scenes (particularly those between Schneider and her filmmaker boyfriend, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), mostly it seemed like some random skeevy straight guy’s fantasy put to film. It’s awfully disjointed and not very sexy (to be fair, it wasn’t meant to be), and I kept feeling sorry for Schneider, who was the ultimate victim of this chauvinistic enterprise. I actually looked up Kael’s review after viewing this, and although I can see her point about it being revelatory for the era the film generally doesn’t hold up. Forty years on, the main reasons for viewing would be the luminous cinematography and Brando’s still surprising acting chops.
1959: The Year Everything Changed by Peter Kaplan. A brisk, fascinating read about the varied achievements of a single year — 1959. Grandiose subtitle notwithstanding, this book proves its point with easily digestible chapters covering advances in civil rights, Cuba/Communism, jazz, Vietnam, the Beats, envelope pushing comedy and literature, Motown, the space race and much more. Although the chapters are on the shortish side, they contain a lot of detail. Some of the areas covered illuminated subjects completely new to me — the making of John Howard Griffin’s race study Black Like Me and Margaret Sanger’s tireless campaign for female reproductive rights, for instance. I suppose Kaplan could have written a book like this on any given year, but 1959 served as a catalyst for the complex ’60s and the book is as good an argument for that as anything else available.
poster_unholypartnersUnholy Partners (1941). One of the nice byproducts of our Maui trip is that our hotel room television had Turner Classic Movies. Good old TCM, how I missed you so! We had a few extra hours one morning, so I stuck it on TCM’s birthday tribute to actress Laraine Day. Unholy Partners is a routine MGM drama in which Day has one of her usual lovesick lady roles, this time opposite the dynamic Edward G. Robinson. In this overheated yarn, returning WWI vet/newspaper editor Robinson is itching to try something new and exciting, so he hooks up with the well-connected and powerful Edward Arnold to start up a juicy, sensational tabloid, a move that introduces him to New York’s shady underworld while alienating his loyal cronies. I enjoyed the interplay between Robinson and Arnold, but mostly this was a standard drama filled with anachronistic touches and bland supporting players. The film climaxes with Day’s earnest and wildly inaccurate speech declaring that “the tabloid age is over.” I suppose this gal never watched the Fox News channel.

Weekly Mishmash: September 26 – October 2

City for Conquest (1940). Hokey but enjoyable vintage Warner Bros. melodrama with the cracklin’ combo of James Cagney and Ann Sheridan. Viewed (again) this week, I posted a more thorough writeup of the film at the Joyce Compton News & Notes weblog.
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). Another week trawling the DVD bins at Big Lots (more precisely, Big Lots!), resulted in netting the special edition of this archetypal Giant Monster Flick for only five bucks. For the uninitiated, this is the film in which a gigantic octopus terrorizes San Francisco, one tentacle at a time. Leads Kenneth Tobey and Faith Domergue attempt to quell the oncoming horror (which builds up nicely in the film’s first half), all the while attempting to convince viewers that they are not the bargain basement version of Van Johnson and Hedy Lamarr. Once the creature finally arrives to wreak havoc, it’s impressively rendered via Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion animation.
Soundtrack – Revolutionary Girl Utena. I made another trip to the local Salvation Army this week and was surprised to find a decent amount of used Japanese anime soundtracks in the CD racks. Many of the CDs were swiped (what is it with thrift store shoppers refusing to pay a dollar for a dang CD?), but one intriguing selection with disc intact was this musical adaptation of the popular Revolutionary Girl Utena manga. Going by the “if the cover depicts someone with pink hair, buy it” rule, I plunked down two bucks. It’s actually a nice sounding disc, filled with lushly arranged instrumentals with a classical bent. For all I can divine, this might be the soundtrack for a TV series, feature film or stage show (or all three). The CD is bookended with two cool vocal numbers, Luca Yumi’s “Truth” and Masami Okui’s “Round Dance – Revolution” (video below), both stellar examples of fizzy ’90s J-pop.

poster_streetangelStreet Angel (1928). Late silent was one of three films that helped Janet Gaynor win the first Best Actress Academy Award (from back when they awarded for multiple performances by the same individual in a given year). Gaynor’s sensitive, nuanced performance as an Italian street waif is actually one of the few strong points in this otherwise flawed melodrama. The All-American Gaynor and frequent co-star Charles Farrell are oddly cast as simple Italian folk in a story that goes through a lot of effort to communicate the simple truism that Love Conquers All. Faced with an ailing mother, a desperate Gaynor takes to the streets of Napoli to prostitute herself (in these scenes, Gaynor is somehow both painful and hilarious to watch). Before she can get herself a john, the police take her into custody. She eventually escapes and befriends earnest painter Farrell in a traveling performing troupe. It doesn’t take long before her sordid past catches up with the duo, however. Although the film is sensitively directed by Frank Borzage, this routine romance is easily the lesser of the three award winning Gaynor vehicles (Seventh Heaven and the tremendous Sunrise were the other two). In addition to Gaynor’s performance, I loved the photography and the lavish street set. Farrell is a dull lead, however, and his one dimensionality is matched by the story.
Take Aim at the Police Van (1960). Part of Criterion’s “Nikkatsu Noir” Eclipse box set, this Seijun Suzuki whodunit is a stylish if very confusing venture. Opens impressively with a scene in which two men pull off an intricate heist of a bus transporting prisoners. That even spurs prison guard Michitaro Mizushima to investigate, pulling him into a mess of underworld double-crossers and shady ladies. To be honest, I got lost after the first half hour and didn’t know what the hell was going on. Mizushima and the rest of the cast are rather straightforward actors, so that left me to admire the wide screen photography, jazzy score, and little else.
White Dog (1982). Until Criterion recently released it on DVD, Sam Fuller’s final film was something that was more talked about than actually seen. Like Song of the South, its unsavory reputation tends to overwhelm what is basically a rather benign film. The movie concerns the title creature, a german shepherd adopted by a young woman (Kristy MacNichol) after she accidentally runs it over. After finding the dog is prone to sudden attacks on black people, she takes it to an animal sanctuary run by Burl Ives. There, trainer Paul Scofield Winfield makes an extraordinary effort to make the dog un-learn its horrible affliction. This film has a lot of good things going for it. Fuller creates a nice sense of dread as the film progresses and gets some notable work out of MacNichol and Winfield (not to mention the five or six well-trained white dogs). Ennio Morricone’s subtle and atmospheric score also goes a long way towards setting the mood. Despite all that, the movie on the whole came across like a dour if well-made TV drama. You have to wonder what the fuss was about – as explained in the very informative interviews included on the DVD, the film’s production was hobbled by NAACP protests, then the studio decided to dump it into only one U.S. theater before releasing it overseas (where it was a well regarded success, in France at least). At the very least, the unusual story and the dog itself makes the film worth a peek.

Weekly Mishmash: September 19-25

album_basiaBasia – Clear Horizon: The Best of Basia. Basia was another one of those singers I’ve always been curious about but never truly checked out, a big part of her attraction coming from being part of the ’80s “sophisti-pop” movement and all. The 1998 comp Clear Horizon was a good introduction, with tracks that span her first three albums from 1987-94, a pair of casually sung live tracks, a 1996 single (“Angels Blush” b/w “Waters Of March”) and two then-new cuts. She certainly was an odd duck, at least when first arriving on the scene. I can vividly remember hearing “Time And Tide” for the first time — it was the Fall of ’87 and I was driving to classes my first semester in college. Despite running late that morning, I felt compelled to sit in the car and hear the entire song — who the heck is this nasal-voiced lady with the beautiful song? The combo of brittle synth production and bossa nova stylings seemed pretty bizarre back then, but it’s actually worked in Basia’s favor over the years as her voice has mellowed and she (along with collaborator Danny White) has settled into a more adult, jazzy groove. The most blatantly Bossa Nova tunes in this set are my favorites, 1994’s sweetly endearing “Third Time Lucky” and her version of the Brazilian standard “Waters of March.” Stevie Wonder cover “Until You Come Back To Me”, a semi-hit from 1990, is the only standout omission — the track’s badly dated, quasi hip-hop percussion would have really stood out in these surroundings, however. As a supplement, I also downloaded Basia’s appearances on Peter White’s gorgeous “Just Another Day” and Spyro Gyra’s “Springtime Laughter.” Sophisticated pop, indeed.

Food, Inc. (2008). An eye-opener, even if much of the info in this feature length exposé of the nefarious U.S. food industry has already been covered in other documentaries. What sets the Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. apart from the rest is its super-slick presentation. From the clever opening credits, with the film’s personnel incorporated into faux food labels in a supermarket, we knew we were in for Michael Moore-esque muckraking infotainment. But, despite the flashiness, does it truly get its point across? I’d say yes. The filmmakers included powerful (and stomach churning) footage that even our jaded eyes blanched at. It also covers myriad subjects in an eloquent way. Most Americans still live in blissful ignorance when it comes to subjects like the FDA’s uselessness or the evil ways of Monsanto. More importantly, these are issues that affect us directly in our own physical well-being. It truly is a fascinating look at how lax government standards and the incentive of producing vast quantities of cheap food have led to an epidemic. The feel-good text running prior to the end credits was something of a cop out (I had a similar reaction to An Inconvenient Truth). Other than that, this is a powerful film that especially resonates during these mid-term election days.
Nana (2005). Meandering but ultimately worthwhile Japanese drama, adapted from the popular manga of the same name. This film concerns two young women with the same name who meet by chance on a snowbound rail car. Nana Osaki (Mika Nakashima) is the sulky lead singer of a goth/punk band, while the über perky Nana Komatsu (Aoi Miyazaki) is trying to find a job — and herself — so she can marry her high school sweetheart. Although the two initially seem to share little in common, their differences bring out the best in each other when the pair become roommates. This is an appealing film which takes a refreshingly dry, realistic approach to a plot which might read “bad sitcom” on first perusal. Although it sags in the middle and contains a few extraneous song performances, the appealing leads and a satisfying conclusion put it slightly into the “winner” category. Unlike say, the Death Note movies, this isn’t a cut-and-dried manga adaptation. That works in this film’s favor.
The September Issue (2008). This was another wicked good documentary, chronicling famously icy Vogue editor Anna Wintour as she prepares the brick-like September 2007 issue for publication. Wintour is presented as a haughty yet somehow sweet and endearing woman, one having little in common with the cartoonish editrix played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (although it’s amusing that the office layouts at Vogue and in Prada are virtually identical). She seems all business, coolly overseeing layouts and tossing out slaved-over photos like so many ashes from a cigarette. As always suspected, most of the real work is done by a phalanx of support staff. Cheif among whom is creative editor Grace Coddington, who gets almost as much screen time as Wintour. The filmmakers closely follow Coddington as she prepares an elaborate photo shoot of fashions inspired by Brassai’s images of Parisian women in the 1920s — in these scenes, the grind and occasional magic of magazine production comes alive. A flame haired former model, the straight-talking Coddington is a refreshing change from Wintour and editor at large André Leon Talley (who always seemed like a fakey schmoozer to me; this film didn’t change my opinion one iota). It’s interesting how she represents the old guard of fashion as pure visual spectacle, with no interest in the celebrity worshipping angle to fashion coverage that Wintour helped create. On the other hand, the process of how they managed to make the inelegant and sloppy actress Sienna Miller into a stunning cover girl was worth a feature length doc in itself. Great viewing.

Weekly Mishmash: September 12-18

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Funny Face (1957). I first saw Funny Face at the impressionable age of sixteen or so; it was literally one of the movies that made me fall in love with old movies. To a shy gay kid in Tempe, Arizona, the combined sight of elegant Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, chi-chi fashions and Paris served as a window into another, nicer world. It is the kind of film that one stops to check out if it’s on somewhere, revisiting it occasionally like a warm old friend. It must have been a sign, therefore, when the DVD for my old friend popped up in the bargain bins at Ross, Dress for Lessâ„¢. At the very least I could check it out again to see if it still holds up. My feelings were summed up in a tweet: “S’wonderful, but Audrey Hepburn is something of an asshat in that movie, huh?” It’s true. Hepburn is still utterly adorable as a mousy bookstore clerk turned famous model, but her character does the most obnoxious things from beginning to end. First, after reluctantly agreeing to accompany Astaire’s photographer and Kay Thompson’s magazine editor to Paris, she forgets her very first modeling appointment. Then she ruins her debut press conference by arguing with Astaire (for whom she fell with improbable rapidity) over some silly issue. She’s uppity and pretentious throughout, climaxing with the scene where she bolts a triumphant fashion show to track down Astaire. That kind of behavior is simply inexcusable — especially when it relates to her being smitten with the appealing yet old Astaire — and yet I still love this movie. Maybe it’s director Stanley Donen’s light and airy, never studio-bound touch, or Thompson’s fabulousness as the driven Maggie Prescott (“Think Pink” is a highlight). Perhaps this is the filmic equivalent of an old friend who has done some crap that one doesn’t approve of, yet one feels close to anyhow. Yeah, that’s it.
book_jpkpresentsJoseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years by Cari Beauchamp. A few years back, author Cari Beauchamp wrote an absorbing book called Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood. This was a great narrative about female empowerment in the growing industry of motion pictures, but it did have an intriguing minor player in Joseph P. Kennedy, better known as the patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty but here portrayed as an early mover and shaker and one of the few non-Jewish movie moguls. With this later book, Beauchamp focuses entirely on Kennedy and his thorny Hollywood career. Kennedy put another feather in his “self made man” cap as head of FBO, a company that made a tidy profit with cheapie Westerns in the 1920s. His most notorious effort of that era, however, was the doomed Queen Kelly, a costly Erich von Stroheim epic starring Kennedy’s mistress, Gloria Swanson. The tangled production of that film made for some of the more interesting chapters in this book, along with the areas that dealt with Kennedy’s complex home life (I didn’t know he had an institutionalized daughter, for one). The bulk of the book deals with Kennedy’s wheelings and dealings, which is where it falters. Unlike screenwriter Francis Marion, who was a genuinely appealing and interesting person, Kennedy comes across as, well, a big douchebag. His ambition was admirable, but the man seems like the ultimate glad-handler whose all consuming desire for success left a lot of ruined lives in his path (including that of Marion’s husband, cowboy actor Fred Thomson, who met a tragic fate when Kennedy froze him out of work). It is to Beauchamp’s credit that she can write about such a reprehensible person and make it work, but I was relieved to find him dead in the end.
The Legend of Bloody Mary (2008). Terribly acted, supposedly scary flick about a popular scary kid’s game. Like Candyman, this film uses the old apparition of Bloody Mary in the mirror as a starting point. In the film, a nerve-wracked college student is haunted by his sister’s disappearance when the two were kids. It seems she and her friends unwittingly resurrected the spirit of a vengeful 1800s spirit; it’s up to this guy and a priest/archeologist (!) to will the upset ghoulie back to the afterlife. This film appears to have been shot on a camcorder with community college acting class students. A sure sign of its classiness is the scene in which the priest consults a weathered 17th century document typeset in the computer age font ITC Blackadder. Christopher rented this with the hopes of seeing Glee‘s Cory Monteith in the nude; as it turns out, it’s the similarly titled Bloody Mary (2006) that contains Cory’s butt cheeks in a bloody death scene that likely cost three times as much as this opus.
album_janellearchJanelle Monae — The ArchAndroid. Still a fantastic album. Mind-blowing, actually. A second listen reveals the weird quasi-psychedelic touches in the album’s second half. It isn’t often that R&B/Hip Hop artists call to mind the likes of Donovan, but there it is in the trippy “Mushrooms & Roses.” When “Make the Bus” came on I thought “this sounds exactly like Of Montreal” — sure enough, this is a full-fledged collaboration with the funky indie group (apparently the two are currently touring together). Monae may not have the powerful pipes of a Beyoncé, but her vision and commitment is something to behold. The delightful psych-pop of “Wondaland” (which was included on a recent mix CD from a pal) is likely my favorite tune, and a good one to sample for the curious.
Retro Television Network (RTV). A nice surprise byproduct of cutting the satellite dish was finding a local feed for the fledgling Retro Television Network, an enterprise that aims to bring back the TV classics that TV Land so carelessly pissed away (along with its most loyal viewers) a few years back. A sampling of what we’ve seen in the past week: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Kraft Suspense Theater, The Jack Benny Show, Emergency, Marcus Welby M.D., It Takes A Thief, Run for Your Life, The Rifleman, Peter Gunn. Much of RTV’s lineup consists of hour long ’60s-’70s vintage drama and action series (many produced by Universal Studios). Sure, a lot of it is slow-paced and cheesy, but I loves me some good cheese. Behold: a 1970 episode of Marcus Welby M.D. with guest star Michele Lee as a hypochondriac spoiled rich girl who lived in a house with the ugliest avocado green and yellow living room. I dig it. Our DVR is going to be busy with this channel, which is much more than we can say for 99% of DirecTV’s offerings.

The ArchAndroid Sheds a Tear

I just downloaded The ArchAndroid from genre-defying (and hyped to the gills) artist Janelle Monáe. This concept album constitutes parts two and three of an epic story arc somehow involving oppressed yet sexy robots in the year 2719; one can’t fault the woman for being ambitious. While I don’t immediately get the concept, the album is a wildly inventive and eclectic suite. The project is anchored by clearly defined melodies and Monáe’s skilled, unadorned voice — thankfully she’s not buried under Auto Tune like other current divas (cough, Rihanna, cough). The music seems inspired by anything and everything yet somehow winds up being a cohesive whole; check the PopMatters review and comments to see her compared with everything from David Bowie to Vanessa Williams. The anthem-like “Cold War” with its touch of “Hey Ya” vibes (video below) is a highlight. Just the latest thing or a talent to be reckoned with?