The Art of the Steal (2009). Clearly biased but nevertheless enthralling documentary tracking one of the most valuable art collections on earth. The film’s first half details Albert Barnes, a Pennsylvania doctor who made a fortune developing an infant eye drop solution, and his efforts to accumulate an impressive collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art. The class-averse, philanthropic Barnes set up his collection as an educational resource for art students, and it stayed that way until Barnes unexpectedly died in the ’50s. Barnes’ will specified that the collection stay intact and preserved in the same building with the paintings arranged in a quirky yet beautiful, Salon-style manner on the walls. In the years that follow, the struggle between good intentions and exploitation magnify as the art’s value balloons. By the time the collection falls into the hands of a small black college in 1988, the kind of people Barnes despised (society types and politicians) are circling like vultures; what follows is a power play that would do Gordon Gekko proud. An interesting if not too balanced watch, this proves with depressing finality that money and power trumps art and education every time. It was interesting, however, that I could see both sides of the coin and with all the kerfuffle nobody emerges as a true villain (except perhaps the conservative Philadelphia newspaper magnate who ironically specified in his will that his own art collection stay intact).
The Face of Another (1966). Talky, visually arresting Japanese thriller about a man (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is given a chance to wear a lifelike mask to disguise his horribly disfigured face. This plot device is a springboard for director Hiroshi Teshigahara to explore levels of psychological and personal control, somehow encompassing the subplot of a young woman who is similarly disfigured (as a result of an atom bomb blast, we infer). Although the film is slow paced and obtuse, the odd art direction and wild settings (including a somewhat tasteless German-themed watering hole) kept me intrigued. Teshigahara, who also helmed the better-regarded Woman in the Dunes, throws around every sort of cinematic trick here, making this a slapdash but agreeably weird and atmospheric affair. Actor Nakadai is perfectly chilling in a role that comes off as Dr. Frankenstein and his own monster rolled into one. Honestly, much of the film’s symbolism went past me, but the meaning of many of the images are nicely pointed out in the video essay included as an extra on Criterion’s DVD.
Heidi (1937). Beloved children’s classic rejiggered as high style Shirley Temple vehicle. Since I read Johanna Spyri’s Heidi earlier this year, it’s interesting to note how many liberties the filmmakers took. The book is a love letter to the Swiss countryside and the pious simplicity of its people, as epitomized by the cheery title character; Heidi the film is Hollywood adventure with what was a minor chapter in the book (in which Heidi stays with a rich family) taking up the bulk of the second half. The movie plays fast and loose as a literary adaptation, and Temple is a bit too cloying for this part, but it was entertaining nonetheless. I could even accept the oddly shoehorned musical number in which Temple plays a clog wearing Dutch girl and bewigged French royalty. Shirley and her dimples dominate here, but special mention should be made of actress Mary Nash, who plays Heidi’s evil governess. Temple and Nash were also memorably teamed in The Little Princess, a slightly better literary adaptation from a few years later.
The Monkees — More of the Monkees. My second helping of Monkeemania from eMusic. This second album contains the group’s biggest hit, the utterly fabulous “I’m A Believer,” which ultimately made it the biggest selling LP of 1967. Musically it’s something of a grab bag, with a haphazard array of gritty garage rock, novelty numbers and Brill Building pop vying for attention. Although many Monkees fans don’t favor the more commercial, bubblegum sounding music heard here, I kinda dig it. It’s fascinating to hear what Neil Diamond, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Jeff Barry et al were coming up with at this point as the Girl Group and Doo Wop/R&B genres were falling to the wayside. Although I’ve read that Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork weren’t too happy with their lack of input on this album, it sure doesn’t show amongst the LP’s generally upbeat if scattered tracks. The album contains the rocking “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” and “Mary, Mary,” the horrid “Your Auntie Grizelda,” and Jones’ “The Day We Fall In Love,” a piece of mush that only Marcia Brady could possibly love. An interesting snapshot of 1967 pop; I supplemented this album with “Apples, Peaches, Bananas and Pears,” a bubblegumeriffic track that the band recorded at the time but didn’t see fit to release until the ’80s.
Silent Running (1972). Crunchy granola sci-fi with a conservationist message! This is an intriguing bit of pre-Star Wars, post-2001 cerebral sci fi, a film that attempts the excitement of the former and the cerebral tone of the latter without quite accomplishing either. The tale of a transport ship full of rare plants and animals being hijacked from returning to a battle-scarred Earth by environmentalist Bruce Dern is still relevant today. This despite it being told in a completely dated way with quaint special effects and a few earnest Joan Baez songs on the soundtrack. The film ultimately rides on Dern’s thin shoulders; I found him his usually flaky self at the beginning, but he grew on me as the film progressed and in the end I was touched by his plight. Poor Dewey.
Unfaithfully Yours (1948). Personal experience with the films of Preston Sturges tells me his stuff is either brilliant or crappy; Unfaithfully Yours is one of the crappy ones. The film follows short-tempered, jealous conductor Rex Harrison as he becomes aware that a detective trailed his beautiful wife (Linda Darnell) who may be having an affair. Rehearsing with his orchestra, Harrison becomes consumed by several “what if” scenarios, each one more outlandish than the last. While some of the dialogue had the sparkle of earlier Sturges films, I absolutely hated the main character. The screechy Harrison (whom I never really enjoyed) does zero to make this man relatable or sympathetic. The film reaches an absolute low point with an interminable slapstick sequence in which Harrison tries (and fails) to execute one of his schemes. For a supposed light comedy, this film contains many uncomfortably bleak scenes — including one in which Harrison attempts to get Darnell and her alleged lover to join him in a round of Russian Roulette. Yuck. For peak Sturges, stick with Sullivan’s Travels or The Palm Beach Story.