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Monthly Archives: March 2011

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Politically Incorrect Theatre

The spouse and I spent some time a couple of nights ago looking up all of the Warner Bros./Looney Tunes “Censored Eleven” on YouTube (thank you, Tivo Premiere). We found ten of the eleven, including a nice print of the 1936 Merrie Melodie Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time seen below. Directed by Termite Terrace stalwart Friz Freleng, this is a typical faux-Silly Symphonies outing of the day with lots of great gags and fun music. It was placed amongst the eleven for its stereotypical treatment of black characters, but for the most part the humor is pretty benign. African-Americans may find it offensive, or they may find it a fascinating little window (as I do) on how mainstream culture viewed black communities in the 1930s.

Personally, I’m looking forward to Warner giving all of the “Censored Eleven” a tasteful presentation on DVD. It’s supposedly on the way later on this year (originally planned for Warner Archive, but now I hear it will be a full-fledged retail release). Whatever the case may be, outright censorship is never the answer when it comes to politically incorrect pop culture of the past. Complain all you want, but let me be the judge of whether something is offensive or not.

Flick Clique II: March 20-26

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933). Understated late silent Japanese melodrama, part of Criterion’s Eclipse set celebrating acclaimed director Hiroshi Shimizu. This film chronicles two schoolgirls who are best friends. A local bad boy tempts one of the girls into riding on his bicycle, which causes a rift between the two that deepens over the ensuing years. One girl descends into prostitution (yet another Japanese hooker movie!), while the other marries young and lives a quiet life in the ‘burbs. Truth be told, this was actually somewhat dull in the plotting department, and the cast is full of pleasant, unmemorable actors. The film’s biggest assets lie in the unusually fluid camerawork and the scenery, which captures a small ocean town caught between tradition and the industrialized future.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Another Best Picture Oscar winner that I stuck on my Netflix queue roughly three years ago. Now that it has finally made its way to the top, I’m glad I finally got to catch it. You recall that this is the story of a young man from the slums (Dev Patel) who is tortured and interrogated because the correct answers he gives on the Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire seem too coincidental to be truly on the level. As we learn through flashbacks of his hardscrabble childhood, we find he’s an honest young man who only wants to reconnect with the beautiful girl (Freda Pinto) he loves. An entertaining story that director Danny Boyle keeps moving along with impressive fluidity, but somehow this one didn’t wow me all that much. It might be due to the fact that the film’s central theme was already covered in the better City Of God, or perhaps it’s the game yet underwhelming cast of young Indian actors (including Patel, whose emotions apparently range from dumbstruck to mildly shell shocked). I’m a big fan of Boyle’s movies going back to Trainspotting, but here he seems to be going through the motions. Even Sunshine, with its crappy “serial killer in space” development, was more visually stunning. Both of us enjoyed the “Ja Ho” Bollywood number at the conclusion, despite being sorely out of place.
Unstoppable (2010). This is the recent action film starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine, one that ought to have been called Runaway Train if that title hadn’t already been taken. The film was based on a true story of a freight train carrying dangerous chemicals that ended up running amok in Ohio (which the film moves to the more picturesque Pennsylvania in autumn), although you can be guaranteed that the engineer involved in stopping the train wasn’t quite as hunky as Chris Pine. The film moves quickly, but is also saddled with cliché-ridden characters and dialogue. Tony Scott directs with a sense of impending tension that never really connects with the viewer. Supporting players include a different train full of noisy school kids, a speedy flatbed pickup truck, Rosario Dawson’s microphone, a horse trailer, and several news copters that get dangerously close to the runaway star.

Flick Clique I: March 20-26

poster_bladerunnerBlade Runner (1982). Purely from a visual standpoint, Blade Runner is one of my all-time faves. BUT I hadn’t seen it in at least twenty years and was wondering if it still holds up. Christopher came across the ’90s director’s cut on DVD recently (the DVD itself, a rudimentary 1997 effort with static menus, is worth a writeup in itself). The special effects depicting a rain-soaked, over populated Los Angeles of 2019 still impress, going well beyond what I expected. It looks very much like current CGI effects, but much more natural and enveloping. It’s as much a credit to the effects team as the production design and costumers, all of whom created an unprecedented, grimy environment (which has become a cliché in the ensuing decades, unfortunately). We both enjoyed seeing the creative use of different L.A. locales, such as the Bradbury Buidling and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis-Brown House. I also dug the product placement logos for now-defunct companies like Pan-Am and Jovan (are they still around?). Harrison Ford as replicant hunter Rick Deckard still comes across as stiff, but this is one example where the stiffness works in his favor. Sean Young as Deckard’s robotic love interest is drop dead gorgeous, especially when wearing a quasi-Joan Crawford striped dress for a total femme fatale effect. This director’s cut deletes the narration, inserts a strange little scene in which Deckard dreams of a unicorn, and ends more abruptly with Ford and Young facing an uncertain future. The plodding dialogue and action in the second half remains exactly the same. Despite that, the film remains an influential object of intrigue.
False Pretenses (1935). Another micro-budgeted comedy of mistaken identities from my Comedy Kings 50 Movie DVD set. This one stars the curiously obscure Irene Ware as a poor waitress who is dating a loutish man (Edward Gargan), one whose bad behavior causes her to lose her job. Walking home that night, she comes across Sidney Blackmer, a drunk who just lost his fortune. Instead of taking his life, Blackmer takes Ware under his wing and grooms her into a lady in the hopes that she can snag a rich husband, and thus earn him a finder’s fee. Definitely a sub-Frank Capra tale, made quick and cheap, but there’s something appealing about Ms. Ware’s casual charm. Her naturalism is miles beyond someone like Nancy Carroll (see below), which only leads me to believe she was born to early to achieve true stardom (Brit blogger Movietone News has a nice appreciation of the actress). Blackmer and the rest of the cast are somewhat predictable, but there is a bit of spark in Betty Compson’s supporting role as a chatty socialite.
Hot Saturday (1932). Another pre-Code corker from the same DVD set that gave us The Cheat and Merrily We Go To Hell. Despite having an early role for Cary Grant, Hot Saturday doesn’t hold quite as much interest as those other two flicks. The film follows the fortunes of bank employee Nancy Carroll, a fun loving gal whose fascination with playboy Grant gains her an unsavory reputation with both her peers and the cluck-clucking gossips in the small town she lives in. It’s a Depression-era Peyton Place, even more so when rakish Randolph Scott shows up as Carroll’s paleontologist ex-flame who wants to marry her. The story ventures into typically soapy territory, mitigated by the contrasting acting styles amongst the three leads. Carroll is intriguingly stylized in a dated Betty Boopish way, with Grant oozing charisma but still somewhat hemmed in and mannered at this point. Only Scott seems vaguely human, if bland. Probably the coolest segment in this film is the musical interlude “I’m Burning for You,” a hot little jazz number sung by a jaunty blonde singer (not credited, alas).

Star 69

Happy 69th birthday to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Here she is on Hollywood Palace singing “I Say A Little Prayer” in 1968. Once you get past Sammy Davis Jr.’s too-hep-for-the-room intro, it’s a breathtaking performance. Come to think of it, all of Aretha Now (the album from which “Prayer” came) is pretty wonderful.

Flick Clique: March 13-19

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009). This sad telling of a gorgeous Akita dog’s loyalty to his owner is the ne plus ultra of Heartwarming Dog Tales, but don’t hold that against it. Richard Gere stars as a college professor who happens upon the pup, abandoned at his hometown’s train station where he commutes every day. The two forge a bond despite the protests of his wife, Joan Allen. Director Lasse Hallström fashions the story in a simple, straightforward way which includes shooting (somewhat unsuccessfully) from the dog’s viewpoint. It’s manipulative as all get out, but damned if we didn’t get teary-eyed near the end. The dogs used in this production are beautiful creatures, and good actors as well. I was especially touched by the scene in which Allen comes across the now elderly Hachi at the station, waiting for the long deceased Gere to return (sniff, sniff). This was based on a real, revered dog in 1920s Japan, one whose statue at his Shibuya train station attracts visitors to this day. The story probably would have worked better as a period piece with Japanese actors, but this is an okay substitute. The only unfortunate choice was the overly loud, unsubtle soundtrack.
poster_mister880Mister 880 (1950). An appealing, underrated light drama with Miracle on 34th Street‘s Edmund Gwenn as a cuddly old man who prints up counterfeit dollar bills to make ends meet. His handiwork comes to the attention of federal investigator Burt Lancaster, who traces the bills to Gwenn’s kindly neighbor Dorothy McGuire. A crystalline print of this Fox production ran on This TV; I found it to be a pleasant surprise, despite Gwenn’s character being milked for all the maudlin, sticky sweetness it can possibly get (a piano “Aud Land Syne” accompanies every scene he’s in!). Lancaster is a delight in a role much lighter than what we usually think of for him, and the smart McGuire is a good match for manly Burt. This is supposedly based on a real life story, although like Hatchi the events were likely embellished with about ten pounds of maple syrup.
The Thin Blue Line (1988). Pioneering documentary that I shockingly haven’t seen until this past week. Erroll Morris’ examination of a 1976 police officer’s shooting in Dallas still seems startlingly fresh — it has a distinct point of view and gives its points in a way far removed from the standard “talking head” style of the day. Morris focuses on one Randall Adams, a drifter who was wrongly accused and given the death penalty for the officer’s shooting death. Although most of the evidence pointed to the troubled teen whose car Adams shared that fateful night, local law enforcement and the Texas judicial system basically steamrolled Adams into a hasty conviction. Morris uses reenactments, close-ups of documents and newpaper clippings, and a pounding Philip Glass score to prove that faulty memories and eyewitness accounts can be shaped to whatever point of view the stronger side can obtain — often to tragic results. Adams is an appealing, aw-shucks kind of guy, but I also enjoyed the colorful and very Texan cast of supporting characters. These include a defense attorney who is a vocal clone of Roseanne Barr and a trashy blonde who describes herself as a helpful busybody while footage from an old Nancy Drew-esque b-movie is playing. Although the film ends before the full Randall Adams story has played out, it’s still an interesting film in itself. I couldn’t imagine things like Bowling for Columbine or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room being made without having paid a partial debt to The Thin Blue Line.

Buggles For Sale

Wanting something cheap that wouldn’t blow my paltry allowance of eMusic downloads in one fell swoop, I ended up picking the 1980 LP The Age Of Plastic by The Buggles. You know, the “Video Killed The Radio Star” group? “Video” achieved infamy by being the first song played on MTV, of course, and it’s stayed in circulation on seemingly every ’80s music compilation ever released (most recently on the Take Me Home Tonight soundtrack). A goofy, nostalgic song whose stellar lyrics and production elevate it from novelty status:

If there was ever an album that is overshadowed by its one hit, The Plastic Age is it. The album feels like a meditation on humankind’s relationship with technology, done with a bit of theatrical flair. Since the songs use mostly analog instruments and has a decided lack of nervous edge, I would hesitate to call The Age Of Plastic a “New Wave” album — mostly it reminds me of what ABBA was doing around the same time. “Elstree” is probably the most ABBA-esque tune they did, a wistful tale told from the perspective of a former employee at the U.K.’s famed Estree Studios:

The Buggles’ story has a typical ending. Following The Age Of Plastic, members Geoff Downes and Trevor Horn were recruited into supergroup Yes for one album, 1980’s Drama. The two then worked on a follow-up, 1981’s Adventures In Modern Recording, with Downes leaving midway through production on the ultimately hitless project. The album is an interesting experiment, more prog-rockish and with the kind of grandiose production that would echo in Horn’s later work with Seal, Pet Shop Boys, Rod Stewart and others. The Buggles’ sound still resonates throughout the years, most affectionately with Daft Punk’s “Digital Love” from their Discovery (2001) album: