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Monthly Archives: August 2011

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Flick Clique: August 21-27

I Am Number Four (2011). My Facebook friend Kirk Kitsch recently sent me a code for a free Red Box rental, so I decided to give this teenagers-from-space flick a try (and unlike other newish CGI-heavy offerings we’ve seen lately, this particular one was my choice). Watching it reminded me of Fast Company magazine’s profile of Rich Ross, CEO of Disney’s film studio. Why? Although it’s an interesting enough profile, that article told me that current Hollywood obsession with franchising and developing “brand name” series like the Pirates of the Caribbean flicks has completely consumed the business. Which is depressing! I Am Number Four is actually made by DreamWorks, but it hews to this currently hot formula so much it might as well have been called Would-Be Franchise #387. The movie follows wayward teen Alex Pettyfer, a brooding type who doesn’t fit into his new school despite being devastatingly handsome and having a jock-perfect bod. He attracts the attention of a similarly beautiful yet outcast student (Glee‘s Dianna Agrom), who eventually learns the New Kid is really an alien (a sexy, Edward from Twilight esque alien, mind you) who is next in line to be assassinated by menacing space bullies. Not a bad film overall — the leads are pleasantly attractive, the CGI is generally good and it actually gets fun during the climactic battle scene. I’m just getting so tired of movies with pretty young things doing cliché high school stuff, and the way this movie treats them is no different. If I were a teen, I’d be offended (speaking as an outcast weirdo who, as a teen, much preferred The Women over The Breakfast Club).
Lena Rivers (1932). “Pre Code Shirley Tempe” might be the best description for this low budget melodrama, which came out on DVD earlier this year. I bought this one because it contains a supporting role for Joyce Compton (more on her in a minute), but the film focuses on elfin actress Charlotte Henry playing a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who bears the stigma of illegitimate parentage. Henry’s Lena Rivers is raised by her grandmother (Beryl Mercer doing her usual kindhearted mama thing) after he mother dies in childbirth. After the grandfather dies in a boating accident, the duo are invited to live with a rich uncle in their relatives’ plush Kentucky mansion. The girl doesn’t fit in with the hoi polloi, preferring the company of the servants, but one neighbor (James Kirkwood) has a strange bond with the girl — even gifting her with a wild horse that only she can tame. As it turns out, the neighbor is the girl’s father and her ability to turn the horse into a racing champion is what will endear her to the others. A rather sweet film that is marred somewhat by its condescending attitude towards black people (Henry even observes that they’re “like children” when she spies a group of them relaxing and singing). Charlotte Henry was best known for playing Alice in the flop 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland; here she is merely okay. Joyce Compton makes a much better impression as the vixenish Southern belle who gets jealous when Henry comes between her and her beau, played by Morgan Galloway. Her scenes are worth a peek in this otherwise routine, overly predictable outing.

Mary and Max (2009). This unique clay-animated film had been on my Netflix instant queue for some time before we decided to check it out. Supposedly based on a real life friendship, Mary and Max chronicles pen pals Mary, an imaginative if socially awkward young Australian girl, and Max, a neurotic and mentally challenged Jewish New Yorker. As the film unfolds, Mary and Max bond over chocolate, their favorite cartoon (the Niblets?) and the befuddling behavior of their family and acquaintances. Rather touching but overwhelmingly sad film plays a bit like Up with more edge and visual flair. Indeed, the lumpy “Aardman meets Red Grooms” aesthetic in the characters and settings is probably the best thing about the film. A lot of the visual appeal comes from the interplay between Mary’s brown-hued suburb and the dirty, monochromatic cityscape Max dwells in. Philip Seymour Hoffman strikes the right gruff yet approachable tone as Max, and the young actress voicing Mary as a child (Bethany Whitmore) was adorable and pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, the film drones on too long and gets overly burdened by the heaviness of what transpires. The character of Max, who is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, does some aggravating stuff here that calls to mind the worst behavior of that other Asperger’s-addled fictional character, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. Some may find it lovable, I find it annoying and borderline dangerous. The final scene is quite touching, however, and worth the slog of this otherwise overextended movie.
Undercurrent (1946). This moody, noir-influenced MGM drama is something of an oddity in the films of both Katharine Hepburn and director Vincente Minnelli — it creeps up on you, however, despite the miscasting of Hepburn. She plays Ann Hamilton here, a mousy woman who is charmed into marrying a Washington D.C. industrialist played by Robert Taylor. As if his permanently grimaced face wasn’t warning enough, she begins to fall under her new husband’s psychotic impulses and eventually finds out about the man’s bohemian, poetry-loving brother (a young Robert Mitchum) whose existence Taylor is strangely trying to keep from Hepburn. The story is very pat and overly Rebecca-ish, and I couldn’t quite get over how wrong Hepburn and Taylor were for their roles. Still, I did enjoy Mitchum in an offbeat, non-typecast turn, and Jayne Meadows made a good impression as the Catty Woman With A Secret who seems to pop up frequently in these types of melodramas. I also give props to Cedric Gibbons and whomever was working for him at MGM for the deliciously luxe interior designs these characters traipse through. Ludicrous, miscast, but a lot of fun if you’re in the right mood.

What Happens In Japan, Stays In Japan

This commercial that Charles Bronson did for a Japanese grooming product called Mandom is so hypnotic. Honest to God, I watched it several times. It begins with Bronson alone in a piano bar, one where he’s a regular (based on the doorman’s reaction). He then drives home and, still alone, grabs a pipe and tosses his shirt off. He spreads copious amounts of Mandom on his fine physique while Country singer Jerry Wallace croons the product’s jingle. The scent of Mandom makes Bronson imagine himself brandishing a shotgun and riding a horse through a Western landscape. Who was the target audience for this, secretly gay Japanese businessmen? The Mandom campaign was a big success (oh yeah, there are more Bronson commercials on YouTube), leading director Nobuhiko Ohbayashi towards his loopy/fantastic “girls in a haunted house” feature film House.

Doing commercials in Japan has long been a dirty little secret for celebrities who want to cash in without spoiling their image in the West — pre-Internet, at least. I believe the scenes with Bill Murray struggling through a liquor commercial shoot in Lost In Translation slammed the lid shut on that stuff, but then I could be wrong. Are today’s celebs still shilling Japanese crap? Mull it over while watching circa 1990 Alyssa Milano hawking a chocolate drink while dancing to one of her Debbie Gibson-like tunes:

Can’t Forget the Motor City

My exploration of Hip-o Select‘s Complete Motown Singles box sets brings me to volume 2, which covers the year 1962. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this one too much, since at this point Motown was still a scrappy Detroit-based R&B label — interesting, but not quite the legendary hit machine it would become in 1965-69. Whatever it lacked in hits is gained in context, however. At four discs, it is somewhat shorter than the other TCMS sets — but I think that conciseness works in the set’s favor. Listening to all 112 tracks in order paints a picture of a small but upwardly mobile, positively African American enterprise guided by the sure hand of founder Berry Gordy, Jr. Gordy personally wrote and produced many of these tracks, both well-known and obscure. His touch adds a lot of quirky personality to these sets that would be smoothed out in the years to come.

By 1962 many Motown songs were crossing over to the (white) pop charts, but by and large it peddled energetic R&B to a primarily black audience. Gordy was also branching out to jazz, country and gospel with new sub-labels Workshop Jazz, Mel-o-Dy and Divinity — examples from which pepper this set, but never overwhelm as on the ’63 and ’64 volumes. Mostly it was R&B ballads and dance tunes, however, simply produced but with just enough of a “spark” to give it mass appeal and an enduring quality. Probably the best examples from this year came via trio of pleasant, Latin-influenced hits that Smokey Robinson crafted for Mary Wells — “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch,” and “Two Lovers.” 1962 was also the year that Marvin Gaye transformed from a limp Nat “King” Cole wannabe into a bona fide R&B star. His “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” is one of the more infectious tunes here, along with “Do You Love Me” by The Contours (later popularized on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack). It was also a good year for The Marvelettes, who had a good run of wistful, quintessential Girl Group turns led by raspy-voiced Gladys Horton (“Beechwood 4-5789”). It’s also interesting to hear early, non-hit sides by The Supremes and The Temptations here; Gordy obviously knew that both groups had talented vocalists that deserved wider exposure. The effort would pay off in spades later on.

We all know that well-known “Golden Oldies” drive projects like this, but the obscurities and one shots on these sets are also, suprisingly, worth hearing. The 1962 set in particular has a lot of great, gritty R&B sides by the likes of Hattie Littles, Gino Parks and Henry Lumpkin that never caught on simply because that style of music wasn’t too hip in 1962. There’s also a few goofy novelties here that are worth mentioning. “Hang On Pearl,” about a guy frantically trying to save his drowning girlfriend, didn’t do much for singer Bob Kayli but it’s a hilarious tune all the same. “Exodus” by Hank & Carol Diamond is an earnest if kitschy jazz ditty that has a strong whiff of Happy Hour at the Holiday Inn. Another intriguing novelty was “I Call It Pretty Music But The Old People Call It The Blues,” the debut single from a precocious blind youngster called Little Stevie Wonder.

These are cool sets, beautifully packaged and worth it for the detailed track-by-track liner notes alone. The Complete Motown Singles, Volume 2: 1962 came out in 2005 in a limited edition run of 8,000; later years have already gone out of print, but new copies of this particular volume can still be had via Amazon Marketplace at this link.

Flick Clique: August 14-20

Blackmail Is My Life (1967). This Japanese gangster drama caught my eye on Netflix instant. Actor Hiroki Matsukata plays a yakuza who gathers his three best pals to blackmail a businessman. Initially all goes as planned, but as their deeds get exposed to the rival yakuza gangs it leads to death and what was previously a benign snow job becomes a dark revenge fantasy. The first half of this film is a riot, directed in a wild, stylized manner by Kinji Fukasaku. The daring use of quick cuts, color/black & white and still photos make it a trippy must-see — up until the more conventional second half, that is. I also enjoyed the tight interplay within Matsukata’s gang, which includes a lug, a pretty woman, and a part-black boxer. At times their exploits play like a groovy Japanese mashup of Mission: Impossible and The Monkees. The film becomes more incomprehensible and less zippy as it moves along, however. Even with a letdown of a closing scene, Blackmail Is My Life is the kind of flick that grabs you by the lapels and never lets go.
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979). I TiVo’d this live action comedy from the Hanna Barbera studio when it popped up on the ThisTV schedule one recent Saturday morning. One can be forgiven for thinking this film about a robotic, crime fighting dog came from the Disney studio — superficially it has the same feel as stuff like The North Avenue Irregulars, but with a more “wacky” and cartoonish vibe. The story revolves around a young inventor (Wesley Eurie of Land of the Lost) who has just been fired by the disapproving head of a security company (played by Conrad Bain of Diff’rent Strokes) despite the fact that he’s dating the boss’s daughter (One Day at a Time‘s Valerie Bertinelli). Eurie’s ace-in-the-hole is the animatronic Canine Home Protection System (C.H.O.M.P.S.) he devised, an unassuming dog-bot that fights off intruders so well it prompts the head of a rival company (Jim Backus) to hire two bumbling henchmen (Chuck McCann and Red Buttons) to acquire the plans for the wonder pooch. A little too shrill and cheesy for my tastes; my advice is to only show this to a kid if you secretly loathe him or her. Apparently this was the only time Hanna Barbera ventured into live action films — the score by longtime H.B. composer Hoyt Curtin certainly hews to a Saturday Morning Cartoon formula (the doggie’s “take charge” theme will rattle around in my brain for weeks to come). Hanna Barbera’s midcentury modern studio building in Studio City, California stands in for Bain’s security company headquarters here.
Downhill Racer (1969). Interesting if flawed high octane sports drama with Robert Redford as a cocky skier. Redford plays an aspiring Olympian from the sticks who is lured by the glory and commercialism that comes with being a winner, despite the efforts of his pragmatic coach (played by a young Gene Hackman) to keep him in line. Taking on the business of sports is a rather novel theme, and in that respect the film succeeds. It also has some excitingly filmed ski scenes and great atmosphere of the athletes and the local color in Germany. The film was directed in a quasi-documentary style by Michael Ritchie, who would more successfully team with Redford in The Candidate a few years later (he was also at the helm of a personal fave of mine, 1975’s Smile). To be honest, I’m not sure why this film was selected as part of the Criterion Collection. Despite the stunning outdoor photography, the film suffers from poky pacing and an expendable romantic subplot. I also take issue with the casting of Redford, who is too old and not the right type. At least the DVD has some nice extras, including a vintage making-of featurette that demonstrates how those stunning skier p.o.v. shots came to be (with lots of trial and error, it turns out).
Frisco Jenny (1932). Another quick ‘n tasty William Wellman pre-Code flick from my Forbidden Hollywood DVD set. I saw this one once before, in 2000, and was even compelled to write a mini-review of it for the Internet Movie Database at the time. Here it is (they cut off the end, for some reason):

Ruth Chatterton was a fascinating early ’30s leading lady – she was quite average looking and somewhat chubby, with a brittle, theatrical acting style that hasn’t dated very well. And yet, there’s something in every one of her performances that’s worth watching. She specialized in hard-edged, independent women of the type that Bette Davis would later do with much more depth and sympathy. “Frisco Jenny” was typical of Chatterton’s Warner Brothers vehicles, with a shopworn “women’s picture” storyline that gave her plenty of opportunities to grit her teeth and snap off at characters who got in her way. Nice direction by William Wellman, with a well-placed earthquake to add

That earthquake scene is a real pip, by the way — excitingly constructed and very sophisticated for 1932. I loved Chatterton’s performance and found her very touching during her final scenes. A Pre-Code gem, worth seeing and re-seeing!
I Walk Alone (1946). A surprisingly plush, very involving melodrama with noir elements that I stumbled across in Netflix’s instant offerings. I Walk Alone is the first film that teamed Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, with a sultry Lizabeth Scott in support (what stars!). Burt plays an ex-con who just got sprung from a long sentence (“Fourteen years!” as he repeatedly grunts through gritted teeth) for an alcohol smuggling incident that allowed fellow criminal and pal Kirk to escape punishment. For his pain Lancaster is seeking the payment he was promised from Douglas, now the operator of a swanky nightclub where chanteuse Lizabeth Scott sings. Problem is, Douglas is not sentimental and feels he has no other obligations for his now ex-buddy. A nifty film which kept me interested all the way, even factoring in the youthfulness of the two actors for the characters they’re playing. Burt, Kirk and Lizabeth are all great. The script plays out in a routine manner, but it’s aided by the lushest photography, costuming and set designs that Paramount could buy. I especially enjoyed the dinner scene with Burt and Lizabeth serenaded by a jazz quartet. The scene below has a dubbed Scott doing a torch song, pretty indicative of its luxe aesthetic:

Limitless (2011). Another current, CGI-aided thriller that Christopher rented recently. I enjoyed it, up to a point. Limitless follows Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra, a struggling New York City writer with a dingy apartment to match his unkempt appearance. A chance encounter with his ex-brother in-law leads him in to possess a cache of potent, experimental memory-boosting pills. In short order, he completes the brilliant novel he was attempting, learns a few languages, and impresses his pretty girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) and others with his seemingly inhuman perception. As he grows more dependent on the pills, he becomes a Wall Street trading whiz and a business savant, which attracts the attention of mogul Robert De Niro. Nefarious baddies want the pills, however, and Cooper must elude them while battling the devastating side effects of his addiction. This was actually a pretty well-done film — the results of Cooper’s magic pills are effectively conveyed through CGI, color changes, fish eye lenses and other tricks (I wish the trippy zoom effect wasn’t used on the opening credits, however, since its impact is dulled when it comes up again later on). I liked Cooper’s performance, too, especially in the early stages when he finds out just how powerful the pills are. Once he becomes a stereotypical Yuppie Douchebag the film goes somewhat South, however. The problems of a cushy Wall Street investor don’t interest me, no matter how hard the film tries. One intriguing scene has the Cooper character meeting with his ex-wife, nicely played by Anna Friel, who is now battling a pill addiction of her own. The scene hints at the depth that this otherwise silly (but very fun) flick could have explored.
Pornography: A Thriller (2009). From the IMDb’s plot description: “A gay porn star’s mysterious disappearance becomes an obsession for both a writer and another adult film star, leading them into dark supernatural corners that were never meant to be explored.” A low budget indie that held some promise, and succeeds if you dial your expectations way down. Is the cast attractive? Not really. The acting is spotty and the budget is non-existent, but the movie does have a semi-interesting premise. One’s enjoyment of the film depends on whether one can swallow the colossally huge coincidence that a gay porn history researcher winds up living in the very same apartment where the disappeared actor whose work he’s investigating once resided. The film takes on a different, lighter tone in the second half, almost becoming a meta-comment on itself.

Hung Up on Clifton’s

I was watching an episode of the HBO series Hung today when another favorite location caught my eye — twice! Although the show is set in Detroit, the location crew used the famous Clifton’s Brookdale Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles as the settings for two restaurants the show’s characters dined in. Both are featured in episode #5, titled Do It, Monkey.

The first restaurant is a plush red-wallpapered eatery that might look familiar to Mad Men fans — it’s the third floor of Clifton’s, which I wrote about last May. For Hung, the room was decorated pretty much the same way we saw it two years ago. While it was classed up a bit as Don Draper’s New York getaway, for the tacky fondue restaurant patronized by actors Jane Adams and Steve Hytner not much change was needed. Our photo of the dining room is here.

The second restaurant was used by a different set of Hung characters as the woodsy-themed buffet where a suddenly downsized Anne Heche and family must eat. This is the ground floor of Clifton’s, where most of the customers dine. In the top photo, they dressed up the wall behind the buffet line with knick-knacks. Other than that, the restaurant is basically untouched in all its kitschy glory. I love that you can see a bit of the ’50s era Specialties sign (better photo here). The wide view at the bottom is the main dining area, surrounded by painted murals, fake pine trees and a stuffed moose head. It’s wonderful! My photo of the area from a different angle is here.

Flick Clique: August 7-13

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). In this screwball comedy, Gary Cooper plays a millionaire having a business trip on the French Riviera. He has a meet-cute with Claudette Colbert in a department store, where he is looking for only a pajama top while she wants the bottom. They fall for each other, but on their wedding day she is dismayed to find that he previously married seven times. It upsets her, but she tries to work out an agreement that will help both herself and her disenfranchised father, a Marquise played by too-young Edward Everett Horton. This was directed by Ernst Lubitsch and screenwritten by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. Given the cast and crew, it has the makings of a fun, sparkling soufflé of a movie (like that other Claudette Colbert, Wilder/Brackett collaboration Midnight). In its defense, it is pretty amusing, with a lot of zingy lines and some great, old-style star wattage from Cooper and Colbert. On the whole, however. it’s a disappointment — stagy (with lots of badly done back projection subbing for France), rather forced, and with a story that goes nowhere. I loved looking at the stars and the wonderful Deco interiors, though, so it’s an intriguing diversion if that sorta thing strikes your fancy.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Story (2009). Watched this Disney-produced documentary on Netflix streaming. The Boys is all about Richard and Robert Sherman, composers of “It’s A Small World,” “A Spoonful Of Sugar,” “The Bear Necessities” and about a zillion other earworms from a host of films both Disney and not (surprisingly enough, the film is heavy on clips from non-Disney kiddie fare like Snoopy, Come Home and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). Despite the cheery nature of their songs, the brothers have a far from brotherly relationship — underscored by the fact that the film was directed by two Sherman cousins who barely knew each other as children and only recently reconnected over their dads’ work. The film explores the Shermans’ lives going back to their childhood, early non-success in ’50s L.A. (golden oldie “You’re Sixteen” was a rare hit), the heady Disney years and the strange disconnect between their professional and personal lives. The estrangement of the brothers is the “hook” this film is based on, but the fact that they don’t socialize with each other doesn’t seem so unusual (I have two brothers that I barely socialize with, too). Mostly the film celebrates their careers and legacy, and in that respect it’s a winner. You get a lot of info about the men’s individual style — younger Richard is the gregarious, workaholic spokesman for the duo while the brooding Robert (a WWII vet) seems to channel his passions into a variety of things, including writing and painting. They complement each other nicely, and personality issues aside they left a beautiful legacy of songs. There are even a few tear-jerking moments in the film, including any time “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins plays.
From the Terrace (1960). An astonishingly gorgeous Paul Newman stars in this plush soap as the wayward son of an industrialist (Leon Ames) and an alcoholic (Myrna Loy) who decides to defy his dad by starting up an aircraft business. He meets and marries a lovely, opinionated rich girl (Joanne Woodward), but their marriage fails as she philanders and his ambition soars. A docile brunette played by Ina Balin enters Newman’s life just as he’s ready to give up on Woodward, who clings to Newman for the social status even though she’s openly carrying on with old flame Patrick O’Neal. Overlong but decently staged family soap in the mold of Home from the Hill or Peyton Place (although Newman and Woodward are a step up from Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee). 20th Century Fox mounted a nice production here, making the film very watchable despite a so-so story based on a John O’Hara best seller. The perfect set designs, makeup, fashions and jewels (Woodward even wears a tiara!) make this one a sumptuous guilty pleasure. Hopefully I will get the same trashy/faboo reception from the Suzanne Pleshette vehicle A Rage To Live, also based on an O’Hara book (that one is viewable on Netflix, by the way).
House (1977). I already saw this weirdo Japanese haunted house opus in November 2008, but after it was released as part of the Criterion collection I snapped up the DVD. It’s such a goofy, silly movie, but seeing it a second time allows me to appreciate the creative “try everything” mojo that director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi puts in every scene. This time I really noticed the glossy, TV commercial-like moments (especially the scenes with Gorgeous and her would-be stepmother), the weirdly repetitive music cues, the loveliness of the girl playing Kung Fu, the strange way the girls don’t notice or care when the first friend goes missing, etc. It really is a trip. As revealed in the DVD’s supplemental interview with Ôbayashi, many of House‘s ideas were hatched by the director’s pre-teen daughter. Not too terribly surprising, for a film that features a carnivorous piano.
I Saw the Devil (2010). Chilling, super violent Korean flick about a calculating serial killer (played by Oldboy‘s Choi Min-sik) who tortures and kills young women for fun. After one such crime, the victim’s fiancee (Lee Byung-hun) decides to exact revenge by hunting the man down, forcing him to down an ingestible police tracker, then brutalizing him until he cracks. Overlong by at least an hour, but the killing/torturing scenes are excellently filmed, flowing copiously with blood. The film is pretty straightforward and realistic, which makes the brutality all the more scary to behold. Lee Byung-hun delivers a showy, finely modulated performance that never delves into scenery chewing. He’s just a guy with a sick hobby who wants to indulge for a little bit, is there something wrong with that?
Sing, Sinner, Sing (1933). A rather ordinary pre-Code drama based a the real life fraças between singer Libby Holman and her husband, tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds, who was found shot to death under mysterious circumstances in their apartment. Actress Leila Hyams plays the Holman stand-in, a torch singer who shares a stormy romance with gambling ship captain Paul Lukas. She escapes his clutches with a wealthy playboy (Don Dillaway), but after they marry she finds that her new husband is carrying on with a hotsy-totsy blonde — played by my fave Joyce Compton. Probably the best reason to see this hoary drama would be Leila Hyams, who is attractive and somewhat fragile in a way that reminds me of the slightly later Virginia Bruce. She also sings a few numbers in an agreeable (apparently non-dubbed) low voice. The story is pretty blah, with lousy turns from Lukas and Dillaway. The production is moderately nice for a low-budget picture, indulging in the usual settings of shipboard, nightclub, and penthouse. The film was produced by Majestic, a poverty row studio which rented facilities from the majors. This kind of material has been done much better in several contemporary Warner Bros. potboilers, however — only die-hard Pre Code devotees would glean anything worthwhile from Sing, Sinner, Sing.