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Monthly Archives: May 2012

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Flick Clique: June 20-26

The American (2010). Meh. George Clooney as an American spy who is trying to elude a gang of Swedish interlopers in a small Italian villa. I rented this because I’ve been a long-time fan of the photography and music videos of Anton Corbijn, and was curious to see how he’d handle a feature-length film (this is his second, after 2007’s Ian Curtis biopic Control). The American doesn’t make any concessions to being a slam-jam action pic, and that’s a commendable idea, but Clooney’s character being so glum and one-dimensional makes it difficult to warm up to him or his situation. I also really couldn’t figure out why the local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) was so attracted to him. The one positive thing I can say about this is that it has some beautiful photography, including a quietly compelling long shot of Clooney driving a car through a long tunnel under the opening credits.
The Celluloid Salesman: Classic Educational Shorts, Vol. 4 (DVD, 2011). Another campy collection of vintage industrial films from Kino and The A/V Geeks, an ephemeral films collection. I was delighted to find that this disc and another volume, Safe… Not Sorry got added to this series – unfortunately, Netflix didn’t have either for rental (Netflix is starting to suck, notice that?). Kino had a big sale recently, however, so I ended up getting the Salesman one for a good price. These 15 short films, mostly from the ’60s, attempted to sell everything from railroad cars to potato chips in films that were geared towards salespeople, classrooms, home ec groups, mens’ lodges or even a television audience (one short is even craftily disguised as a string of news segments). Many of them come across as a combo of a ’60s-style How It’s Made and the antique equivalent of an infomercial. Although their effectiveness as sales tools are decidedly hit-or-miss, you can find bits of atom-age beauty (like Hamilton Beach’s film extolling the wonders of their top-of-the-line blender) in the most lovingly crafted of these films.
The Net (1995). Sandra Bullock as a hacker in trouble! This was part of the little “early versions of the web” film fest I put on Netflix a few years back. Once you get past the clunky technology, it’s actually an effective thriller with a good performance from Bullock (the others in the cast, not so much). The Bullock character, Angela Bennett, plays a geeky computer analyst with no time for friends. The only family she has is her Alzheimers-afflicted mother (Diane Baker). When she comes across a floppy disc containing a portal into a top-secret government database, a cabal of spies comes after her, reassigning her identity as one Ruth Marx, attempting to kill her and the few people she has left (such as Dennis Miller’s psychotherapist) who could help her out. At first this was fun to watch for the dated technology (Castle Wolfenstein! After Dark’s Satori screen saver!), then I started getting into the story. It became ridiculous when Jeremy Northam’s love interest/secret killer showed up, however – Northam delivers an atrocious performance worthy of a cheesy stalker movie on the Lifetime channel. There’s also a lot of serious lapses in logic when Bullock breaks into the office where her doppelganger is working and takes back her original identity. And that’s before she runs into a computer convention and calmly plants a virus in the government database using a floppy disc and a common PC. At least Bullock makes her character’s plight believable and sympathetic.
Of Giants and Toys (1958). This was a film that I found out about through the book Japanese Cinema by my DVD Talk colleague Stuart Galbraith IV. In this wacked-out satire on commercialism and fame, a pair of office workers in a candy manufacturer’s advertising department transform a goofy young woman into the fabulous spokeswoman for their product. While Hitomi Nozoe as Kyoko enjoys her newfound fame and flirts shamelessly with her chaperone, Nishi (Hiroshi Kawaguchi). Nishi attempts to find info about his employer’s competition through his girlfriend and his ex-college buddy, who both work at rival companies. This was such an interesting film, if only to check out how the Japanese took on the space craze and other Western trends in the atomic ’50s. It also serves as a biting commentary on win-at-all-costs Japanese society at the time. Shot in widescreen color, the film is a bit unruly and all over the place. It also has enough wild, memorable scenes to recommend it – the desperation of the characters trying to maintain their dignity while working themselves sick (literally) comes through loud and clear.

One More Day …

Flick Clique will be delayed until tomorrow … see you then!

Flick Clique: May 13-19

Battle Royale (2000). The success of The Hunger Games has renewed interest in this controversial Japanese film with a storyline that closely parallels the adventures of Katniss and Peeta. Actually, lots of people must be interested in this – after months of sitting on top of my Netflix queue with the dreaded “Very Long Wait,” I finally decided to check with our local library (which stocks lots of foreign films) to see if they had a copy to check out. Turns out they had four copies in the stacks. Although they were all checked out at the time, I placed a hold and one of them became available within a day or two. Battle Royale takes place in a sensation-starved near-future Japan in which a class of 42 teens are randomly selected to engage in a three-day, nationally televised “battle royale” in which they are placed on a deserted island to kill each other until one survivor is crowned. The kids have a few rules to adhere to (danger zones and potentially lethal electronic collars keep them tracked and on their toes), but are generally set free to fend for themselves with backpacks containing a map and a few supplies. The film is somewhat overdone and its second half pales next to the exciting beginning, but I dug seeing how it played out among the students. Some die accidentally, some commit suicide, most are murdered by the few students who already had killer tendencies. A Japanese friend of ours recently saw Hunger Games and found it to be a convenient Battle Royale rip-off. The two films are different, but their similarities are too striking to ignore. Good performances here by Tatsuya Fujiwara (Death Note) and actor-Japanese TV host Takeshi Kitano (playing the kids’ coach/evil show orchestrator).
The Lawless (1950). Effective MacDonald Carey/Gail Russel b-melodrama of racial strife in a small California town. This was another underrated vintage Paramount production that’s getting the DVD reissue treatment from Olive Films. My complete review of the disc was just published at DVD Talk here – check it out, please and thank you!
The Lost World (1960). Last Christmas, I got Christopher a four-pack DVD set of 20th Century Fox special effects blockbusters as a gift. We watched two of them over this past week, both Irwin Allen widescreen extravaganzas from the early ’60s. His version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic humans-meet-dinosaurs opus The Lost World is the more definite turkey of the two. Granted, the story had a lot of potential in being updated to the campy, colorful ’60s. Allen, however, decided to stick it on the island the entire time (no dino rampaging through present-day London, darn it) with a host of annoying, shallowly drawn characters. Most disappointing of all are the dinosaurs themselves – kimodo dragons, iguanas and baby alligators outfitted with tiny prosthetics. Boring! The stop-motion dinosaurs from the silent version were much more terrifying, and that was thirty-plus years prior to this. Most of the cast (Claude Rains, Michael Rennie, Fernando Lamas) are annoying, although special mention must be made for the character of Jennifer Holmes as played by Jill St. John, a dipsy heiress who is poised as the combo Ginger Grant/Lovey Howell among these castaways. St. John always seemed like a pretty intelligent actress and she looks stunning here, but her character was beyond ridiculous. Happily, her career has recovered from this demeaning start.
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961). Flick #2 in our Irwin Allen extravaganza is this submarine opus which was later adapted into a TV series lasting a few seasons. Like The Lost World, this one also sports a ridiculous and campy story (about Earth facing extinction by burning to death, with Walter Pidgeon and his crew racing to save humanity aboard his futuristic sub, the Seaview). Unlike The Lost World, however, it’s watchable and kind of fun at times, playing a bit like a melodramatic version of Disneyland’s old-school Submarine Voyage attraction (I only wish there were scenes where they encounter mermaids and a sea serpent). There’s still a lot of unanswered burning questions, like how does Barbara Eden function as the only woman on a ship full of horny men without getting assaulted on a daily basis? And why did Robert Sterling’s captain escape death with his hand dipped into the pool containing the ravenous shark that just devoured Joan Fontaine (spoiler, sorry!)? I think you just have to turn off your brain and enjoy escapist crap like this.

Flick Clique: May 6-12

We have six items on Flick Clique this week – not including the documentary (Kink Crusaders) which I’m hoping to post at DVD Talk tomorrow. I don’t really feel like going into detail on these, so I will supply a mini writeup along with the star ratings (out of five) that I gave the films.
Despicable Me (2010). **** I was surprisingly charmed by this, considering it’s a CGI animated film not from Pixar. Steve Carrell voices an evil genius who wants to shrink the moon and steal it from the sky, but three adorable orphans get in the way. OK, the “children are the answer to everything” message gets laid on too thickly, but otherwise this was an inventively done, nicely scripted and completely charming kiddie flick. This was animated by French studio Mac Guff, with made-for-3D sequences that are actually fun and not calling attention to themselves (see: How To Train Your Dragon). A lot of it reminded me of The Incredibles with more of a goth edge. Wonder what the sequel that’s due next year will be like?
Eyes in the Night (1941). *** Enjoyable little time-waster about blind detective (!) Edward Arnold, who investigates some suspicious doings in the domicile of his old friend, Ann Harding. Harding’s husband is a scientist who perfected a top-secret formula that is wanted by a cabal of spies. The baddies have wormed their way into the household staff – and the local theatrical company that Harding’s petulant stepdaughter Donna Reed is involved with. Pretty well-made, involving noir thriller from MGM – I wonder if they were trying to make this into a series a la the Thin Man films? Bar none, the best thing about this movie is Edward Arnold’s amazing seeing eye dog, Friday. That pooch does some daring jumps here of the kind not seen since the glory days of Rin Tin Tin.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). ***** The original “how much crap can one guy take?” movie. This was made to bring to light the deplorable prison conditions in Georgia, and to expose the plight of the “forgotten man” (WWI vets caught up in the misery of the Great Depression). It works as both social commentary and compelling drama. Paul Muni is less hammy than usual as the fugitive in question – as a matter of fact, he should have won the Best Actor Oscar that year. I also liked Glenda Farrell as the trashy blonde who marries the reformed fugitive Muni, then tries to blackmail him. Not so funny, Glenda.
Larceny Inc. (1942). *** I first saw this Edward G. Robinson comedy about 20 years ago, didn’t remember much about it except that somehow it involved a luggage store and a young Jackie Gleason playing an overly attentive soda jerk. It’s a fun, fast-paced little romp with Robinson as an ex-con who hatches a plan with two other cons (Broderick Crawford and Edward Brophy, one of those “hey, I know that guy” actors) to buy up said failing luggage store in order to dig a tunnel into the bank vault conveniently located next door. Also starring Jane Wyman and Jack Carson, this film brims with that Warner Bros. city feel. I especially enjoyed seeing the section of the W.B. backlot which now looks totally familiar to me, used here as the streetscape where a massive subway expansion is creating havoc with Robinson’s fellow business owners. I can see why this movie didn’t retain in my memory, but I enjoyed it (again).
Oceans 11 (2001). **** Avoided this one until now because I initially thought it might be just another mainstream, Hollywood-ized and completely unnecessary remake. I was wrong. It’s actually quite fun, with a story that’s like a jacked-up, more fascinating iteration of the 1960 original. Steven Soderberg has so much flair as a director that I’m willing to overlook the many implausible moments (Brad Pitt lifts his helmet visor in a crowded casino??) and go along for the ride. The cast is generally good with the strong exception of sour-pussed Julia Roberts. Oh, and the little Chinese acrobat dude (Shaobo Qin)? So adorable.
Sneakers (1992). **** I remember adding Sneakers to my Netflix queue as part of a “90s movies featuring dated technology” spree. The film is actually quite an intelligently written and absorbing yarn with Robert Redford as the ringleader of a group of security system experts/hackers who find themselves in the possession of a top-secret decoding box. The box, which can magically break into every computerized security system, is highly sought after by both the government and Redford’s ex-college buddy Ben Kingsley – now the head of a computer firm whose nefarious m.o. is adequately conveyed via its minimalist-chic office decor. There are a few weird scenes (like the usual “blow up a tiny detail on a photo until it’s crystal clear” malarkey), but for the most part the script is impeccably researched and believable. The bright cast (including one of my faves, Mary McDonnell) seems to be having a ball with this elaborate heist caper – which dovetailed nicely from the previous film we saw, Oceans 11. Redford seems too old, but that’s okay. Sadly, if this film were produced today, the Redford character would be closer to 30 in age and the other cast members would be all be the same age as River Phoenix (who was 21 when this was made).

Flickr Friday: Empire Savings Ad, 1957

As a reminder of a more benevolent age in banking, behold an ad that I scanned a few years back for Christopher’s Plastic Living website. It appears that Los Angeles-based bank Empire Savings had a peachy-keen incentive for new customers at the dawn of 1957 – a set of Lifetime plastic melamine dinnerware! The ’50s-era stuff was considered a nice deal, too, since the retail price was comparable to their ceramic cousins. The lady in the ad seems delighted by her new acquisition, despite having to fork over at least $250 for it. I’m liking the midcentury modern building rendering, too.

This was published in the January 7, 1957 “Midwinter” supplement in the Sunday Los Angeles Times.

Shazzan and Stupidstitious

The ’60s Hanna Barbera cartoons have a certain hypnotic quality, don’t they? This came to mind while watching a highlight reel from Shazzan (1967). This was a show about a teen boy and girl who find magic rings that, when joined, conjure up a giant genie who takes them back to the days of the Arabian Nights. Since I picked Warner Archive‘s complete series DVD from the DVD Talk pool, I thought I’d get acquainted. Looks real trippy:

Speaking of animation on DVD… The Stupidstitious Cat (1946) is one of twenty vintage ’40s-50s Paramount cartoons included on an intriguing recent set from cartoon distributor Thunderbean called Noveltoons Original Classics. As soon as I stop feeling poor, I’m gonna get this!