THIS JOURNAL DOCUMENTS MY INTAKE OF ONE BOOK, ZINE, CD OR DVD A DAY. RATINGS ARE: ***** = Godhead, **** = Great, *** = Good, ** = Fair, * = Why Bother?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Smiths - Still Ill (***)

The Smiths - Still Ill
Petal, DVD, 91 minutes, 2007

I picked this up at the Pratt Library's new Southeast Anchor Library the other day while perusing their impressive music DVDs section. This interesting program, which looks to be a lo-fi bootleg, has an unnamed interviewer digging deep into the minds of songwriters Morrissey and Johnny Marr like James Lipton on The Actor's Studio. In probing their work, THE SMITHS - STILL ILL presents three unedited interviews with a young Morrissey and Marr during the band's heights of fame. The first interview with Morrissey seems to be from early on in the band's career, and the later Morrissey and Marr interviews are during the recording and release of the last Smiths album, Strangeways Here We Come.

I like the bootleg quality. There's much noise and bleed on the original (PAL?) videotape - you can see in parts where the video has been recorded over another tape and you can hear audio "ghosts." Still, it's fascinating to see a surprisingly open young Morrisey talk at length and at relative ease about his life and career with with the Smiths. Boy he licks his lips a lot - very reptilian! And the Marr interview seems to have lots of stops and edits in it - no doubt a reflection of Marr's pilled-up restless energy. You can just imagine the chain-smoking Marr taking a break to buy a pack of fags or take an off-camera snort. Anyway, I found the Morrissey interviews to be fascinatingly intimate, as they are conducted in seeming "real time," like a ordinary conversation and not a bell-s-and-whistles BH1 or MTV packaged presentation.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Chalk (**1/2)

USA, 2006, 85 minutes
Directed by Mike Akel
Cast: Troy Schremmer, Janelle Schremmer, Shannon Haragan, Chris Mass, Jeff Guerrero, Jerry Jarmon, Kaytea Brock, Dan Eggleston, Glen Lewis, Wendy Campbell, Jacqueline Seaborn.

Picked this up from my library today and gave it a look when I got home, mainly because I was intrigued by its connection with Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) - Chalk is the debut release of his new distribution company venture with Hart-Sharp Productions aimed at releasing films with "social relevance" - as well as its subject matter: it's about beleaguered teachers, a demographic I deal with on a daily basis at my library gig. Chalk boasts a good cast and some good ideas, but I could never get over its derivative feel. There's nothing new here in terms of filmmaking that isn't either tried-or-true. Specifically, it's shot in the exact mockumentary style as The Office (both versions - UK original and current American counterpart). And that's hard for me to get past. I was just reading a quote by Arthur Koestler about how "the measure of an artist's originality...is the extent to which his selective emphasis deviates from the conventional norm and establishes new standards of relevance." In other words, there are leaders and there are followers. And Chalk follows some very well-trod ground - the "played out" mockumentary genre. It merely fills the footsteps of those that went before; it doesn't create a new path. Or, as A.V. Club's Nathan Rabin put it:
Thanks largely to the enduring popularity and influence of the British Office and its American counterpart, the past few years have produced a bevy of shows with a visual and comic vocabulary heavy on handheld camera, jittery editing, nervous laughter, awkward social interaction, and low-key character comedy. Unsurprisingly, this style of comedy is rapidly becoming nearly as clichéd as the staid, conventionally shot laughers that preceded it. Chalk is the latest heavily improvised mockumentary proudly traversing the tradition of The Office and Christopher Guest. It'd feel much fresher if it had been released even five years ago.

Ah, there's the rub. Timing is everything.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Young & Restless in China (****)

Young & Restless in China
directed by Sue Williams
Frontline, PBS Television, 120 minutes
Air date: 9-11 p.m., June 17, 2008

Synopsis: "FRONTLINE explores the generation coming of age in China today. Shot over four years, the film follows a group of nine young Chinese from across the country as they scramble to keep pace with a society changing as fast as any in history. Their stories of ambition and desire, exuberance, crime and corruption are interwoven with moments of heartache and despair. Together they paint an intimate portrait of the generation that is remaking China."

This intimate look into the lives of nine young people living in the midst of the "new" China's economic boom was on Frontline tonight and it was great, reminding me of Michael Apted's 7 UP series in the way it followed the personal lives and careers of a particular generation in a particular culture over the course of several years. It's not available on DVD as of yet, but you can watch it online at Frontline's website. I was particularly amused by the segment on Chinese rapper Wang Xiaolei (aka MC Sir), who looks a little like a young Jet Li dressed in FUBA gear. Everything Xiaolei knows about the West comes from our Pop Culture, mainly urban hip-hop fashion and music. In fact, he's criticized in China for using "too much" English in his raps, though his subject matter is decidedly Chinese. You can hear some of Xiaolei's songs, as well as other Chinese pop music, on the Modern Sky Records website.

The other principles are migrant worker Wei Zhanyan, rural housewife Yang Haiyan, Christian Internet-based tailoring company owner Lu Dong, Internet cafe entrepreneur/consultant Ben Wu, public interest lawyer Zhang Jingjing, hotel owner Xu Weiman, marketing executive Miranda Hong and medical resident Zhang Yao.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sand and Sorrow (***)

Sand and Sorrow
Director: Paul Freedman
USA, 2007, 92 minutes
Plot: A George Clooney-narrated documentary about the events that led to the rise of Darfur's Arab-dominated government and the international community's "legacy of failure" to respond to the genocide carried out in the country. Interviewees include Holocaust author/survivor Elie Weisel, author Samantha Powers, NY Times columnist Nicolas Kristof and US Senators Barack Obama and Sam Brownson.

Talk about black on black crime. The worst example in the world is taking place in Darfur, where the Sudanese government's ethnic cleansing continues unabated thanks to China's dependence on Sudan's oil, the United States' dependence on Sudanese intelligence (like Pakistan, Sudan is another dubious "ally" in our the War on Terror - supplying us with info on the terrorists they once harbored - mainly to avoid being attacked by us) and world indifference. As one commentator says, the world doesn't care much about people unless they represent either "a threat or a benefit." For the US and other world powers, Darfur simply doesn't show up on our radar. We call what's happening there genocide, but (like Rwanda) don't do anything about it because, ultimately, Sudan is just a place of sand and sorrow. And all our resources and military are in Iraq and Afghanistan, anyway.

Invisible People, unheard pleas

All Sudanese are black of skin and Muslim of faith, but the Sudanese goverment and its Janjaweed militia henchmen ignore these similarities and consider only those of Arabic descent to be human. It's a belief in ethnic purity the likes of which haven't been seen since the Aryan theories of Hitler's Third Reich.

This doc was good, but it didn't wow me. It concentrates a lot of the groundbreaking columns of Nicolas Kristof who brought the genocide to America's attention on the front pages of the New York Times, and to a lesser extent on the words of Elie Weisel and Harvard prof Samantha Powers (who is shown getting face time with Barack Obama). It also spent a lot of time developing a parallel "Home Front" narrative showing how young people at USC and a Midwest high school create awareness and promote activism at the grassroots level.

But it's ultimately not as good Frontline's "On Our Watch" special, which went into more detail about Chinese involvement in stymying United Nations efforts to do anything of significance in Darfur and Sudan. (Only recently, in the lead-up to the Summer Olympics in Beijing, has the UN been successful in getting any concessions from the veto-wielding Chinese, who want to avoid being embarassed by protesters during their moment in the spotlight.) Frontline's doc features many of the principles seen in Sand and Sorrow, especially Samantha Powers, John Pendergast, and Nicolas Kristof, but adds the advocacy work of the still-active, still-beautiful Mia Farrow, as well.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Roman de Gare (****)

Roman de Gare (aka "Crossed Tracks")
France, 2007, 105 minutes
Director: Claude Lelouch.
Cast: Dominique Pinon, Fanny Ardant, Audrey Dana, Michèle Bernier, Myriam Boyer, Zinedine Soualem, Boris Ventura Diaz, Marc Rioufol, Thomas Le Douarec.
Tagline: "Everyone has a secret. Every mystery has a twist."

It's difficult to say much about this film's narrative without giving away its red herring plot, so here are some broad capsule reviews:

Charles Theater Plot Capsule: "In the still of the night, three lives are about to cross…a woman abandoned, a stranger awaiting his chance and a best-selling author who imagines the thriller of the year. Deceptively layered and intriguingly misleading, this highly anticipated new feature from writer/director Claude Lelouch (Oscar winner for A Man and a Woman) stars Dominique Pinon and Fanny Ardant as an unlikely couple caught up in a game with high stakes—and deadly consequences."

Rotten Tomatoes Capsule:
"As the film opens, popular crime novelist Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) finds herself at the receiving end of a police interrogation for two murders. We then learn about the escape of an actual serial killer known as "The Magician," who may already be lurking on the roads leading out of Paris. The road is where we find Huguette (Audrey Dana), a high-strung hairdresser who is soon abandoned by her enraged fiancé at a highway service station. Huguette is rescued by the unassuming Pierre (Dominique Pinon), who may or may not actually be the ghost writer responsible for Judith Ralitzer's success..." - or the serial killer. "Taking advantage of a superb cast and gorgeous French locations, Lelouch's veteran touch deftly manages ROMAN DE GARE's multiple layers of mystery and romance. The result is a pleasingly chic thriller grounded in a very human belief in the surprising possibilities that come from love."

It's been a long time since Claude Lelouch was in the spotlight. One would have to go back to 1966, in fact, when his Un Homme et une Femme (A Man and a Woman) won the Palme d'Or, Golden Globe and Oscar as Best Foreign Film. But with Roman de Gare, his 49th film in a 50-year career, the 70-year-old director proves he still has game in a stylish tale of ghost writers and the mysteries of authorship. Appropriately enough, when Roman de Gare screened for Cannes consideration last year, Lelouch submitted it under a pseudonym, because he wanted people to judge Roman de Gare on its own merits and not as "a Lelouch" - a real-life mishievous take on the plot twists of his new film.

About the title: "Roman de gare" (literally "station novel") is French slang for the type of trashy books - typically cheap crime mysteries and thrillers - that one buys in train stations (or drugstores, airports, subways, etc.) for a quick read while commuting or on vacation. In other words, not great literature, but brisk, easily disposable entertainment. This is similar to the Italian pulp crime novel genre known as giallos and our own "beach best-sellers." Thus, Lelouche's title seems to be hinting that while his story may be slight, it's guaranteed to be entertaining and full of enjoyable twists. And that it is.

In a rare starring turn, veteran French actor Dominique Pinon - you've seen him before (he was in Amelie and Delicatessen and made his first screen appearance in 1981's Diva) - shines in a career-defining performance. My friend Marc Sober referred to him as "that ugly guy - the French Michael J. Pollard," and that thespian analogy stuck with me throughout the film (I sure hope Marc wasn't hoping to get his autograph some day, because I've blown it for him in that case!)

Dominique Pinon: The French Michael J. Pollard

Truffaut's old flame Fanny Ardant plays the Jet-set celebrity author Judith Ralitzer and is the biggest name in the cast, but somehow I didn't find her all that engaging.

No, the real discovery here is newcomer Audrey Dana as hair-brained hair stylist Huguette whose rants agaist men always seem to start with the line "I let him come in my mouth" (even in front of her parents and total strangers!). She has many outstanding scenes - her tearful desperation after being abandoned on the roadside by her fiancee, her tense/awkward/protective scenes with her daughter - but I most enjoyed her faux orgasm scene when pretending to have sex with her fiancee so as to reassure her eavesdropping mother that all was ca va! with Mr. Right in the romance department. Of course, no one did it better than Shirley Maclaine in Being There, but this was quite an impressive - and humorous - scene for Ms. Dana.

Ooo-la-la: Was it good for you, too?

Mam'selle Dana also looks rather stunning in boots, as the photo below attests.

These boots were made for street walking

Dana's background seems to be in French TV, though in an interesting twist, she played Claude Lelouch's mother in his "Cinema de Boulevard" segment of Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007) - a collective film comprised of 33 short films by various directors revealing their feelings about cinema. (Hopefully she wasn't as irresponsible a mother to Lelouch as her Huguette character in Roman a Gare.)

But back to the film...

Along the way, Lelouche's direction is clever and confident. The use of dissolves is impressive: as a car drives down the highway in a point-of-view shot, we hear a radio report about an escaped serial killer that dissolves into the feet of the killer on the run.

Lelouch's use of sounds and music to comment on and offer contrast to scenes is inspired as well. When you think a child rapist has disappeared into the woods with a young girl, he fills the soundtrack with the ominous sound of pigs being slaughtered. Meanwhile, at the gas station where Huguette is having a fight with her boorish fiancee, we view the scene from the point of view of Dominique Pinon, who calmly watches the heated exchange from inside the rest stop, where soothing E-Z Listening musak offsets the tension brewing outside. Needless to say Lelouch's old friend Jacques Brel is on the soundtrack, as well.

And now a slight digression...

Rendezvous Deja Vu

Certain stylistic flourishes in this film are distinctly Lelouch. For example, the point-of-view driving scenes in Roman de gare are almost certainly a nod to Lelouche's controversial 1976 short C'était un rendez-vous (literally "It Was an Appointment"), aka Rendezvous, a 9-minute film steeped in urban legend. According to the legend, on an August morning in 1976, Lelouch mounted a gyro-stabilized camera to the bumper of a Ferrari 275 GTB and had a professional Formula 1 racer drive at breakneck speed through the heart of Paris.

The camera used only had a ten minute film magazine, hence the mad dash to the steps of the Basilique du Sacre Coer in Montmatre to rendezvous with the beautiful blonde waiting there (Mrs. Lelouch, for the record). No streets were closed, for Lelouch was unable to obtain a permit. Thus the film is admired for being cinema verite in the strictest sense. Fans continue to debate whether it was really Lelouch himself driving and whether it was a Ferrari, Lelouch's own Mercedes, or a motorcycle being raced. On first showing, Lelouch was supposedly arrested. In his defence, he proclaimed he had taken all possible precautions - including the use of that Formula 1 driver to helm the car.

Subsequently the film went underground, occasionally to be shown in front of a Lelouch full-length feature on theatrical release. Charm City cineastes can rejoice because a 16mm print of Rendezvous is available for checkout at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library. But if you don't live in Baltimore or have a 16mm projector, this joy ride is only as far away as an Internet connection, thanks to someone uploading it to YouTube.

C'était un rendez-vous (1976)

This short was also used as the music video for Snow Patrol's song, "Open Your Eyes" (though it sounds lame without that roaring Ferrari engine!).

In the wake of films like Ronin, Death Proof and Speed Racer and advances in CGI technology, Rendezvous may seemed somewhat dated. But don't forget, this was 1976 and it was shot live without special effects, sped-up film or blocked-off streets. This is what separates Rendezvous from all other films: it's "verite" not virtual - or in Budweiser terminology: "True."

A favorite of the editors of Car & Driver magazine, (“better than any chase ever filmed, because it’s real”) it is definitely NOT recommended for driver’s ed students.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Black Dossier (****)

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
by Alan Moore (Author) and Kevin O'Neill (Illustrator)
Wildstorm, 2007, 208 pages

I've been slowly making my way through this enjoyable - but challenging - read. It's Alan Moore, so while it's guaranteed to be great, but it also means it's far from being just a picture book that can be dusted off in one sitting. Like Chris Ware's Acme comics, Moore's graphic novels are rewarding but require some effort on the reader's part. For like his masterpiece Watchman, The Black Dossier has lots of "books-within-the-book" - meaning that every time a character reads a paper, magazine or scrapbook, it affords Moore the opportunity to reproduce the referenced item in toto and thus riff on various literary genres. Thus, while Black Dossier the graphic novel is ostensibly concerned with spies-and-intrigue in a post-war England where the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been disbanded and disavowed and the country is under the control of an Orwellian-totalitarian regime, that just lays the groundwork for Moore to jump off into spoofs of Aleister Crowley, Jack Kerouac, Shakespeare (love the characters Master Shytte and Master Pysse!), Jules Verne, Virginia Woolf, P.G. Wodehouse, Fanny Hill, classical mythology, faeries, and Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?. There's even a 3-D section near the end (though they were missing from my library copy - natch)!

In between his imaginative digressions into these various literary and pop cultural spoofs, Moore tells the story of youthful Mina Murray and a "rejuvenated" Allan Quatermain looking for clues about the hidden history of the League throughout the ages. The Black Dossier, a book they found buried deep in the vaults of their old headquarters, provides the answer to their questions, but first they have to avoid getting killed by mysterious pursuers trying to recapture the lost manuscript.

But that's just the sideshow in this ambitious work. As one fan wrote on Facebook (yes, I was bored and logged in!): "Virgina Woolf's Orlando is raped by a teenage Merlin. Prospero from Shakespeare's 'The Tempest' is revealed to be the world's first ever superhero. Alan Quatermain meets Jack Kerouac. And Billy Bunter. The story where Jeeves and Wooster meet the Elder Gods of the Cthulhu Mythos has to be seen to be believed! You need this like you need oxygen."

Fan Boy's right, of course. To paraphrase The Sweet, Moore is like oxygen: you get too much, it makes you high; not enough and you're gonna die. Moore gets you high. So take a deep breath and pace yourself!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Leslie Caron Triple Feature (****)

The lovely Leslie Caron

Fanny (1961) (***)
Father Goose (1964) (***)
The L-Shaped Room (1962) (*****)

I never knew much about Leslie Caron beyond the obvious - you know, classically trained ballet dancer turned Hollywood star who was discovered at age 19 by Gene Kelly and cast in An American In Paris (1951), leading the way to more fame and acclaim stateside in Lili (1953), Gigi (1958) and Father Goose (1964). Mam'selle Caron had that classic French look, her sunken cheeks and pouty lips suggesting reticence bordering on sadness.

Born in Paris of a French father and an American mother, Caron was spotted in Roland Petit's 1946 Ballet "Orpheus" by Gene Kelly and later came to the USA to partner up with such legendary hoofers as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly before chucking her dancing shoes at age 25 to take on more dramatic roles - and the occasional romantic-comedy like Father Goose. The world was better for Caron deciding to stretch as an actress, as her work her in the early '60s proves. Her craft was exemplified in the three films I watched last night on Turner Classic Movies: Fanny (1961), Father Goose (1964) and The L-Shaped Room (1962).

First up, the best of the batch.

The L-Shaped Room (1962) (*****)
Directed by Bryan Forbes (UK, 126 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Tom Bell, Brock Peters, Avis Bunnage, Cicely Courtneidge

Why-oh-why is this out-of-print?

Leslie Caron reached her dramatic pinnacle playing Jane Fosset, an unwed pregnant woman who gathers strength from her odd roommates in a seedy Notting Hill tenant house, in Bryan Forbes' The L-Shaped Room (based on a novel by Lynne Reid Banks), for which she received a British Academy Award. (The Brits loved Caron, as she also won BAFTA's Best Foreign Actress award for 1953's Lili.) Like Fanny (the non-musical adaptation of the play based on Marcel Pagnol's Marseilles/Fanny Trilogy) and Lili (despite an Oscar nomination for Best Actress), this film remains criminally out-of-print.

This is a veddy British kitchen sink drama. Particulary striking is its frank depiction of hypocritical attitudes about sex, abortion and class; Jane Fosset is an innocent who is initially blamed for her condition, then blamed for not "taking care of it" in a sensible manner. She briefly considers getting rid of her child, but is so repulsed by the quack she visits (who sees only marriage or termination as options) that she resolves to have the baby alone.

It also boasts a stellar Limey cast. Tom Bell (H.M.S. Defiant, Prime Suspect, The Krays) plays Toby, a struggling writer that falls in love with new tenant Jane Fosset.

Tom Bell

Bell had the classic Angry Young Man look of this era - a thick pompadour of hair and a chiseled face like Tom Courtenay crossed with Laurence Harvey (but without Harvey's posh accent) - which apparently mirrored his real-life Angry Young Man persona as well. Bell famously insulted Prince Philip at an awards event and subsequently found himself virtually blacklisted in films, despite his dashing looks and status as one of England's finest and most promising actors. He would go on to have steady work in British television, however, though I didn't immediately recognize him as the same actor who 30 years later would portray Helen Mirren's backstabbing detective Bill Otley in Prime Suspect (1991). Bell passed away in 2006.

The great American actor Brock Peters, fresh off of his star turn as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird, is next-door-neighbor Johnny, a West Indies jazz trumpet player (not exactly a stretch for Peters, whose parents were from Africa and the West Indies) and good soul who secretly loves Jane. As an actor, Peters had one of the most intense and expressive faces of his time; no one was better at showing angst and inner turmoil.

Brock Peters in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

The quintessentially coarse working-class landlady is Doris, played by veteran character actress Avis Bunnage (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Sparrows Can't Sing, Coronation Street), who routinely got cast in "blousy woman" roles. She's not in a lot of scenes, but when she is on camera, she steals the picture. She's exactly the kind of source material Monty Python would later skewer in their working-class shrew caricatures.

Another standout is Cicely Courtneidge, who plays middle-aged lesbian tenant Mavis - we only learn Mavis' orientation late in the film in a great scene in which Leslie Caron asks about Courtneidge's great love and looks at a framed picture; we never see the picture, just Caron's knowing look and Courtneidge's reply of "It takes all sorts, dear." She also does a wonderful version of "Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty" in British army fatigues that's worth the price of admission. The Smiths opened their 1986 album The Queen Is Dead with a sound bite of Courtneidge's rendition taken from this scene.

Mavis loans Joan her book of Sapphic poetry

Director Bryan Forbes also uses music very effectively to augment his settings and actors. I loved the beatnik club scenes, where Jane and Toby go to see Johnny perform. Everybody drinks coffee, dances the Twist to beat jazz and makes out in smoky corners. Made me think of Expresso Bongo. Elsewhere in the film, Brahms' First Movement is used to suggest tension - first when a lost Jane desperately explores London's seediest neighborhoods in search of a flat, and later when she anxiously watches the clock in the cafe where she works, waiting for her estranged lover to show up. He doesn't.

This is a sad film about loneliness and making connections with others that offers no simplistic happy ending. In that regard, it's like life itself, in which there are no easy answers, only countless perplexing questions. The ending is subtle and dramatic - and rather open-ended. After having her baby and making plans to return home to France, Jane stops by the flat one last time to pick up her belongings and to return Toby's manuscript about their relationship, which is entitled "The L-Shaped Room." Toby is out of his flat, so Jane leaves a note on his typewriter. The note is filmed in a medium-shot and is very hard to make out, but it's something to the effect of "Your story is lovely, but it has no ending. It would be a marvelous story with an ending. - Jane." Cryptic, yes. Perfectly so.

Fanny (1961) (***)
directed by Joshua Logan (USA, 134 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer, Horst Bucholtz, Georgette Anys

Why-oh-why is this out-of-print??

Though it boasts a Who's Who cast of French stars in Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer and Georgette Anys, the real star of this old school tearjerker is the port of Marseilles and the cinematography of DP Jack Cardiff, who captures the beauty and romance of this seaside city in a way no one else has since. When I came across this film on TCM, I thought it looked hokey - I mean, a French cast in berets-and-cafes dubbed into English for Hollywood consumption of Gallic cliches, but it was so gorgeous to look at with its breezy blue skies and the characters set against the azure hues of the Mediterranean Sea, I stayed with it. It seemed so different from drab, humid Baltimore with its pollution and weekend heat advisory. Then, when I saw Caron's face against that backdrop, I was hooked.

Here's imdb's summary of the plotline (based on the plays and films of Marcel Pagnol - Marius, Fanny, Cesar), which borders on the mythic in its simplicity: "Almost 19-year-old Marius feels himself in a rut in Marseille, his life planned for him by his cafe'-owning father, and he longs for the sea. The night before he is to leave on a 5-year voyage, Fanny, a girl he grew up with, reveals that she is in love with him, and he discovers that he is in love with her. He must choose between an exciting life at sea, and a boring life with the woman he loves. And Fanny must choose between keeping the man she loves, and letting him live the life he seems to want."

There are really no surprises there, but we continue to watch because the scenery is pretty, Boyer and Chevalier are engaging and Leslie Caron is captivating.

Father Goose (1964) (***)
directed by Ralph Nelson (USA, 118 minutes)
Cast: Leslie Caron, Cary Grant, Trevor Howard

Don't have much to say about this film except that I've always liked it. Cary Grant was nearing the end of his career and only made one more movie, 1966's Walk Don't Run. This was a change of pace for Grant, as he played against type as a gruff and grizzly boozer instead of Mr. Suave. This was about the time Cary protested that he found it silly to be 60 and still doing romantic scenes with women half his age (co-star Leslie Caron was roughly 32 at the time). Caron has a great drunk scene and the film also boasts a nice title song, "Pass Me By," made famous in a Frank Sinatra cover version.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Art Out of Time (****)

Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries 1900-1969
by Dan Nagel
Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2006, hardcover, 320 pages

Thanks go to comics geek extraordinaire Dave Cawley for telling me about this great collection of unknown comic strip and comic book artists, which I immediately checked out of the library. I haven't made it all the way through, but though it goes up to 1969, most of the strips are old-timey, offering a fascinating look at a lost time in comics history, before the medium was defined, cleaned up and codified. Just as with the old pre-code Van Beuren Studio and Fleisher Brothers animated cartoon shorts, when a medium is new its possibilities seem limitless.

From Publishers Weekly:
There are lots of anthologies of the work of the past century's famous cartoonists, but Nadel has done a real service in putting together this collection of 29 marvelous nearly unknown comic strip and comic book artists. Many are reprinted from yellowing newsprint—in a few cases, like Walter Quermann's late-'30s newspaper strip Hickory Hollow Folks, from the only copies of their work still extant. Only a few, like Ogden Whitney's poker-faced '60s comic book Herbie, have ever been reprinted before. Nadel's five categories, "Exercises in Exploration," "Slapstick," "Acts of Drawing," "Words in Pictures" and "Form and Style," sometimes seem arbitrary; the biographical notes at the back are informative but all too brief. Still, it's hard to argue with the comics themselves. Charles Forbell's 1913 newspaper strip Naughty Pete looks like it had a huge influence on Chris Ware; Gustave Verbeek's bonkers formal experiment The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo, from 1904, is still hilarious and sui generis; Rory Hayes's crude but meticulous horror stories from 1969's Bogeyman Comics, the most recent pieces here, were decades ahead of their time. Contemporary cartoonists—and their fans—have a lot to learn from the freewheeling, witty, try-anything-twice artistic attitude of the pieces Nadel's assembled.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (***)

Ieri, oggi, domani (Italy, 1963, 119 minutes)
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Cast: Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni

Every Baby Boomer male knows the iconic picture of Sophia Loren above, but few have actually seen the movie from which its taken, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, which is most famous for this Sophia Loren striptease scene:

True Confessions: I was always more drawn to the gamine Audrey Hepburn-type screen divas as an adolescent, but as a developing lad even I could not ignore the zaftig sexuality on display from Italy's reigning spaghetti-slurpin' sex siren. I was particulary susceptible to stockings and garters and, well, this was a "leg show" that stuck with me for years.

Luckily, I came across this on TCM while channel surfing last night. De Sica's film won 1964's Best Foreign Film Oscar and deservedly so, as it's quintessentially Italian and offers an acting worksohop for Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni (who was nominated for a BAFTA Best Actor award). It's told in an amusing three-part vignette format, each named after a different woman and Italian city ("Adelina" of Napoli, "Anna" of Milan, and "Mara" of Roma), which gives De Sica the opportunity to riff humorously on regional and class differences (I love how Northern Italians dismissively snort, "Oh, they were Sicilians," as if synonymous with being a hillbilly or thug!).

The "Adelina" story is the longest and, arguably, the best, with its obvious criticism of the Catholic Church's birth control policies (and the even more obvious conclusion that overpopulation, poverty and apathy go hand-in-hand in a never-ending cycle). It tells the story of working-class Napoli housewife Adelina (Loren) supporting her out-of-work husband Carmine(Mastroianni) by selling Black Market cigarettes. Due to a loophole in the Italian legal system, she can't be jailed for her transgressions as long as she's pregnant or nursing newborns, so she beats the system by continually getting knocked up by her willing husband. Unfortunately, as the head count of little ones increases, Carmine's desire decreases, as he succumbs to fatigue from stud duty and headaches from the constant pitter-patter of tiny feet. When Carmine starts shooting blanks, Adelina finally goes to prison. But her case becomes a national sensation and, following a pardon, she returns to a fully-rested Carmine to start the cycle all over again.

The short "Anna" vignette takes place in Milan and, naturally (this being the affluent industrialized home of Fiat and rich football clubs like A.C. Milan and Inter Milan) deals with class and privilege issues. Loren's Anna is a rich northern industrialist's trophy wife who has grown bored with her life of luxury - or has she? She hooks up with Renzo (Mastroianni), a writer (i.e., poor/artistic type) that she thinks can offer her passion and excitement. But she freaks out when he crashes her Rolls Royce, and when a well-to-do motorist stops to help, Anna the Material Girl takes off with him in his spiffy sportscar.

In the famous finale, in which Sophia does her striptease, she plays an upscale Roman hooker named Mara, who has caught the eye of her young seminary student neighbor, Umberto (Gianni Ridolfi). In fact, Umberto is ready to chuck his starched collar for a date with Mara - until his grannie pleads with Mara to help her save the lad's soul. In order to do so, Mara vows to give up her work for one week if the saints will reclaim Umberto's soul and make him a man of the cloth again. The loser - as in all the other storylines in De Sica's film - is Mastroianni as Mara's regular customer, the sex-starved Augusto Rusconi. Poor Marcello!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Story of Film (****)

by Mark Cousins
Da Capo Press, 2006, 512 pages

Saw this at Daedalus Books & Music and had to pick it up. Yeah, I know, there's a zillion books on the history of film (God knows I have most of them!), but this one is really slick, with great photos and great reviews. Mark Cousins is the host of BBC's Scene by Scene, as well as an author and director of documentaries.

Here's the editorial blurb from Amazon:
The Story of Film presents the history of the movies in a way never told before. Weaving personalities, technology, and production with engaging descriptions of groundbreaking scenes, Mark Cousins uses his experience as film historian, producer, and director to capture the shifting trends of movie history without recourse to jargon. We learn how filmmakers influenced each other; how contemporary events influenced them; how they challenged established techniques and developed new technologies to enhance their medium. Striking images reinforce the reader's understanding of cinematic innovation both stylistic and technical. Presenting three epochs — Silent (1885–1928); Sound (1928–1990) and Digital (1990–Present) — The Story of Film spans the birth of the moving image; the establishment of Hollywood; the European avant-garde movements; personal filmmaking; world cinema and recent phenomena such as Computer Generated Imagery and the ever-more "real" realizations of the wildest of imaginations. Here are mainstream entertainment films and maverick talents, breathtaking moments and technical revolutions, blockbuster movies and art-house gems, icons of the screen and the hard workers behind the scenes. It is a powerful story of the world's most popular artistic medium.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (***)

The Comic Art of Fletcher Hanks
Edited and with an afterword by Paul Karasik
Fantagraphics Books, 2007, 122 pages
“The recovery from oblivion of these treasures is in itself a work of art.”-Kurt Vonnegut

Just discovered this at work today. Fantagraphics describes it as "the work of a comics genius so obscure that many serious collectors were unaware of Fletcher Hanks...until now."
His work is everything that you want a comic book to be but so rarely is: weird, violent, stupid, fun and breathtakingly beautiful all at once. It's like a memory of a comic book story you read as a kid but are now not certain whether it really existed or not because nothing else has ever lived up to that particular type of thrill. It really existed, alright. And it was written and drawn by a guy you never heard of: Fletcher Hanks. Welcome home. - Fantagraphics Books

"No one knows a thing about Fletcher Hanks," writes editor Paul Krasalik. "This stuff is impossible to find. Nobody saved them 'cause Hanks worked on second-rate characters for third-rate publishers." But he represents an interesting time in a budding industry. "He was there at the ground floor of the comic books industry. Hanks was a true original"

But a few things are known, thanks to this collection. Hanks wrote a number of strips under a number of different names. He wrote "The Super Wizard Stardust" ("The most remarkable man who ever lived and master of interplanetary science") as Fletcher Hanks, "Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle" ("The most remarkable woman that ever lived," who "devotes her phenomenal powers to protecting the jungle born") as Barclay Flagg and the Flash Gordon-inspired "Buzz Crandall of the Space Patrol" (the "top crime buster of the universe" who lives on the "highly civilized planet of Venus and is in charge of the interplanetary secret service for both Venus and Earth") as Bob Jordan.

A brief Hanks bio and one Stardust strip are included in author Dan Nagel's book Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969. Nagel writes that "Hanks drew some of the strangest tales in comic books from the late 1930s to the early 1940s" and observes that his strips "work better as pop art brut than narrative, but are utterly immersive." The dominant theme is always cosmic disaster, with "the apocalypse just a minute away, only to be prevented by Stardust's brutal justice." In an interview with The Comics Reporter, Nagel added, "Some people might call him a primitive, but what's so great about [Hanks] is that he took this idea of superheroes as gods literally, even before anyone articulated the idea."

Included in the 128 page, full-color book are 15 of Fletcher Hanks’ finest stories as well as a comics afterword by editor Paul Karasik called “Whatever Happened To Fletcher Hanks?” This "afterword" is really interesting because Karasik tracks down his son, Fletcher Hanks, Jr. (nicknamed, like his dad, "Christy" - for baseball hurler Christy Matthews), who tells him that his father was, in real life, an alcoholic deadbeat dad who abused his family and abandoned them when Junior was 10. Though a number of artists have championed his work (among them R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kurt Vonnegut and Gary Panter), Christy Jr. recounts how his father stole his son's allowance and broke his mother face and swears he would have killed him if given half a chance.

Merciless justice, Stardust-style

I guess we can see Fletcher Hanks' real-life violent nature reflected in his art. That's what's so bizarre about these pre-Comics Code strips. Villains (with names like De Structo, The Fifth Columnists, Slant-Eye - who is Asian, natch - Gyp Clip, Skullface, Wolf Eye, The Demon, and Org) are not just killed, they're tortured, frozen alive, even turned into rats!

One of the ironies of Hanks' mysterious life is that when died (sometime around 1970), his frozen body was found by police on a park bench in New York City. In one of his comics, Stardust imprisons villain "Gyp" Clipp in a ice chamber with the words, "In your frozen condition, you'll live forever - to think about your crimes."

More on Fletcher Hanks:
I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! (Amazon)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

loudQUIETloud (***)

loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies
Directed by Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin, 2006, 82 minutes

I watched this for free Sunday night on Comcast On Demand. I never knew much about the Pixies, but people whose tastes I respected (Dave Cawley, Ray Cruitt) always raved about them. Plus Kurt Cobain famously said Nirvana was his attempt to rip off The Pixies. But the best description of this documentary, which covers their 2004 reunion tour (after having been together 1986-1992), may well be New York Times critic Nathan Lee: "Boring people who made extraordinary music, the Pixies are inexplicable. In attempting to demystify them, the directors Steven Cantor and Matthew Galkin achieve the opposite."

I liked that the film wasn't overly ambotious, documenting one aspect of the band's career: the post fall-out, post-Kim Deal-rehab, reunion tour. And I loved the mundane, non-musical parts that answered the question, "What do rock stars do when they're not being idolized onstage?" They drink lots of coffee, smoke ciggies, listen to music, pursue their hobbies, have relationships and have kids, that's what!

Head Pixie Charles "Black Francis" Thompson reminded me a lot of Baltimore's dearly departed songwriting genius Mark "Harpo" Linthicum, though a lot more dour than Harpo. Kim Deal struck me as an obvious addictive personality. Though now "clean and sober," she constantly has societally-approved drugs at her side - she's always sipping a Starbucks latte, non-alcoholic brew or chain-smoking one butt after the other. Drummer David Lovering seemed nice but weak and directionless. He starts abusing substances like wine and Valium midway through the tour (perhaps understandably - he lost his father to cancer near the end of the tour) and gets lectured by the band. When Kim Deal tells him how hard it is to kick Valium dependency, David cracks wise at her, "Maybe I should just do heroin in that case." Touche!

But I think my fave Pixie is now lead guitarist Joey Santiago, not just because he's a gifted guitar player or comes across as the most even-keeled of the band's disparate personalities. But because I noticed he digs soccer. He wears the national team jersey of Italy's Azzuri in one scene, and a Brazil knit cap in another. (I subsequently read that he scored a soccer documentary for Nike called Blood, Sweat and Tears: Football in the Rough.) Plus he's a dead ringer for my former co-worker and all-around-cool-guy, Carlton Jackson. My man!

Monkees at the Movies (***)

Monkees At The Movies
Original Airdate - 04/17/67
Writers: Gerald Gardner & Dee Caruso
Director: Russell Mayberry

I really don't watch more than five of the 500+ channels I get with Comcast digital cable (MSNBC for Countdown with Keith Olbermann, Turner Classic Movies, G4 for Ninja Warrior and Unbeatable Bazuke, Fox Soccer Channel and The Tennis Channel). Sunday night there was nothing much on besides French Open coverage on the Tennis Channel - and I soon became bored watching the slaughters being shown (Rafael Nadal humbling fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco 6-1, 6-0, 6-2 and Ana Ivanovic humiliating cutey-honey Petra Cetkovska 6-0, 6-0), so I switched over to Comcast's On Demand channel. I had no idea how much fun, free stuff was available there. Not only did I watch three original British Office episodes and the Pixies 2004 reunion tour documentary loudQUIETloud, but I also discovered The Monkees TV shows there as well.

I selected Monkees at the Movies at random and it proved a good one with the Monkees spoofing the AIP/Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies. The "plot" involves the Fab(ricated) Four getting hired as extras for a beach movie starring "Frankie Catalina" (guest star Bobby Sherman in a ridiculous Fabianesque blonde wig, who would go to pursue TV stardom in 1968's Here Comes the Brides).

Frankie "can't sing, can't surf and is afraid of girls," but still has a very large ego. After his attitude pisses off the Monkees, they sabotage his performance, leading Frankie to exit stage right and Davy Jones to replace him. But Davy's ego goes Titanic and the other three likewise bring him to down to Earth. Of course, all Monkees narrative is just a time-killer between the songs, and the ones on display here are great - "Valleri" (with its purloined "Jumping Jack Flash" guitar riff), "Last Train To Clarksville," "A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You." Davy also sings a snippet of "I Love You Really," while Bobby Sherman trots out "New Girl In School." "When Love Comes Knockin'" appears in credits but never used in episode.

At the end of the episode there's an interesting interview with the boys about not playing their instruments.