Weekly Round-Up: May 22-28, 2016

This week had limited viewings (I kept falling asleep!), but I managed to get through:

  • X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Dizzying (in a good way) trip through time as Wolverine is sent back to the 1970s to prevent Mystique from committing a political assassination. I’m not sure how all the timelines fit together (the events from the first set of X-Men movies don’t fit with what apparently went down in the 1970s) but it’s a decent enough popcorn flick. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) – This later “Elvis in Hawaii” film has weaker music, less joy, and feels deflated compared to the earlier Blue Hawaii (which I loved). Elvis pairs up with a buddy to start a helicopter charter business, but early-30s Elvis seems over the kooky escapades his character is forced into, delivering an unenthusiastic performance. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Troll 2 (1990) – This classic “so-bad-it’s-good” movie features a family on an exchange program to vacation in Nilbog (“Goblin” backwards!) as their son (who has visions of his late grandfather) tries to warn them of the impending danger before it’s too late. Troll 2 also boasts a wonderfully over-the-top performance of Deborah Reed as Creedence, “mother” of the trolls and part-time seductress. RECOMMENDED.

Also, honorable mention for Thank Your Lucky Stars (which I’ve seen before and adore) and Taste of Cherry, both of which I started and fell asleep during.

What did you see last week?

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Weekly Round-Up: May 15-21, 2016

Last week, I saw:

  • Woman in the Dunes (1964) – At its best, this demented love story is an absolute thriller, chronicling the kidnapping and imprisonment of one man by a rural Japanese village. Unfortunately, this intriguing premise loses momentum and is all but buried by its 2 1/2 hour running time. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Descendants (2015) – I adore this movie, to the point where my friend Albert and I recorded an audio commentary this week (to be released soon) analyzing the film even further. The Disney villains’ kids go to high school together – what more could you want? RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Even better on home video than in theaters, thanks to subtitles! I even watched it with audio commentary which provided additional insights. Nearly six months in, this might be my pick of top movie of 2016. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Blue Hawaii (1961) – Silly but enjoyable Elvis musical about a young man torn between his destiny as a pineapple heir and staying a beach bum with his friends. Great songs and Angela Lansbury are icing on the cake. RECOMMENDED.
  • The New World (2005) – Spectacular historical drama exploring the intertwining lives of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. From what I’ve seen, this is by far my favorite Malick film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Black Moon (1975) – Surrealist trashfest that is equal parts Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Godard’s Weekend, but with none of the wit or purpose. I get that there was something about a battle of the sexes, but couldn’t grasp how hordes of naked kids running about or old ladies talking to pet rats contributed to this idea. NOT RECOMMENDED.

The New World (2005)

A creative executive once told me that the key to storytelling success is a balance of condensation and distillation: condensation to contextualize and broaden the scope beyond your immediate story, and distillation to dive in deep and explore your characters inside and out.

Terrence Malick’s The New World is a triumphant balance of the two, by telling a story of epic proportions (the first Europeans to land on American shores), and as intimate a love story (between Pocahontas and John Smith) as has ever been filmed. The story glides seamlessly from key historic events, such as the English sailors’ arrival in Virginia or Pocahontas saving John Smith’s life, to the internal monologues and captivating montages Malick is best known for. Narrative story elements are interspersed with introspective aggregate thoughts, drawing us into a foreign time and place through first-person contact.

When John Smith returns to the British fort after living temporarily with a Native tribe, there is bickering among the men on who should lead them next. As they go on, we pivot into Smith’s interior thoughts, as he adjusts from a joyful life with Pocahontas and the Natives back to his reality:

It was a dream. Now I am awake.

We know of course, that the Americas was not truly a “New World,” but the film’s title applies less to the place and more to the characters’ state of being. John Smith a prisoner, freed upon landing in the Americas. Pocahontas fascinated by a totally new way of life, captivated by her first love. John Rolfe, starting anew after losing his wife and child. They all experience new worlds of their own, and follow a similar journey of dreamlike bliss before settling into a less satisfying reality.

It is at times heartbreaking, and very often moving, and the sheer love of everyone involved shines through each frame of The New World. There are no real villains; the interactions between English and Native American are not trivialized or simplified. The plight each character faces is that struggle of condensation and distillation: balancing what is good for the community and collective whole, while satisfying one’s own interests and desires. It is the classic American story, set at the birth of America.

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The New World Criterion Collection edition is available for pre-order on Amazon.

Weekly Round-Up: May 08-14, 2016

Two weeks ago, I saw:

  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Ambitious mega-sequel tying together plot elements from the far reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plus introducing charismatic new characters in Scarlet Witch and The Vision. I had some trouble following what was going on but I overall enjoyed it (though I don’t understand how Iron Man can let his tech run wild so many times!). RECOMMENDED.
  • Youth (2015) – I enjoyed this film slightly more this second round, though it could certainly use an editing job. At its best, it’s terrifically emotional even though at times it seems to not know where it’s going. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ant-Man (2015) – If this film had come earlier in the MCU I might have liked it more, but I couldn’t take the “buggy” qualities very seriously. Michael Pena is great as Ant-Man’s friend though, who tells outrageous long-winded stories (which surprisingly drive the plot forward). NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Sorry Winter Soldier, but Civil War is the new greatest superhero movie. A key element to this star-studded affair is the showdown between Team Cap and Team Iron Man, but its core theme that actions have consequences is a mature and complex one, heightening the superhero film to new heights. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Palm Springs Weekend (1963) – Silly teeny bopper flick about college kids who go on vacation to Palm Springs, where they drink booze, gamble, get arrested, and even fall in love. I adore these kinds of movies but acknowledge that they’re not for everybody. RECOMMENDED if you like baby boomer kids getting into trouble.
  • Friday the 13th (1980) – One of the dumbest horror movies to generate its own franchise, I admit I had a terrific time seeing this on a big screen, for the very first time, this past Friday the 13th. It was an outdoor screening at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, where the audience whistled with each love scene and cheered every time a camp counselor was slashed. NOT RECOMMENDED, but this movie is probably REQUIRED if you’re a horror buff.

What did you see two weeks ago? Did you fall victim to Friday the 13th?

Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii is a romantic western Hawaiian dream come true: a rejection of traditional  western values and customs in favor of the (supposedly) carefree lifestyle of native Hawaiians. Elvis plays Chad, an heir to a pineapple company, who returns from two years overseas in the Army. His parents want him to take on the family business, but he wants to make his own way, working as a tour guide with his girlfriend Maile (sounds like “Miley”) and hanging out with his “beach boy” friends.

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Glad to be home?

I’m not sure if we’re supposed to feel this way, but Chad comes across like a bit of a jerk. When Maile first picks him up at the airport, he kisses the airline stewardess on his way out of the plane to make her jealous. To calm her down as they drive off, he assures her (through song) that he was almost always true to her. Even when he meets up with his friends, they ask him all about life overseas and what girls he met, but he doesn’t ask them any questions in return. They missed him, but he didn’t miss them?

But this is an Elvis movie, and Elvis movies are all about the music. The songs in Blue Hawaii are top-notch, with the highlight ballad “Can’t Help Falling in Love” as well as “Rock-a-Hula Baby” (performed during his welcome-home party at his parents’ estate) and “Slicin’ Sand,” a bizarro song Elvis sings with his tour group.

The real scene-stealer, however, is Angela Lansbury as Chad’s mother. From the very first scene when she’s serving an unnamed cocktail to the countless Mai Tais she clutches, she simply can’t keep the drinks coming fast enough. Of all the non-native Hawaiians, she is the most unabashedly racist (calling her Asian servant “Ping Pong”) and classist, though she is nothing like the monster she portrays in The Manchurian Candidate. She is barely even a villain, her greatest fault being ignorance and not hatred or even evil.

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One of the film’s Mai Tais in action

Blue Hawaii comes from a very different time and place, but is a delightful journey for anyone who revels in the romanticized vision of the islands so common in the 1950s & 60s. (I know I do!) Filmed on location, we get some great exterior shots of beaches, hotels, restaurants, and even the interior sets are gloriously mid-century modern. This is a vacation to a dream world you “can’t help falling in love” with.

Harry Owens and his Royal Hawaiians – “Voice of the Trade Winds”

Search the world over for enchanting and romantic music and you will find none to compare with that of the Hawaiian Islands. For here is the music of leisure, happy vacation times, and fond “Alohas”…music that is the memory of the blue Pacific.

Distinguished far and above the many who play and sing of this island paradise is the name of Harry Owens, leader of the famous Royal Hawaiians. An accomplished musician, conductor and composer of many famous Hawaiian songs, Owens is world-renowned for his interpretation of this lovely and ever-popular musical art.

This is the sentimental song of the tropics…the dreamy nod of the palms…the soft sound of gently-breaking waves on golden sands. This is the Voice of the Trade Winds – Hawaii!

21958656551_e4c83df750_bWho wouldn’t want to listen to that? Such is the description of Harry Owens’s album Voice of the Trade Winds, a dreamy, lush record of Hawaiian orchestral music.

Several of the tracks are well-known standards (“My Little Grass Shack,” “Blue Hawaii”) with five Owens originals, including the title track and “Sweet Leilani.”

This album first came on my radar from Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at the Polynesian Village Resort in Walt Disney World – it can be seen hanging on the wall above the bar.

Interestingly, Voice of the Trade Winds is not part of the instrumental area loop for Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto, and cannot be heard anywhere on Disney property. However (and this is the Disney Parks music junkie/completionist in me), its placement in Trader Sam’s makes it an implicit part of the soundscape, if not an explicitly heard one.

Its lush orchestrations are a bit of a foil to the dark, rhythmic exotica of the Trader Sam’s area loop, but more cleanly fits in as part of Sam’s collection of his travels ’round the world. Harry Owens himself was the bandleader at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, one of the premiere Hawaiian resorts. It would not be a stretch that a typical Hawaiian tourist, either staying at the hotel or even visiting, would hear the sounds of the Royal Hawaiian orchestra or pick up one of Owens’s records. Voice of the Trade Winds, or any Harry Owens album, could be the keepsake of any Hawaiian visitor during that time.

Whatever the source – a Hawaiian visitor of yesteryear, or a resident of the mainland yearning to experience the Islands, the record entered my collection just this past weekend at the Tiki Caliente 8 (as in, the 8th year) in Palm Springs, CA. This several-day tiki affair features art, collectibles, food, and of course drinks, celebrating Hawaiian & Polynesian culture, both authentic and kitschy. Voice was one of three albums I bought, and the instant I saw it I recognized it from its perch at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto.

This album is not available on CD, and only some of the songs are available as MP3. As Hawaiian music goes, it’s unique for its blend of better-known orchestral stylings with a big band feel. This does sound like a hotel jazz band, in the best way; there is an energetic and economical quality to this album that the sleepier records just can’t match. Mix yourself a Royal Mai Tai, sit back, and let yourself be transported by the Voice of the Trade Winds.