Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hi-Keeeba!

Last weekend was a martial art mini-marathon. I started with 47 Ronin (2013), kind of an oddball. It's Hollywood samurai film with a great Japanese cast, and Keanu Reeves. It's a classic Japanese tale, and a Hong Kong style action fantasy. It was also a big commercial flop.

It's easy to understand. The idea was probably to apply the new wild action style to the cooler, formalistic Japanese cinema. Chushingura, the story of the 47 loyal masterless supporters, has been filmed many times in Japan (not to mention Kabuki and puppet plays), often in a cold, cerebral, interiorized style, like Mizoguchi's 1941 version. This time, they added an evil fox spirit, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Brother's Bloom, yay!), which isn't a problem - Mizuguchi's most famous film, Ugetsu, is a stone ghost story. It also adds half-Euro Keanu Reeves, who actually does pretty well - repressing all visible emotion like a good retainer. I think the director wanted to go this way, and it shows in some of the court scenes: beautiful costumes, geometric blocking, stately movement.

But then we get these fast-cutting CGI fight scenes. These are also fine - not great, but plenty of fun. They aren't really awkwardly inserted (although I guess the producers did jam them in against the director's wishes) - really they make the more stylized portions awkward.

Still, I rather liked this. It didn't hold up as well as, for example, The Sorcerer and the White Snake, which also made a classic tale in to an action film. But I didn't have a problem with it.

Now, it was nowhere as good as classic Shaw Bros. For example, Legendary Weapons of China (1982). It features an evil cult who are trying to train their warriors to become bulletproof so they can fight the English. You know they are evil because training involves forcing students to gouge their own eyes out and tear off their own dangly bits. And shooting them to see if it worked. One master resigns in disgust, and the cult sends out assassins to take him out. But there are several imposters running around, including a bunch of mountebanks who pretend to have skills. So they go around faking fighting while the masters are faking really fighting (you know because it's a movie). So, a little comedy, eighteen legendary weapons (if you count "bare hands"), cool fights, everything you could want.

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978) is just as good. In this case, our evil cult isn't really evil or a cult - a kung fu master teaches styles based on poisonous creatures. He sends his last student to look up five previous students to make sure they aren't doing evil, like you might expect they would be. Like Legendary Weapons, the identity of the fighters is obscure until you see their patented style. There's some comedy but not as much as Weapons. But is Frog really a venous creature?

In conclusion, Hi-Keeba!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Howl

We just re-watched Miyazaki's great animation, Howl's Moving Castle (2004), and I was surprised to find that I hadn't blogged it the first time we watched. Can't understand how I missed it. It certainly made a big enough impression.

It is based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote stories about schools for wizards long before Harry Potter came along. Her concepts of magic can be satirical (The Tough Guide to Fantasyland) or deeply philosophical (and maybe still satirical), and her writing is funny, interesting and human. In other words, we are fans.

It is the story of little Sofi (voiced in the English version by by Emily Mortimer), who works in a hat shop in an old-fashioned Europeanish town. She is cursed by the Witch of the Waste, who turns her into an old woman (old Sofi voiced by Jean Simmons). Wandering the Waste, she takes refuge in Lord Howl's moving castle - a steampunk heap that walks on robot chicken feet, ruled by the dark wizard Howl.

Howl (Christian Bale) turns out to be a very pretty youth (or bishonen, as they say in anime) with some dark secrets. His household includes a slightly feral child and a powerful and somewhat silly fire demon (voice by Billy Crystal. There's also a little dog and a scarecrow, for a little touch of Oz.

Sofi is a very Miyazaki little girl, also very Wynne-Jonesian. She is timid and plain, but dutiful and resourceful. She likes to be useful, assigning herself the job of cleaning lady to the castle. She can be assertive, and manages to bully the fire demon who no one else could control. She doesn't like being old, but takes it rather well - I think she was a bit of a premature old lady even before the curse. I also think she's adorable.

The little pieces of magic, like the kid's dwarf disguise are the best. In my opinion, the big magical set pieces, like Howl's transformation in the midst of steampunk aerial warfare, are less effective. All in all, maybe my favorite Studio Ghibli production.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Nothing Like One

Dames (1934) was one of those oddballs in the queue that floats to the top because the movies that we thought we were getting were all "Long Wait" or maybe "Very Long Wait" - What's up with that? More and more selections sit at the top of my queue forever, or just 6 months for Long Wait. Anyway, it turns out that I'd seen it already, but that was OK.

This is one of those Depression musicals, with Guy Kibbee meeting his millionaire cousin Hugh Herbert. It seems that Herbert will be giving many of his millions to his last remaining descendant in good-standing Kibbee's daughter, Ruby Keeler. But only if Kibbee, wife Zasu Pitts and Keeler are upstanding and stay away from theater folk.

You see, Herbert's other remaining descendant is Dick Powell, outcast from polite society for producing Broadway shows. And of course, Powell and Keeler are in love and she wants to dance in the show. Then Joan Blondell comes along with a sweet blackmail scheme to finance the show.

So we've got a classic cast, although Kibbee, Pitts and Herbert keep it dialed back (for them). We get several renditions of the now-classic "I Only Have Eyes for You". Ruby Keeler does a quick little tap number - she's not a great dancer (or actress or looker or singer or comedian or...), but I like to see her dance. There's something sincere about it.

But when it comes time to put on the show - BAM! Busby Berkelely. His "dances" involve armies of women posing statically in geometric designs. One piece features huge scary cutout masks of Ruby Keeler whirling around. Still, probably not the weirdest he's ever staged.

So this is pretty much your standard musical of the time, not outstanding or disappointing either. If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you'll like.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Damn the Torpedoes, Tokyo Style

First off, Walk, Don't Run (1966) is a remake of the classic Charles Coburn screwball comedy, The More the Merrier. I've mentioned this story before, but long story short, Ms. Spenser and I have a long history with that movie. Second, we love Cary Grant and the way he handles screwball. So glad we found it.

In The More the Merrier, industrialist Charles Coburn can't find a room in Washington DC due to the WWII housing shortage. In Walk, Don't Run, the industrialist is Cary Grant, the town is Tokyo and the housing shortage is due to the 1966 Olympics. He buffaloes up-tight Samantha Eggar into sharing her apartment with him, and tries to go along with her rigid schedule. Because he never minds his own business, he winds up sub-letting half of his half of the apartment to American architect/Olympian Tim Hutton. And before you can say "Damn the torpedoes!," Grant is playing Cupid.

The movie is full of cute jokes, like Grant whistling the theme to his other movies, Hutton refusing to tell what event he is competing in, and nobody suspecting the Grant and Eggar are living in sin, much to his chagrin. There's a lovely set piece involving two pairs of disappearing pants, culminating in a long take of Grant just staring at said garments. It doesn't sound like much, but it had me in stitches.

Grant just kind of tosses this off - it's his last movie, and I don't think he had to stretch himself much. Eggar does all right, but it's kind of a thankless role, the bluestocking type who has to be won over by love. Jim Hutton (Ellery Queen) does a decent job as a prickly independent type - I got a kind of Anthony Perkins gawkishness from him as well. I don't think I've mentioned the Ellery Queen shows we've watched with him in the title role, but I know I've mentioned his son Tim. So that was fun.

Also, some Tokyo locations from the summer of the Olympics, including the Yoyogi Gymnasium, just built. And George Takei shows up to try to straighten everything out. There's a bittersweet little ward-office wedding scene that looked a lot like mine and Ms. Spenser's - did I ever tell you we were married for immigration purposes in Tokyo?

By 1966, the true age of screwball was pretty much over, so this doesn't quite come off. For example, Cary Grant never gets put into women's clothing, the height of screwball comedy. But he spends plenty of time in his underwear, and that's got to be worth something.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Flash in the Pan

Royal Flash (1975) seemed like it couldn't miss: Richard Lester directing Malcolm MacDowell, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, plus Florinda Bolkan and Britt Ekland. Based on a story and script by George MacDonald Fraser, from the beloved Flashman stories, about the most boastful, lustful and cowardly cad and bounder in the British Empire. Oh Mr. Lester, where did it all go wrong?

It isn't the plot - Florinda Bolkan as Lola Montez seduces MacDowell as Harry Flashman into following her to Germany, where Oliver Reed as Bismark forces him into a Prisoner of Zenda situation. There are fights, slapstick, sexiness, overlapping dialog and other Lesteresque goings on. The main problem is that our Flashman is less lovable than we remember from the novels. His cowardice, vainglory, bigotry, sleaziness and dimwittedness all come across, but not his charm.

Still, it's a lot of fun if you like this sort of thing. I particularly liked Bolkan as Lola, although it reminded me of Ophuls' Lola Montes, a better movie though also flawed. The delirious camerawork, twirling around lovely Lola on her trapeze... Sorry, I got distracted.

Anyway, too bad about this. It had a lot of promise, and really, it came close to Three Musketeers level greatness at times. Maybe needed more Roy Kinnear.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not with a Bang but with a Giggle

The World's End (2013) is the third movie in Edgar Wright's loose "Cornetto Trilogy": Three movies (with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost thematically connected by a critique of English social conformity and ice cream novelties.

This one features Pegg as the guy you used to pal around with in high school or college who never grew up. He wants to get a bunch of his old buddies together to finish a legendary pub crawl - the Miracle Mile, 12 pubs in one night. As young men, they mad a strong attempt and had the greatest night of their lives. Or at least the greatest of Pegg's life. The others have moved on, gotten married, and in Frost's case, stopped drinking. Yet somehow, they all show up.

This setup is funny enough. The grownup middle-class Brits confronting the wacked out loser they used to like. The pubs that have grown up and gotten complacent too. The nostalgia for those good old days and the relief that they are over, and reluctance to relive them, unless you never left. But as the night goes on, things start getting weird, then weirder. Then deadly.

One of the things I like about Wright's comedy is its precision. Here we get 12 pubs, each with an olde-fashioned pub name, and each name states a theme for the visit: Starting at the First Post, then onto the Old Familiar, which looks just like the first pub, and so on. Of course, there are ordinary jokes and pratfalls, but there is a lot of formalist humor (is that a thing?), where the joke is in the symmetry or symbolism. My analytic mind loves this stuff.

In addition, a hobbit, Martin Freeman, and a 007, Pierce Brosnan, are on hand for the festivities.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mad Max

Maximum Overdrive (1986) was Ms. Spenser's idea - well actually Filmsack's idea, as they are planning to do it soon. Anyway, she's a fan of Steven King, and this is the only movie he both wrote and directed, and (like all Filmsack movies) it was on streaming, so...

It starts with the Earth passing through the tail of a comet and strange things start happening. First, a drawbridge opens while still full of cars, to an AC/DC soundtrack - probably coming from the van with the big AC/DC logo on the side. Yes, AC/DC does the soundtrack to this movie. They must be Steven King fans too.

The concept is that all the machine's have come to life and started to try to kill people. Most of the action takes place at a rural shithole truckstop, where patrons and workers (including hero Emilio Estevez as a good-hearted but dangerous ex-con fry cook, Laura Harrington as the spunky waitress and Yeardley Smith as a just-married bride) are trapped by rampaging semi trucks. Many people are crushed, dismembered or otherwise inconvenienced.

This is pretty much a horror comedy, played for laughs. It didn't look like it had much budget, although that might have been due to King's limited vision. Or maybe it was intentional - a conscious homage to drive-in horror. Either way, kind of fun.

If you're wondering why King never directed another movie, King says, "Did you see Maximum Overdrive?"