Thursday, September 21, 2017

Two Blades

Got an Asian martial arts double-bill for you. First up: Dragon Blade (2015), an East-meets-West drama, with John Cusack as West and Jackie Chan as East. Chan plays a protector of the peace on the Silk Road. He is first seen breaking up a fight between Huns (?) and Indians (?) - which involves him fighting an angry Hun woman, and accidentally grabbing her tits and ripping off her veil. That means they are married - Oh, Jackie!

But his squad is framed for corruption, and they are exiled as slave labor to repair the walls of a city. One day, a Roman legion lead by John Cusack shows up, exhausted, with a blond, blind boy-prince. So Jackie Chan goes out to fight - or to not fight, since he's a peacemaker. After some desultory fighting, Jackie convinces Cusack to drop his sword and they enter the city.

This has to remind you of The Great Wall. It has a number of similar scenes - the sword dropping surrender, the "dance-offs" where each group does a little display of their martial skills. My guess is that this is just China wanting to make international hits, and this is their formula.

Anyway, this gets pretty dark, especially when we're talking about Adrian Brody, who blinded the boy to secure his claim to the Imperial throne. But do you really get from Rome to the kingdom of the Parthians through China?

Once again, this isn't really a great film (too serious?), but I did love the Buddhist message of peace, hope, and friendship.

The Sword Identity (2011) is a different, odder beast. It is about a Chinese coastal city that had a problem with Japanese pirates a generation ago. Things have quieted down now, and the leading five martial arts schools have gotten sloppy and complacent. The town's guards have to use papier-mache armor, because metal is for the Imperial Army. A stranger (Song Yang) comes to town with a new fighting style, a new weapon. By tradition, he has to fight his way past all four schools so that he can set up his own school. But it isn't that simple.

His weapon is kind of cool - a samurai sword about 8-feet long, but - here's the kicker - it only has an edge on the last 2-3 feet, so you can hold it by the middle of the blade and work it like a quarterstaff. Yang's mentor intuited that the samurai technique was based on polework, and set out to combat it.

Once our hero gets chased off by the schools, he hides out with a Romany (Indian?) dancing girl on a houseboat in the canal. He decides to teach her to fight, so he gives her his sword sheath, sits her by the curtained door with the end sticking out and tells her to swing up when she hears someone approach. Then he sneaks out the back. For most of the rest of the movie she demolishes every challenger - and everyone thins it's Yang. They've started calling him the Japanese Pirate, because of his sword.

So, in some senses this is a serious martial arts film. The director, Xiu Haofeng, is a serious martial artist, who was reportedly trying to make his fights more realistic. It is also a "art house" movie, where the camera may drift from the fight to the dead lotus leaves in the canal, and only show you a few of the feet. But it is also very silly - our Japanese Pirate (who is neither) next captures the whole town guard and makes them wade through the canals all night, basically just to tire them out. But he also attacks them with his "Japanese" sword to see if their old tactic of close shield and spear work can defend against the Japanese (if they ever show up). He is happy to find that it is successful, even when used by idiots.

So. there's a little something here for everyone - some realistic (not too flashy) fights, some comedy, some romance.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Station to Station

We have been watching The Middleman (2008) when we have an open space in our queue. It's a short-lived sitcom about an ordinary (but cute) artist who takes a temp job that turns out to be sidekick to secret agent superhero - the Middleman. It's funny and stupid and the characters are kind of sweet and lovable. The Middleman himself (Matt Keesler) is a straight-shooter who drinks nothing stronger than milk and loves Budd Boetticher films.

Which is funny, because we had Comanche Station (1960) all queued up. Directed by Boetticher, this entry has Randolph Scott travelling into Comanche territory to redeem a white woman they are holding hostage. Now this setup is fraught with unspoken psychological depth (see The Searchers). We imagine the woman suffering the Fate Worse than Death at the hands of savages, and wonder if she can live in society after being defiled. Scott mounts the woman, Nancy Gates, on a mule when they ride away - the sterile beast of burden traditionally ridden by celibate priests. But I noticed that she was riding astride, not side-saddle, so maybe I'm making this symbology up. Yeah, probably overthinking.

So they get to Comanche Station to wait for the coach to send Gates home to her husband, when three men come thundering in, pursued by Comanches. With Scott, they run the Comanches off, but Scott recognizes the leader, Claude Akins - he kicked him out of the army for involvement with an Indian massacre. But they are stuck together. Akins has heard of Gates, and knows there is a large reward to bring her home - in fact, he tells Gates that Scott is just after the reward (and impugns the manhood of her husband). But he doesn't tell anyone but his henchmen that the husband will pay for her dead as well as alive, and that will make things easier all around.

The henchmen, by the way, are the fun part of this grim drama. Richard Rust is older and half-wiser. Skip Homeier is the kid who kind of wonders if maybe they are the bad guys.

This was the last of the seven Boetticher/Scott westerns. We still haven't seen a few, including Ride Lonesome, the movie the Middleman wanted to see. But we will.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Detroit Muscle

I remember going to see Doctor Detroit (1983) at a bar or maybe Chinese restaurant in some small NH/VT city after a long hike, or maybe just because chances for entertainment were few and this bar or restaurant showed movies! But I don't think the timeline works, because our days of hanging out in the Great North Woods were pretty much over by 1983. So where did I see it?

No matter. When the Projection Booth podcast did their take on it, I was intrigued enough to go back to it. Would we get the good or sucky Dan Akroyd?

Akroyd plays Cliff Skridlow, a nerdy Chicago professor. We meet him out for a power walk - a limo full of escorts and their pimp gives him a hard time in passing. The pimp, Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) turns out to be in trouble with Mom (Kate Murtagh), the town's crime boss. He comes up with a scheme to blame it all on this uber-tough guy, Dr. Detroit. When he runs into Akroyd again in an Indian restaurant, he has his scapegoat.

The plan is to befriend Akroyd, ply him with booze, women, pot, women, cash, women, then turn the girls over to him and get out of Dodge. And this Hesseman proceeds to do. This is my favorite part - the corruption of the innocent. Like the bar scene in Mad Wednesday, when Harold Lloyd takes ,his first drink and comes out of his cocoon. He is a nerd, and he stays a nerd even when plied with booze and marijuana, but he gets very goofy and lets his romantic side show. He is, after all, a professor of heroic literature.

Plus, there's the girls:
  • Blonde Donna Dixon
  • Asian Lydia Lee
  • Black Lynn Litfield
  • Jewish Fran Drescher
Yes, Drescher is sexy Jewish-American Princess. I don't know why that tickles me so much, but it does.

When Hesseman takes off for Pago Pago, leaving Akroyd to look after the girls, he steps up to the plate. A quick trip to the theater dept costume room, and he is Doctor Detroit, complete with fright wig and metal hand. And we're off to the races.

The last act has Akroyd attending two parties at once: a gala being held by his father, George Furth, the president of Akroyd's college, and the Players Ball, where the Doctor is being made Pimp of the Year. Of course, this situation is a farce classic, and it's played very well.

I had remembered this as second-class Akroyd, and I still feel that way. But after this watch, I'd put it at the top of the second class. It's not often sidesplittingly funny, but it holds together. In some ways, it's like an old Danny Kaye comedy, updated, if that's your thing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Kaneda! Tetsuo!

I was inspired to watch Akira (1988) by the Projection Booth podcast. Their thesis was, basically, the Japanese had too much money in the 80s, so they made this ridiculously expensive and well-crafted anime. Because there was no way to make their money back in Japan, they sold it internationally. People were blown away by the quality, and that started the international anime craze.

Also, we felt bad about watching live-action Ghost in the Shell without much anime background.

It is set in Neo-Tokyo, some years after something blow a huge crater in the center of town, igniting world war. Then, it's 17 years later and we are hanging out with a teen motorcycle gang - in particular, Kaneda, a leader-type with a very futuristic bike and his kid brother, Tetsuo. You will remember these names, because they get shouted about 1,000 times in the movie.

In the middle of their highway rumble with the clown gang, a gnomish child shows up, pursued by the government. The movie is pretty stingy with the info, but the kid is one of a small group of high-powered espers, being held in government custody because one of them, Akira, caused that explosion at the start of the movie. And it turns out that Tetsuo is one of them.

Kaneda meets a cute girl who is part of the anti-government resistance, and joins up with their cause. Meanwhile, Tetsuo is getting mad, and when he gets mad, rocks start to fall upward, buildings come apart, etc.

This was a great looking anime, although not so different from other, cheaper productions. Sure, there weren't as zoom shots on a static picture with speed lines, but there might have been some. The story was pretty intense, and surprisingly few (if any) likable characters.

In conclusion, we aren't really sold on anime in general (still have our faves, of course). But we will watch the Ghost in the Shell anime.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fool Me Once

King Arthur: Excalibur Rising (2017) is not the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur movie. It's a stupid copy, with a title designed to trick you. Well it tricked me. And since the Ritchie movie (KA: Legend of the Sword) is supposed to be bad, I didn't notice the deception until it was over.

There isn't even any King Arthur in this movie! They call him Arth-Yr, and he gets killed right off. The rest of the movie is about his bastard son (Adam Byard) who didn't know who his father was - and I don't think we find out who his mother was. But when some watery tart starts distributing cutlery, you know who gets picked.

His opponents are Mordred and Morgana (Nicola Stuart-Hill), who have some sort of virgin sacrifice running gag. Just to be fair, I kind of liked Stuart-Hill's look as the witch - a no-makeup Goth look, very plain and sort of practical-scary.

So, crappy movie, and not in fun way. Now I don't even want to see the Guy Ritchie.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Shell Game

Even though we lived in Japan for 2-3 years, I'll admit we aren't as up on manga/anime as some. So, we wound up watching the live Ghost in the Shell (2017) without having read the manga, seen the anime or even the TV show. So, sue us.

It famously stars Scarlett Johansson as Major, a cyborg with no memory of her life before she had her body replaced by mechanics. She lives in a futuristic city of skyscrapers and giant holographic billboards (often huge grandmother types, giving the city a homey feel). She works in a militarized police unit under Beat Takeshi (Zatoichi, Johnny Mnemonic). Her fighting style is to strip to her shell (no skin, she's a cyborg) and leap off the nearest tall building. She lands fully camouflaged and firing.

In the first fight, she is up against robot geishas who have had their minds taken over by hackers - cyberterrorists. This will be the major conflict in the story, but it's really about Major's past. Who was she before her body, and even her brain, were rebuilt?

Of course, there was a bit of a scandal (kerfuffle, really) about casting Johansson in an Asian role. Now, since all SF movies are required to star Scarlett Johansson, this is just silly. Besides, we always felt that manga character designs tend to look vaguely Euro, and Johansson seems to pull off a very anime style of movement, somehow. Besides, she is a complete rebuild. Who knows what she looked like before she got her shell.

When the movie reveals that, it does it with a good deal more sensitivity then we expected. The whole cyborg-human identity crisis story line is done well - it doesn't hit you over the head, but isn't obscure or hard to follow. But that's not the best part.

The best part is visual. This is pure eye candy. It pays homage to Bladerunner, or at least shares influences. Very cyberpunk, very lovely.

Monday, August 28, 2017

K.C. Moan

I had never heard of Kansas City (1996) until Rod Heath mentioned it in relation to Malick's Song to Song. Late-period Malick doesn't seem too interesting to me, but the idea of Robert Altman doing a movie set in Jazz-era KC does.

It starts with tough cookie Jennifer Jason Leigh kidnapping laudanum-addicted Miranda Richardson. Although this movie isn't as dense and elliptical as some Altman films, it takes a while to get to the reason: Leigh's punk boyfriend Dermot Mulroney tried to rob a gambler friend of top black gangster and nightclub owner Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Leigh needs Richardson's politician husband (Michael Murphy) to use his connections to get her Johnny (Dermot) free.

Adding flavor is Leigh's sister, Brooke Smith, also married to a Johnny, Steve Buscimi as a corrupt Democratic ward heeler. Then there's the pregnant black girl that the KC Women's Club is supposed to be sponsoring. But she falls in with a jazz-mad boy (Albert J. Burnes as a young Charlie Parker), who takes her to Seldom Seen's club to hear some hot jazz.

And that's the big draw in the movie - the live jazz soundtrack, performed live by the real deal: Joshua Redman, Fathead Newman, Don Byron, Cyrus Chestnut, Ron Carter, and a bunch of others. It ends with a lovely bass duet, Ron Carter and Christian McBride, who backed up Diana Krall in the Elvis Costello Spectacle series. Great for jazz fans.

The non-jazz parts are fun too - Belafonte's gangster boss seems to be drawn from Brando's godfather - all whispery and menacing. He's even got the mustache. Leigh's tough cookie is very period. She's called Blondie, even though she's a brunette with very short hair - turns out she burned her hair off trying to bleach it out like Jean Harlow's (another K.C. alumna).

But Miranda Richardson's very stoned society wife, nipping on the laudanum bottle, is the real star. I don't know if that's a hard role to play (even with accents), but it was effective and funny. Fun for fans of jazz, laudanum, and/or Altman.