Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Greatest Movie Never Made

My recent review of Argo pretty much just went on about the fake movie within the movie and its real-life story. I wouldn't have minded a movie just about that amazing unmade movie. Which is pretty much what I got from Jodorowsky's Dune (2013).

Alexander Jodorowski is an odd surrealist filmmaker. I've never seen any of his movies, but his psychedelic Western El Topo was one the the first great midnight cult movies. In the mid-70s, he had a chance to make a movie with a substantial budget, and he picked Dune.

Why he picked Dune is a little unclear - I'm not sure he had even read it. But he threw himself into it with all his heart. He wrote a script. He hired Jean "Moebius" Giraud (The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius) to do storyboards. He got Pink Floyd to do some of the soundtrack. SF paperback cover artist Chris Fosse would do art direction, along with H.R. Giger (Alien). He got commitments from Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine to play various roles. Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) would do special effects. And then it all fell apart. The project passed to David Lynch. None of the material was used.

And yet... The thesis of this documentary is that Jodorowski's Dune inspired a generation or more of cinema - When the detailed storyboard went around Hollywood, it failed to find backing, but it inspired a lot of imitation. This film gives credit for Star Wars and Alien at least to Jodorowski. It sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but it's an interesting idea.

Also an interesting movie. I'm just guessing, but I'll bet Jodorowski's Dune, if it had been made, would have been a worse disaster than David Lynch's. Maybe an interesting cult film like Zachariah, with a tiny audience of rabid fans with low expectations. I think I like it best the way it is, as nothing but a dream, and a damned fine documentary/

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Wonderful Life

Isn't Life Wonderful! (1954) is an amiable, colorful British comedy about a turn-of-the-century upper class family and the changing times. It features a stern father, Cecil Parker, and an alcoholic blacksheep uncle, Donald Wolfit. Uncle Willy has to be gotten out of the way so he will not upset brother (cousin?) Frank's marriage to a rich American, Dianne Foster. So they set him up with a bicycle shop, much to the delight of little Peter Asher, who plays narrator and Greek chorus.

The humor comes from Willy's gentle tweaking of Edwardian propriety, not limited to drinking but including women riding bicycles and new fangled motorcars. This is pretty mild stuff. In fact, it's hard to see how they stretched this to the whole 83 minutes.

But you British Invasion fans may be interested to note that the little boy, Peter Asher, is the Peter in Peter and Gordon, as in "World without Love". Brother to Paul McCartney's girlfriend Jane Asher and so on. Well, maybe not exactly interested, but it is something.

In conclusion, just a little time-filler from Netflix streaming recommendations.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Amble On

After watching Highly Dangerous, I figured I should watch the other Eric Ambler/Roy Ward Baker suspense film, The October Man (1947).

October Man stars John Mills (father of Hayley), who is in a terrible bus/train accident, which kills the little girl in his care. When he is released from hospital, he is suicidal, slightly amnesiac and, well, troubled. He does this very well - looking troubled and haunted. He moves into an old-fashioned boarding house, where he acts twitchy but polite - quite British actually. At this point, you are wondering whether he'll kill himself or someone else first.

Well, someone does get killed - a floozy who had borrowed money from him. Of course, Mills is a suspect - he doesn't even seem to be sure he didn't do it. At least his girl, Joan Greenwood, believes in him. Doesn't she?

So both of these movies features a mentally unsettled protagonist who must solve a crime. Other than a few thematic similarities, they are pretty different - Dangerous is more of a comic thriller, with a light tone along with the suspense. October is a dark, tense psychological thriller. The noir cinematography is impressive (oppressive?). Although this was made first, I'm glad I watched it second. These two movies make a great double bill.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dig it!

OK, this time I watched a Busby Berkeley musical on purpose: Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). It turned out to be a particularly good entry in the genre, IMHO. It starts with  a batch of dancers whose show has wrapped up. Most of them decide to try gold-digging, but sweet Joan Blondell decides to try work and Dick Powell help her get a job bin a life insurance office.

Now the other girls have met up with a group of crooked show-biz types, Osgood Perkins and Charles D. Brown. They have lost all their boss' money on the stock market, and now he wants to put on a show. Since the boss, Victor Moore, is a physical wreck, they figure they can insure his life for a million dollars and then...

Of course, it's Dick Powell who sells the million dollar policy, which makes him a hero, until they get a look at the broken-down Moore. So one bunch is trying to kill Moore, and Powell is trying buck him up, with Glenda Farrell as the gold digger who might be on one side or the other. And it all ends in a show, another Busby Berkeley mind-melter.

I thought the situations and gags were better than most of these musicals. The songs are fun, like "Plenty of Money and You". I liked Victor Moore a lot; I don't think we've seen him before, but he's an instantly recognizable type. So, either I was just in a good mood, or this one is worth looking up.

To continue with the musical weekend, I watched Expresso Bongo (1959), a British beat-exploitation film with Laurence Harvey as a hustling talent agent who discovers Cliff Richards. It is set in late-50s Soho and was either filmed on location or was very convincing. Harvey schmying around and schmoozing with the deli proprietors and espresso bar owners, letting his immigrant striver accent show, is a delight. Cliff Richards doesn't have much charisma here, which kind of makes sense - he's just a commodity to Harvey, who re-names him Bongo Herbert. I did like his band (the Shadows, then Drifters) - they had a great look, with a Buddy Holly type guitarist, and a tight but garagey sound.

The whole thing is sort of a British Sweet Smell of Success with a touch of Night and the City - but with a cheerful muddle-through feeling instead of the sour desperation of those movies - based around a teenage rocker gets discovered B-movie theme. I guess it is widely considered to be one of those bad or so-bad-it's-good movies, but I really liked it. I plan to re-watch this weekend.

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.