Monday, December 31, 2007

Lavender Hill

As I have mentioned, my nickname isn't really Cool Bev, it's Fruity Bev. I've even been called a girl-drink drunk. But this recipe will make my pomegranate cosmo look as manly as a long-necked Bud.

So, for New Year's Eve: Champagne with lavender-lime neige, which I call: The Lavender Hill

Juice of 6 limes
~6 tsp sugar
12 clean lavender blossoms (organic by preference, but food grade at least)

Bring to a light boil and remove from the heat to steep until cool. Pour through a sieve to remove the flowers.

This lavender-lime syrup can be used for a number of purposes, but we are going to put it in a freezable container in the freezer. As it freezes, stir with a fork to "fluff" it up, breaking up large crystals. When it is entirely frozen, it will be a fluffy lavender-colored snow, or "nieve" as the French say.

Form snowballs of the nieve, and drop into flutes of well-chilled sparkling wine. It doesn't have to be expensive, but should be reasonably dry.

Enjoy while discussing Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde. You can serve use soda instead of sparking wine for teetotalers or epicene youths.

And - Happy New Year's Eve!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

It was a Dark and Stormy...

I'm on holiday in New England, and have just been re-introduced to the great cocktail, the Dark and Stormy:

Fill a highball glass with ice
Add 1 shot Gosling's Black Seal Rum (No other rum allowed)
Fill with ginger beer (3-4 oz.s)

I understand this is a tropical drink, specifically Bermudan. But I always see it advertised in Boston bars in the winter. Possibly based on the name, possibly based on the New England taste for rum. But it is also a very warming drink, especially if the ginger beer is strong and spicy.

I find that a 4-pack of ginger beer is about sufficient for a fifth of rum. Try some tonight.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Musical Weekend

We started this weekend of with Help!, everybody's favorite - especially if you are old enough to have seen it as a kid when it was first released. Ms. Bev saw it twice back to back. After it was over the first time, there didn't seem to be anything to do but go back in again.

It was a natural followup to Casino Royale, since it is largely a James Bond parody, including Swiss ski chases and Bahamanian bathing beauties. Leo McKern and his band of Kaili worshipers make great un-PC comic relief. I think this movie is also where George saw his first sitar. But the best parts are:
  1. The songs: Still rooted in classic rock 'n' roll, but getting more sophisticated. The strange dragging beat of Ticket to Ride, the modal drone of I Need You, the bubblegum pop of You're Gonna Lose that Girl, and the beautiful vocal harmonies throughout. The orchestral references to Bond themes are also cute.
  2. Richard Lester: A great director of movies and music videos. Does lovely work with colors and deep focus. His sequences of the Beatles in "performance" (lipsyncing) really capture their personalities.
  3. The Beatles, and their personalities: Ringo is goofy, John is insulting, Paul is cute, and George is quiet. George has always been my favorite, and you can see why here: He is the always the one who jumps in to try to save Ringo. But in general, the boys were brutal to Ringo, plotting to chop off a finger while playing cards: "What's in your hand?". But you have to love them all.
Next up: The Music Man, Prof. Harold Hill's trials in setting up a boys' band in River City. I would guess that his idea is something like a younger, Iowan Beatles. That's not the way it comes out, of course.

This musical features the best patter songs outside Gilbert and Sullivan (possibly excepting Fugue for Tinhorns). The spoken songs blend sophisticated rhythms with clever yet colloquial words in an fascinating way. The twists and turns of Trouble in River City, with its pinch-back suits, Dan Patch, cubebs and Sen-Sen, always make your head spin.

My one complaint: Marion, the Madame Librarian, should be my ideal woman. Instead she is played by Shirley Jones. I prefer Hermione Gingold.

Finally, John Waters' Cry-Baby. The plot is the same as The Music Man, with the square girl falling for the bad boy. Actually, that's a pretty slim connection to hang this blog item on. Maybe I should go with the vocal harmonies of the doo-wop and rock-a-billy soundtrack in relation to the barbershop group in The Music Man. Or just not try to find a connection.

Cry-Baby is not as cute as some later John Waters, and not as gross as some early. Cry-Baby's (Johnny Dep) gang, the Drapes, is pretty heinous, including the Buddy-Hackett-faced girl Hatchetface, Ricky Lake's child-dropping Pepper, and black-toothed Gramma Rickettes. But they don't discriminate and they know how to rock out. And Gramma Rickettes' husband, Belvedere Rickettes is played by Iggy Pop - and very well, too. I don't think he ever breaks character.

My favorite part is the songs, both classic and original (several by Dave Alvin, one by Alvin and classic popster Doc Pomus). What good is a musical without music? I would have preferred a musical showdown at the end between the Drapes and the Squares, but Waters never asked me, so...

In conclusion:
  • The Beatles: Greatest musical group ever.
  • The Music Man: Greatest patter songs, except for some other ones, maybe
  • John Waters: Sick, sick man. Great artist though.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cocktails of the Future

My reader, D.W. I, asks a number of questions about cocktails:
  1. What is a good source for classic recipes?
  2. What are the cocktail equivalents of the innovators like El Bulli and Fat Duck?
For classic cocktails, I'll just mention the Professional Mixing Guide, published by the Angostura-Wuppermann Corp. in 1947. My father or uncle probably picked it up at Stengel's Liquors in Brockton MA. My observations: They drank a lot more gin, and a lot of cocktails had egg or egg whites. We don't do that any more, do we?

Now, for cocktails of the future. Ferran Aria of El Bulli is famous for futuristic food, but has done as much for cocktails. Most of his tricks involve changes of state - decomposed cocktails with hot and frozen ingredients, cocktail caviar (liquor encased in little bubbles of sodium alginate/calcium chloride), aerosolized martinis.

Fat Duck on the other hand, is famous for molecular gastronomy - discovering unusual combinations of flavors based on the molecular compositions of the flavor molecules. Its liquid cousin, molecular mixology is somewhat less well known.

One famous Fat Duck combination is mango and Douglas fir. Can you imagine the piney note in a mango's scent? This seems like a cocktail recipe to me.

I have a recipe for Douglas fir infusion (basically, stick a clean branch of fir into a bottle of gin), but I have also found an interesting liqueur: Zerbenz stone pine Alpen liqueur. Pale red, slightly sweet, very piney. To the laboratory!

My results:
  • Mango juice/Zerbenz (various ratios): FAIL. The flavors somehow cancel out, leaving a watery tasting cocktail
  • Mango juice/Gin/Zerbenz (4:2:1): FAIL. The gin doesn't add anything, might even subtract something.
  • Gin/Zerbenz (3:1): WIN. This martini variation, using Zerbenz in place of vermouth is herbal and sweet. I used Anchor's Junipero gin, which has a big juniper flavor (and is SF Bay area based).
OK, so I didn't wind up going with mango/fir. Just couldn't get it to work. Maybe it takes a real molecular gastronomist. I did, however, invent the:

Stone Fox
1 jigger Junipero gin
1/2 oz Zerbenz stone pine liqueur

Shake over ice and serve up in a martini glass. Garnish with a pine cone or something.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Best Bond Ever

I'm not especially a James Bond fan. Up to now, my favorite Bond has probably been Woody Allen as Jimmy Bond, in Casino Royale. Casino Royale is still my favorite, but this time with Daniel Craig.

The new James Bond movie certainly re-invigorates the franchise. As Bond, Craig is serious. To him, it matters. It's not just a game to him. He isn't cool and suave, he is intense and brutal. He always knows the one switch to pull, the one place to shoot, to make everything blow up. It totally works.

We were completely sold during a 20-minute long chase scene at the start, with Craig chasing Sebastien Foucan, freerunning/parkours style. This chase starts strong and builds to ridiculous. This modern school of action film-making - the Tony Jaa, Run Lola Run, Luc Besson, total balls-out energy style is, I believe, the reason film was put on earth. It looks like Craig is pushing himself to and past his limits to keep up. When you see him with his kit off, you can believe he is capable of almost anything.

There are any number of departures from the style and content of the series, but also many echoes, reflections and origins-of. In the credits, an animation of playing cards, we see a fractal development of the club, with each knob growing a smaller club, with smaller clubs growing on each of them. I think that's a clue to the fractal, self-similar nature of this film, drawing from all periods of Bond, as well as it's own period.

I haven't read the book, so I can't say how closely this film followed it. It doesn't share much with the previous movie, although there is a card game, and Bond is drugged. However, in the earlier film, he sees bagpipers. Here he goes into cardiac arrest. This is an improvement.

However, the earlier film had a slow motion pillow fight with Ursula Andress set to Dusty Springfield singing "The Look of Love". So maybe that is still my favorite Bond movie. But Daniel Craig is the best Bond ever.

In conclusion:
  • More parkour in action movies.
  • Is this Casino Royale so good it ends the franchise?
  • Nothing beats Ursula Andress and Dusty Springfield.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Dancing Fools

The story in Dance, Girl, Dance is a familiar one: one girl wants to practice her art, another gives the audience what it wants. Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball are chorus girls. O'Hara wants to dance ballet, but the world wants to see Lucille shake her stuff. Lucy is happy to oblige, and becomes a big name in burlesque. She even hires O'Hara as her "stooge" to do a classical ballet number, which the audience heckles.

We'd probably feel more sympathetic if O'Hara weren't a weak dancer, and wet as a duck's behind. Personally, I was yelling, "Get off the stage!". Ball is definitely the more interesting character - an evil, selfish, backbiting, gold-digging mantrap. And we love her for it. Like in Delightfully Dangerous, burlesque is the gutter and O'Hara gets a big speech about what jerks the audience is. Gee, it looks like good clean fun to me.

Meanwhile, O'Hara and Ball meet sentimental, drunk, creepy Louis Hayward. He woos O'Hara, but goes out with Ball. He also stalks his soon-to-be ex-wife. He is a complex, self-destructive type. But ballet producer Ralph Bellamy (as usual, the nice guy) is taking an interest in O'Hara.

Spoiler: I was amazed that the movie has a happy ending - Ball marries the drunk, then divorces him for $50 grand so he can go back to his wife. O'Hara is heartbroken, but it looks like Ralph Bellamy might get her on the rebound. I've always wanted to see Bellamy get the girl, instead of the jerk. And I never want the nice girl and the cad to get together. I guess it's romantic, but you know it never works in real life.

Soundie pioneer Dorothy Arzner directs, and does a fine job. The girls look outstanding - we paused the DVD for frame after frame, especially the closeups, just to see the way Arzner treated their faces. She did the best she could for the weak dance numbers, mainly by showing reaction shots. Some great characters lend a hand, like Ed Brophy as "Dwarfie" and Maria Ouspenskaya as the girl's ballet teacher.

I can't see this appealing to the general public, but if you liked Delightfully Dangerous or Ziegfield Girl, you should give this a try.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Singapore Scandal

Any time I'm in Singapore, I like to stop by the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel for a Singapore Sling. This cocktail, invented here around 1910, is iconic to lovers of tropical drinks. This trip, I had an epiphany: These are terrible. Specifically, they taste like they are built on a Koolaid base. And they probably are.

I can't claim that my recipe is traditional or true, but I think it tastes a lot better than what you'll get at the Long Bar:

1/4 shot Benedictine
1/4 shot Cointreau
1/2 shot Cherry Heering
1 shot Gin
Squeeze of lime (1/4-1/2 lime)
Pineapple juice and ice to fill an highball glass

Shake and garnish with pineapple slice and cherry.

The bitter herbal gin and the sweet and sour fruit juices and liqueurs are the obvious stars in this drink, but it's the Benedictine that ties it together, with a rich deep mystery.

My research indicates that early recipes (pre-1970?) used soda instead of fruit juice. Sorry, I prefer fruit. However, inferior fruit juice is almost certainly the problem at the Long Bar. Maybe they should go back to soda.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Brassed Off

In the past few weeks, we've watched movies by Euro-trash directors Mario Bava (Giant of Marathon) and Jess Franco (Castle of Fu Manchu, MST3K version). This hardly got us warmed up for Tinto Brass and Cheeky!.

This is a movie about a young woman from Venice who goes to England... Let me start again. This movie is about a young woman who rarely wears underpants and the men and women who pursue her, catch her and do her. That about sums it up. Lots of nudity, frontal and particularly backal - That's the "Cheeky" pun. Most of the guys' bits are plastic, which is too bad for the women in the audience, but everyone is so enthusiastic that some lapses in realism can be forgiven.

High class, but not soft core. Sweet, but not sappy.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

High Riding Woman ... with a Whip!

The theme song says it all, "She's a high riding woman with a whip". In Sam Fuller's Forty Guns, Barbara Stanwyck plays a cattle baroness who controls an Arizona town with a crew of 40 hired guns, including the sheriff, the deputies and a judge. When bounty hunter Barry Sullivan comes to town with his two brothers, he is bound to taste her lash.

Seriously, the movie is all western legends amped up over the top and served with a helping of double entendres. Example: Stanwyck, talking about Sullivan's gun: "Can I feel it?" Sullivan refuses: "It might go off in your face." This is hardly even an entendre and a half.

Stanwyck is suitably iconic - in the dinner scene, the camera pans down a long table with all forty "guns" and finally, her at the head. It's clear that she can take them all. In another scene, she is dragged by a horse, and it clearly isn't a stunt double. The shot tracks her down the street, then shows Sullivan freeing her without a cut. She's a little older, and playing her age, but that just makes it more sexy.

Even though she falls for Sullivan about half way through, she is still a high riding woman. With a whip!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Labyrinth Panned

After seeing MirrorMask, I thought I'd go back to the source: Labyrinth. Both are Jim Henson related stories about rebellious teenage girls falling into a fantasy realm. In Labyrinth, the girl is Jennifer Connelly, a dreamy, fantasy obsessed girl whose father and stepmother leave her to babysit her baby half-brother. When she wishes that the goblins would take him, Goblin King David Bowie takes her up on it.

Yes, this film stars David Bowie as Goblin King, and proves that even the sexiest, coolest man alive can look like a dork given the right material. Even his songs (he has 2 or 3) are excruciating - produced by Arif Mardin, they still sound like the cheesiest 80's disco. He does a "You remind me of a babe" - "What babe?" - "The babe with the power" - "What power?" - "The power of hoo-doo" routine (see The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer). It fails to amuse.

Connelly has 13 hours or something to find her brother before he becomes a goblin forever and she needs to navigate a maze to find him. The look is quite good, with some ingenious hidden faces, cute goblin puppets (if you don't mind muppety goblins), Mike Moschen doing his crystal ball manipulation and an early CGI owl, representing the Goblin King. But the film's message is just a mess: "Don't take things for granted" - OK, I'll just assume that I'm on the right track. "Things aren't what they seem" - so I should trust you because you seem like a nice guy. And so on. The real message seems to be "Don't drop acid while reading Lord of the Rings and listening to David Bowie if you have to babysit. It'll be a bummer."

Terry Jones wrote an early version of the script, and his voice seems to come through in some scenes, but only rarely. Someone must have realized that there should be some tension between Bowie and Connelly, that she was growing up and might be attracted to his perverse glamor, even while she wanted to do right and save her brother. But that doesn't occur - there is no chemistry between them at all. In fact, her tempatation is to turn her back on her brother and return to her childish dolls and fairy dress-up. It just didn't work for me. MirrorMask was better.

This pretty much kills off my plan to re-watch The Dark Crystal. I didn't like it the first time I saw it, and don't feel like giving it another chance.

Myth is a Hit

(Man, I've got to work on my "clever" titles.)

Jackie Chan's The Myth seemed to go straight to DVD, and that worried me. Jackie has been in a lot of movies, and not every one is golden. This one, however, holds up.

Jackie plays an Indiana Jones types archaeologist (but not a Tomb Raider, he insists), like his character in the Operation Condor films, He has been having dreams about a hero in 4th century China. His free-wheeling buddy convinces him to go to India to look for a MacGuffin that confers immortality and allows levitation. The Indian fight scenes are a nice change, injecting a little Bollywood into the franchise. It also supplies the best set piece, a fight on a huge conveyor belt coated with rat glue. I love these tricky comic fights and Jackie Chan is a master at setting them up and executing them.

The film ends with an extended wire-fu battle. Jackie's can't depend only on his aging body anymore, so wires have become necessary, but - remember that levitation MacGuffin? It gives him the excuse to go flying around Hong Kong style. Of course, immortality levitating rays aren't really any more realistic than flying Kung Fu masters, but it's a nice twist.

Side note: Jackie's apartment, on the Hong Kong waterfront is awesome - all glass with a remote controlled retractable deck over the skylight, making a bridge to the practice tee. Nothing to do with the movie, but cool anyway.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Marathon Man

The film crew is back with another wacky film to be commentated. This time it's Mario Bava's sword and sandal epic Giant of Marathon (La Bataille de Marathon). It's packed full of muscley men with bare oiled chests, falling horses, and 2 women (total, for the whole film). The art director or someone decided to put a statue of a naked man in virtually every shot, usually with its dangling manparts juxtaposed with someone's face.

The film stars Steve Reeves as Phillipides and the milieu is the battle of Marathon. There are good guys and bad guys, and I actually didn't pay attention to any of that. It's actually not that bad a movie, as Hercules movies go. Bava has a nice way with dramatic lighting, and the battle scenes are pretty well done (brutal on the stunt horses, though). I understand that he actually has a cult following for his sexy horror films (of course, so does Ed Wood).

Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett crack wise through the whole thing, getting a little saltier than their cable tv show was (I think these are straight to DVD). There is a great short, with commentary by one of the extras - don't miss it (you'll be glad you did).

And now we've watched all 4 of the Film Crew series available to date. I strongly recommend that everyone call their local cable station and demand that they pick up this series, and pay the Film Crew to make many new episodes. That always works out - look what happened to Star Trek!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Avanti Populo!

The Billy Wilder sex comedy Avanti! actually has nothing to do Avanti Populo, the red anthem. I just like the song, that's all.

I like the movie, too. Jack Lemmon plays a rich American who travels to Ischia, Italy to retrieve the body of his father, who died there on vacation. But he didn't die alone - he died with his mistress. This upsets Lemmon, but not as much as the annoying Englishwoman (Juliet Mills) who seems to have been following him around. Because she is in Ischia to pick up the body of her mother, the mistress.

I've noticed that I don't tell much about the plots of movies in this blog. Partly to avoid spoiling them, partly because it's not always interesting to tell, but usually because I don't need to. You can fill in the blanks, right? The only question is how much they will fight and how soon they will fall in love.

I won't give that away, but I will say the Lemmon's role is nicely written. I've never liked Jack Lemmon much - maybe he is too much a man of his time (the 1960's executive in the grey flannel suit). But Billy Wilder seems to understand him, and makes him a stuck-up stuffed shirt, but just human enough. He is quite tender to Juliet Mills when he finds out why she is in Ischia. It makes him more human than pure comedic foil, and that, for me, makes the movie.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Escape from Banlieue B13

Although it is marketed in America as District B13, (translated in the opening narration as "Barrio B13"), I prefer it's French title, Banlieue 13. I think enough Americans heard about the riots in the Paris "suburbs" last year to know what a banlieue is.

In this film, like in Escape from New York, the banlieues are being walled off, so that the scum inside can kill itself off. Like in Escape from New York, there is a MacGuffin lost in the banlieue. The man assigned to get it back is Cyril Raffaelli, with help from local David Belle.

If you watch a lot of YouTube, you may recognize these names. They are a founder (Belle) and a early proponent of parkour, a sport that involves running, jumping and climbing through urban obstacle courses. If you haven't heard of this, take a few minutes - just look for "parkour" in YouTube. Now imagine this style produced by action master Luc Besson.

So you can imagine this movie - fantastic gymnastic feats at breakneck pace, against all manner of urban gangster. Belle and Raffaelli are handsome, fit and often shirtless, if that appeals. They are fine actors but GREAT stuntmen. You will see things you won't believe. The chases go on and on, giving the film a Run Lola Run feel (Belle's characters sister is named Lola). I'm also reminded of Tony Jaa, the Thai kickboxer, for seemingly impossible stunts done without wires or tricks. (In one of Tony Jaa's movies, we see the graffiti: "Luc Besson, call me". I hope he does.)

The plot wasn't bad, although the banlieue residents could have been given more real identities, instead of all generic gang-bangers. The bad guy was North African, but that's about it. You won't have much time to ponder politics though.

In summary, Leave Banlieue 13!

Artful Dodgeball

Here's what I expected when I rented Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story: Mindless entertainment featuring talented comic actors Vince Vaughan and Ben Stiller. That's pretty much what I got, but not as mindless as I'd expected.

The story has the lovable losers at Average Joe's Gym (Vince Vaughan's establishment) competing against evil Globo Gym (Stiller's joint) in world-class American Dodgeball Association of America rules Dodgeball. The prize is $50k, possession of Average Joe's Gym, and the love of Christine Taylor. The ending may surprise you!

But probably not.

Vaughan gets to play a nice guy with no ambition. It's a pretty straight role. Ben Stiller gets to go WAY over the top, with a pornstar mustache and an evil attitude - he fires Christine Taylor so that he can date her. Taylor plays an accountant, more or less the straight man of the group. Of course, she falls in love with Vaughan's character, which struck me as a little far-fetched.

Far-fetched romance, in a Ben Stiller comedy? What else is new? But, you see, if this were a complete farce, none of the character's motivations would matter, as long as they met the needs of the gags. But Vince Vaughan and his band of misfit gym regulars manage to transcend the comedy and show some real human soul. It wasn't necessary - the comedy was enough. That made it extra nice.

There are some serious affronts to realism as well, especially around Rip Torn's character, Patches O'Houlihan, a washd up dodgeball coach. But he's a great character, and I don't mind. There are a bunch of great cameos at the end, including Chuck Norris and William Shatner. But Lance Armstrong gets the last word on quitting. It is both funny and touching and that is the effect of the whole movie.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Mirror, Mirror

I'm not a Neil Gaiman fan, just an admirer. I've read some of his books but none of the Sandman comics. So I guess I'm not qualified to say, but MirrorMask looked like a Neil Gaiman comic.

It is a story about a young woman, Helena, whose parents have a circus - something of a low-budget Cirque du Soleil, with performers in quaint and grotesque masks. She juggles in the show, but only after fighting with her mother about it - Her mother who collapses during the performance. With her mother close to death and going for an operation the next day, Helena goes to bed.

And wakes up in a dreamland, where everyone but Helena wears a mask. She is mistaken for the daughter of the evil Queen of Night. Her real daughter has escaped to the real world, where she impersonates Helena. Helena spies her through windows to the real world and sees her smoking, fighting with Helena's dad and snogging boys. Worse, she is upsetting the Balance, which will cause the universe to end.

So there is a quest, with curious allies, monstrous enemies, and grand weapons, such as a small paperback accurately called A Really Useful Book. This much is fine, grand in fact if you like fantasy kingdoms and quests. What makes it amazing is the film's look, which is pure comic book - not Superman or Marvel, but a graphic novel in the Sandman series.

It's almost uncanny, how comic-like this film looks. Since the director, David McKean, was an artist for Sandman, this makes sense. But it can't have been easy.

A magical movie.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Anoushka and her Dad

Since this blog is technically about my Netflix queue (with some cocktail recipes), the concert byRavi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka I saw the other night doesn't really qualify. But I first came across Anoushka from a DVD: Concert for George. So I'll blog it.

Actually, I've only seen Ravi Shankar on film - Monterey Pop Festival and The Concert for Bangladesh. Concert for Bangladesh has an amazing sitar v. sarod cutting contest with Shankar an Ali Akbar Khan trading lightning licks and Alla Rakah on tablas just looking amazed. Even if you don't care for Indian classical music, you've got to love this.

In Concert for George, a memorial concert filmed one year after George Harrison's death, Shankar presents an offering that he composed for Harrison. But he doesn't play in it. Instead, his daughter directs an Indian orchestra and English choir and she solos on sitar. She has a lovely presence and handles the sitar with great authority.

When I heard that she and her father would be playing near by in Santa Cruz, I was willing to skip a movie night to go listen. I thought this might be my last chance to see him, but I was really more interested in hearing her. A lot of the audience agreed, cheering her like she was a rockstar.

For the first half of the show, she played a long raga, accompanied by a 2 tampuras, a flautist and Tammoy Bose on tabla. Unfortunately, the sound system was terrible, putting a harsh edge on the ringing strings and squealing with feedback whenever she really got going. The flute was a nice touch, mostly just accents, but taking a rather jazzy solo.

Then, after an intermission, Ravi came out. He is fairly frail, around 90, but smiling. His sitar seemed to be modified, smaller, with a lighter tuning head. His playing was sure in the slower passages, but he seemed to have trouble playing the fast runs in tempo. There was also a clunking sound, as if he were misfretting - or maybe this was another sound system issue.

Anoushka's playing was definitely stronger, and her tone was more mellow. It was easy to tell the players apart, eyes closed. She would often take her fathers theme and restate it more surely. Sometimes, he would only sketch an idea, or even flub it, and she would present it cleanly. So this is looking like Anoushka's show.


At the end of the first raga, Ravi seemed to be limping through some very fast sections. Then he let Bose take a tabla solo, and followed it by kicking the tempo up even faster and ripping out some mercury-fast runs. He is clearly far from incapacitated.

And Anoushka's playing clearly has something else when she is playing with her father. While her playing may be superior to his now, his musical thinking is still superior.

Finally, kudos to Bose, a great tabla player. I love Alla Rakah, Ravi's old tabla player (and Zakir Hussein's father) for his calm, accepting flow. Bose had a different feel - more assertive and solid. He can also let out a bass note from the left hand that is truly startling.

So in conclusion, Anoushka is beautiful and talented, Ravi is aging but still vital, the sound man should be shot.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Roots Rockers

The classic reggae movie is, of course, The Harder They Come. But suppose you want more - more Rasta, more music, more performers. Introducing Rockers.

It stars reggae drummer Horsemouth Brown, played by reggae drummer Horsemouth Brown. He is always broke, always hustling to feed his 3 kids. He buys a bike (175, mon) to peddle records. It gets stolen and he gets it back, with the help of some friends.

The kick is the friends. They, and pretty much everyone with a speaking part in this movie, are top reggae artists, playing themselves. We see Gregory Isaacs crack a safe, and Robbie Shakespeare pull a knife when someone tries to move in on his dinner. We see the Mighty Diamonds in their machine shop and hear Burning Spear chant a med-I-tation - the I-teous "Jah No Dead". Big Youth, Dirty Harry, Kiddus I are all on hand.

The film starts with a dreadlocked bush healer speaking about Rastafari behind some heavy drums - he is played by a bush healer named Higher. Outside of the stunt casting, this is the finest thing in the movie: It's deep and steady love and praise of Jah.

Horsemouth could be just a bragging hustler, buying a bike to show off, blustering and fighting. But he truly, steadfastly loves Jah, and speaks his praise constantly. As he tells his Christian grandmother, "There is only Rastafari and war, and I choose Rastafari". It makes all the difference.

Everyone speaks in heavy Rasta patois, so that subtitles are needed. In the rasta tradition, even the pronouns praise him - "I" and "me" are both "I&I" (I and Jah) and "you" becomes "the-I".

OK, this isn't just a religious movie with some music and a gangster subplot. It is a movie about reggae and life in Jamaica, with a lot of humor and great music. It is the heights, seen?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Adventure Begins

Watching Escape from New York convinced me that I needed to watch more cheesy adventure flicks. So, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.

Fred Ward plays "Remo Williams", the name he is given when a shadowy government agency fakes his death and recruits him as a secret assassin. He is trained by elderly Korean martial artist Chiun, played by Joel Grey. Now that piece of stunt-casting probably got your attention.

The plot concerns Remo's training and an evil military industrialist. The training is fun - Fred Ward isn't a great martial artist, but has physical presence and a willingness to make a fool of himself. The evil industrialist is opposed by Kate Mulgrew as an Army CPA who uncovers the plot, which gives her a chance to act spunky. But she doesn't get a romantic subplot.

The adventure that is Remo Williams famously did not continue. And there are many reasons why this movie bombed: nonsensical plot, poor action, weak villain. But it has a secret weapon: Joel Grey. His Master Chiun is extraordinary. His fighting style involves dodging bullets, an explosive finger poke, and the ability to walk on water. His personal style is arrogant, insulting and chauvinistic (pro-Korea, anti-woman). But he has a softer side - he loves to curl up and watch American soap operas, and his outfits start to include silky marabou-trimmed wraps. Combine these with the woman-hating, and you start to get the idea that Chiun may be a little gay.

To sum up: middling action film plus crypto-gay Korean martial arts master played by Joel Grey equals good times!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

High, Low, Lower

As I said before, I am not a foreign movie fanboy. But everyone love Kurosawa, right? And I had never seen High and Low before. This is a different Kurosawa, featuring Toshiro Mifune, but set in "modern" (1960s) times instead of the samurai era.

Mifune plays an influential board member of National Shoe, involved in a struggle over the company's direction. He wears a small mustache and slicked back hair, looking very Clark Gable. He is independent, principled and proud - until he finds out that his son has been kidnapped. Then he is ready to bend his principles. Until he finds out that it is not his son, but the son of his chauffeur who has been kidnapped. That is a different matter.

The plot of this movie is taken from Ed McBain, the classic author of American policiers. But that isn't the whole of the film. There is a traditional style in Japanese drama, where related or parallel stories take place in Heaven, among the gods, on earth among men, and in Hell, among demons. High and Low follows this pattern.

The first part is set in Heaven, in Mifune's high-rise apartment, overlooking Tokyo. The gods are corporate directors, business men. There is more than a bit of parody here, since the corporation makes women's shoes, but still, it is far above the concerns of humans.

The second part takes place on earth, among the police searching for the kidnapped child. This world is human - the police make jokes and mix with all members of society. The police team is headed by Tetsuya Nakadai in one of his rare good-guy roles.

The last section is set in a Hell of drug addicts and thugs. I've never seen a more noir influenced Kurosawa, not even in Stray Dog. Yet it is very Japanese, formalism matched with an insane humanism. That is, the characters are realistically human, flawed to the point of insanity, yet their interactions are rigidly constrained by society and the structure of the drama.

At 2:20, it ends almost too soon. And leaves you wondering at the mastery of Kurosawa.

Happy Halloween!

A cocktail recipe for Halloween: the pomegranate cosmo.

The Cosmopolitan is an exceptional drink, even though over-exposed on Sex and the City. Switching out the cranberry juice for pomegranate juice brings it up-to-date -- for 2005, when pomegranate became the "In" ingredient. Nonetheless, it has a beautiful deep red color, the color ... of BLOOD! Add a few chips of dry ice and call it a Bubbling Plasma or Steaming Transfusion or something.

Pomegranate Cosmo
1 shot vodka (or Citron vodka)
1/2 shot Cointreau or triple sec
1/2 shot lime juice (or 1 fresh lime)
1 shot of pomegranate juice

Shake over ice and pour into martini glass.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Snake Plissken? I Thought You Were Dead

This week in our continuing series of cheesy action films: Escape from New York. I mainly wanted to see it because of Mystery Science Theater 3000's presentation of Escape 2000 ("Leave the Bronx"). Do not confuse with this Escape 2000, which is a rip off of Logan's Run, or Running Man, not Escape from New York.

I haven't watched a lot of John Carpenter, so I always assumed he was a high-budget director of slick horror films. Maybe at some point in his career, but it seems he has a knack for cheap shockers that don't take themselves too seriously. This was meant to be one of those.

But when a terrorist highjacks President Donald Pleasance's plane and seems prepared to crash it into New York's World Trade Center, it starts to cut a little close to the bone. Those twin towers cast a shadow over the rest of the film, and give the film's social satire on creeping government fascism a little more gravitas than expected.

In the end, the silliness wins out and serious thought is banished, but, damn, why did it have to be so real?

The supporting cast is excellent, including Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton and his girlfriend, Adrienne "Boobeau" Barbeau.

In conclusion, Leave the Bronx.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tout la Bande

I must first insist that I am not a nouvelle vague, French foreign cinema fanboy. Sure, I've watched some Godard, some Truffaut, but I'm not obsessed. I just wanted to see Anna Karina dancing the Madison.

I hadn't seen Bande à part (Band of Outsiders), but I had heard a lot about it - the debt to American noir, the revolutionary technique, the race through the Louvre. But mostly, the Madison.

In short, innocent Anna Karina meets two punks in English class. They have a plan to rob a boarder at her aunt's house. We never meet this boarder, or find out why he keeps a large pile of money in an unlocked wardrobe. We never learn anything about anyone, really.

But in the middle of the movie, in a cafe, one punk invites Anna to dance. With the jukebox playing, Anna and her two punks start in. It's a sweet little dance routine, with a step, a wiggle, a clap, 3 snaps and a turn, and so on. The music stops, the dance continues.


Ziegfield Girl is another in a long line of showbiz movies where a gal makes it big, only to lose the ones she loves (and probably dies!). I've seen it in Three Broadway Girls (aka The Greeks had a Name for It), The Glorification of the American Girl, Funny Girl, and a bunch of others, I'm sure.

In this one, there are 3 girls: Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner. If you want to know how they come out:

  • Garland almost loses her vaudeville-era dad who's too old-fashioned for the Follies. He turns out to be half of Gallagher and Sheen, so that's OK.
  • Hedy Lamarr's out of work classical violinist husband cuts her off when she becomes a rich showgirl. But he graciously takes her back when she quits.
  • Lana Turner prostitutes herself, loses her truck driver boyfriend Jimmy Stewart who starts running booze and goes to jail, loses her sugar-daddy, gets drunk and falls off the stage, and almost dies. When she is completely degraded, Jimmy Stewart takes her back.
Why did show business hate show business so much? Why didn't people who saw this movie start a movement to shut down Ziegfield's theater of pain? Did they enjoy imagining the suffering of these showgirls and their families?

I'm not much of a Judy Garland fan, so I won't critique her performance. Hedy Lamarr's beauty stands out even in this crowd, but her role isn't too much of a stretch. It is young Lana Turner who burns up the screen here. She really sinks her teeth into the role (without chewing the scenery).

The balance of plot to music strongly favors the music. When the extended musical number starts, Busby Berkeley drops the LSD into your eyes and takes you away. Not as trippy as some of his work, but out there.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Surf's Up

I was looking forward all week to watching Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. I had passed up the chance to watch it on the plane, because I wanted the full experience. Did it deliver? Of course!

I'm an old-time comics geek, so I love the Marvel movies, but maybe not the same ones as most people. I don't like the Spiderman movies (didn't like the comics), and found Ang Lee's Hulk to be wrong-headed. Me and the world agree on the X-Men, a great franchise owing a lot to Hugh Jackman. But I guess I'm the only one who likes Daredevil and loved Elektra. So, your mileage may vary.

First, Fantastic Four was always a favorite series (60s-70s Lee/Kirby era). They had a down-to-earth human style combined with some really cosmic stuff. The movies catch this just right, I think. It even gets the visual design right - I swear Kirby laid out some of the frames in these films.

Ioan Griffud makes a great Mr. Fantastic, worried, unworldly, a nerd. Chris Evans' Johnny Storm is obnoxious, but just enough. Michael Chiklis is the perfect Ben Grimm - although the Thing mask design has an older look, and I prefer the later, classic Thing (more expressive eyebrows, I think). Kerry Washington takes the small role of Alicia and makes her the firm center of the Thing's crazy world.

Now, on the minus side, Jessica Alba just is not Sue Storm. Sue Storm is shy and mousy, hence the disappearing act. She is constantly worried and guilty. She is not HAWT. Jessica Alba is very beautiful and a fine actress. She gets Sue, I think, and you can see her trying to put across the shy worrier, but she is just too glamorous. Then the script breaks her character by having her brag about her bachelorette party. That is not Sue Storm, I think.

Julian MacMahon's Dr. Doom is a little weak as well, but I think this is mostly due to the role. Also, I would have given him a Darth Vader voice effect. Too much, you think?

But all of this is inconsequential when the Silver Surfer appears. When he comes on screen, I said "Cool," just before Johnny Storm did. There is no other word for it. Just "Cool."

You notice I've put in nothing about the plot, mainly because I assume you already know it, partly to avoid "spoilers." I'll through in a spoiler now - I was disappointed that there was no "Behold Galactus!" moment. Seems the director, Tim Story, thought he looked too much like a giant robot, and he won't do giant robots. Oh well, maybe in the sequel.

I'm joking. The Fantastic Four movies have gotten such bad reviews that I assume this is the end of the line. Too bad, because there just aren't that many movies I look forward to as much as these.

To recap:
  • He's silver
  • He surfs
  • In space!

'Nuff said

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bruce Campbell vs. the Army of Darkness

Army of Darkness is the third movie of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell's Evil Dead trilogy. But is it the best?

The first two were The Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn. These are roughly the same movie, the first one made on a shoestring budget, the second is a remake with a little more money. They take place in a cabin in the woods where Ash (Bruce Campbell) and friends find the Necronomicon, a book that summons the Evil Dead. All are killed except Campbell.

Army of Darkness is starts where the other movies end, with Ash falling into a dimensional portal time-tunnel thingy. He winds up in medieval times, where it is foretold that he will appear to conquer the evil dead.

He then proceeds to do this with gusto. Unlike some heroes sent back in time, he is not confused, or intimidated. He is pissed off. He is ready to kick ass and chew gum, and chewing gum hasn't been invented.

Actually, his line is, "Your chances are Jack and Shit, and Jack left town". This isn't the only tribute this movie pays to the greats. It is full of references to our favorite things. For example, Ash seems to have learned to fight from watching the 3 Stooges. The army of the title owes a debt to Ray Harryhausen. Was "Definitely the wrong book" a reference to Rocky and Bullwinkle? I think everyone will get the reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still.

I'm sure there were homages to classic horror films as well, but I'm not as well versed in the genre. But if you've only seen the first Evil Dead, you may not realize that this is a comedy in the form of a horror movie - not a real horror movie. Suits me fine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Japanese Scottish Play

Kurosawa's Throne of Blood is an unusual double-bill for Whisky Galore. Well, one is about Scotch and the other is the Japanese remake of the Scottish play. That's about as far as I'll take the comparison.

Throne of Blood is, essentially, a movie of Macbeth done as Kabuki. It is extremely stylized. Toshiro Mifune, in the Macbeth role, grimaces and shouts, his face contorted into a demon mask. The settings are wrapped in mist, or the bare wooden walls of castles and barracks. Some walls feature murals, like a theater backdrop. Some feature bloodstains. The music is stark and haunting. Mifune's descent into madness is captivating.

The visual imagery is striking, for such a bare set. The Japanese title is "Spiderweb Castle", and web imagery abounds. The witch (only one in this version) gives her prophecy spinning silk. The paths in the forest around the castle are called a spiderweb. And Mifune ends up hemmed in by long arrows, as if caught in a web.

Some scenes were a little repetitious - Mifune lost in the woods rides of into mist, we hear the horse whinny, he rides back into view. Then repeat, in a different direction. Then repeat 3 or 4 times more. This may have been an artistic decision to emphasize through repetition. Maybe my modern, Western sensibility can't understand this culturally. Or maybe Kurosawa just misjudged the effect.

This is not a "chambara" (samurai swashbuckler) or a historical drama (we call them cheesecloth dramas, for the cheesecloth you can see at the edge of the samurai wigs). It is more of an art film, almost experimental. One of Kurosawa's first films, They Who Step on Tiger's Tail, is also Kabuki inspired. The Japanese tradition doesn't let him down.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Whiskey, no Guinness

Keeping the Ealing comedy festival going, I watched Whisky Galore last night. Unlike The Horse's Mouth or A Run for Your Money, it did not feature Alec Guinness. In many ways, however, it was very similar to A Run for Your Money - a celebration of Scottishness, instead of Welshitude. Yes, Highland flings are danced, bagpipes are played and whiskey is drunk. I did not notice any kilts.

On the Scottish isle of Todday during WWII, the whiskey rations have run out. When all looks bleak, a ship runs aground with 50,000 cases onboard (for export only). The islanders set out to salvage it, but the church clock strikes midnight. It is now the Sabbath, when none may work, not even to rescue whiskey. The Home Guard major (a mainlander, surely) plans to prevent the islanders from looting the whiskey, even if it all goes to the bottom. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.

This is a sweet little comedy, without many laughs, but lots of smiles. It was filmed on location with many locals as extra, with lots of craggy scenery and craggier faces. The accents are thick, and sometimes may drop into Gaelic (it's hard to tell). If you are immune to Brigadoon-like enchantments, give it a miss. If you have a spark of that in your soul, you'll love this.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

To die for

I'm not sure why Eddie Izzard: Dress to Kill was in our queue. I've barely heard of him. Now that I've seen this film of his stand-up act, I know:
  • He wears makeup and women's clothes (though he fancies girls)
  • He's British
  • He can't do imitations, except James Mason
  • He's hilarious

His chief weapon is surprise. He starts out relatively sane, lets his story go way, way out into the beyond, and long after you have lost any hope of figuring it out, comes back to his point. When the audience laughs at one of these jokes, he congratulates them: "Well remembered."

Maybe not life-changing, but certainly sidesplitting - not to mention cross-dressing. I'm glad I rented it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Another Guinness?

As an Ealing Studios/Alec Guinness follow up to The Horse's Mouth, I watched A Run for Your Money. This is a very different movie. The Horse's Mouth is dark. A Run for Your Money is, more than anything, sweet.

Two young Welsh miners, Tom and Dy Jones, win a newspaper prize. They will go to London, where newspaper columnist Alec Guinness will show them London, take them to a rugby match and give them 100 pounds each. This is not how it works out. One miner, the handsome Dy (short for David), falls in with a pretty confidence woman, out for the money. Tom is left with both of their hats, and finds an old friend, a drunken Welsh harper. They can't find each other, and Alec Guinness can't find either of them, most of the time. As they say in the TV Guide, "Hilarity ensues".

Not really hilarity, but a great amount of good humor. There are sweet Welsh accents, songs and jokes. One running gag involves the number of Tom and David Jones in Wales. As a result, Tom and Dy are called Tom and Dy #9. Many Welsh sport nicknames like this to distinguish them from others of the same name, and in one scene, Tom and David Jones are paged. All the Toms and Davids respond as "Tom Ice Cream" and "Davey the Fish".

Our heroes make it out of London with honor dignity and most of the prize money intact. They are portrayed as innocents, but not saps. They were never in much peril, and they end up on top. This much niceness will not appeal to everyone. Not everyone wants to hear a Welsh tenor singing to a harp, or a drunk Welshman orating a blessing and a curse. Not everybody will find the comparative study of English accents delightful.

As for me, I loved it. I'm going to watch another Ealing comedy (without Guinness) next week: Whiskey Galore.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Name this drink!

Our brother-in-law, Bert, made this one up. It is his standard after-work cocktail, at least for last summer:

Fill a 20-oz pint glass with ice. Add:

Double shot of dark rum (Gosling's for ex)
Almost enough grapefruit juice to fill the glass
Splash of tonic water


The sweetness of the rum goes great with the bitter grapefruit juice, and the tonic adds just enough bite. We've been calling this a Bitter Bert, Tall Dark and Bitter, Bert of Paradise and the Flaming Bert. None really fits. Any ideas?

Update: Bert didn't have a name for this, but he thought of adding a float of pomegranate juice and calling it a Cut Lip.

Blind following the blind

The Blind Swordman: Zatoichi makes a great double bill with Kill! It is also a serious samurai action film, a comedy and a revisionist parody. But mostly, a samurai action film.

It is a remake of the classic Shintaro Katsu Zatoichi series. In 30-odd movies, made from 1962-1989, the blind, chubby, sloppy, gambling, rambling masseur Zatoichi fights injustice and rights wrongs done by the powerful. He can do this because, though blind, chubby, etc., he is the greatest swordsman alive.

Now Beat Takeshi, popular Japanese comic and director has decided to do a remake. Takeshi-san is known in the US for his tv show Raid on Takeshi Castle and for speaking the title line in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, or possibly for his recent yakuza movies, like Sonatine. Since he can be pretty wacky, I was expecting something in a revisionist vein.

Instead, Zatoichi is played almost perfectly straight. The plot, as usual, concerns some greedy crime bosses messing things up for ordinary citizens and gentler criminals. There is a noble bodyguard (yojimbo) who does bad things because he needs the money. There are comic gamblers and a pair of geisha girls who are brother and sister. As in Kill!, I couldn't follow the plot after a while. I've found that this is typical of a traditional samurai film. I don't know if I'm missing clues that a Japanese native would get, or if they just like their movies puzzling. I don't let it bother me anymore.

Takeshi does add a few twists on the tradition. He gives Zatoichi bleached blonde hair (supposed to be turned white from age or fright, or?). There is a lunatic neighbor who charges around screaming with a spear in armor and a diaper, playing samurai. There is a final twist that is severely non-canonical, but you expect that from remakes. He needs to put his stamp on the franchise.

The curtain closer sort of sums up the mixture of tradition and modernity - like the western music in Kill!. The peasants have a festival (like at the end of Kill!) and start dancing to the traditional drumming in traditional costume. They stamp their feet in their wooden sandals, the rhythms become more western, and the stamping gives way to - a tap recital.

Thursday, October 4, 2007


Kill! is both a samurai cut-em-up (chambara, in Japanese) and a parody of the same. There are samurai, masterless samurai, yakuza gamblers, good chamberlains, bad chamberlains, assassins and a town destroyed by gang warfare.

It starts like Yojimbo or A Fistful of Dollars . A stranger comes to town. He hasn't eaten in days, and is willing to fight for a living. This is Etsushi Takahashi, a farmer who sold his land to buy a sword. He is soon joined by another hungry man with a sword, played by Tetsuya Nakadai. They witness a political assassination and wind up on different sides of the conflict (an "internal clan matter").

The plot gets very complicated and fuzzy. At one point, the bad chamberlain sends a band of yakuza to kill the squad of ronin he had sent to kill the group of samurai he had sent to kill the other bad chamberlain. Hence, the title of the movie.

I frankly couldn't follow the plot. I don't think the characters, possibly even the director could either. The joy is in the two masterless samurai. Takahashi, the strong, stubborn farmboy turned fighter who is willing to do anything to be made a samurai, but isn't quite dishonorable enough. He visits a brothel but want a woman who smells like earth and has held a plow. Nakadai gave up his clan affiliation out of shame for the deeds he did for them. He wants nothing to do with samurai, except a pretty woman needs some help, so... Nakadai has a beautiful sad, philosophical face.

Then spike this with some great slapstick and add a soundtrack straight out of a spaghetti western. Can't miss.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Loving the Alien

Although I lived in Japan for several years, I am not particularly an anime fan. But I am certainly a fan of Miyazaki-san, who made Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and the movie I watched last night, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

I loved this movie. It is set in a future world thousands of years after pollution has caused an outbreak of toxic forests, filled with giant insects and poison pollens. Its hero, Princess Nausicaa, lives in a peaceful valley, and seeks to learn to live in harmony with the toxic forest. I will stipulate that:

  • The animation is a little limited (not much actual fluid movement)
  • The Princess Nausicaa is nauseatingly sweet and saintly
  • The plot is insipid when not incoherent
But to counter this:
  • The artwork is beautiful. The style reminds me a lot of the French artist Moebius, one of my favorites. The depiction of the toxic forest and the giant insects are stunning, jewelled fairylands.
  • Nausicaa may be too good to be true, but her philosophy of non-violence and tolerance is a good one. Of course, we can't all expect to have the magic power to inspire peace and kindness that she has. Or her physical strength and courage. But don't hate her because she's beautiful.
  • The plot belongs to a small genre that involves learning to live with an alien, seemingly hostile ecology. See, for example, Ian MacDonald's Evolution's Shore, where an alien ecology called the Chaga blossoms in Africa. Mankind can either try to eradicate it or learn to live with it.
    Then, there's David Gerrold's unfinished Chtorr series, where the aliens soften up Earth for invasion by infecting it with a poison ecosystem. Humanity fights back (this is not a tract on ecological non-violence), but there are hints that they will need to absorb and be absorbed in the Chtorr ecology to effectively fight it.
So, I'm not sure that I have made a case for watching this anime. Maybe, if you have a low tolerance for ecological/Buddhist woo-woo, you should give it a miss. If you like brilliant cartoon artwork and can accept a bit of heavy handed Message, don't miss it.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Wild, Wild Women

Our slow-motion Film Crew fest continues with Film Crew: Wild Women of Wongo. For those of you tuning in late, the Film Crew is Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett from Mystery Science Theater 3000. They are no longer stuck in a satellite, and Kevin and Bill are no longer robots, but they still have to watch and comment on bad movies.

And Wild Women of Wongo more than qualifies. Set in the primitive tropical world of Coral Castle, FL, it posits a village, Wongo, where the men are beasts and the women beautiful. Goona, the neighboring village, has beautiful men and beasty women. Hilarity ensues. Or not. this should have been a fun caveman romp, with cute guys and girls in skimpy outfits. But the girls weren't that cute (all the salt air ruined a lot of perms), the go-go dancing and girl fights are perfunctory at best, and the comic relief is missing. Even the ugly women of Goona didn't have anything to do.

But the movie certainly provides rich material for commentary, and the boys do a great job. Good work, fellows!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Guinness is Good for You

The main joy to be had from Alec's Guinness' The Horse's Mouth is his rough gravelly delivery. He plays Gully Jimson, a great painter who never has any money, makes threatening phonecalls to patrons, and sneaks into their houses and paints murals on their walls. He can see nothing but art, and therefore has no social graces. He has a bit of Guinness' charm, but mostly seems to be a nasty, horrid man.

This is theoretically redeemed by his Art. This is always a problem with movies about painters or musicians, or books about poets. You have to show what their stuff looks or sounds like. If you say they are geniuses, but their paintings/music/poetry is not all that, well, what are you left with?

Gully Jimson's paintings (by John Bratby, actually) are modern Gauguinish, Matissey, fauvist works, with some pretty good figure work. Gully's early "masterpiece", his ex-wife in a bathtub, is rather good, I thought. The "Lazarus" he does in the 3rd act is mostly feet, with a tiger on the right. The feet are better than the tiger. The last large piece he does is really pretty bad, in my opinion.

Maybe that's the idea - he is losing it, can't produce the good stuff anymore. Maybe Guinness felt that way too, and that's why he used the slightly silly gravel voice. But Guinness seemed self-assured and charming in the role - it was only his character that seemed a little weak.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Motherfucking Snakes on a Motherfucking Plane

Yes, I finally got a chance to watch that motherfucking movie. It was almost as awesome as I had expected it to be. That is - very bad and very funny. On the plus side, Samuel L. Jackson. What a work of art his face is. The rest of the cast of unknowns (to me, anyway) were more or less competent. Many of them were pretty in a shallow way, like they were supposed to be unsympathetic. Maybe that was the idea, but even Mercedes, the Paris Hilton type with the chihuahua, came off pretty well.

As for funny, there are very few outright jokes. But when the gay flight attendant tosses a snakes into the microwave, he presses the button marked "SNAKE". Okay, I just gave away the best gag in the film.

What I didn't expect was that there were no motherfucking snakes in the motherfucking movie. All CGI. If there was one motherfucking real snake, I missed it. Which makes it a worse movie than Anaconda, even when you factor in Ice Cube v. Samuel L. Jackson. At least that had some motherfucking real snakes it.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Blank Noir

I watched Point Blank after it was lauded in a couple of film blogs I read, like Like Anna Karina's Sweater. They were right, it's great.

It is a neo-noir revenge tale, where Lee Marvin has been robbed of his share of a heist and shot point blank. He survives, and sets out to get back his $93,000. He does this viciously, ruthlessly, attacking from the shadows. That's the noir part.

The neo part is the quick flashbacks, the psychedelic swirls of color - projected on his face in a go-go bar, swirls of color from the smashed shampoos and bath oils in a tossed bathroom, and the footsteps echoing down long modern hallways. And in the psychology: Carrol O'Connor asks Lee Marvin what he really wants. He has an answer, but he sounds a little unsure, for the only time in the film.

Keenan Wynn has a role, but it isn't much like his part in Annie Get Your Gun. There is a scene where Lee Marvin systematically destroys a car, much like in The Driver. I was hoping to make a comparison to Vanishing Point, but I'm not sure there is one - OK, they both have snap flashbacks. I suppose I should see Grosse Point Blank, to complete the "Point" series.

It reminded me most of Get Carter (the Michael Caine version), for the grim viewpoint and savage violence. But Caine's Carter was a talker. Marvin is nearly silent throughout.

Also features Angie Dickinson, who looks very weird to me, in a very 60s way - huge hairdo on a tiny, stick-figure body in tailored suits.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Iron Giant

As far as I can tell, Iron Giant is the first movie Brad Bird directed. I'm not sure whether it got the reviews and popular acclaim that The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but I suspect it's the better movie.

Like The Incredibles, it has a great retro look - from sources like Warner Bros, old Superman cartoons, and Astro Boy. But unlike The Incredibles (I haven't seen Ratatouille yet), the story really got to me. Maybe I'm just more susceptible to boy and pet tales than midlife crisis.

I especially liked the hipster, "Call me Dean". If the name doesn't clue you, the Kerouac poster by his kitchen door should. He is just cool.

First Bourne

(I'm not sure that titles with bad puns are required for blogposts, but it seems to be expected. Just let me know if I'm overdoing it.)

I am a big fan of "classic" (=old) movies, but I'm not the type that thinks moives were just better back then. Some genres, like screwball comedy or maybe westerns, had a heyday, and modern examples just don't measure up. Others, like action films, on average just get better and better.

And speaking of averages, the Bourne Identity struck me as pretty average. I like Matt Damon and Franka Potente (although she was more fun as an asskicker than the nattering ditherer she plays here). I liked the plots and the escapes. I liked that the intelligence agency that's tracking him uses older Windows machines in a real office, not 3-D flatscreens in an underground control center.

But there was a little something missing. The Italian-Job-style Mini car chase was good, but there was only one. The fight scenes were good, but maybe a little too rare. Was there too much brooding?

This is a fun comfortable movie. Although the hero is theoretically tormented by his lack of memory, and suspicions about his past, he also kicks ass - He memorizes all the exits and the license plates of all the cars. He knows that the shotgun will be on top of the bookshelf. He can take a bullet. It's fun to watch and imagine that you have those powers.

And as Marie says, maybe it's a good thing to forget.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Airplane Movies

Not movies about airplanes (Airport, Airplane, Starfighters, etc), but movies you see on airplanes. I'm traveling, and have a wide choice of movies to watch. But the airplane movie experience isn't a good one for me. Watching a movie on a plane moves it down about 2 stars for me. So I don't want to watch a movie on a plane that I want to watch - I'm afraid it will spoil the experience.

On the other hand, I don't want to watch a movie I expect to hate. So I look for movies that aren't really my thing, but I'm kind of interested in. Sometimes I wind up finding an unexpected gem. I really enjoyed Hitch, for example. This trip didn't work out that well.

Spider-man 3 was no better than I expected. I never really liked Spidey - he's such a whiner. Girlfriend MJ is kind of high maintenance. The villains aren't much. The action sequences are sharp, fast and exciting, but they don't seem to add up to much. For instance, several times Spidey tosses the goblin grenades back at the Green Goblin. But this doesn't seem to mean that the Goblin is defeated by his own powers or anything like that. It was just a cool twist.

Really, who am I to judge? I liked the Fantastic Four movie. But I'm glad I didn't watch this by choice.

Guess how much I liked Ocean's 13? OK, more than Spider-man 3. It was kind of fun, with nice sets, twisty plot, and fun hammy acting by Clooney, Pacino, Gould, and, well, everyone. But here's the problem.

No, it is not the plot holes you could drive a Chunnel excavator through. Although - how did they get that thing under the hotel without anyone noticing? I'll bet the $35 million it cost could have financed a much simpler heist. The double cross and triple with the diamonds almost made sense, or maybe not. I don't care enough to try to figure it out. And that's fair enough.

The problem is that this is a film about hotel management. That just isn't interesting enough. Now, I know a lot of people who are fascinated by big Vegas hotels - how to get upgraded, what pools you can sneak into, threadcount of the sheets in different rooms. But I think Danny Ocean and friends should stick to heists, and leave hotels to Leona Helmsley.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Delightfully Young

Delightfully Dangerous stars Jane Powell as a teenage music student. She is an orphan who idolizes her older sister, whom she believes is a Broadway star. When she pays a surprise visit, she discovers her sister, Constance Moore, is a star, but a star on the burlesque stage. She is scandalized, and the comedy (such as it is) revolves around her schemes to get her sister to go legit, and her coming to understand that burlesque has its own charm. Ralph Bellamy is the legit impresario who gets messed up in the scheme, and Morton Gould plays himself in the Jose Iturbi role.

You may not recognize the Jane Powell. She belongs to a peculiar sub-genre along with Gloria Jean and Deanna Durbin: Post-pubescent sopranos. They sing classical or lite-classic pop, and their movies often exploit their innocent, youthful beauty and approaching womanhood. "Exploit" may be too strong a word, depending on how sensitive you are to skeeve. I really like these movies - the girls are sweet and charming, their singing voices beautiful (song choices are generally horrid), and the underage romance themes just kinky enough to appeal to my mild sense of the perverse.

Jane Powell's most famous film was Royal Wedding, but I really liked her first movie Song of the Open Road (not available on DVD/VHS, but sometimes seen on AMC). She played herself, a child singing sensation who runs away to a US Crop Corps work camp. The movie is really a propaganda film for the Crop Corps, a strange WWII sort of communist enterprise, where teenagers volunteer to pick fruit to replace the cheap labor that has gone to fight the war (or the Japanese labor that has been interned). They sing solidarity songs and engage in self-criticism and discussions of dialectal materialism. Clearly the work of communists in the State Dept.

As the movie progresses, Jane stops being a stuck-up capitalist and joins the people in their victorious struggle to pick the fruit that feeds the anti-Fascist army. She ropes some Hollywood liberals to promote the camps in a radio propaganda scheme: W.C Fields and Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy. So Jane Powell stars as Jane Powell in a propaganda film about a radio propaganda broadcast, all revolving around ... volunteer youth fruit picking. Delicious.

I could go on to discuss my favorite Deanna Durbin movies (One Hundred Men and a Girl? or the later Lady on a Train?), but you're probably getting the wrong idea about me. I'm really not obsessed by these child-women with angel voices. But I do find myself strangely interested...

Bullet Ballet

Annie Get Your Gun
Although I've watched a lot of musicals, I've never seen Annie Get Your Gun. Frilly MGM productions aren't really my thing, and Howard Keel definitely isn't. What a weasel. In fact, there weren't many likable characters in this film.

Keenan Wynn gets a sympathetic role - he's been a favorite of ours since Without Love, where he played the drunk brother. His variations on "Let's not be stupid, shall we?" from that movie have become family favories.

I love Bouncing Betty Hutton, for her boundless energy. She plays comedy with no stops, and is still totally believable when her heart breaks. When she looks at Howard Keel, she stares at him round eyed and slack jawed like a pole-axed mule - a total cartoon, but to me, completely real.

She had a similar role in The Perils of Pauline, where she loved but out-competed another man, John Lund (another heel), in show business, this time stunt-acting.

Of course, the film had originally been planned for Judy Garland, with Frank Morgan as Buffalo Bill. Once you know that, you keep seeing how that would have worked. And of course, Ethel Mermen created the role, and you have probably seen it in community theater, so there are a lot of ghosts on stage.

It got me thinking about a new, more modern production. Watching Annie, I was frequently jolted by the amount of gunplay (duh!) and the total lack of concern over safety. Not just shooting cigarettes out of mouths, but just plain shooting a lot in crowded places. I'm surprised the film isn't banned in schools under a zero-tolerance policy.

So why shouldn't it be remade with the violence inherent in the gunplay put in? Show the occasional death or wounding, people ducking for cover, blindings from ricochet, that kind of thing? John Woo directing, perhaps. I can think of plenty of blowhards and pretty boys to play the roles of Buffalo Bill and Frank, but who could replace Betty Hutton?

Monday, September 3, 2007

Desert Passion

I promised cocktails, and I will deliver. Both classics, like the margarita, and the newly imagined, like my latest creation: the Desert Passion:

Fill a pint glass with ice. Add:

1 shot tequila
Juice of 1/2 lime
Half the rest with passion fruit nectar (Looza brand preferred)
Other half with champagne

Stir and garnish with lime slice.

Rock climbing!

Last week's Man Who Never Was got me in the mood for more WWII Mediterranean invasion action, so I ordered up Guns of Navarrone. All I remembered from the last time I saw it was miles and miles of late-night rock climbing. That scene turns out to be only a few minutes long, not the whole 2-1/2 hours.

I don't have much to say about this fine movie - if you like this kind of thing, you'll find it to be the kind of thing you like. I did want to point out that Allan Cutherbertson, the twitchy Colonel Hall from Gourmet Night in Fawlty Towers, is in both Man Who Never Was and Guns of Navarrone. Since he was a Lt. in the RAF, I suppose he has every right to these roles, and he fits them to a T.

And big ups to Dmitri Tiompkin for providing the catchy Guns of Navaronne theme, and managing to make it sound so dull. Here how it is done, Dmitri: The Skatalites!

Seeing this movie made me want to start a whole film festival of WWII movies with lots of rock climbing. Like - Where Eagles Dare! And ... That's all I can think of. And it's another Alistair MacLean. Any other suggestions? Might just go for WWII movies - Kelley's Heroes, Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, etc.

They Live!

They Live must be John Carpenter's masterpiece. It isn't the most polished movie, with limited special effects and acting straight from the pro-wrestling circuit, and locations that may be LA, but look more like generic Canadian city. But 1) Pro-wrestler/actor Rowdy Roddy Piper has come to kick butt and chew gun, and he's all out of gum, and 2) the butts that he kicks are the most vicious incarnations of evil: republicans from space.

The plot is simple. Drifter-construction worker Piper finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal the truth: Magazines and billboards just say "Obey", "Consume" and "Stay Asleep". Money is just white paper with the words "Your God" printed on them. And some people, the rich and powerful, are not human. Roddy's response is cool and measured. He starts blowing them away.

Best scene, other than the kicking butt and chewing gum line above (a Roddy Piper ad-lib), has Piper trying to convince Keith David to try on the magic sunglasses by whooping him. David whoops him back. They exchange whoopings for a long time, some of them pretty realistic, some of them right out of the pro-wres ring. All enough fun so that you hardly wonder why he doesn't just look through the damn things and save everybody some pain.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Bug-Eyed Cinema

The Film Crew: Killers from Space: Another masterpiece of DVD commentary from the Film Crew: Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy from MST3K. If you are familiar with MST3K, you know what to expect. The guys are not robots and a human in space, but just working guys, supplying commentary for DVDs for Honcho Industries. There are no longer any silhouettes on the screen, but when the commentary starts, it sounds just like Mike, Tom and Crow.

The movie they are commenting, Killers from Space, stars Peter Graves and ... Do I need to go on? There are guys from space with 1/2 ping-pong balls over their eyes. There is stock footage. There is mind control, if that's what you call controlling Peter Graves. There is commentary from the Film Crew, although sometimes no more than a derisive snort.

Some people thought MST3K ran out of steam after the fourth season, or after Joel, or TV's Frank, or when Pearl replaced Dr. F. Personally, I have seasons and episodes I like better than others, but they are all great, including the Film Crew. If you loved MST3K, you'll like this (at least).

If you don't know MST3K, you probably don't know what the heck I'm going on about. Try The Beginning of the End, another Peter Graves cheese-fest. Worthwhile for the giant grasshoppers attacking the skyscraper special effects (grasshoppers crawling on a postcard).

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I promised cocktail recipes, didn't I?

Second-Best Margaritas
(Yours are probably better, or the ones in that restaurant you like, but other than those, these are the second best)

Juice of 1 lime
1 spoon sugar
1/2 jigger triple sec
1 jigger Tequila

Shake and serve in a salt-rimmed glass up or over ice.

  • 1/2 jigger bottled lime or lemon juice instead of fresh
  • Simple syrup instead of granulated sugar. But I've found that the proper amount of sugar is just what will dissolve in the cold drink. There should be some undissolved sugar left in the shaker.
  • Cointreau or Grand Marnier for triple sec. Blue Curacao makes nice blue margaritas, but they taste about the same
  • For tequila, I recommend the cheapest brand that costs more than Cuervo. Patron Silver makes a great tequila, but it's kind of a waste. High-priced tequilas should be sipped solo, not poured in mixed drinks.
Enjoy, and let me know your recipe.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Hi, I'm Beveridge D. Spenser, your host and sometimes bartender. I hope we'll have many happy weeks together on this, my blog.

My idea is to post my thoughts on the movies I watch each week on Netflix, with a few cocktail recipes thrown in. You see, I'm a little obsessed with my Netflix queue - always trying to get the perfect mix. Ideally, I like to watch a movie on Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. I like to have a mix of classic, contemporary and campy, or action, romance and comedy. I plan my 3 picks carefully, with cross-resonating themes, callbacks, and intertextuality. So I want to share.

I like comedies, preferably old, preferably screwball (Bringing Up Baby!). I like action, preferably with some comedy (Jackie Chan!). Even film noir can be funny. I just saw the Maltese Falcon in a theater, and the audience kept cracking up. Maybe I'll say more about my tastes, maybe they will become apparent as I go along.

Finally, why the blog? I'm hoping you, the reader, will find a new film to watch or a new way to appreciate a film. More than that, I hope you'll comment and tell me a new film to watch. So welcome, and don't be shy.

Rolling start

This week's movies:

Film Crew: Hollywood After Dark
Mrs. Spenser and I love Mystery Science Theater 3000. We got cable solely to watch this show, and dropped cable when it was canceled. We have seen every episode available, and have access, through shadowy connections, to bootlegs of most of them. Yes, and we watch them based on implied oral consent, rather the explicit written consent! We always hoped that someday, that Mike and the 'Bots would be back, making the worst films in the world funnier.
Our prayers have been answered.
The Film Crew is Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, playing themselves. Yes, our 'Bots have become real live boys. They are no longer trapped in a satellite, but have honest jobs, commenting on films that are as yet uncommented-upon.
The first film is a dark and sleazy film about losers and strippers called Hollywood After Dark. It features Rue McClanahan (of Golden Girls fame) as a stripper with a heart of gold, or something. I haven't seen a less convincing stripper in a movie since Demi Moore in Striptease, although Barbara Stanwycke comes close in Lady of Burlesque.
Now, I'm using "sleazy" in the technical sense - "sleazies" are low-budget films that show a bit of girl flesh in a squalid, sleazy setting. ("Cuties" are more upbeat, "roughies" include more violence). So there is some exotic dancing, and pretty keen, in my opinion. I've always been a fan of gratuitous go-go dancing. But that is the only thing nice I can find to say about the movie.
There's also this guy, and an incoherent crime, and this other guy... Never mind. Only the Film Crew makes this movie watchable.

The Net
I wanted to see this for two reasons. 1) It was partly filmed at a MacWorld conference I attended. 2) Gee, Sandra Bullock is cute.
The Net is a great nostalgia kick for people who knew Macs in the mid-90s. For children of today, it must seem very strange. The Internet was known, but not webpages("internet addresses" meant IP addresses or telnet, not URLs). Sharp graphics in computer games meant Castle Wolfenstein. And yet, geeks took their laptops (1st gen Powerbooks?) to the beach, and you could tell they wanted WiFi, without knowing what it was.
But the compu-nostalgia is the least of the movie's charms. The greatest is Sandra Bullock. I haven't watched a lot of her movies, but I take it that she is the go-to girl when you want a poorly socialized, geeky, unglamorous character played by a fantastically beautiful actress. (See Miss Congeniality). She does that quite well in this movie. Of course, a real computer geek would be a pasty fat guy, not a beautiful woman, but she signals that she has agoraphobic neuroses and some other personality problems, and you can just about suspend belief. She has a little monologue where she talks about her (lack of) sexual experience, and you completely believe it. She is just a shy, geeky, near virgin, with cheekbones to die for.
I'm skipping over the plot, which involves unlikely computer viruses that erase all record of her existence, etc. It mostly holds together. Some scenes are even likely - a high-speed car chase ends almost instantly in a crash. And Bullock is never too smart, guessing the whole plot, or too dumb, going along well past when she should have figured something out.
There is also a lot not to like here - the director is very clunky, and fond of pointless closeups of mouths. I'll overlook that for Sandra.

The Man Who Never Was
Clifton Webb plays supercilious know-it-alls like nobody else. I'm sorry that his Mr. Belvedere movies aren't available on Netflix. In The Man Who Never Was, he plays a British intelligence officer in London during WWII, pulling a complicated scam on the Germans.
The movie is very toned down. One of the best scenes has the team quietly going about their business while bombs fell above, barely looking up when they hit. There's a love story, and a German spy who may be able to see through the plot. All finely acted, although the scam seems a little lightweight in these days of CSI. Surely any German forensic scientist would have seen right through it.

Next week's three:
The Film Crew: Killers from Space - We are not going to ration these, we're going to watch them all.
They Live - I think this should go well with Killers from Space.
The Guns of Navarone - The Man Who Never Was made me want to see this again.