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).