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.