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!