Monday, February 25, 2008

Loy Versus Harlowe

I'm not sure that Wife Versus Secretary is a comedy. It features:
  • Clark Gable as a high-powered fashion magazine mogul
  • Myrna Loy as his loving wife
  • Jean Harlow as "Whitey", his hyper-competent secretary
Jimmy Stewart has a minor role as Harlow's boyfriend - the same role he had in Zeigfield Girl.

The setup is plain - Will Loy's jealousy over Harlow drive Gable into her arms? There aren't any surprises here, but lots of delights. Gable is a dynamo, loves his job, loves his wife, loves his life. Loy is suave but cute, loves and trusts her husband, but still can't get over Harlow.

Harlow is a dream - beautiful, efficient, and seems to love the work as much as Gable. She might even love him, but would never let him know. In her big scene (SPOILER), she tells Loy that she doesn't want to steal her husband, but if she lets him go, she will scoop him up.

The dialog sparkles, which makes this look like a comedy. It's really a melodrama and it could be a weepy. But the stars make it a delight.

Caution: Old-fashioned gender roles and attitudes towards capital.

Oscar Night!

I didn't watch the Oscars. I probably haven't seen any movies that were nominated, except Ratatouille. And I didn't love that. OK, I saw it on a plane, which reduces the pleasure of a movie by ~50%. Nonetheless, I thought it was visually mediocre, especially compared to the brilliance of Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Plot and writing were also only OK. Character design not so great, except for the villians.

Basically, I like comedy and action flicks, and the Academy doesn't.

Monday, February 18, 2008

War - What is it Good for?

War (the movie) has a lot going for it. To start with, Jason Statham and Jet Li. Add an interesting plot with Statham playing a San Francisco FBI agent whose partner was killed by assassin Rogue (Jet Li), along with all his family. Now, years later, Rogue is back, and he's starting a gang war between the Triad and the Yakooza. But who is Rogue? He gets a new face from a plastic surgeon after every job - then kills the surgeon. There are at least two plot twists that I, at least, didn't see coming.

Now, I might have seen the plot twists coming if the dialog was easier to understand. Statham mumbles and Li's accent is pretty thick. I'm also not sure what Yakooza are - maybe like Yakuza, but more hokey?

But you don't want to know about the plot, diction or authenticity of Asian criminal cultures portrayed, right? What about the action? That's the problem.

There are several decent fights, but none were really outstanding. And they were far between. So the film has to fall back on its storyline.

I love Statham - I even plan to watch In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and that's a straight-to-video stinker. Jet Li is awesome, of course, and I do believe he can act. Not in this movie though.

Big let down after Black Mask.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun

There are two types of Pink FLoyd fans: pre-Dark Side of the Moon and post. The posties think The Wall is the most awesome Floyd film. The pre faction (or "true fans") prefer Live at Pompeii.

And well they should. If you like Careful with That Axe Eugene, Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, Echoes, and other Meddle/pre-Meddle classics, this is for you. Director Adrian Maben takes Gilmour, Waters, Mason and Wright to Pompei, sets them up in a ruined amphitheater, and lets them do their thing. He also shows them laying down tracks for the soon to be released Dark Side of the Moon in the EMI Abbey Road studios. We get a lot of close ups of the Floyd doing their thing, and some arty shots of volcanos, ruins, mosaics, and more recently added (director's cut) cheesy computer animation of space shots, etc.

There are also a bunch of "interview" segments - mostly just the guys sitting around BSing. The value here isn't hearing their views on the direction the band is taking (getting away from their druggy reputation, sticking together even though they fight a lot), their skills (the high-tech equipment doesn't play itself, you know) or their motivations for playing ("lust for money"). It's hearing their voices as they goof around in the canteen. Nick Mason's request for a piece of pie without crust ("Not a corner piece!") has been a catchphrase in our house for years.

Finally, we get to see Mademoiselle Nobs, a Russian wolfhound, accompanying Pink Floyd on a blues instrumental. The doggie's got the blues for real!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Hot and Fuzzy

I don't have much to say about Hot Fuzz, from the Shaun of the Dead team. Simon Pegg plays a hotshot, by-the-books policeman transferred to a small English village because he was making the rest of the London police look bad. His partner is Nick Frost, a fat lazy git who is also the son of the police chief. The only crimes in the village seem to be underage drinking and public urination, but there are a surprising number of fatal accidents.

OK, here goes:
  • It's very funny. Not very jokey, but always funny.
  • It is sharp and tight. I've started expecting a loose, goofy, improvisational style in 21st C. comedy, where consistency and character don't matter as much as laughs. You don't get that here. It's a little thing, but I appreciate it if people stay in character.
  • The characters are classic, yet fresh. It's partly a buddy film, where strict Pegg learns to bond with sloppy Frost. But Pegg isn't a Dirty Harry type - he takes care of paperwork, insists on "police officer", because "policeman" is sexist. And while Frost gets him to loosen up and have a beer, he also tries to learn from him, although it may come out as "policeman officer".
  • Everyone's name makes sense: Pegg is "Angel", Frost is "Butterman". A local shopkeeper is named "Merchant". The reporter is "Messenger" (curiously, a translation of Angel). I wonder what role Mr. Reaper will play? A farmer, I bet.
  • Frost's favorite DVDs are Point Break and Bad Boys II
  • Pegg's only interest outside of his job is a Japanese Peace Lily, like Leon the Cleaner's houseplant, or Le Samourai's canary
  • Monty Python, with repeated use of the line, "It's ..."
  • Sledge Hammer, with the line, "Trust him, he knows what he's doing"
  • And who knows how many I missed
Finally, how does this relate to the last movie I watched, The Seventh Victim? The answer may surprise you (spoiler!): Satanic cults!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Lewton's Victim

Val Lewton is known, specifically, as the producer of Cat People, and generally, as producer of shoestring-budget black and white horror movies that produce their chills through what they don't show. He owns the technique of scaring by withholding.

In Seventh Victim, he takes this a long way. Like in Laura, we don't meet the object of everyone's obsession until halfway through the movie. Young orphaned Mary Gibson leaves school to find her sister Jacqueline in Greenwich Village. She has sold her business to creepy Mrs. Redi and left no forwarding address. Mary finds the Jacqueline had rented a room above an Italian restaurant, but never stayed there. The contents of the room are enigmatic and frightening, but they bring her no closer to Jacqueline.

As the search goes on, she meets more friends of Jacqueline - many troubled or creepy. She witnesses a murder, in a scene that veers from cute comedy to noir horror.

Finally, we meet the sister. Mary opens a door and there she is. Jacqueline puts a finger to her lips, looks around in fear, and closes the door again. When Mary opens it, Jacqueline is gone.

This is the kind of dream-like horror that Lewton is famous for. The movie is filled with this kind of "did it even really happen?" kind of scene. Unfortunately, Lewton sometimes sacrifices coherence of plot to do this - For example, why is the emotionally unstable, hunted Jacqueline left alone all day, and why doesn't anyone look for her in the most obvious places? As long as he keeps everything vague and shadowy, Lewton succeeds. When he explains, you might find yourself scratching your head.

The film has a beautiful look for a B-movie. Young Mary, played by Kim Hunter, looks lovely - she reminds me of Deanna Durbin or Jane Powell. Seventh Victim even shares plot points with Delightfully Dangerous, the orphaned younger sister leaving school to find her older, disreputable older sister. I wonder what the psychology behind that theme is.

Little poetic touches abound - The film opens with a quote from John Dunne, and the first sound is a schoolgirl conjugating the verb "love" in Latin. When Mary leaves school to find her sister, we hear another girl conjugating the French verb for "search". Dante is referenced - for example, in a mural along with two women, Beatrice and another, reflecting Mary and Jacqueline, perhaps.

So good I watched it twice.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Hot Jet

When you start with Netflix, you want to get every obscure movie you've ever wanted to see: French New Wave, Italian Giallo, silent swashbucklers, Soviet realist costumers. Then, you have 350 films in your queue, and you don't really want to watch any of them. So you (meaning me, of course) go for something you know will satisfy.

Case in point: Black Mask. Jet Li is a retired member of a team of government assassins, modified for strength and to feel no pain. While he works in a library, the rest of the team decides to take over the Hong Kong drug market. When he finds out, he dresses up in a long black coat and chauffeur's hat, adds a black mask, and goes out to fight for justice.

Yes, he is dressed up like Green Hornet's Kato. And his ex-lover is named Kailin. That should give you an idea of the seriousness level of this pic. The evil mastermind looks like Ozzy Osbourne, as well, for no real reason. Also, Jet Li's love interest is a ditsy librarian played by Karen Mok, and dubbed in a very annoying voice.

The fighting is frantic, with a lot of wire work and phony looking blood. The plot makes about no sense and the assassins' traps are always goofy Rube Goldberg devices, like the bomb that they implant next to the drug lord's heart. Admittedly, it kills him, but why did they go to all the trouble to sew him back up? Silly question.

Other silly questions:
  • Why all the homo-erotic references? Because he didn't seem to be interested in her, Karen Mok decided that Jet Li was gay for his policeman friend.
  • Why do all the women end up tied in chains? Kailin does an S/M act to get close to a drug dealer, then Jet Li ties up Karen Mok.
  • Does old-school hip-hop really go with comicbook martial arts? Thug Love, ya'll.
And a final pop quiz:
  • Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Best Pirate Movie Ever?

We finished off the Pirates of the Caribbean series by watching the middle episode: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. My question to you, dear reader(s), is: "If this series counts as a single movie, is it not the best pirate movie ever?"

Now, pirates are awesome, but pirate movies, in general, are not:
  • Captain Blood, The Black Swan, The Sea Hawk: All those Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power swashbucklers are classics, but surprisingly inert and landbound. Need more ships.
  • Likewise Charles Laughton's Captain Kidd. Fine movie, great acting, not much real pirating.
  • The Pirate: Gene Kelly makes a great swashbuckler (he was D'Artagnan in The Three Musketeers), but this isn't really a pirate movie. Likewise any version of the Pirates of Penzance, including The Pirate Movie.
  • The Crimson Pirate, with Burt Lancaster, has a lot of fun acrobatic fights, but is really very silly.
  • Speaking of silly, Yellowbeard at least has a good ship. I think the only bigger budget item for this movie was "white powder".
Pirates of the Caribbean has everything, hangings, escapes, swordfights, the black spot, double and triple crosses, treasure maps, and most of all, ships - real ones, CGI ones, at sail, beached and at battle, trading furious cannonades.

The best part is probably Johnny Dep as Capt. Jack Sparrow, a brilliant characterization. Kiera Knightley's Elizabeth also very nice. The weakest part: Orlando Bloom as Cary Elwes as Will Turner - very wet and boring. Fortunately, the series ends with him getting killed and Elizabeth running away with Capt. Sparrow.

Oh sorry, I should have posted a spoiler warning.

In conclusion: Did anyone walk the plank or get keelhauled? If not, there is still room for a better pirate movie.