Monday, March 31, 2008

More Dudley Moore

After enjoying Bedazzled, I felt we should try out Arthur. Was this a mistake?

First, I don't really like Dudley Moore. He just seems like such a little weasel. Second, I don't really like Liza Minelli. Like her mother, she comes across a little too intense sometimes, a little too real.

Arthurt (Moore) is a drunk, selfish, giggling, irresponsible millionaire. His family wants him to marry the daughter of another millionaire, but he falls in love with kooky, not-rich, klepto Liza Minelli. Some people might find this charming, but I don't know. Cinema is full of happy-go-lucky drunks - George and Marian Kirby in Topper died while driving drunk and their ghosts are still tippling. Other drunks are sadder, deeper, but still charming, like Hepburn's brother in Holiday. Arthur is just creepy.

What saves the movie for me is Sir John Gielgud, who plays Arthur's butler. He is the perfect butler, who insults Arthur, swats him on the head (after removing Arthur's tophat), and truly loves him. Arthur reciprocates this love, and that comes close to redeeming him.

So, in conclusion, I look forward to Arthur 2: On the Rocks.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Big Stupid Friday

First, a word about methodology: Ideally, we watch 3 Netflix DVDs a week - Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Preferably, a big stupid action movie on Friday, a comedy (modern or classic) on Saturday, and a classic or foreign film on Sunday (Sunday seems suited for something a little more serious; the drawback is that we often interrupt the movie to watch the new Simpsons).

Last Friday it was Die Hard III: Sin Verguenza. This Friday we decided to continue the streak with Live Free, Go Big, Stay Home or Die Hard IV. As you may recall, we wanted to see Cyril Raffaelli. To cut to the chase, he is barely in this movie. He has 4-6 stunts in 2 scenes. Why can't modern directors understand? People want more parkour. Much more.

In this version of the Die Hard franchise, Jon McClane has to help slacker hacker Justin Long prevent a hacker take over of America. Long, who should have been Seth Green's buddy in that other movie but wasn't, makes a nice foil for Willis.

Again, there are Euroweenie villains, car crashes, helicopters, and transportation issues (McClane always needs to get from point A to B through traffic jams of monumental proportions). The plot has as many holes as always - For ex: the villains have to shut down a power plant manually; it can't be done online. So when McClane defeats the onsite team, the head bad guy destroys the plant remotely. Um...

Also, the CGI car chases were not that impressive.

Never mind. While Justin Long is no Samuel L. Jackson, and there is almost no Cyril Raffaelli, this is a decent Die Hard. And even though Willis is looking pretty Michael Chiklis, I hope they make many more.

In conclusion: Kevin Smith is the Warlock!

Saturday, March 29, 2008


We love Carlos Saura for his flamenco trilogy, Carmen, Blood Wedding, and El Amor Brujo. Would we feel the same way about Tango?

The flamenco movies are dark dramas told mostly through dance. The dance style is passionate and soulful - the focus is on intensity and concentration rather than technique. In flamenco, this is called duende. The stories are about love, betrayal, and also about themselves. Carmen, for example, is about a rehearsal for a production of Carmen. The line between story and meta-story are deliberately blurred.

The characters often include an older man, wise but wounded, and troubled in love. He may be in love with a dancer, not quite young, perhaps a little unusual looking (jolie-laide) but a fiery intense dancer. She rejects him, so he turns to a younger, beautiful but less experienced dancer. There may be violence, as well.

This pretty much sums up Tango. It starts with a producer writing a script describing the scene we are watching. It turns out that he is producing a tango performance, and we see him watching rehearsals, tryouts, children's tango classes, and imaginary visions. His principal dancer is his ex-girlfriend. But he is falling in love with a younger Audrey-Hepburnesque beauty, the girlfriend of a mobster backing the show. So that's the story, but it's not the movie.

First, the movie is self-reflexive, like Fellini's 8 1/2. To drive this home, we frequently see the camera reflected in the mirrored set. One shot shows a closeup of the producer's eye cross-fading into the camera. OK, not subtle. But it is cute - the producer talks about the themes of the show (movement from outer light to inner darkness, for ex), and the movie then does what it said it would.

But what about the tango? The rest is just on the margins: the movie is really about music and dance. The dance sequences are amazing, the dancers eyes drilling into each others souls, their feet weaving in and out, bodies held just so. There are traditional tangos, and more unusual numbers, between two men (but with the traditional male-female partner roles), two women, a man and two women (the producer's two lovers), children, etc. The music is also a mixture of traditional and nuevo. The instrumentation is traditional, bandoneon, violin, guitar, piano, etc. the rhythms tense and skittish. One number is only percussion - tom-toms and guiro. I am a tango neophyte, but some of the music seems to owe a lot to Astor Piazzolla, who shook up the tango world in the 50's with his avant-garde tango nuevo.

Special recognition: The music is directed and conducted by Lalo Schiffren (Mission Impossible theme), a native of B.A., Argentina. He is a wonder, as are the musicians he has working with him.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Green Green Grass

Continuing our Stanley Donen fest, we come to The Grass is Greener. This is a very different movie from Bedazzled - made 6 years earlier (1961), it is much less swinging in style. The camera work is mundane, and you can tell it was made from a play. The dialog is witty and cutting, but stagy, from an older generation than Bedazzled. But underneath, it is just as wicked.

It stars Cary Grant as Victor Rhyal (="royal"?), an English nobleman with a fine old house, no money. He is reduced to letting tourists view the manor for half a crown a head. His wife, Hilary (Deborah Kerr), sells mushrooms. But one day, one of the tourists wanders into her private rooms. It is American oil millionaire Charles Delacro, played with great charm and some restraint by Robert Mitchum. He works fast and before the husband shows up he has Hilary falling in love.

So that's the setup. Deborah Kerr gets to choose between poor but noble Cary Grant and rich American Robert Mitchum. Throw in here best friend, Hattie (Jean Simmonds), a hard-drinking, man-chasing gossip and fashionplate, and you have a nice drawingroom comedy.

But - SPOILER - Donen doesn't flinch here. When Kerr goes up to London to "get her hair done" and stays with Hattie for several days, we see her visit Mitchum's hotel room, and retire with him to the bedroom. Like in Blame it on Rio (which I guess I didn't blog, though I watched it just last year), Donen doesn't let his characters off the hook, "almost" succumbing to temptation.

I'll let you all see how it comes out, but I'll give you one hint: gunplay!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Die Hard Sin Verguenza!

Honestly, I just wanted to see Die Hard With a Vengeance so that I could see Live Free or Die Hard with a clear conscience. That movie has Cyrill Rafaelli, the parkour nut from B13. I also thought it was Die Hard 2, not Die Hard 3. So I just considered it a movie that I needed to check off before moving on to the real thing.

I was pretty much wrong. This is an awesome movie. The plot: A madman bombs Bonwit-Teller, and demands that Bruce Willis (as John Maclane) do whatever he demands - "Simon says". His first demand puts a messed up, hung over Maclane in Harlem in his underwear with a sandwich board reading "I hate niggers".

That is a great setup all by itself, but guess who comes to his rescue? Samuel L. Jackson, looking young and lean and all Malcolm X. He is a black separatist who doesn't want to get involved in this, but he does.

The movie takes this pair all over Manhattan on a series of wild goose chases with riddles thrown in. In classic buddy movie style, they get on each others' nerves, bicker and finally bond.

Now, the plot has holes you could drive a subway car through - The bomber's specialty is a binary liquid that is harmless until the liquids are combined. But does anyone try to keep them from combining? You just have to ignore that and go with the flow.

And where does the flow take you? Through Central Park in a cab, off a bridge into the East River, and finally to the Canadian border. You'll love the ride.

In conclusion, Yipee Ki-yay motherfucker.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Gosha Again

In our youth, Ms. Spenser and I watched a lot of samurai movies at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline MA. They had a double-bill that changed 3 times a week, and we caught pretty much every film. We saw the classic Mifune films - Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo - and the great Zatoichi films (Shintaro Katsu made about 35 of these). But one director blew us away every time: Hideo Gosha. He made visually captivating films about outlaw samurai living and dying on the edge of the sword.

So when I felt like a great samurai flick, I queued up Goyokin. An enigmatic story about a village that had been wiped out without a survivor, leaving only clouds of black crows. A drunk ex-samurai (the bug-eyed, intense Tetsuya Nakadai) who makes his living doing quickdraw demonstrations. A samurai searching for him. A corrupt official of the government. A melee in front of a burning building. And a lot of beautiful and not-very-easy-to-understand situations and confrontations.

It was just what we were in the mood for. Unfortunately, as soon as it started, we realized that we had seen it before. We couldn't remember when, but we remembered everything about it. As we watched, we fell into a trance, and then fell asleep, and dreamed of black birds, swordfights and burning buildings.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sympathy for the Devil

Bedazzled stars Dudley Moore as Stanley Moon, a sadsack short-order cook at Wimpy's. He is mooning over waitress Margaret Spenser, played by Elizabeth Bron, last seen as the sacrifice in Help!. He is getting ready to kill himself, when a devilishly handsome Peter Cook walks in and offers him seven wishes in return for his soul. The first wish: an ice lolly, which the devil buys him after borrowing a sixpence.

His next wish is much better. Moon wants to be able to talk to Margaret, and devil gives a powerful
gift of persuausion. He has Margaret hanging on every word. They have a fantastic 60's pseudo-intellectual date, talking about man's animal nature, the beauty of Bartok, and how wonderful it is to just close your eyes and touch things. What they don't do is make out. The devil only gave him the power to talk, not act.

And so it goes, with Moon getting his wish, and the devil poisoning it, putting in a little trap. He explains that God gave him this task, and if he gets 1 billion souls before God does, he can go back to the Lord's side. In general, he seems like quite a nice guy, more friendly and sympathetic to Stanley than anyone has ever been. Oh evil, too, but you've just got to understand him.

The movie was directed by Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain) in 1967. It has a nice swinging 60's feel without getting too trippy. Some fancy lenswork, some incidental flowerpeople, a couple of pop-rock numbers, it looks surprisingly undated. The musical numbers are particularly nice, with Dudley Moore doing creditably well in an emo number, and Peter Cook doing a cold Soft Cell style number about how bored he is,under the name Dremble Wedge.

Ths movie was remade in 2000 by Harold Ramis with Brendan Fraser as Moon and Elizabeth Hurley as the devil. It doesn't get a lot of critical love, but I liked it fine. It had a very similar feel, with the devil a quite sympathetic character. It makes the theological point clearer as well - the devil tempts you for a purpose.

In conclusion: Dremble Wedge!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Silvers Screen

I am old enough to remember one of the first great TV shows: The Phil Silvers Show. But was it really as good as I remembered? Sgt. Bilko: 50th Anniversary Edition gives me a chance to find out.

It was. Possibly better. Phil Silvers' Master Sgt. Ernie Bilko is an over-the-top always hustling huckster with a mile-wide smile and a never-ending flow of flattery. But it's the subtle things:
  • We see him smile as he listens to the WAC who is is competition for a jeep. Then we hear his teeth grinding.
  • Trying to resist the temptation to play cards with the recruits money, Bilko deals himself a hand of stud: hole card, Ace. Beat. Ace.
  • He tries to hide the recruit's money, but it keeps sticking to his hand. He tries to shake it off, but it sticks to his mouth.
  • After a bit of business, he goes back to dealing the hand. Another Ace. He turns over the hole card. An Ace.
The stories are the classics of sit-com. For example, Bilko buys a racehorse. Did everyone really want to own a racehorse in the 50s? In sit-coms, everyone eventually did. But they are carried off with great style - the Bilko-has-a-fatal-illness episode has all the requisite twists, turns and returns, played with great sweetness and pathos.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Third Hour

Look, this is a review that doesn't need to be written. You don't have to read this to know whether you will like Rush Hour 3. Do you like Jackie Chan goofing around and kicking butt? Do you enjoy seeing Chris Tucker getting outrageous? Did you like the other Rush Hours? You already know the answer.

In this episode, the ambassador's daughter, Soo Yung, is in trouble again and this time the trail points to France. Soo Yung in the explosives belt taunting her captor to "Push the button!" was my favorite part of Rush Hour 1, so it was nice to see her all grown up.

Going to France gives the movie a little freshness, some openness and a chance at a whole new set of ethnic stereotypes to mock. So along with outrageous slurs against blacks and Asians, we get a French cabdriver who thinks Americans are stupid and violent (they hold a gun to his head to disprove this), but secretly wants to be one. This gag actually has a great payoff.

Of course, the most inflexible racial stereotype gives away the villain the first time you meet him. As in all Hong Kong action movies, the leader of the bad guys is the genteel, white-haired Anglo.

In conclusion: Bring out Rush Hour 4!