Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pop Quiz

Just to remind everyone - Check out Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule for PROF. BRIAN O'BLIVION'S ALL-NEW FLESH FOR MEMORIAL DAY FILM (AND TV) QUIZ!

All done? Pencils down.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Tanks for the Memories

As promised, Not As Bad As You Had Always Heard It Was Theater presents Tank Girl. So, how was it? Not very good, but not as bad as you heard it was.

Tank Girl takes place in a near future dystopia, where all the water is gone, except that controlled by the evil Water and Power corporation, headed by Malcolm McDowell. There are some holdouts, like Tank Girl's punker commune. Tank Girl is a Lori Petty, playing Madonna punk-rock style. When the corporation destroys her commune, kills all her friends and imprisons her, she gets mad. She steals a tank, with the help of a scared, nerdy jet mechanic she calls Jet Girl (Naomi Watts, in a nice quiet turn). Sadly, the soundtrack doesn't use "Jet Boy Jet Girl".

The sound track (music director, Courtney Love-Cobain) is a compendium of classic punk ("Blank Generation") and post-punk (Hole gets one song), plus a kick-ass Joan Jett version of Cole Porter's "Let's Do It".

This movie is basically Tank Girl getting into trouble, mouthing off, blowing things up, sleeping with human-kangaroo mutants, etc. This is interspersed with the cartoon version of same (Tank Girl was originally a comic). Um, unfortunately, the comic Tank Girl looks a lot better. The live action version is a bit too glam to be punk, too real for the pure anarchy that she is supposed to embody.

Also, although she kicks ass and takes no shit from anyone, she is not that good. She is constantly getting captured or beaten because she is very sloppy and not that competent. Her partner Jet Girl is a lot more together and, really, doesn't get to do anything.

Still, this isn't a terrible movie. It is about as punk as Desperately Seeking Susan, with a cameo by Iggy Pop. I can't off-hand think of any female action hero who is as ineffectual as Tank Girl, but she has her moments.

In conclusion, think how bad it would have been with Madonna in the lead role.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Double Your Pleasure

Now we switch gears, to Things You'll Actually Like, If You Like That Kind of Thing. Double Wedding is a 1937 comedy starring William Powell and Myrna Loy. That pretty much says it all.

Powell plays Charley "Horse" Lodge, a bohemian movie director wannabe who lives in a car trailer behind a bar. He is mentoring a couple of wannabe bohemians, played by Florence Rice and John Beal. This couple are under the thumb of Rice's control freak sister Margit, played by Myrna Loy.

Predictably, Charley falls in love with Margit, who despises him. Meanwhile, her sister falls in love with Charley, and her fiance is too civilized to do anything about it. Will Powell get Loy? Will the other couple get back together? Does the title Double Wedding give any clues?

This movie fits into the Holiday/You Can't Take It With You genre of bohemian goof-offs and society straights, with the goof-offs winning every time. While not quite up to those standards, this movie is definitely top-shelf. The script (by Jo Swerling, who wrote Pennies from Heaven, from a play by Ferenc Molnar) has got a great rhythm and plenty of gags, if none too fresh. Powell and Loy nail their characters, while remaining, eternally, themselves. There were some great supporting character actors, as well, such as Sidney Toler as the butler with the peculiar accent. Edgar Kennedy does his slow burn, and the Marx Brothers are referenced with a movie marquee ("Day at the Races") and a tribute to the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.

Powell's character is revealed to have an ex-wife, who divorced him for being too bohemian. I thought that was interesting, because Carole Lombard actually had divorced Powell for being too bohemian - he wanted an open marriage, and she didn't (after a few years, anyway).

What I didn't know is that Powell was engaged to Jean Harlowe, who died during the filming of Double Wedding. The story of her death is very sad - Her domineering mother was a Christian Scientist, who let her die rather than allow her medical help. Powell never lets this show in this frothy comedy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Ultraviolet Protection

Welcome to another edition of Movies That Aren't As Bad As All That Theater! Today's Film - Critics panned it, audiences ignored it: Milla Jovavich is Ultraviolet!

This movie is a bit of a mess:
  • In the future, a disease causes people to become vampires - strong, fast, quick-healing, light sensitive, fangs, require transfusions, etc. However, these vampires or "hemophages" never actually drink any blood. The fangs are just for pretty.
  • In this fascist future, controlled by the medical-industrial complex, surveillance is omnipresent and armed security is everywhere. But shoot up a subway, and does anybody investigate? Never around when you need them.
  • Constant testing for infected DNA never seems to catch anyone.
  • The emotional development (Jovavich lost her baby, the MacGuffin is a little boy) is heavy-handed, unconvincing and slows the movie down a lot.
Find your own screw-ups! It's fun!

On the other hands:
  • Milla Jovavich. She looks great posing with a gun or sword in skimpy yet armored outfits. She moves well too.
  • In fact, in the fight scenes, she moves like a trained stuntman! The favored technique is ducking bullets, and letting the baddies who have surrounded you shoot each other. This technique works for swords as well.
    The director, Kurt Wimmer, calls this "gun kata", but we know it was invented by Joel Grey, in Remo Williams.
  • The CGI looks a lot like a video game, but that could be considered an artistic decision instead of a drawback.
  • In fact, if you don't mind the CGI/greenscreen style, the art direction is great. The movie has a great futuristic look.
  • There are some cool gadgets, like a gravity reverser, guns that materialize out of a bracelet, and flat storage. Flat storage lets you storage a large boy in a small briefcase, or a sword in a brooch - so the ninjas can sheath their swords in their chests!
So, if you like action movies starring hot chicks, with a sci-fi comicbook video game aesthetic (say, Aeon Flux), give Ultraviolet a try.

In conclusion, heed the warning of Ultraviolet, and beware socialized medicine!

Next week on Not So Bad theater, we hope to bring you: Tank Girl!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Da Vinci Codex

Hudson Hawk is one of those famously sucky movies that really isn't that bad. (Damn that's faint praise.) As long as you like Bruce Willis doing Three Stooges, you should do fine. OK, the jokes tend to be stale, the mugging is broad, Andy MacDowell is wet, Willis wears a "Crazy Guggenheim" hat and overcoat, the plot is haphazard,... I'd better stop.

Willis plays Hudson Hawk, recently released cat-burglar who is being pressured to steal the famous Da Vinci Codex from the Vatican. That sounds familiar, but it isn't. The pressure is being applied by his best friend Danny Aiello, rogue CIA agent James Coburn, and a perverse brother and sister team of billionaires played by Sandra Bernhard and some guy who seemed to be working off Gary Oldman's notes from The Fifth Element. David Caruso is in it too.

There are some good extended caper scenes, quoting Topkapi, The Hot Rock, and probably a dozen other caper films. Coburn is saluted with some allusions to The President's Analyst and In Like Flint.

In conclusion, not as good as the Die Hard movies or The Fifth Element, but better than the The Da Vinci Code. Having made that statement, I guess I have to watch The Da Vinci Code. Oh no.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


Earlier this week, I reviewed The Big Steal, and mentioned that it came with another movie on the DVD: Edward G. Robinson in Illegal. Combining these two with The Front Page made a great movie classics weekend.

Robinson plays a brilliant prosecutor who sends an innocent man to the chair (DeForest Kelley!). He can't prosecute any more, and people won't hire him for corporate work, so he winds up defending criminals. Strong drink is involved, as well as socially unfortunate behavior.

I haven't seen Scarlet Street or The Woman in the Window, but I have seen The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (amazing title, isn't it?), in which Robinson plays Dr. C, a psychologist who studies the criminal mind by becoming a criminal mastermind. It seems that Robinson was often cast as an upstanding citizen with a flaw that leads him into a life of crime, rather than a plain gangster.

Bonus: Nina Foche plays Robinson's ward and assistant. She plays my favorite character in An American in Paris - it makes me mad the way Gene Kelley treated her. She does her suffering and devotion act here too, and radiantly.

Extra bonus: Jayne Mansfield.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Read All About It!

Billy Wilder's 1974 The Front Page is the third movie based on the Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play of the same name, following The Front Page (1931) and His Girl Friday (1940). I have just got to say - see them all.

Wilder's 1974 version cleaves pretty close to the original. Same set (prison press room), same characters, same plot. Crack reporter Hildy Johnson was originally a guy (Adolphe Menjou), then a dame (Rosalind Russell), now a guy again (Jack Lemmon). Walter Matthau plays the Pat O'Brien/Cary Grant part of his editor, Walter Burns. The parts could be custom made for them. Susan Sarandon doesn't get to do much as Hildy's intended, but Carol Burnett has a great role as the hooker who loves the condemned man.

And there's my hook: this movie is exactly faithful to the original, but without censorship. Carol Burnett can be an outright hooker, not a shopgirl. Here's a better example: the first scene of the movie:

The prison guards are building a scaffold for the hanging, and a reporter sticks his head out of the press room window to yell, "Keep it down, we're trying to work up here." This scene is in all the versions. But in Wilder's film, a guard can respond, "Get screwed!"

So, if you liked the other films, but wanted more hookers and swearing... No, that's not right, this is an honest film version of the play, written by Wilder and his frequent partner I.A.L Diamond (Trivia: I.A.L stands for "International Algebra League", a pseudonym he thought sounded intellectual). Lemmon and Matthau do it proud, the rest of the cast are great, and it's a nifty movie all around.

In conclusion, His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks, was probably better.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


In the days before NetFlix or even Tivo, I had a method - I'd read the TV movie listings every Sunday and pre-program the VCR to record all the midnite oldies that I hadn't seen. Then I'd watch them at leisure. I wound up watching a lot of terrible Betty Grable movies, but I found some treasures too. For example, The Big Steal.

The Big Steal stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer (last coupled in the classic Out of the Past) with backup by Bill Bendix, Patric Knowles and Ramon Novarro. Basically, Greer is chasing Knowles through Mexico, pursued by Mitchum, who is pursued by Bendix, all followed by Novarro. There is a MacGuffin, some car chases through beautiful Mexican locations, a few fist fights and some gunplay, but this is no ordinary daylight noir or heist film. From the beginning, the tone is light and silly, without being fluffy. The ideal combination.

The Mexican setting us used without condescension - There's a running joke of Americans trying to communicate in Spanish, and the inspector-general who sounds so silly trying to speak English, well, he's not so silly as he seems.

Mitchum does quite well with this kind of light comedy - it fits his don't-give-a-damn style. Jane Greer has a nice Lauren Bacall by way of Marie Windsor thing. You can believe her as an innocent schoolteacher on vacation or as a gangster's moll. And there's no conflict, she's just that deep. Bendix doesn't get enough time on screen, but does a great long slow burn.

So, if you like classic black-and-white movies, comedies, film noir, Robert Mitchum, and great character actors - and I do! - this movie is for you.

AND! BONUS! It is on a double-bill disk with Illegal, with Mitchum and E.G. Robinson. I'll report after I've watched it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Slippery Surfing

I took another dip into Bruce Brown's back catalog with Slippery When Wet, again online. This was Brown's first movie, made in 1958.

If you don't know Bruce Brown, he is the classic surf documentary maker, director of The Endless Summer, the first surfing movie with a real distribution. But before he got famous, he was making these movies on a shoestring. Slippery When Wet, for instance, was made for $5,000, including film, transportation to Hawaii, living expenses for crew and 5 surfers, and profit ($1 for Brown, $2 for his producer).

But oh those waves. Brown takes 5 SoCal surfers to Hawaii's North Shore. They ride Waimea, Pupukea, Makapu'u, and Sunset. No real monsters, but lots of overheads waves, up to maybe 15 feet. Great stuff.

Brown's narration is great as always. He tries to work a storyline in, with goofy jokes about the surfer lifestyle (the kitchen has nothing but cans of beans on the shelves, in the fridge and in the oven). It's hard to tell how much is serious, how much is silly. The guys were really living on a few bucks a day, sleeping on the floor or bare springs, driving an old woody.

What was the Hawaiian surf scene like in 1958? Seemed pretty fully developed - they go to one beach on Sunday and find the breaks packed with locals. Interesting historically, but you know, the waves look pretty up-to-date.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

One for the Schprock

A while ago, my friend Mr. Schprock gave me a movie assignment, Hitchcock's Frenzy. Now I have one for him: Carlos Saura's El Amor Brujo.

I mentioned Saura's flamenco trilogy in my discussion of Tango. El Amor Brujo is probably the greatest of them. It is a story of doomed love in a gypsy slum, set to Manuel de Falla's classic ballet of the same name. Candela (Cristina Hoyos) is betrothed in childhood to Jose, although she is loved by Carmelo (Antonio Gades). At the wedding, Jose gets into a fight over pretty Lucia (Laura del Sol) and is stabbed in the melee. Carmelo takes the rap.

When Carmelo gets out of jail and returns to the camp, he finds that Candela dances every night with Jose's ghost, and sets out to free her.

Gades is an amazing dancer, and choreographs as well. We'd have to ask Ms. Schprock, but I think Gades resembles our friend the Schprockster. He is tall, with a hawk nose and deep set, hooded eyes that show sorrow even when he smiles. Cristina Hoyos is also phenomenal, with a jolie-laide (beautiful-ugly, oddly attractive) face, something like Angelica Huston's. Laura del Sol, as the ingenue, is strikingly beautiful and not a bad dancer either. This triangle (older man, talented woman, beautiful girl) is repeated in many of Saura's movies, including Tango. I wonder if it is autobiographical, or just a good story hook.

There is less dancing in this film than I remembered - maybe Blood Wedding would be better for that. There is a lot of flamenco singing - very raw - and the rhythm of flamenco permeates the set, children jumping rope, knife-fighting class, women hanging the laundry, all to the flamenco beat. Possibly not classic, puro flamenco, but with the soul, the duende.

Bonus - Spanish Gypsy Flamenco disco act Azucar Moreno ("Brown Sugar") perform their hit "Azucar Moreno". Best flamenco disco act EVER!

In conclusion: Schprock! Watch this and report!

Jules Dassin and Richard Widmark, RIP

As mentioned previously, Richard Widmark died recently. A few days later, Jules Dassin died as well. Dassin was a key figure in the development of film noir, with The Naked City. Shortly after making Night and the City, he was accused by the House Un-American Activities Committee of being a communist. He refused to testify and was blackballed. This sent him to work in Europe, where he made Rififi, a prototype heist film. He also met and married Melina Mercouri, with whom he made Never on Sunday.

This weekend, we watched Night and the City, because it stars Richard Widmark directed by Jules Dassin. It could be argued that this is either one's masterpiece. Widmark plays a small-time hustler who thinks he can take over the wrestling racket in London because he is flattering a mob bosses father. Always on the dangerous edge of failing, Widmark runs through the alleys, ahead of the enforcers, just behind the sucker whose money he needs.

His girl is played by Gene Tierney, but the character actors get the best parts: Francis L. Sullivan as the Robert Morleyesque Phil Nosseross; Stanislaus Zbyszko as the old Greek wrestling coach with one more fight left in him; Mike Mazurki as crooked wrestler "The Strangler"; and especially Googie Withers as Nosseross' mercenary wife. She has a loverly Marie Windsor by way of Felicity Kendall style.

The real stars are Richard Widmark, who reeks of desperation, and London, the pitiless city.