Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Float like a Butterfly Sword

Butterfly Sword is a fun Hong Kong martial arts film with:
  • Lots of wirework
  • Unfathomable plot
  • Michelle Yeoh, which makes up for a lot
Michelle Yeoh leads a gang of assassins from the Happy Forest, including pretty boy Tony Leung. He is marries Butterfly, who is not in the martial arts world. Another one of the gang, Donny Yen, loves Yeoh, who loves Leung, who... Never mind. The arrangement of good guys/bad guys is just as complicated and easy to ignore.

The fights are great if you like the running on treetops style. Leung's trick is to stand on his bowstring and fire himself through the air - that kind of thing. I prefer a more realistic style, but this is done quite well.

But that barely matters when Michelle Yeoh is on screen. She has a hypnotic beauty that gets deeper every year (this is made in 1993, 7 years before Crouching Tiger). I think that's enough of a review.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Just Billy Jacking You

I remember when Billy Jack came out, even though I didn't see it. The accepted opinion seemed to be that it was a violent vigilante action film with a little bit of Indian/hippie exploitation tacked on. Something like Walking Tall, maybe (although I haven't seen that one either).

I had it all wrong. This is a serious film about Indian/hippie non-violent philosophy, with a little action thrown in to keep up your interest. Billy Jack was played by Tom Laughlin, who also wrote and directed. You could guess that he felt it deeply.

Billy Jack is a Vietnam vet half-Indian martial artist who lives on a rez in New Mexico or Arizona. His friend Jean runs a hippy Freedom School for troubled youngsters. When the leading citizens of the small town nearby make trouble for the kids, Billy steps in to protect them. And the trouble escalates.

This would be pretty by-the-book, except:
  • Most of the townspeople get to like the kids, showing a nice Western live-and-let-live attitude.
  • The hippie school is pretty real. The kids act out psychodramas and sing songs that they wrote themselves. The songs were actually written by the kids who sing them, including a few by Laughlin's 11-year old daughter. She's very good, actually.
  • The "teachers" who lead the psychodramas include members of improv comedy groups like the Committee. They have a couple of good scenes.
  • Although Billy is the usual superhero who protects the weak, the movie has a real commitment to non-violence. SPOILER: in the end, he doesn't die in a hail of bullets.
Although Laughlin is a Steve-McQueen-type cutie, his girlfriend Jean, played by Delores Taylor, is a plain, unsmiling woman. Nice to see some realism in casting. The film is full of that kind of realism (as well as some Indian woo-woo and hapkido chop-socky). It is well paced and beautifully, though simply shot. It is both sincere and well told. I'm glad we watched it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008


We've been watching some African-American cinema lately - or you might call it blaxploitation. Cotton Comes to Harlem is either the first blaxploitation film, or ... not. Made in 1970, it preceded Shaft or Sweetback. It is very black-centric, with most of the white characters goofballs or villains (plus a comic jew or two). The protagonists, Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson, are certainly bad-ass. The phrase on everybody's lips is "Black enough for you?", and the answer is "Not yet, but it will be."

But I feel that true blaxploitation requires a certain level of crude, rough film-making. Cotton looks quite polished for a first time director.

It's directed by the late Ossie Davis, who I only know as Jack from Bubba Ho-Tep. I loved him there, love him here. He also co-wrote the script, based on the Chester Himes classic, and some of the songs. Godfrey Cambridge plays Digger (their full names are never used in the movie) with a permanent smirk. Nothing fazes him - in a car chase he drives like he was cruising the parking lot for an empty space. Raymond St. Jacques is Coffin Ed, the guy with the temper, slapping the suspects and their girlfirends around. Honestly, he didn't really come across as a volcano of redhot rage. The movie's tone is too easygoing. Hence, it isn't blaxploitation.

It's more like Uptown Saturday Night - a black comedy, but not that kind.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Monkey Princess and Drunk Cat

When I was talking about surefire no-brainer movies, I meant movies like Come Drink with Me. A classic Shaw Brothers kung fu from 1966, it stars Cheng Pei Pei as a woman warrior seeking to free her brother from kidnappers with her monkey-style high leaping kung fu. She meets up with a drunk beggar, called Drunken Cat, who is more than he seems.

Apparently, this was the first of the classic kung fu movies, introducing the fight-scene-as-artform concept, as well as the woman disguised as a man trope, etc. For a mid-sixties film, it looks incredibly up-to-date - although since it is a period piece, I don't know why it would look any different.

Most of all, it is total, pure entertainment. Great fights - some with wires, some without. Great villains, including the Joe E. Brown faced "Smiley Face" and powder and paint wearing "Sleek Face". Some nice music - Drunk Cat has a gang of child-monks that follow him around singing. (One of them is supposed to be a young Jackie Chan, but that may be a rumor.) The musical numbers tie this movie to the early Peking Opera tradition, even as it breaks with the tradition to show more realistic action.

Finally, the cherry on the icing on the cake on top of the sundae: the subtitles are beautifully whacky. Never so off-the-wall that you can figure out the story, but goofy enough to get a laugh. Example: something that must have been "Stay out of my business" is subtitled, "Don't touch my thing."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Disco Dragon

We watch a lot of obscurish movies, in hopes of finding an overlooked treasure. Lately, we've been finding a lot of trash, instead. I was getting tired of this, thinking I should start programming more known good no-brainers. Instead: Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon.

In 1985, Motown mogul Berry Gordy decided to make a kung fu movie/new wave disco music video. He got unknown (?) Tiamak to play "Bruce" Leroy Green, a naive and sincere black kung fu student. He dresses in Chinese clothes and talks in a "But Master, what must I do?" style. He likes to watch Bruce Lee movies and eats popcorn with chopsticks.

At the movies, he meets Sho'Nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, a huge snaggle-toothed, bug-eyed ratty haired kung fu villain. He has a gang of new wave Fame rejects and terrorizes the neighborhood. Second villain is a music promoter with a Cindy Lauper wannabe girlfriend. Until they showed up, I wasn't sure this movie was intended to be a comedy.

The promoter wants to get his girlfriend's video played by famous VJ Vanity. Thus enters the love interest. When Vanity is threatened, Leroy gets become her bodyguard. And she might get to teach him the Western custom called "kissing".

Considering this was made by Berry Gordy, the music was terrible. Best song was DeBarge doing "Rhythm of the Night" - not exactly cutting edge. They didn't even do it live, but in a music video within the movie. The Cindy Lauper clone's song, which was supposed to be bad, was one of the best. Vanity was a better actress than singer, and not a very good actress.

But Leroy made a great hero, and a loving tribute to his hero, Bruce Lee. He wears a Game of Death yellow jump suit in one scene, for no special reason. The villains are great, both Sho'Nuff and evil promoter. And everyone takes things seriously - they don't seem to know they are in a comedy. So it is funny and heartfelt, a nice combination.

We continued this disco-sploitation theme with House Party, the 1990 film that made Kid 'n' Play household names. It's about a high-school kid, Kid, who is trying to get to his friend Play's party to dance with some girls and do some rapping. (DJ Dragonbreath is played by Martin Lawrence, almost stealing his scenes.) He has to avoid his dad (Robin Harris, who died shortly after the film was released), school bullies, and crazed dobermanns. But the worst threat are the 2 finest girls at the party - because he can only have one.

This is another movie that is sweetly sincere as well as funny. Maybe a little too sincere, almost toothless. But the music is good: George Clinton has a cameo, DJing a very square black alumni party. Kid 'n' Play are better dancers than rappers, but they aren't so bad. And the movie is full of loving references to black comics - Dick Gregory, Dolomite, Richard Pryor - and break dancing movies like Beat Street and Krush Groove.

It gets a little raunchy for a kid's movie, and it's a little sweet for adults. Give it a try. I did it and now my queue is full of hip-hop classics.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Action! Adventure!

For the Fourth of July long weekend, we went with an action-adventure theme. Up first: Mysterious Island, starring nobody I recognized, except Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo. It wasn't directed by anyone in particular, either. BUT! Special effects by Ray Harryhausen.

The story involves some Civil War soliders ballooning in a hurricane. They are blown across America to the Pacific Ocean and a mysterious island, full of giant creatures. Harryhausen stop-motion animated creatures! Animated with that lovely mixture of jerkiness and realism that is Harryhausen's signature. Never have latex models had so much character.

Next, we re-watched The Wizard of Oz , mainly for the tornado scene. All the wild mid-west weather this year put the idea in Ms. Spenser's head. I must say, the tornado is quite good. So is the rest of the movie, with one little exception - Judy Garland. She is too creepy for me, too raw, too real. Like with Sinatra and Crosby, I like a lot of her movies, but I don't much like her. But for this film, it's worth it. I think this movie was always on TV for some holiday. Was it Thanksgiving? Not Fourth of July, anyway.

Then, we went with a double bill: Appointment in Honduras/Escape to Burma. So far, we've only seen Honduras. Glenn Ford, along with a band of cut-throat convicts, commandeer a ship and land in Honduras, taking Ann Sheridan and her husband Zachary Scott as hostages. Ford is a magnificent bastard, and Scott is a weasely rich man. After a few days in the steamy jungle, do you think Ann Sheridan might stray? Jack Elam plays head cut-throat.

Burma stars Barbara Stanwycke, so I hope we'll get to see that.

Finally, Forbidden Planet. This time we watched it for the "electronic tonalites" - the first all electronic soundtrack performed by Louis and Bebe Barron. But this time around, I noticed the cool modern architecture in Dr. Morbius' space pad. I want to live there.

I just found out from IMDB that Forbidden Planet was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz.It all ties together, you see.

Update: We watched the flipside of Appointment in Honduras: Escape to Burma. Again, we have a seems-to-be bad man attracting a good woman in the steamy jungle, but this time, there are elephants. The elephants belong to Barbara Stanwycke, and she lets them know who is boss, like only she can. The sexual tension is a lot more real, and all the characters are more sympathetic, even the tiger. Just a better movie.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Action or Soaper?

I had read a lot of good reviews for The Twilight Samurai, so when I was in the mood for a samurai movie, I queued it up.

Now, there are 3 or 4 styles of Japanese movies that I like:
  • Samurai action films, like Seven Samurai
  • Art films like High and Low
  • Anime
  • Gangster, either samurai or modern
One style I don't like is "Homu Dorama" = Home Dramas = soap operas. Since these styles overlap, you might get an art film soaper (most of Ozu) or anime samurai, etc. The Twilight Samurai is billed as a samurai art film, but after due consideration, I deem it a soaper.

It is about a low-level samurai who goes into debt to pay for his wife's funeral. He is a nice guy, unambitious and hardworking, who loves his young daughters and doesn't want to remarry, even after he finds that his childhood sweetheart has divorced her rich husband. But the clan finds out that he is a skilled swordsman, and sends him out to kill.

So, two lightweight sword fights, a protagonist with a worshipful love interest, and lots of angst. If this were a Western, not a samurai film, it would be The Real McCoys, not Gunsmoke. Oh well, better luck next film.

Couple of Pairs

I think I queued up Four for Texas because I wanted to see an Sinatra movie. It's not that I like Sinatra, but he does seem to be in a lot of good movies. Kind of like Bing Crosby - I like Bing Crosby movies, I just don't like Bing Crosby.

When I realized that Anita Ekburg and Ursula Andress were in it (the titular four for Texas), I remembered why I had queued it up. I fell in love with Ekberg in La Dolce Vita. In Intervista, we get to see her a little older, a lot bigger, a beautiful monster and still glorious. She wasn't the talent that Ursula Andress was, but she's just as easy on the eyes.

But this movie is more about Sinatra and Dino as gamblers and gunmen in and around Galveston, fighting over ... some kind of MacGuffin. That part kind of wore me out. Can we see more of Anita and Ursula now?

Nice cameos by Grady Sutton (Ogg Oggilby, the jabbernowl mooncalf from the Bank Dick), Fritz Feld, Mike Mazurki, Jack Elam and the Three Stooges. It isn't enough.

In conclusion, this movie is way too long at 2 hours, 4 minutes. But at least nobody sings.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sing, Sinners

I'm not a particular fan of Frank Miller comics, but boy, did I like Sin City. It manages to film a live action version of a black and white, 2D comic book, and get it picture perfect.

Sin City takes place in (Ba)Sin City, a scummy town with filled with bad cops, do-good murderers, psychopaths and prostitutes. Those are the good guys. The heart of Sin City is Old Town, which is run by the prostitutes and the pimps and cops stay out. In one episode, this all goes wrong.

But the plot isn't the point. The point is:
  1. The awesome graphic style. Most of the movie is in inky black and shadowy white, except accents - red lips, a yellow monster. Even the blood is usually white (not sure that works).
  2. The ultraviolence. This is a rough movie - even if it is cartoon violence. Implied sexual torture and murder of little girls. Cannibalism. Arms and legs cut off and fed to dogs. Etc.
I'm pretty squeamish, but I held up all right. The fact that characters got run-over, shot, fell 3 stories, etc, and shrugged it off helped. But mostly it was that gorgeous graphic style. I praised Fantastic Four for getting the style right. It doesn't come close to this.