Sunday, August 31, 2008

Pop Quiz

Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has another movie quiz, presented by Doctor Smith from Lost in Space. I highly recommend reading the results, including mine (I'm about #39).

I'd also like to mention question 12: 'Name the movie that you feel best reflects yourself, a movie you would recommend to an acquaintance that most accurately says, "This is me."' My friend Schprock left a comment on my blog that answers this for him:

I remember telling my father: "If you want to understand me, go watch Billy Jack."

Best answer so far.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Whimsy done right

We were so disappointed in Arthur and the Invisibles that I wasn't sure if we should watch Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman's novel. So many of these kids' fantasies come up short of the mark. Not this one, though.

It starts in the village of Wall, in rural England a few generations ago. A young man crosses the wall that separates the village from Fairyland, to prove that there is no Fairyland on the other side. Of course, he is wrong (although it is called Stormhold). He meets a woman there and nine months later, a baby is delivered to his door. Stardust is the story of this boy.

He grows up a painfully average boy, unaware of his connection to Stormhold. But he promises the village beauty that he will bring her a fallen star, and that takes him across the wall.

The fallen star is also being sought by the princes of Stormhold, conveniently named by birth order, Primus, Secundus, through Septimus - except they've been murdering each other, so some are ghosts. The one to find the star will inherit the kingdom.

Also after the star are three witches, lead by Michelle Pfeiffer. They can restore their lost youth and magical power by ripping out the star's heart and eating it. For the star, you see, is Claire Danes.

Claire Danes has an otherworldy beauty, huge eyes and generous lips. Her cheekbones make her a worthy adversary for Michelle Pfeiffer. You can imagine the effect she has on our young hero.

And the quest is on, princes, ghosts, witches and a unicorn. And I haven't even mentioned Air Pirate Robert Deniro.

We liked it so much, we're watching another Gaiman movie - MirrorMask. But I've already reviewed that one.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Never Met a Man I Didn't Like

As Ms. Spenser says, "I never met a man I didn't like until I saw Will Rogers in Life Begins at Forty." She has a low tolerance for homepsun cornball philosophy. Me, I love it.

Life stars Will Rogers as an old cantankerous publisher of a small-town newspaper. He match-makes a cute ex-con and a schoolmarm, and so forth, but I'm not going to get into the plot. I want to talk about the character actors. Early on, we meet Sterling Holloway, a classic chinless bug-eyed yokel. But he fades away, leaving the stage for one Slim Summerville.

He plays W. T. Meriwether, a lazy hillbilly who sleeps in Rogers' newspaper office and idly whittles on the furniture. A look at IMDB shows him acting in more than a hundered movies, and directing a slew of silents. I'll keep my eye out for this character actor.

Judging by Ms. Spenser's reaction, you need a pretty high tolerance for hokum to enjoy this film. I can't say there are many real laughs, but plenty of grinning.

Also, hawg callin' plays an important part in the plot.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

They Call Me 'Mr. Vampire'!

Mr. Vampire is apparently the first of the Chinese "hopping vampire" movies. If you were unaware of the hopping vampire genre, this may not mean much to you. These are based on Chinese Taoist legends where vampires ... hop ... and stuff. OK, I have no idea what these hopping vampires are about.

This movie features a Taoist priest - the guy with the salt-and-pepper mustache who usually runs the failing kung-fu school because he isn't all that good. He has two assistants, a goofy one and a handsome one. Can stereotypes be racist if they are made by Chinese for the consumption of Chinese? No? Good, so I can enjoy.

There's a lot of slapstick, some decent fights, and a lot of stuff that might make sense if I understood more about Taoist legends. Maybe not though.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Kid Stuff

We got a recommendation for Arthur and the Invisibles from a friend, but not one with reliable taste (if you're reading this, sorry, but it's true). Since it was directed by Luc Besson, we figured it couldn't really miss.

Well, it could have been worse. I rank it somewhere around Labyrinth - which also featured David Bowie as the villain. A nice look, some fun parts, nothing bad, just not so great.

A 10-year old boy (cutie Freddie Highmore from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) gets shrunk to bug size to find his grandfather among the "minimoys", animated microscopic trolls. He meets a beautiful minimoy princess (modelled on Franka Potente, but voiced by Madonna with admirable restraint) and a wishnik-looking prince (voiced by the always suspect Jimmy Fallon). They set off on a quest against the evil M... Malthazar (voiced by David Bowie, who seemed be having a ball).

The animation is OK, but I didn't find Arthur and his princess as adorable as they are supposed to be. Maybe I'm just too old, the wrong demographic or something.

But Mia Farrow, as Arthur's grandmother, is way too young. She is gorgeous.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Knock, Knock, Knockin'

Many people who like I'm Not There didn't care for the Richard Gere part. We liked it fine - a little underwritten, but clearly part of the mythos. But we couldn't quite get the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid thing. So we set out to watch it.

We'd originally seen it when it first came out, and it looked a little bit different in the context of the 70's. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood were making Western movie revisionist history. Peckinpah fit right in. It is an iconoclastic, slightly surrealistic and beautiful film.

Looking at it today, it seems much stranger. The dynamic of wily old actor James Coburn as Pat Garrett v. goofball folksinger Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid is amusing (note that a more dignified Kristofferson narrates I'm Not There). The old Western character actors (Jack Elam, Chill Wills, Slim Pickens, etc) stand out more than they did at the time, now that they are icons rather than actors who just didn't get many parts anymore.

But I'd really like to concentrate on Dylan's part. I think he kind of hijacked the movie. Peckinpah didn't really know who he was, but Dylan played a few songs for him that left him in tears. Eventually, he was able to worm himself into a role, playing Billy's sidekick "Alias". I had remembered him as a ratfaced skulking lickspittle, which isn't quite right. He does come across as a hero-worshiper, and his specialty is knife-throwing, which is not quite manly. But he can stand beside Billy the Kid almost as an outlaw peer.

The soundtrack is remembered for "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", but most of the soundtrack is one song - a song with a simple progression and an indefinite number of verses. Somehow, I feel that Dylan is taking over the movie from Peckinpah, swinging it away from a "straight-forward" meditation on aging, the end of the frontier with the coming of civilization and violence, and towards a more mythic tale with themes that were only vaguely visible through the sunlight's glare and the gunsmoke.

But what do I know? I'm just a Dylan fan. Watch it yourself.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect

I am a bit of a Bob Dylan fan. I got it partly from my parents, who were into the folk scene - although my mother had to forbid me from listening to Bob Dylan before breakfast in high school. I have often been mistaken for a Minnesotan due to my adopted Dylan accent, and I celebrate "Talk like Bob Dylan Day" every May 24th. I read Tarantula, Positively 4th Street and Dylan's autobiography.

So, guess how much I liked I'm Not There? That's right, a lot. This is a deep, complex film with some very creative ideas, brilliantly executed. And that's putting it lightly.

The basic idea is an imaginary biography of fantasy Bob Dylan. He is played by 6 actors. The youngest is a 11-year old black hobo who calls himself Woody Guthrie. The oldest is Richard Gere in western drag in a kind of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid/Woodstock/Basement Tapes milieu. In between we have Christian Bale as Jack Rollins, a Sing-Out-style folksinger and Heath Ledger as Robbie, a young rebel actor who plays Jack in a bio-pic. Later, we get Jack Rollins as the born-again Christian Dylan.

In the middle we have Ben Whishaw as an effete poetic Arthur Rimbaud, facing a kind of inquisition, and the best part, Cate Blanchett as Don't-Look-Back-era Dylan in England, named Jude Quinn.

I have a lot of analysis of this film, but I'll skip it for now to say - Blanchett is amazing. The film has the look of the Pennebaker documentary, and her impersonation is spot-on. I just recently realized what a pretty-boy dandy Dylan was in that period, and having him played by a woman is perfect. Sadly, she doesn't sing - Stephen Malkmus does them for her bits.

(Digression - the music is sometimes the original Dylan, sometimes covered by someone else. That surprised me. Somehow I expected all covers or all Dylan.)

Other sweet bits: Charlotte Gainsbourg as Dylan's (I mean Robbie's) French wife. Mainly drawn from Sara Lowndes, but she also imitates Suze Rotolo from the Freewheelin' album cover. Another is Julianne Moore doing a brilliant imitiation of Joan Baez. She is sitting in a nice home with Ethan Allen furniture, fiddling with a big turquoise bracelet and talking about this little twerp who wrote these amazing songs. This isn't quite something Baez would really say, but seems to get at the heart of a concept of her and her relationship to Dylan.

Which is the idea of this movie - to get at the idea of Dylan, not the reality. Dylan the dreamer and storyteller, Dylan the failed husband and missing father, the sinner repentant, and the crazy poet. All of these Dylan's are quite obnoxious, annoying really, and yet we love them or at least, find them fascinating.

That's a funny thing about this movie - it shows Dylan as a jerk, but it makes you love him. Ms. Beveridge is not a big Dylan fan, and couldn't watch Don't Look Back because Dylan was just too abrasive. But this she found fascinating. I don't know why.

Disclaimer - I am not sure this movie will be of any interest to people who don't know that Dylan dropped out of public life for a period after a motorcycle accident. For the film gives the impression that he dies in that accident, in scenes that recall the end of Lawrence of Arabia.

Saturday, August 9, 2008


We've had V for Vendetta at home for about 3 weeks. When we had 3 movies and only time to watch 2, it got pushed to the end of the queue. I guess I was a little nervous about it - would it be too intense?

Not really. It was intense but entertaining. That is the movie's pleasure and its curse.

it is the story of a near future dystopian London, when fears of bio-terrorism have lead to a 1984-like security state with thuggish Fingermen enforcing curfews. Natalie Portman, Evey, is saved from the attention of these Fingermen by a man in a Guy Fawkes mask - V. He delivers a valedictory about vendetta and blows up the Old Bailey.

So Evey, although innocent, becomes implicated in V's terrorist gunpowder plot. This can have very serious consequences, as her political parents were disappeared. The same or worse could happen to her. On the other hand, V is engaged in a campaign of assassination and sabotage - and worse.

Natalie Portman does amazing work here, beautiful and haunted. Hugh Weaving is V, and actually manages to act with a mask on. His oratorical style is classically orotund, which must have been fun.

Now, this hideous dystopia, where civil liberties could be removed at will, indefinite detention and torture are tools of the state and fear and terror rules - it resembles our own time to some degree. And this is what kept me from anticipating the V wholeheartedly. But it really isn't a polemic - it really isn't recommending assassination and terror as a way of dealing with political repression and corruption. It's just entertainment. Just a bit close to real life.

Alien Nation

I don't remember what got us on a Bruce Campbell kick - It might have been Bubba Ho-Tep. We did the Evil Dead trilogy, then found The Man with the Screaming Brain! That was a B-movie that he made for no money in Bulgaria, possibly for Sci-Fi channel. At the same time, he made Alien Apocalypse.

Campbell plays an atronaut, returning to Earth after 40 years asleep. As an osteopath, he is hoping that healers will be in demand, so he can be known as the Great Healer. Actually, he finds mankind enslaved by a race of wood and human eating insectoid aliens. Although he is a bit of a nebbish - he became an osteopath because he washed out of med school - he escapes from the aliens and sets out to find the President and help free mankind.

This is partly so-bad-it's-good low-budget sci-fi, and partly a parody. There aren't a lot of real jokes or funny bits, just a bit of mugging from Campbell. So, I'd say only watch this if you like bad sci-fi anyway.

Naturally, we loved it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

You Have Our Gratitude!

What can you say about a Bruce Lee movie? I don't think he is in any good movies, but he is incredible himself. His speed, his skill, his amazing musculature, and the way he slowly grinds his heel through a villains skull are all unsurpassed. But all his films are dogs (dissenting arguments welcomed).

We mainly watched Enter the Dragon: Special Edition because it was parodied in Kentucky Fried Movie. Getting to see Klang - I mean Han - say "You have our gratitude" was priceless. Finding out that the original version of "total concentwation" was "emotional content" was fascinating. And I was thrilled to see the lost, drunken men, found in waterfront bars who don't know where they are and no longer care.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm sorry, but you know what to do.

One thing that EtD had that KFM didn't was sidekicks:
  • John Saxon, who is something like Ross Hagen with a bigger budget. He plays an ass-kicking gambler who would do anything for money. Except guillotine a cat!
  • Jim Kelly, who doesn't get too many fight scenes, but does get his pick of the ladies.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

New Batch o' Gremlins

We watched Gremlins quite some time ago, though well after the 1984 release. I remember it as slight, well-made, charming and a little forgettable. I've seen it described as black comedy, but I don't remember it as very dark. Was there any real brutality, or just goofy mayhem?

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is pretty similar, except it is set in Gecko-era NY instead of a quaint small town. The kids from the first film now work in the Clamp Tower, for media mogul Daniel Clamp (= Donald Trump). The Clamp logo is strangely Enron like, the building has a mad scientist's biolab, with twin cloned lab assistants, and so forth. When little Gizmo the Mogwai comes to visit, you can be sure that he'll get wet and spin off a bunch of gremlins.

The comic mayhem that results is funny, but has a nice satirical edge that adds some spice. However, the leads from the first movie, Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates, are a little too bland for me to take to all the way. Clamp, played by John Glover, is a lovable tycoon, not the evil kind. In the end, we are rooting for the gremlins.