Friday, October 31, 2008

Borderline Case

People seem to have trouble assigning a genre to Borderline - romantic comedy, film noir, road picture? Actually, it's a classical example of the romantic noir comedy set in Mexico, just like The Big Steal and or His Kind of Woman.

In Borderline, narcotics cop Claire Trevor goes undercover in Mexico to find out who is sending shipments of heroin over the border using married tourists as mules. She tries to vamp suspected kingpin Raymond Burr (the villain in His Kind of Woman come to think of it), who gets hi-jacked by Fred MacMurray. The gag is (minor spoilage) MacMurray turns out to be an undercover customs agent on the same mission as Trevor. The rest of the movie has them racing for the border with a consignment of contraband, set on turning each other in.

Viewers of a certain age will associate Fred MacMurray more with Disney movies than film noir, but I guess most people are familiar with Walter Neff ("with 2 Fs, like Philadelphia") now. He handles the funny tough guy with no problems. Claire Trevor is known as a noir doll, but I'm not entirely convinced. She comes off as an Eve Arden type, a wisecracker, but not too tough.

Anyway, I don't know where this genre comes from - except that Hollywood types must have been familiar with the tourist circuit from Tijuana to Ensenada. I suspect they must have been fun to film, especially if they went on location. They're fun to watch, too, if you like this sort of thing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Miller's Tale

As you may remember, we quite enjoyed Lucky Number Slevin. Amongst all of its film references, I've heard that it was specifically a tribute to Miller's Crossing, which has been on my queue for a while. So we watched it.

We were a little nervous - this was an intense, serious Coen Bros. movie, not The Big Lebowski. But we'd made it through Blood Simple, so onward.

Gabriel Byrne plays Tom Reagan, lieutenant to Irish crime boss Leo O'Bannon, who is sleeping with Verna Bernbaum. The Italian mob boss, John Caspar, wants to kill her brother, Schmatta, who has been chiseling. So the harps and the eye-ties are going to get into a gang war over the sheenies.

Reagan plays the diplomat, telling O'Bannon to let Schmatta die - what's one Hebrew more or less? - and negotiating with Caspar. As you might have guessed if you have seen The Glass Key, Reagan is eventually forced out of O'Bannon's gang and into Caspar's. His initiation will be to take Schmatta out to Miller's Crossing and execute him.

The Glass Key is definitely the "key" to this movie. O'Bannon is very much Paul Madvig, Brian Donlevy's character. A rough, bold leader, with a weakness for a dame. Reagan is Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), loyal, smarter than his boss, and with a few weaknesses of his own.

The writing in Miller's Crossing is pure tough-guy noir patter - "What's the rumpus?", "Let's dangle", "He's an artist with a Thompson". The Coens, drunk on language again. The look of the movie is more modern, say 1970s Godfather or The Sting: Tobacco-colored light through wooden venetian blinds. I can't tell if this is homage, or just what passes low-key noir lighting in color films.

I had the film figured for pretty much a pure style play - swipe the plot from a classic, write some beautiful dialog, add some action and enjoy. A little shallow, but a great surface. But Ms. Spenser saw something deeper. She reminded me of Caspar's line about Schmatta's chiseling: "It's about, I'm almost ashamed to say it, ethics." The depth of the movie is its exploration of ethics, honesty, loyalty, heart and humanity in a crooked world. Now I want to watch it again.

In conclusion, I can't believe The Glass Key isn't available from NetFlix. No USA DVD release! I'm pretty sure we have the VHS somewhere, but still. Somebody needs to get to work on this.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

All You Need Is Love

We wanted to like The Love Guru, and honestly, we didn't hate it. I won't lie to you though. It wasn't good.

Mike Meyers is Guru Pitka, a Canadian orphan raised (along with Deepak Chopra) by Guru Tugginmypudha (Ben Kingsley). If you think the funny Indian name gag is lame, the movie's best material is wasted on you.

Pitka becomes a wealthy and influential Love Guru, but he himself can't love - because his guru locked him in a chastity belt until he can learn to love himself. If you think this message is lame, um, you're right.

Still, there are plenty of silly body process jokes, including elephant sex. Stupid names, like Dick Pants and Punch Cherkof. Dopey self-help tags, like "BIBLE = Book of Instructions Before Leaving Earth" to which Pitka always adds "TM!" The best one, in our opinion is Pitka's universal greeting "Mariska Hargitay". We're going to use that one.

Unfortunately, no one will get it, because no one watched this, and if they did, they will pretend they didn't.

Now, I heard Mike Meyers on the radio, talking about the death of his beloved father. Austin Powers, for instance, was a gift to his dad, who loved James Bond and all the swinging 60s spies. After Mr. Meyers died, Mike was very dejected, and started reading works of spiritual self-help, like, possibly, Deepak Chopra. He didn't really seem to take them seriously, except that they did help. The message of love, self-love, love of others helped him grieve his father.

So, if you were wondering where this movie came from, that's the story I heard. Laugh at it if you want. That might be all you're laughing at.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wild Weird West

Two weird westerns:

They Call Me Trinity: A spaghetti western parody, staring Terence Hill as fast-drawing, tight bunned Trinity, a lazy, grimy gunslinger with blue eyes to die for. He travels on a travois dragged behind his horse and doesn't even wake up when the horse drags him through a river.

His half-brother, Bambino, has accidentally become sheriff of a small town, and the boys wind up protecting the settlers from the town crime boss. The settler are noted for their their spiritual pacifism, their work ethic and their cute daughters. When it turns out that they are Mormons, and at least two of the daughters are willing to marry Trinity, he starts thinking about settling down.

The pacifism would be a problem. Trinity doesn't have to fight much, because he is so fast on the draw. He's fast with his fists, too, and Bambino is a giant who just konks villains on the head or picks one up under each arm and bonk their heads together. It all culminates in a Seven Brides for Seven Brothers style fight at the settlers' house-raising. Good fun. There is at least one sequel and it is in the queue.

Then, Zachariah: Young cowboy Zachariah (John Rubinstein) gets a mail-order gun and is inspired by the James Gang to become a gunslinger. The James Gang is the one with Joe Walsh, not Frank and Jesse. See, this is a Rock 'n' Roll Western, with electric guitars. Remember, acid rock was founded at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, by the Charlatans in western drag.

Zachariah's friend Matthew comes along - a young Don Johnson with surfer dude hair and attitude. Zachariah and Matthew love each other very much, but not that way. Nonetheless, there's a lot in this movie for women and gay men to enjoy.

Zach and Matthew go on a crime spree with the Crackers gang, played by Country Joe and the Fish, who look realistically grubby. Joe makes a great gang leader, and it's great to see young, curly-haired Barry the Fish Melton. They do a couple of fun songs, as well.

Firesign Theater gets writing credits on this film - mostly giving goofy lines to the Fish, I'd say (Peter Bergman plays a bank teller).

Our young gunslingers want to take it to the next level, so they head out to find Job Cain, top gun in the area. He is played by the ferocious Elvin Jones, John Coltrane's drummer. He shoots a man dead and tears through an amazing drum solo. Zachariah sees him and begins to turn away from gunfighting. Matthew decides to join up with Cain.

Zachariah takes up with Belle Starr, notorious courtesan, but winds up with an aging organic pacifist farmer, cultivating his spiritual side. This is the point where most critics decide this is a Rock Western version of Siddhartha - young man has money, power, love, gives it up to search within. But Mrs. Spenser notes that John Rubinstein was Pippin on Broadway, and that this is the same story as Pippin. Now I have that queued up.

No sequels to this one - sank w/o a trace, I'd say. I'd call it a lost masterpiece, based on Elvin Jones alone.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Go Speed!

I don't think I watched much Speed Racer when I was a kid (it was more my brother's thing). I didn't even know that Racer X was Speed's brother, although I did know there was a chimp involved, named "Chim-Chim" (Japanese for "penis"). So I wasn't particularly psyched about the movie version, until I started seeing reviews about the awesome, surreal and psychedelic techniques that the Wachowski Bros put together. That got me interested.

The film is about stunt racing, a futuristic sport that takes place on a pinball-like track. Speed Racer, played by Emil Hirsch, is the void at the center of this film, a brilliant but conflicted young racer, haunted by the memory of his brother, Rex, who turned rogue and died. Pops and Moms Racer are ably played by John Goodman and Susan Sarandon. He does very well at cartoon characters. Speed's girlfriend is Christina Ricci, who I like as a cartoon character (she totally was Wednesday Addams), but she's a little real for the role. There's also a fat kid brother and the aforementioned chimp. They are the most well-developed characters, and are much less annoying than you'd think.

As for the plot, there is one. But who cares? Let's talk 1) action sequences and 2) technique.

The CGI race sequences borrow heavily from computer racing games. I'm not a gamer, so I can't say how well they compare (I'll ask a 12-year old later). I thought they were fun and exciting, especially the cross-country race.

The Wachowskis have given the movie a spectacular look, with super-saturated colors and sparkly green-screened backgrounds. The signature move is a talking head in close-up with a green-screened scene drifting in the background - or sometimes two scenes, one on the left of the foreground face, one on the right. This is pretty cool, but it reminds me of something. I didn't watch a lot of kiddie TV in the 90s, but I think that's where this technique debuted. I guess that fits a film made from a kiddie TV show, but shouldn't they be borrowing from anime or something?

Never mind, it's a fun movie, well made and engaging, unless you like substance and acting and stuff. I take that back - this movie has plenty of stuff. Which I like.

Riffing on the Trax

As faithful readers know, I'm a big Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan. I got cable for that one program, and canceled when it went off the air. These guys have done a few things since then, including Cinematic Titanic and the Film Crew. Another one is RiffTrax.

The idea is quite simple. You rent, buy or steal an ordinary DVD. Then you download an MP3 file of Mike Nelson and/or some other guys riffing on the film. You play the DVD on your DVD player while simultaneously playing the MP3 file on your MP3 file player. And there you have it - you get a movie with professional sarcastic commentary, and they don't have to get reproduction and distribution rights.

For our first Riff, we chose Spider-Man 2. Have I already complained about the Spider-Man movies? Oh well, I'm too apathetic to look it up. The RiffTrax was provided by Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett (Crow) and Josh Fruhlinger, host of the Comics Curmudgeon (see my blogroll), a website that makes fun of newspaper funnies. I think they brought him in for his insight into the newspaper Spider-Man strip (insight: S-M/Peter Parker mostly sits around watching TV).

The experience was not quite as ... immersive as MST3K: partly because the commentors have no character arcs (or silhouettes on the screen), partly because the sound was coming out of different speakers. But it's still funny, and beats the heck out of watching Spider-Man 2 without riffs.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Go West , Young Honey

I know that TV is going through a Golden Age, with your Sopranos and your CSI: Whattahecks, and so forth, but I pity those who weren't young during the 1960s. Leaving out Get Smart and My Mother the Car, we had Man from U.N.C.L.E, Girl from U.N.C.L.E, and (from 1965) Honey West.

Anne Francis (from Forbidden Planet) plays private eye Honey West. She fights crime with skin-tight cocktail dresses, high-tech gadgets and judo. She doesn't fight crime very well, though, since every episode seems to start with Honey blowing a case, which she spends the rest of the episode clearing up. There are martinis, bikinis, sunglasses, sports cars and yachts.

Honey's Aunt Meg acts as office manager, and Sam Bolt is her associate, her Willy Garvin, her Ilya Kuriakin. He also gives her a chance to say, "Saaaaayaaam" in her whiskey-and-honey voice. And, she has a pet ocelot named Bruce.

Bruce doesn't get a lot of screen time, but he's the best part by far. He's sleek and sexy, and loves to play. He is usually seen tearing up his blanket or kicking, scratching and biting Honey. This combination of playfulness and ferocity are a great match for Honey West. A vicious, clawing, biting ball of gorgeousness, both of them. It is said that Bruce would often get upset on the hot, noisy stage, and that only Anne Francis enjoyed working with him, even though he raised bruises with his paws and once bit her hard enough to draw blood.

Aaron Spelling got the inspiration for this series from Honor Blackman of The Avengers. When The Avengers came to America, Honey West was cancelled after one season. Only one action female at a time.

In conclusion: Bruce!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Gene Kelly is D'Artagnan!

As promised, this week, Gene Kelly's Three Musketeers from 1948. Much better than last weeks Don Ameche/Ritz Bros. For one thing, no singing - no dancing either, which is strange, but probably a good choice, because jazz tap was unknown in the reign of Louis XIII.

But Kelly does a lot of bounding, leaping over hedges and horses and things. His swordfighting is almost credible, at least in the beginning. Proper fencing involves small motions and attempts to poke the opponent, rather than swishing the blade around three feet away from him. The people in this movie seem to know this, although the swishing is too much fun to avoid for long.

Lana Turner as Milady DeWinter (hot). June Allyson as Constance (drippy). Frank Morgan is King Louis, Vincent Price as Richlieu (perfect). They call him Prime Minister Richlieu, not Cardinal - censors won't allow Catholic villains?

Athos (Van Heflin), Porthos (Gig Young) and Aramis (Robert Coote) all fail to make much impression, except Van, who has a lot of forehead going on. He reminds me a lot of Orson Welles that way.

Man, wouldn't Welles have made a great Porthos? Possibly in Twenty Years After, the sequel in which Porthos dies (or was the Man in the Iron Mask?). Probably wouldn't have been interested, as it would have been a supporting role only.

I'm not sure Gene Kelly is the best D'Artagnan ever. I'm still going with Michael York and his huge Gascon nose. Anyone have any fantasy casting ideas for Three Musketeers?