Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sons of the Wind

The Great Challenge looks like a kickboxing or cagefighting flick at first, but it's actually a parkour film. Parkour, as I keep reminding you, is an urban sport that involves running up walls, jumping off buildings and climbing over fences, at top speed. It was developed by David Belle, who developed the concept based on his father's army experiences in "Indochine".

This movie (French title: Les Filles du Vent) stars Williams Belle and a band of parkour traceurs (runners) known as the Yamakasi. This band goes to Bangkok to set up a gym for street kids. At least that's the MacGuffin. They somehow get involved with a group of Thai/Chinese/Japanese ninjas who are fighting the Triads (Triad boss: Pink Panther's Burt Kwouk!) to gain the favor of the Yakoooza! OK, it makes no sense, but it does allow one of the Yamakasi to fall in love with the sister of the ninja leader.

Let's skip the plot stuff and break it down:
  • Sets and location: Bangkok looks like a cool city, full of barn-like warehouses (where the Yamakasi set up), international hotels (where the Triads rule) and industrial badlands (for the ninja). Also, idyllic temples and parks where they practice Muai Thai.
  • Costumes: The ninja wear these funny headbag hoodies, the Yakooza wear suits and ties, but the Yamakasi have the coolest Asian pajama/tracksuits/high-necked vests/djellabas/etc. I want to dress like that, but hope I resist the urge...
  • Actors: The Yamakasi leader, Belle, is Euro. Four others are of African origin, another is Asian. The leader of the ninjas, a real-life Yamakasi, is Asian/Euro. They look seriously good. They are all gorgeous and athletically gifted. They may not be great actors, because mostly they just look stoical, but man, they look good.
  • Editing: Only about 10% of the stunts are shown start-to-finish. This may have been an artistic mistake, but probably just allowed them to fake a lot of the jumps. But there are plenty of amazing stunts, for real, no wires.
It seems that this is more or less the sequel to Yamakasi (not on Netflix), and Luc Besson is involved. In the Phillippines, this movie is titled Yamakasi vs. Ong Bak. I see influences from both (someone does the Tony Jaa trick of running across peoples heads). Try it and see.

In conclusion, more parkour! Put these guys in more movies!

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hahsit Babe!

Big Brown Eyes is an early Cary Grant comedy, co-starring Joan Bennett. Here's the setup: Bennett is a trash-talking manicurist whose boyfriend is "handsome policeman" Cary Grant. The big barbershop she works at is a hotbed of gossip, and she quickly becomes a star reporter. When a jewel theft leads to a baby killing (which kills the laffs for a few frames), Bennett and Grant start chasing the thieves/killers, even if they have to quit their jobs to do it.

The banter is breezy and the tone is cool. One of the bad guys is id'ed by his habitual greeting of "Hahsit, babe!", which is the title of one of the two stories this movie came from (the other - "Big Brown Eyes"). However, possibly due to the dual sources, the script has some lapses of coherence and continuity.

So take that as a big warning. Other than that, this is a pretty nifty little crime comedy. Plenty of sweet lines, great character actors (A young, handsome Walter Pidgeon as villain) and stylish deco sets. Just don't expect it to really make sense.

Update: BBE comes on a disk with another Cary Grant - Wings in the Dark: Aviator Grant is developing instruments to allow flying "blind" when, ironically, he is blinded. Barnstormer Myrna Loy falls in love with him and tries to help him back to self-sufficiency and self-respect. The problem is, Grant is a self-centered, self-pitying jerk, and Loy is patronizing and manipulative. That aside, this is a pretty well-done melodrama, with Grant doing a decent blind act. Loy is pretty lovable, if you can get over the creepiness of her watching Grant with tears in her eyes when he doesn't know she's there. But if you like Grant as a self-centered pilot, try Only Angels Have Wings, instead.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Royal Mess

Stephen Chow has made a couple of brilliant kung fu comedies that broke in the US - Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle. He's also done tons of less famous stuff, such as Royal Tramp.

In RT, Chow plays a storyteller/fool in a brothel who gets mixed up with (more or less in order) Chin revolutionaries, Imperial palace eunuchs, the young emperor, his horny sister, the dowager empress, evil Tibetan martial arts lamas, and ... um, I'm getting lost here.

Anyway, the fool becomes a palace official and starts stealing everything he can get. He also gets involved with beautiful martial arts twins who want to marry him, as does the princess. There are fun fight scenes - everyone agrees that Chow's kung fu is weak, but all the other characters are powerful. The eunuchs can't be kicked in the balls because they don't have any. The lamas fight with cymbals, using them as giant shuriken, and also flinging them like frisbees and using them as flying stepping stones (yes, it's all wirework).

I understand there's a lot of clever wordplay in the original dialog. The subtitles are funny, but not because they are clever.

In conclusion, Royal Tramp 2 has Brigitte Lin in it! But I probably won't bother.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Honest Film Making

The earliest novels were epistolatory - in the form of letters. Early authors didn't have any model to explain the existence of an extended piece of narrative fiction, so I guess they struck on letters as a framing device. I've always wondered why film doesn't have a similar tradition. Filmmakers rarely account for the presence of the camera, instead it is traditionally invisible, the eye of God.

On the other hand, we have:
  • Dogme 95, a filmmaking style that calls for complete simplicity: No sets, no props, no lighting, only handheld cameras, etc. But they don't acknowledge or explain the presence of the camera.
  • The Blair Witch Project, which purports to be the video record of something chilling. But I have never seen it, and it is not purported to be very good. So I dismiss it.
  • Documentaries and mockumentaries, like This Is Spinal Tap. But these don't really count, for reasons I can't really figure...
Then - there is Cloverfield.

The opening gives the whole premise - this was found in the memory card of a video camera in what used to be Central Park: codenamed Cloverfield. It starts with a guy recording his girlfriend, then jumps to his friends giving him a bon-voyage party. Then disaster strikes - his girlfriend shows up with another guy.

But things pick up when an explosion sends the head of the Statue of Liberty flying through the street. Now, our party needs to rescue girlfriend and escape from New York, because very bad things are happening. The promotions for Cloverfield didn't reveal the nature of the bad things, so I won't either. But they are very gristly.

But the whole thing is done as-if with a handheld video camera - no editing, no music, no angles that the guy holding the camera couldn't get. Of course, it is purely pretend. The battery lasts forever, the sound is better than you'll get, the light and night vision work suspiciously well. Nonetheless, a great concept, brlliantly executed.

The characters we get to share this adventure with are mostly nitwits. (Surprisingly, the one who I hoped would get killed first seemed to survive. See if you can guess who!). For me, the "cameraman", Hud, is the exception. Where everyone else were well-socialized yuppie scum, Hud was a Seth-Rogen-type clod, always ready with an inappropriate joke. Or maybe I just liked him because he mostly behind the camera.

Again, I'll skip over the bad things, in case you haven't heard about them yet. Better to be surprised. However, I will say that this film is clearly an attempt to work through the effects of 9/11, like Godzilla was Japan's attempt to work through the atom bomb. The special fx team clearly know what it looks like when a building collapses in NY. I wonder - is it too soon to use this in a monster movie?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

I Remember Sarah

I forget whether we are still supposed to love the Judd Apatow crew, or if backlash has set in, and we hate them. No matter, I rather liked Forgetting Sarah Marshall. But there was something I couldn't overlook.

First, the story: Jason Segel is a schlubby slacker man-child whose world is shattered when Sarah Marshall (Kirsten Bell) breaks up with him. To get over her, he goes on a vacation in Hawaii, and runs into her and her new boyfriend, rockstar Russell Brand. But he gets some emotional encouragement from the cute hotel desk clerk, Mila Kunis.

Next, the love: This is a very well-put together comedy that cares about the characters. They are not just there for the jokes. Russell Brand, for instance, is a piss-take on British rockers, but surprisingly sympathetic. He meditates, he takes people seriously, and he has been sober for 7 years. I was sure he was going to fall off the wagon with "humorous" results, but no. His basic coolness makes him a great romantic rival - making him a slimeball or a moron would be too easy. I liked Segel's half-brother in a similar way.

But now, the problem: As soon as I saw Segel go up to the pretty desk clerk, my heart sank. I thought, she's going to take him under her wing, get him to open up emotionally and learn to love again. And by god, she did.

That's not so bad, though, is it? Sure, it's a cliche, but this is a romantic comedy, what do you expect? But it had a chance to be better than that. Especially because the movie commits that other cliche, the one that drives me nuts - the dumpy, dopey guy that has gorgeous women all over him (see: Knocked Up).

Look, Jason Segel isn't bad, but he doesn't really seem to be in the same league as his ex Kirsten Bell or the new girl Mila Kunis. He also isn't charming, funny, talented, rich, smart... He's a schlub. Why was Bell with him in the first place? OK, she's a little high-maintenance - besides, we don't know how they started out. But Kunis latches onto him right away. To me, it makes no sense. It kills the suspension of disbelief.

In conclusion, a funny movie, really well made, with an incredible sense of male entitlement.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Here Comes the Bride with White Hair

Welcome to another in our continuing series of Hong Kong kung-fu classics: The Bride with White Hair. It features Leslie Cheung as the sensitive, rebellious Wu Tang clan heir. Lost in the woods as a child, he is saved from wolves by a mysterious Wolf Girl, who grows up to be a notorious witch (Brigitte Lin), allied with the Northern tribes and their evil cult, called the Evil Cult. The Evil Cult is led by a decadent brother and sister pair of sorcerer, Siamese twins conjoined at the back. Wu Tang boy and Wolf girl fall in love, although they belong to enemy factions.

So we have lots of wirework action, sorcery, wild sets, haunting photography, kinky sex, and rather confusing plotting. I wanted to call on ODB, Ghostface Killah or some other member of the modern Wu Tangs for an explanation several times. I've gotten used to that in this type of movie, though.

But I still didn't like the occasional cheesiness of the look. Maybe it was the DVD transfer, but some of the day-for-night wirework scenes looked almost made-for-tv. Furthermore, the melodrama often got in the way of the action. I guess the exact mix of overwrought emotion and ass-kickery is a matter of taste.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Bone Headed Franchise

Was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull really all that bad? Maybe it's just that we loved Raiders so much when it first came out - it was so satisfyingly entertaining. So fresh and original, and yet old-fashioned.

None of the sequels were really great. Crystal Skull definitely isn't. I suppose it's a pretty entertaining film, and if I had seen any of the others I would be pretty happy with it. So is it really that bad, or just doesn't live up to expectations?

I don't know, and don't intend to explore this question. Instead, I intend to insult Shia LeBeouf. First, "LeBeouf"? Second, "Shia"? Sounds like it should be followed by "As if!" But mainly the sad sidekick role he got stuck with - made Short Round look dignified.

LeBeouf as "Mutt" Williams appears on a motorcycle, dressed in Brando drag. He is a switchblade-flicking, coif-combing juvenile delinquent. Unfortunately, he looks more like Harvey Lembeck than Marlon Brando. You know, that would have worked - if he thought he was a Wild One, but was really Eric von Zipper.

He does occasionally find the humor in his character, but not often. Mostly he is that stereotyped kid-you-are-supposed-to-relate-to, along for the ride. Did he at least Save the Day at the end? I can't even remember.

Other than that - I rather liked Cate Blanchett's evil Russian dominatrix villain.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Close to Perfect

I was still bummin' over My Lucky Stars, but you've got to get back on the horse that throwed you, so I checked out So Close, another Hong Kong action film, from the public library. Good move.

Directed by Corey Yuen (Transporter, fight choreography for Kiss of the Dragon), it features 2 gorgeous sisters - a glamorous, high-kicking assassin (Qi Shu), and a cute hacker (Wei Zhao). They inherited an all-seeing satellite surveillance system from their murdered parents, and use it to kill for money and justice. They are pursued by policewoman Karen Mok.

The fights are tight, with lots of slow-mo wirework and stunts. Example: Qi Shu kicks the guns out of two attackers hands, leaps into the air, and catches the guns while upside down. When her high heels touch the ceiling, they shoot out piton, so she can hang from the ceiling and shoot up the room. She then leaves the building as her sister jams the intercom with "Close to You". The movie is full of this kind of thing.

In between times, we have several soppy subplots: Elder sister falls in love and wants to quit the business. Younger sister wants to get out from behind the computer. Both sisters mourn dead parents. Cakes are bought. This kind of melodrama seems a little out of place, but since it's played out by sexy women in skimpy outfits, the boys won't complain.

The sisters are great, but Karen Mok is really something. She has a slightly jolie-laid face, a little horsey, say like Janeane Garofalo. She plays it very plain, fresh scrubbed, sharp. She invites her nerdy assistant to sharpen his wits by engaging in intellectual wordplay (she asks him when he masturbated last). She is a kick.

There are also a few cute themes running through the movie, like a video camera that younger sister uses to film her family. It is used like a photo album might be in an older movie, but also anchors this movie in the present day. I've seen this in several HK movies - cell phones mix-ups, for instance. It both assumes both novelty and familiarity with new technologies. Interesting trope.

Anyway, if you like slick modern action movies, lovely women kicking butt, and don't mind a little melodrama - this is for you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

Not too many people know that the Humphrey Bogart Maltese Falcon is a remake - actually the third time the story had been filmed. Want to see the other two? Check out this disk: The Maltese Falcon / Satan Met a Lady.

The first Maltese Falcon (1931) stars Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, Bebe Daniels as Ruth Wonderly, andUna Merkel as Effie Perrine. I've never heard of Cortez, but Daniels is pretty well known from 42nd Street. Dwight Fry, Renfield from Dracula is the gunsel Wilmer. As good as Elisha Cook Jr, but with less screen time. The Cairo and Gutman roles are pretty well done, although very different from what we are used to.

Now, this is not a very good movie. The Bogart Maltese Falcon was a B movie, and so is this, but the acting is much worse. The writing isn't bad, though, and neither is the direction. Cortez is a much less likable Spade - a skirt chaser and probably crooked. He shows his teeth a lot, like Bogart, but in an insincere grin, not Bogart's grimace. Still, the story is there, and some scenes are very similar, like Spade meeting Cairo, and the scene in the DA's office.

Satan Met a Lady is a different beast - it takes place in San Remo, and features Warren William as private eye Ted Shayne and his search for an antique horn. The Gutman character is called Madame Barabas, a nasty old lady. Effie calls herself Murgatroyd. And so forth. Everything changed just enough.

Warren William has the wrecked face of an aging roue and he plays Spade - I mean, Shayne - as a creep. The Wonderly/O'Shaughnessy character is played by Bette Davis, and I've never seen worse line delivery, even by non-English speakers who learn their lines phonetically. Shayne's secretar Murgatroyd, though, is played by Marie Wilson, radio's My Friend Irma. She's a great dumb blonde character, with a classic voice (reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe). I've always like Effie Perrine - more than the Wonderly dame - but this version is the best.

Satan is really The Maltese Falcon done as a comedy. William may be trying for a William Powell/Thin Man drollery. It might even work in places. But the only real funny comes from Marie Wilson (N.B. - not to be confused with raven-haired noir goddess Marie Windsor). I'm tempted to watch My Friend Irma / My Friend Irma Goes West, but they also feature Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin.

In conclusion: Fun to watch, but not classics. Although Warren William had a hand-tooled leather pipe box, but no one made roll-you-owns like Bogart.

Sunday, November 9, 2008


We were stoked from watching Forbidden Kingdom that we promoted the first Jackie Chan movie on our queue to the top. It was My Lucky Stars. We should have known better.

To cut to the chase, this is not exactly a Jackie Chan movie. As fans know, not all movies "starring Jackie Chan" actually contain detectable amounts of Jackie Chan. Many contain large amounts of Sammo Hung, for example, and other cronies. As far as I can gather, Jackie and Sammo went through Chinese opera training with a crew who came to be known as the Lucky Stars. This is a movie about them.

It starts out well, with Jackie and Yuen Biao in Tokyo chasing crooks. There are some stunts at an amusement park and some fights with ninjas and Yuen Biao is captured. Because the crooks have infiltrated the police, Jackie calls on the gang "from the orphange". So first they get Sammo Hung out of prison, then start collecting the others - a crook, an idiot, a mental case, and a con-man. But basically, all idiots - more or less the Five Stooges. There's a cute policewoman who they sexually harass, as well.

So after 15 minutes of kung-fu action, we get an hour of Hong Kong slapstick. It isn't bad if you like that kind of thing, but it isn't Jackie Chan. Finally, we get to Tokyo and meet up with Jackie and have a big fight in a ninja infested funhouse. So, approx. 15 more minutes kung-fu. And not the best ever, either.

So, for fans of Hong Kong slapstick and Sammo Hung, not Jackie Chan. This crew made 3 or 4 movies. Fortunately only on seems to be available through Netflix: Winners & Sinners. Avoid.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Drunk v. Monk: Clash of the Titans

I believe we have already discussed Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Jet Li: Who is most awesome? I will not rehash that discussion here. And Bruce Lee is gone beyond. And we can watch Jackie Chan and Jet Li in The Forbidden Kingdom.

Unfortunately, Forbidden Kingdom is not their story. It is the story of Jason, a chinless wonder played by Michael Angarano, but could have been played by Shia La Beouf or that kid from Die Hard 4. He is a sad-sack from Southie who haunts a Chinatown pawnshop for kung-fu tapes and gets beat up by bullies.

One day, the bullies make him help rob the Chinese pawnbroker. He gets his hands on an iron staff and is transported to Ancient China. Finally! He quickly runs into a drunken beggar - Jackie Chan in dreadlocks. Later he meets up with a beautiful pipa (Chinese lute) playing assassin and a silent monk (Jet Li). Their mission: to return the staff to the Five Elements Castle, where Monkey has been turned into stone by the Jade Warlord.

Jet and Jackie have a few nice fights. They seem to be carefully calibrated so that neither has the upper hand. They move incredibly quickly and in perfect synch. Clearly, this movie will not resolve who is more awesome. Whoever, this movie also features some goofy fighting from Monkey, which involves a lot of wirework and putting the paws on the hips, throwing back the head and laughing.

Round-eye Jason gets martial arts training from the guys, which is not too convincing. He gets some doe-eyed glances from the gal, Swallow, played by Yifei Liu. She looks great, although she may remind you of other martial arts babes. This is not really a criticism, because the whole movie is a tribute to other martial arts movies, mostly Shaw Brothers. Bride with White Hair is referenced, and Swallow says, "Come drink with me" when she attacks, refering to the movie with another martial artist named Swallow and her drunken friend.

Great fun, but was the drippy Jake Gyllenhall/Toby MacGuire/Shia LaBeouf character really necessary? And if so, did he have to be so drippy? Couldn't he have been more of a Seth Green type? Or at least had a realistic training process where he learns and grows. Guess not.

In conclusion: Justin Long. That was the guy from Die Hard 4.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I am Iron Man

If I had to say one thing bad about Iron Man, it would be the limited use of Black Sabbath. In fact, the soundtrack in general was weak. The main theme seemed to quote Led Zep's Kashmir, and there's some AC/DC and Ghostface Killah, but mostly weak, orchestral stuff. Sorry, Ramin Djawadi.

Let's see, what else? I loved Gwenyth Paltrow as Tony Stark's girl Friday, Pepper Potts. However, I couldn't help but think of Annie Potts in the role. She would have played it very much like Paltrow, I think. The same combination of cool competence and flustered klutziness. I don't think I have to tell you how her crush on the boss works out.

Robert Downey Jr. completely owns the role of Tony Stark. A complex character, a charming jerk. There are some slow scenes in the middle (Ms. Spenser fell asleep), where Stark perfects his suit. This is where I fell in love with him - because I am a geek, and he is showing his geek side. There is a scene where he is soldering, and before he sticks the soldering iron in the wire coil holder, he wipes the tip to remove the flux and crud that builds up. All you techies who've used a soldering iron know what I mean. That little gesture sold me.

Did I mention that Ms. Spenser loved this movie? So much so that she wanted to get a "Stark" license plate like all of Tony Stark's cars. She could have gotten "STARK10", but **SPOILER** she chose "NCK FURY".

Saturday, November 1, 2008

It's a Pippin

When we saw Zachariah, Ms. Spenser informed me of the connection to the musical Pippin - both the star and the plot. Although the original cast version is not available on DVD, a TV version is, so we watched that.

The story is similar to Zachariah, Siddhartha, and probably a bunch of others - young man tries to find his way among many paths. Pippin (William Katt, not the John Rubenstein as on Broadway and in Zach) is the sensitive son of Charlemagne, but Charlemagne has set his mother aside for a new wife, Fastrada (Chita Rivera, yeow!). Pippin tries his hand at war, sexual adventure, patricide, all the usual. All through, he is advised by Lead Player Ben Vereen, a Mephistophelean figure who is pretty much the star of the show.

I guess I've always known about Ben Vereen, but only by reputation. If this show is representative, he lives up to his reputation. He's a wicked dancer, has a great voice and a charming, evil, presence.

Bob Fosse did the choreography, so there was a lot of walking around in a stylized manner - shoulders back, head and hips forward, jazz hands. Not a lot of what I call dancing, with steps and kicking and so on. Look, I love jazz dance - that syncopated body line and off-kilter poses. But in the 1920s (when I was a teenager), the flappers knew how to dance - they really moved. Feet, knees, hands and elbow all pumping to the rhythm in different directions. But these days!

Sorry, I got carried away. The dancing was fine, and Ben Vereen really knew what he was doing. So does Fosse, even if it isn't always my thing.

In conclusion, Pippin has to choose between suicide and marrying a cute wealthy widow with an adorable son. But I won't spoil it.