Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year's!

I'd like to do a quick wrap-up of 2008 while I have a chance.

Best Film of 2008: I'm going to go with Bringing Up Baby, same as every year.

Best Film released in 2008: Probably The Dark Knight, but I haven't seen it so I can't be sure.

Best Film released in 2008 that I saw: Iron Man.

Best Film I saw in a theater: I'm pretty sure I didn't go to a theater this year. Maybe next year.

Best new cocktail for a New Year's Eve party: I got this from an early 50's cocktail pamphlet put out by the Angostura company - the Airmail:
  • 1/2 lime, juiced
  • 1/2 tsp. honey
  • 1 shot white rum
Shake over ice and strain into a champagne flute. Top with champagne.

Happy New Year's!

Update: Now that I've actually mixed a few Airmails, I've got to say that the honey won't mix with the rum and lime if shaken with ice. It just globs up. Tasted pretty good anyway. The solution - use a honey/water syrup or mix with the lime juice warm.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Pop Quiz

It's quiz time again at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, a favorite film blog. They have brought in Prof. Charles Kingsfield, Jr. (that Paper Chase guy?) for this one. He promises it will be easy, but unless you are conversant with Budd Boetticher's oeuvre, you'll have trouble with at least one question.

Fortunately, it is open book, with no time limit. Besides, the later you answer, the more chances you get to read other people's answers. BUT - the later you answer, the fewer people will read your answers, and isn't that what we do this for, the fame?

So I'd better get to work. Let's see: Kenneth Tobey or John Agar?

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Other Bailey, Not George

I won't be writing about Christmas movies - I despise the wimp George Bailey and don't want to discuss it. I wasn't even going to acknowledge the holiday, but I realized that I have a holiday cocktail comment.

Every Xmas, Mrs. Spenser gets me a bottle of something nice for my Xmas morning coffee. This tradition started about 20 years ago with a bottle of Bailey's Irish Cream that she brought in from a snow bank where it had been cooling. Other years it has been Amaretto, Drambuie, Irish Mist, and just about anything sweet that would enhance a cup of joe.

This year, I picked up a bottle of Godiva Milk Chocolate cream liquor. We found it disappointing, with a slight off flavor. Possibly it was an old bottle.

I had hoped for, but could not find, Vermeer Dutch Chocolate Cream. This is a delicious liqueur, but has very limited distribution. I recommend that you buy it if you find it. Good in coffee or straight up cold.

On Xmas morning, however, I found a fifth old Bailey's under the tree. Now, on the 26th of December, it is nearly gone.

In conclusion:
  1. Vermeer - best cream liqueur ever
  2. Bailey's - always welcome, makes any cup of coffee a treat
  3. Godiva Milk Chocolate - Not good, unless the bottle I got was just spoiled

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Black Adder Addition

The Black Adder series, along with its opposite, Red Dwarf, constituted the greatest TV of the 80s. Comic genius Rowan Atkinson was at the height of his inventive powers, with a great supporting cast (Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson) and brilliant concept: An evil but incompetent nobleman in the court of Henry IV - then, in the next series, Queen Victoria, then the Prince Regent, and finally, the Great War. Then, after four seasons plus a Christmas Special,by 1989, it was over.

Until Black Adder: Back and Forth. It is New Year's Eve, 1999, and a few friends are visiting Lord Blackadder. He has a cunning plan to bilk them with a phony time machine gag. Unfortunately, he left it up to his idiot servant Baldrick to build it, so it actually works.

The bad news: This is a 30-minute episode, then that's all she wrote. It's also not as sharp as the best of the old series. Tony Robinson's Baldrick looks quite a bit the worse for wear, but is as dim as ever. So, it's not so great, and such small portions.

Who cares? It's as cunning as a fox who went to cunning school, graduated with honors and was made head of the department of cunning-ness.

Library Science

We were pretty disappointed by the latest Indiana Jones, so the solution? Another archeology based adventure series: The Librarian: Quest for the Spear.

Noah Wylie is a perpetual student who gets a job as the Librarian at the New York Metropolitan Library. This position involves guarding the most secret books and artifacts in history, including the Lost Ark (chuckle), Excalibur, the Holy Grail and a piece of the Spear of Destiny. When the Spear is stolen, he is sent out to get it back or die trying. So, it's off to the Amazon and points beyond.

Now, Wylie is a smart guy, who knows a lot of history, geography and foreign languages, modern and ancient. But he is kind of nerdy and he lives with his mother, not the action hero type. Fortunately, he gets a bodyguard/facilitator, a kick-ass woman with an Elizabeth Hurley accent. Don't worry, though - she tells him right up front that she is out of his league, and surely there are HR policies in place to prevent any romance between them.

In general, this made-for-tv movie (first of three in the series, I think - the latest just released) is a little funnier, a little smarter and a lot less ambitious than the Indiana Jones pix. The fantastic temples and caverns are a little smaller, less ornate. The escapes are a little less death-defying. Our expectations are a little smaller - and they are met. That's a win for this series.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stranger than Meta-Fiction

If Will Ferrell is such a big draw, how come nobody heard of Stranger than Fiction? It's not Semi-Pro, but jeeze.

Ferrell plays a Chicago tax auditor who leads a mundane existence, until he hears the voice of a narrator. This voice begins narrating his life, which is disturbing, but when she says, "Little did he know he had only a short time to live," then it gets potentially deadly.

The narrator is Emma Thompson, a stressed-out, chain-smoking writer's blocked author. Her schtick is to kill off her characters, and she's having trouble deciding how to do it. We undertand that once she figures it out, Ferrell's character dies. Her publisher sends Queen Latifa as an "assistant" (minder) to help out. Thompson plays her role with courage and conviction, looking very believably on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Latifa plays her usual no-nonsense coolheaded competent type. Has she been cast as God yet? She could totally nail that role.

Meantime, Ferrell visits a doctor and a psychiatrist, who tell him he is schizophrenic. For a second opinion, he goes to a professor of English, Dustin Hoffman, whose approach is a bit more eclectic. He's got a low-key wierdness similar to his zen detective in I Heart Huckabees.

Ferrell also falls in love, with a free-spirited tax-dodging baker played by Maggie Gyllenhall. She does a great job, but this is the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, who only exists to bring our emotionally dead hero to life. Why does a beautiful, sensitive woman in a people profession have no boyfriends, leaving her bed open for Ferrell to fall in? Oh well, you just have to accept some of these things.

In addition to a great cast (having a ball, I'd guess) and a great script, it uses Chicago locations in an interesting way. The city can look modern and cold, funky and warm, space-age and cool, and altogether lovely. The music is a nice indie acoustic rock mix, with a lot of Spoon. Not really my style, but they make me love it.

This isn't a goofy laff factory, and there's no frathouse or grossout humor. All the characters are named after mathematicians, to give you an idea. But it also isn't pure art-house - it's lighter than that. Thoughtful but fun. I guess I understand why nobody has heard of it.

Khan of Khans - the Early Years

In my student days, I was a bit of a Khan fan. I read The Secret History of the Mongols, Harold Lamb's Genghis Khan and maybe a few others. So I was pretty psyched to see Mongol, and not disappointed.

It tells the story of the young Temujin, son of a small clan's khan. He is betrothed to the beautiful Borte at about 7, and loses his father on the same journey. He is hunted, captured and escapes many times. He is united with Borte, and loses her several times. He is strong and steadfast and gathers followers. By the end of the movie, he is on his way to unifying the Mongols, and conquering the known world.

The story fit what I remembered pretty well, although they skipped a cute story - Little Temujin's dad tells Borte's father that to take care of Temujin, he's afraid of dogs. But never mind the story: look at the incredible locations in the steppes, the forests, rivers and hills of Mongolia. Look at the powerful still but expressive faces of the actors, all Mongolian, except Tadanobu Asano as Temujin. Just immerse yourself in the sounds of the Mongolian language.

A wonderful film. Watch and enjoy.

Ever-Lovin' Hulk

I don't have too much to say about The Incredible Hulk (2008). I definitely liked it better than the Ang Lee Hulk, although that might have been a better film with more to say. Ang Lee just tried to put too much into his film - and I just don't see Hulk as an Oedipus figure.

This is a solid Marvel movie, but after that, there's not a lot to say about it. Ed Norton recalls Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner, Tim Roth has a lot of fun as the villain, and Liv Tyler is beautiful, but her inflatable lips are a little distracting. Big Bill Hurt makes a nice Col. Ross, with a shaggy presence that reminds me of Sam Elliot's Ross in Ang Lee's film. The opening scene in a Rio favela has a little too much Bourne influence, but I guess that's the future of action movies...

So, I guess I rate this in the middle of the Marvel movie universe. Not a bad place to be at all.

In conclusion, Hulk smash!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Real Gone

Continuing our car movie extravanganza, Gone in 60 Seconds, the 1974 one, not the Nicholas Cage one.

This car-happy film was written, directed, produced and starring by car-nut HB Halicki, and features about 150 cars from his personal collection, many of them smashed to bits. Halicki plays a fancy car thief with an assignment to steal 47 specific cars (model, year and color). He assigns them code names and gets to work.

The first section shows Halicki and his team bickering, joking and stealing, making short work of the list. But a 72 yellow Mustang code-named Eleanor eludes him until the end. When the other 46 cars are ready for delivery, he takes on Eleanor, and immediately picks up a police tail.

The second half of the movie is a ~40-minute car chase that takes Halicki and several police departments all over LA, through parks, up sidewalks, wrong-way over freeways, through dirt lots, on and on, to a lovely little twist ending.

Now, Halicki was an indie producer/director/actor/stuntdriver, practically an amateur. The acting succeeds because the cast are mostly really what their roles are, mechanics playng mechanics, cops playing cops, etc. The car chase is not up to the level of Transporter, say, or even Blues Brothers (although they destroyed a similar number of cop cars). But, like the rest of the movie, there is an agreeable level of energy.

The movie looks pretty low-budget but clean within its limitations - Halicki is no Ed Wood. But I'd say the best part is the solid 70s look. Every man has mutton chop sideburns, a porn 'stache and aviator glasses. The locations and "extras" (passers-by) are a nice look at that long-ago time.

But Eleanor is the real star.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thunder and Lightning

I guess I've always known about Thunder Road, because my dad always used to sing the theme song: "It was thunder, thunder over thunder road/Thunder was his engine and white lightning was his load/And it was moonshine, moonshine to quench the devil's thirst/The law they thought they'd catch him but the Devil caught him first!" Now I've seen the movie, and it pretty much matches the song.

Makes sense, since Robert Mitchum stars in it, co-wrote the script and the song, and produced. Oh, and his son was in it, as his kid brother.

Mitchum plays a Korean war vet back in the hills around Harlan, running shine the way his daddy and grand-daddy did. He is wild on wheels, so reckless the other runners are afraid that they'll get killed trying to compete. There's a girl who loves him, but he treats her pretty cool. He has seen the world outside the holler, outside Memphis even. He has a girl in Memphis, a nightclub singer played by Keeley Smith. He tells her that he doesn't belong in the backwoods now that he has been to Korea, knows how to order from a menu and "what a mobile is" (not a fancy Calder mobile, but a little paper one Keeley has hanging in her living room). He really doesn't fit in anywhere.

Actually, we get a couple of speeches like this from Mitchum, all awesome ode to existential angst in hillybilly hepster argot. They don't actually make a lot of sense, but they sound cool when Mitchum lays them down.

Where he really lives is on the road. This film is loaded with realistic (or almost) car rides and chases through the Appalachian hills (mostly around Asheville NC). This isn't Transporter, or even Vanishing Point. But the cars are all real, bought from bootleggers, who used the money to upgrade.

Keeley Smith, Mitchum's big city girlfriend. She had a slow, dragging delivery on a song, an emaciated face and a deep calm. I figured she was supposed to be a junkie. Then I found out she was Keeley Smith, who sang with Louis Prima, one of the biggest jazz band leaders of the 50s. I guess she was just supposed to be Keeley Smith.