Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Obligatory Year End Posting

The first decade of the 3rd millenium (depending on how you count) is rapidly drawing to a close. We are on holiday, staying somewhere cold with the Spenser-in-laws. We will watch a few movies, but I will not be blogging them - I don't concentrate the same way if I'm watching socially, and my readers expect me to devote my full attention to the films I discuss.

But I do want to commemorate 2009. I don't think I'll do Best Movie of the Year (which is still Bringing Up Baby, like every year). I'm not sure I saw any movies that rocked my world. I saw some good movies, and enjoyed some bad ones. I drove down to LA for the Hollywood premier of Larry Blamire's A Dark and Stormy Night at the Egyptian (Larry, release this on DVD now!). I kept my resolution to keep over 400 movies in my Netflix queue.

It was a good year for Cool Bev.

Next year, I resolve to:
  • Cut the Netflix queue down to 300. There's a lot of stuff we'll never watch, and if we decide to, we'll find them again.
  • Watch Instantly more. In fact, I can use Watch Instantly to get movies out of my main queue.
  • Rate movies more strictly in Netflix. I tend to give out 4 stars to anything I enjoy. I give 3 stars to pretty lame movies and 2 stars to bombs. From now on, a movie is going to have to be pretty good to get 4 stars, and "just OK" will be 3 stars. I hope it will improve Netflix recommendations for me when it finds out I'm not a pushover.
  • Watch more movies (at least one) in a theater. Preferably a cult movie with the director and star taking questions afterwards.
And finally, watch the Lord of the Rings trilogy, extended version, starting next week.

For now, I'll be chilling champagne and turning on the Three Stooges marathon. Happy New Year's!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Progressive Cocktails

As a lover of cocktails, I am more of a dreamer than a doer. One of my dreams is to develop the tequila-sake martini - but the less said about that, the better.

Another is to develop a series of cocktails, with each one made by adding ingredients to the previous drink. So far, I've only invented one. It goes like this:
  • Take 4 shots (~8 oz) of good tequila - We like Don Patron Reposado
  • Pour 1 shot into a snifter. This is the first cocktail: Tequila shot
  • Pour the remaining 3 shots of tequila into a shaker of ice containing 3 oz triple sec and 3 oz fresh lime juice. Shake.
  • Pour 4 oz into a salt rimmed glass. That's the second cocktail: Margarita
  • Add the remaining 2 margaritas (8 oz) to 6-8 frozen mango juice ice cubes in a blender. Blend.
  • Pour half into a highball glass rimmed with Baby Lucas sweet-and-sour mango candy powder (sounds exotic, but pretty common in our neck of the woods). That's the third cocktail: Frozen Mango Margarita
  • Finally, pour the last eight oz of frozen mango margarita into a large champagne flute and top with sparkling wine: Mango Margarita Sparkler
I'm sorry to say that I've never attempted this cocktail odyssey. I have tried each and every step and can vouch for their flavor and effectiveness. Maybe for New Year's.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Kentucky Fried Amazons

Amazon Women on the Moon is not actually a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie. It came 10 years later (1987), but it was only partly directed by John Landis, who directed KFM. Parts were directed by Joe Dante and others. And of course, the Zuckers (Police Squad, Airplane) whose writing was so much a part of KFM are not on AWotM. So what remains the same?

It is basically a loose series of sketches organized around a late-night movie. There are commercials, other shows, and just random bits. Some are hilarious, some just silly, none as great as they could be, all of them pretty funny. One of my favorite gags was in the opening credits: "Starring: A Lot of Actors".

It's true: We recognized Arsenio Hall, Steve Guttenberg, Rosanna Arquette, Carrie Fisher and a few others. B.B. King, Harry Silva, Steve Allen, Henny Youngman, Slappy White, Rip Taylor and a bunch of others played themselves. We didn't recognize Paul Bartel, Ed Begley, Jr., Sybil Danning, Griffin Dunne, Joe "Joey Pants" Pantoliano, and many more. Neither did we catch the cameos by Forrest Ackerman, Ralph Bellamy, Russ Meyer or Phil Procter. And many more.

So, watch it for the jokes, for the stars or the gratuitous nudity. If you loved Kentucky Fried Movie, you'll probably like this.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Holidays in Hollywood

Like Scrooge and the Grinch, we hold nothing in our hearts but disdain for Christmas. However, we do like to watch some holiday classics - not How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol. However, we did like Christmas in Connecticut.

CiC stars Barbara Stanwyck as a Martha-Stewart-like writer of a homemaking column. She writes about the fine meals she cooks for her husband and baby on their Connecticut farm. In reality, she lives in a small Manhattan apartment and doesn't know how to cook. She gets all of her recipes from a Hungarian restauranteur, played by S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall.

But her publisher, Sidney Greenstreet, decides that she should invite a sailor to her Connecticut farm for Christmas dinner, and won't take no for an answer. She only knows one person with a farm in Connecticut - a nice but boring architect who has been trying for years to marry her. So, feeling she has no choice, she agrees to marry him if he will go along with the gag.

Of course, when Greenstreet shows up at the farm with the sailor, she falls instantly in love with him, and he with her. Can she avoid marrying the man who is supposed to be her husband, avoid revealing that she can't cook, and still get her sailor? And what about the baby?

I'm afraid that the sailor, played by Dennis Morgan, is rather a stiff. The supposedly boring suitor (Reginald Gardiner) actually seems quite nice - although older, maybe that's the dealbreaker.

The real joys, outside of Stanwyck's glorious presence, are the two fat men, Sakall and Greenstreet. Sakall hams it up, muttering in Hungarian if everything isn't "hunky-dunky". Greenstreet plays a broad, blustery, larger-than-life sort himself. And as a lagniappe, we have Una O'Connor, as the farm's cook and caretaker. Her patented skinny old Irish biddy plays well against Cuddles' Hungarian. I was hoping for romance between them, but no such luck.

In conclusion - favorite holiday movies? Least favorite? We also like The Bishop's Wife (Cary Grant) and Lady in the Lake - Robert Montgomery's Philip Marlowe movie that takes place over Christmas. I should like It's a Wonderful Life, being a fan of Capra, but George Bailey is such a wimpy martyr, it just makes me mad.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

In the Name of Heaven!

We knew In the Name of the King was going to be bad. Everybody knows it is bad - It's directed by Uwe Boll, famously bad director. But how bad could it be?

The movie takes place in a mythical time of swords and sorcery, and picturesque scenery from the Pacific Northwest. Jason Statham is "Farmer", a stoical farmer with a lovely wife, a young son and an annoying neighbor (Ron Perlman). When bands of marauding Krugs kill his son and kidnap his wife, he sets off to rescue her.

Meanwhile, an evil wizard (Ray Liotta) is plotting against the the king (Burt Lancaster), his good wizard (John Rhys-Davies), while macking on good wizard's daughter (Leelee Sobiewski). Just roll that cast around in your head for a moment - a Goodfella, the Bandit, Gimli and Joan of Arc, all in one bad movie. Ray Liotta in particular looks like he is William Shatner playing the lead role in The Liberace Story.

So, big name actors, terrible acting. How about the action and special effects? The action scenes aren't bad, just a little muddled - especially when the ninja show up, do some stunts and have basically no effect on the battle. The scenery is gorgeous - I just found out this is called Scenery Porn. Some of the cinematography is quite nice, usually involving the scenery.

So, how bad was it? In my humble opinion, not as bad as you might think. The direction and writing are inept, but the production values give it an attractive sheen. I'd put it down around Eragon - Eragon had more soul, but ItNotK had better production values. So, it would be a contender the most expensive bad movie or the worst expensive movie.

But neither one could be said to be good. If you want to watch them, don't say you weren't warned.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thanks-mas Year Quiz

I was out of town around Thanksgiving when Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule hosted their movie quiz, hosted byRussell Johnson - the Professor of Gilligan's Island. So I was pretty late with my answers. Still, I wasn't the last one.

Instead of just linking, I thought I'd post the whole thing here - mainly to fix some answers I messed up.

1) Second-favorite Coen Brothers movie.
"The Cooler" - technically not a Coen Bros. movie, so it fits.

2) Movie seen only on home format that you would pay to see on the biggest movie screen possible? (Question submitted by Peter Nellhaus)
Possibly nothing. We pretty much hate movie theaters.

3) Japan or France? (Question submitted by Bob Westal)
It's not just Kurosawa and Ozu vs. Truffaut and Godard, but for total corpus, I vote Japan. The breadth and width of the samurai movie genre alone guarantees it.

4) Favorite moment/line from a western.
"Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness." Or the opening barfight from Destry Rides Again (almost any moment from that movie).

5) Of all the arts the movies draw upon to become what they are, which is the most important, or the one you value most?
I'm going with visual composition - the look of a frame. The most basic.

6) Most misunderstood movie of the 2000s (The Naughties?).
Wish I could say Speed Racer, but I guess I agree with conventional wisdom - it was flashy fluff with no deeper meaning. I got nothing.

7) Name a filmmaker/actor/actress/film you once unashamedly loved who has fallen furthest in your esteem.
Woody Allen. I can't tell if his quality has fallen off or if the skeevieness of his private life has put me off.

8) Herbert Lom or Patrick Magee?
Herbert Lom - unless you mean Patrick MacNee?

9) Which is your least favorite David Lynch film (Submitted by Tony Dayoub)
Gee, it turns out I've never seen anything but the "Twin Peaks" TV series and "Dune". So, I guess Dune. But I kind of like Dune.

10) Gordon Willis or Conrad Hall? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)

11) Second favorite Don Siegel movie.
Dirty Harry - Favorite is The Big Steal.

12) Last movie you saw on DVD/Blu-ray? In theaters?
DVD: Star Trek: The Reboot. In theater - same as last time: the Hollywood premier of Larry Blamire's Dark and Stormy Night: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1245091/. RELEASE THIS MOVIE ON DVD! So I can buy it.

13) Which DVD in your private collection screams hardest to be replaced by a Blu-ray? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
We don't have Blu-ray, so it's a moot point. We've got lots of VHS tapes that aren't released on DVD still - how about Hot Shorts, Firesign Theater's What's-Up-Tiger-Lily-ization of a bunch of Republic serials.

14) Eddie Deezen or Christopher Mintz-Plasse?
McLovin. But really, anyone who isn't Eddie Deezen. (OK, I liked him with Rainbeaux Smith in Laserblast).

15) Actor/actress who you feel automatically elevates whatever project they are in, or whom you would watch in virtually anything.
It's funny, I like everything I've seen Brendan Fraser in. Even if it is really a turkey, his niceness seems to make it all OK. Yes, that includes George of the Jungle.

16) Fight Club -- yes or no?
Heck, no. Only happy movies for me.

17) Teresa Wright or Olivia De Havilland? I've heard of De Havilland, so...

18) Favorite moment/line from a film noir. "I'll have few bad nights, but I'll get over it."

19) Best (or worst) death scene involving an obvious dummy substituting for a human or any other unsuccessful special effect(s)—see the wonderful blog Destructible Man for inspiration. The decapitation at the end of The Omen (is that the right movie?) is so obviously a process shot that it is shocking and funny.

20) What's the least you've spent on a film and still regretted it? (Submitted by Lucas McNelly) I was an usher at the opening of What's Up Doc?. Free and not worth it.

21) Van Johnson or Van Heflin?
Van Helfin for now. We just saw Act of Violence w/ him and Robert Ryan.

23) Name a documentary that you believe more people should see. This is Spinal Tap.

24) In deference to this quiz’s professor, name a favorite film which revolves around someone becoming stranded.
I was trying to decide between Swept Away, We're Not Dressing, Admirable Crichton and all that ilk. Then my wife said: Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

25) Is there a moment when your knowledge of film, or lack thereof, caused you an unusual degree of embarrassment and/or humiliation? If so, please share. One time, I tried to hold my own in a film discussion with Time film critic Jay Cocks.

26) Ann Sheridan or Geraldine Fitzgerald? (Submitted by Larry Aydlette) Ann Sheridan - she wasn't in "Arthur".

27) Do you or any of your family members physically resemble movie actors or other notable figures in the film world? If so, who? My brother looks like Tom Selleck. It's the moustache

28) Is there a movie you have purposely avoided seeing? If so, why? Yes - thousands. All depressing, gross or horrible movies, plus all sticky, sentimental trite and tacky movies. It's a wonder we can watch anything.

29) Movie with the most palpable or otherwise effective wintry atmosphere or ambience. Pathfinder - filmed in Lapland in Saami, the Lap language. Haven't seen the remake w/ Vikings and Indians.

30) Gerrit Graham or Jeffrey Jones?
Jeffery Jones: "Too many notes, your majesty". Also, Mom and Dad Save the World.

31) The best cinematic antidote to a cultural stereotype (sexual, political, regional, whatever). Orlando Jones in Drumline, who counteracts the stereotype that black musicians are cool.

32) Second favorite John Wayne movie. Rio Bravo - Favorite is El Dorado.

33) Favorite movie car chase.
We tried, but we couldn't beat Bullit.

34) In the spirit of His Girl Friday, propose a gender-switched remake of a classic or not-so-classic film. (Submitted by Patrick Robbins) Put Michelle Rodriquez in the Vin Diesel role of The Fast and The Furious (any version) - or even in the John Ireland role from the original 1954 version.

35) Barbara Rhoades or Barbara Feldon?
Agent 99.

36) Favorite Andre De Toth movie.

37) If you could take one filmmaker's entire body of work and erase it from all time and memory, as if it had never happened, whose oeuvre would it be? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen) Dino De Laurentiis.

38) Name a film you actively hated when you first encountered it, only to see it again later in life and fall in love with it.
We weren't at all impressed by Mel Brook's History of the World Pt. I, but have grown to love it for the catchphrases "Count DeMONET!", "It's good to be da king", the Inquisition number, etc.

39) Max Ophuls or Marcel Ophuls? (Submitted by Tom Sutpen)
Oh, Max, every time.

40) In which club would you most want an active membership, the Delta Tau Chi fraternity, the Cutters or the Warriors? And which member would you most resemble, either physically or in personality?
We saw Animal House at college and felt that OUR house was really fun and goofy, not lame like those Delta Tau Chi guys. I lived with Major Tom, D.W.I Griffith, the Fat Rogue, Dapper Disco Dan, Porkchop, but best of all, Bolo. They had Bluto, but we had Bolo (if you're reading this Bolo, you rock!).

41) Your favorite movie cliché.
The woman warrior in action flicks.

42) Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
Stanley Donen - we love his style. Whereas Minelli is vulgar, garish and sentimental. The only Minelli I will accept is The Pirate.

43) Favorite Christmas-themed horror movie or sequence. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians - horrible enough for me.

44) Favorite moment of self- or selfless sacrifice in a movie. I actually don't know what movie this is from - saw just a few scenes in a bar. American soldiers or mercenaries invade an Asian village. An elder pulls out a machete and chops off his own hand, and cauterizes the wound in a fire. The children grab the soldier's gun barrels and press them to their own heads.

Basically, the villagers showed no fear of dying or pain, totally throwing the bad guys off until the good guys showed up. If you know the name of this, let me know - maybe starring Dolph Lundgren? (Late update: Possibly Men of War?)

45) If you were the cinematic Spanish Inquisition, which movie cult (or cult movie) would you decimate? (Submitted by Bob Westal)
I'll go with the torture porn horror genre. Actually, it's existence doesn't bother me so much, but since I have the power...

46) Caroline Munro or Veronica Carlson?

47) Favorite eye-patch wearing director. (Submitted by Patty Cozzalio)

48) Favorite ambiguous movie ending. (Original somewhat ambiguous submission---“Something about ambiguous movie endings!”-- by Jim Emerson, who may have some inspiration of his own to offer you.)
"The End. Or IS IT?!?!"

49) In giving thanks for the movies this year, what are you most thankful for?
Netflix. I swear, it's my life.

50) George Kennedy or Alan North? (Submitted by Peet Gelderblom)
Can I write in Harrison Page, Capt. Trunk from "Sledge Hammer"?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

French Spies

Back in the 60s, the French made a series of James Bond ripoff movies known as OSS 117. This series has been revived in OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies.

Jean Dujardin plays Hubert Bonissuer de la Bath, secret agent OSS 117. The year is 1955 and Hubert's WWII comrade Jack Jefferson has gone missing while investigating arms shipments in Cairo. Ah, Jack, Hubert remembers how they used to play on the beach, roll together in the surf, throw their heads back and laugh...

Where was I? Oh yes, Cairo. OSS 117 is sent to find out what is happening. He discovers that it is a nest of spies: Russian, English, American, and most dangerous of all, Belgian. He has a beautiful female assistant who is somehow insulted when Hubert tells her the Islam is a stupid religion that people will get tired of soon enough. He is mainly concerned about getting to try out his new tuxedo. He punches out the muezzin so he can get some sleep.

De la Bath bumbles through the film like Inspector Clousseau, incredibly inept but coming out on top every time (and getting the girl). Dujardin does a brilliant job, channeling Jean-Paul Belmondo (who starred in a lot of these 60s/70s Bond knockoffs) and Sean Connery, by way of Don Adams and Steve Carrell. He would make this movie worthwhile even if it had been a lot weaker. But it was actually very funny.

So, we now want to watch some Belmondo and, finally, the Steve Carrell Get Smart. One question: when will the sequel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, be available?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

First Fast and Furious

We have now seen the first Vin Diesel-era F&F: The Fast and the Furious. It turns out that Fast and Furious is simply the sequel to this. That would make it much simpler, if we cared about the plot of these things at all.

Paul Walker is a cute guy who is macking on Vin Diesel's sister, trying to get into Diesel's street racing gang, and, ultimately, spying on him for the LAPD/FBI. Vin is a tough, taciturn racer with a hot girlfriend (Michelle Rodriguez!), a loyal team of mechanics and rough necks and the respect of friends and enemies on the street racing circuit.

The "plot" is about Walker's romance with Vin's sister, his self-doubts about betraying his outlaw friends, Vin's nihilist racing philosophy ("One quarter-mile at a time"), some Asian gangsters, etc. But the real action is the racing.

Most of the racing takes place on the streets of LA - Culver City, El Segunda, Long Beach. It's pretty thrilling, not a lot of special effects faking. The edge always goes to the guy who uses nitrous - are NOS systems really so popular in street racing?

I guess I liked the sequel better, but this is a solid F&F movie. And now we've seen them all except 2 Fast 2 Furious. Coming soon.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Sung the Praises

This one was for Mrs. Spenser: Forbidden Warrior. An American-made kung-fu costumer, it had one attraction - Sung Kang, the Korean actor who played Han in F&F: Tokyo Drift (and the beginning of Fast and Furious). She thinks he's cute and who am I to argue?

Forbidden Warrior is set in an ancient land (Griffith Park, Bronson Canyon and similar locations) with warlords, monks and pirates, about 75% Asian ancestry, 25% whatever. An ancient prophecy foretold the birth of a boy who could read the book of magic called "Gaia Za" - yeah, right. Anyway, turns out it's a girl (Mari Matiko), who is raised by a mystical monk, while the warlord's two sons try to kill her. One is evil (Ron Yuan) and the other is good (Sung Kang). Guess which one the girl falls for?

Really, the movie isn't that bad. Sung Kang gets a bunch of comic relief followers - Mouse, a hunchbacked bucktoothed traitor, Jibberish, Jon-Lovitz-looking guy who speaks great wisdom that nobody can understand, except Tall-Tall, a giant idiot who can translate for Jibberish. Not bad comic relief, in other words. Likewise, there's some good scenery to chew, a story that is no more pointless than most martial arts films, decent costumes, etc. If the action scenes were better, this wouldn't be half-bad.

The action scenes are not good. I'm sorry, Ron Yuan - you did a fine job as the bad guy, but as fight director, you were mediocre at best. By the way, we loved you as David Park in Fast & Furious.

So, not a bad film overall. It would have been good with better action scenes. But that's true of about any movie you could name. Put about 30 minutes of Jet Li or Jackie Chan action into Titanic, say, and I'd watch it.

Oh well, Sung Kang is coming up in Ninja Assassin, with Korean pretty boy popstar Rain. Mrs. Spenser should be pleased.

Vitamin Q

The quince is not a familiar fruit to most people. We've heard of it possibly or maybe eaten it in the form of membrillo, quince paste, with cheese. But rarely do we encounter the fruit in the wild. So, when I saw some at the farmer's market, I bought a few for a pie.

They look like big, lumpy, ugly yellow pears with a kind of fuzz on their skin. But they smell like hyper-apples (with a hint a pineapple in this variety). You can't eat them raw - you have to peel, core, slice poach them for about 30-60 minutes. At that point, they turn pink and the poaching water turns sweet and quincy.

I'll skip what I did with the quinces (quince-apple pie). The recipe I was reading suggested using the pink poaching juice for quince-mopolitans:

1 oz lime juice
1 oz triple sec
2 oz quince juice from poaching quinces
2 oz. vodka

Shake over ice and strain into martini glass

We liked these all right, but the quince flavor was a little mild, so I decided to cook the juice down to syrup, from a pint to about 4 oz. I mixed up a few, and Mrs. Spenser drank hers down, pronouncing it an improvement. I started tidying up, and when I got back to mine, the syrup had set up like jelly - quinces are full of pectin. It wasn't a full blown Jello shot, but it didn't exactly pour, either.

Interesting effect, but it'll never catch on. The pie came out well, though.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

To Boldly Go and Reboot

First of all, we are not Trekkies. We are Trekkers. Second, we are very traditional - Original Series only. Third, the new Star Trek may be the best movie ever.

It starts with the birth of James T. Kirk, and the death of his father, a starship captain killed in by a mysterious Romulan ship. As a result, young Kirk grew up a troubled lad in Iowa, near the starship factory. He spots Uhura in a spacer cantina, gets in a fight and is recruited by Commander Pike, a friend of his dad's. Soon he is getting into trouble at Starfleet Academy, dogging Uhura, befriending a medical cadet called Bones McCoy, and being hazed by a half-Vulcan instructor named Spock.

Naturally, a terrible emergency has them all shipping out before graduation on the new NCC-1701, the Enterprise, under Cmdr. Pike, with Ensigns Sulu and Chekov. Saving the best for last, they come upon an irascible Scotsman on a mining station and draft him as engineer.

I'll leave out who else they run across. I was going to go all spoiler here, but I think I'll skip all that. I'll just say that they have a great excuse for anything that doesn't match the "bible" - the sum of all existing backstory. This could be the ultimate sacrilege. But it works!

The reason it works, in my opinion, is that they got the characters right. Kirk is an swaggering braggart who can back it all up with brains, skill and his fists. Bones is a cranky young country doctor, who thinks he's going to like Spock as soon as he meets him. Sulu gets to a swordfight. Chekov has almost no lines, and they are spoken in an accent the computer can barely understand.

Spock may be best of all. A Vulcan, he is ruled by logic and takes no heed of emotion. But he is also half human. My only objection is that Zachary Quinto looks a little goofy, with the bowl cut and funny eyebrows. But he also really gets into Spock's skin.

I didn't recognize many actors - they seem to come mostly from recent TV series. Simon Pegg as Scotty is a hoot, I wish we had seen more of him. John Cho's (Harold and Kumar's Harold) Sulu is played with a delicate touch. Sulu has always been a character that's a little deeper than he seemed and Cho got that across. But really, everybody was great. Eric Bana as the Romulan bad guy had maybe a weaker role than the good guys, but that's my biggest complaint.

So how does it compare to the rest of the movies? Look, when the Original Series movies were made, the actors were getting on. The movies had to accept them as aging, going through changes. The new Star Trek gives them their youth back and lets you see them in a new way, while acknowledging and honoring the myth.

And I saved the best for last - SPOILER - Leonard Nimoy.

Race Movie

Continuing our festival of remade low-budget car movies, we bring you: Death Race. Not Death Race 2000, Paul Bartels' directorial debut, produced by Roger Corman in 1975 (gee, did I really see that on a double-bill with Rollerball?). This is the 2008 movie starring Jason Statham, co-produced by Roger Corman.

It's 2012, and the economy is based almost entirely on prisons, just like today. But the twist is, they hold races on Prison Island, and if you can win 5 races, you go free. The pay-per-view audience supports the entire economy. By the way, the cars are heavily armed, and the drivers would just as rather kill the competition then beat them by speed.

Jason Statham is unjustly imprisoned when his ... Wait - am I seriously going to discuss the plot? Let's just say that the prison is hellish, the warden (Joan Allen) is evil and hot, and the race scenes are the whole point.

And what scenes they are. Statham drives an up-armored Mustang with machine guns, oilslick, smokescreen and napalm. His opponents are stone killers. The warden wants viewers, but seems to want Statham dead more. There are many crashes and explosions, some fairly creative.

I don't think the races were quite as good as the Fast and Furious or Transporter franchise, but they fit the requirements. Enjoy.

Next week, The Fast and the Furious, 2001.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Grandmaster! Cut Faster!

After enjoying Krush Groove a while ago, we decided to queue up Wild Style.This is from a slightly earlier period in hip-hop history (1983). It concentrates on tagging instead of rapping, but you still get low/no production values counteracted by letting entertainers play themselves.

Notorious graffiti writer Lee Quinones plays Zoro, a notorious graffiti writer. His (ex) girlfriend Rose is played by writer Pinky Fabara. She wants to integrate graffiti into the mainstream, hanging with the Union, doing wall pieces for money. Fab Five Freddy plays Phade, a hip-hop promoter who wants Zoro to go legit, make some money, at least give an interview to the reporter who is coming by. The reporter is played by Patti Astor, as a kind of low-rent Debbie Harry. She's reputedly an actress, but just as wooden as the rest of the crew of acting amateurs/hip-hop professionals.

Throughout we get real oldskool rapping from Cold Crush Brothers, Double Trouble, Fantastic Freaks, etc, as well as cutting by Grandmaster Flash, DJ AJ, etc and breakdancing by the Rock Steady Crew, etc. Also, soundtrack by Chris Stein of Blondie, and some Blondie in the background. Plus much, much more! It all ends up with a big concert.

So - not really a documentary, but close enough. Let's call it a fictionalized biography. Whatever you call it, if you like oldskool - watch it. After all, "Fab Five Freddy told us everything's fly"!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discworld Holiday

As soon as Thanksgiving was over, we felt entitled to a Christmas movie: Terry Pratchett's Discworld movie Hogfather. As I explained in my review of The Colour of Magic, Discworld is a flat planet, carried through space on the back of a giant turtle, where magic works. And every midwinter, on Hogwatch Night, the people of Discworld wait for the Hogfather to come and bring toys to all the boys and girls.

But this year, someone has taken out a contract on the Hogfather with the Guild of Assassins. The guild has assigned a young Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tay-a-ti-may) to the job. A chubby faced Michael J. Pollard type, who seems nice enough, except to his black glass eye and all-white natural one. He immediately sets out to get the Tooth Fairy under his control and sets the process going.

Since the Hogfather seems to be missing on the night, someone has to take his place - so this year Death will be delivering the presents. And his granddaughter, Susan, has to find out what is going on.

This disc contains 2 90-minute made-for-Sky-TV episodes, so there's lots of Discworld for your money. Watch for Tony "Baldrick" Robinson in a small part.

Pie in the Sky

To prepare for a trip to Japan, I watched Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky. I've been happily working my way through his collected works for a while now. This entry is solid, but not outstanding.

It takes place in a world where earthbound villagers work in mines for ever-decreasing returns, while high above fly cruiseships, zepplins, dirigible destroyers and air pirates. These pirates attack an airliner and a mysterious girl escapes overboard. Her mysterious pendant slows her descent, and she hovers to a stop next to a young boy.

This boy, Pazu, is a classic Japanese kid - full of spunk and hustle, omnicompetent, he seems to run the mining village he lives in. He longs to follow in the footsteps of his air-explorer father and discover the floating city of Laputa. Of course, mysterious girl Sheeta's pendant consists of phlebotinum, which is linked to just that floating city. So, chased by the fascistic government troops, the plucky kids join up with the air pirates to search for their destiny.

The best part of this was (some of) the artwork. It has a lovely handshaded Moebius style, all rounded edges and sparse crosshatching. The scenes are inventive, especially Laputa, the eponymous castle. But I don't think it ever takes off into the kind of transcendence we see in Nausicaa or even Porco Rosso (although the air pirates with more issues and hearts of gold are pretty similar in the latter).

Also, although our young lad is spunky (perhaps too spunky), the princess is a bit passive. She might be more lovable to a Japanese audience. The Magic Necklace plot device doesn't stand up to even cursory examination, but that shouldn't be an issue.

In conclusion, a good Miyake, perhaps not a great Miyazake.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Dead Reckoning is another "How did I miss this?" movie. A moody, almost perfect noir, starring Humphrey Bogart that I had never heard of.

We meet Bogart as paratrooper Capt. Rip Murdock, going to Washington with his Sgt. Johnny Drake to get medals of honor. But Drake hops off the train and flees, and Bogart follows him to Gulf City Florida. There, he finds out that Drake was an assumed identity - the man who he had been was accused of killing the rich husband of Lizabeth Scott. When Bogart meets Scott, he finds a beautiful, troubled, threatened and possibly deadly woman.

Bogart's attitude towards woman is summed up in an amazing soliloquy:
"Women ought to come capsule-sized, about four inches high. When a man goes out of an evening, he just puts her in his pocket and takes her along with him, and that way he knows exactly where she is. He gets to his favorite restaurant, he puts her on the table and lets her run around among the coffee cups while he swaps a few lies with his pals...

And when it comes that time of the evening when he wants her full-sized and beautiful, he just waves his hand and there she is, full-sized."
Someone (Campaspe?) quoted this, which is why I queued this movie up. I thought it gave the movie a Nicholas Ray feeling, although he wasn't involved. John Cromwell directed - we know him best as director of Prisoner of Zenda - the one with Ronald Coleman. Who knew he could handle noir?

How does Lizabeth Scott handle her femme-fatale role? She looks luminous - I was reminded of Veronica Lake. However, she was clearly being cast as a Bacall substitute: She even exchanges nicknames with Bogart ala "Steve" and "Slim" in To Have and Have Not. I think she could have stood on her own, but someone thought she was just a stand-in. See what you think.

I found this to be a teasing, twisty, complex film noir. Mrs. Beveridge found it to be misogynist hackwork. One thing we agreed on was the strange batch of mixed metaphors around Bogart and his buddy's paratroop background. Their frequent invocations of "Geronimo" makes sense, but "dead reckoning"?

Also, we both liked gangboss Morris Carnovsky and his thug Marvin Miller. See what you think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

She Walks in Beauty

What do you expect from Queen Latifah's Beauty Shop? If you're looking for sassy girltalk, gritty determination, light comedy and an unthreatening look at race relations, well, you've got it.

The Queen plays a hairdresser at Jorge Cristoff's tony Atlanta salon. Jorge, played with zest by Kevin Bacon as a swishy Austrian martinet, fires her for giving shampoo girl Alicia Silverstone a break. So she sets out to set up her own shop with Alicia, some stolen customers and a tiny bank loan.

Latifah is the widowed mother of a musical prodigy, and seems to be supporting her mother-in-law and teenaged hootchy sister-in-law as well. The guy upstairs from the shop is a cute, sensitive African electrician and musician - a little too perfect boyfriend material. But he isn't gay - that role is played a hunky ex-con that Latifah hires as a hairdresser and eye-candy for the girls.

And so on. There isn't much of a plot. Latifah has troubles, people do nice things to her, or bad things. Colorful characters come and go - Little JJ as a grade-school playa wannabe, Andy McDowell as a la-di-da Atlanta society wife, Adele Givens as a hot-talking DJ. Alicia Silverstone faces racial prejudice from the African-American hairdresssers and customers, and overcomes it. Lacing it all together, aerial shots of sweet downtown Atlanta.

I can't say there is anything groundbreaking here - this is just a fun, cozy little movie. I haven't seen the Barbershop movies that it is loosely based on, but I imagine it's about the same. The two main things it's got going for it are:
  • Sassy dialog - Unfortunately, I'm way too white to quote any. But it is a joy to hear the girls lay it down. Queen Latifah has a few soliloquys that sound like rap that doesn't rhyme.
  • Kevin Bacon - he has way too much fun as the limp hair-tossing mean celebrity hairdresser.

Magnificent Seven

In Seven Swords as in The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai, seven warriors join to save a village from the bad guys. Other than that, they have nothing in common.

Seven Swords takes place when the Ching dynasty is consolidating its hold on China by outlawing the study of martial arts. General Fire-Wind and his punked-out army are enforcing the edict by decapitating anyone he can find, and collecting a bounty on the heads. One martial artist escapes his attack and tries to warn a small village. He takes a young man and woman to Heaven Mountain, where they find a god-like swordsmith and four warriors. The two villagers get swords, so we have seven in all, against an army.

For the rest of the movies 2-1/2 hours, we get beautiful vistas of western Chinese mountains and deserts. We get amazing wuxia swordfights with high-flying wirework. We get horses, children and peasants. We get love and lust, pure and perverted. We get flashbacks, forwards and sideways. We may not get a clear image of all seven warriors, or the seven distinct sword styles, but I can name 4 or 5. We get cinema art, and rousing good tale.

This movies was directed by Tsui Hark, but it reminded me strongly of Ashes of Time Redux by Kar Wai Wong. Especially towards the end, balance tilts more to art film than action film. I don't think you'll get bored, but don't expect the something along the lines of the much more straightforward Once Upon a Time In China.

In conclusion, Donnie Yen has the role of no. 1 brooding hero. Who could do it better?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pistol Packin' Mama

Seijun Suzuki's 2001 Pistol Opera is, in some sense, a remake of his 1967 Branded to Kill, the story of the Assassin Guild's Number 3 Killer getting a chance to advance a few ranks. The '67 version, stars chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido as a killer who loves the smell of rice cooking. It was a stylish 60's black-and-white noir exercise in absurdism. The studio gave it to Suzuki along with a minimal budget to make a violent B-movie. The finished movie got him blackballed for 10 or 20 years.

The 2001 version makes a few changes. The Number 3 Killer, nicknamed Stray Cat, is a woman this time. The movie is in glorious, psychedelic color. But it is still an abstract absurdist exercise in style.

Stray Cat is a beautiful young woman who favors simple kimonos that still manage to show a little leg. A beautiful older woman hiding behind a scarf gets her jobs killing people, using a combination of threats and sexual innuendo - Stray Cat has a thing for pistols. Stray Cat meets a little girl who wants to be a killer. Number One Killer, Hundred Eyes, drops by for a visit, and pantomimes drinking tea. He has a laser sight on his gun, and a case of the sniffles. Et cetera.

In case you couldn't tell that this movie is far from realistic, several characters recount dreams, and some are even shown to the audience. Kabuki theater is referenced, in case you wondered about the strange mannered acting style. In fact, the movie ends with Butoh performers - Butoh is a Japanese avant-garde dance form featuring near nude, bald actors writhing ingrotesque stylized agony.

Have I forgotten to give you any reason to want to see this? Here it is, then: The film is beautiful. The colors are vibrant. Stray Cat tends to wear black or navy, but seems surrounded by yellows, possibly her theme color. I wonder if Kill Bill's yellows are a reflection of this. Deep blues may represent death, or sleep. Water, smoke (yellow smoke), a decaying bath house, a farmhouse, themes stated and revisited.

If this seems pretentious or boring, skip it. If it's intriguing, give it a few minutes. Within the first 10 minutes you should know whether it is your kind of thing.

Be aware that there is plenty of violence, but not a single drop of blood.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feelin' Groovy

Ms. Beveridge was digging some old school Afrika Baambaata and Grandmaster Flash, when it occurred to me that Krush Groove was a Netflix Instant offering. So away we go.

Krush Groove is the 1985 slightly fictionalized story of Russell Simmons and early rap acts Run DMC, Curtis Blow and the Fat Boys. And when I say "slightly", I mean "completely" - at least, I don't think Russell Simmons had an affair with Sheila E. It's a pretty typical showbiz story - Krush Groove records has a potential hit with Run DMC, but can't get the money together to press the disc. But what you really want to see are early Brooklyn hip-hop acts like the above mentioned, as well as New Edition, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.

The style still seemed rooted in R&B, and they staged some of the shows like they were on Broadway - Curtis Blow in a white leather tuxedo looked very snazzy. Sheila E. fit right in.

I wish there were a lot more full numbers - Sheila E. got a couple, the Fat Boys got a music video in, but the Beasties get about a half verse, and LL Cool J the same. It's a pity that they cut out any music in favor of the fairly lame "plot".

Nonetheless, a real document from the early days. What's your favorite hip-hop movie?

Perfect Thai

There's two things I want to say about The Protector a.k.a Tom Yum Goong: Prachya Pinkaew and Tony Jaa.

Tony Jaa stars as a young Thai, raised to protect a herd of royal elephants. Bad guys steal a bull and his calf and Jaa chases them to Sidney Australia. When he catches up, oh boy.

Pinkaew directs. He could get away with just showing us the fights, but he actually shows a lot of style. It doesn't always hold together, but you can see some nicely framed compositions - a wide room with the villains at one end, then Jaa flying into the frame from the other end and crushing the bad guys. A major series of fights takes place in a burning temple with a layer of water on the floor - very cinematic.

And what great fights. Jaa first fights a capoeira master, almost playful, with flips and kicks. Then a wuxia swordsman in classical Chinese style, and finally a giant strongman. All while the temple is burning down around them as their kicks send up slow-mo splashes of water.

But the best fight is an amazing 5-minute long single take fight up 6 or seven stories. The stamina required for just the cameramen is astounding.

Andthe movie's all capped off by Jaa taking on and incapacitating (breaking bones) of 40-50 assailants.

The villains are very evil - I won't give that part away. The good guys include a Sydney policeman of Thai origin, who's kind of fun. There's even a girl, but no love interest. Jaa is purely focused on getting his elephants back. He gives a powerful furious performance.

I didn't mean to go on about the fight scenes, but they are incredible. The rest of the movie holds up pretty well, too. See it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Keeping Up with the Joneses

If you are a fan of Spike Jones, you'll want to see Spike Jones: The Legend: Disc 1.If not, it's probably because you don't know who he is. Or like the girl in the Band song, "Can't stand the way he sings, but love to hear him talk."

This disc features two episodes of the Colgate Comedy Hour hosted by the Spike Jones Band. This is a real TV incunabulum, from the cradle. Bright lights cause the camera to black out, the picture loses focus on zooms, overall quality is low, but it is the real thing. Instead of commercials, they had to work the products (Halo shampoo and Colgate toothpaste) into some of the skits.

Of the two, the first episode is best. It includes several of Spike's classics - "Chloe", "Cocktails for Two", and my favorite, "The Poet and Peasant Overture". The second features more skits than songs, based on the cunning idea the "Spike Jones is On TV" - an early example of going meta.

The band is classic, including trumpeter Georgie Rock, tenor banjos Dick and troll-faced Freddie Morgan, Billy Barty, Sir Frederic Gas and Doodles Weaver. Jones, a human cartoon in a checked suit, is in fine pitch, leading the orchestra with a pistol or plunger for a baton, soloing on the cowbells and providing backup on washboard and tinpan percussion.

Spike made a feature film, Fireman, Save My Child, but it isn't available. Spike's TV show, in my opinion is better than these Colgate Comedy Hour eps, but they are only available on VHS (we own 2 of the 3 volumes). So, other than a few cameos, this is the best you can do on Netflix. So go ahead and do it!

Speaking of cameos, the band does one in Variety Girl, an oddity I highly recommend. It's not available on Netflix, but I own the VHS. Suck it!

Oh geeze, sorry, that just slipped out. Volume 2 of this series features 2 episodes of 1952's All Star Revue. Hope to see it soon.

Update: We have now seen Spike Jones: The Legend: Disc 2 - Two episodes of the All-Star Revue show. I think these are more successful than the Colgate eps - less lame commercial stuff, for ex. There's a lot of overlap, and a lot of overlap with the Spike Jones Show (in fact, I think some of the show is recycled scenes). Still no reason not to watch them both.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Saint be Praised

I don't care what anybody says: we like Val Kilmer, and enjoyed The Saint. In this 1997 movie, Kilmer plays Simon Templar as a man of many faces - an international thief who is always in disguise, and always goes by pseudonym, based on the name of a saint.

He doesn't much resemble Roger Moore's suave TV Saint, or Vincent Price's radio version, or Leslie Charteris' written version. Once we got over that, we liked this fine.

Kilmer's disguises are great - they start with the voice. Several scenes feature him trying different accents on for size, and you can hear him dial it in in a few words. Not exactly subtle but convincing. And the personalities he adapts: Some are plain (a Russian officer), some are flamboyant (a gay German, just for fun). The key personality he adopts, a wandering poet, is too precious for words.

In order to steal atomic secrets, he needs to get close to a nuclear scientist Elizabeth Shue. By invading her privacy and reading her journal, he discovers that she has a Percy Shelley fixation, and sets out to become her perfect man, handsome, soulful, brooding, poetic, with a nice South African accent. And asking Kilmer to do handsome and brooding is like asking Keanu Reeves to play cute but dumb.

I know Val Kilmer doesn't get a lot of critical love. But we happen to like several of his roles a lot: Willow, Gay Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the rabbit guy in Masked and Anonymous. Can't say he was my favorite Batman, but I even liked his Jim Morrison - I didn't like the movie much, but it was an amazingly realistic impersonation.

We liked him so much, we went on to watch another Val Kilmer movie: Red Planet. This was released in 1999, right around the time of Mission to Mars. It's a lot less flashy than De Palma's space opera, but has a lot fewer flaws, in my opinion.

Captain Carrie-Ann Moss and a crew of five are on their way to Mars to see why the engineered algae that was sent up had stopped producing oxygen. The crew includes Terence Stamp, as the ascetic philosopher/scientist soul of the mission, and Benjamin Bratt, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker and Val Kilmer as astronaut/grunts. The trip to Mars has a nice, realistic SF feel to it, with some barracks-room philosophy and a little sexual tension over the captain (not between the cute astronauts, though, so cool your jets). Then, when it comes time to land, everything goes very, very wrong.

After this, the movie resembles Robinson Crusoe on Mars - the horror of being trapped alone on an inhospitable planet, slowly running out of heat, food, water and oxygen. The rust-red landscape (NSW Australia, mainly, not Crusoe's Death Valley) and pink sky inspire the same otherwordly feeling. The menace and the near escapes work the same way. The only thing missing is the space chimp. (There is a friendly killer robot companion, though.)

Unfortunately, Stamp's role is a small one. Carrie Ann Moss in not that inspiring as a space captain. She is supposed to be tough and competent, but in an emergency, she is reduced to just hitting the console. This is even lampshaded when she tells Ground Control, "I've tried everything, even hitting it!" Maybe if she tried something other than hitting it...

Kilmer is also a little lost in the ensemble, although he is marginally the leading man. That's ok, though. This movie doesn't seem to want flashy acting, just like astronauts don't want flashy heroics. Strong and competent, steady workmanship are what is called for, even in the most extreme situations. And that's what this movie seems to be about. Good special effects, sense of wonder, but no reaching for cosmic epiphanies. This is a movie that will entertain you, get your blood pumping and leave you with some beautiful images.

If it doesn't exactly "make you think", that's fine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fast and Furious Enough for You?

How do I describe Fast and Furious? I mean how do I describe which movie I mean? It's not the first one, Corman's 1951 The Fast and the Furious. It isn't Vin Diesel's 2001 The Fast and the Furious - which has nothing in common with the original but the name. It isn't either of the sequels to this like 2 Fast 2 Furious or The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, neither of which had anything to do with the previous. This is the 2009 version, with Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker et al. Claro? Claro que si.

Now that we've gotten that straight, how was the movie? Well, it starts with an awesome setpiece - Diesel, Rodriguez and a couple of other carloads hijack an oil tanker in the Dominican Republic. This involves bootlegger turns and highspeed reverse driving, but most importantly, Michelle Rodriguez climbing around on and jumping between fast moving vehicles.

It's too bad, but I think the movie never gets up to this level of excitement again. Also, it's pretty much the last we see of Rodriguez.

We saw Rodriguez first in Girl Fight, which pretty much defined her style - a tough, strong woman who was not afraid of love. We loved her variations on this character in Blue Crush and Final Fantasy. Hard as nails, pretty as a flower.

The rest of the movie deals with Diesel and FBI man Walker going undercover as border runners trying to take down a drug lord. Diesel drives mostly muscle - Camoros, GTOs, etc. Walker drives imports, Nissans, Subarus, some German, I think. They drive them a lot - street racing, offroad racing, tunnel racing. These scenes are a blast.

In between racing, we get some family drama - with a fair amount of Diesel looking soulful. I shouldn't josh, he's actually pretty good. The non-racing scenes are rather nicely shot, too, with lots of warm low light scenes around a kitchen table late at night and so forth. But the speed scenes are the real soul of the movie.

In addition, there's a pretty fine soundtrack, with lots of Spanish language rap and reggaeton.

In conclusion, the best F&F we've seen to date. Needs more Michelle Rodriguez though.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I don't want my reivew of The Fearless Vampire Killers to hinge on director/co-star Roman Polanski's recent legal notoriety. And I wanted to avoid discussion of female lead Sharon Tate's sad end. But it's pretty hard to avoid - Mrs. Spenser had to leave less than halfway through. "It's just too sad, knowing how they all wind up," she said.

That bothered me too, but what really bothered me was - it isn't very funny.

Scholarly old Jack MacGowran and his feckless young assistant Roman Polanski are searching for vampires in Transylvania. They come across an inn where the peasants seem to quick to deny the existence of vampires, and too fond of garlic. The innkeeper is Alfie Bass and his beautiful daughter is Sharon Tate. When she is swept away by the local Count Krolock, our heroes rush to save her.

This is all accompanied by sexual innuendo, badinage, wordplay and slapstick, none of it as good as the lowest Mel Brooks. The best Mel Brooks is a high hurdle, but face it, there's isn't much he would turn his nose up at. This wouldn't make the cut. Except -

I mentioned Alfie Bass. You may not recognize the name, but in the 60s and 70s, he was the go-to guy when you needed a cockney Jew. We know him mainly as M. Goldberg from the BBC series Are You Being Served. He's just plain funny, and he gets the best line in the movie. After he's been turned vampire, someone tries to use a crucifix against him. "Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Scariest Man in Black and White

Val Lewton - Scariest man in black and white on a chills/$ production cost basis. So for Halloween, we watched a double feature: The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship. You may know Lewton as the producer of Cat People - not the one with Natassia Kinski. He was brilliant at creating a mood that suggests horror without actually showing very much. This is partially due to having no budget, but he elevated it to an art form.

The Leopard Man, directed by noir icon Jacques Tourneur, takes place in a southwestern border town. Jean Brooks is a cabaret singer and her manager, Dennis O'Keefe, convinces her to make an entrance with a leopard on a leash. The cat gets a fright and bolts, leading to the death of a young girl. Now the town is in a panic, and more girls turn up dead. The leopard is running amok - or something is.

One of the charms of Leopard Man is the range of characters. We get 3 cabaret performers, a manager, two young women and their families and a few local characters, including the local leopard rental man, Indian Charlie How-Come (and the leopard, returning from Cat People). In a very short movie, each is allowed to come alive. It's a very full movie that way.

My main complaint is the protagonists, who released the darn cat at the start of the movie. They almost feel as if they are responsible for all the killing and maiming. Crazy kids.

The Ghost Ship starts with a window display of knives in a ship's chandlery. A young ship's officer gives a coin to a blind street singer, who gives him a terrible augury. He boards the vessel and asks a sailor for the captain. The sailor only gestures with his knife. Oh, there will be knives in this movie, indeed. As the officer leaves, the sailor delivers a voice-over internal monologue, for he is mute and no man can know him.

When our young officer meets the captain, the mood lifts a little. The officer is third mate, just out of cadet school on his first voyage. The captain seems a kindly philosophical sort, looking forward to sharing thoughts with the young man on the long voyage.

But after they are at sea for a while, the captain begins to look different - capricious, indecisive, possibly worse. Men are killed. Our young man loses all faith in the captain, but what can he do? Even his best friend aboard, Sparks the radioman, doesn't want to "rock the boat". And he can't even get off the ship.

This movie doesn't have as much of the spooky shadows as traditional Lewton fare. But it does have some lovely freighter location shooting. It is also filled with symbols and portents, like a the knives and the mute and a plaque reading, "Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock".

Bonus: Because these movies are so short, we had time for an Instant movie - Phantom Ship, with Bela Lugosi. A fictionalized story of the mystery of the Marie Celeste, with Lugosi aboard on a mysterious mission of vengeance. Like Ghost Ship, one of it's best features is the use of a real ship, this time a wooden sailing ship. But there is the same slow attrition of the men and questions of the authority of the captain.

For those who like it, there are also sea chanties, lots of them. For those who don't like sea chanties, -SPOILER- there is a concertina, totally destroyed.


We're still on an A&C kick. This Halloween weekend it was Best of Abbott & Costello: Vol. 3: Disc 2 specifically, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff. In this episode, Abbott is the house dick at the Lost Caverns Resort and Costello is a bellhop. Costello tangles with a visiting lawyer, who ends up dead, in circumstances that look bad for our Lou.

The other guests are mostly creeps who wanted to get the lawyer out of the way for one reason or another. One is Boris Karloff, in mystical Swami drag, with a turban and all. He makes mystical gestures and attempt to control Costello's mind, but - he doesn't have one! Bwah-ha-ha!

Seriously, Karloff looks like he's having a fine time here, almost smiling at times. And -SPOILER- he isn't the killer, although he may be a killer.

There aren't a lot of standouts in this installment - Roland Winters is present, there are no musical numbers and that's about it. There aren't any famous routines, but some good physical comedy and the usual badinage and wordplay. Like our friend Mr. Schprock says, "Yep, still fresh."

Or was he being sarcastic?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Read All About It

How could I have missed It Happened Tomorrow for all these years? I used to watch nothing but comedies from the 30s and 40s, until I had to branch out due to lack of material. And here's a 1944 comedy starring Dick Powell and Linda Darnell, directed by Rene Claire, no less, that I had never heard of. It gives me hope.

It starts with a large group getting ready to greet a couple on their 50th anniversary. Then it flashes back to the turn of the century (you can tell because all of the men have moustaches). Dick Powell, a young newspaperman, is telling coworker Pops that he wishes he had tomorrow's paper. Pops tells him it would bring him no joy - why, he might read his own obituary!

That night, our lad meets a Linda Darnell as part of a mentalist act with her uncle, Jack Oakey (playing stage Italian), and falls in love with her. So - three uses of the time/prophecy theme: Flashback, tomorrow's paper, and stage mystic.

Later still, after everyone else has gone home, Powell meets Pops, and Pops gives him "today's" newspaper. What Powell doesn't realize is, it's after midnight, and this is the evening paper.

The rest of the movie plays out the consequences in the traditional screwball fashion: lots of running around, missed connections and misunderstandings and even a lovely duet of screaming overlapping dialog. But it's done with Rene Claire's lightness of touch - the film less frantic than classic screwball, with more room to breathe. If Bringing Up Baby gives you a headache, you might try Claire.

All in all, a charming movie. And how many more are out there that I don't know about?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Incredulous Hulk!

Staying in the Marvel Universe, we decided to give Ang Lee's Hulk a try. I want to start by asking, "Why?" Who thought up giving this movie to a director known for his sensitive family relationship dramas like Eat Drink Man Woman and Brokeback Mountain? Did some producer say, "Get me that Chinese director", thinking of John Woo? OK, it was probably his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but still.

In Lee's version (Ang, not Stan), the Hulk's story goes back to his childhood, when his atomic scientist father does genetic experiments on himself before conceiving like Bruce Banner. Then, when Bruce is a toddler in Almagordo, he is exposed to the blast of a nuclear test. Much later, as a grad student at Berkeley (yay, location shooting), he ingests nanomeds and is finally belted by gamma rays. If that won't turn you into the Hulk, nothing will.

So, what does this art-house director bring to the tale of the Jolly Green Giant? I'd say two things. First, and least important, he gives the flashback scenes in New Mexico a lovely 50s/60s sheen of nostalgia, moderne, and suburban desperation. He seems to have a real talent for this. Is this what The Ice Storm is like?

More importantly, he uses camera and editing techniques to make film inspired by comic book style. The most obvious is splitting the screen into comic style panels. But there are also quick camera movements and zooms that shift perspective as if from one panel to the next. Colors paly an interesting role too.

As for the Hulk itself, and other special effects, I'd say they are both convincing and effective. Hulk looks like Hulk, but you can see a little of Eric Bana (who plays the human side) as well.

Bana is a bit of a cypher, he comes across as blank nerd. But I understand this was an acting decision - Bana is usually known as an action hero. His girlfriend Betty Ross is played by Jennifer Connelly, who also seems to be dialing down the charisma - going for repressed?

Her dad, General Ross is Sam Elliott, as perfect as can be. Banner's dad is played by Nick Nolte, looking just like his famous mugshot. He makes a great mad scientist, trying to love his son, but much too crazy.

In fact, the two fathers might be the heart of this film: Ross, who loves his daughter and will destroy anything that he thinks threatens her, even the Hulk. Whereas Banner's dad is interested in science first, then his own success, then much further down the line, his son. And he may only love his son because he was a successful experiment.

So, great movie, good action, moving family drama. But as a Hulk movie, not so great. Sure, eventually Hulk smash. But he doesn't even appear until 40 minutes into the movie.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


In X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Hugh Jackman shows off an amazing physique. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

This origin story tells of how a boy and his half-brother grow up in the Northwest Territory and discover that they can sprout claws and can recover almost instantly from any wound. One, Liev Schreiber, is mean and nasty. The other, Hugh Jackman, is Wolverine. They fight in wars (American Civil through Vietnam) and get into trouble, and finally wind up in a secret government program for other badasses with superpowers. That's nice, because we get more action scenes. We get a love interest and a retreat with a kindly old hippy couple.

Somewhere in there, the government re-builds him, replacing all of his bones and claws with unobtainium. And he loses his memory. And that's the origin of the Wolverine.

We also meet young Scott Summers, a dark brooding teenage delinquent. Which is strange, because, brooding he may be, but Cyclops has always struck me more as a geek - a sullen AV club type. We also meet Prof. Xavier, walking. I guess they both go through some changes.

Like all of the X-Men movies, this suffers from trying to do too much in too little time (making too little sense, IMHO). They could have slowed down and developed some of the side plots and minor characters. Possibly, they could have done this without slowing down with better writing. But I'm not picky. Give me some flashy action and cool superpowers, and I'm happy.

Plus, look at the pecs on Jackman. Wow.

Instant Black Cat

Movie Morlocks turned me on to The Black Cat as part of their Gladys Cooper article. Her role is small but juicy - the movie is probably better known for Bela Lugosi, Gale Sondergaard, Basil Rathbone and a young Alan Ladd. But it is really an Abbott & Costello horror spoof, without Abbott & Costello. Instead we have Hugh Herbert playing Costello, and Broderick Crawford as Orson Wells playing Bud Abbott.

A rich old lady who lives in a spooky mansion with a million cats is about to die. Crawford, who lived nearby as a boy comes to buy the house after she passes away. He brings antique dealer/imbecile Hugh Herbert. Unfortunately, the cat lady is still alive, and her relatives are all still waiting for their inheritance. They won't have to wait long, though, for the old later is swiftly poisoned. Now Crawford will have to find the murderer and woo his childhood sweetheart before Herbert destroys the house looking for (or creating) distressed antiques.

We get the usual lost will/hidden passages/creepy crypt/spooky gardeners and so on. Not as many cats as you might expect. Not a lot of jokes, not a lot of scares, but plenty of smiles and a few shivers. Hugh Herbert (not to be confused with Frank McHugh) is a bit of an acquired taste: He's the Woo-Whoo guy if that helps you identify him. But he comes in relatively small doses, so that's ok. Crawford is fun in this role, bringing a real Wellsian heft to a lightweight, comic part.

So, fun for Old Dark House spoofs, especially if you are tired of Abbott & Costello. And it is a "Watch Instantly", so you can watch anytime before Halloween.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Avanti o Populo, Porco Rosso

Miyazaki's Porco Rosso is a pleasant movie, and a beautiful cartoon. It is about a seaplane pilot in the 1920-1930s Adriatic. He is a bounty hunter in milieu of cruise ships and seaplane pirates (in Japanese, "pilot" and "pirate" are homonyms). He lives on a hidden island, drinks red wine and smokes cigarettes and loves (from afar) the beautiful owner of an island resort. Oh, yes, and he's a pig. Nose, ears, oink oink.

We get an explanation of how he became a pig in the third act, but frankly, I was being dazzled by the visuals, and it rolled off my back like ducks.

What beautiful visuals this animation has. Funky, almost steampunk seaplanes, insignificant against a background of Winslow Homer cloudscapes. Fleets of them taking off against propaganda poster smokestacks in Fascist Milan. Sky pirates all goggles and black beards, right out of Herge's Tin Tin ligne clair. I almost suspect that Miyazaki-san wanted to make a comic out of nothing but planes soaring around the sky in beautiful freedom, then added a few characters and decided to make a movie of it.

We watched the Disney dub, with Michael Keaton as the hardboiled pig, Porco Rosso. We also get Brad Garrett as no. 1 pirate boss - not well bathed, but with a fine sense of honor and rough nobility. The villain is an American who wants to kill Porco and make his name - he's voiced by Cary Elwes. I don't mind the American voices, but I hear Miyazaki-san prefers the French dub, with Jean Reno as Porco.

Even though our hero is a pig, there's a cute feminist subplot to this movie. Porco gets his plane overhauled by an aged mechanic, who turns the job over to his granddaughter, a plucky anime type girl hero. Since all of the Italian manpower is getting involved in the Fascist war effort, the crew for the overhaul is all female, and they all revel in the woman power they bring to the gig.

In conclusion, that's my second article title based on the Italian communist anthem Avanti o Populo, Bandiera Rossa. It's just a catchy tune.

Hey, Abbott and Costello!

For the record Abbott & Costello: Vol. 1: Disc 1 includes:
  • One Night in the Tropics
  • Buck Privates
  • In the Navy
  • Hold That Ghost
I will skip over the Army/Navy films - we've seen them before, and didn't watch them this time.

One Night in the Tropics is A&C's first feature film, but it isn't really an Abbott & Costello movie. It's a comedy that they have kind of been dropped into. And it's a pretty good one: It features two young top-hatted toffs, Robert Cummnings, a playboy drunk on love and about to get married and his friend, Allan Jones whose insurance policies are more like wild bets. He "insures" that Cummings will marry his fiancee for $1 million. Jones' dad, president of the insurance company, doesn't want to cover this bet, er, policy, so they lay it off with some gangsters - including nightclub owner William Frawley. And Frawley sends his boys, Abbott & Costello, to make sure the wedding happens.

Complications arise, and the whole group, including fiancee, her aunt (Mary Bolan), ex-girlfriend, etc. to a tropical isle, run by Leo Carillo. Ay-ay-ay!

Honestly, I'd watch this without Abbott & Costello. They have some good routines, like A Dollar a Day, 2 Tens for a Five, and a short Who's on First. And they do some minor support work, but aren't really integrated into the show. But I've watched much worse, and didn't mind it.

Hold That Ghost is another matter - Abbott & Costello are the stars. In short, they inherit a haunted roadhouse from a gangster and are stuck there on a dark and stormy night. Their group includes an eggheaded doctor, a slick babe and Joan Davis. Davis was a long legged, horse-faced screwy comedienne, later star of TV's I Married Joan. She has brilliant comic timing and makes a great partner for Costello.

This is the first of the A&C horror movies, but it won't be the last.

The movie has musical numbers by the Andrews Sisters and Ted Lewis wrapped around it. Ted Lewis is the "Is EVERYbody HAPpy?" guy. Now I've seen his act.

In conclusion, Joan Davis, what a gal.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Job

Did you think we were through with the caper films? No, we still had The Bank Job.

This one stars Jason Statham as an English spiv with a fancy car dealership, a family, some dodgy friends and big debts to bad people. It also stars Saffron Burrows as a ex-model who gets in trouble with the law and is given a chance to get out of it. You see, there is something in a bank vault that the government needs to get without any possible publicity. So if she and some of her friends will rob the bank, they can keep anything else they find. So she enlists her old friend Statham and his gang.

The story is based on a real bank robbery in 1971, where the private boxes were wiped out and only about 1 in 10 customers were willing to state what they had lost for insurance purposes. Much of the fun is in the behind the scenes government and society scrambling to keep the secrets a secret. The seventies setting is underplayed, although there are some little touches.

The caper itself is not that exciting - we've seen a lot of it before (including in Inside Man). I suppose that's partly because so many movies took details from the robbery this movie is based on. But the banter is great, a crash course in Spiv.

Forgotten Noir

Somewhere in the Night starts with the hero, played by John Hodiak, in an Army field hospital, encased in bandages, unable to even speak. But his internal dialog lets us know that he has lost his memory. He only learns his name when someone mentions it. Little do we know, but we have seen this movie before, and like the hero, forgotten it.

Hodiak discovers he has two links to the past: an unsigned letter from his ex-fiancee, telling him what a heel his is, and a letter telling him there was several thousand dollars in a bank account for him, signed by Larry Cravat. That was when we remembered we'd seen the movie before. You don't forget a name like Larry Cravat.

So Hodiak tries to find out who he is, but not too hard, because he is afraid that he is a rat. Trying to track down Cravat, he runs into Harry Morgan in a gym and Nancy Guild and her boss Richard Conte in a nightclub. Nancy Guild is a funny kind of nightclub singer - she seems to be singing on break from studying English or history at Wellesley. Conte is clearly stuck on her, but he's too straight to make a play or try to break up her romance with Hodiak Funny kind of noir nightclub owner.

Later, he runs into bad girl Margo Woode, who evidently knows what kind of movie she's in, because she frequently namechecks films noir like Double Indemnity. When someone feeds her a snappy line, she responds, "Oh, so we're doing repartee?". Touches of self-consciousness like this really make the movie for me.

I'm not sure I can say this is great noir. It's directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, better known as a writer and producer. It's a touch indulgent, a little ripe at the core, and the mystery doesn't make as much sense as you might expect. On the plus side, it's a great example of the post-war amnesia genre, and it's 110 minutes long. That's a lot of noir for the money.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Incredible Journey

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a much beloved tale in many incarnations: Jules Verne's original novel, many movies, a 1960s animated tv series, comicbooks, and so on. This latest version stars Brendan Fraser, a kid and a girl.

Fraser is an inept geologist, carrying on the work of his brilliant brother, lost on a field expedition. His brother's widow drops his nephew off to stay with him for a while, and a sullen little youngster he is. But a signal from an Icelandic seismic sensor sends Fraser and kid on a quest. They find the daughter of brilliant brother's mentor, and hire her as a mountain guide. In short order, they are trapped underground and headed deeper.

Their journey is fraught with perils, many of which seem calculated to become thrill rides at an theme park. At least two were "inspired" by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: a wild ride on a mine railway and a long slide down a mountain (but not on a liferaft). Some of the underground scenes are very beautiful, but I never got a sense of wonder. Maybe we should have seen this on the big screen in 3D.

Still, it was fun, in a forgettable way. We like Brendan Fraser, for some reason - we even liked George of the Jungle. So, no complaints except that it could have been a lot better.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A dear friend of ours is a big fan of the Death Note series - a Japanese manga/anime/live action series about a notebook. If you write someone's name in the notebook while concentrating on their face, they will die of a heart attack in 40 seconds. This notebook falls into the hands of an idealistic law student who starts killing off all of the bad guys he can find.

The police go after this mystery vigilante with the aid of a mystery vigilante hunter. The vigilante hunter is later revealed to be a young man with a sweet tooth, a shaggy haircut and an emo fashion sense. In some respects, he resembles the Death Note killer. In other respects, they are both the kind of cute manga boy that pre-teen to teenaged girl fans love.

Yes, I'm afraid our friend the Death Note fan is a preteen girl. In general, we're fine with that. Our tastes are pretty adolescent at best. In this case, however, we're going to have to say that we don't get the appeal. The film is pretty well done, with some interesting philosophical points (who would you kill?), funny quirks (the apple-eating death-demon who can only be seen by those who have handled the notebook) and clever uses of the premise. But on a gut level, we didn't get it.

In conclusion, it could have been Twilight that she's into.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mission to Moscow

RiffTrax: Missile to the Moon is another grade-z movie made fun by the RiffTrax crew of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. It seems that a scientist isn't going to be allowed to send his missle to the moon - budget cutbacks or something. When he discovers that some escapees from juvenile hall have stowed aboard, he takes off, with another scientist couple along for the ride.

Unfortunately, he stored some batteries on a high shelf and didn't secure them properly, so he is killed pretty much right off.

It's really too bad, because it turns out the moon in inhabited by sex-ay babes and no men. Of course, the queen (or "Lido") gets a hankering for the remaining male scientist, mainly because she is blind. He tries to give her the Lido Shuffle while keeping his Earth girlfriend from flipping out. Meanwhile, the bad delinquent is getting the good delinquent into trouble. And so forth.

In conclusion, of course, there is gratuitous interpretive dancing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keep Cranking

Crank 2: High Voltage begins where Crank leaves off: with Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) dead on the road, having fallen from a helicopter. Or is he dead? Maybe he just blinked. Suddenly (nothing in this series happens gradually), a van pulls up, and loads Chev up. He is taken to an underground clinic (in a massage parlour?), where his heart is removed and replaced with an artificial model.

It seems that an elderly Chinese crime boss, Poon Dong (David Carradine) needed a heart transplant, and Chev did survive the Chinese poison of the first movie. He will be kept alive so that other organs (below the belt, hint, hint) can be harvested. Of course, he breaks free. Of course, his artificial battery pack runs down. Of course, he can recharge it through:
  • Jumper cables from a car battery
  • Body friction from public sex
  • Getting tasered
  • And so forth
And so he starts the search for his heart so that his faithful scrip doctor (Dwight Yoakum) can re-install it. We get mayhem, strippers, pornstars, racial insensitivity, more mayhem, public sex, and so on.

My favorite bit has Chev and his nemesis in black-and-white, with Rondo Hatton acromegaly facial prostheses battling each other as colossal beasts in a power substation - sweet tribute to The Brute Man and War of the Colossal Beast.

Really, I don't know why I bothered to review this. If you liked Crank, I expect you'll like this too.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Black and Blacker

The Act of Violence / Mystery Street double bill turned out to be a very good deal.

We started with Mystery Street, a 1950 John Sturges (Magnificent Seven) procedural. It starts with a look at the life of a bar girl trying to get something out of a man on Cape Cod. She leaves a pretty big trail - she lets people overhear her phone conversations, writes down his phone number, even hijacks a drunk so she can take his car out to the Cape. That's the last we see of her.

About 6 months later, an unidentified skeleton turns up on the beach. It's Barnstable's youngest detective's job to find out who the skeleton was, and how it died. This detective is Ricardo Montalban ("Kha-a-a-a-a-n!").

They only put in two lines to justify a Hispanic detective in old New England - he says he's been working with the Portuguese (a big fishing community in the area). And when a New Englander from a pre-Mayflower family tries to give him attitude, he puts him right in his place.

He teams up with a Harvard doctor, doing some early CSI-style forensics. Little by little, he traces the skeleton to the girl, and then it all breaks open. It's a well done little film with some fun characters (Elsa Lanchester as an evil landlady), nice location filming around Harvard and Bunker Hill, and a strong story. Worth watching.

Next, Act of Violence (1948) with Van Heflin as a successful business, a war veteran with a wife and young son. He will soon meet up with Robert Ryan, a war "buddy", crippled, bitter and contemplating violence. What is the dark secret of his past? What will he do to keep it secret?

This one starts out tense, but ratchets the tension way up to the sticking point, as Heflin gets more and more desperate. He meets up with b-girl Mary Astor, who might help him out or get him in deeper. She shows a lot of courage in this role, looking nice but roughly used, hopeful and despairing at once.

The outcome is inevitable and somewhat ridiculous, but at least it ends the tension.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Thing

If anybody reading this knows our friend Tippy, tell him we finally watched The Thing. In the 80's, he offered to show us this on tape, but promised to fast forward straight to the gross stuff. We declined his kind offer, but he went right ahead. It didn't take much fast forwarding to get to the gross stuff. I think we finally got him to stop the tape, or maybe we fainted.

We have been afraid to look at it since. But since we've become such big John Carpenter fans (They Live, Ghosts of Mars, etc) we finally decided to go for it. Good choice.

The story is based on a hoary old John W. Campbell short, "Who Goes There?", and to a lesser degree, Howard Hawks' 1951 The Thing from Another World. A dog comes running into an isolated Antarctic research post, being chased by some Norwegians in a helicopter. The copter crashes and the dog turns out to be... OK, I'll skip the spoilers. But there are blood and guts, canine, human, and inhuman.

The movie bears a strong resemblance to Alien: the funky, lazy slacker crew, the tension, and the disgusting special effects. It also seems to have a stronger script, a bigger budget and tighter production than a lot of his films. In fact, it might be his masterpiece. (But I think I still like They Live better.)

Anyway, thanks Tippy. Sorry we were such wimps.

Dragon Food

I rewatched Dragon Inn mainly for one scene. I'll get to that.

The plot: Bad guys eunuchs, blah blah, good guys MacGuffin, blah blah blah. They wind up at the Dragon Inn, a desert outpost near the western border. Dragon Inn is a filthy roadhouse, run by sexy and violent Maggie Cheung. Example: She offers a smuggler access to her secret tunnel, or her love tunnel. When he tries for both, she kills him and has him butchered for the "spicy meat buns".

To this honky tonk come good guys Brigit Lin, Tony Leung Ka Fai, et al. Lin is as beautiful as Cheung, but as upstanding as Cheung is loose. You know they will have to fight. So Cheung finds Lin in the bath and starts to taunt her. Lin, in the nude and at a loss, attacks Cheung and steals a piece of clothing. The fight ends up with Lin dressed and Maggie Cheung nude on the roof of the inn, singing as the sun rises.

There are a lot of fights, melees, cavalry/archery attacks, etc. The style is fantastic wire-work, often in slo-mo. The non-action scenes are generally just as beautiful. The plot, which I mocked, is top-notch, not too simplistic or impossible to follow. This is a good one.

In conclusion: Brigit Lin, Maggie Cheung and enough clothes for only one of them.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Magic Afoot!

If you are not familiar with Terry Pratchett, perhaps we should all wait until you've gone out, bought The Color of Magic, come back and read it, and then proceed. Or we can just note that his 35+ Discworld books are all-time topsellers in England, and are well-loved the world over. They take place on a world that is a flat disc on the back of four elephants, on the back of the great turtle Atu'in, where magic works. They are hilarious, thought-provoking and addictive - and there are a ton of them. If you like Hitchhiker's Guide, imagine if Douglas Adams had written 30 more books just as funny.

If you do know Terry Pratchett (and to know him is to love him), maybe you didn't know that he has a few made-for-tv Discworld movies out, like The Color of Magic.Well, he does.

It's hard to say how funny this would be to people who haven't read the books, but to me, it is hilarious. There are a few name actors:
  • Tim Curry as Trymon, a sorceror advancing rapidly through the ranks at the Unseen University, because his seniors seem to die a lot
  • Christopher Lee as the voice of Death
  • Jeremy Irons as the deadly Patrician, ruler of Ankh-Morpork
  • Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee) as Twoflower, the first Tourist the Discworld has ever known
The actors I didn't recognize are even more fun - lots of wrinkly bearded guys for the wizards and of course, Cohen the barbarian, who's getting on in years.

Best of all, this movie comes in 2 parts, each over 90 minutes long. Three hours of prime Pratchett.

Even better, there's another in the series, based on the holiday-themed Hogfather. We'll queue that up in December.

In conclusion, watch for Pratchett's cameo as Astrogeographer 2.