Thursday, January 29, 2009

Half Fast

The Fast and the Furious - not the Vin Diesel version, the one from 1955 - was one of Roger Corman's first productions. It is an almost perfect example of his work, except it's missing Beverly Garland.

John Ireland directs and stars as a truck driver accused of murder and on the lam. He carjacks Dorothy Malone and her hot Jag at a So. Cal. mountain hash house. His plan: enter the car in an international roadrace that crosses the border into Mexico, and keep going.

We get a battle of the sexes - rough truck driver/wanted criminal vs. rich girl sports car racer. We get speedy sports cars zooming around California hills. We get footage of an actual race - Pebble Beach, apparently - which saves Corman some money while adding real thrills.

The racing looks fun - the opening credits show cars zooming around the roads above Malibu (I guess), but I couldn't figure out why they kept pulling off the road to stop and get going again. Oh, I get it, they're skidding off the road. That's different.

I'd call it a well-made B-movie with cool cars. I wonder what the remake is like?

Oscar Knight

We have been invited to an Oscar party this year, by a nice couple who possibly don't realize how little we care about the Oscars. Possibly they don't care whether we care. Any excuse for a party, you know. And this year, we've actually seen a few of the movies in contention: In fact, we just saw two movies featuring Best Supporting Actor nominees

Tropic Thunder is a Ben Stiller war movie parody. Stiller is a washed-up action star whose attempt to go serious as the mentally challenged Simple Jack has driven him back to the action format. The comeback attempt is Tropic Thunder, a Vietnam war movie. He is accompanied by Jack Black, playing a drug-loving fart joke comic (inspired by Chris Farley), Brandon Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino, Jay Baruchel as an unknown rookie actor in the "Brooklyn" role and Robert Downey Jr., who gets the nomination.

He plays an Australian actor who gets into his parts so deeply that he has a surgical procedure to make him African American. That's right, Downey plays the part in blackface, with an accent based on Bill Cosby's. The funny thing is, the movie took more flack for the discussion of Stiller's "retard" role.

This is an interesting movie, with some layers - the movie within the movie, the references to other movies like Apocalypse Now, the actor's identity issues. There are some improvised scenes (I'd guess), but it's mostly tight. And funny.

Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight has long been a favorite for an Academy Award. His death before the film's release was grist for the gossip mill, but I don't think this will be a sympathy vote. The role is a tour de force - a study in madness. He plays the character in full makeup, sloppy, runny makeup covering the scars that make him grin. His tongue flicks at his lips like a serpent's, or someone whose medications are giving him cottonmouth. His voice work is unique, but includes a touch of Nicholson, a little Popeye, and is totally Joker.

Christian Bales' handles the Batman role well - maybe the best Batman yet (Adam west excepted, as always). The political themes of DK are interesting - can vigilantism be acceptable - but they don't get in the way of the action much.

I don't think we've seen anything else that's nominated, except Hellboy II for makeup. And I think either Downey or Ledger's makeup beats Perlman's.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cosmo for Boys

I may have mentioned previously my opinion that the Cosmopolitan is one of the great cocktails of the 20th century. Designed more or less as a Lemondrop with some cranberry juice to turn it pink, it has sophisticated flavor, not too sweet, not too strong. And it has a lovely pink color - the white lime juice seems to make the cranberry color glow.

But, of course, it is a drink for girls. Even before Sex in the City, even ignoring the woman's mag it is named after, just look at the color. It's pink! What am I to do, a guy who likes cosmos? Simply switch out red cranberry juice and clear triple sec, switch in white cranberry juice and blue curacao and voila!

Cosmo for Boys

1 jigger vodka
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. blue curacao
1 oz. white cranberry juice

Shake over ice and strain into a martini glass

I actually make mine with a cranberry eau de vie ("Waldhimbeer spirituose") a friend sent me from Germany. But this is not an weapon found in everybody's arsenal.

Monday, January 19, 2009


No, this won't be a review of The Spirit. It's about Miyazaki's masterpiece Spirited Away. It's the animated story of Chihiro, a 10-year old girl who is moving with her parents to a new town, and isn't too happy about it. Her father takes a shortcut and winds up at what he thinks in an abandoned amusement park. But it turns out to be part of the spirit world, and her parents are turned into pigs when they chow down on the spirit food. It's up to Chihiro to save them.

She winds up at the baroque spa where spirits go to be rejuvenated. It is run by a nasty witch, but her henchman is a nice young man who helps Chihiro out. In fact, most of the people (spirits) she meets are rather nasty and rather nice, in various measures. She starts out afraid, but tries to be polite, open-minded and fair, and -- SPOILER -- everything works out OK for her.

The story actually has some holes in it, I felt. The menace was sometimes missing, the villains too cuddly. That henchman who helps Chihiro, I think we are supposed to be suspicious of him, but he akways seems sincere. That may have been intentional, but I think a liitle more ambiguity would have worked better.

But the character design and artwork was fantastic (literally and figuratively), with monsters that were both fresh and traditional feeling - both to Japanese mainstream and anime traditions. It all had a lovely flavor of old-time Japan, where old times are from medieval times to the 1970s. There is a scene on a train - just a quiet train ride on an old train through a flooded country. I've been on those trains, going from nowhere special to someplace quaint. It's very nostalgic, even if it isn't that old, and not part of your history anyway.

I don't know if people who've never been to Japan react the same way. But I thought it was sweet.

Movie Miracle

Is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek the greatest movie ever? Tough call. It has director Preston Sturges and stars Eddie Bracken and Betty Hutton. It has cameos from McGinty and the Boss (Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff). William Demerest and Diana Lynn have supporting roles. Let's just say, one of the greatest movies ever.

It's 1944. Small-town boy Eddie Bracken can't get into the army, because he sees spots when he gets excited. His childhood sweetheart is Betty Hutton, a sweet kid who is wild about a man in uniform. She goes to a dance for the servicemen who are shipping out, hits her head and wakes up married and pregnant. But she can't remember who she got married to.

Now, Betty Hutton I've talked about. A great comic talent, a beauty not afraid to look goofy, boundless energy. Her life was interesting - some of the energy came from pills, and her career had amazing ups and downs. We didn't get to see enough of her in decent roles. Eddie Bracken is also a great underused talent, buggy-eyed and "homely in the face".

William Demerest is Betty's father, the town constable and ex-Army sergeant. He plays a tough guy, but pulls several broad slapstick pratfalls. I nver knew he had that kind of physical comedy in him.

Diana Lynn plays her canny kid sister. You may not know the name, but you know the role. She's cute, precocious and vicious. She tries to convince pregnant Betty to marry Bracken: "But he's made for it! Like an ox is made for eating, or the grape for drinking."

I won't spoil the happy ending, but Betty and Eddie must split up, as Eddie goes to hunt for Betty's husband, whose name may or may not be "Ratzkiwatski".

In conclusion, Ratzkiwatski!

Reflections on a Golden Eye

One of our New Year's Eve movies this year was Thunderball. (Fun fact: My sister met her husband at the resort where much of this movie was filmed.) It got us on a James Bond kick, starting with GoldenEye.

GoldenEye is Pierce Brosnan's first Bond, and I think he does a creditable job. When this came out, it was too close to Remington Steele, I couldn't take him seriously. Now, he seems quite credible, suave yet tough. His part is written as a bit grittier than some of the classic Bonds - not so campy. Nothing like the grim Daniel Craig, but not a comic book either.

Which is not to say that it is totally realistic, like, say, From Russia with Love. The carchase with a tank and armored train comes to mind.

We'll be going back to the early Bonds, then dip into the careers of each Bond. I don't think we'll watch every movie (30 so far?), but we'll end up much better educated in the corpus.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Maybe you have to have been around 8 years old in 1964 to really get The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If there's anyone younger around, could you watch some of this and tell me if Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are just as cool as James Bond, or am I just nuts?

Robert Vaughan as Solo is a suave ladies' man, but David MacCallum's Kuryakin was the best: Beatle haircut, black turtleneck, intellectual vibe - Spock to Vaughan's Kirk. They work at U.N.C.L.E, for Alexander Waverly, played by bassett-faced Leo G. Carroll. What a team.

Early episodes are shot in stylish black and white, with nice low-angle close ups, and other noir touches. They are mostly serious, with a little humor thrown in - the series gets absurdist in later seasons.

We've watched the first three episodes. All shared one motif: an ordinary woman gets caught up in the espionage. It's an interesting theme - I wonder if they use it often in the first season. Well, there are about 30 1-hour episodes in the first season and we're going to watch them all...

By the way, if you like Honey West, you'll like this. And Anne Francis plays a villain in episode 3, The Quadripartite Affair.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

I Love My Mummy

Man, I wish I hadn't read any of the online reviews for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Apparently, it's the worst movie ever made. And there I was, enjoying it and all.

First, the plot: Our heroes, Brendan Fraser and wife (played by Maria Bello this time, not Rachel Weisz), stagnating in the leisure class, jump at the chance to deliver a McGuffin to Shanghai. There, they visit Bello's brother's nightclub (played by a guy who looks like Jonathan Pryce, but isn't). They run into their son, who has been excavating in the Chinese desert. And he's found a mummy.

The mummy turns out to be an ancient Chinese emperor, played by Jet Li, but mostly played by CGI. He starts out as a terracotta statue, ends up as a 3-headed dragon. He is opposed by an ancient witch, played by Michelle Yeoh, with a cute daughter and some Yeti friends.

Now, the problems:
  • The family drama is kind of lame: the couple is bored after all their adventures, Mom is over-protective of Son, Dad is distant and withholds praise, yada, yada.
  • Jet Li is barely in the movie - his character is mostly CGI. Michelle Yeoh does somewhat better. They have a fight and it is obvious that the director doesn't know what to do with them.
  • I was constantly reminded of "better" movies, especially Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In the Chinese nightclub, I kept expecting Kate Capshaw to start singing "Anything Goes" in Chinese. And when they are flying over the Himalayas, I kept expecting them to go sledding in a rubber raft.
But who cares? The action scenes were well-done and plenty of them. Brendan Fraser is so appealing, I just love him in anything (including George of the Jungle). Michelle Yeoh is captivating, just gorgeous, even in her small part.

I'm not sure why I liked this overall, but not Hellboy II. Was it really a better movie, or was I just in a better mood?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Do the Hustle

Mentioned Stephen Chow a while ago, for a "lesser" work. This week, we re-watched Kung Fu Hustle, one of his best.

Like Shaolin Soccer, this shows Chow in full control, with a great cast and a big budget. The Axe Gang ruthlessly controls ca. 40s Hong Kong - with a little disco dance to prove it. Chow and a porcine friend pretend to be members in order to shake down a slum called Pigsty Alley. But the landlady, in her curlers and bathrobe shuts them down. When the actual Axe Gang gets involved, we find that there may be some secret masters hiding in the slum.

Chow and his pal are brilliantly inept, and the Axe Gang and the secret masters are dazzling brilliant. Like Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle is full of absurdities and in-jokes. For example, when Chow first shows up, some kids kick him a soccer ball. He does a few tricks then stomps the ball flat - "No more soccer!".

Another gag has thousands of black-clad, sunglass-wearing assailants attacking one defender, ala the Burley Brawl from the Matrix. And it comes out fresh and sharp.

Great kung fu, great comedy, great movie.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Murder by Boredom

We ran out of movies so we went to our Watch Instantly queue. Our setup isn't really ideal for this - sharing a laptop at an awkward distance, poor speaker placement, etc. With the right film, this can be overcome. Unfortunately, we picked Murder by Death.

We knew it was Neil Simon going in, and were willing to accept that risk. We had enjoyed Clue, another murder mystery spoof in an old, dark house, and that didn't get very good reviews. But MbD - well, it stunk on ice.

The idea is that 5 great detectives and their sidekicks are invited to a murder at a spooky house by "Lionel Twain" (Truman Capote). If you like the name, I'm sorry, I've just spoiled the best joke in the movie. The detectives are:
  • Peter Sellers doing Charlie Chan - not as funny as you'd think
  • Peter Falk doing Sam Spade - pretty funny: his Bogart is quite good
  • James Coco underplaying Hercule Poirot - still pretty hammy
  • David Niven and Maggie Smith as Nick and Nora Charles - dull
  • Elsa Lanchester doing Miss Marple - charming but underplayed
Actually, that sounds pretty good when I write it down. Neil Simon probably had the same experience. But then he did nothing with it.

The jokes are predictable or missing. The plot is nonsensical with arbitrary twists (that are hammered home in the most leaden manner imaginable). The whole thing is a waste. Clue will give you some idea of what can be done with the exact same premise (I wonder if they cribbed from MbD or just from the same sources?).

From now on, when I see the name "Neil Simon", I'll think of wit, sophistication, cleverness - that's what he's missing.

In conclusion: I wonder if Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? is any good?


OK, so Semi-Pro doesn't have the metaphysical whimsy of Stranger than Fiction. And it wasn't as funny as Talladega Nights or Blades of Glory. Instead, it's just what you'd expect from a Will Ferrell sports comedy.

We get the backstory in a montage under the credits: It's the 70's, Ferrell had a "once-popular" disco hit, and used the money to buy the Flint Tropics, a lame ABA basketball team. He is team promoter, coach and forward. Pretty economic storytelling, maybe the last in the movie.

The conflict: The ABA is merging with the NBA, but only the 4 best teams - the rest will be dissolved. That means the Tropics, unless they can get some fans and win some games. Washed-up ex-Celtic Woody Harrelson is brought in, even though he can't jump.

You get Ferrell being manic, self-involved, supremely confident and incompetent (in scenes that look pretty improvised). You get goofy 70's atmosphere (fondue, the new taste sensation) and a funky soundtrack. You get sports training montages, games (Andre 3K as their star player) and goofy promotional stunts. You get the gritty glory of Flint Michigan.

Wish you got more laughs, but you take what you can get.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Making Merry

I don't even know how Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round got to the top of our queue. We had a "Long Wait" DVD on the queue (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), because we were out of town and had a long time to wait. But that's not how Netflix works. They just skipped The Man and delivered the next DVD on the list, Dead Heat.

Now, I am obsessive about my Netflix queue, but only for the next few deliveries. Past positions 1-3, there are mostly films I've passed over many times, or films I want to get to, but not just yet. I will be more careful if there is a "Long Wait" or even a "Short Wait" - make sure that 4-6 are films I would like to see this weekend as well.

So, Dead Heat: A caper film from 1966 starring James Coburn as a slick conman planning a big heist. His modus involves seducing housemaids and copying the keys of their wealthy employers. But that's just to get the money for the plans to the alarm for the bank... And so on. A visit by the Soviet Prime Minister supplies a diversion and some topical interest.

The plot is cheerfully unlikely, there are plenty of funny scenes, and it's fun to watch Coburn slay the ladies. But that's about as far as it goes. This is nowhere near as funny as the Flint movies, for ex - more Matt Helm territory.

So, not a total waste of time, and not just of historical interest. But I should have been watching my queue more carefully.

Hellboy in a Handbasket

We wanted to love Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and almost made it. It had everything that makes the Hellboy franchise so appealing:
  • Elaborate, steam-punkish art direction
  • A rich cast of characters with a deep backstory
  • Ron Perlman's charmingly rough-edged demon with a heart
It starts out well, with a villain attacking an art auction while the Paranormal Researchers squabble and interact. There's a good set piece fighting some little nasties. Then things start to bog down. Hellboy's girlfriend, Selma Blair, isn't very solidly grounded - she is supposed to be very shy and self-conscious and have trouble controlling her flame-creating powers. Instead, she seems to have no personality or power control issues, but instead is called on to act as the standard bitch girlfriend.

Then, things seem to start dragging in general. A new character teaches Hellboy a Valuable Life Lesson that doesn't pay off in any real way. Abe Sapiens acts like a dope, and it isn't that funny - but that's partly because I don't think Barry Manilow songs are funny. By the time we get to the big fight at the end, we're a little bored and restless. The fight is good, but there are some issues of logic: The villain has a twin sister that gets hurt when he does. I guess you can figure out the twist, but a half-dozen other obvious consequences are ignored.

Well, I have to admit, I was somewhat jetlagged and might have slept through some good parts. I know I lost consciousness a few times, so maybe I missed the stuff that would tie it all together. Mrs. Spenser stayed awake for the whole thing, though, and agrees.

Oh well, I'll still watch Hellboy III if they make it.