Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Straight Outta Russia

From Russia With Love is the second James Bond movie, and it takes, I think, a slight detour. Although we have all of the elements of a classic James Bond - the gadgets, the girls, the exotic locales - the overall effect is somewhat more realistic, less of a fantasy and further from camp then later episodes. In fact, I don't think it gets this real until Daniel Craig.

The plot involves an ex-SMERSH colonel, now with SPECTRE, one Rosa Klebb. She has a plan to get a Russian code machine from the embassy in Istanbul - let James Bond steal it, then steal it back. The mechanism will involve a beautiful Russian woman in the code dept. A good plan, since Bond can't resist a beautiful woman. But a flawed plan, since beautiful women can't resist James Bond.

I should mention here that Klebb is played by Lotte Lenya - Kurt Weill's Lotte Lenya, the Pirate Jenny herself. A cold, vicious woman, but one who understands the attraction of a beautiful woman. A compelling performance and the clear inspiration for Austin Power's Frau Farbissina.

There is intrigue, assassination, explosions and a fight on a train. There is a helicopter and a boat chase. But nothing crazy, no ski parachuting or tanks in downtown St. Petersburg. The franchise dropped that idea fast, and it took a while to get back to it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Fooking Bruges

In Bruges was nominated for an Academy award for best screenplay, and it's pretty obvious why. This is a very screenplay-y movie - in a good way. Tons of clever dialog, weird situations and tricky twists.

The setup: two British gangsters are told to go to Bruges and hide out after a hit. The older, comfortable chubby Brendan Gleeson, seems to find Bruges quite nice. The younger, edgy, uptight Colin Farrel, thinks its a shithole. They will have a number of philosophical discussions about this, and have a few adventures, before the movie is over. They will also meet a cute Belgian girl, a midget (he prefers to be called a dwarf), and their boss, played by Ralph Fiennes.

Although this blog has approx. 0 readers (sorry, Schprock), I still want to avoid spoilers, so I'll sort of clam up now. But I do want to discuss the midget (Jordan Prentice - though I'm sorry to say I thought he was Peter Dinklage).

He basically had the Neil Patrick Harris role: Like NPH in the Harold and Kumar movies, he is an actor who does bad things (drugs, prostitutes, politically incorrect utterances) but is open to our heroes. He is in some ways completely honest about his desires and the world around him, making him an admirable character. I wonder if this is a new "type".

Hollywood Story

The story of 365 Nights in Hollywood is a simple one. A young director has fallen on hard times, reduced to teaching in a Hollywood clipjoint acting school. In walks Alice Faye, fresh from Peoria, and he begins to feel again. Then a sucker with some money shows up, and it's time to make a movie. But will the crooked president of the school, the police and his own personal demons let him finish it?

Not really much of a story. I liked it better when Steve Martin did it in Bowfinger. So I guess I'd have to say it's all about Alice Faye. She's got a great look, sweet and tough, a look like Jean Harlow's. She apparently can sing and dance, but we only get a couple of numbers from her, and none of them are anything special.

So, it all adds up to a weak backstage musical, with some musical numbers, some pathos, some romance and some comedy. Skip it, I guess.

Also featuring the work of the knock-about comic duo Mitchell and Durant. They deliver ice, they want to be actors, they throw each other around. They aren't that funny.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Movie Time!

I've added a little side bar over to the right called "Movie Time". It shows links to a few movie theaters (or "theatres") that I want to keep up to date on.

You know, I never go to the movies. I always watch DVDs (or sometimes tapes) at home. The advantages are obvious. No loud talkers, no screaming kids, and I can pause to go to the bathroom or mix a drink. Heck, you can't even get beverage service in most movie theaters.

But I used to go to a lot of movies. We used to go to the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline 2-3 times a week, for a samurai double feature. When we moved to CA, I went to the Bijou in Palo Alto, now Gordon-Biersch Brewery and the Palo Alto, now Borders Bookstore. Also, a little place whose name I can't remember, where the first few rows were beanbag chairs, now an Italian restaurant or something.

I still go to the Stanford sometimes - an amazing rejuvenated movie palace playing an amazing repertory lineup, supported by the Packard Foundation. There's even a mighty Wurlitzer that plays between films and during silents.

Reading the film blogs, I get the sense of a great film appreciation culture. I've spotlighted 3 theaters that I've never been to, but want to:
  • New Beverly: great repertory
  • Egyptian: home of the American Cinematheque
  • Mission Tiki: Last of the great drive-ins?
I have friends in So. CA. Someday I'll visit these thaters.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Immortal, Illegal and Fattening

I can see how some people could get confused by Immortal. It's pretty off the wall - It takes place in a 22nd-century dystopian steampunk NY full of mutants and body mods, with an Egyptian pyramid hovering overhead and Central Park a frigid alien Intrusion Zone.

The plot involves Horus, an Egyptian immortal from the pyramid coming to the city to impregnate a human woman, the blue-lipped Jill (who cries blue tears, has no memory, is telepathic and is probably not human). He does this by co-opting the body of the dissident Nikopol, who has been in cryostasis for 30 years.

There are subplots about Jill's alien mentor, John, who keeps his face wrapped like a black mummy and wears a trenchcoat like everyone else in the city. There's a fat evil senator and his beautiful assistant or puppetmaster. There's the evil Eugenics Corp., and their sympathetic doctor, played by Charlotte Rampling. A series of murders and the police detective investigating. Probably some other stuff. I can see how this is confusing.

But not if you completely ignore the story and just go with the visuals. I'm sure that's what the filmmakers did. This is written and directed by comic artist Enki Bilal, based on a series of graphic novels, and it shows. The backgrounds are all or mostly computer animated, and so are most of the characters. Only Nikopol, Jill and Rampling's doctor are filmed as actors, rather than being animated. Actually, that's a little disorienting, because the real actors have a very different texture than the animated ones. But - whether it makes sense or not, it always looks cool.

Still, what this movie is really about is art direction, pure and simple. In that way, it is similar to last week's Babylon A.D. In fact, they have a lot in common: Gritty post-apocalytic dystopia, McGuffin girl gets pregnant, Charlotte Rampling (she was the bad guy in B.A.D.). There are also hints of Fifth Element, for instance, the retro-forties-look flying cars.

In conclusion, it's another one of those movies. Not the greatest - about like Babylon A.D. I like this kind of movie, but I wish they were better.

A close relative of this type of movie has the female lead as the action hero, not McGuffin - like Aeon Flux orUltraviolet. Maybe I should be watching more of those.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Merry Christmas, Phillip Marlow

I had heard a lot about Lady in the Lake, but I didn't realize it was a Christmas movie. I knew that it was directed by Robert Montgomery, and that he starred in it as Phillip Marlow, but you almost never saw him, because it is presented as if through Marlow's. And I knew that it was considered a failed experiment.

It starts with Robert Montgomery sitting in Phillip Marlow's office, telling us, the audience, the camera, that he wasn't making any money as a detective, so he had started writing detective stories. Right away, we're getting totally meta:
  1. A character in a detective story is writing detective stories.
  2. The character is talking directly at us - but -
  3. You can read the name on the inside of the door, and Marlow's pocket square in on the wrong side of his suit. He's talking to a mirror!
So, the post-modern structuralist in me is loving this already. In the following scenes, we see everything from Marlow's point of view, sometimes seeing his hands, or his reflection in other mirrors. This is the part that some people consider a failed experiment, but I thought it was effective:
  1. Characters interacting with Marlow look straight into the camera and into your eyes. I find this quite compelling.
  2. Robert Montgomery doesn't really look much like a Phillip Marlow, and we don't have to see him much.
This second point is somewhat problematic. I like Montgomery, both as actor and director, but I think he misjudges himself. He imagines himself a Cary Grant with a little Bogart mixed in, but he's more a younger, cleanshaven Robert Benchley. His tough guy accent doesn't quite work either, clearly based on Bogart but not quite steady.

But that's ok, we don't see him much. We do get to see a lot of his co-star, Audrey Totter. She's a classic film noir tough dame, sub-type: classy. She's worth looking at for her hairstyle alone.

Plus, this all takes place over Christmas. Not sure what that has to do with anything.

On the downside, the plot is a little random, and we never do get to see the lady or the lake. The actress playing the lady is famously billed as Ellay Morte. Or is she?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Babble on

I don't really know what to say about Babylon A.D. It sounds pretty promising in overview: Vin Diesel is a lone mercenary in the near future Eastern Europe. He is hired to transport a beautiful and innocent young woman from a convent in Kyrgyzstan to New York, accompanied by her guardian nun, Maggie Cheung. On the way, there is plenty of dystopian mayhem and even some David Belle parkour hi-jinks. What could go wrong?
  1. The plot is a total mess. It vaguely makes sense, but doesn't exactly hold together. It was made from a Maurice Dantec's Babylon Babies, a novel that must be beloved by someone. I bet they had to leave a lot out.
  2. The action is not that well staged or edited. The car chases are OK, but the fist fights and melees are definitely lacking. David Belle's troupe is definitely wasted. The missile drones vs snowmobile scene wasn't bad, but didn't really ignite for me.
  3. Maggie Cheung, thrown away on a role that was way beneath her.
So, was it that bad? I guess not. I like Vin Diesel, though Mrs. Spenser thinks he looks like a soft guy who thinks he is tough. The McGuffin girl, played by Melanie Thierry, is a doll. Too bad she is so similar to The Fifth Element's LeeLoo (Milla Jovovich). By the way, Thierry Arbogast was cinematographer for that film as well as Babylon A.D. Coincidence?

In fact, the art direction is quite nice, if you like post-apocalyptics, and don't mind a lot of product placement (thanks, Bowflex, Oakley, Coke!). Really, it's just a run-of-the-mill big-budget action flick. Better than some, but not better than many.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Broad, a Gun, and a Kid

I consider myself to be a cineaste, which I think means someone who watches films instead of movies. But there are a lot of holes in my education - for instance, I've never seen anything directed by John Cassavetes. Until Gloria.

I partly wanted to see this because it stars Gena Rowlands. I partly wanted to see it because of the plot, which gets recycled over and over: A tough woman has to protect a child she doesn't want (see Ultraviolet). Here's what I got:

New York, the end of the seventies, by Yankee Stadium. It's gritty, but green. Attractive but menacing. A woman is being followed. In her small apartment, her husband (Buck Henry) tells her they have to take the kids and leave, right away. There is a knock on the door.

It's not a mob hitman, it's their neighbor Gloria (Gena Rowlands). In her whiskey and cigarettes drawl, she asks to borrow some caaawfee. Before you know it, the family is dead, all killed by mob hitmen except for a 6 year old boy, and he and Gloria are on the run.

That's most of the setup except for this little twist: Gloria knows the mobsters that hit the family. They are her friends. She is connected. And when they come for the kid, she knows what to do - she opens fire first, and leaves them dead in a flaming wreck.

So that's the story - Gena Rowlands and a kid on the run from mobsters in New York. The rest is atmosphere and technique. Rowlands is brilliant - pure B-movie broad. She hates kids, never wanted to cross her friends, but won't let anyone get in her way. The kid, John Adames, is quite a little man - he is dressed in a kind of disco shirt and dress pants that come up high under his ribcage, so he looks more like a midget than a 6-year old. So, not always 100% believable as a kid whose family was just killed brutally. But who knows?

I took two things away from watching this:
  1. God, it was intense. Brutal!
  2. New York is a dangerous place, but very beautiful. The people can be harsh but they give. Gloria is constantly running into cabbies, bartenders and diner owners who help her out. Maybe it only works for good-looking broads of a certain age.

If Chins Could Talk

I guess I should start out: You either get Bruce Campbell or you don't. If you don't, you won't be interested in My Name Is Bruce.

The story is familiar - a small town is threatened, and they call on the only hero they know. But the hero is not a hero, he only plays one in movies. They have mistaken the character for the actor. I don't know how far this goes back, the only example I can think of is Three Amigos.

So, Bruce Campbell plays Bruce Campbell, a down-and-out, egotistical asshole of a C-movie actor. It is unclear how much of this is intended as fiction. He is kidnapped by a teen fan, who wants him to save the little town of Gold Lick from an undead monster (who has a little theme song and everything). Bruce takes this as a kind of joke/audience participation theater piece and plays along with it (like The Man Who Knew Too Little). He soon finds out that he's in way over his head. He tries to run away, but the teen fan's mom has an amazing rack... So it's time to go Ash on the monster.

This little gem, directed by Campbell, is full of little Bruce Campbell in-jokes. For instance, he drinks "Shemp" brand bourbon. A "false Shemp" is Campbell/Raimi's term for an actor whose face isn't shown, who could be played by anyone. A lot of these jokes are explained in the "Making of" featurette: Heart of Dorkness. Since the movie is only about 70 minutes long, you should watch Heart as well. Besides, it's just about as funny as the movie.

In conclusion, a must for all Bruce Campbell fans. For non-fans, try Bubba Ho-Tep.


I have a few issues with Jet Li's The Enforcer.For one, Jet Li is not the Enforcer; there are no enforcers in the movie. I'll get to the other later.

Jet Li plays a Beijing undercover cop. Nobody knows his real job, not his sick wife or his 10-year old kung fu champion son. He sent to Hong Kong to infiltrate a gang by busting a gangster out of prison, so he leaves his son and wife to deal with the disgrace.

I generally don't care for family drama, but this is handled quite well. The Beijing backstreets are beautifully filmed, and the son is given a great treatment. And they deliver this without stinting on the action, with two good fight scenes in the first 20 minutes. I guess director Corey Yuen has the skill and the budget to pull off both.

In Hong Kong, Li gets involved in an outrageous melee, and is noticed by police detective Anita Mui. I know Mui from the iconic The Heroic Trio - co-starring with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh. She has unusual looks - a broken nose and bulging eyes, and she is not really a martial artist. Actually, she is a pop star, a sort of Hong Kong Madonna type. She's a good actress, however, and very magnetic. She passed away in 2003, and she'll be missed.

Investigating Li, she winds up in Beijing and befriends his wife and son. So when his wife dies (not really a spoiler, is that?), she takes his son back with her to Hong Kong. The upshot of this is the big finale, where Li and son take on all of the bad guys at once. This one scene makes the whole movie worthwhile.

My major gripe? - SPOILER - Li's wife dies mainly to clear the decks so he can end up with Mui. Couldn't they have waited a week or two?

In conclusion: Is Jet Li now my favorite martial arts movie star, beating out Jackie Chan? He is certainly a better actor, capable of drama and humor, while Chan only really excels at humor, and slapstick at that. He is equally fast and skillful, I would say, although at their level, it's hard for me to say. Chan still strikes me as a better fight choreographer. Oh Jet, Jackie, do I have to decide?