Monday, April 27, 2009

A Remembrance of Times Past, Redux

What can I say about Ashes of Time Redux? A mystic meditation on life, death and memory? A Hong Kong action film without the action? That and more.

It seems to be about a man who lives in the desert who sells the services of professional killers. We hear his voice over discussing the seasons. We meet one of his killers, who has a jug of wine that erases your memories. The killer drinks deeply, but not our narrator. The next day the killer leaves: "That was the last time I ever saw him."

That becomes a theme: that people are never seen again. I suppose in the professional killing game, this is to be expected. Another is identity: it's not always clear who everyone is, and at least one character (Brigitte Lin) is both a prince and princess. Since the movie includes both Tony Leungs, and 3 Cheungs (Leslie, Maggie, Jackie), this confusion extends to the casting.

Another theme is memory and forgetfulness. Another is the desert, and water. Director Kar Wai Wong filmed this with hyper-colors (or restored it that way - he withdrew this film and re-edited it, possibly adding color filters). It's a bit surrealistic - the desert glows red, and shadows glow blue. The effect is beautiful, but perhaps too artificial. Or perhaps artifice is another theme.

The plot actually all becomes clear (I think, I'm a little confused about the brother and the blind swordsman). It plays out slowly, with digressions and flashbacks. Since some characters have amnesia and others are "never seen again", this can be confusing. Frankly, I'm used to having no clue in these wu shia movies. Usually, I just enjoy the action, but here, the action is limited, and rather abstract (directed by Sammo Hung). So I just enjoy the art, the composition, the light, the shadows, the texture.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Spirited Defense

Is all the hatred of Frank Miller's The Spirit due to high expectations? I admit that it isn't Sin City or 300 (in queue), although it uses the same stylistic tricks. It isn't Will Eisner, either, so lovers of the original Spirit might have a legitimate beef. But without that baggage? A pretty nifty pic.

For me, part of the problem is Gabriel Macht as the Spirit. He has an earnest doofiness, like a Kyle MacLachlan or Val Kilmer that doesn't quite work for the character. The Spirit should be a little breezier - he's the kind of guy who leans against the wall with his hands in his pockets and one foot up on its toe. I'm not looking for Pierce Brosnan suave, just less of a boy scout.

Another problem is that Miller gives Spirit a superpower - he can't be killed, he always heals. This has some precedent - Spirit did take a lot of bullets, and came back from the "dead" a number of times (it was his origin, actually). But there was nothing supernatural, just a lucky guy with a strong constitution.

He has another superpower in the movie that is even better attested in the original - he is catnip to the ladies. He gets a number of beauties, including Police Commisioner Dolan's daughter Ellen, Sand Serif (Eva Mendez), Silken Floss (Scarlett Johansson), Plaster of Paris (Paz Vega) ... Blame Eisner for the silly names. They all fall for him and most of them try to kill him. That's the Spirit I know!

The villian, the Octopus, is played by Samuel L. Jackson at his hammiest (which might explain his obsession with eggs). The best gag in the movie is his gang of henchmen, all played by by a Joe Besser-esque Louis Lombardi. These cheerfully mindless clones all wear sweatshirts with their names: Logos, Ethos, Pathos, Huevos, etc.

Miller gets a very stylish look, but rarely gets the stylized noir feel that Eisner stole from Hitchcock and Wells and made his own. We see very few toppling perspectives, looming shadows, shots through the skylight. Still, the Miller look goes down pretty smooth, so I won't complain. He adds his own touches, like races across the rooftops and the ubiquitous alleycats.

I won't complain about the liberties taken with the Spirit's character, either. I can't complain about the women. In fact, I enjoyed this movie a lot.

P.S. I take it back, I have another complaint. Ellen Dolan comes across as a bit of an old maid, when she should be more of a schoolgirl type. Oh heck, just go with it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


DOA: Dead or Alive: here's the deal - Several beautiful women and some extras are invited to DOA Island for an Enter the Dragon style martial arts competition. They include a ninja princess (Devon Aoki), a Texas lady wrestler (Jaime Pressley) and a jewel thief (Holly Valence). Hosting the competition is a Richard Branson-esque Eric Roberts and his roller-skating kung fu daughter Sarah Carter. What ensues this time? Mayhem.

One of director Corey Yuen's signature themes is hot young women engaged in martial arts action. He uses so much wirework and CGI that he doesn't usually bother to get actual trained martial artists in the roles. That's a shame, but it must be hard to find beautiful kung fu masters who can act. One out of three isn't bad.

You get an exotic location (sets and CGI), a goofy plot, pretty women and awesome action scenes (again, CGI). It's breezy fun with very few false notes. My kind of movie.

It's based on a video game that I've never heard of, so I can't say if it is true to its source material.

In conclusion, not the 1950 Edmund O'Brien noir or the 1988 dog of a remake. There is no luminous poison in this film.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Squanto of Malice

Condom of Alice? Quondam of Soul Ace? Quantum of Solace? What is it with the cockamamie title?

Quantum is the Daniel Craig's second outing as James Bond, the follow up to what some people have called the best Bond ever. I like Craig as much as ever, but this movie, not so much.

The idea is that Casino and Quantum represent Bond before Sean Connery. Craig is a crude thug, who doesn't really care how you make his martini. He keeps killing suspects - it's almost a running joke. But M is taking an interest, maybe helping to knock the rough edges off. Bond explicitly mentions M mothering him. It's an interesting idea, but I have a hard time seeing the suave smirking classic Bond in this scowling hardcase.

The action was good, but didn't stand out like in Casino. Craig seems less unpredictable, less instinctual here. It maybe part of his character's evolution, or it may be just weaker writing.

Other weaknesses include the villain, a rather fey Mathieu Almaric. He seems too much like Sting or Paul Simon to be menacing. His diabolical plan doesn't seem all that diabolical, either. The main Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko, looks good, but seems a bit opaque. Her story, about revenge, seems to have less weight than I would have expected.

So, in conclusion: great Bond, so-so Bond movie. Screwy title.

Transporter 3: What Else Do You Need to Know?

Is Transporter 3 as good as the rest of the franchise? It's hard to say. In this episode, our driver, Jason Statham, and his passenger are given explosive wristwatches that will blow up everything if they get more than 25 feet from the car. A decent conceit, because we want Statham close to his car at all times. Of course, events are always trying to separate him and the car, so we see him chasing it on a bicycle, for instance. On a bicycle, over several cars, and through a factory.

Of course, when he is out of the car, it is usually to fight a batch of bruisers, choreographed by Corey Yuen, my fight hero.

If you care about Transporter 3, I assume you liked 1 and 2, so you are cool with Jason Statham zooming around in a jacket and tie, doing improbable things with his Audi, and kicking butt. Is there a catch?

I mentioned a passenger - a girl who is also wearing an exploding bracelet to keep her in the car. She is a red-headed Ukrainian partygirl with a bad attitude. She also resembles LeeLoo from Fifth Element (red-hair) and Le Femme Nikita (panda eye makeup, attitude). Your basic Luc Besson dreamgirl, and not the most appealing incarnation. As the auto manufacturers say, your mileage may vary.

But Statham is classic. I put him in a class with Clive Owen - My favorite modern British tough guys.

Good Noose

Why do I do it? Why do I keep watching Abbott and Costello throw-aways like The Noose Hangs High? At best, I'll get a few minutes more than an hours worth of physical comedy and inane wordplay. At worst, about the same with a few bad songs. Ok, that's why.

In this episode, window-washers Abbott and Costello pick up a some money for a bookie, then get robbed. They need to get the money back so the bookie can pay off a lucky punter. But a cute girl wound up with the money, so ... Let's see, what ensues? Oh yes, hilarity.

Not as funny as the best Abbott and Costello, but pretty funny. And no awful musical numbers.

In addition, there is a Leon Errol short - Errol is a basset-faced comedian of the Ned Sparks variety. Here he plays a pair of twins, enacting the plot of Cosi fan Tutti: Errol's wife spies his twin with a dame, and thinks her husband is two-timing her. The usual comedy ensues.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Quiz time!

The Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has a new movie quiz up:

Since it's been up for a week, there are already ~40 entries. Mine is about number 35. And I copied off of my wife's paper.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crazy Bald Heads

Bad Manners: Don't Knock the Bald Heads:English 80's ska revival band Bad Manners play a concert in 2004 in a small venue in Essex. That's it in a nutshell.

If you don't know ska, it's a Jamaican precursor to reggae, generally a lot faster and more horn driven. The English did it in a special way in the 80's - loopy fun with a Jamaican cockney accent. Bad Manners was one of the goofier bands, fronted by a fat bastard called Buster Bloodvessel.

In their current incarnation, they have drums, bass, guitar, congas and organ, with a horn section of baritone sax, trumpet, trombone and bass trombone. Someone plays harmonica too. That's a lot of music. Buster is enormously fat, with a shaved head and a tongue like a slab of beef's liver. When the crowd chants "You fat bastard!", he tells them they are too kind.

They do all their old hits (that I know about), starting with "My Girl Lollipop" and ending with their hit "Lip Up Fatty". Along with ska anthems like "King Ska-Fa" and "This is Ska" and originals like "Skinhead Girl" and "I Love You Fatty", they mangle standards like "Pipeline", "You're Just Too Good to Be True" and the Can Can.

Disclaimer: I saw these guys sandwiched between Skanking Pickle (representing 90's neo-ska) and The Skatalites (original Jamaican ska) at the Edge in Palo Alto ca. 1992. Great show. If you haven't seen them, this is the next best thing.

In conclusion, there are a bunch of interviews and extras that I didn't view.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Totally Dark, Man

After Sam Raimi made the second Evil Dead movie, he got a little more budget, and made Darkman. The bigger dreams bought bigger stars (Liam Neeson and Frances McDormand) and better effects. But the dream is as big as always.

Neeson plays a slightly dorky scientist, trying to stabilize his artificial skin. It always turns to glop after 99 minutes, unless it is kept in the dark. His girlfriend, McDormand, is a high-powered corporate lawyer, who gets wind of a touch of corruption in high places. When the thugs turn up, they find Neeson and treat him to an acid bath, then blow up his lab. He is assumed dead.

But no! He is brought to the hospital as a John Doe, too burnt to be identified. They sever his nerves so that he can't feel the pain of the burns, noting that he will now be subject to wild mood swings and insensitive to pain. Quite a combo.

So, of course, he breaks free and moves his lab into an abandoned factory. He makes artificial faces to cover up his hideous deformities and to get revenge.

Neeson gets to chew a swath of scenery as "Darkman". Even when covered with artificial flesh, laughing happily with his gal, he is pretty creepy - Phantom of the Opera territory. I'm not familiar with Neeson's oeuvre, but he seems to do camp pretty sincerely. He has a bit of the Larry Blamire touch, I think. McDormand doesn't have much of a part, but she's adorable in it (as always).

SPOILER! Wearing an artificial skin face, Darkman can look like anyone. Raimi has a name for a character whose face isn't shown on camera (or is masked, etc.): a shemp. A shemp can be played by any actor, stuntman or stand-in. Guess who plays the Final Shemp?

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Grim Pix

Sorry, "Grim Pix" is the title of the MAD magazine version of Grand Prix, and I couldn't resist.

We watched Frankenheimer's Grand Prix on the recommendation of Larry Ardlette of the defunct blog Welcome to L.A. Sorry, Larry, we liked Le Mans better.

Grand Prix follows four Formula One racers in one championship season: brash American James Garner, who causes a wreck and disables (soon to be ex-) teammate, British Brian Bedford. Bedford winds up semi-crippled, but determined to race and win, due partly to an obsession with his dead brother, Racer X - no, wrong movie. Next we have world-weary Frenchman Yves Montand - his character's name, Jean-Paul Sarti indicates his existential ennui. Finally, conceited young Italian Antonio Sabato. We also get Toshiro Mifune as a Japanese builder, and Adolpho Celli as the Ferrari builder.

Each of these racers is given a romantic interest: Bedford's wife leaves him when he gets racked up; can't take the suspense of him getting creamed so often. She shacks up with Garner, who is just as likely to buy it on the track, but she doesn't care as much. Eva Marie Saint, looking business-like, innocent and brittle, falls for married Montand. And lucky Sabato, his girl is French popstar Francoise Hardy, who doesn't drink, smoke, or dance, but...

But we didn't come to this movie for the soap opera, we came for the racing. And considering this is a 3-hour movie, we get a lot less racing than you might expect. What we do get is good, especially the starting scenes of the Monaco Grand Prix. There is a nice combination of aerial shots and shots from the car's point of view. There's some split screen stuff that looks dated but well-done.

Some of the other races are less compelling - Momza (I think) was done in slow-mo, with a sweet sound track and drifting pollen/butterflies/etc to signify the blossoming Saint/Montard love affair was interesting, but not a choice I would have made. But some great racing scenes, no doubt.

But Le Mans had an immediacy that set my heart racing in a way the Grand Prix just didn't. Le Mans covered a single 24-hour race, drawing you into the detailed strategy. In Grand Prix, you didn't always know who was ahead in a race.

Then there was the story - Obviously Grand Prix spent more running time on the 4 love affairs, but Le Mans acheived almost as much saying much less. Although he had almost no dialog, we fell closer to McQueen than to Garner, a very similar character. Both were involved in (or possibly caused) a crash. Both felt guilt, but wouldn't let it get in the way of winning. But in the end, we feel more for McQueen just watching him race then we do watching Garner with his victims' wife.

Watch them both. Watch Grand Prix first (it was made first, after all). Then let me know what you think.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Don't Bother

Speaking of Watch Instantly, that's what we did with Don't Ask, Don't Tell.To cut to the chase, it wasn't worth it.

DADT is the Peter Graves SF B-movie Killers from Space with a new sound track ala What's Up, Tiger Lily, plus a few interpolated scenes. The original had underground space aliens with half ping-pong balls for eyes take over the mind of rocket scientist Peter Graves. The revised version is more or less the same, but the aliens' objective is to turn the Earth gay.

A promising premise, and not altogether wasted. But let me give you an example of the humor: Graves' character's name is "Fartin".

Do not waste a DVD selection on this. Download it if you want. Watch the Film Crew's version instead, by all means,

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Like Father, Like Son

Femi Anikulapo-Kuti is son and heir to the Afro-Beat hero, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti. If you don't know who that is, Femi Kuti: Live at the Shrine should give you some idea. Fela is a legend in Nigeria. He had the funk of James Brown with the charisma and political style of Bob Marley, but angrier. His son carries on the family business. He lives in a compound/auditorium called the Shrine and performs blazingly funky political music with a huge band and several dancers. This documentary is about half interviews and half music. The interviews are interesting, but I would have liked more music.

We watched it on Watch Instantly, because one of our DVDs was scratched (which seems to happen a lot). The sound was good, picture fair. Which was fine, because we cared mostly about the music.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Le Mans, Le Womans

I think I got the idea from Larry Ardlette, of the recently departed blog, Welcome to L.A. Mr A is famous for starting and abandoning film blogs, like Bing Crosby does with nightclubs in Blue Skies. I hope he opens another blog soon. He was doing a John Frankenheimer tribute and was praising Grand Prix. So I put that in my queue, but also queued up Le Mans. L.A. said he hasn't seen it, but it couldn't have better racing than Grand Prix.

Now, I haven't seen Grand Prix, but it couldn't have better racing than Le Mans.

The background (as I understand it): In 1969, Steve McQueen comes in second in Sebring, narrowly beaten by Mario Andretti. He is inspired to race the 24 hours of Le Mans, and film it. His insurance co. does not allow this, but he does get a Porsche fixed up with cameras on the front, back, side and dashboard, and enter it into the race. (Even with extra pitstops to change film, it came in ninth). Once he has the footage, he has to wrap a film around it.

The movie has a spare, documentary feel, partly due to all the documentary footage, of course. But the philosophy seems Altmanesque - show everything, and let the viewers figure it out. There is little dialog, and it is mostly obscured by engine noise. Most of the exposition comes from the race announcer over the loudspeaker. The camera treats the stars almost as it treats the extras, more interesting scenery. And cameras are a recurrent motif, with tourists and journalists snapping everything in site, adding a layer of meta to the verite.

I'll skip over the "plot", which involves Elga Andersen, beautiful Le Mans widow. The real plot is the race, a grudge match between Team Ferrari and Team Porsche, with Our Hero driving for Porsche. The race is intense, a 24-hour test of the endurance of drivers and vehicles. The footage from the real race and the interpolated staged action is gripping. My heart was literally pounding for most of the movie.

I was going to "spoil" the ending, but I don't think I'll bother. It is dramatic and satisfying. I can't imagine a better race movie. When we watch Grand Prix, I'll let you know.