Sunday, May 31, 2009

Not on DVD

Stop the presses! We interrupt discussion of my Netflix queue with an important review of Larry Blamire's Dark and Stormy Night. This movie is not on DVD, so I can't link to a Netflix page. Blamire's premiere opus, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, is available, though. So if you haven't seen that, you should. It will help you understand the following review.

DaSN is a loving old dark house parody. It is based on films like The Old Dark House, The Thirteenth Guest, House on Haunted Hill, and And Then There Were None. Several guests, relatives and strangers are trapped in an old house by a storm. There are mysterious murders, surprising revelations, creepy retainers, secret passages, madmen or -women in the attic (or cellar), ghosts and sometimes a gorilla. They don't usually take themselves too seriously, embracing a camp, over-the-top style. Nonetheless, they have been parodied many times, notably by the Three Stooges and Abbot and Costello, and movies like Clue.

True to form, DaSN starts with a large mixed group of people gathering to hear the reading of Sinas Cavinder's will, which will decide the disposition of the Cavinder estate. A pretty typical assembly:
  • The heir and his wife, Burling and Pritsy Famish
  • Pritsy's lover, Happy Codburn
  • Two reporters, 8 O'Clock Farrel and Billy Tuesday
  • A niece, Sabasha Fanmoore and her guardian, Seyton Ethelquake
  • A psychic, Mrs. "Cup" Cupoard
  • Someone who came in when his car broke down, Ray Vestinghaus
  • The safari guide of the deceased, Jack Tugdon ("I was his only guide for 20 years. Toughest four days of my life")
  • An upperclass twit, Lord Partfine
  • An old lady (who may be there by accident) - played by Betty Garrett! Who was the cabdriver who tried to shanghai Frank Sinatra in On the Town! And is 90 years old!
  • The lawyer
  • Jeens the butler, a maid and a cook
A curse is mentioned. A 300-year old witch comes up. The strangluation murders of assorted women nicknamed "Soso" comes up, as well as the "Phantom of Cavinder". And then the murders start.

The humor is dry - mainly straightfaced readings of lines which wouldn't stand out in one of the real movies. I guess the characters' names are the best indication of the flavor. I wish I could tell you to rush out and see this, but I don't know how you can - unless you own a theater, in which case, book this now! Everyone else, get Lost Skeleton.

I actually drove 5-1/2 hours for the opening of this show at the Egyptian in Hollywood. I got to see Larry Blamire close up, and there was a Q&A and everything. The crowd was about 50% cast, crew and friends of cast and crew. And the theater still wasn't full. Damn shame.

Thursday, May 28, 2009


JCVD would make a great double bill with My Name is Bruce. Both are about washed-up action stars who get caught up in real life action. In JCVD, that washed-up actor is Jean-Claude van Damme.

Out of rehab, losing his daughter in a messy divorce, bankrupted by legal fees and losing roles to Stephen Segal (the ultimate degradation), he returns to his native town in Belgium to straighten out a problem at his bank. We don't see what happens when he goes into the bank, but someone starts shooting and it looks like van Damme is involved.

Of course, the police assume that van Damme, broke and angry, has snapped and tried to rob the bank. Of course, he did not, and is being held hostage with the other customers, including a mother and child in jeopardy.

The style is pretty straightforward - almost documentary (sign of a low budget?), with some flashbacks to liven things up. Van Damme does almost no karate - mostly just straight up acting. And, you know, he's pretty good. He has a beautiful monologue in the 4th act that really ties it all together.

Now, My Name is Bruce was completely over the top (like all of Bruce Campbell's movies?), but JCVD has a subtler touch. That's part of why Bruce made me want to see a lot more of his old movies, but JCVD, well, not so much. But I'm curious about what he'll do next.

A Good Witch

Since I never read the Narnia series, I came into The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe without preconceptions - unless you count the gigabytes of online commentary about the spiritual in-and-outs of the original and the movie version.

As a disinterested observer, then: A good movie. I could see the compression required to bring the book down to a 2-hour movie. Nice effects and art direction, especially the lovely winter landscapes. The children's characters are well acted and nicely delineated.

But I want to save all of my love for Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. We loved Nicole Kidman's Mrs. Coulter in The Golden Compass, but surely Tilda Swindon surpasses even this performance for glamorous, enticing evil. We first saw Swinton in Orlando, so we feel she is natural in supernatural roles. Her beauty is otherwordly, and significantly sinister. I, for one, am in full sympathy with Peter, who sided with the Witch against the Lion.

In conclusion, kudos to James McAvoy from Wanted as Mr. Tumnus, a faun. Well done, sir.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Go Eagles!

While Kar Wai Wong was making Ashes of Time, Redux, it seems that he became creatively blocked. So he decided to approach the material in a completely different way. The result is Eagle Shooting Heroes.

While Ashes is a moody artistic meditation on time, love, and memory, Heroes is a complete farce. Both are loosely based on the classic Wu Shia novel Eagle Shooting Heroes. They have most of the same actors and characters, but everything else is different. Instead of killings for hire in the western Chinese deserts, it concerns the assassination of the King of Persia - so everyone wears silly 1,001 nights drag. The plot is still absurdly complicated, but still involves warriors, priests and transvestites. There are magic treasures, hidden masters, lovers matched by fate and by aphrodisiacs, song and dance numbers, cross dressing, wirework kung fu, flying disco boots, and some other stuff.

It is really funny - it could have been more like My Lucky Stars. I'm not sure if you need to see Ashes to really appreciate it. There is almost no overlap, except in the characters' names, and some themes. For example, in Ashes, there is a princess who is also a prince. In Heroes, there's a beautiful monk who is in love with Master (and is played by an actress, Carina Lau, I think). Anyway, they each are great foils for each other, but if you want silly, stick with Eagle Shooting Heroes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Ghost Story

I'm still not sure whether John Carpenter makes slick horror movies, or low-budget creepies. We still haven't seen The Thing, his classy masterpiece. Ghosts of Mars, which we did just see, had a very slick look without looking like it cost much at all.

It is set on the matriarchal Mars colony - the matriarchy is a cool little twist, with no special meaning I can discern. A mining settlement has been wiped out, the only survivor a woman chained to an empty train. She had gone with a police squad to bring back a captured murderer (Ice Cube!) and now she is telling her story.

In a long flashback, we travel with the squad to the settlement. It is lead by Pam Grier (!) and includes our hero (blonde, leggy Natasha Henstridge), Jason Statham (!!!) and two rookies. They find the settlement deserted, except for Mr. Cube - then the zombies show up.

So, we have SF-horror on Mars, zombies who can take over your friend's body (ala The Thing), and a siege (ala Precinct 13/Fort Apache). You also get flashbacks in flashbacks (possibly within flashbacks - I wasn't counting). You get too little Pam Grier, and just enough Statham and Cube. I didn't realize that I was following Crank with another Statham movie - just one of those movie things. Ice Cube was great, but not quite menacing enough. I've seen too many trailers for Are We There Yet to take him seriously, I guess.

Very sharp, very slick, and you don't notice until well after it is over - very low budget.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Crank has got one of the most brilliant concepts for an action movie EVAR: Jason Statham - no wait, it gets better! - can't slow down or he will DIE! It's like Speed except without the bus.

Chev Chelios (Statham) wakes up feeling very bad. A DVD labeled "FUCK YOU" explains: A gangster upset because hitman Chelios killed his boss has injected him with a Chinese poison (unfortunately not the "luminous poison" of D.O.A) that will stop his heart in about an hour. Statham sets out to find said gangster and get the antidote and/or vengeance. He soon finds out that whenever he calms down, he starts to get woozy. Only by keeping his adrenaline pumping can he hold the poison at bay.

The movie is filmed in a hyper-real and somewhat silly way. We see weird visual distortions when the poison takes effect, and we get shots like a Google Map zoom with one apartment labeled "Scumbag's apartment". When Chelios' doctor tells him he needs epinephrine, man, the movie helpfully shows the subtitle "e*pi*neph*rine, man". Of course, Chelios immediately forgets it, and asks a pharmacist for that stuff that starts with "e". He should have read the subtitles.

Chev Chelios (gotta love the name) is very different from Frank Martin of the Transporter franchise. He's dumber, doesn't live by a set of rules, or wear a tie. But he is still permanently pissed off and definitely doing something about it. Lots of violence, carried out swiftly and decisively.

Also quite a bit of raunch - Chelios tries public sex to get his heart pumping. This leads to a very silly bit where some Japanese schoolgirls save the day. Not for the easily offended - or even those capable of offense.

Anyway, in the end, he dies - oops, SPOILER. I'm looking forward to the sequel, Crank: High Voltage.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Moral Compass

I guess it wasn't that popular, but we really liked The Golden Compass. It certainly wasn't perfect, but it hit a very sweet spot. Of course, we're in the sweet spot as the audience. We've read and enjoyed all or part of the source trilogy, His Dark Materials, but we aren't rabid fans. So we come in well-disposed, we aren't mystified by some of the condensed exposition, but we don't freak out when details (or big chunks) are changed.

The film has a great look, very steampunk - Jordan College is a dream of an old English school, and when Mrs. Colter's airship lands ... well! The titular compass could have been a little more impressive, but it comes with a nice special effect that makes up for it.

Since everyone in the story's universe has an animal companion or soul, there are a lot of animated animals here. Mostly they come off very well, never cartoony. The worst I could say is that sometimes the motion capture showed, making the fighting bears, for instance, look like men in bear suits.

The cast is wonderful. Nicole Kidman does an amazing wicked stepmother-figure (in loco parentis, at least) as Mrs. Colter, beautiful, seductive, charming, and very cruel. Prof. Asriel is played by Daniel Craig, who hits it perfectly, but has all too few scenes. I can imagine Sean Connery in this tweedy yet adventurous role, so Craig makes perfect sense. Sam Elliot makes a mighty fine itinerant aereonaut. Ian McKellan as the voice of Iorek Byrneson, the armored bear, is as good as you'd imagine.

Best of all is the young star, Dakota Blue Richards, as Lyra Bellacqua. She is as brave, headstrong, decisive, loyal and trustworthy as I imagined.

The story concerns metaphysical dust, stolen children, souls and a conspiracy of the Magisterium to cover up this knowledge. In the books, this was clearly aimed at organized religion, and possibly the concept God itself. This gets dialed way back in the movie, basically censored. Still, all of that would have slowed the movie down a lot, and doesn't really become critical until the last book. Since it looks like the next two books won't be getting filmed, that's fine.

They did a nice job making this a standalone film while leaving the chance of sequels. I would really like to see the next two movies, with The Subtle Knife concerned with travel between the universes, and The Amber Spyglass showing the war in heaven - a CGI extravaganza. Well, that's not going to happen. Oh well, we're happy with what we got.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rock and Blues Weekend

Last weekend I had planned to go to a blues festival and a Dead show. The blues festival was great - we saw Derek Trucks Band in a small outdoors college setting. The Dead show was great too, or so I hear. I was at home with a delicate tummy, from a mild food allergy.

At least I had some good movies to watch. In keeping with the theme, we had:

Taj Mahal: Live at Ronnie Scott's 1988: Taj is in fine shape, playing lots of his classics, like Fishing Blues, Statesboro Blues, Paint My Mailbox Blue. But he's working with a fairly 80's sounding band, leaning on a kind of lame synth. His guitar playing is sweet, but a little light. He finishes with a complaint about people ripping off his urban/country blues stylings (who was getting rich on that in 88?) and dares them to steal his last number - a rather ordinary Caribbean pop number.

Oh well, it's still Taj.

A Night at the Family Dog: Filmed in 1970 at Chet Helms legendary SF club, we get 2 numbers each from Santana, the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane. The camera is a little erratic, pointing at someone else while someone takes a solo, but there's a lot to look at anyway. That includes audience members wandering in front of the cameras and bra-less girls with bouncing boobies. I'm pretty sure I saw Janis Joplin dancing in a caftan, but can't be sure.

There's some great Pigpen - Hard to Handle, lots of close-ups of Jorma's craggy Lurch face, as well as Jack Cassidy (Grace wasn't shown much, possibly because she was ripped), and it all ends with a big jam. Only 60 minutes long and well worth it.

Jerry Garcia Band: Live at Shoreline:From 1990, a few weeks after Brent died. Jerry decided to go on in place of the Dead. This is a fine show with some classic songs - How Sweet It Is, Dear Prudence, Run for the Roses, It Stoned Me. Melvin Seals on organ and John Kahn on bass with two sweet gospel sounding backup singers. Some deep soloing, but also some straight-ahead funky singing and playing. Unfortunately, I didn't make it all the way through - delicate stomach.

Rock on, everybody!


I have heard that scientists at the Max Planck Institute have observed two complex organic molecules deep in the galactic reaches of space. One of them, ethyl formate, is said to taste like raspberries and smell like rum. I suppose this gives most of you the same idea: a cocktail!

The Galactic

1 oz dark rum
1 oz raspberry-infused vodka

Shake over ice. Strain into champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine.

I make my own raspberry vodka, but it's easy enough to buy. If you substitute a cordial like Chambord (not technically raspberry, but...), I'd up the rum to a full shot.

The champagne represents stars, of course.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Century Old Realism

I guess Chaplin's Essanay Comedies: Vol. 3 are only 90 years old now, since they were all filmed around 1915. Still, that's a long time ago. Somehow, I can cope with the 30's, that's practical modern. But the teens... Look at it this way, the Civil War was a recent for them as WWII is for us.

These are not Chaplin's best works - He wasn't given much creative freedom and he left after a year or so. Two of the films in this collection, Police and Triple Threat were assembled from leftover footage after he'd left the studio. In A Burlesque of Carmen, he plays the last scene straight, stabbing Carmen and himself in a fit of jealousy - not played all that well either. Then, he and Carmen get up, he grins, and stabs Carmen again, showing the audience that it's a collapsible knife. Interesting artistic choice.

Most disturbing were the recurring scenes of a 10-cent doss house run by a greasy Jew and inhabited by the scum of the earth. Almost 100 years later, these play as almost social realism. We may laugh, but it makes us think...

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Since we're doing Asian art films by action film directors, let's take a look at The Bird People in China. It is directed by Takahashi Miike, known for ultraviolent Japanese gangster films. But this is not one of those.

It is the story of a young Japanese salaryman whose work suddenly sends him to a remote Chinese village to look for jade. When he lands, he is met by a Chinese guide and a Japanese gangster - salaryman's company is in big to the yakuza and they want to protect the investment. The yakuza is great. He looks so much like Jo Shishido, it must be homage. In case you haven't run into him, Shishido is a chipmunk-cheeked toughguy actor, best known as either the rice-sniffing Number 3 Killer from Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill or as Captain Jo in MST3k's Fugitive Alien. Um, but it's not him, so I digress.

So our "heroes" travel to the end of the road, then over a mountain, then down a river, then take a psychedelic mushroom trip, then... This is the classic Journey motif, a Lost Horizons or The Valley (Obscured by Clouds). When they get to the village, an idyllic Shangri-La, they meet a young woman who is teaching the children to fly, like in the old days.

I expected a good deal more magical realism than I got in this movie. Can traditional Chinese people really fly? That is almost the only surreal theme in the film (the other involves turtles). Other bizarre circumstances are explained quite prosaically, including the flying teacher, and her theme song, "Bonnie Annie Laurie". Yet, the scenery is incredibly beautiful, the village is lovely, and it's people colorful and interesting. The interplay between the serious, handsome, romantic but dull salaryman and the loud, violent yet philosophical yakuza is a lot of fun. The philosophical gangster is quite an icon, esp. in Japanese film - see "Beat" Takeshi.

While not magical realism, this is pretty magical. There's a nice twist at the end, except it isn't a twist - ahh, watch it yourself.