Sunday, August 30, 2009

Three Plus One

We enjoyed all of the "3 women" movies we've been watching, so we queued up the classic Three on a Match on a double bill with Female.

Three on a Match was directed by Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, I Was a Fugitive from the Chain Gang) in 1932, starring:
  • Betty Davis, as the smartest girl from PS32
  • Ann Dvorak, as the prettiest
  • Joan Blondell, as the bad girl
We see them in school, then 10 years pass. One day, they all meet up again. Blondell is out of reform school, and working on the stage. Davis is eking out a living as a stenographer. And Dvorak has a rich lawyer for a husband, a chauffeur and a child. Yet, she isn't truly happy. And, yes, this is the scene where they light three cigarettes with one match. Bad luck, or a scheme to sell more matches?

We had assumed we would see the trials and troubles of all three women, but actually, this is mainly Dvorak's show. She leaves her husband and takes up with a gambler, drinking and neglecting her son. Her friends take the son back to her rich husband (Warren William, Satan Met a Lady) and Blondell starts romancing him, while Davis starts working for him as secretary/governess. So, everybody's happy?

No, Dvorak's boyfriend (Lyle Talbot) is involved with gangsters Edward Arnold and Humphrey Bogart. Dvorak seems to be doing dope. Things will not end well for her.

Dvorak is very good in this. She goes downhill fast, and looks terrible in the last scenes, very realistic. Blondell plays her usual wisecracker, and Davis is almost absent, only reacting to the others, and not much of that. That's fine, she's never been my favorite.

Then, Female, 1933, directed by Michael Curtiz (yes, Casablanca's Curtiz). It stars Ruth Chatterton as the owner of a large automobile manufacturer. She works hard, talks fast, and invites attractive young workers up to her place for dinner - to "discuss their ideas". Afterwards, if they try to take advantage of their relationship to the boss, they are transferred to Montreal.

Naturally, she will fall for the guy who resists her advances, and give up her position to raise a family. However, she manages to do it with her dignity intact, and make it look like she got what she wanted. A fun movie.

In conclusion, two "women's pictures" by big name directors that have more guts, humor and style than we had a right to expect.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Big Three

From a 70's parody to the real thing: Mother, Jugs and Speed. Actually, I think this selection was inspired by the ambulance in Cannonball Run.

Mother is Bill Cosby, the kindly goofball driver at an independent LA ambulance company. Jugs is, of course, Raquel Welch, the secretary/dispatcher who wants to be more. Speed is a newcomer, played by a young Harvey Keitel. He was a cop until he was accused of dealing speed. While on suspension, he joins the ambulance crew.

The presence of the Cos may lead you to suspect a light-hearted romp, say, like Cannonball Run. That's true in a way, but this is an ambulance company. There is a serious body count in this movie. They seem to be hauling more cold than warm meat, and it shows on their temperament. The comedy is pretty black.

That said, it is also pretty funny. It is also very 70's - 1976, to be specific, although it feels a little older, due to the drugs and racial themes. When slimeball driver Larry Hagman offers to take Jugs to a Cat Stevens concert, I thought we were in a parody of the period. Maybe were, but it is a contemporary parody.

Mezcal and Maximillian

It's great to have friends, especially friends who call up and invite us over for mezcal. He is a master of old movies, especially terrible horror (he was calling to see if we had Giant Spider Invasion - but of course). She likes banda music and mezcal.

You may know that mezcal is a more rustic variety of tequila. While they are both made from the sap of the agave piña, the piñas are steamed for tequila, but roasted in a smokey firepit for mezcal. As a result, mezcal has a serious smokey flavor, more pronounced than a smokey scotch. In addition, mezcal is usually rougher than tequila. But that didn't stop us from using it for fancy cocktails.

Our hostess had a secret recipe - mezcal and Fresca. It was... interesting. A quick look online showed some interesting recipes, with many strange tangents. One direction a lot of recipes took was Vietnamese! For ex: Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk and mezcal.

The direction we took was elderflower. Elderflower is a current cocktail taste craze. When trendy bartenders aren't making their own elderflower syrup, they use a new French liqueur, St. Germain. This stuff is brilliant - it has a floral, perfumey flavor, but is really more reminiscent of towards tropical fruit, like lychee. You might detect a note of pear, which is more in keeping with its Alpine French origin. It is quite sweet, yet complex and sophisticated. I used the occasion to buy a bottle.

We mixed up two cocktails: mezcal, St. Germain and grapefruit Izze soda (substituting for Fresca). I've told you my theories on tequila and grapefruit: their bitterness makes them natural partners. The St. Germain takes the rough edges down and sweetens and deepens the flavor. Use just a splash, no more than an oz.

For those who like something stronger and not so sweet: mezcal, St. Germain and a squeeze of lemon.

I haven't named these cocktails - they are still works in progress. But the online mezcal/St. Germain cocktails usually refer to Maximillian (Maximillian's Revenge, etc). It took me a while to remember that he was the French (like St. Germain) emperor of Mexico. Very clever.

Mezcal is very difficult to find in the US (at least around here). You may have also heard that there is a worm in the bottle, and you should eat the worm, and that you will get messed up. That may be true, but it's strictly for tourists.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Three of a Kind

The Heroic Trio is pretty easy to sum up: Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui. To be specific:
  • Anita Mui, the "funny-looking Madonna", is the wife of a policeman, but secretly a superhero: Wonderwoman or Shadow Fox, depending on the translation.
  • Michelle Yeoh is supervillain who is stealing babies for an evil sorcerer. Her scientist boyfriend has given her a cloak of invisibility. Anita and her husband are on her trail.
  • Maggie Cheung is Mercy, short for Mercenary. Dressed in leather bustiers and knee pads, she fights for the highest bidder with a motorcycle and a fistful of dynamite.
Director Johnny To keeps things stylish, with wafting smoke, shafts of light through the dusty air, and blizzards of blowing leaves, petals, paper, or birdcages full of babies, often in slow motion. The fight scenes a mostly wired, but exciting nonetheless. None of the women are martial artists - Yeoh was a dancer, Mui a popstar - but they can kick over their heads, and stunt doubles can handle the hard stuff.

If you've seen Irma Vep, you've seen some clips from this.

We had so much fun with this, I went back to re-watch So Close. It's hard to beat Corey Yuen's choreography, but my question is: Yeoh/Cheung/Mui or Shu Qi/Zhao Wei/Karen Mok?

Burn Notice

We bring to a close our festival of the clever, thought-provoking thrillers with the Coen Bros. Burn After Reading. It begins with a shaven-headed John Malkovich, looking a lot like James Carville, as an alcoholic, rage-filled CIA analyst who has just lost his job. A nasty confrontation with his vicious wife Tilda Swinton gets him thinking about writing a tell-all memoir.

A disc of the draft of the memoir falls into the hands of Brad Pitt, an idiot working at Hard Bodies gym, and Frances MacDormand, his co-worker who needs a lot of money for plastic surgery. They decide to blackmail Malkovich, or failing that, sell the disc to the Russians. Only, Swinton has cleaned out his bank account in a divorce move, and the Russians don't care.

Meanwhile, Swinton is getting it on with George Clooney, still in full Paul Krugman drag (he even works in Treasury). Clooney is a gun-toting narcissistic womanizer, whose wife, a children's book author, is on tour, leaving the field open for ...

Since this is a clever, thought-provoking thriller, things get complicated, and not everything gets explained. Since it is Coen Bros., most of the characters are more or less idiots, self-deluded and often, doomed. These antics are watched over by CIA execs JK Simmons (JJ Jameson) and David Rasche (Sledge Hammer!). They make sure everything is tidy in the end, and pronounce the moral, "I'm fucked if I know what we did."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A Maze of Twisty Passages

After watching Inside Man and The International, I figured we should really ratchet up the convoluted thoughtful thriller level with Syriana. I think I have it all figured out, except why George Clooney is made up to look like Paul Krugman.

Syriana is loosely structured around the merger of an American and a Middle Eastern oil company. It tells the story of Clooney, an American undercover operative doing some shady arms dealing, Matt Damon, a development consultant to a young idealistic sheik, Jeffrey Wright, a lawyer trying to make sure the merger is clean of corruption, and a Pakistani oilworker who loses his job and becomes radicalized, plus a few more threads. These stories are allowed to develop slowly, overlap and intertwine, but only to become partly clear.

There is some action, but mostly behind the scenes skullduggery - Christopher Plummer is one of the string-pullers, like he was in Inside Man. It takes place all over the world, like The International. And when it all comes together, well, you may or may not get it all. But it will be worth it.

But why Paul Krugman?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stuck in the 70s

I never watched Starsky & Hutch when it was on TV, so I don't know why I queued up Starsky & Hutch, the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson movie. But it was so good it makes me wish I had seen the tv show.

Ben Stiller is by-the-book cop Starsky. Owen Wilson is his anything-goes partner. Their captain, Fred Williamson, stuck them together for spite. (Yes, that Fred Williamson, from Warrior of the Lost World - among other stuff.) Starsky has a real stick up his butt, but he does drive a hot Gran Torino. Wilson has some ethics issues, but he has a great source on the street: Huggy Bear, played by Snoop Dogg.

Huggy is pretty much the best part of the movie - Snoop plays him as utterly cool, but also deep. He runs his neighborhood like an independent country, say Liechtenstein, as established by the Treaty of Ghent. His gang is tough but fair and always open to a philosophical discussion.

Their enemy is Vince Vaughan, who makes a very 70's coke dealer. He is assisted by an uncredited and very sick Will Ferrel.

Wilson gets to do a David Soul impression. Stiller goes undercover in a grey wig with sideburns as a dentist from Queens named Finkle. He even has his own catchphrase, "Do it, do it." There is a disco dance-off, a bat mitzvah with mimes, and a threesome with 2 cheerleaders. There is a cameo with the original S&H, looking as bad as Bones and Scotty in the last Star Trek movies.

And in honor of Starsky's Gran Torino, we've queued up Gran Torino.

Spartans v. Trojans

Naturally, after watching Watchmen we wanted to see 300. Same director (Zach Snyder), different comic artist but same techniques, digital video and CGI adapting a comic's graphic style. In this case, Frank Miller's story of the Spartan defense against the Persians at Thermopylae.

The look is very similar to Watchmen - dark, gloomy, and sprinkled or drenched with stylized blood. The stories are completely different, though. Watchmen is a subversive deconstruction of heroism, vigilantism and violence. 300 more or less just glorifies it.

Furthermore, it takes ridiculous liberties with history to do this. Sparta is a land of liberty, not slaves (except for their slaves...). They aren't boylovers like the Athenians - Men only love adult men in Sparta, then?

And their enemies, the Persians? All sexual deviates and monsters, and mostly black Africans, as well. Now, you can consider the movie to be all a story told by the Spartans to whip up some Greek war fever. But is it necessary to make the Persians into negroes for propaganda purposes?

So, plenty of offensive and ridiculous material here, but the look is great. The trademark trick is to stop-action to show a comic-panel-like tableau, then back to normal speed, stopping for another panel. It looks great.

It was so much fun that I wanted to stay with the sand-and-sandals genre, so I queued up Troy. This kind of bombed in 2004, even with Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Sean Bean, Erica Bana, et al. Still, I had seen it on a plane and kind of liked it. So I watched it again, and, yes, I find it to be good.

It's a nice contrast to 300. It is light, rather than dark - scenes shot in full sun on a golden sandy beach. This is the Greece that tourists experience, I bet (never been there). Where 300 is fantastic, Troy is realistic. There are no gods, no monsters, just men with ambitions, strengths and weaknesses.

I'm not sure why Troy didn't do so well at the box office. It might have had something to do with all of the scenes where one character whispers a sententious monologue to another. In 300, this was replaced by shouted slogans, which plays better, I think.

Still, I prefer the sunny, blonde-filled Greece (technically Anatolia) of Troy. And my favorite digital video comic adaptation is The Spirit. Root for the underdog.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Thai Candy

For those of us jonesing for another Tony Jaa movie, take heart: there is Chocolate. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew of Ong Bak and Tom Yum Koong (a.k.a Protector) fame, it does not feature Tony Jaa. It is something different.

It starts with a montage that establishes the backstory: A gangster's girl falls in love with a rival Yakuza. He is exiled, and she goes into seclusion and bears his child. The baby girl, named Zen, is mentally handicapped in an unspecified way, presumably autistic.

She grows up with her sad beautiful mother and a fat goofy neighbor boy sidekick in an old house near a martial arts school. She is withdrawn, but preternaturally aware of her surroundings. She can't be surprised and she can catch anything. It is a good life, although the gangsters from mom's past threaten it.

We are now 30 minutes into the movie, and no real action. Then mom gets cancer and sidekick decides they should try to collect some of mom's old debts to pay for treatment. (Sidenote: it's not clear whether this takes place in Japan or Thailand. It seems to be Japan, but wouldn't National Health take care of mom?)

Well, they brace the manager of an iceplant for the money he owes Zen's mom, but he won't pay. Then we find out that Zen has a special talent - she can imitate all of the martial arts skills she has ever seen, including the Bruce Lee/Jackie Chan/Tony Jaa movies she has watched. The rest of the movie is little Zen kicking butt.

Zen is played by a young woman called Jeeja Yanin, a.k.a Yanin Vismitananda. She does a Rainman-quality acting job when not fighting, and at least a 0.8 of a Tony Jaa when fighting. In addition, she can fight in several styles. In the iceplant fight, she is clearly doing Bruce Lee:
  • The wierd yowling vocalizations
  • Passing her hand in front of her face like brushing flies, or knocking the sweat of her nose with her thumb
  • Hitching up the pants on her front leg
  • Most telling - short, fast strikes, returning to total grounded stillness between
In the next fight, her style is completely different, more flowing, more use of props. It looked a bit like a Jackie Chan tribute. Later fights, she uses her own style, based on Muay Thai, with amazing head-high kicks. But each fight seems to have a touch of flair - lots of blocks in one, weapons in another. I really appreciate touches like that.

Pinkaew is not the most accomplished, stylish director alive, but he is a lot better than he needs to be. He could easily coast on his amazing action sequences, but he gives us a little more. I won't say I'd watch a whole movie like the first 30 minutes of Chocolate, but I found it a heck of a lot more satisfying than the non-action parts of most action movies. I hope he makes many more.

Oh yes, the title? The little girl like to pop M&M-type chocolates in her mouth. She never missed. Not sure what the significance is.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Knight Lite

I don't know what to make of A Knight's Tale. It stars Heath Ledger, so it has that going for it. He plays a common-born squire who pretends to be a knight so that he can participate in jousts.

The gag is, the jousts are presented as modern sporting events, with a sports rock soundtrack ("We Are the Champions", "We Will Rock You", "Takin' Care of Business"), spectators doing the wave, etc. But they don't carry through with this idea. Most of the film is a straight costume drama. It seems that the idea is to translate the concept into a modern idiom. Of course the music wouldn't be rock, but the language wouldn't be modern English either. Still, I would have preferred a movie about funny anachronisms, or a movie with fewer anachronisms. I just found it jarring.

As a straight costume drama it isn't bad, with Alan Tudyk and Mark Addy as Ledger's comic squires, and Paul Bettany as Geoffrey Chaucer, a herald and scribe with a gambling problem. But it isn't really great either.

The big question, then, is how are the jousts? With big rock themes, fancy armor and lovely horses, slo-mo collisions and shattered lances, they should be the core of the movie. I just found them to be so-so. I'm afraid that just sums it up.

The French Way

I'm not really a gin guy - rum is my go-to tipple, with tequila and American whiskey also favored. But it seems that gin was the main ingredient of the classic cocktail era. Now, to me, this is weird. Basing all beverages on a juniper-flavored liquor is like basing a national cuisine on fennel, or something. But I didn't come here to talk about that.

I wanted to talk about 2 cocktails - the French 75 and the French Pearl. The French 75 is a classic from the Great War. The story goes that an aviator wanted something with a little more kick than champagne, so he added a shot of cognac. The final drink included some lemon juice and sugar. It is said to hit with the force of a French 75-mm Howitzer.

I've seen a number of variations. Some recipes add triple sec, like making a sidecar with champagne. The French 76 has vodka in place of cognac. The French 77 adds a splash of St. Germain's elderflower liqueur. I've actually never tried any of these.

I have had a version of the French Pearl. This modern classic, invented by Audrey Saunders of NY's Pegu Club, is a martini-type cocktail of gin, lime juice, sugar and a splash of Pernod or absinthe. It's a lovely iridescent green-gold-grey, with a haunting flavor.

Somehow, I got these drinks mixed up in my head, so when we had some champagne around (for champagne mojitos), I reached for the gin and made:

The French Way (75 French Pearls)

1 shot gin
1 oz. lime juice
Pinch of sugar or dash simple syrup
1/2 oz. absinthe

Shake over ice and pour into champagne flute
Top up with chilled champagne

Sunday, August 2, 2009

International Man

We just watched a great accidental double-bill: Inside Man and The International.

Inside Man is Spike Lee doing a heist film more-or-less free of racial politics. It starts with a sweet montage of New York bank architecture, and proceeds to a bank robbery hostage situation. The robbers are all wearing jumpsuits with hoods, sunglasses and scarves across their faces, and they soon have all of the hostages dressed the same way.

Meanwhile, the police have arrived, headed by Denzel Washington, bucking for promotion, but held back by some missing money from a recent bust. He plays this role perfectly, a combination John Shaft/Mr. Tibbs. The robbers are really up against something.

But Washington doesn't have only the robbers to worry about. The bank's director has brought in Jodie Foster, a high-level fixer, to make sure a secret doesn't get out. While Washington plays a well-established type, Foster's is something new to me - she is sharp, competent and utterly amoral. She not a bitch because that doesn't pay the bills. But never get in her way.

As I say, there isn't much racial politics here, but lots of sweet slices of NY life. The hostages have the accents, the attitudes and the diverse backgrounds of that great city. The plot is twisty and turny, although not quite as clever as I expected. The style is pretty much straight, with the exception of a few flash-forwards/flash-alternate-futures, camera tricks and a stylized shots of the bank vault.

Oh yes, and the main robber was Clive Owen.

In The International, Clive Owen is the good guy, and the bank is the villain. Owen is an Interpol agent investigating the International Bank of Commerce and Credit for money laundering, weapons dealing, skullduggery and mopery with intent to dope. Another agent meeting with an insider is murdered silently in a Berlin train station right in front of Owen's eyes. In fact, anyone who gets a lead winds up dead, sometimes with their entire family. Which will be too bad if they notice Owen's boss, young wife and mother Naomi Watts.

Aside from Clive Owen and banks, this movie shares a couple of points with Inside Man: Like Washington, Owen has a scandal in his past, the higher-ups may be corrupted, and the identities of the bad guys are hidden behind layers of masks and indirection. Also, both movies are smart, tricky, make you think and keep you guessing.

Also, in The International, they shoot up the Guggenheim Museum. The part it was meant to play.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

More Riff

We've watched a few Rifftrax using the modern method: Download a snarky MP3 commentary track, put a standard DVD in the player, press start on the DVD and MP3 player at the same time, and enjoy. This method has some problems - speaker placement, synchronization, etc. But the golden advantage is: The riffers don't need to get permission from the movie rights owner.

For some movies, that's not an issue. There's a ton of "great" movies that have fallen out of copyright. You can find a lot of them in, for ex., or as $2.99 DVDs in the cheapie bin. You can also find them with added riffing from RiffTrax, including RiffTrax: House on Haunted Hill and RiffTrax: Carnival of Souls.

I've mentioned House on Haunted Hill before; it was on a double-bill DVD with The Bat. I think I summed up the plot nicely there - Eccentric millionaire Vincent Price and his wife invited 5 strangers over for a party, offer them $10,000 if they survive the night, then give them a gun and lock them in. This is a great little Old Dark House story with one problem - some of the frights are exposed as frauds right off. If you've been spoofed once, you have to assume that anything and everything thereafter is a spoof.

The riffing on this is fine, but not overwhelming. I remember the movie more than the gags.

Carnival of Souls is a different critter. It is Herk Harvey's magnum opus. Harvey ("Herk the Jerk" to his kindergarden buddies) was a director of industrial safety films. This is his only attempt at feature entertainment. It is actually amazingly successful, if you consider the source.

A young woman is riding with a couple of friends, when a drag racing accident sends them into a swift muddy river. Only she survives. Who is she? A recent graduate of an organ school (the musical kind). And so she leaves for Salt Lake City, the very day after the accident. But even as she drives along the highway, the visions begin to appear, visions of ... the DEAD!

Our heroine is played by Candace Hilligoss with a touch of style - she isn't very concerned about the death of her friends, playing organ in the church is just a job, the creepy neighbor is just a nuisance, or even a welcome change from the ghouls she is beginning to see. It's an interesting characterization, and in response, her agent dropped her as soon as he saw the movie.

Best riffing - the riffers have written little songs to go over the DVD menus. Don't miss them!