Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Job

Did you think we were through with the caper films? No, we still had The Bank Job.

This one stars Jason Statham as an English spiv with a fancy car dealership, a family, some dodgy friends and big debts to bad people. It also stars Saffron Burrows as a ex-model who gets in trouble with the law and is given a chance to get out of it. You see, there is something in a bank vault that the government needs to get without any possible publicity. So if she and some of her friends will rob the bank, they can keep anything else they find. So she enlists her old friend Statham and his gang.

The story is based on a real bank robbery in 1971, where the private boxes were wiped out and only about 1 in 10 customers were willing to state what they had lost for insurance purposes. Much of the fun is in the behind the scenes government and society scrambling to keep the secrets a secret. The seventies setting is underplayed, although there are some little touches.

The caper itself is not that exciting - we've seen a lot of it before (including in Inside Man). I suppose that's partly because so many movies took details from the robbery this movie is based on. But the banter is great, a crash course in Spiv.

Forgotten Noir

Somewhere in the Night starts with the hero, played by John Hodiak, in an Army field hospital, encased in bandages, unable to even speak. But his internal dialog lets us know that he has lost his memory. He only learns his name when someone mentions it. Little do we know, but we have seen this movie before, and like the hero, forgotten it.

Hodiak discovers he has two links to the past: an unsigned letter from his ex-fiancee, telling him what a heel his is, and a letter telling him there was several thousand dollars in a bank account for him, signed by Larry Cravat. That was when we remembered we'd seen the movie before. You don't forget a name like Larry Cravat.

So Hodiak tries to find out who he is, but not too hard, because he is afraid that he is a rat. Trying to track down Cravat, he runs into Harry Morgan in a gym and Nancy Guild and her boss Richard Conte in a nightclub. Nancy Guild is a funny kind of nightclub singer - she seems to be singing on break from studying English or history at Wellesley. Conte is clearly stuck on her, but he's too straight to make a play or try to break up her romance with Hodiak Funny kind of noir nightclub owner.

Later, he runs into bad girl Margo Woode, who evidently knows what kind of movie she's in, because she frequently namechecks films noir like Double Indemnity. When someone feeds her a snappy line, she responds, "Oh, so we're doing repartee?". Touches of self-consciousness like this really make the movie for me.

I'm not sure I can say this is great noir. It's directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, better known as a writer and producer. It's a touch indulgent, a little ripe at the core, and the mystery doesn't make as much sense as you might expect. On the plus side, it's a great example of the post-war amnesia genre, and it's 110 minutes long. That's a lot of noir for the money.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Incredible Journey

Journey to the Center of the Earth is a much beloved tale in many incarnations: Jules Verne's original novel, many movies, a 1960s animated tv series, comicbooks, and so on. This latest version stars Brendan Fraser, a kid and a girl.

Fraser is an inept geologist, carrying on the work of his brilliant brother, lost on a field expedition. His brother's widow drops his nephew off to stay with him for a while, and a sullen little youngster he is. But a signal from an Icelandic seismic sensor sends Fraser and kid on a quest. They find the daughter of brilliant brother's mentor, and hire her as a mountain guide. In short order, they are trapped underground and headed deeper.

Their journey is fraught with perils, many of which seem calculated to become thrill rides at an theme park. At least two were "inspired" by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: a wild ride on a mine railway and a long slide down a mountain (but not on a liferaft). Some of the underground scenes are very beautiful, but I never got a sense of wonder. Maybe we should have seen this on the big screen in 3D.

Still, it was fun, in a forgettable way. We like Brendan Fraser, for some reason - we even liked George of the Jungle. So, no complaints except that it could have been a lot better.

Saturday, September 19, 2009


A dear friend of ours is a big fan of the Death Note series - a Japanese manga/anime/live action series about a notebook. If you write someone's name in the notebook while concentrating on their face, they will die of a heart attack in 40 seconds. This notebook falls into the hands of an idealistic law student who starts killing off all of the bad guys he can find.

The police go after this mystery vigilante with the aid of a mystery vigilante hunter. The vigilante hunter is later revealed to be a young man with a sweet tooth, a shaggy haircut and an emo fashion sense. In some respects, he resembles the Death Note killer. In other respects, they are both the kind of cute manga boy that pre-teen to teenaged girl fans love.

Yes, I'm afraid our friend the Death Note fan is a preteen girl. In general, we're fine with that. Our tastes are pretty adolescent at best. In this case, however, we're going to have to say that we don't get the appeal. The film is pretty well done, with some interesting philosophical points (who would you kill?), funny quirks (the apple-eating death-demon who can only be seen by those who have handled the notebook) and clever uses of the premise. But on a gut level, we didn't get it.

In conclusion, it could have been Twilight that she's into.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mission to Moscow

RiffTrax: Missile to the Moon is another grade-z movie made fun by the RiffTrax crew of Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. It seems that a scientist isn't going to be allowed to send his missle to the moon - budget cutbacks or something. When he discovers that some escapees from juvenile hall have stowed aboard, he takes off, with another scientist couple along for the ride.

Unfortunately, he stored some batteries on a high shelf and didn't secure them properly, so he is killed pretty much right off.

It's really too bad, because it turns out the moon in inhabited by sex-ay babes and no men. Of course, the queen (or "Lido") gets a hankering for the remaining male scientist, mainly because she is blind. He tries to give her the Lido Shuffle while keeping his Earth girlfriend from flipping out. Meanwhile, the bad delinquent is getting the good delinquent into trouble. And so forth.

In conclusion, of course, there is gratuitous interpretive dancing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keep Cranking

Crank 2: High Voltage begins where Crank leaves off: with Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) dead on the road, having fallen from a helicopter. Or is he dead? Maybe he just blinked. Suddenly (nothing in this series happens gradually), a van pulls up, and loads Chev up. He is taken to an underground clinic (in a massage parlour?), where his heart is removed and replaced with an artificial model.

It seems that an elderly Chinese crime boss, Poon Dong (David Carradine) needed a heart transplant, and Chev did survive the Chinese poison of the first movie. He will be kept alive so that other organs (below the belt, hint, hint) can be harvested. Of course, he breaks free. Of course, his artificial battery pack runs down. Of course, he can recharge it through:
  • Jumper cables from a car battery
  • Body friction from public sex
  • Getting tasered
  • And so forth
And so he starts the search for his heart so that his faithful scrip doctor (Dwight Yoakum) can re-install it. We get mayhem, strippers, pornstars, racial insensitivity, more mayhem, public sex, and so on.

My favorite bit has Chev and his nemesis in black-and-white, with Rondo Hatton acromegaly facial prostheses battling each other as colossal beasts in a power substation - sweet tribute to The Brute Man and War of the Colossal Beast.

Really, I don't know why I bothered to review this. If you liked Crank, I expect you'll like this too.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Black and Blacker

The Act of Violence / Mystery Street double bill turned out to be a very good deal.

We started with Mystery Street, a 1950 John Sturges (Magnificent Seven) procedural. It starts with a look at the life of a bar girl trying to get something out of a man on Cape Cod. She leaves a pretty big trail - she lets people overhear her phone conversations, writes down his phone number, even hijacks a drunk so she can take his car out to the Cape. That's the last we see of her.

About 6 months later, an unidentified skeleton turns up on the beach. It's Barnstable's youngest detective's job to find out who the skeleton was, and how it died. This detective is Ricardo Montalban ("Kha-a-a-a-a-n!").

They only put in two lines to justify a Hispanic detective in old New England - he says he's been working with the Portuguese (a big fishing community in the area). And when a New Englander from a pre-Mayflower family tries to give him attitude, he puts him right in his place.

He teams up with a Harvard doctor, doing some early CSI-style forensics. Little by little, he traces the skeleton to the girl, and then it all breaks open. It's a well done little film with some fun characters (Elsa Lanchester as an evil landlady), nice location filming around Harvard and Bunker Hill, and a strong story. Worth watching.

Next, Act of Violence (1948) with Van Heflin as a successful business, a war veteran with a wife and young son. He will soon meet up with Robert Ryan, a war "buddy", crippled, bitter and contemplating violence. What is the dark secret of his past? What will he do to keep it secret?

This one starts out tense, but ratchets the tension way up to the sticking point, as Heflin gets more and more desperate. He meets up with b-girl Mary Astor, who might help him out or get him in deeper. She shows a lot of courage in this role, looking nice but roughly used, hopeful and despairing at once.

The outcome is inevitable and somewhat ridiculous, but at least it ends the tension.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Thing

If anybody reading this knows our friend Tippy, tell him we finally watched The Thing. In the 80's, he offered to show us this on tape, but promised to fast forward straight to the gross stuff. We declined his kind offer, but he went right ahead. It didn't take much fast forwarding to get to the gross stuff. I think we finally got him to stop the tape, or maybe we fainted.

We have been afraid to look at it since. But since we've become such big John Carpenter fans (They Live, Ghosts of Mars, etc) we finally decided to go for it. Good choice.

The story is based on a hoary old John W. Campbell short, "Who Goes There?", and to a lesser degree, Howard Hawks' 1951 The Thing from Another World. A dog comes running into an isolated Antarctic research post, being chased by some Norwegians in a helicopter. The copter crashes and the dog turns out to be... OK, I'll skip the spoilers. But there are blood and guts, canine, human, and inhuman.

The movie bears a strong resemblance to Alien: the funky, lazy slacker crew, the tension, and the disgusting special effects. It also seems to have a stronger script, a bigger budget and tighter production than a lot of his films. In fact, it might be his masterpiece. (But I think I still like They Live better.)

Anyway, thanks Tippy. Sorry we were such wimps.

Dragon Food

I rewatched Dragon Inn mainly for one scene. I'll get to that.

The plot: Bad guys eunuchs, blah blah, good guys MacGuffin, blah blah blah. They wind up at the Dragon Inn, a desert outpost near the western border. Dragon Inn is a filthy roadhouse, run by sexy and violent Maggie Cheung. Example: She offers a smuggler access to her secret tunnel, or her love tunnel. When he tries for both, she kills him and has him butchered for the "spicy meat buns".

To this honky tonk come good guys Brigit Lin, Tony Leung Ka Fai, et al. Lin is as beautiful as Cheung, but as upstanding as Cheung is loose. You know they will have to fight. So Cheung finds Lin in the bath and starts to taunt her. Lin, in the nude and at a loss, attacks Cheung and steals a piece of clothing. The fight ends up with Lin dressed and Maggie Cheung nude on the roof of the inn, singing as the sun rises.

There are a lot of fights, melees, cavalry/archery attacks, etc. The style is fantastic wire-work, often in slo-mo. The non-action scenes are generally just as beautiful. The plot, which I mocked, is top-notch, not too simplistic or impossible to follow. This is a good one.

In conclusion: Brigit Lin, Maggie Cheung and enough clothes for only one of them.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Magic Afoot!

If you are not familiar with Terry Pratchett, perhaps we should all wait until you've gone out, bought The Color of Magic, come back and read it, and then proceed. Or we can just note that his 35+ Discworld books are all-time topsellers in England, and are well-loved the world over. They take place on a world that is a flat disc on the back of four elephants, on the back of the great turtle Atu'in, where magic works. They are hilarious, thought-provoking and addictive - and there are a ton of them. If you like Hitchhiker's Guide, imagine if Douglas Adams had written 30 more books just as funny.

If you do know Terry Pratchett (and to know him is to love him), maybe you didn't know that he has a few made-for-tv Discworld movies out, like The Color of Magic.Well, he does.

It's hard to say how funny this would be to people who haven't read the books, but to me, it is hilarious. There are a few name actors:
  • Tim Curry as Trymon, a sorceror advancing rapidly through the ranks at the Unseen University, because his seniors seem to die a lot
  • Christopher Lee as the voice of Death
  • Jeremy Irons as the deadly Patrician, ruler of Ankh-Morpork
  • Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee) as Twoflower, the first Tourist the Discworld has ever known
The actors I didn't recognize are even more fun - lots of wrinkly bearded guys for the wizards and of course, Cohen the barbarian, who's getting on in years.

Best of all, this movie comes in 2 parts, each over 90 minutes long. Three hours of prime Pratchett.

Even better, there's another in the series, based on the holiday-themed Hogfather. We'll queue that up in December.

In conclusion, watch for Pratchett's cameo as Astrogeographer 2.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Tropical Snow

Man, was it hot last Saturday. But you know my solution to that, right? Frozen cocktails!

I've mentioned the concept of a neige before (although I spelled it "nieve", because I don't know French or maybe I thought it was Spanish) - as far as I can tell, this culinary terminology was invented by me, but not the technique. Basically, you freeze a sweetened liquid, "fluffing" it to break up the ice crystals every now and then. The sugar prevents it from freezing hard as well. The results is a light, dry, fluffy cloud of goodness.

I made this batch by mixing 1/2 pineapple, 1/2 mango juice, filling a clean plastic yogurt container about 1/2 full. I stuck it in the freezer and every now and then stirred it with a fork. The first time, there was barely any ice. The next time, it was about 1/3 frozen. Then left it overnight and in the morning it was pretty frozen. So I dug the fork in and stirred it all around.

I've done this before, and found a solid, un-fluffable block of ice. I think using extra-sweet juice helps - the sugar retards ice crystal formation. This time it came out perfect.

So I had some pineapple/mango snow. I spooned some into a martini glass and added:
  • Rum and a little mac nut liqueur for a kind of mai-tai
  • Tequila, triple sec and lime for a kind of margarita
  • Gin, Cherry Heering and Benedictine for a Singapore Sling
  • Malibu rum and St. Germain with a little lime for a tropical fantasy
This is a very different effect than blending with icecubes or even running frozen juice through a blender. A bit more sophisticated, and stronger. Try some next time the weather gets hot.