Sunday, November 22, 2009


Dead Reckoning is another "How did I miss this?" movie. A moody, almost perfect noir, starring Humphrey Bogart that I had never heard of.

We meet Bogart as paratrooper Capt. Rip Murdock, going to Washington with his Sgt. Johnny Drake to get medals of honor. But Drake hops off the train and flees, and Bogart follows him to Gulf City Florida. There, he finds out that Drake was an assumed identity - the man who he had been was accused of killing the rich husband of Lizabeth Scott. When Bogart meets Scott, he finds a beautiful, troubled, threatened and possibly deadly woman.

Bogart's attitude towards woman is summed up in an amazing soliloquy:
"Women ought to come capsule-sized, about four inches high. When a man goes out of an evening, he just puts her in his pocket and takes her along with him, and that way he knows exactly where she is. He gets to his favorite restaurant, he puts her on the table and lets her run around among the coffee cups while he swaps a few lies with his pals...

And when it comes that time of the evening when he wants her full-sized and beautiful, he just waves his hand and there she is, full-sized."
Someone (Campaspe?) quoted this, which is why I queued this movie up. I thought it gave the movie a Nicholas Ray feeling, although he wasn't involved. John Cromwell directed - we know him best as director of Prisoner of Zenda - the one with Ronald Coleman. Who knew he could handle noir?

How does Lizabeth Scott handle her femme-fatale role? She looks luminous - I was reminded of Veronica Lake. However, she was clearly being cast as a Bacall substitute: She even exchanges nicknames with Bogart ala "Steve" and "Slim" in To Have and Have Not. I think she could have stood on her own, but someone thought she was just a stand-in. See what you think.

I found this to be a teasing, twisty, complex film noir. Mrs. Beveridge found it to be misogynist hackwork. One thing we agreed on was the strange batch of mixed metaphors around Bogart and his buddy's paratroop background. Their frequent invocations of "Geronimo" makes sense, but "dead reckoning"?

Also, we both liked gangboss Morris Carnovsky and his thug Marvin Miller. See what you think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

She Walks in Beauty

What do you expect from Queen Latifah's Beauty Shop? If you're looking for sassy girltalk, gritty determination, light comedy and an unthreatening look at race relations, well, you've got it.

The Queen plays a hairdresser at Jorge Cristoff's tony Atlanta salon. Jorge, played with zest by Kevin Bacon as a swishy Austrian martinet, fires her for giving shampoo girl Alicia Silverstone a break. So she sets out to set up her own shop with Alicia, some stolen customers and a tiny bank loan.

Latifah is the widowed mother of a musical prodigy, and seems to be supporting her mother-in-law and teenaged hootchy sister-in-law as well. The guy upstairs from the shop is a cute, sensitive African electrician and musician - a little too perfect boyfriend material. But he isn't gay - that role is played a hunky ex-con that Latifah hires as a hairdresser and eye-candy for the girls.

And so on. There isn't much of a plot. Latifah has troubles, people do nice things to her, or bad things. Colorful characters come and go - Little JJ as a grade-school playa wannabe, Andy McDowell as a la-di-da Atlanta society wife, Adele Givens as a hot-talking DJ. Alicia Silverstone faces racial prejudice from the African-American hairdresssers and customers, and overcomes it. Lacing it all together, aerial shots of sweet downtown Atlanta.

I can't say there is anything groundbreaking here - this is just a fun, cozy little movie. I haven't seen the Barbershop movies that it is loosely based on, but I imagine it's about the same. The two main things it's got going for it are:
  • Sassy dialog - Unfortunately, I'm way too white to quote any. But it is a joy to hear the girls lay it down. Queen Latifah has a few soliloquys that sound like rap that doesn't rhyme.
  • Kevin Bacon - he has way too much fun as the limp hair-tossing mean celebrity hairdresser.

Magnificent Seven

In Seven Swords as in The Magnificent Seven or The Seven Samurai, seven warriors join to save a village from the bad guys. Other than that, they have nothing in common.

Seven Swords takes place when the Ching dynasty is consolidating its hold on China by outlawing the study of martial arts. General Fire-Wind and his punked-out army are enforcing the edict by decapitating anyone he can find, and collecting a bounty on the heads. One martial artist escapes his attack and tries to warn a small village. He takes a young man and woman to Heaven Mountain, where they find a god-like swordsmith and four warriors. The two villagers get swords, so we have seven in all, against an army.

For the rest of the movies 2-1/2 hours, we get beautiful vistas of western Chinese mountains and deserts. We get amazing wuxia swordfights with high-flying wirework. We get horses, children and peasants. We get love and lust, pure and perverted. We get flashbacks, forwards and sideways. We may not get a clear image of all seven warriors, or the seven distinct sword styles, but I can name 4 or 5. We get cinema art, and rousing good tale.

This movies was directed by Tsui Hark, but it reminded me strongly of Ashes of Time Redux by Kar Wai Wong. Especially towards the end, balance tilts more to art film than action film. I don't think you'll get bored, but don't expect the something along the lines of the much more straightforward Once Upon a Time In China.

In conclusion, Donnie Yen has the role of no. 1 brooding hero. Who could do it better?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pistol Packin' Mama

Seijun Suzuki's 2001 Pistol Opera is, in some sense, a remake of his 1967 Branded to Kill, the story of the Assassin Guild's Number 3 Killer getting a chance to advance a few ranks. The '67 version, stars chipmunk-cheeked Jo Shishido as a killer who loves the smell of rice cooking. It was a stylish 60's black-and-white noir exercise in absurdism. The studio gave it to Suzuki along with a minimal budget to make a violent B-movie. The finished movie got him blackballed for 10 or 20 years.

The 2001 version makes a few changes. The Number 3 Killer, nicknamed Stray Cat, is a woman this time. The movie is in glorious, psychedelic color. But it is still an abstract absurdist exercise in style.

Stray Cat is a beautiful young woman who favors simple kimonos that still manage to show a little leg. A beautiful older woman hiding behind a scarf gets her jobs killing people, using a combination of threats and sexual innuendo - Stray Cat has a thing for pistols. Stray Cat meets a little girl who wants to be a killer. Number One Killer, Hundred Eyes, drops by for a visit, and pantomimes drinking tea. He has a laser sight on his gun, and a case of the sniffles. Et cetera.

In case you couldn't tell that this movie is far from realistic, several characters recount dreams, and some are even shown to the audience. Kabuki theater is referenced, in case you wondered about the strange mannered acting style. In fact, the movie ends with Butoh performers - Butoh is a Japanese avant-garde dance form featuring near nude, bald actors writhing ingrotesque stylized agony.

Have I forgotten to give you any reason to want to see this? Here it is, then: The film is beautiful. The colors are vibrant. Stray Cat tends to wear black or navy, but seems surrounded by yellows, possibly her theme color. I wonder if Kill Bill's yellows are a reflection of this. Deep blues may represent death, or sleep. Water, smoke (yellow smoke), a decaying bath house, a farmhouse, themes stated and revisited.

If this seems pretentious or boring, skip it. If it's intriguing, give it a few minutes. Within the first 10 minutes you should know whether it is your kind of thing.

Be aware that there is plenty of violence, but not a single drop of blood.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Feelin' Groovy

Ms. Beveridge was digging some old school Afrika Baambaata and Grandmaster Flash, when it occurred to me that Krush Groove was a Netflix Instant offering. So away we go.

Krush Groove is the 1985 slightly fictionalized story of Russell Simmons and early rap acts Run DMC, Curtis Blow and the Fat Boys. And when I say "slightly", I mean "completely" - at least, I don't think Russell Simmons had an affair with Sheila E. It's a pretty typical showbiz story - Krush Groove records has a potential hit with Run DMC, but can't get the money together to press the disc. But what you really want to see are early Brooklyn hip-hop acts like the above mentioned, as well as New Edition, LL Cool J and the Beastie Boys.

The style still seemed rooted in R&B, and they staged some of the shows like they were on Broadway - Curtis Blow in a white leather tuxedo looked very snazzy. Sheila E. fit right in.

I wish there were a lot more full numbers - Sheila E. got a couple, the Fat Boys got a music video in, but the Beasties get about a half verse, and LL Cool J the same. It's a pity that they cut out any music in favor of the fairly lame "plot".

Nonetheless, a real document from the early days. What's your favorite hip-hop movie?

Perfect Thai

There's two things I want to say about The Protector a.k.a Tom Yum Goong: Prachya Pinkaew and Tony Jaa.

Tony Jaa stars as a young Thai, raised to protect a herd of royal elephants. Bad guys steal a bull and his calf and Jaa chases them to Sidney Australia. When he catches up, oh boy.

Pinkaew directs. He could get away with just showing us the fights, but he actually shows a lot of style. It doesn't always hold together, but you can see some nicely framed compositions - a wide room with the villains at one end, then Jaa flying into the frame from the other end and crushing the bad guys. A major series of fights takes place in a burning temple with a layer of water on the floor - very cinematic.

And what great fights. Jaa first fights a capoeira master, almost playful, with flips and kicks. Then a wuxia swordsman in classical Chinese style, and finally a giant strongman. All while the temple is burning down around them as their kicks send up slow-mo splashes of water.

But the best fight is an amazing 5-minute long single take fight up 6 or seven stories. The stamina required for just the cameramen is astounding.

Andthe movie's all capped off by Jaa taking on and incapacitating (breaking bones) of 40-50 assailants.

The villains are very evil - I won't give that part away. The good guys include a Sydney policeman of Thai origin, who's kind of fun. There's even a girl, but no love interest. Jaa is purely focused on getting his elephants back. He gives a powerful furious performance.

I didn't mean to go on about the fight scenes, but they are incredible. The rest of the movie holds up pretty well, too. See it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Keeping Up with the Joneses

If you are a fan of Spike Jones, you'll want to see Spike Jones: The Legend: Disc 1.If not, it's probably because you don't know who he is. Or like the girl in the Band song, "Can't stand the way he sings, but love to hear him talk."

This disc features two episodes of the Colgate Comedy Hour hosted by the Spike Jones Band. This is a real TV incunabulum, from the cradle. Bright lights cause the camera to black out, the picture loses focus on zooms, overall quality is low, but it is the real thing. Instead of commercials, they had to work the products (Halo shampoo and Colgate toothpaste) into some of the skits.

Of the two, the first episode is best. It includes several of Spike's classics - "Chloe", "Cocktails for Two", and my favorite, "The Poet and Peasant Overture". The second features more skits than songs, based on the cunning idea the "Spike Jones is On TV" - an early example of going meta.

The band is classic, including trumpeter Georgie Rock, tenor banjos Dick and troll-faced Freddie Morgan, Billy Barty, Sir Frederic Gas and Doodles Weaver. Jones, a human cartoon in a checked suit, is in fine pitch, leading the orchestra with a pistol or plunger for a baton, soloing on the cowbells and providing backup on washboard and tinpan percussion.

Spike made a feature film, Fireman, Save My Child, but it isn't available. Spike's TV show, in my opinion is better than these Colgate Comedy Hour eps, but they are only available on VHS (we own 2 of the 3 volumes). So, other than a few cameos, this is the best you can do on Netflix. So go ahead and do it!

Speaking of cameos, the band does one in Variety Girl, an oddity I highly recommend. It's not available on Netflix, but I own the VHS. Suck it!

Oh geeze, sorry, that just slipped out. Volume 2 of this series features 2 episodes of 1952's All Star Revue. Hope to see it soon.

Update: We have now seen Spike Jones: The Legend: Disc 2 - Two episodes of the All-Star Revue show. I think these are more successful than the Colgate eps - less lame commercial stuff, for ex. There's a lot of overlap, and a lot of overlap with the Spike Jones Show (in fact, I think some of the show is recycled scenes). Still no reason not to watch them both.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Saint be Praised

I don't care what anybody says: we like Val Kilmer, and enjoyed The Saint. In this 1997 movie, Kilmer plays Simon Templar as a man of many faces - an international thief who is always in disguise, and always goes by pseudonym, based on the name of a saint.

He doesn't much resemble Roger Moore's suave TV Saint, or Vincent Price's radio version, or Leslie Charteris' written version. Once we got over that, we liked this fine.

Kilmer's disguises are great - they start with the voice. Several scenes feature him trying different accents on for size, and you can hear him dial it in in a few words. Not exactly subtle but convincing. And the personalities he adapts: Some are plain (a Russian officer), some are flamboyant (a gay German, just for fun). The key personality he adopts, a wandering poet, is too precious for words.

In order to steal atomic secrets, he needs to get close to a nuclear scientist Elizabeth Shue. By invading her privacy and reading her journal, he discovers that she has a Percy Shelley fixation, and sets out to become her perfect man, handsome, soulful, brooding, poetic, with a nice South African accent. And asking Kilmer to do handsome and brooding is like asking Keanu Reeves to play cute but dumb.

I know Val Kilmer doesn't get a lot of critical love. But we happen to like several of his roles a lot: Willow, Gay Perry in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the rabbit guy in Masked and Anonymous. Can't say he was my favorite Batman, but I even liked his Jim Morrison - I didn't like the movie much, but it was an amazingly realistic impersonation.

We liked him so much, we went on to watch another Val Kilmer movie: Red Planet. This was released in 1999, right around the time of Mission to Mars. It's a lot less flashy than De Palma's space opera, but has a lot fewer flaws, in my opinion.

Captain Carrie-Ann Moss and a crew of five are on their way to Mars to see why the engineered algae that was sent up had stopped producing oxygen. The crew includes Terence Stamp, as the ascetic philosopher/scientist soul of the mission, and Benjamin Bratt, Tom Sizemore, Simon Baker and Val Kilmer as astronaut/grunts. The trip to Mars has a nice, realistic SF feel to it, with some barracks-room philosophy and a little sexual tension over the captain (not between the cute astronauts, though, so cool your jets). Then, when it comes time to land, everything goes very, very wrong.

After this, the movie resembles Robinson Crusoe on Mars - the horror of being trapped alone on an inhospitable planet, slowly running out of heat, food, water and oxygen. The rust-red landscape (NSW Australia, mainly, not Crusoe's Death Valley) and pink sky inspire the same otherwordly feeling. The menace and the near escapes work the same way. The only thing missing is the space chimp. (There is a friendly killer robot companion, though.)

Unfortunately, Stamp's role is a small one. Carrie Ann Moss in not that inspiring as a space captain. She is supposed to be tough and competent, but in an emergency, she is reduced to just hitting the console. This is even lampshaded when she tells Ground Control, "I've tried everything, even hitting it!" Maybe if she tried something other than hitting it...

Kilmer is also a little lost in the ensemble, although he is marginally the leading man. That's ok, though. This movie doesn't seem to want flashy acting, just like astronauts don't want flashy heroics. Strong and competent, steady workmanship are what is called for, even in the most extreme situations. And that's what this movie seems to be about. Good special effects, sense of wonder, but no reaching for cosmic epiphanies. This is a movie that will entertain you, get your blood pumping and leave you with some beautiful images.

If it doesn't exactly "make you think", that's fine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fast and Furious Enough for You?

How do I describe Fast and Furious? I mean how do I describe which movie I mean? It's not the first one, Corman's 1951 The Fast and the Furious. It isn't Vin Diesel's 2001 The Fast and the Furious - which has nothing in common with the original but the name. It isn't either of the sequels to this like 2 Fast 2 Furious or The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, neither of which had anything to do with the previous. This is the 2009 version, with Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker et al. Claro? Claro que si.

Now that we've gotten that straight, how was the movie? Well, it starts with an awesome setpiece - Diesel, Rodriguez and a couple of other carloads hijack an oil tanker in the Dominican Republic. This involves bootlegger turns and highspeed reverse driving, but most importantly, Michelle Rodriguez climbing around on and jumping between fast moving vehicles.

It's too bad, but I think the movie never gets up to this level of excitement again. Also, it's pretty much the last we see of Rodriguez.

We saw Rodriguez first in Girl Fight, which pretty much defined her style - a tough, strong woman who was not afraid of love. We loved her variations on this character in Blue Crush and Final Fantasy. Hard as nails, pretty as a flower.

The rest of the movie deals with Diesel and FBI man Walker going undercover as border runners trying to take down a drug lord. Diesel drives mostly muscle - Camoros, GTOs, etc. Walker drives imports, Nissans, Subarus, some German, I think. They drive them a lot - street racing, offroad racing, tunnel racing. These scenes are a blast.

In between racing, we get some family drama - with a fair amount of Diesel looking soulful. I shouldn't josh, he's actually pretty good. The non-racing scenes are rather nicely shot, too, with lots of warm low light scenes around a kitchen table late at night and so forth. But the speed scenes are the real soul of the movie.

In addition, there's a pretty fine soundtrack, with lots of Spanish language rap and reggaeton.

In conclusion, the best F&F we've seen to date. Needs more Michelle Rodriguez though.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I don't want my reivew of The Fearless Vampire Killers to hinge on director/co-star Roman Polanski's recent legal notoriety. And I wanted to avoid discussion of female lead Sharon Tate's sad end. But it's pretty hard to avoid - Mrs. Spenser had to leave less than halfway through. "It's just too sad, knowing how they all wind up," she said.

That bothered me too, but what really bothered me was - it isn't very funny.

Scholarly old Jack MacGowran and his feckless young assistant Roman Polanski are searching for vampires in Transylvania. They come across an inn where the peasants seem to quick to deny the existence of vampires, and too fond of garlic. The innkeeper is Alfie Bass and his beautiful daughter is Sharon Tate. When she is swept away by the local Count Krolock, our heroes rush to save her.

This is all accompanied by sexual innuendo, badinage, wordplay and slapstick, none of it as good as the lowest Mel Brooks. The best Mel Brooks is a high hurdle, but face it, there's isn't much he would turn his nose up at. This wouldn't make the cut. Except -

I mentioned Alfie Bass. You may not recognize the name, but in the 60s and 70s, he was the go-to guy when you needed a cockney Jew. We know him mainly as M. Goldberg from the BBC series Are You Being Served. He's just plain funny, and he gets the best line in the movie. After he's been turned vampire, someone tries to use a crucifix against him. "Oy, have you got the wrong vampire!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Scariest Man in Black and White

Val Lewton - Scariest man in black and white on a chills/$ production cost basis. So for Halloween, we watched a double feature: The Leopard Man / The Ghost Ship. You may know Lewton as the producer of Cat People - not the one with Natassia Kinski. He was brilliant at creating a mood that suggests horror without actually showing very much. This is partially due to having no budget, but he elevated it to an art form.

The Leopard Man, directed by noir icon Jacques Tourneur, takes place in a southwestern border town. Jean Brooks is a cabaret singer and her manager, Dennis O'Keefe, convinces her to make an entrance with a leopard on a leash. The cat gets a fright and bolts, leading to the death of a young girl. Now the town is in a panic, and more girls turn up dead. The leopard is running amok - or something is.

One of the charms of Leopard Man is the range of characters. We get 3 cabaret performers, a manager, two young women and their families and a few local characters, including the local leopard rental man, Indian Charlie How-Come (and the leopard, returning from Cat People). In a very short movie, each is allowed to come alive. It's a very full movie that way.

My main complaint is the protagonists, who released the darn cat at the start of the movie. They almost feel as if they are responsible for all the killing and maiming. Crazy kids.

The Ghost Ship starts with a window display of knives in a ship's chandlery. A young ship's officer gives a coin to a blind street singer, who gives him a terrible augury. He boards the vessel and asks a sailor for the captain. The sailor only gestures with his knife. Oh, there will be knives in this movie, indeed. As the officer leaves, the sailor delivers a voice-over internal monologue, for he is mute and no man can know him.

When our young officer meets the captain, the mood lifts a little. The officer is third mate, just out of cadet school on his first voyage. The captain seems a kindly philosophical sort, looking forward to sharing thoughts with the young man on the long voyage.

But after they are at sea for a while, the captain begins to look different - capricious, indecisive, possibly worse. Men are killed. Our young man loses all faith in the captain, but what can he do? Even his best friend aboard, Sparks the radioman, doesn't want to "rock the boat". And he can't even get off the ship.

This movie doesn't have as much of the spooky shadows as traditional Lewton fare. But it does have some lovely freighter location shooting. It is also filled with symbols and portents, like a the knives and the mute and a plaque reading, "Who does not heed the rudder shall meet the rock".

Bonus: Because these movies are so short, we had time for an Instant movie - Phantom Ship, with Bela Lugosi. A fictionalized story of the mystery of the Marie Celeste, with Lugosi aboard on a mysterious mission of vengeance. Like Ghost Ship, one of it's best features is the use of a real ship, this time a wooden sailing ship. But there is the same slow attrition of the men and questions of the authority of the captain.

For those who like it, there are also sea chanties, lots of them. For those who don't like sea chanties, -SPOILER- there is a concertina, totally destroyed.


We're still on an A&C kick. This Halloween weekend it was Best of Abbott & Costello: Vol. 3: Disc 2 specifically, Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer Boris Karloff. In this episode, Abbott is the house dick at the Lost Caverns Resort and Costello is a bellhop. Costello tangles with a visiting lawyer, who ends up dead, in circumstances that look bad for our Lou.

The other guests are mostly creeps who wanted to get the lawyer out of the way for one reason or another. One is Boris Karloff, in mystical Swami drag, with a turban and all. He makes mystical gestures and attempt to control Costello's mind, but - he doesn't have one! Bwah-ha-ha!

Seriously, Karloff looks like he's having a fine time here, almost smiling at times. And -SPOILER- he isn't the killer, although he may be a killer.

There aren't a lot of standouts in this installment - Roland Winters is present, there are no musical numbers and that's about it. There aren't any famous routines, but some good physical comedy and the usual badinage and wordplay. Like our friend Mr. Schprock says, "Yep, still fresh."

Or was he being sarcastic?