Friday, December 24, 2010

Twas the Quiz before Christmas

The last time Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule posted a film quiz was over Labor Day. I didn't notice it was up until about 4 days later - far too late to get my answers in. After that fiasco, I've been checking every day - And here it is. I got my answers in before Christmas!

1) Best Movie of 2010
Bringing Up Baby, same as every year.

2) Second-favorite Roman Polanski Movie Our favorite is Ninth Gate. Second favorite is probably Rosemary's Baby. We're not big fans.

3) Jason Statham or Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson
The Rock is a surprisingly versatile actor (beyond the eyebrow trick), but Statham is so awesome that I watched In the Name of the King.

4) Favorite movie that could be classified as a genre hybrid 
Pistol Opera - a hybrid of yakuza and Noh theater.

5) How important is foreknowledge of a film’s production history? Should it factor into one’s reaction to a film?
Very unimportant. I don't care how much money a movie cost, who fought with who, or even what technology was used for the special effects. Only what's on the screen matters.
Of course, the rest of the stuff is fun to read about...

6) William Powell & Myrna Loy or Cary Grant & Irene Dunne
Nick and Nora. No question at all.

7) Best Actor of 2010
It's weird to say this but either Leonardo DiCaprio or Johnny Depp.

8) Most important lesson learned from the past decade of watching movies
Comedies and action movies - nothing pretentious or polite. Don't rent high-brow movies that look good but will only depress you. If you do rent them and don't watch them, return them right away.

9) Last movie seen (DVD/Blu-ray/theater)
  • DVD: If You Could Only Cook, with Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall. We especially loved Leo Carillo as a gangster and gravel-voiced Lionel Stander as his henchman. 
  • Blu-ray: Fantastic Four from a copy I own. I insist this is an awesome movie.
  • Theater: Despicable Me and Scott Pilgrim double bill at the Mission Tiki Drive-In last summer. Took some teenagers, who were not impressed, but didn't complain.
10) Most appropriate punishment for director Tom Six
I do not believe I have ever heard of Tom Six, or any of his movies. Please do not enlighten me.

11) Best under-the-radar movie almost no one else has had the chance to see
Dark and Stormy Night, by Larry Blamire of The Lost Skeleton of Cadvera "fame". It's a ton of fun, and 90-year old Betty Garret is in it! As far as I know, if you missed its premiere at the Egyptian last year, you missed it.
Stop the presses! It is now available on Netflix! Rent it today!

12) Sheree North or Angie Dickinson
Dickinson bared it all with Capt. Kirk and the captain of the Nostromo in Big Bad Mama. So, Sheree North (who was on Lost in Space).

13) Favorite nakedly autobiographical movie
8 1/2, and by extension, Stardust Memories.

14) Movie which best evokes a specific real-life place
The Lord of the Rings trilogy perfectly evokes Middle Earth - which is real to me...

15) Best Director
Del Lord, unless you mean for 2010. For 2010, still Del Lord.

16) Second-favorite Farrelly Brothers Movie
Never seen one. May it ever be so.

17) Favorite holiday movie
The Thin Man. Best Christmas ever!

18) Best Actress
Again, it's weird to say, but Angelina Jolie.

19) Joe Don Baker or Bo Svenson 
Bo Svenson wasn't in Mitchell, so him. He wasn't in Final Justice either.

20) Of those notable figures in the world of the movies who died in 2011, name the one you’ll miss the most
My crystal ball says "Clint Eastwood".

21) Think of a movie with a notable musical score and describe what it might feel like without that accompaniment.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - Actually, I think it would work pretty well. In some ways, the Maricone score could be replaced by whistling wind and creaking hinges and maintain the same feeling.

22) Best Screenplay
Duck Soup

23) Movie You Feel Most Evangelistic About Right Now
Some of our nephews have never seen any Marx Bros. so we've been hyping them. We've recently  recommended The Fall to several people as well.

24) Worst/funniest movie accent ever
With respect to Hrundi V.  Bakshi, we just saw the Mystery Science Theater version of Werewolf. Although it takes place in Albequerque, it has very few native English speakers (even Joe Estevez seems to be having trouble). The leading lady seems to be Russian or something and her attempts at an American accent are a stitch. "You mean... a waarwolf?"

25) Best Cinematography
I've got The Fall on the brain - it certainly is beautiful.

26) Olivia Wilde or Gemma Arterton
Umm, I saw Quantum of Solace, so... which one was in that?

27) Name the three best movies you saw for the first time in 2010 (Thanks, Larry!)

And I thought I'd seen all the great musicals and screwball comedies!

28) Best romantic movie couple of 2010
I guess I'll have to say Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn, same as every year.

29) Favorite shock/surprise ending
When Jimmy Stewart kills himself at the end of It's a Wonderful Life - in my version anyway.

30) Best cinematic reason to have stayed home and read a book in 2010
Since we don't go out to see movies - yay Netflix! - how about Best Reason to Fall Asleep on the Couch while Watching a Movie? I did that a lot. How about National Treasure, 1 or 2? Not a 2010 movie, but that's when I watched it.

31) Movies in 2011 could make me much happier if they’d only _______________ 
Stop taking themselves so seriously.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Theme Cocktail - Xmas 2010

So, here we are, at my sister's house for the holidays. Shortly after we arrive, she says, "Now, let's work on a theme cocktail for the holiday." Without realizing it, we had been having theme cocktails every year: pomegranate cosmos, Dark and Stormies, Bert of Paradises...

She had a recipe for a rum/brandy/cider based drink, but I'm only using it as a starting point. I picked up a bottle of Laird's Applejack (quite nice - just a whiff of apple in the fragrance) and some Allen's 100-proof ginger brandy (kind of nasty, and weak on the ginger). We also got some ginger beer for Dark and Stormies. We don't have any cider - yet.

Laird's and ginger beer is pretty good. With Allen's, it is less good.

This is a post in progress. I'll update it as we taste and try. If you have any suggestions, or fears for our sanity/sobriety, please post.

Update: Well, we didn't get far in this direction. We went to The Boston Shaker, a cocktail gear shop in Davis Square, Somerville MA. We browsed their extensive selection of bitters (including two locally made chocolate bitters - chocolate and xocolatl mole), but in the end, bought a bottle a Trader Tiki's Passion Fruit syrup. They included a recipe for Pieces of Eight:

1/2 oz. lime juice
1-1/2 oz. lemon juice
1-1/2 oz. Passion Fruit syrup
1-1/2 oz. rum


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Christmas Movies

Don't like 'em.

But if I did, here are a few I'd recommend:
  • Hogfather: Based on the Terry Pratchett Discworld stories, this comprises 2 90-minute British TV specials. Discworld's version of Santa Claus, the Hogfather, has been nobbled by the Assassin's Guild, and in his place Death (Ian Richardson) will be delivering the presents. It's funny, surprising and a bit dark - wait until you find out what the Tooth Fairy has been up to. It's probably better if you've read some of the Discworld books. Best of all, you can stream it instantly, along with the non-holiday themed Colour of Magic.
  • The Bishop's Wife: Cary Grant is an angel who seduces Loretta Young, to make her husband, the Bishop (David Niven) jealous. It really sparkles, with wit and a real touch of magic. It may be my favorite Christmas classic.
  • Lady in the Lake: Robert Montgomery's famous spin as detective Philip Marlowe. Everybody remembers that it is filmed from the detectives point of view, so you never see Montgomery, except maybe in a mirror. But most people forget that it takes place over the holidays.  
  • Santa Claus: Mystery Science Theater 3000: This is the one with the Mexican wrestler space Santa Claus, not to be confused with Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, which Cinematic Titanic mst'ed. This is very very bad, but it is available by streaming.
I'm sure that I'm forgetting a few, but, honestly, I'm just not that fond of the genre. Christmas in Connecticut, for instance, was a fine movie with too much Christmas for my taste. And here's a deep dark secret, which you must never repeat: I think It's a Wonderful Life is a great movie, a true classic. But a) overexposed and b) too much Christmas.

In conclusion, I'd like to say, "Bah humbug", but that's another holiday cliche, so I won't.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Flying Down to Rio

Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, the French Austin Powers is back, in OSS 117: Lost in Rio. We saw last saw him in Cairo: Nest of Spies, and liked him a lot.

Now the smugly nationalist, racist, sexist bumbling spy has been sent to Rio to buy a list of French Nazi collaborators from an old Nazi. Once there, he teams up with female Israeli agent. She's pretty sharp, but he can't take her seriously, because, of course, she's a girl, and besides, there's something about Jews...

They run into some Carioca hippies, get lost in the jungle, etc. It ends with a gratitous triple Hitchcock reference: Vertigo, Saboteur, and North by Northwest. Can't hate that.

I felt this sequel was slightly less awesome than the first entry, but can't wait for the next.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Back Again

Let's Do It Again is one of the three movie Sidney Poitier made with Bill Cosby, along with Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action. They are a friendly fun take on the black experience - kind of anti-blaxploitation.

Poitier and Cosby, two ordinary blue-collar dudes in Atlanta, belong the the Sons and Daughters of Chaka lodge, which is going to lose its building to redevelopment. Lodge leader Ossie Davis explains this in a nice secular revival type meeting, very Black positive without being Black power. Cosby comes up with a way to get the money for a new building:
  1.  They will go to New Orleans, where the middle weight boxing championship is being held.
  2. Poitier will use his hypnosis trick to make the contender (outrageously outclassed Jimmie Walker) into the champ.
  3. They bet all of the lodge's money on Walker at 5:1
  4. Profit
In the process, we get to see Poitier and Cos goofing around New Orleans with their wives, we get them dressed in wild pimp getups to impress the gambling bosses, and a some Safety Last style skulking around Walker's hotel room. Fun and funny, but a little aimless, with an almost improvised feel to it, especially Cosby's little rants.

Well, they pull it off and get away with the dough, but the gangsters they won it off of track them down, and now they have to do it again.

I liked this a lot. It's fun and family friendly without being toothless. I see this as sort of anti-blaxploitation: it's an African American viewpoint, it's got hustlers, gamblers and pinpsuits, but it's all in fun. Another way to look at it is like Amos and Andy, with Cos as Kingfisher, gambling with the lodge's funds. But again, the rascals are earnest and honest, not lazy and no-account. So in a way, these movies are a political statement - a radical, middle-of-the-road statement.

In conclusion, I have to mention the Curtis Mayfield soundtrack, sung by the Staples Singers. The title song alone is worth the price of admission. If you are going to be competing with Superfly, you need something like this.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where I'm At

Readers who have been reading (Special Announcement) know that I have been living alone in CA while Ms. Spenser started on her PhD in FL. Well, that regime is over - after many delays, I am now re-united with my wife and her pet rat and spider in Tallahassee.

The upheavals involved partly explain the irregularity of my blog posting. I think I am all caught up now, and from here on out, service will return as usual.

Or, actually, probably not. Because now I plan to make Ms. Spenser watch all of the movies I watched while we were apart, because, you know, we are joined at the hip and have no independent lives. Since I don't plan to re-review these, my output may drop below the usual 2-3 posts/week. And I don't expect to come up with enough cocktail posts to fill the spaces.

As per my usual policy, disappointed readers may return the unread portion of this blog for a full refund.

Elevator Pitch

I watched Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel, before Pitch Black. I hadn't been that impressed. I'd always heard that Pitch Black was the better movie, but I'm not so sure.

A malfunction forces a spaceship full of passengers in suspended animation to land on an unknown planet. May of the passengers die, but there are a few left - some crew, some Moslem pilgrims, a corrupt fixer and superhuman criminal Riddick (Vin Diesel). They soon find out about the planet:
  • There is a depopulated colony that seems to have emptied out very suddenly
  • The planet is in orbit around three suns, so it never gets dark
  • There are deep caverns with something creepy in them
 The creepies from the cavern proceed a to kill a few people, and then we learn:
  • They are afraid of the light - no problem since the sun never sets on this planet
  • Except - problem - there is a total eclipse of all the suns once every n years, and the next time is coming soon
  • But, at least Riddick can see in the dark with his modified eyes
 So there you have it - eventually, the lights go out, the creepies come out, and it's a race against time and creepies. Simple and effective. The style is utilitarian, with plain frontier clothes, unadorned buildings and jury-rigged equipment. I'd say space-age western, if I were looking for a genre. Something like Ghosts of Mars, perhaps.

Chronicles of Riddick, on the other hand, was baroquely ornate, full of silly costumes, wild fighting styles and weapons, oddball philosophies, farout special effects - more like Aeon Flux. Maybe it's just my mood, but I was hoping for something fantastic like that. Maybe I'll go back to Chronicles and see how I like it now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The Legend of the Shadowless Sword is a flawless example of a Chinese martial arts film - however, it is actually Korean. All of the heirs to a kingdom have been killed except one, a exiled scapegrace who has been spending his time away drinking and carousing. A beautiful swordswoman, So Yi Yun is sent to retrieve him, and guard him until he is back in his kingdom.

There are many wonderfully staged fights, some humor, fine cinematography, a plot you can follow - in general, a state of the art wu-xia movie. Highly recommended.

The Shaw Brothers' 1976 The Magic Blade on the other hand, is not quite so delightful. I suppose it gets points for being an early instance of the modern wu-xia genre (sword fight movies), which the Shaw Bros. could be said to have invented. The story involves a pair of squabbling good guys against a gaggle of bad guys, fighting for control of the Peacock Dart, a funky explosive super weapon. The weapons are wild, the fights fantastic, the plot is convoluted and... I fell asleep before it was over.

That doesn't mean that it's bad, but honestly, I would skip over this one unless I were trying to complete my Shaw Bros. experience. Go with Shadowless Sword instead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dancing Queen

Dancing Lady is the damnedest thing: Joan Crawford wants to be a dancer more than anything, but the only way she can find to ply her trade is at the burlesque. When the joint is raided, she meets slumming rich guy Franchot Tone, who gives her a chance to move up in the world.  But she sets her caps for producer Clark Gable as "Patch" Gallager.

For a 1933 pre-Code backstage musical, this is all pretty standard - and very well done, too, with plenty of quips, racy dialog, skimpy costumes, and song and dance numbers (including some nice faux Busby Berkeley numbers). Also, the amoral way that Crawford strings along her rich boyfriend while making a strongarm play for her boss is pretty interesting. But suppose you say, "Sure, Joan Crawford dancing, Tone and Gable, fine. But I want more!"

OK - how about Fred Astaire, in his first feature, dancing under his own name with Crawford? How about Nelson Eddy singing the theme? Robert Benchley as Tone's buddy? Still not sold?

Ted Healey, my friends. Ted Healey and his stooges: The Three Stooges to be exact. Ted seems to be some kind of musical director, Larry plays piano, and Moe and Curly are stage hands. Now that's entertainment!

Total Dick

There is a whole subgenre of movies based on Philip K. Dick novels, starting with Bladerunner. Most of them bear little resemblance to the original, or are very bad, or both. A Scanner Darkly is different. It is very faithful to the novel, which one of Dick's most heartfelt, autobiographical tales.

It is a story about Substance D, or Death, a reality-altering, paranoia-inducing, highly addictive drug. Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves, is both a user and an undercover narc. As a narc, he wears a scramble suit, which changes his face and voice several times a second, so that no one, not even his bosses. In the end, he winds up investigating himself, so divorced from reality that he doesn't realize that he and Arctor are the same person.

The scramble suit works because the whole movie is rotoscoped: filmed and traced as a cartoon. This makes many scenes visually interesting. In other scenes, the tracing is so faithful, you might as well be looking at the originally filmed scene (at least on my smallish screen). It isn't just a gimmick, but I'm hard pressed to say why it is integral to the film. Possibly as a metaphor to the mediated nature of drugged reality? Anyway...

A lot of this movie is about Reeves and his druggy friends sitting around talking. Robert Downey Jr. plays an intense conspiracy theorist type with a touch of Hunter S. Thomson. Woody Harrelson plays a dumb doper. (Typecasting?) Wynona Rider plays Arctor's girlfriend, who can't stand sex and doesn't like being touched - too much coke. Their conversations are funny, stupid, pathetic and finally, heartbreaking.

Dick has said that the novel was inspired by his experience with drugs, and many of the situations are transcribed from life. The movie ends with a long list of people whose lives were damaged or ended by drugs. And Arctor doesn't exactly mean "Author", but is sounds like it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Steamy Story

Steamboat Round the Bend has a great pedigree: Will Rogers directed by John Ford. It plays like it too - John Ford showers us with beauty shots of the Mississippi River running high and proud, and the steamboats that rode along her. Will Rogers is crusty yet wise, a patented medicine salesman and riverboat captain. There's a great crowd of extras, including Eugene Palette, Lee J. Cobb, and the ever astonishing Stepin Fetchit.

Rogers' son, played by John McGuire, has gotten mixed up with a swamp girl and killed a man. This disturbs Rogers, who feels that river folk and swamp folk shouldn't mix. He orders the boy to turn himself in. The girl, Fleety Belle (!), played by the lovely Ann Shirley, rails at him, afraid that McGuire will be convicted and hanged. And when he is convicted, Roger's and Fleety Belle need to go on a river trip with a floating wax museum to raise money for a better lawyer for an appeal.

On the trip, they discover Stepin Fetchit playing Jonah in a model whale. If you've never seen his act, this is a pretty good example of it. He drawls and whines and yammers in an impenetrable dialect, while making googly eyes, and possibly shuffling a little. This kind of thing is not for everyone - I guess it's pretty racist - but it's pretty funny, and half the white folk have accents about as hard to make out.

This movie is a funny kind of mix - an old-fashioned plot that could have come from a silent melodrama along with some slow, easy humor, followed by a slapstick ending. If you can take the sentimentality (and work around the racism), you should like it. If you don't, you just don't like Will Rogers movies.

In conclusion, I did appreciate the strong stance on prejudice against swamp folk. They are human, just like river people.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cocktails are Easy

I took a business trip to New York this week - seems like a nice burg. On the advice of a friend, I went down to the lower East Side to WD-50 for a nice deconstructed meal. As a solo diner, I sat at the bar and got to watch the maestros in action. I had a cocktail called "Check the Weather" (it was raining out, I thought it appropriate). It comprised:
  • Mezcal (probably Mont Alban, though I couldn't see the label)
  • Jackfruit juice
  • Campari 
  • Lime
It was served up in a sours glass that was a little wider at the base - that concentrated the elusive odor of jackfruit (sometime described as strawberry banana) and smoke of the mezcal.

Mezcal is one of my current favorites, and it isn't easy to get. Like tequila, it is made from the agave, but the pinas are smoked instead of steamed, giving it a flavor like peaty scotch.

But that's not what I came here to write about. No, what I wanted to say is that it's easy to make delicious cocktails. A few good ingredients, a little guesswork, a great drink. If it doesn't work, tinker a little. If it does work, change it all around, it'll probably still be great.

I wanted to make Singapore Slings for a friend, but it turned out we were low in gin. She doesn't like gin anyway. Besides, I don't have any Benedictine. But she does have some chili infused tequila - well, chilies and pineapple go great together. So:
  • 1 shot chili-infused tequila
  • 1 oz. lime
  • 1 oz. kirsch
  • 1 shot pineapple juice
Shake and serve over ice in a highball glass.

I haven't named this drink because I'm not done with it. I've tried it with triple sec instead of kirsch. I've doubled the juice and served it in a pint. I used mango juice when the pineapple ran out. I've tried it with regular tequila instead of infused (that's the Mango Margarita). They're all good.

Now, I'm not saying that the guys at WD-50 can't top my simple cocktail riffs. They took some chances with mezcal and they had a lot of cocktails featuring sake, which can be hard to work with. I know - I almost killed myself trying to perfect the tequila-sake martini. But it isn't hard to make a creative cocktail - if it has booze, people will love it.

In conclusion, I wonder how a mezcal-sake martini would work?

Irma and the Waves

I've know I've mentioned it before, but I'm a big fan of old-time radio. One of my favorites is My Friend Irma, so I knew I'd eventually have to watch the movies: My Friend Irma / My Friend Irma Goes West.

In both the radio show and the movies, Marie Wilson is Irma, an airhead blonde who gets herself, her roommate Jane and everyone else around into all kinds of trouble. Her boyfriend a cheapskate chiseler called Al (just "Al"), causes trouble the rest of the time.

In this movie, Jane is played by Diana Lynne, who played a lot of kid sister roles not long before this 1949-1950 role. I loved her in these roles, like Miracle of Morgan's Creek and The Major and the Minor, and she is lovely here as a young woman. In fact, she overshadows Wilson, 10 years her senior. I would expect this role - the sensible adult member of the team to be more of a plain Eve Arden type.

Honestly, Wilson looks a little drawn in these films - thin in the face and tired. Her voice is still the perfect dumb blonde's, but she's either showing her age or has been hitting the pep pills. Her character has a tendency to whine and cry when people get mad at her, which is all the time. I was surprised at how cruel her friends were - although I suppose it's realistic. She's funny to watch, but would have been pretty annoying to live with.

The whole cast is completely true to the radio version - John Lund's Al had me convinced he was played by thesame guy as on the radio, but not so. But Hans Conried did get to reprise his role of Professor Kropotkin, whose tag line was "It's only me, Professor Kropotkin".

There's something I haven't mentioned, because I didn't want to scare anyone. For some reason, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are in these movies. Dino plays a romantic interest for Jane, and Lewis plays a wacky sidekick. It isn't that Dino's songs are boring, and Jerry's comedy is grating (both true), but they just don't belong in this loving tribute to a great radio show.

Meanwhile, in Here Come the Waves, Betty Hutton plays both the sensible adult and the kooky airhead. As Rosemary, she is sensible, serious, and wants to join the WAVES to support the war effort. As Rosemary's twin Susan, she wants to keep up their nightclub act and meet, mash and marry singing movie star Bing Crosby. She is a bobbysoxer with a broad Iowa twang, while her sister speaks in the twang with more refinement. Even in their singing act, Rosemary swings, but sister Susan goes nuts - totally jazz.

So the sisters join the WAVES and Crosby and buddy Sonny Tufts join the Navy, but Susan plots to keep him stateside out of danger by getting him transferred to the WAVES, and so on. The romantic plot has him fall in love with the refined sister (who thinks he's a playboy and a coward), while dodging his fan Susan. Oh, yeah, Tufts is in love with Rosemary too.

Both of these movies had a smart girl and a dingbat, and I was surprised by how mean they were to the dingbat. I thought the pretty airhead was supposed to be loved by everyone. I guess I'd pick Diana Lynn over Marie Wilson, too, but I prefer the no-holds barred version of Betty Hutton to the high-hat version. Which would you choose?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pineapple Sunday

Pineapple Express is not really gay, or homophobic either. But it is wicked homosocial.

I figure everyone knows all about this 2008 Seth Rogen/James Franco vehicle: Rogen witnesses a murder, and goes on the lam with his pot dealer Franco to keep from being rubbed out. There are complications: Rogen has a high-school age girlfriend. Franco has bubbe (grandmother). The murderer is Franco's supplier. Worst of all, Rogen doesn't really like Franco. He only pretends to like him because he has the weed.

The character arc is how Rogen learns to accept the friendship of his dealer. Which is heartwarming, since it is James Franco. But a weird life lesson.

There are two jokes in the film:
  1. The guys are stoned.
  2. The guys are doing something that looks gay
The whole gay thing kept putting me off. It really isn't homophobic: Sure there are cheap laughs, but the moral really is that it is ok for guys to be close - it's homosocial. In one scene, Danny McBride, the middleman who was tortured into betraying our guys, comes back to help them, because, "Bros before hos". But they aren't facing hos (I mean women). They are facing murderous drug dealers! OK, one is a policewoman (small but scary Rosie Perez), but still.

So, that's the joke, I guess. Danny McBride's character actually is gay - or at least he acts like Richard Simmons, bakes birthday cakes for his dead cat, and worked as a prostitute. Everybody is cool with that - there is no homophobia here. But maybe some misogyny.

I guess I'm overthinking this - it was pretty funny. I laughed a lot. It just gave me an uneasy feeling. Maybe it was intended to. But this homosocial thing - guys need to bond, no females needed - was weird in Knocked Up too. I guess it's Rogen's thing.

I did feel bad for McBride's cat though.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Up in the Air

Studio Ghibli's anime Kiki's Delivery Service to me, is about Miyazaki's dreams of flying. It takes place in a picturesque but vaguely defined ~1930s European location. Kiki is a young witch. When witches in this milieu are 13 years old, they must leave home and find a town that needs a witch. So she takes off on her broom with her talking black cat Gigi.

She finds a large and lovely city by the sea, where the people are friendly, except perhaps the police. She soon has a suitor, a bike-riding boy with rolled up jeans, a red striped shirt and a yellow sweater tied around his neck - Tin-Tin, in other words. I guess we are in Belgium. And yet she feels like an outsider.

I couldn't quite buy this plotline - everybody loves Kiki, and supports her, and she is unfailingly polite and helpful. But if someone just looks at her sideways, she gets all "boohoo, I'll never fit in". Heck, the mean girls who talk about her behind her back are saying, "She has a job and she's only 13? That's so cool."

What I did buy without question was the flying. This animation is very much about flying, clouds, waves and the wind. Consider - you can't animate wind, you need to animate the blowing clothes, the wheeling birds, the waving treetops. His studio does this very beautifully.

We also get to see up Kiki's dress a lot, what with the wind and the broomstick riding and everything. Not that there is anything prurient about it. Just thought I should mention it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

No Belle Prize

The Belle of New York is a pretty weak, late (1952) Fred Astaire movie. His co-star, the titular Belle is played by Vera-Ellen, one of my favorite dancers. In turn-of-the-century (19th->20th) New York, she is a member of a Salvation Army style group, run by Marjorie Main. Fred is a playboy who sees her playing on a streetcorner and falls in love with her.

One thing I did like is that Vera Ellen doesn't play it dumb or coy. She recognizes Astaire's intention and tells him to get lost repeatedly. In other words, she is wise to him. I like a wised up heroine. It turns out that her boss, Marjorie Main, is also Astaire's aunt and benefactor. When she finds out that they are in love, she doesn't pitch a fit, but actually approves! Another sit-com situation avoided. There were a couple of other traps like this they didn't fall for - this is not an "idiot" plot, that only works if everyone is an idiot.

Unfortunately, there really isn't much of a plot at all. That's fine for a musical, of course, but the singing and dancing are weak too, and that kills it. The big gimmick is that Astaire is so in love, he can dance on air - he has a number on top of the Arch at Washington Square, etc. It's cute, but the dancing would be nothing special on the ground.

Vera-Ellen gets a few numbers, but they are pretty restrained for such an athletic dancer. One of her lines: " want to make the menschen holler 'gangway'/I want to care less than Eva Tanguay". That's clever, but kind of incoherent.

I guess my favorite part was Alice Pearce, the plain-faced character actress with the screechy voice. She played Lucy Schmeeler, the blind date in On the Town, and Gladys Kravitz on "Bewitched". She's just fun to watch, and has a nicely sympathetic character.

Keenan Wynn as the lawyer who makes a living out of getting Astaire out of scrapes, is fun too. But he doesn't get much screen time.

So, how bad is this movie? Maybe not as bad as all that, but one song seems to be titled "My Heart Went 'Whoops'" - sung to ensure that you understand that "whoops" is meant in the regurgitory sense. Well, my heart didn't exactly go whoopsie, but it wasn't turning cartwheels, either.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deadful Great

Yes, it really is called Deadful Melody - and I think it's pretty great. The setup for this 1993 kung fu movie concerns a magical guchin (or lyre, as it is called in the subtitles). It is so powerful, only those with strong kung fu can use it. Young security specialist Yuen Biao is given the job of guarding it by lovely and mysterious Brigitte Lin. That's the setup. this leads to several gangs of of ghosts, bandits, and tough guys trying to steal it, including Carina Lau.

The fighting style is fantastic - in the sense of "fantasy". Much wirework, so that people never walk offstage, they always fly up into the sky. The guqin shoots little animated bolts of light, which kill people, and so on. The acting style is pretty goofy as well. At one point the "magical lyre" is mentioned, and everyone onscreen leans in and says, in unison, "the magical lyre?!!?". Not exactly a comedy, but not very serious.

So, this isn't Bride with White Hair. I liked it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Secrets and Clues

Can anyone remind me why I watched National Treasure: Book of Secrets? After all, I fell asleep during the first National Treasure - and I watched that only because I wanted to see the sequel. Oh well, the Netflix queue is a mysterious thing.

Nick Cage is now reconciled with his father, Jon Voight. He is rich and famous due to the last movie. But another historian, played by Ed Harris, believes he has evidence that Cage's ancestor was part of the plot to kill Lincoln. Clearing his family name will require Cage to find a lot of clues and solve a lot of puzzles, even if it means breaking and entering in Buckingham Palace and kidnapping the president.

This is all fun enough, the actors are great, and there are a bunch I'm not mentioning (e.g. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer). My favorite part was Riley, a grad student type who acts as comic sidekick He is natural loser, who would be pretty impressive if he wasn't out-shone by Cage at every turn.

My least favorite part was the family drama:

 a. Nobody cares about your daddy issues, or your daddy's problems with mommy
 b. What's the big damage if your grand^x-father was part of the plot to kill Lincoln? I had ancestors who were slave owners, and one who was hanged for cattle-rustling. We consider them to be disreputable but quaint.

All in all, this should have been better. I blame it all on weak writing - I guess they figured that enough money for effects would cover that up. Nice try.

Anway, as long as there isn't a National Treasure 3, I'm done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Four Jerks in a Jeep

Four Jills in a Jeep is pretty much your standard WWII entertain-the-troops film. The title is probably a play on the song the Andrews Sisters sang in a similar movie, Private Buckaroo, "Six Jerks in a Jeep".

Kay Francis hosts a radio show especially for the troops. It features the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, Carole Landis (Brass Monkey), Mitzi Mayfair, and Martha Raye, all playing themselves. A general overhears Martha wishing she could be in Europe with the boys, and grants her wish.

The basic idea seems to be: stick four babes in a war zone, and watch them perform.
  • Kay Francis, tall, dark, patrician, spends her time meeting with generals and aristocrats. She is genteel.
  • Carole Landis, nearly as tall, sets her sights a little lower. She bumps into a pilot in the mud and finds she can't get him off of her mind, especially when he is flying a mission.
  • Mitzi Mayfair, a cute little blond, is a talented tap dancer who wasn't in many movies. Here, she runs into her old vaudeville partner Dick Haymes, now serving in the army. They fight and fall in love again.
  • Martha Raye, the manic comedienne with the wide mouth, gets most of the gags. She also gets politely chased by Phil Silvers, the soldier detailed to chaperon the girls.
Some laughs, some songs, some dancing, a little danger and romance, but not really a lot of any of these. Mostly, the movie is content to let the girls look beautiful, each in her own way. Whether that's good enough is up to you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

More Power

It's time for another Tyrone Power double-bill that isn't really: Café Metropole/Girls' Dormitory.

Cafe Metropole features Tyrone Power betting more than he has and losing to casino/cafe owner Adolphe Menjou. To pay back the debt, Power must impersonate a Russian prince and woo rich American Loretta Young.

Power doesn't have much to do in this movie except look good in evening clothes and fake a bad Russian accent. Loretta Young gets to do a little more, being a spoiled society type. (Her dad, Charles Winniger, is a sketch.) This is really an Adolphe Menjou movie. He is suave and sleazy, and when he has to persuade his bookkeeper to do a little stealing, he exerts a hilariously hypnotic force of will. He is the only reason to watch this.

Girls' Dormitory has even less Tyrone Power. It features Herbert Marshall as Herr Direktor of a Swiss girls' school. He lectures outdoors with the Alps in the background and a class full of beautiful teenaged girls literally at his feet.

He has a handsome and intelligent female assistant, Ruth Chatterton, who he treats with respect and admiration. She is obviously just as crushed on him as the girls.

But his number one admirer is Simone Simon, a radiant young thing just about to graduate. She makes a strrong play for Herr Direktor, reminding him that she will soon graduate and be gone from his life. At this point, he has barely noticed her as more than a student, but he begins to think differently.

This movie is the purest male fantasy imaginable - to be the noble, handsome, brilliant ruler over a domain of women and teenaged girls. This makes my Jane Powell/Deanna Durbin/Diana Lynn interest seem innocent (which it is, I assure you!). On the other hand, Simone Simon is undeniably gorgeous.

In conclusion, --SPOILER-- Marshall dumps Chatterton and runs off with Simon. It seems shallow and skeevy and not likely to end well. But, let's face it - it is realistic.

Oh yes, and Tyrone Power is an earl or something who wants to marry Simon. I didn't even notice him.

The Berry Cosmo

Not too many cocktail recipes lately. Sorry. Here's a quick one.

I'm moving out at some point, so I need to clean up the liquor cabinet. I have a few infusions in the freezer, including:
  • Fresh strawberry
  • Fresh raspberry: a good way to preserve those delicate berries
  • Blueberry: made from dried blueberries, a.k.a. Maine caviar
I mixed them all together to get a dark purple-scarlet potion - vodka with berry flavors, with no water or sugar added. Very nice in a shot glass, but I feel like something else.

Berry-Infused Cosmo

1 shot berry-infused vodka
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. triple sec.

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Brother Act

I thought Tai Chi Master looked familiar. I had already seen the English dubbed version, Twin Warriors. No matter, it's a great movie, and even better in the Mandarin (?) dub.

Two little monks play and grow up together. They both love kung fu, and practice and fight all the time. The smaller, more gentle monk grows up to be Jet Li, his friend Siu Hou Chin. The first scene I was sure I'd watched shows them sitting down to eat with their legs crossed - but with no chairs, just sitting over thin air. Then they start a fight with their feet under the table, eventually destroying the table. It's a virtuoso set piece, one of many in this movie.

Soon, Chin gets in serious trouble and the boys are kicked out of the monastery. To make money, they let people hit them for a penny. As a crowd pummels them, they pick up the coins - "This is the easiest job ever!" But the boys grow apart. Jet Li makes friends with some revolutionaries, including drunk Michelle Yeoh and cute Fennie Yuen. How come Michelle Yeoh is always paired with a "cute" young actress? I guess it accentuates her more mature good looks.

Meanwhile, Chin has decided to throw in with the corrupt eunuch governor. He becomes more and more brutal and power-crazed. His attack on Li's friends drive Li insane. The scenes of the mentally distracted Jet Li have a lot of humor and a little poignancy. When he discovers the principles of Tai Chi, he is restored to mental equilibrium.

This is definitely a classic. It's got great fights, a little humor, Michelle Yeoh getting drunk. What else could you ask for?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Grandeur That was Rome

I'm glad I watched Tony Rome. After seeing the sequel, Lady in Cement, I wasn't too enthusiastic. The first one is better.

Tony Rome is Frank Sinatra, playing a Miami detective suspiciously similar Travis McGee. Example: McGee won his boat, the Busted Flush, in a poker game. Rome's boat, the Straight Pass, was won in a craps game. Never mind. It's just a coincidence.

In this episode, Rome takes a drunk heiress home and gets involved with drunk wives, ex-wives, future wives (or "sluts"), a diamond pin, some junkies, some hoods, and so forth. There is some cute patter, some fights, some dames, and so it goes.

Back in the 50's, Sinatra had a radio show called Rocky Fortune. He played a footloose and fancy-free guy who worked oddjobs, solved crimes, and cracked wise. This was prime Sinatra. He started every show with his trademarked greeting, "Hi" - but when he said it, it sounded cool. This Tony Rome is much closer to the Rocky Fortune version than I'd expected.

OK, I still fell asleep before it was over. But I was really tired. This is better than the sequel. Although the sequel has Raquel Welch and Dan Blocker. Maybe it's a draw.

Monday, October 4, 2010

No Theater like Noh Theater

I've kind of been writing about a lot of 2-3 star movies - "could have been worse", "I fell asleep but it was OK", etc. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is not one of those. It is the real thing.

This is one of Akira Kurosawa's first movie, made in 1945. It didn't have a big budget - at this point in the war, Japan could barely afford the film stock for a 1-hour movie. But the austerity also works as it does in Noh theater, to strip the story down to its essence.

The story is the Japanese classic Kanjincho - the Subscription List. Beautiful young noble warrior Yoshitsune has been condemned by his jealous brother Yoritomo. He is fleeing to a northern kingdom with seven loyal retainers dresses as mountain monks. They try to pass a customs barrier, but find that all monks are suspected of harboring Yoshitsune. Their leader, Benkei, explains that they are gathering funds for Todai-ji Temple. When pressed to read the prospectus, he pulls out a blank scroll and improvises the impressive reading of a Buddhist document.

Yoshitsune is disguised as a porter, and when he is questioned, Benkei begins to beat him - something no retainer could do to a lord. This clears them, and they are sent on their way.

The style, as well as the story, is based on Japanese traditional theater, Kabuki, Noh and Kyogen (funny skits, sort of humorous Noh). The kyogen part comes from a comic porter who the fugitives meet on the road. He is played by rubber-faced comic Kenichi Enomoto, who looks just like the exaggerated comic masks used in Kyogen. He overacts in a style that owes something to Kyogen, something to Rakugo (traditional storytelling style) and something to American cinema. He's worth the price of admission alone.

The story ends with the border official sending the monks some sake wine to as a token of respect, and possibly because he saw through their disguises but let them go anyway. Enomoto drinks deeply and does a lovely little comic dance. The trick here is, the play traditionally ends with Benkei doing a dance, but instead we have a comic parody of that dance. I think it's worth the price of admission for the dance alone.

Then Benkei starts his slow, dignified, beautiful dance - and Kurosawa fades out.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Meet Cute

I went into Joe Bob Briggs Presents: Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter with a certain set of expectations - Joe Bob would crack wise about the movie's cheapness, count the number of breasts and decapitations, generally yuck it up. But I was wrong - he practically gave a seminar on B-movies.

JJ Meets FD is William "One-Shot" Beaudine's masterpiece, along with it's double-bill counterpart, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. He made hundreds of films, starting in 1915 and ending with this one, in 1966. Joe Bob explains his history and the reason for the nickname "One-Shot" - he didn't believe in retakes.

He worked in many genres, but was strongest in westerns, and maybe horror, so this strange combo makes sense. As Joe Bob points out, during the long Jesse James sequences, you need to remind yourself that Frankenstein's daughter is in this somewhere.

Eventually, Jesse James (James Lupton) meets Frankenstein's daughter (Narda Onyx) and Igor (the huge Cal Bolder - Keel on Star Trek), brought together by spicy senorita Estelita Rodriguez - the Cuban Spitfire.

Briggs gives us capsule bios of all these actors and more, pointing out that this was the last film for many - a real resume-killer. It was filmed on Crash Corrigan's ranch, and was indeed the last film made there. So many fun facts to learn about a basically not-very-good movie!

I probably should have listened to the actual soundtrack as well, but I just skipped that and went straight to the commentary. I'm not ashamed. Thank you, Professor Briggs.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

National Leisure

I really only watched National Treasure so that I could watch National Treasure II -and I can't remember why I wanted to watch that.

So, Nick Cage is a treasure hunting archeologist, like Indiana Jones but not so swashbuckling. I'm not one of the Nick Cage haters - I rather like him, especially if he is playing a lighter role. He can do emotional pain well enough, but I think he does better when you don't have to take him seriously. He is pretty convincing in this role as an academic with an adventurous side - rough and ready, but still a nerd at heart. Cage is pretty believable as a nerd.

The McGuffin of the movie is the family legend of an immense treasure, and every clue Cage tracks down leads to another clue. They lampshade this ruthlessly - Cage's dad keeps saying there is no treasure, just more clues. The clues tend to be in difficult places, like in invisible ink on the back of the Declaration of Independence. So Cage has to break into a number of national monuments, or into the system of tunnels and caverns beneath the nation's capital.

Annnnnd... this is around when I fell asleep. I woke up with the DVD menu running - it may have been running for hours, fooling me into believing the movie was still going and I shouldn't bother opening my eyes yet.

But, you know, I kind of enjoyed NT. It was mostly a traditional kind of action movie - a little aimless, maybe a little too long, but pleasant enough. So I'll give NT2 a try.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Brassed Off

I'd meant Brass Monkey to be a kind of double-bill to Broadway Melody of 1929 - They are both backstage musicals. It turned out to be a different animal: a backstage radioshow musical mystery comedy, featuring some of the most famous Englishmen you've never heard of.

It stars Carroll Levis as Carroll Levis, the "Most Famous Canadian in England". Unknown now, it seems that he was a comedian with a popular radio variety show in England in the 40s. He is coming to England with a discovery, played by Carole Landis. Landis has an evil husband who is involved in smuggling the titular monkey, along with a gang that includes Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein) and Herbert Lom as a French thug. The suspense is not the strongest part of this movie.

The humor is a little better. Levis' office is overrun with "talent", mostly obscure with the exception of Terry-Thomas, appearing under his own name. He does several lovely bits; I don't think I've ever seen him so unrestrained and out there. Another standout was Avril Anger, as Levis' secretary, a double-talking ditz in the Gracie Allen mode. But I also enjoyed the old geezer who played "Endearing Young Charms" on the musical saw.

Carole Landis committed suicide shortly after this movie was released, which dampened its reception. She was known for her tireless work entertaining the troops during the war. I remember her for I Wake Up Screaming, although I remember Betty Grable better. She could have done better than Brass Monkey, but I guess people don't always get to choose their last film.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Come on Along

The Broadway Melody of 1929 was one of the first sound musicals (yes, there were silent musicals), but it has a modern feel for me. It has a great opening number - a song pluggers office, with a dozen acts all trying out their songs at the same time. Charles King breaks out of the pack to demo his number "Broadway Melody". Soon, his girlfriend Hank - great name - played by Bessie Love - ooh great name and her sister Queenie (Anita Page) are in town from the sticks, trying out for a role in his musical.

Hank is a sharp little brunette and Queenie is a big blonde. Hank sums it up as "with my talent and your looks, we can't lose". They don't have much luck with their sister act but Queenie is hired on to pose naked in the background and is a big hit.

Note for "pre-code" fans: There's quite a bit of our girls in their underthings and posing nude (tastefully draped). That's one thing that gives this a modern feel. Another is the forthright sordidness - Queenie starts hanging out with producers, and it's plain they aren't interested in her talent.

But at heart, it's an old-fashioned melodrama: you see, King and Queenie have fallen in love, although they can't admit it. They can't hurt Hank, you see. It ends up the same way Glorifying the American Girl does: One girl gets a career in showbiz, the other gets the guy.

The songs are a little rough, and so are the dance numbers. I like that, though. They seem more real and less polished. Love has one little uninhibited jazz dance that is truly the bee's knees. And she plays an ukulele!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Ring a Ding

I mainly queued up Lady in Cement because it sounded like a Travis McGee story. It wasn't, of course. Travis McGee is the iconic tough guy Fort Lauderdale "salvage specialist" from the color-titled novels of John D. MacDonald. Lady features a late 60s Frank Sinatra as Tony Rome, Lauderdale detective.

The movie starts with scuba-diving Frank finding a naked lady with her feet in cement on the ocean floor. I did a little research and found Darker Than Amber, where McGee rescues a woman thrown off a bridge with a cinder block wired to her legs. That and the Florida location is about all the connection between the two.

I'll skip most of the plot and just report that Frank is joined by Dan Blocker as a Really Big Guy and Raquel Welch as a totally hot babe. Both truly succeed in their roles. The movie takes place in a late hipster milieu, with strip clubs, go-go dancers and those wacky kids with the long hair. Sinatra is a long way from the skinny kid in On the Town. He's kind of a squat, tanned toad - more cranky old guy than king of cool.

Still, this kind of movie runs on rails, it does what it sets out to do and it's a fun ride if you like this kind of thing. I admit that I fell asleep before it was over, but that's no criticism - I was tired, it was late, and I probably got as much out of it as if I'd stayed awake. This is the second movie in the series - I'll probably watch the first, Tony Rome.

In conclusion, it looks like Darker than Amber was made into a movie with Rod Taylor as McGee. But it isn't available in Netflix.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Love in Bloom

Everybody loves a good con-artist movie, right? I know I do. How about whimsical romantic fantasies about cons? Still with me? Then: The Brothers Bloom.

The Bloom brothers, Stephen and Bloom, are the world's greatest con artists. From their orphaned childhood, elder brother Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) would write a con for younger Bloom (Adrian Brody) to pull. Due to Stephen's artistry and Bloom's acting, they never failed. Now, these are not hardened grifters, but poets of the con. They even wear little con-men hats - like little bowlers, or the hat Chico Marx wore - but on them, it works.

Bloom wants to quit the racket, but Stephen has one more job - a beautiful, naive reclusive rich girl (Rachel Weisz). Secluded in her mansion, she takes up strange hobbies like harp and banjo, but the brothers Bloom will introduce her to life and love, and fleece her for all she has. But will Bloom fall in love? Take a look at Adrian Brody's long soulful face and guess.

The Bloom's demolition expert, silent blonde Japanese girl punk Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) adds comedy relief and a nice human touch.

This is Rian Johnson's second feature after Brick - a hardboiled detective story set in a modern day So. Cal. high-school. This is just as stylized, but whimsical where Brick was tough. It's not as shocking, but I enjoyed it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Something to Sing About

I've mentioned slightly sketchy love for Deanna Durbin and other singing child stars before. So I just want to say that Deanna Durbin is all grown up in the double bill: It Started with Eve / Can't Help Singing.

It Started with Eve is a Jean Arthur type screwball B&W comedy. Playboy Robert Cummings' dad calls him to his deathbed. It seems that dad (Charles Laughton!) has only hours to live, and he wants to meet his son's fiancee. Cummings rushes off, but can't find the girl he's engaged to, so he grabs the first woman he can find, hatcheck girl Deanna Durbin. Laughton is entranced by this lovely girl, and everyone is happy. But dad doesn't die. He starts getting better, and Durbin and Cummings have to keep up the charade. No points for guessing how it comes out. But can you guess how she gets her singing in?

It seems she is in NY trying to be discovered, but can't get a break. Since Laughton is a close friend of Jascha Heifetz and Leonard Bernstein, she sees an opening. She is nicely cynical in these scenes, and everyone else is charmingly dubious. Whenever she offers to sing for anyone, they start making excuses and finding places they have to be.

If you don't like her singing, you'll know how they feel. But it is actually very nice.

Can't Help Singing is a color period piece, with Durbin as a spoiled senator's daughter following her cavalry boyfriend west to the California goldrush. Along the way, she meets Russian swindler Akim Tamiroff and cowboy gambler Robert Paige. And, you know, she just can't help singing. Songs by Jerome Kerne.

Eve was pretty good - it held up with all the Jean Arthur I've been watching. Like Easy Living, it even had the main relationship be between the girl and the father. Can't Help Singing was a lot less fun for me, but both had Durbin's lovely face and sweet singing voice going on.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Free and Easy

Netflix recommended Easy Living (1937) after the Jean Arthur double-bill I saw a while ago, but I'd been wanting to see it anyway - it's a genuine classic, with a Preston Sturges script.

Edward Arnold, a rich tycoon, is tired of his family's free-spending ways. He takes his wife's new sable coat and throws it off the penthouse roof. It lands on the hat of Jean Arthur, a working girl in a double decker bus. She tries to return it to Arnold, and to demand a new hat, but he tells her to keep it and buys her a hat.

People get the wrong idea, of course, and start showering her with favors, thinking she is the millionaire's mistress. She is moved into an amazing hotel suite, offered jewelry on loan, and hounded for stock tips. The only person who treats her like a person is Ray Milland, a guy she met in the Auto-mat (a scene culminating in a classic food fight). Unbeknownst to her, he is Arnold's son, trying to prove to Dad that he can make a living without an allowance.

Curiously, the real chemistry is between Arnold and Arthur. But Ray Milland does nicely as a stand-in, and Franklin Pangborn, Luis Alberni and William Demerest are all along for the ride.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Eastern Western

I'm sure that you're aware of the interplay between Japanese samurai movie and American (and Italian) westerns. For example, The Seven Samurai was inspired by American westerns, and was remade as the spaghetti western The Magnificent Seven. But I don't think anyone has taken it as far as Takashi Miike's Sukiyaki Western Django.

SWD takes place in a California goldrush town in Japan, or something. Pretty much everyone is Japanese dressed as cowboys, in a town with Japanese and western architecture. Like Afro-Samurai, it doesn't make sense, so don't worry. The town is controlled by two warring families, the Heike and the Genji clans, the red and the white. Into this town comes a gunslinger...

Yes, it's the plot of A Fistful of Dollars, as well as Yojimbo and Kill! and who knows how many others. Other than this broad plot outline, I didn't understand thing one. Like so many Asian films, the subplots were convoluted and subtle, at least for me. Also, the characters all spoke English, but it mostly sounded like it was learned phonetically by non-English speakers. Even Quentin Tarantino, who acts as a kind of narrator, speaks in this strange accent, like he was phonetically imitating a Japanese speaker speaking English phonetically. A cute gag, but it didn't improve comprehension.

If you don't recognize Miike-san's name, the Tarantino should at least clue you to the amount of graphic violence in this movie. Tarantino is also the clue to the level of "intertextual play" or swipes from other movies, texts, etc. But I'm not sure anything could have prepared me for the traditional saloon dance scene set to a didgeridoo.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Kind of Thing I Like

I've been watching a lot of older movies lately. If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that my reviews are mostly "Could have been worse" or "At least it's short". Why do I watch this stuff if I hate it so much?

Basically, I've seen most of the more famous "classic" black-and-white comedies, so I need to go a little deeper. I don't want to use "bottom of the barrel" metaphors - how about "If you want to find a prince, you've got to kiss a lot of frogs"? Here are some princes:

If You Could Only Cook / Too Many Husbands is a fun Jean Arthur double-bill. In Cook (1935), Arthur's co-star is Herbert Marshall, a tycoon automobile designer who is getting ready to marry a gold-digging socialite. When his board of directors won't approve his new designs, he quits and goes to the park to cogitate. Jean Arthur, on the other end of the park bench, mistakes him for one of the army of unemployed, like herself. The only job she can find is for a married couple, cook and butler. Thinking she's giving him a break, she suggests they pretend to be married and apply together.

You may be surprised to hear that the gag is not that she can't cook. She's a very good cook, and they are hired - by gangster-gourmet Leo Carillo and his sidekick, Lionel Stander. I don't remember meeting Stander before, but he's great, a gravel-voiced palooka with an everything-stinks attitude.

So, deception, misunderstandings, plot twists, and a marriage. Marshall is a bit old and rather stiff, but I think he makes it work. At least he isn't playing another one of his judges or father-types. Jean Arthur is lovely as always, with her Stanwyck-like little tough girl voice, wisecracking and honest. Hard to believe she would be playing the "plain" congresswoman in A Foreign Affair just a few years down the line.

Too Many Husbands (1940) isn't quite as fresh. Arthur is the widow of deceased businessman Fred MacMurray, now married to his partner and best friend Melvyn Douglas. When it turns out that MacMurray was not dead, but castaway, Arthur has to choose between her husbands. Remind you at all of My Favorite Wife (also 1940)? Or any of the remakes and rehashes?

The fun comes from Arthur's inability to make up her mind. She clearly wants both husbands, although she gets hottest for MacMurray (he's the he-man). Douglas is a bit of a fuddy-duddy (I guess you'd call him), a role he's pretty well suited to - better than the smooth operator in Ninotchka.

As a bonus, One Touch of Venus (1948). Robert Walker is a window dresser in Tom Conway's department store. Walker is fixing the drapes around Conway's latest art acquisition, a statue of Anatolian Venus. When he impulsively kisses the statue, she (Ava Gardner) comes alive, and falls in love with Walker. I think this was remade as Mannequin, but I will never watch Mannequin, so I will never know.

Walker, best known as psychopath Bruno in Strangers on a Train, does quite well here, playing broadly as a bimbo. Gardner's Venus is all things sweet, warm and strong - you don't bother to wonder what she sees in Walker. In a nice touch, she lets Walker's best friend Dick Haymes and Walker's kind-of fiancee fall in love, thus taking her off Walker's hands. And when Tom Conway (from the Falcon series) tries to seduce her, she shows him that he has really loved his efficient secretary, Eve Arden, all along. I've got to love a movie that lets Eve Arden get her man.

So, I guess there are still plenty of good films out there. It just takes a little sifting.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Spy who Bored Me

I more or less had to see The Spy Next Door because it stars Jackie Chan. The good news: I've seen worse Jackie Chan movies.

Jackie plays a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA. While he has been working undercover as a nebbish, he has been romancing his suburban neighbor, a free-spirited artist with three stereotyped kids. The kids, a rebellious teenaged girl, a poorly socialized nerd and an angelic toddler who wants to be a princess. The problem - the kids think Jackie is too boring (and possibly too Asian) for their mom. -- SPOILER -- He bonds with them and they discover the true meaning of "family".

This isn't really all that bad. The kids are cute, even if a bit stale. The action is fun, but Jackie is working way below his potential, even taking his advancing age into consideration. Chan is actually a good choice for a role like this, because you can imagine him as a nerd or a family man. But the stunts and action are seriously lacking. Amber Valletta is nice as his honey - although she is actress cute, her face show plenty of age-appropriate wrinkles. She's very bland, though, and there isn't much chemistry between her and Chan. You get the feeling that she's settling, and he's just got a thing for tall blondes.

Thinking it over, and counting only movies where he is the star, maybe I haven't seen any worse Jackie Chan movies.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Taken for Granted

Wedding Present (1936) is what you might call a non-classic screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Joan Bennett are a couple of rowdy newspaper reporters. They are going to get married, but Grant pulls a practical joke, and Bennett can see that they aren't ready for marriage. But they stay pals, breaking up a royal wedding, saving the life of a drowning gangster (William Demerest, with Ed Brophy as henchman) and high-jacking an airplane to hunt down a shipping disaster, all in one late night and early morning spree.

But when he is promoted to editor, and becomes the kind of ambitious slavedriver they had always warred against, she can't take it anymore. She goes to New York, stops taking his calls, and gets engaged to the usual pompous windbag. So Grant and gangster pal Demerest have to break up the wedding.

Unfortunately, the whole wedding subplot starts about 3/4 of the way through the movie. And it isn't a very good subplot - with a terrible ending. It really cements your sneaking suspicion that Grant's character (and maybe Bennett's) isn't a very nice person to know. The whole movie is kind of disjointed, especially after the big opening. It works pretty much only because of the charm of Grant, Joan Bennett and some of the character actors, like Demerest and Brophy.

Well, they can't all be His Girl Friday.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Boob Toob

Trapped by Television (1936) is a little bagatelle,a kind of B-movie comedy - maybe what you'd call a programmer, something to fill a movie-shaped hole in the schedule. Directed by Del Lord of Three Stooges fame, it isn't great, but it's fun to watch.

Ned Pendleton is a bill collector whose hobby is science. You might remember him as the dopey policeman in the Thin Man series - kind of a palooka type. He tries to collect from inventor Lyle Talbot who is working on inventing television.

Meanwhile, Mary Astor (Maltese Falcon) and her room-mate/partner in crime are running a scam finding investors for worthless inventions, and manage to run into Pendleton and Talbot. Then, when a crooked electronics exec tries to steal the invention...

You get the idea. Pendleton is my favorite part - great rubberfaced character actor. Mary Astor does not really stretch her acting muscles, but is suitably ornamental. The comedy is pretty light - not many jokes, just some mildly silly situations. At 64 minutes long, it doesn't wear out its welcome.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Feel the Power

I  believe I promised a Tyrone Power Mini-Marathon? That would be this two-sided disc: Luck of the Irish/I'll Never Forget You.

Luck (1948) is an Irish fantasy: Reporter Power has been rambling around, writing fearless and politically risky articles in post-War Europe. He taking a little break in Ireland before heading back to America to work for a powerful publisher and marry his daughter, Jayne Meadows. But before he does, he meets a leprechaun and an Irish colleen (Anne Baxter).

Back in New York, publisher Lee J. Cobb goes into politics and make Power his scriptwriter. His daughter, Power's fiancee, has plans for him too. For one thing, she installs him in a fashionable apartment and arranges for a valet. But the leprechaun shows up to take the valets place, and colleen Anne Baxter comes to NY as well. The leprechaun is going to make sure Power's dreams come true, whether he likes it or not.

It's a cute comedy, though predictable. Cecil Kellaway as the leprechaun (full-sized, due to some family history he doesn't care to discuss) is funny and charming. The romance is fine, but Jayne Meadows gets the short end - She's just too pushy, too sophisticated, not feminine enough. Baxter's not bad, but what's wrong with a strong woman?

I'll Never Forget You (1951) is a costume melodrama, wrapped in time-travel fantasy. Atomic scientist Power wants to go back to the 18th century. He has the diary of an ancestor that mentions a time when he went mad and thought he came from the future, but before he was committed, he got better. This ancestor married Beatrice Campbell, who becomes Power's dream woman. When a lightning strike does send him back in time, he is enraptured. Then he meets his Campbell's sister, Ann Blythe.

Let me just stop to rhapsodize over Ann Blythe here. If you've heard of her, it's probably for her role as Mildred Pierce's evil daughter. But she had many roles in comedies cast a some version of a dreamgirl. Examples:
  • A mermaid - Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid
  • An oriental princess - The Golden Horde
  • A Heidelberg barmaid - The Student Prince
  • A girl whose prayers are always answered - Sally and St. Anne
  • And my favorite: the rich, beautiful, idealistic, perfume-drenched teenage girl named Killer, who falls madly in love with Robert Montgomery in Once More, My Darling
 It's easy to see how she gets these roles: She has a slightly magical beauty, almost elfin - elegant eyebrows on a high forehead, almond eyes, dark flowing hair. She could deadpan her way through very silly material, or focus with what seemed like real sympathy. So let's just say I was happy to see her in this.

The movie starts in the present in black and white - it has the look of one of those British Hammer sci-fi movies of the time. Then, when it moves into the past, we get technicolor, and costumes, especially Power's, make it pay off. The time travel twists were worked out well - Power wows Dr. Johnson with some witticisms that hadn't been coined yet - like "Early to bed, early to rise". But his flattery seems to knowing, and too much in the past tense. A duchess shuns him, because it sounds like he is reading her obituary.

Still, I can't say I was crazy about this movie. It looked good and sold the time travel story, but it was really just a melodrama romance. I preferred the comedy of Luck of the Irish.

I got through this whole thing without saying much about Tyrone Power. He's darkly handsome in a movie star way - maybe he defines movie-star handsome. He has a kind of John Forsythe kind of seriousness, which makes him great for comedy. I wish he'd done more.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Just Another Western Film Noir Romance War Propaganda Film

Tomorrow We Live, 1942, directed by Edgar Ulmer, is a bit of a mess. Basically a gangster film, it throws in a western setting, a love triangle and several patriotic WWII speeches, just to keep you off balance.

Ulmer is probably best known for the dark film noir masterpiece, Detour. He came to Hollywood from Germany (born in Moravia) in the same bunch as Billy Wilder and Curt and Robert Siodmak. However, he stole the wife of Max Alexander, one of studio boss Carl Laemmle's relatives, and he was nearly blackballed. He made mostly low-budget B-movies with Poverty Row studio PRC. Some of these movies are well-loved today.

This one, not so much.

Young Jean Parker has dropped out of college because she's worried about her dad, Pops (played by Emmet Lynn, one of those chinless guys with glasses and a moustache that's always called Pops). It seems that the gangster they call "The Ghost" has been supporting Pops' dingy diner in some western desert town.The Ghost is played by Ricardo Cortez, who was the first (?) Sam Spade. He runs a swank nightclub (in the same western desert town as Pops' diner?) and collects dames and trouble.

He is about to collect Parker, when her ex-boyfriend, William Marshall, shows up. They broke up when he enlisted, so he represents wholesome American values. You can guess how it ends (SPOILER: with a patriotic montage).

This is a pretty messy movie with some decent camerawork. Some scenes never go anywhere, like the opening mustang stampede (stock footage to establish the locale?), or the Ghost's moll, who was a stage psychic - but after that's established, she doesn't have any more lines.

Still, if you love B-movies, you'll at least like this one. If you don't, it's short.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Stay Tuned for Special Announcement

I usually avoid writing about personal matters - anything except my Netflix queue and sometimes cocktails. But if you want to hear what Mrs. Spenser and I have been up to lately, check out the part of this post "below the fold", where it says "Read More".

If you don't care about that, let me recommend to you Jeeves and Wooster: Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie in a TV series adaptation of P.G. Wodehouse's immortal tales. If all you know of Laurie is House, you should really see this other side of him. These are the roles that he and partner Fry were born to inhabit.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Head Cases

Mrs Spenser, it turns out, is a big Dink Stover fan. I didn't know anything about Dink Stover except that is it an amusing name. She informs me that he is the fictional hero of a series of college football stories from the early 20th century. When I heard about her love for football players in leather helmets, I immediately queued up Leatherheads.

Leatherheads stars director George Clooney as the rough-and-rowdy quarterback of a midwest professional football team, 1925. They are going broke, because nobody is interested in professional football - it's all about the college teams. John Krasinski, by contrast, is a college football star, back from the war, graduated from Yale and contemplating life after football. Clooney offers him a job playing professionally - it's ignoble, but it could bring in some money, and be a bit of a lark.

Besides, there's this cute girl reporter, Rene Zellweger. She is covering Krasinski as a war and sports hero, but Clooney is taking an interest in her.

This isn't really a sports film, but more of a romantic comedy, a bit like Bull Durham. The older, wiser player, the young hotshot, the girl at the peak of the triangle. In fact, it is an attempt at a screwball comedy throwback. Witty repartee and sparks fly between Clooney and Zellweger, they get into situations and complications, they fight and fall in love.

Clooney is so charming, he just glows. His charisma is really all he needs for this. Zellweger, I'm not so sure about. She's kind of funny looking, with chubby cheeks, piggy eyes and a pouty mouth. But she comes across as fun, strong and desirable - I guess that's what they call acting. I don't think she really took off until the very end. She and Clooney have a kind of voice-over dialog as they are shown riding off into the sunset on a motorbike (a beautiful kind of fantasy 1919 Indian). As they banter back and forth, she delivers her lines almost as if she were singing jazz, a little breathy, a little wild. I wish she could have been as free for more of the rest of the film.

I can't say that this is a great movie. Krasinski, for example, was good, but his role didn't give him much to sink his teeth into. Neither did Clooney's, but he didn't need it. I'll just say this is for fans of George Clooney, classic screwball comedies, and Dink Stover.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

City on Fire

I mentioned our love of steampunk in the Wild Wild West review. That love prompted me to queue up City of Ember. Ember is an entirely different kind of movie - a better kind.

Scientists built the undeground city of Ember and sealed in the survivors of some catastrophe. They let everyone forget about the outside, but left evacuation instructions that would open in 200 years. The instructions are, of course, lost. And as the 200-year lifespan of the city expires and it starts breaking down, it is up to two kids to find the solution. The grownups are either oblivious, suppressed as rebels or colluding to maintain the fragile status quo, like mayor Bill Murray.

The art direction for Ember is lovely. It resembles a European village with some 1950s art deco and sci-fi elements. There are tunnels, and steampipes, and clunky electric cords strung all over. It holds together very well, making it feel real.

The kids are earnest and sweet, Murray and his goons are evil, and the plot is not so silly as to bother you (I hope). It's really a movie for children/young teens, but we enjoyed it. Not one of the greatest we've seen, but worth watching.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Belles on their toes

The Belles of St. Trinian's is based on a presumably beloved series of books by British cartoonist Ronald Searle. It is about an anarchistic English girlschool, whose evil little students commit mayhem, larceny and other vices.

The movie version features Alastair Sim as the headmistress (in drag) and her brother, a bookie. The plot revolves around a horse race: one of the girl's father is a sheik with a horse that is sure to win, and Sim (the bookie) has a horse running against him. It comes down to a battle between the vicious little girls in the fourth form backing the sheik's horse, and the sexier sixth form backing Sim's.

The fourth form have several advantages:
  • They are younger and more evil
  • The headmistress has bet the school funds on the sheik's horse
  • They have their own spiv: A shady character with a pencil thin moustache named Flashy 'Arry. He is their personal blackmarketeer, bookmaker and bootlegger (he sells the booze they make in chemistry lab)
Flash 'Arry is pretty much my favorite character after the two Sim roles. He is delightfully shifty, with his hands in his overcoat pockets, scrunched up shoulders and hat pulled low over his eyes. Just the kind of guy you'd expect to find supplying the illicit needs of 13-year-old girls.

Other than that, the film is a little flat. We don't get much definition on any of the girls, the disreputable teachers (even the Morticia-esque jailbird) or the undercover policewoman investigating the school (although she has a great loping stride as the games mistress). Maybe the film works better if you've read the books. Anyway, I felt a little left out, like there was a great joke being told, but I'm not getting the punchline.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Fractured Funnybone

Here's another one that goes way back for me. When I was a kid in third grade reading monster magazines, a friend turned me on to TV's Fractured Flickers. Released in 1963 by Jay Ward and the Rocky and Bullwinkle crowd, it featured silent movies, edited down and given a goofy soundtrack. As a diehard MST3K fan, I remembered this fondly, but not too well, since 1963 is a long time ago.

I was surprised to find this obscure TV series was available on NetFlix. And boy we were happy when we had seen a few. Admittedly, the silent movie "fractures" are not always that funny. Some are pretty much just the film edited down with silly voices (mainly Paul Frees and June Foray). Some pretty clever, like bullfight classic Blood and Sand done as Death of a Salesman, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame made into Dinky Duncan, Boy Cheerleader.

The part I'd forgotten was host Hans Conried doing the intros and some celebrity interviews. He had a beautifully sophisticated air, along with a deadly deadpan sense of sarcasm. He does short silly interviews with a strange variety of modern and classic entertainers: Rose Marie, Alan Sherman, Fabian, Edward Everett Horton, Rod Serling. And this isn't just kid stuff - when Rose Marie objects to being treated like a cheap entertainer, Conried sounds her out on her views of Godard and the French Nouvelle Vague. When Annette Funicello tells him he might have seen her wearing little animal ears, he guesses that she was a Playboy bunny.

So, fun for kids, but we adults like it too.

Trivia for Old-Time Radio lovers: Hans Conried played Professor Kropotkin in My Friend Irma. His catch-phrase, "It's only me, Professor Kropotkin" doesn't read like much, but it's the way he said it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Spawn: The Movie has been on my list for a while, now I can cross it off. I knew it as a comic adaptation special-effects action film, with John Leguizano as a demon clown. When I found out that the star was our new favorite, Michael Jai White, it moved to the top of the list.

White plays an assassin for hire who tries to retire and gets killed by his boss, Martin Sheen, for his troubles. He winds up in Hell, which was the idea all along. The arch-demon Malbogia wants him to lead his demon army. So he is sent back to earth, still with his skin burned off but with a very cool CGI costume. His demonic overseer is an evil clown, played by John Leguizano under a ton of makeup and body padding. He is gross, evil and funny, but mostly gross.

I think that covers the plot. The rest of the movie has White learning about the powers of his CGI armor and cape. This is quite cool, especially the cape, which billows in huge tatters all around. It doesn't get as much play as it should. The fight scenes could be much better, considering White's awesome martial arts skills. He has a very cool gothic ruined cathedral hideout.

On the downside, the scenes in Hell are ludicrously poor. The demon Malbogia has a low polygon count, crudely texture mapped, and wouldn't look impressive in an 8-bit video game. The motivations are strange, too. White is a nice guy (for an assassin). Why did he get chosen to lead the armies of Hell? It's not a gig he wants or looks to be any good at.

I'm going to have to say this was not very good. Leguizano's voice work was nothing special, White's face was covered by makeup and his skills wasted by weak action directing. Nice CGI costume is about all I can say.

Friday, July 9, 2010

It's the Law

Not many will remember the 1962 TV series Burke's Law, but I do.If only because I got to stay up late when I was in the hospital over Easter weekend due to a troublesome adenoid operation. I may have missed Easter candy, and drank so many strawberry milkshakes that I still can't stand the taste, but at least I got to see Burke's Law.

It stars Gene Barry as Amos Burke, the millionaire playboy chief of homicide for Los Angeles. Yes, a millionaire policeman, whose Filipino chauffeur (Leon Lontoc) drives him to crime scenes in a Rolls Royce. And picks him up at the home of one of the young lovelies he visits - and maybe even stays with. He has a crusty older assistany (Regis Toomey) and a handsome young know-it-all apprentice (Gary Conway), but the best part is the cast of guest stars.

Each show features three, four, maybe even six guests, curent, upcoming and even actors from classic movie days. For example, one episode featured Paul Lynde, Joan Blondell and Don Rickles (as a married couple!) and Mary Astor - who was much better than the show.We see both Barbara Eden, Elizabeth Montgomery, and Barbara Feldon. Zasu Pitts does a turn as a Norma Desmond type, in an episode with Charlie Ruggles as a butler, with Soupy Sales and Jim Backus. And this is just the first few episodes.

Along with these wild, wonderful collections of talent, we get pretty average murders (often involving rich men, mistresses, models and ingenues). We get lovely early 60s LA locations, including a Malibu beach house that I swear was in Into the Night.

Gene Barry has a nice solid, easy presence, a sort of Raymond Burr type, solemn without being serious. He really is a playboy, with a new hot item every week, most of whom are pouring martinis, or drinking from the pitcher. (Aside - we see the same prop martini pitcher in at least three episodes. Either that or it was a popular household item.)

The title comes from Barry's spouting little aphorisms, like "Never box with senior citizens. Burke's Law" or "Never eat little round pancakes when you're in a hurry. Burke's Law." I'd have to say it's the least appealing part of the series.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Three Kingdoms of Orient

Three Kingdoms is set in the same period as Red Cliffs and the generation after. They are the same genre - Chinese historical military action-drama, or something. Cavalry opera? It's distinct from martial arts films, although there is some overlap. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was a different genre from Hero.

Anyway, Three Kingdoms follows one character, Zhao Zilong, played by Andy Lau, from young recruit to general to his final battle. The story is narrated by Sammo Hung, his recruiting sargeant and companion. Lau's character is a great hero, Sammo Hung is more flawed, and more human.

There are great battles in this movie, great fights and action scenes, choreographed by Sammo Hung. They are very stylized, with lots of slo-mo, stop action, etc. I'm not sure it is as successful as straight-up action would have been, but it's clearly an artistic choice.

All in all, a good entry, but I can't call it a great one. I'm afraid I blame Sammo Hung - Although his action direction is brilliant, I can't help think of him as a buffoon. And this movie isn't a comedy at all, it's a very serious look at the futility of warfare, and the sad life of even the greatest warrior.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Original Ninja

In Ninja Assassin, the main character's name is Raizo, which looked familiar to us. A trip to IMDB gave us the answer: the actor Raizo Ichikawa was famous for a series of classic Japanese ninja movies, like Shinobi No Mono.

Shinobi no Mono is a complex, shadowy film, about two ninja tribes competing to kill off warlord Nobunaga. Ichikawa is an upcoming ninja in one clan, but he messes with the master's wife, so he must undertake some dangerous and dishonorable missions. Sent to Edo, he drops out of the ninja business and finds love with an innocent bargirl. But this happiness cannot last.

The movie has the beautiful look of Japanese B&W films, especially the day-for-night (or night-for-night?). There is a good deal less magical ninja stuff than you might hope - the ninja villages look pretty much like any village, except there is an explosives lab in a hut outside the walls, and the houses have some secret compartments. The action is pretty subdued by modern standards, but at least there's no magic leaps to the roof, and so forth.

I'm not sure if this is required viewing for lovers of the ninja canon, but it is suggested viewing for lovers of the samurai genre. Try it and see.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Welcome to the Imaginarium

What can I say about Terry Gilliam's 2009 movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus? What is it about, who is in it, and what is it like?

It's about a kind of medicine show, a horse drawn gypsy wagon/stage show that parks around London and tries to get paying customers to experience the Imaginarium. It stars a ripe aged Christopher Plummer as Dr. Parnassus, with Lily Cole as his teenaged daughter, Andrew Garfield as his assistant (and Cole's suitor), and Vern Troyer as Percival, their imp. But things aren't as busker-happy as they seem: Dr. Parnassus has made a bet with the Devil (Tom Waits!) for the possession of his daughter.

Then they rescue Heath Ledger who they find hanged under the bridge, and he turns everything upside down. He is a bit more of a go-getter than the Imaginarium crew, although his past is a mystery. Another mystery is that he changes when he goes through the world of the Imaginarium: changes into Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell.

But what is it like? It can get pretty surrealistic - the experience of the Imaginarium takes you into the mind of Dr. Parnassus and gives you a choice between Good and Evil, Virtue and Vice, Dr. Parnassus or Tom Waits. These imaginary worlds are very Terry Gilliam. He even has a giant policeman's head, which is half Monty Python, half Zardoz. The "real world" part of the film has a nice gritty backstreet urban gypsy look and feel.

Of course, it was Heath Ledger's last role. After he died, several actors filled in for him, and the movie was altered to account for this. It takes a certain kind of movie to make this work. And this is that kind of movie.

I liked this a lot, but I'm not sure it was completely successful. For one thing, the conflict between Parnassus and the Devil was somewhat muddled. Maybe it's because he was played by Tom Waits with a pencil-thin mustache, but he is rather sympathetic. Dr. Parnassus, on the other hand, doesn't seem to be especially good. And I was disappointed by how they resolved Ledger's mystery. This one could have been a lot more ambiguous.

But maybe I just missed the point. Either way, I didn't let it bother me. Don't let it bother you either, just let it roll over you, like a great horse-drawn caravan.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Go West

As children of a certain era, we were fans of the original Wild Wild West TV show, and we loved Wild Wild West, the movie.

Both feature handsome swashbuckling cowboy James West and his scientific assistant Artemus Gordon, who act as secret agents for the Federal government in the post-Civil War frontier. Both feature a slightly strange old-timey science-fiction tone, and a fiendish supervillain.

The big difference comes from casting - instead of Robert Conrad, Will Smith plays James West. Since we like Will Smith, we have no problem with that. His West is still cocky and quick on the draw, but maybe a little more sarcastic. The movie doesn't ignore his race, using as a gag (comic lynching?) and dramatic motivation (the villain is an unreformed Confederate).

Which brings us to the villain. In the 1965 series, Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by dwarf actor Michael Dunn, was brilliantly evil. In the 1999 movie, Dr. Arliss Loveless is played by Kenneth Branagh, with a hammy southern accent and a steam powered wheelchair.

Which brings up the key to this whole review: Steampunk. "Steampunk" is a science fiction genre featuring advanced technology based on steam, brass, walnut paneling and lovely Victorian ornamentation. Wild Wild West is totally steampunk. It's not a spoiler to mention the single most important thing about this film: 80-ft tall mechanical spider.

I have to mention the consensus view of this movie - that it is not very good. We say:
  • Will Smith as Jim West, Kevin Klein as Artemus Gordon, Kenneth Branagh: Good
  • Salma Hayek in a throw-away role: Lame (but not bad). A big step down from Bandidas
  • Will Smith's stream of cripple jokes aimed at Dr. Legless (see, I did it too): Appalling (but kind of funny)
  • The action, stunts, etc: Average or better
Not convinced? Let me remind you:
  • 80-ft tall brass and steel steam driven mechanical spider!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hot Serial

Do you like the old Republic serials like Commando Cody and Doctor Satan? Sure, who doesn't like low-budget adventures with a cliffhanger every episode? If you like them ironically, you should check out Monarch of the Moon.

Made in 2005 for chickenfeed, MotM is a loving tribute and scathing send up of those serials. Directed by Richard Lowry and a group of more or less unknowns, it stars "The Yellowjacket", a military intelligence man who can fly with a waspy backpack and has the power to summon yellowjackets. His arch-nemesis is "The Dragonfly", a Japanese dragonlady who can deflect bullets with her fan and also somehow fly. Yellowjacket's team includes his ditzy secretary, her by-the-book twin, a drunk ex-pilot and a plucky boy scout.

Of course, it turns out that the Moon-men (and women!) are the power behind the Japanese empire, so our team takes off to the Moon. At least, what's left of them. For a kiddie serial, the good guy body count in this is pretty serious.

That's about the only thing that's serious. This is pretty silly, although not really jokey. In my opinion, this is not as good as Lost Skeleton of Cadavra - the gold standard of b&w spoofs - but a fun watch. Since it streams on Watch Instantly, why not?