Saturday, February 27, 2010


We're bug Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans chez Spenser - we have an extensive collection of home recordings, and we watch an episode or more every week. With 11 seasons and about 200 episodes to choose from, we may never get bored of them.

And of course, there are some episodes that we don't see very often - ones that we don't own and have to rent. For example: MST3K: Attack of the Giant Leeches. This horrible AIP from 1959 features goings on in a Florida swamp: a fat grocer, his slutty Babydoll wife, a forest ranger, his girlfriend, etc. People start seeing monsters and disappearing, and it is all pretty sleazy. When the monsters turn out to be giant leeches - SPOIL... oh, wait, no it isn't - it gets disgusting as well.

This is from season 4 of MST3K, a classic Joel. It also starts with a great short - an episode of The Undersea Kingdom, featuring Crash Corrigan and his sidekick Billy. The quipping is great throughout, both in quantity and quality.

But I have to say (along with Humphrey Bogart), "Ugh, leeches". The real reason we don't watch this one very often is that it's too disgusting. Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Samurai Fuller

Since Sword of Doom made us think of a Sam Fuller samurai movie, we decided to watch a real Japanese Sam Fuller movie, House of Bamboo. It was shot in Japan, but in color, not black and white, and Richard Widmark wasn't in it to play a crazy-eyed killer.

Instead, we have Robert Stack, in occupied Japan to investigate a gang that has been hijacking Army arms shipments with military precision. He goes undercover as the friend of a dead gangster, befriending his Japanese girlfriend (Shirley Yamaguchi). He works his way into the circle of a criminal mastermind Robert Ryan, whose runs a string of pachinko parlors as a front. Ryan and Stack play true to type, with Stack a tough-guy stiff and Ryan a dangerous psycho.

This isn't really much of a noir, and not just because it is in color. There isn't much mystery, and the psychological depth is mostly around Ryan's feelings for his lieutenants, including new guy/teacher's pet Stack. The rest is police procedural, Stack and Yamaguchi's romance and Tokyo travelogue. For me, the best part is the travelogue.

It's pretty cool to see 1955 Tokyo, the Ginza, pachinko parlors, police stations, and rented rooms. There's a certain amount of the same old "Japanese sure bathe funny" stuff - Yamaguchi offers to give Stack a bath, which offends his delicate sensibility. And Mt. Fuji isn't really so prominent from Tokyo - even on a (rare) clear day, it's just a little peak on the horizon.

And, bonus, DeForest Kelley (Bones) plays a henchman, and silent filmstar Sessue Hayakawa plays a policeman.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Strange Samurai

We finally watched Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 . I felt that I needed to watch more of the precursors, so we would get more of the tributes and in-jokes. I finally gave up, and we just watched it.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 stars Uma Thurman as "the Bride", who survived the massacre of a wedding in a coma. When she recovers, she is pissed and sets out to take vengeance on the people responsible. These are a secret band of five assassins known as the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad, and their leader, Bill.

But the plot isn't so important as the style. This style, Tarantino's specialty, has 2 components:
  • Loving, sincere tributes to great action movies and styles
  • Self-referential, post-modern in-jokes and tricks
Some might say that these are the same thing, but I see a distinction. For example:
  • Loving, sincere: The film claims to be in "Shaw-arama", a tribute to the Shaw Bros. 1970 vintage kung fu films. It was in fact shot partly at their Hong Kong studio
  • Tricky jokes: The film is in five parts, and there are five assassins to be killed. But the parts and the assassins don't match up.
I love both sides of his personality, so I enjoyed this greatly. He also has a lot of fun with casting. I still have trouble seeing Thurman as an action star - she looks so delicate and pale. But I've got to drop my preconceptions for this role. She gets to fight all kinds of great foes, including Darryl Hannah - Pris from Blade Runner - and Lucy Liu. About halfway along, the movie shifts to Japan, and we get to hang with JJ Sonny Chiba.

All of the music (as far as I can tell) is from classic action films or TV shows, including the theme from Ironsides, the Flight of the Bumblebee, and a panpipe tune. Yes, he even makes you love Zamfir. Oh, there was some original music - a Japanese, all-girl surf-thrash trio, called the 5, 6, 7, 8s. How cool is that.

Note, however, that this is a very, very violent movie (another Tarantino specialty). Probably the most horrible scene happens early on, when the Bride kills a woman in front of her little daughter. She tells the daughter that when she grows up, she can find her and kill her.

Which, strangely enough, is one of the first scenes in Afro Samurai: Season 1 - Little Afro's father is killed, and the killer makes the same speech. The show is about Afro Samurai taking him up on the suggestion.

In this anime series, Afro Samurai is an Afro-Japanese samurai (with a big Afro), voiced by Samuel Jackson. He is the number 2 swordsman, and only the number 2 can challenge number 1 - who killed his father to take that position (voice: Ron Perlman). Of course, everyone can challenge him to try to win the headband that comes with the number.

There's a lot of stylish violence, some back story about Afro's childhood in a martial arts school, and a manga milieu with samurai, robots, and a jive-ass prankster called Ninja Ninja that only Afro can see. It's a lot of fun, and a great double bill with Kill Bill.
  • Both films are the first volume or season
  • Both are revenge stories influenced by samurai, martial arts, blaxploitation and westerns
  • Oh yeah, and the RZA worked on both soundtracks

Monday, February 15, 2010

Crazy Eyes

Although we had remembered it as one of the greatest samurai movies ever, The Sword of Doom turned out to be even better than we remembered.

It starts with an old man, a religious pilgrim with a young daughter, being murdered by a strange swordsman, played by Tatsuya Nakadai. Nakadai plays a swordsman with an unbeatable technique, and he uses it without mercy or compassion. Yet, strangely, the technique is summed up by one of his challengers as "When I retreat, he advances. When I advance, he drops his sword". He looks down, invites attack, and then destroys the attacker.

His technique is unbeatable, but it is evil and it corrupts Nakadai, drives him insane. Or is it the other way around? Toshiro Mifune, who has a small role as a fencing master, says that the sword reveals the soul - an evil mind makes an evil sword.

We love Nakadai, as I have mentioned. This might be his best role. And we just noticed: with his bulging eyes and burning intensity, he is very much like Richard Widmark, in Night and the City, or Kiss of Death (which we are watching next week).

Furthermore, the movie has a strangely noir look. That is, it looks completely like classic samurai film - stark, shadowy compositions in black and white - but with a grittier, seamier texture. It reminded me of Sam Fuller, so we got House of Bamboo which we watched this week, and will be reporting on soon.

Hot Dog

Remember that black pepper vodka I was telling you about? The stuff that's almost too hot to drink by itself? I felt like trying something different, and had some nice mango juice in the fridge, so I invented:

Atomic Dog

1 shot pepper vodka
1 shot mango juice

Shake over ice and serve in a martini glass

I took one sip - whoa! Not just weird, but way too spicy. I was about to toss it down the drain, but decided to play a trick on Mrs. Spenser. She took a sip and loved it. It's the only cocktail I've invented so far that she likes at all.

So take this with a grain of pepper. You might like it. And if you think that black pepper and mango are a weird combination, just look at what Alton Brown is making. He even makes his own pepper vodka (much lighter on the pepper than mine).

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bak Ground

If you read this blog much, or if you're just a good guesser, you know how much I love Tony Jaa. So you can probably guess how excited I was to see Ong Bak 2: The Beginning. Not only is it another Ong Bak, but Tony Jaa is directing.

Ong Bak was set in modern times, but Ong Bak 2 is set in the days of the wars between the Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, making it technically a prequel. It starts with a little boy tossed from a horse, while the man who tossed him takes a stand against the archers and swordsmen who had been chasing them. Frying pan to the fire, the boy is captured by slavers and forced to fight an alligator. When bandits attack the slavers, the bandit king likes the boy's pluck and rescues him.

So the boy goes off to live with the king of the bandits. He trains in a bunch of martial arts and grows up to be Tony Jaa. We learn why he was tossed from a horse and so forth, and he goes on to get his vengeance, etc. I don't want to post any spoilers - also, I got kind of confused - so I won't go into the details.

Here is what I will go into:
  • Tony Jaa gets to show off many fighting styles: Kung fu in the Crane, Tiger and Monkey styles, as well as Drunken style, samurai sword, and various weapons.
  • In fact, there is a longish Thai classical dance scene, including Tony Jaa doing an amazing turn as Garuda.
  • The scenes, settings and costumes are lush, gorgeous and yummy. Olden-times Thai is a sadly underused fashion concept (outside of The King and I).
  • Jaa seems to do just fine as director, but is maybe a little too in love with slo-mo. It trivializes the speed of some of the fighting. On the other hand, Jaa moves so fast that, without slo-mo, we would miss about half the action. So maybe it's a good choice.
Mainly, I'd say this movie is designed to give Jaa a chance to try out a bunch of fighting styles - plus classical dance. It totally succeeds. And Jaa seems to be able to handle the director's role as well. I might even like this better the the first Ong Bak. It certainly has a higher budget.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Great and Powerful Zardoz

I can't say what inspired me to watch Zardoz. It has been widely panned, condemned as one of the worst movies ever. I must have read a contrarian review somewhere. Maybe I just wanted to see Sean Connery in little pants.

Zardoz starts with a floating disembodied head delivering a prolog, which does little to explain the next scene: a giant stone head floating through the sky, puking guns and ammo through its stone mouth to a crowd of worshiping barbarians on horse. They chant, "Praise Zardoz! The gun is good! The penis is evil!" And one of these worshippers is Sean Connery, wearing a red diaper, an S&M harness, a heinous mustache and nothing else. Now I'm beginning to like this movie.

Somehow, Connery winds up with a bunch of leftie telepathic aristos wearing crocheted vests living on a rustic farm in a dimensional vortex. It seems that they are Eternals, who ineffectually rule the world from their vortices. They share labor communitarialy, they make and eat green bread, they commune in level 2 meditation trances, and sometimes become Apathetic, bored to sleep standing up. Also, they seem to be about 80% female, and they don't wear anything under their unbuttoned crocheted vests. This includes Charlotte Rampling and Sara Kestelman, a cute freckle-faced Brit who reminds me of Felicity Kendal. Rowr.

Connery is a member of the Enforcer class, created to exterminate the Brutals, a.k.a. ordinary humans who breed, use resources and don't meditate at level 2. Now, the Eternals have brought him into their vortex on the principle that mindless macho murder and rape may be just what they need to invigorate their stagnant culture. Who hasn't thought that at times?

As this movie unfolded, I thought of science fiction stories of the far future like Brian Aldiss' or Jack Vance's Dying Earth, where science seems like magic, and magic is as everyday as cellphones. But the real timeline seems to be something like this:
  • In the 1960-1970s, a group of intellectuals took drugs and meditated and became telepathic, immortal and all powerful
  • 500-600 years later, things aren't going so hot
So, we get this magical future world, but set in 2590 A.D., not 1,000,000 A.D. I found this fascinating, and now Zardoz is my favorite movie ever in the world.

In conclusion: Zardoz.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hit Movie

I really liked Hitman, but there was something funny about it. Of course, it was kind of a comedy, so maybe that's it.

Jet Li plays a poor boy from the mainland, a veteran come to Hong Kong to get rich as a hitman. A Japanese industrialist/war criminal/pervert has been assassinated, and he left a million dollar reward to whoever kills his killer. Jet has the skills to do it, but does he have the killer instinct?

So Eric Tsang, a bumbling gangster, takes him under his wing. He buys him the fancy clothes an assassin needs (dressing him like several famous movie killers) and sets himself up as Li's agent. Tsang has a familiar face - kind of pudding-shaped. We've seen him in My Lucky Stars, but I don't hold that against him. He plays a comic role without going too over the top.

Jet Li also shows a little humor, as well as his usual amazing martial arts. He looks incredibly young, although the movie was made after Black Mask, Once Upon a Time in China, etc. It just didn't seem quite like a Jet Li movie.

Maybe that's what seems funny about Hitman - it seems more like a Jackie Chan movie. The comedy, Eric Tsang in the Sammo Hung role, maybe even the action style. So - Extra Credit Question: Can you think of a movie where Jackie Chan imitates Jet Li?

Calamansi Smash

I ran into an interesting fruit in the farmer's market the other day - the calamansi, a.k.a. calamondin. It looks like a grape-sized orange or kumquat, but they are thin-skinned and have a sour orange juicy center. The seller told me that it's used for a marinade with soy sauce in the Philippines, so I bought a few.

Later, I saw them mentioned in a cocktail column online, and that gave me an idea. I wonder if calamansi is going to be flavor-of-the-year, like pomegranate and passionfruit each were a few years past.

Anyway, here's my idea. It's pretty arbitrary, based on what I had around. You might be able to improve it, but it came out pretty well.

Calamansi Smash
3-6 calamansi - Halve and throw them in a sturdy highball class (peel, pulp and juice) with
1 shot of tequila
Pinch of sugar

Muddle vigorously

Fill glass with ice and top with champagne

By the way, a smash is usually whiskey muddled with mint and a little water - something like a julep. So this doesn't really qualify. I just like the name.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ring Challenge

We have recently completed the first of what we hope will become an annual New Year's ritual: watching the Lord of the Rings: extended version, all three films:
Each of these movies is 5-6 hours long, covering 2 DVDs each. And, since Netflix counts them as one rental, this is a great value. Of course, you have to like Peter Jackson's LoTR a lot to relish 16 hours of it - and we do.

I'm not going to bother to review this series - I don't think I can. When I watch them, I fall into a sort of trance, just sink beneath the screen, and into the Shire, then Middle Earth. Maybe I'm just susceptible, but I think they've done an amazing job making this fantasy world come alive.

All of the actors are amazing. I'm not sure, but weren't many of these actors kind of obscure before LoTR? Were Viggo Mortenson, Elijah Wood and Orlando Bloom household names before this came out? Because they are now and well-deservedly. Furthermore, they seem to perfectly fit my image of the characters (except maybe EW as Frodo, who is a little too big, soulful eyed and wounded for me.

The scenery of Middle Earth (or New Zealand) is lovely, and the art direction for the various towers, keeps, elflands and hobbit holes works for me 100%.

The acting ... well, the acting. It's like this - you couldn't get away with this kind of over-the-top in a few rare movies, and this is one of them. Just like the elves and dwarves and ultimate evil stuff - it's a cliche everywhere else, but not here. When Tolkien does it, it is fresh from the well.

I've only read the Ring trilogy 3 times (grade school, high school and college), and that was a long time ago. So I have no idea how closely the movie follows the book. (Except that they left out my favorite part - Tom Bombadil!) I can't even say how the extended version is different from the theater version.

But we are going to be watching this every year for as long as we can stand it, and I'm looking forward to memorizing every minute.