Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fine China

We were so excited about John Woo's Red Cliff that we had to watch another Chinese costume epic while waiting for it to be available.

Legend of the Black Scorpion a.k.a. Night Banquet is essentially a Chinese Hamlet, with a touch of Macbeth. The prince (Daniel Wu) is planning to marry Little Wan (Ziyi Zhang from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), but his father the emperor marries her instead. The emperor's brother then kills him and marries Wan, thus setting up the Hamlet situation.

The prince hides out in a theater school, leading to the best scene. The usurping emperor's assassins attack the school, and find all masked mimes who gesture dramatically, and usually die unarmed. The balconies, stages and ramps of the school are made entirely of bamboo, making for a dramatic, multilevel, wire-fu fight of swordsman vs. mimes. Too bad it comes so early in the movie, because I don't think it gets that good again.

The movie is long, and frequently slow (lots of horses galloping in slo-mo). There are other good action sequences, but not that many and not as good. The movie gets by mainly on art direction and sexual perversity. A good example of both is a strange boulder in the Emperor's palace with a hollow in which the prince lies while his hair streams out under a fountain. His ex-fiancee and step-mother combs his hair out in the water in a scene both erotic and touching, and rather creepy.

An interesting movie, but I couldn't find it compelling.

Red Cliff was similar, but quite different in effect. It was set in around the same period (long ago), it is also filled with costumes, palaces and art direction, plus plenty of action: big armies, one-on-one or one-on-many swordfights, horseback, naval, etc. Actually that's one difference - there's a lot more action in Red Cliff.

The plot involves an evil prime minister who convinces the weak emperor to let him conquer the Southlands. This leads two kings of the south to forge an alliance, lead by their generals and advisors. This is another difference - Red Cliff is an ensemble, with 2-4 generals and a few advisors on each team. Tony Leung Chiu Wai plays the the most loyal and valorous general of the south, while Takeshi Kaneshiro plays a wise strategist. I thought of him as an Odysseus, but Ms. Spenser saw him as the Legolas of the group, because he was smart, cute and used a bow.

Even at 2 hours plus, this movie flies along. It has a few John Woo touches, like the classic standoff of two guys with their guns to each others heads (except with swords). The action is solid, the actors and characters memorable, costumes and scenery are beautiful. The score has a little too much John Williams for my taste, but there's a lovely guqin duet (table harp). Like the guqin solo for the fight in the rain in Hero, it is one of my favorite parts of this movie.

Another thing I liked is that Red Cliff concentrates on strategy, with the Southland generals out-thinking their opponents. But I guess the main thing is, it is just a better movie than Black Scorpion. Less bizarre, but better made.

By the way, the legend of the black scorpion refers to the poison that evil uncle poured in the emperors ear. It was made of a mixture of crushed black scorpions and southern erysipelas. Erysipelas is not a poison!

In conclusion, the original, 2-film version of Red Cliff is now available. At least 5 hours long. We will be seeing it soon.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Taken for Granted

Cary Grant: actor, philanthropist, LSD enthusiast. Women wanted him and men wanted to be him. Has he ever starred in a bad movie? The double-feature disc Thirty Day Princess/Kiss and Make Up tests this question.

Kiss and Make Up features Grant as a society plastic surgeon and beauty doctor. He makes all the women lovely, and all their husbands hate him. Husband Edward Everett Horton explains that he had a nice, comfortable wife, and Grant has made her glamorous and high maintenance. He wants a divorce.

Once Horton's wife (Genevieve Tobin) is divorced, of course she has to marry Grant. If only Cary would realize that his sweet secretary (Helen Mack) is the perfect woman for him. Instead, she marries Horton.

The movie satirizes the beauty industry rather brutally, to the point where nobody comes off very well. Grant is cold and egotistical, and her rather deserves what he gets when he marries Tobin, his creation, the stereotyped society beauty. Horton, in his usual role as a plain-faced, plain-speaking type, is too aggrieved to be really sympathetic. Helen Mack is very sweet as the adoring secretary, but is pretty much a doormat (until the happy ending) (spoiler). The scene where she thinks she is being seduced is well played, though.

Also, there is a car chase with chloroform at the end that could have been funnier. There are a lot of glamor shots of the women in the beauty clinic, in tasteful 1930s dishabille, but that's the best I can say for this. I can't think of a comedy that's left me feeling more depressed.

Thirty Day Princess is about as easy to sum up: a banker (Edward Arnold) is floating a bond issue for the tiny nation of Sylvania, or maybe Freedonia. He brings the Princess (Sylvia Sydney) to America to "give them the ballyhoo". When she gets quarantined with mumps, he finds her exact double in a starving actress (Sylvia Sydney, of course). Crusading newspaper editor Cary Grant sets out to rake some muck on the bond scheme, but winds up falling for the counterfeit princess.

While the comedy isn't exactly laugh-filled, it's pretty sunny throughout. Sydney does a fine job in either role, with a "European" or New York accent. Arnold is a fine scoundrel of an honest banker - in 1934, too. And Grant is Grant, blustery, impulsive, romantic and lovable.

I don't know if I can recommend either of these movies. Kiss and Make Up could be watched just for the sheer misanthropy. Thirty Day Princess isn't bad, but it isn't better than a lot of movies of its type. It might have seemed better next to Kiss.

If you do watch either one, let me know what you think.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Gem in the Rough?

Did you know that David McCallum (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Ilya Kuryakin) and Joanna Lumley (Ab Fab's Patsy) were in a 70's British science fiction series? When we found about about it, we had to queue up Sapphire & Steel: Complete Series: Disc 1. How bad could it be?

Lumley and McCallum play the eponymous Sapphire and Steel, interdimensional time lords agents tasked with preventing problems with time. The first series of 6 episodes deals with an entity or entities from the past that invades an old house, called up by nursery rhymes. The entity steals the grownups, leaving a serious ~10 year old boy and his ~4 year old sister to deal with the ghosts of murderous New Model Army Roundheads and with Sapphire and Steel.

It is a promising premise, but the execution leaves much to be desired. The production values make the old Dr. Who look like The Matrix. For example, the out-of-time entities are represented by a spot of light, like a flashlight beam. There are a half-dozen sets and that's it.

The logic is rudimentary, or missing entirely. Steel uses a circuit from a refrigerator to bring his temperature to near absolute zero to freeze the ghosts of the past. OK, so he can survive near zero, but why the refrigerator circuit? Also, the agents are named after elements like Steel, Sapphire, Diamond and Jet. Not only are none of these strictly elements (Steel is iron with trace impurities, and Sapphire contains aluminum, oxygen and traces), but why are Jet and Diamond, different forms of carbon, included?Why even ask?

The attraction is the Sapphire and Steel characters. As Steel, McCallum is cold and callous. He has no trouble ignoring a frightened child. Sapphire is the sweet, soft one, except she's almost as cold as McCallum, just a little more pleasant about it. Personally, I think they pull it off, creating interesting characters, almost compelling. Whether that makes up for the weak writing and non-existent production values is a judgment call.

One interesting effect of the plot of this first disc (one series of 6 related 1/2-hour episodes) is that anything old can let through the ghosts from the pasts, therefore it is evil. Destroy all antiques and history. Also, since the vanished parents are being possessed by the evil Past, remember that your parents are evil, and you can only be saved by peculiar strangers. Do everything they tell you and ignore your parents. Got that?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Instant Marxism

Well, we've been watching more Watch Instantly streaming movies, but only because we've been running out of DVDs. Actually, we've had Kiss of Death at home for weeks, but never felt like watching it. So instead we streamed The Big Store and later, Duck Soup.

The Big Store is second-tier Marx Bros., but not bottom rung. Chico's friend Tony Martin inherits interest in a department store, but he just wants to sing. Someone (Douglas Dumbrille) wants to kill him before he can sell his share, so his aunt, Margaret Dumont, hires Groucho and Harpo to bodyguard him.

The comedy is just OK, the Martin's musical numbers pretty much stink (but that's normal in these movies), and Groucho's musical number was pretty weak too. Chico's piano and Harpo's harp are great but too short. On the other hand, Margaret Dumont is radiant as always, and Dumbrille makes a fine villain, with his little mustache.

Duck Soup, on the other hand, may be the best of the Marx Bros., and is considered by some the greatest movie never to win an Oscar. Margaret Dumont will bankroll the small nation of Freedonia only if they make Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) their President. Louis Calhern (another villain with a little mustache), ambassador of neighboring Sylvania, sets his spies Harpo and Chico to foment a war between the nations. To war! To war!

Not only an anarchic indictment of war-fever, Duck Soup has some of the funniest bits ever put on film, especially the Mirror routine - often imitated, never equaled.

Also available to Watch Instantly is A Night in Casablanca, but we didn't watch it.

This demonstrates what I am whining about over Netflix Watch Instantly: a very middling selection. One of the best Marxes (but one everyone has seen) and two less popular. Suppose I wanted to see the famous Night at the Opera, or the obscure Love Happy? I know this comes off as complaining about the free ice cream - "What, only chocolate and vanilla?" - but if this is the future of video, the future ain't here yet.

Fun fact: "The Big Store" is the technical term for a con that involves setting up a fake business, like a store or a brokage, or as in The Sting, a betting parlor.

Update: We got around to watching A Night in Casablanca. It was pretty good, like The Big Store.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fighting Aces

The idea behind Smokin' Aces is simple:Vegas magician and wannabe wiseguy Buddy "Aces" Israel (Jeremy Piven) is going to testify against the mob, so they put a $1 million contract out on him. He hides out in the penthouse of a Tahoe hotel and waits for the FBI to get him before the bad guys do.

The plot isn't really that simple. The FBI do the initial exposition, with all of the history, mysteries, politics and enemies list. That makes the plot more fun to follow. But it's really just about people getting shot and stuff getting blown up, and vice versa.

The bad guys gunning for Piven include - wait, I'll do it list style
  • A pair of black lesbian killer cuties, played by Alicia Keyes and Taraji Henson
  • Three 80's-style punk meth-head redneck berserkers, lead by Chris Pine (Capt. Kirk)
  • At least 2 masters of disguise - I'm not sure how many because they were in disguise
  • A team of bounty hunters who want Piven for jumping bail, lead by Ben Affleck in an awesome Fu-Manchu moustache
  • Piven's bodyguard, played by conscious rapper Common
Andy Garcia, Ray Liotta, Jason Bateman, Matthew Fox and a couple of others are floating around as well. So, great cast. Also, hot action, clever dialog, and cute cutting.

This is squarely in the hip ultra-violent style of Guy Ritchie or the Crank movies. But I've got to say, it isn't quite up to their standards - not quite as tricky, fresh or imaginative. But I bet everyone had a good time hanging around Tahoe (I think we've stayed at some of the hotels shown), and we had a good time watching them.

Harry Potter and the Half-Formed Joke

The movies in the Harry Potter series seem to be getting better and better. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be the next to last movie, and when the series is over, I'll miss them a lot. However, I seem to have less and less to say about them.

Harry and the gang are all getting older, and they are doing more than noticing the opposite sex. Hermione is caught with some white stuff on her mouth (Ron's toothpaste), and Harry's caught trying to pick up the waitress in a railroad cafe. But that is something of an afterthought. The real change in the series is towards darkness and more serious consequences. The actions of the Malfoys and Snapeses aren't just nasty, but have mortal effects, and maybe worse.

On the other hand, while Harry is getting older and angrier, he doesn't seem to be getting much smarter. He is quite a hothead, rushing into things without thinking, at least when he isn't sulking. Well, he's a teenager, I suppose.

Sorry not to have more to say, either about the relationships or the action. At least I'm not giving anything away. And at least I've stopped trying to come up with title gags.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Song Remains "Stairway to Heaven"

So, we just watch a ton of Monkees, and now we watch Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same? Does that make any sense at all? I mean, the Monkees are a fun pop group with more musical credit than many people realize (they toured with Hendrix!), but Zep is one of the greatest rock 'n' roll bands of all time. Does this make any sense?

The Song Remains the Same starts with some silly home movies of Plant watching his Houses of the Holy naked kids playing in a brook, Bonham plowing his field, their manager machine gunning a room full of faceless record execs and werewolves, and that sort of thing. Then they go on tour and we get a concert at Madison Square Garden.

As a band, they are magnificent. Plant is one of the great guitarists of the age, a brilliant bluesplayer and master of tricky rhythm. Bonham can follow him anywhere, and Jones does as well on keyboards as on bass. Page's voice is a wonderful instrument, as long as you kind of ignore the hobbity lyrics.

And there lies the rub. Because mixed in with this concert footage, we have the boys (Page mostly) acting out their Arthurian/Tolkienesque/Highlander fantasies, in little mini-movies. And frankly, it reeks of Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge".

Also, and some may disagree, the concert is probably not their best work. They do some great songs - I especially like "I Been Loving You So Long". There are some wild solos, including an extended drum solo (I like drum solos, so sue me). But some of the songs seemed to lose focus in places, and there was a little slack in some of the long stretches of the extended songs. And of course, there's the old warhorse, "Stairway to Heaven". Wasn't it getting tired even in 1976, when this was made?

Sitll, I can't deny that the music is great, if not perfect. Just ignore the silly medieval stuff and the home movies and enjoy the concert.

What I want to emphasize is this: the Monkees can't compare to Led Zep, but the bozos who made Song can't compare to Bob Rafelson, who directed the Monkees. That evens the playing field.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sally and Fields

I just noticed that I forgot to review W.C. Fields' Sally of the Sawdust. We saw it on streaming, so I guess I should have mentioned it in my recent tirade.

This 1925 silent was directed by, of all people, D.W. Griffith. It features a young orphan girl, played by Carol Dempster, whose mother had run away from strict New England parents to be with the circus. After the mother's demise, young Carol is raised by her "Poppy", W.C. Fields. She grows up wild, with acrobats and elephants for friends. She is a tomboy and a circus ballerina. Fields is, of course, Prof. Eustace McGargle, a sideshow barker, a juggler, a pickpocket and conman. Sadly, we get to see only a snippet of his famous cigarbox juggling, an act which he later grew too drunk to perform. We don't get his melodious vocalizations, either, but he's still the great man.

Dempster is another story. She plays the uninhibited circus girl with a ton of silent era overacting and mugging for the camera. Yet, as the film goes on, she either finds her range, or just gets better situations. I got to like her a lot, and even found her style verging on the modern and natural in places. Performing at a charity function, she does a tableau vivant as a fashionable lady, and it is quite a striking change from her plain tomboy image.

Not altogether a successful effort. Griffith doesn't seem to know much about comedy or how to handle Fields. He even makes Fields imitate Chaplin in places, or was it Fields idea, and he failed to prevent it? But well worth watching for fans of the silents, and mandatory for Fields fans.

And of course, available to Watch Instantly.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Don't Cross the Streaming

Just checking into my New Year's Resolutions:
  • Cut the Netflix queue down to 300: Close - I've got it down to 314
  • Rate movies more strictly in Netflix: I have been giving out more 3-star reviews. But still plenty of 4s and 5s. Hey, if I didn't think it would be good, I wouldn't queue it up.
  • Watch more movies (at least one) in a theater: So far, no. But the year is still young.
  • Watch Instantly more: Here's the problem.
Netflix is promoting Watch Instantly pretty hard. It's an interesting business model: Instead of having 3 DVDs at home to watch at any time, you can watch any movie anytime, as often as you want. Sounds like a great deal, doesn't it? But here's the thing:
  • Pretty much any DVD ever made is available through Netflix
  • A lot fewer movies than that are available through Watch Instantly
This reminds me a lot of the Napster debacle. Most people thought that the great thing about Napster was that the music was free. Sure, that's great, but the best part about Napster was that it had everything: 1920's jazz 78s, Serbian brass bands, indie rock from Idaho, whatever you want.

That's the joy of Netflix. If it is on DVD, you can get it, delivered by mail in a day or two. When I first signed up, I rented all of the movies I had always wanted to see, but could never find at Blockbuster (at least I queued them up - some of them are still waiting - but that's another post).

With Watch Instantly, I have to watch whatever they have on offer. It's not all junk, by any means - my Instant queue has 75 movies on it. But they aren't my first choices. They are just what's available. So now, we watch DVDs first, Instant movies when we're out of DVDs.

I still want streaming to work. In fact, I'm planning to buy a computer, just to attach to the TV, mainly for Netflix streaming. And I know that some day - probably soon - the selection will be as good as or better than the DVD selection. Then convenience, selection and quality will converge. When that time comes, I'll find something else to complain about.

Anyway, we can barely watch the 3 DVDs/week that we get.

On Tour and in Your Head

We polished off the last disc of the Monkees first season: The Monkees: Season 1: Disc 6. It only had 2 episodes: Monkees at the Movies and Monkees on Tour. We were upset at first, thinking these were recent vintage documentary-type blather, ut no, they were regularly aired episodes.

But On Tour was far from regular. The Monkee's had been touring since early in the first season, and getting Beatles-worthy response - with huge crowds of screaming girls. So director Bob Rafelson decided to make a tour documentary and air it as the last episode of the first season.

It is very verite, with handheld cameras and Monkees "improvising schtick" (quote from Peter Tork's commentary track) in hotel rooms. We also see them in contemplative moods, talking about their views on the crazy rock 'n' roll life they were living (Tork called them "phony").

Through the episode, as well as Tork, Nesmith and (songwriter) Bobby Hart's comentary, ran the question of the Monkees credibility as a "real" group. The tour proved they could play their own instruments (although Boyce and Hart's band helped out a lot). But reading between the lines in the commentary, I think that Peter felt they could be a real band - he was a talented multi-instrumentalist who was kind of stuck on bass. In concert, he gets to a solo banjo, frailing a nifty "Cripple Creek". Nesmith, more songwriter than guitarist, seemed to think that they were a TV show first, not really a musical group. Funny, most people think of him as the serious one.

Philosophical differences, personality clashes, and the strain of working under the thumb of the Man in the freethinking 60's must have been tough on all involved. Rafelson, who had been a dutiful company man for three seasons, wanted payback when the show was over. He got it in the form of a formless movie, Head.

Head starts with the Monkees running headlong across a newly opened bridge and jumping off into the Pacific off Long Beach, to the accompaniment of the Goffin-King composition "Porpoise Song". This is an immediate subversion of the usual Monkees "romps", musical interludes with the Monkees mugging and clowning - in this romp, they seem to be running in fear of their lives, then killing themselves.

We cut to a short patter song manifesto ("Ditty Diego"), describing the present movie as manufactured to please the crowd, meaningless, without form or end. And then it's off to the races, with scraps of war movie, western, commercial and who knows what. And just when it's getting good, a Monkee will decide they don't want to do it anymore, walk off the set and behind the scene to talk to Rafelson about their problems. In one scene, co-writer Jack Nicholson comes along in a heinous white cloth cap and sports shirt with a clipboard, probably to figure out the script.

We also get Frank Zappa, leading a cow, telling Davey to work more on his music, because the youth are counting on him. We get a giant Victor Mature trying to stomp the boys. We get to see Sonny Liston beat the stuffing out of Davey. And we find out who the dummy is (it's Peter. He's always the dummy). Terri Garr dies of snakebite. Annete Funicello sheds a glycerin tear. Tor Johnson plays a security guard extra. And it all ends as it began.

A few reasons why I love this movie:
  • The songs - not the Monkees' best (I like their Boyce and Hart garage classics), but some interesting pop-psychedelia like "Porpoise Song" and Tork's "Can You Dig It?" and "Long Title (Do I Have to Do It All Over Again)".
  • The surrealistic formlessness of it all, jumping from chase to dream sequence to dance number to back lot, to a steamroom, to ...., and holding your interest the whole way.
  • The movie's love for the Monkee's characters, even as it subverts them.
    • Davey is the performer, a song and dance man, a little guy who thinks he can take out Sonny Liston.
    • Mickey is a wiseguy, frustrated and itching to break out of the role.
    • Mike is the serious one, coming across cold and cruel in Head.
    • Peter (my favorite Monkee) is the wise dummy, caring and nonviolent even when he punches a lady.
And were they a real rock group? Hey, not every group wrote all their own songs, and even the Beatles had studio musicians fill in (sometimes the same ones the Monkees used). My opinion, they were if they wanted to be.

Who was your favorite Monkee?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Super Cool Kung Fu Treachery

We aren't exactly blaxploitation experts, but I feel we have a solid grounding and appreciation for the genre. Which is good, because that allowed us to enjoy - the greatest film of the century - Black Dynamite!

Black Dynamite stars Michael Jai White with a cool Afro, as the title character. When his brother is killed by people dealing drugs in the community, he goes to war. He takes on the pimps and gangs, the CIA, the Chinese Tongs and all the way to the top. And over the top.

This is a hilarious tribute to classic 70's blaxploitation. Not a spoof or parody, but loving tribute. White, who conceived the film and shares writing credit, is ideal as Black Dynamite. If he didn't have the muscles, the hair and the kung fu chops, it would have been a funny movie. With him, it is inspired.

In conclusion, he's super cool and he knows kung fu. He's Black Dynamite!