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?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Viva Bandidas

The main reason to watch Bandidas is obvious: Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek. But actually, it was co-writer Luc Besson's name that first brought this to our attention. Once it had our attention, the Cruz/Hayek thing took over.

Cruz plays the daughter of a Mexican peasant, who plays tic-tac-toe with her horse and loses (the horse cheats). Hayek is the cultivated daughter of the Mexican banker who owns Cruz's father's mortgage. And Dwight Yoakum plays the greasy American thug sent by a New York bank to steal the land needed for a railroad in the name of a New York bank.

Soon, the girls have turned outlaw, after some bankrobbing lessons from Sam Shephard. The bank sends down nerdy proto-CSI scientist Steve Zahn, who is quickly seduced to the wrong side of the law.

All pretty predictable. Just as predictable will be Cruz and Hayek flouncing around through gorgeous scenery in low-cut frontier/peasant chic, squabbling and getting into catfights. It may not be art but I know what I like.

It's a fun action film, if you don't mind Mexican heroes and American villains. Similar to the Zorro movies, but better, I'd say. Mrs. Spenser was not as enthusiastic, but enjoyed it. You will to, if you like this kind of thing.

If you do like this kind of thing, you might try Viva Maria! from 1965. Directed by Louis Malle, it stars Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau as South American entertainers who become revolutionaries. It's a bit more absurd and maybe more political - a different take on the same theme.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Other Mission

I used to classify Mission: Impossible with The Saint: A silly updating of a 60s TV show from the late 90s with a low-talent prettyboy star. Actually, I suppose that's true enough, but not the whole story.

First, it was directed by auteur Brian De Palma, not some proficient action film hack. Now, we aren't De Palma fans. I've never even seen Carrie, or any De Palma, except his other Mission movie, Mission to Mars (and Phantom of the Paradise, a long time ago).

Second, it honor the premise of the original show, even using Lalo Schifrin's classic theme song, the second most famous song in 5/4 time. Where The Saint threw out everything but the character's name, the first 20 minutes of M:I could have been an excellent episode of the show. And then they take it way beyond that.

The early night-time scenes in Prague had some lovely lighting effects, and we see plenty of De Palma's dutch-angle (tilted) close ups. After a while, the flashy cinematic effects were either toned down or faded into the background. The famous set pieces work pretty well, like when Cruise has to dangle from the ceiling to steal the information he needs. Obviously a callback to Riffiffi and Topkapi and all the other movies that used this, but a good one. The helicopter in a train tunnel has been done to death, of course, but he pretty much pulls it off.

My favorite part was when he pulls a plot twist and you immediately guess that there is a double twist coming. Instead of making you wait for a whole act before the lame reveal, he just goes right ahead and shows you the trick. It's almost a mark of respect - "I know I can't fool you."

I can't say we loved this movie. Partly, because it had a rather cerebral feel, as if the director were working out a theory of action movies, not actually trying to make one. Also, Tom Cruise is kind of repellent. I know it's just prejudice, but still...

We probably won't watch M:I2 or 3.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

White as Bone

Our beloved Black Dynamite had a "coming attraction" that looked pretty promising, so we decided to check out Blood and Bone.

Michael Jai White stars as Bone, just out of prison and looking to make it big in the underground fight scene in LA. He gets a hustler played by Dante Basco to back him against the meanest fighter in promoter Eamonn Walker's stable. When he wins that fight, he's on his way. Of course, he has an ulterior motive - revenge.

Eamonn Walker makes a pretty decent villain, one of those civilized, nicely dressed, killer types. I won't give away the plot (because there's no point), but it involves Walker's main squeeze, a junked out beauty played by Michelle Belegrin.

But who cares? How about the fights? In a word, brutal. MJW has a great physique and explosive style, doing especially well against multiple opponents. The guys he fights seem pretty good too - I think a lot of them are MMA fighters in real life.

So, lots of good action, a good looking, strong silent type hero, hissable villain, what's not to like? The violence is pretty raw, so stay away if that isn't your thing. My only other criticism is the soundtrack, which could have been a lot more inspiring. And I don't just mean Wang Chung.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Big Harryhausen Deal

Way back when, I asked Mrs. Spenser a question from the Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule Film Quiz, "Your favourite Harryhausen film/monster?" She answered Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth.

We got the Blu-ray disc and watched the colorized version, but didn't listen to Tim Burton interviewing Ray Harryhausen on the extras. I think this answers another question from the quiz: "Can you think of a black & white movie that might actually improve if it was in color?" It has a nice hand-tinted postcard look, but more realistic. Not garish, just a touch pastel.

The story: A spaceship crashes in the sea near Sicily. Some fishermen get one living and one dead American astronauts out, and a little Italian boy finds a strange biological sample and sells it to a biologist and his beautiful daughter. The sample quickly grows to monstrous size and threatens (for a change) Rome.

The monster (never identified as Ymir in the movie) is a green reptile with a Harryhausenly animated tail. As in so many of his films, the monster steals all the scenes. He is also rather lovable, and possibly a vegetarian (or perhaps a sulfur-tarian). Nonetheless, when he gets big enough to fight an elephant, he heads to the Roman zoo, and ... You can guess how it ends.

As it turns out, Mrs. Spenser didn't remember this monster at all. She was thinking of something else from her deep childhood. No matter. It's a good sci-fi B movie made great by some Roman locations and Harryhausen's monster.

Friday, June 11, 2010


We watched this mainly because it's so much fun to say "Gymkata!" Filmed in 1985, at the height of Kurt Thomas-mania - let me check those dates - correction, about 5-10 years after the height of Kurt Thomas-mania.

Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas plays Olympic gymnast Jonathan Cabot, recruited by the US government to play in a deadly game in Framistan. Let me stop here to mention 2 reasons for MSTies to love this movie:
  1. Mike/Joel and the 'bots love to say "Gymkata!" at random times. So will you!
  2. In Outlaw of Gor, the hero is named Cabot, and everyone says his name when they see him. So when you're not saying "Gymkata!", you can say "Cabot?", "Cabot", or "Cabot!"
  3. Update: I almost forgot to mention The Final Sacrifice. Due to the spectacular mullets, or "hockey hair", in both movies, we got many chances to say, "Rowsdower". If you don't understand why, don't try to find out. Do not click the link and stream the movie. You have been warned! Rowsdower!
So anyway, Thomas goes to the remote central European country Farm-i-Stand with the beautiful and deadly princess Rupauli ("Her mother was Indonesian") to compete in the Game - a cross country race with where contestants are hunted by people on horse back with bows and arrows. A race nobody has survived in 600 years. And these guys volunteered.

Look, this isn't a good movie. The production values are poor, the acting is lame, Thomas wears a Ziggy Stardust mullet, and the badguy, evil vizier Zamphir wears a mullet with a rat-tail braid. That said, the locations in the environs of Zagreb weren't bad, and Kurt Thomas' combination kung fu and gymnastics were fun to watch. It's a pretty good drive-in movie.

In conclusion: Gymkata!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Champagne Julep

Simply put: We have champagne, we have lemon juice, we have mint, we had rum. So we made a round of champagne mojitos (just make a regular mojito with champagne instead of soda). Then the rum ran out. But we had some rye, which is like bourbon, which goes in a mint julep. So:

Champagne Julep

1 shot rye
1 oz. lemon juice
3-4 mint leaves
Pinch of sugar

Shake over ice, strain into a champagne flute and top with sparkling wine

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Golden Age of TV

Peter Graham (according to the internets) said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12. I believe this applies to TV as well. So lately we've been dipping into the golden age on Netflix.

All nostalgia aside, we can all agree that Rocky & Bullwinkle was a classic of modern animation. If you haven't watched it recently, you'll find it holds up very well. The artwork is sketchy and abstract, but always compelling, and the gags are a great blend of broad and sophisticated. It also looks great on a modern big screen TV, even streaming online. Since it came out in 1961, I was younger than 12, but since my father and grandfather were big fans, I guess it's just timeless.

The Avengers was British series, featuring Patrick Macnee as suave upper-class John Steed. He had several female partners, but our favorite was always Diana Rigg as sports-car-driving, mod-leather-wearing, high-kicking Mrs. Emma Peel, from the 1967 season (I was 11). The mysteries and the action scenes don't hold up very well today, but the light humor and sparkling savoir faire more than make up for it.

The Munsters, on the other hand, wasn't that good when it came out, and doesn't look much better now. It had a strong looking cast:
  • Frankensteinish Herman Munster is played by Fred Gwynne, a goofy giant
  • Witchy Lily is played by Yvonne De Carlo, exotic beauty known for sword and sandal camel operas
  • Vampiric Grandpa is played by beloved character actor Al Lewis
However, the show is hampered by an excessively camp and hokey style, and was totally outclassed by its contemporary, The Addams Family.

Great then, great now: Get Smart. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created a parody of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (itself a parody of James Bond). Don Adams' Max Smart delivers a line like nobody else, and Barbara Feldon is even more beautiful than I remembered. Sadly, it is not available to Watch Instantly. I feel that it is worth getting on disk.