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.