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.