Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Pineapple Sunday

Pineapple Express is not really gay, or homophobic either. But it is wicked homosocial.

I figure everyone knows all about this 2008 Seth Rogen/James Franco vehicle: Rogen witnesses a murder, and goes on the lam with his pot dealer Franco to keep from being rubbed out. There are complications: Rogen has a high-school age girlfriend. Franco has bubbe (grandmother). The murderer is Franco's supplier. Worst of all, Rogen doesn't really like Franco. He only pretends to like him because he has the weed.

The character arc is how Rogen learns to accept the friendship of his dealer. Which is heartwarming, since it is James Franco. But a weird life lesson.

There are two jokes in the film:
  1. The guys are stoned.
  2. The guys are doing something that looks gay
The whole gay thing kept putting me off. It really isn't homophobic: Sure there are cheap laughs, but the moral really is that it is ok for guys to be close - it's homosocial. In one scene, Danny McBride, the middleman who was tortured into betraying our guys, comes back to help them, because, "Bros before hos". But they aren't facing hos (I mean women). They are facing murderous drug dealers! OK, one is a policewoman (small but scary Rosie Perez), but still.

So, that's the joke, I guess. Danny McBride's character actually is gay - or at least he acts like Richard Simmons, bakes birthday cakes for his dead cat, and worked as a prostitute. Everybody is cool with that - there is no homophobia here. But maybe some misogyny.

I guess I'm overthinking this - it was pretty funny. I laughed a lot. It just gave me an uneasy feeling. Maybe it was intended to. But this homosocial thing - guys need to bond, no females needed - was weird in Knocked Up too. I guess it's Rogen's thing.

I did feel bad for McBride's cat though.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Up in the Air

Studio Ghibli's anime Kiki's Delivery Service to me, is about Miyazaki's dreams of flying. It takes place in a picturesque but vaguely defined ~1930s European location. Kiki is a young witch. When witches in this milieu are 13 years old, they must leave home and find a town that needs a witch. So she takes off on her broom with her talking black cat Gigi.

She finds a large and lovely city by the sea, where the people are friendly, except perhaps the police. She soon has a suitor, a bike-riding boy with rolled up jeans, a red striped shirt and a yellow sweater tied around his neck - Tin-Tin, in other words. I guess we are in Belgium. And yet she feels like an outsider.

I couldn't quite buy this plotline - everybody loves Kiki, and supports her, and she is unfailingly polite and helpful. But if someone just looks at her sideways, she gets all "boohoo, I'll never fit in". Heck, the mean girls who talk about her behind her back are saying, "She has a job and she's only 13? That's so cool."

What I did buy without question was the flying. This animation is very much about flying, clouds, waves and the wind. Consider - you can't animate wind, you need to animate the blowing clothes, the wheeling birds, the waving treetops. His studio does this very beautifully.

We also get to see up Kiki's dress a lot, what with the wind and the broomstick riding and everything. Not that there is anything prurient about it. Just thought I should mention it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

No Belle Prize

The Belle of New York is a pretty weak, late (1952) Fred Astaire movie. His co-star, the titular Belle is played by Vera-Ellen, one of my favorite dancers. In turn-of-the-century (19th->20th) New York, she is a member of a Salvation Army style group, run by Marjorie Main. Fred is a playboy who sees her playing on a streetcorner and falls in love with her.

One thing I did like is that Vera Ellen doesn't play it dumb or coy. She recognizes Astaire's intention and tells him to get lost repeatedly. In other words, she is wise to him. I like a wised up heroine. It turns out that her boss, Marjorie Main, is also Astaire's aunt and benefactor. When she finds out that they are in love, she doesn't pitch a fit, but actually approves! Another sit-com situation avoided. There were a couple of other traps like this they didn't fall for - this is not an "idiot" plot, that only works if everyone is an idiot.

Unfortunately, there really isn't much of a plot at all. That's fine for a musical, of course, but the singing and dancing are weak too, and that kills it. The big gimmick is that Astaire is so in love, he can dance on air - he has a number on top of the Arch at Washington Square, etc. It's cute, but the dancing would be nothing special on the ground.

Vera-Ellen gets a few numbers, but they are pretty restrained for such an athletic dancer. One of her lines: " want to make the menschen holler 'gangway'/I want to care less than Eva Tanguay". That's clever, but kind of incoherent.

I guess my favorite part was Alice Pearce, the plain-faced character actress with the screechy voice. She played Lucy Schmeeler, the blind date in On the Town, and Gladys Kravitz on "Bewitched". She's just fun to watch, and has a nicely sympathetic character.

Keenan Wynn as the lawyer who makes a living out of getting Astaire out of scrapes, is fun too. But he doesn't get much screen time.

So, how bad is this movie? Maybe not as bad as all that, but one song seems to be titled "My Heart Went 'Whoops'" - sung to ensure that you understand that "whoops" is meant in the regurgitory sense. Well, my heart didn't exactly go whoopsie, but it wasn't turning cartwheels, either.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Deadful Great

Yes, it really is called Deadful Melody - and I think it's pretty great. The setup for this 1993 kung fu movie concerns a magical guchin (or lyre, as it is called in the subtitles). It is so powerful, only those with strong kung fu can use it. Young security specialist Yuen Biao is given the job of guarding it by lovely and mysterious Brigitte Lin. That's the setup. this leads to several gangs of of ghosts, bandits, and tough guys trying to steal it, including Carina Lau.

The fighting style is fantastic - in the sense of "fantasy". Much wirework, so that people never walk offstage, they always fly up into the sky. The guqin shoots little animated bolts of light, which kill people, and so on. The acting style is pretty goofy as well. At one point the "magical lyre" is mentioned, and everyone onscreen leans in and says, in unison, "the magical lyre?!!?". Not exactly a comedy, but not very serious.

So, this isn't Bride with White Hair. I liked it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Secrets and Clues

Can anyone remind me why I watched National Treasure: Book of Secrets? After all, I fell asleep during the first National Treasure - and I watched that only because I wanted to see the sequel. Oh well, the Netflix queue is a mysterious thing.

Nick Cage is now reconciled with his father, Jon Voight. He is rich and famous due to the last movie. But another historian, played by Ed Harris, believes he has evidence that Cage's ancestor was part of the plot to kill Lincoln. Clearing his family name will require Cage to find a lot of clues and solve a lot of puzzles, even if it means breaking and entering in Buckingham Palace and kidnapping the president.

This is all fun enough, the actors are great, and there are a bunch I'm not mentioning (e.g. Helen Mirren, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Plummer). My favorite part was Riley, a grad student type who acts as comic sidekick He is natural loser, who would be pretty impressive if he wasn't out-shone by Cage at every turn.

My least favorite part was the family drama:

 a. Nobody cares about your daddy issues, or your daddy's problems with mommy
 b. What's the big damage if your grand^x-father was part of the plot to kill Lincoln? I had ancestors who were slave owners, and one who was hanged for cattle-rustling. We consider them to be disreputable but quaint.

All in all, this should have been better. I blame it all on weak writing - I guess they figured that enough money for effects would cover that up. Nice try.

Anway, as long as there isn't a National Treasure 3, I'm done.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Four Jerks in a Jeep

Four Jills in a Jeep is pretty much your standard WWII entertain-the-troops film. The title is probably a play on the song the Andrews Sisters sang in a similar movie, Private Buckaroo, "Six Jerks in a Jeep".

Kay Francis hosts a radio show especially for the troops. It features the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra, Carole Landis (Brass Monkey), Mitzi Mayfair, and Martha Raye, all playing themselves. A general overhears Martha wishing she could be in Europe with the boys, and grants her wish.

The basic idea seems to be: stick four babes in a war zone, and watch them perform.
  • Kay Francis, tall, dark, patrician, spends her time meeting with generals and aristocrats. She is genteel.
  • Carole Landis, nearly as tall, sets her sights a little lower. She bumps into a pilot in the mud and finds she can't get him off of her mind, especially when he is flying a mission.
  • Mitzi Mayfair, a cute little blond, is a talented tap dancer who wasn't in many movies. Here, she runs into her old vaudeville partner Dick Haymes, now serving in the army. They fight and fall in love again.
  • Martha Raye, the manic comedienne with the wide mouth, gets most of the gags. She also gets politely chased by Phil Silvers, the soldier detailed to chaperon the girls.
Some laughs, some songs, some dancing, a little danger and romance, but not really a lot of any of these. Mostly, the movie is content to let the girls look beautiful, each in her own way. Whether that's good enough is up to you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

More Power

It's time for another Tyrone Power double-bill that isn't really: Café Metropole/Girls' Dormitory.

Cafe Metropole features Tyrone Power betting more than he has and losing to casino/cafe owner Adolphe Menjou. To pay back the debt, Power must impersonate a Russian prince and woo rich American Loretta Young.

Power doesn't have much to do in this movie except look good in evening clothes and fake a bad Russian accent. Loretta Young gets to do a little more, being a spoiled society type. (Her dad, Charles Winniger, is a sketch.) This is really an Adolphe Menjou movie. He is suave and sleazy, and when he has to persuade his bookkeeper to do a little stealing, he exerts a hilariously hypnotic force of will. He is the only reason to watch this.

Girls' Dormitory has even less Tyrone Power. It features Herbert Marshall as Herr Direktor of a Swiss girls' school. He lectures outdoors with the Alps in the background and a class full of beautiful teenaged girls literally at his feet.

He has a handsome and intelligent female assistant, Ruth Chatterton, who he treats with respect and admiration. She is obviously just as crushed on him as the girls.

But his number one admirer is Simone Simon, a radiant young thing just about to graduate. She makes a strrong play for Herr Direktor, reminding him that she will soon graduate and be gone from his life. At this point, he has barely noticed her as more than a student, but he begins to think differently.

This movie is the purest male fantasy imaginable - to be the noble, handsome, brilliant ruler over a domain of women and teenaged girls. This makes my Jane Powell/Deanna Durbin/Diana Lynn interest seem innocent (which it is, I assure you!). On the other hand, Simone Simon is undeniably gorgeous.

In conclusion, --SPOILER-- Marshall dumps Chatterton and runs off with Simon. It seems shallow and skeevy and not likely to end well. But, let's face it - it is realistic.

Oh yes, and Tyrone Power is an earl or something who wants to marry Simon. I didn't even notice him.

The Berry Cosmo

Not too many cocktail recipes lately. Sorry. Here's a quick one.

I'm moving out at some point, so I need to clean up the liquor cabinet. I have a few infusions in the freezer, including:
  • Fresh strawberry
  • Fresh raspberry: a good way to preserve those delicate berries
  • Blueberry: made from dried blueberries, a.k.a. Maine caviar
I mixed them all together to get a dark purple-scarlet potion - vodka with berry flavors, with no water or sugar added. Very nice in a shot glass, but I feel like something else.

Berry-Infused Cosmo

1 shot berry-infused vodka
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. triple sec.

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Brother Act

I thought Tai Chi Master looked familiar. I had already seen the English dubbed version, Twin Warriors. No matter, it's a great movie, and even better in the Mandarin (?) dub.

Two little monks play and grow up together. They both love kung fu, and practice and fight all the time. The smaller, more gentle monk grows up to be Jet Li, his friend Siu Hou Chin. The first scene I was sure I'd watched shows them sitting down to eat with their legs crossed - but with no chairs, just sitting over thin air. Then they start a fight with their feet under the table, eventually destroying the table. It's a virtuoso set piece, one of many in this movie.

Soon, Chin gets in serious trouble and the boys are kicked out of the monastery. To make money, they let people hit them for a penny. As a crowd pummels them, they pick up the coins - "This is the easiest job ever!" But the boys grow apart. Jet Li makes friends with some revolutionaries, including drunk Michelle Yeoh and cute Fennie Yuen. How come Michelle Yeoh is always paired with a "cute" young actress? I guess it accentuates her more mature good looks.

Meanwhile, Chin has decided to throw in with the corrupt eunuch governor. He becomes more and more brutal and power-crazed. His attack on Li's friends drive Li insane. The scenes of the mentally distracted Jet Li have a lot of humor and a little poignancy. When he discovers the principles of Tai Chi, he is restored to mental equilibrium.

This is definitely a classic. It's got great fights, a little humor, Michelle Yeoh getting drunk. What else could you ask for?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Grandeur That was Rome

I'm glad I watched Tony Rome. After seeing the sequel, Lady in Cement, I wasn't too enthusiastic. The first one is better.

Tony Rome is Frank Sinatra, playing a Miami detective suspiciously similar Travis McGee. Example: McGee won his boat, the Busted Flush, in a poker game. Rome's boat, the Straight Pass, was won in a craps game. Never mind. It's just a coincidence.

In this episode, Rome takes a drunk heiress home and gets involved with drunk wives, ex-wives, future wives (or "sluts"), a diamond pin, some junkies, some hoods, and so forth. There is some cute patter, some fights, some dames, and so it goes.

Back in the 50's, Sinatra had a radio show called Rocky Fortune. He played a footloose and fancy-free guy who worked oddjobs, solved crimes, and cracked wise. This was prime Sinatra. He started every show with his trademarked greeting, "Hi" - but when he said it, it sounded cool. This Tony Rome is much closer to the Rocky Fortune version than I'd expected.

OK, I still fell asleep before it was over. But I was really tired. This is better than the sequel. Although the sequel has Raquel Welch and Dan Blocker. Maybe it's a draw.

Monday, October 4, 2010

No Theater like Noh Theater

I've kind of been writing about a lot of 2-3 star movies - "could have been worse", "I fell asleep but it was OK", etc. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail is not one of those. It is the real thing.

This is one of Akira Kurosawa's first movie, made in 1945. It didn't have a big budget - at this point in the war, Japan could barely afford the film stock for a 1-hour movie. But the austerity also works as it does in Noh theater, to strip the story down to its essence.

The story is the Japanese classic Kanjincho - the Subscription List. Beautiful young noble warrior Yoshitsune has been condemned by his jealous brother Yoritomo. He is fleeing to a northern kingdom with seven loyal retainers dresses as mountain monks. They try to pass a customs barrier, but find that all monks are suspected of harboring Yoshitsune. Their leader, Benkei, explains that they are gathering funds for Todai-ji Temple. When pressed to read the prospectus, he pulls out a blank scroll and improvises the impressive reading of a Buddhist document.

Yoshitsune is disguised as a porter, and when he is questioned, Benkei begins to beat him - something no retainer could do to a lord. This clears them, and they are sent on their way.

The style, as well as the story, is based on Japanese traditional theater, Kabuki, Noh and Kyogen (funny skits, sort of humorous Noh). The kyogen part comes from a comic porter who the fugitives meet on the road. He is played by rubber-faced comic Kenichi Enomoto, who looks just like the exaggerated comic masks used in Kyogen. He overacts in a style that owes something to Kyogen, something to Rakugo (traditional storytelling style) and something to American cinema. He's worth the price of admission alone.

The story ends with the border official sending the monks some sake wine to as a token of respect, and possibly because he saw through their disguises but let them go anyway. Enomoto drinks deeply and does a lovely little comic dance. The trick here is, the play traditionally ends with Benkei doing a dance, but instead we have a comic parody of that dance. I think it's worth the price of admission for the dance alone.

Then Benkei starts his slow, dignified, beautiful dance - and Kurosawa fades out.