Saturday, November 27, 2010

Where I'm At

Readers who have been reading (Special Announcement) know that I have been living alone in CA while Ms. Spenser started on her PhD in FL. Well, that regime is over - after many delays, I am now re-united with my wife and her pet rat and spider in Tallahassee.

The upheavals involved partly explain the irregularity of my blog posting. I think I am all caught up now, and from here on out, service will return as usual.

Or, actually, probably not. Because now I plan to make Ms. Spenser watch all of the movies I watched while we were apart, because, you know, we are joined at the hip and have no independent lives. Since I don't plan to re-review these, my output may drop below the usual 2-3 posts/week. And I don't expect to come up with enough cocktail posts to fill the spaces.

As per my usual policy, disappointed readers may return the unread portion of this blog for a full refund.

Elevator Pitch

I watched Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel, before Pitch Black. I hadn't been that impressed. I'd always heard that Pitch Black was the better movie, but I'm not so sure.

A malfunction forces a spaceship full of passengers in suspended animation to land on an unknown planet. May of the passengers die, but there are a few left - some crew, some Moslem pilgrims, a corrupt fixer and superhuman criminal Riddick (Vin Diesel). They soon find out about the planet:
  • There is a depopulated colony that seems to have emptied out very suddenly
  • The planet is in orbit around three suns, so it never gets dark
  • There are deep caverns with something creepy in them
 The creepies from the cavern proceed a to kill a few people, and then we learn:
  • They are afraid of the light - no problem since the sun never sets on this planet
  • Except - problem - there is a total eclipse of all the suns once every n years, and the next time is coming soon
  • But, at least Riddick can see in the dark with his modified eyes
 So there you have it - eventually, the lights go out, the creepies come out, and it's a race against time and creepies. Simple and effective. The style is utilitarian, with plain frontier clothes, unadorned buildings and jury-rigged equipment. I'd say space-age western, if I were looking for a genre. Something like Ghosts of Mars, perhaps.

Chronicles of Riddick, on the other hand, was baroquely ornate, full of silly costumes, wild fighting styles and weapons, oddball philosophies, farout special effects - more like Aeon Flux. Maybe it's just my mood, but I was hoping for something fantastic like that. Maybe I'll go back to Chronicles and see how I like it now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


The Legend of the Shadowless Sword is a flawless example of a Chinese martial arts film - however, it is actually Korean. All of the heirs to a kingdom have been killed except one, a exiled scapegrace who has been spending his time away drinking and carousing. A beautiful swordswoman, So Yi Yun is sent to retrieve him, and guard him until he is back in his kingdom.

There are many wonderfully staged fights, some humor, fine cinematography, a plot you can follow - in general, a state of the art wu-xia movie. Highly recommended.

The Shaw Brothers' 1976 The Magic Blade on the other hand, is not quite so delightful. I suppose it gets points for being an early instance of the modern wu-xia genre (sword fight movies), which the Shaw Bros. could be said to have invented. The story involves a pair of squabbling good guys against a gaggle of bad guys, fighting for control of the Peacock Dart, a funky explosive super weapon. The weapons are wild, the fights fantastic, the plot is convoluted and... I fell asleep before it was over.

That doesn't mean that it's bad, but honestly, I would skip over this one unless I were trying to complete my Shaw Bros. experience. Go with Shadowless Sword instead.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dancing Queen

Dancing Lady is the damnedest thing: Joan Crawford wants to be a dancer more than anything, but the only way she can find to ply her trade is at the burlesque. When the joint is raided, she meets slumming rich guy Franchot Tone, who gives her a chance to move up in the world.  But she sets her caps for producer Clark Gable as "Patch" Gallager.

For a 1933 pre-Code backstage musical, this is all pretty standard - and very well done, too, with plenty of quips, racy dialog, skimpy costumes, and song and dance numbers (including some nice faux Busby Berkeley numbers). Also, the amoral way that Crawford strings along her rich boyfriend while making a strongarm play for her boss is pretty interesting. But suppose you say, "Sure, Joan Crawford dancing, Tone and Gable, fine. But I want more!"

OK - how about Fred Astaire, in his first feature, dancing under his own name with Crawford? How about Nelson Eddy singing the theme? Robert Benchley as Tone's buddy? Still not sold?

Ted Healey, my friends. Ted Healey and his stooges: The Three Stooges to be exact. Ted seems to be some kind of musical director, Larry plays piano, and Moe and Curly are stage hands. Now that's entertainment!

Total Dick

There is a whole subgenre of movies based on Philip K. Dick novels, starting with Bladerunner. Most of them bear little resemblance to the original, or are very bad, or both. A Scanner Darkly is different. It is very faithful to the novel, which one of Dick's most heartfelt, autobiographical tales.

It is a story about Substance D, or Death, a reality-altering, paranoia-inducing, highly addictive drug. Bob Arctor, played by Keanu Reeves, is both a user and an undercover narc. As a narc, he wears a scramble suit, which changes his face and voice several times a second, so that no one, not even his bosses. In the end, he winds up investigating himself, so divorced from reality that he doesn't realize that he and Arctor are the same person.

The scramble suit works because the whole movie is rotoscoped: filmed and traced as a cartoon. This makes many scenes visually interesting. In other scenes, the tracing is so faithful, you might as well be looking at the originally filmed scene (at least on my smallish screen). It isn't just a gimmick, but I'm hard pressed to say why it is integral to the film. Possibly as a metaphor to the mediated nature of drugged reality? Anyway...

A lot of this movie is about Reeves and his druggy friends sitting around talking. Robert Downey Jr. plays an intense conspiracy theorist type with a touch of Hunter S. Thomson. Woody Harrelson plays a dumb doper. (Typecasting?) Wynona Rider plays Arctor's girlfriend, who can't stand sex and doesn't like being touched - too much coke. Their conversations are funny, stupid, pathetic and finally, heartbreaking.

Dick has said that the novel was inspired by his experience with drugs, and many of the situations are transcribed from life. The movie ends with a long list of people whose lives were damaged or ended by drugs. And Arctor doesn't exactly mean "Author", but is sounds like it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Steamy Story

Steamboat Round the Bend has a great pedigree: Will Rogers directed by John Ford. It plays like it too - John Ford showers us with beauty shots of the Mississippi River running high and proud, and the steamboats that rode along her. Will Rogers is crusty yet wise, a patented medicine salesman and riverboat captain. There's a great crowd of extras, including Eugene Palette, Lee J. Cobb, and the ever astonishing Stepin Fetchit.

Rogers' son, played by John McGuire, has gotten mixed up with a swamp girl and killed a man. This disturbs Rogers, who feels that river folk and swamp folk shouldn't mix. He orders the boy to turn himself in. The girl, Fleety Belle (!), played by the lovely Ann Shirley, rails at him, afraid that McGuire will be convicted and hanged. And when he is convicted, Roger's and Fleety Belle need to go on a river trip with a floating wax museum to raise money for a better lawyer for an appeal.

On the trip, they discover Stepin Fetchit playing Jonah in a model whale. If you've never seen his act, this is a pretty good example of it. He drawls and whines and yammers in an impenetrable dialect, while making googly eyes, and possibly shuffling a little. This kind of thing is not for everyone - I guess it's pretty racist - but it's pretty funny, and half the white folk have accents about as hard to make out.

This movie is a funny kind of mix - an old-fashioned plot that could have come from a silent melodrama along with some slow, easy humor, followed by a slapstick ending. If you can take the sentimentality (and work around the racism), you should like it. If you don't, you just don't like Will Rogers movies.

In conclusion, I did appreciate the strong stance on prejudice against swamp folk. They are human, just like river people.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Cocktails are Easy

I took a business trip to New York this week - seems like a nice burg. On the advice of a friend, I went down to the lower East Side to WD-50 for a nice deconstructed meal. As a solo diner, I sat at the bar and got to watch the maestros in action. I had a cocktail called "Check the Weather" (it was raining out, I thought it appropriate). It comprised:
  • Mezcal (probably Mont Alban, though I couldn't see the label)
  • Jackfruit juice
  • Campari 
  • Lime
It was served up in a sours glass that was a little wider at the base - that concentrated the elusive odor of jackfruit (sometime described as strawberry banana) and smoke of the mezcal.

Mezcal is one of my current favorites, and it isn't easy to get. Like tequila, it is made from the agave, but the pinas are smoked instead of steamed, giving it a flavor like peaty scotch.

But that's not what I came here to write about. No, what I wanted to say is that it's easy to make delicious cocktails. A few good ingredients, a little guesswork, a great drink. If it doesn't work, tinker a little. If it does work, change it all around, it'll probably still be great.

I wanted to make Singapore Slings for a friend, but it turned out we were low in gin. She doesn't like gin anyway. Besides, I don't have any Benedictine. But she does have some chili infused tequila - well, chilies and pineapple go great together. So:
  • 1 shot chili-infused tequila
  • 1 oz. lime
  • 1 oz. kirsch
  • 1 shot pineapple juice
Shake and serve over ice in a highball glass.

I haven't named this drink because I'm not done with it. I've tried it with triple sec instead of kirsch. I've doubled the juice and served it in a pint. I used mango juice when the pineapple ran out. I've tried it with regular tequila instead of infused (that's the Mango Margarita). They're all good.

Now, I'm not saying that the guys at WD-50 can't top my simple cocktail riffs. They took some chances with mezcal and they had a lot of cocktails featuring sake, which can be hard to work with. I know - I almost killed myself trying to perfect the tequila-sake martini. But it isn't hard to make a creative cocktail - if it has booze, people will love it.

In conclusion, I wonder how a mezcal-sake martini would work?

Irma and the Waves

I've know I've mentioned it before, but I'm a big fan of old-time radio. One of my favorites is My Friend Irma, so I knew I'd eventually have to watch the movies: My Friend Irma / My Friend Irma Goes West.

In both the radio show and the movies, Marie Wilson is Irma, an airhead blonde who gets herself, her roommate Jane and everyone else around into all kinds of trouble. Her boyfriend a cheapskate chiseler called Al (just "Al"), causes trouble the rest of the time.

In this movie, Jane is played by Diana Lynne, who played a lot of kid sister roles not long before this 1949-1950 role. I loved her in these roles, like Miracle of Morgan's Creek and The Major and the Minor, and she is lovely here as a young woman. In fact, she overshadows Wilson, 10 years her senior. I would expect this role - the sensible adult member of the team to be more of a plain Eve Arden type.

Honestly, Wilson looks a little drawn in these films - thin in the face and tired. Her voice is still the perfect dumb blonde's, but she's either showing her age or has been hitting the pep pills. Her character has a tendency to whine and cry when people get mad at her, which is all the time. I was surprised at how cruel her friends were - although I suppose it's realistic. She's funny to watch, but would have been pretty annoying to live with.

The whole cast is completely true to the radio version - John Lund's Al had me convinced he was played by thesame guy as on the radio, but not so. But Hans Conried did get to reprise his role of Professor Kropotkin, whose tag line was "It's only me, Professor Kropotkin".

There's something I haven't mentioned, because I didn't want to scare anyone. For some reason, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis are in these movies. Dino plays a romantic interest for Jane, and Lewis plays a wacky sidekick. It isn't that Dino's songs are boring, and Jerry's comedy is grating (both true), but they just don't belong in this loving tribute to a great radio show.

Meanwhile, in Here Come the Waves, Betty Hutton plays both the sensible adult and the kooky airhead. As Rosemary, she is sensible, serious, and wants to join the WAVES to support the war effort. As Rosemary's twin Susan, she wants to keep up their nightclub act and meet, mash and marry singing movie star Bing Crosby. She is a bobbysoxer with a broad Iowa twang, while her sister speaks in the twang with more refinement. Even in their singing act, Rosemary swings, but sister Susan goes nuts - totally jazz.

So the sisters join the WAVES and Crosby and buddy Sonny Tufts join the Navy, but Susan plots to keep him stateside out of danger by getting him transferred to the WAVES, and so on. The romantic plot has him fall in love with the refined sister (who thinks he's a playboy and a coward), while dodging his fan Susan. Oh, yeah, Tufts is in love with Rosemary too.

Both of these movies had a smart girl and a dingbat, and I was surprised by how mean they were to the dingbat. I thought the pretty airhead was supposed to be loved by everyone. I guess I'd pick Diana Lynn over Marie Wilson, too, but I prefer the no-holds barred version of Betty Hutton to the high-hat version. Which would you choose?