Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Music and Spirits

Here's another Carlos Saura dance film: Salomé. In some ways, it follows his usual pattern, mixing the process of making a movie, the planning, the rehearsals, with the movie itself. He shows us a group of dancers preparing a flamenco-inspired ballet about Herod, his wife Herodias, John the Baptist and Salomé. Then, he shows the resulting dance.

He doesn't play around much with his usual meta-dramatical tricks. In another mood, he might have shown how the director is really Herod, seduced by the ingenue playing Salomé away from his true love, the dancer playing Heriodias. He might even be tempted to "sacrifice" the career of the dancer in the John the Baptist role. But he doesn't do that. Look to Tango or Carmen for those kind of games.

Instead, we have an insightful documentary followed by a fine modern ballet ala flamenco. The choreographer and Salomé is Aída Gómez, very talented. Her dancers show amazing style and precision - when the corps is dancing together, every movement is perfectly synchronized. More importantly, they show duende, the all-important spirit of flamenco.

The Fantasticks, on the other hand, lacks a certain spirit. The story is about a boy and a girl whose fathers pretend to feud so that the kids will fall in love. Then, they hire an actor to abduct, or "rape" the girl, so the boy can rescue her. The original off-Broadway production was famously spare, a nearly bare stage, a few painted backdrops, letting the music stand out.

The movie takes a different approach, using slightly stylized sets and Montana locations. Mrs. Spenser is a big fan of the original production, and was disappointed at this approach. She was more disappointed by the presentation of the songs and the acting.

I was not familiar with the show, outside of the hits "Try to Remember" and "Soon It's Gonna Rain". I was pleased to find Joel Grey as one of the fathers - I like him because his dad was Yiddish comic musician and Spike Jones comrade, Mickey Katz. Also, Teller of Penn and Teller has a (silent) role.

Other than that, a pretty lackluster show. They tone down the "rape" stuff, shorten the songs, pad the dialog and action, generally make a movie out of it. Still, it's fun, and the songs are good. Just doesn't seem to meet its potential.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Salt in the Wounds

Salt starts with Angelina Jolie getting beaten to a bloody pulp. It pretty much ends that way too. You get the impression that someone enjoys this.

Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who has held down a desk since she was tortured by the North Koreans. Things are going pretty smoothly until a Russian defector comes in with a story about a plot to kill Russian president Medyedev at the American vice president's funeral. I didn't even know Cheney was sick.

The kicker - the assassin's name is Evelyn Salt. So Jolie goes on the run to clear her name, in the simplest possible way. She goes underground and heads for the funeral, the last place they would think of looking for her.

I am going to try not to spoil any plot twists - you can probably figure them all out mathematically, based on permutations and statistics. Or when Liev Shreiber shows up. I won't be giving anything away if I say most of the movie is about Jolie running, jumping and kicking butt.

I'm a big fan of Jolie, but I have to say, she really doesn't move that well for an action hero. I saw a review of Salt (Ebert?) to the effect that it makes Run Lola Run look like My Dinner with Andre. But Franka Potente looks strong and athletic when she is running. Angelina Jolie looks like she's used to wearing high heels.

Still, most of the action is editing and special effects, and she looks good, even if she can't move well. (Actually, she has a signature move, where she kicks off a wall to get a little height, then kicks someone's head. It's not bad.) And she sure can take a punch.

The last movie we saw her in was Wanted, where she looked emaciated and heavily tattooed. In this movie, her look is bruised and covered in blood. I'm not sure where she's going with this.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Are You a Pepper?

If i hadn't seen it myself, I wouldn't believe in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - a movie featuring the songs of the Beatles, starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton? Seriously? Yes, and it's all that and worse.

It seems that Sgt. Pepper and his band were small town American WWI heroes. Their descendants, Peter Frampton as Billy Shears and the Bee Gees as the Hendersons, have resurrected the band at the request of the mayor, Mr. Kite (George Burns!). Like the Beatles, Frampton and the Bros. Gibbs are seen as symbols of pure middle American  virtue - like rock 'n' roll and other things that conservative rural Americans have always championed.

But lads are tempted away to the big city by music promoter Donald Pleasance, and oh, I just can't go on. There are some side plots about a non-musical brother who is greedy, and a disco group called Lucy and the Diamonds. Then a Mr. Mustard steals the original Lonely Hearts Club instruments and the hometown becomes Potterville. The instruments go to Steve Martin, Alice Cooper and Aerosmith, who are all evil and each gets a musical number. Martin is over the top, Cooper is under the weather, and Aerosmith does a pretty fair version of "Come Together".

But get this: Peter Frampton kills Steve Tyler in a fight. Frampton! That gives you some idea of the wrong-headedness of this whole enterprise.

In my opinion, Frampton and the Bee Gees are talented musicians, well suited to the Beatles carefully crafted pop harmonies. But, while they don't insult the music, they fail to put their own stamp on it. George Martin is producing, and perhaps that contributes to the feeling of slavish imitation./ One exception was Sandy Farina, embarrassingly named Strawberry Fields. She has a nice pop voice, with a little roughness, sort of a Rita Coolidge feeling. Actually, any feeling at all was welcome - she was the only singer who seemed didn't seem to be singing the music by rote. Of course, this movie ended her career.

Actually, Earth, Wind and Fire did a pretty funky "Got to Get You into My Life".

I hate disco as much as the next guy, but I think I would have preferred a full out Saturday Night Fever disco version of these songs. In fact, at the very end, you get a couple of "Can't Stop Dancing" style "Sgt. Pepper" shout-outs. Refreshing.

So - totally worthless? No! About the ending. The last song is performed by the band and just about anybody they could round up in LA 1978, ala the Sgt. Pepper album cover. We watched it with hand on the Pause button, playing Where's Waldo with a crowd of notables and nobodies. There's Carol Channing and Tina Turner, Dr. John and Bonnie Raitt, Curtis Mayfield, Rick Derringer and Leif Garret, Jose Feliciano, Dame Edna Everage and I don't know who all.

Does that last scene make it all worthwhile? I wouldn't go that far. Throw in Earth, Wind and Fire and I guess you get your money's worth.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Foreign Intrigue

The Emperor and the Assassin is a Chinese historical drama about the first emperor to unify the warring kingdoms of China. His lover, played by Gong Li, is an impetuous headstrong woman who comes up with a plan to allow him to start a war with a neighboring kingdom: She will recruit an assassin, who will fail in his mission, giving the emperor a casus belli, and an aura of invincibility. But the assassin just wants to leave in peace.

This plot takes up only about 1/3 of the movie. The rest is politics, pageant, and the emperor going mad with power. It is set ca. 200 BC, and the sets and costumes are said to be quite historically accurate. It certainly looks interesting, and the story is a great one, even at 3 hours. I'm not even a casual student of Chinese history, so this was all new to me. It's not an action or military movie, although there is some of that. The character development gets a bit operatic (or Shakespearean, like King Lear?), but you can't say it's boring

Chai Lai Angels: Dangerous Flowers, on the other hand, is a ridiculous Thai imitation of Charlie's Angel. It is full of lazy, wire-fu fights, supposedly sexy women, bad jokes, jaw-dropping plot developments, and at least one transvestite. It looked like it would be fun and it was on streaming, so I watched it in a moment of weakness. Don't make the same mistake.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pilgrim's Progress

I saw Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at the drive-in first - that worked pretty well. But of course, I don't blog about the drive-in, just Netflix.OK, now we've seen it on Netflix.

Made by Edgar Wright of Shawn of the Dead/Hot Fuzz fame, this stars Michael Cera in the title role. Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something slacker in Toronto with no job, no ambition, no bed (he sleeps chastely with a gay friend - Keiran Culkin). All he has is a gig playing bass in a sucky punk band and a 17-year-old girlfriend, Knives Chau. Then he meets the girl of his dreams, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Ramona Flowers. There is one problem (other than that she is way out of his league) - he has to defeat her seven evil exes to become her boyfriend.

The film is fun, exciting and annoying. The style is wild, fantastic, bravura: the duels with the exes are done in video game style, there are comic book animation inserts, a short section performed as a Seinfeld episode, etc. This movie was originally a "graphic novel" and you can tell. It's fun and it totally works.

On the other hand, Scott Pilgrim is kind of a pill. Cera plays him as weak, whiny and more chinless than usual. It's hard to warm up to him, and hard to believe that Ramona would go out with him. It's hard to believe that Knives would go out with him, and she's a totally wet Chinese-Canadian Catholic schoolgirl.

I think Dennis Cozzalio over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule figures it out. He hated it the first time he saw it, partly due to the unlovable protagonist. When he saw it again, he understood that the movie takes place in Pilgrim's mind - Pilgrim isn't unaware that he is an asshole; he is his worst critic.

Frankly, I don't need this viewpoint to enjoy the movie. It is full of great characters like angry cutie Kim Pine (Alison Pill), the band's drummer and little jokes like Stephen Stills and Young Neil ("Henceforth you shall be know as 'Neil'"). Still, it makes me feel a little better about liking a movie about such a dork.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Speed Kills

The Quick and the Dead is a bit of a puzzler - a western starring Sharon Stone as a quickdraw artist? Really? With Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crow? Sam Raimi directing? OK, now it makes sense.

After a little skit from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Sharon Stone rides into town and the first person she meets is the coffinmaker, ala Fistful of Dollars. I'll just go ahead here and say, Once Upon a Time in the West and High Plains Drifter.

Stone is in town for the quickdraw contest sponsored by evil Gene Hackman, who rules the town. Also in the competition are Leonardo DiCaprio, "The Kid", who may be as good as he thinks he is, and Russell Crowe, a reformed gunslinger who is being forced to kill or be killed by Hackman. Also, a variety of colorful characters.

The action is somewhere between spaghetti western and Roadrunner cartoon. For ex: you can see sunlight through bullet holes. The acting is somewhere between spaghetti western and really over the top. DiCaprio excels at chewing the scenery, and Hackman really takes the bit in mouth and runs. Crowe is a little quieter, as "The Preacher", a man who wants to live in peace.

Stone's character is played with a nice twist - she is clearly doing Clint Eastwood, but instead of an emotionally cool killer, she is scared and indecisive. There's a hint of Hamlet in the will-she-won't-she question of whether she will take her revenge.

- SPOILER - She will, and it is pretty awesome.

For Absent Friends, and Bottles

Readers who have been reading may recall that I moved recently. The town I now live in is not a complete cultural desert, but is a bit - dry. When I left the San Francisco Bay, I left my liquor cabinet with friends. I miss them, and also those bottles. You can barely get a bottle of absinthe here, nonetheless maraschino liqueur.

So, my friends, if you have some cognac or brandy around, and a bottle of bubbly in the fridge, pull out the maraschino I left with you and mix yourself a Ritz cocktail as described by the Cocktailian column of the SF Chronicle:

Ritz of New York
Shake over ice:
  • 1 ounce cognac
  • 1/2 ounce triple sec
  • 2 dashes maraschino liqueur
  • 1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
Strain and top with chilled Champagne or other sparkling wine.
Garnish with flamed orange twist

If you don't have any cognac, why don't you try it with gin instead, and maybe blue curacao instead of triple sec? In fact, I'd like to propose the following as a hybrid of a French 75, an Aviation, and a Ritz, which I will call the:

Lafayette Espadrille
Shake over ice:

  • 1 shot of gin
  • 1/2 oz. blue curacao
  • 2 dashes maraschino liqueur
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice
Strain and top with sparkling wine. Garnish with a cherry. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Not So Classic TV

Mythical Monkey comments that he has been watching some Peter Gunn and other classic TV lately. I hope he had better luck than us. We got cocky and ordered DVD for a few old series, and it didn't work out like I had hoped.

As a kid, I loved Wanted: Dead or Alive - it ran from 1958-1961, when I was 2-5 years old. It starred Steve McQueen (!) as an old West bounty hunter. I had no idea how cool he was. What I thought was cool was his lever action sawed-off 30-30 Winchester shotgun that he wore like a huge pistol in a hip holster. What a cool weapon! I had to show Mrs. Spenser, so we rented the first disc of the collection.

What a letdown - standard clunky western with a slightly hipper, more dangerous anti-hero. We only managed to watch one episode, and McQueen loses his gun more than he fires it. We did see a little of his glacial cool, but also heard some of the clunkiest line readings this side of Ed Wood.

And maybe it was Chuck Connors Rifleman rifle I liked as a kid...

I remembered watching The Mothers-in-Law, starring Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden, but not much else. But I worship Eve Arden, our Miss Brooks, and kind of like Kaye Ballard, so how bad could it be? Mrs. Spenser recalled an episode that featured garage rock heroes, the Seeds, so we made sure to get the disc with that one.

The Seeds were great - they sang their only hit "Pushing Too Hard". Lead singer Sky Saxon has a pleasantly dopey face and an hard-driving singing style. The rest of the show stunk.

It was the usual setup for a 60's sit-com: Old folks don't dig rock music. The in-laws wind up managing the Seeds, playing a band called the Warts. Consider - the joke is that these rock bands call themselves all kinds of disgusting things. But I can't think of one band (pre-punk) with a disgusting name. Maybe Beatles (insect). Lots of silly names, like Chocolate Watch Band or Jefferson Airplane. Classic names like Rolling Stones or Loving Spoonful. But never disgusting. The joke fails.

Over and over, they go for the obvious cliche, even when it doesn't work. The keyboard player looks like a girl, because he has a ponytail. Yeah, and sideburns all over his face.

The show was plainly desperate to ignore any hint about the contemporary youth and music scene. They did this at the expense of the humor, too.

We've had to watch about 10 episodes of The Addams Family to regain our faith in Classic TV.