Saturday, May 28, 2011

Gardenia Blues

The Blue Gardenia is a neat little 1955 semi-noir from Fritz Lang. Ann Baxter is a phone company operator, living in an LA apartment with 2 other women - divorcee Ann Sothern and mystery loving tomboy Jeff Donnell (a tall girl, the actress took her nickname from "Mutt and Jeff"). When she gets a Dear Jane letter from her boyfriend in Korea, she lets calendar girl artist Raymond Burr take her out. He meets her at the Blue Gardenia Chinese Restaurant, where they listen to Nat King Cole and drink Polynesian Pearl Divers.

He takes her home and attacks her when she passes out. She comes too for long enough to take a swing at him with a poker, and passes out again. When she comes to, he is dead.

Now she not only has a terrible hangover, but faces a murder charge. Newspaperman Richard Conte is one her trail, but since he knew Burr, he has a lot of sympathy for his murderer.

Lang gets a nice feeling for mid-50s LA life into this detective story. The three working woman aren't glamorous or especially man-crazy - Ann Sothern goes on dates with her ex. They share a bedroom and take turns making orange juice. Telephones are a minor theme, the way some Hong Kong comedies use cellphones. And of course, there's a happy ending.

In conclusion, a Polynesian Pearl Diver is not the modern Malibu/Midori poison, but more likely related to Don the Beachcomber's Pearl Diver Punch. I haven't found an authoritative recipe, but it includes Don's Grog Batter, which is honey, butter, cinnamon, vanilla and allspice, in the form of pimento dram. Butter in an iced drink may seem dangerous, but who knew it could lead to murder.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tourist Trap

The Tourist is another one of those how-can-it-go-wrong movies: Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie on location in Venice. At best, you get a Bourne-style thriller, at worst, Bored to Death in Venice. I would have said I'd watch these actors read the phonebook - would this movie give me the chance to prove it?

Jolie, the girlfriend of a fugitive criminal is under heavy police surveillance. In a chic Paris cafe, she gets a note from her boyfriend with the following plan: get on the train to Venice, pick a dupe who looks like him and befriend him. Since boyfriend has had plastic surgery, everyone will think it's him.

She picks Johnny Depp, a mild-mannered math teacher from Madison. Maybe she likes his looks, maybe it's the spy thriller paperback he's reading. They get to Venice and tangle with the usual assortment of Interpol, Anglo-Russian mafia, corrupt local officials, arrogant desk clerks, etc.

Throughout, Jolie is dressed in gorgeous Chanel-style shmattes - looking, as Ms. Spenser said, like a mix between Audrey Hepburn and Sofia Loren. She looks beautiful, and has quite the acrobatic hipswing, but really, she has one expression (a kind of Mona Lisa smirk) for the whole film. She also is looking a bit worn - I thought this was intentional, that she was supposed to have an "older woman" vibe for Depp. But he's actually more than a decade older than her.

Depp isn't great in this, until the end, which is horrible. I probably don't need to say SPOILER, but the twist ending completely wipes out everything that came before it. You know how some twist endings make you go, "Oh yeah, now I see! That's what that was about. It all comes together." This is the opposite. After the twist nothing makes sense: The characterization is all a farce, the plot depends entirely on coincidences, and you will hate this movie and yourself for watching it.

But other than that, I actually kind of enjoyed this movie. Venice is beautiful, and so is Ms. Jolie. That's usually enough for me. Maybe I should have watched it with the sound off.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Dawn's Early Light

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as I understand it, is slightly problematic, in that the main character, Eustace Scrubb, is a pill. Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are stuck with their relatives the Scrubb family in Oxford during the Blitz. Their cousin Eustace hates them for barging in, disturbing his quiet life dedicated to scoffing sweets and writing an emo journal. Will Poulter, who plays Eustace, has round little cheeks and scowling brows, instantly has our sympathy. When he expresses scorn and disbelief for Narnia, even as he is flailing in its ocean, we are with him all the way.

So, Lucy, Edmund and Eustace wind up on the magical ship the Dawn Treader with Caspian, Reepacheep et al., on a magical quest for a magical isle and some magical stuff, and the effects are very lovely. Beautiful dawn skies are featured for obvious reasons. The climax features -SPOILER- a neat dragon v. Chthulu-Kraken that wouldn't be out of place in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Tilda Swenson as Ice Queen makes an all-too-brief appearance, although Laura Brent does a nice (also short) turn as some kind of nymph-angel.

The conclusion, at the end of the world, is one of my favorite effects, possibly in all cinema ever - a wave endlessly breaking and never advancing up the beach where Aslan hangs out.

All in all, good fun. I don't know what C.S. Lewis fans think of this, but someone looking for a G-rated adventure fantasy should have a grand time.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kung Fu Kid

Legend of the Red Dragon is just another kung fu movie, right? Well, pretty much, except:
  • Fight choreography by Corey Yuen (director of Transporter, So Close, etc.)
  • Starring Jet Li: Nuff said
  • Totally wacky
The movie starts with some gruesome violence, so you may not be expecting laughs. Jet Li and his young son set out to get revenge on the folks who killed their village. The boy, Miu Tse, we know from The Enforcer - once again Jet Li's son, and once again a martial artist of great power and cuteness. 

The plot is Shaolin vs. Manchu's (again), which is the excuse of a lot of little boys to be in on the fights. But there  also a beautiful con woman and her supposedly dead mother, adding some sex appeal and humor. There is also a bizarre scene in a wax museum, and... but never mind.

In some ways, just another kung fu movie. In other ways, a great one.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trafic Jam

If you love Jacques Tati's character, M. Hulot, and you haven't seen Trafic, well, you should. If you have not seen M. Hulot, I would recommend starting with one of the other 3 films:

  • M. Hulot's Holiday
  • Mon Oncle
  • Playtime
They are all available on streaming, although Playtime seems to be missing the soundtrack. Each one is better than the last. But sadly, Playtime was so expensive that Tati was pushed out of the movie business, and Trafic, his comeback film, is not his best - but still pretty great!

M. Hulot is Tati's alter ego, a tall awkward Frenchman with a pipe and a short raincoat. He is nearly always silent, but Tati's films aren't silent movies - they are filled with polyglot dialog, sound effects and music. In Trafic, Hulot is an automobile designer, whose futuristic camping car must be delivered from Paris to the Amsterdam Car Show. With him are the driver for the car's truck and the PR woman for the firm, Maria Kimberly (played by Maria Kimberly).

Maria is a wonder - a chic American with a tiny sportscar, a huge wardrobe, a gigantic ego and very poor grasp of European languages. She creates chaos where ever she goes, followed by a tiny ragmop of a dog. Maria, the actress, was a fashion model and girlfriend to a billionaire art dealer. She must have been acting, but it seems so natural that one wonders how much of a bimbo she really is. As the film progresses, she begins to dress down a little, and we start to accept her incompetence as just another part of the nature of things. And possibly, M. Hulot gets the girl.

The jokes are small, and sometimes take a while to sink in. Sometimes, they are just visual rhymes, like when the ragmop dog passes a man dusting his car with an identical looking ragmop. There is no gag here, no comic confusion of the dog and the mop, no double take from the man. Just - look at that, dog, mop, huh.

Of course, some of the jokes are less subtle, like when the hippies steal the dog and replace him with a look-alike shaggy vest. Or the setpiece traffic accident at the climax of Act 3. But much of the movie is just a reflection on the nature of traffic, a road trip, and people in cars.

In conclusion, very very good, but watch the other ones first.

Life's a Beach

Love him or hate him, you've got to admit that it's fun to watch Leonardo DiCaprio go nuts in The Beach.

DiCaprio plays a somewhat pompous backpacker, travelling around SE Asia on his own, looking for kicks - like drinking cobra's blood in Bangkok. He meets a drunk raving Scottish lout, who tells him about an isolated beach on a deserted island, where food and dope grow on trees. Next morning, the lout has killed himself and bequeathed to DiCaprio a map.

He convinces a French couple to join him in quest of the island, mainly to wolf on the French girl (Virginie Ledoyen). When they get there, they find heavily armed pot farmers on one end, and the Beach on the other. The Beach is a commune-resort dedicated to international hedonism, run by Tilda Swanson. It's all very hippie-tribal, but you don't need to have seen Lord of the Flies to guess at the fascism laying beneath the surface, like a shark. The horror, the horror!

Actually, I would compare this movie more to The Valley, Obscured by Clouds. We get the same rich, privileged Europeans looking for self-fulfillment in a strange land, and the inevitable (?) descent into madness and starvation. But that movie has Bulle Ogier and a Pink Floyd soundtrack.

I've spent a little time on the backpacker trail, hanging in hostels and losmen across Java and Bali, and that part looked pretty realistic to me. Of course, no body went insane or got killed, at least when I was around. I probably just needed to keep at it a little longer.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Complain Complain

I don't spend a lot of time in this blog talking about Netflix as a service. The last time was to complain about cracked Blu-ray disks. They got that under control, by the way.

It seems that Netflix is changing, though. They clearly want to get out of the disk shipping business and become a streaming company. I can understand their point of view but:
  1. Lower quality. We have a wired connection to a cable internet, and get barely DVD quality. Maybe ok for a laptop or for watching old TV shows, but nothing close to Blu-ray.
  2. Lower functionality. Rewind is very clunky, at least on our cheap player. There's no commentary track, or chapter menu. At least it remembers where you left off watching, which our cheap DVD player doesn't do.
  3. Smaller selection. Here's the rub. Netflix for me is what Napster was to many - a way to get anything you could think of. Classic musicals, obscure art films, Hong Kong chop-socky? If it was released on DVD, you could probably get it from Netflix. But not on streaming. 
I don't know what the ratio of DVDs available to streaming films - 10:1? But it does seem to be shifting - partly because more things are available on streaming, but it also seems that they are making more and more DVDs unavailable. My queue almost never listed a wait for any movie - maybe because I don't go for a lot of recent releases. Now, 15% of my queue has short or long waits. And many movies are dropping down to the Saved queue as they become unavailable.

Maybe they are just economizing, or growing too fast. But I suspect they are starving the disk side to grow streaming. And that's fine, if I can find the movies that I want. And in general, I can't go elsewhere, because, for all these problems, Netflix still has the biggest selection.

I guess in some way I'm complaining about the free ice cream - Netflix is an amazing service and I get a lot out of it. But I nag because I care! Netflix, you are better than this.

Beatles Backlog

Readers who have been reading may notice that I haven't been keeping up with the blog very well. Since I watch ~3 movies a week, I should be posting about 3 times a week. But it has been much less, hasn't it?

One trick I use when I get behind like this is the omnibus post - combining several movies that I have recently watched with a shared theme. This one starts with Magical Mystery Tour. We'd never seen this 1967 Beatles movie, for a couple of reasons. The album was released when I was 11, and I considered it somewhat creepy: "Yellow matter custard/seeping from a dead dog's eye". The booklet that came with the album has a gross illustration of a fat woman being fed spaghetti with a shovel. Plus, it wasn't supposed to be very good.

I needn't have worried about the grossout factor, but I guess it wasn't very good. The idea was for the Beatles and a bunch of regular folk to ride around in a tour bus, goof around and see what came out. And that's pretty much what they got. Ringo comes off best, spending most of the ride fighting with his fat auntie (she's the one who gets the spaghetti - filmed quite tastefully). Paul looks very naff in a colorful cardigan, but doesn't have much to do. John and George don't do much at all.

The Beatles songs are performed with visuals that would not have hacked it on the earliest days of MTV - oh well, this was a long, long time ago. My favorite is "Blue Jay Way", performed by George, sitting on the floor, playing a keyboard drawn on the floor like a mystical diagram.

Probably the high point of the film comes when the bus stops to take in a strip show, with the Bonzo Dog Band performing their Elvisesque "Death Cab for Cutie." Now that's entertainment!

Seeing Neil Innes in the Bonzos got us psyched to see The Rutles - Eric Idle and Neil Innes' Beatles spoof. Along with John Halsey and Rikki Fataar, they are the Rutles, subject of this documentary , narrated by Eric Idle. The band, its history and especially their songs are remarkably similar to another British band. We get interviews with people like Mick Jagger who knew them when, and interviews of the Mississippi bluesmen from deep on the Delta, who stole all their material from the Rutles.

But the best part are the songs - spot on Beatles pastiches. Some are funny, some are just too well-done: Is it a parody if it is just as good as the original?

So we went back to the original to find out: A Hard Day's Night. The Beatls 1964 film debut is directed by Richard Lester. It only seems like they put the Beatles on a train with a bunch of people and filmed what happened. Actually, it was carefully scripted to find and enhance the Beatles characters - responsible Paul, snarky John, thoughtful, iconoclastic George and Ringo, friendly, insecure, a bit dim but very sweet. In fact, my favorite part is Ringo, playing hooky from rehearsal, wandering around town, kicking rocks by the river, and meeting up with a lad, 10 and 3/4s, who is also deserting. Their banter is the loveliest - the kid mentions his friend Ding-Dong, and Ringo says, "Ding-Dong Bell?" because of course anyone named Bell will get nicknamed Ding-Dong. Listen close and you'll get to hear a lot of the vernacular.

In fact, George uses the term "grotty" and glosses it as grotesque - possibly the first use of this term in the media. He uses it to a swinging marketing man, trying to sell shirts to the youth market. It seems strange to me that prefab youth culture marketing was so well known as to be parodies in 1964, before even I, aged as I am, was a teenager.

Anyway, we were now on a roll. We streamed Richard Lester's How I Won the War, an odd WWII comedy with John Lennon in a small role. Lennon plays a sneaky little private to Michael Crawford's Lt. Goodbody. Crawford is a terrible officer in a stupid army who nevertheless wins the war for the British with a bad check. Strange, funny and a bit depressing.

And I'm going to wrap this post up now. We still have a ton of Beatles-related material queued up, like Ringo's Caveman and Lester's The Bed Sitting Room and The Knack ... and How to Get It, but we'll save it for later - or just skip over it.

In conclusion, Yellow Submarine does not appear to be available, disc or streaming.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Sniping at Sly

I guess seeing Stallone in The Expendables  got us to queue up Demolition Man - that and Mr. Peel's review. Shout out to Mr. Peel - he is the king of late 20th C. movies - especially 1970-1990. He writes about the trivial, the sublime, the flawed masterpiece and the guilty pleasure. And sometimes, he makes me want to see a movie against my better judgment. 

In a dystopian 1998 future LA, supercop John Spartan (Stallone) tangles with supervillain Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes). When he goes to far, he is given the same punishment as Snipes - being cryogenically frozen for 40 years. Snipes wakes up in a peaceful utopia, where violence is unknown and strong language is subject to a fine. Perfect, he thinks, this culture will be no match for his evil.

When he starts his rampage, future cop Sandra Bullock figures that they need to fight fire with fire, so they defrost the legendary crimefighter, Stallone.

Mostly, this is just a goofy sci-fi comedy, like Woody Allen's Sleeper - there is even an orgasmatron. It's also an action film, of course, with the requisite fights and explosions, but it always seems eager to get back to the gags and social commentary. Can you believe, for instance, that in 1993, they predicted the Schwartzenegger presidency? They may have gotten the year wrong, but still.

I actually don't mind Stallone when he isn't trying to be serious - his comic timing is not bad. I like Bullock in this role - chipper, bright and very naive. Snipes has to wear some heinous outfits - Osh Kosh B'Gosh overalls with a blond fade - but is undeniably cool.

So cool, that we had to watch Blade 2 on instant view. I really don't have much to say about it, except there was a lot of action, blood, and special effects make up. Also, Kris Kristofferson as the Obi Wan character. Still, we got our Wesley Snipes fix, and without any Sly.

In conclusion, Sly rocks the beret in Demolition Man. It had to be said.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

GTA: 1977

Mindless action, thrills with no gore, and a happy ending. That's what I wanted, that's what I got: Ron Howard's directorial debut for Roger Corman, 1977's Grand Theft Auto.

Little Opie plays a college student from the wrong side of the tracks in love with Nancy Morgan, the daughter of a Beverly Hills fat cat who is running for congress. When her parents refuse to consent to their marriage, these two crazy kids steal the family Rolls and head for Vegas. Her mother steals the gardener's VW and gives chase. Nancy's suitor, a polo-playing rich kid joins the chase. They call the LA's KTNQ radio and offer a reward for the return of the eloping bride, and this gets everyone into the game.

So - chases and crashes. There is a low-budget, go-for-broke feeling like the first Gone in 60 Seconds. But there was also a touch of Vanishing Point with the radio DJ following all the action. Come to think of it, that was part of  Gone in 60 Seconds and Convoy as well. I guess that in the 70s, no car chase was complete w/o a DJ to narrate. Kind of like the TV news copter of today.

The long scenes of Rolls and pursuers barreling through the desert kicking up huge clouds of dust were also very Convoy, but I don't know if this is homage, or just unavoidable - a long distance car chase from LA will always wind up in the desert.

It all ends in a demolition derby, which only makes sense.

You'll see a lot of familiar Corman faces, notably Paul Bartels as an eager bridegroom.

Oh, did I mention car crashes?

I don't think we see a lot of genius from Howard, but this is a perfectly serviceable crash-em-up. It's light-hearted fun and just what we were looking for.

In conclusion, no connection at all to the video game and movie spinoffs that came later.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

They Love Him in France

So, if I hate Jerry Lewis so much, why do I keep watching his movies? I hate to say it, but I respect his craft. I find his voice grating, his style either irritating or saccharine, and yet - he is really good at what he does. And in The Bellboy, he does what he does in the purest way.

The Bellboy is set in Miami Beach's famed Fountainbleu Hotel. It is a loose series of sketches centered around Lewis' bellboy character, Stanley. Like the M. Hulot comedies, the hotel and its rituals are a character in themselves. Like Tati, Lewis doesn't speak much, although this is not a silent comedy. Maybe the reason I liked this so much is that we don't have to listen to Lewis' adenoidal ravings.

The sketches are silly, touching, and sometimes quite surreal. Jerry Lewis turns up as himself, the movie star, surrounded by an impenetrable entourage. Milton Berle sees Stanley the bellhop and Lewis the star, and can't figure out what is going on. But you can figure out where this is going.

But the fun is seeing it go there. A lot of the gags are just Jerry doing a series of "takes" - something happens and Lewis:
  • Looks to the side, frowns
  • Opens mouth to speak, maybe raises a finger
  • Shakes head, frowns
  • Looks front, back to the side - double take
  • Starts to speak again
  • Raises eyebrows, purses lips in "Oh well" shape
And so on.

It might sound like I'm making fun of this, but Jerry Lewis has raised it to an artform. You might not laugh out loud, but if you watch closely, you'll learn a lot. To give you a clue, Lewis includes a Stan Laurel impersonator to guide you.

Also, I'm living in Florida now. A long way from Miami Beach and a long time from 1960, when this was made (Lewis' directorial debut). Still, I wanted to get a little bit of the flavor of the state.