Wednesday, July 27, 2011


We watched Ronin because From Paris with Love (and Renaissance) made me want to watch a good car chase set in Paris. In my case, this was a re-watch, but I have to admit it - I remembered almost nothing.

I remembered the start, an edgy group of strangers gather in a Paris bar, all recruited by Natascha McElhone for a shadowy mission. They include Sean Bean (or Deadmeat as they call him), Jean Reno and Robert DeNiro. I also remembered that there would be car chases and gunfights. I didn't remember Nice at all - car chases on narrow roads hanging above the sea. I didn't remember Katerina Witt playing an Olympic skater. I didn't remember what was in the MacGuffin. I did remember that there would be awesomeness and I was right.

I think Mr. Schprock recommended this to me. Going in the first time, I guess I expected it to be kind of lame. I mean:
  1. Pretentious Japanese title - how Jean-Pierre Melville
  2. DeNiro - a little old to play a tough guy
  3. Frankenheimer - not my favorite director, too old-fashioned
I was just wrong. Frankenheimer's next movie (and last feature?) may have been Reindeer Games, but he clearly knew what he was doing here.  A classic in the action genre.

In conclusion, Luc Besson. He's not related to this, but with Paris, Jean Reno, action, his spirit is present.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Up Doc?

Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit is a nice continuation of the Wallace and Gromit tales, with Nick Park's traditional stop motion animation with some CGI to pull it all together.

Wallace and Gromit have become pest control specialists, under the name Anti-Pesto. Their biggest job is to remove a massive infestation of rabbits from the manor home of Lady Tottington ("Totty" to her friends). This leaves them with a lot of rabbits to be held captive - or could they be rehabilitated? If they no longer craved vegetables, they would no longer be a threat to the annual Tottington Giant Vegetable Competition. But the experiment goes horribly wrong, and they have created - a Monster!

The movie overflows with little jokes all over the place. If you've seen any of the other Wallace and Gromit pics, you know what I mean. If not, why not?

In conclusion, Totty is a bit all right.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Rude Mechanical

The Mechanic is the original 1972 version of the Jason Statham movie of the same name. It's pretty much the same, but completely different.

The title character is played by Charles Bronson, and he's plays it a lot like the Statham character - cool, methodical, detached. But where Statham has an emotional range that includes mildly amused and pissed off, Bronson feels nothing. But he unlike Statham, he can't sleep at night.

The mechanic's mentor in the later movie is played by Donald Sutherland, as a lovable old coot, a retired spook turned professor. In the Bronson version, he's played by Keenan Wynn as a shifty fixer.

His son, who becomes the mechanic's apprentice, was played as an annoying hipster by Ben Foster in the 2011 movie. In 1972, he is Jan Michael Vincent. His role is the 1972 equivalent, but I guess annoying hipsters were cooler in the 70's. He's not just a spoiled punk, but he has a chilly existentialist core. He is also Jan Michael Vincent - Big Wednesday, Damnation Alley, Airwolf (OK, skip that). He was the Val Kilmer of his day (hmm, maybe skip that too). Anyway, he was a great beatnik anti-hero, like Buck and Ron from Kitten with a Whip.

Also, in 1972, the movie takes place in LA (Hollywood, Malibu) and Naples, instead of Louisiana. I liked Statham's bayou pad, but Bronson's has it beat solid. And the sleazy side of LA looks even better than New Orleans.

As far as the action goes, there's some pretty decent explosions, motorbike chases, etc, but of course, nothing up to modern standards. They claimed the largest explosion in LA for the time - took out an old hotel.

I'm not sure how great this movie was - we liked it, though. But maybe that's just in comparison to the comparatively soulless 2011 version.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Judgement of Paris

From Paris with Love showed real promise: an action comedy buddy film written and produced by Luc Besson, directed by Pierre Morel of District B13, set in Paris, with John Travolta as the tough guy and John Rhys Meyers as prissy partner. It actually works pretty well - at first!

Meyers is the secretary for the American ambassador to France. It is established that he is meticulous, has a lovely exotic girlfriend, and is dabbling in espionage. His spy-bosses instruct him to help get Travolta into the country and take him around. Travolta is an ugly America, with a bald head and goatee, a leather jacket, and a potty mouth. But do his provocations conceal a deeper purpose?

Yeah, of course. Travolta has bulked up a lot as well as shaving his head for this. He looks more like Jess Ventura - but he still sounds like Vinnie Barbarino. That tenor is just not so tough.

I'm pretty sure you can write the first hour of the script yourself: Travolta does something inappropriate, Meyers is mortified. Big fight scene. It turns out that Travolta was really exposing some criminals, Meyers is impressed. Big fight scene. Travolta makes Meyers do something ridiculous (carry around a large Chinese vase full of cocaine), and it turns out really useful. Big car chase scene. And so on.

But toward the end, the stakes get higher, and the action gets more serious. I'll leave out the spoilers, except to say that the action gets more serious, but the movie never does. They do some awful things and never really acknowledge it. In the end, Travolta and Meyers both seem totally unsympathetic, and we kind of hate Besson and director Morel as well.

In conclusion, this just made me want to watch a good action movie set in Paris, so Ronin has been queued up.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Whip It: Good

Sometimes we like to take a break from the contemporary action comedies and black and white obscurities to see something just plain good. For example: Whip It.

In Drew Barrymore's directorial debut, Ellen Page plays a 17-year girl in a small Texas town. Her mother wants her to be a beauty queen, but she's a little too indie rock for that. On a shopping trip to Austin, she sees a flyer for the local Roller Derby girls - the Hurl Scouts - and it becomes her dream. Her best friend, a spunky Wendie Jo Sperber-type played by Alia Shawkat, helps her steal away and join the team.

Now, I'm not sure which calls for more suspension of disbelief - that Ellen Page could pass for 22 when she's supposed to be 17 in the movie, or that someone whose last pair of skates had "Barbie" could become the star of the Derby in a few short weeks. Well, Page the actress is 22, so that works ok, and it is established that the Hurl Scouts suck, so maybe it doesn't take much to become their star.

None of this really bother me - nor that a shy smalltown kid gets the cute guy who tours with an indie band. We believe Page can do anything. I haven't seen her in Juno, but she's great here: beautiful in a quiet way, like Janeane Garafolo, smart, mixed up but determined. And she doesn't get a lot of clever lines like some of the kid's comedies lately (Easy A, Juno?). She just seems nice - and so do her parents, friends and even the destructo roller derby maidens.

Yes, I've saved the best for last. There isn't a lot of skating in this movie (but you could say the same for Rollerball), but what there is, is choice. The other skaters, including one played by Barrymore and several played by real skaters plus Kirsten Wiig and Juliette Lewis, are all great, goofy, nasty and fun.

Special shout-out to Zoe Bell, the stuntwoman featured in Double Dare. She stunted for Xena and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, now she's getting some face on camera time. Good to see her.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Plain Black and White

Renaissance is an interesting experiment - sci-fi noir black and white animation. And we mean Black and White. Not only is there very little color, there are very few shades of gray.

Daniel Craig voices Karas, a cop in future Paris who plays by his own rules. He gets a little too involved in the case of a missing scientist and her lovely sister. It's all tied in with the Avalon Corporation and their search for the cure for progeria and the secret of immortality.

But that's not important. What is important is the look, the style. The animation is amazing - I assume they did some motion capture, then turned it into black shadows and white highlights. It is lovely and impressive, but gets tiring pretty quickly. The information content is quite low, so your eyes have to fill in the details that are lost in the high-contrast. But they do some amazing tricks with reflections, rain, surveillance, shadows and the whole film noir vocabulary - in high-contrast black and white.

Future Paris is given an interesting look - it reminded me some of Immortal, the Enki Bilal graphic-novel-inspired semi-animation. It has a retro-future look, with the canal boats floating along in cast-iron aqueducts high above the streets (but far below the toits de Paris - the rooftops of Paris).

So - visually stunning (although facial expressions were a bit crude in contrast to the rest of the artwork). As far as the story goes, somewhere between disappointing and disposable. I suggest ignoring this part, and letting the artwork wash over you.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

More Myths

Watching Clash of the Titans got us psyched for more Classical mythology, so we queued up Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. We we kind of expecting a Motown or gospel group, but that turns out to be Percy Sledge.

So, young Percy (Logan Lerman) is a disturbed high-schooler who likes to sit on the bottom of the school pool. He lives with his mother and stinky stepfather in Hell's Kitchen and has ADD and dyslexia. But one day in a museum he discovers that he is a demigod - his absent father is Poseidon, and there is a War in Heaven, because someone stole Zeus' (Sean Bean) lightning.

So - first he goes to demigod summer camp. This looks like a nice place in the Saugerties, with log temples and archery, spear and shield practice. His best friend Brandon T. Jackson, a satyr, is with him, and he meets another nice demigod, Annabelle, daughter of Athena.

Soon, they are off on a random series of quests through mythical America:
  • Uma Thurman as Medusa
  • Nashville's Parthenon
  • The Lotus Eater Casino in Las Vegas 
  • And finally, Hades by way of Hollywood - Hades played by Steve Coogan as a rock'n'roller, with Rosario Dawson as slutty Persephone
Just a note - this makes 2 films from 2010 with a Medusa and Charon the ferryman. And neither one used the  obvious Chris de Burgh song.

Directed by Chris Columbus, this movie came across as sort of sub-Harry Potter. We rather enjoyed it, although I would have liked to see the same style (special effects, etc) applied to a story with a little more hef, or at least coherence. I guess fans of the books agree, considering the movie to be a desecration. We were thinking that a light-weight version of something by Gaiman, like "American Gods".

Actually, "American Gods" is being made into a movie, and I don't really want Chris Columbus to make it.

In conclusion, don't pay the ferryman. Don't even name the price.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a Pirate's Life For Me!

What could be cooler than pirates, huh? A pirate double bill, maybe? The Yankee Buccaneer / Double Crossbones DVD might be just what you are looking for.

Double Crossbones features Donald O'Connor as a shopboy who falls among pirates. The only way out for him is to become a pirate captain himself. He gets to do a little crazy legs dancing, some swashbuckling, and he wins the girl, played by Helena Carter. In the process he meets several famous captains, including Blackbeard, Capt. Morgan, Ben Avery, Capt. Kidd and Anne Bonney. Bonney is played by the large and homely Hope Emerson, in a style that would have done Margaret Hamilton proud.

I'm a big fan of O'Connor's physical comedy, and he didn't get to make many movies, so this was a must for me.

Yankee Buccaneer is a bit more serious. It stars Jeff Chandler as a straitlaced naval commander who is ordered to turn pirate and find out who is behind all the piracy in the Caribbean. He runs into Suzan Bell as a Portuguese senhorita who gives him the info that he needs. It doesn't make any sense to me, but for him, it cracks the case wide open.

There are a few sea battles, some melees on land, and capture by Carib Indians - led by Jay Silverheels! This is really pretty tepid fare, but Jeff Chandler has a certain allure. He is absurdly handsome, but he also looks exactly like Eugene Levey of SCTV.

In conclusion, what is cooler than pirates? I'd say, robots and ninjas, but not monkeys or zombies. But robot monkey ninjas vs zombie pirates? I'll leave that one up to you.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Rehash the Kraken!

Hard to believe that Ms. Spenser and I saw the original Ray Harryhausen 1981 Clash of the Titans together in the theater. But it's not like seeing the new 2010 Clash of the Titans was a big nostalgia trip or anything. This is a whole new movie. Except for a quick cameo from the mechanical owl. And the Kraken.

The overall plot is approximately the same - Perseus, Andromeda, Medusa, Pegasus, etc, etc. This time around, it is overlaid with a strange Men against the Gods theme. This doesn't quite make sense - The gods are fighting each other, some men are fighting the gods, the men who love the gods are kind of Hindu suicide bombers, Perseus hates his father Zeus for being an absent parent and also hates Zeus' enemy Poseidon for killing his step-family, but Perseus also gets all of his powers from the gods, and he doesn't hate that. I think the political stuff was just put in for modern sensibilities, so of course it is incoherent.

The old Perseus was pretty boy Harry Hamlin, all curly hair and jutting jaw. The new version, played by Sam Worthington, goes the other way, with big muscles and a crewcut. In fact, he's the only guy in the movie with short hair, which makes him look kind of weird. I guess he was afraid of looking like a sissy.

But of course what you are really interesting in are the monsters. How do today's CGI beasts compare to Harryhausen's stop motion creatures? Well, they are bigger and more polished, but I can't say they are really better. The giant scorpions are fun, but edited to make it hard to really see them. The Kraken looks swiped from H.R. Geiger, and was really short on personality. I liked the sea monster from Voyage of the Dawn Treader better.

But, muddled editing, clumsy plot, silly haircuts and all, this was a fun action movie. It may have been less original than the original, but it served the same purpose - mindless entertainment - and served it well.

In conclusion, "Release the Kraken!"

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Nobody's Perfect

Back before television, they used to make a lot more movies. People would expect to watch a new double bill every week at least, and they wanted to see something reliable. Big-mouthed, rubber-faced Joe E. Brown is best known now for having the last line in Some Like It Hot: "Nobody's perfect." But in the 30s and 40s he was starring in 2 or 3 movies a year. I figure they are all worth watching, although none of them is great. Like the man says, "Nobody's perfect."

The Gladiator / Wide Open Faces is a nice double bill. In The Gladiator, Brown is an assistant at a children's pediatric hospital who loses his beloved job to a college man. When he comes into some money, he decides to go back to college. There, he is given an experimental super-serum that takes him from weakling to star athlete instantly. This lets him court coed June Travis and fight Man Mountain Dean. You may not remember Man Mountain, the 300-pound bearded pro wrestler, but it's great to see him here. Brown's love for the kids at the hospital also adds a sweet touch to the usual college sports plot

In Wide Open Faces, Brown is a small-town soda jerk who bumbles into the capture of a bank robber. The robber was heading for a rundown inn at the edge of town, which is owned by Jane Wyman (Mrs. Ronald Reagan the First) and Alison Skipworth (last seen with W.C. Fields in Six of a Kind). Soon, gangsters from all over are flocking there, looking for hidden loot. It all ends with a rather snappy car chase, better than what I was expecting.

Of course, I wasn't expecting much. A guy with a silly face, a pretty girl or two, some pratfalls, and I'm happy. If I get two movies on one disc, all the better.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Lights, Camera, Action!

Action Jackson is a nice little cop action film from 1988 that manages to slip in a little bit of a late blaxploitation feel. Big man Carl Weathers is police Sergeant Jericho "Action" Jackson, busted down from Lieutenant for excessive violence. He is working on a case that involves people around auto magnate Craig T. Nelson dying noisily (e.g. falling from a tall building through a skylight onto a restaurant table. On fire).

He starts by meeting with Nelson's wife, Sharon Stone, but she winds up dead in his apartment. So he moves on to Nelson's mistress - Vanity. Yes, the Vanity who sang with Prince and "acted" in Berry Gordy's Last Dragon. Yes, she has a musical number. No, I do not know why.

I was put onto this movie by the guys at Filmsack - thanks, guys! And I would be remiss if I didn't use their old catchphrase here: "Boobies!" Both Vanity and Sharon Stone work topless for this movie, if that is of interest to you.

The 'Sackers also pointed out the joy that is Chino "Fats" Williams as retied boxer Kid Sable. He has a gravelly voice with a New Orleans twang, and is practically indecipherable. But very lovable.

So, the movie has a badass Detroit setting, lots of great action (gun, fist, knife and cab fights), plus Sharon Stone, Vanity and Carl Weathers with no shirt on. What's not to like?

Win or Loser

My take on The Losers is that it's the same old thing with a bunch of new guys.

A crew of renegade adventurers is deep in the Bolivian jungle, calling in an airstrike on a druglord or something when it all goes wrong. They discover that their shadowy masters meant them to die on this mission. They conceal the fact that they survived, and, with the help of a hot local chick, make their way back to the US - and vengeance!

These losers are
  • George Clooney-like leader Jeffrey Dean Morgan
  • Scary enforcer Idris Elba
  • Ice-Cube-ish driver Columbus Short
  • Cool Latino sniper Oscar Jaenada
  • Chris Evans, who I actually recognize from Fantastic Four, on comms

Hot chick is Zoe Saldana, from Star Trek, among other things. I kind of recognized her, too, but probably was thinking of someone else, like Halley Berry in X-Men.

That was my reaction throughout this movie - I recognized the actors, then realize I was thinking of someone 20 years older. I can't tell if this is intentional, if the actors are inhabiting the archetypes, or maybe I'm just bad at recognizing actors.

Anyway, this is a fun action movie with a real evil villain, some funny scenes, and big guns and explosions. If that's your thing, you should like it. And I expect we'll be seeing more of these guys, maybe even after they get old enough to have replacements.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Good Buzz

I wasn't expecting much from Seth Rogen's The Green Hornet, because, like, Seth Rogen. I figured it would be a parody of an action film, without actually being funny. It would be a little wacky, inappropriate and there would be humorous situations, but no laughs. I got that, and more.

Rogen plays Britt Reid, neglected and spoiled playboy son of a crusading newspaper owner. When his father dies, he inherits the empire, and meets his father's chauffeur and companion Kato. Now, to get a head of things a little, Kato is played by Jay Chou. I had never heard of him, but in China, he is a rock star and martial arts hero. Possibly brain surgeon and theoretical physicist as well. As Kato, he is infinitely cool. I don't know if he is as cool as Bruce Lee's Kato, but cool enough for this story.

Right, back to the story - Rogen and Chou hang out, get drunk, play pranks, the kind of bad boy stuff Rogen was doing before his dad died. But one day they save a couple from some muggers and Rogen decides they should fight crime, by posing as criminals.

Their opponent, Christopher Waltz as Chudnofsky (or "Bloodnofsky" as he liked to call himself), is one of the best parts of the movie. He rules the LA underworld, but worries that he doesn't inspire fear due to a lack of a snappy catchphrase.

Joining GH and Kato in their fight against evil is Lenore Case, played by Cameron Diaz. She honestly doesn't have a lot to do except to give Rogen someone else to be a dick to. He calls her an old hag and hits on her, basically, while she figures everything out.

So, Rogen plays Reid as an insenstive, entitled, selfish asshole, which is what I was expecting. He condescends to treat Kato as an equal, when Kato is clearly his awesome superior. And, yet, somehow it works. Maybe because he is so unapologetic - he doesn't expect you to love him even though he is an jerk. He expects you to point and laugh at him. Or maybe it's just because Jay Chou is so awesome.

In conclusion, the car chases are probably the best part of the movie. As one of the special features describes it, every time they came up with an effect that needed CGI, they wrote it out of the script. So it's all practical effects, with just a little CGI for wire removal, etc. It's worth it for that alone.