Monday, September 26, 2011

Wish List

While I'm here in Japan, I could watch some movies, at least while I'm not at the salt mines. But it just doesn't feel right.  So I'm dreaming of what I'll watch when I get back. Since I lost the ~300 films in my Netflix queue, I'll have to start building that up.

One of the movies on the queue was Undisputed II, mainly because Michael Jai White is in it. We fell in love with him in Black Dynamite, and we'll definitely consider anything he's in.

But a direct-to-video sequel? We were apprehensive, but I recently read this appreciation of direct-to-video action films in Movie Morlocks: Action Items: Direct-to-Video, Into My Heart. It starts out with the premise that the best action is on DTV, but it turns out that is mainly true if it involves English actor Scott Adkins and Israeli director Isaac Florentine. And Undisputed II (and III) meets that criterion.

So far my new queue is mostly mental. It includes all the usual suspects, the films everybody wants to see - Thor, X-Men First Class, Spaceways with Howard Duff. And I think we can find time for a little DTV.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Basketball Jones

Kung Fu Dunk is one of the last Netflix movies I saw before heading off to Japan. As a result, it's going to be one of the last Netflix movies I'll blog about, at least for a while.

To get the obvious out of the way, KFD is a Shaolin Soccer rip-off, and by no means as inspired as Steven Chow's masterpiece. It is also a Jay Chou vehicle. We know Chou as the recent Green Hornet's Kato. In China, he is a combination rock/rap/pop star and action hero - sort of a combination Marky Mark and Mark Wahlberg. Except he looks more like Justin Beiber, with his adorable moptop hair.

He was abandoned as a baby at a Shaolin monastery, where he becomes a bit of a rebel. It's kind of a lousy monastery anyways, with a corrupt head monk,  few lazy teachers and a gay couple (unless she was supposed to be a butch nun?).

When Chou runs away, he meets a homeless genius, played by Eric Tsang, who decides to make him a college basketball star. Tsang I recognized from a thousand Sammo Hung movies - he was one of the Lucky Stars/Aces Go Places crew. A lot of the other faces were familiar as well.

Chou's teammates include a matched pair of cute guys, both the thin-faced, scraggly-bearded pony-tailed Chinese hipster types. You could tell them apart only because one was a drunk. He was the one who taught Chou the mystery of the Slam Dunk. It isn't clear why this is needed, because Chou could hit the basket from anywhere on the court. I guess if the opposing team has wire-fu skills, they can block pretty well, so you have to carry it in.

Skipping over the lame romantic angle and the meager laughs, we jump to the final big game, which has been fixed by gangsters. The opposing team are all thugs and the ref looks the other way. Only Kung Fu can save them. Interestingly, I watched this right around when a Shanghai team was playing a "friendly" game with Georgetown in the US that wound up in a brawl, supposedly due to biased refereeing. No mention of kung fu on either side, though.

OK, so it was a pretty lame, messy movie. But how were the action scenes? Pretty good, actually. The fights and games were all really well done, best that money can buy. Let's just say I've seen worse and enjoyed it.

But Jay Chou seems a lot less cool to me now.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Qwikster? Really?

I guess we've all heard the news from Netflix. They are now all streaming, and the DVD-by-mail business will be handled by a new company called Qwikster. Just the name alone shows how much contempt they have for the whole old-fashioned business model.

Since everybody else's blog has already covered this to bits (even though the email was sent in the middle of the night on a Sunday), I don't have much else to say. I've already explained why I prefer a near infinite variety of crisp, clear disks to a limited selection of highly compressed streamed video. And Netflix has explained why it thinks I am wrong, and that they don't want me as a customer - although they never quite explain why.

I get that they think streaming is the future. Fine. I'll switch over in the future. For now, it is distinctly lower quality. This isn't dumping vinyl for CDs, this is dumping vinyl for 8-track. I'm not refusing to buy an iPhone, I'm refusing to buy a Newton.

So I should probably hold my nose and join Qwikster with the rest of the old media losers. As Netflix slowly starves it of resources, I can decide when to jump. Just because Netflix abandons a media that still has a couple of good years left in it, there's no reason that I have to.

Then Mrs. Spenser had a brilliant idea. Although I complain about Tallahassee a lot, there is a funky coffeeshop not too far from our place. It is shares a storefront with ... a video store! If DVDs are so danged old-fashioned, we might as well go all the way. Video 21 here we come!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Only a Dream

We got Jennifer on a tip from MovieMorlocks - and a great tip it was. It stars Ida Lupino - hooked yet? She has come to a desolate old Spanish mansion in the Santa Barbara hills looking to take a position as caretaker. The owner, rich young Mary Shipp, tells her that the last caretaker, cousin Jennifer, just disappeared - probably just left, the flighty thing - and can you start right away?

 Of course, like Rebecca and Laura, this is a movie about an absence.

 Lupino needs the job, and doesn't mind being alone. In fact, she seems to want to spend time by herself. She seems to have had a recent past - romantic disappointment, nervous breakdown, it isn't clear. But she becomes obsessed with Jennifer, reading her diary and eventually wearing her dress. And finally believing that she was murdered.

But who did it? The laconic gardener? The chatty grocery boy? Or could it be - Howard Duff, the guy who is making himself just a little too much at home in the mansion. Always dropping by and helping himself to a beer, trying to make a date with Lupino and not taking "no" for an answer. He seems like a nice guy...

Lupino is predictably excellent in this low-budget thriller/melodrama. She conveys her character's vulnerability and growing hysteria wonderfully. But secretly, I'm really here for Duff. As radio detective Sam Spade, his voice has the prefect combination of deadpan humor and tough guy nerve. Here, I get to see his face, and it just fits. I didn't realize he was married to Lupino until I looked him up just now.

So, an atmospheric thriller (albeit low budget and short) with Ida Lupino and Howard Duff. Good enough for me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pink Drink

I have written before about my love of the French passionfruit liqueur Passoa. In large doses, it tastes like fruit punch cough syrup, but a drop can make any drink taste tropical.

Case in point, from an Indian restaurant in Shinagawa - Passoa lassi and Passoa beer. The lassi was pretty sweet, but I liked the beer a lot.

Thanks to model/cocktail tester Ms. Y.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Great Scott

Roberta from 1935 seemed like a natural - Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. It turned out to be Scott that I enjoyed the most.

Astaire has travelled to Paris with his band, the Wabash Indianians, along with buddy Scott. When the gig falls through, they look up Scott's old aunt Roberta, who runs the swankiest dress shop in town. Scott quickly falls for Roberta's secretary, a Russian emigre, played by Irene Dunne. Meanwhile Astaire is interested in Ginger, a Russian singing sensation who can get his band a job.

No need to tell you that love doesn't run smoothly until the last act, or that there are several song and dance numbers. Dunne sings beautifully - I didn't know that. She does "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" in  a high-class manner. Astaire does "Lovely to Look at" and "I Won't Dance".  Rogers sings in a phony Russian accent but with a little swing, but that's the gag. Astaire recognizes her as his grade school crush from Wabash. Norma Shearer pulls the same gag in Idiot's Delight 4 years later in 1939.

I've always thought of Randolph Scott as a big stiff, the Ralph Bellamy sort. I guess I don't watch enough Westerns. He is big, and a little stiff, but it fits his straight arrow character. He's a pleasure to watch, even when sharing the screen with Irene Dunne.

Of course, it all ends with a gala fashion show, which is a disaster. The gowns seem to come from one Bernard Newman, and he should be ashamed. The lines are generally competent, but he has two tricks:
  • Clunky, eccentric fur collars, cuffs or sleeves
  • A huge bow (18-24 inches) on the left breast
I don't think that started any trends.

The movie did start a trend - it was remade in 1952 as Lovely to Look At, with Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Marge and Gower Champion, Anne Miller, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Red Skelton. It's one of those movies where everyone is unpleasant, except the comics, who are unfunny. Nice dancing though. Stick with Roberta.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Spirited Away

Juliet of the Spirits is a movie that I wanted to see with Mrs. Spenser. I think it helped her understand how I feel about its star, Giulietta Masina.

Masina plays Giulietta, the middle-aged wife of some hotshot fashion world PR guy, Mario Pisu, looking like a shopworn Marcello Mastroianni. She lives in a tiny jewelbox villa in the country by the beach, with a pair of maids, her visiting nieces and the friends and family that come to visit.

Her husband is rarely home, and when he is, he brings his crazy scenester friends. They are all glamorous grotesques, and sweet, frumpy Giulietta doesn't really fit in. Even her mother and sister are great beauties and social lions. But she shares an interest in spirits with this gay crowd, and joins them to visit mediums and seances.

Although Fellini makes the world of glamour deliriously fascinating, like in La Dolce Vita, it clearly disgusts him. Whereas Giuletta, quiet, grounded, loving is greatly attractive, even if everything in the movie conspires against her. Her friends ignore her or give her bad advice and the mystical truths that the spirits speak are all hateful and stupid.

Some of us know Masina from Il Strada and Nights of Cabiria - but I haven't seen these movies. I did she her as the prostitute Cabiria in The White Sheik. But that's not why I fell in love with her. Fellini, who was Masina's husband at the time, lets all of his love for her show. He might not do her any favors by making her middle-aged and dowdy, but he lets her soul shine through. And Masina seems to have the soul for the job.

The ending is ambiguous. I was contented by it, Mrs. Spenser was not. But I was glad she was willing to watch it with me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

40 Days over Tokyo

As I mentioned previously, I am now in Tokyo. I will be here a total of 40 days, plus or minus. I will not be watching Netflix during that time. So (I ask myself), what happens to the blog?

Well, I've still got a backlog of movies I haven't discussed. (I never mentioned the we saw Inception - I figured, what can I say?) I can still write about cocktails, although I doubt I'll be visiting any classic cocktail lounges here. I've been doing short restaurant reviews on Facebook just to pass the time - convert to foodie blog?

Maybe I'll go with the ever popular free-form, whatever's-on-my-mind Bill Needle from SCTV kind of thing. Actually, I think I'd rather go on hiatus.

But I haven't used up all of my material yet, so don't go away. And who knows? Maybe I'll start reviewing Kabuki.

Update: I'd be remiss if I mentioned Kabuki without linking to the MST3K Japanese Theater Sketch.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Kids like Us

Two reasons that we watched Spy Kids: director Robert Rodriguez, and Machete. This was a good idea.

There was plenty of Robert Rodriguez, especially if you consider Antonio Vargas to be his onscreen presence. Antonio and his wife, played by Carla Gugino, are raising 2 kids (Alexa Vega and Daryl Sabara) in a big house somewhere in Mexico. They seem like normal parents, but they have a secret: they are retired spies. The secret comes out when they are captured by mad genius and kiddie show host Alan Cumming and his minion Alexander Minion, played by Tony Shaloub.

The kids are forced to become spies themselves, and turn to a spy gizmo maker for help - their uncle Machete! Yes, it's Danny Trejo as a family friendly version of Machete.

Overall, the film is fun and satisfying. It looks great, but not slick enough to be pure spectacle. Instead, it's just lo-fi enough to pull you in.

I don't know how much kids would like this, but we did.

Netflix Apocalypse

I guess I've been pretty bad about keeping up with this blog - it's partly because I got an iPad. I use it for recreational websurfing instead of my laptop, but it isn't much good for blogging, so I just tend to not get around to it. It's only going to get worse. More about that later.

What do you think about the Netflix-alpyse - their new fare structure that decouples DVDs from streaming? Streaming is no longer going to be "free" - included in the price of the DVD rentals. You can get either DVDs or streaming, or both, but it will cost you.

We are mainly into Netflix for the DVDs. I've explained my problems with streaming before, but there's something more than that. Basically, we want a particular movie watching experience - a special time set aside for a specific movie, planned in advance, etc. We have the 3-disc plan, and I tend to try to get a well balanced set of movies,  something exciting, something silly,something classic - for Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights.

The Netflix streaming experience is more like TV, flip through the channels, see if there's something you want to watch.

So, maybe we'll just drop streaming? Well, we could, but we do use streaming - to wach TV. Recently, we've been addicted to Have Gun Will Travel. And, because HGWT can get pretty grim at times, we use The Addams Family as a chaser. This is an experience that's hard to match with discs - we'd need to subscribe on the 15 discs-at-a-time plan.

So, we're dropping the disc part of the subscription. Partly to protest Netflix's price plan, but mainly because - I'm on an extended business trip to Tokyo. I won't be back until early Oct, and Mrs. Spenser doesn't watch movies when I'm not around. We'll sign up again when I get back, probably 3-at-a-time, with streaming.

But don't tell Netflix, it would ruin the protest.

One benefit of this: It will zero out my queue, which is full of movies that I don't really want to watch. And I can lovingly build it up from nothing!