Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thor Head

Yes, Thor is a Marvel superhero movie directed by Kenneth Branagh. Makes more sense than Ang Lee directing Hulk.

To sum up, Thor, Chris Hemsworth, is the crown prince of Asgard, expected to inherit the throne when elderly Odin (Anthony Hopkins!) steps down. Odin could pass the reins to his other son, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), but that doesn't seem too likely. But Thor gets all arrogant and mounts an impromptu war party against the Frost Giants. This gets him exiled from Asgard to New Mexico, Mittelheim. His hammer gets exiled too, sitting immovable in a crater.

In New Mexico, he meets up with scientists Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgard, and their assistant/comic relief Kat Dennings. Since he doesn't know from life on Earth, they take him to their totally cool converted-car-dealership laboratory. But meanwhile, his hammer is attracting tourists (including guess-who in a pickup truck) - and the government.

So, in my opinion:
  • Asgard is awesome. It has a nice art-deco magnificence with a lived in look
  • Hemsworth is a great Thor - really dynamic, strong and noble. Or maybe he just has a great beard. The rest of the Old Gods are great as well. Special appreciation for:
    • Idris Elba as Heimdall. He gives his role some real heft.
    • Rene Russo as Odin's wife Frigga. I thought she was a little young for the part but turns out she's older than me. Very majestic.
  • Natalie Portman's Jane Foster (not Nurse Foster in this continuity) is a little on the bland side. Her romance with Thor seems a bit pro forma. Maybe I just miss the Kirby version, doting on her crippled Dr. Blake.
A rousing good adventure and another step along the way to the Avengers movie! Well done, Mr. Branagh.
In conclusion, I really want to live in that car dealership lab. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five of a Kind

I think Fast Five is pretty much a direct sequel to Fast and Furious. The series gets kind of confusing with the reboots, sequels with little relation to the main sequence, etc. Anyway, it starts where F&F ended, Diesel on the bus to Lompoc and his buddies coming to rescue him.

After they break him out, they hightail down to Rio to hide out in the favela. I kept expecting them to run into Ed Norton as Bruce Banner. They get into trouble with the local crime boss, Joaquim de Almeida, and decide to take him down. In the meantime, a big bad government agent comes searching for fugitive Diesel - yes, it's that other no-necked bullethead: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. This could get confusing, with 2 heavily muscled bald guys running around. But Johnson is so ridiculously bulked up that Diesel looks like a skinny kid next to him. So that's OK.

The movie plays out as a heist film, with Diesel bringing in his team from previous films, buying a replica of the safe he wants to crack, recreating the course they need to drive, etc. This seems like it should be in a different movie, possibly the Italian Job or Ocean's 11 remakes. In fact, I think I counted 11 in Diesel's team, but I might have been seeing double. And there is a garbage truck playing the same role as in the original Ocean's 11.

It all builds up to a fun and literally unbelievable climax. -SPOILER- two cars could NOT outrace all the cops in Rio is they were dragging a 10-ton safe. Could they have at least put a creeper under it?

Never mind, it's all in fun. Some (Ms. Spenser, for ex) might prefer more car chases, but there's plenty of action, and not too much romance. One of the hookups was between Ms. Spenser's heart-throb Sung Kang and Gad Galot. I have to agree with the Ms. - she's cute, but too skinny. She wouldn't get a second look in Rio.

Make sure to watch to the end - set up for sequel.

Print the Myth

It's interesting to look at Annie Oakley as presented by Barbara Stanwyck in 1935. I wouldn't picture her as a hillbilly type, and her accent doesn't sound much like the Ozarks to me, but I think she sell it.

Oakley starts out as a country girl from a small town who bags quail for a Cincinnati hotel. Her signature is hitting them square in the head, leaving no buckshot to pick out. The hotel manager brings her up to shoot against sharpshooter Preston Walker, and she is so taken by his good looks and smooth manner that she lets him win.

Melvyn Douglas sees her act and hires her on with Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, setting up the triangle between her, Walker and Douglas. Now, she's an easy sell - everyone is against the idea of a girl sharpshooter until they meet her. She's just so sweet and charming. Walker on the other hand is pushy, self-promoting and obnoxious. But here's the twist. He confides only to Annie that this is just his show-biz persona. He is going to build up their rivalry to increase her audience.

So, in this version, the sharpshooter that she is in love with is not a jerk, he only pretends to be one. Interesting choice.

In addition to Stanwyck and her beaux, we have Moroni Olsen as a pretty majestic Buffalo Bill, and Chief Thunderbird as Sitting Bull. Sitting Bull is largely a comic foil, but there's a great scene where he spots someone from across a crowded stadium and then chases him across New York. Pretty good for an 80-year-old Indian.

So, all in all, pretty fun. Not Stanwyck's most difficult role. The heartache and melodrama is kept to a minimum, and they run through the mythmaking at a good clip. And I didn't miss the songs at all.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Powers' Pirates

We were looking forward to Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides for the usual reasons - Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, pirates, swashbuckling, etc. I was looking forward for one more reason, "Suggested by Tim Power's On Stranger Tides".

When Philip K. Dick (who's every novel and short story will soon be a movie) lived in LA, he was friends with three young authors: K.W. Jeter, James Blaylock and Tim Powers. They are all great writers, who, among other things, invented the genre of steampunk. Powers has a great trick of weaving high myth, low folklore and history. In Last Call for instance, he mixes the Grail legend with the gamblers' superstition in Las Vegas. In The Stress of Her Regard, he shows that the Romantic poets were vampiric succubi. In On Stranger Tides, he has Blackbeard the pirate searching for the Fountain of Youth with the aid of voodoo.

One clever bit in Tides is the the sailors' tale of Mate Carry-For, a spirit who is always willing to help a sailor out. But his true name turns out to be Maitre Carrefour - the Master of the Crossroads, voodoo god Papa Legba.

Now, very little of this cleverness gets into PotC: OST. Basically, nothing but the phrase "Blackbeard the pirate searching for the Fountain of Youth with the aid of voodoo". Considering the amount of voodoo in previous movies, there was very little here. Basically, two zombies and one voodoo doll.

Also, considering Blackbeard is the most awesome of all pirates, known for sticking lit fuses in his hair and beard, Ian MacShane's Blackbeard is not as scary as could be hoped. He does let his beard smolder a bit, but that's pretty much all.

It seems that the new director, Rob Marshall, felt that he couldn't go bigger than the previous movies, so he toned it down. However, we don't have a sensitive character-driven movie here. It is still a big rowdy adventure. Even dialed back, there is plenty of room for fights, chases, capers and fun.

One thing this has going for it is the lack of Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley. Great actors in good roles, but they had become a bit drippy. Let's face it, people come for Capt. Sparrow.

We get him in spades - acting loopy, setting off without a plan, meeting his dad (Keef!) and an old love, played by Penelope Cruz. She's great in this, as you might expect.

The look of the film is great, also as expected. If you liked the others, you should like this. It doesn't top them, but should be a good foundation for another trilogy.

Class Act

Well, we are now members at the Video 21 video store in Tallahassee. It's on E. Lafayette, across Appalachee from Governer's Square, if you're in the neighborhood. It's connected to Craig's Killer Coffee and they share a common theme of love for [coffee]/[movies] in defiance to commercial consideration. I think we'll like getting our video from them.

Even though they have a bunch of rare cult Asian and other DVDs (and tapes!), we went right to the Recent Arrivals and rented X-Men: First Class. If you are not familiar with this, it is the X-Men prequel/reboot. Of course, if you aren't familiar with this, you probably aren't paying attention to the X-Men movies at all.

This movie takes us back to the 50s and early 60s, when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) was a telepathic PhD and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) was a concentration camp survivor, searching for the man who killed his mother to  force him to develop his mutant powers (Kevin Bacon). They meet, bond, and start training a band of mutants to help the CIA battle the rogue mutants who want to use the Cuban missile crisis to start WWIII.

McAvoy plays Prof X with a full head of hair and pair of functioning legs. He is good, but I don't know if he really owns the role the way that Patrick Stewart did. Likewise Fassbender - he plays the proud, tortured, Magneto in civvies beautifully, but until he puts on the helmet, I don't get a real feel for him as Magneto.

On the other hand, Jennifer Lawrence looked great as Raven in civvies and all blue and prickly as Mystique. In this continuity, she is Xavier's more-or-less adopted sister, who only goes over to Magneto when she realizes that only he appreciates her in her true form. Which is the theme of the movie really - Mutant Pride vs. mutant assimilation. And it appears that Xavier is on the wrong side of the argument. He really is kind of a dick, making Magneto the good guy.

I saw a lot of comments about the great 60s feel of this movie, with its Mad Men and James Bond inspirations. Unfortunately, I don't think this came through very well. Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones), for example, wears a bushy, bushy blonde hairdo that won't be popular in America for a decade, and evil mutant Alex Gonzalez looks like disco era Euro-trash.

Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy hits the right note with a Buddy Holly look. January Jones as Emma Frost also hits the Nancy Sinatra look dead on (anachronistic by a few years only). Unfortunately, she plays the role very stiffly, like she was a model and not a real actress. Maybe that hairstyle was slowing her down.

All in all, a very good entry in the X-Men series, if not quite what I could have hoped for. It suffered a little from the usual problem of having too many mutants who are just sketched-in extras, but that might be unavoidable. I'm not sure director Matthew Vaughn succeeded in putting an indelible stamp on the franchise, but he did entertain.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Swarming Inferno

I guess it just all came together for The Swarm. First, This Island Rod, Roderick Heath's blog, did a terrific takedown of this 1978 Irwin Allen made-for-TV disaster.. movie. It was hilarious and without mercy, calling Allen a "second-tier George Pal", and worse. Now in my family, when the menfolk read something funny or interesting, of course they read it out loud to their wives. So I started reading selections to Ms. Spenser.

Unfortunately, she thought the movie sounded like fun.

Then I found out that the Filmsack podcast would be sacking The Swarm this week, and that sealed our fate. Since they only do movies from Netflix streaming, we now knew it was available. And so we watched.

The movie features Michael Caine as a shouty British bee scientist. He is found wandering around a nuclear missile silo full of dead soldiers. His story is that he walked in while following a swarm of deadly bees. Although the military don't trust him, when the bees threaten small town Texas, he gets to lead the defenses. SPOILER - he is not very good at this.

As is traditional in these Allen cheesefests, we get a number of roles for the long-time or soon-to-be washed up. Caine's team includes Richard Chamberlain and Henry Fonda. The Texas townspeople include Olivia de Haviland, Fred MacMurray and Ben Armstrong as a geriatric romantic triangle. It was sad to see Melanie from Gone with the Wind playing a matronly school marm, but MacMurray was Walter Neff! With two Fs, like in Philadelphia! To have fallen so low.

Anyway, I'm not going to go on about this, except to say that it is way more than 2 hours long. Read This Island Rod and listen to the podcast. Whether you watch the movie is up to you.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


The Warrior's Way was another Netflix suggestion - I imagine the criteria were "Likes psycho kung-fu Westerns with Korean leads". Netflix sure has us pegged.

Directed by (first timer?) Sngmoo Lee, Warrior's Way (2010) stars Korean Dong-gun Jang as the world's greatest ninja assassin, dedicated to wiping out the enemies clan. But when it comes to killing the last member of the clan, a baby girl, he changes sides, and takes the girl to America, to hide out in a dusty Western town.

There he meets a spunky girl played by Kate Bosworth and the remnants of a stalled travelling circus, including a short person named 8-Ball (Tony Cox) and drunk sharpshooter Geoffrey Rush. He protects the town against its enemies, but can he protect it against his enemies?

The look is that hyper-real comicbook style that the kids go for these days. I thought it was very well done. Of course, I went in assuming it was going to be a kind of B-movie, maybe even direct to video. For top budget feature, it was kind of weak. For a B-movie kung-fu Western, it was pretty good. Sort of a Sukiyaki Western Django knockoff.

In conclusion, Sngmoo Lee. Remember that name.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tiki - Florida style

I'm a big fan of tiki, although not hardcore enough to actually have visited to more than one or two. I keep the spirit of tiki in my heart; plus, I mix a mean Singapore Sling.

So I was pretty excited when I got to Florida and started hearing about all the tiki bars. They seem to be everywhere. But I soon found out that, around here, a tiki bar is just an outdoor bar, with maybe a palm roof for decoration. No tiki mugs, nets with glass ball floats, or wooden Moai. And the drinks tend to be Bud light rather than Mai-Tais or Singapore Slings.

But maybe I've been missing something because I just don't understand the lingo. You see, Mai-Tais and Singapore Slings are Polynesian cocktails - west-coast style. In Florida, tropical cocktails are inspired by the Caribbean - Tequila Sunrises, Pina Coladas  Bahama Mamas, Run Runners.

As it turns out, I am not well versed in this idiom. But I had a Rum Runner down in Tarpon Springs, and I loved it. Here's one recipe:
  • 1 oz light rum 
  • 1 oz dark rum or aged rum 
  • 1 oz blackberry liqueur 
  • 1 oz banana liqueur 
  • 1 oz pineapple juice 
  • 1 oz orange juice 
  • Splash grenadine
Shake over ice. Serve in a tall glass.

 I haven't tried making one of these myself, since I haven't been able to bring myself to stock banana liqueur in my drinks cabinet (also, our local liquor store doesn't have decent looking blackberry brandy).

It actually sounds pretty weird, but tastes very nice. Anybody suggest any other east-coast tiki drinks for "research"?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Arkham Express

I know it is long after Halloween, but I still have a few movies to mention, like Die Monster Die!. This 1965 American International picture starring Boris Karloff takes the outline of its story from H.P. Lovecraft's Color Out of Space.

It starts with American Nick Adams arriving in Arkham England (must be what the Arkham in America is named after) and meets a hostile reception when he says he wants to visit the Witley Manor. It seems that strange things are happening there. Nick's girlfriend, the daughter of the family is a normal young woman. But her mother is suffering from a strange aliment, the butler, Terence de Marney, is a bit peculiar, and her father is Boris Karloff, confined to a wheelchair.

The manor itself is perhaps the best part of the movie. The director, Daniel Haller, was art director for a number of Vincent Price films, and it shows. His sets are sumptuous and beautiful. Other than that, there is not a lot to recommend this.

Other than a few Cthuloids!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pickup Artists from Mars

We're still on Netflix streaming - we might be getting out of the movie watching habit. It happens, you know. We used to have cable, then they cancelled Mystery Science Theater 3000. Turns out that was all we were watching, so we cancelled our service.

I used to have a great disk queue with over 300 movies, everyone of them eagerly awaited (well, at least 50 of them, some of the rest were just "ehh"). But my Instant queue - kung fu, b-movie, boring, b-movie, depressing classic, obscure b-movie, kung fu, b-movie, and so on. So we go to Netflix recommendations, which are usually worse. But it did serve up Mars Needs Women.

This 1978 AIP cheapie stars Tommy Kirk and 4 other Martians who have come to Earth to abduct human females to repopulate Mars. Naturally, they pick a stewardess, a coed, a stripper (played by Houston burlyque star Bubbles Cash), a cheerleader, and - Tommy Kirk's pick - a sexy geneticist.

The geneticist is played by Yvonne Craig - TV's Bat Girl. Director Larry Buchanan apparently got her to work cheap, because the movie was shot in Houston, and she could visit family there. He shot a whole series of these zero-budget made-for-TV movies, and claims this was the only one that anyone remembers, because of the intensity and professionalism Craig brought to the role. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but she does give a little more than this movie requires.

Of course, this movie is 40% stock footage and has no special effects other than a plastic model spaceship...

For me, the big standout is Tommy Kirk. He is always the insufferably dweeby kid in movies like Catalina Caper and Village of the Giants. He is drippy and whiny and you just want to punch him. But here, as Martian Fellow #1, he shows a sort of wooden resolve, mixed with blank puzzlement, that gives him a kind of dignity. He reminded me a lot of Keanu Reeves in this. He has that same kind of stoic incomprehension.

So, all in all, a pleasant, short piece of camp. Thanks, Netflix streaming.

Terrible Comedy

The Comedy of Terrors isn't that terrible. It stars Vincent Price as a drunken undertaker, with Peter Lorre as his dimwitted and felonious assistant, Joyce Jameson as the wife he abuses and Boris Karloff as her senile father, who owns the funeral parlor.

Now, Price hasn't had a "customer" in a long while, and if he can't come up with some money, landlord Basil Rathbone will have him evicted. So Price and Lorre set out to make some corpses. Nothing works right until they get the idea of killing two ... of solving two problems at once, by killing Rathbone. Then things really start to go wrong.

This is more comedy than terror, the kind where the film speeds up for slapstick and there are slide whistles and a tympany "bow-oing!" to mark the gag. But the real fun is watching Priced drink, insult his wife and try to kill his father-in-law (among others). To see Lorre try to build a coffin so they won't have to keep re-using the only one they have. Sadly, Karloff spends most of his time drowsing over a teacup - his arthritis didn't allow him a more active part. But he does get to play a manic fiddle and deliver a vague eulogy.

Rathbone has a lovely role as the Shakespeare-quoting landlord who can never quite be killed. It must have been fun to get to play the ham so richly.

I have to say, however, my favorite character was Rhubard the cat, in his role as Cleopatra. This veteran of the classic cats-and-baseball movie Rhubarb adorns every scene in which he deigns to make an appearance.

Although this was directed by Jacques Tourneur, it is a long way from the subtle implied menace of Cat People. There isn't much menace and no subtlety. But at least a bit of fun.