Saturday, March 31, 2012

Kicking It

Two unrelated kung fu movies: First, Yes, Madam, a 1985 Hong Kong police story with Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. A sneak thief steals a passport containing the secret microfilm just before the owner is assassinated. The thief is a guy called Strepsil (John Sham), who is in a goofy gang along with Aspirin (Hoi Mang) and Panadol (director Tsui Hark, who is not directing this - this is a Corey Yuen outing).

So police detective Michelle Yeoh comes in to investigate, along with Cynthia Rothrock, just in from Scotland Yard. Yeoh looks very young and rather glammed up - with some kind of sparkly bronzer on her face, while Rothrock seems quite dowdy. She is introduced done up like a schoolteacher, which provides a good laugh when she starts kicking butt. Sadly, their outfits never get much better, mom jeans, crop tops on top of long sleeve blouses, and sadly, in one scene, overalls (I blame Dexy's Midnight Runners).

I think Michelle looks better as a mature woman with natural makeup, and Rothrock would have looked better if we could see her amazing legs now and then. But such were the times.

So, a mixture of comedy action from the Pills gang and women's action from Yeoh and Rothrock. Not their best roles, although some of their earliest. But man can they fight. Yeoh is always in the air, and Rothrock, among other tricks, can head-butt a man in the stomach while kicking him in the head.

Corey's direction is pedestrian at best when he's not filming action, but once the feet start flying, it's all good.

Zu: Warriors From The Magic Mountain is a different beast. First, a technical note. Netflix lists this as the 1983 version, but it is not. It is the subtitled cut of the 2001 Zu. Netflix shows this Zu Warriors as the 2001 version, but that is a hacked up English dub of the same movie. As I understand it, Tsui Hark made the first Zu film in 1983, and pretty much started the Kung Fu fantasy genre. This movie, with Biao Yuen, Brigitte Lin, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, etc, does not seem to be available from Netflix.

Hark remade the film in 2001 - and that's this one. It starts on Zu Mountain, a peak high above the clouds, surrounded by flying islands, protected by three clans and protects the cosmos from all evil. It starts cosmic, and it stays cosmic. All of the characters have god-like powers, except for a squad of mortal soldiers, who are pretty much just walk-ons. All battles are conducted flying through the air, shooting bolts of cosmic energy. In short, cosmic.

It's visually awesome and somewhat exhausting. I think I might have preferred more time spent on the mortal plain. But it was an amazing, uncompromising vision, dream-like and beautiful.

Dirty Harry

In the mood for some butt-kicking Michael Caine action, we put on Harry Brown. Boy, did that mood go downhill fast.

Caine plays Harry Brown, a veteran of the Irish Troubles living in a council flat in London. His wife is dying and his best friend is being menaced by the local thugs. It's a grim, shut-down life, and it gets worse and worse, then worse, until he finally decides to take the law into his own hands. Yay?

The action comes relatively late in the film, and doesn't provide much relief from the grimness. Caine is a stone-cold dead-eyed killer, and also an old man who can barely stroll away from the scene without suffering an emphysema attack. The police are devoted and determined and clearly out of their league. The thugs are brutal and stupid and there are too many of them to be stopped.

It all has a happy ending that is not terribly reassuring.

In conclusion, a bummer.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Holmes Sick

I guess I've been meaning to watch They Might Be Giants (1971) forever. It stars George C. Scott as Justin Playfair, a wealthy New York lawyer who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. His brother wants his money and tries to have him committed. But Joanne Woodward, playing mildly dotty psychiatrist Dr. Mildred Watson, has other ideas.

Scott is clearly Holmes, even though he is living in present-day New York. He can tell all about you from observation. He correctly diagnoses a mute paranoid case - clearly, he is a silent film star.
But on the subject of Moriarty, his arch-nemesis, his deductions get a little abstract - almost mystical. Trash in a "Back to School" bag is the clue that leads him to a school of arboriculture, for example, and a ransom note for "200 grand" leads to 200 Grand St. Moriarty is behind it all, the unseen all-seeing prime mover.

And so our supremely confident mad man leads his socially awkward Dr Watson through the "kooky" side of New York. We meet the misfits, dreamers and romantics, and Holmes gives them all a little something. One great example is Jack Guilford (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), a librarian in a lovely old building, the Jefferson Market Library (real place). He always helps Holmes/Playfair in his researches, living out his adventure fantasies through him.

Now, Ms. Spenser was raised in the New York suburbs, and she just found this movie painful - too full of the type of people and the kind of stories that you ran into in that particular time and place. I understand that, but to me, it seems sweet, if a little silly. If only mental illness were so life-affirmingly sweet in real life.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Last Chan

The folks at B-Movie Cast have been going on about Charlie Chan, so when Netflix suggested Charlie Chan: The Jade Mask, I went along with the gag. I haven't seen one in a long time, and like the B-Moviers, I'm a Mantan Moreland fan.

OK, to get it out of the way: there is no jade mask, although there are some masks. There's a millionaire inventor whose lab is always full of noxious gas. His personality is pretty noxious too, and its no surprise that he ends up dead. The hick sheriff calls in the city detective, and he calls in Charlie (Sidney Toler). Along for the ride are "number 4 son" Edwin (Edwin Luke - any relation to Keye?) and their chauffeur Birmingham Brown.

I'll skip over the house full of mechanized panels and traps, the odd puppetry sidetrack, the oddly undistinguished women of the house and the coked up looking lab assistant. I'll just go right to Birmingham Brown - Mantan Moreland.

Moreland's character is somewhere between Dooley Wilson and Stepin Fetchit - a witty coward, handy with a clever line, usually involving the wisdom of running away. This style of humor didn't look so funny during the Civil Rights movement, and some people can't take it now. My stock take on this is: the racism is in the society, not the humor. If we deny Mantan Moreland because of racism, we write a talented black man out of history. I would rather not deprive myself of talent.

OK, end of sermon. If I love Mantan Moreland so much, why don't I just marry him? How was the rest of the movie? Shockingly bad. Toler was just going through the motions, and the 2 or 3 sets that a Monogram picture is allotted got old pretty fast and the solution to the mystery didn't make any sense. There were these plaster casts of the members of the household and the murdered man had the ear of one, that he broke off after he was murdered instantly and carried to another room (being moved on strings like a pupper by the murderer) and then he called on the intercom to... Oh heck.

In conclusion, I think you'll like my new detective series Yonny Yohannson, a Swedish detective played, inexplicably, by a Chinese man. I'm thinking Chow Yun Fat. Maybe a Jewish chauffeur for comic relief?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Campy Fun

Isn't Janeane Garafolo cute and adorable? If you answered, "No," well, skip this review. But you can probably still see Wet Hot American Summer.

WHAS is both a teen summer camp comedy and a parody of one. It is the last day of summer camp 1981. We get to see the joys and terrors of the kids and counselors as, together, they learn and grow, or like, not. If I can give away one gag, the camp softball team, a group of ragtag misfits, is getting ready for the big game against Camp Anonymously Evil's team, the Rivals. Then they talk it over, and decide that sounds pretty cliched, so they just skip it.

So, some scenes are more or less realistic comedy, some are off the wall surreal. The shifts in tone could be jarring, but think of, for ex, Caddyshack. That's both a comedy of manners and a gonzo parody of same, scene by scene.

The writing is great, based on director David Wain (The State) and Michael Showalter's experiences. It was filmed at a real summer camp (Camp Towanda, where Hank Azaria went!). It features some young actors like Paul Rudd, David Hyde Pierce, Amy Poehler, and probably others I would recognize if I watched more sketch comedy.

All is tenderly watched over by sweet, nerdy, virginal earth mother Janeane Garafolo. Although she handles the camp with ease, she gets all nervous over the shy geeky astrophysicist next door (Pierce). Their romance, his blossoming and nurturing of the camp's outcasts (the "indoor kids") is one of my favorite parts of the movie.

But basically, Garafolo is my favorite part of the movie. Since she is in basically no other good movies (I kind of liked Truth about Cats and Dogs, but...), it's great to see her here.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Wild Wild West

Sometimes, all you want is a good exciting trashy movie; a western maybe, or a science fiction. Or, like Cowboys and Aliens, both!

It starts out very a regular modern western: Daniel Craig (yep!) wakes up in the sagebrush, clearly with no memory of how he got there, or even who he is. Normal enough for a cowboy, but he has a strange high-tech bracelet around his wrist. When a trio of bounty hunters try to take him, he dispatches them neatly, and takes that's where he gets the goofy hat he wears for the rest of the movie.

Seriously, it's a funny looking hat for a guy with Craig's head. I was worried that Craig would never get any lines to avoid the problem with his accent. That wasn't an issue - he did a reasonable approximation of an Irish immigrant old-time cowboy. But the hat! It makes Yul Brynner's headgear from Westworld look serious. I guess they were worried about associations with Harrison Ford's iconic Indiana Jones fedora.

Because when Craig gets to town, he finds that it is run by the big bad cattle baron, Harrison Ford. He also meets the very cute Olivia Wilde, in a cotton dress accessorized by a big gun. Also, a preacher, a sherrif, a coward barkeep, a kid and a dog. The usual.

Even if the aliens didn't show up about now, I think I would have kept with it, and I'm not a big fan of westerns. This is like in Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, where director One-Shot Beaudine seemed to get wrapped up in the Jesse James parts, kind of forgetting about the Frankenstein.

But the aliens do show up and plenty, grabbing civilians and blasting up the town. So the posse has to head out to round them up. The effects were pretty good, but I'm not sure about the alien melee scenes. There were a few great shots, but all lot of it seemed to the usual mixed up jumble or explosions and CGI beasties.

Still, it moved right along, and we were happy. In the end this was kind of a high-budget B film. Maybe the best kind.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Cool Herc

Every now and then, you just feel like a cozy - that's the technical term for those murder mysteries that take place in the vicarage with snoopy old lady detectives. Or like Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun.

EUtS is one of a series of Agatha Christie films starring Peter Ustinov as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It takes place mainly on an island resort for show biz folk in the Adriatic, run by a sweetly bitchy Maggie Smith.  Broadway star Diana Rigg is the key guest - Poirot has been dispatched to retrieve a diamond given to her by a suitor. There will be a murder and you will get all of the clues, and maybe even figure it out. But if you're like me, you'll just soak in the talent: Roddy MacDowell, Sylvia Miles, James Mason, Jane Birken.

I particularly like Jane Birken - who sang the orgasm part in Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'aime, ... Moi Non Plus. She wore these bohemian layered outfits - kimono over robe over tunic over tights - all in mismatched earth-toned patterns. It was supposed to look frumpy and eccentric, but I loved it.

I'm not sure how many of these I've seen. Probably Death on the Nile, and possibly the non-canonical Murder on the Orient Express (Albert Finney is Poirot). I don't know how many of them I'll watch eventually. All of them, I suppose.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Warm and Fuzzy

It might not show from the movies I blog, but I consider myself to be mainly a lover of older cinema - black-and-white comedies from the 30s and 40s in particular, especially slapstick, screwball and musicals. I don't watch as many these because, basically, I watched all the good ones.

Joking of course. During the classic years between sound cinema and the break up of the studios, they made thousands of movies - about 10x as many per year as they do these days. I'll never run out of classics. And as for quality, well, they don't really have to be that good.

For example, Detective Kitty O'Day (1944). Snoopy secretary with slow boyfriend, boss gets murdered, suspected by the police (complete with dopey lieutenant), tries to solve mystery, keeps finding more bodies, lots of laughs. Over in 61 minutes. Strictly Poverty Row. Has very little going for it except star Jean Parker, who is easy on the eyes and fast with the patter. There is an attempt at an Old Dark House episode and a pretty decent skyscraper ledge chase. Otherwise massively forgettable - I don't think we'll bother with the sequel, The Adventures of Kitty O'Day.

Update - I forgot to mention that Kitty O'Day was directed by William "One-Shot" Beaudine (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter)!

Or let's go the other way from Poverty Row, to Paramount Studios for 1950's Let's Dance with Fred Astaire and Betty Hutton. It starts with Betty and Fred as partners in a USO show in WWII, with a totally goofy Betty Hutton number. Betty splits up the act to marry a pilot.

Then, some years go by. Betty is now a war widow, living in a mansion with a son and a battle-axe wealthy mother-in-law. So she absconds with her son to try to make it in show biz in New York. There, we find Astaire hoofing in a cafe, but what he really wants is to be a financial advisor. The movie condemns him for wanting to give up a steady career in show business to become a fly-by-night banker.

So, will Fred and Betty get married, and will Betty be able to keep her boy out of the hands of the rich in-laws? More importantly, what kinds of musical numbers will we get in the meantime?

Sadly, not the best. The big set piece has them both dressed as cowboys, complaining that society folk on TV were taking over cowboy culture - or something. A song doesn't have to have a coherent premise, of course, but this is just a mess.

Finally, take The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown (1957), starring Jane Russell. She plays a stuck-up actress whose movie The Kidnapped Bride is just premiering when she is kidnapped for real by Ralpher Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly) and Keenan Wynn. They take her to a Malibu Beach hideout and entertain her - along with Meeker's parole officer, Fred Clark. Of course, she vamps them and falls in love, and they with her (although only Meeker gets the girl; Wynn is just a mug). There are a couple of nice touches from Adolphe Menjou as her producer and Una Merkel as her maid and confidante.

My main complaint is that Russell did not look very good at all in this movie, and not just in a fuzzy pink nightgown. Her face had a haggard look of glamour applied with a trowel. Meeker was less than charismatic as well, although Wynn was as lovable as ever. Ms. Spenser liked this a lot, at least.

So, three old movies, none of them classics. I had planned to make this another complaint about Netflix streaming - Sure, they have a lot of old movies, but they're all junk. But now that I'm at the end of the post, I've changed my mind. I'm glad that Netflix puts these out there. I'll probably keep watching them, possibly keep complaining about them, and maybe find one or two gems.

If you have any favorites, let me know.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ninja On!

As I've mentioned before, Movie Morlocks gave me the idea that I should check out direct-to-video action hero Scott Adkins. Of course, Netflix doesn't have a whole lot of his oeuvre, but we did find Ninja.

Ninja finds Scott studying ninja martial arts in Japan under kindly old sensei Togo Igawa. He is one of the top students, along with sensei's daughter Mika Hijii and plug-ugly Tsuyoshi Ihara. Of course, Mr. Ugly gets jealous, starts a fight and gets kicked out of the dojo. When he returns, he kills sensei and tries to steal the ancient ninja weapons box.

But Scott and Hijii have taken it to New York (a town in Bulgaria, it appears) for safe keeping. So Ugly and a evil cult known as "The Evil Cult" (or something, I wasn't paying attention) start killing people to get ahold of it.

So, I could complain that there is virtually no ninjutsu in this movie. It is 90% normal martial arts, with some silly stuff (the bad guy has Dark Knight style body armor - just like a ninja!). I don't mind that. The action is pretty good for straight to video. Scott Adkins is massively built but very agile, with a style that is almost Gymkata-like. But there is one serious problem:

Scott Adkins looks exactly like Ben Stiller.

Sure, Ben Stiller with muscles on his muscles. Ben Stiller with the martial arts moves of a panther. But, well, Zoolander could move like a panther too. And since Stiller always plays it strictly deadpan, I kept waiting for the punchline. Then I'd get caught up in the action, then I'd get restless because Stiller wasn't being funny, then I'd remember.

So, a mixed experience. This wasn't a great action movie, but it was a good action movie. But in the end, it was a terrible Ben Stiller movie.

You've Never Seen a Valkyrie Go Down

I've always been curious about Battle Beyond the Stars: Roger Corman's 1980 remake of The Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven - in space! Well, curiousity satisfied.

The movie features ton of talent. It was written by John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), and John Cameron worked on the effects, at the very start of his career. The magnificent seven space mercenaries (actually, I didn't count) include Robert Vaughan, reprising his role from Mag7, George Peppard, and Sybil Danning as a space Valkyrie (with a space bra that reveals that she has no nipples!) and the villain is John Saxon. And with Roger Corman producing, you just know it's going to stink anyways.

It guess it's silly to go through the plot: John Saxon and his space fleet demand the agricultural output of a tiny, pacificist planet. They send Richard Thomas in a queasily organic looking spaceship with a yenta AI to hire mercenaries. He finds several, like:
  • Darlanne Fluegel, a winsome beauty raised among androids
  • George Peppard, as Cowboy, an Earth human trucker type
  • Sybil Danning as Saint-Exmin, the Valkyrie with the styrofoam metal bras
But the best is Robert Vaughan, a professional killer with too many enemies to leave his cave. He has the cold, menacing gunfighter thing down.

The best part of the movie involves running around collecting mercenaries. It is very Star Wars. Once they get back to the planet Akir (a tribute to Kurosawa, director of 7Sam), there's a big boring battle. All in all, it is over pretty quickly. 

I wish it had been a little loopier or more interesting. The crazy old lady spaceship computer was nice, and Peppard as Cowboy brought a nice CB/Convoy touch to a Star Wars rip-off. John Saxon certainly did his best to inject some evil energy. It just wasn't that good.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kimchee Western

The Good, the Bad, the Weird is another one of those Eastern Westerns, like Sukiyaki Western Django, but Korean this time.

It is set on the Korean/Manchurian border, a wild and lawless country. The Japanese hire the Bad to hijack a treasure map from a train. The Bad is Byung-hun Lee, one of those pretty-boy Asian dandy bad guys, with a little earring and long floppy hair down over one eye.

He gets to the train with a small army, but the train is already being robbed by the Weird, Kang-ho Song, a chubby little dude who rides a motorcycle and dresses in pilot's leathers like John Belushi in 1941, or maybe Porco Rosso. He gets the map, and the chase is on.

Song is pretty much the star of the show, with the Good, Do-won Park, only showing up at the margins. This makes it a comedy action, rather than straight action. There are lots of chases and fight scenes, often in outlandish settings, like the Mad Max style Thieve's Market.

The music has a nice Morricone feel, and references to spaghetti westerns abound. But this is nothing like a straight pastiche, and would be a blast if you'd never seen a western at all. A little confusing, possibly, but still a blast.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

What is It Good For?

The Warlords (2007) is one of those Asian action movies we've been seeing more of lately, where the action is military and political rather than hand-to-hand. The budget is big and the production values show it. Having Jet Li, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro as stars doesn't hurt.

It is set at the end of Qing dynasty (late 1800s), when the Chinese empire was falling apart, besieged by rebels and warlords. They fought back by hiring warlords and mercenary armies, a dangerous strategy. Jet Li plays a general whose army is wiped out when the government reinforcements hold back. He meets up with Andy Lau, a warlord who only fights to keep his village fed. Kaneshiro rounds out the trio as an idealistic fighter with Lau's band.

Li convinces them that the best way forward is to fight the rebels for the government, quell the rebels, bring back stability and gain power to protect the people. As you can imagine, that involves compromises that tear the group apart. A pretty girl, played by Xu Jinglei, doesn't help matters either.

I've enjoyed lots of these epics, from Red Cliff on, and I'll continue to queue them up. Still, I think I'll always prefer Jet Li in a straight-up chop-sockey role. He's a great actor, it turns out, but still a better fighter.