Sunday, July 29, 2012

Soul in Africa

Back in 1974, when Ali fought Frazer in Kinshasha, Zaire - the "Rumble in the Jungle" - Don King decided to hold a soul music festival at the same venue. They filmed it, but never got in released in 2008 as Soul Power.

The musical lineup for this festival was amazing: The Spinners, Sister Sledge, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars, Manu Dibango, all culminating in the Number 1 Soul Brother, the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

Unfortunately, not a lot of this got into the movie. In a 90-minute movie, about an hour is the preparations, politics and problems of setting up this festival. It was kind of interesting, but it should have been in outtakes, with more of the music. Only 3 or 4 bands get a whole number. Sister Sledge is shown rehearsing a dance number only. James Brown gets a couple of songs, but that's it.

They probably did what they could with the footage available. It's even possible that they made this movie out of outtakes from When We Were Kings, a great documentary about the fight itself.

So, good movie, some great music, too much talking. Shut up and cut to the concert footage.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


We may be the best audience for Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tin-Tin (2011). We are fans of Herge's comic strips, so we came in with some background, but we're not fanatics, so we don't get upset when the movie takes liberties.

Herge's comic strip is about Tin-Tin, a plucky boy reporter and his dog, Snowy. He gets into wild adventures with his friend Captain Haddock, and the help or hindrance of two Scotland Yard types, named Thompson and Thompson. It is all drawn in bright colors with black outlines, a style called ligne clare. The movie gets the adventure just right, but chooses a different graphic style.

The movie is made in fully rendered 3D computer graphics, almost photorealistic, with motion capture that gives the scenes a strong live action feel. It almost seems like a live action version at times, and since modern live action can include a lot of CGI anyway, well, maybe this animation is meeting live action half way. The faces of the characters are clearly based on the comics, but much more realistic - except most of them have large cartoon noses, a bit disconcerting.

I am tempted to say that this work falls into the "uncanny valley", where a representation is too real to be artistic, but not real enough to fool you. But I didn't really get that. I just forgot about how Tin-Tin is "supposed" to look and rolled with the adventure.

And what a great adventure: A model ship, a hidden treasure map, a reclusive aristocrat, kidnapping, pickpockets, pirates, travels all over the global. Tin-Tin meets Capt. Haddock - a wild drunken sea captain played by Andy Serkis (voice and motion capture artist extraordinaire). Tin-Tin is played by Jamie Bell, little Billy Elliot himself. The bad guy, Sakharine, is Daniel Craig, and Thompson and Thompson are Nick Frost and Simon Pegg - great casting.

There are a couple of great set pieces: The pirate battle shows the Pirates of the Caribbean how it is done. There is a great chase through a Mediterranean village, and there is a seaplane scene that really reminded me of Porco Rosso - a Studio Ghibli film with a Herge-inspired look.

But I'm going to say that the star of the show is little Snowy, who always knows what is going on, even if nobody pays him any mind. Good dog!

In conclusion, Capt. Haddock says many colorful things, but never "Bashi-Bazouks!" This calls for a sequel.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Mars, Bitches!

One good thing to the financial flop of John Carter is that it came to the DVD store fast.

I've been psyched about this film since I first saw the pencil tests for a Thark a couple of years ago (or did I imagine that?). I was disconcerted when I heard they had removed "of Mars" from the title. But once the negative reviews started coming out, I had no more fear. I felt sure that the naysayers were all idiots.

And I was right. John Carter is a lot of fun. It starts with a frame story: A young man in the late 19th century inherits the estate of his eccentric wealthy uncle John Carter. He finds Carter's diary and we go into a flashback, the main story - Carter (Taylor Kitsch) in the American Southwest during the Civil War. He finds a mysterious cave full of gold, and a strange icon, and is transported to Mars.

Carter discovers that his Earth gravity muscles let him jump 40-ft high, in a hilariously realistic, spastic way. As the film goes on, he discovers that races and politics of the red planet: the 4-armed green Tharks, riding banthas, a speedy little frogdog, flying machines, cities and a princess of Mars (Lynn Collins).

The story is well told, the action is great, the art direction beautiful. Taylor Kitsch did a great job in the title role. I'm hoping to see more of him, which hasn't been my experience with all of the young muscle guys I've seen.

When the "flashback" ends, we're brought back to the young man reading the diary (Daryl Sabara). I won't spoil his name, but his initials are E.R.B.

The ending is a great setup for a sequel, which I assume will never happen. And that's the bad thing about the financial flop of John Carter.

Friday, July 13, 2012


The Spirit is Willing looked good on paper (on screen anyway): William Castle makes a haunted house spoof in 1967. It stars Sid Caesar as the neurotic dad, Vera Miles as the perky wife, and Barry Gordon, as the sullen teenager. (He was the kid in A Thousand Clowns - "Go to your alcove!"). They are vacationing in a small town in Maine - Mendocino, I think it is - in a haunted house.

The ghosts are a ship captain (Robert Donner from The Catalina Caper!), his ugly wife (Cass Daley), and their serving wench, played by Jill Townsend, who also plays her modern day descendants, a pair of sisters. It is never explained how these scions of an old Maine family come to have English accents, but we understand that her role/roles is to the sexy English bird, very popular in those days.

Anyway, the ghosts annoy the kid, everyone thinks he's just acting out, and one character even says, "Nobody ever believes little boys". There are a bunch of familiar faces in supporting roles, including Doodles Weaver, Nestor Paiva, Mary Wickes, Harvey Lembeck, classic snob John McGiver, and John Astin (Gomez!).

Ah, John Astin. He plays the psychiatrist called in to check on the boy who sees the ghost. When he attempts to get chummy, people start to suspect he's "that kind". If this doesn't sound that funny to you, you are beginning to get the picture.

This movie just isn't funny. Caesar has a few moments, even Vera Miles does. But there isn't much for them to work with. I have no objections to the crummy special effects, or nonsensical plot, but I need a few laughs thrown in now and then.

Still, it did have a score by Vic Mizzy, who did the Addams Family theme.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Super Dicks

We've gotten into the habit of watching TV on Netflix during dinner. We used to watch the same series every  night. First it was Dark Shadows, then Have Gun - Will Travel, then Dr. Who. Then I got worried about running out of shows, so I stacked up a whole set of series. Strangely, they are all 21st century shows about detectives with superpowers.

We have finished the whole series of The Dresden Files. It stars Harry Dresden as a wizard and consulting detective in modern-day Chicago. Pretty police detective Valerie Cruz sometimes uses his talents, and he has a foppish ghost named Bob for a sidekick (Terence Mann). The tone is fairly light, with Bob doing most of the comic relief, along with little modern magical touches, like Harry's drumstick for a magic wand. I had read one of the Jim Butcher novels the series is based on, and wasn't impressed. For one thing, they don't have Bob, our favorite part.

Then there is Numb3rs. It features Rob Morrow as an FBI detective and David Krumholtz as a mathematician who uses his genius to help solve crimes. The tone is much darker, the crimes bloody and violent and Krumhotz has big sad Elijah Wood eyes that show all the pain this causes him. The math and science are supposed to be real, and they do that pretty well. It's well written (so far), well acted and their dad is played by Judd Hirsch.

Psych is much lighter, basically a comedy. James Roday plays an amiable young man whose hard-ass cop father taught him to be very observant. He can solve a crime just by glancing at it, noting the telling details and filling in the blanks. When the police decide that he knows too much and must be involved in the crimes, he pretends he is psychic to explain his powers. He ropes his friend DulĂ© Hill into forming a psychic detective agency and goes to work.

It's pretty silly, although they do try to make the crimes and solutions plausible. Hill is the eternal reluctant sidekick, but the writers actually let him win a few. He has his own superpowers: He has a supersensitive nose, and since his dayjob is pharmaceutical salesman, he knows a lot about obscure drugs. 

Lie to Me is kind of in between - it is less intense than Numb3rs, less goofy than Psych, while still being fairly intense and pretty goofy. Headliner Tim Roth's superpower is lie-detection: He can read your emotions and tell if you are lying. He has a consulting agency that works mainly for the government, catching liars. 

Now, I love Tim Roth, although I haven't seen him in much. Really, it's mostly his role in RosenKrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He's a great presence here, insightful, tricky, and totally cynical because he knows that everyone lies about everything.

Rounding out the lineup, Burn Notice doesn't quite fit in. The hero, Jeffrey Donovan, doesn't really have a superpower. He was a spy until he is burned by his agency: cut loose, cut off from all of his contacts as well as his credit cards. He is stuck in Miami with his ex-IRA ex-girlfriend Gabrielle Anwar, his ex-buddy Bruce Campbell, and his psycho-family. So he spends his time solving crime and helping the little people while trying to find out why he was burned. And maybe his superpower is "spycraft".

The location gives it a touch of Miami Vice, and so does the easy going vibe. Our favorite part is, of course, Bruce Campbell. It's funny, there's some decent action, and every episode (so far) has a stand-alone case plus some movement on the overall arc of Donovan's burn. My sister's family turned me on to this one. 

I know that there are a bunch more of these - House is the same kind of eccentric genius, for example. Or Leverage, about a team of con artists that solve crime. But these aren't on Netflix. Anyway, I don't think we will run out of material for a while.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

To the Victor

If you have seen and enjoyed Victor/Victoria, you might want to take a look at First a Girl. Made in England in 1935, this is actually a remake of the German 1933 Viktor und Viktoria. It stars Jessie Matthews as a shopgirl who wants to be in show business. She meets Victor (Sonnie Hale), a wannabe actor who is really a female impersonator. When he loses his voice, he gets Jessie to impersonate him as man  impersonating a woman. Of course, she is a great success, and goes on to tour Europe.

In Monaco, she meets Griffith Jones, a gigolo to a princess. He falls for her before he finds out that she is really a man (not really), and the game is afoot.

The musical numbers are frothy, the comedy is light and amiable, and the stars are rather sweet. Sonnie Hale is a bit of an Edward Everett Horton, but not at all gay as the female impersonator who never even looks at Jessie that way. Jessie doesn't look a bit like a man when she is out of (or into?) drag, but she has a lovely way of swaggering around with her hands in her pockets, acting "manly". You can really see where Julie Andrews got her style in the later movie.

And speaking of nice little comedies from the black and white days, we recently watched One Big Affair (1952). It starts out with a tour group in Mexico City, which looks like a pleasant modern city, Chicago maybe. The tour is run by Gus Schilling, another Edward Everett Horton type, who keeps rushing everyone around. One member, Evelyn Keyes, gets left behind when they set out for Acapulco.

She meets up with lawyer Dennis O'Keefe, who is bicycling to Acapulco and trying to stay out of trouble. But the police think that she has been kidnapped, a Mexican orphan boy thinks that they would make him good parents, he loses his wallet, and other merry mixups occur.

This isn't a great movie, but it is immensely likable. Someone called Dennis O'Keefe's films "cheap and cheerful", and that sounds about right. This movie reminded me a lot of The Big Steal, with Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer. One Big Affair is not as good by any means, but seems to take the same kind of joy in rambling about Mexico. Evelyn Keyes (the girlfriend in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and the wife in The Seven Year Itch) has a certain something - she's a little old to be an ingenue, but perfect for a single teacher from Pomona on a package tour of Mexico. O'Keefe has touch of the comic Robert Montgomery - a bit puffy and dissipated but full of charm.

Also, only 80 minutes long. We enjoyed.