Wednesday, December 26, 2012

County Hunter

Not sure what made us think of Brisco County, Jr. I think we had only seen one or two episodes of this 1993 Bruce Campbell western TV series - we wanted to like it, we did like it, but never got into it. But since we've been watching some westerns, and seeing Campbell in Burn Notice, we thought we'd give it a try again.

The movie is set in the American West, ca. 1890. Campbell plays Brisco County Jr., a bounty hunter hunting the men who killed his father, Brisco County. I hope the oddball name gives you some idea of the slightly off-kilter humor of the series. He has been hired by a group of robber barons, who assign a pantywaist lawyer, Socrates Poole (Christian Clemson) to manage him, and play Artemis Gordon to Campbell's Jim West. John Astin's steampunk mad scientist completes the Wild Wild West feel of the show.

There is also a mysterious orb from outerspace with mystical powers.

The adventures are colorful and silly, there are a few pretty girls and terrible villains. But out favorite is probably rival bounty hunter Lord Bowler, a ferocious black man in an army uniform decorated with Indian beadwork and accessorized with sawed-off shotgun holstered on his back and a bowler hat. Lord Bowler is played by Julius Carry, who was, believe it or not, Sho'nuff, the Shogun of Harlem in Berry Gordy's The Last Dragon.

Not sure how many of these we'll watch - it only ran to 27 episodes, so not more than that. Also, they are only available on disc, not streaming. But we'll definitely watch a few.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Light and Magic

Hugo is one of those movies that seems so good, you're almost afraid to watch. Will it be too sentimental, too preachy, too crass? How will they spoil it? SPOILER ALERT - They don't spoil it. It's just that good.

You many know the setup: Hugo is a young orphan who lives in the clockworks of a Parisian railway station in the 1930s. He maintains the clocks while living a hand-to-mouth existence, stealing food and springs and gears from a toyshop, while dodging the station policeman (Sascha Baron Cohen, doing Kevin Kline). One day, the toyshop owner (Ben Kingsley) catches him, and that changes everything.

The movie is visually beautiful, and also full of stuff. For example:

  • Light: Snowflakes and dust dance in light beams, and images are projected on screens
  • Machines: The station clock, the toys in the shop, and even the station police's leg brace are all gear-punk machines, not to mention the second act reveal of Hugo's marvelous machine
  • Movies and film preservation: In some ways, that is what this movie is all about
  • Books: But just as much, it is about books. Hugo meets the shop owner's step-daughter, who introduces him to a bookseller, played by Christopher Lee. Both books and movies represent adventure and -
  • Magic: Maybe that's what the movie is about, the combination of mechanics, sleight-of-hand and wonderment that is magic.
Plus all kinds of fun: Salvadore Dali sketching James Joyce in the station cafe while Django Reinhardt plays as the camera swoops past, a few romances, mysterious statues of frozen men, and so on. Not to mention that it was in 3-D - not mentioned because we saw it on a regular flatscreen.

Director Martin Scorsese really hit this one on the head. My only complaint would be that it was too full of stuff, too many themes, schemes and dreams. But I can live with that.

I'd like to single out, among a great cast, young Asa Butterfield as Hugo, and Chloë Grace Moretz as his friend, both fine child actors.

In conclusion, I kind of wish Tin-Tin had been this movie instead.

Chips Ahoy

Wow, this was a tough film quiz. I don't think I've ever been so late for a quiz I actually finished. Even Dennis beat me (by months) with his answers and he is always late!

So now I submit my work, and get my reward - I can now read everyone else's answers.

1) What is the biggest issue for you in the digital vs. film debate?
None. I have no dog in this fight, no horse in this race. Since I watch everything at home on DVD/Blu-ray/streaming, it's all digital to me. But I guess preservation (and to a lesser extent, access) has got to be first. Let's not lose films to bit-rot and backup crashes the way we used to lose them to exploding film stock.

2) Without more than one minute’s consideration, name three great faces from the movies
Michael J. Pollard, Ned Sparks, Simone Signoret. Wow. Where did that come from? 

3) The movie you think could be interesting if remade as a movie musical
GREAT question! I'd have to say, any of them! 12 Angry Men! Alien (heavy metal music with Butoh dance)! La Dolce Vita (since 8 1/2 has been done)! In fact, everything can and should become a musical - Watergate, Hurricane Katrina, Red Sox win the pennant in 2004, what I had for lunch. 

I guess it helps if you have a reasonably large ensemble (Alien might be tough because the cast isn't large enough) and comedy works better than drama. But it all depends on the music. 

4)  The last movie you saw theatrically/on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming
As of now, we are in the middle of Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame in Blu-ray. We are loving it, but we fell asleep.

Theatrically, I got out to the Stanford Theater (see sidebar) to see Olson and Johnson's Crazy House, the follow up to Hellzapoppin'. It was, indeed, crazy.

5) Favorite movie about work
Since I've never seen Office Space, I'm not sure what to say.

6) The movie you loved as a child that did not hold up when seen through adult eyes
I remember loving Visit to a Small Planet when I saw it in a VT barn as part of some community kids event. I just re-watched it, and remembered my favorite part: The dog, Rags, still holds up. The rest is pretty weak.

Do I get partial credit?

7) Favorite "road" movie
I want to say The Hobbit, but it isn't out yet. So, Vanishing Point.

True confession: I haven't seen Damnation Alley, that SF race across radioactive future America in tanks cars movie, unless I saw it in 1977 when it came out. Since I don't remember, I guess it can't be my answer.

8) Does Clint Eastwood’s appearance at the Republican National Convention change or confirm your perspective on him as a filmmaker/movie icon? Is that appearance relevant to his legacy as a filmmaker?
No real effect on my notion of him as an artist. I guess I knew he was a Republican asshole, although I was a little surprised to see him fall for the Republican empty suit.

I don't think much of the personalities and politics of most artists. Bob Dylan, the greatest song writer of our era, is by all accounts an asshole. Yet Ronald Reagan, our greatest president, was a terrible actor.

Heh, got through that last part with a straight face....

9) Longest-lasting movie or movie-related obsession
Ann Blyth's status as the actress to play men's fantasy roles - the silent mermaid, the lusty barmaid, the oriental princess, the girl whose every prayer is answered, and my favorite, Killer, the rich, perfume-soaked, lovestruck teenager from Once More, My Darling. I taped this from a late-night AMC show - note "taped" and "AMC" to estimate era - and still have the tape.

10) Favorite artifact of movie exploitation
I recently enjoyed the cameo of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen doing their dirty hit, "Everybody's Doing It Now" in Hollywood Boulevard.

But Pam Grier's shower scene in Friday Foster might be my favorite.

11) Have you ever fallen asleep in a movie theater? If so, when and why?
Many, many times. It's worse at home, of course (see answer 4). Now, our friend friend Billy was famous for this - we would say that a boring movie did not pass "Billy's Z test".

But falling asleep in front of a movie can be so much fun - the irresistible drug-like urge to drowse, the dreams that merge with the movie, the struggle to maintain consciousness. Some of my favorite movie experiences include sleep.

12) Favorite performance by an athlete in a movie
Rico Browning as the Gill-man.

13) Second favorite Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie
Wow - turns out I haven't seen any of his movies. It's just as well, they look depressing. I think I have been getting him mixed up with Wim Wenders. Which one made Ali: Fear Eats the Flesh and which one made The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick?

14) Favorite  film of 1931
Probably should be City Lights, but I'll go with Maltese Falcon. But, man, what a good year.

15)   Second favorite Raoul Walsh movie
Strawberry Blonde, with White Heat as number 1, both Cagneys.

16)   Favorite film  of 1951
Not as good a year as 1931, but there were some good ones. I pick African Queen.

17)   Second favorite Wong Kar-wai movie
Ashes of Time and Eagle Shooting Heroes are a tie for first and second place.

18)   Favorite film of 1971
Great year for car films - Two Lane Blacktop, Vanishing Point, Le Mans. But I'm going with Fists of Fury.

19)   Second favorite Henri-Georges Clouzot movie
Looks like I've only seen Diabolique, so I don't have a second favorite.

20)   Favorite film of 1991
This is not such a good year, at least according to the most popular films from 1991 on IMDB. A lot of slick, derivative stuff, IMNSHO.

However, I love Jackie Chan's Operation Condor. Fun, action-packed, and the 3 female leads - sex-ay!

21)   Second favorite John Sturges movie
Miracle of Morgan's.. wait - John? Not a favorite director, but I'd say The Great Escape. I saw it when it came out, I guess, and loved it. I guess everyone's first fave is the same.

22)   Favorite celebrity biopic
I'm going to answer this straight - The Benny Goodman Story. First: Great story of boy from the ghetto makes good, crosses racial lines, and makes hot swing popular on the West Coast where they listen to his East Coast midnight shows on radio at 9:00. Second: It's filled with the real musicians - the clarinet parts are really Benny. Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Kid Ory, Stan Getz, Harry James, etc, all play themselves. And Steve Allen does a pretty good job as the star. Almost a documentary.

23)  Name a good script idea which was let down either by the director or circumstances of production
Do you mean a whole script that went wrong, like Starship Troopers? Not the idea of doing it as a parody of militarism, but doing it without the powered suits.

24) Heaven’s Gate-- yes or no?
Not yet, but I'd like to. I've heard it's pretty good.

25)   Favorite pairing of movie sex symbols
Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman, real life.

26)   One word that you could say which would instantly evoke images and memories of your favorite movie. (Naming the movie is optional—might be more fun to see if we can guess what it is from the word itself)
So, this has to be my favorite movie, right, not just my favorite movie that can be evoked with one word? I guess I would have to say "intercosta-clavicle" (if that is really a word).

27)   Name one moment which to you demarcates a significant change, for better or worse, on the landscape of the movies over the last 20 years.
Netflix, hands down.

28) Favorite pre-Code talkie
The Glorification of the American Girl - It's not really racy, but has a couple of nifty dance numbers, just a kid on stage kicking up her heels.

29) Oldest  film in your personal collection (Thanks, Peter Nellhaus)
By release date or date of acquisition? Release date is probably DeMille/Colbert's 1934 Cleopatra. But the movie I have owned the longest (and still own)? Probably a tape of the Spike Jones TV show that I bought when a Blockbuster forced the local video store out of business in the late 80s.

30)   Longest film in your personal collection. (Thanks, Brian Darr)
Wish I still had Brooks' Mahabharata, but I gave it to a friend.
31)   Have your movie collection habits changed in the past 10 years? If so, how?
Um, DVDs? I had a beautiful collection of 100+ VHS tapes - obscure musicals, Jackie Chan, Pam Grier, store-bought (not traded) Mystery Science Theater 3000 tapes, Firesign Theater's Hot Shorts, The President's Analyst, Marx Bros., silent slapstick, oh boy. Mostly bought secondhand from video rental places converting to DVD.

We just took them all to the recycling (well, except for Hot Shorts, The President's Analyst, and ...). We have a VCR (with a DVD dubbing feature), but it's just too much trouble to watch. We don't miss slow fast fwd or rewind. But I do miss the collection. 

32)   Wackiest, most unlikely "directed by" credit you can name
While working on this quiz, I saw a movie and when I got to the director's credit, I said, "That's it! That's the answer to question 32!" I wish I remembered what movie that was...

33)   Best documentary you’ve seen in 2012 (made in 2012 or any other year)
Looking over my notes, I don't see too many. We rather liked Year of the Horse, but mostly for the music, less for the old clips, and we didn't really pay attention to the interviews at all.

34)   What’s your favorite "(this star) was almost cast in (this movie)" anecdote?
Ronald Reagan was going to be Rick in Casablanca, right? 

35)   Program three nights of double bills at a revival theater that might best illuminate your love of the movies
Boy, you want us to work for this, don't you? I'll pick 3 of my favorite genres, with a more and less famous example

Night 1: Bringing Up Baby and Once More, My Darling (see above).
Night 2: Duck Soup and Hellzapoppin'
Night 3: District B13 and Raging Phoenix

Or mix them up: Baby and Phoenix, Duck and Darling, B13 and Hellza! It's all good!

36)   You have been granted permission to invite any three people, alive or dead, to your house to watch the Oscars. Who are they?
My maternal and paternal grandmothers and my paternal grandfather (my mother's father died before I was born). They weren't particularly big movie fans, but you've given me the power to raise the dead, if only for the length of a telecast. Sorry, family comes first.

37) Favorite Mr. Chips. (Careful...)

Monday, December 17, 2012

Space Duff

Spaceways is one of those can't-miss movies - Hammer Films doing 1950's sci-fi, with American sensitive tough-guy Howard Duff starring. You go into this kind of movie with low expectations, and you're rarely disappointed.

Duff plays a visiting American scientist at a secret English space program. Everyone is locked into the compound so there is no chance of  security leak. Nobody minds except for Duff's high-maintenance wife, who after all is not a scientist, and therefore shady. Well, Duff catches her canoodling with another scientist (probably an administrator), and then the wife and her lover disappear, and it looks bad for Duff.

The theory is that he killed them, and stuffed them in the rocket which is now orbiting the Earth. So the only evidence is in space. And the only person on Duff's side is cute Hungarian scientist Eva Bartok.

Bartok is lovely in this, with a certain intelligence that makes her believable as a scientist. She has a slightly wide jaw and a somewhat unbecoming haircut, so she is less glamorous but more beautiful.

The rest of the cast was servicable, except maybe the head of the project Philip Leaver. He makes a perfect jolly old professor type, acting as father figure to love-struck Eva. The setting is a great mixture of cheap, silly props that somehow becomes convincing - after all, post-war Britain had to make do, even in their secret rocket programs. The control panel in mission control is a beautiful piece of walnut, studded with gauges, like the dashboard of an Triumph or MG multiplied by 100.

So, a sci-fi film that's mostly a post-war film noir, with a melodrama romance - something for everyone. Especially Howard Duff - he has a beaten-up looking face with sad eyes that is perfect for tough guy roles. He has a voice to match - in fact, he was the voice of Sam Spade on radio for a while. Loved him in Jennifer.

In conclusion, there isn't a whole lot of space in this space movie. You have been warned.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Girl Fight

Haywire is, partly, the same-old same-old, and partly, it's the same-old updated. It stars Gina Carano as a secret agent who has been betrayed, and will stop at nothing to get her revenge on the people who betrayed her. That's the same-old.

The updating, I guess, comes from Steven Soderbergh is directing. He sets most of it in a cute flashback, with Carano telling the backstory to a young guy whose car she has commandeered. He's just an ordinary civilian, her age (young), which makes the frame story seem more like a youth comedy road trip than a thriller.

Then there are the action scenes in the flashback, set to electronica instead of gunshots and explosions, which is a nice distancing effect.

Then there are the supporting actors, including Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan MacGregor and I don't know who else. So we have a kick-butt girl for the guys in the audience, but plenty of candy for the ladies as well.

All in all, fun, interesting action movie. I had only one objection: I didn't believe that Gina Carano could fight. Sure, you can do a lot with rehearsal, fight choreography and film editing, but she just seemed too scrawny and cute. Probably used to be a model or something. (Looks her up in IMDB.) Hm, no, she's apparently a mixed martial arts champion. Huh.

So, now I don't what to think. Did Soderbergh mess up the fight scenes? Was I not reading the scenes properly? Is Carano a good fighter, but not as good a stunt fighter? I guess I need to watch it again to find out, and I'm not sure I'm ready for that. So, anyone else have an opinion?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tropical Punching

When we lived in Florida, I used to buy a tropical liqueur called Passoã. It's based on passion fruit and other tropical flavors, it's thick and syrupy and tastes a lot like Hawaiian Punch. In large doses, it's cloying, but add a teaspoon to a margarita, and it's delicious.

When we moved back to California, I headed out to BevMo to re-stock my bar. I couldn't find any Passoã, but did find a bottle of something called Kinky, promising a similar profile of passion fruit and clementines. Got a bottle, and found it to be even better than Passoã, not as sweet, not as bright pink.

Of course, I don't get to BevMo that often. In California, we can get our liquor in the grocery store. Our local Safeway doesn't carry Kinky, but I did find something called X-Rated. Again, passion fruit and clementines, again, less sweet, less shocking pink. More sophisticated, I'd say. Cleaner. More fruity than syrupy.

Drinking this teased my brain - it reminded me of another drink, but what was it? Then it came to me - Hpnotiq, the weird blue stuff. Now, I don't have a source for this, but I am guessing that X-Rated is an imitation of Hpnotiq, pink instead of blue. Kinky is am imitation of that, and Passoã and imitaion of that.

Or maybe it's just a coincidence, and these are all pretty much independent.

In related news, our Safeway was selling Hpnotiq for a little under $20 a bottle, a pretty good price, so I picked one up, you know, for research. My theory was:

Passoã < Kinky < X-Rated < Hpnotiq

But the Hpnotiq had an off-flavor, a little bitter or musty. Either it isn't the peak tropical juice liqueur, or Safeway was getting rid of some old or heat-damaged stock. Either way, I'm still putting it in my margaritas.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Silent Running

I knew of course, that The Artist (2011) was a black-and-white silent film, but I hadn't realized that it was a silent film about talkies. Brilliant!

Although I am aware that this film won an Oscar, the reason we watched was for the team of director Michel Hazanavicius and star Jean Dujardin, who we loved in the OSS 117 films, Cairo and Rio. As in those films, they weave a mixture of detailed reproduction, loving tribute and biting spoof of their genre, in this case, showbiz pictures of the silent era.

Dujardin plays a Douglas Fairbanks-like silent films star. Like Fairbanks, he swashes buckle and laughs, ha ha! He encourages pretty callow ingenue Berenice Bejo as Peppy Miller. With the coming of sound, she prospers while he descends into obscurity, poverty and alcoholism. The old story.

We also get John Goodman as a bigshot producer, James Cameron as Dujardin's loyal servant and a lovable  Jack Russell terrier. Completely enjoyable. And there's a boffo ending!


OK, we saw The Expendables 2, the second film in the series of action films featuring every action hero they Sylvester Stallone could round up. They lost Mickey Rourke from this one, but got Chuck Norris and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

This outing has the team on a "routine" extraction in from China. We meet a guy who wasn't in the last movie, Liam Hemsworth, playing Billy the Kid. Since he's wearing a red shirt with a target on the back, and he spends a lot of time talking about his beautiful wife and how he was going to quit this dangerous business after one last mission, and everybody calls him "Dead Meat", you can kind of guess how long he lasts in this one.

So, the rest of the movie is a revenge tale set in some Balkan country, due to low cost of filming. JCVD plays the villain, named Vilain (which I think is kind of funny). Jet Li isn't used much, because he was doing another movie at the same time. Chuck Norris works alone and drops the occasional one-liner. Randy Couture doesn't have anything to do, because, I guess, Randy Couture. Jason Statham has the decency to look embarrassed. Stallone seems to be having a ball, and starts to let the kitsch out towards the end when Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis show up to fight, instead of just jaw like in the first film.

Look, you know me - I like stupid action films. But I like them better when they have a little self-respect. Sticking your tongue in your cheek and pretending it's all just a goof is fine unless you just add that in at the end when you realize you can't keep a straight face.

Oh well, maybe I just wasn't in the right mood, but this one didn't work for me. But I'll probably watch Expendables 3.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

High Seas

China Seas (1935) is just a crazy, fun romantic adventure movie. It stars Clark Gable as the captain of a ship running from Hong Kong to Singapore. He drinks hard on shore, but runs a tight ship once under weigh. Jean Harlow is China Doll, the party girl who is stuck on him. Rosalind Russell, on the other hand, is the society dame that he always loved. Since she was married to his friend, he went to China to forget. Now she shows up on his ship, a widow and open to offers.

This little love triangle sets up romance for a whole movie, but we also get Malay pirates, a secret shipment of gold, a taiphoon, a disgraced sea captain with a chance at redemption, and on and on. We even get a perpetually soused Robert Benchley for comic relief. Plus Wallace Beery as a villain, C. Aubrey Smith as the ship's owner, Hattie McDaniels as (guess what) the maid, Akim Tamiroff, Ed Brophy and so on.

I don't know how deep this is, although there are many affecting scenes. But it sure is fun.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Total Bummer

I mainly wanted to see Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933) for the Harry Langdon, but I was also interested in Al Jolson. I didn't realize that I was getting Rogers and Hart as well.

This is the story of the Mayor of Central Park, a bum named Bumper (Al Jolson). That name - savor it. It contains "bum", but connotes richness, fullness, a bumper crop. Also, to drink a bumper - a toast to "bon pere", the good father. He leads a life of homeless luxury in the park (wintering in Florida), and consorts with his good friend the Mayor of New York, Frank Morgan. He has an African American friend, Acorn, played by ever-smiling Edgar Connor. He has an enemy as well - Egghead, the socialist street sweeper, played by baby-faced silent comedy star Harry Langdon.

The story is about how Morgan's girlfriend Madge Evans gets amnesia and falls in love with Jolson, but never mind that. It's touching and all and there's a decent song or two if you like Jolson's style, but this doesn't really make the picture stand out.

What is really interesting is that about half the dialog is spoken in rhyme, written by Rogers (or Hart?). This makes it even more of a fantasy than the usual Depression era musical.

Also, Harry Langdon as Egghead. He is a devoted socialist worker, and as such condemns and despises the bums and loafers of the park as parasites on the system. His ideological purity, combined with his peculiar man-child appearance make him quite sympathetic. I am interested in his viewpoint and would like to subscribe to his newsletter.

Langdon is a bit of an acquired taste, or maybe he should just be taken in small doses. This is just right. I'm not sure about Jolson. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Revisiting a Small Planet

Look, I saw Visit to a Small Planet when I was a little boy - possibly at a church kids' theater in a barn in New Hampshire with my grandmother. Of course I have fond memories of it. Also, it was from a play written by Gore Vidal.

The plot: immature but powerful space alien Jerry Lewis lands in suburban Richmond and mixes stuff up. As an adult, I can see the seams where the sophisticated light comedy butts up against the mugging of Jerry Lewis. For example, he controls people's minds by twitching his nose, crossing his eyes, tugging his ear, etc. - literally mugging, making faces.

Then the American teenagers he befriends take him to a beatnik coffeehouse, where he feels he fits in because everybody is so far out. But the beatniks think he is too far out and flee. I guess this passes for sophisticated comedy in 1960.

Anyway, although I can't say I still love it on rewatching, but I did remember my favorite part, which I had entirely forgotten: Rags the dog. Lewis can talk with the dog, who hates and fears him (naturally). But he does get a chance to run off his enemy, Clementine the cat. Who is played, by the way, by Rhubarb, last seen in Comedy of Terrors and voiced by June Foray (Rocket J. Squirrel).

Also, Buddy Rich is the drummer in the beatnik dive. Cool, daddy!

So, not as much fun to watch this time as last. But I got to see my old friend Rags again.