Thursday, January 31, 2013


Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (2011) is sort of the reboot of Dragon Inn (1992) by the same producer, Hark Tsui. Of course, that was a remake of King Hu's 1967 Dragon Inn. Never mind that. They all share a basic premise - evil eunuchs want to kill someone quietly, and chose to do it at a secluded inn on the border. The fun comes from the complications.

In this version, the MacGuffin is a maid (Mavis Fan), pregnant with the imperial heir. There are two eunuchs and a concubine after her. On her side are freedom fighter Jet Li, a woman warrior, some treasure hunters and a bunch of other people who I can't keep straight. Guilty bystanders include a gang of Tartars staying at the end - all tattooed and punked out - lead by another woman warrior. She was one of my favorite characters.

But all the women were good. In one big fight, there are about 5 women fighting on various sides, and no men. I guess that's traditional in Dragon Inn stories. Of course, none of them are Maggie Cheung or Brigitte Lin like in the 1992 movie. In fact, I haven't heard of any of the female leads - or the male leads outside of Jet Li. But they are all great fun, and Jet Li actually doesn't get as much screen time as you'd expect. He's kind of a secondary character.

I should mention the wild computer animation. Like in Detective Dee, computer models stand in for most of the architecture, ships and scenery. But there are some interesting non- or sur-realistic touches, like having Li turn into an eagle when he attacks. A lot less nutty than Zu Mountain Warriors, but more fantastical than Detective Dee.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Super Friends

It seems that we've been seeing a lot of great recent movies with kids - first Moonrise Kingdom, now Super 8 (2011).

Super 8 is about two things: A group of movie-obsessed kids growing up in an Ohio mill town in the 70s, and a monster. The kids are great, all around 14:

  • Joel Courtney is a sensitive boy whose mother died, leaving him under the distracted care of his policeman father
  • Riley Griffiths is his best friend, a chubby kid who writes, directs and shoots horror movies on super 8 movie camera
  • Ryan Lee is their pyrotechnics experts, and a possibly a disturbed pyromaniac
  • Gabriel Basso, their leading man, is famed for losing his lunch
Somehow, this band of lame losers has managed to get bad-girl beauty Elle Fanning to be their leading lady in a scene shot at night in train station. But the train contains a terrible secret, and things go boom in  a big way.

The dynamics of the group of kids, especially Courtney's budding romance with Fanning are great. Maybe it's just that I'm a child of the era (I was probably born just a few years before these kids were supposed to be), but it was very nostalgic for me. The death of Courtney's mother was a bit much, but I guess director J.J. Abrams needed a little something extra. Griffiths reminded me of a young Orson Welles - restlessly, relentlessly pursuing a cinema dream.

The monster, on the other hand, was a little bit disappointing. Like in Cloverfield, they keep him hidden for a long time. I'm not going to spoil anything, except to say that the monster seemed like something we've seen before. Still, the buildup to the reveal - the train, the military presence, the secrecy - are pretty good.

I guess this movie is at least partly a tribute to producer Steven Spielberg and his kid-based SF movies. It also has plenty of Abrams' patented lens-flare and pointless (in my opinion) rotating camera movements. The Cloverfield connection is weak - this really isn't about accidentally filming the monster. But the tributes and sources and references are everywhere.

I think that if the kids had been making the movie, they would have understood the importance of the monster.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Colbert Report

Here's a great deal from Netflix: A Claudette Colbert double bill: I Met Him in Paris / Bluebeard's 8th Wife. Two for the price of one, but also a nicely themed double bill.

IMHiP (1937) has Colbert going alone on a long-awaited trip to Paris, leaving behind her boring almost-fiance (Lee Bowman). When she gets there, she meets charming Robert Young and his somewhat depressed friend Melvyn Douglas - two of the funniest looking romantic leads I can think of - but I digress. Young wants to sweep Colbert off to Switzerland for a romantic tryst. Douglas figures he should go along to chaperone. Will Colbert succumb to Young's blandishments? Will Melvyn Douglas reveal the secrets he is keeping? Will someone get run over by a bobsled?

Lots of nice scenery, funny lines and romantic entanglement. At times, it seems like a sort of Design for Living in reverse, where Colbert agrees to share her love between the two men, but each man blocking the other. The ending is a bit icky, but also kind of cute.

B8W (1938, and excuse the goofy abbreviations) has a stronger pedigree. While IMHiP was directed by Wesley Ruggles, this is by Ernst Lubitsch. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett write the script, which starts with a bang - Gary Cooper in a French department store, trying to buy a pair of pajama tops only. He refuses to pay for the pants, because he never wears them. Things are getting tense, when Claudette Colbert comes along looking to buy just the pants. A classic "Meet cute".

Colbert turns out to be the daughter of impoverished nobleman Edward Everett Horton, with a goofy mustache, and Cooper turns out to be a tycoon. After a whirlwind courtship, they get engaged, and then Colbert discovers that Cooper has been married seven times before, and gave each one a $50,000 divorce settlement. Colbert doesn't take this too well, but agrees to get married if he will guarantee a $100,000 settlement. In fact, she decides to make the marriage a strictly commercial affair.

In some ways, this is Taming of the Shrew, but who is taming who? Also, David Niven shows up, but never really  becomes Cooper's rival. I just thought he would be, because of I Met Him in Paris.

While Bluebeard was better made, with a better director and writers, I actually liked Paris better - I think Bluebeard got away from the makers somewhere, while Paris was a neatly contained comedy, even if it did spend more time in Switzerland than the promised Paris. Anyway, if you like either one, you're bound to like both.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Now, Voyager

Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet (1965) is a ridiculous artifact: It started life as a Soviet science fiction film about a trip to Venus, a planet of savage reptiles and hints of a humanoid civilization. Then, Roger Corman's production company got a hold of it. They took out most of the spaceship special effects, because the ships had Soviet red star insignia. They added in scenes with Faith Domergue (of course) and Basil Rathbone (!?!) as ground or orbital control, talking to the cosmo astronauts on Venus remotely. Heavens knows what they did to the plot.

The bulk of the Soviet material makes a pretty decent space opera. The savage reptiles are a bit hokey, but the robot and the flying car are actually pretty neat. The Domergue/Rathbone inserts are not intrusive - surprising how well they fit, but I suppose that's the kind of thing they were good at.

I understand there is another version, Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women, with Mamie Van Doren and a bunch of bikini girls padding the film instead of Faith Domergue, an early directorial attempt by Peter Bogdanovich. It's in my DVD queue, but I don't know if it should be.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Life is Brutal

Christopher Nolan completes his  Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises (2012), an epic blend of darkness, pain and nonsense.

It starts with a better, cleaner Gotham City. The death of Harvey Dent has inspired real reforms, leading to an end to organized crime. Of course, this means obscuring Dent's insanity and makes Batman the villain who  killed him, but that's all right. Batman wanted to retire and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse.

I kind of liked Christian Bale as reclusive Bruce Wayne. He let his hair grow out of that terrible haircut I lamented in Batman Begins and adds a natty mustache and goatee. It's a good look for Bale, although it certainly doesn't shout "Bruce Wayne". His solitude is broken by a cute little cat burglar, played by Anne Hathaway.

Hathaway as the proto-Catwoman is a lot of fun. She is a low-life bitch, in it for herself and making sure all men are serving that same cause. She even has a little kitten, played by Juno Temple. I would like to see a lot more of her, maybe in her own movie - heck a whole series.

The real villain, however, is Bane, a guy with a steampunk facehugger mask and a scary voice. Since the Christian Bale Batman's main superpower is his creepy voice, we see them as evenly matched. Bane wants to see people suffer, to overthrow civil order, and not much else. He doesn't seem to want power or money, just to hurt Batman. Since Batman is in constant pain due to the rough life he's been leading, it isn't that hard for him to achieve this goal.

Special thanks to Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon - he seemed to be having fun. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has an odd role as the beat cop who gets close to Bruce Wayne, but is pretty satisfying in it. Michael Caine as Alfred, what can you say? He gets a few very sappy scenes, but plays them like a champ. He almost makes me want to try Fernet Branca.

In conclusion - does everyone know Bruce Wayne is Batman? I think about 5 people figure it out in this movie. I guess it is kind of obvious when you think about it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Django Begins

I figured the nephews should see the original Django (1966) before they went to see Tarantino's version, Django Unchained, so I took it with me when we went to see the family over the holidays. Unfortunately, I brought the Blu-ray, and they did not have the capability. So they missed out on this educational film.

This Italian western (shot in Spain) is directed by Sergio Corbucci, and stars blue-eyed Franco Nero as Django. The film starts out (accompanied by the lovely theme song) with Nero dragging a coffin through a muddy wasteland. That coffin and that mud will be his constant companion throughout. I kept wishing he would get a chance to take a bath.

After a little salutary bloodletting, Django winds up in a whorehouse in a town deserted by all except two warring factions: a racist remnant of the Confederate army, and a band of Mexican revolutionaries without portfolio. If you think Django plays one faction off of the other, you've got another movie in mind.

If you're wondering what's in the coffin, you find out surprisingly quickly.

A pretty brutal, dirty, rotten Western, and one that's still spinning off sequels movies with "Django" in the title, like Django Unchained and Sukiyaki Western Django. I wonder how the kids would have liked it.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cisco Kid was a Friend of Mine

So, I went to see Crazy House, the Olsen and Johnson followup to Hellzapoppin' (no review because it isn't on Netflix). One of the studio cameos was Leo Carillo, who looked familiar. Could that be the famous Pancho of The Cisco Kid fame? Since the 1950 TV series is available on streaming, we were able to check it out, and yes, yes, he is.

The Cisco Kid features the adventures of  "O' Henry's Robin Hood of the Old West", The Cisco Kid, played by Duncan Reynaldo and his sidekick Pancho, Carillo. The Kid is a Mexican charro-type - dressed in a fine black suit with white embroidery, a belt studded with silver sombreros, and of course, a sombrero. He rides a beautiful black and white paint horse named Diablo. Pancho dresses informally, and rides a roan named Loco. Their adventures usually involve trying to help out a stranger, and they are often mistaken for crooks by the authorities.

But the real fun comes from Reynaldo's suave hidalgo charm and heroism, and Pancho's mangled English. When trouble strikes, he always wants to run away, with his classic line, "Let's went, Cisco!". Now, some might not consider this to be politically correct - Pancho as a Mexican is not just comically bad at English, but he is lazy, cowardly and always keeps a few tortillas in his shirt for a snack. But:

  1. If Pancho is a bad stereotype, how about Cisco? Surely an exemplary stereotype: smart, skilled, courteous and modest.
  2. Anyway, so what? It's Leo Carillo, man. You know, like the state beach near Malibu?

We were surprised to discover that this TV series was in color. Apparently, the first one of its kind. It looks kind of great, although the colors show their age a bit. Our favorite part, however, are the horses, Diablo especially. We've gotten to know several of the horse actors that play him (the white-on-black markings are very distinctive) and they are all beautiful, and well-ridden. That means a lot in a Western.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

2012 and All That

In response to popular demand (well, I thought it would be fun), I've decided to do a New Year's wrapup post.

Best Movie: I have to say Bringing Up Baby, same as every year. In Roderick Heath's (brilliant, detailed, well-written) New Year's article, he mentions BUB as a film he saw for the first time in 2012. Lucky man.

Best Movies we saw in 2012: Here's the top 10. Surprising how many come from the last few years. I used to be much more into old movies.
  1. Hugo
  2. Moonrise Kingdom
  3. The Hidden Fortress
  4. The Artist
  5. Prometheus
  6. John Carter
  7. Hallelujah, I'm a Bum
  8. Beat Street
  9. The Raid: Redemption
  10. Tactical Force
Best Movie from 2012 we saw in 2012: Looks like it is Moonrise Kingdom.

Favorite TV Series we've been watching on Netflix in 2012: Mostly BBC and Westerns? We're still watching and enjoying Burn Notice and Psych as well.
Biggest Disappointments of 2012: There were a lot of movies that we were very psyched for that didn't really live up. Some, like Avengers, were actually very good, but just weren't what we were hoping for. Or maybe we just weren't in the right mood.
In Conclusion: We saw a bunch of pretty good movies in 2012, mostly action, like Detective Dee, Little Big SoldierCaptain America and Thor. Not disappointments or favorites. We also saw a lot of very marginal streaming stuff, often featuring Tim and Irene Ryan and/or directed by One-Shot Beaudine. Honestly, I think we can do better in 2013.

Happy New Year!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Moonrise Matinee

Happy New Year! I may or may not do a wrap-up for 2012, but if I do, I will certainly include Moonrise Kingdom, as the last film I watched in 2012, and maybe the best.

Made in 2012 by Wes Anderson, it is the fable of the small New England island of New Penzance, ca. 1962. A 12-year old boy and girl run away, her from home, him from scout camp. In the island wilderness, they settle down to live together for as long as the world will allow. But a storm is brewing.

Three things:
  • As usual for Wes Anderson, Moonrise Kingdom is visually striking and beautiful. It is full of bright colors, symmetrical compositions and just plain scenic nature.
  • The story is a sweet, sentimental and true, also as usual. The two kids are smart, sweet, troubled and committed to finding their own way in the crazy world.
  • And what a crazy world it was, way back in the 60s. So dangerous - kids built treehouses, rode motorbikes and played with fireworks, long knives and axes. Yet the only boy with an eyepatch is called Lazy Eye - he didn't put it out with the BB gun after all!
The adult cast is great: Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Bob Ballaban, Tilda Swinton, Ed Norton, etc. But they never outshine the kids at the center of the story. Kara Hayward is mod and sophisticated with her eyeshadow and miniskirts, looking older than her (actual) 12 years. Jared Gilman is looks so serious and thoughtful in his round glass, but he never looks adult, even smoking his corncob pipe. Great to see such young talents.

Beautiful, sweet and thought-provoking. I left out funny, but there's a lot to laugh at here. A great movie and a great way to end 2012.

In conclusion, the first movie I've ever gotten from Redbox. Just thought I'd mention.