Sunday, April 28, 2013

Merry Go Round

We enjoyed Elena and Her Men, so we figured we should try Max Ophuls' La Ronde (1950) - another giddy French film about love.

It starts with a narrator in front of a stage, on the painted backdrop of a Vienna street. He is the "raconteur", the narrator, played by Anton Walbrook, a debonair Barrymore type. He wanders through the stage set to a carousel, and explains that he will be showing us Love and how it goes around.

It starts with a streetwalker, Simone Signoret, who takes a soldier to a quiet spot by the river. We then follow the soldier as he meets a maid, Simone Simon, who is seduced by her young master, who gets the courage to make an assignation with a married woman, Danielle Darrieux. And on it goes, round and round.

The stories are all the old ones, the dialog isn't surprising, and the raconteur is always there to remind you that this is just a movie, a play, an old-time waltz. But how lovely it is - not just the sweet delirium of the affairs, but Ophuls' strolling, swirling, waltzing camera. It's movement through the lovely period sets make it almost an extension of the raconteur character, commenting on the action.

Although the stories are bittersweet - or just bitter - the overall effect is sweet. This story has been told many times (although this is the only one I've seen), and I can see why. It is very satisfying

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Zero to Hero

Tai Chi Zero is right up our alley - steampunk Kung Fu.

It stars Yuan Xiaochao as a boy who gets his kung fu power from a tiny horn on his forehead. He discovers that it is sapping his strength and his only chance to live is to learn the kung fu style of remove Chen village, whch they never teach outsiders.

At the same time, Eddie Peng, playing a dandified villager who was educated in the west, wants to bring a train through the village. This allows the introduction of a huge steampunk track layer, not to mention Peng's sweet Edwardian suit and tophat.

The whole thing is done with tongue in cheek - the flashback to Yuan's childhood is done silent film style, and every cameo is introduced with a title like "Look! It's Tony Leung Kar Fai as Uncle Laborer!". There's a bit of video game imagery as well, like in Scott Pilgrim.

Also, one of my favorite kung fu tropes - the hero must be beaten by a girl before his training can advance.

It ends with a trailer for the sequel, Tai Chi Hero.

Friday, April 19, 2013

You Sunk My Battleship Movie!

Battleship (2012): A good reason to watch your Netflix queue. Somehow this floated to the top, and I didn't realize it until I got the note that it had shipped. Oh well.

It starts with screwup Taylor Kitsch (hope that's a stage name) drinking with his brother Alexander Skarsgard and getting into a ridiculous mess over bimbo-esque Brooklyn "Double" Decker - the Megan Fox of the movie. This scene was pretty cute, actually. To get his life together, he joins the Navy, and gets rapidly promoted while still being a screwup. This part gets a little tedious - we're 20-30 minutes in and nothing has blown up.

Finally, some aliens show up and splash down in the Pacific around Hawai'i in the middle of a joint US-Japan naval exercise. And it's game on!

The aliens have several neat weapons, like a ball made of of buzzsaw blades with a chainsaw wrapped around the middle. However, the aliens seem to have very weak sensor systems, and their armor isn't all it could be. So the game isn't that lopsided. And in the end, Kitsch, noted for his terrible judgement, gets a WWII battleship out of mothballs, mans it with geriatric veterans (Isn't that Stan Lee? Nope, just an old guy with a mustache) and saves the day.

So here's the surprise twist - this is actually a pretty fun movie. Sure, it was slow to get started, and I really didn't care a bit about anyone in it, but the special effects were a gas. Wait, I take that back - Rhianna, playing a sailor, and her southern fried buddy Jesse Plemons were pretty good.

Now, I wouldn't say this was a good movie. But as far as SFX/action movies go, not so bad, a great B-movie with an A budget. They even managed to work in a few references to the game it is theoretically based on. We had fun, and would see a sequel.

But in the end, I have to rate it a failure, because nobody actually says "You sunk my battleship".

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Film Renoir

We were in the mood form something light and happy, so we queued up Jean Renoir's 1956 Elena and Her Men. This bit of French froth features Ingrid Bergman as an impoverished Polish princess in Paris - if you'll excuse the alliteration. But she is more than the central character, she is the reason it exists.

Bergman is ready to marry a rich man to finance her lifestyle - and he really is a dear - but first she must rush out to see the general that everyone is talking about. Perhaps he will run for President and save the Republic! Then in the crowd, she meets a very nice young man, Mel Ferrer, who introduces her to the General, Jean Marais. Soon, everyone is in love with her, or planning to use her to induce the General to take the reins of power in France.

There isn't much of a plot, other than Bergman being lovely. She gives a daisy (marguerite) to the men who she favors, and if they keep this charm, they cannot fail in their endeavors. The politics are odd - basically, everyone wants Marais to take power as a right-wing strongman dictator, which Bergman as La Polonaise rather favors. But the moral is "The French are as good at love as they are bad at picking their leaders".

So, fun, sunny, and a treat for the eyes. Especially Bergman.

Safety Last

Man on a Ledge (2012) has a title that sort of says it all, like Snakes on a Plane. It stars Sam Worthington as a cop doing hard time in prison. He breaks out at his father's funeral, makes his way to a New York hotel, has a nice last meal and climbs out on the ledge. He will be there for most of the rest of the movie.

I won't be giving too much away to say that he is not out there to commit suicide, although he is making it look that way. There is a heist involved, being pulled off by Worthington's brother, played by Jamie Bell (Billy Elliott) and his sexpot girlfriend, Genesis Rodriguez. A police negotiator, Elizabeth Banks, shows up - she has been in disgrace since her last case jumped off the bridge while she was trying to talk him down.

Just having this guy up on the ledge did a pretty good job maintaining the tension. The middle third lets up a bit, and frankly, that was a relief for me. I wasn't exactly wrung out, but I sure didn't mind the breather. Brother Bell and girlfriend Rodriguez provided some comic relief - maybe a little too much for some tastes.

Anyway, the caper goes off without a hitch, or not too many. In fact, everything goes a little too well. We are not privy to the details of the plan, but a lot of it looks like improvisation that somehow works out just right.

Well, it's a rare caper film without plot holes.If you don't mind a few, you might like this.

Unless you are afraid of heights.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Puttin' Down the Ritz

I think I queued up On the Avenue (1937) because Miss Brodie's recent film quiz asked about Roy Del Ruth's films. Once I realized she wasn't talking about Del Lord, I decided I should watch a few, and this is the one that came up in Netflix. Not sure it was the best choice.

The plot is simple: Dick Powell has a Broadway show that satirizes a rich family. When the family sees it, they go on the warpath. Daughter Madeleine Carroll decides to get her revenge by throwing herself at Powell. He falls for her, but his leading lady and secret admirer Alice Faye tries to crimp his style.

The plot is really a series of practical jokes: Powell lampoons Carroll and family, Faye spoofs Powell and then Powell pulls one last trick to get Carroll back. So it all ends happily, except:

  • Madeleine Carroll is nice to look at, but doesn't have much going on. Alice Faye should have gotten Powell in the end - or at least more screen time.
  • Instead of Faye, we get rather a lot of the Ritz Brothers.
Now, I didn't like the Ritz Brothers the last time I saw them, in The Three Musketeers. They are better here - they make comic use of their very similar faces and do some crazy legs dancing. But they are not very good.

Neither are most of the rest of the musical numbers, even thought they were penned by Irving Berlin. "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" is best known, but Faye really sells "Last Year's Kisses". The big production number is the dire "Slumming on Park Avenue". 

Unless you love this kind of musical comedy, I wouldn't recommend this one.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

James Bond Will Return!

Skyfall completes Daniel Craig's trilogy as James Bond with a bang. Casino Royale set pace, a brand new Bond, not suave, a thug. Quantum of Solace, while pretty weak, showed Bond evolving, going from a plain assassin to the guy who drinks Vespers.

Then, Skyfall. Bond is tired, almost burned out. M (the incredible Dame Judy Dench) has been using agents, and using them up. She even gives another agent the order to fire at a villain when Bond is in the sites. And predictably, Bond is shot, fall 300 feet into a river and is washed ashore. He washes up in a beach colony and figures he'll play dead, hang out on the beach and drink a lot. Beats the spy game.

But in the meantime, M is being stalked by a supervillain, who blows up MI6. Bond can't let this stand, and is soon back in the game.

Now, there's a funny thing about all of this. M is a petty tyrant who has been making a lot of mistakes. Bond is a drunk and a pill-popper whose hands shake too badly to aim a pistol. Their tactics for the final showdown leave a lot to be desired - "Home Alone for grownups" is the usual crack. The plot is mostly holes tied together with string, like a fishnet. And yet, somehow, this is one of the best Bonds ever.

I don't really know what makes this so great - Dench and Craig, for sure, surprisingly deft direction by Sam Mendes (he hasn't directed anything else I though I might like), an appreciation of the Bond legacy, including an instant classic theme song by Adele all helped. The theme and credit sequence, the use of the James Bond theme, the martini gag (the bartender vigorously shakes one up, and Bond pronounces it "perfect") all show a great respect for the series.

And the final scenes do something interesting to the chronology - the Craig trilogy has been a prequel to the classic series. Bond started out as a neophyte, got some seasoning, burned out and came back and now is ready to start his career as we know it, presumably with Dr. No.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Future Games

Strange to say, we have not seen Back to the Future, until now. You see, we lived in Japan in the 1980s, and there were only a few TV shows to watch in English. We watched Miami Vice (liked it), Sledge Hammer (loved it), Moonlighting (yeah, actually loved it) and Family Ties. Little House on the Priarie was also on, but Family Ties was as low as we were willing to go. Michael J. Keaton was such a smug jerk in that show that we never really wanted to see him in anything else.

Finally broke down. Glad I did. OK, Keaton's character is still a bit smug in this. I kind of can't get used to teen protagonists who are cool, not bullied outcasts (still haven't seen Ferris Bueller). But that's not the point.

The point is, this is a brilliantly constructed, intricately realized, fun and funny movie. The tricky time-travel plot. The audaciously incestuous attraction of Keaton's 1950's mom for her future son. Crispin Glover! Why didn't anybody tell me how much Crispin Glover is in this movie?

And the details: this is why I love Robert Zemeckis. Take for instance, when Keaton is talking to his girl, you see in the background a sex shop, a strip club, etc. When she talks to him, you see a sign for wedding rings. It's not in your face - I mean it is, but casual-like.

Also, Christopher Lloyd. And Wendy Jo Sperber!

So, great movie. I don't suppose this is news to anybody. Looking forward to the two sequels.