Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mondo Kane

It's funny, I'd never heard of Solomon Kane (2009). I mean, I knew the character, created by Robert E. Howard for the pulps. I don't remember reading any of his stories, but I definitely read some of the Marvel comics. But I hadn't heard about the movie until Netflix suggested it. Well done, Netflix.

Kane is played by James Purefoy, an actor with a bit of Hugh Jackman or maybe Jason Statham going on - or is it just his accent? Maybe I'm thinking of Henry Cavill. Kane is a vicious mercenary for Queen Elizabeth, until the Devil comes for his soul. He resists and retreats to a monastery. When they kick him out, he joins up with some Puritans, aiming to be a man of peace. But there is a demonic presence in that part of England ("the border of Devonshire and Somerset") that he must face conquer - even if his soul be damned!

This is a good swashbuckler, if not a great one. We watched it on streaming, so we couldn't really see the details, but parts looked a bit cheap. Still, lots of fun if you like this kind of thing, which we do.

Side note: Ms. Spenser is back from her summer term in Florida! So posting, never very frequent, might get a little lamer. I plan to re-watch a lot of the movies I liked with her, and of course, expect to have a bit of a social life. Please let me know if you notice.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Do the Hu$tle

The Monkey Hu$tle (1976) is a cute little blaxploitation comedy set in Chicago. Yaphet Kotto plays small-time hustler Daddy Foxx, who mentors a gang of kids in "gettin' over". They all hang out at Momma's soul food restaurant, worry about the expressway that's going to demolish the neighborhood, make time with girls, etc. There's a crooked cop, a community organizer, an unemployed drummer, and Rudy Ray Moore as Goldie, the big-time hustler.

There isn't much of a plot. There's a lot of  jivey dialog. There's one quick hustle that's pretty cute, but you don't get much idea of how Kotto rakes in the bucks. He's pretty interesting as a hustler - I don't think of Kotto as a light, nimble actor, but he does great here. I thought at first he was doing Rudy Ray Moore, but when Moore shows up, halfway through, the difference is like night and day. Kotto is a hustler, but Moore is The Hustle.

Not a great film, but a fun look at the long ago time when a teenaged boy could wear a crop-top tee-shirt, tight cut-off jeans and red Cons and be considered cool.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Centurion 21 and Up

The Eagle (2011) is the other Lost Legion movie made in 2010-2011 (Centurion is the first one). I had heard that one of these movies is great and the other one stinks. I still don't know which is which.

The Eagle starts with Channing Tatum arriving at a small Roman fort in the north of England. He is the new commander and he is going to whip them into shape. There's a rumor that his father was in the Ninth Legion when they were overrun by the natives and lost the eagle standard - bringing dishonor on the army. But a skirmish with the locals both proves our hero's worth and gets him seriously wounded. He is put out to pasture at Donald Sutherland's villa.

But he is soon fed up with hanging around with politicians and parasites and comes up with a plan to head north, past Hadrian's Wall, with a single local slave (Jamie Bell). This 2-man guerilla operation might succeed where a legion would fail.

In many ways, the two movies are alike. The Eagle could almost be a sequel, since it takes place a generation or so after the Legion was destroyed in Centurion. The depiction of the Picts as naked tattooed savages, a little punk, a little Native American, is similar in both. The overall feeling of the two are quite different. Where Centurion was edgy, gritty and low-budget, The Eagle has a more prestige feeling, with more open, contemplative scenes.

There were a lot of fights in both, and I'm not going to score those any differently. I will say that Tatum seems too cute to be a soldier in several scenes. Bell is much more fun.

In conclusion, a spoiler: The eagle standard is being held by an odd tribe of "seal people". I am sure this is a mistaken translation for "seilie", Scots for "blessed" or "happy".

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Pick Up the Pieces

I just got the news today - Elmore Leonard has died. By coincidence, I just saw one of his movie, 52 Pick Up (1986).

It stars Roy Scheider as a cool industrialist, who drives an old Jag to his factory in East LA, and Anne Margaret as his wife, who will be running for LA city council. Scheider comes home one day to discover three masked men with a video showing him and his stripper mistress, demanding blackmail money.

I don't want to give too much away, but it doesn't go too smooth for any of them.

As is typical of Elmore Leonard, the joy is in the characters, especially the crooks. The trio includes:

  • John Glover, as the smarmy b-school dropout pornographer who leads the crew. I was convinced that he was Gary Busey for most of the movie, and I mean that as a compliment.
  • Robert Trebor, as the chubby, whiny, sweaty gay peepshow operator. He was kind of a Jon Lovitz type.
  • Clarence Williams III, as the coke-snorting pistol-cleaning bad-ass stone killer. Very scary. I was expecting him to be the Final Boss.
I guess I don't have much else to report, except there are some scenes that are very hard to watch. Violence against women, let's just say. So rough that I can't really recommend this whole-heartedly. But if you can stomach that, this is a great movie.

Directed by John Frankenheimer, who I'm kind of starting to like.

Monday, August 19, 2013

There Will Always be an England

Sometimes, I want something cozy, fun and not too hard on the brain cells. For that, there will always be British comedy. The Ealing Studio/Alec Guiness stuff is my favorite, but I don't mind second best.

Mary Had a Little (1961) is considered to be the first of the modern British sex comedies. It stars Jack Watling as broke and shiftless promoter Scott Raymond (?!?). He plays it handsome but sweaty, a bit like a blond Patrick McGoohan in desperate Danger Man mode. A psychiatrist claims that he can make a pregnant woman bear the child genius through hypnosis, and Waling bets him a five thousand pounds he can't. His plan is to get a beautiful actress to play the mother-to-be, but she isn't really pregnant, so he can't lose.

Now, the mechanics of this bet are dubious on so many levels - won't they have to wait at least a few years before determining whether the child is a genius? If the woman isn't pregnant, doesn't that void the bet? Hypnosis, really? But so what - it is just a means to introduce lovely Agnes Laurent as the fake mom.

Of course, Watling has a girlfriend who wants to marry him (the lovely Hazel Court, apparently a horror queen for J. Rank and Roger Corman). Agnes Laurent has a boyfriend, a big bloke who plays rugby. People get into compromising situations and it all ends in the police station with everyone shouting - how traditional.

You'd think that Cottage to Let (1941), a spy movie made in the middle of the war, would be more serious. Only barely. It takes place in the hielands of Scotland, at the eponymous cottage and the manor. A number of strangers converge - a wounded RAF pilot, a nurse/daughter of laird, two London evacuee boys, a new butler with flat feet, a lodger (Alistaire Sims!) who has let the eponymous etc. Since the household is run by a vague old Ladyship, this seems quite natural, until you discover that his Lairdship is the inventor of a famous bombsight, and begin to suspect espionage.

And you get it, with many a twisty turn, as evacuee boy George Cole starts sleuthing. There's a lot you'll figure out right away, but I bet some twists will trick you. Here's one that fooled me. The scientist has a very shifty weedy assistant, who is in love with the mad scientists beautiful daughter. But she is nursing the wounded pilot, who is in every way dashing, witty and handsome. Guess who she kisses?

It's a silly movie, with a plot full of holes and tropes. It was taken from a stage play, and shows it, with few sets and fewer locations. Well, it was wartime, you cannae ha'e great expenses. But Syms is having so much fun with his role, and so do the rest of the cast, that you can't resist it.

I discovered both of these because Netflix pushed them on me. They were available on streaming and there when I wanted them. Well done, our Netflix!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Oz the Good Enoough

Oz The Great and Powerful (2013) seems like a good idea: a prequel showing how the wizard got to Oz. It's directed by Sam Raimi, who I like even when I don't much like his movies (*cough*Spiderman), and stars James Franco, a charming actor with chops to spare. So what went wrong?

It's easier to say what went right. After the basic idea, the look of this was amazing. The land of Oz is truly magical. I liked the flying monkey. And ... the ending.

On the other hand, I didn't really like the story of the witches, good and bad. I liked them all individually: Evil Mila Kunis, confused Rachel Weisz, good Michelle Williams (does she remind anyone of Terri Garr? Or do I mean Teri Hatcher?), but the payoff wasn't there. In fact, as their arcs develop, their three-dimensional natures are compressed more and more until they are just flat signifiers. Maybe this is the idea, that Fate or the force of the fable made these women into witches, good and bad, the same way it made the smarmy Oz into the Wizard? No, I think Raimi just succumbed to the cliche.

And speaking of the Wizard, I know the carny version of Oz is not supposed to be a misguided saint, but did Franco have to play him so slimy? I don't mind ham - Franco shows a lot of teeth, but so does Jean Desjardins. But he just wasn't that likable, at least until the end.

Now, the ending I liked a lot. Raimi takes up the slack, picks up the action, and Franco shows what a truly great and powerful Wizard he is. It left me with a much better feeling about this movie than I had when, for ex, we meet the creepy Disney-fied China Girl.

In conclusion, I liked the art direction best. It had a Roger Dean feel, and that gives me a great idea - a feature length animation based on the prog-rock classic Tales From Topographic Oceans. Once we get Roger Dean attached to this project, we can get Raimi to direct, and with Kickstarter funding...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Good to be the King

King Eagle (1971) is a classic Shaw Brothers Hong Kong kung fu movie. It starts with the betrayal of one of the Tien Yi Tong leaders by another. Someone escapes to bring word of this treachery to the council, but only gets to tell a wandering kung fu hero before he dies.

This hero, King Eagle, (Ti Lung) doesn't want to get involved. He tells the bad guys again and again that it isn't his business, but they try first to kill him, then to co-opt him. Neither works, and the beautiful but deadly master played by Ching Lee can't seduce him - he doesn't even notice her.

But later on he meets her beautiful and good sister, also played by Ching Lee. Although they look identical, because she is good, he falls for her. Now his neutrality is over, now he now wants to get involved. Now, he is pissed.

I don't think this is the greatest Shaw Brothers, but it does have a few great spots - the dual role for Ching Le, some neat weapons like the claw fingers, sharp-edged shields and leopard paw, decent fights. Actually, the fights were kind of middle-of-the-road, with some silly wirework, some pointless jumping around, etc. But King Eagle is a great character - a reclusive loner who doesn't want to get involved, but is unstoppable if you push him. Very Clint Eastwood. Even with the cheesecloth hairpiece.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

From the Archives

This blog is supposed to be about my Netflix queue (with some cocktails), but here's a secret - you can download free no-copyright films from The site also hosts a ton of live music, including a lot of Grateful Dead, and the Wayback Machine, a historical archive of the whole internet. But that is by the by.

I recently downloaded a few movies onto my my iPad. Here Comes Trouble (1948) is newspaper comedy starring William Tracy and Joe Sawyer. Tracy is a sad-sack veteran, coming back from the war to his rich sweetie and his job as copyboy at her dad's paper. But her dad hates him, so he gives him a job as crime reporter - a job with a high casualty rate.

Meanwhile, dad is blackmailed by burlesque girl, Bubble Larue, played by Joan Woodbury (wasn't she married to Paul Newman? No? Oh). Along the way, Tracy's army buddy, Joe Sawyer, shows up, now an incompetent policeman.

It all ends in a big fight in the burlesque house - very Night at the Opera/What's Opera, Doc?. It's been done before, but it's done very well here, possibly because it's produced by Hal Roach, who is one of the ones who did it before.

Besides, you know I love the burly-Q.

Her Favorite Patient (1945) is another post-war comedy. It starts with Ruth Hussey, a doctor on her way to Chicago, picking up 3 hitchhiking soldiers named Smith, Smith and Smith. She needs to stop in her old hometown first, just for one night.

Her little hometown has blown up in the war economy, and her "Uncle Doc" (Charles Ruggles!) is one of only two doctors for the whole population. He wants her to stay in town and join his practice. There is a rather sweet scene where she agrees to perform reconstructive surgery on the high-school prom queen's face because Ruggles skills would leave too many scars.

But she still plans to move on to Chicago the next day (I'm not sure how if she really did this surgery on the first night home, but OK). However, John Carrol, who she mistook for her old school buddy Smedly, wants to keep her around as well. He is a fearless test pilot, so he pretends to be fearful to get her to treat him for shellshock (her specialties are plastic surgery and psychotherapy).  Meanwhile, the three Smiths have been pretty much forgotten, but whenever we check in on them, they are meeting nice local girls and don't mind waiting to get to Chicago.

The first half seemed to kind of meander - the Smiths, Smedley, the tearjerking scarred-up prom queen, etc. It was all pretty well done, but left me wondering where it was going. The second half, which concentrates on the hijinks of "scared" John Carrol, are better focused, and also pretty funny.

So here are two B+ movies free for the taking. There are many others - lots of silents, of course, since anything before 1923 is public domain. Lots of deservedly forgotten B movies, but some classics as well, like Rene Clair's And Then There Were None. It's worth digging around in.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Smiling Through

Once more it's time for the Lubitsch Touch: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). The last time I watched a Lubitsch film, I complained about the lack of Maurice Chevalier. This one has him in the title role. He is a lieutenant in the Austrian guards, but a swordsman with the ladies. His first song, "Toujours l'Amour in the Army" pretty much sums up his lifestyle.

His latest conquest is girl musician Claudette Colbert. He is smiling and winking at her across the street, but the carriage of visiting royalty passes between them, and the wink is intercepted by Princess Miriam Hopkins. She is a stuck-up prissy prig, and is inclined to make an international incident over it, so Chavalier has to pretend to be lovestruck at the sight of her. Which works too well - now she wants to marry him.

Chevalier plays this quite broadly (I know, what a surprise), taking the title quite literally. Colbert is beautiful and sexy, and Miriam Hopkins is able, somehow, to appear plain and dowdy. But the ending is a real shocker. So - SPOILER - Chevalier marries Hopkins, but is true to Colbert, until Colbert takes Hopkins aside, explains what men like, and "jazzes up her lingerie". At this point, Chevalier is all about Hopkins, and Colbert is discarded.

We knew he was a cad from the start. We've seen his leer, his wink and heard his Toujours l'Amour song. But somehow, the way he dumps the woman you thought he loved for the princess he was forced to marry, just because she has hot underthings - it gives you a jar.

In conclusion, not my favorite Lubitsch, although I admire his chutzpah. The songs weren't that great, either.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Character Study

My Son, the Hero (1943) is one of those Apple Annie stories: small-time grifter Big-Time Morgan has been telling his son that he is a successful business man, and has to fake up a mansion, wife, etc, when he comes to visit. It's been done a thousand times. The sweet part is who plays Big-Time and the rest.

Big-Time is Roscoe Karnes, the classic wise-cracking character actor. He is the agent of a glass-jawed boxer, played by Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom, the classic punch-drunk slugger. Maxie's ex-wife is brassy loud-mouth Patsy Kelly, with everybody's favorite Italian stereotype Luis Alberni filling out the cast of characters.

If you don't know who these people are, try this one out. I think you'll like them. Karnes, often a cabbie or hard-bitten reporter, gets to show a lot of soul here. He is a grifter and out of control gambler who always loses, but he loves his son and can't bear to disappoint him. Kelly doesn't have a big role (even though she's top-billed) and tones down her act a bit, which makes her easier to like.

The rest of the cast are the straights - Karnes' son, who is a war correspondent trying to sell a lot of war bonds (which is like a con job, but for the government). He falls for a show girl hired to play his half-sister, although there is a nasty rival for his affections.

That part of the story is really skated over. The straight world isn't really for them. This is Roscoe's movie, with Patsy, Luis and especially Slapsie Maxie.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kame. Hame. Ha!

Readers who don't know me might not know that I lived in Japan for a few years in the 80s. People who do know me have heard the stories until they are tired of them. One of the things that most surprised us about Japan was manga and anime. Everyone knows about them now, but when we went we had no idea that grownups spent most of their free time reading comic books, and that you could watch these amazing cartoons on TV every night.

Since Dragonball was one of our favorites, I had to see Dragonball: Evolution (2009). Of course, this is a very different Dragonball. The one we watched was about a little boy with a tail named Son Goku. His master was training him for the Tenkai-Ichi Budokai - #1 Under Heaven Martial Arts Tournament. Goku grew up and fought as a teenager in Dragonball Z. I don't know what happened to his tail. We were watching in Japanese, and it didn't make much sense.

But this is a different Dragonball, a reboot, and in live action. Son Goku is played by Justin Long -- wait, that's Justin Chatwin, with no tail. He is a normal high-school student being raised by a martial arts grandfather (Randall Duk Kim), who forbids him from fighting. We get some good training scenes and a scene where he doesn't fight the bullies, just lets them destroy each other. But the bad guy, Lord Piccololo, kills grandfather and is after Goku.

I guess this more or less follows the plot of the original Dragonball. Goku gets a new master - Chow Yun Fat! - meets cute Chi Chi (Jamie Chung), thief Bulma (Emma Rossum), other thief Yamucha (Joon Park), and bad girl Mai (Eriko, in the style of Bai Ling), all from the comic. I didn't see the somewhat generic Chatwin as Goku, but he had some better scenes toward the end.

If you're not a DB fan, I think a lot of this will just leave you puzzled. If you are a fan, it will annoy you, because it is done all wrong. So I don't know who the audience for this movie. But if you ignore that, it's actually a pretty good kids' action movie. I'd even watch the sequel.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

South of Eden

South Sea Woman (1953) is a funny one - a Burt Lancaster comedy. Funny odd, though.

Lancaster is a Marine MP who is being court-martialed for desertion and other crimes. He refuses to testify or plead, so it is up to the witnesses to tell the story in flashback style.

It seems that he was in Shanghai, rounding up all the Marines as they withdrew in late 1941. Pvt. Chuck Connors has one thing he wants to do first - marry bar girl Virginia Mayo so that she can get evacuated as a spouse. Between one thing and another, they miss the boat, hijack a yacht, get lost, and land on a South Sea island (the woman of the title is a red herring) occupied by Vichy. To stay free, they "pose" as deserters. I use quotes, because by this time Connors really is deserting - he doesn't care about the war, he just wants to shack up with Mayo for the duration. But Lancaster is always looking to get back to the fight, especially when he finds out about Pearl Harbor.

Here come the SPOILERS -- Connors stays pretty resolutely "make love not war" until he decides to go on a suicide mission, freeing Mayo up to fall for Lancaster. Her testimony gets him acquitted (he couldn't testify himself without sliming Connors, so he had to keep stumm), and they live happily etc.

Except Connors, who is probably dead! Nice way to honor his sacrifice, but he was just a dirty deserter, I guess. Really, this was my biggest problem with the movie. Lancaster apparently got this role for Connors, and he is written as a lovable, loving lunkhead, but also: deeply dishonorable, cowardly and treasonous. Of course, the loser in these romantic triangle comedies has to be shown to be unworthy of the love of the girl. But they went too far in this.

Still, now I've seen Burt Lancaster try comedy.