Saturday, June 28, 2014

Flash in the Pan

Royal Flash (1975) seemed like it couldn't miss: Richard Lester directing Malcolm MacDowell, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, plus Florinda Bolkan and Britt Ekland. Based on a story and script by George MacDonald Fraser, from the beloved Flashman stories, about the most boastful, lustful and cowardly cad and bounder in the British Empire. Oh Mr. Lester, where did it all go wrong?

It isn't the plot - Florinda Bolkan as Lola Montez seduces MacDowell as Harry Flashman into following her to Germany, where Oliver Reed as Bismark forces him into a Prisoner of Zenda situation. There are fights, slapstick, sexiness, overlapping dialog and other Lesteresque goings on. The main problem is that our Flashman is less lovable than we remember from the novels. His cowardice, vainglory, bigotry, sleaziness and dimwittedness all come across, but not his charm.

Still, it's a lot of fun if you like this sort of thing. I particularly liked Bolkan as Lola, although it reminded me of Ophuls' Lola Montes, a better movie though also flawed. The delirious camerawork, twirling around lovely Lola on her trapeze... Sorry, I got distracted.

Anyway, too bad about this. It had a lot of promise, and really, it came close to Three Musketeers level greatness at times. Maybe needed more Roy Kinnear.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not with a Bang but with a Giggle

The World's End (2013) is the third movie in Edgar Wright's loose "Cornetto Trilogy": Three movies (with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost thematically connected by a critique of English social conformity and ice cream novelties.

This one features Pegg as the guy you used to pal around with in high school or college who never grew up. He wants to get a bunch of his old buddies together to finish a legendary pub crawl - the Miracle Mile, 12 pubs in one night. As young men, they mad a strong attempt and had the greatest night of their lives. Or at least the greatest of Pegg's life. The others have moved on, gotten married, and in Frost's case, stopped drinking. Yet somehow, they all show up.

This setup is funny enough. The grownup middle-class Brits confronting the wacked out loser they used to like. The pubs that have grown up and gotten complacent too. The nostalgia for those good old days and the relief that they are over, and reluctance to relive them, unless you never left. But as the night goes on, things start getting weird, then weirder. Then deadly.

One of the things I like about Wright's comedy is its precision. Here we get 12 pubs, each with an olde-fashioned pub name, and each name states a theme for the visit: Starting at the First Post, then onto the Old Familiar, which looks just like the first pub, and so on. Of course, there are ordinary jokes and pratfalls, but there is a lot of formalist humor (is that a thing?), where the joke is in the symmetry or symbolism. My analytic mind loves this stuff.

In addition, a hobbit, Martin Freeman, and a 007, Pierce Brosnan, are on hand for the festivities.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mad Max

Maximum Overdrive (1986) was Ms. Spenser's idea - well actually Filmsack's idea, as they are planning to do it soon. Anyway, she's a fan of Steven King, and this is the only movie he both wrote and directed, and (like all Filmsack movies) it was on streaming, so...

It starts with the Earth passing through the tail of a comet and strange things start happening. First, a drawbridge opens while still full of cars, to an AC/DC soundtrack - probably coming from the van with the big AC/DC logo on the side. Yes, AC/DC does the soundtrack to this movie. They must be Steven King fans too.

The concept is that all the machine's have come to life and started to try to kill people. Most of the action takes place at a rural shithole truckstop, where patrons and workers (including hero Emilio Estevez as a good-hearted but dangerous ex-con fry cook, Laura Harrington as the spunky waitress and Yeardley Smith as a just-married bride) are trapped by rampaging semi trucks. Many people are crushed, dismembered or otherwise inconvenienced.

This is pretty much a horror comedy, played for laughs. It didn't look like it had much budget, although that might have been due to King's limited vision. Or maybe it was intentional - a conscious homage to drive-in horror. Either way, kind of fun.

If you're wondering why King never directed another movie, King says, "Did you see Maximum Overdrive?"

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Puttin on the Ritz

I've been a Richard Lester fan since I saw A Hard Day's Night and Help. I fell in love with his Three Musketeers when it came out. So why did it take me so long to discover The Ritz (1976)?

Jack Weston is a fat schlub from Cleveland. But his wife is Kay Ballard, the daughter of a New York mafiosa, whose dying wish is that Weston should be rubbed out. Ballard's brother, Jerry Stiller, is happy for the chance. So Weston goes to hide out at the last place anyone will look for him, which turns out to be The Ritz, a fabulous gay bath house.

The movie is based on a play, and you can almost tell from the 3-story art-deco set, a mix of glamour and seediness. We meet the habitues, including queeny F. Murray Abraham, chubby chaser Paul B. Price and two hunky bellhops called Tiger and Duff. The entertainment is Rita Moreno as Googy Gomez, a sort of Puerto Rican Bette Midler figure. Add in Treat Williams as the dim detective assigned to find Weston, then mix up identities, gender and preference, an you've got a farce on your hands.

It looks like I've never mentioned Noises Off, one of my favorite farces. "Doors and sardines, it's all about doors and sardines." People who go down one set of stairs while other people go up another. In and out of each other's rooms, hiding under beds. That's what we get here, with the added fun that most of the participants are as gay as May in Paree.

There are a number of amazing turns here - Abraham and Williams stand out. But I've got to give it to Rita for her Latin Spitfire turn. Just hearing her say the name of her arch-nemesis producer Seymour Pippin ("Simooorrrrr Peepeen") is side-splitting.

In some ways, it's amazing that such a free-spirited, gay-friendly romp could be made in the mid-seventies. Of course, it was before Reagan and AIDS, so maybe not so amazing.

In conclusion - just see it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Rest in Pieces

I guess R.I.P.D. (2013) kind of sank without a trace. In case you don't remember it, it stars Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges as buddy cops, with the twist being: They are dead.

It starts with still-living policeman Reynolds hiding something from his hot girlfriend. We discover that it is some gold that Reynolds and partner Kevin Bacon stole from the bad guys, and plan to keep, because they aren't exactly good guys. But when Reynolds starts talking about giving it back, Bacon kills him.

Instead of going to judgement, he gets assigned to a dead policeman squad by celestial bureaucrat Mary-Louise Parker. His partner will be old-west lawman and annoying storyteller Jeff Bridges. Their job: Make sure the deados don't stick around one Earth, stinking up the place.

So, this is obviously Men in Black crossed with Ghostbusters. The big special effects (which start right out the gate, before the credits) are kind of fun, and Jeff Bridges is pretty decent as the crusty old-timer. Kevin Bacon makes a pretty scary bad guy, what with his skull trying to pop out of his face and all. But Reynolds is kind of an inert blob here (always? In every movie?), and overall, the jokes don't make it over the gate.

Still, it has its moments, like the little cowboy song Bridges sings, "Better Man". Since it was written by T-Bone Burnett and all, this made us queue up Crazy Heart.

In conclusion, I kind of liked the Boston locations. I wonder when they are going to make a movie about Portland, and film it all in Boston?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Masks and Badges

Time for a little goofy kung fu action. First up: Black Mask 2: City of Masks (2002). This is the sequel to Black Mask starring Jet Li, but this time American Andy On wears the mask. He is searching for a geneticist who can reverse the artificial mutations that make him a super-assassin. And he better be quick, because someone is killing the world's geneticists before he can get to them. Also, one of them, Theresa Herrera, is a cute babe who has a phobia about being touched.

If you remember, the original Black Mask featured Karen Mok and/or Francoise Yip getting into odd bondage situations. Herrera's little psychosexual problem serves the same function here - basically, comic relief.

But that's not the real story here - the real story is about a bunch of pro wrestlers (including Traci Lords?!?) who have also been artificially mutated, and then Black Mask is double-mutated by Scott Adkins, and then other stuff and so on. All of this is directed by Hark Tsui, with a plenty of over the top silliness, but maybe not enough. Or maybe it just needed Jet Li and Karen Mok.

On to Badges of Fury (2013). This one does have Jet Li. It's directed by newcomer Tsz Ming Wong but has fight choreography by our hero Corey Yuen. Jet Li and Zhang Wen (The Sorcerer and the White Snake) play police partners, Li the grizzled veteran, Wen the eager youngster, working for cutie Michelle Chen. The crime they can't crack are the Smile Murders - famous people suddenly dying with smiles on their faces. The relation turns out that they are all engaged to starlet Shishi Liu. Is the killer her super-sexy sister?

Well, that's not really the point. This is really a comedy with a wildly variable realism/surrealism level. The fights are over the top wirework fiestas. The jokes range from wordplay about other Jet Li movies to goofy "beat-cheeks" sound effects when the cops take off from their enraged boss. Some of it is funny, some of it is lame and some is just a normal cop action movie (or is it a subtle parody).

All over, not so good. The inconsistent style is one problem, the inconsistent quality level another. But there are plenty of good stretches, so I enjoyed it.

In conclusion: Older Jet Li seems to be channeling Chow Yun Fat, his quiet, mature strength. In long shots, I kept forgetting who I was watching.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Rash Ambler

I was reading Movie Morlocks recently, and Greg Ferrara was writing about Highly Dangerous (1950). Since it was available on Netflix streaming, I figured what the heck. It's based on an Eric Ambler story, and he's always fun.

Ambler tends to put regular people into extraordinary situations and then let it play out in a more or less realistic way. Here, our heroine is Margaret Lockwood, a mild-mannered entomologist, who is recruited by the government for a spy mission. The recruiter, Naunton Wayne (one of the upper-class twits from The Lady Vanishes) needs an expert in insects to go to an Eastern Bloc country and find out what bug they are going to use for bio-warfare. She refuses, but change her mind when a radio adventure serial tickles her sense of adventure.

Once in Freedonia, she meets up with hard-bitten newsman Dane Clark, who speaks the local lingo (Turkish, according to my wife). I don't want to tell too much about what happens next, except that she somehow gets the idea that she is in one of those radio serials, and gets in way over her head.

It's a lot of fun although pretty far fetched. I liked Dane Clark a lot. He's got a kind of hangdog face and Brooklyn delivery that reminds me of Lloyd Nolan. Lockwood is pretty good, a little older than the ingenue in The Lady Vanishes, and more believable as a scientist.

Not the greatest thing we've ever seen, but I liked it a lot (Ms. Spenser thought it was a bit too silly). Of course, this is in one of my sweet spots - old, black and white noir or thrillers, with a touch of comedy. I don't know why Netflix didn't suggest it.