Monday, May 30, 2016


Here's a fun TV series for you to watch: Fargo (2014-2015). Althoug, this is the TV version of the Coen Bros. black comedy, all it really shares is its style. It doesn't have any of the same characters or plot, but takes place in the Minnesota/Dakotas region (and the exaggerated accents show it), and feature horrible acts of violence performed by both monsters and ordinary people, while the decent folk of the law enforcement community do the best they can.

We've seen both seasons currently available. The first one stars Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) as a henpecked, bullied insurance salesman. He meets Billy Bob Thornton, a hitman and force for evil, and soon gets in way over his head. No one in his small town suspects him of anything, except for Alison Tolman, the Marge Gunderson type in the story - an unglamorous policewoman with good instincts and the drive to solve the murder of her captain. And, yes, she does wind up pregnant, like Marge.

The second season takes us back to the late 70s, when Tolman's character was just a kid, and her father was a policeman. A beautician (Kirsten Dunst) runs down a punk member of a major crime family, and instead of reporting it, she decides to hide the body and clean up the car. Hiding the body is easy, because her husband is a butcher (Jesse Plemons). As a gang war breaks out around them, she just tries to actualize her true self (and maybe run away to California). The policeman (Patrick Wilson) and his father-in-law, sheriff Ted Danson, try to keep the lid on things.

Those bare sketches don't give you much of an idea what the show is really like. First of all, the settings: Realistic and surrealistic. The small town Main St, the empty snow-filled highways, the dumpy and the upscale homes, the provincial people, the ice fishing. Then there is the deadpan comedy - each episode starts with the statement that the story is true, with only the names changed. You fooled me for the movie, won't get fooled again. Also, the recap at the start of the show is introduced, "Erstwhile, on Fargo". And let's not forget the flying saucers.

It is also incredibly bloody and tense. Not only are people killed in terrible ways, but innocents are menaced in ways even more horrifying, letting you know that no one is safe and nothing can protect you. It can make the show tough to watch. When we were waiting for the next disc, we felt a little relief to watch something less tense.

Still, with great writing, classy, name-brand actors, and an off-kilter sense of place, we'll keep watching as long as they keep making them.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

This Thing Called Life

It's funny, but until now, we'd never seen Purple Rain (1984). It took the occasion of the Purple One leaving this sphere to get us going.

The movie actual starts with Prince and the Revolution performing "Let's Go Crazy" - "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Life." After this wild scene, we meet Apollonia, a broke kid from the sticks coming to the big city (Minneapolis) to make it big (or just to "make it after all"). When she walks into the nightclub, everyone ignores her, except Prince and his rival Morris Day.

Morris Day is a lot of fun here - he plays a super-vain dandy, calling for a mirror in the middle of a number with his band, the Time. He is a great dancer, in that odd MC-Hammer style of 89s dancing: knees out, hips up, like you're wearing parachute pants. But of course, he isn't, just sharp suit with a zebra collar.

Prince is a little harder for me to lock onto here. I expected an Apollonian love-diety - cool, lofty, imperturbable, almost detached. Instead, when he wasn't on stage, he was a little tentative, uncertain, and shy. He is also a total dick to his band members, Lisa and Wendy, refusing to listen to their compositions and insulting them. His courtship of Apollonia starts out smoldering - he gives her a silent, thorough once over in the club - but he also acts like a jerk to her, playing tricks on her and demanding she trust him.

I'll skip over his family problems, except to say that Clarence Williams III plays his dad. I guess Prince's persona made sense against that background, but it is so weird to think of him as human. I prefer to think of him as a perverse force of nature.

Apollonia's band was basically an excuse for them to pose in lingerie. Her acting was about par for a lot of 80s hair-oriented actresses. The crowd at the club were super 80s too, from the asymmetric hairdos to the star, rainbow, etc warpaint makeup.

But the songs were the best - Prince performs 4-6, including "Darling Nikki", "When Doves Cry", and the climactic "Purple Rain". For this, he unbends and gives some credit to Wendy and Lisa, and I guess everyone forgives him.

Not a great movie, but great music, and good fun. We've queued up Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, but they are on Very Long Wait allocation. We'll see if we ever get them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Here Comes Another One

Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986) has the distinction of being one of the first Jet Li movies - his third, the last of a trilogy of Shaolin films. Other than that, it has very little to distinguish it.

Jet Li is a Shaolin monk who runs away to assassinate an evil warlord, mainly by posing as a lion dancer. He meets three other monks with the same aim, one who is secretly a woman, and his soulmate. That's about it for plot, and about all you need. So, how are the fights?

The fights are great - very Shaolin. They are pretty tightly choreographed, so there is a stylized, sparring feel. Not exactly realistic, but done with great skill. The movie in general is silly fun, plus there's cute young Jet Li.

As I've said, sometimes I just want to watch some kung fu. This was that. It featured very good kung fu with few distractions. It didn't break new ground, send an artistic message, or thrill me to the core. But it was very good at what it did.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I've said a number of embarrassing things about my love... well, appreciation of Keanu Reeves in this blog. I won't link, just look it up. Now that we've seen John Wick (2014) I feel that my feelings are justified. This is a good, hard-driving action movie.

Ms. Spenser went into this knowing nothing about it, and that might be the best, but it was spoilt for me, so I'll go ahead and spoil at least the first act. Keanu is John Wick, an ordinary guy who loses the love of his life to cancer. After she's gone, she sends him a beagle puppy to keep him company, and he begins to live again. But some Russian punk mobsters steal his hot Mustang and kill his puppy.

There, I said it. I knew it was coming, and was dreading it, dreading even more what Ms. Spenser would think - Ms. Spenser who has a dog that she loves very much. It is handled fairly sensitively, not dwelt on, but they make it clear that it is not in any way excusable. The car, he could overlook. Not the dog.

The twist turns out to be that Wick is a retired hitman, the best ever. So he resolutely, methodically and completely wipes out everyone who wronged his pup in acts 2-5. The action is sweet, cartoonish, yet realistic. For instance, he carefully puts an extra two rounds in everyone he kills. There is a good deal of hand-to-hand, and it looks like Keanu has been studying martial arts.

The world this takes place in is an odd kind of Mobland. After Keanu kills a batch of assassins in his house, a cop shows up at the door - with a noise complaint. He sees a body and says, "You working again?" Then leaves and tells him to keep the noise down. Keanu calls the special body disposal service and pays them with a gold coin. These coins are the "coin of the realm" in this world. You can buy entry to a mob nightclub or a stay in a neutral hotel that forbids "business" on the premises. It's not too obtrusive - not like Sin City or something - but a touch surreal.

It had a great, almost art film look, with rain, smoke, and neon. It had good action - Keanu can really move. He still has a kind of limited range of emotions - suffering, pissed off, blank (or stoic?) - but that's about all he needed for this type of movie.

In conclusion, Keanu Reeves is no longer a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Like It

What's your favorite play by Shakespeare? For me, it's probably As You Like It (1936), although perhaps not this particular performance. It has two clowns, Jaques and Touchstone, lots of songs, romances, and lots of cross-dressing.

If you remember, it is mainly about Rosalind, the daughter of an exiled duke, who flees to find her father in the Forest of Arden. She is pursued by Orlando, but since she is dressed as a man, he doesn't recognize her. Now, in this film, Rosalind is played by Elisabeth Bergner - an Austrian with a broad accent. So you'd think anyone would recognize her by her voice alone. But realism is not this play's strong point. Also, Orlando is played by Laurence Olivier with great zest and elan, but maybe not so much intelligence.

The adaptation was suggested by J.M. Barrie of Peter Pan fame, so I hate to complain, but they hacked the play up quite a bit to get it down to 90 minutes. It has all the plot points, the 7 Ages of Man soliloquy, the songs and so forth, but seems pretty bare bones. It also seems to emphasize odd points in the play: Was Orlando really so focused on his education? Were Rosalind and Celia really supposed to be so vapid and careless? I suppose so, but in more rounded version, it might not show.

Anyway, the staging was very nice - stagey but with class, lots of running water and an art deco palace. Jack Cardiff was cinematographer and it was edited by David Lean, so it looks good. Rosalind's heavy accent was a little weird, but since she spends most of the play as a woman disguised as a man pretending to be a woman, that's a minor issue.

In the end, I liked the roughly contemporaneous Midsummer's Night Dream better, but this was fun. Now I want to see the Kenneth Branagh As You Like It from 2006, but of course, Netflix doesn't have it available.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Spoilers Welcome

Well, we finally watched Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015). Since December, I've been obnoxiously shouting "No spoilers!" to anyone who watched it in the theater. Now that I've seen it, I wonder why I was making all that fuss.

So, I assume you guys have all seen it, and don't mind me spoiling the big reveal about Jar-Jar -- but I have said too much. Nah, just kidding. I won't say anything about the members of the original trilogy who show up. The new guys are a lot of fun:

  • Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs): the cool hotshot rebel pilot 
  • Finn (John Boyega): Storm trooper gone AWOL. Of course, as a Storm Trooper of color, he was assigned to Sanitation
  • Rey (Daisy Ridley): Orphan on desert planet who finds a droid - remind you of anyone?
  • Rylo Kenny (?): The mysterious new Darth figure

I thought the tone and style was right in line with the grandeur and sens-a-wonder of the original trilogy. J.J. Abrams didn't put too much of himself in (a few lens flares, maybe) - we had just watched Star Trek into Darkness, so we were attuned. The parallels and callbacks were cute, not too excessive. We thought the same thing about Abrams' Star Trek movies - he gets what made the originals great, and he brings it back.

But I'm afraid some of the big emotional beats - the "Chewie, we're home" moments - didn't really do it for us. I'm afraid there wasn't a damp eye in the house, at least in our house.

Still, a good action film, and worthy member of the franchise. I still haven't seen eps 2 and 3, but I'm willing to pronounce that trilogy a misfire. If Force is any indication, I'm looking forward to the next two.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Charming Billy

I went into Billy Budd (1962) blind - I've never read the book in school, knew nothing about the movie. But Terence Stamp in the title role was all I needed to know.

Billy Budd (Stamp) is a saintly young sailor during the Napoleonic War. He is taken from the merchant ship The Rights of Man to the warship Avenger. He was much loved on his old ship, but the new ship is a harsher place, with floggings administered for no good reason. Or maybe the reason is the pleasure that they give the master-at-arms, a puritan played by the reliably evil Robert Ryan.

Now the captain seems like a reasonable man - he's played by Peter Ustinov, who is also directing. I expected a more Capt. Bligh-like captain, maybe because of Ustinov's resemblance to Charles Laughton. The rest of the officers understand that Ryan is mad, and needs to be restrained. But it is wartime, and the strict naval discipline means that mutiny is never far off. So they let him have his way, leading to tragedy. Suffice it to say that Billy is a bit of a Christ figure.

It's an interesting role, all sweetness and light, everybody's friend, but strong enough to stand up to any bully. His only flaw is a stutter, which leads to his doom. This would make him a pretty unbelievable character, but, well, it's Terence Stamp. He could make you believe that he was that sweet, loving and innocent. That angelic face.

The movie is shot on a real ship (as far as I can tell) and looks great. So there's that for all you fans of seafaring tales. For fans of Man from U.N.C.L.E., David MacCallum has a small role.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mondo Cane

The Golden Cane Warrior (2104) is another one of those streaming martial arts movies that I watch when Ms. Spenser is working. Since the dialog is in another language, it doesn't distract her. Usually that language is Chinese, but this one was different. When I heard "Terima kasi" ("thank you" in Bahasa), I realized that this was an Indonesian film.

It is pretty much the usual martial arts film - an old woman has defeated many enemies and trained their children in martial arts. She tells one that she will inherit the Golden Cane, which makes a warrior unbeatable. This causes two of her other students to turn on her and steal the cane. It's nice to see an equitable mix of men and women in this world, but other than that, this is pretty standard stuff. There is some ikat cloth but not a lot of Indonesian feel to it. I would have liked to see some kris (wavey knives) fighting, some gamelan music, etc.

Still, a good little movie, with some nice cinematography, and decent acting. The fights aren't the greatest, but not too shabby. Well worth a watch.

Update: I'll admit it, I visited Indonesia a few times in the 80s - maybe 20 days total. As a result, I have an immense knowledge of Indonesian culture. I had a terrible time resisting the temptation to load this review up with every Indonesian think I know about - like pencak silat, Barong dance, shadow puppets, nasi goreng, and bir Bintang. I hope you appreciate my restraint.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hey, Babe, Take a Walk on the Wild Side

I put Walk on the Wild Side (1962) purely because of its famous credits sequence, a long tracking shot of a black cat stalking through an alley. It's pretty neat, but the rest of the movie more than lives up to it.

It stars Laurence Harvey as Dove, a decent though down-and-out Texan trying to get to New Orleans to find his girl. He runs into Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda), who tries to seduce or rob him, whichever. When she tries to rob the Mexican woman (Anne Baxter) who runs a chili joint outside of town, he gets rid of her. Soon, he is searching the city while working at the chili joint, while the owner moons over him.

We finally meet his girl, a French artist played by Capucine. She is resident in an ill-defined establishment for women run by Barbara Stanwyck. Ms. Stanwyck has a curious affection for the girl - she doesn't want her working the nightclub downstairs, but needs her to make up to a local politician.

The whole thing is rank with prostitution, lesbianism, unrequited passion, jazz music, blackmail,an amputee, and the heat of New Orleans. It was adapted from a novel by Nelson Algren, Chicago's famous chronicler of the underbelly, a writer and poet, labor organizer and drunk, man-whore and lover to Simone de Beauvoir. I assume it was toned down quite a lot for the movies - they never say that Stanwyck is a lesbian who runs a whorehouse, but it could hardly be plainer. Ed Dmytryk gets to use a lot of his noir technique, but this is really a slumming melodrama.

In conclusion, the cat credit sequence is by Saul Bass.

Monday, May 2, 2016

No Mystery

I've mentioned our love for Mr. Moto before, once or twice. So it's no mystery that we queued up Mysterious Mr. Moto (1938), which I think is one of the better ones.

It starts on Devil's Island, with French (Leon Ames) and Japanese (Peter Lorre) murderers escaping through the swamps and setting sail for London. Mr. Moto, in disguise as a jailbird, offers to act as Ames' houseboy. From there, he sets about tracking down the head of the infamous Leaue of Assassins. He lets his old friend in Scotland Yard know that he is on the job, but prefers to play a lone hand.

Some people are upset about the "so solly, please" stereotype - but of course that is a ruse. He is actually a well-spoken snappy dresser, plus martial artist and master of languages and disguise. This movie takes him to Limehouse, London's waterfront district, famed for Asians and sailors. He not only gets into bar rumbles, but woes a pretty Asian woman of the night. She is played by Lotus Long, a character actor of Hawaiian/Japanese descent who used a Chinese sounding name to avoid anti-Japanese sentiment. She seems like a very intelligent actress, and is one of my favorite parts.

There's quite a bit of action, with a stuntman standing in for Lorre. Along with the exotic backgrounds, this makes for a fun movie. I hate to keep harping on this, but it is so miles beyond the kind of budget allowed for a Charlie Chan. Enjoy.