Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Go tell the Spartans, moviegoer passing by,
We all loved watching the movie where they all die.
This movie is based on a comic book about the Battle of Thermopylae. The comic book is by Frank Miller. The movie seems to use equal parts Miller, Herodotus and Tolkien. It's pretty awesome on just about every level. A lot of serious nonsense has been written about this movie. The Iranians were upset, conservatives took it to heart as some kind of defense of the War on Iraq, some American troops identified with the Spartans (Huh?), and then there were the people who took issue with its historical accuracy. (You mean Xerxes isn't a nine-foot tall giant? The Persians didn't have war rhinos or mutant humans? Leonida's wife didn't really like butt sex all that much? Gollum isn't a character from Greek history? Those lying bastards!)
It made the whole cultural experience of the film a lot more fun. But we mustn't let it disguise the essential truth.
This is a great movie.
BANDIDAS - 2006
This movie is too precious! It is just adorable! In Penelope Cruz's first scene, she is playing tic-tac-toe with her horse! And she is losing! Salma Hayek is also great. And they are both totally hot!
It's a tongue-in-cheek, cheesy western, with lavish sets, costumes and stunts. The bandidas are fighting the evil gringo landowners who are trying to steal peasant land. (If it sounds too "politically correct" to you, maybe you should read a little history that hasn't been vetted by Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott.)
The ladies are aided and abetted by Sam Shepard. Dwight Yoakam plays the main heavy. There's also an investigator character who uses scientific methods of crime-solving, so there's a tiny bit of "Wild, Wild West" involved.
No lesbian scene. (Seems kind of dumb to put Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek in the same movie and not have a lesbian scene.) But this is a minor quibble.
This movie is fun. It wouldn't even tax Britney Spears's story-telling powers to explain the plot.
There should be more movies like "Bandidas."
(But not too many more.)
THE DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOUSIE - 1972
Sort of a really long episode of the Twilight Zone made by Europeans. In some circles, this is known as "the movie where they never eat dinner." It's either a critique of capitalism or Catholicism or the middle class. I forget which. All of the films of Luis Buñuel are like this. But he's such a great filmmaker, you don't have to get the subtext at all. (Hell, I never do.)
GO FOR BROKE – 1951
This is a more than adequate war film with a little social conscience that is very entertaining nonetheless. It's about the 442nd Regiment, which was made up of Japanese Americans who wanted to fight the Axis Powers during World War II. The 442nd fought in the European theater of war and took very high casualties and was awarded a bunch of metals. (There is a story about them in one of the EC war comics.) Van Johnson plays a new officer who has been assigned to the 442nd. He must overcome his prejudices against "the Japs" for it to work.
I like this movie a lot. Follows the war film formula pretty close, with one group of characters going from boot camp to the obstacle course to the boat to Italy to combat. But so what. It's a great formula and a fine film.
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE - 2006
This was pretty awesome. Should have won the Oscar. It's about an eccentric family that piles into a van to take a little girl to one of those creepy “Little Miss Sunshine” pageants. I wanted to punch Greg Kinnear numerous times, which showed how great he was in the role. He is an ass, but he gets the job done! Toni Collete is also pretty awesome (and pretty hot). Alan Arkin kicks butt! Everybody is great, even the ones whose names I don't know. See it.
NAUSICAA - 1984
This is a Japanese animated film about a girl with no pants who flies around the jungle on a hang glider and talks to giant insects. For most countries, this would be fiction. But this kind of thing really happens in Japan.
All kidding aside, this is one of the best of the Japanese animated films.
COMMANDOS - 1968
"Commandoes" is about a bunch of Italian Americans who pretend to be Italian army guys and take over an Italian supply base in North Africa in 1942 and fool the Germans for about an hour because they make good spaghetti. It has Lee van Cleef, who could probably take out the whole Afrika Korps by himself, in real life.
Recommended for people who like this sort of thing.
GRINDHOUSE – 2007
The zenith of cinema this year. There is almost no point in going to the movies again for a while. (Except for Pirates of the Caribbean III.) Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez. Rose McGowan. (Yum!) Rosario Dawson. (Yum!) A blonde woman doctor with syringes. (Yum!) A girl in a cheerleader outfit. (Yum!) Kurt Russell. Bruce Willis. A movie about zombies (Planet Terror). A movie about a maniac who kills with his car (Death Proof). Fake trailers, including one with Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu.
They were thinking, What would Tony like? when they made this.
MURDER BY TELEVISION – 1935
"Murder by Television" is an interesting film to see 70 years after it was made just to see the technological status of television in the 1930s. I know very little about the early history of television, but this rather obscure Bela Lugosi film presents a number of competing television companies pestering an enterprising scientist who has come up with some new television technology that will revolutionize the industry. So there must have been a very primitive network of television companies and some sort of programming bouncing around the ether in 1935. But I'm guessing it was the almost exclusive province of wealthy urbanites. And I can't really imagine what the shows must have been like.
So that makes it kind of neat. But it's not really a very good movie otherwise. Thankfully, it's short. Less than an hour long. The version I saw suffers from a number of abrupt cuts, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. So maybe this would be a little better, and make a little more sense, if I saw it complete. (But I doubt it.)
(Those abrupt edits do provide a magical movie moment that has to be seen to be believed. There's one great sequence where Hattie McDaniel finds Bela Lugosi's dead body and teleports right out of the hallway! Good God, is it surreal! I think maybe the most awesome thing about this movie is that it has both Hattie McDaniel and Bela Lugosi!)
So Professor Houghland is going to demonstrate his new technology (which, I must admit, I never did figure out what exactly he was demonstrating). And there's a montage of newspaper headlines about the new invention and how all the television companies are trying to buy it from him. But he won't sell.
There's a guy who looks like Bela Lugosi who works for the scientist. And there's another guy who looks like the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi. The guy who looks like the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi decides to masquerade as the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi so he can steal the plans for the new technology and make a bundle. (Or perhaps he's just trying to figure out what's so great about the new technology. That would be my motive.)
(By the way, Bela Lugosi plays both roles. The guy who looks like Bela Lugosi and the guy who looks like the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi. A casting coup!)
So the scientist demonstrates the new technology over the air and there's a montage of all the rich people who have televisions who are apparently starved for entertainment because it seems they will watch anything. (There are about six televisions in North America at this time, I think.) And the scientist dies during the broadcast, which really pushes up his Nielsens.
So the cops keep everybody in the house. It's about 20 people, including a Chinese houseboy named Ah Ling who quotes Confucius and Charlie Chan, and Hattie McDaniel as Isabel the cook. Hattie McDaniel is awesome. She is so awesome, she teleports! I bet Butterfly McQueen never teleported.
Hi-jinks ensue. It gets very confusing. There are secret compartments and some psychological mumbo-jumbo and a bunch of cop stuff. The guy who looks like the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi eventually gets killed. And the guy who looks like Bela Lugosi shows up and explains everything in a way that clears everything up.
Well, no, not actually. His scientific explanation for the way the murderer killed the scientist is a bit on the baffling side. Very funny, but not very enlightening. It's almost as funny as the scientific explanation Bela offers in the deservedly much maligned "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla."
High praise indeed.
By the way, remembering "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" makes me think that "Murder by Television" isn't that bad. "Murder by Television," after all, doesn't make me lose all hope for mankind. "Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla" makes "Murder by Television" look like "La Dolce Vita."
And if that makes any sense to you, get help.
ASSASSINATION BUREAU – 1969
Where the hell has this movie been all my life? It stars Diana Rigg, Oliver Reed, Telly Savalas and a really hot Italian actress, and it's based on a story by Jack London. It's set in Europe in the years before World War I. And the finale takes place on a dirigible!
This movie doesn't have to be good to be great. But it is good and it is great.
Diana Rigg is totally awesome and totally hot as a reporter bouncing about Europe and getting mixed up in the affairs of the Assassination Bureau, a mysterious organization led by Oliver Reed. The publisher who is printing her work is a brilliant Telly Savalas with a crazy moustache. He is also a member of the Bureau (unknown to Diana Rigg). At the end, Telly looks great in a German military outfit, complete with one of those spiked helmets!
They go to Paris and Vienna and Venice and places like that, blowing things up and shooting at each other. Transitions are made with black and white silent film clips. Diana Rigg looks exquisite in the fashions of the early 20th century.
It's all very tongue-in-cheek and it's always a delight. Highly recommended for people who like this sort of thing.
ROAD TO ZANZIBAR – 1941
This is the second of the famous "Road" movies with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. I loved these movies when I was a kid. For awhile, I thought "Road to Morocco" was the second greatest movie ever made (just after "King Kong vs. Godzilla").
They hold up really well. "Road to Zanzibar" has Hope and Crosby as a couple of sideshow con men bumming round Africa one step ahead of the law. They run into Dorothy Lamour and Una Merkel and head through central Africa for reasons that make less sense the more you think about them. Lots of gags, a few songs and more embarrassing racial stereotypes than you can shake a Klan hood at. Fun, fun, fun. Dorothy Lamour wears some leaves for a time in one scene. Yum!
This movie holds up really well.
ZEMLYA (EARTH) – 1930
The Russians make movies. The Russians make very good movies. The Russians make very bad movies. The Russians make long movies. The Russians make very loooong movies. Good Russian movies can't be beat by any national cinema. (I'm thinking "Alexander Nevsky" and "Andrei Rublev" and "Zerkalo.") Bad Russian movies are just fucking awful. The cinematic equivalent of leprosy. And the black plague. At the same time. (I’m thinking "Stalker" and "Solaris.") Bad Russian movies are like, “What if a German filmmaker made a bad movie on purpose just to torture concentration camp inmates?”
I got a DVD from Netflix with three Russian movies and I approached this a little timidly. You don't know which it is with Russian cinema. After all, "Stalker" is terrible, but it is directed by the same guy who did "Andrei Rublev," which is awesome, one of those movies that make me stay away from the movies for awhile because everything else would suffer in comparison. (Like "Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41" or "Mr. Moto Takes a Chance" or "Here Come the Girls.")
I needn't have worried. All three films are interesting for any number of reasons. And none of the three is very long.
"Zemlya" is on an awful lot of "Great Cinema" lists, or at least it used to be. It may have been pushed off in recent years by "Dances With Wolves" or "Passion of the Christ" or "Aeon Flux" or one of the other classics of the last twenty years. I've been wanting to see it for close to twenty years.
It's a Russian propaganda film of the events of, I guess, the 1920s. The People's Revolution has ushered in a new era for the common man, and the aristocrat is no longer standing haughtily over the poor peasant with his boot on your neck. (He has to skulk around in the dark and shoot you in the back when you're dancing like an idiot.) The people of the collective are all excited because they’re going to get a tractor! And there's a guy who is all gung ho about the Revolution and he gets the tractor! And the old aristocracy is all upset about the tractor. (I forget why.) And one of the old ruling class guys shoots the other guy when he's dancing like an idiot as he's walking home in the dark.
This is pretty good if you like old European movies. It's by a guy named Alexander Dovzhenko. There's lots of scenes of Russian farm life, guys with great big moustaches, women in head scarves and lots of shots of wheat and apples.
Not as good as "Andrei Rublev," though.
THE END OF ST. PETERSBURG – 1927
Sort of in the same vein as "Earth" in that it's a Russian propaganda film, but it's a very thoughtful propaganda film, and well worth watching, if you can handle title cards for an hour and twenty minutes. It was made for the tenth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution by a guy named Pudovkin. It's about a peasant who goes to St. Petersburg looking for work so he can make some money to send back to his starving family. St. Petersburg is in a state of unrest because of how awful the factory owners are, and everybody is striking, but there's always starving peasants eager to work for even less money than the previous batch. Then, when the capitalists get Russia involved in World War I, they send those exact same starving peasants to the frontlines to die in droves for the ridiculous war delusions of the wealthy. The time is ripe for the end of St. Petersburg.
The film focuses on a fairly small group of people and it's amazing how efficiently the story is told. (It's about 80 minutes long.) Some very effective silent film acting. Great scenes of St. Petersburg: sculptures, architecture, neighborhoods.
I liked it.
CHESS FEVER – 1927
On a totally different wavelength is this 25-minute short comedy. (It's by Pudovkin, the same guy who did "The End of St. Petersburg.") The main character is a chess fanatic. He eats, breathes, lives chess. He plays both sides in chess games. He has a bunch of books on chess, numerous pamphlets, bunches of chess boards. Even his clothes! He has checked socks, a checked sweater, a checked hat. (He also has a bunch of kittens in the house. When he's getting dressed, he frequently has to dump kittens out of his shoes and pull them out of his pockets.)
On this particular day, he is supposed to meet his girlfriend to register for a marriage license. He gets so preoccupied with his chess game, that he doesn't even leave the house until he's already two hours late. He is continuously distracted and sidetracked. He manages to walk past the chess store but it is very windy and the street is icy, and the wind blows him down the street and into the shop! Stuff like that.
By the time he meets up with his girl, she has a fit! "I love only you! You love only chess!" she cries, throwing her elbow across her forehead in the best tradition of the tragicomic silent actor. (She is pretty damn funny.) He goes off to drown himself and she runs off to find solace at the family hearth. But it is not to be. Her grandfather gives her a book to console herself: It's about chess. She meets her sister, who has the wedding cake for the canceled wedding: It has a chess board pattern on it. (She knocks it to the ground and smashes it flat.) She goes into the nursery where the toddlers are playing … chess, and the nurse tells her, "Kolya has already mastered the Queen's gambit and he's only six!"
She decides to run off and drink poison, so she goes to the drugstore. It takes forever because the druggist is playing chess with the clerk. Finally, she gets her poison and wanders through the streets. She stops and unwraps the package she got at the druggist's and she puts the phial to her lips and it's not the poison! The druggist wrapped up the queen by mistake!
It goes on from there and it's pretty damn funny. It makes me think of a Harold Lloyd film at times. Very much worth the time of the adventurous cineaste.
FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION: GRUDGE SONG – 1973
This is the fourth film in the Female Convict Scorpion series, all starring the totally awesome Meiko Kaji. If you've gotten this far and you like this sort of thing — the gratuitous violence, the rape scenes, the women in prison element, the dog-eating, the lesbianism — this movie might be a bit of a disappointment. Yeah, there's plenty of violence, and there's a gang rape, but the filmmakers don't seem to be so focused on gratuitous shock value in "Grudge Song," the last film in the series to feature Meiko Kaji.
I like it anyway. Meiko Kaji is just so awesome. The final third of the film shows her character Matsu on death row in a women's prison that is run by women guards who wear gray military skirts, leather boots, leather gloves and black berets. And there's an execution, a hanging, taking place some time before Matsu's scheduled demise that is pretty intense, a cinematic death row presentation that ranks with anything I've seen before in the movies.
But I get ahead of myself. Briefly, the plot is this: Matsu is being chased around Japan by a zealous cop named Komoda. He and his minions find her hiding in a church that's packed with several wedding parties and they chase her around, catch her, and drive her off into custody. But it starts raining, and rain always gives the protagonist extra powers in a Japanese move, so Matsu pulls a rose out of her shirt and shoves the thorns in the driver's eyes and he crashes and she escapes into the rain in Kurasawa land.
She shows up in the basement of a theater that has live lesbian sex shows. (And the odds of finding one of these in Tokyo are … pretty good.) The guy who does the lighting, Kudo, finds her and helps her. Kudo has had his own problems with the cops. Many years ago, Kudo had been a student activist, and the cops grabbed him and tortured him and poured boiling water in his crotch, so his penis is apparently malformed and he's kind of self-conscious about it. (And he also carries a chip on his shoulder for the cop who did it … Komoda!)
So the cops find out that Kudo's helping Matsu and they chase them around Japan, and Kudo finds himself up to his ears in trouble just by hanging out with Matsu. (She is, after all, being sought for the murder of eight policemen. Which, if you've seen the earlier movies, you’re rather inclined to sympathize with Matsu.) Looking for revenge on Komoda, they go to his apartment, take his wife hostage, tie her up, gag her and wait for Komoda to come home.
But he foils them by not coming home. Komoda’'s wife starts acting up, standing up, running around, looking distressed. She runs out on the balcony, they grab her and pull her back, but she gets away around three or four times and runs on the balcony every time. Finally, on the last try, she gets out on the balcony and falls head first over the railing and plummets several stories to the ground. Splat!
They get away again and have sex, and it seems that Matsu may have found true love with a man (with a deformed willy) who is willing to throw in with her and help her out in such disadvantageous circumstances.
But can true love last? Kudo gets caught and they beat him up pretty good, but he won't rat out Matsu. Until they bring in his mother! (What a dirty trick!) She nags him and nags him about that bad girl he's hanging out with, and goes on about how she worked and slaved for him, and this is how he repays her? What a bad son! And he never visits her or calls!
So Kudo tells the cops where they can find Matsu so they will take his mother away, and they go get Matsu in a junkyard, which starts out pretty neat, because she starts picking them off one by one. But then they all gang up on her and arrest her and the rest of the movie is on Death Row in the most stylish women's prison in Japan.
The woman in the cell next to Matsu seems to be taking her coming doom very well, cheerfully humming and painting ideograms on rice paper. The female warden points her out as an example of how important it is to admit you've been bad and come to terms with the spirits to save your soul. The warden is very pleased when Matsu asks to be allowed to talk to the women. She thinks Matsu is coming around to her way of thinking. HAH!
(The warden is kind of a nitwit.)
So Matsu goes in and says all of five or six sentences to the doomed woman. (This speech is longer than all of Matsu's previous dialogue from the other three films put together.) Matsu basically says that the doomed woman's composure is all bullshit, just a mask to hide her fear. "You want to live." concludes Matsu.
And Matsu is right. When the doomed woman walks that last mile, she fucking freaks out! Very effective. It's pretty awesome! One of the best scenes I've ever seen in a prison movie.
So then the clock is ticking for Matsu's turn. But the cops have other ideas, which they carry out with typical (for these movies) efficiency and tact. Komoda really hates Matsu for her role in the death of Mrs. Komoda, and he wants to execute her himself. So some of the cops go and gang rape the female warden of the prison. And she's like, "How can you do this? You are police!" and I'm like, "Jesus, lady! Have you been paying any attention to these movies at all?" (Like I said: Not very bright.) And they say, "You better do what we say if you want us to keep quiet about gang raping you." (I love Japanese movies.)
So they tell her to help Matsu escape and so Matsu ends up escaping down a drain in the shower and she hides in the trunk of a car but the driver is … Komoda! And he takes her to a wooden, makeshift gallows out in the middle of nowhere just as the sun is going down (very Sergio Leone) and they scuffle on the gallows and Komoda falls into the noose and gets hanged and Matsu walks into the sunset.
It doesn't end there! She still has to go and kill Kudo because he betrayed her. Which she does, in about two minutes, wearing her trademark black leather jacket with the wide-brimmed hat. NOW she can walk into the sunset and into cinema history.
I hear there were more Female Convict Scorpion movies, but not with Meiko Kaji. So this is pretty much it for Matsu. But not for Meiko Kaji. Netflix has one more Meiko Kaji film available, "Yakuza Graveyard," and I'll probably see it soon.