Friday, September 02, 2005

My (almost) first Bears game...

So my old friend Andrew Muchoney, Esquire, who I hadn't seen in a couple of months--he's a lawyer and works pretty much constantly--called me yesterday at work. Four Bears tickets for that night's last preseason game had just fallen into his lap. The tickets were even free, which considering the face value was probably like $65 a pop, is something. I'd never been to a Bears game before--I'm not a big sports guy other than being a rabid Cubs fan, assuming that qualifies one as being a 'sports' fan--but it sounded cool, and like I said, I hadn't seen Muchoney for a couple of months.

We were sadly unable to find anyone else to go on such short notice. In any case, I left work and took the El down to the Jackson station, which was like a hundred yards from Andrew's law firm. When I got to the office, a guy there wouldn't let me in. There was some complicated situation going on with an unaffiliated lawyer that Andrew knows who had been hanging around and acting in a manner that alienated several people, including Jen (Andrew's fiancee). After Jen cleared me as not being involved in this matter, I was let in, but nobody knew where Andrew was. We figured he was making himself scarce until this other guy had definatively cleared out.

But no. Come close to 7:00, Andrew comes stumbling into his (personal) office, and tells Jen and me that he had gone to the law firm's library, "closed my eyes for a minute," and basically passed out dead asleep on the floor. (Which is why Jen hadn't seen him when she had poked her head in there looking for him.) Finally he came to, although a button had popped off his shirt in the meantime. I should mention that aside from his normal insane working habits, Andrew had as well been to a Tori Amos concert the night before, and thus was running on even less sleep than usual.

So we finally head out, and grabbed a taxi. The driver laughed when Andrew told him to take us to Soldier Field, noting that it was more than a little busy and crowded out that way. But we told him to go ahead and try. After a short while, though, we got caught in jammed traffic while still many, many miles from the field. The game had already started, and we had no idea when we'd eventually get to our seats, given the traffic and our unfamilarity with the stadium.

And so, and with Andrew yet in a near narcoleptic state, we decided to just head back to the 'burbs and just catch Zombi 3, which I'd rented a month ago after Gangrene Widescreen hilariously reviewed it, and which had been sitting atop my TV waiting for Andrew and I to get together and watch it. The driver mocked us when we basically told him to return us exactly where he'd picked us up, pointing out that he'd warned us we'd never get near the field. And what could we say, he was right.

So anyway, we took the El back to Park Ridge, stopped for a burger, then headed to my place and watched Zombi 3.

And that was how I almost attended my first Bears game.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

It Came from Netflix! After the Thin Man

1934’s The Thin Man, adapted from the last novel by Dashiell Hammett—the money he made from the book and movie series helped destroy him as a writer—is just one of the greatest, most enjoyable films ever made. (As is My Man Godfrey, which also stars William Powell.)

Nick Charles is an ex-detective married to the blue blooded but equally fun loving Nora (the incredibly beautiful Myrna Loy). Both are comical, urbanely witty drinkers of the Dudley Moore ‘Arthur’ variety. Nick is reluctantly drawn into a big murder case, with the help of his wife, who wants to watch him at work. The film is also remembered for the couple’s wire haired terrier Asta, one of movieland’s great dogs.

The film was also a huge hit, and a few years later a sequel was trotted out. Eventually there were six movies altogether, which naturally diminished in quality as things went on. All the films are now out in an essential box set, which also features a bonus documentary on the series.

The first sequel, After the Thin Man (the 'Thin Man' was the mystery subject of the first case, not detective Nick) if not reaching the stellar heights of it predecessor, is still pretty good. There are warning signs, though. The film is bloated—at 112 minutes, it’s significantly longer than the appropriately svelte 93 minute The Thin Man—to allow for a lot of crowd-pleasing comedy and even a few nightclub production numbers. And the comedy is already starting to get pretty broad, a trait that would sadly continue in the four movies to follow. Luckily, though, this first follow-up still holds up pretty well.

As noted, the emphasis is on humor in this one, with Nora looking with amused consternation at all the mugs and lowlifes Nick knows from his days as a cop. It’s a credit to Powell’s charm that we actually believe that Nick has a reputation as the most likeable guy on the planet. Even crooks he’s arrested in the past run up eagerly to shake his hand.

That was a gag in the first movie too. Here, however, we also get its opposite, as Nick is forced to spend time with Nora’s pack of incredibly elderly and snooty bluenose relatives. Even Asta has a comic subplot, when he learns that his ‘wife’ has been fooling around with a wee Scottish terrier. Really, there’s a dog infidelity thread.

The mystery involves the murder of the husband (who really is a most detestable cad) of Nora’s cousin. One of the wide array of suspects, amusingly, is an extremely young and callow James Stewart, this being one of his first movies. The film ends, of course, with Nick getting all the suspects together and solving the murder. The clues that lead to this seem pretty haphazard and lazy, but the killer and their motive is actually pretty good. Watch also for a comic cameo performance by horror regular George Zucco, as a quack psychologist.

I think my favorite moment in this film is when Powell grabs the old fashioned hearing aid of one of Nora’s old relatives and does a gag into it. This must have been an ad lib, because an actor in the foreground—who had been facing Powell but inadvertently turns towards the camera when he starts to crack up—breaks into a spontaneous fit of laughter which he tries but humorously fails to suppress.

I won’t spoil the last minute surprise that ends the movie. It’s a sweet moment, but signaled trouble ahead for the remainder of the series.

New on DVD (08/30/05)...

The DVD of the week is the West German ‘krimi’ The College Girl Murders. How can you turn down a movie about a mysterious murderer in a red monk’s outfit who breaks his victims’ necks with a bullwhip? Oh, and did I mention the squirt guns filled with acid?

This week’s TV season sets include Chef! S1, S2 & S3 (and a ‘complete’ set featuring all three seasons), Combat S5 (broken up in two different sets), Curb Your Enthusiasm S4; history buffs will want to check out the 10 part The First World War; House S1; Married…With Children S4; the Petticoat Junction Ultimate Collection; Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns: Complete Series; and Roseanne S1.

On to movies and such. VCI continues their good work in releasing old theatrical series. Today’s addition is the sci-fi meller Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere. Captain Video was one of the earlier TV shows, broadcasting in 1949. The serial was made two years later. It can be bought for about $20.

Following Star Wars, Mark Hamill enjoyed a Corvette Summer, a ‘70s car chase comedy now available for under $10. Meanwhile, a personal favorite car chase movie of mine, Gumball Rally (about the same race that ‘inspired’ the Cannonball Run movies) is out for the same price.

Image is releasing a double bill of Corpse Grinders and Corpse Grinders 2 for well under $10.

Next week Universal releases a way cool package of eight Hammer horror movies, but this week Warners steals their thunder with a double bill DVD of Curse of Frankenstein and Taste the Blood of Dracula, for under $10.

Ralph Bakshi fans (really? Ralph Bakshi fans?!) will herald a new 2-disc release of Fire & Ice, for around $20.

The minor ‘80s slasher flick Girls Nite Out, famous mostly for it’s killer in a bear mascot suit (!) and an appearance by Hal Holbrooke (!), is out in a no doubt nice edition by the reliable Media Blasters, for about $10.

The very good Viet Nam war film Go Tell the Spartans is out today in a barebones disc selling for a very reasonable $6.

Late Shift, the HBO telemovie about how Jay Leno beat David Letterman for the Tonight Show gig, is out today for about $6.

Noah Wyle is a bookworm action hero in the cable flick Librarian: Quest for the Spear. Around $15.

The sci-fi comedy Mom and Dad Save the World, $6.

The well-regarded martial arts flick Ong Bak: Thai Warrior kicks it for around $20.

Literary hero Dirk Pitt returned to the screen for the first time in decades in this year’s Sahara, under $20.

Shirley Temple fans will enjoy the new Shirley Temple Collection #1; featuring Curly Top, Heidi and Little Miss Broadway, for $20. Meanwhile, Elvis fans will want to groove to the double bill DVD of Spinout and Double Trouble, $8. Fans of The Duke will similarly enjoy the They Were Expendable/Flying Leatherneck disc.

This might not sound like the sort of movie I’d recommend, but check out the fabulous 1995 version of The Little Princess, which moreover is teamed with the same director’s 1993 remake of The Secret Garden. Both for $8.

Monday, August 29, 2005

At the Movies: The Brothers Grimm

I really wish I could say something other than “the critics were right,” but they were. The Brothers Grimm is an often gorgeous film that is at the same time off-putting, markedly confused and disjointed, and in the end, frustratingly lifeless.

The film posits that the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Will, are brothers who make their living as con men, traveling to haunted, superstitious villages and manufacturing menaces that they then defeat, at a dear price from the locals. Jacob (Matt Damon) is the hard headed one, Will the Scholar who believes in the power of the fantastic. The latter takes notes throughout the movie, which presumably later become the basis for the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Or do they? It’s hard to pin anything down in this movie, and that’s one of it’s major problems. During the course of the film we see what I guess are meant to be the origins of Hansel and Gretel and the Gingerbread Man and Little Red Riding Hood. Or is it the other way around? Is the supernatural force in the movie recreating the stories of the Grimms? I don’t think so, but at the climax of the picture, Jacob tells Will something like “You know how this story ends,” with the implication that Will must follow through with the storyline to resolve everything happily. So… are the Brothers Grimm tales based on the events here, or are the events here based on the Brothers Grimm tales? And are these Brothers Grimm supposed to be analogues of the real ones, or flat out inventions? These issues are murky at best.

The main problem with the film is that, whether this is fair or not, it comes off like director Terry Gilliam’s attempt to make a successful piece of Tim Burton-like fantasia like Sleepy Hollow. Gilliam’s visual sense is as striking as Burton’s, but in every other way he’s the wrong director for a Burton-esque film. Hollywood, which never gets past the surface of things, would be exactly the wrong industry to recognize this.

Burton’s love and simple affection for his characters is always readily apparent, while Gilliam’s work has always manifested a dark, cold and sarcastic feel. Things seldom turn out well for Gilliam’s characters, and one imagines that represents his worldview pretty accurately. I’m not sure Gilliam even really believe in the idea of ‘heroes,’ and that in fact is a central idea in movies like The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen, Time Bandits and Brazil. Burton is, in his best work, a sentimentalist who wears his heart on his sleeve. Gilliam has his heart sitting in a jar on his desk, and regards it with fatalistic mockery.

As you may be able to tell, I’m on the Burton side of things. I’ve never really liked Gilliam’s films. Most are very interesting works, and I won’t deny that there is brilliance in them (although less, I think, than many would argue). However, I’ve never really enjoyed being in their company. Burton, however…there’s not a director working today who is more likely to make films I absolutely adore. The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably my favorite film of the last twenty years, and Sleepy Hallow and Edward Scissorhands are right up there.

There are moments of striking beauty in Brothers Grimm, as well as moments of startling and actually unsettling horror. Too bad there wasn’t any sort of coherent structure to contain them.

Coming to DVD....

Last week supposedly saw a “new version” of the extremely fun puppet classic monster movie Mad Monster Party released. I don’t know what makes this version “new” compared to the version already available on a pretty fine DVD. Still, a great movie.

The extremely fine DVD company Media Blasters looks to continue to impress with an October release of Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror, the American dub of the first of Paul Naschy's long series of Spanish wolfman movies. According to DVDDrive-in.com, "The film will be presented widescreen anamorphic, and contain all the footage from the Spanish version, previously missing from the U.S. release, and it will be in English! There will also be a number of extras on the disc including a commentary with [producer Sam] Sherman, radio spots, TV spots, trailers, and more." Cool!

There’s no wallet relief for classic film buffs this November, and that’s not even counting the King Kong sets due out. (Get the one with both Mighty Joe Young and Son of Kong.)

The TV show Fame will now live forever…on DVD! (Man, that’s good comedy.) The complete first season is dancing its way to store shelves on Nov 1st. Jazz hands! Jazz hands, you bastards!

Nostalgia fans will be glad to hear that the classic Boys’ Town, with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, will be out in November. A good stocking stuffer for your parents or grandparents. Hopefully Captain’s Courageous and Wallace Beery’s Treasure Island will soon follow. Also out in time for the holidays is Christmas in Connecticut, another old classic, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Both films are out on the 8th.

The 15th sees the complete run of silent Harold Lloyd (the guy in the glasses who hangs from the big clock) movies and shorts out, either in one big set or three separate editions. That’s just awesome.

Another classic comedian, Huckleberry Hound, also has a four disc set out on the 15th.

On a different note, Nov 18th sees the release of George Romero’s seldom seen 1973 production Season of the Witch.

More classic TV on the 22nd, with the complete first season of Leave It to Beaver. There’s also a limited edition set of the season, which comes in a LitB lunchbox!

Due out "around January" is a new Roger Corman collection from Fred Olen Ray's Retromedia DVD company. It features Last Woman on Earth, Creature from the Haunted Cave and the very rarely seen Battle of Blood Island. The disc is chock full of extras, including appearanced by Corman himself, and will supposedly retail at a low, low 'suggested' price of $20, meaning you'll be able to find it for under $15. Details can be found at DVDDrive-in.com.

DVD bargain of the day...

Deepdiscountdvd.com is selling Stephen Chow’s nearly as good precursor to Kung Fu Hustle (possibly this year’s best movie), Shaolin Soccer. The original Chinese cut and the Miramax redo are both on the disc; definitely stick with the former. The disc is about $9.36/53% off, with DDDVD there’s no shipping charges but you do pay tax.