Friday, August 28, 2009

The Scarlet clue

I'm watching a Charlie Chan movie called The Scarlet Clue. Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective, is being played by Sidney Toler, a white dude. But his son (excuse me, "Number Three son") Tommy is played by Benson Fong, who appears to have actual Chinese blood. I think it's weird that the one played by a White guy speaks in a pidgin English (although he can't be bothered to put on an accent, so he's just talking slowly and ungrammatically) while the one who looks Chinese speaks perfect unaccented English. I mean, it's also weird that they insisted on hiring a white guy for the main character when they were perfectly willing to have non-whites elsewhere in the movie.

Speaking of non-whites, Tommy's comic relief role is mostly played off Mantan Moreland. He spends about 80% of his screen time in bug-eyed terror. It's not dignified, but it's the kind of work that African Americans could get back then. He also engages in a classic vaudeville routine (with his partner Ben Carter, who appears in the film with no introduction and then vanishes just as mysteriously) called "The Incomplete Sentence". Personally, I don't think the routine is racist, but practically everything else in the movie is.

Anyway, you can see references to Mantan Moreland in Bamboozled, which borrows both his name and the Incomplete Sentence routine. I would not recommend this movie unless the words "fascinatingly racist" sound like a good idea.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Man, I've watched Zardoz, I've read the novelization, and I still don't know what the deal is with it.

Watching the movie is difficult, both because it's an incomprehensible mess and because the mind naturally recoils from a seminaked Sean Connery. That's him on the cover of the book. He's wearing tiny pants held up by red suspenders. Do you know why he's wearing red suspenders? Because John Boorman doesn't hate us, that's why.

The introduction explains that John Boorman wrote the screenplay in novel form, then shot the movie in the hills near his home (because even coming of Deliverance he didn't have enough juice to get major studios interested). Then he had a friend help reshape the screenplay back into a novel. He doesn't mention it explicitly, but the clear implication is that everybody involved in the movie was exceedingly drugged up. I'd summarize the story, but it really doesn't make any sense. Likewise, I'd compare some scenes from the book and movie, but almost nothing matches up, so the only thing I could talk about would be how a scene would be incomprehensible in two different ways. I was hoping that the narrative voice would at least convey something of what was supposedly going on, but that does not turn out to be the case.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mayor of the Sunset Strip

I had never heard of Rodney Bingenheimer, which presented a challenge for this documentary about him. However, I was pretty impressed with the next three names on the Tivo's cast list: Cher, Courtney Love, and David Bowie. It turns out that Rodney is someone who's had a fascinating life, and I'd rather watch a documentar about someone interesting than someone famous.

Although in a way, Mayor of the Sunset Strip is a documentary about fame itself. Rodney came to Hollywood as a young man, when his mother dropped him off in front of Connie Stevens's house and wished him good luck. Connie wasn't home, so Rodney went to the Sunset Strip and should have starved to death. Instead, he got a job as Davy Jones's stand-in on The Monkees and went from there to hanging out with Sonny and Cher, and was generally on the fringes of everyone famous in the world of rock and roll for the next forty or fifty years. He was in charge of the backstage refreshments at the Monterey Pop Festival, and Ray Manzarek still sounds kind of ticked off that Rodney let the Beatles eat all the shrimp. He had a club and introduced David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Marc Bolan, Suzi Quatro, and apparently the entire glam scene to Los Angeles. He's not the only one making this claim, you understand; David Bowie is the one actually telling us this.

Then he had an important show on KROQ and broke Devo and the Ramones and the Sex Pistols and Nirvana on radio. At this point, he's famous in his own right, and all the bands of the '70s and '80s know him. We see some home movies of Chris Stein and Debbie Harry on his bed in 1977. It's really quite impressive.

I think we're supposed to feel pity for him because when the movie was made in 2004, he's living in a tiny apartment and his radio show has been cut down to the Sunday night midnight-3AM slot. But he's had an amazing life. And apparently Robert Plant once claimed that Rodney was having more sex than anyone in Led Zeppelin. And it seems like every rock star in the world not only knows who he is but is fond of him. Joan Jett shows up to say a word or two, and she wouldn't even do the documentary about the Runaways themselves!

Thursday, August 6, 2009


There's a great movie theater in Seattle called Central Cinema. Not only does it serve food but it shows random cool movies. It's going to have a Street Fighter marathon, and you can't get more "indie theater" than that. That's the sort of thing that Quentin Tarantino is always babbling about right there.

Not that I saw Street Fighter there. No, I saw a movie much more dear to my heart: Cry-Baby.

Look. I love this movie. Practically every line makes me giggle with glee. It's easily my favorite John Waters movie, and it's right up there for my favorite Johnny Depp movie as well. If you're a movie theater and you want me to like you, I recommend finding a way to show Cry-Baby on a big screen.

It's 19 years old, so it's easy to forget how weird this movie was when it came out. Johnny Depp was "the pretty-boy from 21 Jump Street" and all of a sudden he was doing a movie with Crazy John Waters, who nobody quite trusted to be a "real" director yet. Depp kept claiming that he wanted to break out of the generic matinee idol roles, but nobody believed him. After this, he did Edward Scissorhands, Benny and Joon, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and people were forced to accept him at his word that he'd rather do weirdo quirky roles. But at the time, this was the quirkiest anyone had ever seen him. And he's terrific in it.

This time out, I particularly enjoyed Susan Tyrrell as Ramona Ricketts. I saw her recently in Night Warning, and she's just crazy, over-the-top great in that.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Bye Bye Birdie

Look, just because I'm not focusing exclusively on movie tie-ins anymore doesn't mean I don't enjoy a good novelization now and then. And this really is a good novelization. It was enjoyable to read and made me want to see the movie again, which is really all you can ask from one of these things.

Now, as you may know, Bye Bye Birdie is a musical. That means that they had to decide how to handle the songs. As you may remember, the novelization of Grease just incorporated all the songs into dialogue, with predictably disconcerting results. This book goes a different route: most of the songs are just ignored or mentioned in passing. For example:

At that moment, Kim McAfee, humming softly about how great it was to be a woman, floated rather than walked into her blue-and-white bedroom.

And that takes care of an entire musical number in which Ann-Margret changes clothes while concealing her nakedness under a fuzzy sweater. The telephone song is dismissed entirely!

Now, the songs that are actually sung by Conrad Birdie (the Elvis-knockoff whose name, for some reason, is taken from Conway Twitty) appear in the book. But for the most part, this is just a novelization of "what would have happened if the characters didn't keep bursting into song." With one exception! The "Kids" song appears entirely in dialogue, possibly because it actually reads relatively normally:

"Kids," McAfee said sourly. "I don't know what's wrong with these kids today."

Doris nodded slowly. "Who can understand anything they say?"

"Kids! They're disobedient, disrespectful oafs! Noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy loafers! And while we're on the subject..."

Mama took her head from the oven and chimed in: "Kids! You can talk and talk until your face is blue!"

And so on. It works pretty well, although I have to point out that Doris is not, in fact, in this scene in the movie. There are a few differences between the book's events and the movie's, but almost all of them are entertaining. Like the scene where Conrad Birdie talks about going out on the town and finding himself a filly. Oh my!

Having read the book, I rewatched the movie. It retained its most mystifying element, namely "Why does the title song go 'Bye Bye Bir-HEE' instead of having a 'D' in there?" I also have decided that Conrad Birdie's resolute dopiness is probably on purpose. I guess we're supposed to be laughing at those dopey kids, swooning after this gumbo just because he's dressed in gold lamé. Apparently they wanted the actual Elvis Presley to do the movie, but Colonel Tom Parker wouldn't let him. That's a shame, because you have to assume he and Ann-Margret had some pretty good chemistry.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Singin' in the Rain

One of my favorite movie eras is the early talkies, where they hadn't quite figured out how to take advantage of the new technology. There was a run of fairly rotten (but entertaining) musicals that appeared to be a random collection of vaudeville acts. You can tell them because they have the year in the title, like The Broadway Melody of 1929 and The Big Broadcast of 1936. And it occurred to me recently that Singin' in the Rain is essentially about making a movie in that era. So it was time for a rewatch!

...and it's still good. I think Donald O'Connor's character actually comes out better than Gene Kelly's does. Kelly is just a movie star, but O'Connor is pput in charge of the studio's new music department. That's a pretty good gig!


This, I think, is the first movie I've ever seen where I'd previously exchanged emails with the screenwriter. Ernest Cline wrote a fan script for Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League a few years ago, although he had to take it off his website. It's around, though, if you know where to look. So I happen to know that this movie has some solid fanboy credentials behind it.

It's set in the distant past of 1998, when Star Wars fans still liked George Lucas and "Episode I" was just something to look forward to. I think Episode I gets a bad rap, so it was kind of fun to have characters talking excitedly about it. The idea is that one of the characters is dying of cancer (movie cancer, though, so he only has physical problems when it's time for a plot complication) and the only way he'll get to see Episode I is if everyone piles into a van and drives from Ohio to Skywalker Ranch in California and steals a copy of The Phantom Menace. This will also allow one guy to finally admit his love for the Girl Geek (Kristen Bell) and the two estranged buddies to reconcile.

There's also another guy who doesn't actually have a plot. But he's the most entertaining one, so he ends up taking a lot of screen time, so by the end of the movie, I'd forgotten about the two-friends plot entirely.

A lot of the movie rings true. If anything, there could have been more dialogue lifted directly from Star Wars. I didn't really dig the ongoing "Star Wars fans hate Star Trek fans" angle, but I can allow it.

The sequence at Skywalker Ranch was particularly enjoyable for me, since I've actually been there for a July 4 party. That's not relevant to the review; I just wanted to mention it.

It would be nice to see a movie like this that isn't awash in stuntcasting. In addition to the previously mentioned Kristen Bell, there's William Shatner, Carrie Fisher, Kevin Smith, and Jason Mewes. Also Danny Trejo, but he's really just being deployed the same way he always is, so I think that's just normal casting.