Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hawaiian Superman

Two things about Moana (2016): it is very beautiful, and it made me cry. The beauty is no surprise: The great artists at Disney working on an amazing subject: the South Pacific. The crying took me a while to figure out.

It started during the first song, Where You Are. It is about the beautiful island young Moana lives on, how it provides everything they need, and how they will never leave. Moana is the daughter of the chief, well loved by all the village she is destined to lead. But the song is laced with a yearning for freedom, for exploration, for the outside world. I don't know how Lin-Manuel Miranda does it, but he sure does. And this was written before he became famous for Hamilton.

Although Moana's father forbids sailing beyond the reef, her grandmother is the crazy lady of the island, and encourages Moana to roam. Also, she dances a fine hula. She has told all the children the story of the Creator Te Fiti, and how the god Maui stole her heart. Not like she fell in love with him, but like he took her heart, a small jade carving, and ran away with it. That brings down a curse on the Pacific, and all living things suffer - except maybe the island where Moana lives.

But when the plague threatens her island, she goes off to get Maui to return the heart. Maui (Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson) is the Hawaiian Hercules, a trickster and a shapeshifter, who gave man the secret of fire and who pulled the islands out of the sea with his magic fishhook. When Moana, after many trials, finally tracks him down, he turns out to be vain and self-absorbs, and he sings her a very funny song, You're Welcome, accepting all the thanks and praise she has failed to offer him.

He also has a beautiful set of animated tats that reflect and even affect the story. These are hand animated in a simple, classic style. The rest of the movie is computer animated, which does wonderfult things to the sea, the landscape, and the lighting. Even the coconut pirates, a goofy interlude that doesn't seem to belong with the rest of the movie, are fun, and there's a great Fury Road payoff.

Although the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs get most of the attention, because they are in English, the Polynesian music by Opetaia Foa'i is lovely and atmospheric. Authenticity was very important to this production, so a lot of the voice cast come from Pacific Island backgrounds, including Moana, 14-year-old Auli'i Cravalho and Johnson, who's part Samoan. The writers spent time talking to the elders all over the Pacific to make sure the story (not traditional) was respectful and realistic. I think that helps make the story hold feel unified and grounded.

In conclusion - Moana is the daughter of the chief, and this is a Disney movie, but is she a Disney Princess? Views differ.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two Nights of Fright

This is a two-fer, and there will be a quiz at the end.

First up: Fright Night (1985), a horror comedy written and directed by Tom Holland. Young William Ragsdale is making out with his girlfriend Amanda Bearse while horror theater Fright Night plays in the background. But he keeps getting distracted by somebody moving into the old house next door - and moving a coffin into the basement.

The new neighbors are Jerry (Chris Sarandon) and his buddy (Jonathan Stark), two very handsome men who are supposed to be fixing up the house to resell. Dorothy Fielding, Ragsdale's single mom is even kind of taken by him (not picking up on the two-handsome-men-living-together-doing-interior-decorating thing). But Ragsdale knows he is a vampire.

Of course, no one believes him. His "friend" Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) teases him and finally takes his money to provide advice on killing vampires culled from horror movies. I just want to pause here and say that Evil is my favorite character by far. He comes from the Corey Feldman school, but takes it way farther, with a grating way of needling with flowery eloquence, and nerdy jerkiness. I actually knew a guy a lot like him, and it's kind of magic.

Far later in the movie than you would expect, young Ragsdale calls in an expert: washed-up horror host of Fright Night, Roddy McDowall. His name, Peter Vincent comes from Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, but he isn't quite in their league. He also doesn't believe in vampires - he comes along only to help Bearse prove to her boyfriend that his neighbor isn't a vampire. You can guess how it turns out.

Skip ahead 26 years to Fright Night (2011). In this one, the kid is Anton Yelchin (more Odd Thomas than Ensign Chekov), his mother is Tony Collette, and Jerry the vampire is Colin Farrell. It is set in a new subdivision in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas - where people come and go and aren't missed, and someone who only comes out at night isn't so strange.

Yelchin is an ex-nerd who now has a hot girlfriend, Imogen Poots and wants to forget his old friends - like Evil Ed. This Evil is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (or Munch-Pants, as Evil might say), more of an ordinary needy nerd, who blackmails Yelchin with iPhone movies of them playing superheroes. In this one, Evil is the one who figures out that Farrell is a vampire, and warns Yelchin not to invite him into the house.

This leads to some funny scenes where Farrell stands smoldering in the doorway, angling for an invite and not getting it. His vamp is a lot rougher than the suave Sarandon. I think he was having fun with it.

The Peter Vincent character isn't a horror host, but a Vegas magician, like maybe David Blaine, but looking more like Russell Brand - but it's not: it's David Tennant, the 10th incarnation of the Doctor. He is successful but discontented, quarreling with his lovely assistant in their penthouse. It turns out he has a hidden reason to refuse to help, and later, to save the day.

So, the quiz. Please go watch both of these movies (in chronological order, I think) and tell us which one you like better. The remake was very good. It had some high-powered actors, clearly having fun. It had a nice take on the mom, who trusted her son, even when he was acting weird, and it paid off. And we love Yelchin (RIP) as a young person in supernatural danger.

But the original is more - original. The romance felt more real to me, less WB - is that just because I'm old? I actually tasked a high-school aged relative to watch these and report back to me on that.

But in the end, Geoffreys' Evil Ed was such a work of manic genius that I have to award the trophy to the original. No offense, Mr. Munch-Pants.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Black by Popular Demand

The Last Boy Scout (1991) is another Shane Black script that really feels like a Shane Black Script - maybe the Shane Black script.

Bruce Willis plays a drunk, washed up private detective who discovers that his wife is sleeping with one of his associates (Bruce McGill). McGill gives Willis a lead on a job, bodyguarding a stripper, and then gets blown up by a car bomb.

When Willis goes to meet the stripper (Halle Berry), her boyfriend, a football player bounced from the league for drugs (Damon Wayans) takes a dislike to him. But when Berry is killed, they might have to work together. The two go to Willis' place, where they meet is obnoxious young daughter.

If you've seen, say, The Nice Guys, you may have figured out that the daughter will be put in danger, and will also save our heroes. That those heroes will fight but learn to work together, trust each other, and even love each other. The villains will turn out to be respectable hypocrites and our heroes will take them down hard (but society is to blame).

But that's not what's important. The quips and the chemistry between the leads is. Director Tony Scott manages to get that out of his two leads - Wills and Wayan - possibly more than they had in them.

I think The Nice Guys does it best though.

In conclusion, I always got this confused with Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, for some reason.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Warcraft Faire

We never played the game but we were psyched to watch Warcraft (2016). We were expecting nothing more than a spectacle, but we got a lot more.

It tells a tale of the olden days, before the Orcs and Men had met. The Orcs' homeworld was dying, drained of life by the force of fel magic. But their great warlock had a plan to open a gate to another, more fertile world. It just required the deaths of thousands of members of a slave race. One of the first warriors through the gate was our protagonist (?), Durotan, his pregnant wife Draka, and his sonorously named friend Ogrim Doomhammer.

When the humans get wind of this invasion, their finest knight rides out to survey the damage and find a human mage on the scene. They ride back to convince the king that they need to call in the greatest wizard, known as the Guardian.

So there are battles, magic, treachery, and romance. The orcs are very cool, with lovingly rendered tusks, tattoos, piercing, and jewelry. Basically, Ms. Spenser loved their sense of style. The humans are equipped with shiny armor, and the scenery and CGI sets are great. Also, Ruth Negga plays the human queen. There are a lot of other "name" actors, but I didn't recognize any (because I am out of touch, not because of the CGI makeup, I guess).

We loved the spectacle, but also the story: it made the Orcs into more than mindless enemies. They have a history, politics, and a culture. Also, the humans aren't all noble and good, but mixed in motives and morals.

But really, it's all about the Orcish style. Let's see what's on Etsy.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Strange Days

We have been waiting for quite a while for Doctor Strange (2016), and it was worth it. I don't even mind the long origin story.

It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, brilliant neurosurgeon and all-around asshole. He shares some banter with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler from the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlocks), who works at the same hospital, but definitely doesn't want him back in her life. Things look good for Dr. S., until a moment of distracted driving leaves him with hands destroyed, permanent nerve damage. He is no longer a surgeon.

Desperate to recover the use of his hands, he travels to Kathmandu to search for Kamar-Taj, the mystical society that might be able to heal him. Their guru, the Ancient One, turns out to be bald Tilda Swinton. I guess making him an old Asian with a Fu Manchu beard would have been too weird. Or maybe James Hong wouldn't take the part.

Now things start cooking. To show Strange what it's all about, Ancient One sends him on a psychedelic sleighride through the realms of mystery and it is a TRIP! This is the kind of thing this movie is for.

I won't bother describing the section of Strange getting training, working with Master Wong the librarian (Benedict Wong) and Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the villain and, basically, the main plot. I want to talk about the characterization. I've mentioned Swinton - I would have liked a venerable Ancient One, but she's always awesome, so no complaints. Wong, who was Strange's servant in the comics, has a nice role here as one of his teachers, played severely deadpan with a sly touch.

I'm not so sure about Cumberbatch - he plays Strange as a wisecracking American, in the vein of MCU's Tony Stark. The comics' version was kind of a stick, who said things like, "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! What evil threatens the Ancient One?" I think Cumberbatch could have played that (keeping his English accent) - but would anyone want to watch? Never mind, he's great as this version of Strange.

But this movie, for me, is really about the magic. The approach is interesting - they use Steve Ditko's hand halos from the original strips, interpreting them as golden sigils the glow around the magic user's hands. They also kind of use his style for the dark dimensions, but I don't think it plays so well. They do use his design for the classic window in his Greenwich Village sanctum. In fact, they expand the mythos of this design a bit.

My favorite part, though, is the magical/special effect that they use the most: A kind of stone-fu, where masonry and architecture bends to the will of the spellcaster. This takes the bent city from Inception to a whole new level as buildings twist and bend, and marble floors expand when you try to run across them. But they don't just stretch, they get more complicated. The patterns on the floor get more complicated, the walls sprout mullions and spandrels and brackets (if those are things) as they stretch. It's very fractal - in fact, at one point, Strange's fingers grow hands, and the finger on those hands grow smaller hands, and so on. Very trippy, and yet, mathematically rigorous.

In conclusion, I'm kind of bummed that Clea, Dr. Strange's magician's assistant from another dimension, in a satin leotard and fishnets, is not in the movie. Maybe a sequel?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Back in Black

The Black Castle (1952) is kind of a Universal horror - it features (but doesn't star) Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff. But it's kind of different.

It stars Richard Greene as an 18th-Century nobleman who is going undercover to Germany to seek out Count von Bruno, who resides in the titular castle. Two of his friends from the African wars visited there and never came back, and he wants to find out why. He arrives with his valet (Tudor Owen) in a spooky old inn, and gets into a fight because he let the coachman eat with him. The coachman, if my information (IMDB) is correct, was Henry Conden, the second guy to voice Fred Flintstone. Anyway, it's a great swashbuckling fight and shows off Greene as a bad-ass.

When he gets to the castle, the Count (Stephen McNally) turns out to be pretty creepy - for one thing, he has a mute servant (Lon Chaney Jr.) named Gargon, and his personal physician is Boris Karloff. On the other hand, he has a beautiful wife, Rita Corday. On the third hand, he treats her cruelly and you know that Greene and her will fall in love. Ah, forbidden love.

But how is this horror, you may be asking. Well, the whole thing starts with a living burial, for one thing. And there is the spooky castle. But mostly it isn't horror - it's more costume adventure. Our hero performs a little derring-do, like wrestling a leopard (in Germany? Imported from Africa, of course). So, all in all we enjoyed it.

In conclusion, Ms. Spenser did not allow me to count this as a horror movie. So I still owe her.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ge-Ge-Ge no Kubo

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is another great stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio that made Coraline, among others. It holds your attention from the first words: "If you must blink, do it now."

The voice-over is spoken as a small boat careens across giant Hokusai-sized waves in a stormy sea, finally coming to ground on a small island. It carries a woman and her baby. Years later, they live in a cave at the top of the island's central mountain. The woman silent and troubled, the baby now a boy, Kubo, who goes down to the village every day to earn a living as a storyteller. He begins his tale with "If you must blink, do it now" and a chord on his three-stringed shamisen. His story, about magical weapons, is accompanied by a stack of paper folding itself into origami shapes and whirling around his head. But when the bell rings at sundown, he must hurry up the mountain, because his mother told him never to be out after dark.

One night, he does stay out late, trying to contact the ghost of his father, and his aunts show up: two scary witches. There is an epic battle and when it is over, Kubo is alone on a beach. His little wooden monkey charm is now a large, grumpy monkey, who tells him that his village is gone, his mother is dead, and they need to hide. He is also aided by an origami samurai who has come to life, and a giant talking samurai beetle who can't remember his past, but is sure that he is a great warrior.

One of the best things about this movie, other than the visuals, is the Japanicity of it all. There's more than a bit of the modern silly/sarcastic style dialog, but also classic strangeness. A beetle samurai may seem strange, but Japanese children traditionally make pets of stag beetles, whose horns resemble a samurai helmet.

In fact, the whole story seems to be based on a Japanese TV show popular in the 80s when we lived there: Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro ("ge-ge-ge" represents terrified stuttering, so "Scary Kitaro"). Kubo wears an eyepatch because his grandfather stole his eye. Kitaro wears an eyepatch because his grandfather is his eye - a little eyeball with arms and legs who bathes in a teacup.

There is plenty of silliness in this movie, but overall, it's more serious than Kitaro. It's fascinating and well-written as well as beautiful. Enjoy.