Thursday, September 25, 2014

Extraordinary League of Gentlemen

As you know, I like cozy little English comedies. The League of Gentlemen (1960) was so much more.

The setup is brilliant: A retired Colonel, Jack Hawkins, reads a crime novel and decides that he could pull off the caper. He gathers together a band of seven other veterans, all in disgrace and/or need of money. Then, with military precision, they carry it out.

Since this is a comedy - sort of - you can't expect it to go off without a hitch. But this isn't so much a comedy of errors as a comedy of manners. There isn't a lot of time spent on each of the veterans, but they all have their little foibles. One is a free and easy gambler, also broke. One is a vicar with a line of religious tracts and smutty books. More than one was cashiered for sexual improprieties - there's a bit more gayness in this movie than you might expect. One calls everyone "old darling", a habit he picked up in prison. And Oliver Reed shows up in a cameo as a swishy chorus boy.

Now, this isn't a laugh riot, but it moves right along, even at 2 hours running time. The cast includes a lot of classic British actors of the day, including the recently deceased Richard Attenborough. I didn't really recognize anyone myself (except perhaps Richard Coote, who I misidentified as Naunton Wayne), but quality will tell.

We enjoyed this so much, we're going to look for more by director Basil Dearden.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Onward, Through the Fog

To make a short story long, I'd like to mention a podcast I've started listening to, The Projection Booth. Curt from Mountain View recommended it, because the hosts know what they are talking about, unlike so many other film podcasts. Of course, they favor trashy B-movies, which may or may not be what I'm in the mood for. They have a sponsor promo that goes, "Ahoy maties, this is KAB Antonio Bay... Stevie Wayne here...I still haven't heard from that weatherman..." And even though I've never seen The Fog (1980), I've heard enough about it to know where that is from.

John Carpenter's The Fog starts with old timer John Housman and a bunch of kids sitting around a beach campfire late at night. He is telling them a ghost story, the story of the town of Antonio Bay, where they are celebrating their centennial. One hundred years ago, a ship lost in the fog spotted a campfire on the beach (just like the one the kids are gathered around) and ran aground. And there hasn't been a fog like that ever since.

We meet a few more Antonio Bayites: Tom Atkins who picks up hitchhiker Jamie Lee Curtis. The crew of a fishing boat out for a drinking party. Uptight politician Janet Leigh (JLC's mom!). Drunken priest Hal Holbrook, who finds a sinister hundred year old document. And commenting on it all over the airwaves, nightbird DJ Stevie Wayne, played by John Carpenter's then-wife Adrienne Barbeau.

A few notes:

  • This isn't really all that scary. There's some good tension, and few shocks, some screams from the scream queens, but nothing to insult my sensitive nature.
  • Also, there was a lot of Carpenter's humor, which I like.
  • It was pretty cheaply made, but looks great due largely to the beautiful locations around Inverness and Point Reyes CA - not far from where The Birds was made.
But the main reason I liked this is for Stevie Wayne, the DJ. She has a great late-night DJ voice, smooth, dark and sultry, as she introduces smooth jazz or reports on the strange fog bank. I think I've mentioned how much I enjoy having a DJ in a movie to act as Greek chorus, like in Cleavon Little in Vanishing Point or Shari Belafonte-Harper in Being from Another Planet (MST3K reference). Which we watched right after The Fog.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Curses, Foiled Again

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box (2014) looked like a fun, light-weight boys-own adventure - heck, it's almost in the title. And it came through.

The story is set in a late Victorian steampunk era. A pair of Oxford antiquities professors, the Mundys (Ioan Griffud and Keeley Hawes) and their sons Mariah (?) and little Felix run into adventurer Will Charity (Michael Sheen), who brings news of a map, then disappears. When their parents disappear, the boys go on the lam. Felix is captured, leaving Mariah and Will to find him, the parents and the mysterious McGuffin, the Midas Box.

First of all, Mariah is played by Aneurin Barnard, a rather odd looking young man, with dark, brooding eyes, like something out of Gormenghast or The Sorrows of Young Werther. Or Morrisey played by Elijah Wood. He adds the Goth to the steampunk. Then there's Michael Sheen, who camps around as a kind of Arnold Rimmer as Dr. Who (David Tennant version). We also get Sam Neill as the evil Otto Luger and Lena Headley as the bitchy hotelier, Monica. All played with gusto, in great period clothing. Sheen, in particular, is a bit of a bohemian fop, with high collars, top hats and a jaunty corncob pipe. But Barnard gets to dress up when he goes to work as a hotel page.

About half the story takes place in an island hotel and spa, very steampunk, with lots of glass, elevators cages, cast iron balconies, etc. Very Grand Hotel Budapest. The whole movie was clearly made possible by inexpensive CGI, but we liked the look.

Now, the story was pretty silly. People appeared and disappeared as needed. Mysteries that vast conspiracies couldn't solve are figured out by a smart teen in an instant. There could have been more steampunk, more magic, more action or even more romance (Barnard has a love interest in freckled Mella Carron). But if you aren't expecting much, you might get it.

In conclusion, the McGuffin is OBVIOUSLY a sampo!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Abandon All Hope

Since we were on a Joe Dante kick, we decided to watch The Hole (2009), his most recent feature. Since this is a horror film, I was nervous, but Ms. Spenser was psyched. As usual, I didn't have to worry.

It starts with two boys and their single mother moving into a new place. The older boy is a sullen withdrawn teen, the younger a cute grade-schooler who is afraid of clowns. The place seems nice, and a cute girl lives next door, but it seems there's this trapdoor in the basement. When they unlock the many padlocks and remove the stout beams holding it closed, they find... a hole.

The hole seems to have no bottom, and no features. But soon, strange things start appearing, and they are coming from the hole. The first is more silly than scary, 1980s TV horror show silly. The next is worse, and the final scare is "shit just got real" scary.

But --SPOILER!-- it all works out pretty much ok. So I'd say this movie is scary enough, but not nightmares for months scary. Just about the way I like it, It's got a bit of Joe Dante's humor, a Dick Miller cameo, and some interesting digital effects (it was made for 3D). It also handles the youths really well, which I guess is a bit of a Dante specialty, based on Matinee.

It seems that Joe Dante hasn't really made that many features. We're on our way to seeing them all.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Where Eagles Plummet

One of my first blog posts proposed a film festival of all those WWII films with lots of mountain climbing. I finally got around to the second (and last?) film in that series: Where Eagles Dare (1968). It stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as leaders of a group of commandos infiltrating an impregnable Nazi castle.

It starts real slow, with the team parachuting into the Bavarian Alps, with just a hint that something else is going on behind the mission. For one thing, Burton seems to have brought along a spare sex kitten (Mary Ure) that no one else knows about. For another, team members start dying and Burton is awfully cagey about it.

The mission is to get into a castle and recover a captured general before he can reveal the secret plans. The castle is on a hill, surrounded by a wall, approachable only by cable car. So, quite a bit of commando work - riding the top of the cable car (as if you couldn't guess), climbing walls with ropes (holy Batman re-runs!), skulking along roofs, etc. I loved this kind of stuff when I was a kid, but since I saw it for the first time now as an adult, I enjoyed it while being annoyed at the unlikely parts.

Things start to pick up in two ways: the plot starts to twist and the body start piling up. There is a lot of combat from hand-to-hand to machine gun melee to dynamite bombs. Eastwood kills a remarkable number of Nazis, and none of the good guys get more than a scratch. Plus, double-, triple-, who-knows-how-many-crosses. Alistair MacLean can really write the hell out of this kind of thing - like Guns of Navarone.

So, starts off slow, picks up after a while, but it's still 2-1/2 hours long. Wish I'd seen it when I was a kid and could appreciate it.

In conclusion, lots of people falling to their death in this movie. Where eagles dare, indeed.


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grand Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is not really a Grand Hotel story - the intertwining stories of the strangers who come together in a busy place. It is the story of an author, who meets a rich old man, who tells him the story of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the titular hotel.

The hotel is located in a mythical Eastern European country, in a mythical time between the wars. M. Gustav keeps it running smoothly, taking a special interest in dear old ladies. He takes a lobby boy under his wing, a young stateless orphan called Zero, played by Tony Revolori. Their orderly world is disrupted by geopolitics, as armies and unrest sweep through the region. Gustav takes it all in stride, even going to prison with elan - having his favorite cakes delivered from the best bakery. Of course, the baker's girl is Zero's betrothed, the lovely Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her face.

Many more strange and wonderful things occur, there is humor and pathos, plus flashbacks-within-flashbacks 3 or 4 levels deep. But like so many Wes Anderson movies, it is mostly about its oddball characters, in this case M. Gustave, and about beautiful sets designs, like the Grand Budapest, seen in its glory days, and post-Soviet dilapidation. Between M. Gustave and his hotel, we may dream of a sweet lost age of sophistication and culture. A time, a character admits, that may never have existed.

As usual with Wes Anderson, there is really too much here to get into, but if you like his movies, you'll be sure to like this one. If you don't, you probably won't - might be a little precious and artificial for some. If you haven't seen any, this is a good place to start.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Man or Ant-man?

We finally got around to watching Joe Dante's tribute to B-grade horror movies, Matinee (1993). And by got around to, I mean Netflix finally sent us the movie, after it sat at the top of our list with status "Very Long Wait" for a very long time. Very annoying and makes it hard to orchestrate the optimum weekend viewing experience. But I'm not complaining.

Matinee takes place in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Simon Fenton plays a young navy brat (13? 14?), whose father has shipped out to blockage Cuba. Fenton doesn't really fit in on the base or with the townies, and he's at just the age when he needs to. His main passion is monster movies, which he scares his little brother with. And the most amazing movie is coming to town: director Lawrence Woolsey's (John Goodman) Mant!

Goodman's character is a larger than life B-movie director, something like William Castle. He drives around in a big Caddie with a beautiful starlet, smoking a huge cigar and wires gimmicks under the theater seats to make people jump. So the movie is a collision between B-movies, kids coming of age, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The kids' side of the story is great. Fenton makes a friend, a townie boy who wants to date a student council type good girl, who has a bad boy ex-boyfriend named Harvey Starkweather (any relation to Charles?). Meanwhile, Fenton meets a sad commie girl with long straight hair and liberal parents, who refuses to "duck and cover" when the air raid drill sounds. She was my favorite - she reminded me of the girls I wanted to hang out with.

So, good coming of age movie, good turn by John Goodman as a low-budget movie magnate. BUT! The scenes from the movie-within-the-movie, Mant, are awesome! I think everyone who has enjoyed Matinee says the same thing - "But I really wanted to see Mant." It's the usual dental X-rays causes a man to transform into a giant ant movie, a touch of The Amazing Colossal Man, a little bit of The Fly, and a big dash of The Beginning of the End, the Peter Graves giant grasshopper movie.

One of the scenes shows General Ankrum (Morris Ankrum plays the general in Beginning of the End) explaining the plan in front of a map of Chicago, and watching an ant climbing up the side of a picture of a building as a special effect - pure Beginning of the End. But please! Don't tell your friends about the astonishing ending of MANT!