Friday, November 17, 2017

Sick Out

The Big Sick (2017) was one of the "it" movies that everyone talks about, and presumably goes to see. We watched it on DVD as soon as we got the chance. It is based on relationship between the writers, an Americanized Pakistani standup comic and an American woman who gets very very sick.

Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) is a Chicago standup with a decent routine, some friends in the biz, and a tiny apartment he shares with another (much worse) comic. One night, he is heckled by a young woman (Zoe Kazan based on co-writer Emily Gordon). Although they just insult each other, they quickly wind up in bed. She doesn't want a relationship, and his family wants to arrange a marriage for him with a nice Pakistani girl, so they try to keep it casual. But they keep coming back to each other. He doesn't tell his family he has a shiksa girlfriend, and they keep trying to set him up - with very nice young Islamic women, I should say. When Helen finds out about this, she feels like he is keeping his options open, and finally breaks up with him.

Then she gets sick - like medically induced coma sick. Kumail gets her to the hospital and calls her parents (Ray Romano! and Beth Gardner). They aren't too thrilled by him - not because they are racist (more than usual) but because he broke their little girl's heart. But they are forced together by the medical emergency and learn to get along.

A couple of things: You might be thinking that this doesn't sound like a very original plot. You're right, the outline is nothing new. The goodness comes from the honesty not the originality. Also, the humor is mostly on the subtle side. There are many family dinners where Kumail's family berates him for all sorts of things - like his bearded brother wants him to grow a beard, and his father, who has a mustache, suggests that at least a mustache would look good. I was thinking that his family were such jerks I would avoid them altogether. But I saw Nanjiami mention that he wanted to show the humor in his family and realized that they were all just straight-faced kidders. But I still can't tell whether the little bits of his stand-up routine are supposed to be funny, mediocre, or somehow meta.

Actually, I didn't find this terribly funny, not like, say, Get Out. Like Get Out, though, it's strength is in its honesty. It's a real story about real people, and people you don't always hear about.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sword Fish

Sword Master (2016) is an odd one. I put it on because it was streaming and Ms. Spenser had some work to catch up on. She doesn't care much for kung fu movies, and it doesn't disturb her if I watch them if the dialog is in Chinese. Also, it was directed by Derek Yee, but produced by Tsui Hark.

It starts with a fight on a bridge above a frozen river. A sword master fights an assassin (Peter Ho) with the skull of a snake tattooed over his face. The assassin wins - I guess that isn't the sword master of the title.

That would be Lin Gengxin, who wants to hide his identity. He spends all his money in a house of dancing girls, and winds up working there as a lowly janitor. When Snake-face comes to fight him, his clan tells him he is dead. Now Snake-face has no one left to beat - his life is hollow and empty, and he is dying of a fatal illness (?).

Of course, they meet unknowing, and the master/janitor teaches the assassin/Snake-face all his tricks and philosophy - before either knows that they will have to fight to the death in the last act.

There are also some stories about the dancing girls. One is an aristocrat with martial arts skills. Another is a country girl, keeping her family fed on the wages of sin. At least I think that's the case. There may have been a few more. Once the women are in dancing girl make-up, it's pretty hard to tell who's who.

In fact, I wasn't sure about a lot of what was going on. These martial arts films are always a little puzzling to me. But I don't mind if the spectacle is wild enough.

And this one certainly is spectacular. Wild and fun.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Every Frame an Airbrushed Painting on the Side of a Van

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) has what I like in movies: fun. Ever since Deadpool, or maybe Guardians of the Galaxy (oh, and Ant-Man), we've been getting some lighter, funnier Marvel comic book movies. Sure, Logan was plenty grim, but that's not all the Marvelverse has to offer, unlike on the DC side, where it's all grim and gritty.

As well as being funny, this movie is gorgeous - any frame could be airbrushed on the side of a van and it would be awesome. Or a black light poster or album cover. The opening scene is set on Earth in the 80s, so that makes sense. Then we meet our heroes on a CGI set that would look great as the scoreboard of a pinball machine. This scene sets up the dynamic well. Star Lord is talking trash, Gamora has a plan, Drax jumps down the monsters throat and tries to slash his way out. Rocket is trying to set up a boombox so that baby Groot has tunes. So we have a nice little battle scene set to baby Groot boogying down to ELO.

This isn't a big part of the main plot, but it does serve to introduce the uptight Art Deco aliens, the Sovereign, lead by Elizabeth Debicki (looking rather Tilda Swinton), who gives the Guardians Gamora's sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). The main plot starts when Star Lord finds out that his father is Kurt Russell, playing Ego, the Living Planet.

The story is a good one, with a lot going on but more focused than the previous film (or a lot of the big Marvel movies). But it is the old Daddy Issues plot, the only one most writers seem to know.

But all that hardly matters. What matters is awesome fights, chases, and battles. Drax the Destroyer is really the MVP in the movie. He attacks with such pure innocent gusto, laughing his fool head off just for the joy of the fight. It was incredibly infectious, as well - so pretty soon you're laughing along, going "wow" and "whoa" at all the right places. Plus, Drax has some great lines, like mispronouncing "anulax" as "harbulary", because they sound just the same to him.

Let's see, I'm leaving out Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Ego's psychic pet/slave. She's a great character, especially interacting with Drax, who insists that she's hideously ugly - which is good, because when people love her, it is for what is inside. There was Michael Rooker as Yondu, with his whistle-controlled rocket arrow. He plays another side of Star Lord's Daddy issues. There's Gamora and Nebula's feud, also a Daddy issues story. And a cameo from Howard the Duck.

My only quibble would be with the use for imitation 80's typography for the opening. It kind of smacks of Stranger Things. But I guess it is period-appropriate. The music wasn't as anthemic, with a couple of clunkers - although I agree that "Brandy" may be the greatest song ever written. And the end credits, done in the style of a, 80s cop show, were fabulous.

And in the end, we meet teen-aged Groot. What a jerk!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Foley Artist

The Wrong Guy (1997) was for Ms. Spenser - she's a big Kids in the Hall fan. If you don't like the Kids, and especially Dave Foley, you might want to skip this, because he is in almost every frame.

He plays a nebbishy executive who thinks he's going to be promoted to president, mainly because he is engaged to the current president's daughter. When he is passed over (someone else is engaged to the daughter the president likes better), he flips out and threatens to kill the president. Then a super-assassin sneaks in and kills the president, just before he storms into the office. When he comes out holding the knife, all covered in gore, it looks like he will be taking the blame!

Except not - because there was a security camera in the office and it's all on tape. The police completely ignore Foley and go after the real killer (Colm Feore). But since both guys are heading to Mexico, they keep crossing paths.

The cops chasing them are lead by fat and corrupt David Anthony Higgins (Higgins Boys and Gruber), who co-wrote with Foley. He keeps staking out strip clubs and expensive restaurants to run up the expense account. I didn't like this bit much until I realized how unrealistic it was - the movie's tone is carefully calibrated between realism and slapstick fantasy, and he was a reminder of the unreality of it all.

Foley eventually gets picked up by Jennifer Tilly, a shy girl who sometimes falls asleep at the wheel, due to narcolepsy. Her dad is Joe Flaherty (SCTV), a banker being driven out of business by the rapacious farmers of the town. He is one of my favorite things about the movie - showing off the renovations the bank made in the 70s, taking out the inkwells and putting in pens on chains. Never could get comfortable in the new chair, though.

The thing this movie does best is find the right tone. Foley is smug, dense, self-deluded, clumsy in the exact right proportions. The people around him are normal, but equally clueless, in the exact right measure. Plus, it's got some cute Hitchcock references. This kind of flew under the radar, so if you haven't heard of it, you may want to check it out.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wonderful Gal

I don't really have much to say about Wonder Woman (2017). We loved it, of course. It was a welcome relief to the Man of Steel, B v S downers coming from the DC-verse. But the main things is: Gal Gadot - What a Wonder Woman!

We meet the young Diana frolicking on the hidden island of Themiscyra with her mother Connie Neilsen and woman-at-arms Robin Wright. Yes, Princess Buttercup all buffed up and leathery, training little Diana to use weapons. Years later, when Diana is grown into Gal Gadot, a lifeboat containing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) pierces the storm wall that hides the island. Yes, it appears that Themiscyra is Monster Island, or at least is protected the same way.

When the German gunboat that is chasing Pine shows up, there's a nice little battle scene: Amazons with swords, spears and bows vs. Germans with guns. It's not as one-sided as it sounds, given the out-gunned Amazons' skills. When Pine explains about the War (WWI) and the fiendish plan he has discovered, Gadot agrees to go to the outside world and help him fight.

There's a nice scene in London - the old fish-out-of-water scene, with Gadot trying to find clothes suited to a warrior and still fit into pre-Sufferage London. We also get to meet Etta Candy (Lucy Davis), Pine's chubby secretary. She acts a bit ditzy, but solid - always one of my favorite characters. Then Pine rounds up his misfit band to go undercover in Germany. Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), the Algerian conman, Charlie (Ewen Bremner), the drunken marksman, and Eugene Brave Rock as Chief, native American tracker and smuggler. They are actually pretty ineffectual - the conman never does much, the sharpshooter is too PTSD to kill, and the Chief is just a little embarrassed of his nickname. Still, a fun crew, especially Bremner.

There are also some villains: Dr. Poison, a poison gas scientist with a facial scar, played by Elena Anaya and her commanding officer Danny Huston. They feature in party for the Germans that Pine infiltrates and Gadot just blows through. Then we go to the trenches, where Wonder Woman isn't going to sit around while a little Belgian town gets massacred. She goes over the top and we get some nice bullets and bracelet work.

The final villain is Ares, god of war - SPOILER - it's scrawny balding David Thewlis. That was cute, but under-motivated. Then there's a superhero fight that's somewhat routine.

But so what? Throughout this whole thing, Gadot as Wonder Woman has been fierce as heck, just really leaning into it. She's a striking looking woman, with a suitable Mediterranean accent, but she just radiates strength and determination. It's white-hot and the best thing in the movie. Patty Jenkins did a great job in letting her do her thing.

However, one thing Ms. Spenser pointed out - someone once said, "Every war movie is a pro-war movie." The action, the excitement, they make war look fun, somehow. The horror of the trenches gets short shrift here. Even though Bremner plays a man damaged by killing, you don't feel it that much. That is a problem in a movie where the big bad is literally the god of War.

Still. that's just a weakness in the movie's story - or maybe just the subtext. Just watch Gadot do her thing and be happy.




Thursday, October 26, 2017

Are You Not Entertained?

We put Gladiator (2000) on the queue because of Ridley Scott: We enjoyed Alien: Covenant so much we wanted more Ridley. But I guess it could fit in with Dragon Blade, the Jackie Chan/John Cusak movie.

It stars Russell Crowe as a Roman general, on campaign with Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). It starts with a very nice battle scene, one of many. Harris tells Crowe that his son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) is not a fit successor, and that he wants Crowe to act as regent and restore the Roman Senate to power. This leads Commodus to kill his father, and tries to kill Crowe, who escapes. He heads for his home in Spain, but Commodus got there first, and killed his family. He collapses and is taken by slavers.

He winds up as a gladiator, working for Oliver Reed, along with Nubian Djimon Hounsou. As a general, he has some novel ideas about strategy and teamwork, and is soon a star, heading for Rome. There, he hopes to meet up with Phoenix for revenge.

This is a great, old-fashioned sword and sandals epic. There's a ton of talk about the noble Roman virtues (Strength and Virtue!), stoicism, and  love of patria. There's also some great fights. Scott films this beautifully, every fight a story. There was even a testudo - the famous Roman infantry formation where the men stand close together and raise their shields to form walls and a roof (a personal fave).

We were entertained (to answer Crowe's question), but in retrospect, I feel like it might have been a touch too generic. It has all a batch of classic actors - even Claudius himself, Derek Jacobi. It was of a high quality, but not really groundbreaking. But if you like those old movies like Spartacus and Ben Hur, you'll love this.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jour de Fete

We decided to watch The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) because we saw it contrasted to Umbrellas of Cherbourg - where the theme of Umbrellas is sadness and regret, the theme of Girls is joy. Also, it has Gene Kelly in it.

It all takes place in the provincial town of Rochefort. The festival is coming - we see the trucks of gear and performers taking the "transporter" - a huge basket on wires that carries traffic over the river, a kind of suspended ferry. In town, we meet the twins, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, real-life sisters in their only movie together (Dorléac died soon after). They are a musician and dancer, just dying to get out of Rochefort and into the big world.

We also meet their mama, Danielle Darrieux (RIP at age 100, this week). She runs the cafe in the town square, where the festival will be held. It is a kind of meeting place for the town. For instance, she meets two boys from the festival, George Chakiris and Grover Dale. (Aside - it was this movie that made me aware that George Chakiris - West Side Story - and George Maharis - Route 66 - are different people, not one guy with a lot of range.) Right away, she asks Chakiris to pick up here young son Boo-Boo from school. Because she doesn't want him walking home alone, and who wouldn't trust a carnie who just breezed into town?

Another visitor to the cafe is Jacques Perrin, a sailor for now, but soon to be demobbed to follow his dream of being a painter and poet. He is searching for a dream girl, who he has painted to look just like Deneuve. Will they ever meet?

Dorleac, in the meantime, has asked the owner of the music store in town for an introduction to the big producer in Paris, Gene Kelly. Then she actually bumps into Kelly, but doesn't know who he is, so she brushes him off. Will they ever find each other?

In addition, there is a bit of business with a brutal murder, but nobody seems to pay it much mind. Also, mama Darrieux tells a bit about her history, how she left her lover because his name was "Dame" - and she couldn't see herself marrying "Mr. Woman". Oh, did I mention that the music store owner is named Dame?

The girls join the festival circuit, being booth girls for Chakaris and Dale, who are selling motorboats at the festival. They will follow the circuit to Paris. The sailor poet-artist is going home to Marseilles. Kelly will go back to Paris alone. Or will these friends and lovers finally get together?

 This is all set to a jaunty Michel Grande score, with a few songs - it isn't "through-sung" like Umbrellas. It's a lovely bit of fluff that seems to be a tribute to the towns of France. Rochefort may not be exciting like Paris, but it is not exactly sleepy. It looks prosperous and civilized, comfortable, settled, but not old-fashioned. The cafe on the town square is a modern glass-walled box, but manages to be cozy nonetheless.

In conclusion, SPOILER, the answer to all of the rhetorical questions above is yes.