Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Take Off

In our continuing series of Shakespearean films, we re-watched Strange Brew (1983). Yes, this Doug and Bob McKenzie vehicle is actually based on Hamlet. Well, kind of. Well, one of the movies within this movie is.

First, remember Doug and Bob McKenzie, the hosts of The Great White North, two Canadian hosers played by Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis on SCTV. The movie starts with them watching themselves in a movie, and eventually running out, chased by the customers who were ripped off by their terrible movie. The gist of this movie (not the one they made) is that they plan to put a live (?) mouse in an empty beer bottle and demand free beer.

This leads to the second movie, the Hamlet one. The owner, John Elsinore, had died, and his wife has married his brother Claude. The boys meet up with his daughter Pam (-let?), played by Lynne Griffith.

In a third, related movie, Brewmeister Max von Sydow (!!) is planning to use the Elsinore Brewery to dispense a mind control drug to the inmates at the Canadian Institute for the Mentally Insane. This part isn't in the original Hamlet.

Considering that Bob and Doug came from Moranis and Thomas trying to make some two-minute filler spots to fulfill "Canadian content" requirements, they come off as solid, worked through characters. When they get out of the Great White North set, they find a world of casual insanity, which suits them fine. Maybe it's because we've been watching a lot of SCTV lately, but we thought this movie held up.

However, we are neutral to Geddy Lee's "Take Off (to the Great White North)" theme.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Rock Quake

We watched San Andreas (2015) for one reason: The Rock. Also, so we wouldn’t have to watch him in Baywatch.

San Andreas starts with a girl texting while driving along a narrow canyon road - but that’s fine. Nothing bad happens to her until an earthquake sends her car plummeting over the edge, then getting stuck on a twig, dangling over a precipice. Call out the rescue helicopter!

The chopper is manned by Dwayne Johnson among others, and of course he overcomes great odds to extract the girl and save her. But I wish he had roped her in right away, rather than fussing about for 15 minutes first. I suspect his technique is terrible. Also, in a recurring theme, there is a problem with the copter that is going to be fatal in 30 seconds, but when they rescue the girl, it goes away. Theme: Problem, then worse problem, worse problem solved, first problem forgotten.

Any way, the Rock goes home to his humble abode and calls his daughter - this expositions the setup: Johnson and his wife (Carla Gugino) are divorced, and she and their teenaged daughter (Alexandra Daddario) are living with a wealthy builder, Ioaon Gruffud (Fantastic Four). Johnson isn’t happy about this, but he’s a mensch. That’s because he’s the Rock.

In the background, a team of scientists lead by Paul Giamatti and Will Yun Lee think they can predict earthquakes and head out to Hoover Dam to do some tests. Guess what? They do detect an earthquake, right before it destroys the dam and kill Lee. But they do wind up predicting that the entire fault from LA to SF is going to blow and soon.

Which is too bad, because daughter has gone to SF with Gruffud. There she meets Australian job seeker Hugo Johnstone-Burt (Miss Fisher’s Hugh) and his cute younger brother Art Parkinson. Good thing, too, because when the quakes start, she gets trapped, and Gruffud doesn’t stick around to save her. But Johnstone-Burt gets her out with clear thinking and gumption.

Now, everything is coming apart. Johnson and ex-wife are coming to save them in choppers, planes, trains, and pickups. How they get these conveyances is another issue with the movie: our heroes are always commandeering useful gear for themselves, and rarely spare a moment to think of the greater good. Sure, you need a truck to get to San Francisco. Maybe whoever owns that truck needs it to rescue a gradeschool class or something. Daughter knows where to get the rescue pack from a fire engine, but it isn’t an abandoned fire engine - the fire fighters are right there. Did you consider they might need the walkie-talkie?

Never mind, there an earthquake and a tsunami. Johnson and Gugino hi-jack a boat to get out of the Bay and into open water, but it doesn't look like they'll make it. And just when it looks like they will be wiped out by the tsunami, suddenly a freighter is bearing down on them! And when they narrowly avoid the freighter, it turns out that the tsunami wasn't that bad... Any way.

Obviously, the cool thing about this movie isn't the plot logic or scientific accuracy - it's the falling down buildings and tidal waves and the Rock being awesome. And it's got that all over. I truly love the current Dwayne Johnson persona - the strong man who is totally righteous. Friendly, kind, helpful, and encouraging. Plus, he's just huge. So, I'll admit it - I watched Baywatch on the airplane and kind of liked it.

We liked this a lot too. But we do live in San Francisco, and some parts of this were a little real. After the big one, we'll be going "Too soon, San Andreas."

Monday, January 29, 2018

Next Step

Next in our search for dance movies as replacements for action movies: Step Up (2006).

In this one, Channing Tatum is a tough street dancer, who gets tossed out of a house party for dancing with the big man’s girl. He and his low-life friends Damaine Radcliff and De’Shawn Washington, vandalize a school auditorium for kicks, and he gets caught. His sentence is to do 200 hours community service at the school.

It takes a while, but soon he meets Jenna Dewan (now Ms. Tatum). She’s a hard-driven dancer, preparing for her exhibition piece. Her partner has sprained an ankle and all the other male upper class dancers can do a lift. Finally, Tatum convinces her that he can be her practice partner until her real partner recovers. But can Tatum, who has never finished anything in his life, stick it out?

Spoiler - yes. The other big question - can a street dancer learn anything from modern ballet, and vice versa. Spoiler - duh. This is not controversial. In fact, when Tatum’s friends rag him for hanging out at the rich kids’ school, Heavy D tells them they ignorant. Obviously street culture and high culture can co-exist.

And finally, can Tatum dance? I’ve got to say, yes. His moves may not be rock solid, but he’s loose and funky. Also, incredibly athletic, with the flips and handstands. The rest of the dancers are great too, as are Mario, as a student composer/DJ and Drew Sidora as a singer.

As for the plot, well, there’s a few changers - I won’t spoil it, but I bet you can figure out who doesn’t survive the movie.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Triple Thrill

Here comes a triple-header: three British “thrillers” - actually quota films, cheaply produced to fill government mandated quotas for local content. But out of The Phantom Light/Red Ensign/The Upturned Glass (1934/1934/1937), two were directed by Michael Powell, and one stars James Mason.

Red Ensign is about shipbuilding (cue Elvis Costello). English-flagged merchant shipping is dying, and nobody wants to buy new hulls. Marine engineer Leslie Banks has a plan to reduce fuel costs 30%, and starts building 20 new ships, against the wishes of his board of directors. They have a point. But he’ll do anything to get these ships built, including risk the love and fortune of Carol Goodner. All this is quite boring. The good parts are the shipbuilding montages. It seems that Michael Powell had been studying Eisenstein’s montage theory. So there are lot of dynamic, exciting, documentary-like sequences of great crowds of working men and metal.

It turns out that the only way these ships would make money is if the government passed a quota law, mandating a percentage of shipping for British ships. A metaphor for the film quotas?

The Phantom Light is actually the reason I got this disc-of-three-movies. It stars Binnie Hale and Gordon Harker, last seen (by me) in Hyde Park Corner. He plays a gruff lighthouse keeper, posted to a remote Welsh village. She plays a silly girl who wants to investigate the ghosts in said lighthouse. Ian Hunter (cue Mott the Hoople) is a reporter also investigating. But of course, the haunting (the titular phantom light) is a scheme to wreck ships for the salvage.

I rather like both Hale and Harker - she’s kind of a Joan Blondell type, while he’s a sort of British Lloyd Nolan. The movie is kind of batty, full of comedy, action, suspense, but not to any great degree. Powell, at the helm, again shows an affinity for machinery, presenting a realistic looking lighthouse, as well. Probably the best character.

The Upturned Glass is at the top of the bill for a reason. It stars James Mason as a medical lecturer, telling his class about a perfectly sane criminal that he, um, heard about. This criminal, a doctor who looks like James Mason, falls in love with a married woman (Rosamund John) when he operates on her daughter. Her husband is always away, and she is so lonely... They start to spend time together, but when he confesses his love to her, she insists that they must never meet again.

Shortly afterwards, he runs into her coarse sister-in-law, played by Pamela Mason, James Mason’s wife. She tells him that John fell out of a window and died - either accidentally or a suicide. Mason thinks she was killed, probably by her sister-in-law. He romances her, hoping to find the secret, and then, decides to kill her.

At this point, we drop back out of the story, into the lecture, when a student declares that this man must me insane, but Mason assures him that he is perfectly sane. And goes off to kill the sister-in-law.

The finale is both tense and twisty. And you get to decide if he is sane, as he insists, or mad, as everyone else does.

All in all, a great triple bill, made up of two B-movies and an A-.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Tempest in a Taymore

When I saw that we’d only watched three or four Shakespearean movies in 2017, I decided we should step up our game and brush up on our Shakespeare. First pick, Julie Taymor’s The Tempest (2010), starring Helen Mirren as gender-swapped Prospera.

It begins with a tempest - Prospera sends Ariel (Ben Whishaw) to wreck the ship that carries her enemies, but to make sure no one is harmed. I thought this nicely illustrated the fearsome strength of the wizard Prospera. She also bears down pretty hard on Ariel, showing her capacity for cruelty. She shows her daughter Miranda (Felicity Jones) a much kinder side.

So the passengers land safely - Prospera’s usurper brother, his henchman, the King of Milan, and kindly old Gonzalo (Tom Conti), in one party, the Prince (Reeve Carney) all alone in another part of the island. Meanwhile, Trinculo (Russell Brand), a fool, and Stephano (Alfred Molina), a drunk, land somewhere else. The clownish pair meet up with Caliban (Djimon Hounsou), a native of the island, who declares them to be gods when he tries their liquor.

And so it goes until Prospera wraps it all up, telling them that the “actors were all spirits and they’ve all melted into air.” So, although she wields mighty powers, she only used them for a series of practical jokes. She even sets Ariel free. Caliban not so much, although it looks like she will at least be leaving him alone.

The text is truncated quite a bit, which leads to the problem of cleaned up colloquial dialog clanging against something more “Shakespearean”. That didn’t bother me much. In fact, very little about this bothered me. It has interesting music (both score and the songs, like Full Fathom Five), fantastic staging, special effects that are really special (without being showy), fine acting. Some people might be put off by Russell Brand’s style of clowning, but I thought it was fine - the clown in these modern presentations is always interesting, and usually somehow modernized.

I’ve decided that The Tempest is now my favorite Shakespearean play - although that’s mainly based on this and Prospero’s Books. I guess neither is very true to the original, but I don’t care. I thought this conveyed very well both Prospera’s power and majesty, and that she was just kidding all along.

The problems of slavery (Ariel) and colonialism (Caliban) are not addressed, which could be a deficit, although it wouldn’t make sense to add this as a side plot. It would need to be the focus. Yet, it can be hard to keep to the viewpoint of the times.

Still, my favorite Shakespeare.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Just a quick one to praise Netflix: They have been clearing my "Wait/Long Wait" queue faster than usual lately. There are a few on there that I expect to be moved to the "Saved" queue before they get sent to me, but most have turned over - I got what I was waiting for, and could move some others to the top of the queue.

Because the only way to get these "Long Wait" movies is to put them at the top of the queue and get them whenever they can send them.

What kinds of unavailable movies are at the top of my queue? Some are just not quite released yet, like Blade Runner 2049. Once released, they'll send that to me in a week or so - or maybe I'll be the first one to get it! Then there's a couple of obscure rock movie - like Straight to Hell, Alex Cox's (Repo Man) film student Mexi-noir starring Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, the Pogues, Courtney Hole, etc. Want to watch that? Get in line behind me. I've been waiting ~ 1year.

My "Saved" queue - movies that I want, that Netflix knows about, but they never going let me see - stands at 121. Some of them are obscure documentaries, like AKA Doc Pomus, about the great songwriter of 60s rock. Some of them are probably stinkers that I'm just morbidly curious about, like The Boatniks, or Roller Boogie. But come on, Netflix! Speed! Child's Play, the first Chuckie movie! I want to watch Cult of Chuckie, but need to see all the others first. Joe Dante's Piranha, or Explorers, for that matter.

I don't know if there is any solution to this. I expect Netflix to ignore DVDs more and more, to concentrate on streaming original content. Maybe when they spin DVD.com off as a separate company (which I scoffed at when it was going to be called Qwikster) this will change. Or maybe I should just start using the Saved queue as a shopping list, and buy the damned discs.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Step Right Up

I don't think I mentioned it in my year-end post, but I've been thinking about action movies: I love the adrenaline and the technical thrills of modern action movies, but do we really need to watch so much violence? If only there were some genre that valued displays of physical prowess filmed in an exciting way - wait! How about dance movies? Not only do you get the same kind of excitement as action movies, but there are a whole lot of them to choose from. We started with Stomp the Yard (2007).

It stars Columbus Short as a street dancer who gets into a beef with another crew that winds up with his brother dead. He is shipped off to Truth University in Atlanta, where his uncle is groundskeeper. Right from the start, he sets his sites on Megan Good. He also gets recruited by two frats, famous for their step teams.

If you don't know, stepping is a vernacular dance form practiced by members of Greek organizations at historically black colleges. It involves vigorous, synchronized stamping, gestures and some chanting. It reminds me a lot of New Zealand's haka. Of course, Megan Good's boyfriend leads one frat's team (the one that wins national championships year after year), and our hero pledges the other one.

StY is sometimes called Drumline without the drums, which is pretty accurate (Drumline even has a short stepping scene). In some ways, it's an ad for Greek organizations and college in general. Short is a good student, although he got in trouble. He works hard for his uncle as gardener, and spends a lot of his time studying - in fact, scenes with Short and Good studying together make black study very sexy.

But who cares? This is not why we watched this. We watched it for the stepping. So, first, there is a lot of hip hop dancing. It's not all step. In fact, the theme is that Short's team will need his urban battle dance training to win the nationals. It's pretty wild, but I might have preferred a little more traditional stepping. Also, more of the women - when Ms. (now Dr.) Spenser was at Florida State, we saw a little stepping, mostly from the women. They are fabulous - putting women through those strong, aggressive, percussive steps can be pretty awesome.

So, successful experiment. It sounds like the sequel isn't worth it, but there are plenty of others - the Step Up series, the You've Been Serveds, etc. We'll let you know how it goes.