Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Send in the Clones

I am slowly making my way through the Star Wars prequels, and just watched Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) for the first time. I think I kind of enjoyed it.

Not for the story or the acting - oh no. The story is kind of incomprehensible, at least to me. Maybe it’s my fault for just letting it wash over me. But when I start trying to pay attention and figure out who this Count Dookie and Nute Rocklin and Princess Amygdala are, it just makes my head hurt. Also, we kind of suspect the Christian Haydensen and Ewan McGregor can’t act, but we know that Natalie Portman can, and yet they are equally horrible here. A tribute to Lucas’ direction, I guess.

But then you get an extended action scene, like the sky car chase, and all is forgiven. Because Lucas can direct, at least sometimes. Look at it like this: This is a riff on old-times adventure serials. And those serials had pretty terrible plots and acting. But cool stunts and action.

By setting expectations low (as low as Episode I), I managed to enjoy it. Ms. Spenser almost managed to enjoy it, but she woke up now and then, which spoiled it for her.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Gram Positive

I've been a fan of Gram Parsons since Grievous Angel, but I guess he was dead by the time that was released in 1974. Return to Sin City: A Tribute to Gram Parsons (2005), the film of a tribute concert thrown by his daughter, is also a bit late, bu it’s always a good time for Gram Parsons.

The concert features a broad range of musicians who worked with or were inspired by Parsons, backed by members of his bands. We get Jim Lauderdale, Jay Farrar from Son Volt, Raul Marlo, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, John Doe, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakum, Norah Jones, Keith Richards, and the House of Blues Gospel Choir. Sadly missing is Emily Lou Harris, his collaborator on the last solo projects.

The songs are both the hits (Drugstore Truck Driving Man, Hickory Wind, Wild Horses) and some of the back catalog (Big Mouth Blues, Sleepless Nights). Some were written by Parsons, some he had sung and made his mark with. I mostly liked the renditions - these folk understand the songs - except for Yoakum’s oddly stretched out phrasing on Sin City.

The backup musicians were pretty hot, as you might expect. Al Perkins, who did a lot to define country rock, played lap and pedal steel guitar. One of the guitarists (I’m pretty sure it was Doug Pettibone) played with a B-Bender - a device that raises the pitch of the B string when you press the guitar down against the strap. It was invented by Clarence White and Gene Parsons of the Byrds, and the almost-pedal-steel effect was a big part of their sound. It was fun to see it in action.

All that said, there was something weird about some parts. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise, but Keef was fairly creepy, leering and mashing on Norah Jones and any woman who got too close. And Parsons’ daughter, who had some good things to say about the dangers of drugs and self-harm, seemed kind of on edge, a little wired. It could just have been stage fright.

All in all, some great songs, great musicians, and if I got some weird vibes, well, Parsons was at best, a grievous angel.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Matrix Algebra

I think we’re doing some kind of Keanu Reeves retrospective. So we’re rewatching The Matrix (1999).

I don't really have much to say about it. The movie-making holds up, I think. The special effects, which were pretty special at the time, are now widely used. But they don't seem dumb here, they look great. Keanu is at the height of his Keanu-ness here. This is four years after Johnny Mnemonic - a somewhat similar role in a similar film, but now Reeve's seems to be in control of his instrument.

This time around, the plot seemed kind of random - I think it might make more sense dramatically if you don't already know what is what. I remember thinking how perfectly it worked the first time I saw it. This time not so much.

I've heard a rumor that there are sequels to this movie, and that I watched them. I assume that this is an illusion of the matrix.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Snowfall

Nightfall (1957) is a nifty little daylight noir, with a great cast, directed by Jacques Tourneur. That was all it took to get us to watch.

It starts with Aldo Ray dropping into a bar, where Anne Bancroft tries to borrow $5. She claims that she lost her wallet and just wants to pay for her drink. They spar a little, then have dinner. Outside the restaurant, Brian Keith and Rudy Bond jump him, and tell Bancroft to get lost. They are looking for their $350,000. Ray assumes that Bancroft was bait to set him up.

Ray gets away, and we get a flashback - He had been on a fishing trip in Wyoming with his old doctor buddy. They come across Keith and Bond in a crashed car and help them out. It turns out they are bank robbers, and they shoot Doc and Ray, and take off with the loot. Except 1) Ray isn’t dead and 2) they took the doctor’s bag instead of the loot. When they come back, Ray runs into the snowy landscape with the money. The problem is, when he finally gets away, he’s so cold and exhausted, he never noticed that he had put the bag down, and doesn’t know where it is.

All along, Ray has been followed by the workman-like insurance investigator James Gregory, who could take him in at any time, but he doesn’t really believe he’s a bad guy. Also, he wants to get the money back.

There are a few things in the movie that don’t really pay off - the meet cute at the start, for instance. What was that about Bancroft’s wallet? That sparring/flirting thing kind of went out the window. But a lot does pay off, like the Wyoming and LA locations.

In conclusion, maybe not Tourneur’s best, but more than good enough.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Bad Company

Why we decided to watch Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1984) is a bit of a long story.  When we lived in Tokyo in the late 80s, there was a store in Shibuya that sold nothing by simple cotton clothes in one shade of orange - mostly T-shirts. I think later they switches to T-shirts in a rainbow of solid colors, but just solid colors. They also played only one album in the shop, which we somehow figured out was Danielle Dax. She was a kind of a gothy operatic new-wave diva, somewhere between Diamanda Galas and Souixsie Souix. We even went to her show when she came to Japan.

Just recently, I happened on the tidbit that she played a werewolf in a Neil Jordan movie. We'd never heard of it, but we queued it up.

The movie starts with a family coming home to their big house to find that the youngest daughter (Sarah Patterson) is locked in her room asleep. We see her reading trashy magazines and drifting off to dream land. She dreams of a medieval village where her sister is killed by wolves. She spends a lot of time her old granny, Angela Lansbury. In this dream, granny tells her the story of a woman who marries a werewolf, played by Jordan regular Stephan Rae. All the while, granny is knitting Patterson a hooded red cloak.

The movie winds through several dreams and stories within dreams, mostly based in the fairytale village. There are wolves (both real and played by German Shepherds with dye jobs), huntsmen, frogs, local boys and beautiful noblemen. When Dax shows up, she has no dialog - she is a wolfwoman protected by a local clergyman, who meets a horrible fate. It all ends with her waking up, and a wolf smashing through her bedroom window - or was it the family shepherd?

The story was written by Angela Carter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jordan. She writes surrealistic, erotic fairytales, and this is sure one of them. It has layers of story, symbols all over, and some feminism. Patterson, for instance, swears she would never let a man hit her, and thinks it's silly that girls need saving. It is perhaps unfortunate that the budget is so low, but the blatant soundstages may help the dreamy atmosphere.

As far as the transformation effects, they are a little silly, but definitely go for it. You could compare them to American Werewolf in London, I think. Generally, a face splits open and the skinned wolf head pops out. In one scene, this looked suspiciously like the tip of a penis sliding out of a foreskin - but maybe that's just me.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Infinity Gauntlet

The Gauntlet (1977) is one of those Clint Eastwood movies that we've never seen, but figured we would eventually. So here goes.

Drunk, semi-washed-up police detective Clint Eastwood gets an assignment to go to Las Vegas and collect a prisoner to bring them back to Phoenix. He's pretty happy to be getting this plum, easy assignment, since he showed up late for work after an all night bender. But when he gets to Las Vegas, he discovers that the prisoner is 1) going to testify against powerful, connected figures and 2) is Sondra Locke. She tells him that there is a bounty on her head, and the bookmakers are giving long odds against her surviving to testify.

He doesn't believe her, until the car that he was going to take her to the airport in is shot up to hell and gone - and by the police. So now he knows what he's dealing with. They go to her house and find themselves surrounded by police. While they sneak out through a bolt hole, the police open fire - and fill the house so full of holes that it collapses. So we know what we're dealing with.

They go on the lam together, meet up with some bikers, etc. Finally, Eastwood hijacks a bus at gunpoint, then builds a heavy iron box for the driver and a passenger, and announces that he is bringing Locke in, giving the route he'll be taking - so the corrupt police set up the titular gauntlet, lining the streets with officers firing into the bus as it approaches. I'm not sure why Eastwood chose this tactic - I thought it was a diversion at first, with Locke arriving in a cab while the police concentrated on the bus. But no - he just wanted to do it the hard way.

Eastwood's character is pretty obnoxious and a bit misogynistic throughout, but I guess he was supposed to be. Locke has a better role, scared but tough, a hooker with a heart, not of gold but a human heart. Neither of them are winning any acting awards, I'm afraid.

What this movie really wants to do it spend long minutes pumping an infinite number of bullets into a car, a house, and a bus. In this, it succeeds.

In conclusion, should we watch Bruce Willis in Sixteen Blocks?

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Picnic Basket Cases

Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1979) is one of those movies that I always knew I should watch. We just decided to watch it now randomly. And randomly is kind of how we watched.

It’s set in Victorian Australia, at a girl’s boarding school. Today is special, we learn. It’s Valentine’s Day and the girls are all giving each other cards and poems. They are also excited because they are going on a picnic at Hanging Rock, a local geographical landmark. The school is full of beautiful young woman flitting about in white frocks, and honestly, I didn’t really distinguish amongst them. One was recalcitrant - she wouldn’t copy poetry, but wrote her own. She would not be allowed to join the picnic. One is chubby and a bit whiny. There is also a young French teacher that some of the girls may or may not be pashing on.

And so it goes. The girls take a horse cart out to the rock. An older English couple and their young son and servant notice the girls, but don’t really speak with them. Everyone eats and becomes drowsy. A few of the girls climb the rocks to take measurements. It is all rather disconnected and dreamlike. The whiny girl girl goes along, but when the other climbers remove their shoes, and maybe their frocks and slip off into the cracks and crags of the summit, she stays behind. These girls never come back.

The whiny girl can’t really explain what happened. The English boy and his servant search. The servant talks about the time he and his sister were in the orphanage, and how he has missed her since they were separated. The recalcitrant girl talks about how she misses her brother from when they were in the orphanage - but they never meet. One girl is found, but she is too hysterical to tell anything. There are suicides. The mystery is never solved.

It’s a beautiful, spooky, dreamy movie. There might be mysteries that have solutions within, like the two orphans, but I wasn’t studying it looking for answers - just taking it in. Its beauty is slightly marred by the low budget, giving it a made-for-tv look sometimes. But what does that even mean, in these days of prestige tv. But some simple gauze over the lens can be quite effective.

In conclusion, I’ve been getting Peter Weir mixed up with Nicholas Roeg, who also makes beautiful, mysterious movies. I think I’ve got them straight now.