Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Martial Art Film

The Assassin (2015) is one of those Chinese period drama/martial arts/art films. It shares a lot with, for ex, Hero - a beautiful and artistic film about fighting and political intrigue. It is director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first period film and he got Qi Shu (Journey to the West) for the title role.

It starts wit a complicated history lesson crawl, setting the story in the Weibo kingdom in the Tang dynasty. The first scenes are in black and white, with a square picture ratio. A nun gives assassin Qi Shu assignments to kill the cruel and corrupt. When she has mercy on a target who is playing with his son, she is assigned to go to her home and kill her cousin. Around here, the movie goes color and Academy ratio.

The movie is filled with:
  • Beautiful costumes and court pageantry
  • Lovely, static frames of nature with (sometimes) tiny figures moving through
  • Complicated exposition of the political situation - to the extent that I just laughed after the third one, ~20 minutes in
The obvious viewer strategy is therefore to be lulled or dazzled by the visuals and to ignore the plot. I've admitted it before - I usually can't really follow these Chinese costume dramas. They tend to be subtle and elliptical, with clues deeply hidden. They may also be based on well-known tales or histories which I've never heard of. Also, I'm not good with faces, so sometimes I get characters confused. But from the commentary on this movie, everyone else is in the same boat (except perhaps the Chinese).

But it is a very beautiful movie, with characters sliding in and out of shadows or behind silk veils. There are so many long takes, but they don't strike me the same way as, say, Uncle Boonmee. These long takes seemed to reveal something - lurking in the shadows, trekking in the distance, even a well-hidden emotion running across a character's face.

The fights are choreographed in a more-or-less traditional way, then filmed strangely - one fight is shot from far away, and moves out of sight into a forest. Another starts in the middle of the fight, then just ends and the antagonists walk away from each other.

The politics, as far as I can understand them, are interesting. They are about preferring peace to the struggle against a corrupt central power (like Hero). The end is interesting - it takes place in a village or farmyard, where the rest of the movie has been all court-oriented mansions and temples. Possibly represents a turn away from the symbolic and formal, towards vital reality.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Spirit of the Beehives

Mr. Holmes (2015) is a lovely little movie, quiet and thoughtful. I wish I could say I love it more than I did.

It stars Ian McKellen, as Sherlock Holmes, now ninety and retired to the country to keep bees. He seems to have a good life, but he is losing his memory and it bothers him - he started keeping bees on the theory that royal jelly could improve mental sharpness. He has a rather prickly housekeeper (Laurie Linney) whose young son dotes on Mr. Holmes and helps him with the hives. It's not clear what grudge the housekeeper has against Holmes: doesn't she trust him with her son? Maybe she doesn't like him playing with bees.

Holmes remembers that he retired because of his last case - but he can't remember why. As he remembers the story, he writes it down and the boy reads it in secret. These memories and others both oppress Holmes and support him, and in the end he learns something about people that he never understood when his mind was sharp.

This is all fine, although it makes him a little more ordinary and less of a miraculous freak. It didn't have much of that spark of genius that makes Holmes so fascinating. In fact, it makes him more human and a little boring. So I was a little disappointed. Also, no Watson - he has passed away by the time of this movie.

But that might not be reasonable. There was a mystery or three, they were resolved ingeniously, if not always in the old-fashioned way. And needless to say, Ian McKellan is a joy as Sherlock. So I was glad we watched but not blown away. But I did like the bees.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

West World

OK, we've watched Back to the Future III (1990), so along with the original and the first sequel, we've seen the whole thing. I wish the last one had been better, but I really just wish there were more of them.

It starts out in 1955 with the usual confusion of people appearing and disappearing in time, we find that 1985 Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has gotten trapped in 1855 in the old West - but he likes it there. But history shows that he was killed a week after he sent that message. So it's back to the ... past!

One thing I learned from Star Trek -  in a certain era, all TV shows eventually did a Wild West episode, because the standing sets and costumes are available cheap. I don't know if that was the idea behind BttFIII, but it was almost 100% set in the past. There was no going back and forth, changing the past to change the future. No watching past-you do one thing while future-you undoes it.

Which is too bad. At the start, there's some frantic time travelling that's kind of fun. In this one, the cleverness doesn't come from setting up and resolving paradoxes. It comes from finding excuses to say the name of the movie, or to repeat catch-phrases. I was just saying I would kill Doc Brown if he said "Great Scott" one more time, and then Marty says it.

We do get to see Marty and Biff's pioneer ancestors, and Doc gets a girlfriend (Mary Steenburgen, quite fetching). And in the end, Marty wakes up the girlfriend he left on the porch.

So, it was a fun ride. Not as good as I or even II, which I liked more than some. A good send-off for the franchise.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fantastic Reboot

I'm glad that Twentieth Century Fox gave Fantastic Four (2015) another try, after it bombed the last time. As I've said before, I'm a big FF fan - they might be my favorite strip (until little Franklin came into his powers). I actually really liked the last two, which everyone else hated. Well, everyone hated this one and I kind of agree.

It starts very slow, with Reed Richards as a science fair kid, and Ben Grimm as his skinny little friend. OK, first point: of course Reeds Richards was a child genius, but Grimm was a jock - the transformation is supposed to strengthen existing characteristics, not opposite ones. Anyway, this seems to go on forever, and it's not that interesting.

Eventually, Reed gets recruited by the Baxter Foundation for graduate work. He is now played by Miles Teller, and looks quite nerdy. Now, my idea of Reed Richards is soap-opera handsome, with silver hair at the temples. But, OK, maybe it makes more sense for him to be less photogenic. The foundation is run by Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), whose adopted daughter is Kate Mara. Her "characterization" is that she spends a lot of time under headphones - how does that relate to the power of invisibility?

Her brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan from Chronicle, also directed by Josh Trank) is a hotshot streetracer and rebel. When Director Storm brings him in on the project, he bonds immediately with Reed, which is kind of sweet, but there is nothing to motivate it. Still, I think I liked him best of all.

I didn't mention the project, which is a dimensional transporter, and it was started by Victor von Doom, not a Latverian aristocratic, but an American hacker (Toby Kebbel). This does not make him more interesting.

And what about Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell)? Oh, he gets left out of this part of the movie - He doesn't get called in until it is time to try out the transporter. And then Sue gets left behind.

The movie is more than half over, and they are just now getting their powers. In an uninspired turn of events, the army plans to use them as weapons (dear scriptwriters, the Fantastic Four are not the Hulk nor Ant-man). So Reed escapes and goes to live in the same hideout Bruce Banner used, while Ben sulks and skulks in the corner. The reason turns out to be: he has become a not-very convince CGI monster with no pants, and hardly any hips. It all ends up - SPOILER - with a big fight with Dr. Doom (did he ever even get a doctorate in this movie). The transformed Doom's design is very silly, a leather mask with a zipper mouth and glo-stick fluid highlights.

But I have to say, other than the extremely misguided character development and casting, and the wrong-headed plotting, this wasn't so bad. I actually enjoyed it more than, say, Man of Steel, another movie characterized by a dark and dingy tone. I thought the Storms were interesting, especially the casting of Franklin and Johnny as black and adopted Sue as white. Remaking Reed as more authentically nerdy was a nice touch - I always felt that his style was hubristically sure of his genius, but unsure of himself as well. Jamie Bell was just wasted as Ben Grimm, but all in all, I didn't hate this movie.

But I prefer the last two.

Monday, January 18, 2016

If I Give Them the Yarn, Will They Make Me One Too?

So here it is, mid-January and I'm just now blogging the first movie we watched in 2016. The reason is not the usual procrastination, but freaking Netflix. We had ordered up Cinema's Dark Side: Impact/ The Second Woman/ They Made Me a Criminal (1951) for an entire weekend, and the disc was cracked. So we went out to the local used bookstore and bought a handful of discs, which I won't blog about because not Netflix.

The replacement disc was whole, so we finally got to watch The Second Woman (I've seen the other two). It starts with Betsy Drake remembering a seaside villa as it was before it became the deserted wreck it is now - but it isn't Manderly. It was a modernist seaside villa, next to a cozy old mansion, where Drake is staying with her Aunt, Florence Bates. It is owned and built by architect Robert Young, who is seen killing himself in the next scene. And now to the flashback...

The movie is more or less a combination of Rebecca and Gaslight. Young has been tormented bad luck and memory lapses since his wife died on their honeymoon. But is it bad luck or does he have enemies - or is he a paranoiac who is doing the damage himself?

Betsy Drake adds a touch of Suspicion to the picture, as the shy naive woman drawn to the supposed bad boy. She's an actuarial account from Nebraska with a boyish haircut and dowdy wardrobe. She makes a fresh heroine. I still think Young has a face for comedy, but he is sells his part pretty well. A nice little Gothic.

Impact is another good one - Brian Donlevy's wife's lover tries to kill him on a road trip but kills himself instead. Everyone assumes it was Donlevy who died, so he hides out in Idaho with small-town mechanic Ella Raines. There's a touch of the Tahoe idyll in Out of the Past in this part, but he is soon defending himself from a murder charge brought by police detective Charles Coburn with only Ella on his side. Hey, that's the same role she played in Phantom Lady!

The plot is pretty clever, but the best part for us might have been the No. California locations. There's a nice scene in downtown Sausalito, and Larkspur CA stands in for the fictional Larkspur ID.

We saved the best for last: They Made a Criminal (If I give them the yarn...). I've seen it before, and known it as a classic, but it surprised me how ... odd it is. First of all, it is directed by Busby Berkeley, without a single touch of his insane choreography. In fact, the first few boxing matches are pretty flat-footed. Also, it's a social drama with those delightful delinquents, the Dead End Kids. But mostly we were struck by how good it was.

It stars the late John Garfield as a championship boxer who gets involved in a murder - once again the real murder is killed in a fiery wreck and everyone figures it was him. So he takes it on the lam and winds up on a date orchard/reformatory in Arizona, where he falls in love. The dilemma: to prove himself to the kids who look up to him, he has to win a boxing match. But there's a detective who suspects something and would instantly recognize his boxing stance.

I wouldn't say it was more suspenseful than most, but more touching. Garfield's boxer is a wiseguy who would never tell the truth to a dame when he can come up with a story, and he hates suckers. But in the end, he let's himself be the sucker, because he cares. The great cast, including Claude Rains as the detective doesn't hurt.

These three movies go really well together, what with the unjustly accused men and the fiery car wrecks and all. It's a good three-fer deal, even though the individual movies aren't that long. But if it comes with a big crack, it's no good at all.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Spies Like Her

Spy (2015) marks the last of the Netflix movies we saw in 2015 - So I am now caught up and ready to start 2016.

I guess some people might watch Spy because they like dumb, raunchy, gross-out comedies. I watched it out of a sense of obligation. I need to see some new talent, and I've heard Melissa McCarthy is someone to check out. Also, director Paul Feig gets a lot of love, and I am completely out of that loop. So what do I get? A dumb, raunchy, gross-out comedy.

Melissa McCarthy is a controller for a James-Bondian spy (Jude Law). He wears the tux and shoots people, she sits in the basement of the Agency and talks to him on his earpiece. A great team until he gets killed. Although she is dumpy, self-conscious, and unglamorous, she is ready to go into the field to avenge her partner. This causes agent Jason Statham to go rogue in disgust.

So we have something like the old "housewife becomes a spy," mixed with "frump dreams of being glam." One of the main jokes is that her cover identities are always single accountant, cat lady, kindergarten teacher, etc. - to her vocal disgust.

Mostly, I found this to be pretty standard stuff (on par with, for ex, the disappointing Johnny English). We liked the Statham character a lot - explicitly parodying his other roles: "I restarted my own heart with jumper cables!" And it wasn't all that much of a gross-out.

But I've got to get this off my chest: a lot of what is supposed to be so fresh about this is that women, frumpy and glamorous, say "fuck" a lot. That's it, that's the joke. And it sounds awkward when they say it, which is strange, because in the real world, "fuck" is a simple intensifier, used as verbal punctuation about as often as a comma. I mean, fuck, everybody says "fuck", all the fucking time. There's nothing fucking special about it, for fuck's sake. If that is McCarthy or Fieg's shtick, I don't get it.

Still, I plan to watch The Heat, and maybe Bridesmaids, just to make sure.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What a Rush

To truly grasp Premium Rush (2012), it helps if you've seen Quicksilver and maybe Tracers. Yes, this is another bicycle messenger movie, and maybe the greatest one yet.

It starts with Joseph Gordon-Levitt flying through the air in slo-mo, heading for a very bad crackup. A caption shows the time and the movie rewinds a few hours to show you how he got that way. This is always a fun trick - let's you know the clock is ticking.

Basically, JGL is a bike messenger who is a rebel, a lawschool dropout, who wouldn't show up at his girlfriend's graduation (Dania Ramirez, playing another messenger). As is always the case, he gets a package with a dangerous secret, and the bad guys are out to get it and/or him.

The bad guys are mainly Michael Shannon as Detective Bobby Monday (although he uses "Forrest J. Ackerman" as a cover ID). Also, some Triad guys, like in Tracers. And he's a great bad guy, mean and dumb but dangerous as hell.

In addition to a good villain, the movie has some cute modern gimmicks, like Google-Maps-style routes to keep you oriented, split-second mind's-eye extrapolations of what the traffic will do, and the aforementioned ticking clock. Also, great stunts, plus interesting characters portrayed by good actors. Ramirez's character, for example, is just as kick-ass as JGL's and gets her chance to prove it.

This is not a deep movie - really just a fun action flick,a well-made big budget B-movie. But if you liked Quicksilver, you'll love this.