Sunday, June 16, 2019

First Contact

We saw Alien (1979) in theater during its first run. We sat behind an 11-year old boy who assured us that he’d seen it many times and would let us know when to hide our eyes. Since then, we’d seen it a few times (I know when to hide now), and Ms. Spenser saw it on an airplane recently and asked to watch it at home.

I don’t know if I need to say much about it. It was as cool this time as every time before. Ms. S. pointed out the score, which I don’t think I’d noticed before - rather classical. As usual, the best part was the camaraderie between the mostly  blue-collar characters, and when it breaks down. Like Veronica Cartwright being so pissed at Sigourney Weaver for trying to quarantine them.

This is also the best version of the Alien as well. In Aliens, there are too many of them, and they are too survivable. But I was happy to see that this movie started the protocol for finding an unknown life form - take off your protective gear and poke it with a finger.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

A Fine Mess

The main reason for us to watch Stan & Ollie (2018) was to see Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly playing the title roles. Also, it’s funny, sweet and human.

It is essentially the story of Oliver and Hardy doing a tour of England while “between movies”. The quotes are because we can pretty much tell there won’t be any more movies. When they arrive, the find that the promoter, Rufus Jones, has pretty much cheaped out, booking them in small halls with minimum publicity, putting them up in rooming houses, etc. It’s a come down for the boys, but people they meet react warmly, thrilled to see the pair that they (or maybe their parents) love so much. And so it goes. It’s sad because they are playing small, half-empty houses, but not that sad, because the audiences are all cracking up. As they continue the tour, they start working the PR, making appearances, getting word of mouth, building up to the big London shows. There, their wives will come join them, and a producer will give them the go-ahead for the movie Stan has been writing.

Complications ensue. Babe (as everyone calls Oliver) is in bad health. Stan is nursing a grudge over the movie Ollie did without him years ago. Stan finds out the movie isn’t happening and doesn’t tell anyone. Money is tight, they break up, get back together, Ollie is hospitalized, but in the end, their friendship and the it love of the act holds them up. They finish the tour in Ireland to great acclaim.

Throughout, Coogan and Reilly inhabit Stan and Ollie almost perfectly. They do little bits of their routines, in real life and for (mostly) enchanted bystanders. They also show the pairs dynamic - Stan is the writer, the thinker, and Ollie is the easygoing, good time guy. They show the resentments and friendship. The wives are handled well - two very different women, with different temperaments who don’t seem to like each other much, but love and support their husbands.

Also, those little jokes and routines are fundamentally small, delicate, and sweet. The big finale is a little dance they do. Now, Ollie is in serious condition, recently off a heart attack and forbidden to exert in any way. I’ve never seen the performance of a silly dance presented as such a heroic accomplishment.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Hello, Detroit!

This isn’t an entry into the heavy metal horror comedy fest - Detroit Rock City (1999) is missing the horror. Other than that it works pretty well.

The movie starts with four high school kids covering a KISS tune (badly) in a basement. They are
  • James Bello, a long haired stoner (Jason Mewes type)
  • Edward Furlong, tough kid (ala Michael J. Fox)
  • Sam Huntington, the cute kid (like a blonde David Cassidy?)
  • Giuseppe Andrews, a nice kid (sorry, I couldn’t identify his type)
It is 1978, and they are totally psyched to be going to see KISS in Detroit in two days. But Huntington’s mom (Lin Shane, Elise from Insidious!) finds and confiscates the tickets, because satanic. Then Bello manages to win tickets in a radio contest, and they are off to Detroit in a borrowed Volvo.

On the way, they pass some Guidos and Stellas (Italian-American disco fans) and get into an altercation. The Guidos bully them a little, then the kids turn on them and leave them by the side of the road. But Andrews gives one of the girls (Natasha Lyonne) a ride to Detroit (she’s going to Disco Inferno). Then the Volvo gets stolen.

Ok, so they get to the radio station and discover that stoner Bello hung up before he told the DJ his name, so there are no tickets. Now they need to take desperate measures. They split up and attempt to come up with tickets or money for a scalper.

To summarize:
  • Furlong enters a ladies night amateur strip competition, MC’ed by Ron Jeremy. He has a lot to drink first and pukes before performing, but does an interesting, Jim Morrison style routine. He loses, of course, but cougar Shannon Tweed picks him up, rocks his world, and slips him a few hundred.
  • Bello figures he’ll just mug a kid for a ticket, but the kid he picks has a huge big brother. He winds up owing the kid, and has to rob the convenience store. Instead, he foils someone else who’s trying to rob the convenience store, gets a reward and a kiss from the cute checkout girl.
  • Andrews sneaks backstage, but gets thrown out the back. There, he finds the Volvo and Lyonne, being held for nefarious purposes. He saves her, and gets his reward.
  • Huntington gets caught by his mom, who is part of a religious protest against KISS. She drags him to confession with father Joe Flaherty. But a girl from his class (Melanie Lynskey) sneaks into the confessional, and confesses she loves him, but is moving out of town. They get it on.
So our heroes all get some romance and some kind of reward. But do they make it to the concert? I don’t think you need a spoiler.

We are by no stretch of the imagination KISS fans, but this is a great movie. It’s full of the type of music you’d expect (KISS, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, The Runaways). It’s full of funny scenes, and the kids are great. One thing I liked is that they are fundamentally OK. They never really think of skipping school or rebelling against authority - except Bello, he’s kind of a dick. When they meet the Guidos, it’s kind of obnoxious. But the disco guys bully them a lot before they even think of fighting back. And Lyonne gets to stand up for herself and the proposition that good music is good music, disco, metal or polka.

This was written and directed by Adam Rifkin, who has an odd resume, including writing Underdog and Mousehunt, but also Small Soldiers for Joe Dante. Recently, he wrote and directed The Last Movie Star, which may turn out to be Burt Reynolds final movie. An odd duck indeed.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Triple Black

I’ve heard a lot about Trilogy of Terror (1975) over the years, and now I’ve seen it. This made-for-TV movie is cited by a lot of the podcasters I listen to as one of the movies they loved to watch from behind the couch when they were kids. The last of the trilogy is most people’s favorite, but they are all pretty cool.

They all star Karen Black and are based on stories by Richard Matheson. The first one has college student Chad (Robert Burton) decide to “seduce” frumpy professor Black. He convinces her to go to the drive-in with him, then drugs her drink. He takes some sexy pictures of her and blackmails her into sexual slavery. Want the spoiler? Here it comes - it was all her idea. She likes playing sex games, but she’s tired of this one, so she drugs his drink. But her drug is poison!

The next features Black as a somewhat prissy rich woman, calling her doctor about her slutty twin sister. When you notice that you never see them together, you probably figure out the ending. The prissy sister kills the slut (also Black) but it’s a suicide, since they are one woman with split personality.

The final part is a tour de force, a one-woman play. Black comes home to her apartment, with a present for her boyfriend, an anthropologist. It’s a doll (called a Zuni fetish, but it doesn’t look very Native American) with fierce teeth and a spear. She has a talk with her overbearing mother who doesn’t want her to see her boyfriend, even though it’s his birthday. Then the doll comes to life and starts hunting her. The scene where the doll is hiding under the sofa made me understand why kids watched this from behind theirs.

I won’t spoil the end of this. It’s actually a pretty corny story, but Black does it all herself, with barely any special effects to animate the doll. That’s cool.

This was directed by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows. I think my favorite was the first one, with the roofies and the me-too and the revenge turn-around. The gimmick of the twins in the second was a little too obvious. They tried to hide that it was a split personality in one scene, but barely. There’s also a voodoo subplot that doesn’t work. And the Zuni doll story is silly but let’s face it - it’s a classic now. Glad we got to this and kudos to Karen Black. She had done a some serious work before this, but afterwards found herself typecast. That’s suffering for art.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Tiger in the Tank

Railroad Tigers (2016) is your basic late Jackie Chan: a big cast to share the stunt duties and a little more wire work and editing around Jackie scenes. Still, a lot of fun.

It starts with a little boy looking at an old steam train, and he sees a cartoon tiger face chalked on the boiler. This triggers a flashback. We meet Jackie and crew robbing a train. This is during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, so they are more or less freedom fighters. By day, they are railroad workers, and hang out at auntie Xu Fan’s pancake shop. As the Japanese train security mounts, they run into a wounded Chinese soldier. They hide him from the Japanese and he tells them of his mission - to destroy a certain bridge at a certain time. So the Tigers, much against their better judgement, agree to help.

The lead up is long and convoluted, with lots of new character enter, including Andy Lau. Each new character gets an old-fashiony title card, which helps keep them straight, but not by much. Many of them get a fighting style, like the engineer who uses a hammer on a rope. There are goofy fights and stunts - like when they make a human pyramid to scale a wall and then notice there was a ladder a little ways over. Most of this film is an action comedy.

Then comes the final fight to destroy the bridge. No one expects to come back alive, and pretty much no one does. This tonal shift might be jarring, but is actually pretty common in Chan’s movies. I feel like he wants to emphasize that violence is not all fun and games. But in the end, we come out of the flashback to see the little kid’s father, who was one of the Tigers. So either someone made it out alive, or it was all a story he was telling.

All in all, a little long and complicated, but some great set pieces.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

In Good Standing

Last Man Standing (1996) was Walter Hill’s version of Yojimbo, which was also remade as A Fistful of Dollars. Since this version is a 1930s gangster movie, I was hoping it would be more of a remake of Dashiell Hammett’s original story, Red Harvest. But it’s really more of a Bruce Willis thing.

It starts with Willis driving his Model A into a small Texas town, on his way to Mexico. He sees some men hustling a beautiful woman, Karina Lombard, across the street. The men see him looking at her and take offense, trashing his car and warning him that she is Doyle’s property. So it looks like he’ll be staying in town a while.

Sheriff Bruce Dern refuses to do a thing, being afraid of Doyle’s gang - and of the other gang in town. So Willis goes to ask Doyle to pay for repairs. The guy who trashed his car takes offense and draws a gun, so Willis shoots him. So now we know Willis is a bad man.

The other gang, run by an Italian named Strozzi, hires Willis as a soldier in the coming war between the gangs. One of his first gigs is to help hijack a shipment of liquor from Doyle. At this point, Willis goes to Doyle and defects for more money. And you get the idea.

I had mixed feelings about this film. Willis’ opening monologue is so over-the-top hardboiled poetry that I thought it was going to be silly. And it kind of was - this is Walter Hill we’re talking about, with Bruce Willis doing the talking. But, maybe since it is Hill and Willis, it was also kind of fun, in a bloody, amoral kind of way. The women don’t get treated very well, but not as bad as all that. One of the big bad guys is played by Christopher Walken, and that’s fun. And Ry Cooder did the music, mostly as subtle, bluesy guitar.

Still, someday I’d like to see a version of Hammett’s story about a town they call Poisonville.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Scandal of 1960

A Breath of Scandal (1960) looks pretty good on paper - a Michael Curtiz sex farce starring Sophia Loren, with some Angela Lansbury and Maurice Chevalier thrown in. I can’t say it lived up to this, but it does still have Sophia Loren.

She plays an Austrian princess, exiled to a remote castle by the Emperor for having affairs. She is headstrong and self-centered. She loves to shoot a rifle at the mailman, and gallop her horse through the countryside. On one of these rides, American John Gavin in his new-fangled automobile scares her horse, throwing her. When she sees him, she has to have him, and sets out to seduce him. Since he is a Puritanical American, this is harder than it sounds, but she succeeds.

But her father, Chevalier, tells her that the Emperor has rescinded her exile and wants her to marry the Prince of Prussia. Of course, she is thrilled - that is what princesses do, she explains to Gavin, marry princes. She expects him to understand (he doesn’t). She also expects that no breath of scandal will be exposed, or the marriage cannot take place.

There isn’t much humor in this comedy (sex farce is a bit too far). Gavin is famously wooden - this makes him well cast, but not very interesting. Curtiz was probably past it. However, Loren looks amazing, with what appears to be a 19-inch waist. Her decadent aristocrat without a touch of feeling for the common people is charming, or at least bracing. She is so much better than the material.