Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Bright Young People

Another TV blogpost: We recently finished watching all of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries (2012). I have seen the Phryne Fisher mystery books in the library, but never read any. Miss Fisher is an Australian flapper and lady detective in 1920s. The Australian Broadcasting Company made the series into a TV program starring Essie Davis that just hits the spot.

It reminds us a lot of the Nero Wolfe show - it has that polished historical feel, the cozy, well-loved characters, but with zing. Post-WWI Melbourne is a colorful setting, but there isn't much to confuse the North American viewer. It seems that Miss Fisher was brought up lower-middle class, lived a Bohemian life in Europe, posing nude for famous artists, attending drug parties, attending orgies, learning to shoot and fight, etc. Then, WWI wiped out a whole generation of her well-placed relatives, leaving her with a ton of money and a title. So she returned to Australia to be outrageous and fabulous.

She meets up with a handsome police detective named Jack Robinson (Nathan Page). If you like the detective's name, you'll love her butler, Mr. Butler (Richard Bly). She has a strait-laced companion, a couple of pinko digger pals, a lesbian doctor for a buddy, and best of all, her Aunt Prudence, played by Miriam Margolyes - The Spanish Infanta from Blackadder, and a true joy.

It's got period sets and locations, a hot jazz soundtrack and some wild flapper gowns. Davis makes a great Miss Fisher, with her bobbed hair, Hispano-Suiza motorcar and gold-plated revolver. Her beauty is that of a Bright Young Thing who isn't all that young anymore. But it isn't all bed-hopping and dope taking - the crimes involve human trafficking, child molesting and some racial and gender politics. There's also a through-line about Phryne's sister, killed by a serial murderer when they were children. This part mostly just annoyed me, and the pay-off episodes were pretty outlandish and even a bit silly. OK, they were fun too - especially since we watched them around the same time as The Cell and a certain Egyptian themed episode of Warehouse 13.

We've finished the first two seasons and will have to wait for the third to come to Netflix. In the meantime, I've started taking the source mysteries by Kerry Greenwood out of the library.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Baby Vanishes

For some reason, I've always considered Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) to be connected to Don't Look Now. Maybe because they are both thrillers about missing children (that I was kind of afraid to watch). Turns out, they are nothing alike.

I knew about the stylish Saul Bass paperdoll credits, but was surprised to discover the movie was in black and white. It starts with Carol Lynley, who has just moved to London with her brother Keir Dullea. She is looking around a school, trying to find someone to tell that she has dropped her daughter off for her first day of school. She winds up telling the disgruntled cook, and hurries home to let the movers in, while Dullea is off on some kind of diplomatic errand. But when it comes time to pick up her daughter, no one has seen her. The cook has quit and disappeared (well, she was disgruntled). The headmistress is shifty. The police (Laurence Olivier) are urbanely skeptical. Can anyone confirm that Bunny Lake even exists? Even we, in the audience, have never seen her.

I used to think that Preminger was a purveyor of slick, middle-brow prestige pictures, like, say, Forever Amber. If Bunny Lake is any indication, I am mistaken, and he has a twisted, twisty mind - by the end, this gets pretty wild. It's got a bit of Hitchcock - the tension and the visual style are there - but it strikes me as less restrained, less detached. Good for him!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Slow, Comfortable Screwball

What with all the suspense and horror and music and action movie blogging, you may not realize that my favorite genre is black and white screwball. I had to branch out when I finished watching most of the classics, but they made a ton of these. For example, the Loretta Young twofer disk: The Doctor Takes a Wife/A Night to Remember (1940).

In Doctor, Loretta Young is the best selling author of Spinsters Ain't Spinach, which tells women that they don't need a man. She is stuck in a rural hotel and has to get back to the city. She imposes on medical lecturer Ray Milland, who has a car, but unbeknownst to either of them, someone has stuck a "Just Married" sign on the back. Of course, the famous (ex?) spinster is immediately recognized. For damage control, her agent convinces her that her next book should be about the joys of married life. Meanwhile, Milland discovers that his university prefers to promote married men, so it is in both of their interests to keep up the charade.

This movie's idea of medical science is hogwash - Milland is basically a phrenologist - but his friends and colleagues are all the kind of gnomish twinkly pedants that you get in movies like Ball of Fire. So even if we've got cutrate Cooper/Stanwyck or Tracy/Hepburn (the old war of the sexes), it's still fun.

A Night to Remember (not the Titanic one) gives us Loretta Young married to mystery author Brian Aherne. They are just moving into a basement apartment in Greenwich Village to soak up atmosphere for his next novel. The landlord, creepy Don Costello, isn't really ready for them - the front door doesn't latch, for instance, bu the movers are showing up that night, so they roll right in and then go out to a local joint for dinner, where they meet some more disturbing residents. Someone turns up dead, of course, and police Sidney Toller and Donald MacBride show up. There is a lot of nonsense involving speakeasies and a tortoise named Old Hickory.

These two movies aren't really quite screwball comedies - they don't have the whirlwind pace or overlapping dialog. Lorretta Young comes across as a bit languorous, even when tart and snappy - I think it's just who she is. The movies also aren't exactly hilarious - more pleasant and fun. But if you like 40s comedy, go for it. You'll get two features for one disk rental!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

See Me, Touch Me

So, speaking of musical movies and psycho-sexual freakouts: Ken Russell's Tommy (1974).

I guess we first saw this in its first or second run - I say "we" because Ms. Spenser and I saw it around the same time, but not together, as we were not an item yet. I'm trying to remember what our stance on the Who was back in 1974. I don't think our crowd was too into the rock opera Tommy. Who's Next was big in my high school: Every senior class would graffiti a big rock near the school and our year painted "Teenage Wasteland". It proved enduring, and I'd say 90% of senior classes for the next 20 years just repainted it. In college, we were more into the Maximum R&B sound of Live at Leeds. Post-college, I tried to get into punk, but when me and some friends got tossed out of a punk club for being hippies, we went to see The Kids Are Alright. But Tommy was never a big deal.

A couple of things about the movie: I love the fact that there is no dialogue. It is sung-through, like a real opera. Also, Ken Russell is nuts, so there are lots of weird things going on, in particular, Ann-Margaret as Tommy's mother swimming in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate sauce. She probably does the best acting - mostly because Oliver Reed is playing such a swine and Roger Daltrey, who plays Tommy, can't really act.

Elton John's "Pinball Wizard" number was not great, but I loved Tina Turner's "Acid Queen". All in all, we didn't think this really held up.

We also watched Quicksilver (1986), which you can't get on Netflix, so we bought it. It stars Kevin Bacon as a hot-shot stockbroker who loses everything and becomes a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. It's pretty fun, with lots of cycling stunts, real SF locations, and a big chase at the end. It's pretty much by the numbers, but well done. It's got a nice little part for "Larry" Fishburne. And why do I mention it?

That dire 80's Giorgio Moroder theme song, "Quicksilver Lightning"? That's Roger Daltrey shouting out the lyrics.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Red Raincoat

Alternating with musical videos, we're watching scary movies. Don't Look Now (1973) was the movie Nicholas Roeg made before The Man Who Fell to Earth. I'd never seen it and Ms. Spenser assured me I would be able to take the tension, so I took the plunge.

It starts with happy couple Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie at their stately home, while their little girl plays outside in a shiny red slicker. Sutherland is taken uneasy, spills his drink on one of the architectural slides he is studying and runs outside. While Christie sees the stain spreading like blood across the slide of a church, Sutherland finds their daughter drowned in the lake.

Much later, the still-grieving couple is in Venice, where Sutherland is restoring a church. They meet a couple of weird sisters - The blind one tells Christie that she can see their daughter with them, and that she is happy. This brings Christie comfort that Sutherland can't share; he thinks it's a scam. Even though the couple have a long, hot sex scene, the death is coming between them, with shots of them getting dressed for dinner intercut with scenes of their lovemaking.

Although I think everyone knows how it ends (I had heard all about the red slicker), I'll leave off the rest of the story. The point is, this is a creepy, tense and haunted movie, made with a ton of style. Roeg called it a master class in editing techniques. There are masterful matchcuts, color leitmotifs, shadowy canalscapes, and surreal inserts.

When I was writing about The Man Who Fell, I realized that I was getting Nicholas Roeg mixed up with Nicholas Ray (Johnny Guitar) in my head. Well, maybe it isn't so far-fetched: both love overwrought psycho-sexual drama with a fever dream sense of style.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Jackaroo Davie

Some of my movie fads and faves come and go, but it looks like I'll be doing plenty more musical movies. This time, Julie Taymor's take on the Beatles: Across the Universe (2007).

It's the story of Jude (Jim Sturges), a lad from Liverpool who comes to America in the 60s. He meets Max (not Maxwell) and his sister Lucy (Joe Anderson and Rachel Evan Wood) and has adventures, all to the tune of the Beatles' greatest hits. Max is a madcap rebel, who rooms with Jude at Sadie's place - played by Dana Fuchs, Sadie is a Janis Joplin type who sounds great doing songs like "Helter Skelter" and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?". Her boyfriend is a Hendrix symbol, Jo-Jo, played by Martin Luther McCoy, with a lot of soul - I thought he might be more of a Buddy Guy type, a less demonic than Hendrix.

And so on. A cute little runaway named Sadie (T.V. Carpio) comes in through the bathroom window, then won't come out of the closet and play. The gang falls in with a psychedelic bus driver played by Bono, with muttonchops and mustache ala Sonny Bono (furry vest and all). They wind up at the League of Spiritual Development where the Breadloaf Puppet Theater puts on a show - you think you'll get out of a Julie Taymor production with no giant puppets?

Max gets drafted. MLK gets shot. Lucy protests. Drugs are kept to a minimum for the ratings, except for "I Need a Fix" from "Happiness is a Warm Gun", with Salma Hayek as a rock 'n' roll nurse. Everybody does their own singing, and it's pretty great - the leads are only workmanly, I'm afraid, but nobody is embarrassing and we get some great oddities like Joe Cocker (!) singing "Come Together" and Eddie Izzard (in a Rip Torn beard) doing a smashing "Mr. Kite".

The story is a bit wet, not bad, not great. One thing I have to say - I lived through those years and the hair and clothes and overall feeling was spot-on. You might have seen some of my friends in those party scenes. The real fun is in Julie Taymore's surreal, over-the-top production.

This may not be for true Beatles fans - too many liberties, too much cuteness that doesn't pay off (Max does not kill anyone with a silver hammer, they just awkwardly squeeze in a reference). But, hey, everybody likes the Beatles, and you'll like this too.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bad Heart

More musical movies: Crazy Heart (2009). Almost the only part of R.I.P.D. we enjoyed was Jeff Bridges singing a little song, written by T-Bone Burnett, so we figured we should watch the movie where that's the whole thing.

Bridges stars as country singer-songwriter Bad Blake. We meet him arriving at a gig, at a bowling alley in Nowheres New Mexico, getting out of a cramped car and emptying his pee-bottle. His day doesn't get much more dignified after that. He meets his fans, a few old dried-up looking country types. One of them owns the liquor store where Bad is considering buying a tiny little bottle of something, but the owner considers it an honor to buy Bad a fifth of his favorite. Not necessarily a favor. He meets the pickup band they've arranged for him, a bunch of kids that clearly don't think much of this washed-up drunk. He has to reassure them that, sick, drunk, divorced or on the run, Bad Blake never missed a show.

By the way, the pickup band is lead by Ryan Bingham, who opened for Dylan's Americanarama show in 2013, so I got to see him. He's great, which kind of undercuts the idea that Bad is playing dumps with local clowns. It's a bowling alley, and the fans look about as bad as he does, but the band can rock, he remembers the dedication the liquor store owner requested, and even though he has to cut out in the middle of a song to puke, he kind of makes it work.

Later, he meets up with young Maggie Gyllenhaal, a single mother who interviews him for the local paper and shares a moment with him. He kind of takes to her and her son. He wants to take care of the son, maybe not as a father, but a fun uncle. -SPOILER- That doesn't work out.

It turns out that Bad Blake had mentored another country singer, Colin Farrell (believe it or not), who got really famous and is now playing arenas. He wants to help Blake, but Blake is too pissed off about it all. -SPOILER AGAIN- Farrell is a nice guy who really wants to help. He brings out Bad for a couple of duets in one of his big shows, which was filmed at a Vince Gill concert. It all works pout pretty OK.

But my concern is, how good was the music? Bridges sells the songs well, maybe more like a songwriter than a singer, but not bad. The rockers are more fun than the ballads, but that's generally true. I liked Fallin' and Flyin' a lot: "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin'/For a little while." But given T-Bone Burnett's god-like status as a producer and songwriter, and Jeff's affinity for the music, you'd think they could have come up with something better. The original songs - there are only 3 or 4 - seem overworked and under-inspired. They were clearly going for "anthemic", and when they didn't get it, they kept grinding away. Not the best way to write a song.

But they sure got the whole life-of-a-jobbing-musician down. Bad Blake was a little bit of all the outlaw songwriters, from Townes Van Zandt to Kris Kristofferson to Stephen Bruton, who wrote some of the songs here and died before it came out. For that, it's worth watching.