Sunday, August 23, 2015

Practice, Practice, Practice

Most people who know Edgar G. Ulmer mostly know him from his classic low-budget noir Detour. He had come to Hollywood from Eastern Europe with ambitions beyond becoming a master B-movie director. Carnegie Hall (1947) is an example of what he did when he got a chance.

Marsha Hunt plays a war orphan whose relatives bring her up at Carnegie Hall. She goes from a little girl who see the first performance at the hall, conducted by Peter Tchaikovsky himself to a cleaner to an office manager. She falls in love with an impulsive pianist and when he dies, raises his son to someday play at Carnegie Hall himself. But this part is not that interesting.

What is interesting is the performances that the story wraps around. We get Stokowski (without the mouse) conducting, and Rodzinski and Bruno Walter. We hear Rubinstein and Piatigorsky on piano and cello. Ezio Pinza and Lily Pons sing for us, and many more, including a pop number with Harry James on trumpet, to show how the hall changes with the times.

It's transporting if you are at all interested in classical music (although the choices may be a little stale - although we were happy to hear de Falla's Fire Dance). And Hunt's reverence for the famed venue is touching. But - as I mentioned - her story is a bit slow and melodramatic. And they could have been a bit more informative about the hall. For example, they talk about Tchaikovsky conducting, but not that it was the opening concert. And later when Hunt gets an apartment above the hall... Did you know there were apartments above Carnegie Hall? Gorgeous from the looks of them. I heard about them on the news because they closed down recently, when the last rent controlled tenant from the 1950s died.

I guess they assumed all this was common knowledge in 1947, and maybe it was - maybe it still is. Well, at least I know this stuff now, because this movie made me want to look it up.

It's great that Ulmer got to make this, and I hope he had a great time. But all the melodrama makes it too long - over two hours. I thought it was worth it for the performances, your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Conan the Gremmie

We watched Conan the Barbarian (1982) again for exactly one reason: Gerry Lopez, Pipeline Master and Surf God.

According to the Projection Booth podcast, John Milius got to know Gerry on his surfing movie Big Wednesday, where he was a stunt-rider and "technical consultant". He told Gerry that he should try acting, and when he was making Conan he called him in. There are some great stories about the crew and the fun they had in Spain on the shoot. But you can check that out yourself - no need for me to second-hand it here.

I remembered Subotai, Lopez's character, from the first time I saw the movie. He was one of my favorite characters, for some reason. Possibly, because he was named after Subutai, Genghis Khan's great general. Also, he was the Thief, one of my favorite fantasy types. Maybe it goes back to reading The Hobbit as a child. I was surprised this time around that he played less of a role than I remembered - I might have attributed some of Mako's scenes to him. It's an easy mistake to make, when you consider Lopez's mustache.

This time around, that heinous bandito beard and 'stache combo was my first impression. My final impressions:
  • He seemed a little tentative, unself-confident, naturally enough since he isn't really an actor
  • In his non-speaking parts, he moved a lot more confidently, naturally enough since he is a champion athlete
  • He used his silly accent to his advantage, letting him deliver his lines very believably
So, in general, he was as good as I remember, but there wasn't enough Lopez. The rest of the movies more of a mess than I remember. J.E. Jones Looks sillier than I remember in Cher's wig. Sandahl Bergman had a nice warrior-woman look, but seemed a little clumsy and had a ridiculous death scene. Schwartzenegger, of course, is a walking special effect. This must be his greatest movie.

So, if you saw Conan a long time ago and loved it, I am recommending that you don't watch it again and spoil it. Unless you want to see Gerry Lopez out of the water.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Hot Rods

So, funny thing: when Netflix doesn't have the film at the top of your queue handy, they send you another one right away, then the one at the top of the queue a day or so later. They put a notice up "Wondering why you have an extra disc?" which links to a non-explanation and everything. Anyway, due to the recherche nature of our queue, we are now up to 6 discs at home on a 3-disc plan.

However, I don't manage my queue much past the next 3 movies. After that it tends to be movies that I wanted to see once upon a time, then skipped over for years, and they just stayed there. That's how we wound up with Buster Keaton Rides Again/The Railrodder (1965).

Now Buster Keaton, as I'm sure you know, is the greatest film comedian that ever lived. His best work is from his youth in silent pictures, but he is entertaining even in talkies with Jimmy Durante and in the Beach Blanket movies. As an older man, happier and sober, he developed an amazingly craggy face, still as stone-faced as in his prime. Somehow, in 1965, when he was 69 years old, the National Film Board of Canada convinced him to make a little film to promote Canadian rail tourism.

He's a little old for stunts, although he looks a little exposed zipping along the rails in an exposed car. Mostly, his comedy is the mildest possible - but his iconic face can raise a smile when he is just sitting there. And it's only 25 minutes long - there's a one hour "Making of" documentary on the disc, but we skipped that.

In conclusion, I've changed over to a 2-disc plan. It makes more sense, but I hope we still get an oddball movie like this now and then.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Choice Material

Since we were in the mood to watch some Charles Laughton, we finally caught up with Hobson's Choice (1954). Not sure why we hadn't watched before, it's a real classic - not just an old movie.

It's about a cobbler who lives, works, and drinks in a suburb of Manchester in the 19th century. His wife has died and left him to care for three daughters. Now that they are grown, and considering his fondness for the pub, they are mainly taking care of him. He tyrannizes them, and in that day and age, they have to take it. The younger two he will marry off, if he doesn't have to provide a dowry. The eldest he calls an old maid, because he wants to keep her as his servant.

By the way, the youngest daughter is played by Prunella Scales, later Sybil Fawltey.

It may not surprise you to learn that the worm turns.

This is a lot of fun, full of classic turns - John Mills the meek cobbler, Brenda de Banzie determined not to die an old maid, Laughton drunk, and all of his cronies in the pub. The movie was made on location, giving it a well-worn look, appropriate to a movie made from a play written in 1915. Still fine today.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

I 8 1 2

We've just finished another "TV" series, in this case the Netflix original Sense8 (2015) from the Wachowskis. It's a wild mixture of soap-opera and Sci-Fi.

The premise is revealed slowly. Eight random people around the globe start catching glimpses of each other's minds and sensations. They also see: a woman in a derelict church killing herself, a mid-Eastern man, and a creepy doctor. The series is largely about their lives and problems and how they intertwine.

It reminds me a lot of Cloud Atlas - in fact, the Wachowskis may have learned their technique on that film. They actually film the series in Chicago, San Francisco, Mexico City, London, Berlin, Mumbai, Nairobi, Seoul, and Iceland. They assigned a different crew to each location, and all the locations and characters have their own plot, involving parents, sexuality, law and morality, but most specifically, counterfeit AIDS drugs.

The individual stories are fun, ranging from lesbians on the run from the law, to Berlin safecrackers, to Kenyan bus drivers and Korean martial-arts and white-collar crime. I don't think I'd tune in for these stories though. Only when they are woven together does it get really interesting.

We enjoyed this series a lot - great acting, fun action, interesting themes, and fine cinematography.We were a little disappointed that it doesn't wrap up in one season of 12 episodes. But also happy that there may be another season.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Interstellar Overdrive

Followers of this blog who have been following this blog may have noticed that there's been a bit of a lull. This partly because we've been watching a little less. Our dog has decided that ~6:00-8:00PM is outdoor playtime, even if we think it's movie watching time. But also, there has been kind of an obstacle to my progress: Interstellar (2014).

It starts in a near-future dystopia where all the food crops on Earth are gradually falling to Blight. As a result, humanity has retreated from technology and concentrated on farming as hard as possible. Our hero is Matthew McConaughey, who used to be an astronaut, but is now a farmer and single dad to stolid Tom and live-wire daughter Murph (somehow, I kept wanting to call her Scout), raising them with the help of curmudgeonly old Granddad John Lithgow.

This part of the movie irritated me for some reason. It was solid world-building, with no voice-overs or info-dumps, letting you figure out the problems of this world yourself. But I felt that someone, maybe director Christopher Nolan, wanted you to identify with these good hard-working country folk. It wasn't as bad as a truck commercial, but maybe like a solid country song that you know was written by a New Yorker.

Anyway, McConaughey gets recruited by rump-NASA to fly through the wormhole around Saturn to a distant galaxy and bring back the secret of gravity and/or find a new planet to colonize. This part does require an info-dump. Kindly old Dr. Michael Caine sends McC. with his daughter Jane Hathaway, a small crew and a robot into space. This pisses off Murph to no end.

But it does lead to some beautiful filmmaking. Really - J.J. Abrams wishes he could make space look so beautiful. It might even beat Jupiter Ascending, and even people who didn't like it had to admit it was beautiful. After all, they picked Saturn as a locale, even more picturesque than Jupiter. The following sections include a trip through a wormhole, orbiting a black hole and an almost 2001-esque metaphysical climax. They got physicist Kip Thorne to vet the physics, including the black hole visualization, but it all still had an oddly bogus quality. Possibly because so many of the astronauts decisions seemed really dumb.

I remember I had a similar problem with Contact - another movie with an Earth-bound first section, a second section in space and a famous scientist contributing. I had the same feeling that I should love it, but didn't. Maybe it was all the discussion of faith and love as being just as important as science and knowledge. That doesn't usually bother me, though. But there's something about the tone that bugs me.

Still, very beautiful movie, very well made. I was a little annoyed by the Murph character arc: She stayed pissed at her father for a long time, but not, in my opinion, long enough. I liked the robot a lot - a collection of rectangles that can look like the 2001 monlith with HAL's front panel. It tuns out that he was voiced (and puppeteered) by Bill Irwin, one of our favorite clowns from the New Vaudeville movement. But the movie just bugs me, and I'm not really sure why.

In conclusion, Matthew McConaughey was in Contact too. Huh.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

See You in My Dreams

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) is one of his last films, and one of the last we hadn't seen. It is literally a series of dreams, loosely linked by theme and characters. It has no plot (or 8 plots, one for each dream) and is very beautiful.

The first two dreams are from the point of view of a young boy. In the first, it is raining but the sun is out. His mother warns him that the foxes have their weddings in this weather, and if they see him outside, they will be mad. The key section is a long, slow wedding procession for fox-faced beings in formal kimono, to the accompaniment of Japanese court music. This music, along with the masks and slow, formalized movement, give a feeling of Noh theater to the dream.

The next dream involves the same boy (young Akira?) finding a whole set of living Japanese court dolls where the peach orchard used to be. When he proves to be sympathetic, they perform a slow, intricate dance - very formal, strikingly beautiful.

In rest of the dreams, our viewpoint character is grown up - a mountain climber, a soldier, or just a traveller. Some are nightmares, like the solider haunted by the ghosts of the men he lead to their deaths. In one, seven nuclear reactors explode behind Mt. Fuji - special effects by Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame. Others are idylls, like the final gentle section about a village of waterwheels.

The one that I remember reading about is either the most beautiful or the silliest (or both). Our dreamer steps into the world of Vincent van Gogh, in fact, into his paintings. The mixtures of live action and impressionist painting is both beautiful and silly - possibly it was beyond the reach of Kurosawa-san's technique. It doesn't compare, for instance, to the living paintings in What Dreams May Come, but that is not really a good movie. But that's not the silliest part. The silliest part is that van Gogh, with bandaged ear and everything, is played by Martin Scorsese, New Yawk accent and all.

Still, couldn't someone dream they met van Gogh and he sounded just like Martin Scorsese? I've had stranger dreams.

We loved this movie, but since it doesn't have a plot, it must be considered "minor" Kurosawa. Still, that's more than good enough.