Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gimme Shelter

We went into Take Shelter (2011) expecting a variation on 10 Cloverfield Lane: A possibly crazed man locks some people in a shelter, claiming that he is protecting them from some horrible apocalypse. This premise was strengthened by the "Coming Attraction" on the DVD, for Retreat, which is the same thing on an island. Take Shelter isn't really that movie.

It stars Michael Shannon as a regular working guy in Iowa or Ohio or some flat place. He works in construction, likes to drink beer and hang out with his buddies. His wife, Jessica Chastain, does some sewing for vacation money, but mostly stays home to take care of their deaf daughter (Tova Stewart, a deaf kindergartner - not an actress, but a real shining presence). But Shannon starts to have bad dreams, dreams about a storm. Not just a storm, but a world ending cataclysm. So he starts cleaning out the storm cellar.

Minor spoiler - the family does wind up in the storm cellar. But it's not what I was expecting at all. Mostly it's about Shannon's deteriorating mental condition. He hides it from his friends and his wife for as long as he can. He can't tell his wife about one dream because it made him wet the bed, and there's no way he's going to admit to that. So there's a good bit of stuff about masculinity and mental health. But it also keeps you off balance wondering whether he's right about the coming disaster. You wind up rooting for apocalypse, because it would prove he's not crazy.

This is the first feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who seems to specialize in moody stories in rural settings that explore the male psyche. This isn't really my thing, but I liked it here a lot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Unusual Punishment

Who is your favorite Punisher? We've seen the Thomas Jane version, the Lexi Alexander/Ray Stevenson version, and the John Bernthal version in the Daredevil TV series. Now, we've also seen the first film version: Dolph Lundgren in Punisher (1989).

It starts with Frank Castle blowing up a mob boss mansion with the boss (and himself) inside. So the Punisher is now dead, although police detective (Lou Gossett Jr.) is still watching out for the vigilante decimating the underworld. He even gets some help from a cute partner, Nancy Everhard.

Meanwhile, the Yakoooza are moving into the vacuum left by Castle. They kidnap the children of the remaining mobsters as leverage. Now, the mob and Castle will have to work together to get them safe.

All through this, Lundgren rides around in the sewers on a motorcycle, looking about 2 smudges of eyeliner away from an Adam Ant video. Seeing him meditating naked in the sewers would be more badass if he didn't cross his eyes. But when he starts fighting, oh boy, look out. It's particularly fun to see him go up against the Yakuza ninjas, whose leader, played by Kim Miyori, looks great in black skintight jumpsuit.

It's funny how closely this story tracks the Daredevil version, right down to the Yakuza. I was expecting to see a Castle more like John Bernthal: beat-up and lumpy faced. Instead, he is quite the handsome chisel-cheeked New Wave haircut boy. Of course, the whole movie stinks of the 80s, so maybe I'm just picking up background radiation.

Anyway, I think our favorite Punisher movie is the Lexi Alexander, and John Bernthal our favorite Punisher. But we love Dolph in this, and in fact went and watched Johnny Mnemonic next, to see him as Street Preacher. Halt sinners!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Strange World

Anyone who was paying attention to fantastic literature in 2004 knows about Susanna Clarke's book. Many of those were excited to hear that it was made into a TV series: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015).

It is set in an alternate England around the time of the Napoleanic wars. In this England, magic is considered real, but never practiced, as that would be ungentlemanly. But one eccentric gentleman of York, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) demonstrates "practical" magic and changes everyone's mind. He's a reclusive scholar who jealously protects his books and his secrets, with only his thuggish butler (Enzo Chilenti) for company.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) has just inherited his father's fortune. He would be happy to fritter it away, but his fiancee (Charlotte Riley) wants him to be someone. So he decides to become a magician - and it works.

Mr. Norrell gets involved in English politics when he brings the Prime Minister's fiancee back from the dead. This also gets him involved with another kind of politics - the fairy court. The backstory of the alternate England is that it was once ruled by the Raven King, a magician who was served by fairies, and possibly undone by them.

The series (like the book) has fun with a number of themes - fame and politics, the possible futility of military magic, and the deviltry of fairy gifts (as a metaphor for addiction?). Parts are funny, parts are frightening, and the relationship between Strange and Norrell, Strange and his bride, and so on, are just human.

It is also well cast and set, with the budget this kind of production needs. Worth watching.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Doll House

Hey MST3K fans! Have you heard about the new podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads? Trace Beaulieu (Dr. F), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and Carolina Hidalgo (young standup) meet each week to discuss a movie or whatever they feel like. So some reason, they did an episode on Valley of the Dolls (1967), and, for our sins, we decided to watch it.

Although you've probably heard of it, or at least the Jacqueline Susann novel it's based on, you probably haven't seen it, nor had any desire to. But it was strangely enjoyable, and for all the reasons you'd expect. It's the story of three or four women and the men in their lives as they deal with show business and the big city.

Barbara Perkins comes to New York from her small Vermont home town to make it big, or at least to become a legal secretary. Her boss is agent Paul Burke, who manages aging Broadway broad Susan Hayward. Hayward is obnoxious and abrasive and gets Patty Duke kicked off the show for being too talented. The show also features a stacked chorus girl, Sharon Tate, who has to trade on her looks because her talent won't carry her. They find love, heartbreak, and sometimes, painkiller addiction.

Although this is all very cheesy, I did like Patty Duke's character, Neely. Although the part is probably inspired by Judy Garland, I got a bit of a Janis Joplin vibe from her (although in 1967, Janis was just taking off, and no one knew what her end would be). She wears a turtleneck and love beads, and sings with a certain ferocious attack. Her big number is pretty poppy, but seems to be in 7/8 time, which is pretty rad.

Also, she's the character who gets deepest into the pills, gets rehabbed, relapses, etc. Tate's character has a good arc, with tragedy after tragedy, culminating in a mastectomy that will surely wreck her burgeoning porn career. But she's kind of an afterthought. The voice-over viewpoint character is Perkins, and she's kind of boring.

Although the last scene (spoiler) where her boyfriend comes to see her and she walks out on him is a doozy: She walks out on him, but it's her house! She just walks away! Does he live there now? Where does she live?  In his apartment? Does he get her car too? So we are left with many questions.

If your question is "what are dolls, anyway?", I have answers. Although I'd never heard the expression, "dolls" are slang for pills, named after dolophine, a synthetic opioid now known as methadone, supposedly named after Adolph Hitler. And now you know... the rest of the story.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

And Welcome to It

We went into Jurassic World (2015) with low expectations and they were more than fulfilled. We enjoyed JP back in 1993, but skipped the sequels (should we go back and watch?). Satisfied customers, but not really fans. JW seems like it was aimed at fans, but we normals liked it too.

It stars Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson as two kids being shipped off to Jurassic World so there parents can have some space to get divorced. Their aunt, Bryce Dallas Houston Howard, is the park director, and too much of a busy exec to keep an eye on them. She is spending her time selling rights to a new, gene-spliced, totally made up dinosaur, Impervious Rex!

The existence of this park is somewhat problematic. They lampshade this by having a comic-relief control room guy wear a T-shirt from the original park, and be told that it is in poor taste. Yes, it is - that was a disaster, many people were killed, not just lawyers. And yet, 20 some years later, people flock to the new park and their biggest problem is that the T-Rex is too boring - we need an Incredulous Rex!

But it isn't all about mayhem. Chris Pratt is working with a team of velociraptors, teaching them to obey his commands, so that Vincent D'Onofrio can sell them as weapons! Which seems about as useful as using an Alien, but what do I know about arms dealing?

Anyway, dinos get loose, kids in peril, various bad guys and extras get killed, Pratt and Houston get moony, and lots of cool set pieces. Like everyone, I loved Pratt training the raptors. He had a great Star Lord style to him (with perhaps a bit of Indiana Jones), and the raptors were given interesting personalities.

Along with the set pieces (whale-sized mosasaurus eats a shark like a minnow!), the movie is replete with references to the original. We didn't get most of them, because we saw it in the last millennium. The ending --NO SPOILER-- was one big reference, and made very little sense.

In conclusion, I assume that NOW humanity has learned that reviving dinosaurs for thrills and entertainment is a bad idea, and will stick to using them for strictly military purposes.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Right Stuff

Another arthouse-horror movie: Let the Right One In (2008). This is the Swedish movie remade in America as Let Me In.

It stars Kare Hedebrant as a slight, mild 12-year old boy. At school, a small gang of bullies intimidates him. He broods and keeps a scrapbook of brutal murders. One night after dark, he meets a little girl in the playground, Lina Leandersson. She is dark and mysterious, and, although they get along, she says she cannot be his girlfriend. She has moved in next door, with a mysterious older man. She can't enter a room without being invited. She doesn't feel the cold, and is only seen at night. It is no spoiler to say that she is a vampire.

The feel of the movie is very Scandinavian - cool, austere, restrained. It is set in a mid-sized town in the 1980s or 90s (I think), with the spare, modernistic architecture of the decades just previous. The light of day is cold; it's warmer at night. One of the corpses is even found enclosed in a block of ice.

The blood and violence isn't that extreme. The intimacy of the look at the lives of the children is more disturbing. Hebebrant's relation to his bullies is almost sexualized, and of course he is a beautiful child, as is Leandersson. Although the movie doesn't cross boundaries, it might inch up to them and make adults uncomfortable.

Beautifully made and acted, very creepy. So my question is, do we watch the American remake? Or is this the right one?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Christmas Carol

Carol (2015) is a bit of a departure from our usual run of action, comedy, and SF. It was Ms. Spenser's suggestion. This seems appropriate, since Carol is a "women's picture", but it is also a departure from her usual horror selections.

It is set in the 1950s. Cate Blanchett is Carol, a fashionable woman out Christmas shopping. Shopgirl Theres (Rooney Mara), wearing the company-mandated elf hat catches her eye and they share a "moment". They slowly begin a friendship, which very slowly becomes much more. But Carol is being divorced, for reasons that aren't spelled out, but have something to do with another close woman friend. Carol is in danger of losing her beloved daughter, especially if morals enter into it.

Carol is directed by Todd Haynes, who I know mainly as the director of Cate Banchett as Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. But I think he is considered to be more of an inheritor of the Douglas Sirk tradition - technicolor melodramas about the emotional life of suburban women. They live in beautiful homes, wear lovely fashions, and suffer sterile lives of repression. Haynes keeps the feel and art direction, but makes some of the unspoken subtexts explicit - like homosexuality.

The story comes from a Patricia Highsmith novel. She wrote a lot of detective stories, like The Talented Mr. Ripley. She also wrote both pulp and literary lesbian life stories. Of course, by tradition, they have to end in tragedy. After all, even today, "the Lesbian Dies" is a trope. But this novel and movie are different. It isn't exactly a happy ending, but nobody has to die - not even Corey Michael Smith (Gotham), the creepy guy they meet on their road trip.

Yes, Carol and Theres go on a road trip, but this isn't Thelma and Louise.

I'd just like to mention the odd name of Mara's character, Theres, pronounced "Tirez", only to say that know a Theres, a friend of friends. And she is kick ass.

In conclusion, this is really a Christmas movie, and we should have waited to watch it in season. Also, we probably should have watched The Witch over Thanksgiving.