Monday, October 16, 2017

Towering Inferno

I want to thank the Ferdy on Films blog for introducing me to High-Rise (2016). It’s a funny dystopian horror film based on a J.G. Ballard story. Ms. Spenser liked it because it stars Tom Hiddlestone.

Hiddleston lives in a just-built apartment tower in 1970s England. It is quite brutalist - all raw concrete - and rather suits him, a somewhat severe, withdrawn young man. His upstairs neighbor, Siena Miller, sees him sunbathing and invites him to a party, where he meets some of the dwellers on the other floors. There are a lot of women and children, who live on the lower floors, for convenience. There's an insecure older movie star. There’s laddish, Alan Bayesian Luke Evans, who tries to seduce every woman he comes close to. Hiddleston offers a bottle of wine to the hostess, and murmurs: "I'm not good at fitting in in these kinds of things." But he seems to be fitting in quite well, getting to bed Miller a little later.

He also gets to meet the architect of the building, Royal (Jeremy Irons). He is taken up to the penthouse by a thuggish underling. There's a garden up there, and a little English cottage, and the missus keeps a horse. Later, he attends their party, and everyone is inexplicably dressed in Louis XIV finery. Although Royal talks about the mixture of classes living in the tower, it's clear who belongs to which level.

As the building's shoddy construction becomes apparent, lifts stop working, lights go off, and the stores aren't being stocked anymore. Fights break out over little things, and Hiddleston kind of likes it - it brings something out in him. And even as the microcosm of the tower is breaking down, Hiddleston still goes to work everyday - they are not cut off from the outside world. There are parties in the halls now, lit by fires or torches. The parties on the lower floors are earthier, the ones higher up more decadent, but there is the feeling that this is the way we live now.

This is all done with the lightest touch of 70s period setting. Hiddleston seems very at home in the milieu - I feel like there is a little Jeremy Irons in his choices, but maybe I'm just suggestive. I haven't read the J.G. Ballard story this is based on, but it seems very Ballardian.

In conclusion, it was directed by Ben Wheatley, a newish director who seems to specialize in low-budget, high-gloss, high-concept violent movies. I wonder if I would like any of the others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Post Prometheus

I’m not sure what I expected of Alien: Covenant (2017): something sad and low-rent like the later sequels, or something shiny and incoherent like Prometheus. We’d be happy either way. I think we actually got the best of both.

It starts with the birth of David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus. Mr. Weyland, still a young man, wakes him up in a circular white room containing several works of art (including Michaelangelo’s David), with a striking view. It may not add much to the story, but it is visually striking.

The next scene is on a colony ship, with crew and colonists all asleep, except android Walter (again, Fassbender). There is an emergency power surge and he wakes the crew - except the captain, James Franco, who dies. They also pick up a strange signal from another planet, and their new captain, Billy Crudup, decides to head there instead of their original target. He doesn’t seem very stable or well-liked, and Franco’s widow, Katherine Waterston, logs an objection. But he’s the captain.

The planet they arrive on seems “to good to be true”, but there’s no animal life. Just like in Prom, they immediately start wandering around without suits, poking things and throwing their cigarette butts around. You know where that leads.

They are saved by David - he came to the planet after the end of Prom, along with Noomi Rapace, now deceased. He will have some interesting philosophical discussions with Walter, but how much help will he be with the dangerous wildlife? You know how tricky these androids can be.

In fact, although we get more information about the Engineers, and plenty of new and classic Xenomorphs, this movie is mostly about the androids and how they fit into the Alienverse.

The crew is a little bigger to start out, but the focus is mainly on Waterston and Crudup. The captain is a bit paranoid, and thinks his religious fundamentalism is what prevented him from getting his promoted. It’s actually that he makes a terrible leader. Waterston, on the other hand, is extremely cute, resourceful and resolute. She’s an alternative take on Ripley - more vulnerable, with an open, child-like face (and haircut), but still strong.

Ridley Scott has promised more of these, concentrating on the androids. Ms. Spenser is on board - she wanted to rewatch this as soon as it was done.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Magical Negro

I wasn't sure what kind of a movie Sleight (2017) was - gritty urban realism or superhero fantasy. That's fine, it doesn't want you to know either.

It stars Jacob Latimore, a black kid who was going to get a great scholarship after high school, but his mother's death put that on hold. Now he is raising his little sister on the proceeds of some street magic and dealing coke and molly. He's a charismatic young man, and his magic act is pretty impressive. As a dealer, his specialty seems to be white college kids who want to seem cooler than they are. Things aren't great, but he's doing all right. He even met a girl while busking and she likes him.

But his boss, Dule Hill (Psych), turns out to be a lot less chill than Latimore thinks. A new dealer is working his territory, and Hill gets tough - and makes Latimore his enforcer.

Now I hope you are not reading this before you see Sleight - which I recommend that you do - because spoilers. Some of Latimore's tricks seem inexplicable, but of course, that's what magic is about. Then you see him changing batteries for some gizmo, and he levitates the old batteries into the trash - He's Magneto! For real! Or is it part of another elaborate effect?

I'm not going to spoiler the answer, but it's both real and fantasy, awesome and silly. And in some ways, unnecessary. This could have been a simple story about a good kid who made bad choices, got the consequences for being a black man in America and so forth. It would have been a fine movie. But I probably wouldn't watch it, because that's not my genre. SF/Fantasy/Superhero is right up my alley, though, so I'm glad I watched. I can't say I was tricked into it, because it was just what I expected, even though I didn't really know what to expect.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

April in Paris

I control the Netflix queue here at Casa Beveridge, so I'm always happy when Ms. Spenser enjoys one of my more risky picks. Like April and the Extraordinary World (2015). We don't always take to animation, and this one had mixed reviews, but it looked steampunk enough to check out.

April starts in the reign of Napolean III. He is visiting the secret lab of Dr. Franklin, who is working on a serum to make invincible soldiers. So far, all he has are some talking animals, and two slithery somethings that escape. When Nappy's guard tries to shoot them, there's an explosion, and everyone is killed. This sets off an alternate timeline where the Franco-Prussian War didn't happen. Also, great scientists are being captured mysteriously, so science never develops past steam power.

A generation later, one of Dr. Franklin's grandsons, his wife, and his little daughter April are continuing the work in secret. The government has become oppressive as natural resources dwindle, and all scientists who haven't vanished are shanghaied to work for the government. They are being spied on by goofy police detective Pizoni, but it isn't the government that gets them - it's a mysterious cloud shooting very accurate lightning. The adults are all stolen away, leaving only little April and her uplifted talking cat Darwin.

Ten years later, April lives alone in a secret laboratory inside a colossal monument to Napolean III. Her only companion is Darwin, now ancient and dying. Although she doesn't know it, Pizoni still pursues her, now using young petty thief, Julius as a stalking horse. But all April cares about it the ultimate serum, which, among other things, will restore Darwin to health.

This is just the setup, the adventures are just starting. There's a lot to like in this movie. The art style is rather Belgian - very Tin Tin, but more dark and dystopian. April is a great character, a scientist first, daughter and granddaughter second, and as for love, well... She does have a romance, but it's a subplot. Her mom is a scientist too, as well as her father, and they fight over medical and scientific ethics. It's like science is important to this movie. (Even though the actual science gets a little silly.)

And you get a talking cat and cameos by Einstein and Fermi. What more could you want

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flag Day

I remember watching Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) on tv when I was a kid, at home sick. So I queued it up.

It stars Paul Newman as harried Connecticut suburbanite who can’t get a drink on the club car on the way home. Then his wife, Joanne Woodward, is too busy to pick him up at the station, so his predatory neighbor, Joan Collins, gives him a ride. He gets home and wants a little romance with Woodward, but between the kids and her committee work, she doesn't have any time for him. Just when he has gotten her to agree to take a little time, she gets roped into a new cause - the Army is building a Top Secret installation in their town. So she volunteers to lead the opposition to the installation, and volunteers him to go to Washington to fight the Army.

That's the setup. Busybody housewives on social improvement committees, sexpot neighbors, and the peacetime army. The Army is represented by General Gale Gordon and the captain in charge of the top secret project, Jack Carson (who I always get mixed up with Jack Haley) - two very funny character actors. Directed by classic screwball director Leo McCarey, it should be funny - and there are some great scenes. Newman and Collins having a little get-together that ends with him literally swinging from the chandelier, for instance. Who knew Joan Collins was so good at physical comedy?

But Paul Newman really isn't, at least as far as I can tell. Or maybe it's the mismatch of screwball, 60s sex comedy and comedy of suburban manners that makes it less than completely satisfying.

However, on a personal note, Ms. Spenser (Dr. Spenser, in fact) is a part-time college lecturer, and of course winds up working on it more than full time, to the point where she rarely gets to knock off early on a weekend even. So I got to rib her a lot about her being too busy for romance. But I did not joke about finding my own Joan Collins.

In conclusion, it turns out the movie that I saw on tv when I was a kid was Follow Me, Boys, a Fred MacMurray Disney film, which is more kid appropriate.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kiss Snatcher

Here's a hardboiled double bill for you: Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Picture Snatcher (1933).

This was Ms. Beveridge's first look at Kiss. It stars Ralph Meeker, and directed with noir panache by Robert Aldrich. The opening is a real grabber - a bare-foot woman wearing a trenchcoat and probably nothing else (Cloris Leachman) is running down a road at night, trying to flag down cars. She jumps out in front of Mike Hammer's (Meeker) Jaguar, nearly causing a crash. He picks her up, but isn't happy about it. They quarrel, and he drops her off at the bus station. Of course, she turns up dead.

Then everyone else turns up, looking for something she had - Mike's secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) calls it the Great Whatsit. He searches for it mainly by bumbling around and sometimes beating people up. At some point I was convinced that the whole mystery thing thing didn’t make any sense, but that might just be me. Maybe I was just to busy wallowing in the great LA scenery - especially the scenes set in Bunker Hill, including Angel’s Flight. But the greatest shot in the movie is Meeker in his apartment, next to his modernistic wall-mounted reel-to-reel answering machine, looking out the window at the cars on the freeway. Really says it all.

Then it becomes a sci-fi horror flick, and you know the rest. Wild movie, Aldrich’s best.

As a palate cleanser, let’s go back to the days of the Depression for a James Cagney film, Picture Snatcher (pronounced pitcher-snatcher). Will it be a musical, a comedy, a gangster film? The jaunty music over the credits hints at the first two, but it lies.  Cagney is a gangster who wants to go straight when he gets out of jail. He wants to be a reporter, working for Ralph Bellamy, the drunk city editor of a trashy tabloid. Since he has no scruples, he does pretty well. He gets into and out of scrapes with girls, the law, and the managing editor. He is the only reporter to get a picture of a woman getting the electric chair - while the other observers are throwing up, he’s snapping a picture with a camera on his shoe. (This part was based on a true ripped-from-the-headlines story.)

Both movies feature charming, utterly amoral, and self-centered men. It only comes out well in Picture Snatcher. I guess it might have been a comedy after all.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Two Blades

Got an Asian martial arts double-bill for you. First up: Dragon Blade (2015), an East-meets-West drama, with John Cusack as West and Jackie Chan as East. Chan plays a protector of the peace on the Silk Road. He is first seen breaking up a fight between Huns (?) and Indians (?) - which involves him fighting an angry Hun woman, and accidentally grabbing her tits and ripping off her veil. That means they are married - Oh, Jackie!

But his squad is framed for corruption, and they are exiled as slave labor to repair the walls of a city. One day, a Roman legion lead by John Cusack shows up, exhausted, with a blond, blind boy-prince. So Jackie Chan goes out to fight - or to not fight, since he's a peacemaker. After some desultory fighting, Jackie convinces Cusack to drop his sword and they enter the city.

This has to remind you of The Great Wall. It has a number of similar scenes - the sword dropping surrender, the "dance-offs" where each group does a little display of their martial skills. My guess is that this is just China wanting to make international hits, and this is their formula.

Anyway, this gets pretty dark, especially when we're talking about Adrian Brody, who blinded the boy to secure his claim to the Imperial throne. But do you really get from Rome to the kingdom of the Parthians through China?

Once again, this isn't really a great film (too serious?), but I did love the Buddhist message of peace, hope, and friendship.

The Sword Identity (2011) is a different, odder beast. It is about a Chinese coastal city that had a problem with Japanese pirates a generation ago. Things have quieted down now, and the leading five martial arts schools have gotten sloppy and complacent. The town's guards have to use papier-mache armor, because metal is for the Imperial Army. A stranger (Song Yang) comes to town with a new fighting style, a new weapon. By tradition, he has to fight his way past all four schools so that he can set up his own school. But it isn't that simple.

His weapon is kind of cool - a samurai sword about 8-feet long, but - here's the kicker - it only has an edge on the last 2-3 feet, so you can hold it by the middle of the blade and work it like a quarterstaff. Yang's mentor intuited that the samurai technique was based on polework, and set out to combat it.

Once our hero gets chased off by the schools, he hides out with a Romany (Indian?) dancing girl on a houseboat in the canal. He decides to teach her to fight, so he gives her his sword sheath, sits her by the curtained door with the end sticking out and tells her to swing up when she hears someone approach. Then he sneaks out the back. For most of the rest of the movie she demolishes every challenger - and everyone thins it's Yang. They've started calling him the Japanese Pirate, because of his sword.

So, in some senses this is a serious martial arts film. The director, Xiu Haofeng, is a serious martial artist, who was reportedly trying to make his fights more realistic. It is also a "art house" movie, where the camera may drift from the fight to the dead lotus leaves in the canal, and only show you a few of the feet. But it is also very silly - our Japanese Pirate (who is neither) next captures the whole town guard and makes them wade through the canals all night, basically just to tire them out. But he also attacks them with his "Japanese" sword to see if their old tactic of close shield and spear work can defend against the Japanese (if they ever show up). He is happy to find that it is successful, even when used by idiots.

So. there's a little something here for everyone - some realistic (not too flashy) fights, some comedy, some romance.