Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanks for the Memories

A long time ago, I suggested that we should watch some Native-American-themed movies and Thanksgiving seemed the right time for it. So when the big meal was served (menu after page break), we put on The New World (2005).

This is a Terence Malick film, the last before he kicked into his late career production with Tree of Life. It's the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in colonial Jamestown. But mostly it's about the beauty and mystery of the new world, the new continent, and especially the James River and Chickahominy River area of Virginia. The camera loves to watch cypress swamps, meadows, quiet forests, and flights of birds. The colonists definitely look like intruders.

Colin Farrell is John Smith - Ms. Spenser says he spends the whole movie "looming." He is sent to explore the interior and winds up captive of Powhatan. Just as he is about to be killed - the screen goes black and Farrell narrates that the chief's daughter intervened to save his life. This is a nice way to deal with the question of historical accuracy. The chief's daughter, played by Q'orianka Kilcher, is never named Pocahontas, either.

The natives live a good life, playing, dancing, praying - maybe a little too much. Did they really spend that much time on games and ritual? Meanwhile, Jamestown is starving, and Farrell heads back.

The story develops in odd ways, with Smith kind of dropping out altogether in the third act. But that's all right, it's really about the trees, the sky, the river, Mother Water. It was a visual feast, and at 3 hours long, a big one.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Forgotten Youth

I think I've mentioned that we lived in Japan for a few years, and got into manga and anime while we were there. One of the first things we did was let our 10 year-old Japanese cousin take us out in a typhoon to see the Captain Harlock movie My Youth in Arcadia. So of course we want to see Harlock: Space Pirate (2013). But we had our trepidations.

Harlock was drawn by anime master Matsumoto Reiji's: He is a handsome immortal space pirate with a scar, a patch over one eye and his hair over the other. He flies the space-lanes in the Arcadia, a ship with the stern of a sailing galleon, the midships of a WWII submarine, and a huge skull for a bow. But this movie is not drawn - it is 3D computer animated, in that almost photorealistic style with the vaguely nightmarish faces.

Actually, that part wasn't too bad. The character design wasn't bad, except maybe the ultra-Barbie physiques of the female characters. The backgrounds were, IMHO, the best parts: steampunk spaceship engines, cloud filled alien skies, raging space battles. The Arcadia design sadly drops the submarine motif in exchange for a Geigeresque spine, but does come and go surrounded by huge billowing black smoke. It's explained as dark matter propulsion, but really makes you think it's a coal burner, or needs a ring job.

Which brings us to the plot (such as it is). Humans have populated the cosmos, but it isn't working out. Everybody wants to go back to Earth, but that would destroy it's fragile ecosystem, so it is put off-limits by a coercive bureaucracy. And that is the enemy that Harlock fights against.

So in a ship that blorts out great billows to black smoke, he fights for the right to screw up the Earth. Hm.

Most of the action revolves around a new crewmember, whose brother is the chair-bound aristocrat seeking to destroy Harlock. This is very anime - the whole family thing. But it doesn't really tie into the whole Harlock universe very well. Familiar faces from the series are missing here, including the little girl who keeps getting killed (my favorite, because WTF!?!). So, most of what we enjoyed way back when in Japan is missing here.

So all you Harlock fans, give this a miss. Fans of 3D computer animation, go ahead.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Horror! The Horror!

The Bela Lugosi Collection (ca. 1932) should really be called The Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff Cornucopia. This one little disc contains 5 (FIVE!) movies (for a total of about 5-1/2 hours):
  • Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • The Black Cat
  • The Raven
  • The Invisible Ray
  • Black Friday
Side 1, the three movies "suggested by" Edgar Allen Poe. Only Murders is missing Karloff, it also is the only one that vaguely resembles the Poe story. M. Dupin is not exactly how I picture him, but Prof. Mirakle (Lugosi) is admirably creepy, and his plan to breed a Frenchwoman with an ape is pretty shocking.

Side 2 has a lot less Lugosi and more Karloff, but all these movies are a little (or completely) bonkers. Each one had at least one moment where the mind boggled - like in The Invisible Ray, when Lugosi sees a church with statues of six saints, and they turn into the images of his enemies. And then he melts them with his ray!

Our favorite was probably The Black Cat,  which has Lugosi and Karloff as the awesomely named Vitus Verdegast and Hjalmar Poetzig. It is directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour), only his third or fourth feature. There are some amazing visuals, like Karloff, shirtless, arising from bed next to his sleeping blonde wife, in silhouette. It has war, revenge, modern architecture, black magic, incest, and a bit of skinning alive.

We really wallowed in these, the way the good old black-and-white stuff should be enjoyed, late at night in a kind of trance. As a result, they are kind of jumbled in my mind - which one had Janos the Dark, and which one had Janos Rukh? It doesn't matter, these are great, and a bargain as a single rental!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Friday Night Fever

I was a teenager/young adult when Thank God It's Friday (1978) came out. I am a veteran of the Disco Wars - an eager foot-soldier in the Disco Sux Army. I was a rocker and a hippie, and when I first saw a crowd of people, once individuals, now all robotically doing the Electric Slide in close formation - well, it chilled me to my core. Dancing was for getting crazy, not following steps!

But that's all behind us. Disco lost as a movement, but survives as a sound. It's in funk, in techno, hip-hop, pop. And now that it no longer threatens world domination, I have to admit, it's pretty catchy. I'm discovering what my frat brothers, Dapper Dan, Pork Chop, and G-More, were trying to tell me. So when I found out that Donna Summer starred in a disco movie, I queued it up for a Friday night.

This is one of those many-characters/one-night movies. The characters are pretty tropey:
  • The underaged girls trying to sneak in (One of them is Terri Nunn, of Berlin - "Take My Breath Away")
  • The good girl (Debra Winger) and her wilder friend, looking for love
  • The nice guy and his nerdy friend, ditto
  • The couple from the suburbs on their anniversary, getting more excitement than they planned
  • The singer who needs to be discovered (Summer)
  • The DJ with a mouth that writes checks his ass might not be able to cover
The locale is "The Zoo" on Sunset Strip (based on the real disco Osko's). You get some nice period West Hollywood night location shots to start. It's DJ Ray Vitte's (Car Wash) first night and he has promised that the Commodores are coming at midnight to perform live for the dance contest. The club owner, Jeff Goldblum at his greasiest, bets the DJ that he can score with the wife of the anniversary couple. That's sort of the plot.

But really, we follow this character and that: Young men and women trying to find a partner. The husband meeting the kooky chick who feeds him funny pills. The girls trying to sneak in being helped out by Marv Gomez (Chick Venerra), the Leather Man. He's a good example of why I liked this movie. He's a kind of stock character, the Mexican who loves to dance. But he isn't just that, he's that and more. He even gets a dance/monologue to explain it all to the nice guy.

OK, honestly, this isn't that deep. It's pretty much what you would expect, except it's pretty well written and performed. Most of the actors weren't familiar, but they all knew what to do. I got the feeling they were all lesser known improv or other kinds of talent.

The music, I'm afraid, was only fair - there was some decent Cameo on the soundtrack, but the Commodores "Too Hot to Trot" was not one of their best. Donna Summer's "Last Dance" was pretty special, and deserved the Oscar it won.

Oh, yes, did I mention this film is an Oscar winner?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Draw Blood

A post at Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur lead me to queue up John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981). It fit right into our not-hardcore horror season, and makes a good follow up to The Howling. What was it about the early 80s and comedy-horror werewolf movies? Other than makeup artist Rick Baker, who started working on The Howling, but left to work with his buddy Landis on American Werewolf.

It starts with two American students (graduates?) bumming around Europe. Griffin Dunne wanted to go to sunny Italy, but David Naughton convinced him to hike around on the moors of England first. So we meet them freezing in down parkas in the midst of lovely, forbidding landscape. The pub they stop in, the Slaughtered Lamb, is none too hospitable, either. Downright sinister in fact, so they head back out into the dark and rain, wander off into the moors (although they were warned to stay on the road and "beware the moon"). They meet something horrible. Dunne winds up dead.

Naughton is luckier. He comes to in a London hospital under the tender care of Dr. John Woodvine and especially nurse Jenny Agutter. He is released more or less to her custody - she is strangely drawn to him. But first he has a visit from Griffin Dunne in an advanced state of decay, who explains the mythos to him. And so it unfolds.

For a little while, you could think that the whole thing is in Naughton's mind - then you get the awesome transformation sequence. As I understand it, a werewolf picture stands or falls on the transformation. Sometimes it's a lame time-lapse, sometimes it takes place off screen. This one really satisfies.

Like The Howling, this isn't a jokey comedy - although there are few set pieces that night make you laugh out loud, like the pile-up in Piccadilly. But it isn't social comedy like The Howling. It takes place on a more personal level. Naughton and restless dead Dunne seem like real, rounded characters. I'm betting they are from Landis' personal history. Or maybe they were brothers at Delta Tau Chi back at old Farber College.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Shaolin Goofball

Disciples Of The 36th Chamber (1985) is a sort-of sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but goofy. In the first movie, Shaolin monk San Te starts training lay Chinese to resist the Manchu overlords. The mood is serious, not so much Disciples.

It stars Hou Hsaio as Fong Sai-Yuk, son of a kung fu mistress. With his brothers, he spends his time making trouble, mostly aimed at the Manchu. His kung fu is so strong that he can't be hurt, but when he angers the governor, his mother makes him seek protection of the Shaolin Temple, and monk San Te.

Like any classic Shaw Bros. movie, this is full of classic martial arts fights and stunts. There is a great pre-credits scene of acrobatic duels against a black-out background - just abstract martial arts. So, you might be annoyed by Hou Hsaio's obnoxious pranking, but you will love the fights.

One question, though - is the unrelenting hatred of Manchus racist? I suppose they were in some ways invaders, although the history is complicated. But the insistence on the superiority of the pure Han race, it's creepy. Chinese social historians please comment.

Other Mother

Although I'm a follower of @NeilHimself, I haven't actually read a lot of his books. One I read that made me want to see the movie was Coraline (2008).

This is a stop-motion animated feature about a blue-haired girl named Coraline who moves into a ramshackle old boarding house in a rainy, dreary countryside. Her work-at-home parents are too busy for her and the neighbors are elderly theater-folk. The only kid her age around is an annoying wannabe punk named Wyborne. But one night Coraline finds a passage to another world.

In that world, the house is shiny and bright. Her father is whimsical and fun and Wybie can't talk. Her mother is cheerful and spends her time making Coraline her favorite food and stuffing her full. The neighbors put on magical performances. The only weird thing is that everyone has buttons for eyes.

The director, Harry Selick, did The Corpse Bride with Tim Burton and is a master of stop-motion animation - maybe the master. The look of the movie is inventive and fun, although some short sections had little jerky look to them. The only problem is that these days, you can do the same thing with computer animation, so I sometimes forgot I was watching real matter moving. The style was quite cartoonish, too - faces were a few spare lines, a lot of the design was sketched out simply, it would have been easy to computer animate. Plus, they seemed to use 3D printing to achieve some effects that would be hard conventionally. But regardless of the method, the final result looked great.

Dakota Fanning voiced Coraline, and made her some who I'd really like to get to know. Wybie was Robert Bailey, Jr. and his cat was Keith David (They Live). Mom and Dad were Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman, and Ian McShane and French and Saunders voiced the theatrical neighbors.

Great story by Neil Gaiman, beautiful visuals from Selick.