Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Witches Brew

The Witches (1990) is on our queue because I thought Anjelica Huston was going to be in Death Becomes Her. When I realized what the confusion was, I queued this up. This is a completely different movie.

Directed by Nicholas Rong, it is based on a novel by Roald Dahl. It is about a boy, Jasen Fisher, who goes to live with his grandmother (Mai Zetterling) when his parents die (told you it was Roald Dahl). She’s a lovely old lady who tells him stories about witches, how they long to kill all children, how they are monsters under their human masks and how children smell like dog droppings to them.

When she falls ill, they go to a Cornwall hotel to recover. The hotel is run by Rowan Atkinson, doing a combination Mr. Bean and Basil Fawlty. Young Jasen meets a chubby boy raiding the pastries and makes friends. But then he discovers that Anjelica Huston is chairing a meeting of all the witches in the world at that very hotel. They plan to use a potion to turn all the children into mice - and they start  with Jasen’s chubby friend.

Most of the fun in the movie is in the Dahlian silliness, and also the Jim Henson mouse puppets and witch makeup. Huston’s gloriously evil witch is great, of course, but sadly doesn’t get the screen time she deserves. All in all, I suspect I would have loved this if I’d seen it as a child, but of course, I was in my 30s when it came out. So I can only say I enjoyed it.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tall Tales

I don’t remember what prompted me to queue up Tale of Tales (2016). I had the vague idea that is was related to Tarsem Singh, although it was actually directed by Italian Matteo Garrone. But it was still very Tarsemesque.

The movie is a mix of fairy tales, but the old version, with the warts on. It starts with Salma Hayek as a queen who is torn up that she can’t conceive. A necromancer tells her to eat the heart of a sea monster, but to beware, for the life must be paid for in death. The king (John C. Reilly!) goes forth the slay the monster, and is killed himself, but at least he gets the heart. The scullery maid who cooks it gets a whiff of the steam, and instantly conceives. Then Hayek tucks in and she also conceives - and they both give birth almost instantly.

We move on to the story of a king (Vincent Cassells) who spends all his time carousing with low women. He hears a woman singing and decides to bed her - not realizing that she is an aged laundress who works with her equally old sister. She tries to sleep with him in the darkness, but he sees that she is ancient and throws her from the castle (which is on a great cliff).

Then we meet sweet Bebe Cave, a princess playing a lute composition for her father, the king (Toby Jones). But he isn’t paying any attention - he is playing with a flea that he spotted. He continues to neglect his daughter and feeds the flea until it is as big a large dog.

Then we go back to Hayek's son, an albino who is identical to the son of the scullery maid. They form a deep friendship, which Hayek hates, because the other boy is common, and because he is a reminder of their unnatural conception. So the maid's boy leaves, but promises the prince that if he is ever in trouble, a spring at the root of a certain tree would run muddy.

Then we find the laundress has not died in the fall, but found by a fairy, who turns her young. The king finds her and falls in love, but her sister is still old. Also, the neglected daughter is married off to an ogre. And the common boy is lost and the prince runs off to find him. And so on.

These stories don't come together at any point, except everyone involved meets at a wedding at the end. What holds them together is their weirdness and the beautiful scenery. That castle on the overhanging cliff that looks like CGI? Real castle: Castello di Roccascalegna. The same with the other castles, mazes, grottoes, etc. I guess that's why reminded someone of Tarsem Singh.

I enjoyed this, but wasn't as enchanted as with the two much lower budget fairy tale movies we've seen recently: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and The Company of Wolves. Like this movie, neither of these has a linear story, but they have a consistent point of view, and have a point - in both cases, about a girl growing up. This movie has many things to say, but no overall point. Just tall tales.

Thursday, July 12, 2018


Insidious (2011) is the first film in a horror franchise that Ms. Spenser has taken an interest in. She saw part 4 on a plane and now we’re watching the rest.

This installment starts with a family, Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne and their three children, in a new house, a lovely old Craftsman. If you aren’t familiar with the Craftsman style, it is that old-timely comfortable style that everybody lives in on television. Lots of quarter-sawn oak, gables, that kind of thing. Very Pasadena. The young boy goes up into the attic, and falls off a ladder. He seems ok, but soon lapses into a coma. Months go by, and he doesn’t wake up. Soon, Byrne starts seeing or hearing creepy stuff, although Wilson never seems to.

It gets particularly bad one night, with a hideous creature appearing and the burglar alarm going off for no reason. This time, even Wilson sees it. For once, a family in a horror movie do the smart thing and move.

The problem is, the haunting follows them. Wilson’s mother (Barbara Hershey) drops by, and mentions that she has a friend that can help with this sort of thing. Shortly, the family gets a visit from Specs and Tucker - two comic relief Ghostbusters, who are the advance team for Elise, the head ghost hunter, and Ms. Spenser’s (and my) favorite part. Specs is Leigh Whannell, who wrote this movie (and Saw!) along with director James Wan. Tucker is Australian Angus Sampson. Once they determine that there is a real case, Elise (Lin Shaye) is brought in.

After some scary investigation, she very matter-of-factly gives the absurd explanation for the situation. Now Wilson is back in skeptic mode. Even though something is clearly going on, he thinks she is trying to swindle them. Oh, if only it was that easy.

The team of Elise, Specs and Tucker are what makes this movie more than the usual scary movie. They add some low-key comedy, along with their low-tech high-tech gear. Then Shaye comes in with a steely quality that is very appealing (I almost said, magnetic).

I’m not sure they are in the sequel, but the fourth film is all about her, so we are looking forward to it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Tender is the Night Nurse

Night Nurse (1931) is one of the most famous “pre-code” movies - movies made before the Production Code was in full force. It isn’t all that risqué, but it is a wild movie.

It stars Barbara Stanwyck as a young nurse. Quite a bit of time is taken up with her getting hired, meeting fellow nurse and roommate Joan Blondell, getting hit on and pranked by the interns, and getting undressed down to her undies in several scenes.

She also treats a bootlegger (Ben Lyon) for a bullet wound without reporting it to the police. Having a bootlegger for a boyfriend turns out to be very useful.

Then she gets sent out as a night nurse, to take care of two sick rich kids. Their mother is a widowed party animal, throwing loud booze-ups every night while the children waste away. When Stanwyck questions their treatment, brutal chauffeur Clark Gable (!) makes threats. It becomes clear that the kids are being starved to death to free up their trust fund for Gable. But what can Stanwyck do?

So, director Wild Bill Wellman serves up hospital hi-jinks, lingerie, wild parties, bootlegged booze, and a very butch Clark Gable. That’s a lot of fun in 92 minutes. In fact, it’s a little too much - there seems to be two movies: first, the story of a nurse’s training, then the mystery of the children. The training story, which takes pretty much the first half, is like one of those superhero origin stories that we don’t really need, just taking up time before the action starts.

Still, hard to complain about too much fun, right? Instead, I would like to complain about the bulk and opacity of the undies that Stanwyck strips down to.

Monday, July 9, 2018

O Death

Death Becomes Her (1992), directed by Robert Zemekis, is an odd movie. You can see Bruce Willis playing against type as a wimpy plastic surgeon, and Goldie Hawn playing frumpy. Also Meryl Streep,  but she doesn’t seem to be playing against type.

It starts with Streep as an almost washed-up star doing a musical version of Sweet Bird of Youth on Broadway. We get to see one number, and by the audience reaction, it’s supposed to be a flop. But I’ve got to say, I’d watch it over Greatest Showman. But one viewer seems to love it - Bruce Willis, looking weedy in a mustache and glasses. He is with his fiancée Goldie Hawn. It turns out that Hawn and Streep are old “friends” - and Streep has stolen everyone of Hawn’s boyfriends. In short order, Streep has married Willis.

Seven years later, Hawn is a fat frump in a mental institution for making threats against Streep. She finally snaps out of it when she decides to get revenge.

Another seven years later, Streep and Willis are at a book publishing party. The author is Hawn, now beautiful and thin. Streep, however, is losing her looks, and Willis has started drinking, and can only work on corpses - he has become a cosmetician for a high-end mortician.

Desperate to regain her youth, Streep goes to a mysterious mansion, where Isabella Rosselini, claiming to be 70 years old, promises her a potion of eternal youth. And Streep succumbs.

Now we get to the meat of the movie. Hawn is seducing Willis, trying to get him to kill Streep. He doesn’t have the guts, but he doesn’t try to save her when she falls down the stairs. But while he’s on the phone to Goldie, Streep’s corpse assembles itself (with it’s head on backwards) and comes over to see what’s going on. You see, she’s immortal, because of the potion.

When Hawn shows up, there’s a big fight, which leads to Streep blowing a big hole in Hawn’s torso - which doesn’t kill her because guess what? She took the potion too. So now you’ve got the poster - Willis between Streep with a backwards head and Hawn with a huge hole in her torso. Fortunately, Willis is familiar with cosmetic cleanup for the deceased (in this case, should-be deceased).

The script for this movie is pretty funny and fairly dark. The acting is great, although Willis doesn’t seem to happy as a schlub. I would have cast Martin Mull - maybe just because of the mustache. The special effects were a big draw at the time, but they are kind of inconsequential now. I guess Zemeckis has always been a sucker for that kind of thing.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Skip or Not?

Although I'm a big Jackie Chan fan, his recent movies have been kind of hit or miss. Skiptrace (2016), directed by Renny Harlin, surprised me by being more of a hit.

It starts with with police detective Jackie and his partner Eric Tsang chasing master criminal Matador, when Tsang falls off a crane into the sea and vanishes. Years later, no one believes that Matador exists, but Tsang's daughter, Fan Bingbing, is in trouble. Jackie thinks Matador, his obsession, is involved.

This is all welll and good, but we know from the promos that noted Jackass Johnnie Knoxville is also in the movie. He turns out to be a crooked gambler working out of Macao, because he's barred everywhere else. He wanders somewhere he shouldn't be, and runs into a woman just as she's killed - by Matador? So now Jackie has to track him down and bring him to Hong Kong to testify (I guess; I don't always pay a lot of attention to the plot of these movies).

He tracks him to Russia, where he is in trouble with the Mafiya, and then they have to walk to China. Seriously, they supposedly walk across the Gobi Desert. This is stupid, but gives them a chance to goof around with Mongolians for a while. It's totally pointless and one of the high points of the movie.

The Jackie Chan parts of the movie were pretty good - not top rank, but above average (especially for older Jackie). Johnnie Knoxville wasn't bad either. Of course, he played a loud obnoxious con-man and crook, but it did it well. There wasn't much Jackassery that I detected (I never watched it, so who knows?), except one scene where he is stuffed into a trashcan and rolled down a hill. As far as I could see, it was done with dummies.

In conclusion, late Jackie Chan worth watching, not at all spoiled by Knoxville.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Hell to Pay

Why Don't You Play in Hell? (2014) is a funny movie. The basic plot has been done before: documentary filmmakers start following criminals, and lose track of their morals. But I don't think it's been done like this.

It features two yakuza gangs, and a little girl who has made a popular toothpaste ad with a catchy jingle. She is the daughter of one of the bosses, and the apple of her mother's eye. That mother is attacked by members of the other gang - and she pretty much kills them all, so that the little girl comes home to a kitchen drenched in blood. She reacts by finding the last remaining live gang member and making him play with her.

Meantime, a geeky gang of amateur filmmakers who call themselves "The Fuck Bombers" stop one of their productions to film some punks fighting. They befriend one of the punks, dress him as Bruce Lee and make him their action star.

Then, ten years pass. The Fuck Bombers are still total amateurs. The little girl is now grown up. Her mother will be getting out of prison soon (for the murders). Her father is trying to get her into a movie, her mother's dream for her. Then gang warfare breaks out. The girl breaks away with the help of a geeky guy who had a childhood crush on her toothpaste commercial persona. And he knows the Fuck Bombers. So the plan is or the Bombers to film the gang war, with the girl and the Bruce Lee know-off as stars.

So the last act is a massive bloody gang fight, with a film crew in the middle of things. Of course, it ends in tragedy - and comedy. There's a lot of comedy throughout the movie, as well as a certain amount of mayhem, and some satire. But while it's clear that the Bombers are idiots, this isn't quite a satire on media or art school types. It isn't exactly loving, either, unless I am missing something cross-cultural. It is just observing.

In conclusion, my favorite Bombers were the cute chubby nerd couple who are experts in hand-held and panning (on roller skates). I was very happy to see them get together.