Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Sight

Here's an oddball for you: John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966). The title sequence by Saul Bass gives you a good idea how it will play out: close-ups of a man's face in a distorting mirror in black and white, with a disorienting Jerry Goldsmith score.

It follows John Randolph, a middle-aged banker as he takes the commuter train home. Someone is following him through Central Station, someone who seems to have the camera strapped to his back, filming over his shoulder. These kinds of odd POV shots, as well as fisheye lenses and other distortions, give the whole film an air of paranoia and unreality. It seems that Mr. Randolph has had an invitation from a dead man.

He goes to the address he's been given and gets directed from spot to spot, until he gets to a meat packing plant, where he's loaded into the back of a truck, like so much... yeah, you got it. It turns out the scheme is this: A shadowy organization, run by Will Geer, will fake your death, give you a new face, body, home, career, everything, all for a small portion of your earthly wealth. And so John Randolph becomes Rock Hudson.

Hudson's new life involves a house in Malibu, a career as a painter (with moderate commercial success already set in motion). He feels aimless at first, but he meets a cute girl on the beach, Salome Jens. She's a mature bohemian blonde, just the kind of woman for the man that he has become. She takes him to a wild beatnik bacchanal, which he is too square to dig, until he starts to enjoy it. Soon he's throwing drunken cocktail parties, but maybe he's getting a little too into it. Is this really the life he wanted?

There's so much in this movie on so many levels. The commodification of lifestyle was one that got me thinking: that the bohemian life Rock Hudson chose was just as pre-fab and inauthentic as his life as a suburban banker. I should also mention the scene where he visits his ex-wife and sees how little effect his death had on anyone. She doesn't even miss him. His death is a chance to remodel.

But the camera is the real star. It's wielded by the inestimable James Wong Howe, who is using every trick in the book. I wonder if Saul Bass had any influence beyond the credits - this reminds me a little of Bass' Phase IV. I guess the influence would have run the other way.

Thursday, March 9, 2017


You know what I like every now and then? A good old-fashioned jungle adventure movie. So we queued up the new The Legend of Tarzan (2016). Tarzan movies have a reputation of being poison (unless they are animated, I guess?), but this was a lot of fun.

It starts with Tarzan, that is, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is living the civilized life in England with his genteel Jane (Margot Robbie). A group of religious worthies want him to go to the Belgian Congo and help out the poor savages there. He declines, but American Samuel L. Jackson convinces him that some bad stuff is happening there, and they should go investigate. Of course, Jane misses home and wants to head back too.

Indeed, bad things are happening, as this is the Congo under King Leopold, noted for vicious inhumanity. Things down there are being run by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is enslaving the natives with the help of the Leopard Men, led by chief Djimon Hounsou. Two things here:
  1. This Africa is historical, not a timeless Dark Continent. Rom was a real person, and King Leopold a very real villain.
  2. I love me some Leopard Men. Always have. 
After a short idyll in their village, Jane is captured by Rom and taken up the river, where he plans to search for the Gem of McGuffin. He plans to use Jane as bait to catch Tarzan - and you can guess how that works out.

Skarsgard makes an interesting Tarzan, tall and lean, without the broad chest of Weissmuller's Tarzan. Director David Yates said that he wanted to emphasize "verticality", which fits. Also, he doesn't take off his shirt until well into the movie, but when he does, look out - ripped and shredded. There could have been more web vine-swinging, in my opinion, but it looked like it was mostly CGI, so maybe that's for the best. It was certainly CGI of the highest caliber, though.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that the big conflict in the movie (although  submerged) was purely African. The fight with the Belgians was important and full of incident, but what was closest to Tarzan's heart was between him, the apes, and another tribe. It's not exactly Afro-centric in total, but a lot less Euro than I feared.

I doubt that this will make jungle movies popular, like Pirates of the Caribbean did for pirate movies. But we enjoyed it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Los Boys

It seems strange that we haven't seen The Lost Boys (1987) until now. Back in the day, some of our gothy friends were so into this movie, they used to get fangs made by dentists for maximum realism. Maybe that's why we never saw it. As a result, we never realized that it was made in Santa Cruz.

It starts with an old van with a mom and two kids rolling into Santa Cruz - re-labelled Santa Carla for the movie, because of course, vampires can't stand la cruz. We see the light house, Boardwalk, and all the hippie and crusty kids. Also, we see people posting flyers for lost children, and graffiti calling Santa Clara "Murder Capital of the World".

It seems that Mom Dianne Weist and her two sons, teen Jason Patric and pre-teen Corey Haim have come to live with their hippy grampa, Bernard Hughes. It's a mixed bag - a new town with a fun beach scene and a lot of murders, lots of kids, but no friends, and not much money. Patric soon spots Jami Gertz and follows her. It turns out that she has some sketchy friends, lead by Keifer Sutherland.

Meanwhile, Haim meets some kids in the comicbook store - Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, Edgar and Allen Frog, the Frog brothers. They want him to read some vampire comics to learn self-defense. This, you will notice, is the first of the Two Coreys movies. Since the actors were underaged, they spent a lot of time together instead of partying like the older actors.

Somewhere in here, I realized that this is more of a horror-comedy than straight horror. The Frog Bros. are particularly silly - also, every bit of comic book vampire lore they know more or less turns out to be true. Another movie where only the kids know what's going on.

I wasn't as fond of Patric - he had a lopsided smirk for most of the first half of the movie that made him look like Rick Moranis. Keifer Sutherland was pretty impressive, though. He looks debauched and cruel, and that's before he vamps out. I did expect him to bark like Oddball from Kelley's Heroes, though. His gang was equally creepy, except Ms. Spenser had trouble figuring out what kind of gang they were: Were they bikers, new-wavers, street punks? Hair-metal heads is the closest I could figure. Fits with the soundtrack, which was painfully 80's-teen-friendly.

I really enjoyed this, probably because it wasn't as scary or as cheesy as I thought it would be. It was cool that it so clearly took place in Santa Cruz - the geography was right, the trees and bushes were right, even when you weren't at the Boardwalk. Ms. Spenser enjoyed it too, but says it doesn't count as horror, and so I still owe her.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

What's the Big Deal?

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) exists partly as an Italian parody of French heist films like Rififi. It also exists to give some Italians free rein to be funny.

It starts with a guy getting arrested trying to steal a car in Rome. In prison, he begs his wife and lawyer to break him out, because another prisoner has told him about a perfect target for a heist. So they go looking for a scapegoat, a fall guy to confess to the crime and do the time.

This is a nice little aimless section where we travel around looking for lowlifes willing to go to prison for a while in exchange for some money. One guy is already locked up, another can't afford a third strike, a photographer (Marcello Mastroianni!) has to look after his ever-crying baby because his wife's in prison. Finally, losing boxer Vittorio Gassman agrees. Except the judge locks him and the car thief up.

But Gassman gets out with the secret, and they begin to plan the heist - scientifically. The plan is to break into a pawnshop through the wall in the uninhabited apartment next door. They steal a movie camera to film the pawnbrokers from a roof across the way, in classic heist movie style. Of course, Mastroianni added a few shots of his baby, and when the safe was being opened, a bra on a clothesline got in the way of the shot. Oh well, that's science.

I don't really recognize many of the actors, outside of Mastroianni, but Claudia Cardinale shows up in one of her first roles as the sister that one of the gang tries to keep sequestered, and another tries to date. It's a small role but it makes an impression.

But everyone is good here. It's sweet and not all that subtle, but funny. Even if you haven't seen Rififi.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thrill Me!

I found out about Night of the Creeps (1986) from the Projection Booth podcast. They do exhaustive discussions of odd movies, like this under-the-radar cult horror-comedy. Short version: They love this movie. We watched it and had the same experience.

After an odd intro involving aliens, it starts in black-and-white: Sorority row on a 50s college campus. A guy takes his date parking, after running off her cop ex-boyfriend. When Plot-Point Radio mentions the ax murderer who escaped from the insane asylum, you think you know where this is going. Then they see a meteor, and you think maybe it's something different. Sure, it's a retro-fifties slasher horror from outer space movie.

The next scene takes place thirty years later, in 1986. Now, it's a campus comedy as two buddies walk through crowded Sorority/Frat row. Jason Lively is the bland, shy guy who doesn't think he'll ever get a girl. Steve Marshall is his funny friend. He's a wise-ass and a loud-mouth, with a voice like Eddie Deezen, and he uses crutches. The point isn't belabored, although he makes a joke about being "funny as a crutch", and they are a plot point, but it's handled very deftly.

Lively falls in love with Jill Whitlow from across the room, and decides to join a frat to impress her - Marshall was going to suggest talking to her, but that would be too hard. As part of their initiation, they need to find a corpse. The corpse they find doesn't stay dead, though.

And who should get called in but the cop ex-boyfriend from the opening. He is played by Tom Atkins, a kind of Stacy Keach doing Joe Don Baker. He's a snarling cynic who answers the phone "Thrill me" and has all the best one liners. Like "Is this a homicide investigation or a bad b-movie?"

In fact, this movie is full of quotable lines. I am valiantly resisting quoting Marshall's monologue about acting like jerks so Lively can get this girl - it's better than acting like jerks for no reason. It was writer/director Fred Dekker's first movie, and it is clearly a work of love. There were marketing problems that kept it from going big, but that's fine - it's now a cult movie for people like us.

Fred Dekker isn't a big name. He's only made a few movies (Monster Squad), but he was college room-mates with Shane Black, and they still collaborate. In fact, I think he's working on the new Predator movie. So there's that to look forward to.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bourne Old

I liked the original Bourne trilogy, although I don't think I recognized how smart they were until they were over. Bourne is a superspy, and director Paul Greengrass has a way of letting you see what he sees, read a scene the way he is reading it. It adds intelligence to the action. So I was looking forward to  Jason Bourne (2016). I don't think I got what I was looking for.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne now remembers everything, how he was trained as an assassin, and how he killed so many for his intelligence agency masters (like Tommy Lee Jones). They would like to keep this all buried, but Julia Stiles, playing hacker, downloads the complete files on all the black ops. Damon picks them up in the middle of a democracy demonstration in Athens, under cover of chaos. I'm not sure this is really good spycraft, and it doesn't actually work out so well.

So Bourne finds himself being hunted by Jones, CIA agent Alicia Vikander, and finally, deadly killer Vincent Cassell, as "the Asset". There's the usual action scenes, fights and car chases, with plenty of shaky camerawork - emphasis on "usual". There wasn't a lot that struck me as new or, you know, smart.

Not really bad, but not good enough for this franchise.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bravo Bava

We were looking for some old-timey SF horror, and queued up Planet of the Vampires (1965). Since it was directed by Mario Bava, we kind of knew what to expect: Cheapness, cheese, and colorful lighting effects.

Two spaceships detect a mysterious signal emanating from a planet shrouded in mist. On goes to investigate and vanishes, so the other ship follows. There is a bogus meteor shower and very lame "high-g" sequence. When they land, Captain Barry Sullivan and his crew of Euro-babes and boys discovers that the crew of the first ship have killed each other off. So they wrap them in plastic and bury them. But do they stay dead?

The basic plot idea is pretty neat (although there are no vampires, sorry). I think Star Trek used it once or twice. The special effects, however, are not up to the standard of even original series Star Trek. Nor the writing or acting. So really, this is just a "so bad that it's good" guilty pleasure.

EXCEPT - Mario Bava is at the helm, so you get wild colors, fog over miniature landscape, preposterous process shots - scratch that, I checked and he is using mirrors, to save on film processing. Some of his shots are strikingly composed and beautiful, some almost surrealist. Also, the costumes are outstanding, leather jumpsuits with fancy high collars and leather helmet liners.

So, much silliness, some beauty. Should I try a Bava giallo?