Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Greatest Stories Ever Told

When I was a kid in the 60s, holiday weekends would mean special movies. Not just Christmas movies, but Wizard of Oz or Sound of Music on Thanksgiving and the Greatest Story Ever Told on Easter. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, for Thanksgiving weekend, I was in the mood for a Theme, and the theme I chose was Biblical/Egyptian.

We started with a silly action picture: Gods of Egypt (2016). This retelling of the Contendings of Horus and Set is most famous for having zero persons of Egyptian descent, and for completely changing the myth. It is set in a fabulous CGI world where the Egyptian pantheon walk among humans as 9-foot tall men and women who bleed liquid gold and can turn into giant metal creatures. As Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is about to be crowned king, evil Set (Gerard Butler) show up to kill old king Osiris and rip Horus' eyes out.

Meanwhile, human thief Brandon Thwaites lets his girl Courtney Eaton convince him to steal Horus' eyes back from Set. This sets up a god/mortal buddy movie, with the two trying to take down Set. There's an interesting theology theme: Thwaites' thief is kind of an atheist (he knows gods exist, he just doesn't think they are useful), while his girl worships Horus devoutly.

But there isn't much deep about this. Just lots of action, with beautiful art direction and CGI. The movie is full of gold and sunlight, which is a nice change from all the dark, desaturated movies we see these days.

Speaking of desaturated, Aronofsky's Noah (2014) has that look. It's all about Noah (Russell Crowe, looking weirdly like Tom Hanks), last descendant of Seth in a world full of the sons of Caine. After a very few minor dreams and a visit to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he figures it's time to build an ark. His sons are concerned about the lack of women - Only Shem has a girl (Emma Watson) and she's sterile. They look to the neighboring tribe, but they are seething dens of iniquity, ruled by Tubal Caine (Ray Winstone), first smith and weapon maker. Shem finds a girl but Noah lets the mob trample her. Which leads to friction in the family.

Fortunately, the rain starts and everyone in the world except Noah and family dies.

This is a visually interesting movie, set in a timeless ancient time, with minimal technology. The Ark is a clunky, boxy thing, made of rough logs and smeared with pitch. Sure, everyone's homespun looks a little tailored, but creative license and all. Also, the masses of birds and animals look great, although no real animals were used. So this is just as much of a CGI fest as Gods of Egypt. But much, much grayer.

Crowe's Noah is a pretty dour man, which is fair enough since he was involved in a genocide. At least we get to see his drunken nakedness, although they kind of hurry through it. All in all, I think I most enjoyed Hopkins as Methuselah. He seemed to be having fun at least.

Speaking of dour, Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) isn't all that perky. He starts out doing fine, adopted son of Pharoah, step-brother to Prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton), but when he finds out that he's a Jew, he is exiled. That works out all right for him too, since he meets a cute Midianite girl, Mariah Valverde, and marries her. Note that, like in Gods of Egypt and Noah, there are no particularly Hebraic or otherwise Middle Eastern actors in this movie. Moses' wife was famously supposed to be dark-skinned, but just like in the other movies, we don't care. Valverde is cute. I was a little concerned that on their wedding night, we were going to get a semi-explicit sex scene - watching Mr. and Ms. Moses doing it is too much like watching your great-grandparents.

Then Moses goes up the mountain and meets G-d by a burning bush. This personage, the great I AM, turns out to be a little boy with a bad temper. He sends Moses back to Egypt to free the Jews. When various forms of, let's face it, terrorism don't work, the little boy takes matters into his own hands with some curses.

And then we get the crossing of the Red Sea. I was afraid it was going to be some lame, "realistic", super-low tide cop-out, but no, we get the full CGI treatment, including a shot of drowning bodies that I'm pretty sure we saw in Noah.

Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott, is the closest to a traditional, Charlton Heston, Ten Commandments type spectacle. Like Noah, it spends a lot of time of the sorrows of a prophet who knows the Lord is planning to kill a lot of people. But Moses has some ups and downs, not the consistent downer of Noah.

So that was our Thanksgiving Gods of Ancient Middle East film festival. It's strange that two classy directors, Aronofsky and  Scott both decided to do Old Testament stories in 2014. It's funny that someone did Gods of Egypt, too, because it's such a goof. We watched a lot of other movies - Keanu Reeves marathon (John Wick, Constantine)! Addams Family and the Thanksgiving fave Addams Family Values! But we enjoyed the pageantry and righteousness of our little theme party.

It strikes me that it was Wizard of Oz that was always on TV on Thanksgiving. Maybe we should have watched The Wiz, Oz the Great and Powerful and Malificent. Maybe I'll save that for Easter.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Triple Prey

Well, once more Ms. Spenser has me watching a chick flick: Predators (2010). She got out her action figures, set them up to watch and we settled in for the third of the series.

The first two start with some kind of human-scale mission - this one just dumps our humans into it, literally. Adrian Brody wakes up in freefall. His parachute opens and he lands badly. He soon finds some other humans: a Mexican drug soldier (Danny Trejo), a Chechen fighter (Oleg Taktarov), a murderer from San Q (Walter Goggins), an African warlord (Mahershala Ali), a silent yakuza in a sharp suit (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and a cute soldier (Alice Braga). Also, a doctor (Topher Grace), who is kind of out of place, not being a killer or anything.

It takes a while, but they soon figure out that they are not on Earth, and that they are being hunted. They meet up with Laurence Fishburne, who has survived enough hunts to have stolen a set of camo armor and infiltrated a crashed ship. He moves and talks very quietly. But how much help will he be?

As usual, the crew gets thinned out pretty fast. But in this one, the other team members may be more dangerous than the Predators. We get a few new Preds, but also learn a little about their ecosystem and meet some of the other species they hunt. We also learn that they are learning, changing, becoming more dangerous every hunt. Which is a great excuse to keep coming up with new stories and monster designs.

The cast here is great, one of the best, I think - or maybe it's just because Danny Trejo is onboard. I know you're thinking: Adrian "Broody" Brody? Really? But he's got a new take on the Predator hero - rougher, colder, maybe smarter. Also, he's bulked up a lot, although nothing like Arnold.

I won't spoil the twist, although it's telegraphed very obviously and early on. This installment was  produced by Robert Rodrigues and directed by Hungarian Nimrod Antal - an auspicious name for a movie about hunters. All in all, a great entry in the series.

Next, we watch the AvP series (considered to be an independent branch universe). But Ms. Spenser's really excited about the next Predator, to be directed by Shane Black.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Flying V

I'll start by saying that I don't think Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is a bad movie. Director Zack Snyder has an interesting visual style (although he does like to film dark). The action is strong, the takes on the classic characters interesting, and the acting gets full marks. But it just doesn't seem to hold together.

It picks up the story up during the big fight at the end of Man of Steel. We meet some of the first responders getting killed by fallout from the Superman/Zod fight, which motivates the whole hate-and-fear Superman thing. There's even a Marvel-Civil-War-style anti-superpower legislation subplot. Later, we see Clark Kent reading about Batman's extralegal activities and decides that he is a menace.

So they start plotting to take each other down. Batman will have a harder job of it, but he has a line on some kryptonite. He plans to get it by stealing it from Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Alfred isn't happy about this, but since he's played by Jeremy Irons, we're happy with him.

When we get to the big fight, it's almost entirely based on a misunderstanding. This is something that is always happens in comics - two superheroes meet, each decides the other is evil, fight, fight, fight. The whole thing is settled when they discover that both of their mothers are named Martha. Trace Beaulieu and Frank Coniff talk about this a lot in their Movie Sign with the Mads podcast: What would have happened if Ma Kent's name was Molly? What if Lex Luthor's mother was another Martha?

A few words on casting: I love Henry Cavill as Superman and Clark. It's cute that this version of Clark lives with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who knows that he's Superman, because she's not blind. Ben Affleck is maybe the best Batman yet - old and beaten up but hugely powerful. (I have to admit here that I've been getting Ben Affleck and Ben Stiller mixed up. They both have the same chiseled cheeks and quirked smile, you know. I thought this Ben guy had a lot of range, from Zoolander to Daredevil. I've got them straight now.)

Jesse Eisenberg playing a Lex Luthor as a long-haired semi-articulate high-tech industry guru seems like a mistake. I want a Lex Luthor with some gravitas - a thoughtful, dignified villain, preferably bald. Eisenberg seems to be doing Zuckerberg as supervillain, or maybe he can only do this one character.

This movie famously sets up the Justice League movie by showing a few of the other heroes. In some ways, it seems to take place in the CW-DC-verse, with the metahumans, although with a different set of actors. Jason Momoa as Aquaman looks (paradoxically) awesome in his short cameo. But when Gal Gadot shows up as Wonder Woman, the movie gets a real shot of adrenaline. That might even be the big problem with this movie: When you see that kind of intensity, the rest of the movie is going to suffer.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monster Picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) is something truly amazing: a classic horror movie written by Oscar Wilde. It stars George Sanders as a fop-about-town visiting his painter friend - who tries to duck him, of course. The painter has just painted a portrait of an extraordinarily beautiful young man, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). When Sanders meets Gray, he does his best to corrupt him, reminding him that his youth and beauty are fleeting. Standing beside an Egyptian cat idol, Gray makes a wish: that he should stay young while the painting ages.

Stung by Sanders' words, Gray decides to live a little, and visits a lowdown London grogshop where he hears Angela Lansbury singing the "Good-bye Little Yellow Bird" - a sort of answer song to "Just a Bird in a Gilded Cage," I guess. He is attracted to her, and following the advice of George Sanders, debauches her and pays her off. When she kills herself, he notices that the portrait now has a touch of cruelty around the lips. But since he looks the same, why not carry on as he began. So he begins to sin in earnest.

Of course, we only gets hints of the sinning. He goes into a tavern's back room with a midget - doesn't that say it all? He spends time in these low dives playing Chopin on the piano, and people around him keep killing themselves. The onscreen body count is low - one, I think - but that's enough to make this an actual horror picture.

There are even make-up effects. But the biggest special effect is the painting of the corrupted Dorian. It was painted by Ivan Albright, who had lived but a few miles from my college. This painting hung in one of our art galleries for a year, in all its ghastly splendor. The movie switches from black and white to glorious technicolor whenever the painting is shown (usually only for a few seconds).

So, we have a classic horror movie - Dorian Gray is a classic monster, he's even in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (ok, bad example, maybe). But it is also written by Oscar Wilde, with George Sanders spitting epigrams like crazy - some of which were used in Velvet Goldmine ("I prefer persons to principles"). I guess a lot of the Univeral Monsters came from legitimate literature (Jekyll and Hyde by R.L. Stevenson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, etc), so why not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hurry Sundown

Already, we are back at the old Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott watering hole for Decision at Sundown (1957). Scott even gets a sidekick, Noah Beery, Jr.

It starts with Scott getting off a stagecoach. But he doesn't wait for a normally scheduled stop - he sticks a gun in the drivers ear and makes him stop. Then he fires a shot to alert ... alert ... to alert Noah Beery, who finally shows up with an extra horse. He'd fallen asleep. And so they make their way to the town of Sundown, where Scott has business with Tate Kimbrough (John Carrol). To kill him.

Beery lets Scott know that Tate is a big man in Sundown, and that he is getting married that very day. So Scott goes to the barber for a shave so he'll look good for the wedding. Then he heads to the saloon where he refuses to drink on Tate's tab. Finally, he heads to the church and lets Tate know that he aims to kill him.

That warning leads to an amazing stand-off, with Scott and Beery holed up in a stable. We get to meet the people of Sundown. The woman Tate is fooling around with but won't marry. The bought-and-sold sherrif. The doctor who doesn't like Tate, but opposes violence. He can move freely between the townspeople and the stable.

The way upright Scott rides into town, forthrightly declares himself, and sets out to make good on his intentions is contrasted with the corrupt leaders and follow-the-crowd townspeople of Sundown. But there's a twist to this movie. Scott may be sure, but is he right? Noah Beery keeps trying to get him to reconsider, and maybe get something to eat. So we not only get Scott unutterable cool, but we get a critique of it as well.

In conclusion, these are great westerns.

Coming from Inside the House

Does anyone remember Monster House (2006)? It made a big splash in the day, and we finally decided to watch it, even though we're beginning to think that modern animation just isn't for us.

It's about DJ, a long-faced, big-eared tween boy, just on the edge of puberty. He is obsessed with the scary house across the street and the mean old man who lives there. Any kid's toy that lands on his lawn gets confiscated - with extreme prejudice. Now, it's almost Halloween and his parents are off for the weekend, leaving him with flakey, punky babysitter Elizabeth (or "Z" as she likes to be called). His chubby goofball friend Chowder loses his ball on the scary house's lawn. Then mean old man Nebercracker comes after them - and has a heart attack and collapses on top of DJ.

So, that's pretty dark for a kid's movie. But now that the old man is gone, it seems the house was the real monster after all. It starts trying to eat people - and succeeding.

Throw in a few extra characters and you've got a real movie: a smart girl for the boys to obsess over, Z's loser boyfriend Bones, a couple of clueless town cops, and the wizard who can solve it all, a greasy video arcade master with a zip mustache called Skull (John Heder). It all ends in a frantic chase/fight scene and then a happy ending.

We liked a lot of this. We noticed Dan Harmon as one of the writers, and weren't surprised. Like Community, this is very good but just not great.
  • Animation was mostly good but sometimes the motion-capture was a little too spot on - made the characters seem like people in masks or something. Also, due to the technology, everyone had plastic hair.
  • DJ  (sensitive quiet kid) and Chowder (fat loud kid) were OK characters, but not very original. And the romantic interest wasn't exactly 3-dimensional either (even if the movie was projected in 3D in some theaters).
  • The source of the monstrosity: I won't give it away, but it isn't good. I'll just say that the true villains are the writers.
I'm glad we watched this, and I enjoyed it, but can't say it hit the mark.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Frankenstein Must be Annoyed!

The Horror Fest continues, even after Halloween has come and gone! Since we haven't seen much Hammer Horror, we took on Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), directed by Terence Hill, starring Peter Cushing as a certain doctor.

We find the good doctor moving out of his laboratory with the police getting a little too close. He happens to notice a young doctor (Simon Ward) dropping a box of cocaine before meeting his girlfriend (Veronica Carlton). He blackmails them into allowing him to set up shop in her boarding house. Soon the young doctor - a cute guy with a blonde Beatle cut - has more than a coke rap against him. Carlton, a busty blonde Hammer Girl, puts up with it all, even when Cushing repeatedly orders her to bring him coffee.

In case you hadn't guessed, Cushing is Baron Frankenstein, and his plan is a cunning one. His past partner, Dr. Brandt (George Pravda - at first!) has gone insane. So Frankenstein will break him out of the asylum, cure his insanity, and they will go on with the work. It goes well enough until Brandt dies. No problem for Dr. F - just put his brain into another body (Freddie Jones) and carry on.

Note that the Frankenstein who must be destroyed is not the monster.

We enjoyed this a lot, especially Cushing's cold and arrogant Frankenstein,. However, we should warn viewers that there is a very disturbing rape scene. I have read that it was put in the movie late in development at the request of the studio, and Peter Cushing hated it. My recommendation: Pretend it never happened.