Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Game of Life

The Imitation Game (2014) has two things going for it: it is the story of mathematician Alan Turing, and he is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The story of Turing is fascinating: He was a brilliant but socially maladroit mathematician who broke the Nazi Enigma code, working in a secret facility in Bletchley Park. (I don't know if the British TV series The Bletchley Circle was inspired by the movie or if it's just one of those things.) He was also a homosexual, at a time where that was a serious crime. In fact, some years after the war, he was convicted and "chemically castrated", which is as horrible as it sounds. His wartime heroism was still top-secret.

I don't think it is a stretch for Mr. Bunnydick Cucumberpatch to play an autistic genius. It is getting to be a bit of a niche. Suffice it to say he does a great job here, but it is more of a Cambershaft performance than a Turing performance. Unless Alan Turing really did sound and act like Binkydink Camouflage, which is possible. In fact, people who knew Turing say his imitation was uncanny, so I withdraw my objections, and promise to stop making up silly names for him.

Unfortunately, while the acting is great, I felt that some of the drama was a little forced. The scene where Turing finally breaks the code, and realizes that they will have to let a German attack proceed or risk giving away the game has the stakes raised one or two too many times. Although, maybe that was actually true to life as well.

The actual code breaking was interesting and seemed very realistic- in fact, I would have enjoyed more of that, and maybe more of Turings thoughts on machine intelligence and the Imitation Game. The original game involves a man and a woman in two separate rooms, and you have to guess which is the woman, only communicating by typewriter. In Turing's version, you have to guess which is a computer. That helps you think about whether computers can think like humans, but also whether woman can think like men, and of course, whether homosexuals can think like heterosexuals. But I suppose they didn't need to spell it out.

Alan Turing committed suicide not long after he was convicted of indecency. The Queen pardoned him in 2003. This is a worthwhile story to tell.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two Faced

We're having a mini-Mitchum festival, starting with Angel Face (1952), an Otto Preminger noir co-starring Jean Simmons.

It starts with Robert Mitchum and a buddy driving their ambulance up to a Beverly Hills mansion, where a woman has almost suffocated when the gas in her fireplace is left on. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) found her in time. As Mitchum is leaving he sees Simmons playing piano, and they have a little scene. She follows him to his late-night diner, and gets him to break a date with his girl, then they go out dancing.

You see, he is a vet with no money and plans to open a racing shop. Simmons is a poor little rich girl whose father is a blocked writer, and her step-mother is a cold bitch who bankrolls them at the expense of their dignity. But she likes Mitchum, and lets him know she can funnel some money his way if he sticks around.

You know how in these noirs, you look at the femmes fatales and think, who would be dumb enough to fall for that? Maybe she's pretty, maybe there's money in it, but you can tell she's evil and you, at least, would not fall for it one bit. Well, Mitchum doesn't fall for it either. This is that great noir where the dupe is completely wised up. He might play along for what he can get, but he never trusts her one bit.

OK, that's enough spoilers. There's a lot that happens here, a lot of it pretty wild. Also, while Mitchum is being Mitchum, Simmons is gorgeous, sophisticated, young, frightened, alone, and utterly mad. I've seen stories that Howard Hughes made this movie to punish her, and got Preminger to mistreat her on set - pretty believable, but they wound up with an amazing document.

Monday, June 29, 2015


One funny thing about Riddick (2013) is that it really is a sequel to Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick. So why the generic title?

Pitch Black found Riddick (Vin Diesel) a convicted murderer marooned on a deadly planet. It was done in a simple, stripped down style (and very stylishly). Chronicles was much more baroque (although Riddick was again marooned on a deadly planet), with fancy costumes, political intrique, metaphysical weapons, and wild ideologies. Riddick keeps some of that, but mostly goes back to the style of Pitch Black.

Riddick is marooned alone on a deadly planet - because he got soft. So he takes it as a chance to toughen up. He fights some nasty beasts and in the process acquires a pet hyena dingo-dongo. That's Act I. Finally, he finds an abandoned mercenary outpost and sends out a distress call, letting all the bounty hunters in the universe that a guy with a price on his head is looking for a ride. Two sets of bounty hunters show up. This is Act II.

Riddick leaves the mercs a message: Leave on of the ships and you can get off the planet alive. Since there are 10-20 of them and only one of him, armed only with handmade weapons, this is pretty tempting. But then comes Act III, when a planetary catastrophe makes Riddick come out of hiding to try and join forces.

Riddick is a nice combo of the stripped down style of Pitch Black with a touch of the baroque back-story and fancy uniforms of Chronicles. But mostly it is about the hard-assedness of Diesel/Riddick. Especially in Act III, Riddick is put into horrible situations, from which he casually tells people how and when he is going to kill them - and then he does it.

This is really your basic space adventure story, extreme action style. It isn't anything fancy or special, except that there aren't as many of these made as you might think. So, it's pretty silly, and it might be my favorite Riddick yet.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Her Who Must be Obeyed

Since we've been catching up on SF films of the 2010s starring Scarlett Johansson, we watched Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze. It really stars Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice) - the camera almost never leaves his blank, dweeby face.

It takes place about 25-50 years in the future, in a Los Angeles full of skyscrapers. Phoenix is a lonely guy with an R. Crumb mustache who is going through a divorce from his childhood sweetheart. He has an apartment with floor to ceiling windows and all he does is stare into space, sigh, and play hologram video games. His job is writing deep emotional "handwritten" (computer generated) notes for people who have trouble connecting, which is ironic (I guess). To fill the void, he buys a new OS, the advanced artificially intelligent kind that sounds like Scarlett Johansson.

Of course, the OS learns about Phoenix, Phoenix learns about her, and they fall in love. It's kind of cute when he reveals to friends that the girl he's been seeing is an OS - they just kind of take it in stride. And that's the most annoying thing about this movie. Ms. Spenser noted it particularly: this amazing thing is happening: True artificial intelligence, with keen emotional insight and brilliance far surpassing ours, and all he does is make her a girlfriend? And when it all goes south - of course they don't live happily ever after - he doesn't say, "Hey, you're super intelligent. Help me out here."

But no, Johansson, as the OS, just gets emotional and all breath-catchy. Phoenix even calls her on it: Why do you keep sighing? You don't even breathe. If I didn't know better, I'd think she was being emotionally manipulative on purpose. But maybe that's part of the movie's message: Just like LA has become built up with skyscrapers, and men have become dweebs (see Chris Pratt as Phoenix's nice but inane co-worker), women have become manipulative psychos (at least all the women we see in the movie) and the OS is just trying to fit in.

I've seen a lot about the movie's visual style - considering that one actor is only a voice and the other is wearing a heinous mustache, that's important. It was nice to look at, but there were a lot of scenes of cityscapes, water drops, skies, that just went on and on. It really made the movie drag and it wasn't that beautiful.

Really, this was pretty much the old love story: Boy meets computer, boy loses computer. It's well done for what it is, but why shouldn't it be? Hollywood has experience with this. It just doesn't do anything with its amazing premise, which is too bad.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Wreckered Album

The Wrecking Crew (2015) is a documentary about studio musicians, specifically, the musicians that played on almost every hit record that came out of LA. It was made by  Denny Tedesco, son of one of the Crew's guitarists, Tommy Tedesco. He was planning a nice 30-minute interview, but it just grew. It was finished in 2008, but there was one problem: It took 7 more years and a lot of money to clear all the music they needed to tell the story.

It's an amazing story: Imagine if all the great 1960s rock and pop hits were recorded by the same loose group of about 2 dozen musicians - it's pretty much true. LA always had a blot of studio musicians who could read charts and get the perfect take down, and these guys were the best. Phil Spector used them for his "Wall of Sound", but they show up everywhere: The Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees, Nancy Sinatra, the Righteous Bros., the Beach Boys, Herb Alpert, even Frank Zappa used these guys. The movie concentrates on a few, like drummer Hal Blaine (the thunderous drums for "Be My Baby"), Plas Johnson (the sax line for "Pink Panther"), and guitarist Tommy Tedesco (surf, jazz or Spanish acoustic styles a specialty). But I particularly wanted to see bassist Carol Kaye.

She started out playing jazz guitar, but filled in on bass for a recording gig, and made more money than she made in a week playing live. She was the one who talked most about the music, the feel, how it was created, what made it great. How a group would come in with a song and no arrangements. She would develop a funky bass line, just a little something, and that might be all it needed. For example, the bass in "These Boots are Made for Walking", right after "Are you ready boots?" Just a simple descending portamento, but perfect.

Some of the Crew became solo stars. Glenn Campbell was the country's best acoustic rhythm guitarists before he started recording on his own. Leon Russell was a Wrecker, and so was Dr. John, Mac Rebennack. But most of these guys (I think Kaye was the only woman) are pretty much unknown. They worked insane hours (none of them was a very good parent), made a bundle, and faded away into TV theme work, club gigs, or the Gong Show (Tedesco) when the bands started playing their own instruments. But now, you can get to know them a little.

This is a lot like Standing in the Shadow of Motown, Muscle Shoals, and Twenty Feet from Stardom. I love that we get to see the anonymous musicians who make that music that hits so close to the heart. Because this movie was made by the son of one of the musicians, it gets a little closer to the heart. And since his father died before the movie was released, its gets right into the heart. So glad he made this.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Husky and Haggard

It seems that I'm becoming an expert on the filmography of Ferlin Husky. It's strange because I only know about him for his single "On the Wings of a Dove," and because of Goerge Jones' line in "We're Not the Jet Set":
Our Bach and Tschaikovsky
is Haggard and Husky
It's funny he should mention Merle Haggard because he has a couple of cameos in Hillbillys in a Haunted House (1967). It starts with Ferlin, his "girl singer" Boots Malone (Joi Lansing) and nervous manager Jeepers (Don Bowman) on the road to a Nashville Jamboree in a big white convertible. I'm going to halt the synopsis to comment on this car - it is clearly a Nudie.

You may know about Nudie Cohen as Hollywood's Rodeo Tailor - he made the outrageous embroidery and rhinestone-studded suits favored by artists like Porter Wagoner, Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. But he also liked to customize cars, mostly Pontiac Bonnevilles - he replaced the upholstery with tooled leather, added longhorns to the front, replaced the door handles with pistols, studded the whole think with silver dollars. Now, I haven't been able to find any mention of Nudie and this movie, but this is either an original Nudie, or an amazing replica.

OK, back to the plot. Because Jeepers isn't feeling so hot, and it looks like rain (but only in some shots) and the convertible roof doesn't work, they decide to go stay in a haunted house. But we know that the house is actually the headquarters of a spy ring, lead by dragon lady Linda Ho, but including Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, and Anatole the Gorilla (George Barrows, Ro-Man in Robot Monster). As you might imagine, most of these washed-up worthies are never actually in scene with the musical acts.

Of course, the hillbilly side of the film uses any excuse to go into a song, some of them not too bad, like Husky's "Living in a Trance", some of them real stinkers, like Joi Lansing's ode to "Gowns."

After all the hilarity ad slapstick of the haunted house, the movie's only about 50 minutes long. So we get 20 minutes of the Nashville Jamboree they were going to in the first scene. Again the songs are not all keepers - for example, "Hello, Shoe" is pretty much a rip-off of "Hello, Walls." The band includes a sleepy bass player, a drummer and guitarist who look like the Schmengie Brothers - they keep looking at the singer like he or she needs help badly - and Red Rhodes on pedal steel.

Again, we stop the exposition for a short lecture on Red Rhodes. Mr. Rhodes played steel guitar on a lot of the classic country rock albums, including the Ventures, the Byrds, the Monkees, Jams Taylor and others. He was most famous for collaborating on Mike Nesmith's solo projects. He also did a lot of custom amp work, and was famous for his hand-wound pickups, which he called Velvet Hammers.

Then we have Merle Haggard, who is still at it today. In fact, he just released an album with Willy Nelson, Django and Jimmie. One of the songs on this album is the classic "Swinging Doors" and guess what? He does that song in this movie.

So, in conclusion, this is a terrible movie, but you do get a Nudie car, an appearance by Red Rhodes, and Merle Haggard doing "Swinging Doors." Add in some classic horror actors and then decide if you think it's worth it. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

No Regrets for My Youth

I must have missed Real Genius (1985) when it came out because I was out of the demographic - this is a college youth comedy and I'd been out of college 10 years - not long enough for nostalgia to kick in. Or maybe I thought it was just a stupid movie like Young Einstein. But it's not - it's pretty smart.

It stars Gabriel Jarret as a 15-year-old genius, recruited for the laser program at FakeTech College (fictional Caltech, I guess). He discovers his roommate is senior Val Kilmer, who was also recruited at a young age, but burned out. Jarret is naive and a bit dweeby, Kilmer is a kooky slacker, so this looks like the usual odd-couple kook teaches the uptight guy to have fun - and it kind of is. But note that everyone in the dorm is a kooky genius, except for a few stick-in-the-muds.

There's a great scene where Mark Kamiyama as Ick Ikigami covers the dorm floors with ice and everyone has an indoor sledding party. This is the scene where Jarret meets Michelle Meyrink, a Molly Ringwaldesque motor-mouth insomniac genius who is missing some social boundaries. Of course, Jarret falls in love, and so did I.

When I was that age, I was a bit of a genius - not a real genius, but I did go to summer math camp and hang out with them. At college, my frat was kind of like the dorm - just as intellectual, but not so scientific. Our pranks depended more on knowledge of Li Po's poetry or the Albanian monarchy rather than lasers or Ice-9. One thing I always felt was missing from comedies of this type (say, Revenge of the Nerds) is women - it turns out that there were plenty of oddball women with brilliant minds, unconventional life philosophies and quirky socialization. Heck, I married one.

Somehow these comedies are all about awkward boys chasing hot chicks - there's even a scene like that here, where Kilmer sets up a party with girls from the nearby beautician's school. But at least one real geek girl with a personality of her own exists and for that I thank the people who made this movie.

Those people, by the way, seem to be responsible for a bunch of those lame comedies I was complaining about. Director Martha Coolidge also directed Valley Girl and Joy of Sex. The writers, Neal Israel and Pat Proft who did things like Porky's II and Police Academy. So either I'm misjudging their other movies (never seen 'em), or I'm misjudging this one - maybe it just seems smart because it hits my sweet spot.

I've left out a lot in this summary - the odd ghost of a burned out grad student, the whole evil government weapons project, the great final popcorn-related final prank, etc. And I have to say this isn't really a great teen comedy, just better than the usual run. Enjoyable.

In conclusion, I would like to dedicate this review to Lee Hen, Pat McRoyne, The Beautiful but Deadly Melinda Hungeredfor, LaGuerre "Polly" Nomial, Oh Wicked Wanda and all the other women I knew then, most of all, Ms. Spenser.