Thursday, January 17, 2019

Predator? More Like Bass Fisherman

We kind of cheated on The Predator (2018) - we actually saw it with family over the holidays. However, we did not watch it on Netflix so it didn’t count. Also, I get very grumpy watching movies that I want to see under less than perfect conditions - in other words, in my home, in my seats, with my love. But I didn’t grumble too much, I knew we’d be seeing it again. And so we did.

It starts, as is traditional, in some South or Central American country, with a band of covert soldiers sniping on a gang of some sort. It doesn’t really matter, because as is also traditional, a spacecraft crashes nearby. These Predator guys don’t seem to be that great as pilots. Any way, everyone gets killed except sniper Boyd Holbrook, who grabs a few pieces of predator armor and mails them to his PO Box before getting picked up by the Feds.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t paid his PO Box fees, so the postman delivers it to Holbrook’s autistic son and estranged wife. He starts playing around with it, activates it and maybe learns something about how it works.

We also meet Olivia Munn, an exobiologist brought in to check out the Predator from the incident, in a secret facility run by Jake Busey (playing the role that his dad played in Predator 2). Here we get the joke about what a terrible name “Predator” is - but it sounds cool. Then the pred gets loose.

In the meantime, Holbrook is being sent to a psych ward, to cover up the whole incident. I won’t go into to the whole group of crazies, but it includes Keegan-Michael Key and Thomas Jane. They are on a bus to processing, but when the call about the predator breakout comes through they head for the facility. Of course, our band of crazies breaks out and meets up with the exobiologist and head to Holbrook’s home town to hide out at his ex-wife’s place. There, they find that their son is wandering around trick or treating with the armor, and the Predator is coming. All the threads have come together.

This entry into the franchise is famously written and directed by Shane Black (with a writing assist from Fred Dekker of Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps). We’ve enjoyed a lot of his scripts, even if they have some quirks (like having it take place on Halloween - he always includes a holiday). We get some cute callbacks to earlier movies (“Get to the choppa”), but it also builds on them. There’s a cute preda-doggie, based on the hunting dogs in Predators. Then, there’s the ending, which I won’t spoil, but I don’t know what it means for the sequel (if this is considered canon).

We liked this a lot - I guess it didn’t get much fan love, but who cares? The loonies are fun, there are a lot of good kills, and I even liked the kid. Ms. S, of course, thinks it’s the best movie ever. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Party Girl

We were pretty excited when we heard about How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018) - a film based on a punk rock short story by Neil Gaiman, directed by John Cameron Mitchell (of Hedwig’s Angry Inch). It wasn’t quite as amazing as it could have been, but we were glad we watched it.

It’s about 3 British high-school punks in 1977, AJ Lewis is the slick confident one with the bleached Mohawk, Ethan Lawrence is the chubby “social liability, and Alex Sharp as Enn, the protagonist. He is probably most serious about punk, writes a fanzine and draws comics. They go to a punk show being promoted by Nicole Kidman, playing Boudicca, a sort of Malcolm McLaren/Vivienne Westwood promoter and fashion plate, stuck being the big frog in little pond Croyden.

The boys hear about an after party, but get lost on the way and find an odd house. The girl in the fancy vinyl dress at the door let them in, and they go looking for the band. Instead they find some wierd stuff - mostly dead-faced men and women in vinyl fetishware, dancing to odd space music. Lewis tries to get friendly with the girl from the door, Lawrence gets into the dancing, and Sharp finds a girl all alone, because one finger splits into two fingers at the end, which is considered an imperfection.

He’s a little freaked out, and likes it better when he meets Elle Fanning, who is getting browbeaten by her elders. When she takes scissors to her party frock (at least she isn’t wearing vinyl), he teaches her about non-conformism and punk - which she’s never heard of. I guess her people are more into krautrock (a movie in-joke). So he invites her to hang out with him and go to a punk show.

They go home together, and his sweet old horny mother is pleased to meet her. Then they spend a day doing punky things - hanging out and going to record stores. They go to the show and get dragged into an open mike, where they improvise a song together - it’s kind of punk. It also puts them into a dream world together, where only they exist, surrounded by cells and microscopic worlds, or something.

You see, these strange people are aliens - as you figure out pretty quick. They are on Earth to live the human experience, and then there will be a big feast. SPOILER- they aren’t going to eat the punks, it isn’t a cookbook. Everything is more or less explained, which is my least favorite part of the movie.

It’ s all a touch didactic, with lessons about free will and non-conformity and being human and punk. I liked it better when it was mostly a mystery. Also, there isn’t as much real punk as you might expect. The sound track tends toward “krautrock”, a 70s term for sort of arty, proggy, trance electronic sounds from outer space being made in Germany for a while. The band Matmos does the score, who are electronica, and pretty krautrock.

The story, of course, is a familiar one. We thought of Romeo and Juliet and Roman Holiday (now on the list). But really, this movie isn’t about the story, it’s about the feels. Alex Sharp doesn’t just look kind of like John Cusack, he also looks kind of like Neil Gaiman. Emma is both the good girl who is looking to rebel, and the good girl the (male) viewer knows would fall for him if she just checked out his radical music/lifestyle. So, again, a little didactic or schematic, but heartfelt. This part worked for me.

But my favorite part was just the boys poking around in that old house, opening doors at random and finding odd rituals, communal dancing, sexual oddities or political arguments going on. It is kind of dreamlike and crazy, and that’s what my experience with trying to talk with girls at parties was.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Say It Loud

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 (2011) is a bit of an odd duck. It is, basically, documentary footage of the some of the key figures of the American Black Power movement, shot for Swedish TV. I imagine someone found this trove of film and decided that is was important for us, the 21st Century American audience to see.

So we get to see Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, and Louis Farrakhan. We get to see the amazing Angela Davis, interviewed in prison. This covers a range of the movement, from non-violence, to stronger measures, from Black Panther to Nation of Islam. We hear interviews of these people, who could be eloquent or intimate, or both, but all are arresting. There is commentary from modern Black artists, like Talib Kweli, QuestLove and Erykah Badu - and Harry Belafonte, who spanned both eras.

Why Sweden? Because they were there, because they thought this liberation struggle was important. There is a little bit in the middle about how the magazine TV Guide took umbrage at these foreigners daring to criticize (well, document) America, which is amazing. Who would ever consider taking TV Guide seriously?

I don’t know if I learned much - I lived through that era. But I did get to see the faces and hear the voices of people whose names were on the news, but not speaking for themselves.

My only issue was with the music - It was a mostly modern score by the Roots and QuestLove. I was hoping to get a real Black Power Mixtape - some Aretha, some James Brown, maybe some Parliament and more than some background “Soul Makossa” and Jackson 5. Well, maybe that’s another documentary.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Burn Baby Burn

Our local free weekly listed Skyscraper as the number 1 worst movie of 2018. Several podcasts we enjoy also ridiculed it. So of course it was the first Netflix movie we watched in 2019.

It starts with star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson getting his legs blown off in a hostage situation. Ten years later, he is in Hong Kong, getting ready to complete his security audit of the world’s tallest building (named after a Mad Scientist), the Pearl. His wife, Neve Campbell, and two adorable kids are staying in a luxury apartment in the otherwise empty tower. They are planning to go to the night-time panda feeding at the zoo, while Johnson’s buddy Pablo Schreiber takes him to see the bosses.

They give him the tablet that controls the building’s security and safety features (AKA the MacGuffin), keyed to only Johnson’s biometrics. On their way to the offsite control center, someone tries to steal the MacGuffin. Then it turns out that Campbell is bringing the kids back (their son had an asthma attack), skipping the pandas. They notice a sketchy security crew on their floor, but don’t see them setting a huge fire two floors down.

So we have an updated Towering Inferno with some Die Hard thrown in. The Rock is blamed for the fire, since he was supposed to have the MacGuffin, and only he seems to know that his wife and kids are trapped above the fire. So he has to avoid the police, climb a flaming building, rescue his family, and the billionaire who owns the building, and get the bad guys. And he looks great doing it.

I won’t try to tell you that this movie makes much sense. But I will tell you:
  • In an early fight scene, one of the Rock’s prosthetic legs gets torn off. Yes, he is a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
  • The bad guy hackers, even though they have the MacGuffin, still whisper “We’re in!” when they hack the security system.
  • Campbell barely needs rescuing, kicking all kinds of butt and pointing the police at the bad guys.
  • Hall of Mirrors fight at the end, as homage to Lady from Shanghai (or homage to one of its homages).
  • To fix the security system, they turn the building off and on again.
And this doesn’t even cover the Rock covering his hands in duct tape and climbing the outside of the building.

I will admit the that villain, Roland Moller, is no Hans Gruber. His character is named “Botha”, but not “Botha Deez Nutz”. Also, the action is over the top and the plot nonsensical. But they must have known that - this much camp (“We’re in!”) can’t be accidental.

It might just be how darned likable Mr. The Rock is. But I would rank this up with San Andreas and Rampage, and above The Meg. That may be damn faint praise, but it’s good enough for us.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Ringing out 2018

I used to resist these year-end roundup posts, now I kind of look forward to them. I actually took the day off yesterday to write this - then out-of-town guests showed up and I got a better offer. So, as 2018 recedes into a distant memory, here we go.

It looks like we watched 19 movies from 2018 in 2018. The rate at which we are watching new movies seems to be increasing. Most of the big action movies or sequels were just OK - enjoyable but not knockouts. Deadpool II was probably our favorite there. For new, original movies, again, not so many great ones. We enjoyed DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time more than most, I think, partly because of the cast, partly out of love for the book. But I’d say our fave was Annihilation. I can see why some people had a problem with it - I thought some parts looked a little cheesy, like a TV movie (or Netflix). But I couldn’t resist the world building, and the mystery of it all.

Ms. Spenser is still looking for good horror, and we’ve found some. We watched the entire Wan/Whannel Insidious franchise in 2018, capping it with 2018’s Last Key. It’s good series, made great by the characters of Elise, Tucker and Specs. Heriditary, on the other hand, was a beautifully made, extremely scary horror movie that we just didn’t take to. Possibly because it was too extreme, possibly because the ending was so ordinary in what started out so original.

It doesn’t quite fit into the horror category, or any category, really, but we also saw Sorry to Bother You. It was a lot of fun, and pretty brilliant, but also kind of a mess. The shaggy anything goes structure cost it points in the black-comedy-horror-political-metaphor contest (winner: Get Out). 

But our favorite 2018 movie was probably Crazy Rich Asians. It had plenty of problems: wealth porn, racial representation, and the fact that we usually don’t care for modern soap opera rom-coms. But it had so many gorgeous, charming stars (of all Asian persuasions), and was so much plain fun, we couldn’t help it. 

For non-2018 movies, we watched a lot of recent-ish (2017 for ex) movies. Baby Driver was pretty cool. My plan to watch dance movies instead of action movies didn’t really pan out after we’d watched two or three. We didn’t watch as much Shakespeare as I’d planned - mostly because Ms. S. got tired of it. 

We didn’t watch as many “old” movies (black and white, studio system era) as I would like - they just aren’t making them any more. We did see a few Boris Karloff’s and some noir/crime B movies. 

We did get a few movies off of the Saved queue: we saw Candy, which wasn’t all that great, but I’m glad to have seen it. 

One change we made in 2018 was to drop Netflix streaming, and replace it with Hulu. We’re watching on an Amazon Firestick, so we can watch some Prime as well. We’re not in love with either one - Amazon makes it hard to find the free, Hulu plays ads for other shows over the credits, series go away just when we’re starting to like them (Lucifer) and shows we expected to like get gross and violent (Dirk Gently). We will probably go back to Netflix, if only for the new season of MST3K and Orson Welles’ Breaking of the Wind. We’re realizing that, for streaming, it’s not a matter of picking a service and sticking with it. We’re going to do a month here, a few months there, as shows come and go. 

In Christmas news, Ms. S. got me a DVD of Forty Guns. We haven’t watched it yet, or any other DVD this year. I’m afraid that the first DVD of 2019 will be Skyscraper. Stay tuned.

In conclusion, the best movie of 2018 is Bringing Up Baby, same as every year. But I’m beginning to think maybe we should replace it with something by the Marx Bros. 

Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Silly Berke

When we queued up Treasure of Monte Cristo/Roaring City/Sky Liner (1949/1951/1949), I didn’t realize that we were getting a short seminar on director William Berke. It turns out he was one of those B movie masters who just cranked them out. According to Wikipedia, he once got a big budget and relaxed shooting schedule, and still turned the picture around in 12 days. He also seemed to go for real fun rousing adventure movies.

Treasure of Monte Cristo is a great example. It starts with a little narration about the Edmund Dante’s treasure, now lost. Then we meet Dante’s modern day descendant, Glenn Langan (The Amazing Colossal Man), a sailor on shore leave in San Francisco. He hears a woman in trouble and goes to her rescue. When he drives off her attackers, she (Adele Jergens) tells her story: She is an heiress, but her people control the money until she is 25 or married - but if she dies, they get it. She finally begs Langan to marry her, in name only, so she can get control. When he marries her, she disappears, leaving a note letting him know where she is being held. When he gets there (climbing the building into an upstairs window, a man is murdered, and he is left to take the rap. Crooked lawyer Steve Brodie defends him, but actually throws the case, leaving him on Death Row.

I’m sure you can see where this is going - he was framed so that she, his widow, can get the treasure he didn’t know he had. There are intrigues, courtroom scenes, fist and gun fights, prison escapes, and everything you could want from a B movie adventure.

Roaring City also set in San Francisco. Hugh Beaumont has a place on the docks where he rents boats and does favors. A man comes in and asks him to place a large bet on a has-been boxer, so that word won’t get around that the fight is fixed. But the boxer drops dead, the young defender is found murdered, the bet was placed in the name of... Actually, I couldn’t follow this one. But it was full of exciting stuff. Also, it seems to be based on the old Jack Webb radio shows “Pat Novak for Hire”/“Johnny Madeiro”. There’s even the old drunk professor that Webb’s poetic hardboiled dialog, but there’s enough.

In Sky Liner, FBI agent Richard Travis must retrieve stolen top secret papers from an airplane going from Washington DC to the west coast, aided by stewardess Pamela Blake. The movie isn’t set 100% on the plane, but a good amount is. Of course, since it is the 40s, they land several times, and also, there’s a lot of room to wander around. This may not have been the best of the batch, or maybe it’s just that we were getting Berke fatigue. Still a fun B if you like that kind of thing.

And that concludes by movie blogging for 2018. I’ll try to do a wrap up - after resisting for years, I now embrace the year-end post. See you in the new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Cossacks Carrying Horses Around the House

We watched Taras Bulba (1962) for pretty much 2 reasons:
  • Yul Brynner
  • To hear the immortal line: “Some day Cossacks will have better things to do than carry horses around the house!”
We caught a few minutes of the movie on TV many years ago and caught only that, and we’ve been wanting to watch every since.

It starts with a battle - Poles vs. Turks, and the Turks are winning. Then the Cossacks come sweeping in and save the day. The Poles offer to allow the Cossacks to become subjects to the Polish crown. When they refuse, the Poles turn on them, and take the steppe for their own. Cossacks, in disgrace, cut off their topknots. Cossack officer Taras Bulba (Brynner) retreats to the mountains to live quietly.

Years later, the Poles allow the Cossacks some freedom, even to wear the topknot. Brynner tells his sons, Tony Curtis and Perry Lopez, to go to school in Kiev, to learn the ways of the enemy. They are not treated well there, and get into amusing scrapes. Also, Curtis falls in love with a Polish princess, Christine Kaufman. Finally, they are forced to flee for home.

There, they find that the tribes are gathering. There is drinking and merriment, and a beautiful white horse is presented (inside the house) to Brynner. That’s where one Cossack shows off by lifting the horse off the ground. Ms. Spenser was very disappointed: one horse, not horses, lifted, not actually carried around. Oh well.

The gathering is to decide whether to help the Poles with another fight. Some are ready to go - a fight is a fight, after all. But Brynner wants to attack the Poles when they are pre-occupied. So they go off and route the Poles, driving them into a walled city. The Cossacks set up a siege.

Curtis finds out that his princess is in the city and suffering under the siege conditions. He sneaks in and finally agrees to break the siege for the Poles. So we have a father/son fight, leading to Curtis being killed. The Cossacks prevail, and Curtis is buried there, now on Cossack soil.

Frankly, this is not a great movie. Brynner is amazing, with his bare chest and topknot. But there isn’t enough of him. I don’t know why they keep casting Curtis in these roles (“Yonda lies da castle of my faddah”) - maybe his “dark good looks” used to be considered “exotic”. There are a few stirring battles, slightly marred by obvious dummy men and horses falling off cliffs. Also, the anti-Semitic angle (Pole = Jew) has been erased, but the smell remains.

Still, we do have a Cossacks lifting a horse.