Saturday, April 19, 2014

Night at the Opera

I am not really a fan of opera or classical music - enjoyment of Amadeus aside. But I loved Ariadne Auf Naxos (1999), a movie recording a performance of the Richard Strauss opera. The opera is pretty high concept: The richest man in Vienna is throwing a party with 2 entertainments: a heroic opera and a burlesque dance. Due to time constraints, however, they will need to present them simultaneously.

The staging was a lovely mix of modern abstraction and realism - they fit together well because it is set in a rich man's modern abstract home. The opera starts backstage focusing on the Composer of the opera and Zerbinetta the dancer, then moves into the actual performance. I understand that Zerbinetta, the flirty carefree spirit, is considered the best role, but in this performance, the Composer was my favorite. This travesty role (man's role written for a woman) was sung by Sophie Koch, and what lovely singing in such a lovely role.

It's funny, I actually found the staging, action and book more interesting than the music. The Composer is presented as a stuffy, self-important nitwit, who gets distracted by an idea and starts writing beautiful music at the drop of a hat. The Diva who plays Ariadne and the Tenor playing Bacchus look like overstuffed dummies, but sing beautifully, and so on. The librettist von Hofmannsthal hs fun with the themes of popular and pretentious art. There is even some interesting camera work, with the camera, performers and guests mingling together.

As I said, I'm not much of a fan, so I shouldn't judge the music, but I have to say I didn't come out whistling any of the tunes. It barely seemed to start turning over until the opera-in-the-opera took off. But with the great acting, writing and staging, I can't complain.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Our Town

All Over Town (1949) is one of those cozy little comedies with no real conflict and no real jokes. It takes place in a little seaside town in England, right after the war. The town's all a-twitter that the star reporter for their little newspaper, Norman Wooland, is back from the war. He looks forward to settling down to writing inconsequential little articles about garden parties, with occasional burst of truth-to-power blasts against boring amateur musicals. The woman reporter who had been standing in for him, Sarah Churchill (Royal Wedding) would rather be off to a Big City (Bristol? Torquay?), but Wooland just loves the small town life.

Of course, they eventually uncover (minor) corruption and impropriety and must fight the comfortable interests, even with their press breaking down and the loss of sponsors, plus young love and an oddly touching side plot about a drunk young woman who turns out to be a demobbed soldier with a touch of PTSD.

And it all ends happily, and there will always be an England. I can't say I didn't enjoy this, but it was pretty insubstantial. Some nice little character turns, a few stock situations. But this isn't what I'd recommend to anyone, unless you really want to watch something like this, and you've seen Genevieve.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


We watched Taken (2008) a while ago, but somehow I never got around to blogging about it. I guess I might as well get that out of the way.

That's kind of the spirit we watched it in - It's kind of a classic action flick, we've got nothing better to watch, should be good. In a lot of ways, it was good: it moves right along, good fight sequences, some classic tough guy lines. In some other ways, not so good.

The setup is Liam Neeson is a divorced dad with a teenage daughter. He has retired from covert ops to be near his daughter, although his ballbusting ex, Maggie Grace, does everything she can to keep them apart. You see, she resents that he was never there when she was growing up. But nobody mentions that he has retired from spying, and spends all his time obsessively stalking her now. Shouldn't Maggie be pissed that he has gotten too clingy, not that he is too distant?

Anyway, his daughter goes on a trip to France - a trip he doesn't want her to go on. Of course, she gets kidnapped by white slavers right away. What kind of daredevil would take the risk of travelling to Paris? She was practically asking for it.

Fortunately, she is kidnapped while talking to Dad on the phone, so he gets to deliver the classic, "What I have are a very particular set of skills.." speech to the kidnappers before he heads off alone to France. By the way, he has a bunch of ex-ops buddies, but he doesn't try to bring them along. Why would he need to? He's a one-man army.

In case you can't tell, this movie annoyed the heck out of me. Ms. Spenser's big objection was the idea that human trafficking is mainly done for rich Arabs on yachts. By that time, I had given up.

Still, the ass-kicking was fun... It seems Luc Besson was involved. I usually like his stuff better than this. Oh well, I'll probably watch the sequel.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Rock Me Amadeus

Wow, is Amadeus (1984) really 30 years old? It must be, since Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" novelty hit was pure 80's music. I guess we first saw it when it came out, but this time we watched the 3-hour director's cut.

In our house, this film is iconic. "Too many notes, your majesty" is a common catch-phrase around here. We've been listening to a little classical music lately - it keeps the dog calm. So we decided to watch Amadeus again.

Well, I'd say it was as good as we remembered. I don't have anything especially interesting to say about it, other than the music is awesome, and I kind of wish there'd been more of it. The new footage doesn't seem to be really necessary; I remember the old version as tighter, more to the point.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Block Party

Attack the Block (2011) got a lot of good press (blog press?) but I was kind of nervous to watch it - it looked a little intense. Fortunately, Ms. Spenser is not as delicate as I, and gave strength to bear up.

It is a simple movie in some ways, an independent first feature for writer/director Joe Cornish: Aliens attack an inner city block and run into the same kind of trouble anyone wandering into that neighborhood would. It takes place on Guy Fawkes in South London in an SF-themed council block (the central high-rise is named Wyndham Towers, after the author of Day of the Triffids). A gang of teenagers menace and rob a nurse, then run down a recently landed alien creature and take it up to the local dealer's flat in the block. But more aliens are landing...

There are a couple of things going on here:
  • The thugs are just kids really - nasty, stupid, brave and thoughtless. Some people hated them so much that they couldn't enjoy the movie. Your mileage may vary.
  • The action can be brutal and is almost realistic. There's at least one scene where the kids think they can do parkour and are clearly wrong.
  • The alien beasties are pretty badass. 
  • Nick Frost is in it.
I found this to be a nice mix of SF, horror, comedy and social commentary, not necessarily in that order. One note - the accents are particularly strong in this. You'll get a good overview of recent South London slang, but you might need to turn on subtitles.h

Monday, March 31, 2014

2000: A Blues Odyssey

Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) is another one of those movies that I didn't realize I'd already seen until about halfway through. I knew that I had seen some of the scenes, maybe gotten a detailed synopsis, but it wasn't until the big car crash scene that I was sure it wasn't deja vu.

In some ways, this is a very different movie from Blues Brothers. Jake Blues (John Belushi) is dead, and so is Curtis Blues (Cab Calloway), their father figure. The orphanage is closed. But Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), just out of prison, is still looking to put the band back together. In place of Belushi, he has mild-mannered bartender John Goodman, orphan kid J. Evan Bonifant, and Joe Morton as the State Police captain who is Cab's illegitimate son.

That plot stuff is not the best part of this movie, although it is not as bad as you might expect. The best part is the music. I don't want to get encyclopedic, but Wilson Pickett sings "634-5789" and Aretha sings "Respect". Sam Moore and James Brown preach the gospel. The Blues Brothers Band still includes Matt Murphy, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, Blue Lou and Mr. Fabulous. And many, many more.

Yes, you miss Belushi, but I can ignore that. And the movie does manage to one-up a few of the scenes from the first one. But the way they do it... Example, the car crash scene I mentioned before. You remember how many Illinois State Patrol cars were wrecked in the first movie? This one does more, but does it by just firing car after car into a pile. It's pretty funny - every time you think they're done, they toss another 5-10 on the pile. So the over-the-topness is the joke. But it also uses up all of the mayhem in a single scene.

The finale has a similar issue. It's a battle of the bands between the Blues Brothers and -SPOILER- pretty much everybody in music. It's a band made up of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Dr. John, Koko Taylor, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Vaughan, Clarence Clemons, and about 50 others. It's great, amazing, but I wish they could have spread it out over a few more numbers.

Also, the kid, J. Evan Bonifant was a pretty good dancer. But John Goodman can't sing the blues even as well as Aykroyd, who just gets by on chutzpah.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weather Report

We watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) on the recommendation of the little boy next door. Actually, I caught a podcast with the writers,Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also did The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street. I haven't seen Lego, but the impression I get is: Better than it had to be. Which works for this movie too.

In case you don't know any kids, Cloudy is an animated movie about a kid who doesn't fit in with his community. He is obsessed by inventing, while his community is a sardine fishery. The local economy takes a big hit when scientific studies show that "Sardines are Super Gross". Our hero, voiced by Bill Hader, invents a food machine, and when it goes into orbit, it starts raining food.

Meanwhile, weather girl wannabe Anna Faris is sent to cover the phenomenon, and of course Hader falls in love with her. She is maybe my favorite part of the movie. She wants to be a meteorologist, and she knows that she will need to cultivate air-headedness to get by in the business. Hader, on the other hand, sees something more in her. We finally get to hear the line: "With your hair up and with your glasses on, why, you're beautiful!"

The "be yourself" and "nerds rule (if you want it)" messages are nice, but not really that exceptional these days. The other big selling point is the psychedelic Lucy in the Sky with Hamburgers animation, which is definitely fun. I liked the clean, simple character design, but the food design was almost too realistic.

In sum, great animation with sweet character arcs. What else do you want? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II?