Monday, May 25, 2015

Screams for Screens

We got Berberian Sound Studio (2012) due to a good review on Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. We were expecting a kind of art house horror, and that's sort of what we got - without the horror.

It stars Toby Jones as a gentle timid English sound engineer. Jones has a funny sort of face - he looks kind of like a toby jug, and reminded me a lot of Mel Smith. He has been hired by some sleazy Italians to do the sound for their movie. He assumed it would be a nature documentary, his normal fare, but it turns out to be a giallo - the stylish Italian slasher films of the 70s. The movie is filmed in an opaque, objective, almost documentary style. We see a mild little man listening to hostile people speaking a language he doesn't understand while we hear muffled screams coming from behind closed doors. Then a long abstract shot of recording equipment and spooky sound effects, or men stabbing watermelons on a foley stage.

We never see any of the shocking footage that Jones is doing sound for, but it is bad enough that it begins to affect his sanity. The screams of the actresses, the carnage done to vegetables, the failure to get his airfare reimbursed, it's all too much for his sensitive soul. The movie gets more surrealistic, the letters from home more gruesome, and it doesn't look like they will be wrapping up for a while.

I enjoyed this a lot, for the atmosphere and style, for Toby Jones, for the look behind the scenes at cinema sound production. I'm sure there were a lot of call-outs to other movies, like giallos that I've never seen and Blow Out and The Conversation (saw that one). And -spoiler- nobody really gets horribly killed.

By the way, for fans of Steely Dan's "Her Gold Teeth", Cathy Berberian does NOT show up in this movie, except perhaps as a spiritual guide.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pale Imitation

Since we enjoyed the first one, Ms. Spenser wanted to see The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2015). It shares a setting and the style of the original, but it isn't quite the same.

It starts in England during the Blitz - long after the events of the first movie, but still long ago, leaving room for more sequels. A group of small  children and their teachers are relocated from London to the countryside. The lodging that has been arranged for them is a creepy abandoned mansion in the middle of a marsh - looks familiar. The kids are pretty cool with all this, except for one boy whose mother was killed by a German bomb. He's silent, solemn and focused on a drawing he's made of his mother (dressed all in black).

One of the teachers has problems too - she had to give up her illegitimate baby, and now she's hearing noises and seeing things. Understandable in that creepy old house. And she did get to meet a handsome airman from a nearby base. Then the children start dying...

Semi-spoiler: The deaths of the children are much less gruesome (and frequent) than in WiB1. The emotional tension isn't as great either, although the headmistress is a bit of a cold fish. There aren't too many jump-scares, but lots of wandering around in a dreamstate through creepy corridors. And just enough pale figures staring out at the marsh shrouded in fog, the signature move for the series. It even has a happy ending, like the first movie.

So they didn't feel the need to outdo the first movie, or to slavishly copy it. Still an interesting movie, but not a real breakthrough.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Come Out to Play-ay!

We finally broke down - after years of soundclips ("Can you dig it?") and podcasts, we watched the ultimate Theme Gang movie, The Warriors (1979).

Our anti-heroes are the Coney Island teen gang, the Warriors. They go to all the way up to the Bronx to a meeting of the gangs: Cyrus, the leader of the Gramercy Riffs, wants the gangs to form a truce and take over New York. But after he gives the "Can you dig it" speech, he is shot, and the guys who did it accuse the Warriors. So they have to get back to Coney across the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, with all gangs against them. And they are wearing their colors, so they can't even hide.

To be honest, they don't actually meet up with too many Theme Gangs. In case you don't follow Filmsack, Theme Gangs are criminal gangs that are way too into their theme. For example, there is actually a mime gang in The Warriors - complete with whiteface, striped shirts and berets. The most famous of these is the Baseball Furies, with full uniforms, dazzle camo facepaint and bats as preferred weapons. The Warriors take them pretty easily. They don't have as much luck with the girl gang, the Lizzies.

This movie actually isn't as silly as you might expect from the late-70s hair styles. It's pretty gritty and the shots of a late-night deserted New York are pretty atmospheric. The references to the Anabasis add a nice touch of the mythic. However, it may be a little difficult to credit Michael Beck as a gang banger after you've seen him in Xanadu.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Why They Call It Dope

We saw Limitless (2011) because it shared a common theme with Lucy: A drug that lets you use 100% of your brain. We weren't really expecting much, just to check this off the list. But we got a lot more.

Bradley Cooper plays a sad-sack wannabe writer. His friends tell him he looks like he's homeless. His girlfriend is avoiding him because he is always broke. But he runs into his ex-wife's brother, who is in pharmaceutical sales - not necessarily the legal kind. He gives Cooper a pill - just like in Lucy, it doesn't have a street name yet. Just like in Lucy, it makes him very smart. He recognizes a book when he can only see a corner, because he had seen it at a party 10 years before. He can sweet talk his landlord's wife into forgetting about the rent and jumping into bed with him. He can finish his book in a sitting. But when it wears off, he needs more.

His ex-brother-in-law turns up dead, but Cooper gets his stash. So he begins a new life - no longer a scuzzy loser, he gets a haircut some nice clothes and a job trading stocks. Of course, he kills at it. To make some really solid cash, he borrows some money from the Russian mob and starts planning to meet with tycoon Robert de Niro. But:

  1. His supply is running out.
  2. The drug causes weird blackouts if you keep taking it, and loss of brain power and/or death if you stop.
  3. Some very bad people, including the mob, are after him.
Can I give you a spoiler? The movie starts with Cooper ready to jump off a building. The spoiler is that everything turns out great! In a lot of ways, this is an action comedy.

It's also a great piece of pro-drug propaganda, like Lucy. I can see where it comes from - I'm sure a lot of screen writers have some experience with stimulants, they know that coke or speed can make a script appear like magic, and can do a lot of damage, but if you play your cards right, you can make the habit go away but keep the money. This is not a socially responsible message, but it is a true one, based on the Hollywood experience.

Limitless is a great visual experience, full of effects to simulate the drug's effect: Infinite zooms, time-lapse trips through streets, changes in color and angle of view, etc. You need to keep on your toes a little to catch some of the little clues planted in some of the trippy chaos, although I wouldn't call it exactly subtle. But fun to watch.

There are a lot of philosophical questions about how it all goes down - like if he's so smart, how come he doesn't secure a supply? Does the drug really make you a selfish dick, or is that a red herring? If the mobster who took the drug was so smart, how come he's dead? All of these could be answered, if you felt like it - but it's more fun to be stupid and let it just wash over you. Being smart is for people on drugs.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Placemat Killers

Once again we watch a movie because it was covered on FilmsackThe Replacement Killers (1998), starring Chow Yun-Fat and Mira Sorvino, directed by Antoine Fuqua, but produced by and owing a lot to John Woo.

Chow plays a hitman working in America for Kenneth Tang's Triad. He balks at an assignment and has to go on the run, turning to forger Mira Sorvino for papers. Pretty soon they are both on the run and Tang has brought in a couple of ...replacement killers, Danny Trejo and Til Schweiger. There are shoot-outs in Sorvino's studio, in a game arcade, in a car wash, you name it. And yes, Chow and Sorvino pose in slo-mo side by side, with guns pointed in opposite directions. There is no shortage of action, and no complaints about the quality thereof.

Also - Chow Yun-Fat looks positively badass. As soon as Ms. Spenser saw him, she gasped, "He's Alain Delon!" Which seems funny at first, since Delon had an icy beauty, and Chow is kind of a pudding face. But he nonetheless just exudes cool and the air that he would kill you as soon as look at you.

There's some funny bits, like hip-hop scuzzball Loco, played by Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, now tragically calling himself Clifton Collins, Jr. But this is mostly a classic action movie - maybe one of the defining movies of the modern action era.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Micky Played Guitar

D.A. Pennebaker has a strong background in rock 'n' roll: he filmed Bob Dylan and Monterey Pop. He also recorded David Bowie's last concert as Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders: The Movie (1973).

I've seen a lot of criticism of this movie as sounding muddy, looking too dark and badly shot. It is very dark: It was shot with available light and pushed past the limits of the stock. I think that gives it a great processed look with posterized colors and amazing shots of the audience by strobe light or the light of a disco ball. The sound isn't the greatest, but it's a live concert, come on. Also, Mick Ronson's guitar was mostly wicked distorted anyway.

To set the stage: It's July 1973 at the Hammersmith Odeon, a classic old theater that has seen it all - but it hasn't seen anything like the glam freaks that were showing up for the last show in Bowie's Ziggy Stardust show. Backstage, Bowie is getting made up and Angie is chirping in an outrageous babydoll British accent. He dons an immense kimono-like outfit and hits the stage as Mick Ronson kicks off "Better Hang Onto Yourself".

The Spiders from Mars Band featured Trevor Bolder on bass and Woody Woodmansey on drums, but the big noise was guitar god Mick Ronson. Dressed and made up as glam as Bowie, he vamps, struts and shreds like a monster. At selected points in the show, he revs up what is technically known as a guitar wank - an almost endless solo (or guitar-bass duel in one case) that spirals higher and higher, while Bowie flounces off backstage to do another costume change.

Oh the costumes - that kimono rips off to reveal a shorty robe that exposes his underthings when he props a foot on a monitor. A knit onesie that bares one shoulder and one leg. A pink bolero jacket and so on. Of course, he looked great in them even if they were silly. And a funny thing: I'm used to a wasted, vulnerable, wounded, self-protected Bowie, like in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But the Bowie in this concert looks healthy, strong, giving, open, and friendly. He makes eye contact with the audience and smiles - he is having fun.

If you are just passing familiar with Bowie's music, you'll hear a lot of favorites here, like "Cracked Actor," "Watch That Man," and "Major Tom," as well as "All the Young Dudes," which he wrote with Mott the Hoople, and "Let's Spend the Night Together," in honor of Mick Ronson's time with the Stones. The rockers really rock, but he does some quieter ballads as well, like "The Wild-Eyed Boy of Freecloud" (which I was not familiar with) and a Jacques Brel number, "My Death", sung solo with an acoustic guitar. He finishes up with "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide", which is exactly what I was hoping for. For one thing, it is very Brelian, with more than a touch of humor: "You pull on your finger, then another finger, then the cigarette" - this line not only conjures a very concrete image, but has a little pun on the word "pull". But most of all, it's a generous, loving and forgiving song: You're too hard on yourself, you're not alone, you're wonderful. Maybe he is singing it to himself, maybe to you, maybe to anyone who needs it. Thank you, Ziggie, thank you, David.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Big Deal

The recent animated feature Big Hero 6 (2014) got a lot of love, and I can understand why - it's got a lot of the Pixar and Marvel stuff that Disney absorbed. It's set in a future San Fransokyo - a Japanized San Francisco. The hero, Hiro, is a kid who builds and fights robots - hustling in underground fights. His big brother goes to Robot College and built Baymax, a soft, inflatable medical robot. When big brother is killed, Hiro and Baymax team up with his classmates to fight crime (or something). Also, teleportation.

The team is kind of fun - a punky motorcycle chick, a candy cutie biochemist, a big fussy black man and Fred, the Shaggy of the group - not a scientist, but the school mascot furry suit wearer. He was my favorite until I realized how Scooby Doo he was. He does get some of the best gags, though, and his dad is played by Stan Lee.

The artwork is just great, especially San Fransokyo. It looks like a great place to live. Hiro and family live in a Painted Lady, with a coffeeshop on the ground floor where Hiro's aunt and guardian works. It has a nice, lived-in look, like the rest of the city. Semi-spoiler - the teleportation sub-space universe was also beautiful, full of floating clouds (tribute to Miyazaki?).

But in the end, we didn't really love this. I think a big part of it was the Shaggy problem - most of the movie seemed to be lifted from someplace else, not necessarily someplace awesome. So rather than something fresh, it seems like a very good episode of a TV cartoon show you can't quite remember.

Or maybe, as I've said before, we just aren't the target demographic. It was nice to look at though.