Thursday, October 10, 2019

Oh, No, There Goes Tokyo

Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) is both terrific and ridiculous. It’s basic plot made no sense and we loved every minute.

It starts right in the middle of everything, with a family searching for a lost child in a San Francisco destroyed by Godzilla. The father (Kyle Chandler, who I thought was Timothy Hutton), mother (Vera Farmiga) and their daughter (Millie Bobby Brown, from Stranger Things) never find the son. Fast forward several years. Farmiga and Brown are living together in what looks like a suburban home, and Brown keeps up with Hutton on by email. But it turns out that the house is a monitoring station for the Chinese step pyramid (?) that houses a monster egg. And it’s hatching.

Mother and daughter head for the egg, and Brown has a moment of empathy and awe when she touches the egg. Just as Mothra hatches, a gang of eco-tourists - or terrorists, not sure - led by Charles Dance bust in. And not in a nice way - in a shoot everyone who moves, then shoot the ones keeping still way. Farmiga and Brown are taken as hostages, but it looks like Farmiga is cooperating. And Mothra flys away.

So Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe of the secret Monarch monster squad get Chandler back on the team to get them back. It’s the usual rag-tag bunch of quirky scientists, mostly mad. They head to Antarctica, where Monarch has been monitoring the frozen “Monster Zero”, Ghidora. When Dance’s gang arrives to awaken Ghidora, it becomes clear that Farmiga isn’t a hostage, but another eco-tourist. Like Dance, she thinks that humanity has become a plague on the earth, and that the monsters used to keep balance. If they are revived, the earth will bloom again.

Now, I’m not saying we won’t get our hair mussed. Two, three billion killed, tops.

And that’s the big ask of the movie: that we believe that a woman, who has seen a monster destroy a city, and kill her son, would think it’s a good idea to release more monsters and kill more people for an abstract ideal. And expects her daughter to go along with it. Millie Bobby Brown is way to smart for that.

Oh, and it’s not just Godzilla, Ghidora and Mothra - there are monsters hibernating all over. Yes, every country has a monster.

But while we’re laughing at this, Ghidora is killing soldiers, Godzilla is fighting Ghidora, Mothra is helping Godzilla, volcano bird Rodan is helping Ghidora, and so on. It’s all state of the art - no barely glimpsed figures in the night. I kind of wish there had been more of guys in rubber suits stomping miniatures, but I’ll take what I get.

Also, there’s a fairly cheesy score by Bear McCreary, but the roars and screams of the monsters made the best music - up until the credits. That’s right: With a purposeful grimace and a terrible sound, he pulls the spitting high-tension wires down!

Aside from the very far-fetched eco-tourism angle, there’s another, deeper, “loving the alien” theme. Millie Bobby Brown hints at it a few times when she reacts to a monster like Mothra with awe at its majesty rather than fear of it’s power. But they don’t seem to be able to pull this off, so it’s like a glimpse at a plot point that was mostly written off. Which is too bad, because I like that theme.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Circle Cross Wavy Line Triangle

The Gift (2000) isn’t really a ghost movie - more of a supernatural thriller. I think Netflix recommended it, and since it was directed by Sam Raimi, it made sense. But it was Cate Blanchett that really sold it.

Blanchett plays a small-town fortune teller, who works with ESP cards - circle, square, wavy line, triangle. She does a reading for the battered wife (Hilary Swank) of a local bully, telling her that he’s just a mean redneck, and wouldn’t really kill anyone. She also does a reading for Giovanni Ribisi, a mechanic who hears voices telling him to do terrible things.

Then Swank’s husband show up in his big pick-up to tell Blanchett to stop seeing Swank. He’s played by Keanu Reeves, so he’s pretty threatening, especially when he threatens her kid. But not too threatening, because he’s Keanu.

But someone has gone missing. Greg Kinnear comes to ask her help in finding his fiancĂ©, Katie Holmes. Now, Blanchett has seen Holmes in action, and knows she’s fooling around on Kinnear. And also, Kinnear and Blanchett seem to be getting attached.

Blanchett has a vision of Holmes floating in the air, and thinks she might be in a pond (of which there are many in this swampy Georgia town). She tells sheriff J.K. Simmons, and he drags Reeve’s pond, and finds the body. So Reeves goes to jail for murder - he confesses to sleeping with her, and knocking around his wife, but swears he didn’t kill anyone.

Then Blanchett gets a vision saying he didn’t do it. Since the DA was also sleeping with Holmes, he isn’t interested in re-opening the case. So she will need the help of Simmons and Kinnear, and maybe even psycho Ribisi - although he is in the funny farm upstate.

It’s sort of surprising, given the great cast with Sam Raimi directing, that this is such an ordinary movie. It has it’s share of tension and even madness, and some great acting (Ribisi more than anyone, I’d say), but not really out of the ordinary. But Cate Blanchett elevates it above just fine to great, just through the special effect of her face. What cheekbones!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Train in Vain

Backtrack (2016) is another ghost story for Spooktober (hope we don’t run out!). It’s kind of a small movie, starring Adrian “Broody” Brody.

Brody is a psychiatrist, deeply traumatized by the death of a young daughter. He’s better off than his wife, Jenni Baird, who can barely get out of bed. He drags himself to his mentor Sam Neill, who is referring patients to him - he seems to have moved to this city from somewhere else - it’s all vaguely in Australia, although pretty much no one has an accent. He sees a few patients, looking pained and sad while they tell him their problems. Actually, since it’s Adrian Brody, he can’t help but look pained and sad. One woman tells him she feels like she’s invisible, and wants to kill herself but she can’t.

A girl appears in his waiting room, who doesn’t seem to be able to talk. He tries to communicate, find out her problems, but she vanishes again. On his way home on the subway, he sits next to the woman who feels invisible, and doesn’t recognize her until she speaks up. She tells him she knows why she can’t kill herself - she’s already dead. Then she turns into a demon and attacked him. And then he wakes up on the train.

In fact this happens a few times in the movie: things spiral out of control and then Brody wakes up. Not as much as in Twixt, but still a motif.

So, to SPOILER the first twist, it turns out that all of Brody’s patients are ghosts, and so is Neill, his mentor. They all died in a train wreck, in Brody’s old home town. So he goes back to find out what he is repressing. He leaves his wife behind, because she isn’t really in this movie.

Back in his home town, he sees his father, a retired policeman. He also meets up with an old school friend who tells him not to investigate and to leave him out of it. He also checks in with the local policewoman, Robin McLeavy. It turns out she was the mother of the ghost girl in the waiting room. Brody finally recovers the memory of biking out to the train tracks to watch lovers park and make out. The train hit their bikes on the tracks and derailed, killing many. He confesses to McLeavy, who takes it pretty well, considering. His friend, on the other hand, hangs himself.

But this isn’t the end - there’s one more twist and a tense standoff on the train tracks. But I’ll leave that for people who haven’t watched yet.

Not sure I have much to say about this - it was a good ghost movie with a few flaws, like the weird almost-not-Australia setting. A lot depends on how you feel about watching Adrian Brody looking hurt, sad, worried, concerned and broody for a whole movie.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Natural Born Eastman

Buck and the Preacher (1972) was supposed to be a comedy adventure western, but it was something more serious - including a history lesson on race in the West.

Director Sidney Poitier is Buck, a wagonmaster leading freed slaves from Louisiana to a fertile valley in Colorado, prophesied by an old man who reads the bones. They are dogged by nightriders, led by Cameron Mitchell. These are unreconstructed confederates, being paid by Louisiana plantation owners to bring the ex-slaves back to work the fields - or kill them to discourage others. Buck leads them away from the wagon train and meets up with his wife Ruby Dee, then rides off again.Needing a fresh horse, he negotiates for and then outright steals Harry Belafonte’s horse. Belafonte is the Preacher, a shady, threadbare drifter who claims to be doing the Lord’s work.

But while he is away, the wagon train is hit by the nightriders, who trash the camp, destroy their supplies and steal their money (probably while raping the woman who was wearing it in a money belt - as soon as I saw them put it on her, I knew that was a bad hiding place). When the Preacher comes along, he is most concerned about getting his horse back. But soon he is throwing his lot in with the wagon train.

Poitier doesn’t trust him and calls him an “Eastman”, which is an old term that I’ve been researching for a while. It shows up in songs, like “On the Road Again” (“Natural born Eastman, on the road again”) and Furry Lewis’s “Kassy Jones” (“See it written on the back of my shirt, I’m a natural born Eastman and I don’t have to work”). Nobody seems to know where it comes from, but it seems to mean “someone who lives off the labor of others, especially women.” Belafonte certainly looks shifty here, with a scruffy beard and mustache. Poitier, on the other hand, looks as noble and strong as John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart and Randolph Scott put together.

There is a little bit of comedy-action when Buck and the Preacher go to steal the money back. But Buck meeting with the Indians to negotiate for free passage for the train is more typical. The movie is mostly about the actual historical experience of African Americans in the western frontier. Exciting and interesting.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Shaken and Stirred

We’re fans of Illeana Douglas, although mainly for one movie and her podcast. Because she is in Stir of Echoes (1999), and because Ms. Spenser likes ghost stories (and it’s rolling into Spooktober), we queued it up.

It stars Kevin Bacon as the father of a little boy who has an imaginary friend - a ghost. Bacon is a blue-collar guy married to Kathryn Erne. They have moved into an old house in a working class Chicago neighborhood near the college. It’s kind of a fratty atmosphere - they put the boy to bed and take the baby monitor across the street where there’s a semi-rowdy house party going on.

Erbe’s sister, Illeana Douglas is there, and Bacon is kind of getting into it with her, because she’s a kind of new agey, almost-certified hypnotherapist. He goads her into hypnotizing him, and he goes right under. He has a horrific encounter with the ghost of a young girl while under, although his friends just see him talk about childhood memories and get a pin pushed through his hand.

After this event, he starts seeing more visions - he sees one of his own teeth fall out, for instance - and he learns that Douglas gave him a post-hypnotic suggestion to “be more open”. Turns out, he’s open to the spirit world, like his son. When Erbe is walking the son, he homes in on a funeral and a black policeman, Officer Exposition, explains that the son has the sight, and suggests that Bacon drop in on their support group. Note that this is a literal Magic Negro, but this actually comes to pretty much nothing, since Bacon is doing the strong, silent man thing and won’t admit there’s anything going on.

So of course, he gets more and more unhinged, even as he tries to act normal, socializing with the bonehead neighbors, going to a football game, etc. Eventually, he begins digging up the backyard and smashing the walls of the house while his wife and son are away.

The solution to the mystery is rather banal and tawdry, and realistic. I’ll let you discover the details if you watch it. It’s worth it - a solid, if not groundbreaking ghost story (it came out the same year as Sixth Sense). Bacon’s refusal to talk about what’s going on is kind of annoying, but it isn’t one of those movies that would be over in 10 minutes if someone just communicated with anyone else. Also, Douglas’s slightly airheaded sister-in-law is quite endearing. There’s a silly scene where Bacon bursts in on her getting high with a girlfriend that gives her a mysterious backstory. I wonder if she’s in the sequel.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Cootie Call

Cooties (2015) is another one of those zombie horror comedies - not one of the best, but not too shabby.

It stars Elijah Wood as a sad sack wannabe novelist who has moved back to his old home town after spending some time in New York. He has a job as a summer substitute teacher, and he’s not too happy about it. He shows up at school in a beat up car and is immediately parked in by the Rainn Wilson, the buffed out gym teacher. The new-age principal confiscates his cellphone (school policy and convenient plot device) and sends him to the teacher’s lounge.

There he meets hostile Nasim Pedrad, spacey science teacher Leigh Whannell, and sweet Alison Pill. Wood and Pill went to school together, and he’s obviously sweet on her. Too bad Wilson is her boyfriend.

But the cafeteria had some bad chicken nuggets, causing one girl to go pycho and start biting faces off. Wood is not too concerned - he didn’t like the bitten kid anyway, and is more interested in his novel and trying to flirt with Pill. Pretty soon they are cut off with a few uninfected kids while the rest run around eating the other grownups.

There’s a lot of gross out gags in this, and a lot of just plain fun ones. When Wilson is insulting Wood, he calls him a little hobbit. Then there’s Whannell, telling people to keep quiet when they aren’t saying anything, and reeling off imaginary science. Also, in the gross category, handling body waste and parts with no gloves.

The initial joke is that Wood can’t focus on the life-threateningly horrible stuff going on because he’s thinking about his novel - a horror story about a haunted boat. Wilson calls it The Shining on a boat, like Speed II, which is a pretty good gag. Also, Pill - but she actually seems kind of dim.

Also, shout out to Jorge Garcia, who picked the wrong day to take shrooms. And Peter Kwok, who is barely in this movie.

I guess this went to streaming pretty quickly, and I can see why. But it does have some good gags, some gross gags, and good character acting. It won’t beat out Zombieland or Shaun of the Dead, but we liked it.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Twixt Ending

Twixt (2011) is a funny creature - a small horror comedy, by one of the biggest names in cinema, Francis Ford Coppola.

It stars Val Kilmer as a minor horror writer on a book tour. He’s booked into a tiny town that doesn’t even have a bookstore - just a few bookshelves in the corner of the hardware store. He meets Sheriff Bruce Dern, who could tell him a few stories, by gum. He takes Kilmer to see a fresh body that he claims was murdered by a serial killer. Kilmer is intrigued and agrees to take Dern on as a writing partner.

Later, he discovers that Edgar Allen Poe stayed at the hotel in town and decides to stay awhile. He meets Elle Fanning, a quiet, outcast girl who won’t come into the hotel with him. She also points out that all of the clocks on the seven-sided clock tower in town show different times. Then Fanning bites the hotel proprietress and is chased off by a priest, and Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) comes along. And Kilmer wakes up.

He is now inspired to stay on, and discover the truth behind these dreams. The sheriff tells him that there’s an encampment of kids across the river, probably satan cultists, possibly vampires. Their leader is a sensitive biker called Flamingo (Alden Ehrenreich). Dern has even developed an automatic vampire staking machine to execute them, if need be.

But all this doesn’t help him get his book written. His editor wants a draft soon, and the ending has to be bulletproof. So he gets the sheriff to buy him all the sleeping aids he can find, and settles down to finish the dream.

I won’t go into it too much (or spoil the ending), but it is fun to see how Coppola blends dream and reality. I guess this is a popular horror trope, where a scene starts normal, then gets weirder and weirder, and then the character wakes up (but not always!). There are also a lot of eerie, beautiful images - Fanning’s character, the clocks, Flamingo gang of freaks, runaways and fire jugglers. But it kind of doesn’t come together - too much dream logic, not enough story. And the real story, which I will spoil, is not really presented fully: While Kilmer is dreaming up a horror fantasy, Dern is probably the actual serial killer, murdering children as “vampires”. I get that the joke is that he doesn’t care about something so serious, while chasing the trivial. I just don’t think Coppola pulled it off.

Also - and I say this as someone who loves him - Kilmer has a weirdly tiny face in a big, puffy head.

I guess Coppola had a good time making this - he filmed from his home in Napa. And he deserves it, after all he’s given to cinema. It’s just not that great - twixt bad and good?