Saturday, April 23, 2011

Twice Upon a Time in the West

I guess I'm not much of  fan of cowboy movies - that's my only excuse for having not seen McCabe & Mrs. Miller until now. This was Robert Altman's 1971 revisionist Western, and I became a big Altman fan in '76 or there abouts.

It stars Warren Beatty as McCabe, a gambler who comes to a frontier town in Washington state to set up a whorehouse. Julie Christie shows up shortly, to let him know that he needs an experienced partner. The house flourishes, becoming the center of civilization and refinement for the town. But when the syndicate from the city decides to take over, will McCabe be tough enough to hold onto it, or was he just a big talking blowhard? Remember, it's a revisionist Western.

The story is sordid and sad, with McCabe realizing too late that the only woman he ever loved, Mrs. Miller, is a whore, and not even realizing that she is also addicted to opium. But it is also very beautiful - the wet and snowy country, the rough-hewn town rising out of a few shacks and tents. Like Popeye, it seems that half the film is about the architecture of the town, the other is mumbled dialog that you can only half understand.

The loveliness and sadness is greatly enhanced by Leonard Cohen's lovely music - sounding so young, not even 40.

Now, you might call Jonah Hex a revisionist Western - it sure isn't a traditional one. It's based on the DC comic book about a hideously scarred bounty hunter. In the movie, he is played by Josh Brolin with some real heavy, gross makeup. When Hex was in the Confederate Army, he made his commanding officer, John Malkovich, mad. I'd like to mention that I don't think much of Malkovich as an actor - those beady little eyes and weird affected speech. But don't mind him in comic roles (Red) or as a psycho villain. That seems to work for him.

Malkovich killed his family and burned the right side of Hex's face off and left him to die. But some Crow birds and Crow Indians brought him back to life. This gives him a superpower - he can talk to the dead. Still, all he seems to want out of life is to catch bad guys for the bounties and hang with his prostitute girlfriend, Megan Fox. Oh, there's the connection to McCabe and Mrs. Miller!

Anyway, Malkovich gets this steampunk superweapon and plans to use it on President Grant (Aidan Quinn in a very unlikely role). So Hex gets to save the day and get revenge on the man who killed his family.

Really, this movie has more in common with Wild, Wild West than McCabe and Mrs. Miller, including steampunk weaponry and sketchy President Grant roles. I think it was about as well received - that is, poorly. Well, we enjoyed it for what it was, a silly action movie. McCabe and Mrs. Miller was lovely, and left me thoughtful and depressed. Jonah Hex was silly, and left me slightly stupider and entertained.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Elemental Miyazaki

An old-fashioned neighborhood in Japan reveals an elemental secret. A sweet child or two. Atmosphere, magic.
My Neighbor Totoro or almost any of Miyazaki's animes from Studio Ghibli.

In Totoro, a dad and his 2 daughters move to an old house deep in the Japanese countryside. The house appears to be haunted by soot gremlins. Rather than being frightened, the girls are delighted. The younger daughter finds a giant tree and the round grinning giant monster who lives at its root. And so on, through many adventures.

There isn't much plot, or even conflict, until the end when the younger daughter gets lost. The spirits, hauntings and mysteries could almost have been skipped, and the movie would have worked as well. The joy is mostly in the quaint architecture, the changing seasons, the countryside and the simple folks who live and work there. That's so Miyazaki.

The Cat Returns is less so - a Studio Ghibli not written or directed by Miyazaki. In place of the Japanese inaka (countryside), it takes place in Tokyo - a Tokyo just a pretty and magical as Miyazaki-san's countrysides. Put-upon high-school girl Haru discovers that the cat she rescues from traffic is the Prince of the Kingdom of Cats, and she will be married to him, whether she likes it or not. A mysterious voice tells her to seek a huge white cat at the crossroads. This cat leads her through Tokyo back ways to a tiny courtyard, with miniature houses. The smallest and quaintest is the Cat Bureau, run by a small, nattily dressed bipedal cat - the Baron.

The story and characters are a lot of fun, but I found them a little arbitrary. I did not get the deep sense of wonder I sometimes find in Miyazaki's anime. But - we were able to turn off the English language dubbing and watch in good ol' Japanese with English subtitles, which is not always an option. It made all the difference.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Aptitude Zero

Latitude Zero was described as Star Trek produced by the makers of Godzilla, but I would describe it more as a Japanese attempt at a live action version of the Andersons' supermarionation show Stingray.

Although made in Japan by the director of Godzilla, it was made in English with a mixed cast. It starts with 2 scientists and a reporter getting in trouble in a bathysphere. They are rescued by a supersubmarine captained by a Nemo-esque Joseph Cotten.

Poor Joseph Cotten. He looks terrible, gaunt and aged, but is dressed in swishy gold lame with a kicky neckerchief. I started out feeling sorry that he was so hard up for money that he took this role. I wound up sorry for him because he was so hard up for money that he couldn't buy up every print of this movie and burn it.

Cotten lives in an undersea Utopia with a bunch of immortal scientists and statesmen. Their only enemy is the evil  Cesar Romero. He has a lair in the requisite volcano island, quite close to Latitude Zero, and he makes horrible experiments, grafting human brains into hilariously inept animal suits. At least he seems to be enjoying himself. Of course, he was the Joker on TV's Batman, so he knows he has no dignity left.

We went into this movie expecting it to be so bad it would be good. We were half right.

Paul Williams: Demonspawn!

I saw Phantom of the Paradise pretty much when it came out in 1974. I've got to tell you, it looked goofy and dated then, too. Trying to sell Paul Williams - who wrote "We've Only Just Begun" and "Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song" - as a glamorous Satanic demon? He's about as evil as Barry Manilow. OK, maybe I see their point.

Anyway, Paul Williams is Swann, a rock producer/impresario whose big stars are like an evil version of Sha Na Na (that is, like Sha Na Na). He hears geeky singer-songwriter William Finley singing part of his rock cantata "Faust", promises him fame and fortune, steals the music and dumps him. This causes Finley to seek out revenge, become hideously scarred, get a cool costume, haunt Williams' rock palace the Paradise, etc.

Meanwhile, both have fallen in love with aspiring singer Jessica Harper. Actually, it was the Movie Morlocks article on Harper that pushed me over the edge to watch this again. She does have a nice voice, although it doesn't get much of a workout here. Reminded me a little of Sandy Farina, from Sgt. Pepper. But I don't know if she really sold the rock diva thing - or even the rock innocent.

That's pretty much the whole problem with this movie: Williams' score isn't very exciting. Harper wasn't exactly electric. The big sub-Rocky Horror glamrock stage show finale just looked silly. It was all too goofy to be evil, and too earnest to be goofy.

And Paul Williams!?!? I'm not saying they should have gotten Bowie or Iggy Pop, but James Taylor would have been more threatening.

So Long Sidney

I rarely do Memorials, watching a movie because someone died. We watched The Anderson Tapes because Mr. Peel reviewed it a few weeks ago, and I didn't want to have to read around the spoilers. It was mere coincidence that Sidney Lumet died shortly after we watched it.

He is not one of my favorite directors, and I guess Anderson Tapes isn't really typical. It stars Sean Connery as Duke Anderson, a convict just released from prison, along with an old guy called Pops and a very young Christopher Walken. Walken looks gorgeous, like Terence Stamp as Willy Garvin - all shaggy blond hair and cheekbones.

We watch him released from prison and visit Dyan Cannon, his callgirl girlfriend - but we also watch him through security cameras, surveillance systems and we see the man who is bugging Cannon's apartment. Because in the modern world into which Connery has been released, no one goes unwatched. This may be a problem for him when he decides to rob everyone in the high-rent apartment where Cannon lives.

All unknowing, he sets up the heist. He gathers the team - Walken and Pops, Martin Balsam as a swishy antiques dealer, Dick Williams as driver (under surveillance because he lives over the Panther's HQ in Harlem). they get mob funding from Alan King. All this is played loose - not quite a comic heist, but not too serious. Thn things start to go sour. Spoilers ahead.

First, the guy who has been paying for Cannon's apartment wants her to leave Connery, and she does. What makes this so creepy is her reason - it's clear that she is getting real feelings for Connery, and as a hooker, she can't afford that. Earlier on she told him, "I hated it. It felt like I was losing control." It's not clear what "it" is - but they are discussing it in bed.

The heist part of the film is masterful, with flash forwards to police interviews with the victims that just up the suspense without giving anything away. I won't give anything away either, except to say that this one won't leave you laughing.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

A for Effortless

Is there an established genre for movies like Easy A - comeidies about quirky, smart talking teens who are are just too smart and sophisticated to fit in? Because I think I like them. Like Olive (Emma Stone), I was an alienated kid who lonely because I was smarter than everyone. I was always making brilliant wisecracks that nobody else got. Also, my good looks intimidated all of the girls - OK, I'm not kidding anyone...

Stone plays a nice, shy girl at a high school in Ojai CA who tells her obnoxious best friend that she lost her virginity. Next, a closeted friend asks her to pretend to have sex with him, to give him hetero cred. Soon, she is pretending to have sex with half the outcasts in school. She is considered the school slut by everyone else, and starts wearing a scarlet A in defiance.

The tone is breezy and light. One of the nicest parts is Stone's family, Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson and adopted brother Bryce Clyde Jenkins. They are far from the standard clueless parents - close and supportive without being clingy or smothering. Thomas Haden Church has a nice role as the Cool Teacher, and his wife, Jennifer Aniston, makes a satisfying villain.

Youth in Revolt has a similar feel, but from a boy's point of view. Michael Cera is a teenage virgin whose love of Sinatra, Fellini and, well, culture makes him an outcast in his hometown of Oakland. When his trashy mom's trashier boyfriend (Zach Galifianakis) has to hide out in a trailer park in Clear Lake, Cera meets the girl of his dreams, Portia Doubleday. She likes Belmondo and Serge Gainsborough, and would be perfect for him, but she likes French bad boys.

So Cera develops and alter ego, Francois Dillinger, who wears a French moustache, smokes and likes to blow things up. That's sure to make her fall for him.

Nitpicking Dept: I know I bring this up every time, but the young women in both of these movies are beautiful, which makes the stories a little implausible. But not entirely:

  1. In Easy A, why doesn't a girl who looks like Emma Stone have boyfriends swarming all around? Well, she clearly states that this is her version of the story -unreliable narrator. Maybe she isn't that good looking in "real life", and maybe she isn't as completely ignored as she lets on. It makes a better story.
  2. In Youth in Revolt, Doubleday is not a beautiful girl who is mysteriously available - here boyfriend is a handsome intelligent poet, target of every girl in school. She just happens to like Cera, too.
In conclusion, it looks like I have to watch Juno now. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Love a Swing Parade

You know, I love old musicals, comedies and the Three Stooges shows. How could a movie that is all three be bad? Trust me, it is. What could make it better? Commentary by Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I give you: RiffTrax: Swing Parade.

It is the usual story of an aspiring singer, and wannabe nightclub owner, and the Stooges who love them. It's remarkably reminiscent of Dancing Lady, but dumber. On the upside, we have Ed Brophy as the Stooges boss, and Louis Jordan, king of jump blues doing a number with neon lined instruments, which must have been dangerous.

On the downside, there is no swing parade, and precious little swing.

The boys do their best to liven this up, but the quipping really doesn't help ease the pain much. I'd say this is for hardcore lovers of musicals, comedies and the Three Stooges.