Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Prometheus Unbound

Watching Prometheus (2012) was really Ms. Spenser's idea, and a very good idea, indeed.

Prometheus is supposed to be Ridley Scott's prequel to the Alien movie, although not necessarily the Alien sequels. In fact, the continuity is so scattered that you can't really say how much it sets up, explains, etc. In fact, the plot is so weird and unlikely, you can't really say much about it at all. It's all about the experience.

From the surreally beautiful opening scene of a Titan dissolving in Iceland, through the Geigeresque scenes on the alien spaceship, the surreal big giant head, it's full of strikingly beautiful images. Someone (can't remember or Google who) suggested that it had the visual look of an old sci-fi pulp cover. They even had someone escaping from a giant hula hoop (spoiler, I guess). I saw that influence again and again.

I don't want to discuss the plot because it doesn't make much sense. Again, we have a group of dimwits and sneaks on a spaceship, again one is an android, one is a kick-ass woman. Again they meet up with space jockeys and chest-bursters. But the overall feel is very different. It's not the blue-collar haunted house in space this time. This expedition is all sciency and virtual realityistic.

Also, the android is Michael Fassbender, you know, for the ladies. For us guys, the kick-ass woman is Noomi Rapace, from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and also some Swedish movies about a girl.

This movie isn't the breakthrough that Alien was, but it was a lot of fun to watch. We expect to own it soon, and watch it again and again.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Stooge On!

The Three Stooges (2012) did not seem like a promising idea. In fact, it seemed hubristic, sacrilegious, even, for the Farrelly Bros. (modern-day hacks, in my opinion) to take on these icons of classic slapstick. But it worked out pretty well.

Early reports had all kinds of scary rumors about who was going to play who: Jim Carrey as Curly, Adam Sandberg, Johnny Depp, horrible things. In the end, Will Sasso as Curly, Sean Hayes as Larry and Chris Diamantopoulos are just about perfect. The script is a nice mix of classic gags (which the original Stooges constantly re-used) and updated material: Moe goes on Jersey Shore, which is just about right.

The movie's strength and weakness, in my opinion, is that it is really about Moe. The emotional center of the movie is a monologue by Moe where he breaks up the team go solo. It takes the movie into another realm, beyond slapstick and pastiche. But Larry and Curly don't get the same treatment. Sasso's Curly is very accurate, but doesn't really have a lot to do, beyond saying things like "Soitainly!"

Still, no objections. They pulled it off, and the difficulty level is high.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Deja Vu

I have a weird feeling that I've seen The Interpreter (2005) before. It starts with a scene in Africa. Three white men drive to an abandoned stadium. Right there, I said to myself: "I've seen this. Or have I?" At this point, I was thinking that the stadium was used in some other movie - probably in the Bourne franchise.

But as it played out, I recognized more and more. The basic idea is that Nicole Kidman, an interpreter for the UN, overhears a plot to kill an African leader. Recently widowed police detective Sean Penn is on the case. I didn't recognize most of the twists and turns of the plot, but kept running into material I thought I knew.

This might mean that it is just a predictable type thriller - and I suppose it is. It's directed by Sydney Pollack, who I always considered to be a bit square. I don't think I've seen any of his movies, even (especially) Tootsie. Checking IMDB ... wait, I've seen The Way We Were. Yes, he's a square.

But definitely a craftsman. This movie has a lovely look, especially the grand scenes shot on location inside the UN. Nicole Kidman is great in the title role, playing it very tight and close to the vest, slowly revealing depths within depths. She also just plain looks (and films) beautiful. Sean Penn, on the other hand, hams it up in a much more obvious role, but I guess they need that as a foil to her.

I can't say the plot was predictable, but there was something not-so-fresh about how it unfolds - not the twists and turns themselves, but how they are revealed. Or maybe it's just that I've seen the movie before and forgot it. In which case, my thesis should be that the movie is forgettable, a throw-away.

Maybe it's both, but it was a pleasant throw-away. I did enjoy it. I must remember not to watch it again.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

English as She is Spoke

I guess we had to give Rowan Atkinson another chance with Johnny English Reborn. It's not that Johnny English was so bad, it just wasn't that good. Still, we would take even second-rate Rowan Atkinson.

Johnny English is England's most incompetent spy, now in disgrace because of that incident in Mozambique. He has been training in a monastery in Tibet (like Batman! Or Rambo!) waiting to be called back to action. And a case comes up that only he can crack! But I'm going to skip over all that - honestly, I had to read to be reminded that the Chinese premier was involved.

The first Johnny English was a sort of generic spy spoof, with Atkinson as an almost generic bungler. The lack of freshness (as well as the weakness of the jokes) hurt that movie, we thought. This movie has something a little extra: take-offs on just about every spy or action movie you can think of. That includes spoofs of spoofs; I'm pretty sure I caught an extended riff on the Steve Martin Pink Panther. Of course, Johnny English is a bit of a Clouseau figure, but copying the Steve Martin version takes a certain something.

Or maybe they were just stealing the joke.

Anyway, this is not inspired Atkinson, like Mr. Bean or Black Adder - or like Peter Sellers' Pink Panther. But it is still pretty funny, like Steve Martin's Pink Panther.

In conclusion, better than Johnny English.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Watching the Detective

We've been wanting to see Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010). It has been on streaming for a while, but we couldn't turn the subtitles on. It was well-worth ordering as Blu-ray.

Set at a time when an evil regent (-ess?) is about to become empress. A giant Kanon, goddess of compassion, is being built. But there is trouble! In fact, the chief architect bursts into flames. Only one man can solve his mystery, Detective Dee! But the regent-empress has had him arrested for treason.

And so on. Dee is played by Tony Leung (Kar Fai), who I always look forward to. Along with the regent, played by Carina Lau, we have her Amazon gaurd, Li Bing Bing. Rounding out our trio of crime fighters, Chao Deng plays a blonde mystic, with mighty powers and mysterious motives. All fighting, flying, and talking trash.

And as absurd and astounding as everything is - spontaneous human combustion, talking deer, flying swordsmen (ok, that isn't so unusual), Dee focuses in on the logical, scientific explanation, and that's how he solves the crime.

Very satisfying, and beautifully made, even the ancient Chinese CGI cities. Director Hark Tsui is a master that this kind of epic fantasy action film. One thing I found jarring, though - there were occasional scenes where the lighting failed to be mysterious and atmospheric, and looked flat and overlit, like a cheap TV show. Possibly they were artifacts of the digital process, or just a lapse of taste or budget.

Anyway, a great action flick, and I probably shouldn't read too much into it, but the movie did have a certain political moral. We've seen it before, as well, in Hero, Little Big Soldier, and others. Dee has the choice between accepting an unjust ruler, or fight the ruler, and let civil war tear apart the country. In the end, they chose  - SPOILER - the ruler, who has the mandate of heaven. This is faultlessly traditional Confucianism, but it seems politically relevant in modern China, and somewhat convenient for the rulers.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Battle of the Snow Whites

I wonder what brought on the two competing Snow White movies in 2012? We just watched both.

First, we saw Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh. He is our hero, because of The Fall, and we stayed in love even after Immortals. We expect beautiful visions from him, but not necessarily great films. Snow White in this film is played by Lily Collins (daughter of Phil?!?), looking most Audrey Hepburn. But the story is really about Queen Evil Stepmother, Julia Roberts, as she tells us herself. She has let the king die in the forest hunting the Beast, and starves the kingdom to pay for her ridiculous parties, all the while being sweetly evil to Snow. And she does it all with only vizier Nathan Lane to help.

Meanwhile, Prince Armie Hammer and companion are beset by dwarf bandits on stilts, robbed, stripped and  sent on to the castle. The queen finds this naked prince most charming. He finds her enchanting after she enchants him with a puppy love spell. Hammer does a fine slapstick turn here, sniffing, licking and jumping up on the furniture.

Meanwhile, Snow goes out to the forest and befriends the dwarves, who are maybe the second best thing in the movie, after the evil queen. They are a fine crew of individual and ensemble actors, including Jordan Prentice of In Bruges.

If the presence of Nathan Lane (3rd best thing?) didn't alert you, this is basically a silly kid's comedy - almost Disneyesque in its treatment of the spunky yet down to earth yet romantic princess. I don't think the script pulled this off overall, but we enjoyed it.

Snow White and the Huntsman is a bit different. It has a darker feeling; even though it is still a fairytale fantasy, it is not for children (at least not the theoretically innocent children of 20th century America). Here, Snow White is Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame, and Evil Stepmother is played by Charlize Theron. Snow has a childhood friend, played by Sam Claflin, but her big romance is Chris "Thor" Hemsworth as the Huntsman. The dwarves here are played by tall actors like Bob Hoskins and Nick Frost, shrunk by special effects.

None of these casting decisions seem good to me, except maybe Hemsworth. Theron plays the queen either flat or shrieky, Stewart is likewise quite wooden. And so forth. But the movie is surprisingly beautiful. When Snow is lost in the Forest, she is surrounded by images of poison and decay, mold and mushrooms. Yet deeper in, there is a sacred grove called Sanctuary, with a Thousand-Antlered Stag, right out of Princess Mononoke. It's quite mesmerizing and lovely.

On the whole, Snow White and the Huntsman is probably the better movie - better production, effects and art direction at least. I didn't like the acting/casting as much, and the script was didn't quite work. The script for Mirror Mirror didn't really work either, but it failed at being a comedy romp, while Snow White and the Huntsman failed at being dark, mythic adventure.

But even though Snow White and the Huntsman is a better movie, I still think I prefer Mirror Mirror, for Julia Roberts, for Nathan Lane, and for Tarsem Singh.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gone Hollywood

Guilty pleasures: When Ms. Spenser is out of town, I put on something she wouldn't care for. That often means a Woody Allen movie like Hollywood Ending.

So, Woody is a washed-up director, who had won Oscars for a New York-themed movie (any guesses?) but was now stuck directing commercials in Canada. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, his ex-wife (Tea Leoni, looking awfully Diane Keaton) is trying to get her producer boyfriend (a beefy looking Treat Williams) to hire  him for their next film, a New York period piece.

Woody doesn't want to take the job, but needs the money and the credits. But he's so nervous about it that he goes blind. That's it. That's the high concept. A blind director.

I haven't watched all that many of the later Woody Allen films - after Stardust Memories, say.  I think they fall into roughly 2 classes: Good (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Scoop) and Funny (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Small Time Crooks). This is one of the funny ones: not significant or ambitious, just silly.

Woody Allen is at his Woody Allen-est, all mumbles, tics and neuroses. His co-stars look a lot like Woody Allen co-stars, like Tea Leoni's Keatonesque look. The slapstick comedy isn't as funny as it could be, but the angst - that's funny.

In conclusion, a movie made by a blind director is not going to be good. So, happy ending?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


What is there to say about The Hidden Fortress, Akira Kurosawa's 1958 extravaganza? It's just a fun film, one of his greatest.

It's starts out both comic and tragic, with two rubber-faced peasants arguing in a battlefield. They don't want to be soldiers anymore, but the enemy clan's army holds the pass. Alone in the wilderness, they find find a few pieces of gold, probably from the hoard of the defeated clan. Just when they are feeling good about this, they run into Toshiro Mifune, and silent woman.

Mifune plays his part way larger than life, wearing tiny shorts, an open vest and a ferocious scowl. The woman is dressed for travel, but has the most outrageous glamour makeup. You would think anyone could tell that she was a princess in disguise.

I had remembered this movie as an intimate story of our tiny band sneaking and skulking through the countryside. It has moments like that, but I had forgotten about the sweep and grandeur of some of the scenes, like the prison break at the castle, with hundreds of extras swirling up and down the castle steps.

In fact, this is less an art film and more a swashbuckling adventure, even though there are fewer swordfights than in some samurai movies. That George Lucas was influenced by this when he made Star Wars is definitely believable.