Monday, February 25, 2013

Ghost of a Chance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is pretty bad - you probably knew that already. But it's pretty good, too. What's so good about it? How about, skull guy on fire on a motorcycle, also on fire? What's so bad, then? Pretty much everything else.

The sequel to Ghost Rider (how come I didn't blog that? I'm sure I only saw it a few years ago) has Nicholas Cage hiding out in a remote part of East Europe, possibly the western part. He is trying not to flame on and become the Ghost Rider and eat souls and stuff. But Idris Elba, playing a drunk biker/monk (?) convinces him he needs to use his powers to protect a little boy from the Devil, and also the boy's street-wise Roma mother, and it's off to the races.

The Rider's character design is great - all black and charred, with clothes that look like they are soaked in pitch. The flames that surround him are much smokier now, a rich black tire-fire smoke. The CGI is often highlighted by placing it on a black background instead of compositing it over the live action - It adds to the whole comic book appeal.

When he isn't Ghost Ridering, Cage is aching from the beatings, shootings, etc that his alter-ego got, and twitching like a junkie trying to keep from reverting to GR status. In fact, one of the sleazier characters offers to get him "the stuff he needs". Kind of a cute joke. But it does give Cage a chance to gnaw on some scenery, and he doesn't deny that urge. But, come on, it's Nick Cage. It's what he does.

So, we loved the action and the Rider. Really. Unironically. We like Idris Elba, of course, even if he didn't have much of a role. I kind of like Cage, even if I've never seen him in a good movie (haven't seen Raising Arizona). I guess I like him ironically.

Anyways, a fine big stupid Friday movie.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Melodrama and Action

Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) is kind of like two movies: a historical melodrama and a modern action film. Unfortunately, we were only looking for one of these.

B&A tells the story of Hong Kong in the 1920s, when the corrupt imperial government ruthlessly assassinated all dissidents and revolutionaries. A newspaper editor and his wealthy benefactor learn that Dr. Sun Yat Sen will be visiting to unify the opposition and topple the government. The editor wants to help protect Dr. Sun, but his rich friend is more of a supporter of revolution - he doesn't want to be involved. Unfortunately, his son does want to get involved.

In the end, they become decoys for Dr. Sun, travelling openly around Hong Kong in closed rickshaws while Dr. Sun goes to his meeting in secret. And of course the decoys draw fire.

This is a 2hr+ movie. The first hour and a half consists of political discussions and agonizing decisons about risking your life and your family for a cause. The last half hour or so was mainly modern action, fast, slick and hyper-violent, with a few quiet moments to let the horror of that violence sink in. The first part, the melodrama, was well written, well acted, affecting. The action was about as good as it gets.

The thing is, we didn't really feel like watching a political or family drama, no matter how good. I'm sorry, but we wanted a good old-fashioned mindless romp. When we got to the action, the horrific realism of the consequences took most of the fun out of it. This is not Cowboys vs. Aliens.

In conclusion, probably a very good movie, if that's what you are looking for.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Back in Black

Are the men in black really going to the well again? Didn't MIB2 prove that they were out of ideas? Just take a look at MIB3 (2012).

It starts with a new Big Bad, a grungy brute with fangs and two steampunk eye tubes named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), although he prefers Boris. He dramatically breaks prison and heads out after Agent K, our Tommie Lee Jones.

Jones is still working with Will Smith, Agent J. They have gotten to be a bit like an old married couple, past the bickering stage. Smith works his mouth, Jones is silent. This is beautifully illustrated in the eulogy Jones gives for a fallen agent. "In all the years I knew him, he never gave away anything personal about himself." That is the highest praise for the member of a secret agency, whether Agent J likes it or not.

It turns out that Boris' plan is to go back in time to kill Agent K in the 70s. So the MIB's hot boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson) sends J back to the day before to stop him. This is where things get good.

  • It's the 70s. Campy top-40 music, outfits, hippies, etc
  • The young Agent K is played dead-on by Josh Brolin
I've heard that the substitution is due to Tommie Lee Jones not wanting to do another MIB movie, and this got him out of most of it. True or not, it's a great idea. Having two people playing the role gives it some nice depth, a life separate from the actors. The role goes from iconic to mythic, in my opinion.

Of course, Dan Akroyd did it first in Blues Brothers, but that's another issue.

There's a nice low-key romance, and the requisite daddy issue at the core. There are plenty of disgusting aliens, and as usual, we find out how many celebs are really from another world - not Andy Warhol (Bill Hader), though. It's funny, it's Men in Black, with two Agent Ks. That little bit extra makes all the difference.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Du Bist Shayne

Dressed to Kill (1941) stars Lloyd Nolan as Mike Shayne. That was all Ms. Spenser needed to hear to select this for streaming. I knew of Shayne from reading Brett Halliday's pulp novels. I was expecting a tough  beefy bruiser, but got Lloyd Nolan.

We meet him buying a used suit for $2 down to get married in. He's your basic sharpie - sharp-faced, sharp-tongued, fast talking and cynical. He must have been a bit of a romantic, because he gives his burlesque queen bride his second-to-last dollar for flowers. But before they can get to the altar, he runs into a double murder.

This is where I really got Michael Shayne. His girl is annoyed that he is getting distracted, but he's overjoyed to find two dead people. He sells the story to the newspaper for $100, with the promise of another $400 if he finds the murderer. He tells the hotel manager that he's got a bonanza going. He hides evidence and suspects from the police if there's a buck in it for him.

And the police inspector he deals with, by the way, is Uncle Charlie himself, William Demarest. He plays the role for laughs, always a step behind and subject to the occasional pratfall. Of course, Shayne isn't too smart in this version, although you might wonder if he is as dumb as he seems.

For all the comedy, the mystery is pretty well put together - I've been reading a lot of Nero Wolfe, and this kind of felt like that: A classic puzzle. You might think that any mystery movie has that, but for B movies, the puzzle is often obvious, random or a cheat. This isn't Conan Doyle level, but at least Ellery Queen worthy.

But what we really enjoyed was the breezy script and Nolan's wise guy delivery.

In conclusion: Nolan made a bunch of these. Netflix has them two to a disk. We'll be watching them soon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

No Man is an Island

No Man of Her Own (1932) is an interesting pre-code comedy. Directed by Wesley Ruggles (I Met Him in Paris, from last week), it stars Clark Gable and Carole Lombard from before they were a real-life couple.

Gable is a crooked gambler, who decides to lay low in "Glendale" (a New York suburb?) when the cops get a little too close. There he meets Lombard, a prim librarian who is a little bored with her small-town life. After a courtship that reads more like harassment to me, they make a bet. Gable will flip a coin. Heads, they do it, tails, they get married - This is a direct quote.

The next scene shows Lombard sensuously stretching in negligee in the sleeping compartment of a honeymoon express train - I guess that proves this is pre-code. But it isn't without morals. Lombard believes that Gable works for a living, and after a while, he starts to feel guilty about his evil ways. But what can he do about it?

Overall, this is pretty charming, funny and mildly naughty. Ruggles' direction had a touch of class, without really standing out. I guess that's my overall judgment - solid but not exceptional. Your mileage may vary.

In conclusion: Clark Gable had no mustache.