Friday, December 27, 2013

Ghost Again

I started watching A Chinese Ghost Story 2 (1990) not really remembering whether I'd seen CGS I. I'm still not sure.

This is one of those crazy kung fu comedy fantasies. Our hero, Leslie Cheung, was married to a ghost in the first one, and she has apparently been exorcised. This made me think I'd seen it, but I was probably thinking of White Snake. So he wanders into a haunted temple, gets thrown in jail, meets a crazy old master who gives him a sacred medallion and lets him escape, etc, etc. His next adventures deal with a traveling mystic warrior with a freeze spell (who of course gets frozen before he can tell our hero the antidote).

It's all very silly and not too coherent or scary, although some of the monsters are somewhat disgusting. And of course there's a love story - Joey Wang plays a (living) woman who looks exactly like his (ghost) wife.

Lots of fun. I'd love to watch the original (unless of course I already have).

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Magic Act

Con films and magic - two things I love that go great together. Hence: Now You See Me (2013). It's about a batch of stage magicians whose big Vegas act is to rob a bank and to give all the money away to the audience. Now that's a show!

The magicians are:
  • Jesse Eisenberg as the David Copperfield-like big Vegas star
  • Ilsa Fisher as his ex-assistant
  • Woody Harrelson is a hypnotist/mentalist reduced to running scams on tourists in malls
  • Dave Franco is the Kid, a fan who might just be running an All About Eve on the rest
Mark Ruffalo is the FBI man tracking them down (they really do rob a bank without leaving the stage), and Melanie Laurent is the beautiful Interpol agent working on the case - because the bank they robbed is in France. Michael Caine gamely plays their backer and manager.

Most of the movie is snarky dialog and flashy magic tricks. Of course, all the tricks are revealed (mostly) and of course they mostly make approximately zero sense. But so what, it's all good fun. Some people will be put off by the total lack of  likable characters, or the plot holes, but I just rolled with it. Hey if these clever heists worked, more people would be pulling them.

We've been watching a lot of Leverage lately - the quirky band of thieves and grifters who right wrongs with their extra-legal powers. If you can take the level of unreality in something like that, then this might be right up your alley.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Might as Well Jump

In the film quiz I recently posted, I said this about Jumper (2008):
I am a big fan on Stephen Gould's intelligent young-adult SF novels, including this one. Based on the reviews, I assumed that they had missed the whole point, dropping the thoughtful investigation of what a normal nerdy kid would do if he found out how to teleport, and made a stupid action movie. Which was kind of true, and kind of wasn't.
Let me elucidate. Gould's science-fiction style is rather old-school. He tends to take a premise and work out the details. Our hero can teleport: What are the limits? What are the rules? What happens to his angular momentum when he travels to the other side of the world? Also, what does a fundamentally decent kid do with that power?

Well, this movie doesn't get into this, really. But it is still in the movie - our jumpers come out of long jumps sliding to the side, all the jumpers have pictures of places so they can visualize target locations, but they never really explain it. It's just there for people who have read the book. Not that they are likely to appreciate it.

Christian Hayden as hero is not bad, not great, but his buddy, played by Jamie Bell, is a lot more fun. Samuel L. Jackson as the white-haired anti-jumper fanatic is, too.

On the whole, this is not a good adaptation of a great SF story. But it is much better than you might expect. I wish it was good enough to get a sequel.

Monday, December 16, 2013

They Live

They Live by Night / Side Street (1948/1950) seemed like a good deal - two B&W noirs for the price of one. They Live by Night was such a gut punch that we never made it to Side Street.

Directed by Nicholas Ray (first film, I think), this is the story of a gang of Depression era bank-robbers. We meet them after they break jail, hiding out with pals in a remote gas station. One of the escapees is young Farley Granger. He and Cathy O'Donnell are clearly attracted to each other, but she is an honest girl with her feet on the ground, and he's a boy with a past who can never go straight. However, they are named Bowie and Keechie, so I suppose they were destined for each other.

Granger looks so gorgeous in this, just luminous in Ray's dark shadowed noir photography. Gives James Dean a run for the money. O'Donnell is appealing as the tomboy who keeps the garage running. The rest of the gang are great: Howard Da Silva as scary, one-eyed Chickamaw and Jay C. Flippen as the quietly dangerous T. Dub.

The whole thing is both stylized and hard-core realistic. The small towns, bus-stops and tourist cabins that make up the world of these "big-time" criminals are so evocative. But it's the love story that got to us, the poor doomed couple.

Has anyone seen Side Street? We probably won't feel up to watching that for a while.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Quiz Time

It happened again. I was just pining, wishing for a Film Quiz from Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. I had time, my mind was sharp, I was bored. I waited and waited, and finally gave up. Then, after I get busy and my mind gets mushy, this happens: PROFESSOR LARRY GOPNIK’S POST-HANUKAH, PRE-CHRISTMAS, POST-SCHRODINGER, PRE-APOCALYPSE SLIFR HOLIDAY MOVIE QUIZ.

I saw it early in the morning the day it was posted. It already had a half dozen responses. Time to get to work.

1) Favorite unsung holiday film
My legit favorite is probably Hogfather, the Sky TV Terry Pratchett Discworld 2-parter (does that count?). But I recently saw and rather liked the critically panned Reindeer Games, so I'll go with that.

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved
My recent M.O. has been to watch recent movies that are considered bombs and kind of liking them. I call it "We liked that movie that everybody says is junk". The most recent, which I haven't blogged about yet, was Jumper. I am a big fan on Stephen Gould's intelligent young-adult SF novels, including this one. Based on the reviews, I assumed that they had missed the whole point, dropping the thoughtful investigation of what a normal nerdy kid would do if he found out how to teleport, and made a stupid action movie. Which was kind of true, and kind of wasn't. I wound up liking it a lot, and hoping they do the two sequels.

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?
Got to be E.E. Horton for everything from The Gay Divorcee to Fractured Fairytales. But I frequently drop into Ned Sparks nasal drawl when I the urge to sound cynical and deadpan comes over me. So he's a strong runner-up.

He was great as a lap steel player in a Hawaiian band in Hawaii Calls.

4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no?
Heck, yeah. My favorite trucker movie, bar none.

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past
Not sure if he is still "contemporary", but Roberto Benigni would be a good character actor in classic slapstick - someone like Grady Sutton or Franklin Pangborn.

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere
Wizard of Oz - no, I like the tornado, but the movie is not really a favorite. Key Largo? Body Heat (hot and sticky is bad weather too)?

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie
The only one I've ever seen is Death in Venice. So, Boccaccio '70.

8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?
Theatrically, a Deanna Durbin double-header: her first and last features, Three Smart Girls and For the Love of Mary. on Blu-ray, Keanu Reaves first directorial outing, Man of Tai Chi, another movie I was surprised to have liked.

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)
I tend to splutter when people say dumb things, or try to earnestly explain what they are missing. I never convince anyone.

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?
Joan, an icon for a long career from pre-code to TV.  But I haven't seen any Torchy Blane movies, so I could change my mind later.

11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping
I hear that Gable was a big outdoors man, so he might be handy to have along, but let's face it: Jayne Mansfield.

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie
A lot to choose from. I'll take Pat and Mike.

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)
It looks like I watched exactly 10 movies from 2013 in 2013, so I could just put those in order, but - It's a trick question! It doesn't say movies from 2013 or even top 10 movies! So, in no special order:

1. Top movie: Bringing Up Baby, same as always
2. Top 2013 movie that we saw in 2013: Pacific Rim
3. Top 2013 movie that we haven't seen yet: The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug
4. Top shop: Discovered the Rasputin Records and DVDs in our neighborhood. 3 used DVDs for $10!
5. Top DVD bought from above: Addams Family and Addams Family Values box set
6. Top breakfast spot: Olympus, a Turkish cafe with lots of outdoor seating. Ms. Spenser's dog likes to hang out there while I have a mocha and a gozleme or boreki or pistachio burma.
7. Top bar: Cascal, a pan-Latin tapas bar, again with a large outdoor plaza. I would walk to the library with the dog and drop in for drink at an outside table on the way back. They have interesting things like mango caipirinhas, mushroom empanadas and ciabatta with corn kernels and herbed olive oil. Too expensive to do on every trip though.
8. Top musical event: Bob Dylan's AmericanaRama - last show of the tour at Shoreline Amphitheater, with Wilco and My Morning Jacket, plus Bob Weir and John Doe dropping in.
9. Top bummer: Ms. Spenser spent the summer back in Tallahassee, working on her dissertation.
10. Top joy: Ms. Spenser came back from Tally!

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction
I don't re-watch a lot of movies, and when I do, they are usually ones that I love. The biggest swings of opinion have been from Good to Meh or the reverse.

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover
2001: Space Odyssey

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?
Delon is an icy beauty, but Mastroianni has sense of humor, and a heart. And his dance with an older, fatter Anita Ekberg in front of scenes from La Dolce Vita in Intervista is amazing.

17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)
Yojimbo - especially the dog, even though that's post credits (so I couldn't find a clip that included it).

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies
Not sure if this is a run, but Billy Wilder directed 27 films, and at least 22 were classics.

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?
Sure, isn't that the difference between cineaste and just film lover? Like the difference between gourmet and gourmand.

But the trick is to be an elitist about any movie you want - scorning people who don't appreciate the artistry of Wm. One-Shot Beaudine or the aerial photography of Coleman Francis, for instance.

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film
Funny, it looks like I've only seen True Romance, which we loved.

21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?
It's more of a series: The Mike Shayne detective movies starring Lloyd Nolan. What a card.

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy
Fun fact about Danny Trejo - he is a wizard with the claw machine, and he gives all of the stuffed toys he wins to kids in the hospital. He'd make a great Santa (traditional), maybe with the beard from Bad Ass.

23) Video store or streaming?
Netflix DVD-by-mail. When we lived in Tallahassee a few years ago, we dropped the disc subscription and went with streaming only, and started going to a local cult video store, Video 21. It was fun, but I still like the convenience and selection of Netflix. We like to use streaming more for TV shows.

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter
I feel like some famous blogger just addressed this, but I can't quite put my finger on it...

I want to answer with the most "WTF" final film, like Wilder's Buddy Buddy or One-shot Beaudine's Billy the Kid Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. But I'm going to re-use my answer to #1: Reindeer Games.

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?
Monica was an amazing Modesty Blaise, but Anna Karina was my dream-girl when I was a New Wave fanboy - infâme? Non, une femme!

26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?
I don't do that often, and as a result, I used to watch a lot of movies by myself (now I make Ms. Spenser watch with me). We did cajole some friends into watching Buckaroo Banzai and were shocked when we came out and discovered that they hated it.

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest
I guess our favorite filmmaker is Akira Kurosawa. I haven't seen The Lower Depths yet.

Dutch mystery writer/Buddhist Jan Willem van der Wetering  tells about watching a movie in Japan that seems to be The Lower Depths, although he couldn't tell because he didn't speak or read Japanese. He perceived it as a heart-warming story of how poverty brings neighbors together to help each other. I am told by people who have seen the movie that he missed the point by a mile.

28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it
Rare Exports, which I haven't seen, but sounds awesome. Really, I don't watch much horror.

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree
An Interocitor - or at least a catalog from Electronics Service Unit #16.

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014
That Desolation of Smaug be good.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Well Done

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1974) seemed like a good introduction to the works of M. Brel. I knew a bit about him, mostly through people who he had influenced. I recognized Bowie's "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" as Brelesque, without ever having heard Brel's music. The theatrical emotionality with a casual informal rhythm, perhaps. Anyway, it was time for me to give it a listen, so I queued up this movie.

The opening does not bode well - a bunch of Godspell-reject hippies cavorting around a theater. Then show starts and it all gets "meta", with the audience becoming performers and the atomic bomb threatening to wipe them all out. Was this fresh in 1974?

But the songs themselves mostly make up for it. Funny, intense, personal, fascinating. The major singers are an older woman, a slick young man, and a chubby guy with a Mario moustache. He is Mort Shuman, a songwriter in real life ("This Magic Moment") who supplied the English translations. His songs are mostly funny, about the dreams of an everyday shlub.

The height is M. Brel himself, singing "Ne Me Quitte Pas". He was very handsome, in a Belgian James Coburn way. He is smoking a cigarette, of course, and dying of lung cancer, although I suppose it wasn't known at the time. The movie is worth it for this song alone.

The rest of the songs are pretty great too, although the English lyrics may not always sparkle - do the French lyrics sparkle, or is the original a little prosey and ordinary, on purpose? Even the hippies get a sweet, true moment with a song, The Desperate Ones.

In conclusion, a charming set of songs, beautifully sung, in a pretty silly movie.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Head in the Clouds

Cloud Atlas (2012) - wow, what can I say? I have to admit that I queued it up on mainly the strength of Tom Hanks' facial tattoos. And I don't even like Tom Hanks.

It is made up of 6 interlocking movies, in different styles, set in different time:

  • An adventure yarn set in the South Pacific in the days of wooden sailing ships
  • A homosexual romance concerning classical music set in England of the early 20th century
  • A '70's thriller (with a blaxploitation touch) about a black reporter and a nuclear plant
  • A comedy set in the world of publishing and an old folk's home in modern-day England
  • A sterile sci-fi dystopia in future Neo-Seoul
  • A post-apocalyptic tale set in Hawaii
The post-apocalypse tale is the one Hanks wears a facial tat. But there are also facial tattoos in the South Pacific (Maori) and Neo-Seoul (subcutaneous electronics). Other odd themes recur in strange ways: Cannibalism, for instance. The Maori are supposed cannibals, and when our publisher is locked in the old-folk's home he jokes "Soylent Green is people" (sorry, spoiler). I'll avoid some other spoilers, but it does come up again.

The same actors play various roles in the different stories. In many cases, their roles are similar, in other cases much different. If I had diagrammed it all out, I might see a pattern that I missed, maybe even the whole point, but I wasn't watching it that way. I was mainly just thrilled by the spectacle.

It was directed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Twyker. I worship Twyker's Run Lola Run, and rather liked The International (which I had never noticed that he directed). Of course, everyone knows and loves the Wachowskis, even after Speed Racer. The two teams do an amazing job here, intertwining the stories, letting beats from one build in another, sometimes letting a story run, sometime cutting between them shot by shot. It's an amazing combination of script and direction.

The actors are great as well, really digging into their roles. The makeup required to let one actor do several roles of different periods, races and gender was handled tastefully, I thought, never calling attention to itself. Although I have to say, as someone who once mistook Jean Arthur for Barbara Stanwyck, I often found myself going, "Is that Tom Hanks? No, that must be Tom Hanks. So who is that?"

I'm not sure I would have gone to see any of the six mini-movies if they had been presented solo, but altogether they made something more. I guess this has been done before - I think D.W. Griffith intercut four stories in Intolerance. But Cloud Atlas is really something.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Things to Do in Tombstone When You're Dead

We've been seeing previews for Dead in Tombstone (2013) at the start of our DVDs for a while now and we were thrilled to get it recently. Here's what we got.

Danny Trejo, Anthony Michael Hall and the rest of their gang take over a town that has some disputed gold reserves. Trejo doesn't want anyone hurt who doesn't interfere. Hall shoots the sheriff, molests his wife and decides to settle down. Oh yes, and he kills Trejo. Of course, that just makes him mad.

Trejo winds up in Hell (because of the sins), facing a pretty nasty Satan - Mickey Rourke from Angel Heart! Trejo offers to hand the other bad guys over if he can live for just one more day. Rourke arranges it, and the rest of the movie is Trejo's revenge.

The style of the movie is an interesting mix of straight-to-video action and art film. I can't tell if they had arty pretensions from the start, or used them to class up a no-budget production. It was interesting, yes, but also boring - too often it just slowed up the action. The obsessive, ritualized preparation of the coffins had a nice spaghetti Western style, but didn't really move things along.

The action itself wasn't anything special, except it was Danny committing the mayhem. Dina Meyer as the sheriff's wife, also out for outlaw blood, was pretty effective as well.

All in all, not great, but a fun mystic Western with Danny Trejo. We'd watch it again.