Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On the Avenue

Well, this is probably going to wrap up 2014 blogging. We watched a lesser holiday movie, It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947). Although we're not big Christmas movie fans (bah, humbug), we are big fans of the good old black and white stuff. This is not exactly a classic, but it has its charms.

It takes place guess where. Victor Moore, a genial bum with a cute dog sneaks into the boarded-up mansion of the second-richest man in the world and sets up housekeeping while the homeowners are absent for the winter. Into this solitary paradise, he invites a jobless, homeless WWII vet, Don Defore. When the daughter of the family (Gale Storm) runs away from school and stops by the mansion for some clothes, they take her for another housebreaker. But they are too kind-hearted to throw her out, and she decides to play along.

Here is the first place the story starts to strain credibility. Why do the squatters assume a sophisticated lady is a thief? Why aren't they worried that they have been discovered? Some clever writing, a misunderstood action or something could have made this work - suppose she had gotten her dress dirty, or been in disguise as a poor girl? But no, you've just got to go along with it.

Of course, Storm has to fall in love with Defore, which is another strain. He's kind of a Robert Montgomery type (or do I mean Robert Young?), and extremely obnoxious. He looks like he should be a sit-com husband, and he wound up that way, on Hazel. There is also a distinct lack of chemistry between them.

As the movie goes on (for almost 2 hours), more squatters take up residence, including the man who owns the place and his estranged wife. They go along with the gag, pretending to be homeless, for reasons that are very flimsy - again, just go with it.

Of course, since the rich man is played by Charles Ruggles, it's not hard to give the movie some benefit of a doubt. He plays a hard tycoon, without the usual flustered vagueness, but is great nonetheless. But the best part is the bum, Aloysius T. McKeever, played by Victor Moore. Moore is a character actor you'll recognize, although you may not be able to put a name to his face. He is a cherubic, soft-spoken, rather diffident man, with a certain quiet dignity. He makes the whole thing worth it.

It is an interesting look at the post-war housing shortage and employment situation. But mostly that allows the movie to be sympathetic to the homeless without being Capraesque commies. So I can't really even recommend it for the social commentary. I can recommend it for Victor Moore, though.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Skin Job

I've seen a few nominations of Under the Skin (2014) for best film of the year. I respectfully disagree.

It is a kind of science fiction art film. There is very little dialog, and no explanation - no Control Voice explaining that the last nine plans to conquer the Earth have failed, so for our tenth plan... Mostly we get Scarlett Johansson driving around Scotland in a white rape van, picking up unattached men who won't be missed. She gets them alone in a featureless black void, strips nude and watches as they sink, naked and erect, into the tarry surface of the void, possibly to feed upon them. That's not quite the whole thing - there is an oblique plot (probably), but that's close to it.

There are long meditative shots of Johansson putting on makeup, sitting in the van at night. The conversations with the men are mainly pleasantries, I think, but they have such thick Glaswegian brogues that it's hard to make anything out. The countryside is beautiful, and so is Johansson, with or without clothes. But mostly nothing happens. What does happen is a bit stale - it was a surprise to me that they went for the cliche. So they manage to surprise the viewer by being completely unoriginal.

Perhaps I'm being a little severe. The style here is something like Spirit of the Beehive - long beautiful takes, silences, unexplained occurences (or lack thereof), a subtle, barely detectable story, and some opaque but beautiful faces. But it didn't strike me the same way. My opinion - they were doing the same thing, but Beehive did it better.

Your mileage may vary of course. A lot of people like this. It is interesting enough, visually and thematically to be worth watching. But don't expect the best film of the year.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wolfe Tickets

Once again, I'm starting my review by talking about the books that are the source for the movie, or in this case, the TV series: Nero Wolfe (2001). Ms. Spenser and I are big fans of Rex Stout's detective series. If you have heard of it (but not read any), you may know that Nero Wolfe is the fattest, laziest, most stubborn and most brilliant detective in the world. What you may not know is that the heart of the series, and the narrator, is his legman, Archie Goodwin. His smart-alecky voice is the best thing about this series.

So, A&E made a few of these stories into TV shows. Maury Chaykin is fat enough and pompous enough to play Wolfe, although it took us a while to get used to his "Pfui" - one of Wolfe's distinctive catchphrases. For Archie, they got Tim Hutton, who we know from Leverage. He has Archie's flippant attitude, although I'm not sure he is as physically imposing as he needs to be. But he does get to drag a guy out of a chair by his legs, out the office and out the door - One of Archie Goodwin's signature moves.

 There are a couple of Leverage regulars in the cast:
  • Saul Rubinek (Victor Dubenic in Leverage) as newspaperman Lon Cohen
  • Kari Matchett (Ford's ex-wife) in a variety of roles
One of the cute things about the series is the repertory cast - several recurring actors in different roles. Amusingly, George Plimpton is one of these, showing up as aged bankers and law partners as required.

The set decoration is perfect. Wolfe famously never leaves his New York brownstone, which is described in painstaking detail in the books. Wolfe's office, his chair specially engineered to withstand his seventh-of-a-ton weight, the famous red client's chair, the globe, the secret listening spot, all are shown exactly as imagined. The actors portraying Wolfe's assistant's, big dumb Fred Durkin, handsome tricky Orry Cather, and deceptively nondescript Saul Panzer, are great. Bill Smitrovich as the cigar-chomping (and scenery chewing) Inspector Cramer is great too. I think we like Colin Fox, as Wolfe's Swiss chef Fritz best of all. For a man with Wolfe's appetites, a chef is a most important person, and Fox fits him perfectly.

The stories are set in a timeless era between the 30s, through WWWII and into the swinging Sixties, but the men all wore hats, suits and ties, the cars were big and rounded and the music was big band. Sometimes Archie wore his military uniform, sometimes the men's suits were day-glo and the women wore miniskirts, but it was all the same period. A&E presents that period beautifully, with a warm glow like walnut waxed and rubbed to a high sheen.

I can only recommend these to Wolfephiles, but to them, I recommend unreservedly.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Ooga Chucka!

I wish we'd seen Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) earlier in the year. Then we'd know what to ask for for Christmas.

This was a big Marvel/Disney film, but a different type - wackier. It is about an orphan boy from Eighties Earth who goes to space and becomes a galactic rogue and adventure, who just wants to be called Star Lord. While stealing a mysterious artifact, he is captured space trooper John C. Reilly and sent to prison, where he meets:
  • A vicious talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper
  • His friend, a walking tree who says, "I am Groot" (Vin Diesel!)
  • Gamora, a green warrior woman (Zoe Saldana)
  • Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a huge shirtless warrior with tattoos carved in his skin and no sense of metaphor
They team up to prevent Ronan, a Kree baddie, from using the orb to destroy galactic civilization. This involves much derring-do, cosmic voyaging, and of course, wisecracking and Seventies hit songs.

This is a great space film, with some serious "sensawunda" - planets shaped like giant heads, space battles, future cities and some of my favorite Marvel cosmic characters, the Kree and Thanos. It is also a very silly film, with the jokes and hijinks and Quillermo del Toro playing a very decadent Collector.

But it's also a very character driven film. Star Lord resembles the hero of Last Starfighter in many ways. He's an earth boy taken from his planet and all that he knows, who kicks ass in the big galaxy but misses his home. Rocket Raccoon is a bitter little muskelid, but there's a reason. And Groot, who can only say "I am Groot", is everyone's favorite. Diesel has said that playing Groot, who is kind and life-affirming, helped him cope with the death of his friend and F&F co-star Paul Walker.

This is not a perfect movie, but it may be the perfect adventure movie.

But seriously, which is your favorite "Hooked on a Feeling," the Blue Swede cover or the BJ Thomas original? Blue Swede has horns and a good beat and you can dance to it, but BJ Thomas had an electric sitar, and no Ooga Chuckas. So BJ Thomas wins.

In conclusion: you can get either of us a dancing little Groot doll for Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Sky Pilot

We watched The Last Starfighter (1984) because of a Projection Booth podcast. Great show, they actually do some research, and actually interviewed actual stars Lance Guest and Catherine Mary Stewart (who are still buddies, by the way). But the main thing, the thing we'd forgotten from whenever it was we watched it, so long ago, was Mr. Centauri, the Music Man himself, Robert Preston.

The plot is pretty simple: Lance Guest is a high school kid in a trailer park in Nowheresville CA. He's a good kid, the one that everyone depends on to fix some plumbing or cut the grass, but he doesn't want to be stuck there forever - he wants to go places. Catherine Mary Stewart is his girl, but he can't always give her the things he thinks she wants. He has one thing going for him - he beat the high score on the Starfighter video game.

But that is no ordinary video game - it's a test for real starfighters, or to put it another way, a sword in a stone. Next thing you know, Robert Preston shows up in a shiny space car and takes in away to fight the Ko-Dan armada. But what about the folks at the trailer park? Don't worry, Preston left a beta copy of Guest behind to stand in.

So, thrilling adventures in space, and goofy comic relief back on Earth with the fish-out-of-water copy, all presided over by Robert Preston. To this, add the first all-CGI special effects, rendered on a Cray "super-computer" - probably with about the computing power of a modern watch. Actually, they are charmingly primitive, like a creaky Harryhausen stop motion that is not really convincing, but full of personality. It looks like Ron Cobb (underground cartoonist and film designer) did some of the spaceship designs.

This may not be the greatest movie ever, but it's got a lot of heart, it's funny and kind of thrilling. And admit it, haven't you ever gotten lost in a video game and thought, this would be great training for ... something, like being a jet pilot or ... starfighter.

Beeing and Nothingness

I first saw The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) early in my career as an cinephile, at my college's film society. At the time, I felt it was slow and lovely, but pointless. Since we've been watching Guillermo del Toro, I've been thinking about it more and more. And finally (after sending one broken disc), Netflix has allowed me to revisit it.

It takes place in a small town of Hoyuelos, shortly after the Spanish Civil War. A travelling cinema has brought James Whale's Frankenstein to town, and everyone comes to watch it, even the kids. Two little girls run home screaming in delighted terror, but afterwards, one asks the other why the monster killed the girl. The older sister tells her that it's all fake, it's just a movie, the monster is really a spirit, and he lives in a deserted farmhouse not too far away. This is the start of the young girl's obsession with Frankenstein's monster.

Others in the house have other obsessions. The father, an older intellectual type, keeps bees, and seems to be writing about their social organization as a metaphor for... The mother, younger and beautiful, is engaged in a correspondence with ... someone. She pretends to be asleep when her husband comes to bed, although we don't know why.

What we do know is how it is filmed, in a long close-up on her face while we only hear someone in the background, and see some shadows on the wall - you only guess that she is pretending to be asleep while her husband is getting into bed. Spirit doesn't really tell you what is going on or why. This is probably why I thought it was pointless when I first saw it.

The movie is full of scenes like this, and scenes where even less happens. A long take of a street, or the Spanish plains, or one of the sisters looking at the other. I guess this is the kind of thing they were going for in Uncle Boonmee, although I found it more successful here. It really is beautiful, and very Spanish.

I wonder if del Toro took some of his themes from this movie, or if they are just part of the Spanish character. The older man with the more glamorous wife in the old mansion, the watch, the wide open empty plains, and the children.

The little girls in this are amazing, both beautiful, expressive and mysterious. It was a little strange to see them in lipstick, but I assume that was film makeup that wasn't as subtle as it was supposed to be. But so much of this movie is just gazing at these opaque little creatures, you notice things like that.

I feel like I should mention some of the subtle things the movie says about, for example, the Civil War: do the two girls represent the Loyalists and Falange? Or about the mother's secret, if it is indeed a secret from anyone but we the viewers. And what is the symbolism of the bees?

But I don't know about any of that. I just know what I saw. It's a beautiful movie, full of light and space and people. Watch it for that.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Clockwork Wasp

Guillermo del Toro's Cronos (1993) is kind of a precursor to his brother/sister films Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. It is not set in the Spanish Civil War, but there is a little girl...

Federico Luppi plays Jesus Gris, an older antique dealer in a Mexican city. His glamorous wife teaches tango, while he takes care of his young granddaughter at the shop. One day, he gets a visit from a genial thug played by Ron Perlman, and he figures out which artifact the bad guys are looking for: a clockwork insect that drives a stinger deep within his palm.

The next discovery he makes is that the sting of this machine rejuvenates him, and gives him a curious thirst for blood. It is pretty clear why the thugs want this gizmo. Perlman's father, a sick industrialist and occultist played by Claudio Brook, thinks it is the key to eternal life.

We get a number of del Toro's signature touches, like clockwork and insects, mirrors and clocks, and monsters with amazing makeup (his effects company, Necropia, provides this). The aged protagonist with a glamorous wife in a dilapidated mansion as in Devil's Backbone. But most especially, children. There are many great things about this movie, but little Tamara Shanath as the granddaughter is one of the best. She is nearly silent, often somber, but always sees clearly and lovingly.

I enjoyed this entry as much as the other two (I consider them to be a set), although Ms. Spenser could see that it was something of a first attempt (it was del Toro's first feature as director). Now that we've seen this trilogy, I think we're ready for Spirit of the Beehive.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Groundhog Troopers

If you don't recognize Edge of Tomorrow (2014) from its extremely generic title, maybe you'll recognize the tagline: Live. Die. Repeat.

If you're still a little vague, let me put it like this: It's Tom Cruise in Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day. Aliens have attacked Earth and basically occupied Europe. Earth is fighting back with Heinleinesque power armor, and getting ready for a big counter-attack. Cruise is a PR officer with political connections who doesn't intend to get anywhere near the fighting. This offends a gung-ho general who shanghais him, busts him in rank and puts him into a mobile infantry squad scheduled to hit the beach the next day.

So cowardly Tom Cruise puts on power armor he doesn't know how to use, hits the beach with a squad who hates his guts, and meets the enemy, who are these cool tumbleweed-chainsaw-cthuloids. He doesn't last long.

But after he is killed, he wakes up back at the infantry intake. Time has reset and he has to do it all again. But this time, he has a little more of a clue. He gets just as killed, of course. And resets again. Just like in Groundhog Day, he gets a little smarter each time. Eventually, he meets Emily Blunt (Looper, Adjustment Bureau) who lets him know what's going on. She is a lot more of a hardass than him, which is fun.

In conclusion, we've got hard Emily Blunt, comically lame Tom Cruise, and the power armor that should have been in Starship Troopers, plus an oddball time travel gimmick. What's not to like?

Friday, December 12, 2014

Radio Free Dick

Now, for something right out of left field: Radio Free Albemuth (2014). I know I've mentioned that I am a Philip K. Dick fan. Since Bladerunner, lots of his science fiction stories have been made into movies. But he really has three periods (not counting his attempts at straight fiction):

  • Pulps: His early output is mainly slight, sometimes goofy, sci-fi, like The Zap Gun.
  • The Good Stuff: Later, and mixed in with this are some fine literary science fiction novels like The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • Speculative Autobiography: His last 3-6 novels were just as weird or weirder than his most surreal novels, but based on real events that really happened to him - or so he thinks - like Valis or Radio Free Albemuth
Only true Dickheads are even aware of the last type. You see, for many years, Dick believed that a vast intelligent machine was beaming ideas into his head from orbit with a pink laserbeam. Ideas like, time had stopped during the late Roman Empire, and contemporary reality was an illusion. It sounds crazy, but he did suddenly start speaking colloquial Vulgate Latin, without studying.

In the novel, he attributes these experiences to a friend, Nicholas Brady. Brady is played by Jonathan Scarfe, while Dick is played by Shea Whigham. Yes, Dick is a character in his own novel, but he's really both characters, since Brady is just his alter-ego. But Whigham is basically amazing here, totally Dickish. It really makes the movie for me, to see one of my literary heroes so well portrayed.

Of course, this isn't much of a movie. There is kind of a plot, especially towards the end when Alanis Morisette (!) shows up as a folk singer with the same delusions insights as Brady. But mostly it is a lightly fictionalized record of Dick's real-life experiences. There is drama, insight, psychedelic special-effect weirdness, and none of it really seems to go anywhere, like the sweet scene where Brady secretly baptizes his son. It isn't explained and it doesn't go anywhere - but it is something Dick really did, and it means something to him.

Will it mean anything to you? Unless you've read one of Dick's later works, probably not. I can't really imagine coming into this cold, but if I had to guess, you wouldn't make it to the end (and it's under 2 hours). But if there are any brave Dick neophytes who are willing to try, please report.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

TV Bleg

Well, we've run through the first 2 seasons of Arrow and the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. We enjoyed Agents a lot. Like everyone, we really bonded with Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) - so sweet and unassuming, so cool. Even better is Agent May, Ming-Na Wen. She gets so much out of that one pissed-off expression.

 But until the new season is on Netflix, or Arrow or Flash or Dr. Who, we are without a regular TV series to watch (with our TV dinners, natch). We are looking for something with a lot of action, quirky with a sense of humor, and a certain something. We tried Warehouse 13 - it looks good on paper and it does have Saul Rubinek from Nero Wolfe (review to come) and Leverage. But it isn't hacking it. We had the same problem with Chuck, and Burn Notice jumped the shark in the third season or so.

So if anyone has any recommendations, let me know. I'll probably ignore them, because our tastes are odd and whimsical. But you never know.

Speaking of Warehouse 13, it's about a secret agency that stores dangerous and mystical artifacts (like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark). There was a series of movies (made for TV?) starring Noah Wylie called The Librarian. Well, it looks like John Rogers of Leverage is making a series based on these movies called The Librarians - and Christian Kane, also from Leverage, is in it. Not on Netflix yet, though.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Not Guilty

We'd seen The Innocents (1961) a few times before - I think the first time was when we lived in New Hampshire. We drove for about an hour to some nothing cafe or community center in a tiny town to watch it, because that's what you do in New Hampshire. You get your culture where you can.

The Innocents is certainly cultural, being based on Henry James' Turn of the Screw. A naive young woman, Deborah Kerr, is hired to be the governess for a pair of young children, alone in a secluded mansion with only the cook for adult company. Only the cook and an uneasy presence, which might be related to the previous governess, who was no longer around. Or the handsome roguish valet, likewise absent, but not undetected.

Aside from the psychological suspense and the great acting, this movie looks beautiful. I'm not familar with director Jack Clayton, but we've seen a bit of DP Freddie Francis, including The Deadly Bees. It seems he directed some pretty schlocky stuff, but was a very stylish cinematographer.

This is not a violent movie, but a pretty intense one. I'd gladly drive all over New Hampshire or even Vermont to watch it again.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Whatever a Spider Can?

I don't know why I wanted to watch The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). I didn't particularly care for the first ASM. I kind of thought Andrew Garfield looked like the old Mike Ditko Peter Parker in the first one, but now he looks more like a young Sean Penn or not-so-smarmy Seth Green - not very Parkerish, in my opinion.

Also, the focus is on Spidey-Girlfriend Gwen Stacey. Emma Stone does a great job playing her, but her part as written is to be cute, then spunky, then dead. We know she's going to get dead, that's what Gwen does. No point in getting attached.

Oh well, when you come right down to it, I'm not much of a fan of Spider-man. I realize that it was the first strip with emotional depth for the teen set (based on Stan Lee's experience with romance strips, in one telling). But I always thought he was a little too whiny when he wasn't webslinging.

BUT! In this movie, like the Raimi trilogy, the webslinging experience, swinging from skyscaper to skyscraper, diving though the steel canyons of New York, swooping into intersections to save somebody from a runaway truck, that's pretty sweet. This movie totally gets it, including Spidey's wise-ass cracks. That part is a joy to watch. Now I want to re-watch the Raimi movies to see how he handles it.

Which is weird, because I don't even like Spider-man.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Growing a Backbone

When he found out how much we liked Pan's Labyrinth, our friend Curt suggested we watch its brother-film, Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (2001). It is another horror story set in the Spanish Civil War, but the orphan in this story is a young boy.

He is delivered to an isolated orphanage by Republican fighters who don't even tell him his father is dead. He doesn't seem too thrilled to be there, but is fascinated by the unexploded bomb in the middle of the orphanage courtyard. That's not the only unexploded ordinance around either. Soon, he is confronted by a vision of a drowned boy that no one will talk about.

Conditions in the orphanage are rough, with barely enough food to go around, and no way to buy more. It's run by a noble old scholar and his bitter, one-legged wife, with the aid of a dangerously handsome young man. The war, which the Republicans are losing, is on all of their minds. But the children are more concerned about each other and the ghost.

Once again, we find a child confronted by great evils - a world of ghosts and spirits, and the greater evils of the war. The movie has many moods, but mostly spread between quiet and noisy terror. The ghost story is very satisfying, but there are no happy endings.

Both of these stories reminded me of the desperation and surrealism of the Spanish New Wave cinema - in particular, Spirit of the Beehive. We got that from Netflix as well, but the disc was shattered on arrival. Hope to have that review for you soon.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Graved Invitation

I know Halloween's over, but Ms. Spenser wants to keep watching scary movies. It turned out she hasn't seen The Uninvited (1944), so here we go.

Ray Milland and his sister Ruth Hussey are bumming around the Cornwall coast and find a deserted old manor. They fall in love with it when their terrier chases a squirrel up the chimney. They impulsively buy it for a suspiciously low price, and find out that a woman had died there. Her daughter Stella (Gail Russell) has a strange attachment to the place. And that's not the only strange thing going on.

This is a very atmospheric ghost story, but a rather romantic one. There are some frights, but they are mostly cozy frights. The scariest room of the house is the studio, which Milland makes into his music studio. There, he composes Stella by Starlight, the theme made popular by this movie. So he couldn't have been too uncomfortable there.

In fact, Milland does a lot of clowning around in this film, considering it is a ghost story. Gail Russell is a bit haunted, or at least a touch neurotic, but she's so lovely, it's hard to be scared. The scariest thing in the movie is Cornelia Otis Skinner, playing the fierce woman who may have been a little too close to the dead woman. She now runs a sanatorium, a cathedral-like pile, where young Stella is to be locked up for her own good.

Mostly this is a romantic movie - it reminded me of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that way. I think it will cause more sighs than chills.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Water, Eyes and Mirrors

Ms. Spenser had never seen Minority Report (2002), but she had listened to the epic Filmsack podcast. So I queued it up.

Minority report is Steven Spielberg's take on a Philip K. Dick story. In the future, murder has been eliminated in Washington D.C. The Pre-Crime Unit arrests anyone who is going to commit murder in the future. Tom Cruise is a top pre-crime cop with a troubled past. His son was abducted and murdered before pre-crime was a thing. So he is very big behind this program - until the precogs forsee that he himself will commit a murder in a few days.

Of course, he runs. As the cop in the movie says, "They always run." That gives us a good action movie with Tom Cruise jumping from futuristic car to futuristic car, etc. It also shows him trying to blend into the crowd in a world of pervasive surveillance and advertising that recognizes you personally by your eyeball iris pattern. And yet, he has no problem getting away. I guess people hadn't really taken the whole surveillance state concept on board in 2002.

A couple of things:
  • This is a great looking movie. Aside from all the future tech (this movie probably popularized the idea of a gesture computer interface), there are some great visuals; scenes drenched in light with the highlights blown out in halos around Cruise. Reminded me a little bit of Kubrick, also reminded me that director Spielberg is a hell of a director.
  • I had forgotten how goofy this movie could be - there are several scenes of pure slapstick, and in some pretty weird places. I wonder if this was meant to be a Phildickian touch: He could be pretty silly.
  • The Filmsack podcast sort of focused on the question of the symbolism of water in this movie: Was it intentional, did it have a pay-off, was it even there? All I can say is, yes, water, mirrors and eyeballs, all repeated motifs. I can't say if the symbols pay off, but, as mentioned above, it looks great.
Note that I still don't think much of Tom Cruise as an actor. He must be really fun to work with or something, because he keeps getting great roles. But he gets some great backup here, like Colin Farrell (Total Recall reboot) as the fed investigating the Pre-Crime Division to see if it should be expanded nationally. Or Max von Sydow as the professorial head of Pre-Crime or Lois Smith as the woman who developed the process and now plays with mutant plant life. Samantha Morton's precog pulled into the world of now ("Is it now?") really sells it, too. She doesn't depend on seeing the future to get them out of too many jams, but when she does, it is very Dick, like, say, Paycheck

There's a lot of Dick in this movie, unlike, say, Bladerunner, or either Total Recall. Cruise is a bit of a druggie due to the loss of his son, and estranged from his wife - both common Dick themes. The whole predestination question is treated respectfully, so the philosophical theme is more or less left intact, even if Dick let it play out differently in the source story.

But I wouldn't recommend it because it is authentic Phil Dick. I recommend it because it's a good looking spectacle action film, with a creamy Philip K. Dick center. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Cowboys and Dinosaurs

I can't believe I hadn't seen The Valley of Gwangi (1969) until now. My only excuse is that it was hard to get hold of for a while, at least on Netflix. Since it is still scary movie season, I though it would be a good creature feature.

It starts with a little Mexican Wild West circus. When cowboy James Franciscus meets up with the circus, their star act is a tiny eohippus - a living prehistoric proto-horse. The local gypsies (sure, gypsies in Mexico, why not) know that the Forbidden Valley holds many such creatures, but, you know, forbidden. Still, Franciscus and a proto-family including fiery circus owner Gila Golan and little Mexican orphan Curtis Arden form a posse to go in and bring out some cool monsters.

And boy do they find monsters! This is the beauty part: Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animated a bunch of cool dinosaurs, and pitted them against each other, against cowboys and even a T-Rex v. elephant fight in a bullring. These are not only as cool as Harryhausen's usual, but the addition of cowboys somehow makes it iconic. I never realized that cowboys and dinosaurs had to go together, but it's obvious now. I now understand some of the images I've seen in underground comix come from.

In conclusion, did anyone else notice anything ... interesting ... about the slit in the rocks that takes you to the Forbidden Valley? Yeah, us too. The way they forced them selves through was a little disturbing.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Her Hair was Perfect

I don't know why I queued up She-Wolf of London (1946). I guess it was Halloween horror season and I was in the mood for an old black-and-white. Roderick Heath of This Island Rod had given it a pretty positive review, but -SPOILER- he spoilered the heck out of it. Worse, I assumed we'd never watch it, and spoilered it for Ms. Spenser. Oh well, it was still kind of fun.

It is set in an old dark house in London next to Hyde Park (I guess - these studio park sets look all alike to me). June Lockhart (yay!) is the sole heir to the Allenby estate, and the curse - the curse of the werewolf! She is getting a bit worried, what with the savage murders taking place nearby, the blood on her hands when she wakes up, and so on. Her harridan guardian, the guardian's beautiful daughter and the creepy housekeeper are all trying to keep her out of trouble. Or are they?!?

But I can say no more. Read Rod if you want spoilers.

This is a late Universal horror, with a lot of atmosphere and no budget. Also, not much horror, unless you think about some of the murders. About on par with some of the lesser Sherlock Holmes movies, or maybe a Charlie Chan. Which I like too.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hammer On

As I mentioned, I have not watched any Hammer Horror films (or Amicus, for that matter). I'm not sure Dracula A.D. 1972 (made in 1972, of course) was the best way to start.

After a brief, revisionist death of Dracula at the hands of van Helsing scene, the movie takes place in the "present" - 1972, swinging London. A bunch of hippie freaks are hanging around the rock band Stoneground, who are actually pretty good. This is a bit of a digression, because they don't show up after the first party scene, but I kind of liked them.

Any way, one of these freaks, Johnny Alucard, played by Malcolm McDowell-lite Christopher Neame, decides to hold a black mass to raise Dracula from the dead. With the help of some heavy psychedelic rock and Caroline Munro's naked body, he succeeds.

So, Christopher Lee walks again - but he doesn't really get much screen time. He turns a few of the freaks, and they do the terrorizing. One of the the freaks, Stephanie Beacham, is the grand-daughter of the present day van Helsing, Peter Cushing, so he gets involved.

And a good thing too. Cushing is the best thing in this show. Lee's Dracula has a nicely cold, monstrous style, but isn't really to compelling. Also, not a lot of screen time (and such small portions!). So it really comes down to how much you like watching movies about scumbag hippie freaks.

In conclusion, I guess I liked it. Needed more Stoneground, though.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Black and White

In my search for a scary movie for Ms. Spenser, I queued up The Woman in Black (2012). I knew very little about it, other than it was a the first new Hammer Horror film since forever, and it was Daniel Radcliffe's first big post-Harry Potter role.

It was also the first film I picked that really scared Ms. S.

Radcliffe plays a solicitor with a young son, a dead wife and many unpaid bills. We first meet him holding a razor to his throat. I was never sure about how good an actor he was when he was playing a young wizard, but the look in his eyes as he gazes into the mirror in this scene really says something.

His job requires him to go to a village to settle a will by selling an old creepy mansion. His boss lets him know that if he can't close this deal, he is out of a job - a bit of a callback to Drag Me to Hell. The villagers are not friendly, but they have an excuse: The village children keep killing themselves in rather horrible ways.

The film combines slow, gripping horror and jump scares with more subtle tingles, like ghosts seen over a character's shoulder that disappear in the next shot. The atmosphere is wonderfully dismal. There are white-out fogs on the marsh, lonesome graveyards, horsemen out in the mist, old letters with horrible secrets, and of course, a woman in black - and even one in white.

Since we haven't seen any - any - of the old Hammer Horrors, we can't say how this fits into the oeuvre, but it certainly hit the spot for us. Truly chilling.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Horror Weekend

Ms. Spenser likes a good scary movie much more than me. She wanted me to get serious with the scaries for the Halloween season. So I got a grip on myself, screwed my courage to the sticking point, and started queuing.

After watching Joe Dante's late career horror film, I remembered that Sam Raimi had done the same thing: Drag Me to Hell (2009). I wasn't sure how scary it was, but had heard something bad happens to a kitten - that makes it pretty bad in my book.

Alison Lohman plays a farm girl who has moved to LA to make a new life. She is working on her hick accident, she has a rich, smart boyfriend (Justin Long) and she is trying to get ahead at the bank she works at. She is trying to get a promotion and has to prove she is tough, so she turns down a mortgage extension for an old gypsy woman. That bad move earns her a curse.

It starts with a few flies and some creepy non-diegetic noises. She starts to lose it at work and with Justin Long's snooty parents. She looks to storefront psychic Dileep Rao for help, but he's a bit out of his depth.

Now, this movie is pretty scary - the old gypsy, with her clouded eye and snaggled, removable teeth is horrifying. But kind of funny too, like when she gets her teeth knocked out and tries to gum Lohman's face off. You know, a Sam Raimi movie. The only thing missing is a Bruce Campbell cameo. So I survived pretty well, but:
  • I was kind of hoping Justin Long would get done in
  • I'm still upset about the kitten
The next night was a bit more serious: Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006). I've been hearing about this for a while, and, although I was nervous, I still wanted to see it. Set around the end of the Spanish Civil War, it stars Ivana Baquero as a dreamy little girl who loves fairy stories. Her father was killed in the war and her mother is pregnant by a Falangist captain. The captain has summoned them to his headquarters in an old mill. In an ancient labyrinth by the mill, Baquero meets a nature spirit, a faun, who explains that she is a fairy princess and must complete three tasks to regain her kingdom.

The story mixes the horrors of war and the horror of ancient myths. Del Toro is equally at home with both. His monsters and fairies are scary, his soldiers and rebels more so. The movie is full of little tricks, symbols and mirrors: gears, labyrinths, keys, feasts and so on. It also had a number of odd references back to Drag Me to Hell, like insects, cloudy eyes and coats in a particular shade of blue. Coincidence, I am sure.

For Sunday, we wanted to go a little more sophisticated, so we picked the Thai ghost story, Uncle Boonmee Who Recalls Past Lives (2010). A woman and her son visit his uncle in the Thai countryside. His kidney is failing and the spirit world is coming closer to him. The ghost of his dead wife drops by for dinner, and no one seems too shocked (although Uncle Boonme is embarrassed because she is still young and he has aged). His son drops in as well, but he has become a ghost monkey, a yeti-like creature with glowing red eyes. And so on.

This is presented in long, slow, uneventful takes. The camera lingers on an empty room, or an ox, or a few people sitting quietly - lingers for a long time. This can be beautiful and meditative, and it is also annoying and self-indulgent. There is some humor, some wonder, some beauty, also a bit of boredom. Not scary at all.

So, one horror-comedy, one horror-fairy tale, and one unscary art house film. I need to try harder before Halloween.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

As the Worm Turns

The Lair of the White Worm (1998) might have been pretty terrifying if it wasn't so silly. Possibly silly isn't the right word - I believe that Ken Russell's work must always be referred to as "outrageous"

Let's see if I have the story straight: archaeologist Peter Capaldi, digging in the scenic English village of D'Ampton where he discovers the strange skull of a giant reptile - but not prehistoric: He finds it along with Roman artifacts. At a party thrown by Lord D'Ampton (Hugh Grant), he gets the story of the local monster, the D'Ampton Worm, via a catchy folk rock tune. But most importantly, he meets slinky Amanda Donohoe, local playgirl, who teaches him to play strip Snakes-and-Ladders.

There's no doubt about it: The Donohoe dame is up to no good. But can Capaldi and Grant stop her? And will her weapons involve hallucinatory visions of nuns being raped by centurions while Christ looks down from the cross? Will Capaldi fight back in kilts? Come on, it's a Ken Russell film. What do you think?

I went in thinking this would be lurid and disturbing. Lurid, yes, but really more of a horror comedy than horror. And a lot of fun as that.

And I just realized the Peter Capaldi is now the twelfth Doctor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Thing About the Thing

The thing about The Thing (2011) isn't that it has the same title as John Carpenter's The Thing (1982). It isn't that it is a prequel. It's that it is so faithful to the it.

This is kind of a spoiler, but I guess everyone knows already: Remember how Carpenter's movie starts, with the Norwegians in the helicopter shooting at a dog? That's how this movie ends. It shows how the Norwegians and a few Americans like biologist Mary Elizabeth Winstead find the alien, how it kills everyone, and I think I'll stop spoilering now.

It all looks just like Carpenter had made it, with his lovely mix of cinematic beauty and low-budget cheesiness. There are interesting, realistic characters that you care about, shocks and gross-outs and a touch of cosmic wonder (and terror, of course).

If it were a stand-alone, it would be a great movie. As a companion piece to Carpenter's movie, it's extraordinary.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

For the Birds

After watching The Fog, we felt like we should revisit The Birds (1963). After all, they are both set on the coast north of San Francisco, and it is October, the month of scares, climaxing on All Hallow's Eve. (Due to the long lead time of this blog, Halloween will definitely be over before I finish blogging all the scary movies we're watching).

Of course, what is there to say about Hitchcock's The Birds that hasn't already been said? It's an odd movie - a rather whimsical romantic melodrama interrupted by a surrealistic horror. That horror, attacking birds, is a little hard to grasp - are birds really that deadly, even in flocks? It seems that you'd have to work pretty hard to be killed by them. Only Hitchcock's skill can keep you in suspense.

One thing I had forgotten is that Tippi Hedren, the madcap heiress who seems to bring doom to Bodega Bay, is a practical joker. She came to play a trick on Rod Taylor, a stranger she met briefly in a Union Square pet shop. That might explain the bird attacks - a supernatural practical joke that nature is playing on the joker.

Actually, I was kind of interested in the melodrama. I liked Suzanne Pleshette's seduced and abandoned schoolteacher, and the little family dynamic of Taylor's mother and much younger sister. I wonder if it could be remade without the birds, but with the same sense of senseless foreboding.

Only by a master like Hitchcock, I suppose.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sorry for the Seventies

S*P*Y*S (1974) seemed like a sure thing: a spy spoof starring Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as spies (of course) in Paris. It's directed by Irwin Kershner, who did a couple of good things, including the George C. Scott/Michael Sarrazin Flim-Flam Man. But it just never took off.

Sutherland is the by-the-book spy, and Gould is the rebel (or maybe it's the other way around). Their agency may be trying to kill them, or it may just be a misunderstanding. By the end of the movie, the agency is definitely trying to kill them, but they have joined up with some anarchist bombers. After all, the spies need their sources, and the head anarchist is free-loving Zou Zou (Chloe from Chloe in the Afternoon).

This film is pretty brutal for a comedy, and also not that funny. It depends on the charm of Sutherland and Gould, and that wears a bit thin.

Murder by Decree (1979) shows similar promise: Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Watson, after Jack the Ripper, with an assist by psychic Donald Sutherland. It was a lavish production with fine production values, and some nice moments. Plummer is a more human Holmes, outraged by the evil he finds in low and high places. Mason is not a dummy as Watson, although he has a silly scene or two. Sutherland's outrageous facial hair is worth a mention, but his role is entirely superfluous, and could have been cut out entirely. Genevieve Bujold shows up at the end and does a fine mad scene, which is also superfluous. The same is true for a lot of this rather ponderous, slow-moving action film.

I liked the end, even if it seemed tacked on, because it was full of Masonic flummery, of which I am fond. I had no problem with the all-star cast. Many of the scenes were quite memorable. But it went on too long and didn't really hold together.

I don't want to cast aspersions, but director Bob Clark went on to make Porky's. That tells you something.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beginning of the Ender

I was a loyal reader of Analog Science Fiction & Fact magazine for many years, starting with my father's collection from the late 50s until I just stopped keeping up in the 90s. So of course I read the original short story that inspired the novel that inspired the movie Ender's Game (2013). I mainly remember the immersive descriptions of zero-grav personal combat tactics, and a very cool black and white illustration of the Battle Room.

Since then, I've read a few of the Ender's series novels, as well as some other Orson Scott Card books. I've followed his controversial politics, with some sorrow, but not much surprise (Short version: He's a Mormon, he doesn't like gay folk. I know, imagine that). I sort of lost interest in his books before I had a chance to start boycotting him. But I always had soft spot for Ender's Game.

It is set in a future in which Earth has been attacked by aliens, and barely driven them off. We are now training a group of child soldiers to take the battle to the aliens. Little Asa Butterfield (Hugo) is Ender Wiggin, who excels at zero-g Battle Room exercises. He is also a bit of an outcast, bullied by his brother and the upperclassmen at Space School, although his sister and one of the girls at school defend him. Colonel Harrison Ford thinks a lot of him, but doesn't really make much of an impression (on my, anyway). Ben Kingsley, however, with Maori facial tattoos and a nifty N-Zed accent, is maybe my favorite part.

I'm not sure that the movie gets the idea of Ender across - he's both brilliant and damaged, bullied and vicious, wimpy and strong. The movie doesn't seem to communicate these nuances, so we see him let his brother beat him up, but aren't shown how this toughens him, teaches him to confront a wily and sadistic opponent. Instead, it feels to me like they are just loading on the emo. And maybe they are. The trimmed down plot seems nakedly aimed at the nerdy kids who dream that their skills at video games means might one day make them planetary saviors.

Or is that the plot of The Last Starfighter?

All in all, it wasn't bad, wasn't great, well-made but a bit shallow. I did like the special effects, but the Battle Room battles were not that impressive. Since those were my favorite parts of the original story, I guess I was pretty disappointed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Phantom of the Mummy

It's pretty obvious why Netflix suggested Belphegor: Phantom of the Louvre (2001): We had watched Adele Blanc-Sec, another French adventure flick with a strong female lead and a touch of steampunk.

Belphegor stars Sophie Marceau as a a girl who lives across the street from the Louvre, in an apartment to die for. She gets mixed up with a mummy/demon (bad) and a cute underemployed Arab (?) boy, Frederic Diefenthal (good). They follow her cat through the basement and into the Louvre after hours, because of course you can.

It seems that this is the first movie to allow filming in the Louvre, which makes for a few nice scenes. Of course, they remind me of another bunch of young people sneaking through the Louvre - in Godard's Bande a Part.

The scene with Marceau coming down the stairs by the Winged Victory in  long flowing robe, on the other hand, reminded me of Funny Face. Not always a good thing, in the midst of a movie to be reminded of a better movie.

Still, this isn't bad at all - not great, not exactly thrilling, but well made and pleasant to look at. Like Sophie Marceau - what a dish.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Fast and Dumb

I want to blame This Island Rod for making us watch Need for Speed (2014), but let's face it, we would have watched anyway. We're suckers for this stuff.

Let's see if I can recount the setup: Two street racers grow up in a small Michigan town. One gets rich, the other gets caught. Aaron Paul, the one who does jail time, wants revenge on nemesis Dominic Cooper when he gets out. The plan is to take the hottest Shelby ever designed and enter it in an underground race in California. So first they have to get the band back together, then cross the country, then win the race. Clear?

The only two things to care about are: the racing, and the stuff between the racing. The racing was fun - mostly practical effects that look like CGI, not CGI. That's better, I suppose. I thought the Shelby looked pretty hokey, but I'm a Chevy/GM guy. There was a yellow GTO in one of the first races that I liked a lot, but got shut down fast. Most of the cars are modern Eurotrash.

The stuff in between the races is pretty forgettable. There's a romantic triangle between the two ex-friends, I guess, but it's pretty by the books. Imogen Poots plays a posh dolly who right-seats for Paul, and has to prove her racing cred.

But the best part is Rami Malek, who quits his day job in the funnest way possible - takes all his clothes off in the office and kisses his office crush. He knows he can't go back to that job.

The big race takes place in Mendocino, ending the Mendocino lighthouse (or stand-in). Nice scenery, and a good follow-up to our viewing of The Fog (and The Birds) for California North Coast fun.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Hazy Shade of Winter

I used to be a "classic" movie purist - nothing more recent than ca. 1956. One of the things that changed my tune was the rise of the comic book movie.

My comics period ranged from the time of the 10-cent cover price (2 nickel Coke bottle deposits), through the long years of the 12-cent cover (2 Coke bottles and 2 pennies), through the psychedelic 70s of Adam Warlock, Conan, and Doctor Strange. I guess what I'm saying is, I was not a fan during Captain America's biggest era, although I was a big Nick Fury fan. At least, I never associated Cap with paranoia and government subversion.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is all about paranoia. While Cap (Chris Evans) is trying to come to terms with modern America, Nick Fury comes under suspicion and dies after an attack. Soon, even Captain America is an outlaw on the run. He is up against Hydra, the Winter Soldier and Batroc the Leaper, but he has friend - not just Black Widow, but (very cool) the Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

The Winter Soldier is the main villain, a kind of negative Captain America. His secret identity is probably not going to be a surprise to many, and no, it isn't John Kerry. But I was more into the seriously underused Batroc, one of my favorite Kirby villains. I don't know why, I guess I have a weakness for La Savate - "The French they are a funny race, they fight with their feet."

I'd have to say this was a great entry into the Marvel Movie Universe. I'd rank it up there with the best of the X-Men movies. Still, I just don't have the same connection to Cap as I do to some other heroes. With all its faults, I still like the FF movies more - although I'll admit, Chris Evans is a better Steve Rogers than Johnny Storm.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

G.I. Gremlins

Carrying on with our perusal of the Joe Dante oeuvre: Small Soldiers (1998), prompted by an old Filmsack podcast.

The movie starts with a pair of toy scientists in pitching a new toy to their corporate overlord, Denis Leary. Leary wants them to make the soldier and alien action figures to be more violent and actiony, so they put military defective AI chips in them. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Meanwhile, in an idyllic little town, Dick Miller lets a kid have a shipment of these toys for his parent's  idyllic little educational toy store. The kid, Gregory Smith is a nice responsible 14-year old, with a history of burning things down. His dream girl Kirsten Dunst shows up and wants to buy one of the toys for her little brother. Then, the toys come alive and begin their rampage.

This has all the hallmarks of a Joe Dante film - the comic horror, the kids just turning adolescent and their problems with their parents, and of course, Dick Miller. In fact, this movie is pretty much Gremlins with toys (maybe a touch of the corporate tweaking of Gremlins II). And, you know, I liked it, maybe better than Gremlins. I thought it was funnier, and had just the right touch of social commentary - like educational toys that nobody likes. The voice work for the action figures is great too. And here's a big spoiler:

The soldiers were voiced by the cast of the original Dirty Dozen. The aliens by Spinal Tap.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The End of the West

After seeing the Dobie Gillis High Noon parody, we felt we needed to re-watch the original to see if it was like we remembered.

You remember High Noon (1952) of course. Sheriff Gary Cooper is getting married to Quaker Grace Kelly and retiring from law enforcement. All of a sudden, word comes that his sworn enemy will arrive by the noon train. Fortunately, Cooper has resigned already, so he and his bride ride out of town, out of danger, and the movie is over! No, wait, they turn around for some reason and head back to face trouble. This trouble comes in many forms: the bad guys, Cooper's deputy Lloyd Bridges, Cooper's Mexican prostitute ex-girlfriend (Katy Jurado, in a great role), and mostly, Grace Kelly's nagging.

So, the movie had a great theme song ("Do Not Forget Me, O My Darling"), some fine and influential cinematography, Lee Van Cleef's first role, and a deep philosophical basis. The moral of the story seems to be "Quakers are jerks." Boy, is Grace Kelly annoying.

We figured we'd continue in that vein, and revisit Shane (1953) (actually, my first time). Gunfighter and drifter Alan Ladd drops by the homestead of Van Heflin, Jean Arthur and their annoying child and stays to protect them from the big cattleman trying to run the farmers out of the valley.

Van Heflin plays more or less the same hard-working, hard-luck character as in 3:10 to Yuma. He is proud of his little homestead and his little wife. It's pretty obvious that she and Alan Ladd are meant to be attracted, but I didn't really see sparks.

The bad guys bait one of the farmers into drawing and cut him down - Elisha Cook, Jr. as a blowhard ex-Confederate. Now Heflin wants to take a stand - but will Ladd let him?

The moral here is that the kid is annoying.

Both movies were really well made, well written and beautifully shot. But maybe we just weren't in the mood.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Extraordinary League of Gentlemen

As you know, I like cozy little English comedies. The League of Gentlemen (1960) was so much more.

The setup is brilliant: A retired Colonel, Jack Hawkins, reads a crime novel and decides that he could pull off the caper. He gathers together a band of seven other veterans, all in disgrace and/or need of money. Then, with military precision, they carry it out.

Since this is a comedy - sort of - you can't expect it to go off without a hitch. But this isn't so much a comedy of errors as a comedy of manners. There isn't a lot of time spent on each of the veterans, but they all have their little foibles. One is a free and easy gambler, also broke. One is a vicar with a line of religious tracts and smutty books. More than one was cashiered for sexual improprieties - there's a bit more gayness in this movie than you might expect. One calls everyone "old darling", a habit he picked up in prison. And Oliver Reed shows up in a cameo as a swishy chorus boy.

Now, this isn't a laugh riot, but it moves right along, even at 2 hours running time. The cast includes a lot of classic British actors of the day, including the recently deceased Richard Attenborough. I didn't really recognize anyone myself (except perhaps Richard Coote, who I misidentified as Naunton Wayne), but quality will tell.

We enjoyed this so much, we're going to look for more by director Basil Dearden.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Onward, Through the Fog

To make a short story long, I'd like to mention a podcast I've started listening to, The Projection Booth. Curt from Mountain View recommended it, because the hosts know what they are talking about, unlike so many other film podcasts. Of course, they favor trashy B-movies, which may or may not be what I'm in the mood for. They have a sponsor promo that goes, "Ahoy maties, this is KAB Antonio Bay... Stevie Wayne here...I still haven't heard from that weatherman..." And even though I've never seen The Fog (1980), I've heard enough about it to know where that is from.

John Carpenter's The Fog starts with old timer John Housman and a bunch of kids sitting around a beach campfire late at night. He is telling them a ghost story, the story of the town of Antonio Bay, where they are celebrating their centennial. One hundred years ago, a ship lost in the fog spotted a campfire on the beach (just like the one the kids are gathered around) and ran aground. And there hasn't been a fog like that ever since.

We meet a few more Antonio Bayites: Tom Atkins who picks up hitchhiker Jamie Lee Curtis. The crew of a fishing boat out for a drinking party. Uptight politician Janet Leigh (JLC's mom!). Drunken priest Hal Holbrook, who finds a sinister hundred year old document. And commenting on it all over the airwaves, nightbird DJ Stevie Wayne, played by John Carpenter's then-wife Adrienne Barbeau.

A few notes:

  • This isn't really all that scary. There's some good tension, and few shocks, some screams from the scream queens, but nothing to insult my sensitive nature.
  • Also, there was a lot of Carpenter's humor, which I like.
  • It was pretty cheaply made, but looks great due largely to the beautiful locations around Inverness and Point Reyes CA - not far from where The Birds was made.
But the main reason I liked this is for Stevie Wayne, the DJ. She has a great late-night DJ voice, smooth, dark and sultry, as she introduces smooth jazz or reports on the strange fog bank. I think I've mentioned how much I enjoy having a DJ in a movie to act as Greek chorus, like in Cleavon Little in Vanishing Point or Shari Belafonte-Harper in Being from Another Planet (MST3K reference). Which we watched right after The Fog.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Curses, Foiled Again

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box (2014) looked like a fun, light-weight boys-own adventure - heck, it's almost in the title. And it came through.

The story is set in a late Victorian steampunk era. A pair of Oxford antiquities professors, the Mundys (Ioan Griffud and Keeley Hawes) and their sons Mariah (?) and little Felix run into adventurer Will Charity (Michael Sheen), who brings news of a map, then disappears. When their parents disappear, the boys go on the lam. Felix is captured, leaving Mariah and Will to find him, the parents and the mysterious McGuffin, the Midas Box.

First of all, Mariah is played by Aneurin Barnard, a rather odd looking young man, with dark, brooding eyes, like something out of Gormenghast or The Sorrows of Young Werther. Or Morrisey played by Elijah Wood. He adds the Goth to the steampunk. Then there's Michael Sheen, who camps around as a kind of Arnold Rimmer as Dr. Who (David Tennant version). We also get Sam Neill as the evil Otto Luger and Lena Headley as the bitchy hotelier, Monica. All played with gusto, in great period clothing. Sheen, in particular, is a bit of a bohemian fop, with high collars, top hats and a jaunty corncob pipe. But Barnard gets to dress up when he goes to work as a hotel page.

About half the story takes place in an island hotel and spa, very steampunk, with lots of glass, elevators cages, cast iron balconies, etc. Very Grand Hotel Budapest. The whole movie was clearly made possible by inexpensive CGI, but we liked the look.

Now, the story was pretty silly. People appeared and disappeared as needed. Mysteries that vast conspiracies couldn't solve are figured out by a smart teen in an instant. There could have been more steampunk, more magic, more action or even more romance (Barnard has a love interest in freckled Mella Carron). But if you aren't expecting much, you might get it.

In conclusion, the McGuffin is OBVIOUSLY a sampo!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Abandon All Hope

Since we were on a Joe Dante kick, we decided to watch The Hole (2009), his most recent feature. Since this is a horror film, I was nervous, but Ms. Spenser was psyched. As usual, I didn't have to worry.

It starts with two boys and their single mother moving into a new place. The older boy is a sullen withdrawn teen, the younger a cute grade-schooler who is afraid of clowns. The place seems nice, and a cute girl lives next door, but it seems there's this trapdoor in the basement. When they unlock the many padlocks and remove the stout beams holding it closed, they find... a hole.

The hole seems to have no bottom, and no features. But soon, strange things start appearing, and they are coming from the hole. The first is more silly than scary, 1980s TV horror show silly. The next is worse, and the final scare is "shit just got real" scary.

But --SPOILER!-- it all works out pretty much ok. So I'd say this movie is scary enough, but not nightmares for months scary. Just about the way I like it, It's got a bit of Joe Dante's humor, a Dick Miller cameo, and some interesting digital effects (it was made for 3D). It also handles the youths really well, which I guess is a bit of a Dante specialty, based on Matinee.

It seems that Joe Dante hasn't really made that many features. We're on our way to seeing them all.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Where Eagles Plummet

One of my first blog posts proposed a film festival of all those WWII films with lots of mountain climbing. I finally got around to the second (and last?) film in that series: Where Eagles Dare (1968). It stars Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood as leaders of a group of commandos infiltrating an impregnable Nazi castle.

It starts real slow, with the team parachuting into the Bavarian Alps, with just a hint that something else is going on behind the mission. For one thing, Burton seems to have brought along a spare sex kitten (Mary Ure) that no one else knows about. For another, team members start dying and Burton is awfully cagey about it.

The mission is to get into a castle and recover a captured general before he can reveal the secret plans. The castle is on a hill, surrounded by a wall, approachable only by cable car. So, quite a bit of commando work - riding the top of the cable car (as if you couldn't guess), climbing walls with ropes (holy Batman re-runs!), skulking along roofs, etc. I loved this kind of stuff when I was a kid, but since I saw it for the first time now as an adult, I enjoyed it while being annoyed at the unlikely parts.

Things start to pick up in two ways: the plot starts to twist and the body start piling up. There is a lot of combat from hand-to-hand to machine gun melee to dynamite bombs. Eastwood kills a remarkable number of Nazis, and none of the good guys get more than a scratch. Plus, double-, triple-, who-knows-how-many-crosses. Alistair MacLean can really write the hell out of this kind of thing - like Guns of Navarone.

So, starts off slow, picks up after a while, but it's still 2-1/2 hours long. Wish I'd seen it when I was a kid and could appreciate it.

In conclusion, lots of people falling to their death in this movie. Where eagles dare, indeed.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Grand Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is not really a Grand Hotel story - the intertwining stories of the strangers who come together in a busy place. It is the story of an author, who meets a rich old man, who tells him the story of M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), concierge of the titular hotel.

The hotel is located in a mythical Eastern European country, in a mythical time between the wars. M. Gustav keeps it running smoothly, taking a special interest in dear old ladies. He takes a lobby boy under his wing, a young stateless orphan called Zero, played by Tony Revolori. Their orderly world is disrupted by geopolitics, as armies and unrest sweep through the region. Gustav takes it all in stride, even going to prison with elan - having his favorite cakes delivered from the best bakery. Of course, the baker's girl is Zero's betrothed, the lovely Saoirse Ronan with a birthmark in the shape of Mexico on her face.

Many more strange and wonderful things occur, there is humor and pathos, plus flashbacks-within-flashbacks 3 or 4 levels deep. But like so many Wes Anderson movies, it is mostly about its oddball characters, in this case M. Gustave, and about beautiful sets designs, like the Grand Budapest, seen in its glory days, and post-Soviet dilapidation. Between M. Gustave and his hotel, we may dream of a sweet lost age of sophistication and culture. A time, a character admits, that may never have existed.

As usual with Wes Anderson, there is really too much here to get into, but if you like his movies, you'll be sure to like this one. If you don't, you probably won't - might be a little precious and artificial for some. If you haven't seen any, this is a good place to start.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Man or Ant-man?

We finally got around to watching Joe Dante's tribute to B-grade horror movies, Matinee (1993). And by got around to, I mean Netflix finally sent us the movie, after it sat at the top of our list with status "Very Long Wait" for a very long time. Very annoying and makes it hard to orchestrate the optimum weekend viewing experience. But I'm not complaining.

Matinee takes place in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Simon Fenton plays a young navy brat (13? 14?), whose father has shipped out to blockage Cuba. Fenton doesn't really fit in on the base or with the townies, and he's at just the age when he needs to. His main passion is monster movies, which he scares his little brother with. And the most amazing movie is coming to town: director Lawrence Woolsey's (John Goodman) Mant!

Goodman's character is a larger than life B-movie director, something like William Castle. He drives around in a big Caddie with a beautiful starlet, smoking a huge cigar and wires gimmicks under the theater seats to make people jump. So the movie is a collision between B-movies, kids coming of age, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

The kids' side of the story is great. Fenton makes a friend, a townie boy who wants to date a student council type good girl, who has a bad boy ex-boyfriend named Harvey Starkweather (any relation to Charles?). Meanwhile, Fenton meets a sad commie girl with long straight hair and liberal parents, who refuses to "duck and cover" when the air raid drill sounds. She was my favorite - she reminded me of the girls I wanted to hang out with.

So, good coming of age movie, good turn by John Goodman as a low-budget movie magnate. BUT! The scenes from the movie-within-the-movie, Mant, are awesome! I think everyone who has enjoyed Matinee says the same thing - "But I really wanted to see Mant." It's the usual dental X-rays causes a man to transform into a giant ant movie, a touch of The Amazing Colossal Man, a little bit of The Fly, and a big dash of The Beginning of the End, the Peter Graves giant grasshopper movie.

One of the scenes shows General Ankrum (Morris Ankrum plays the general in Beginning of the End) explaining the plan in front of a map of Chicago, and watching an ant climbing up the side of a picture of a building as a special effect - pure Beginning of the End. But please! Don't tell your friends about the astonishing ending of MANT!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Did You Know That School of Rock Even had a Film Course?

Film Quiz time! This time it is hosted by Jack Black Prof. Dewey Finn of the School of Rock at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. To respect the honor code, I have to say that I used Ms. Spenser for a lot of these, not always credited.

1) Band without their own movie, from any era, you’d most like to see get the HARD DAY’S NIGHT or HEAD treatment
Is there a Journey movie? That would be something.

2) Oliver Reed or Alan Bates?
Which one was in Three Musketeers? Then Reed, although Alan Bates would have been a great Athos.

3) Best thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video
Get it when you want it.

4) Worst thing about the move from physical to streaming media in home video
Everything else. Quality, buffering, selection, special features, you name it. Of course, I'm not counting pirated downloads, which have another set of problems (I've heard).

5) Favorite Robin Williams performance
I haven't seen a lot of them, so Popeye. It was kind of a trainwreck of a movie, but I can't fault the casting.

6) Second favorite Carol Reed movie
Our Man in Havana. First favorite, same as everyone.

7) Oddest moment/concept in rock music cinema
Plenty of choices, but I'll say Zachariah. A rock Western that starts with the James Gang - the band - and features Country Joe and the Fish as a gang of bank robbers called the Crackers. Also, amazing Elvin-Jones-was-a-gunslinger moment.

8) Favorite movie about growing up
Not a favorite genre, so not too many choices. But I loved Gregory's Girl, especially for the way that the Northern summer twilight just goes on and on, like a childhood summer.

9) Most welcomed nudity, full or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)
The topless women in Zardoz make up a lot for Sean Connery's diaper. The penis is evil, boobies are good!

10) Least welcomed nudity, nude or partial, in a movie (question submitted by Peter Nellhaus, class of 2004)
Amir Talai's bottomless scene in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo.

11) Last movie watched, in a theater, on DVD/Blu-ray, via streaming
Theater, nothing. I'll have to go to one of those some time. Last Blu-Ray was The Brothers Bloom, which is great, if you don't mind precious and whimsical. Streaming, Sherlock, the one from the second season where John and Mary get hitched.

12) Second favorite Bertrand Blier movie
Looks like I've never seen one.
Update: Reading another entry, I am reminded that I saw A Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. I enjoyed it a quite a bit, although the feeling is a little spoiled by Tom Hanks' charmless remake. Still no second favorite.

13) Googie Withers or Sally Gray?
Googie Withers, mainly for the name. I'd swear I just saw her in something, but I can only find Night and The City.

14) Name a piece of advice derived from a movie or movie character that you’ve heeded in real life
"Never apologize. It's a sign of weakness." Not really.
It wasn't advice, but I noticed in Claire's Knee that people were always touching (not just knees), embracing even. I was raised in a stand-offish New England environment, and decided I wanted to change my ways. And I did - I'm a hugger now.

15) Favorite movie about learning
Do kung fu training montages count? How about Drunken Master? Or 36th Chamber of Shaolin? OK, Kung Fu Panda (sucking up to Prof. Finn).

16) Program a double bill of movies that were announced but for one reason or another, never made. These could be projects cancelled outright, or films that were made, but at one time had different directors, stars, etc., attached-- and your "version" of the film might be the one with that lost director, for example (question submitted by Brian Doan, class of 2007)
This is easy: Jodorowsky's Dune and Lord of Light, aka Argo. We saw both the documentary and the pseudo-documentary recently, and boy did I want to see those movies. Two of my favorite SF novels, with storyboards/art direction by Moebius and Jack "King" Kirby? Oh yes!

17) Oddest mismatch of director and material
I haven't seen Skidoo, but it's hard to imagine odder.

18) Favorite performance by your favorite character actor
Eugene Pallette's "Where's my breakfast" scene from The Lady Eve.

19) Favorite chase scene
The motorbike-through-the-Metro scene from Diva. Was it the first to use motorbikes up and down the stairs, now common?

20) Movie most people might not have seen that you feel like proselytizing about right now
I was just touting Expresso Bongo (1959) to a movie friend. Laurence Harvey as a small-time Soho agent/hustler who latches onto Cliff Richards. Not as much of a teen exploitation as I expected. More of a British (and less bitter) Sweet Smell of Success.
Sadly, neither Googie Withers nor Sally Gray are in it.

21) Favorite movie about high school
Since I mention Rian Johnson above, I'll say Brick. But Ms. Spenser says Rock 'n' Roll High School, and she is right.

22) Favorite Lauren Bacall performance
The phone scene from The Big Sleep - supposedly improvised. "You'd better talk to my father."

23) David Farrar or Roger Livesey?
I haven't seen much of David Farrar, although I liked his Sir Guy in The Golden Horde.

24) Performance most likely to get overlooked during the upcoming awards season
What's the funniest comedy from last year? That's the one. Funny roles never win.

25) Rock musician who, with the right project, could have been a movie star
What about Springsteen? I bet he can act - Little Stevie could. Ms. Spenser says Jon Bon Jovi - might not be much of an actor, but looks so dreamy.

26) Second favorite Ted Post movie
Not counting TV? I think I've only seen Magnum Force.

27) Favorite odd couple
Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett Jr - Enemy Mine.

28) Flicker or Zeroville?
These are novels about movies, right? Haven't read them. Thanks for reminding me.

29) Favorite movie about college
Guess it has to be Animal House. I still think our frat was wackier, though. Hi, Hi, We're Phi Psi!

30) In a specific movie full of memorable turns, your favorite underappreciated performance
We choose Benedict Cumberbatch as the featureless white light in the first Hobbit movie.

31) Favorite movie about parenting
The last three Thin Man movies, after Nick Jr. was born.

32) Susannah York or Sarah Miles?
Now I'll ask you one: Julie Christie or Hayley Mills? I don't get this game, do I?

33) Movie which best evokes the sense of place in a region with which you are well familiar
Joe Dante's Innerspace does a surprisingly good job showing the the office parks of Silicon Valley and the rest of the Bay Area, considering it was mostly made in LA.

34) Name a favorite actor from classic movies and the contemporary performer who most evokes their presence/stature/talent
Don't you think Jean Dujardin (The Artist) has a nice Doug Fairbanks feel, even when he's not in a silent?

35) Your favorite hot streak of any director (question submitted by Patrick Robbins, class of 2008)
The career of Billy Wilder. 40-odd years, 25 or so films, 3 or 4 clunkers?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Fairy Tale

I'm going to start my review of Winter's Tale (2014) with, again, a discussion of the source material. I read, and pretty much loved, Mark Helprin's magical realist novel of New York. (Distraction: I had poet and novelist Mark Helprin mixed up with rightwing water-carrier Mark Halperin for a long time. I was glad to find out they were not the same person.) It is a wondrous tale of beauty and mystery and I didn't care whether it made a lick of sense.

Now, the movie actually manages to tease a plot out of the book. It tells about how Peter Lake's (Colin Farrell) immigrant parents set him adrift in a model yacht when they were turned away from America at Ellis Island. He grew up to be a thief in 1914 New York, on the run from Russell Crowe's gang of bowler hatted ruffians. He is rescued by a magic white horse, who Crowe calls the White Dog of the East - yes, the horse is really a dog. Yes, that is truly magic.

The horse gets Farrell mixed up with the beautiful but doomed Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay). She suffers from a consumptive fever, so she walks around barefoot in the snow and talks about how light connects us all to the stars and miracles and destiny or something. Oh and she has never been kissed on the mouth. She is not just feverish, she is hot.

So Farrell and Findlay are in love. They go up to her upstate mansion on the white dog-horse, on the frozen Hudson. They meet her father, William Hurt, millionaire media mogul in mourning for his wife. He is barely in the movie, but manages to make his mark.

Now, in the book, a lot of things happen. There is a lot of stuff about early 20th century gangs, like the Dead Rabbit gang. The Grand Central Station Oyster Bar is a major locus of power. Also, characters are unanchored in time, disappearing and showing up decades later, unaged, but sometimes changed. This movie strips most of that away, in favor of a love story that almost makes sense. Although it has some time travel, several magical creatures and a somewhat confusing metaphysics of light, stars and miracles, it is a very simplified version of the novel.

As a result, it is somewhat less magical, less enthralling. Also, the cinematography doesn't always match the ambitions of script-writer and first time director Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin, but don't hold that against him). Still, this is a pretty lovely movie. It's a bit schmaltzy, but Findlay is quite lovable, and I always enjoy Colin Farrell - Daredevil's Bullseye!

Your mileage may vary. Once again, it might help if you read the book a long time ago, and liked it, but don't remember the details very well.

In conclusion, the How Did This Get Made podcast had a lot to say about this one. I mainly watched it so I could listen to the podcast without worrying about spoilers.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

To Say Nothing of the Dog

Before we discuss Three Men in a Boat (1956), the movie, I'd like to ask, do you know of Three Men in a Boat, the 1889 novel by Jerome K. Jerome? Science fiction fans of a certain age may remember it from Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, where Kip's father reads it obsessively, drawing deep philosophical inspiration from the incident with the pineapple tin and no opener. Younger SF fans may be more familiar with Connie Willis' tribute, To Say Nothing of the Dog.

If you haven't heard of this book, then this movie may not be for you. On the other hand, if you are a big fan, you may be disappointed to find that the movie only vaguely resembles it. So be warned.

Sometime in the 1890s, three men (and a terrier named Montmorency) who take a rowing holiday on the Thames. They are a handlebar mustached Nigel Bruce type, trying to get away from his fiancee's mother (Jimmy Edwards), a henpecked husband (David Thomlinson), and a bank teller and ladies' man, Laurence Harvey. They are rowing from Hampton Court to Oxford, and sleeping out under the stars (or drenching rain, since it is England). There are misadventures, slapstick, sunny days and cute girls. There is, indeed, a struggle with a tin of pineapple.

Once again, we have a gentle little English comedy. If you like that sort of thing, if you've read Three Men in a Boat, but aren't a fanatic, or if you want to see Laurence Harvey in a non-bongo-related role, give it a look.

In conclusion, the 1975 TV movie version, written by Tom Stoppard, starring Tim Curry, Michael Palin and Stephen Moore sounds amazing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Lego My Ego

The Lego Movie (2014) is definitely fun, clever and funnier than it had to be. It was written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team responsible for Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, both also better than they had to be.

This computer animated movie takes place almost entirely in a Lego world. Emmet (voiced by Chris Pratt) is a perfectly ordinary Lego mini-figure with a job building Lego projects exactly according to instructions. He loves his job, and his attitude is summed up by the dance hit of the summer - "Everything is Awesome". But he is fingered by wizard minifig Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) as the Special One, who would overthrow the tyranny of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), etc. All this would be pretty dire, except for the cute yet feisty girl minifig he meets, Wild Style (Elizabeth Banks).

All of this is partly but not quite entirely just an excuse to run through lots of Lego sets and meet minifigs like Batman, 1980's spaceman, Abe Lincoln and George Washington, a pirate, and Superman and Green Lantern (Tatum Channing and Jonah Hill from 21 Jump Street). These scenes are pretty great, and very funny - especially Will Arnett's super-serious Batman.

But that's not all - the movie takes a serious, almost real-world twist towards the end. It doesn't get too heavy, but it is more than just a series of riffs supported by clever CGI.

However, I must say - I'm not sure this stuff is for us. I enjoyed all of these movies, but I didn't love them. I am including the Lord and Miller movies, but also Wreck-It Ralph and similar. I wonder if we're just the wrong generation (even though the jokes all seemed to be aimed at Boomer/post-Boomers like me). I feel like I might be like the grownups who didn't get Rocky and Bullwinkle back in the day. I can see the talent, and I respect it. It just doesn't thrill me.

In conclusion, I'll keep watching, they may be getting better.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Greatest Movie Never Made

My recent review of Argo pretty much just went on about the fake movie within the movie and its real-life story. I wouldn't have minded a movie just about that amazing unmade movie. Which is pretty much what I got from Jodorowsky's Dune (2013).

Alexander Jodorowski is an odd surrealist filmmaker. I've never seen any of his movies, but his psychedelic Western El Topo was one the the first great midnight cult movies. In the mid-70s, he had a chance to make a movie with a substantial budget, and he picked Dune.

Why he picked Dune is a little unclear - I'm not sure he had even read it. In fact, it's kind of a running joke that no one involved actually read the book. But he threw himself into it with all his heart. He wrote a script. He hired Jean "Moebius" Giraud (The Airtight Garage of Jerry Cornelius) to do storyboards. He got Pink Floyd to do some of the soundtrack. SF paperback cover artist Chris Fosse would do art direction, along with H.R. Giger (Alien). He got commitments from Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and David Carradine to play various roles. Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien) would do special effects. And then it all fell apart. The project passed to David Lynch. None of the material was used.

And yet... The thesis of this documentary is that Jodorowski's Dune inspired a generation or more of cinema - When the detailed storyboard went around Hollywood, it failed to find backing, but it inspired a lot of imitation. This film gives credit for Star Wars and Alien at least to Jodorowski. It sounds pretty far-fetched to me, but it's an interesting idea.

Also an interesting movie. I'm just guessing, but I'll bet Jodorowski's Dune, if it had been made, would have been a worse disaster than David Lynch's. Maybe an interesting cult film like Zachariah, with a tiny audience of rabid fans with low expectations. I think I like it best the way it is, as nothing but a dream, and a damned fine documentary.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Wonderful Life

Isn't Life Wonderful! (1954) is an amiable, colorful British comedy about a turn-of-the-century upper class family and the changing times. It features a stern father, Cecil Parker, and an alcoholic blacksheep uncle, Donald Wolfit. Uncle Willy has to be gotten out of the way so he will not upset brother (cousin?) Frank's marriage to a rich American, Dianne Foster. So they set him up with a bicycle shop, much to the delight of little Peter Asher, who plays narrator and Greek chorus.

The humor comes from Willy's gentle tweaking of Edwardian propriety, not limited to drinking but including women riding bicycles and new fangled motorcars. This is pretty mild stuff. In fact, it's hard to see how they stretched this to the whole 83 minutes.

But you British Invasion fans may be interested to note that the little boy, Peter Asher, is the Peter in Peter and Gordon, as in "World without Love". Brother to Paul McCartney's girlfriend Jane Asher and so on. Well, maybe not exactly interested, but it is something.

In conclusion, just a little time-filler from Netflix streaming recommendations.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Amble On

After watching Highly Dangerous, I figured I should watch the other Eric Ambler/Roy Ward Baker suspense film, The October Man (1947).

October Man stars John Mills (father of Hayley), who is in a terrible bus/train accident, which kills the little girl in his care. When he is released from hospital, he is suicidal, slightly amnesiac and, well, troubled. He does this very well - looking troubled and haunted. He moves into an old-fashioned boarding house, where he acts twitchy but polite - quite British actually. At this point, you are wondering whether he'll kill himself or someone else first.

Well, someone does get killed - a floozy who had borrowed money from him. Of course, Mills is a suspect - he doesn't even seem to be sure he didn't do it. At least his girl, Joan Greenwood, believes in him. Doesn't she?

So both of these movies features a mentally unsettled protagonist who must solve a crime. Other than a few thematic similarities, they are pretty different - Dangerous is more of a comic thriller, with a light tone along with the suspense. October is a dark, tense psychological thriller. The noir cinematography is impressive (oppressive?). Although this was made first, I'm glad I watched it second. These two movies make a great double bill.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Dig it!

OK, this time I watched a Busby Berkeley musical on purpose: Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). It turned out to be a particularly good entry in the genre, IMHO. It starts with  a batch of dancers whose show has wrapped up. Most of them decide to try gold-digging, but sweet Joan Blondell decides to try work and Dick Powell help her get a job bin a life insurance office.

Now the other girls have met up with a group of crooked show-biz types, Osgood Perkins and Charles D. Brown. They have lost all their boss' money on the stock market, and now he wants to put on a show. Since the boss, Victor Moore, is a physical wreck, they figure they can insure his life for a million dollars and then...

Of course, it's Dick Powell who sells the million dollar policy, which makes him a hero, until they get a look at the broken-down Moore. So one bunch is trying to kill Moore, and Powell is trying buck him up, with Glenda Farrell as the gold digger who might be on one side or the other. And it all ends in a show, another Busby Berkeley mind-melter.

I thought the situations and gags were better than most of these musicals. The songs are fun, like "Plenty of Money and You". I liked Victor Moore a lot; I don't think we've seen him before, but he's an instantly recognizable type. So, either I was just in a good mood, or this one is worth looking up.

To continue with the musical weekend, I watched Expresso Bongo (1959), a British beat-exploitation film with Laurence Harvey as a hustling talent agent who discovers Cliff Richards. It is set in late-50s Soho and was either filmed on location or was very convincing. Harvey schmying around and schmoozing with the deli proprietors and espresso bar owners, letting his immigrant striver accent show, is a delight. Cliff Richards doesn't have much charisma here, which kind of makes sense - he's just a commodity to Harvey, who re-names him Bongo Herbert. I did like his band (the Shadows, then Drifters) - they had a great look, with a Buddy Holly type guitarist, and a tight but garagey sound.

The whole thing is sort of a British Sweet Smell of Success with a touch of Night and the City - but with a cheerful muddle-through feeling instead of the sour desperation of those movies - based around a teenage rocker gets discovered B-movie theme. I guess it is widely considered to be one of those bad or so-bad-it's-good movies, but I really liked it. I plan to re-watch this weekend.

Sunday, July 20, 2014


Last weekend was a martial art mini-marathon. I started with 47 Ronin (2013), kind of an oddball. It's Hollywood samurai film with a great Japanese cast, and Keanu Reeves. It's a classic Japanese tale, and a Hong Kong style action fantasy. It was also a big commercial flop.

It's easy to understand. The idea was probably to apply the new wild action style to the cooler, formalistic Japanese cinema. Chushingura, the story of the 47 loyal masterless supporters, has been filmed many times in Japan (not to mention Kabuki and puppet plays), often in a cold, cerebral, interiorized style, like Mizoguchi's 1941 version. This time, they added an evil fox spirit, played by Rinko Kikuchi (Brother's Bloom, yay!), which isn't a problem - Mizuguchi's most famous film, Ugetsu, is a stone ghost story. It also adds half-Euro Keanu Reeves, who actually does pretty well - repressing all visible emotion like a good retainer. I think the director wanted to go this way, and it shows in some of the court scenes: beautiful costumes, geometric blocking, stately movement.

But then we get these fast-cutting CGI fight scenes. These are also fine - not great, but plenty of fun. They aren't really awkwardly inserted (although I guess the producers did jam them in against the director's wishes) - really they make the more stylized portions awkward.

Still, I rather liked this. It didn't hold up as well as, for example, The Sorcerer and the White Snake, which also made a classic tale in to an action film. But I didn't have a problem with it.

Now, it was nowhere as good as classic Shaw Bros. For example, Legendary Weapons of China (1982). It features an evil cult who are trying to train their warriors to become bulletproof so they can fight the English. You know they are evil because training involves forcing students to gouge their own eyes out and tear off their own dangly bits. And shooting them to see if it worked. One master resigns in disgust, and the cult sends out assassins to take him out. But there are several imposters running around, including a bunch of mountebanks who pretend to have skills. So they go around faking fighting while the masters are faking really fighting (you know because it's a movie). So, a little comedy, eighteen legendary weapons (if you count "bare hands"), cool fights, everything you could want.

The Five Deadly Venoms (1978) is just as good. In this case, our evil cult isn't really evil or a cult - a kung fu master teaches styles based on poisonous creatures. He sends his last student to look up five previous students to make sure they aren't doing evil, like you might expect they would be. Like Legendary Weapons, the identity of the fighters is obscure until you see their patented style. There's some comedy but not as much as Weapons. But is Frog really a venous creature?

In conclusion, Hi-Keeba!