Monday, March 31, 2014

2000: A Blues Odyssey

Blues Brothers 2000 (1998) is another one of those movies that I didn't realize I'd already seen until about halfway through. I knew that I had seen some of the scenes, maybe gotten a detailed synopsis, but it wasn't until the big car crash scene that I was sure it wasn't deja vu.

In some ways, this is a very different movie from Blues Brothers. Jake Blues (John Belushi) is dead, and so is Curtis Blues (Cab Calloway), their father figure. The orphanage is closed. But Elwood (Dan Aykroyd), just out of prison, is still looking to put the band back together. In place of Belushi, he has mild-mannered bartender John Goodman, orphan kid J. Evan Bonifant, and Joe Morton as the State Police captain who is Cab's illegitimate son.

That plot stuff is not the best part of this movie, although it is not as bad as you might expect. The best part is the music. I don't want to get encyclopedic, but Wilson Pickett sings "634-5789" and Aretha sings "Respect". Sam Moore and James Brown preach the gospel. The Blues Brothers Band still includes Matt Murphy, Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper, Blue Lou and Mr. Fabulous. And many, many more.

Yes, you miss Belushi, but I can ignore that. And the movie does manage to one-up a few of the scenes from the first one. But the way they do it... Example, the car crash scene I mentioned before. You remember how many Illinois State Patrol cars were wrecked in the first movie? This one does more, but does it by just firing car after car into a pile. It's pretty funny - every time you think they're done, they toss another 5-10 on the pile. So the over-the-topness is the joke. But it also uses up all of the mayhem in a single scene.

The finale has a similar issue. It's a battle of the bands between the Blues Brothers and -SPOILER- pretty much everybody in music. It's a band made up of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, Isaac Hayes, Dr. John, Koko Taylor, Steve Winwood, Jimmy Vaughan, Clarence Clemons, and about 50 others. It's great, amazing, but I wish they could have spread it out over a few more numbers.

Also, the kid, J. Evan Bonifant was a pretty good dancer. But John Goodman can't sing the blues even as well as Aykroyd, who just gets by on chutzpah.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Weather Report

We watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) on the recommendation of the little boy next door. Actually, I caught a podcast with the writers,Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who also did The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street. I haven't seen Lego, but the impression I get is: Better than it had to be. Which works for this movie too.

In case you don't know any kids, Cloudy is an animated movie about a kid who doesn't fit in with his community. He is obsessed by inventing, while his community is a sardine fishery. The local economy takes a big hit when scientific studies show that "Sardines are Super Gross". Our hero, voiced by Bill Hader, invents a food machine, and when it goes into orbit, it starts raining food.

Meanwhile, weather girl wannabe Anna Faris is sent to cover the phenomenon, and of course Hader falls in love with her. She is maybe my favorite part of the movie. She wants to be a meteorologist, and she knows that she will need to cultivate air-headedness to get by in the business. Hader, on the other hand, sees something more in her. We finally get to hear the line: "With your hair up and with your glasses on, why, you're beautiful!"

The "be yourself" and "nerds rule (if you want it)" messages are nice, but not really that exceptional these days. The other big selling point is the psychedelic Lucy in the Sky with Hamburgers animation, which is definitely fun. I liked the clean, simple character design, but the food design was almost too realistic.

In sum, great animation with sweet character arcs. What else do you want? Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs II?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Please, Ninja, Please

We watched Ninja II (2013) as another one of those "Let's just turn off our brains" movies. In fact, we chose it specifically because Ms. Spenser was kind of sleepy and figured it would be a good movie to nap to.

Of course, we have seen the first Scott Adkins Ninja, so we could follow the plot. JK, we completely ignored the plot. It involved Scott's lovely and devoted wife getting killed, because her kung-fu was weak. Scott takes the revenge road to Japan, Thailand and Mynmar, fighting drug lords and twisted martial arts schools.

The fights are strong - director Isaac Florentine is getting known as the best direct to video action director around. The look is good - I don't know where they filmed, but they got a good jungle look for the SE Asia scenes. All in all, just what we were looking for. I watched slack-jawed while Ms. Spenser snoozed.

Scott Adkins still looks like Ben Stiller, though.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Formula Moviemaking

One Ron Howard is good at is car films. He learned under Roger Corman, with Eat My Dust and Grand Theft Auto. Now, so many years later, Opie has grown up to make Rush (2013).

Early on, we decided this was Howard's Grand Prix. It's based on the true-life story of two rival Formula One drivers. Chris Hemsworth plays the cool, handsome British playboy, and Daniel Brühl plays the abrasive methodical Austrian, self-described asshole. The movie depicts their rivalry, especially the the classic 1976 season.

The racing is great in this, as well as the details of the racing strategy - over the season, it may not be the most first place finishes, but the most points that wins. The rivalry is fun and interesting - we didn't know who to root for, because both characters were kind of jerks and yet totally cool.

The racing is pretty amazing, but somehow it doesn't register the same way as it did in, say, Le Mans. Maybe we just expect more now from digital production.

Anyway, a fun racing movie, a great story. We liked it a lot.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Olympus Down

We watched Olympus Has Fallen (2013) as a companion piece to White House Down. I never heard the story of how two movies with the exact same premise are made within a year of each other, but these movies are incredibly close. And a lot of people thought at least one was junk.

This movie stars Gerard Butler instead of Tatum Channing. Instead of a wannabe Secret Service agent, he's an agent who retires on the night the First Lady dies in a car crash. But, just like WHD, he just happens to be in the White House when a small military operation --SPOILER-- takes down the White House.

Aside: That about 25 people with small arms could take out the White House really struck me as implausible. OK, they had a prop-driven bomber, but didn't actually drop any bombs. Somehow, in OHF, I could buy it (and they only had about 9).

Like in WHD, the terrorists take hostages, but in this case, the kid who knows everything about the White House is the president's son, not the agent's daughter. He also manages to avoid capture, but he doesn't post YouTubes of the crisis.

Also, the Speaker of the House who is made president when the POTUS and VPOTUS are offline is Morgan Freeman. --SPOILER-- He is not the behind the scenes villain that I assumed him to be. I don't know if he was a red herring or just pointless.

Overall, this just wasn't as fun as White House Down. WHD had humor - Die Hard level, as I estimate. It had better plot twists. It had Jamie Foxx as president, having a ball. Olympus Has Fallen has Morgan Freeman, doing a fine job. I think that OHF director Antoine Fuqua wanted to make the best damn film he could. Roland Emmerich knew he was making crap, and just went with it.

In conclusion, Olympus has Ricky Yune as major villain. It doesn't redeem the movie, but it helps.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Muscle Shoals Got the Swampers

We've decided to continue the musical documentary kick we've been on with Muscle Shoals (2013). I've been aware of this famed town for as long as I remember, but I'd ever gotten the story until now. It was a tiny town in north Alabama, on the Tennessee River, with one, then two, of the greatest R&B recording studios in America.

It is mostly the story of Rick Hall, a poor boy who was raised (as he says) like a wild animal. He had a fierce competitive streak and the desire to make something of himself. He built the FAME recording studio, built up a house band, and started making hits. Soon, artists like Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin were showing up.

Their first reactions were often, "Who the hell are these hillbillies?", because Rick Hall and the house rhythm section are all white. The sessions often started out with suspicion, but once the band laid down a groove, it vanished. In fact, the movie posits that Aretha Franklin's label didn't know what to do with her, drowning her in smooth, sappy arrangements. When she jumped to Atlantic and went to Muscle Shoals, who revealed her dirty, funky, "greazy" soul power. The whole story is full of twists, turns and betrayals, leading up to the rhythm section breaking away and starting their own Muscle Shoals Studio just down the road. Just that part is worth the price of admission.

Just hearing some of the songs recorded at these studios would justify the movie.

Two small issues: The score tends towards a Ry Cooder-ish bluesy acoustic mood music. Even though it is one of the Swampers playing, something funkier might have been more appropriate.

Then there's the ending - they go to Lynyrd Skynyrd singing Sweet Home Alabama, with a Confederate flag backdrop. Now I understand that "In Birmingham they loved a governer" is not meant as praise of Gov. Wallace, and their beef with Neil Young was just show biz, but jeez. Ending this movie about black and white making music together with the flag of treason and slavery seems a little off.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

All Killer

Machete Kills (2013) is just like Machete with the brakes off. The first Machete was kind of an action parody, but this one is out there.

It starts with a preview for the next Machete movie - Machete Kills Again - In Space! I was convinced by this that there would be no sequel. That had to be just a gag, right?

Let's just say that after I'd seen the feature, I realized that nothing was too crazy for this franchise. Example: Carlos Estevez (in his first role - although Charlie Sheen was in a lot of movies) is President of the USA.
  • Example: the first set of villains are all masked luchadores. 
  • Example: El Cameleon, the criminal with a million faces changes from Walter Goggins to Cuba Gooding, Jr to Lady Gaga and beyond. 
  • Example: Michelle Rodriguez, blind in one eye, is shot through the other and goes on to kick major ass by braille.
The ending involves technology magnate and snappy futuristic costume designer Mel Gibson - and space! (Cameo by Space-X founder Elon Musk.) This sets up the sequel, which is apparently a real thing, unless the IMDB entry is part of the gag.

It's hard to see how they could get more off the wall with MKA-iS. My only objection to this one was that they threw too much into it - several quests, multiple villains, layers of deceit, Mad Maxed El Caminos, and so on. It's hard to complain when a movie gives so much.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Pterrible Pterodacyl

We watched The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) as a whim, a bagatelle. It was written and directed by Luc Besson, it was on Watch Instantly when we needed a movie, done deal.

Set in 1911, it is the story of writer and adventurer Adele Blanc-Sec. She has a sister in a coma, a lead on an ancient mummified doctor, and a mad scientist buddy who can re-animate the dead. Of course, that leads to a pterodactyl flying around Ptaris, pterrifying pterriers. Mummies, a fat detective, a handsome naif, a great white hunter, and so forth. It was based on a beloved French comic with which I am unacquainted.

This was definitely fun, but had the feel of a "lesser" work. I felt that it might have been made for TV, which these days is not as much of a slam as it once was. I'm not sure why I didn't really connect - maybe because our streaming connection is so crappy. Anyway, if a steampunkish Luc Besson adventure comedy sounds like fun to you, give it a try and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

City without Pants

Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) was cutting edge when it was made, all on location, almost a documentary crime story. There are eight million stories in the naked city, this movie looks at a lot of them.

The main story is about a murdered model. The police, Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor, investigate and find plenty of shady characters, including Howard Duff. By the end, they have found the culprit and justice has been served.

But while all of this is going on, we are treated to a tour of the city - the streets, the tenements, the docks, newsstands and subways. Dassin "stole" a lot of this footage - the technical term for filming covertly on location, using the passersby as extras. I don't know how this went down in 1948 - my guess is that people felt a shock of recognition, immediacy, like they could see themselves. Now, it's more like a museum of New York, a sort-of-ordinary police procedural wrapped in a lovely documentary.

Sort of off-topic, but there was a thread on Movie Morlocks about how creepy Barry Fitzgerald is, with his professional Irishman mannerisms. I had that in mind while watching this, and I could really see it.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Better RED than Dead

Watching RED 2 (2013) was pretty much inevitable. I don't think I remembered to blog the first RED; I saw it around the same time as a bunch of similar movies, like the new Mechanic or From Paris with Love, and I guess it fell through the cracks. I kind of liked it - it had a lot of action, and silly love May-December love story, John Malkovich playing a psycho and Helen Mirren.

The new one has all the above. It seems little tired, but that makes sense, since they are theoretically retired. The gag here is that Bruce Willis wants to relax with his young girlfriend Mary Louise Parker, but she wants to do hired killer/spy stuff with the old crew. Adding to the fun are Catherine Zeta-Jones as a femme fatale from Willis' past and Byun Hung Lee as Willis' nemesis.

But I'm afraid it is all a little rote, with only Helen Mirren really cutting through. She brings an amazing amount of presence to the role, and has the best single moment in the movie: Shooting out of the left and right-hand windows of a spinning car. And that scene was in the trailer, so we'd already seen the best part.

Maybe I'm getting a little burned out on these actioners, or maybe this was a particularly uninspired number, but I feel like this is one of those movies that you should only watch if you feel like watching one of these movies. And you don't really care how good it is.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Seeing Red

I remember Redbelt (2008) as being controversial when it came out - was it brilliant, was it pretentious, was it crap? We thought it was great.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu instructor. His studio is humble, although he has some pretty good students, including cop Randy Couture. A woman with problems shows up, and causes more problems. Ejiofor breaks up a bar fight later on and winds up saving an action movie star (Tim Allen?!?). So on the one hand, he is broke and in legal hot water. On the other, he has made friends with someone rich and powerful in Hollywood. And he is being tempted to compete in a mixed martial arts tourney by promoter Ricky Jay. Oh yeah, Joe Mantegna is around, stirring up trouble.

If those last two cast members didn't clue you, David Mamet wrote and directed this. It turns out that he is a BJJ student and this was somewhat a labor of love. It is also full of Mamet dialog, but not so stilted and structured as to be over the top. The plot doesn't always seem to make sense - What is it with the treacherous Tim Allen, his wife and evil agent Joe Mantegna? But it all builds on testing Ejiofor and his statement that "There is no situation you could not escape from." The final fight scene is both inevitable and surprising.

There is a bit of fighting, but this isn't much of an action movie - more of an exploration of the martial arts.
Since it's a Mamet film, it's full of terse, tough, philosophical dialog. I don't think he ever goes over the top with it, although your mileage may vary. He has been studying Jiu Jitsu for a while, it seems, and the material seems pretty simpatico.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Race War

Until now, I hadn't see Death Race 2000 (1975). So sue me. I had seen the new classic 2008 Death Race, and one or two of the sequels. I thought I had seen it, at a drive-in or on TV or something, but that was just zeitgeist or something.

It's the year 2000, and the theocratic dictatorship of America holds races across the country, with the dual objectives of getting there first, and running over the most pedestrians. You get so many points for schoolkids, more for the elderly, special points for nuns, etc. We used to play that game all the time when I was in high school - never knew where that came from.

Racers include David Caradine as Frankenstein, the horribly mutilated and stitched back together crowd-pleaser, Sylvester Stallone as his main rival, Mary Woronov (did I mention this is a Roger Corman flick), and Roberta Collins as popular Nazi Mathilda the Hun. Meanwhile, a group of dissidents led by a Carrie Nation-like demagogue, played by Harriet Medin, are fighting to overthrow the governemt and the Death Race.

I told you Roger Corman produced, now I must mention that Paul Bartels is directing, first time in that chair. From this I assumed DR2K would have satirical elements, but I was wrong. It is an out-and-out farce, pure black comedy. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but not a serious frame, even when Frankenstein is killing his pit crew.

Take the cars, for instance. They were built by Dean Jeffries, known for the 1960's Batmobile, Black Beauty and Monkee Mobile. I was expecting something from Mad Max, but these are a lot closer to Wacky Racer territory.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Big Event

I wasn't planning to watch Event Horizon (1997) - frankly, I was chicken. But Ms. Spenser, inspired by the Film Sack episode, talked me into it.

The scientific space mission Event Horizon has become lost around Neptune, and the ship Lewis and Clark is sent out on a rescue mission. They arrive to find corpses, hallucinations and madness. Also, a ship full of pointy things and non-OSHA-approved fixtures.

I think the original pitch was "The Shining in space" - the genre is definitely sci-fi horror. The cast is great - Laurence Fishburne as grouchy captain, Sam Neill as twitchy mad scientist, and a bunch of redshirts. The horror is horrible, but comes in small doses - lots of almost subliminal blips of hell. So my sensitive feelings were not upset.

In conclusion, possibly a classic of sci-fi horror, but I'm not that into sci-fi horror.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Real Live Boy

As mentioned in the Dragonball: Evolution post, we are kind of manga fans. As a result, Astro Boy (2009) was kind of up our alley. Fortunately, we didn't get our hopes up.

Astro Boy (named Tetsuwan Atom in Japanese) was possibly the greatest creation of Osamu Tezuka, possibly the greatest manga artist. It is the adventures of a robot built by grieving Dr. Tenma to replace his dead son. The robot has cool powers and is almost a real boy, but his creator rejects him, because Astro can't be his son.

That is roughly the story in this computer animated 3-D modeled version. Astro Boy is voiced by Freddie Highmore, Dr. Tenma by Nicholas Cage (who keeps it pretty light). The art design in nicely retro, with a lot of 2-D animation thrown in. There is some cute robot liberation politics thrown in, since the moral of the story is clearly anti-discrimination.

But overall, it really didn't thrill us. The character design was weird, not very close to the beloved originals (except Dr. Elefun, who was pretty spot on). The story seemed to drag, and I didn't get a real sense of authenticity from it.

Oh well, they can't all be Iron Giant.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

That's Me in the Spotlight

Readers who were embarrassed by my gushing, fulsome review of The T.A.M.I. Show might want to skip this post. But definitely don't skip the movie 20 Feet from Stardom (2013).

20 Feet is a documentary about backup singers - like the "colored girls" in Lou Reed's songs. They are the anonymous voices that support the lead singer with sweet harmonies or soulful cries. You may have heard of one or two of these voices, like Darlene Love, but you have definitely sung along with the other, like Merry Clayton (Gimme Shelter, Sweet Home Alabama), Lisa Fischer (Sting, Rolling Stones), Tata Vega (Stevie Wonder, The Color Purple). This movie gives you faces to go along with the voices.

First, a couple of downsides:
  1. A major theme of the movie is the question of fame: What puts some people in the spotlight, and leaves some in the chorus? Is it talent, luck, ambition, or do some people just prefer to take a paycheck and go home? The movie seems to lean toward the latter view, but constantly subverts it with stories about how these singers wanted to solo but couldn't break in. 
  2. Although the movie puts names and faces to the previously anonymous singers, it weaves their stories together in a way that suggests that they are interchangeable. In fact, after talking about one singers solo album, it panned down a whole long gallery of obscure solo albums released by other backup singers. Sure, it was a common fate, but these are individuals.
  3. There are just too many stories, singers and songs that had to be left out to keep it down to ~90 minutes.
But these issues are all swept away by the awesome power of these (mostly) black women's voices. Almost every clip they played sent chills up my spine, and I had tears in my eyes by about the 10-minute mark. The stories are interesting, the singers are fascinating, but their songs - both backup and solo - are amazing.

If the movie leaves you wanting more, you might want to check out the director, Morgan Neville, talking with Elvis Mitchell on his podcast The Treatment. Lots more stories and discussion, lots of fun.

In conclusion, they didn't even mention the greatest backup group ever, the Sweet Inspirations. Too famous, maybe?

Update, 3 Mar 2014: Looks like this won Academy Award for Best Documentary. The only nominee I watched this year, too.