Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sneaker Net

It's weird watching Sneakers (1992) in the 21st century: It seems so modern and yet so old-fashioned. Of course dial-up modems look outdated, but even fat screens instead of flatscreens seem funny.

The movie actually starts in the good old days, with a couple of college kids in the 1970s hacking into banks and giving away the money. One gets caught, the other escapes and grows up to be Robert Redford. He runs a group that tests security for banks, etc, by hacking them and telling them where they are vulnerable. His team includes ex-CIA Sidney Poitier, conspiracy freak Dan Akroyd (codename: Mother), blind signals man David Strathairn (aka Whistler) and cute young River Phoenix. They get roped into a shady caper by some NSA men, and that's how it all gets started.

Everything is surprisingly fresh feeling, what with the NSA and the crypto stuff (supposedly accurate - provided by Len Adelman of RSA). The Bay Area locations felt real. On the other hand, this was when the NSA was an obscure agency in charge of SIGINT, not the Big Brother panopticon organization they are now known to be. So, a little double take there.

This was pretty well done and enjoyable, although I didn't exactly flip over it. It might make an interesting double feature with The Net. It's pretty silly, maybe a little more comedy than thriller (having Dan Akroyd might be a clue, although he doesn't do much) (and is his Mother a call back to Bill Cosby's Mother, Jugs and Speed?).

In conclusion, "sneakers" seems to mean "hackers", since someone calls their capers a "sneak" (= hack). Just FYI.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Argo Not

We liked Argo (2012), Ben Affleck's film about the Canadian Caper, when the CIA and Canadian Foreign Service got a small group of American's out of Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980. They did it by pretending to be a film crew scouting locations for a fake movie. It has a great period feel, a lot of tension, and a fine ensemble cast. But that isn't what I came here to talk about.

You see, to make the caper believable, they needed a real movie, one that could have been made. In the movie, they picked a sort of Star Wars rip-off that was in "turn-around" (= never going to happen). In real life, the same, but the movie was Lord of Light, a version of the Roger Zelazny science fiction classic.

In my high-school years, I followed Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke as classic science fiction, but for the latest in New Wave, I went for Samuel Delaney and Roger Zelazny. Zelazny had a wonderful voice, clipped and hard-boiled like Dashiell Hammett, while his stories were a wild, experimental mix of philosophy, poetry, mythology and technology. Lord of Light is about a Buddha-like figure overthrowing the Hindu pantheon, who are actually human colonists on a distant planet who use technology to take on god-like powers.

I don't know if this would have made a good movie - his Damnation Alley was made into a stinker with Jan Michael Vincent and George Peppard. But you know who they got to do the storyboards? Jack "King" Kirby! Weirder yet, the producer intended to use the sets Kirby designed as a permanent amusement park, "Science Fiction Land".

The whole thing fell apart when it turned out that everyone was embezzling money and taking bribes, etc, hence the time in turn-around. But oh what might have been.

Instead, we got Argo, which isn't bad or anything. Maybe it's best this way.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

For the Wreck-It

I guess we're in a Golden Age of animation, partly due to the technology, partly to the combination of youth culture and Boomerism. As a result, we're watching a lot more animation then we would have thought. For example, Wreck-It Ralph (2012).

It has a cute premise: Ralph (John C. Reilly) is a big 8-bit villain in a video arcade game - more or less Kong from Donkey Kong. He is eternally beaten by the game's hero, Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer, Kenneth the Page) and has to sleep in the dump. So he breaks out of the game and heads over to Hero's Duty, a hi-rez FPS. There he wins a medal, but the busty space Marine Calhoun (Jane Lynch) chases him out, into the Sugar Rush go-kart game.

Sugar Rush is sort of the heart of the movie: wild colors, goofy animation, kawaii drivers, and King Kandy, voiced by Alan Tudyk but clearly modeled after Ed Wynn's Mad Hatter. Best of all is the rebellious and glitchy kart driver Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She annoys and befriends Ralph so that she can join the race and maybe win acceptance in her game.

The politics of the movie, about accepting your role while still getting respect is a bit weird, and the rules of the universe, what "glitches" are and what happens if you die outside of your game are pretty ad hoc. Vanellope was a bit of a standard spunky kid character, and so on. But just look at it: The different eras of game animation colliding, the old-school video arcade concept, the Sugar Rush game. It's just a lot of fun.

In conclusion: A good double bill for Scott Pilgrim.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hear What You Sea

I have no special love for Bobby Darin, or Kevin Spacey, for that matter. But we'd heard good things about Beyond the Sea (2004), and gave it a shot. What we got was Fellini in swingtime.

It starts with Bobby (Kevin Spacey) singing his big hit "Mack the Knife" in a nightclub, but he calls "cut" before the end and the director tells the audience to take 10. You see, they are making a TV special for Darin's 10th year in show biz. It's all a show within a show - the kid who plays Bobby as a boy is introduced as "the kid who plays Bobby as a boy." Then we go into the past to find the kid dying of rheumatic fever, and being a reason to live by his mother: music. Soon enough, he's playing the Copacabana and starring in movies with Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth).

Darin's romancing of Dee is a cool mix of Hollywood magic and backstage real life. It seems that he truly loved her, but maybe just because a guy like Bobby Darin should have a teen idol like Dee for a wife. The movie takes a sympathetic look at Dee, but doesn't look too deeply, maybe because Bobby doesn't.

But it's his later life that I found most interesting. As America moves into the 60s, night club crooning begins to go out of style and Darin starts to think about re-inventing himself. He wants to get into politics with the Kennedys, but that doesn't end well. He winds up living alone in a trailer in Big Sur, writing folk songs and communing with the stars and the sea. But when he tries to make a comeback as a sincere folk singer, he bombs. That's when he has the insight: "People hear what they see." So he puts on the toupee and tux, heads back to the Copa and mounts his "simple song" as big production number with a gospel choir. Bobby is back!

Darin's late career is fun because he wants to be cool and with it, but he really isn't - or is he? Look, he really cared about race and war and tried to follow the path of truth and righteousness, but you know, that's just not him. He's a lounge lizard, a club dweller, a swinging cat. And that's that.

Spacey famously sings all of the songs, and he is great, a fantastic tribute. He is also famously too old (and plain in the face) to play Darin, but he works with that - this is an absurd Fellini-esque production. Like his brother, who is played by Bob Hoskins, even as a kid.

In conclusion, there is a lot of affection for Darin, Sandra Dee and their son Dodd. The credits include a "where are they now", which says that Sandra Dee still loves Bobby Darin. It was true when they made the movie but she died less than a year later. Darin died much younger, but I hope he loved her the same way.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

I Don't Know, I've Never Kipled

The Jungle Book (1967) is another one of those movies I saw when it came out (age 11) and never again. At the time, my main concern was that it departed so radically from the Kipling stories that I was in love with. I was conflicted - it was a really good movie, but it wasn't true to the Text. I believe this was my first confrontation with the question of whether you should watch the movie before or after you've read the book - or never.

It wasn't until much later - maybe even this century - that I began to realize what I had seen:
  • Baloo voiced by Phil Harris, a band leader in the 40s who I know mainly from his work on Jack Benny's radio show. He was married to Alice Faye, bu that's neither here nor there.
  • Bagheera was smoothly voiced by Sebastian Cabot, Mr. French, the butler from Family Affair, a TV show that I was fond of at the time. I can't remember if I put that together.
  • Kaa the snake was played by Sterling Holloway. It's a shame that you can't see his rubber face in the animation.
  • Best of all, Louis Prima is Ape King Louie of the Bandarlog. Prima is the king of jump blues and his number here, "I Want to Be Like You" really swings.
The role of the mop-topped cockney buzzards was offered to the Beatles, who contemptuously turned it down. But one of them is voiced by Chad Stuart of the British Invasion band Chad and Jeremy.

The animation is top rate Disney, which honestly looks a little tired now because of its polish and the amount of exposure it has gotten. But once you get sucked in, you don't notice much.

In conclusion, a great return to the movie that made me a cineaste.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Hobbit Forming

First of all, yes, we did fall asleep. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) runs 2 hours and 40 minutes, and we watched a few short features first (Dobie Gillis, Arrow). It was late Friday night and we dozed off. That didn't matter. The next night, we picked up where we'd drifted off, and yes, we fell asleep again. But by Sunday night, we had seen all of it. And loved it.

We liked the set pieces - Beorn's house, the spiders of Mirkwood, the barrel ride. Actually, I closed my eyes for the spider section - ugh, spiders. I kept waiting for Ms. Spenser to tell me it was OK to look, then I kept peeking and seeing that it was NOT safe. There must have been 20 minutes of them. Warning to arachnophobes.

Then we get to Smaug, the dragon, in his treasure caves beneath the mountain. What a great creature, charmingly voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. Speaking of whom, his mate Martin Freeman got a couple of good scenes in as Bilbo. There's one nice scene where he is in the treasure cavern and he realizes that he has woken up Smaug. He's just a tiny figure in the huge hall, but his "why me?" expression comes through with no trouble.

But our favorite part was probably the art direction - the Piranesian dungeons and underground lairs. They are all just computer animation, of course, but nonetheless wonderful. Ms. Spenser now wants a bigger TV, just for this movie.

I understand there's a lot of un-love about this movie. It departs from the novel too much, it shortchanges some parts (Beorn, Mirkwood) and labors others (spiders, slapstick orc fights). The elf-dwarf romance is pretty lame. We just didn't care. We wanted to look at cool scenery and dungeons and dragons. And we were willing to spend 3 nights staying awake to see it.

In conclusion: Probably too much spiders.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Double Stanwyck

In the mood for some good ol' black & white, we queued up the Barbara Stanwyck double-bill To Please a Lady/Jeopardy (1950/1953).

To Please a Lady is a racing film, so maybe we can view it as a follow-up to Rush. Stanwyck is a hard-bitten journalist/gossip columnist who talks fast, smokes a lot and doesn't give a damn about anything but selling magazines. She covers a race where driver Clark Gable is involved in an accident that kills the other driver. She sensationalizes this in her article, putting Gable out of work, sending him to the midget racing circuit. Of course, you know that they will fall in love and he will win the Indy 500.

I liked this a lot - everyone talked really fast and used a lot of dated slang: the journalists, the race announcers, the drivers. Except Gable; his steady drawl showed that he was a different kind of man. All the fast talking somehow gave me the idea that this was a screwball comedy, except not funny. So, screwball drama?

Jeopardy was a different thing - a small scale almost-noir. I first heard of it through Kim Morgan's blog. It was directed by John Sturges (Magnificent Seven, Great Escape) almost like a poverty-row B-movie: small cast, few locations, simple script. It starts with Stanwyck, her husband Barry Sullivan and little son going on a camping trip in Mexico. They set up in a deserted cove miles away from anything and send their son off to play on the rickety abandoned pier, or "peligro" as they say in Spanish. Really, through the whole setup, we're wondering how clueless these guys are, just cruising around Mexico, letting the kid play with the handgun Sullivan brought for protection, etc. Think they might get into trouble?

Yep. Sullivan gets trapped under the pier with the tide rising and Babs takes off looking for help. They leave the boy on the beach to play with fire and sharp objects. Stanwyck runs into Ralph Meeker, an escaped murderer, who might help out if she makes it worthwhile (if you take my meaning). (And I think you do.)

Actually, after the clueless family, Meeker is a breath of fresh air. He may be an nasty individual, but he at least seems moderately competent, and kind of fun. I'll let you find out whether he takes off with Stanwyck or not.

Jeopardy is a little known noir gem that has been getting some recognition, but you know, I really liked To Please a Lady better. It didn't make a lot of sense but it sure had style - and midget racing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

TV Guide

We're still watching TV on Netflix every day, mostly with dinner - yes, we eat in front of the TV, what can we say, born in the 20th century.

We recently finished watching Leverage. I found out about this series because its creator, John Rogers, has a blog (now on hiatus), Kung Fu Monkey. I had to watch the series so I could read the blog! It's a story about a gang of Robin Hoods who steal back from corporate criminals. The mastermind is drunk Timothy Hutton (son of Jim Hutton, TV's Ellery Queen). His team includes a hitter (Christian Kane), a hacker (Aldis Hodge), a grifter (Gina Bellman) and a thief (Beth Riesgraf).
  • The hitter is a serious, deadly ladies man with long hair and outside skills as a chef and country music singer. Kane also choreographs a lot of the fights.
  • The hacker is a cocky, geeky black man with a love of orange soda. 
  • The grifter is a beautiful woman of mystery whose only weakness is on the stage. 
  • But our favorite is Parker, the thief. She is a beautiful athletic blonde with an on-the-spectrum affect and no interest in anything except stealing.
It was funny, fun, well-made and very engaging. The last season kind of fell apart, but up to then it just kept getting better, and the last episode, well, it was worth sticking around for.

We haven't made it to the last episode of Arrow yet, but I think we'll make it. The Green Arrow was actually one of my comicbook favorites, because I was in on the classic "Snowbirds Don't Fly" story in 1971, where his sidekick Speedy gets hooked on heroin. The TV series makes a nod to this by giving Oliver Queen a sister Speedy who dabbles in narcotics.

Overall, the show is full of twists, betrayals, romance, and hot action. My favorite part is the storytelling speed. I check the time and see that after 5 plot twists, 2 fight scenes and a character beat, we're only 9 minutes into the episode. They are always raising the stakes, throwing in one more twist, but can still take time out to pause and reflect on a character or two. Plus, Stephen Amell, as the green guy, is a total hunk who takes his shirt off a lot. You know, for the ladies.

But our current craze is The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Somehow, I remember this from my childhood, although I was only 7 when it went off the air. The show stars Dwayne Hickman as the love-struck teenager Dobie, with Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus (what a pair of euphonious appellations!) as his grocer father and doting mother. He chased a lot of girls in the series, but his number one target was the glamorous, money-hungry Thalia Menninger, played by Tuesday Weld (she kind of faded after the first year - got to big for the role). One of his biggest rivals was played by Warren Beatty, who likewise dropped out after a while. But everyone's favorite was Dobie's best friend, played by  Bob Denver, was the first beatnik on TV, Maynard G. Krebs.

The plots are pretty standard sit-com misunderstandings and crazy schemes, but there's a touch of oddness to them, like Yvonne Craig as a health-food nut acrobat from a family of free-thinkers, or Charley Wong's ice cream shop, with the wonton sundaes. Hickman makes an appealing hero as well, a thinker and a lover, as he explains to the camera in the park every episode, in front of a statue of the Thinker.

There are about 20 discs in the series and we're thinking of going to a 3-disc/week plan to get them all.

Another childhood favorite is It Takes a Thief (1968), starring Robert Wagner as super-thief Alexander "Sic Transit Gloria" Mundy. He is blackmailed by secret agent Malachi Throne to steal for the government and given a bevy of glamour girl assistants, including Susan St. James. The feel here is second-rate James Bond, with some nice 60s pop-art camera-work. But we didn't like it enough to keep getting the discs - even though Fred Astaire plays Alexander's father later on. I always prefered T.H.E Cat for late 60s superthief shows.

One last little bagatelle - we discovered that Leverage's John Rogers also produced and wrote some of the Jackie Chan Adventures cartoons, so we started watching them when we had 20-minute slot in our schedule. It's actually pretty good - simple but effective artwork with a touch of anime, cute stories, etc. And  Jackie himself answers a question from the audience at the end.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Post Graduate

There are a bunch of great movies that I've never seen because I am chicken. For instance: Marathon Man (1976). This came out when I was in college, and friends tortured me just by hinting about the unorthodox dental procedures and the cryptic "Is it safe?" line. But Ms. Spenser is made of sterner stuff, and she wanted to see it again, so...

It starts with an old Nazi and an old Jew getting into a rather comic road rage incident in Manhattan. Dustin Hoffman is a history grad student in New York, also training for a marathon, who passes by the not-so-funny aftermath on a training run. Hoffman's brother is Roy Scheider, this time not in little pants, a man with secrets. Heck, even Hoffman's Swiss girlfriend has secrets.

The thriller aspect of MM is great, but I kind of expected that. What I wasn't expecting was the great look of the movie. I guess I should have known - the 70s were full of this kind of thing: stolen cityscapes, multi-layered reflections, artistic angles, etc. It isn't too flashy here, just a nice touch.

The people involved are legendary, with Laurence Olivier (who famously advised Hoffman to "try acting"), John Schlesinger directing, Robert Evans producing and script by William Goldman. And in the end, the tooth torture wasn't as bad as I thought.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Keir Dullea, Gone Tomorrow

Continuing my series of sucky posts: 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984). I actually saw this when it came out, but Ms. Spenser didn't, so we queued it up.

Now, I worship Kubrik's 2001. 2010 is, in many ways, its opposite. While 2001 was cold and stylish, 2010 is, well, movie-ish. 2001 was short on dialog, long on anomie, moody and mysterious. 2010 is fairly chatty, and pretty much comes out and explains everything. Also, in 2010, Dr. Heywood Floyd is played by Roy Scheider in little pants, not William Sylvester.

I went into this re-watch, 30 years later, expecting something pretty rote and generic. I was surprised to find a slightly deeper movie. For instance, the theme of lies and truth kept coming up - The Russian plays a game with Scheider, telling the truth for 2 minutes. Scheider tells the science advisor to let the president know that they will lie to the Russians, "He'll love that". Of course, lies were what made HAL go homicidal.

Bob Balaban is quite sweet as Dr. Chandra, working with HAL's successor SAL 9000. John Lithgow has a nice extended scene as an acrophobe forced to do an extended EVA to get over to the old Discovery. Overall, it seems pretty faithful to Arthur C. Clarke's vision - scientists, engineers, astronauts, problems to solve, but no real mysteries.

On the minus side, the technology level predicted for 2010 (the future!) was laughable - the insides of HAL with the lucite memory blocks were controlled by a Kaypro keyboard and a graphic interface consisting of green letters on a black background. I didn't see any payphones, but if I had, I bet they would have had rotary dials. At least they got the whole "Russians are the bad guys, even if we are temporarily not at war" thing right - although that's more of a 2014 thing than 2010.

But here's the sucky part of the post - I fell asleep, right around when they were waking HAL up, about the third act. So I'm not really sure how well they managed to explore the themes of truth and lies, humanity and the alien, and Soviet-American detente. I don't even know if they told us what was up with the space embryo from the end of 2001. Oh well, at least I got to hear Keir Dullea as Dave saying, "Something is going to happen. Something wonderful."