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.