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.