Monday, February 23, 2015

Playing Taps

Continuing to check out music-inspired movies, we queued up Tap (1989), Gregory Hines tapdance vehicle. This is the movie that brought about the tap-dance revival of the 90s. Or, wait, that never happened, did it?

Hines plays a released convict who moves into a flophouse across from a crummy dance studio. It turns out that it was his father's place, now being run by a bunch of elderly hoofers, including Sammy Davis, Jr. and Sandman Sims, plus sweet Suzanne Douglas and her son Savion Glover.

It seems that Hines was a dancer too, but found he could make more money as a cat burglar. Now he has to choose between his mobbed up buddies and his family of washed up dancers. But that part is pretty boring.

The part that isn't boring is the tap dancing that they manage to squeeze in. We get a cutting contest with Davis, Sandman, Bunny Briggs, Harold Nicholas (of the Nicholas Brothers), and many more, including Hines. Hines does a little tap improv based on city sounds, and little Savion shows a bunch of kids what it's all about.

It ends up with the invention of amped, midi tapshoes, which will bring tap into the world of rock'n'roll. It is horrible, partly because of 1980s bad new wave, partly because it's a fine idea, but only if well executed - this is clunky and uninspired.

Actually, there was a bit of a tap revival in the 90s, Bring da Noise, Bring da Funk, for example. But I'd say it came about in spite of, not because of Taps. But when it looks back to the olden days of tap, it really shines.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Getting to the Point

We never saw Zabriskie Point (1970) back in the day, although we were fans of both Antonioni and Pink Floyd. It took a while for Netflix to come through, but we finally got our chance.

It starts with a bunch of students planning a protest. Mark Frechette can't get into all this talk. He wants action, so he goes to a gun store with his roommate to buy guns. When the shopkeeper tells him there's a waiting period, he implies that their for protection from "those people". When he gets to the demonstration, the police kill a black student, so he reached for his pistol... Next thing he knows, he has to get out of town fast, so he steals a small plane and takes off.

Meanwhile, hippie chick Daria Halprin is driving through the desert on a job from real estate developer Rod Taylor. She's pretty pissed off when a small plane starts buzzing her, but then she gets into it. Mark lands, they meet up and drive off to Zabriskie Point, where they make love.

This is the most famous scene, I guess - two hippies screwing in the dust start multiplying into dozens of dusty hippies in pairs, threesomes and groups, all to a Jerry Garcia acoustic guitar solo. But these stories can't end happily. Mark returns the plane and dies in a hail of bullets. Daria meets up with her boss in a beautiful modern desert home and although she is alienated from the rich people there, she takes something from the fountain of water running down a rock wall. But when a young native maid smiles at her, she just can't hang. She leaves and as she looks back, sees the house explode to the sound of Pink Floyd. Several other things explode in slow motion, and that's the end.

The plot is pretty silly and so are the radical politics and slogans. The leads aren't exactly lovable: Daria is beautiful but pretty self-involved and Mark just seems like a jerk. He does have David Hemmings cheekbones under Peter Fonda eyes, though. But I guess Antonioni isn't known for lovable characters. He is known for multilayered, beautifully composed photography, and that's all here. Even when he is shooting like a documentarian, there are echoes and reflections in almost every shot.

But we really came for the music, and were pretty disappointed. What there is, is great. A little bit of "Dark Star" reminded us of what a great composition it is when the Dead are hitting it right. In the desert, Daria listens to a lot of FM country rock, including Jonathan Edwards and the Rolling Stones ("You've Got the Silver"). And the explosive ending makes a great music video for a version of "Careful with that Axe, Eugene", called "Come In, Number 51. You're Time Is Up", by Pink Floyd. But I thought it the movie would be drenched in Floyd, wall-to-wall, and instead there's plenty of quiet patches, and hardly any Floyd.

Oh well, better than the Yardbirds cameo in Blow Up.

The Man with the Horn

Where did Horns (2013) come from, where did it go? I hadn't heard of it until Netflix decided I would like it, since we liked Woman in Black. Well, they were right.

Of course, it's different in almost every way, except that it is basically horror, and stars Daniel Radcliffe. Except this is a horror/comedy, and Radcliffe plays an American, in the Pacific Northwest. Radcliffe's girlfriend, Juno Temple, has been murdered, and everyone thinks he did it. That includes his parents (they don't quite come out and say it) and his friends, except his public defender lawyer Mike Minghella.So he gets stinking drunk, and wakes up with a bad hangover and a pair of horns growing out of his head.

He is not cool with this at all, but he discovers that the horns give him some odd superpowers: They make people confess their darkest desires, and (if the horned one will grant them leave) act on them. The floozy Radcliffe wakes up with, Kelli Garner, for example, just wants to stuff her face with donuts so she'll get fat and nobody will want to fuck her anymore. Also, she sees the horns but doesn't really care. So Radcliffe figures he can use the power to find who really killed his Temple.

There are a lot of thing to like about this movie. The flashbacks to when they were all kids growing up together, getting in trouble and falling in love, are nicely done in a Spielbergian way. Temple, in flashbacks, is definite dreamgirl material. The supporting cast, including Radcliffe's rich, distant parents, his druggy musician brother Joe Anderson, the chubby kid who grew up to be a nasty cop, all are interesting beyond whether they are suspects. The dank, lush northwest locations are evocative of both growth and decay. And there are lots of cute little gimmicks, like Minghella getting his middle two fingers blown off, so he is always throwing the Ronnie Dio heavy-metal horns.

Radcliffe is also great, although he's getting a little too good at sunken-eyed and sad. Although it does help make the comedy that much funnier.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Zum Zum

Two things we like are Mark Dacascos and the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. With Only the Strong (1993), you get both.

First, what is capoeira (if you know the answer, you can skip this part)? In the slave times in Brazil, the new arrivals from Africa developed an unarmed style of self-defense based on fluid motion and acrobatics. It is usually practiced to the beat of drums, especially the berimbau, a bow with a gourd resonator, and traditional songs like "Paranoue" and "Zum Zum Zum, Capoeira Mata Um". It is now practiced as a form of dance and meditation, almost as much as for fighting.

So, Mark Dacascos is a Green Beret, come back to his inner-city high-school. To pay back the teacher who believed in him, he decides to reform the rottenest kids by teaching them how to play capoiera. But will the drug lords who rule the neighborhood let him get away with it? Can he beat their boss (Paco Chistian Prieto), who also knows capoeira, and is very, very large?

I think you know the answer to these and many other questions (will prim teacher Stacey Travis fall for Mark? Judging by the gooey lust in her eyes, yes). The set up and teachers were so stereotypical I wondered if they were intended to be a parody. On the other hand, the capoeira is pretty sweet. Maybe not the best fights ever, but a lot of fun to watch.

I don't know why there are so few capoiera movies, and about 1,000 Step Ups.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Day Before the Hard Day's Night

Why have I never heard of The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1994)? Or even it's predecessor, What's Happening! from 1964. It seems that the brothers Maysles (Monterey Pop, Gimme Shelter) were given full access to the Beatles for their first 1964 visit to America. They shot a documentary for TV called What's Happening!, a piece of slang that they taught Murray the K. Then, in 1991, it was re-cut to add the Ed Sullivan show performances.

The whole thing seems a lot like outtakes from A Hard Day's Night. The boys riding on a train, cutting up, telling jokes, smoking cigs. Screaming girls outside the limos, and at the show. Goofing on the questions at press conferences, listening to themselves on Paul's transistor radio.

It's neat to see them respond to a stupid question from the press ("Are those really wigs?") with a stupid answer ("Yes, we're all bald"). Then you see Paul reading the Q&A in the paper, pause, and conclude, "It's funny." He's not entirely sure, maybe he could have come up with a better one. Because they are all trying very hard to be entertaining, to be clever, to be cool. I'm surprised at how earnest they seem. Just once does John look at the camera and say, "I just don't feel like laughing."

The performances are always amazing. These guys were such performers, turning out tight versions of the songs we know so well, then rolling right into the next one, or putting their heels together and taking a deep bow. Really reminds you of what is was all about.

You don't get a lot of the boys singing or playing offstage, although George plays a little blues number in the hotel, and John blows a few notes on a melodica. And those few notes later became "Strawberry Fields".

Not as funny as Hard Day's Night, but real.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Deadlier than the Male

10th Victim (1965) is just ridiculous. Set in The Future, Marcello Mastrioanni and Ursula Andress are pitted against each other in the Big Hunt - where humans are the prey, and each prey takes a turn as hunter.

It is directed by Elio Petri, who doesn't ring any bells, but produced by Carlo Ponti. He produced tons of stuff, but I seem to associate him with Euro-cool swinging 60s movies, like this one. I can sum it up in one image: Do you know the Ericofon, that odd horn-shaped plastic phone with the rotary dial on the underside of the base? This phone will be the standard in The Future. Also, Op Art, jumpsuits, hats with see-through plastic visors, and brassieres that shoot bullets.

It soon becomes obvious that this isn't a dystopia film like Logan's Run, but a sex farce. Sure, Ursula Andress is trying to kill Mastroianni, but isn't that always the way between a man and a woman?

This movie isn't quite up there with Modesty Blaise, Danger: Diabolik or Barbarella, but would make a good second feature for any of them. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Speaking of streaming movies that one watches mainly because they are streaming and you don't have anything better in mind: Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (2013). Not that there's anything wrong with it - it's Hark Tsui, after all.

It is a prequel of the first Detective Dee movie, so Dee is played by Mark Chao instead of Tony Leung Kar Fai, although Carina Lau reprises her role as empress. It takes place in the port city being threatened by a sea monster. The local Chamber of Commerce hires a courtesan, Angelababy (Tai Chi Zero) as a sacrifice. Newcomer Dee and the town's chief detective both fall under her spell - Tsui uses one of his surrealistic touch to show her as a Chinese goddess with slow motion ribbons in her hair. It gets even more surrealistic when she is nearly kidnapped by the Gill-Man.

The gimmick in the Detective Dee movies is that the amazing, mystical events have material causes; in this case, disgusting parasites, which only can be cured by drinking the urine of the royal eunuchs. So, along with fantastic elements, there's quite a bit of silly humor.

Also, great fights, but that goes more or less without saying.

Surrealistic fantasy, goofy humor and an attempt to provide real-life explanations for everything, all made with Hark Tsui's touch. This is a silly spectacle, and nothing more, which makes it a perfect streaming watch when you have nothing on your mind.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Take Me Home Mountain Road

As I said, Ms. Spenser has asked for and gotten more scary movies. Here's another one suggested by the man known as Curt from Mountain View (they call him that on podcasts because they can't pronounce his last name): Incident On and Off a Mountain Road (2005).

A woman driving along a lonely mountain road crashes into a car and soon finds herself stalked by a giant, disfigured slasher. Yep, this is a slasher film, and I am watching it. But it's not the average slasher film - this woman used to date a survivalist, and has some skills up her sleeve, as well as some inner strength.

This is a one-hour, made for TV movie from the Masters of Horror series, directed by Don Coscarelli, I wouldn't have guessed it, but he directed Bubba Ho-Tep, the best Elvis-meets-the-Mummy film ever to star Bruce Campbell. He adapted Incident, like Bubba, from a story by Joe Lansdale. We've always like his Weird Wild West stuff, although it does give me nightmares.

I had to close my eyes for some scenes (one that involves eyes, in fact), but this is a smart, well-made slasher film for those who like that sort of thing. For those who don't it's only 60 minutes long.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Good Night, Gracie

In exchange for all the girly movies (horror and suspense) I am watching , I'm making her watch guy films, mostly musicals, like Grace of My Heart (1996). I've been planning to watch this story of a singer-songwriter loosely based on Carol King, for a while, and an interview with the star Illeana Douglas on Projection Booth brought it all home.

It starts in the fifties with Douglas the teen daughter of a wealthy family. She is going to a talent show where her mother wants her to sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in a white prom dress. But another contestant, a black girl singing the blues, convinces her to sing "Hey There, You with the Stars in Your Eyes", and trades her the white dress for a slinky black cocktail number.

This blues singing inspiration, by the way, is played by Jennifer Leigh Warren, who I went to school with. Never would have recognized her, but she is great, even though she didn't do her own songs. Neither does Douglas, she's dubbed by Kristen Vigard. But that's fine.

So Douglas wins the talent show and gets to go to New York with a recording contract. But nobody will record her: Female singers aren't selling that season and nobody wants a singer who records her own songs. Finally, John Turturro (in a role inspired by Phil Spector) gets her to let a male doo-wop group record her song. When it's a hit, he moves her into the Brill Building and it's off to the races.

The film is a mix of Douglas' quest to be recognized as a singer and a songwriter, her problems with men, and the changes in the world as the sixties roll in. Her first husband is her self-centered writing partner Eric Stoltz. Then she had an affair with married older man Bruce Davison. Finally, she moves out to California with Brian Wilsonish Matt Dillon. She gets something from each of them, but really, she needs better taste in men. She does stay in touch with Jennifer Warren, and gets an English songwriting partner, Patsy Kensit. In fact, one of the best little scenes is those two doing a song for Bridget Fonda as a Leslie Gore type, a deeply closeted lesbian coming apart at the seams. Her song, "My Secret Love" was actually written by Leslie Gore, along with Larry Klein and David Baerwald.

Most of the songs, in fact, are written by a writer from the day paired with a modern day writer. Carol Sager with Dave Stewart, Larry Klein and Gerry Goffin, and the first pairing of Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach. It's the songs that the movie lives or dies on. I don't even think that they are really that great songs. But they are sold with utter conviction and beautiful production. Illeana Douglas even says at one point, "It's very melodramatic," and she's right - beautifully, breathtakingly melodramatic.

I should mention that the movie is full of great performances, and Douglas is a lot of fun to watch. She's funny looking, as at least one character in the movie says, but beautiful. She hasn't been in very many movies, but she's great in this.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Fear of the Hunter

It turns out that neither Ms. Spenser nor I had seen the Robert Mitchum Cape Fear (1962). We remedied that recently. For those who haven't seen it, or the De Niro re-make, it stars Gregory Peck as a lawyer in picturesque Cape Fear NC. Robert Mitchum is Max Cady, a man that Peck put in prison. He has just gotten out and wants lets Peck know that he plans to make him suffer, along with his wife and daughter.

Peck is connected in the community - he gets the police chief to try to roust Cady, but all attempts fail. Even when he brutally beats a B-girl, she won't testify. She's too scared. So the only thing left to do is set a trap and kill him.

Maybe someone else can clarify, is Peck's reaction supposed to be kind of sleazy? First, try to use your political connections. When that doesn't work, try to kill him. I guess restraining orders hadn't been invented.

Anyway, he's scared. Everyone is scared. Mitchum is one scary guy. He's big, he loves violence and he "doesn't give a damn." This would be a good film with someone else in the role: it's got some pretty locations and the tension is kept high. But Mitchum takes it to another level.

However, Ms. Spenser wanted to see his "Love/Hate" knuckle tattoos, so we queued up The Night of the Hunter (1955). It introduces us first to the environment with an aerial view of a river in the midwest - the Ohio? Then we meet Mitchum who is thanking the Lord God for the widows that he's killed, for the good Lord provideth. We also meet John and Pearl, two little kids whose dad (Peter Graves!) just committed murder with robbery and lets the kids know where the money if they promise not to tell anyone, including their mother (Shelley Winters!), who he figures is soft-headed.

Graves ends up in prison with Mitchum who's just doing a few months for car-theft. (Do they really put death-row inmates in with short-timers? Maybe they did in the Depression.) When Graves is executed and Mitchum gets out, he decides to go meet the widow. His courtship and marriage to Winters is one of the most chilling parts of the movie - he convinces her that she is an unclean sinner in a way that is almost as menacing as Max Cady beating the loose woman.

I want to go light on spoilers - if you haven't seen this, you should. But he eventually starts chasing the children and they set off down the river. The film takes a somewhat impressionist feel here. This was Charles Laughton's first and only time directing. He doesn't always seem like he's completely in control of his medium - there's a touch of amateurism here. But the movie is full of odd touches - the unfamiliar lullabies and children's songs, the glimpses of the animal world, the world of shadows and moonlight, and they get much stronger here. But there are other scenes of rare beauty and horror, like the underwater corpse with the flowing hair.

Here's a little spoiler: In the end, when Mitchum gets what's coming to him, it's pretty slapstick. It starts out tension-filled and scary, with Mitchum lurking around singing an old hymn, and the children's protector harmonizing along. But when it ends, it was like waking up from a nightmare and wondering what was so frightening.

Night of the Hunter was really fascinating, Cape Fear really scary. I suppose we should watch the De Niro version next. We'll see if we can stand the tension.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Neighbor of the Beast

We continue to delve into the Joe Dante oeuvre with The Burbs (1989). It stars Tom Hanks as an ordinary guy who wants to spend his vacation week at home in his little cul-de-sac. His wife (Carrie Fisher) thinks he should go to the lake, but his obnoxious slob of a neighbor, Rick Ducommum, is happy to hang out with him and raid his pantry.

The neighborhood seems like a nice place - the worst menace might be the old guy (Gale Gordon!) who lets his poodle poop on other people's lawn. There's survivalist gun-nut Bruce Dern and his hot wife Wendy Schall and stoner Corey Feldman who is sort of painting his family's house while they are away. Oh yes - then there's that house at 669 Mayfield that is kind of run-down, dark and menacing, with the funny noises and lights in the basement. Nobody knows who lives there - they never come out. But Hanks' son has seen them, late at night, in the rain, digging in the backyard...

It is kind of a comedy of manners mixed with horror. The neighbors all speculate about the creepy family like kids talking about a haunted house, then start daring each other to ring the doorbell. It goes on from there. The only hint as to what they find that I will give you is that it involves Henry Gibson.

This is all very Joe Dante - the look is very stylized, all on one studio lot. The script is clever and layered, with a nice mix of normalcy and doom. There's even a Dick Miller role. Some people consider this one of his best.

I wouldn't go that far. It's good, but not best. I loved it while watching, but I'm not sure it's as rich or deep as it could have been, or as biting. It reminds me a lot of the Belushi-Ackroyd Neighbors from 1981, which I also liked but didn't love. The same kind of suburbia disturbed comedy.

In conclusion, the Corey Feldman character, who treats the whole disaster as a spectacle, is my favorite.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

East and West

I admit it - these were a couple of bagatelles I watched on streaming when I didn't have anything else in particular to watch.

Chinese Zodiac (2012) is more or less the latest Jackie Chan action film. It may be his last big stunt oriented movie, but we've heard that before. Last or not, it is a return to his Armor of God style - Jackie is a treasure hunter looking for the twelve bronze sculptures that the British looted from the Summer Palace. Like is Armor of God, he has a couple of cute women working with him: art historian Helen Yao and Laura Weissbecker, a descendant of the original looters.

The movie starts with a ridiculous rocket-powered street-luge-suit escape scene, and there are several equally amazing set pieces throughout. In between these stunts, there are plenty of the usual fights, done with the usual joy and charm. The credit sequence includes stunts from past films instead of the usual out-takes. I admit, I got a little misty. This trip down memory lane seems to indicate that there will be no more of these crazy movies.

Journey to the West (2013) is Stephen Chow's latest (more or less) crazy movie. It strikes me as a little Kung Fu Hustle, a little White Snake. Zang Wen plays a mop-headed demon hunter, who tries to subdue demons by reading them kiddy songs to bring out their goodness. He doesn't have much luck with this, but one of his gorgeous competitors, Qi Shu (So Close) keeps showing up to bail him out. His master sends him to find the Monkey King demon, who was imprisoned by the Buddha long ago.

Lots of adventures, demons, kung fu, and silliness. Zang Wen maintains a humble, good-hearted attitude throughout, although he always doubts his skill when he always needs Qi Shu to save his skin. But it ends with a very sweet cosmic Buddha cameo, and shows how this is a prequel to the classic Monkey tale of a monk travelling east to bring back sutras with the assistance of demon companions.

I've mentioned before that I am a Buddhist, and I always get a little thrill when a movie features Buddhist themes, instead of the Christ figures we always get in American and European movies. Of course, Buddhism can be used in a shallow, cliche way just like Christianity. I'm not judging Journey, just saying your mileage may vary.

Finally, one last - 14 Blades (2010), a Donnie Yen costumer about the brutal imperial secret police and the powerful swords they are entrusted with. I can't say this is worse than the usual stuff, but it isn't better. It's a small thing, for instance, but I didn't care for the art design of the weapons or the ubiquitous seals and sigils the factions used to identify themselves. Too contemporary and somewhat clunky. So this one turned out to be just a time-filler.

The other two were worth watching though.