Sunday, March 29, 2015

Bad Heart

More musical movies: Crazy Heart (2009). Almost the only part of R.I.P.D. we enjoyed was Jeff Bridges singing a little song, written by T-Bone Burnett, so we figured we should watch the movie where that's the whole thing.

Bridges stars as country singer-songwriter Bad Blake. We meet him arriving at a gig, at a bowling alley in Nowheres New Mexico, getting out of a cramped car and emptying his pee-bottle. His day doesn't get much more dignified after that. He meets his fans, a few old dried-up looking country types. One of them owns the liquor store where Bad is considering buying a tiny little bottle of something, but the owner considers it an honor to buy Bad a fifth of his favorite. Not necessarily a favor. He meets the pickup band they've arranged for him, a bunch of kids that clearly don't think much of this washed-up drunk. He has to reassure them that, sick, drunk, divorced or on the run, Bad Blake never missed a show.

By the way, the pickup band is lead by Ryan Bingham, who opened for Dylan's Americanarama show in 2013, so I got to see him. He's great, which kind of undercuts the idea that Bad is playing dumps with local clowns. It's a bowling alley, and the fans look about as bad as he does, but the band can rock, he remembers the dedication the liquor store owner requested, and even though he has to cut out in the middle of a song to puke, he kind of makes it work.

Later, he meets up with young Maggie Gyllenhaal, a single mother who interviews him for the local paper and shares a moment with him. He kind of takes to her and her son. He wants to take care of the son, maybe not as a father, but a fun uncle. -SPOILER- That doesn't work out.

It turns out that Bad Blake had mentored another country singer, Colin Farrell (believe it or not), who got really famous and is now playing arenas. He wants to help Blake, but Blake is too pissed off about it all. -SPOILER AGAIN- Farrell is a nice guy who really wants to help. He brings out Bad for a couple of duets in one of his big shows, which was filmed at a Vince Gill concert. It all works pout pretty OK.

But my concern is, how good was the music? Bridges sells the songs well, maybe more like a songwriter than a singer, but not bad. The rockers are more fun than the ballads, but that's generally true. I liked Fallin' and Flyin' a lot: "Funny how fallin' feels like flyin'/For a little while." But given T-Bone Burnett's god-like status as a producer and songwriter, and Jeff's affinity for the music, you'd think they could have come up with something better. The original songs - there are only 3 or 4 - seem overworked and under-inspired. They were clearly going for "anthemic", and when they didn't get it, they kept grinding away. Not the best way to write a song.

But they sure got the whole life-of-a-jobbing-musician down. Bad Blake was a little bit of all the outlaw songwriters, from Townes Van Zandt to Kris Kristofferson to Stephen Bruton, who wrote some of the songs here and died before it came out. For that, it's worth watching.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

If I Fell

Still watching the music-oriented movies. We haven't watched The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) since - since it came out? I'm pretty sure I watched it in college, which is where I was in 1976, so I guess that's right. Ms. Spenser and I weren't really an item then, so I guess we saw it separately. We couldn't really remember much, except that it was pretty depressing. So we queued it up!

The plot is simple in outline, elusive in detail. David Bowie shows up in a pawn shop in some god-forsaken US desert town, selling his wedding ring. Later we see that he has a lot of these rings. I guess he got a good price for them, because we next see him offering patent attorney Buck Henry a pile of cash to represent him. It turns out that Bowie has at least seven basic patents, worth millions. Only millions, asks Bowie, disappointed.

It turns out that he is an alien from another planet, where he has a wife and children. But there is no water - he needs enough money to build a spaceship to take water back to his planet. In the meantime, he meets young Candy Clark, a hotel bellhop who befriends him, teaches him to drink gin, and takes him to bed. As the years go on, life on Earth wears on Bowie. He retreats to the desert to keep the voices out of his head, and dulls his feelings with TV and gin. He hires scientist Rip Torn, a college professor who likes to sleep with his co-eds to manage his industrial enterprises.

All of this wears on Bowie's alien. His spaceship is ready for launch, he is ready to go and then... Something happens, it isn't clear what. Buck Henry is killed. Bowie is weak and confused, trapped and detached. Years go by. One of the guys who locked Bowie up raises biracial kids. Candy Clark marries Rip Torn, gets old, visits Bowie for some pistol sexplay.. Bowie never changes, just becomes irrelevant. In the end, - SPOILER - nothing is resolved.

The movie gets by on it's striking imagery, including the amazing special effect that is David Bowie's face. It's pretty restrained for Nic Roeg. The music is interesting, but not Bowie - the music Bowie was planning to contribute went to the album Low. John "Papa" Philips did the music direction, with some interesting pop numbers, from Roy Orbison to Joni Mitchell, a few obvious numbers like Holst's Planets and Artie Shaw's version of Stardust. Philips contributes some pretty anonymous numbers, but the most interesting numbers are from Japanese percussionist Stomu Yamashta - Some were almost Grateful-Dead-like.

It turns out that Bowie's alienation and exhaustion were due to a very bad coke habit, so, method acting. I don't expect you to like this movie much unless you're a Bowie fan. Also, it isn't very uplifting - kind of a bummer, really.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Gaslight in the Rear Window

Just when you think you've seen all the great noirs: Witness to Murder (1954).

The setup comes right out of Rear Window, released at the same time. Barbara Stanwyck wakes up in the middle of the night, and sees, in the window across the way, a man strangle a woman to death. She runs to call the police, but by the time they arrive, there is no body. The killer, George Saunders, knows that he was observed, and has taken steps. He is a debonair and charming author, and the police reluctantly agree that Stanwyck was probably just dreaming.

By the way, the police are Gary Merrill as the clever detective, with the dumber partner played by the Maytag Repairman himself, Jesse White. Merrill has a great face for a detective, very "just the facts, Ma'am," very Joe Friday. In fact, Jesse White goes out the door muttering, "Dum da-dum-dum, 8:05, left office looking for trouble. 8:06, we find it!"

So Stanwyck knows she's seen a murder, but can't prove it. Saunders knows she's seen him, but he's a Nietzschean ubermensch and sets up a Gaslight campaign to destroy her. This lands her in the looney bin for "observation", where she is cooped up with a bitter nympho, a vacant old lady and Juanita Moore, singing a sweet sultry blues number. This snake-pit scene is the most noir in the movie, but the whole thing is drenched in shadows of venetian blinds and similar conventions.

Stanwyck is too old to be an ingenue here, she is a mature single career woman, which nobody makes anything of, but doesn't that indicate "repressed, hysterical spinster" to you? She plays it right down the middle - not a scared little girl, not a hysterical old maid, just an ordinary, intelligent woman with the deck stacked against her.

But Stanwyck and Saunders don't stop this from being a B-movie - just the kind of B-movie I love.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Teen Chronicle

Chronicle (2012) was kind of a big thing back in 2012. It was on several blogger's "Best of" lists that year, as a plucky little indie that delivered. We finally got around to watching it, and concur.

It is shot from the point of view of a teenage outcast, Dane Deehan. He has an abusive father and a mother dying of cancer, and he has decided to record everything - the whole movie is the movie he is making. We next meet his cousin and only friend (kind of friend), Alex Russell, who is kind of a hipster - he makes a big deal about all the pretentious literature he is reading, and talks about dropping out of the whole "popularity" thing. These two go to a rave, meet up with popular jock Michael B. Jordan, and discover a glowing McGuffin in a hole in the woods.

The film cuts off here (this is all "found footage", remember), and when it comes back in, the three are fooling around with new-found powers. They can control matter with their minds, and as they practice, they get better at it, until they can fly. They use these powers about like you'd expect: goofing around, pranks, to get popular. They don't use them to solve crimes or rob banks, but it's not because they are responsible and mature. It's because they are slackers and just aren't into it. But one of the kids goes dark, then darker, and then, finally, there's the big battle climax.

As I said, this is an indie production by first-time feature director Josh Trank, from a script by Max (No Relation) Landis. The found footage frame worked well, especially when Deehan learned to levitate the camera for a more interesting POV. The special effects were good and (I have read) innovative, although these days, it's pretty hard to impress with special effects. You'll really judge this based on how well you think it handles the dynamics of the three friends, as well as how the premise plays out.

I think it stands the test of time.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Torture Cell

As confirmed Tarsem Singh fans, we are glad we finally watched The Cell (2000). Well, not glad exactly...

Jennifer Lopez works for a company that puts her into the mind of coma patients. It starts with her trying to convince a young boy to get on a dreamship and sail out of his coma. This is full of Tarsem's beautiful surrealism. The process involves wearing rubber suits that make you look like you've had your skin flayed off, and being suspended from the ceiling, so the surrealism continues outside the dream world.

The work is hard and slow, and leaves Lopez sleepless and stressed. There's a cute scene where she smokes a joint and tries to fall asleep watching Fantastic Planet - not as fantastic or creepy as her job.

But it gets much worse when the police (Vince Vaughan!) catch a serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) after he has a fit and falls into a coma. His MO is to drown his victims slowly over 40 hours in a hidden, automated torture cell. There's a girl in it now, and they have to find it fast. So Lopez will have to go into the mind of a twisted killer.

Two things:
  • The scenes inside the killer's mind are visually amazing, a mix of innocent wonder, child abuse, and glorious, decadent, monstrous oriental splendor.
  • The scenes of torture are pretty ghastly - almost more than I could take. It made it clear how hard Lopez's attempt to sympathize with the humanity inside the killer was.
In fact, in scenes where we see the horrible conditions that made the killer what he became, I couldn't help thinking, screw him, there's a girl slowly drowning somewhere.

The funny thing is, we saw this movie in the midst of a bunch of girls-in-peril stuff. For example, there's a scene where the missing girl seems to be locked in an underwater chamber in The Wicker Man. A girl is threatened in Cape Fear. And we have been watching an interesting Australian 1920's lady detective series, Miss Fisher's Mysteries. The series is mostly stand-alone mysteries, but there is a continuing plot about the man who killed Miss Fisher's sister. In the episode we watched immediately before The Cell, the serial killer abducts a young woman and gets all dressed up as an Egyptian god, similar to the way the killer in The Cell imagines himself to be a demonic oriental king, with Lopez as his consort.

This is a beautiful, fascinating movie, but also brutal and very tense. Our hearts were racing and we were practically panting by the end. You may have more or less tolerance for that than us - also more or less tolerance for silly science, like the virus that causes serial killing/comas. But I hope we can all agree about the beauty and surrealism.

And just to let you off the hook, the killer's dog, a beautiful albino German Shepherd, survives the movie. That had me worried right up to the end.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Expendable Women

So I just wanted to watch a stupid action movie, and since I love the women, I queued up Mercenaries (2014). It stars Brigitte Nielsen, Vivica Fox, Zoe Bell, Kristanna Loken and Cynthia Rothrock and is advertised as a sort of distaff Expendables. I should have notice that it was made crap-masters Asylum.

It seems that the president's daughter is captured by warlords in Glenbeckistan, lead by Brigitte Nielsen. So secret agent chief Cynthia Rothrock recruits a dirty (1/3) dozen gang of women in prison. Now, there are some who say that Rothrock, Neilsen and even Fox are too old to be playing these roles, but I completely disagree. However, they are certainly old enough to know when their director is so weak that they look too old, too tired and too lame. Rothrock, who I liked in Yes Madam, in particular, got by with terrible line readings and maybe one fight.

The fights were fine, nothing special. The acting was mostly terrible. The best thing to be said for the movie is that it was short. And Vivica Fox was pretty bad-ass.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Pictures of Wicker Men

What can I say?  We wanted to watch The Wicker Man (1973), and had to watch The Wicker Man (2006).

Since these movies have basically the same plot, I'll save a little time and describe the common thread. There is an island, isolated and seemingly idyllic, where everyone is named after plants. To this island comes a lone policeman. He has received a letter telling him that a little girl, Rowan, has gone missing from the island. But no one on the island will admit to knowing the girl. There are hints that she exists - she's on the school attendance list. Maybe she's dead, but the grave is in a ruined churchyard. Is she even in the coffin at all?

The islanders have peculiar religious practices, modeled on the old nature cults. When our policeman finally meets the mysterious leader of the island, he begins to suspect that they even practice human sacrifice, and that the girl may be the next victim. And it is April 30, and tomorrow is May Day.

In the original 1973 stars Edward Woodward (another plant name!) as the policeman. The island is in Scotland, and the islanders engage in fertility rituals - for singing bawdy songs in the pub and dancing lewdly with the landlord's daughter, Britt Ekland to outdoor public swiving. It actually looks kind of nice - lots of folk music if you're into that, and strapping lads and lusty wenches if you're into that. Woodward is not - he is a straitlaced Catholic and has a hard time keeping his mind off the depravity. My favorite scene has Ekland in the room next to him, all nude and sweaty, working a sex spell to entice him into her room. She writhes, dances and knocks on the wall in a seductive rhythm that really raises the heat.

The mysterious leader, Lord Summerisle, is Christopher Lee. He plays it just right, an aristocratic New Age hippie type. When he shows up, things really get going.

In the 2006 version, the policeman is Nic Cage. Before he goes to the island, we see him involved in a horrible, unexpected and hilarious accident. As soon as I saw it, I knew this was going to be played for laughs. Anyway, he is traumatized, not sleeping, and popping pills for the flashbacks. The letter about the missing girl is his chance for redemption, to become whole again.

In this movie, the island is in the Puget Sound, and specializes in honey production, which is a problem, since Cage is allergic to bee stings. The inhabitants are almost all women, the men all mute drones. Although this version of the island looks cozy, writer/director Neil LaBute's famed misogyny really comes through - these are the asexual, funless type lesbians, not the skyclad dancing type. Elen Burstyn is Sister Summersisle, and a lot less fun than Christopher Lee, although just as devious - wait until you see the bee-funnel.

So, watch the 1973 version for the Hammer-like seductive horror, and the 2006 for the laughs, intended and un-.

In conclusion, Ms. Spenser would just like to say, "The bees! The bees!"

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Giving 110%

Just how many SF movies was Scarlett Johansson in in the last few years? Ans: Lots, and we will watch them all. We went into Lucy (2014) knowing only that she was in it and that she uses more than 10% of her brain. We didn't find out that Luc Besson wrote and direct until the credits.

Scarlett Johansson is Lucy, a model or something in Taipei. She gets involved in a drug deal and winds up with a bag of the illegal designer drug CPH4 sewn into her side by some Korean mobsters. By the way, if they are looking for a cool street name, I would go with "cypher". This drug seems to make giigling crackheads into spazzed-out, raving crackheads. So it's too bad that Lucy gets a beating that makes the stash leak into her system.

By the way, did you know that the earliest human was called Lucy? We see shots of this early hominid and some gazelles getting hunted as metaphors for Johansson's situation, but they do pay off later. We also see Morgan Freeman giving a lecture on how humans only use 10% of their brains. At 20%, they could read minds. At 40%, they could control space and time. And at 100%, they could, dare I say it? Rule the world?

Which also pays off, because the CPH4 starts to give Lucy the use of the other 90% of her brain. She starts getting awesome powers, including the ability to predict that it would kill her in about a day. But that's fine, first she has to retrieve all of the drug shipments, so she can do it all. To keep it out of the hands of innocents, I'm sure.

One of the limits of the movie is that Lucy at 20% and up is beyond pain and human emotion, so she's not very relatable. Johansson is great at getting a lot out of a blank, expressionless deadpan, so this works for her. Another limit is that the whole 10% of the brain thing is BS, but so are vampires and faster-than-light space travel, and we swallow that when we have to.

I thought this was a lot of fun, although not Besson's best. If you can ignore the boneheaded attempts at profundity spouted by Prof. Freeman, and approach it as mindless fun, I think you will be entertained.

And the message of the film is, when dosed with a mysterious illegal drug, try to do as much as possible. Drugs are amazing!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fear Itself

Since we saw the original, we felt like we should check out Martin Scorsese's remake of Cape Fear (1991). It's both very close and completely different.

It stars Nick Nolte in the Gary Cooper role of an upstanding lawyer being menaced by Max Cady, played by Robert De Niro in the Robert Mitchum role. In the original, the lawyer is a decent man, but a bit weak and maybe corrupted. In the remake, he is weaker - he is having an emotional affair (no sex yet) with court clerk Illeana Douglas (Grace of My Heart), some of his legal cases seem a bit low, and, like in the original, he tries to get Cady rousted.

But he goes further, and hires a private eye to rough him up and then act as bodyguard - and it's Joe Don Baker! All MSTies laugh at him for his work in Mitchell, but he's pretty good in this, as the sleazy, not-as-good-as-he-thinks-he-is good ol' boy.

Then there's Nolte's wife, Jessica Lange, not the Donna Reed housewife type, but a bit of a bitch. The daughter, Juliette Lewis, is also more modern - she was suspended for marijuana and has to go to summer school. This leads to one of the most upsetting scenes, where De Niro pretends to be one of her teachers and starts seducing her. Very creepy, and not really necessary. By contrast, Mitchum's scariest scene was when he beat up the b-girl. In the remake, he beats Illeana Douglas, and it just isn't as bad.

The filming styles were completely different as well. The original used a classic black and white style with lots of location shooting. The remake used a fair amount of optical effects - turning the sky purple, etc, that gave it an almost 70s look. The southern location was bleached out - mostly office buildings and the bland mini-mansion Nolte and family lived in.

The climax on the Cape Fear River goes way over the top and kind of shows up the problem of this remake. The original was tense and dramatic, but this gets almost silly. And De Niro is suitably creepy, violent and evil, but when he starts speaking in tongues, I couldn't hang.

In conclusion, the best parts were cameos for Robert Mitchum, Martin Balsam and Gary Cooper (who was actually a little stiff). And, of course, Joe Don Baker.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Hard-Riding Women

Like Westerns, but looking for something crazy, and maybe a little psychosexual? Try Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954).

It starts with a bang. Johnny Guitar, Sterling Hayden, riding along a trail, passes construction work for the railroad dynamiting through a ridge. He overlooks a stagecoach holdup and rides on. He's on his way to Vienna's place, a casino out of town (but on the new rail line), run by Joan Crawford. But she's got a bit of trouble - Mercedes McCambridge leads a posse in, dumps a dead body on the roulette table and accuses Crawford of harboring the gang that done it, lead by her boyfriend, the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). Hayden shows up and plays a little guitar for the Kid to dance to, and it's all quite threatening.

The key to the movie is McCambridge's hatred for Crawford, because she has a yen for the Kid, but was too much of a virgin to let him know. Then there's the back story between Crawford and Hayden. It's all expressed in the most overwrought and melodramatic way possible, up to and including a classic hideout behind a waterfall.

It could be ridiculous (well, maybe it is), but this is Nicholas Ray, so it's also wonderful. Needed more guitar, though.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Vanilla Eyes

I guess we saw Vanilla Sky before I started this blog,  because there's no post. It might have been the first not-horrible Tom Cruise movie I had seen. We just saw the original movie, Open Your Eyes (Abre los Ojos, 1997) and it helps explain why.

Basically, Vanilla Sky is a remake of a Spanish film called Abre los Ojos. It stars Eduardo Noriega as a shallow rich handsome man who never sleeps with the same woman twice. After meeting Penelope Cruz, he thinks he might have found someone to settle down with. When he is horribly disfigured, everything changes. Without his good looks he is nothing. Then things start to get strange.

 I've read the Cruise optioned the remake of this movie before he finished watching the credits. It's easy to see why:
  • Playing handsome shallow assholes is pretty much Cruise's sweet spot.
  • Head games about the nature of reality work with his Scientologist philosophy
 Now, I wouldn't say that everything good about Vanilla Sky comes from Abre los Ojos, but the plot and most of the scenes do. The love interest is even played by Penelope Cruz in the remake. Skies does have a few interesting scenes like Cruise and Cruz (huh, never noticed that) walking in the snow like Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of Freewheelin'. But I think the earlier film gets at the heart of the story better.

In conclusion, if you have seen either, and didn't hate it, try the other. If you haven't, watch Ojos first.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Playing Chess

Nobody worries about historical accuracy when making a biopic, especially about musicians. Take for ex: Cadillac Records (2008).

It stars Adrian Brody as Leonard Chess, founder of legendary Chicago blues label Chess Records. Now, if you know Chess, you might be wondering, what about his brother Phil? Well, he's not in this movie, at least he doesn't have any lines. Leonard is a Jewish immigrant of little means who wants his future wife to drive a Cadillac. He thinks he can get there by recording "race" records.

He finds talent like Muddy Waters (Jeffery Wright), Little Walter (Columbus Short), Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), Chuck Berry (Mos Def), Willie Dixon (Cedric the Entertainer) and significantly, Etta James (Beyonce Knowles). He recorded their records and got them played on the radio (even if it took a little payola). He got them all Cadillacs, but he took it out of their royalties. The message seemed to be that he was really on the artists side, but was a bit sleazy too. Also, he was faithful to his Jewish wife, except for a little thing with Etta James.

About that - he was bringing her around when she was overdosing on heroin, which progressed to the start of an intimate act. Now pardon me if I seem old-fashioned, but you don't sleep with passed-out drunks and you don't do it with someone high on smack. Gross! Sorry, had to get it off my chest.

Anyway, the historical accuracy is negligible. Fine, what about the music? Amazingly, the actors did their own singing (except Beyonce - she did her own singing and it is amazing, but it's not amazing that she did her own singing). Wright sing a solid Muddy, but he plays the role as a man unsure of himself, worried about his popularity. Eamonn Walker, on the other hand, makes an amazing Howlin' Wolf, tall with a sharp haircut and bowtie, full of righteous independence, performing a fierce rendition of "Smokestack Lightning". Mos Def isn't bad as Berry, either.

But Beyonce was best, and they save my favorite Etta James song for last, "I Would Rather Go Blind". Really, I would have liked to see a lot more of her and Howlin' Wolf, and less melodrama. Although, I did kind of the like the idea that Muddy's band were called the Head Hunters - They'd go after other bands and blow them off the stage, either with the blues or with Little Walter's gun.

In conclusion, silly story, good acting, great music.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cometary Track

Night of the Comet (1984) totally counts as a post-apocalyptic zombie horror movie, but I queued it up because it's a cheesy 80s teen comedy. So why not?

Mary Catherine Stewart "works" at a B-movie palace - "works" in quotes because she spends most of her time making sure her name is the only one on the leader board of the lobby video game. I guess she's hoping for Robert Preston to show up, like in Last Starfighter. The projectionist has a scheme to spend the night with her in the projection booth, while the rest of the world is out watching a spectacular comet pass by overhead.

For example, all the neighbors will be out having an all-night comet party. Her mother will be there, snuggling with some guy from next door because her father is in El Salvador fighting commies. Her sister, a cheerleader valley-girl airhead (Kelli Maroney), will miss it, because she got grounded, ran away from home and slept in a garden shed.

The next morning, everyone is gone. The projectionist is gone, leaving a bloody smear. The block party is gone, leaving little piles of red dust. Only Stewart and Maroney, some zombies and the radio station are left. The radio station turns out to be on auto-pilot, but they meet one more survivor, Robert Beltran. Now the problem becomes, how can two girls survive the apocalypse with only one boy to hook up with.

Fortunately, an underground lab full of scientists are going to make everything better. Although, scientist Mary Woronov doesn't seem too sunny. Oh well, end of the world, flesh-eating zombies, kind of a bummer, I guess.

This isn't a big comedy like, say Shawn of the Dead, but it's pretty funny. It has fun with cheap horror movie conventions and with the whole 80s milieu. I might have liked it even more if I watched more of the movies it parodies. I don't know why it isn't referenced in Maximum Overdrive.