Tuesday, July 21, 2015

See You in My Dreams

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) is one of his last films, and one of the last we hadn't seen. It is literally a series of dreams, loosely linked by theme and characters. It has no plot (or 8 plots, one for each dream) and is very beautiful.

The first two dreams are from the point of view of a young boy. In the first, it is raining but the sun is out. His mother warns him that the foxes have their weddings in this weather, and if they see him outside, they will be mad. The key section is a long, slow wedding procession for fox-faced beings in formal kimono, to the accompaniment of Japanese court music. This music, along with the masks and slow, formalized movement, give a feeling of Noh theater to the dream.

The next dream involves the same boy (young Akira?) finding a whole set of living Japanese court dolls where the peach orchard used to be. When he proves to be sympathetic, they perform a slow, intricate dance - very formal, strikingly beautiful.

In rest of the dreams, our viewpoint character is grown up - a mountain climber, a soldier, or just a traveller. Some are nightmares, like the solider haunted by the ghosts of the men he lead to their deaths. In one, seven nuclear reactors explode behind Mt. Fuji - special effects by Ishiro Honda of Godzilla fame. Others are idylls, like the final gentle section about a village of waterwheels.

The one that I remember reading about is either the most beautiful or the silliest (or both). Our dreamer steps into the world of Vincent van Gogh, in fact, into his paintings. The mixtures of live action and impressionist painting is both beautiful and silly - possibly it was beyond the reach of Kurosawa-san's technique. It doesn't compare, for instance, to the living paintings in What Dreams May Come, but that is not really a good movie. But that's not the silliest part. The silliest part is that van Gogh, with bandaged ear and everything, is played by Martin Scorsese, New Yawk accent and all.

Still, couldn't someone dream they met van Gogh and he sounded just like Martin Scorsese? I've had stranger dreams.

We loved this movie, but since it doesn't have a plot, it must be considered "minor" Kurosawa. Still, that's more than good enough.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

T for Trouble

I picked Trouble Man (1972) mainly based on the Falcon's recommendation in Captain America: Winter Soldier. He was recommending the soundtrack only, but I figured the movie would be good too - and I was right.

Directed by Ivan Dixon (Hogan's Heroes' Kinch), it stars Robert Hooks as Mr. T, a tough man with a ton of style - we are introduced to him leaving one of his ladies, driving though Santa Monica to his geometric metallic wallpapered pad, where we see his closets full of tailor suits. He heads off to his office, a pool hall, where he hears the pleas of his subjects and whoops an out-of-town pool hustler. Then an old associate and his white crime partner approach him to do a job: Their crap games are being knocked over by a masked gang, and they want Mr. T to fix it for them. He goes undercover to one of the games, but something goes wrong and one of the hijacker is shot. But things aren't what they look like.

It's actually a pretty good plot, except for the usual --SPOILER-- "we called the infallible detective in to witness our plot, because we can fool him for sure" problem. Overall, we get Hooks being a total badass, and plenty of 70s local color - highways, cars, fashions. Sadly, very little of the great Marvin Gay soundtrack mentioned by the Falcon is included, but what's there is great. This is a much less sleazy type of Blaxploitation, which is nice because you don't feel so dirty after watching, but maybe fewer gasp-out-loud moments. It might not sum up the last 50 years for someone who has been hibernating since WWII, but a fun watch.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Arakadin the Third

I've heard a lot about Orson Welles' Mr. Arkadin: The Confidential Report (1955) - mostly that Welles never actually finished it, it was edited without his permission, and there are many variant versions. Like that's anything different for Welles.

This version is, I believe, the British 93-minute version. It starts with Welles telling the tale of an empty airplane, with no pilot or passengers, seen over Spain. This caught me because I had heard a similar "hook" in a radio drama - Harry Lime, nonetheless.

We then flash back to Robert Arden talking to a shabby, dying Akim Tamiroff. Arden realizes he'll have to tell the whole story, so we dive into another flashback.

Arden is a penny ante cigarette smuggler in France, when he and his girl (Patricia Medina) find a dying man on the docks. His last words are "Tell Arkadin that Braccho told you everything - he'll pay millions." Arkadin turns out to be a very wealthy man with a beautiful daughter, Paola Mori. For a while, we only see Arkadin in the shadows, like Harry Lime. When he finally appears, he is regal, with a beard like the king on a playing card. He tells Arden a secret - he doesn't know what Braccho was talking about, because he has amnesia. Perhaps Arden can investigate Arkadin, to find out if there's anything he should worry about.

And so the story goes from Spain to Zurich, Paris, Mexico, Warsaw, all over (all filmed in gloriously surreal Dutch angles, in dreamlike black and white). We meet an amazing bunch of people, including our beloved Mischa Auer as the proprietor of a flea circus (and yes, we do get to see the fleas perform).

And people who know about Arkadin start dying - at last, there are only 2 people who know his secret. Wait, there are three. And who is the Third Man?

There is a lot more than a little Third Man in this movie: the layered paranoia, the fantastical camera work, the mystery of Orson Welles at the center. There's also a bit of Fellini in some of the grotesque faces. There's also a lot of almost documentary work - I feel in some ways that Welles was just shooting from his own jetsetting life. If he needed a yacht, I'm sure a friend could loan him one. If he needed a castle, there are plenty in Europe. So we get no soundstages, all locations, but shabby, bombed-out, war-weary locations, even at the height of luxury.

We could tell that this was not  a complete film - there are weird edits, jumps in the narrative, bad dubbing. But the overall effect is dreamlike, yet exquisitely mannered. It has a touch of noir flavor to the black and white, the paranoia, and the anti-heroes. Glad we watched it. Now, about the other versions...

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Black and White Night

One of the nice things about old movies (I mean "classics") is that they tend to be short, so you can get in two in an evening.

Our first feature was the British comedy Please Turn Over! (1959). It's the basic Theodora Goes Wild plot: young girl writes scandalous best seller and the whole town thinks it's true to life. In this one, the young girl is Julia Lockwood, who lives with her strict father, ditzy mother and spinsterish aunt in a dull English suburbia. When her book comes out, everyone in town believes that her father was embezzling to pay for his secretary's taste in clothes and jewels, that her mother is messing around with a family friend, that the aunt is a drunk pining for a lecherous doctor, and so on. After we get everyone's reaction to this, the family sits down to read the book and we get to see them acting out the story.

Lockwood is a very appealing teenager with a nice almost Twiggy style bobbed hairstyle. She can't believe anyone takes the book seriously, but thinks it's all too frightfully. An Angry Young Playwright wants to adapt the novel, and winds up proposing. It's all rather sweet and funny, although not really a knee-slapper. Joan Sims (from the Carry On movies, made by this same team) might get the best role as the snarling housemaid who becomes a French maid in the novel with an odd line of French: "Not on votre Nelly!"

Next up: the noirish The Racket (1951), with Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Lizabeth Scott. It's about a town where the organization is moving in, working with more traditional thug Robert Ryan. There's a lot of corruption, even the Organized Crime Special Investigator (William Conrad) and the DA (Ray Collins) are corrupt. The only truly honorable and upstanding cop is Robert Mitchum, who keeps getting shuttled around to smaller and less important precincts. About the only one he trusts is patrol officer William Talman, the Van Heflin looking actor who was played the prosecutor on Perry Mason. We called him Officer Dead Meat.

Lizabeth Scott doesn't get to do much as the song bird who won't sing on Ryan.

This seems pretty old-fashioned, which makes sense, since it's the remake of a silent film (Howard Hughes produced both). One nice touch is that we never find out who the "Old Man" is, the man behind the mob. Mitchum gets the drop on Ryan, but that doesn't finish it. That's just one man down, the rest of the city to go.

This is really only great for the lead actors - the story is pretty creaky - and Scott gets shorted on screen time. But if you like Mitchum and Ryan, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Trance Dance

We had to watch Transcendence (2015) since we'd watched Her - it's another movie about artificial intelligence. Not that they have much in common, except that they we were kind of disappointed.

It starts with a spoiler, but I'll skip that. It goes back a few years and introduces us to Johnny Depp, a celebrated but somewhat reclusive computer scientist, and his wife, Rebecca Hall, another scientist, but maybe more of an administrator. We get quite a bit of exposition before Depp is killed by a neo-Luddite PETA-style terrorist group, and his wife and best friend (Paul Bettany) upload his consciousness into a computer.

Virtual Johnny Depp starts out a bit mechanical, but quickly gets better. Hall sets up a research facility for him and the Deppbot starts experimenting with nanotech, then medical nanotech. He eventually starts to recruit an army of mind-controlled zombies, which everyone feels is not cool, although I don't think anyone every tells him that.

So FBI agent Morgan Freeman and old friend of Hall decides to join with the terrorists and Paul Bettany to take down Depp before he takes over the internet. Which is weird, because a) the terrorist killed most of his FBI buddies (SPOILER - poisoned birthday cake) and 2) can an FBI agent do that? Anyway, that doesn't work out and soon Depp 2.0 is ready to - dare I say it? - rule the world! Unless his wife turns on him and takes him down.

One of our biggest issues with Her was that the society developed strong AI and used it for dating purposes and to organize email. At least Transcendence didn't make that mistake. But we still felt like they were thinking smaller than the title indicates. But my real problem was that I was behind Depp the whole way. - SPOILER - I think we are supposed to fear the Depptron - it's an out of control Frankenstein's monster to whom humans are nothing but insects. But even though the zombie mind control thing as a bit rough, he only did it to volunteers with serious health problems. It was win-win, people.

I guess Depp is just too sympathetic, too darn likeable to be scary. The movie is really a love story between Depp and Hall, and it is a sweet romantic one. But this still didn't work for me.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Jumping Jupiter

I can certainly understand why Jupiter Ascending (2015) gets slammed so bad, but I don't care. I was looking for cosmic space opera with wild visuals, and I got it.

It stars Mila Kunis as Jupiter Jones, an alien - the undocumented kind, from Russia. She lives in Chicago with her widowed mother and extended family, and makes a living cleaning houses with the rest of the women in the clan. But we know there is a bigger universe for her to discover. We meet odd effete nobles on ravaged worlds, and some unsavory bounty hunters on Earth - bounty hunters looking for Jupiter.

It seems that human beings exist on many planets, with the richest families living for millenia and owning - and harvesting - planets. And they want Jupiter. I'll skip the spoilers, partly because they make so little sense. But I will let you know that one of the bounty hunters, played by Channing Tatum, is a gene-modified human with some canine added. Yes, her love interest is a werewolf. And Jupiter has to wonder how those rich families live so long. Are they vampires?

But space werewolves and vampires (not to mention dark angels) are beside the point. The point is amazing chases with Tatum on antigrav space boots, Doona Bae on her space scooter, exploding buildings, space cathedrals, last-minute hairs-breadth rescues, etc. My only complaint was that they tended to drag on a bit, and that they were often cool for cool's sake - no development within the action. But they looked great - come on, it was directed by the Wachowskis!

Ok, maybe my other complaint is that Kunis' role is so passive - she barely gets a wisecrack in. And aren't we a little past the old secret princess plot? Come to think of it, the whole plot is pretty weak, but I think I already said it doesn't make any sense. It looks great and it's fun. It has a sense of wonder and a sense of humor - ok, not as good as Gaurdians of the Galaxy, but I'll take it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Game of Life

The Imitation Game (2014) has two things going for it: it is the story of mathematician Alan Turing, and he is played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

The story of Turing is fascinating: He was a brilliant but socially maladroit mathematician who broke the Nazi Enigma code, working in a secret facility in Bletchley Park. (I don't know if the British TV series The Bletchley Circle was inspired by the movie or if it's just one of those things.) He was also a homosexual, at a time where that was a serious crime. In fact, some years after the war, he was convicted and "chemically castrated", which is as horrible as it sounds. His wartime heroism was still top-secret.

I don't think it is a stretch for Mr. Bunnydick Cucumberpatch to play an autistic genius. It is getting to be a bit of a niche. Suffice it to say he does a great job here, but it is more of a Cambershaft performance than a Turing performance. Unless Alan Turing really did sound and act like Binkydink Camouflage, which is possible. In fact, people who knew Turing say his imitation was uncanny, so I withdraw my objections, and promise to stop making up silly names for him.

Unfortunately, while the acting is great, I felt that some of the drama was a little forced. The scene where Turing finally breaks the code, and realizes that they will have to let a German attack proceed or risk giving away the game has the stakes raised one or two too many times. Although, maybe that was actually true to life as well.

The actual code breaking was interesting and seemed very realistic- in fact, I would have enjoyed more of that, and maybe more of Turings thoughts on machine intelligence and the Imitation Game. The original game involves a man and a woman in two separate rooms, and you have to guess which is the woman, only communicating by typewriter. In Turing's version, you have to guess which is a computer. That helps you think about whether computers can think like humans, but also whether woman can think like men, and of course, whether homosexuals can think like heterosexuals. But I suppose they didn't need to spell it out.

Alan Turing committed suicide not long after he was convicted of indecency. The Queen pardoned him in 2003. This is a worthwhile story to tell.