Sunday, November 29, 2015

Thanks for the Memories

A long time ago, I suggested that we should watch some Native-American-themed movies and Thanksgiving seemed the right time for it. So when the big meal was served (menu after page break), we put on The New World (2005).

This is a Terence Malick film, the last before he kicked into his late career production with Tree of Life. It's the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in colonial Jamestown. But mostly it's about the beauty and mystery of the new world, the new continent, and especially the James River and Chickahominy River area of Virginia. The camera loves to watch cypress swamps, meadows, quiet forests, and flights of birds. The colonists definitely look like intruders.

Colin Farrell is John Smith - Ms. Spenser says he spends the whole movie "looming." He is sent to explore the interior and winds up captive of Powhatan. Just as he is about to be killed - the screen goes black and Farrell narrates that the chief's daughter intervened to save his life. This is a nice way to deal with the question of historical accuracy. The chief's daughter, played by Q'orianka Kilcher, is never named Pocahontas, either.

The natives live a good life, playing, dancing, praying - maybe a little too much. Did they really spend that much time on games and ritual? Meanwhile, Jamestown is starving, and Farrell heads back.

The story develops in odd ways, with Smith kind of dropping out altogether in the third act. But that's all right, it's really about the trees, the sky, the river, Mother Water. It was a visual feast, and at 3 hours long, a big one.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Forgotten Youth

I think I've mentioned that we lived in Japan for a few years, and got into manga and anime while we were there. One of the first things we did was let our 10 year-old Japanese cousin take us out in a typhoon to see the Captain Harlock movie My Youth in Arcadia. So of course we want to see Harlock: Space Pirate (2013). But we had our trepidations.

Harlock was drawn by anime master Matsumoto Reiji: He is a handsome immortal space pirate with a scar, a patch over one eye and his hair over the other. He flies the space-lanes in the Arcadia, a ship with the stern of a sailing galleon, the midships of a WWII submarine, and a huge skull for a bow. But this movie is not drawn - it is 3D computer animated, in that almost photorealistic style with the vaguely nightmarish faces.

Actually, that part wasn't too bad. The character design wasn't bad, except maybe the ultra-Barbie physiques of the female characters. The backgrounds were, IMHO, the best parts: steampunk spaceship engines, cloud filled alien skies, raging space battles. The Arcadia design sadly drops the submarine motif in exchange for a Geigeresque spine, but does come and go surrounded by huge billowing black smoke. It's explained as dark matter propulsion, but really makes you think it's a coal burner, or needs a ring job.

Which brings us to the plot (such as it is). Humans have populated the cosmos, but it isn't working out. Everybody wants to go back to Earth, but that would destroy it's fragile ecosystem, so it is put off-limits by a coercive bureaucracy. And that is the enemy that Harlock fights against.

So in a ship that blorts out great billows to black smoke, he fights for the right to screw up the Earth. Hm.

Most of the action revolves around a new crewmember, whose brother is the chair-bound aristocrat seeking to destroy Harlock. This is very anime - the whole family thing. But it doesn't really tie into the whole Harlock universe very well. Familiar faces from the series are missing here, including the little girl who keeps getting killed (my favorite, because WTF!?!). So, most of what we enjoyed way back when in Japan is missing here.

So all you Harlock fans, give this a miss. Fans of 3D computer animation, go ahead.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Horror! The Horror!

The Bela Lugosi Collection (ca. 1932) should really be called The Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff Cornucopia. This one little disc contains 5 (FIVE!) movies (for a total of about 5-1/2 hours):
  • Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • The Black Cat
  • The Raven
  • The Invisible Ray
  • Black Friday
Side 1, the three movies "suggested by" Edgar Allen Poe. Only Murders is missing Karloff, it also is the only one that vaguely resembles the Poe story. M. Dupin is not exactly how I picture him, but Prof. Mirakle (Lugosi) is admirably creepy, and his plan to breed a Frenchwoman with an ape is pretty shocking.

Side 2 has a lot less Lugosi and more Karloff, but all these movies are a little (or completely) bonkers. Each one had at least one moment where the mind boggled - like in The Invisible Ray, when Lugosi sees a church with statues of six saints, and they turn into the images of his enemies. And then he melts them with his ray!

Our favorite was probably The Black Cat,  which has Lugosi and Karloff as the awesomely named Vitus Verdegast and Hjalmar Poetzig. It is directed by Edgar Ulmer (Detour), only his third or fourth feature. There are some amazing visuals, like Karloff, shirtless, arising from bed next to his sleeping blonde wife, in silhouette. It has war, revenge, modern architecture, black magic, incest, and a bit of skinning alive.

We really wallowed in these, the way the good old black-and-white stuff should be enjoyed, late at night in a kind of trance. As a result, they are kind of jumbled in my mind - which one had Janos the Dark, and which one had Janos Rukh? It doesn't matter, these are great, and a bargain as a single rental!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Friday Night Fever

I was a teenager/young adult when Thank God It's Friday (1978) came out. I am a veteran of the Disco Wars - an eager foot-soldier in the Disco Sux Army. I was a rocker and a hippie, and when I first saw a crowd of people, once individuals, now all robotically doing the Electric Slide in close formation - well, it chilled me to my core. Dancing was for getting crazy, not following steps!

But that's all behind us. Disco lost as a movement, but survives as a sound. It's in funk, in techno, hip-hop, pop. And now that it no longer threatens world domination, I have to admit, it's pretty catchy. I'm discovering what my frat brothers, Dapper Dan, Pork Chop, and G-More, were trying to tell me. So when I found out that Donna Summer starred in a disco movie, I queued it up for a Friday night.

This is one of those many-characters/one-night movies. The characters are pretty tropey:
  • The underaged girls trying to sneak in (One of them is Terri Nunn, of Berlin - "Take My Breath Away")
  • The good girl (Debra Winger) and her wilder friend, looking for love
  • The nice guy and his nerdy friend, ditto
  • The couple from the suburbs on their anniversary, getting more excitement than they planned
  • The singer who needs to be discovered (Summer)
  • The DJ with a mouth that writes checks his ass might not be able to cover
The locale is "The Zoo" on Sunset Strip (based on the real disco Osko's). You get some nice period West Hollywood night location shots to start. It's DJ Ray Vitte's (Car Wash) first night and he has promised that the Commodores are coming at midnight to perform live for the dance contest. The club owner, Jeff Goldblum at his greasiest, bets the DJ that he can score with the wife of the anniversary couple. That's sort of the plot.

But really, we follow this character and that: Young men and women trying to find a partner. The husband meeting the kooky chick who feeds him funny pills. The girls trying to sneak in being helped out by Marv Gomez (Chick Venerra), the Leather Man. He's a good example of why I liked this movie. He's a kind of stock character, the Mexican who loves to dance. But he isn't just that, he's that and more. He even gets a dance/monologue to explain it all to the nice guy.

OK, honestly, this isn't that deep. It's pretty much what you would expect, except it's pretty well written and performed. Most of the actors weren't familiar, but they all knew what to do. I got the feeling they were all lesser known improv or other kinds of talent.

The music, I'm afraid, was only fair - there was some decent Cameo on the soundtrack, but the Commodores "Too Hot to Trot" was not one of their best. Donna Summer's "Last Dance" was pretty special, and deserved the Oscar it won.

Oh, yes, did I mention this film is an Oscar winner?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Draw Blood

A post at Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur lead me to queue up John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981). It fit right into our not-hardcore horror season, and makes a good follow up to The Howling. What was it about the early 80s and comedy-horror werewolf movies? Other than makeup artist Rick Baker, who started working on The Howling, but left to work with his buddy Landis on American Werewolf.

It starts with two American students (graduates?) bumming around Europe. Griffin Dunne wanted to go to sunny Italy, but David Naughton convinced him to hike around on the moors of England first. So we meet them freezing in down parkas in the midst of lovely, forbidding landscape. The pub they stop in, the Slaughtered Lamb, is none too hospitable, either. Downright sinister in fact, so they head back out into the dark and rain, wander off into the moors (although they were warned to stay on the road and "beware the moon"). They meet something horrible. Dunne winds up dead.

Naughton is luckier. He comes to in a London hospital under the tender care of Dr. John Woodvine and especially nurse Jenny Agutter. He is released more or less to her custody - she is strangely drawn to him. But first he has a visit from Griffin Dunne in an advanced state of decay, who explains the mythos to him. And so it unfolds.

For a little while, you could think that the whole thing is in Naughton's mind - then you get the awesome transformation sequence. As I understand it, a werewolf picture stands or falls on the transformation. Sometimes it's a lame time-lapse, sometimes it takes place off screen. This one really satisfies.

Like The Howling, this isn't a jokey comedy - although there are few set pieces that night make you laugh out loud, like the pile-up in Piccadilly. But it isn't social comedy like The Howling. It takes place on a more personal level. Naughton and restless dead Dunne seem like real, rounded characters. I'm betting they are from Landis' personal history. Or maybe they were brothers at Delta Tau Chi back at old Farber College.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Shaolin Goofball

Disciples Of The 36th Chamber (1985) is a sort-of sequel to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but goofy. In the first movie, Shaolin monk San Te starts training lay Chinese to resist the Manchu overlords. The mood is serious, not so much Disciples.

It stars Hou Hsaio as Fong Sai-Yuk, son of a kung fu mistress. With his brothers, he spends his time making trouble, mostly aimed at the Manchu. His kung fu is so strong that he can't be hurt, but when he angers the governor, his mother makes him seek protection of the Shaolin Temple, and monk San Te.

Like any classic Shaw Bros. movie, this is full of classic martial arts fights and stunts. There is a great pre-credits scene of acrobatic duels against a black-out background - just abstract martial arts. So, you might be annoyed by Hou Hsaio's obnoxious pranking, but you will love the fights.

One question, though - is the unrelenting hatred of Manchus racist? I suppose they were in some ways invaders, although the history is complicated. But the insistence on the superiority of the pure Han race, it's creepy. Chinese social historians please comment.

Other Mother

Although I'm a follower of @NeilHimself, I haven't actually read a lot of his books. One I read that made me want to see the movie was Coraline (2008).

This is a stop-motion animated feature about a blue-haired girl named Coraline who moves into a ramshackle old boarding house in a rainy, dreary countryside. Her work-at-home parents are too busy for her and the neighbors are elderly theater-folk. The only kid her age around is an annoying wannabe punk named Wyborne. But one night Coraline finds a passage to another world.

In that world, the house is shiny and bright. Her father is whimsical and fun and Wybie can't talk. Her mother is cheerful and spends her time making Coraline her favorite food and stuffing her full. The neighbors put on magical performances. The only weird thing is that everyone has buttons for eyes.

The director, Harry Selick, did The Corpse Bride with Tim Burton and is a master of stop-motion animation - maybe the master. The look of the movie is inventive and fun, although some short sections had little jerky look to them. The only problem is that these days, you can do the same thing with computer animation, so I sometimes forgot I was watching real matter moving. The style was quite cartoonish, too - faces were a few spare lines, a lot of the design was sketched out simply, it would have been easy to computer animate. Plus, they seemed to use 3D printing to achieve some effects that would be hard conventionally. But regardless of the method, the final result looked great.

Dakota Fanning voiced Coraline, and made her some who I'd really like to get to know. Wybie was Robert Bailey, Jr. and his cat was Keith David (They Live). Mom and Dad were Teri Hatcher and John Hodgeman, and Ian McShane and French and Saunders voiced the theatrical neighbors.

Great story by Neil Gaiman, beautiful visuals from Selick.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Anty Raid

I don't know how, but I've managed to live my whole life without ever seeing Them! (1954), the greatest of all giant ant movies. As a child, I was too scared. A friend told me the story in gory detail, or maybe it was The Naked Jungle - either way, I vowed never to watch it. Once grown up, I guess I assumed it would be just camp. But it is still the Halloween season, so...

It starts in New Mexico, with police in a cruiser and a small plane surveying the desert, looking for a Russian ambassador -- wait, that's Beast of Yucca Flats. They find a little girl, mute and in shock, clutching a doll. All she will say is "Them!"

An odd animal track brings kindly old professor Edmund Gwenn and his beautiful daughter Joan Weldon on the scene. James Arness, representing the FBI, also shows up to be their foil, as they resolutely refuse to let him know what is going on, until one of Them shows up - a giant ant!

This is full of the cliches of bad 50s SF movies: The absent-minded professor and his beautiful daughter, the giant puppet monsters, "our weapons are powerless against them," etc. But the overall effect is actually quite suspenseful, and hardly cheesy at all. The noise the ants make, heard before they are seen, is very creepy, and the trip into their nest is legit scary. Or at least as scary as a mid-budget black-and-white monster movie gets.

I also liked Joan Weldon's character - she was tart and independent and as far as I recall, never needed rescuing - although she did remind me of the lady scientist in The Deadly Mantis. And speaking of giant grasshopper movies, James Arness looked and especially sounded so much like Peter Graves, I kept getting confused.

No, Peter Graves was not in this movie, but you may recognize an uncredited William Schallert (Trouble with Tribbles), and, to continue the Star Trek theme, a young Leonard Nimoy.

In conclusion, I had a lot of trouble coming up with a punny title for this - Should I have gone with "The Battle of Ant-Eat-Em"?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

All You Zombies

We've been Jim Jarmusch fans since we stumbled upon Stranger Than Paradise in 1984. We haven't watched all his movies, but we usually enjoy his downbeat black-and-white no-wave style. So we were pretty psyched about Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), not just as an odd hipster vampire story, but mainly a chiaroscuro Jim Jarmusch movie in color.

It stars Tom Hiddleston  and Tilda Swinton as ... undead creatures of the night (their condition is never named or discussed). Hiddleston is a reclusive rock-star, hiding out in deserted Detroit neighborhood. He calls mortal humans "zombies". His only connections to their world are the bootlegs of his work that leak out, and a fixer/connection who drops by with classic guitars and other necessities. But he only goes out of the house for blood. He doesn't hunt, however, he drops by the blood bank with a wad of cash to meet "Dr. Watson".

Swinton leads a more sociable life in Tangiers, hanging out in quiet nightspots with the locals and Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) - yes, that Kit Marlowe, the one who wrote Shakespeare. But a phone call to Hiddleston sends her to join him.

Like most of Jarmusch, the story moves slowly, aimless. Things happen, amazing, horrifying, funny, tragic. But the story isn't exactly the point. We have Hiddleston's lair, filled with guitars and old electronics. Dark Tom and pale Tilda, wrapped up in one another. Candle light illuminating old crystal or faces, like a Rembrandt or Caravaggio. For such a supposedly detached director, Jarmusch has made a very warm movie.

Then there's the music, spare and sludgy. I thought it was White Stripes at first, especially when they went to visit Jack White's family home on their tour of Detroit. Or maybe there's an old R&B record, or a lute solo or Lebanese vocalist.

So, beautiful visuals, all filmed at night - warm, rich, decadent, somber night. Beautiful people with wild, tragic, brilliant, immortal lives. Beautiful fascinating music. And a story somewhere in among it all.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Rant On

It strikes me that I haven't complained about Netflix in a while, so I'd better remedy that. If you recall, my last complaint was that they were sending me extra disks, which is pretty weak sauce. So today, my topic will be "Selection". Join me, won't you?

The promise of Netflix was: Every damn movie you can think of. If it has been released on DVD or Blu-ray, Netflix will send it to you in a reasonable amount of time. Then, Netflix decided to get into streaming. The promise: We have a bunch of stuff, not all of it bottom-of-the-barrel drek. You can watch it right now! It probably isn't what you want to watch, but maybe it's something almost as good!

That's fine, I pay for streaming and use it to watch old TV shows (like last year's Arrow and Flash). But I expect the DVDs to meet my serious film-watching needs. I have a queue of 143 disks waiting to be watched. At the rate of 2-3/week, I'll never run out of movies to watch. But my "Saved" list - movies I want to watch but aren't available on Netflix, is 103 movies. Some of these are movies that just haven't come out yet. Those will go onto the queue in good time.

But some of them have been there forever, and I don't know if they are ever coming off. Yellow Submarine. Greaser's Palace. California Split. Sure, some of these are obscure or rare. But Speed, for goodness sake. You can't rent or stream Keanu Reaves' greatest commercial hit!

Furthermore, the list is getting longer all the time - not because I am adding to it, but because movies that were available on my regular queue have fallen down into Saved. I suspect that movies are dropping to Saved faster than they are ascending from there to the Queue. And of course, there are the "Short wait", "Long wait", and "Very long wait" items. I've had a "Short wait" movie (Bela Lugosi collection with The Black Cat) at the top of my queue for 6 weeks, still no sign of it. "Long wait" items usually just stay that way for a year or two, then drop to Saved.

I forsee a future when you get a small selection on Netflix, along with some Netflix "Originals" (which have been quite good, I have to say). Other services will have locked up other content, the way Hulu locked up Criterion. That breaks the Netflix monopoly, but not in a good way.

OK, maybe I'm getting all worked up over nothing. You know, like "The food is terrible and the portions are too small." There are still more great movies on Netflix than I'll ever watch. But I was promised EVERYTHING!

Rant off.

Update: Coincidentally, Todd Van Der Werff on Vox wrote about this very topic, and refers to Jon Brooks of KQED from last year. Still think I'm just a crank?

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Cold Comfort

I'll admit, I just put on Iceman (2013) for a whim - It starred Donnie Yen, how bad could it be? Spoiler: Not bad at all, but kind of weird.

It starts with a truck crash, and 3 cryo-chambers break open, releasing ancient warriors Yen and two of his enemies upon modern Hong Kong. The tone is set when Yen celebrates his revival by pissing like a firehose "the full length of the parking lot." Well, he has been asleep for 300 years. So action-comedy.

Dressed as an ancient warrior, our hero strides downtown, where it is fortunately Halloween so his costume doesn't rate much attention. There he meets a drunken party girl (Shengyi Huang, dressed as an old-timey princess, natch) and falls under her wing. In the meantime, the badguy icemen are hanging out with roughnecks and kill a policeman.

So, action comedy with a distessingly cold attitude towards murder.

This odd mismatch of tone and content gave me problems throughout the movie. Maybe it reads differently to Hong Kong Chinese.

Of course, it has great wirework action sequences. The icemen are supernatural strong and talented - as Yen says, "Why are people in this time so weak?" There is also a plot, with one or two mystic McGuffins, but I think you'll be more interested in the romance with Shengyi Huang, who gets to be a strong presence, while staying resolutely ditzy and shallow. We saw her last with Jet Li in The Sorcerer and the White Snake.

I didn't mind watching this, but it is not going to do Yen's reputation much good. It seems this is a remake of The Iceman Cometh with Yuen Biao. I'm willing to watch that.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Furious Road

We were in a hurry to watch Furious 7 (2015) so we could listen to the How Did This Get Made podcast, but we were going to watch it as soon as it came out anyway.

This installment opens with Jason Statham talking to his comatose brother in the hospital, vowing vengeance on Torreto and the Fast and Furious gang. Yes, the Transporter is going to be the bad guy. And The Rock is after him, of course, and then KURT RUSSELL shows up as the Agent Coulson guy, and we are so on board. (OK, we were on board starting around Tokyo Drift and never got off.)

It seems Djimon Hounsou has kidnapped the world's greatest hacker and her Eye of God track-anyone McGuffin (so much like the ARGUS in TV's Arrow). If the F&F gang get her back, Kurt Russell promises to let them use it to track down Statham.

Which is pointless, because he is following them around. They don't need to find him, they just need to stand in one place for a minute. Heck, why am I bothering you with plot? They drive a sports car out of one skyscraper and into the next. Then they do it again to the next skyscraper. They run their cars straight into each other head on, or off a cliff and just shake it off. Stunt after stunt, explosions, fights, bigger and better, over two hours of it.

Along with Russell and Statham, they squeeze in Ronda Rousey and Tony Jaa, but only for one fight each. Still, this series is getting to be like The Expendables - let's get as many action stars in as possible. On the other hand, they killed off Han (Sung Kang) and his girl Giselle (Gal Gadot), which is a shame, because they are great.

Of course, Paul Walker died during the filming of this movie. They do a good job covering this up with Shemps and CGI - I don't think I ever noticed it. But there was a lot about him retiring to be a family man, most of it kind of silly ("he misses the bullets" - as long as they miss you, dude).

The other emotional arc is Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), who still has amnesia and, you know, likes Dom and all, but doesn't remember being in love with him. This is not handled all that well, in addition to which, she doesn't get much to do. This is the worst waste in the movie.

And it all ends up with Walker and Diesel saying goodbye in a way that made no sense to me - Dom leaves everybody at a beach party, including Letty, and Paul comes after him. Why? Who knows, I guess it seemed iconic. Then there is a farewell to Paul Walker song that didn't really do much for me and roll the credits.

I guess they'll do the next one without Walker - at least I hope they don't scrape up any old footage to recycle. He will be missed and it won't be the same. But with enough explosions, I will barely notice.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Zombie Movie

Robert A. Heinlein is called the Dean of Science Fiction, but he is not well represented in the movies: 1950s drive-in fare Destination: Moon and parody/fiasco Starship Troopers. Now we have Predestination (2015), and it's done right.

I went in having read the source story "-All You Zombies-" so the whole thing was thoroughly spoilerated for me: It follows the source very closely. I think it might be a better experience if you've read the story, but I'm not going to spoilerize it in this post, except for two points:
  • This is a time-travel story. The opening scenes don't exactly make this clear. You might figure it out or you might just get confused. The movie doesn't really explain what's going on, and I'm a little dim, so I was glad to know this going in.
  • Like the original story, it is framed by a story a man is telling in a bar. Yes, the movie gets it: A guy walks into a bar is a lame way to start a joke. But the man's story starts "When I was young girl..." and it's off to the races.
 As I said, the movie matches the story in some funny ways. Since it was written in 1958, it has some pretty old-fashioned gender ideas, even though it's mostly set in the 60s and 70s. There are hints that this is an alternate timeline, anyway - a comment about spacers and their women. For a Heinlein fan, this is sweet and nostalgic - I don't know how a newcomer would see it.

I do think you can enjoy the movie without knowing any Heinlein. It has nice retro look and Ethan Hawke as the bartender and Sarah Snook as the Unwed Mother have nice parts. The wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff is handled well - beats Looper in my opinion. And at it's heart, it's a romance, although a pretty kinky one. If you've read much Heinlein, especially the later stuff, you know he had some pretty specific kinks, and this caters to a lot of them at once.

This is a low-medium budget Australian production - no big effects, little action. It was directed by the Spierig twins. This is only their third film, but it looks like they have some art/genre cred; heck, they got Ethan Hawke.

So, great Heinlein adaptation, maybe great movie. If there's anyone out there who hasn't read the story but has seen the movie, please let me know what the experience is like.

In conclusion, IMDB reminds me that they made a movie out of Puppetmasters, Heinlein's pod-people story. Guess I have to check that out too.