Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ants and Uncles

Here's a fun double bill from this year: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015) and Ant-Man (2015).

First up, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Ms. and I were both great fans of the original series. I myself had several of the spy gadget toys, like the false finger gun, and David Maccallum as Illya Kuryakin inspired me to wear lots of black turtlenecks (as an 8 year old). So how does the new version fare?

It's basically an origin story: Armie Hammer is suave thief Napoleon Solo, blackmailed into working for the CIA in East Berlin during the Cold War. While extracting lovely mechanic Alicia Vikander, he runs afoul of gigantic Henry Cavill as Illya. Illya is a giant cold-blooded agent with a rage-control problem (or asset, if you think of it that way). But even though they start out fighting for control of Vikander, they are soon forced to work together to get at her father, the Nazi nuclear scientist Dr. Teller (hm, I thought he was one of ours).

So they dress Vikander up in mod clothes (Kuryakin is famously fashion-forward) and head for Rome. This being a Guy Ritchie movie, there are lots of fun action/comedy scenes, but there is a lot nice character stuff for the leads. Hammer makes a decent Solo - he gets the detached amusement and crooked smile right, but I'm not sure he has the Connecticut Lockjaw accent that Robert Vaughan was so good at. Which is funny, because of course, he is British, and that accent is an American affectation of a British upper-class accent. Never mind, as long as his suits are perfect, his accent can be a little off.

Cavill as Kuryakin is surprising - he is an East German Superman, and I never thought of Kuryakin as big or strong. He was more of an intellectual with karate skills. (Face it, he was Spock to Solo's Kirk.) He also didn't have Ilya's odd, big-eyed, big-forehead good looks. But in so many ways, he got it so right. There's one scene where he is guarding Vikander, playing chess solitare, when Vikander tries to seduce him. This scene is right out of the TV series (I think he was guarding a princess? The Quadripartite Affair?), and shows Kuryakin's cool detachment and intellect - although I think he put some cool jazz on the stereo in the TV version. In the movie, Vikander gets to do a sweet panty dance to entice him, so it works out quite well.

Next up for the weekend, Ant-Man, miles away from U.N.C.L.E - or is it? Hank Pym, Michael Douglas, is inventor of the Ant-particle, which compresses matter to tiny size while increasing strength. He is trying to keep his invention out of the hands of madman industrialist Corey Stoll. He does this by tricking master-thief Paul Rudd as Scott Lang into stealing the suit. So, Pym isn't Ant-Man in this movie - he passes the baton to Lang. His daughter, Evangeline Lilly, isn't too happy about all this. So, both movies have women with daddy issues.

Paul Rudd is fun as new Ant-Man. Like Napoleon Solo, he's a scoundrel who gets to crack at least one safe, but is basically a pussycat. His "posse", a bunch of wannabe thieves lead by Michael Pena, are a lot of fun, good comic relief. The action is fun, Incredible Shrinking Man style. We get a touch of the core Marvel Universe with an Ant-Man/Falcon fight, but mostly this is its own thing. It's a little sillier, more lighthearted than the Avengers. The villain is fun - he's a scientist and respectable businessman who may sometimes have to break a few eggs to make his omelet. He's like an evil Ray Palmer from Arrow - he takes over the company from the hero and builds a miniaturization suit!

Aside from the safecracking and the daddy issues, the thing that makes these two films such a good double-bill is their sense of fun. Good action, by directors who don't take themselves or their subjects too seriously. Good fun.

Update: Mr. Schprock in comments is right. I got the leads of Man from U.N.C.L.E. mixed up. I haven't corrected this in the text because: 1) I got kind of attached to the idea of Superman as Ilya Kuryakin, even though that isn't happening, and 2) you're pretty used to me being wrong by now, aren't you?

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Seven Vampires for Seven Brothers

As I have said, I haven't seen many of the classic Hammer horror movies, but I have seen one of the strangest: Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974). Let's say you like Hammer horror, but maybe your getting a little tired of the formula. Maybe you also like Shaw Brothers Hong Kong action movies. What would you say if we mixed them together? (!?!?!)

That's right, this is a Hammer/Shaw Bros. joint production. It starts with an evil monk travelling to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula. He wants the Count to come to China and help him revive the seven golden vampires, to make his temple feared again. That doesn't work out do well for him, and the Count takes his shape and does indeed go to China. This is a good choice for Dracula, because he is not played by Christopher Lee, and looks a bit silly.

A little while later, Dr. Van Helsing (who is played by Peter Cushing) is lecturing on vampires in a Chinese college. Of course, they called him mad at the academy - all except one student, Wong Han Chan, who can lead him to the village of the seven golden vamps. With Hammer girl Julie Ege supplying the money and cleavage, the set off.

Add in Van Helsing's son, a rather Terence Stamp-like Robin Stewart, and Wong's 6 brothers and a sister, and you've got a story.

But I'm leaving out the nonlinear craziness - parts of this seem to have been edited in a blender. Also, there were seven vampires, but one gets his golden bat removed, so that's six. Then Dracula comes, so, seven again, but the other one gets his bat back, so eight. And there are seven Chinese brothers fighting them, but what about the sister?

 That's fine, you don't come for straightforward storytelling. You come for horror, breastses, and kung fu. You'll get 'em and plenty.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Tomorrowland Never Knows

I guess Tomorrowland (2015) was one of the years big disappointments, and I guess I get it. I liked it, though.

One of the problems was the form - it starts with George Clooney and young Britt Robertson talking to the camera, trying to tell a story. Clooney goes first and tells the tale of his visit as a boy to the 1964 World's Fair - hey, I was at that Fair! And so was Ms. Spenser! But I don't really remember much, so never mind, excuse the interruption.

Anyway, boy-Clooney goes to the Fair with his jetpack invention, and discovers a whole word of Tomorrow, with people in jumpsuits and spaceships and robots and and and... Let's go to Britt's story.

It is now the present. Britt is a young woman who likes to engage in a little light sabotage of the project to shut down the Canaveral launchpad. Her world is gritty, sour, frightened, almost dystopian, you know, the modern world. She finds a little Tomorrowland badge, and when she touches it, she can see Tomorrowland - the place the Clooney found, with crystal spires, anti-grav diving, jetpacks, spaceships, and and and...

Britt soon meets up with Raffey Cassidy, a tween waif with an adorable British lisp and a nice line of martial arts. And she leads Britt to Clooney and we eventually get the whole story. Except it really doesn't make much sense.

We get the overall theme of modern life being too pessimistic, obsessed with darkness, and the joy of science, of overcoming obstacles, of going beyond. We get this because it is hammered home in several clunky monologues, with illustrative montages. We get that Tomorrowland has been subverted by evil Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie!), who is Raffey's guardian. Also, the relationship between Clooney and Raffey is pretty clear even though they step on the scene that shows it (1 or 2 overhead long shots, in a flashback). But none of it holds together.

In addition, there is a Randian Galt's Gulch odor to some of the explanations of Tomorrowland, with the idea that you, the viewer are optimistic, yet practical, yet creative. You will get to live in Tomorrowland, not like those gloomy drudges in the real world.  But not quite because it isn't even that coherent.

Also, there's a lot of comedy and a lot of violent death, and I don't think they go together very well.

So, forget that, or blame it, like Rod Heath, on writer Damon Lindelof. Director Brad Bird is doing what he does best - beautiful constructions with a mid-century feel. If you ignore the plot, the settings and set pieces are fantastic. (Hint: Eiffel Tower.) The end credits, in a kind of Saul Bass meets the Jetsons style, are perhaps the best part.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Tracers of Love

Another throwaway, direct-to-streaming (I guess) teen action flick: Tracers (2014). It stars Taylor Lautner (Twilight) as a bicycle messenger who  meets a cute free-running parkour traceur (Marie Avgeropoulis) in a traffic jam-up that totals his bike. To chase her, he has to learn parkour. Meanwhile, the loan sharks he owes money to are closing in, and without a bike he can't pay them off. So he falls in with Marie's gang, who use their parkour skills to pull crimes, lead by older Adam Rayner.

This is one of those movies, like Quicksilver or Premium Rush (which we haven't seen). The appeal is the location stunts and chases (and the cute young stars, of course). There's plenty of that here - both parkour and cycling. The New York feeling is strong, with shots of the bridge to let you know when they were going from Brooklyn to Manhattan, etc. Lautner did his own stunts, and frankly, he's kind of appealing - scruffy and cute, with a decent range. Of course, I was just praising Keanu Reeves and Shia Lebeouf, so take it as you will.

If you like this kind of movie, check it out. It's as good as any and better than most - say, for ex, Run, which I also liked.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Moore, Moore, Moore

This post is a bit of a cheat, because we did not rent Constantine (2005) on Netflix. We bought it. I'd heard one good review (and dozens of snide comments), but thought it might be a hoot. When I saw a it as part of a 3 Blu-ray set, along with V for Vendetta and Watchmen (the Alan Moore set, presumably) for around ~$10, I figured "What the hell."

Constantine is based on the Hellblazer comic series that I have never seen, although I gather it isn't too faithful outside of the basic premise: John Constantine, freelance demonhunter and exorcist. Constantine here is played by Keanu Reeves, doing what he does best - wearing a black sports coat and skinny tie. Also, smoking incessantly, and giving demons hell.

You don't get much backstory - just Constantine showing up to do some exorcism, then dropping in on Papa Midnight's bar (Djimon Hounsou) where the angels and demons gather to meet the Angel Gabriel, played by Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive). Transcendent, androgynous Tilda always welcome.

As Tilda explains to Keanu: "You are going to die young because you've smoked a pack a day since you were 15, and you are going to hell because of the life you took." Constantine is trying to avoid damnation by acting like a private eye, but against demons. His latest case is Rachel Weisz, a cop whose twin sister died under satanic circumstances. He is aided by his sidekick, apprentice and cab driver Shia Labeouf.

That's right, Keanu and Shia in the same movie. I know I joke about Keanu, but I am actually quite fond of him. His acting is a little stiff and mannered, his accent kind of goofy, but his cheekbones are to die for. And I think his instincts are sound - he tends to pick material that I'll like, and that work around his limitations. Shia, on the other hand, is almost always annoying, but he does all right here.

Constantine has a nice mix of neo-noir and action, with some cute touches, like Constantine's lighter covered in signs and sigils, and his gold-plated, cruciform shotgun. There's a TV series out now, based more on the comic, and we want to see that too (when Netflix gets around to it).

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Forgotten Horror

Wow, I completely forgot that we watched Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994). I guess it wasn't all that memorable. It was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who played Victor von Monster (or was Monster the monster's name?). It sticks closer to the book then most movies (Mary Shelley's book), including the Arctic part, letting the monster speak, skipping Igor, etc. It also leaves out something like heart, or maybe fun.

Along with Branagh, we have Ian Holm as his dad, John Cleese (seriously) as the original re-animator, Tom Hulce as Frankenstein's friend, and Helena Bonham Carter as his sickly half-sister and lover.

And the monster: Robert De Niro. So it's good that this version was articulate. He got a lot of great dialog - almost shook the Brooklyn accent too.

There was a lot to like about this movie - some real lunacy, like using electric eels for the re-animation. There's some surreal dream sequences that are fun. And when HBC dies (spoiler) we get a nice Bride of Frankenstein scene (not from the book? I haven't actually read it).

But all this didn't seem to add up to a good movie. It's somehow related to Coppola's Dracula (he produced, or was going to direct, or something), and was bad like that movie, too. That is, good in many parts, but bad overall. At least Frankenstein didn't have Keanu Reeves.

Heck, Keanu might have helped.

Songs in the Key of Leif

From the sublime to the ridiculous: Pathfinder (2006) - following up a slow, meditative exploration of the meeting between Europeans and Native Americans with a stupid action movie featuring Vikings v. Indians.

It starts with a Viking raid on North American shores - a Viking boy refuses to kill a captive and he is cast out. He grows up to be Karl Urban, living with an Indian tribe, but always watching for the Vikings return. And return they do. After many heroic acts, horrific slaughters, and feats of derring-do, our hero is captured and forced to lead the Vikings to the Indian refuge. But now they are on his territory...

This movie is based on a Norwegian film Pathfinder, a beautiful movie filmed in Sammi, the language of Lapland. It has roughly the same plot, although it is one tribe v. other tribe, not Vikings and Indians. It is beautiful and memorable, and so nothing like the 2006 version.

But, given that it is a stupid action film, it's pretty good. It has a nice look, with a lot of misty, desaturated landscapes. It reminded me a lot of Centurion, which is interesting, because those Roman v. Pict movies were what inspired me to start watching these Native American movies. That was another action movie made with a modest budget that was both better looking and more fun than you might expect.

That is, we thought this was a lot of fun. Yes, it's stupid, and we all know that Vikings didn't have horns on their helmets. A lot of it is by the numbers. But it looks good, and it's exciting, and Urban's Indian love-interest is cute and played by awesomely named Moon Bloodgood. (Additional awesomeness: That's her real name, and she's not of Native American descent - her mother is Korean and father is part Dutch. His name was spelled Bloetgoet.) OK, it's no New World. But we liked it.