Thursday, December 29, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Even though Xmas is long past, it isn't time for a New Years post yet, so I'll put in a quick plug for our favorite Xmas movie: The Thin Man (1934). This class, udirected by W.S. Van Dyke (not S.S. Van Dine, who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries) stars the incomparable screwball couple William Powell and Myrna Loy. It's based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, but I don't think he put so much wit and sparkle into his version. The drinking might have been his, though.

Nick Charles, New York detective, has been living in San Francisco with his wealthy bride, Nora, but they have returned to New York for the holidays. The only case he wants to work on is a case of scotch. But a missing scientist (Edward Ellis) and his oddball relatives make that impossible. So he solves the case with the help of his dog Asta, without missing a drink.

There are great character actors like Cesar Romero, Ed Brophy, and Nat Pendleton, several wild parties, and great Christmas presents. But the best part is the ideal relationship between Powell and Loy, the greatest marriage in all cinema. "I do believe the little lady cares."

The 3 or 4 sequels are good too, although not as good. This was intended to be a one-off B-movie, made in 11 days on a shoestring. The cinematography showed a bit of flare, with some nice shadows, and background action that pays off in the next shot.

A lot of time, people use "classic" when they mean "black and white", but this is the real thing.

We thought about watching Shop on the Corner, but we'll save that for next week.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Lady Ghostbusters

In an attempt to ruin our childhoods, we watched Ghostbusters (2016), aka Lady Ghostbusters. Since we watched the original as adults, it didn't work.

This movie stars Kristen Wiig as the good girl, working for tenure as a physics professor. Her liveliehood is threatened when a book she wrote with a childhood friend shows up: Ghosts are Real. She looks up her old friend, Melissa McCarthy, she discovers her working in a paranormal studies lab with mad scientist Kate McKinnon.

I say mad scientist, but I'm not really sure what her "type" is. McCarthy and Wiig are pretty easy to figure out - the mousy good girl and the pushy loudmouth. But McKinnon is this odd amalgam of punked out, glammed up Tank Girl plus mad scientist. We liked it, but I'm not sure we got it.

Leslie Jones is pretty easy to figure out - she is the loud, sassy black woman. She's great at it - some of her little throwaway lines are my favorite, like shouting, "the devil is a liar!" the first time she sees a ghost.

I wasn't as psyched about Neil Casey as the bad guy. He just didn't have Rick Moranis' goofy sincerity. Chris Hemsworth as the beautiful but dumb receptionist was a bit by-the-numbers, but it actually pays off, and anyway, he is cute.

Basically, we liked a lot about this movie but it maybe doesn't hold together that well. Parts are greater than the whole, or something. It all is ends with a big battle royale, and the ghost girls gain the acceptance they all craved. I hope the movie did too, because I want to see the sequel.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Darkness, Darkness

Dark City (1998) is one of those movies that I've been meaning to watch since forever. Since we saw Alex Proyas' Gods of Egypt, I felt we should watch something he's legit famous for.

It is set in the titular dark, grimy, noirish city. A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, with no memories. He gets a call from a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland) telling him to run. Which he does when he notices the carved up corpse in the room.

This would be bad enough, but he eventually find out that at midnight, everyone falls asleep and the entire city is re-arranged - buildings shrink or grow, ordinary jerks become rich, strangers become lovers, and it's all backed up by implanted memories so nobody notices anything. Meanwhile, accordian-loving detective William "Big" Hurt has teamed up with Sewell's wife (Jennifer Connolly) to bring him to justice - if he is the one leaving carved-up corpses around.

I should mention that we watched the Director's Cut, which leaves out the prologue the studio slapped on, which gives away the whole story. But I guess I've already spoiled a lot of it, so I hope you've already seen it.

This movie has a great look, with obvious homage paid to Metropolis, among others. The noir atmosphere is great - Jennifer Connolly is a chantoosy in a jazz club, which gives a chance for a couple of songs. Then there's the reality bending. It works in a neat way - a wall may or may not have a door in it, a pool may or may not have a ladder. It's not exactly subtle, but not flashy either. Of course, when the buildings start growing, it's pretty cool.

This is a great movie for fans of Matrix, Cube or maybe They Live.  I wish Proyas had made more in this vein. Guess we'll need to watch The Crow.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Park Avenue Blogger

Park Avenue Logger (1937) is a little piece of Depression nonsense that we watched for two reasons:
  1. One of the bloggers (Farren Nehme?) mentioned it in Twitter and it was available on Netflix.
  2. George O'Brien
You may know O'Brien, if at all, as California's Lt. Gov, who did a lot of the governing while Gov. Jerry Brown ran for president. Maybe you know him as Ronald Reagan's father from This is the Army. We know him as "Coffee" Cupp, the irrepressible sailor in A Girl, a Guy and a Gob. He is a whirlwind of energy and charm, schemes and a big white grin.

His character in Park Avenue Logger is similar: He's a rich boy who tries to be a sophisticated intellectual for his father, while secretly wrestling as the Masked Marvel. His father, though, thinks he's a milquetoast who needs to be toughened up, so he sends him off to Oregon to be a lumberjack.

Of course, once he's there, he falls for the daughter (Beatrice Roberts) of a competing outfits owner. He is at first scorned as a greenhorn,and nicknamed "Parky" but everyone soon learns to love him for his energy and big smile - everyone but the daughter and her suitor, the foreman for her outfit (Ward Bond, played with a Nat Pendleton feel).

Bert Hanlon handles the comic relief with a broad but indeterminate accent (Greek? Yiddish? Russian?) as cook and speech-mangling labor agitator.

There's a plot about a mortgage and some crooks that is handled very economically in a half-dozen telegrams and a 5-minute scene in the police station. It was interesting because the rest of this 67-minute movie is quite rambling and unfocused. The whole sissy/he-man misunderstanding depends on everyone ignoring the what's right before their eyes, and the same is true with the romance. Plus, there isn't a lot of real humor in the movie.

Still, it's kind of cute and not very long. Not our favorite George O'Brien, but a pleasant programmer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Japanese for "Arden"

We queued As You Like It (2006) after we saw the 1936 version. Finally, Netflix saw fit to send us a copy.

This odd version is directed by Kenneth Branagh. He adapted the play by setting it in Japan, after Westerners began to set up shop. The opening, a ninja attack on a Japanese dance performance, is completely without dialog. In fact, a lot of the dialog is cut out of this. That's not really a complaint. Branagh could have cut all the dialog, and this would have been a beautiful movie.

In fact, it might have been better - There is a bit of a problem with a (more or less) naturalistic acting style, a 19th-century Japanese setting, and Elizabethan English. It's a common problem with this kind of re-framing, and it always took me a little out of the movie: "Why are they talking like that? Oh, yeah, Shakespeare."

Let's see, we have Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Rosalind/Ganymede, very fetching as maid or man, and Romola Garai as her sweet cuz, Celia. Their problem was acting as airheads when the play demands it, since they seem like pretty intelligent actors. Daniel Oyelowo was Orlando, another silly role. Brian Blessed is Duke Senior, and his evil brother, Duke Frederick, because of course.

But come, what of the fools? As You Like It has two. Professional fool Touchstone is played by Alfred Molina in a silly wig - he does not play it as broadly as you might expect. I was expecting a lot more bawdiness when he was wooing Audrey (Janet McTeer). He may have even been trying to tone down the sexism.

Jaques, on the other hand, is a fool as a hobby. He is actually a melancholic, and is played ably by Kevin Klein. He is called upon to do the All the World's a Stage soliloquy, which Branagh films through a scrim of branches, as if embarrassed to be caught watching.

We get most of the famous lines, and at least 2 or 3 of the songs. I was feeling like a lot was missing as the credits rolled: What happened to the epilogue? I'll just say, make sure to stay through the credits - but don't expect Samuel L. Jackson.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sequel City

I've been writing a lot of double-bill posts - what does everyone think? Enjoying the compare-and-contrast? Too long; didn't read? Doesn't matter, I'm going to continue. Last weekend we saw a couple of sequels, both to movies that we enjoyed, but maybe weren't all that great.

London Has Fallen (2016) is the sequel to Olympus has Fallen, our least favorite of the two recent White House invasion movies. In this one, Gerard Butler is still bodyguard to President Aaron Eckhart. Even though his wife is about to give birth, he has to go to London for a state funeral. Because of all the dignitaries, London has decreed that each one gets a single bodyguard, and everything else will be handled by Scotland Yard. So when heads of state start getting shot, it's up to Butler alone to keep his president safe - from the terrorist whose family was destroyed by a Predator drone.

Lots of things blow up. Everybody is shooting at everything. There are car chases, helicopter crashes, Parliament is blown up, along with the Thames Bridge and a lot more (Roland Emmerich, are you watching?). Everyone shoots at Butler and Eckhart, but nobody hits them, ever. I think Butler gets a little stabbed. But in the end, he takes down the bad guys with pretty much no help from anyone. At least Scotland Yard figures out who the mole is (it's the guy who looks like Moriarty from Sherlock, duh).

All this would be bad enough, without the little coda when Vice-President Morgan Freeman gives a speech, saying, "Some say we could have avoided all this if we had minded our own business." Yes, not killing innocent children with drones might help... But he denies this, and promises to keep killing those foreigners - for freedom. I am not convinced.

Now You See Me 2 (2016) is a boring name for a sequel. Why not Now You Don't or something? Still, the original was kind of a guilty pleasure for us, so we queued it up. If you recall, that one ended with the four magicians being hunted by the FBI, while Agent Mark Ruffalo was secretly pulling their strings. He works for a secret organization of magicians dedicated to doing good in some way. Now they must come together again (with a new female member, Lizzy Kaplan) to fight:
  • Morgan Freeman, one of the bad guys from the original
  • Ben Lamb, high-tech exec (like Lex Luthor in BvS). Oh, in case you think he doesn't have a stupid name, he does: Owen Case.
  • Daniel Radcliffe, another, more evil tech exec
  • Sanaa Lathan (AvP), Mark Ruffalo's FBI boss
And they have to pull the biggest heist of their careers! A MacGuffin chip from a super computer.

But it's all just an excuse for wild feats of legerdemain. They jump in a chute in New York and come out in Macau. Jesse Eisenberg makes the rain fall up. Lizzie pulls the head off a pigeon. But our favorite scene is the card toss, when the group throws a playing card around to keep it from being found on them. It doesn't actually make much sense - someone who has already been searched (and should be safe) might pass it to someone about to get searched. But it is choreographed so sweetly done that about 10 minutes of card tossing never gets dull.

There are a lot of stupid things about this movie - how about Woody Harrelson's twin brother (credited as Brick Patrick, but it looks like Harrelson is playing both parts)? The implausible magic tricks, like the instant hypnosis gag. The secret society - what's up with that? But we didn't care, because it was fun - even if they only banged London up a bit, not destroyed it completely. 
The characters were basically fun - Jesse Eisenberg is a little bit of his usual unlikable egotist, but funny. Harrelson is goofy and Dave Franco is cute. Newcomer Lizzy Kaplan is the wise-cracking girl and plays it very well.

In fact, we want to see a Now You See Me TV series, with the improbable secret society giving our team a new assignment every week. Just play it for laughs and magic. We'll watch every episode. Or even just NYSM 3.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Veritable Parade (AVP) of Monsters

Alien vs. Predator (2004) combines two great flavors that everyone likes - Aliens and Predators! Actually, they are both aliens, as well as predators. Oh well.

This one starts on Earth, with genius industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) getting satellite intel of a heat source deep under the Antarctic ice. Computer imaging reveals a pyramid with details resembling Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian. (Details, from thermal imaging. Under a mile of ice. Anyway.) He rushes to get an expedition together because he knows that if he can be the first to reach it, he can .. dare we say it? Well, it isn't clear why, but he wants it bad.

The leader of the expedition will be a feisty mountain guide played by Sanaa Lathan. Then there are some sexy scientists, a band of mercenary bodyguards, and a nerdy guy who kept showing pics of his kids. He also wore a red shirt, and went by the nickname "Deadmeat". Oddly enough, so did everyone else.

Actually, I thought the nerdy guy (Ewen Bremner) was going to be the robot, the "Bishop". I'll let you keep guessing on that one.

Anyway, once they get under the ice, the setup begins to become clear. First, a batch of Alien eggs hatch and face-hug some of the expedition. This leads to chest-bursting and adult Aliens running around. It seems that the Predators set up this pyramid complex so that they could hatch Aliens (using humans as hosts) to hunt as a rite of passage. So, SPOILER.

To continue spoiling, Lathan gets the idea that they need to team up with the Preds to get the Aliens - especially to keep them from getting out into the world at large. I'm not sure how to feel about that - I didn't mind when the Predators acted honorably at the end of Predator II. But actually teaming up with them?

There was a point where someone talks about the two kinds of monsters and mentions the "humanoid" ones. I was like, "which ones are those?" but I guess you're meant to think of the Preds as closer to human than the Aliens. OK, I guess, but I'm not sure I like it. Shouldn't both of these deadly blood-thirsty creatures be our implacable enemy?

Whatever. As long as we don't cozy up with these guys too much, we'll keep watching,

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Black Comedy

The Nice Guys (2016) is the first movie I saw promoted as a "Shane Black" movie. I might have heard of Black as a screenwriter, and of course we just saw him in Predator. But for this, I heard people gushing over a new Shane Black script, directed by Shane Black, and they mentioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I quite liked, so, what the heck?

Black is famous for buddy films (Lethal Weapon, to start with), and this is no different: a couple of private eyes in Los Angeles, 1977. Russell Crowe is a cynical leg-breaker, who mostly seems to take money from young girls to beat up guys who are creeping on them. Ryan Gosling is an alcoholic private eye (with a license and an ad in the Yellow Pages) with a 13-year old daughter (Angourie Rice) who doesn't seem to like him much. Gosling's case involves finding a young woman, but that woman (Margaret Qualley) hires Crowe because people are following her. So Crowe winds up breaking Gosling's arm. That's their meet-cute.

Pretty soon everyone is hunting for the girl, as well as a porn film (experimental porn film - political experimental porn film), and people involved are dying. The girl's mother is District Attorney Kim Basinger, and she wants the girl found, or killed, or something. That stuff isn't important.

What is important is the chemistry between the two investigators - the heavy and the drunk. Crowe looks a little like John Goodman here, maybe even heading to Gerard Depardieu territory. Gosling has a 70s pornstache and the clueless look of a Ron Burgandy.

But maybe even more important is Gosling's daughter and her tween friends. Gosling treats them all like adults, gossiping about their families ("Your sister is such a slut, Jessica"). Makes sense because, compared to these two palookas, the kids are more mature and clear-eyed. She's a good influence on her dad and his friend.

Then there's the goofy stuff - often involving mayhem (big body count, mostly bystanders). There are classic mystery tropes: Like when the clue is "Opening Night", the daughter immediately figures out that this refers to the opening night of the LA Auto Show. Sure, how many opening nights could there be in LA? Then there are the little references, like when Gosling gets too scared to talk and all he can do his make little noises and point, like Lou Costello.

Not to mention the glorious smog of 1977 LA, the gas lines, the Comedy Store in the background of some shots. It doesn't get hokey - no leisure suits or fondue sets - but sweetly nostalgic.

It was so much fun that we followed up with Knight and Day (2010). I had seen this before, but I wanted Ms. Spenser to see it. Since it is a rom-com starring Tom Cruise (who she hates) and Cameron Diaz (who I love and she's indifferent to), this was a hard sell. But she got into it.

It's basically an old Goldy Hawn slapstick, although Diaz isn't playing an airhead. She meets Tom Cruise on a plane, and while she's in the bathroom, he kills everyone on board, including the pilot. You see, he's a rogue secret agent, and everyone is out to get him. But he really likes her and is actually very nice to her. If he'd just stop drugging her...

It's got some great car chases (lots of roof surfing), wild fights, exotic locales, and so on. But the fun part is when Cruise compliments Diaz on her dress while hanging onto the roof of her car, speeding the wrong way down Storrow Drive. Yes, she's from Boston, and there's the traditional geographically nonsensical chase, first north out of town on the over the Bunker Hill Bridge, then west through Back Bay on Storrow, then Southie, the Callahan Tunnel, and who knows where.

I love Diaz as a comedian - the scene where they give her truth serum and she won't shut up is a scream. She also gets to be more than a ditz - although I'm not sure how sincere the director was. Any way, it made a great double-bill with The Nice Guys: two retro comedy thrillers.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Greatest Stories Ever Told

When I was a kid in the 60s, holiday weekends would mean special movies. Not just Christmas movies, but Wizard of Oz or Sound of Music on Thanksgiving and the Greatest Story Ever Told on Easter. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, for Thanksgiving weekend, I was in the mood for a Theme, and the theme I chose was Biblical/Egyptian.

We started with a silly action picture: Gods of Egypt (2016). This retelling of the Contendings of Horus and Set is most famous for having zero persons of Egyptian descent, and for completely changing the myth. It is set in a fabulous CGI world where the Egyptian pantheon walk among humans as 9-foot tall men and women who bleed liquid gold and can turn into giant metal creatures. As Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is about to be crowned king, evil Set (Gerard Butler) show up to kill old king Osiris and rip Horus' eyes out.

Meanwhile, human thief Brandon Thwaites lets his girl Courtney Eaton convince him to steal Horus' eyes back from Set. This sets up a god/mortal buddy movie, with the two trying to take down Set. There's an interesting theology theme: Thwaites' thief is kind of an atheist (he knows gods exist, he just doesn't think they are useful), while his girl worships Horus devoutly.

But there isn't much deep about this. Just lots of action, with beautiful art direction and CGI. The movie is full of gold and sunlight, which is a nice change from all the dark, desaturated movies we see these days.

Speaking of desaturated, Aronofsky's Noah (2014) has that look. It's all about Noah (Russell Crowe, looking weirdly like Tom Hanks), last descendant of Seth in a world full of the sons of Caine. After a very few minor dreams and a visit to his grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he figures it's time to build an ark. His sons are concerned about the lack of women - Only Shem has a girl (Emma Watson) and she's sterile. They look to the neighboring tribe, but they are seething dens of iniquity, ruled by Tubal Caine (Ray Winstone), first smith and weapon maker. Shem finds a girl but Noah lets the mob trample her. Which leads to friction in the family.

Fortunately, the rain starts and everyone in the world except Noah and family dies.

This is a visually interesting movie, set in a timeless ancient time, with minimal technology. The Ark is a clunky, boxy thing, made of rough logs and smeared with pitch. Sure, everyone's homespun looks a little tailored, but creative license and all. Also, the masses of birds and animals look great, although no real animals were used. So this is just as much of a CGI fest as Gods of Egypt. But much, much grayer.

Crowe's Noah is a pretty dour man, which is fair enough since he was involved in a genocide. At least we get to see his drunken nakedness, although they kind of hurry through it. All in all, I think I most enjoyed Hopkins as Methuselah. He seemed to be having fun at least.

Speaking of dour, Christian Bale as Moses in Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014) isn't all that perky. He starts out doing fine, adopted son of Pharoah, step-brother to Prince Ramses (Joel Edgerton), but when he finds out that he's a Jew, he is exiled. That works out all right for him too, since he meets a cute Midianite girl, Mariah Valverde, and marries her. Note that, like in Gods of Egypt and Noah, there are no particularly Hebraic or otherwise Middle Eastern actors in this movie. Moses' wife was famously supposed to be dark-skinned, but just like in the other movies, we don't care. Valverde is cute. I was a little concerned that on their wedding night, we were going to get a semi-explicit sex scene - watching Mr. and Ms. Moses doing it is too much like watching your great-grandparents.

Then Moses goes up the mountain and meets G-d by a burning bush. This personage, the great I AM, turns out to be a little boy with a bad temper. He sends Moses back to Egypt to free the Jews. When various forms of, let's face it, terrorism don't work, the little boy takes matters into his own hands with some curses.

And then we get the crossing of the Red Sea. I was afraid it was going to be some lame, "realistic", super-low tide cop-out, but no, we get the full CGI treatment, including a shot of drowning bodies that I'm pretty sure we saw in Noah.

Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott, is the closest to a traditional, Charlton Heston, Ten Commandments type spectacle. Like Noah, it spends a lot of time of the sorrows of a prophet who knows the Lord is planning to kill a lot of people. But Moses has some ups and downs, not the consistent downer of Noah.

So that was our Thanksgiving Gods of Ancient Middle East film festival. It's strange that two classy directors, Aronofsky and  Scott both decided to do Old Testament stories in 2014. It's funny that someone did Gods of Egypt, too, because it's such a goof. We watched a lot of other movies - Keanu Reeves marathon (John Wick, Constantine)! Addams Family and the Thanksgiving fave Addams Family Values! But we enjoyed the pageantry and righteousness of our little theme party.

It strikes me that it was Wizard of Oz that was always on TV on Thanksgiving. Maybe we should have watched The Wiz, Oz the Great and Powerful and Malificent. Maybe I'll save that for Easter.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Triple Prey

Well, once more Ms. Spenser has me watching a chick flick: Predators (2010). She got out her action figures, set them up to watch and we settled in for the third of the series.

The first two start with some kind of human-scale mission - this one just dumps our humans into it, literally. Adrian Brody wakes up in freefall. His parachute opens and he lands badly. He soon finds some other humans: a Mexican drug soldier (Danny Trejo), a Chechen fighter (Oleg Taktarov), a murderer from San Q (Walter Goggins), an African warlord (Mahershala Ali), a silent yakuza in a sharp suit (Louis Ozawa Changchien), and a cute soldier (Alice Braga). Also, a doctor (Topher Grace), who is kind of out of place, not being a killer or anything.

It takes a while, but they soon figure out that they are not on Earth, and that they are being hunted. They meet up with Laurence Fishburne, who has survived enough hunts to have stolen a set of camo armor and infiltrated a crashed ship. He moves and talks very quietly. But how much help will he be?

As usual, the crew gets thinned out pretty fast. But in this one, the other team members may be more dangerous than the Predators. We get a few new Preds, but also learn a little about their ecosystem and meet some of the other species they hunt. We also learn that they are learning, changing, becoming more dangerous every hunt. Which is a great excuse to keep coming up with new stories and monster designs.

The cast here is great, one of the best, I think - or maybe it's just because Danny Trejo is onboard. I know you're thinking: Adrian "Broody" Brody? Really? But he's got a new take on the Predator hero - rougher, colder, maybe smarter. Also, he's bulked up a lot, although nothing like Arnold.

I won't spoil the twist, although it's telegraphed very obviously and early on. This installment was  produced by Robert Rodrigues and directed by Hungarian Nimrod Antal - an auspicious name for a movie about hunters. All in all, a great entry in the series.

Next, we watch the AvP series (considered to be an independent branch universe). But Ms. Spenser's really excited about the next Predator, to be directed by Shane Black.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Flying V

I'll start by saying that I don't think Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is a bad movie. Director Zack Snyder has an interesting visual style (although he does like to film dark). The action is strong, the takes on the classic characters interesting, and the acting gets full marks. But it just doesn't seem to hold together.

It picks up the story up during the big fight at the end of Man of Steel. We meet some of the first responders getting killed by fallout from the Superman/Zod fight, which motivates the whole hate-and-fear Superman thing. There's even a Marvel-Civil-War-style anti-superpower legislation subplot. Later, we see Clark Kent reading about Batman's extralegal activities and decides that he is a menace.

So they start plotting to take each other down. Batman will have a harder job of it, but he has a line on some kryptonite. He plans to get it by stealing it from Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Alfred isn't happy about this, but since he's played by Jeremy Irons, we're happy with him.

When we get to the big fight, it's almost entirely based on a misunderstanding. This is something that is always happens in comics - two superheroes meet, each decides the other is evil, fight, fight, fight. The whole thing is settled when they discover that both of their mothers are named Martha. Trace Beaulieu and Frank Coniff talk about this a lot in their Movie Sign with the Mads podcast: What would have happened if Ma Kent's name was Molly? What if Lex Luthor's mother was another Martha?

A few words on casting: I love Henry Cavill as Superman and Clark. It's cute that this version of Clark lives with Lois Lane (Amy Adams), who knows that he's Superman, because she's not blind. Ben Affleck is maybe the best Batman yet - old and beaten up but hugely powerful. (I have to admit here that I've been getting Ben Affleck and Ben Stiller mixed up. They both have the same chiseled cheeks and quirked smile, you know. I thought this Ben guy had a lot of range, from Zoolander to Daredevil. I've got them straight now.)

Jesse Eisenberg playing a Lex Luthor as a long-haired semi-articulate high-tech industry guru seems like a mistake. I want a Lex Luthor with some gravitas - a thoughtful, dignified villain, preferably bald. Eisenberg seems to be doing Zuckerberg as supervillain, or maybe he can only do this one character.

This movie famously sets up the Justice League movie by showing a few of the other heroes. In some ways, it seems to take place in the CW-DC-verse, with the metahumans, although with a different set of actors. Jason Momoa as Aquaman looks (paradoxically) awesome in his short cameo. But when Gal Gadot shows up as Wonder Woman, the movie gets a real shot of adrenaline. That might even be the big problem with this movie: When you see that kind of intensity, the rest of the movie is going to suffer.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Monster Picture

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) is something truly amazing: a classic horror movie written by Oscar Wilde. It stars George Sanders as a fop-about-town visiting his painter friend - who tries to duck him, of course. The painter has just painted a portrait of an extraordinarily beautiful young man, Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield). When Sanders meets Gray, he does his best to corrupt him, reminding him that his youth and beauty are fleeting. Standing beside an Egyptian cat idol, Gray makes a wish: that he should stay young while the painting ages.

Stung by Sanders' words, Gray decides to live a little, and visits a lowdown London grogshop where he hears Angela Lansbury singing the "Good-bye Little Yellow Bird" - a sort of answer song to "Just a Bird in a Gilded Cage," I guess. He is attracted to her, and following the advice of George Sanders, debauches her and pays her off. When she kills herself, he notices that the portrait now has a touch of cruelty around the lips. But since he looks the same, why not carry on as he began. So he begins to sin in earnest.

Of course, we only gets hints of the sinning. He goes into a tavern's back room with a midget - doesn't that say it all? He spends time in these low dives playing Chopin on the piano, and people around him keep killing themselves. The onscreen body count is low - one, I think - but that's enough to make this an actual horror picture.

There are even make-up effects. But the biggest special effect is the painting of the corrupted Dorian. It was painted by Ivan Albright, who had lived but a few miles from my college. This painting hung in one of our art galleries for a year, in all its ghastly splendor. The movie switches from black and white to glorious technicolor whenever the painting is shown (usually only for a few seconds).

So, we have a classic horror movie - Dorian Gray is a classic monster, he's even in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (ok, bad example, maybe). But it is also written by Oscar Wilde, with George Sanders spitting epigrams like crazy - some of which were used in Velvet Goldmine ("I prefer persons to principles"). I guess a lot of the Univeral Monsters came from legitimate literature (Jekyll and Hyde by R.L. Stevenson, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, etc), so why not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hurry Sundown

Already, we are back at the old Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott watering hole for Decision at Sundown (1957). Scott even gets a sidekick, Noah Beery, Jr.

It starts with Scott getting off a stagecoach. But he doesn't wait for a normally scheduled stop - he sticks a gun in the drivers ear and makes him stop. Then he fires a shot to alert ... alert ... to alert Noah Beery, who finally shows up with an extra horse. He'd fallen asleep. And so they make their way to the town of Sundown, where Scott has business with Tate Kimbrough (John Carrol). To kill him.

Beery lets Scott know that Tate is a big man in Sundown, and that he is getting married that very day. So Scott goes to the barber for a shave so he'll look good for the wedding. Then he heads to the saloon where he refuses to drink on Tate's tab. Finally, he heads to the church and lets Tate know that he aims to kill him.

That warning leads to an amazing stand-off, with Scott and Beery holed up in a stable. We get to meet the people of Sundown. The woman Tate is fooling around with but won't marry. The bought-and-sold sherrif. The doctor who doesn't like Tate, but opposes violence. He can move freely between the townspeople and the stable.

The way upright Scott rides into town, forthrightly declares himself, and sets out to make good on his intentions is contrasted with the corrupt leaders and follow-the-crowd townspeople of Sundown. But there's a twist to this movie. Scott may be sure, but is he right? Noah Beery keeps trying to get him to reconsider, and maybe get something to eat. So we not only get Scott unutterable cool, but we get a critique of it as well.

In conclusion, these are great westerns.

Coming from Inside the House

Does anyone remember Monster House (2006)? It made a big splash in the day, and we finally decided to watch it, even though we're beginning to think that modern animation just isn't for us.

It's about DJ, a long-faced, big-eared tween boy, just on the edge of puberty. He is obsessed with the scary house across the street and the mean old man who lives there. Any kid's toy that lands on his lawn gets confiscated - with extreme prejudice. Now, it's almost Halloween and his parents are off for the weekend, leaving him with flakey, punky babysitter Elizabeth (or "Z" as she likes to be called). His chubby goofball friend Chowder loses his ball on the scary house's lawn. Then mean old man Nebercracker comes after them - and has a heart attack and collapses on top of DJ.

So, that's pretty dark for a kid's movie. But now that the old man is gone, it seems the house was the real monster after all. It starts trying to eat people - and succeeding.

Throw in a few extra characters and you've got a real movie: a smart girl for the boys to obsess over, Z's loser boyfriend Bones, a couple of clueless town cops, and the wizard who can solve it all, a greasy video arcade master with a zip mustache called Skull (John Heder). It all ends in a frantic chase/fight scene and then a happy ending.

We liked a lot of this. We noticed Dan Harmon as one of the writers, and weren't surprised. Like Community, this is very good but just not great.
  • Animation was mostly good but sometimes the motion-capture was a little too spot on - made the characters seem like people in masks or something. Also, due to the technology, everyone had plastic hair.
  • DJ  (sensitive quiet kid) and Chowder (fat loud kid) were OK characters, but not very original. And the romantic interest wasn't exactly 3-dimensional either (even if the movie was projected in 3D in some theaters).
  • The source of the monstrosity: I won't give it away, but it isn't good. I'll just say that the true villains are the writers.
I'm glad we watched this, and I enjoyed it, but can't say it hit the mark.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Frankenstein Must be Annoyed!

The Horror Fest continues, even after Halloween has come and gone! Since we haven't seen much Hammer Horror, we took on Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), directed by Terence Hill, starring Peter Cushing as a certain doctor.

We find the good doctor moving out of his laboratory with the police getting a little too close. He happens to notice a young doctor (Simon Ward) dropping a box of cocaine before meeting his girlfriend (Veronica Carlton). He blackmails them into allowing him to set up shop in her boarding house. Soon the young doctor - a cute guy with a blonde Beatle cut - has more than a coke rap against him. Carlton, a busty blonde Hammer Girl, puts up with it all, even when Cushing repeatedly orders her to bring him coffee.

In case you hadn't guessed, Cushing is Baron Frankenstein, and his plan is a cunning one. His past partner, Dr. Brandt (George Pravda - at first!) has gone insane. So Frankenstein will break him out of the asylum, cure his insanity, and they will go on with the work. It goes well enough until Brandt dies. No problem for Dr. F - just put his brain into another body (Freddie Jones) and carry on.

Note that the Frankenstein who must be destroyed is not the monster.

We enjoyed this a lot, especially Cushing's cold and arrogant Frankenstein,. However, we should warn viewers that there is a very disturbing rape scene. I have read that it was put in the movie late in development at the request of the studio, and Peter Cushing hated it. My recommendation: Pretend it never happened.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

To Boldly Go

We didn't mean to see Star Trek Beyond (2016) on the same weekend as X-Men: Apocalypso. Two brand-new blockbusters, third of their trilogies. We would usually space them out a little, but that's the way Netflix "Very Long Wait" works - pays your money, takes your chances.

It starts with a jokey scene, with Kirk trying to negotiate a treaty with some belligerent aliens. It doesn't go that well, and you think it's just a gag opening, like the mud-face aliens at the start of Into Darkness. But it actually introduces us to the McGuffin (oh, spoiler, I guess).

When they go to answer a distress call, they find themselves in an ambush (gee, when has that ever happened?). The enemy is a swarm of small, heavily armored one-man ships, who force the Enterprise to crash on a nearby planet. On the planet several groups of crew members have to fight locals, the enemy and the planet to get back to the remains of the ship. Kirk and Chekov meet up with a cute, punky alien named Jayla (after Jennifer Lawrence), played by Sofia Boutella.

I don't want to get into the plot, but I have to mention Starbase Yorktown, a totally cool orbital city in a bubble, with lots of skycrapers set at all angles due to artificial gravity. A great set piece for the last 1/4 (1/3?) of the film.

Once again, my favorite part of this Star Trek series is how well they get the characters. In particular, Karl Urban really nails McCoy's grumpiness. But everyone has just the right touch. Zachary Quinto as Spock spends a bit of time mourning the death of Ambassador Spock - himself from a different timeline (the original series timeline, where Vulcan didn't blow up). It's especially sweet because it is really Quinto mourning the death of the originator of his role, and his mentor, Leonard Nimoy.

Chris Pines' Kirk nature has eluded me up until now, but I think I got it even before he started zooming around on an antique motorcycle. That was presumably director Justin Lin's hat-tip to the Fast and Furious series. John Cho has a few nice moments as Sulu, including a quick meeting with his husband and daughter. Anton Yelchin gets his "little old lady from Leningrad" line in, updated a bit. He has sadly passed on, and I think Chekov won't be seen on the Enterprise again soon. Ah well, he missed the first season of the original series, as well.

And of course, writer Simon Pegg gets some sweet scenes as Scotty. It might have just been me, but I thought this was a slightly silly entry in the series. Like when someone starts playing the Beastie Boys, and Bones calls it "classical music".

All in all, very satisfying. I understand that there are at least a few more in the pipeline. I'm in.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Apocalypse Now

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) might really be the end of the world - the last movie in the X-Men series (not counting Wolverine movies, I guess).

The villain is Apocalypse (they don't call him that, but never mind). He's played by Oscar Isaacs, but under a lot of make-up/facial prosthetics. He was the first mutant, living in ancient Egypt as a god. He finally ends up under a pyramid. Fast forward to the 1980s, and he gets loose. He picks up a Cairo thief, named Ororo (Alexandra Shipp), and makes her the core of his disciples. He also picks up Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn).

We catch up with Magneto (Michael Fassbender) trying to live a quiet life in Poland, but you know how that will work out. Soon Apocalypse has his fourth horseman.

On the hero side, Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) brings Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to join the students at Prof. X's. Havok (Lucas Till) does the same for his little brother Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Let me say that it took me a while to accept Scott Summers as a late addition to the team instead of a founding member, but remember I guess Days of Future Past really messed up the timelines. Anyway, I feel like they really got Scott in this one. He's a nerd and he's a rebel. His budding relationship with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is nicely handled, although it's hard to beat the first trilogy for Jean Grey idolatry.

In fact, I think this movie does a great job on a lot of the characters. We get a nice chunk of Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne), although she isn't as Scottish as I expected. Nightcrawler is a lot of fun, not Catholic and mopey like in X2. He and Quicksilver do a lot of great work, getting people where they need to be, moving things right along.

Too bad Storm got short shrift - She has a good origin scene, then is mind-controlled for most of the rest of the movie.

Finally, James MacAvoy as Prof. X gets bald. Destiny is fulfilled.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Keep Preying

Predator 2 (1990) is one of those sequels that is better than the original. No offense to Arnold, or any of the original cast or director. This movie has a completely different cast and director, although the writers, Jim and John Thomas, were the same.

The first Predator movie took place in the Central American jungle. This one takes place in the urban jungle: LA, in the middle of a heatwave and a gang war. Danny Glover is the angry cop who plays by his own rules. Him and his buddies try to take down a gang of heavily armed Columbians, but after a pretty good action sequence, they find them all dead, killed up close - none of them shot.

Back at the precinct, Glover gets bawled out by the captain and gets assigned a new partner: Bill Paxton. Bill is a slick-dressing, fast-talking, sexist-joke telling goofball - he was like someone out of L.A. Confidential, but played for laughs. Glover also gets to meet Gary Busey, an agent from some mysterious government agency.  He's the guy who tends to drop out of the sky in a helicopter to tell the cops that this is his case now, and they have no idea what they are up against.

This all plays out against phalanx of news-screamers, including Morton Downey, Jr. as the host of a sensationalist news program. TV news is a constant presence, giving the picture a nice meta touch.

Of course, they begin to figure out that there is a Predator loose, although they don't know what that means. Busey probably knows about the first Predator, but he isn't talking. The team starts to get picked off one by one, starting with Ruben Blades. Finally, it's up to Glover to defeat the beast - and keep him from self-destructing when he does, since that will destroy half of LA.

Maybe it's just that I like urban action better than jungle, but the non-Predator action here is just more fun than in the original. The cast is great, even put up against the original, another classic action team. Glover can out-act, out-angry, and maybe out-punch Arnold, no contest. And the ending gave just enough about the Predator race, without over-explaining. (Plus, a great reveal - no spoilers!)

I might be prejudiced. I had heard that 2 was better than 1, and mainly watched the first to get to the second. But I think it's just plain better.

Now, should we watch Predators and AVP, or quit while we're ahead?

Friday, November 4, 2016

(Not Very) Special Announcement

Hello, blog fans! I find myself all caught up on my blogging backlog, and with a little free time, so I thought I'd do a little random post.

I had meant to commemorate my 1,000th post, but we passed that about 50 posts ago, in early July, say. I've started my tenth year of blogging - when I started, blogging was cool. But I remember back in the 1990s, when I had a movie review program - sort of a Leonard Maltin on a floppy. It let you comment on films, and I kept that up for years. I think I rated about 200 movies before I quit using it. So I was proto-blogging before we really had an internet.

Since this blog is about my Netflix queue, that means Netflix has been around for more than 10 years. Hard to believe. It has changed a lot in that time, becoming a streaming service and a content creator. They want 50% of their content to be created internally. That's fine, they make some great shows. But they seem to be getting to 50% by decreasing the amount of external content available. I like streamed content just fine, but what I really want is selection.

The number of titles available on the DVD/Blu-ray side is much greater, but there are still too many unavailable movies. I have 114 "Saved" movies: movies that are in the system but not going out. Only two are recent releases that aren't available yet. Some are obscure: Old kung fu films, obscure musical documentaries, black-and-white comedies that belong on TCM. But, come on! You can't rent Speed!

Speaking of TCM, there is a new streaming service in town: Filmstruck. It's a streaming service run by TCM and Criterion featuring classic and hard-to-find films. I might give them a try but:

  • "Rotating, curated collection": in other words, we choose, not you.
  • I've seen a lot of the classics. Are there enough hard-to-finds to make it worthwhile? They advertise "hundreds" of films, not thousands.
  • I don't have a way to get this on my TV, and I don't want to watch on my laptop.
  • The site doesn't seem very browsable. It might be hard to find anything here, unless it gets "curated" 
And of course, we need to keep Netflix so we can see all the superhero movies that we love, even though it isn't cool anymore.

So we'll see how it goes. I would love to see a platform like the old Netflix, with every DVD you can think of, with some curation available - maybe even third-party curation. I originally thought of this blog that way: Maybe you would want to watch what I'm watching. I was frustrated by a lot of film blogs talking about movies that were only available as bootlegs, or at film festivals. So for now, I'll keep plugging along the old-fashioned 2000s way. Hope you enjoy.

And thanks for reading!

Oh yeah, the reason that I'm all caught up on my blogging is that I BROKE MY STUPID ANKLE! So I have to get around on crutches, so I have plenty of time to blog. That's my announcement.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Phull Price

Carrying on in the Vincent Price vein, The Abominable Dr. Phibes/Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1971/1972).

Vincent Price is Dr. Phibes, a talented musician whose face was ruined in an accident, the same accident that killed his wife (Caroline Munro). He is hiding out in his London mansion with his wife's corpse (well-preserved of course), while plotting to kill the doctors that failed to save her life. He spends his time with his animatronic ragtime band, with the Dr. himself on theater organ. There he sits, cloaked in a dark cape, gesturing majestically while playing roller-rink music. Everybody skate!

He is assisted in his crimes by the lovely and silent Vulnavia (Virginia North). I'm not sure, but I think she is a robot like his band. Anyway, she loves to do a slow go-go dance before or after a gruesome murder.

And what murders! There were nine doctors and a nurse operating on Ms. Phibes, so the Dr. will kill each based on the ten biblical plagues of Egypt. Very loosely based, unless one of the plagues involves having a spike come out of the telephone, into your ear and out the other one.

There are some great character actors among the victims, including Terry-Thomas and Van Johnson. Phibes is tracked by police detective Trout (Peter Jeffrey). The production is gloriously silly and campy, with great rolling monologues from Price - delivered through a gramophone gadget plugged into his neck because he can't open his mouth. He is backed up by the swirling Vulnavia. The sets are Art Deco by way of Op Art. It is glorious.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again! is more of the same. This time, the Dr. and his good wife/corpse travel to Egypt to find the river of life buried beneath an ancient tomb, that Phibes has decorated like a Deco theater lobby, and installed his organ. His nemesis is Robert Quarry, an unscrupulous scholar who stole Phibes' map. Phibes has to kill Quarry's whole team, this time with an Egyptian mythology theme, hawks, scorpions, cobras, etc. Everything is just a cuckoo, or maybe more so.

In some ways, Phibes seems to have inherited some characteristics of his role in House of Wax: The burns, the immobile face, the waxworks figures and clockwork orchestra. In some ways, he is just that mad Vincent Price, having a ball. This isn't really scary, although some of it is pretty gruesome, but it's a lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Half Price

I'd never seen either House of Wax/The Mystery of the Wax Museum but I guess I'm up to speed now.

We started with the remake, House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price. Ms. Spenser had seen it before in the original 3-D, but I had to be content with plain old flat film. Trivia - director Andre de Toth was missing an eye, so he couldn't see the 3-D effects. It starts with Price as a mild mannered sculptor with a London wax museum. Although a famous critic praises his work, Price has a business partner wants out of the business. He achieves this through a touch of arson, leaving the partner rich and Price apparently dead.

Some years later, a mysterious crippled stranger opens a new museum, one full of gory and shocking horrors. This stranger, Vincent Price, has hands too burnt to work, but he has a team of assistants to do the actual sculpting, including a deviant drunk and deaf mute. Oh yes, and bodies are going missing from the morgue, and some of the wax sculptures seem to be based on their features. Shades of Walter Paisley!

Price soon finds a lovely young woman to model his masterpiece, Phyllis Kirk. She's a little suspicious because her friend (Carolyn Jones!) has recently died and her body has disappeared, and doesn't that statue of Joan of Arc look familiar?

This version is set in the Gay 90s, and there is a lot of silly period details: German beer halls, strait-laced corsets (in fact an entire dressing scene), gas lights, and so forth. Price is great as always, as are his henchmen, but Phyllis Kirk is a bit wet, especially after we'd seen the original.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) stars Lionel Atwill, with Fay Wray as the model of Marie Antoinette (together again!). The story is almost identical to the remake, but the feel is very different. For one thing, Price builds up a lot of charm points before the fire - Atwill less so. Also, Mystery is set in comtemporary times, 1933 New York mostly, so the hokey Gay 90s stuff is avoided.

But most of all, the girl whose investigation brings the whole thing down is played by Glenda Farrell. Like her classic role, Torchy Blane, Farrell plays a fast-talking, hard-partying girl reporter. Her patter is great, whether she's calling her editor Poison or just telling her playboy boyfriend "Don't count on it". She's a real live wire. Maybe her presence unbalances the movie a little, since she shouldn't really be the central figure.

Also, Mystery was filmed in two-strip color, which gives it an odd pink and green look. You can see why they dropped this technology. But it almost makes sense in something macabre like this.

So, two great movies for the price of one, and one movie with Vincent Price. How can you go wrong?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Last Unicorn

It's funny that I'd never heard of Legend (1986) until I saw it in Netflix. It stars Tom Cruise, somewhat well known, and was directed by Ridley Scott, for goodness sake. I guess the American release was a bit of a hash, with a lot of cuts and a Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Maybe that's why I didn't here about it at the time.

This is a magic fantasy, with demons and ogres, princesses and forest boys. The demon is Darkness, a shadowy figure at first, but voiced by Tim Curry. He sends his most evil ogre (Alice Playten, with makeup inspired by Keith Richards) to kill the last unicorns and bring back their horns. The princess is Mia Sara, gamboling in the forest in full princess regalia - this isn't one of those realistic fairytale movies where people get dirty and have bad teeth.

She is secretly meeting with Tom Cruise, a long-haired ragged forest boy. He hops around on his haunches like a Sabu, and he takes his princess to see the unicorns. Unfortunately, the ogre gets one right about then, leaving her feeling very guilty. Also, winter falls in the middle of the summer.

Our young lovers get seperated, with Cruise falling in with a bunch of somewhat silly elves. Sara, on the other hand, is captured by the demon, who falls in love with her. Now we get to see him in his full demonic makeup and horns, and he's gorgeous. He seduces Sara with his riches and she seems to go over to his side, getting all goth and doing a lovely waltz, alone and with him. By the way, the score by Jerry Goldsmith is very striking - I can't imagine replacing it with synth-pop.

There are so many movies Legend calls to mind: various Disney movies, Willow with it's comic pixies (I would have liked to see Kilmer in the Cruise role), the Russo-Finnish movies that MST3K showed, like The Day the Earth Froze. Peter Beagle's Last Unicorn (haven't seen the animated movie). It has mystical unreality like Boorman's Excaliber. And of course, Labyrinth, with the young girl seduced by the goblin/demon. I didn't feel like these sources were ripped off, just lovingly referred to.

I have a feeling this movie isn't for everyone, or for every mood. You need to be able to accept a large amount of corny sentiment and fluffy ornament. Also, not everyone can stand Tom Cruise - he's not an embarrassment here, though. So keep an open mind and child-like sense of wonder and give it a spin.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

This Robot Kronos

Kronos (1957) - one of the most perfect black and white SF movies we've ever seen. And it stars Jeff Morrow, Exeter from This Planet Earth. I didn't recognize him without his forehead.

It starts at Labcentral, a centrally located lab - I think it's near the Monolith Monsters set. Scientist Morrow, his photographer girlfriend, and George O'Hanlon are studying images of an apparent meteor heading for Earth. Little do they know that it has already taken over the mind of one of the other scientists, John Emery as the liltingly named Dr. Hubbell Eliot. You probably know of his telescope.

The trio figure that the meteor will land off the coast of Mexico and head on down for a little scientific fun in the sun. They are about to give up, when a giant robot comes stomping out of the sea. And when I say giant, I mean the size of an apartment building. Also, roughly the shape of an apartment building.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hub is acting weird. He has fits where he seems to be controlling the robot. Everyone in Labcentral thinks he's crazy, and Morris Ankrum (!) gives him shock treatment, which actually makes him lucid. That gives him a chance to explain the plot, which doesn't do much to convince them that he isn't crazy.

Meanwhile, our three scientists get into some AWESOME satin science jumspuits with "Labcentral" embroidered in script across the back. Seriously, I want one of those. They land their helicopter on the robot, which they decide to call Kronos and a radio DJ wonders if the name will catch on. They see some crazy stuff, mostly lucite models, but all I could see was the jumpsuits.

After the robot monster starts stomping towards LA, they discover A-bombs won't stop him! So they use the most sciency solution they can think of - they reverse the polarity. And that does it.

Such a good movie, full of treats and wonders. Really makes you want to head to Labcentral and build an interociter!

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Spoiler in the Title

I've been doing my best to read as little as possible about John Dies at the End (2012) to avoid spoilers. OK, there's one spoiler you can't avoid. But you might want to skip this one until you've seen it. Not so much because of the twists and surprises, just so that you go into it fresh.

No? Well, I warned you. It's about Dave Wong and his friend John. They are slackers who do some ghostbusting on the side - nothing serious, they usually bring in celebrity psychic Clancy Brown when things get serious. Anyway, John gets into some serious junk called "soy sauce", which does odd things to your brain. Also, time and space.

I should note that Dave Wong and John Cheese are real people, although those aren't their real names. They are editors for (which I guess is a lot better than the old Cracked magazine was). They are played by Chase Williamson and Rob Mayes. John is the one who fronts a punk band, Dave is the one who rescues him when he's strung out on sauce.

Don Coscarelli (Bubba Ho-Tep) directs, and I would say he does a great job with the creepy Cronenbergian aspects of the movie. I understand that the Book is Better, but isn't it always? The trick of a drug that makes you in some way omniscient is handled well here, as opposed to Paycheck, say, where it just didn't. So you get a little bit of Odd Thomas (the ghostbusting), a little bit of Limitless, some Naked Lunch, but for the kids, and away we go.

By the way, we've been watching the Limitless TV series, and it's pretty fun too.

OK, I think I got through this without many spoilers. So what would you say if I told you that John actually dies ... in the middle!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Scream and Scream Again!

When it comes to creepy movies, we think that nothing beats the old black and whites. We enjoyed a pleasant double bill the other night. First up: The Vampire Bat (1933). This was made by Majestic Studios, and has that good old Poverty Row feel. It is set in some Mittel Europa village, where people are dying, drained of blood. Everyone suspects vampires, but Melvyn Douglas, local police detective, scoffs at the notion. Local scientist Lionel Atwill isn't so sure - there are a lot of bats about and he does have some reference works from the 17th century. What does his lovely assistant (Douglas' girlfriend) Fay Wray think?

Well, she doesn't suspect half-wit Dwight Frye, who likes bats - they're so soft, he carries a few around in his coat. Everybody else does, of course, except for batty old Aunt Gussie (Maude Eburne) who just rattles of mumbled medical jargon for some reason.

The cast is great, even though Wray never does get to scream. And the amazing creature that is behind it all is - amazing (SPOILER - a throbbing sponge in an aquarium).

Then, House of Frankenstein (1944), the fifth and last of the Universal Frankenstein movies. We have Karloff as a student of Frankenstein, driven to the ruined castle where the monster lies frozen along with the Wolfman, for reasons we couldn't fathom because we have only see Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The monster, Glenn Strange, and Wolfie, Lon Chaney, Jr., get revived, of course, along with Dracula (John Carradine) who has been travelling with a freak show (proprietor George Zucco) as a skeleton. (The Dracula plot is kind of tacked on, as if it was made of scraps from another movie.)

The Wolfman plot actually gets the most depth, I think. He falls in love with Elena Verdugo, which lets them use the old "Can only be killed by someone who loves him" trick, as well as the "three full moons" theory.

And I haven't even mentioned J. Carrol Naish as Karloff's hunchbacked assistant.

We weren't expecting much from this 5equel, but it was a real romp. Now I suppose we'll need to watch the other two.

The other great thing about these "classics" is that they are short, so it isn't hard to take in a double feature on a cozy October night.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gone Goth

Another one for the Halloween season, Gothic (1986), Ken Russell's insane take on that rainy night in Switzerland when Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson), Percy Shelley (Julian Sands), Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and crew got together to take laudanum and tell ghost stories.

The movie starts with a group of Victorian tourists peering at Byron's villa through a telescope, discussing his scandals. Meanwhile, Shelley and Mary with Mary's half-sister and Bryon's lover Claire (Myriam Cyre) are rowing over - they arrive in a rainstorm, and Shelley is ambushed by amorous teenaged girls. This establishes our crew as famous, scandalous sex objects, especially the men.

So, they settle down to drink laudanum, and play games. Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall) is also at the party - a grinning buffoon with a comic accent whose virtuous Catholicism covers some very kinky urges. Our crew wanders about the spooky villa reading scary stories to each other, and generally getting cranked up. Bryon is a jerk to everyone except Shelley, who he is sexy towards. He beats his lover Claire, who loves it. Shelley gets weirder the more laudanum he takes (a lot). Mary is the normal one, but has her own quirks - she is haunted by the ghost of her and Shelley's dead baby.

Mary Godwin (she won't be able to take Shelley's name until he gets rid of his current wife) is perhaps the problem with this movie. She is portrayed as rather norma - she is a fan of free love, but only so she can sleep with Shelley. She was famously inspired to write Frankenstein on this trip, but Russell can't quite make the case.

Also, as the horror and hallucinations build, we can't forget that everyone in this movie lives out the weekend - the body count will be zero. Of course, all but Mary wind up tragically dead at an early age, but not in this movie.

Still, it's full of beautiful compositions, many based on Gothic paintings (like Fuesslie's "Nightmare", see on the bedroom wall and reproduced in the bed). Lots of atmospheric lighting and weird angles. I'd say this is Ken Russell at his peak. So if you like Russell, check it out.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Diesel Power

Sometimes we just feel like watching some interchangeable action movie product. Since Vin Diesel stars in The Last Witch Hunter (2015), that's the one we picked.

It starts in Viking times, with a bunch of hairy warriors hunting the witches that brought the plague. They track them to a great tree, and proceed to scrap. Diesel (I think, hard to tell under the beard) kills the witch queen but before she dies, she curses him to live forever and hunt witches like her... She didn't think that through very well, I guess.

So we jump to present day. Diesel is still hunting witches, who have chilled out a bit. The witch council now keeps peace between witches and humans, and Diesel kicks butt if they don't. For a sidekick, Diesel has a priest called a Dolan, the 36th of his line. And it's Michael Caine! At that point, I'm ready to forgive a lot.

Then retires and dies that night. His replacement, who looks a lot like Elijah Wood, is Elijah Wood. Diesel drops him like a bad habit and heads out to some witch bar - like the bar in Deadpool or John Wick. And so on.

The movie wasn't bad at all, but it wasn't especially good. The talent all handled their roles well, the special effects were fine. There just wasn't a lot to it. Which is fine, as long as it has Vin Diesel, Michael Caine and Elijah Wood.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Because I'm Frowning All The Time

No, not the band - the movie Black Sabbath (1964), that the band took it's name from. This is an Italian horror anthology, directed by the master of light and darkness, Mario Bava.

It is introduced by an avuncular Boris Karloff, who will be back soon. The first segment is "The Telephone." Swanky Michele Mercier is hanging about her chic apartment when the phone rings - but there is no one there. She hangs up but it rings again and again. The caller turns out to be her pimp who went to prison because of her, and now he's out and he knows everything she is doing. She calls her best enemy to come over, but she may be more dangerous than the caller.

This is a nice little mood piece, fluffy and frilly like Mercier's apartment, with a few nice twists. It is also an early giallo - those Italian slasher films known for stylish twists like black-gloved killers and sexy victims.

The middle story is probably the best and most famous: "The Wurdulak." A wanderer (Mark Damon) in the Czar's Russia comes upon a corpse with a dagger in its heart. He takes the dagger to the nearest farmhouse and finds that it came from their collection. They tell him that the father was out hunting wurdulak, an undead creature that kills who it loved most in life. When father gets home, there is some concern because he was out past the time limit he himself imposed. Is the father now a wurdulak? Hint: He is played by Boris Karloff.  The story is allegedly based on a story by Tolstoy, but I don't know how closely it follows it.

The last story, "A Drop of Water" is another mood piece. A woman (Jacqueline Pierreux) is at home in a small room with a glass of something, a gramaphone and her knitting. But she is called out to a creepy old mansion where a medium has died. She has been called to lay out the corpse. In the process, she steals a ring, and knocks over a glass of water. Soon, she is haunted by water droplets and the buzzing of a fly.

I liked the setting a lot - the cozy apartment, the creepy mansion, but the water drop/buzzing fly bugaboo was a little too random for me. Neither is that scary and they aren't really linked. Oh well.

Then Uncle Boris comes out to wish us good night, and don't let the vampires bite.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Let Us Prey

Don't know why we decided it was time to watch Predator (1987) - It was something to do with Dolph Lundgren... who isn't in this, so never mind.

It stats with Carl Weathers (yay!) recruiting search and extractions expert Arnold Schwarzenegger and team to rescue a diplomat is the South American country of Val Killme. The team includes quiet scary Bill Duke, loud blustery Jesse Ventura, comic relief Shane Black, and Sonny Landham, the Indian of the group.

They get in-country find another rescue team skinned and hung upside down. They take a revolutionary woman (Elpidia Carrillo) captive and try to figure out what's happening as they start getting killed one by one.

We get a  killer's eye view for some of this - hazy thermal imaging that makes you wonder how the Predator ever manages to kill anything. Then we get to "see" the monster - in quotes because it uses some form of camoflage to blend in with the jungle. Neither of these effects is that impressive, but they are fun and iconic.

There's a nice ensemble feel to the movie, with the various team members getting generous screen time, until they are all dead or safe across the border and it's Arnold vs. Predator, mano a thingo. We get to see Arnold carefully setting up kill box full of booby traps and... I won't spoil it.

Now I remember why we wanted to see this - so we could watch Predator 2 (Pred in the Big City)! Dolph Lundgren isn't in that either, I guess. Also, we'll watch some Shane Black soon. Why not?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mao or Tao?

Mojin: The Lost Legend (2015) is another time-waster - a Chinese martial arts fantasy with nothing in particular special about it, except that it is new.

The Mojin are tomb raiders, but for the people. In times of famine, they are authorized to go into the tombs of the ancients to get gold to buy food for the people. They have practiced this craft since ancient times, learning all the tricks to avoid the traps and possible spirits of the tombs.

Our group includes Kun Chen, the studious, serious guy with the long wispy hipster beard and Bo Huang (Journey to the West), the goofy braggart. The girl in the mix is Qi Shu. After a disastrous raid, they are sort of hiding out in New York, selling dubious antiquities on the street. Dandified Yu Xia, a sort of tomb raiding agent, pulls them back to Mongolia for another try at the treasure. And they will find out what happened to Angelababy, the Maoist cadre that they thought had died in the first raid.

The action and CGI is all fine, very good in fact, but not really special. Two special points are:
  • The Mongolian setting, with lots of throat-singing, yurts, etc. Exotic and colorful.
  • The Communist setting. We see our heroes setting out into Mongolia in a truck full of cadres in green, waving their little red books and arguing the dialectics of grave robbing. 
This is clearly a requirement of the government - to explain the fantastic in materialist terms, to exalt the revolution as opposed to the old imperial ways. It's kind of thrilling, to see this kind of Mao-chic, even remembering the disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

The politics don't really stand out much, just in one or two scenes. Adds a little spice to a fun but ordinary movie.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine

Although Velvet Goldmine (1998) was directed by Todd Haynes, it is scarcely the Douglas Sirkian melodrama I insisted were his metier. Rather, it is a glittery, decadent story about the rise and fall of Glam Rock.

It is written from the point of view of Christian Bale, a rather beat-down reporter in New York, 1984. He is assigned to do a "Where are they now" on Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers). In a flashback we see all the young dudes and dollies heading for his big 1974 show, including Bale and a shadowy figure referred to as Jack Fairy. This is going to be Slade's last show as his alter-ego Maxwell Demon. As he goes on stage and takes the mike, Bale sees that shadowy figure shoot him dead and blow him a kiss.

So right off I'm thinking, it's Eddie and the Cruisers for glam rockers. But no, the whole world finds out that is was just a prank, and Slade slowly fades from the public eye. Bale interviews whoever he can find, each one delivering a long flashback about Slade's early life. Playing the festival in a frock. Meeting crude American thrash-rocker Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor). Losing his wife (Toni Collette) to a life of gay sex, drugs and decadence. Then vanishing.

We also see Bale growing up in small town England, deeply closeted. We see him going to London, spreading his wings, joining the glam rockers and loving it. We don't see how he wound up a New York media drone, but that beautiful time couldn't have lasted forever.

There's also a series of odd bits about Oscar Wilde being a space alien orphan child and a piece of green costume jewelry that has passed from hand to hand - "Everybody stole from Jack Fairy". A lot of the dialog is quotes from Wilde. This touch of surrealism is nice, keeps you from taking it too seriously.

One of the fun things about this movie is the roman a clef feel. Slade is obviously Bowie, but his name references Bryan Ferry and the band Slade. Curt Wild is mostly Iggie Pop and a little Lou Reed, but there is a touch of Kurt Cobain in his name and hair styling. (Plus of course, Kurt Weill.) The kids waiting to see the Maxwell Demon farewell show looked so much like the kids in the Pennebaker documentary that I'm sure it was used as reference. All this with the gayness turned up to 11.

But, you ask, what about the music? The first cut is Brian Eno's "Needle in a Camel's Eye" from Here Come the Warm Jets. That got us going for sure. There's a lot of Eno, Roxy Music, T. Rex, Lou Reed, and the Stooges, original versions or covers. There's even a cut of Andy Pratt, an obscure favorite from our college days - where is he now? The bands have some real heavy hitters, including Thom York and Thurston Moore. There's a preponderance of dramatic ballads, where we might have preferred more up-tempo rockers, but it's not like Bowie didn't ever sing Jacques Brel or anything.

If you have an sparkel of glitter in your blood stream, you should watch this. I was a fan, but Ms. Spenser was an actual glam girl, and she endorses.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Twelve Dreams

I promised Ms. Spenser a good old-fashioned horror double bill: The Old Dark House/Mr. Sardonicus (1963/1961)? Once again, I owe her a horror movie.

The Old Dark House is a loose remake of the 1932 James Whale  creepy house story, directed and produced by shock-schlock meister William Castle. About the only things he kept were the setting and the name of the family that lived in the house: the titter-worthy Femms. Made for Hammer Films, it starts in a London casino where American Tom Poston is looking for his flatmate Peter Bull. Poston lives in the flat at night, Bull during the day - something he explains several times but can't explain. They make a run up to the ancestral home, but when Poston arrives, he finds Bull dead - or is he?

We meet the whole creepy family, although some are kept locked away. Robert Morely plays the head of the family, a gun collector. Mervyn Johns is the meek religious nut. Janette Scott is the sweet girl who doesn't really fit in, while Fenella Fielding is the nympho black widow type who does. Fielding has a very sexy, husky voice, similar to Glynnis Johns. Lovely name too.

As you might guess, this is a farce, not a horror movie (although there is a body count). It's pretty funny too, and you don't need to have seen the original. They probably overdid the comedy sound effects and silly music though.

Mr. Sardonicus is the real thing. It starts with William Castle with his signature cigar in foggy London introducing the movie. It stars prominent physician Ronald Lewis, who gets a letter from his lost love Audrey Dalton. She beseeches him to visit her and her husband in the tiny country of Gorbsmak, just past Fredonia. It seems that her husband, the Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) has a problem, and he thinks Lewis can help. You see, he has a hideous skull-like rictus, like The Man Who Laughed. If Lewis can cure him, he can have the Baron's wife. If not, their brutish man-servant Krull (Oscar Homolka!) will torture her. He has a thing he does with leeches to the maid-servant...

This is quite creepy and justly famous for it's makeup effects. It's also famous for one of Castle's goofy gimmicks - he stops the movie and tells everyone in the audience to hold up their glow-in-the-dark cards with thumbs up or thumbs down. Should the villain be punished or will the audience show mercy? It's no surprise that he only filmed one ending. He sure knew his audiences and what they want.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Unhand that Man! Hold your tongue!

Titus (1999) isn't quite a horror movie, although there are plenty of killings and a bit of cannibalism. It's Shakespeare for goodness sake. But this isn't polite Masterpiece Theater. It's Julie Taymor.

It is based on Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's early tragedy. It is a tale of honorable general Titus coming to great grief after he sacrifices the son of Tamora, conquered Queen of the Goths. But Taymor starts with a boy eating cereal, watching tv and playing with war toys. As his play gets more violent and frantic, he is finally grabbed by a Roman soldier and taken to the scene of Titus' triumphal procession with his Gothic prisoners. He must sacrifice Tamora's son no matter how she begs because it is the Roman way. Even though some of these Romans wear togas, some trenchcoats.

Everything Titus does is out of honor. He rejects the imperial crown because he believes it should go to the old Caesar's son, even though he is a thug who demands the hand of Titus's beloved daughter. He even kills his own son who tries to prevent the marriage. He lives his life by what is honorable, proper, and best for Rome. The result is disaster, revenge, and tragedy. This includes rape and dismemberment, hand amputation, blinding and the climactic dinner scene.

We get Shakespeare's grandeur, the gore of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy, and Julie Taymor's surrealism - in a very different vein than Across the Universe (heh-heh, "vein"). Anthony Hopkins plays Titus, as is proper for film's favorite cannibal. Jessica Lange plays Goth queen Tamora, giving it everything she's got. We also liked Harry Lennix as Tamora's secret Moorish lover.

It plays quite long, but it is always beautiful. Recommended.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Horror Host in the House

Well, it's horror season chez Spenser. It starts with Ms. Spenser's birthday in late Sep, and goes through Halloween. Here's a double bill we kicked off with.

House (1977) is a surrealistic Japanese oddity. It's about 7 Japanese schoolgirls who visit the aunt of one of their number in a spooky house - and they begin to die one after another.

But that gives you no idea of what it is like. And that is hard to describe, except totally nuts. The girls, for instance, all go by nicknames: Gorgeous, Fanta (short for Fantasy), Prof (the studious one), Melody, Kung Fu, Sweet, and Mac (always eating - Big Mac?). They giggle and hug each other and sing songs with Melody, the musical one. They maintain this cute (kawaii) act even while they are being killed off. Their heart-throb is a teacher (played by Kiyohiko Ozaki, a Japanese enka/country singer) who wears big sideburns and drives a dune buggy. Gorgeous' father has remarried, a beautiful woman always seen in slo-mo surrounded by floating scarves.

The special effects and deaths are done in the crudest style, a combination of budget limitations and camp. Like when Melody gets eaten by the piano (SPOILER), one of the girls scolds her for showing her panties.

The soundtrack includes some psychedelic stuff by popular Japanese band Go-Diego. Gorgeous' dad writes film music and says at one point that Sergio (Leone) thinks he's better than Ennio (Morricone). So we're supposed to pay attention there.

Anyway, this is more of a comedy - with a pretty steep body count. When it was over, Ms. Spenser told me, "You owe me a horror movie."

So, we watched Korean monster movie, The Host (2006). This is much easier to describe - a hrrobile monster comes out of the river in Seoul, and wreaks havoc. It is seen from the viewpoint of a Korean family that runs a little snack shop by the river. It's run by an old man and his adult, but not very bright son ("He didn't get enough protein when he was young"), and the son's sweet grade school daughter. The old man's other son is a jobless college graduate, his daughter is an Olympic archer. This family is almost the set up for a comedy, with the witless son offering his daughter a beer to celebrate her aunt's Olympic trials. But then the monster erupts.

It's a great monster, kind of like a weaponized tadpole. It likes to hang from bridge infrastructure by its tail and slither into the water. It gulps people down and spits them out, or carries them away in its tail. There's some very gruesome stuff here.

It also has a great look - almost like a documentary of the Seoul urban riverside, with bridges, overpasses, sewers, and parks. The CGI monster looks great and fits right in. Altogether a superior monster movie with a touch of humor and social commentary. So Ms. Spenser was satisfied.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Seven Up

Seven Men from Now (1956) completes the trilogy of Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns. It moves pretty fast. By the time the first scene is over, it's down to five men.

Randolph is a lone rider coming from Silver Springs, where there was a bank robbery that resulted in some deaths. He helps out a young couple of greenhorn pioneers, Gail Russell (The Uninvited) and Walter Reed. She is beautiful and he is admittedly out of his depth. Reed asks Scott if they can tag along with him, presuming on his kindness. Together, and against the advice of the Cavalry (who are riding the other way), they head through Arizona to Flora Springs.

As usual, Boetticher's themes are honor, courage, and masculinity. This is the first of his Scott pictures. It was intended for John Wayne, who was tied up doing The Searchers. He wound up producing and suggesting Scott for the role. He is amazing in it, much better than I imagine Wayne would be. Wayne's schtick has always struck me as a little knowing, self-conscious. Scott is dead serious.

Like The Tall T, this was filmed in the beautiful Lone Pine area. The budget was small but the look is big. Any other favorite Westerns we should look at next?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Keeping it Civil

I keep reading complaints about how terrible it is that all movies are just heroes in tights and CGI explosions. I wish more of them were - if only every movie could be Captain America: Civil War (2016).

I'm not sure why this is a Captain America movie - in most ways, it's an Avengers movie. It starts with Cap, Black Widow, Falcon, and Scarlet Witch doing an op in Lagos Nigeria that goes bad. Wanda sort of saves the day, but there are casualties. After the scuffle in Sokovia, this leads to the adoption of the Sokovia Accords, requiring superheroes to register and operate under UN control. Iron Man goes along, but Cap won't sign.

Then at the UN, a bomb kills the hereditary leader of Wakanda, leaving his son T'Challa as presumptive heir and revenger - the Black Panther. Let's pause to say the Chadwick Boseworth as Black Panther is awesome. We get a bit of him, but mostly this is a tease for his movie, coming out next year.

It turns out that Bucky, the Winter Solider. has been re-activated by Col. Zemo - not quite the old Nazi from the comics, but close. We get a fair amount of Bucky in this one. He's a good guy (but conflicted) unless his brainwashing is working, and then he's bad. Ms. Spenser thought he was too cute to be particularly fearsome, and I'd probably agree. Sorry, Sebastian Stan.

Like so many of these Marvel movies, Civil War is overstuffed with characters and set pieces. We get Agent Carter's funeral, a romance between Cap and Carter's niece, a foot chase through traffic, a sweet domestic scene between Vision and Wanda (who aren't romantic yet in the movies, but I'm shipping them hard), the last minute addition of Tom Holland Spider-Man, and some sweet Wakanda scenes.

By the way, with Don Cheadle as War Machine and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, this movie has a little more soul than some superhero shows. Appreciate it.

It all winds up with the big battle royale at the airport. Really ends on a high note. When it was over, I wanted to watch it over again, or re-watch all the Marvel films leading up to it.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

See Emily Play

The Americanization of Emily (1964) was written by Paddy Chayefsky, and it shows. It is an overwritten mess, falling into the crack between late screw and early modern comedy. But it's a lot of fun.

It stars James Garner as a cynical Navy dog robber in the last days of WWII. A "dog robber" is the guy who makes things happen, who greases the wheels, who comes up with the good food and booze for his officer's dinners. He works for a political Admiral, played by Melvyn Douglas. When Garner comes to London, he runs around hustling all the good food and patting the corpswomen on the butt. But his driver, Julie Andrews as Emily, doesn't appreciate that kind of behavior. She has lost her husband and brother to the war. Her nation has starved and deprived itself for the effort, and then the Americans show up, throwing around Hershey's bars and nylons, and expect to be loved for it.

Garner has different views of war - he thinks it gets people killed, and should be avoided at all costs. He has dedicated himself to staying out of combat and enjoying himself as much as possible in the circumstances. He even delivers a long Chayefskyesque monologue on the subject to Emily and her dotty mother.

It's a good monologue, but it isn't hard to see Chayefsky at his typewriter behind the scene. But it isn't just the improbable dialog. The second act twist is that Emily falls in love with Garner because he is such a coward - she feels secure that she will never lose him to the war. Fair enough although Andrews' motivation doesn't seem quite real (even though she gets her own monologues). Then, the third act.

Admiral Melvyn Douglas starts getting a bit weird, demanding that the first to die on D-Day be a sailor, for the glory of the Navy. James Coburn, another dog robber who has been concerned about nothing but getting the WAVEs into bed, decides to go all gung-ho and make sure that that first dead sailor is Garner.

Of course, Coburn is great in this role, with his giant toothy grin. But does he make any sense? Does Andrews' reaction make any sense? Does any of it? At least the Admiral's behavior can be explained by a mental crackup.

Nonetheless, we liked this quite a bit. It was directed by the recently deceased Arthur Hiller, who keeps things moving. Garner, Douglas, and especially Coburn are always fun. Julie Andrews has a lot less to work with, even though she's the title character, but she's not bad.

I'd say, watch this if you like mid-century anti-war war films, if you like Garner and Coburn, and you like or don't mind well-crafted but lumpy screenwriting.

In conclusion, Victor Victoria is a better Garner/Andrews movie.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Gimme Shelter

We went into Take Shelter (2011) expecting a variation on 10 Cloverfield Lane: A possibly crazed man locks some people in a shelter, claiming that he is protecting them from some horrible apocalypse. This premise was strengthened by the "Coming Attraction" on the DVD, for Retreat, which is the same thing on an island. Take Shelter isn't really that movie.

It stars Michael Shannon as a regular working guy in Iowa or Ohio or some flat place. He works in construction, likes to drink beer and hang out with his buddies. His wife, Jessica Chastain, does some sewing for vacation money, but mostly stays home to take care of their deaf daughter (Tova Stewart, a deaf kindergartner - not an actress, but a real shining presence). But Shannon starts to have bad dreams, dreams about a storm. Not just a storm, but a world ending cataclysm. So he starts cleaning out the storm cellar.

Minor spoiler - the family does wind up in the storm cellar. But it's not what I was expecting at all. Mostly it's about Shannon's deteriorating mental condition. He hides it from his friends and his wife for as long as he can. He can't tell his wife about one dream because it made him wet the bed, and there's no way he's going to admit to that. So there's a good bit of stuff about masculinity and mental health. But it also keeps you off balance wondering whether he's right about the coming disaster. You wind up rooting for apocalypse, because it would prove he's not crazy.

This is the first feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who seems to specialize in moody stories in rural settings that explore the male psyche. This isn't really my thing, but I liked it here a lot.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Unusual Punishment

Who is your favorite Punisher? We've seen the Thomas Jane version, the Lexi Alexander/Ray Stevenson version, and the John Bernthal version in the Daredevil TV series. Now, we've also seen the first film version: Dolph Lundgren in Punisher (1989).

It starts with Frank Castle blowing up a mob boss mansion with the boss (and himself) inside. So the Punisher is now dead, although police detective (Lou Gossett Jr.) is still watching out for the vigilante decimating the underworld. He even gets some help from a cute partner, Nancy Everhard.

Meanwhile, the Yakoooza are moving into the vacuum left by Castle. They kidnap the children of the remaining mobsters as leverage. Now, the mob and Castle will have to work together to get them safe.

All through this, Lundgren rides around in the sewers on a motorcycle, looking about 2 smudges of eyeliner away from an Adam Ant video. Seeing him meditating naked in the sewers would be more badass if he didn't cross his eyes. But when he starts fighting, oh boy, look out. It's particularly fun to see him go up against the Yakuza ninjas, whose leader, played by Kim Miyori, looks great in black skintight jumpsuit.

It's funny how closely this story tracks the Daredevil version, right down to the Yakuza. I was expecting to see a Castle more like John Bernthal: beat-up and lumpy faced. Instead, he is quite the handsome chisel-cheeked New Wave haircut boy. Of course, the whole movie stinks of the 80s, so maybe I'm just picking up background radiation.

Anyway, I think our favorite Punisher movie is the Lexi Alexander, and John Bernthal our favorite Punisher. But we love Dolph in this, and in fact went and watched Johnny Mnemonic next, to see him as Street Preacher. Halt sinners!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Strange World

Anyone who was paying attention to fantastic literature in 2004 knows about Susanna Clarke's book. Many of those were excited to hear that it was made into a TV series: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2015).

It is set in an alternate England around the time of the Napoleanic wars. In this England, magic is considered real, but never practiced, as that would be ungentlemanly. But one eccentric gentleman of York, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) demonstrates "practical" magic and changes everyone's mind. He's a reclusive scholar who jealously protects his books and his secrets, with only his thuggish butler (Enzo Chilenti) for company.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) has just inherited his father's fortune. He would be happy to fritter it away, but his fiancee (Charlotte Riley) wants him to be someone. So he decides to become a magician - and it works.

Mr. Norrell gets involved in English politics when he brings the Prime Minister's fiancee back from the dead. This also gets him involved with another kind of politics - the fairy court. The backstory of the alternate England is that it was once ruled by the Raven King, a magician who was served by fairies, and possibly undone by them.

The series (like the book) has fun with a number of themes - fame and politics, the possible futility of military magic, and the deviltry of fairy gifts (as a metaphor for addiction?). Parts are funny, parts are frightening, and the relationship between Strange and Norrell, Strange and his bride, and so on, are just human.

It is also well cast and set, with the budget this kind of production needs. Worth watching.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Doll House

Hey MST3K fans! Have you heard about the new podcast, Movie Sign with the Mads? Trace Beaulieu (Dr. F), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank) and Carolina Hidalgo (young standup) meet each week to discuss a movie or whatever they feel like. So some reason, they did an episode on Valley of the Dolls (1967), and, for our sins, we decided to watch it.

Although you've probably heard of it, or at least the Jacqueline Susann novel it's based on, you probably haven't seen it, nor had any desire to. But it was strangely enjoyable, and for all the reasons you'd expect. It's the story of three or four women and the men in their lives as they deal with show business and the big city.

Barbara Perkins comes to New York from her small Vermont home town to make it big, or at least to become a legal secretary. Her boss is agent Paul Burke, who manages aging Broadway broad Susan Hayward. Hayward is obnoxious and abrasive and gets Patty Duke kicked off the show for being too talented. The show also features a stacked chorus girl, Sharon Tate, who has to trade on her looks because her talent won't carry her. They find love, heartbreak, and sometimes, painkiller addiction.

Although this is all very cheesy, I did like Patty Duke's character, Neely. Although the part is probably inspired by Judy Garland, I got a bit of a Janis Joplin vibe from her (although in 1967, Janis was just taking off, and no one knew what her end would be). She wears a turtleneck and love beads, and sings with a certain ferocious attack. Her big number is pretty poppy, but seems to be in 7/8 time, which is pretty rad.

Also, she's the character who gets deepest into the pills, gets rehabbed, relapses, etc. Tate's character has a good arc, with tragedy after tragedy, culminating in a mastectomy that will surely wreck her burgeoning porn career. But she's kind of an afterthought. The voice-over viewpoint character is Perkins, and she's kind of boring.

Although the last scene (spoiler) where her boyfriend comes to see her and she walks out on him is a doozy: She walks out on him, but it's her house! She just walks away! Does he live there now? Where does she live?  In his apartment? Does he get her car too? So we are left with many questions.

If your question is "what are dolls, anyway?", I have answers. Although I'd never heard the expression, "dolls" are slang for pills, named after dolophine, a synthetic opioid now known as methadone, supposedly named after Adolph Hitler. And now you know... the rest of the story.