Sunday, February 28, 2016

Invasion of the Rib-Ticklers

Invasion! (1999) is a parody of 50s/60s drive-in SF/horror movies. It has a small town, mysterious deaths, strange invaders, suspicious townspeople, and an atomic scientist. It is more or less comparable to the Larry Blamire oeuvre, with deadpan lines like "the bumpy part of town outside of town." It also has witchcraft, alchemy, amateur autopsy, nymphomania, and poor TV reception.

That's pretty much all I have to say about this movie. Canadian director John Paizs has made a number of these low-budget spoofs, none of which are available on Netflix (this one is available, after a long wait: ~9 months for me). It stars Campbell Scott and other actors who have been in movies, but I've never heard of any of them. It is pretty funny, but not a real break-out, new favorite cult film way.

In conclusion, put at the top of your queue, and watch it at random when Netflix decides to send it.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Matter of Glory

As part of my New Year's Resolution to watch a better class of movie, we watched a double-bill of classic British Army movies. First up, A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Believe it or not, this is only the second Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger movie I've seen.

It stars David Niven as a heroic bomber pilot. His plane is going down, his navigator is dead, and he told the crew to bail out, but he didn't tell them his own parachute had been shot to ribbons. He has contacted a radio operator, Kim Hunter, to tell her his situation. He asks her to stay on the air, so that his last moments will be spent talking to a beautiful girl. It is hard to imagine a more doomed, romantic, and beautiful scene.

The plane flies into a thick fog, and somehow, Niven wakes up alive and in England. You see, the angel who was supposed to lead him to judgment lost him in the fog. In short order, he meets up with Hunter and they fall in love for true.

This all takes place in lovely Technicolor, but in heaven, where everything is in black and white, and they are quite bent out of shape over the situation. In the end, Niven must plead for his life, or more particularly, his love, before a celestial tribunal.

The cinematography is justly celebrated - the work of the late Jack Cardiff. The scenes of the Hereafter in black and white recall films of the 30s, like Here Comes Mr. Jordan - a distinctly Art Deco heaven. But I was most impressed by the writing (although the fate of the doctor played by Roger Livesey is a bit cavalier), and above all, the love story.

Tunes of Glory (1960) is from a slightly later period. A Highland regiment is back from the wars, in their regimental castle. Their commander is Alec Guinness, who got the post when the major is killed in action. Now he leads feasts with whiskey, pipers, and Highland dancing. But he is being replaced: HG has sent a "real" officer, John Mills. Now, Guinness is a bully and a rowdy, but the men are behind him. Mills is a martinet who makes the men take dancing lessons to improve their sloppy form and tone down their exuberance to suit peacetime society. He is a disciplinarian and a teetotaler and the men don't love him. That sets up a battle of wills that nobody is going to win.

There is a romantic side to this story, and the castle and fancy dress kilts and dancing are picturesque, but mostly this is a terribly sad story about men broken by war or just unsuited for peace. Ronald Naeme directed this right after Horse's Mouth, in color, all about modern art and wacky bohemian artists. Tunes is in black and white, shot largely in studios, and has an all-over more old-fashioned feel. But the psychology is quite modern, and very depressing. We preferred the fantasy of Matter of Life and Death.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Musical Weekend

Our tradition of music, especially rock music, oriented watching continues. First up: Love & Mercy (2015). This is an interesting movie about two periods in the life of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys: the creative period in the 60s leading up to Pet Sounds and the troubled Smile, and the 80s, when a broken Wilson is under the control of a Svengali-wannabe psychotherapist.

I've read a lot about the 80s story line, with John Cusak as Wilson. He plays him as troubled, narcotized, and at a remove from reality, but he meets and bonds with Elizabeth Banks, who frees him from the evil doctor (Paul Giamatti). This is not my favorite thread, though. Interleaved with this story is Paul Dano playing Wilson the Beach Boy. This is the part that I loved the most.

I am a long-time Beach Boys fan - Honestly, I get choked up listening to "Shut Down", never mind "In My Room". I know who sounds like "Mickey Mouse with a sore throat". I remember the joy over the release of Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile - so beautiful, silly, and surrealistic ("My Favorite Vegetable"). And I felt like the Paul Danno bits were perfect. Some of the recording scenes matched the pictures from the old albums perfectly. Dano looks a lot like Wilson did (director Bill Pohlad claims that Wilson looked like Cusak during his bad therapy days, but it isn't a familiar look). The band interactions are so perfect - Brian pulling "derr-hey" faces when he can't explain himself, his brothers goofing around, Mike Love being hostile but still family.

Then there are sessions with the Wrecking Crew. Carol Kaye (Theresa Cowles) looks perfect - so do they all. Check and compare with the documentary. The music is amazing too, chopping up Beach Boys classics re-assembling them into cosmic drones. This recreates the process in Brian's head: He started having auditory hallucinations around this period, and a lot of the scenes just show him staring into space while the music swirls around him.

I think it helps to be a fan for this part. It kind of assumes that you know about a lot of this stuff, and sometimes sort of skips over the details - Van Dyke Parks shows up and flounces off without being introduced, but he's very recognizable. As for the later part, I guess it was dramatically necessary, but it sure isn't as much fun.

The second features of the weekend was Robert Zemeckis' I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), an ensemble comedy about kids trying to get into the Beatles first Ed Sullivan show. I don't remember this coming out - it's Zemeckis' first film, and maybe it didn't get a lot of promotion.

A Beatles fanatic (Wendie Jo Sperber), her engaged friend (Nancy Allen), a reporter for the school paper, and an anti-Beatles folk protester finagle a limo ride to New York from the son of an undertaker, along with an anti-Beatles bully. They get into the usual scrapes and mix ups trying to get into the show (including the ubiquitous "radio station is giving away tickets" scene, like in Rock 'n' Roll High School). Allen winds up in the Beatles hotel room and there's a lovely scene of her rapturously caressing their suit, guitars, and left-overs.

Also, super-fan Sperber runs into another, even more obsessive Beatlemaniac, played by the ever-irritating Eddie Deezen. The combination of two of the most grating actors in Hollywood is actually kind of fun. I've always liked Sperber as a kind of all-out unstoppable force of nature, and she meets her match in Deezen. They both were in 1941 (which I like, so sue me), although not as a couple.

Although this is kind of a standard plot, it's well executed. There was a nice Jersey feel to the kids. I did like the inclusion of a couple of haters - the folkie and the bully who prefers the Four Seasons. But the Beatles don't have as much impact as you might expect - I came out of the weekend with a lot more Beach Boys stuck in my head.

Remember, Brian Wilson considered the Beatles to be his biggest inspiration and rivals. I guess we know how that turned out.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Park Avenue in a National Park

We went up to Yosemite this month for Chef's Holiday and stayed in the Ahwanee Inn. It was a marvelous experience, and perhaps the best part of the experience was sitting in front of the huge fireplace on the leather sofas with a cocktail. Now, the Ahwanee has some signature cocktails, but I went with a classic I had never tried before: the Park Avenue.

Their version is something like this:

Park Avenue
2 oz. Gin
1/2 oz. Cointreau
3/4 oz. pineapple juice
1/2 oz. sweet Vermouth
Served on the rocks with a cherry

I have found a few other recipes with slightly different proportions and some that use dry Vermouth instead of Cointreau - a "perfect" Martini, plus pineapple juice.

I've mixed myself a few of these, and they drink very easy, especially if you like a touch of the tropics in your glass. I haven't decided quite how the vermouths should work though.

In fact, I'm very weak on vermouth and amaro in general. DW recently asked my opinion about amaro and beer in cocktails (not at all random - it's about the bitter). But I'm clueless in these areas - I rarely drink beer (and prefer mild to bitter) and have almost no concept of the flavor profile of vermouths, never mind amari. I'm barely familiar with Campari - after that I'm lost.

So, grounds for future research.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Cats before Bats

This post is going to be about Catwoman (2004), but give me a minute to get to it.

We recently watched the first season of Gotham (2015). It took a few episodes to get into it, but we wound up liking it a lot. It has a great look, and some great characters - although they tend to be a bit on the grotesque side. So when we were done, we decided to give Birds of Prey (2002) a try.

I assumed you've heard of Gotham (elevator pitch: Batman without Batman), but you might not have heard of BoP - I hadn't. The pitch is Batman after Batman - Batman leaves "New Gotham" in the hands of three female superhero vigilantes. Although the overall feel is similar to Gotham, the production values are much lower, the villains less interesting, and the overall Girl Power dynamic just didn't do it for us. We dropped it after 4 episodes (the rest of the public after ~6 or7, the network after 13).

Now, Catwoman is another Batman w/o Batman story - except that it really isn't. Batman isn't in the movie, even as an absense. It doesn't even seem to take place in "Gotham" - just in some city (Vancouver, if I had to guess). Halle Berry plays a ditsy graphic artist for a cosmetics company. She gets pushed around by her boss, goofs around with her wacky office friends, meets a cute policeman (Benjamin Bratt). This all plays more like a rom-com than an action film. But she finds out the deadly secret that company owner Lambert Wilson and his wife and ex-top model Sharon Stone, and she is killed.

Except a clowder of cats (that is the collective term) revive her and give her cat powers. She gets to spend the rest of the movie split between shy, retiring artist and outrageous jewel-thief and vigilante. The McGuffin turns out to be a toxic and addictive beauty cream that turns women's faces to stone. Oh, I just got it - Sharon Stone! Who is a sort of the exemplar of a woman considered by some to be too old to be beautiful, who may need some kind of treatment that paralyzes the facial muscles, etc. Actually, that's pretty well done.

Halle Berry's action scenes are also pretty nifty, and her catsuit is mrreooow! I also rather like the rom-com stuff - I quite like Benjamin Bratt in this this. All in all, I can't really understand why everyone hates this movie.

Well, yes I can. It really isn't that well written, and the CGI cats were pretty weak. Still, mono-named Euro-director Pitof managed to get a lot of style into this, so you can at least enjoy it as stylish camp.

But it's not really part of the DC Universe, so I can skip any comparison to Gotham or Birds of Prey. Don't know why I brought them up.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Inside Voices

Inside Out (2015) is a great animated kids movie, and it did fill me with feels. I'm just not sure this stuff is for us.

It is about a girl named Riley whose family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco. Riley is a happy kid, but SF isn't living up to her expectations - the house is small and old, their moving van got lost, she cried in school. All pretty standard, but we get to see what is going on inside her head - that her primary emotions, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear, are running the control board. We see Joy trying to keep Riley happy, Sadness infecting everything she touches, Anger blowing up at everything, and so on.

The McGuffin is the Core Memories - memories of special times that form stable parts of our personalities, envisioned as islands floating in the sky above the pit of the subconscious. These islands, including Goofiness, Family, Hockey, and Honesty, are threatened by the loss of the Core Memories. So Joy and Sadness have to track them down, while Riley goes through changes.

One thing I'd like to address: Riley's life isn't really that hard. Her family moved to SF because her father is running a start up. They didn't move so they could visit him in prison, or got forcelosed, or faced medical problems. But that makes dramatic sense, since this is about the inside of her head. It's not about how bad her life is, but about what her mind can do, almost all by itself.

The animation was great, but there were a lot of familiar faces. The design for Fear looked kind of like Beakman (or Jax?) and Sadness sort of resembles Velma from Scooby-Doo. Also, the movie was rather didactic, and not very subtle about it. But, yes, I cried before it ended.

All in all, I liked Coraline better, another movie about a girl whose equilibrium is disturbed when her family moves. But I wonder if I'm just the wrong audience for this. My visual and pop references are too old, my emotional reactions too cold for this kind of thing (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie) - if it makes any sense to lump these movies together, just because they are animated.

Still, very well done movie, even if not my cup of tea. It's good to get outside my comfort zone sometimes. At least, that's what the voices in my head say.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Martial Art Film

The Assassin (2015) is one of those Chinese period drama/martial arts/art films. It shares a lot with, for ex, Hero - a beautiful and artistic film about fighting and political intrigue. It is director Hou Hsiao-Hsien's first period film and he got Qi Shu (Journey to the West) for the title role.

It starts wit a complicated history lesson crawl, setting the story in the Weibo kingdom in the Tang dynasty. The first scenes are in black and white, with a square picture ratio. A nun gives assassin Qi Shu assignments to kill the cruel and corrupt. When she has mercy on a target who is playing with his son, she is assigned to go to her home and kill her cousin. Around here, the movie goes color and Academy ratio.

The movie is filled with:
  • Beautiful costumes and court pageantry
  • Lovely, static frames of nature with (sometimes) tiny figures moving through
  • Complicated exposition of the political situation - to the extent that I just laughed after the third one, ~20 minutes in
The obvious viewer strategy is therefore to be lulled or dazzled by the visuals and to ignore the plot. I've admitted it before - I usually can't really follow these Chinese costume dramas. They tend to be subtle and elliptical, with clues deeply hidden. They may also be based on well-known tales or histories which I've never heard of. Also, I'm not good with faces, so sometimes I get characters confused. But from the commentary on this movie, everyone else is in the same boat (except perhaps the Chinese).

But it is a very beautiful movie, with characters sliding in and out of shadows or behind silk veils. There are so many long takes, but they don't strike me the same way as, say, Uncle Boonmee. These long takes seemed to reveal something - lurking in the shadows, trekking in the distance, even a well-hidden emotion running across a character's face.

The fights are choreographed in a more-or-less traditional way, then filmed strangely - one fight is shot from far away, and moves out of sight into a forest. Another starts in the middle of the fight, then just ends and the antagonists walk away from each other.

The politics, as far as I can understand them, are interesting. They are about preferring peace to the struggle against a corrupt central power (like Hero). The end is interesting - it takes place in a village or farmyard, where the rest of the movie has been all court-oriented mansions and temples. Possibly represents a turn away from the symbolic and formal, towards vital reality.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Spirit of the Beehives

Mr. Holmes (2015) is a lovely little movie, quiet and thoughtful. I wish I could say I love it more than I did.

It stars Ian McKellen, as Sherlock Holmes, now ninety and retired to the country to keep bees. He seems to have a good life, but he is losing his memory and it bothers him - he started keeping bees on the theory that royal jelly could improve mental sharpness. He has a rather prickly housekeeper (Laurie Linney) whose young son dotes on Mr. Holmes and helps him with the hives. It's not clear what grudge the housekeeper has against Holmes: doesn't she trust him with her son? Maybe she doesn't like him playing with bees.

Holmes remembers that he retired because of his last case - but he can't remember why. As he remembers the story, he writes it down and the boy reads it in secret. These memories and others both oppress Holmes and support him, and in the end he learns something about people that he never understood when his mind was sharp.

This is all fine, although it makes him a little more ordinary and less of a miraculous freak. It didn't have much of that spark of genius that makes Holmes so fascinating. In fact, it makes him more human and a little boring. So I was a little disappointed. Also, no Watson - he has passed away by the time of this movie.

But that might not be reasonable. There was a mystery or three, they were resolved ingeniously, if not always in the old-fashioned way. And needless to say, Ian McKellan is a joy as Sherlock. So I was glad we watched but not blown away. But I did like the bees.