Monday, March 28, 2016

Peak Performance

The first question Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (2015) must answer is, what genre is this? Is it horror, thriller, old dark house? The first word in the script gives the answer, "Ghosts" - "Ghosts are real."

It is set in Edith Wharton/Henry James territory: late 19th-century society. Mia Wasikowska is the bookish young daughter of a wealthy publisher. Although she doesn't have much use for the social whirl, she meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sinister sister (Jessica Chastain). They are minor members British nobility, looking for money to invest in their ancestral clayworks. Although they don't get the money, he does get Wasikowska, and takes her to their home, a ruined mansion in the misty moors.

When she was a child, Wasikowska saw a ghost who warned her to stay away from Crimson Peak, so what do you think is the name of the mansion? It is really the most interesting character in the movie, with the four-story foyer open to the snowy skies, ruined galleries, creaky plumbing delivering water stained crimson by the clay, and a dangerous looking elevator running down to the clay mines below the house. It is also haunted, but that's the last of Wasikowska's problems.

The story borrows a lot from Henry James, especially Portrait of a Lady - turned up to 11! The dialog consists of those stilted, finely turned periods favored by James and his contemporaries. It also has the color scheme of an Italian giallo, with the color drained out of everything except the blood-red clay, which seeps up into the clay, staining it crimson. Some people have complained that there aren't enough scares and gory murders, others feel like the gore and scares it does have are out of place. I think both are fine, especially in the 21st century, where special effects are an important part of genre pictures.

There were a number of sources and homages other than Portrait of a Lady, for example, Henry James' Turn of the Screw and the movie version The Innocents. The land-poor Sharpes may or may not be named after the unscrupulous social climber Becky Sharpe from Vanity Fair. I'll bet there were lots of influences from horror cinema that we missed, because we just haven't studied enough. But in the end, it's the old house, the script. and the performances that really delivered. Ms. Spenser particularly loved Tom Hiddleston, and wants to see this on a double bill with Only Lovers Left Alive. Most gothic.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Paint It Black

We're not exactly on a Powell/Pressburger kick, but we did watch Black Narcissus (1947). I found it quite odd.

It stars Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh, an English nun who is sent to the Himalayas to set up a new convent and educate the local children. The convent was donated by a local warlord - it was the palace where he kept his concubines. That sounds luxurious, but it is set on a lonely, desolate, wind-haunted crag. The locals are suspicious of the nuns, until the warlord's son, Sabu, joins them. He is a hedonsitic man-child, wearing the titular Black Narcissus cologne, so he is a bit of a distraction for the nuns. But David Farrar, the warlord's overseer, is worse. He's a cynical European who has gone a bit native, and his rugged good looks attract the attention of the nuns, including Sister Clodagh.

Basically, this is the story of westerners slowly going mad in the "sensuous Orient." But why did I keep having the feeling that I was watching a musical comedy - The Singing Nun Goes to India? The cute kids running around? The funny donkey David Farrar rode around on? Just having nuns in the movie? I don't know. but it took the edge off a bit for me.

Aside from the hothouse psychology, I think this movie is most famous for its Jack Cardiff Technicolor photography. The scenic Himalayas were created entirely in the studio with painted backdrops and hanging miniatures. It's all stunning, but a little artificial, like the famous bell tower - I'm sure you've seen it. If so, did you want them to put up a railing or something?

Next, I suppose I should see The Red Shoes.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

How Do You Say Thumbelina in Japanese?

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2014) is a lovely Japanese animation that combines a classical Japanese look with the broad caricature style of the Japanese funnies to tell an old folk tale.

It's the story of an old bamboo cutter who finds a tiny, perfectly formed 2-inch child inside a bamboo stalk. He takes her home and she soon grows to be a normal child - approximately overnight. The bamboo cutter's wife takes to this girl, but the cutter himself is beside himself with love for the uncanny child. When he finds gold and rich fabrics in the bamboo, he decides to take her to the capital so that she can live as a princess, Princess Kaguya.

The movie is mostly about the contrast between the joy of living in the country at one with nature and one's neighbors versus the cold, artificial life of court society. It's also about the way that a parent's love can ruin your life, by trying to make you conform to some standard, for your own good, of course.

But for me, the joy was in the visual style. It is very different from "anime" or "manga" style, but still of that world. It seems to be based on brush drawings, although there is clearly some computer assist to get the fabric patterns to move with the character's clothing. So it's a combination of simple and deep, old-fashioned and modern. There are little references to Hokusai's wood prints of workers and other Japanese classics. But the bamboo cutter (given a lovely working-class voice in English by James Caan) has a face from one of the 4-panel comics from a contemporary Japanese newspaper.

For a dissenting voice, I must report that Ms. Spenser thought that it was over long, and lagged a lot in the middle (and maybe the end). She may be right. It was quite long. But the end was my favorite part, a celestial procession, beautifully done.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Rain Parade

One Rainy Afternoon (1934) is a slight, featherweight comedy from the thirties. It was a bit of a prestige production, a co-production of Jesse Lasky and Mary Pickford. Now, its charms depend mainly on:
  • Ida Lupino in an early role as an innocent ingenue, not a role we're used to seeing her in
  • Some classic character actors, like Hugh Herbert, Donald Meek, Roland Young, and especially, Mischa Auer
  • A chance to see some unfamiliar stars like Francis Lederer and Countess Liev de Maigret
Other than that, it's nothing special.

Actor Lederer and his married lover de Maigret have planned a clandestine meeting in a cinema, but he sits next to Lupino and kisses her in the dark. He is arrested as a masher but can't admit that he mistook her for his lover. Since this is set in Paris, he becomes a bit of a célébrité, and his producer mounts a show with a kiss-stealing premise. Women from all over sit in theaters, hoping to get a kiss from a stranger. Meanwhile, Ida Lupino is both prosecuting Lederer and falling in love with him.

Now, the comedy is pretty weak, and the songs would be forgettable if they weren't so generic. Lupino isn't given much to work with, so she winds up being beautiful and not much else. But oh, so beautiful! The "best" part is Hugh Herbert as Toto the prompter, who has a tendency to supply lines to people in conversation as well as in the theater. "Best" is in quotes, because his style of "woo-hoo" humor is not to all tastes.

Still, a fun little movie, suitable for wasting a rainy afternoon.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cubing the Gleam

I guess Cube (1997) is kind of a cult movie, a low-budget high-brow horror flick. I can hardly tell you why I decided to queue it up. It got mentioned in a few podcasts, Ms. Spenser likes horror, done.

It takes place in a series of cubes, identical except for color and tiny id number plates. Each cube has an access door in each side, top, bottom. They doors only lead to other cubes. There is no food, no water, no communication with the outside world. A few people wake up in nearby cubes with no memory of how they got there. They include a policeman, a doctor, a student, an escape artist, and just a guy. They soon find out that some of the cubes are empty, but some contain deadly traps.

And that's about it. I won't spoil it by telling any more, like if they ever get out, or if they find out how they got there, or if they find out but it's so random that there must be something else... But I'll say no more.

Director Vincenzo Natali made this movie on a shoestring. For one thing, there is only one set, the cube. It is re-used with different colored panels for all the rooms. The script, characters, and acting do almost all of the work. It's incredibly suspenseful and tense, although not as bloody as you might think. Still, it's pretty bloody.

There's a sequel, Cube 2: Hypercube. I don't know if we are up for the experience.

In conclusion, here's why we queued it up: The last Mission Impossible was directed by Christopher McQuarrie. He also produced Persons Unknown, which has a plot that reminded me of Cube. So we watched this to get ready for that. I guess I should have kept that to myself.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Buckle Me Swashes!

I first heard about The Master of Ballantrae (1953) not as a movie or a novel, but as a play in a novel, World of Wonders, by Robertson Davies. An aging thespian in pre-War England would dig out this chestnut when touring the provinces. Even though he was far to old to play the swashbuckler, the audience loved that kind of melodrama. The movie is similar.

Based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, it is the story of two Scottish brothers in the time of Bonny Prince Charlie. They decide that one will support the Hanover King, the other will fight with the Stuart Pretender. Then whichever side wins, their line will still hold Ballantrae. The older brother, the Master, is played by Errol Flynn. He is rash, arrogant, and rowdy, with a lovely noble fiancee and a woman in town. His younger brother, played by Anthony Steele, is the safer good boy. Of course, he will play the loyal role, while Flynn goes off to fight with the rebels.

He fights, and they lose at Culloden. He meets up with an Irishman, Roger Livesey and they flee to France. They get shanghaied and fall in with pirates, and generally have great adventures. In fact, the pirating is better than in a lot of pirate movies.

Flynn isn't really in shape for this kind of thing, due to the drink more than his age. But he gets away with it, partly because it's Errol Flynn and in his blood, partly because the material is just sure fire. Also, he's more than a bit of a rotter - I understand he's worse in the book - and it's a good look on him.

I can't say the same about the tartan trews he wears instead of a kilt. They may be historical (the Scots wore trousers with the plaid pattern on a diagonal as in the movie), but they just look silly.

In conclusion, a great swashbuckler.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Three Pack

It's been a long time since we first saw Three Outlaw Samurai (1964) - I had forgotten almost everything about it and now I wonder if we actually saw something different.

It's directed by Hideo Gosha, so it's no surprise that it starts out with a shot of feet walking through the mud and reeds. They belong to wandering samurai Tetsuro Tanba. He spots an expensive hairpin when approaching a farmhouse. Inside, he finds some peasants have kidnapped the magistrate's daughter and are holding her until he hears their grievances. Tanba decides it's none of his business, tells them he's going to take a nap and they can get on with it.

The scene is pretty shocking. The peasants have the young woman in bondage, tied to a post with a sword to her neck. Our hero decides this is just one of those things. But when the magistrate's thugs come, he helps the peasants, mainly by reminding them to keep the hostage close. So maybe he isn't completely neutral.

Another of our samurai is Mikijiro Hira, who hangs around the magistrate's HQ, mostly drinking. Putting down the peasant rebellion is beneath him. He's the nihilistic violent enforcer we see in Westerns and samurai films. The third is Isamu Nagato, the sloppy, chubby type. He is attacked while pissing on the roadside and quickly dispatches his attacker. This ties him into the peasants' fight.

This movie appears to be a "prequel" to a Japanese TV series, and I think that's what we watched, not the movie. It stars the same three samurai characters - the ascetic, detached, honorable one, the drunken, sly one, and the plump, goofy one. There isn't much online about this series, but we remember the three samurai as being named Momiji (Maple), Kiku (Chrysanthemum), and Sakura (Cherryblossom) - silly names for such rough characters. We loved Sakura, the chubby one, which we had forgotten until we saw this movie. His weapon of choice is the spear - which makes sense for a guy who likes to keep a little distance between himself and his opponent. Now, the spear is my favorite weapon.

Also, the episode we saw ended with Momiji cleaving someone head to crotch in a duel, with the corpse falling dead in two pieces, left and right, which is pretty awesome for a 60s tv show.

In conclusion, the Japanese title is Sanbiki no Samurai. Sanbiki is the number three, but only used for counting animals. So the title is really something more like "Pack of Three Samurai".

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Mono in Stereo

We got The Incredible Shrinking Man/The Monolith Monsters (1957) Grant Williams double feature because I hadn't seen The Monolith Monsters, but of course we watched The Incredible Shrinking Man.

This is my first time to see Mono-Mon. A geologist picks up a piece of a meteorite in a small desert town. The next day, his partner, Grant Williams, finds him in his lab petrified under a pile of boulders. Newspaperman Les Tremayne can't figure out where all the rocks came from. Meanwhile, Williams' sweetie, Lola Albright, takes her kindergarten class out to play in the desert and one of the girls picks up another piece of the meteorite. They soon find her traumatized in the ruins of her house, with her petrified parents crushed under giant rocks. All she can say is, "Them!" or "Rocks!" or something.

So, the meteorite rocks have two evil superpowers: They grow to enormous size, and they petrify people. These are linked - they grow by absorbing the silicone that keeps humans flexible. (Skip the jokes about implants, the monoliths have heard them all.) I kept feeling that they should have had a single killing mechanism, preferably crushing. But these monsters are somewhat passive - they don't chase you or eat you. They just kill you when they grow too close to you. It's just what they are.

Finally, they grow to enormous size, and come storming down the valley towards town, in a special effects process shot that is both crude and effective. I won't give away the ending (sodium!) but rest assured that the fact that everyone seemed to carry one of these rocks around, even after they realized how dangerous they are, did not harm anyone in the least.

I've been listening to a lot of comedian Greg Proops' podcast, and he has one important piece of advice: Never touch the science rocks from outer space. They could have germs or radiation. Sound thinking that could have saved a lot of lives.

I've seen Inc-Shrink-Man a few times, but always worth seeing again. Seeing Grant Williams go from being embarrassed by his shrinkage, to sullen, to midget-love-curious to outright threatened and finally, to transcendence, is always awesome.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Not Your Father's Disco

Disco Godfather (1979) has been on my list for a while. I don't know why. It stars Rudy Ray Moore, so you know it's going to be something between blaxploitation and a parody of same.

Moore is the Disco Godfather - owner and DJ of a popular disco club. When he's behind the wheels of steel, he wears some seriously 70's threads - huge lapels and cuffs, bare chest to the beltline, silver and gold chains, etc. He dresses like Black Moses, but sadly doesn't have Isaac Hayes' body. When you see how his trousers are cut in back, though - he's not as bad as you'd think.

Moore's favorite nephew is young, handsome Julius Carry (Sho' Nuff from Last Dragon, in his first role). He's a fine young man, well-liked and a great dancer, but he is hanging around with the wrong crowd, and he gets into PCP! You know, angel dust, the wack. He freaks out on the dance floor, and not in a good way. So Moore vows to get PCP out of the co-mun-it-y!

He fights PCP with kung fu, of course, but not as much as you'd think. Mostly he organizes church ladies and the PTA. It's so cute, and I think it's intended to look silly and ineffectual. It's hard to tell, because this is not a brilliantly made film.

But it is a lot of fun. We see a ton of PCP freakouts, including a hallucinatory b-ball game and a roast baby. Will the Godfather save the co-mun-it-y, or will he succumb to PCP?!? Tune in and find out.

I'd say this was an important source if you want to get all the in-jokes from Black Dynamite.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

White Wedding

When Ms. Spenser has to work on a movie night, I usually stream a Chinese martial arts flick, like White-Haired Witch (2014). I like the genre more than she does, plus the Chinese soundtrack doesn't distract her. Some of these are better than others - this was quite good.

I can't really tell you the story. It involves a Chinese kingdom at the end of the Ming dynasty when corruption is rampant. Our hero is trying to get along with the imperial court, but is framed for the death of the emperor. Meanwhile, our heroine, Fan Bingbing, is leading the fight against the corrupt officials and the Manchu (I guess?). Anyway, she is flying around on wires and kicking assorted butt.

That's probably all you need to know about the plot - maybe all I took away. It's one of those complicated ones, with lots of history-lesson narration and mystery characters. Also, I fell asleep a few times. I even missed when her hair turned white.

But the thing I liked about this movie was the look - the peaceful terraced valley, surrounded by mountains, temples and waterfalls. The ancient stone inscribed with the Sutra of Apathy (?), shot from the bottom of a koi pond. So what if the koi were computer generated? So what if most of the most beautiful scenes are CGI/greenscreen? They are still beautiful.

This isn't as beautiful and strange as Bride with White Hair, a movie this is somehow related to (same source material?). Still, it's very nice to look at and fun to watch. Ms. Spenser now wants to watch it with me.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bubble Economy

Because Ms. Spenser is a very popular girl, people give her things. For example, a couple gave her some bubbly wine that they didn't need. So I now have three bottles of prosecco and a bottle of Dom Perignon 2004.

Now, the DP is obviously the prize here. At 12 years, I think we'd better drink it as soon as possible, but we want to wait for an Occasion. I have no scruples about the prosecco - I also don't mind mixing it into a cocktail. Since I had the ingredients around, I made a French 76 variation: an Aviation with a bubbly topper:

French Aviator

1/2 oz Maraschino
1 oz lime juice
1/2 oz Creme de Violette
2 oz gin

Stir over ice, strain into flute.
Top with sparkling wine

These are pretty lethal. I recommend no more than one before 3:00 PM.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Dernier Cri

We finally watched Alain Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad (1961), the surrealist classic scripted by Robbe-Grillet. I was expecting a slog - a lovely artistic slog - but got a comedy.

It takes place in a baroque, palatial spa somewhere in Europe. It starts with narration, a voice murmuring in French that fades in and out of audibility. Something about endless corridors, carpets, and Silence. The camera glides down these corridors, lingers on the moldings, the mirrors, the gilt, the ancient doormen. The narrator murmurs on, repeating itself, about corridors, carpets, Silence. The first humans appear. They are rigid in stylized poses, in theatrical clothing, mouthing odd poetry. I thought, this is odd, or odder than I expected, but you see, they are actors - that is, they are in a play, and the next people we see at the audience.

So, stylization and reflexivity will be major themes, along with repetition. As we are introduced to the guests at the spa, we are not introduced to them - that is, they appear, we see them, in evening dress, sitting idly or playing games, but we do not have any idea who they are. Anonymity and opaqueness will be further themes to contemplate.

As the movie develops, we find that one of the men believes that he has met one of the women (Delphine Seyrig) before - last year at this same spa (Marienbad) or possibly another. He presses her to recall, but she can't, or won't admit to it. It seems her husband (it is very much unclear) is the Gambler - a long-faced man who never smiles and has a game, involving cards, coins, or matchsticks, that he never loses.

People come and go in stuffy, overdecorated rooms and rigid, cold geometric gardens. Our hero wants the woman to come away with him, break out of the static world they are stuck in, looping, repeating over and over. But all she says is, "I'm tired. Leave me alone."

All of this is somewhat menacing, somewhat alienating, but I also found it quite silly and amusing. Watching the Gambler win his game again and again against all comers without cracking a smile got me every time. Seeing the guests in their party clothes, the women twisted into tortuously modish position (looking back over one raised shoulder as if sheltering behind it). Hearing our hero spin romantic tales for the woman, which become more fervent and engrossing as the movie goes on, and seeing her meet them with a "whatever, leave me alone" had me almost giggling. OK, it's not LOL funny, but hard to take truly seriously.

In conclusion, I wish I had watched this when I was much younger. I was a bit of a fan of Robbe-Grillet (although I thought his S&M sexual politics a bit oppressive) and I would have loved it. Also, I would have also used the whole, "Remember, we met here last year - I went up to your room..." line on every girl I met.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Long Ago, Longer Ago

I believe I heard about Ten Canoes (2006) the Projection Booth podcast - mentioned in passing during discussion of another Australian movie. I didn't end up watching that one.

This is a story about a story about a story. It starts out flying over the swamps of Australia's Arnhem Land. It is narrated by Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. I saw him last as the Aboriginal boy in Walkabout (1971). He tells a story about a long time ago, when a group of Aboriginal men - let's just say men, everyone in this movie is an Australian native, and it's becoming a pain to type "Aboriginal" - a group of men are on a hunt. They are just a regular group, goofing around, telling fart jokes and son on. An older hunter knows that his younger brother is interested in one of his wives. So he tells a story about a long time ago...

It's a story about a younger brother who wants one of his older brothers wives, but it is also about many other things. A stranger shows up, from another tribe. Is he dangerous? He looks dangerous. A woman disappears - should they go to war to get her back? Or did she just leave, or get eaten by a croc? The happenings, the culture are both strange to us moderns and very familiar.

The setting is the beautiful Australian bush. The frame story is in black and white. As the older brother tells his story over several days, the group strips bark from trees, soaks and heats it to make it pliable and makes it into canoes. The inner story, from long, long ago, is in color, although things didn't seem that different then. I guess this is all before Europeans arrived, but after Dreamtime.

The actors are fascinating, with lovely faces and hair. Other than David Gulpilil's narration, the dialog is all in a native language. One of the joys of this movie is hearing people's names - Ridgimiraril, Dayindi, Nowalingu - it's a rippling, bubbling sound full of soft consonants. There's also a bit of dancing and some magic.

So, you get some beautiful scenery, strange tales of long ago (and longer ago), acted by people who live very differently from you, I would guess. In conclusion, watch it.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Rogue Cut

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015) is the fourth of the Tom Cruise M:I movies, if I'm counting right. (Checks IMDB - no, it's the fifth. Never mind, let it stand.) They each have a different director and they are getting better and better. They are like a seminar on the modern action film.

This one is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who also wrote Edge of Tomorrow. It is a modern action film to an almost comic extent. There are ridiculous stunts (Tom Cruise hanging on to the outside of an airplane - done without special effects), rapid development (I blinked and suddenly everyone is on motorcycles?), high-tech McGuffins, and plot twists both clever and "WTF?". The look is almost comicbook-like, with some lovely compositions of underground lairs, etc.

It has a lot of the old crew (yay, Simon Pegg!) but one of the crew that is torturing Cruise then secretly helps him escape, is a new character, Rebecca Ferguson. Cruise asks "Am I supposed to know you?" She has one of the best parts of this movie, both as a bad-ass fighter and a woman of mystery.

I can't say much about the plot, because it whipped by a little too fast for me. There was a scene at the opera with everyone trying to kill someone, then "Australia: Six months later" (or was it Morocco?). I guess I need to watch it again - in fact, I want to watch the entire series again, and see the Modern Action Film emerge.