Monday, April 25, 2016

Plastic Fantastic

In Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Wes Anderson takes his style of whimsy to stop motion animation. The animation works, not sure about the movie.

It features George Clooney as Mr. Fox - a daredevil chicken thief who settled down when he got married. Now he writes newspaper column and lives in a tree, not a burrow. His loving wife is voiced by Meryl Streep and their odd-ball son is Jason Schwartzman, of course. Their nephew, the almost perfect Kristofferson, is played by Wes' borther Eric Chase Anderson. Amid all this family drama, Mr. Fox decides to secretly try one last raid against the three nasty vicious farmers in the area: Bunce, Boggle, and Bean.

First, I want to stipulate that the animation and art direction are lovely. There is a naive children's book look to it, rarely polished or busy. Also, the story is fun, rambling, and true to life. My big complaint is that Mr. Fox is kind of a jerk. Self-involved, detached from his family, he withholds love from his son and lies to his wife. He seems charming, but as far as I can tell, that's just because he's voiced by George Clooney, who could charm a possum out of a pawpaw tree.

The story comes from Roald Dahl, whose delightful stories for kids aren't really that sweet. They have a sour side that makes kids and adults love them all the more. But for me, this comes across as a middle-aged men's problem kind of movie, where men are bored and stifled by their family and obligations, where dangerous risk taking is the only route to creativity, and living a double life is the only true affirmation. That theme has just been done to death, and I just don't feel it. And I wonder if this kind of movies makes wives think, "Just like my poor husband, so stifled and crushed by conformity," or if they go, "Oh, get over yourself, Fox."

So, maybe this movie just pushed some of my buttons, or tried to push buttons that I don't have. It was lovely, but I didn't love it. It fact, it annoyed me a bit. Your mileage may vary.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Vidocq est Mort!

Dark Portals: The Chronicles of Vidocq (2001) was made by mono-named French director Pitof. He did a lot of visual fx work, but I looked this up because he directed Catwoman. I liked that one more that most people, and I liked this a lot.

It is set at the end of the French revolution. A lumpy looking Gerard Depardieu is chasing a mysterious man through crowds, warehouses and finally to a forge. After a fight, the mystery man, with a shiny, gold reflective mask, pushes Depardieu into the flames. The papers proclaim "Vidocq est Mort". It seems that Depardieu was the famous criminal-turned detective Vidocq. He was investigating a series of mysterious deaths of men who are struck by lightning and consumed by fire.

Now a journalist is trying to find out who killed Vidocq. He meets with his associate, a gold-toothed Gypsy with a lizard tattooed on his face. He tracks down the woman in the case, an exotic entertainer. And so the rest of the movie combines his investigation with flashbacks (so don't worry, we get more Depardieu after the first scene).

This is all fine, but not the most important thing about the movie. The important thing is the restless camera, always moving, jamming itself right into characters faces, swinging through crowds, under feet, up to the ceiling, circling, swooping, sliding, leaping. It's the craziest, most kinetic and frenetic, balletic camera performance I can think of. Unfortunately, this is combined with somewhat made-for-tv look, possibly due to the early use of digital cameras.

So, not entirely successful, but very interesting and exciting. Does not require watching Catwoman.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Game On

Big Game (2015) is one of the best Finnish films I've seen - OK, it's one of the only, especially since I haven't seen director Jamari Helander's Xmas horror hit Rare Exports. I think the only other one I can think of is Pathfinder. Still, it's a good one.

Like Pathfinder, this is about a boy who has to pit his wits against nature and evil men. It takes place in the present day, more or less. A 12-year old boy (Onni Tommila) is being sent out into the Finnish wilderness with a bow and arrow to bring back a prize and become a man and hunter. His father's friends seem dubious, but off he goes into the mountains. Just aside - these mountains are gorgeous, but don't plan a trip to Finland to see them. Those parts were filmed in the Alps. Finland is pretty flat, more noted for marshes than mountains.

Meanwhile, President Samuel L. Jackson is flying to Europe for a summit, when Air Force One is shot down by a missile. He gets out in an escape pod, and is hunted by comic-opera terrorists. Fortunately the boy finds him first. But this boy is no super-survivor like Hanna, to mention another Scandinavian-kid-in-the-wilderness movie. He's just a kid with a father whose a famous hunter, who isn't certain that he can live up to expectations.

This part, with Pres. Jackson giving young Tommila self-esteem help, is very sweet - the most powerful man in the world at the mercy of the elements and an uncertain boy. Then the terrorists catch up, and we move into a more standard action movie, with the boy getting some steel in his spine - what the Finns call "sisu". This part is fun, if a little ridiculous. In some ways, I wish the movie was more realistic; in some ways, I wish there were more of the kick-ass stuff.

In the end, this compromise or confusion of purpose and tone was a problem for me. It made some of the other compromises in plot or acting stand out a little more - things that you don't think about if things move fast enough. So this isn't either a great charater- or action-driven movie, but a little of both.

In conclusion, I'd vote for President Samuel L. Jackson.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

This is the End

I barely remember the Arthur C. Clarke novel that is the source for the TV series Childhood's End (2015). I probably read it in high school, and probably won't read it again, not while I have blogs to keep up. Fortunately, SyFy has made it into a mini-series.

It starts with an alien invasion, but a gentle one. The alien ships come and stop all wars, and that's all it takes. Mankind flourishes. Some people don't like it - they call the aliens Overlords and want to know why the aliens won't show themselves. They only communicate through one man, an American farmer/diplomat (really? Yes, this is a SyFy invention not in the original novel). But when the lead Overlord reveals himself, he looks just like a red devil - hooves, batwings, and all.

The next episode is a little scattered - a religious nut bothers a family with a strange new daughter, the farmer/diplomat gets cancer from exposure to the Overlord ship, a young scientist wants to learn more about the aliens. In general, mankind is happy, but stagnant. The end of war and want has caused an end of creativity - or maybe the Overlords are surpressing it.

The final episode reveals the purpose of the Overlords - to witness the coming of the new generation of humanity. Children are being born with strange mental powers and merging into a single mind, leaving their parents and the planet behind. Once they have transcended and old-fashioned men and women are gone, the Earth is destroyed.

Oh yeah, spoilers.

The series is well done, updating the story without losing the good old-timey sci-fi goodness. Like the old "What if the aliens look like devils? Could we trust them?" That's the kind of hook you can't really get away with anymore. And the ending is grand in a way that never gets old.

My big complaint is that the series consists of three of ~90 minutes. We need a TV series with episodes closer to 45 minutes, preferably with a lot of episodes, so we have something to watch with dinner. Pardon us for being philistines.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Deep Thoughts

The first movie I can remember seeing was an underwater sci-fi adventure. I was about 6, in my pajamas in the backseat of my parent's car. I was trying to find the name of the movie, when I ran across War-Gods of the Deep (1965). It isn't the movie I was looking for, but it looked interesting.

It starts with a mysterious death on the Cornish coast. Tab Hunter heads up to the manor house, the usual creepy pile, except it's owned by cute American Susan Hart, who rents rooms to tourists. It all seems innocent enough until a creature draped in seaweed steals her away. So Tab, along with very British David Tomlinson, enter the secret passage to rescue her.

Now, we haven't even met star Vincent Price yet, but let me calibrate your kitsch-o-meter. Tomlinson plays a bad painter and hen fancier, who carries his pet hen Herbert along for the rescue. He is not so much comic relief as WTF relief.

To resume, the secret passage leads to secret tunnels, which lead to a huge, almost deserted underwater city. It is populated by English smugglers from the 18th century, lead by despotic Vincent Price. He rules his band and a school of gill-men, who seem to desire blonde American women. And even though he is competing with a Brit with a chicken, he manages to out-ham everyone onscreen.

The movie is also known as City in the Sea, after the poem by Poe, although the connection is tenuous - Price recites an extract, so we have another Price movie "inspired by" a Poe poem. We also have some rubber costumes and some stock footage, the latter from Japanese kaiju movie Atragon. If this sounds intriguing to you, you know what you want. So go ahead.

It's probably better than the one I saw at the drive-in.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Made Men in Manhattan

Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the foremost French proponents of film noir, and Two Men in Manhattan (1959) is his Naked City. It's a story of all-night journalism shot in cinema verite style.

It actually stars Melville himself as a journalist for a French agency in New York. When a French diplomat doesn't show up at the UN, he goes out to find him. He takes along his favorite photographer and crony, the alcoholic, amoral Pierre Grasset. They start trolling the nightspots and strip clubs for his known mistresses, looking for the answer - or at least Melville is. The photographer is looking for a payday, and isn't above faking a photo if he thinks he can get it.

The exteriors are shot in the New York night - we see what's playing in Times Square (Separate Tables) and a lot of big old 50s cars. There may or may not be rain-slick pavement, but it seems like there would be. This part is both a strength and weakness: It was classic film noir location shooting, but it tended to go on a little long. Melville was either seriously enchanted with his own work, or didn't get enough interior footage or something, because the timing is way off.

But it is very noir, set to a very cool jazz score. So if you've seen Le Samourai or Cercle Rouge and want something more and a little different, check it out.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

A Specter is Haunting the Movies

I usually don't write up a movie in this blog for a week or so after I watch it, to give me a chance to mull it over. For example, we watched Spectre (2015) two weeks ago. Unfortunately, I've forgotten almost every detail of the movie since then.

I remember the opening set piece in Mexico - It's a Day of the Dead celebration and everyone in dressed and masked as skeletons. I remember the fight in the helicopter flying dangerously low over a crowded square. And... that's about it.

I remember that this is the film that Daniel-Craig-as-Bond meets Blofeld (Christopher Waltz) and discovers SPECTRE. It turns out that they have been behind everything in the series: Quantum, Skyfall, etc. Also, Blofeld is Bond's half-brother or something. I'll ask again: Why do screenwriters always go for daddy issues to raise the stakes? It just seems lazy to me.

So, I didn't think much of the plot. Honestly, whenever I think I remember a scene (like the record store or the opera scene), it turns out I'm thinking of Mission Impossible. Still, I do remember enjoying watching it. Little bits of business, like seeing Bond order a vodka martini and getting a health shake instead. The SPECTRE octopus rings were pretty metal, too.

Craig is still my second favorite Bond (after Jimmy Bond, Woody Allen), and this is still a fun action franchise. But totally forgettable, if my experience counts for anything (and it may not, maybe I just fell asleep again).

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Of Mouths and Madness

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is one of John Carpenter's Apocalypse Trilogy, along with The Thing and Prince of Darkness. It's subject is the end of the world. It starts with a guy being committed to a very Wes Anderson insane asylum. He tells David Warner this story in flashback.

Sam Neill as a Jake-Gittes-like insurance investigator. He is having a quiet lunch when a guy with an axe comes through the window intent on mayhem. It seems there's a lot of that going around, maybe because of the horror novels of greater-than-Steven-King author Sutter Cane (Jurgen Prochnow). His next book is coming out soon and people are rioting over it. But he's gone missing, and his publisher (Charlton Heston!) hires Neill to find him, sending the marketing director, Linda Styles, to ride herd.

Reading all of Cane's books gives Neill nightmares, but that's all they are. On the trip up to the (fictional?) town of Hobbes' End, VT, however, the nightmares begin to break through to reality.

That is the trick Carpenter plays so well. He drags you into a world of darkness, horror, and madness, then snaps out of it - it was just your imagination. Then he drags you back down. The nature of the horror is almost beside the point. It's the way he plays with your perceptions.

The horror is pretty good - a combination zombie/infected/slasher-type and Lovecraftian eldritch chthonic beings with tentacles. There are lots of Lovecraft references, like the Pickman Hotel, where our investigators stay. Sutter Cane, on the other hand, reminded me a lot of Neil Gaiman, if only for his hairdo - Prochnow looked a lot creepier than Steven King does.

By the time Neill has broken out of the flashback, things have gotten very weird indeed. The last act worked well in my opinion. So, on to Prince of Darkness.