Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Wild at Heart

Wild Target (2010) is one of those international spy/assassin farces that attracted our attention because of the cast.

It stars Bill Nighy as a very proper, very deadly assassin. It also stars Emily Blunt as a sexy amateur art thief - she steals from the mob, so she doesn't have to worry about the police. But she does need to worry about the mob, who hire Bill Nighy to kill her. But when he finds her in a carpark, he saves her from another assassin (the mob are belt and suspenders types). In the process, homeless waif Rupert Grint gets sucked into the action, and the trio get away and go on the run.

A lot of the movie is about the little family dynamic, with Nighy as the stern father, and Grint the son he wants to mentor - which is funny, because he is a total klutz, while Blunt is pretty sharp for an amateur. Nighy spends most of the time annoyed with her, but could it be the beginnings of an attraction? Which is a little weird, because she is kind of a daughter figure. Anyway, they spend a lot of time squabbling with Nighy threatening to turn the car around if they don't behave, and so on.

Then there's Nighy's mother - assassination is the family business, and she hasn't quite retired.

There's a lot of predictable business here, but it is all quite well done. Blunt is not as good as Nighy and Grint, but she has a lot less to work with. Kind of just decorative, really. We know she can do better. Nighy was just about perfect in his role - the fussy Englishman, who is also a deadly murderer without a conscience.

In conclusion, not a must-see, but a pleasant time waster.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Burying the Lede

We came to watch Burying the Ex (2014) out of Joe Dante love - we wanted to see his latest. It turned out to be very timely.

It stars Anton Yelchin (we'll get to that in a minute). He is kind of a chinless dweeb, with a weedy goatee and a super-hot sexy girlfriend Ashley Green. At least he's not as bad as his half-brother, Oliver Cooper, a repulsive Jonah Hill type we first meet having a kinky 3-way with two beautiful girls. Yes, it's another Hollywood movie about schlubby guys and the way-too-hot for them girls who love them.

Not that Ashley Green is perfect - she is a controlling vegan recycling fanatic who goes from zero to bitch in seconds, especially when Yelchin talks with another woman. So he decides to break up with her, but she is killed before he gets a chance.

All Yelchin wants out of life is to run his own horror-themed giftshop, instead of working in someone else's horror-themed giftshop. And although he feels pretty bad about his dead girlfriend, that girl at the horror-themed ice cream shop seems pretty interested in him (in fact, she won't really take no for an answer). So it's a shame that his dead girlfriend shows up as a zombie.

We enjoyed this movie a lot, although I was constantly annoyed by what a skeevy loser Yelchin and Cooper were and how they were nonetheless inundated with women. That just seems to be an unfortunate reality in modern movie making, like pervasive cigarette smoking in older movies. you just have to factor it in and tune it out. The movie has that Joe Dante look, as if it takes place in a 10% fairytale land, in a town with multiple horror-themed giftshops, a horror-themed ice cream shop ("I Scream") and at least one Goth bar. The horror is mild (the way I like it), and it's mostly pretty funny. Not Dante's best, but a fun watch.

Now, Anton Yelchin. Two days after we watched Burying the Ex, Yelchin was killed in a freak auto accident at age 27. I didn't recognize him when watching this movie, but he plays Ensign Chekov in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot. Once I realized that, I realized that he isn't really a chinless dweeb, he was just playing one in this movie. In fact, we queued up his earlier horror comedy Odd Thomas right away. Then we found out about his death.

It's a darned shame. I'll write up Odd Thomas soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Hat Check

Fedora (1978) isn't the last movie Billy Wilder directed (second to last). It also isn't the last one we hadn't seen yet (there are still 3 or 4, depending on what counts). But it is definitely down at the bottom of the Billy Wilder barrel.

It shares many common threads with his Sunset Blvd. It stars William Holden, not floating face down in a pool, but much older and worn. The corpse is Fedora, a movie star of Norma Desmond's generation, who has just died. Holden flashes back to a few weeks before when he had gone to Corfu to convince her to come out of retirement to play Anna Karenina. She is hidden away, protected from outsiders by the Countess (Hildegard Knef) and the Doctor (Jose Ferrer). But when he finally gets to her (Marthe Keller), she is eccentric, a little wild, but astonishingly young and beautiful.

Now, Keller is no Gloria Swanson, so the star charisma we are hoping for is not as strong as it could be. So there is a bit of a void at the center of the picture. Then, about halfway through, we get to the twist, and we get some clunky chunks of exposition and flashback that explain perhaps too much too soon. The mystery of her doctor, her beauty, her seclusion are all explained in the last half instead of the last act, making the denouement a bit of a slog.

But there is a lot to like aside from these flaws, like Henry Fonda as the President of the Academy and Michael Caine as "himself". Just hearing William Holden doing voice-over narration for a Billy Wilder movie gives you a certain thrill. And the older Holden's face, magnificently beat up, makes his desperation of one more movie deal very believable.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Deadpool and Loving It

Like all right-thinking people, we're loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One of the great things about it is the way they switch it up. Deadpool (2016), like the recent Ant-Man, it is silly, not serious like the X-Men and Avengers are.

It starts with a brilliant and beautiful set piece: a scene of frozen chaos, in the middle of a fight in a car going off a bridge. There are blood, bullets, Starbucks, and the credits. "Some Douchebag's Movie ... Starring God's Perfect Idiot ... " and so on. All set to Juice Newton's "Angel of the Morning". Then we back up to see how Deadpool got here (taxi). Then we back up further to get his backstory.

He starts out as Ryan Reynolds, a goon for hire who seems to mostly protect teenage girls from stalkers (what a Marvel occupation). He hangs out at a mercenary's bar, where he meets Morena Baccarin, a whore with a heart of gold. They have a torrid affair - this isn't a kids comic movie. And then, cancer strikes.

This setup reminded me of John Wick. Mercenary, hangs out in mercenary bars, falls unironically in love until cancer intervenes. But here, it's Reynolds who gets the Big C. He tries an experimental cure, which works - gives him superpowers in fact - but turns him hideously ugly.

Since I've really never read a Deadpool comic, I didn't mind having to sit through an origin story. In fact, I think it was really well done.

The key to this movie is "meta" - if the credits didn't clue you in. Deadpool talks to the camera, and other characters wonder why. When the X-Men show up (two X-Men, all the producers could afford) and say they are taking him to see Professor X, he asks, "Stewart or McAvoy?" And so on and on.

This kind of thing can go wrong pretty easily, but I'd say they got it just right here. It's weird and funny and engaging. It's also a great modern action film, but I suppose those are a dime a dozen now. We expect no less from a Marvel movie.

Soon, it'll be back to the serious Avengers and X-Men (and Superman and Batman, I guess). This was a nice laugh.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dig We Must

Even though everyone says Gold Diggers in Paris (1938) is the worst of the Gold Diggers series, what the heck - we watched it anyway.

In New York, Rudy Vallee's swank nightclub, Club Balle, is packing them in with fancy production numbers. Unfortunately, they are losing money every night and ready to go bankrupt. In Paris, the International Dance Exposition committee chooses Hugh Herbert to go to America to find the New York Ballet and offer them a free trip to France. Of course, he makes the offer to Vallee's crew.

I'll skip over all the comic twists and turns (because they aren't that great really). I'll just mention three things: Bad, Indifferent, Good:
  • Rudy Vallee is not a great leading man. I don't know why - he's a great second banana. But we really miss America's Most Promising Juvenile, Dick Powell.
  • Busby Berkeley choreographs at least the last big production number, and it is not his best. The rest of the numbers are only fair. Some cute chorus girls, a puzzling Bali number, surprisingly little ballet.
  • The Schnickelfritz Band gets several numbers, including the great Listen to the Mockingbird and the Tiger Rag. These guys are precursors to Spike Jones - goofy music played on silly instruments, including washboards and those horns that honk when you squeeze the rubber bulbs. If you like this sort of thing, they are the only real reason to watch this movie.
I know this isn't much of a recommendation, but if you like these old Depression musicals, you are probably willing to take the good with the bad (with the "meh"). I'm not saying that this is for completists only, but ... well, maybe that is what I'm saying.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Ray of Sunshine

I read about On Dangerous Ground (1952) in some film blog or another - I'd link to it if I could find it. Ms. Spenser, on the other hand, saw it long ago and loved it. But I queued it up for two reasons: director Nicholas Ray and star Ida Lupino.

The actual star is Robert Ryan. He's a city cop who's fed up with the low-life scum he has to deal with. He gets a little too rough with some of them and his chief sends him upstate to stay out of trouble. Although I dispatched this with a sentence or so, it takes up a substantial part of the movie, and is a gritty little mini-noir.

Ryan heads up to the snowy countryside to help the locals investigate the murder of a young woman. He meets up with her father, Ward Bond, and they set off to find the mentally disturbed boy that Bond suspects. He lives with his blind sister, Ida Lupino. They find her, but she says she doesn't know where he is.

The short time this movie runs while Ryan is solving the crime is mostly about the growing bond between him and Lupino. As she says, he is someone who trusts nobody, while she has to trust everyone. Ryan sees Ward Bond's blood thirst and starts to reconsider his own temper. It's a bit pat, but I guess that's the magic of the country.

Ryan is dependably cruel yet sympathetic, so you can believe his change of heart. Lupino is wonderful as always. Ray's black-and-white imagery elevates this sunny noir, while keeping it a comfortable B-movie. Good stuff, possibly classic.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Metropolitan Museum

Since we watched Metropolitan (1990), we are now Whit Stillman fans. Possibly we were all along, we just couldn't prove it. But this movie is very much our thing.

It is a movie about preppies and debs in Manhattan in the 80s. They are young, mostly rich, well educated and well brought up, and ridiculous. They dress in evening wear and go to debutante balls, then meet Sally Fowler's place to talk nonsense all night. One of them, Tom Townsend, is a newcomer - he doesn't have any money ("lacks resources" is the kind phrase), but he is accepted as one of them. Well, he prepped at Pomfret.

Some people say there's no plot, but there is quite a bit of plot. It just isn't important. What is important is the young, bored, over-educated and over-dressed boys and girls talking about themselves, society and life in general. Topics range from Fourierism to Jane Austen to gossip about schoolmates.

Now, I didn't prep, nor was I in any way preppy. But I did attend an Ivy League school and knew plenty of preppies, both in the Lacoste and Docksider sense and the Philips Exeter and Groton sense. I had any number of conversations like this, or listened to them quietly from my armchair somewhat away from the fireplace. There is a major plot point about the boys and girls communicating through letters - I remember that too. Writing letters to the girls I knew outside of school or at other schools, waiting for a reply. I'm still proud of some of the letters I wrote, and still remember some that I got - although none of them got me a inch closer to true life romance.

This movie struck me as very artificial and quite true to life. The people in it are lovable and ridiculous. They are so sophisticated and blase, but still in high school. They know so much about life and society, and live in such a small bubble. Only Tom Townsend seems to have ever taken the subway.

The distaff side of this group is a little more of a mystery. The female lead, Audrey, is the Jane Austen fan, a cute, insecure girl with Molly Ringwald lips and a Dorothy Hamill bob. She is easy to love, but I don't know if Stillman got into her head the way he writes for the boys. Maybe it's me that can't read her as well as I read the boys.

I understand that Stillman has made two other movies in this milieu, and has recently done a Jane Austen adaptation. We will be working our way through them, a little at a time. Binge-watching would be greedy, and is not done in proper society.

Saturday, June 11, 2016


We have seen exactly 1 episode of the TV series that Joe Carnahan's The A-Team (2010) is based on. It was the one where Boy George is booked in place of country singer Cowboy George (Blues Brothers call your lawyers). I understand it isn't exactly typical. But the movie was directed by the director of Smokin' Aces, one of our favorites. So we gave it a try.

The movie is a bit of an origin story - the A-Team are Special Forces Rangers who do  crazy missions in Iraq. Watching this movie, I realized that the best part of A-Team was the iconic characters. The success of the movie would hinge on how well they embodied them. They are:
  • Hannibal Smith: Cigar-smoking mastermind who loves it when a plan comes together. He's played by Liam Neeson, impressively grizzled and confident.
  • Face: Good-looking, fast-talking conman. Bradley Cooper does a good job here, especially when he is romancing a dame or getting out of a tight spot.
  • B.A. Baracus: Big, mean, big, mohawk-cut strongman with "PITY" tattooed on the knuckles of one hand, "FOOL" on the other. MMA fighter Rampage Jackson takes this iconic Mr. T role.
  • "Mad" Murdock: Pilot and gadgeteer, and howling, instituionalized madman. Sharlto Copley gets to have fun with this role.
They have 3 sets up villains to fight: A team of mercenary contractors supposedly working for the government, a shadowy CIA type, and a military intelligence team lead by Jessica Beal. They are unjustly stripped of rank and imprisoned, so they break out to clear their names.

Except they don't clear their names. In the end, it's just more fun to stay outlaws.

No question, this was a fun action shoot-em-up. Ms. Spenser's favorite part was the ship full of shipping containers falling over. It may have helped that we went in with low expectations and not as fans of the TV show. We came out fans of the characters, at least these versions.

Also, we started watching the series, available on Netflix Streaming. I love it when a plan comes together.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ford Theater

I'm cheating a little bit by including When Willie Comes Marching Home/Up the River (1950/1930) in my blog - I didn't get it from Netflix, I bought it from the cut-out DVD bin at the 7-11. Still, they were on my Netflix queue...

Both were directed by John Ford. Up the River is an oddball prison flick. Humphrey Bogart is a prison trustie who falls in love with a woman prisoner as he processes her in. When he is paroled, he gets caught up in a financial fraud, and it takes two of his friends from the joint, Spenser Tracy and William Hymer, to get him out of it. They need to escape from prison, then get back in before the big prison baseball game.

It's all a bit of a muddle, but it is interesting to see a young Bogey as a mostly innocent noble naif.

When Willie Comes Marching Home is also a bit of a mess, but a fun one. It stars Dan Dailey as an ordinary guy in an ordinary town. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, he is the first to volunteer, making him a hometown hero. But when he is stationed stateside in that same hometown, people start to get tired of him hanging around. They want him fighting overseas. He wants to fight overseas. But Uncle Sam needs him at home, training gunners.

The first three acts are fine - there's a bit of a Preston Sturges, Hail the Conquering Hero/Miracle of Morgan's Creek feel. Remember that the war is fought at home, too - that sort of thing. Dailey's induction and basic training have a nice documentary feel, which is not surprising considering Ford's WWII documentary work.

But in the fourth act, Dailey gets a sudden chance to fight overseas, but he has to leave immediately. He fouls up and gets stuck in occupied France, meets up with a beautiful fighter, and is sent back with valuable intelligence - after being plied with booze in a make-believe wedding. His trip back to London and Washington involves no sleep and more booze to keep him going, and he winds up back in his hometown just 4 days after he left, drunk and exhausted. And do his friends and family believe that he is now a hero?

People say that Ford has no touch for comedy, and that's fair. But the slow, lazy pace of the first part, then the sudden jolt of acceleration, is very bracing. You're thrown into a new movie, and it is quite exhilarating, and a special kind of funny.

Neither of these movies are "classics", except in the sense that they are black-and-white movies made by a recognized master. River is a nice chance to see young Bogart and Tracy. And Willie is just plain fun.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Keep on Pushin'

It was Rod Heath, writing on the Ferdy on Films blog, that pushed me to watch Push (2009). I'd seen it around, but never heard anything about it. Since it was made by Paul McGuigan, who directed Lucky Number Slevin, I figured it was worth a shot.

It is set in a world where some people have psychic powers: Movers, Watchers, Bleeders, Pushers and so on. They try to stay hidden, because when the government finds them, they do experiments on them. Chris Evans (Human Torch/Captain America) is a low-level Mover, hiding out in Hong Kong. His power is that he can kind of affect the roll of the dice with his mind, but not well enough to win any money. He meets up with 12-year old Dakota Fanning, a Watcher - she can see the future, and sketches the glimpses in a notebook (but she can't draw very well). They are eventually joined by Camilla Belle, a Pusher. Pushers don't sell drugs, they can push ideas into peoples minds, make them believe anything they want them to.

They are being hunted by the government in the person of Djimon Hounsou, another Pusher, and a Chinese gang of Bleeders (who can scream you to death) and a sexy Watcher, Xiaolu Li, known as Pop Girl, because she is always sucking on lollipops.

The set up takes most of the movie, and it's pretty solid: interesting characters and situations, nice cinematography around Hong Kong, not too flashy, but far from utilitarian. Then, the final act: our heroes have to solve the problem of how you can fight a foe who can see the future and/or can convince you of any lie? SPOILER - make a foolproof plan and wipe your memory.

Since nobody can read minds, I don't see quite how this works. It's kind of like Paycheck in that way - a clever idea that doesn't really work out in practice. People have also compared it to Jumper, a story of young people with powers being pursued by the government.

Like Jumper, Push is also not as good as it could have been, not as bad as people seem to think. It was fun companion to eXistenZ - the young people on the run in a world whose rules you have to work out. Also, Pushers create an artificial reality, tying in with the game reality in eXistenZ.

Wish I could say it was a classic, but it is worth watching.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

To Be or Not

eXistenZ (1999) is the only David Cronenberg movie we've watched so far - and maybe forever. (Actually, we may have seen The Fly, but I get it confused with Altered States.) He seems like a fascinating director, but since his style is gross-out body horror, no thanks. But the boys from FilmSack liked this, and it seemed harmless enough...

It starts with a group of gamers in a church. They are meeting to beta test a new game system "eXisteNz". The game pods are pink and fleshy, with knobby nipples on them and an umbilical cord that you plug into the bioport in your spine. Just as a small group is about to plug in, an anti-gaming fanatic shoots at the game designer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with an odd, spiny gun. Jude Law hustles her out, but he isn't security; he works in the Marketing department.

Now they are on the run. They don't know who they can trust. Their only hope is to go into the game - for reasons. Very good reasons. Only Law doesn't have a bioport, so they go to a country gas station to get one installed (it's like getting your ear pierced). That's where they meet Gas (Willem Dafoe).

Law makes it pretty plain that getting the port installed is creepy - he doesn't like the idea of being penetrated ... surgically. Once he has been penetrated, Leigh plugs him in, but before she does, she wets a finger and pokes it in, just to get it wet. Not creepy at all, right?

Inside the game, it's pretty much like outside - there are a lot of mutant animal with organs to be harvested for the game pods. It's all pretty disgusting (and gets worse), but not quite nightmare level. But Law is getting a little freaked out about not knowing what is a game and what is real. Leigh seems to be more interested in playing her game than in worrying about getting killed. The sense of unreality that plagues Law is like a drug to her.

I don't want to give away the twists, even though you probably got most of them already. But I bet you don't get all. So it's a neat meta-reality movie with some gross parts, some tense parts and a lot of humor. Still, it might be the last Cronenberg we ever watch.