Tuesday, August 30, 2016

What Hump?

Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a strange title for a movie that is mostly about his hunchbacked assistant Igor.

In this telling, Daniel Radcliffe is a hunchback clown with no name working in a circus. He is also a bit of an anatomy savant, who patches up performers when they get injured. One day, the eccentric Dr. Frankenstein (James McAvoy)  sees him and frees him from his circus cage. He takes him to his odd home and give him the name of his morphine-addicted room-mate, Igor Straussman, who hasn't been seen for a while.

Frankenstein cures Igor's hunchback (in the most disgusting way possible) and cleans him up for society. Since Dr. F is a bit of a crank and a boor, Igor looks pretty good by comparison. But Frankenstein isn't just trying to Pygmalion a hunchback - he has bigger plans. With the help of a foppish benefactor (a superfluous role, but well played by Freddie Fox), he hopes to become, dare we say it, a GOD!

Just to get the spoilers out of the way, the monster doesn't have much screen time, but this isn't really about him. I guess it's supposed to be about the titular VF, but it's mostly about Igor and his humanity.

Even more, I think that this is a a visual pleasure, with sumptuous sets, studied compositions, and a fluid camera. There is a scene at the beginning with a women on a trapeze that made me think of Lola Montez. When your movie recalls Max Ophuls, you're onto something.

Finally, the movie isn't exactly a comedy, but it isn't afraid to be silly. There's a "Fronkenshteen" gag straight from Young Frankenstein, for instance, but they don't carry it too far.

All in all, a good-looking movie that doesn't take itself too seriously, starring McAvoy and Radcliffe. My favorite Frankenstein movie made in this century.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Vast Expanse

I read the first two novels that the Syfy series The Expanse (2015) was based on, so I may not be the best judge. Ms. Spenser didn't, but she loves it too.

It's a space opera/police procedural/political thriller, except when it's not. There are several intertwining stories. One is the space opera, with Steven Strait as a cute officer on an ice hauler, running water between the Saturn and the asteroids. Picture the crew of the Nostromo, but without the alien. He and a few members go to check out a distress signal and find a deserted ship, and see their ice hauler destroyed with all hands. They'll be more or less on the run for the rest of the series.

The police story takes place on the asteroid Ceres - picture the Bladerunner world, but underground. Thomas Jane is a detective with the private security force. He is cynical and scruffy, with a punk haircut, sideburns, and a trilby hat. He is looking for rebellious rich girl Juliet Mao, who may have joined the Outer Planet Alliance, a semi-terrorist organization fighting for freedom for the asteroids.

The third story features high-level UN-Earth diplomat Shohreh Aghdashloo, a sweet Indian grandmother with a cut-throat side, trying to prevent war between Earth and Mars.

There are plenty of other subplots as well, like the generation ship that the OPA is building for the Mormon Church, but I won't get into them.

This all looks great, with very reasonable special effects. The characters are interesting, and the milieu fascinating. But here comes a semi-spoiler: None of this is what the series is about. It is just scene setting. You get a few hints here and there, but the series is pretty good about distracting you until the tenth and final episode. Then...

Well, we'll have to wait until the second season, coming in 2017. Or do what I'm doing, and reading the novels ahead.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Hail and Farewell!

I'm a big fan of Coen Bros. movies, especially the funny ones like Hail, Caesar! (2016). They tend to meander about, with lots of happenings but no real point. I feel like Hail, Caesar! has less plot than most, which is great.

It is about a Hollywood producer/fixer in 1950s Hollywood, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). His job is to find scandals before they happen and squash them, using money or muscle. He's very good at what he does, but he is conflicted. He goes to confession a lot, and also considers an offer to work for security at Boeing - in their nuclear program. What, and give up show business?

One of his responsibilities is Goerge Clooney, who is starring in the titular movie-within-the-movie, Hail, Caesar: A Tale of the Christ. To make a long story short, he is kidnapped by a gang of communist screenwriters and held for ransom. That ransom is a bit of a McGuffin, though. Actually, Clooney kind of likes the commies, and doesn't mind being kidnapped.

Since that isn't the "plot", what is? Well, we get an Esther Williams-style water ballet starring a profane Scarlett Johansson, a hayseed cowboy star being shoehorned into a white-tie drawing room comedy, Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin gossip columnists who hate each other, Channing Tatum doing a sailor musical, and so on. Some people thought the movie parodies were weak - they were just recreations without much point. I thought the point was the recreation. They were probably fun to make and they are fun to look at.

Maybe if I watched this again, I'd see that it is all connected. If not, so what, it's a fun ramble through old Hollywood. It doesn't have the old timey music of O, Brother or the neo-screwball of Intolerable Cruelty, but it's fun. We liked it.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Slade 'Em

I don't have much to say about Evil Roy Slade (1972) - it is an early 70s Western spoof starring John Astin. If that doesn't rope you in, this isn't for you.

Astin is Evil Roy Slade, the rottenest bad guy in the West. His nemesis is railroad baron Mickey Rooney and his idiot nephew Henry Gibson. They hire Sheriff Bing Bell (Dick Shawn) to track him down. Sample joke: Whenever anyone says the name "Bing Bell", someone else says "Who is it?" or "Is someone at the door?" That one gets funnier every time. But if you don't like it, there's another one coming in a second.

Of course, Astin meets the girl who can reform him - not his moll Edie Adams, but sweet Pamela Austin. She gets him to take his first step without a gun. But will he be able to walk into a bank without robbing it?

This was made for TV - a pilot for a series that was never made. Ms. Spenser saw it in the day, and encouraged me to cue it up. It's mostly pretty corny. But I am such a sucker for John Astin, especially when he goes all crazy Gomez eyes. I guess you could say this is Addams Family meets Blazing Saddles.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Under the Clover

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016) isn't a sequel to Cloverfield - or is it? It isn't in the same style; the filming is normal studio style, not found footage. The location isn't New York, it is rural Louisiana (in fact, mainly in a bunker). And the evil isn't giant monsters, it is something closer to home - or is it?

Mary Elizabeth Winstead breaks up with her boyfriend and leaves town. In her emotional state, she doesn't register the radio reports about some emergency. Now, I actually haven't seen Psycho, but did the opening remind anyone of Janet Leigh's roadtrip at the start of that movie? Never mind, not important. What is important is that she is hit by a truck, crashes, and wakes up locked in a grimy basement. Her captor is John Goodman.

I want to give away as little as possible, but the set up pretty much is the movie. Goodman is keeping Winstead captive for her own protection. He tells her there is nothing left on the surface, they will just need to stay below. Winstead doesn't believe this, doesn't trust Goodman, but what can she do?

I learned about the concept of a "bottle show" from TV writer and producer John Rogers of Kung Fu Monkey. A bottle show has a limited location and few characters - a show in a bottle. Like when they get stuck in an elevator for a whole episode (did Seinfeld ever do that?). It's often done to save money, but there's a certain elegant style to it. 10 Cloverfield Lane really pulls this off, I think. It's tense, suspenseful, and actually kind of funny. Well, it's got John Goodman.

So, a completely different movie than Cloverfield, with a different director (first timer Dan Trachtenberg). But J.J. Abrams and Bad Robot Production is clearly on to something.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Weird TV

I've seen it many times, and been tempted, but something always kept me away from UHF (1989). On paper, it looks like a must-see: Weird Al Yankovic doing Kentucky-Fried Movie style riffs on TV. But there was also something sketchy about it that made me want to keep it at arms length. I finally succumbed and I can give it my heartiest qualified recommendation.

Al is an underemployed loser who keeps getting fired because he is a daydreamer - dreaming he is Indiana Jones in a parody of the rolling boulder scene while he lets the fries burn at his fast food job, for ex. This is a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie. The parody is cute, but a little predictable. Also, in some parts, it's just Weird Al doing the scene without any jokes - it's funny because it's Al. This is very much YMMV.

His doting aunt gets him a job managing a failing UHF station. This allows for a few more parodies, including a cover of the Ballad of Jed Clampett done in the style of the Money for Nothing video. Note: This is the ONLY Weird Al song parody in the movie. Again, strength and weakness.

When he hires dim-witted janitor Michael Richards to be his kiddy show host, the weirdness leads to ratings, and the station starts to make money. This isn't quite believable, but is kind of funny. Also, Fran Drescher as the receptionist who wants to be a news reporter with her cameraman Billy Barty (fond of low-level shots) are likewise smile-worthy but not laugh-out loud.

Still, lots of comic talent (I'm leaving out Gedde Watanabe and Victoria Jackson), just not a lot for them to do. I liked the parody stuff, but there wasn't enough of it. It also tended to jump to the most obvious and predictable gag - but done well enough that you might not care.

So if you love Weird Al, you'll like this, at least. And there is a Dr. Demento cameo. That's worth something.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Blind Ambition

Zatoichi: Vol. 19: Samaritan Zatoichi (1968) is another Zatoichi film, and I mean that in the best way. Back in the 80s, Ms. Spenser and I used to go to the Coolidge Corner Theater, which was on a years long Japanese movie binge. They would have two or three double bills a week, and we would watch most of them. I don't know how many Zatoichi movies we watched - there are 26 in all, and they kind of run together.

They all star Shintaro Katsu, as the blind, chubby, sloppy, greedy, sentimental travelling masseur and gambler - who is also one of the greatest swordsmen in the land. In Samaritan, his yakuza ties lead him on a mission to collect a debt, and he winds up being forced to kill the debtor. Minutes too late, his sister appears with the money, but it seems that the boss didn't want the money, he wanted the sister. Zatoichi helps her out, which she has mixed feelings about, him having killed her brother and all.

Several reviewers mention the departures from the formula in this movie, but I didn't see it. It had the gambling, the corrupt bosses, and the girl who falls in love with Zatoichi. Also, some brilliant swordplay.

You might know of this series from the 2003 remake, Zatoichi. It's fine, but I recommend the real thing.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Stranger Follows

Before we watched It Follows (2015), we watched the first episode of Stranger Things (review to come, I guess). It was the perfect setup: both are tributes to and critiques of the classic era of 1980-1990s horror.

It Follows starts in classic form: A cute girl runs out of her house in her underwear. She flees to the beach, and soon, she's nothing but a mangled corpse. So that's the end of her story. The real story is about some of her neighbors, Maika Monroe and her small gang of buddies. Maika has a new boyfriend, and they have sex, even though he seems a little paranoid. Not to give too much away, he tells her the plot: that he is being pursued by a slow-moving but implacable monster, and the only way to escape it is to have sex with someone. The monster will then go after the partner: in this case, Monroe. She will have to have sex w/ someone else to pass it on.

This is an arbitrary yet effective premise. It leads to interesting strategies: It seems that the monster will come after you after it kills your partner, so if unless they pass it on quick enough, you've only bought time. But maybe it can be passed off fast enough to let you live out your natural lifespan. You can see how this setup is a metaphor for AIDS/STDs, but it's also a metaphor for life: Death follows us all, because someone had sex (your parents).

Since I'm not a horror movie fan (that's Ms. Spenser), I probably miss a lot. At heart, this is a character study, looking at this little group of kids in suburban Detroit. Keir Gilchrist as the nerdy guy who hangs out with the girls plays an interesting role. Whether this is common in the traditional horror movies, I can't say. The people next door to all this show up only once or twice, usually making out or getting high in their car. Their comment about our group of protagonists: "That family is so messed up."

In conclusion, not much of a body count, but seriously creepy.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Film Quiz!

Once again Sergio L&IFR has posted a film quiz, then went and hid it under one, then two posts. Since posts to this blog are rare as hen's teeth (and finer than frog's hair), this is an obvious tactic! It threw us off for a week!

So, let's get cracking. We need to answer this before we can read Mythical Monkey's answers. Can't get caught cribbing!

1) Name the last 10 movies you've seen, either theatrically or at home
Can I just say, read the last ten entries to this blog? Since I only watch at home, and almost only from Netflix, that will suffice.

2) Favorite movie feast
The Creeping Terror feasted on a few lovely teenagers, if I recall.

3) Dial M for Murder (1954) or Rear Window (1954)?
Dial M for Milland.

4) Favorite song or individual performance from a concert film
At first, I thought of either Hendrix or Joplin from Monterey Pop. But then I remembered Rick Danko, Pigpen, and Janis Joplin, drunk out of their minds, singing "No More Cane on the Brazos" in Festival Express - that's something you won't see every day.

Excluding another film from the same director, if you were programming a double feature what would you pair with:

5) Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1986)?
Never heard of it, looked it up and now we've GOT to see it! The obvious choice would be Django Kill -- If You Live, Shoot, which StH is supposedly a remake of. But I would go with the Clash semi-documentary, Rude Boy.

6) Benjamin Christensen's Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages (1922)?
The Nora Ephron Bewitched. Or, to be a little more kind, I Married a Witch (which I prefer to Bell, Book, and Candle, most days).

7) Federico Fellini's I vitteloni (1953)?
Ms. Spenser says Evita, but I don't get it.

8) Vincente Minnelli's The Long, Long Trailer (1953)?
The Long Goodbye? Just kidding - The Big Store. (The "correct" answer is Lost in America, but I haven't see that. Haven't seen The Long, Long Trailer, either.)

9) Sam Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)?
Ode to Billie Joe, since I haven't seen either movie.

10) George Englund's Zachariah (1971)?
This is the only movie on the list that we've seen. We paired it with Pippin. I wanted to add Siddhartha as the midnight cult classic on the bill, but remember it vaguely as quite boring.

Also wanted to say that we saw the Andrea Martin's Pippin in Cambridge before it opened on Broadway. No reason, just wanted to say.

11) Favorite movie fairy tale
Princess Bride.

12) What is the sport that you think has most eluded filmmakers in terms of capturing either its essence or excitement?
Capoiera - Such a beautiful artform, never really captured on film (as far as I know). Hardly anyone has really tried.

13) The Seventh Seal (1957) or Wild Strawberries (1957)?
Seventh Seal - Death chess FTW

14) Your favorite Criterion Collection release
That we own: Three Outlaw Samurai. That we want but haven't found at the right price: PlayTime.

Ooh - I just scanned the list of releases and have a new answer: The Monterey Pops box set.

15) In the tradition of the Batley Townswomen's Guild's staging of the Battle of Pearl Harbor and Camp on Blood Island, who would be the featured players (individual or tag-team) in your Classic Film Star Free-for-all Fight?
Knock-down, drag-out battle of the tycoons - Eugene Pallette vs. Charles Coburn.

16) Throne of Blood (1957) or The Lower Depths (1957)?
Throne of Blood. I haven't seen Lower Depths, although Ms. Spenser has.

17) Your favorite movie snack
Since we watch movies at home, often while eating dinner, the answer varies. For a while, it was gyoza dumplings, then nachos (with real cheese), then home-made pizza. Then we would get tired of it, and move on. I guess the one constant has been the margaritas.

18) Robert Altman's Quintet-- yes or no?
Not yet. Should we?

19) Name the documentarian whose work you find most valuable
We watch documentaries of rock concerts almost exclusively. So probably Pennebaker, maybe the Maysles.

20) The Conversation (1974) or The Godfather Part II (1974)?
Still haven't seen any of the Godfather movies.

21) Favorite movie location you've visited in person
The 101 by the airport, from Bullitt.

22) If you could have directed a scene from any movie in the hope of improving it, what scene would it be, and what direction would you give the actor(s) in it? (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)
Directing is a mystery to me, so I'll pass. Ms. Spenser says, in those scenes where the monster is attacking a guy and his girlfriend is screaming? She'd direct the girl to whack the monster with a chair or something.

23) The Doors (1991) or JFK (1991)?
Haven't seen JFK and rather like The Doors.

24) What is your greatest film blasphemy or strongest evidence of your status as a contrarian? (H/T Larry Aydlette)
Never seen any of the Godfather movies, don't care to.

25) Favorite pre-1970 one-sheet
Pass. We don't collect 'em.

26) Favorite post-1970 one-sheet
Pass. Do standies count?

27) WarGames (1983) or Blue Thunder (1983)?
WarGames is a bit dated, and I've never seen Blue Thunder, but I've never heard of anyone unironically liking Blue Thunder.

28) Your candidate for best remake ever made
Maltese Falcon is hard to beat there.

29) Give us a good story, or your favorite memory, about attending a drive-in movie
I think I've used this one before: I'm on a date with my HS girlfriend Sandy, to see The Way We Were at the drive-in. (Note that she is a politcally active Jewish girl, and I am goyisch, but not a conservative military man). I get tired of the movie, and lie down with my head in her lap, and start spouting the movie's dialog before the characters do - it's that predictable.

Needless to say, Sandy did not think much of this party trick. Inexplicably, she did not refuse to see me ever again, and our friendship survives long after our romance.

30) Favorite non-horror Hammer film
Spaceways, with the ever-gravelly Howard Duff.

31) Favorite movie with the word/number "seven" in the title (question submitted by Patrick Robbins)
Since Lucky Number Slevin doesn't quite count: Seven Samurai.

32) Is there a movie disagreement you can think of which would cause you to reconsider the status of a personal relationship?
I've answered this before, too. We had a friend who didn't like the Marx Bros. or screwball comedy, because everyone talked too fast and it made her nervous. We didn't drop her because of this, but considered it.

33) Erin Brockovich (2000) or Traffic (2000)?
Haven't seen either, probably won't. Pass.

34) Your thoughts on the recent online petition demanding that Turner Classic Movies cease showing all movies made after 1960
No dog in this fight - we don't have cable. I don't think anything can be called classic until it's 25-years old, but that allows movies up until 1991.  There is something about pre-1960s movies that is special and deserves to be showcased, though.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

No Virtue

We watched Miami Vice (2006) mainly because we liked the TV show. It's not the kind of thing we'd usually watch, but we were in Japan, and it was broadcast in English. We watched Family Ties and Moonlighting for the same reason. (But not Little House on the Prairie - we had some limits.) I want to say right off that we liked the show. The only reason I can tolerate Phil Collins is that I liked the weaselly character he played on one or two episodes.

Now, Michael Mann decides to go back to the well. He has no original cast members: Crockett is Colin Farrell, Tubbs is Jamie Foxx. Captain Castillo, originally the ever-dour James Edward Olmos, is now the rotund Barry Shabaka Henley. None of them are bad, really, even Farrell, with a slightly wobbly accent. They just had absolutely no chemistry.

Farrell falls for Gong Li, a member of a smuggling family, but maybe not a suspect. Again, very little chemistry.

The plot involves a scheme that requires Crockett and Tubbs to go deep underground, which gives us the requisite low-life scenes. There is also smuggling involving "go-fast" boats, but no Jan Hammer theme song. Also, there's no 80s fashions - you don't get Colin Farrell in a t-shirt and white sports coat. Also, he doesn't seem to live on a boat with a pet alligator named Elvis.

All this might make Miami Vice a fun but unexceptional action movie, with a vague resemblance to an old TV show. But Mann is doing something with video that looks horribly cheesy: the wide-angle lenses give some odd distortion, the lighting is either too harsh or too flat, and everything looks like TV, and not in a good way.

In conclusion, the movie is also over two hours long, adding insult to injury.

By This Time, My Lungs Were Aching for ... Oh, Never Mind.

Trapped (1949) is one of those good old noir procedurals, the type that starts with a a little documentary about the Treasury Dept. and all of their works, including protecting us from counterfeit money. It seems that some bogus 20s have been circulating, made from plates made by Lloyd Bridges, now incarcerated. The T-men offer to break him out of prison if he will go undercover to find the counterfeiters. He refuses to be a fink, but they don't give him any choice and break him out. He turns the tables on them, and gets free - or so he thinks. But the feds are on him all the way,

The movie is very hard-boiled, with Bridges never deciding to throw in with the law - he is after the plates for himself and for revenge. He makes a great tough guy with his moll Barbra Payton, shaking down her boyfriend for see money to buy queer money. When the focus shifts to the T-men, it becomes mundane and methodical. They are almost anonymous, but always one step ahead of Bridges.

Sadly, Bridges is sent back to prison before the last act, so the final chase and shootout is less fun than it could have been. But the overall semi-documentary feel with the uncompromising criminality of Bridges makes this a better than average programmer.

But to me, Lloyd Bridges will always be Old Bubblegut, Mike Nelson from Sea Hunt.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Strange Days, Here We Come

Strange Days (1995) is a strange movie. We watched it as a followup to eXistenZ, because they share a virtual reality theme. But that isn't really the case.

It's late December, 1999. LA is dystopian hellhole, just like today, and a youngish Ralph Fiennes is a low-life memory hustler - people can record their sensory perceptions, usually lawless violence or sex, and he sells the sensation. These recordings are called "tapes", because they are recorded on discs. When he is not hustling, he is wallowing in the recorded memories of his ex-girlfriend, Juliette Lewis.

Meanwhile, a hooker friend of the ex-GF is on the run from the cops with a mysterious recording, and ends up dead. Somewhere around here, Angela Bassett shows up. She is a bodyguard and chauffeur with warm feelings for Fiennes. She is badass, and maybe the first character we can really like. As New Year's Eve approaches, a dead rapper, some bad cops, and assorted clowns and hustlers all head for the big climax.

This is a great movie, if maybe a little scummy. It was directed by Katherine Bigelow, and co-written by her husband James Cameron, with script help from Jay Cocks (disclaimer: I am related to Jay by marriage - his and mine). My one big complaint is that the recorded memory gimmick is almost totally unused. That is, it is used, but a GoPro would have worked as well. The illegal tapes could have been the web videos that Vin Diesel made in XXX. So this wasn't really a virtual reality movie - there is never any ontological confusion about what is real and what is a tape.

In conclusion, there's a lot less Doors on the soundtrack than you'd think.