Thursday, December 29, 2016

Merry Christmas!

Even though Xmas is long past, it isn't time for a New Years post yet, so I'll put in a quick plug for our favorite Xmas movie: The Thin Man (1934). This class, udirected by W.S. Van Dyke (not S.S. Van Dine, who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries) stars the incomparable screwball couple William Powell and Myrna Loy. It's based on a story by Dashiell Hammett, but I don't think he put so much wit and sparkle into his version. The drinking might have been his, though.

Nick Charles, New York detective, has been living in San Francisco with his wealthy bride, Nora, but they have returned to New York for the holidays. The only case he wants to work on is a case of scotch. But a missing scientist (Edward Ellis) and his oddball relatives make that impossible. So he solves the case with the help of his dog Asta, without missing a drink.

There are great character actors like Cesar Romero, Ed Brophy, and Nat Pendleton, several wild parties, and great Christmas presents. But the best part is the ideal relationship between Powell and Loy, the greatest marriage in all cinema. "I do believe the little lady cares."

The 3 or 4 sequels are good too, although not as good. This was intended to be a one-off B-movie, made in 11 days on a shoestring. The cinematography showed a bit of flare, with some nice shadows, and background action that pays off in the next shot.

A lot of time, people use "classic" when they mean "black and white", but this is the real thing.

We thought about watching Shop on the Corner, but we'll save that for next week.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

I Ain't Afraid of No Lady Ghostbusters

In an attempt to ruin our childhoods, we watched Ghostbusters (2016), aka Lady Ghostbusters. Since we watched the original as adults, it didn't work.

This movie stars Kristen Wiig as the good girl, working for tenure as a physics professor. Her liveliehood is threatened when a book she wrote with a childhood friend shows up: Ghosts are Real. She looks up her old friend, Melissa McCarthy, she discovers her working in a paranormal studies lab with mad scientist Kate McKinnon.

I say mad scientist, but I'm not really sure what her "type" is. McCarthy and Wiig are pretty easy to figure out - the mousy good girl and the pushy loudmouth. But McKinnon is this odd amalgam of punked out, glammed up Tank Girl plus mad scientist. We liked it, but I'm not sure we got it.

Leslie Jones is pretty easy to figure out - she is the loud, sassy black woman. She's great at it - some of her little throwaway lines are my favorite, like shouting, "the devil is a liar!" the first time she sees a ghost.

I wasn't as psyched about Neil Casey as the bad guy. He just didn't have Rick Moranis' goofy sincerity. Chris Hemsworth as the beautiful but dumb receptionist was a bit by-the-numbers, but it actually pays off, and anyway, he is cute.

Basically, we liked a lot about this movie but it maybe doesn't hold together that well. Parts are greater than the whole, or something. It all is ends with a big battle royale, and the ghost girls gain the acceptance they all craved. I hope the movie did too, because I want to see the sequel.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Darkness, Darkness

Dark City (1998) is one of those movies that I've been meaning to watch since forever. Since we saw Alex Proyas' Gods of Egypt, I felt we should watch something he's legit famous for.

It is set in the titular dark, grimy, noirish city. A man (Rufus Sewell) wakes up in a bathtub, with no memories. He gets a call from a mysterious doctor (Keifer Sutherland) telling him to run. Which he does when he notices the carved up corpse in the room.

This would be bad enough, but he eventually find out that at midnight, everyone falls asleep and the entire city is re-arranged - buildings shrink or grow, ordinary jerks become rich, strangers become lovers, and it's all backed up by implanted memories so nobody notices anything. Meanwhile, accordian-loving detective William "Big" Hurt has teamed up with Sewell's wife (Jennifer Connolly) to bring him to justice - if he is the one leaving carved-up corpses around.

I should mention that we watched the Director's Cut, which leaves out the prologue the studio slapped on, which gives away the whole story. But I guess I've already spoiled a lot of it, so I hope you've already seen it.

This movie has a great look, with obvious homage paid to Metropolis, among others. The noir atmosphere is great - Jennifer Connolly is a chantoosy in a jazz club, which gives a chance for a couple of songs. Then there's the reality bending. It works in a neat way - a wall may or may not have a door in it, a pool may or may not have a ladder. It's not exactly subtle, but not flashy either. Of course, when the buildings start growing, it's pretty cool.

This is a great movie for fans of Matrix, Cube or maybe They Live.  I wish Proyas had made more in this vein. Guess we'll need to watch The Crow.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Park Avenue Blogger

Park Avenue Logger (1937) is a little piece of Depression nonsense that we watched for two reasons:
  1. One of the bloggers (Farren Nehme?) mentioned it in Twitter and it was available on Netflix.
  2. George O'Brien
You may know O'Brien, if at all, as California's Lt. Gov, who did a lot of the governing while Gov. Jerry Brown ran for president. Maybe you know him as Ronald Reagan's father from This is the Army. We know him as "Coffee" Cupp, the irrepressible sailor in A Girl, a Guy and a Gob. He is a whirlwind of energy and charm, schemes and a big white grin.

His character in Park Avenue Logger is similar: He's a rich boy who tries to be a sophisticated intellectual for his father, while secretly wrestling as the Masked Marvel. His father, though, thinks he's a milquetoast who needs to be toughened up, so he sends him off to Oregon to be a lumberjack.

Of course, once he's there, he falls for the daughter (Beatrice Roberts) of a competing outfits owner. He is at first scorned as a greenhorn,and nicknamed "Parky" but everyone soon learns to love him for his energy and big smile - everyone but the daughter and her suitor, the foreman for her outfit (Ward Bond, played with a Nat Pendleton feel).

Bert Hanlon handles the comic relief with a broad but indeterminate accent (Greek? Yiddish? Russian?) as cook and speech-mangling labor agitator.

There's a plot about a mortgage and some crooks that is handled very economically in a half-dozen telegrams and a 5-minute scene in the police station. It was interesting because the rest of this 67-minute movie is quite rambling and unfocused. The whole sissy/he-man misunderstanding depends on everyone ignoring the what's right before their eyes, and the same is true with the romance. Plus, there isn't a lot of real humor in the movie.

Still, it's kind of cute and not very long. Not our favorite George O'Brien, but a pleasant programmer.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Japanese for "Arden"

We queued As You Like It (2006) after we saw the 1936 version. Finally, Netflix saw fit to send us a copy.

This odd version is directed by Kenneth Branagh. He adapted the play by setting it in Japan, after Westerners began to set up shop. The opening, a ninja attack on a Japanese dance performance, is completely without dialog. In fact, a lot of the dialog is cut out of this. That's not really a complaint. Branagh could have cut all the dialog, and this would have been a beautiful movie.

In fact, it might have been better - There is a bit of a problem with a (more or less) naturalistic acting style, a 19th-century Japanese setting, and Elizabethan English. It's a common problem with this kind of re-framing, and it always took me a little out of the movie: "Why are they talking like that? Oh, yeah, Shakespeare."

Let's see, we have Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) as Rosalind/Ganymede, very fetching as maid or man, and Romola Garai as her sweet cuz, Celia. Their problem was acting as airheads when the play demands it, since they seem like pretty intelligent actors. Daniel Oyelowo was Orlando, another silly role. Brian Blessed is Duke Senior, and his evil brother, Duke Frederick, because of course.

But come, what of the fools? As You Like It has two. Professional fool Touchstone is played by Alfred Molina in a silly wig - he does not play it as broadly as you might expect. I was expecting a lot more bawdiness when he was wooing Audrey (Janet McTeer). He may have even been trying to tone down the sexism.

Jaques, on the other hand, is a fool as a hobby. He is actually a melancholic, and is played ably by Kevin Klein. He is called upon to do the All the World's a Stage soliloquy, which Branagh films through a scrim of branches, as if embarrassed to be caught watching.

We get most of the famous lines, and at least 2 or 3 of the songs. I was feeling like a lot was missing as the credits rolled: What happened to the epilogue? I'll just say, make sure to stay through the credits - but don't expect Samuel L. Jackson.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sequel City

I've been writing a lot of double-bill posts - what does everyone think? Enjoying the compare-and-contrast? Too long; didn't read? Doesn't matter, I'm going to continue. Last weekend we saw a couple of sequels, both to movies that we enjoyed, but maybe weren't all that great.

London Has Fallen (2016) is the sequel to Olympus has Fallen, our least favorite of the two recent White House invasion movies. In this one, Gerard Butler is still bodyguard to President Aaron Eckhart. Even though his wife is about to give birth, he has to go to London for a state funeral. Because of all the dignitaries, London has decreed that each one gets a single bodyguard, and everything else will be handled by Scotland Yard. So when heads of state start getting shot, it's up to Butler alone to keep his president safe - from the terrorist whose family was destroyed by a Predator drone.

Lots of things blow up. Everybody is shooting at everything. There are car chases, helicopter crashes, Parliament is blown up, along with the Thames Bridge and a lot more (Roland Emmerich, are you watching?). Everyone shoots at Butler and Eckhart, but nobody hits them, ever. I think Butler gets a little stabbed. But in the end, he takes down the bad guys with pretty much no help from anyone. At least Scotland Yard figures out who the mole is (it's the guy who looks like Moriarty from Sherlock, duh).

All this would be bad enough, without the little coda when Vice-President Morgan Freeman gives a speech, saying, "Some say we could have avoided all this if we had minded our own business." Yes, not killing innocent children with drones might help... But he denies this, and promises to keep killing those foreigners - for freedom. I am not convinced.

Now You See Me 2 (2016) is a boring name for a sequel. Why not Now You Don't or something? Still, the original was kind of a guilty pleasure for us, so we queued it up. If you recall, that one ended with the four magicians being hunted by the FBI, while Agent Mark Ruffalo was secretly pulling their strings. He works for a secret organization of magicians dedicated to doing good in some way. Now they must come together again (with a new female member, Lizzy Kaplan) to fight:
  • Morgan Freeman, one of the bad guys from the original
  • Ben Lamb, high-tech exec (like Lex Luthor in BvS). Oh, in case you think he doesn't have a stupid name, he does: Owen Case.
  • Daniel Radcliffe, another, more evil tech exec
  • Sanaa Lathan (AvP), Mark Ruffalo's FBI boss
And they have to pull the biggest heist of their careers! A MacGuffin chip from a super computer.

But it's all just an excuse for wild feats of legerdemain. They jump in a chute in New York and come out in Macau. Jesse Eisenberg makes the rain fall up. Lizzie pulls the head off a pigeon. But our favorite scene is the card toss, when the group throws a playing card around to keep it from being found on them. It doesn't actually make much sense - someone who has already been searched (and should be safe) might pass it to someone about to get searched. But it is choreographed so sweetly done that about 10 minutes of card tossing never gets dull.

There are a lot of stupid things about this movie - how about Woody Harrelson's twin brother (credited as Brick Patrick, but it looks like Harrelson is playing both parts)? The implausible magic tricks, like the instant hypnosis gag. The secret society - what's up with that? But we didn't care, because it was fun - even if they only banged London up a bit, not destroyed it completely. 
The characters were basically fun - Jesse Eisenberg is a little bit of his usual unlikable egotist, but funny. Harrelson is goofy and Dave Franco is cute. Newcomer Lizzy Kaplan is the wise-cracking girl and plays it very well.

In fact, we want to see a Now You See Me TV series, with the improbable secret society giving our team a new assignment every week. Just play it for laughs and magic. We'll watch every episode. Or even just NYSM 3.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Veritable Parade (AVP) of Monsters

Alien vs. Predator (2004) combines two great flavors that everyone likes - Aliens and Predators! Actually, they are both aliens, as well as predators. Oh well.

This one starts on Earth, with genius industrialist Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen) getting satellite intel of a heat source deep under the Antarctic ice. Computer imaging reveals a pyramid with details resembling Aztec, Cambodian and Egyptian. (Details, from thermal imaging. Under a mile of ice. Anyway.) He rushes to get an expedition together because he knows that if he can be the first to reach it, he can .. dare we say it? Well, it isn't clear why, but he wants it bad.

The leader of the expedition will be a feisty mountain guide played by Sanaa Lathan. Then there are some sexy scientists, a band of mercenary bodyguards, and a nerdy guy who kept showing pics of his kids. He also wore a red shirt, and went by the nickname "Deadmeat". Oddly enough, so did everyone else.

Actually, I thought the nerdy guy (Ewen Bremner) was going to be the robot, the "Bishop". I'll let you keep guessing on that one.

Anyway, once they get under the ice, the setup begins to become clear. First, a batch of Alien eggs hatch and face-hug some of the expedition. This leads to chest-bursting and adult Aliens running around. It seems that the Predators set up this pyramid complex so that they could hatch Aliens (using humans as hosts) to hunt as a rite of passage. So, SPOILER.

To continue spoiling, Lathan gets the idea that they need to team up with the Preds to get the Aliens - especially to keep them from getting out into the world at large. I'm not sure how to feel about that - I didn't mind when the Predators acted honorably at the end of Predator II. But actually teaming up with them?

There was a point where someone talks about the two kinds of monsters and mentions the "humanoid" ones. I was like, "which ones are those?" but I guess you're meant to think of the Preds as closer to human than the Aliens. OK, I guess, but I'm not sure I like it. Shouldn't both of these deadly blood-thirsty creatures be our implacable enemy?

Whatever. As long as we don't cozy up with these guys too much, we'll keep watching,

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Black Comedy

The Nice Guys (2016) is the first movie I saw promoted as a "Shane Black" movie. I might have heard of Black as a screenwriter, and of course we just saw him in Predator. But for this, I heard people gushing over a new Shane Black script, directed by Shane Black, and they mentioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which I quite liked, so, what the heck?

Black is famous for buddy films (Lethal Weapon, to start with), and this is no different: a couple of private eyes in Los Angeles, 1977. Russell Crowe is a cynical leg-breaker, who mostly seems to take money from young girls to beat up guys who are creeping on them. Ryan Gosling is an alcoholic private eye (with a license and an ad in the Yellow Pages) with a 13-year old daughter (Angourie Rice) who doesn't seem to like him much. Gosling's case involves finding a young woman, but that woman (Margaret Qualley) hires Crowe because people are following her. So Crowe winds up breaking Gosling's arm. That's their meet-cute.

Pretty soon everyone is hunting for the girl, as well as a porn film (experimental porn film - political experimental porn film), and people involved are dying. The girl's mother is District Attorney Kim Basinger, and she wants the girl found, or killed, or something. That stuff isn't important.

What is important is the chemistry between the two investigators - the heavy and the drunk. Crowe looks a little like John Goodman here, maybe even heading to Gerard Depardieu territory. Gosling has a 70s pornstache and the clueless look of a Ron Burgandy.

But maybe even more important is Gosling's daughter and her tween friends. Gosling treats them all like adults, gossiping about their families ("Your sister is such a slut, Jessica"). Makes sense because, compared to these two palookas, the kids are more mature and clear-eyed. She's a good influence on her dad and his friend.

Then there's the goofy stuff - often involving mayhem (big body count, mostly bystanders). There are classic mystery tropes: Like when the clue is "Opening Night", the daughter immediately figures out that this refers to the opening night of the LA Auto Show. Sure, how many opening nights could there be in LA? Then there are the little references, like when Gosling gets too scared to talk and all he can do his make little noises and point, like Lou Costello.

Not to mention the glorious smog of 1977 LA, the gas lines, the Comedy Store in the background of some shots. It doesn't get hokey - no leisure suits or fondue sets - but sweetly nostalgic.

It was so much fun that we followed up with Knight and Day (2010). I had seen this before, but I wanted Ms. Spenser to see it. Since it is a rom-com starring Tom Cruise (who she hates) and Cameron Diaz (who I love and she's indifferent to), this was a hard sell. But she got into it.

It's basically an old Goldy Hawn slapstick, although Diaz isn't playing an airhead. She meets Tom Cruise on a plane, and while she's in the bathroom, he kills everyone on board, including the pilot. You see, he's a rogue secret agent, and everyone is out to get him. But he really likes her and is actually very nice to her. If he'd just stop drugging her...

It's got some great car chases (lots of roof surfing), wild fights, exotic locales, and so on. But the fun part is when Cruise compliments Diaz on her dress while hanging onto the roof of her car, speeding the wrong way down Storrow Drive. Yes, she's from Boston, and there's the traditional geographically nonsensical chase, first north out of town on the over the Bunker Hill Bridge, then west through Back Bay on Storrow, then Southie, the Callahan Tunnel, and who knows where.

I love Diaz as a comedian - the scene where they give her truth serum and she won't shut up is a scream. She also gets to be more than a ditz - although I'm not sure how sincere the director was. Any way, it made a great double-bill with The Nice Guys: two retro comedy thrillers.