Sunday, October 22, 2017

Jour de Fete

We decided to watch The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) because we saw it contrasted to Umbrellas of Cherbourg - where the theme of Umbrellas is sadness and regret, the theme of Girls is joy. Also, it has Gene Kelly in it.

It all takes place in the provincial town of Rochefort. The festival is coming - we see the trucks of gear and performers taking the "transporter" - a huge basket on wires that carries traffic over the river, a kind of suspended ferry. In town, we meet the twins, Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac, real-life sisters in their only movie together (Dorléac died soon after). They are a musician and dancer, just dying to get out of Rochefort and into the big world.

We also meet their mama, Danielle Darrieux (RIP at age 100, this week). She runs the cafe in the town square, where the festival will be held. It is a kind of meeting place for the town. For instance, she meets two boys from the festival, George Chakiris and Grover Dale. (Aside - it was this movie that made me aware that George Chakiris - West Side Story - and George Maharis - Route 66 - are different people, not one guy with a lot of range.) Right away, she asks Chakiris to pick up here young son Boo-Boo from school. Because she doesn't want him walking home alone, and who wouldn't trust a carnie who just breezed into town?

Another visitor to the cafe is Jacques Perrin, a sailor for now, but soon to be demobbed to follow his dream of being a painter and poet. He is searching for a dream girl, who he has painted to look just like Deneuve. Will they ever meet?

Dorleac, in the meantime, has asked the owner of the music store in town for an introduction to the big producer in Paris, Gene Kelly. Then she actually bumps into Kelly, but doesn't know who he is, so she brushes him off. Will they ever find each other?

In addition, there is a bit of business with a brutal murder, but nobody seems to pay it much mind. Also, mama Darrieux tells a bit about her history, how she left her lover because his name was "Dame" - and she couldn't see herself marrying "Mr. Woman". Oh, did I mention that the music store owner is named Dame?

The girls join the festival circuit, being booth girls for Chakaris and Dale, who are selling motorboats at the festival. They will follow the circuit to Paris. The sailor poet-artist is going home to Marseilles. Kelly will go back to Paris alone. Or will these friends and lovers finally get together?

 This is all set to a jaunty Michel Grande score, with a few songs - it isn't "through-sung" like Umbrellas. It's a lovely bit of fluff that seems to be a tribute to the towns of France. Rochefort may not be exciting like Paris, but it is not exactly sleepy. It looks prosperous and civilized, comfortable, settled, but not old-fashioned. The cafe on the town square is a modern glass-walled box, but manages to be cozy nonetheless.

In conclusion, SPOILER, the answer to all of the rhetorical questions above is yes.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Towering Inferno

I want to thank the Ferdy on Films blog for introducing me to High-Rise (2016). It’s a funny dystopian horror film based on a J.G. Ballard story. Ms. Spenser liked it because it stars Tom Hiddlestone.

Hiddleston lives in a just-built apartment tower in 1970s England. It is quite brutalist - all raw concrete - and rather suits him, a somewhat severe, withdrawn young man. His upstairs neighbor, Siena Miller, sees him sunbathing and invites him to a party, where he meets some of the dwellers on the other floors. There are a lot of women and children, who live on the lower floors, for convenience. There's an insecure older movie star. There’s laddish, Alan Bayesian Luke Evans, who tries to seduce every woman he comes close to. Hiddleston offers a bottle of wine to the hostess, and murmurs: "I'm not good at fitting in in these kinds of things." But he seems to be fitting in quite well, getting to bed Miller a little later.

He also gets to meet the architect of the building, Royal (Jeremy Irons). He is taken up to the penthouse by a thuggish underling. There's a garden up there, and a little English cottage, and the missus keeps a horse. Later, he attends their party, and everyone is inexplicably dressed in Louis XIV finery. Although Royal talks about the mixture of classes living in the tower, it's clear who belongs to which level.

As the building's shoddy construction becomes apparent, lifts stop working, lights go off, and the stores aren't being stocked anymore. Fights break out over little things, and Hiddleston kind of likes it - it brings something out in him. And even as the microcosm of the tower is breaking down, Hiddleston still goes to work everyday - they are not cut off from the outside world. There are parties in the halls now, lit by fires or torches. The parties on the lower floors are earthier, the ones higher up more decadent, but there is the feeling that this is the way we live now.

This is all done with the lightest touch of 70s period setting. Hiddleston seems very at home in the milieu - I feel like there is a little Jeremy Irons in his choices, but maybe I'm just suggestive. I haven't read the J.G. Ballard story this is based on, but it seems very Ballardian.

In conclusion, it was directed by Ben Wheatley, a newish director who seems to specialize in low-budget, high-gloss, high-concept violent movies. I wonder if I would like any of the others.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Post Prometheus

I’m not sure what I expected of Alien: Covenant (2017): something sad and low-rent like the later sequels, or something shiny and incoherent like Prometheus. We’d be happy either way. I think we actually got the best of both.

It starts with the birth of David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Prometheus. Mr. Weyland, still a young man, wakes him up in a circular white room containing several works of art (including Michaelangelo’s David), with a striking view. It may not add much to the story, but it is visually striking.

The next scene is on a colony ship, with crew and colonists all asleep, except android Walter (again, Fassbender). There is an emergency power surge and he wakes the crew - except the captain, James Franco, who dies. They also pick up a strange signal from another planet, and their new captain, Billy Crudup, decides to head there instead of their original target. He doesn’t seem very stable or well-liked, and Franco’s widow, Katherine Waterston, logs an objection. But he’s the captain.

The planet they arrive on seems “to good to be true”, but there’s no animal life. Just like in Prom, they immediately start wandering around without suits, poking things and throwing their cigarette butts around. You know where that leads.

They are saved by David - he came to the planet after the end of Prom, along with Noomi Rapace, now deceased. He will have some interesting philosophical discussions with Walter, but how much help will he be with the dangerous wildlife? You know how tricky these androids can be.

In fact, although we get more information about the Engineers, and plenty of new and classic Xenomorphs, this movie is mostly about the androids and how they fit into the Alienverse.

The crew is a little bigger to start out, but the focus is mainly on Waterston and Crudup. The captain is a bit paranoid, and thinks his religious fundamentalism is what prevented him from getting his promoted. It’s actually that he makes a terrible leader. Waterston, on the other hand, is extremely cute, resourceful and resolute. She’s an alternative take on Ripley - more vulnerable, with an open, child-like face (and haircut), but still strong.

Ridley Scott has promised more of these, concentrating on the androids. Ms. Spenser is on board - she wanted to rewatch this as soon as it was done.


Friday, October 6, 2017

Magical Negro

I wasn't sure what kind of a movie Sleight (2017) was - gritty urban realism or superhero fantasy. That's fine, it doesn't want you to know either.

It stars Jacob Latimore, a black kid who was going to get a great scholarship after high school, but his mother's death put that on hold. Now he is raising his little sister on the proceeds of some street magic and dealing coke and molly. He's a charismatic young man, and his magic act is pretty impressive. As a dealer, his specialty seems to be white college kids who want to seem cooler than they are. Things aren't great, but he's doing all right. He even met a girl while busking and she likes him.

But his boss, Dule Hill (Psych), turns out to be a lot less chill than Latimore thinks. A new dealer is working his territory, and Hill gets tough - and makes Latimore his enforcer.

Now I hope you are not reading this before you see Sleight - which I recommend that you do - because spoilers. Some of Latimore's tricks seem inexplicable, but of course, that's what magic is about. Then you see him changing batteries for some gizmo, and he levitates the old batteries into the trash - He's Magneto! For real! Or is it part of another elaborate effect?

I'm not going to spoiler the answer, but it's both real and fantasy, awesome and silly. And in some ways, unnecessary. This could have been a simple story about a good kid who made bad choices, got the consequences for being a black man in America and so forth. It would have been a fine movie. But I probably wouldn't watch it, because that's not my genre. SF/Fantasy/Superhero is right up my alley, though, so I'm glad I watched. I can't say I was tricked into it, because it was just what I expected, even though I didn't really know what to expect.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

April in Paris

I control the Netflix queue here at Casa Beveridge, so I'm always happy when Ms. Spenser enjoys one of my more risky picks. Like April and the Extraordinary World (2015). We don't always take to animation, and this one had mixed reviews, but it looked steampunk enough to check out.

April starts in the reign of Napolean III. He is visiting the secret lab of Dr. Franklin, who is working on a serum to make invincible soldiers. So far, all he has are some talking animals, and two slithery somethings that escape. When Nappy's guard tries to shoot them, there's an explosion, and everyone is killed. This sets off an alternate timeline where the Franco-Prussian War didn't happen. Also, great scientists are being captured mysteriously, so science never develops past steam power.

A generation later, one of Dr. Franklin's grandsons, his wife, and his little daughter April are continuing the work in secret. The government has become oppressive as natural resources dwindle, and all scientists who haven't vanished are shanghaied to work for the government. They are being spied on by goofy police detective Pizoni, but it isn't the government that gets them - it's a mysterious cloud shooting very accurate lightning. The adults are all stolen away, leaving only little April and her uplifted talking cat Darwin.

Ten years later, April lives alone in a secret laboratory inside a colossal monument to Napolean III. Her only companion is Darwin, now ancient and dying. Although she doesn't know it, Pizoni still pursues her, now using young petty thief, Julius as a stalking horse. But all April cares about it the ultimate serum, which, among other things, will restore Darwin to health.

This is just the setup, the adventures are just starting. There's a lot to like in this movie. The art style is rather Belgian - very Tin Tin, but more dark and dystopian. April is a great character, a scientist first, daughter and granddaughter second, and as for love, well... She does have a romance, but it's a subplot. Her mom is a scientist too, as well as her father, and they fight over medical and scientific ethics. It's like science is important to this movie. (Even though the actual science gets a little silly.)

And you get a talking cat and cameos by Einstein and Fermi. What more could you want

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Flag Day

I remember watching Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) on tv when I was a kid, at home sick. So I queued it up.

It stars Paul Newman as harried Connecticut suburbanite who can’t get a drink on the club car on the way home. Then his wife, Joanne Woodward, is too busy to pick him up at the station, so his predatory neighbor, Joan Collins, gives him a ride. He gets home and wants a little romance with Woodward, but between the kids and her committee work, she doesn't have any time for him. Just when he has gotten her to agree to take a little time, she gets roped into a new cause - the Army is building a Top Secret installation in their town. So she volunteers to lead the opposition to the installation, and volunteers him to go to Washington to fight the Army.

That's the setup. Busybody housewives on social improvement committees, sexpot neighbors, and the peacetime army. The Army is represented by General Gale Gordon and the captain in charge of the top secret project, Jack Carson (who I always get mixed up with Jack Haley) - two very funny character actors. Directed by classic screwball director Leo McCarey, it should be funny - and there are some great scenes. Newman and Collins having a little get-together that ends with him literally swinging from the chandelier, for instance. Who knew Joan Collins was so good at physical comedy?

But Paul Newman really isn't, at least as far as I can tell. Or maybe it's the mismatch of screwball, 60s sex comedy and comedy of suburban manners that makes it less than completely satisfying.

However, on a personal note, Ms. Spenser (Dr. Spenser, in fact) is a part-time college lecturer, and of course winds up working on it more than full time, to the point where she rarely gets to knock off early on a weekend even. So I got to rib her a lot about her being too busy for romance. But I did not joke about finding my own Joan Collins.

In conclusion, it turns out the movie that I saw on tv when I was a kid was Follow Me, Boys, a Fred MacMurray Disney film, which is more kid appropriate.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Kiss Snatcher

Here's a hardboiled double bill for you: Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Picture Snatcher (1933).

This was Ms. Beveridge's first look at Kiss. It stars Ralph Meeker, and directed with noir panache by Robert Aldrich. The opening is a real grabber - a bare-foot woman wearing a trenchcoat and probably nothing else (Cloris Leachman) is running down a road at night, trying to flag down cars. She jumps out in front of Mike Hammer's (Meeker) Jaguar, nearly causing a crash. He picks her up, but isn't happy about it. They quarrel, and he drops her off at the bus station. Of course, she turns up dead.

Then everyone else turns up, looking for something she had - Mike's secretary Velda (Maxine Cooper) calls it the Great Whatsit. He searches for it mainly by bumbling around and sometimes beating people up. At some point I was convinced that the whole mystery thing thing didn’t make any sense, but that might just be me. Maybe I was just to busy wallowing in the great LA scenery - especially the scenes set in Bunker Hill, including Angel’s Flight. But the greatest shot in the movie is Meeker in his apartment, next to his modernistic wall-mounted reel-to-reel answering machine, looking out the window at the cars on the freeway. Really says it all.

Then it becomes a sci-fi horror flick, and you know the rest. Wild movie, Aldrich’s best.

As a palate cleanser, let’s go back to the days of the Depression for a James Cagney film, Picture Snatcher (pronounced pitcher-snatcher). Will it be a musical, a comedy, a gangster film? The jaunty music over the credits hints at the first two, but it lies.  Cagney is a gangster who wants to go straight when he gets out of jail. He wants to be a reporter, working for Ralph Bellamy, the drunk city editor of a trashy tabloid. Since he has no scruples, he does pretty well. He gets into and out of scrapes with girls, the law, and the managing editor. He is the only reporter to get a picture of a woman getting the electric chair - while the other observers are throwing up, he’s snapping a picture with a camera on his shoe. (This part was based on a true ripped-from-the-headlines story.)

Both movies feature charming, utterly amoral, and self-centered men. It only comes out well in Picture Snatcher. I guess it might have been a comedy after all.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Two Blades

Got an Asian martial arts double-bill for you. First up: Dragon Blade (2015), an East-meets-West drama, with John Cusack as West and Jackie Chan as East. Chan plays a protector of the peace on the Silk Road. He is first seen breaking up a fight between Huns (?) and Indians (?) - which involves him fighting an angry Hun woman, and accidentally grabbing her tits and ripping off her veil. That means they are married - Oh, Jackie!

But his squad is framed for corruption, and they are exiled as slave labor to repair the walls of a city. One day, a Roman legion lead by John Cusack shows up, exhausted, with a blond, blind boy-prince. So Jackie Chan goes out to fight - or to not fight, since he's a peacemaker. After some desultory fighting, Jackie convinces Cusack to drop his sword and they enter the city.

This has to remind you of The Great Wall. It has a number of similar scenes - the sword dropping surrender, the "dance-offs" where each group does a little display of their martial skills. My guess is that this is just China wanting to make international hits, and this is their formula.

Anyway, this gets pretty dark, especially when we're talking about Adrian Brody, who blinded the boy to secure his claim to the Imperial throne. But do you really get from Rome to the kingdom of the Parthians through China?

Once again, this isn't really a great film (too serious?), but I did love the Buddhist message of peace, hope, and friendship.

The Sword Identity (2011) is a different, odder beast. It is about a Chinese coastal city that had a problem with Japanese pirates a generation ago. Things have quieted down now, and the leading five martial arts schools have gotten sloppy and complacent. The town's guards have to use papier-mache armor, because metal is for the Imperial Army. A stranger (Song Yang) comes to town with a new fighting style, a new weapon. By tradition, he has to fight his way past all four schools so that he can set up his own school. But it isn't that simple.

His weapon is kind of cool - a samurai sword about 8-feet long, but - here's the kicker - it only has an edge on the last 2-3 feet, so you can hold it by the middle of the blade and work it like a quarterstaff. Yang's mentor intuited that the samurai technique was based on polework, and set out to combat it.

Once our hero gets chased off by the schools, he hides out with a Romany (Indian?) dancing girl on a houseboat in the canal. He decides to teach her to fight, so he gives her his sword sheath, sits her by the curtained door with the end sticking out and tells her to swing up when she hears someone approach. Then he sneaks out the back. For most of the rest of the movie she demolishes every challenger - and everyone thins it's Yang. They've started calling him the Japanese Pirate, because of his sword.

So, in some senses this is a serious martial arts film. The director, Xiu Haofeng, is a serious martial artist, who was reportedly trying to make his fights more realistic. It is also a "art house" movie, where the camera may drift from the fight to the dead lotus leaves in the canal, and only show you a few of the feet. But it is also very silly - our Japanese Pirate (who is neither) next captures the whole town guard and makes them wade through the canals all night, basically just to tire them out. But he also attacks them with his "Japanese" sword to see if their old tactic of close shield and spear work can defend against the Japanese (if they ever show up). He is happy to find that it is successful, even when used by idiots.

So. there's a little something here for everyone - some realistic (not too flashy) fights, some comedy, some romance.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Station to Station

We have been watching The Middleman (2008) when we have an open space in our queue. It's a short-lived sitcom about an ordinary (but cute) artist who takes a temp job that turns out to be sidekick to secret agent superhero - the Middleman. It's funny and stupid and the characters are kind of sweet and lovable. The Middleman himself (Matt Keesler) is a straight-shooter who drinks nothing stronger than milk and loves Budd Boetticher films.

Which is funny, because we had Comanche Station (1960) all queued up. Directed by Boetticher, this entry has Randolph Scott travelling into Comanche territory to redeem a white woman they are holding hostage. Now this setup is fraught with unspoken psychological depth (see The Searchers). We imagine the woman suffering the Fate Worse than Death at the hands of savages, and wonder if she can live in society after being defiled. Scott mounts the woman, Nancy Gates, on a mule when they ride away - the sterile beast of burden traditionally ridden by celibate priests. But I noticed that she was riding astride, not side-saddle, so maybe I'm making this symbology up. Yeah, probably overthinking.

So they get to Comanche Station to wait for the coach to send Gates home to her husband, when three men come thundering in, pursued by Comanches. With Scott, they run the Comanches off, but Scott recognizes the leader, Claude Akins - he kicked him out of the army for involvement with an Indian massacre. But they are stuck together. Akins has heard of Gates, and knows there is a large reward to bring her home - in fact, he tells Gates that Scott is just after the reward (and impugns the manhood of her husband). But he doesn't tell anyone but his henchmen that the husband will pay for her dead as well as alive, and that will make things easier all around.

The henchmen, by the way, are the fun part of this grim drama. Richard Rust is older and half-wiser. Skip Homeier is the kid who kind of wonders if maybe they are the bad guys.

This was the last of the seven Boetticher/Scott westerns. We still haven't seen a few, including Ride Lonesome, the movie the Middleman wanted to see. But we will.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Detroit Muscle

I remember going to see Doctor Detroit (1983) at a bar or maybe Chinese restaurant in some small NH/VT city after a long hike, or maybe just because chances for entertainment were few and this bar or restaurant showed movies! But I don't think the timeline works, because our days of hanging out in the Great North Woods were pretty much over by 1983. So where did I see it?

No matter. When the Projection Booth podcast did their take on it, I was intrigued enough to go back to it. Would we get the good or sucky Dan Akroyd?

Akroyd plays Cliff Skridlow, a nerdy Chicago professor. We meet him out for a power walk - a limo full of escorts and their pimp gives him a hard time in passing. The pimp, Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) turns out to be in trouble with Mom (Kate Murtagh), the town's crime boss. He comes up with a scheme to blame it all on this uber-tough guy, Dr. Detroit. When he runs into Akroyd again in an Indian restaurant, he has his scapegoat.

The plan is to befriend Akroyd, ply him with booze, women, pot, women, cash, women, then turn the girls over to him and get out of Dodge. And this Hesseman proceeds to do. This is my favorite part - the corruption of the innocent. Like the bar scene in Mad Wednesday, when Harold Lloyd takes ,his first drink and comes out of his cocoon. He is a nerd, and he stays a nerd even when plied with booze and marijuana, but he gets very goofy and lets his romantic side show. He is, after all, a professor of heroic literature.

Plus, there's the girls:
  • Blonde Donna Dixon
  • Asian Lydia Lee
  • Black Lynn Litfield
  • Jewish Fran Drescher
Yes, Drescher is sexy Jewish-American Princess. I don't know why that tickles me so much, but it does.

When Hesseman takes off for Pago Pago, leaving Akroyd to look after the girls, he steps up to the plate. A quick trip to the theater dept costume room, and he is Doctor Detroit, complete with fright wig and metal hand. And we're off to the races.

The last act has Akroyd attending two parties at once: a gala being held by his father, George Furth, the president of Akroyd's college, and the Players Ball, where the Doctor is being made Pimp of the Year. Of course, this situation is a farce classic, and it's played very well.

I had remembered this as second-class Akroyd, and I still feel that way. But after this watch, I'd put it at the top of the second class. It's not often sidesplittingly funny, but it holds together. In some ways, it's like an old Danny Kaye comedy, updated, if that's your thing.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Kaneda! Tetsuo!

I was inspired to watch Akira (1988) by the Projection Booth podcast. Their thesis was, basically, the Japanese had too much money in the 80s, so they made this ridiculously expensive and well-crafted anime. Because there was no way to make their money back in Japan, they sold it internationally. People were blown away by the quality, and that started the international anime craze.

Also, we felt bad about watching live-action Ghost in the Shell without much anime background.

It is set in Neo-Tokyo, some years after something blow a huge crater in the center of town, igniting world war. Then, it's 17 years later and we are hanging out with a teen motorcycle gang - in particular, Kaneda, a leader-type with a very futuristic bike and his kid brother, Tetsuo. You will remember these names, because they get shouted about 1,000 times in the movie.

In the middle of their highway rumble with the clown gang, a gnomish child shows up, pursued by the government. The movie is pretty stingy with the info, but the kid is one of a small group of high-powered espers, being held in government custody because one of them, Akira, caused that explosion at the start of the movie. And it turns out that Tetsuo is one of them.

Kaneda meets a cute girl who is part of the anti-government resistance, and joins up with their cause. Meanwhile, Tetsuo is getting mad, and when he gets mad, rocks start to fall upward, buildings come apart, etc.

This was a great looking anime, although not so different from other, cheaper productions. Sure, there weren't as zoom shots on a static picture with speed lines, but there might have been some. The story was pretty intense, and surprisingly few (if any) likable characters.

In conclusion, we aren't really sold on anime in general (still have our faves, of course). But we will watch the Ghost in the Shell anime.


Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fool Me Once

King Arthur: Excalibur Rising (2017) is not the new Guy Ritchie King Arthur movie. It's a stupid copy, with a title designed to trick you. Well it tricked me. And since the Ritchie movie (KA: Legend of the Sword) is supposed to be bad, I didn't notice the deception until it was over.

There isn't even any King Arthur in this movie! They call him Arth-Yr, and he gets killed right off. The rest of the movie is about his bastard son (Adam Byard) who didn't know who his father was - and I don't think we find out who his mother was. But when some watery tart starts distributing cutlery, you know who gets picked.

His opponents are Mordred and Morgana (Nicola Stuart-Hill), who have some sort of virgin sacrifice running gag. Just to be fair, I kind of liked Stuart-Hill's look as the witch - a no-makeup Goth look, very plain and sort of practical-scary.

So, crappy movie, and not in fun way. Now I don't even want to see the Guy Ritchie.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Shell Game

Even though we lived in Japan for 2-3 years, I'll admit we aren't as up on manga/anime as some. So, we wound up watching the live Ghost in the Shell (2017) without having read the manga, seen the anime or even the TV show. So, sue us.

It famously stars Scarlett Johansson as Major, a cyborg with no memory of her life before she had her body replaced by mechanics. She lives in a futuristic city of skyscrapers and giant holographic billboards (often huge grandmother types, giving the city a homey feel). She works in a militarized police unit under Beat Takeshi (Zatoichi, Johnny Mnemonic). Her fighting style is to strip to her shell (no skin, she's a cyborg) and leap off the nearest tall building. She lands fully camouflaged and firing.

In the first fight, she is up against robot geishas who have had their minds taken over by hackers - cyberterrorists. This will be the major conflict in the story, but it's really about Major's past. Who was she before her body, and even her brain, were rebuilt?

Of course, there was a bit of a scandal (kerfuffle, really) about casting Johansson in an Asian role. Now, since all SF movies are required to star Scarlett Johansson, this is just silly. Besides, we always felt that manga character designs tend to look vaguely Euro, and Johansson seems to pull off a very anime style of movement, somehow. Besides, she is a complete rebuild. Who knows what she looked like before she got her shell.

When the movie reveals that, it does it with a good deal more sensitivity then we expected. The whole cyborg-human identity crisis story line is done well - it doesn't hit you over the head, but isn't obscure or hard to follow. But that's not the best part.

The best part is visual. This is pure eye candy. It pays homage to Bladerunner, or at least shares influences. Very cyberpunk, very lovely.

Monday, August 28, 2017

K.C. Moan

I had never heard of Kansas City (1996) until Rod Heath mentioned it in relation to Malick's Song to Song. Late-period Malick doesn't seem too interesting to me, but the idea of Robert Altman doing a movie set in Jazz-era KC does.

It starts with tough cookie Jennifer Jason Leigh kidnapping laudanum-addicted Miranda Richardson. Although this movie isn't as dense and elliptical as some Altman films, it takes a while to get to the reason: Leigh's punk boyfriend Dermot Mulroney tried to rob a gambler friend of top black gangster and nightclub owner Seldom Seen (Harry Belafonte). Leigh needs Richardson's politician husband (Michael Murphy) to use his connections to get her Johnny (Dermot) free.

Adding flavor is Leigh's sister, Brooke Smith, also married to a Johnny, Steve Buscimi as a corrupt Democratic ward heeler. Then there's the pregnant black girl that the KC Women's Club is supposed to be sponsoring. But she falls in with a jazz-mad boy (Albert J. Burnes as a young Charlie Parker), who takes her to Seldom Seen's club to hear some hot jazz.

And that's the big draw in the movie - the live jazz soundtrack, performed live by the real deal: Joshua Redman, Fathead Newman, Don Byron, Cyrus Chestnut, Ron Carter, and a bunch of others. It ends with a lovely bass duet, Ron Carter and Christian McBride, who backed up Diana Krall in the Elvis Costello Spectacle series. Great for jazz fans.

The non-jazz parts are fun too - Belafonte's gangster boss seems to be drawn from Brando's godfather - all whispery and menacing. He's even got the mustache. Leigh's tough cookie is very period. She's called Blondie, even though she's a brunette with very short hair - turns out she burned her hair off trying to bleach it out like Jean Harlow's (another K.C. alumna).

But Miranda Richardson's very stoned society wife, nipping on the laudanum bottle, is the real star. I don't know if that's a hard role to play (even with accents), but it was effective and funny. Fun for fans of jazz, laudanum, and/or Altman.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Furiouser and Furiouser

The Fate of the Furious (2017) is the eighth entry into this silly car movie franchise. We watched the heck out of it. It may or may not be good. It's another entry in the F&F series and that's that.

It starts out in Cuba, with some street racing - Vin Diesel wins in reverse gear with his engine on fire. I don't think gear ratios work like that. Hell, cars don't work like that. If a car movie franchise doesn't care about how cars work, what can you say?

Diesel meets mystery woman Charlize Theron as master hacker Cipher, who shows him (but not us) a piece of blackmail and gets him to betray his team. Dwayne Johnson is sent out to retrieve a McGuffin in Russia, but first, he has to finish coaching his daughter's soccer game. This is maybe my favorite scene, with the Rock bringing all his intensity to a kid's game. He leads the girls in a magnificent haka - Johnson's Pacific ancestry is perfect for this Maori war-dance. It's both silly and develops Johnson's character.

So, Diesel takes off with the McGuffin, an EMP generator. Funny, we've been seeing this gizmo everywhere, from Arrow to Agents of SHIELD to here. I blame rightwing radio for hyping the threat. Johnson takes the fall for the failed heist and goes to prison, which is fun and the gang busts him out.

Theron needs this as part of a plot to get the next McGuffin, then the next, and so on until she - dare I say it? - rules the world! The final step is a Russian nuclear-armed submarine - didn't we just see that in Agents of SHIELD? Just part of the zeitgeist, I guess. That leads to, you guessed it, cars chasing subs under the ice.

I should mention some of the rest of the team, along with Diesel and the Rock. Michelle Rodriguez never gives up on Diesel, and doesn't have much to do. Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson are around mostly for comic relief. Gal Gadot has gotten too big to be part of this team. And the Shaw Bros., Jason Statham and Luke Evans are brought back by their deliciously cockney mother, Helen Mirren. (Didn't Luke Evans get killed, which is what drew his brother into the series? Oh well.)

This was fun, but it's pretty overstuffed and somewhat familiar. The whole series is getting that way. We still enjoy every entry, but maybe they could stop trying to top themselves every time. Do a small sidequest, like Tokyo Drift.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bewitched, Bothered and Beguiled

Now that Sophia Coppola is doing a remake, we figured we should watch The Beguiled (1971), Don Siegel's Civil War Gothic, starring Clint Eastwood.

A little girl picking mushrooms in the woods comes across a wounded Union soldier (Clint Eastwood) during the Civil War. To keep her quiet while the Confederates ride by, he kisses her, although she is only 12. That's the kind of heel he is.

She takes him back to the Southern girls' school she is attending. It is lead by headmistress Geraldine Page and her top teacher Elizabeth Hartman, and full of impressionable young girls and a more hard-headed slave, Mae Mercer. All are staunch Confederates, but if they turn him over to the patrols with his wounded leg, he will die in Andersonville. So they keep him quiet and try to heal him. Also, it's nice to have a man around the house. And he tells such pretty lies.

The movie is mainly a quiet psychological drama, as Eastwood first tries to stay alive and free, then tries to seduce one or all of the girls and teachers (and the slave, who isn't too impressed by this soldier theoretically fighting to free her). He is a master manipulator, the women are weak or strong, but all naive. Who will win, who will survive?

In fact, "drama" undersells it - this is almost a horror movie. So, "Gothic". Eastwood is very good in his role. It's not quite against type, since he's always a kind of anti-hero, but he is quite hateful. Geraldine Page is very good in an understated way - I almost feel that we expect excellence from her, so we don't quite appreciate it as much. All the girls are good, which isn't maybe what you'd expect from he-man Don Siegel.

Best role goes to the turtle of course. I wonder if he did his own stunts.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Scary Monster, Super Creeps

Colossal (2017) is a different kind of movie - it's not really a drama or a comedy, although it has a lot of both. It isn't a monster movie or a horror film, except kind of. The closest thing I can think of is Get Out (but that isn't very close either).

It stars Anne Hathaway as a drunk party girl in New York. She comes home one morning drunk and her British boyfriend (Dan Stevens) throws her out. The next scene finds her in some suburb, getting out of a taxi with a few boxes and going into her parent's house. They are away somewhere unspecified, and the whole place is empty and unfurnished.

When she's walking back from a store with an air mattress, she runs into an grade school friend, Jason Sudeikis, who gives her a ride to the bar he inherited from his father. Sudeikis seems pretty different from the New York crowd she used to hang with - he's a beard and flannel shirt type. But his bar is kind of a cozy little dump, so she has a few beers with him and his friends, and stumbles home in the morning to pass out on the floor.

She wakes up to a phone call from a friend about a disaster in Korea. A giant monster appeared in Seoul, stomped around crushing buildings and people and disappeared. To skip ahead a bit, Hathaway finally realizes that the monster appears when she drunkenly stumbles through a particular playground at a particular time. The monster is her.

Later, a giant robot appears as well, and -SPOILER- it is Sudeikis.

The odd thing about this is how it plays out - it is kind of like a dark comedy, except it isn't at all funny. It is kind of a horror movie, but everyone is numb from booze, and it is all happening so far away. Maybe it's a surrealist drama?

In fact, maybe it's just a plain addiction drama with a single substitution. Say that Hathaway had discovered that she had driven home drunk and killed someone. Same exact story, but normal, banal even. So they just took a common story and turned it a little sideways. They do this in a couple of ways. For example, you know those rom-coms where the girl has to return to her small town from the big city, and falls in love with the simple, honest, pickup-driving guy from her past? Yeah, not here. Sudeikis is a genuine small-town loser and creep. Maybe that's why this movie isn't funny - it's an anti-rom-com.


Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You Drive Me Ape You Big Gorilla

I don't know what we expected from Kong: Skull Island (2017). All giant ape movies are crap, except the original King Kong, right? I guess I can't say, we've never seen any. This one was great, though.

First, it shows you the monster right away. Two pilots crash on the island in WWII, one American, one Japanese. As they carry on fighting at the edge of a cliff, Kong rises up - and he's huuuge! The soldiers could fit into his nostrils. Great opening.

Fast forward to 1973. John Goodman and Corey Hawkins are begging for funding to explore a previously unknown skull-shaped island. They get the funding, and a military escort, a helicopter squadron being demobilized from Vietnam, lead by Samuel L. Jackson. He's just glad they don't have to go home and get to keep playing with the boom toys.

They also pick up Tom Hiddleston as a jungle guide (we love Mr. Loki, but this is not his best role - a bit too generic) and Brie Larson as an award-winning photojournalist and pacifist. then they head to the island.

Along with a lot of cool modern action, there is a lot of beautiful (CGI?) scenery with helicopters floating through the air like dragonflies, sometimes with huge explosions, and/or a classic rock soundtrack. Yes, this is King Kong meets Apocalypse Now. When I watched it, I thought John Goodman was playing his showman character from Matinee - but he didn't bring the ape back to Broadway. Instead, I now realize that he was "doing" John Milius, writer and muse for Apocalypse Now. A quick check on the Google reveals that he has been doing Milius at least since Walter Sobchek in the Big Lebowski. Also, Hiddleston's character is named Conrad (not Joseph, though).

I'm skipping all the spoilery stuff - I think it's enough to say that this is both exciting and gorgeous, as well as full of sly references to other movies (not just Apocalypse Now). There's also a great role for John C. Reilly, comic relief but also the movie's heart and soul. Some of his stuff is clearly ad-libbed, and you wonder how the rest of the cast kept straight faces. There's also a tremendous body count, including some gruesome and funny kills.

What more do you want?

Added: I seem to have forgotten the great monster battles in this movie: Megarilla vs. Tentaculon! Apeapotamus vs. Gatorsaurus! Good stuff.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Manic Red-Haired Dream Girl

Paprika (2006) is a pretty kooky anime. It's got a complicated story and psychedelic visual style. Wait, that's a normal anime.

A red-headed girl called Paprika is inside police detective Konakawa's dreams, helping him with his anxiety dreams. It transpires (although it is never quite explained) that Paprika is the dream avatar of Dr. Chiba, a dark-haired, severe, Nagel-type beauty. Along with fat man-boy Tokita and gnomish Dr. Shima, she invented the device that lets them enter people's dreams. Two problems: it's use is illegal (so her therapy sessions with the detective aren't sanctioned) and 2. The device has been stolen.

As Dr. Shima explains it, this miniaturized device, the "DC Mini" can control the dreams of anyone, anywhere at anytime, and then ice cream dolls, the refrigerators and microwaves join the parade, and ... He goes a little mad in the middle of the discussion and jumps out a window. It seems that he has been DC Mini-ed.

The story is about how this team finds who stole the DC Mini and gets it back before the whole world goes mad in their dreams. But what it's really about is crazy dream sequences of Japanese dolls, kitchen appliances, schoolgirls with cellphone heads, frogs and more in wild profusion.

The story in the "real world" (which can be a little vague) is a bit confused, or just plain weak. The detective's dream plot doesn't really get resolved. Dr. Chiba is alternately scornful and loving to "I eat everything" Tokita-san, for reasons that aren't clear to me (although Japanese anime fans might get it). In the finale, Dr. Chiba/Paprika conquers with a technique that clearly should have been Tokita's. Oh well, you don't watch anime for the story. At least we don't.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

It's the Worst

Now that a little time has passed, I think we can all agree that La La Land (2016) is a quite a good movie, even if not the resurrection of the Hollywood musical that some were hyping it as. We went in with very modest expections, and they were handily exceeded.

It starts with a lovely little dance number - in an LA traffic jam. i had expected Marcello Mastroianni to float up out of one of the cars, but no. However, Ryan Gosling does flip off Emma Stone when traffic starts moving.

Stone is an aspiring actress - a good one if her auditions are any thing to go by. Not a very lucky one, though - she messes up her blouse, someone walks into the room just when she's getting going, etc.
Gosling is a jazz pianist - also very good, but no one will let him play it like it is. Hired to play hokey Christmas tunes at a restaurant, he starts improvising just as Stone walks in. He gets fired, so when she tries to compliment him, he flips her off again, This meet-cute thing isn't really working out.

Finally, at a "typical Hollywood party", she sees him playing keytar with a dire 80s cover band. So they spend a few quiet minutes watching the lights of LA, on the same street that party in The Nice Guys took place. They joke around, disparage the scenery ("I've seen better") and have a little dance number. Before long they are living together.

But this is Hollywood, so there's no happy ending in the middle of the movie. Gosling feels he needs to bring in some money, so he puts his dreams of opening a jazz club on hold to play in his friend John Legend's funk-fusion band. This makes Stone happy at first, because she likes good music more than jazz, but she can see that it is eating at his soul. Because he plays his solo with one hand in his pocket and a wry half-smile on his face. Meanwhile, he convinces her to pursue her dream of writing and starring in a one-woman show, but then he misses her opening night. Oh, these crazy kids.

You're probably thinking, skip the spoilers, who cares about the story, how's the music? The dancing? In my opinion, the music is great. Gosling's jazz is kind of soft bop, not threatening but not pablum. I guess they were trying for Michel Legrand, and they got it. The songs are good, although only Stone's Fools Who Dream really moved me.

The dancing isn't great, I won't lie, especially when compared to Kelly, Astaire, Charisse, Rogers, etc. But take the Griffin Observatory scene - they go to the Planetarium and dance up into the stars. Astaire and Vera Ellen have a similar number in Belle of New York, and, in my opinion, it wasn't that great. So you could say the dance numbers were no worse than some of Astaire's worst. I guess that's not too shabby.

I had a little problem with Gosling's character - he's a snob. I can see hating to play Christmas carols and 80s hits, but John Legend's band was hot. He comes off as sullen and whiny, even though he tries to take it with a joke and (wry half-) smile. Also, Gosling has the face of a sharpie - he looks shifty to me. Hard to take him seriously (even though the jazz is good).

Stone is another story - she seems to be a serious, dedicated actress, giving her all in commercials and terrible "message" TV movies. Also, she is gorgeous, in a somehow French New Wave way - very Jacques Demy.

In the end, there is a fantasy ballet, and dreams come true for both of them - but separately. This is supposed to be very adult and somewhat fresh, but we've seen it before. Let me think: Oh yeah, Crazy Heart, another "musical".

In conclusion, neither as bad nor as good as the hype. Pretty solid, but I've seen better.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Wheels of Fury

Because it's a John Carpenter, and because it's a horror movie, we watched Christine (1983) - Also, because Ms. Spenser is a muscle car nut.

It stars Keith Gordon as a nerdy high-school senior, and his friend, John Stockwell, a popular jock. Stockwell sets his sights on Alexandra Paul, but Gordon falls in love with Christine, a 58 Plymouth Fury with a frightful history. We see it first on the assembly line, where it rips one man's arm off and kills another, while it's radio played songs from the 50s (because it was the 50s).

When Gordon gets it, it barely runs. He drives it over to crusty old Robert Prosky's garage to get it into shape. First he replaces the windshield wipers. Then he shows up to school with Christine in cherry (red) condition. Also, now he is dating Paul, and Stockwell is clobbered on the football field, winding up nearly paralyzed. Also, the guys that bullied Gordon are being killed by a car - Christine with blacked out windows maybe driven by psycho-Gordon, maybe not.

Police detective Harry Dean Stanton checks up on Gordon and Christine, but he can't find the kind of scrapes and dents on her that the murders must have caused. That's because Christine is self-repairing when in Demon Car mode. We get to see some of this in some truly special effects Cheepnis - mainly scenes of body panels crumpling run backwards.

All in all, I kind of liked this. Like a lot of Carpenter's movies, it kind of seems like a teen comedy for a lot of the run. Christine was kind of cool - the 58 Fury is a nice car. The scene where -SPOILER- it attacks while totally engulfed in flames is pretty cool. But you have to wonder, why don't the bullies getting chased by Christine just step off the road? No, they have to run away straight down the center line - oh well.

Ms. Spenser agrees about the car and the flames, but basically couldn't take the Cheepnis and like of likable characters. In fact, she may be done with John Carpenter. It's too bad, but I think we've watched pretty much all of his movies, so that's that.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Other Creed

What does it say about us that we loved Assassin's Creed (2016)? I mean, Warcraft is one thing, but this? Sure, and I'll tell you why.

It starts in Spain, 1492, the Reconquista. A new Assassin gets his finger chopped off so that he can use a special blade (this seems inconvenient, but I'm not a master assassin). His job will be to protect the Sultan of Granada from the Templars, who want the MacGuffin that he has. Yes, in this movie, the Muslim (originally) Assassins are the good guys, the Christians are the bad guys. Plus, it's got Assassins - real old-fashioned "Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted", Old-Man-of-the-Mountain Assassins. Cool.

In present day Mexico (?), a boy finds his mother dead, while Patsy Cline sings "Crazy" on the radio. His father appears, wearing a hood and tells him to "live in the shadows". Years later, we meet him again in prison (Michael Fassbender), being executed by lethal injection - a tense and terrifying scene. But beautiful Marion Cotillard wakes him up in a lovely medical facility. "Is this heaven?", he asks?

This is an old Assassin trick - drug a follower with hashish, take him to a beautiful spot full of food, women, and booze, tell him he's in heaven and he can get back if he dies in their service. At least that's the story Marco Polo told about them. But that isn't the game Cotillard is up to.

She and her father (Jeremy Irons) are Templars, and Fassbender is the descendant of the Assassin from 1492. They have a gizmo that will regress him back in time - he will find out what his ancestor did with the MacGuffin, and then they can - dare we say it? Rule the world!

That's a lot of set up, but it is a 2-hour movie. It isn't all exposition either - there's lots of running, jumping, and fighting. I know nothing about the game this movie is (loosely?) based on, but I understand that leaps from high places have some importance. So we get several of those.

Plus the whole thing is beautifully photographed. It looks like everything was shot at Golden Hour, through clouds of dust, haze, or smoke. It was almost a failing: you know how some movies are shot so dark, you can't tell what's going on? This one's so hazy you sometimes get the same effect.

On some level, I guess I can admit this isn't a great movie - it's a silly action movie based on a computer game. But it's so much better than it needed to be. It's got an oddball story line, some great actors, and fine cinematography along with some exciting action. It's got everything we like.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Up to Scratch

Do I need to justify watching Undisputed (2002) - the prison boxing movie directed by Walter Hill?

It stars Wesley Snipes, as the undefeated boxing champion of the California prison system. Then World Heavyweight Champion Ving "Iceman" Rhames is convicted of sexual assault and sent to the same prison. At some point they will have to fight. That turns out to be Peter Falk's job. He's a crusty mobster (he's introduced with that title on screen) who has been working with Snipes. He arranges a fight under "London Prize Ring" rules - bare-knuckles, with no rounds, just a 60-second rest period when anyone is knocked down (unless they stay down, then they lose).

Of course, the fight is the best part of the movie. Snipes and Rhames are in great shape and seem to know how to box - and Hill knows how to film it. For the rest, Snipes and Rhames are interesting characters, but by being boring: stoical, controlled and closed off. Rhames shows no remorse for his crime and claims he was set up. The movie doesn't try to convince you one way or another. Snipes gets sent to solitary and does his time there building toothpick models. They are strong men with nothing to prove, except that they will step up to the line when the bell rings and do his best.

Snipes and Rhames get some good support from, among others, Wes Studi (our favorite Native American actor) and Fisher Stevens, as Snipes' toady, Ratbag. Falk could have walked away with the movie, but doesn't get the screen time, so that's ok. All in all, a fun tough-guy action movie.

This probably wouldn't be enough to get us to watch, but it's the first in a series - Undisputed 2 stars Black Dynamite himself, Michael Jai White. The director is Israel Florentine and co-stars Scott Adkins, a pair who are famous for direct-to-video actioners. So we're just watching this to get to the sequels.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Double Bill Travesty

If you've never heard of Charles Busch, he's a transvestite actor and playwright. I heard about him a long time ago (on NPR of course), and thought he sounded fabulous. Too bad none of his plays were on film.

Then Netflix recommended Psycho Beach Party (2000). It's a Gidget take-off, based on a Busch play. It stars Lauren Ambrose as a teenage girl who just isn't finding romance like her classmates. We meet her at a drive-in movie, watching Attack of the Three-Headed Pizza Waitress with a nerdy girlfriend. Danni Wheeler. She's fascinated by the psychological tale of female empowerment, by Ambrose is just bummed that she doesn't have a boyfriend. Then... one of the teens is brutally murdered!

The girls go to the beach with their slutty friend so she can meet surfers, and that's where Ambrose finds her passion - surfing. She is determined to be the first chick surfer on Malibu - she becomes "Chicklet".

Yes, it's a play on "Gidget". Ms. Spenser had to explain "Star Cat" (Moondoggie), but I got that "Kanaka" was the Big Kahuna. So, it's a play on Gidget. But this Chicklet has another side, another personality that's harsh, brutal, and profane. And people are getting murdered, so you have to wonder. Even police officerette Charles Busch is concerned. When the star of Three-Headed Pizza Waitress shows up on the beach incognito, anything could happen.

Not only is this a hilarious parody, it is weirdly affecting - we found ourselves caring for the characters, not just laughing at them. It's also just a fun film, with bad back-projection surfing, go-go dancing, and a musical appearance by Los Straitjackets.

It was so much fun that we had to queue up Die, Mommie, Die! (2003), Busch's version of Mommie Dearest. He stars as retired chanteuse Angela Arden, first seen putting flowers on the grave of her sister, accompanied by her gigolo companion, Jason Priestly. She returns to her Hollywood mansion, to her stuck-up, daddy-loving daughter, her gorgeous, druggy, long-haired son, and her fat, old, Jewish, constipated (but I repeat myself) agent and producer husband (Philip Baker Hall). Oh, and I forgot their mousy maid, Bootsy.

That's the setup, now the crime, as Busch slips something into her husband's hot milk. When he won't drink that, she applies it to his suppository, and makes sure he takes that.

I actually don't know how much Mommie Dearest there is in this one (haven't seen it). There's a bit of Valley of the Dolls, some of Aeschylus' Agamemnon,  even a touch of Sunset Blvd. It all ends with a glorious acid trip, and the answer to a mystery that you either guessed right away, or never noticed in the first place.

In summarizing the plots, I've left out most of the outrageous double entendres, tropes, and jokes. But there's a ton of them. I don't know how many more of his plays will be made into movies, but it should be all of them.

In conclusion, isn't it just German for "The, Mommie, The"?

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Samurai Double Bill

Back in the late 70s, we watched a LOT of Japanese films, mostly samurai movies. Roughly 2-3 double bills a week, for 2-3 years. But there are still a lot of samurai films we haven't seen. We caught up with Harakiri (1962), directed by Masaki Kobayashi (best known here for Kwaidan). It was so good that we queued up Samurai Rebellion (1967) right away.

Harakiri starts with an older masterless samurai (ronin) approaching a mansion. He requests the use of their front entrance so that he can commit honorable seppuku. When the clan leader is informed of this, he says, "Again?"

You see, masterless samurai have been pulling this scam where they ask for a place to kill themselves, but they really just want a handout to move along. So they invite this ronin (Tetsuya Nakadai) to hear how they made sure the last guy who tried this really did commit harakiri. It is not a pretty story. Since they have a little time, he tells them his story.

This is a ~2 hour movie, and a lot of it is told in flashbacks, the story of the two ronin and how they are related, and why they want to die. It has to do with Nakadai's son, his daughter-in-law, and their baby daughter. And it is a tale of vengeance, honor, and violence. The kind of honor that makes a samurai, even without a master, value his sword more than his life, and maybe more than his family.

Note that "seppuku" and "harakiri" refer to the same kind of ritual self-disemboweling. But "harakiri" means "belly-cutting", and sounds low and vulgar, not elevated and noble.

Samurai Rebellion stars Toshiro Mifune, with Nakadai-san in a much smaller (though critical) role. Mifune is samurai with a shrewish wife and a good son. One day, the clan steward comes to say that the lord is getting rid of his mistress after she bore him a son, and Mifune's son has to marry her. This is very humiliating, but they have to follow orders. She turns out to be very sweet, and gives birth to a daughter that is much beloved. So, once more, it is the story of a man, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

But then the lord decides he wants his mistress back. Will Mifune bow to the demands of the samurai code and obey? Or will he rebel? Let's check the title...

These movies have a strong family feel. They are both slow and stately, but build to an exciting climax, They have that father-daughter-in-law-granddaughter theme, used for the same purpose: to stand for the tension between masculine honor and feminine love. They both do exposition having a character narrate a flashback, or even a flashback within a flashback. They share that exquisite sense of the proper with so many other Japanese period pieces - raked gravel courtyards, men in formal kimono stepping through halls lined with paper doors, and the particular way that men make a crease behind their right knee in their hakama pants when they kneel.

If that's the kind of thing you like, you'll love these.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Elevated Discourse

Elevator to the Gallows (1957) is a nice French noir from Louis Malle. It goes like this:

Maurice Ronet is setting something up over the phone with Jeanne Moreau. He is an ex-paratrooper who works for Moreau's husband Jean Wall, and they have a plan to kill him. Later that day, when everyone in the business has gone home except boss, the receptionist, and a security guard, he tells them he is not to be disturbed, goes out on his balcony, climbs up a storey, and kills wall, setting it up as a suicide. He then climbs down to his office, and heads home with the last few workers as his alibi.

But when he gets back to his car, he notices that he forgot the rope he used to climb up. But while he's taking the elevator up to his office, the security guard cuts the power and locks up. He's stuck in the elevator.

Meanwhile, a girl and her hood boyfriend steal his car, go for a joy ride, and find the gun in the glovebox. Also meanwhile, Moreau is waiting for Ronet at their rendezvous and beginning to get desperate. She leaves the cafe and begins searching Paris for her lover.

Although this is a tense thriller, it has a lot of odd digressions - the juvenile delinquents joy-riding, and Moreau haunting late-night Paris. The Moreau sections seem especially peculiar to me, in that they add basically nothing to the story. She goes from bar to pool hall. looking in windows, getting rained on, getting propositioned, despairing more and more. Since it is Jeanne Moreau, it is easy to understand why Malle wants to film her: She is beautiful. Some of the other threads take a little time to pay off.

In conclusion, Miles Davis does a sweet improvised soundtrack, with a nice band including drummer Kenny Clarke, who solos over a few scenes.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bucks

A while ago, I got the urge to see some Goldie Hawn movies - and one of them, $ (Dollars) (1971), sort of surfaced in the queue, so...

Warren Beatty is a security consultant in Hamburg Germany, upgrading a bank there to make it burglar-proof. Goldie Hawn is a fancy call-girl, with several bad men as her client. Goldie and several of her men all bank at the same bank, using the safety deposit boxes - people with illegal revenue streams may not want to use regular deposit accounts.

So, guess what? Hawn and Beatty are working together, with a plan to rob the bank, transferring the money in the bad guys' boxes to Hawn's. The crooks can't complain to the police, so the bank won't even realize they've been robbed. But the crooks figure it out, and the last 20 minutes of the movie are a long, gruelling chase scene.

This is a comedy heist film, but it isn't entirely funny. Hawn gets to act a little goofy, and then has a sweet monologue about what a loser she feels like. Beatty, on the other hand, is super-serious, the kin of guy you'd trust to secure your bank, or rob one. I feel like a lot of this movie just gets by with putting the charismatic leads in front of the camera.

They get some strong support, especially from Gert Frobe, retired from THRUSH and now the bank president. He plays his part very sweetly, like Cuddles Sakall. Arthur Brauss as a stone-cold killer and drug dealer, on the other hand, is quite chilling. Surprisingly, the champagne bottle full of pure LSD he has plays almost no part in the film - Chekov's acid is just a misfire.

I can't say we loved this, but it was fun (a little long at 2 hours plus). It also has a jaunty little soundtrack, courtesy of Quincy Jones, including a late period funky Little Richard number.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead and Buried

Our horror double feature for this week was Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death/The Premature Burial (1964/1962).

Masque starts with Prince Vincent Price riding into a village, making trouble for the villagers. He is about to beat or kill peasant girl Jane Asher's fiance and father, and maybe toy with her a little. When he discovers that the Red Death has just killed someone in the town, he changes his plans: He drags the girl, her boyfriend, and her dad to the castle and declares a plague party. He invites all the local dignitaries to hide out in the castle until the plague blows over.

Things at the castle are pretty kinky: Asher is bathed in the Price's wife's bedroom (Hazel Court). There is a dwarf and his midget ballerina wife, who people keep drooling over (since she's played by a child, this is extra skeezy). There is a good deal of wallowing, and some Satan worship.

This is a pretty great Corman/Price combo. Price is at the top of his game, reciting the Poe-inspired dialog with gusto. Jane Asher (Paul McCartney's girlfriend and Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon's sister) does a good job as the innocent ingenue - although she doesn't really come across as "peasant" - maybe she's petty bourgeoisie.

But the best part is the movie's atmosphere - the decadence and rot, the colors and the sickness. It proves that Corman wasn't a terrible director (just cheap) - it doesn't hurt that Nic Roeg was his cinematographer.

Burial is a bit different. For one thing, it stars Ray Milland instead of Vincent Price. He plays a wealthy painter with a morbid fear of being buried alive. He has catatonia, you see, and appears to be dead when a fit is upon him (see also Isle of the Dead). His ex-fiancee, Hazel Court again, shows up at the mansion to try to win him back - he broke up with her because he didn't want to subject her to his neuroses. But while she is coaxing him back to the world of the living, he is building an amazing easy-out crypt, with at least ten ways to escape.

But what if they go on a honeymoon? Somewhere away from the crypt? And he has a catatonic episode? Will his bride be able to save him from... Title of Film!?!? Of course, Milland's firendship with a grave robbing doctor (Alan Napier, Alfred the Butler) keeps him a little on edge - a little recreational grave robbing is fine, but you should let the comic/sinister grave diggers get to you. Even if one of them is Dick Miller.

This one rests mostly on Milland's desperation and sweaty panic. Boy is he good at it. The story is a good one too, but I wasn't entirely pulled in by the sets. The "sticks on a soundstage with dry ice" standing in for a spooky forest was right out of The Undead. Come to think of it, the grave diggers kind of reminded me of mad Digger Smolken.

But, hey, The Undead is actually a pretty good movie, and so are these.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

So Help Me Hanna

I watched Hanna (2011) on a plane the first time, and thought Ms. Spenser might enjoy it. I was wrong, but...

It starts with Saoirse Ronan out in the snow, hunting a reindeer with a homemade bow. It turns out that her father (Eric Bana) has been raising her alone in the Finnish outback to become a super-soldier assassin. When she is ready, she can let the CIA know where she is, and kill the agent that killed her mother and wants her dead (Cate Blanchett).

So, Ronan is soon picked up and brought into the belly of the intelligence beast, an underground high-security cell. In a spasm of ultra-violence and cool filming, she escapes. To give you an idea of the coolness, there are people running through a wind tunnel, because it makes a great geometric background. I think this is the point where we get a close-up of Ronan's face spinning around, Batman style. I like this kind of film stylization - or craziness, depending on how you think of it.

Any way, she breaks out and finds that she's in the middle of the Moroccan desert. She scoops up a caftan from a laundry line and meets up with some British tourists, and is introduced to the world of ordinary kids. But it can't last because the CIA is still on her tail.

Ronan is amazing in this role - her hair and eyebrows bleached out like a ghost, her mix of mature strength and viciousness and Caspar-Hauser-like innocence of the world, and of course, the way she rocks the caftan. Blanchett is suitably creepy as a buttoned-down CIA agent, with her stiletto heels and perfect make up. We see her at least twice doing her teeth, scrubbing them until they bleed.

Plus this is a cool one-man army story, with the added benefit that the one man is a beautiful young woman. The action isn't non-stop, but it is top notch. Add in some arty filming, and I think you've got a movie.

But Ms. Spenser felt differently. For one thing, the dead reindeer grossed her out right at the start. Then there's the whole super-soldier serum thing - it turns out SPOILER that Hannah is the result of Forbidden Genetic Experiments to make her stronger and more ruthless. In other words, Jason Bourne's little sister. Once this is revealed, the whole thing becomes a comicbook - it's no longer serious, just fantasy. It's pretty much unnecessary as well - she was raised by an unmodified superspy, and he seems to be as badass as her. Before the revelation, she found the movie excessively nasty, after, just a cheat.

I didn't have quite that reaction, but I did notice on closer inspection that the plot had way more holes than necessary. Fortunately that doesn't bother me.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Black Comedy

Get Out (2017) starts with a black man walking through a leafy suburb, worrying about getting Trayvoned. Before he knows it, a man in an iron helmet has grabbed him and stuffed him into a car. Then the real horror starts.

Jordan Peele is a black man living in New York with a white girlfriend (Allison Williams), and they are getting ready to visit her parents in a leafy suburb. He's nervous, his friend LilRel Howery is nervous for him, but Allison just laughs it off. Her parents are cool about race, even though they can be dorks. And the dorkiness is the real scary thing here. Not just potential in-laws, but white, liberal in-laws.

So after a horror start, this quickly becomes a comedy of manners - although I was cringing and hiding my eyes through a lot of it. But don't worry horror fans, it gets plenty scary before the end.

I don't really have much to say about this movie, and not just because I'm not spoilering. (It's Stepford Wives times Black.) In a lot of ways, it's a perfect movie, every detail in place. Peele is black Everyman, neither street nor bougie. Williams seems just right for the white GF, not a siren, not a wannabe, just regular folks. Kind of post-racial. I kind of wanted her to be more of a vamp - or a Jean Seberg gamine, irresistable to the African-American male. But I think casting a "girl next door" was a better choice. Of course, I haven't seen her in Girls, so I may be missing some subtext.

In conclusion, I guess this means we should watch Keanu?

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

No Country for Old Man Logan

When we started watching Logan (2017), we flashed on No Country - all that west Texas desert, but also Dusk to Dawn, especially the TV series. When Logan is crossing the border into Mexico, I was wondering if he was heading for the Twister.

It starts with Logan (Hugh Jackman) passed out drunk in the back of a limo - one that he is driving. It's parked behind a highway filling station, and some gangbangers are stealing the tires. When he complains that they are chipping the chrome off the lugnuts, they start to stomp him. You may be thinking, only 3 or 4 thugs vs the Wolverine - they are in for a world of hurt. And they are, but so is Logan. He is hurting, one of his claws won't extend, and it just isn't fun anymore.

So Logan is driving a hack, hustling money for medicine for Prof X, and dreaming about buying a boat to just sail away from it all. He has Prof X (Patrick Stewart) stashed in Mexico, being looked after by Brain Guy Observer Caliban (Stephen Merchant). Prof is old, and his mind is going. When he has a brainwave, everyone around is paralyzed, unable to breath until he comes out of it. The movie doesn't quite spell it out, but an "incident in Westchester" killed at least 7, probably his mutant students. Also, we keep hearing that there aren't any more mutants around. It's dark days.

A Hispanic woman (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tries to hire Logan to drive her and a little girl to North Dakota. He doesn't like the job, but the money would go to the boat, so... When he goes to pick them up, she's killed by a paramilitary force, and the kid is gone. Back in Mexico, he discovers that the kid has stowed away and the paras are on the trail. That's when we find out about the kid's special Wolveroid powers.

So Logan, Prof X and the kid go on a road trip. This part reminded me a little bit of Midnight Special, a recent indie - two adults who need to get a child with special powers to a place by a date. They stay in a casino hotel and the kid watches Shane with Prof X. They meet up with a decent, salt-of-the-earth black family, and Prof X gets to sleep in a nice bed, and, well, you know how this works out. Not as well as in Shane.

A word about the kid, played by Dafne Keen. She is awesome. Keen, the actress, was actually 11 years old when this was made, and full of everything awesome - attitude, badness, and kickassitivity. She is silent for much of the movie, which just adds to her mystique. If she is the future of the X-Men, good for them.

That future is pretty questionable, because we've seen in Days of Future Past and elsewhere, the future's not what it used to be. But this does seem to be the end of the road for Patrick Stewart as Xavier and Jackman as Wolverine.

This entry in the Marvel Universe was different - full of pain and sadness, aging and finality. There aren't a lot of heroes and villains, since most of the mutants are dead. Nobody wears costumes (except the bad guys, who are in full military drag). It's a serious movie, as well as a comic-book action movie. I don't want this in all of my comic-book movies, but we liked it in this one.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Do You Like Good Music?

Sure, we all do! So check out Stax/Volt Revue: Live in Norway 1967 (1967). This is a great little concert film showing what happens when you get a bunch of great R&B singers together with the greatest backup band and horn section around, and send them to Norway.

It starts with a set for backup band Booker T. and the MGs - Al Jackson on drums, Duck Dunn on bass, Steve Cropper on guitar, Booker T. Jones on Hammon B3, including a super tight "Green Onions". Then, the Mar-Keys come out - two tenors and a trumpet - and treat us to a couple, including "Last Night" - you'd recognize it if you heard it.

The first singer is Arthur Conley, who sings "Sweet Soul Music" - shout outs to the five greatest soul acts in "America" (therefore, the whole world), and two of the five are on the tour. Eddie Floyd is up next, with "Raise Your Hand", not his more famous "Knock on Wood".

Then Sam and Dave come out and tear the place up, from the inexpressibly funky "You Don't Know Like I Know" to "Hold On, I'm Coming". They sweat, shout, growl, dance (we get one shot of the Mar-Keys footwork along with Sam and Dave), and banter with Al Jackson.

Nobody wants to follow Sam and Dave, but if anyone could, it's Otis Redding. He does five numbers, including "Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)" and a cover of the Stones' "Satisfaction".

A must for all music lovers.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Truly, a Great Wall

I watched The Great Wall (2017) because Ms. Spenser was out of town and this was something she didn't care to watch. It worked a lot better than the last time.

It starts with a small band of Europeans trekking to China in the 11th Century, hoping to bring back the explosive black powder. They are attacked by both bandits and monsters, until only two are left, Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal. The next day, they come upon the Great Wall, and are taken captive.

The Wall, in this story, was built to keep out armies and raiders, but also monsters. There is a Nameless Order (great name!) that protects it from these monsters, who attack in swarms. The NO has all kinds of cool tricks, like women with spears rope-dancing down the walls. Although the monsters are CGI, they aren't terrible CGI as I had feared - maybe not great...

So our European heroes are accepted by the NO, mostly because Damon is an expert archer. Now, I believe that it is required in these East-meets-West movies for the Westerner to be a bowman (see The Black Rose with Tyrone Power - my god, Orson Wells was in that!), so this is good. He has also fallen in love with the Jin Tian, the leader of the rope dancers. Meanwhile, his buddy and a westerner who has been stuck in China for a while (Willem Dafoe) are still plotting to get the black powder.

This movie didn't become the blockbuster that the producers hoped for, but I liked it. Director Zhang Yimou didn't get as much of his wild, colorful eye candy in here as I might have liked, but he kept it fun. Now I'm thinking I'll make Ms. Spenser watch it with me.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Snow Wet

Continuing the "wife's away" filmfest, I watched The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016). I didn't really hate Snow White and the Huntsman, though mostly I liked the look, not so much the story. Still, the "sequel" (prequel? shared universe story?) looked like visual fun, and I knew Ms. Spenser would never stand for it, so I queued it up.

This one focuses on the sister of the Evil Queen Charlize Theron from the last movie (doing a better job of being sinister than last time, I thought). Queen Emily Blunt was disappointed in love, and discovered that she had ice powers. Goaded by evil sister, she founds her own kingdom in the North, where Love is forbidden and all children are orphaned and raised as warriors.

Two of these children, Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain, fall in love and secretly plan to run away from this cold and sterile land. Blunt stops them and convinces each that the other has been untrue (or dead). Then, after the events of the first movie, with Theron dead, Blunt decides to go after the Magic Mirror. Of course, Hemsworth has to stop her.

He's aided by a couple of dwarves (or dwarfs, as my spllechecker prefers), Nick Frost and Rob Drydon, and some she-dwarves, Alexandra Roach and Sheridan Smith help out and provide comic relief - not badly, I thought.

But, really, it wasn't very good. It had a new director, first-timer Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, and lacked the visual charm of the first movie. It was mostly forgettable and soggy, even with all the ice imagery. Not planning to rewatch with Ms. Spenser. Her judgment here was correct.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Bag of Donuts

I wait so long to watch My Cousin Vinny (1992), so I've got to watch it now, why? I don't know what gave me the idea, I just went with it.

It's that old story - two kids (Mitchell Whitfield and Ralph Macchio) from the big city get in trouble in a small Alabama town, where they don't cotton to city folk. But Macchio has a cousin who's a lawyer, Vinnie "Bag of Donuts" Gambini (Joe Pesci) who shows up with his long-time fiancee Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). The catch is that Pesci has never argued a trial in court. He mostly does personal injury, and gets settlements.

Also, he sticks out like a sore thumb in Hicksville, even if he is wearing cowboy boots. His lack of courtroom decorum and a conservative suit disturbs Judge Fred Wynne (Herman Munster, in his last picture). And so on, you get the picture.

This is an old-fashioned writer's comedy, with finely crafted scenes, without a lot of punchlines. Also, there's a lot of improvising going on (I assume), with Pesci and Tomei batting insults and endearments back and forth in deep Brooklynese. These are like music, and I assume the reason that Tomei won an Oscar.

In the end, we enjoyed this, but not a whole lot. It was "nice" - the hicks weren't monsters and found ways to work with and respect the city folk. Tomei's testimony cracks the case wide open. The kids got off without too much trouble, and had a pretty mellow time in prison. Pesci and Tomei look like they will get married, since he promised to marry her after he won his first case. I don't know if that's a happy ending, because he's about twice her age, and not pleasing to the eye. Can't have everything.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Phantasmic Breastmaster

We didn't intend on having a Don Coscarelli fest, but Phantasm II (1988) just bubbled up in our queue, so we went with it.

You may remember how the first one ended (SPOILER)  - it was all a dream the kid had. But just as he's about to leave with Reggie Bannister, the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) and the dwarves grab him. This one opens 5-7 years later. The kid is now a young man, James Le Gros, in a mental institution. He has been having visions of a cute girl, Paula Irvine, who needs his help. She has been having visions of him and the Tall Man, and seeing her relatives die off one by one. Le Gros claims to be cured of his "delusions" and is released to Reggie.

Reggie still thinks the story about the Tall Man is crazy, but a disaster quickly changes his mind. Soon they are in the Hemi 'Cuda (Ms. Spenser's favorite character) and heading down to Home Depot to steal enough ordinance to deal with any dwarves Angus Scrimm can throw at them. Le Gros goes with a welding torch flame thrower, but Reggie has the best tool: two double-barreled shotguns, hose-clamped together, and sawed off with an angle-grinder - at  a 45-degree angle.

So they travel the state, looking for the Tall Man. Everywhere they go, they find deserted towns with shuttered storefronts, which means he has been there, or maybe Reaganomics. Along the way they pick up a cute girl named Alchemy, who Le Gros has seen dead in a vision. Even creepier, she seems to be into Reggie, a balding, middle-aged, ex-ice cream salesman.

They get to Irvine's town, and the four of them go after the Tall Man, with mixed results. We still have the atmosphere of horror, the dwarves, the dimensional gateway, and the flying balls. There's the mix of dream, vision, and reality. But best of all, the low-rent camaraderie between the boys and their new girlfriends. I just like hanging out with Coscarelli's characters.

Believe it or not, I've never seen The Beastmaster (1982) - I didn't have cable in the 90s. It's a fun sword-and-sorcery about an evil wizard (Rip Torn) who steals a queen's unborn son and puts him into a cow's womb, to be killed later. He is saved by a passing woodsman and grows up to be a great warrior.

Now for a minute, I thought this was a Buddhist allegory - isn't there a myth that the Buddha was threatened by his uncle, and so was magically borne, not by his mother, but by an elephant? Maybe not, but this kid doesn't grow up to discover disease, poverty, and death and embark on a life of austerities followed by enlightenment. Instead he becomes Marc Singer, a very fit young man who wears very little clothing. Ms. Spenser liked this a lot - seriously, because he is fit, strong, but not pumped up in a showy way. Functional and strong.

He also communes a set of animals, including an eagle, a tiger painted black (?!?) and a pair of weasels. He does less with this power than you might expect, although it does come in handy.

We love a good sword-and-sorcery story, so of course we loved this. All the nekkid breastses and scantily clad men and women make it fun (and give it my favored nickname Breastmasher). Like so many of Don Coscarelli's movies, it feels like it could have ended about five times before the real ending, but so what, that's just more fun for us.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Apocalypse Nu?

I've heard that the latest episode in the series is pretty good, but we just watched the second one: Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004). Is this one of those things like Star Trek, where only the even episodes are good? Except in this case, it's the odd ones?

If you recall, when the zombie virus got loose in the Umbrella Corp. underground lab, Mila Jovovich barely escaped with her life - and an immunity to the virus. She wakes up in a hospital, and when she ventures out, she realizes that the zombie plague has gotten out with her. It is starting to run wild in Raccoon City.

Meanwhile, a top Umbrella scientist's little daughter is stuck in the city, and the corp. is hiring bounty hunters to get her out, including Valentine Guillory and a trio of redshirts. So we have a number of zombie fights, the redshirts get bitten one by one and turn, and the city is sealed off. There are also some genetically altered living weapons, being tested on the ... survivors? Not used to clear out the zombies. Because the survivors would be a better test. Not buying this.

It goes on like this, fight-fight-run-run, silly twist, fight some more. The original had a body count, but also an original feeling, due to the enclosed setting, maybe. This felt much more generic. Not bad (though silly), but not memorable. Also, needed more Mila Jovovich.

We still plan to watch up to the Final Chapter, completing Paul W.S. Anderson's six-movie trilogy. But we're not in a big hurry.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Contact? Contact!

I'm a little conflicted about Arrival (2016). It's strong science fiction, beautifully filmed (with an excellent score), but also left me a bit cold from the story perspective. Which was the same way I felt about Contact, come to think of it.

Amy Adams is a linguistics professor who gets called up by Col. Forrest Whittaker when the aliens arrive. Their ships are gigantic matte black pebbles, hovering on end 20 or so feet above Montana, among other places. On the team with Adams is mathematical physicist Jeremy "Lumpy" Renner. Sadly, he is pretty much absent in this movie - I wouldn't have minded at least a little bit of the old "math is the universal language" stuff.

The aliens are called heptapods - seven-legged cthuloid walking squid. They live in a smokey vapor environment and communicate with low groans and rumbles. Adams never figures that out, but their written language, which looks like the ring a coffee cup leaves on a napkin, is more amenable to analysis.

The analysis is all scientificy and the movie doesn't really get into it. We seem to pick it up very fast. But understanding is hampered by the difference in the aliens' perception of reality - and vice versa. Yes, this is a movie about the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis, that the structure of your language determines what you can think about. Perhaps, as she learns their language, she is absorbing their world view, and maybe even ...

There is another thread that runs through the movie, about Amy Adams daughter, from her birth to her early tragic death. I took it for a flashback at first, but that doesn't match some of the things she says. I guess I'll leave out the spoiler, except to say that the "twist" made Adams seem like a bit of a monster to me. Kind of like in Passengers (different circumstance, but similar stakes).

So, I wasn't all that thrilled by the plot, Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis included. But I loved the movie in general. It is beautifully photographed, full of big landscapes back-lit by a low sun, the air hazy with light. The score by Johann Johannson is also great, full of deep, droning ostinatos. It mirrors that spoken language of the heptapods, which has more than a touch of whale song.

So, even if the plot didn't do it for me (and Renner was wasted), we liked this movie a lot. Feast for the eyes and ears, but maybe not as much for the brain as expected.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I Love the Dead

We sort of just discovered that Val Lewton produced 3 movies with Boris Karloff, so we queued up Val Lewton: Isle of the Dead/Bedlam (1945/1946). We watched The Seventh Victim, again for me, first time for Ms. Spenser, and she wanted to see the included video essay on Lewton - that clued us in to the Karloffs.

Both movies were based on artworks. Isle of the Dead was based on the Boecklin painting of the same name, showing an island at dusk with a white robed figure approaching on a boat. It is set during the Balkan Wars, when Greece was fighting for its independence. Karloff is a Greek general, who has just won a battle. An American reporter, Marc Cramer, convinces Karloff to take him to a nearby cemetery island to visit Karloff's wife's tomb - while his men struggle to clear the corpses from the battlefield, to avoid plague.

On the island, they find a few people living with an archaeologist, including a sickly woman, her husband (Alan Napier, a Lewton favorite, but we love him as Alfred, TV's Batman's Butler), and her companion, Ellen Drew. The housekeeper, Helene Thimig, hints darkly that the companion is so full of blood and life, and her mistress so pale and sickly, perhaps someone is a vorvolaka, a vampire like monster of the region. Not sure how it compares to the Wurdulak. That's not bad enough, but soon someone dies of the plague, and the general declares a strict quarantine. He is sure that science and medicine will save them. But when it doesn't, he too begins to look for evil influences.

Bedlam is based on a different artwork, the last painting in Hogarth's Rake's Progress, when the rake has wound up in the fearsome London institute, St. Mary of Bethlehem, or Bedlam. Here, Karloff runs Bedlam but wants to be a writer. He is looking for the patronage of Lord Mortimer (Billy House), and may have killed Mortimer's last pet writer. Mortimer has another protege, a witty young woman, Anna Lee. Although she is a sophisticated cynic, she doesn't approve of the modern practice of treating the asylum inmates as a source of entertainment. She lets Karloff know, and he takes a disliking to her.

When the head of a lunatic asylum doesn't like you, they can do some nasty things. In fact, by treating some of her jokes as serious, he has her committed. Will the stonemason Quaker she met help get her out?

Both of these movies show Lewton's literary side and the subtlety of his horror. Karloff is a presence that can go from foolish, kindly, or genial to terrifying with no disconnect. The art-inflected cinematography is great, although you sometimes can see the lack of money on the screen. We also watched the commentary on Bedlam - it was fun and informative but mostly an info-dump that rarely connected to what you saw on the screen.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Disposables

Why in the world did I bother to watch The Expendables 3 (2014)? I wasn't that crazy about part 2. But Ms. Spenser was away for the weekend, and I wanted to watch something she wouldn't and this definitely fit the bill. She can't stand Stallone, mainly.

To dispose of the plot, it seems that Mel Gibson was not killed in whatever previous movie he was in (was he in one of these?). So Stallone wants to go after him, but not to risk the team, so he fires Statham, Couture, Lundren, and - whoever else is left over. He then spends the first chunk of the movie recruiting new (expendable) partners, including Ronda Rousey, and no one else I recognize. Antonio Banderas tries to get onboard, but he's too old (joke, I guess?). He's pretty funny though.

Of course, that mission fails, and the old team comes back, along with Jet Li, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwartzenegger, and whoever else is around (not Bruce Willis, he's dead or retired or something).

Now, my Blu-ray was having trouble playing, so for 3 or 4 of the audition scenes, it froze up and skipped to the next scene. That's too bad, because I bet those fights were better than most of the rest. But it got me to the end faster, so I couldn't complain.

Why didn't I listen to Ms. S?

I had some time left over, so I streamed Monkey King (2014). I wasn't sure if I'd seen it, but it was so goofy, I'm sure I would have remembered. Donny Yen stars, in a furry suit and monkey makeup, and runs around on his knuckles, and it's all very weird. Anyway, I fell asleep a lot. I thought this was somehow related to Stephen Chow's Journey to the West, but it isn't at all (except some of the same source material).

Monday, May 29, 2017

Peculiar Children and Where to Find Them

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (2016) is a kid's movie (young adult?) taken from a kid's fantasy series. This kind of movie always attracts me, but often disappoints (Percy Jackson, e.g.). This one, directed by Tim Burton, pays off.

Asa Butterfield (Hugo) is an ordinary kid living in Florida, when he hears that his beloved grandfather is in trouble. He rushes to his place and finds him dead in the woods, with his eyes gouged out. He may also have spotted a monster.

All his life his grandfather (Terence Stamp) has told him stories of globe-trotting adventures, all centered around a special school, full of odd children, like invisible Millard or the boy who was full of bees. With his grandfather dead, he needs to go find that school. He convinces/guilts his parents (father, mainly - Chris O'Dowd, played as a truly awful parent who can barely tolerate his son) to take him to the island in Cornwall where the school is located.

When he gets there, it is a wreck, destroyed by German bombs in 1943. But some kids from the school appear and take him there, and it is still standing, because he is back in 1943. Semi-spoiler: Miss Peregrine resets time to the morning of the day of the bombing, just before the bombing. So, Harry Potter, plus Groundhog's Day? Maybe more like X-Men, since it's a school for mutants?

Miss P. herself (Eva Green) doesn't appear until the movie is quite a ways along, which is too bad, since she is a sultry pipe-smoking schoolmarm, who can turn into her namesake bird. Sadly underused. We get a lot more of Ella Burnell, as the girl who is lighter than air, who has to wear lead shoes so that she doesn't float away. Creepy Finlay McMillan is the kid who can bring dolls and corpses to life, is also taken with her, which should be a big conflict, but kind of gets lost. He is also the most Tim-Burtony thing in the movie - his stop-motion animated dolls in particular.

The big bad is semi-ubiquitous Samuel L. Jackson, who's actually pretty fun. All the children use their powers to attack him, and he just laughs them off - even the boy full of bees.

I couldn't help but compare this to Fantastic Beasts. In that movie, I liked the catalog part better than the actual story. In this, the story prevails over the list of peculiar characters. The mythology is rich with silly rules, powers, and names, like imbrain (?) and hollowghasts. I was a little put off by the hollowghasts - they are described as monsters running around Poland during WWII (and someone correctly opines that the monsters in Poland were human). But doesn't that name sound a little too close to Holocaust?

Anyway, I wasn't really following the mythos. The time-jumping was handled more or less smoothly. In fact the whole thing went down smoothly. I understand that the movies do serious damage to the books, but I didn't read them, so that's just as well. I don't know if they will happen, but I will watch a sequel.