Saturday, April 29, 2017

Smart as a Rock

We saw a few reviews for Central Intelligence (2016), and figured, why not? Dwayne Johnson, we like. Kevin Hart, we don't really know, but looks funny. So we queued it up. So worth it.

It starts in high school. Hart is BMOC - star quarterback, valedictorian, beloved by all, known as the Golden Jet, boyfriend of beautiful Danielle Nicolet. Then there's this other kid, a fat kid who dances while he showers at school. A bunch of bullies grab him (after one guy comments on his dancing "he's pretty good!"), and toss him naked into the middle of a pep rally. Everyone laughs but Hart, who gives him his letter jacket to cover up.

Fast forward twenty years. Hart is now an accountant getting passed over for promotions. He is married to his high school girlfriend, but things are getting bumpy. At this point, I decided we were watching The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, but they went another way. He gets some goofy text messages, and it turns out to be that fat kid. So he goes to meet him for a drink, and the fat kid grew up to be The Rock.

So the high school hero has become a zero, and the fat nerd is now Mr. Universe. But the beauty part is, Johnson is still a nerd. He wears a unicorn tee-shirt ("Always Be You!") and a fanny pack with jorts. He talks like Jonah Hill - still thinks "Wassuuuup!" is cool. He is sincere and lovably dorky. Also, it turns out he is a spy, and he needs Hart's accounting expertise.

So there's a McGuffin, and the Agency thinks Johnson has gone rogue, but I doubt you care about that. You care about Johnson wreaking havoc while Hart screams, and you get it. It's a lot of fun - maybe not earth-shattering or even side-splitting, but fun.

Now a SPOILER and also Too Much Information: The final, triumphant scene takes place at the high school reunion. Hart dreaded it as the high school big shot who feels like he hit a dead end. Johnson feared it as a bullied former fat guy who can't shake the feelings of insecurity. But when Johnson gets crowned King of the Reunion, he triumphantly re-enacts his original humiliation, and strips naked on stage, now unashamed.

The TMI part: You know those dreams where you're naked in high school? Mine go like this - I'm in high school, it's finals week, I haven't studied, I don't even know where my classes are. The tension and fear ratchet up, and then I take all my clothes off, and everything just chills out. The teachers who were hassling me just laugh, the mood is now light and happy. I'm being open, guileless, defenseless. How can you get upset about a naked guy?

So, thank you, Mr. The Rock, for showing my point of view. Don't be ashamed, let your freak flag fly, and Always Be You. His goofy brand of power nerdiness keeps this from being just another action comedy - say Knight and Day with Hart as Cameron Diaz.

In conclusion, San Andreas or not?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Slash Fic

Ms. Spenser keeps asking for scary movies, and I feel like I owe her for all the musicals and rom-coms - you know, guy movies. We've never seen Halloween (1978), and we're John Carpenter fans, so...

It starts on Halloween night, 1963, with a prowler sneaking around watching a teenage girl and her boyfriend. The camera watches from the prowler's point of view through the windows as they go upstairs. The camera sneaks into through the back door, stops in the kitchen to pick up a knife, then heads up the stairs - all one long tracking shot, handheld. Then he repeatedly stabs the girls (in a relatively bloodless and slightly silly scene).

The next shot shows the prowler - a little boy in a clown mask, holding the bloody knife.

Now it's 15 years later. Dr. Donald Pleasance is going to collect the boy, Michael Myers, to take before the parole board. He talks with his nurse about how frighteningly creepy Myers is, and gets pretty upset when he finds out that he has escaped. In fact, Myers kills the nurse and steals the car.

Meanwhile, back in the small town where it all started, three teen-aged girls are getting ready for babysitting on Halloween night. Jamie Lee Curtis (actually teen-aged, in her first movie) is the serious one, Nancy Loomis is her more frivolous friend, and P.J. Soles (Rock 'n' Roll High School!) is, of course, the wild one. Guess which one dies first, which one dies last?

Come evening, Jamie and Nancy are babysitting nearby, and we get some nice time with the kids, a boy and girl who are entranced with scary movies (The Thing - before John Carpenter remade it), comic books, and monsters. The babysitters are always on the phone or sneaking a boy in. There is pot and beer, even though Loomis' dad is the police chief (who is named Leigh Brackett, a tribute to the great screenwriter of The Big Sleep and Star Wars). Neatly observed slice of life.

And then, more slicing, less life.

I enjoyed this - Carpenter's tracking shots and long, long takes, the myth building, the barely glimpsed terror. Ms. Spenser, on the other hand, thought it was silly, and not very scary at all. So I still owe her a scary movie.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Blue Lives Matter

Yes, after all these years, we watched Avatar (2009). It isn't because we are getting ready for the 20 sequels director James Cameron is planning. It's not the ads for Disney's Avatar-land that keep showing up in my Twitter-feed (maybe a little). When it came out, it was the most amazing thing every (but we didn't bother to go see it). After a few years of reconsideration, it was the dumbest thing ever ("Smurfs go to Fern Gully"). At this distance, I think the consensus is: visually cool overcomes dumb story. So we signed up.

Sam Worthington, a Marine whose legs are paralyzed, is going to the planet Pandora. He took the job when his brother died, because he is the only one genetically matched to his brother's avatar. Avatars are like biological tele-presence robots, adapted to the Pandoran atmosphere. They look like the natives, called Na'vi, 10-foot tall blue humanoids. Since humans are on Pandora to pillage the land of its unobtainium (really!), they tend to be hostile as well. Also, they can connect to other local life-forms through their ponytails and commune with them. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Worthington doesn't seem to know anything about the planet, and the snooty scientists don't seem to be in a hurry to help him out. So it's no surprise that he almost gets killed the first time he takes the avatar for a spin. And he's supposed to be security for the team.

Of course a Na'vi princess (Zoe Saldana) pulls his fat out of the fire. I checked to see if she really was a princess, and if you count daughter of spiritual leader (C.C.H. Pounder), she was. Worthington is soon falling in love with this planet and it's noble (yet primitive) people. He realizes that the Earth humans are going to destroy it unless he, their savior, can stop them.

That reminds me, I didn't like Dances with Wolves either.

So, the story is a bit on the predicable side, and perhaps offensive to native sensibilities. But I have to say, the planet Pandora pretty much made up for it. I didn't even have to get to the floating mountains before I was sold. This is Roger Dean come to life.

I should note that Sigourney Weaver was the head scientist, and even though she has good reason to hate aliens, she was on the side of the Na'vi. Also, Michelle Rodriguez was a badass helicopter pilot, and I was worried that she would be whooping it up and shooting blues. But, spoiler, she totally came through.

In conclusion, dumb story, cool visuals. We're not anxiously awaiting the next dozen sequels, but we'll probably watch them.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Hawaiian Superman

Two things about Moana (2016): it is very beautiful, and it made me cry. The beauty is no surprise: The great artists at Disney working on an amazing subject: the South Pacific. The crying took me a while to figure out.

It started during the first song, Where You Are. It is about the beautiful island young Moana lives on, how it provides everything they need, and how they will never leave. Moana is the daughter of the chief, well loved by all the village she is destined to lead. But the song is laced with a yearning for freedom, for exploration, for the outside world. I don't know how Lin-Manuel Miranda does it, but he sure does. And this was written before he became famous for Hamilton.

Although Moana's father forbids sailing beyond the reef, her grandmother is the crazy lady of the island, and encourages Moana to roam. Also, she dances a fine hula. She has told all the children the story of the Creator Te Fiti, and how the god Maui stole her heart. Not like she fell in love with him, but like he took her heart, a small jade carving, and ran away with it. That brings down a curse on the Pacific, and all living things suffer - except maybe the island where Moana lives.

But when the plague threatens her island, she goes off to get Maui to return the heart. Maui (Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson) is the Hawaiian Hercules, a trickster and a shapeshifter, who gave man the secret of fire and who pulled the islands out of the sea with his magic fishhook. When Moana, after many trials, finally tracks him down, he turns out to be vain and self-absorbs, and he sings her a very funny song, You're Welcome, accepting all the thanks and praise she has failed to offer him.

He also has a beautiful set of animated tats that reflect and even affect the story. These are hand animated in a simple, classic style. The rest of the movie is computer animated, which does wonderfult things to the sea, the landscape, and the lighting. Even the coconut pirates, a goofy interlude that doesn't seem to belong with the rest of the movie, are fun, and there's a great Fury Road payoff.

Although the Lin-Manuel Miranda songs get most of the attention, because they are in English, the Polynesian music by Opetaia Foa'i is lovely and atmospheric. Authenticity was very important to this production, so a lot of the voice cast come from Pacific Island backgrounds, including Moana, 14-year-old Auli'i Cravalho and Johnson, who's part Samoan. The writers spent time talking to the elders all over the Pacific to make sure the story (not traditional) was respectful and realistic. I think that helps make the story hold feel unified and grounded.

In conclusion - Moana is the daughter of the chief, and this is a Disney movie, but is she a Disney Princess? Views differ.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two Nights of Fright

This is a two-fer, and there will be a quiz at the end.

First up: Fright Night (1985), a horror comedy written and directed by Tom Holland. Young William Ragsdale is making out with his girlfriend Amanda Bearse while horror theater Fright Night plays in the background. But he keeps getting distracted by somebody moving into the old house next door - and moving a coffin into the basement.

The new neighbors are Jerry (Chris Sarandon) and his buddy (Jonathan Stark), two very handsome men who are supposed to be fixing up the house to resell. Dorothy Fielding, Ragsdale's single mom is even kind of taken by him (not picking up on the two-handsome-men-living-together-doing-interior-decorating thing). But Ragsdale knows he is a vampire.

Of course, no one believes him. His "friend" Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) teases him and finally takes his money to provide advice on killing vampires culled from horror movies. I just want to pause here and say that Evil is my favorite character by far. He comes from the Corey Feldman school, but takes it way farther, with a grating way of needling with flowery eloquence, and nerdy jerkiness. I actually knew a guy a lot like him, and it's kind of magic.

Far later in the movie than you would expect, young Ragsdale calls in an expert: washed-up horror host of Fright Night, Roddy McDowall. His name, Peter Vincent comes from Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, but he isn't quite in their league. He also doesn't believe in vampires - he comes along only to help Bearse prove to her boyfriend that his neighbor isn't a vampire. You can guess how it turns out.

Skip ahead 26 years to Fright Night (2011). In this one, the kid is Anton Yelchin (more Odd Thomas than Ensign Chekov), his mother is Tony Collette, and Jerry the vampire is Colin Farrell. It is set in a new subdivision in the middle of the desert outside Las Vegas - where people come and go and aren't missed, and someone who only comes out at night isn't so strange.

Yelchin is an ex-nerd who now has a hot girlfriend, Imogen Poots and wants to forget his old friends - like Evil Ed. This Evil is played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse (or Munch-Pants, as Evil might say), more of an ordinary needy nerd, who blackmails Yelchin with iPhone movies of them playing superheroes. In this one, Evil is the one who figures out that Farrell is a vampire, and warns Yelchin not to invite him into the house.

This leads to some funny scenes where Farrell stands smoldering in the doorway, angling for an invite and not getting it. His vamp is a lot rougher than the suave Sarandon. I think he was having fun with it.

The Peter Vincent character isn't a horror host, but a Vegas magician, like maybe David Blaine, but looking more like Russell Brand - but it's not: it's David Tennant, the 10th incarnation of the Doctor. He is successful but discontented, quarreling with his lovely assistant in their penthouse. It turns out he has a hidden reason to refuse to help, and later, to save the day.

So, the quiz. Please go watch both of these movies (in chronological order, I think) and tell us which one you like better. The remake was very good. It had some high-powered actors, clearly having fun. It had a nice take on the mom, who trusted her son, even when he was acting weird, and it paid off. And we love Yelchin (RIP) as a young person in supernatural danger.

But the original is more - original. The romance felt more real to me, less WB - is that just because I'm old? I actually tasked a high-school aged relative to watch these and report back to me on that.

But in the end, Geoffreys' Evil Ed was such a work of manic genius that I have to award the trophy to the original. No offense, Mr. Munch-Pants.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Black by Popular Demand

The Last Boy Scout (1991) is another Shane Black script that really feels like a Shane Black Script - maybe the Shane Black script.

Bruce Willis plays a drunk, washed up private detective who discovers that his wife is sleeping with one of his associates (Bruce McGill). McGill gives Willis a lead on a job, bodyguarding a stripper, and then gets blown up by a car bomb.

When Willis goes to meet the stripper (Halle Berry), her boyfriend, a football player bounced from the league for drugs (Damon Wayans) takes a dislike to him. But when Berry is killed, they might have to work together. The two go to Willis' place, where they meet is obnoxious young daughter.

If you've seen, say, The Nice Guys, you may have figured out that the daughter will be put in danger, and will also save our heroes. That those heroes will fight but learn to work together, trust each other, and even love each other. The villains will turn out to be respectable hypocrites and our heroes will take them down hard (but society is to blame).

But that's not what's important. The quips and the chemistry between the leads is. Director Tony Scott manages to get that out of his two leads - Wills and Wayan - possibly more than they had in them.

I think The Nice Guys does it best though.

In conclusion, I always got this confused with Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, for some reason.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Warcraft Faire

We never played the game but we were psyched to watch Warcraft (2016). We were expecting nothing more than a spectacle, but we got a lot more.

It tells a tale of the olden days, before the Orcs and Men had met. The Orcs' homeworld was dying, drained of life by the force of fel magic. But their great warlock had a plan to open a gate to another, more fertile world. It just required the deaths of thousands of members of a slave race. One of the first warriors through the gate was our protagonist (?), Durotan, his pregnant wife Draka, and his sonorously named friend Ogrim Doomhammer.

When the humans get wind of this invasion, their finest knight rides out to survey the damage and find a human mage on the scene. They ride back to convince the king that they need to call in the greatest wizard, known as the Guardian.

So there are battles, magic, treachery, and romance. The orcs are very cool, with lovingly rendered tusks, tattoos, piercing, and jewelry. Basically, Ms. Spenser loved their sense of style. The humans are equipped with shiny armor, and the scenery and CGI sets are great. Also, Ruth Negga plays the human queen. There are a lot of other "name" actors, but I didn't recognize any (because I am out of touch, not because of the CGI makeup, I guess).

We loved the spectacle, but also the story: it made the Orcs into more than mindless enemies. They have a history, politics, and a culture. Also, the humans aren't all noble and good, but mixed in motives and morals.

But really, it's all about the Orcish style. Let's see what's on Etsy.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Strange Days

We have been waiting for quite a while for Doctor Strange (2016), and it was worth it. I don't even mind the long origin story.

It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, brilliant neurosurgeon and all-around asshole. He shares some banter with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel McAdams (Irene Adler from the Robert Downey, Jr. Sherlocks), who works at the same hospital, but definitely doesn't want him back in her life. Things look good for Dr. S., until a moment of distracted driving leaves him with hands destroyed, permanent nerve damage. He is no longer a surgeon.

Desperate to recover the use of his hands, he travels to Kathmandu to search for Kamar-Taj, the mystical society that might be able to heal him. Their guru, the Ancient One, turns out to be bald Tilda Swinton. I guess making him an old Asian with a Fu Manchu beard would have been too weird. Or maybe James Hong wouldn't take the part.

Now things start cooking. To show Strange what it's all about, Ancient One sends him on a psychedelic sleighride through the realms of mystery and it is a TRIP! This is the kind of thing this movie is for.

I won't bother describing the section of Strange getting training, working with Master Wong the librarian (Benedict Wong) and Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the villain and, basically, the main plot. I want to talk about the characterization. I've mentioned Swinton - I would have liked a venerable Ancient One, but she's always awesome, so no complaints. Wong, who was Strange's servant in the comics, has a nice role here as one of his teachers, played severely deadpan with a sly touch.

I'm not so sure about Cumberbatch - he plays Strange as a wisecracking American, in the vein of MCU's Tony Stark. The comics' version was kind of a stick, who said things like, "By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth! What evil threatens the Ancient One?" I think Cumberbatch could have played that (keeping his English accent) - but would anyone want to watch? Never mind, he's great as this version of Strange.

But this movie, for me, is really about the magic. The approach is interesting - they use Steve Ditko's hand halos from the original strips, interpreting them as golden sigils the glow around the magic user's hands. They also kind of use his style for the dark dimensions, but I don't think it plays so well. They do use his design for the classic window in his Greenwich Village sanctum. In fact, they expand the mythos of this design a bit.

My favorite part, though, is the magical/special effect that they use the most: A kind of stone-fu, where masonry and architecture bends to the will of the spellcaster. This takes the bent city from Inception to a whole new level as buildings twist and bend, and marble floors expand when you try to run across them. But they don't just stretch, they get more complicated. The patterns on the floor get more complicated, the walls sprout mullions and spandrels and brackets (if those are things) as they stretch. It's very fractal - in fact, at one point, Strange's fingers grow hands, and the finger on those hands grow smaller hands, and so on. Very trippy, and yet, mathematically rigorous.

In conclusion, I'm kind of bummed that Clea, Dr. Strange's magician's assistant from another dimension, in a satin leotard and fishnets, is not in the movie. Maybe a sequel?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Back in Black

The Black Castle (1952) is kind of a Universal horror - it features (but doesn't star) Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff. But it's kind of different.

It stars Richard Greene as an 18th-Century nobleman who is going undercover to Germany to seek out Count von Bruno, who resides in the titular castle. Two of his friends from the African wars visited there and never came back, and he wants to find out why. He arrives with his valet (Tudor Owen) in a spooky old inn, and gets into a fight because he let the coachman eat with him. The coachman, if my information (IMDB) is correct, was Henry Conden, the second guy to voice Fred Flintstone. Anyway, it's a great swashbuckling fight and shows off Greene as a bad-ass.

When he gets to the castle, the Count (Stephen McNally) turns out to be pretty creepy - for one thing, he has a mute servant (Lon Chaney Jr.) named Gargon, and his personal physician is Boris Karloff. On the other hand, he has a beautiful wife, Rita Corday. On the third hand, he treats her cruelly and you know that Greene and her will fall in love. Ah, forbidden love.

But how is this horror, you may be asking. Well, the whole thing starts with a living burial, for one thing. And there is the spooky castle. But mostly it isn't horror - it's more costume adventure. Our hero performs a little derring-do, like wrestling a leopard (in Germany? Imported from Africa, of course). So, all in all we enjoyed it.

In conclusion, Ms. Spenser did not allow me to count this as a horror movie. So I still owe her.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ge-Ge-Ge no Kubo

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is another great stop-motion animation from Laika, the studio that made Coraline, among others. It holds your attention from the first words: "If you must blink, do it now."

The voice-over is spoken as a small boat careens across giant Hokusai-sized waves in a stormy sea, finally coming to ground on a small island. It carries a woman and her baby. Years later, they live in a cave at the top of the island's central mountain. The woman silent and troubled, the baby now a boy, Kubo, who goes down to the village every day to earn a living as a storyteller. He begins his tale with "If you must blink, do it now" and a chord on his three-stringed shamisen. His story, about magical weapons, is accompanied by a stack of paper folding itself into origami shapes and whirling around his head. But when the bell rings at sundown, he must hurry up the mountain, because his mother told him never to be out after dark.

One night, he does stay out late, trying to contact the ghost of his father, and his aunts show up: two scary witches. There is an epic battle and when it is over, Kubo is alone on a beach. His little wooden monkey charm is now a large, grumpy monkey, who tells him that his village is gone, his mother is dead, and they need to hide. He is also aided by an origami samurai who has come to life, and a giant talking samurai beetle who can't remember his past, but is sure that he is a great warrior.

One of the best things about this movie, other than the visuals, is the Japanicity of it all. There's more than a bit of the modern silly/sarcastic style dialog, but also classic strangeness. A beetle samurai may seem strange, but Japanese children traditionally make pets of stag beetles, whose horns resemble a samurai helmet.

In fact, the whole story seems to be based on a Japanese TV show popular in the 80s when we lived there: Ge-Ge-Ge no Kitaro ("ge-ge-ge" represents terrified stuttering, so "Scary Kitaro"). Kubo wears an eyepatch because his grandfather stole his eye. Kitaro wears an eyepatch because his grandfather is his eye - a little eyeball with arms and legs who bathes in a teacup.

There is plenty of silliness in this movie, but overall, it's more serious than Kitaro. It's fascinating and well-written as well as beautiful. Enjoy.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

News Flash

I'm pretty sure we saw Flash Gordon (1980) in the theater when it was released (unless I'm thinking of Flesh Gordon). We mainly wanted to see it again for the Queen soundtrack. As it turns out, there is only the main theme: a paino playing a single chord in eighth notes while Freddie sings, "Flash! Ah ah ah." It's pretty monotonous, although Brian May's guitar leads kick it up a notch. But, you know, we weren't at all disappointed.

It starts with Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow!) getting bored and starting to destroy Earth - earthquakes, volcanoes, hot hail, that kind of thing. Meanwhile, Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) is coming back from vacation in a small plane with Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Ms. Anderson is a rather generic 80s babe, but Jones has a beefy Reb Brown (Rock Hardpecs) quality that is quite endearing.

When their plane is forced down by the hot hail, mad scientist Dr. Zarkov (Topol!) tricks them into his spaceship and they take off for planet Mongo, to confront Ming. So far, it's a nice mix of 80s and 30s-50s sci-fi. But when they get to Mongo, it gets even better.

First, Ming decides he wants Dale for a sex slave. Then we meet his daughter, the numptuous Ornella Muti - and she falls for Flash. This is all just as kinky as can be (or am I thinking of Flesh Gordon?). We meet the warring tribes of the planets ruled by Ming, including Timothy Dalton and bluff Brian Blessed of the Hawk people. There are fights, intrigues, space flights, all as cheesy as can be, in lurid colors (with some Brian May guitar and Freddie Mercury singing "Flash!").

This was much better than we remembered, or maybe we were just in the mood for some ham and cheese.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Goonie Things

The Goonies (1985) is another movie that's taken us a long time to get around to. I'm glad we did - it's good background for Stranger Things.

It takes place in an idyllic west-coast town they call the Boon Docks. But a developer is buying everything up to build a golf course, and they are all going to have to move. The kids hate this idea, since they have a great bunch of kids, who call themselves the Goonies:
  • Mikey (Sean Astin): Sensitive and asthmatic, he's also the main instigator of their adventures
  • Mouth (Corey Feldman): All slick New Wave fashion and sarcastic remarks
  • Chunk (Jeff Cohen): Always eating
  • Data (Ke Huy Quan): Genius inventor Chinese kid
Mikey's older brother Brand (Josh Brolin), his girlfriend (Keri Green) and her friend (Martha Plimpton) are just old enough to out of the Goonies, but not so old they are in a different world. Plimpton, by the way, seems to be the inspiration for the ill-fated Barb in Stranger Things - at least as far as glasses and hairdo. She does not meet the same fate as Barb, and in fact, becomes a Goonie herself.

We first meet these kids at Mikey and Brand's place, where Rube Goldberg device is used to open the gate for Chunk. There isn't much payoff for this, except to show off producer Spielberg's love of complicated devices. Also, a lot of the movie is a complicated device.

The Goonies plan to save the Boon Docks is to find pirate One-Eyed Willy's buried treasure. So off they go on their bikes - and you immediately see where Stranger Things came up with the images of a gang of kids cranking around the neighborhood on their bikes.

So to get to the buried treasure, it turns out they have to get through a gang of bank robbers and their giant pinhead brother. This all involves underground caverns, including a waterslide that might be the first movie scene designed to be made into an amusement park ride. It all ends with an amazing set piece that makes me think director Richard Donner loves those complicated devices as well.

So now we know why this is such a significant movie for kids ("of all ages") of the Eighties. It was so Eighties that Cindi Lauper did the theme song, and parts of the music video are included. At that point I started wondering if this was a recent movie done as a parody of Eighties movies. But that's Stranger Things.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Special Delivery

Midnight Special (2016) is a special kind of movie: very low-budget indie, with a big concept, but played out small, focused on the lives of simple, quiet people. We saw the preview when we watched Take Shelter, and it's definitely got the same genes. Also, both star Michael Shannon and were directed by Jeff Nichols.

The key image of the film is a car speeding through the night, two men driving, Shannon and Joel Edgerton. In the backseat, a little boy is wearing dark goggles and reading a comic by flashlight. We don't know who he is or where they are going, but we are hooked.

Little by little, the story is revealed. The boy and his father, Shannon, belonged to a Christian cult who considered him a prophet or savior. Shannon and his friend Edgerton took him on the lam, to get to a location at a time for reasons that we do not know. But we do know that the cult and the government are chasing them - government scientist Adam Driver for one. Also, Shannon is ready to kill, even kill state police, to make it to the rendezvous.

Are these guys crazy? Is this a child abduction metaphor? Well, they stop to pick up the boy's mother, Kirsten Dunst, so that's not what's going on. I guess I'd have to say it's about the same thing as Take Shelter: Ordinary fucking people in situations that push them to their limits, situations that they and we can't understand.

I'm not sure the whole thing holds together, partly because of the elliptical approach to the story. There is an ending, and things do get explained, but I'm not sure I'm completely satisfied. But the art direction of the finale is lovely and makes me wish it was more of the movie. But then it might have turned out like Tomorrowland.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Say Goodnight, Geena

Continuing on our Shane Black-athon: The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), directed by Rennie Harlan from a Shane Black script.

It stars Geena Davis as a sweet grade school teacher with a boyfriend and a daughter, and a secret. She has amnesia, remembers nothing of her life since she was found on a beach several years ago. Mostly she doesn't care, but she did hire a cheap detective (Samuel L. Jackson) to look for her past. Amazingly (he is not all that competent or hard-working), he gets some clues to her past. As it starts coming back to her, she realizes that she used to be a covert government assassin. And now the agency that she belonged to wants her dead.

So Davis and Jackson go on the road to find out who she is, who's trying to kill her, and to stop them. In a lot of ways, this is The Bourne Identity, except gender swapped and sillier. Since it's a Shane Black script, it's full of quotable lines and great situations. (Also, the daughter is both put in jeopardy and saves her mom - one of his calling cards.) It's also full of chases, gun fights, and explosions. The action has a cartoony quality - people are thrown for miles in explosions, and get up and dust themselves off. In one scene, Davis throws her daughter out a second-story window, and she lands safely in the treeehouse. This kind of thing is both funny in itself, and a reminder to turn your brain off.

I don't think this is Black's most coherent script (or maybe I turned  my brain off too much). But it's definitely a fun one. More to come.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

So Long, Marian

As I've mentioned, I'm a Richard Lester fan. So we wanted to see Robin and Marian (1976), and since Witchfinder General got us psyched for some ye olde romance, we queued it up.

It starts with Robin (Sean Connery) and Little John (Nicol Williamson) in France, laying siege to a castle defended by a solitary old man. When King Richard (Richard Harris) comes along, he insists on laying the castle to waste. The old man throws an arrow at him in disgust, and in the next few scenes, the Lion-Hearted One dies of blood poisoning. Oh well, he was getting to be a jerk, and Robin is getting tired of France. So they return to Sherwood Forest, which they left some twenty years ago.

They find that the poor are still oppressed by the Sheriff (Robert Shaw) and the Will Scarlet (Denholm Elliott) and Friar Tuck (Ronnie Barker) are still around. But what of Maid Marian, wonders Robin, as if he hadn't thought of her in years? She's become a nun in the nearby convent. Also, she is Audrey Hepburn, now 40-ish, but still radiantly beautiful.

And so, for a while, they live once again as they did, in Sherwood Forest. This is a very reticent love affair - she's married to Jesus, he is too much of a warrior to show his true feelings. As for a happy ending, well, that depends on your definitions.

This can be a very thoughtful and simple movie, which isn't very Lester-like - he's known more for his frenetic energy. There are a few touches, like King Richard's dwarf jester, but there isn't a lot of grotesquerie or the little background bits of Three Musketeers. But still a lovely, sad movie.

In conclusion, Audrey Hepburn's a mervel, isn't she?

Friday, March 31, 2017

Nothing can Stop the Shape

Since we like old Sci-Fi, we watched Things to Come (1936). It was based on a, H.G. Wells treatment of his story The Shape of Things to Come. Not that great as science or fiction, but great science fiction.

It starts around Christmas in Everytown, England. Raymond Massey is worried about rumors of war in the news, but his obtuse friend Edward Chapman tells him it's probably nothing. Then the bombs start falling. It doesn't take a prophet to predict, in 1936, that war is coming, but he got that right.

The movie is pretty episodic, skipping through future history, always meeting thoughtful Massey and feckless Chapman. The war continues for years, leaving Everytown (basically, London) a ruin. A strongman, Ralph Richardson, rules the neighborhood, dreaming of the day when he can get an airplane flying to defeat the hill people and steal their coal.

But there is a nascent World Government of scientists called "Wings over the World" that is bringing civilization back, and Massey is their vanguard.

The politics is a bit suspect - technocratic fascism? - the story is a little choppy and the writing is no better than it needs to be. So is it worth watching? I'd say yes, mainly for the costumes and sets. Once again, art direction FTW.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

No Accounting for Taste

The Accountant (2016) is kind of funny - funny ha ha and peculiar. It's a slow-moving action film, about forensic accounting and autism.

The Accountant is Ben Affleck. We get to know him as a nice man who helps an older couple save some money on their taxes. The Treasury Dept knows him only by reputation, a shadowy figure who the underworld trusts to run their crooked books. J.K. Simmons has been hunting him for years, and young agent Cynthia Addai-Robinson to help.

From flashbacks, we learn about the Accountant's childhood. He is profoundly autistic, but his military father doesn't want to get him into treatment, he just wants to toughen him up, with weapons and martial arts training. Later, the adult Accountant winds up in prison, and is tutored in Evil Accounting by Jeffrey Tambor. Now, I haven't watched much Arrested Development, but just based on the memes I've seen, I can't really take him seriously as a Bernie Madoff type. YMMV.

It sort of all comes together when Affleck is auditing the books for a high tech company. As he and company accountant Anna Kendrick zero in on the problem, company, people start getting murdered, and he has to let her into his life.

So, corporate thriller, action movie, romance, family drama, and mental health tale, all rolled together. In the Movie Sign with the Mads podcast, they talk a lot about this, and I think they may have preferred more of the hardcore action. I kind of agree, but I think the balance worked pretty well, considering. The forensic accounting was a little boring - not sure it made sense, but there were lots of scenes of Affleck writing numbers on the walls and windows of a conference room. (Are we watching Numb3rs now?) Also, there's a cute beat where they try to pull Affleck off the job, but he gets anxious when he can't finish something. Autism, you know.

I think you should watch this movie, so I won't spoil the RV for you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Which witch?

This one was for Ms. Spenser, who always wants more horror: Witchfinder General (1968) (AKA Conqueror Worm). I had heard a lot about it, and was under the impression that it was pretty intensely scary. I was misinformed.

It takes place during the English Civil War, where the Puritan Roundheads fought Royalist Cavaliers. In this fragmented society, the Witchfinder General (Vincent Price) made his living "detecting", then sexually torturing and executing witches at a few pounds per each. His companion is Robert Russell, a brutal sadist without Price's polish.

When Price goes after Hilary Dwyer, who is soldier Ian Ogilvy's intended, things get intense.

Now, there is plenty of creepiness in this movie, but it isn't that scary. It was filmed in color, mostly in broad daylight in the English woods (supposedly East Anglia, and maybe so). It all looked rather bucolic. My favorite part of the movie was people galloping around on horses, looking all romantic. We need to watch more knights-in-armor movies.

Price seems tired and not really into it. Russell, his creepy sidekick and enforcer, has to do most of the work being threatening. This came from Tigon Films, the cut-rate version of Amicus, who were the cut-rate version of Hammer. That might explain things.

So we were pretty disappointed with this one. I can't explain why it has any reputation. Maybe some kind of "not as bad as we expected" backlash?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Death Race Now

Did you think we were just going to skip Roger Corman's Death Race 2050 (2016)? Come on! The original, directed by Paul Bartel, was a riot. The modern spin-offs took the bare bones of the idea and tried to make an action franchise out of it (like they did with The Fast and the Furious). They were still mostly fun. But this is the real thing.

It's 2050, and the Corporate States of America are holding another Death Race - a race across the country with points for speed and for running over civilians. The race is hosted by the Chairman, Malcolm McDowell looking like Andy Rooney playing Donald Trump - Seriously, how did they get Trump into a movie released in Jan 2017? Did Corman know something we didn't?

The crowd's favorite is Frankenstein (Manu Bennett), who wears an iron mask to cover the hideous scars from past crashes. He ditched that pretty quickly. There's also a weird Christian/Elvisite cultist, a woman with a self-driving machine who doesn't need a man (if you know what I mean, and you can bet they make that as explicit as the rating allows), and body-beautiful Burt Grinstead, a totally hetero muscleman who likes to strip down and oil up.

While all of America watches on their virtual reality headsets (because real life sucks), a group of revolutionaries led by Folake Olowofoyeku are working to bring down the Chairman.

The humor is very broad and surprisingly topical. It's surprising because it follows the original story pretty closely. When Bartels made Death Race 2000, Corman was reportedly mad that it had so much comedy, and wanted to up the gore factor. This time around, he was happy to keep the comedy.
 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Second Sight

Here's an oddball for you: John Frankenheimer's Seconds (1966). The title sequence by Saul Bass gives you a good idea how it will play out: close-ups of a man's face in a distorting mirror in black and white, with a disorienting Jerry Goldsmith score.

It follows John Randolph, a middle-aged banker as he takes the commuter train home. Someone is following him through Central Station, someone who seems to have the camera strapped to his back, filming over his shoulder. These kinds of odd POV shots, as well as fisheye lenses and other distortions, give the whole film an air of paranoia and unreality. It seems that Mr. Randolph has had an invitation from a dead man.

He goes to the address he's been given and gets directed from spot to spot, until he gets to a meat packing plant, where he's loaded into the back of a truck, like so much... yeah, you got it. It turns out the scheme is this: A shadowy organization, run by Will Geer, will fake your death, give you a new face, body, home, career, everything, all for a small portion of your earthly wealth. And so John Randolph becomes Rock Hudson.

Hudson's new life involves a house in Malibu, a career as a painter (with moderate commercial success already set in motion). He feels aimless at first, but he meets a cute girl on the beach, Salome Jens. She's a mature bohemian blonde, just the kind of woman for the man that he has become. She takes him to a wild beatnik bacchanal, which he is too square to dig, until he starts to enjoy it. Soon he's throwing drunken cocktail parties, but maybe he's getting a little too into it. Is this really the life he wanted?

There's so much in this movie on so many levels. The commodification of lifestyle was one that got me thinking: that the bohemian life Rock Hudson chose was just as pre-fab and inauthentic as his life as a suburban banker. I should also mention the scene where he visits his ex-wife and sees how little effect his death had on anyone. She doesn't even miss him. His death is a chance to remodel.

But the camera is the real star. It's wielded by the inestimable James Wong Howe, who is using every trick in the book. I wonder if Saul Bass had any influence beyond the credits - this reminds me a little of Bass' Phase IV. I guess the influence would have run the other way.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Swingers

You know what I like every now and then? A good old-fashioned jungle adventure movie. So we queued up the new The Legend of Tarzan (2016). Tarzan movies have a reputation of being poison (unless they are animated, I guess?), but this was a lot of fun.

It starts with Tarzan, that is, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) is living the civilized life in England with his genteel Jane (Margot Robbie). A group of religious worthies want him to go to the Belgian Congo and help out the poor savages there. He declines, but American Samuel L. Jackson convinces him that some bad stuff is happening there, and they should go investigate. Of course, Jane misses home and wants to head back too.

Indeed, bad things are happening, as this is the Congo under King Leopold, noted for vicious inhumanity. Things down there are being run by Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz), who is enslaving the natives with the help of the Leopard Men, led by chief Djimon Hounsou. Two things here:
  1. This Africa is historical, not a timeless Dark Continent. Rom was a real person, and King Leopold a very real villain.
  2. I love me some Leopard Men. Always have. 
After a short idyll in their village, Jane is captured by Rom and taken up the river, where he plans to search for the Gem of McGuffin. He plans to use Jane as bait to catch Tarzan - and you can guess how that works out.

Skarsgard makes an interesting Tarzan, tall and lean, without the broad chest of Weissmuller's Tarzan. Director David Yates said that he wanted to emphasize "verticality", which fits. Also, he doesn't take off his shirt until well into the movie, but when he does, look out - ripped and shredded. There could have been more web vine-swinging, in my opinion, but it looked like it was mostly CGI, so maybe that's for the best. It was certainly CGI of the highest caliber, though.

Finally, I thought it was interesting that the big conflict in the movie (although  submerged) was purely African. The fight with the Belgians was important and full of incident, but what was closest to Tarzan's heart was between him, the apes, and another tribe. It's not exactly Afro-centric in total, but a lot less Euro than I feared.

I doubt that this will make jungle movies popular, like Pirates of the Caribbean did for pirate movies. But we enjoyed it.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Los Boys

It seems strange that we haven't seen The Lost Boys (1987) until now. Back in the day, some of our gothy friends were so into this movie, they used to get fangs made by dentists for maximum realism. Maybe that's why we never saw it. As a result, we never realized that it was made in Santa Cruz.

It starts with an old van with a mom and two kids rolling into Santa Cruz - re-labelled Santa Carla for the movie, because of course, vampires can't stand la cruz. We see the light house, Boardwalk, and all the hippie and crusty kids. Also, we see people posting flyers for lost children, and graffiti calling Santa Clara "Murder Capital of the World".

It seems that Mom Dianne Weist and her two sons, teen Jason Patric and pre-teen Corey Haim have come to live with their hippy grampa, Bernard Hughes. It's a mixed bag - a new town with a fun beach scene and a lot of murders, lots of kids, but no friends, and not much money. Patric soon spots Jami Gertz and follows her. It turns out that she has some sketchy friends, lead by Keifer Sutherland.

Meanwhile, Haim meets some kids in the comicbook store - Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander, Edgar and Allen Frog, the Frog brothers. They want him to read some vampire comics to learn self-defense. This, you will notice, is the first of the Two Coreys movies. Since the actors were underaged, they spent a lot of time together instead of partying like the older actors.

Somewhere in here, I realized that this is more of a horror-comedy than straight horror. The Frog Bros. are particularly silly - also, every bit of comic book vampire lore they know more or less turns out to be true. Another movie where only the kids know what's going on.

I wasn't as fond of Patric - he had a lopsided smirk for most of the first half of the movie that made him look like Rick Moranis. Keifer Sutherland was pretty impressive, though. He looks debauched and cruel, and that's before he vamps out. I did expect him to bark like Oddball from Kelley's Heroes, though. His gang was equally creepy, except Ms. Spenser had trouble figuring out what kind of gang they were: Were they bikers, new-wavers, street punks? Hair-metal heads is the closest I could figure. Fits with the soundtrack, which was painfully 80's-teen-friendly.

I really enjoyed this, probably because it wasn't as scary or as cheesy as I thought it would be. It was cool that it so clearly took place in Santa Cruz - the geography was right, the trees and bushes were right, even when you weren't at the Boardwalk. Ms. Spenser enjoyed it too, but says it doesn't count as horror, and so I still owe her.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

What's the Big Deal?

Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) exists partly as an Italian parody of French heist films like Rififi. It also exists to give some Italians free rein to be funny.

It starts with a guy getting arrested trying to steal a car in Rome. In prison, he begs his wife and lawyer to break him out, because another prisoner has told him about a perfect target for a heist. So they go looking for a scapegoat, a fall guy to confess to the crime and do the time.

This is a nice little aimless section where we travel around looking for lowlifes willing to go to prison for a while in exchange for some money. One guy is already locked up, another can't afford a third strike, a photographer (Marcello Mastroianni!) has to look after his ever-crying baby because his wife's in prison. Finally, losing boxer Vittorio Gassman agrees. Except the judge locks him and the car thief up.

But Gassman gets out with the secret, and they begin to plan the heist - scientifically. The plan is to break into a pawnshop through the wall in the uninhabited apartment next door. They steal a movie camera to film the pawnbrokers from a roof across the way, in classic heist movie style. Of course, Mastroianni added a few shots of his baby, and when the safe was being opened, a bra on a clothesline got in the way of the shot. Oh well, that's science.

I don't really recognize many of the actors, outside of Mastroianni, but Claudia Cardinale shows up in one of her first roles as the sister that one of the gang tries to keep sequestered, and another tries to date. It's a small role but it makes an impression.

But everyone is good here. It's sweet and not all that subtle, but funny. Even if you haven't seen Rififi.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Thrill Me!

I found out about Night of the Creeps (1986) from the Projection Booth podcast. They do exhaustive discussions of odd movies, like this under-the-radar cult horror-comedy. Short version: They love this movie. We watched it and had the same experience.

After an odd intro involving aliens, it starts in black-and-white: Sorority row on a 50s college campus. A guy takes his date parking, after running off her cop ex-boyfriend. When Plot-Point Radio mentions the ax murderer who escaped from the insane asylum, you think you know where this is going. Then they see a meteor, and you think maybe it's something different. Sure, it's a retro-fifties slasher horror from outer space movie.

The next scene takes place thirty years later, in 1986. Now, it's a campus comedy as two buddies walk through crowded Sorority/Frat row. Jason Lively is the bland, shy guy who doesn't think he'll ever get a girl. Steve Marshall is his funny friend. He's a wise-ass and a loud-mouth, with a voice like Eddie Deezen, and he uses crutches. The point isn't belabored, although he makes a joke about being "funny as a crutch", and they are a plot point, but it's handled very deftly.

Lively falls in love with Jill Whitlow from across the room, and decides to join a frat to impress her - Marshall was going to suggest talking to her, but that would be too hard. As part of their initiation, they need to find a corpse. The corpse they find doesn't stay dead, though.

And who should get called in but the cop ex-boyfriend from the opening. He is played by Tom Atkins, a kind of Stacy Keach doing Joe Don Baker. He's a snarling cynic who answers the phone "Thrill me" and has all the best one liners. Like "Is this a homicide investigation or a bad b-movie?"

In fact, this movie is full of quotable lines. I am valiantly resisting quoting Marshall's monologue about acting like jerks so Lively can get this girl - it's better than acting like jerks for no reason. It was writer/director Fred Dekker's first movie, and it is clearly a work of love. There were marketing problems that kept it from going big, but that's fine - it's now a cult movie for people like us.

Fred Dekker isn't a big name. He's only made a few movies (Monster Squad), but he was college room-mates with Shane Black, and they still collaborate. In fact, I think he's working on the new Predator movie. So there's that to look forward to.


Monday, February 27, 2017

Bourne Old

I liked the original Bourne trilogy, although I don't think I recognized how smart they were until they were over. Bourne is a superspy, and director Paul Greengrass has a way of letting you see what he sees, read a scene the way he is reading it. It adds intelligence to the action. So I was looking forward to  Jason Bourne (2016). I don't think I got what I was looking for.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne now remembers everything, how he was trained as an assassin, and how he killed so many for his intelligence agency masters (like Tommy Lee Jones). They would like to keep this all buried, but Julia Stiles, playing hacker, downloads the complete files on all the black ops. Damon picks them up in the middle of a democracy demonstration in Athens, under cover of chaos. I'm not sure this is really good spycraft, and it doesn't actually work out so well.

So Bourne finds himself being hunted by Jones, CIA agent Alicia Vikander, and finally, deadly killer Vincent Cassell, as "the Asset". There's the usual action scenes, fights and car chases, with plenty of shaky camerawork - emphasis on "usual". There wasn't a lot that struck me as new or, you know, smart.

Not really bad, but not good enough for this franchise.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Bravo Bava

We were looking for some old-timey SF horror, and queued up Planet of the Vampires (1965). Since it was directed by Mario Bava, we kind of knew what to expect: Cheapness, cheese, and colorful lighting effects.

Two spaceships detect a mysterious signal emanating from a planet shrouded in mist. On goes to investigate and vanishes, so the other ship follows. There is a bogus meteor shower and very lame "high-g" sequence. When they land, Captain Barry Sullivan and his crew of Euro-babes and boys discovers that the crew of the first ship have killed each other off. So they wrap them in plastic and bury them. But do they stay dead?

The basic plot idea is pretty neat (although there are no vampires, sorry). I think Star Trek used it once or twice. The special effects, however, are not up to the standard of even original series Star Trek. Nor the writing or acting. So really, this is just a "so bad that it's good" guilty pleasure.

EXCEPT - Mario Bava is at the helm, so you get wild colors, fog over miniature landscape, preposterous process shots - scratch that, I checked and he is using mirrors, to save on film processing. Some of his shots are strikingly composed and beautiful, some almost surrealist. Also, the costumes are outstanding, leather jumpsuits with fancy high collars and leather helmet liners.

So, much silliness, some beauty. Should I try a Bava giallo?

Thursday, February 23, 2017

I've Gotta Crow!

We took a long time to see The Crow (1994). Partly, the death of Brandon Lee during filming cast a pall, and not in a good way. But we've been watching some Alex Proyas, so why not?

It starts on Devil's Night, the night before Halloween, known as a festival of arson in Detroit, where I guess this is set. Brandon Lee and his girl Sofia Shinas, are just hanging out in their attic squat, when a gang of firestarters come in and kill them. One year later, a crow starts hanging around Lee's grave, and pretty soon, he crawls out. Although he's dead, he's looking for revenge. The only people who remember him are policeman Ernie Hudson (!) and a little girl with junkie mother.

Lee is inspired by a commedia mask to put on white mime makeup. Since he had been a punk guitarist in life, he also carries around an electric guitar, and spends some time jamming on the roof. Also, he is Bruce Lee's son. However, all this does not really add up to making him cool. I think the movie is a little ambiguous about this - is he kind of dorky or is he the cool undead guy? He looks kind of funny, with the big forehead and jaw, but he clearly has something.

Same with the rest of the movie. The budget was plainly skimpy, leading to the fairly silly model city-on-fire. The same type of model rooftops looked cute in Dark City, where you weren't expected to believe in it. Here, I don't know. Then, there's an actual joke, and I think, maybe I'm trying to take this too seriously.

So, I guess I had trouble with the tone. However, I did not have trouble with the over-the-top creepy mystical gang leaders, Michael Winfort and Bai Ling. I also liked a lot of the music, although it was probably more cutting edge back in 1994.

Glad we saw it. I assume none of the sequels are watchable?


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Ave Maria Baby

I queued up Jersey Boys (2014) because we had a friend visiting who likes to talk through movies - and I figured we wouldn't mind for this. It turned out that we didn't watch it with her, and I'm glad we did. I'm not a big Frankie Valli fan, but he had some great songs, and he sure could sing. And director Clint Eastwood has the kind of love for music that really comes through.

It's the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, from street hoods to their reunion concert. It starts with Tommy Devito talking direct to the audience, and we get a bit of that from everyone. In Devito's mind, he was Frankie's mentor, which mostly involved dumb crimes. Everyone goes to prison except Frankie - he's a good boy whose parents want him home early.

They are also under the patronage of mob boss Christopher Walken, who has maybe never been Christopher Walkenier. He loves Frankie's voice, and we soon find out just how lovely it is. Then one of their lowlife friends suggests that they get together with Bob Gaudio, who wrote "Short Shorts" - even though he is from Bergenfeld, not the Neighborhood. With Nick Massi on bass vocals and bass guitar, they were the Four Somethings. It becomes Four Seasons when a misfiring neon sign that seems to say "our sons" lights up as "Four Seasons".

That's the kind of goofy stuff that comes from a Marshall Brickman (Manhattan) screenplay. There's some real slapstick stuff in there. The scene where they steal a safe and load it into the trunk, which lifts the car off it's front wheels, so that it slams into a jewelry store window - that should give you an idea. But there's some real stuff there too, mostly Tommy being a jerk, with Gaudio wanting to get serious about music, and Nick wanting to start his own band. Actually, Nick is kind of boring, which is interesting. He is played by Michael Lomenda, who has a kind of Nat Pendleton vibe - kind of dumb and easygoing, but not just background.

There's some comedy, some drama, and a lot of great music. The singing was all filmed live - not lipsynced. The cast does their own singing, and mostly come from the Broadway or touring cast. We get to know a little bit about Bob Gaudio, who wrote most of the songs, and their producer, the flamboyantly gay Bob Crewe. I love to learn about that side of the music biz.

There's a scene with the guys making fun for "Walk Like a Man" - I always laugh about the mismatch between the girlish voice and the macho lyrics, and I guess they get the joke too. Still a great song.

I feel like Valli himself is a bit of a void at the heart of this movie. He seems like a quiet type, keeps to himself. He's serious and works hard and doesn't let a lot of pride or frustration show. Then it all comes out in his soaring falsetto.

Still, it all make me think, just a little, of Paul Anka in Girls Town.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Magnificent!

I don't know why people keep remaking awesome movies. Why did they need to remake Seven Samurai as a western? Why did they remake The Magnificent Seven (Robert Vaughan RIP) as a space opera (Robert Vaughan RIP)? And why make The Magnificent Seven (2016)? Maybe because it's awesome?

In this version, there is a gold mining company trying to push the townspeople out. They massacre the menfolk, burn the church and give the rest 3 weeks to get out. So spunky widow Haley Bennett sets out to gather an army to defend the town. SPOILER - she comes up with seven.

They are led by Denzel Washington, head badass, and Chris Pratt, head wiseass. There's a psycho mountain-man injun killer, a Mexican, a damaged Reb by the euphonious appellation of Goodnight Robicheaux and his Asian associate, and an Indian named after the Dash Hammett story, Red Harvest. As usual, the plan is to turn the town into a kill box for the bad guys. Since the town is a few buildings on one street on a broad flat valley, that will be hard.

The big fight at the end was pretty good, but in my opinion it was the seven that really made this movie. They were a bit more diverse, a little more fun than the original team - maybe just a little more extreme. Like Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest shooting up the invaders with his bow and arrow - so iconic. And like a good classic western, there were lots of scenes of the crew galloping across the plains to the strains of Elmer Bernstein's classic theme.

So, pretty awesome movie  - I'll leave it at that, and ask a question: Best kill box movie? There's a lot to be said for Seven Samurai, or maybe something like Home Alone (think about it). But I'm going to say 13 Assassins.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

I Love the Night Life

Carrying on with Whit Stillman's Yuppie Trilogy, we watched The Last Days of Disco (1998). If you are smarter than me, you realize that we skipped the second movie (Barcelona) and went straight to the third. But you don't really need to watch these in order.

To recap, Stillman made a loose trilogy about over-educated upper-class but not necessarily rich kids in New York. This one focuses on the scene at a popular disco, essentially Studio 54. One guy works at the club, and sneaks his friends in. One guy works at an ad agency; he uses the first guy to get his clients in - that's basically his job description: can get people into Studio 54. Another one works for the DA, and really believes in disco, he just doesn't have time to go that much.

And then there are the women: two girls who prepped together. Kate Beckinsale is a reader at a publishing office, and wants to help Chloe Sevigny so that everyone doesn't hate her like they did at Hampshire. But Chloe has to understand that people hate it when you are critical.

Now, I visited Hampshire College at lot in the 70s. It's a hippy school near Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke. We called it the "cocaine, suede and waterbeds" school. So it's understandable that she would be critical. But when Beckinsale tells her that, she just gets defensive and, well, more critical. So even when nice guys buy her drinks, she has to criticize. She doesn't want a vodka tonic, she wants a ... And in the pause, you see she doesn't know what she wants. She just doesn't want to be ordinary or predictable.

She is really the focus of the movie - all the guys eventually fall for her. But it's more than a character study (although it does that really well) or a story about life in New York: the railroad apartments, the subways, the corner bar when you can't get into the disco. It's also a comedy.

There's the cult of disco, with so many characters rhapsodizing over the concept of a club where you can meet people and dance. Talking about the philosophy of disco, and how it can never die if it lives on in the hearts of young men and women. Then there's the demonization of advertising people. It doesn't matter if you are black or white, straight or gay, rich or poor, but if you are in advertising, you are scum.

It is a bit slow moving, meandering, but it isn't plotless - it's just that the plot doesn't matter a whole lot. And it seems kind of slice-of-life, but it's really almost absurdist comedy. And Sevigny is really quite gorgeous, in a mopey, self-conscious, low-self-esteem kind of way.

And the music is great - now that disco is dead, I don't mind admitting that. But let me tell you, none of these kids can dance worth a damn.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Painless

We went and did it, we watched Suicide Squad (2016), and I don't see what everyone is complaining about. Well, I do and I don't.

To briefly recap the plot: Superman is dead (BvM) and Viola Davis needs to protect America from super-powered metahumans. What if they are evil? So she takes a bunch of super-villains, who are evil but not all super-powered, and aims to set them against any threat she perceives. This may sound like a terrible plan to you, but don't worry, everyone agrees - it is a terrible plan.

She gets:
  • Will Smith as Deadshot: a never-miss assassin. He's got the best role, best back story, and best back chat.
  • Margot Robbie as Harly Quinn: a psycho-candy Suicide Girl in love with the Joker. No, she's got the best role. Cute, spunky, punky, and violent.
  • Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Killer Croc: A guy with crocodile skin. Very pretty.
  • Jai Courtenay as Captain Boomerang: His superpower is being Australian. Always seen with a can of beer in hand.
  • Jay Hernandez as Diablo: A cholo gang-banger with his face tattooed like a skull, who can create huge fires but has sworn off violence.
  • Cara Delevingne as Enchantress: A transdimensional goddess who inhabits the body of an innocent anthropologist.
  • Assorted redshirts.
On the side of good, we have:
  • Joel Kinnaman as Colonel Rick Flagg: One of those skinny Arkansas-looking SEAL types with a scruffy beard. He rides herd on the squad.
  • Karen Fukuhara as Katana: Wears half a kabuki mask, carries a soul-eating sword. 
And that doesn't even include Jared Leto as the Joker, because this isn't really his story. He's just background for Harly.

Well, now that I've listed the cast, I don't have any time for the plot. Which is just about as over-stuffed as the cast. The Movie Sign with the Mads podcast did an episode on this and they kept finding out that the part that explains this or that was cut out. So the movie director David Ayer thought he was making isn't what wound up on the screen, partly because a wacko trailer was so popular, they recut.

Still, the final movie is a lot of fun - even if you can't call it a good movie. I liked the villains (I mean antagonists, pretty much everyone's a villain), loved Harly. Robbie uses a great voice for her - Kind of a Judy Holliday whine with a bit of scratchy roughness. The Diablo subplot was good, partly because Hernandez brought something to the sort of standard "esse" role. I was not as impressed by Leto's Joker, but that's OK, he was a minor character.

There was a lot of silliness ("If he kills me, I want you to shoot him and erase my browser history."), lot's of classic rock on the soundtrack (not all from Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy), plenty of action and CGI, bizarre tattoos, even a car chase. It worked for us.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Paris When it Fizzles

Sixties sex farces should be just my cup of tea, but I don't find many that I really like. Take A New Kind of Love (1963). It was directed by Melville Shavelson, who was responsible for a lot this kind of thing (Houseboat, Yours, Mine and Ours). It stars Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, so how bad could it be.

Woodward is a fashion designer specializing in ripping off couture designs for a mid-market department store run by George Tobias (with the help of Thelma Ritter). These three are going to Paris to buy or steal some schmatta.  Newman is a Norman-Mailer-esque newspaper columnist, who spends his time drinking, going to sporting matches, and womanizing, usually all at once. When he beds the wrong woman, he gets sent by his editor to Paris in exile.

They meet for the first time on the plane over. Woodward is a "semi-maiden" - tried love once and didn't like it. She dresses androgynously and wears her hair shaggy and studded with pencils. Frankly she looks awesome - very modern, a little Velvet Underground. But Newman calls her "mister" before he gets a good look at her, and they don't hit it off.

The movie spends a bit of time on their separate Paris adventures: Her at fashion runways, him at strip club runways. They are contrasted in split screen scenes is pretty cute. Also, the mid-century fashions are quite sweet, if you like Dior, Lanvin, etc, you'll enjoy those parts.

How Woodward and Newman meet is a bit complicated. Tobias starts running around with sexy Eva Gabor, and Thelma Ritter confides in Woodward that she always loved Tobias and was now in despair about her love life. (But she can't hate Gabor because she is so nice.) Woodward has a religious epiphany during the Feast of St. Catherine, patron saint of unmarried woman. So she decides to get a makeover - hairdo, dresses, all that. This is silly, but not an insult to the character.

She is out in a cafe all dolled when Newman mistakes her for a "fille de joie", who he decides to interview to get his column back on track. She recognizes him and plays along, at first for revenge, then because she kind of likes being an infamous woman of pleasure. I'm sure you will guess that this all leads to a put up/shut up sex panic, just like a Doris Day movie.

Some of you are probably thinking, Funny Face: unconventional, unfeminine woman needs a man to make her fashionable and pretty. Yes, but. Astaire was playing a David-Avedon-like photographer who saw the beauty in Hepburn right away (not so difficult). Newman is parodying a self-important, hyper-masculine writer (at least I hope it's a parody), who ignores or scorns a woman who isn't frilly - not really likable. I feel like it's closer to Paris When it Sizzles: supposed romance spoiled by a sour misogyny.

Woodward's character holds up fairly well, even if she is a bit retro. Newman's doesn't - especially in the fantasy sequences when Woodward imagines him as a growling, animalistic football player. He doesn't seem to be getting it. Maybe he's just not that retro.

Still, some fun fashions, and Thelma Ritter gets a much deeper role than usual. Also, I liked Marvin Kaplan as Newman's thick-glassed, shlubby Jewish buddy. I'm not ready to give up on Sixties sex farces.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Keep On Pushing

Just to keep the noir going, Pushover (1954). Directed by Richard Quine, it starts Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak, and it does have a touch of Double Indemnity in it.

It starts with a bank robbery and murder. Then we cut to Kim Novak coming out of the movies. She is wrapped in furs, but all alone. When her car won't start, Fred MacMurray comes over to help. They both noticed each other in the theater and wondered why they were alone. Well, I'm wondering too. They have some sexy dialog, go to a bar, then his place, and the whole time, we don't know what's going on. Who are these people and what are they up to?

Spoiler - he's a cop and she's the moll of one of the bank robbers. MacMurray was assigned to get close to her, and I guess he is pretty good at it. Of course, she does catch on, in a great little scene where she spits, "You're a cop!" and slaps him. As she kicks him out, she says, "Well, it's been weird knowing you." But he isn't just sleeping with her because it's his job. He's starting to fall in love with her. So they start cooking up a scheme to take the money from the heist and run off together.

Meanwhile, MacMurray has to keep playing cop, doing surveillance along with partner Phil Carey. Carey spends most of his time watching the redhead next door to Novak, a wholesome nurse who puts up drapes in jeans and a man's shirt and hosts cocktail parties after a long day at work. She's played by Dorothy Malone, usually a bad girl. Her part starts out as something like comic relief, but turns into a little more.

This is no Double Indemnity - Novak is more a sex kitten than femme fatale, and MacMurray's cop doesn't have the depth of Walter Neff. But Novak is sexy and real and fun to watch. The cold open is odd and can throw you off balance. All in all, exemplary noir.

Ms. Spenser, on the other hand, was disappoint that nobody was actually push over anything, like off the roof.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Brush Up on Your Shakespeare

Well, we seem to be working our way through Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare. This week's entry, Love's Labour's Lost (2000), is quite the oddball. If you haven't heard of it, it mixes one of Shakespeare's lesser known comedies with well-known musical numbers from Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, and Kern.

It is set in the early 20th century, before The War (one or the other), in the kingdom of Navarre. The king and three friends pledge to live in seclusion from woman and dedicate themselves to philosophy and fasting. As we learned in Siddhartha, it's what all the kids are into. This is all explained in a newsreel, something Branagh uses several times to condense and replace Shakespeare's exposition.

They all sign the pledge, but Berowne (Kenneth Branagh) doesn't think they will be able to keep it. In fact, right away, they have to make an exception, because the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) is coming to discuss a treaty. Although they make her and her three ladies in waiting camp outside the castle, they do meet with her. I'm sure you can guess what happens to these four men and four women.

That's right! Pillow fights and musical numbers! I Won't Dance, I Get a Kick Out of You, The Way You Look Tonight, and many others. Also, clowns, including Nathan Lane as an entertainer and Timothy Spall as Armado, a "fantastical Spaniard", who breaks the rules by falling for a peasant girl, saucy Stefania Rocca. A mix-up of letters leads to a musical number from Geraldine McEwan, a Shakespearean actress playing an elderly scholar (The Way You Look Tonight, quite lovely), and the boys infatuation is revealed. There are a few more mix-ups, an S&M-themed masked ball (Face the Music and Dance) and a surprisingly serious ending.

I'm not 100% sure this all works. About 3/4 of the original text is cut out, replaced with songs and newsreel. In places, you get the concept: Some of the dialog is in rhymes, and that leads smoothly into the tricky rhymes and rhythms of 30's musical standards. This play is known as one of Shakespeare's trickiest and frothiest, so that works.

The actors are half Shakespearean, half show-biz. You may not take to Silverstone reciting Shakespeare right away, but she does a neat trick where she acts like a smart girl acting like an airhead, acting all pompous and Shakespearean. It kind of works.

So we lose a lot of the original play, including the play within the play that the clowns put on. But in it's place, you get Anthony Lane singing There's No Business Like Show Business. I think it's a good trade-off.

Also, this is one of my favorite plays, because I once performed a 1-man, 1-woman version in a tree.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Noir in the Night

Due to the way the dice fell, we wound up with a noir double-bill and a musical noir chaser.

Crime Wave/Decoy (1946) are the one-disc double-bill. Crime Wave, directed by Andre De Toth, is pretty standard cops and robbers stuff. Reformed ex-con Gene Nelson just wants to live quietly with his wife Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax). But a wounded prison escapee (Nedrick Young) wants to hole up with them. Meanwhile, head cop Sterling Hayden is closing in. There are a few scenes that are so classic, you might wonder if De Toth is parodying them. Like when the cops are trying to figure out who the escapee might stay with. Sterling Hayden knows the score on all of them: "What about...?" "Naw, he's up in Sing Sing." "Well, then, ..." "Retired, moved to Florida." "Well, maybe ..." "Don't you keep up on the news? He died last week."

But other than the general awesomeness of Hayden, this isn't anything special. De Toth knocked it out in 13 days, so I guess it was no big deal.

Decoy is a bit different. It wasn't available for a long time and got a kind of cult status. It was written by Nedrick Young (see above) and directed by first-timer Jack Bernhard, but the big draw is Jean Gillie.

The movie starts with Gillie being shot, and flashes back from there. A bank robber on death row won't tell anyone where the money is, not even his moll, Gillie. So she comes up with a plan to revive him after his trip to the gas chamber, and she just needs to convince the prison doctor (Herbert Rudley) to go along. Although he has a gorgeous platinum blonde nurse, Gillie just bowls him over.

The detective on their trail is Jo Jo Portugal - a great name for Sheldon Leonard ("Out you pixies go, t'rough the door or t'rough the winder"). In the final scenes, a dying Gillie asks him to come closer, "Come down to my level for once" and you (and he) expect a confession, or even a kiss. But she laughs in his face, a beautiful, wild, evil laugh, and then expires on the spot! So good. She was a great femme fatale who only made a few movies, then died young.

If you get this disc, feel free to skip Crime Wave.

Blues in the Night (1941) isn't really a noir, even though there's a murder. It's about a little quintet that wants to play the blues, you know, the real stuff. On piano, their leader, is Richard Whorf, looking kind of like Tyrone Power. Elia Kazan is on drums (not directing), with Billy Halop on clarinet. Big Jack Carson is on trumpet and his wife, a character names "Character" (Priscilla Lane) sings. They ride the rails from gig to gig, barely making enough to eat. But when gangster Lloyd Nolan hops in their car and steals their last $5, they don't turn him in, but offer him a sandwich.

That leads him to offer them a job at his New Jersey roadhouse, the Jungle, just across the river from New York. This leads to hard times, woman trouble, and the aforementioned murder. It's a lurid tale of musician's life on the road. The band members aren't very likable (except Character, she's a honey), there isn't as much music as you'd expect, and the kind of boogie-woogie they call the blues is not as hot as it's cracked up to be.

But there's something fresh about the trials of a working band, trying to make the best music they can and a little money if they can. The tone is dark, although there are good times, but overall, there's at least a touch of the noir aesthetic (or was it just made cheaply?).

However, they appear to take the title song seriously - they learn it from some old Negroes in jail. I always thought it was tongue in cheek. Maybe because I first heard it sung by Daffy Duck.

Update: I forgot about the "montages" - Blues in the Night had one or two hallucinatory dream sequences, with the credit "Montages: Don Siegel" - who later directed everything from The Big Steal and Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Dirty Harry.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Tushy Rittingham

The Knack...and How to Get It (1965) is a bit of the Swinging Sixties, from Richard Lester, between Hard Day's Night and Help! It has been called Hard Day's Night without the Beatles. But it does have Rita Tushingham.

Michael Crawford is a young school teacher who rents out a room in his house to champion Lothario Ray Brooks. Brooks is suave with sideburns, a quiff, and Italian sunglasses. Crawford looks a bit like Roger Daltrey with a bad haircut. He is driven to distraction by Brooks' kanck with the birds. He tries renting a spare room to give the house some "tone", but winds up with a wacky Irishman (Donal Donnelly) who piles all the furniture in the hall and paints his room white.

Meanwhile, we see Rita Tushingham arriving in London and trying to find the YWCA. Hey, Rita, Michael Crawford is renting a room - wait, it's already taken.

Finally, they meet up in a junkyard where Crawford is buying a bed. This leads to what I believe the Monkees called a "frolic": Our friends rolling a bed through London, riding on it, jumping on it, directing traffic, you know, frolicking. This is one of Lester's signature moves (his first short, The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film, is reportedly nothing but). If you don't like it, you might want to skip this.

Of course, Rita is put to the test by Brooks - he attempts to seduce her. Her reactions are the realest thing in the movie: flattered, intrigued, disgusted, among others. When he goes too far, she shouts "RAPE!", which is a lot less funny now than it might have been then. Kind of takes you out of it.

Also of note, John Barry (James Bond theme) supplies a light, poppy, jazzy score. Unfortunately, it doesn't do much for me - I might have preferred a something Merseybeat or even trad jazz. (One of Lester's first films was It's Trad, Dad, about Britain's pre-Beatles love of traditional Dixieland-style jazz.)

I was worried about watching this, because I was afraid that a theoretically light-hearted comedy would be horribly dated, heartbreaking, or just horrible. It was not, it was fun. It is not my favorite Lester, but not the worst (Royal Flash). The best part is Rita Tushingham in a comic role - she is funny-looking and lovely in equal parts and a great comic actor. Now I want to see The Bed Sitting Room.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The River of No Return

This first time I saw Siddhartha (1972), I was in high school. I saw it with my high-school sweetie, a serious yet artistic young woman who shared with me an interest in Eastern mysticism (and hippie intellectual pretension - can't forget that). I remember it as being beautiful, sensuous, and rather silly. Although the sexy scenes did get our young blood pumping, and we found the cinematography and music lovely, we didn't feel like it was really deep, man. I kind of remember feeling sheepish for having enjoyed it.

I've had it on my Netflix queue for quite awhile, with Very Long Wait status. This week Netflix decided to serve it up, and I found myself actually eager to watch. In the end, I have to agree with my teen-aged self: It is beautiful and silly, and I sheepishly enjoyed it.

Siddhartha stars Shashi Kapoor as in the title role. He is a young Brahman man, living with his father at the time of the Buddha. He is bored with the quiet life, seeing his father go down to bathe in thr River Ganges everyday. He wants excitement, adventure - he wants to renounce all worldly possessions and go live with the wandering sadhus. Now, as a teenager, I guess I had no problem with this, but now it seems like renunciation isn't the obvious dream of most teen boys.

But then we see the sadhus hitting on the old ganja pipe and it all makes sense. (Remember, "ganja" is etymologically related to "Ganges". It's all connected.)

Siddhartha and his friend Govinda meet the Buddha, and Govinda takes the robe to follow him. But Siddhartha wants to follow his own path with no teacher, no master but himself. He decides to move to the town and tarry with a lovely courtesan, Simi Garewal. This big-eyed lovely introduces him to a merchant and gets him started on a life of business success and luxury, with some sweet loving inbetween.

Older and wiser, Siddhartha leaves his wealth behind to become an apprentice ferryman. The river carries everything to him, including the beautiful Simi and the son he never knew about. She has begun to follow the Buddha, and gets to see Siddhartha one last time, dying in his arms from a snakebite. It is a touching and, well, silly scene.

And so, life and the river flow on. A major theme is that the river returns everything to you, which is crazy - rivers are noted for going only one way, except maybe tidal estuaries. But I suppose that comes from the source novel by Hermann Hesse. There's a lot of the novel in this I think - at least I assume that's the reason that such a visual movie is so talky. At one point near the end, ferryman Siddhartha says, "I can love without speaking," and Ms. Spenser and I broke out laughing. You can't do anything without speaking, dude! You are the talkiest monk we've ever heard.

So, the mystic content of this movie is not flawless. The visual content, lensed by the great Sven Nyquist, is. The music, by Hemant Kumar, is also lovely, and I speak as one who does not particularly like the flute. So I am going to recommend this movie, if you don't take it too seriously.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

To Be or What?

Remember how I was kind of complaining that Shakespeare movies abridged the text too much, leaving out everything but the "quotes"? Kenneth Branagh's 4-hour Hamlet (1996) does not have that problem. It doesn't have another problem, common to the more complete filmed Shakespearean plays: It is not stagey, it is cinematically rich. This is pretty much the best movie Shakespeare.

It stars Branagh as the Big Ham, of course. Blenheim (pronounced "bleh") Palace plays Elsinore, and the Duke of Marlborough has a small role as Fortinbras' captain, I suppose as the bribe to get him to let them use the castle. Derek Jacobi is King "I" Claudius, and Julie Christie is Queen Gertrude. Throw in Brian Blessed as the Ghost, and some amazing small parts for Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Judi Dench. Gerard Depardieu, Richard Attenborough, and Jack Lemmon of all people, and you've got quite a cast.

I don't really know what else to talk about - Kate Winslet, perhaps, stands out as Ophelia, pre- and post-madness. Branagh intercuts some of Hamlet and Polonius' discussions with flashbacks to Hamlet and Ophelia naked in bed, so that subtext is made solid text. That might have been the only time he showed something no explicitly in the text.

I feel like this was an almost perfect Shakespearean movie - All that Shakespeare dialog, clear and understandable, filmed like a movie, not a play, looking as good as it sounds. Works for me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Blue Lunch


As part of my never-ending quest to find the elusive "Cosmo for boys", I present the Ice Blue Pink. Sadly, it appears to be more pink than blue, so men will never accept it.

It is based on a nip of blueberry (or "blaberi") liqueur that Ms. Spenser's friend brought back from Iceland. I took a few sips and found it quite sweet, too sweet to drink alone. But not too sweet for a new cocktail.

With gin as my base liquor, I followed the "1 sweet, 1 sour, 2 strong" rule:

Ice Blue Pink

1 jigger Gin
1 oz. lime juice
1 oz. Reykjavik Distillery Blueberry Liqueur

Shake over ice and strain.

Too bad that the color isn't right, but the taste is delicious.

In researching Iceland and the color blue, I did discover the Blue Lagoon, a hot springs near Reykjavik. It's local name is Bláa lónið, which translates as "blue sustenance" or "blue lunch". Not an auspicious name for a drink.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Better Shop Around

As our final bit of holiday cheer, we watched The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, it's full of great actors and "that Lubitsch touch".

It's set in backlot Budapest around Christmas, in a little luggage and knick-knack shop, where Jimmy Stewart is a clerk. One day, Margaret Sullavan comes in, looking for a job, and manages to get off on the wrong foot with Stewart. All the while they are quarelling, we know something that they don't - they are anonymous correspondents with each other, pen-pals. And they are falling in love on paper, while fighting when face to face.

If it sounds familiar to you, and you are not a classic movie fan, maybe it is because you saw the remake with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, You've Got Mail (1998). Or maybe the Judy Garland musical version In the Good Old Summertime (1948). But that's preposterous, we've already established that you don't watch old movies. Never mind - let's just say this movie was remade a few times. But this is the real thing.

It's partly Stewart and Sullavan, it's partly the supporting cast. The boss in played by Frank Morgan, the smooth-talking yes-man clerk by Joseph Schildkraut. William Tracy as the hot-shot delivery boy has several great scenes. But best of all is Felix Bressart, a drab little man with a big mustache and pince-nez glasses. He is a friend of Stewart's and a great philosopher, with a lot of the best lines.

In fact, one of our all-time favorite movie scenes is when Stewart is meeting his pen-pal for the first time, and asks to Bressart to look for her through the cafe window. He reports, "She's drinking coffee. She's taking a bit of cake." Then, shocked, "She's dunking!" Partly Bressart, partly the Lubitsch Touch.

That touch involves a sophisticated script that can be gentle and psychologically deep, but always exact and precise. The performances are all spot-on - it's great watching Stewart's face as Sullavan prattles on. I've read that her temper is as bad as her characters, maybe that's what makes her part so much fun.

And it all winds up on Christmas Eve.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Movie Quiz!

Movie quiz time over at Dennis Cozzalio's place. It is administered by Professor Moriarty, so you know that it's diabolical. This is one of the harder quizzes, so prepare for some soul-searching.

1) Best movie of 2016
Bringing Up Baby, same as every year.

Just kidding. I'm going to interpret these as "___ movie made in 2016, that I saw in 2016, in my opinion". So my answer is Deadpool, or maybe The Nice Guys.

2) Worst movie of 2016
London has Fallen was loud, stupid, and humorless, but not in a good way. Gods of Egypt was also very stupid, but we liked that.

3) Best actress of 2016
Gal Gadot for 5 minutes of Batman v Superman. No, I guess Mary Elizabeth Winstead, from 10 Cloverfield Lane. Say, how come we didn't see more Scarlett Johansson this year?

4) Best actor of 2016
Might as well go all in: John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane.

5) What movie from 2016 would you prefer not hearing another word about? Why?
Rogue One or Dr. Strange, because I haven't seen them yet and I'm avoiding spoilers.

6) Second-favorite Olivier Assayas movie
Have only ever seen Irma Vep, so Clouds of Sils Maria.

7) Miriam Hopkins or Kay Francis?
Kay Francis has an amazing, aristocratic look, but Hopkins could really play comedy.

8) What’s the story of your first R-rated movie?
I'll tell Ms. Spenser's instead: She went to see French Connection with older friends when she was only 15. When the ticket taker asked her what year she was born, she hadn't done the math, and was stuck saying "1955, uh, 54." The ticket taker looked at a mobbed-up looking guy chewing on a toothpick who was behind her (the manager?) who nodded, and she was let in.

And she laughed because she thought she had fooled them.

9) What movie from any era that you haven’t yet seen would you be willing to resolve to see before this day next year?
I was going to say, any movie on my Netflix queue, but there are some movies that have been on the list forever, and I've never felt like watching them. Mostly "difficult" movies. So, Rogue One or Dr. Strange.

10) Second-favorite Pedro Almodovar movie
Labyrinth of Passion. Number 1 is Women on the Verge.

11) What movie do you think comes closest to summing up or otherwise addressing the qualities of 2016?
Wow, I'm getting bummed out just thinking about this one. Pass.

12) Chris Pine or Chris Pratt?
I say Pratt, Ms. Spenser says Pine. Why argue when you can have both?

13) Your favorite movie theater, presently or from the past
Let me tell you about the movie theaters of old downtown Palo Alto (mid-1980s). First and funkiest, the Festival, which was really just a room in an office building. They played all the classics on a tiny screen, and the front section was floor pillows and beanbag chairs. I think it went back to being an office in 1985.

The Bijou was a small theater next to a great ice cream joint (Uncle Bunny's?). We saw Hammett there. The guy ahead of us asked for a ticket to Hamlet, and was disappointed when he found out what was really playing. It became the first Gordon-Biersch brew pub.

The New Varsity, on the other hand, was a great old picture palace, all Mission Revival, with a spacious courtyard at the entrance. It was a Border's Books for a while, until they folded. We saw a Gumby festival there, with Art Cloakey himself!

Finally, the Stanford. Smaller than the Varsity, it is still a fabulous Art Deco Egyptian temple of film, complete with a mighty Wurlitzer, on which an organist plays "Isn't It Romantic," the Stanford's theme song. It was restored by the David Packard Foundation. It is still operating, and we really should go more often.

14) Favorite movie involving a family celebration
The Addam's Family. Not that the party scene is my favorite part, but that wasn't the question.

15) Second-favorite Paul Schrader movie
Turns out I haven't watched one movie that he directed or wrote. Pass.

16) Ruth Negga or Hayley Atwell?
Since I haven't watched Agent Carter, I will say Ruth Negga, a striking young actor.

17) Last three movies you saw, in any format
Easy: Ms. Spenser wanted our brother-in-law to see Mad Max: Fury Road and Predators, so we watched those early on New Year's Eve.

New Year's Day, we found out that our mail was still on hold from our vacation, so we watched Dune from the DVD we own (sadly "widescreen" = letterboxed on all four sides). It was better than I remembered, especially as an adjunct to the book, not a standalone movie.

18) Your first X-rated, or porn movie?
Let me see - it was July 3, 1976. I was hitch-hiking to Ellsworth ME to celebrate the bicentennial Fourth of July with a friend, and I'd made it to Portland. Since it was getting too dark to hitch, I got ticket for the midnight bus, and had a few hours to kill. So I stopped in a porno theater to watch Sexual Practices in Sweden and some foreign murder mystery (Italian giallo?) with intercut teenage orgy scenes edited clumsily in. Maybe you know the one I mean - someone was murdering swingers, and the detective thinks his wife is the next victim, but he can't get to her because she is with her lover.

The midnight bus to Ellsworth took about six hours to go the 120 miles, hitting every little town, so I arrived after dawn.

However, I also saw a double-bill of Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door in Boston's Combat Zone, and that must have been before 1976, so maybe those were my first.

19) Richard Boone or Charles McGraw?
What the Hec Ramsey? Richard Boone!

20) Second-favorite Chan-wook Park movie
Can I say The Good, the Bad, and the Weird is my favorite Jee-woon Kim movie?

21) Movie that best encompasses or expresses loneliness
2001: A Space Odyssey is the first thing that jumps to mind. The cold, isolated astronauts are never explicitly called lonely, but what else would you call it?

22) What’s your favorite movie to watch with your best friend?
My best friend is, of course, Ms. Spenser, and we watch an old Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode about once a week. Favorites include Pod People or maybe Night of the Blood Beasts.

23) Who’s the current actor you most look forward to seeing in 2017?
We usually wait for movies, or sometimes directors, not actors. But, what the heck, Scarlett Johansson.

24) Your New Year’s wish for the movies
That I'll get to see some of the "Very long wait" movies in my Netflix queue, and maybe even some of the 120 from the "Saved" list.