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


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.