Sunday, April 30, 2017

I am a Passenger

We watched Passengers (2016) because that's the kind of SF we watch, but we had been warned.

It starts with Chris Pratt waking up in his hibernation pod in a great spaceship. He expects to find the crew and the rest of the passengers getting ready to arrive at the colony. But no one else wakes up - there was an accident, and they still have another 90 years to the voyage, and he would be dead before that.

He goes a bit crazy then. He takes a little solace in the ship's bar, talking to the robot bartender (Michael Sheen). He takes a space walk, then contemplates doing it without a suit. He happens across Jennifer Lawrence's pod, and falls in love with her. He knows he mustn't wake her up - it would be a kind of murder. She is a "writer" (we never learn what kind, but I think journalist/essayist most likely) and he obsessively reads all her writing. The parts we hear him read out loud sound kind of corny, and it's not clear whether we're supposed to think she's a shallow airhead (but we kind of do).

After a white-knuckle year, he gives in and wakes her up, and lets her think it was another accident. Soon, they are making love. So, a life in solitary and sex under false pretences: not quite rape and murder, but very close.

This is what so many viewers couldn't accept, and it's not downplayed. Both Pratt and Lawrence know it is unforgivable. The movie's job is now to make Lawrence forgive Pratt. More importantly, to make us forgive Pratt (and not think Lawrence is an idiot if she forgives him).

I'm not going to spoilerate, but I'd like to mention a few things. For instance, there's a critique of corporatism in the movie: The spaceship is like a big shopping mall, or a resort with a rigid class structure. Pratt is a blue-collar machinist with a subsidized ticket. The robot mess hall won't serve him the caramel macchiato, just plain coffee. He spends his time tinkering on the ship, while Lawrence mainly jogs and works on her journal. This also explains why there's no adequate automated backups - stupid corporations. I don't think it really goes anywhere.

Also, I should mention that Laurence Fishburne shows up for a little and watch for Andy Garcia's big part.

In the end, we liked this. The outer space setting was very cool even if it made very little sense (why was the robot bar operating when everyone was in hiberbation? Never mind, robot bartender was our favorite character - and an homage to The Shining.). And the romance, though creepy, worked for us. So we got carried along, like passengers, even if everybody else just slept through it.

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?