Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Other Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Up to Scratch

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Double Bill Travesty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Samurai Double Bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Elevated Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Dead and Buried

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

So Help Me Hanna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Black Comedy

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

No Country for Old Man Logan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

Do You Like Good Music?

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

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

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

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

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

A must for all music lovers.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Truly, a Great Wall

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

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

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

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

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