Monday, August 28, 2017

K.C. Moan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Furiouser and Furiouser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Bewitched, Bothered and Beguiled

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Scary Monster, Super Creeps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

You Drive Me Ape You Big Gorilla

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

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

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

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

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

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

What more do you want?

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

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Manic Red-Haired Dream Girl

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 3, 2017

It's the Worst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Wheels of Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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