Thursday, May 26, 2022

Six-Day Indoor Bicycle Race

 I don't know what made me think of W.C. Fields Comedy Collection: International House (1933) - I just wanted to see the six-day indoor bicycle race.

It's about an American, Stuart Erwin, going to the city of Wuhu in China to buy the rights to Dr, Wong's radioscope. He hopes to meet his fiancée Sari Maritza there. But he somehow gets mixed up with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, playing Peggy Hopkins Joyce. That name might not mean much now, but she was a famous man-eater and gold-digger, famous for marrying and fleecing rich men. That sort of gives you an idea about what kind of film this is.

The proprietor of the hotel everyone is staying at (International House of Wuhu) is Franklin Pangborn. The house doctor and his nurse are Burns and Allen. Entertainers at the hotel include Cab Calloway (singing "That Funny Reefer Man"), Rudy Vallee, Sterling Holloway, Baby Rose Marie (later of Dick van Dyke fame), and Col. Stoopnagle and Bud. 

About midway through, the famous aviator W.C. Fields drops in (literally) under the impression that he's in Kansas City. 

Meanwhile, Dr. Wong is trying to tune in the six-day indoor bicycle race on his radioscope. The idea just tickles me.

On reflection, I may have gotten this mixed up with Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, where Fields falls off the smoking deck of an airplane. Maybe that's next.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Nile Blues

Death on the Nile (2022) is a worthy follow-up to the first Kenneth Branagh Poirot, and the Poirot tradition in general. It is stylish, cosmopolitan, colonialist, and filled with glamorous stars of today and yesteryear. But it does have the modern failing of trying to explain every damn detail of the protagonists backstory.

It starts during WWI, in black and white. A clean-shaven Lt. Poirot (Branagh) and his company are ordered by their mustachioed captain to take a bridge from the Bosch. Poirot comes up with a clever strategy, but his captain is killed by a booby trap, and Poirot is left with facial scars. His fiancee, a field nurse, makes light of it, and tells him to grow a mustache to cover them up.

Jump to "present day" - sometime between the wars. Poirot is at a fancy nightclub watching Sophie Okonedo sing the blues like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. He also notices his old friend (from the last movie), Tom Bateman, who is courting Letitia Wright, Okonedo's niece and manager. We get to see Emma Mackey introduce fabulously wealthy Gal Gadot to her boyfriend, Armie Hammer. And so on.

When we next meet them, they are in Egypt. Brand has dumped Mackey for Gadot, and they are going to party up and down the Nile. But Mackey keeps showing up, like a ghost at the feast. So they charter a river boat and take off. But Mackey finds her way on board and shoots Hammer in the leg. While all this is going on, Gadot is found killed. It is up to Poirot to find out whodunnit.

The settings are glamorous and appropriately colonialist. The riverboat has huge glass windows, although we see less through them then you might expect. The glamorous cast includes Annette Benning as Batman's snobby mother, Jennifer Saunders has Gadot's grandmother with Dawn French as her companion (and secret lover), Russell Brand as the charitable physician Gadot used to love, and who knows how many else. The blues gospel of Rosetta Tharpe and Okonedo's performance bring a little soul to the proceedings, and Letita Wright is always welcome.

Overall, a lovely bit of fluff. I think I even understand the murder. And I can even forgive the mustache. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Quiet - Too Quiet

 Since we liked the original well enough, we figured we'd give A Quiet Place Part II (2021) a shot.

It starts in flashback. John Krasinski (also directing) shows up a little late to his son's softball game. His neighbor, Cillian Murphy, who's there with his son, gives him a bit of a ribbing. Then the meteor hits and the monsters show up.

Now we're back in the present. Krasinski is dead. His son Noah Jupe, his deaf daughter, Millicent Simmonds, his wife Emily Blunt, and he newborn baby are trying to survive in the old same place. But things are getting too hard, so they set off to the nearest neighbor, whose lights they have seen at night when they light their signal fire.

It turns out to be a derelict foundry - but before they get there, they walk into a trap. Jupe steps on a bear trap, and his screams brings a monster. (Remember, they are basically blind and only respond to sound.) But Simmonds has a hearing aid that emits a high-pitched sound that drives them crazy, and they defeat the monster. 

It turns out that Cillian Murphy is their neighbor. His wife and son have been killed, and he's bitter, He refuses to help them or let them stay, although he does let them hide in the air-tight furnace when the monsters come. 

Through an unlikely set of clues. Simmonds figures out that there is a working radio transmitter on an island near the shore. If she can get there, she can broadcast her hearing aid signal, and anyone with a radio can repel the monsters. Although the adults forbid it, she sneaks off - and almost gets killed, but Murphy had followed her.

From here on, we get parallel stories: Simmonds and Murphy going to the island and Blunt, Jupe, and baby trying to survive in the foundry. It turns out that the island has a small, thriving community, because the monsters can't swim. It's actually quite bougie, even with Djimon Hansou running things. It doesn't last.

I kind of liked the parallel story lines, although I think the trick might have hidden some weaknesses in each one. But they were both full of exciting action and suspense. It's a change from the meditative silence and mindful walking in the early part. Murphy made an interesting addition to the cast - he plays a kind of stringy, rangy good ol' boy, maybe with a touch of survivalist. You can see the family sizing him up for a father-figure, or at least a compatriot, and he doesn't want any part of it. Every man for himself. But of course, he reforms. 

Blunt is a natural at steely determination, and Jupe is a timid, somewhat shell-shocked kid who is nonetheless doing his best. It's Simmonds who probably plays the best character: idealistic and strong, determined to save the world. I don't suppose there will be a sequel to show this, though. I think they are going prequel. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Little Shop of Joe

 Little Joe (2019) has been on our queue for a while, possibly since last Halloween. We saw previews for it before a lot of scary movies, but it never looked quite right for us. Then I decided I wanted to see it because Ben Whishaw is in it. I've seen movies for worse reasons.

Little Joe stars Emily Beecham, as a plant scientist trying to develop house plants in the near future. While her company rivals are trying to create a hardy plant that will survive its owner's neglect, Beecham has a different take. Her plant takes a lot of caring, but gives the owner a sense of peace and love. The plant has weird red flowers, and seems to require red light. She names it after her son, Joe, and gives him a pre-production plant. 

Strange things start happening around the flower. First a fellow scientist's dog disappears. Ben Whishaw, a plant technician, looks in the little Joe greenhouse, and is hit by a blast of pollen. The dog that comes back doesn't recognize his owner, Kerry Fox. But she has had mental issues, so this may just be something like that. 

Whishaw, on the other hand, is still sucking up to Beecham as his boss, but now is also trying to get romantic. Beecham is a bit stand-offish anyway - married to her job, oblivious to emotions - so she doesn't take to this. She is also having a little trouble her son. He is quiet and well-behaved, but knows that she isn't giving him the attention he needs. Then he gets hit by the plant. 

He gets a cute girlfriend and sneaks her into the greenhouse. Now they are both dosed with pollen. When Beecham confronts him, he just tells her he's a teenager now. It's natural for him to pull away. And he's thinking he should go stay with his father in Scotland, and maybe take him a plant.

So, a bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a bit of Little Shop of Horrors/Day of the Triffids. Directed by Jennifer Hausner, this has a very stylish look, with the high-tech greenhouses, red flowers, corporate meeting rooms, etc. There's a nice look at high-tech office politics, and some nonsense about the plant spreading pollen because it was rendered sterile - it's trying to reproduce by taking over human minds? The main theme is "If everyone's mind is taken over, could you tell?" and "If people are mind-controlled to be happy, is that so bad?" 

But we didn't really think it all came together. The themes aren't really new, and aren't done that well. It looks good, but not strikingly so. Also, all the beta testers reported that their family members were acting weirdly - didn't anyone check that? The best part was Joe and his girlfriend confessing that Beecham that yes, the pollen had taken over their brains, but it was happy and peaceful, like being dead. Then they burst out laughing, and tell her they're joking. 

So it's a low-key, artsy horror movie, on not-that-new themes, done well but not outstanding. It wasn't bad, but we could have skipped it, Ben Whishaw and all.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

A Fair Cop

 Copshop (2021) got a lot of attention, particularly from lovers of the screenwriting craft. It's a little movie, almost a bottle show (show with limited casts and locations - designed to be cheap to produce). It's almost an Attack on Precinct 13, but also its own thing. 

It starts with a car chase - the car in front is badly shot up. It gets a little ahead, and then dies. The driver gets out and starts walking through the desert to a casino. Meanwhile, we meet Alexis Louder, a cute young African-American policewoman. She's practicing her fast-draw while her partner gets some greasy food from a taco truck out on the highway. They get a call that there's a fight at the casino. While they are calming this down, that driver sucker punches her, and is arrested. He will be held in the isolated desert copshop of the title. 

A little while later, a drunk plows into some police cars, and he is also thrown in lock up, across from the first guy. First guy is Frank Grillo with long greasy hair and a douchy beard. It turns out that he is a witness in a federal case against the mob, and also stole a lot of money from them. Drunk guy is only playing drunk to get into jail. He's Gerard Butler with long greasy hair and a slightly less douchy beard. He has been hired to kill Grillo. If only they weren't in separate cells. Louder figures they have this handled.

Then a new assassin shows up: skinny old-timer Toby Huss, not just a killer, but a psycho. He starts shooting cops, and takes out pretty much everyone by surprise. Louder manages to lock herself in the jail section, but not before she manages to sustain a bullet wound - her own bullet, a ricochet off some bulletproof glass. Now it's a siege.

There's a lot of fun in this, if you like this kind of thing. Butler's contract killer has a lot of cute quips and pointless anecdotes. Grillo is a very sleazy, and Huss is just psycho. SPOILER - when he gets killed, he starts laughing, just can't stop. It's too damn funny. Louder is great - not a superhuman badass, but a badass nonetheless.

The copshop itself is kind of interesting. It's got that brutalist concrete interior you see in modern libraries, primary schools and other civic buildings. The exterior shots of this little complex late at night off the side of a highway in the middle of nowhere remind you of how big the southwest is, and how little chance there is of backup. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Harlem Soul

We recently got Disney+, so we could watch Summer of Soul (2021) - OK, not the main reason, but a nice benefit.

In the summer of 1969, the same year as Woodstock, when whitey walked on the moon, there was a huge outdoor free music festival in Harlem. But because it was Harlem, it went largely unnoticed by the outside world. It had been taped, and some of the tapes had been shown on TV that year, but it was mostly forgotten. Then Questlove heard about it, got his hands on the footage, and made this movie.

It's mostly a documentary, not a concert film. They interview people who attended and talk about the times and the context. But there is also a lot of music. It starts with an outrageous Stevie Wonder drum solo. There was a lot of gospel: Edward Hawkins Singers, Staples Singers, Mahalia Jackson, who invited Mavis Staples to join with her, a great honor and a thrill for the audience. The Fifth Dimension showed that blacks could be pop, Chambers Brothers were psychedlicized, Sly and the Family Stone were integrated - and wild. B.B. King played the blues. David Ruffin showed off his solo chops and an amazing falsetto range - sounded like Minnie Ripperton! Africa was represented by Hugh Masakela, and a troupe of dancers. Mongo Santamaria showed black and brown solidarity. Herbie Mann and Max Roach played jazz, and Nina Simone was Nina Simone. Wow!

So you can guess my complaint: not enough music. Very few songs played in their entirety. Most acts only got a few minutes. I think there are music clearance issues - there are bound to be. But mostly this made me want to see the reported 40 hours of tape. OK, maybe whittle it down to 4 hours. Special features!

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Moist Noir

 I liked the look of Reminiscence (2021) in the previews, so I put it in the queue. I skipped the reviews, although I knew they didn't look good. 

It's set in the future, when global warming has raised sea level to the point where Miami is half-drowned, with water up to the second or third floor of the high-rises, and dikes keeping some of the rest dry - although still pretty moist. Huge Jackman is a memory specialist - he operates a machine that lets people relive memories of a happier, cooler past. He's a vet of the weather wars, like his assistant, Thandiwe Newton. One day, Rebecca Ferguson stops in for help in finding her car keys. Just like in Zero Effect. It turns out that she's a nightclub chantoozy, and he goes to check out her act. Eventually, they fall in love. And then she disappears.

Jackman starts compulsively watching memories of their time together over and over, which can lead to burnout. When scanning the memories of a suspect for the police (the only paying job he's had recently, and Newton forced him to take it), he gets a clue to Ferguson's past with a New Orleans drug lord. So the chase is on. 

In parallel, there's the story of  a local land baron, a member of the over-caste who own all the dry land. That's the Chinatown bit. It's quite involved, as is the Ferguson mystery. And they do come together in the end.

But that wasn't why we enjoyed this. It was for the drowned cities, the deco lobbies, the steam punk memory machines, the neo-noir atmosphere. The art directors really knew what they were making.

There was also one scene that really worked, although it was pretty improbable. It's a big SPOILER, so skip this if you care. When Jackman is scanning the memories of a bad guy, he finds that he was holding Ferguson. She starts telling the bad guy how much she loves him, and how she hopes he gets to see this - and Jackman realizes that she is hoping he will see this memory, and know it was meant for him. I wonder if she had to give this monologue to a lot of bad guys, for insurance? Anyway, it's actually very sweet. 

Look, this isn't Blade Runner, or Chinatown, or Blade Runner meets Chinatown meets Inception, although it's got a little of all those, along with Casablanca, and a lot more. But as a top-grade B-movie SF noir, it was great.