Thursday, April 15, 2021

Up the Yin Yang

I think I've mentioned before that sometimes Ms. Spenser doesn't want to spend all night watching movies. Strange, I know. Sometimes she has to get a little work in, as well. Also, she doesn't especially care for Asian martial arts movies. That makes them perfect to watch on streaming while she's taking care of email, etc. They aren't distracting because they aren't in English. That's how I found myself watching The Yin Yang Master (2021).

It starts in media res, with Qingming (Chen Kun) accused of killing the guards and stealing the Scale Stone, an object of power. So he runs away. Seven years later, we find Boya (Qu ChuXiao) guarding a shipment of tribute for the emperor. He is attacked by a demon with three expressionless faces and four arms. After a big fight, he rips one of the faces off, and it's a mask - the demon is actually three weasel-demons in a coat (with three masks and four arms). That's when this movie had me. 

I won't go into the rest of the movie in any detail (partly because I don't remember much - I tend to let these things just wash over me). Qingming is half-human-half-demon, but a good sort. Boya is a bit of a dry stick, but can't bring himself to go after Qingming full force. Woman Warrior Baini (Zhou Xun) can, however, making her a formidable opponent. 

But the real fun comes from the demons. Some are evil, some just goofy, all are fun to watch. It looks like this was made for the Chinese market, but got bought by Netflix for streaming. I liked it so much, I started the prequel/sequel Yin Yang Master: Dream of Eternity (2020).

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Hand Over Fist

I queued up Archenemy (2020) because Paul Scheer from How Did This Get Made is in it - he wouldn't say much about his role, but assured us we'd like it. He did give us a hint - it's about a bum who claims to be superhero.

But more, it's about a black brother and sister. She, Zolee Griggs, deals meth for a guy called the Manager (Glenn Howerton). She is pretty together, a little ambitious, and hopes to move up in the crime world. Her brother is Skylan Brooks, a wannabe viral vlogger and video journalist. He tries interviewing a street dealer, and takes it to a video website, where everyone is cool, drinking espresso and playing foosball in the office. The cute editor offers him a gig if he brings back something good.

Brooks runs into Joe Manganiello, as Max Fist, a grizzled drunk and street bum. His story is that he was a superhero in another dimension. To stop his archenemy (and ex-wife?), he punched a hole in the universe and got stuck on Earth. He lost his powers and the only thing that sustains him is booze and crank, which are necessary for life on this planet. 

The Manager tells Griggs to meet up with Paul Scheer, and out of town dealer, and get the money he owes. He is a freaked-out tweaker, played by Scheer in BVDs with a shaved head and facial tattoos, waving around a pistol. He makes Griggs play Russian roulette, and when she wins, he's so amused, he accidentally kills himself. So it isn't a big role, but a fun one.

Griggs takes the money and plans to take off with her brother, but the Manager sends his goons for her. You know they are bad news, because one has a copy of Nihilism for Beginners that he has been reading. Brooks comes home with Manganiello, who beats the hell out of them - not because he has superpowers, but because he surprised them and beat them to a pulp. So Brooks and Manganiello set out to rid their city of crime, or at least of the Manager.

Manganiello is great in the role - he had sort of the look of a Jason Mantzoukis and the voice of Jeff Bridges. They keep you guessing about whether he comes from another dimension until near the end. They don't show his past in flashback, but in comic book animation. 

This is written and directed by one Adam Egypt and I don't really know anything about him but his name (hard to forget). It pretty much falls into that interesting genre of low/mid-budget indie movies about ordinary hard-luck people, usually people of color, encountering superpowers. It's a little more of a comedy than, say, Fast Color, but it still fits. 

Personal Problems

I knew of Personal Shopper (2017) pretty much as an Olivier Assayas, starring Kristen Stewart as a personal shopper - that's it. Didn't sound like my thing. When Netflix pushed it as a supernatural thriller, I figured I'd try it on Ms. Spenser.

We meet Stewart going into a spooky old house. She is going to spend the night and try to contact the spirit of her dead brother. We learn slowly over the first act that the woman taking her to the house is her widowed sister-in-law, who wants to sell the house to friends of her and the brothers' but only if the spirit is ok with it. The brother, Stewart, the friends are all into spiritualism. The night at the house showed that there was a presence, but nothing definite.

Stewart is staying in France working as a personal shopper for an actress, Nora Waldstatten. As she tells a shopkeeper when picking out some dresses, she's a busy person who doesn't have time to do nornal human things. It's a dead end job with a lot of aggravation, but she wants to stay near where her brother died. She has a boyfriend, doing an IT contract in Oman, who wants her to join him. But she is still looking for closure.

She meets Waldstatten's lover, Lars Eidinger, who is being thrown over. Shortly after this, Stewart starts getting mysterious texts - at first she thinks they are coming from her brother on the Other Side. (but it's really Eidinger). The texts encourage her to do dangerous things, like wearing Waldstatten's clothes and going to a certain hotel room. But when she does, she finds Waldstatten's bloody corpse. 

So this low-key art-house ghost story becomes a murder thriller for a little while. But this wraps up fairly quickly and undramatically. That isn't what this movie is about.

It ends with Stewart going to Oman, and being followed by the ghost. The cinematography is beautiful - the rest of the movie has been in somewhat drab and rainy France and London, but Oman is ancient and sun-drenched. But it doesn't solve Stewart's problem - the problem must be within her. (Spoiler.)

Assayas is a sort of late son of the French New Wave - I loved his Irma Vep. He's made an interesting, unusual and spooky movie here. Strangely, he has made one other movie about Stewart in relation to an older actress - Clouds of Sils Maria. But I don't think it has any ghosts in it. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Wonder Years

I'm a little nervous about writing my post about Wonder Woman 1984 (2020). I've been ignoring reviews, but I can tell people didn't like this - and not just people who can't stand the idea of a woman like Patty Jenkins directing a superhero movie. But I thought it was great.

It starts on Themiscyra, with little Diana (Lilly Aspell) competing in a big Amazon decathlon/Gymkata with all the big girls. It's a great action scene with tons of practical stunts - and Aspell did a lot of her own. It really serves no point, except to give Robin Wright a chance to spout a Life Lesson. I didn't care - I enjoyed the spectacle.

Fast forward to 1984, a mall, filled with mallish stores, people in 80s fashion, women in leotards doing aerobics. I expected to see Beethoven trying out the keyboards at the organ store (Bogus Journey reference). Some bad men rob a jewelry store, going for the black market antiquities in the back room, like you find in most malls. Wonder Woman shows up to save the day, but disables the video cameras and tells one kid to keep it a secret, so nobody will ever figure it out. There's a funny scene where one of the robbers takes a little girl hostage, and even the other robbers are like, too much man.

Anyway, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) has been lying low since she lost the love of her life 70 years ago. She works in the Smithsonian, where she meets new hire Kristen Wiig, a clumsy, unattractive, neurotic gemologist. She has been brought in to identify the black market stuff recovered from the mall robbery. One piece that she and Gadot dismiss as worthless is a big citrine crystal with some Latin on it's holder - something about wishes. A passing scientist touches it and wishes for some coffee, and someone brings him a cup. Thoughts pass through the minds of Gadot and Wiig. 

Not really believing it, Wiig wishes to be more like Gadot. Gadot wishes she had her Steve back. 

Then Pedro Pascal shows up at the Smithsonian - He's been on TV touting an oil-based Ponzi scheme. As a big donor, he gets a tour of the premises, where he chats up Wiig, and a big party that Wiig and Gadot attend. Wiig is getting her wish, and becoming glam, and guess who shows up at the party? Chris Pine.

So the stage is set. I'll skip over the rest of the plot and just hit some high points. First, obviously, Pascal is supposed to be Trump - big conman, fake rich guy, tells everyone he'll grant their wish. This is actually pretty insulting - to the people Trump has hurt or killed. But of course, that's also the 80s, Reagan era vibe, so maybe it's allowable. 

And of course, her final fight with him was her and a bland white guy in a CGI whirlwind, just like the last movie. But at least there's another villain.

Wiig starts out just getting a little too into being smart, strong and popular. Then she goes full-on psycho and wishes herself into the Cheetah (villain name never mentioned as is the custom in these movies), a Cats-level CGI monstrosity. In her final fight, she refuses to back down, and as far as I can tell, isn't killed, so she may get a sequel appearance. 

When I'm writing this all out, I am slowly losing enthusiasm for the movie - maybe I only really liked the first two big action set pieces. But, no, there was one more thing. Although WW is strong and forceful, she is also caring and sincere. She may resort to force, but only as a last resort. And she foils Pascal's plot by appealing to the good nature of basically everyone in the world. And it works. I like that idea.

Also, Gadot striking poses just looks right to me - epic in fact.

And Chris Pine was pretty lovable, all things considered. If you want to know how he comes back to life, remember that the 80s were a prime body swap movie decade. Ms. Spenser noted that the guy he swapped with is more or less dead for the duration, which nobody else seemed concerned about. At least, when WW met the guy after Pine had vacated the premises, she didn't try to date him. That would have been wrong. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

All That Jazz

All Night Long (1962) is pretty high-concept - Othello set in an early 60s London jazz jam session. Patrick McGoohan plays the Iago part. Interested yet? How about if I tell you that Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, John Dankworth, and a pack of British players not only play on screen, but have minor speaking roles? That was enough to sell me.

It's set mostly in a warehouse by the docks, done up as a party pad by rich jazz fan Richard Attenborough. It's going to be a surprise party for hot pianist Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and his wife Marti Stevens, on their first anniversary. Attenborough comes in to find Mingus already at his bass, just grooving. Other band members and guests show up - most everyone is a musician so there isn't much distinction. McGoohan is a drummer, Johnny Cousins AKA Cousin Johnny. He comes in with other people carrying his drums, so you know he's going to be a jerk. 

He is in Rex's band, but wants to start his own. He can get backing and booking, but only if he can get Stevens as a singer - and she has retired since her marriage. But he knows she has been rehearsing a song for the party and thinks she might be ready to come out of retirement.

When that doesn't look likely, McGoohan gets cagey. He starts working on Cass (Keith Mitchell), Rex's band manager. He has had trouble with narcotics and is in therapy (paid for by Rex), and McGoohan gets him high on reefer. Then he starts telling Rex that Cass has been meeting with Stevens - but surely it's just for rehearsal. He keeps pushing the idea that there's something between them, in the end even making a tape and editing it to sound like Mitchell talking about an affair.

SPOILER - this movie has a happy ending. Everyone turns on Johnny, including his wife. Our loving couple goes off into the London dawn hand in hand, tested but strong. I hope that doesn't offend anyone.

But the plot, and honestly, some of the acting, isn't really the point. There's some silly jazz slang, and the marijuana cigarettes are pretty powerful, considering they are pin-sized. But the milieu is so cool. There are plenty of hot numbers, including Brubeck and Mingus duetting on a "Raggy Waltz", and Rex playing two Ellington numbers, "Sentimental Mood" and "Mood Indigo". There's a Brazilian bongo number, and some tight British horns. 

There's also some interesting race stuff, as befits a story based on Othello. Rex's wife is white, of course. But also Cass has a black girlfriend, and it just isn't a big deal. I guess director Basil Dearden (League of Gentlemen) doesn't mind putting a touch of drugs or race mixing in his films. Sort of an iconoclast, I guess. 

In conclusion, I saw John Dankworth in college - he gave a concert with his wife Cleo Laine. Laine had laryngitis, but still sounded amazing. She's a contralto with rich "pear-shaped vowels" and an amazing high range. In the movie, Dankworth's line is "Sorry Cleo couldn't make it." We are too.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

God Save Queen Bee

I've been a Rudy Ray Moore fan for a while now, so I was looking forward to seeing Eddie Murphy's take, Dolemite is My Name (2019).

It shows how Moore was mostly washed up, working at a record store and MC'ing at a club. He had been a singer, a dancer, a comic, but now he was just barely making it. One day, he hears a bum (Ron Cephas Jones) spouting a Signifying Monkey rhyme about a bad cat called Dolemite, and gets an idea. He collects a few of these street rhymes, punches them up, dresses up like a pimp and recites at the club. It goes over great. So he decides to make a record.

He can't get anyone to back him, so he records it like a party record at his apartment. He can't sell to any record company, because it's too dirty, so he starts selling it out of his trunk. After everyone starts playing it all over LA, then the record companies start coming around.

Celebrating getting a contract, he takes his friends to see Billy Wilder's The Front Page. This might go over with the white folk, but he can't believe they made a movie this bad - no titties, no kung fu, nothing. So he decides to make his own movie. 

It's a good story - funny, big-hearted, about never giving up your dream. Also, about walking the line between sincere and stupid, or something. But I mainly want to direct your attention to one other character, Lady Reed, AKA Momma Queen Bee, played by Da'Vine Joy Randolph. When Moore is out on the chitlin circuit promoting his album, he sees her in the audience. When her boyfriend slaps her, she lays him out on the floor. After the show, Moore buys her a drink and tells her she should be on the stage, because she has something, like a spotlight that follows her around. Now, she is a large woman, not young or fair of face. But he's right, she does. She takes up with Moore, and not for sex - for business, show business.

And even though I didn't mention it in my review, I remembered Queen Bee from Dolemite. She did have something that made her stand out. Maybe not real Hollywood star power, but more than she needed for the movie. And I love that Murphy recognized that. 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Shiver Me Space Timbers!

I recently heard a podcast about Treasure Planet (2002). It was the Blank Check podcast, with guest and super-TP-fan Emily Stefanski. I had vaguely heard of this movie - Disney animated Treasure Island in space. Even though it checks so many of my boxes, I had figured it wasn't for me. Emily convinced me I was wrong.

It starts with our young Jim Hawkins, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, living with his mom on a backwater planet, where they are running the Ben Bow Inn. They serve a clientele of many races, including David Hyde Pierce as a dog man scholar. JGL is a sort of bad boy, always getting in trouble for riding his solar surfer where he shouldn't be. One day, a turtle like alien (Patrick McGoohan! in his last role) shows up, hands over a golden orb-shaped space map and dies. It is the map to the famed Treasure Planet! Then pirates show up and destroy the inn.

But Dr. Dogman wants to form an expedition to the Treasure Planet, and so JGL leaves his mother to ship out on the RLS (get it?) Legacy, captained by cat woman Emma Thompson, first mate, Roscoe Lee Browne. The crew is a scurvy lot, although the ship's cook, Long John Silver, seems friendly. He's voiced by Brian Murray, very much doing Wallace Beery.

The movie follows the general rough outline of the book, including JGL in a barrel overhearing the mutineers, the siege of the fort/planet, the return to the ship in the launch, etc. All throughout, Long John is both menacing and a mentor to young Jim. There's a pretty high body count, but it's mostly aliens, so no big deal, I guess. 

I found that I liked the look of the animation. The backgrounds were mostly computer generated, but the characters were hand-drawn - in fact, the Blank Check guys suspect that this movie's weak box office killed American hand-drawn animation for good. Maybe the character design was too classic Disney - I sometime felt I was looking at a "How to Draw Disney Characters" book. But you've got to love wooden spaceships with solar sails cruising around the galaxy. 

The discovery of the treasure at the end got a little frantic, with one or two extra twists jammed in. I've skipped Old B.E.N., the castaway robot gone coo-coo, but he's voiced by Martin Short. In the end, the goofy dogman and the yar catwoman get married and have a litter of puppies and kittens. I would probably have watched the sequel, if it had been made.

Should I watch Atlantis: The Lost Empire next?