Monday, January 30, 2017

Man Vs. Hidden Hobo High-Rise

Man Vs. (2015): written by Adam Massey and Thomas Michael; directed by Adam Massey; starring Chris Diamantopoulos: Filmed north of Guelph, Ontario, Man Vs. pits Doug Woods, a minor reality show star, against Something. Woods is filming an episode of his show in the Northern Ontario woods. It's a wilderness survival show in the tradition of so many shows on television. But then something happens, and someone or something starts stalking him. 

Man Vs. is a fairly enjoyable, straight-to-cable movie with an affable protagonist in Chris Diamantopoulos (a recurring bit on Silicon Valley as a the guy who 'invented' Internet Radio definitely shows that he has acting range). The revelation of the menace is a bit of a letdown, as these things go, though the climax manages to throw in a gratifying extra twist. But the movie does do a nice job of slow-burning the tension in its first 70 minutes or so. Recommended.

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011): written by John Davies; directed by Jason Eisener; starring Rutger Hauer (Hobo), Brian Downey (Drake), and Molly Dunsworth (Abby): The gory, hilarious expansion of a gory, hilarious fake trailer in Grindhouse was filmed in and around Dartmouth and Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a grimy, horrible city controlled by a grimy, horrible crime boss (Lexx's Brian Downey, chewing the scenery for all he's worth), only the arrival of Rutger Hauer's Hobo brings hope. Especially once he gets a shotgun. 

The film-makers turn the luridness of the colour up to 11 in an homage to exploitation movies of the 1970's and 1980's. The gore is often crazy, but framed in such ridiculous, parodic circumstances as to remove much of its shock value. I enjoyed this a lot -- it's a far better and more faithful nod to exploitation cinema that the two movies by Tarantino and Rodriguez that made up the bulk of Grindhouse. Rutger Hauer acts the hell out of his Hobo. He's utterly invested. Recommended.

The Hidden (1987): written by Jim Kouf; directed by Jack Sholder; starring Kyle MacLachlan (Lloyd Gallagher), Michael Nouri (Sgt. Tom Beck), Claudia Christian (Brenda Lee), Clu Gulager (Lt. Flynn), Ed O'Ross (Detective Willis), Richard Brooks (Detective Sanchez), Clarence Felder (Lt. Masterson), and Chris Mulkey (DeVries): A great cult movie of the 1980's that should be as fondly remembered as The Terminator, but isn't. Plot revelations are part of the fun, so I'll only say that mismatched cop and FBI partners Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan are terrific as they pursue a puzzling series of normal citizens who suddenly turn into crazy killers. 

A great cast of character actors helps elevate the movie, as do Claudia Christian's killer stripper, some extremely good creature effects, and a narrative that's lean and compact. Science-fiction historians can note the movie's extreme similarity to both Hal Clement's classic sf novel Needle and Michael Shea's 1980 novella "The Autopsy." Twin Peaks fans may note that MacLachlan's performance here seems like a practice run for FBI Agent Dale Cooper. Highly recommended.

High-Rise (2016): adapted by Amy Jump from the J.G. Ballard novel; directed by Ben Wheatley; starring Tom Hiddleston (Laing), Jeremy Irons (Architect Royal), Sienna Miller (Charlotte), Luke Evans (Wilder), and Elizabeth Moss (Helen): Director Ben Wheatley absolutely nails the trippy, experimental look and story structure of so many 1970's science-fiction movies, most notably The Omega Man and Zardoz. And screenwriter Amy Jump does about as good a job of adapting J.G. Ballard's dystopic allegory as can be imagined.

It's not necessarily a fun two hours of cinema (though I did have fun), but it's a good one. The decision to stylistically evoke the era of the mid-1970's when High-Rise was first published extends to the apparent period of the film as well: it sure looks like 1975 in London, England. Well, except for Tom Hiddleston, who looks jarringly contemporary. I wonder if this was intentional. 

In an experimental apartment building/ community, things fall apart. The decision to show the viewer the end of the movie in the first scenes of the film may be High-Rise's only misstep. Or maybe not. Certainly, all the loose threads and thwarted attempts at closure, sympathy, and exposition suggest a movie and movie-makers uninterested in a conventional thriller format.  What you're given instead is a sort of comic, occasionally Grand Guignol comic inferno that often plays like an intentional parody of its most obvious literary forebear, William Golding's humourless allegory of Original Sin, The Lord of the Flies.

Hiddleston is excellent as our protagonist, and the rest of the supporting cast is also fine. There's something horrifyingly funny in a 1970's way about Luke Evans' (literally) shaggy character. Sienna Miller and Elizabeth Moss also do good work as a couple of Hiddleston's neighbours. There's even a recurring parking lot gag that gradually goes from Seinfeld to grindhouse. Given the times we live in, High-Rise doesn't seem particularly dated -- it's a horror-allegory with staying power. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Pulp Heroes, Pulp Horrors

BPRD: Hell on Earth Volume 2: Gods and Monsters (2011-2012/ Collected 2012): written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi; illustrated by Guy Davis and Tyler Crook: Another day in the battle between the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense and the unleashed forces of Hell. Good times! Some stuff happens. We see the effects of the ongoing invasion of Earth. A new character is introduced. An old character meets a shocking, though perhaps not final, fate. Some cool-looking monsters rampage around. It's all part of a larger story, and would work best read in sequence with that story. Lightly recommended.

Lobster Johnson 1: The Iron Prometheus (2007-2008/ Collected 2008): written by Mike Mignola; illustrated by Jason Armstrong: Set in the 1930's of writer-artist Mike Mignola's sprawling Hellboy Universe (Earth-Hellboy?), the Lobster Johnson series is an homage to the American pulp magazine heroes of the 1930's. It's part of Hellboy continuity, which means the reader knows Johnson's fate. So it goes. Johnson possesses traits of pulp heroes The Spider, The Shadow, and Doc Savage, while wearing a costume that's part standard superhero, part-Green Hornet.

The Iron Prometheus was the first of the Lobster Johnson miniseries. It's pulpy fun, with the mysterious, masked Lobster Johnson battling Nazis and monsters and an ancient evil to secure a super-weapon with magical properties. Mignola's tendency to underwrite was well underway here -- for a five-issue story, The Iron Prometheus is awfully thin at times. As written, it's 40 pages of story spread out over more than a hundred. We get characterization for a supporting character, but none really for Johnson's associates, much less Johnson himself. And one of the late sequences is almost completely opaque when it comes to clearly portraying what happened. It's fun, but almost too minimalist to be successfully pulpy. Lightly recommended.

Doc Savage: The Silver Pyramid (1987-88/ Collected 2009): written by Dennis O'Neil; illustrated by Andy and Adam Kubert: DC Comics' late 1980's revival of the Doc Savage pulp hero series as a comic book was intermittently successful -- indeed, successful enough that, while short-lived, it's probably no worse than the second-best comic-book Doc Savage, just after Marvel's 8-issue B&W Doc Savage comics magazine of the 1970's.

Writer Denny O'Neil scripted DC's beloved Shadow comics revival of the 1970's. He's tapped here as well, to uneven but mostly successful effect. There's a lot of stuff to get in -- the story spans 40 years -- and O'Neil keeps things moving along while also supplying a fairly dense plot, as the Savage novels often did. There's super-science, lost civilizations, Nazis, and new members of Doc's rollicking band of associates. It was successful enough to launch an ongoing series that lasted 20 issues -- not bad for a Doc Savage revival series. Actually, that's the longest lived Doc Savage comic series since the 1940's!

The Kubert Brothers -- artistic sons of legendary DC artist and mentor Joe Kubert -- are very young here. It shows sometimes as they have trouble maintaining consistent faces for some characters. And they're still too similar to their great father. But overall, the art works. They've already got fair command of action and of opening up the pages to one- and two-page compositions. Their interpretations of Doc's two most popular aides, Monk and Ham, are dreadful, but I don't think they designed them on their own. But they are terrible. Oh, well. Recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trains, RV's, and Trucks

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976): written by Nicholas Meyer and based on the novel by Nicholas Meyer and characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Herbert Ross; starring Alan Arkin (Sigmund Freud), Vanessa Redgrave (Lola Deveraux), Robert Duvall (Dr. Watson), Nicol Williamson (Sherlock Holmes), Laurence Olivier (Professor James Moriarty), Joel Grey (Lowenstein), and Jeremy Kemp (Baron von Leinsdorf): Adapted by Nicholas 'Wrath of Khan' Meyer from his own revisionist Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a barrel of fun with one minor problem: Robert Duvall's horrible English accent. 

How Duvall got cast as Dr. Watson is a good question. My best guess would be that the producers wanted another American in the major cast. This was an expensive production after all.

One can't say much about The Seven-Per-Cent Solution without giving away major plot points. Suffice to say that the movie looks great, is wittily written, and has a concluding action sequence that riffs on Buster Keaton's The General (and all without the benefit of CGI). Nicol Williamson pretty much plays Nicol Williamson, which is fine for Meyer's manic version of the great detective. Alan Arkin also delights as Sigmund Freud. Easily one of the ten best Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. Highly recommended.

The Neon Demon (2016): written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham; directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Elle Fanning (Jesse), Karl Glusman (Dean), Jena Malone (Ruby), Bella Heathcote (Gigi), Abbey Lee (Sarah), and Keanu Reeves (Hank): Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn works in the lurid pulp mode of Only God Forgives here, and not in the cooler style of his break-out film, Drive. 

The carefully composed, static shots and cool synth score suggest late-career Stanley Kubrick directing a very special episode of Melrose Place. The plot manages to surprise. The characters are barely characters, but as this is a horror movie centered on the cosmic terror of the modelling industry, one expects a keen devotion to surface. And a horror movie it is, not so much slowly building as suddenly exploding in the last half hour. 

The men are peripheral to the action, while the women take center stage. Elle Fanning performs beautifully as the enigmatic new model at the heart of the story, while Jena Malone and Abbey Lee embody different, dark aspects of the modelling industry. Not for the squeamish. Recommended.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996): written by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring George Clooney (Seth Gecko), Quentin Tarantino (Richard Gecko), Harvey Keitel (Jacob Fuller), Juliette Lewis (Kate Fuller), Ernest Liu (Scott Fuller), and Cheech Marin (Three characters): From Dusk Till Dawn still seems like two movies bolted together in the middle. The first movie is a gritty, amoral Tarantino crime drama about the bank-robbing Gecko brothers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as Superego and Id, respectively). The second movie is a gore-soaked horror-comedy in the vein of Evil Dead 2

They're both good movies, but I'll be damned if I know how they got stuck together like this. Robert Rodriguez directs with a lot of gusto, and Tarantino's script is solid, pulpy fun in the second half. There's some poorly modulated sexual violence towards women in the first half, a problem magnified by the jokey, one-note performance by Tarantino as the sexually predatious Gecko brother whom Clooney's more upright criminal is stuck with. Jesus, Tarantino was (and is) a terrible actor. 

The second half goes on about ten minutes too long and bafflingly loses its antagonist about five minutes in. I enjoyed the movie, but I also felt a bit dirty afterwards. Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, and Juliette Lewis seem to be acting in (and reacting to) a completely different movie than anyone else. Their naturalistic performances accentuate the artificial grue and spew of the second half. Recommended.

Maximum Overdrive (1986): adapted by Stephen King from his short story "Trucks"; directed by Stephen King; starring Emilio Estevez (Bill), Pat Hingle (Hendershot), Laura Harrington (Brett), and Yeardley Smith (Connie): Revisiting the infamous Maximum Overdrive after 30 years, I was struck by how generally not-awful it was. This may just be a product of 30 more years of bad horror movies. I don't know. 

Stephen King's one-and-done directorial effort is intermittently clumsy, poorly shot, and uneven in tone. But there are moments of startling gore and grue. And Emilio Estevez sells the shit out of his character: this might actually be his best performance. The movie's premise suffers a bit from King's expansion of the, ahem, possession of things from Just Trucks in his short story to Pretty Much Whatever the Plot Demands in the movie. Watch for a young Giancarlo Esposito's brief turn. And yes, that's the voice of Bart Simpson as the world's most annoying newlywed. Lightly recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mullet Time

Superman Vs. Aliens (1996): written and pencilled by Dan Jurgens; inked by Kevin Nowlan: 20 years ago, DC and Dark Horse put out this fairly nifty battle between Superman (still in his mullet phase) and the Alien film franchise. It was a time when the Kryptonian Supergirl was still gone from DC continuity. That fact explains much of the storyline, in which Superman responds to a distress signal from a domed city in space that appears to have once been part of Krypton. It comes complete with a spunky blonde girl named Kara who's pretty much the image, in appearance and name, of the pre-1987 Supergirl.

The story is a bit heavy on the then-continuity of the Superman comics, from the mullet to the absence of Lex Luthor from the storyline. Superman can't travel unaided through space for long at this point in his career, necessitating some technology help from LexCorp. Or LuthorCorp. Whatever. 

It's solid, unspectacular, and relatively unbloody fun. There's a bit too much harping on Superman's decision not to kill anything, including hordes of acid-blooded aliens. Is this a workable moral stance for the Man of Steel under the circumstances? Well, yes, but as written it relies an awful lot on other people killing aliens, which makes the moral stance seem awfully dubious, if not completely daft. A sin of omission rather than commission is still a sin.

Inker Kevin Nowlan makes the normally straightforward pencils of writer-penciller Dan Jurgens broody, moody, and intermittently menacing. It's a great job of inking in terms of establishing a tone a penciller isn't known for -- Nowlan did something similar with his inks on the sunny Jose Luis Garcia Lopez's Dr. Strangefate during the Marvel/DC crossover around the same time. Lightly recommended.

JLA: Justice League of America: Power and Glory (2015-2016): written by Bryan Hitch with Tony Bedard; illustrated by Bryan Hitch with Tom Derenick, Scott Hanna, Daniel Henriques, Wade von Grawbadger, Alex Sinclair, and others: Maybe getting the perennially late Bryan Hitch to both write and draw a new Justice League comic book way back in 2015 wasn't such a great idea because, well, perennially late. 

It took so long for the nine issues of his initial story arc to appear that DC had already rebooted Hitch's Justice League title (now known as Justice League and not JLA: Justice League of America) when the last issue of this title came out. And by rebooted, I mean, there were as many issues of the subsequent title on the stands as there were of this title when that last issue appeared. Whew!

Hitch writes the reboot, but the art has been left to others. That's too bad because of Hitch's strengths as an artist, strengths that outweigh his strengths as a relatively new writer. Hitch's art, a career-long riff on Neal Adams and Alan Davis, made him a superstar nearly 20 years ago in the pages of ultra-violent superhero book The Authority. And he does good work here -- 'widescreen,' as they say, cosmic though sometimes crowded.

His writing seems a bit padded at times. Nine issues seems like about two issues too much here, with about 40 pages too many of running back and forth without resolving anything plot-wise. Hitch's new Justice League has shorter story arcs so far, suggesting that something may have been learned.

Power and Glory pits Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and the usual gang of super-powered idiots against the Kryptonian Sun-god Rao, who arrives in near-Earth space with a whole lot of super-powered followers and an offer to bring peace, health, and long life to all the citizens of Earth -- and indeed, someday, everyone in the universe. He's initially greeted as a saviour. And of course there's a catch.

Hitch throws a lot of super-science and bombastic, epic battles around the nine issues. And time travel, strange visitors with hidden agendas, and weird standing stones waiting to fulfill some plot point or another. It's good, overlong fun. One caveat: in order to finally put a capper on this story (and this JLA title), DC elected to have other people write and draw the final issue, with only the plot by Hitch. Given how long readers had waited by this time, a few more months could probably have been survived if the end result was an all-Hitch writing-and-drawing issue. Oh, well. Recommended.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Mock Robin

A Mighty Wind (2003): written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; starring Mary Gross (Ma Klapper), Harry Shearer (Mark Shubb), Michael McKean (Jerry Palter), Christopher Guest (Alan Barrows), Eugene Levy (Mitch Cohen), Catherine O'Hara (Mickey Crabbe), Bob Balaban (Jonathan Steinbloom), Jane Lynch (Laurie Bohner), John Michael Higgins (Terry Bohner), and Parker Posey (Sissy Knox): From those wonderful folks who brought you Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show comes this, a loving, satiric tribute to the commercial folk music of the 1950's and early 1960's. 

Back then bands like The Kingston Trio and The New Christy Minstrels strode the Earth like giants. But their time would soon end as rock-and-roll would reassert itself with the rise of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

This film is even more of a delight to someone who lived through this musical era (like, say, my Mom). But it's great nonetheless, with catchy songs that sound authentic and odd personalities that seem even more authentic. There's not a bad performance here, and one of the songs ("There's a Kiss at the End of the Rainbow") nabbed a Best Song Oscar Nomination. And frankly, should have won. In a better world, Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara would also have received Oscar nods for their pitch-perfect characters, the mismatched duo of Mitch and Mickey, reuniting along with other acts for a tribute to a deceased record company owner. Brilliant, funny, sad. Highly recommended.

Waiting for Guffman (1996): written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy; directed by Christopher Guest; starring Christopher Guest (Corky St. Clair), Fred Willard (Ron Albertson), Catherine O'Hara (Sheila Albertson), Parker Posey (Libby Mae Brown), Eugene Levy (Dr. Alan Pearl), and Bob Balaban (Lloyd Miller): Though the real film beginning of the Christopher Guest/Michael McKean/ And Friends mockumentaries was This is Spinal Tap, that film was directed by Rob Reiner. Waiting for Guffman was Guest's first turn in the director's chair, and Eugene Levy's first great contribution to this loose-knit confederacy of dunces.

It's a great film. Anyone who's from a small town will recognize many of the characters, perhaps even in themselves. The love Guest, Levy, and Company bring to the film helps the satire -- occasionally, sweetly bleak -- go down smoothly. The show must go on, and it generally does. The self-delusions of the assorted actors, directors, singers, and adoring townsfolk is Leacockian in stature. Highly recommended.

The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen with Sam Raimi; starring Tim Robbins (Norville Barnes), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Amy Archer), Paul Newman (Mussburger), Charles Durning (Hudsucker), and Bill Cobbs (Moses): The Hudsucker Proxy is like some lost Coen Brothers film, at least to the general public. But it's swell! And Producer Joel Silver ponied up about $40 million for the Coen Brothers to make it. That was crazy. And much-appreciated. The sets! The actors! You know... for kids! Well, not exactly.

The Hudsucker Proxy has the DNA of many later, more celebrated Coen Brothers Joints swirling through its giddy bloodstream, perhaps most noticeably Hail, Caesar! and The Big Lebowski. Its protagonist, as played by Tim Robbins, is an amiable, gullible small-town kid who wants to sell his ingenious product to the world. Jennifer Jason Leigh does a remarkable sustained amalgam of Rosalind Russell and Katherine Hepburn as cynical New York reporter Amy Archer. Paul Newman is evil incarnate, and Charles Durning has one of the most memorable scenes in the history of ghosts in cinema.

One can see the oddities of the production delighting the Coens throughout. While the film pays homage to the screwball comedies and dramedies of the 1930's and 1940's, it's set in the late 1950's. Why? I don't know -- everything about the production screams 1930's Art Deco. Why is the supernatural in the movie? Who are the clock-keeper and the sign-painter? Why do Jennifer Jason Leigh's scenes in her editor's office play like homages to the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie? 

For that matter, why does the reporter's relationship with Tim Robbins' character seem more like the relationship between Lois Lane and Clark Kent than anything from the film's screwball pedigree?

I don't really know. It's a great, weird film that was  a financial disaster when it came out. So what? Salute Joel Silver for his crazy desire to see a big-budget Arthouse movie from the Coen Brothers. Salute! Highly recommended.