Sunday, July 12, 2015

MAGIC MIKE XXL

It's delirious, infectious fun, even for viewers without a predilection for gorgeous men. Magic Mike XXL offers all of the action and drama one could possibly want from a summer blockbuster sequel, and continues what one hopes will be an ongoing franchise, even as it gets the gang back together for a final blowout appearance at a Myrtle Beach convention. It's less mired in character drama than its predecessor, giving itself up to greater spectacle, a more fantastic perspective on its dance sequences, and an engaging sense of forward motion.


Hot damn, Magic Mike XXL is first and foremost a quest. I marveled in my seat when I realized that the makeup of the typical Dungeons & Dragons adventure party could be flawlessly mapped onto Mike and his fellow male entertainers: Ken (Matt Bomer)'s status as a level 3 Reiki healer clearly marks him as the party's cleric, but there's a rogue, a fighter, a bard, and a wizard as well. (In one of the movie's sweetest sequences, a character tries some new moves on an unsmiling convenience store cashier, leveling up before our very eyes.) It's not facile to suggest that it's a summer action movie with dance sequences instead of explosions, though the franchise sequel it most resembles is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 13; like that movie it gives itself over to its fantasy elements so uninhibitedly that parts of it feel beamed in from another planet. (Though Gregory Jacobs takes the directorial reins for MMXXL, original director Soderbergh's fingerprints as cinematographer and editor are all over the movie, from a hilarious perspective of a car wreck from the passenger's seat to a gorgeous traveling shot of the Myrtle Beach surf, the tide line beautifully bisecting the frame.)

Hollywood's summer spectacle has been largely overtaken by sequels that present mounting, ever-graver threats to the world, only surmountable by increasingly cookie-cutter action heroes. By comparison, Magic Mike XXL's action men are refreshingly down to earth (which makes their choreographed, non-CGI moves all the more affecting), and yet the movie feels as explosive and action-packed as any other movie Hollywood's put out. The world doesn't hang in the balance, but the movie finds all the dramatic heft it needs in our heroes' simply stated quest: to restore a woman's smile. And watching them pull it off is an absolute thrill.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916)

I realized I'd seen this story before. William Gillette's famed stage play, in which the author pretty much defined the dramatic role of Arthur Conan Doyle's super sleuth Sherlock Holmes, had been revived numerous times since its initial turn of the century run. A scene in which a cigar smoking Holmes eludes some thugs in the dark finally clicked with me: the play had been revived on Broadway, featuring Frank Langella in the title role, and I'd seen it telecast on HBO, back in the early-to-mid 80s when the channel would screen stage plays.

But the 1916 film of the play, in which Gillette and much of the company reprised their stage roles, was lost until last year. The Cinematheque Francaise had found the 1920 French serialization of the film (all footage present, but split into four chapters for weekly screenings). Allied with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, LCF has restored this version of the film, which had its North American premiere tonight.

It is very much a movie of its time. Many of the Silent Film Festival's offerings (especially those from later in the silent era) do manage to feel timeless both in the emotions they evoke and the still novel ways in which they're made. But Sherlock Holmes is very much a mid-teens silent, shot largely with wide shots on stage sets, punctuated by the occasional close-up or camera movement.


But as stagy as it often feels (and Gillette and company were speaking their original dialogue from the play, little of which made it onto the intertitles), it retains a mythic heft that's hard to ignore. Holmes was very much the role of Gillette's career, and much of how we've envisioned the character through the years can be traced back to his interpretation. His Holmes is a little younger than we're used to, not much older than Cumberbatch, and though Gillette doesn't have the advantage of his and Doyle's mellifluous dialogue the tactility of Holmes' intelligence is very much evident on screen.

Over the movie's four acts and two hours is grows from a search for some missing letters into an all-out gang war, its sides spearheaded by Holmes and Moriarty. When young Billy the Page disguises himself as a street urchin for the final chapter we've clearly deep in Feuillade territory; though the French producers were chasing a waning Holmesmania and playing to the local thirst for serials, the movie almost feels made for that structure, and feels of a piece with Les Vampires or Judex.

The movie's very much the William Gillette show, and yet the lively supporting cast all get to make an impression. Edward Fielding's Watson, though not part of a duo act as would become familiar, is a spin on the character that we haven't quite seen elsewhere. A little older than Holmes, neither a Nigel Bruce buffoon nor the itchy but competent soldier played by Jude Law and Martin Freeman. Watson here is a sly but supportive friend. Watching Gillette and Fielding side by side you know damn well you're looking at Holmes and Watson, maybe even at THE Holmes and Watson. Even if the movie (gorgeously restored, and beautifully accompanied at tonight's screening by the Donald Sosin Ensemble) doesn't quite register the way a Holmes story should, its characters sure as hell do. The resurrection of this movie is what film restoration is all about: letting us see the pioneers of cinema back on screen where they belong, restoring their souls to their proper grandeur. These characters resonate, and breathe. Gillette moves. Holmes lives.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

SEVENTH SON

I mean god dammit, you try to go into each movie with open mind, open heart. You recall the universal scorn received by undeserving movies that obscured their virtues: the solid, old school fantasy adventure JOHN CARTER (OF MARS); the far-from-perfect but surprisingly smart and movingly revisionist THE LONE RANGER; hell, even an effervescent, fun, and sexy piece of pop cinema like DRAGONBALL: EVOLUTION. And so you go into something like Sergei Bodrov's SEVENTH SON, which disappeared quickly after a widely-lambasted theatrical run, expectations low but (previous examples in mind) hoping for at least a modest diversion.


All the elements are there: actors who've done good work elsewhere (including reuniting LEBOWSKIites Jeff Bridges and Juliette Lewis), a decent-enough story (from a YA fantasy novel by Joseph Delaney), an actual plot that expands a bit on the usual Chosen One tropes common to this kind of story, attractive effects and decently-conceived environments and creatures. But it all just seems to unfold uninvolvingly before your eyes, never taking hold of anything inside you, just existing lifelessly on screen before you. Everyone commits, but nothing catches fire. The three movies cited above, though they vary in quality, all possess something soulful that involves us, but that involvement is never felt in SEVENTH SON. Was it a language barrier (with Bodrov making his English language debut)? Was it tinkered with by unseen hands in the two years (TWO YEARS) between its completion and its release?

Even in as productized a landscape as contemporary Hollywood it is rare that a movie appears with no clear reason for its existence. Routine story elements can be viewed with fresh eyes and mined for small original tweaks (or at least invested with genuine emotion), but no one involved seems to have asked how to make this modest little fantasy something different, or special. (Indeed, it regurgitates some of the genre's more tiresome aspects, from its villainess turning to evil after being rejected by a lover to a group of villains cast with most of the movie's non-male, non-white actors.) There is no excuse for SEVENTH SON to be as lifeless as it is, and it's frustrating that the talented people assembled to make it couldn't (or wouldn't) elevate it to the level of even a modest pleasure. No one looking at the movie during its making could have thought that they had a complete movie on their hands - why should the audience feel any different?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

INTERSTELLAR

My opinions of Christopher Nolan's earlier movies still stand. My second viewing of THE DARK KNIGHT confirmed that it was a large, strident achievement devoid of a pulse. A discomfiting aspect of Nolan's style was his tendency to look at characters like they were on a petri dish, though in my favorites of his movies - INCEPTION and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES - this tendency was abated as he, seemingly grudgingly, let some light in, grappled with actual human emotion, and even, in RISES, managed to have a little fun. FUN, I ask you.

So I waited for a while to see INTERSTELLAR - I'd heard that it was too ambitious to dismiss, and wanted to see it at a time when I could see it clear of its hype, and, more crucially, clear of my own baggage. Last week's screening, in 70mm at my favorite theatre, was going to be an event regardless. But dammit, it was a movie for NOW, a direct and disquieting state of the planet address. And maybe the casting of Matthew McConaughey (a Nolan first-timer) in the lead helped unlock it, but for the first time in a Nolan film I was engaged at a human level with his characters. Some cynical remnant inside me mused that Nolan suppressed his humanity for his first seven films, knowing he'd need eight movies' worth of humanity to realize INTERSTELLAR. But mainly I'm just grateful that he made it, and that I experienced it. And more than a week later Cooper, Murph, and Brand (hell, even TARS) are still with me, lingering like none of his characters ever have.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Exit the Halloween Hangover...Enter...um, THE HALLOWEEN HANGOVER!

One keeps changing one's goalposts, doesn't one? Revising a blown deadline, extending a due date to buy oneself more time? I do so unashamedly, for a number of reasons. When I last posted, I was miffed by how Halloween sneaked by with so little fanfare, and swore to extend the celebration of horror into November, taking the 21st as the true end of Halloween.

The 21st was the night the Castro Theatre unleashed a lovely 2fer of British horror: Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (from a print brought over from the British Film Institute) and Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness, a highly regarded cult film I'd been eager to check out for years. I attended that lovely double feature (accompanied by good friend & editor Michael Guillen - go read The Evening Class, will ya?), and yet still can't just put the damn Halloween season to bed.

Especially not since the Castro's unleashing an even-more-glorious horror 2-fer this month, pairing Argento's Suspiria (which I've seen there before and elsewhere on 35mm, but dammit) with Mario Bava's final film Beyond the Door II (aka Shock), and under-the-wire-but-surely-welcome participation in this, Mario Bava's centenary.

So I'm not pronouncing horror season done until that date (and its accompanying movies) are behind us. As for the movies mentioned above...

--Don't Look Now was basically an unknown quantity; I'd seen it on video back in college but hadn't revisited it since. Even knowing the terrifying ending is coming (and it's still a hell of a jolt, and a heartbreaker, besides), the details of the story remain engrossing. Though Roeg feels like he's keeping himself distant from his story, in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie mourn their dead child (retreating to Venice, where something strange among the canals seems to stalk them as insistently as their memories), it's as if Sutherland and Christie are able to spread out inside that distance and really explore the depths of sadness, intimacy, alienation, and desolation. For all its penetrating realism there's more than enough touches of the uncanny to propel the thing into the realm of horror. And I wonder now as I did when I first saw it if its visual linking of one scene to the next was lifted directly by comics scribe Alan Moore.


--Daughters of Darkness stretches a low budget and limited resources really, really far, or spends a huge budget to convey that impression. John Karlen (who shot this between Dark Shadows projects - Kumel's casting must have been deliberate) and Danielle Ouimet are newlyweds who find themselves stuck at a desolate Belgian hotel, with only a bizarre countess (Marienbad's Delphine Seyrig, semi-slumming it here under Resnais' encouragement) and her Brooksian secretary (Andrea Rau). It's decadent and dreamy, never quite solid enough to cohere into something truly great but never running out of strange details with which to beguile us. And it gets a lot of mileage out of Seyrig, her costumes, and those interiors, as well.


More soon(ish) on other movies seen in the post-post-Halloween season, including a video or two.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Exit Halloween, Enter...The Halloween Hangover!


Man, I had such high hopes for this month. Watch some unviewed movies, write some reviews here, really celebrate the run-up to Halloween. But life, as it so often does, just got in the way. Parental visit, prolific work on the workblog sapping energies for the House. Even the monkeys who cohabitate here were more diligent in celebrating horror movies in the run-up. Plus there was the additional weird juju on the streets of my (gentrifying massively but still beloved) City as the San Francisco Giants took the wild card spot and wound up winning the damn World Series. Always happy to see the black and orange do well (and I'm much happier that such success has smiled on the Baumgarner Giants than the Bonds ones). My only real objection to the post-season is its distraction from the weeks heading to Halloween; it's a key part of my autumn, and it makes me sad when the Giants steal its focus. I don't get mad at anybody over it, it just kinda saddens me.

And yet my appetite for cinematic and other spookiness is rarely sated come All Saints Day, and I often extend the celebration into November for a week or three. (Indeed, a couple of years back I had a great November experience at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto with the two-fer of THE WOLF MAN and THE MUMMY'S HAND, which I declared the real conclusion to the Halloween season.) And so, since the Castro Theatre has a nice 35mm two-fer of Don't Look Now and Daughters of Darkness on the 20th, the celebration of Halloween will continue here at the House of Sparrows until then, with the full intention to present more writing here. Chip away at the October Wall, report on some of the movies seen theatrically, etc.

Whether you're taking your costumed children out for candy, taking in a sexy party, or holing up with horror cinema, I wish you all the best the spooky season has to offer.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Wall of October...

I'm calling this the October Wall. Wanting, as usual, to observe the Halloween seasons by watching as many horror movies as I can (and guilty, as usual, that I'm not more present here, on my own damn blog, my beloved House of Sparrows), I've pulled all of the discs with unseen or newish horror movies with the intention of watching and writing about them. Included are some discs that have sat on my shelf unwatched since purchase, some are gifts that I haven't yet viewed (ISN'T THAT JUST THE WORST), and some are sets containing movies with which I simply want to better acquaint myself. Plus there's that little envelope on the right containing a nice little surprise, borrowed from a friend which I don't doubt will be a verrrrry interesting view...

Anyway, you've got some giallo, a Curtis Harrington two-fer,

This won't quite be the crazy-ambitious 31 Days of Halloween some bloggers are shooting for. I'm hoping for ten at least capsule-length reviews of the movies under consideration, which'll be a nice little horror feast in the run-up to The Big Day. Hope you'll join me!