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Monday, March 01, 2021

Recently watched movies 2021.03.01

Short comments on a bunch of movies I watched in the last week or so.
Harakiri (1962)
How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
Blazing Saddles (1974)
Gremlins (1984)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Broken Arrow (1996)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Heist (2001)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Vivarium (2019)

Harakiri (1962)
directed by Masaki Kobayashi
[aka Seppuku (1962),  切腹 (1962)]

Set in early 17th century Japan, a masterless samurai requests the use of a lord's courtyard to commit ritual suicide so he can die with honour. Flashbacks show what happened to a previous samurai who made that request and the connection between them.

Just an excellent film, one of the best I've seen in a while. I only became aware of it recently, when I did an update to my spreadsheet of movies I've seen and want to see, and it came up as the highest ranking movie on the IMDB Top 250 that I'd never seen (currently #32 and the only one in the top 50 I hadn't seen except for one I won't watch because of the director). That kind of surprised me, since I don't recall ever hearing of the movie before that, which is odd since I have at least some awareness of every other American or Japanese movie on that chart (not so much some of the Indian and European work. And of course the Japanese movie on that chart are mostly Kurosawa and Miyazaki). Looking into it, it appears it only got enough votes to qualify for that cart in the last year and a half.

Just about a perfect movie, with a gradual unveiling of all the secrets, some good action scenes that actually advance the plot and a thoughtful conclusion. Seeing this now I can see where a lot of the more interesting aspects of some samurai comics I like, from Lone Wolf to Usagi, come from.

How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
directed by Richard Quine

It's kind of hard to figure out this movie. If it had come out in the last decade, I'd assume all the sexist stuff in it was a parody of the sexism of the 1960s, it's all so over the top in ways even beyond what you might see in Mad Men. But of course it's from the 1960s, so you have to allow for the idea that it might all just be sincere, no matter how ridiculous. Hard to say.

Anyway, it's the story of an absurdly successful comic strip artist (the comics shown being drawn by actual comic strip artist Mel Keefer), enjoying a carefree bachelor life, complete with a doting butler and carrying out elaborate roleplay scenarios on the streets of New York in order to get accurate photo references for his strips. Then he makes the mistake of getting married at a drunken party, and his carefree life is threatened (and his action/adventure comic strip becomes an even more successful domestic comedy strip). 

It's all very silly, and very well made, especially with Jack Lemmon being very charming in the lead role. You have to either be willing to either ignore the sexism or be prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt that it was a parody. Not sure I'd really recommend it to anyone not also interested in the comic strip stuff (which I assume was why it ended up on my list of things to watch).

Also, had to check, and the score is indeed by the guy who did the Odd Couple, which is very distracting as the main recurring theme is about 90% of the Odd Couple theme, to the point you keep expecting Walter Matthau to pop in.

Blazing Saddles (1974)
directed by Mel Brooks

If I'd kept track, this might be a contender for the movie I've seen most in my life. Been a few years since the last time, but it still holds up. Even knowing every line to the point I'm saying every punchline just ahead of the actors (because my timing sucks).

And yes, all the criticisms of the language are valid, I'm not sure what someone who never saw it before would make of it today. Fortunately, not my concern at this point.

This time around I was especially amused by Gabby Johnson and his display of "authentic frontier gibberish".

Gremlins (1984)
directed by Joe Dante

I know I saw this in the theatre first run, I think I've only seen commercial TV showings of it ever since, which I'm sure are cut to pieces (this film apparently being a leading reason the PG-13 rating was created). And even that would have been decades ago.

It's a strange movie, that's for sure. A few really funny scenes, a few really scary bits, but a lot of the scenes really go on far too long (the Gremlins in the bar, for example). And that absolutely weird scene where Phoebe Cates talks about the death of her father? What movie was that dropped in from? Maybe commercial TV has a point and it does need to be cut to pieces. Not so much for violence, but just for storytelling. There's a really good 70 minute movie in these 106 minutes.

Groundhog Day (1993)
directed by Harold Ramis

Another contender for most watched movie in my life. Don't think I've gone more than two years without seeing it since it came out (but, of course, never actually on February 2nd. I'm not a cliché). 

I'm pretty sure there's nothing I could add to all the "hot takes" on the movie you can find with a casual web search for the movie. And where should you do that search? Where do you think?

Broken Arrow (1996)
directed by John Woo

Haven't seen this since it came out when I was hearing a lot about Woo, but his original Chinese movies weren't readily available to me. 

It's about John Travolta as a fighter pilot who goes rogue and steals some nuclear bombs, and Christian Slater as his betrayed friend who has to stop him with the help of a park ranger played by Samantha Mathis.

I remember thinking it was okay, a little slight, but much more stylish than the average action movie of the era. Everything about it is better realized in Woo's next movie, FACE/OFF, also with Travolta. I'd still say this is worth watching. I was surprised by how clearly I remembered a few bits of it even after a quarter century.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

I mean, for comparison, I know it hasn't been that long since I last saw this one, maybe five years, and I seem to have forgotten vast chunks of it. I mean like most scenes where John Goodman isn't on the screen. The Goodman scenes all feel like I saw them last week, while everything else just seems like a half-remembered dream I had once.

Not to say it's not all enjoyable. But I look forward to seeing it all for the first time again in a few years.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Saw this a lot back around the turn of the century. Twice in the theatre, twice again when it was released on home video (for the kids reading, it used to take at least 6 months, sometimes over a year, for a movie to be released for home viewing. Now it's more like weeks, if there's any delay at all. Or if there's even a theatrical release. Also, kids? Reading a weblog? In 2021? What's wrong with you?). And then again when I actually bought a copy maybe a year later (again, for the kids, we used to buy movies on physical discs). But all that was about 20 years ago, and this is the first I've seen it since.

For the most part, still works, not quite as well as I clearly thought back then, but still a good construction. There are a few places where it could have been tightened up, and the kid's story kind of ends in a weird place so they could jump to the big end scene with Bruce Willis. Which was a lot less elaborate that I remembered it being.

Still good enough to make you wonder what happened to Shyamalan. Easily twice as good as his next best movie, and way better than his average.

Heist (2001)
directed by David Mamet

Somehow never watched this before. Anyway, it does what it says on the tin, it's a heist movie and it's by Mamet, with all the twists and dialogue ticks that you'd expect from that. Gene Hackman is the aging con-man looking to get out with lone last score, great cast of characters around him to either help or get in the way or be used. 

Nothing revolutionary, but a decent example of the form. The big set-piece plane heist was well constructed, completely implausible and audacious. 

The Mamet dialogue sometimes gets a bad rap, with so many trying to replicate the surface elements without doing as good a job, but in the right circumstances and with the right actors it can be a joy.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
directed by Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi

Been hearing some good things about the on-going TV show based on this movie, plus I loved Waititi's JOJO RABBIT and enjoyed his THOR: RAGNAROK. So figured it was worth checking out.

The movie is a mocking documentary (there's got to be a better name for that) about vampires living in modern day New Zealand, in particular four vampires from different eras (and different cinematic influences in their portrayal of vampires) who share a flat. Various hi-jinks ensue, mixing in standard sitcom situations with various horror tropes.

Pretty fun stuff overall. Kind of drags in the middle, even with the short 85 minute runtime. Might check out the TV show (which relocates the action to America).

Vivarium (2019)
directed by Lorcan Finnegan

A recent movie about Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg as a young couple who go house-hunting, ending up in a suburban nightmare world of identical houses where they are unable to leave. 

And I'm sure I'm not the first to note that this is basically a Twilight Zone episode blown up to feature length. Which is never a good idea. Even Twilight Zone episodes (any iteration) are better in the half-hour format, always feeling bloated and self-indulgent the closer they get to one hour, with commercials. Double that length, and take away the sweet release of a cartoon rabbit trying to sell you insurance, not a good idea. So some good bits, some striking visuals, but not enough story by half. Also, Eisenberg? Always a little annoying. Usually it fits the characters he's playing. 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Batman - Legends Of The Dark Knight #46 [1993] (Random Comics Theatre)

 Random Comics Theatre

Batman - Legends Of The Dark Knight #46 [1993]

Russ Heath (1926-2018) did relatively few straight super-hero stories in his long and prolific career, most of which was spent on war and western comics. One of the exceptions was this 1993 4-issue, 100 page story "Heat". At this time, LEGENDS was mostly telling stories of the nebulous early years of Batman, pre-Robin, basically an extended "Year Two", with various creators doing stories between 1 and 5 issues long (with some exceptions for crossovers and the like).

That's a good fit for Heath, doing a slightly slicker version of that David Mazzucchelli-defined urban landscape. I think the colouring is a bit garish for what Heath was trying to go for, and if it had something more like what Richmond Lewis did in "Year One" that would have worked better.

As you might guess from the title, this is a story set in a heat wave in Gotham, and as you can tell from the cover it features Batman teaming up with Catwoman to fight the villain who falls right in the middle of the two of them, Catman.

It's a pretty nice looking story, overall, hits the beats you'd expect in a Batman story of the era. If Heath didn't do enough Batman, he's teamed up with a writer who probably did too many, Doug Moench. I've always found Moench to be a bit of an uneven writer, capable of some quite good work, but also a bit prone to get bogged down in cliché and melodrama. It's been a while since I read this full story, so my memory is hazy, but based on re-reading this issue I think this on the lower half of his career. Which is a shame, since there were so many writers who did LEGENDS story around this period who I think would have really benefitted from Heath's artwork.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #28 [1990] (Random Comics Theatre)

 Random Comics Theatre

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #28 [1990]

This issue features the story "Sons Of The Silent Age" by Jim Lawson and Stephen Murphy, with a cover by Michael Dooney. 

It was published at one of the peaks of public interest in the Turtles, dated February 1990, which puts it just before the March release of the first live-action movie. Which makes it pretty impressive that creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman were publishing such unusual takes on the characters during this run of guest creators (while more familiar versions of the characters were published by Archie in the comics based on the color-coded cartoon).

For me my interest in the series was tweaked by the storyline done by Rick Veitch which ran from #24 to #26, coming right after Veitch's SWAMP THING storyline ended so abruptly. I had also just started reading THE PUMA BLUES, Murphy's series with Michael Zulli, shortly before this came out, so seeing his name in the credits was definitely intriguing (as were later issues which Zulli drew).
This story is much more contemplative than a book called TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES has any right being. The Turtles take a raft trip with their friends April and Casey to unwind after some of the major recent events in their lives, including the death of their main enemy Shredder. Passing a nuclear plant, they find an injured female fish creature, who April attempts to save. The Turtles wind up fighting four male fish creatures, which fills the action quotient for the issue, but even that's subdued as it's accompanied by April's telepathic link with the dying female, instead of the usual wisecracks that you might expect from a TMNT fight scene. The finale has April having a revelation about one of the reasons for the Turtles being at loose ends.

Really a strong issue, making good use of the extra room to breath with the generous 44 pages given to the story. Lawson's art is especially strong. He really works well with the duo-shade toning used in the Turtles books.

I took a look at a colour reprint of this in one of the recent IDW books, and I have to say, do not recommend. Definitely see if you can find it in the original black and white.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Feud #3 [1993] (Random Comics Theatre)

Random Comics Theatre

Feud #3 [1993]

The "Heavy Hitters" line was the last gasp of Marvel's Epic imprint, launching some dozen or so titles, mostly mini-series, in 1993. It seems not to work as the whole Epic line pretty much wrapped up, except for a few stragglers, by mid-1994.  The "Heavy Hitters" line felt more like some 1980s independent comics from First or Comico than it did the 1980s Epic line, with many of creators you'd find in those lines.

I didn't care for or stick with most of the titles in the line that I tried, but I did enjoy this one created by Mark Nelson and Mike Baron. The two had worked together on back-ups of various Baron books at First in the 1980s. This series featured a fantasy world with four rival lizard/dinosaur species, the Stokers, Skids, Grunts and Kites. Various factions within the groups try to undermine the precarious inter-relationships of the groups, with sometimes hilarious and always violent results. Like most of Baron's writing, it can take a little bit to get into the rhythms of it, but once it clicks it really works, and Nelson's artwork is really strong, definitely  suited to drawing all these strange creature and their anachronistic technological world

The 4-issue series was followed up by a short story in the HEAVY HITTERS ANNUAL. Don't think it's ever been reprinted.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Medal Of Honor #1 [1994] (Random Comics Theatre)

Random Comics Theatre

Medal Of Honor #1 [1994]

This is a series featuring short stories about Medal Of Honor recipients, all written by Doug Murray and drawn by a variety of artists. There was a one-shot MEDAL OF HONOR SPECIAL published by Dark Horse earlier in 1994, followed by this series. It's labelled as a five issue series, but it appears that only four were published. And I've only got the first two, a few years after they were published, and #3 has a story drawn by Bernie Mireault, which I definitely would have bought, so I'm guessing I never saw it, and Dark Horse didn't find a biographical war comic fertile publishing ground in 1994.

They certainly did give it a try, though, starting with the striking cover to this issue by Walter Simonson.  Other cover artists include Frank Miller, Arthur Adams, Joe Kubert and the aforementioned Mireault.

Two stories this issue. The first is "The Little Drummer Boy", drawn by John Garcia. It's a Civil War story about Julius Langbein, a 15-year-old who joins the Union army in 1861. Working as a drummer, he also helps gets injured soldiers off the field and to medical help, and eventually rescues his Captain and gets the commendation for that.

The second story is Honor Bound, drawn by Wayne VanSant, about WWII fighter pilot Richard Bong, flying in the Pacific Theatre. It starts with him getting his fifth downed enemy plane, making him an ace. He steadily racks up more victories, eventually passing the record of 26 set by Eddie Rickenbacker in the First World War and blowing past in on the way to 40. Eventually he's sent home, dying just before the end of the war while working as a test pilot.

I think the artwork in these two stories and the cover is really good, and the main reason to seek out the book. Very realistic and expressive, seems historically accurate as far as I can judge (though my level of expertise is that I know Civil War soldiers shouldn't have cellular phones).  The writing is just okay, nothing too special, sometimes seems to be taking liberties on assuming the feelings of the characters. I remember the other issues I read being a bit better.

Weblog by BobH [bobh1970 at gmail dot com]