Jane Got a Gun (2015)
Spent some time this week revisiting some of my favorite movies from 2016. Some of them were new to David and Diane, but all of them I wanted another look it.
I was especially eager to watch Jane Got a Gun again. I loved it last year, but lukewarm reviews by other folks made me wonder if I just wasn't in a really good mood when I watched it the first time. The answer is: nope! It's great.
I love how it unfolds in three different time periods with everything leading to a big showdown between Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor. Joel Edgerton helps Portman, but where most movies would have had him take over and become the hero, Jane lets Portman hold onto that role. She is awesome and the movie is awesome. Glad I put it in my Top 5 last year.
The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
Liked it even better the second time. Alexander Skarsgård is an excellent Tarzan; probably the best ever, though we'll need to finish Greystoked before I can make that claim. Legend isn't a faithful adaptation of a Burroughs novel and it even changes some basic elements of Tarzan lore, but each change is considered and smart and exactly what's needed to keep the legend fresh and alive.
My only complaint is that the CG animals could be more convincing, but I'm thrilled with the story and the characters.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
My favorite Kelvin Star Trek movie. That's not saying anything in comparison to Into Darkness, but I'm a big fan of the 2009 reboot and this is better. These are the characters - not growing into the people that I know and love - but already as I know and love them. Plus Jaylah. Plus everyone is 300% more kickass than they were in the original series. (And that's not because the original series wasn't kickass. It totally was. But not everyone got to do it back then and they certainly didn't get to do it directed by Justin Lin.)
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
After watching this again and loving it just as much, I realized that it's directed by the same guy who's directing Thor: Ragnarok. Which makes me 1000x more excited for that movie than I already was. Taika Waititi knows how to make stuff funny, but also full of heart. If I ever meet him, I'm going to have someone take a selfie of us.
The Island (1980)
This has been on my list for so long. Michael Caine in a horror/thriller about modern-day pirates who dress as Golden Age pirates? And written by Peter Benchley? Yes, please.
It starts well enough with some scary and gruesome boat attacks. Caine plays a reporter named Blair Maynard who wants to investigate the disappearances, but he gets stuck with his kid for the weekend and has to take the boy along. Maynard's a pretty lousy dad, but Caine plays him with charm and it's clear that he loves his son Justin, even if he doesn't really know what to do with him. The movie is pretty good while it's about the pair of them traveling around the Caribbean and trying to bond. In a cruel twist of fate, it's not until the pirates show up that the movie sucks.
I can see how this could be a fun adventure novel, but putting them on screen makes it impossible to take the pirates seriously as a threat. They're bloodthirsty and dangerous, but also unbelievable and goofy. How their civilization has been able to survive all of these centuries is never seriously addressed, so they come off as deadly historical reenactors. It's as silly as it sounds.
Also silly is the drama around Justin's joining the pirate gang. There's a great story to be told about a kid who deserts the already shaky relationship he has with his father to do some horrible things with a bunch of new friends. How far can a child go before a parent gives up hope of bringing them back? Unfortunately, this isn't that story. Justin's transformation from normal kid to Lord of the Flies is way too quick and the movie doesn't really care whether we believe it or not.
The '80s were full of pirate movies that didn't work as well as they should have. I'm sure I'll get back around to some more of them later, but Yellowbeard showed up on my TiVo, so I gave it another look.
I was so disappointed back in the day. You take most of Monty Python and put them in a movie with Cheech & Chong and most of the cast of Young Frankenstein. I don't care what the movie's about, that's got to be hilarious. Making it about pirates is bonus. But Yellowbeard isn't as funny as its individual parts promise. And when I first saw it years ago, the letdown was unrecoverable. I hated it.
Watching it again, I laughed quite a bit. As Stacia says at She Blogged By Night, "Yellowbeard is a complete disaster, but it’s a funny disaster." She has a great analysis of what went wrong (and what went right) and links to still further information from Yellowbeard's director, so I highly recommend checking out her review. I'll probably never watch it again, but I'm glad to have it redeemed at least a little in my memory.
High Road to China (1983)
Another one that I wanted to like back in the day better than I did. It suffered by getting compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It's a comparison that the marketing of the movie asked for, but it's not the best way of approaching the film. I haven't done an exhaustive history of it, but I have no doubt that it was greenlit thanks to Raiders' success. High Road had been in development since the late '70s though, so it's conception was inspired by neither Indiana Jones nor '30s movie serials. High Road is an homage to a later genre: mid-century war/adventure movies.
It's telling that it was originally going to be directed by John Huston and was ultimately directed by Brian Hutton, because it has way more in common with The African Queen and Kelly's Heroes than The Adventures of Smilin' Jack. I still don't completely love High Road to China, because I never really care about whether Selleck and Armstrong get together, but I do appreciate it as a globe-trotting adventure with a war movie finale.
Argoman, the Fantastic Superman (1967)
Went to see Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live and this was the movie. I'm probably breaking some kind of social contract by telling you, because it was billed as a Secret Surprise Film. (There were two shows - an early and a late - and because of schedules, Diane went to the early one - which was Eegah - and I went to the late. David went to both.) Joel Hodgson was there to MC and he said that he wanted the second film to be a secret because he feels the show works best when the audience doesn't know anything about the movie. I'm only telling you, because the chances are really, really tiny of someone reading this who also has tickets to an upcoming late show of the tour. If I've spoiled it for you, I'm sorry. You're in for a great show, though.
It's hard to judge Argoman the Fantastic Superman in The Incredible Paris Incident on its own merits outside of the experience of the show that I saw it in, but I think it's safe to say that it's awful. It's a late '60s Italian film inspired by James Bond and Adam West's Batman. Mostly Bond, if Bond was the millionaire playboy secret-identity of a superhero. (Unlike Batman, Argoman the Fantastic Superman actually has powers. They're not defined very well, but telekinesis is part of it. And also unlike '60s Batman, it took me a long time to decide if Argoman was a good guy or a bad guy. That's probably the Bond influence again.) Calling it "camp" implies some intentionality that I'm not sure was there, but let's give it the benefit of the doubt. If you like horrible Italian cinema from the '60s, it's bonkers enough to make it worth tracking down - whether or not you have wisecracking robots to watch it with.
It's a decent idea. A lawyer finagles his way onto a yacht to serve a subpoena to a well-protected tycoon who's leaving the country on a race across the Pacific. The execution is miserable though, with the lawyer's seeming super ineffectual and the tycoon's being infuriatingly entitled in a way that I think is supposed to seem whimsically charming. Maybe. I had a hard time telling what kind of tone the movie's going for.
Complicating things is the tycoon's equally entitled daughter who hates the lawyer for obvious reasons until she suddenly doesn't and we enter romantic comedy territory. I think maybe the whole movie is supposed to be a romantic comedy? That would explain why it doesn't really care about how horrible the woman's dad is. Anyway, I'm sorry I watched it.
Johnny Angel (1945)
A case study on why genres are important. I've got a few wishlist searches on my TiVo, so sometimes I record things and I don't really remember why. I bet I grabbed this one because it's about a sea captain investigating the death of his sea captain father and there's gold involved. But that's all I knew about it, so going in I was expecting some kind of adventure story. Which means that I got impatient with how slowly and moodily the story was unfolding.
When that happens, I usually stop the movie for a minute and do some research. Learning that Johnny Angel is a film noir (that just so happens to be about a sea captain and some gold in New Orleans) made all the difference in the world. I started it up again, confident that I could enjoy it for what it was. Expectations are weird.
It's pretty good. None of the cast is especially remarkable except Hoagy Carmichael as a really cool cabbie, but the mystery is good and the movie is awesomely atmospheric. I like how the mystery unfolds, too, with some pleasant (if not especially shocking) twists.
Black Bart (1948)
Between this and Frontier Gal, I'm pretty much done with Yvonne De Carlo Westerns. Or at least with seeking out Westerns specifically because she was in them. She may be Lily Munster - and she's certainly gorgeous - but man does she play some miserable characters. Black Bart isn't focused on rape the way that Frontier Gal was, but it's still about a supposedly strong-willed woman who bends to a man's wishes simply because he's the man.
In this case, the man is a stagecoach robber named Black Bart. He's kind of a Zorro character except that he deserves to be an outlaw. In fact, his master plan for robbing stagecoaches really puts him in the supervillain category. And yet I think we're supposed to find it tragic when he gets what's coming to him. I don't know. If he's supposed to be charming and likable, then the movie makes a huge miscalculation, because he's a boring weasel. I'm glad to see him fall and only sorry that he drags De Carlo into it. I guess it doesn't actually end too badly for her, but that's only because the movie completely forgets about her at some point and never comes back to her again.
Fort Apache (1948)
Got interested in watching John Ford's "Cavalry Trilogy" as a trilogy. I've seen Fort Apache before and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but I have no memory of Rio Grande. Or maybe I've seen it, but I'm getting it confused with the million other Westerns named after rivers. Anyway, I've certainly never watched the three movies close together enough to understand why people consider them a trilogy, so I'm gonna work on that.
Fort Apache is good, if frustrating. It's frustrating in the same way that Mutiny on the Bounty is. I don't have patience for rigid, narrow-minded characters who have authority over more level-headed people. The fear of that scenario playing out in real life is a big reason that I'd never fit well into a military organization. But Fonda is great at the role and the script gives him some humanizing moments in addition to the maddeningly bull-headed ones. I end up feeling bad for the guy, which is remarkable considering how much I dislike him.
Shirley Temple sure is a joy, though, as Fonda's daughter. And I like John Agar more in this than I usually do. John Wayne is typically watchable, too. So as this kind of military drama goes, Fort Apache is the best I've seen.
The Bribe (1949)
Finally, I checked off another Vincent Price noir movie with The Bribe. Robert Taylor plays a government agent investigating a ring of airplane engine smugglers (?!) and Price is the (not really a spoiler, because it's Vincent Price) mastermind behind the operation. Ava Gardner and her husband (John Hodiak) are suspects, but Taylor gets too close to Gardner and his loyalties are compromised. Charles Laughton is Price's front man in the operation; mostly there to give voice to Taylor's conundrum by reminding everyone of the stakes as often as possible.
Taylor is never a compelling lead. He even makes Ivanhoe boring, for goodness sake. I don't know that I've ever seen Ava Gardner in anything else, so I don't want to judge her too harshly for The Bribe. She's dull too, but that might be Taylor's rubbing off on her. Vincent Price is great, but he's barely in the thing, which leaves Laughton to do all the hard work. His character is purely there for exposition (and I guess a red herring, if you're super gullible), but he does fantastic things with it.
Kudos also to directors Robert Leonard and Vincente Minnelli for giving a mediocre story tons of style. The final showdown between Taylor and Price is unforgettable and there's a good reason that The Bribe was one of the movies edited into Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.
Song of the Week: "Goodbye" by Echosmith
I love the guitar in this and the chorus is amazing and hilarious: "When you finally find yourself... tell him I said, 'Goodbye.'"