Tag Archives: Steven Soderbergh

Troubled teens and a pissed off old fart: movies

BETTER LUCK TOMORROW (2003) focuses on a group of Asian American teens who turn to shoplifting as a break from their rigorous academic lives. From there they jump to drug-dealing, selling cheat sheets and then … Competent but this never clicked with me.  “It’s literally a full-time commitment just to make people believe you’re the person you’re supposed to be.”

Stephen Soderbergh’s THE LIMEY (1999) stars Terence Stamp as a tough British thug, just out of the jug. His daughter, living in LA, has just died in what Stamp suspects was no accident, which is very bad news for the people responsible. This co-stars Lesley Anne Warren as a friend of the daughter and Peter Fonda as her ex-lover; the story is slight but the performances are strong.  “That’s usually what senseless violence comes down, to isn’t it? Bad loans, bad judgment, bad faith.”

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Assassins, spies and other movie low-lifes

With a cast of Karen Gillen, Michelle Yeoh, Carla Gugino, Lena Headey, Angela Basset and Paul Giamatti, GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE (2021) should have been way better than it was. After her hitwoman mother (Headey) goes on the run, Gillen follows in her footsteps as a deadly assassin for the all-powerful Firm. Unfortunately a)her latest mission required whacking the son of a powerful crime boss and b)she sacrificed some of the Firm’s stolen money to rescue the daughter of a man she killed (the kid triggers her own abandonment issue). With her life on the line, can the mysterious librarians (Bassett, Gugino, Yeoh) give her a fighting chance?

The cast is great and the film makes a game try for a kind of anime action feel. Trouble is it comes off very glum which undercuts the fun — not that it has to be a laugh-riot, but it really needed to have some high spirits mixed in. And as Nerds of Color points out, there’s not enough world-building — the Firm gets so little development it’s just a generic crime cartel (and if it’s so powerful, why do they care what the one crime boss wants?). Overall a disappointment.“You have made me a stranger in my own home again.”

Watching the restored SPIONEN (1928) — Spies in English — proved a frustrating experience. While it’s much cleaner than the copy my friend Ross made for me years ago, and probably longer (150 minutes) the German DVD doesn’t put the subtitle button anywhere obvious. Worse, by the time I figured it out I was halfway through the film and it only allows starting them at the beginning. As a result the plot is a complete blank to me, though Fritz Lang’s seminal spy film (showing a lot in common with Dr. Mabuse) is still interesting and eyecatching to watch. However the disability cliche that wheelchair-bound spymaster Rudolf Klein-Rogge can secretly walk is really pointless: he almost never interacts with anyone but his agents so what advantage does it give him? The special feature documentary covers some interesting details (male lead Willy Fritsch appearing as a scruffy bum was a radical departure from his screen image at the time) and the complexities of restoring a complete (maybe) version.

Stephen Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (1998) has ace bank robber George Clooney (“You’d be amazed what you can get done without a gun.”) and best buddy Ving Rhames plotting to rob former fellow inmate Albert Brooks of his diamond collection only to be derailed by rival hood Don Cheadle, relentless federal agent Jennifer Lopez and the mutual attraction against all odds between her and Clooney (which would make The Thomas Crown Affair a good double bill). Fun, though I don’t entirely buy the leads’ instant attraction (which they lampshade by referencing a similar relationship in Three Days of the Condor). With Catherine Keener, Dennis Farina and Isaiah Washington among the supporting cast. “If I wasn’t stoned, there was no way you’d have talked me into this.”

After reading Basinger’s The Movie Musical, I put MURDER AT THE VANITIES (1934) in my Netflix queue, just before viewing things for The Aliens Are Here began demanding all my attention. This is a pre-code backstage musical — the women’s stage costumes are startlingly skimpy compared to just a couple of years later — in which a venomous, backstabbing chorus dancer has given everyone a good reason to do away with her. When a murdered corpse turns up, however, it’s someone nobody in the show has ever seen before. Enjoyable though it’s hard to see how the strange mix of musical numbers could all fit into one show (though as Ethan Mordden points out, a lot of older musicals were just that random).  “365 nights of the year and this dame’s gotta pick this night in building on this night to commit suicide!”

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Weirdness, crime and ETs: movies viewed

SCHIZOPOLIS (1997) is a bizarre film from Stephen Soderbergh wherein the director himself plays a compulsively masturbating cubicle drone, an L. Ron Hubbard-type guru and winds up cheating on himself with his own wife. At times reminiscent of Monty Python, frequently absurdist, the end result is incomprehensible, but engaging (as opposed to incomprehensible and uninteresting like Donnie Darko). “There was a time I brushed my teeth every fifteen minutes.”

DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954) stars Mickey Rooney — I frequently forget what a good actor he can be — as a mechanic and amateur race-card driver who dreams of someday competing in a major race like the Indy or Le Mans, both far beyond his means. Heck, he’d be happy if he could find a woman who doesn’t dismiss him as too short to date. Enter Dianne Foster, a seductive woman who takes an interest in him, but only to set him up so Kevin McCarthy can recruit him as wheelman for a bank robbery. Film Noir cites this as a textbook example of 1950s trends in the genre: more naturalistic, less shadowy, but still concerned with the femme fatale (though Foster is more guilt-ridden than most), corruption and how one error in judgment can bring you to doom. Well done.“If this works out, maybe we can room together next semester.”

I didn’t get much new stuff watched for Alien Visitors because I spent four hours last weekend watching the commentary tracks and special features on the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers BluRay I bought (well worth the cost, too). One I did catch was Disney’s STEPSISTER FROM THE PLANET WEIRD (2000), in which a teenage girl discovers to her horror that mom Khrystine Haje is dating again, then getting married again, despite her new boyfriend and his daughter being serious weirdos. What the girl doesn’t know is that they’re actually aliens (living-gas bubbles by nature) fleeing their world’s tyrant — and oops, here come the bad guys to catch up with them. As I’ve noticed before, Reuniting The Family is a running motif in Kids And Aliens movies — then again, the protagonist and her mom were pretty tight before the dating started. In its own right, uninteresting (at least at my age) though I did like the idea of the ET stepsister’s sheer strangeness convincing the girls’ classmates that she’s the apex of cool. “I’ve never used this word before, diary, but this was a debacle.”

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Hard times and San Francisco cops: Movies and TV

Following sex, lies and videotape I wanted to watch Steven Soderbergh’s sophomore feature, Kafka, but it’s not available (and apparently never has been) on U.S.-compatible DVD. So I jumped to film #3, 1993’s KING OF THE HILL, a really amazing kids’ eye view of the Depression. Jesse Bradford is the protagonist, living with his impoverished family in a hotel (it’s really remarkable how much of this resonated with the 21st century), coping with snobbish classmates and bullying cops and making friends such as bootlegger’s assistant Adrien Brody pretty classmate Katherine Heigl and former rich dude Spaulding Grey. Then his brother goes off to another branch of the family, his mom goes to a sanitarium and dad Jeroen Krabbe becomes a traveling salesman; how will Bradford cope when he’s the only one there and the hotel can’t wait to evict him for non-payment of rent. Good but grim — I kept thinking the eucatastrophic ending would turn it to be a set-up, but no (I’m okay with happy ending, just surprised). With Lauryn Hill as an elevator operator, Amber Benson as an epileptic and Elizabeth McGovern as a sex worker. “That was when guys like me used dollar bills to light our cigars.”

I was a big fan of MCMILLAN AND WIFE as a kid, when it was part of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie anthology show (best known now for giving us Columbo); the 1971-72 season is definitely flawed, but it’s still entertaining and Susan St. James as one of the leads reminds me why I had such a crush on her back in the day.

Rock Hudson plays Stuart McMillan, San Francisco defense attorney turned police commissioner; St. James is his wife Sally, socialite daughter of an eminent criminologist. Mysteries crop up — Mac’s old girlfriend is framed for murder, a phantom jewel thief loots a safe in the middle of a party, Sally unpacks a corpse when they’re moving into their new house — and Mac, with Sally’s occasional input, solves it.

Husband and wife detective teams are an old mystery tradition, and while Hudson’s stiff as an actor, St. James is charming enough to make up for it, plus we have supporting actors John Schuck (Enright, Mac’s right hand man) and Nancy Walker (Mildred, the housekeeper). The mystery content is uneven and the creators can’t seem to accept it’s a mystery show — the commissioner of police doesn’t have to chase down suspects every episode. Still, this was fun enough I’m glad I bought the DVD set.

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Reporters, voyeurs and horror: this week’s viewing

I’ve never been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) but I find myself appreciating it more as part of my ongoing Hitchcock viewing: making the first third of the film a comedy makes more sense when compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps or The Lady Vanishes. It still doesn’t work as well as they do though.Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter whose boss ships him off to Europe on the theory a hardnosed investigator with a nose for news will get better scoops than foreign correspondents who just send in the latest government press releases. In Europe McCrea falls hard for Laraine Day, daughter of peace activist Herbert Marshall — this is where the comedy comes in — and meets with a prominent Dutch politician who’s a key player in whether Europe goes to war or not (I don’t really see how the guy could have stopped it, but I’ll accept the premise). When the politician is apparently murdered, McCrea realizes the man was an imposter; Nazi agents have kidnapped the real pol to get the truth about his secret treaty negotiations. Can McCrea rescue him in time? “Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom.”

sex, lies and videotape (1989) blew me away when I saw it in theaters, between it’s frank, unconventional discussions of sexual dysfunction and the presence of Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacamo as sisters in Baton Rouge. They’re in a triangle with McDowell’s husband Peter Gallagher but when his college friend, voyeuristic James Spader shows up, the triangle becomes unstable.

Rewatching now I think that, as Roger Ebert put it, the results are more clever than enlightening; I don’t find it convincing that everyone has as much self-awareness as they do, let alone that they can discuss themselves articulately and without any impulse to lie or shade the truth. This problem has turned me off several Woody Allen films over the year but here the movie holds my interest, primarily because of the strong cast and their relationships. It is more clever than enlightening but it is very clever, and that was good enough. “What would you know about a normal frame of mind?”

I watched AMULET (2020) as part of a streaming program by the local Carolina Theatre but it was definitely not worth the price (but hey, I can say that about lots of films I’ve seen at the nearest multiplex). Nun Imelda Staunton sends a burned-out foreign veteran to move in with a woman and her deranged mother. Everything’s dark and moody with occasional shocks (and to their credit they are indeed shocking) before we learn Mom is a demon the woman is reluctantly forced to watch over. And from there, we accelerate to an ending that made absolutely no sense. I do not recommend it. “Forward is not the only way, Tomaz — there are other roads.”

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