Sunday, August 20, 2017

Dunkirk

Dunkirk (2017) is the first war movie of director Christopher Nolan, best known for Inception and the Dark Knight trilogy.

It's based on a real military operation. In 1940, after Nazi Germany had swept across Europe, 400,00 troops from the British Expeditionary Force, plus some Allied troops who had not surrendered, remained pinned down on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. The evacuation of those troops by the British navy, coordinated with an armada of civilian boats, was nothing short of a military miracle, saving the army so it could fight another day and giving the Allies a needed morale boost.

It's an interesting story and certainly one worth telling, and Nolan captures the massive scale of the operation. This is an ensemble piece. There are recurring characters, but they only play smalls role in the overarching drama. This is about the event.

Nolan also makes two unorthodox decisions in portraying the events of Dunkirk, one that I think works tremendously, and another that I don't think works very well at all.

The first: except for a handful Stuka airplanes, Nolan does not show us any Germans. Strange, this is a war movie, and we don't see any enemy combatants. Instead, Nolan suggests them. They're ever present, all around, and in a position of strength. Stick your head out, and you'll be shot. An enemy you can't see is almost impossible to fight, and this perfectly captures the superiority and overwhelming might of the German military and illustrates just how vulnerable and precarious the Allied position is.

The second decision: Nolan does not tell his story chronologically. He jumps around the timeframe. Sometimes, we witness the same event from multiple angles, but we don't realize this until after the fact. Sometimes, we witness different events but think they're the same incident, and we don't realize this until afterward.

It can be confusing in parts, which may have been Nolan's intent. It overwhelms and disorients us, giving us a sense of what those trapped soldiers are feeling, but I wonder if the movie would play better with a streamlined timeline.

I suspect Dunkirk will play better on subsequent viewings. There are a handful of recognizable actors in key parts (Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance), but the rest I'm not too familiar with, although I imagine I'll start seeing them everywhere. Many look alike - both in facially, hair color, and based on their uniforms - and I sometimes lost track of who was who.

Still, I have to consider the movie a success. Without going into Saving Private Ryan levels of gore, Nolan immerses the viewer into the maelstrom of combat. Watching it, you will feel every bullet almost as if they are bouncing around you, you'll feel cold and wet alongside the men floating in the English Channel, and you will feel claustrophobic inside the confines of sinking ships as the lights go out, trapping the panicked men in darkness as water rushes in. Nolan knows when to give us a grand epic shot and when to bury the camera amid the men, noise, and confusion.

Hans Zimmer contributes a most unconventional musical score. Instead of patriotic drum melodies or orchestral stirrings that raise the spirit, the music is more avant-garde, almost unnoticeable by conscious minds, but it's having an impact, helping to build the tension to unbearable levels.

Dunkirk resembles Full Metal Jacket. Like Stanley Kubrick, Nolan drops us in without warning, context, or exposition, and the result is a cold, disorienting experience. But unlike Kubrick, Nolan gives us some hope at the end, letting us know everything the men went through has inspired and galvanized a nation on the brink of defeat. The fighting may just be beginning, but their resolve will not falter.

Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall (1985) should have been called rough stuff.

Angus and Malcolm Young decided to produce this album themselves, aiming to re-capture the raw simplicity of their earlier albums, and they do something I can't say I've ever heard a band do on a mainstream rock release: they bury their vocalist in the mix. Brian Johnson sounds like he's singing in another room through thick walls, making it harder than usual to understand what he's saying.

Throw in a few forgettable tracks ("Danger," "Playing With Girls," "First Blood"), and it's easy to see why plenty of critics and fans have pegged this AC/DC's worst album. I wouldn't go that far. In fact, I'd say Fly on the Wall has its share of hidden gems, and the rough and raw (how is there not an AC/DC song called "Rough and Raw?") style gives it a nice and dirty flavor. The band sounds like nasty neighborhood boys playing in the garage next door.

How is there not an AC/DC song called "Nice and Dirty?"

The two songs to take away from the album (which AC/DC themselves did with the subsequent Who Made Who soundtrack album) are "Shake Your Foundations" and "Sink the Pink." The former is a fast, rocking tune that captures the rambunctiousness energy of the band, and the latter is a shuffling, dirty, suggestive tongue-in-cheek track that would make a wonderful setlist with the likes of "Big Balls" and "Go Down."

Some of the other songs are fun, too, without being great. "Fly on the Wall" is a solid opener, and "Back in Business" is suitably brash and aggressive. The Youngs give us the loud, chunky guitar riffs we expect from AC/DC, and it's the straightforward, unpretentious rock we love.

"Fly on the Wall" holds no surprises, and even its best tracks pale next to the band's earlier masterpieces. Still, I have a soft spot for it and find myself re-visiting more often than summer of their better work. Maybe I'm a sucker for the unloved, but it never pretends to be anything more than what it is. Like AC/DC!

Standout Tracks
"Shake Your Foundations" - Celebrate chaos and mayhem with this tune.
"Sink the Pink" - Gee, I wonder what this song's about.

Favorite Moment
"Aye, aye, oh, shake your foundations
Aye, aye, oh, shake it to the floor."

Album Cover
A cartoon fly and Angus peep through the holes of a fence, presumably at something they shouldn't be looking at. Very naughty.

Track Order
1) Fly on the Wall
2) Shake Your Foundations
3) First Blood
4) Danger
5) Sink the Pink
6) Playing With Girls
7) Stand Up
8) Hell or High Water
9) Back in Business
10) Send for the Man

Personnel
Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Simon Wright - Drums

Hellzapoppin'

I can only wonder what audiences in 1941 thought of Hellzapoppin'. It doesn't just break the fourth wall; it blows it up with dynamite and scatters the debris on the audience.

The film opens with a projectionist played by Shemp Howard playing a film of chorus girls coming down a flight of stage stairs. Out of nowhere, the stairs become a slide, sending all the dancers straight to Hell. Literally. Devils torture them and everything. I didn't expect that.

Then we get a disclaimer: "...any similarity between Hellzapoppin' and a motion picture is purely coincidental."

Hellzapoppin' could have been a conventional movie. There's a plotline in it that sounds like dozens of other screwball comedy musicals from the 1930s and 1940s. At a high-society party, there's a love triangle between two best friends and the girl they both want to marry, and meanwhile, let's put on a show and impress the big-shot Hollywood producer.

But the movie plays unconventionally. For its time, it's very radical, and it reminded me of the zany, rapid-fire works of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, the irreverence of Mel Brooks, and the cat-calling of Mysterious Science Theater 3000. The movie pokes fun at itself for how silly it is and jumps around different levels of reality, and all the characters are aware of it.

Based on the musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin' begins in Hell with a song and dance number and then comics Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen turn up (playing themselves) in a taxi. After some more hijinks and getting the projectionist to rewind some of the film for review, Hell becomes a movie set where Miracle Pictures ("If it's a good picture, it's a Miracle!") is adapting Chic and Ole's show Hellzapoppin' into a movie.

They review the script with the screenwriter and director and even begin watching it play out on a screen, which is where the bulk of the movie takes place.

These meta-levels of narrative are easier to watch and follow than to describe. The "main" storyline - the aforementioned love triangle - plays out with Chic and Ole trying to help a friend get the girl while sowing chaos and disorder everywhere they go. There are comic misunderstandings, lines with suggestive double meanings, slapstick pratfalls, and the occasional song and dance routine.

But outside the story, things continue to go wrong in the projection booth, interrupting the movie, and on screen, Chic and Ole have to yell at Shemp (who is supposedly a cousin to one of them, which is how he got the job) to pay attention. Sometimes, he likes to keep the frame on pretty girls and they have to yell at him to follow them.

That's not all. During one sappy love song, a boy in the audience (as in a boy watching the movie with us) is summoned from the theater by his mother. The characters stop in mid-song until the boy leaves because his mother won't stop asking for him.

The movie has fun playing with the conventions of cinema to create a joke. In no other medium would these gags be possible. Gags such as the frame being turned upside down and the characters complain about it and the private detective who keeps leaning out from behind a lamp post, each time appearing in a different costume, despite the fact he shouldn't be able to hide behind that spot in the first place. He tells us he won't explain how he does it.

The style of Hellzapoppin' can be described as "Just go with it." No opportunity for humor, no matter how ridiculous or irrelevant to the plot, is passed over if it means a laugh. It's complete comic anarchy, the Rule-of-Funny writ-large, and even more than 70 years after its release, much of the humor still holds up. Just hold on tight because you won't have time to question any of it.

A Million to Juan

Arriving in 1994, A Million to Juan (that title is unfortunate) has its heart in the right place. Starring and directed by stand-up comic Paul Rodriguez, the movie positions its somewhere between family comedy and social parable (with a touch of fantasy) while showcasing some of the Chicano experience in Los Angeles. It's not as sharp or as funny as it could have been, and I can't say I love it, but in its own, innocuous way, it has its charms.

Loosely based on a story by Mark Twain, A Million to Juan tells the story of Juan Lopez, an undocumented worker (he was born in LA but lived for a time in Mexico) struggling to get by. He has a young son he adores (Jonathan Hernandez) but is widowed, and steady work is hard to come by. He's also facing deportation, despite the best efforts of his case worker Ms. Smith (Polly Draper).

That all changes one day when Juan, selling oranges on the street, receives a check by a mysterious man (Edward James Olmos) in a limousine. The check is good for $1 million. A note tells Juan it's an interest-free loan, but he must return it in 30 days. As news spreads of Juan's newfound fortune, he finds everyone friendlier toward him, businesses more accommodating, and even though he doesn't spend the money, Juan is able to open all sorts of new credit lines.

A Million to Juan raises a good point: we as a society treat people with money differently from people without money. If money is a measure of an individual's success, then a person with a lot of it must be successful, and who doesn't want a piece of that action? Contrarily, someone without much money must be a loser and should be avoided like the plague.

I can imagine someone like Rod Serling creating something searing with this premise, but while Rodriguez doesn't necessarily pull his punches, he doesn't take the premise as far as he could have. Even with his newfound wealth and fame, Juan remains a nice guy who wants to do the right thing, and thus, he never does anything we as the audience can really disapprove of. Juan is a likable guy and we want to see him pull through, and except for the resolution of a subplot involving a neighbor's sick daughter, the movie's execution plays it safe.

The movie has its share of giggles and smiles but very few belly laughs. A lot of its fairly predictable, like when Juan and his roommates use their newfound credit to buy fancy suits and cars, and at first the snobby store clerk treats them badly, not realizing their check is genuine. Larry Linville turns up as a bank president, playing the part exactly like Frank Burns, and of course, Juan's ex-girlfriend tries crawling back once she learns he's loaded.

A couple of scenes made me wince. Cheech Marin cameos as a panhandler who pulls the same scam Eddie Murphy tried in Trading Places (pretending to a veteran), and it's just not funny. There's an Indian convenience store clerk who is comprised of just about every Indian stereotype possible. Ms. Smith, who inevitably falls in love with Juan, is sweet, but her current boyfriend is such an insufferably douchebag (and a casual racist to boot), he stops the movie every time he's on screen.

For some reason, the boyfriend escapes a comeuppance (except his girlfriend dumps him off-screen), but the sleazy landlord does not. Played by Paul Williams, the landlord happily accepts and threatens to raise rent but breaks promises to make repairs or maintain the building, threatening to report his tenants to the INS if they report him. He ends up getting forced to make the repairs and gets toilet water sprayed in his face.

A Million to Juan tries to balance silly comedy, sweet romance, and social drama, working in spurts but not for any sustained length, causing some of those tones to clash. Still, the performances are charming enough to carry the movie through, and I can't bring myself to dislike a movie I would describe as tender.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Flick of the Switch

If Flick of the Switch arrived five years earlier, it might have been received better.

The 1983 album finds AC/DC stripping their sound and production down to a back-to-the-basics approach after the titanic productions on Highway to Hell, Back in Black, and For Those About to Rock. After working with Mutt Lange on those three albums, the band decided to self-produce, but arriving after the massive of success of those three albums, Flick of the Switch, while not a bad album, feels like a step down in quality.

Flick of the Switch has the expected AC/DC style: straightforward, hard-rocking tunes. Coming away from the polished, almost pop-like production of Mutt Lange, the music has a rougher edge. The sound is not as clean, but for a group like, AC/DC, that's part of the charm.

At the same time, the album sounds big and loud. The Youngs' guitar work dominates with loud, chunky rhythms, whether doing mid-tempo chuggers like the opening "Rising Power" or the faster-paced "Guns for Hire." Angus also finds time to play some bluesy slide guitar, resulting one unsung classic, "This House is on Fire," and the slower but still enjoyable "Badlands."

Another standout song is "Nervous Shakedown." AC/DC are better known for their rock anthems, but this song tells a story, about a young punk railroaded by the police. It ain't Warren Zevon or Pink Floyd in terms of narrative or a ballad, but it's nice to find the boys stepping out of their formula on occasion.

"Take a dime, said the man, you can make one call
You got a one-way ticket to the County Hall
Well, the judge looked high and I looked low
And when he smiled at me it was a one-man show
He said, Two to five, the jury decides
Double parole if you survive"


Flick of the Switch has its share of strong songs but also its share of forgettable tunes. There is a feeling the band is coasting. Some of the songs are so straightforward, they could be described as simple and one-dimensional. AC/DC always played catchy songs, but on occasion, it sounds like they're repeating themselves and not coming up with as many memorable riffs.

Brian Johnson is in good voice, but bassist Cliff Williams and drummer Phil Rudd (who was fired mid-recording and wouldn't return until the mid-90s) are left on the sidelines, almost forgotten about with standard backup roles.

The album lacks an urgency, a sense of importance or a statement of purpose. We get the bad boy songs and naughty school boy humor, but now, it feels like the band is trying to live up to a brand of expectations.

Standout Songs
"Rising Power" - A solid, chugging opener
"This House in on Fire" - A lost classic by a band that already has many great songs.
"Guns for Hire" - The one you'll want to sing along with the most.

Favorite Moment
I like this pre-chorus line Johnson sings during "Rising Power:" "Need no excuse to let it all hang loose. My body's for abuse." Smash into the chorus, and it's gold.

Album Cover
A pencil drawing of Angus flips a giant electrical switch. It's nice but disappointingly colorless. Like the album itself, it would be better filled in.

Track Order
1) Rising Power
2) This House is on Fire
3) Flick of the Switch
4) Nervous Shakedown
5) Landslide
6) Guns for Hire
7) Deep in the Hole
8) Bedlam in Belgium
9) Badlands
10) Brainshake

Personnel
Brian Johnson - Vocals
Angus Young - Lead Guitar
Malcolm Young - Rhythm Guitar
Cliff Williams - Bass
Phil Rudd - Drums

Samurai Cop

The late Robert Z'Dar played a vengeful, zombified police officer in the Maniac Cop trilogy, and while he does not play the titular character in Samurai Cop (1991), he is the villain's main henchman and uses a katana. As a bonus, we get to see more of him since the filmmakers aren't hiding him in the shadows and hear him speak dialogue. He's surprisingly soft spoken (assuming he isn't dubbed). The roles of a B-movie actor.

Z'Dar is right at home in Samurai Cop, a B-movie through and through. It's schlock, and it makes you appreciate the skills of schlockmeisters like Larry Cohen and William Lustig, directors who had a way of elevating this kind of material or at least delivering the goods on their chosen level.

Samurai Cop is bad schlock but not unenjoyable schlock. Good schlock impresses you for what it is; bad schlock, well, you hope you can laugh, which fortunately Samurai Cop succeeds at. I don't know how deliberate it all was, but it's an enjoyably bad movie.

The plot's packed to the gills with cliches. A cop aims to take down a dangerous gang and romances a pretty lady who gets too close to the action. The cop in this case is Joe Marshall (Mathew Hannon), who is nicknamed Samurai because he knows martial arts, trained in Japan, and speaks fluent Japanese (which he never does). The gang is a group of rogue (multicultural) Yakuzas who have taken over the drug trade in L.A. The pretty lady is Jennifer (Janis Farley), a restaurant owner the Yakuza leader has eyes for.

Yeeaahh... For a movie called Samurai Cop, I expected more Samurai action. Joe just looks silly, someone the filmmakers are trying to pass off as cool and tough, but he comes off as a poser. Between his denim and aviator jacket wardrobe (except when he trapes about in a black speedo more times than expected) and fighting skills that make me question whether Mathew Hannon had any instruction in martial arts, I don't buy it.

Nor does any of his personality reflect any Samurai code, whether real-life or from the movies. He's a standard, loose-cannon cop. Plus, he spends more time trying to romance Jennifer when he should be more concerned about the case or whether the armed hitmen are coming after him. If he wasn't so dully played by Karedas, I'd consider him a creep; he harasses Jennifer until she sleeps with him. OK, he is a creep.

And his hair. No two ways about it, it looks terrible. Sometimes it looks like a wig. Sometimes it looks real. Either way, it's bad.

Yet the movie treats Joe like he's some sort of super stud. He has almost every attractive woman in the cast hit on him and charmed by his weird, aggressive flirting. He boasts about a sexual conquest in front of the woman he's currently sleeping with, but she doesn't mind that much, nor does she seem to mind or care when he immediately moves in on Jennifer.

The movie's craft could politely be described as amateurish. The action scenes are ineptly staged and filled with weird jump cuts that make it almost impossible to determine where characters are supposed to be in relation to each other and their surroundings. Scenes meant to take place in one setting are clearly comprised of multiple locations that don't match.

Most of the actors sound dubbed (poorly I might add), and the dialogue is filled with howlers. To any female police officers who might be reading this, would you, during a stakeout just before striking a criminal hideout, turn to your married partner and ask, "We got some time, wanna fuck?" I can't tell if she's just messing with him or serious.

What else? There's the flamboyantly gay Costa Rican waiter who promises to inform to Joe but is never mentioned again after his one scene. I'm not sure if he's more offensive to gays or Costa Ricans. Joe and a female cop converse while he's on the ground and she's in a helicopter without any radio or other communications equipment. Gun wounds look like paintball rounds, and most henchmen who fall over dead look like they're trying not to hurt themselves as they do so. There's a lot of sex and female nudity but nothing especially erotic.

Nothing about this movie is objectively good. But, if you're a connoisseur of bad cinema, there's much to enjoy about Samurai Cop.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tales from the Darkside: The Movie

Tales from the Darkside gets a feature-length spin-off. Appropriately an anthology in the tradition of Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990) arrives directed by John Harrison, who directed several episodes of the show and composed the music for Creepshow.

There are three tales plus a wraparound. In the framing device, a young boy (Matthew Lawrence) tries to stall a suburban witch (Debbie Harry) from cooking him by reading her favorite childhood book:

"Lot 249," based off the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story and adapted by Michael McDowell, involves a university student (Steve Buscemi) using a mummy to get revenge against those who cheated him (among them, Christian Slater and Julianne Moore).

George Romero scripts "Cat from Hell" based off a Stephen King story. A rich man (William Hickey) hires a hitman (David Johansen) to eliminate a black cat he thinks is out to get him.

The final story, also scripted by McDowell, is "Lover's Vow." A struggling artist (James Remar) witnesses a gargoyle murder a man, but the creature spares his life if he agrees to keep what he saw a secret. Soon after, the artist meets and falls in love with a charming woman (Rae Dawn Chong) and his fortunes in life improve.

Since we're off network TV, the movie brings out some of the blood, grue, and gore that would have been implied on the TV show. A few heads are lopped off, things that should not be swallowed find their way down a poor bastard's gullet, and the mummy has fun with a coat hanger. The effects by KNB also appear to have a substantially larger budget, and the various creature creations work in a comic-book styled way.

The narratives are predictable. The first two stories work as just dessert tales: the wicked commit a transgression and are punished for it by supernatural means, whether it means a reanimated mummy or a demonic feline. These would have been perfect fits on Creepshow (in fact. "Cat from Hell" was originally scripted for Creepshow 2). Meanwhile, "Lover's Vow" is more of a tragedy. Yes, there's a monster, but no one in the story is really evil, just flawed, including the gargoyle.

Stylistically, Harrison gives each segment its own flavor. "Lot 249" resembles an old-fashioned serial, all wide angle lenses and transition swipes (like in Star Wars). "Cat from Hell" feels like a film noir: deep shadows, stark angles, dream-like flashbacks, and the color is mostly bled out until the screen is almost black and white. "Lover's Vow" feels like more urban and modern than the others, more contemporary.

Tales from the Darkside the TV show has its share of chilling moments, but the movie not so much, but I can't bring myself to condemn it. It's fun and stylish in the tradition of those horror anthologies, and the cast of familiar and soon-to-be familiar faces is clearly having fun. It won't keep you up night, but as a piece of polished horror, it's a solid effort.