The Two Popes

The Koreans had let us down. Our Christmas tradition (starting in 2016 with The Handmaiden) hit a roadbump when The Boy and jetted down to Koreatown on Christmas Eve Day (about the only time you can jet down to Koreatown from The Valley) only to discover that the only Korean movie playing, Ashfall, did not yet have English subtitles. I mean, the website said there weren’t subtitles but I just couldn’t believe it. The trailer had subtitles. Why would you give the trailer subtitles if the movie didn’t have them?

Sigh.

They’re not kidding about the “Teaser” part.

Well, that’s the “yet” part. This Korean volcano drama (I mean, come on!) will eventually have subtitles, but that was no help to us. We wandered around the city, considering our options. 63 and Up was on our list but it’s 3 hours, which is more than we wanted to spend just then. There’s a movie about fungi, which—who doesn’t love fungi?—we thought about but it was both at an awkward time and we felt likely to be overburdened with envirotragiporn. Potentially interesting films, like 1917 or even Black Christmas, didn’t open until the evening.

So we gave up.

On the way back home I said we should stop by and pick up a movie card for The Boy’s grandfather, and we stood there looking at our options: Cats and The Two Popes. The former had some potential as a cringe-watch but I remembered The Boy’s grandfather saying he had enjoyed The Two Popes. Well, we left. Then when we were in the parking lot, The Boy said, “Dammit, I wanna see a movie.”

This has been a particular bone of contention this year, in which we’ve seen barely 100 films. We used to gamble all the time, The Boy points out, and it’s true—but my point is that, it’s not that we’re not gambling, it’s that Hollywood (and the affiliated indies) are being very, very predictable.

We decided to risk it, pausing almost to abort a third time when I noticed the poster. Oh, it’s a Netflix movie. That set off red flags for The Boy. Then I noticed it was by Fernando Meirelles who direct one of the best movies I’ve seen in two decades (City of God) and one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen (The Constant Gardener), and I have come to believe that the good movie was a fluke or the result of his co-director, Katia Lund. But we committed ourselves and in we went.

Not a thing.

The annual Benedictine vs. Franciscan football game is big at the Vatican.

Should have skipped it.

This movie feels like Catholic cosplay—a bunch of atheists sitting around making a nonsense story (in a silly, pseudo-documentary style) without any concept of what they’re doing. It literally seems like someone said, “Hey, the new Pope’s a progressive Marxist who agrees with all of our politics, let’s make a movie about him!” If anyone said, “Hey, should we study Christianity and the issues facing the Church beyond the headlines,” the answer was most assuredly “Nahhhhh”, or so it certainly felt.

I mean, early on, (the future) Pope Francis says to Pope Benedict: “Jesus didn’t build walls.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “He was a carpenter! If he didn’t build walls, he made some awful houses!”

This movie has it that Cardinal Ratzinger represents the old Church, with all its flaws and concerns for human dignity and general freedom, while the hip, happening Cardinal Bergoglio, who seems more devoted to “economic justice” (Marxism) than any spiritual concerns, is the New Church and its chance for success. Because if there’s anything that troubles leftist atheists, it’s that the Church might fail going forward.

The whole movie’s arc is Anthony Hopkins (as Ratzinger) coming to realize that his successor is better able to lead the Church than he is, and Jonathan Pryce (as Bergoglio) coming to grips with failing to be sufficiently revolutionary when the communists were trying to subvert the government of Buenos Aires. Although Hopkins is well past his prime, he’s pretty good here, and Pryce is great as always, so the movie has that to commend it.

The message is delivered in the same ham-handed childish fashion as the deplorable Constant Gardener. Nothing really makes sense the way it’s portrayed.

On a technical level, the movie suffers greatly from the shaky-cam pseudo-documentary style and a jarring use of music, as when entering the Sistene Chapel the first time, what do we get? A saxophone solo. There’s a cute moment where one of the cardinals (maybe Bergoglio, I don’t remember) is whistling “Dancing Queen” which Ratzinger asks after, not being very familiar with pop music. But that’s followed up by the cardinals filing into the chapel to the actual strains of “Dancing Queen”. Why? What’s the point of that?

What’s the point of anything beyond “Yay! Progressivism!” here? I have no idea. But this is the first time in recent memory I can recall The Boy and I literally regretting having seen a movie.

Meh.

These guys can act but that’s about all there is going on here.

No Safe Spaces

The Flower had wanted to see this documentary featuring Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager but as you might imagine it didn’t have a lot of screens playing it here in New Gomorrah. We had to trek out to God’s Country (Simi Valley) to check it out. Sort of surprisingly, and much like Richard Jewell, which we had seen two days prior on a Tuesday matinee, the theater was rather crowded. (Jewell was practically full. This was maybe half full, but that’s a lot for a Thursday.)

This is a fairly breezy documenting of the increasing mau-mauing of anything other than the strictest PC voices on college campuses (and ultimately how that would spread beyond the universities). As a result, much like Dinesh D’Souza’s Death of a Nation, there was very little here that was new to me. (Well, I didn’t know much about Carolla’s backstory—I’d always wondered about his mom—or Prager’s, but that’s not really the point of the movie.)

Similarly, the kids were pretty well-versed on all this stuff. They weren’t aware of the Evergreen College fiasco per se but the contempt with which they hold the university system generally means they weren’t really surprised by it either.

She's great.

The great Sharyl Atkisson shows up.

There’s also a segment on Ben Shapiro being a contentious bone. I don’t know if the movie meant to do this, but there is a definite comedy in hearing about Shapiro being a monster—then cutting to him and, I gotta say, he’s one of the least impressive people to ever cause a ruckus. He’s like a grown-up Greta Thunberg. I mean, in terms of tone, he’s a scoldy high-school class President: Strident, kind of hard to listen to, and sorta weaselly. (Carolla and Prager, of course, are great aurally, but in completely different ways. The former has a blue-class roughness to his pronunciation while the latter could narrate Penguin documentaries.)

The point of the movie is, of course, that he should be welcome to speak if people on campus want to hear him speak. He’s literally doing nothing other than expressing what used to be rather anodyne social and political commentary. That anyone’s scared of these ideas gives you a sense of how fragile the bubbles they’re building on campus are.

Fortunately (?) the process seems to make snowflakes rather than robust revolutionaries, or we probably would have had much more violence at this point. This revolution, should it occur, will be done with complicity between the swamp and the large corporations, and selective prosecution (which we’ve already seen). Antifa-type crimes will go unnoticed and unpunished but people defending themselves against Antifa will be prosecuted vigorously.

I mean.

I cannot honestly fathom being intimidated by Ben Shapiro.

On the three-point scale:

  1. The subject matter is important, the very lifeblood of the Republic.
  2. The presentation is quite good. More polished than, say, D’Souza’s efforts. It feels higher budget.
  3. Slant? Well, it’s right there on the label. These guys are speaking out for free speech and against censorship. You don’t get a lot of “the upside to censorship”, which might have been interesting but not really on  point.

There’s a nice bit at the end where Prager talks with some young black college men about whether America is racist, and how any racism that does exist expresses itself in modern day. There isn’t an attempt to resolve the issue, only to communicate different viewpoints on it, and its a very good example of how people really can talk, even over difficult issues, even when their backgrounds and experiences are radically different.

For us, of course, while we enjoyed it, it wasn’t exactly revelatory to us, and as I pointed out to the kids, we’re not the intended audience. Whether this will reach the intended audience—the average folk who don’t realize how bad things have gotten—remains to be seen.

Lookin' at you, Levin.

These guys talk a lot. Their voices don’t hurt my ears.

Citizen K

Here is a documentary about a Russian oligarch’s trials and tribulations that was interesting on a lot of levels. The backstory is this: When Communism fell in the Soviet Union, the USSR handed out little bits of paper signifying stock in formerly nationalized industries. Given that there wasn’t a lot of food to go around and the slips of paper were pretty useless short-term, a handful of people gathered up these papers and became the controlling powers behind most of the industry in the new Russian republic. This, of course, is so obvious an outcome it’s almost impossible for me to believe it wasn’t the intended outcome but whatever.

One of these oligarchs was a man named Mikhail’s Khodorkovsky  who started the first bank, then moved into the oil biz where he created a truly efficient, product-driven organization (after killing everyone who stood in his way).

Wait, what? OK, the documentary doesn’t say this at all about killing everyone. I just made it up because, again, I can’t imagine how else it was going to play out in a society which for eight decades had been governed by “will to power”. No, this documentary focuses on one death, in one town: The mayor of a drilling town where Citizen K fired a great many of the workers, and who was resisting Khodorkovsky’s takeover. Then, on Mikhail’s birthday, he dies. No, he’s murdered, there’s no doubt about that. But our oligarch is on the other side of the country when it happens so…couldn’t have been him, right?

Later, when Putin rises to power (with Khodorkovsky’s help), things start to go sour and Vladimir is basically going back to the old ways—I mean, it’s more strictly a form of fascism, but there’s just a hair’s difference between that and communism—doling out stuff to pals and suppressing dissent. And Citizen K objects to this. So Vladimir throws him in prison for…I forget the charge, and it doesn’t really matter. Some sort of fraud. Later when he is about to go free, they retry him on the charges of stealing half-a-billion barrels of oil, so you know the Russian judiciary is not super-concerned with making things look plausible.

He remains defiant in jail, where he stays many years, then finally flees to Europe when he gets wind of Putin’s plan to pin the death of the mayor on him and put him away for good.

And now he sits in London agitating with no clear degree of success against Vlad. And I have to admit, I was a little confused at this point because I feel like the director had a narrative, but it was being very muddled by the facts. Like, Khodorkovsky’s screen presence (and jail persona) is a little too perfect, a little too Nelson Mandela. A little too much “For Love Of Mother Russia”. As he coyly admits that despite Putin’s machinations he has a cool $400M tucked away.

I was not at all satisfied that he was not behind the mayor’s murder, either.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m not sure I would judge him for it. The ’90s were wild times in the former USSR. The vast majority of people were used to being peasants and probably if you didn’t want to be a peasant, there were all kinds of terrible things you’d have to do. But I feel like this documentary wants me to think of Citizen K as a good guy and Vladimir Putin (whose rise was facilitated by same Citizen K) as a bad guy, and while Putin is obviously a thug, the evidence Khodorkovsky isn’t is a bit, shall we say, light.

After the movie, I looked up the director—I had actually gone to see this on the basis of a tweet from the official account—and it was Alex Gibney. The only thing of his I’d seen before was Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, and interestingly I had a very similar reaction to it, except that one was much, much clearer in intent: You’re supposed to think of the Enron guys as crooks who thought of themselves as the smartest guys in the room. Yet from the documentary, they very clearly were the smartest guys in the room. Granted this is mostly because our elected officials are morons, but still, that’s who they were dealing with.

And while this documentary very thankfully stays away from Trump (except for one or two minor allusions), I think it’s pretty clear that this documentary exists because now it’s okay to talk about what a heel Putin is. Not back in 2012, when the President was “more flexible”. Not in 2008 or 2004 or even earlier when he was rising to power and crushing all in his path. Actually, that really stuck out to me, how little splash Putin made in our media back in the early- to mid-00s: It was far more important to drag W over the war than to shine a light on Russia which, of course, is the historic ally of the left in the US (and hence the media).

We were glad we saw and it was interesting for historical reasons, but that’s about where the Boy and I left it. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Obviously important on so many levels.
  2. Presentation. Pretty good. Not flashy but gets the job done.
  3. Slant. Eehhhhhh. Maybe? Maybe not?

I mean, point 3 is the stickler, but maybe it’s also not very important. It probably wouldn’t have even stuck out except, like a lot of docs, the movie tends to wear out its welcome. After we’ve seen all the action, we get a lot of little scenes that don’t seem to add up to much, as if it wants to mean something important but it’s not exactly sure what.

You kind of get used to that watching docs so there’s not a real inclination to “dock” (heh) any points for it. It’s worth a watch.

Not us.

Beatific? Megalomania? Who knows?

White Snake

I was looking up information on Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, as one does, and came across the pronouncement that White Snake Changes Chinese Animation Forever or something of that sort. And I thought, hey, I like Chinese animation (as far as I know), I wonder what the hell that means? But rather than read an article about it, I found that it was playing in South Chinatown (not to be confused with the fake Chinatown in downtown L.A. or the real ones in Alhambra or Orange) and so The Boy and I jetted off to see this story of a man who falls in love with the snake demon who may or may not have been sent to kill him and his whole family.

The revolutionary aspect seems to be that it’s…sexual. Not graphic or gross, but the two lead characters fall in love and have sex. And there’s a demonic saleslady who has rather carnal overtones as well.

It's close, though.

Traditional rendering of the character. (Good stills for Chinese movies are hard to find.)

The story is a little hard to follow at first, because it’s opened with two snake-demon sisters talking about stuff we don’t know, and it actually doesn’t all come together until the very end—but I was very impressed by how the end so successfully clarified the beginning and aligned everything.

The story is that Blanca, a snake-demon is on a mission to kill an evil tyrant who’s been making all his villagers capture and kill snakes for his personal edification. (Magic. Go with it.) But she fails and in the subsequent battle she is nearly killed. She’s thrown from the boat (yeah, they’re on a boat, I can’t put all this stuff into one sentence!) into a river and ends up washing up on the rocks of one of these snake-killing villages where she’s rescued by a handsome young snake hunter.

So, we got your standard other-worldly love story here, star-crossed lovers if there ever were a pair. But it’s done expertly here, with a necessarily light touch on the character interplay. For example, when your girlfriend is a super-powered otherworldly demon, you might have trouble relating to her in the traditional masculine ways. When she’s fighting a sorcerer, you’re likely to not have a lot to contribute as far as trading magical blows goes. But if you’re alert and on your toes, you can pitch in at critical times and save the day.

No mister better come between 'em.

Sisters…

There was an interesting aspect, too, to the whole Demon-Snake world vs. Human Emperor dynamic was surprising. It came off, to me, like a battle between Communism and Fascism (as has been featured in so many movies) and the message seems to be “both of these suck hard”. I mean, I’m the last guy to try to figure out the hidden messages in Chinese films—although a lot of people feel very strongly about doing just that—but while the evil emperor seemed to be more fascistic, allowing a sort of shadow of trade to go on as long as it ultimately enriched him, and the snake goddess (not our heroine, but our heroine’s boss, essentially) seemed more communist, channeling everyone’s energy to a common good (which of course was ultimately her personally and individually), they mostly both end up killing a lot of other people (whether their own or the enemy’s).

Didn’t see it coming. Didn’t see the ending coming either. You don’t really know until the last possible second whether or not our heroes survive their adventures. And it’s the sort of ending that only works in the Far East. So that was cool.

It doesn’t seem that revolutionary to me but it was a solid flick. Oh, from a technological standpoint (in case that’s the thing that’s supposed to revolutionary), it’s not up to A-list American stuff but it’s very cleverly done to make budgetary restrictions less apparent. Wherever the focus was was done up with top-notch animation, and the background stuff was neglected so you might not (if you’re not super-attentive to these things as we are) even notice.

We were glad we saw it.

Tough row to hoe.

“We’re too different! You’re a mammal and I’m a divine magical quasi-reptile!”

 

Jojo Rabbit

If you were young boy living in a militaristic society, and you weren’t really very physically competent yourself but you had a lot of spirit, it stands to reason that you might idolize and even adopt as an imaginary friend the leader of that society. That said, when the militaristic society is Germany in the second world war and the leader Adolf Hitler, it might give you pause as the subject of a comedic coming-of-age film. Unless, of course, you’re Taika Waititi.

I mean, serious camping.

Taika on an unrelated camping trip.

Taika Waititi is popular around here for his What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the latter of which was a candidate for one of our best films of 2016. But even though we liked Thor: Ragnarok, massive Hollywood success ruins most everyone and we weren’t sure what to expect from this.

Well, if you ever wanted your Nazis to talk with delightful kiwi accents, this is your movie! (I, for one, haven’t stopped talking like “rock guy” since I saw Thor.) I mean, they try German accents, but they’re all overlaid with the Kiwi and by the end it seemed like they just gave up on the German. The only exceptions were the Americans (Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johannson).

Anyway, the story goes that the little boy Jo, a proud Hitler Youth in the last days of the war, is trying to fit in to this rather aggressive (and increasingly desperate society). His inability to separate his fantasy life from reality causes problems, however, especially for his camp counselor/washed-up drunk played by Sam Rockwell. Jo’s mom (Johannson) then puts it on Rockwell’s character to keep the boy occupied and contributing to the war effort.

HOGAN!

Things in late 1944 Germany were a lot wackier than I thought.

The hitch (apart from the approaching Allied Forces) is that Jo discovers a young Jewish girl hiding out in his house. This inflames, then challenges his notions of what Jews are. He begins to write a book about Jews, depicting them as the monsters he’s been told they are, and filling in the extra details with information from Elsa, his hidden Jew. She’s more than happy to work out her rage by embracing the worst stereotypes (and fantasies) of the Third Reich and embellishing on them further.

Of course, it all ends in tears. I mean, sorry for the spoilers, but WWII ends in tears for the Germans.

The real thing about this movie is that, much like Wilderpeople, it is tonally all over the map. While it dips into as serious issues as there are (much like Wilderpeople) the comic relief (which is frequent) is very broad, even slapstick, with Rebel Wilson being a more-or-less constant dip into the deep-end of the comedy pool, while Rockwell’s character allows him to be on either side of the comic/serious spectrum. He has genuinely humane and touching moments, but his battle outfit design for the final onslaught which seems very much like Jojo might have come up with.

Jews secretly control the government of Israel, I've heard.

Jews are always being difficult by not dying and stuff.

Oh, yeah, and there’s Hitler. I mean, it’s Jo Jo’s Hitler, and of course Waititi gave himself that plum role. But still, Hitler.

It’s an odd film. Oddly endearing. Not boring at all. By turns funny and dramatic and rather suspenseful. But whether or not you can get through it—to enjoy it—may depend on how much whimsy you can bring to bear with regard to the last days of Germany in WWII. For example, my stepfather is quite the expert and student of all things WWII and he can’t bring himself to watch the movie at all. I understand that.

His counter-example was Inglorius Basterds which he found distasteful fantasy. As did The Boy and I, but we were glad we saw this and we enjoyed it, though we weren’t really sure overall how we “felt” about it, in that larger nebulous sense.

It didn't work out, I understand.

On the other hand, this picture is kind of a good metaphor for what Hitler did to Germans generally, too.

Forgiveness

After the giddy fun of Tel Aviv on Fire and the dour moodiness of God of the Piano, we were only able to see one other Israeli film during the festival. And it wasn’t easy. We went to get tickets for the first night and they were sold out, but we knew they had opened another show for the next night, so when we went to see God of the Piano we figured on picking up tickets then—but it had sold out before we got there. Then it occurred to me there was likely to be another slot opening up that Thursday they would put another showing in, and there was! But by the time it occurred to me (Tuesday) it had already sold out!

There was a showing that Sunday, but we’d have to go down to Beverly Hills, and it would be tricky—driving in the rain and with barely enough time to make it. Trickier than we thought, as it turned out, because we couldn’t buy tickets online for some reason. It wasn’t showing as sold out, though, so we risked it, only to find a line outside the theater going around the block. I dropped The Boy off in front to see if we could buy tickets and it turned out that we could! The line was just around the block because they were starting late and hadn’t let anyone in! (On a less happy note, the reason we couldn’t buy tickets online was that the theater was no longer part of our local chain, and we had seen so many fun things there.)

So, we did get to see it and it was delightful. And decidedly Israeli.

A rabbi who's out standing in his field.

When you struggle to see a film, and it’s good? That’s a mimtzvah.

Quite apart from geography and politics, and even without overt mentions of religion, you would still be able to tell this is an Israeli film, with its mixture of comedy, drama, overarching spiritual themes and a view of humanity that is benign—but never naive.

Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon write, direct and star in this comical tale about a serious subject: Forgiveness. The movie (which is translated into English misspelled as “Forgivness” and I’m not sure that’s an accident) opens with Shaul (Amir) and Nissan (Savyon) pulling some sort of heist. Shaul is the brains and the talent of the duo, and he’s going down into the sewer and…not sure how, but he’s busting into a safe at the post office, which he can crack because he knows the safe very well (and may have installed it). His motivation? Well, his young daughter is terrified of the air raid sirens, so he needs enough money to get an apartment with a safe room.

Unfortunately for him, Nissan is an idiot. When the sirens go off, Nissan starts yelling for him—so Shaul comes back to find out the problem. He gives Nissan the loot then goes back for his tools, but the sirens go off and once again Nissan panics. The upshot is Shaul goes to jail and Nissan gets away with the loot.

Flash-forward several years later and Shaul is getting out of jail, and Nissan is there to greet him. Only now Nissan is a devout, orthodox Jew. It’s the high holy days, and Nissan is feeling real bad about what happened, and he wants Shaul’s forgiveness. But all Shaul wants is the loot and nothing to do with the converted Nissan.

Friends!

Nissan later tries to help by embroiling him in another scheme with the local mob kingpin.

There’s your premise. Shaul’s trying to get his life back together, to make amends to his alienated wife and daughter, who has been accepted into the The Big London Ballet School. (Probably “the Royal Academy” but whatever. Shades of God of the Piano as a plot point, though.) His wife has been struggling to survive in his absence, and that loot Nissan got away with would sure come in  handy. Except, of course, Nissan no longer remembers where he buried it.

But Nissan is desperate. He has his own girl he wants to marry (the gorgeous pop star Shiri Maimon who does a nice job as the modest, unassuming traditional woman) but he feels he can’t while Shaul and his wife are in danger of splitting. And so he comes up with increasingly dumb and dangerous plans to get the money, which end up involving a local drug lord or two, more safecracking, and adventures right along the wall where the terrorists like to burrow in.

ENJOY IT!

Israeli movies are even harder to find good stills for than Korean films, so enjoy this portfolio pic of Shiri Maimon.

It’s very, very funny. Even wacky at times, as when the two conceive of robbing the local drug lord during a Palestinian attack by throwing a rocket at his wall, using sirens for cover. Needless to say the rocket doesn’t go off when they expect, and this is one of the times where the comedy seems to override what would be the actual reality. But none of that particularly matters.

We have a saying around here for the way a skillful filmmaker balances comedy and reality: The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but it takes its characters seriously. No matter how goofy the proceedings get, and no matter how dopey Nissan and Shaul get (as when Shaul accidentally ingests hashish), none of this is used to detract from their basic humanity. If you take Shaul’s point of view, Nissan is the source of his difficulties (never mind that he shouldn’t have been safecracking), and Nissan certainly seems naive at times. On the other hand, Shaul is quick to express his frustration through violence, which is certainly not going to help matters.

We all liked it a lot and it got a lot of applause from the packed theater. It won “Best of the Fest” along with “Incitement” (about Rabin’s assassination) and “Love In Suspenders”. Tel Aviv On Fire won “audience choice”, I believe.

But fun!

Fat stacks of cash are the root of all evil.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Not too long ago I went to see Breathless—oh, wow, almost ten years ago!—and at some point in the future I will probably end up seeing both Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. I did, and will do such things even knowing that I’m not going to like a movie, if it has some significance to cinema. Sometimes you see a classic because it’s great, and sometimes you see it with the strong suspicion that you’re not going to find it great at all, but sometimes you just don’t know.

Which brings us to The Bicycle Thief.

Miracles and wonder.

We live in wondrous times.

See what you think: In the crushing post-war poverty of 1948 Italy, Antonio (a young married man with two children) secures a job which he can only take if he has a bike, since it involves putting posters up all over the city. He has a bike, he just has to get it out of pawn (which he does with his wife’s help), but on the very first day it’s stolen. He then runs all over Rome trying to recover it, and being faced with the increasing prospect of starvation. Filmed in black and white, using no actors—only real people. Part of the Italian Neo-Realism cinematic movement, which focused on the hard times of poor people.

There’s a lot of ways this could go horribly wrong, and despite (or perhaps because) its pedigree, I was not without trepidation.

But The Boy and I went. Much to my relief, this is a film which is both a sad story of hard times and a very watchable movie.

So many skinny hungry Italian dudes.

Don’t worry guys! It’s two thumbs up!

We see Antonio get the job, and we’re wondering…”Is he going to steal a bicycle?” But, no, turns out it’s pawned and he can only get it out by hocking his sheets. (There is a massive warehouse stockpiled with pawned goods. It’s amazing.) So he and his wife pawn his sheets, and they walk around the city enjoying their new potential prosperity. He carries the bike everywhere, and when he puts it down, you’re on the edge of your seat: Who’s going to steal the bike? There’s a particularly frightening scene where the wife has gone in to give money to a fortune teller, and he gets tired of waiting so he has a kid on the street watch his bike while he goes to fetch her.

But, no, the big deal is that post-war Italy is full of bicycle thieves. (The original title of the movie in Italian is The Bicycle Thieves which some are now using for the English title.) And these thieves are like car boosters today: They work in teams, distracting the victim, getting in his way, and the bike is ridden off and chopped up, only to be resold as an unrecognizable rip-off, or just as parts.

Because it’s so prevalent, and because it’s Italy, the police are no help. Antonio takes his squad and his boy all around the city on a hunt for this bike, being driven to increasingly desperate ends.

It’s great. It’s suspenseful. You feel for the characters. It’s sad but it’s not grief porn.

As you do.

Contemplating prosperity at the pawn shop.

There’s a scene, for example, when Antonio’s son Bruno is looking for parts of his father in the marketplace, and a pedophile approaches him. And follows him around, offering to buy him a bicycle bell. It’s creepy as hell, and Antonio realizes Bruno is missing and sweeps him away from the now non-chalant creepy guy. As I said to The Boy, “In a modern movie, the kid would’ve been kidnapped, molested and murdered and the wife would be turning tricks.”

And it’s true, it’s not enough to show honest struggle any more, you have to have degeneracy.

This is a very pure, simple movie—though its simplicity belies the huge amount of effort and skill that went into it. Not just working with non-actors, which required lots of coverage and retakes, but it’s beautifully shot and framed in ways that were not at all simple to arrange. It’s also a brisk 90 minutes, telling its story and getting out with a minimum of fuss. In contrast to the last movie we saw, God of the Piano, it showed how arty/indie films can do the whole “the movie just ends” thing without feeling like it ended because they ran out of film.

But then, I don’t know that it really counts as an “indie” film, either, since Vittorio de Sica was well-established as a director (and would go on to direct Sophia Loren frequently in films such as Bocaccio ’70, and before de Sica decided to go “all amateur” Cary Grant was floated as a possible lead here. Might’ve been a great movie with him, but it is an entirely different and great movie with the people actually living the hard times playing the people living hard times.

It did not disappoint. The Boy and I were enthused.

Go on. Palp it.

The intensity is palpable.

God of the Piano

One of the funny things about independent or arty movies (or whatever you want to call those films which are made with a “selective appeal”) is that they are just as hidebound to tropes as mainstream popular films. And one of those tropes is the non-ending. That’s where a movie just stops. Like they ran out of film. Sometimes there is a good character arc, perhaps subordinate to the main action of the film, and so you don’t mind a non-ending because well, there really is an ending, it’s just subtler. You know more or less how the character is going to handle things, so you don’t need to see it.

But sometimes—all too often—it feels like the movie is trying to avoid any drama or resolution because, well, that stuff is hard.

oy

The eponymous deity with his not-grandson. (It’s complicated.)

Here we have the story of a concert pianist, a young woman who is playing in a concert when her water breaks. She is seeking validation from her father, which is not forthcoming because she (and almost everyone else, apparently) lacks the artistic flare that separates the great from the technicians. But that’s okay, apparently, because she’s giving birth to a child who will fulfill all these dreams.

Only the child is deaf.

Now, the capsule for this movie suggested that she was driven by a merciless tyrant of a father, and the deaf child learns music but ends up rebelling against the grandfather.  This sounds like a kind of kickass movie, but that capsule is not accurate and what we got was much worse and much more banal.

This is a “woman in crisis behaving badly” movie which is just beloved of Indie filmmakers, I think, because you can reframe every awful action as stunning and brave, or something.

Stunning! Brave!

The morning after a stunning and brave adulterous affair.

As it turns out, our protagonist (the lovely Naama Preis) resolves the challenge of having a deaf baby by swapping it with one with good hearing. Flash-forward 12 years later and she’s been raising a child who looks nothing like anyone in her family. But he is a really good piano player and composer. She’s ultra-stressed out because he’s applied to the Best Conservatory In Israel and he needs to audition, and everything has to go perfectly!

So naturally she’s making everyone miserable, including her long suffering husband. She goes to further and further extremes, made worse by the fact her father is on the approval committee. Worse, not better.

But this woman is not well. She has a perfectly fine husband, handsome and virile, but she’s a groupie at heart, as we all too explicitly see. It all amounts to nothing, of course. And when it all amounts to nothing, she goes to spy on the deaf child she abandoned, who looks at her like the weirdo she is.

And…roll credits.

It’s not bad, really, on a lot of levels. The Flower did not care for it—it was a big letdown from the basically benign Tel Aviv on Fire—but The Boy and I understand this genre and can appreciate it. I liked it less as it wore on as there appeared to be no reason for this desperation on her part. And she is desperate to get this approval from her father, who is rather particular but not especially forceful. I mean, you’d think, from the capsule that he was beating her because she failed him, constantly being derogatory, but we never really see anything of the sort.

She doesn't look quite happy.

Watching her not-son and a concert with her brother.

There’s a run-in he has with his grandson where he wants the boy to play it one way and the boy insists it’s better the way he’s playing it, which is about as fundamental a thing a musician can do—play it their own way—and it results in…well, nothing but the boy playing things his own way. No drama, no violence, just a mild disagreement. Does the grandfather file this away to punish the boy later? Well, maybe? But not in any way the boy cares about, even if his mom lives and dies on it.

Grandfather is obdurate, at worst. And the story is really daughter trying to appease father, but the father doesn’t seem to be clamoring for appeasement. So we just see this woman spiraling into increasing levels of misery, ruining her life.

And I think the only thing that really annoyed me was that I didn’t really get that there was a character arc here. Is she just as crazy as she was at the beginning of the movie? Is she going to come to terms with the awful things she has done?

That, to me, felt like a cheat.

On the plus side, the lack of an ending makes it easy to bring in the movie at 80 minutes so, mazel tov.

We would follow this up with the very hard to see Forgiveness which would be one of the best films of the year.

I mean, they all look like Winston Churchill.

Eh. One baby’s as good as the next, right?

The Godfather II (1974)

I’ve already done the bit about not liking the Godfather, but while I’d never seen that movie on the big screen before, I’m not entirely sure I stayed awake through this one when I tried to watch it on TV. That said, while this movie is even longer, clocking in at a whopping 3 hours and 20 minutes, I think I like it better than the first one. It is, essentially, two movies: Al Pacino’s struggle to carry on his father’s business after the events of the first movie, and the story of his father as a young man who comes to America and rises to the top of the gangster world.

Robert DeNiro would've made a good wicked witch.

How about a little fire, sc—wait, wrong movie.

The plotting is trickier but feels easier to follow: Michael Corleone (Pacino) is nearly assassinated in his Nevada home after disciplining his cousin Frankie (Michael V. Gazzo) who is running the east coast business. He goes to Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (acting impresario Lee Strasberg) saying he thinks Frankie did it. But Michael’s not an idiot and neither is Frankie, so Michael tells Frankie that Hyman did it, and he’s setting up the Florida-based don (what’s a Jewish don?). But Hyman’s one step ahead of him and sends mooks to kill Frankie, and these mooks manage to not kill him and say they’re from Michael.

Frankie’s not dumb but he’s not that smart either so he buys this and ends up turning state’s evidence on Michael. So Michael has to deal with the Feds, the Jewish gangsters, rival Italian gangs, Nevada politicians, and his increasingly shrewish wife, Kay (Diane Keaton).

Doesn't make it any easier to watch, tho'.

Not without reason, of course.

It’s suspenseful even as it becomes harder to root for Michael, as the business changes him more and more into the thing he needs to be to run it. Kay should be sympathetic but is not, even as Michael treats her worse and worse. You end up rooting for Vito, and that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but he’s an underdog through most of the movie and just trying to make a better life for his family—which means killing people, I guess.

Talia Shire has a much smaller role but once again shines as the formerly trashy sister who gains a little respect for the family. Duvall, as longtime consigliere Tom, is outstanding and subtle. The acting is pretty much terrific all around, even in the smaller roles like Gazzo’s and G.D. Spradlin (who plays a racist senator who thinks he’s going to strongarm the mob). But obviously the movie is centered around Pacino and De Niro.

So good!

Under-rated.

De Niro is probably at his best here and his charm still eludes me. I mean, I don’t hate him or anything, I just don’t think he stood out. He is, at least not the parody of himself he has become. Pacino—who is probably even more of a parody of himself these days—is great. Menacing, restrained, very seldom actually violent himself so that when he is violent, it’s very shocking. He’s also glib and smug and criminal…a smooth criminal, I guess, you might call him.

Anyway, I found it more enjoyable than the first one, in these recent viewings but just like its predecessor, I’m not sure I think they’re the greatest achievements in cinematic history. That strikes me as some Boomer revisionist nonsense, frankly. Although they’re better than The Shawshank Redemption probably? I dunno: My greatest flicks list would be from decades earlier than either.

He's a patriot.

Cameo by James Caan, shortly before he takes a swing at Al Pacino for (Michael) joining the army.

Tel Aviv on Fire

I have, in the past, noted the irony that Chinese films seem a lot less censored than those from Hollywood, and today I will note the irony that Israeli movies seem a lot less political. (This is true of Israeli movies, I will say, but absolutely not Palestinian movies. Palestinian movies—every one we’ve seen—framed blowing civilians up as a Good Thing, and indeed in many cases the only happy ending.) Case in point, Tel Aviv on Fire: a wacky comedy about a Palestinian soap opera writer who finds the fate of his soap opera characters—and the desires of people on either side of the wall regarding those fates—are tied to his own.

Let's watch!

Maisa Abd Elhadi (Mariam) doubts I can stick this landing.

Our hero is Salam, a slacker we first meet as he tries to win back his ex-, Mariam.  But as she points out, and he can’t deny, he’s just bumbling through life, and even the soap opera he’s starting to work on—well, he just got the job because his uncle, the producer, needs someone with good Hebrew for his Arabic actors (who are playing Israelis). Their soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire”, takes place on the eve of the Six-Day War, and the plot is that a Palestinian general sends his lover across the border to seduce and spy on (and ultimately kill, presumably) the Israeli General.

Salam helps out with some simple pronunciations but then immediately objects to a situation where the one of the generals compliments the heroine’s beauty by saying “You look explosive.” He earns the ire of the writer by objecting to that line but wins the favor of the French star, Tala. As tense as things are there, things really heat up for him when he’s stopped at the border by a belligerent commander, Assi. Salam tries to smooth things  out by claiming to write the show, and giving the commander some inside info.

Floozies.

Salam tries to keep it professional, but you know how actresses are.

Well, as it turns out Assi’s wife is a huge fan of the show, as are her girlfriends, and Assi is rather annoyed by her enchantment with the Palestinian general. “He’s a terrorist!” Assi exclaims in exasperation, to which his wife retorts, “Not everything is about politics.” (Of course, the Six-Day War was the attempt of the Arabic world to wipe out Israel and as we have seen nearly succeeded, and this soap is definitely meant as propaganda, but “not everything is about politics”.)

Anyway, Assi is pissed that the Israeli general is such a stiff and he demands Salam write him better. Salam, who is completely at Assi’s mercy—he cannot cross into Palestine without Assi’s approval—exploits this by suggesting Assi write the scenes that he wants to see from the Israeli general. Before you know it, the Israeli general is the hot ticket, and the dramatic conflict endears him even further to Lubna. But he’s also slipping in little messages to Mariam that she invariable sees because everyone in the hospital she works at watches “Tel Aviv on Fire”, especially as the audience grows with the shows unexpected twists and turns.

Salam grows as well. Assi’s contributions got him a shot to actually script the show (especially after the pissed-off writer quit) but he realizes that the Israeli commander’s experiences can only partly fuel thing, and so he starts to write the romantic things from his relationship (and from anyone he can eavesdrop on, like a true writer).

Assi unfortunately grows increasingly bellicose: Salam has promised him (back when he was pretending to write the show) that the Israeli general and the Palestinian spy would get married. But the show’s backers aren’t going to allow that. His uncle’s solution is simple: Have the wedding, but have Tala be strapped for explosives so she can blow everyone up. Salam argues that’s too cliché, they’ve all seen it a million times. (I wasn’t kidding about Palestinian movies.)

40+ years ago

The uncle is played by Nadim Sawalha, a character actor in many English-language movies, like “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

So at our climactic moment, we have Salam needing to assuage Assi, and his uncle, and his uncle’s Palestinian financiers, and Mariam (because Lubna is coming on strong), and not least to defend his newly acquired position as a writer of some skill and the self-respect that has brought him. The solution he does come up with is quite delightful.

It’s a lot of fun. And it’s really not very political. (In fact, you’ll see some critics complaining exactly that: It’s not political enough! It goes for goofy fun instead of biting satire!) The anodyne suggestion made here is, essentially, “what we’ve been doing up till now hasn’t worked, maybe we should try something different.” And I can’t help but note the subtext of the financiers basically stoking the fires of hate.

The stars of the film, Kais Nashif (as Salam) and Lubna Azabal (Tala, Coriolanus, Incendies), co-starred in 2005’s Paradise Now which was my introduction to Palestinian cinema, and features the “happy ending” of one of the characters blowing himself up on a bus full of Israeli soldiers. It’s a great introduction to the mindset, really, which is “Jews are evil. They oppress us and are responsible for all our woes. We must kill them all.” I can only recommend it for that purpose—understanding the mindset—because it was genuinely morally repugnant (and showered with awards, naturally).

It would be nice to think that that mindset were changing but director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi (writer/director of 2010’s charming Man Without A Cell Phone) is Israeli as are all the producers (from what I can tell). It’s pretty routine to hear cries for “solutions” and “compromise” from that side of the wall. But the next Palestinian movie I see with that viewpoint will be the first.

It's delightfully cheesy.

She’s hesitant because the targets she’s shooting at are…gasp…pictures of Palestinian “Freedom Fighters”.

The Addams Family (2019)

We laugh a bit, The Flower and I, over Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. She doesn’t remember eschewing The Princess and the Frog to see it, but when I tell her what she said (immortalized on the post above) she says, “That does sound like me.” The main point, I guess, being that as a Dad, you have certain responsibilities and sometimes those responsibilities lead to pain. Which brings us to The Addams Family.

love Charles Addams drawings, I loved the old TV series, I enjoyed the ’90s movies—first one more than the second, but the second had moments of brilliance with Christina Ricci at summer camp. The marital relationship between Morticia and Gomez is the best TV ever produced, and Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston did justice to that in the ’90s movies.

So you can understand why I wouldn’t want to see this. The thing about movies and books for children is that the truly great one survive for far longer than all but the best works for adults because they deal with basic themes. How many movies from 1939 (sometimes regarded as the best year in filmmaking) has the average person seen? I’m guessing it’s close to one, and that one is The Wizard of Oz. 1938? I’d say close to one again, and that one would be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And while I could write at length about this topic, that gets me no closer to talking about this movie.

Would've sworn she was crazy fixer-upper lady.

An all-star cast, including Bette Middler as Grandmama.

There is a vast amount of creativity in here. I laughed once or twice, maybe more, but it was always at some throwaway gag that, actually, epitomizes the Addams sense of humor. The original cartoons were single panels and the ’90s movies did a really good job of showing the children (especially) acting out those jokes in a way that would be horrifying played out in real life, and there are a few good glimpses of that here.

This is all absolutely smothered by a story of persecution where Wednesday Addams is a Mary Sue.

We get Gomez (Oscar Isaacs) and Morticia’s (Charlize Theron) backstory—and it’s lifted from Hotel Transylvania, God save us. Fleeing the old country, Gomez and Morticia take up in an abandoned insane asylum which is completely occluded from the village below by a 13-year fog. The village has been taken over by an ambitious  renovator Margaux Needler (Allison Janney, and NOT Bette Middler, which was kind of funny because Needler’s demands for hyperconformity sounded to me like Middler’s twitter account) whose plan is to dupe people into living in a perfectly nice (but secretly monitored by Needler) planned community which she runs and profits from.

I guess it never gets old.

They end up in New Jersey because of course they do.

Having a brooding asylum overshadowing her idyllic town doesn’t fit into her plans and there’s your movie.

Of course, the entire gag of the long-form Addams family is that they skate through normal existence unaware of (or tolerant of) how normality works. They are utterly free from ordinary middle class concerns. Chuck Jones once observed that the Looney Tunes canon was basically populated by hard luck cases: characters for whom things didn’t generally work out. I forget if he was talking about the Bugs Bunny or Road Runner as exceptions, but you could put the Addams Family in that category. They are characters around whom other people go to pieces because the normal rules just don’t seem to apply. And the victims of this, we are inclined to believe, deserve their fates.

But in the most tiresome take possible, here they are victims. Excuse, the second most tiresome take. The most tiresome take being: The Addamses, the most prepossessed family perhaps in the history of Western literature, are saved by their daughter, who manages to instantly pick up (and for unclear reasons defends) a girl pack at junior high and never has an instant of trouble, and whose sole difficulty in life is getting a rise out of her mother.

Full disclosure, I went out to get the Barbarienne more popcorn and I didn’t rush to get back, because the arc of the story was so utterly predictable, down to the point where when she saves the entire collection of essentially super-powered monsters from a few not very angry or difficult to manage townspeople, she does so in a way that any of them could’ve done, but I guess didn’t think to.

Yuck.

Who’d want to live in a dump like this?

I’m not joking about the super-powered monsters thing, either. The B-plot is that Pugsley needs to do a swordfighting thing to be a true Addams, and he’s kind of a slacker (because boys must be in modern films) but he is good at explosives—and ultimately he avoids humiliation and exclusion by using his explosives to save the day, except for the part where Wednesday saves the day (because girls must always save the day in modern films). But in the scene where this is set up, he and Gomez are fighting and literally flying through the air by various means, explosives going off right-and-left.

Sure, some fat people with torches are scary. And what’s the Addams family ever doing being scared?

I’m not unsympathetic to the challenges of making long-form Addams-based entertainment, if one must, and I suppose one must because this movie grossed about $175M on about a $25M budget. (Yeah, $25M is cheap for an animated film these days, and while it looks cheap, except for the color design it mostly doesn’t look bad.) But it really needs to be done with a light touch, because the premise is absurd and meant for one-off jokes. It’s nigh-impossible to do any kind of real drama when everything is inverted, because suffering is good and happiness is bad, and…oy.

It’s a drab, predictable mess with a few points of fun in it. Hopefully, though, the Barbarienne (who is on a 10-year streak of liking every movie she has ever seen) will have grown out of this sort of thing by the time the sequel comes out.

Empowering <> funny

There are a bunch of articles about how “empowering” Wednesday is, so…yeah.

The Tingler (1959)

Our host introduced this movie as “camp” but on watching it, I disagree. One of the charming things about low-budget movies from this era—the better ones, anyway—is that they try to compensate for lack of money with tons of heart. Some of them are overwhelmed by incompetence or just crushingly low budgets (like Plan 9 or Cat Women) so that you end up just smiling at the audacity of it all, but The Tingler is genuinely and conventionally good if you can suspend disbelief enough.

Mostly.

It’s mostly black-and-white.

The plot is grandly audacious: Vincent Price plays a doctor, a mad scientist of a sort, who has an outré theory that the tingling caused in the base of your spine by fear (does anyone get that?) is caused by an actual creature, the titular tingler, and the only thing that keeps it at bay is screaming. And so he posits that if he could just get someone who couldn’t scream, that tingler would actually snap his spine. Well, in our opening scene at the electric chair, he meets the executed’s brother-in-law (?) Ollie (character actor Philip Coolidge, seen in Alfred Hitchcock stuff like North by Northwest) and ol’ Ollie just happens to have a wife that is mute.

In traditional William Castle form, there’s a set up for a murder, a mystery, a twist, some very hokey haunted-house level—’50s haunted-house level—horror effects, and then an actual tingler, which in these days of high-resolution is so clearly pulled along by a string that it makes you go “Awwwwww”. It’s fun.

Tingle with me!

The tingler attacks the projectionist IN YOUR VERY THEATER!

Castle knocks the audacity up a notch by coming out at the beginning of the movie to warn everyone of the dangers of not screaming, and in the climactic scene the tingler runs (squirms? is dragged?) through a darkened movie theater where the patrons must scream to scare it off. There’s literally about five minutes of people screaming, and I guess when people watch it these days, they scream, too, though our showing was relatively low-key.

A little less charming is the fact that the end of the film is grossly padded out with scenes from the silent movie playing in the theater, 1921’s Tol’able David, which was also made on a shoestring budget. It’s a poor choice besides all the obvious reasons because it’s not scary. I’m sure Nosferatu and several other spooky silents were in the public domain, but if I had to guess I’d say this is the movie Castle had cans of lying around. It is a little surreal the way it’s spliced in, but it steals the hard-won momentum provided by a suitably hammy Vincent Price.

Price’s wife (Patricia Cutts, who also had a small role in North By Northwest) is a harridan in this, much like Price’s wife (Carol Ohmert) in Castle’s other big picture in ’59, House on Haunted Hill. I’m not saying Castle had issues, but he sure loved the wife-harridan trope as much as he loved the pure-as-driven-snow-ingenue trope.

Our host thought the premise of the “preposterous”, but good horror premises are preposterous, and I thought it was an idea that could be done well, even if none of the other Castle remakes went over that well. But as I said: It’s fun, and charming, and at 82 minutes, did not disappoint.

Maybe a lot.

OK, maybe it’s a little campy.

Them! (1954)

“Them! Them! Them!” screams Sandy Descher and we are off to the races…and…well, The Boy was watching this and thinking, “You know if I didn’t know these were giant ants, I’d really be wondering what the hell was going on.” And, I mean, I guess I could say that’s a spoiler but IT’S ON THE DAMN POSTER! You sorta wonder if director Gordon Douglas (a workaday fellow probably best known for The Skin Game and In Like Flint) wanted the giant ants to be a surprise and then they just screwed him over with the poster (and trailer, if memory serves).

Mickey & MInnie are gonna have a hell of a picnic.

Love the menacing cartoon ants, with a more than a hint of Disney.

 

“Look, kid—”
“I’m 47 years old!”
“Look, kid, people won’t come to see a movie about a pronoun!”
“What about It? She? I, The Jury? You? Her? They Live?”
“Some of those haven’t even been made yet! We’re going with giant spiders on the poster!”

This film was probably the template for much of the low-budget sci-fi that flooded the ’50s. It itself is fairly low-budget, but so skillfully done that it encourages you to forgive its weaknesses. In the desert, a general store is ransacked by a mysterious force that pulled the walls down from the outside—pulled, not pushed—and left a trail of sugar scattered hither and yon.

It's funnier in GSI, of course.

This same shot is used in “Giant Spider Invasion” and I just realized it’s because you can hide the puppeteers behind the ridge.

Young Sandy Descher, who got her big break screaming in The Bad and the Beautiful‘s parody of Cat People, and who would go on to a modest TV career until she retired in her 20s, is orphaned and rescued by James Whitmore, a desert cop who doesn’t like the look of things. Tall and handsome G-man James Arness (the eponymous Thing From Another World, whom Walt Disney was scouting to be Davy Crockett but ended up picking Fess Parker, who has a small role as an excitable pilot) is called to the scene, as well as Dr. Grandpa and Dr. Sexy Daughter, who hits it off with Fess, I tell you what.

Dr. Grandpa is played by Edmund Gwenn, aka Santa, who’s still trying to provide cover for the fact that he actually is Santa Claus by taking a few summer roles in low budget flicks. Joan Weldon plays his daughter, the super competent scientist who…well, look, you know the trope. And it was probably semi-fresh here. A few archaic takes mixed with the kind of typical low-budget ham-fistedness, but otherwise holds up well. As does Weldon’s suit, which manages to be “all business” while being perfectly fit to her wonderful (yet tastefully modest) figure.

Same.

“If I shave my beard, no one will recognize me.”

About 30 minutes in we get ants. (Do you want ants? ’cause that’s how you get ants.) The ants are eradicated with ease by the professional men (and women! but mostly men!) of the U.S. Army. Then Dr. Scientists warns us there are MORE ants, and the professional men and women of the U.S. government hunt for the missing queens. One of the queens turns up in the L.A. sewer system, because that’s a lot cheaper than using the N.Y. subway system. (And apparently the head of the NYC subway system was horrified at the notion of his tunnels being filled with giant ants.) And then our professional men track them down in the sewer.

Monster’s dead. Movies over. Except for a little postscript from Dr. Scientist about how these are the first of MANY giant monsters which will emerge from nuclear testing. Fortunately, those mostly turned up in Japan.

It’s nicely matter-of-fact, really. Not a great movie but a really solid one for a shoot that only had enough money for 3 giant ants, and which relied heavily on the WB “city” lot for probably 1/3rd of its exteriors. (I worked there for years so I know it by heart.)

The Boy and I liked it. (I didn’t encourage The Flower for this double-feature since her track record with old horror movies isn’t great, and she was tired.) Next up would be The Tingler.

No danger at all.

Sandy Drescher protects herself from The Tingler.

Parasite

One of my co-workers is Korean. Well, Korean-American. OK, he’s an American but his parents are from Korea. He’s the polar opposite of The Boy and I, movie-wise, in the sense that he doesn’t generally like movies that don’t have a lot of CGI, and he’s also very particular about the CGI. He had gone to Korea recently to visit his wife’s family and when he came back, he mentioned having seen this. (I’m sure he downloaded it, so he didn’t even need to be in Korea but there you go.)

The reason I mention it, is that he thought Parasite was a very good movie, and there is no (noticeable) CGI in it at all. This is a drama from the guy who brought you Snowpiercer and The Host, and it’s very interesting indeed. I actually saw it the same night I saw Joker, and it, too, is about Society.

We start with the Kims, a family of losers. Bottom rung (but still part) of Korean society living in a basement apartment (which is serious because Korea has torrential rains and, yeah, the water goes right where you’d expect). Mom and Dad are middle aged. Bro and Sis are young adults, but not in college. (The reverence Koreans have for establishment education is…interesting.) They’re trying to make some money folding pizza boxes, but they half-ass the job and don’t get the money they expect—even as they try to angle getting the current part-timer working for the pizza company fired so one of them can take his place.

They’re kind of likable, though. They’re not unintelligent. The young people are attractive, and the mother and father seem to have a certain amount of wisdom and dedication. So when the brother, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi, Train To Busan),  gets an opportunity from a friend to get a job with just a little lie, you’re thinking, “OK, this will be a good break for them.”

Gonna get dark.

Our protagonists.

The deal is, the Ki-woo’s friend is tutoring this sweet young girl, and he’s going off to America to study for a year or two, but when he comes back the girl will have graduated from high school and he’ll propose to her. He wants Ki-woo to tutor her in his absence, and you think, well, maybe Ki-woo is trustworthy but it’s fairly apparent the “friend” doesn’t view Ki-woo as a threat.

His sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park) forges the papers and we’re immediately impressed by her skills and initiative, even though they’re being applied in a criminal fashion. Maybe, we begin to think, the problem really is that Society doesn’t give these obviously talented people a chance.

Ki-woo aces the interview with the scattered-brained mom (Yo-jeong Jo) who doesn’t (or claims she doesn’t) care about whether or not he’s in the university, and anyway she’s obsessing on her son, a little boy who’s just being a little boy, but that’s apparently pathologized among the Korean elites as well. Ki-woo sees an opportunity for Ki-jung and suggests her as an art teacher for the boy.

Because you wouldn't hire a family member, I guess.

Rehearsing their backstory.

Well, this goes off pretty well, too. Again, Ki-Jung is shown to be talented, intelligent and energetic and she easily gets the boy under control. But now we have another lie, which is that Ki-jung and Ki-woo are pretending not to be brother and sister. And it turns out that Da-hye, the girl that Ki-woo is tutoring, is jealous of her. Which leads to the revelation that she’s attracted to Ki-woo. (It’s not long, actually, before Ki-woo starts talking like his absentee friend about how he’ll propose to her when she graduates high school.)

OK, so far, so good. A few little lies, some likable, if roguish, characters. Director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t get lazy, though: Our rich family is not bad. In fact, we see through little glimpses that while their lives are comfortable materially, they have the same general issues as everyone else. In other words, where a modern American director (modern, hell, Paul Mazursky’s sleazy Down and Out In Beverly Hills was over 30 years ago) would make this a mockery of the gullibility of the rich, Bong isn’t going to give a simple message like that. Oh, no.

And a little bit titillated.

Our credulous wealthy couple.

In fact, if this film has a “message”, I do not know what it is. I know it has a story, though, which is a thousand times better.

Here’s where the film starts to get dark. Da-hye sees an opportunity for her father when the driver taking her home hits on her. She rebuffs him, but slips off her panties and tucks them under the seat where they’re sure to be found. Before you know it, Papa Kim is the driver for the family.

Getting rid of the nanny is the hardest part, and at this point, we’re starting to see exactly how selfish and short-sighted the Kims are. But not, interestingly enough, that they are not hard workers who are capable of doing the job. The Parks seem pretty happy with the Kims overall. (And, good lord, these last names are like the Korean “Smith” and “Jones”.)

Anyway, the Park’s young son’s “emotional issues” come from having seen a ghost and having a seizure as a result. The Parks therefore go away for his birthday every year, and when we see the Kims have a chance in the house, you begin to realize how awful they are. Why they are where they are. It’s never cartoonish, but it’s very disrespectful of private property, of others, of just basic truth. Ma and Pa Kim scheme how they can keep the facade going if Da-hye and Ki-woo get married.

They don’t despise the Parks, exactly, but their deceptions keep them from forming normal human attachments to them.

It seems to be that childish.

“The family’s gone, let’s make a mess!”

Then things turn even darker. The last act of the film is a series of (essentially) sitcom tropes, but treated seriously instead of as wacky adventures.

It’s getting a lot of buzz in the critical circles, but don’t let that dissuade you: It’s actually very good. Now, the Flower and I went to see this, and she is just not a fan of the dark stuff. This doesn’t rank anywhere near a Korean reveng flick, like, say, I Saw The Devil. But, well, let’s say a similar movie made by Ernst Lubitsch, where little lies are no barrier for True Love—those are more her speed. (The Boy saw it later, also on a double-bill with Joker and liked it a lot, too.)

What I liked about it the most, though, was what I took to be an utter lack of message. It wasn’t “poor people are saints” or “rich people are wicked” or “society is bad”. However you frame it, the actions of the Kims result in tragedy, and there’s no way the Parks “deserve” any of it. There are innocent victims, and even when someone “deserves” punishment, it tends to be outsized.

I suppose you could get “lying is bad, regardless”, from it, but I’m not sure even that’s true. If I look back at Snowpiercer, which could be seen as a clear allegory for “rich people oppress the poor”, I remember liking it because it was so beyond anything you could tether to a current reality. It was very much “Well, yeah, if entire population of the world was on a non-stop train, that’s how it go.”

The Flower noted that the family in The Host was similarly dysfunctional to the Kims, and she’s not wrong. Anyway, bound to collect some awards in February, and actually be worthy of them.

Heh?

Trying to keep the people from peeing in your window. (Unrelated live shot of L.A.)