Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I had an sci-fi coffee-table art book when I was a kid. It was photorealistic drawings of non-existing things, like flyings cities and whatnot. When I saw this documentary about Chesley Bonestell, I thought, “I wonder if that’s the guy who did that book?” Turns out it’s not, by a country mile. (I still don’t know who did my book. Looks a little like McQuarrie—except it’s not Star Wars—but I couldn’t find it online anywhere and I don’t recall it being in my library.)

Paprika next!

Mining the distant moon of Curry Powder.

Bonestell made his bones on “hard” science-fiction: Realistic (per the science of the time) landscapes of the surface of the moon and mars and, famously, Titan. And now we have a documentary about him, which is good because he led a life with some interesting high points and ended up being very influential in the field of speculative art, let’s call it.

Bonestell was born in San Francisco in 1888 and pursued art as teen, providing little drawings for magazines, and making his first painting of Saturn after visiting a local laboratory in 1905. In 1906 San Francisco got hit by the old shake-n-bake, with a magnitude 7.9 (approximately) quake followed by the whole damn city burning to the ground, including Bonestell’s artwork. Later in life, Bonestell would do a lot of apocalyptic stuff that the movie speculates was informed by this early experience.

The first part of the movie is a little weak as far as that goes. There’s a lot of “Chesley might have…” and similar weasel-words that let you know the filmmakers are just making stuff up. It’s not out of whole cloth but it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because I’m always thinking “Or he might NOT have…” I also tend to be suspicious of “Well, I talked to Chesley on the phone 30 years ago and…” which makes up another part of the interviews.

Dammit!

Tragically, the moon is not nearly as dramatic. And nary a cat woman to be found.

Anyway, the facts as reported are that Chesley’s dad was leery of the bohemian lifestyle artists in SF led back in 1906 and sent him off to be an architect. He dropped out of architect school soon, however, because he was more into art and less into math. Not long after, though, he went back into architecture apparently inspired by the devastation and rebuilding that would have to be done in San Francisco, and ended up contributing to some famous buildings both there and in New York City—most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler building.

He gained national attention in 1944 for a series of paintings he made for Life magazine, depicting Saturn as seen from the surface of Titan. This led to a career in space art, which in turn led to a career in Hollywood matte painting and technical consultancy. The space art is interesting, however, because it’s very much part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. That era of Science Fiction was primarily concerned with keeping Man from blowing himself up by presenting visions of a future that could be and that would be, culminating in a book co-written by Chesley called Conquest of Space.

Now, realistically, if today we look at the ’50s and we look at space, we could’ve told all those guys they were never gonna make it. Space is too big. Too hostile. And you need a computer the size of an 18-wheeler to calculate the square root of four. Today, realistically, we have a much better shot in terms of computing power, manufacturing power and sheer wealth.

And yet.

They were the ones that believed they could do it, and they were the ones that actually did do it, with the 1969 moon landing. There’s a lesson here not expressed by this documentary, which is not just that Bonestell’s vision of space and the clarity of that vision (shared and expressed by all kinds of artists and writers), combined with the confidence of the time made something impossible happen. (And I still believe that the moon landing, while it did happen, was basically impossible.)

Pooh-pooh artists at your own peril. The subsequent 50 years of, well, Gerald Goode put it best: “Maybe there’s a downside to the constant drumbeat of apocalyptic defeatism.”

That's where I hide my porn.

All the worlds are yours, save Europa.

Anyway, cool stuff followed Conquest of Space and some of his mattes still survive. He did mattes for Destination MoonWhen Worlds Collide and consulted on War of the Worlds. His mattes were used and/or re-used in some classic bad cinema, such as house favorite Cat Women Of The Moon. And he painted metric tonnes of space art, mostly realistic but some not because money is money and sometimes money wants a winged space worm for the cover of “Wow! Space!” magazine, or whatever.

You get the idea, in other words, that Bonestell was a professional. He had an artistic vision but he was about making good product that people wanted to consume. Some of the interviews have the artist ascendant, which are of course the most charming parts.

Special Effects legend Douglas Trumbull is interviewed—the movie and/or he really wants you to know he’s also a director, but his most famous films are the cult classic Silent Running and Natalie Wood’s last film, Brainstorm, whereas he did the special effects on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and he talks about an early job he had for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had figured out the moon would be smooth, and he made a large model of it, climbed up on a ladder and dropped rocks and things on to it. Kubrick said, basically, “Nah, we’re going with Bonestell’s look” and Trumbull still seems a little prickly about the fact that it’s the one aspect of 2001 that isn’t realistic.

In a recorded interview after the moon landing, Bonestell seemed pretty disgusted with the moon being so artistically boring. I’m guessing Titan isn’t going to map that closely, either, once we get a real look at it.

And it may have been.

You could totally see this being the cover for “R is for Rocket” or “Have Space Suit—Will Travel”.

The doc falls apart a little at the end, doing what The Boy describes as “Jesus 2.0”, where the filmmakers feel compelled to go beyond ordinary imagination and ascribe to their subjects things that aren’t really there. Bonestell was an agnostic and, as far as was described here, a materialist, but this takes on spiritual dimensions in the minds of others here. And he got some things right, we now know, and the movie harps on this while stating just as plainly (while somehow downplaying) all the things he got wrong. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

On the three point scale:

  1. It’s a worthy subject matter. Bonestell hit some interesting touchstones in his life and his vision of alien worlds was important to generations.
  2. The presentation is…it’s pretty meh. The interviews are mostly good, some of the graphic work is nice, but the scene transitions make it feel like this was made for the History channel. Needlessly cheap, IOW.
  3. There’s not really a slant, except for the one we expect from someone who makes a movie about a person. It’s not a hagiography, except the ending attempts to elevate an interesting life into a divine one.

On that last point, it turns out that Bonestell was pals with Werner von Braun, and this is simply a factor of Bonestell being interested in space travel and (former Nazi) von Braun being the expert in rockets. The movie doesn’t go into depth much beyond that, and I’m fine with that. I was okay with The Wind Rises, too, of course, so your mileage may vary. Bonestell’s very ’50s-style rockets were accurate to von Braun’s designs and precisely the right dimensions, which is cool.

The Boy and I liked it!

But this is cool.

Titan’s not gonna look anything like this, you realize.

Joker

I’m going to have to ramp up a whole bunch before actually getting to the actual review. I had zero interest in seeing Joker. Actually, I had less than zero interest. Let’s go to the “tale of the tape” as the boxing announcers say. Here are all the minuses (for me, YMMV):

  • Comic book superhero movie
  • Villain superhero movie
  • DCEU movie
  • Awful, awful trailers
  • “Gritty reboot”
  • Origin story
  • “Not actually a superhero movie”
  • Joaquin Phoenix
  • Not Caesar Romero
  • References Taxi Driver/King of Comedy
  • Critically acclaimed (at first)
  • Fountain of memes
OK, it was a TV show for the most part but still.

Nicholson? Oscar nom. Ledger? Oscar. Romero? NOTHING. HOLLYWOOD HATES CUBANS!

I’ve been done with superhero movies more-or-less for about 10 years (paternal requirements notwithstanding), the DCEU has just been a crushing disappointment (I was a DC kid), the Joker has a great backstory already (he was a ruthless villain, The Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals when fleeing the Batman, turning his criminal mind into an insanely criminal mind), the trailers were basically just LOUD with this one-word-at-a-time-style for a way too long tagline (PUT. ON. A. HAPPY. FACE.) and everything about this movie says to me “Why? Why? Why would anyone go see this?”

And then something amazing happened! That is to say, I went to see it. (A few morons requested it, and I’m nothing if not easily influenced.)

And? I still don’t know why (almost) anyone would go see it. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s actually a very good film. It’s well constructed. The creators really cared about it, that is very, very apparent. And they knew their stuff: Besides the aforementioned Scorsese pictures, this film pays its respects to a lot of great cinema without being slavishly derivative of any of them. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen him put up. (Usually I find him a little cringe-worthy or at least off-putting.) But he does a fine, sensitive job here portraying a madman who just keeps getting crazier.

Mental stability is orthogonal to comedy.

TBF, he’s not any less sane than your average stand-up comedian.

So, I can totally see why a Joaquin Phoenix fan (there must be some) would go see it. But I can’t explain the $850M box-office. This is a movie that, had it not been titled Joker, would’ve ended up next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on the Last Blockbuster’s “scary movie” aisle. It’s a movie that verges on misery porn, so ground down is its protagonist.

It has so little to do with the comic book character, the only really iffy parts were those that tried to tie it in to the Batman universe. A young Bruce Wayne is in the film which, if you do the math, means 30-year-old Batman is beating up a 65-year-old man. (Joaquin is probably supposed to be younger, however.) The Thomas Wayne character has no bearing on the one known to Batman fans—or even someone who read a couple of comics as a kid.

Wayne is kind of a bully and definitely a douchebag—a little Trump-esque, perhaps? Later, when a mob dressed as clowns is protesting—I dunno, society?—as represented by Thomas Wayne, I thought I saw a brief glimpse of a sign that said “RESIST”.

Thankfully, one of the things this movie does really well is avoid politics, though. If you decided that Wayne was Trump, well, that would mean that the clown mobs destroying everything are Hillary supporters, and their hero is a literal paranoid schizophrenic. (Say, maybe this does map!) Not just politics, though, the movie avoids anything like an easily verbalized allegory for some current social outrage. Arthur (the Joker) definitely gets the short end of the stick at every turn, but so do a lot of people in $CURRENTYEAR.

Especially if $CURRENTYEAR is 1981, which it is if we go by the fashions, the cars and the Excalibur and Zorro, The Gay Blade double-feature. (Apparently this is established by other DCEU movies as well.) But consider, if you will, that we have to go back nearly 40 years to find a suitable dystopia for creating the Joker. As the kids are saying, “1989 Joker, throw him into a vat of chemicals. 2019 Joker, throw him into…society.”

Or it would have outsold "Deep Throat".

This was the only anachronism I could find. 1) Thong underwear wasn’t popular until the late ’80s; 2) Phoebe Cates was never in a porno.

Anyway, the whole story arc is that of crazy-man Arthur who lives with his mother and takes a beating from the world, and one day kills some people who are beating on him. From this, he finds himself slowly empowered to—well, mostly to kill more people. At times it looks like his life is turning around, but nah, he just kills more people with less provocation. In the end he creates chaos in Gotham and ultimately creates the environment for the Batman. But without that last part, you’re talking any number of indie art house flicks about losers, which mostly vanish into obscurity.

As Joe Bob Briggs notes, Halloween was hardly the first great slasher, but it was the first one that didn’t look like it had been made by someone who might actually be a slasher. Joker is kind of like the Henry you can take respectable people to see.

The acting is good, with nice bits from supporting player Zazie Beetz as the single mom who shows some interest in Arthur, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother. De Niro is not at all convincing as a late night talk show host, though I can see where he’s trying to ape Carson. (And the overall recreation of “The Tonight Show” is uncanny.) But face it: This is the Joaquin Phoenix show, and he does a great job.

Well-shot, slick, mostly well-paced, though the misery bogs things down a bit in the second act. Good use of music. Didn’t have the gawdawful color-coding that most movies have these days, and captured the feel of a gritty ’70s color palette without actually being that ugly. I guess I enjoyed it. I found much to admire, at least. And at #7 at the domestic box office, it’s the only top 10 film I’ve seen this year (until it’s crowded out by holiday releases that I won’t see).

But I still don’t know who I’d recommend it to.

And, hey, I'm a clown, too!

Clowns to the left of me. Jokers to the right.

Zombieland: Double Tap

Well, it’s been ten years and we’ve remade/sequelized everything else, let’s do a sequel to [*rolls dice*throws darts*sacrifices chicken to Baal*] Zombieland!

Which, hey, why not? It’s been a pretty good ten years for everyone, except maybe Jesse Eisenberg. I mean, I guess he got to be Lex Luthor but I think he’s now the most hated Lex Luthor in history, and not in a good way. But I don’t really know. Everyone’s back, though. Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and grown-up Abigail Breslin reprise their roles.

Wut?

I think those torches were in the original movie, too, so, nice callback.

When our movie opens, Columbus (Eisenberg) and Wichita (Stone) are shacked up in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House while Tallahassee (Harrelson) is being Tallahassee and Little Rock (Breslin) is lamenting her romantic options, which are zero. Columbus proposes to Wichita, freaking her out, so she takes off with Little Rock in Tallahassee’s souped-up zombie car, leaving Columbus to mope while Tallahassee tells him to snap out of it, and that the girls are never coming back.

When you have to type them all out, you quickly realize how unwieldy this “call people by their home city” thing really is.

And so Columbus ends up meeting Madison in a mall. Now, Madison, played by Zoey Deutch is the best new addition to the Zombieland family. There are certain roles that are difficult for most actresses to pull off. Like “bitch”. It’s not just acting bitchy—almost any actress (any woman, amirite guys?) can do that. To be a great movie bitch, you have to be antagonistic and compelling and somehow even likable, or you just end up with an unwatchable cringey mess.

But Madison’s character is bubbly and superficially attractive while being appallingly shallow—and yet still likable. And Deutch manages to pull this off as the girl who’s hung out in a mall freezer for years to stay alive, but has lost not a sparkle of her glittery persona throughout the apocalypse. She jumps Columbus—of course just in time for Wichita to come back.

And she's prettier here, too.

This picture of Deutch is not from the movie, but here she looks a lot like Isla Fisher—who is also very good at being “challenging but appealing”.

Seems that Little Rock ditched her for a smelly hippie and there’s a horde of really nasty zombies (T-900s, I think they call them, because this movie is nothing if not culturally aware), so now the foursome have to venture out to rescue her.

This is not a movie that’s going to surprise you much. There are some twists, but they’re pretty transparent. There’s a cute bit where Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch play analogues of Harrelson and Eisenberg. Rosario Dawson is in this, and is far more convincingly attracted to Harrelson than she is to a certain Presidential candidate. Avan Jogia, as Berkeley, plays the hippie who woos away Little Rock by singing Dylan and “Freebird”.

Douchebag is probably a little easier for most guys to play.

The character you’re basically supposed to want to see get eaten.

The whole movie mocks the smelly peace-loving hippies, who in disarming themselves have left themselves open to a major assault by the newer, badder zombies. It has been pointed out that Hollywood is particularly unconvincing about their gun control position, since the theme of maybe most action films is, “Sometimes you need a gun.” But it’s not really a political movie. It’s fun, light, fairly brainless, and reminiscent of both the previous movie and director Ruben Fleischer’s other work (besides the last Zombieland, see Gangster Squad and Venom) which all seem to carry the message of no-real-message-just-sit-back-and-have-fun.

Worth a watch, if you liked the first one—oh, and you’re not squeamish. Though it’s not as gory as I recall the first one being, it still has its moments.

Nice stinger with Bill Murray. Oh, and another nice bit, riffing on Uber which was not a thing 10 years ago.

And I notice now that I have no pictures of the zombies or any zombie attacks and there aren’t a lot of them on the web. I may be wrong but I think the zombie thing is finally over (after 20 years, holy crap!) and it’s just an incidental part of this post-apocalyptic film series now.

Zombie apocalypses make people horny.

Emma Stone can’t believe you thought “you were on a break”.

Alien (1979)

In space, no one can hear you scream. It was such a great tagline, for such a minimalist trailer, and so iconic that today it’s almost impossible to hear without suppressing a giggle—because mostly what you remember are all the parodies of it. Fans of low budget cinema know, however, that the two most influential films of the ’80s were Alien and Mad Max, up until Die Hard, of course. Some might also include Blade Runner but that was too unsuccessful at the box office and also too expensive to bother with trying to imitate.

Is it cliché to do a "Mondays" joke?

Ugh. Mondays, am I right?

And speaking of Blade Runner, the version of Alien we saw was not, in fact, the original, since Ridley Scott seems to have George Lucas’ disease. I haven’t watched the movie in decades but I somehow know it by heart, probably from watching it repeatedly in whole and in part, as a kid. This version adds some back and forth between Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton which doesn’t advance the plot at all, though it gives you a little more insight into their characters. Wholly unnecessary insight since, they establish their characters quickly and succinctly early on in the discussion about their shares. There’s more time on the alien world which is cool, but de-escalates some of the tension.

Stanton’s exeunt from the proceedings is also much stretched out and shows more of the creature. And the ending, where Veronica Cartwright and Kotto confront the alien is stretched out a bit, as well, which makes Ripley look a little less like a heel for ditching them without “being sure” they’re dead. It’s also unnecessary because by that point, the audience is pretty sold on the invulnerability of the title character.

Kung Fu Hustle

That’s a big hand.

In short, this version makes a little more sense but is less tight and exciting than the original. The Flower, who had never seen the film before, objects in principle to these sorts of things and I agree: Preserve the theatrical release. I’m not dead-set against “re-cuts” on either a commercial or artistic level, but the originals are records. And in this case, the familiarity of the story argues more for keeping the original, tighter cut and not worrying about little plot holes here and there.

As has been pointed out by, I think screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, the biggest plot hole is the massive growth of the alien from a tiny little hand-puppet to a 6′ 10″ Nigerian dude in a very short space of time with no apparent access to food. ‘s fine. It’s a scary boogen. Enjoy.

It is, of course, just a haunted house movie or—I think more relevantly for the time—a slasher flick set on a space craft. ’70s science-fiction uber-fan and author of such great movie review books as The Science Fictionary and Monsters: From Screen To Scream, Ed Naha argued that Alien was just an unpleasant, uncredited remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Well, even after 40 years, Alien is gripping. The characters and locations feel real. Even if the shock value is largely gone, there’s still a lot of good suspense and top-notch acting.

Thank you, Grampa Simpson.

They’re children! But none of them are wearing onions on their belts, which was the fashion at the time.

Sigourney Weaver looks like a damned child in this. Which is the first time in my life I’ve ever said that. She’s 29 or 30 in this, even, and she has a face that I’ve always felt looked mature, but she just seemed just this side of a high school babysitter. Which means, I guess, I’m really effin’ old or something. Skerritt, who is 45 in this, looked really young, too. But, I mean, he’s 85 now and had a great deal of success in the ’90s. Virginia Cartwright looks cuter than I remember. Stanton looks old, but he always looked old. Same, too, of Frodo, er, Ian Holm! Oh, and John Hurt. It almost seems odd that only two of the actors (Hurt and Stanton) are dead, 40 years later. Actually, I guess four are dead if you count Bolaji Bodejo and Helen Horton (who was the voice of Mother).

By contrast, five or six of the cast of It! were dead 40 years later, and I don’t know where I’m going with this.

Anyway, we all liked it, The Boy most of all—I suspect appreciating as he did the concise but colorful characterizations and the command of space that seems to be missing from a lot modern movies, to say nothing of the suspense which as I noted earlier holds up quite well.

'cause he's Nigerian, see...

“Greetings sir or madam, I request your assistance in transferring funds…”

An Accidental Studio

My favorite Beatle has always been George Harrsion, who was miscast as “the quiet one” in the PR for the band. After all, nearly anyone standing next to John Lennon would appear to be quiet, but it was George who insisted on things like the lads tuning their instruments before a concert which no one in the audience could possibly hear. It was George who bitched about taxes (first). It was George who wrote “Piggies” which allegedly inspired Manson. But the key thing about George, at least as it pertains to this particular documentary, was that he was not interested in celebrity—he was interested in art.

Bob Hoskins is small in stature.

And English things. Art and English things.

If you don’t know the story, when Monty Python was making the Life of Brian, they ran out of money. The distributor got cold feet. And (for English films) there weren’t a lot of options. Eric Idle is at a party in Los Angeles and complaining to (longtime Python fan) Harrison about their situation and George says something to the effect of, “That sounds like a funny movie. I’d like to see that.” And then he produces the money for the Pythons to finish.

I have heard that story for years and thought “That’s a good amount of money to have.” But until seeing this particular documentary, I did not realize that George had had to put up his house (and another property) to come up with money. And in order to make the whole scheme work, Denis O’Brien (who had assisted Harrison with various issues throughout the ’70s) came up with a plan: They would create a movie studio, which Harrison would want to call British Handmade Films.

Fame and power are not for everyone.

With mastermind Denis O’Brien.

But apparently you couldn’t apply “British Handmade” to anything without permission. I was unclear whether it was a matter of an existing trademark or something the UK government controlled. It seemed like the latter, especially when Harrison pointed out the companies that carried that name also sucked and/or lost money.  So, “Handmade Films” it was, though it’s interesting to note at this late date that at least part of the impetus for the studio (beyond Life of Brian )was that George wanted to see English films centered around English culture, instead of American films (I think in particular) or quasi-Brit films like James Bond.

Which, I think, is kind of cool. A part of what is making American movies so very bland these days is that they’re not really American any more. They’re tempered by global interests and censored to appease Chinese tyrants (who are savvy enough be pro-America in ways American movies haven’t been since the ’80s)—to say nothing of bowing to local tyrants and probably others of whom we are less aware. Handmade’s British focus earned Harrison the title of “Savior of the British Film Industry”, which he wryly points out meant they were the only studio surviving.

Over the next ten years Handmade would make 23 movies of varying degrees of quality and increasingly move away from Harrison’s vision which was basically “Let’s give money to artists we like so they can make the art we like” and more toward O’Brien’s ambitious international dreams. The first film HandMade financed was the classic Brit gangster flick The Long Good Friday. Which, had he known what it was about, Harrison never would’ve financed because he really preferred comedy or very British slice-of-life kind of things. I would say that he felt there was enough violence in the world, he didn’t really want to add to it.

O’Brien wanted Grace Jones (!) to be the ingenue in “Mona Lisa”.

The first film HandMade actually made, however, was Time Bandits, that Python-esque action comedy film where Terry Gilliam’s mad brilliance (brilliant madness?) began to shine through. In fact, per this film, the song “Only A Dream Away” was actually Harrison chiding Gilliam:

Stumble you may with the elementary
Lucky you got this far
All you owe is apologies

But if the future Madman of La Mancha was peeking through, O’Brien’s ambitions were almost immediately plain: He had a brilliant idea to create (in essence) a Python factory. This would be a conglomerate operating out of the Caribbean and producing comedy units (and merchandising) at a regular pace. The Pythons thought about this (they say) and rejected it utterly because that’s just not how Python worked. In fact, Harrison visited the set of Life of Brian and then quickly stopped visiting because the making the Python sausage—well, hell, it probably reminded him of the Beatles-sausage at the end (as featured in the almost unwatchable Let It Be).

As a result The Meaning of Life wouldn’t be a HandMade film. In classic archival footage, an interviewer asks George if he’s sorry he lost them and he says, he hasn’t lost them. He still gets to see the movie and he’s glad he could help them out. And they’re all still friends, which seems to have been true.

Time Bandits would be followed by the very British The Missionary and Privates on Parade, and then cataclysmic flop Water. But then, nobody expects every movie to be good and/or successful, and probably HandMade could’ve continued on until George’s death in 2001 but for one thing: It stopped being fun. Whatever the general merit of O’Brien’s ideas, he was pretty clearly bitten by the “importance” bug. Whereas George would hire someone because he liked him as an artist, O’Brien started getting the idea that he was the creative genius and began to meddle. Worse, he was bringing in the precisely the sorts of movies that George wasn’t interested in, like the Sean Penn/Madonna vehicle Shanghai Surprise.

"The problem! It's coming back!"

Michael Palin wrote himself in as Robin Hood for “Time Bandits” but was coaxed out of the part, at which point he became one of the multiply-reincarnated lovers (with Shelley Duvall).

At the height of “Penndonna” celebrity (nobody called it that), Penn was bullying the director and making bad press and George (who would end up writing songs for the movie!) had to go down and patch things up. As I pointed out earlier, if he had ever been enamored of fame, he was over it by this time, and this was the last thing he wanted to do.

So, on the three-point documentary scale:

  • The subject matter is interesting. Is it important? I don’t know. Did HandMade really save the British film industry? Or did it just give a handful an artists an opportunity to do some things they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to? I suspect the latter, but that’s something more than nothing. And HandMade’s contribution may have been primarily one of morale (“hey, this is a thing that can still be done by Brits”) but that, too, is more than nothing.
  • The presentation is fun, but increasingly less fun as it wears on. I can’t really blame the documentarians for this, it’s the nature of the beast on this kind of project. Eventually, things go to hell. And so there are a lot of fun interviews especially up front, but these get darker and sadder with time.
  • There is a slant here. We could call it a “pro-George” slant. Denis O’Brien is not interviewed at all, only archive footage of him is included. To the point where I thought he had died. The film doesn’t mention the lawsuit Harrison successfully pursued against O’Brien and O’Brien’s subsequent troubles.

So on that last point, we could also say it’s not really “anti-O’Brien” since O’Brien’s troubles were hardly limited to HandMade’s tale. But it feels a little weird not to have included him, or said at least something like “Denis O’Brien told us to ‘sod off'” or whatever. I’d still recommend it for anyone with an interest in oddball creativity. The Boy enjoyed it quite a bit, too, and he was pretty much only familiar with Life of Brian and Time Bandits.

Bittersweet.

George at (I believe) the ten year anniversary/obituary of HandMade.

Rambo: Last Blood

What if I told you the critics were upset about the latest “Rambo” movie? Would you think you had woken up in 1985? I mean, they always hated Rambo. Maybe not the Rambo of First Blood, where besides being an unstoppable killing machine, he’s also suicidal. But the smash hit sequels (full disclosure, I dipped out after the second one, which I enjoyed). But Stallone had an uncanny eye for ’80s-era American patriotism: We’d take our hits, but we’d keep on going—because no one else is going to fight for freedom. For critics who find America embarrassing and wish it would just go quietly into the global miasma, all of Stallone’s movies are problematic.

The only way you can.

Stallone deals with a critic.

So, let’s just set aside the frankly incoherent (and utterly banal) accusations of racism and look at this movie for what it is: A pulpy farewell to a beloved character. Well, probably a farewell. And sort of beloved. Yeah, I think beloved.

Rambo’s a guy constantly confronted with injustice. And his solution to that injustice is to kill nearly everyone.

There’s actually not a ton to write here. The various sites say this movie runs 89 minutes long. No, it does not. I timed it, and it was 79 minutes from opening scene to first credit. It may have had ten minutes credits, but actual content, you’re looking at a very, very fast story.

The plot is simple enough: Rambo is living his best life out in a farm on the border. His niece, whom he has raised for the past ten years like his own daughter, goes south of the border to find her father. In reality she’s set up and trafficked. This is horrifying.

Animals aren't that vicious.

Pictured: Not animals.

Unjust, even.

When Rambo finds out, he goes down to rescue her and ends up getting his ass kicked by the cartel. The cartel leaves him alive so he can live with the knowledge of his niece’s abuse.

Big mistake.

First he takes revenge. Then he sets up his harm as a honeypot for the poor, unsuspecting slavers.

They never really have a chance. Rambo’s never really in danger after the first scene. We couldn’t accept it as an audience, probably. We’ve seen him running around foreign countries for years dispatching people on their home turf. The idea that he could be taken on his own land seems preposterous. When you realize that Rambo movies are basically horror films where you overtly root for the slasher, it all kind of makes sense.

So, yeah, not a lot of surprises here. Stallone can still act, though. He plays Rambo entirely different from Rocky, and I liked that a lot. At this late date, both characters are eclipsed by Stallone himself, but he doesn’t phone it in. Rambo is damaged in a way that Rocky (for all his hardships) is not. There are other people in the movie but it hardly matters much. Overall the film did okay, not great, so this may truly be the “last blood”.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. I did, too. The Flower was taken aback by some of the violence but otherwise liked it.

He's not forging his own axe, though.

It’s important that the elderly take up crafts to stay spry.

Double Indemnity (1944)

“No pigeons, I hope.”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!”

Casually act?

“Act casually…”

OK, that second quote isn’t from Double Indemnity but Sleep Till Noon, a comedic novel by Max Shulman. I think we all felt the movie held up well on a second viewing, with the last viewing being almost exactly two years ago. We had to drive down to Pasadena for this one, and this was the follow-up to Laura. I think we all agreed this was the “better” film. If you wanted to define noir and just pointed at this movie, you wouldn’t be far off. The femme fatale is the fatale-ist. Fred MacMurray tends to gather sympathy even when he’s hard-nosed—he even manages this in The Caine Mutiny, where his character is deplorable and self-aware of that fact—and here he’s a stone-cold murderer, all business.

Stanwyck’s character is the real mystery, actually. She plays it so coy that even when we’re told this isn’t even the first murder she’s pulled off, you still don’t quite feel like she’s conniving to the degree she must actually be. Her plan, from the get-go, probably has to be that she’s going to bump off Fred’s character as part of a cover-up. And she even says she didn’t realize that she loved him until she realized she couldn’t fire the second shot into him that would kill him.

I mean.

You say you got domestic problems?

Not as much fun as Laura, I think, because Laura is pure frothy pulp. It doesn’t really make much sense and it doesn’t really try to—and it doesn’t have to. This one, with its complicated machinations and twists and turns, feels a little heavier, a little more “realistic” and a lot less outrageous. You really should see these multiple times, and at every opportunity.

See?

“Say, you ain’t got a dame behind that door, do ya? Nah, that’s just crazy talk.”

Laura (1944)

One of my college profs was David Raksin. He got his start orchestrating and composing with Charlie Chaplin and hit it big with the theme from this movie, Laura, which won him an Oscar. I actually don’t think it’s that great, I realized listening to it this time, the umpty-unth time I’ve seen this film. I wouldn’t take that assertion too seriously, though. I might change my mind next time I see it. It is very much of its time, however, as is the whole movie.

Now, film noir, as the French styled it, is one of the most ridiculous, affected, almost stagey genres of film. Laconic tough guys quicker to shoot than to talk, and when they do talk, it’s acerbic bursts of cynicism, and only a beautiful dame can win them over—and she’s probably a murderer, so she’s gonna hafta do time and…

So great.

He’s got the lamp out for the Third Degree! And the lighting is still PERFECT.

So great, and so influential that we’ve gotten to see it done badly for more decades than it was ever done well. And Laura is one of the greats.

Dana Andrews plays a hardboiled detective (of course, though he’s an actual cop here) called in to investigate murdered “It” girl (the heart-breakingly beautiful Gene Tierney) only discover everyone has a motive. The priggish Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who “made” Laura but was permanently friend-zoned, dubious fiancée Shelby (Vincent Price, in a dull-as-dishwater role) with a shady past, dowager Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who wants Shelby for her own…and…well, her maid Bessie (Dorothy Adams) loved her.

Actually, they all love her. Because of course they do, she’s Gene Tierney.

SPOILERS FOLLOW, but it’s been 75 years, so come on!

I'm just gonna keep putting up pics of Gene Tierney all day.

Vincent Price at his least menacing. At least until that Brady Bunch episode.

The big idea here, though, is that the tough-talking, no-nonsense, pain-in-the-ass detective McPherson falls in love with her. And she’s dead.

Or so he thinks. I mean, he thinks she’s dead. He knows he’s in love with her.

I always remember the reveal of this part as being more dramatic than it is. McPherson falls asleep and Laura walks in, and I think he’s going to groggily look out into the shadows and see a form, only to have it resolve as Laura. But no, she just walks in.

In classic noir form, Laura and Mark fall in love—or, I dunno, just sort of agree that they’re in love. McPherson’s dialog is amazing. “I suspect nobody and everybody.” And “When a dame gets killed she doesn’t worry how she looks.” And: “Shut up.”

She's attractive, is what I'm getting at.

Clifton Webb struggling to maintain his sexuality in Tierney’s presence.

The gimmick, if we look at it, doesn’t really make sense in the details. Waldo knocks on the door, a woman roughly matching Laura’s appearance opens the door, and Waldo blows her face off with a shotgun. Then he stashes the gun in the clock. But he also runs away right away because Shelby’s in there. I mean, that has to be the way it worked out but…that means he carried the shotgun there, so why not just bring it back. I mean, it wasn’t quick to open up the clock’s secret compartment. He can’t have hid it there originally, or he’d have to get into the foyer to get it before accidentally shooting Laura. I guess that’s remotely possible?

Wait, the Flower is telling me that Waldo stepped in to the apartment after the murder, heard Shelby, hid in the kitchen, then when Shelby ran out, he hid the gun. Which I guess sorta makes sense, especially if you know Shelby is the sort of worm who would flee the scene of a murder. In his fiancée’s apartment. Where he had taken another girl. And she was wearing his fiancée’s clothes.

I dunno. The Big Sleep doesn’t make sense either but it’s also great.

The Boy and The Flower both liked it. The Boy said he didn’t think it was as good a movie, technically, as Double Indemnity (the next film on our noir double-feature), but that it was a fun, fast film. The Flower didn’t think it gained much for being on the big screen—except for Gene Tierney, who evoked a little gasp from her when she first appears in Waldo’s flashback.

Obviously you should see it. Again.

But I'm not sure I agree with myself.

I restrained myself from just posting 12 more pictures of just Tierney from the web.

How Rednecks Saved Hollywood

OK, I know I just covered Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show which isn’t even a movie, but when it turned out Joe Bob Briggs (government name John Bloom) was coming to Los Angle-eez for his presentation on “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”, I had to go see it—and if you have any love for movies, for low-budget movies, for rednecks, even, this is a great way to spend a couple hours.

Sparkly.

For his L.A. performance, he was wearing a white sequinned jacket Elvis would not have rejected.

I was surprised as hell, actually, that this show ran this long. But he got a standing ovation on his way in, and he got one on his way out—enough for him to do an interesting kind of encore—so I hope he comes back soon. He mentioned that he was reluctant to come out to Ellay—”they won’t get me there!”—but the old Egyptian theater was packed solid.

Somebody had given him a bottle of bourbon which launched a great rant. “You’ve got six of these local ‘artisinal’ bourbons…and I’m sure you’re all very proud of them…” Wherein we learned a little about Wild Turkey and how good bourbon aging has to do with being close to the source of the water—and obvious conundrum for L.A. Also, he expressed skepticism that a couple of kids studying bourbon on the Internet could compete with the guy in charge of the aging barrels at Wild Turkey, e.g., who had been supervising them for 65 years.

Anyway.

What was this talk about? How did Rednecks save Hollywood?  Well, it seems that back in the 16th century, in the lowlands of Scotland, John Knox founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and…

yo

O.G. Redneck

What? Did you think this was going to be some lightweight romp through “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Next of Kin”? Oh, no. To understand how rednecks saved Hollywood, you have to understand what a redneck is. And it begins with the pugnacious lowland Scots, and the hard-drinkin’, god-fearin’, establishment-fightin’ John Knox. How the Scots were relocated to Ulster county Ireland (giving us the “Scots-Irish”), and from there emigrated to America where they fled as far from the reach of establishment as they could (without running into Injun Territory). And that was the hills.

We learned the origin of the word “redneck” (coined by a travelogue-writing Revolutionary War widow trying to make ends meet while fighting for her husband’s war pension), “hill billy” (which doesn’t show up till nearly 1900!) and the main principles of redneck movie making which include illegal moonshine (or just “whisky”, if you’re a redneck), sexually aggressive women, and a rebellious attitude toward government. (The Whisky Rebellion, in fact, features prominently.)

Joe Bob covers the early days of redneck film-making, and the 25-year love affair the American public (but never critics) had with hillbillies, starting with the Li’l Abner comic strip and ending with a trio of box office poison pills, the most famous of which is Hillbillys In A Haunted House. These sorts of films were more “Redneck Lite”, and he showed the great musical number from Li’l Abner where the town is singing about the great Southern general that was an incompetent, drunk coward. The point being, I think, that the modern idea that these are all paeans to white supremacists grossly misrepresents (and needlessly polarizes) the issue.

I ask ya!

Who wouldn’t be proud of Jubilation T Cornpone?

Then we got an overview of ’70s “hicksploitation”, and the movies that introduced the world to The South as a hive of scum and villainy, Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This all builds to the two main premises: First, Hollywood needs a “go-to” villain class, which was (in progression) blacks, Nazis, commies, Arabs—but then in after 9/11 it became racist to suggest an Arab was a terrorist, so the go-to became rednecks. He shows “the slap heard around the world” from In The Heat Of The Night and points out that Endicott (the guy Sidney Poitier slaps, played by Larry Gates) is not a redneck. Rednecks didn’t own slaves. They wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’d be like always having a stranger on your property. (Rednecks not liking strangers is another important theme going back to John Knox.) Areas high in rednecks were slow to join the Civil War because…redneck! So there was a little Hollywood jiu-jitsu as rednecks are surreptitiously inserted into where the landed English slave-owning patriarchy rightfully was.

Second, that Smokey and the Bandit is the greatest movie ever made.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of that movie. I enjoyed it on my second (recent) viewing more than I did at the time. But in context of this talk, you have a rebellious, booze-running hellraiser and a woman of questionable background (not that Sally Fields exactly pulls that off) running from the law…and the face of John Knox emerges once again. It’s not often you see a cinematic tradition so compellingly traced from 16th century religious movements.

Rednecks don’t get respect in Hollywood. Burt Reynolds was the #1 box office draw for more consecutive years than anyone in history, I believe. Joe Bob also points out the “Ma & Pa Kettle” and Ernest P. Worrell series, about a dozen of each made, that nobody ever admitted going to see and nobody ever gave any awards to, and how something similar goes on today with all the hillbilly and rednecked themed “reality” shows.

I knew a great deal of this material. As Joe Bob was going along, leading up to particular movies or actors, I would say the title under my breath, “Haunted Hillbillies”, “Claudia Jennings”, “Li’l Abner”, “Ma and Pa Kettle”, “Patrick Swayze”—he had a redneck period, which Briggs maintains limits your career in Hollywood–to the point where my companion said, as we were leaving the theater: “You didn’t learn that much from that, did you?”

Claudia!

Half Animal! All Woman! (It was a big seller when I worked at Paramount.)

It’s true that I knew a great many of the movies.  (I had thought up until right them that “Scots-Irish” meant “Scottish and/or Irish, who can tell the difference?” embarrasingly enough.) And there were more than a few titles I did not know or had long forgotten. For example, did you know that Ginger Rogers and Doris Day were in a movie about the Klan? That was a new one on me. Ronald Reagan was the star of it! (I’m surprised we don’t see stills of it today to show that he supported the KKK.)

Another one I vaguely remembered was a big budget ’70s flick called The Klansman with Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Lola Falana, Linda Evans, the Big Lebwoski himself, David Huddleston…and O.J. Simpson. Who, fleeing the police, carjacks a Ford Bronco. A white Ford Bronco.

I mean.

There are a lot of twists and turns here, really, a lot of fun, and basically for those of us who have watched JBB’s various hosting gigs over the years not for the movies (which we’ve seen a thousand times) but for his bits in the commercial breaks, it is a genuine treasure. Those of you not in deeply blue areas probably have a good shot at seeing him, and I can’t recommend it enough. But I imagine there will also be a video release, much like his Joe Bob Dead In Concert from the ’80s. Though, honestly, I think he’s just gotten better over time.

After his standing ovation at the closing, he came back and did a bit that the Shudder movie channel had objected to, that he had set up as a commentary for Sleepaway Camp, which is (as he said) “about sexual confusion”. And it was about the recent North Carolina law regarding transgender use of the bathrooms. That in itself was fascinating, because it expressed a viewpoint that was neither conservative nor liberal, in the modern uses of both words, but was more about being a decent human and not ramping up everything. As he put it, redneck men have two modes: Sheriff Andy mode and Barney Fife mode, and we just needed a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

And I got the impression that—as a guy who makes a living saying things that are “controversial”—it sort of hurts his feelings when he does get censored in what is basically a plea for humane treatment. Interesting that a redneck would be the voice of calm and reason but here we are.

Do.

Moviegique says “check it out”!

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I remember back in ’96, the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” program had some bits about the upcoming Oscars, and Tom Servo said of this movie, “It’s about a Shawshank! And it gets redeemed! And it’s really, really good!” The gag, of course, being that they’d seen none of the movies they were talking about. I did finally see the movie, though I probably had to see it a couple of times to realize that Red is the eponymous character.

Oh, Rita.

They’re watching “Gilda”, of course, which may be the sexiest movie ever made.

This was the first time I had seen it in the theater, however, and I was struck at how much like an old-time movie it is. It’s basically a lot of characters engaged in their day-to-day lives with comedy, drama—sort of Best Years of our Lives style or maybe The Magnificent Ambersons. And in this respect, it is a really fine piece of moviemaking. The Boy and The Flower also enjoyed it, the former having seen it a few years ago and the latter seeing it for the first time but of course familiar with many of the memes spawned.

But it does suffer a bit from being The Best Movie Ever. It has been rated #1 on IMDB for a good 20 years now and, well, it’s not that good. Maybe because this was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen, but I began to notice a few dubious plot points. Like the guy who actually kills Andy’s wife and the Golf Pro? He explains how he’s scoping out the club for rich people to burgle and ended up in this guy’s house. But the Golf Pro isn’t the rich guy at a club.

I don't even drink.

Live look at me, taking potshots at one of the best movies of the past 30 years.

There are some other details like this, but they’re not really important. The acting is solid, the direction is tight and confident—impressive given it was Darabont’s first effort—the score is one of the best and probably enough to tip me over to the Thomas-over-Randy for Newman movie scores.

On multiple viewings, it’s really apparent how many of the beats of the movie do sort of depend on surprise, though, which takes some of the luster off. On the other hand, knowing what’s coming adds some depth that you miss the first time around. It’s not a wash—it’s not quite Psycho shower-scene level surprise, but it’s up there in once-you-know-it’s-not-as-good. Unlike, say, The Sixth Sense.

Still, it’s definitely one of the best movies made in the past 30 years.

Unabashed drama.

Lotta great shots.

Along With Gods: The Two Worlds

We actually tailored our trip to the Halloween Haunt to make sure we had a chance to see this film. The Boy and I had seen it when it came out in December of 2017—it may have been his first K-town movie—and the sequel (Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days) was The Flower’s first. But I had gotten way behind by the end of 2017 and never managed to put up a review, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. It is reminiscent to me of the best of Hollywood Blockbuster moviemaking, being both a effects-heavy spectacular that’s still strongly centered around a very emotional story.

I like how they all look at him like "What are you doing?"

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

In this story, a heroic firefighter dies and is taken to the afterlife. This being a Korean movie, the afterlife is governed by an implacable bureaucracy. The deal is you are taken through each of the seven hells and judged on your sins. If you fail, you end up suffering the torment for that sin. Our Hero, Ja-Hong learns all this from his after-life advocates who are a combination of defense attorney, bodyguard and psychic. It’s their job to defend Ja-Hong from the aggressive, and aggressively incompetent, assistant district attorneys of the underworld. I mean, they don’t call them that, but that’s their job: To find Ja-Hong guilty of his sins, to get him punished and to make sure he doesn’t get off too lightly (or perhaps at all). If he makes it through the trials, he gets to be reincarnated.

That in itself would make for a pretty good set-up, and it makes for the emotional core of the movie: Sort of a more dramatic version of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. But there’s a twist: Ja-Hong doesn’t want to be reincarnated. He doesn’t believe he’s a paragon, and he’s indifferent or even hostile to his own defense—until he’s told that he other reward of making it through is to be able to appear in the dreams of a loved one, and there’s a message he really wants to get through to his mother.

But wait, there’s more!

Ja-Hong is also a paragon. What that means is that he would actually be capable of going through all seven trials in 49 days—which becomes a hook for the sequel—and if he can get through them all, as a paragon, he counts for one of the hundred paragons our defending attorneys need to achieve their own goals of reincarnation. So they are highly motivated to get him through, especially his bodyguard, Haewonmaek, and peppy psychic sidekick Dukchoon, since they have no memories of their past lives at all. (Again, grist for the sequel.)

Like Julie! Remember Julie? No?

In this movie, they’re sort of afterlife cruise directors.

That, you think, would be enough movie. But there’s still more wrinkles in this plot. Traveling between the hells, our heroes begin to come under assault by demonic forces. This, we’re told, means that one of Ja-Hong’s relatives has died and become a vengeful spirit. This apparently messes up the familial karma, speeding up time,  and will prevent Ja-hong from making it through in the 49 days or perhaps at all. Now you got an action comedy-drama afterlife movie.

This could get out of hand pretty quickly I think. But the thing is the action is just to add a little fun suspense to the dramatic aspects of the film. The way one travels through the hells, by this scheme, is according to severity of the crime, which works in both a philosophical and an aesthetic sense. So, as we go along, we see a great many “sins” that are not really sins at all. For example, the bumbling prosecutors try to get Ja-Hoong on cowardice because he left his colleague behind to die in a burning building.

But of course that wasn’t cowardice at all: His colleague insisted on him saving a civilian and “coming back for him”, even though they both know at that point there’s no coming back. And our hero tries anyway. And when he’s on trial for indolence, the Lord of Indolence Hell wants to put a statue up to him because he was constantly working, helping, sacrificing—until he says he did it all for money. But there’s a twist there, too, of course.

I mean, he’s a paragon, right?

I'm stretching the metaphor a lot.

And this is the cruise boat, basically.

But then when we get to the more serious crimes, betrayal and—apparently the worst possible crime—filial impiety, we see some very dark things indeed. The sins, in the order for this movie, are murder, indolence, deceit, injustice, betrayal, violence and filial impiety. Now, murder can be very indirect, which is how we get the trumped up charge of leaving behind his colleague. But the Lord of Filial Impiety is basically the uber-Lord of all the hells so, yeah, they take it seriously in the East.

Much like the bureaucratic aspect of this film, I cannot express how Korean this aspect of the movie is. Our hero is a bonafide paragon, literally labeled so by the powers of Heaven (or whatever) and he has some dark, dark sins under his belt. But there’s always a way back, and this movie is very much about forgiveness. (And we know what happens when you don’t embrace forgiveness for sins: You get a Korean revenge picture.)

This movie doubles down on the idea by introducing the vengeful spirit, from which state we are told no redemption is possible. But there’s a twist (and in fact the entire sequel) on this topic as well.

It’s not hard to figure out why this movie works, even with its (by Western standards) wonky kinda-sorta-Buddhist/Christian vision of the afterlife: It’s fun. It takes its characters seriously without taking itself seriously. It lets humans be their own messy selves in the way that humans are, but it’s very careful about judgment. In fact, the meta-story going on (which plays out in the sequel) is that of our three defense attorneys, who are wrestling with their own issues—but for a movie about Hell and damnation, there aren’t really any bad guys. There are only people who make mistakes.

Well, okay, the demons—the ones who are invoked by the vengeful spirit and have no purpose but to destroy Jang-ho—are bad guys. But they’re the genre’s requisite cannon fodder.

Tae-Hyun Cha, whom I don’t know, does a good job as Ja-hoon. Dukchoon is played Hyang-gi Kim, whom I only know from these two movies, is ridiculously adorable in this one, and shows a lot of depth in the sequel, where her youth (she was, like, 16-17 when this was being filmed) and innocence is a major factor. Jae-hoon Ju plays Haewonmaek. Here he’s competent but also dumb and fun, in sharp contrast to his roles in Dark Figure of Crime and The Spy Gone North (which we saw last year before the Halloween Haunt). Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day ComesThe Handmaiden) is the most inscrutable of the characters: He doesn’t have the emotionalism of his underlings, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.

And kick ass.

They’re both really cute, tbf.

The stinger features Dong-seok Ma who is, as mentioned, our current favorite and really big in Korea. The Flower and I were looking him up on YouTube. He’s going to be in Marvel’s Eternals but we figure he won’t get enough screen time.

From a technology standpoint, the CGI is fine, not really up to the highest of American standards. But it has held up well over the past two years because it always seemed to be aimed more toward a pleasing aesthetic than “realism”. Like we always point out: An effect just has to be pleasing to work. If it’s trying to fool us, it probably has a very limited shelf life.

The Boy and I liked it. The Flower was also quite taken with it. I think I liked it even more this time. I was a little overwhelmed the first time. It’s very epic, very “cinematic universe”—in fact, I’m sort of surprised there isn’t a (Korean) TV series or another film in the works. (There might be, I can’t really tell.) There’s a lot of heart-string-tugging here, I won’t lie. Ja-Hoon’s mother is a mute, for example, and the message he’s so desperate to get back to her is that he got her a rice-cooker for Christmas—one that makes burnt rice, which is something she’s been struggling with as she gets older.

I mean, come on. Rip my heart out. Go ahead.

The story of the vengeful spirit, too, is a tragic one. And the colleague left in the burning building, who leaves a family behind. Japanese stuff often does a remarkable job of tone switching, from super light to super serious (Your Name, e.g.), but the swings are often just amazingly wide. Here, it seems a little more natural: We go about our day to day lives as the goofballs we are, but those lives are obstacle courses of tragedy. I mean, Die Hard is a great action flick, but it’s the (admittedly ham-handed) moments of drama between Willis and Vel Johnson that gives it its heart and makes it a great movie.

What it might boil down to is, here in America we’re in “save the cat” mode: We have our stories hitting precise beats with the requisite number of humanizing moments that have been proven to yield box office results. Here, you feel like the filmmaker had a story to tell (and apparently these movies are based off a web comic!) and sometimes the beats come where you don’t expect them. It keeps things fresh and lively. The content of the beats may be heavy handed, but the beats themselves are not.

Maybe this is only the sort of observation you can make when seeing 120-150 movies a year, I don’t know. But it feels right, and I could watch both movies again, back-to-back.

Or lives, I suppose.

Defending your life.

The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

It was that time of year again: Halloween! Yeah, we basically celebrate it on the third or fourth Thursday of September, then kind of forget about it until October 31st. But on that Thursday, we go to Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt, and to avoid traffic we go down early. Which works out because Korean movie chain CGV opened a theater walking distance from the park. And which also was featuring a throwback showing of Along With Gods. But first up was The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos—or as I like to call it Korean Suicide Squad. Or you could replaced “Korean” with “Good”.

I kid. Sorta. I never saw Suicide Squad because if ever there were a string of movies that screamed “Product In Search Of Meager Artistic Expression” it would be the DC movies. WB knows it has something valuable but never stops to consider that the value is exploitable—but not intrinsic (any more than Disney realizes it with Star Wars and Marvel, which I think we are finally on the downswing of).

Anyway, this is a similar premise, without the (overt) super-villainy. A bus on its way to prison is flipped, releasing a bunch of baddies into the countryside, but the target seems to have been a gang leader. The only thing is, this leader is kind of broken down and his gang is small potatoes. Old, sick but honest cop, who was suspended for assembling a team of bad guys to round up even badder guys (with extreme prejudice) is called back in to…well, to do the same thing that got him suspended.

Boom.

Our heroes! Ma doesn’t need a gun. He has fists.

Much like the Chinese movie we saw prior to this, this is actually a movie spin-off of an earlier (2014) TV show which explains the allusions to the head cop’s former activities. I mean, it’s totally unnecessary for there to have been a past story or set of stories, but it’s kind of cool that there was and that some of the same actors were there. Dong-seok Ma who is now, I believe, all our favorite has a backstory with the very cute Ye-Won Kang, but she’s knocked out of commission early on. Given how little of their story is shown, it makes more sense that the audience itself might have a previous connection to her.

It’s fun. Dong-seok gets to stomp around like Yongary (think Korean Godzilla) smashing doors and sweeping his enemies aside with a brush of his mighty thews. (Checks dictionary…) Yes, his thews! They are mighty and smite his enemies with ease. Dong-seok is about 5′ 9″, though he is a bulky guy, and as I say, pretty much our favorite Korean actor at this point. Chang Ki-Yong is the young toughie, more typical of Korean gangsters which, as The Boy points out, are generally muscular and wiry but also skinny as hell.

Kim A-Joong is the femme fatale, which is always more adorable than fatale-feeling in Korean films. With the very notable exception of The Handmaiden, Korean actress tend to portrayed rather demurely. As we noted with Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, the girl with dubious moral values was one who had “spent time in America”. So Kim’s character here is saucily, y’know, wearing jeans. Then, when she’s really amping it up, she switches to…jorts? With long black stockings?

And while she is lovely, she is also skinny. Now, for Koreans (male or female) skinny doesn’t look scary as it tends to for Americans. But still, 5’6″ (probably exaggerated) and 105# (probably also exaggerated) doesn’t produce the same effect as, well, any more weight (or even height) would. And the camera never lingers or leers. Also kind of cute: As her character becomes less of a bimbo and more of a functioning member of the team, she starts dressing more professionally and behaving more demurely.

Unacceptable!

She’s got some dirt on her face. Ew.

I’m not gonna knock it. Modesty is underdeveloped in the West. We can’t seem to decide whether it’s oppressive or respectful and seem to have settled on a code of “Women never have to be modest, but no one is ever allowed to comment on it one way or the other” which is essentially psychotic.

Anyway, very mild spoiler here, as we unravel the mystery of the crime, it turns out the Japanese are behind it. I literally raised my fist into the air and cheered. (We were the only ones in the theater.) The movie actually draws a comparison to the occupation, which my Korean-American co-worker (who’s married to a Korean-Korean girl) suggests may be due to certain contemporary tensions between Korea and Japan. (He’s an American so he doesn’t pay attention to this stuff, but his wife rather insists.)

I mean, it’s gotta be the Japanese, right? I wonder if the apparency of that fact has to do with these current circumstances. I would find that amusing because the villainy of the Japanese is probably the most consistent element of the Korean movies we have seen, unless you count the lassitude and corruption of the Korean Deep State. But the Japanese are never unaccompanied by traitorous Koreans, so maybe they have edge.

In this case, the Japanese are just using Korea as the trial run for their neo-Imperialistic shenanigans on their way to China, and the heroes actually say it’s just like the occupation.  If it weren’t for the profusion of “Hello, Kitty” merchandise in the hands of actual Koreans, I might be worried. As it is, I assume they, like us, get their messages from their local large corporations and this is just some kind of squabble between Samsung and Sony.

You’re never really in danger of taking it seriously. It is earnest, with likable characters, but is mostly just trying to be fun and entertaining, and succeeds.

Tough to get good Korean stills.

While this is the poster for the movie, and not actually in the movie, this stuff is all in the movie somewhere.

Freaks (2019)

A weird, intense man keeps his seven-year-old daughter locked away in their house while training her to act like a “normal” person because if she doesn’t, bad guys will kill them both.

But enough about me.

So I sound-proofed it.

I, too, got tired of my children complaining about the ghosts in the tiny, dark room I locked them in.

In this movie, Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe)—who is not a young, skinny Jack Black, don’t be fooled—plays “Dad” to Chloe (Lexy Kolker) while nursing a seemingly paranoid fantasy about “bad men” who want to kill them. We immediately know not all is as it seems because Chloe is, indeed, a freak. In particular, she can see into remote locations—and be seen in those locations—though she’s not aware she’s doing it.

Chloe desperately wants a mom, since her own mother (Mary, Amanda Crew, “Silicon Valley”) died when she was a baby. Dad has a plan to train her to be normal, then let her live with the family across the street neighbors, which is something Chloe desperately wants. So much so that she projects into her future foster sister’s bedroom and makes her pretend to be her mother, cuddle her and tell her she loves her.

Dad, too, seems odd, since he insists he can only protect her if he doesn’t fall asleep. And when he does fall asleep, things happen: The lights in the house go on, the water starts working, strange noises emerge from outside, etc.

Or possbily anything anywhere.

Bruce Dern appears in an ice cream truck. Scarier than anything in “IT”.

I won’t spoil it, because this movie works by imposing a number of layers on top of each other, each of which by itself is fairly ordinary, but which keep you engaged until the next layer is pulled back. It takes about 30 minutes to get a strong picture of what’s going on, for example, with the mysterious ice cream man (Bruce Dern, aged hippie, and, oh, I dunno, From Up On Poppy Hill) who is aggressively trying to lure Chloe into his truck. But then you have the mystery of what the deal is with Dad. And is the (really hot) Federal Agent (Grace Park, who appears mostly on TV and in my better dreams) good or evil or somewhere in between, and more importantly: can she be trusted?

The thing that works about this movie is that it sets up its rules (which are admittedly rather broad, conceptually) and then lives by them. You learn X, and that explains certain phenomena that come before (and more importantly, in some ways, after). Then you learn Y, which explains some other stuff, and so on until you get a fairly good (if simple) picture of what the world is and how our characters play their roles in it.

And shock of shocks, for a movie which is about existential crises for all of humanity, it’s rather non-judgmental. The second half of the movie, when it seems like it could veer into straight up action, reminds us that what we’re viewing is actually pretty horrifying. There’s a lot of murder going on—and it’s all pretty understandable. Which is a kind of uncomfortable feeling. Obviously, we’re biased one way by the mere orientation of the telling—but on the other hand, we (the audience) would be the very definite losers of any the scenarios that play out where we’re rooting for one side over the other.

She's good looking, is what I'm getting at.

This movie makes me feel conflicted about Grace Park. That’s something I never want to feel.

It’s shockingly nuanced for a modern movie, much less a horror movie, and it does it without being political. I was worried because of this one line (naturally played in the trailer) where they talk about “making people illegal”—a red flag, stay-away sign for anyone not wanting to be bludgeoned with some heavy-handed pro-illegal-alien message. But in the movie, there’s: a) no connection made  (or even reasonably plausible) to our modern immigration crises; b) no real judgment as to whether or not “making people illegal” is good or bad. And not just immigration, the movie skillfully avoids any real sociopolitical commentary on homeschooling, racism or any of the other low-hanging fruit lazy writers go to these days.

The later half gets a little action-y, as mentioned, but there’s still a fair amount of horror, or at least horrific moments. The ending, involving a hellfire missile, edges into goofy, but in a sort of expected cinematic way, kind of like Ready Or Not‘s somewhat bombastic denouement. It didn’t bug me much. It’s still technically summer, after all. Also, that last section is a good, suspenseful build-up with a little cat-and-mouse between the (hot) federal agent and dad, as the latter stalls for time and the former is smart enough to put the pieces together

Besides being hot, federal agent woman is kind of a complex character. She comes off as a bleeding heart at times early on (when she’s on TV) but then she’s as tough and no-nonsense as her character would really have to be. Top notch acting, which is true of all the principals. Emile Hirsch’s torment bubbles under the surface but ends up explaining a lot of his nigh-hysteria, as he literally lives an existence no one else is for nearly seven years. (This makes perfect sense in context.) Amanda Crew has limited screen time but she makes the most of it, being both sympathetic on the one hand, and a little scary on the other (much like Dad). Why, Bruce Dern nearly convinces me he’s not thoroughly evil. (I kid the Dern, he’s quite good here, though I think his nose hairs should get 10% of his fee.)

It's a mountain?

If you look closely, you can see where Trump signed the wall. (I kid! It’s not even a wall!)

Speaking of small amounts of screen-time they do a lot with, the across the street neighbors played by Ava Telek, Matty Finochio and especially Michelle Harrison do great work in their one main scene. And a special shout-out to the thuggish Alex Paunovic, who provides the climactic moments of the film with its weird mix of horror and comedy. Paunovic and (sidekick federal agent) Reese Alexander were in Dead Rising: Watchtower, an earlier attempt by writer/director team Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this movie is better (not having seen the former) but I don’t think it will be very popular. Actually, I’m seeing now that it was only released into 111 theaters which means it probably won’t have a chance to be very popular, which is—well, it’s probably sensible from a business perspective. This story really inverts some common and very popular movie tropes, similar to Brightburn, which had much bigger names attached and got a much wider release and (I imagine) was a lot less challenging.

As I said early on: There’s a whole lot of murder in this movie and you really end up understanding all of it. That makes a man uncomfortable. And most people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

Every time.

I hate it when they pretend to be asleep so you have to carry them out of their burning room.

Ne Zha

Two, count ’em, two Chinese movies playing in Alhambra, and at the AMC which meant another month of squeezing value out of their $25/mo A-List service. But there was a rub: The last movie (Line Walker 2) got out five minutes after the this one started, and A-List doesn’t let you book overlapping events, which I can understand in principle. But, come on: A modern movie has a good five minutes of credits on it!

I struggled with it a bit. Then when Line Walker turned out to be 98 minutes long with credits, well, I was in a bind. It still wouldn’t let me book the film, even with a solid 20 minutes of spare time prior. But I’ve paid for this service. I could’ve tried to resolve the issue with the management but, come on, what’s a branch manager going to do about it? Best case is she—I don’t know why it would be a woman, but there it is—lets me in anyway. Worst case is she doesn’t.

You WANT to do the right thing.

Lookin’ innocent.

So we just sat down. Even though the principle is not damaged (we did not take anyone’s seat or displace any money, except maybe as far as recompensing Ne Zha‘s producers), I was not thrilled with the situation. I mean, I’m the guy who went to the After Dark Horror Fest year after year with The Boy and bought eight tickets, one for each movie, even when all I had to do was sit there and wait for the next to start. (At the time it worked out to about $200. Yikes.)

Then, after all that, as the credits started to roll on this one, I thought “Have we made a terrible mistake?” I mean, this is a kids film. And kids films are always risky, except for a few brief windows: Disney flicks in the ’90s, Pixar’s in the ’00s…uh…Disney Flicks in the ’50s…

I mean, it’s kind of funny because kid flicks have legs, you know? How many generations have watched the 1938 Snow White and how many non-kids can still enjoy those films. The best ones tend to be timeless because they’re not constantly bumping up against pop culture references (that the kids wouldn’t understand), politics, or complicated (and often bad) messaging.

But the bad ones, oh, Lord. They’re bad. And some of the CGI here is shall-we-say lower-budget looking compared to American fare. And yet.

Bit by bit the movie won us over.  Again, I am profoundly struck by how much freer Chinese movies feel compared to American ones—and this is compounded by the fact of being a movie for children. First, though, a quick look at the plot:

Hairy like a Chinese dragon.

Buckle up, this is gonna get hairy.

There is, in the heavens, a Chaos Pearl which can absorb heavenly energies. But it gets out of hand, so the Heavenly Father, Tianzun, sends two of his minions, the goofy riding-a-flying-pig chubster Taiyi and the lean and serious Chen to subdue it. It’s too powerful, though, absorbing all the energy they can throw at it, and Tianzun has to handle it himself, which he does by splitting it into its Spirit and Demon orbs. (Called “the Spirit Pearl” and “Demon Pill” in the subtitles, which has that kind of amusing pidgin-y sound you sometimes get on the mainstream Asian films.)

The Spirit Pearl is going to be given to Li Jing, the human lord guarding Chengdu Pass, who protects the human world from demonic onslaught. His wife will give birth to the reincarnation of the Spirit Pearl, whereas the Demon Pill will be smote by lightning in three years, destroying it. As a reward, if Taiyi can manage to watch over this process and make it all come off okay, he gets a spot on the Heavenly Council. The serious and, let’s face it, evil Chen is not having any of this, so he sets out to sabotage the process.

Which he does, by swapping out the Spirit Pill for the Demon Pill such that Li Jing’s new son ends up being a demon. Meanwhile, Chen gives the Spirit Pearl to the dragons, who have been chained up for eons since being defeated by the gods. The Spirit Pearl incarnation only needs to destroy the Chengdu Pass guardians (the castle and all the villagers) to free the dragons.

So there’s your setup, all done in the pre-credits opening. (Yes, the credits are up front, which I liked because the title guys are very creative.) Ne Zha is a demon by nature who is destined to destroy humans but is being raised by demon hunter parents who will do anything they can to save his life—remember, he’s going to be struck by lightning in three years. (He’s pretty much an eight-year-old throughout the movie.) Meanwhile, the “good guy” is being trained by dragons to murder a bunch of people.

It’s a good message: Be what you want, not what your “destiny” says you should be. And it’s one, more or less, that would be at home in an American kidflick, too. But then things get weird. And by “weird” I really mean, “not weird” because Chinese political correctness is not at all concerned with American SJW neuroses. To wit:

  • Taiyi is fat. There are a LOT of fat jokes.
  • Taiyi keeps a lot of things in his pants. At one point, his hands are full so he tells Ne Zha to rummage around in them. There are no overtones of sexuality here. The packed theater laughed a lot at the subsequent gags which were indeed pretty funny on a slapstick-y level.
  • The only woman who plays a major role is Nezha’s mother, and it’s to love Nezha so much that he realizes he doesn’t have to be a killing machine. (In fairness, she can also fight, but that’s a longstanding martial arts tradition.)
  • There is zero diversity.
  • Unless you want to count the big beefy dude who shrieks like a girl at any sign of peril. He does it a lot. It’s never not funny.
  • There is a message, but it’s a traditional one that is widely shared, so the movie doesn’t nag about it. You’re really just there for the characters.
  • Everyone has dignity and worth: Even the buffoonish Taiyi gets his moment of greatness.

This last is an interesting characteristic of Chinese films generally: There will be comic relief characters who are as broad as you can imagine. But whatever trouble they cause, they’re going to have a moment which reflects the goodness of their true nature. Nobody exists just for yuks—not even shrieking dude.

China-style.

He’s lazy, he’s a buffoon, but he has his moment of true wisdom.

There are a lot of fart jokes, and I laughed at them, not gonna lie. I’m tempted to say there was a philosophical theme behind them, as farts actually play a pivotal plot point, where they win the day versus, em, more conventional means of propulsion. But sometimes gaseous expulsions are just gaseous expulsions. I will say, however, that a lot of slapstick works on more than one level. Every mother ultimately feels like their son (or sometimes daughter) is a little fire demon, smashing into everything and everyone with gleeful abandon.

In fact, a lot of this feels very “boys will be boys”-ish. The Spirit Pearl child, Ao Bing (who is adult-sized) is serious, dedicated and conflicted, and the two “children” end up being each other’s only friends, because they’re the only ones not afraid of each other. They bond over hacky sack which, if you didn’t know (and I didn’t), is a traditional Asian sport, in China known as jianzi.

The Boy noted the combat scenes were exceptional. I’d compare them to animated combat scenes in kid movies but our kid movies don’t have much combat (except superhero movies), and these hold up to the best of those. There’s a very good command of space and motion that makes it feel more true.

Worldwide, Nezha is in the top 10 for 2019, and has the #1 box office for any non-English film, so it’s probably exemplary in a lot of ways. But I’m guessing the filmmakers’ relative sense of freedom is the same no matter what: Probably the Chinese filmmakers get approval from Beijing and know that they’ll be fine within those parameters. In America, you never know what the next thing that offends someone—thus necessitating a human sacrifice—will be. And I think creates a nervous tension that permeates a great many of our movies.

The fire demon's the good guy.

I mean, who to root for?

Line Walker 2: The Invisible Spy

I had to coax, ever so slightly, The Boy into seeing this modern-day Shaw Brothers picture, but not much. The trailer looks like a dumb action flick. But a fun dumb action flick. And he was pondering a bit why it was he would go see something like this where, for example, Hobbes and Shaw—excuse me, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbes and Shaw just leaves him cold. Is it just a kind of hipsterism? (This came up in spades for the second feature, Ne Zha, which is the sort of family film if, produced in America, we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.)

Very Bondian.

Car chase + bulls. Brilliant, really.

The story (which both of us lost track of at points, but got back fairly early on) is that two orphan boys who are super-smart and high-spirited and best friends (even while being fierce competitors) are approached by kidnappers at the orphanage. One manages to get away while the other looks like he’s done for. His pal hesitates, then runs back and rescues his little buddy—in the process being severely injured and snatched away.

I would think the injury would pretty much be the end of any kidnapping attempt, but the scar is super-important to the plot later on.

Anyway, rather than being sold into sexual slavery (because that’s the tragic most likely event, and we want a fun semi-gritty story, not a crushingly depressing one), he’s trained a school for—well, honestly, I’m not 100% sure what kind of school this was. Some sort of assassin/spy school, which is quite horrifying and not at all as fun as it sounds. Point is, he becomes a hostile agent being used by Evil Bastards Inc. for their grand schemes, which start with getting him on the Hong Kong police force.

But at the point our story begins, the two characters are meeting again, 30 years later, while the one guy is the agent/police-department-mole, and the other is a high-integrity super-cop who knows that there’s a mole in the agency and pretty well suspects both that the guy is his long-lost pal and the mole. They’re on a mission to collect and protect a hacker girl who managed to hack-into (and lock) Evil Bastards Inc.’s system, which is good, because Evil Bastards Inc. has got a lot of tricks up its sleeve.

Mayhem ensues.

Eventually, however!

Two of these guys we first see as kids. We’re not really supposed to know which right away.

The gun play is good. The car chases, too. The boy-turned-mole isn’t really evil, and that subplot is adequate to allowing us to like him. The acting is good—you like the characters. The bad guys are not super memorable. The hacker girl gets more character development without a lot of screen time than I was expecting. A lot of people get to be heroes, which is to say, they get to die to save innocent lives. This is endearing.

The action ramps up and culminates with (as seen in the trailer) a car chase scene during and co-located with the Running of the bulls in Pamplona. The ending is over-the-top in a fun, comic-book way.

The music is good.

It’s not necessarily a knock-your-socks-off kind of flick but did I mention it’s 98 minutes (with credits)? That’s not snark, that’s the movie telling us, the viewer: “Hey, we got a fun, fast story to tell you and it’s more-or-less completely free of any particularly deep message or politics. We think you’ll have fun.”

Where do you start?

Now, when you’re explaining this to your insurance company…

I mean, maybe there’s a subtext in there about…I don’t know what, the evils of capitalism? A lot of Chinese movies will have that, but it’s always phrased in a way where it comes out “Don’t be consumed by materialism”, which is pretty basic advice.

It’s a sequel to a 2016 film which itself was based on a TV series from 2014, with the original actors reprising their roles. I would have guessed (had you asked) that the “Line Walker” premise was just a phrasing device where a few characters passed through to anchor the series and the main stars were replaced—because they died—every time. But death isn’t a very serious thing in Chinese movies, or more accurately, the appearance of damage that should obviously kill someone is only as serious as the character lets it be.

Obviously a pretty common action trope, taken to the nth degree here. It works. I mean, when the bulls come in, you know all bets are off. I wouldn’t be surprised to see everyone back for a sequel.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Cute hacker girl seems more plausible when she’s Asian.

The Matrix (1999)

I somehow got the marquee time for this wrong and we ended up a half-hour late for this 20th anniversary showing—which, with all the trailers and folderol meant we only missed the opening scene with Trinity fighting the agents. The Boy and I kind of liked that better, honestly, as it made the film more mysterious and horrifying (even when knowing what was to come) but I think it made it harder for The Flower to get into it.

At the time it seemed sooo cool.

This effect does not hold up, tragically.

We had split reactions to this one, agreeing on some of it and not on the rest. The Flower liked it the least: We saw it in “Dolby” which is like the old Sensurround system but with more kidney punches.  The Boy liked that part, but The Flower ended up giving her ear plugs to The Barbarienne, which definitely reduced her enjoyment. The Boy and The Barbarienne liked the look of it whereas The Flower thought it looked like old cutscenes from video games The Boy would play. I was sort of taken aback by how dated they were: I had sort of expected them to be in the more loop-around-to-charming but they really looked awful cheesy to me.

The Boy and I liked the characters. The Barbarienne thought Neo had more chemistry with Morpheus than he did with Trinity. The kids all thought it looked very ’90s, but to me it looked like that late ’90s interpretation of the ’80s, a la Fight Club and Three Kings.. The fight choreography still worked, by-and-large. I thought the big lobby fight scene was too slow and silly but The Boy (somewhat surprisingly) was able to embrace it.

It's fuzz, but she has more of it than Keanu.

In HD you can see Carrie-Anne Moss’s facial hair.

The warning signs are all there of course. Sure you have the vinyl fetish and the androgyny, but most telling of all are the lengthy pseudo-philosophic speeches that would take up 60% of the second movie and 95% of the third one. And probably all their subsequent films, too, but who watches those?

It’s still pretty fun and watchable, though. Keanu’s performance has aged well, probably because he has 20 years of extra distance from the time where his defining role was Ted “Theodore” Logan. (A performance, I maintain, which is still sorely under-rated.)

In fact, we all decided that The Matrix is the alternate timeline where Ted gets shipped off to military school and “Wild Stallions” music never does save the day.

Also, The Flower had moment of shock followed by a bout of the giggles when I told her that Hugo Weaving ended up being cast as the king of the elves and, well, more or less played it exactly the same way. Heh. So, we were glad we saw it, to varying degrees, but it’s a mixed bag. It was rather over-rated at the time: You can get a sense of how large it loomed by the vast number of rip-offs, homages, parodies and spiritual successors it had.

But since it was cutting edge of a constantly evolving technology, it stands as a victim of that success. As The Flower said, “I’ve seen everything it does, only better.” Yowch.

Unwatchable for me.

“You will go to Mordorrrrrr.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Although The Boy had seen (and loved) this movie when it was aired for its 50th anniversary, this was The Flower’s first viewing of the film and she was, as she put it, surprised. It is, I agreed, a rather surprising film. The opening sequence has Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident, and then features a funeral where a wide variety of viewpoints are expressed, most commonly “I didn’t really know him”. And here is a 220 minute film, after which, the audience isn’t really sure they know the man—nor even if the man knew himself.

Nah, it's Omar Sharif.

“Who’s that comin’ down the street, the sweetest who you’ll ever meet…”

I’m not sure if she liked it. I think she did. I think she thinks she did. But it wasn’t what she was expecting. Lawrence was a complicated man. If I had to describe him, it would be as someone who saw the opportunity to do a great good, but who then touched off a sort of megalomania in himself that was definitely not good. I can’t fault him for it: A certain amount of megalomania (or something very close to it in appearance) might be necessary if you are doing grandiose things, like leading a people out of slavery.

And the fact that he fails, finally—the British did take over, the Bedouin never really could get past their tribal roots, nor have the Arabs done that yet, really—doesn’t really diminish the scale of what he was trying nor the successes that he did have.

Cinematically, it’s the sort of film that maybe shouldn’t work, though it does, and is virtually unthinkable today, on so many levels. It’s a historical drama and, as we all know, history is very problematic. It portrays Arabs as backwards savages. It portrays a white man trying to save them (and failing because they can’t grasp what he’s getting at). Women are hidden (Bedouin culture), or (briefly) cheerleaders, ululating on the hills. Or, they’re raped and brutalized, leading to a brutal slaughter. The only actual Arab in the cast is Omar Sharif.

Fake nose, though.

Identfies as Arab. At least for a paycheck. (Nothing new under the sun.)

And that’s just the content.

The style is long, sometimes static shots of the desert, as a figure emerges from the distance. It’s amazing how compelling this is, how an audience of moviegoers will strain their own eyes trying to make out a shape on the horizon (which, y’know, you can’t do because it’s a film and it’s not in focus until it’s focus, but still you try), and how effective this is at creating a sense of scale, privation and just plain reality.

Also: It made $70 million at the box office, which I think pretty comfortably put it at #1 for the next couple of years: El Cid, another highly problematic film released earlier that year, made a whopping $30M at the box office. The next year would see the release of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, which would come close by making $60M. But it wouldn’t be until the following year, with From Russia With Love that another film would pass Lawrence (with nearly $80M). Well, okay, the numbers are a little dodgy, as Hollywood’s numbers always are—gotta screw everyone!—and Box Office Mojo says the movie only made $45M, but the point stands. It was hugely popular.

"Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face..."

“I come from a land from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam…”

There aren’t a lot of 3:40 minute movies I can bring myself to watch, but once again, I feel like this is a movie I could easily watch again. The Boy, too, was very excited by it, because there was so much he had missed the first time around. It is just an amazing picture on so many levels.

Ben Mankiewicz said there was a $100,000 screen-test done with Albert Finney. You look out on the desert and see the hundreds, maybe thousands of people, all camping out in the desert. (There probably were some mattes in there, but there were definitely a LOT of people, too.) You hear Jarré’s unforgettable score, with the theme played approximately a zillion times in the four hours, and you just get an amazing sense of competence at every level combined with no meager aesthetic brilliance.

It is a wonder.

This bit didn't work for him quite as well as he got older.

Oh, Florence.

The Divine Fury

An atheist MMA fighter develops stigmata and ends up punching demons for Jesus? How can you not love that premise? Well, I’ll tell you how: You can be a mainstream critic.

I don’t have any review sites I visit regularly any more: IMDB became fairly worthless years ago, and Metacritic (which I probably hit the most these days) has a system that tends to put everything into a narrow band of “meh”. After the Captain Marvel fiasco, it was apparent that Rotten Tomatoes is essentially owned by Disney and SJWs—and, honestly, long before that, they seemed to be rating nearly every big Hollywood release as good or great or The Best Movie Ever.

But RT shall be forever remembered as the home of the “Jesus split”: Any movie featuring the merest mention of Jesus was going to get at least a 30-point hit from the critics. I noticed that The Divine Fury had a whopping 89/38 split, and I was sold. I mean, even more sold, because again: atheist MMA fighter who punches demons.

Hell, I'd assemble the "expendables" of exorcists.

You’re gonna need an old priest and a young priest. Don’t ask why, you just are.

Of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Yong-hoo is a boy who lives with (and adores) his policeman father. One day at church, the priest mentions prayer and he asks his dad if he didn’t love his mom, who died in childbirth. The father is startled and asked why, and the boy tells him, well, if he prayed enough, she’d have lived. Now, the father replies that he thinks the mother just prayed harder for Yong-hoo’s well-being, which is sort of a slippery slope theologically speaking, but perhaps understandable under the circumstances.

Inevitably, the father ends up being injured by a street-racing villain (who also happens to be possessed) and Yong-hoo prays fervently with the priest to keep his dad alive. But, alas, the father dies anyway and Yong-hoo renounces God in a quite dramatic fashion. And ever more “sees red” whenever he comes into contact with The Cross.

I mean, his eyes glow red. I don’t know if it was meant literally but it’s shown literally. And Yong-hoo hears voices. Like, Friday the 13th-style voices.

So, not really an atheist, though hardly the first person to claim the mantle of “atheist” when they just hate God.

At least you're not a Jew. Those guys are always being chosen.

I’d be put out, too.

Anyway, Yong-hoo ends up with stigmata. They don’t hurt or get infected. They just won’t heal, and they do tend to, em, ebb and flow, as it were, sometimes bleeding a lot more than others. He ends up going to a Korean astrologer—his driver gives this amusing spiel, and we are reminded that Korea is simultaneously very Christian and very pagan (see The Wailing)—and the astrologer tells him to go to this church that night, where a man would help him.

And when he gets there, what should be going on in that church but a good, old-fashioned exorcism! And it’s going badly. Lo and behold, Yong-hoo discovers, in the natural course of events, that his stigmata are instant exorcism-ers. He also discovers that a cross and blessings from the old Father (Sung Ki-Ahn) stop the voices in his head and allow him to get some sleep without all those demon-infested nightmares.

So, there’s your movie: Action exorcisms plus story arc as our hero learns not to blame or hate God for not giving him what we wanted.

You can't rule out possession EVER in a movie like this.

Is she possessed? Or is her mother just crazy (or possessed)?

Much like Roar (which we saw the same day), it’s not great but it’s good, solid fun. It doesn’t hate you, moviegoer, and for all the Christian references—I mean, we’re performing exorcisms, here—it isn’t preachy. Obviously, the critics have to hate it because it’s full of Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s and holy water and rosary beads and all that, and it generally validates the notion that there is Good and Evil and Christian clergy are on the side of Good, while drug-addled materialistic blood-sacrificing cultists are on the side of Evil. This passes for controversial among the smart class, I guess.

But The Boy liked it. And The Flower, who is not used to double-features, also liked it a great deal (more than Roar). Seo-Joon Park (who had a small role in Be With You) is a likable hero, even when he’s being tempted by demons to violence. Do-Hwan Woo is appropriately evil as the…well, I’m not sure what he was, exactly. I think he was human but he was so vested with demonic powers, he might as well have been human. Seung-Joon Lee has a nice role as the father.

Worth a watch, if you’re in the mood and not a Christophobe.

This one's for you!

If you love punching…

The Battle: Roar to Victory

At one point, most of the Korean movies we had seen were about Japan invading, or about evil Japanese occupiers, etc. (Last year’s The Great Battle was different in that it was China that was invading.) It’s probably not true any more but we can say confidently that the Evil Japan Well is not one the Koreans are afraid to go to. That said, if The Battle: Roar to Victory stands out, it’s because it deeps very drinkly of that well, indeed.

Villainous monsters shrouded in—nah, I just couldn’t find a good image. Maybe I should go to Korean Google?

The movie is about a 1920 battle where a ragtag bunch of farmers, thieves and merchants delivered a blow to the Japanese Imperial Army by luring them into a deep gorge where, if all goes well, they will be set upon by the more regular forces. Our farmer’s army—a concept beloved to any American—is already tormenting the Japanese with their guerrilla attacks when they find themselves couriering money to Manchuria to keep the resistance forces alive. Well, not couriering so much as providing cover for the couriers.

Honestly, I couldn’t quite figure this part out. The money has to get through or the war is over (for the Koreans) but it seems like that money has no actual impact on the story of the battle itself. It’s not like the money gets through and then a bunch of soldiers say, “OK, we’re in.” Maybe it was for longer term issues. I’d probably know if I were Korean.

Well, I lost it, anyway.

“Here’s where we’ll lose the plot.”

Our hero is the always charming Yoo Hae-jin (the criminal in Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission, 1987: When The Day Comes) who’s kind of like a Korean Lee Marvin. We see his character in a flashback when some Japanese soldiers blow up his little brother, who sacrifices his life for him. Now he’s running this bunch of fighters, and doing the occasional official mission while harassing the Japanese as circumstances permit. A lot of the regular army think the band really are just thieves (and some of them were in the past) so they don’t have a lot of support.

By contrast, Lee Jang-ha (Jun-yeol Ryu, Little Forest, Believer, A Heart Blackened) is a young, serious man on some kind of mysterious mission that seems to be related to the money but then maybe isn’t, and he’s doing a lot of risky stuff.

There’s a bunch of military maneuvering in the movie which I could follow pretty well. About the end of the movie, when it seemed like maybe this early plotting wasn’t going to pay off, they recapped it and tied everything together, which was nice. I assume this was a natural extension of the fact that this battle actually happened, but it helped make sense out of things.

Clive Owen, "Sin City"

“And things seemed to be going so well.”

The overall vibe is kind of The Expendables-ish in that (per The Boy), the characters never felt endangered. This gets Rambo-esque at the end as Yoo’s character charges through artillery fire without a scratch or hesitation. The characters are likable, however, and it’s fun to watch them interact. Jo Woo-jin (1987Rampant) is particularly enjoyable as the former-thief current-sniper pal of Yoo, who is exasperated by Yoo’s complete inability to hit anything with a bullet. Yoo’s swordfighting also makes for some fun moments. There’s apparently a big cameo at the end but I didn’t really get it because, hey, not that up on my Korean culture.

It’s fun. It’s patriotic. Makes you proud to be a Korean. It reminded me a bit of Warriors of the Dawn (the movie that started it all) but lacks the same sort of realism. Still worth checking out, though.

Permanent...friends. Wait, what?

Yoo Hae-Jin about to make friends with some tourists.

Ready Or Not

Part of the problem with modern Hollywood fare is that, not only are the movies terrible—or at least terribly bland—the trailers are awful. You can’t tell whether you want to see a movie because the trailers are all the same and they all seem to spoil whatever meager surprise the movie might have in store. In the case of Ready or Not, for example, there are no less than two accidental murders (“accidental murders” makes sense in context) shown which set the tone, yes, but also spoil a lot of the early jokes. And AMC is showing 20+ minutes of trailers now, not to mention pre-trailer “content” as if we didn’t all have so much consarn content in our lives we actually needed more.

I do. Sorta.

I swear, it’s less of a commitment these days to get married than to go to a show.

But I sat through one of these 20 minute trailer/torture sessions and learned the following:

  • LOUD is EXCITING!
  • LOUD is DRAMATIC!
  • LOUD is FUNNY!
  • LOUD is SCARY!
  • LOUD is EVERYTHING!

I mean, I assume that 1) I’m an old man, and; 2) young whippersnappers today are just hollering their heads off while texting on their gizmos instead of paying attention to the (awful, awful) trailers. But the aggressive loudness and corporate sameness of the trailers actually makes the current crop of movies look worse than they probably are.

But, hell, I pay my $25/month tithe to AMC so I’m gonna see a damned movie, no matter how awful. And I had a feeling that this one might be to my taste, as I love a good black comedy—or even a bad one, to be honest. (I’m not as picky as my critique might suggest.)

And? Well, Ready or Not was good. It’s not gonna knock your socks off by any means, but it’s fun and well-made, and (as The Boy) pointed out, made by people who seemed to actually care about what’s going on.

Because she cares.

Andie MacDowell, looking like she cares. (She does, but she’s gonna kill you anyway.)

The story is simple: Grace (Samra Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Montana) has married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Arrival) and per family tradition, the new member must play a game. Alex’s very wealthy family runs a gaming dominion—board games, quaintly enough—and this is just one of their little quirks. Why, the two most recently married siblings played Old Maid and chess. How charming!

But Grace gets “Hide and Seek”, and as the movie opener shows, in hide-and-seek, the new member hides and the rest of the family seeks—and kills—the hapless newlywed. This happened 30 years earlier and we see Alex’s older brother Daniel (played in adult form by Adam Brody, Yoga Hosers) protecting him from viewing the murder or participating. (Daniel is now an alcoholic jerk who likes to hit on Grace.)

Anyway, this is your set up: A bunch of rich people and their servants chasing Grace around a mansion and points beyond.

It never does.

It doesn’t end well for the servants.

The story raises a lot of questions, of course: We can gloss over the whole underlying question of why would anyone do this, though the movie gives us a premise that is serviceable enough for the genre. But what the movie does rather well is address the emotional “why”. Why would Alex, who presumably genuinely loves Grace, put her into this situation? The movie gives us several possible answers all while raising a lot of absolutely necessary questions regarding Alex’s character. This creates some good tension.

And it’s the sort of thing that The Boy and I talk about when we say “somebody cared”. It’s easy enough to have some cool effects and thrilling moments all piled up into a hash. But when you treat your characters with a certain amount of respect—not just as vehicles for plot points—you get what we call “a real movie”.

For example, it’s very clear that none of the Le Domases really wants to do this. They feel they must. And they’re not especially competent—a fact highlighted in the over-revealing trailer—which leads to the darker comedic moments. But they all have different reactions to their fates.

Alex’s mom, Becky (played by Andie Macdowell, whom I liked better here at 60 than I did in heyday in the ’90s) is really nice to Grace and seems to really mean it. But she also really means it when she sets out to kill her—for the family. Meanwhile, brother-in-law Fitch (Kristian Bruun, Mark O’Brien’s co-star in How To Plan An Orgy In A Small Town), is very much on the fence as to whether or not the murder is really necessary. By contrast, Daniel’s wife Charity (the very hot Elyse Levesque, who shares credits with Bruun on “Orphan Black”) is in the “better safe than sorry” camp.

A great wedding picture.

L-to-R: Bruun, Melanie Scrofano (who plays Bruun’s drug-addled wife), Henry Czerny (as papa Le Domas), MacDowell and Levesque.

In other words, from a comical/comic-book premise, we get characters who act how people might actually act in such bizarre circumstances. So you end up caring. That means that when Grace suffers, you feel some of that pain. When she nearly gets away, you root for her to make it that last mile. When she stops one of her attackers, you’re happy for her, in sort of a grim way. This is a hard thing to do in black comedy, which has a tendency to flatten characters out to make some sort of ironic point.

I realized how it was going to play out just before the climax of the film, but at the point where there was only one reasonable dramatic choice, so it kept me guessing as long as it could—without ruining itself by trying to add a shocking twist! I could tell from the beats how the denouement was going to go as well, and it was a bit…garish…I guess you’d call it? But it was probably the only thing a modern audience would’ve accepted, so no points deducted there.

Co-directors and frequent collaborators Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have only one other feature under their belt, the disappointing Devil’s Due. But if they can pull off a movie like this—and it does seem to be doing well—they have a bright future ahead.
For instance.

As bright as a bride on the morning after her wedding.

Rifftrax: The Giant Spider Invasion

It’s probably difficult to imagine in our climate-hysterical modern days but the ’70s had it all over us in the “nature gone amok” genre. In classic pagan tradition, nature was just a generally malicious thing whether it was killer bees or earthquakes—but one way or another she was pissed and we were gonna pay. If the $15M box office for this $300K movie is accurate, Bill Rebane’s Wisconsin-based magnum opus finished ahead of The French Connection II and The Eiger Sanction but behind the Bronson/Ireland thriller Breakout and the Burt Reynold’s comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Giant Spider Invasion. It was a staple of late night T.V. when I was growing up. It’s weird and funny and kind of amazing that it achieved what it did at the budget it had—on an apparently disastrous shoot where spiders didn’t work and guys hiding in VW vans were suffocating while trying to move spider arms, and things weren’t breaking down or blowing up when they should, only when they might actually hurt someone.

Desperate times.

And this would always be part of the teaser. Only it was grainier.

Alan Hale (Jr.) plays a small town sheriff who barely leaves his office (classic low budget trick) and Barbara Hale (no relation) plays a scientist who comes with a fellow scientist (longtime TV actor Steve Brodie) to discover what fell from the sky into a pasture in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, it fell in the farm of (veteran character actor) Robert Eaton and (TV legend) Leslie Parrish, the former of whom is a jerk and the town whore’s #1 customer, and the latter of whom is an alcoholic (and not precisely a prostitute but certainly a cheap date). The meteor-ish object that hits the ground is full of geodes that may or may not be diamonds—movie characters repeatedly say they’re not but also demonstrate complete unreliability.

It’s the sort of plot that would lead to murder and mayhem in most circumstances, but here it all just leads to spiders. Lots and lots of spiders. (Oh, and there’s a preacher who interacts with literally none of the movie’s characters, though the characters do reference him a lot.)

Ouch.

The actors did their own stunts, which is somehow more amusing than the usual B-movie case where it’s very obvious they don’t.

And these are some gorgeous spiders, too. I actually felt a little bad for them, being in this movie. Tarantulas are not really show-biz people, and they get buffeted around and dropped onto people and I think it was a good edit, but it looks like one gets squashed with an iron. The girl in her underwear squashing the tarantula with the iron was usually the scene they’d show when this movie was going to be on “The Late, Late Show” or whatever.

But the fake spiders are great, too. Cars in tarantula costumes. Puppets of some kind. I’m still not sure how they did the scene with the giant spider in the street. I guess it was more of a marionette, but while it’s completely unconvincing on any level, it’s fun. Which sort of sums up this movie.

Giant spiders!

It’s a shame making this wasn’t as fun as it looked.

This is great riffing material and Mike, Bill and Kevin do a great job here. There’s a lot of good guffaws and giggles, and there are plenty of moments—especially in the opening short which is all done with the creepiest marionettes and is about using the telephone sensibly—where no commentary is needed.

Kevin Murphy has another great song for this one, too, in the style of Neil Young, called “Giant Spider on the Highway”. Worth watching!

Funny.

“Well, it’s 9AM somewhere.”

The King’s Letters

The Koreans? They don’t appreciate what they got, frankly. The Boy (and His Girl) and I had carted The Flower down to the OC for a day-long artistic boot camp, and we trundled over to the Orange County version of Koreatown (which I guess is, uh, Buena Park?) to see this historical drama—and a wildly entertaining action film, Exit, that trounced this one at the box office. We saw this one first because we figured Exit would be more light and fun (it was) but I came out of this thinking: Why can’t we get movies like this in America?

It's a mystery!

15th Century Korean King Sejong tries to figure out why modern American movies suck.

This is a historical drama based on a theory of how Korea got its alphabet. The premise is that Korea is under China’s thumb. The Confucian ministers are speaking Chinese in court (until the King corrects them) and presenting documents in Chinese. But the King, who is the literate type, is frustrated because the books he has written—writing books is a kingly thing in Korea if the movies are to be believed—are in Chinese and (therefore) impossible for his own people to read.

He wants to create a Korean alphabet but he’s stymied because all he has to go on are Chinese phonetics. While he’s fretting over this, a Japanese contingent comes and says, “Hey, give us your tripitaka.” The tripitaka is the Buddhist scriptures, carved in wooden blocks, and the King is astounded. “You want our national treasure?” he asks disbelievingly. They say, “Yeah, you guys are Confucians anyway, so either hand ’em over or just kill us ’cause we can’t go back without them.”

The king demurs to do either and is told by one of his counselors that the only one who can help him solve is alphabet problem is a pig-headed Buddhist monk named Shinmi.

Speaking as a smart jerk.

He’s smart. He’s a jerk. Smart jerks are the worst.

The backstory appears to be that the country had had a caste of Buddhist clerics who ran everything and became rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. Some bloody fights and accusations of (and convictions for) treason later, the Buddhists have all been replaced by Confucian monks—who have become rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. (All Korean historical dramas—and, actually, most Korean movies we see—are essentially about The Swamp.) Anyway, the Confucians are seriously no help because: a) they’re colluding with the Chinese; b) as long as reading and writing is hard, they can maintain their power.

So, the King meets with Shinmi, who is pissed off—his father was killed as a traitor—but sees in the opportunity a way to restore Buddhism to the country. And so he helps the process by informing the King that the answer to his troubles is in the tripitaka—written in Sanskrit, a phonetic language.

What proceeds from there is essentially an ensemble movie, where each member of the team—the monks, the king, the queen, the courtiers, and the ladies—all work together to create an elegant alphabet while undergoing the various dramas of their lives. One of the monks is a young man, for example, and one of the ladies of the court is quite taken with him, and the two end up exchanging notes drawn into the courtyard dirt (in the new Korean alphabet). One of the monks has a vow of silence, which makes the fact that he has considerable insight into things the others are missing very frustrating for him. The Queen, a Buddhist whose father was killed by the King’s father, is challenged by Shinmi who seems to completely miss the fact that the King and Queen, for all their families’ political struggles, are genuinely in love. Which doesn’t mean that their son doesn’t have to act as an intermediary between them during the occasional quarrel.

Sad.

The late Jeon-Mi Soon plays The Queen.

The King is a rich character himself. Suffering from diabetes and going blind (and dying) during the process, he is determined to have a Korea where every peasant can read and write, so the damned clergy can’t take advantage of them any more. Humiliated on the one hand by having to kowtow to China, and exasperated on the other because he’d rather be a scholar than a king, he has to navigate the moods of his Confucian monks—who apparently can impeach him!

Everyone contributes to the process, with egos and pride and political intrigue working against them the whole time. And the message is constant throughout: Korea is its people. The mistake of all the ruling class is forgetting that. And the thing is, this is more or less a fantasy. I don’t mean it’s not well-researched. But it’s legendary, mythical and nationalistic. No “other side” is presented here: We don’t get the Japanese POV or the Chinese POV. It’s Joeson or Joehome. (Heh. Korean pun. Joeson = longest running Korean dynasty.)

Not to sound like a broken record but America needs stories like that and we used to have them. Walt Disney used to trade in this sort of American legendry with Things like Johnny Tremain and “Elfego Baca: Attorney At Law”. Hollywood did generally, too: Young Mr. Lincoln, Plymouth Rock, and even things like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Wait, strike that last one.

But then again, maybe don’t: Maybe the case against these kinds of movies is that they can whitewash (no pun or social relevance intended) history. This excuse is uncompelling to me. The fact that something can be done poorly, naively or maliciously should not dissuade us from doing those things. It just means we should be competent, canny and approach the task with a good heart. The only real argument for eliminating patriotism is the belief that a country shouldn’t exist. Which, I’m afraid, is where we stand after decades of internalized anti-American propaganda.

Slickly produced, and perfectly acted (even if the characters are somewhat stock), including the final performance by Jeon Mi-Sun (as the Queen), the movie is controversial in Korea because it was accused of plagiarism and almost prevented from release. But also—more interestingly—because some people feel that the movie downplays the King’s actual contributions in favor of the fictitious Buddhist monk. I don’t have a horse in this race, obviously, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were fighting in America over whether or not a recent movie on (say) the making of the Constitution downplayed Madison in favor of Jefferson?

And it barely cracked the top 10 in Korea behind #1 (EXIT) and #2 (The Divine Fury, which also looks great). Also behind, #6 Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, which is a story about a girl whose magic shoes make her slender, and therefore beautiful, the trailer for which is making heads explode here in the U.S. Tell me Korea doesn’t have a far more interesting movie machine than ours.

"Ey" not "ayyyeee"!

I’m just trying to imagine this scene in “My Fair Lady”.

 

EXIT

If The King’s Letters was the sort of film that couldn’t be made in America because patriotism is considered toxic, EXIT is the sort of film that can’t be made because we have no sense of humor any more that we are aware of. This is an action-comedy film that actually manages to balance both well and keep you both laughing and in suspense.

I'm gonna keep quoting MiB...forever.

“Oh, no! Someone made an offensive joke.”

Our hero is Yong-nam. When we meet him, he’s being ogled by the old ladies in the park as he does a routine on the iron bars. But that’s about all the love he gets: A group of kids, including his own nephew, see him and refer to him as “IBM”: Iron Bar Man. (I have no idea how that translates, even after watching The King’s Letters.) His nephew pretends not to know him, and we see that he’s basically a loser.

There’s not a huge amount of back story here. He was a competitive mountain climber in college, and good at it even though he gets beaten by his crush Eui-Joo. She also LJBFs him, and it’s not really spelled out if this is the reason for it, but in the subsequent five years, things have not gone well for Yong-nam. Living with (and taking abuse from) his parents, berated by his meddling sister, no job, no prospects, no real ambition, and hung up on this 5-year-passed crush so much that he schedules his mother’s 70th birthday to be held at The Dream Garden, because Eui-Joo works there. (And he immediately tries, unsuccessfully, to fool her into thinking he’s not a loser.)

Up till now, we have a wacky dysfunctional-family comedy in that Korean fashion where everyone’s a little bit mean, very emotional, exaggerated—much like the horror movie The Host. And then a terrorist smashes a truck full of toxic chemicals into a building down the street, creating a poisonous cloud that is building up in the streets and rising upward. Yong-nam saves his sister and nephew’s life when they run down a street and try to escape in a car, but people are dying left and right rather horribly.

Girrrrl!

Toxic gas is…hilarious!

This is the kind of tonal shift that the Koreans and Japanese do so well and it works because, while the characters are comical in a lot of ways, they are meant to be real. You sympathize with Yong-nam, even as you want to slap some sense into him. The parents, the sister—they all do what they do from a place of love. You want them to live.

I don’t need to tell you, I hope, that Yong-nam has to save the day by climbing. And working with Eui-joo, they get everyone to the roof and rescued by the helicopter. Except there isn’t room for both of them. When the basket takes off, she gives a speech about how, being the (recently promoted) hotel vice manager, the guests have to come first. Meanwhile she’s crying under her breath “I wanted to get in the basket.”

I mean.

The Korean LJBF zone is the worst LJBF zone.

And that’s kind of the running theme throughout: The two of them perform increasingly daring stunts, but they are terrified each time. And about the third time they sacrifice themselves so that others might live, they start to get kind of hysterical and pissed off. Yong-nam has an actual tantrum at one point, when it looks like death is certain. The movie isn’t afraid to showcase their skills while still giving them more than a modicum of humanity. At one point, when Eui-Joo thinks Yong-nam has abandoned her, she boldly scales the side of a small wall to get away from the poisonous gas—only to find Yong-nam climbing up a ladder on the other side (one she could have easily reached) with gas masks.

In the end, it is the Korean people who give our heroes their last shot by way of a flock of drones they’ve flown in to watch the two survivors struggle. And while you kind of assume that they’re going to survive—this is meant to be a fun summer action flick after all—you don’t really know because, hey, Korean. They’re not afraid to mix up some spice with their sweet.

It was a whole lot of fun and I don’t expect to see a better new movie this summer.

Soooo Asian!

Climbing up the building with the help of the excellent Mr. Giant Crab.

A Job Who Is Near Us

And sometimes you end up feeling like an idiot. To wit, you see a movie title like “A Job Who Is Near Us” and you think, “Huh, some kind of pidgin-y thing going on? Maybe reflecting an underclass struggling to get by or something.” And then you realize, as the opening quotes for the movie unfold, that it’s not “jaaaahb” but “johhhhhb”. Job.

As in The Book Of.

So you’ve just walked blind into a Christian inspirational film about a Korean man in his late ’30s who serves as a deacon in his church who discovers he has stage 4 cancer. Then his wife, who has just given birth to their first child, also has stage 4 cancer. Then his mother commits suicide. And then he beats the cancer, but it comes back.

And so on.

And through it all, what? Well, our deacon keeps his faith in God. With each recurrence of cancer, he doubles down, though the pain gets worse each time, and the prognosis as well. They start recording moments in his day-to-day life because he’s still going out, being inspirational and telling him he couldn’t get through this without his love for Jesus.

He really does change, as you might imagine. With each succeeding recurrence, he seems to be more at peace in a lot of ways. Not wanting to die, clearly, but increasingly more because he knows how hard it will be on his mother, and how much he wants to be there for his daughter.

Not gonna lie: Some parts of the theology made more sense to me than other parts. But when he’s on his deathbed (spoilers?) as all the people he inspired come to see him, and when he’s looking at his daughter blow out her third birthday candles, and when he’s telling his wife if he had to do it all over again, he would be better at loving her—well, there are no dry eyes in the house.

And it’s powerful to know that he’s in extreme pain but refusing morphine because he can’t understand the scripture when he’s on morphine.

It’s not a long movie but it’s a hard watch and I’m not sure whom I would recommend it to. But I was glad I had seen it.

How many times do you have to beat cancer?

Happiness is relative.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Three or four years ago, I noticed that TCM was showing classics on the Big Screen. Then someone told me that the Regency theater right next to the office was showing an “old” movie every Tuesday (where “old” meant anything from the ’80s to the occasional ’40s/’50s classic, like White Christmas). There were Friday showings at the local Tristone. And then I discovered that our beloved local theater chain (The Laemmle) was having a “throwback Thursday”. And so, for the least 3 1/2-4 years, I have carted around The Flower, The Boy and The Boy’s Girl to all of these movies that were either very good, or at least had some sort of cultural significance.

Early on one of these trips, I said, “Enjoy it now, because this will pass.” Because showing classic movies is inexplicably (to me) a matter of fashion. It was hugely popular when I was a kid with entire theaters devoted to revivals and cult movies, but TCM (ironically enough) killed that as a business model. (“Why go out when you can stay in?” is most people’s thinking, I imagine. Mine is “Why stay in when you can go out?” at least as far as movies go.) But since then, I have seen classic series show up at theaters, only to be canceled after a few months or years.

TCM’s Big Screen Classic is still going strong (also ironic, perhaps). The Regency stopped showing classics last summer, with a brief (tepid) revival for Halloween and Christmas. Tristone sputtered out last year. And when we showed up to The Wicker Man, we were informed this was the last “Throwback Thursday” with some friendly but meaningless corporate-speak about how they were going to maybe possibly relaunch sometime in the future. No real explanation but I presume they make a lot more money renting out the theaters to the myriad, endless film festivals than selling to even a packed house.

Where's Rutger Hauer when we need him?

Gone, like tears in the rain—er, wicker men in the flames.

For the past few years, two thirds of our 135-150 theater viewings have been classics and, frankly, it’s been great. You want to see CGI Will Smith as a genie? Or better, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy outwit themselves while building a house!

It’s sort of fitting that the last showing was The Wicker Man because this 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee musical has a kind of apocalyptic, end-of-an-era feel. I hadn’t seen it in about 40 years and recalled it as being a counter-cultural paean, a mockery of the old values. But it’s not that at all. I also didn’t remember it was a musical. But the characters do, in fact, break out into (poorly auditorily integrated, ’70s-style over-produced) songs.

The story is this: The officious (and devout) Sergeant Howie (Woodward) receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle, a small Scottish island, saying that a young girl (about 12) has been missing for a year. Summerisle is a sort of cloud-cuckoo land, however, where everyone acts a little queer and he get no straight answers to his questions. Instead, he gets vagueness, contradictions and outright lies. (Even the missing girl’s mother pretends she doesn’t know who the girl is. Later, when confronted, she’s positively blasé about her death.)

He is further provoked by the bizarre behavior of the islanders, which is outrageously pagan. There is open prostitution and promiscuity, with virgin boys being deflowered by the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland, whose body double does a rather provocative naked dance at once point). There are rituals involving maypoles, jumping through fires, and maybe, just maybe human sacrifice.

Those Swedish gals.

If I posted nothing but pictures of Britt Ekland (and her body double) here, would anyone judge me? Probably. So here’s one of the few pictures of her with clothes on.

This is all justified by the stentorian Lord Summerisle (Lee), who justifies it with an interesting history and a lot of sophistry. The history is that when his grandfather came to the island, it grew nothing and its people had despaired of escaping their poverty. With his understanding of agriculture—and by indulging the pagan inclinations of the populace—he managed to turn the island into a happy, productive place.

It’s really a shaggy dog story.

It’s meant to be a horror movie, and it works in a low key way. Howie never seems to realize that he’s in any sort of peril, despite the obvious madness of the islanders. And it is portrayed as such here. The story is sympathetic, on some level, to the Summerisle people—but without pretending they have any higher rationality or spirituality. They’re degraded, and worshipping tree spirits and forces of nature to resolve their problems. And that they have no particular qualms with sacrifice is apparent.

The fact that Howie is shielded by the crown and feels invincible does reduce the aura of menace, but also makes for a stomach-dropping conclusion.

How do you prance naked over a fire in a leotard?

The isles are chilly. Wear a leotard.

Woodward and Lee are terrific. Ekland (dubbed since her Swedish accent would stand out, and body-doubled because she didn’t like her own butt) is charmingly seductive. Robin Hardy’s direction of Anthony Shaffer’s script produces a lot of dreamlike sequences (many of which were left on the cutting room floor, for better or worse) and an aura of “realistic fantasy”.

Certain scenes—like Howie wandering around at night watching all the public air fornication—are going to be basically invisible on TV. By contrast, the girls jumping “naked” through the fire are very clearly wearing body stockings on a modern high-def screen.

The music (pop songs by “Corn Rig”) is as dated as you’d expect but not unbearable.

The only movie I’ve ever seen that starts with The Eucharist, but one of several (sometimes surprising) films in recent viewings with heavy use of Christian iconography. (Others include The Return of Martin GuerreAnnabelle Comes Home and A Job Near To Us.)

We liked it, though it was with a heavy heart that we left the theater: What the hell are we going to watch now?

It's grim.

Entering the cinematic graveyard of contemporary films.

The Other Story

It is harder to entice The Flower to the movies these days. She’s got a lot going on (as young ladies will) and has opted for an early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy which she will break—but only if sufficiently motivated. Fortunately, she didn’t have to break it here, since we saw this show on a weekend afternoon, but she was all in for this Israeli movie about a young (formerly atheist) woman whose parents are scheming to split her up with her orthodox Jewish boyfriend. As part of their scheme, they enlist her in watching a similarly young, formerly orthodox woman who has fallen in with literal pagans.

Hence, “the other story”. By Avi Nesher, the director of The Matchmaker, this has all the nuance you’d want from such a difficult story.

Recursive.

Jews feeling uncomfortable amidst the Jews.

Our protagonist is Yonatan (Yuval Segal, FaudaZero Motivation) who has returned from the States after a long absence from Israel. His dad, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, GETT: The Trial of Viviane AnsalemThe Band’s Visit) has summoned him at the behest of his ex-wife Tali (Maya Dagan, Matchmaker) because she is deeply offended by her daughter Anat (Joy Rieger, Live and Become) who has turned away from a righteous atheistic (or at least so-liberal-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-goyim) lifestyle to a deeply orthodox one.

As hostile as Shlomo and Tali are toward religion, Yonatan is more circumspect. His ex- (understandably) and his father (perhaps less so) both paint a picture of him as a master manipulator, a near sociopathic engineer of getting what he wants from people. We never actually see this, as though Yonatan has changed in his time away.

That said, we learn Anat attempted suicide at her bot-mitzvah because Yonatan did not show up. And her life went to ruins when he fled to the U.S., with their only communication being an email every now and again. And we learn that she and her boyfriend were quite the sinners (if I may use Christian parlance) before their severe conversion. The boyfriend is a famous pop star, and the two made racy music videos (as one does), as well as having lots of pre-marital sex, getting high, and doing who knows what else.

It gets a little raunchy.

Improper care and handling of a motor vehicle, perhaps.

Shlomo says to Yonatan (basically), “Since you’re here, why don’t you help me with these couples I have to counsel before they can get a divorce?” Yonatan demurs, since he hasn’t been in practice for a while, having focused on writing books and engineering some kind of social prediction program back in the states, but Shlomo insists and soon Yonatan is counseling a traditional Jewish (conservative but not orthodox, I think) couple, where the woman is not merely resentful but seems somewhat unhinged and the man seems like a nice guy, just a little dweeby and maybe a bit dense. He’s convinced his wife is going to offer his son up as a human sacrifice at one of her pagan rituals.

Nesher artfully moves the story around from character to character: Anat’s pop-star husband is surrounded by groupies, but he keeps his distance, with his other bandmates making sure there are no hangers-on. This makes his conversion seem more genuine, but probing reveals he goes to a dodgy pharmacy in East Jerusalem (apparently the Israeli version of Canadian Drug Websites). Our newly pagan wife has plans to alienate the husband’s son from him as soon as they’re divorced—but on the other hand, he thinks she’s planning to literally kill the son, and his fear drives him to the movie’s most desperate act. Shlomo, while not crazy about Anat’s conversion, has his own hidden motives for calling Yonatan back to Israel. Yonatan himself has his own secret, his own motivations, and his own reasons for his relative contemplativeness.

Anat is certainly the most sincere and straightforward among them all, but at the same time she’s reacting: To her father’s abandonment, to the secular worldview of her mother and grandfather, to the emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle.

Not everybody with forelocks is a rabbi!

Maybe you’d like to tell the rabbi? (What do you mean he’s not a rabbi?)

It’s a beautiful thing to see it all play out. Nesher eschews the sensational in his storytelling while fully respecting the human tendency to veer toward the dramatic. As a result, he can show everyone with all their flaws without making a cartoon villain out of them. You come away understanding the characters and, shall we say, forgiving their trespasses in the  hopes that your own trespasses will be also be forgiven.

Easily in the top 5 movies this year to date.

Should you do nothing?

Sometimes you gotta do whatever to stop your daughter from marrying a schmuck, I guess.

The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

“That was very French—but in a good way!” So sayeth The Flower after we emerged from this classic French film about a man who returns from the war after many years a much better and much changed fellow. He’s so changed, in fact, that he becomes a relatively young and slim Gerard Depardieu, two attributes I have never really associated with Depardieu. This may, in fact, have been his “breakthrough” role for Americans. (There was a time French actors actually became semi-famous in America for being in French films. Then they’d do some American films and, well, usually go right back to doing French films.)

Much like King Tut.

The ladies like his style.

Our story, allegedly based on fact—actually, let’s unravel this a little because it’s kind of confusing: In 1941, author Janet Lewis published a novella called The Wife of Martin Guerre. This served as the basis for the movie, co-written by historienne Natalie Zemon Davis, who subsequently went on to write the novel The Return of Martin Guerre. Both those ladies were American (Davis apparently claims partial Canadian status but we’ll allow it), yet the very Frenchness of the story makes it not at all surprising that they would pick this idea up first. (The American version Somersby, when it was eventually made, featured Jodie Foster and Richard Gere at their heights and was not remembered well enough to be forgotten.)

Anyway, our story is that Martin Guerre marries Bertrand de Rois (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can) in what seems to be a felicitous arrangement for their families, but Guerre is a jerk. Young and impotent, many weird medieval remedies are applied to get him to, y’know, fertilize his wife. (This is a huge deal.) He succeeds and a son is conceived.

Then he runs off.

Many years later (seven or eight) he returns. “Here I am,” he says, “don’t you know me?” And one by one, the villagers all decide he is, in fact, Martin Guerre. Now, we, the audience, know it’s not Martin Guerre because we’ve seen Martin Guerre and he was no Gerard Depardieu. And there are a few suspicious lapses. But you know, maybe that’s just a movie thing. I mean, after all, the guy we knew was a skinny young teenager and Depardieu is in his 30s by this point, so maybe it is him.

But it can’t be him, not really, or you’d have no movie, right?

Looks like a Rembrandt.

Nathalie Baye doesn’t like my logic, but she can’t refute it!

Still, the movie expertly convinces us that it is him. Everything goes well for years, in fact, until Martin confronts his uncle (who has married his mother) over some family property. That’s pretty convincing, right? If you were an impostor, the last thing you’d do is bring attention to yourself. But even with us being pretty sure that it’s not Martin, the uncle is a bit of a fiend and certainly dishonest in his dealings with Martin, so you sorta do begin to suspect that it is Martin and the whole specter is being raised by the uncle to keep control of this property.

There’s even a hearing in the small village in which Martin definitively proves his identity. And you think, well, okay, maybe it’s him and maybe he’s just getting away with it, but good enough either way. But then the dastardly uncle forces (or forges) an accusation out of Martin’s wife and the whole thing goes to trial again in the big city of—I forget which, but it’s not Paris. It’s actually a pretty small town but all the witnesses have to relocate for the duration of the trial and they gawp at all the huge buildings…I mean, there’s like a three story building in there…and make their beds in various barns and what-have-yous.

The movie feels very authentic in this regard. The villagers are quasi-pagan in a lot of their rituals despite the omnipresent church. The villages are dirty and often the villagers are as well, but director Daniel Vigne never misses a chance to show the beautiful countryside and doesn’t wallow in the degradation of the people. A lot of them are as rough as you’d expect them to be, but never as squalid as you’d see in (say) a Terry Gilliam film. He’s very much about the decency of the people in difficult times, without glamorizing it.

It boils down to an unusual and very French love story, told with conviction and without a Hollywood sentimentality. We all liked it without reservation (cf. The Crime of Monsieur Lange).

Oh, no.

“Point is, there’s a happy ending, r—What? Let me see that script!”

Annabelle Comes Home

I was stuck in the OC for a limited time and, with a couple of movies to burn (in order to try to get my $25/mo out of the AMC Stubs membership), I found Annabelle Comes Home was playing at an opportune time. There was also a Chinese film called Dancing Elephant that, in complete ignorance, I would’ve rather seen, but when I got to the Orange 30—that’s right, thirty screens—I couldn’t remember what it was and I didn’t see it on the marquee. (I think they had half on one side and half on the other.) After I got my ticket to this, I figured I still had a good shot of catching Dancing Elephant (something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I felt justified) only to discover all the interior marquees were off, leaving me no way to tell which screen was playing it. After checking about 12 in the wing of the theater was in, I conceded defeat and settled down to the latest entry in the Warren-verse.

The Chinese take no prisoners when it comes to comedy.

Dancing Elephant is a comedy about a 13yo girl who goes into a coma and wakes up 15 years later grieved to discover she’s fat and old and will never realize her dream of being a dancer and now I’m really bummed I missed it.

This five year series consists of seven movies grossing $1.9B cumulatively and is the second highest grossing horror franchise next to Godzilla. And so it’s as bland and uninspired as you would imagine, as all the “cinematic universe” movies are. The epitome of “porridge”. But I wasn’t expecting brilliance.

I expected four things, basically: atmosphere with the threat being represented a general air of menace (not the same as atmosphere), reasonably interesting characters, some jump scares and a modicum of Christian iconography. The real Warrens were Catholic, I believe, and fought boogens the old-fashioned way: with crucifixes and holy water.

Two-and-a-half outta four ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible.

The story takes place after the stinger in the last Annabelle movie which I think may be the end of the first Annabelle movie (which we didn’t see). The Warrens take the doll home and put it in their Room Of Evil Artifacts, only to decide it still had power if you just let it hang out, so they put it behind the glass from a tabernacle of a demolished church. The sensitive Lorraine assures everyone that “the evil is contained”. (Someone asks “why don’t you just destroy it?” and Ed just shakes his head condescendingly, which I sorta enjoyed.)

In a move any B-movie would be proud of, the Warrens then run off to their next adventure leaving their much-less-expensive-to-have-on-screen daughter Judy at home with the doll and a Very Responsible Dresses Like Marcia Brady babysitter, Mary Ellen. Playing Veronica to Mary Ellen’s Betty is the feisty brunette Daniela, whose tough exterior is just a front for her grief over losing her dad. Bob, the good kid who works in the grocery store has a thing for Mary Ellen, and rounds out the cast for our adventures.

'cause, see....they look like those '70s characters...

L to R: Marcia Brady, Barbara Cooper and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Hey, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga aren’t cheap, I’m sure, and the kids (I presume) who go see these things would rather see some young cuties cosplaying the ’70s and shrieking their heads off than the serious, intense, sorta sad older people. Anyway, this is how you make a low-budget horror flick for…27 million? Holy cow.

I’m not sure if there’s some pandering going on here or what, but this sorta feels like it’s “Stranger Things” for the ’70s. The movie really seems to enjoy its callbacks: corded phones, board games, small screened but otherwise bulky TVs showing “Captain Kangaroo”, “The Dating Game”, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and I think a horror movie at one point, but that might’ve just been more “Dating Game” clips. It’s charming enough and manages to evoke the ’70s without being sleazy like the actual ’70s version of the movie would have been. (Mary Ellen and Daniela, e.g., are nice to look at but aren’t wearing revealing clothes or put in provocative poses.)

I do have to call BS on the premise that Judy, the Warren’s daughter, not having friends or being able to get birthday guests because her parents were exorcists. That stuff was lit in the ’70s. (One of the more popular “board games” of the ’70s being “Ouija”—not at all a game, but just an actual Ouija board. From Parker Brothers!) Daniela’s fascination would’ve been the norm. Also, one of the kids rejects her invitation by saying, “My parents say I’m not ready to process death yet.” It was an intentionally funny line, but more of an ’80s thing. The ’70s were more your parents slowing down the car a little as they push you out the door with “Wedon’tknowtheWarrensbuttheyseemniceandanywayyouaregoingtohavetodealwithweirdoswhenyougrowupsopickyouupinfourhours!”

Parents were not at their best.

The ’70s: “Oh, look! The new babysitter brought you a doll!”

Anyway, the key point is that Daniela, who knows not what she does, opens the glass case. This frees Annabelle to do mischief. The Annabelle movies are not—very wisely—genuine “creepy doll” movies: Annabelle is not animated. You never see her move unless gravity is the proximal cause. She shows up places and bad things happen around her. It’s as good an excuse for a “funhouse” horror flick where things happen purely for effect because the boogen in question feeds on fear (or whatever).

The first half of the movie is a nice ramp-up with good characters, and the last half is all spooky stuff, which was also a nice choice. There’s a good variation on the “stick your hand in the box” thing, similar to Phantasm but with a twist. (The Warrens, amusingly enough, have two Feely Meely games: One for playing, and on in the Artifact Room that is clearly possessed.)

So, if the acting is good, and it is—the girls are all seasoned veterans of shows I’ve never heard of, much like Kaya Scoledario from Crawl—and the characters are good, which they are—Daniela is sympathetic, for all her mischief, and even Bob proves his worth—and there are good choices made narratively, and reasonable feeling artistic choices (unlike some of the cheaty-feeling bits of The Curse of La Llorona) why am I so “meh” about it?

Hey, it's the '70s!

TFW you find your parents “home movies”.

It goes back to what I said up front: This movie is porridge. It’s skillfully made porridge, no doubt. But there is very little surprise to be had here. A good funhouse horror flick uses its license to do literally anything to present you with some outrageous imagery or mind-bending concept, and we get very little of that here. And I’d go even further to suggest stuff like that really isn’t wanted, either by studios or audiences.

As bad as it is for the regular load of Disney/Marvel gruel, it’s worse for horror movies. Very few genuinely scary horror flicks make money big box office. Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining being the only exceptions I can think of, unless you want to count Jaws as well, which I consider an adventure film. But to the extent that people like being scared, the general audience tolerance is low. So this movie will make back about ten times its budget (worldwide) and we’ll get the next seven movies in the franchise which will also doubtless be competently made blandness.

And that’s a little hard to get excited about.

Crawl

One of the horde had mentioned this creature feature to me and I had the idea that I liked the director (Alexandre Aja, Horns) so I told The Boy I was going to see it and he tagged along. AMC’s stubs ($25/month for up to three movies a week) would be a fabulous deal if AMC actually showed movies I wanted to see, but for us it’s also kind of a way to see movies we’re meh about because they’re “free”.

Harsh but fair.

This sign is more interesting than the movies playing at the AMC.

It’s a simple enough plot: Kaya Scodelario (I dunno…Maze Runner or the Clash of the Titans remake, or some crap like that) plays Haley, a college girl who swims well enough to be on the team (and get a scholarship, as we later learn). When we meet her, she loses her relay, and we flash back to her father (Barry Pepper, who was also in one of the Maze Runner movies as well as True Grit) coaching her aggressively as a child, and we quickly learn the relationship between the two.

He’s pig-headed and tough. She’s also pig-headed and tough. And they’re not talking at the moment.

This does not keep her from defying a roadblock to check on him after her more popular, likable, prettier (arguably, of course), married-with-children sister calls her up to say he’s in the path of an oncoming hurricane and not picking up his phone. When she goes to investigate his crappy condo, she finds his dog but not him. So she goes to recently sold family home where she finds him unconscious in the basement—with some highly suspicious looking teeth marks in his body.

OK, they’re not suspicious at all, they’re alligator teeth marks. (Or maybe crocodile teeth. Some member of the crocodylia order, anyway.)

You’re already kind of liking Haley, for all her pigheadedness and, let’s be honest, unwarranted pride that she is immune to hurricanes. (A lot of L.A. people think they’re immune to earthquakes *kaff* so I could relate.) And we like her even more as we realize she’s going to try to drag her unconscious dad out of the basement because it’s flooding and there’s no guarantee anyone will get to them in time.

That’s when she meets the gator in question.

What follows for the next hour or so is a game of cat-and-mouse. Or gator-and-swimmer. Or rather gator-and-swimmer-and-dad, because he wakes up. Or, really, swimmer-and-dad-versus-an-infinite-number-of-alligators, ’cause it turns out that the house is comically close to a gator farm that’s been flooded.

I mean it’s darkly comic, really, but are we going to split hairs, here? A lot of great horror has its foundation in humor gone awry.

Screenwriting 101

Amateurs save the cat. Professionals save the dog.

There’s not much more to say about this, really: It’s suspenseful. It plays its hand pretty well, we thought, overall.  You don’t want to see the principles die, which is of course not true of a lot of horror movies, and Pepper and Scoledario make for a convincing father/daughter team. When the threat ends, the movie ends, no wrap-up or filling in the dramatic blanks or nothing. Just roll credits.

In the words of the great Roger Corman: “Monster’s dead. Movie’s over.”

Still the audience was sort of shocked by this which, I think, tells you something about the attention paid to the characters on the one hand, and on the other how little deviance from established formulae the average moviegoer is expecting these days. The cinematography (by Maxime Alexandre, no relation) was good, and the score (by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum) even stood out in a few places—in a good way—which is also increasingly uncommon.

I mean, it works, so I’ll take it. Not gonna blow anyone away, but you can do far worse this season, and not much better. The Boy approved. My next well-I-gotta-go-see-something-at-AMC movie would be Annabelle Comes Home, which would end up unfortunately typifying the porridge of the year.

They're like the reptilian uncanny valley.

The cool thing about alligators is that real ones look so fake, the movie ones don’t look much different.

Violence Voyager

The Boy refused to say this was the greatest movie he’d ever seen. In fact, I’m not even sure that he said it was good—because, in any conventional sense, it is not—but he did say it was inspired madness that ranked it among the highest cinematic experiences he had had. And I can’t argue with that. At least not the “inspired madness”.

Almost false advertising.

The most normal moment in the movie, probably.

It was my fault we went to see this one-man project, and in fairness, I picked it precisely because it was the sort of weird little thing we enjoy. But what, exactly, is it? Well, if you search the web, you’ll see the claim that it was filmed in “gekimation” but is “gekimation” a real thing? I do not think so.

What filmmaker/manic Ujicha (yes, only one name) did was set up little backdrops through which he moved cut-outs of his characters through. He’s literally playing with dolls, in other words. Now, to his credit, you never see his hands (or whatever implements he used to create motion) but you cannot help but “see” them, as the characters bob up-and-down exactly as they would if you were watching a child put on a show. And at one point, when a creature is supposed to be dropping down through a portal, it’s very clear it’s being held by the (off-screen) edge and just dropped through. At times, the characters have liquids (bodily fluids) splashed on them or forced out through holes.

It is a truly transparent artifice. But one for which I was grateful when we started seeing rows-and-rows of naked pre-pubescent children corpses.

WTH.

Which is not even close to the weirdest part of the movie.

There aren’t all that many different poses and expressions for the characters, and they seem somewhat off at times. Thankfully, the voice-acting wasn’t just Ujichi doing all the voices and the Japanese cast is pretty high-powered. We saw the English dub which had some recognizable names as well.

The story goes something like this: Two boys (ignoring the warnings of wise elders) take a mountain pass to see a pal who has moved to a different village when they stumble across a ramshackle amusement park, the titular “Violence Voyager”. They are permitted to choose weapons (squirt guns) and instructed to fight the aliens (cheesy cut-outs that pop out at them). Ultimately they’re trapped in one of the attractions, where things start to get even weirder.

I say “even weirder” because, beyond the whole bizarro presentation, one of the boys has a waffle for a head. I mean, he’s got a pattern on his head like he was struck by a waffle iron. (His little brother has the same pattern!) What does it mean? Absolutely nothing, per Ujicha. He just liked the character design.

He's got his dolphin, though, so he's good.

Quite the character design.

But as they stumble around this cheesy amusement park attraction, they come across peers who have been trapped for days and transmogrified into horrible monsters. Why? Well, I think this is the old “Convert some poor sap’s body into a vehicle for your deformed/dead loved one” bit (a la The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or a zillion other ’50s/’60s B-movies) but there’s no real logic here. It feels, most of the time, like a genuine nightmare: Weird, disconcerting, and complete nonsense.

At various points, our hero encounters, let’s see: a cat, a bat and a chimpanzee. By the end of the movie, they’re fighting like teams of an impromptu superhero group.

It’s astoundingly childish. I mean, top-to-bottom: presentation, story, dialog, character motivations, and a weird ambiguity as to the characters ages. Like, they look like grade school kids. And, I mean, we see all of them naked which (under normal cinematic circumstances) provides clues as to age. But the boys’ pal—the one they were going to visit—was actually there on a date with his girlfriend. I mean, I guess twelve-year-olds might go on unsupervised dates into the woods with their girlfriends in Japan?

When we get some exposition, it turns out the kids were there because the authorities weren’t interested in missing children. So, to preserve their “journalistic integrity”—as an eight-year-old girl explains—they embark on their journey through the park without any adults. At one point, the hero’s father comes after him, and he takes the hero’s pal’s little brother along, because the only parents shown in the movie are the hero’s and the mad scientist.

Remember “The Naked Lunch” tagline? “Exterminate All Rational Thought”? Pshaw. Peanuts.

It all comes across as a juvenile nightmare. The Boy absolutely loved it. (We had gone after our late night work meeting and he had no regrets.) I…well, my feelings were mixed, to say the least. I was glad we had gone to see it, but I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it. I found the artwork so hard to parse sometimes that it was difficult for me to figure out who was speaking from time-to-time (mouths don’t move, of course) or to figure out what action was supposed to have taken place (but couldn’t be shown because cutout dolls don’t really interact well).

The hero ends up transmogrified early on, but the movie assures us that his mother still loves him and he conquered whatever difficulties came his way for the rest of his life. So that’s nice.

Check it out?

Huh.

This is a picture of three of the good guys.

Dead Man (1995)

This was the last of the Jarmusch flicks, and the apex of his budgets as well, possibly excluding the recent The Dead Don’t Die. And I think it shows that, given a budget, well, Jarmusch is gonna give you a lot of names (could they possibly be working for more than scale? and why?) no matter how brief or gratuitous.

He's got a few lines.

Names like: Robert Mitchum!

Case in point, this tale of William Blake (Johnny Depp, at the peak of his “doing weird Indie stuff” years), an accountant who travels to Machin (Oregon?) after the death of his parents, only to find that due to his delay, his job (working for Robert Mitchum!) has long been given away (per a toadying John Hurt). A brief dalliance with Thel (played by the beautiful Mili Avital) results in the murderous ire of Gabriel Byrne (I’m skipping character names, people are in this so briefly) which results in death for Mili and Gabriel and a delayed death for Johnny Depp, who goes on the run, since Byrne was Mitchum’s son.

The Dead Man of the movie, therefore is Depp, who has a bullet lodged near his heart and must flee the various villains Mitchum (whom we never see again) sends after him. Other celebrities with small roles: Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Crispin Glover and Alfred Molina as a bigoted Christian icon salesman out in the middle of nowhere.

The primary mover of the story, however, is Nobody, played by iconic character actor Gary Farmer who leads Depp deeper into the wilderness, helping him conquer his foes, only to vanish and leave him alone at the worst time, but then to re-appear again and help Depp finish his journey, in which he more-or-less kills him.

Nobody loves you when you're down and out.

Gary Farmer, “Nobody”.

The ending has Nobody pushing Blake off in a boat into the ocean. He’s not dead yet. But Nobody thinks that William Blake is the William Blake, the 18th century poet/artist and that, therefore, Depp is his ghost. I mean, spoilers don’t really matter much for a movie like this, but Nobody dies sending him out on that boat while killing the last bounty hunter out to get him.

Nice, if simple, camerawork. Black and white gives things an otherworldly feel. This was the only film not to have music provide not by John Lure nor Tom Waits. Neil Young, of all people, provides the soundtrack. Again, the Boy and I enjoyed it. It’s odd. It’s…well, it’s Jarmuschian. Deadpan, kinda funny, kinda interesting, no real message to be had. If you like Jarmusch, you won’t be disappointed, and this particular one may have broader appeal as it gives the sensation of a traditional story arc.

I mean. Maybe.

Johnny Depp may have used the same wig for Willy Wonka.

It doesn’t actually have a story arc, mind you. If Blake is our protagonist, while he goes through some remarkable changes he doesn’t really have an arc. He starts out with a blind thrust into the unknown, which kills him, and on his journey toward physical death, he discovers a more survival-oriented side to his nature—but even in the end, he’s passively pushed out to sea by his best and only friend who doesn’t understand that he’s not a ghost.

This would probably irritate the crap out of a lot of people, come to think of it, and the movie grossed a whopping $1M on its $9M budget. But The Boy and I enjoyed it precisely because it’s arranged along a more aesthetic logic and less conventionally predictable.

"I'm a big fan of your work!"

“Gabriel Byrne?! What are you doing here?!”

Mystery Train (1989)

The third in our Jarmusch-on-the-Loosh festival, this is the only genuine anthology, and makes more sense under its working title One Night In Memphis. It is the stories of three parties visiting Memphis, Tennessee: A Japanese couple who are obsessed with the Memphis music scene (she, especially, Elvis, he more Carl Perkins—though it’s possible he’s just being contrary), an Italian widow who finds herself sharing a room with a hard-luck chatty girl, and selfsame chatty girl’s not-husband who ends up rolling around the city getting into trouble with a couple of pals because he’s despondent she’s left him.

The first story is about Mitsuko and Jun, a young couple traveling across America, putting together a scrapbook of iconic Americana. Jun is a despondent, desultory character, enough to perplex the more chirpy Mitsuko. Their relationship is so prickly and distant, I thought they were brother and sister for a while. A late story sex scene with pillow-talk disabused me of that, and is the closest thing we get to overt revelation of character. Jun is rapidly finished with their encounter, and Mitsuko apparently unsatisfied. Jun says, “Mitsuko, do women…always worry about their hairstyle?”

It's for an odd, quirky reason, though.

I can’t remember why he’s wearing the lipstick, though.

I thought the implied end of the sentence was “orgasm” but she doesn’t pick up on it, and instead berates him for not shaving more. (“But I shaved two days ago!”)

The second story is about Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) who, for no explained reason, is in Memphis with the coffin of her husband. Her good nature is gently abused by local Tennessee-ans culminating with her staying at the same flophouse the Japanese couple is, and ending up going halfsies on a room with Dee-dee, a flighty girl fleeing from her husband, who is in fact her boyfriend, and is inexplicably English. We learn all about Dee Dee and virtually nothing about the much more intriguing Luisa, because she can’t get a word in edgewise.

The only time she manages to get anything out, it’s to re-tell “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” that a local used to scam her out of $20. The Memphis version has Elvis as the hitch-hiker, naturally, which leads to the high point of the film. But Luisa doesn’t even get to finish the story because Dee Dee, of course, has heard it before.

At least he didn't skin her and eat her.

Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero) scams the polite Luisa.

The last story concerns Johnny (the late Joe Strummer, drummer for The Clash), Will (the late character actor Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi, who mysteriously still lives). Johnny’s despondent over the loss of Dee Dee (and his job) and his pal Will calls in Charlie when Johnny starts waving a piece around. The three of them end up driving around Memphis, drinking more and more (a theme carried over from previous films), until Johnny gets the bright idea to stop for more booze and ends up shooting the guy behind the counter.

They end up ducking for cover in the same flophouse as the previous two stories, and several unexplained events from those stories are resolved here.

It's just a flesh wound.

The end of a long night.

The bellboy at the hotel is Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother) and the clerk is none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who provided the song, “I Put A Spell On You”)  that the Hungarian heroine of Stranger Than Paradise was obsessed with). Other nice Jarmuschiverse tie-ins are John Lurie (of both Paradise and Down By Law) doing the music and Tom Wait (also from Law) providing the DJing over the radio.

Jarmusch had a $2.8M budget and netted a whopping $1.5M in the US, which suggests a pattern. A pattern unheeded by the producers of the last movie in the series: Dead Man. It was the only one shot in color, though the color is on a pretty narrow band, with so much being shot at night.

We enjoyed it, especially for an anthology. But again, it’s not hard to see why Jarmusch lacks a broader audience.

I put a spell on y—on your sister.

Cinque Lee and Screamin’ Jay!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Not to be confused with the 1956 film, Godzilla COMMA King of the Monsters, this is more of a remake of the 1964 film, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. I didn’t really want to see it, but the Barbarienne…well, her tastes diverge greatly from mine, and a dad’s gotta dad. The Boy and I were kind of “…maybe?…” about it, but a “…maybe?…” means “No, unless we’re desperate” and these days our relative busy-ness is high enough to just forgo a movie rather than see something porridge-y. And, well, yeah. It’s more-or-less what you’d expect. No surprises, nothing challenging, just competently done oatmeal.

Bravo

2019 CGI devoted to making Godzilla authentic-looking, i.e., like a dude in a rubber suit.

Kind of a shame, considering director Michael Dougherty did the wonderful Krampus movie a while back.

The most common refrain about the movie is that “the monster parts are good and the human parts are not, but there aren’t many of them.” Truthfully, though, the monster parts are okay and the human parts are distractingly bad. I mean, you don’t think you’re going to lose the plot in a Godzilla movie, but none of it made a lick of sense to me and now I have to try to explain it to you.

The protagonists/antagonists of this story are the Russell family who were not in the 2014 Godzilla (and of course weren’t in the ’60s-based Kong: Skull Island). Honestly, I didn’t remember them not being in it. The movie sorta had me convinced they (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler) were in the 2014 movie but I honestly didn’t care and it’s probably easier to watch this movie without ever realizing it’s part of a “cinematic universe”. Anyway, the Russell’s work on communicating with kaiju—they’ve built a device that is like a whale-sound generator that actually can control monsters—and ended up losing a child in Godzilla’s last rampage.

Which, don’t you kind of remember that? I kinda do, but it’s probably one of those Sinbad-plays-a-genie things. And the fact that as movies get increasingly generic and wound up in epic catastrophic CGI events, it gets harder and harder to tell them apart. (Not just epic-catastrophic-CGI-events, either: The same thing happens when any genre becomes dominant, like romantic comedies or westerns.)

Nothing matters.

This might be from the movie or it might be a promotional rendering or fan art or a cut scene from a video game.

Anyway, the kaiju control team Monarch has all the biguns monitored across the earth, most frozen in ice or whatever, and they’re being raked over the coals by Congress because they want to keep Godzilla alive…for reasons they don’t really explain. But in the giant rubber monster movies of yore, Godzilla ends up having a purpose because he can protect from other, REALLY bad monsters. I’m not sure why Monarch doesn’t mention this but maybe it’s because at this point, nobody but them (and the human villains) know about Ghidorah.

Anyway, the Russell’s machine falls into the hands of the human villains, there’s a (very early) heel turn where one of the good guys turns out to be on the villainous side, and the whole plan, apparently, is to unleash All The Monsters so that—and I am not making this up—they will bring balance to the earth. Now, I confess, I missed this bit of exposition because I was getting the Barb a popcorn refill, but we were both really unclear on how 17 or so giant monsters were going to “bring balance”. (Maybe they have heretofore hidden ecological powers?) And the slight flaw in this plan—if you can believe such an airtight plan has a flaw—is Monster Zero, a.k.a. Ghidorah who steals Godzilla’s Alpha Kaiju Crown and thus commands the lesser kaiju and apparently is just a vehicle for terraforming (presumably for jump-suited aliens, if I recall my rubber-suit-monster lore). Wait, I guess that would “xenoforming”.

It’s a good metaphor for environmentalists who want to destroy all of humanity to restore the Earth to some previous pristine era. But I sorta don’t think it was meant that way. Actually, it’s a really good metaphor: “Hey, let us control everything and destroy everything we don’t like and that will make things perfect.” But movie narratives usually require more coherent and convincing plots than real life.

Security is lax.

It’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day at the kaiju factory.

Look, the giant monster genre has got a lot of built-in limitations. I think it’s possible to create an effective giant monster horror movie, like Cloverfield, by focusing on the human survival aspect. But that’s not what this genre is about. The horror aspect is quickly swamped by the spectacle. (Note the original Godzilla with footage of lots of suffering people with radiation burns has its own unique effect which is quickly abandoned in later films.) The problem that emerges quickly from the endless sequels is that monsters become not just less horrifying, they become downright goofy. (“Gamera is friend to all the children!”)

Fine for kiddie-fare, I suppose, though grossly at odds with the whole mass murder thing—at least in modern terms of trying to make kiddie fare hyper-realistic. Point is, this movie starts veering into the goofy, as the spectacle of the treacherous Rodan, the faithful Mothra, and a few of the other weirdos congregating with Godzilla is swamped by the fact they’re bowing down to him in a positively courtly manner.

The CGI is okay. It’s constantly rainy and dark (due to Ghidorah’s xenoforming) and I was amused but not uncharmed by the fact that state-of-the-art 2019 CGI can reasonably simulate a guy walking in a rubber suit. That’s really what it looks like, and it sorta has to, or it ceases to look like Godzilla. But the seams were pretty apparent in the movie and I suspect it won’t be long before all this stuff evokes the same chortles that the old rubber-suit stuff did.

The Barb liked it, though, so good enough.

Murky.

This is pretty exciting, though, right? The blob on the left is going to attack the one on the right, maybe? Or is asking it to make it a sandwich.

Funan

We followed up our Korean action/procedural/thriller with this simply animated story of the Khmer Rouge and—have you ever noticed that there are no Khmer Rouge apologists? Like, people (actively online) make excuses for the mass murdering champions of human history, the USSR and China, they make excuses for Cuba, they’ve forgotten Venezuela as much as they can, but you still find a few people saying the US (or the Jews, always the Jews) are responsible for Venezuela’s current situation, and yet nobody ever says “Well, the Khmer Rouge’s heart was in the right place.” I mean, The Killing Fields won three Oscars back in 1984 and starred reliable leftist Sam Waterston—but none of that bears on the merits of socialism, apparently, nor the wisdom of withdrawing from Vietnam.

Look, ma! I'm memeing!

This is fine.

Odd, that.

Be that as it may, this reminded The Boy and I of The Missing Picture, the 2013 documentary where a man relates the horrors he experienced under the Khmer Rouge through wooden carvings. This film, from France, tells the story of a middle-class family—which has its troubles but ultimately food and work and family and a place to live—that is driven from the city, ostensibly due to some evil invading force but really just to round everyone up for slaves on the communal farms. (Hey,it  worked for Stalin, right?)

The story is that our protagonists lose their young son in the migration, and the mother (Berenice Bejo, The Artist) is determined to be reunited with him (often putting unreasonable demands on her husband and others). As members of their family (and a few friends they manage to keep) fall victim to the brutality of socialism, and the mother continues to be rebuked by her overlords with (“How dare you think you can do a better job than the state at raising your child?”, which is an all-too-common refrain in “free” countries today). Ultimately they look to escape to Thailand, which is a journey fraught with peril, and with no certain safety once they get there.

Communism is great for weight loss.

You can never be too thin or too collective.

There’s not a lot to say here really: The movie does a better job, perhaps, than The Missing Picture (which was from the perspective of a young child) at showing the humanity of those who were swept up in Communism. (For all their murderous cruelty, they were still human.) As such, there are a more moments of subversive heroism where people caught up in the system realize, “What have we done, O Lord?” And for all that, they are never able to reverse it. You can vote totalitarianism in but you can’t vote it out.

It’s good. It’s worth seeing. Much like The Missing Picture, the medium mitigates some of the horror, which makes the movie more watchable and is, I think, fine if you’re not considering it a full historical picture. Still, it wasn’t a fun ride, even if it is a necessary one.

Cue the Creedence.

There goes the neighborhood. Again.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

Every now and again you get a Korean (but never Chinese) movie that’s been ripped from the headlines! I assume the dedication to accuracy is about the same there as here. Which, there (as here), is fine if it’s in the service of a good story. And this one works out to be a pretty good one.

The premise is this: There’s a serial killer (the Devil) who’s going around killing random middle-aged men but the ever-corrupt-and-incompetent Korean police department refuses to acknowledge it. Our hero (the Cop) is the only one who sees the pattern and he’s being put off by his police chief for two reasons: First, some of those murders happened outside his jurisdiction, so clearing those cases doesn’t even help his stats; Second, the chief is pissed off because the detective keeps busting this pachinko-running gang headed by the titular Gangster.

And he is! Just not in this movie!

He seems nice.

I saw where this was going almost right away. The serial killer’s MO is to rear-end some guy on an abandoned road and, while he’s preoccupied taking pictures, to stab the bejeezus out of him. So, of course, he picks the Gangster as his would-be victim, but said Gangster is a serious bad-ass and nearly kills him. The Gangster ends up in the hospital, which triggers a gang war, and the suspicions of the Cop but of course Gangster has zero confidence in the police. (I mean, he knows how easy it is to buy them off, right?)

It ends up being a kind of “buddy picture” with the Cop and the Detective pooling leads while trying to beat each other to the final capture. Because if the Gangster gets him first, he’ll kill him. If the Cop gets him, he’ll arrest and get the glory for closing a bunch of cases at once. (Also, less selfishly, if they don’t get a confession out of this guy, they may never really know how many people he killed.)

Lotta punchy.

Deals, and people, being struck.

We saw this shortly after John Wick 3, and were favorably impressed by the action scenes. The choreography wasn’t that glitzy but it felt like—given the parameters of a bunch of mooks attacking a couple of hard targets—things hurt a little more, were a little more realistic or at least not so fantastic as to break suspension of disbelief. Also, there are only a few moments of this mixed in with a great many moments of genuine suspense as The Devil movies along trying to escape detection but increasingly less concerned about his neat little M.O. of only killing middle-aged dudes on abandoned roads. By the end, he seems to be killing everyone who crosses his path if he thinks he can get away with it.

The acting is good, with The Gangster being played by Dong-seok Ma (the lovable star of Champion and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, among others) and what works well here is that while he’s intrinsically fairly charming his character’s ruthlessness is well portrayed here. I mean, he’s not a good guy, though he does have a code. At one point, this code requires him to personally extract an uppity underling’s front teeth manually. The Cop is played by Mu-yeol Kim, who had a role in the movie that started it* all, Warriors of the Dawn; He plays very well off Ma. The Devil is played by Sung-Kyu Kim who had a small role in The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, and is very solid here as a maniac.

Flunk

“Try not to look suspicious! Try not to look suspicious! Try not to look suspicious!”

It scales up to what are eventually fairly absurd levels, but it also brings everything back in with a character-based twist, as The Gangster and The Cop have to slug it out to see who gets The Devil, and ultimately have to work together, after a fashion. We enjoyed it a great deal. After the Doris Day double-feature, this was a similar case where we wished we had seen this first and Funan second—and not because Funan wasn’t good.

*In this case, “it” is the Korean movie watching.

 

Down By Law (1986)

The second movie in our Jarmuschian journey was, in the end, the best The Boy and I both agreed. We would be a duo for all four of these films, but of the four, this was probably the one we’d most likely recommend to more “normie” moviegoers.

Right?

Thee prisoners playing “Go Fish”. Delightful!

The story starts out threefold: First, Zack the pimp (John Lurie) is tricked into thinking he’s going to get a new girl only to discover that the girl is literally a girl—pre-pubsecent—just as the cops are walking in. Second, drunk and broken-hearted Jack (Tom Waits)—girlfriend Ellen Barkin throws him out after he loses his radio DJ job—takes an offer for a $1,000 to “just drive” a fancy car across town, only to be pulled over by the cops who have tipped off that there’s a dead body in the trunk. Finally, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who we see briefly prior to Tom Waits’ drive, soliciting information on how to speak American phrases properly—information the drunken Waits doesn’t really provide, as you might imagine.

Roberto is the last to come to the jail cell where Jack and Zack have met, and ironically he’s in for a murder which he actually did commit (unlike the other two who were set up). It’s essentially a self-defense situation but still: When a man throws a pool ball at you, you probably should think twice before throwing it back, especially if you’re a really good shot.

Or it's just an average day in N'orlens.

Tom Waits re-considers Ellen Barkin as a romantic option.

Jack and Zack are surly and competitive in weird ways, doing the tough guy prison schtick from day one. Roberto on the other hand is basically unleashed Benigni and he brings a lot of energy and humor to the story that keeps it from being quite as deadpan as the other Jarmusch flicks. For example, he starts a little riff on “scream” which ends up with them chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream”. It seems dopey but it raises to the level of a prison riot in a kind of hilarious fashion.

I sort of assumed the rest of the movie was going to take place in the tiny cell the three shared but much to my surprise there’s a second act where they break free from jail and end up floating around the bayou trying to keep away from the law. Jack and Zack continue their weird competition and surly ways with Benigni still vamping hilariously. (Benigni tells a story of how his mom served him his pet rabbit which is apparently a true life story.)

Sounds like a Linda Ronstadt song.

The three actually spend a fair amount of time floating in the bayou.

In the final act, they stumble across (of all things) an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, staffed by a lone, beautiful girl who just happens to be Nicoletta Braschi. Braschi, who would also appear in next week’s Jarmusch flick Mystery Train, is Benigni’s real life wife and was his co-star in Life is Beautiful. So it’s love at first site and surprisingly plausible given the “aesthetic imbalance”. And so Roberto finds a home deep in the bayou while Jack and Zack end up going their separate ways.

It’s the most lively of the films, and beautifully shot (in black-and-white as most Jarmusch movies of the time were). Lurie provides the music again, with songs by Wait. It’s not a tight movie by any means but it is engaging and worth a look. If you don’t like it, you probably aren’t going to like any Jarmusch.

How can you NOT love Benigni?

A happy ending for the guy who probably most deserves it?

John Wick 3: Parabellum

If you’ll recall, I had to go solo for the first John Wick movie, much to The Boy’s later dismay. But it looked like just-another-dopey-shooty-action-movie, and those are a hard sell for him. The Boy, The Flower and I all went to see John Wick 2, of course. I wasn’t sure that it was quite as good as the first one. Specifically, the expanded universe thing was fun but such things are always hazardous. (See: every sequel Pixar has ever made.) It seemed unlikely to me that the third movie in the Wick series would be anywhere near as good as the first two: Cinematic lightning, as we all know, almost never strikes three times. (The Toy Story trilogy is, I have argued, the only good trilogy in American cinematic history.)

I keed.

At an early dress rehearsal before they had guns.

So how was John Wick 3? Well, I thought it was okay, if a little dull. The Flower loved it. The Boy hated it.

And there you go. Our first three-way split since the Persian A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

I think we can agree that the opening fight scene was the best fight of the movie. It was excitingly choreographed and very much in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the movies. But The Boy and I both felt that after that, they seemed more like things that just happened in sequence. That might’ve been saved had the choreography been as engaging, but then again, perhaps the choreography couldn’t be as engaging because instead of hinting at a rich, mysterious history, we get little data points that remove the mystery without being especially clarifying.

For example, we find out Wick’s history: He seems to have been some sort of Slavic (Russian?) orphan who was raised in an assassin/ballet school by Anjelica Huston. He’s owed a number of favors, which is the only way he can survive now that he has been declared excommunicado. And to get out of his predicament, he has to go see the Big Cheese (I forget what they call him in the movie, but he’s the Big Bad, the Cheese, the Head Honcho of the Underworld), and he agrees to become a (metaphorical) dog to that guy.

(Shades of Matrix 2.)

That opening sequence is REALLY good.

Now, it had already taken us too long to get there. We had a whole unnecessary segment involving Halle Berry. She does okay but she doesn’t have Reeves elan as an action hero. (Catwoman should have been evidence enough for that.) But together they go visit a guy who, predictably, betrays them and yet despite being deep in his fortress, getting out for them is super easy, barely an inconvenience. It was one thing in the first movie when the Russian mobsters didn’t know they were dealing with John Wick, but here we’re talking about a general in this Underground army.

I feel like the second movie didn’t rely quite so heavily on disposable baddies. And in the long run this segment with Berry amounts to nothing, unless it pays off in the inevitable sequel.

But then, when you get there, I feel like Wick is diminished by dealing with the Big Boss. The secondary plot is that Mr. Big (Mr. Boss?) has sent his heavies around to all the people who helped John Wick, because that was in violation of the rules. Their fates seemed sort of random to us. The Adjuticator is played by Asia Kate Dillon, whose character is a dubious choice: She comes off like a hall monitor, ineffably smug because she’s protected by Mr. Big. This wasn’t fun, but I sort of imagine that it’s going to pay off in the next movie, when she is horribly murdered.

But that’s not a great payoff, honestly. Mostly, if Wick has an adversary worthy of the name, they’re more or less cool or menacing. Supercilious is a bad look. Given how many death sentences she delivers, it was inconceivable to me that one of them wouldn’t just kill her.

Probably what pushed me into the “Meh” category was the end, which I can’t discuss without SPOILERS, so beware if you care.

You end up wearing a suit in the desert.

This is what happens with no leash laws.

In the end, Winston (Ian McShane) does a heel turn, ambushing John Wick (who apparently lost his plot armor) and shooting him off the top of a building. So he’s riddled with bullets and falls 22 stories (the Flatiron building in NYC) but I don’t need to tell you he lives. None of this worked for me: Winston has put himself out for the entire movie, and the previous one, but all of a sudden flips on Wick. (Wick, by the way, was given the assignment to kill Winston, but instead defends him. And it’s only after this defense that McShane flips). It’s possible that this is a decoy heel turn—in fact, it seems impossible that it isn’t a decoy, but if so they’re cheating by selling this turn at points when no one (other than audience) is watching.

But if it’s not a decoy, John Wick was shot a bazillion times (though they have the super bullet-proof armor-cloth) and fell 22 stories. So he’s basically indestructible unless there was some secret plot to mitigate some of the apparent damage he took. I don’t see a good way out.

But when you get down to it, the battles are the song-and-dance of this movie, and that mostly didn’t work for me or The Boy. But it did work for The Flower, which probably gives you a sense of who is or isn’t going to like this.

Bill & Ted 3 gonna be LIT!

Don’t be Sad Keanu. We still love you.

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

The theme for the month of June was Jim Jarmusch—Jarmusch is on the loosh! as we would come to say—as a build up to the disastrous new film The Dead Don’t Die. I mean, I think we can say it’s disastrous, being critically meh’ed and publicly reviled, and raking in about $5M with a cast that includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and on and on. I’m guessing the budget was in the 8 digits, though at this point I can’t imagine a responsible person giving Jarmusch $10M to make a movie unless he was just a big fan and $10M was a trifle. I mean, I could see myself doing it if I had a $200M warchest, for example. (But not if I had to answer to stockholders.)

Or don't.

THRILL! To a couple of young people watching TV at night.

I’m not saying he’s bad, mind you. The Boy and I enjoyed all four of the films shown (which were all but his generally-regarded-as-best Night on Earth). N.B., however, that it was just the two of us—The Flower needs more motivation these days to stay out late—and we wouldn’t recommend the films for everyone. Stranger In Paradise was the weakest of the four films, one of the two “triptychs” (along with Mystery Train) though in this case tied together with the same three characters.

Part 1: Hungarian Eva stops by Cousin Willie’s (John Lurie, who did the music) place in New York City on her way to their aunt in Cleveland. Auntie has a hospital stay, however, and Eva stays with Willie for a week or two, smoking cigarettes and shoplifting. Though Willie is outright hostile at first, the very cute Eva (Eszter Ballint) wins him over, and especially wins over his pal Eddie. (Eddie is played by the very distinctive looking Richard Edson, who drove me nuts the whole movie because I recognized him from somewhere—at least, as I later learned, as the parking attendant in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.)

Something pop-new-techno-wave-romantic. I don't know music.

Very cute. Very ’80s. Looks like an album cover, doesn’t it?

Part 2: Willie and Eddie fresh of a hot gambling win (in which they cheated, natch) decide to go up to Cleveland and see Eva. They bum around Cleveland a while while the mildly disaffected Eva mildly rebuffs mild romantic overtures made by mild Cleveland co-workers from her fast-food job. Finally, they all get the idea to get out of the north for the Winter and head to Miami.

Part 3: The three make their way to a small Florida town only to have a bad day at the dog races and lose all their money. Eva, feeling abandoned because the boys leave her behind (she may not be entirely legal) hangs out on the local boardwalk wearing a dumb tourist hat. That hat coincidentally is the key sign for a drug drop off, and she ends up with a big wad of cash. She decides to go to Europe with it. When the boys return—they’ve had a good day gambling then and are celebrating—they realize she’s gone to the airport and go to get her before she flies off. Because it’s way pre-9/11, Willie actually gets on the plane to Budapest to pull her off. But Eva wanted to go to Europe, or basically anywhere but Budapest—and one wonders how plausible it is that this tiny airport has a direct flight to Budapest, but also only one flight a day to Paris—so she ends up back at the motel while Willie, presumably, ends up on his way to Budapest.

The end.

Stills.

I don’t think this is in the movie.

This is the very definition of low-key. It reminded me a lot of a Kevin Smith movie, in the way that it was shot black-and-white with people who seem like new actors or barely actors at all (first acting role for Edson, only acting role for Cecilia Stark, an actual Hungarian immigrant), and low-key. Where it’s different is that it lacks the verbal humor of Smith’s movies, but also feels more like a real movie overall. Yes, it’s shot in black-and-white, but lovingly so with tremendous attention to the backdrop. The music is moody, original, one-man-band kind of stuff, which is very characteristic of Jarmusch. (Also, the one-man-band is John Lurie, who stars here and provided the music for three of the four films we saw.)

And, as mentioned, it’s very low key. There are laughs but one must be patient. If you can’t enjoy the experience between the laughs, you probably won’t enjoy the whole thing. The later films are a more developed thematically and narrative-wise, but none of the four were ever in danger of delivering a message (kind of refreshing, really) and were more “series of things that happened” than anything tightly plotted.

Not for everyone, but strong enough to sell us on the next week’s film, Down By Law, which would turn out to be our favorite.

Movie trickery!

Look! Same shot different background! But if you’re getting the idea that there’s a lot of standing around cars and inside dingy little rooms, you have the right idea.

Love Me Or Leave Me (1955)

As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently), the ’50s aren’t really my time. I’m a pre-War guy, a lover of screwball comedies and proto-noir movies. But I also love the music: the crooners, the assorted sister acts, and the sometimes-generously-referred-to-as-“jazz” music. So here we have a movie from ’55 with that quintessentially ’50s movie star, Doris Day—but it’s about Ruth Etting who, along with Annette Hanshaw and Ethel Waters, was one of my favorite chanteuses of the time. So how could I miss?

Not a bad waistline, either.

Doris Day, once again vastly cuter than the woman she’s portraying.

Well, one way is to use music I wasn’t super familiar with. I was shocked that I only knew about half of the 20 or so songs. (I guess I’m not such a fan after all.) Another way is to “jazz it up” but not in the ’30s sense of jazz but in the ’50s sense of super-slick sound and styling, which I generally don’t like.

But these are quibbles because this movie turned out to be much more interesting and complex than I expected. (If still doubtless far less nuanced than the truth.) Very loosely based on a few startlingly real events, this is the story of Etting (Day) who climbs her way to the top with the help of a lame Jewish gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder, played by James Cagney. Etting is shown as a savvy girl but a little too confident she can manipulate Moe into helping her without a quid pro quo. He does, but ultimately browbeats her into marriage. (There’s little-to-no-line here between browbeating and actual beating.)

Go with your gut, sister.

Charming. And brutal.

There are however some subtle differences between being a gangster and being an entertainment manager, and Moe’s abrasive style and insecurities result in Ruth losing out on a dream job at the Follies, resulting in some heavy drinking and lamenting her lost (potential) lover, Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, once again looking smooth), who had been her accompanist in the early days. Things come to a head when she winds up in Hollywood shooting a film and meets up with said accompanist, which brings Moe’s jealousy to the surface. Then, shots are fired.

Parts of this are true: Moe did get her kicked out of the Follies and he did shoot her accompanist with whom she was romantically involved. (In real life, she was long separated from Moe when he shot Alderman, and she and Alderman had almost 30 happy and relatively peaceful years together.)

Even though this is Day’s double-feature (with Calamity Jane), this movie (which won a screenplay Oscar) is absolutely stolen by Cagney. He is a gangster, no doubt, but he’s also desperately in love with Etting and completely unable to work her. Indeed, part of his fascination has to be that he doesn’t really get what makes her tick. He knows she’s better than he is: She’s able to make it in society without beating the tar out of people. And he’s at turns defiant, piggish, brutal and heartbreakingly pathetic. Cagney would get an Oscar nom for this and would lose alongside Sinatra, Dean and Tracy to Ernest Borgnine’s Marty. (Another heartbreaking performance about a palooka, come to think of it.)

He’s so, so good. And the movie has a kind of classic, dark ’50s ending. Justice is served but Moe still has his day. I think we all agreed it was “better” than Calamity Jane, but it was also much heavier. I would definitely recommend it, but not for the reasons I went to see it: It’s worth it for Cagney alone.

The '60s must've been rough for him.

The great Cameron Mitchell gets the girl…again.

A Very Moral Night (1977)

We have pockets of slavs, which sounds sort of like an exotic fast food (Slav Pockets!) which is why we get oddball things like Russian flicks, Polish film festivals and then things like this: A Hungarian film being shown for no (obvious) reason in the middle of the week. Well, I asked, and it apparently there’s a guy who puts on a Hungarian film festival—that’s how many of these things there are, it’s impossible to keep track of all the film festivals—and he’s trying to keep the Hungarian energy going by showing a film, monthly, presumably to build up to the big event. This showing even featured an appearance from a star from this fun little ’70s flick, Egy erkölcsös éjszaka.

But maybe that's just Hungary.

The time-period seems to be “gilded age by way of ’70s porn”.

That translates into “A Moral Night” per Google, but the English title is “A Very Moral Night”, perhaps because we lack subtlety of mind or language. But a moral night it turns out to be, sorta.

The story, based on the novel “The Shroud House” from pre-Communist Hungary, is about a young doctor who is a bit of a gadabout but very popular with the girls of the local brothel. It’s never exactly clear why (although one of the girl’s suggests it is the generosity of his endowment, which seems kind of contra-indicated for a working girl) but it’s not that he’s handsome, smart, rich or even all that nice. Whatever the reason, they like him well enough for the Madam to realize that he could save some money and they could make some, if only he moved out of the town hotel (where he’s being gouged) and lived with them.

It’s an agreeable arrangement with only one caveat: His aunt, who sends him all his money, must never find out, as she is a very proper woman.

Amusingly enough, this fellow is so dissolute that even while he lives in the brothel, he spends most of his nights elsewhere, gambling and probably carousing amongst the amateurs and semi-professionals, and so he’s not around when the inevitable happens: His aunt shows up.

I mean, Chekov’s gun and all. What did you think was going to happen?

Human attraction is a bizarre thing.

He plays extreme favorites among the girls as well.

Partly out of greed, presumably, but mostly out of respect, the Madam doesn’t open the house for the evening and the girls all dress up to the best of their ability, and do their best to entertain the sweet old lady who is interesting and interested in modern life. (Life in the Hungarian countryside in, say, 1850 versus city life in 1930, e.g.) She’s also a wise problem solver who, honestly, the real question is: Does she figure it out or doesn’t she?

By the end of the night, the facade is cracking as the rowdy town officials come in looking for comfort, and she knows them or knows of them or their families, leading to another awkward round of social interactions. The actress (in her mid-’80s, if IMDB is to be believed) plays it very inscrutably. At one point, she’s talking to one of the girls who tries to commit suicide because she can’t marry her fiancee, and she’s acknowledging all of the problems (the girl’s occupation never entering into it) which has its own level of charm: They’re too close in age, they’re religiously mismatched, and so many things that Aunt Kelepei proposes solutions for and points out in 40 years, no one will care and those things won’t matter.

It’s charming. All’s well that ends well. Some good laughs, a rather shocking suicide attempt in one of the the worst possible ways. (Setting your room on fire and figuring you’ll get taken out with it.) Overall, fairly light of touch, and a little surprising to have come out of Hungary in the ’70s. But perhaps it reflects capitalistic decadence in a party way, or perhaps, like the Soviets, the spent Communist governments became increasingly unable to crush all the artists under their feet.

We rolled the dice, as The Boy would say, and were glad we did.

How could I NOT use it?

This lurid Italian poster for the movie bears little resemblance to anything that occurred on-screen, in the grand tradition of awesome Italian posters that make you want to see a crappy movie.

Calamity Jane (1953)

I could hardly resist a Doris Day double-feature, even if the ’50s are not my time, and even though this was not the film I was most intrigued to see. (Love Me Or Leave Me was the musical biopic that followed.) The Flower is increasingly tired of the fact that whenever we see one of these movies, the presenters have to point out that Day (or virtually any other female performer) was no shrinking violet, no mere mother and/or housewife, but a strong, defiant character with a lot to say about something or other. I believe, as one who aspires to wife and motherhood, she feels—correctly—that these ritualistic denunciations are meant to denigrate her aspirations.

But we can hardly blame Doris for this. She is absolutely terrific in this fine, if bland, musical romantic comedy where she plays the legendary Calamity Jane who befriends the more feminine Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) only to lose the apple of her eye, Lt. Gilmartin (Philip Carey) to her. But it all works out because she really loves Wild Bill Hickcock (the great Howard Keel, fresh off of playing the romantic lead in Annie Get Your Gun). And he loves her, smitten as he (and everyone else) is with the fetching Ms. Brown.

Whee!

Shortly before (or after) killing two (or five) Indians.

Right around 30 at this point, Day is an absolute pistol. She plays a blowhard “Calam” who is both respected and lightly mocked, and is by turns indifferent and offended by her own putative lack of femininity. She, of course, lacks nothing in the way of femininity. Oh, she walks with a nice swagger, she gets her voice down low and she wears buckskins throughout the movie but, no, at no point is it credible that people mistake her for a man. That’s okay, of course: No one is actually meant to. We’re only supposed to suspend belief long enough for her to believe she’s upset (intermittently) by it.

Calamity was no Annie Oakley: Her celebrity in part came from her relationship to Hickok and her various tall tales, though we only have her word that the two were ever married. This, like her alcoholism, has no place in a musical like this, wherein we’re free—nay, encouraged—to believe Keel and Day will live happily ever after. It’s quite charming and one of director David Butler’s better works. (Butler directed scores of movies, including quite a few others with Day, like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two. He would finish up in TV, directing “Leave it to Beaver” and that awful episode of “The Twilight Zone” where the hack writer summons Shakespeare to help him write teleplays.)

“I got to be in BOTH cowgirl movies.”

The music was fine. The best moments (to my ear) was the opening “Whip Crack Away” and the pseudo-meet-cute “I Can Do Without You” where Keel and Day demonstrate their intimate friendship by insulting each other, musically. The song “Secret Love” was a hit for Day and won the film an Oscar but I don’t recall it.

Interestingly enough, I think we all (The Boy, The Flower and I) agreed that the next film was better, but we wished we had seen this one first because it’s fun, light and frothy. Love Me Or Leave Me would be an entirely different beast altogether.

Cute gingham.

Dolled up.

Shadow

Ahhhhh. I was tempering the children’s expectations regarding this Zhang Yimou movie because it ranks well below House of Flying Daggers  (on the ratings sites) which in turn ranks well below Hero, but I needn’t have worried. We loved this tale of a changeling general (the titular “shadow”) who is being set up to overthrow his Lord (because the real general was stabbed by a master and seems to be dying) through some series of plot devices that involve defeating the same master who stabbed the real general.

In black-and-white-ish.

Meanwhile, a horse contemplates crossing a bridge.

I’m being vague here because it’s been a few weeks and the plot was very intricate but we were pleasantly surprised: We all followed the plot and could tell the characters apart. Impressive, given that two of the leads are played by Chao Deng. But the characters are so different, I kept wondering if it was the same person.

Anyway, there’s a lot going on. The Shadow is increasingly unsure of being a pawn in this game (which pretty much has to end up with him dying, even though the general teases him with the possibility of getting back to his mother after it’s all over). The general’s plan seems to be flawless if the Shadow can defeat the master but that’s a big if. Meanwhile, the general’s wife, while maintaining a respectful distance, does seem to be getting more attracted to the Shadow—who after all is identical to her husband, except maybe less of a jerk. Meanwhile, the wife ends up coming up with the strategy that can defeat the master, and it involves…weaponized umbrellas!

Doesn't keep out the rain for shit, either.

That is one nasty bumbershoot!

It’s great. The indoor shots and a few of the battle scenes are filmed in black-and-white (probably color corrected after the fact), though the (obligatory) bamboo forest scene is a verdant green. It’s just a beautiful film, is what I’m saying, and it’s not just anyone who could make a battle scene involving an army of women with parasols work. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who could do it.

So, the set design is wonderful, the camerawork wonderful, the wire work amazing—though not over the top, which I appreciated, because the sort of super-heroic character implicit in the flying hero would’ve undermined the need for a solid battle strategy. The choreography is fun and the plot is engaging. The acting is good, kind of Shakespearean, with its weak kings and power mad generals. The stars are good looking and otherwise appealing. What more could you want? Music? The music is also really good, with drums and zithers dominating. (The stage name of the composer is, amusingly,”Loudboy”, although there’s some controversy over whether or not he plagiarized the work.)

Though it was trouble from the start, tbh.

Trouble a-brewin’.

Almost two hours long, but it’s thick. The ending…is probably not a people-pleaser. The three men are locked in a struggle, while the general’s wife has to figure out what her role in this is going to be. I liked getting to the end, and so was less invested in the details of the story’s resolution. I did see a couple of the twists coming (as did The Flower), but not all of them.

A lot of fun. Pure historical soap with kung-fu action. Don’t know why it didn’t do better.

YOU be the judge!

Deadly umbrella squad or scrubbing bubbles?

 

The Sixth Sense (1999)

I have theorized over the years that M. Night Shyamalan’s success was sort of accidental. It’s an observation (and not an insult) that sometimes artists put things together in a way that accidentally appeals to the zeitgeist which isn’t necessarily characteristic of their body of work. For example, R. Crumb is not someone whose art would generally be even acceptable in the mainstream, not as a matter of quality so much as content. But “Keep On Truckin'” spoke to a generation, apparently, and there you are. Another example: I knew when “Twin Peaks” became the hot ticket TV show of 1990, people were largely going to end up disappointed. They thought they were watching  a murder mystery while anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work could tell you this was not a man who was going to make a murder mystery.

On the movie front, there’s Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly gives us a kind of murky story about alternate realities and heroic sacrifice that works in spite of its dangerous cavorting with the sort of philosophical questions that can make a movie unbearable. It was no surprise that The Box, which actually literalizes  a hoary philosophical question, was generally regarded as unsuccessful. (I find it strangely compelling, like Frank Miller’s The Spirit, while note being able to shake the feeling that it’s awful the whole time—but “compellingly bad movies” is a great topic for another day.)

I mean the one Osmont is wearing.

Just wanna point out that that is a GREAT toupee.

And so, with Shyamalan, I have often wondered that perhaps the elements that make up his style aren’t the sorts of things that would generally be very successful, and it’s just a coincidence that he became so staggeringly huge all at once, only to have one of the most depressing career arcs since Julius became Caesar. And The Sixth Sense was huge. It was #2 at the box office in 1999, coming in second to The Phantom Menace—and people still actually like this movie. It comfortably beat out Toy Story 2Austin Powers 2 and made $100M more than the other really iconic movie that year, The Matrix.

I should note that there will be spoilers here, even though you nearly-29 year olds probably saw this on cable after it had already been spoiled. And it’s interesting to note that the trailers themselves spoil the movie.

I wish.

In a deleted scene, Osment swings his door out to whack the biker as she rides by.

I see dead people.

That’s actually a spoiler. It’s about 45 minutes into the movie and we’re not really aware of what’s going on with this kid, or we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t all seen the commercials. Pissed me off the first time I saw and it still pisses me off today.

The Big Spoiler, of course, is one of the biggest twists since Keyser Soze discovered his sled had a penis, and it is repeated and parodied far-and-wide. As “King of the Hill”‘s Lucky (voiced by the late, great Tom Petty) once said, “The worst thing you can yell in a theater is not ‘Fire!’, it’s ‘Bruce Willis is dead!'” So with the big twists out of the way—and I happily confess to not seeing this one coming at the time—the question remains, is this a good movie? Or, more than just good, if you take away the gimmick, could it still earn its success? The only one of us who hadn’t seen it was The Barb, and she is well-spoiled on basically every movie twist because that’s just how you make YouTube videos: By spoiling everything.

And, here’s the thing, with the Big Twist out of the way, it’s actually a much better movie. (How’s that for a twist!)

The build up to the twist—the sleight-of-hand that prevents you from seeing it—is actually sort of rickety. I remember someone complaining at the time that there are a lot of odd tropes abused by The Sixth Sense that (if you don’t overlook them) make it seem like you’re watching a very sloppy film. And I remember when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Huh. That was odd. That doesn’t make much sense. Why is that happening?” And I did overlook them and so was pleasantly duped.

I mean...I guess?

Everything on the Internet tells me this is Donny Wahlberg. I cannot process.

But watching it again and knowing actually makes the movie much, much better. Because you know Dr. Crowe is dead even though he doesn’t, all of the scenes where people are ignoring him, his alienation from his wife, his ultimate grief at his own failure—they become much more poignant. And this is the best acting from Willis since probably Death Becomes Her (1992). The acting is great all around, although given about twenty years between this and Hereditary, I think we can agree that Toni Colette’s been typecast.

But Willis and Haley Joel Osment have to carry this film, and a few wags have pointed out that Osment gave his defining performance the same year poor Jake Lloyd gave his. A fair degree of credit can be given (in both cases) to their directors, and one thing Shyamalan has done consistently over the years is get good work out of kids. Too, Willis seems to lack the compulsive need to be the center of attention all the time, a compulsion which makes for jangly moments in other movies where the star seems to be in competition with his child co-star. (W.C. Fields’ classic warning comes to mind.)

All this adds up to the fact that the Big Reveal still works. Obviously, you can’t be surprised by it, but as a dramatic moment of realization, when you’re not going back over the whole movie in your head to see if you were cheated, it makes an arguably more powerful moment and certainly a more enduring one.

So, what I’d probably say at this point is that Shyamalan’s success isn’t accidental, but it did sort of ruin him as he increasingly reached farther and farther trying to capture the surprise that wasn’t even the best part of his movie. And the ironic twist here may be that it was his relative obscurity that made it possible: If the audience knew there was going to be twist in this movie, they would’ve figured it out—as we all pretty much ended up doing for all his subsequent films.

Good actress!

Toni Colette got to stretch out in that Showtime series where she had multiple personalities, at least.

Domovoy

We have enough Russians in our neighborhood to occasionally warrant showing a contemporary Russian pop film, like the much enjoyed T-34 (protested as an act of “Russian Collusion”, if only half-heartedly) and on this particular Thursday, a charming little family film called Domovoy. Literally translated, “domovoy” means “god of the house”—a tradition found in other pagan cultures—but you can loosely translate it as “House Elf” and now you’ve got yourself a Harry Potter-sounding tie-in. Fun for the whole family.

Devooshki!

Pretty Russian girls!

And, actually, this is pretty darn good. Which, really, is kind of impressive because there are many opportunities for it to be bad, and it sidesteps them neatly.

The story is that a lovely single working mom leases a fancy, suspiciously-underpriced-but-still-more-than-she-can-reasonably-afford-so-she-has-to-hit-up-her-creepy-boss, apartment not realizing that the realtor has a deal with the domovoy to enchant her and her daughter so that they love it, and then to drive them out within a few weeks so she can least it again before the year is up. So, it’s a classic haunted house story with a classic Russian corruption angle.

In this case, the mom has a daughter, however, and the daughter is enchanted by the idea of having a ghostly pal, so she makes overtures which the domovoy responds to—even while trying to drive them out. The mom’s job is increasingly at risk, and this isn’t even the worst of their problems. It turns out that one of the former tenants of the room was a thief and the domovoy capriciously moved his treasure which is still buried somewhere under the floorboards. An evil witch knows this and has pressed her son into helping her get said treasure. Her son would rather just canoodle with his trashy girlfriend (hey, family movie or not, it’s still Russia) but he ultimately joins her plan to his ultimate sorrow.

Stereotypes don't spring up out of nowhere, usually.

Playing chess with the house elf because, hey, you’re Russian.

While this is going on the mom puts her foot down and refuses to leave the apartment as the domovoy increasingly messes with her life. Little things like turning off her alarm clock, e.g., or defacing her work, giving creepy boss increasing reason to put pressure on her and—because she’s not that kind of woman—finally fire her. But this rebounds against the little girl, as well, giving our house god a little conflict.

Ultimately we find out that a domovoy isn’t really so much a feature of a house as it is a family. (Indeed, the true tradition seems to be rooted in the idea of beloved ancestors, much like the ones we see in Korea and China.) And when his family left without him, breaking his heart, he got bitter. After that, the families coming into the apartment were all varieties of bad, dysfunctional, abusive (a little rough for a family film, but again: Russia) and our impish spirit gets meaner and meaner and decides he’s going to protect the kvartira rather than the family.

Well, that’s a pretty good story right there, and a pretty good explication of degradation: The fall from being a helpful member of a group to just hating everyone and protecting your stuff, which itself just deteriorates.

Or an '80s throwback.

Pictured: Things deteriorating.

But that said, it really works because it balances its various ingredients well. There’s a very broad scene early on with the fat realtor that makes you worry that the whole thing is going to be cheap slapstick (and is kind of painful for the whole “couldn’t find a stunt man that matched her body shape” thing we see occasionally), but while there’s some broad action and comedy later, it doesn’t go back to that well. And then you get the little girl and you wonder if maybe they’re going to lean on the cute factor, but they don’t do that particularly. There’s a little salt and a little pepper in there, not just sugar.

They could go fierce, independent woman—and probably would have in the western world—but there’s a great mix from the actress of strength and vulnerability. Her resilience as far as living with an actual poltergeist is pretty top-notch, but every now and again she breaks down and gets overwhelmed. Fair. No love interest per se but the only statement that makes is “we’re keeping the story lean”. (There is the implication of romance at the end of the film but it’s not detailed.)

Could be a brother, though.

In fact, it’s literally just the presence of this out-of-focus masculine figure in the foreground.

Oh, yeah, and the big element here that kind of powers things is the cat. (You know, like Captain Marvel.) The cat can see and can talk to the domovoy and the two (naturally) hate each other. I don’t think I need to detail all the ways a talking cat can go wrong. (The guys at Rifftrax have you covered, though, if you’re interested.) In this case, the cat is really necessary to keeping the story dynamic and the motivations of the characters clear. It has some minimal impact on the plot: In the few situations where it could really help, it can’t do much because, you know, cat. But the voice is good, and you end up rating it as you might any comic relief character in a movie: It has a lot of jokes and gags, and some of them don’t work, but a lot of them do.

It ends up seeming less like a novelty where someone said “Let’s put a cat in there! The kids love cats!” and more like a necessary part of the story. That’s what you shoot for in this kind of thing.

The CGI is somewhat cheap by Hollywood standards but it reads well and (like a lot of the Asian movies) is more interested in winning you over with its style than trying to fool you. English composer Gary Judd wrote the score. I liked it.

Director Evgeniy Bedarev seems to be primarily a TV director, and not necessarily family-oriented, but he used the right touch here and I hope we see more of his work.

I kid DeCoteau but he can be very disappointing.

“Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau. Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau. Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Proving once again that Chinese filmmakers can pull a fast one on a par with any American studio, distribution and promotion for this Chinese art film was akin to that of a standard blockbuster/date movie and it took in a whopping—oh, hell, I don’t know—ton of money on the first day when people didn’t realize what it was. Then it crashed but, hey, no refunds. They say most of its B.O. was from that initial rush.

If you're Ed Gein.

Doesn’t it just scream “GREAT DATE MOVIE”?

That aside, how is it? Or maybe more to the point, what is it? It reminded me greatly of another Chinese art film from 15(!) years ago called 2046. Which is no help at all if you’re not one of the six people who saw that movie. But basically, it’s a dream-like narrative which roughly follows the story of a once young man who left his hometown and lost his girl on the night his best friend was murdered, possibly by him or her, and his dad dies and the baby he would’ve had with his girl she aborts and then it all goes 3D and the boy’s there all those years later in a metaphorical death trap which is probably pretty literal except nothing is very literal and then he meets a girl who’s sort of like his other girl but not really and they fly (literally, or as literal as anything is here) and that hourlong 3D shot at the end is continuous like Birdman and…

Hell, I don’t know. There are a lot of threads here. And it’s probably not meant to be sussed out in any traditionally coherent way.

Beats me.

Limbo, possibly. Mambo, unlikely.

This is one of those movies that The Boy and I both kinda liked but wouldn’t recommend to a lot of people. It’s “challenging”, as they say. And it gets hard to hang on to anything because while there are themes of love, loss, familial obligation, the meaning of life, magic, they are themes rather than straight up narrative experiences. So you have to work a little harder on the one hand while on the other, it’s also Chinese which means you have to suss out when you’re missing something because it’s Chinese or because it’s just not there.

I think what kept us engaged was that it never quite crossed the line (for us) into self-indulgence. There are a lot of related images and themes that recur and that gave you something to ponder or to absorb. Like a big part of the theme was women: At one point there was ambiguity about a character who was his mother, who blended in with his missing girlfriend, who later re-appears in the story by not re-appearing but having left another guy and a child behind (who might not be the guy’s), and then a low-rent pool hall girl who kind of looks like her but isn’t her and a different, older low-rent woman whom he both protects and harms in the same moment who’s sort of motherly and sort of girlfriend-y.

I mean, it’s just not what you might call a left-brain movie. Take it in and get what you can out of it. The 3D is pretty effective, which is not something I say lightly. It’s only 110 minutes long per the spec sheet—but you will feel each of those minutes.

But where's the "long day's journey" part?

I do think it’s literally night the whole time, though.

Savage

We were headed down to see the Chinese version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night which, literally, you could not connect to the Eugene O’Neill on a bet, but before it was airing there was this intriguing flick about high-stakes brinksmanship in the snowy mountains after a heist gone wrong.

Prove me wrong.

Who invited the deer? They always screw up heists!

The story is this: our heroes, cops in a small alpine town who are both romantically attracted to the same girl, pull over to help some strangers lost on a back road. What they don’t know (but we do) is that these guys just murdered some people in order to heist some gold, and their accidental encounter will result in one being killed, and the other nearly being killed and feeling very guilty. So guilty that he can’t even pursue the girl any more, even though she was maybe more interested in him in the first place.

Flash forward a year and she’s getting ready to leave town for good (unless he stops her) but the real fly in the ointment is our burglars are back in action after hiding out and waiting for…I think they’re waiting for the winter again because the only way they can get the gold is by sliding it across the ice. Hardly matters. The point is, they’re sniffing around while our morose sheriff sees a chance for (partial) redemption if he can bring these guys to justice. Or at least kill them.

I mean, he doesn't even dry off before leaving.

The trailer plays it up, but this is literally the only kissing in the movie and it’s over within seconds.

A lot of good tension. People in rooms with other people who want to kill them. Or who might want to kill them if the opportunity arises. Or who seem to be harmless but that’s a lot of gold, man, and you know how people get around lots of gold.

Although it’s very straightforward, even plain (though not ugly or poorly shot), it excels by giving everyone a fleshed out feeling. You get to know your characters, sometimes after only a few brief scenes. That’s quality filmmaking right there. So if it didn’t knock our socks off, we were entertained in a conventional way and found much to like.

Long Day’s Journey would turn out to be another story.

Audience reaction to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.

True Grit (1969)

“Fill your hands you son of a bitch!” swears John Wayne iconically. He was against salty language in his movies, generally, but felt it was appropriate for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, one of the rare times where there’s a movie and a remake, and the movies are substantially different but both great. The original True Grit is often said to be marred by certain acting performances (*kaff*GlenCampbell*kaff*) but I didn’t find it to be as bad in that regard as I recalled. Certain performances are highly stylized to be sure but they were probably more affected in the remake.

Talk first, THEN put the rein in your mouth.

“Fmmm mmrr hanf moo fun vvva vich”

True Grit is the tale of young Mattie Ross who sets out to avenge her beloved papa after he’s murdered by the drunkard whose life he’s trying to save. She’s a tough bird, bargaining Strother Martin under the table and wielding her powerful attorney street cred around like a bull whip. (In a perfect touch, we learn that her lawyer, “Lawyer Daggett” is none other than Winnie The Pooh himself, John Fiedler.) Given her choice of Marshalls to go after the reprobate who killed her father, she picks the most murderous one, Rooster. Meanwhile, the callow La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) joins their mini-posse, and the three wander around the increasingly less wild West trying to hunt down the murderous Tom Chaney (great, ubiquitous character actor Jeff Corey, who was probably on every TV show in the ’60s and ’70s at least once).

Robert Duvall, not yet a breakout star, has a role as an outlaw who ends up on the wrong side of the Cogburn and La Boeuf’s firearms only to be saved by a loyal gang member he immediately sacrifices.  (But that poor soul has nothing on Dennis Hopper, who has a small role as someone who has chosen his associates poorly.) Kim Darby, who plays Mattie, was twenty-two at the time, but is perfectly believable here. (Darby was also the eponymous pubescent girl less than three years earlier from the Star Trek episode “Miri”.)

It works out.

She’s 22. He’s immortal.

I don’t have a lot to say about the film, really: Even though it’s over two hours, the time flies by. Darby’s Mattie is certainly softer and more sentimental than Hallee Steinfeld’s although we can certainly place that at the feet of the Coen brothers and the times. This would be one of director Henry Hathaway’s last films, and is probably generally considered his best, although How The West Was One has a certain cachet.

Great score by Elmer Bernstein, though I’m not sure Airplane! could ever be topped. By anyone.

Ahh-oooooh!

And Glen Campbell’s hair was FABULOUS!

The Curse of La Llorona

You know, you get this AMC Stubs membership and you only have to find two shows a month to break even. The challenge, of course, is finding two shows. (Fortunately our real-Chinatown theater is an AMC so if we head out there, it’s good for one to three flicks a trip.) But The Boy and I love us some horror and it doesn’t have to be that good, even, as long as it does something good. A lot of horror movies manage a good atmosphere, for example, and some manage some decent suspense, while a few turn out some good funhouse horror effects. But I just told The Boy I was going and he said, “OK.” and hopped on board.

Product needed!

Stubs is a regular monkey’s paw, it is.

We sort of turned and looked at each other in surprise when we realized this was part of the, uh, Conjureverse? The Warren Cinematic Universe? It’s a movie that refers tangentially to the Warrens, who are the central hubs of the Conjuring movies, Annabelle movies and a few oddballs like this one, I guess. In fact, before they were referenced, I was thinking to myself, “Holy crap, they’ve cribbed a lot of tricks from the Insidious/Conjuring guys…” But good tricks are good tricks, while they last, and this movie has a few.

The story is a basic, classic ghost story type where a woman (the titular La Llorona) murders her own children to get back at her philandering husband, but ends up paying the price in grief, and haunting the earthly plane for surrogates for the children she drowned—so she can then drown those, I guess.

Ghosts are dumb.

“I’ve been taking Mommy & Me classes just for this occasion!”

Looks, if ghosts were rational, they’d, y’know, just haunt journalists and get them to write their stories. Or, I don’t know, these days they could blog. Whatever. Going around rattling chains and murdering children doesn’t get you the sympathy you’d hope for, if you were a ghost.

This movie takes place in the ’70s—I don’t think the Conjureverse extends much later—when a well-meaning, widowed social worker (Linda Cardellini) ends up getting troubled mom (Patricia Velasquez, the hot-but-evil princess in the 1999 The Mummy) hauled in to one of Los Angeles finest family facilities, where she is unable to protect her children from La Llorona. Because, La Llorona, am I right? What is that, even? When they’re killed she sics the vengeful spirit on the widow and Bob’s Your Uncle. And La Llorona’s your revenant.

Cliche, OMG.

He’s a priest who doesn’t play by the Good Book.

It’s…okay. The lack of logic anywhere defuses most of the tension. You know, pretty solidly and basically right away, that the ghost’s destructive antics are going to stop right where the plot needs them to, as there are no limits to its spectral powers that are ascertainable. It’s got a pretty nice third act finish, however, as they bring in an exorcist ex-priest (the great Raymond Cruz, who was in that show you liked). This creates a little structure that the movie sorely needs, and facilitates a genuinely solid third act twist.

Some of my enjoyment of this movie was tempered by me thinking, “Man, Ellen Page looks old. I mean, she looks good and she’s doing a great job acting, but…” Well, of course, finding out it was actually Linda Cardellini made all the difference there. But it does kind of tell you I wasn’t super-engaged.

I mean, it’s the sort of mainline horror you expect these days: Well produced and acted but lacking in a lot of the more visceral scares that make horror movies legendary, or even memorable.

Yeah, I never said I wasn't a dope.

Pictured: Not Ellen Page

The Crow (1994)

Any mention of this tragic 1994 Brandon Lee movie results in me going into my South-Park-Satan routine, “You guys…nobody dress up as The Crow…” because really all I’ve ever known about this movie is that its lead character became the default douchebag Halloween costume of the ’90s. That and the director Alex Proyas would go on to direct Dark City which didn’t give me seizures, but made me wish I were susceptible to them.

"You guysssss...."

“Do the stupid South Park voice. Do it!”

I tamped down expectations but told The Flower whatever else about it, she might enjoy the visual style. This was not enough to induce her to come out as she was approaching her 18th birthday and, as she assures me is true of all young girls coming of age, she wants to be sure she’s ready to become a responsible member of society. So she goes to bed early and makes sure she studies her Bible diligently.

Anyway.

This is an odd, odd movie. It’s based on a comic book back when that wasn’t very common, and I feel like I need to go read the comic book to see if the weirdness is in there or if it was just that kind of strange undead-superhero-buddy-cop mashup from the go.

Overall, it’s…okay.

Birds, man.

Not an actual crow, but a raven. I guess.

The movie begins with the crime scene where Eric Draven and his girlfriend have been assaulted and murdered, but in the case of Draven it doesn’t take, and he wanders the city seeking revenge on his killers. On the one hand, I salute the in media res approach because why do we need to see another origin story (even in 1994 it was old hat) and also I hate the rape-murder scenes that fuel this kind of movie.

On the other hand, it’s curiously distancing. We don’t really know Eric or Shelly—and we barely get to know the former while not learning anything at all about the latter—so we end up with a basic supernatural revenant story where the hero chooses (for some unknown reason) to wear mime makeup. Ernie Hudson grounds the movie (as he often does) as a too-honest-for-the-city busted-down-to-seargent beat cop, but there’s not a lot of time for him.

Basically, then, we’re witness to a series of murders which are vengeance for those other murders. The bad guys are a mixed bag, as far as their own characters go. Like, I remember Jon Polito, because he’s Jon Polito doing his Jon Polito thing. (Think more The Big Lebowski and less Miller’s Crossing.) So too with David Patrick Kelly (most famous for being Luther in The Warriors). Bai Ling is creepy good but probably with more emphasis on the creepy, and Michael Wincott as the Big Boss is kind of generic. In fact, I went the whole movie thinking to myself, “Hey, is that James Remar? I think it is! Do I like James Remar? I never know until the show is over.”

This usually only happens in movies that James Remar is actually in.

Yeah, she doesn't look anything like Yeoh.

Pictured: Not James Remar with Not Michelle Yeoh

Another thing about this movie is its fakeness. The thing about all the aforementioned characters and especially Rochelle Davis (as Sarah, the young teen who was friends with the Dravens and becomes a friend to Eric in his afterlife) is that they all feel like props. It’s not the actors, really. And, more to the point, it’s not all bad. Proyas is going for stylized archetypes and it works surprisingly well in some places and less surprisingly not so well in others.

Like, the city itself is a mashup of miniatures, composition and CGI that looks completely artificial but not in a bad way. It communicates the surroundings well and you get more of a sense of space in this movie than you do in the modern CGI slugfests. But as the proceedings wear on the 2-dimensionality of everything gets increasingly evident. Like, the city seems to have no purpose or function. There are bad guys running the show, apparently, but there’s no indication that there is anything like normal human activity going on, with on exception: After we learn that the night before Halloween is like a mini-purge with criminals running amok, and that this is the night the Dravens were killed, and after seeing nothing but seedy, criminal and violent activities, a waning Draven is startled by images of monsters—only to realize they’re just happy-go-lucky kids on their way to a Halloween party.

Wait. Wut?

I liked it, though.

In a tiny metal pan in front of a too-close matte.

How does that happen? I mean, if we presume that there is, e.g., a good part of town where the privileged people live, that’s all well and good—but this all happens in the same dump with the dive bars and drug violence and so on.

It’s fine to be stylized. Even highly so. You could argue that this is the sort of trope that comic books work on, especially the darker, grittier comics of the late ’80s/early ’90s, like The Dark Knight Returns. But it jangles here.

Also, people are a little more dense than seems right. Like, a room full of baddies has an obscured, open field to fire all their weapons at Draven, and doing so fails to kill him. So then they spend the next few minutes trying to shoot him even more as he kills them. I dunno. Just seems dumb.

It’s not bad and some of the places where it gets things right are very cool. The Boy and I were glad we saw it, even, but I was pretty sure The Flower had made the right choice for her.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

In my most recent look at It’s A Wonderful Life, I referred to Gloria Grahame as “aggressively heterosexual”, a statement I stand by. That said, I hadn’t seen anything yet, because if that label applies to anything, it applies to a musical based on the Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. We happened to catch a viewing with Russ Tamblyn talking beforehand—the second actor from West Side Story we’ve seen in person, and with the Flower having the same response of “I wish they would do the Q&A after so I knew if these guys were any good”—and he and the host spoke in cautious, nearly whispered tones about how the movie would not be possible in modern times.

Can we stop saying “modern” and start saying “repressive”? Because it feels more repressive than modern to me.

Beautiful hides, indeed.

When I was a kid, six girls in their skivvies mean there was an axe murderer nearby.

Russ Tamblyn said the movie was premised on this peculiar circumstance: Gene Kelly, apparently, preferred to use gay men for his backup dancers so that he would be the focus of (female) attention during the dance numbers. So what if, Tamblyn mused, we made a movie where the dancers were all straight? Hold that thought; we’re going to revisit it.

This is the plucky story of a mountain man named Adam who comes into town looking for a wife. He is utterly confident that he will find one—he’s willing to trade his mule, after all!—and he stumbles across the small-but-feisty Jane Powell who is adorable and can cook, and seeing a chance to get out from under the grind of serving a bunch of ungrateful, demanding men, agrees to go along with him.

When she gets to Adam’s cabin, of course, she finds out that Adam has six brothers and they live like animals. But on seeing Jane Powell, they all decide they want wives, too, so she teaches them, Snow White-style, how to behave a little better and not eat like pigs, and about the sorts of things that women like in men. It’s the classic dynamic between the sexes, which is borne out by the fact that when the boys go to a barn-raising/dance they easily woo the women of their dreams away from their soft townie rivals.

Dopey, grumpy, sleepy...

The color coordination, while wholly anachronistic, helps you tell the brothers apart.

Now, nobody in 2019 has much to say about 19th century men in the wilds of Oregon, even if they are in a “town”, but compared to the Mountain Men, they are sissified. The movie does this very well, with the brothers being charming but not too smooth around the edges in a way that is beguiling to the nubile town girls and convincing to the audience. Naturally, their rivals (who had presumed they were going to marry these girls and were therefore perhaps a little lax in their pursuit of same) take considerable offense to this and start a ruckus to get the brothers kicked out of town.

The brothers, coincidentally, have only two books: The Bible (of course) and a collection of Plutarch which tells the story of the Rape of the Sabine. The word “rape” in this context of course means “abduction” but the idea that you could even use that definition of the word today without hysteria is unfounded. And to have the heroes of the movie rape the town? Literally impossible to imagine today. They even mock the emotional state of the women by pronouncing “Sabine” as “sobbin'” in one of the more memorable songs.

It is utterly charming. The oafish boys steal “their girls”—who were (and still are) attracted to them—are nonetheless understandably frightened, angered and just generally put out by this behavior. Milly, Adam’s wife, is particularly outraged and takes the girls’ parts, keeping them isolated in the house away from the boys. However, not too much mischief can go on because the farm is snowed in—and they forgot to kidnap the preacher so they could get married.

I mean.

What?

Winter’s gonna be long. And it’s gonna be hard.

Now, obviously…obviously…the rest of the movie is the boys successfully wooing the girls back, while the girls fret over a pregnant Milly and Adam traps (and sulks) in a tiny mountaintop shed. But at the end of the third act, the snow melts and the angry townspeople come back to get their women and to lynch the boys for their audacity. This is an amazing balancing act, I think. The movie acknowledges the crime, but as an essentially light-hearted romcom-type musical, it has to have a way back. But even logically knowing the movie could not end with seven hangings, I really was concerned. How do they get out of this mess?

A cute little bit of jujitsu, is all I’ll say. But this is a must-see for the non-triggered.

The music is pleasant but not legendary. “Goin’ Courtin'” is probably the only one I knew. The lyrics’ high applicability to the circumstances of the story make it less applicable to general use, I suppose. Johnny Mercer’s lyrics are fun but I’ve forgotten most of the actual music by now. Besides “Courtin'” I remember “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” and “Lonseome Polecat” with its hints of what lonely men do with sheep. Heh.

Catwoman!

Something about Julie Newmar always stands out.

The dance numbers are fantastic. Whether Tamblyn was playing up the Gene Kelly thing or not, these were the most rousing, masculine numbers you’d see outside of maybe those Russian folk dancers. Director Stanley Donen wanted seven good dancers and the studio said he could have four. The other two were kept in the background, but the third was Russ Tamblyn who was not a dancer but an acrobat/tumbler. Because he was still learning steps, the scene where Jane Powell teaches them all to dance looks very authentic—the other guys are fluid, long-time pros, and Tamblyn (who was around 18 at the time) is just jumping around like a puppy dog, hitting the moves but with the energy and choppiness of a beginner.

Of course we all adored this. Howard Keel as Adam comes across like a non-satirical (non-evil) version of Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston, and there’s some real chemistry between him and Powell. Of the six future sister-in-laws, one immediately jumped to the foreground, for obvious reasons: The saucy Dorcas, played by Catwoman herself, Julie Newmar.

But it’s that kind of movie. Men bein’ men. Women bein’ women. Nobody getting too upset for too long, or played for laughs if they do. It’s an unabashed and transgressive testament to heterosexuality.

No one spits like Gaston.

“There she is LeFou! The lucky girl I’m going to marry!”

 

Pillow Talk (1959)

So here is a movie I’ve avoided for years, because by this point in Hollywood history, the romcom is getting increasingly licentious and overt, and kinda gross. And taken as a harbinger of what’s to come, yeah, Pillow Talk is squarely in that category with a tomcatting Rock Hudson wooing an uptight 37-year-old Doris Day. But as an isolated film, it’s pretty cute. And while Doris Day was way too old for the part, she could’ve pulled it off except, as The Flower noted, the fashions of the era were not the older woman’s friend. (Of course, Day does pull it off because we, the audience, politely don’t notice her age.)

What?!

Or that Rock is actually checking out the cameraman.

The story is that Hudson and Day share a party line and she can’t ever make calls because he’s busy wooing women over the phone. Her frustration leads to a contretemps where he basically accuses her of not getting any, and I guess that’s close enough to home that it gets under her skin. Later, of course, he sees her, falls in love, but realizes he can’t possibly admit who he really is, ’cause he’s been such a jerk to her. This leads to a series of amusing torments he inflicts on her with his asymmetrical information.

It’s cute. Not great, but cute. Rock makes a convincing heterosexual. Tony Randall does not. (Though he is also charming in this.)

Old dad couldn’t keep his mouth shut, of course. I mentioned that it was ironic that Hudson did one of his bits as a flaming stereotype. She inquired as to why that was ironic and I had to break the news to her. She was…disappointed. “Other girls got Rock for two decades! I only had him for two hours!”

In my defense, I don’t quite get the appeal.

Well, maybe I get it a little.

I guess if you like strong jaws, full heads of hair, broad shoulders….

A subplot with Thelma Ritter has her being oblivious to the affections of Allen Jenkins, the elevator operator. Thelma Ritter, of course, comes up all the time in our viewing, even for just a moment. But Jenkins was also a mainstay of TV and movies for decades, one of those guys (if you’re of a certain age), you see and say “Hey, it’s that guy!”

Director Jack Gordon would go on to direct the James Garner/Doris Day vehicle Move Over, Darling, which is probably also fine and cute.

I guess my thing is I compare them to the great romcoms of the late ’30s/early ’40s. And compared to that…

Too many hungry people losing weight.

Too many people, sharing party lines.

The Pink Panther (1963)

The second feature in our Clouseau double-feature was actually the first Clouseau movie, The Pink Panther. But the funny thing about that is that The Pink Panther is not really an Inspector Clouseau movie. It’s a competent (if a little staid by modern standards) caper film wherein cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven) has had his girlfriend (Capucine) marry the bumbling French inspector Clouseau so that he can get away with his thieving shenanigans.

The screenplay is so very French, you’d think it was written by a Frenchman. And indeed it was: Maurice Richlin, who also wrote the suspiciously French-feeling Pillow Talk co-wrote this tale of seduction and thievery.

But who is REALLY the fool? Yeah, still Clouseau.

Capucine plays Our Man for a fool.

It’s very clear that the hero of the story (or anti-hero) is supposed to have been The Phantom, and we spend a lot of time with Niven in his conquest of The Princess (Claudia Cardinale) which, again, is competently done. And in the original script, Clouseau (originally to be played by Peter Ustinov) was more of a patsy than a buffoon. Sellers’ improvisations (and Edwards’ encouragement of same) created the character would immediately dominate the series.

And it’s easy to see why: Without Sellers’ Clouseau, it’s a bland, fun early ’60s crime caper with sort-of Bondian overtones. If you didn’t actually forget it, it would probably blur pleasantly in your memory with other films of the era. And then Sellers shows up and there’s magic. (Curiously, my mother, with a distaste for slapstick, buffoonery, and most kinds of comedy loves Sellers and these movies.) He has a perfect blend of overconfidence and incompetence but, as I noted in A Shot In The Dark, he’s still somehow likable.

It’s probably that his heart is pure: he has an almost Don Quixote-ish self-image, the upstanding gendarme, the detective in pursuit of the truth. He is more likable than the presumably more competent Inspector Dreyfus, because Dreyfus is (for lack of a better word) “establishment”. Dreyfus will do what he’s told, he’ll take orders from on high and shrug at corruption. Such a thing would offend Clouseau.

Comedies used to be classier.

Capucine with her co-conspirators (Nivens and Wagner).

This is why Clouseau trumps The Phantom as well: A lovable rogue has to be rebelling against the system (or some broken part of the system). Robin Hood has to be fighting King John. Han Solo has to be fighting (in the sense of refusing to be a part of) the Empire. Even Don Ameche’s unfaithful layabout in Heaven Can Wait is endearing because…well, that’s a more intriguing one which I will write on in detail some day.

But what’s Niven doing? He’s stealing from The Princess. He’s also trying to bed her, when she is appalled by the modern promiscuity of 1963. And he’s trying to set up a man who, for all his buffoonery, believes in justice and righteousness, and always acts (however comically) from that basic love what is good and right.

The punch line of the movie, immediately discarded, is that Clouseau ends up being framed as The Phantom and is on his way to jail. The detectives who arrest him, however, assure him that he will gain incredible fame and fortune as a result of his notoriety as a suave, sophisticated jewel thief, which seems to offer some consolation.

Wonderfully shot. Beautiful women. Besides Claudia Cardinale and Capucine, the late Fran Jeffries shakes her booty at the camera from about a foot away as she sings whatever forgettable ’60s pop-crooner tune they crammed into the film. And for the ladies, a young Robert Wagner (as The Phantom’s ne’er-do-well nephew) makes the moves on Capucine as well, when she mistakes him for his uncle. (Now, Wagner was 33 and Capucine was 35, but he’s supposed to be fresh out of the college he didn’t attend.)

Yow.

Besides music, Ms. Jeffries gifted us with many lovely photos.

Iconic music. Iconic titles by De Patie-Freling that netted a cartoon show based on the anthropomorphized…um…imperfection-that-looks-like-a-panther. Shot in the Dark would also result in a cartoon show, the title sequence actually receiving a standing ovation at…Cannes? But just as Clouseau outshines the Phantom here, cartoon Clouseau would be outshone by the cartoon Pink Panther.

I may prefer Claudia to Sophia.

Oh, you lucky tiger.

A Shot In The Dark (1964)

We’ve had tremendous success with the classic double-features which our theater puts on once or twice a quarter, and when they announced the Inspector Clouseau double-feature, I couldn’t resist, though I had reservations. The trailer they cut for it was not especially hilarious and comedy is possibly worse than horror for survival over time. The Flower, in fact, would declare that she did not like these movies—which may in part have to do with their general licentiousness and her relative fatigue, along with humor not enduring well.

Alert Benny Hill

I don’t know if this was the first movie to use the curved pool cue gag…might’ve been, though.

A Shot In The Dark is the second film in the Pink Panther series and very likely the funniest of them all. Based on a French play, when filming wasn’t going to Peter Sellers’ liking, he called in Panther‘s director Blake Edwards, who enlisted no less than William Peter Blatty to do a massive Inspector Clouseau-based rewrite. Vagaries of release dates and pre-production being what they were, this film was released 3-4 months after The Pink Panther, fueling speculation that it had been filmed beforehand. (Which, since Clouseau ends up going to jail in the first movie, sorta makes sense.)

In this Frenchest of plots, the carousing of a group of well-to-do-Frenchies (among themselves and their staff) results in a murder that implicates beautiful maid Maria (Elke Sommer, whom I thought I had been married to Sellers, but whom I had confused with Britt Ekland). Clouseau, instantly smitten and dumber than ever, decides that she cannot be guilty and spends the movie chasing her around as people drop dead around her. Of course, this is a comedy—for all the murders (9!)—and she is of course not actually guilty.

We swear.

There’s a perfectly logical setup for this.

Inspector Dreyfus (the great Herbert Lom) is increasingly agitated with Clouseau’s blessed incompetence, said agitation powering the second half of the movie as well as the rest of the series, and alternately puts him on and pulls him off the case, according to political and personal whims. This movie would also introduce Kato (the late Burt Kwouk) as Clouseau’s zealous sidekick, prepared to assault him at any moment, to ensure that his reflexes are all tip-top.

It’s pure silliness. At the time, the scene in the nude camp was probably pretty edgy, though that wouldn’t stop it from constantly making the rounds on TV less than a decade later.

If I didn’t find it drop-dead hilarious now, I was pleased at how much of it I did enjoy. Sellers was a master at this kind of comedy, a kind of human Homer Simpson, which is a tough thing to pull off: He has to both be an arrogant buffoon but also kind of likable, and he is. This film would set the tone for the series far more than the original, as we would see shortly.

Notable for not garnering composer Henry Mancini an Oscar. Not even a nomination! (He would win for Panther—which may have been the same year—of course.)

That eye twitch, tho'.

Even as one of Clouseau’s antagonists, Lom always came off sympathetically.

Ash Is Purest White

The thing about Asian movies (and foreign movies generally) is that appearing in an art house is not necessarily a sign of being an “art house” movie. While horror or chopsocky flicks don’t usually turn up,  sometimes just the fact of being foreign is pretentious enough to get on the marquee. On the flip side, having a different groups of different ethnicities nearby means that the movies those groups watch usually aren’t art house films. Around here the art house Indian films are swamped by the Bollywood mass market stuff, the Persian films are basically flip-a-coin, and European films are almost always the arty ones (with some notable exceptions).

Nice lighting.

Love will keep us together (when it’s not tearing us apart).

In other words, it’s hard to tell.

Which brings us to Ash Is Purest White, the story of a woman and her boyfriend who run the underground in a tiny town that is shifting under the massive weight of the Chinese government’s plans. They’re the kingpins in their tiny town when a plan gone wrong ends up with the boyfriend being beaten half-to-death in the street while the woman fires a gun to scare off the attackers and save him.

Of course, you can’t have a gun in China, and the cops interrogate her. She goes to jail for her man only to discover when she gets out that he’s started a new life and a new scam in a new city—with a new dame, and he’s not interested in having her around any more.

So who's fault is it, really?

He did teach her to shoot, sorta.

So, this is the story of a gangster’s moll whose love is a lot truer than the man she loves, and this movie details their desultory relationship over the course of twenty or thirty years. It’s an interesting play on the sensationalized, romantic, lurid gangster pix that the Chinese (and we!) love so well—but it’s definitely an art pic. It’s slow moving and morose, with an overarching message of crime not paying not so much on the local, immediate level, but really not paying on the larger life level.

Actually, the best bit in the movie is when our heroine, desperate for cash and stranded in a new city full of strangers, scams a guy out of some cash. She’s sitting in a restaurant watching the men who come in, and when she spots a mark, she walks up to him and whispers something along the lines of, “She lost the baby, you know. I’m her sister.” Despite being armed with this knowledge of masculine nature, she’s still kind of a chump for this gangster who is worthless from start to finish.

It’s not really a fun movie, like a traditional gangster flick—and perhaps worse, these are not characters you’re necessarily going to like, though at least you can find the heroine’s loyalty admirable. We did like it, but forewarned is forearmed: You will feel all 2 hours and 15 minutes of this.

Love is blind, I guess?

She’s kinda naive for a criminal/jailbird/conwoman.

Spaceballs (1987)

I was prepared for the final “March Mel-ness” movie to be particularly unfunny—my sister claimed to have walked out of it at the time—and, honestly, post-Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, everything Mel Brooks did was kind of anti-climactic, even the generally well-received To Be Or Not To Be. Hardly his fault: 1974 was a hell of a year for him. The Flower has posited, and it seems plausible, that Gene Wilder brought an extra level of heart and warmth to Brooks’ manic vaudevillian shtick.

Nice take.

She’s a good shot.

That said, this is a cute movie that holds up very well, despite (because?) being very ’80s. In it, Daphne Zuniga and Bill Pullman play generic sci-fi action princess and rogue, with Zuniga and her robot companion (Joan Rivers’ voice, Lorne Yarnell’s mime capabilities) escaping from her wedding to the even more generic Prince Valium (Jim J. Bullock!) and being rescued by Pullman and his furry sidekick John Candy. Their rivals are the incompetently slapstick Empire-stand-in, the eponymous Spaceballs. Headed by the always great Rick Moranis and peopled with the more interesting and funny cast, the Spaceballs are largely related (family name: Asshole), commanded by George Wyner—one of those character actors perpetually stuck in middle age—and, inexplicably, featuring that most ’80s of guest stars, voice-effects impresario Michael Winslow.

<insert sound effect here>

Hey, kids! Remember the ’80s?

Mix in Brooks’ stock characters: Himself as the corrupt mayor, himself as the Yoda-esque alien (see Blazing Saddles‘ Indian chief), the sexually voracious dominatrix (the lovely Leslie Bevis), some black people to make some black people jokes (the future “Star Trek Voyager”‘s Tim Russ amusingly enough), and Dom Deluise (who was a stock character for a lot of peoples’ movies), and you have yourself a pretty good time.

He's a mensch.

The schwartz MAY be with you. Who knows, really?

One thing that’s very nice is that, while the movie mocks the genre as a whole, and has quite a few notable direct parodies (like John Hurt, as himself, re-enacting his famous scene from Alien, “Oh, no, not again!”), the movie doesn’t really lean on them. There’s parody, reference humor, slapstick, vaudevillian sex jokes, along with just situational comedy adding up to a fun, if not especially amazing, time.

We all liked it, even if it was fourth on the list of four. Some of us might, maybe, put it ahead of The Producers, which we primarily like for the actual musical. But it’s hardly offensive, either comedically or socially, at least relative to Brooks’ other films, so I’m not sure why anyone familiar with Brooks would walk out. It’s probably offensive today, though the whole “combing the desert” gag is akin to the worst dad joke ever—is saved by the black guy twist.

Character actors with some muscle.

Moranis retired decades ago to raise his kids. Wyner only retired a few years ago, at age 70. Miss ’em both.

The Wandering Earth

In the year 20whatever, the sun is going nova, and you know what that means!

ROAD TRIP!

No, seriously, remember when the earth was going to blow up, so we had to put all the people on spaceships and go to another planet but we didn’t tell the dumb people bec—

EXCUUUUUSE ME!

You’d think they’d have noticed but…dumb!

OK, shamelessly cribbing Steve Martin over. So, in the not-to-distant future, the sun’s going supernova, so the world decides to attach giant engines to the planet to push it out of orbit and into a new system (Alpha Centauri, I think) a few light years over. An advance ship is sent to clear the way containing our hero’s father, and his subsequent absence becomes a point of bitterness for the hero (who is, like, five, when this prologue occurs) fifteen years later.

Half the planet is dead by this point, and the rest is living underground in a dystopic nonsense world that looks like a movie representation of Hong Kong, with the hero grabbing his sister and a tractor-truck of some kind that he plans to use to escape to…well, I’m not sure where, frankly, given the earth’s surface is frozen and the underground cities fairly well controlled—though actually remarkably lax given the circumstances.

It's big but not very hot, I guess.

Here, they have wandered out next to a giant nuclear thruster propelling the planet.

Before comeuppance has a chance to, uh, come-up, the earth flies into range of Jupiter. This is a big, though known, hazard since the slightest miscalculation means that Jupiter will just slurp up the earth’s atmosphere (at best) or possibly the whole planet (at worst). I’m not going to spoil it, but there are some interesting twists and turns here, with the main story arc being the reconciliation between the hero and absentee his father, as they work together to literally save the planet.

It’s corny, hokey and preposterous, but it’s fun and it has heart. At 2:05, it doesn’t waste much time. The strong arc, as noted, is between father and son, with a little bit of time for grandfather and little sister. There’s no love interest. There is a nice bit that we see in the best movies where anyone with screen time is given some chance to demonstrate character. All different nationalities have a chance to show their best and worst, with cowards and heroes along the way.

Sure, that red thing is an "eye".

Jupiter turns out to be a real jerk, though.

It’s very good natured. And if you think, as some of you do, that it’s propaganda for a repressive Chinese government, I have to say that every Chinese movie we’ve seen is less anti-America than your average American film.

The CGI is a little dodgy in parts though, as is typical, it generally reads well enough so that you don’t care about the literal realism. Some of the lighting in the dark, frozen outer world is not as sharp as I’d have liked. But overall The Boy and I enjoyed it quite a bit, as did The Boy’s Girl.

The closing titles are cute. It starts with words on a page and I’m thinking “I don’t get it.” Then the earth is traveling through the words on the page and I’m thinking “I’ll still don’t get it.” Then the earth sails through a book and the credits read “Based on the novel by…” and I thought “OHHHHH!” So this was apparently a popular Chinese book. (Update: Nope, just a short story but…ok, it’s still a cool credits scene.) Currently airing on Netflix, so you don’t have to venture out to Monterey Park, as we did.

Crazy!

Cool credits, man!

Young Frankenstein (1974)

For “March Mel-ness”, we were offered four films. (Diane Keaton would end up getting five in May. Can I get a harrumph?) The Producers, which we had just seen. Blazing Saddles, which we had missed previously due to a Marilyn Monroe double feature. And Spaceballs, which I had not seen and had not really heard good things about, though it’s evolved to a sort of cult popularity over time. And then, of course, Young Frankenstein, which we had also just seen but which delighted The Flower so tremendously that she hesitated not at all at a second chance to see it. (“Of course we’re going to see it, dad.”)

Frau Blucher!

But let’s leave the horses at home.

The Barbarienne, who had loved the hell out of Blazing Saddles was also with us this time, and she also loved this film, though perhaps not as much. The Flower and The Boy actually ended up slightly cooler on it this time, which goes to show that a great deal goes into one’s enjoyment of a film that is extrinsic to the film. I noted this profoundly on my last two viewings of Airplane! I had seen it twice in fairly short order, and the first time I laughed a lot while the second I just sort had a pleasant buzz.

I don’t have that much to add to this. It’s startlingly corny, really. I mean, 1974 was the most jaded of years in so many ways. It was the era of porn chic and “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and first season SNL (which had Jodie Foster as a guest in which she referenced “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, which is why I was thinking of that)…and you got these clowns creeping around a lovingly recreated Frankenstein’s castle with swinging bookcases and thunderstorms with 19th century villagers lurking just outside.

At last, sweet mystery of life I've found you...

Madeline Khan, national treasure.

It’s broad, crude and often in poor taste but in a way that’s sort of charming in retrospect. The Flower looks at it this way: Gene Wilder had heart, and he brought that to his projects will Mel Brooks, which grounded those in a winning way. I tend to concur, though I think Mel’s own performances could be quite warm when not ridiculously broad.

It’s practically a worn out trope that he couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today. The sad truth is, he couldn’t make Young Frankenstein either.

Roll in ze hay!

The women are all wives and lovers. Apart from being hilarious, I mean.

The Wedding Guest

From director Michael Winterbottom, the guy who brought you Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull StoryThe TripThe Trip To Italy, and the TV series “The Trip” comes a movie that asks the daring question: What if you had a suspense thriller where all the elements of suspense and thrill were removed? The answer, unfortunately, is less interesting than the question—although on reflection, I guess that sorta makes sense.

Indian formal wear.

And he got dressed up and everything.

The fine Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) plays Jay, an uninvited wedding guest who turns out to have been hired to kidnap the bride Samira (Radhika Apte, who also starred with Patel in Lion). He does so, though in the process he kills a guard—I guess armed guards are a thing at Indian weddings—and things end up too hot for Jay’s employer, who was Samira’s boyfriend. Along the way there’s more blackmail, murder and flight, though at no point does Winterbottom stoop to lurid scenes of suspense, using dramatic lighting or music to create an air of uncertainty in the audience.

It’s basically a Jay’s story, as he goes from hard-core mercenary to patsy for Samira, a total alpha male who ends up being taken for everything—though he never realizes it, I guess, as he meekly accepts the fate that Samira heaps on him.

Radhika is not impressed by The Boy.

The Boy was not impressed with the cast’s looks.

I’m not being sarcastic or ironic here. That’s the story. And it’s fine, for what it is. Both The Boy and I felt like it was half a movie. In the other half, something would normally be revealed about Jay or Samira that changed the audiences’ view of them as characters, and perhaps that would lead to an exciting cat-and-mouse chase, or a high-tension drama where the two confront each other for their various shortcoming. But no, none of that’s in there. One really does sort of feel like Winterbottom, who wrote the screenplay, thinks anything that sensational is beneath him. We never actually learn anything about Jay’s backstory, nor anything that would lead us to believe he would end up where he does. Kind of frustrating in that regard.

It’s basically good performances that take place on the periphery of the action of another story we don’t see.

If not, move along.

Lotsa shots of Dev staring off into the middle distance. So if that’s your thing: Jackpot!

Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show

I am not a television watcher, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious as I struggle even making it through one 20-hour series since February. But even with my (almost exclusive) preference toward theater viewing, I am tempted by things like TCM and Criterion and so on. But when I heard Joe Bob Briggs had re-emerged on the Shudder channel, I pulled the trigger and actually committed to a pay channel. (I had been musing with getting Shudder for a while. My aversion to watching movies on TV doesn’t necessarily extend to trashy horror, it seems, and there’s scant chance of most of these films appearing on the big screen again soon.)

Joe Bob is back in town!

Joe Bob Briggs is, I think, both the last and the greatest of the horror movie hosts. If you’re almost 29 (like me), you may not remember the days of the local TV horror show host, like Sinister Seymour (Los Angeles), Ghoulardi (Cleveland), or Svengoolie (Chicago). The American era of the local horror host is (fittingly) bookended by Vampira (who ironically gained immortality for her appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space) in the early days and Elvira (sued by Vampire for stealing her act) at the end. Elvira would gain national prominence in the era of expanding cable channels and syndication, parlaying that into a 40-year career that includes a movie or two, a lot of campy live shows (she “hosted” Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt for years) and a ton of merchandise.

Unlike these past luminaries, however, Joe Bob is more of a straight-up movie reviewer (he shifted from reviews of traditional and classic movies when he discovered the fascinating mechanics behind successful exploitation film-making), a serious writer (nominated for a Pulitzer for his accounts of 9/11) and a much less campy and more sincere lover of drive-in movies. When he gives Phantasm four stars, he’s being sincere, and he’s not afraid to give C.H.U.D. two stars and call it out for a bunch of “Shakespeare in the Park” actors “going slumming”. Likewise, if his persona is somewhat affected, it’s not shallow: He’s from Texas, went to school in Arkansas, and he’s currently touring with a lecture called “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”.

He got his hosting start on The Movie Channel, Showtime’s cheaper cable sibling, and was largely forced to pick from their often sub-par catalogue of films. (As I understand it, the old cable channels would rent a package of films for the month, and they weren’t taking requests from the horror host.) This was probably the worst way to be a horror host, given he got one intro, one interstitial between features, and then a final outro, usually well after 1AM. The highlights were his interviews with the great ’80s scream queens like Michelle Bauer and Linnea Quigley, and some of the more conflicted starlets, like Kathy Shower. (Also fun are his interviews with Andy Sidaris, which are available on the “Girls, Guns and G-Strings” collection of his films.)

He also interviewed more mainstream luminaries like Tippi Hedren on his various other TNT series.

The low points were the zero star movies, usually the second feature, which Joe Bob would offer a free “Iron Joe Bob” t-shirt to anyone who could sit through, and who mailed him a plot summary. There was one particularly unwatchable film which had an off-the-charts breast count—it was basically an advertisement for the Goldfinger Strip Club in Florida, as I recall—that I never made it through.

The breast count. Joe Bob ends his reviews with a tally of drive-in movie highlights, e.g., “9 dead bodies, 4 breasts, 2 motor vehicle chases (with crash and fireball), scissors fu, wine bottle fu, 2 heads roll, 2 1/2 stars, Joe Bob says ‘check it out’.” He told the story of the breast count at some point this way: Interviewing Drive-In Movie Legend Roger Corman, he asked what predicted the success of a teen sex comedy. Completely dead-pan (and probably dead serious), Corman replies, “The number of breasts.” As a gag, Joe Bob put that into one of his reviews and when the right people got pissed off about it, it became a permanent fixture and part of the legend. (“That’s how you destroy the sacred cow,” he says in one interview.)

Sample Drive-In Tally, which can only be for David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”

After the TMC show ended, he moved on to the basic cable channel TNT with “Monstervision”, “Joe Bob’s Hollywood Saturday Night” and “Joe Bob’s Summer School”. While I didn’t see many of these (because I loathe commercials), the format really benefited the “premiere movie critic of Grapevine, Texas”. In “The Warriors”, Walter Hill’s classic retelling of Anabasis, he traces the gang’s progress from Central Park to Coney Island by the trains and streets they take, while poking fun at the cast’s coordinated outfits and dancer’s bodies. He once hosted “Back to the Future II” and used the commercial breaks to explain the time-travel theory and argued that the Law of Entropy made the story impossible.

With Shudder, we get the best of both worlds: Uncut movies (mostly—the short shower scene from C.H.U.D. is weirdly redacted from Shudder’s cut) with breaks for commentary. Now, this means you shouldn’t necessarily watch these movies for the first time on “Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show”. The first Phantasm movie relies heavily on atmosphere. Same with The Changeling. The more police procedural-oriented films like Q: The Winged Serpent and C.H.U.D. are fine, and the great but very-hard-to-watch Castle Freak gets a bit easier to watch with the breaks where Joe Bob interviews the under-rated Barbara Crampton.

The first set of shows (last summer) was popular enough to tax Shudder’s streaming service, locking a lot of people out, suggesting that perhaps Briggs’ show should’ve been revived sooner. This was followed up with a Thanksgiving special and Christmas special (featuring the Phantasm movies). Besides a staggering amount of movie trivia and an impressive personal history in-and-around the movie and theatrical scenes of New York and L.A., the show features a fair amount of cultural commentary. (One rant, e.g., is on the removal of the swimsuit competition from the Miss America Pageant.)

His audience for the show, as always, is the crew (whom you can offer hear laughing) and “Darcy, The Mail Girl”, being played in this incarnation by the buxom Diana Prince with the right mix of sass and patience, and no small amount of (warranted) eye-rolls. A picture of the original (?) mail girl, Honey Gregory, is featured prominently behind the easy chair inside the trailer.

If you love drive-in horror, if you love the betamax era of video, and if you don’t take yourself too seriously, this is a must see. Moviegique says “check it out”.

Dangerously close to mullet territory in 1991.

 

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959)

According to Wikipedia, 1959 saw the popularization of the sword-and-sandal epic through a smash-hit Italian film distributed in America as Hercules, starring Steve Reeves. No citation is given for this, but one wonders if another little film—you probably haven’t heard of it—called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a factor as well. A box-office monster, this film ranks #14 in the all-time adjusted-for-inflation box office—and as I like to point out, the adjusted-for-inflation does not adjust for population. Just as with TV 60 years ago, movies like this had an outsized influence compared to, say, the #15 film Avatar.

It won 11 Oscars, an honor only shared with two other movies, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And while Ace’s love of 1982 is not unfounded, 1959 can give any year a run for its money: Some Like It HotNorth by NorthwestRio Bravo, Pillow TalkAnatomy of a MurderImitation of Life, The 400 Blows and on and on. As host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out in his intro, this film was so popular, the merchandising for it was bananas, and for years after it came out. You could even get Ben-His and Ben-Hur robes. As Mankiewicz doesn’t point out, making this movie 10 years later would’ve been utterly unthinkable.

None of us had ever seen Ben-Hur, but not one of us balked at the three-and-a-half-hour running time. (And when movies of yore ran this long, they put in an intermission at least!)

Ramming speed!

TFW you have to pee and you’re not sure when the intermission is coming.

The plot is basically Gladiator, if that film had a fourth act where the hero meets Jesus and comes to eschew revenge. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy Jewish prince whose childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) has returned to Judea to help put down the rebellious Jews. Miffed by Ben-Hur’s refusal to betray his people, Messala frames him and has him sentenced to a slave galley. Through a twist of fate, Ben-Hur survives the galleys only to become a prominent figure in Rome, whereupon he uses his freedom to return to his homeland in search of revenge. INTERMISSION. (In other words, you still have half the movie to go!)

This movie is jam-packed. There is no padding here. In fact, it feels kind of breakneck, with lots left out—probably due to the fact that it’s based on the 800 page smash-hit book that unseated Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most popular book of the 19th century. We learn, for example, that Ben-Hur drove chariots in Rome but we never see that. He’s on the galleys for years but we only see a little of that. He journeys from Rome to Jerusalem, where he meets Balthazar and lays the groundwork for the ultimate chariot race—and that’s about all we see of that journey. It’s practically a highlight reel, with no time to spare.

As a result, the acting burden falls primarily on Charlton Heston. We can only experience things through him. He won the Oscar for this role and it’s well-deserved. It was de rigeur to deride his acting skills when I was a kid, and his iconic apocalyptic roles in Soylent GreenPlanet of the Apes and The Omega Man are cheesy—but that ’65-’75 period was a cheesy time. Put Heston in a big, heroic Biblical role like this (or The 10 Commandments) and he shines.

Leena is the Queen of Palestina

The lovely and moving Haya Harareet, a Palestinian from back when “Palestinian” meant “Jew”.

Even so, this movie works because of William Wyler, the director of some of Hollywood’s greatest films, like The Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday, as well as one of the other great religious movies of all time, Friendly Persuasion (which has the most mature treatment of the challenges of faith I’ve seen from a Hollywood film). Wyler had turned down Ben-Hur repeatedly because he wasn’t a Big Spectacle picture kind of guy. Ultimately, producer San Zimbalist convinced him by saying the movie needed intimacy—the spectacle would take care of itself. So Wyler brought the human interest, and let the spectacle take care of itself. (Wyler didn’t even direct the chariot scene!)

And it is a spectacle! A glory of mattes, rear projection, models,  set design and lighting, all skillfully blended give a sense of real time and place. It all reads beautifully, even if it’s not perfect. The long shots of the fleet of galleys are pretty clearly models, and if you’re really paying attention, you can see the little stick figures. But you do have to be looking, for the most part. (I do look because as much as CGI bores me—a bunch of guys like me typing on computers to move pixels around—I love practical effects and all the various crafts involved.)

The chariot race is still spectacular. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road level of breathtaking, with horses and chariots flying everywhere and miraculously no stunt men dying.

White horses, black horses, you figure out who the bad guy is.

Me trying to merge onto the 101 in the morning.

What takes the movie beyond the traditional sword-and-sandals revenge flick is that the chariot race, which is the climactic action set piece of the film is book-ended by Ben-Hur’s redemption, where he realizes revenge isn’t going to save him or restore his mother and daughter. The peripheral-character-in-the-life-of-Jesus trope was a common one for centuries and it is done expertly here. The Flower especially appreciated the trope of never showing His face.

Helluva flick, is what I’m saying. And crazy influential, too, of course. Obviously the inspiration for the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar!, we also couldn’t help but notice that Life of Brian leans heavily on this (and Spartacus) for its portrayals of the Romans in Judea. What sort of surprised me was how some key points of Army of Darkness were echoes of this movie. For instance, the opening narration “My name is Ash, and I’m a slave.” is shot in a very similar way to Ben-Hur’s enslavement and the music cribbing from Miklos Roza’s brilliant score. To say nothing of the bizarre windmill scene where the tiny Ashes yell “Ramming speed!”

Those just leapt out at me. I’m sure a brief review of IMDB’s connections page would reveal much more.

We all loved it, and are primed for next month’s classic: True Grit.

"What's that, sir?"

“Stwike him, Centuwion! Vewy woughwee!”

 

Alita: Battle Angel

My interest in seeing this film was less than zero and less than Less Than Zero—the grimy and unlikely screen version of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel with Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and Robert Downey, Jr. I mean, the poster presents the most generic-looking CGI manga-inspired female action hero with freaky-big eyes doing fighty stuff in a blandly porridge-y 2019 way. And the fact that it was directed by Robert Rodriguez (when I discovered that) made it even worse to my mind: Rodriguez is often cheesy, but seldom bland.

Kinda freaky for kidflick, tho'.

Say what you will about this “Spy Kids” makeup, it’s not bland.

Item the first: Weird critical/audience split. Rotten Tomatoes having gone completely into shill territory with Captain Marvel, I’m tentatively trying out Metacritic, but both show “Critics hate it, audiences like or love it.” OK, well, audiences a lot of time like bland action schlock so that’s not super strong—but the split was, at the time, over 30 points, which puts it in the territory of a film containing positive references to Jesus.

Item the second: Word of mouth is consistent and insistent. People like this movie, and fairly insistent that the CGI does not hit you with the uncanny valley effect.

Enough people on the movie thread and Twitter recommended it to me where I decided to take the plunge. The Flower was out, of course, since her taste falls to classics and movies of spiritual interest. The Boy was okay about it, but the way he picked his girlfriend over any actual showing of the film (and who could blame him), I realized it was one of those movies I would never get to if I waited for him. The Barbarienne is up for whatever, usually, but she was against it due to changes made from the manga (which she has not read, but the Internet will happily and angrily inform her of).

So, I, a father of four went alone to Alita: Battle Angel, which probably gets me on an FBI list, or should, anyway.

Otaku-coo.

“My daughter, beware most of all of men who like your manga.”

Irony of ironies: This is basically a YA movie in the vein of Hunger Games or The Giver which, as yaboi Zack points out, probably would’ve felt a lot fresher 25 years ago when it actually ended it’s 5 year manga run. That said, I ended up liking it overall, and it’s definitely worthy of an examination for what it does right.

The story is this: In a dystopic (of course) future world, the peons live on the ground in subservience to the floating sky city Zalem—the last floating city since a war 300 years previous which resulted in all the other floating cities collapsing. Zalem takes the goods that Iron City produces through these giant tubes that look like they’re tethering the thing down, and then dumps its trash out of a big hole in the middle around which the city is congregated. A kind-hearted cyborg repair doctor discovers the remnants of a cyborg in the dump with a still functioning heart and brain, and takes it home to put it in a mechanical body he had made for his own daughter years before.

When she wakes up, she has no memory (natch), and struggles (a little) to adapt to her new surroundings while dealing with flashes of memory and bouts of super-combat-skills. Then we get bounty hunters (good and bad), serial killers, a game called roller—er, motorball, the winner of which supposedly gets to go to Zalem, roving gangs of punks stealing cyborg attachments, a love story, betrayals, an ex-wife redemption arc, interplanetary war backstory, Jeff Fahey with a team of robot dogs, gratuitous Edward Norton and Michelle Rodriguez, and the specifically allowed one instance of the F-word for PG-13 movies.

Also, he got cybernetic implants.

Jackie Earle Haley trained for six months to bulk up for this role!

There’s a lot of story, is what I’m getting at, and I’m sure I’ve left some major points out, as did (wisely) Rodriguez when he trimmed down James Cameron’s script to two hours. Honestly, all that stuff and the story arc is as generic as you’d expect a 30-year-old story from an increasingly over-mined genre to be.

But from go, the filmmakers invest in Alita as a teenage girl. There’s no “is she human or not?” nonsense. She is. She has normal teen reactions despite her brain having been in a junkyard for 300 years. She’s unsure, excitable, emotional, effusive, enthusiastic and quick to jump to the wrong conclusions. And she has freakishly large eyes.

The funny thing is, the eyes largely works to keep you out of the uncanny valley. For me, I know it didn’t completely work because I kept thinking about it—but it worked better than most CGI humanoids. And I think it’s because the big eyes tell your brain that there’s no effort to actually fool you. Meanwhile there are a lot of imperfections and human touches, along with some very good motion capture and voice acting by Rosa Salazar which makes for a compelling heroine.

Betrayal ensues.

At one point, she literally gives her boyfriend her heart.

Chris Waltz is great and does the main emotional heavy lifting apart from Salazar, and their father-daughter dynamic gives you something to really care about. Jennifer Connelly has a less well-developed maternal role to play, but she works it well. Keean Johnson threads the needle as the guy who’s smitten with a girl who can tear him limb-from-limb. In fact, all the characters are nicely drawn, probably because they were developed over six books. Jeff Fahey as the dog-themed bounty hunter and Jackie Earle Haley as the biggest baddie were inspired choices for cool characters.

You can tell that there’s a lot more story behind most of the characters. Besides Connelly, The Iron City boss played by Mahershala Ali and quite a few of the bounty hunters would’ve benefitted from more screen time. But I sincerely, deeply appreciated Rodriguez keeping this tight and giving us an ending that doesn’t feel like a middle finger. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but it’s satisfying enough to not make you feel ripped off.

There are a few hiccups. Sometimes the actors aren’t looking in quite the right place when interacting with Alita, e.g., and occasionally the seams on the CGI show, which didn’t bother me because I feel like Rodriguez (like a lot of Asian filmmakers) is less interested in “looks real” than “looks cool”. (On the other hand, my understanding is this film cost somewhere between $175-$200M, and Cameron’s all about the “real”, but hey, not my money.) Rodriguez also really knows space, which means even his goofiest CGI-tacular affairs tend not to be disorienting, and in this case imbues Iron City with life you didn’t feel in (e.g.) Coruscant. The too-much-for-me-CGI of the motorball game is salvaged by a good sense of space and weight.

So, if you’re like me and have only heard enthusiastic things about this, I’ll temper that somewhat. I liked it, there was much to commend, and I had good feelings about it—but unless you’re in that demo, it’s probably not going to knock your socks off.

But not for long.

Jeff Fahey celebrates National Puppy Day.

 

Blazing Saddles (1974)

I did not actually see this when it came out.* Because I was not actually Mel Brooks fan. Partly a prejudice inherited from my parents, but largely because his style of humor is very, very broad. In fact, 20 years ago, my oldest buddy—who had seen it at seven—was shocked I hadn’t and purchased a copy for me so we could all view it at home. About a half-hour in (at the campfire/beans scene), we turned it off because literally none of us were laughing.

What a weird, censorious world we live in.

We didn’t want the n—- to get it!

But a funny thing happened over the subsequent decades: Blazing Saddles became increasingly transgressive. With its good-natured, casual racism and less good-natured misanthropy and cynicism regarding government, I began to think the kids would never see it screen publicly in their lifetimes. Then, last year a local theater played it—but against a Marilyn Monroe double-feature—so we missed our chance. But only for a few months, as it turned out. This seems like kind of a big deal to me, that this movie can still be shown—and to a packed laughing house of, yes, millenials in, yes, one of the leftier enclaves of one of the leftiest towns.

I still wasn’t expecting to enjoy it much, and I’m happy to report that I did. We all did, in fact, though curiously, we all rank Mel’s big three (The Producers and Young Frankenstein being the other two) in different orders and none of us with this movie at the top.

The premise is classic: A town is targeted by the greedy Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) who wants to buy up the land before the train comes through, and the unsuspecting town needs a sheriff to defend from his evil minions. The twist, of course, is that the sheriff is sent by Lamar to drive them away—not by virtue of any bad action, but by virtue of being black. On the one hand, Walter Moses Burton might have something to say about the likelihood of this, but if there were black sheriffs in the Old West, there weren’t any in the movies about the Old West which this is parodying.

There are worse.

Robyn Hilton had a light movie career consisting entirely of being beautiful and busty.

When sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and his drunken gunslinger pal Jim (Gene Wilder) outsmart him, the evil Hedley sends out his secret weapon, Lili Von Shtupp (Madelin Khan) to seduce him. She, of course, is won over by his prowess, making this the one of at least two movies in 1974 where Khan plays a vamp who is tamed by an enormous schwanzstucker.

The humor can be broken down into a few categories. The political satire (the parts with Mel Brooks himself as Governor Lepetomane) is neither subtle nor clever, though it serves the story well enough. The use of racism is hit-and-miss. The physical comedy works best when it’s paired with absurd visuals, such as when a man (and his horse) are being hanged, and least when it’s in the pratfall/conk-on-the-head level. The anachronisms and meta-jokes are kinda cute. When the production literally breaks out of its soundstage and onto the Warner Bros. lot, that is also very hit-and-miss, but nicely winds back on itself. (Unlike, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where you can feel a little cheated because you didn’t get the end of the story.)

But even when I wasn’t laughing, others were. This is the sort of movie that rewards not being easily offended or put off, because there are a lot of good gags, whatever your taste. And for all its heavy-handedness it actually never feels preachy. When your message is “racism is bad” and “politicians are corrupt and lazy”, you really don’t need to spell it out, especially if your subtext is along the line “When you can laugh at things, they’re not really that bad.” There’s also an overarching message of redemption and tolerance, suggesting that we can all live together in peace, even the Irish.

Not at all comfortable!

Madeline Kahn knew how to slip into something more comfortable.

Great performances from Little, Korman, Alex Karras as Mongo, with all the various Johnsons: Jonathan Hillerman (Higgins from “Magnum P.I.”), David Huddleston (the eponymous “Big Lebowski”), Liam Dunn (from Young Frankenstein) as the preacher, and so on. And these people are all dead, as is everyone in this movie except Brooks himself, Burton Gilliam (who still works and went on to be a regular on “Evening Shade”), and the lovely Robyn Hilton, whose last film role (at 44!) had her cavorting around in the most scandalous French maid outfit ever.

Wilder’s performance is outstanding. One of his best, and all done in his lilting soft-spoke voice. He doesn’t shout at all. Madeline Khan is sui generis, of course, as if her performance was never written down and she was just living it on screen for us. I didn’t care for Brooks as the governor, but there was a distinct endearing charm to Brooks as the Indian chief. (Can you say PRAH-BLAH-MATIC?)

At no point in the proceedings do you get the impression that anyone had lost the focus on making an entertaining picture. This movie uses racism (and in some pretty conventional ways) without depending on racism, which is an art lost.

They just did.

These guys had the best chemistry.

*I was also too young to see it but pace Obama, nobody gave a damn in the ’70s if toddlers wandered into R-rated movies.

Pig

This was the movie we were going to see when the Russian Tank flick intervened and we ended up having to make a late show in Beverly Hills to get it. But interesting films seem harder and harder to find, even from other countries, and this one had an intriguing, darkly comic premise.

It's all girls in the commercial.

Our hero wearing a costume pilfered from the bugspray commercial he’s doing.

Our hero Hasan is a blacklisted filmmaker who hasn’t been able to make a movie in over two years, relegated to doing bugspray commercials, losing his girlfriend, pissing off his wife (they have an understanding) while a serial killer runs around Iran killing all the great Persian filmmakers.

Hasan is increasingly concerned that he has yet to be targeted while a bunch of hacks are being hacked up (decapitated, specifically) his own genius is going unrecognized. At one point, he has a little breakdown and his mother reassures him that soon the killer will be coming for him. But all this is played out against a social media backdrop that Hasan doesn’t really understand and increasingly views as a hostile entity gunning for him. Ultimately, it becomes his goal to be validated in that consciousness, the Instagram world where random strangers accuse him of the most heinous crimes.

He has a stalker, too. A friend of his daughter wants to be in his movies and at least feigns attraction to him. (He’s not interested, though you can sorta see the wheels turning on that one.) But even that story is diverted by the power of social media.

Even Iran has millennials..

This girl maybe thinks HE’s the killer—but gotta get that all-important selfie.

The opening sequence has girls in hijabs running down the sidewalk taking Instagram selfies. Iran is weird. The presence of tyranny results in a kind of inchoate fear (as in Hasan’s inability to get a movie made for pissing off some cleric somewhere, presumably) mixes with the general incompetence of the oppressors and the irrepressibly modern Persian spirit and creates a sense of surrealism whether presented in a grim way or a comic one.

Despite the heavy-handed satire, director Mani Haghighi leans more toward the slapstick than the pretentious even when dabbling in a moment of cinematic surrealism: Hasan is arrested on suspicion of the murders—in Iran when you are arrested, they apparently don’t just handcuff you, they blindfold you—and then thrown in to solitary confinement for an undetermined period of time. Hasan is a big heavy metal fan—his wardrobe seems to consist entirely of shorts and heavy-metal-themed t-shirts—and begins to hallucinate being a guitarist, on stage, performing a song with full band and backup singers.

This is broken by guards letting him out of his cell, and dumping him out in the desert. Apparently because when you’re released in Iran, regardless of being cleared, they drop you off in the middle of nowhere. Later, this turns out to have been a dream, though Hasan holds it against the relatively fair-minded detective on his case for the rest of the movie.

Not for long, tho'.

The girl who throws him over for a bigger part with a working director.

Much like 50 Kilos, this movie veers between near-slapstick level comedy to grim (in this case very black) humor, and if never quite reaches the sublime level, it’s still a fun, rollicking way to spend 1:40. We were glad we saw it.

 

To Dust

A Hasidic cantor with two sons loses his wife and becomes obsessed with her transition back “to dust”. His obsession leads him to a community college biology professor who joins him on his unorthodox journey to grasp death and its meanings.

This is the sort of film that The Boy and I used to live off in the pre-Trump/pre-SJW era. It’s an odd, low-key, funny and sensitive character study with Géza Röhrig (Saul in Son of Saul) as Shmuel, the widower and Matthew Broderick as Albert, the middle-aged teacher living an aimless, lonely life.

Frequently.

Shmuel is skeptical.

The freshman feature from writer/director Shawn Snyder, I began to wonder early on if it was perhaps inspired by a personal experience (whether by him or co-writer Jason Begue). The year is not fixed but I would guess it to be the early ’80s, and Shmuel’s pre-pubescent sons are enduring his madness by coming up with interesting explanations for his late night adventures—namely, he’s been possessed by the dybbuk of his late wife. That whole subplot felt very authentic.

The story begins when, after the funeral, Shmuel begins visualizing his wife’s corpse rotting. He sees her toe split and then blossom like a rose. This is a little disturbing to see, and probably off-putting to some audiences, but helps us understand what Shmuel is going through.

He ends up interrogating Albert on the state of body decomposition. This is another sign of the early ’80s, because Albert doesn’t really know much about it, and today anybody who’s ever seen an episode of “CSI” is an expert. He teaches biology and, y’know, the circle of life and all that, but he’s never really dug into the nitty gritty.

It gets weird.

Shmuel tries to explain things by taking his boys out on a boat and it’s almost as awkward as the Godfather II.

Shmuel’s not thinking all that clearly, and his misunderstanding leads him to bury a pig in the woods. Albert then chides him for doing it all wrong, since he got the pig from a Chinese restaurant and it had already been cleaned.

All this stuff that Shmuel does, by the way, is a sin in his Hasidic world. He becomes increasingly troubled as a result.

Albert’s journey is a different one: As a classic “modern guy”, divorced, in a dead-end job teaching dumb students stuff they don’t want to know, he first finds some meaning in being an authority to the hapless Shmuel. But by the end of the movie—a bold attempt to get into Dr. Bass’ Body Farm—it’s become more personal. The two are friends, even if that friendship is unusual by both their communities’ standards.

Punctuated with nice comedic and dramatic moments, like the boys trying to exorcise the dybbuk from their father’s big toe, and a reticent but resonant interview with the demure midwestern widow Shprintzel (a nice little piece for the actress Isabelle Phillips’ reel), it’s classic movie making: A story about people, flawed for sure, but basically good, struggling to make sense out of life.

You might have a chance to see this. Although it’s only in a couple dozen theaters nationwide, it does seem to have legs so it may travel around for awhile rather than just disappearing.

The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it.

Mmmm. Ham.

Pig enthusiasts may object to some scenes.

T-34

We were hyped up to see this Iranian movie, Pig, but competing against it at the same time was a movie about Russian tank drivers in WWII. One showing only so off we went. (We would hit a late showing of Pig the next week.) One of our theater pals told us that they had received a few angry phone calls threatening protests if they dared show this Russian Propaganda! They went ahead and showed it, and we live in very silly times.

I mean, they’ve been showing Russian films there off-and-on for years and nobody has ever cared before but I guess in the era of Trump! and Collusion! it’s now an issue.

Often! But not always.

Tanks don’t always mean freedom.

But The Boy and I were glad to catch this fun Russian version of Fury, though it does grow wearying that every country in the world gets to be patriotic but ours. The Soviets, who treated their own troops (and everyone else’s) like fodder, don’t feel the need to insert that little datum into their WWII movies. It’s all “glory-to-mother-Russia, tovarisch” and “yay for us, we killed the Nazis” without so much as a mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

I’m just gonna reiterate that: Even the Russians who allied with the Nazis until the Nazis turned on them don’t feel the need to drag out all their dirty laundry for a fun war movie.

And it is fun. Our hero is a Russian tank team captain who beats the odds by taking out six German tanks on his first day, but who ends up being captured with his team and sent to a POW camp where, a few years later, he’s recruited to drive the new T-34 Russian tank in war games to train German Panzer crews how to fight against them better.

Preposterous, of course, and not the least surprising that the Russians outsmart their German captors to destroy the opposing tanks and flee across country to safety. It’s a fairytale but it’s a patriotic one, and Russians have a right to it, even if parts of it (the Communist-heavy parts) make me a little queasy.

Tank humor.

“Tanks are so dumb! I can’t ev—they’re right behind me, aren’t they.”

Setting aside nationalism for good and bad, this whole thing works thanks to writer/director Alexy Sidorov’s light touch, and deft hand at communicating the intricacies of tank battle in a convincing fashion. We get to learn about our tank team, and we get to see them bond as buds in a manly fashion. This is presented unreservedly and unabashedly as is the decidedly (lightweight, to be sure) heterosexual romance.

I mean, we don’t really ask for much. We’re not hard to please. If I want to be critical, I guess I could say that the romance is very lightweight, which you can attribute to the fact that the two principles are in a POW/concentration camp on the one hand, but on the other hand is also done completely sincerely. It’s a very WWII-era thing, the war-time romance is. I’m not gonna knock it.

The CGI reminded me of that seen in Chinese movies: It doesn’t seem to be overly obsessed with “realism” but more about reading properly. The set pieces of the film are, naturally, tank battles, and these are made exciting by panning out to give a sense of the physical space that the action is happening again. Although it occasionally reminds me of the classic Atari “Tank Wars” game, overall it creates a feel like a modern version of the old “I’m traveling, as you can see by the line moving on this map” effect.

In other words, you know what’s going on, and you can see the danger, so you’re less concerned about whether it looks “real”.

It would look good on a motivational poster.

And you thought YOU were having a bad day!

Another thing that was done was slo-mo tank shots. In this case, the point was generally to make clear the trajectories of the shells which would otherwise NOT be clear. The Boy regarded this CGI favorably and felt that it was probably well researched: Like tank shells probably did bounce off the ground sometimes and come up underneath; or they probably did occasionally scrape by each other in mid-air. Can’t swear that any of it happened, but it felt real enough.

Another very realistic-feeling thing was the impact of shells on the armor of the tank. It wouldn’t hurt the tank, but it would hurt the guys inside the tank a great deal. Their ears would be ringing for minutes afterward. At one point, the impact was so great that it seemed to knock some of them out. Again, that seems realistic, and if it’s not, well, at least it’s exciting.

So, if it was silly on some level, it was for trying to tell a kind of upbeat, patriotic story—I wanna emphasize again that this is a Russian movie. Russians must battle out with Finns for the most morose of Caucasian cultures, right? Even outright Russian propaganda films tend to be kind of dark, like Sergei Eisenstein or, hell, Stalker. This movie eschews death for heroic invulnerability, and I’m okay with all of that.

I say if the Russians can do it, so can we. Let’s get on this, America!

Barely.

We can do anything except make those earflap hats look cool. Only Russians can do that.

My Fair Lady (1964)

I was a little surprised to discover that the running time for My Fair Lady was nearly three hours, and while that had no impact on my determination to see it, I had a slight concern about The Boy and The Flower. Slight, but not much, since they embraced Gone With The Wind, and when The Boy and I saw Lawrence of Arabia we both agreed we could turn around and see that again. (The latter film is coming around again this year—I don’t know what the contrived anniversary is, maybe Claude Rains’ 130th birthday?—and I imagine we’ll all see and enjoy it again.) But while I’ve seen this movie once thirty years ago on a 20″ TV, it became an instant favorite and the music is largely seared—seared!—into my memory.

Go figger.

Except for the bath scene struck me as kind of awful.

Watching it this time, I got why: The most iconic songs are very simple, sometimes with only two verses that are repeated over and over (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), but always with a catchy hook (“Get Me To The Church On Time”, “With A Little Bit Of Luck”). I remembered a whole lot given how long ago I last saw it. There’s probably a lesson there for aspiring show-tune writers.

There’s a kind of odd frustration for me here: I love Rex Harrison’s performance but I feel like we’re missing out on some great melodies because he speak-sings them all. And I have mixed feelings about Marni Nixon dubbing Audrey Hepburn. I think it makes sense, probably, but I’d take an alternate track on a DVD where Audrey’s singing is there just for the experience. (She recorded all or most of the songs before they called in Marni.) Audrey (35) is too old for the role, and Rex (58) is positively ancient, but none of that matters. (The Flower pointed out that Audrey looking a bit older helps bridge the gap, because Rex would look like 20-year-old Hepburn’s grandfather.)

This, if you don’t know, is the story of a linguist who takes a common flower girl and, by the power of changing her accent, passes her off as a lady at the highest circles.

Right?

Step one in turning a flower girl into a lady: Find the flower girl who is Audrey Hepburn.

Henry Higgins (Harrison) is pretty much a monster throughout this movie. He’s arrogant in the extreme, and cold, though when it comes to it he’s actually sort of offended if anyone responds to him in kind. At the end of the movie, he’s slightly less awful, but not a lot.

This is a recurring theme we’ve noticed lately: Characters are flawed, but rather than being destroyed or shunned, people reach out to them. It’s not a thing in modern movies. This is one of the more extreme examples. Higgins is not mildly disrespectful of poor Eliza Doolittle, he refers to her as a “creature”—he very much objectifies her. And about all you can say for him is that he kind of does it with everyone, to varying degrees. The ending is oddly optimistic: You know Higgins is going to be a bastard but he’ll bad and make it up to her, eventually.

The Flower said, “Wow, between this and The Music Man, ‘The Family Guy’ ripped off everything.” It’s true. Stewie’s actually based on Rex Harrison. I think a mix of him and Hannibal Lecter.

It's a good mix.

The Flower approved of the ’60s fashions being channeled into the classier costumes of the gilded age.

The second act crisis is near archetypal perfection. The plan has been a complete success, everything’s gone off without a hitch, and Eliza is increasingly alienated by Higgins’ self-congratulatory celebrations and failure even to recognize her own contributions to this. So at the height of material success, the movie reaches its emotional nadir. And the forlorn former flower girl wanders around her old haunts realizing she can’t really go back to that way of life and her new way of life is oriented around women who could be little more than trophies. (I’m a little vague on the state of her young suitor. Apparently he has no money of his own, so I guess either he would be disowned for marrying her or he was from one of those lordly descendants who had only family connections and no money.)

He loves her, though. And she would work to support him. Something about this feels disastrously like her fathers’ many relationship but, more importantly, she doesn’t really love him however taken with his kindness she is.

Or women, tbh.

There are not a lot of KIND men in this movie.

The Flower gasped at a few of Audrey Hepburn’s gowns. And the excesses of the ’60s are tempered by the desire to create a “gilded age” impression, so some things work startlingly well, like the very mod-styled Ascot race with all the fancy clothes in black-and-white.

The Flower said she had a little trouble imagining Julie Andrews in the role but of course Andrews made the role…and then ended up winning the Oscar for Mary Poppins that year. I think they were planning for Cary Grant in the Rex Harrison role but he said he wouldn’t even go see the movie if they didn’t use Harrison, at least per Ben Mankiewicz.

Well, no one complained about the length. It’s really a very tight movie, for all that. Everything serves a purpose and shows some aspect of character or plot. And it ends up with a very epic feel for all the intimacy of the story.

Obviously recommended.

But lovable?

The Happy Ending: Higgins is still a class-A jerk.

Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission

When The Boy and I walked out of the theater from this one, we had never been more proud to be Koreans.

Which, of course, you know. But the point is, I grew up in an America where patriotism was corny at best and in bad taste at worst. Now it’s considered racism and Nazi-ism. Ironic, I suppose, given America’s role in WWII, but there is a pervasive and persistent meme that has America turning into the bad guys instantly after winning the war. (The Soviets started it and lives a life long after we have buried them.)

Aiyiyiyiiyi!

Without us, these guy’s’d be speaking Japanese.

It’s not surprising then, that you if you want to see a pro-America movie, it has to come from a different country (like last year’s Detective Chinatown 2). Even if it’s just marketing, people of other countries figure Americans like to hear good things about their own country. Truer than you might think, but less true than you’d hope in a time when a substantial portion of the population seems bent on destroying the country.

Now, Koreans? They got none of that.

Even in a damned historical zombie movie, it’s only Love Of Korea that’s going to carry the day—no matter how weak the the leaders are and how corrupt the government, and no matter how thoroughly under Japan or China’s thumb they are.

There's a lot of it.

They keep the “hentai” in the basement.

We like that. You know, I love that, in America, you can talk about how much you hate America. But it’s way overdone in the arts, and so bad that you can’t even count on the President of the United States being a booster. (The Flower still talks about my “malaise speech” rant.)

In this movie, the Japanese are in their 33rd year of occupying Korea. The situation is so dire, some Koreans think this is the new normal, and Japanese have been carrying out their program of cultural genocide by forbidding schools to teach Korean. Some Korean children have never spoken anything but Japanese. (They are being raised to be imperial cannon fodder in the less cultural part of the genocide.)

Enter into this a brave lexicographer, who runs one of the last allowed Korean language magazines, and who is being pressured by his father to join the Japan-Korea alliance—another front in the war against Korean culture. He and his ragtag group are assembling words from all the many dialects of Korean, and trying to create a “standard Korean” from that. This is difficult given the Japanese are inclined to kill anyone trying to preserve Korean culture.

The unlikely hero of the piece is an illiterate petty thief, who accidentally swipes the unfinished dictionary when he steals our lexicographer’s briefcase. The lexicographer tracks him down and fetches the contents back, but this begins a relationship when it turns out the team’s eldest member knows the thief from a stint he did in jail. Not surprisingly, most of the dictionary team have family members in jail and/or have been there themselves.

And other parts.

He literally saves this guy’s ass.

As a result our thief ends up helping around the office and learning to read and write. Meanwhile, the pressure is on: The Japanese shut down all the remaining Korean papers, and a raid results in one member of the team being captured and tortured and much work being destroyed, to say nothing of the trust of the team members.

At the same time, the team has to finish ASAP, or they may never finish.

Even our humble thief is getting pressure at home: His son (who’s around 13), desperate for his dad to stay out of jail, doesn’t want to speak Korean at home. (He gets beaten for lapses at school.) He doesn’t want dad to teach his baby sister Korean, either.

Not bad.

Shopping for glasses in occupied WWII-era Korea.

It’s more exciting than you might think a book about putting together a dictionary would be. And in classic Korean style, incompetent bureaucracy and foreign tyrants war with the People Of Korea, who are not limited to the rich, or the middle class, or even non-felons.

And you don’t really know if the dictionary is going to get made (unless you’re more familiar with Korean history than I am) or which characters are going to live or die. I assume most of the liberties were taken with the dramatic aspects. Other Korean movies we’ve seen have offered fanciful takes on well-known (to Koreans) historical events.

We decided we may have enjoyed the comedy cop flick a little better, but there is a value to patriotism, to racial/tribal pride, and even to nationalism, and it’s just not something that can be found in modern American movies.

It’s not that we mind re-watching Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, et al. But there should be somebody out there now making movies that celebrate our country.

No, it's good, really!

THRILL to the harsh grading of spelling papers!

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

In a lot of ways, while the Brothers Warner haven’t been able to cash in on the recent sweet, sweet superhero money, they have done a good job counter-programming against it. In a world where superheroes are grim, pseudo-adult fare, movies like Teen Titans Go! To The MoviesThe Lego Batman Movie and the original Lego Movie manage to poke fun at both the current over-serious genre and the notion that being adult means having to take everything seriously.

That said, like the other films, I wouldn’t have gone to see The Lego Movie 2 if not for the Barbarienne.

It's not THAT bad. But it's bad.

She has the same blank expression I have when I try to remember the first movie.

In this movie, Legoland is devastated by enemies from the Sister System who are trying to hasten the Armapocalypse? Ourmomapocalypse? The end of the world. When all the gritty, grim characters are kidnapped, it’s up to the lovable, happy Emmet to save the day, which venture he approaches by enlisting the help of Rex Dangervest, a gritty, grimy roguish type who teaches him how to be a tough guy.

It’s cute. It’s not nearly as funny as the first one to be sure, but it’s also less frantic feeling. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directors of the first movie, are recently more famous for having been pulled off Solo: A Star Wars Story (which I had to type multiple times because it kept coming Soylo: A Soy Wars Soyry) and perhaps for being producers on the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which feels very influenced  by the Lego movies.

It's a girl. That's all I remember.

Who’s behind the mask? Honestly, I’ve already forgotten.

This also maybe suffers a bit because you know going in what the gag is. The Toy Story-ish relationship between the real world and the Lego world is even more tenuous than Toy Story and raises a bunch of questions that the movie glides over quickly, hoping you won’t think about it too long. This also means that the real-world resolution didn’t bite as much as it might’ve. I was, however, touched by the resolution—but then I’m a sap for these sorts of things.

They got new kids for the kids. Maya Rudolph plays mom. Will Ferrell’s voice plays dad. Chris Pratt is Emmet, Elizabeth Banks is Lucy, Will Arnett is Batman, Jason Momoa plays Aquaman (heh), and Bruce Willis does a really poor imitation of…himself. Seriously, I thought they got an imitator. But Die Hard was 30 years ago, maybe he doesn’t remember what he sounded like.

There are worse ways to spend 1:40, especially watching a kidflick. Very little in the way of scatological humor, which was nice. The next one comes out, The Barbarienne will probably be too old to care, so that’s…well, that’ll probably make me cry.

Or just a Bruce Willis movie?

So, I guess “The Lego Movie 2” is a Christmas movie?

They Shall Not Grow Old

Since the passing of the pass of movie, The Boy and I have been AMC stubs/A-list/whatever-they-call-it members. Membership is $20/month and you can see up to three movies a week for free. The trick, the catch, the fly in the ointment and the monkey in the wrench…that’s finding three movies in a month at AMC, especially given this does not cover any of the things we usually go to the AMC for: Rifftrax, TCM Big Screen Presents, and the Hayao Miyazaki revivals. AMC tickets around here are so expensive, $12.50 for a matinee, that you only need to see two movies to make your $20/month back, and we’ve probably managed that for three of the six months we’ve had it. (One Chinatown triple feature makes up for a lot, though.)

So, what a delight to find an actual film—by Peter Jackson, no less!—that we wanted to see and which, while it was in 3D and a documentary, did not disappoint on every frame.

Great job.

Hardly ANY of the frames were disappointing.

This is a documentary about English soldiers in WWI. It is told entirely in their words, with recording made in the ’70s, and using only archival footage (from a specific source). It’s a moving and intimate portrait of what some have called “The Dumbest War”. (Where “some” is “me”.) There is no narrator, so the movie sort of floats from the beginning of the conflict to the end, without any sense of progress, really, which while highly abbreviated also feels very real. If you’re in the trenches of the war, you often don’t know what’s going on, whether the end is near or even who’s winning.

As a result it’s a kind of unique experience, and less documentarian than one expects out of movie like this. You don’t get facts and figures, or even much in the way of geography: This is all focused on France and trenches. You learn less about The Great War, perhaps, than you do about war, generally. I can’t really think of another film like it, and I can’t really find fault with it.

After the movie proper there is a “making of” feature with Peter Jackson explaining what they did to the footage to bring it to life and how they selected the audio tapes, and how they organized the moving footage (most of it) with the occasional stills (mostly of dead bodies, as it stands out in my mind). This was a tremendous cap to the film.

It's not going to end well.

These guys are all about to charge over that ridge.

When you’re watching, it’s pretty clear that the film has been colorized (though you can’t be sure, it’s done so well, and there was color film back in the day), and some depth has been added as well. (This is the least annoying 3D movie I’ve ever seen.) When the sound comes on, you’re sort of amazed, because sound recording, while not impossible, would’ve been very challenging in a war zone.

But of course Jackson has recreated the sound. In an era of “bad lip reading”, his conception of how the sound would be is very, very convincing. In one case, he found the speech being read by the subject. A soldier saying “Hi, mum,” is utterly charming and both expected and unexpected. Actually, the inability of the soldiers to ignore the cameras is charming, a la The Wizard of Oz. Less charming is that these people in many case died shortly after the footage.

I did spot the tactic of showing people in the movie and then showing stills of the corpses similar looking people. Like all of this stuff, it’s fairly moving and gives a sense of things. It’s literal but non-specific, is probably how I’d describe it.

People were not, in fact, in black-and-white.

It also seems more lively, more true-to-life.

On the three point scale:

  1. Obviously the material is worthwhile and the attitudes on display are interesting and noteworthy.
  2. The presentation is amazing: A fascinating use of state-of-the-art film technology.
  3. Slant: None that I could see. Not even an anti-war slant, really. At points, the soldiers are saying, “When we weren’t fighting, at times it was just like camping out with the boys.”

Probably the least surprising aspect of the film was discovering that Peter Jackson is a hoarder. When they’re getting the colors for the uniforms, well, of course he happens to have a few WWI English and German uniforms lying around for reference. Need to know what a WWI cannon looks like up close…well, he’s got a couple of those, too. (Though not working, since they had to use modern artillery for the sounds.)

Worth watching and worth watching for the making-of feature, too.

Tanks! For the memories!

I think Jackson had these in his garage.

Stormy Weather (1943)

It’s black history month and that means—well, probably that we’re not going to be super interested in the throwbacks. Next year, I’ll see if I can’t encourage them to feature blaxploitation flicks. I don’t think they’d go for our other idea, which was a “Blackface History Month”. You could show some great movies: The Jazz Singer and Holiday InnBirth of a Nation, too, but I think it would be more fun if you showed movies where blackface was highlighted positively.

Intriguingly enough, Stormy Weather is a movie you could show for blackface history month. Although it’s mostly song-and-dance, there is a rather funny comedy bit in the middle where two friends have a conversation without ever finishing a sentence, and the two light-skinned performers black up before going on.

So.

Miller and Lee do their funny bits in blackface.

Life is complicated. History, being all the lives that have gone before, especially so.

This isn’t so much a musical as it is a hyper-condensed musical review. It has the very rough shape of a typical musical: Bill Robinson plays a guy who gets back from WWI and falls in love with Lena Horne (because, duh) but hasn’t made a name for himself so he goes off to do that, the two run into each other again and Lena gets him a spot in the show she’s in, and ultimately the two go on to great success only to break up because Bill wants to settle down and Lena doesn’t.

Well, of course Bill wants to settle, he’s 65 years old. Lena’s only 26! (And neither of them age in the slightest between 1918 and 1943!)

And look at those dresses!

What’s a few decades between living legends?

The age difference never comes up because it doesn’t matter: This is an excuse for some of the greatest musicians and performers to do their thing and that’s what they do. If it’s not “great” in the traditional musical-movie sense, it is basically 76 minutes of sheer delight, most of which has been cut into individual bits and put on YouTube over the years. The Flower, for example, had seen Fats Waller’s numbers (“That Ain’t Right”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and The Boy and/or The Flower had seen the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning dance number.

Speaking of problematic, besides the blackface, there’s an African primitive number. Heh. Why, it’s almost like, at a time when racism was a far more serious concern, people were much less sensitive to nonsense.

Cab Calloway, possibly my favorite bandleader of the era, wears an amazing zoot suit for his number. (The Flower did not care for that particular fashion.)

Remember that?

I confess, it reminds me of the MGM wolf.

When he’s roped back into performing—the basic gimmick being that he gets to see Lena’s heartfelt rendition of the titular song—he’s lured in by someone saying “It’s for the soldiers.”

“Anything for the soldiers!”

It stuck out, you know? I mean, obviously this is WWII, but having just seen Mal-Mo-E, I realized that we no longer have the actual language to be patriotic and grateful for our own country. You can argue—not without basis—that Robinson’s patriotism was a virtual requirement for a movie of the time. Nonetheless, the language was there and it was delivered sincerely.

Anyway, it’s an amazing little time capsule and worth watching if you have any interest in the music of the period.

A movie of moments.

I could post great scenes from it all day.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The new office puts The Boy and I within striking distance of some of the usually hard-to-get-to theaters, and this created the felicitous circumstance where we actually able to see the Coen brothers’ new movie on the Big Screen, instead of just on Netflix. As a rule-of-thumb, I don’t watch movies on TV, but as another rule of thumb, I see all the Coen brothers’ movies. The former was winning over the latter until this fortuitous day.

There’s another rule of thumb: Anthology movies suck. This is in conflict with yet a fourth rule of thumb (I’m all thumbs!), to wit: Coen brothers’ movies are great.

That's him singing!

Tim Blake Nelson does not have a stunt yodeler this time.

The greatest anthology movie I’ve ever seen was 2014’s Argentine/Spanish movie Wild Tales. I may have even remarked at the time that it was the only good anthology I’d ever seen, but that’s a bit less defensible. Nonetheless, it is typically the case of anthology films that there is one good, well-developed story—often the longest story—that is not quite long enough to be a feature, and which is then padded out with some lesser stuff, sometimes things that don’t rise much about a shaggy dog story.

Now, we really liked this movie, but I feel like a lot of people are going to have the aforementioned reaction to it: Some of the stories are very good, and some are weaker. But I also feel like there won’t be broad agreement as to which is which.

Of the six stories here, we have the full range of Coen: The opening story is a broadly comic mashup with Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy—who’s also a cold-blooded gunslinger. (Think Raising Arizona.) The second story is darkly comic features James Franco as a bank robber who escapes the noose only to find himself in even deeper (?) water. (I’d say A Serious Man, though with more insouciance.)

Heh.

Have some dignity, man!

The third story has Liam Neeson as an impresario to an armless/legless actor (Dudley from Harry Potter!) who turns out record crowds as they travel around the West…at least for a while. (This feels sorta Miller’s Crossing.) The fourth story has Tom Waits as a prospector who finds a big vein of gold in a beautiful but isolated land. If I had to relate it, tone-wise, it might best fit No Country For Old Men, though it’s not as bleak.

The fifth story takes place on the Oregon Trail, and is a tale of hardship and romance, reminiscent of True Grit (down to the characters’ refusal to use contractions in their speech). The last story is basically a ghost story which probably calls Blood Simple to mind as much as anything.

So, you know, if you like their funny movies, the first two stories, and maybe the last are going to be more to your liking than the middle ones. I might say I liked “The Gal Who Got Rattled” (the Oregon Trail one) the most, because it’s a funny sort of love story that really throws into contrast life then versus life now. But it’s really hard to compare them one to the next because they are very different (apart from their innate Coen-ness).

She does so well, too, up to a point.

Zoe Kazan gets rattled.

We found the Liam Neeson one (“Meal Ticket”) the least interesting, perhaps because it played out exactly as we expected it to. The Tom Waits shouldn’t have been as interesting as it was, given that it’s mostly just one guy occasionally talking to himself.

The last one is odd-in-that-Coen-way because it’s not really a ghost story, or not exactly a ghost story. It’s much like the Dybbuk story at the front of “A Serious Man” and Brendan Gleeson (CalvaryThe Guard) and Jonjo O’Neill (Defiance) as the Irishman and the Englishman, respectively, spell out the Coen philosophy.

Nobody knows anything. (Pace Eddie Mannix.) If you think you know what’s going on, wait five minutes, and the tide will turn. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is moments of clarity where we briefly get a glimpse of the machinations of fate. Or, even if we don’t understand those machinations, we may be favored by them.

That was Waits, right?

Last time I remember seeing Tom Waits in a film, it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In this last story, the Irishman and the Englishman are bounty hunters on board a stagecoach with three other passengers. The stagecoach never stops till it reaches its destination. The five argue increasingly metaphysical points, with the Englishman saying:

Englishman: I must say, it’s always interesting watching them after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage.
Frenchman: Passage?
Englishman: From here to there. To the other side. Watching them try to make sense of it, as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it. I do. I do.
Trapper: Try to make sense of what?
Englishman: All of it.
Lady: And do they ever succeed?
Englishman: [smiles] How would I know? I’m only watching!

And at the end, the reluctance of the three other passengers to follow the Englishman and the Irishman into the spooky hotel suggests that they’re all dead. But if they’re all dead, what was the corpse that the two bounty hunters took into the hotel? It doesn’t work!

But then, I don’t think it’s supposed to. They just like looking into our eyes as we try to make sense of it. They do. They do.

I, for one, was not fooled. In particular, I was not fooled by the central conceit that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a real-live book with color plates and published long ago. These are original Coen stories, except for “All Gold Canyon” which is a Jack London story, and “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, which was “inspired by” a story by Stewart Edward White.

Great performances. I thought Jonjo O’Neill gave the best performance I ever saw out of Paul Rudd. (I kept looking at him thinking, “Is that Paul Rudd? He’s doing great here!”) Harry Melling does an amazing job without arms and legs. Zoe Kazan (the gal who ends up quite rattled indeed) manages to be appealing in a movie designed to make nobody look very good. (The Old West was dirty.)

Carter Burwell’s score, six of them really, each as different from the others as the stories themselves, is spot on. His score for “The Gal” feels very Randy Newman-esque, though perhaps more owing to the Newmeister’s love of old-style orchestration and folksy melodies.

We could see it again. If it comes out closer to home, we’ll take The Flower, in fact. It won’t change anyone’s minds about the Coen brothers, though.

Hell?

The Frenchman, the Lady and the Trapper on their way to…?

Your Name Is Rose (Rosebud)

This one had a lot of different titles. It showed up as Rosebud at the theater but I think I saw it as “My Name is Rose” and “Her Name is Rose”. When I translated the characters online, Your Name Is Rose is what finally came out.

It's cute.

Kids dressing up like their parents.

It’s about a girl named “Rose”, duh. It’s 1978 and a chance cancellation leads to this poor factory girl singing in a local dive. She gets spotted by a talent agent, but also wins the heart of a young medical student when the police crash the place because…well, because it’s Korea in the ’70s and that was a thing.

She has a shot at glory but a chance rainstorm leads to sex…presumably—this isn’t a western movie where you’re going to see things (pace Handmaiden)—and her career is ruined when she refuses to have an abortion. Her doctor boyfriend has already gone to America at the insistence of his father who doesn’t want him involved with a factory girl, and he’s not even aware she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, Rose struggles by as a single mother, constantly dedicating and re-dedicating her life to her daughter.

It reminded me of Mildred Pierce. It’s a sort of melodramatic soaper that relies on class distinction as well as an unexplained and inexplicable pride. Rose is very proud. She always does what she wants, at least until her daughter comes along. And even then, it takes a big scare to lure her away from her dreams of music. When the doctor re-emerges and discovers he has a daughter, Rose is recalcitrant and refuses to admit that even is her father.

They were...I think.

Korean movie captures are hard to get so enjoy pictures of people who were probably in this.

Meanwhile, through this journey, there’s a guitarist and songwriter who fell in love with her when she showed up to her talent agent, and tags along for the rest of her life, unrequited. The story is actually told in flashback as he shows up at her…beach music school?…with a bunch of kids. I feel like much was cut from this movie (which is over two hours) because when we open, the jilted lover has an album the two of them on it, and there isn’t any point in the movie where they actually had any success to make a record. There are a few other things that feel “missing” but it didn’t bother us much.

Interestingly—I’ve never seen this in an American movie—one set of actors is used for the  ’70s and ’80s segments of the film, and then in the ’90s, when the characters are middle-aged, a different set of actors fulfill the main roles. Usually, Hollywood movies try to use makeup to go one way or the other, and not very successfully.

Another thing which was kind of nice was that the movie teases a Mildred Pierce-type sad ending but has a last minute redemption with an almost lightly comic stinger. It’s like melodrama without being so…melodramatic. “These things happen”, it says, “and if you’re not careful, they’ll happen again.”

We both felt it dragged a little in the middle. The characters and events are always interesting, which keeps you from getting bored, but the movie (like Rose) feels unfocused at times. We groaned when we saw Rose take a promising job in the finance sector because we just saw Default and we knew that wouldn’t end well. We had no idea how badly it would end for her.

It’s not a super driven, highly focused narrative but it was still quite enjoyable. We followed it up with the patriotic Mal-Mo-E.

Maybe.

A wacky misunderstanding about to be cleared up?

Extreme Job

A down-and-out bunch of cops sets up a stakeout in a restaurant across the street from a drug-lord’s HQ, only to find the restaurant is shutting down. In a panic, the desperate detectives buy out the restaurant only to find that its surprising success greatly interferes with their ability to conduct their investigation.

Waitaminute.

That’s the plot of last year’s Lobster Cop, a Chinese film.

They do this ALL the time.

Caught you!

This is a completely different thing. It’s Korean. And they’re making fried chicken.

Actually, the kind of funny thing about this movie is that, yes, it is completely different and that is because it’s Korean. (The fried chicken vs. lobster distinction seems to be a minor consideration.) We also enjoyed it a fair amount more than the Chinese film, and perhaps the most of the day’s Koreatown triple-feature. It is interesting to note, when similar movies are released, why one favors one over the other. It’s not just “Korean” over “Chinese”, as we mostly enjoyed the Chinese Detective Chinatown 2 more than The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, but in this case I feel like the Korean POV played a big factor.

When we open, our heroes are trying to bust a small-time drug user/dealer in an illegal poker game by doing the fancy “rappelling in through the skyscraper’s windows” but instead of smashing through the windows, they just hang there outside, due to their new policy of minimizing property damage. This unfortunately allows their perp to escape. As four of them are chasing him through the streets, their fifth member glides by on his scooter and easily takes the perp down.

But it's a big Asian thing, I guess.

You have to be pretty cocky to gloat with THAT haircut.

While he’s gloating at his frustrated team members, the perp tazes him and gets away again.

Ultimately, the perp runs through the street causing a 15- (or 16-, there’s a lot of debate on this topic) car pileup, when he gets hit by a bus, and they finally nab him.

Cut to scene with angry chief and a last ditch attempt to nail a big fish, and pretty soon you’re running a fried chicken restaurant. Far more than the Chinese film, Extreme Job plays up the comedy inherent in trying to run a restaurant while being a cop. (It’s not really possible.) In the second act of Lobster Cop, the movie goes full-bore hard-boiled detective story in a way that’s not unusual Asian cinema but not entirely successful (although said scenes are themselves very effective).

At the end of the second act of Extreme Job, not only is our team suspended from the force, but their restaurant’s good name has been tarnished by a muckraking TV producer who felt jilted because they didn’t want to be on his show, and when the Captain’s wife is comforting him, she says while it will be hard, they can start over with his retirement money—which she doesn’t know he’s spent to buy the restaurant.

It’s dark, but not like people-getting-murdered dark.

The third act turnaround is a thing of wonder: Fully investing themselves in the fried chicken business (seeing no other alternative), they end up being franchised, but that franchise is just a front for the very drug lords they were trying to catch. When investigating the various poorly-performing franchises, they use all their police skills and finally piece together what’s going on.

There’s a climactic action scene which is fairly epic and fascinating because it explains how the team came to be in the first place, which was sort of the real mystery.

They're good at...things.

Our…heroes?

It’s fun. You like the characters. You’re not really sure till the very end whether they’re going to stay cops or just give it up and sell chicken. There’s more honor in the former, of course, but it wasn’t as unthinkable here as it was in Lobster Cop. (Though the chief’s wife was rather reticent: “We’ll do anything. Except run a chicken shop.”

There’s a bad-ass chick, which happens in Asian movies—was probably invented in that land—but Jang Hee-Jin is very convincing, martial arts wise. Lee Ha-nee (A Heart Blackened) is somewhat less so but she does a great job of being a kind of unappealing shrew…that you still like. (The same character appears in Lobster Cop and has the same kind of character arc, too.)

It was a good start to the day, and would be followed up with the soaper Your Name Is Rose and the historical drama Mal-mo-e.

She looks vicious, though, doesn't she?

I think that: a) Jang Hee-Jin is the bad-ass chick; b) This is Jang Hee-Jin. Korean movies are hard to research.

Groundhog Day (1993)

“Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!”

“It’s cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?”

Name another. We'll wait.

Most iconic clock since Harold Llyod in “Safety Last”.

We had just re-viewed The Wizard of Oz and John Carpenter’s The Thing which, by themselves, speak to different (and often more effective eras of special effects), and which also reflect intense care in every shot, scene or sequence, and when Groundhog Day rolled around this Thursday, The Boy and I were interested—but not really excited—to go see it. (Around here, Groundhog Day is considered to be part of a trilogy with Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day.)

Modestly received in 1993, with a box office sandwiched between Grumpy Old Men and Free Willy, this story of a weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over has grown in stature over time. Sometimes, of course, this happens from mere nostalgia but a close re-view shows that, like, The Thing and The Wizard of Oz, the moment-by-moment attention to detail that makes a good movie great.

This could’ve been a hacky rip-off of It’s A Wonderful Life, but two plot points elevate it: one by its absence and one by its presence. The absent plot point was a detail in the original script where Phil’s curse is revealed to have been placed on him by an embittered ex-girlfriend. Without that, we are left to see it as a punishment/gift from God—a chance for redemption. In fact, when Phil has his first sincere night with Rita, he tells her that he fell in love with her at first sight, and in that moment realized that who he was was not good enough for her. The “curse” can seen to be self-inflicted from that point.

As seen in these outtakes.

In Stephen King’s novelization, Phil slowly turns into an actual groundhog.

The second point happens right after that scene, when after finding true love and sincerity, Phil wakes up on the exact same day. In other words, love—not even “true love”—is not enough to redeem him. He needs to extend this love out to the world. He needs to be that person he wants to be, and have that be enough.

Huge points to Harold Ramis (who has a cameo as a doctor, just like Jon Favreau in Elf, making me wonder if this is some kind of bone thrown to Jewish mothers of actors) for cutting the curse scene, and for recognizing something a little more divine in the overall arc.

Obviously, though, this movie is powered by Bill Murray’s performance. After a disastrous plunge into serious drama—The Razor’s Edge, which he negotiated by agreeing to be in Ghostbusters—Murray began to put more dramatic depth into comedic roles. For a while, his signature role was “The Jerk Who Gets Redeemed”, beginning with Scrooged and sorta wearing out its welcome with Larger Than Life (one of two elephant-based films of the year), but finding something akin to perfection here.

Ned! Ned The Head! Needlenose Ned!

Murray and Tobolowsky, of course.

Phil Connors is deeply unlikable when we meet him. At his worst, Murray’s smarminess can seep into what should be sincere moments—in my opinion, a weakness of the original Ghostbusters—but here, he’s in full command of it. When he first sees Rita, he falls in love with her, but his way of dealing with people is by being a jerk, which is not a tactic that’s going to work with her. His arrogance is so severe, that he cannot accept the smallest kindness gracefully, as when Rita puts him up in the B&B instead of the “fleabag hotel”. (This isolation from the rest of his crew, Rita and Larry, is a good dramatic move as well.)

By turns, we see Phil go from arrogance to fear to a maniacal kind of anger to sly manipulation which, when it fails in his approaches to Rita, leads to despair, apathy and repeated suicides. (As The Boy noted, “Feel good movies can get really dark!”). At no point, though, do we get any sense from Murray-the-actor that he feels like he’s above the material, or see the kind of compulsive clowning and defusing of potentially strong drama. In fact, after Phil’s first near-miss with Rita, his desperate attempts to “be fun” feel almost like Murray self-parody.

Freed of any distractions, Phil begins to discover the world—and other people. And, while he pines for Rita, he’s ultimately happy in serving others in his never-ending series of “now”s. Again, Murray’s sincerity wins out and, by the end, even some of his signature smarmy moves come across as genuine, which is a hell of a feat. In fact, I don’t wonder if the fact that he is less identified with a certain style of comedy today than he was 30 years ago is part of what makes the movie better with time (cf. Edward G. Robinson’s performance in The 10 Commandments).

She makes noises like a chipmunk when she gets excited.

French poetry? Should’ve stuck with Nancy.

Beyond Murray, the supporting cast is perfect. I have noted in the past that Rita is the weak link—I mean, she majored in 19th century French Poetry and visibly disapproves of Phil because she always drinks to World Peace—but whatever limitations Andie MacDowell has an actress, she manages to make some insufferable characteristics charming. The World Peace thing, for example, looks to be less about disapproving of Phil for drinking to the groundhog, and more about his

insincerity.

Chris Elliott as Larry is, I think, kind of a reminder that even if we’re not all as bad as Phil, we all have our own kinds of arrogance and interest in having others love us more than we wish to love them in return. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson—whose performance Ramis struggled mightily to rein in—is also one of those characters that would challenge the best of us to be generous and gracious, but in the context of the movie, that makes him more than just comic relief.

The movie never tries to tell us people are perfect, overly good or smart, but that they are worthy of being treated well nonetheless—and we are all served by doing so. And it does this without losing sight of the need to be funny and entertaining, and not preachy.

This, from the guy who directed Caddyshack and Vacation. It’s definitely worth a re-watch.

They'll never make another decent Ghostbusters.

R.I.P., buddy.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I bought tickets for this TCM-sponsored screening of The Wizard of Oz on the Thursday before the Sunday showing, and only the front row was open. It was a matinee and there were a mixture of old farts and youngsters, which makes for a noisy crowd. And then Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and theater went quiet.

Stupid dog, you make me look bad.

“Toto, stop looking at the camera. Toto. TOTO!”

I claim no objectivity (if there is such a thing) about this film, as a long time lover of Judy Garland: Pre-kids, we would rent every Judy Garland movie we could find, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter ParadeIn The Good Old Summertime, the Andy Hardy flicks with Mickey Rooney, and we loved them all, just like we loved the Decca years of “Zing! Went The String Of My Heart” and “Embraceable You” and so on.

What was interesting to me, however, is that much like our recent screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I found so much to admire in the technical aspects of the film. Before I get into that, though, I have to say that as corny and comic as the characters are, by the end of the 102 minutes, you feel like you know them and care about them. They tend to be unforgettable even if they’re on the screen for just a few seconds.

They tend to be unforgettable, even if after several decades of not seeing it, you haven’t thought of them. Like, when you think of the movie, you may not think of the cranky apple trees pelting the scarecrow with apples after he insults them, but you can probably picture it near perfectly now. (If you were a kid in the past 60 years, you may have watched it every year when it aired on TV, too.)

I said it.

Trees are jerks.

This is a movie that, for all its troubled production, never wastes your time. When the Tin Man (Jack Haley) does “If I Only Had A Heart”, he gets to do his (kind of amazing) dance number while Dorothy and The Scarecrow talk about inviting him along. But The Scarecrow also had a great dance number, less than three minutes long and chock full of special effects—cut. The only scene I’ve ever felt was (sorta) gratuitous was Bert Lahr’s “If I Were King Of The Forest,” but on viewing it anew, I think it gives us space for the Wizard’s minion to come back to tell them they weren’t going to be able to get in to see him, and to make their disappointment (however temporary) more stark.

Technically, this is a beautiful film. This is the last great gasp of Art Deco in cinema, and it’s perfect for the rounded towers of Oz. Every matte is lovingly detailed, and sold with utter conviction. (There are many times, in a modern high-def theater, you think they’re going to smack right into the wall.) Hundreds of hand-made flowers—never mind the field of poppies, there are flowers the camera pans past in Munchkinland that are amazingly detailed and on screen for literally two seconds.

Or am I reading too much into it?

Sleek and stylish but also sorta reminiscent of Kansan grain silos?

As I always say the test for special effects is not if they’re “realistic”, but whether they read. Do they communicate what you want them to, and nothing else, and do they fit the aesthetic of the film? But even 80 years later, the makeup on Dorothy’s three companions amazes. Not so much the plain silver of the Tin Man—though his costume conveys “metal” than I feel it should—but it’s hard to tell where the makeup starts and ends on the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow.

I hazily recall being able to see the string for the Lion’s tail, though I could not detect it at any point here. I’d suspect digital trickery but there seemed to be no serious indication that the copy we were viewing had been cleaned up in any way. (The sound was actually a little muddy and muted; AMC dropped the ball, I think.)

The witch flying out of her tower is a little comical, but the flying monkeys? Still freaky close up with some damn clever marketing. And definitely one of the all-time great scares in a kiddie movie. I think The Barbarienne remarked that there was a lot more murder in this kid’s movie than she expected (but it’s only two wicked witches, and they don’t count).

It's one of the millions of great quotes.

Fly, monkeys!

Of course the songs are literally iconic, not iconic in the way everyone throws the I-word around these days. But I bet you can also remember the Wicked Witch’s theme, and the guard’s chant (Oh-lee-oh, Lee-OH-oh!).

The performances, of course. Our four heroes were all veterans of Vaudeville. They say Vaudeville stank, and they’re not wrong: But the best of it survived to give us some of the best and most memorable moments in film and television. I mean, you could just look at virtually everyone’s feet and be amazed by the choreography, then crank that up to 11 as you realize Lahr’s costume weighed 100 pounds.

Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is arguably the most imitated and referenced performance in history. The famously sweet lady was so frequently accosted by children asking her why she was so mean to Dorothy that she went on Mr. Rogers to explain that WWW was just a character.

No more brains than you.

Nor was it without biting satire. This whole scene is emblematic of “The Establishment” of any era.

I know that like It’s A Wonderful Life, a lot of people don’t like this movie and, well, de gustibus and all that. But it’s a hard film not to admire just on a technical and aesthetic level.

But, as I said, I am biased.

The Thing (1982)

I have a theory that nobody really wants effective horror movies. Or effective horror anything, really, because to be horrified is to be repulsed, to be made smaller, if you will. To paraphrase Mrs. Radcliffe (the mother of the Gothic Horror novel), terror expands the soul and horror contracts it. I think about this whenever I think about the reaction to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing.

Heh, I wish I had this guy's hairline.

Portrait of the author, thinking.

Because at the time, in what is sometimes seen as a right-wing cultural backlash in the wake of Regan’s election (history, like Star Wars prequels, rhymes—and sucks), The Thing was labeled a kind of “pornography”. (I’m going off memory now so I can’t tell you who labeled it such, but my memory matches John Carpenter’s.) It didn’t do well, generated bad press, and basically ended Carpenter’s career. Yes, he went on to make many more movies but his confidence was shaken and he was never really given a budget again. (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, came out the very same weekend, and also disappointed at the box office.) Nowadays, The Thing is generally regarded as his finest film, and a masterpiece of horror.

Not for nothing, but the theater held this showing in its largest auditorium and it was sold out. Had more people pre-bought tickets, they would’ve opened a second screen.

Carpenter always wanted to do Westerns, but he came of age as a writer/director when the Western’s decade-long dominance came to an end and, of course, came to prominence as the director of Halloween. But you don’t have to look hard at a Carpenter’s film to see the Western influence, and the ghost of Howard Hawks.  (Assault on Precinct 13 is basically a low-budget, urban remake of Rio Bravo. The original Thing From Another World was produced by Hawks, and some have argued directed by him, but that’s a story in itself.) When he’s on his game, this non-sentimental Western style—tough people in tough circumstances—throws the supernatural elements of the story into sharp contrast in a way that few other directors can pull off.

Frontier justice!

Here, the townsfolk are going to lynch an innocent space alien.

I don’t think I’ve actually seen this movie since it came out. I own the DVD and started listening to the commentary but I didn’t get past the first 5-10 minutes (getting uninterrupted movie time is nigh impossible for me at home, which is why I go to the theater). I was (predictably) much less engrossed on this viewing than I was as a boy, but I was sort of surprised not just at how well it held up, but how expertly made it is.

First, has there ever been a director who got so much mileage out of a dog standing and staring?

I kid The Joker.

Despite his greater range, Jed lost the Best Supporting Oscar to Jack Nicholson.

The two most bravura scenes (the CPR scene and the blood test scene) are sheer wizardry. Beautifully shot, timed and executed, they hold up 35 years later, despite the outdated special effects technology. And when I say “outdated”, I mean “we don’t use them any more”, not “we shouldn’t use them any more.” I mean, almost nobody would do this because CGI is so much more forgiving, and for every brilliant Rob Bottin—he was 23 at the time—you’re going to get 100 Charles Band/Ghoulies-style animatronics. And for every Carpenter, knowing exactly how to light and angle the shot, you’re gonna get a Don Dohler who just turns out the lights.

Dean Cundey was the cinematographer here, and he would go on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Apollo 13 before ending up (as the boys on Red Letter Media like to point out) lensing Jack and Jill and Scooby Doo and the Curse of the Lake Monster. Let’s hope this guy gets a comeback.

The effects are still effective, is what I’m getting at, even today as I’m aware of all the tricks being used. It’s not important, I generally say, whether effects are “realistic” but it is important that they convey a persuasive aesthetic. And while Venom was fine, and probably the sort of thing you couldn’t do effectively any other way, I can’t help but notice I have a different reaction between “that’s a cool prop, a thing in the real world” and “that’s someone like me applying an algorithm to some pixels.”

You Quiero Taco HELL!

Bottin did get a little overwhelmed and Stan Winston stepped in to make Satan’s Chihuahua here.

More surprising to me was that, despite there being a dozen characters, they actually do seem to use their short screen time to demonstrate real character, not just bodies to be picked off. Carpenter worked with screenwriter Bill Lancaster (whose other credits are all The Bad News Bears-related) and had a strong hand in shaping things. Besides Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs, even more minor characters, like Palmer (David Clennon, Gone Girl), the cynical stoner who utters the immortal words “You gotta be f***in’ kidding”, feel straight out of other Carpenter films.

As much as I enjoyed the film back in the day, I would have agreed with the sentiment that it was somewhat nihilistic and the ending unsatisfyingly ambiguous. Upon a re-view, though, I didn’t get that vibe at all: Everyone’s actions, even when incompetent—and there’s a fair amount of believable incompetence, like dropping a grenade when you’re panicking—seem very sensibly survival driven. Even the nervous breakdown of Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) makes sense when you realize that he sees the bigger picture.

And as for the end, well, I think it’s actually pretty clear that our heroes have won. It’s even broken down earlier on: If either survivor is The Thing, he could simply fall upon the other and kill him. If both were The Thing, they’d have no reason to pretend they weren’t. I think it actually has a happy-ish, if rather paranoid, ending.

It’s just one of the many things you can find in the original criticism that I think is just plain wrong. Because I think what happened is that this movie really freaking horrified people, including movie critics, and they responded by attacking it.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? If something really and truly horrified you, you’d probably attack it. That’s why most “horror” movies these days are compilations of jump scares, smash cuts and cheesy CGI.

Nobody wants to get TOO scared.

Crunchy!

The problem with ordering an Hors d’oeuvre for the table is nobody wants to be the first to dig in.

Venom

Of all the children, the Barbarienne is the most susceptible to Internet memes and just plain-old advertising, which makes her an oddity around here, and which also means that Yours Truly pulls dad duty and takes her to see films that would otherwise go by like dust in the wind. But this year, at least, it’s been an okay Avengers flick, and not something like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.

And also this movie. Going on ten years now, I’ve mentioned “superhero burnout”, and there hasn’t been one made in the past few years I had any strong interest in seeing. I’d heard good things about Venom, but you hear good things about all of these movies, even as the Marvel formula drains more and more life out of each incarnation.

"Go back to your indie films, nerd!"

Tom Hardy’s sick of my whining.

This isn’t a Marvel picture, exactly, though. It doesn’t follow the formula, and it’s not Disney. (In fact, when the Sony logo came up, I did my best Plinkett imitation: “Oh, no….” which either amused or offended the Barb, it’s hard to tell)  Even odder, though, is that it’s not exactly a superhero movie. It’s a buddy-cop movie in superhero clothes. (I’d say “in tights” but there aren’t any tights and movie superheroes don’t wear tights any more.)

The story is that Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an hard-hitting investigative reporter who takes advantage of his fiancee (Michelle Williams) by sneaking a peak at a confidential email which happens to contain dirt on mega-tech-villain (the new standard, if you hadn’t noticed) that Eddie just so happens to be interviewing—with strict orders not to go all Mike Wallace on the guy.

Which of course Eddie does, losing his job, his girl, and making an enemy out of the evil tech-lord Drake (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler). However, dorky Scientist Girl (Jenny Slate, My Blind Brother, Abortions Are Awesome, and a bunch of kids movies, like Zootopia) gets cold feet when Drake starts using human subjects in his experiments with alien xeno…blobs. Whatever they are.

I think it's weird, is all.

On break, Slate describes her third abortion to a beleaguered Tom Hardy.

Drake’s convinced that the future of man is in the stars, and he’s gonna need an alien parasite…er, symbiont. Symbiote? We couldn’t figure out which it was, though the two words seem to be largely synonymous. The problem is that these xenoblobs, as eager as they are to hook up, tend to kill their hosts.

A little guerilla reportage gone wrong and before you know it, Eddie’s got parasites and is struggling to survive as Drake’s henchmen come after him, and his space-alien passenger likes to solve problems by eating humans.

It works better than it should: Tom Hardy is appealing, even as a kind of loser character, and the movie spends most of its time with him talking to himself. I mean, yeah, he’s talking to the parasite inside him, and we hear said parasite, but he’s basically talking to himself. Arguing with himself against eating random passers-by, and so on.

Can't prove anyone wrong.

If Venom were real, I guess this is what he’d look like?

Then Venom comes out and my interest flat-lines. The CGI is not bad but the character itself is so cartoony, that you’re never in danger of thinking that you’re watching anything real. Now, I couldn’t always parse what the gravelly-voiced creature was saying—voiced by Tom Hardy, so you know he really is talking to himself—but even the raspy voice has miles more charm and interest than the goofy 3D model.

Sort of like Thor: Ragnarok, the parts that work are the least comic-book-y aspects. There’s a car chase early on that’s pretty good and has realistic (in the ’70s sense of realism, as in “real cars were involved”) but goes on way too long. The final battle is also a bit too long and shows the real limitations of this kind of CGI spaghetti.

I mean, I can’t prove that this isn’t exactly how two blobbby space aliens fighting would look, but I can say it was overly busy and boring to look at. But they show it in the trailer, so clearly my tastes are not really the ones dictating these things.

Meh.

This was probably a really expensive shot and I couldn’t care less.

I would say director Ruben Fleischer (ZombielandGangster Squad) did about as good as could be expected with the material. Hell, probably everyone did. I feel like the whole superhero genre is kind of on automatic pilot with nobody really in control any more.

But that shouldn’t deter you, if you don’t mind a lot of CGI goofiness and some mild superhero antics. Oh, and Venom’s weakness is sound in the 3-5K range, which strikes me as improbable somehow. Like there are sounds going on in that range not infrequently, and we just never notice them. But that’s a nitpick.

The Barb loved it of course. I didn’t hate it, which is not nothing.

 

Cliffhanger (1993)

I have a new favorite Renny Harlin movie!

OK, I have a favorite Renny Harlin movie, where before I wouldn’t take free tickets to anything with his name on it. I associated him with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4Die Hard 2 and Lethal Weapon 2—the last of which he didn’t even direct (Richard Donner directed all four LWs) but it’s just how I thought of him: The guy who ruins franchises. Also, I knew he married Geena Davis and ruined her career with Cutthroat Island. And then did that awful shark movie.

This isn’t entirely fair. (Especially the Lethal Weapon thing.) But then, neither is life, especially when you’re trapped on a mountain by a madman bent on having you fetch his wads of fat cash from various snowy cliffsides.

Ugh.

Artist’s depiction of John Lithgow trying to give me tickets to see “Exorcist: The Beginning”.

Yep. It’s Die Hard On A Mountain. From the release of Die Hard (1988) for about the next 10-15 years, about 30% of all movies were Die Hard. There was Die Hard on a Boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard On A Boat But On A Train (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory). Why there were even a couple of Die Hard In A Skyscraper But With Boobs: Skyscraper, and our own beloved Hard To Die which despite the title is actually a remake of Sorority House Massacre 2. For the piece d’resistance of this digression, there was in fact no Sorority House Massacre 1, so SHM2 is I guess the most original movie on this list.

In this variant, John Lithgow plays the evil genius who orchestrates a heist from a plane loaded with $1,000 bills (which, he knows a guy who can fence) but things go bad and suitcases full of cash go plummeting into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…

…where our brooding hero is licking his wounds after letting his now alienated best pal’s (Michael Rooker of Guardians of the Galaxy) girlfriend fall to her death. His girlfriend (Janine Turner, Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer) is trying to bring him around, but her efforts are interrupted by the aforementioned shenanigans.

They're actually not as hard to see as this picture would lead you to believe.

Here Sylvester Stallone points out the many plot holes to Janine Turner.

It’s impossible to watch this movie even today without noticing what it gets wrong relative to Die Hard. For example, Stallone can act, but he mostly doesn’t here. The movie’s a little fuzzy on why he’s beating himself up so much, but the instant the action starts he stops being Broody Stallone and becomes Action Man. John Lithgow can overact and must not have sensitive teeth the way he chews the icy scenery here. Stallone’s dramatic arc with Rooker is basically pointless.

We’re not really here for high drama, though, and even Die Hard’s character arcs (particularly with Sgt. Powell) are corny, however well constructed. Cliffhanger tends to go to the dramatic cheese well a lot…which is kind of entertaining, at least, if dumb. Lithgow’s campily English-accented Qualen lacks any gravitas, and it’s really hard to imagine him planning anything with anyone, he’s so nuts.

Buckaroo Banzai reference!

Dr. Emilio Lizardo called to say “Hey, dial it back a bit.”

But Stallone’s Action Man (like Schwarzenegger’s and, come to think of it, most of the Die Hard clone heroes) can never really be hurt. He has setbacks, but they never imperil him personally—even when they do. There’s a war of attrition against John McClane and he shows it. Here Stallone gets shot, apparently in the gut—somewhere between the ribs and the stomach where I guess we just keep the meat we need so we can have non-serious flesh wounds—but after the scene where he kills the guy who shoots him (by lifting him up and impaling him on a stalactite, after the guy has beaten the tar out of him for several minutes besides shooting him) he just sort of shakes off the wound. I mean, there’s no indication of him ever having been shot there afterwards. I think even the bloodstain on his shirt that indicates he’s been shot just goes away.

He also gets trapped under the water in frozen ice. When he escapes the ice, he’s still at a high altitude on a snowy mountain and minus the clothes he had to shed from sinking, but by the next shot he’s dry and not even shivering. (They often don’t look cold in this movie.) It’s not that Die Hard doesn’t have its cheats. It’s that when the cheats keep piling up and piling up, it gets increasingly harder to care.

The movie lacks a good sense of time tension: The cavalry is on the way but that never really feels like time pressure for the bad guys or much chance of salvation for the good guys. Likewise, Qualen’s entourage is mostly just bodies for Stallone (or Qualen) to kill. I mean, after they’re all dead, John Lithgow manages to single-handedly capture Janine Turner from a helicopter by pointing a pistol at her through the windshield.

Despite all this, it’s fun. It’s probably more fun now than it was 25 years ago because you don’t have any hopes about it being another Die Hard, and a lot of what feels stupid also feels like a fun throwback to that heyday of action movies.

Really fine score by Trevor Jones, heavier on the majesty than the suspense, but top notch. I think Mr. Jones mostly scores his son’s movies these days, which is kind of nice.

We like nice.

Rooker would be teamed up with Stallone again in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”, which is also kinda nice.

Roma

A middle-class Mexican family in 1970-1971 undergoes a lot of changes amidst the riots and earthquake, as seen from the perspective of their Indian maid. This is the kind of movie The Boy and I used to see a lot a few years back: It’s kind of a movie for cinephiles (apart from any regional or nostalgic appeal), and one of those movies that grows on you.

The basic story is that Cleo is a young Indian woman (we never learn her age) from a poor village who cleans up after the four young children and the extremely prolific dog of a quarreling middle-age couple. She has a boyfriend who gets her pregnant, but even as the family is falling apart, the mother is helping the (terrified and abandoned) girl out. The mother is struggling with her wayward husband, and Cleo struggles with the prospect of being a single mom.

I think they're Swedish.

This involves shooting things with her Swedish relatives, I guess.

This movie is very slow-paced. It’s not really done in a high drama style: A lot of things play out in real time.The only music is ambient. Meanwhile, the camera is kept at the same level and strictly perpendicular to the characters, making the audience feel like they’re there watching it play out. The black-and-white cinematography is nice, and sometimes strikingly beautiful, but there isn’t a lot of noir-ish lighting and, as mentioned, the angles are kept flat.

What keeps you interested are the real-ness of the characters and some concern for their fate. Which of course won’t work for everyone, but did for us. At the end of the second act, there’s a kind of gut punch—well foreshadowed to be sure, but still effective—and I was joking with The Boy that my indie-film PTSD made me worried throughout the third act that far worse was going to happen.

Pseudo-biographical.

I think Cuaron is represented by the oldest of the boys.

If you’ve seen a lot of arty films, you know that the downer ending more than occasionally gives way to the grotesquely morbid dark carnival of horror, and because I had come to care about the characters, I was a little worried we were going to get a “And then they all got Ebola and died.” The fact that this was autobiographical for Cuarón  was not entirely reassuring, since certainly stories get exaggerated in the re-telling. My only real reassurance is that Cuarón is not a hack.

Anyway, the third act is dramatic but not lurid, and satisfying. You don’t end up feeling bad that you spent two-and-a-quarter hours with these people. They’re not perfect but you like them and are rooting for them. But you do have to rev down for the ride.

Oh! I didn’t give a penis warning for Mandy and some people appreciate those, so let me just say there’s a penis in this one, too. A martial arts penis.

That's a Mona Lisa Smile.

Here, Cleo is looking at the martial arts penis.

Mandy

Finally! A movie based on Barry Manilow’s 1975 #1 monster pop hit “Mandy”! You probably remember these classic lyrics:

Oh, Mandy!
They came and they took you and burned you
So now I’m forging an ax
Oh, Mandy!

Or, as The Boy has it: “If Nicolas Cage forging his own axe isn’t enough to entice you into the theater, this probably isn’t the movie for you.”

Happy endings!

It’s got a choppy end, a pokey end and a stabby end.

I was going to open the year with a 2018-in-review style offering, but half of our 120+ screenings (the lowest since 2010) were classic revivals, and half of what was left were mainstream Korean and Chinese cinema. It was a bad year for Hollywood by my lights. This movie, for all its faults (and narrow audience under the best of circumstances) nonetheless has a lot more heart and soul than the top 10 2018 movies combined.

By the time we had heard of it, it had already been pulled from its widest release (about 250 theaters), but was popping up at midnight showings and revivals around the city. This week, it turned up at the Downtown Independent as part of double-feature of Panos Cosmatos (director) films, including Beyond The Black Rainbow. If you know Red Letter Media, Jay Bauman is a fan of both films, and Mike Stoklasa…less so. (Taste-wise, as far as weird horror, I tend to fall between the two of them.)

So, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: This is a movie that combines a popular ’60s-’70s era genre, the crazy cult (sometimes with, sometimes without actual supernatural connections) that kidnaps and/or terrorizes some normies with a revenge flick. In the first half, a logger and his girl are living a peaceful (but eerie) life in a small cabin in the woods, when the girl happens to be spotted on the side of the road by the leader of a small cult which apparently travels the countryside getting (and occasionally sacrificing) new recruits. The leader becomes obsessed with her and summons demonic biker mutants to help the clan invade the hapless couple’s home. In the second half, the logger seeks revenge on the demonic biker mutants and cult.

Notable entries in this breed include Wes Craven’s first film, Last House on the Left and Who Are We Kidding? This Is An Awful Genre Full Of Crap.

Can't they just have a nice minivan once in a while?

It’s always bikes and vans in these movies.

The first thing that hits you about Mandy, though, is an earnestness combined with no small level of skill, somewhat reminiscent of Evil Dead. The movie sets the tone immediately—well, first with a King Crimson tune playing over a really long opening credits sequence of the sort that hasn’t been seen much in three decades—but then with Red (Nicolas Cage) felling a tree in a color-muted forest and driving home while President Reagan opines about America’s rejection of pornography and moral degradation. The year is 1983. Red turns the dial away from the Gipper (to his ultimate misfortune).

His wife, Mandy (whose name I swear we don’t hear until the cult leader intones it 40 minutes later) is an artist and, if her t-shirts are to be believed, a fan of the darker musical arts like Black Sabbath. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go, The Death of Stalin) has a scar on one side of her face going down from her left eye, which is never explained, and she apparently draws fantasy art, which we never see but which really impresses her husband.

They’re happy, after a fashion, though a pall hangs over them that is not entirely attributable to the score by frequent Denis Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated). It’s almost as if everything has already happened and they’re powerless to stop it. This part of the movie is filmed with a lot of basic camera effects: Double-exposures, trails, color…uh…de-correction. The camera pans up to the sky occasionally revealing a heavy metal album cover.

Hard as it is to believe that.

This window is never smashed, somehow.

Actually, the whole movie could be described as a series of heavy metal album covers. In the second half of the film, which actually eases up on the psychedelic camera effects, there is animation that feels like it’s straight outta the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, presumably as dreamed by Red. Why? Well, why not? (I mean, I’m guessing that’s what Mandy’s art—that we never see—looks like, but that’s not really an explanation.) But this is just one of many “why”s.

Why, when Red tracks down the demonic mutant bikers in the house they’ve invaded, is there a smoke-filled bottomless pit adjoining the kitchen, down which one of the bikers falls never to be seen again? Why does the cult operate out of a giant empty barn with a huge cross carved in the back, but also a surprisingly deep underground cavern? Why does the clandestine drug chemist not only know exactly what Red wants without Red ever speaking a word to him? And why is he so swayed by Red’s unspoken argument that he lets out his caged tigers in shame? Are the demonic mutant bikers actually demons and/or mutants? What is that liquid they demand as payment for their services, the merest taste of which utterly disorients Red?

Why?

Wait…wut?

If you care about these questions, this isn’t the movie for you. These things happen because they’re cool, and we all know how this story plays out so why belabor the action with boring details? The movie teeters on the edge of pretentiousness but then pulls back with deliberately goofy moments: Red and Mandy are enthralled watching Don Dohler’s “Night Beast” on their 12-inch tube TV; Red has a showdown with the beefy cult baddy in the form of a chainsaw duel—something I haven’t seen since Motel Hell; At the moment of deepest despair, with Red realizing Mandy is gone, there’s a startlingly plausible but really gross commercial for Cheddar Goblin macaroni ‘n’ cheese (directed by the guy who created “Too Many Cooks”); the movie has a few “chapter titles” all done in unabashed ’80s metal fonts; even the climactic gore effect is practical and right out of the ’80s.

I don’t know if I’d say the movie was fun so much as it is a lot of things from the sublime to the ridiculous and it embraces all of them.

Drugs are a hell of a thing.

Nobody ever watched “Night Beast” like this.

Great performances all around: Cameo by Bill Duke, essentially reprising his Predator role. Linus Roache as Charles-Manson-by-way-of-Jame-Gumb. Andrea Riseborough manages a nice mix of haunted and haunting, vulnerability and strength. Everyone’s weird and creepy, which is appropriate.

And of course, Mr. Cage. The movie exploits Cage’s range, from his genuinely touching grief over the loss of his wife to his blood-soaked wild-eyed staring at things that aren’t there, which can’t help but draw laughs.

I can’t recommend it to everyone. The pacing was rather slow, all things considered. It is visually chaotic (though far less so than Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). It is the platonic essence of a really bad genre that succeeds to the degree it does with sheer energy and artistry. But it ain’t formulaic—and in that sense it’s a cure for what ails us in current cinema.

I mean.

Also, happy ending!

Fargo (1996)

Fargo has come up a lot on this blog over the years, serving as a kind of touchstone for regional movies about the midwest (like Thin Ice and Frozen River) and just being culturally iconic enough to be a plot point for other movies (like Kumiko, The Treasure Thief), but this is the first time we’ve seen it in the theater since it came out, and the first time The Boy saw it all the way through.

Trivia as boring as it is irrelevant.

This statue exists but not actually on the way to Brainerd, I guess.

It’s a good movie. Tight. It cemented the Coen Brothers as legitimate auteurs in Hollywood Establishment, though they personally seem to change nothing about themselves, any more than they did when Miller’s Crossing first got really favorable critical notice. They followed this up with a little flop known as The Big Lebowski which Siskel & Ebert excoriated because (and I am not making this up), Fargo was about poor people and The Big Lebowski was about rich people.

Your periodic reminder that movie critics are have the same gut reactions to things regular moviegoers have and then backfill them with nonsense to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about.

I swear.

Unrelated picture.

Fargo begins with a lie about the movie being based on true events, which at this point in my understanding of the Coens I’m attributing as part of their overarching philosophy that nobody knows anything. Nobody knows what’s going on. And nobody knows cause and effect. Or perhaps just, “We plan. God laughs.” (Hail, Caesar! is the only exception tot his I can think of.) This little blurb at the front of Fargo becomes the vignette about the dybbuk in A Serious Man.

The story is that Jerry Lundergaard needs a lot of money. (One of the more tantalizing questions in cinema history is why he needs the money. He has no apparent drug habit, no side-girl, no apparent gambling debts. It’s almost as if his moral failings are innate, which raises in itself a lot interesting questions.) His father-in-law has a lot of money but (rightly) doesn’t really trust Jerry much at all. So he gets in touch with a shady guy named Carl to arrange for his wife to be kidnapped. Carl has a pal Gaear as an accomplice, but Gaear is kind of a loose cannon, and a lot of people end up dead before the  story’s over.

The first murders occur in Brainerd, where it falls to local sheriff Marge Gunderson, 7-months-pregnant, to solve the case which takes her from the Twin Cities all the way to the titular Fargo. Marge is really the main character here, representing the entire “Minnesota nice” culture. In fact, the key to this movie is a part that has puzzled me from the second or third time I saw it.

Besides the innate humor of very non-white people having regional accents?

What is going on?

This is a tight movie. Everything in it has a purpose. Sometimes, you can say, defensibly, that a scene serves to demonstrate character, but that’s a little flabby, so I was never happy with my understanding of this sequence where Marge meets up with an old high school classmate, the twitchy Mike Yanagita. Mike’s Minnesota-Nice breaks down as he sheds tears over his deceased wife, and the kind-hearted Marge is moved to comfort him. Shortly after, she discovers that Mike’s got mental problems. He was never married to the woman—and she isn’t even dead and Marge should give her a call.

I never could figure this scene out. Mike’s connected to nobody in the film. Nothing happens in that pair of encounters that forwards the plot, like when Marge and her husband are at the buffet and someone walks in a police report. I had heard someone (Frances McDormand, I thought) suggest that Marge was sorta feeling the waters out for an affair, but apart from primping her hair as she walks in, there’s not just no indication of that, there’s negative indication of it, as every slight advance from Mike makes Marge visibly and (gasp!) even vocally uncomfortable.

I think the hair primping is a sign of Marge’s (ever so slight) flaws, but I think what we’re seeing is pride. Marge is worried about how she’s doing in life, with her painter husband vying to get his painting on a bird-theme set of stamps and her first child on the way. But there’s no lust there.

Darn tootin'.

Getting the three cent stamp is pretty darn good.

But now it seems so obvious: Marge has come to Minneapolis to see Shep, and that leads her to Jerry’s car dealership. Jerry’s answer to the question about missing cars is glib, and he’s agitated by it. But because of the whole Minnesota-nice thing, she just takes him on face value. It’s her discovering that someone might lie about something in order to manipulate her that makes her go back to the car dealership. That in turn rattles Jerry’s cage enough for him to flee the interview, and accelerates his final doom.

This is underscored by Marge’s final words to the murderous Gaear: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” She doesn’t understand it. Not just her, but every Minnesotan who deals with a real monster—like the waitress smiling at the distraught Jerry, the hapless parking lot attendants Carl deals with, and so on—is nonplussed by fairly common rudeness and can’t really grasp an awfulness that goes beyond that.

As with all Coen brothers movie, we loved it and multiple screenings are worthwhile.

In The Big Lebowski, his last Coen movie, he is cremated.

Steve Buscemi ends up in increasingly smaller pieces at the end of each Coen movie.

 

The Mule

One could uncharitably observe that Clint Eastwood’s latest movie has high-60s scores on RT—the cinematic equivalent of a “golf clap”—but as I like to ask my parents, “Well, hey, where’s your movie?” I mean, the guy is 88 1/2 (and you get to start counting half-years again at that age) and he still makes better movies than most. I would say it’s in my top 10 of new American films for the year but that’s a kind of backhanded compliment, since I sure didn’t see a lot of new American films.

Do you feel lucky, punk?

This is the kind of guy you don’t give a backhanded compliment to in person.

And what’s interesting and really good about this movie is that Clint is playing a character much like his others, but taking it in a new direction. Once again, Clint plays an old man with a lot of regrets. In this case, a man named Earl, who is a kind of bon vivant man-about-town winning all kinds of awards for how awesome his flowers are—yes, you read that right—while giving his family serious short-shrift. After an opening set-up where Earl doesn’t show up for the wedding of his daughter (played by real daughter Allison Eastwood), flash-forward 12 years to the now 90-year-old gardener losing his flower farm (to Internet-savvy flower providers) and having nowhere to go. With his granddaughter (presumably from an earlier marriage of his daughter’s—lotta missing men in this movie) now the one about to get married.

Well, he ends up muling because what could be less suspicious than a 90-year-old hauling pecans? He starts hesitantly, of course, but when he gets the money from these runs, things start to turn around for him. He gets a new truck. He’s maybe going to stop there but then he does another run and gets his farm back. Then it looks like he’s really going to stop, but there’s a fire at the VFW and where will all the vets go?

She's not unattractive.

Father and daughter.

He starts showing up for family events, even covers his granddaughter’s cosmetology school tuition. And he has a kind of civilizing effect on everyone around him: The thuggish drug-dealers start liking him because, even though he sort of meanders on his runs (stopping for pulled pork and not one but two hookers at a time), he tends to treat everyone like a human being. He isn’t—as most people in this modern world seem to be—fragile and pissy. So he’s quick to forgive.

Some of the classic I’m-A-Guy-From-The-’50s-So-I-Don’t-Know-The-PC-rules show up here, a la Gran Torino, though this isn’t as great as that movie. And if you remember how lukewarmly that film was received, except in this household and especially by The Flower, whose favorite movie it was for years, you realize that Eastwood’s films tend to age well. This one, I think, will, too: The direction struck me as a little slack in the early scenes, but the movie closes really strong with a kind of unexpected redemption for an Eastwood character.

The last act is altogether more emotional than anything we expected. (The Boy and I. The Flower was hanging out with her godmother.)

Spoilers!

“I’m going to love your death scene…wait, what?”

A few things didn’t work for me. The early direction, as mentioned, though I may revise that. And the flashback does not actually do much to make Clint seem twelve years younger. He seems to be muttering and frail in those early scenes, where later scenes he comes off a lot more robust. A lot of that, I’m sure was deliberate: As he achieves what he thinks is success, he becomes more confident and…uh…audible. But some of it felt off to me.

Overall, though, it’s one of those movies you like more the more you think about it. And again, the ending is unexpected and kind of nice in its own way. Check it out! I know I (probably) will, because The Flower will want to see it.

Let's see how he looks in 40 years...

Bradley Cooper’s lookin’ a little ragged. Michael Pena doesn’t seem to age.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

What if Spider-Man were a migraine? I think it would look a little bit like this movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I should dial this back a bit: It has a 97/94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and if asked I would also give it a thumbs up. But it is chaotic. Visual, aurally, character-wise, tone-wise…everything but the plot which is as basic as apple pie.

A lot going on.

I think this is from the beginning movie, but I can’t swear to it.

In the forcible diversification of Marvel superheroes, Miles Morales is the best example of how to do it. Maybe the only example of being done well. Miles has a personality—quiet, studious, a little timid even, with a big love of music—unlike female Thor, female Hulk, Austrian-Chinese Hulk (Amadeus Cho?) and female Ironheart. As such, he’s someone you like before he gets powers, and someone whose issues can’t really be solved by powers (as Stan Lee advised). (UPDATE: Apparently Miles has no personality in the comics, so this was an innovation for the movie.)

In this story, Miles is from a universe with a blond Peter Parker (never a thing, AFAIK) who is murdered trying to stop the evil Kingpin from activating his inter-dimensional portal. Kingpin wants to do this to get his family back, because his family died fleeing in horror from his attempt to kill, you guess it, Spider-Man. With the real Spider-Man dead, it’s up to Miles to take his place—and he’s really not up to it.

Help comes in the form of loser Spider-Man, the fat, middle-aged, separated from Mary Jane Peter Parker that Brian Michael Bendis felt the need to create. We also get Spider-Gwen. Then, no joke, we get noir Spider-Man and Spider-Ham (Peter Porker), who is a pig dressed in a Spider-Man costume. Oh, and Japanese Girl With Spider-Robot Person Thing.

So it works, sorta.

The mismatch of styles is really obvious in a still, but the movie is never still.

This is a pretty fun movie. The characters are pretty good and likable, even if the whole thing sort of wavers between After School Special and Jokey Comic Book Special. And we can hang a lot on those working parts, because at least there are characters, however broad—and yes, even corny. I mean, sure the “one brother becomes a cop and the other becomes a criminal” thing was old when Humphrey Bogart was doing it, but it works.

The voice acting is good. I don’t know Shameik Moore from anything but he’s likable as the lead. Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed) is fat Peter Parker, Hallee Steinfeld (True Grit) is Spider-Gwen, Nicolas Cage is noir-Spidey, Lily Tomlin is Aunt May, and so on. The music is pretty good, too, though obviously at points geared to the younger, urban audience—which, of course, why wouldn’t it be?

The visuals are basically good. We saw it in Real 3D because that was the available time (and The Barbarienne had the post-Christmas blues and came to me hangdog asking when we were going to see it, so I said “RIGHT NOW!”) and to be honest, I wouldn’t pay the premium ever, if I had a choice. It’s okay, it has its moments, but mostly it’s a distraction. (At least 3D is not just throwing crap at the screen stuff these days.)

'cause why not?

Nic Cage should be in black-and-white in all of his movies.

But this movie is visually chaotic. The character designs of the various spideys are incompatible. They do a really good job of masking that here, and that shouldn’t be knocked. It’s a feat on a par with integrating Roger Rabbit into Avatar. But it’s still there, that incompatibility, and that incompatibility goes across tones, as well, with Spider-Ham dropping anvils and Spider-Noir being in black-and-white. It’s what you might call “a hot mess”.

Where this really negatively impacts the film is in the final act, when the world is thrown into utter chaos as all the various dimensions collide. But all you gotta do is shut off the machine and everything goes back to exactly the way it was. It’s poor drama because nothing’s really at stake.

Another big issue is what I’ve begun to call “Syndrome Syndrome”. If you recall the good Incredibles movie (not The Incredibles 2) the villain opines (at the critical moment), “When everyone is super, no one is.” I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, personally particularly in the context of a guy who makes machines like Syndrome does. I mean, if you took it to its logical conclusion (“With this device, you can move at speeds up to 800mph! It’s called an airplane!”) you’re basically undermining all of technology on the basis of preserving a few people’s natural gifts. But Pixar movies notoriously fall apart if you think about them for very long.

But from a purely narrative standpoint, yeah: If everyone’s super, no one is, and you ain’t got no story. Someone has to be exceptional in some way. Lately, because of muh representation, peripheral characters are gaining either super-powers or something very much like super-powers, and it’s annoying as hell. In this case, Aunt May is apparently the brains behind the (dead) Peter Parker’s spider technology, whipping up a set of web-slingers for Miles. (Oh, if you only know the movies, you may not be aware that Parker was a whiz-kid scientist, and invented rather than evolved his web-shooters, unlike the Sam Raimi/Toby McGuire Spider-Man.)

The Raimi movie was subtler?

Nice callback to Spider-Man 2, though.

And in this case, you have a bunch of wildly diverse Spider-dudes with sometimes really opaque powers. Like the Japanese girl from the future (Peni Parker) who has a link with a radioactive spider, and together they control a spider-robot that they ride around in. In the end, this spider-robot is destroyed and we’re supposed to be sad, but I didn’t understand why, since her actual spider-buddy was fine. Was this supposed to be a third character, the robot, separate from Peni and her bug bud?

I dunno. Like I said, it’s chaotic. And it’s fun if you’re not prone to headaches or seizures, which I am not. The comic book guy (The Barb and I had just gone to the store) said it was his favorite comic book movie ever, or maybe just superhero movie. I…yeah, not me.

I’ll stick with Superman.

Sheesh.

Maybe stop trying to be the icon and just be yourself? Ironically, that’s the movie’s message, when the movie is actually pretty much about being the icon.

Default

Now in it’s not-quite-consecutive third year, our tradition of going to see a Korean movie on Christmas Eve (Day) took us to Koreatown and Default, the story of the 1997-1998 Korean financial crisis, probably engineered by George Soros (who gets a mention) and used a front to bring Korea under the thumb of the IMF—engineered by Clintons, apparently, who aren’t ever mentioned, curiously enough, but only referred to as “American Interests”.

No, really, I can't. I have no idea what it would be.

I want to make a Vince Foster kimchee joke, but I can’t.

As an American, I can assure you my interests in Korea are limited to movies and food. I’m happy if they keep on being their Korean selves. But somehow in this world, we get the worst self-serving narcissists as leaders and their clearly selfish motivations get labeled their country’s interests.

Anyway, in the Korean tradition, this film is about government incompetence at the highest level, while the smart and insightful numerologist who really knows her stuff gets the short end of the stick and the country goes to hell. In this case, our heroine is Si-hyun (Hye-su Kim, A Special Lady) who says, “Hey, everybody’s over-extended and running around with bad loans, so we better come clean, take our lumps and try to salvage the economy while we still can.”

The government, of course, doesn’t want to do this. They HATE taking lumps. There is probably a situation in world history where an administration said, “Yeah, mea culpa. We let this get out of control and we’re going to fix it, sorry.” But I can’t think of one, and what happens instead is they say “DO NOT BE ALARMED. EVERYTHING IS FINE. WE ARE NOT TURNING YOUR COUNTRY OVER TO GLOBALIST BANKERS” while turning over Korea to globalist bankers—in this case being represented by Vincent Cassel (Black SwanShrek).

But he's doing business and not drinking!

Jung-hak rides the Business Bus!

Meanwhile, Jung-hak (Ah-in Yoo, of this year’s Burning, which the Boy saw but I did not) has noticed the financial shenanigans and leaves his comfortable job in BigKorp to strike out against the conventional wisdom. He is successful at exploiting all the ups-and-downs, but he’s also a kind of complex person—alternately unhappy about the destruction and indifferent to it. Whenever the government can do the right thing or the easy thing, he simply predicts they’ll do the easy thing, and makes a fortune.

Caught in all the mess is Gap-su (Jun-ho Heo) who runs a small bowl factory. Moments before things start to go south, his business partner convinces him to get into debt along with everyone else in order to fulfill an order from a large (and soon to be defunct) department store.

It’s like a Korean Big Short, without the Adam McKay smarm and with a lot more nationalism. Everyone in it is trying to do their best, except the IMF, which really does seem to be intent on bringing the world under a One World Financial Rule. It was interesting to me because I didn’t disagree with all the IMF’s recommendations in spirit: The Eastern world still seems to have a feudal approach to employment, where it becomes impossible to fire anyone and everyone is presumed to have the same trade for their whole lives. But even in that, I could see that the recommendations were designed to harm the little guy and keep the big, easily manipulated corporations—well, easily manipulated, and owned by foreigners.

Cool blackboard though.

“And this is why we’re all f***ed!”

And then, too, diversity don’t mean a thing if people don’t do things differently.

Typically good Korean film, in the sense that we’re rooting for our heroes, even when they may even be at odds. If Si-hyun succeeds, after all, Jung-hak will be ruined—but we sort of get the sense that Jung-hak would prefer to be wrong about some of these things. Gap-su is doomed because nobody will look out for him, but if he can persevere he can in the long run survive even this.

Yeah, I guess that’s the distinction between this and The Big Short: That movie was comical, cynical and had an everyone-is-rotten attitude. The Korean movie treats its people with dignity, and uses the idea of rottenness sparingly. The Korean attitude is more populist, I think: Adam McKay is saying “Americans are stupid. You in the audience are perhaps slightly less stupid.” Director Kook-hee Choi, by contrast, is saying “Keep your eyes open, be diligent and honest, and Korea can be better than ever.”

Interesting distinction and the reason we’ve seen movies in the Korean top 20 than in the American top 20.

Can he be otherwise?

Vincent Cassel bein’ evil.

Anna and the Apocalypse

What do you get if you cross High School Musical with Shaun of the Dead? Well, I can’t say for sure, because I never saw HSM, but I suspect it’d something like this movie: Anna and the Apocalypse. On the IMDB entry for this movie it says cross La La Land rather, but I’d disagree: La La Land is sort of dour and takes itself very seriously (for all its flights of fancy), where this movie is two kinds of schlock rather pleasingly blended.

How could they not?

They dance on cafeteria tables in HSM, don’t they?

It’s sort of interesting for this fact: It is a by-the-numbers zombie movie combined with a by-the-numbers high school drama. Anna is a girl who’s going to hike around Australia for a year, which fact she has hidden from her disapproving father from whom she has been alienated since the death of her mother. It’s her uber-beta best male friend—the one who pines for her while she shags the school jock/jerk—who lets this spill, and she worries she’s never going to have the happily-ever-after portrayed in all the pop culture these days (is it, even, though?). Meanwhile her quirky BFF and her boyfriend have the can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other going, while all at their school are tormented by the power hungry dean.

Meanwhile, a disease is turning people into zombies, a fact which eludes Anna and her best guy friend, who end up trapped at their job at the bowling alley and then must cross the town to the school, not realizing that the dean has gone crazy and is holding all their friends and families hostage. Along the way, they’ll run in to old friends and new enemies, and people will die, Ten Little Indians style in all the ways we’ve come to know (and love?) from the zombie genre.

But with singing and dancing!

Fun!

One of the best numbers has Anna obliviously singing about what a great day it is while the world dies around her.

I remember a few years ago…uh…about 35 years ago, when The Old Man and I were having trouble finding good movies to watch and we saw Fright Night. And we came out and said, “Hey, that was okay!” This was followed by, “You know, we really don’t ask for much.” We were pleased because we saw a film that was entertaining, fun and well-executed.

I had a sort of deja vu here because The Boy expressed pretty similar sentiments, with the added caveat that the movie also—for all its clichés—did something different with them, and put a nice flavor on top of some tired tropes. In fact, the use of these tropes made the movie very streamlined. There were about three things that made me roll my eyes, so tired were they as tropes, but mostly they allowed the movie to move from plot-point-to-plot-point (and song-to-song) quickly, such that the 90 minute runtime speeds by.

And it holds together pretty well in the third act, which is something both zombie movies and modern musicals (not to mention all oddball musicals like this, cf. Rocky Horror Picture Show or Phantom of the Paradise) have trouble with. Oh, also, as mentioned in La La Land, one of my issues with modern musicals is that nobody on screen looks like they could actually make the noise they’re making. It’s a kind of auditory uncanny valley that tends to alienate me, and the production here is smooth enough between the regular dialog and the musical numbers that I didn’t have that. (The only exception is with the dean’s big number, where he’s practically whisper-singing, and even that wasn’t too bad and was in character.)

If she's pushing...yeah.

Psst. Inside the cart is the friend zone.

Great cast of actors who, I believe, are primarily from the theater. If I were going to single out anyone it would be Marli Siu, as quirky girlfriend deeply in love with her boyfriend. She sings a song at the holiday show that takes “Santa, Baby” and kicks it up a notch, which works better than it has any right to. (It seems both prurient and sweet at the same time, perhaps because it’s directed at her missing boyfriend. But it works.)

From there, I might go to Ben Wiggins, who plays the alpha and has the most clichéd part of all, I think, but ends up winning us over anyway. Then I get to thinking of Chris, who also is annoying at first, but also kind of wins us over. Pretty soon, though, I’m talking about everyone. They’re all good.

It’s just a fun bit of alchemy, really. I guess what’s going on here is the movie uses the tropes to do what it wants to do (tell its story in its own way) but it’s not relying on them to keep everyone entertained. It brings a lot to the table.

I would probably watch this movie before La La Land again—and the music was largely more memorable and catchy, as well.

Cute and funny and a great singer.

They’re all great, but I get a real Anna Kendrick vibe offa Marli Siu.

Capernaum

I did warn the kids when Trump got elected that we were in store for a lot of bad movies, and that a lot of movies that might be good will torpedo themselves in an effort to take a shot at the President. But even movies that don’t have anything to do with American politics, it occurred to me watching this, will only be made (or distributed) if they fit the desired narrative.

This is probably always true.

And the only relevance to Capernaum (“Chaos”), really, is that it’s a movie about suffering refugees and therefore will get funded and distributed, while a movie about people suffering at the hands of refugees will not.

But not quite.

As a trope, it’s almost as tired as these cute little kids.

This is a good movie about crushing poverty and the tragedy it engenders—one of the many downsides of Academy Award season coinciding with Christmas—which at least has about the happiest ending you could expect for a movie like this.

When we meet our hero Zain, he’s been removed from jail for a trial to sue his parents—for being born. He seems like a kind of nasty, foul-mouthed kid and when the judge asks him if he knows why he was sent to jail, he says it was for “stabbing a sonofabitch”. Fifteen minutes later, we’re mostly left to wonder which of the many deserving sonfabitches he stabbed.

Zain is Lebanese, about 12. Nobody knows how old he is really, because he has no papers and his parents are awful. To me he seemed younger but for the story he must’ve been at least 12 since his younger sister, Sahar, is 11. He adores Sahar, but seems to have no feeling for his other, younger siblings. He works for their landlord who lets the family stay “for free” in the apartment, but he clearly has eyes for Sahar.

And they call it "civilization".

11-year-olds, dude.

His mission is to keep Sahar away from the storekeeper, though Sahar likes said storekeeper because he gives her candy and things for free. He realizes she’s had her menses and helps her cover it up, but ultimately loses the battle, and her parents trade Sahar for a couple of chickens.

Infuriated, he runs off, and finds himself wandering the streets, ultimately landing with an Ethiopian woman, Rahil. The Ethiopian woman came to Lebanon to work in a brothel—the amount of human trafficking in this movie is daunting—but quite when she fell in love and got pregnant. But now she’s alone with a one-year-old, Yonas, that she has to hide from her employers, who will send her back if they find out. And again, kind of staggeringly, the hellhole of Lebanon slums is better than Ethiopia.

She’s trying to get enough money for a newer, better fake ID, and Zain ends up watching Yonas while she works. This arrangement works until Rahil doesn’t come home and he must fend for himself and Yonas, whom he comes to love like a brother. Rahil has been caught, however, and sent to jail. Meanwhile, Aspro, the same creep who sells the fake ID has had his eye on Yonas, but Rahil has resisted all his advances.

The mall in Beirut, I guess.

Rahil. Also: wigs.

I didn’t quite get this aspect of it: I couldn’t figure out why Yonas was worth so much to Aspro. He claims that he has a family to place Yonas with, which would make sense money-wise, since adoption is a hell of a racket. But this turns out not to be true, so I don’t get why anyone would take a baby in those circumstances.

The dream escape for our street urchins is Sweden, where there are “entire villages of Syrians”.

It’s good, propaganda aside. Zain is convincing, perhaps because he himself is a refugee, and the movie contrasts his streetwise-ness with his childishness, such as when he’s making up excuses for Yonas being his brother. (“He’s black because our mother drank a pot of coffee a day while she was pregnant.”)

The guy who gets stabbed isn’t the one we expect, though certainly one who deserves it, but it’s basically a movie full of victims. Even the stabbed guy, who is at least as stupid as everyone else, comes off as a victim of circumstances.

We liked it. I, somewhat more than the Boy. Will probably get an Oscar nod. Shockingly, this is a Sony picture, and it doesn’t suck. And we’d see another Sony picture in a couple of days that also didn’t suck (about Spider-Man, no less).

That'd be cool, though.

You’re out of order! You’re all out of order!!

Airport (1970)

Disaster month closed out with the granddaddy of the genre, Airport. It broke the $100M mark—a rarity for the time, and what used to constitute a “blockbuster”. Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, whom I constantly get confused with Alex Hailey (the guy who plagiarized the white guy to write Roots), it’s a seedy little soaper that is jam-packed with…stuff.

Classic.

“Roger!” “Huh?”

Oscar-winner Burt Lancaster, who hated this movie, plays Mel Bakersfield, the guy in charge of the Lincoln airport in Chicago, who is trying to get a runway cleared of snow while fending off his shrewish wife (Ilana Dowding) and having some kind of fling with his assistant, Jean Seberg. He’s all handling all the trouble his brother-in-law Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin) is making, while hating the fact that he’s gadding about with anything in a stewardess’s skirt (designed by 8x Oscar-winner Edith Head!).

In this case, the “anything” he’s gadding about with is Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) who, like everyone else, has a last name. She’s pregnant and there’s a full-on discussion of abortion, which is safe and has no side-effects! (This is parodied in Airplane! by the P.A. announcers.) Gwen prefers to have the baby and put it up for adoption, which is good because his wife (Barbara Hale) is expecting him to give up his philandering ways, eventually.

I can't stop.

“Chump don’t want the help, Chump don’t get the help!”

Oscar-winner and disaster-movie icon George Kennedy is our only one-named (ok, main one-named) character, Patroni, whose job is to clear the snow out from in front of the stuck airplane, but nobody’s got the guts to get the job done. His goal is to get the plane free and go back to making out with his wife. He’s the sole happy marriage representative. (It’s 1970. Whaddayawant?)

Well, unless you count the widow Ada Quonsett (2x Oscar-winner Helen Hayes) who escapes Jean Seberg’s clutches to get on the doomed flight. She’s fun. The flight is doomed due to D.O. Guerrero (Oscar-winner Van Heflin) who has decided to blow up the plane so that his wife (Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton) can collect the insurance.

Inspired by the actual incident.

Awful.

Jacqueline Bisset reassures Dean Martin that this ridiculous ’70s haircut will grow out fairly quickly.

Though it was an expensive shoot, it actually feels least gimmicky of the disaster movies, with the effects (except for maybe the volumes of plastic snow) seeming pretty organic. You can see how the tropes formed here, though: There is a wide variety of characters, mostly likable, and each involved in their little dramas which are thrown in to sharp relief by a sudden greater incident.

Acted out by some really fine actors. Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for this, beating out Karen Black and Lee Grant, who would both end up starring in one of the sequels.

A mostly great score by Alfred Newman—his last. The Boy actually pointed out how good it was, which he doesn’t usually notice. I loved most of it, especially how Newman managed to be so contemporary without sounding as shrill as that woodwind/brass heavy style of the ’70s tended to be. There are a couple of points that seem straight up pop music, though, which I didn’t care for much.

At least it's not another Airplane! quote.

What is this? An airplane for ANTS?!

It’s more than a little corny, with Dean Martin discovering he wants to settle down but with his pregnant mistress, and Burt Lancaster discovering that divorce is probably the best answer. I can see why Lancaster hated it. Maybe ironically, since I’ve started to feel like the ultimate template for the disaster movie was From Here To Eternity.

It’s not great cinema. None of these movies were. But they’re fun escapism which seems in very short supply these days.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Even if you hate Frank Capra’s post-war flop about a man who finds value in his life by seeing it undone, it can be startling how starkly it reveals why good human drama can no longer be made in America. And watching it this time, I realized what The Boy and I get out of the classics and new Asian movies we’ve seen this year.

I’ve probably seen this It’s A Wonderful Life more than any other movie, and I’ve certainly written about it more than any other. The noir photography, the depths of depression it plumbs, the libertarian Pottersville-is-better-than-Bedford-Falls nonsense, and most recently, the weird stuff on Potter’s desk. The Flower, who saw it for the first time in 2016, wanted to see it last year and again this year.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

Bert would be the most bad-ass cop in a Christmas movie till Al Powell shows up.

What struck me this time was how deeply flawed all the characters were, with the possible exception of Mary (Donna Reed, From Here To Eternity), and yet how George’s little acts of grace (however begrudingly he accept his role) gave them the room to express the better angels of their nature.

  • George (Jimmy Stewart, The Philadelphia Story) is belligerent. He’s quick to anger. He’s self-sacrificing to a fault: A lot of his despair comes from his inability to share any part of his burden, not even with his wife. He’s clearly planning to go to jail for Uncle Billy.
  • Speaking of whom, Uncle Billy (Oscar, Tony, Emmy-winner Thomas Mitchell, Gone With The Wind) is incompetent to the point of genuine danger, and probably an alcoholic. And he handles all the money, apparently.
  • On the subject of alcoholism, Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner, The 10 Commandments) nearly kills someone and boxes young George’s ears when he tries to stop him.
  • Sam Wainwright (Thomas Mitchell, Psycho) may be a philanderer, though it’s hard to say how seriously he takes any potential relationship with Mary, he does call her his girlfriend while having another honey hanging on him.
  • Violet’s (Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful) sins are self-evident.
  • Even Harry, the war hero,  comes home all too conveniently with a wife and a fancy new job knowing full well that his brother isn’t going to be able to chain him to the Savings and Loan. He’ll make the sacrifice for George as George did for him, but he has to know (just as we do) that George won’t let him get “trapped”.
  • Mary comes closest to being perfect. But after his temper tantrum—when he’s trying to apologize—she says “why must you torture the children?” It’s that retort which sends him out to commit suicide.
  • The people of the town, when we see them, are quick to be manipulated by Potter. Although it is they, ultimately, who save the day, they are easily scared, gossipy, and overly-reliant on George’s good nature.

One is supposed to like these people. And, shockingly enough, one does. Mr. Gower buys George his getaway luggage (that he never gets to use) but is also seen leading the bond effort to support the war at home. Sam, once he’s contacted, is ready to float George a $25K loan. Violet sticks around to help George, and apparently to brave out rehabilitating her reputation.

Times wuz hard.

Spanish flu was a bitch.

In other words, these people are good in spite of their occasional (or even frequent) sins. They’re real people. For all the broad stereotyping here, there’s more life in each character who passes through Bedford Falls than in any big-ticket modern Hollywood movies. They’ve all sinned, sometimes gravely, yet all are shown to be worthy of redemption.

But the current media ethos is that there are good guys and there are bad guys—not even in the fun Star Wars way, but in a dreary universe where right-thinkers are untouched by sin and wrong-thinkers are condemned to, well, whatever hell the right-thinkers have in their power to create.

It’s weird to think we’ve seen more mainstream Korean and Chinese movies than we have top 40 Hollywood films this year. (Usually we see about half of the top 40, this year we’ve seen, or will see, about 5 out of our over 130 theater screenings.) And surely part of the reason is sheer novelty, since Asians have different tropes and archetypes which make things seem a little fresher. But part of it is that the characters are more human, probably because they’re not worried about oversensitivity. (Korean films, in particular, tend to be exclusively Korean. Even Koreans who spent some time in America are suspect.)

The whole move is, really.

Gloria Grahame was aggressively heterosexual.

But I remember the characters. For all my crustiness about superhero movies, there was a lot of impressive stuff in Avengers: Infinity War—but not, ironically enough, the characters. Whereas I remember the down-on-his-luck boxer who slugs his autistic brother once (in a moment of panic) and spends the rest of his movie trying to regain that brother’s trust. I remember the girl who rediscovers her vanishing mom through cooking. Even typing the trope makes my eyes roll, but I remember the soft, greedy businessman who finds love with the sensitive scientist at the south pole.

The thing is, to have a character arc, you have to have a character who can change. The change has to be personal and material, and it has to reflect a reinterpretation of how the world works—generally the admission that one’s previous view was wrong somehow. (You can have the character change badly, of course, but that’s more a horror trope or ultra-edgy indie drama conceit.) But if there’s only one correct way to think ever, only one correct way to be, there can be no meaningful change.

And if there can be no forgiveness, a character who was wrong once can never re-enter the ranks of good guys: Old Man Gower and Uncle Billy can’t sell war bonds, Mr. Welch should be sent to jail for punching George, Violet deserves to be slut-shamed (or shamed for thinking she should be slut-shamed?) and Clarence may as well have let George jump.

You don’t have to like this movie to see that it deals more with genuine human issues than anything turned out of Hollywood in 2018.

Merry Christmas, Moviegique!

I was going to make an “every time a bell rings” joke but it just wouldn’t be in the spirit of the season.

 

The Favourite

“I thought the ladies could take me to see The Favourite for my birthday.”
“…”
“Then I realized—”
“YORGOS LANTHIMOS!”
“—the guy who did The Lobster.”

My mother claims that The Lobster is the worst movie she’s ever seen. I completely lack sympathy for her on this, because she didn’t ask me about it, and I could’ve told her she’d hate it without ever having to see it myself. Of course, The Boy and I did see that and loved it, but couldn’t think of many people we would recommend it to. Bonus: You get to say “YORGOS LANTHIMOS” when you talk about it, which just rolls off the tongue.

Cold, baby.

Lack of sympathy is a hallmark of Yorgos Lanthimos films.

We were disappointed we missed the short-lived run of Lanthimos’ follow-up film Killing of a Sacred Deer. We were a little concerned we would miss this one, too, but the period piece has earned enough attention, perhaps for its subject matter and certainly its performances to make it good award bait.

And again, we wouldn’t recommend it to my mom, or to most anyone. Lanthimos has a clinical eye which is intriguing and (for us) effective, but it is not warm. It is devoid of romance and he seems to delight in deconstructing illusions.

In The Favourite, the disgraced Abigail (Emma Stone, Zombieland, La La Land) arrives at, uh, Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman, Hot FuzzThe Lobster) place and is assigned to the kitchen by her disdainful cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, The Brothers BloomThe Bourne Legacy). The disdain is not particular personal: Lady Sarah is a lady and hardly wishes to deal with the foul-smelling commoner whose father lost her in a game of whist. Abigail fares poorly in the kitchen, as the commoners have tremendous disdain for fallen ladies as well.

Eesh.

This is not a movie designed to make its leads look good.

However, Abigail is not without resources, and when she learns that Queen Anne is suffering from gout, she risks a beating when she rides out to the woods to get some remedial herbs. She’s actually mid-beating, when Sarah sees that the herbs have helped and, grateful for the relief to the Queen, promotes Abigail to her personal maid.

I mention the “grateful” part because one thing one must do when watching a Lanthimos film is be very careful about sussing out what is actual sentiment and what is merely mercenary. But for all her bullying of the weak-minded queen, Sarah’s affection is genuine, and it also seems very clear that her bullying is done in the name of what she truly believes is best for England. This becomes an interesting point.

Abigail’s motivation is to never, ever end up in the muck again. And as the movie progresses, we are slowly moved from rooting for her to…well, something else. By the end of the movie, we’re questioning whether or not we ever really understood Abigail, of whether she’s changed as a result of her success.

I need a powdered wig.

Those fashions, though.

Clouding the issue even further is whether or not the Queen is better or worse off. Anne and Sarah have a genuine relationship, with a sexual aspect that ultimately dooms them. Even beyond the sex, though, the relationship not an entirely healthy one. For all her care, Sarah is very opinionated and infantilizing in a lot of ways, leaving her cousin ill-prepared to handling the issues challenging England. Out from under her thumb, Anne’s competency grows, even if aspects of her happiness are dimmed.

It’s not really a crowd-pleaser. No way around it. But while we didn’t love it as much as The Lobster, we did really like it.

The performances are terrific. Colman will probably get an Oscar nom, Weisz gets more appealing (at least to me) with age, and Emma Stone manages to work her natural charisma to a kind of chilling end. We want to root for her, but it’s not that kind of story. In the end, she’s done some wrong—and unlike Sarah, her motivations are wholly selfish, with no regard for England—but you don’t despise her. At some level, one thinks, you’re supposed to pity her.

Bizarrely, this has a nomination for “best musical or comedy” Golden Globe.

Forget it, Jake. It's the Hollywood Foreign Press.

Maybe it’s for the bizarrely anachronistic dance number?

Gremlins (1984)

I have long felt that the script to Gremlins is possibly the dumbest ever developed into a major motion picture, even dumber than the other scripts that launched Chris Columbus’ wildly successful career (Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes). And despite that, it’s pretty watchable and weird, wild mess of Spielbergian cutesy-family stuff with Joe Dante’s black humor.

Not-very-bright lights.

“Let me punch up your script, Gizmo.”

Let’s get the dumb out of the way first. The premise: Inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stumbles across a cute little fuzzy creature called a “mogwai” that he sorta steals from a Chinese junk shop to take home to his son Billy (Zach Galligan) for Christmas. The grandson of the mogwai’s real owner (perennially blind Chinese guy, Keye Luke) exchanges the creature for a couple hundred Reagan funbux and offers three warnings:

  1. Don’t expose it to bright light.
  2. Don’t get it wet.
  3. And never, never feed it after midnight.

I mean.

"Snatch the pebble, mofo! I dare you!"

Keye Luke disapproves, just generally.

There’s dumb fun: Like, we’re going to suspend our disbelief about these creatures that not only exist unknown in the world, but that a father takes home to his son as a gift with no one raising an eyebrow as to the whole “Hey, shouldn’t we have heard about this before? Isn’t this an important scientific discovery?”

Then there’s “the audience is dumb. So dumb, in fact, we’re going to put the plot right up front, all the points therein and ultimate resolution.” It’s like Chekov’s Gun For Dummies: The rifle isn’t just hanging on the wall, it’s hanging on the wall surrounded by neon flashing lights that say, “Hey! This gun is going to go off and accidentally kill his late mother’s beloved chihuahua!!”

Maybe it’s just me. It pissed me off greatly as a kid. It didn’t bother me much now, but if anything on review—and I haven’t watched this since its first release—I’m convinced that the things that makes the movies work were unlikely to have ever been in the script, and were the work of Joe Dante, of whom I used to be quite a fan. He had a way of turning dubious material into darkly fun romps (as in PirahnaThe Howling, and even Small Soldiers).

PG-13. The reason for the rating.

It’s a family film.

There’s a lot of fun stuff here. The feel-good Christmas aspect of the movie takes such a sharp turn south on the appearance of the actual gremlins. The first person to encounter the gremlins is Billy’s mom and she in turn: blends one, stabs another hard enough to pin it down to a bread board (though it’s still moving afterwards), and nukes a third in the microwave. (This is an under-rated performance by Frances Lee McCain and blow for kick-ass moms everywhere.)

This was the first PG-13 movie after Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom compelled the MPAA to create the rating in the first place, and while it’s wildly over-the-top violent, it’s, y’know, puppets. Much like Doom, this is EC horror comics, grade-school level violence that is meant to be enjoyed like a roller coaster ride. Sort of like the disaster movies we’ve been seeing, the point is to have fun with all the death and destruction. (The Boy queried, “Would you call this fun-house horror?” I would indeed.)

After the gremlins emerge, it’s set-piece after set-piece, most of which don’t really make a lick of sense—like, how do the gremlins manage to force Phoebe Cates to serve as bartender?—and which are completely devoid of moralizing, as well. Sure, the evil Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday, who should’ve been sued along with Columbus by Margaret Hamilton for stealing her Wicked Witch act) meets her fate, but so does the largely neutral Murray Futterman (the great Dick Miller, who appears in all of Dante’s films). And even if Futterman is evil (he does have a “Nixon’s The One” poster hanging up), his wife seems nice. And the school teacher (“Another black nerd!”, noted the Barbarienne, remembering Theo from Die Hard) only drew a little blood in the name of science.

And better.

The muppets did it first.

No, there’s no morality play here. It’s just random mayhem, like, Phoebe Cates’ Best Christmas Speech Ever:

 The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

It’s horrible and funny, and she recites it as Billy is picking through the rubble of his ruined house.

But you have to be able to laugh at darkly chaotic events and the movie shows the warring that went on behind the scenes between Spielberg, Columbus and Dante and the studio—but also amongst themselves as the movie has a hard time settling on its tone. This is understandable, and probably best exemplified by Jerry Goldsmith’s score.

The Gremlins main theme itself is spot on: A macabre pre-Elfman tune, eminently whistleable suggesting that mischief is afoot one could imagine hearing outside a funhouse. Some of the other aspects—a heroic passage, and a more schmaltzy one—don’t seem quite on the mark, probably because those sentiments aren’t really captured in the film.

The puppets are pretty darned good although I find Gizmo a little creepy at this late date. The stunts and SFX are kind of impressive for a family-oriented dark comedy. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (I had no idea who she was at the time) are likably bland, which is very appropriate.

It’s pretty much the same fun watch today as it was 35 years ago. Enough to where it’s easy to look over the monumental dumb.

Zach is gonna lose this one.

Gizmo making his moves on Phoebe.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Of all the disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is one of them.

It's hard to say!

“Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat…”

It’s probably my favorite. I never saw a need to re-watch Earthquake or The Towering Inferno, but The Poseidon Adventure seemed to get funnier every time I saw it! No, not funnier, just more fun. And despite the fact that at least one person in the theater had brought a party hat and noisemaker to blow during the New Years’ Eve scene, this is not really a campy movie, for all its broadness. It’s just meant to be fun.

Like Earthquake, you’re supposed to be able to grasp the situation quickly and know how to feel about it. You get that the blowzy cop (Oscar Winner Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-whore wife (Golden Globe winner Stella Stevens) love each other, beyond all the squabbling. That the old Jewish couple on their way to Jerusalem (Oscar Winner Jack Albertson and two-time Oscar Winner Shelly Winters) are good-hearted souls. That bro and sis (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin) are gonna fight, but bro’s boyish enthusiasm for ship schematics will save the day. Soulful bachelor (Oscar Winner Red Buttons) is going to shepherd grieving lounge singer (lost-her-Golden-Globe-to-Stella-Stevens Carol Linley) through it all, and they’ll get married and lived happily ever after—if they survive! And you know that the Radical Preacher (two-time Oscar Winner Gene Hackman) is really gonna turn things around in whatever backward African country he’s going to.

But what do I know.

I’m not sure this match is believable.

Broad, yes. But not careless. And not unlikable.

Well, you know: Big title (typoe that I’m leaving in for its awful punny-ness) wave hits the ship (despite National Treasure Captain Leslie Nielsen’s best efforts), turning it over, and a handful of survivors led by the Preacher get it in their fool heads to head up to the engine room, which would be sticking out of water and is also where the hull is thinnest. For myself, I’d think that heading upward and away from water would be a no-brainer on a sinking boat, but we can only have so many people in our little melodrama, so with the help of a plucky waiter (shockingly Oscar free Roddy McDowall) our Ten Little Indians head off on their adventure.

Which is, The Boy and I thought, part and parcel of why we liked this movie so well. It’s a movie where a lot of people die, but you are supposed to have fun watching it. You’re supposed to be sad when someone dies but, you know, movie sad. You aren’t supposed to come out of it feeling like you wanna kill yourself.

One of these guys doesn't get out of the first room.

This was actually a pilot for “The Love Boat”. Not a lot of people know that.

Is that even a thing any more? You’d think, for example, superhero movies would be that way but, really, they don’t show death much and when they do, it’s very, very serious (because it’s one of the heroes, or someone the heroes have a longstanding relationship with). I saw the movie remake (there was also a TV remake)…I think. I sorta saw it? It was on TV and I put it on and lost interest immediately, it was so bland and cold and grim.

In the 1972 movie there are precisely two children on board, Shea and Martin. (And Martin’s 19, but clearly supposed to be 16-ish.) And both survive with very little harm (changed from the book, I believe) except for Martin’s latent crush on Hackman—which is way subtler than I remember it. The extras all die to their own stupidity, while most of the main cast that dies does so in more-or-less heroic struggle.

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to conceive of this film as “having a light touch” but compared to today? Can you imagine any survival/disaster film today being called an “adventure”?

So much leg.

It’s an adventure in legs is what it is.

I was impressed by Shelley Winters performance here. (She put on 35 pounds for the part and could never quite lose it afterwards.) There’s something sane about it: She’s fat. She knows she’s fat. She knows it’s a liability. Stella Stevens calls her out on it, rather rudely. It’s like people could talk about the elephant in the room (as it were). And yet, she’s not a clown, she saves the day. (This is an interesting switch from the script, which called on the Preacher to let Winters’ character risk her life for everyone else, which Hackman said—correctly—didn’t fit with his character.)

I was impressed by Ernest Borgnine’s biceps. That guy wasn’t just fat, as my generation knew him. He had some muscles.

John Williams’ score is, much like Earthquake, solid. Of the time but not embarrassingly so. Some very nice moments throughout.

The conceit that all the (not fat) ladies have to take off their gowns seems less prurient to me now than a few years ago. Even Stella Stevens’ underwear seems almost modest.

I’ve often felt the story could be analyzed as a religious allegory. The Boy noticed this, too. The people who insist on staying behind, then panic when the ship starts to flood. The doomed adventurers going the wrong way down the ship who refuse to join up with the survivors. The lighting seems sort of otherwordly and underworldly, as our heroes try to rise up to salvation.

It probably wouldn’t hold up too much under scrutiny. It’s just a fun movie.

Well, for some people.

There’s got to be a morning after.

Schindler’s List (1993)

I did not see the movie that ruined Steven Spielberg when it came out, as shocking as that may come to you, my loyal reader. I was lucky to get out to see Aladdin that year, and happy to see that Spielberg had genetically engineered actual dinosaurs for his Jurassic Park. But sitting in a theater for 3:10 watching a Holocaust-themed drama seemed, shall we say, unappealing. Or at least a poor use of my limited theater time.

It's rough.

I’d probably hug my kids a lot too if I were making this.

But I did sort of feel it ruined Spielberg as a director, as he could never again make just a fun movie, in the vein of Jaws or, say, Indiana Jones. Which is not to say he didn’t try. But his Jurassic follow-up The Lost World was roundly thrashed, and he never really got back into just plain fun stuff until the questionable The Adventures of Tintin.

I mean, Catch Me If You Can was relatively light, next to Amistad or this movie, say. But something like Minority Report or War of the Worlds, which should’ve been great and fun was needlessly heavy (and both were actually gray, come to think of it). Not bad but lacking a certain joie de vivre. And, actually, if you looked at the way the aliens in WotW vaporized people and realized the source of that was this movie (and the attendant research, of course), it gets even worse.

But it’s a little weird to sit in the theater 25 years later, after one has seen literally dozens of Holocaust (and Holocaust-themed) movies and watch this: This is still, hands down, the biggest budgeted film in the genre. Its slickness feels odd, and Spielberg’s cinematic tropes—immortalized as they were in such popcorn fare as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark—were particularly rattling to me.

It's great.

He did try to incorporate the Battletoads to lighten things up, but was voted down. (Click for more information.)

The Boy didn’t notice particularly, except in retrospect, so that’s probably just me.

John Williams, thankfully, composed a beautiful score without the heroic musical stylings that made him famous. Although I did find the use of a Bach Suite over the Nazi murders in the Warsaw ghetto rather bizarre—that was the point, to be bizarre.  (The Nazis misidentify it as Mozart, curiously.) The ending of the film, and the music thereby, may feel a bit ham-handed (as Spielberg can be) but it’s earned.

The story itself is almost subtle for Spielberg. Schindler is not a swell guy. He’s a womanizer. He’s greedy. He may not actually be lazy but he’s certainly exploitative. He’s selfish. What he isn’t, however, is a monster. And somewhere in bridging the gap of his sins and not being a monster, he becomes truly great, risking (and losing) everything but his life to save the lives of over a thousand Jews.

1994 was a very SJW time.

“I lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia? Seriously?”

Liam Neeson—The Boy commented, “I didn’t know he could act!” I guess after a bunch of Taken movies, it’s an easy thing to overlook. But he’s great here, as is the pre-Valdemort Ralph Fiennes. Spielberg gets good performances, as always. Ben Kingsley is the Jewish accountant—a kind amalgam of real-life characters, including one who used his power for self-enrichment.

That level of subtlety we’re not going to get here. If you want that, check out Lansmann.

But of course, Kingsley is great, and Embeth Davidtz, as the Jewess who has caught Goeth’s eye (Fiennes) is absolutely heartbreaking.

Tells a story!

Look at that composition!

The highest praise, perhaps, The Boy and I can offer: At 3+ hours, it moves by like a great movie. Is it a great movie? Currently, it’s ranked at #6 on IMDB’s (increasingly dubious) top 250, well ahead of Spielberg’s next highest entry, Saving Private Ryan, which is in the 20s. The RT scores place it after Close Encounters and E.T., more or less tied with Jaws.

I don’t know. We both liked it a lot. Spielberg does a lot of things to make a movie watchable. The novel The Color Purple, I’m told, begins with the heroine being raped by her father. Well, hell, you don’t start off a movie like that if you want people to come see it. A lot of the most compelling stories about the Holocaust, the camps, the round-ups are very, very difficult just to hear. When movies illustrate them, things get very weird and uncomfortable.

The experience, seeing it at this late date, is akin to seeing a horror movie for the first time decades later. It’s almost quaint. A little hard to judge. Certainly worth a watch. Very difficult to categorize.

The Sound Story

Do not ask the boy his opinion unless you really want it. A rule to live by, the relevance of which I will reveal shortly.

See, 'cause he has the microphones...

“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

The Boy had a meeting in North Hollywood and wanted to catch a film but nothing was at the right time. I noted that the bargain theater (which gives us a second chance to see movies we didn’t want to see the first time around) was playing an odd little film called The Sound Story, the tale of OscarTM-winning Resul Pookutty in his adventure to record the Thrissur Pooram, a big festival in his part of India.

This appears to be a dramatization of actual events played out by the people who lived those events. In it, Pookutty reveals at the get-go that he’s always wanted to record Pooram, but he’s busily working, especially after his success with Slumdog Millionaire. His “best friend” emotionally blackmails him into the project in part in order to demonstrate value to a producer called George. George, in turn, is playing the importance game and parading Pookutty in front of everyone he can, to the detriment of the actual work. George is so obnoxious, he ticks off his own thugs, who then decide to sabotage the recording. This is after a fight where Pookutty decides to abandon the project, but then discovers that a school full of blind people want nothing more than to hear the festival, so he turns around and decides to do it all on his own. (But since George has a contract, he’ll still own the film, which is why his thugs disrupt it.)

There’s a happy ending where everyone learns a few things and grows, which is one reason I think the actors are playing themselves.

'cause that's what he does.

I hope you like lots of pictures a guy holding mics.

The Boy was high off of just seeing 2.0, an Indian superhero movie that is apparently so spectacularly nuts it wraps around to being good again. He’s been talking it up to everyone he meets. (Pookutty actually did the sound for it.) And he mentioned that there are safety-warning overlaid across the movie when a character does something the Indian government (presumably) doesn’t approve of. Like drink, smoke, or ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt.

When we exited the theater, a lovely woman (whom I would describe as Indian-American, but for all the confusion that would cause) asked us our opinions about the film. I said, “The sound design was amazing!” because it was, and I hadn’t really sorted out how I felt about the rest of it. The Boy did not. He felt the characters cartoonish, the visuals annoying, etc. A lot of the traits which added to his lunatic enjoyment of 2.0 were mere annoyances here. I felt a little bad for the young lady, who was there collecting accolades to pitch the film for some sort of Oscar award. The Boy wasn’t that crazy about the sound design, frankly, because he felt it was too loud. (I discount “too loud” mostly because it’s beyond the filmmaker’s control, unless they’re doing extreme quiet and extreme loud, a la most of Brad Bird’s movies.)

But as I say: You don’t ask The Boy his opinion unless you really want it. He’s not mean, but he’s not going to soft-soap it.

The thing is, I was sort of expecting what I got. It was kind of amazing how amateurish the acting was, to the extent where you could tell even if you didn’t speak the language (a mix of English and probably multiple Indian languages). Some of the visuals are quite good but when it comes to the sabotage at the festival—shown at the beginning of the film in a way that suggests bad karma, and later revealed to be genuine sabotage—there’s a series of shots followed by fade-outs which drove me to distraction. (That technique may or may not have worked in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, but it irritates greatly here.)

I liked the story, but it wasn’t tightly laid out. The whole MacGuffin is the live performance, but it’s unclear how long the festival actually runs for, if the plan was to record all of it or just this one particular group that’s featured, and given that the group plays it again afterwards so that Pookutty can record it, the whole question of what (if anything) was at stake is murky. Resul is presented as a pretty enlightened guy throughout (whereas several of the other characters are jerks) which means that his revelation of the importance of the recording to other people (the blind) has less impact than it might.

But I think what it all comes down to is this: It was unfocused. It was not a documentary about the festival, because we only learn a little about that. It’s not quite a travelogue of that part of India, though it’s quite beautiful from what you see. It’s not quite a drama because the characters are subordinated to these other festival and travelogue elements in a way that diminishes the narrative effect.

The sound design is amazing, though, and really a lot of fun. The movie focuses so much on the little symphonies of real life, artfully shaped in ways are soothing and even meditative. I think I was enough invested in that to not really care much about the rest, but The Boy’s reaction is probably closer to how most people would feel. Also, without a good sound system, like on a standard TV set up, that effect will be largely lost.

Serves you right.

Horns that you blow at yourself.

Earthquake (1974)

Well, our lovely throwback hostess, April, has been working on it for the better part of 2018, and finally managed to convince the head office to make December a month of disasters movie, showing the classic ’70s melodramas EarthquakeTowering InfernoPoseidon’s Adventure and Airport. They dropped out Inferno, tragically, because they don’t like to show a movie on the week between Christmas and New Years. Maybe the attendance is too low to justify the rental but I’m not sure how the finances work at all, given how all-over-the-map attendance is anyway.

The Flower bowed out, as she’s been tired with all her activities this Christmas season—she almost didn’t go to Elf, and is bowing out of Sunday’s presentation of White Christmas—which I think is a shame, since there’d be a mix of reactions to the aging stars like Charlton Heston and Ava Gardener as well as plenty of opinions about ’70s fashion. The Boy and I headed off alone, with me perhaps over-confident as to the entertainment value of the movie.

High melodrama.

Gardner maybe she’s channeling Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.”

My concerns were misplaced. If the Irwin Allen movies were not high art, they never pretended to be and they never lost sight of the goal: entertaining the audience. And as is very often the case, done well, that goal transcends generational changes better than many loftier ambitions. Directed by Mark Robson, who directed Humphrey Bogart’s last picture (The Harder They Fall) but who is probably best known for his work on the soapy potboiler Peyton’s Place, Earthquake follows the classic formula of 40-minutes of soap opera followed by disaster followed by your problems don’t seem all that important now, do they?

In this case, we have successful architect Charlton Heston in a dramatically unhappy marriage with Ava Gardner (who seems to be channeling Joan Collins) and being seduced by the queen of hearts herself, Genevieve Bujold. He works for a father-in-law (Lorne Greene) who seems to understand how difficult his own spoiled daughter is, and his secretary (Monica Lewis, who had a boffo music and TV career in the ’50s and became a disaster movie staple in the ’70s) is tight with Genevieve.

She's cute.

“Looks like it’s not gonna work out, byeeeee!”

Meanwhile, George Kennedy is a cop who puts the job ahead of political concerns: When we meet him, he’s on a reckless high-speed chase that ends with him crashing into Zsa Zsa Gabor’s (not featured) hedge. His explanation—that he witnessed the perp run over a little girl in the car he had just stolen—made me scratch my head a bit. (Like, if the guy never even slowed down, from what vantage point did you witness this, and how was that the same vantage point from which you could have seen the accident and manage to chase the guy. But these details are unimportant.) He gets suspended and ends up in a bar where Walter Matthau (billed with the fake name of Walter Matuschanskayasky) is drinking heavily and a bunch of classic ’70s heavies are arguing over pool.

He meets some old friends/guys he busted there: Daredevil Richard Roundtree (Shaft!) and manager Gabriel Dell (who was one of the original Dead End kids, I believe, and may forever be immortalized as the voice of Boba Fett in “The Star Wars Holiday Christmas Special”). They’re short of cash after being shaken down by the pool hustlers they owe money to, but manage to wheedle $10 out of Kennedy by letting him ogle their official T-shirt, currently tightly pulled over the magnificent chest of Dell’s sister (Victoria Principal).

Principal (whom I didn’t recognize with her ’70s afro) is great in this, actually. It’s a kind of thankless role, where she goes from being ogled, to being solicited by her brother and his friend to stand around and look sexy while he does his motorcycle stunts, to being in a rioting theater, to being arrested for looting (a donut), to being detained and repeatedly nearly raped by Marjoe Gortner.

I mean.

Maybe I wasn’t focused on her face.

Marjoe (forever famous here for Starcrash) is a former serviceman/reserve troop barely repressing his rage while working at a grocery store, and creeping up to Victoria who shops there with insufficient funds. Actually, in a movie that doesn’t trade in as broad stereotypes as you might guess, his character (and Ava Gardner’s) are the cheesiest.

There’s a small army of supporting characters, too, that make up the scientific and political backdrop of the story, and who mostly vanish when the earthquake hits. The Boy and I noticed this: Amongst this crew, there was surprisingly little nonsense and cartoonish behavior. Unfortunately, Jaws (1975) would set the trope for the “authority figures refusing to see reality”, but it’s done much, much better here.

We have a grad student who predicts a small earthquake correctly and using the same ideas predicts the big one—7+, which is nice in a world where your earthquake has to be an impossible 10 or GTFO—but his supervisor (the great character actor Donald Moffat) is reluctant to contact the political mucky-mucks without more proof, for fear of the damage it will do to the office’s credibility. They agree to contact the real brain behind the science, but he’s up in Northern California being murdered by the earthquake while planting seismic activity detection devices. Ultimately, the supervisor goes to the Mayor anyway.

This is nice.

I’m using this still because the other shots of Marjoe are seriously creepy.

The Mayor has a similar problem: He can contact the governor but it’ll cost him politically if he’s wrong—and the mayor isn’t even the same party as the governor (at the time it would’ve been Reagan). Despite his misgivings, he does contact the governor who then mobilizes Marjoe Gortner (and some other guys, too, like another great character actor, George Murdock, as “Colonel”). Meanwhile, up at the dam, there’s a lot of back-and-forth between a guy who’s convinced that the thing is going to go, and his boss who’s pretty sure it isn’t and has to balance the cost of draining the water to prevent a flood and keeping the water available in case of the kinds of shortages and fires that follow an earthquake.

The point is, everyone’s trying, even at personal risk, to minimize the potential damage: They just don’t have any great solutions. Again, unlike the mayor of Amity who simply has to tell people to stay out of the water till they handle the fish ish, this movie portrays a lot of the legitimate trade-offs that come with knowing there might be a disaster. It’s a weird thing to point out, perhaps, that Earthquake (beyond its soap opera story) handles the issue of disaster management more maturely than modern films, but we appreciated that.

Anyway, the earthquake hits and everyone’s in a bad situation. Genevieve has decided to go walking in the canyon, under all the houses on stilts. She’s sent her son off to play in the park, riding over a bridge that was rickety before the earthquake. (And this is why children have never since been let out of the house.) Lorne’s trapped in the skyscraper, while Charleton and Ava are fighting down below. Our daredevil pals are trying to pitch their show when it all falls apart under the shaking. George is in the bar where only Walter Matthau escapes unscathed and complaining about not being able to get a drink.

George and Charlton, being men of action, move around the city doing action-y things. George trying to save lives, Charlton trying to save his squeeze. A good time is had by all.

And you should see the Plaza.

Frank’s Hardware has a hell of a time.

The special effects—well, let’s just say it was the Golden Age of Albert Whitlock, who made matte paintings and other visual effects for The Sting and John Carpenter’s The Thing and a bunch of late era Hitchcock movies, and even has a credit in IMDB going back to Hitch’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Glorious, glorious mattes as far as the eye can see, most of which still read pretty well. A few of the big-scale models don’t hold up to the current eye, along with some of the “heavy objects” that clearly are cardboard or foam. There is a laughably bad moment where an elevator full of passengers crashing to their deaths is depicted with a large glob of animated blood splatted on the frames.

But mostly they work because they do read well and make the action clear, and a few are still pretty impressive. Over 140 stunt men were involved, and there are moments where you are amazed. Like when Richard Roundtree’s stunt double does the motorcycle loop, he just falls off. It’s, like, a 20 foot drop with the motorcycle landing on top of the guy. Even the run-of-the-mill (for the time) car chases have a degree of danger you don’t tend to feel these days.

The musical score by John Williams lacks the catchy themes he would be known for later, but it’s actually a pretty nice piece of work. It combines elements of orchestral bombast, ’70s TV-cop-drama brass (though without getting obnoxious as those scores often did), and even some elements of horror.

At 2 hours and 9 minutes, we were not bored. It was a fun experience, and one I would recommend, though I would recommend it more as a big screen thing. In the original release, the studio championed Sensurround: basically mega sub-woofers that made the theater shake and rumble at points. Sensurround was not widely used and ultimately abandoned because it caused structural damage to theaters and surrounding buildings.

That’s commitment to the craft.

Here he's about to rush out and catch a Battlestar.

Lorne Greene was seven years older than his daughter.

Elf (2003)

I approach revisiting most of the comedies made in my lifetime with a degree of trepidation. Much like horror movies, comedies tend to lean on surprise and atmosphere (which I’m just realizing now as I type this), both of which are very ephemeral. Additionally, comedians tend to wear out their welcome rather quickly, and just mentioning their names can be eyeroll inducing. Then, when enough time has passed to forget (or at least forgive) the desperate last gasps of a great comedian, the original stuff is rediscovered and enjoyable in all its original genius.

Yeesh.

Some induced eyerolls (and worse) from day 1.

It’s been fifteen years since Elf came out, and that is well in the comedic danger zone. Will Ferrell sort of won me over in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back as well as number of his early performances which, if they didn’t make me laugh uproariously, at least felt like, man, this guy is really trying his heart out. (It’s an exercise for the reader to determine why or whether Ferrell’s efforts are more appealing than similar forgotten and truly desperate comics of the day like Tom Green.) And unlike a lot of comedians, Ferrell proved in many of his later roles that he could seem like a real human and not a stumbling pratfall machine.

But that’s not relevant here—or is it? Because the great mystery of Jon Favreau’s 2003 tale of a human changeling visiting New York City for the first time, is that it worked at all back in the post-9/11-Bushitler days and actually holds up pretty well today. No small part of that must be attributed to Ferrell’s earnest performance. A popular film with all the kids, this was the first time they had seen it in the theater and we all walked away in the Christmas spirit—which is what you want in a Christmas movie. (And probably why Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, since you just want to blow up terrorists afterwards.)

No, not really.

Although, if Buddy started blowing up terrorists, this movie would be ten times better.

Director Favreau has a way of making more out of movies than is actually there on paper. This is not a great reason to rush out to see The Jungle Book or Cowboys and Aliens, but goes a long way to explain Iron Man (and in part the success of the MCU) as well as this movie. (Though The Boy and I both feel like his best and most personal film is Chef.) Elf is a sincere film, clashing up against an insincere culture, and it shows up the insincerity for the worthlessness that it is—thus it wins.

It’s a simple, corny film: Due to a Christmas Eve mix-up, a human mis-named Buddy (Will Ferrell) ends up living with the toymaker elves before discovering that he is a human. He journeys down to NYC to meet his real father (James Caan) that Santa (Ed Asner) informs him is on the “naughty list”. After about an hour-and-a-half of fish-out-of-water jokes, Buddy’s father sees the light and helps to save Christmas. Along the way, Buddy brings a little light into the lives of children, felons, his stepmother (Mary Steenburgen, Time After Time) and half-brother, as well as love to a cynical department store sales clerk (Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer, playing the normal one for a change).

No exceptions.

You know this is on a fetish site somewhere out there.

The cast is nigh perfect, even down to the smallest supporting roles. Bob Newhart as Papa Elf. Faizon Love as the nervous department store manager. Michael Lerner as the Scrooge-ish publisher. Kyle Gass and Andy Richter as Caan’s toadying hack writers. Amy Sedaris as Caan’s chipper secretary. The great Leon Redbone in the role of the Burl Ives-style snowman (and doing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Deschanel in the closing credits). Hell, 83-year-old stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is the voice of a stop-motion cub. Peter Dinklage—on the heels of his serious, moody breakout role in The Station Agent—is awesome as the hard-bitten primadonna master of kidlit.

The soundtrack really is perfect. It’s cool, with Louis Prima, Eartha Kitt and Ray Charles belting out classics over the comic montages (“Pennies from Heaven”, “Santa Baby”, “Winter Wonderland”, respectively). The score—that is the musical itself by frequent Favreau collaborator John Debney (The Stoning of Soraya MThe Passion of the Christ) has a nice theme and is otherwise competent if a little generic.

So there's that.

A very angry elf indeed.

Even so, the film could be disastrous if the jokes were wrong. There’s a small amount of scatalogical humor. Most of the jokes that might be sleazy are defused with Buddy’s genuine innocence. The Boy and I felt that the really broad physical violence didn’t hold up that well. (I’ve often pointed out that, if you hate Will Ferrell, Elf is a movie where you can watch him get thrashed by Peter Dinklage.) It’s not that it’s bad, it just jangles a little bit somehow these days.

Most of the humor, though, is based on this Christmas-fantasy-elf clashing with 21st century society. In many ways, sort of amusingly, it’s far less cynical than, e.g., Miracle on 34th Street which is powered entirely by a group of self-interested small-minded people, while Buddy’s charm is basically to win people over to his point-of-view because it’s right. That sort of feels weird to type but it’s also sort of obvious: Spirit, Christmas or otherwise, is created by each of us for ourselves and others, so you really better not pout, cry, etc.

On the flip-side, 34th Street is a classic because it makes its argument very well, and Elf is a little weak in this regard. Caan’s transformation isn’t as supported as you might want, maybe because the actor himself is more convincing in the crustier role. But even here, the movie is saved by Favreau’s light touch: It’s not trying to be serious or deep, just genuine.

We all came out in a good mood, humming Christmas tunes. (Sort of like Die Hard, come to think of it.) Check it out—again.

No amount of Christmas spirit could save it, alas.

Gimbels went out of business in 1987.

Shoplifters

Hirokazu Koreeda, which is a name I must type quickly before I forget how to spell it, has directed three previous movies that made it to our local indie outlet (as well as many that haven’t) and The Boy and I, liking all three and seeing the strong reviews for this one decided this was easily our best bet for viewing a filmed entertainment.

Only we're more suspicious looking.

Artist’s re-enactment of The Boy and I trying to find ANYTHING worth seeing.

The other three Koreeda films we’ve seen (Like Father, Like SonOur Little Sister and After The Storm) were all examinations of what it means to be “family”. Father was about two families discovering their six-year-old sons had been switched at birth. Sister was about three sisters whose overly generous father left them for another woman, and who meet their 13-year-old half-sister after he dies. Storm was about a down-on-his-luck detective/gambler/writer who couldn’t seem to reconcile his fierce desire to be a father (and husband) with his unwillingness to compromise or improve himself.

I liked these movies in about that order, so I was concerned that Koreeda might just be on a slow slide down (as often happens in Hollywood, it seems), but I (and the Boy) really liked this fascinating study of a family kept alive and together by government money, menial and dodgy jobs, and a healthy dose of shoplifting to augment their lifestyles.

The movie opens with middle-aged Shinoda (the improbably named Lily Franky of Storm) and his apparent son Shota in action, using their coordinated tactics to shoplift from a grocery store. (Shota forgets the shampoo as it turns out.) On the way home they spy a four-year-old girl picking through the garbage and they take her home and feed her. Shinoda and his wife or maybe sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to return the girl to her home, but when they get there her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend are having a violent quarrel and yelling loudly that they would rather not have the little girl around.

The littlest.

Little criminals.

The little family (Shota, Shinoda and Chinatsu) live with a woman they call “grannie” and an attractive younger woman (perhaps an aunt) named Aki (Mayu Matsuoko, who was in some spin-offs of the original Japanese version of Little Forest) They take pity on the little girl against their better judgment (and on seeing marks on the little girl’s body). They decide to keep her, noting that her “real” family hasn’t even filed a missing person’s report. In fact, they don’t find out the girl’s real name until the police somehow get wind of her absence and accuse her parents of murdering her.

The whole household is kind of a mess. It isn’t obvious who’s related to whom—they all sort of act like grannie is their real grandmother, the two women like sisters, and the man like a father/son-and-brother-in-law. The first sense we get of something being not quite as it seems is Shinoda’s light badgering of Shota to call him “dad”. Meanwhile, dishonesty in the larger cultural sense abounds: Nobuyo works in a laundry facility of some sort and steals what she can from the clothes that come through. Shinoda has a construction job of some kind but he gets injured early on and we never see him work again even though, as we discover, there’s no worker’s comp for part-timers. Aki works in what I would describe as the live version of a adult webcam, entertaining customers through a two-way glass by at least partly disrobing and bouncing up and down. Even grannie’s got her scams.

They're cooking up something...

Honestly, I don’t think the characters come off as suspicious as they look in the freeze-frames.

They are kind to each other, however. Not perfect, but reasonably decent and forgiving human beings. And if this were a Hollywood movie you’d expect some message about the power of family, or near-family, or whatever they are, and some kind of Robin Hood/socialism subtext, but this movie has none of that. When it hits the fan, the family disintegrates pretty fast, survival being paramount. Motives are revealed, or implied, and they’re not necessarily pretty.

But here again, the movie avoids moralizing: Even disintegrated, it’s not at all clear that the participants were not better off together. It is clear that their relationships, however dysfunctional at the social level, are a great source of comfort and humanity to all involved. The movie teases a murderous backstory (showing pretty well that the cops are not particularly interested about what psychic havoc they might be wreaking) and also what might be a pretty dastardly crime against Shota. It basically dares you to try to come away with a neat package of opinions.

We liked the richness. We weren’t sure we liked the amount of loose ends. (Loose ends are funny: To few, and a movie feels glib. Too many, and it feels unfinished.) There were scenes that we weren’t sure why they were in there, but Koreeda is the kind of director who convinces you he knows what he’s doing, and whose movies you kinda wanna rewatch to make sure you got everything.

Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.

Hang on tight.

Stability is fleeting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

The end of the video-game-themed throwbacks at the local bijou was Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which we hadn’t seen at the time for unclear reasons. I guess, in part, it was because we had Wright pretty strongly tied to his “Spaced”/Cornetto collaborator Simon Pegg, and this is a completely separate entity. (Although Wright’s smash-cut editing is in the foreground here, in its platonic form, which is perchance why he seems to have dialed it way back since then.)

And the manga had been based on a light novel.

It could only be better if the movie had been based on the video game that was based on the manga.

The other thing is probably just lack of recognition. What is this about? Video games? Or is it a romcom? It looks sorta campy. Stylistically speaking, it is campy, but it’s also very effective, to the point where The Boy placed it above the entries in the Cornetto trilogy. (This may have to do with where The Boy is on a personal level right now than the film itself, but that doesn’t invalidate the assessment.)

The story is from a series of six graphic novels which are neither rigorously photo-realistic nor deeply bound to reality (unlike a lot of the Crackle-based comic books which seem to exist to be picked up for a low-budget TV show) and it’s hard to imagine another director who could integrate the books’ reality-shattering devices while keeping the audience engaged with the story as a real thing.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old loser (for lack of a better word) nursing a year-old broken heart by (chastely) dating a 17-year-old high school girl (the adorable Ellen Wong of “Dark Matter” and “GLOW”). His dreams, on the other hand, are haunted by a mysterious girl with pink (or green? or blue?) hair (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Good Day To Die Hard, 10 Cloverfield Lane) who turns up in real life.

Even with short blue hair.

Too cute for Scott Pilgrim OR Michael Cera, TBH.

Despite warnings from his bitchy older sister (Anna Kendrick, Into The Woods, and who also had a small role in The Hollars, as did Winstead), an even bitchier random girl (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) who seems to turn up everywhere to scold him in increasingly vile (but censored) terms, Scott gloms on to Ramona and the two experience something akin to love-at-first-sight.

Problem being, Ramona’s got baggage. But rather than the usual emotional baggage (of which there is plenty in the film), this baggage takes a more literal form: If Scott wants to be with her, he has to fight her “seven evil exes”—the seven lovers she’s had prior to meeting him.

Before he realizes what’s going on, he’s already fought and defeated the first “X”:  An eighth-grade boyfriend she held hands with for a week or two.

And also too cute for Cera.

Out-Ringwalding Molly.

The movie is painted with constant cues as to its nature, with CGI being used to create effects literally from a comic book. The phone rings and the word “RIIINNG” fills up the background. But when the first fight happens—a fight to the death!—the movie goes full-on video game. (Or maybe it’s when Scott goes to the bathroom and his “pee bar” is shown decreasing.) Down to the villainous ex being reduced to a scattering of coins (not enough to pay for bus fare, alas) and a score counter over Scott increasing.

Just describing it makes me think there is no way this should work. But it does.

For one thing, as far as any Wright movie goes: You always know who the devil made it. There is nothing bland or timid about his choices. For all its comic book nature, it’s sort of the anti-Marvel film. At no point do you get the sense that the director (or any producers) said, “Hey, back off here and do what every other movie does…we can’t risk the franchise!”

But probably because what other colors were you going to do? Yellow?

Winstead’s hair goes from pink to blue to green, allegedly in homage to certain video game characters.

The music is terrific, for example, which I guess is to be expected from the director of Baby Driver. I feel like the actors are wrong for their parts in a lot of cases, but that feeling is wrong. Like, it’s hard for me to take Cera seriously as a heart-breaker, but he wins me over, not the least because he seems to sort of do it by trading on female insecurity, and sort of on accident. (He’s not a heroic character at all, until he gets the idea that Ramona is something worth fighting for.)

Also, it’s hard for me to imagine throwing over Wong for Winstead, or his former girlfriend and drummer for his band Sex-Bob-Omb (the fiercely-cute/cutely-fierce Alison Pill, Hail, Caesar!), but Winstead brings a melancholy to the role which is appealing in its own way and also really appropriate for her (mercifully vague) backstory. Then there’s Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore graduate himself, as the alpha X. (It just shouldn’t work.)

Every aspect of the movie is done with care and precision, which one expects, and this movie certainly feels like it has more heart than (the also very, very good) Baby Driver.

The Boy’s take on it was this: It took its subjects seriously without taking itself too seriously. For something that is inherently gimmicky (what if relationships were video games!) it didn’t bury its story in the (excellently placed) special effects. At the same time, it didn’t try to be hyper-allegorical or pedantic, and it never misses a chance to make you laugh just by being silly.

For example, the #2 Ex (a pre-Captain America Chris Evans!) has psychic powers that come from him being a vegan and going to the Vegan Academy. That plays out all the way to its ridiculous conclusion, and while it’s amusing social commentary, it’s also a silly sidebar away from the heavier issue of romantic scars.

It didn’t do great at the box office, probably because a lot of people had the same reaction we did at the time: Wuzzat? But it’s a fast, fun watch that uses its central conceit in a way unlikely to be successfully done again.

But good lord, when you do...

They actually look reasonably cool if you don’t freeze-frame.

MST3K Live! The 30th Anniversary Tour: The Brain

If it’s true, as I maintain, that movies are better at the cinema, it’s also true that shows are better live, for all the same reasons augmented by the physical presence of the performers. Hercules vs. Vampires will probably not go down as one of the great operas of the 21st century, but it was enjoyable heard live on a level that, e.g., watching a recording of it would not be. Reptilicus was more enjoyable simply having Joel Hodgson MC it, and I’m sure the Rifftrax Belcourt performances are more enjoyable than watching them remotely, even if “live”.

This is better than a riff, though, in a lot of ways.

“Hercules vs. Vampires” has never been riffed, somehow.

With Joel’s discovery of the “bus” (as a stand-up he had done his circuit on a plane, which has many disadvantages) on the “Watch Out For Snakes” tour, the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew is able to visit a lot of different places riffing on movies and having host segments live, and they are undoubtedly more fun than any given episode. We were front-row center (as we must) and while that made a little hard to see over the central desk (and had the effect of making Jonah seem normal sized and Joel kinda tiny) it also meant we were right there when Dr. Phibes had “The Brain” drool on us.

The “experiment” was an ’80s horror called The Brain, a late entry in Canadian auteur Ed Hunt’s film career about a brain from another…place (no explanation given)…that has the power of mind control. That control increases over time as it consumes people through various unclear means. David Gale (the villain of Re-Animator) plays televangelist of sorts, beaming The Brain’s waves through screens in order to control people’s minds (to various unclear ends). Assisted by his thug Verna (stalwart character actor George Buza), the two terrorize the only man who can stand in their way.

His Tumblr.

Jonah posted this picture of him with Deanna Rooney (Phibes) on his Tumblr.

That would be high-school student Jim (Tom Breshnaham, who racked up a lot of mainstream credits in the ’80s and ’90s) and girlfriend Janet (still working Canadian actress Cynthia Preston, who did a long stint on “General Hospital” after being a major player on the “Total Recall 2070” series). The two combine the best of feckless horror-movie heroes, sort of blandly moving through the proceedings with things just sort of working out as they must for the plot to go on.

Joel’s gotten increasingly savage editing the movies being riffed, which I have mixed feelings about. I’m fine with the removing or censoring of the ’80s-era nudity because that stuff was generally as pointless as it was mandatory, and there’s so much good riffing material in that pre-CGI era, but I notice the new season of the show (“The Gauntlet”) puts every movie into an 80 minute episode. Ator: The Fighting Eagle, for example, has a 98-minute runtime without the bumpers and sketches.

Now, we followed up watching the MST3K edition of Ator with a viewing of the Rifftrax Ator and while we see what was cut out, we weren’t exactly feeling robbed. Meanwhile, Atlantic Rim is an agonizing 85 minutes, so every minute cut out of that thing helps.

The jury’s out, in other words.

Look at that. It's great.

The cheesiness of the monsters means it fits in perfectly with the MST3K ethos.

For the live show, the premise was that Jonah (Ray) and Joel were riffing as a game show hosted by Synthia (Rebecca Hanson), and they paired up with Tom Servo and Crow. (Crow is played by Hampton Yount as he is on the TV series, with Baron Vaughn being replaced as Tom Servo—as he was last time, we hope because he’s spending time with his new baby—but I can’t remember by whom. I don’t think it was Grant Baccioco, who plays M. Waverly, or Russ Walker who plays Growler.) Basically the teams would riff along certain themes and be scored on how many riffs they made on those themes, with the score arbitrarily boosted by Synthia to keep Jonah in the lead.

Of course, in the end Joel wins by popular demand, because Joel understands the power of nostalgia, and as much as he wants to turn the spotlight over, he also knows what the audience wants. That said, as an on-stage riffer, his timing and delivery are impeccable—probably better than they were back in the day.

The new bit, with Deanna Rooney as Dr. Donna St. Phibes is classic MST3K: The adorable Dr. St. Phibes, strongly evoking a Hogwart-ian professor, takes care of the poor B-movie monsters after their brief stints with stardom. It was actually explained in more detail at the show than it is in the series, with the idea being that there is a space station housing these forlorn creatures, and St. Phibes having a mixed relationship as far as her ability to control and contain them. For this show, she brought out “The Brain”, which proceeded to slaver upon those of us in the front rows. (In the show, she has a charming “Lord of the Deep” puppet.)

It’s funny. And good-natured. Sadly (and I expect due to the expense of performing in L.A.) there was only the one feature on this date, while other cities also got to see “Deathstalker”, a popular ’80s target for sarcastic commentary.

I liked to think that she found dignified work artificially inseminating pigs.

The lovely Christine Kossak didn’t work much after this movie required her to “struggle” against the brain.

Shoah: The Four Sisters

Here’s something to be thankful for this weekend: You’re not a Jew in Europe in WWII. When we last heard from the late Claude Lanzmann, it was for his riveting 3:40 minute long interview of Benjamin Murmelstein interview, The Last of the Unjust. That movie came at a similar time, in cinematic terms: That is to say, there seems to be nothing worthwhile out, to the extent where a four-and-a-half hour documentary seems to be the best use of your movie-going time.

Now, don’t run away: This is actually four separate hour-plus interviews that will presumably show up as a series on Netflix or Amazon soon. And while, as a whole, they aren’t as riveting as Last of the Unjust, where we really were kind of on the edge of our seats, they are interesting, revealing and different. (They say it’s Lanzmann’s last film, as the director died in July at the age of 92, but with 350 hours of footage to cull from, I’d be surprised if more wasn’t culled from those interviews.)

This particular documentary tells the story of four women (not literal sisters), a Pole, a Czech, a Romanian and a Hungarian, I believe, all of whom had different (but similar) experiences of the “Shoah” (which I believe means “catastrophe”). And by “tells the story”, I mean Lanzmann asks occasional questions to get his subjects to talk.

I'm not making jokes on this one.

Ruth Elias

The Hippocratic Oath is the first story, told by Ruth Elias. This is one of those stories, were it a movie, you’d have a hard time believing it: Elias evaded death at every turn, in great measure due to luck, and you’d think “no one could be that lucky” except by definition, the only one to be around for an interview would be someone who was precisely that lucky. And “lucky” is a term that carries considerable ironic weight here.

She was a 19-year-old girl from a well-off family whose patriarch got them fake (non-Jewish) IDs to escape, but they were ratted out and sent to a camp. Her family was “selected” and shipped out to a death camp, but she was allowed to stay behind because she had managed to marry her boyfriend. She has three or four run-ins with this kind of near miss, including one where she manages to escape Auschwitz with a work crew by sandwiching herself between prettier girls (she was eight months pregnant).

She ends up back in Auschwitz receiving the personal attention of Josef Mengele, which is never a good thing. She survives, but at an incredible cost.

...

Ada Lichtman and her dolls.

The Merry Flea is the next story, and it is horror-movie creepy. (Actually, the theme of these stories are the insanity, surreality and degradation that accompanied the Holocaust.) Ada Lichtman was sent to Sobibor as a young woman, singled out for laundry work—again, one of those situations where in a group of thousands, only three survived—and ends up cleaning, repairing and making clothes for dolls. (She’s actually doing this kind of work during the interview.)

The Nazis would kill the Jewish children, but they would take their toys first (of course). They would then take the dolls home for their children to play with, and Lichtman was one who prepared those dolls for the children. This interview also features a man from the same camp, though he says very little. One of the effects (that now seems not only deliberate but calculated) of the various terrors visited on the Jews was to create a culture of shame that persists to a degree even to this day.

“The Merry Flea” was what the Germans called their quarters at Sobibor, hence the title of this segment.

On the beach in...Florida?

Paula Biren

The last interview is called Baluty, and the interview subject (Paula Biren, also apparently interviewed in Shoah) had been a girl who lived in the Ghetto of Lodz, after the Germans invaded and penned up all the Jews into the worst areas of town. The degree to which the Jews are shocked at their initial rough treatment gives an understanding of how they could be so ignorant of the Holocaust, with Biren being the only one who claims to understanding what was going on as early as ’42. (I think Lichtman says she didn’t believe until she smelled the smoke and ash.)

Biren is an interesting subject (who emigrated to America, where the others went to Israel) because of the tenor of her contempt for the Nazis and their “absurd” ghetto, and its stupid little programs, as well as her sense of betrayal by Poland after the war, when the Jews were not welcome back. (A theme echoed in Aftershock and 1945, among others.) She’s more spirited than the rest of her family, which sometimes serves her and them well—and sometimes doesn’t. Lanzmann digs (and it can sound like a challenge) when she discusses being on the Lodz ghetto “police force”, but he does a good job of making it more about the mindset than trying to attack, which brings us to the penultimate episode.

...

Lanzmann with Hanna Marton

Noah’s Ark is an interview with Hannah Marton, who was saved from Auschwitz by Rudolf Kasztner, a man considered by some to be a war criminal. He was accused of collaboration in 1957, and cleared in 1958—posthumously—and with this interview we get into Last of the Unjust territory.  These are difficult matters now with virtually nothing at stake: How impossible were the choices made at the time?

I mention this last because it’s the only point where I felt like Lanzmann was getting at something: Something Marxist. I don’t want to make too much of it, but when he talks about who Kasztner saved, he’s stating outright that they were “privileged” people. Morton is kind of shocked by this: At first she takes it literally by pointing out that there were lots of poor people (like, everyone, since the Nazis had taken all their stuff), but when he switches to talking about the proletariat, she says there were a lot of tradesmen and the like. To say nothing of veterans (Jews were an unarmed part of the Hungarian army which was part of the routed German invasion of Russia) His attempt to cast this as some kind of class struggle is brief, but I did discover later that Lanzmann had been quite the Marxist after his time in the French Resistance.

To sum up on the three point Moviegique documentary scale:

  1. Topic. Obviously important, but also interesting.
  2. Presentation. As close to “nil” as imaginable. Lanzmann provides no context, which can make this movie a little hard to get into, if you have no idea what they’re talking about.
  3. Slant. Apart from the momentary Marxist outburst, Lanzmann does have a slant (beyond “Nazis are bad”). He strictly interviews victims (though there’s a lot of nuance in that word “victim”, which all the interview subjects understand) and doesn’t try to understand.

He’s criticized for this (e.g. in this Jacobin article) but—as long as his aren’t the only Holocaust documentaries in existence—there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, by not trying to understand, he probably spares the film from being terribly distorted. What we’re left with are truly challenging situations that you can grasp, and which bring a human richness to things in danger of being just numbers and words, like 6,000,000 and Holocaust.

It was a good movie to see right before Thanksgiving, and it makes me grateful (as many things do these days) above all for the Second Amendment.,