Empire of Corpses

If The Boy and I disagreed on April, we really disagreed on this next animated film which was also a Steampunk future-past-type debut feature from Ryôtarô Makihara, Empire of Corpses. In this film, Victor Frankenstein’s success in reanimating corpses results in research on all other things being halted, hence Steampunk. Though, if we’re being honest (and why would we be?), it’s pretty loose about things. Our hero is John H. Watson—

Let me stop here for a second.

“Cultural appropriation” is back in the news again, and it’s always one of my favorite topics because it’s so amazingly stupid. (I imagine the people who yell loudest about it are those who steal all their movies and music by downloading it.)

And nobody appropriates Western European culture and makes hash out of it like the Japanese. In Miyazaki’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki lives…well, somewhere in Europe. The writing on the signs looks sort of Germanic script-like. Someplace (and some time) where kites and and dirigibles are popular. Who knows? Who cares?

Literally insulting. Not culturally insulting. Though that, too.
Pictured: A Japanese woman culturally appropriates a fork that has been loaded with insulting electronics.

This movie takes this to a T so, yes, the character’s name is John Watson, and lest you think it’s a different John Watson the Holmes’ doctor sidekick, he’s John H. Watson. You’ll also run into a blonde Thomas Edison, a Friday (whose code name is, no joke, “Noble Savage 007”), and a sober Ulysses S. Grant. There’s a computer (not called that) named “Babbage” and another one named “Paul Bunyan”. Two of the main characters are from The Brothers Karamazov, cohabiting with real-life historical adventurer Frederick Barnaby.

Also, we got a big-boobed blue-eyed blonde who also references a 19th century French novel, but I won’t reveal how for fear of spoilers. (Although, to be honest, I saw it coming without knowing of the novel.)

Unclear to the nth degree.
The Japanese, having no breasts of their own, are unclear on how they work.

Literary and historical characters intermingle with inappropriate-for-the-19th century technology and heaps of “magic science” that the Japanese love so well. Oh, and the “Noble Savage 007”? Well, we also have a Moneypenny and an M, so, you know, throw some Bond stuff in the hash, right?

The premise is that Victor Frankenstein created his monster in 1814 or so, and the usefulness of reanimated corpse slaves is so potent that all other technological research is abandoned. (Clearly, it’s not, since the world is full of late 19th century and steampunk inventions, but that’s what we’re told.) The catch is that the original reanimated corpse, who has no name and is just called The One, had an actual 21 gram soul while all subsequent attempts have produced soulless automatons. So, the movie’s MacGuffin is the original research notes of Frankenstein.

Our hero’s journey is to bring back his recently deceased chum, Friday, but with his soul (naturally), which I think was against the law. I wasn’t clear if it was any reanimation or this particular one or the whole soul thing, but the point is, Watson’s in trouble and now has to go work for the government—who send him off to find Dr. F’s notes.

If I could take notes like that, I would've stayed in college.
The green glowing thing in the back is the notes.

It’s very Japanese. Very animé. Amongst all the preposterous inventions and anachronisms, magic, straight-up, appears in the second act. This is where it sort of lost me. And even if it hadn’t lost me at that point, by the end, I could only vaguely figure out what was going on. The animé people literalize abstractions in such a way as to make action sequences out of what might be more cerebral things which worked okay for me in The Boy and The Beast (and of course Inside Out) but not so much here.

The Boy, on the other hand, thought it was The Best Thing. Ruling out the classics we’ve been seeing, he ruled it above all other films we’ve seen this year. He threatened to go see it again the next day (the only other day it was playing, and then only at 10PM, which he’s less keen on now that he’s a working man), and while he conceded there was a lot of inappropriate animé-ish stuff (big-boobed blonde, e.g.) he still loved it. And I know why.

As are steam-powered vacuum tubes.
For one thing, steam-powered computers are way cooler than ours.

His all-time favorite animé series is “Full Metal Alchemist” (and its remake/sequel/reboot) “Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood” which, by the way, also features a hash of western history and a magic-science thing. But that’s not the important thing: The main story concerns a boy’s quest to restore his little brother’s body, which he…uh…swapped out for a suit of armor during an alchemy accident where they were trying to bring their mother back to life. (Alchemy is magic here, and can do anything—except restore life, much like Corpses’ premise of being able to animate the dead but not really bring them back to life.)

But the heart of both movies is the quest to save a friend, at any cost, even when you have to carry that guy around and risk your life and so on.

The Boy has reasons for being moved by this sort of stuff, and it’s no less valid than, say, parents liking Inside Out more than their children. Certain things resonate with us, with our experiences, with our points-of-view, or just aesthetically, and that, perhaps above craft or narrative, is the transcendent aspect of art.

That said, I would only cautiously recommend it to someone in my age group, for the reasons mentioned. Younger folks, especially when more steeped in animé traditions, will see it on a different level.

Ew.
I see it more as a Home Brain Surgery Training video.

April and the Extraordinary World

The actual title of this French Steampunk animated film is April and the Twisted World, but this (along with “free” translations of things like “merde” to “darn!”) is probably a concession to getting in a younger audience in America and England. (Although if I put it into Google Translate, Avril et le monde truqué comes out April and the Fake World, truqé having both the noun and verb meaning of fake, from what I can tell.) Who knows? They got their PG rating, though, and a big enough release to gross around $150K, which will probably put them in the top half of releases this year.

STEAM SEASON!
I love Paris in the…wait, what season is it?

Directed by Christan Desmares (art director on Persepolis) and Frank Eknici (who wrote an episode of the French “Dragon Hunters” series, which The Boy was fond of back when he actually was a boy), based on the graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, and written by Eknici and Benjamin LeGrand (who wrote some of the graphic novels that Snowpiercer was based on!), April is about an alternate reality where a French scientist in search of The Ultimate Serum ends up being killed by a belligerent and reckless Napoleon III, who is succeeded by a more peace-minded Napoleon the IV, and whose successor (Napoleon V, duh) ends up ruling France in the early 20th century.

At the same time (conicidentally?! Outrageant!) all the scientists of the world start mysteriously vanishing, and Earth is stuck in a steam-based society, with the U.S.A. and France fighting over Canada. ’cause of all the forests, see?

But, look, you sort of have to assume everything else is going to go on exactly the same, and Americans aren’t going to, e.g., plant gazillions of trees for fuel in their vast plains (much like was done for the trees used in papermills), or you won’t get your dystopia. And this is a pretty dystopic world, with a smoky miasma floating around amongst and between the cool steam-powered versions of modern things that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) possibly be steam powered.

Seriously. You'll just look desperate.
Only God can make a tree. Don’t even bother planting.

Anyway, decades later, the son of the scientist killed by Napoleon III, Pops (played by Jean Rochefort of Tell No One) is working on his father’s formula, along with his children Paul (Olivier Gourmet, 2 Days, 1 Night, The Kid With A Bike) and Annette (Macha Grenon, The Barbarian Invasions) while his granddaughter April (Marion Cotillard, natch) hangs out with one of their failed experiments, a talking cat named Darwin (Philippe Katerine). In this future-past world, doing science without government permission (and not for the government) is a crime, and the family is split up when a Javert-ish police inspector named Pizoni (Bouli Lanners, Rust and Bone) tries to capture them before the mysterious scientist-kidnappers do, and put them to work making weapons of some sort.

In the fracas, Paul and Annette are captured by the mysterious scientist-kidnappers, while Pops and April escape the police, but are split up. Our story begins in earnest when, ten years later, a grown April is trying to complete her parents’ work while shoplifting and hiding her way through life, an embittered Pizoni on her trail.

From the start, it must be understood that this is an excuse to make some cool steampunk artwork. The silliness of the premise is mitigated by a certain self-awareness: This is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, start to finish. The initial chase scene is both very live-action Hollywood and very cartoonish as well. It’s very apparent that a lot of love went into it, and it wins the viewer over pretty easily and quickly. In fact, in some ways, the most entertaining part of the film is what could be described as an escalation of steampunkiness. The contraptions get increasingly preposterous, which is really kind of fun.

O, Canada!
I think he’s pointing to Canada. Seriously.

The Boy actually saw this with his girlfriend, and he raved about it. “Can’t miss”, said he. I could not, however, coax The Flower into going. She didn’t care for the art style, and as mentioned previously, she prefers dubbed versions of foreign animation because otherwise she can’t focus on the visuals. So I went solo…and, well, I wasn’t as crazy about it as he was.

For me, the problems really start with the third act. The Big Reveal is possibly the least surprising thing ever. I mean, it sort of has to be: Anything surprising would also be unfounded. But it’s so telegraphed as to be sort of perfunctory, and the entire third act plays out as predictably as it possibly can, with a few fun notes (especially in the stinger). There’s an incongruity in the nature of the Big Bad(s) that combines massive competence with massive incompetence that just doesn’t make sense.

Also, artists don’t understand the difference between science and engineering, and seem to not understand that it’s far easier to draw a bridge than it is to build a bridge.

did enjoy it, overall. A lot of credit is to be given for attention to detail. And a lot of credit to the writers and Philippe Katerine for making a sassy talking animal you don’t want to strangle. (I don’t know, maybe it’s a French thing.) But 97/90% scores on Rotten Tomatoes (and The Boy) notwithstanding, I found it “merely” good—not great.

It's funny 'cause it's true.
Bonus point for celebrating “clean burning gasoline”, though.

Wedding Doll

A mildly brain-injured girl seeks independence from her mother, to pursue a marriage with her lover and a career in fashion design in Nitzan Gilady’s debut feature Wedding Doll. If you’re a longtime reader, you may recall that my oldest (referred to occasionally herein as “The Enigma”) is severely brain-injured, and an Israeli Film Fest film, Next To Her, very closely captured the nature of her brain injury. I have a particular sensitivity, shall we say, to movies that purport to portray brain-injured people. Hollywood, for example, tends to treat the handicapped the way they treated black people in the ’90s: As sources of magic or mysticism.

The late, lamented Michael Clarke Duncan
And if you were black AND brain-injured, you were basically Jesus.

This, of course, robs them of their humanity: The brain-injured, while often seeing the world radically differently than the rest of us, are still human beings with ambitions and foibles, and are often—as shown in this movie—deprived of the data needed to assess themselves, and living in a world that preys (naturally) on the weakest.

The lovely Moran Rosenblatt plays Hagit, a 25ish young woman who works at a local toilet paper factory where she crushes (not entirely unreciprocated) on the son of the owner, and obsesses over making dresses, particularly wedding dresses. When the owner of the factory decides to shut it down, Hagit sees this as an opportunity to ply her trade as a fashion designer in the Big City.

Struggling to wrangle this bundle of energy is her mother, Sara, played by Assi Levy. Sara is desperately lonely and isolated, her ex-husband having moved far away, and her son having seemed to take said husband’s side in the split. Hagit’s desire for independence means that she must be constantly vigilant, lest the cunning Hagit get away from her. And, of course, it’s no contest: Hagit does get away, all the time. (My favorite gag is when she wakes up before her mother in the morning and resets her alarm clock.)

Because kids like that will do just that.

True.
And smile while they scheme.

Also, she lies to her mother, who makes her promise not to leave the house while she’s gone. But she’s out with her “boyfriend” Omri (Roy Assaf, God’s NeighborsJaffa) at every opportunity. Omri is also a man of ambition: He wants to save the toilet paper factory. But his father has little faith in him, and while this is very much a movie about Hagit and Sara, Omri has multiple tests of character to face throughout.

To just say that it’s an unkind and unsafe world for the brain-injured would be trite, and the movie carefully treads between having the audience sympathize with Hagit while not letting us forget that, for all her ability, she still makes decisions like a child, and still is often unable to handle even very mild conflict in a safe fashion. Often, but not always.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the temptation for a storyteller to end a movie like this with some horrible tragedy is practically overwhelming, if we judge based on outcomes of similar stories, and Wedding Doll avoids that. It grants Hagit the dignity of being a real person, rather than just a plot device, and that’s a very good thing.

I liked it a great deal, and The Boy himself was not unmoved.

Risen

The other day, Ace was talking about this movie, which I had heard of but which wasn’t really on my radarRisen, A Tale of the Christ! It is the story of a Roman Centurion sent to investigate the disappearance of Jesus on Easter. I make no bones about being very sympathetic to Christianity and its goals (as I think any serious student of Western History must be)—and a good movie is a good movie, even if it does have God or Jesus or Religion in it.

So, with the critics snarking CSI: Jerusalem—which, frankly, would have been fine—The Boy and The Flower and I trundled off to see this latest critical anathema.

Guaranteed.
“Now he’ll NEVER get out!”

And, lo, it was good.

Well, we thought it was okay. It’s certainly better than its 53% Rotten Tomatoes critic score would have you believe, and maybe not quite as good as the 77% RT audience score. The Boy found fault with the editing and—although he swears this isn’t because he’s a bloody Roman sympathizer—the way the Romans were portrayed. Things were sloppy in Jerusalem according to this, and I pointed out that Jerusalem was where Rome sent the people it wanted to get rid of, but he wasn’t buying. The Flower had no strong feelings about it.

There is at least one distinctly great moment, where our hero is worshipping at shrine to Mars, but praying to Jesus and, in essence, trying to bribe him. Heh. It was a nice illustration of how differently the Romans (Greeks, Babylonians, Egyptians, etc.) worshipped from Christians or Jews.

Hey, this is going to be a little SPOILERY, if you care. But I can’t describe where I think it goes awry without revealing, you know, how it goes.

"You're weird!"
Well, at least it gets you out in the open air.

I liked it, but I thought they would’ve been better off going with Ace’s conception of it. Instead, I think they wanted to evangelize, and sacrificed the story for that. To elaborate: The first two acts concern Clavius (Joseph Fiennes, StrangerlandShakespeare in Love), the world-weary Roman soldier assigned by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth, Pearl Harbor, The Hunt For Red October) to protect the body of Jesus (so that original rabble-rousing Jews for Jesus don’t dig it up and pretend he came back to life), who has to discover what happened to the body when it inevitably turns up missing.

In Ace’s conception, Clavius would not find out The Truth until about the climax of the film. That means that the movie itself plays as a straight mystery with a religious hook.

Another effective way to play this would’ve been as a sort of anti-horror movie, I think. Clavius could’ve been the worst of the Roman Empire instead of the best. Make him a complete hedonist, a proto-Aquinas, if you will, highly intelligent, able to see wisdom, but so given to pleasures of the flesh as to reject it. Then the climactic moment is coming across Jesus alive, and the complete shifting of his entire worldview—which is pretty much what a lot of the best horror is, although in horror, the message is nihilistic rather than uplifiting.

Instead, what they do is have Jesus show up at the end of Act 2, and Act 3 is Clavius tagging along with the rest of the apostles for the post-resurrection shenanigans. The third act is not bad, in and of itself, mind you. It is a sensitive portrayal of the stories in the New Testament, with kiwi Cliff Curtis (The Whale Rider, Sunshine) in what may be the most challenging role in theater, Yeshua. Things like the fishes and the leper are kept vague, to leave room for doubting. (Thomas literally says, when asked, “We doubted Him at first.” I was the only one who LOLed.)

It’s just that the third act is a different movie. Our character arc is—has to be—Clavius’. He’s the one who has to come to God. He’s the one who has to deal with Pilate and his pal Lucius (Tom Felton, continuing to distance himself from his life in the Potter universe). But he doesn’t, really. He just leaves and chases Jesus all the way to Galilee. There’s just no way to get your mojo back once you’ve switched from action film to, essentially, philosophy.

Leastwise, they didn’t pull it off here.

Good performances, though maybe a little too low key from Fiennes. Good music. Worse movies will be lavishly praised (and have been in the past six months) for espousing dissolution.

Malfoy!
“Stop yelling ‘EXPERIAMUS!’, boy. It’s not even real Latin.”

Look At Us Now, Mother

Last year 100 released films made over $20M. The next 100 made over $1.3 million. The next, made over $380K. When you get to the half-way point, you’re down to $150K. In other words, half the movies released make around $150K or less. And in my own hipster-ish, you-probably-haven’t-heard-of-it way, one of the things I like to do is keep track of the lowest box-office films I’ve seen in a year. When I find films in the bottom of the list that I could’ve seen but didn’t, I think, “Well, that’s probably for the best. I didn’t see Hayride 1 so how will I catch up on the plot of Hayride 2?” Other times, I regret the omission, as with last year’s Zombeavers, which is easily the best Beaver Zombie film out of Santa Clarita in 2015—no, of the decade.

Last year, the lowest BO movie we saw was Buzzard, not counting all the movies (and there were many) that simply don’t even rate an entry, because they had no “official” release, whatever that means. Like Scream At The Devil, or the Israeli Film Festival films, etc., where the auditoriums were perhaps rented by the producers.

I mention this because this film, Look At Us Now, Mother, is one of those I’d think likely to be in the running for “lowest box office”, except that I don’t think it actually has had an “official” release.

Sums up the movie.
“Mom” critiques her daughter’s distribution strategy here.

This is a documentary about a middle-aged Jewish woman who has had a long, combative life—well, okay, only with regard to her mother. She (documentarian Gayle Kirschenbaum) actually seems like a nice person, and her mother seems like a challenging person to live with. In fact, the trailers for this make momma seem like a bit of a monster, to a comical degree. And, as we see, Momma Kirschenbaum has definite strong opinions which she is eager to express in the least considerate words possible.

But, of course, there are only two basic ways a story like this can go: You can laugh along with the horror, or you can make it a cri de couer, agonizing over how hard a life you’ve had, and emphasize your own awesome fortitude and success in the face of adversity. The latter is fairly insufferable to watch. The former may make you uncomfortable, too, really.

Look At Us Now, Mother threads the needle between these two paths. At first, you think it’s going to be this sort of woe-is-me Baby Boomer tale of suffering, but midway through (at the latest) Kirschenbaum realizes that that’s a dead end. (And by saying “she realizes”, I don’t mean to suggest that this was some sort of spontaneous on-screen revelation, rather than careful editing, or perhaps crafting by co-writer Melissa Jo Peltier, who has a credit on the film and seems to run in the same “reality TV” circles as Gayle.)

Some women are like that.
One suspects Mildred saw a threat in Gayle.

So the last half of the movie, probably the bulk of it, is devoted to trying to handle the source of the problem at least well enough for Gayle and her mother to bond before Momma—Mildred, if you can believe that—goes to the Great Synagogue in the Sky. There’s some awfully laughable on-screen therapy, with no fewer than three different therapists trying to bully (in that noncommittal therapy way) Momma into admitting She Done Wrong, although there is one therapist who talks about The Nose Thing by referring to 20th century Jews-in-America history, which I thought was interesting.

The Nose Thing is that Gayle is Jewish, you see. And looks it. A fine-looking woman, but with the nose and the masses of kinky hair, you’d not mistake her for Icelandic. Which, you know, you’d think would be an advantage in a community that might not want their sons marrying shiksas. But her mother (who has the exact same nose) is constantly telling her she needs a nose job, and it was Kirschenbaum’s earlier documentary about her nose that led to this documentary.

I don't know the Hebrew.
It’s a great schnozz, if I may use the Yiddish.

And this, in turn (again assuming that we can trust the progression of the movie), leads to her learning about her parents lives. A baby dead of flu. A suicidal father. Long, hard—truly long and truly hard—days. In short, an appreciation of however rough “we” had it growing up, it was a piece of cake compared to our parents and grandparents. If there’s a therapeutic aspect of this movie, it’s that Gayle’s appreciation for her mother’s history gives Momma enough room to admit mistakes-were-made, and for both to move past it.

On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: LAUNM threads the needle here, as mentioned. If it had just been a litany of complaints, it would be the most trivial thing imaginable. As a thoughtful reflection on how getting beyond one’s self allows us to appreciate others, it’s top-quality documentary fodder.
  2. Style: Primitive, to say the least. It didn’t bother me or The Boy, but this is intimate stuff filmed on phones and handhelds throughout. I wasn’t expecting anything else, though.
  3. Slant: Well, you don’t really know. But Kirschenbaum doesn’t seem to have Munchausen-by-proxy, and she genuinely seems to minimize the “I was right!” aspect of things. By the end, you grow to have an affection for her mother, too, no matter how appalled you are by some of things she has said over the years.

It’s worth a watch. The Boy was also supportive. The filmmaker was there, but we didn’t stay to chat. Sorry, Gayle!

Born to Be Blue

Ethan Hawke’s an interesting kind of cat. You might see him in the it-took-twelve-years-to-make Boyhood, or in The Purge, or maybe fronting a documentary on his piano teacher. You just don’t know. Or you might, if you’re proximal to one of the 23 theaters it’s playing in, see him play legendary toothless Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker in Born To Be Blue.

Now, I tend to shy away from musical bios. I realized why as I was watching—and enjoying—this film: Most musical biopics want to cram the subject’s life into a 90-100 minute (or even 2.5 hour) space, and this tends to make the character seem a little bit cartoonish. Sometimes more than a little bit. What Born To Be Blue does, instead, is focus on one period of Baker’s life: The time after his release from prison (so he could be in the biopic about himself) which is immediately followed by his jaw-crushing pounding at the hands of heroin dealers or loan sharks or whatever, up to the time he had rehabilitated himself and played at Birdland.

What?
Leaving out legendary turn as Max Schreck in “Nosferatu”.

Now, I don’t know if any of this is true. Neither do I care. (And I’m not sure if that’s a contradiction, but as I say in The Jerk review, beware of critics bearing rationales.)  But it does make for a good movie, because we see his struggle with heroin addiction and general malaise while he tries to make good for the new love of his life, played by Carmen Ejogo (Away We Go, The Purge: Anarchy). There’s very little attempt to explain anything. Stuff just happens.

When the movie starts he’s shooting up with a girl after being dissed by Miles Davis, which leads to the breakup of his marriage and his heroine addiction—but then we find out (from Chet!) that that’s not true, and we’re watching Chet Baker play himself in the story of his life. His movie wife (Ejogo) is sort of flabbergasted how this Defoe-esque creature can have the sort of allure that allows him to treat women so badly and still have them follow him around—but then she ends up with him (and is the focus of the story, really). She asks him why he shoots up; he says because he likes to. Which is unilluminating to the point of being false, but the sort of thing a junkie (who doesn’t know why he shoots up either) would say.

Sweet, comic valentine.
Right before she goes from wondering “Why do women fall for him?” to “Why did I fall for him?”

When you get down to it, Chet’s not a real likable guy, and the great artistry here from writer/director Robert Budreau and Ethan Hawke, is that you kinda like him anyway. You’re rooting for him. You want a happily-ever-after for him, as we hope for all artists who seem to not be cut out for the material plane. Ejogo is also very good; she’s really the stand-in for the audience, on reflection. She’s rooting for Chet, too, treating him better than his actions might warrant, believing in him, and only wanting a modicum of what she gives back. (And generally forgiving him when he fails on that front.)

Callum Keith Rennie (Fifty Shades of Gray, Case 39) plays the producer who comes to believe in Chet again. Hardworking actor Tony Nappo (Saw V) has a nice turn as the probation officer who has to be hard-ass but is also really rooting for Baker.

The music is jazz. Modern jazz. Whatever they call it. Not the peppy, fun tunes of the 1900-1930s, but the drug-soaked, vanishes-up-its-own-ass kind of jazz that makes you want to throw a cymbal at someone’s head.

Right up its own ass.
And there it goes.

It’s not bad, though. Hawke does his own singing, which is whiskey-soaked, low-key stuff, but effective. The guy who doesn’t like musical biopics says “Check it out” as does The Boy.

Oh, one thing: This is a fairly sexually explicit film. There’s not any nudity in it, that I recall, but Ethan and Carmen have a fair amount of sex where the action is explicitly detailed. It is relevant to the plot—a metaphor for Chet getting his groove back, even—but be forewarned if you plan to take your ambitious eight-year-old trumpet-playing kid with you.

The Jerk (1979)

“I was born…a poor, black child.”

He actually fits in pretty well.
But life is good.

And so a career was made, and a line from a stand-up routine turned into what is now considered a classic comedy film. I saw this when it first came out lo, those many years ago, and while I liked it, I wasn’t a huge fan. The foul language and the crude sex stuff rankled. (What can I say? I was a child of delicate sensibilities who shouldn’t have been let into an R—now PG-13—movie.) At the same time, there were scenes that I adored, like Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters duet of “You Belong To Me”, which I had on a mix Betamax cassette along with assorted other music videos.

It was the ’80s. We used to do things like that. Think of it as a primitive “mash-up”.

So, I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised to find, decades later, that I possibly enjoyed the movie even more now than back then. This, by the way, is not something you can discover by watching on TV—it really has to be a focused, in-theater experience, if you’re going to compare apples-to-apples. (Movies are always better in theaters, but comedies, horror and epics are hugely affected by the transition to the small, easily-interrupted screen.)

The foul language still rankled a bit. (Mostly because it was humor-from-shock-value which, once the shock recedes, leaves only gratuitous vulgarity.) I was more sanguine about the sex stuff. Catlin Adams’ performance as the crude dominatrix is actually sort of under-rated, perhaps because Bernadette Peters is ridiculously cute and sexy and funny. But Adams’ is the harder role.

In the '70s, this was known as a "daring" outfit.
Lawdamercy, tho’.

A couple of things really stand out today about this film. First of all, it is casually racist. I mean, there’s no way this gets made today. Nobody would object to Navin being the uncoordinated white guy with a child’s palate, or M. Emmett Walsh as the crazy gunman, but the black family eating fried chicken and collard greens while singin’ the blues? The hispanic thugs with the low-rider? The Italian mafia? The cheap Jewish guy with the trophy wife?

Nobody thought a damned thing about it 1979. Wild, huh?

Well, they were different times. It was much harder to make a living being a buzzkill. They didn’t even have Human Resource departments back then, and the “Personnel Office” would look at you like you were nuts if you complained about getting your feelings hurt. Even Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al were scraping by.

Not that these are the best gags in the thing. Only that, today, they’d be the most transgressive.

Great dog actors.
This unnamed border terrier steals every scene.

Actually, what stands out above all here is a genuine good-naturedness along with a sincere desire to make people laugh, in the purest sense, without regard for anything else. Even the most—if you can call it this—strident moment, is his exchange with the mafia, in which he clearly understands nothing of what they’re saying until:

Boss: “We’ll keep the eggplants out!”
Navin: “Ah good! We don’t want any vegetables.”
Con Man: “Na, na. The jungle bunnies!”
Navin: “Oh of course! They’ll eat the vegetables!”

When they finally make it clear what they mean, he beats them all up Bruce Lee style. But even this comes across as a sorta sweet thing, besides being funny (and completely unexplained).

Roger Ebert didn’t like this movie, by the way. It didn’t make him laugh because it’s just a series of gags, with no rhyme or reason behind the gags. This is an incorrect observation on his part: Some of the best gags arise organically from the story, such as the class action suit resulting in Navin having to pay off millions of former customers by writing them each a check individually. “Pay to the order of…Mrs. Wilbur Stark…One dollar and nine cents!” But when you’re paid to critique movies, you gotta come up with a rationale for your humorlessness. (I don’t have to come up with nothin’, as I am paid nothin’ and I assume no one is reading.)

It's a funny moment.
…and NINE CENTS!

Of course, this is the exactly sort of rationale I myself might make to justify my own humorlessness, mind you. But it doesn’t bear close scrutiny. The Marx Brothers movies are just a random series of gags, too, sometimes more-or-less coherently organized around a superfluous topic, and Ebert of course gives four stars to Duck Soup, which is perhaps the most random assortment of sketches with a slight coalescence around an anti-war (and anti-government, but nobody notices that) theme, endearing it to hippies in the ’60s.

Beware of critics bearing rationales, is what I’m saying.

Ebert also, naturally, takes a jab at Martin by saying everyone knows he’s hip and cool, and not a jerk, and thus the movie doesn’t work. And there is a moment, at the very beginning of the film, where Navin is sitting around with his black family, not having realized he’s adopted yet, where Martin forgets to be “The Jerk”, and (director Carl) Reiner catches this expression on his face which is nothing more than sincere joy. I sort of think it may have come from having engaged two big Broadway singers (Richard Ward and Mabel King) to be play his parents, as well as just genuinely being happy to enter this new chapter of his life.

More silly than jerky, really.
o/~I’m picking out a thermos for you~\o

But that tone carries through the whole show, no small thanks to Reiner and co-writer Carl Gottlieb (Jaws, Doctor Detroit), as well as frequent Martin collaborator Michael Elias (Serial, The Frisco Kid). You sometimes get that kind of vibe off the better comedies today: No mission, no agenda, just have-a-laugh-kid comedy, but even those go through the multiple layers of straining to make sure no protected group is offended type filtration. Today? Well, The Jerk has a keyword at IMDB of “neominstrelsy”, and it’s the only such entry.

I guess I should be glad we can still air it in a theater—and laugh at it in public.

Eddie The Eagle

The Boy and I are probably in the minority, but we actually came out of this one thinking, “The first candidate for top 10.” Also, “No way was that a true story.” With Eddie The Eagle, what relatively new director Dexter Fletcher and really new writers Sean Macauley and Simon Kelton have done is use one of the the great moments from the ’88 Olympics as a springboard to tell a perfect underdog story.

That “perfect” cuts both ways, of course: It allows a (completely fictional) redemption subplot involving Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken—how can you go wrong there?—but it does make for moments where you’re feeling suspicious, as if you were being manipulated—like the all-too-perfect rejection of Eddie by the chair of the British Olympic Committee as being the wrong sort of person, and by the other skiers’ nasty hazing.

But, of course, you are being manipulated. You went to the movies, right?

Yeah, I know: That's figure skating. There is no "pefect" in jumping.
It’s a perfect 6.0!

Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) is a rather better looking than Eddie, though he does a good impression. Hugh Jackman has kinda been doing the “washed-up bitter has-been” thing since he put on the adamantine fingernails, and he’s quite good at it. Jo Hartley (“Not Safe For Work”) plays supportive mum, while Keith Allen (The Others, De-Lovely) plays recalcitrant father who often has to clean up after little Eddie’s disastrous Olympic sports training. (In a nice bit that’s also fictitious, I think, they have Eddie as a kid trying out all the summer sports first. Almost shamelessly, they have him in a leg brace while he’s doing it.)

Anyway, it made us laugh. It made us cheer. We were rooting for everyone, except the jerky head of the British Olympic Committee. (And isn’t that a lovely conceit? The worst problem with the BOC is that they’re a bit snobby, not that they’re thoroughly corrupt top-to-bottom, like all Olympic committees. Or do I presume to much?)

This is just one of those times I don’t have a ton to say about a film. It’s a lively, funny, heart-warming fantasy for the whole family. I also liked the score, by Matthew Margeson, who is usually credited as “additional music by” but landed himself a full movie on this one. So good for him.

Nothing revolutionary here, and not much that’s actually true, but fun and, as I said, a practically perfect example of the genre. If you like the sports movie, you’ll like this.

Shockingly few people remember when Eddie blew up the Death Star.
The target area is only two meters wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port, right below the main port.

Hello, My Name Is Doris

Initially this was described to me as “Sally Field’s comeback” which, frankly, I hadn’t noticed she was gone. She was in that awful Spider-man reboot, and before that…I dunno…Soapdish? This movie was also described by a clever Laemmle employe as Gidget Gets Her Groove Back which is perhaps funnier than it is true.

The story is that Doris, a 60-something year-old woman, has recently lost her mother, whom she has taken care of her entire adult life—to the exclusion of having a life of her own. She has a crush on new co-worker, the 30-something Max Greenfield (They Came Together, “The New Girl”), and begins to stalk him in a manner that would be much less charming, presumably, if the sexes were reversed.

Not at all.
It’s not quite “Harold and Maude”.

Of course, Ms. Field has been on the other side of this sort of May-December romance, in Murphy’s Romance—though she was nearly 40 and James Garner only in his late 50s—and it was played entirely differently, as you can imagine.

Of course, except for a brief Oscar-winning stint with the unions, Sally has made her career on being sort of harmlessly cute, and it’s still a pretty winning act. And the basic gag (outside of the romance) is that Doris finds success when she spreads her wings, because in a world populated by hipsters, kitschy Long Island values and attitudes are considered sort of outré and transgressive.

In fact, the movie played with this rather expertly, and director Michael Showalter along with co-writer Laura Terruso (who herself directed a short called “Doris and the Intern” a few years ago) keep the proceedings sensitive and light. I might have enjoyed it more if they’d completely cut loose and had Doris get so caught up in the hipster world that she forgets her crush, but they kept it pretty real.

This plays out in Doris' head.
Not that there aren’t a FEW flights of fancy.

There’s a hoarding subplot: Doris’s mother was a hoarder, and Doris seems to have inherited that, much to the dismay of her brother (the great Stephen Root) and sister-in-law (“Reno 911” veteran Wendi McLendon-Covey), and this is handled in as Hollywood a fashion as you can imagine. (For example, Doris has tons of crap all over her place, but no vermin. Real hoarders have vermin. But I can’t imagine that plays well with the intended audience.)

There’s a ton of fun-poking at the hipster crowd, which is always great. I think my favorite moment was when Doris’ rival-for-young-dude’s-affections, Brooklyn (Beth Behrs, “2 Broke Girls”), invites her to her “Rooftop LGBT Knitting Circle.” She says, “I’m not a lesbian. But I feel like I can just be Brooklyn.” To which Doris replies, “Oh, honey, I feel the same way at Staples.”

Heh.

You've probably never heard of them.
Hipsters: Comedy’s greatest natural resource.

It all comes to a head when Doris abandons Tyne Daly and Caroline Aaron on Thanksgiving to be with her would-be beau.

But this isn’t a high-wire act; it’s just a cute story competently performed, and it’s fine for that, even if you’re not in the intended demographic. Lotta TV people in it, so if you’re into TV, you might see a lot of people you recognize. Speaking of comebacks, two small parts in the movie are played by Natasha Lyonne (Slums of Beverly HillsAmerican Pie) and Peter Gallagher (The IdolmakerSummer Lovers). I mean, I guess they get work and all that, but I haven’t seen them in ages, it seems like.

Bonus points to character actor Don Stark as the guy who gets the horrified look for trying to hit on a woman only 8 years older than he.

They're only a few months apart.
There have been times I would’ve sworn Tyne Daly was much older than Field.

Kung Fu Panda 3

The Boy and The Flower were both lukewarm on Kung Fu Panda 2, and completely uninterested in the third entry in the series, but The Barbarienne naturally just HAD to see it, so off we went. Interestingly, if you check out that old review of KFP2, you’ll see that the kids liked it without being terribly impressed, but over time—and I can barely believe it’s been five years; you’ll see I predicted a quick follow-up—they’ve both downgraded it in their memories. The Boy in particular refers to it as “porridge”, which is not entirely unfair, though it’s very beautiful porridge indeed.

Three. You can tell, because I just told you.
Quick! Which of the three movies is this from?

Another thing I predicted is that KFP3 would be exactly the same as KFP2. I’m happy to say that that’s not quite the case. Although it follows much of the same pattern, in the sense that Po starts out as a failure and finds success at the end, they didn’t quite put him at Square One, like they did with KFP2.

The premise is that Master Shi Fu (Dustin Hoffman again) needs to go off into a cave for 30 years to discover his self, which in turn will give him mastery over his qi. (OK, whatever.) Which means it’s up to the Dragon Warrior (Jack Black, of course) to teach at the kung fu school while Shi Fu is contemplating his navel or whatever. And, of course, Po isn’t up to the task of teaching.

This part is a bit of a stretch. The one disastrous attempt they show at him teaching the Five (Seth Rogen, David Cross, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu and Jackie Chan) doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. In order to underscore his failure, the Five have to be reduced to incompetence as well, while training, like they’re robots doing exactly what he tells them (which is sort of ironic given the turn of the plot).

But, hey, we aren’t here to learn Kung Fu. We’re here for the fat jokes, and we get fat jokes aplenty.

Born this way.
So much jokes. So many fat.

This tenuous failure is okay because it’s all over pretty fast when two things happen at once: First, in the spirit world, Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) is defeated by his best frenemy Kai. Kai, a yak or water-buffalo or whatever, is a new character in the franchise (and, in a brilliant stroke, is voiced by J.K. Simmons). Kai likes to turn creatures into jade medallions that he can use to summon “jombies”, jade versions of the original kung fu masters whose chi he stole.

Not my temp!
Just before he throws a cymbal at Po’s head.

Second, Po’s dad (in another great voice choice, Bryan Cranston) shows up in Po’s village calling him “Lotus” and telling him about the secret village of pandas where all his people live. Selfsame village which taught a younger Oogway the ways of chi.

Soon, Po is lounging around his home town, learning the ways of the Panda: Mostly loafing, napping, eating, and rolling. One knows already how this must play out and it does play out in exactly that way, but if it lacks originality, it has a sincerity of presentation which is enjoyable enough. This does not, unlike the last one, feel like a complete retread.

It also doesn’t really have any of the darkness of the last one, which is good. The Barbarienne was never once scared, and she’s a little ‘fraidy cat. More importantly, for the general viewer, that “darkness” or “edginess” didn’t really add anything to the experience. That said, it made even less money than #2, which itself wasn’t a big hit, so we may be looking at the end of the franchise.

Which is fine.

The incredible number of celebrity voices get very little time, due both to their number and the fact that this isn’t a big dialogue movie, except when Po is rambling along in his Jack Blackish fashion. And they seem to have all come back for one or two lines, including Jean Claude van Damme, and the series further extends this by adding Al Roker and Willie Geist (of the “Today” show) for a line or two, and Kate Hudson, who does a good job as a “panda femme fatale”.

But, I want to call out James Hong, here, as Po’s adoptive father. In this movie he has to wrestle with his feelings about Po being reunited with his Panda father, and he does a wonderful job here. After over 60 years in the business, the guy could put another Annie under his belt for this one.

Anyway, don’t expect any great shocks, but it’s a good enough time for the whole family.

Adopted?!
Even adoptive dads.

City of Gold

We’d had such good luck with food documentaries in the past with—well, I guess only with Deli Man—that we thought we’d take a chance with City of Gold which is not only about food, but about our fair city.

Poseidon Tostada, actually.
Jonathan Gold and … what is that? Sushi? Some sort of crazy taco?

So let’s get the basics out of the way: Jonathan Gold is an interesting guy who writes about food for the L.A. Times, and particularly focuses on the sorts of restaurants critics had formerly eschewed, eating at taco trucks and little dives off the more fashionable parts of the city. He seems to have a good work ethic from the standpoint of visiting a restaurant many times repeatedly before writing on it, but less so from the standpoint of, say, meeting deadlines. This is something any writer can appreciate.

He also seems to see himself as having a mission: That of uniting the diverse elements of the city in a common love of food.

The thing is, either of these is sufficient for a documentary, and this one can’t seem to pick which story to tell. It switches between Gold’s history, the various restaurants he’s reviewing, his family life, and so on, with no particular focus or force. (I should point out that this doc very good RT scores, hovering around 90% for audiences and critics alike.) It doesn’t even manage the usual cheesy “and that’s why genocide is bad” sort of moralizing.

He does a lot of not writing.
Jonathan Gold nearly writing something.

For example, one of the last little vignettes in the movie is about his role in ’90s L.A. hip-hop. It’s a fine vignette, but you’re left wondering why are we getting this story now?

I don’t know. It didn’t really connect with us. It’s hard to dislike, actually, because even as sappy liberal “can’t we all get along” kumbaya-ism, it’s actually pretty relatable. We do all like food, after all, and cultures sort of advance via their food. As in, “sort of, but don’t push it.”

Three point scale:

  1. The material is interesting. Probably more than it should be. But it is true there is a huge variety of restaurants in this city, and it’s also true that some of the best are holes-in-the-wall. Gold himself is interesting, as is his wife, and his relationship with his wife and kids (who are adorable).
  2. Presentation. Technically fine, from the standpoint of visual and audio, with a good amount of the sorts of shots of the city that make it look a lot better than it will on any given day.
  3. Bias. The usual notions that worship diversity as an almost spiritual value, and the usual (but not bad) tendency toward hagiography.

I’m going to end this with a rant, but it’s not really related to the movie. We thought, in summary, it was okay, it just didn’t grab us—though it did occasionally make us hungry.

That's just how it is.
Look, it’s a movie about a guy who eats. So you get shots of him eating.

Now, my rant.

One thing that kind of pissed me off: This guy actually drives around San Gabriel Valley—they show him doing that repeatedly and many of his favorite restaurants are there. El Monte, Baldwin Park, Covina, and the like. But God forbid he should actually visit the San Fernando Valley, which is actually part of freakin’ L.A. city. A whopping two of Gold’s top 101 restaurants are in the Valley, in Studio City, which is a kind of ersatz Westwood, and as close to the edge of the Gold’s more fashionable roaming area as possible. 98% of the Valley goes unnoticed. As usual. (We’re like Queens or New Jersey if you’re familiar with how Manhattanites treat those areas.)

This, combined with the eating of crickets and a near complete lack of interest in Western cuisine makes me think he’s got a few cultural blinders, and a greater interest in the exotic. (He and his companion say we’re going to all have to eat bugs eventually. I’ve been hearing that since I was a kid.) Just once I’d like to see one of these documentaries give the SFV a little respect.