Full Metal Jacket (1987)

The good news, at least from my perspective, about Stanley Kubrick’s highly lauded 1987 war flick Full Metal Jacket, is that the second act isn’t as wan as I recall. It is an oddly shaped film, sort of like two episodes of a TV show, stitched together to make a pilot. (“We’ve gotta have a boffo opening! Make the first episode two hours long!”) The bad news (again from my perspective) is that the first act is even less believable than I recalled. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking, and very compelling, no doubt. But it seems to fundamentally misunderstand human nature.

But we have a message to send.
Fine acting. But the subsequent “character development” is incoherent.

I mentioned the challenges of ranking Kubrick film in the Dr. Strangelove entry, although since then I have observed a curious thing about rankings: The aggregates tend to put Dr. Strangelove at the top and FMJ in the top half, but individuals who make their own lists seem to favor 2001 and respect FMJ much less. This is probably due to this 2-act narrative. (A critic is more likely to think that maybe, when a guy like Kubrick does something unusual like this, it’s worth more consideration than, say, some hack fumbling with a stupid premise. A regular moviegoer is more likely to say “I didn’t like it. It was weird.”)

But let’s look at the first act first. This is the narrative that launched R. Lee Ermey’s career, and he is spectacular in it. He is hilariously horrifying in his abuse of the soldiers, politically incorrect in extremis—and in a way that was shocking even way back in 1987, and would be unthinkable today. Part of the disconnected feeling of the second act, in fact, probably stems from the fact that his behavior does, in fact, seem to be completely arbitrary. That is, at no point are we ever prompted to recall the training which, in the second act would have been pretty critical to survival. But that’s not really the problem with the first act. The problem with the first act is Vincent D’Onofrio—or more rather, Kubrick’s relationship with “Private Pyle”.

And I don't see any horns. (No, it doesn't make sense. I'm on a roll.)
“Only two things come out of Texas, Private Joker: Steers and people who haven’t seen FULL METAL JACKET!”

This is, necessarily, going to be spoiler territory.

The first act has its own arc, as our hero, Private Joker makes his way through a hellish Physical Training, while he and his fellow recruits are being tortured because of the mentally deficient Pyle. And, here’s the problem: Pyle is distinctly represented as brain injured. Not just a little irresponsible or lazy, but genuinely impaired mentally. He has trouble making his bed or tying his shoe laces to military standards. (This guy wouldn’t get anywhere near today’s corps, I gotta believe, but I don’t know that such things weren’t possible back in the ’60s.)

Where it all falls apart is when the soldiers “fix” Pyle by beating him with soap wrapped in pillow cases. All of a sudden, Pyle is a lean, mean fighting machine. The Boy pointed out that that might not have been the case, and that that wasn’t what was intended, only that the movie showed the areas where he excelled afterwards (especially marksmanship). But this is what we see: Kinda friendly dope beaten into a murderous efficiency, literally.

But, of course, brain injuries don’t work that way. Volition doesn’t enter into it when a brain-injured person can’t figure out right from left, or doesn’t know what the responsible, correct action is. The idea that it a mental handicap can be remedied that way is what led to the torturous treatment of “morons”, “idiots”, “the retarded” throughout the 20th century and (of course) earlier.

What I think, though, is that Kubrick wanted to show the brutality of PT, and the warping of an innocent but dumb kid fit the narrative. And he went too far. In real life, if you beat a kid like that, they’ll have a nervous breakdown, not rise up in ability level.

Would you say that looks like "Criminal Intent"?
Yeah. No.

And the subsequent murder of the Drill Instruction by Pyle is completely unsupported, except through this magical personality change achieved through pummeling.

It’s funny, though: When I think of “directors with a strong understanding of human nature,” I don’t really think of Kubrick. I mean, if you’re recalling characters in Kubrick films, you’re thinking of what are, essentially, caricatures. Jack and Wendy Torrance, Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971), the entire cast of Strangelove. Hell, what do people remember about 2001? The psychotic computer. (I haven’t even seen this one, and that’s what I remember.) Maybe Barry Lyndon and Spartacus are different, or maybe Kubrick’s wheelhouse wasn’t the traditional character arc found in a three act narrative.

Food for thought.

And this leads us to the second act, and maybe why I liked it better this time around. The second act is a series of things that happen, in sequence, that lead logically one to the next, but which don’t, particularly reveal character. In fact, I think that a number of the critical objections to this film are based around it’s “morally muddled message” (as I think Ebert put it). Our hero, Joker, is perhaps meant to be seen a bit more like Alex than a typical John Wayne character: He’s not a hero. He’s some guy who sort of trusts the institutions of the country enough to believe his presence will be a good thing.

Hard to fit on a bumper sticker, though.
“We had to destroy the village in order to save the rest of the villages from being destroyed by the Communists.” Not as catchy but as it turns out, true.

As such, his final action, the climax of the film, where he kills a young girl who has sniped several of his best friends, is rather anticlimactic. He does it; he moves on. He’s surrounded by battle-hardened veterans who have a problem killing this little girl, and he does it with only a little goading, and no subsequent remorse.

Maybe what Kubrick is getting at here is that Joker isn’t the person in question, the audience is. This maps pretty well with Clockwork Orange where we are inclined to root for Alex, not because he isn’t the embodiment of evil, but because there is something worse than that: Brutal inhumanity done to suppress the individual’s free will. Not that Joker is evil, exactly, but his smile isn’t exactly unlike Alex’s as he heads off to the next location where he will have to kill some more.

The kids liked it. The Flower loves “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” so I think she sort of recalls this as “The movie with the good music.” She also likes some Ermey (as do we all, except for The Engima, who refers to his program “Mail Call” as “History Shout”). I think The Boy also found the second act a little more palatable than he had previously.

I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s “muddled” as Ebert said, or if it’s just war that’s muddled, and that’s what’s being shown. But it is, of course, as all Kubrick films, a technical masterpiece.

Buh-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow...
She did point out that the girl in question was not actually wearing boots, however.

TCM Presents: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Late summer is always a challenge for The Boy and I, movie-wise. (The heat ain’t great either, but that’s not really relevant here.) The big budget films stay around longer than anyone (but the studios) want, even if they flop badly (like Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters) and that often seems to coincide with uninspired indie films, perhaps because the ones with the best prospects don’t want to get buried in the summer. (Like, it’s rather a bad sign for the Meryl-Streep-Does-A-Quirky-Historical-Character-Drama Florence Foster Jenkins to be released in mid-August. Earlier this year, we had Marguerite which was the same story and looked like a much better film from the trailer. The Streep one looks like an Oscar-bait misfire.)

Anyway, we’ve pretty much licked that this summer by seeing classic movies, from On The Waterfront to Dr. Strangelove. We now have three steady venues: TCM Presents has a classic monthly, our (nearly) local art house has “Throwback Thursday”, and a theater near where The Boy and I work has “Flashback Tuesday”. (Yeah, I don’t get it either, it should be “Trowback Tuesday” or something.)

But the funny thing about classic movies is, like classic literature, “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, where “good” can mean “something that holds up over the years” or even “something I’m in the mood for now”. And a lot of times, over the years, our sense of a movie’s quality is influenced by our experience seeing it on TV, where it’s smaller, where we’re not as engaged, where we can pick over things in a way that was never meant. And, for me, Planet of the Apes was one of those movies I wasn’t sure was still going to work. The ape makeup. The zoom lens. The height of late ’60s/early ’70s nihilism. The staginess of the action scenes, particularly in this world of sweeping camera vistas and CGI everything.

I used a picture with no spoilers.
They finally made a monkey out of me.

On top of that, we weren’t able to catch the Sunday show, and we ended up having to see it on Wednseday afternoon, in the middle of the day. And the “projectionist” (by which, I mean the guy who presses “play” on the DVD players they use now) had screwed something up so it was 20-30 minutes late. And, bizarrely, this theater was so cold—something that almost never happens anymore—that the guys next to us used the delay to get blankets to cover up.

Then, I was a little nervous because comedian Dana Gould (whose ’90s stuff I thought quite funny) spends a fair amount of time interviewing with Ben Mankiewicz as “Dr. Zaius”, in full ape makeup, as though “Dr. Zaius” were an actual ape-man and actor who had landed the role in ’68.

Heh.
“I thought, ‘oh, they have one, too!'”

It’s a lot of build-up, if you know what I mean. And yet.

It’s great. Just great.

The only really awkward part of the film is the beginning. And while, in most cases, you probably shouldn’t front-load your message in your film (if, indeed, it must be loaded at all), here it actually makes a lot of sense, as does Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) broad cynicism. The movie really kicks into gear when the apes show up, but even the long trek across the wastelands at the front ends up paying off at the end.

It’s so well constructed, you think “Hey, what else has this guy directed?” And then you go look under Franklin J. Schaffner and see he has an Oscar for Patton and also directed Papillon and Boys from Brazil. And also that he directed many episodes of “Playhouse 90” and “The DuPont Show of the Week”.

Oh.

Well, I guess they made a monkey out of me. (Said song from “The Simpson’s” pretty much The Flower’s only exposure to this movie prior to seeing it.)

The Boy and The Flower were both enthusiasic, in spite of everything. And Gould as Zaius was really, really funny.

If you have a chance to see it on the Big Screen, by all means, check it out.

Can you say "depilatory"?
And remember, being an animal doesn’t mean you can’t shave your legs, ladies!

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

Well, it’s a very SILLY film, isn’t it? Perhaps the most self-consciously silly film ever made, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is for a lot of fans the pinnacle of the Pythons’ work. I tend to prefer Life of Brian, myself: I think the continuity allows us to identify with Brian’s exasperation. He’s the sane one in a world gone mad, and constantly taken aback by the fact that the world really is insane. With Grail, all the characters are just sort of silly, the world is silly, and the action is punctuated with contemporary (to 1975) police investigation actions.

A very silly movie, indeed.
From the opening credits.

Very, very silly indeed. Down to the five minutes at the very end which is just blackness and organ music, with no indication that the movie is over until the lights go up.

But it’s also quite funny. Among the most quotable sketches the group ever produced, including “Bring Out Yer Dead” (“I’m not dead yet!”), “Dennis The Peasant” (“Come see the violence inherent in the system!”), “Brave Sir Robin” (“And Sir Robin bravely ran away!”), “The Black Knight” (“It’s just a flesh wound!”) and such memorable moments as the “Camelot” song-and-dance bit that ultimately evolved into the Broadway play “Spamalot” (if I’m not mistaken, which I may be), the “Vorpal” Bunny and the Holy Hand Grenade Of Antioch, the air speed of a coconut-laden swallow, and so on. Oh, and the odd, and not really very funny but ridiculously over-quoted “Knights Who Say ‘Ni'”.

Known only as RABBIT in the script.
Christened “The Vorpal Bunny” by fans.

So, yes, funny, but more like an extended episode of the show than an actual movie. The Flower really liked it, and The Boy (who had, of course, seen it before) found it as funny as before. I had a degree of suspicion toward it (memory-wise) because I saw Life of Brian first and so that was my go-to MP movie. But I did find as funny as I ever had, and maybe then some.

Shockingly low budget. I have a book around here somewhere which contains some stories about the making of it, which was apparently quite unpleasant, what with the English rain and everyone getting sick and the budgetary issues and (as I recall) Graham Chapman’s substance abuse problems.

Even greater problems, at least from a budgetary perspective, would plague Life of Brian, but George Harrison saved them there, and the rest is English Cinematic History.

So there's that.
And this movie became a hit Broadway musical written by the grinning guy.

The BFG

The Boy has been seeing quite a few movies with his girlfriend, especially if they’re ones I’ve been cool on. But there’s no escape for me: The Barbarienne likes popcorn and off to the movies we much, hold the resist. The Adventures of Tintin, Spielberg’s last outright kidflick, was such an odd mess of Spielbergian clichés, I was chary of this adventure, for the BFG is a thin book and while not without its charm, it’s probably in the lower five of Roald Dahl’s top 10.

It’s actually pretty good. The CGI giant is in the sweet spot: Not close enough to the Uncanny Valley to make you uncomfortable, but not so far off that you can’t believe it. They expanded on Dahl’s dialogue for him (because, of course, they had to) but while the dedicated Dahl fan can hear the slight difference between the original text and the script, it’s pretty faithful to the book’s spoonerisms and corruptions. The Barb looked away a little bit—she has about zero tolerance for anything even remotely scary or emotionally intense or awkward—but the “scary” parts were also pretty faithful to the book. (Which The Barb, who has read all of Dahl’s other workshas not read because it’s too scary.)

But perhaps it's there.
I don’t remember a tree in the BFG.

All in all very faithful, and remarkably tasteful given the fart jokes. I was a little concerned the whole movie would go Full Fart. But there’s just a little bit at the front and a great little bit at the end.

As in the book, at one point, the BFG and Sophie go meet the Queen. Of England. This was definitely my favorite part, as it was such a lovely throwback to the concept of English propriety. All the various servants and staff at the palace scramble to find ways to accommodate a giant! And they manage!

It felt like there was a lot of sincerity here, like maybe Grampa Spielberg was thinking of his actual grandkids making this movie. I don’t know. It had heart, as opposed Heart™, if that makes sense.

If it doesn’t, well, the Barb also liked it, as did The Boy.

She's a cutie. A terrifying cutie.
The Barb did turn her head away at certain scary parts, though.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

We’ve been seeing a lot of revivals lately, of which The Flower is particularly fond—I think her reasoning is “why see a movie that might be good when you could see one that you know will be good?”—and when Hayao Miyazaki’s classic Kiki’s Delivery Service popped up, she was excited about seeing it on the big screen. (Everything is better on the Big Screen. Period.)

But anything, nonetheless.
Especially anything involving flying.

We figured that the print we’d be seeing would be the English-language version, though the one that was re-cut in later years to restore the original Japanese songs (removing Sydney Forrest’s wonderful “I’m Gonna Fly” and “Soaring”), and I had given the kids a little background on the late, lamented Phil Hartman, whose voice work they’re familiar with from such shows as “The Simpsons” and “The Critic”.

But lo-and-behold, it was a Japanese print with subtitles! The Flower has prefers dubs to subs, as noted in Only Yesterday (1991) and The Boy and The Beast, because she’s a visual artist and likes to focus on the art. I’m more aural, so I find dubs distracting. (And The Boy tends to change preferences based on the thing being translated, so now you know the full extent of our dubs-vs-subs wars.)

I say cats should always be voiced by Phil Hartman. And Wolves by Peter Ustinov.
The kids tell me that in Japan are always voiced by women (and wolves always by men).

But you know, it’s a great movie, and so characteristic of Studio Ghibli as to be its own genre. Ghibli is unique among the animation studios I know in making films that don’t feature antagonists to be overcome. The characters generally have personal crises to overcome, some point where they lose their way and have to come back, and Kiki is a great example of this.

The plot is that, at thirteen, a witch is sent away from home to a new town where she must find a trade that suits her. Kiki finds herself in a big beachside city which is rather modern and doesn’t really know from (apparently rather rare) witches, so she ends up quickly lost and forlorn and making a bit of a spectacle of herself. Tides turn for her when she helps a pregnant baker’s wife by whisking a baby’s pacifier to the customer who forgot it, before her baby could wake up and get upset.

The bakers take her on, and she helps with mundane chores around the bakery while living in the upstairs apartment, when she lights upon the idea of making deliveries her stock-in-trade.

Get it?
Deliveries, you say!

This, by the way, is one of my favorite examples of cultural appropriation. Witches in Miyazaki’s world (or perhaps source novelist Eiko Kadono’s world) have no sinister connotations. They wear simple black dresses and have black cat familiars out of tradition. Their potions are beneficial and medicinal. About as nasty as they get is, well, maybe a little snooty, as the first witch Kiki runs into turns her nose up at her (since she’s been out in the world for a whole year or two).

Also, the beachside city is sort of Germanic looking, though most of the scribbling on the buildings is some sort of gothic nonsense, sometimes though it’s in English, and the bakery is perhaps a sort of French stereotype. The people seem post-WWII in customs, though there aren’t cars but there are zeppelins.

Yeah! That one!
It takes place in that European city. You know the one. Where the blimp crashed into the big clock.

It’s truly wonderful and perfect for the story, but the sort of thing Westerners apparently have to take crap for every time they perform the same kind of hashing on any non-Western cultures.

Anyway, it was great to see the subbed version, and to hear the original voices. The cat, of course, had nothing of Phil Hartman’s supercilious baritone, and Kiki didn’t have Kirsten Dunst’s sort of dopey earnestness, so the experience is really rather different in some ways.

It’s definitely worth checking out, if you have the opportunity.

And that was plausible at the time!
In the English dub, the quirky, hitchhiking artist on the right was played by Janeane Garofalo.

The Innocents

In case you thought I wasn’t awful, my response to one of our great theater employees as to “How was it?” was: “Well, for a movie about nun-raping, there aren’t as many laughs as you might expect.”

What?

Honestly. Nun raping.
Yeah, I’m disappointed in me, too.

I said I was awful, didn’t I? I mean, not awful enough to rape nuns, unlike the Russian soldiers “liberating” Poland, but awful enough to joke about it. Well, not really, just awful enough to joke about a movie made 70 years after the fact. (Man, you should hear me riff on the Wreck of the Hesperus.)

The plot here is that a young French doctor on a post-war mission to help (French) soldiers to facilitate pulling out of Poland (and ceding it to the Soviets) finds herself roped into helping nuns in a nearby-but-not-too-nearby convent who are in the late stages of pregnancy. It is, of course, damned awkward to have a convent full of pregnant nuns, and the Poles (and not just the Poles, of course), I guess, were backward enough for this to be a survival problem for the nuns.

It's a stupid world we live in.
Apparently, nuns are supposed to be rape-proof.

So, all the pregnancies have to be hidden and the children all skirted away to foster parents as soon as they’re born.

This creates a problem for our lovely, liberated doctor Mathilde (Lou de Laâge who, at 26, fits very nicely into her role as a doctor) since she is barely accepted in the first place, and she is not allowed to tell anyone where she is disappearing to in the middle of the night. It also creates a bit of friction between her and her man-of-the-moment, a Jewish doctor named Samuel (Vincent Macaigne). It’s a cringe-worthy moment for all of us when he snarls that the Poles deserve their brutal treatment at the hands of the Soviets (see Aftermath for another take on what the Polish might deserve.).

We don’t really know Mathilde’s opinions on that, generally, for she is not a political creature. Surely she can relate to the nun’s situation better than most, given that she must elude the wolfish Soviet patrols in order to get to the nunnery, and there’s little doubt what they would do to a pretty French girl alone.

Well, the girls. The guys all looked like a young Maurice Chevalier.
Before socialized medicine, all French doctors looked like this.

Things start to heat up when it’s clear that more than one of the nuns may go into labor at once, and when the French detachment learns that its time in Poland is very limited. To say nothing of the complications of when the babies start arriving and the nuns, if given a chance, are inclined to become quickly attached to them. The concerned Mother Superior ends up seeming brutally callous in her attempt to keep this from happening, often to horrible effect.

So, here’s the thing: This is obviously a dark topic, a subject matter one doesn’t like to contemplate, and just as obviously, this movie isn’t a fun family romp. At the same time, the treatment of the topic matters greatly. This movie worked for me because, no matter how dark the happenings got, the movie itself didn’t endorse or celebrate nihilism. There are monsters here, no doubt, but the movie doesn’t endorse a worldview of “well, what’s the point of anything with all these monsters around?”

Anne Fontaine (writer/director of Gemma Bovary and Coco Before Chanel) directs a script she co-wrote (along with a suspicious number of other people), and gives us a clean, tight drama that’s expertly paced. And with cinematographer Caroline Champetier (The Last of the UnjustHannah Arendt), we get a lot of noteworthy visuals to boot.

If you see only one movie about nun-raping this year…no, wait, that’s a terrible recommendation. In truth, it’s a sensitive, mature handling (way more mature than I am, clearly) of a difficult subject that isn’t designed to make you feel awful about life and humanity. Well, worth seeing.

Until now.
Notice that I didn’t make a single comment about penguins.

The Kind Words

We tend to favor the Israeli films in one sense: We don’t really expect them to get a fair shake, either critically or when a small audience aggregate score is involved. So this film’s shockingly low 38% from audiences didn’t dissuade us much, even though the subject matter didn’t seem that interesting.

The story is this: A teenage girl has a lover from whom she is forcibly taken by her family. Decades later, her children, mourning her death—when they’re not hating on their father, Sasson Gabai (GETTThe Band’s Visit) and his younger love interest—come to find little bits of evidence that suggest their father is not, in fact, their father.

Irony.
She’s mad at him because he’s been faithless to their mother. Heh.

Sure, we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it done by Israelis? Actually, I kind of think so, but I can’t quite recall.

The mystery centers around a photograph where the oldest daughter, Dorona (Rotem Cohen, Hunting Elephants) is standing with her mother, many decades ago in a park in France. And the question becomes: Who took the picture? The Aunt in France her mother visited annually is helpful only in that her lies are transparent and unconvincing, and soon the three take off on an adventure to find out if they have a real dad somewhere in France.

It’s a brooding, emotional story, which isn’t too heavy, mostly, though it has a certain ennui to it: The three children are all, in their own ways, dysfunctional. It’s never really clear as to why they hate their Father so much, except to blame him for leaving their mother for a younger woman, and then somehow in that fashion contributing to her death. The central question quickly becomes: Is it true? Do we want to know? If we found out, how does that change our view of our parents? And so on.

Not as funny as the series suggests.
Arrested development.

It’s a common enough story these days, but Dorona is an interesting character. She seems to be the most troubled by the proceedings, and the only one in a position to actually remember the man who might be their father. And if they find the father, that raises more questions, like: Does he want to know us? Or, was his relationship to their mother free of any of her real life entanglements?

Director Shemi Zarhin gives us a story that moves, but occasionally uncertainly. It would feel false for things to wrap up neatly, but at the same time the emotional effect we do get is somewhat muted and melancholy. It’s a good movie, but definitely a low key one.

Low. Key.
Spyin’ on papa.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The Flower, who now towers over many adults, has a very particular sensibility with regard to film. Unlike The Boy, she has to be rather motivated to go to the movies, since time away from her desk means time away from whatever art she’s doing (and she’s doing a lot). She’s far more inclined to see classics than new films because, well, why risk it? Her favorite movie growing up was Gran Torino (which many thought was odd for a child) but recently, she has come to adore Silence of the Lambs. In fact, we debate as to the relative merits of Lambs versus its Best Picture Oscar-contender that year, Beauty and the Beast (which has to be the greatest match-up since Star Wars went up against—and lost to—Annie Hall).

Somewhat less probably, she has come to be something of a Stanley Kubrick fan, loving both The Shining and A Clockwork Orange: In this case, I think Kubrick’s aesthetic sense wins her over more than the particular narratives, but since our theater was having a Kubrick month, I figured I’d soon find out.

Dr. Strangelove is probably a good place to start, I figured. I actually have never “got” the hubbub about this film. I mean, I can see it raising a ruckus in 1964, but does it really hold up? I was honestly unsure whether I’d seen the whole thing, so this would be a good chance for me to revisit it (or just visit it), too.

All, of course, played by Peter Sellers
President Muffley, the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, and Captain Mandrake

Welp, hadn’t seen it, except for a few iconic scenes. You know the ones.

And it is really, really good. Is it his best movie, as often listed? I don’t think so: It’s overrated in that sense. His greatest movies, I would argue, are ones where the narrative serves the aesthetic, not where the aesthetic is subordinated by the narrative. I mean, let’s face it, The Shining (1980) has virtually no narrative at all not shared by hundreds, if not thousands of not just worse but utterly forgettable films. (Guy with axe wants to chop up his family?) A Clockwork Orange (1971), for all its sci-fi dystopianism isn’t much more than an inverted revenge flick. 2001 has a story, I’m told, but nobody really knows what it is.

Never seen it.
But I think it’s foreshadowed here in this deleted scene when George C. Scott says, “My God! It’s full of pies!”

Point is, if you like Kubrick, you like his style. If you look at IMDB and compare to Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that they rate his movies entirely differently—except that both have this one as #1—which I think reveals that when you’re dealing with that sort of artistic excellence, it’s difficult to really say that this is better than that. And I suspect as the Boomers die off, this film will sink in prominence, somewhat.

Although, frankly, as I was watching it, and laughing, I thought about how uncomfortable I’d feel if I were watching it in 1964. Holy crap. Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe was released the same year—but later, at Kubrick’s insistencelawsuit, apparently—and apparently everyone laughed at it. Fail-Safe is not a funny movie; it’s a serious version of this movie.

But, again, if I were watching it in 1964, I’d have laughed, too. Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Iconic! R.I.P. Mr. Adam!
The late Ken Adam got a LOT of work in the ’60s.

Anyway, this is not a subtle film. Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, just for obvious example. (And mustn’t he have been kept on a tight leash to work with the notoriously fastidious Kubrick?) Then there’s the guy who starts all the trouble, General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden. And George C. Scott as the general who’s fond of young women, Buck Turgidson. Colonel Bat Guano. Major King Kong.  I mean, really.

Despite all this ham-handedness, the movie somehow works. I can’t really explain it. Maybe Kubrick’s deadly earnest camerawork pulls the whole thing out of fatuous camp and into a more elevated satire. I don’t know, but we all liked it: The Boy, The Flower and I, and (I’d like to think) Slim Pickens’ daughter, who was there in the theater with us.

Best Pickens performance? "The Howling"
As, I like to think, was Mr. Pickens, at least in spirit.

Jaws (1975)

It will probably not come as a surprise to you, dear reader that I was not a fan of the summer smash blockbuster that, with Star Wars, changed movies forever. After all, I wasn’t a fan of Star Wars and I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark got too silly when Indy rode on top of the Nazi submarine as it crossed the Atlantic. And all those Spielberg-produced ’80s kid-oriented movies struck me as piles of mediocrity. This may be why I liked “The Critic” TV show so much: I am Jay Sherman.

o/~I like French films, pretentious boring French films...~\o
“I’m worse than Hitler?” “No, just less cuddly.”

That aside, in retrospect, the reason I may not have cared for Jaws is that it was described to me as being “so scary”, like it’s a horror film. And as a horror film, it’s not really…well, it’s not a horror movie at all. It’s not really trying to scare you, except at moments in the build-up, and the scares are more roller-coaster than “spooky boo”. It never tries to build up an existential chill, there’s no sense of nihilism, the atmosphere is actually pretty bright and cheerful, where men with a purpose are off to tackle a man-eating beast.

It’s an action-adventure! And as such, it works really well. I took the kids to see it, and we all really enjoyed it.

I was actually sort of meh on seeing it but, as I pointed out, taking it for what it is, it’s really quite good. It’s also not a movie about a shark, which to reference The Shallows review, I will reiterate that most shark movies get that wrong: The idea that it’s about a shark, and therefore it’s the shark that has to be more interesting. This is why 99% of Jaws ripoffs (including its own sequels) are so bad.

Menace! No, wait, threat!
Hitchhiking sharks: Threat or Menace?

The screenplay, from novelist Peter Benchley and longtime funnyman Carl Gottlieb (the guy who gave The Jerk (1979) its shape and who plays “Meadows” in this movie) gives us a bunch of strong characters to like, or enjoy disliking. Sure, there’s Quint, Brody and Hooper, the three men after the man-eating lionshark, and Shaw, Scheider and Dreyfuss were at the top of their game. But there’s also lovable Murray Hamilton as the Vaughn, the man who launched the “sure, some people might get eaten, but what about the tourist revenue?” trope. Lorraine Gray is the patient but loving wife, hitting all the beats you can see echoed in (the not dissimilar Scandi disaster movie) The Wave (Bølgen).

What's the deal with places named "Amity"?
“Think of the T-shirt sales!”

There is just a lot of love here, and it oozes with the sincere conviction of youth (Spielberg was 29 when he made this). The movie greatly benefits, by Spielberg’s own admission (I think) from the fact that Bruce The Shark was a very unreliable robot, and in places where he would’ve used the shark, he had to excite the audience by proxy. Suggesting the shark’s size and ferocity.

As such, this movie holds up shockingly well. It is only in the final scenes that it looks its age. Bruce is not a very convincing shark, even if he is a method actor. Also, sharks don’t behave that way. But you need a big finale, and you get a big finale. (This is the same problem faced by the otherwise sensible The Shallows.)

Anyway, great fun, and a good reminder that seeing it on TV, you’re not really seeing it. We’ve been going to a lot of these “throwback” shows, and a lot of times you say “Well, that was way better than I thought it would be.” The theater gives you a chance to fully focus on the screen and a truly immersive experience.

So, check it out: But whenever possible, check it out on the Big Screen.

Even the shark's a bro.
Trigger warning: There’s a LOT of bro-ing in this flick.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

This is probably the biggest summer surprise out of New Zealand since What We Do In The Shadows, which is not all that surprising, since it’s from the same guy, writer/director Taika Waititi (who also played Viago in the vampire “documentary”). What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that it’s a traditional movie that is far richer than the excellent Shadows.

I was jokingly referring to it as “Live Action Up“, because the main character is a fat Asian (close enough) kid in a baseball cap, but whereas Up‘s protagonist was a (literal) Boy Scout, our hero here is a ne’er-do-well, who loiters, litters, spits, and does all kinds of reprehensible things on his pathway to adult criminal hood.

But, yeah, he looks like a Maori Eric Cartman in that get up.
Sorry. I meant “big-boned”.

This, as explained by the social worker who delivers him to the farm owned by Hec (Sam Neill, Jurassic ParkThe Dish) and Bella (Rima Te Wiata, Housebound). When Ricky (Dennison) decides to run away, and to be sullen, and to cause trouble, it is the earthy Bella who wins him over, while Hec seems to have little use for him.

These are great scenes, both touching and hilarious, but the movie really kicks into high gear when Hec and Ricky find themselves in the New Zealand outback, running from the law, through a series of unfortunate misunderstandings that result in the beleaguered Hec being sought after as a pederast.

This shot could be from almost any scene in the second half of the movie.
Here, though, he’s being confronted with accusations of YouTube commentary.

This is a great, straight-up adventure film, to be sure, of the sort we don’t get much any more. On top of that, it has real emotional depth with great performances from the three principles, backed by a comical portrayal of a social-worker-turned-Tommy-Lee-Jones-in-the-Fugitive, among many others.

You can’t help but like New Zealanders while watching this. And that’s really a good thing for a film. A lot of European films (and probably most American films) are awash in varying degrees of self-loathing. I think the most American-loving films in the past 20 years (if not the past 70) are foreign films like The World’s Fastest Indian and even the Persian Jimmy Vestvood: American Hero.

And it does this while presenting addled hippies, paranoid survivalists, overzealous civil servants and what must be the equivalent of rednecks for New Zealand.

Seriously!
Loveable.

Interesting thing: Ricky carries a rifle for most of the film. This is not presented as a remarkable thing, nor is the gun cast in any sort of mystical evil shadow, as is the style in this country. He does good with it. He does bad with it. Nobody blames the gun for anything.

Anyway, The Boy and I loved it. It may rank as our favorite film of the summer. I see some rumors that Waititi may turn his attention to the next Thor movie to which I say, “Well, good for him, and I guess, good for comic book fans.” But, damn, I’d like to see him keeping on doing what he’s been doing.

Nah. You can't use a colander: The holes let the signal through!
Which is: Teaching people how to defend from government mind control rays.

The Shallows

There are now two good shark movies: Jaws and this one.

Take THAT, Bruce.
That’s right. I went there.

Jaume Collet-Serra (Run All NightNon-StopOrphanUnknown) has done what was previously attempted by dozens of others in myriad ways: They’ve tried making the sharks smarter (Deep Blue Sea), bigger (Mako), multiple headed (2-Headed Shark Attack, 3-Headed Shark Attack), crossed with pirahnas (Pirahna Sharks), crossed with octopi (the Sharktopus franchise), undead (the Ghost Shark franchise, Zombie Sharks), cyborg (Robosharks), land-borne (Avalanche Sharks, Sand Sharks, that great SNL sketch), airborne (Sky Sharks, the Sharknado series) and mall-borne (Bait 3D). They even tried making ’em black-and-white (1936’s White Death, which I think is the only real shark movie prior to Jaws). All of these focus on the sharks, of course, and it must be a reasonably profitable approach or they wouldn’t keep doing it, right?

But the thing that makes Jaws work are the men fighting the shark. We care what happens to them and, whatever their flaws, we like them and want them to survive. Well, maybe not, since many of the dozens of movies since then have clearly been rooting for the sharks.

Collet-Serra and screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski change this up by giving us a mano-a-mano, girl against fish approach: Blake Lively is a young woman unable to get over her mother’s death, and so journeys to the sort of hidden cove in a Latin American country (where, in another sort of movie, she’d be terrorized by the locals, possibly sacrificed or maybe eaten). Her mother apparently visited this site while pregnant with her, as an avid surfer, and now Nancy (our heroine’s improbable name) is going out to do the same.

I can't.
In a mismatched bikini, if you can imagine that.

It doesn’t seem like such a wild thing but Dad (Bret Cullin) doesn’t agree, especially with Nancy having dropped out of med school. Mom was a fighter, you see, if not exactly a survivor. We call this foreshadowing.

Anyway, before you can say “We’re gonna need a bigger surfboard”, Nancy finds herself in hostile shallow water with an insanely aggressive Great White. Most of this plays out like a survival picture, a la 127 Hours, with Nancy coming up with various clever possible ways out of predicament, even as she fights dehydration, hunger, injury and existential ennui. (Just kidding: There is no ennui when you’re the #1 person of interest to a shark.)

Nomnomnomnom
The existential shark: “What’s the point of clinging to that rock? How do you even know that rock is really there? Or that I am?”

The shark, of course, must behave improbably, which is the weak link in all shark movies, but this one, for the most part, doesn’t seem super-intelligent, super-powered or super-aggressive. Just enough of all those to be reasonably threatening. The ending is absurd, but I was okay with it. There were only a couple of ways it could end, and a big movie ending was probably better than a lower-key, more realistic ending.

Blake Lively plays her role convincingly: Her character is resourceful but not fearless, smart but not perfect, etc. She’s in a bikini for a lot of the proceedings, and Collet-Serra does a good job not leering, as directors sometimes do with beautiful, scantily-clad leading ladies. (I’m not against leering per se, but it can certainly undermine a movie. The survival genre has to be pretty anhedonic or it works against the dynamic of the film.)

But, this doesn’t suck, is the main thing. You got one person (basically), one shark, and a neat little gripping drama/adventure out of it, with enough horror to provide some thrills. Critics, interestingly, have aggregately rated this higher than audiences (76% to 64%), but I suspect that’s because a goodly portion of the 36% who didn’t like this film wanted a shark with more heads, or more teeth, or who were maybe Nazis or…

Holy crap. Nazi sharks. Hasn’t been done yet.

I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta go register this with the WGA!

OK, I'm going to make mine Libertarian sharks. They just want to leave you alone (after they eat you).
Dammit. Too slow. Airborne Nazi Sharks.

Finding Dory

I have to confess that before the movie started, there was a trailer that made me laugh harder than I’ve laughed in a theater for quite some time. A feral child with strange powers. Concerned adults. Mysterious monsters. And then I realized I was watching a gritty reboot of Pete’s Dragon. I didn’t stop laughing until after Finding Dory started.

Since not that many people have seen it, and many have forgotten it, the ’70s movie Pete’s Dragon was a dopey musical with Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and a really poorly integrated animated dragon that was more goofy than anything. I mean, it wasn’t even slightly scary. Or exciting. Or noteworthy, for that matter. It was just the sort of sub-level “family friendly” product Disney was putting out back then. Don’t let people tell you they’re remaking a classic. It’s not: It was mostly (in the ’70s) just a sad reminder that the once cutting-edge technologically and artistically company had more-or-less given up and decided to live off the reputation of their founder.

Hardcore.
Nailed it. I swear, we’re one green light away from “The Apple Dumpling Gang” erotic thriller reboot.

This isn’t as severe a digression as it seems because if we’ve learned anything about Lasseter’s tenure as head of Disney animation, it’s that he’s done them a world of good. The last three big animated pictures, TangledFrozen and Zootopia have all shifted directions late into their production, and this has been all to their credit, as well as being the sort of thing that wouldn’t be allowed under the penny-pinching Eisner days.

But, if we’re being honest, we have to concede that Pixar has suffered. Now, maybe it would’ve anyway. Cars 2 was fundamentally backwards. And while BraveMonsters University and Inside Out are good, I’m not sure they stand, as a set, at the level of the company’s previous work, before you even factor in The Good Dinosaur. And now we have Finding Dory.

Old school, there are a bunch.
The two great modern celebrity cartoon characters: Genie and Dory.

Sequels are always dicey, but historically only for other companies. I maintain, still, that the only great movie trilogy is Toy Story. And the reason it works, and why I haven’t been afraid of Pixar doing sequels, is that they seem to wait for the right idea. They’re as far away from “Let’s get the next movie out ASAP” as you can get, with over a decade passing between Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3. (Though, this was partly due to limitations imposed by their contract with Disney.)

Finding Dory, however, does none of the things you expect a sequel to do: Yes, the three principles are back (Marlon, Dory and Nemo) but the familiar characters are left after the first 10 minutes or so of the film, and not revisited again until the denouement. Any other company would’ve given us 20 minutes of sea turtles and seagulls and sharks—the sharks aren’t back at all in this—and all those other characters that gave us a laugh. (This is how sequels dilute their own franchise.)

'cause there are so many: Ice Age, Minions, almost every Disney sequel of the '90s...
Not that I’d name names.

Tonally, this film is entirely different, too: Nemo was measured. Mellow in parts, punctuated with terrific moments of action. This suited Marlon’s character as the neurotic who’s in constant fear by contrasting him with the scope and serenity of the (let’s face it, entirely fictional and fantastically benign) ocean.

Dory, on the other hand, is almost entirely action. It’s fast-paced, occasionally frenetic, and very claustrophobic, since it is set almost entirely at the Morro Bay Aquarium. (By the way, the Morro Bay Aquarium, as envisioned here, does not exist. There is an aquarium in Morro Bay, but it is primarily a seal rescue, generally hard up for cash, and a sort of sad affair relative to the shiny Sea World-esque Aquarium in this movie. However, such a super-duper aquarium is planned for the area, which is kind of interesting.) Besides being fast-paced, it’s also very cartoonish. Our fishy heroes sometimes seem like they’re spending more time out of the water than in it.

It's a rehab place for seals and such.
These guys look like they could be from the ACTUAL Morro Bay aquarium.

Well, that’s the other sequel dilemma, isn’t it? Do you recycle all the characters? Do you remake it in the same tone? Don’t you run the risk of feeling like you’ve cloned yourself, poorly? I mean, this is what gets Cars 2, after all: They decided to recycle the specific “Lightning McQueen won’t let ‘Mater be ‘Mater” storyline, instead of the larger “Sometimes being a self-involved jackass hurts people you love” concept.

So, yeah: Dory is different. I believe in the first movie, the whole thing about Dory’s short-term memory loss was just a gag. But they’ve developed it here into its own thing: Rather than being a member of a fish species with a short memory, Dory is (essentially) brain-injured, kind of like Leonard in Memento. They don’t put it that way, of course. She’s just different and has trouble remembering. And so she got lost and has never found her way home.

It works, basically. Andrew Stanton returns to write and direct after the disastrously marketed John Carter and he definitely reminds us that Pixar can bring out both the jokes and the feels with the facility of true artists. The star of the new movie is a grouchy, anti-social octopus played by Ed O’Neill, but there are also a couple of lovable, dysfunctional white critters (a beluga whale and a white dolphin, respectively), Dory’s parents, and so on. They are humanized in ways you’d wish live action films would bother to humanize their characters.

But of course, you know it ain't gonna work out that way.
An octopus with a scheme to be left alone.

So, we enjoyed it. We were surprised when we didn’t expect to be surprised. It wasn’t porridge, as the Boy likes to say.

But was it great? I don’t think so. Better than most of the animated films to come out this year? Yeah, probably, though not better than Zootopia, I think. Note that it may be the #1 box office movie of the year. It is currently, I mean, and it may stay that way. (There’s a new Star Wars due out at the end of the year, I think, and we all know how those freaks buy tickets like they’re putting money in the collection plate. No, I can’t really back any of this up. I just feel like poking Star Wars fans.) So, why does a movie that rates better (for both audience and critics) do $100M less at the box office (and growing)?

Because it’s a sequel to a beloved franchise.

Just keep that in mind the next time you think Hollywood’s gone nuts with the sequels, reboots and remakes: They are handsomely rewarded for doing so.

Unless it’s Ghostbusters.

Kick it when it's down, I say.
Marlin and Nemo on their way to see “Ghostbusters (2016)”.

Rifftrax Presents: The Mystery Science Theater 300 Reunion

There are several ways to look at this reunion of MST3K originals (plus new guy, Jonah Ray), and all of them are pretty damn good.

First, it’s Rifftrax’s 10th Anniversary, and after 200 riffed movies, it’s just so cool these guys have carried the torch for so long. They have their own voice, their own style, and they’ve really been at the forefront of riffing since MST3K’s cancellation 15 years ago. I thought it was fitting and proper that they celebrate both their anniversary and the past in one show. They’re not just funny, they’re small businessmen negotiating a lot of tricky rights issues. That they’ve lasted this long is a minor miracle and a testament not just to their creativity but to their organization.

Ask Sinbad.
Seriously: Being funny can be easier than being a good businessman.

Second, the tag team approach was cool. We got to see Bridget and Mary Jo work together (a first for me). We got to see the Mads (Trace and Frank) again. They’ve been doing live shows for some time now, and they were brilliant. Jonah and Joel riffed together as well, and while you can tell Jonah is new, he’s not in over his head. He’s going to do well in the new show.

Wait, that's not how it works.
TBH they could’ve improved Ghostbusters by 78%.

Third, there’s a nostalgia factor, particularly in the final segments when they all riffed together. It’s not quite there like I presume it will be for the new show, because so much of the original MST3K was the sets, the props, the sketches, and so on. But it was still something to see them all on stage at once.

I kid. I hope.
Most reunion shots, you think everybody hates everybody else. Here, only a few people hate each other.

Fourth, how can you not love these guys? I’m rooting for all of them. I hope Rifftrax continues to flourish and that the new MST3K takes off. (I really do miss the robots and dumb sketches and musical numbers and all of it. It just fits in with the whole “let’s put on a show” ethos.) But I also feel like, genuinely, whatever awkwardness there may be, they’re all rooting for each other, too! For example, Frank said he was hurt he wasn’t invited to be part of the new series and that’s a perfectly understandable sentiment: But he also said that’s he rooting for it, and I believe that.  And you can find that kind of good will between them, very consistently.

Fifth, how is it as a riff-fest? It’s really damn good! Short subjects are often The Boy’s favorite parts of the show, and this was back-to-back shorts that are hilarious in the way that only finely aged infomercials can be, whether about traffic safety or the latest in appliances. Everyone got to be in the spotlight and everyone used the spotlight well.

Anyway, it was darn good stuff just for what it was, never mind all the additional layers. And remember: Corn is grass!

And again.
Thanks for teaching us how to laugh…and love…again.

My Love, Don’t Cross That River

If you’ve read any of my takes on French films, you’re familiar with that point where I describe something that happens and say, “I know, so French, right?” Because there’s always that moment when there’s a scene—typically a sex scene—that you just wouldn’t see in an American film (or films of most other nationalities). Korean films often have that moment, too, but it’s not from any particular event. It’s just when awareness dawns that you’re seeing something not quite like you’d see from another nationality.

And so graphic.
The sex scene in THIS movie was a real shock.

My Love, Don’t Cross That River is a Korean documentary, and I had that moment somewhere in the first act, when I realized there wasn’t going to be any narrator, nor any interviewer per se. This evokes so strongly to me movies like Kim Ki Duk’s Spring Summer Winter Fall and Spring, and 9-Iron, and even sections of The Wailing and various version of The Housemaid, that I just had that “This is so Korean” moment. (I probably don’t have enough knowledge of Korean films to make that call, though.)

This is the story of an elderly nonagenarian couple who have been together for over 75 years, but not really their whole story, just the last few months of it. Because it’s also a story of the 98-year-old husband dying. (And sort of weirdly, with the doctors saying they have medicine for his cough, but it won’t help him because he’s old. Maybe that’s a real thing, but it smacks of socialized medicine rationing to me.) We get their past life through the ripples, like occasional reminiscences and their children (who are full of the angst of middle age) and, for example, a very touching segment about buying clothes for the children who didn’t make it.

And do you want to live forever?
Do you want to build a snowman?

While clearly this edited for a particular effect, and with some very effective music that kind of sneaks up on you, it still has a very clean overall feel. I always feel dumb writing about a movie that itself has very little dialog, so let’s get right to the scale:

1. Subject matter. Is it important? I don’t know if “important” is the right word. Like a lot of great documentaries, it’s supremely personal but in such a way that it reflects on humanity generally. The last moments before death-do-us-part, especially after such a long relationship, have a kind of significance our little motions in life do not, and it’s kind of an illustration of that.

2. Style. Professional, but very spare, in that Korean way I was mentioning. We don’t leave the here and now. That means you really have to be interested in these people, and for their general humanity and the sort of interest one has for someone who’s lived nearly a century.

3. Bias. Bias is the wrong way to look at this, though I noticed that some of the few critics who didn’t like it looked at it exactly that way. They objected to the presence of the documentarian, or accused him of romanticizing or sentimentalizing his subjects. I didn’t see it that way. It is kind of a celebration of marriage and staying together, but only if you want to take it that way. There’s a lot of history between these two people and we barely see it at all, and it probably wasn’t all good. So, the bias then, is in not showing that, I guess.

I watched with much the same enchantment I did as Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…and Spring: It is what it is, in that most Buddhist sense of things. Any evaluation you put on it has an effect of changing what it is, and it’s something that should be taken exactly as is. Those people did those things and acted in those ways. And that is all.

The Boy liked it but was not enamored of the Korean-ness I’ve been talking about.

Spouses, am I right?
Literally crossing the river exactly like I asked you NOT to.

Septembers of Shiraz

I predicted, when I first saw the trailer for the new Salma Hayek/Adrien Brody film that the Rotten Tomatoes score would be low with few reviews, and sure enough, only ten critics bothered to review the film and it has a very low (30%) critical score. How did I know? Septembers of Shiraz is the story of a successful Jewish family that has to flee the Iranian Revolution in 1979, and who suffers at the hands of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard much in the way that the Jews suffered in pre-Holocaust Germany, and the current narrative requires a serious downplaying of the similarities between Muslim regimes and the Nazis. In order to erase the “never” from “never again”, we have to first erase the “never” from “never forget”.

COINCIDENCE!
The Aryans—I mean, Iranians!—have never even heard of Hitler!

Isaac (Brody) is a successful gem cutter in Tehran with a nice business, who’s watching the revolution unfold onscreen with trepidation. His wife Farnez (Hayek) would rather he ignore all this TV news stuff, right up until his business is sacked by his faithless employees, and he is sent to a torture prison.

The cant these “revolutionaries” use had a canny resemblance to that from Che Guevara’s pals in Andy Garcia’s criminally neglected The Lost City which is not surprising, really, since this is part and parcel of the propaganda the Soviets used to destroy Western Civilization. It’s identical to the cant of the various identity groups active in the news today: They steal Isaac’s stuff for “justice”. They’re sure he was in league with the corrupt regime of the Shah. They try to wring a confession out of him, but there isn’t one to be had.

As with all these sorts of revolutions (and almost all revolutions), revenge is the biggest purpose of the thugs that ride around doing violence in the name of the new regime. Having identified success in the old regime as proof of criminality, the rebels define the failures of their own lives as the result of unidentified oppression caused by the hated groups.

Water is for believers of the prophet Mohammed.
Like The Jews who drink all their water!

The contrast in the success of this propaganda is seen in Habibeh (the great Shoreh Aghdashloo, Stoning of Soraya M. and who gets to be head of the Federation in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond) and her son Muezzin (relative newcomer Ben Youcef, who does a fine job here). Habibeh has taken to heart some of the messages of the revolution: Why should some people have so much and others have so little? Never mind that Isaac and Farnez didn’t start out rich. Never mind that they rescued Habibeh and Muezzin from the streets. Never mind that Muezzin’s the exact sort of loser that revolutionaries target, and the exact sort of loser who would use the strife as an excuse to steal from his benefactor. Never mind that he would go so far as to try to find a way to absolutely destroy Isaac.

But Habibeh is his mother, and she can be forgiven for thinking better of him than he deserves. And Farnez is haughty. Perhaps more importantly, and relevant to today, Farnez lives in a bubble where she is protected from certain strains of thought, and they’re so outrageous and obviously wrong that she tends to laugh at them when Farnez expresses them. This obviously doesn’t help her case much. But Habibeh comes to see her son more clearly as he expects to be able to use his newfound fundamentalism to order her around. By that time, of course, it’s too late. And this is arguably allegorical for all of Iran.

Still looks great.
Salma Hayek: Puttin’ the “hot” in “haughty”.

Tremendous performances all around, naturally. Brody won an Oscar for his breakout role as a persecuted Jew in The Pianist, and ten years has, if anything, enriched his ability to excite the sympathies. And while we’ve seen Hayek be proud before—something she’s excelled at over the years—there is a moment in this film where she realizes her own culpability for her situation (talking to Habibeh) which is excellent. And so on. On the basis of the acting alone, this is a good movie. (And I haven’t even mentioned all the players, like the torturer, who was chillingly brilliant.)

But the story is solid as well: It’s a classic tale of injustice and wrongful persecution, such as audiences love, except when Muslims are the bad guys and Jews are the victims, apparently. The ending has some solid moments of suspense, although I felt that perhaps director Wayne Blair (The Sapphires, on the strength of which we saw this film) and first-time screenwriter Hannah Weg  may have been trying to avoid sensationalism by being less cinematic than the actual events warranted and that Dalia Sofer’s novel describes.

Nonetheless, while not the masterpiece that producer Hayek’s last overlooked film was (Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet), it’s still a fine piece of moviemaking. And all the carping from Muslims who don’t want to acknowledge that the Revolution purged non-Muslims from Iran, and all the Leftists who think the movie is a Jewish plot to incite the USA into war against Iran can’t change that.

Baghead redux.
Meanwhile, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Hospitality Board wonders why tourism is down.

Eye In the Sky

I had to drag The Boy to see this on the last day it was playing. He had seen a review snippet—I think played up by the movie people itself—from the New York Times where it said the movie raised important questions about drone warfare. Well, The Boy doesn’t cotton to that sort of thing, so he was worried he would hate it. As it turns out, the movie raises, literally, no new questions about warfare whatsoever. The simple premise here is the classic one: How many innocents is it okay to kill in the service of taking out an important target? In this case, the situation is very much more black-and-white: American and British military have located a terrorist in a house and, thanks to drones, they can directly see two splodey-dopes putting on their C4-filled vests.

Straight to Hell, probably.
“Hang on. Let’s see where this is going.”

Jackpot, right? They take out this house, they save lots of lives in the immediate future, to say nothing of the further mischief their primary targets (the ones arming the splodey-dopes, obviously) will almost certainly cause.

Here’s the catch, though: Just outside the house, a little girl is selling bread. And she will almost certainly die if they hit the house.

I mean, that outfit is HORRIBLE.
Pictured: Victim of Western Aggression.

So, yeah, nothing new here. The question goes up and down the chain of command over and over as, naturally, the political types are more concerned about the optics of a dead child than the actuality of lots of dead people. The exception being the American Secretary of State who’s all “Why are you bothering me with this crap? Blow ’em up!” I’m afraid that’s more a stereotype than reality in the John Kerry era, though it’s clearly meant derogatorily.

It’s a very good movie, though. The Boy concurred, though he said he was pulling his hair out at all the vacillating. He particularly found the drone operators despicable. His point being that they joined the military, and when they joined the military, that constituted an agreement to kill people (even if it made them uncomfortable). There’s not a lot of moral ambiguity here: It’s a cinch a lot more innocent people will die, including children, but it does require a level of responsibility that I suspect isn’t easy to adopt. At the same time, you really accepted that responsibility when you signed up, right?

R.I.P. :-(
“I only signed up because I thought I’d get to meet Alan Rickman!”

Great to see the late Alan Rickman, as always. Helen Mirren’s still a fine actress. Overall, the acting is quite good, if a little over-sensitive. If you really wanted to raise issues regarding drone warfare, you’d make the soldiers indifferent to the killing. I mean, that’s the argument, right? That people are too detached from the killing, so they do it casually? This actually reveals the opposite: You’re close to your target and you’re not in a firefight, and it begins to feel a lot like murder under those circumstances.

Directed by Gavin Hood (Ender’s GameTsotsi) and written by Guy Hibbert, it’s pretty much an hour-and-a-half of suspense and tension, to say nothing of frustration. The Boy was glad we went to see it, after all.

Just like Rickman!
She looks fierce, but underneath you know she’s rockin’ the lingerie.

The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble

The Flower recently discovered “cultural appropriation” with an (shall we say) appropriate level of outrage. Quoth the Flower, “It’s so stupid!” OK, maybe not the most articulate of responses, but when she calms down, she points out that all cultures steal from other cultures. Which is undeniably true and, until relatively recently, uncontroversial. So, it was nice to see this movie about the Silk Road Ensemble, Yo-Yo Ma’s group of great world musicians that go around playing a mixture of Western music and the music of other cultures on a mixture of instruments.

He's had their food, but apparently they have a WHOLE COUNTRY!
Here, Ma visits the mysterious country of “Cheye-Na”.

It didn’t grab The Boy; he’s not, as I’ve observed before, particularly musical (somehow). He said it wasn’t bad but since he doesn’t really relate to music all that well, he had a hard time staying focused. Of course, I loved it. It encapsulates, to me, all the greatest things about music. One of the recurring pieces throughout is Bach’s Suite Number 1 for Cello in G-major, which Ma is famous for playing, and which is played in various forms throughout, from solo cello, to accompanied, to (at the end) a backdrop to an old man playing a Chinese melody over it on the flute.

You can (and should if you like music) check out Silk Road Ensemble on YouTube. They do everything from Persian traditionals to modern Argentinian art music. That latter video features Cristina Pato, a Galician bagpiper/pop star (in Galicia before she got bored of that life) who brings a lot of energy to the proceedings and keeps things grounded. (Any music that involves someone whoopin’ and hollerin’ can’t be too stuffy.) Actually, it’s chock full of great musicians playing exotic (to our ears) instruments, but Pato stood out for me because I had totally forgotten that the Galician gaita (bagpipes) was a thing.

The Scottish dress up some of their more fetching girls as if they were bagpipers, but I never saw one play.
This guy’s not even in the band. He just picked up whatever and started following the hot chick.

Anyway, not a lot of dialogue here. It’s mostly about the music, and the narrative (such as it is) is Yo-Yo Ma’s journey from “a guy who’s always played classical music because that’s just what he did” to “a guy who has rediscovered the joy of music by breaking out of the mold and playing all kinds of things with all kinds of people, and who can now appreciate the music of his youth.”

Kind of a cool thing. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: Well, it’s music, which isn’t as universal as musicians like to think, but pretty important to those of us who dig it. It’s also Yo-Yo Ma’s story, as mentioned, but lightly. You don’t want to go for a biography if you’re not into (and open to) music.
  2. Execution:  Well done. Again, music heavy. But there are some nice visuals to go along with the music.
  3. Bias: Well, not a lot of time is spent on “cultural appropriation”. I tend to think that’s a good thing. The very name “Silk Road” should conjure up enough of a rebuttal for those who insist on arguing the point.

Good fun. Worth checking out.

They're handy that way.
Here, they take a break before finishing the garage.

The Witness

I sometimes ask myself, “Why is the New York Times allowed to exist?” And I don’t mean: “Why doesn’t the government ban the paper?” because that’s not how I roll. But why is it that this roiling cesspool of lies continues to be supported after decades of outright lies, propaganda and just plain bad reporting. This is the paper that gave us Walter Duranty, for crying out loud. This is the paper that constantly warns of the dire threat of weather, whether warming or cooling, as this great roundup from American Thinker shows. (Notice how many other “respectable” journalistic institutions get in on the act that also still exist.)

So many to choose from!
Another great false headline from the Times.

It was a “fact” of the world that I grew up in that Americans were apathetic, unhelpful and cowardly, and this concept was constantly reinforced with the story of Kitty Genovese, a woman who was raped and murdered in front of 38 eyewitnesses, all of whom did nothing as she died alone in the street. This story was as well-known as it was bullshit, a fact baldly confessed to in the new documentary The Witness, by Ms. Genovese’s younger brother, who himself believed the story (and who changed his life as a result). Somebody asked me “What’s in it for them? Why lie about this?” Because they got to dictate the narrative for decades about how horrible Americans were, and that is the mission. (Americans/freedom/capitalism bad, Russians/authority/communism good.)

We are treated to an interview with the mastermind behind the scheme, who proudly confesses to the lie because it changed the world. (In case you were wondering why journalists lie all the time; they see it as their job.) We get to see Mike Wallace, who made hay on Genovese’s corpse, with his stupid, silly grin, saying “Well, it was the Times! Of course no one checked up on it!” Social science dissertations were written with this story as its centerpiece. It’s a journalist’s dream come true.

The Times should die.
Victimized twice, really.

The project seems to have begun 10 years ago, and details the efforts of William Genovese to find out the truth of what happened to his beloved sister. The impetus for the story came from, ironically, the New York Times which essentially rebutted its own story 35 years after the fact. And in this film, he quickly debunks the story by interviewing all the people in the neighborhood who are still living, most of whom (at best) heard a scream and saw nothing. (But who were so disgusted they never tried to correct the record. After all, when it’s the media lying about you, where do you go? Especially in 1964!) And so an entire community is libeled.

He doesn’t connect these dots, but at least two witnesses called the cops, even though the cops had no record of this. I think it’s pretty clear that the police either decided “those people” (Italians, I guess?) were just “doing them”, or that the police sent to investigate blew it off. Either way, at least one person who called was told they were on their way. They never arrived.

Where's the string?
He does connect a lot of dots, though.

If that were all this was about, it would be a passable documentary but, in fact, this is just the beginning of the film. The rest of the film is about William, Kitty and (to a lesser extent) the murderer. This raises the proceedings to much higher levels. First we see William, who signed up for Vietnam because he wasn’t going to be like those bystanders who watched his sister get murdered, come to grips with how that affected his life. Then we see him discovering his sister, whom he only knew by the limited way she presented herself to her family. He interviews old friends and lovers and comes away with a different picture than he started with.

Finally, he tries to get an interview with her murderer. This request is rejected. The murderer feels exploited, and that if not for all the press, he’d have gotten out by now, apparently overlooking his escape a few years after his capture where he raped and killed another woman and took hostages. Instead, we get an interview with his son, who is now a preacher. He also was greatly affected by the events of that night, and he’s completely nuts about the subject. He’s been carrying around this notion that these Genoveses were related to the Genovese crime family, and Kitty was, essentially, a hit. He’s completely agnostic to his father’s other numerous crimes and variety of conflicting confessions/alibis/narratives.

It’s a fairly morose and somewhat morbid topic, but first-time director James Solomon keeps the proceedings tight and personal, without being lurid.

On the three-point scale:

  1. Subject matter: Obviously important. Like I said, this was the narrative that permeated life in the ’70s. That it was all a lie matters. A lot. Also, the examination of how crimes can affect people long after the spotlight turns off also matters a lot.
  2. Presentation: Good. The camera stays with William most of the time as it is, in a very real way, his story. He did the hard work of tracking people down 40-50 years later.
  3. Bias: It was more neutral than I would’ve been, at least at the macro level. On the micro level, we naturally grow to sympathize with William, but this isn’t really a story with “two sides”. A murder was committed, people were affected.

We had to travel to Santa Monica to see it late at night and we had no regrets.

Seriously. The Times. Make it go away.
An actual witness. Or perhaps “witness”.