Animal House (1978)

Among the words one doesn’t expect to hear in a review about a movie called Animal House is “quaint”. And yet, nearly 40 years later, I will say that this film—the gross out, vulgar, raunchy comedy of its day—”quaint” is how I’d describe it. I recall Charles Champlain’s review of it (read years later when pulling old newspaper out of a shelf lined years earlier) where he gave it a large number of stars, like four out of five, but added “I wanted to like it more than I did.” That was how I felt about it when I saw it, after hearing rave (and often leering) reviews of the first, best and possibly only truly good film to come out under the National Lampoon banner. (John Hughes notwithstanding, Vacation is not really a good film.)

Well, NOW they do.
It’s funny ’cause college kids don’t act like children, see?

It is a good film but the comedy actually doesn’t hold up very well. That’s not a contradiction, really: The thing that made this movie a smash hit, I would venture to say, was the titillation and shock humor and shock humor (even more than titillation), like shock horror, loses its potency rapidly. So we didn’t laugh all that much, really. Another aspect which doesn’t hold up at all was that sense of rebellion: 1960 students bucking the system for no real end other than dissolution. That still, somehow, had some bite in 1978, I guess, especially for those who had some inkling of it growing up. Now it’s like trying to relate to Mildred Pierce. In our brave new world, everyone is Bluto, though certainly most lack his insouciance.

John Belushi’s bits hold up very well, having in them certain elements like a debauched Chaplin or Keaton. This talented fellow shot the film 4-5 days a week and ran off to shoot “Saturday Night” the other 2-3 days. It’s perhaps less astonishing that he died from speedballs than that it took him four years beyond this point to do so.

Stephen Bishop, who wrote the songs.
Seen here enjoying some folk music.

The movie itself is remarkably solid however, as a narrative, as a character study, and even as a study in camaraderie. It hangs together well: It’s not just a series of gags (though there are plenty of those); we do learn aspects of the characters’ natures. And it works because the apathetic creed that underlies it is never dressed up. Friendship with your fellow Delts is a dubious thing. They might be there for you, but they aren’t going to share your priorities. Put it this way: If we don’t laugh at a modern shock comedy (or even plenty of comedies back in the ’70s and ’80s), we’re bored because there’s literally nothing or no one less to care about: The characters are simply elements of a prop comedy gone staler than Gallagher smashing a watermelon in 1981.

Here, though, we sort of care about these guys. The world is stacked against them unfairly (if not entirely so) and they’re not really harming anyone, except the moral structure of the community which (as is always the case in these sort of counter-culture type things) is none too solid to begin with. (It never occurs to the hypocrisy crowd that a fragile moral structure might be a good reason to avoid messing with it, but that’s not really on point.) Too, their opponents are made as soulless as possible. It’s a comedy; we have to be free to enjoy the suffering of the unjust as much as we do in a revenge picture.

You know how that line starts, of course.
“You trusted us.”

Another thing that holds up really well? The naked girls. There’s this short window from the late ’60s to the early ’80s where women could be naked in a mainstream film, but before the ultra-lean-with-implant aesthetics took over. The Flower, who adores (as an artist) the pin-up, like the images on the sides of planes and the work of Gil Elvgren much favors the soft, feminine curves seen here versus the hard, muscular lines which have held sway for the past 30 years. The contrast is actually rather stark. And it probably makes them look younger, too. Mary Louise Weller, who has the most famous, 4th-wall-breaking nude scene (where John Belushi leers at the camera in-between ogling her) was in her early ’30s at the time. Movies from the ’80s, in stark contrast, tend to shove their silicone and sweat in your face.

So, yeah, as a quaint little movie with some laughs and quotable lines, it holds up okay. The Flower and The Boy both liked it, though it was no Dr. Strangelove or Planet of the Apes (1968), both of which seemed to transcend the limitations of their era much better.

Like I said: Quaint.
Naughty!

The Conjuring 2

James Wan has a pretty good track record. At this point, it’s probably his style that dominates modern horror, whether it’s the gritty physical peril of the Saw movies or the Old, Dark House style that Paranormal Activity brought back into vogue but which he appropriated (with the help of Paranormal producer Jason Blum) for the Insidious and, now, The Conjuring series. He hasn’t really done the more graphic, physical peril type of movies since the first Saw, interestingly enough, but he is remarkably consistent as a director of the spooky genre. This is not a small thing, as seen in the Paranormal Activity sequels and things like Sinister (which had a decent premise and fine actors). Spooky is hard.

I sorta get that.
Unless you’re a nun. Spooky (or sexy) are both oddly easy if you’re a nun.

The first movie added a nice element we don’t usually see in this genre. Typically, the victims of the ODH (old dark house) are some unsuspecting rubes who don’t own so much as a PKE meter (forget about a fully-charged, if unlicensed, proton pack). And, typically, they find their relationship stressed by this paranormal paramarital activity. The Conjuring is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, and their concern for each other when dealing with the forces of evility, and this raises the movie to a more heroic plane by giving us the characters’ long-standing concern for each other—that moment where they say they’re not going to do this, and then of course, they have to do it because somebody’s life and/or soul is at stake.

It’s nice. Real? Well, that’s also rather cleverly handled. The Warrens were involved with the Amityville Horror, which had been “discredited” by the time this incident, known as the Enfield Haunting  came up. The whole
“paranormal investigation” field is a cottage industry, as we all know, and full of fakes and charlatans. What we don’t hear about much is the “skeptic industry” which is at least as full, and which (wrongly) assumes the mantle of “science” probably more than ghost hunters do. Skepticism is not a scientific attitude: It’s a disposition to not believe in things that don’t already confirm your biases. To be a scientist, you must look at things as they are, which really permits neither of gullibility nor skepticism. That includes those things called “ghosts”, “UFO”s or whatever, like it or not.

It is a bit cluttered.
No human would hang crosses like that. Oh, wait.

That said, skeptics do a really good job of saying “This is discredited! By me! Because I found someone to say it’s not true!” and I wasn’t especially looking forward to a treatment of Amityville, which is how the movie opens. But it is just the opener, and the movie connects the Big Bad at Amityville to the one in England. And in the Enfield incident, we’re treated to a (no spoilers) very convincing discrediting of the Enfield Haunting. And it does occur to one that, were there demonic forces operating among us, it would be a trivial matter for them to contrive ways to discredit incidents that might attract attention.  “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled”, and all that.

I’m not saying that it’s not all bunk. I’m just saying the word of people who want to be fooled isn’t worth much. Either way.

Anyway, the Enfield case involves the Hodgsons, a mom (the ever lovely Frances O’ Connor) of a mess of kids whose (naturally spacious and architecturally gorgeous) house is falling apart at a slightly faster rate than the rest of her family, at least when the proceedings start. The problem comes, as it almost always with a young girl, or in this case, two young girls using a crudely fashioned Ouija board. This attracts a sinister boogen who seems to be the previous owner of the house, an angry old man who died alone and hasn’t realized it’s not really his house any more.

But that's silly: He should ask the mom, not the easily possessed little girl.
Here we see him demanding to the see the lease.

Of course, it escalates, and it’s rather nice that the movie doesn’t do the whole “is it? or isn’t it?” thing, with paranormal activity happening all over the place in front of witnesses. This makes more powerful the whole “It’s all a fake” revelations that dog the Warrens and the Hodgsons wherever they go (while they’re just trying to stay alive).  So, we have our human interest: Lorraine has visions of Ed (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprising their roles effectively and with even stronger chemistry than the first time around) dying, and is none too secure after her recent experiences in Amityville (although this isn’t developed much). And we have our sympathetic single mom (the always lovely Frances O’Connor) and her terrified children.

Mixed in, also very effectively, are frights aplenty. Wan has a big bag of tricks. He’s not above the near literal “BOO!” of a cat jumping out (though that doesn’t happen here), and he’s more than capable of building suspense from atmosphere and relatively benign creaks, knocks and scratches. He’s very good at stretching your attention out into the darkness by not using the same tricks over and over again. Sometimes it’s just a little frisson, sometimes you’ll jump out of your seat, sometimes it’s an oh-my-god-run-for-your-life.

James Wan is one of these directors, like Fury director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Taika Waititi, who’s been tagged to direct a superhero movie. In this case, Aquaman. I don’t, personally, share the antipathy toward this superhero that began as somebody’s comedic routine (Richard Jeni?) and became this contemporary notion that Aquaman is somehow lamer than anyone else in the costumed vigilante world, but I do worry that Wan might end up producing something like Ayer (and, no, I haven’t seen Suicide Squad, but it looks awful, and the reviews are terrible and widespread). Still, this is a guy who did a Fast and Furious movie, so I suppose he’s gonna do whatever, maybe, to get out of the horror ghetto.

Which is a shame, because there’s really no one around as good.

They're dubious.
O’Connor and Wilson contemplate “The Conjuring 3” without Wan at the helm.

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Boy saw this well in advance of me—I was kind of cool on it and the girlfriend has more mainstream tastes than either of us (of course she does, we’re freaks)—so he went to see it and said, in essence, that he really liked the film except he thought the kid, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), was terrible. Of course, that’s a little like the argument that the Spanish version of Drácula  is better than the American one, except for Dracula. Mowgli’s kind of a big deal. My folks had seen it and not had the same reaction toward Mowgli, so when I took the Barbarienne (the Flower hadn’t the slightest interest) to see it, he was interested in my take.

And my take was basically: I really couldn’t get into it enough to feel strongly about the kid. Yeah, sometimes he’s awful, but he’s in a green room talking to blocks, and Jon Favreau (Chef, Iron Man) is telling him to overact because, honestly, who the hell knows how any of this is going to read once the computer nerds do their thing? So it’s sort of remarkable to me that there are times when he’s not awful. On the George-Lucas-to-M-Night-Shyamalan scale, the performance is probably closer to Lucas than Shyamalan most of the time, but again: Not the kid’s fault.

And there's nothing standing next to him, either.
What’s he lookin’ at? Who knows! Certainly, not him.

And that was kind of how I looked at the whole thing: There are parts of it that aren’t awful, and a lot of the times I wasn’t sure how they could’ve been done better. Damning with faint praise, I suppose, if it’s praise at all.

Well, look, the Barb liked it. That’s what counts.

I was distracted by the relatively realistic (though often weight-less feeling) movements contrasting with the wildly unrealistic mouth movements when the animals talked. ’cause, you know, animals don’t talk. They can’t move their lips and jaws in a way that looks like talking; it’s weird when they’re made to do so. At least, for me. A kind of animal-uncanny-valley, if you will. It’s got a whopping 95%/89% on Rotten Tomatoes, though, you know, so I’m probably not your guy here.

The story’s okay. It bears some resemblance to the book, which I have just finished reading. It perverts the rule-of-law a bit by having Baloo endorse lawlessness, where in the book only the monkeys, who were savage, brutal, capricious and easily distracted (and by some lights, Germans) did not respect the law. It is highly selective in terms of the violence it shows by some set of rules I didn’t quite grasp. The betrayal of Mowgli and the elders to Shere Khan by the wolf cubs was left out, and I could see why.

She is real flexible, tho'.
I don’t see what’s so special about ScarJo’s curves.

The voices might drive you crazy. Scarlett Johannson was a female Kaa, which was fine, although they recycled the original Disney cartoon Kaa rather than bringing in the far superior Kaa in the book. More menacing than the guy who provided the voice of Winnie the Pooh could be, but also fast friend of Mowgli. Idris Elba was okay as Shere Khan but has far more warmth and less menace than George Sanders. Ben Kingsley was a reasonable choice for Baghira. Except for Ms. Johansson, I was largely just bugged by their voices.

Bill Murray, notably, obviously, plays Baloo. They turned Baloo into Bill Murray, which was okay, in the sense that the original cartoon turned Baloo in to Phil Harris. So Bill was Bill and there wasn’t any attempt to copy the original, but let Murray do his thing. That works well. He even talk-sings “The Bare Necessities” which works better than it should, considering that, up till that point, there are no songs to speak of.

As if.
Bill Murray in a bear suit. Bold choice.

What should’ve worked similarly well was using Christopher Walken as King Louie. Another easily recognizable voice and one known for its menace, as well as its distinctive phrasing, Walken was a really inspired choice. But for some reason, they made him 100 feet tall. They say this is based on an actual ancient orangutan, and he’s only ten feet tall, but I think that’s nonsense. He’s Kong-like, smashing through the ruins of a city like only a Kaiju can. (They nailed the ruined city, though, gotta say. And it’s a nice homage, or maybe a really rude one, to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.)

And then he starts singing. But not like good Christopher Walken singing, but like Bill Murray talk-singing. It’s bizarre. Again, I hasten to point out the 95% RT score, but I didn’t get what they were going for here. Scary, like really scary, but wait, can’t scare the kids. It’s schizophrenic.

So, yeah, long-story short, I didn’t care for it much. Didn’t hate it, had a lot of sympathy for Favreu and company trying to make art out of some arbitrary set of standards imposed by MegaCorpWithEars. But found no reason to be excited about it, either.

Goodnight...spoon.
Goodnight…moon.

Captain Fantastic

I found myself being entertained by this movie about a “homeschooling” dad who takes his kids on a road trip to attend their suicidal mother’s funeral, but The Boy really nailed it when he said, “This is written by someone with no idea of what they’re talking about, and so they’re writing all this stuff they imagine to be true.” Captain Fantastic is, sorta, a variant on Beasts of the Southern Wild in the sense that the fantasy life portrayed (even if it’s not meant to be) is so spectacular, you can’t really see the other side of the argument.

That'll be just as good.
Nah, go ahead, sign me up for Algebra 2.

Because this is not “homeschooling” so much as “survivalism”. And an extreme form of survivalism at that, with Ben (Viggo Mortensen) putting his kids through morning calisthenics, self-defense training, hunting, mountain climbing—and other activities that used to be called “summer camp” back in the day—while having them read great literature and do research during the evenings.  The family is run as a pseudo-republic, with Ben having clearly set up the rules but ostensibly being open to his kids lobbying for changes based on a reasoned debate followed by democratic vote. But I think the idea is that he’s too overwhelming a personality for that to happen, which is something more convincing when it’s coming from (say) Robert Duvall in The Great Santini than here.

I’m going to be a bit spoiler-y here because the only way to talk about it is to point out the things that rang true and the things that did not, which requires some details. For example, early on, the oldest son, Bo (George MacKay, How I Live Now, Defiance) objects to his dad calling him something like a “Leninist” and says, “I’m a Maoist now.” The Boy bristled at that, and I was inclined to agree: Nobody becomes a Maoist without serious indoctrination and a severe deprivation of history. Ben retorts that both capitalism and communism are used to suppress the masses.

Later, the family celebrates “Noam Chomsky day” (in lieu of Christmas).

Property is theft ergo theft is property. Or something.
Celebrated in the traditional way: By shoplifting.

Now, I have met a number of homeschoolers who have abandoned the public school system because it wasn’t sufficiently leftist for their tastes. It’s a very common situation in Los Angeles, actually. Their special snowflakes deserve better than the system can give them (but by all means, increase that system into complete control of every other area of life). And rather astonishingly, these people complain about every interaction they have with the government while never once thinking that the problem is, you know, too much government.

But not a one of these people could survive without the easy life that the free market has given us all. Self-sufficiency requires a certain clear-eyed appraisal of actuality that is apolitical and gives no quarter to hurt feelings. So, maybe there’s a family out there like this. But more likely writer/director Matt Ross (a fine actor) made this up from whole cloth and opinion pieces because he wouldn’t find the actual sort of people who do these sorts of things very sympathetic.

And so we have some very bizarre situations that emerge.

  • At one point, Bo who has spent 18 years developing primitive survival skills, shrieks “I don’t know anything unless it came out of a book!
  • One of the daughters, who has spent her life freeclimbing sheer rock faces, is apparently thwarted and nearly killed by a cheap Spanish roof tile.
  • Upon falling, Ben, who has, I hasten to point out, trained his kids to free climb sheer rock faces, is startled to find that such activities have an element of danger.
  • The compromise reached at the end of the film is that the family relocates to a farm house, living a rural life and going to school, rather than being completely off the grid.
  • The whole premise of the film, that Leslie (Ben’s wife) wanted to be cremated after her burial, in accordance with her Buddhist beliefs is followed by a set of really un-Buddhist convictions and actions.  (I mean, really, why would a Buddhist care what happened to his lifeless body? This is really just a vehicle to trash Christians.)
It's trenchant commentary, I tell you what.
“Could we stop hiking long enough for me to complain about only knowing things from books, please?”

This last, the idea that of all the things wrong with Ben’s philosophy, the very worst idea was the homeschooling—not the playing with weapons, the extreme sports, the lack of any sort of hygiene for anyone, including a fully grown woman and her teenage daughters—is almost as bizarre as the notion that children who had been raised as cavemen would find sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day doable, much less a happy ending (as it is portrayed here).

Happiness, I guess, means immersing one’s self in the mediocrity of modern culture and public education. Weird.

Beyond these dubious points, the movie refuses to take any sort of a stand on the dramatic issues raised, which isn’t necessarily negative. That Ben’s wife and the children’s mother commits suicide, for example, raises the question of whether or not their lifestyle forced her to do it. It’s not really supported, but it’s fair to note that when one acts outside of the norm, ones actions (however unrelated) will be tied to any negative outcome. Like, the culture doesn’t look at women with high-powered careers, notes the higher suicide rates and says, “Hey, maybe women shouldn’t be so eager to do those things.” If observed at all, the reaction will be “Men drove her to it.”

Sometimes this ambivalence does work against the narrative, though: When Bo reveals he was accepted into every prestigious college in the country, Ben views it as a betrayal, until Ben reveals he had Leslie’s help. But why do it in secret? What happened to the debate and the vote? Was Ben really so unfaceable? Again, we’re left pondering the Great Santini (which also may have been utter nonsense, to be fair) and just not seeing that kind of personality in Ben. But his objection to college is weird: One of the reasons a person homeschools is to “school-proof” their child. To cultivate their sense of freedom, logic, reason and identity before throwing them to the authoritarians. But Mr. Ross seems to think it’s to keep the child from being exposed to…I don’t even know what given the presence of Chomsky and Mao on the reading list. The Sears catalog maybe?

As I said it was entertaining. Frank Langella plays the Evil Christian Republican as he does so often these days. But it doesn’t bear any close scrutiny and certainly doesn’t shed any light. Its high points are the fantastic and idealized notions of what life in the wild would be like. It’s low points are failing to convince us that the characters presented here have actually done that.

All life is suffering. Suffering comes from an attachment to Viggo.
“C’mon, kids! If Buddha stood for anything it was upsetting people and asserting our attachment to corpses.”

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Conan! What is best in life?

“To crush your enemies.
See them driven before you.
And to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Nah, he's not that bad. But he's no kind of good in the speaking department.
“Arnie! Arnie! ARNIE! Stop looking at the camera, Arnie! ARNIE!”

So goes the longest speech in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career to that point and, we must be honest, it taxes him greatly. The musclebound dude, who had to lose 30-40 pounds to play Conan the Barbarian (a fact that delights The Boy no end) has not the grace nor even the diction to play Robert Howard’s character, but we love him nonetheless.  Indeed, nobody ever taught the man to open his throat, so even his cries of distress, when being attacked by a lascivious sorceress or giant snake, are comical.

Of all the revival films we’ve seen this year, this was the least attended. In fact, a showing of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was completely sold out. Alas, only a dozen people showed up to John Milius’ 1982 salvaging of another questionable Dino De Laurentis project, which is a shame because there is much to admire in this film.

Like Arnold’s physique. It’s not bad. You may have heard about it. Schwarzenegger was pretty well known at the time, bodybuilding having crept into public awareness in the ’70s as well as concerns about steroids. (It was probably an episode of “Quincy”.)  The strongman had made a few appearances in the past, of course. He played Hercules in Hercules Goes Bananas (aka Hercules In New York) but the film, as-released, had his voice dubbed over. (And the guy who did it—his voice is one of the most familiar sounds of my childhood but he’s given no credit.)

Looks badass though.
There’s virtually no chance that sword is sharp.

He would later stand around in some films until the largely forgotten 1979 Kirk Douglas/Ann-Margret homage to Road Runner cartoons, The Villain, where his countenance could be better described as clueless-but-benign. Not a lot of words for him in that, but if memory serves, Kirk Douglas is probably the only guy who can claim to have been in a movie with Schwarzenegger and stolen the girl from him. (Is it good? you wonder, perhaps. Well, let’s just say that IMDB puts it right in the center of director Hal Needham’s pack, with Cannonball Run near the top and Cannonball Run II near the bottom.)

And here he is front and center, though hardly loquacious but still pretty bogged down with a tongue that seems as clumsy as his body. The movie still moves well thanks to Mako’s narration—Milius wanted Arnold to be the narrator but the studio demurred; at this point we can cede the point to the studio—and his performance alongside a genuinely warm and fun Sandahl Bergman. Some clever editing makes their awkward love scene (a first for both of them) rather less so.

Hey, he didn't get famous for moving: He got famous for posing.
She usually looks more natural in the action scenes than he does.

Also carrying the film through its more-Kull-than-Conan-but-movie-audiences-aren’t-gonna-know-that opening and lengthy origin story is Basil Poledouris’ iconic score, used quite frequently since then to indicate battle and bloodlust. It’s almost inconceivable to think that Brad Fiedel didn’t have this squarely in mind when writing the theme to Terminator, but perhaps he was just cribbing from Holst, too.

James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow give assists, but the latter has a small part early on, and it’s possible that Jones’ physical presence is less imposing than his voice, or it may simply be that he seems to be remote from the proceedings in a way that makes them unconvincing (even if he can turn into a giant snake). The sets are nice, the costumes, too. The movie is at its best in the middle, when it’s more like a swashbuckling serial, and weaker at the ends when a tired-even-for-the-time tale of vengeance is shoehorned in. The effects hold up better than you’d think, for the most part.

Conan’s #1 fan, E. Gary Gygax gave a scathing review of this film when it came out, calling it “Conan Meets The Flower Children Set” and saying it’s passable for the effects but doesn’t capture the character of Conan at all. This is true, but neither has any film (ever, of the scores made) come close to capturing Tarzan—including the ones Edgar Rice Burroughs work on personally (and later mocked in his books, on the very sound basis that no mere actor could capture The Ape Man’s wildness).

The kids enjoyed it, probably more than I did, but the enjoyment to be had here is the kind that got Milius blacklisted: It’s a gung-ho embrace of macho, militaristic (at the time, “jingoistic”) ethos. (This and Red Dawn were enough to end his career.) It’s sincere, enthusiastic, and while not morally black-and-white, it certainly embraces the notion of good and evil as being things to strive toward and away from, respectively. Followed by an inferior sequel.

That wig, tho'.
Conan’s parents were killed by Darth Vader with an assist from Spinal Tap.

Superman (1978)

You will believe a man can fly. Or will you? This is the big question in revisiting a 40-year old film which, while state of the art at the time, is as far removed from today as it was from Wizard of Oz. Still, while 40 years can lend a lot of charm, it can also reduce things to the hokey and I wondered if the sincerity of the original Superman feature—for this was the first time Superman was given a full-length movie—along with the necessarily dated effects would come across as quaint or perhaps just cheesy.

On reviewing, this is easily the best Superman and possibly the best superhero movie ever made.

Also: More child genitalia than any superhero film to date.
I don’t know why people go on about child labor. They’re plenty strong.

When Christopher Reeve shows up, probably a good half-hour or more into the film(!), it’s instantly clear that no one to ever wear the cape has had his comic genius. He nails the persona of Clark Kent like no other actor has, fumbling and fainting and running in fear, all with an earnestness that’s true to the Superman character and the sly, hidden confidence that comes from nigh invulnerability. It was something you didn’t see much from Kirk Alyn or George Reeve, and something you’d never see at all from the new guy. (I don’t even remember if he ever shows up as Clark Kent in the Man Of Steel.)

But the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t forget the critical elements of moviemaking. Yes, there’s spectacle: It was heralded as the most expensive movie made at the time. (Of course, they don’t adjust for inflation, or the 1960 Cleopatra would’ve beaten it easily.) But even though Lex Luthor’s master plan will kill millions, Superman’s weakness is his love for Lois Lane. It is because of her he defies his father’s orders and goes back in time to save her.

That effect, by the way, still doesn’t read: When he’s flying around the earth superfast, it looks like he’s turning the world in the reverse direction. But that’s just silly (in a way the rest of the movie has not been) and wouldn’t turn back time. But I don’t know how else you could do this well.

You'll believe a man can time travel.
For one brief, shining moment, we were Saturn.

Gene Hackman is superb as Lex Luthor. The bored genius who casually kills people and in the most preposterous ways. In the cut we saw—and I’m not sure which cut that was, because the Krypton scenes were much lengthier than the 1978 release—he has a device whose sole purpose is to push interlopers in front of oncoming subway trains. He has a hall full of machine guns and flame throwers and, uh, ice throwers, solely to test Superman’s invulnerability. His plan itself is completely nuts: Blow up the San Andreas fault and push California into the sea to profit from the new beachfront community.

But it’s all so much fun.

And it’s so different from anything produced today. Superman spends his time saving people, by-and-large. Since no one can cause him any direct harm, he never fights anyone: He flies fast, he lifts big—really, big, like tectonic plate big— things, he drops criminals off at the police station or prison “until they can get a fair trial”. That line, by the way, got big laughs when I saw it in 1978, because those were cynical times preceded by movies dominated by vigilante heroes (and leading into the ’80s where villains had to be killed, sometimes outright murdered, and preferably in horribly spectacular ways).

The funny thing is that, in retrospect, it’s really the corny stuff that works best. The innuendo is okay, very mild by today’s standards. But Superman isn’t just a power fantasy, he’s aspirational: While we, perhaps, wish for his superpowers, we wish even more to believe that, had we those powers, we would be as good as he is. That we, too, would uphold “truth, justice and the American way”—words that may not even be spoken sincerely today. And that includes “truth” and “justice” not coincidentally to “the American way”.

That's a big advance, culturally speaking.
Part of the American Way is not murdering people without a fair trial first.

While not a Margot Kidder never fit the visual of Lois Lane (I think) she nails the personality in a not-taking-herself-too-seriously modern feminist way. Lois always was cutting edge, getting herself into predicaments to chase a story: Really an archetype of the fast-talking ’40s reporter girl of the sort played  by Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell back in the day. But she can be tough and fearless without needing to be Superman’s equal (an impossibility for anyone). And she can swoon, moon and—well, she couldn’t croon, I guess, or she would’ve sung Can You Read My Mind? rather than speaking it.

Point is, she’s reckless and lovable, which is not allowed these days.

But maybe I'm wrong.
I can’t even imagine a publicity shot like this today.

The rest of the supporting cast is great. Ned Beatty as the dull-witted minion to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Valerie Perrine as the epitome of the moll, who takes advantage of Supes when he’s weakened. “Why is it I can’t get it on with the good guys?” she complains endearingly. Former child actor Jackie Cooper, approaching his sixth decade in the business, made an unequaled Perry White, and Marc McClure is a bang-on Jimmy Olsen (except of course too old because you couldn’t have kids working in offices in the ’70s). Glenn Ford and TV stalwart Phyllis Thaxter give warm, wholesome performances as the Kents. And, of course, Marlon Brando and Susannah York are the other-worldly Kryptonians.

Score, of course, by John Williams. You can probably hum it right now.

Director Richard Donner (Lethal WeaponThe OmenThe Goonies) and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Santa Claus: The Movie) were at odds during the shooting of this resulting in the diminishing of the sequel with literal pie-in-the-face slapstick (and culminating about 10 years ago with “The Donner Cut” of Superman II), but it’s pretty clear Donner was correct: Superheroes don’t need any help being campy or comic. It’s kind of in their nature. You have to get at the human beyond the spectacle or you end up with something cold, something mechanical or something just dumb.

While modern superhero movies (especially the recent two with Superman) give us a “Superman as God” theme, this movie is much, much smarter and more relatable because it tells us even Superman isn’t God. For all his super-powers, he can still be brought to his knees by love. I don’t know, maybe that showed up somewhere in Man of Steel right before he snapped Zod’s neck. (Boo!)

The only Superman movie that comes close to this is Superman II (and I have not seen the Donner cut), but it may also be the best superhero movie ever. The Boy and the Flower were pretty sure of it.

I try not to hate on Zack Snyder. I don't always succeed.
This Pa Kent would never say, “Hey, maybe don’t save that busload of kids. ’cause…reasons.”

Akira (1988)

I remember when this movie came out in the US and even without having gone to see it, I could tell you what my reaction would’ve been: “Huh. I don’t get it.” Nonetheless, I took the kids, who are into animé as these modern kids tend to be—although they did adopt the preferred nomenclature of the time (“Japanimaton”!)—because Akira is fairly significant in the history of animated films. If a Japanese R-rated cartoon had been released prior to theaters this, I am not aware of it. (Per the Wikipedia, Lucas and Spielberg both rejected the film as “unmarketable”.

We always say "The kids'll love it!" in our best Nixon voices.
Can’t imagine why! The kids’ll love it!

And perhaps they were right, or perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the box office was about half-million 1988 dollars, putting in the same ballpark as the third Toxic Avenger and the second Eddie and the Cruisers movies, but well below the re-issues of the classics Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. In any event, it’s a half-million bucks more than somebody had before, and enough to create space for things like The Boy and The Beast and Empire of Corpses.

I spent time last year watching a some of the kids’ favorite animé—which is available on Netflix, again probably in some small part due to this film—and found a lot of it comprehensible and worthwhile, and some of it rather bizarre (and sometimes the two categories overlapped). So I can’t state the blanket assurance I have in the past that “I don’t get animé”.

With all that in mind, I came out of the theater saying to the kids, “I don’t get it.” It’s not exactly true. The kids on the other hand rather liked it, certainly a lot more than I did. But I do have an idea what I don’t like among the tropes of Japanimation, and this is the stuff I don’t “get”.

Hey, Eisner was in charge. Why not?
Seriously, Disney should’ve picked this up.

The story is this: Tokyo is kablooey. (The Boy, who actually read some of manga and didn’t care for it all that much, said Tokyo going kablooey is a pretty frequent occurrence in the source material, but here we get one or two kablooeys, tops.) It’s now the future, probably some crazy futuristic time—2019, in fact—when WWIII has turned New Tokyo into a stylishly dystopic, albeit apparently highly functional society, much like today (minus cell phones, ’cause, really, who saw that coming?).

Our heroes are a biker gang—scooter gang?—no, they’re bikers, but their futuristic motorbikes look like the sort of thing that would get you beaten up and any American biker rally. Anyway, it turns out that one of the gang has latent super-psychic powers, and his big-brother type has to rescue him from the clutches of the evil government latent-super-psychic-power institute. But it’s not that simple, because the kid is really getting more powerful and both less in need of rescue and less interested in his old pals than in the past.

It turns out, besides latent psychic powers, he had some latent bitterness over his lack of status in the gang.

So, yeah, it’s part Laserblast (or pick your schoolboy revenge fantasy), part Blade Runner (as was most Sci-Fi in the ’80s), part X-Men (in the sense that this is a superhero movie with a lot of telekinesis and some mind control), and part Cronenberg (don’t ask). It’s both hugely derivative of what came before it (I got flashes of Bakshi) and hugely influential on what came after it (so many tropes, here, some of them relatively original).

And a lot of hand cramping, 'cause you know: Not a lot of computer help in 1988.
A little bit “Blade Runner”, a little bit “Metropolis”.

And all leads to the mysterious titular Akira, who may have been like our poor psychic sap in this story, and who may have had something to do with Tokyo going kablooey. (Hard to say, what with all the war going on.)

So, my objections to this stuff tend to be the same—at least in the sense that unless the aesthetics of the movie compensate, I tend to get alienated: If I don’t have a clear picture of the limits of the power of a superhero (and that’s what they are, basically), I feel like I’m being manipulated on the cheap. One of the Flower’s favorite animés (“Soul Eater”) riffs on my exact objection: A team characters lose a battle, badly, perhaps more than once. When one of them suggests trying again, the other asks, exasperated, “We got our butts kicked repeatedly every time. How’re we gonna win this time?” And the response is, “I don’t know. With heart or something?”

It’s not that I can’t buy into it. A movie like The Boy and The Beast just pushes it a little, for my taste. But it’s very clear, in a lot of cases, it’s just—well, I won’t say sloppy writing, because that’s not fair. I’ll say it’s not something the writers are interested in.

Fair enough. They got their own thing. Miyazaki does something similar, though not really superhero related. The vicissitudes that visit his characters are the result of being emotionally  compromised. It’s very legitimate. (It’s done very ham-handedly by Sam Raimi in his Spider-Man movies.)  But even Miyazaki can strike Westerners as boring, because the conflict is not on a St. George versus the Dragon model.

Beyond that, for me, it’s just seeing the gears. Any problem can be ramped up to higher levels, sure—as high as 9,000!—but any problem can also be combated by ramping up solutions in a similar matter. The TV show, “Flash” uses this technique: The Flash doesn’t run fast enough! This Other Guy is Faster (or has some other thwarting feature), what can we do? The Flash will run faster! (I’m not saying it’s unsuccessful at it, just pointing it out, because it’s a big hazard of the superhero genre.)

I didn’t hate it or nothing. And, as I said, the kids liked it, and were glad they saw it.

Oh, kimono! Kimono! Kimono!
Oh Tokyo, They got some saki, and sashimi, and some clean sheets…

50 Kilos of Cherries

A bride given to a wealthy older groom by her father has her wedding overturned when it is discovered that the older groom is a con man and grifter. The wedding is already high-tension due to the morality police in the street, that the father is pretty sure he bribed, and when the groom opens fire to make his escape, chaos ensues. (Chaos including the upsetting of a tray of cherry juice, the 50 kilos of the title, presumably.) The bride’s best maid, Aida, rushes her off the scene, while Davoud, the best friend of the guy who wanted to marry the bride before dad got suckered, is trying to manage his escape and perhaps rendezvous with the bride.

But first, he has to change out of his clothes, which are covered in cherry juice.

Or at least reasonably warm chuckles.
Hilarity ensues.

Well, before you know it, he’s running around in a woman’s long coat in the streets of Tehran, being chased after by the morality police. He ends up in Aida’s car and—I’ll bet you didn’t know this—the Tehran morality police really frown upon men being in women’s cars alone, to say nothing of the whole “dressed in women’s clothes” thing. Rather heroically, Aida claims that they’re married, and that’s when our adventure starts.

This, by the way, is a Persian romantic comedy.

The complications arise when they go to the justice ministry and sit before some guy—he’d be sort of like a religious D.A. here, or pre-trial arraigning justice, perhaps—who decides he doesn’t like their story and asks if the wedding is registered. The fast-thinking but increasingly irritated Aida says they haven’t had a chance to register yet, and so the crafty official tells them they have to register by tomorrow, or he’ll go after them. This presents trouble for Aida, who is supposed to be going to Canada with her fiancee in a week, and for Davoud, because his girlfriend’s a straight-up dominatrix. (Seriously, her over-the-top performance, and the writing of her role is one of the highlights of the film.)

I know I do!
What? You don’t carry nunchakus to resolve traffic disputes, too?

Since this is, apparently, a more-or-less common occurrence in Iran, Aida’s family has a notary they go to for this sort of thing, so they plan to get married that day, and have it annulled the next, so they can go on with their lives. The notary was at the opening wedding, too, and he’s a very, very old and very, very unwell man.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Yeah, it's...telegraphed.
’cause they were sure surprised.

Well, sure enough, a series of mishaps forces Aida and Davoud to spend more and more time together, whereby they realize they’re far more compatible with each other than they are with their betrothed. Aida’s boyfriend’s kind of a wet noodle—I mean, hell, he’s emigrating to Canada, amiright?—whereas, as her fake husband, Davoud takes a much more protective role. Meanwhile, dominatrix girl is just way too scary for a nice guy like Davoud.

Because this is Iran, there’s even a touching walk by a body of water, which turns out to be a literal minefield.

It was very cute, very charming, nice performances all around. A good enough exposition of life in Iran that it made me curious how it made it past the censors: Bribery, incompetent officials, couples being celebrated for following their hearts rather than doing what their parents want. But several scenes are outdoors, and it’s clearly not America, or these guys have a budget that…well, that they clearly didn’t have. It didn’t quite look like the Tehran we saw in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (or any of the other films) but, yeah, I don’t know.

A solid bit of film making. More polished than the wacky Jimmy Vestvood: American Hero, feeling less low-budget and more like a mature film, but with a similar light-heartedness. Recommended.

Can you tell the difference between Persians, Arabs and Jews?
What more could you ask for?

Our Little Sister

Watching a foreign movie is a bit like watching a very old movie—no, not like Star Wars, you whippersnappers!—say, from the ’30s or earlier. Society, attitudes, outlooks have changed so much, that you have to put yourself in a different mindset in order to get what’s going on, sometimes in surprising ways. Years ago, while watching Le nom de gens, for example, I had to adjust my attitude to embrace French provincialism, because otherwise the whole tension created by a couple of white people (when one is a French Jew and the other half-Algerian)  in 2006 getting married. Or, a little closer to the topic at hand, in Only Yesterday, when the girl steps out of the house without her shoes and her father hits her—in what is essentially a sweet film!—you have to be able to assume the point-of-view where that action is understandable, or you can’t make it past that point.

Of course they didn't. Don't be silly.
For example, I still don’t know why they ate these sparklers.

Our Little Sister is the story of the three Koda sisters living together as adults in the house where they grew up. Their father ran off with another woman when they were children, and their mother ran off rather than deal with raising them. They’re all somewhat dysfunctional in their own way, except perhaps the youngest, who is odd, with odd taste in men, but seems to otherwise be in pretty good shape. The middle one pursues a series of poor relationships with awful men. The oldest acts as a surrogate mother, even though they’re all grown, and has a relationship with a married man.

The catalyst for the action is the death of their father. They decide, somewhat haphazardly, to attend the funeral. Dad has, since leaving, moved on to wife number three—he may have been widowed by #2, if I recall correctly—and bringing in tow the child from that relationship. This girl, Suzu, 13, is now relegated to life with her stepmother who doesn’t seem particularly interested in her, and in an apparently spontaneous act of kindness, Sachi (29) invites Suzu to come live with the three girls in the house.

They're like magnets!
You might as well just send engraved invitations to ALL the tentacle monsters.

This is somehow scandalous, apparently because Suzu is the product of the infidelity that broke up the Koda family. I get this, I suppose, but I feel like the watchword in America was put forth by Dan Hedaya in Clueless all the way back in 1995: “You divorce wives, not children.” But it’s important to get into the Japanese mindset, or you’ll miss that Sachi just might have another motive for bringing Suzu to live with them, a motive that even she doesn’t consciously grasp.

The first act is particularly fun, with the girls’ various dysfunctions being the sort of thing you might see in a wacky comedy, really. In the second act, though, you get a new perspective on those things. They’re not wacky, they are true dysfunctions. (And, in fairness, some of the dysfunction you see turns out maybe not to be.) In the third act, you end up seeing the characters as whole persons, hindered but not defined by their dysfunction. As such, this is a very satisfying film.

It’s also beautifully shot.

It's a fine line between manicured Japanese beauty and Disneyland.
Of course.

It is, of course, very Japanese. Much like Studio Ghibli films (and it felt like a live action Ghibli film in some ways), there isn’t some huge conflict with an Evil Force to be vanquished. There is, for example, a very dramatic third act break up which goes something like:

“We have to break up.”

“Darn, I was worried you were going to say that.” [walks away]

It is subtle, pretty much all around. One of the peripheral characters is dying of cancer, and as she’s saying goodbye to one of the girls who, we can tell, has been like a daughter to her, she ventures to dare a slight touch on the girl’s shoulder as she walks out the door.

The Japanese are not a huggy people, apparently.

The Boy and went out of our way to see this, having really enjoyed writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s last film, Like Father, Like Son, which was also a subtle affair about a highly emotionally charged subject. This may not have been quite to that level, but it was very, very good and we were pleased to have seen it.

Excellent traditional (Western) score by Yoko Kanno.

I find this photo touching somehow.
Aw, aren’t they pretty? And demure (at least by our premiere/award standards)!