Dracula (2016)

Well. Well, well, well. WELL!

There’s a documentary (The Ruins of Lifta) making the rounds, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is having a re-release, but the former smacks of Jewish guilt over the revolution—which can be fine, except there’s never, ever, EVER Arab guilat to counter-balance it—and the latter we’ll have several chances to catch, most likely, so The Boy lit upon this Persian film called Dracula, if for no other reason than he loves to see Western culture “appropriated”. (Sincerely. We both do.) It took me a while to find it at IMDB because the Anglicization of the Farsi is “Derakula” which is…well, once you know it, it makes it easy to find.

Persian flix. Amirite?
Here, have a promotional picture. Actual frames from the film are hard to find.

Indeed, within the first few minutes, he leaned over and said, “This is the worst Dracula ever!” meaning not the movie itself but how badly the old, fat wheezing Persian guy clashed with our idea of what Dracula should look like and be.  But the movie plays fast-and-loose with the “vampire” concept, having them drink blood, yes, and become invisible in mirrors (but only when inclined to attack), and being somewhat longer lived than humans. It sort of brushes off the sunlight thing and the backstory has our Derakula as the descendant of vampires who fled Europe after WWII, their ancestors having met relatively mundane fates like automobile accidents.

Well, heck, I suppose a car wreck could drive a steering column through your heart, or whatever.

Anyway, the premise is this: Dracula’s wife has married him on the condition that he vow never to drink blood again (fruit juice, apparently, suffices) and they had a happy life together, including having a son but when it turns out the son is deaf, the resultant stress drives the guy back to his old ways, and he picks up a druggie at a local park to drink his blood. Once he’s started down this path, he goes full bore, picking up guys and killing them while hiding it from his wife, who nearly left him when she found out about the first incident a couple months earlier. (Which actually seems more like a metaphor for homosexuality than anything.)

For blooooood.
Note the tasteful CGI around the eyes as Derakula gets hungry.

When our story begins, our “hero” (’cause what’s a “hero”?), star and director Reza Attaran (Absolute Rest), is at said park doing drugs because he’s been out of work for a while—or is it, we later come to question, that he’s been doing drugs and thereby lost his job? Derakula picks him up but before he can kill him, his wife discovers the situation and leaves him. Our hero, with some persuasion (Dracula has money), decides to cover for him and the two form an unlikely friendship, along with other druggies and dealers (apparently everyone in Tehran is either one or the other, except the women).

The hook, which dates back to the ’60s at least, and probably much earlier, is that when Dracula drank the blood of that first junkie, he himself became addicted to opium. Hence, the subsequent desire to kill he could no longer control. Our hero is the one who tips him to the situation and also gives him his first dose of the straight stuff. This immediately cures the vampire’s desire to drink even more blood. So far, so good, right?

Step 2, of course, then, is to get off the junk. (And I’m not sure how many different kinds of drugs they do here. I’m not an expert in that by a long shot; I think hashish and possibly regular pot were in there. At the beginning our hero is looking to organize a strike against crystal meth dealers, who have jacked up the price. There may have been others.

But you, perhaps, see the problem here.

Derakula has enlisted the help of an addict to help him get off the stuff, and naturally the addict’s philosophy is pretty laid back. You have to be in the right mood to kick it. You can’t kick cold turkey. You can’t do—well, basically, anything effective. And if Mrs. Derakula didn’t like the blood drinking, she’s even less sanguine (heh) about drug addiction. So our poor fat wheezing vampire ends up worse and worse off.

Did I mention this is a comedy? It is for the most part. Nobody believes our hero when he claims to have been kidnapped (he’s a serial liar, as druggies will be), and his relationship with his wife is reminiscent of so many other Persian films we’ve seen. And also “The Lockhorns”, if you’re familiar with them.

So, there are some laughs here, and I enjoyed it. There were a couple of effective moments of horror, sort of surprisngly. But overall it was light-hearted enough (despite being about drug abuse) that I was sort of expecting a comic/happy ending in the mold of, say, 50 Kilos versus the darkness of Absolute Rest. But it does turn dark, rather abruptly, and then the movie is over, perhaps meaning to convey a message about the seriousness of recreational drug use, though leaving more than a few narrative questions.

At one point, Derakula scorns the hero’s characterization of vampires as bad guys, and delivers what is, essentially, a tirade against the brutality of radical Islam. Normally those speeches—often delivered by aliens or monsters—ring a little hollow, but when you realize this is Tehran and there really are ongoing acid attacks, dismemberments and stonings, vampires really don’t seem so bad.

I found myself enjoying it, basically. The Boy was on the fence. He liked parts of it, but he was a little disappointed in it, feeling it didn’t really go anywhere. This is true: The only motion in the film is the increasing dependency the characters have on drugs, and how unfettered access to Dracula’s money isn’t such a great thing for a person in that situation. But there’s only so much comedy you can fish out of a bunch of hebetudinous (thanks, Umberto Eco!) characters and the film probably relies to heavily on exposition to show the characters’ descent.

Just say "No" to couches, kids. And nature shows.
A lot of time is spent on this couch. Watching nature shows.

This was a special screening, so you may have to wait a bit for it to come around to your favorite Persian theater.

Rifftrax: Carnival of Souls

It’s probably the completely wrong thing to start out with, but Carnival of Souls is absolutely ruined by being colorized.

“But wait”, you cry, “Carnival of Souls was ruined by being made!

Well, frankly, that’s a little catty and I expected better out of you. The boys from Rifftrax (Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy) snidely note one of the slower scenes—okay, I think it’s when the heroine is stopping for gas—as one of the scenes that attracted the “Criterion Collection” people. That’s right, you can actually pay over $30 for a Blu-ray of this film with a documentary on the making thereof, director commentary, deleted scenes, some kind of reunion thingy…

Shake hands with danger!
Herk Harvey decries your cynicism from the grave!

But, wait, we’re watching this because Rifftrax is making fun of it, right?

We are! And, quite frankly, they do a bang up job. The Boy was really favorably impressed: He has been noting that the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” approach—get low budget, slow-paced movies—works way better than the “taking all comers” approach of Rifftrax. The big budget fiascos, Godzilla and Starship Troopers, are fun but they’re also very hard to process. You miss a lot of the jokes. The other thing we all agreed was that the sketches of the TV show break up what can otherwise be pretty monotonous.

And I miss the robots. (But that’s why we backed the MST3K revival.)

It was called We Love The Dead.
Herk fronted a short-lived Alice Cooper cover band.

Anyway, the point is a moody, slow-paced, atmospheric horror film like Carnival is perfect for riffing: There’s so much air in it, about the only time you’re not laughing is when the movie has literally moved so slow, there’s virtually nothing left to riff on. (The films of Coleman Francis leap sluggishly to mind.) It’s a good riff, is what I’m saying, and if you like riffing, this riff is for you.

The story is simple enough: Three girls decide to race with a couple of guys down a badly maintained road and over a dubious bridge. The girls go off the side into the river, and only one emerges: Mary, the professional organist. She quickly leaves town to take a job in a church in Utah, but along the way, and once there, she’s haunted by a spectral vision. A pale man seems to appear, impossibly in her car window (as she drives along the highway), in front of her, out of her second story boarding house window, and so on.

Boo! Boo-pa-doo!
TFW you’re singing in the car and a ghoul starts singing backup.

And then, at times, she seems completely invisible to people. Even when she is visible, she’s distant. She’s distractable. She has no interest in men, or any other humans, or their activities.

It’s a creepy movie. And if you like creepy, slow-moving, atmospheric horror, I recommend it straight up. But even if you don’t, you can enjoy the Rifftrax version! And I can certainly easily recommend that.

Aliens (1986)

“Game over, man! Game over!”

He was good as the polygamist, too.
Bill Paxton: Always believable when he’s falling apart.

If there’s one thing that really stands out from the 1986 sequel to Aliens, 30 years later and upon reflection of the abysmal Avatar, James Cameron hates the military like a hippie, but loves destructive hardware like an eight-year-old boy. In fact, you sort of wonder if he’s ever known any military people, because his “marines” are such a disobedient, weak-willed lot, they can’t even take out a few xenomorphs (despite having experience with “bug hunts”). Having seen more accurate portrayals in recent cinema, these caricatures date the film more firmly than Paul Reiser’s suits and Sigourney Weaver’s Reeboks.

That said, it’s a great movie.

The Flower has not seen the 1979 original, but I told her that was okay because there’s not a huge connection between the two movies, which is true. Part of the reason this movie succeeds where so many fail is that it doesn’t even try to recreate the original. It borrows, of course, the titular aliens (most of their biology had been worked out for the first movie, I believe, but the budget was lacking), and gives us a little chest ‘splodin, acid bleedin’, robot-milk-blood spewin’, but rather than an old, dark house movie in space (which is what the Ridley Scott movie is), it’s a straight up action movie with Ellen Ripley back to take on the baddest mofos in the galaxy.

I like the "-lina" suffix over the "ette".
“Just call me ‘Rambolina'”, she reportedly said.

Accompanying her (though they think she’s accompanying them) is company man Burke (Reiser), robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), precocious survival girl Newt (Carrie Henn) and assorted military clichés, like the tough-as-nails Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), level-headed Corporal Hicks (Terminator‘s Michael Biehn), swaggery-but-cowardly Hudson (Bill Paxton) and, everyone’s favorite, the tough hispanic chick, Vasquez, played by lovable pale Jewess, Jenette Goldstein. Seriously, Goldstein does such a good job here, none of us realized she was white until Terminator 2, and really, really white until she played the Irish mother in steerage in Titanic. (But then, since she’s really Jewish, she isn’t really white, is she? Cultural Marxists are on the fence!)

We saw the original version, not the extended version you can see on DVD, which is about 15 minutes longer. Those are good fifteen minutes, they add a lot to the story, but you don’t need ’em (which is why they weren’t in there originally). Maybe the only really vital missing cut is one where Ripley is shown to have a child, which she doesn’t visit because it’s been 57 years since she last saw her, and which never comes up in any of the later movies either.

Hard science fiction, it is not.
Bill Paxton actually complains he’s “three weeks away from retirement”. Which makes the whole hypersleep thing kind of curious.

The special effects are almost as dated as Forbidden Planet and they also still read about as well, too. I mean, it’s really obvious that that’s a model armored car, and that’s a composite, but these shots have aged well aestehtically even if you wouldn’t be fooled (and certainly not wowed) as you were at the time. The Flower especially liked it, except for shots she thought were CGI—from what I can tell, she parses the rougher composites as CGI, which makes sense since they tend to offend the eyes (as it were) in the same way.

This, by the way, is the only real weakness of the film 30 years later (apart from the dopey anti-military bigotry): All those sweet-hot Cameron-mech displays take up time, and most of them are unnecessary and uninspiring today. On the flipside of that, though, is Cameron’s command of space. Throughout the movie you have a sense of where things are, where people are going, how scenes connect to one another. I mentioned this in the Phantasm review, the way director Coscarelli’s command of space makes the scenes feel connected and the spaces real, even when very limited. But if it’s big for horror, it’s probably even bigger for action. Without a sense of where things are, action becomes mere kinetics. (By the way, I think this is why the rare musical dance numbers these days tend not to work, too: As an audience, if we sense too much trickery-through-editing, we are much less invested in what’s going on.)

Anyway, The Boy and The Flower both liked it a lot, and we’re hoping the original Alien comes around soon.

Heh.
Unrelated: Lance Henriksen’s one-man-show about the 2016 election.

Sand Storm

As fans of the soon-to-be-revived ’90s show “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, the phrase “sandstorm” has a specific meaning around here. But despite that, and despite the fact that we didn’t really care for the last Bedouin movie we saw, we trundled off to see this tale of female disempowerment. Which brings me to this little rant.

I'm bein' oppressed!
Don’t try to silence me!

Every Labor Day, we get to hear the sleazy criminal bosses known as union leaders repeatedly say “you’re welcome for 40 hour work weeks” and “you’re welcome for weekends”, and not once in the mainstream media does anyone ever say to these SOBs: “Hey, if unions are so great and do so much for people, how about you work your magic in a country that needs it?” They can only seem to perform these economic feats of magic where the behind-the-scenes hard work of the free market has succeeded. So, Indonesia, you’re outta luck. Up yours, Malaysia! China? Don’t make me laugh. It’s already a worker’s paradise, right?

And what I couldn’t help noticing, in this tale of barbarians living barbaric lives and treating their girls like chattel, was an utter absence of feminists. The all-powerful feminism, which allows women to do whatever they want—and apparently men pretending to be women to do whatever they want, but not necessarily women pretending to be men?—can do nothing about a world where, in fact, they’re not already pretty much permitted to do whatever they want. There’s no Beyoncé here, though there is some pop music (that we don’t hear) that our lead character worries her mother might find inappropriate.

But with good reason.
Her mother finds virtually EVERYTHING inappropriate.

Anyway, rant over, and this is a really, really fine film. Our heroine, Layla (newcomer Lamis Ammar) is the apple of her father’s eye. He indulges her, treats her with respect, lets her drive a car (though only when no one is watching), and when the movie opens, daddy Suliman is about to marry wife #2. Jalila, Wife #1, is a bitter old crone, so you can sort of see why, and Layla’s contempt for her is transferred effectively to the audience. What does mom know, after all? We even get a glimpse into Suliman’s honeymoon suite, which is far nicer than the hovel Layla lives in with her mother and three sisters.

Things take a turn south when Jalila ends up with Layla’s phone when her secret boyfriend calls. We’re never actually privvy to the whys and wherefores of the shame of this, but apparently, the boy is a member of a different tribe, and this is the worst imaginable sin, just about. Jalila tries to warn her daughter that Suliman isn’t going to be as understanding as Layla thinks he is, but the brilliance of the movie is played out as we end up doing a complete 180 on how we see all the characters.

No spoilers but this is a deeply dysfunctional culture that should be eradicated as quickly as possible.

But do go on about "77 cents on the dollar".
A Bedouin girl gets one happy day, her wedding (because her husband isn’t there).

It’s not fun. It’s not just the soul-crushing abuse of women, it’s the complete abdication of humanity among men, too. At every turn, Suliman (right before doing something awful) says that he has no choice. He’s a weak man, to be sure, but that doesn’t make him any less right about not having a choice. Because, yes, it is awful, and it is ongoing, and it is entrenched.

And all the Beyoncé in the world ain’t gonna change that.

25 April

In the field of cinema—or perhaps more accurately, in the field of high volume cinema watching (including primarily movie critics and the occasional fanatic like yours truly)—the word “innovative”, while always welcome, is not always a sign of success. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true: Innovation leads to failure most of the time, the degree of likelihood of failure mapping pretty well with the degree of innovation. And very often, even when innovation does succeed aesthetically, it does not succeed commercially. Citizen Kane, for example, has often ended up at the top of “greatest American movies ever list”, but it wasn’t a hit at the time.

I'm not making that up.
Apparently, “rosebud” is what he called his girlfriend’s genitalia.

Nonetheless, when you see a lot of movies, you welcome those who would be adventurous in the making thereof. So, while the “innovative” tag applied to 25 April, a documentary about the Gallipoli Campaign, made me a little nervous, the scope of the innovation seemed well within the standard documentary tropes. Here’s the premise:

Writer/director Leanne Pooley and co-writer Tim Woodhouse have taken the letters of six New Zealanders who were involved in the Gallipoli campaign and have animated the things described therein. In between these animated reenactments of the war, they “interview” the six people. That is, they interview the animated avatars of the six (long dead) people who “respond” (presumably) with the words written in their letters.

Real scarce.
Actual 100-year-old footage is scarce.

It’s not a bad idea, really. But, as noted in the opening paragraph, innovation usually fails and, by-and-large, this does not work. Or, at least it did not work for The Boy and I. (The Boy has recently listened to All Quiet on the Western Front and become a bit of a WWI aficionado.) Though we agreed that the movie, largely, failed to resonate, we each isolated different elements that didn’t work for us.

But before I go into those, I do want to emphasize that the innovation itself isn’t bad. There’s no reason animation couldn’t be used successfully in exactly this way, at least aesthetically, with one caveat: Bad animation will work against you, and that is part of the problem here. It seems to be—well, I thought that it was partly rotoscoped, which is a time-honored way of animating on a budget, but I think it’s just motion-capture and CGI. The problem with CGI, as we all know, is that it can be very alienating. So while the voice acting is fine, and the movement of the characters is…well, it’s often fine, especially when they’re sitting down for their interviews, but less fine when they’re moving around the battlefield, the facial expression is flat. The style used for the faces, giving them severe arbitrary-looking lines indicating, I don’t know, cheekbones or something, indicates to me that they knew they had a problem with the faces being too smooth.

This still isn't bad, though.
Botox gone impossibly wrong.

Anyway, I found it very hard to connect with. The Boy, interestingly, thought the format was too much like a reality show. A shot of action, a shot of people being interviewed after the fact. Documentaries are often like that, I pointed out, and he raised some good points about how the whole thing seemed to echo that style, which is not great for a serious documentary. (It reminded me a bit of “Archer”, which is also not great for a serious documentary.)

I felt, also, that there was a desire above all desires, to make this movie an anti-war film. Some of the imagery, was clearly added to make a statement of that nature. Not all of it was bad, but all of it was unnecessary. Gallipoli was one of the biggest military disasters in history (and the subject of a Golden Globe winning Peter Weir/Mel Gibson film back in 1981, come to think of it). The particular horrors of WWI have been documented over and over again, and Gallipoli (along with Verdun and some others) are textbook “horrors of war” stuff. My point is not that there’s no room for more anti-war films. It’s that there’s no reason to “dress up” Gallipoli to make its horrors apparent. (I mean, if you want to make a strong anti-war statement, tackle the “splendid little war”.) You’re already taking liberties, right? With the whole animation thing? There’s no need to gild that particular lily.

The dog? Really? You gotta bring the dog into this?
This is an actual picture of a dog they animated for this film.

One way in which this approach was very successful, on the other hand, was that by having the animated avatar, and convincing the audience that that was the actual person, you could do some things that are literally impossible with a live action interview. (I’m being cagey so as not to spoil.) This was effective here, and it could be used and varied effectively in other contexts.

So, three point scale:

  1. Interesting topic. A ground-eye view of the action at Gallipoli has a lot of merit.
  2. Interesting, but not wholly successful style. ’nuff said.
  3. Slant was anti-war, which would be fine, but I thought it interfered here.

It’s worth a look!

They did it. They were ordered to, and they did it.
Just don’t stick your head out of the trench to do so.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One, two, Freddy’s comin’ for you. Three, four, better shut your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, better stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again. Eleven, twelve, kill the Keebler elves.

h/t "Family Guy"
He had KNIVES…for FINGERS, man!

Wait, strike that last one.

If Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in all its gloriously bell-bottomed nihilism, is the epitome of ’70s horror, then the relatively slick, Moog-laden, big-haired Nightmare on Elm Street is the epitome of ’80s horror. In this story, a child-murdering revenant haunts the dreams of the “ones who got away” as they struggle to get their dimwitted parents to realize A Good Night’s Rest isn’t really what the doctor is calling for here. By now, the full glory of the sexual revolution is on display, with our kids coming largely from broken homes, the children of the now grown-up rebels without a cause, seeking solace in casual (and/or possibly financially profitable) sex and lots and lots of booze, the sort of dysfunction that no amount of having your own Walkman and glorious 12-inch black-and-white TV in your room can fix. And that’s about it for social commentary of which this movie doesn’t have much more to say the times than Chain Saw, really, and thank God for that.

And she looked great in her nightie.
Those ’80s kids. Amanda Wyss (second from left) would go on to have a very respectable acting career.

The Boy said, after it was over, that Nightmare was more fun than Chain Saw, and that’s pretty indisputable. Chain Saw is probably a better movie overall, though. Some of the acting in Nightmare is terrible—though as I always like to remind people, in low budget-filmmaking, that’s often the fault of the director, the editor or sheer lack of time and money to do retakes. It stands out here, also, moreso than Chain Saw because the latter’s cinema verité-style doesn’t lend itself to much dialog at all where Nightmare has a boatload of it to explain “the rules”.

Without the rules, the movie would just be random (albeit cool) special effects. Without the rules, you can’t have a good ending (even if you do ruin it with an awful, inexplicable stinger). Without the rules you have A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

But sometimes the rules, but more especially having to explain the rules, sounds wooden and bogs the film down.

When the camera switches to the reverse view, underwater, it's a fulsome stunt woman.
It’s a lot to ask of a kid who hasn’t slept.

But these are, perhaps, nitpicks. The kids liked it, as did I; but I knew what was coming at every turn and the movie does rely quite a bit on the unexpectedness of its imagery. This same feature, though, also means that some of the sequels (#2 notwithstanding) are among the most watchable horror sequels. Whatever else is going to happen, and however poorly things might play out, it’s not going to be Jason hacking another camper’s head off with a machete. People maketop 10 lists of Freddie kills that are pretty awful—and still way better than the Jason kill lists.

To get strong thumbs up from Today’s Youth after being the second feature of a double-feature is a good sign this one is a keeper.

And handsome to boot!
You just KNOW this guy’s a sweetheart, like ol’ Angus Scrimm was.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I, like so many of my generation, first saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre on a crappy VHS (or was it Beta?) on a small TV in an over-lit room, probably with a bunch of people talking at inopportune points and, thus, have never been especially impressed by it. It’s hard to see stuff; it’s hard to hear stuff; and for all it’s supposed shock value in 1974, it’s surprisingly not very graphic or gory. Interestingly, though, as I’ve talked about before, there is one shot of Teri McMinn approaching the Slaughter family’s house (and her doom) that is so iconic, I was able to identify the remake from the first second of the trailer because it aped that shot.

The Flower thought her completely backless top was amazing!
The camera dollies up from here so it’s not as prurient as this still makes it seem.

I was somewhat reluctant to take the kids to it, for that reason, and especially because it was part of a double-feature (the second feature being A Nightmare on Elm Street) but they were game for it, and it proved, beyond all else that seeing it in the theater is better. I mean, “You won’t miss much on the little screen” is a common refrain, but I can’t think of a lot of cases where that’s actually true, because it’s not just the size of the screen that matters, but the immersion: The lighting, the sound, the (relative) lack of distraction, etc.

In any case, it is very much not true for this film, which is startlingly effective in a theater.

EEeeeeeeeauuugh!
The scene doesn’t read at all at home. And it’s great in the theater.

I found myself really liking it even though it is exactly the sort of horror film I generally don’t like: I prefer the spooky, the ghost story, the monster movie, or even the slasher to a film like this, which has elements of a slasher, but which is a lot about the very creepy. At least one writer I’ve read has argued that the big shift in TCSM is that the interesting characters are not the kids who are being murdered—they’re in fact pretty disposable characters we don’t know that much about, and what we do know we don’t especially like. But the Slaughter family (that’s their last name, and they run the “W.E. Slaughter BBQ”, yes, they do!) has some real characters in it!

The set up, going in, is that our kids, in their archetypal van and their bell bottom pants (HUGE bell bottoms, except for shorty-short wearing McMinn) are off to visit the graveyard where their grandfather was buried, which has been the recent site of vandalism (or maybe harvesting, though one wouldn’t be thinking like that in 1974 Texas) and, reassured that he’s been undisturbed, continued on to his old house. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (1974!) who has an awkward manner and fascination for knives.

Don't we all carry straight razors around?
And what’s wrong with that?

Well, that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, so they kick him to the curb and continue along their way to the old house. Nobody they run into thinks they should go out that way, but they do.

That doesn’t really work out very well for anyone either.

It’s a very creepy movie. If it were just creepy, it would be competent but not all that interesting. But about halfway into it, all hell breaks out. And in this respect, it’s actually a kind of unique film. This movie is creepy, creepy, creepy, BAM! (Literally. BAM!) And then BAM! BAM! BAM!

Then creepy, creepy, creepy, HOLY CRAP!

If you couldn't guess.
This is one of the creepy scenes.

There’s no real attempt to make a “spooky” atmosphere in the traditional sense. The opening features a cheesy intro explaining the documentary (I think “based on” not “found footage”) narrated by John Laroquette (!) and long stretches of the film are without music. When there is music it’s the sort of ambient electronic noise (kind of like Forbidden Planet) you might find in a haunted house maze today. This makes things sort of eerily real-feeling, the way some of the modern “found footage” stuff can be. Only with very skilled and energetic camera movement and positioning.

It’s also not gory. My impression as a kid was that the film was so notorious that it must’ve been extraordinarily gory or shocking in some way, and since the producers were, at one point, trying to get a PG rating (for real), they cut down on the gore. The movie is better for having to imagine some of the more awful things that happen to our poor campers. But, even without gore at all, there was no way that a movie this shocking (on the big screen, anyway) was gonna NOT get an R, for “thematic elements” or “shocking scenes of ickiness”. This may be part of why the film still works as well as it does: Gore, like all special effects, can start to look silly as it gets outdated.

The kids loved it. In some ways, the next feature (A Nightmare on Elm Street) would not fare as well.

 

Kamper

We managed, somehow, to sneak out to another Polish film festival entry before it went away, this one about a video game tester/manager whose nice life testing games for a living, playing games with his pals on his off-time, and hanging with his probably-too-cute-for-him wife is making him miserable. Our hero on this journey, and the name of the movie, is Kamper. The Boy immediately picked up on the significance of that name (which I didn’t because of the “K”). But in gaming, as you may not know, a “camper” is one who hangs out in a particular location waiting for people to come into his field of view so they can pick him off easily. It’s a legitimate strategy, but not a popular one with those who, you know, are victims of it.

And so, our Kamper is one who sits and waits in life, but unlike video games, camping is a very unsuccessful life strategy. Important goals don’t typically just walk in front of one to be plucked up. And as we first meet him, we discover that Camper’s wife, Mania, has cheated on him, though the extent and nature of this cheating is somewhat unclear. It’s unclear between them, it seems: She’s confessed, and he’s kind of torturing her over it, and torturing himself asking for details.

He's making car noises.
When he’s not being terrible at sex.

He’s having a hard time getting over it. He does not, of course, leave her. But neither does he forgive her. And instead, he decides to learn Spanish when he sees a very fetching Spanish lass in the café where he and his fellow testers hang out. And, quite frankly, not to knock the whole premise of these things, but Piotr Zurawski (Kamper) is very believable as a video game tester/afficionado and one has a little more trouble believing that Marta Nieradkiewicz (as Mania, his wife) and Sheily Jimenez (his Spanish teacher) find him very attractive.

But, hell, I don’t get this stuff. I’m certain I don’t get it in modern day American, much less modern day Poland. Nerds, while never attractive to women in the past (don’t lie, ladies), at least were hardcore engineers. They did things. Now that “nerd” status is conveyed on people who consume mass media television shows and video games, all of a sudden they’re attractive? (I don’t believe this, but I see it in movies. I don’t really see it much in real life, and I’ve known a lot of real nerds.)

Do you?
I don’t get it.

Anyway, the problem with a movie like this is that the hero is defined by his lack of action, which can be a bit boring. Freshman director Lukasz Grzegorzek (sorry we couldn’t stay for the Q&A, guy!) gets around this pretty well, by having Kamper do things, even if those things are essentially avoidance of his serious issues. There’s an interesting scene where his wife shows him her food truck that underscores a lot of the issues, specifically his overwhelming tendency toward doing nothing. This is realistic, at least. It’s not exactly riveting, though. Likewise, the end does have our hero taking action (I guess that’s spoilery, but if he didn’t do something the movie wouldn’t be worth watching at all), the best element of which is confronting the tiny, none-too-attractive ex-lover of his wife.

I guess?
The Polish Gordon Ramsey

The denouement is really the weak part, because his taking action doesn’t seem strong enough. He resolves, after a fashion, his love life—but his love life was never really his problem, and I wasn’t sufficiently sold on his character arc that I felt confident, like, “Yeah, now he’s going to make it!” The Boy and I liked it, though, I more than he, as he really felt it needed more development. (And while he didn’t care, particularly, he didn’t find their game testing scenes very realistic.)

So, it was okay. Film fests are always crap-shoots, but this wasn’t terrible.

Secret Sharer

It is sometimes said that Joseph Conrad, a native Polish speaker, was the greatest writer in English in history. And it is also sometimes said that “The Secret Sharer” is the greatest novella ever written. So it is perhaps fitting that Tsotsi producer Peter Fudakowski (who is English but whose parents are Polish) would make his debut film based on said short story. Wherever Conrad’s skills rank in the pantheon of great English Writers, Peter Fudakowski has one thing Conrad didn’t: A gorgeous naked Chinese girl.

Yeah. No.
Which, unlike this stuff here, might move some tickets.

But first: This movie follows the basic outline of Conrad’s tale, in that we have an unsure, untested captain, a recalcitrant crew, and a stowaway (sorta) who is sought after her decisive actions in a storm lead to the death of an incompetent (and in this case, politically connected) crew member. The action of the plot comes largely from trying to keep the stowaway hidden from the rest of the crew, since being found out spells curtains for the captain.

Added to that is the plot that the Captain (here named “Conrad” or “Kon La De”) has been sent on this mission to scuttle the ship for the insurance while its crew views it as their literal home, which they keep populated with greenery, homey decorations and occasionally women. This gives the crew an extra impetus to work against the captain (though the ultimate resolution of this story line is a bit facile).

The twist, if you haven’t guessed, is that while the Captain is English/Polish (like Fudakowski) everyone else is Chinese. (Note that both stories start outside of Thailand, or Siam at the time.)

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.
Downside: This guy never puts a shirt on. Upside: He never takes off his shorts.

Hence, the eponymous secret sharer becomes Li (actress/singer/electrical engineer Zhu Zhu), who’s being sought after by her husband (so he can turn her in!) and the Captain gets a potential love interest to share his room with. It’s an odd angle to take, but not a bad one.

The characters are fun: Not just the captain and Li but all the crew and The Boss have a lot of personality. (I don’t know any of the actors from anything else, with the exception of Jack Laskey, the Captain, who had a small role in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.) There is some good suspense and good humor, so the film is quite watchable. I liked the acting, but The Boy felt that it was a bit off when the leads were speaking English—like somehow the characters weren’t really connecting.

I felt the movie lost a bit of momentum in the third act, when it seemed like there wasn’t really any serious threat of the crew finding out about Li. Not that they might not have discovered her, but given the whole sinking-the-ship subplot, the danger of them finding out was minimal: There was too much of a bond by that point. Nonetheless, it was entertaining with a nice nod to the original at the end (the hat!). We both liked it, I more than the Boy, and we regretted this would probably be the only film of the Polish Film Festival we would have a chance to see. (Although, as it turns out, we did manage to sneak in one more: Camper.)

Is there any other kind?
Hot and steamy ACCORDION ACTION! (That’s his secret: He plays the accordion.)

Rock and Roll High School (1979)

One kind of cool thing about living in this city, is that you never know who’s going to turn up. I missed Nicholas Meyer (writer/director two of the better Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, and one of my personal favorites, Invasion of the Bee Girls) when he made an appearance at a showing of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (which he wrote the novel and adapted the screenplay for), last week we saw the Phantasm gang, and next week we have to choose between a double-feature of the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a trip into Beverly Hills to see The Omen where Richard Donner (Superman (1978)The Goonies (1985)) will do a Q&A.

We don’t usually do the Q&As because I’m a res ipsa loquitur kind of guy. But the Phatasm/RaVager one was fun. And at the end of this showing of Rock and Roll High School Mary Woronov showed up with her dog to do a little quickie Q&A. Woronov is a cult icon who hung around with Andy Warhol and did his “films” but who also went on to an extensive career in a wide variety of mainstream and low budget/indie flicks. And, honestly, she shines in this film as she did in the Q&A, in that eminently unselfconsciously egotistical way the best crowd-handlers have. (It’s logical, really: You have to be pretty convinced that you’re worthy of people’s attention to be able to sell people on being worthy of their attention.)

Very mixed.
One wonders if Arkush had a teacher named “Togar” he had mixed feelings about.

Anyway, this is a late era Roger Corman cheapie, when he would throw Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel a couple hundred grand and give ’em 30 days to make a film. Corman made his own way with this approach back in the ’50s creating such cult classics as Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood and also some less classic films like Creature from the Haunted Sea, and in the ’70s these guys would manage to turn out a number of still watchable films like Hollywood Boulevard, Pirahna, Death Race 2000, Cannonball and of course this film.

The basic premise—this was in the days when Corman’s New World Pictures was the “high concept” king—is that a delinquent, rebellious teenage girl (P.J. Soles) defies the authority of her Ilsa-esque principal (Woronov) in order to get tickets to see her favorite band, The Ramones. I’ve seen people claim that this was a big deal in making the Ramones a household name and also revering the film as a punk rock treasure. To the former, I can only say that they had several hits before the movie came out. To the latter, I can only say that this is mere coincidence: The movie went through several iterations with bands who were not punk, and was (I think) at one point called Heavy Metal High.

They were doing Phantom of the Park by this time.
Kiss was too big metaphorically (if not literally) to fit in P.J. Soles bathroom.

Nonetheless, there are several full-length Ramones songs padding out the meager story which, even with subplots and fake concert footage (they sold tickets to a fake Ramones concert and locked people in the auditorium to get their crowd footage) comes in at right around 90 minutes, and the Ramones even have a few lines at the end.

I think this will be the third time I’ve used this word for a late ’70s movie recently, but it’s actually kind of quaint. Riff (P.J. Soles) is obsessed but she’s never mean. A subplot has her pal Kate (Dey Young, looking lovely) trying to hook up with quarterback Tom (Vincent Van Patten, who seems to be back acting these days, after a 15 year hiatus), so she goes to the High School “fixer” Eaglebauer (Clint Howard, looking middle-aged), but Tom’s already gone to Eaglebauer because he’s only got eyes for Riff. It all works out, though, with virtually no drama whatsoever. Heh.

Low budget movies are entirely different from big budget movies.
Not realizing chicks go for the older guys, Patten (21) and Howard (19) plan to romance Soles (29) and Dey (24).

I’d call the movie “camp” but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s more whimsical, where they just ran with whatever idea they had and took it to the extreme. This makes it pretty funny in kind of surprising ways. Eaglebauer has his “office” in the bathroom, like The Fonz (and it was cliché when the Fonz did it), except that Eaglebauer’s office really is an office. He’s got a desk, calendar, filing cabinets: It’s literally an office.

There’s a great bit about the effect of rock-and-roll on mice, which quickly goes into the silly, then gradually goes into full-blown over the top mode, with the future Oscar-winning Rob Bottin (who would shortly go on to do the stellar makeup effects in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Carpenter’s The Thing) running around in a costume, as a (literal) mouse who loves The Ramones. Every shortcoming in teen movies, especially low-budget teen movies, is essentially lampshaded and turned to 11. There was a strong interest here in not being boring, and we laughed pretty much through the whole thing. The music, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, was where the movie actually sort of stopped.

Punk or no, the music sounds to today’s kids’ ears as fairly quaint. Well, to my ears, and to The Boy and The Flower, who both really enjoyed this even though neither loves the music. (The Boy in particular has very narrow tastes, musically. The Flower recognized The Ramones cover of California Sun, I think.) It’s hard to imagine a better fit than the Ramones for the film, though, because the film-making crew’s attitude and this particular film’s attitude is very punk.

I'll bet they only needed a small bribe to shoot this. Today, it'd cost a fortune.
I’m sure this was 100% safe.

A literal demolition underscores the climactic scene. It was done close enough to the actors and crew that some of them walked off and wouldn’t come back. That’s pretty punk.

P.J. Soles was pushing 30 at the time this was made, about the same age as the Ramones and only five years younger than Woronov. (Occasionally it shows up, in that Woronov, despite the severe bun and bulky clothes, is still a beautiful woman). Ironically, it’s the balding Clint Howard, at 19, who’s the youngest of the main cast. The late Paul Bartel has one of the big adult roles, and if you look carefully you can catch Arkush and Dante in scenes as well. Dick Miller, who may have been in every single Roger Corman produced film since Bucket of Blood, has a nice little bit as an abusive cop. Woronov towers over him.

As I said, we enjoyed it, and we enjoyed the little chat with Woronov who I thought maybe was just there to pimp a book, but I think maybe was just there because she likes the limelight. It definitely clicked the coolness of the affair up several notches, but even if you can’t get her to appear in your theater, this is a fun watch, doubly so if you like the Ramones.

Probably studying the SAG bylaws to find out how many they've broken by being in this.
Like Riff. She likes the Ramones. You can tell ’cause she’s got posters.

A Man Called Ove

While we have seen some good movies this year and a fair number of okay movies, there haven’t been many at all that made us sit up and say, “Wow, this is easily one of the year’s best!” You know, if you go to the movies a lot, you get a sense for film that’s going to stand out, no matter whether it’s January or (as in this case) October. This Swedish slice-of-life drama/black-comedy is one of those films.

For reals.
Oscar-worthy.

Ove is a grumpy, old man who stalks around his little community terrorizing anyone who dares to break the rules. He’s an old school blue collar guy, possibly even illiterate—I’m trying to remember if he actually reads anything in the movie—but the guy you go to if you need some fixed. Or, really, if you just need something done. Curiously, despite his crankiness, the people of his community have a kind of mixed reaction to him. The rule breakers hate him, sure, but everyone else sort of treats him either mildly or with gentle attempts at friendship (summarily rejected).

As it turns out, Ove is a widow. A fairly recent widow. His wife was delightful, it seems, and even old Ove wasn’t such a bad guy, as pissed off as he is now. But Ove, as we’ve noted here, is a doer, and, on the surface, this movie is about his multiple suicide attempts.

I know: Swedish, right?

I guess the Swedes don't use Macs.
Ove’s new bosses. Pencil-necked geeks are the same the world over.

This is hilarious. I mean, it’s poignant for the fact that he misses his wife, and so day after day, he visits her grave and promises they’ll be together soon. But it’s hilarious because he just can’t pull it off. Like the old Parker poem:

Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
Drugs cause cramps
Gas smells awful
Nooses give
Guns aren't lawful
You might as well live

The world, with its shoddy construction and constant need of attendance conspires against Ove to rob him of his reunion with his wife. But the attempts are cues for flashback, where we see Ove’s often tragic and occasionally glorious (Swedish, amirite?) life with its terrible, tragic losses and his determination to make things better, even if that means grabbing the hammer and nails and fixing it himself.

Women. Such nags.
Explaining to his wife why he’s late.

His arch-nemeses in life are the white shirts, who appear at various points in his life demanding things they have no right to, but always getting their way. Of course, I would look at this and say “government bureaucrats and their associated private sector cronies” but the Swedish interpretation may be different. It’s not just that, of course: The white shirt represents all people who do nothing, who contribute nothing, whose sole purpose is to tell others what to do.

Ove doesn’t care for them.

Eastwood’s Sully doesn’t either.

Interesting theme. Ove feels more like a WWII kind of guy though he’s squarely in the post-War generation (Boomers, here in America) but his rustic background and outstanding ethical sense puts him above the crowd. And that’s really where the seemingly petty tyrannies come from: Here in his little community, he has created with the agreement of the other tenants, a kind of well-ordered paradise where people can live in harmony—as long as they don’t drive jävla Volvos—and even if they do drive Volvos, everyone can live together without killing each other if they live by the rules.

Which no one is much interested in these days.

The bit about Volvos is from the film. I wish the Old Man could’ve seen it because Ove drives Saabs, like a real man. (The Old Man loved a Saab.) He gets into a lifelong feud with an otherwise good neighbor because that guy drives Volvos. Despite his pecadillos, Ove is above-all ethical. The guy is so conscientious that when he contemplates blowing his brains out, he first lays out plastic everywhere so there won’t be a big mess to clean up.

His concern for fairness and what’s right is so severe that he rides a train for three weeks to give money back to a woman who buys a train ticket for him. She’s so taken with him, that she asks for a date rather than repayment. And this becomes Mrs. Ove. It’s a beautiful, beautiful love story. Imagine the opening scene of Up played out for about two hours, and you wouldn’t be far off.

Even in '70s clothes.
Also, he rides the train for three weeks ’cause she’s really cute.

It’s just a great film; a simple story told well. It will be entered in this year’s foreign language Oscar category and while I hope it wins, it lacks the sort of social harmonic that Oscar seems to demand most years. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss it. And you shouldn’t.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

We followed up our viewing of the original Phantasm with the fifth movie in the series, called Ravager, I think, because you can capitalize the “V”. RaVager, ’cause it’s the fifth in the series, see? Like the fourth one was OblIVion, with a capital “IV”. Anyway.

Phantasm: VIIolated?
This naming scheme gets to be a problem when you get to VII.

I actually haven’t seen a Phantasm sequel since #2 came out in 1988, and while I enjoyed it a great deal, it obviously isn’t as iconic as the original. (How could it be?) I’ve seen bits and pieces of 3 and 4, and it’s kind of been fascinating and fun to see the series gradually shift into a post-apocalyptic survival horror, where Reggie and Mike (and sometimes Jody) go mano a mano with The Tall Man, somehow thwarting his evil plans without actually ever thwarting his evil plans. (In other words, where they seem to come out the winners to some extent, and to the degree that the Tall Man seems to find them mildly irritating, the world still slips into an abyss of undead horror.) This process started in the second movie, and it’s full blown here.

Sorta.

A beautiful day for apocalypse neighbors.
It’s a beautiful day in the apocalypse.

As a fitting conclusion to the series, our story begins with Reggie wandering in the desert—

Wait, let me back up a step: Given that a lot of people probably haven’t seen 2, 3 and 4, and maybe not even 1, the movie actually started with an educational short on what happened in the previous movies, called “Phantasm and You”. This was very cute.

BOOOOY!
They couldn’t use scenes from Phantasm II, so they…improvised.

The Boy and I couldn’t help but notice that while Boyhood took twelve years to make, the Phantasm saga took forty years to make, if it is indeed true that the initial production began in 1976 (and took over two years) and also that five was just finished. And while this is a humorous observation, perhaps, it does show on-screen in the movie’s best parts: Reggie and Mike have a lot of chemistry that feels very natural. (Mike was just a kid when the first movie started shooting, and half-a-lifetime of experience hasn’t hurt his emotional range.) Bill Hornbury doesn’t show up until the end, but he doesn’t phone it in in his brief scenes. Angus Scrimm, who died in January of this year, also manages to pull his weight, despite being in his late ’80s.

Director David Hartman (best known for directing animated kidvid like “Tigger and Pooh”, “Transfomers” and so on) wisely lets these guys do their thing, together and singly, including an amusing segment where Reggie tries to work his seductive powers on the new girl—I think every girl in the series is either The Tall Man or one of his minions or quickly killed by them, so abstinence might have been the most humane course, really—and, well, he’s a lot older now.

Time keeps on slippin' the clutch.
The ’71 ‘cuda, practically a baby when the first movie was shot, is now 45!

Hartman opts to split the movie in two parts: Half with Reggie in an old folks home/hospital, half with Reggie in the post-Apocalyptic world. The split allows for a lot of the dramatic bits that work (including Angus Scrimm with a walker, and both he and Reggie delivering lines from hospital beds), but is also, at times, alienating. It’s a difficult thing to do well, and often violates the “stay in the phone booth with the gorilla” rule (as I’ve written previously). It does pull together by the end, though, so you don’t feel like you’re just being jerked around. (Too, Hartman may not have had a lot of choice, given that this film was produced over many years, originally conceived as a web series.)

The post-apocalyptic parts are good but really show the limitations of the budget. The original movie used a guy throwing the silver spheres and then playing the film backwards to get the effect of them flying. They’re all CGI here but the old trickery was actually a lot better. It’s the level of CGI where you go, “Oh, this is CGI.” There’s some CGI trickery used with the “Lady in Lavender” (Kathy Lester), too, but let’s give her a hand for looking like that 40 years later.

That's a "good sport", right there.
And, once again, they made her bring her own dress and got blood all over it!

When you get down to it, though, the biggest weakness here is that it’s a fan film, even with Coscarelli’s blessing on it and some writing credits. However iconic the most memorable aspects of the original film were—and one could compare it to the Star Wars prequels and their similar flaws—that doesn’t mean those images can support an entire universe. The universe teased by the original film, really, could perhaps have found its closest parallel in Pitch Black and its subsequent sequel Chronicles of Riddick. But I almost can’t imagine the world where that would make any kind of economic sense.

There are many cinematic universes out there: None of them are horror. (Universal, allegedly, is working on one but of course they’re going back to the ’30s for it.)

Anyway, we did like it. There were some clever ideas and good bits in-between the genuine, deep emotion of those scenes. But it’s definitely by a fan, for the fans.

He wrote liner notes for The Beatles and Frank Sinatra!
R.I.P. Angus. The Tall Man Will Live On.

Phantasm (1979)

Forty years ago, a 22-year-old fledgling filmmaker by the name of Don Coscarelli noticed that his films, while well received, were not making a lot of money.  He also noticed that, well, horror movies seemed to do pretty well. Maybe he should do one of those. He spent the next two or three years shooting with a lot of the actors, writing, editing, of course pointing the actual camera, and in June of ’79, came out with one of the most unique and iconic horror films of all time: Phantasm.

Both the "screwball" and the "comedy", I guess.
Giving a new meaning to “screwball comedy”.

Two brothers—not these two brothers but more like these two—living together after their parents died (two years earlier) lose another friend to…I forget what the official story is (suicide?), but it’s not the real one. Anyway big brother Jody (Bill Hornbury) goes off to the funeral with buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) but leaves Mike (Michael Baldwin) at home because he had nightmares for weeks after his parents’ funeral. (As one would.)

But Mike basically follows Jody around everywhere because he’s afraid Jody’s going to leave, and leave him behind, which is exactly correct. Jody says at much while Mike (who has the mechanical aptitude, apparently) is under the car, fixing it. Anyway, Jody visits an old gypsy woman to find out the truth, and that’s not really much of a help, though it does end up helping him later on, when things get really weird.

I never could figure out what they were doing in this movie.
Maybe not gypsies. Not a lot of blonde gypsies.

But, back to the funeral: Mike sees it from a distance, and then sees a menacing figure (Angus Scrimm), forever known as The Tall Man, single-handedly lift a casket into a hearse. (This is a great shot, by the way: The casket, which must certainly be made of balsa or foam or something, really looks heavy!) He becomes obsessed with The Tall Man, and mysterious goings on at the cemetery, to the extent that he breaks in to the mortuary. At this point, things start to get spooky and beyond. There in the long, white marble corridors, he is menaced by The Tall Men, some short “men”, and an apparatus that flies through the air at very high speeds with nothing good on its mind.

Coscarelli shot over three hours for the movie, and it has a sort of epic feel even with the majority of that not making it into the final cut. There’s a dreamlike quality to things—well, ultimately, this is a funhouse horror flick, that entertains with shocking, wild or just plain cool imagery, to the extent that things don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Just from watching it, you can’t, for example, tell whether or not the movie actually happens. Like, “was it all a dream?”—but then, not really, because the movie very quickly assures you that, “no, it wasn’t all a dream, but it’s not necessarily reality, either.” Most likely, the Tall Man is some sort of illusionist—a theme that will recur in the four sequels.

Yes, he did. And it's great!
Like, did I dream it, or did the director ACTUALLY put a jam session in the middle of his horror flick?

We saw the recently remastered version, which was apparently somethinged (financed? overseen? curated?) by J.J. Abrams, whose 10 Cloverfield Lane and Cloverfield show the influence of Phantasm, as the horror in those films takes a turn you don’t necessarily see coming, and it can be very refreshing. The remastering is eminently respectful, with a few effects being polished (wires being removed) and things like the sound being enhanced (I think; it was better than I remembered it).

A few things I had not seen in previous viewings were much clearer here: A man suffering the film’s first (and only) really grisly death is shown lying on his back from the knees down as Mike cowers in terror on the floor next to him. And he (the recently deceased) pees. This scene apparently got the film an “X” until Charles Champlain (last seen in the review of Animal House) made a call to get it back to an “R”, at least per IMDB. There’s another scene where the pal killed in the first scene turns up driving a car and I’d never been able to parse that effect before. Now I could actually make it out.

I think it was Kathy Lester's own dress.
“The Lady In Lavender”: Just as I remember her.

But otherwise I would’ve said this is the same movie I knew growing up. And what’s striking about it is how tight it is. The lighting is terrific: Subjects are lit up to the extent that everything around them is utterly black. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the budget, but rather than have an entire scene before the audience, most of which is unremarkable, you just have the main subjects lit in a dark, dark world—which is damned effective. The mortuary, which is (or was until a couple of years ago) a house in my neighborhood, is so pronounced it looks almost fake—but in a spooky, otherworldly way. The darkness at one point gives way to an utterly white room, which is another effective dramatic shift. (The Flower has been all about the “white room” thing lately, trying to find out where it originated, but it was big in the ’70s.)

The editing is tight. It’s almost too tight, to where, on a couple of occasions, the ADR feels like it’s been precisely timed to get the line in before the next cut showed the characters’ lips not moving. That said, low-budget filmmaking is all about the tough decisions, and this is one of many examples of Coscarelli making good ones.

It’s a hugely energetic film. Another excellent aspect of it—one missing from a lot of the green screen action films of today—is a command of the space. The mausoleum itself was, I believe, a sound stage (a warehouse, again in my neighborhood), and probably not very expansive, but you really get a sense of people moving through this labyrinth of passages. The same kind of command of space shows up when characters are on The Road, which is the thing they’re on whenever they need to get somewhere, but which is itself sort of otherworldly, never to have a cop or other car on it. (Again, a great choice which works with a low budget.)

BOOOOOY!
Look at that lighting. Well-lit, yet spooky.

We happened to see this on a Friday night in Beverly Hills with Don and Reggie in attendance to answer questions, as well as the director of the latest (and presumably last) in the series Phantasm: Ravager, and the two most interesting questions asked had to do with the disappearance of Michael Baldwin from Phantasm II and the possibility of the reboot.

In order to get $3 million for the 1988 sequel, Coscarelli said, the studio would let him keep either Reggie or Michael. He chose to keep Reggie, which was pretty much the only thing you could do—I mean, kid actors grow up and are replaced all the time (see Riddick, where Rhiana Griffith was replaced by Alexa Davalos) because, y’know, kids change. But he described this as having sold his soul to the devil: It was clear, even now, he feels bad about that.

Preposterous!
A man with a conscience? In Hollywood?

This segued pretty cleanly into the reboot talk, as fanatic movie guy (no, not me) pointed out all the reboots being done—all of them horrible! (which isn’t entirely true)—and would Phantasm suffer a similar fate? Coscarelli ended his answer with something like “Almost certainly.” But apparently he’d been in talks a few years back for a reboot, and he’d come up with some stuff that would make it what they call a “soft reboot” with characters from the original returning. But the studios don’t want or get that, I guess, unless it’s Star Wars.

And he said, convincingly, that he couldn’t imagine having to tell Angus (who passed in January this year) that they were going to make another Phantasm movie without him as the Tall Man. He said it would’ve broken his heart. And this, probably, is a big part of the reason Coscarelli  only has a smallish number of credits to his name outside of this franchise. He actually would care about breaking his friend’s heart. In every aspect of the Q&A session, he’d defer to or otherwise engage Reggie on any questions he could answer, and while you hear about film crews bonding over some production, you really got the sense that it was true here.

That’s cool. And, it’s a cool movie. The Boy and The Flower, who had no particular reason to feel anything about this old flick, both loved it.

Like children "pretending" to be demonic dwarves.
It’s the little things in life.

Interesting side note #1: The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avary (Beowulf, Silent Hill) had penned an impossible-to-get-made sequel which Coscarelli said Avary let him pilfer from, from time-to-time.

Interesting side note #2: This movie was a big enough hit with the kids that we not only stayed for the Q&A, which we never do, but we stayed to watch the latest in the series Phantasm: Ravager.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Space opera is hard to do well. And it’s hard to think of a better space opera than the ’50s classic Forbidden Planet. It’s also hard to think of a more ’50s movie, which is probably the reason it works so well even to this day.

And more's the pity!
AMAZING! (Scene not actually in film.)

The year is 2200AD (I think). A few short years after landing on the moon (around 2090!), man has colonized all of the local worlds and has begun to colonize other worlds. Our story begins as the starship Bellerephon is approaching Altair IV. Their mission? To find out what’s going on with a colony sent nearly 20 years earlier. But as they approach, they’re warned off by an ominous disembodied Walter Pidgeon, forbidding them to come to the planet. (And that’s how you get a title, people.)

Captain Leslie (“don’t call me Shirley”) Nielsen in an early screen role and his crew, “eighteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days” land on the planet anyway (or we ain’t got a pitcher!) and discover grumpy old Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon), the sole survivor of the colony. Everyone else, he says, was literally torn to shreds by some force that he and his wife were apparently immune to.

His wife died of natural causes, so if you would please be so kind as to depart the planet immediately before you discover his ridiculous hot and naive daughter that’d be…

And don't call me 'SHIRLEY'!
“So…uh…sublimate your id here often?”

…too late.

Well, turns out that they don’t have orders for what to do if everyone’s dead, so Captain and crew (including Jack “Bart Maverick” Kelley, Richard “Oscar Goldman” Anderson, Warren “That Guy From Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek Episode where they turn people into cubes” Stevens, George “Commando Cody” Wallace and Earl “I was in every episode of ‘Police Woman'” Holliman) start to build a transmitter to get a message back home.

While they didn’t, apparently, bring any kind of communication device with them that could reach Earth, they can manage to build one with the help of the one, the only, Robbie The Robot, star of greatest, most ’50s sci-fi movie poster of all time.

But before you can say “Based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest“, equipment’s getting wrecked and crewmen are getting injured by a force that’s as unstoppable as it is huge and invisible.

Oh, my!
Huger, and more invisibler than this disintegrating tiger!

Maybe…just maybe…it has something to do with the ancient culture whose sole remnants are buried deep within the planet’s core.

Nah, that’s probably nothing. Forget I mentioned it.

You know the one.
A society so advanced, they had SAFETY RAILS! (Unlike a certain Jedi empire.)

This is great pulp, right here. An engaging story, maybe a little too exposition-y for modern tastes at times, but not so much that you don’t get a lot of action, mystery, suspense and space bimbo. Its influence on “Star Trek” is apparent. The “music”, all electronic beeps and boops, is still pretty avant-garde. The effects are beautiful: The mattes, the models, the sets and costumes are the apotheosis of ’50s future. Robby is still implausible as the “one man” factory/wrecking crew/synthesizer—that is, you have to believe what they tell you about him rather than your own lying eyes, and that’s cool, man.

Later, I'll carry some ridiculously heavy stuff in one arm without tipping over.
“Even though I can barely move my arms, I prepared this fine meal.”

Ann Francis is prototypical, archetypical and possibly the best to ever play the “what is a kiss?” role.

Heh.
“What’s a swimsuit?” <–actual line from movie

More than that, it all works because, while the story is pretty far out, pushing the edges of Clarke’s third law, it’s all based around the premise of all great ’50s sci-fi: The USA would grow to take over the world, then all the planets in the solar system, then other worlds. Because America rocks! That such a premise seems farcical now tells you how far we’ve degraded in the 60 years since this came out.

Along related lines, the Bellerophon is run like a navy boat, which gives it a realism common to the day but gone in modern films. It makes sense, really: Military experience was common among them even if they had been on average 24.6 years old (unlikely) and thus too young to serve in the war, some kind of military experience was common. (Pidgeon was in WWI, Nielsen, Stevens and Kelly had stints in WWII but not in the Navy. Holliman lied about his age to join the Navy in WWII, so “Cook” may be informed by some firsthand experiences.)

It's a Navy joke, people! You don't see those much here at moviegique.com!
By “Navy”, I mean “A bunch of people standing around watching other people work.”

In modern sci-fi, probably starting with Alien, ship crews tend to be slackers or ridiculous parodies of the military, as in Avatar, where Cameron has actual rednecks—like, plaid shirt-wearing, shotgun-toting bearded dudes—in the midst of his military briefings. The Freudian underpinnings (which I think are perhaps the silliest thing about the movie) carry the message of “Man can’t play God, and it’d be a bad idea if he could,” which is another interesting ’50s artifact: We can accomplish amazing things, but in a million years of technological advances, we will still be human.

MGM had dismantled its animation department, so the crew who put together the effects came from Walt Disney. If there’s a weakness, it’s that the monster, when revealed, looks a lot like a Disney monster. But it’s still pretty kick ass. You have to at least love the fact that they deliver on the beast.

If there’s a tragedy here, it’s that they didn’t shoot in technicolor. But the Eastman has held up okay especially because, while it wasn’t a big hit at the time, the movie became a classic quickly enough.

Well worth checking out. A must-see even.

Silver Skies

I can’t remember when my mom first used the phrase “checkout generation”—which was always in the form of “I’m part of the checkout generation! One foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel!” but I think it probably started when she turned 40. It’s stopped in recent years, however, perhaps as it’s a little bit closer to the truth. (If I were to quote my mother consistently, she would sound like a very dark person, but whatever words have come out of her lips over the years, she’s seldom actually lived like a dark person.)  But it is a common enough theme in cinema to have “checkout movies”, like the 1979 not-really-classic “Going In Style” with Lee Strasberg (d. 1982), George Burns (d. 1998) and Art Carney (d. 2003). As you see from the expiration dates of the leads, it’s more than feasible for an actor to do multiples. (Burns and Carney could’ve done a dozen!)

Two checkout movies came out at the same time this fall: One featured Jerry Lewis as Max Rose, a man who discovers his beloved, recently deceased wife had a “true love” somewhere that he knew nothing about. It looked like it had potential (though the critics panned it). Then there was this ensemble comedy, Silver Skies featuring a host of once famous actors or at least very memory-tickling faces. We chose to see Silver Skies.

R.I.P. Mr. Rocco
I’ll bet this was fun to shoot. (Hamilton, McGee, Rocco)

The plot isn’t really worth talking about (rapacious developer converting run down apartment housing old people into expensive condos they can’t afford) but it’s also not really the point. The point is to see some old-timers strut their stuff once more. We’ve seen a few of these over the past ten years, almost all low budget, and of varying degrees of quality, like The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez (Ernest Borgnine’s last role), The Man In The Chair (which we might’ve thought was going to be Christopher Plummer’s last role, but he’s just been kicking ass over the past decade), This Is Happening (Cloris Leachman), and so on, but this probably has the biggest cast of recognizables, most of whom get a turn at the juicy parts.

George Hamilton plays an old never-was who used to caddy (or something) for Dean Martin and now, in his occasional bouts of dementia, thinks he is Dean Martin. He’s assisted by the (relatively) young Jack McGee (MoneyballTRON: Legacy) who lives with him and provides some cash for the two with his race track job. Barbara Bain is the feisty not-gonna-take-it gal who—well, we’ll talk about her in a sec—is married to the more mild-mannered Jack Betts, who isn’t one of those guys you say “Hey, that’s Jack Betts” but is definitely an “I know that guy” kind of person, having memorable roles such as Boris Karloff in Gods and Monsters and the Federal-Pound-Me-In-The-Ass judge in Office Space. Bain and Betts are very strong both singly and together.

And more's the pity!
Bain and Betts, together…again? (No, I guess they’ve never worked together before.)

Unlike the late Alex Rocco, who turns in a touching performance, but does not look well. (I actually thought he had died in 2010, so I was surprised that he had passed in July of 2015.) Rocco is the one-woman-guy who mourns his wife but has a serious crush on the slutty Valerie Perrine (Miss Tessmacher!) who, even at this late date, is relying on her charm and flooziness to get by. She’s got herself some blue line-readings after a short, sleazy encounter with Howard Hessman, who doesn’t really look that much different than he did on “WKRP in Cincinnati” over 35 years ago.

Mariette Hartley plays the mystery woman; the woman they all know is rich, but who doesn’t associate with the rest of them, who is racked with guilt over something awful. The cast is rounded out by a few younger actors, like the maybe-a-little-too-pretty Heather McComb as the not-so-vicious realtor, the handsome young caretaker (Phillip Andre Botello) and lawyer (Todd Williams), and the beyond greasy Micah Hauptman.

MISS TESSMACHER!
This is what comes of hanging around Bad Boys all your life, like Lex Luthor and Kurt Vonnegut.

Dick Van Patten has an unforgivable cameo.

And I mention the actors extensively here because writer/director Rosemary Rodriguez keeps going back to the actors for the beats of the film. That is, each scene is an opportunity for the actors to really act, and they deliver, though this approach seems to come at the expense of a certain focus. Like, Heather McComb has a touching heel-turn scene with Valerie Perrine. It’s a good scene, and it resonates fairly well—though it’s a little hard from what we know of Perrine to see how her character connects to McComb (who is self-sufficient through non-sexual activity) except in the general sense of being hard and pushing away emotional attachments, but we don’t really have time to see get this in McComb. In other words, Rodriguez is leaning heavily on the actors.

This acting-opportunities-driving-the-story leads to some tonal issues as well. We start with a fairly light tone of feisty old people fighting for their homes, so Perrine’s scene with Hessman comes across as sort of shocking. But not as much as a later scene which ultimately leads to her confrontation with McComb. Hauptman is at first comically inept seeming, then weirdly creepy, and finally downright felonious, which gives Bain a chance to play off Hartley and, later, Betts, but man! is it dark! And that’s not even going into Hartley’s character’s backstory which is real dark, like domestic-abuse/burning-bed dark, and contrasts oddly with Hamilton’s latter-day Lothario approaches to her or McGee’s earnestly clumsy attempts at wooing.

I think that's Jack Klugman's hat.
Odd Couple.

It all somehow works, breezily packing in story arcs for half-a-dozen duos into a brisk 90 minutes, though you do have to turn your brain off more than once (that’s not how real estate works. that’s not how lawsuits work. that’s not how criminal law works. etc.), something Rodriguez makes easy by giving you something fun or engaging in every scene.

A few other oddities: The Boy asked, as we were walking out, “Was this…porn? I mean, there was actual porn in it.” Hauptman’s character is watching actual porn at one point and on the Big Screen, it was perhaps more detailed than expected by the filmmakers.

The music was really odd. There’s no credit listed for music at IMDB. But a couple of times during the film The Boy and I were kind of looking at each other with this “Wait, is that the music, or is that coming from another theater?” It was inappropriately sinister, and sort of “loud” musically even though you could barely hear it. Kind of like someone playing “Night on Bald Mountain” just below the level of hearing.

Anyway, The Boy and I liked it; the issues I’ve pointed out with it really didn’t seem to matter much. They wanted to put together a ensemble piece and strut their stuff and that’s what they did. Tough to complain about that.

Jeez.
What? I said we liked it! Don’t look at me like that! OK, I’ll call my grandmother!

Flash Gordon (1980)

My mom was a big Buster Crabbe fan and as a kid, the non-PBS UHF channel (I’ve had to explain to the kids the whole concept of over-the-air TV just to get to the whole UHF thing) used to show silents and, yes, old serials, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers which I absolutely adored. I loved the struggle of good vs. evil, and the crazy Art Deco spaceships with sparklers coming out the back, and the planet models and so on. And back in 1980, when this came out, I loved it, too, to the point where I didn’t get why it wasn’t more popular (23rd for the year, making about the equivalent of $100M today).

HE SAVED EVERY ONE OF US!
I still can’t hear “Flash!” without following it up with “AH-AH!”

These are situations where a parent might feel a bit…trepidatious…in taking his kids to see a film which, in retrospect, is currently regarded as a campy, cult classic (enough to where star Sam J. Jones ends up in Ted as kind of extended punchline) and which they might not appreciate the way said parent did at a young age.

Well, then.

Worries abated. This movie is non-stop fun, start to finish. There’s not a moment of pretentiousness to be had in this tale of a football player who finds himself shot into space with a crazy (but right!) scientist and a sexy (but sexy!) girl journalist, accompanied by music from Queen. And man, does Freddie Mercury sell it with absolute sincerity—like the whole movie start to finish. The underlying message, if a movie like this can be said to have one, is that people are good, Earth is awesome, and all you need to overthrow tyrants is to show people that it’s possible to be fair and put the interests of all above your own individual needs.

Corny, huh?

Look at those costumes!
Tell me they didn’t NAIL it.

And a lot of things that are “campy” about the movie are really more about how jaded things were back in 1980 (not unlike Superman).

I still think, even now, that Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson were under-rated here. Sure, they’re earnest, even ridiculously so—except that it’s impossible to be too earnest in the context of an evil space emperor who’s destroying your planet because he’s booooorred. Silly? Well, if that means we’re spared a trilogy of movies about how young emperor Ming was turned to the Dark Side by a series of pretty ordinary events, I’ll take it.

Any day of the week.
I’ll also take green tree world (Lucas swiped from Flash for Empire, it’s true!) over gray, boring sci-fi tint used today.

What’s more, this may be the most beautifully designed, decorated and costumed sci-fi/fantasy film since Wizard of Oz. That is, between 1940 and 1980, I can’t think of a single film that comes close to this in looks. Star Wars has better camera effects to be sure, but it’s positively drab compared to this.

There’s a whole lot of bold composition here: The design of space is organic, colorful, and alive, instead of a bunch of boring black cloths with holes bunched in it for stars. The costumes are late-era disco mixed with ’30s art deco (and there was a lot of similarity there, so the blend works).

The aliens are…well, who even knows what the heck’s up with those lizard dudes.

And they move like dancers!
Their eyes…are in their mouths!

Do I even need to mention the post-disco/pre-’80s space babes?

Smart, really.
“I believe you…but I don’t trust you.”

Ornella Muti?

Channeling Jay and Silent Bob here.
Princess Leia? I’m a nay-saya!

Fun fact, the little dude that followed Princess Aura around was named “Fellini” because de Laurentis wanted Fellini (who famously used little people in his dream movies) to direct. The guy playing Fellini is “Deep Roy” who was all the Oompa-Loompahs in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Melody Anderson?

It was pretty sensational.
A scene that’s both sexy AND creepy.

Random inexplicably posed slave girls? (Or maybe Amazonians. We’ll never know ’cause there was no sequel.)

It's a forward lunge!
Is that one on the left going to…race them to the throne?

We loved it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll boo, you’ll boggle and you may even fly blind on a rocket cycle!

Admit it, you sang the "AH-AH!"
Flash!

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Traffic was really bad. I mean, really bad. Like “We’re gonna route you through Malibu bad.” Or “It’ll take you an hour to get home” bad. (Our commute should be about 20 minutes long, though it seldom is.) Then I made that fatal suggestion, “Well, why don’t we go to a movie?” I mean, the theater is five minutes away, and we’ve liked seeing so many classics there like Conan The BarbarianAkira (1988)Kiki’s Delivery Service and Jaws—and, in fairness to theater, it was just fine. It’s not their fault that Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington decided to remake the classic western The Magnificent Seven. It’s our fault for going to see it.

Nothin'.
I…I got nothin’.

I thought it would be okay. I haven’t seen the original. I haven’t even seen Seven Samurai. And early on, despite certain predictable stupidities (and a few surprising ones), I thought, oh, maybe, just maybe, this is going to go full on batty fun. But no. Fuqua decides his villain should be a capitalist spouting Marxist cant (though backwards, like a Satanist would say his “Hail, Mary” backwards) because in 1876, the Evil Bartholomew Bogue has read the book (in German or perhaps Russian, since the first English translation didn’t come out until the ’80s), absorbed its holy and wholly good message, and decided he’s the anti-Christ. And of course the townspeople know exactly what a “capitalist” is, and a “robber baron” (first use 1878) and even to apply it to Bogue who’s really just a…well, whatever the plot needed, I guess.

We won’t even get into Haley Bennet’s ridiculous push-up bra because, well, there are some anachronisms that I like and some that I don’t like. Although I’d note that neither Sophia Loren nor Claudia Cardinale needed push-up bras and, presumably, they would have had the good sense not to show the bra straps, like that would’ve even been a style in 1876 (if they’d even had bras).

Of course, she's a crack shot in the remake. Of course.
The original Magnificent 7 don’t care for my casting aspersions at the little lady’s costume.

But I’m digressing ’cause it’s a dumb movie with a lot of wasted talent and very little fun. Denzel isn’t even that compelling, like he’s tired or whatever. Virtually everybody here is interchangeable with another actor of that type. Ethan Hawke has his moments. Vincent D’onofrio is kind of the bright spot, following as he is, Orson Welle’s late-middle-age spread and being positively enormous as he stomps around hacking people with axes because, goshdarnit, bullets are just too slow. Sarsgaard is Bogue, and does his best to chew up the scenery, short of growing a toothbrush moustache. They all have moments, but nothing that’s going to stick with you—well, by the time the credits roll, it’ll be gone.

Good actor, tho'.
Seriously, he’s just a bag of frozen peas and a bottle of Paul Masson away.

Maybe you’ll remember this important lesson: Only white people aren’t bullet proof. (I guess that constitutes a spoiler about who lives and dies, but you’re not going to care, either way.)

Did I mention Bogue has a gatling gun? He sends in his army to take on the townspeople, and when he gets impatient, he unveils his gatling gun and fires from a distant hill. Maybe a hundred yards away. With a gatling gun. That easily pierces the town’s walls, often multiple walls, so that it can find some sort of fleshy target. At which point, you gotta wonder: If you could kill everyone from that far away, why bother with the army? Get two guns, and lots of ammo and done.

I'm not actually sure this is from the movie.
They even used the standard Western post-processing filters. ’cause the west is all sickly greenish gray.

Look, it’s just dumb. It’s not worthy of your time. But there are probably worse ways to waste your life, like ritual satanic sacrifice. We didn’t actually hate it, but that’s sort of the reason it’s so bad: It’s that it’s not that bad. It’s utterly calculated to be inoffensive. With worldwide distribution it’ll make back its money, though, and we’ll be subject to Fuqua and Washington remaking Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory next.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week

As the Baby Boomers enter their dotage, an increasing number of them reflect on how awesome things were back in their day, and so we get documentary after documentary on some aspect of pop culture that was significant to some percentage of them. Sometimes this works out better than others. And so we come to this Ron Howard documentary on The Beatles’ touring years which has a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. I took the kids who are—they’re not even milennials, but post-milennials. I guess they’d be in the Snowflake Generation (though neither can really grasp the concept), and I figured they’d actually give the most objective take on the film.

Scheduling conflicts, maybe?
These guys are interviewed in the movie but never at the same time.

On Twitter, a popular #confessyourunpopularopinion—said oxymoron revealing in and of itself—is to say that the Beatles were overrated or that they were just outright bad. The latter is just sort of silly baiting, like saying Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie or putting catsup on your hot dogs. They may not be to your taste but in the context of their time, they were competent musicians (uncannily able to recreate their own recordings) with massive numbers of wildly popular hit songs in a realm where hit songs are the only metric that counts. Still, people aren’t particularly logical about anything, perhaps music least of all.

Now, overrated? That’s a different story. Upon seeing this film, one really has no choice but to say, “Oh, yes, they were absolutely, insanely, wildly overrated.” Because the mobs were nuts. And everywhere in the world they went, they were mobbed. You can still see the glimmer of insanity in the eyes of Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Someone, I think it was Jon Savage (but it might have been Elvis Costello or Eddie Izzard) talks about the great musicians of history and ranks The Beatles up with two or three other guys throughout the history of music (Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, if I recall correctly) in terms of quality melodies turned out. That’s not a proposition I’d want to have to defend since you’d literally have to listen to All The Music.

It'd be so much work to actually remember if they were used in the film.
I’m putting up more-or-less random Beatle pictures because—what else can I do, really?

One thing this film does really well is highlight the unprecedented nature of the group’s success. They broke a lot of records. They performed in a ton of increasingly large venues, becoming the first group to do stadiums. The albums didn’t make much money for them, somehow, but the concerts did so they played and played and played, and the fans screamed and screamed and no music was to be found anywhere. These frustrating circumstances, along with copious amounts of pot, led to their dissatisfaction with the touring and the end of their live performance days.

Amusingly, an unwilling journalist who followed them around on tour describes his first experience with the Stoned Beatles, and the movie presents their subsequent degeneration and dissatisfaction, almost like an anti-pot message. (I have no idea how Ron Howard feels about marijuana, but I do think that Gene Simmons knew what the hell he was doing when he demanded drug abstinence from KISS performers.) The movie doesn’t cover the later years with the paranoia, the foggy thinking, and the harder drugs, of course.

So...old.
Cute shot from the premiere with Ron, Paul, Brian and Ringo.

It was an enjoyable enough way to pass two-and-a-half hours. I was a Beatles fan in grade school (and a loather of KISS, as one must) and, well, I’m not embarrassed. The music was solid early ’60s (heavily Motown influenced) Rock. Fun, catchy, kind of worn out, I think, but that’s the fate of all really popular music: Can you listen to “Camptown Races” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and not feel like they’re STILL a trite (despite being out of regular play for decades?). And, of course, it was basically stuff I knew, though nicely presented. There was a lot about how decent they were in terms of how they treated the poor journalists and opening acts who had to tour with them. And also about how tight they were with each other and the sympathy they had for Elvis, who was all by himself.

The kids thought it was all right. Not “all right!” but fine. Wait, not fine, but…there must be a word that means “of acceptable if not overwhelming quality” that hasn’t been co-opted to mean “mind-blowingly wonderful” or “not very good at all” but I can’t think of it. Damn rock’n’roll.

It's been a hard day's night.
Better than the expressions on their faces would lead you to believe.

After the credits, the movie features a magnificently restored 4K version of the Shea stadium concert. I made the kids hang around so I could hear the opening, and then we left because, to be honest, that’s a terrible concert. It was their last American one, in a ginormous stadium before anyone had the technology to handle that sort of thing. (Another thing I hadn’t heard, from Paul, was that they had one or maybe two roadies. They never knew if the sound would even work when they got to venue.) It is remarkable to note how well they stayed in key and how professionally they managed to start and stop at the same time (a feat The Grateful Dead never managed, I think). But it’s still not a great concert. The live stuff recorded before they got big is both better and more fun: It makes it possible to understand how they got big, from a musical perspective.

So, yeah, go ahead and check it out. If you were there and a Beatlemaniac, you’ll probably dig it. If you’re not, it’s still pretty good. Though, obviously, if you hate-hate-hate the Beatles, this won’t change your mind.

Calm down. It's not like it's Bieber or someone big like that.
Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

Sully

The Flower has been a big Clint Eastwood fan since (at a young age that makes me a bad parent) she fell in love with Gran Torino—probably her favorite movie for years until she saw Silence of the Lambs. (Yeah, whatever, Child Protective Services.) So, she was anxious enough to see Sully and has enough confidence in Clint Eastwood to have wanted to see this film on the day we went to the Halloween Haunt. (We went to see Don’t Breathe instead, though.)

Don't these guys look sharp?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the crew knows you have a lot of choices in movies, and would like to thank you for choosing SULLY…”

This is a really, really fine film. One of Eastwood’s best, and that’s saying something. The Flower has also been on a Norm MacDonald kick lately, and was relating how he had a good bit on having filmed the life of the airline pilot—but tragically before “The Miracle on the Hudson”, so he had no ending. (Norm did this bit right after the incident, so years before this movie.) But this movie isn’t really about Captain Sullenberg’s remarkable landing in the river but—I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is an extension of Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” RNC speech in 2012—a story about people who do things, and those who do nothing but sit in judgment of people who do things. And despite the film’s 82% RT score from critics, a quick glance at the negative reviews pretty well confirms that a lot of critics see that, too. (More on that in a moment.)

The movie takes place right after the fateful landing (with copious flashbacks) as the workaday pilot—with a flawless forty year record—becomes both instant hero and instant goat. And I remember this at the time: The Internet was rife with Monday Morning Quarterbacking suggesting he didn’t really need to land the plane in the river. Because, you know, he was just some hot dog pilot who wanted to do that, apparently. Those voices were echoed in the news media (notably by Katie Couric, who plays herself as unselfconscious and unaware as one could hope), who are always just sure there’s either a hero or villain in any story, and as much as they love either, they love making a guy the former and then turning him into the latter. Perhaps even more seriously, however, is the hearing from the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal body that passes judgment on pilots (as directed by the Constitution in article Are-You-Serious?).

Top Gun with an Airbus!
Picture: Pilot on a lark, having a bit of a larf.

So, yeah, a lot of the criticism directed at this movie is along the lines of how-DARE-you-slur-the-fine-people-at-the-NTSB-for-your-tawdry-little-drama! which is the sort of thing we might call “letting the mask fall” if anyone had really been fooled by the mask in the first place.

Both Eastwood and Sully are working on a different principle: The drama in the film comes from an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation that he handles to the best of his ability, and which—with the help of a whole lot of other ordinary people—turns out in the best of all possible ways. In a lot of ways, this was the movie I needed to see at this particular moment in time, so I may be rating it higher than it deserves (though the kids both really liked it, too). Allow me a digression—like you can stop me (though you can skip the rant).

It’s hard not to look at the state of the nation (and the world, even) and not feel as though we’re “hollowed out”. Every society goes from stoic to epicurean, per Will Durant, and we are in a post-epicurean world where not only have our leaders abandoned the life of the body for the life of the mind, they’ve abandoned the life of the mind for a sort of moral hedonism. One of the great clichés of our society (repeated ad nauseum in film) is the hypocritical Christian whose religion is only proof of their own righteousness and their license to attack others. Those people still exist and they serve the religion of government: The all-powerful God that must be permitted all freedoms and challenged on none of its crimes.

This is why we have the VA killing vets and leaving their bodies to rot in morgues. Why the FBI can’t prosecute a flagrant violator of national security even when her crimes are right out there on the front page. It’s why our rebellion against the establishment has taken the form of a flim-flam artist. It’s why any law can be broken with impunity to save the status quo.

It’s life-affirming, then, to have a movie that portrays a very true fact: There are lots and lots of good people out there who do their jobs, who do them professionally, and who save lives. This is no minor point of the film. As awful as the government’s reaction to 9/11, even in that festering pit of corruption that is New York City, the emergency service guys are on the ball. Even the Federal government hasn’t reached the point where Muslim Outreach and Transgender Awareness completely dwarf the function of (in this case) the coast guard. While “Black Lives Matter” incites violence against cops (and makes life worse and more dangerous for black people), cops are actually down there helping people out of the water, along with firemen and medics and so on, none of them caring about race, sex, orientation, or anything other than “my job is to keep human beings from dying”.

Eastwood hired some of the real heroes of the day, too. Of course.
This rescue worker identifies as non-gender-binary and will not save you if you disrespect “xim”.

The film shows us the water landing three times—although punctuated by Sully’s repeated nightmares and visions of crashing his Airbus into New York City, which I have, and I’m not even a pilot, and I don’t live in NYC—and each time we see a different perspective. Although separated from his family, and with his own set of personal problems, while he’s on the job, that’s what he cares about. First, landing the plane safely, then getting people off the plane, then making sure they all made it, then worrying about the future consequences.

In a larger sense, this movie isn’t much different from a lot of Eastwood’s cowboy movies: Sully’s just a guy doing a job at a particular place and time where his actions are considered “heroic” even though (from his own perspective) he did what he had to do, literally, to keep the people who entrusted him safe—not just passengers and crew but the people of the cities he flies over. Tom Hanks is perfect here because at no point does he lose sight of that, even when the data from the NTSB simulations shake his own faith, hard won out of decades of flight experience, about whether or not he did the right thing. It’s as unheroic a presentation as possible.

Which, in a judo flip, makes Sully both immensely heroic and yet also attainable, in the sense that one could see being in that position, doing the right thing, and holding steady through the subsequent storm. That’s not a bad message to have during an election season because things tend to get a little messianic, with people suddenly vesting not just flawed human beings but ridiculously flawed human beings they wouldn’t trust to take out their trash with superhuman powers. But in fact the world runs on Sullys: People who just do their jobs.

People forget that.
And follow through. The follow through is so important.

Eastwood’s next project, according to IMDB, is about Richard Jewell, the guy who prevented bombings during the Atlanta Olympics who was subsequently annihilated by the media. One could even sense a theme here.

My Blind Brother

A man helps his blind brother through various athletic feats and resents him because, quite frankly, his brother is a big jerk. One day, this man finds a girl he really likes—at a wake for her boyfriend—and when she gets cold feet after their night together, she turns it into a one night stand, fleeing to devote herself to worthy projects. Of course, that worthy project turns out to be helping the blind, and soon she’s doing helper stuff with the titular blind brother, who also ends up sweet on her.

What won’t they think of next?

This was the second movie in our five-fer-five (Don’t Breathe, My Blind Brother, Sully, Eight Days A Week and The Magnificent Seven), which is one of those weird things where we just happen to go to the movies every single day for some stretch. In this case, it was probably because we were a little tired from the Haunt. If you can’t do much else, you can sit in a movie theater and eat popcorn, amirite?

Probably would've been more if Magnificent 7 hadn't killed our love of cinema.
Oh, come on, five movies isn’t THAT extreme.

This is one of those movies where you can give it a positive review and sound sort of condescending. Siskel and Ebert (see Life Itself) got into a thing once where Siskel chides Ebert for giving thumbs up to a Lassie movie but thumbs down to a flawed, but grand work (like Full Metal Jacket or something) and Ebert sort of fumbles with it, but the point is Lassie (or this movie) isn’t going to make you rethink your views on race relations or the Middle East situation. It’s probably not going to make you rethink how you feel about the blind (although we’ll come back to that) but it’s mostly not trying to do any of that. It’s just trying to sell its story about some people who got problems, and how they come through those problems, and do so in a reasonably amusing way.

So, success there. And not to be sneezed at.

(Don't Breathe)
I just realized we saw two movies in a row with jerky blind guys as major characters.

Nick Kroll (“The League”, the upcoming Sing) is Bill, our hero, the “My” in My Blind Brother, and he’s kind of a loser. He manages a copy shop (like a Kinko’s), though not very well, apparently, where he runs off copies of flyers to help his brother Robbie (Adam Scott, Krampus) in his various quasi-heroic fund-raising efforts. When he meets Rose (abortion enthusiast Jenny Slate, ZootopiaThe Lorax) she’s at a wake, stricken with grief over the death of her ex-boyfriend. The key is that she was breaking up with him when he got hit by a car, and so she feels guilty. Also, she was breaking up with him for some stupid reason, so she feels shallow.

This is remedied with a roll in the hay with Bill. But, of course, not really. She feels even worse the next morning, like (if nothing else) she should’ve been respectful of her recently ended relationship. She runs off without giving him her phone number and Bill is bereft, as he really felt a connection with her in their mutual desire to waste their lives watching television. Robbie, meanwhile, having detected Bill’s hostility toward yet-another-heroic-feat has decided to go to a blind support group to find someone who can help him train for his big swim. And that someone turns out to be…Rose. Through a misunderstanding, and Rose’s generally dissolute nature, she ends up in a relationship with Robbie. Bill’s a little ticked at this, but it turns out she still has feelings for Bill.

Yeah, well, that’s the world we live in, I guess.

Who am I to argue? No, I'm not posting it here. Bing it.
I think Slate knows she has a nice figure, as she shares it with us in the rest of this scene.

Debuting director Sophie Goodhart (writing and directing from a short she did in 2003) does a good job of making her characters likable enough even when they’re being kind of not likable. (Adam Scott seems to have made a career out of playing unlikable characters, Krampus notwithstanding.) Kroll is fairly appealing despite his lack of ambition. Slate is rather appealing both emotionally and physically in a kind of unique way. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia) who plays Rose’s friend and the voice of reason in her life, also has a distinctive appeal to her.

So it gets points for being different, for sure. There’s a lot of jokes, not all of them blind-guy jokes. But the blind guy jokes are pretty good, and as I have frequently noted, it is often only the comedies that do justice to the handicapped by not venerating them, and by giving them the dignity of being real, flawed human beings. This movie is no exception. Robbie is a jerk, big time. But not unrelentingly so. He’s pissed about being blind. He kind of blames his brother. But he does love his brother. Scott straddles that line pretty well, probably from years of practice.

I’m going to go into “old fogey” mode for one final comment: These people are way too old for this. Scott is 43. Kroll is 38. Slate is 34. Kazan is 33. Our characters’ behavior was pretty irritating when it was common in the 20-somethings back in ’80s films. But people closing in on their 40s are moving toward tragedy. They used to say youth was wasted on the young: I wonder if they still would?

It's almost like he wrote the screenplay.
Zoe Kazan likes Nick Kroll, too, somehow.

Don’t Breathe

It has been our custom, as of a few years ago, to go to the movies right before the annual Halloween Haunt jaunt. Although Knott’s is only 50 miles away, it’s not 50 miles you would want to drive on a weekday in rush hour. So, we’d get there earlier and earlier, and hang out in the hotel until I thought, well, heck, rather than just sit around, let’s go to a movie. And, traditionally, it’s a horror movie, because, you know: get in the mood! I was a little nervous this year, because we weren’t staying in the hotel, experimentally, which meant I had to time everything just so, or wind up sitting around in the car or the parking lot or whatever.

Traditionally, also, we go to see a second run film: There’s usually a horror we want to catch before it goes away, and since we visit Knott’s on a Thursday, there’s a good chance that’ll be our last opportunity, but The Boy was hot to see this remake of Wait Until Dark called Don’t Breathe. So we saw that.

But let's not overreact.
Yes, the tickets were a little bit more expensive.

I’m kidding, mostly, about it being a Wait Until Dark remake. But here’s the plot: A team of thieves (two guys and a girl) break into a house to make that One Big Score only to find the tenant of the house is far more dangerous than—waitaminute. Didn’t we just see this movie? (What’s sort of funny there, is that people complained about Crush The Skull being a rip-off of an earlier, similar movie, but I think we can at least go back to Thief to find a similar story, and probably far further.)

Anyway, in this take, the smart guy is helping the dumb guy and the dumb guy’s desperate girl friend break into the house of a veteran who received a huge cash settlement after his daughter was killed in an auto accident years earlier. They figure the guy being blind makes him an easy target. They figure wrong!

Blind Fury. Maybe I should've gone with Zatoichi?
If only they had consulted Rutger Hauer first.

This is a good, gripping film, though I couldn’t help but whispering to The Boy “Everyone knows you need at least TWO MONTHS of staking out a house before robbing it!” Hell, the dumb guys in Crush The Skull were lambasted for only staking out their place for two weeks. Meanwhile, these guys walk in not knowing where the money they’re looking for is, not knowing whether it’s even there really, and the smart guy goes for it because he’s sweet on the girl. Which is, I guess, realistic.

Well, before you can say “inexplicably buff shut-in war vet with Jedi powers”, the three of them are in a heap of trouble, as they encounter Stephen Lang (AvatarPublic Enemies) who seems less concerned about the money than he is about other things.

Blind guy with gun...scary on so many levels.
When you live alone, you only have to worry about not shooting yourself.

The action is great. This movie goes in a cycle of tension, suspense, action, horror and back. Director Fede Alvarez may be unique among modern directors, as he has done the only remake/reboot of a classic horror franchise that’s really good: Evil Dead. But he and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues show they don’t need a proven franchise to work their magic. The acting is good, boiling down primarily to The Blind Man (Lang) and the girl, Rocky (Jane Levy, also from The Evil Dead and “Suburgatory”), though the two guys Daniel Zovatto and Dylan Minnette do a fine job of being typical alpha and beta males, respectively.

If there’s a weak part, really, to this film it is the characters. Rocky isn’t really an admirable person—she’s definitely a means justifying ends type—and the actress’s likability can only go so far. She has many opportunities to do the right thing, and almost always demurs. Apart from her struggle for survival, which inherently endears her to us, she takes some pretty horrible things—that she caused, directly or indirectly—rather cavalierly.

Snakes on a plane? How about pit bulls in the air ducts?
Like, she never once pets this lovable pooch.

But if, like a lot of movies, Don’t Breathe doesn’t encourage you to think, it also doesn’t give you a lot of opportunity to think, either. It envelops you in the struggle for survival pretty quickly, and very well. That’s pretty good for a horror flick. It’ll probably break $100M on its $10M budget which, I hope, doesn’t mean we’ll have to have a sequel.

Demon

We went into this Polish horror movie Demon completely blind, except knowing that it was a Polish movie, that it was a horror with some comedy elements (apparently), but if you check it out now, you’ll see that it has quite a few ratings, garnering a whopping 94% approval from critics but a measly 55% from audiences. The Boy and I both liked it, but there’s a good chance you won’t, especially if you, like most horror going movie audiences (even the Polish ones), are expecting a traditional shock/horror type flick.

This is not that film.

Or is it the chicken dance?
NO ONE WILL BE ADMITTED DURING THE RIVETING LIMBO SCENE!

It was bound to be the sort of film that garnered more critical praise than audience, because it has no starts, no scares, no shocks, and it’s more a sort of “the banality of evil” type dark satire. At the same time, the critics may be overrating it because the director Marcin Wrona, killed himself while shopping it around the festival circuit. It’s not always clear what the motivations are in a suicide, of course, and the dark nature of the film may have had something to do with it. Also, as we learned with Aftermath (Poklosie), the Poles have a pretty conflicted take on their treatment of the Jews in WWII.

The story is that of a young man, Piotr (Itay Tiran, The Debt, which was remade as The Debt) who moves to Poland to marry his girlfriend, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and so goes out to look at their ancestral manse where the two plan to live after the wedding. This being Poland, and not England, it’s not a mansion or villa, but rather a farm with a barn and a poorly tended field and the like. Piotr wants to fix the place up, including putting in a swimming pool, and in the process of digging, turns up a skeleton. Things go south from there. In fact, it looks a lot like the ground swallows him up.

Pools never do.
This doesn’t end well.

Next day he’s woken up in his bed by his future brother-in-law so they can all get ready for the wedding. The skeleton is nowhere to be found. And a lot of denials about any such thing even being possible (“it was a dog”) are proffered by the most-likely-candidates-to-know-something-fishy-went-down-in-the-past (the bride’s father, grandfather, etc.). Before you know it, though, Piotr’s acting odd. Like, talking about some other woman at his wedding speech odd. Bleeding for no reason. Having what looks like seizures.

The bride’s family is as socially conscious as they can be. The father-of-the-bride is none to sure about this English fellow marrying his daughter, as he only has the word of his flaky son (well, and her word, of course, but, y’know: chicks), and his inconvenient seizures at the wedding are downright embarrassing, to say nothing of talking like a teenage girl who’s been dead for decades. An old village Jew offers the sage advice that Piotr’s been possessed by a dybbuk—a notion the party atheist/communist takes more seriously than the priest, who can’t get out of there fast enough.

TFW when your groom turns out not to be a 14-year-old boy, but a 14-year-old girl.

Now, at some point—perhaps it was the first indication that the priest wanted more than anything to get out of that wedding—I began to realize that we had ourselves an allegory. The priest and the postmodern atheist doctor who no longer drinks (but is constantly caught hitting the bottle) engage in debates while chaos is going on all around them, and the party guests keep drinking and drinking. (Reminded me a bit of The Tin Drum, actually.) When it’s all over, the father of the bride stands in front of the hung-over and dazed crowd saying “None of this ever happened. It was all a dream.”

Typically, people don’t go to horror movies looking for dark political commentary on the Holocaust. So you can totally get why people would not give this the boffo reviews. And between the subtext and the dramatic backstory, you can see why critics would rate it highly. Overall, though, it is a good movie—just know going in what you’re getting, and make sure you’re in the mood for it, and you’ll have yourself an interesting time.

It’s ironic, if true, that the director killed himself (in part) because he didn’t win a particular award from a Polish group. The whole point of the movie is how the Poles have yet to confront this issue. They tell us that Poklosie was banned in Poland. That he could take a movie like this on the circuit would seem to be progress of a sort.

Not really.
It’s a laff riot.

Lights Out

This is a neat little horror movie about a boogen that haunts a family but can only move in darkness—though with some obvious exceptions since if it were really total darkness, you’d never be able to see it, and that wouldn’t fly in a movie today, most likely. Teresa Palmer (Mad Max: Fury Road, Warm Bodies) plays Rebecca, a young woman living her chaotic, solitary life who gets drawn back home when her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) ends up calling her because things have gotten weird at home, ever since stepdad (Billy Burke—not the good witch from the Wizard of Oz, but the guy who was in the Twilight movies)…uh…crap, no spoilers. Let’s just say stepdad has been having some work issues and mom (Maria Bello, PrisonersA History of Violence) has been having some “friends” over.

Jerks.
Friends who carve things into your RENTED APARTMENT’S FLOOR!

Like, the invisible kind of friends. That she argues with a lot. About whether or not to kill her family.

This movie doesn’t really tease the insanity angle. We know, right away, there’s some sort of evil spirit afoot. And through the course of the movie, Rebecca comes to understand her mother better, and understand that her difficulties in life could actually be reduced if she didn’t keep people at arm’s length—specifically, best-boyfriend-ever, Bret (played by Alexander DiPersia), who seems like the kind of guy who sticks by you through thick-and-thin, even when ghosts be throwing things at you.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps things movie briskly, working off his own short film (a common thing these days) with a script by remake-king Eric Heisserer (who did the screenplays for the recent Nightmare on Elm StreetThe Thing and Final Destination 5) and who knows how much assistance from horror maestro James Wan (The Conjuring 2Insidious). I mean, literally, who knows (other than them)? Sometimes people just throw their names on films for producer credits, or to do a “Joe Blow Presents”.

The Boy and I both really liked this one, and with a total runtime of 81 minutes (including credits), the only reason it’ll keep you up late is if, after watching it, you’re afraid to turn the lights out.

But I did. Oh, yes. I did.
Teresa Palmer can’t believe I went there.

 

The Hollars

As you may recall, one of the big questions we struggle with on this blog is “how little Jesus does it take to ruin a movie for a critic?” The Hollars demonstrates that it takes literally no Jesus at all for critics to hate on a film. We were quite perplexed when this cancer drama/comedy with Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mary Kay Place and directed, produced and starring John Krasinski (written by James C. Strouse) not only came in with a low 44% score from critics—but audiences gave it a strong 74%. After receiving a warm review from a pal, who was sort of perplexed by the critic hate, and reading the bullshit assessment “seen it!” from critics, we virtually had to go see it.

In the first scene we see him in,  John (Krasinski) is shown drawing a cartoon. It’s only for a second, and it shows darkness and a baby saying “Don’t I get a vote?”

Cute, tho'.
No, little dude, you don’t. Even raising the question is career suicide.

Even though there might be a ton of possible explanations for that image, I’m going to say The Hollars was doomed at that point, because it could be considered as sacrilege against that most holy of all rights. Later on in the film, we learn that John’s brother Shelton’s (Sharlto Copely, District 9Elysium) ex-wife is seeing a youth pastor named Rev. Dan (Josh Groban, Crazy, Stupid, Love, some sort of musical stuff). Not only is Rev. Dan not a pedophile, he’s also a pretty good guy overall, genuinely concerned for Shelton’s well-being (moreso than Shelton’s ex, who would have him thrown in jail).

Two strikes for Krasinski right there.

Inexcusable!
He’s actually the most centered guy in the film.

The Boy pointed out later that our heroes in this film were small business owners. Suffering from hard times, these white, middle-class people were struggling to make ends meet.

Strike three.

I’m sorry Mr. Krasinski, but if you want good reviews, you’ll have to put in some transgendered stuff, or maybe some rich people acting horrible to minorities. Mere miscegenation (Shelton’s wife, played with gusto by Ashley Dyke, 12 Years A Slave, is black I think) just doesn’t cut it anymore, especially when you had several perfectly good chances to trash white people, Christians and the middle class. I’m not kidding: This is the reason the critics trashed this film, though they’d probably never admit it.

I recently asked a co-worker, "Are you?" when the topic of her black-ness came up. I'm just not good at it.
I wouldn’t know. I sure wouldn’t care.

Because this is a really, really good movie. The Boy and I were serially impressed by the way it could’ve gone wrong and didn’t. At first you think maybe this is going to be an attack on “those sorts”, whoever they may be. When we meet Sally (Martindale) and Don (Jenkins), they’re bickering, and Sally’s serious condition has gone untreated for years because—well, it’s both tragic and hilarious, the reason why. It’s also very real, if not very sophisticated. Salt-of-the-earth types with plumbing stores don’t go running off to the doctor for a little, uh, blurred vision and limb numbness.

The business is in trouble, of course, and Don is trying to protect Sally—but Sally does the books, so she pretends to let Don protect her, but confides in John that, of course, she knows, and Don and Shelton have had a falling out, which doesn’t help the situation for anyone, while Shelton is jealous and angry at John, and John can’t commit to his very pregnant and skittish girlfriend (Kendrick). You sort of wonder, at this point, if you’re just going to be watching 90 minutes of dysfunction. And the refreshing, and not at all common way that this is handled is: You’re not.

True to life.
The Everyman and Everywoman: They gots issues, but they’re decent sorts.

Yeah, the Hollars got problems, as do we all. But they’re not really dysfunctional, even if they need an occasional kick in the pants. What’s even better, though, is that the Hollars love each other and they actually show this. A lot of fatal disease movies (especially the chick flicks) have people treating each other absolutely awful, and only being dependable at the most dire of situations. That’s a weird sort of love, frankly. So, while the Hollars snipe and bicker, not infrequently, they also not infrequently don’t snipe and bicker. They help each other out; they’re nice, even. Which, quite frankly, might be another demerit for the professional critic.

The other thing that was really nice about this movie is that it doesn’t try to be depressing. It raises more than a few very serious and possibly sad questions. It doesn’t always give the happy answers. But there is a strong affirmation of life here. You can get far in life and maybe regret some choices, even some really big ones, but you gotta keep going, push through the fear, and above all keep on laughing.

The actual shape of the film, I will grant, is somewhat predictable: A movie like this can only go one of two ways, pretty much (live or die). And I knew how it would have to play out in order to work dramatically, though not right away. But the good news is that it did play out that way, and avoided being both wholly depressing and wholly panglossian. If you see only one cancer movie this year, this would be your best choice.

Oh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who did so well in 10 Cloverfield Lane and has been turning up in some sweet little roles lately (as in Swiss Army Man), has a sweet little role here as the ex-highschool girlfriend who sees an out in John. She’s definitely starting to win me over. (I guess the problem has never been her acting, but a lack of interesting roles in the things I’ve seen her in.)

John Goodman can't be wrong!
Second look at Winstead?

The Goonies (1985)

I am not, by nature, an envious person. (And to answer the implicit follow-up question: Yes, I think I would both know it and admit it if I were.) I do not look at others and think “I wish I were him.” For example, I sometimes think the reason I do not have more money than I do is because I really couldn’t handle it. I tend not to envy the wealthy, and while others dream of winning the lottery, I tend to divide such fantasies into two parts: The sort of winnings that wouldn’t really change your life (like two million or less), and those that really would change your life (like the sort of tens of millions or more where you’d actually have to do something with it besides stuff it in a mattress). The former isn’t really fantasy or envy fodder, while the latter is more harrowing than the indulgent sort of “I’d buy a yacht, and a car, and a fancy hat…” thing.

That and hypnosis. "My name is Elmer J Fudd, I own a mansion and a yacht." Oh! And the IRS!
Money RUINED Bugs Bunny!

But of course, narratively, speaking I now must reveal where I am envious. I sometimes envy Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) only because his humor, at least in the early years, was fairly similar to mine, and his singing voice is way better. Like, if I were going to have someone’s talent, I’d probably have picked his. (Trey Parker is another guy in that category, though I favor show tunes over heavy metal.)

Which brings me to The Goonies, and things in the ’80s that used to piss me off. One of them was Ralph Macchio. I had been spending five hours a day, five or six days a week, for over a year to get some proficiency in martial arts. In The Karate Kid, he waxes some cars over the summer to get to magical proficiency. He then followed up a couple years later by being in a movie about his amazing guitar skills. Over six years of playing guitar, I wasn’t going to see Crossroads. But these are fictional characters.

In real life, there was this guy named Christopher Columbus (no relation) who was writing the crappiest screenplays imaginable and becoming successful off of them. For example, Gremlins. The movie is not bad; Joe Dante turned up the gore and darkness to make it watchable. The plot, with its transparently stupid devices (“Don’t feed them after midnight!”) is an embarrassment. Young Sherlock Holmes is also an embarrassment, down to its “We’ll have them fly! If we learned anything from E.T. it’s that kids love flying crap!” And then there’s this one.

Stereotypes are a dime a dozen.
An Asian kid who’s good at technology? Where DO they get their ideas?

I didn’t see it at the time. I was really iffy on seeing it now, but it seems to be a touchstone for people who were kid-kids in the ’80s. It’s also directed by Richard Donner, who I was pretty high on after this recent showing of Superman, so I checked it out. The script is pretty stupid, once again. OK, it’s really stupid, bordering on insulting at times.

It’s a pretty fun movie, nonetheless, full of people who would go on to become really big stars, or at least transiently popular ones. Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Davi, Martha Plimpton, and even the late John Matuszak, who plays the deformed Sloth had a pretty decent career before his untimely death in ’89. And they’re all very ’80s here, with their hair styles and Cyndi Lauper hotter-than-heck doing the theme. And you know it’s an edgy-’80s kid’s movie, ’cause they swear and shit—including saying that word 19 times. It’s as pointless now as it was back then, really. (Side note: My work filter has this blog restricted as “adult”. What the fuck is up with that?)

No career, No Country For Old Men, Weird Career, LOTR, Temple of Doom, No Career, Super Mario Bros
From left-to-right: Cute Girl, Llewellyn, the Not-dead Corey, Frodo, Short-Round, Fat Kid, Princess Daisy

The premise is that the Goonies live in some unfashionable part of their beach community that’s about to be turned into something useful, and is a desperate bid to save the day, go searching for pirate treasure, the pirate treasure bit being stolen from a “Little Rascals” short because apparently what Spielberg was really good at was looting the vaults. Seriously, Raiders was a rip-off of a Burt Lancaster movie, close enough to where Spielberg obfuscated it’s source by citing Fritz Lang’s incomplete “Spiders”, which bears very little resemblance indeed vs. the movie he didn’t mention. (Anyway, you know what they say about artists who borrow vs. those who steal.)

On their way to find the treasure, they run into some desperate bank robbers (Pantoliano, Davi) and their brutish mother (Anne Ramsey of Throw Momma from the Train), and their deformed son they keep chained up in the basement (Matuszak), though I was a bit murky on whether this was a temporary hideout or what. It has a very ’30s feel, this aspect of the movie. Josh Brolin is the good big brother who ends up trying to round his little bro (Astin) and all his pals (Feldman as well as Jonathan Ke Quan of Temple of Doom and the fat Jeff Cohen, neither of whom made it out of the kid-actor ghetto, though at least Cohen’s not fat any more). Along the way he fights for his love interest played by the cute and fortunately legal Kerri Green, in a very short dress, and her tomboy friend (Plimpton) who has one of the dumber tagged-on romantic moments with Feldman. The rival for cute girl’s affection is a guy who might as well be named “Biff” but turns out to be “Troy” (Steve Anton, of the abominable Fast Times ripoff The Last American Virgin).

Oh, it's coming. You know it's coming.
This is from the “gritty reboot” of “The Goonies”.

The pace is good, the action, such as it is, is of the cartoonish “appropriate for children” style (which makes the swearing even more egregious somehow). The music is by Dave Grusin, who wrote the classic TV themes for “Baretta” and “Maude” and arranged the music for the Paul Simon flop “One Trick Pony”. It’s not John Williams, but it’s fine. The special effects are dated, of course, but not horribly so. They still read, and they’ve got enough panache to carry the moments. (A lot of them are very physical, of course: Pirate ship, moving traps, falling water. That helps.)

The movie probably couldn’t get made today since it stereotypes Italians and pirates, and makes fun of the handicapped. So there’s a certain charm there. I dunno. I didn’t hate it. The Boy took his girlfriend to see it (The Flower was not interested, and I couldn’t make a convincing pitch) and they both liked it, but of course they’re young and in-love. My straight-up feeling about this is that it’s passable, and will still be watchable down the line (as it is today) but that it probably occupies a similar plane as the brat pack movies of the error: They mean a lot more to you if you were in the demographic at the time.

As for Mr. Columbus, after leaving the glory-less world of being-just-a-writer, he went on to direct Home Alone (John Hughes’ screenplay, which he apparently never got over someone else directing his most successful film) and then wrote and directed the sweet Only The Lonely, at which point I forgave him his success. Then he directed Bicentennial Man, so I sorta felt sorry for him. Then the first two Harry Potter movies, in which the old Columbus came out, but not enough to smother those flicks. It’s been a career of ups-and-downs, really, so I felt for the guy.

Then he directed Pixels, and I think we can all hate him for that.

No, that's the late Matuszak.
Chris Columbus on the set of “Pixels”.

The Secret Life of Pets

And speaking of nullities, there’s this sad excuse of a rehash of Toy Story. I can see the pitch meeting now:

“It’s like Toy Story but with pets!

“That’s a great idea! Everybody loves animals! Everbody loves Toy Story! We’ll mix the two!”

Speaking of weirdly positive critical results, the critics like this movie more than the audiences, who scored it a tepid 65% to critics’ 74%. The fix is in, people.

That's right: All these animals are registered voters.
I ain’t just talkin’ RT scores, either.

I was paying attention to the audience while this was running—because there wasn’t really anything else to entertain me—and I heard two laughs through the entire movie: The first from a woman in the row behind me. The second came from a woman in the row in front of me. I didn’t hear the kids laughing. Actually, it was quiet as a tomb throughout most of the film. Which seems appropriate.

The Barb didn’t laugh at all but when I asked her what she thought of the film, she said, “I loved it! It was above par!

So I asked her, “Well, of all the movies we’ve seen, can you think of one that was just par? Or below par?”

“Nope!”

So, y’know. All this time I’ve been saying “Well, the Barb liked it so…” when perhaps that wasn’t the best recommendation. Honestly, I’ve practically forgotten this film already. It looks pretty good, I suppose.

Refrigerator smell.
That is a nice looking roast chicken. (But who puts a whole cooked chicken in the fridge uncovered?)

The story goes something like this: Max (Louis C.K. in his least memorable anything) is a dog who lives with a girl (Ellie Kemper, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) in a standard, generic New York apartment (and, in fairness, this isn’t just some default; it does make sense for the movie to take place in NYC) when his girl brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet, “Modern Family). Duke turns out to be a bit of a bully, and Max is miserable until he figures out he can frame Duke. This ultimately leads to the two of them being separated from their human and forced to wander the streets on the run from Animal Control. This takes them to an underground world of abandoned pets whose vicious leader is a bunny rabbit (Kevin Hart) with a taste for killing humans.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Max’s would be girlfriend, Gidget (abortion enthusiast Jenny Slate, The Obvious ChildMy Blind Brother) organizes the hapless house pets (including Lake Bell as a fat cat, that the Barb was sure was Susie Essman from Bolt) on a journey to rescue Max and Duke, where they meet Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan, and my-god-aren’t-you-bored-with-the-stunt-casting-yet?

Needless to say, one of these animals is going to end up driving a car, because nothing is funnier than animals driving a car.

He thinks he's people.
Funnier than The Secret Lives of Pets.

It’s a nullity. You may see this film. You might even chuckle once or twice, maybe. You won’t remember it after leaving the theater, though. It’ll be like a dream. A dream that really wasn’t very good or interesting, but you struggle to remember it, thinking there might be something there. But there isn’t. Just two hours lost to the void.

Alexandre Desplat’s music was probably good. I don’t remember it. I’ve noticed that music is being underplayed (as it were) more and more these days. There’s a great video on why Marvel music is so forgettable but it applies to just about everything made today.

From the people who inflicted Minions on you. Even begins with an unfunny Minions short. These people will go on to inflict Sing on us in the winter. So, Merry Christmas.

If you have to explain the joke...
See, it’s funny because it’s a cute bunny acting all tough and m—eh, forget it.

 

Captain America: Civil War

We put off seeing this until the last possible moment, but it had such good reviews (90% from audiences and critics on RT) that I really didn’t want to miss it. Now I’ve already pointed out that I’m kind of jaded about superhero movies. There have been so many of them, and they’re kind of all running together. So I thought maybe I was just not getting into the spirit of things when, at the end of this movie, I found myself thinking, “Wow, that was kind of boring” until I heard:

“Well, that was boring.”

Tobey Maguire makes this face at orgasm. Allegedly.
And this guy just plain didn’t like it.

Let us step around all the craziness of this film. A lot of it is not good comic book craziness, like Doc Ock (in Spider-Man 2) solving the problem of controlled fusion by first solving the problems of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, but just the sort of stupid unexplained plot conveniences the movie figures nobody will ask about. Like how the ultimate villain of the piece arranged the massive conspiracy needed to carry out his plan with no apparent relevant background or security clearance. Or like how the camera just happened to be rolling on this deserted road 25 years ago, providing incriminating footage that the faux-villain was not aware enough to avoid, but was aware enough to destroy the camera after all of his crimes had been recorded. I’m even willing to overlook the stupidity of a superhero—a high-tech superhero with all kinds of holographic and computer hacking skills—would immediately jump to “Well, there’s the bad guy, right there on a security camera, and we know that couldn’t possibly be faked. It’s beyond our technology!”

All this could be overlooked if the dramatic potential of the film weren’t so poorly set up and executed. The crux of the idea, from the comic books if I’m not mistaken, is that, in the wake of Avengers 2 the UN wants to regulate superheros. They’ll only be able to act if the world leaders agree they can act. We can ignore the stupidity of that, too, even though:

  • they saved the world in A2, but this seems to count for nothing;
  • when I read comix (lo, those many years ago), there were often codas where the superheroes would clean up the messes they had made, and everyone was happy but the fact that they don’t show this in the movies has become “Well, they never do it, and so we hate them”
  • this kind of plays the audience for chumps and/or means the heroes really are pretty awful.
I mean, seriously.
What the hell is Ant-Man doing there?

None of this would bug me (much) if this was all used in service of a great character-driven story, which is the whole point of the story to begin with. Well, okay, that’s not entirely fair: Hero vs. hero matchups are big because 10-year-old boys like to debate “Who would win in a fight between The Lone Ranger and Zorro?” (I suppose the classic pairing is “Batman vs. Superman” but of course Batman always has to win in a fight between him and Superman, because it’s the only narrative that provides any drama.) But here, one would expect to see the conflict between the libertian-ish, doesn’t like to be told-what-to-do Iron Man fighting against the Man while the law-abiding, America-loving and now (because we’re a global community, and the U.N. isn’t a corrupt rape-machine in this fantasy world) a U.N. loving Captain America signs up with the forces of law-and-order and…

Wait, what? It’s reversed? Iron Man is submitting to the whim of a third-party council of people who famously can’t agree on anything? And Captain America—who even has a speech about how he’s always been an outsider, even in the Army—which I’m guessing, as a guy who never read more than a single Captain America comic book in his life, would be news to his creators Simon and Kirby.

Well, okay, so there must be a good reason for all this. Why would Iron Man suddenly give up his autonomy? Oh, he killed an innocent person? Wait…an innocent person got killed while he was saving the world. And he feels guilty for that. Even though Alfre Woodard wouldn’t have been alive to tell him that had he not saved the world. He feels so guilty, and so completely convinced, that he’s ready to go out and kill another person—Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier, or at least let him be killed without a trial because some grainy security footage and the U.N. says so.

You're cool with that, right?
Just gonna get in some murder here, Cap.

Actually, Mr. Stark is a total murder machine in this movie. First, he endorses this bit of authoritarian nonsense, and later wants to kill another character because of what that character did under mind control. Now, look: Everyone’s always getting mind controlled in comix. It’s like the “evil twin” in soap operas: Every single superhero at some point or another has been forced to do something against his will, including Tony Stark who’s always having his magic suits hijacked. The idea that you would kill someone because of what they did while under a sinister power’s control means you pretty much have to kill everyone.

It makes no sense. I’m still wondering how it rates 90% RTs. The Boy, who demurred from seeing this, kindly refrained from gloating when I told him about it, though he’s brought it up more than once since then, the little bastard. (I think he was nursing a grudge because he’s been researching the American Civil War this year, and gets pissed off every time he has to filter through this nonsense.)

OK, but at least the action’s good, right?

That bow & arrow, tho'.
“Why are we running at them? At least half of us have ranged weapons!”

Eh. Not really. It goes on too long and most of it has little flavor. Where you might enjoy it more than I is if you’re invested in the characters (such as they are). That way you might just consider the very match-up to be high drama. But it’s mostly nonsense. In the big fight scene at the end of the second act, they have to keep vanishing the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) because she’s basically infinitely powerful. Meanwhile the Black Widow and Hawkeye have their little slapfights while thousand megawatt energy bolts are flashing around them. And…good lord…Black Widow sides with Stark! War Machine (the once respectable Don Cheadle) even points out the insanity of this.

The highlights are the appearances of non-Avengers, Spider-Man and Ant-Man. The Spider-Man stuff in particular is entertaining, although Stark teaming up with Parker screws up the whole poverty storyline that is virtually Peter Parker’s rasion-d’etre. That aside, casting someone who is believable as a high-school student was a good way to potentially reboot the series (yet again). Paul Rudd is good as Ant-Man but he’s not in the movie much.

Look, it’s not great. It’s not even good, really. I’m just going to assume the crazy good reviews are a mixture of Marvel fanboys and critics who want to suck up to Disney. I can’t really recommend it at all unless the comic book thing—and maybe the Marvel thing explicitly—is your jam.

As if. Maybe they need to start turning these things into musicals!
Cool dance-off in the third act, though.

A Tale Of Love and Darkness

We’d sort of waffled on seeing Natalie Portman’s new movie—written, directed and starring Princess Padmé! though somehow this is not used as a selling point—because it didn’t have the boffo reviews, but I tried to sway The Boy on the basis that movies that portray Israel in any sort of positive light are necessarily going to be voted down regardless of merit. I didn’t actually succeed in convincing him, but we ended up watching this because of various timing issues, i.e., we were at the movies and this was playing.

Ha. This kid kicks Darth Vader's ass.
I think we all remember this scene from Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

This is a fine, fine film, despite the tepid 60s given on Rotten Tomatoes (by the small number of critics and reviewers), and those 60s are up from the initial scores which were 40s and 50s, if I recall. So I do believe the anti-Jew thesis holds up. Which would be funny, perhaps, if the pro-Israel statement here wasn’t both mild and factual, i.e., the Jews came to reclaim their homeland in the Middle East because Europe wasn’t safe for them any more. So, while A Tale of Love and Darkness hardly paints the new Israeli government as saints, neither does she throw her Founding Fathers under the bus (as we like to in America).

Primarily, though, this movie has little to do with Israel. It’s a touching reminiscence, based on a memoir by Amos Oz, of an early childhood with a mother who is depressed. This happens to be in Israel right around the time of the War for Independence, and the story incorporates that aspect into the emotional state of the mother, about which I’ll get to in a moment.

It's not.
And you thought the 2016 election was important.

First, let me say, this is a very difficult thing to do well: The problem with mental illness is that it doesn’t really conform to narrative. We want, as moviegoers, to see a story that makes sense. And certainly there are stories about sadness and other emotional problems where the problem can be clearly pinpointed and resolved in a satisfying way. But if the term “mental illness” is to have any meaning (and perhaps it doesn’t), it must be that the inappropriate behavior/emotional state doesn’t have its cause in a current situation. In other words, if your dog dies (as ours recently did, alas), it’s not “mental illness” to be sad. There’s probably something wrong with you if you aren’t at least little sad when your dog dies. It’s when the melancholy comes on for no (apparent) reason that it can be so classified.

Of course, from a narrative perspective, a problem that comes on for no apparent reason doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying narrative. Movies often just flat-out fail when they to tackle this stuff. Or, what will occasionally happen is that a narrative is built where the mental illness is orthogonal to another narrative, which can seem to trivialize the issue. Neither is a good moviegoing experience.

What Portman (and Oz, of course) do here is quite sensitive and touching: The main character of the story isn’t Fania (Portman) even if she dominates the screen; it’s little Amos (newcomer Amir Tessler). What we’re seeing is an old man trying to make sense out of what a young child saw, which is only bits and pieces of the whole story. For example, Fania’s mother (Dina Doron, I think) yells at her in the kitchen, complaining that they should’ve let her die in the camps (possibly instead of some other more valued family members). It’s the sort of memory you’d have as a child, someone wishing your mother was dead, but there’s not really more about it. In fact, you’d remember all sorts of hostile things about your mother, without the appropriate context.

Mothers & sons.
It’s profound, really.

This works surprisingly well. Because what we see is, even at this late date, Amos Oz loves his mother. He frames her depression in terms of disappointment: She had so many visions of life as a child, including one of Israel as the promised land, and all the wishes came true but without the beauty she imagined would go with them.

The Boy and I found it quite moving, really. Subtly, tastefully done, and successful at making Fania appealing when she might’ve (in those troubled times) just been viewed as a flighty, crazy whiner.

I should comment on the technical aspects of the direction, given that this is Mrs. Portman’s debut: It’s good.

Okay, more detail: There’s some nice blocking and tracking here. At first, it felt a little overeager, like she had a lot of tools in her toolkit and she was going to use them all come hell-or-high-water. But it calms down pretty fast and some of the bolder choices work very well, as a scene where the dizzy Fania is shot blurred for a moment before coming in to focus. You probably won’t notice, because overall it feels fairly confident, like she knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it (or who to ask about how to get it). I would not be sad to see her pursue this line of work.

It’s also nice to see her act. I presume an actress can only stand around pointlessly in so many Star Wars and Thor flicks until it gets old. This performance here is better than her Oscar-winning Black Swan performance which, truth be told, is probably a little one-dimensional (even if she did do it well). I felt more like Fania this was a real person, a complicated person.

So, ignore the haters and check it out.

I'm sure of it.
Cheer up, Natalie. This will age well.

Howard’s End (1992)

I was never a big Merchant-Ivory guy at the time they were hot property (mid-’80s to mid-’90s) and while a later viewing of Room with a View made me wonder if I was missing out, I do sort of think that maybe, generally, y’know, they’re pretty much as boring as they look. This is not a movie to dissuade anyone of that idea. It’s not exactly boring, but neither is it very exciting either. It shies away from action or even high drama like a sheep shies from a randy Scotsman. This is clearly a matter of taste rather than incompetence. The Boy put it best: “I didn’t know what it was doing, but I felt like it knew what it was doing, so I didn’t find fault with it.”

The Flower sort of lost it when she realized her beloved Anthony Hopkins—beloved for his role as Hannibal Lecter—was the love interest. She had a hard time accepting that. And, honestly, the movie doesn’t really sell it. There’s no apparent chemistry between Hopkins and Emma Thompson, but there really wouldn’t be.

Never.
Ever.

I don’t know. I have very positive memories of Room with a View and I think I expected a lot more out of this. It’s definitely precision, deliberate, but maybe not the story I wanted to see right then.

The attention to detail is definitely noteworthy. The windows have imperfect glass in them, just as they would have at the time. The carelessness of the condition of the upper classes to those of lower classes is certainly on display. It didn’t really grab me. Or any of us (including some other friends who went to a different show, perhaps also with high expectations). The restoration is nice. It looks new-ish.

It’s over the two hour mark, too, but that doesn’t really seem to be an issue, which is a positive thing. Like I say, the movie moves you along expertly as it flows, it’s just a slow moving flow about people it’s kind of hard to relate to.

As one must.
Unless you’re really into rowboats.

I dunno. Check it out, maybe, if you like this sort of thing. I may give it another 25 years to see if I’m more in the demo by then.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Longtime, diligent readers—which is to say, “me”—will recall what I call “The Buffy Factor”, which is where a movie so brutally mocks its audience that the audience takes their ball and goes home, or at least doesn’t buy tickets. One of the best counter-examples to this is Galaxy Quest, which makes fun of TV show fan-nerds, but in an ultimately nice way. And when I saw it back in 1999, I was generally pretty pleased—which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed a savaging of said nerds, but savaging seems a lot easier to come by these days than a nicer, gentler, but still very funny approach. The kids were somewhat “meh” on seeing it at the theater’s “Trektember” month which featured 3 original-cast “Star Trek” movies, a documentary on Leonard Nimoy by his son, Adam, and this film, which some say is the best of all “Star Trek” movies.

OR IS IT?
It’s funny, y’see, ’cause it’s not a Star Trek movie.

The kids had, after all seen all or part of it on TV before, though not in many years. But if we’ve learned anything this year it’s simply this: Movies are much better on the big screen. Period.

And what stands out about this movie 15+ years later is that it’s really, really good. My initial impression was that it was a bit facile, a bit formulaic, and even reflecting now on my recent viewing, I’d still say that was true. But where that seems to be true, it’s done in the service of telling a good story (as opposed to “hitting the beats” per the Save_the_Cat formula). It balances the inherent cheesiness of the original (fictitious) TV series with the aspirational aspects of science fiction—said aspirations sincerely exemplifying the best aspects of mankind.

'cause, actors <> mankind. See Birdman.
The best of mankind, and on an unrelated note, actors.

The acting is about perfect. They say Harold Ramis dropped out because Tim Allen was cast, and later recanted after seeing his performance, and I can see both of those things occurring. He’s channeling Buzz Lightyear here (minus most of the delusional confidence) and doing a good job of it. Sigourney Weaver is delightful as the increasingly highly-strung and busty actress-who-repeats-what-the-computer-says. Of course Alan Rickman is great, with his self-loathing line delivery that switches into complete, convincing sincerity as the situation demands. Probably the most remarkable thing about Rickman is that he doesn’t overshadow everyone else, they’re all so perfect in their roles. Tony Shalhoub as the anti-Scotty, so laid back about virtually everything, including the tentacles on alien Missi Pyle (in an early role). Daryl Mitchell pitch perfect as the guy who actually has to drive the ship. And Sam Rockwell, fresh off of The Green Mile, doing comic relief as the guy, named Guy, who knows he’s expendable because he doesn’t even have a last name!

Heh.

Just makes her hotter, really.
FUN FACT: Those are Missi Pyle’s actual tentacles, not CGI.

Besides Missi Pyle, it was Rainn Wilson’s big screen debut, and Justin Long’s debut, period (even before the PC/Mac ads and Jeepers Creepers). It was a breakthrough role for Enrico Colantoni, who would go on to be a fixture on things like “Just Shoot Me” and “Person of Interest”, as well as a bunch of other movies and shows, demonstrating all the range of a great character actor. Actually, quite a few of the actors were well accomplished TV people, just not the big stars, perhaps because Dean Parsiot, who would later go on to direct a few episodes of Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk” (where a number of the other GQ actors would turn up over the years) is also a big TV guy. It doesn’t hurt.

It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, it’s good-natured—originally, the script by David Howard was much darker, and they trimmed it back. I’ll bet the cut stuff was very good, but the tone they ended up with was basically perfect. David Howard, somehow, has no other credits to his name, though his co-writer Robert Gordon is credited on the (much less memorable) Addicted to Love, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Men in Black II.

The score, by David Newman, the least Newman, reminds us that even the least of the Newmans is still pretty damn good.

It goes without saying that, 15 years out, the special effects are dated, but they still read and they still work. Stan Winston’s makeup is still awesome. The CGI shows its seams, as it must, but it has aged more like an old matte: Getting the idea across without seeming tacky.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s definitely worth revisiting. The Flower and The Boy both loved it.

R.I.P. Mr. Rickman
Never give up. Never surrender.

 

The People vs. Fritz Bauer

When making a movie based on a historical event (as opposed to making a movie coincident with historical events), one generally has to figure out how to compress the elements of the actual occurrences into a smaller number of characters and a shorter period of time, in order to preserve the film’s watchability at the expense of accuracy. (Michael Bay’s 13 Hours may be a rare example of that not being the case, although even it is obviously not 13 hours long.) And in the process of doing so, one tends to add various fictional elements to give the movie more suspense, more action, more romance—whatever it takes to make the kind of movie one wants to make. In the case of the under-rated Labyrinth of Lies, for example, certain elements of action and suspense were focused into a character who was a younger, better looking composite of the people actually involved, who heroically recovers the story of the Holocaust from the memory hole. (I understand in Japan, by contrast, schoolchildren are basically taught that the US just dropped an atomic bomb on them for no reason.)

Shocked to discover I couldn't find a picture of Slim Pickens being dropped on Nagasaki.
And we all know how THAT turned out.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer is similarly themed: Bauer is a man in charge of bringing Nazi war criminals to trial in Germany. Problem is, the government doesn’t really want to do that, and works against him at every turn. This is undeniably the way governments work: Witness the various US governments’ eagerness to downplay their roles in slavery, segregation, euthanasia, forced sterilization and other great progressive notions. He’s supposed to be working with Interpol but—and this is the first time I’ve ever heard this admitted in a movie—Interpol was started and staffed by ex-Nazis. (And who knows how “ex-” they really were?)

Bauer’s big coup is that he’s pretty sure he’s found out where Eichmann is. If he reports it to his bosses, they’re report it to Interpol, and Interpol will warn Eichmann. Eichmann vanishes and gets away, and Bauer really doesn’t want that. Oddly, despite Eichmann’s banal evil, and despite the movie’s playing of recordings of Eichmann’s lamenting that they hadn’t managed to get all the Jews (a far cry from his defense), I didn’t feel as moved as I know I should’ve been. Emotionally, the movie is focused on Bauer getting around the barriers, and his assistant sacrificing his life and career to bring the Nazi to justice.

"Eichmann, you say? He's no big deal. They got thousands of them in the World Trade Center."
And that involves LOTS of paperwork.

You see, in order to make sure Eichmann doesn’t escape, Bauer goes to Mossad. But taking intelligence to a foreign government like that is treason. And The Powers That Be are determined to take Bauer down, certainly more to keep him from persecuting Nazis than out of a sense of patriotic duty, and Bauer has a fairly well-known secret: He’s homosexual. He identifies from his own team, a young go-getter who is also a homosexual, though in the young man’s case, this is not yet known to anyone. Well, the audience knows, since it’s pretty well telegraphed in the first scene, though the movie does (I think) try a fake-0ut by suggesting that he’s fascinated by a young woman. (They cheat, of course, as use an actual woman and a CGI penis or prosthetic or whatever.) But we were so not fooled we weren’t sure that they were trying to fool us.

Whatever the TV equivalent of "blackface" is, I guess.
Sort of a reverse crying game.

Various dramatic embellishments aside, the movie stays rather low-key. There isn’t the paranoia of Labyrinth, no action to speak of, and only a little bit of suspense. It kind of plays out exactly as you think it will, and even the climax is played with a teutonic phlegmatism that makes you (if you’re me) utter the refrain “That’s SO German!”

Anyway, we did like it: The acting and pacing is good. The atmosphere is good. Whatever liberties it takes seem to be pretty respectful. But maybe don’t watch it if you’ve been up for the past 48 hours.

Swiss Army Man

Movies, of course, do not have to be rational. They never are, actually, but they typically aspire to verisimilitude—or at least a worldview the audience can accept for seven reels. Even speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, sci-fi) tends to set up a certain number of rules within which the story operates in an otherwise recognizable way. When a movie tries to get outside that box, it’s in danger of becoming pretentious or just plain incomprehensible. At times, it can be hard to figure out what Swiss Army Man is trying to tell us but it neatly avoids pretentiousness with copious fart jokes. This movie is powered by fart jokes. Its main character, Hank (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy, Being Flynn) is literally powered by farts provided by the decaying corpse of “Manny” (Daniel Radcliffe, Horns, Woman In Black).

Right on!
Power to the people!

I am not a fart joke aficionado, personally, but a funny thing happens here. Flatulence goes through numerous interpretations as the movie wears on: It’s a dumb joke, it’s a dark joke, it’s a matter of joy, it’s a matter of tragedy, it’s a critical plot point, and on and on, to where you’re sort of wondering “How are they gonna fart their way out of this one?” It’s impossible to watch this and get the idea that they were just telling fart jokes. Something else, something much deeper, in fact, is going on, and the Daniels (the writer/director team of Dan Kwan, Daniel Schienert) are using noxious bodily gases to keep from straying into the pretentiousness almost inherent in a story about a man stranded on a desert island with only a corpse to help him survive.

Hank is a sad, desperate man both literally and metaphorically cut off from contact with others. When another person washes ashore on the same beach, he’s initially excited at the prospect of having company, only to find out the other person is just a corpse. But the corpse moves a little, as decaying corpses will, and of course releases the carbon and sulfur gases that provide the necessary…momentum…to keep the story moving. Hank calls his new pal “Manny”, and as the movie wears on Manny’s abilities become more and more uncorpselike. He’s slowly animated, not just by farts, but by Hank’s vesting of himself into him.

Which, y'know...
“Now I’ll make him say ‘I hate Harry Potter’!”

At points, it even gets hard to tell Hank and Manny apart. The corpse becomes not just a vehicle for literal escape (insofar as anything here is actually literal) but for Hank’s escape from the failures of his life. Hank puts his failures onto Manny and in this way has a chance to confront them—because, of course, it’s easier to look at someone else’s flaws than one’s own, and especially easier to look at someone’s flaws when they’re just like yours. Hank’s in a desperate place, quite apart from being trapped on an island (or is he?), and it’s occasionally not clear whether we’re seeing things through his eyes or through Manny’s. (Although, since Manny is literally dead, to the extent he literally exists at all, it’s probably safe to assume it’s all Hank.) Pretty spiritual, heady stuff for what’s billed as a “quirky comedy”.

The farts keep it from disappearing up its own ass, if you will.

A fart too far, if you will.
One fart joke too many.

This is one of those movies you don’t know whether you’re going to like it or not, or at least we didn’t. There are so many ways it could go wrong. Sort of weirdly, Audiences liked it rather more than critics (82%/67% respectively) which can either be attributed to rabid Harry Potter fans and/or the very earthiness that keeps it things from being too abstract, top pretentious, too boring. The Boy and I were both favorably impressed; there’s a level of skill in the filmmaking, and a care and attention to detail that can win you over if you’re not too put off by the grossness of the bodily aspects (which include more than farts, I should note).

It’s a two-man show, basically, so if you like Dano or Radcliffe—who does graduate from lolling his head around listlessly at various points, and who gets his own sorta Free Willy-style ending—there’s a lot to enjoy there. It’s hard to recommend generally for the various aforementioned reasons, but we certainly liked it.

Radcliffe is...interesting.
He should’ve had Dano drag him down the red carpet.

TCM Presents: The King and I (60th Anniversary)

Sometimes—frequently, in fact, when you’re going to classic movies—you see something so great it alters your sense of how great movies can be. There was a little bit of resistance in going to see The King and I: The Boy wasn’t super-interested, but as I know so much of the music and had never seen this (despite having read the book and seen other versions of the story), I felt it was worth the risk.  I merely had to tempt The Flower with tales of set and costume design (we had just seen the amazingly decorated and costumed Flash Gordon) and she was there, despite the two-and-a-half hour runtime. All the kids knew of this was the episode of “The Family Guy” (perhaps ironically) where Lois wants to put on this musical and Peter comes and ruins it with a sci-fi plotline, half-naked chicks and himself in the role of Anna.

If you know what I mean
There’s a fine line between satire and a cri de couer.

At first, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. The movie starts just a little awkwardly with “Whistle a Happy Tune” on the ship bringing Anna and her son to Siam. Deborah Kerr (singing by the wonderful Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) is fine—great, even—as is little Rex Thompson as her son (though he’s not in it much), but when Yul Brynner steps on to the (gloriously appointed) soundstage, the movie takes off and just never slows down, even when the actual tempo of the music is slower.

The story is the one you probably know: In an effort to modernize his country, The King of Siam brings Anna Leonowens, an English widow, to Siam to tutor his many, many, many children. The main point of contention between them, initially, is he has promised her a place outside the Palace walls but has reneged on her arrival. He puts her off repeatedly, barely even acknowledging her concerns about raising her son in a harem. Another plot concerns his most recent wife, who arrives at the same time as Anna, but who loves another and who takes very strongly to the western teachings.

Her boyfriend was played by the famous Burmese actor Carlos Rivas.
o/~Things are all right in S-I-A-M/If you’re Siamese in S-I-A-M.~\o

I think it goes without saying that this is not a movie that could be made today. Actually, a relative of mine was a producer on the ’90s version with Jodie Foster, which was underrated I’m sure in part because of the shadow of colonialism or whatever excuse was in vogue at the time to garner attention for the would-be-victimized and to suppress art. But it was oh-so-tame compared to this now 60-year-old film. The Russian-ish Yul Brynner plays the King while Rita Moreno (!) plays the broken-hearted Burmese wife who—and this is one of the great scenes in movie history—puts on a Siamese version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In a musical written by a couple of Jewish(ish) guys.

I will say, without hesitation, that no one who has ever raised the meagrest concern about the racial/ethnic/appropriative aspect of this has never contributed anything of merit to art, and quite possibly has never contributed anything of value to anything.

Truly.
A sublime interpretation of Eliza’s escape.

Hammerstein’s (and Brynner’s) King is an immensely likable character, admirable even (in the context of his culture), and truly the hero of the piece. He’s struggling to make his country competitive in a global economy, and he knows that this means giving up many of the conceits that are central to his monarchy. He has an understand of the rightness and wrongness abstract concepts (particularly vis-à-vis slavery) with a sort of willful blindness about how this enlightenment should affect him personally (particularly as regards to an unwilling wife). This virtually makes him the Thai Thomas Jefferson.

Too, the love story between Anna and the King is a beautiful thing: He gathers that there is something special about this spirited English woman, and he respects that he cannot have her. Even more dramatically, he realizes he respects her, cares about her opinion of him—just as she realizes she’s strongly attracted to him, despite her disgust at many of his barbarous ways.

The Boy had the same initial trepidation that I had. We weren’t worried it was going to be bad, but we weren’t sure how good it was going to be. He was terribly pleased by the show, as was The Flower who loved the costumes and set designs as much as I imagined she would. This two make a rather strong recommendation for a movie from the ’50s, especially for one that is a stage play produced in a grand manner without reducing much of its essential staginess. We would all recommend it highly.

Yul Brynner played the King until he died.
Despite the similarities, the King bears very little resemblance to the Pharaoh.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

Rifftrax Presents: Mothra

You know what time it is! It’s time for Rifftrax! (Rifftrax!)

And this quarter’s cinematic meatball-over-the-plate is the wonderfully bizarre and bizarrely wonderful Mothra. It’s a far cry from being terrorized by radioactive T-Rex like Gojira, or a pterodactyl like Rodan, or even a three-headed dragon like King Ghidorah. The Kaiju for most of Mothra isn’t even a moth, but more a lethargic (if overlarge) caterpillar.

I don't know if "chrysalize" is actually a word. But it should be.
“Do you mind? I’m trying to chrysalize here!”

Cribbing shamelessly from King Kong, the story goes that after an uninhabited island is used for atomic bomb tests, it turns out actually to have been rather heavily populated by a tribe of regular-sized people who—and I may have this wrong—worship a couple of tiny (foot tall) little singing girls. The Japanese Carl Denham goes to this little island along with, I don’t know, some scientists or something, and discovers the little girls but is prevented from capturing them to bring back to Japan (or some other country that isn’t exactly America) by the rest of the group.

Flash forward a few years (without even the courtesy of a calendar flipping montage, so you don’t realize it’s much later) and Denham-san has secretly gone back to the island and captured the girls and brought them back as a novelty act, like a less creepy Lemon Sisters. Problem is, they’re psychically linked to Mothra who hatches from his egg on the island and makes his way toward Japan. Before you know it—and I mean, like, well over an hour into the movie—this caterpillar is doing kaiju stuff and generally just wrecking up the place.

Wait, wut?
o/~Tonight, you belo-ong, to us! And our giant caterpillar!~\o

Until killed by the military.

Killed? Or just cocooned?

Well, I think you know the answer to that. So the last few minutes is more traditional Rodan-esque mayhem until the good guys figure out how to get the girls safely to their beloved giant moth. The climactic scene takes place in not-quite-America which is worth it just for the not-quite-English signs everywhere.

They call it "Rosilica".
I think that’s a Notatexico station next to the Notaneiffeltower.

It’s a pretty wild movie.

It also confirms our suspicion that the old, cheesy movies are best for riffing. This is not exactly a movie jam-packed with action or, well, much of anything but its bizarre premise. Even the special effects are kind of sleepy, kind of goofy, but also kind of fun. (And, in fairness to the technology of the day, some of them are pretty decent as well.)

All this adds up to room for quality riffing, and the boys do not disappoint. Definitely worth checking out.

The pre-show riff was about soap and it was as delightful as you can imagine. Four out of five stars. Would recommend. Would riff.