Saboteur (1942)

We’ve had just tremendous luck with the anniversary double-features at our family-owned chain. It kicked off with 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution, and followed up with the Bette Davis double-feature (Marked Woman and Now, Voyager) and in June it was two lesser known Hitchcock films: Saboteur and Frenzy. Considered lesser Hitchcock films, I was eager to see Saboteur because, well, I hadn’t, though I tempered the kids’ expectations as I felt was appropriate.

And neither of these guys became icons.
It’s a lot of pressure: A lot to live up to.

Honestly, though, we all loved this film: Made during WWII, it’s so American you want to stand up and salute. Based on a story by  Hitch himself, the screenplay was written by Dorothy Parker (!), Joan Harrison (Hitch’s English secretary who came with him to Hollywood and ended up a writer at MGM and a producer at Universal) and Peter Viertel (who worked on African Queen and later wrote the novel White Hunter, Black Heart—also he was married to Deborah Kerr for nearly 50 years, until her death, and he died within weeks of her).

Anyway, the story is this: Barry (Robert Cummings, Dial M for MurderThe Devil and Miss Jones) is an average Joe, helping the war effort by working in a defense plant in L.A. (we had those until the ’90s!) when he stumbles across a letter to a guy named “Fry” (a sprightly 28-year-old Norman Lloyd), whom he and his pal locate but who doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by being found.

Before you know it, there’s a fire at the plant, and Barry’s pal perishes in it when someone gives him an extinguisher full of gasoline! He figures it was that guy Fry, but nobody can find any such person at work in the company, and the experts realize it’s sabotage! Wait, that’s a different Hitch movie. The experts realize Barry must be the Saboteur!

(No, it's not.)
This is why smokers have to go outside today.

Barry takes it on the lam because one thing he knows: If he musses around with the authorities, they’ll just foul things up until the real saboteur gets away—and maybe other good Joes like his pal will end up getting hurt. The beauty of this storyline is that almost everyone immediately figures out that Barry is a stand-up guy who’s genuinely going to find the real saboteur. You can tell just by talking to the guy he’s on the up-and-up.

There’s an implicit (and actually rather explicit) idea here that the authorities are incompetent, bless their hearts. Individuals working together can make a change the dunderheads in charge would completely miss. As I said, very American—and presumably British as well, given it’s Hitchcock, and he would revisit these themes constantly, as a sort of subhed to the “wrongfully accused” trope that was kind of his bread-and-butter.

But apart from the little guy, all the circus freaks love Barry. And apart from Pat (Priscilla Lane, Four Daughters, Four Wives, Four Mothers) pretty much all the normies know he’s on the up-and-up, too. Since Pat is his love interest, we gotta have a little tensions, y’know? Anyway, the plot gets thicker and thicker, and fills with tropes we would see Hitch use again in the classic North by Northwest. But the funny thing was that the kids (and even I) were unwilling to proclaim this as a lesser film. It’s much more pro-America, and while Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, he was still Robert Cummings, and that ain’t nothin’.

NOTHING, I SAID!
Pictured: A scene absolutely NOTHING like the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest.

There is a particularly charming scene at the beginning of the second act where the Bearded Lady makes a plea for Barry based on Pat’s willingness to stick by him—said willingness being not entirely voluntary, in fact—and Pat being so ashamed for not recognizing Barry’s innate goodness that she immediately supports him and, naturally, falls in love. (Said tension well set up before, of course, but resolved quited neatly in a single scene, as Hitch was wont to do.)

Climactic scene at the Statue of Liberty. Auction in a room full of well-connected and probably evil people. Battleship sabotage. Worlds longest paper-airplane/help note.

Good score by Frank Skinner, whose work is mostly known these days as “stock music used in crappy B-movie”.

Sandwiched between Suspicions and Shadow of a Doubt and considered distinctly “middle of the pack” Hitch. Which, as I told the kids, is still pretty damn good. They actually not only liked it, they enjoyed it more than Vertigo, which we would see a few weeks later.

Subtle!
Literally EVERYONE knows he’s innocent, except the love interest, and the tiny person in the circus everyone calls The Fascist.

Past Life

Not long after seeing the underwhelming zoo-based Holocaust movie, The Boy and I trundled off to see this Israeli movie about a couple of sisters in the ’70s whose father’s backstory is squarely in the scarier parts of WWII.

And not bad looking, either, but suspicious.
They’re suspicious.

The younger sister is a musician of some prowess who visits Germany for a concert. The young composer’s mother spies her and asks her if she is the daughter of Baruch Milch. When she answers in the affirmative, the old lady curses and yells at her as “the daughter of a monster!” and we’re off to the races.

The RTs for Zookeeper were 61/80 whereas the RTs for this film stand at 81/72, and much like I think the former movie’s relatively low rating among critics has to do with its rather pedestrian handling of an interesting premise, I think this movie’s higher rating among critics has to do with its cliched story given an unusual handling.

Sephi (our heroine, played by Joy Reiger, not seen on the ‘strom since 2005’s Live and Become—when she was eleven!) returns to Israel with all sorts of questions about her bristly father, and What He Did In The War. Her older, married sister Nana (Nelly Tigar, who gave a tremendous performance in the little seen “Israeli M*A*S*H” Zero Motivation) who is estranged (or nearly so) from her father wants to dig in with the mystery with both fangs, when she’s not busy berating her husband and her nudie-mag employer (she writes left-wing radical articles for him), while simultaneously avoiding her encroaching physical problems.

They don't look even a little guilty.
Nothing to hide?

The two do dig in to things, and find their father not especially secretive, though he’s still got some issues over what went down (as one would). They learn about his first wife, and what happened there. But something doesn’t quite gel, and when a concert takes Sephi to Poland, she and her conductor pal end up in a thriller that pits the revelation of the truth against Nana’s impending doom.

The movie has a near melodramatic feel to it, which wouldn’t work except that a melodrama would’ve ended with one of the (by now heavily overused) stock, shock endings. The “shock” of this movie is its lack of shock. Things sucked, a lot of people still gots issues over it, but people who survived the bad times were not saints, and having survived them, did not become perfect or even especially enlightened.

There really isn’t an upside to the Holocaust, is what I’m getting at. And it’s kind of interesting to have a movie that respects that—even among the victims—there is a rainbow of humanity. Not every cranky dad was a murderer working for the Nazis and not every weepy mom has her story straight, and so on.

The last twenty or so minutes is an attempt to bridge the gap between people who came into conflict, with mixed results. As such, it lacks the zippiness of a “Hey, turns out dad was actually Adolph Eichmann!” This kind of subtlety makes it less of a crowd pleaser. There’s also an interesting personality change, brilliantly performed by Nelly Tigar, which again had the effect of upsetting common dramatic tropes.

The Boy and I were won over. We didn’t realize that the director, Avi Nesher, had done one of our favorite movies a few years back (The Matchmaker) or we might have gotten our hopes up too high to enjoy it. But on reflection, it’s a similar story in the sense that it tries to treat its characters as complex creatures worthy of respect, and not turn them into two dimensional stereotypes. It doesn’t quite gel like that film, but for us it worked better than Zookeeper.

Hitch would approve.
Choirs are under-utilized settings for suspense sequences.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Ben Mankiewicz claimed in the buildup to this that he preferred it to Star Wars which…well, I can relate, I guess. It’s not boring (like the early parts of Star Wars), the acting and dialogue is way better, and the action is passable. Also, Sally Field is cuter than Carrie Fisher.

OK, I can’t really back that last one up. But Sally Field is real cute in this, and it’s not a lie to say I remembered exactly one thing about this movie.

Years before this, actually.
“So, when did you first realize you were heterosexual?”

Yep. Sally Field’s butt. It’s the only thing I didn’t remember in the abstract. Like, I knew Burt Reynolds was in it, but could I have distinguished it from any of the innumerable follow-ups? I mean, Smokey and the Bandit II, Smokey and the Bandit 3, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run 2, Stroker Ace…oh, and Hooper! Hooper even had Sally Field in it, too. (And Jan-Michael Vincent, though that’s not really germane.)

So, I warned the kids, as I sometimes do, but 40 years later the movie holds up pretty well. It’s not great; it was never great. (Sorry, SatB lovers.) But it’s fun, and it’s an amazing time capsule.

The plot (which, honest, I’m having a hard time remembering now) is apparently that The Bandit (Reynolds, duh) gets an offer from Big Enos (Pat McCormack, character actor/TV gag writer) and Little Enos (Paul Williams! the songwriter!) to make a beer run. For $80,000, they’re going to run Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours. “They” being The Bandit and Cledus (played by Country/Western star Jerry Reed, who would win the coveted People’s Choice award for his performance).

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?
Back when you just had to dress people alike to make ’em look like kin.

Along the way, they pick up city girl Carrie (Sally Fields) who’s fleeing from a shotgun marriage (!) between herself and Junior (Mike Henry, famous handsome man who played “Tarzan” in the ’60s and “Hotlips” fiancee in “M*A*S*H”). But if Junior is heartbroken, his father Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason, stealing the show) is livid, and more than willing to chase The Bandit across several states, well out of his jurisdiction.

It’s all just a set up for driving, stunts, driving stunts, sight gags, jokes, some colorful language, and a palatable romance between soon-to-be-serious-real-life lovers Reynolds and Field. Fluff, all the way, except for one sort of fascinating bit about which not much is made.

At one point, when assessing their romantic prospects, The Bandit and Carrie each list various cultural shibboleths: “Chorus Line”, Richard Petty, Casey Tibbs, Elton John, Waylon Jennings, and so on, noting how they don’t have much in common. The Bandit says something about where you’re standing in the country having to do with how dumb you look. It’s not an original thought, of course, being as old as America (and older than the U.S.A.) but, man, does it resonate today.

Trick question: there isn't one.
Quick: Name a Burt Reynold’s caliber star of TODAY that embraces the country ethos?

Sort of the way the whole “Why the hell can’t you just buy Coors in Atlanta?” resonates. Although, for a different reason than you might suspect: Back in the day, Coors prided itself on making good beer and worried it wouldn’t stay fresh on the trip, so they just didn’t sell it. It was illegal only for tax reasons, I guess. Not exactly bootlegging in the ’20s. Coors actually made a conscious, corporate shift toward making bad beer, figuring they would be part of a 3-company monopoly.

But around this time, Carter deregulated the beer industry, and today there are hundreds of craft breweries countrywide giving them a run for their money, though obviously Coors Light is still a big player.

The kids enjoyed it. It’s a lot easier for me to enjoy today, I think, because the memories of the numerous awful spin-offs have faded.

I mean, literally, there was no one else in the movie. He played all the parts. For the lady parts he wore a wig.
I think SatB3 JUST had Gleason in it.

Stalker (1979)

And sometimes ya gotta see a three hour Soviet-era metaphysical Russian movie with lots of long, slow tracking shots, huge sequences without dialogue, and no clear explanation of what the hell’s going on.

I mean, ya gotta if you’re The Boy and I. Also, if you’re The Boy and I, you’re going to love it, and lament you can’t make the trip back downtown for the showing of Solaris, the director’s similarly paced, ambiguous space film, showing the next week.

Sometimes you can’t recommend a film to just about anyone, no matter how much you like it. This is one of those films. I should point out that this had been recommended to me by Sue (@Sky_Bluez), though, and I would have equally strongly recommend it to her, had I seen it first. But she’s about it.

I mean, honestly!
What the…?

The story is this: There is a place in the country called The Zone. It’s unclear what created this area, but it is full of existential peril. A small subset of people, known as Stalkers, are the only ones who can lead people in and out of The Zone safely. Why go in The Zone? Because deep in the heart of The Zone—and by “deep in the heart”, we surely mean metaphorically, since literal space is hard to track in this film—is a room that grants those who enter their heart’s desire.

People get this wrong and say “it grants a wish” but it doesn’t, and this is important, and very Russian, as we’ll see in a bit.

Anyway, our Stalker is leading two characters on a journey to The Room: A writer and a professor. Our Stalker is introduced in a scene where his wife/mother of his (crippled? mutant?) child begs him not to go back into The Zone, much in the way a woman might beg her man to stop drinking. But of course he goes (or we ain’t go no pickcha), apparently at the risk of being sent to jail for it.

Why? Who knows?
And then there’s this dog.

First, let’s look at the space issue. The beauty of this film is that it shows you as literally as possible the space that the action takes place in. The average shot length is around a minute, but there are many shots that are much longer, with slow pans across the “stage” that seem to loop around and reveal something about the space that you wouldn’t have thought possible. (Things like characters exiting stage right and re-emerging stage left. On an actual stage, this is no biggie, but when you’re tracking in a real world building, it’s both disorienting and oddly anchoring, because you end up with a very clear idea of the space but not how the characters can move in it the way they do.)

The space of The Zone is literally treacherous, however. The Stalker warns people that they can’t just cross from point A to point B. The one time a character tries that, he almost gets to point B before starting to believe The Stalker is right and retreating. (A voice calls out to him “Stop. Don’t move.” But whose voice?) There’s another point where a character The Stalker guarantees is a goner for having gone back (you can’t go back—only forward) is not only fine but has made his way easily to the point the Stalker and the other member of the party struggled to get through.

There are a lot of biblical references in this Soviet-era film. The filmmaker denied any religious interpretation (as he would, though he could’ve spoken out in the short time between his defection and death by lung cancer). It seemed to me, however, that The Stalker mapped pretty neatly as a kind of deconstructed (Orthodox Christian) cleric: He leads people to spiritual truth but cannot partake of it himself. He has a faith he desperately needs mixed with a deep cynicism, because the spiritual truth is not pretty.

Then again, maybe not, but maybe you'll wish it had!
And this tunnel…it may kill you.

This goes to the wish thing: The Room doesn’t grant your wish, it grants your deepest desire. Even if you go into it thinking “I’ll wish for world peace!”, you may wind up with hookers and blow. That’s one reason The Stalker never goes in The Room himself. The other reason is that, once you go in The Room, you can’t go back into The Zone. (I think that was the case, anyway. It was three hours long after all…) Yet another reason is that, of all the people he has led to the room, not one has found happiness. (Russian, eh?)

At the end, it’s not clear to me who goes into the room and who doesn’t. I think The Stalker himself might’ve gone in, and the movie teases us by making it look like his girl is walking at one point. But she isn’t, so did he go in and discover his wish wasn’t her health? Or did he not go in? Or…given the final scene where she can be seen with something like mutant superpowers, did he go in and unlock something else?

Maybe it’s just pretentious claptrap.

It was based off a sci-fi story but Tarkovsky radically reworked it into its metaphysical form, which makes some of the more traditional sci-fi tropes (nuclear weapons, mutations, etc.) stand out in an almost jarring fashion.

RUSSIAN!
Can’t even trust your own dreams.

There are trains in the movie that pass on four different occasions. On each occasion, at the height of the noise, music can be heard under the noise. “Ode to Joy” once. Ravel’s “Bolero” another time. Tarkovsky had a complex relationship with music in his movies. Well, maybe not that complex. He didn’t like it, thinking it distorted the emotions of the scene. (Which is of course the point, and one he must’ve realized since he didn’t move completely away from music till the very end of his career.)

 

There’s a Wizard of Oz quality: The movie starts in sepia and goes full color once they enter The Zone. Though there’s no literalization of it, the movie seems to have a happy ending. The final scenes are gently colored and lit and the sound is more soothing, and Mrs. Stalkera (“Stalker” declines to “Stalkera” in the Russian tradition) delivers a soliloquy to the audience about suffering being necessary to appreciate happiness. What it portends, I do not know.

Then there was the dog. I still don’t know what that was about.

It’s real Russian, as noted, though not real Soviet. (The government didn’t care for it, but 1979 wasn’t 1949.) To get into The Zone, you have to risk your life getting past soldiers set up at checkpoints to keep people out. (Much like getting out of a Communist country?) The Stalker explains that The Zone is dangerous, but it was the discovery of The Room, and its wish-granting power that caused the government to crack down against those who would venture into it.

It came off as pretty anti-government to me. Perhaps predictably, it came off as anti-materialistic as well. And, it doesn’t really have a lot of nice things to say about religion, except that in the context of the choices given (i.e., worship of government, worship of stuff, or worship of something higher), it’s possibly not just the best, but also the only choice.

Anyway, from all my rambling, you can see that we thought there was a lot here for us to like, and if you’re a patient movie viewer who enjoys doing a lot of the heavy lifting you might enjoy it, too. But otherwise you’ll want to steer clear.

Nobody listens.
Sometimes I feel like this guy.

Hair (1979)

This would be the sixth film in our five-film greatest-of-all-time series but I suppose I’ve spoiled it but pointing out that there were only five films in said series. Where Guys and Dolls had been a marvellous surprise and West Side Story about as good as it’s hyped to be, Hair was, by contrast, a crashing disappointment, and a new entry in my “Over-rated Boomer Artifacts” catalog, which previously consisted primarily of Forrest Gump. (It’s an okay movie, people. It’s just ain’t no ways Oscar-worthy and primarily owes its acclaim to pandering to a certain, tired worldview.)

But Hair is just miserable. To its credit, it’s not miserable in the most obvious of ways, which would be to elide the awfulness of the shiftless, amoral hippies who constitute its central characters. It seems to recognize the bankruptcy of their dissolution. The downside of this is that you’re watching a movie about awful people doing awful things.

There’s a reason I’ve avoided seeing it for all these years, but I sort of talked myself into it, with seeing Milos Forman (Ragtime, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) as the director. Even so, I can’t say I was surprised at how bad it was.

Except: The music is awful, too. But I’ve heard some of these songs before, and they’re better elsewhere. The sound in the film is muddy and overproduced, so that these already antiquated late ’60s novelty pieces are smothered by disco-era duvets-of-sound. So, the one thing that might be really good here ends up lost in the shuffle. The title song, “Age of Aquarius” (and how dopey is that?) and “Good Morning Starshine” are shockingly wan.

Though, honestly, who thinks a song of words describing sexual acts (“Sodomy”) to, I guess, an uptight society woman, is…well, anything other than degenerate? How is this clever?

Marxism FTW!
It’s funny because they’re rich, and therefore evil.

But if the music has fallen to pieces since Guys and Dolls and West Side Story, the dancing is just chaos. If West Side Story chose a more emotive approach over Guys and DollsHair just wallows in meaningless motion. Any particular part of it might be good, I suppose, and there’s no arguing that it fits the whole slovenly endeavour, but there’s no fraction of the mastery displayed in those earlier films. (Leading to the current situation, where our best musicals have to be animated because nobody has the necessary skill to do a live musical.)

That said, the music and dancing are the high points. The grotesque story has our heroes, a band of hippies, treating a young soldier (John Savage) on his way to Vietnam to a week of drugs, sleeping in the street, jail, and generally upsetting the squares. He falls in love with a girl (Beverly D’Angelo, looking lovely and very Faye Dunaway-esque) and the two of them—hell, I don’t even know.

Christie Brinkley maybe not looking so naughty?
Man, if Clark ever found out about this…

There’s a kind of happy ending, where the dumb hippie leader (Treat Williams) gets himself sent off to war and killed in the place of the actual soldier. And if the movie’s going to play with the conceit that nobody anywhere in an army’s unit would notice a guy being replaced by an untrained goofball, I’m going to enjoy the fact that he ends up dead. And pretend that he only got himself killed and not everyone else in his unit.

As a gag, we (The Flower and I) dressed up in “square” clothes (others were to have dressed up in tie-dye but few actually did), but in the end, I really didn’t find much admirable in the film. (It’s well enough shot, I suppose, when it’s not a dance number.) I am very sympathetic to not participating in The System, but almost invariably “protest” doesn’t just include some bad behavior, it exists solely as a cover for it.

Weirdly, this movie seems to acknowledge that, while offering no rationale for its existence.

The kids weren’t crazy about it either, but they didn’t dislike it as much as I did.

Can you tell I'm not fond?
The real travesty being he’s buried next to real heroes.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The problem, The Boy and I mused after seeing this tale of a Polish zookeeper during WWII, is that if you’re going to do a Holocaust story, you’ve really got to do it more than just “right”. It has to excel just to be less than forgettable. Because there are so many, many excellent movies on the topic.

Director Nik Caro (director of the excellent “Whale Rider”) and writer Angela Workman (adapting Diane Ackerman’s apparently none-too-great book, if you believe GoodReads) have delivered a largely competent yet strangely unmoving tale. One would have a hard time distinguishing it from a number of other films, except for the open slaughter of animals at two points in the film.

My mother asked if she could go see it, and I told her in no uncertain terms she should not. (Like many, she can tolerate human cruelty to humans, but not human cruelty to animals.)

INAPPROPRIATE DAY!
Hey…hey…you know what day it is?

But after the animals are slaughtered, you have a pretty standard “Good guy hides Jews from Nazis” story which lacks the mawkish effectiveness of, say, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas but also the subtle power of a Sarah’s Key. I don’t suspect Caro et al of simply trying to cadge historical horror to give their film some dramatic oomph, but it could come off that way given the almost rote feeling of the thing.

I don’t want to damn it with faint praise, though. It’s not bad. It’s even good. And the RT split (60/80) suggests that we might be suffering a bit from moviegoing excess vs. the general population. It also didn’t help, I’m sure, that this followed our 5-run-classic-streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls, Casablanca, West Side Story). That streak would actually curb our moviegoing for a while, because it was just too hard to follow up.

We’ve seen some great movies about the Holocaust in Poland, too, like Aftermath (Poklosie) and The Innocents.

But it's true!
Johann Heldenberg and his elephants can’t believe what I’m saying.

Quick capsule: A zookeeper (Flemish actor Johan Heldenberg) and his wife (Jessica Chastain), who despite the title is as much a zookeeper as her husband (from the looks of things) find themselves occupied by those Nasty Nazis, who wreck up their zoo. They save as many of their animals as they can, and then keep things running with the help of an old, now Nazi, friend (Daniel Bruhl, a Spanish actor who’s always on hand to play The Hun, as in Inglorius Basterds or Joyeux Noel) who, of course, at no time would ever use his power to make it with Jessica Chastain.

He can’t keep his fellow krauts from ultimately wiping the zoo out, but in an act of defiance, the zoo-peeps figure out they can turn their zoo into a pig farm for the Germans, while smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Sure, you’ve seen it before: Sneaking out people from under the Nazi’s noses, the assertion of authority, the living underground in darkness, the close brushes with death. But have you seen it in Poland? This year? In a zoo?

Ha, bet you’ve never seen it in a zoo. (Unless…no, my memory of The Zookeeper is blissfully blurry but I don’t believe there were any Nazis involved).

Not as much of a stretch as you might think.
Unless we stretch the definition of “nazi” to include Adam Sandler.

I usually go into Chastain movies thinking she’s over-hyped, until she wins me over somehow (like Marion Cotillard), but this time, I wasn’t super impressed. It’s not that she’s not good; it’s that she’s sort of Streep-ian. You can see her acting. Given her success in winning me over previously, I’m sort of inclined to think this is a matter of the director, the story and perhaps the editing. There’s more of a kind of polite respect here than empathy.

There’s a weird conflict between the married zookeepers, where He’s jealous of Her because of the Nazi, and that felt genuinely false to me. I mean, maybe that sort of melodrama occurred, but I can’t help but feel that if you were risking your life, moment-to-moment, to saves the lives of dozens of others against a recognized evil, you would be especially understanding of each others’ feelings.

I see that my concerns are shared with others who disliked the film—which, I hasten to point out, I didn’t, actually—so I suspect (as usual) it comes down to what you, personally, bring to the film. It’s kind of weird to say “lower your expectations” on this kind of film but, well, it can’t hurt.

Why muddy things up?
Not mentioned at any point is that the zookeepers are Christian, of course.

Robocop (1987)

As I’ve noted previously, I often have mixed feelings about the movies of my youth. One of the great surprises of the past year-and-a-half has been revisiting films like The Jerk (1979) and Young Frankenstein (1974) and finding that I enjoyed them more now. So far, there haven’t been any real disappointments, but I have steered clear of John Hughes entire oeuvre. Well, except Animal House (1978), which I felt was somewhat overrated back then, and, frankly, still think so.

Robocop is a movie that I was cool enough on that I think I swayed The Flower away from seeing it. It is a classic ’80s film for both good and bad sense of the word “classic”, and I wasn’t sure that revisiting it might not highlight the worst aspects of the era. The thing about ’80s action films is that they borrowed from old-style Westerns like Shane rather than moody ’70s-style cop dramas like Serpico or The French Connection. They did that because people like old-style shoot-em-ups a lot more than morally ambiguous stuff.

(Wait for it...)
As in: GOOD…

This didn’t kill the “morally ambiguous action” genre, but it did bury it under mounds of box office from people who—get this—go to the movies to be entertained, not lectured to. Which, as it turns out, is most of them.

Critics still blame Lucas and Spielberg for this, though Roger Corman is at least as much to blame as anyone.

Which brings us to Robocop and director Paul Verhoeven. If there was ever a man who would land on the “morally ambiguous” side of—of, well, anything! it’d be Verhoeven. I mean, fercryinoutloud, ElleBlack Book? It was probably bad for him in the long run that he directed this movie, because it would take him down the path that would ultimately lead to Showgirls and Starship Troopers. And back to Holland, probably.

Ronny Cox...so evil.
…vs EVIL.

The premise of Robocop is simple and, today, would’ve been taken from a previously written comic book: Peter Weller plays Officer Murphy, a man brutally murdered when he and his partner (Nancy Allen) are ambushed by a street gang they’re hunting. This street gang working for Ronny Cox, second-in-command at the giant corporation OCP, which is privatizing the police force (and possibly every other public service) and blurring the line between domestic police force and military with the classic ED-209 “civil deterrent”. (I don’t think they call it that, but they might as well have. Complete with scare quotes.) The ED-209 doesn’t quite work out (kaff!) and one of Cox’s ambitious cocaine-sniffing, two-whores-at-a-time competitors (the late Miguel Ferrer) comes up with the more successful cyborg cop idea.

In case you were wondering, yes, this is a movie directly inspired by Blade Runner.

Also, obligatory: ’80s, amirite?

The cyborg cop (or robocop) in question is Murphy’s reanimated corpse (or perhaps he was only mostly dead?) and he sets to work cleaning up the streets. This is a bit of a problem because the biggest, most troublesome gang in Detroit is six semi-punk middle-aged men—four white, one black, one Asian (which was the ’80s concept of diversity). Seriously, though, this street gang is old. Kurtwood Smith was the leader of the pack at 44, and the movie’s a little vague as to whether this is a street gang a la West Side Story or The Godfather. I guess the idea is that, since they’re soldiers in the OCP army, that’s adequate threat enough. But I think just about any city in the country would be better off if these six guys were the worst they had to deal with.

But I digress. We’re not here for the cohesive and well-thought-out social structure, any more than we were while watching Blade Runner. (Though, since it’s a Verhoeven film, we expect—and receive!—a coed locker scene.)

You wanted a co-ed shower pic, I suppose.
Detroit gang, or the PTA on Halloween?

So, for me, this works as Verhoeven’s best film because it has a genuine hero. Murphy is a good guy, a genuine good guy, as is Lewis (Allen). The appeal and “message” of the ’80s action film is that good guys can win. A single good guy, even, if he’s strong enough and tough enough and on and on. Maybe it’s a dumb message, but it’s one we like to hear.

This makes up for the rest of the film’s context, which is essentially a slap in America’s face. America is presumed to be stupid and greedy, as seen in the hit TV show with its stupid catchphrase, and its susceptibility to dumb advertising. (The commercials, per the credits, were directed by The Chiodo Brothers, who may have also animated the ED209, and who went on to direct the house-favorite Killer Klowns From Outer Space.) The escalation of violence feels both like exploitation and disapproval, though in fairness to Verhoeven that may be less him trying to insult the audience (or enlist them in an “in-joke”) and more to his own conflicted psyche.

You can’t talk about this movie without talking about Peter Weller, at the height of his career, who is nothing less than amazing. It’s exciting to watch him—I believe he took mime classes or something to get that “robotic” look. It’s so immersive that in one scene at the end of the movie, where he’s physically unable (by the constraints of the setting) to make his moves robotic, it’s utterly unsettling. I don’t know how a guy pulls that off when he can only act from the mouth down, but it’s a thing of beauty.

Nancy Allen was in attendance, and it’s as odd to me now as it was then that she was cast in this role, and yet she’s perfect for it. Despite a career, practically, of being a “woman in peril”, she’s somehow plausible as a tough police officer here. I mean, that’s sort of selling her other performances short, since they were tough characters, too, but they weren’t butch. She’s kind of butch here, but in that era’s way (cf. Margo Kidder in Superman) which still allowed for a woman to be feminine and “have it all”, if you will. (Allen frequently reiterated that “we shot the script,” which is a nice nod to the screenwriters, and also a probably explanation for why it isn’t completely muddled with moral ambiguity, as Troopers would be.)

It's pretty tender!
The tender “sighting the gun” scene.

Allen radiates charm and beauty in person, by the way. I’m always on the fence about the celebrity Q&As but she not only handled questions gracefully and graciously, she sparkled while doing it. I told her she should come back to talk about Blade Runner, since the theater didn’t have anyone from that film scheduled. Sometimes you can really see why people get to be “stars”.

The upshot of all this, anyway, is that Robocop is still a really, really good movie. It has a lot of iconic moments. It doesn’t waste a scene. The performers don’t waste a moment of screen time. Basil Poledorus (Conan The Barbarian) doesn’t waste a note of his musical score. The scene transitions are punctuated with the Chiodo Brothers wry commercials and stupid sitcoms. It’s a time capsule, but an effective one.

The Boy and His Girl liked it. The Flower ended up with regrets.

It looks...intimate.
The tender “strangling the baddie” scene.

West Side Story (1961)

When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, to your last dying day. Which, y’know, given what early smokin’ will do to a guy, may not be that far apart.

So, even-steven.
OTOH, all that dancincg is goof for the respiratory system.

This was the fifth, and last, movie in our “All The Greats” streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls and Casablanca being the first four). And of the five, it’s the least accessible of the films. The staginess of Guys and Dolls gets a little bit harder to swallow in this famous rehash of Romeo and Juliet. At least, I think, for modern audiences. There was a distinct difference between Michael Kidd’s charmingly narrative dance bits and Jerome Robbins’ highly abstract, emotive dancing and while Robbins’ is inspired here, this style would lead inexorably to the awful randomity of movement of Hair (which would end our streak).

The Boy liked it, but not as much as Guys, and I think that’s part of the reason why. The Flower loved it, naturally. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it—it is often truly abstract in its form. It’s inspiration may well have been the Shakespeare play but it plays out as more the essence of that story. It sort of gives you the big picture, knowing you’ll fill in the details, sort of like an old cowboy picture. As such, to me it felt about as derivative of R&J as R&J was of Pyramus and Thisbe—not very.

Apart from the superficial, not much resemblance.
That balcony scene, tho’.

A few things struck me about this: A whole lot changed between 1955, where gangsters are basically lovable doofs, and 1960 where juvenile delinquency takes center stage. And society’s handling is—already!—by this point considered a cynical flop, as the marvelous song “Gee, Officer Krupke” has the JDs (as they call themselves) illustrates in cutting detail. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, disillusioned even back then, perhaps?) The song sends the whole establishment up as an employment program for barely-well-meaning do-nothings.

And this is before The Great Society.

Sure, there were plenty of potboilers prior to West Side Story featuring JD. It was a staple of the ’50s and even the ’40s, with the 1944 “classic” I Accuse My Parents, but those tended to be about how a “wild” kid would end up under the spell of the wrong element—typically gangsters of some sort. Here, the JDs are the wrong element—and they’re not so bad. It’s an interesting inversion from the earlier tropes, because you root for the gang members more than anyone putatively trying to help them.

And who cares about them?
Nobody’s gettin’ fooled by nobody, apparently, except the taxpayers.

Of course, another shining moment the Flower especially loved is the great mixed bag that is “America”. One could, at this late date, grow weary of this notion of immigrants coming to America and talking about how bad it is, but this song (again, Sondheim) does such an excellent job at depicting its words as points of view which are well earned (or at least understandable) by its singers.

I believe Michael Feinstein related that Leonard Bernstein was disappointed that he was remembered for this music. And part of me wonders if the movie might be more accessible had they used, say, Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls) for it. On the other hand, it’s such an iconic score, it’s hard to imagine “America” or “Maria” being any better, even if they’d been made more, I don’t know, hum-able.

Another random observation: There is only one Puerto Rican in the cast that I know of (the incomparable Rita Moreno). Try that today.

George Chakiris was with us that evening, looking great, and not at all 83. The only way I could tell he was old (and I think 83 is safe to call “old”) is that he had to have questions repeated to him by the hostess, and I’m pretty sure that’s because he was reading her lips. But I hope to be doing that well when (if) I get there. The funny thing about Chakiris here, is that he plays Bernardo, head of the PR gang in the movie—but in the play, he was Riff, head of the white gang. (Tell me we’re better off with racial bean counting than with the guy who’s best for the part getting the job.)

Dancers, man.
Yep, he still looks just like this.

Casa ‘strom favorite Gus Trikonis and his sister Gina have small roles in this film. Gus would go on to direct the MST3K fodder film Sidehackers (a.k.a “Five the Hard Way”) as well as a personal favorite, The Evil, and the semi-iconic Take This Job And Shove It, before settling down to a respectable TV directing career. (Trikonis was also Goldie Hawn’s first husband, prior to Bill Hudson, and perennial roommate Kurt Russell.)

What struck me most of all about this film was its sheer talent oozing from every scene, and its precision. Producer/director Robert Wise wisely (heh) let Robbins do what he needed to do (up to the point where Walter Mirisch, the money guy, fired him for excessive reshooting) and Chakiris alleged that they both worked cleanly in their different spheres without stepping on each others’ toes. They would win an Oscar for direction here, the only film Robbins would ever direct. Wise, who had directed The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Magnificent Ambersons, would go on to win Best Picture and Best Director for The Sound of Music.

If nothing else, Hair would be a reminder of how far the industry would fall over the next two decades.

Spray tan?
Now, you can go read about how horribly this was miscast, or just look at this sweet picture of Natalie Wood.

Casablanca (1942)

This was our fourth film in the series that would come to be known as the “we’ve seen all the good movies” streak and it’s hard to argue with this one. The Flower hadn’t seen it; The Boy and I had watched it on TV back in 2015, before we found all the in-theater revivals. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. Even so, it’s easy to forget how great it is.

Wilson was a drummer!
Like Dooley Wilson’s terrific fake piano playing.

The Flower made this observation afterwards (being unsure, she said, if she was going to like it, up front), that there were so many quotable lines. And it’s true: It’s basically wall-to-wall quotable goodness.

The cast is iconic, of course. Norma Varden, murdered in our #2 film, Witness for the Prosecution, is the wife of the poor dumb tourist who is pickpocketed by Curt Bois (who would go back to Germany in the ’60s and close his career out with a role in Wings of Desire). And who could forget the great French actor Marcel Dalio as Emile the croupier, and his wife Madeline LeBeau as Yvonne? Or the ever-present Herbert Evans and his dubious look when the roulette suspiciously picks out the same number twice?

I’m kidding, but not all that much. The cast is a who’s-who-wait-who? of character actors sometimes uttering iconic lines, and the IMDB listing shows almost a hundred uncredited “credits” because as much as nobody wanted to make the film at the time (except perhaps director Michael Curtiz and the brothers Warner), success has a bazillion hangers on. (Herbert Evans, intriguingly, has over 200 IMDB credits, the vast majority of which are listed as “uncredited”).

Actually victim of Nazi terror.
Emile!

A lot of this is probably due to the write-it-as-you-go script (based on a play but altered heavily from same, obviously) and Curtiz’ ambition to create a sense of a living community in every shot. It actually reminds me of the numerous extras in Guys and Dolls, minus the dancing of course, but with the same sense of there being a million stories in the city. (And that’s a lot of stories when you consider Casablanca in 1942 had a population of around 10,000.) But everyone has their own little drama to play out, and every moment on screen, no matter how trivial, supports that idea.

Brilliant, really. A reluctant Ingrid Bergman (pining to do For Whom The Bell Tolls) cries in that beautiful Hollywood way, while Bogart (who I’d heard felt this was a step down from High Sierra), but I can’t back that up) glowers with the sort of anger that only a suspicious wife can provide when hubby is smooching the Swedish blonde all day. (I can only imagine what Mrs. Bogart was like on the set of To Have and Have Not). Paul Heinreid, fresh from not getting the girl in Now, Voyager wasn’t keen on being second fiddle here, too, while Claude Rains (also fresh from Now, Voyager)—well, I don’t know if he wanted the role or not. But he wasn’t French! (That was an issue.)

Conrad Veidt, as well as a lot of the cast, really, really hated the Nazis. The aforementioned Dalio and LeBeau fled Europe because LeBeau was Jewish, and by this time in Hollywood history, the dangers of the Nazi party were understood by many. (Though not everyone, as Chuck Jones noted when relating how Fred Quimby wanted Tex Avery to tone down the anti-Nazi rhetoric in his cartoons.)

Well, what can you say? It’s fallen out of a favor as The Greatest Film Of All Time, ranking only #36 on the IMDB top 250, but this is probably because people are awful and have awful taste. The Flower saw that it was coming up again and November and wants to see it again, because she is not awful and has good taste. The Boy and His Girl were also enthusiastic.

Oh, Ilsa! Er, Ingrid!
(No caption needed.)

Ghostbusters (Extended Cut, 2016)

I’m making an exception for this movie: I did not go see it in the theater (like everyone else) and I had a strongly negative inclination to see it ever under any circumstances, in part because it seemed to me like an artistic failure turned cynical gambit to manipulate the sort of marginally sane women who feel like an all-female version of a juvenile ’80s SFX comedy somehow represents a blow for justice. And that’s crass even for Hollywood. (Actually, it’s exactly as crass as Hollywood.)

Primarily, however, it seemed unfunny. (In fairness, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Ghostbusters 3, even if they had brought Harold Ramis back from the dead to write it, because there’s usually something sad about seeing old people try to do the same schtick they did when they were younger. George M. Cohan and George Carlin excepted.)

No joke.
Nothing about this looks funny. Any resemblance to funny comes from association with past works.

However, it was The Barbarienne’s birthday, and on her birthday, she calls the shots and when she has power, she prefers to use it for revenge. (Revenge for what is never exactly clear, but it has something to do with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.) And, in this case, the form of the destructor was the 2016 reblaunch (reboot + launch, get it?) of Ghostbusters—the extended cut.

Because a practice today is to take subpar movies that perform poorly at the box office (relative to expectations) and stuff them full of the crap that wasn’t even good enough to make it into the subpar movie to begin with—like an extra half-hour into the Batman vs. Superman fiasco, or the 18 minutes added here.

For what it’s worth the mediocrity of those extra minutes blend seamlessly in with the mediocrity of the rest of the film. At least I can’t tell which ones were added in, given the forgettable mash of stuff-that-happens.

We may never care.
Was this CGI slopfest in the original? Or was it carefully inserted into the Director’s Cut?

I like the original, though not as much as everyone else. As when I saw Spy (interesting connection), I had the sense watching the original that, even when it made me laugh, it was less something clever and more shock value. Oh, not a lot, unlike the aforementioned Spy, but Murray traded a whole lot on being insufferable in a world full of straight men, and he hadn’t hit peak boredom yet but he wasn’t far off. (He agreed to do the original, I believe, so that he could star in The Razor’s Edge, quite disastrously.)

But even talking about the flaws of the original is better than talking about this film. There is a kind of cultural vandalism going on here, and I honestly don’t quite understand it. I have a hard time believing Paul Feig set out to make a bad movie. Or any of the ladies. I like Wiig and McCarthy. I don’t know Kate McKinnon or Leslie Jones, but I imagine they’re talented. I mean, they’re not awful here. Overly broad (ha!) by contrast to the original, in which everyone played a straight man to Murray.

But completely unmemorable. I mean, I remember the stars were in this. But I can’t remember now which characters they were doing. Like, I think Wiig was doing her more victim-y basket case than twitchy sociopath. The latter might have mapped more closely to Aykroyd’s borderline autistic scientist. Or Ramis’ for that matter. But I can’t remember if McCarthy was doing her sweet flower bit or her vulgar fat-girl schtick. Leslie Jones is a way broader black caricature than Ernie Hudson was in the original. (In fact, in the original Hudson was sort of the audience voice. Somewhat reticent but along for the ride.) I remember someone saying that McKinnon was doing a lesbian thing. I couldn’t tell if that was exactly true or she was just being creepy, as she sort of fills in for both Aykroyd and Ramis.

There are at least some laughs in the Scooby sequel.
Ghostbusters 2016 or Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed?

The Wiig-McKinnon dynamic is the sort of thing that, if you were parodying female versions of films, you would do. They were friends in high school, but not with the cool girls, and…I swear, I can’t remember, but I think their eventual estrangement (which occurs before the film starts) becomes more than just a weepy, emotional plot point. Maybe not. Contrast with the original Ray, Egon and Venkman: The sum total of their history we know of is that they’re scamming a university. And Ray worked in the private sector once. And Venkman is the only real scammer but Ray and Egon need him because he’s as close as they’re going to come to having a “people person” on their team.

Ramis and Aykroyd embodied the nerdy engineer/scientist persona in a way that these women do not. Again, sort of funny, because they’re all capable of it, I think. Wiig easily could (and has, if only in voice form in Despicable Me 2) and I feel like it’s not a huge reach for the others (who may also have done it at some point).

None of it works. It’s fascinating to consider why, because even a bunch of random jokes thrown at the screen (which this very nearly is) would have a better hit rate than this does. I chuckled once. The Barbarienne proclaimed that she liked it, but I only heard her laugh twice, toward the end. (As I’ve commented before, she’s never seen a movie she didn’t love, or at least like very strongly, and I’m going to enjoy that, even when I don’t enjoy whatever it is she’s enjoying.)

But it really comes off like a bunch of girls playing dress up. I mean, it comes off bad. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s not as if Ramis (were he alive), Aykroyd and Murray could’ve come up with a phenom like the original. (They tried, and failed, with Ghostbusters 2, which I liked but which was in no way comparable to the original, culturally.) But it came off worse than it should have.

And I think the feminism angle (while it may have been part of the plan from the get-go) was only worked hard when they realized what a disaster they had on their hands. This is, essentially, exploiting the neuroses of troubled people. Which is sad.

Meh.
We have chosen the form of The Destructor and it is Grrl Power!

Get Out

It took a lot of effort—a lot—to get The Boy to this critically acclaimed horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele (of the very funny “Key and Peele” TV series) because it triggered so many of his alarm bells. There were constant warning signs like “it really makes you think” and somewhat dubious assertions that “it wasn’t racial” (or words to that effect), and to top it off there’s a scene in the trailer (actually not in the film itself, explaining the puzzled looks The Boy got when asking people who had seen it) with a guy in a crusader’s helmet.

Just a lot of red flags.

It's not really explained.
This is almost all the play the helmet gets, though.

The critical acclaim was alarming, in particular. At one point, I think Peele took to task the single reviewer who gave him a negative review. Now there are two. By comparison, Psycho has three negative reviews, and a 96%/94% to this film’s 99%/88%. When the critics are the throaty fan-girls to the relatively measured masses—well, ya gotta wonder.

So how is it?

Well, overall, it’s a shockingly hoary thriller that trips over its own logic, but it’s well-crafted enough that you might not notice. It tries so very hard to get you thinking one way that the Big Reveal may surprise you, sure, but you can’t reflect for even a moment on “How does any of this make sense?” I don’t mean this in a rational-look-at-horror way but as a trying-to-form-a-cohesive-picture-of-the-narrative way. See, the big thing is that it wants you to think that the story is racial so much that when it does its big double-reverse-bluffo (as we call overwrought twists around here) that you’re left with all these questions about the earlier scenes which no longer make sense because, surprise, it’s not really racial at all.

And I don’t consider that to be a spoiler but I am going to spoil in a bit here, so the capsule summary is: Well enough made, reasonably fun, ultra-cheesy horror flick that’s gotten blown way out of proportion by exploiting critics’ (and to a lesser extent audiences’) sensitivity to racial issues.

The man was a menace.
Hey, Obama was a disappointment to a lot of us, big guy.

SETUP BEFORE THE SPOILERS

So, the premise of this film is that a rich white girl (Allison Williams, “Girls”, apparently) from Connecticut (or wherever) is taking her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya, the upcoming Black Panther movie, Sicario) up to her parents place. He’s really nervous because, but she’s encouraging, leading us to believe that perhaps she’s naive, or maybe sticking it to her parents, or something like that. She’s way more aggressive and sensitive to perceived racial slights to him than he is, and one gets the distinct idea that she is trying to Prove A Point.

GETTING SPOILERY HERE

When they arrive at the family house a number of things turn up: Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Stephen Root) are incredibly, awkwardly supportive of the situation, and the negro plight generally. Despite this, a couple of old black servants act strangely, robotically, almost as if their behaviors were constrained in some fashion.

The movie runs so hard in this direction, with black people not quite acting right, and white people acting really, really strange with our hero dismisses this as White People Acting Weird, that we’re inclined to believe that this is some kind of Stepford Wives situation, especially when it seems like “genuinely black” personalities break through to try to warn of The Danger.

This part was shockingly close to reality.
The In-Laws are Good-Hearted Liberals(TM).

So let me emphasize this again, before going full-on spoiler: The hero is so racist that he writes off the very suspicious white people behavior as Whitey Being White. And we don’t need to belabor the point that were the situation reversed—a white person getting himself into trouble because his personal racism allowed him to dismiss an entire group of people as Not Quite Right—there’s just no way we’d be permitted to see him as a hero, no matter what happened to him. (White Privilege strikes again!)

AND NOW, THE SPOILERS!

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Even Stephen Root (once again playing a blind man) wouldn’t have sympathy for you if you read past this point and spoiler yourself.

So, as it turns out, this isn’t The Stepford Wives so much as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or The Atomic Brain or any of those other ’50s/’60s films involving implanting someone’s brain into someone else’s body. It’s not a full brain transplant, but some part of the white person’s brain goes into the black person’s brain and the white person then has control. Mostly. I don’t want to harp on the stupidity of this as a process because it’s a horror film and horror films are almost necessarily stupid (and I say that as a fan of the genre), and if you get to the point where you discover The Truth and Your Mind Is Blown then, very well, the movie is a success.

And this one most certainly is. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that that is, at least in part, due to the stupidity of our culture about race. Because as it turns out, there’s nothing racial here at all, the writer/director tells us. Blacks have been targeted much like one would buy pre-distressed jeans or an Apple Smart Watch. Our weird rich white people—who, in retrospect were not acting weird at all given their interest in the Hero—are using black bodies ’cause it’s kinda/sorta neat.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation to pick a body, by the way, at least in any every day context where one is picking out bodies.

Oh Heavenly Dog! Underrated!
For example, Chevy Chase picked out this dog.

But in this context, it’s so unbelievably stupid that one has to wonder whether some of the praise of this movie is disingenuous. Here we have a rich, white Northeastern family whose patriarchs have decided, for giggles, to be black. Which is no problem at all, except they have to pose like the help whenever anyone comes around. (And they’re crappy at it.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, this really, really white group is having really, really black members in a way that would seem to create legal issues as well. I mean, if you’re a member of a rich family and you want a piece of the action, you’re going to be able to wrest it away pretty easily from the help.

Basically, the whole aren’t-you-really-the-racist? angle is so belabored that it makes an otherwise well done film an eye-roller, at least for me and The Boy. I mean, people criticize Shyamalan, but this twist is the very definition of forced.

Also, some undetermined fraction of the new-body-owners’ behavior comes from the apparently incomplete control it gives them over the bodies. I mean, the original owners’ personality emerges at some awkward times. I guess this can be written off as “better than dying” but it seems like a pretty dubious value proposition to be trapped in a body with someone who hates you and can suddenly take over the body at any time. But I guess I can write that off as typical horror movie dumbness.

I did like the movie okay—unlike The Boy, who may have found it somewhat offensive even—and I think Peele’s got a lot of promise but I’d say this one is seriously over-hyped. I mean, for a mash-up of two crusty horror tropes it’s probably the best in its genre, but that’s a pretty low bar.

But I probably have this all wrong.
On some level, you gotta wonder if he relates.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Guys and dolls! They’re just a bunch of screwy guys and dolls!

Crap, this is some kind of gender hate crime, isn't it.
Pictured: Guy, doll, guy, doll.

The Flower was surprised to discover that that song (sung to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood”) wasn’t actually in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1955 classic musical, but actually from a Mark Hamill guested episode of “The Simpsons”, which also gave us “Luke, Be A Jedi Tonight” (covered an almost shocking number of times on YouTube).

Multiple asterisks must be placed after calling this film Mankiewicz’s. The All About Eve director wrote it for the screen based on Swerling and Burrows’ stage musical (in turn based on a story by Damon Runyon), and a good portion of the movie is Michael Kidd’s choreography, to say nothing of how much the film owes to its set design, costumes, and so on. But the smart directors are the ones who know how and when to step back and let everyone else shine, and we were all pretty impressed by how great this movie was, how terrific the music was, and how entertaining the dancing was, to say nothing of the whole silly story.

It's like milk! We should give these to schoolkids!
Reminder: Cuba before Castro was full of coconut novelty drinks.

Marlon Brando, who could not sing or dance—and it doesn’t matter, opined The Flower, and she’s right—plays Sky, a savvy gambler whose over-confidence trips him into a bet/trap laid by Nathan (Frank Sinatra), whereby he must take a certain doll to dinner the next evening. In Havana. (Remember, Cuba used to be a hot spot before Castro wrecked it.) This doll turns out to be a Salvation Army (not exactly, but you know that’s what they were aiming at) do-gooder by the name of Sarah Brown (the impeccable Jean Simmons, who worked into the new millennium and voiced Grandma Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle) whose sole interest is souls. As in, she’s not saving any, and it’s quite distressing.

The music is terrific, even if you only know one song from the show: Luck Be A Lady Tonight. In one of the movie’s many amusing ironies, Frank and Marlon didn’t get along, and this is Marlon’s song (which he barely sings because, as noted, he can’t sing and he knew he couldn’t sing). Of course it became one of Frank’s signatures later. The music is really good in spite/because of its dedication to the movie itself. This means, also, that it’s not stuff that you hear much. There just aren’t many appropriate openings for singing “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” for example. There are the delightful “I’ll Know”and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”, though the former is pretty tied into Sarah’s character and the latter is tied into Nathan’s, even if ironically.

This two-and-a-half hour movie (musicals are always longer) is hugely stylized but it all works. (The Boy had some reservations of the final craps game, because they didn’t use dice, but not much. It’s a terrific scene.) And it flies by. Little characters from the big dance numbers recur, and they all have their own mini-story-arcs which never enter into the text of the play, but you never have a chance to be bored. (20-year-old Jerry Orbach has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the opening number, by the way.)

The Flower adored it, and pronounced us “on a streak”, following as it did 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. It, in turn, would be followed by Casablanca and West Side Story.

Probably after this movie, given all the cheesecake Brando made him eat.
Geez, Sinatra’s 40 here and he’s still a geeky beanpole. When’s that guy gonna fill out?

Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Billy Wilder is one of those directors who have largely escaped my attention, perhaps because his last movie—the one release of his I saw in the theater growing up—was the not-very-good-at-all Lemmon/Matthau pairing Buddy, Buddy. On the other hand Stalag 17 was sort of a “family classic” and I adore Ninotchka, though I had never really associated either with Wilder. As such, Witness for the Prosecution, the second film on our “legal” double-feature (along with 12 Angry Men) was a wonderful surprise.

Or any ignorance. He was quite literate.
Charles Laughton disapproves of cinematic ignorance.

Based on a smash hit play by Agatha Christie, Witness is about Leonard, a naive American (Tyrone Power) who finds himself seriously implicated in the death of a rich, elderly widow (character actress Norma Varden, who has a small role in Casablanca as the wife of the poor sap who gets pick-pocketed). His troubles lead him to the convalescing curmudgeonly barrister, Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton, who would lose the Oscar to Alec Guiness, Bridge on the River Kwai). Wilfrid is being henpecked by his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, who would lose her Oscar to Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara) but cannot resist the urge to take this seemingly unwinnable case.

Obfuscating matters is Leonard’s utter dependence on his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich, who would not even get a nom for her tremendous performance) who simultaneously assures the barrister that she will testify on his behalf while implying very strongly that she’s making the alibi up, and outright demonstrating her contempt for her poor sap of a husband.

Complications ensue.

"And we're at WAR with them?"
“My wife is GERMAN?”

Coming as it did after 12 Angry Men, this movie seemed positively lax in its shots and blocking, as virtually any movie would have to. It’s not a fair comparison to make, obviously, and WftP has some tremendous shots, the sort of classic noir composition Wilder showcased in Double Indemnity. The acting is amazing. The score is good, too, which is interesting because the composer was Matty Malneck, whose only other similar credit was the Red Skelton comedy “Public Pigeon No. 1” from the same year.  Malneck was a ’30s bandleader who got his start with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra and who was best known for penning popular songs “I’m Through With Love” and “Some Like It Hot”—and who would oversee the music in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (the next film of Wilder’s we would see, coincidentally).

Agatha Christie named this the only film adaptation of her work that she actually liked, until 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express—directed by 12 Angry Men‘s Sidney Lumet. So you can kind of see why The Flower was buzzed on classic films after this. We would follow up this with Guys and DollsCasablanca and West Side Story, leading her to pronounce that we had seen all the good movies (which opinion she wouldn’t fully retract for a month, when would see Rocky).

Listed at #68 on the (ever dubious) IMDB Top 250, this is the sort of gem that gets overlooked, though it is ranked higher on the same list than Bridge on the River Kwai (#138), as well as Sayonara, Peyton Place and The Three Faces of Eve (unranked), which would all win Oscars that year. It lost all six Oscars it was nominated for, just as 12 Angry Men lost the three it was nominated for. Only Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (nominated for zero Oscars) is ranked higher.

And they're not "It's an honor just to be nominated."
Laughton has a few choice words for the Academy.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Try this on for size: While 12 Angry Men is one of the greatest films ever made, if you think it’s socially important, you should feel exactly the same way if, in the end, the freed defendant goes and kills everyone who testified against him at the trial.

BUT HE'S ONE OF THEM!
You know Lumet picked this guy ’cause he looks harmless.

Greg Gutfeld thinks this movie was significant in turning the opinions of Americans leftward, against each other. A mostly diffident group of men—they don’t start out angry, except maybe for Lee J. Cobb—are about to put away a poor, unfortunate urban youth whose unfortunateness unfortunately extends to an unfortunate amount of circumstantial evidence which, unfortunately, is against him.

All around American good guy, Henry Ford, plays Juror #8, the lone holdout in sending our defendant to the chair. Over 90 or so minutes, Fonda grinds them down with “just asking questions” and taking apart the prosecuting case while not so subtly making the point that not everyone gets a fair shake in our legal system. But, like I said, if you believe that, the defendant going on a killing spree after being freed should not change your opinion.

Our system is not just about presumed innocence, but about holding back the awesome power of the state when it comes to locking people up.

Even when it’s THOSE people. And “you know what THOSE PEOPLE are like”, as Ed Begley intones at one point, speaking perhaps of, I don’t know, Italians? The Flower noted this at a later point, that no specific race or identifying slur was mentioned—she figures he meant Catholics. I pointed out that that was most certainly deliberate and completely unrealistic. (What racist doesn’t enjoy a good slur?)

Father to the green guy!
He makes a good point. I mean, after all Jack Klugman is One Of Them.

But politics and social commentary aside, this is a great movie, deservedly listed as one of the best of all time (#5 on the ever dubious IMDB top-250). Sidney Lumet’s first film, which might’ve been shot in one take like the stage play it feels like, but instead used hundreds of takes, masterful blocking, and a bunch of American greats doing their greatest. I think I can name them in order, one through twelve, just from memory: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley Sr., George Voscovec, Robert Webber.

OK, I had to cheat for Edward Binns and George Voscovec, but I remember the characters they played very well—front-line salesman (versus Webber’s Ad Man) and noble immigrant—which is more important. All of them classic character actors who worked to the end of their days, if I’m not mistaken. And of course Fonda.

Shot on a modest budget—The Wayward Bus was shot in the same year on a $1.5M budget versus this film’s $350K—and ultimately disappointing at the box office, perhaps due to its “small screen” feel, being in black-and-white and taking place in a tiny room, it really pays to see this on the big screen. This is high drama, melodrama none would dare call it (except me), and its overwrought nature is testament to its greatness.

#1 and #3 are missing.
Twelve ang—no, wait, ten! Ten angry men!

I mean, seriously: Nobody’s really gonna chew the scenery like that in a jury room. It ain’t realistic or natural. I only point this out because a lot of the critics who love this film are in love with low-key anti-dramatic performances. Screenwriter Reginald Rose may have been inspired by a real stint of jury duty he did, but I don’t see people getting this worked up back in a jury room in 1957—that’s why you went to the movies.

Come to think of it, it’s more like an Internet message board.

The interpersonal dynamics are great. The way people ally and break and form new alliances and coalesce around what’s popular, etc., and little of it having anything to do with the received facts. You end up rooting for all the characters at one point or another, even No. 3, which is a sign of greatness.

He's probably right, if even for the wrong reason.
Unsung hero?

Obviously it’s tilted toward the notion the defendant is innocent. That’s really the only cheat. The screenplay never gives you much room to doubt that the guy is innocent, and being railroaded. Fonda is not as convincing—perhaps just because of who he is, iconically—as someone who would defend a murderer. The audience is given to believe that he’s right, not that he’s merely defending the concept of “reasonable doubt”. That may also be due to the iconic nature of the film.

There’s a wicked, brilliant Russian version of the film, which in some ways I enjoy more than this, because it turns the whole concept on its ear. The corrupt society this movie imagines can’t even hold a candle to an actually corrupt one.

Spare, effective score by Kenyon Hopkins, who would go on to do the score for The Hustler but who probably imprinted himself on America’s brain most effectively through his work on ’70s TV shows like “The Odd Couple”, “The Brady Bunch” and “Mission: Impossible”.

Ultimately, though, it’s the blocking and lighting that make this great and something you can watch again and again. Director of Photography Boris Kaufman had won an Oscar for On The Waterfront, but I can’t help feeling he was on a short leash here. Lumet’s cinematic style would be hammered in over the next 50 years. It’s a good collaboration here.

This was on a double-feature with Witness for the Prosecution and would start the series of five films we would see in a row—the last three being Guys and Dolls, Casablanca and West Side Story—after which The Flower would declare we had seen all the good films.

He'd cut a bitch.
Sadly, Henry Fonda’s campaign to personally stab everyone who bought a ticket did not help the box office.

American Graffiti (1973)

For a variety of reasons which I shan’t belabor (or rather, belabor even more than I already have, which is a lot), many of the Baby Boomers’ cultural artifacts leave me cold, often not because they’re bad per se but because they’re wildly overrated. Forest Gump, for example, made its way to Oscar success by name-dropping a bunch of tired old cultural references. The Graduate, while beautifully made, seemed pretty pointless to me, and the less said about Hair, the better.

I didn’t get the big deal about American Graffiti when it came out, either, but I was really, really young to appreciate a movie about shiftless teens driving around a small town in the last days of their summer before college. It wasn’t until I watched it this time that I realized it was basically a Boomer artifact. (My dad and members of his cohort used to bitch because they had done all that stuff first, five years earlier.)

That time is lost to federal fuel and safety standards.
There was a time when one car looked different from another.

The now iconic ending, where the fates of the characters are revealed in little capsules under their pictures, seems almost comically pointless today. The kids were sort of puzzled by it, like, “this wasn’t based on real people, was it?” And it also stands out, today, that Lucas nixed Huyck and Katz’s suggestion to provide fates for the female characters. Like, Steve (Ronny Howard) stays behind in Modesto to be with Laurie (Cindy Williams), presumably—this is kind of Steve’s character arc, and the bio tells us 0nly that he stays behind and starts an insurance business (or something). Not a peep about the marriage that presumably kept him there.

Animal House did it better. Yes, it’s a parody of this movie. Even so, it’s not just funny, it somehow manages to imbue the characters with genuine life after the movie. Graffiti turns them into disappointments, somehow.

But this is a relatively minor point. Of the seven films George Lucas directed, this is probably the best. It’s interesting to note that the problems that plague virtually all his other films (primarily wooden acting, clunky dialog and groan-worthy plotting) are missing here. I assume the lack of clunky dialog came from him drawing on actual experience, which in turn helps the acting. The actors, given characters they can identify and dialog they can say (Harrison Ford famously observed on the set of “Star Wars”, “you can type this shit but you can’t say it”) turn in endearing performances.

Oh, and Harrison Ford in a hat.
I think that’s the late Debralee Scott, who would be a semi-regular on “Welcome back, Kotter”.

And there is no plot.

Basically, Steve and his pals Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Terry (Martin Cruz Smith) and John (Paul LeMat) are driving around Modesto one night having a variety of adventures. Steve is splitting up with longtime steady girl Laurie because college girls are easy, and he’s going to college. Curt is getting cold feet about going to college with Steve. Terry is enjoying a brief moment of borrowed awesomeness as he drives around in Steve’s car. And John’s game is getting cramped when a bunch of cute girls foist a very cute, but very young little sister, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips, looking adorable).

Curt catches a brief glimpse of a dream girl (Suzanne Somers, in a now-famous cameo), whom he chases around, ultimately alighting on a plan to contact her through the local DJ, Wolfman Jack (as himself), in what could be the movie’s most allegorical segment. There’s an odd feel to the whole thing, like it’s a metaphor for chasing something that’s unattainable but still worth chasing. On the other hand, it’s probably just something that happened to George. (All four of the main characters are said to be Lucas at different points in his not quite 30 year life.)

I kid!
In homage to which, all of the actors are in their 30s.

This gets kind of fascinating when you consider Terry’s idol worship of John. See, John is a legendary drag racer (who’s being pursued by a reckless Harrison Ford) and he’s getting the idea that it’s time to hang up his fuzzy dice but Terry tells him he can go on forever, and he’s the best, and all that. It’s probably best not to overthink it.

I’m not sure but I think Harrison Ford’s girl when he first shows up is the late Debralee Scott, but then switches to a different girl the next time he shows up, before he finally winds up with Laurie. There’s a lot of little details in the movie, and a lot of time to notice them. It’s got a very casual pace. It feels all of it’s near two hour running time, but not in a bad way.

It is a lot like hanging out with a bunch of school chums.

We all rather liked it. Great cars. Gorgeous, gorgeous cars, really. Great music. The Flower and I knew almost every tune played. She, of course, is a big Beach Boys fan, and likes that music generally, which boosted the whole movie for her. I have a peculiar fondness for movies that take place over the course of one night, so I found it appealing in the regard. But The Boy, who has no especial affinity for the music, the automobiles or the time period also really enjoyed the movie.

So that’s a good indication it really is a good movie, beyond any value as a nostalgic relic.

I mean, she's cute and all but...
Never did get Suzanne Somers’ appeal, though.

All About Eve (1950)

I say, with not a hint of sarcasm, that every time I see All About Eve, I think “That Eve seems nice. A little intense, but nice.”

And then, of course, as the film wears on, I remember.

Oh. Right.

I mean, just look at her! Who wouldn't trust that face?
And that’s why I’d never make it in Hollywood.

I don’t remember the details of the movie much after the fact, though I’m never quite sure why not. It is a genuinely brilliant film, a breezy 2 hours and 20 minutes (something you know I don’t say lightly) that wastes no time, and isn’t too, y’know, actory. Despite being well ensconced in the showbiz world (the stage mostly, and not movies), the story is fundamentally about the nature of trust and friendship, and in no small way a comment on glamour.

If you’re not familiar with the film, the story is this: We open to a big awards show where Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being feted while her “friends” that she’s thanking can barely keep from rolling their eyes, their inner dialogues at odds with the scene presented. Flash back a year and we see the same Eve as a star-struck ingenue, hoping for the mildest of blessings from her heroine, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Brought in by Eve’s friend, Karen (the wife of a playwright that helped make Margo famous) and encouraged by the writer himself, Margo ends up taking the young girl under her wing.

Once established, Eve encroaches more and more on Margo’s life in ways that alternately make the friends uncomfortable, but never enough for them to form a full picture of her ambitious designs. Hell, I fall for it every time, even though the movie hints right away that something is not quite right about Eve (and even though I’ve seen it at least three times before). That would be a tribute to Ms. Baxter, and to some exquisite writing from director Joseph Mankiewicz.

Warning: Not the actual dialogue.
You’re gaslighting me and I’m the jerk?

Needless to say the acting is perfect, as if the roles were made specifically for the players. After this, Davis’ career would sputter around in TV and lesser movies until she went full frump in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Which, when you think about it, really does mean it was the perfect part for her, as Margo is feeling the ravages of time and whether it was artfully misapplied makeup or just the facts of the case, Davis’ own age is undeniable. She wouldn’t be playing a lot of love interests after this.

George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, the critic, is quintessential Sanders. He gets Eve right away, and quickly out-maneuvers her—but in the end you can’t help but think his victory is a hollow one. Like the dysfunctional romance of Gone With The Wind, ratcheted up several notches to near sociopathy.

A surprise and delight every time is the canny performance given by Marilyn Monroe (in her first major movie performance) as Miss Casswell, a once again beautifully written part that plays marvelously off of Sanders’ droll cynicism. The Flower was very taken by her here, as I always am, even though I have never been a huge fan, nor entirely “gotten” Norma Jean’s appeal. The Flower, who is much taken with pinups and aspires to Gil Evgren-style artistry, independently expressed the same puzzlement prior to this film. (We would both completely reverse our reservations some time later watching Some Like It Hot.)

Goodbye, Norma Jean.
We feel for those who had to work with her but we’re happy she was there.

So: Perfect writing, acting, directing—oh! and dead-on score by Alfred Newman, which is not as easy as it sounds given the rather delicate tone needed to move the story along dramatically without descending into melodrama. This is one of those films you can’t even imagine being made today. It’s a talky actor’s film, essentially, but it endeavors in every scene, and every shot, to entertain. That is to say, this movie is what it is because of its actors, unquestionably, but it never depends on them to be the sole reason to see it.

Mankiewicz had an astonishing career in a lot of ways, starting as a writer in the last years of the silents, and this was probably the height of his creativity. But even with A Letter To Three Wives, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Guys and Dolls in this period, you can find his fingerprints on fun ’30s flicks like The Three Godfathers, as a producer The Philadelphia Story in 1940, and he would end his career in 1972 with one of his best films, the under-rated Sleuth, with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier.

It’s not unique to call this an “essential”, but I will add my voices to that chorus. Virtuoso filmmaking,

Great ensemble work.
And look at that blocking!

The Graduate (1967)

Some movies I end up seeing just because they’re “classics”. I suspect I’m not going to like them and—well, in fairness, I have been surprised more than once in the past year-and-a-half. But there’s not much about The Graduate that has ever recommended itself to me, and in part I feel like certain movies are just “classics” because they appeal to a certain cohort (i.e. Boomers). I mean, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross are good-looking. Dustin Hoffman can act.

Sure, she can act, too.
Pictured: Easy on the eyes.

Oh, the soundtrack. Yeah, that’s a pretty good soundtrack, though (I say with no small amount of trepidation as a fan of said music) I’m not sure it holds up as well as one might hope. It’s certainly well used here, but it is very, very dated. I don’t know: There’s nothing inherently wrong with old music, even if it’s highly stylized, but the music of that particular era could be rather insistent, and one perhaps wonders if “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” survives post-60s all that well. And I love (and routinely play) Simon’s arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” but does the anti-war counter-melody “Canticle” add or detract from its use here?

The movie itself is very well constructed indeed, and marvelously shot. This was the late Mike Nichols’ sophomore film after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and there’s a distinct energy to it. The scene transitions are often clever and generally very communicative, though they sometimes confused The Flower. It’s in Technicolor (though the film treatment is definitely in the more “realistic” and less aesthetic realm, as was common in this era).

You can see why she likes Ben.
Here’s an odd shot.

So, these are all good things about the movie. I can see why people love it.

I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. But I found it like—well, like you might find a foreign film from a culture you didn’t understand. Or like “High Noon”, where we just know Gary Cooper’s the good guy, and we’re never really told what will happen if he just leaves town. I mean, I think the premise of the movie is that Hoffman’s character, Ben, is the White Hat. Mrs. Robinson, I guess, is the Black Hat. Although, I read someone recently saying something to the effect of “When I saw this as a young man, I saw Ben as the hero and Mrs. Robinson as the villain, but now I see Mrs. Robinson as the hero trying to keep her daughter away from a shiftless no-good bum.”

Forty years’ll do that, I guess.

OK, it's not odd at all.
It’s odd how the really unappealing but more representative shots aren’t the ones for promotion.

I suggested that perspective to The Flower, that Mrs. Robinson was trying to protect Elaine from Ben, and she said, “Nah, she was just bored.” And, in fairness, there’s nothing in the movie that imbues Mrs. Robinson with any great perspective on anything (unless, again, we assume the perspective that anything counter-cultural is good). If we’re not completely hostile to the notion that Ben just doesn’t want to “join society”—that one can, reasonably, decide not to participate in a game one finds distasteful—then his only real problem is that he’s been generally passive up to this point in his life, and this weird quasi-rebellion is heroic, in the severely diminished Frankfurtian concept of heroism): the first time he’s ever asserted himself.

But if we say that Mrs. Robinson’s goal all along is to keep Ben away from her daughter, she must be aware of all these things simultaneously: That Elaine will be so attracted to Ben she will want to marry him; that Ben will likewise be similarly attracted, even though he has utterly fought the notion up to that point; that Ben is also completely worthless, or a clone of her own (presumably awful) husband.

This is a lot of acuity to put on a drunk.

No cheating!
Squint your eyes: Are you looking at Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick or John Cusack?

So, she could just be wrong. But then there’s the flip-side of this: Ben is basically rebelling against what everyone wants him to do. He doesn’t want to go into business. He doesn’t want to go into grad school (I think that was another respectable option for him, and one most rich, shiftless bums probably took). And he sure as hell doesn’t want to get hooked up with Elaine.

And his act of rebellion is what? Hooking up with Elaine.

This could’ve been great (for me, I mean, obviously other people do find it great) had there actually been a worthwhile character in the bunch. Instead—and the very famous ending underscores this—it just looks like two people have broken out of one automatic reaction (obedience to parents and society) into another automatic reaction (disobedience to parents and society). There’s not a moment of enlightenment to be found here. But I suppose that’s what makes it real, man.

It’s not terrible by any means, at least on a technical level. But it’s fair to say I didn’t get it. (We would see Hair not long after this, and I would not be nearly this sanguine.) The Flower enjoyed the aesthetics of it, and she can completely disconnect from a narrative she doesn’t like (unlike me). The Boy had seen it previously a few years ago in film class and wasn’t so bowled over that he felt the need to see it again.

Hey, he was in Bullitt, too!
Norman Fell presciently trying out for “Three’s Company”.

Your Name

The kids are into the Japanimation, as kids these days are, but even so, we had no information on this film, Your Name, and no strong inclination to see it. We’re not familair with the director’s (Makoto Shinkai) work and its remarkably high (98/94%) Rotten Tomato score is not entirely convincing, as one could assume a certain self-selection among those who had seen it and rated it—i.e., weeaboos. In fact, The Boy went to see it with His Girl first, and his recommendation was strong enough to incline The Flower and I to take in a later show.

And, here’s the thing: The movie starts out as a pretty standard body-switching caper, done in the light Japanese style where a city boy wakes up in the body of a country girl (and vice-versa), and the two inadvertently mess with each others’ lives—inadvertently at first, then mischievously later on. But then, on a dime, the whole gets a lot darker and a lot more serious, and the light romantic comedy (reminiscent in some ways of Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock light fantasy/romance “The Lake House”) reveals a tragedy underneath.

(Wait for it...)
From wacky teen body-switching comedy…

The movie is recommendable, at least to a certain audience, as a frothy teen manga interpretation (and I don’t know if it is based on a manga; I don’t think it is) but when it knocks into twelfth gear, if you’ve bought into it up to this point, it manages an artful tone transition and resonates a little more deeply. There’s mystery, suspense and high stakes (though not ridiculously high stakes as is increasingly common these days). And you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out, though you have to imagine certain endings would be a little too dark.

In fairness, a great many endings would’ve been a little too light as well. This one ends on a hopeful but almost bittersweet note.

We ended up enjoying it very much. It was beautifully animated—again, very much in the style of a fluffy teen comedy but an order of magnitude more polished. Available both dubbed and subbed, with no particular Hollywood celebrities doing the English voices.

In an hour, flat!
…to broody, mystical love story.

If Internet sources are to be believed, this is the highest grossing animé film of all time, surpassing the previous record holder (Spirited Away) by $100M—though keep in mind that’s not adjusted for inflation, and in the US it made only $5M to the Studio Ghibli’s film $10M—both too small to crack the box office for the top 5000 Shrek sequels.

Field of Dreams (1989)

After the previous outing, the “Randy Newman film” The Natural, the kids were a lot more amenable to baseball movies, generally, and I particularly wanted to see this one, remembering it rather favorably and yet constantly reading people online about how awful it is. Well, I’ve re-seen it, and I don’t get the hate. I mean, yes, it’s a kind of a paean to mental illness, but all magical realism is, if you want to look at it that way. (And some very much want to, it seems.) Magical realism (which works better in baseball than any other sport, I think) is all about whether you buy into it, and this movie does a very good job of coaxing a sale out of you.

How about a used wolf?
Would you buy a used boat from this man?

I think, perhaps, the objections may be related to the book. Because, you know: Once they read the book, some people (including me when I was a kid) can’t ever accept a movie unless it plays out onscreen in a way they can convince themselves mirrors what they saw in their head. (Though they must, I think, be editing the book vision post-hoc, because a movie never looks like the book.) So you expect people to be upset, because people need upset and this is a very safe thing to be upset about.

However, in my ongoing reading project (where I read the hundreds of books in my shelves I haven’t read), I just so happened to read Shoeless Joe (the book on which this was based), and I still don’t see the problem. It had been long enough since I’d seen the movie (28 years!) that I barely connected the movie with the book, so I was theoretically pretty fresh for both the read and the viewing. The movie lacks the books subtlety, certainly, but of course, it must.

Well, what did the author, W.P. Kinsella think about the movie? He gave it four-out-of-five stars. He faulted the movie for not making the evil brother-in-law (Timothy Busfield, “Thirtysomething”, “The West Wing”) evil enough. To that I say: He’s actually not all that evil in the book. A jerk, unpleasant and without magic, but not really evil. He also faulted the casting of the main characters’ daughter (Gaby Hoffman, Wild, Perfume) for not looking like she could actually be the main characters’ daughter. And, yeah, I suppose Hoffman is far too dark to be the child of Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan.

But what a cutie!
Here, Gaby learns she is adopted.

Madigan is pretty much perfect, though her hippie-esque speech at a community meeting is a little…awkward…this far out from the ’60s. Costner is maybe too All-American to play the free-spirited Richard Kinsella, but it works: This is peak Costner, and he exudes a classic Hollywood affability—Gary Cooper-esque to (say) Tom Hanks’s Jimmy Stewart-ish-ness. Casting-wise, Ray Liotta may, for the first and only time in his career, look like a lovable mug who isn’t about to murder the crap outta someone. (Yes, I wrote it: “murder the crap outta”.) James Earl Jones’ irascible J.D. Salinger stand-in (at the time I thought he was supposed to be the recently deceased James Baldwin, but I didn’t know about the Salinger mystique) is toned down from the book (again, necessarily) and is consequently more immediately likable than Salinger was in the book.

This also means his conversion to believer has a lesser impact, but we got an hour-forty-five here, people: Stuff’s gotta be compressed.

The story, if you don’t know it, is simple: Cash-strapped nouveau farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his head saying “If you build it, he will come.” He becomes convinced that if he plows under some of his crops and builds a baseball diamond, the late Shoeless Joe (Liotta) will appear to play on it. Which, of course, is what happens. Soon, all the “Black” Sox (the shamed 1919 Red Sox who threw the World Series) show up. And before you know it, all kinds of baseball legends appear to play on the field, though not everyone can see them.

Wish THAT into your cornfield and smoke it.
Corn fields are such an American source of mystique.

The voice/feeling becomes more urgent, involving the Salinger stand-in and an old-time player Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster, in his last feature role, and whom we’d just seen in From Here To Eternity), and resolving a bunch of Kinsella’s unresolved feelings about his deceased father.

It’s good stuff. Emotional stuff that guys can get into, ’cause, you know baseball! Great score by James Horner, if not exactly at the heroic levels of Newman’s score for The Natural (which would’ve been totally inappropriate).

We liked it. It made convincing The Boy to see the next baseball film, A League of Their Own, fairly easy—the Flower had wanted to see it all along for the girls’ uniforms—and this would be another film that held up surprisingly well.

What? Too soon?
Shortly before Lancaster himself went to Eternity.

Rifftrax: Samurai Cop (1991)

He’s the musclebound cop
In the lady’s wig
And the bad-fitting baseball cap

See him drive around the city
Running over bad guys
In his Chevrolet piece-of crap

On loan from San Diego
(We don’t know why)
They call him “samurai”
(His name is “Joe”)
But he doesn’t fit the profile
For a samurai
He doesn’t even have a sword…

o/~Then the bad guy dies and you realize they didn't apprehend a single criminal~\o
o/~And now they drop their swords and they go back to punching ’cause they’re not very good with swords~\o

And sometimes you have genius. In the late ’80s, Iranian Amir Ghaffar, fleeing the repression following the ’79 Revolution, rekindled his movie career in America, writing, directing and producing ’80s-style action films, and not letting a minor thing like a not-quite-secure-grasp on the native language or common tropes or budget requirements or scheduling…

Under the name of Amir Shervan, this wonderful example of American freedom gifted us with five films, of which Samurai Cop is the most legendary. The only release it received back in 1991 was a limited VHS distribution in Poland, and then was recently (within the last five years) re-discovered after Amir’s untimely death. In the age of the Internet, it became a legend.

It’s a bit raunchy for a riffing film, but that is one area where Rifftrax distinguishes itself from “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. For my own tastes, I prefer my riffing movies to be family-friendly, because awkward explicit sex scenes (as in The Room) are just that: Too explicit to not be a little awkward, even when the guys are at their funniest. To quote Kevin Murphy’s brilliant song some more:

He’s making dinner for his new girlfriend
Wearing nothing but a little black banana hammock
They’re gonna make sweet love and it kinda makes you feel
Like you’d rather see anything else

I was thankful, anyway.
I think these two have an even more explicit scene, but if so, it was excised here, thankfully.

Actually, Murphy’s song pretty much covers the whole movie, start-to-finish with a lot of droll observations. (The Flower, who did not see this with us in the theater, ended up watching the in-studio riffed version—which is the same, basically—with me, only to find herself simultaneously amazed at how dead on the song was, and how shockingly bad the movie was.)

The riffs are solid here. The problem with a movie like this is that it’s such a meatball over the plate, one can end up sounding like a Nelson Muntz, simply restating the movie’s many obvious, glaring flaws. There are only a couple of examples of this, where the mistake being lampooned is the sort of continuity error you might find in a normal, even good film. This actually works at one point, when Amir’s English-as-a-Second-Language comes out with “son of a bitches”. (Of course, in English, when we have a noun followed by a modifying phrase, the plural is formed by altering the noun, so “sons-in-law” not “son-in-laws” or “justices of the peace” not “justice of the peaces”.) As immortalized in “Samurai Cop Rockin’ Action Theme”

He’s tellin’ these son of a bitches
He respects the Japanese of this country
He’s gonna turn ’em into fertilizer
While making time with the gang-boss’ lady

Samurai cop!

So, if you’re in the mood for some riffing, and awkward moments with muscly-’80s-era dudes in banana hammocks don’t put you off too terribly much, this is a good use of your entertainment dollar.

o/~Now comes the final battle against the Big Chin Guy~\o
Also chins. You can’t be afraid of chins and see this happily.

Fun-ish fact: The sequel (the ingeniously named Samurai Cop 2) premiered at the North Hollywood Laemmle, which is one of our regular haunts, but does not seem to be one of the premieres we were on hand for.