Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

We missed the Schwarz-tember (still sounds more Jewish to me than Austrian) showing of The Running Man in order to catch Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro which was Hayao Miyazaki’s first film, and the only film he made for someone else, I think. (Next week’s film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind would be his second film, not technically a Ghibli film because the studio hadn’t been formed, but also not “for” anyone else. And there’s your Japanimation lesson right there.)

He's just a happy thief.
Our hero after his first heist. (He’s driving, btw.)

I figured it would be pretty good, but my interest was mainly historical. I expected there to be flashes of interest in-and-amongst bits of goofy ’70s-era Japanese TV-level stuff. Before the movie started, there was an interview with John Lasseter and the creepy Fathom Events host, and Lasseter was just hammering how great this movie was. So funny, and great art and…

We all got a little nervous at that point. It was ten minutes of solid hype. And I know Lasseter is a huge Miyazaki fan, but could this (doubtless primitive) 1979-movie-based-on-a-series-based-on-a-Manga hold up under this kinds of expectations? (Apparently, he wooed his wife with this film!) It’s so funny, he said, many times over, often echoed by host-who-needs-haircut-and-better-fitting-clothes. Still…I think if you scaled it for inflation, the film made today would have something like a million dollar budget—and it wasn’t a hit at the time. Retroactively, sure, but people can be generous with their heroes.

And…mirabile dictu!…it actually is great. You do get all the historical aspects of it; The Flower and I were busy nudging each other at parts we would see turn up in later films, like the robots from Castle In The Sky (1986) and the already baked in influences, like the castle tower you can only reach through the retractable bridge (The King and the Mockingbird), and yes, there is a scene which would become basically a hallmark of Ghibli: A moment of near perfect calm, where nothing is happening.

Especially if you have a buddy who will change the tire for you.
Your moment of zen.

On that last point, it’s kind of a funny thing: The Japanese in general and Miyazaki in particular are not afraid to let a film breathe. They will take a long moment to show something beautiful or wondrous, where nothing is happening. The best ones use it either to contrast something else, or to set up an emotional moment or character shift. Occasionally, you can see it as a climax, where the hero, given a chance to breathe, figures a way out of his problems. American animators used to not be afraid of it so much, but now they all ooh-and-aah at Miyazaki-san’s pauses while treating any moment of calm in their own films like radioactive poison.

This, by the way, seems to include Lasseter. The closest any of us could think of to such a moment in a recent animation was the sloth scene in Zootopia, and that’s a gag with terrific reaction shots. Not the same beast.

And also, one suspects, it wasn’t the mode in the Japanimation of the day, either, since in this case, it’s a guy changing a tire. He’s not the focus of the action and the “camera” drifts to a nearby flowered field while it’s going on. But the spirit is there as the characters take a moment to enjoy life—right before chasing after some gangsters who are pursuing a beautiful fleeing girl into the mysterious country of Cagliostro. (The whole thing takes place in a fictional European country and is a typically delightfully askew view of Europe from the Orient.)

Patient zero.
His good nature is infectious.

The story is that the international thief Lupin III, fresh from a casino heist where he steals all the money only to discover that it’s counterfeit—a thing he finds hilarious—decides to see if he can find the counterfeiters and muscle in on their action. While changing a flat tire, he sees the girl fleeing from the gun-toting mafioso and (with his trusty friend Jigen, the best shot in the world!) saves her from their evil clutches…almost. As they abscond with her, he pursues them into Cagliostro and proceeds to figure out how to free her.

He calls for help from Ishikawa, his Samurai pal, and in checking out the place, he discovers Fujiko—his lady love/femme fatale/occasional caper co-conspirator—already performing a heist on the premises. What we learn is that there was a terrible fire about ten years back and the young lord of the castle died. The deceased lord’s sister, Clarisse is to be wed to the Count, thus consolidating Cagliostro under his authority and also…something else more mysterious and Gothic. (That whole marry-your-uncle/cousin thing is very Gothic romance-y. I wasn’t clear on their relationship, but they would actually be pretty distant cousins, he being from a branch that separated 500 years earlier.)

Quid pro quo, Clarisse.
Fujiko and the Princess Clarisse.

It is, as Mr. Lasseter says, very funny. It’s also very quick without feeling frantic, as Japanimation from that era can. It’s romantic, in that Clarisse finds herself falling for Lupin, and Romantic, in that Lupin knows he’s not good enough for her. (Well, he wouldn’t put it that way: It’s more, he’s too shifty—international jewel thief!—and he couldn’t take advantage of her, because he’s a knight errant at heart.) Lupin’s disregard for law-and-order is entirely good-natured, and he is that rarity of lovable rogue that has a light-hearted sense of humor.

This is a rarity today as well: He’s got a lot of flaws, beyond character flaws. He’s a terrible shot, for example. He’s just terrible with guns, straight up. Jigen has that covered, and has an interesting relationship with Lupin in that he regards Lupin as the boss, but it’s more of a “I trust this guy to make the right choices for our life of crime” thing. Fujiko is less a femme-fatale than an adventurous archetype with very traditional values. For all her competence as a cat burglar, she’s not super-powered, and her relationship with Lupin is one of a girl playing hard-to-get. A distaff version of Lupin, sorta, enjoying the chase more than any resolution.

I’m not gonna gush because…hell, it made me suspicious, but the kids were debating whether this might not be their favorite Miyazaki film! I would find it hard to rank them, but one way this movie succeeds is that it brings Miyazaki’s touch to a known commodity. Lupin III is a famous manga (by a guy named “Monkey Punch”, heh) now in its 50th year, but with a long-running TV series even by the late ’70s. The pressures on Miyazaki—pressures I would guess inspired him to start his own studio—mean you get a less poetically Miyazaki film on the one hand, but on the other, a film that’s just fun from start to finish, without any pretensions.

And...is that a SLIDE RULE?
And the ’70s means there’s more smoking and drinking than one expects in a kidflick.

So, best, top 5, or even worst (in a field of 11 films that are all worth watching and re-watching), this is not a “well, I’ll watch it for historical interest” but a “wow, this is gonna be fun!” experience. I did a quick survey of a dozen Miyazaki rankings and found this film on the bottom of half, and near the bottom of all the rest but one, who pointed out how much fun it was. But the best caption for one of these rankings was “Good To Best”, which is right: It’s sort of meaningless to rank these things; they stand on their own and provide their own joys.

The only extraordinary recommendation I would make here is that, if you don’t generally like Miyazaki, you might find you like this.

The ladies love his style.
…not to mention gambling and carousing…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

We have been, as noted elsewhere, pretty burnt out on this whole superhero thing. We don’t even want to go see good superhero movies, particularly. But The Boy had gone to see this with His Girl, and possibly her parents, and reported positively on it, and The Barbarienne is easily the most into the superhero thing of all the kids, so we ambled out four months after its release to go see it. I mention that because it’s still playing, and may actually complete a five-month run if it hangs just one more week. (Note: It did not make it.)

Which is why we get credits for the lunch lady at the cafeteria where the server manager eats M-F.
Movie magic! Mostly it’s nerds on computers.

Movies don’t generally play that long any more. Wonder Woman will enter its fifth month next week, and it’s also still playing. Even for the #2 and #3 movies of the year (Beauty and the Beast is #1 and looking like it’s unlikely to be unseated), that’s pretty remarkable in the 2010s. But 2017 is different, and bereft enough that, believe it or not, The Emoji Movie is also still playing. Granted, that’s only a two month run, but even a spectacular failure like that may finish out in the top 40 for the year.

But rather than go on a rant about how the superhero thing may finally, really, be coming to an end, we should talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is actually better in every way than its (very good) predecessor, except in the soundtrack.

Pathos.
Your mileage, like tiny dancing Groot’s, may vary.

In this episode, we’re focused on Peter Quill (a.k.a. “Star-Lord” but just barely) discovering his real father (Kurt Russell!), or rather his father discovering him, while he’s fleeing from the Reavers (again). Turns out Yondu (Michael Rooker) was supposed to deliver him over, but kept him, apparently, because he was small and could fit into spaces they couldn’t. (Because a galaxy full of fantastic creatures does not support a single “small humanoid” species, I guess.) Yondu’s got his own issues, we discover, because of a longstanding feud with the rest of the Reavers brought on by trafficking in children, resulting in a throw-down with the Reaver “king” (or whatever), played by Sylvester Stallone.

Hearing Stallone’s cadence and pronunciations has a similar effect to hearing John C. Reilly’s in the original. Somewhat jarring at first, but also kind of refreshing. We could use less bland and generic science-fiction voices.

Meanwhile, green-girl is working out issues with blue-girl sister—I’m sorry, this is way easier than using their names—and raccoon-guy is fighting with Yondu (arrow-guy) but mostly because they’re so much alike, and Tattooed Muscles is hitting it off with a new character, Bug-Girl (completely not in that way because she’s so gross), and Groot is running around like an idiot because he’s basically a twig of his former self, and a combination of a little “young”, a little dumb and (as a tree) somewhat inscrutable.

Pardon my movie jargon.
Have I mentioned there are some “special effects” in this movie?

(Groot’s name, of course, is easy to remember because all he ever says is “I am Groot.”)

So, hero and demiurge Dad are hanging out, and we discover that Dad has a world which contains his essence and gives him both immortality and some degree of creative powers. I don’t mean like “He can write a song” but more like “He made the body he’s living in.”

But all is not as it seems!

I hope that’s not a spoiler. It shouldn’t be. What’s sort of funny, for me, is that in the opening scene of the first movie, when Peter’s mom is dying, I exactly anticipated the cause of her death, which is revealed in this film. (This isn’t canon, and I never read Marvel anyway, so it’s not like I had foreknowledge. But it’s not the first time I’ve seen this device used.) It’s not a big deal, really: The what is secondary to the why, and that I didn’t see coming.

Anyway, lotta good action. It’s a bit much at the end, as modern superhero movies seem to require. Writer/director James Gunn seems to respect the characters (which I think are not quite like their comic book counterparts, but I don’t know). There’s a lot of good laughs: Baby Groot is a terrific device for comedy and even pathos, and grownup Groot is kind of problematic since he’s basically magic. Gunn seems to take things just seriously enough so that the ridiculously high stakes don’t seem like a sham, but not so seriously that it’s not fun. He also seems to cleverly avoid a lot of the worn-out superhero tropes by dealing heavily in space opera—a field which, right now, is cinematically limited to Star Wars, I guess.

It’s all you could ask for in a superhero ensemble film. If you’re in the market for a superhero ensemble film. We liked it all right. The Barb loved it, natch.

Space dentistry!
Once more into the breach, dear friends.

 

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Of course, the only correct reaction after seeing this Isao Takahati/Studio Ghibli film, possibly the saddest movie ever made is:

“And that’s what you get for bombing Pearl Harbor!”

Noooo. Those are the fireflies, silly.
Pictured: The fire-bombing of Osaka.

The Japanese are funny. Not just funny ha-ha, because they are that, but also funny strange, which is such an obvious statement as to be a cliché at this point. But setting aside the weird cultural diversions they are famous for, and their inability to reproduce—which is probably the direct result of our wrecking their culture after WWII—they seem to have avoided the Western world’s self-flagellation.

That is to say, while I have seen many Japanese films about WWII, I have yet to see one from Japan that admits to any culpability outside of the generic “War is Bad” stuff. This creates an interesting situation where, for example, we have sympathy when our heroine in In This Corner of the World, when she rages that all her sacrifices were for nothing because Japan lost the war. And in The Wind Rises for the designer of the Zero—a plane used to kill many Americans—because he just wanted to make planes.

I’m not really making a judgment here. If there’s anything easier than virtue signalling about genocide, I’m not sure what it is. And I’m not sure it’s healthy the way the Germans, the French, the Italians, etcetera, beat themselves up over WWII, though this does absolutely nothing to curb their modern anti-semitism. (The Russians don’t seem do this, probably because it was the Soviets that sowed the seeds of guilt in the west after WWII.) I do wonder about the effect on the post-war Japanese, who seem to believe the United States dropped the A-Bomb on them on a lark. (In Corner, there’s a kind of echo of the sentiment “How dare they surrender while any Japanese are still living!”)

Right?!?
She’s gonna be fine, right?

But the attitude gives us a perspective which is perhaps truer to life: Namely, people tend to root for a particular side without necessarily any way to know what’s going on. I think the only film I know of that shows the insanity of Japan at the end of the war is Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. But when a government (and its fellow travelers—kaff) completely controls the media and culture, you can have both situations: That is, one where people running up against the edge of the crazy experience it in full force while those who can’t even believe such things are going on.

Which brings us to this sad and beautiful film about two orphaned children starving to death in the final days of the war. Because who knows less about what’s going on, and is impacted more, than orphaned children? The movie begins with Seita, the narrator, starving to death in a train station, as various Japanese adults ignore him, and American soldiers distribute food. The rest of the movie is in flashback, where he describes his (failed) struggle to keep his baby sister Setsuko alive.

Not exactly “Heidi: Girl of the Alps” (one of the TV shows Takahata worked on before Ghibli).

Nah. Probably just a coincidence.
An actual firebombing. Say, I wonder if that’s meant to be a parallel?

It’s a touching story, obviously. It doesn’t really have to try hard: Just about any kids struggling to survive in this context would be touching. What surprised me in this context (seeing it again after only seeing it on video a couple of decades ago) was that it isn’t that this movie wallows in suffering, as sometimes happens with sad films. It’s basically a kind of coming-of-age story for Seita, where he, you know, doesn’t actually get the opportunity to come of age.

But their journey is charming in the way of a lot of kid’s adventure stories. If not for, you know, the malnutrition and the ending, you could easily see it being a kind of Pippi Longstocking thing. And the author of the original novel has said that it’s not meant as an anti-war treatise at all, but as an apology to his late sister.

This rescues it from the triteness of being merely “anti-war”: Seita’s pride ultimately results in his sister’s (and his own) death—somethign I hadn’t realized the first time I saw this but was inescapable now. He can’t stand his shrew of an aunt, who’s using his and Setsuko’s food to feed her own family, while constantly berating the two of them for not helping, and further chastising Setsuko for having nightmares about her recently deceased mother. She doesn’t really run them off; rather Setsuko runs away with Seita, envisioning an idealized world with just the two of them.

This, as I say, makes a far more powerfully poignant and heart-wrenching story than “Oh, war is bad, and bad things happen to kids in war.”

I brought Kleenex. I didn’t need them (much) but that’s because…uh…I’m really strong and not susceptible to this sort of thing. Honest. The kids loved it, of course, even with the Flower’s reservations seeing it. (She had also seen it on video when she was way too young.) One of my co-workers came and cried with us, which was sweet. (She was missing her own kid, who was off with her father.)

Beautiful film, but it’ll rip your heart out.

AAAAAUUUGH!
She’s gonna be fine RIGHT?!?!

Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party

I sometimes forget to review things and it doesn’t turn up until I go to link to those things later on. In this case, I was looking for this “Summer Shorts Beach Party” when doing the write-up for “The Five Doctors”, and realized I hadn’t done a write-up. This is typically just forgetfulness, although rarely because I want to mull things over. (This year, I’ve been so far behind with my reviews, the challenge is remembering the actual films and our reactions to them.)

What?
There’s a lot of ball fondling in Summer Shorts.

I don’t think there was more to this than forgetfulness, but I’ll be honest: I’m increasingly uncomfortable going to see Frank Conniff in a show because he’s so political. And by “political” I mean, virulently partisan. I cannot follow him on Twitter, and I was very worried about last year’s Rifftrax Presents: The Mystery Science Theater 300 Reunion because I worried his stuff would be mostly references to politics. (It wasn’t much, as a I recall. Just a little.)

It’s a shame because I think he’s a sweetheart of a fella outside of politics. (Remember kids, politics makes a man mean and stupid.) His MST3K colleagues seem to universally love him, and he seems to have a generous soul.

His political invective is so awful, however, I would not go see him and Trace do “The Mads Are Back”—their own light-weight Rifftrax/MST3K show—for fear of having to listen to him rant. This is maybe unfair. He and Trace do a movie podcast which doesn’t seem to have much politics in it, for example, but that’s free and I could turn it off. Paying $20 for a ticket to sit down to someone who might decide he’s got a two hour platform for gems like “A crazed sociopath just seized a podium at the U.N. and threatened to assasinate[sic] the world” is more than I’m willing to risk.

And, while the political invective was mild here, it also wasn’t very funny. This, as I say, is a tragedy because Trace (and Frank!) can be very funny.

It's what you call a "soft target".
Trace and Frank riff “Office Etiquette”.

This stuff, for me, is about escapism in its purist sense. I got to be very good, during the W years, about avoiding movies that set off my “Oh, man, there’s a 20 minute rant about Bush in this movie, isn’t there?” alarm. Even then, I saw way too much of it. The occasions where classic MST3K got political tended to be rare and very broad, and the new season carries that on, as does Rifftrax, generally.

A classic case can be seen in one of the funniest riffs ever, Rifftrax’s “Birdemic”. Insofar as I can follow the plot Birdemic is about global warming causing rampant spruce bark beetle proliferation which in turn, naturally, leads to killer, exploding birds attacking humans. It’s common sense really. But more importantly, the riff pretty much works because it’s not commenting on global warming one way or the other, only on the producer’s sincerely inept attempt to make an enviro-horror movie.

This is a lot of upfront to give one segment of a 6 or 7-segment show which  featured seven pretty mild political jokes. I reviewed it just now, to see how bad it really was, and counted: A Huckabee joke, three pay for women and one glass ceiling joke, mansplaining, O’Reilly and one I forget. They’re all pretty forgettable and on reflection, I think I’m disappointed just because these guys are so talented, and these are pretty lazy jokes.

A high point!
Mary Jo and Bridgett riff “The Griper”.

Of course, you gotta do, as an artist, whatcha gotta do. I’ve seen Frank’s (and other MSTers) retort to those who object to the politicization, and they’re not kind, so I wouldn’t expect my measly little opinion to have an influence on anyone. But I stopped watching TV in the W decade, and while I’m unlikely to give up movies, I can give a wide berth to anything even remotely smelling of politics. I’m pretty good at sussing out which ones are political from the critic reviews, too. I will opt-out, and I will do so aggressively. And seeing the general ratings of channels and shows that have done that, I’m not the only one. (And this week, the football thing. Oy. Mainstream entertainment is committing culture right alongside the mainstream media: At a time when they are at their weakest.)

Trace did most of the lines in the “Reunion” show (which doesn’t mean he wrote them all) but they were among the best in the show. This time the delivery is more 50-50 and just not as good. Paul F. Tompkins, one of my favorites going back over a decade, fills in for the Jonah/Joel MST3K team (they were understandably not represented this year), is good, wears a jaunty hat, and is hard to pick out from the regular boys sometimes. Bridget and Mary Jo, on the other hand, were better than last year. They’re both more polished and they have funnier quips. The group finale wasn’t as good either, though it was seriously buoyed by the surrealism of the short being riffed. (A weird ’70s acid trip called “The Baggs”.)

It's pretty good.
Paul F. Tompkins joins the regular crew for the riff on GM’s “A Touch Of Magic”.

Mike, Bill and Kevin were great. It felt a lot more like they were carrying the show this time, though.

I don’t know: It might simply have been a nostalgia/optimism factor, or it may just have been luck-of-the-draw, but overall, we didn’t find this one as hilarious as last year’s. Keep in mind, though: It was still pretty damned funny. The shorts are priceless. Some of the riffs are breath-taking (as in, you can’t breathe afterwards). And even if the Trace/Frank segment had a lot of misses, it had a lot of hits, too.

We’ll see how I feel about going next year if they do one. I have this live show on video, so I may watch it again to see what I think.

Eh, it's actually kind of cute, just out-dated and VERY riffable.
What in the actual…

Predator (1987)

“GET TO DA CHOPPAH!”

Yuge.
There are literally NO pictures on the Internet of the moment where Schwarzenegger says “Get to da choppa!” that don’t have the words “GET TO DA CHOPPA!” on them so enjoy this display of oversized guns.

OK, perhaps it’s not exactly poetry, but verbal poetry takes a back seat to memorable imagery and quotability in cinema, and Schwarzenegger was savvy enough to realize that in the heyday of his action career. I, personally, felt like Predator was a little cheesy at the time, but on reviewing it, well, it’s still just about as cheesy I remember (whereas most of the usual suspects from the ’80s have gotten a whole lot cheesier).

The kids loved it. And there are some very remarkable things about this film. The first third is a run-of-the-mill ’80s-Commando-Rescue plot, though ably directed by John McTiernan (whose next feature would be the Christmas classic Die Hard) featuring Apollo Creed and the other future governor, Jesse “I aint’ got time to bleed” Venture (who would show up in next week’s showing of Running Man as Captain Freedom, which we skipped to see the Hayao Miyazaki film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro).

But even this third is sort of noteworthy as it is peopled by characters who might be boiled down to “Ripped Indian”, “Ripped Ugly Black Dude”, “Ripped Pretty Black Dude”, “Somewhat Less Ripped White Guy With Glasses”, etc., but who are actually attended to, despite the demands of the action story. This movie cares about its musclebound heroes, and has the advantage of a cast that actually kind of looks like it could do the amazing feats of strength and survival required (pace Tom Cruise).

That bicep is ridic. How does he Q-tip his ears?
More oversized guns. The only iron here is what they lift.

By the way, is it just my imagination or do the women who turn up in some of the Arnold films, like Elpidia Carroll and Maria Conchita Alonzo, look a lot like his baby mama?

Arnold's got a thing for the dark meat? as Chris Rock might say.
Eh. It’s a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, before you know it, Commando is turning into Ten Little Indians, although I was impressed retroactively at how well the movie disguises that. You kind of think that they aren’t all going to die, even when Billy says “We’re all gonna die” pretty early on. As I said, I think I liked it better this time than the first time, perhaps because the first part didn’t seem quite so clichéd. (I mean, seriously, what percentage of movies in any given ’80s year was a “jungle rescue” picture? 15%?)

There’s also something kind of patriotic, kind of “America is the good guys”, kind of flag wavy about the whole thing. We like that. Even when sneaky Carl Weathers is doing his (obvious) reveal, you also know he gets his chance for redemption, because, warts-and-all, America is still the Good Guys. (This is, like, the most ’80s/Reagan subtext possible.)

Where I was surprised was the Predator’s camouflage. That seemed like such a cool effect at the time, and it was, but it looks really rough now. Like “He’s standing right there! Are you blind?” rough. This, like those quick cuts that by now seem interminably long to our increasingly trained brains, did not age well. The puppetry/face mask stuff is still exquisite, though. The movie lost its visual effects Oscar to—I kid you not—the Joe Dante/Dennis Quaid/Martin Short comedy Innerspace.

No need to finish the sentence, really.
“You are one ugly m—-“

The kids loved it, as I said, way more than I did. And they don’t even know it was directed by the Die Hard guy. Alan Silvestri’s score holds up very well. And sure enough, that’s Shane Black as the thinking-man’s commando, before he went on to write the Lethal Weapon series. Black is actually directing the Predator reboot/sequel due out next year. I’m cautiously optimistic after his outing with Gosling and Crowe in The Nice Guys.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Bum-BUM-buum…

BUM-BUM!

I said in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark that Lucas & Spielberg owed a lot to Harrison Ford, but they also owe a lot to John Williams. The Jaws theme, Indy’s theme, Star Wars‘ various themes, and so on. In the spoiler-y pre-show for the 40th anniversary, Spielberg said he was worried after Star Wars that Williams would have nothing left in him for another movie. Thank Jehovah, he did, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind depends on music for the plot. That could’ve turned out badly, indeed.

Yay! '70s!
Pictured: The World’s Largest “Simon”

If you don’t recall/haven’t seen it, the premise is that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is visited by aliens on an Indiana road one night and becomes increasingly obsessed in a world that’s particularly hostile to the notion of alien visitors. He loses his job, his family, and to no small degree, his sanity because he can’t stop thinking about this shape that the aliens have implanted in his mind.

I have to pause for a moment to point out that the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a hilarious episode based on the Spaghetti Sci-Fi Starcrash where the lovely Caroline Munro gets on to an unknown alien spacecraft in a sequence that takes well over a minute. (Starcrash is an extravaganza of drawn-out effects shots for not very good at all effects.) Jonah and the bots take this opportunity to sing a little Beach Boys-style song:

Surely no danger getting in a stranger’s UFO

She looks like a kitty cat but rides like an ace
Serenity and Slave One can’t keep the pace
Whitley Strieber and Roy Neary gonna join in the race
Yeah my UFO’s the coolest TTO in space

The Barbarienne and The Flower for that matter are not big MST3K fans, but they do love the songs, so they learned this one, and I tried to help them through the many references.

Check off: Roy Neary.

Fat screen TV!
Oh, like you don’t have scale model “Devil’s Tower” in YOUR living room.

I digress.

This is, quite possibly, my favorite Spielberg movie. I like movies about obsession, and I like Neary’s increasingly insane “it’s perfectly reasonable to throw trash into the living room to make a giant mountain” behavior. I didn’t know if it would hold up (and a few of the SFX are showing their seams, but not many and not too badly). In particular, this is a film about wonder, and there’s not a lot of that in cinema. (I don’t think there ever has been, because it’s just so expensive to do well, historically. And today we’ve swapped out wonder for spectacle in most cases, anyway.)

The kids really loved it, though. The Boy’s Girl had seen it—she’s probably seen more movies than they have, because she and her folks watched them on TV, which we largely did not do—but she did not get bored. I mean, that’s the real danger of this film, and I think people who don’t like it—they don’t ever buy in, so it’s just a bunch of flashing lights and people acting weird.

"Fire In The Sky" leaps to mind.
Variations on this shot have been used ever since.

Spielberg wrote the movie, which I’ll bet you can’t think of a single line of dialog from. There is some dialog here, a lot of it overlapping (and perhaps improvised), but the movie could be completely silent and work just about as well. I was glad I still could enjoy it, frankly, even while being more scrutinous now than when it came out. The ending is almost jarring in how much it delivers: Today we expect more of a tease and a promise.

Other notes: The 40th anniversary showing had tribute material up front. The Flower was ticked, because she doesn’t liked being spoiled and she actually didn’t have any idea aliens were involved. It also showed bits of scenes. Kinda annoying.

Also, kind of amusingly, right after Roy is playing with his mashed potatoes, the theater started flashing lights and booping. I thought maybe this was some kind of William Castle-style Emergo experience but, no, apparently the theater gets these sorts of false alarms pretty routinely. (It’s not a theater we go to much.) The Flower and I actually came back the next day to finish watching. (The Boy and The Boy’s Girl watched it over from the beginning, so that’s something.)

"Independence Day" beat the CRAP outta that kind of shot.
First time in a LONG time anyone had used a UFO contrasted with an earth object. It’s effective.

Wind River

It’s kind of like a millennial Thunderheart, I guess.  Remember that one? Val Kilmer was still a respected actor playing a half-Indian—he may even have claimed to be part Indian which, pace Senator Warren, has been an American tradition going back to Croatan, I suppose.

Trick question.
“Wait, does this mean I’m Maggie Eagle Bear?”

Writer/director Taylor Sherdian, who penned both Sicario and Hell or High Water—which slipped through the reviewing cracks, apparently, though we all liked it—and is probably best known for his acting work on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Veronica Mars”, brings us another tale of the clash of the frontier with civilization, where (again) civilization often seems to be the source of the problem.

In this case, Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a tracker who is called out to a murder scene in the cold Wyoming wilderness. An Indian girl has fled some horror that was great enough to set her off into subzero weather wearing very little clothes. Apparently, when the weather gets that cold, your lung sacs freeze, then burst, then you drown and/or asphyxiate in your own frozen blood, or something equally horrible. You get the idea.

Wonka FTW!
Honestly, he looks like Mike TeeVee all grown up.

Cory happens to know the girl, as she used to be best friend of his own daughter, who died a year previously under similar “mysterious” circumstances. (I put that in quotes because there seems to be little mystery as to what happened, except in the details, and the movie isn’t really a mystery, but a kind of action/thriller.) The death of his daughter seems ended his relationship with his wife (they were off canoodling when it happened) and left him with a whole passel of grief. When the movie starts, he’s picking up his son for his visiting time, and his wife says she’s moving to a different (nearby) city if she gets this good-paying job, and he should expect support to go up if that happens. (I didn’t quite parse the logic there but it’s not important.)

Anyway, daddy-son day is temporarily delayed as he goes to investigate with whomever the FBI sends up. And they happen to send up Elizabeth Olsen (as Jane Banner). This was perfect casting. A quick search indicates the Olsen is 5’6″ or even 5’7″ which, I suppose, is possible, but if so, I bet she struggles to hit 100 pounds on the scale. She’s wholly inappropriate for the job and the movie plays that to the hilt, complete with universal disdain amongst all the Wyomingans, whether Amerind or Caucasian.

Never mind.
She put on a lot of weight and facial hair for the ro—oh, that’s Graham Greene.

And, in a refreshing “twist”, no small degree herself. She knows she’s not the right person for the job, she’s just the person who happened to be closest.

Sheridan gets a lot of points from me for this character arc: She’s serious about what she does, but she’s forthright about her limitations and honest enough to see how severe they are in this context. She leans heavily on Cory, frustrated by the general lack of support the government is going to give this case. Her main contribution, in fact, is that she refuses to do things that will cause the case to simply be dismissed and her sent back to a warmer climate.

This is not nothing. Given her discomfort in the environment, it’s heroic in a way that Cory, whose actions are more traditionally heroic are not, as his are more personally motivated. Jane could just as easily signal half-a-dozen things to get herself out of there. (Of course, if she did, not much of a movie.)

As I say, it’s pretty clear upfront what’s going on, and the tale plays out too straightforwardly to be much of a mystery, but it’s good drama, with good action and some nice suspenseful moments, however quickly and violently those are resolved. The postscript tries to make hay out of the fact that the US doesn’t collect information on this kind of crime when they take place on reservations, but I think that’s because the US doesn’t collect any information on reservation crimes. It’s part of the faux-Indian-nation thing—a dumb charade that seems to provide nothing but opportunities for the government to behave badly, from what I can tell.

Anyway. Good film. Way better than Thunderheart, I’d say, even without Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard. And pretty refreshing in this day-and-age.

Avengers Disassemble!
Hey, it’s the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye!

Knightriders (1981)

The classics theme for August was “hog wild” and featured a lot of motorcycle movies made between those most awesome of years 1965-1975. I didn’t want to see Easy Rider, as is often the case with movies of this era, but I resisted the sense of obligation to see it. Easy Rider is generally considered the best of the genre, and even it’s not exactly great by all accounts. It’s just very of its time. Besides the time period, motorcycle movies tend to be about the culture, man—the counter-culture, which, tbh (as the kids say these days) does not bear close scrutiny. Basically, these tend to be movies about dissolute criminals whose do a lot of drugs, commit a lot of crimes, and basically leech off society. (The “Mystery Science Theater 3000” riffing subject Sidehackers, e.g., while laughably bad, is not unrepresentative of the genre, in my experience.)

Yeah...groovy.
If only the Sidehackers had maces!

I was adamant, however, that I wanted to see this film, however, which was George Romero’s entry into the genre—long past its prime, and with a medieval theme. If I recall correctly, Romero wanted to make a medieval fantasy flick but, let’s face it, horses are expensive and a pain-in-the-ass. So he put it in modern times and put everyone on motorcycles instead.

Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s what I was told. A long time ago. By somebody. Probably.

Anyway, I was a little bit nervous because I had seen it a long time ago on TV and been impressed, but it’s—well, it’s just a long shot, you know? George Romero made a lot of movies, and he did not always hit it out of the park. After the first two zombie movies, for example, his undead output was less than inspiring. When he missed, the movies could get dull. And this is a kind of kooky concept.

I'm just a square, man.
“Kooky…how? Exactly?”

Which, actually, is why it works. The idea is that Ed Harris, in his first feature film, if I’m not mistaken, runs a kind of travelling sideshow—a Renaissance Fair, but with motorcycles. And the main draw is people riding around on these motorcycles jousting and sometimes engaging in more direct hand-to-hand combat, though with stage weapons or armor. But the underlying current here (as is common in the biker films) is the culture that coalesces around the fair. The troupe acts as a sort of extended family, with each person performing certain roles and getting the benefits of the commune. As happened in real life, these communes don’t hold up well under the stresses of ordinary life.

In this case, the big threat comes in the form of success: A slick and sleazy booking agent and an equally slick and sleazy…I dunno…producer(?) gal seduce the most contentious of knights (Morgan, played by Tom Savini) away in a bid to create a more marketable, national product. Their special, souped-up armor looks exactly like KISS, I realized watching it this time, which was kind of hilarious.

That "e" after "party" is a bullshit attempt to make it seem like I know how Chaucer would've spelled "party".
“I…wanna joust and duel all ni-i-ight…and partye every day…”

Anyway, Billy (Ed Harris) is “fighting the dragon” and insisting people live by The Code, both of which are sort of inchoate objections about, I dunno, capitalism, maybe? Modern consumerism? The System, man? It doesn’t really matter much because Harris is so damn good, and there is a principal there, even if never clearly defined. They all agree on it, they all live by it, except when they don’t, which is when things go to hell.

The other reason this movie works is that it’s fun, and it never loses sight of that. (Though, apparently, the original cut was seventeen hours long! And there’s a limit to how much fun that could’ve been.) The medieval patina allows Romero to borrow from historical (and largely dubiously followed and understood) codes while the modernization keeps the movie from disappearing up its own ass—which, by the way is what would’ve happened had the film been made in Hollywood instead of Pittsburgh. While the show uses medieval music (except in one scene where everything is falling apart), the members of the community are free to break into more contemporary and bluesy sounds. A few attempts at medieval-sounding speech are quickly dismissed.

And perhaps the underlying reason for the movie’s success is that it was Romero’s own struggle to do what he wanted instead of what Hollywood wanted. I mean, you can look at the cast and crew for this on IMDB, and you’ll see plenty of people whose only credit is this film, or this film and other Romero films. Romero liked his home base and liked to do what he wanted to, and this was a rare instance where he actually got to. It probably didn’t make much, if any money, except maybe on videotape. (I can find no box office info for this online.)

We were privileged to have the stunt coordinator (Gary Davis) and one of the stuntmen (Scptt Wilder, I think)  with us—Ed Harris was prevented by the rain from showing up, alas—and they gave us a lot of cool stories about the making of the film. Actually, it might have been good that Harris didn’t show, just because he doubtless would’ve dominated the Q&A and after talk, and we’ll doubtless have lots more chances to hear from him than we would from these guys. Also: stunt guys are the best. (Also delightful:  Gary Davis’ daughter Jennifer Elizabeth was a baby when the film came out, and she’s actually involved in one of the stunts. She was at the showing as well, and she has the best baby picture ever of being held by a mime after her mother runs off.)

Mime...mom...mime...mom...
“Oh, what the hell, mom!!!?!”

We have noticed (the kids and I) that some of these old films with their stunts seem a whole lot more impressive than the modern CGIed stuff (though that too involves a lot of stunts, quite often!). I mean, with a classic stunt, what you see is pretty much what happened, clever edits aside. And this movie—a low budget flick to be sure—is chock full of some great motorcycle stunts. Apparently, if the stunt guys had a cool idea, they’d run it by George and he’d set up the script and story so that the stunt made sense.

Which goes back to what I was saying about the film never losing sight of being entertaining. However personal a statement it may have been, it was definitely made for an audience. And I was pleased and a little surprised to find that both the kids really enjoyed all two hours and twenty minutes of it, and really enjoyed talking to the stunt folk. (Though the talking to the stunt folk part wasn’t that surprising: These are not shy people, The Flower and The Boy.)

It’s wild, sure, but it’s bold enough to pull it off. And it’s a whole lot less gory than the zombie flicks, though it’s often not rated as highly as those. And, in fairness, it isn’t the genre masterpiece that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are. But it is a unique entry in the canon, and that’s worth something.

Savini is legendary as a makeup guy, but he should be legendary for THIS.
And now, your moment of zen.

Dunkirk

I knew this Christopher Nolan picture would be technically excellent and, also, I knew I would be pretty “meh” about it. So, yeah, expectations met. It’s not quite a Scorsese thing, as I never get more than “meh” about Scorsese, and I really like Memento, as most people seem to. My favorite Nolan film, though, is Insomnia and most people don’t think that’s one of his best. I think it really captures sleep deprivation, though.

Which, upon reflection, may seem like an odd recommendation if you don’t know The Enigma.

Unlike me.
This guy has NO idea what sleep deprivation is.

Anyway, Dunkirk is the story of the evacuation of the British (and a little bit of the French) army from a disastrous invasion from the city of Dunkirk, which is about midway between Calais (where you’d land if you were trying to swim the channel) and Bruges (where you’d land if you were an Englishman on holiday). I’m going to pause for a moment to point out the oddity of western (and these days western-influenced) culture’s near pornographic love of failure and low points in one’s own society, because this is a movie that truly revels in a low moment.

I mean, spoiler alert: The British do win the war, though you’d never know it from this.

But that’s a bit of a cavil, like the people arguing that it doesn’t show the heroism of all the NON-English troops. Well, no. It’s just a movie, not a historical document, and in danger of seeming a bit unfocused at an under 2 hours runtime. It didn’t need to be longer or have more perspectives.

Another point which seems both weirder and less of a cavil: You’d never know they were fighting the Germans. That’s a little…odd. I know Hollywood does things to protect the sensitivities of the Chinese, a massive market which is the logical hyper-endpoint of political correctness, but I think the Germans know what’s what. We see all these movies from Germany about their role in WWII, and they make a bunch of documentaries, too. They self-flagellate like every other Western culture.

Anyway, the story focuses on three basic storylines…no four, four basic story lines: A British solder attempting to get off Dunkirk, one ship that was part of the impromptu navy of British citizens dispatched to rescue soldiers, one or more fighter pilots who are providing cover for the ships (which are being bombed by the Luftwaffe—er, enemy planes), and a captain who’s landed on the beach to oversee the evacuation.

All of these people are completely indistinguishable from each other, physically.

I don't think he's in this shot, actually.
Our hero: 4th from the left, 8th from the back.

I kid. But not much. And I was forewarned by my folks who saw this before me: You get a bunch of pasty Saxons together and damned if it’s not hard to tell them apart. So, mostly I did okay because I was really on the lookout for unusual characteristics: A Gallic nose, a high forehead, stuff like that. Even so, there’s a medium-shot about halfway in where I have no idea who’s who, or what they’re saying.

The dialogue was tough to parse: There isn’t that much of it, really, which means when people do suddenly start talking after an action sequence, your ears have to adjust to the (presumably appropriately thick) accents. And then they’re talking WWII slang. This didn’t really bother me. It’s not a dialogue movie.

Kenneth Branagh played the captain, so he was pretty identifiable. Cillian Murphy is easy to spot, generally. The guys on the ship tend to be easy to recognize because they’re on a fishing ship and too young/too old to be soldiers. Also, the one blonde is on the ship. The pilots? Forget about it. They’re wearing face masks most of the time. At the end, I had to laugh because the one pilot we may or may not have been following throughout the film was Tom Hardy.

Maybe someday.
“Tom Hardy’s in this? I’ve always wanted to work with him!”

I couldn’t really follow the pilot thing. In the beginning there are three planes. One just vanishes. The other is shot down and, I think, the pilot is picked up by our fishing boat heroes. The last one is defending the beach from the (admittedly rather desultory) air rads from the Germans. The Boy lit upon that rather half-hearted attempt by the Germans to wipe out the troops from the air. The raids would come in ones and twos, never an all-out attack. We still don’t know if that was based on reality or not. (It may have involved the aforementioned French and Belgian efforts not shown in the movie.)

I didn’t realize it until halfway through the movie but the three threads are, literally, three different stories happening at different times that also happen to intersect occasionally. I did not care for that at all. One storyline has it night. Then another has it day. (The pilot stuff was all day, I think.) Then we switch back to the night storyline. But then it’s clear from the next cut we’re just seeing things out of time sequence.

Really, I liked Memento but enough. Tell a story in order for once, ya hack!

I kid. Nolan’s a genius. Ask anyone.

Anyway, The Boy liked it more than I did, but not that much more. I didn’t hate it or anything, for all my griping. Maybe if I were smarter I could enjoy Nolan’s films more. Or if I watched them multiple times. I don’t know.

My WWII expert tells me that the accuracy of the film is pretty dead on, except (and this bugged him, natch) for the train shot at the end. It was a modern train, apparently. (Others disagree about the accuracy. When I get around to studying it, I’ll read a book.)

I dunno. We all gots issues.

People are helpful.
The “Cajun Navy” is not without its precedent.

The Sandlot (1993)

“You’re killing me, Smalls!”

That line is why I had to see this 1993 movie I had (deliberately) overlooked back in 1993. Critics were disapproving and even now it has a dismal 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, while the public scores it an impressive 89%.

I’m gonna side with the audience today.

Good for him!
Patrick Renna warns me that I better.

This is a coming-of-age story written and directed by David Mickey Evans and co-written by Robert Gunter, who have not exactly covered themselves with glory since this one came out. (They worked on a poorly received sequel, and in the interim Evans did some of the Beethoven movies.) And this movie is simultaneously too rough and too slick for its own good, but it somehow all works out.

The idea is that nerdy kid moves to new neighborhood where he falls in with a group of eight other boys who have a baseball team. The star of the team takes him under his wing and teaches him to play, and despite their initial reluctance, the boys turn out to be pretty solid pals. The summer leads them through a series of seemingly loosely connected vignettes, including a cute, but highly improbable story of lifeguard-esse seduction. Mostly, however, they play ball in a lot next to a house occupied by a sinister man with the world’s meanest dog. Possibly an immortal dog.

He had a stint on "Freaks and Geeks" and "Gilmore Girls".
The kid in the glasses (Chauncey Leopardi) looks like a mini-Charles Martin Smith!

The movie works because it goes all out on the boy’s imaginations. We see the dog only in glimpses (and giant puppet-y paws), magnified by their imagination. The whole show is on that principle: It shows us the world, as literally as it can, through their eyes (as filtered through their pubescent brains). This is undeniable fun, if you can let yourself enjoy it. (More movies should do it, frankly.) It makes certain aspects (like the puppet dog) kind of cheesy, but that also keeps in with the feel of things. (Seriously, today they’d CGI the hound and it would lose all character.

It’s a bit slick in that everything ties together just perfectly. But that’s okay. It’s not trying to be anything other than it is: A fun movie we can all kinda-sorta relate to if we were ever kids.

The acting is surprisingly strong. The boys seem pretty natural, even in absurd situations. The only one I recognized was Patrick Renna, who grew up to be on “The X-Files” and in the first movie of the first After Dark horror fest Dark Ride. There was also Dennis Leary, James Earl Jones and Karen Allen, of course, but adults are practically props in these kinds of movies.

We had fun, which is something to say about a 25-year-old kidflick. Evans has a number of upcoming films that look like they have real potential, so perhaps we’ll see some more good stuff from him.

Time, time, time: See what's become of me!
20 years later!

In This Corner Of The World

And that’s what you get for bombing Pearl Harbor!

USA! USA! USA!
Representative of the mighty Imperial Navy, now at the bottom of the ocean floor.

I kid the Japanese! I kid because I love! And also because we pretty much wrecked up their country after WWII. Not the bombs, but the liberalization. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine Japan achieving their current childless, robot-loving, otaku state without it. (Aw, dammit, I just used this same Pearl Harbor joke for Grave of the Firelies. I must think it’s really funny.)

But this movie, In This Corner of the World, takes place before all that, when a young Japanese girl did all she could for the war effort and pretty much resigned herself to marrying whomever and going off to live with him and his family.

I’m not gonna speculate on why it is that middle-aged (and older) Japanese men seem to be preoccupied with the fates of young girls (Studio Ghibli, prominently), except that maybe that’s who goes to the movies in Japan: young girls (and maybe men who wish they were young girls—but I’m not gonna speculate, I tell ya!). I will say that they seem to be pretty good at it, however.

No really. It's very sweet.
Young love. (This is actually one of the least “kawaii” moments, in terms of the art.)

This is the story of Suzu, who grows up during the Japanese empire’s brutal expansion and of the ’30s (and the subsequent denouement of the ’40s). It is, fortunately, not a retelling of Grave of the Fireflies. (Not because Fireflies isn’t brilliant, but because one movie about children starving to death is enough.) When we meet Suzu, she is a pubescent girl who delights in telling her littler sister stories, which she draws pictures for. There’s a boy she likes, kind of an oddball, whose father is serving aboard a naval ship.

We flash forward a few years and the war is really heating up. It’s turning against the Japanese, though this is only subtly hinted at, because of course the Japanese government presented a constant “victory is at hand” message, and even suggesting otherwise was treason. But the interesting thing is that Suzu never really questions it. She isn’t happy about the privation (not nearly as severe as Fireflies, obviously) but she’s happy to contribute to the effort. She’s a good Japanese woman.

Lots.
A lot of very pretty landscapes shots to be admired.

She moves away from home to marry a stranger—her path crosses with the oddball boy a number of times, but he goes off to war, and she ends up with a very nice man who is unfit for service. There’s an interesting moment where they send her home, and she acts and seems to believe at some level that her marriage (about 18 months long at this point) never happened. This actually confused me until the segment was over and she had returned. (I think, partly, the kawaii style of the character drawings was such that it made passage of time a little bit hard to distinguish.)

In another interesting vignette, the oddball boy comes back and, as a warrior, he can basically make a claim against her. Her husband actually pushes her into his arms (not happily but with a sense of duty) and Suzu and the soldier spend the night together. However, Suzu has realized that she really loves her husband, and her childhood friend has no interest in forcing her into anything, only returning to see her because he thought her (nearly random seeming arranged marriage) was an unhappy one he could rescue her from. This is a nice story though it takes an aggressive amount of tamping-down-on-the-imagination to not figure how this sort of arrangement usually played out. (Suzu is rather naive and runs into a destitute girl she had encountered years earlier in a red-light district without clueing in.)

Interestingly, Suzu starts out just outside of Hiroshima but her husband lives further away. When the bomb hits, she’s not there to witness it, but instead goes back later hunting for friends and family. This is poignant in a way that being there for the bombs would not have been.

Hey, I'd have been upset, too.
This is when Suzu finds out Japan lost.

Also interesting is that Suzu’s despair comes from losing the war. You don’t see that a lot, but of course it makes sense. The hardship the Japanese (and even German and Italian) people endured made sense in the context of some larger glory promised to them by the Japanese elite. Something about a run-of-the-mill, sweetheart girl like Suzu expressing imperialist sentiments brought that home in a way that, e.g., Letters from Iwo Jima did not precisely.

There is a shocking and unforgettable moment with a little girl and a land mine, too.

I don’t know, folks: The Japanese own this kind of animation as a vehicle for telling non-kid stories. I imagine this to be in the “young adult” category as most of the anime/manga stuff is. But they really do kick ass and bend the genre in ways we don’t see in America. The kids loved it—but so did I!

Seemed so very real to me.
Was it just a dream?

 

Rifftrax: The Five Doctors (1983)

The last new Rifftrax Live of the year turned out to be a skewering of an early-model-fan-service “Dr. Who” special called “The Five Doctors”. The original should probably be mandatory viewing for those who insist that “Dr. Who” is something other than a children’s show. (Much like the various Ewok specials should be mandatory viewing for those who take Star Wars too seriously.) And I say this as someone who likes classic “Dr. Who”.

Maybe he dropped out after.
One of these figures is, in fact, a wax dummy.

The Rifftrax version, of course, is pretty fine viewing for everyone, though it must be admitted that the show has so much low-hanging fruit—the series has never been a glitzy high-budget TV show like, say, the ’70s “Battlestar Galactica” *kaff*—it could be in serious danger of seeming cruel. Fortunately, while there are plenty of shots at the frankly comical budgetary constraints, a general sense of good-natured silliness pervades.

Wonder how they did that suit back then?
The guy in the skin suit is “The deadliest assassin ever created” or somesuch.

As an attempt to cash in on nostalgia, it suffers from the fact that they only got three out of the five doctors. (The original TV Doctor, William Hartnell, had died in ’75 and Tom Baker was through with it for a while, so they just used scenes from an unaired show he had done while he was playing the part.)

In and amongst the stunned silences, as one gets from the truly bad source material, and the hasty attempts to get out in front of things that already absurd (sometimes rendering riffs gratuitous), you have a lot of good, creative and outside-the-box jokes that make the whole thing worthwhile.

I liked it better than the Summer Shorts session, which I felt was very uneven somehow, and it was less disorienting than Samurai Cop.

These are not great drawings.
They maybe should’ve called it “Three out of Five Doctors”.

Annabelle: Creation

We’ve had mixed luck, at best, with the whole “Oh, traffic is so bad, let’s stay and watch a movie instead” approach. And “mixed” is probably being generous. Not only are the movies disappointing, frequently, the traffic hasn’t let up by the time we’re out.

Woooohhhhh
“And when they pulled on to the 101, IT WAS STILL JAMMED!”

But we try.

And in this case, it worked out all right. Annabelle: Creation is not, in fact, a sequel to The Conjuring or The Conjuring 2 but rather a prequel to Annabelle—which we never saw. Heh. It’s part of the same “cinematic universe” as they style it in these bloated, grandiose days, but it’s really only a kind of pseudo-continuity explaining how the evil doll featured prominently in those other movies came to be. This, apparently, was why David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) agreed to direct it in the first place.

It’s a little disappointing, in the sense that Lights Out was kind of fresh-feeling and had the weird kind of internal logic that the best horror movies have, and this—The Boy commented as we were leaving, and it was exactly what I was thinking—is a “funhouse horror” type flick, only with a sort of really heavy theological undertone that feels somehow inappropriate.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of “funhouse horror”, it’s a term I coined to describe horror designed solely to provide momentary, transient scares, like a funhouse ride. It’s the kind of movie where, one something happens, you think “Why did that happen?” and the answer is “Because it was scary.” Occasionally, as here, there’s an idea that the purpose of fear is fear, and the meta-explanation (“because scary movies should be scary”) has an “in-story” explanation as well (“the demons feed on fear”, a trope I’ve used myself on occasion). But this usually feels like a thin rationalization for producing often very cool imagery and scares. (And can be beaten to death in films like all the original Friday The 13th movies.)

This is not an insult, by any means. Some of our favorite horrors are funhouse: PhantasmAutopsy, A Nightmare on Elm Street and so on. It’s completely legitimate, just like a comedy movie that just makes you laugh is legitimate.

BUT IT'S SCARY!
For example, there’s no reason for this contemporary camera man to show up in a 1950s girl’s bedroom.

It’s a little off, here, though, because the Conjuring universe is a heavily Christian one. The Warrens (the paranormal detective couple from The Conjuring) were devout Catholics, and their sensibility—which is well respected in the movies—is more akin to The Exorcist than modern areligious horror. This is “hold up a cross to defend yourself” and “fear for your immortal soul” territory, not the more materialistic “the boogen’s gonna get us” stuff where any reference to souls is basically a transparent exaggeration meant to ramp things up.

It’s also a little off because our victims in this case, are children: Orphans who have been relocated from their orphanage to the house where Annabelle was made. Having children (not teens) endure pain and suffering, and to ultimately be the victims of demonic possession and torture, tends to take things out of the funhouse and (again) back into The Exorcist territory.

Challenge accepted, apparently.
Tormenting handicapped children is dangerous ground, is what I’m saying.

I’m just giving you all this to point out that the movie was weighed down a bit by its own universe. Otherwise, it’s a fine, fine funhouse horror. These guys—and I assume Sandberg had some input from James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence, Insidious, the Conjuring, etc.) and his crew—really know what they’re doing as far as atmosphere, timing, misdirection, and even character development. It really feels like it’s part of that same “universe” even as Sandberg puts his own style on it, which is good.

The funhouse feel works against a bit it in terms of escalation and suspense. The end feels like “we need a boffo finish” more than anything that proceeds from the previous events, but a film truly committed to the funhouse ethos can go balls-out crazy which wouldn’t fit in here at all.

Australian actors Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto (Eowyn from Lord of the Rings) provide the adult supervision, of sorts, to the gaggle of girls they’re hosting, and there’s some really fine acting amongst those lovely young girls, who basically have to carry most of the dramatic and horror aspects of the show. We liked it, but we had the same slight disappointment relative to both the quality of the other Conjuring movies and Lights Out, but I think it’s fair to say (without having seen it) that it’s far better than its predecessor, which is the strange world we live in these days.

No, that would be too horrible to contemplate.
“One more step and I make another sequel to ‘The Ring’!”

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

I didn’t expect to like this movie, this poster child for that era of filmmaking where the “director was the auteur” that the critics love so well, and that was killed by Spielberg, Lucas, Corman (if we’re being honest) and had the final nail driven into its coffin by the disaster that was Heaven’s Gate.

I didn’t expect to like it, and I was surprised to discover that, not only did I not like it, I was mostly bored throughout. I expected it to be, I dunno, more sensationally boring—and if you can’t imagine what “sensationally boring” would be like, think grindhouse or splatter, where everything is really conventional and dull but then there’s some gratuitous nudity and graphical violence in the mix—but this didn’t really have either. I mean, I guess it’s violent, but it’s ’70s cop drama violence. A little more (really cartoonish) blood than on “Kojak”.

I mean, maybe not in real life, who knows?
Pictured: Beautiful morons.

And this is the sort of movie The Old Man used to go on about. He would concede (e.g.) Martin Scorsese’s technical prowess but then say, “So why waste that on telling the story of a stupid, wife-beating drunk, whose main claim to fame was being too stupid to know when to fall down.” (A not inaccurate capsule of Raging Bull.)

In this case we have beautiful-but-moronic and sexually dysfunctional Clyde Barrows (Warren Beatty) who is yet still charismatic enough to lure beautiful-and-perhaps-slightly-less-stupid Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) away from her not-very-interesting life as a waitress to go bank robbing with him. Let me pause for a minute and discuss how stupid this set-up is: Barrow is all charm and sexiness when he seduces Parker but then when it’s time to put out, he’s practically surprised and a little appalled that she wants to have sex with him.

There’s no evidence for any of this, mind you. Besides not making sense, it adds very little to the story, except to give them duo a sort of character arc where they can have sex right before they’re murdered by the law. Jesus save us from the ’60s.

And "original sin" while we're at it.
I’d like a do-over on this “free will” business.

They’re not competent. They rob banks rather willy-nilly. And naturally, they end up killing some poor sap who takes his job a little too seriously. Barrows is sort of flabbergasted that he meets with any violence at all. Again, sub-moron level stuff. But it’s okay, ’cause they’re pretty. They get a kid mechanic, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), on board—by this time he’s 28, but he played a teenager in a “Star Trek” episode (“Miri”) around the same time and I always sort of felt he was playing a kid in Roxanne 20 years later, and his hair was white then. Anyway, it’s actually Moss’s passion for double-parking the car legally that results in the first murder, I believe.

Later they hook up with Barrow’s brother (Gene Hackman) and sister-in-law (Estelle Parsons) who reluctantly joins in the shenanigans. This is kind of tragic and not really developed: She’s put herself out (as a minister’s daughter) on a limb to reform Hackman’s character, and she’s really upset by everything, and then she just sort of joins in. Later she rats them out to the cops, though not with any evil intention. (This also is entirely fabricated.)

Heh. I wish.
She literally screams “OSCAR!” at this point.

The law catches up with them really quickly, at least in part because they’re being used as scapegoats across the country by the perpetually dishonest media. It’s not quite two hours, but you’ll feel every minute of it as they wander aimlessly on a path of ever increasing violence. The movie expects you to sympathize with them, but it dares you to do so at the same time. If they had gotten less attractive actors, this flick never would’ve played at all.

They’re sociopaths, basically, as portrayed. They murder people and feel no remorse whatsoever. At one point, near the end, Bonnie asks Clyde what he’d do differently, and all he can come up with is that he would’ve planned his robberies better. She’s a little disappointed, though it’s not really clear why. It’s all murky.

One nice bit is when the gang kidnaps Gene Wilder and the gorgeous Evans Evans (widow of John Frankenheimer). It was Wilder’s feature debut, and if I recall correctly, it was his idea to play the sequence for laughs. Because, otherwise, it would’ve just been a horror show, and made you hate the gang even more. It’s a cute ensemble scene. I don’t recommend watching the full two hours just for that though.

Evans would go on to marry John Frankenheimer.
So shines a good deed in a weary world.

It was nominated for a bunch of Oscars but only captured the supporting actress statuette for Estelle Parsons (who plays the reluctant sister-in-law) and cinematography. The latter I don’t see, frankly, as it was up against In Cold Blood which I remember as being quite striking, and this—it wasn’t bad, or anything. Actually, a review of the Oscars for that year kind of says it all: In The Heat of the NightThe GraduateGuess Who’s Coming To Dinner (another film I expect to see and not like), even Wait Until Dark and In Cold Blood—these do not speak of a high vision. It’s as if Hollywood wanted to punish people for going to the movies (a sentiment not as far-fetched as you might believe).

This was pretty much the turning point for when the Oscars started to go to Hell. (Well, the previous year presaged it, but that year the amazing A Man For All Seasons won.)

Look at those sexy bullet holes!
Crime doesn’t pay, but at least it’s sexy.

Weird Science (1985)

I didn’t sell the kids on this one. So far, I’ve steered them away from the Hughes oeuvre, not because I think his movies were awful, but because I think they’re rather over-rated, especially by my generation (which grew up on them). But I did want to see this one in particular because its got a goofy premise that keeps it from being too pretentious (like, maybe, The Breakfast Club), and I thought the kids would also enjoy seeing the nerdy Anthony Michael Hall (before his jock-turn in Edward Scissorhands), Robert Downy Jr (pre-Iron Man) and a pre-Aliens Bill Paxton.

Also, it’s possibly the ’80s-est movie ever.

I think it had its own show, "Monsters".
Even the Bill Paxton monster is ’80s as all get-out.

The premise is basically Mary Poppins grafted on to a benign teen sex comedy. Gary (Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who wisely chose to teach rather than act*) are hard up for female attention so they do what any super-nerd of the day would do: They use their super-powered Commodore 64 (actually a Memotex 512, which I’ve never even heard of) to build a girlfriend. (And, you know, for a boy in the ’80s, Kelly LeBrock is the sort of woman you would build, were you building one.) Said girlfriend then takes them on many adventures to get them to, basically, loosen up and be themselves.

Which was the motto of the day, as it is every day. They get a little life experience, which helps, and then they get a final confrontation with Vernon Wells, who is wearing the exact same clothes and playing the exact same character as he did in Road Warrior. Which was hilarious at the time. It’s still pretty funny because there’s literally no explanation for any of it, and things get really weird when the boys try to recreate their experiment for Robert Downey and Robert Russler’s characters, but end up making a tomahawk or some other deadly missile in the middle of the house.

I sorta think not but...
I wonder if this “classic ’80s moment” gets a shout out in “Ready Player One”.

It’s goofy. And like all of Hughes’ teen stuff it is obsessed with the notions of popularity and “in-groupism” in a way I couldn’t even relate to at the time, much less now. But it barely takes itself seriously beyond a respect for the characters that makes some of the (very light) drama work. Even Paxton, who gets turned, literally, into a typical-80s puppet/animatronic pile-of-crap, is given a degree of respect.

It runs about 90 minutes: Approximately the same length of time Hughes took to write it. But it holds up quite well for what it is. The kids liked it, especially the Flower, who begrudgingly allows that not all ’80s fashion was horrible.

On LeBrock.
The “half-shirt and boys brief” look, e.g., is a classic.

*Not because he’s a bad actor, but because…y’know, Hollywood.

Cape Fear (1962)

We followed up the Mitchum noir Out of the Past with the J. Lee Thompson thriller Cape Fear, which was famously remade into hash by Martin Scorsese. Possibly J. Lee Thompson’s greatest film (next to Guns of Navarrone, maybe) and holy hell what happened to Mitchum?! We had just seen him and he was so handsome and now, not only is he a murderous thug, he looks every day of his 45 years, and then some. It isn’t just the role: He was also in The Longest Day the same year and he still looks like an unmade bed.

Can't hide the double chin, though.
Peck and Balsam admire Mitchum’s Shatnerian ability to suck in his gut.

This doesn’t hurt that much here, because his attraction is only to the lowest of the low. In this case, Barrie Chase, the gorgeous 29-year-old dancer who manages to pull off “desperate runaway lowlife” really well, however badly it ends for her character.

Which is quite badly indeed.

Which is weird, because she basically calls Mitchum pond scum (affectionately).
Ms. Chase suspecting the date not going as well as she hoped.

Noticably missing from the original story here is any attraction between Nancy and Max Caty—but I get ahead of myself.

The story is simple enough: Good guy lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, at his Peckest) finds himself terrorized by Max Caty, a vicious criminal he put away years earlier. Note that he put him away by testifying to crimes he witnessed Caty comitting—unlike the horrible, murkier Scorsese version where Sam frames Caty!—and that’s enough for Caty to want to torture and abuse his daughter Nancy. It’s payback, in his twisted mind, for the prison term that kept him away from his wife and son.

And Mitchum’s recounting of his vengeance on the wife is chilling, and entirely verbal.

OK, he's not that doughy.
Polly Bergen, reasonably freaked out.

The tension in this movie comes from Sam realizing that the law really does not protect you against bad actors who haven’t quite acted badly enough yet. And while Sam is no match for the brutal Caty, he doesn’t really fear him: He fears for his wife and daughter, though, as Caty has explicitly told him his plans. And so Sam must act in an increasingly lawless fashion to protect himself. Martin Balsam does a fine job as the lawman—The Flower recognized him from Psycho but not from 12 Angry Men, where he was much more wish-washy—and Tell Savalas (with hair!) provides the sort of seedy-undercurrent side of detective work, though to no avail.

The shenanigans all lead to a showdown outside of the titular Cape Fear, where Peggy (Polly Bergen) and Nancy (Lori Martin) must escape Caty’s evil plans. Bergen and Martin are terrific here. And, as mentioned earlier, unlike the Scorsese remake, there’s no attraction between Nancy and Caty which would be weird and gross (and really out of character). Whether it’s the toll of the years or just Mitchum’s acting (which is still top notch), it’s really hard to believe any decent woman would be attracted to him. I mean, he’s a dog murderer, for crying out loud.

Really fine film. Not as good as Out of the Past but head-and-shoulders above the remake which, in typical Scorsese style, favors moral ambiguity over the original movie (and James MacDonald book, I’m guessing) which is a struggle of good vs. evil, and how the veneer of civilization is about as thin as we let it be. It’s also more exciting, less overwrought, and generally more fun. I mention all this not to rag on Scorsese (as I do occasionally) but because I actually had some reluctance to see this film because the remake was (to me) so creepy and icky.

The kids liked this one, too, though. The Flower more than Out of the Past, the Boy more on the fence.

Which is plenty creepy.
I mean, honestly. Things are creepy enough as it is.

Out of the Past (1947)

To my generation, to the extent we knew of Robert Mitchum at all, it was as a doughy, baggy-eyed, sleepy-looking dude who showed up in the occasional miniseries and apparently had made a movie that Martin Scorsese remade called Cape Fear. The idea of him as a heartthrob seemed a little far-fetched by his 60s—even in his late 40s, as we’d find out when we saw Cape Fear after this.

I mean, you wouldn't think they'd need to these days.
A nice still (i.e., scene not actually in the movie). Do they still shoot stills?

But at thirty? Well, hubba-hubba, as the kids say. He was charismatic, dark, a little dangerous but deep-down, the right woman could change him. (The ladies love that, right?)

In this story, a remake of 2005’s A History of Violence (wait, what?) Mitchum plays Jeff, a small town gas-station owner who has the sweetest girlfriend in the area Ann (Virginia Huston, looking appropriately demure) and a local rival by the name of Jim who doesn’t much like his ways. Then one day an old war buddy, Joe (Paul Valentine, who’s probably best known for being married to stripper Lily St. Cyr) shows up looking for him.

But (shock!) Joe isn’t an old war buddy at all! He’s a thug working for a gangster named Whit (Kirk Douglas) who wants to use him for that One Last Job. Jeff starts to feeling guilty so he has Ann drive him to the rendesvouz so he can explain his sordid past to her in a glorious filmed noir flashback. Turns out he was consigliere to Whit until one day the boss sends him on a mission to retrieve his wandering girlfriend and the $40,000 she took from him. Jeff’s good at what he does and chases her down to Mexico where, you’ll be surprised to learn, he dsicovers she’s so freakin’ hot, he just doesn’t care about the consequences of maybe not returning her to Whit.

"And stop filling out my girlfriend!"
“I want you to fill out my 1040EZ, Jeff!”

Jane Greer (as Kathie The Moll) is ridiculously good looking in this film, no doubt. And she plays the femme fatale to a tee, painting herself as the victim of Whit’s abusive behavior and innocent of any stealing of any $40,000. Jeff bites (natch) and the two end up on the lam. It’s only when they’re holed up in a cabin in the woods, and one of Whit’s flunkies has tracked him down, that her true character is revealed. She murders the poor bastard, leaving Jeff to bury the body in the woods. Jeff also gets a glimpse of a rather suspicious $40,000.

Well, that’s about the time when ol’ Jeff decides to hang up his gangster shoes. Flashback over.

The ridiculously virtuous Ann assures him that, like Vegas, what’s in the past stays in the past as if she hasn’t even seen the title of this picture! But he needs to get his feelings about Kathie squared away and come back to her. And the movie does a pretty good job of presenting Kathie—who has returned to Whit—as appealing despite the whole murder/larceny thing. But they don’t play it too clever: It’s pretty clear that she’s horrible and Jeff’s only going to be a little duped by her hotness.

Those shadows, tho'.
If only sinning wasn’t so tempting.

This doesn’t last too long, though, when he realizes she’s spilled the beans to Whit about their relationship and, oh, also the dead guy Jeff buried in the woods who he’d totally get burned for killing. This leads to a typically noirish plot where he’s supposed to be getting this incriminating book from generic The Accountant and his hot secretary (Rhonda Fleming!) but it’s all a setup to frame Jeff because they kill The Accountant and call the cops but Jeff figures it out and moves the body and manages to come up with a plan to clear his name of both murders but it’ll be like walking a tightrope and…

Phew!

Point is, Mitchum is a dreamboat here and you totally get why the ladies swoon over him and the guys seethe with resentment at their relative lack of masculinity. He’s really good here. He would be good in Cape Fear as well but 15 years of marijuana usage will have done zero favors for his looks.

This movie, though, is one of the greatest noirs ever. The kids dug it. The Flower had her suspension of belief challenged by the ending, which is a car crash, because the cars are so clearly models. But Cape Fear would present its own challenges, in the form of middle-aged Mitchum…

o/~Get her out of my heart~\o
Help me, Rhonda.

Vertigo (1958)

The problem with giving kids information and letting them come to their own conclusions, of course, is that they often come to the wrong damn conclusions! I mean, if the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Magazine says Vertigo is the greatest film of all time, who are you to say otherwise?

My kids have no respect for authority.

Carlotta followed me on Twitter!
The Ghost of Carlotta Valdez disapproves.

I’m kidding, of course. Not about the “no respect for authority”; that’s dead on. But that I cared whether or not they agreed with the BFI or not. Actually, I warned them going in that, while the movie was very good indeed, it probably wouldn’t be their favorite of all time. And, in fact, they actually liked Frenzy (1972) a bit better, which is probably a bit unusual way to rank Hitchcock films, at least these days.

It only broke even at the time, and Hitch blamed Jimmy Stewart who, at 50, was too old to play Kim Novak’s love interest. On the other hand, Stewart and Novak were in the “blockbuster” Bell, Book and Candle the same year. Note that BB&C may not have actually been a blockbuster, since tortured and secretive Hollywood accounting doesn’t permit the truth to come out, and Wikipedia lists Vertigo in the top 10 box office for the year (“citation needed”) at around $5.5M but also gives a figure about half that under the entry for Vertigo itself, and doesn’t list BB&C at all in its top 10.

Whatever. The Novak/Stewart chemistry is just fine, in both movies, not so much because Stewart isn’t old but because the 25-year-old Novak has such poise and grace (as needed) she seems much older. She actually seems older than Stewart in BB&C, where she plays a 200-year-old witch.

My, my, my.
Amazing. 20-somethings who are also grownups.

However, The Flower pointed out the real problem, and this will be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film.

[Spoiler Space]

[More Spoiler Space]

[Below The Picture Spoiler Space]

Stewart does not get the girl at the end. Primarily, one presumes, because she falls to hear death from the mission tower when the spooky nun comes up. And I remember that bothering me quite a bit when I first saw it, too.

The second time I saw it, I thought it was overlong (2 hours and 8 minutes) and the animated sequences didn’t work.

Anyway, this time, I realized, well, Judy (Novak) is kind of a monster. She conspires with Gavin Elster to cover up the murder of his wife—which, one must note, has not happened yet, so she’s an accessory to murder—leaves Scottie (Stewart) on the hook for the murder, and lets him twist in the wind in a sanitarium thinking he let her fall to her death because of his acrophobia. (Somehow, when De Palma was ripping this off, repeatedly, he never once called a movie Acrophobia.)

I kid because what're they gonna do? Haunt me?
I AM OZ! THE GREAT AND POWERFUL!

Stewart’s bound to be, well, a little upset over this. And yet, in the Hitchcockian tradition, you kind of expect him to get over it, and for the two to live happily ever after. There’s a lot of betrayal and mistrust in Hitchcock movies between men and women, after all, though in most cases it’s misunderstanding based on exigent circumstances (like pretending to work for the bad guy, a la North by Northwest or Notorious).

In this case, no, Judy has genuinely psychically scarred Scottie, to where he walks around seeing her in every well-coiffed blonde on the street. (A great sequence that anyone who’s ever had a broken heart can relate to.)

Is it great? Undoubtedly. I buy into the supernatural angle every time, just like I always think that Eve is a real go-getter.

Is it the greatest? Mmmm. I dunno. I dunno if it’s the greatest Hitch film, much less the greatest film of all time. It’s awful dark, without Hitch’s usual sense of humor. I don’t want to blame the French, but the novelists were the same frogs who did Diabolique and Demoniac, which are not exactly light romps. You could argue that Psycho and Frenzy are also not light romps, but I think you’d be wrong: In most of Hitch’s films there is a clear good-vs-evil struggle and it is the clarity, not the magnitude of the evil, that makes a film darker or lighter.

In Vertigo, we’re presented a doomed love story where we can’t help but want Judy to succeed, to win, to escape, but the morality of the play insists that the murderer must meet his fate. So, we get darkness. All because Scottie couldn’t get over whatever it was Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, a decrepit 36-year-old at the time) did to him in college, or whatever.

Great film, but if you’re expecting the greatest, you might be disappointed.

But SHE left HIM!
One can only hope Scottie comes around and goes back to Midge.

To Die For (1995)

You know, I missed this when it came out but I always sort of regretted it. At the same time, I had come to suspect that it was not, in fact, very good. But Nicole Kidman won a Golden Globe (best actress in a musical or comedy, which, okaaay) and she’s one of those actresses that I sort of like but not as much as I think I should—which, I suppose, is the sign of a really good PR agent.

Oh, we hadn't seen NOTHING yet, had we?
What’s not to love?

When all is said and done, Ms. Kidman is to be commended for a tremendous performance as the dimwitted sociopath but, yeah, it’s not a great movie. Between The Boy, his Girl, The Flower and I, I was the only one who really liked it, and I didn’t really like it. The Boy and his Girl were bored, I think because they didn’t get the element of cunning that was central to the Suzanne Stone (Kidman) character. They thought she was just a dummy, and so when she starts running around with Joaquin Phoenix while her none-to-bright husband (Matt Dillon, who I have always liked much more since he grew up) is away, they god bored.

But if you look at the whole thing as a set-up from the get-go. That she planned to kill him the moment he first says “No” to her, then it’s—well, it’s not a lot more interesting, but it’s less aimless. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay but none of the kids recognized him from The Graduate, nor did they recognize Phoenix from Gladiator.

I guess it's just what the "in" crowd was wearing in '95.
Did they give Kidman a Lewinsky-do? No, I guess this movie predates the scandal by a few years.

The story is simple enough: Suzanne is a small-town girl who is very ambitious. She hooks up and marries Larry (Dillon), which is fine because he has a little money and doesn’t get in her way. She cheats on him on her honeymoon because, somehow, having sex with George Segal will help her career. (In fairness, it probably has helped someone’s career at some point.)

She goes back to her small town to dominate the local cable access station, which doesn’t account for much until she lights on doing a “youth of today” piece featuring Jimmy (Phoenix), Russell (Case Affleck, whom the kids also didn’t recognize) and Lydia (Allsion Foland, who launched a 15-year career with this lucky break). Suzanne quickly lights on how easy it would be to manipulate them all, and she does.

It's just bizarre.
This dance scene is one of the many moments you realize how profoundly dumb the people you’re dealing with are.

It’s funny. But it’s funny in a dark way. Which people don’t generally like. Completely lost on the kids was the social relevance of the whole thing: This was just post Amy Fisher/OJ Simpson trial when one could suddenly become incredibly famous simply by being awful enough to fill some air time. The appalling cultural reaction to this—not so appalling that it curbed it in any way, mind you—is now barely a dull murmur in a world of Kardashians.

It’s okay. For my money, a really good black comedy has to have an unhappy or a  happy ending that’s all wrong, like Tim Robbins’ fate in The Player or Peter Finch’s in Network or the world’s in Dr. Strangelove. In this movie, justice is ultimately served, and while it’s kind of a funny gag, it feels sorta like it doesn’t fit.

I wouldn’t recommend it to many people.

Even if she is Nicole Kidman. Especially if she's Nicole Kidman.
Sometimes ya gotta listen to what mom and sis have to say about your girlfriends.

 

The Beguiled (2017)

This is one of those movies that has a controversy attached, which is so completely irrelevant to, well, just about anything, that you almost wonder whether the studio just ginned it up because, well, it wasn’t going to do very well anyway. This movie made about $15M box, which puts it at about twice as successful as the 1971 original (which made a paltry $1.1M, which works out to about $7M adjusted for inflation). I’m not sure you can realistically draw much from such a comparison, but that won’t stop me, as you’ll see.

She seems happier with Colin's attentions in the film.
Predatory film critic eyes remake.

But first, the “controversy”: Apparently, Sofia Coppola said she didn’t want to remake this movie until she saw that there was an opportunity to tell it from the feminine POV. I’ve heard this as “she remade the movie with women in the male parts” but from what I can tell (I haven’t seen the original) there’s really no room for anyone other than the one male in the story. But there are a lot of perspectives—well, not a lot, only about two interesting ones—from which you could tell this story and she told it in a more (I guess) female-positive way.

There are not a lot of role models to be found in this film. Maybe Clint Eastwood is more of a heroic figure in the original but, I doubt it. I suspect that’s why it didn’t do very well.

Anyway, whatever she did, which I feel confident was Sofia Coppola doing what Sofia Coppola wanted and not part of some larger political agenda, it met with protest amongst Social Justice Warriors who took her to task for making it all about white Women. Of course, had she thrown in any women of color, SJWs would then complain because she was co-opting the voices of women-of-color. And so on.

The indignity!
They’re not only white, they’re WEARING white!

More importantly, however, given that this is a story of a Union corporal named McBurney who finds himself recuperating in a girls’ school after a grave injury, using women of color would’ve been, well, interesting if not entirely authentic.

Coppola’s best choice, probably, was putting Colin Farrell in the McBurney (Clint Eastwood) role. Farrell is not much like Eastwood, and he has a glib charm and volatility which is hard to see as part of the Eastwood persona. (Actually, I’d say one of the best things about this movie is it put me in mind to see the original.) And with that part of the movie aside, we can really focus on what’s going on here without constantly comparing to the original.

The tension comes at first from the “Well, if we turn him over, they’ll put him in a camp and he’ll die from his wounds.” So the ladies have to essentially betray their countrymen in order to keep him alive. But this quickly turns into an attraction between him and Edwina, the old maid of the house (Kirsten Dunst, who is actually pretty plausible in the role). Although we’re never really clear to what extent this attraction McBurney is feigning his attraction to Edwina because he sees her as a potentially useful patsy to fall back on when things get rough.

Both, actually.
Old Maid or Seething Cauldron Of Untapped Passion?

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the house matron and, well, I’ll allow it. She can do cold-blooded with an underlying current of passion better than most, and that’s front-and-center here, as she is also attracted to McBurney. Ellie Fanning rounds out the adult players as Alicia, who’s what you might call a “difficult girl”. Or, you might, from another perspective, call her an “easy girl”.

Well, you see the problems inherent in this situation, I trust.

The movie quickly devolves into that most reviled of genres, Southern Gothic. OK, maybe I’m the only one who hates it, but I really don’t like it much at all. It’s horror without the fun. It’s more the horrible than genuine horror. It’s wallowing in human decadence.

I kind of liked the movie nonetheless. I’ve noticed that Sofia’s father has had a strong influence on the way she lights and blocks shots, and that’s not a bad thing. She gets good performances from her people, too—again, much like her father. But she always seems to have her own, highly personal vision of what she’s doing. Her voice is very clearly her own, in other words. That’s a good thing.

It's not James Wong Howe, but it'll do.
At least one director in Hollywood still knows how to block.

I was actually stuck in Santa Monica after dropping The Flower off at the beach when I saw this. I wanted to go to see Jodorowky’s new movie but it was all the way over on the other side of Santa Monica, about 5 miles from where I was. And that 5 miles was going to take a half-an-hour to do, by which time I would’ve been late. Which, perhaps wouldn’t have matter with Jodorowsky. Still, I probably enjoyed this more.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Yeah, it played again. Yeah, we saw it again. Yeah, we laughed our asses off, like we had never seen it before.

What more can I say? It was The Flower’s third time, and The Boy’s third time, at least. I’m sure I’m into double-digits by now. I don’t think I’ve ever actually done a real review…

And today is not that day either!

Double Indemnity (1944)

When Fred MacMurray first meets Barbara Stanwyck, she’s been sunbathing on the roof (possibly even in THE NUDE) and Fred says, “No pigeons around, I hope.” You can DuckDuckGo this. You’ll find a lot of articles that mention this. Some, rather thickly, in the context of misogyny or just flirting. I have yet to see one mention of the obvious:

Fred MacMurray is the pigeon.

Coo.
Barbara Stanwyck spots a pigeon. (That wig, tho’.)

That’s the beauty of the line. When the movie opens, Walter Neff (MacMurray) is bleeding to death (maybe) in Edward G. Robinson’s office while he records his confession—the story that unfolds in flashback. So the very first thing the movie tells us is: He’s the pigeon, and he’s not aware of it until the last possible moment.

It’s a timeless tale: Phyllis is a trophy wife (in the parlance of our times) who almost immediately hooks Neff into her plan to murder her husband for the insurance money. Since Neff is a sales guy who works closely with a claims investigator (a great performance from Edward G. Robinson) he knows you can’t get away with that kind of thing, see?

And you know you’re noir and in for it when your objection isn’t “Hey, you know, maybe killing your husband for money isn’t really a solid moral choice” but “You’ll never get away with it.” Because, of course, Neff’s given this a lot of thought, and he’s figured out the perfect way to commit a murder, and make it look like an accident so you get the double indemnity payout to boot!

We have move title!
“Can’t be done. Let me explain how to double your profits, though.”

Well, the fact that the movie begins with Neff bleeding and recording his confession pretty much tells you how it all works out, but it’s a terrific journey. Lots of suspense and paranoia and maybe—just maybe—you’ll learn a little something about, uh, not trying to base your love on adultery and murder.

This was Billy Wilder’s third film in America (Five Graves to Cairo and The Major and the Minor were his previous two) and he only directed one film in France previously (he himself was Austro-Hungarian!), but the whole thing comes off as polished and well-constructed as Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said people often praised him for Witness For The Prosecution—and apparently Wilder got a lot of praise for The Paradine Case, and Hitch is the winner in the case of mistaken identity.)

MacMurray is great. The warmth and wisdom he would later come to be synonymous with is utterly missing here. He comes off more like a Bogie type, except for being a bad guy. The movie doesn’t really do much to soften him: He’s hot for Stanwyck, but there’s no real romanticism of their love. He knows the kind of woman she is up front.

Eddie G!
“Now, I’M the good guy, see?”

Stanwyck…well, she had hair problems. She’s got a goofy wig on. She didn’t do it for me. (I liked her way better in The Lady Eve.) Which isn’t, by the way, to say that she was bad or anything. But I have a similar reaction to The Maltese Falcon. Mary Astor is the weak link, not because she can’t act, but because she isn’t smoking hot enough. (Like a Lauren Bacall or a Veronica Lake or a Rita Hayworth…)

The dialogue pops. It’s impossibly arch and awesome. Wilder wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain’s novel, so…yeah. The story is tight and the characters are sharply drawn. It’s just solid moviemaking. So much great camera work by John F. Seitz. It gets the point across stylishly without being super-showy.

Killer score by the great Miklós Rózsa.

Why wouldn’t you watch his?

Go figure.
This shot isn’t in the movie, but wow! I guess Neff lives to be put in the gas chamber?

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Duh-duh-DUH-duh! Duh-duh-duuuuuuh! Duh-duh-duh-DUH! Duh-duh-DUH! DUH! DUH! Duh-duh-DUH-duh! Duh-duh-duuuuuuh! Duh-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-duh-duh-duh (dee-duh-duh-duh).

You can totally sing the theme reading that. Don’t lie.

'cause it's a really drab font.
I bet you don’t remember THIS font from the title. I bet you remember the one from the poster.

Rather famously (infamously), I went from enjoying this movie when it first came out to just totally losing my suspension of disbelief in one scene: Indy’s sub ride. He gets on top of the sub to go somewhere (he doesn’t know where). And on DDGing (my new verb for web searching) it, I discover that the topic was apparently broached on “The Big Bang Theory”. (They ripped me off!)

See, if the sub dives, you’re dead. And why wouldn’t the sub dive? (They’re actually yelling “Dive! Dive!” in German.) In the original script, they put the periscope up and he ties his whip to that. Still. All they’d have to do is go deeper for a few minutes and he’d be toast.

It’s the sort of thing you do if you know you’re the hero and can’t die.

I was impressed, on seeing this again, at how short that sub ride is. Doesn’t negate my point, but it loomed so prominently in my mind—I thought that they crossed the Atlantic—that it was funny to see that they were in the Mediterranean the whole time. It didn’t offend me so much this time.

Wait, what?
It’s okay! It turns out the water only goes up to your knee anyway!

On the other hand, I’m at a loss (and the kids were, too) to distinguish this so strongly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I asked them afterwards which they preferred and they couldn’t really answer. I still think ToD edges it out for me, because—eh, I’m not sure. They both have a nice comic-book “Weird Tales” vibe.

The idea that either needed a new rating is a little silly, in my opinion. The violence is so comic booky.

Karen Allen and Harrison Ford have a nice chemistry. And Allen is less screamy than Mrs. Spielberg. I guess the second one is both broader in humor and in “drama”.

Sometimes I think, for all his inability to act, Harrison Ford basically made Spielberg and Lucas. (He got a lot better as an actor, too, which is always nice to see.) He definitely has charisma, and is probably the only guy in 40 years who could pull off the “lovable rogue” bit so iconically. I mean, hell, he is the only guy who’s pulled it off and become an icon. (Bruce Willis, maybe?)

In an action film!
A great love scene.

I mean, seriously, Hollywood seemed to churn these guys out at some point. And there are still actors doing the parts serviceably well. But…could you tell them apart?

Anyway. It’s a decent flick. Good acting in the bit parts from relative unknowns like John Rhys-Davies, Alfred Molina and Paul Freeman. Some good suspense. A lot of silliness. A lot of things that seemed positively gripping at the time that are mostly impressive now for their competence. Climbing under the truck, I noticed this time that they had dug the road out so that Indy could fit under there. But still, someone had to keep that truck out of that trench.

We find the practical effects more impressive now than we did at the time, which may be a kind of irony.

Sort of amusingly, between these kinds of movies and stuff like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, the kids are really getting an appreciation for Spielberg and Lucas’ effect on the movie biz.

We're all coyotes now.
It’s like life: Full of hard choices that you’ll think you’ve made correctly only to have a giant boulder squash you.

Dressed To Kill (1980)

I’m gonna just spoil this one right off the bat so if you haven’t seen it, give this review a miss. Because, by far, the best part of this movie was on the way home. The Flower thought the movie was okay, pretty good, and for me this was one of those movies where my expectations were just about met. That is, I expected to like this a bit less than I had when I saw it originally, and I did. But the Boy was disgruntled.

He thought it was going along fine until the end. The big reveal—which the movie told us way in advance—is that the killer is a transvestite. And so the killer was revealed to be a transvestite and he was, naturally, unimpressed, because what kind of reveal is that?

It’s a transvestite. We’ve heard all of the voice mails on Michael Caine’s answering machine. It’s his crazy trannie patient. So the big reveal was “just some guy.”

(Here’s the spoiler in case you haven’t ducked out yet.)

The real girl (Penthouse Pet Victoria Johnson) had red hair and ... had to dye it!
Spoiler: That’s not Angie’s 50-year-old body in the closeups.

(Ready?)

“MICHAEL CAINE WAS THE KILLER?!?!”

The Flower and I laughed so hard, it was the best part of the evening. The Boy has my inability to recognize faces (I was far worse than he at his age—I’ve gotten a lot better as I’ve aged) and I probably wouldn’t have recognized him either in the short glimpse given except that in 1980 Michael Caine was a huge star and he was in a lot of things.

But still—funny, because it would be a HUGE let down if it weren’t Michael Caine. In fact, there’s literally no one else it could be in the movie that makes any sort of narrative or dramatic sense.

That said, the movie’s okay. Brian De Palma directs this mashup of Psycho and…there’s another movie in there, too. Vertigo, sure, and I pointed out the museum scene when we saw that a couple weeks later . But I recall (a possibly foreign) film that does the time-lapse photography gag they use to “catch” the killer blonde but…whatevs. (Blow Out, which directly references Blow Up and may be De Palma’s best, would come next.)

But it looked like HER!
Kim Novak was also looking at a portrait.

The story is that sexually frustrated wife Angie Dickinson (in the Janet Leigh role) is murdered in an elevator with hooker Nancy Allen as a witness, and she teams up with the victim’s son (19 year old Keith Gordon, who directs “Fargo” now but would go on  to play high-school kids for the next seven years) to spy on psychiatrist Michael Caine, feeling that one of his patients is the most likely suspect.

There are a few good moments of suspense here. Not great, and not all that many of them. It’s kind of abrupt. The dialogue actually made the audience laugh out loud at one point. (“You really loved your mom, huh?” Nancy says to Keith after she’s been dead—I wanna say less than a week.) The performances are not top notch, and since the actors are all competent—Dennis Franz is the hard-boiled detective willing to risk Nancy’s life on a lark—the blame for that has to fall on De Palma.

Was she? No idea.
“You really loved your mom, huh?” “Well, she was great in ‘Police Woman’!”

In retrospect, it seems like the most appealing part of the movie was the nudity and violence. The violence seems a little comical now, being highly stylized and edited (by modern terms) “slow” and the nudity seems especially prurient (for the same reasons!) but also less interesting because, hey, it’s 2017 and gratuitous nudity is more transparently exploitative.

Well, at least to me. Back then, of course, this sort of thing seemed vitally necessary for the story but literally none of it is, and now it kind of clanks.

The cuts, now, seem so slow motion that it’s really obvious that it’s Michael Caine in a wig in that opening elevator scene. Such is the nature of art, though: You gotta make your movie for the audience you have, even if future ones find it hokey.

It’s not great, doesn’t hold up that well, but it never quite gets boring. It’s typically ranked among De Palma’s best. He still makes films—he’s got four coming out in the next few years (again if IMDB is to be believed) but he hasn’t really made a good one since the oddly tame Mission: Impossible and the last “famous” film he made was the disastrous Redacted: A sad attempt to slur troops in the Iraqi war.

Hopefully these upcoming pictures will be better, but I’m not optimistic.

Murder it. Though he's stopped here, unlike the murder of art.
Michael Caine, about to do to Nancy Allen what the desire to inject political messages does to art.