The Big Lebowski (1998)

Yes, I have created a monster.

Yes, The Big Lebowski played again as part of “Marijuana Awareness Month,” which I’m told is both “real” and a “thing”.

The Flower loves this movie and intends to trot us out for the next showing as well: The TCM 30th anniversary showing.

But she doesn’t like it when she looks over and I’m reciting the dialog.

But the Dad abides.

I can't really take comfort in that.
Apparently, the Coens have made a Jesus spin-off.

Keys to the Heart

Our second feature in our Korean outing was the shockingly good tear-jerker Keys to the Heart. My only disclaimer on this is that our lives with The Enigma make us particularly attuned to the sorts of problems that people who are handling autistic/brain-injured kids have. We might find it especially moving, in other words, although if The Boy was sniffling next to me, he was echoed throughout the rows and rows behind us.

Keys to the Heart opens with a church service, a choir is singing and a boy, Jin Tae (Jung-min Park), is banging away on the piano. While he’s playing he’s watching Street Fighter V videos on his phone and occasionally vocalizing in an agitated manner. His mother lectures him on the way home that he can be assured of entrance into heaven if he only would put away his phone. Jin Tae tends to respond with a simple “Yup” and “Nope”, straightforward to the point of comedy, but increasing our awareness of his limitations.

Well, for some people...
Maybe Heaven IS Street Fighter V videos?

The mix of comedy and tragedy here would be astounding, but actually seems to be characteristic of a lot of east Asian narratives, especially Japanese stuff. Even so, we were shocked at times.

Meanwhile, we meet Jo-Ha (Byung-hun Lee, Fortress, The Magnificent Seven), a middle-aged ex-boxer being kicked out of his gym (where he slept?) because he beat the tar out of an Olympic prospect in sparring practice. Reduced to his second job (handing out fliers) and with no place to sleep, he crosses paths with Jin Tae’s mother.

Who, by the way, is his mother.

For whom he has nothing but rage (and no small amount of grief). But a night spent sleeping in the library (all night libraries, maybe in a university?), another night drinking and then being hit by a car and dragged off to a rich person’s mega-mansion for intimidation, and diminishing funds encourage him to let his mother take him in and feed him the next night. He has never met his little brother, but his mother assures him that Jin-Tae is excited at the prospect of having a big brother, and happy to let Jo-Ha have his room.

Good form, too.
Lotta anger.

Which is fine until Jin-Tae wanders in to his old room in the middle of the night and the two end up cuddling. The freaked out Jo-Ha can’t handle the even more freaked out Jin-Tae and suddenly cold-cocks him.

This is funny and horrifying. I mean, seriously. You end up laughing but then, you know, this isn’t a comic book movie. A physically capable boxer knocked his autistic brother out cold. For the next several scenes, Jin-Tae always wears a catcher’s mask in Jo-Ha’s presence. This is also funny—and horrifying. Jo-Ha doesn’t even make the connection till the beginning of the third act, and convinces his brother to take the mask off.

But Jo-Ha has a temper and whenever he rages, Jin-Tae runs to put on the mask.

That's courage!
Still beats him at Street Fighter, tho’.

There are a lot of great comic moments in this movie, but they derive from the drama of the situation, and they all have repercussions later on. Jo-Ha’s roughness and temper is a problem, but it also creates an opportunity for Jin-Tae, and keeps him from condescending to Jin-Tae—who can seriously kick Jo-Ha (or anyone’s) ass in a number of video games, to say nothing of being a master piano player. (Jin-Tae also kicks the ass of the landlady’s coquettish 17-year-old daughter, who tries to tease reactions out of Jin-Tae in a way that astonishingly humanizes both of them. She treats him like a peer, basically, and despite his social deficiencies in a lot of ways, he’s completely unflappable and quick to taunt her with his “new girlfriend”.)

He really looks like he’s playing here, as does Ji-Min Han (the rich person behind the wheel of the car), which might be CGI but also might just be Korea.

But still!
OK, it’s more convincing from other angles.

Whenever it seems like Jo-Ha is going to warm up to his mom, something will happen that drives the two apart again. And their shared recollection (done separately) of the night she left him with his abusive father is one of the more heart-breaking things you’ll see in film—and the sort of thing I’ve seen before in Korean movies—and it’s really kind of fascinating the way they do things.

We understand mom’s motivations, to some degree. We understand Jo-Ha, certainly, though we can’t entirely excuse his behavior. We understand Jin-Tae by way of his brain problems, but a funny thing happens: We all gots issues, the movie is telling us, and what matters is how we deal with them. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around—and also plenty of victimizing. The movie doesn’t address the issue of whether there’s some cosmic scale balancing things out because for all intents and purposes, that does not matter.

Jo-Ha got a raw deal one way. Jin-Tae another. (And the way autism plays out in Korean society, with its relatively mannered culture, is way different from America.) Ji-Min Han (that’s the actress’s name, I don’t remember her character’s name) got a raw deal. The mom got a raw deal. The dad—well, he’s definitely more on the dishing out raw deal side, but that’s probably because we don’t know his backstory.

Ultimately, all the characters come to a certain resolution which is satisfying one way or another, and Jo-Ha’s transformation is wonderful and played wonderfully by Lee. The movie ends up being a feel-good tearjerker with bunches of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s truly a delight, and a film I could cheerfully watch again despite some of the heavier emotional moments.

The next week, we would end up seeing a Chinese double-feature which would also fare well in our eyes.

No idea what this is.
I couldn’t figure out if this is some kind of Korean library where they read nothing but Manga, or what.

1987: When The Day Comes

It was Korean double-feature time—which comes when The Flower wants to visit her friends near Koreatown and the theater is playing two Korean movies at appropriate times. Watching Korean movies in this context came about earlier last year when I hung out in the city and watched Warriors of the Dawn rather than try to make the trip out and back twice.

The double-feature I saw (A Special Lady and A Blackened Heart) fired The Boy’s moviegoing juices and he decided to accompany me this time. Among those I’ve seen, this was the hardest of the Korean movies to watch, because it’s a fictionalization of an actual series of events (remember when there was all that trouble in Korea?) so there are a lot of threads to keep track of.

You're not privvy, man...
People watching us try to keep track of all the threads.

The story begins when a doctor is called in to resuscitate a student but cannot. It’s clear that this student had some rough times prior to his heart failure, and quickly clear that those rough times were visited on him by the thuggish cops who are demanding he be resuscitated. It turns out these are members of the anti-communist task force (ACTF, I’ll call them) that is charged with “eradicating communism”.

The ACTF figures, no problem, we’ll just cremate the body before morning and claim he slipped in the shower. The problem comes when they go to get their rubber stamp from the prosecutor (Jung Woo-Ha, The Handmaiden, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds) and he realizes how hinky this all is and blocks them. (Nicely portrayed as a sense of ego at least as much as any desire for justice.)

He muscles his way into an investigation using—get this—Newsweek as a threat. It’s hard to imagine today that Newsweek was ever a thing, but they carried some clout for decades. (Not that they weren’t always hacks: In 1959 they had nothing to say about Castro except that he was honest and certainly not a Communist.) This ultimately gets him fired, but on the way out he just happens to leave a box of files by his car where an intrepid reported grabs the autopsy report for the dead student.

Solid US journalism!
Sold for a dollar? And busted for money laundering?

At this time, newspapers were only allowed to print what the government allowed, so there’s a real edge to a newspaper printing this story—unlike the legalistic wrangling so ridiculously overblown in American movies (hello, The Post), there was a real physical and existential threat to printing something the government didn’t approve of in the ’80s in Korea.

Meanwhile, apolitical college student (Tae-Ri Kim, who was the eponymous The Handmaiden, and who was only 15-years-old at the time, making that movie child pornography by current US law) is resisting her uncle’s constant attempts to use her as a courier to a revolutionary, only to find herself strongly attracted to a protesting student. She finds herself increasingly drawn into events and is, in a lot of ways, the most likable character.

So fashionable!
Her uncle  bribes her with a walkman. Look at that sleek personal entertainment device!

There’s a lot going on here. The thugs that make up the ACTF remind me of nothing so much as The Green Wave Iranian Revolutionary Guards, only—since it’s the ’80s—their “uniform” is basically denim, like the streets are being patrolled by angry Asian Footloose-Era Kevin Bacons, but I suspect that aspect of the story rings the truest. Thugs, after all, are thugs, regardless of who signs their checks.

Inspector Park (Yun Seok-Kim, The Fortress, which I did not get down to Koreatown to see, alas) heads the ACTF, and he is as ruthless an S.O.B. as you’d ever want to see. He was apparently a refugee from North Korea and the movie explains his zealousness both as an element of his patriotism (for South Korea) and, briefly, toward the end, the result of seeing the horrors of Communism in his youth.

The movie could’ve used more of that, frankly. Even with exaggerations, I feel like the basic representation of the ACTF was probably pretty close: Any secret group of intelligence agents operating above scrutiny is going to end up this way (*kaff*) or even start out that way (*kaff*kaff*kaff*haaacck*).

Hacky cough jokes. Heh.
This is a warrant for your hacky “cough” jokes.

But the beauty of it being a foreign country’s issues is that: a) They’re going to handle these kinds of questions differently from the way we do; b) You’re not awash in the conventional wisdom, so you don’t have to roll your eyes at all the stupid things “everyone knows”. I liked it quite a bit; the Boy liked it, too, despite having trouble following it in parts. I thought it did a really good job at making the story follow-able by having clear threads that were distinct (the girl, the prosecutor, the Inspector, the jail warden, etc.) but tied together in a way that allowed you to get oriented to how everything related, and who was who.

Although there isn’t the typical ’80s music (for an American movie, it could well be typical for Korean films), it was fun to see the clothing and electronics of the era. (They were about five years behind us back then.) There’s a lot of shenanigans with what we now call land lines, including a great brutalization of an old-school phone, with the prosecutor hammering the receiver down. (Try that with your cell phone, kids! No, seriously! Try it! Then go eat a Tide Pod!)

Check it out, kimchee fans!

Not a lot of concern for dignity, either. And that's cool, man.
Also, once again, we see that the Koreans do not mourn their dead quietly.

Wayne’s World (1992)

“Wayne’s World! Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!”

"Excellent."
“Party on, Wayne.” “Party on, Garth.”

I don’t think I ever actually saw the “Saturday Night” sketch that led to this movie, but I still sing the stupid intro “song” to it. It was the height of catch-phrase-era SNL, and people across the nation were adding “NOT!” to the end of sentences like it was funny. “That’s what she said” was also a line here, but that didn’t catch really on until “The Office”. (Although I do believe both of those phrases enjoyed some currency decades earlier, which probably proves something about something. I remember Frank Burns’ adding “NOT!” in the same manner, and thereby demonstrating a lack of intelligence and humor on “M*A*S*H”. Culture is a funny thing.)

The theme this month for throwbacks is marijuana although, much like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, no drugs are actually taken here other than alcohol, and never to excess. There is one character who spends the whole movie looking on the verge of throwing up; they say he’s “partied out”. Culture, as I say, is a funny thing.

The kids thought it was okay; it was funny how many of the references were lost of them. The Boy said—in reference to a scene where Wayne and Garth re-enact the opening of “Laverne and Shirley”, a show which he has never seen—it was kind of funnier not knowing the reference. “Oh, now they’re goofing off in a brewery.”

Funny?
Which is true.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the catch-phrase stuff was both lost on them and the weakest parts of the movie. “We’re not worthy!” got a mild chuckle. “Not!” didn’t, nor did “Schwing!” or “Exqueeze me?” or “Sphinctersezwhat?” Indeed, in these modern days, the humiliation of the Big Arcade Chain Owner (has there ever been one, really?) would be done deliberately for viral marketing purposes, and the idea of “sticking it to the man” doesn’t really play.

Actually, none of the plot plays at all. It’s basically the sort of thing that was old and stupid when Animal House parodied it in the ’70s, though it’s played straight here. We aren’t really given a whole lot of reason to think Wayne is a better match for Tia Carrerre than Rob Lowe. (Carrere sings her own vocals in the movie, by the way.) He lives with his parents and has a public access show while she’s at least the lead singer for a real band and has a ridiculous loft apartment (which may be cheap in Aurora, Illinois but it’s still more than your mom’s basement).

And I don't think Myers had his head on straight back then.
Aesthetically, she’s more a match for Lowe than Myers.

Myers schtick, intriguingly, barely plays. The catch phrases, the vocal ticks, the shit-eating grin and the weirdly passive-aggressive smarminess isn’t particularly funny. The Austin Powers series, I think, wears better because it’s more in line with benign Bill & Ted-style humor. (Even the bad guys in Austin Powers don’t really mean harm.) That’s probably it: Lowe’s character is a little bit greasy, to be sure—and a perfect role for him at the time, after his seminal (*kaff*) sex tape scandal—but his main crime is being a rival to Wayne for Cassandra’s affections. (And, honestly, who is Wayne to turn down Lara Flynn Boyle, crazy or no?)

The stuff that works? Ed O’Neill’s Dark Donut Guy bits are great. The segment where Cassandra and Wayne talk in increasingly intricate Chinese. The fake endings work, though not as well as I remembered. Alice Cooper’s dissertation on Milwaukee! (Doubtless not coincidentally, Cooper figures prominently in Meyer’s documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.) Unsurprisingly, then, I guess, the stuff that holds up is the stuff that has nothing to do with the SNL sketch.

And failing.
Mike Myers trying keep O’Neill from stealing the scene.

It was Blues Brothers that gave the world the idea that SNL sketches would be a good source of feature comedies, but if I recall correctly, the Blues Brothers weren’t a sketch at all: They were literally just Aykroyd and Belushi dressing in black suits and shades to do a musical number. Landis’ movie could’ve done virtually anything from there. If Wayne’s World has a particular sin, it’s furthering the notion that SNL-sketch-based-movies were a good idea.

The Flower liked the first ending the best, where the music producer comes in and says something like “You’re a very beautiful woman but I don’t think the time is right.” It is probably the only surprising moment in the movie, as far as the plot goes.

Poor Tia Carrera had to put up with random guys yelling “schwing!” at her for the rest of her life, though.

I didn't recognize her, though.
Needlessly unkind to ex-girlfriends.

Magnolia (1999)

You know, I would say I like Paul Thomas Anderson as much as the next guy, but I’m not sure that’s true, given that every film we saw of his after Boogie Nights not only sold out, but basically sold out the extra theater/showing they had to handle the overflow. Even Magnolia, his longest film (3:08 they say but I sorta wonder if that includes ten minutes of credits).

Sore butts: Always good for a larf.
When your butt is sore and you realize you have another hour of movie to go…

While we eschewed There Will Be Blood, because two-and-half-hours of limping is a lot, even when it’s Daniel Day Lewis doing the limping, we bought tickets for this the week in advance and the kids, while hesitant, were willing to give it a shot. Thing is, though, this is a three-hour adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride of drama. PTA has said there’s too much going on and he should have cut it down—a sentiment we all appreciated—but I asked the kids what storyline they would trim to make this shorter, and they couldn’t really think of one.

It was also kind of cool for The Flower, who is reading Exodus (in the Bible, not the Leon Uris thing), and the theme of Magnolia is Exodus 8:2. The Flower has been reading very carefully, raising all the classic questions (like why God hardens the Pharoah’s heart, or what that means, but also trickier ones like who, if any, were heroes of The Rape of Dinah), but she didn’t have Exodus 8:2 handy in her head.

Which is nice, ’cause it’s kind of a spoiler. (In the game show “What Do Kids Know?” an audience member  is waving a sign that reads “Exodus 8:2”, heh.) And it’s a great payoff to the movie, on akin to the “Drainage” scene in There Will Be Blood, but without the 150 minutes of limping preceding it.

And that's a lot of concern.
There’s a lot of concerned Philip Seymour Hoffman, tho’.

There are a bunch of stories: Jason Robards is dying and his wife Julianne Moore is having a hard time coping but nurse Philip Seymour Hoffman is there for him and is trying to connect him with his estranged son (Tom Cruise) who heads an infomercial-driven conference on “seduction”. Robards is a TV producer who produce “What Do Kids Know?” which is hosted by Philip Baker Hall, who has terminal cancer (but no one knows yet), and has been hosting the show for 30 years. A former “quiz kid” (William H. Macy) is struggling in the ruins of his life after winning big on the show 30 years previously, because his parents stole all his winnings, while a new kid is struggling in the ruins of his life because his father is obsessed with breaking that record. Meanwhile, Melora Walters (looking amazingly like Anna Kendrick)  is the coke-sniffing promiscuous daughter who won’t even talk to Hall (for some reason) but sees a chance for love and a kind of normalcy with goofus cop (John C. Reilly), who’s having a hell of a day after finding a dead body in a nearby house. At the climax of the movie, Reilly’s cop and Macy’s middle-aged “quiz kid” meet up, and we find the movie is, after all, about forgiveness.

Everyone’s dealing with the ruins of their lives and the question becomes: What can you forgive? Can you forgive others? Is there a limit? Can you forgive yourself? Can you have a relationship where you’re just straight-up and honest from the get-go, and non-judgmental, so that you’re not trapped in a world of lying, pretense and much worse—all so that maybe you don’t need to give and get forgiveness?

God, after a fashion, gets the final word on the subject, even if it’s just a “coincidence”—another theme of the movie.

Which, hell, I just did, didn't I?
Me, struggling to NOT make a Lebowski reference.

There is so much acting in this film, it’s ridiculous. PTA does this thing where the camera just stays on one actor, maybe with a slow dollying in. I mean, over minutes. They’re the sort of shots you take when doing a two-shot, where you get one actor talking, then a reverse shot to the actor talking, but PTA just leaves them on the one character and lets that mofo act.

For Cruise, it’s up with Rain Man in terms of his performance. It’s much less subtle than that overlooked bit of work, and it has a huge range, as his character goes from a angry/happy glibness, to just cold anger, to grief, etc. But everyone’s great. Well, maybe not Jason Robards, but just because he’s unconscious most of the time (and only had a year or so left to live to boot).

RECOGNIZE ME, YOU SONOFABITCHES!
Robards might’ve been going for an Oscar anyway, as these late-in-life-actors will.

I additionally loved it, of course, because Magnolia Boulevard is the central location of all the stories. My kids don’t know the city well enough, but we were sitting about a mile from Laurel Canyon and Magnolia, and—well, it’s just part of the larger area I consider “my neighborhood”.

A lot of Aimee Mann. At one point, all the characters are singing, in their own separate shots, the same Aimee Mann song. It’s just ballsy. Jon Brion provides a great traditional score at the various points that aren’t Mann singing, it adds a lot though it’s easy to overlook.

And it’s, seriously, about an hour of nailbiting drama, with a short break, followed by another even more intense hour. It’s really intense. Lotta swearing, though. George C. Scott turned it down because of all the f***ing swearing. The Boy and The Flower were enthusiastic.

Not so funny now, eh?
Macy with the late, great Henry Gibson—only 64 here but looking kinda older.

Django

I didn’t really know anything about Django Reinhardt going into this film, other than I liked the way he played guitar. Having seen the movie Django, I’m convinced I know less about him now than when I went in. Well, after seeing it and doing a cursory look at history. However, historical accuracy is barely relevant to a good movie, so let us tread forward and see about this historical fiction from Etienne Comar (Timbuktu).

No racist!
First of all, the real Django was in black and white.

It’s 1943 Paris, and careless—the blurbs describe him as “carefree” but he’s kind of a reckless, arrogant drunk, so I’m going with “careless”—master guitarist Django is commanding big bucks in occupied Germany, when the worst possible thing happens: The Nazis want him to do a tour in Germany. Django (who’s married and whose wife is expecting) escapes to a town on the border of Switzerland with the help of a former and occasional lover (and, in real life, distant cousin) only to get stranded there waiting for someone to escort him, his wife and mother across the border.

Soon desperate for money, he begins playing in local pubs with his gypsy pals. (Django is a gypsy—and he only had the use of the first three fingers of his left hand!) This does not, as you might expect, lead to his discovery from someone walking in and saying “Hey, that’s Django!” Instead, there’s a bar fight and when the Nazis are rounding up all the non-Nazi, the Nazi who kicks him out of his house arrests him for being a troublemaker, but he is saved the next morning by his cousin/lover who admonishes him to do a performance for the Nazis before going back to Paris (at which point, he’ll presumably have to tour Germany).

It's been known to happen.
A musician with a mistress? Slander! Calumny! Flagrancy!

This leads to a climactic scene where his playing is used to cover a daring escape/rescue of a pilot into Switzerland, as he seductively turns the Nazis into dancing sex fiends or something. It’s a pretty good cinematic moment that underscores the basic problem of the movie as a whole: It’s basically historical fiction that doesn’t “commit to the bit” as @DiversityAndCmx would say. (He’s far from the originator of the phrase but he seems to have made it popular in a big way lately.)

In real life, Django tried to escape Switzerland three times. The first couple of times he was captured, though with no apparent consequences. The time depicted in the film—where he leaves his mother and pregnant wife behind for theirs and his safety—he actually ventured out solo (as opposed to abandoning them on the trip) and made it to the Swiss border, where the Swiss promptly turned him back, probably because he was a gypsy.

So, we have a film that’s perfectly comfortable taking massive liberties with the facts, and yet misses out on the obvious potential for suspense. It runs close to two hours but The Boy and I both felt it could’ve been 15-20 minutes shorter. The extra time seems to defuse the urgency. I mean, he’s playing in a club on the Swiss border that’s frequented by Nazis and yet there are no near misses.

Missed opportunities.
His mother doesn’t even TRY to strangle him in this scene.

It almost feels like they set up all these dramatic moments and then felt too ashamed to actually exploit them. Some of the time was used to showcase Django’s music, which was fine—but for a remarkably large portion of it was not used. There’s no music, nothing happening, it’s just very slack. The Boy visited the bathroom and came back and there wasn’t really anything to fill him in on.

We liked it but. Not a whole lot. The lead’s pretty good. The acting is generally good. It’s all done competently and…I’d say it’s about at a good TV movie level. It’s the only time we’ve seen anything about the Nazis persecuting Gypsies that we can recall, which is something. But as I’ve noted before, the bar for this kind of movie is actually pretty high. We will probably see several better movies this year on Nazi atrocities.

Why it’s always gotta be Nazis is another kettle of fish, of course. Ooh, if you’re a guitarist you might enjoy the simulated Django playing, just on a technical level. I noticed that a lot of the closeups, Django’s hands got real old real fast. Not sure who the stunt double was.

No, of course not. But look at those outfits!
After the war, Django opens for Frankie Valli.