Detective Chinatown 2

The second feature of our not-Chinatown double-feature was, by contrast to the low-budget, low-key Shed Skin Papa, a big-budget smash hit in the top 10 for worldwide box office, the sequel to 2016’s very successful Detective Chinatown. And that phrasing throws me off every time. I want to say “Chinatown Detective”, as in a detective who works Chinatown, but the rearrangement is done by the comedic sidekick who, I dunno, thinks it’s cooler to put it that way. The sequel is massively successful, almost as much as Operation Red Sea, grossing over $550M, and managing to pull in nearly $2M here in the states.

This is some kind of yellow-washing, I bet.
Blue-haired faux-Japanese hacker girl with lollipop is intrigued by large sums of money.

It’s great. And it’s a great reminder of how messed up things are here in the USA. This movie could never be made here, in this day and age, and not least because it pokes fun at us while at the same time being very pro-America.

The plot, such as it is, involves goofy sidekick Tang (Biaoqiang Wang, A Touch Of Sin) luring his smarter pal Qin (Haoran Liu) to New York City under false pretenses to solve a detective challenge with 9 of the 10 greatest detectives of the world, as ranked by a game/social app of some kind. There’s been a murder, and an innocent man accused of being a serial killer, and if he isn’t cleared of it by the time a rich man dies, the money will all go to someone else. A somewhat extreme version of classic murder mystery trope. Murder mystery mashed with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!

Gimme a minute...
Which is the goofy sidekick?

Qin and his rivals (Satoshi Tsumabuki, Fast and Furious 6: Tokyo Drift and Yuxian Shang, who plays a blue-haired half-Japanese, half-Chinese computer geek) work the whole thing out in about 10 minutes. This was actually the only point in the film where I thought maybe it would’ve helped to see the original. But of course, there’s more going on, and Qin and Tang end up on the run with the accused murderer, getting deeper and deeper into trouble and deeper and deeper into the mystical, magical world of New York City.

Seriously, this movie loves New York City. The main theme reprised at points again and again, is all about how great NYC is and how you can do anything there and find your fortune. America generally is the land of opportunity. (There’s a cut toward the end to Japan, complete with the apparently obligatory shakuhachi, and Qin seems to regard it as a fate worse than death to have to go there.)

That's not very realistic.
Look at how great NYC looks. And not a trace of dog piddle.

In New York City we learn that there are classes full of black people learning Chinese, and every one of them has a gun. That there are large tongs where (of course) everyone has a gun. That there are nice motorcycle gangs who also all carry guns, and will protect you, but then they’ll want to have sex with you. That the chief of police looks and sounds nearly identical to Donald Trump, and he panders to the Chinese because he needs their votes and there’s so many of them! That Chinese women do not regard black nurses as suitable companions for white doctors. Everyone in NYC speaks Chinese. It’s funny to teach people Chinese wrong, and to have learned English wrong. And so on.

It’s all in good fun, though. Remember that? Remember when you could broadly make fun of people and things and it didn’t really mean anything?

And who cares?
Like bikers being homosexuals. What does it mean? Nothing!

I assume the usual suspects, if they’re aware of this movie, know better than to draw any attention to it. With less than 1/2% of its box office coming from America, and The Boy and I being about the only white people in the theater when we were there, I doubt they’d have much sway.

Besides the comedy, there are some boffo special effects. We see Qin’s thought process as a series of materialized models that he smashes through. It’s damned exciting. This is another common theme of the Chinese movies especially: They will have spectacular CGI with no concern as to “realism”. It’s all about what looks good, and cool.

In addition, what we might call the anti-Rose-Tico rule: Everyone in Chinese movies is either beautiful or comic relief (or an old person, but even there, the law applies on a curve). The cast is ridiculously good looking. Just as an example, the Chinese/Italian/American Natasha Liu Bordizzo playing a chief detective, and she’s allowed to be sexy and competent without having to be omnipotent. (And of course Chinese people can be successful in America!)

And she's so successful!
It’s almost worth becoming a serial killer to be investigated by her.

There’s a third act climax where all the detectives are put in to prison while Bordizzo’s character is about to be murdered, and to get out, the other detectives help Our Heroes escape, and it’s a virtual parade of stereotypes and anti-stereotypes. Like, the Indian detective basically has Force powers. The fat, sassy black woman apparently is a Kung Fu master. It’s super broad, is what I’m getting at.

At the same time, it’s so good-natured that I couldn’t be offended if I tried. And it does the tone shifting from silly to serious and back without wrecking the characters. Yeah, it’s comic book sometimes, but we do want our characters to succeed and not be murdered, which is all you can ask.

We loved it. And it was super-easy to see what it was such a smash hit. We’re excited to see Detective Chinatown 3, whatever it may turn out to be.

Lighten up, is what I'm saying.
The Kung Fu Master: Chinese will make fun of themselves, too.

Shed Skin Papa

While we have been struggling to find any contemporary English-language movies worth watching, our problem this particular sunny Saturday was deciding which of the three appealing Chinese movies to watch. Operation Red Sea was the #2 worldwide movie of the year and looked fabulous, but also long in a way that made it impossible to see anything else if we went to see it. Instead we went with a double-feature that started with this odd little film called Shed Skin Papa (based on a Japanese play).

We like weird!
Hang on. It’s about to get WEIRD.

The story is this: A middle-aged failed filmmaker is trapped in a terrible cycle of doing nothing but kinda-sorta taking care of his decrepit, demented father. What’s left of his crappy life is about to fall to pieces even as his father is dying, and he can barely rise to showing relief, much less any real sympathy.

Then it gets weird. (And repeats a trope we’ve seen many times in recent Chinese movies: The CGI butterfly.)

Something…happens. Like, Our Hero’s departed mom casts a spell, maybe, and the apartment the two share shifts and changes and the next morning, instead of his father, all Our Hero finds is his father’s skin.

The Asians are not afraid of playing it broad.
It’s the Chinese “I Love Lucy” practically. Or Japanese. Whatever.

OK, he finds his father as well, only he’s no longer sick and demented. He seems a good ten years younger. And he’s kicking up a fuss in the market, even as people who haven’t seen him truly sentient in a while come after him for all the money he owes.

This is pretty funny. And things get funnier and weirder when, the next day, it happens again. Papa sheds his skin, and is younger than ever. The more it happens, the more reality changes as well, as though the past is merging with the present.

Take that, holy trinity!
He’s a one-man choir!

This premise becomes a vehicle for Our Hero to learn about his father (and mother) and the hopes and dreams that shaped them. They are not perfect by any means, but they are touchingly human. We find out that Papa actually did fly fighter planes (for the Glorious Chinese Air Force) and was taken out by a fluke accident, which led circuitously to him meeting Mama. And then we see their struggle as Papa sends Mama and baby to the freer cities (Shanghai, I think, not Hong Kong), and the two of them must struggle to survive as Papa figures out how to get himself there with enough money to build a life.

The movie, in other words, goes from a dark comedy to a magical drama, and then finally comes back around to a happier, lighter-hearted drama, culminating with all the Papas from various ages being alive at the same time and frankly berating each other for their poor choices. There’s also a musical number with all six.

It was unique and quirky and touching, the first film directed by ’90s action writer Roy Szeto. Let’s hope we see more.

Dinner was crowded.
Ever argue with yourself? Times six?

 

The Darjeeling Limited (2007)

The “middle period” of Wes Anderson’s career, which I sort of regard as starting after The Royal Tenenbaums contains my least favorite of his films: The Life Aquatic With Steve ZissouThe Darjeeling Limited, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. His first three films (Bottle RocketRushmore and Tenenbaums) were co-written with Owen Wilson, who I assume brought that whimsical sensitivity he shows in all his performances. Aquatic and Fox were both written by Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the WhaleFrances Ha), who I assume amped up the father-son-dysfunction dynamic that seems to dominate his movies.

So don't dawdle!
Enlightenment is on the schedule for 3:45.

This was the first Anderson film I took The Boy to, and we were conservative toward seeing it again. But so far, we were three-for-three, with me enjoying the films more now than when I’d originally seen them.

And so it was here.

The movie begins with a moody short featuring Jack (Jason Schwartzman) meeting with his on-again/off-again lover (Natalie Portman) in the Paris hotel where he’s been staying for the past year since his father died. This is set up like a separate film, with credits and everything. It’s an unusual touch, and gives you a little more depth on Jack throughout the rest of the film (besides bringing its runtime from 90 to 105 minutes).

The movie proper starts with a businessman (Bill Murray) missing a train that Peter (Adrien Brody) catches. This is an interesting bit of color, because we can tell from Murray’s face that it’s potentially a really big deal to miss a train out there. This will come up a lot later. We’re then introduced to Francis (Owen Wilson), who basically lays out the plot: Jack, Peter and Francis have been estranged since their father’s death a year ago, and this is Francis’ attempt to re-connect them.

So somehow he caught up.
I think this is panned by real fast later on though.

Francis is the lynchpin here: He’s passively overbearing, acting more like a mother than a brother. The dynamic between the three of them is interesting. Peter sullenly resents Francis’ controlling ways, and sometimes strikes back, while Jack is more likely to try to smooth things over or just check out. He quickly seduces the train stewardess (the doe-eyed Amara Karan, A Fantastic Fear of Everything), and continually insists that his writing (all thinly disguised roman-a-clefs) are complete fiction not based on anything. (Meanwhile Peter’s wife is in her ninth month of pregnancy back in the States so avoidance is something they all do.)

Needless to say, nothing works out the way Francis has planned, with his tightly arranged schedule organized to create a spiritual enlightenment and bond between the brothers. But even Francis has another scheme: He’s brought them to India, he says, because where better to have a spiritual awakening? But the truth is, he believes their mother, who ran off some unspecified number of years ago (and didn’t come to their father’s funeral), is in a mission in India.

HUGE!
“Doe-eyed” may have been coined to describe this woman.

Mother, played by Anjelica Huston, is also an interesting character who, by every action, makes it clear she wants nothing to do with them, but when actually confronted by them, acts as though everything is perfectly normal and fine. In other words, there’s no reason given for her odd and hurtful behavior. As with Tenenbaums or any of Anderson’s other movies, people just are certain ways, and any attempt to explain it is likely to be rationalization or justification.

For all his noted whimsy, Anderson is probably on to something there. “Reasons why” given in movies tend to be really pat.

There is a scene before this last act, where the trivial problems of the brothers are thrown in to sharp contrast with the struggles of Indian villagers, which is the sort of major tonal shift The Boy and I praise so much in Asian films. We get to see that our characters are basically good people, but wrapped up in their own heads. And by the end, we get to see them get out of those heads, at least a little bit.

We all really enjoyed it. The Boy and I both liked the movie more this time. For myself, I found that I was less bored and irritated with the brothers’ behavior than I had been the first time. I was better able to see the good in them. That probably says more about me than the movie, but perhaps life’s little secret is that this is true of one’s reaction to every movie.

True but unsatisfying.
When your mom tells you she didn’t come to her dad’s funeral because she “didn’t want to”.

The Princess and the Matchmaker

The second film in our Korean double-feature (after Little Forest) was another great example of why we’re favoring the orient these days: The Princess and the Matchmaker is a historical comedy/drama/action flick about an honest astrologer and an unfortunate princess who needs to be married to save the kingdom from famine.

Just soak that up for a second.

Great shot, tho', eh?
Your soaking abilities are being judged.

Our story begins with a comedic vignette involving a fraudulent astrologer scamming people with fake charts about who they should marry, and being outed and arrested by Seo Do-Yoon, a good astrologer. (I think that’s right. To be honest I had a hard time up front with who was who. And I don’t know why an astrologer would be arresting anyone, even astrologer-frauds.) It’s then we learn about Princess Songhwa.

Princess Songhwa has a reputation as being unmarriable, she’s such bad luck. And again, there’s a series of comedic vignettes showing this misfortune and why, therefore, no one wishes to marry here. (She is, of course, quite pretty but the actress does a tremendous job here transforming from a goofy comic dolt to a tremendously serious and beautiful woman.)

You don't want to cross her.
Look at that expression.

But the land is starving, and the king’s astrologer tells him that she must marry if he’s to save the land. He decides to do this and to have a kind-of astrologer “star search” (heh) to find the best astrologers in the land. This of course ends up with Do-Yoon being one of the astrologers picked to match charts with the Princess.

We then get a series of stories where Do-Yoon, at Songhwa’s pleading, takes her around to meet her prospective husbands. There are a lot of rules about where women, much less princesses are allowed to go in 17th century Korea, so there are some good comic bits as Songhwa dresses up (very unconvincingly) as a male. It’s interesting to note that while some of these scenes are quite broad, comedically, the movie ultimately ends up giving each character a degree of respect. Even our fake-astrologer at the front—we run into him again as he’s making the rounds pretending to be a tantric sex expert—turns out to be, in his own way, a noble character.

A distraction in the background saves the day.
I’M NOT A PRINCESS! DON’T NOTICE ME!

Then we get an action scene, as someone attempts to murder our heroes, and the flashbacks start getting a little darker. It turns out that Songhwa’s “bad luck” began when she was brought to the palace, only to have an unscrupulous astrologer tell the king that the only mother Songhwa has ever known had to be sent away, because the two together were insurmountable misfortune. The Chicago Tribune from which I stole the above picture calls this tonal confusion, but we absolutely loved it. Asian movies simply don’t have the kind of constraints American ones do. We see them pull of this kind of shift like it was nothing!

Time and time again, the evil court astrologers (acting on behalf of a queen who is sure that Songhwa spells trouble for her princeling) crush the poor girl and cause her misery and misfortune at every turn. And the whole matchmaking setup is just a way to get her into the hands of someone who can kill her and control her fortune.

Things get very dark, indeed, by the end of the movie. But by that time all of our characters have gone from kind of flat stereotypes to fully-fledged people, and we get to see them all perform heroics at some point or another.

Remember those?
Liberally interspersed with “fat girl chases love” jokes.

Besides the tonal shifts, the beautiful cinematography, the well-done, traditional score, and a plot that keeps you guessing up to the end, what struck me was the tremendous respect paid to tradition. For all their modernity, the Koreans (and the Japanese and Chinese) are very respectful of history. There were good astrologers and bad ones, and the good ones were honest and hard-working. There were rules, and sometimes you had to break them, but you paid the price.

I dunno, I can scarcely imagine a modern American film like that. The Witch, maybe, with a lot of caveats.

Anyway, we loved it, and it was radically different from Little Forest and we walked away with a feeling like we’d just seen an epic with a run time of 1:50 (including credits!).

Seriously. Who knows how it will turn out?
The ending will surprise you, too.

Little Forest

As part of our continuing adventures in Koreatown (and real Chinatown, which is actually Monterey Park), the Boy and I set off to see another (we hoped) great double-feature, this one starting with an unlikely story of a young woman who returns to her family home after her mother abandoned her.

This is the third movie we’d seen in the past 15 months starring Tae-Ri Kim (The Handmaiden (2016)1987: When The Day Comes being the other two) and she remains tremendously appealing here, in a wildly different role. Here, she’s basically carrying the movie.

I mean, come on!
She’s also dangerously reinforcing my heteronormative concept of beauty.

In Little Forest she plays Hye-won, a girl who has come back to her rural town after college, and after finding the working world of Seoul* (and the materialistic pursuits her peers seem to be obsessed with) unfulfilling. The catch is that on her last day of high school, her mother straight up abandoned her, so she has very mixed feelings about her mother, about the house, and about life generally. The movie is Hye-won’s journey from a lost, somewhat bitter, self-involved girl to one who comes to understand her mother better—primarily through cooking.

So, yeah, we have a movie that would be perfectly at home here on the Hallmark channel. The Boy and I loved it (me more than he, though).

Poignant, too.
The actress playing “mom” is also excellent in a subtle performance.

Basically, Hye-won returns to this old residence without any real preparation. She starts working the ground, though, and through flashbacks we learn that food is the metaphor that guides her life. So, Seoul is fake and shallow, as is the food in Seoul. This is contrasted with many scenes of her mother teaching her how to cook, and how to plant vegetables and herbs in a way to get the best results.

There’s a sorta love triangle between her and a childhood friend, Eun-Sook who is jealous of her and of the attention paid her by another childhood friend, Jae-Ha (Jun Yeol-Ryu, of last year’s A Heart Blackened). Eun-Sook is envious because she didn’t go to college in Seoul, doesn’t know why Hye-won came back, and definitely miffed by the powerful attraction Jae-Ha feels toward her. It’s not much of a triangle, though, because Hye-won is just not playing. She’s there to figure herself out.

Cute, but whiny, which fits a distinct Asian type.
Eun-Sook is ALSO “not playing” if you know what I mean.

Besides the good-looking cast playing likable (and flawed) characters, and—like almost every Korean movie we see out here—every shot being an excuse to show something beautiful (or at least aesthetically intriguing), this movie works for me a whole lot because Hye-won starts out with a one-sided anger toward her mother, who has been a single mom from a rather young age and never had a life of her own, but really devoted herself to her child nonetheless, and slowly begins to see how much her mother gave her, and in a low-key way has always sought to be in communication with her. The titular “Little Forest” begins to make sense by the end.

There’s no high drama, action, or wacky hijinks, so I suppose most people won’t like it. I have to guess, really, since there’s no RT up for it, and only 212 votes on IMDB (which is mostly meaningless these days). The cast is good looking but there’s no sex or nudity—Handmaiden notwithstanding, Korean and Chinese films tend to be very modest—so that’s probably another strike.

A few actors getting a LOT of work.
Jun-yeol Ryu (the boy) would turn up again in 2018’s Believer.

I dunno. I like movies about people. The Boy backs me up. Your loss if you don’t look it up.

*I think it’s Seoul. It’s usually Seoul. Sometimes they talk about Gangnam, but that’s actually just part of Seoul. Might have Bhusan, though, which is the next biggest city.

Bottle Rocket (1996)

And what if, you may wonder, Wes Anderson directed a heist movie. We were actually discussing this, I believe in the context of the awful looking Ocean’s Eight movie coming out shortly. Wonder no further, as Mr. Anderson’s first film was, in fact, a heist movie. Well, sorta.

Stills. Do you speak it?
I don’t think this is a scene from the film.

And, “well, sorta,” is what you get if WA directs a heist film. Our essentially good-hearted-if-wildly-over-estimating-their-own-competence thieves (Luke and Owen Wilson, again not playing brothers, and Robert Musgrave) prove their bona fides to the local crime boss (James Caan) by knocking over a bookstore. When the movie starts, Anthony (Luke) is being released from a sanitarium (voluntary committal) but to make it more exciting for his pal Dignan (Owen), he ties bedsheets together and climbs out the window.

And we immediately see their relationship. Anthony is just a Good Guy who’s kind of looking for Dignan. Dignan’s not a bad guy, but he’s also not a bright guy, and he has the sort of ideas that will land you in prison. Only, because he’s Owen Wilson, his really dumb ideas stretch out into multiple five year plans. We can see why Anthony likes Dignan, and vice-versa, but we also can see how their life paths—which seem to involve Anthony going along with Dignan’s crazy, elaborate schemes—may not be entirely conducive to healthy, productive lives.

Pinball is the best.
Just wanted to say: Power Play was a good table.

Anthony deviates from the plans for the first time when he meets Inez (Lumi Cavazos, Like Water For Chocolate), and realizes he could have something genuine and good in life, which also might not be complementary to Dignan’s schemes.

The whole story culminates in a Big Heist, at a cold storage facility which, predictably, goes wrong in a number of humorous ways.

The kids liked it. I liked it. We were three for three on Wes Anderson films—but I had doubts about The Darjeeling Limited, next week’s feature.

QUE?
True love…needs no words.

Wonder

I had to go see this one alone. Which is understandable, I guess, because it looks like it could be so very bad. But the RTs were strong for both critics and audiences, and (more importantly) the movie had hung around for over four months, and was tenaciously clinging to second run screens—something an inflated RT-score can’t make happen. Still, the kids were getting the wrong vibes from it.

The story centers around Augie, a young boy with facial deformities. They’re so bad, he wears an astronaut helmet to avoid the stares. Which, you know, isn’t perhaps the best strategy for avoiding stares. The action begins with his parents preparing to send him to school for the first time—not something I personally would endorse for any child, with or without facial deformities. In fact, my first hurdle in watching this was dealing with the whole “Why would you send your kid some place where you know he’ll be treated badly?” But school gets a bye from most parents, with the left desperately needing it as a source of future voters, and the right sort of lethargically arguing that bullying, fighting and injuries build character.

I digress.

Tough luck, kid.
Augie is not amused by my sermonizing.

The kid’s deformities aren’t that bad, actually. They’re striking. They’re odd. But they’re not unpleasant. He looks a little CGI.

Anyway, he’s an above-average kid. He’s smart and good-natured, though with bouts of face-related depression, and generally not bitter. He is self-centered, however, and occasionally downright selfish. This is nice. Writer/director Stephen Chobsky (Perks of Being a Wallflower) and his co-writers avoid the temptation to “purse puppy” Augie by making him perfect. But, in fact, he’s not even the protagonist, necessarily: The movie is more about how people react to their lives with him. The mother and the sister, e.g., get very nice character arcs here.

The overall arc of the story is perhaps too nice? The critics who disliked this mostly disliked it for that reason, from what I can tell. The refrain of “but what about…”, followed by a list of Very Necessary Things The Movie Needed To Address seems to be the big one in its detractors. As someone with some experience in this area, my response is more along the lines of “Meh”. It’s a nice story, and we can have those. Not every movie needs to be an Important Picture Addressing My Specific Concerns. If it’s “neat”, if it’s “Hollywood”, if it’s altogether slick, well, fine. I’ll take a movie about good-hearted people struggling to get by in life over some hanky-soaked self-important melodrama almost any day.

So rude.
I really wanted to make a “Mystic Pizza II” joke here but Owen Wilson was, rather selfishly, not IN “Mystic Pizza”.

Even its relentless diversity doesn’t really detract from it because, hey, it’s, like, New York, maybe even Brooklyn, but someplace that is relentlessly diverse. Don’t expect anything outside the PC coloring box, though. (I started to wonder later if it wasn’t some sort of ablist-washing that they cast the perfectly normal Jason Tremblay in the lead role instead of a…alternatively facially configured child.)

The acting is top-notch. I might not have gone had I realized it was Julia Roberts as the mom—more out of suspicion of the kinds of movies she’s in rather than anything about her personally—and it was pleasantly surprising to see Owen Wilson after all the Wes Anderson movies we’d been seeing. Jacob Tremblay (Room) plays Augie sympathetic-but-hold-the-syrup and Izabela Vidovic is appealing as his older sister, who’s trying to navigate high school while all the attention goes to her little bro. Mandy Patinkin rounds out the cast as Jewish Santa Claus.

Good family pic. Good moral lessons, I suppose. Generally upbeat. You could do worse.

At least it's not presented as being edgy.
Of course she has a black boyfriend. Of course.

The King of Hearts (1966)

In the closing days of World War I, retreating German forces set up a massive bomb in the center of a small French village, hoping to delay and damage an oncoming Scottish force. Catching wind of the plot, the head Scotsman sends in his top ornithologist Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) to defuse the bomb, because “demolitionist” and “ornithologist” are easily confused in Scottish, apparently. The French have already evacuated the town in a panic, neglecting the inhabitants of the local insane asylum, who get loose and begin to perform various roles in town, putting Plumpick in quite a predicament.

And that’s how you set up a movie, folks.

Quite.
You don’t get to be an officer in the Scottish brigades by quibbling over a word here and there!

The inmates-running-the-asylum trope is common enough, I suppose, although typically limited to horror and comedy (an exception being William Peter Blatty’s under-rated The Ninth Configuration), but the farcical tone of the film is not so overwhelming that it keeps you from genuinely caring about the fate of the characters which raises it above the usual El-Oh-El-So-Random humor (as the kids call it these days) fare, and it’s only slightly brought down by the ham-fisted anti-war message which is pretty much obvious from the get-go. I mean, WWI was pretty insane, and if you were going to make a point about people locked inside asylums being more sane than those outside, it’s not a bad stage to do it on.

Of course, nobody int he film suffers from real insanity, it’s movie insanity, which is charmingly eccentric, impractical, funny, and a metaphor for the artist and his disdain/distrust of social norms—or, in the ’60s, I suppose, a distrust of the “squares”.

Yay!
It’s the GOOD kind of insane where you wear funny clothes and ride in cool old cars.

Of course, the women are all beautiful, and one immediately rushes off to the brothel to be the head madam (though it’s not clear if it was a brothel before she got there), and some decide to be barbers or tailors or the local cardinal, and one decides to be the mayor, but they decide they need a king.

Enter Mr. Plumpick.

While he’s running around trying to find the bomb and trying to convince the escapees that they need to flee the town, because the bomb is shortly to go off, and he doesn’t even know where it is or how to defuse it, he’s also falling in love with Genevieve Bujold. Because of course you’re going to fall in love with Genevieve Bujold.

Of course.
I mean, honestly.

The fact that it’s pretty strictly by-the-numbers doesn’t really detract: It is funny, charming, well-acted, lovely to look at (delightful to hold!), and the over-the-top”One Tin Soldier” anti-violence/anti-war message, is at least not ugly. The movie maker’s not trying to make you feel bad. (Director Philippe de Broca has a funny cameo as Captain Adolph Hitler.) It’s just a kind of dopey, hippie, “War! What Is It Good For?” level of protest.

My kids, who are alt-right Nazis (as I guess we all are these days), both really enjoyed it. The Flower loved the costumes and the aesthetics generally, and the Boy found it fun. Considering how suspicious they are of this sort of thing (The Boy of anti-war films, The Flower of the French, and both of them of hippies), that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I also enjoyed it a lot: It’s on the cusp of that period (1966-1975) that I loathe, but without the nihilistic sensibilities.

Check it out!

VERY.
It’s also VERY French, as we used to say around here.

Foxtrot

This is one of those polarizing movies which would be entirely unremarkable and uncontroversial if made in America, but Israel still has some elites on the pro-Israel side of their debates, so…yeah. The real problem with it, though, is that it’s a three-act play where the first and third acts are just kind of miserable. The first act is redeemed by the intensity of the drama and artful (if claustrophobic) cinematography, but the third act…isn’t. This is doubtless deliberate, but I wasn’t sure why I had been called to the theater, frankly.

This will be a spoiler heavy recap here. Very little was a surprise in this film, though. It’s not really set up that way.

Also, Israeli women. Amirite?
Very effective camerawork in act one.

Act One has a mother opening her apartment door only to be told that her son has died in service. The military messengers are on top of it, catching her when she swoons and having a syringe of (presumably) sedative ready. The rest of the act primarily concerns the father being briefed on how the funeral arrangements and processions will go. The father, while not freaking out, is not really handling things well. And at the end of the act, we discover that, no, the son isn’t dead at all, it was someone else with the same name. This is when the father loses it and demand his son, Yonatan, be immediately returned from his post.

Act Two is Yonatan at his post at the Foxtrot station. This is a fairly light-hearted and entertaining series of vignettes as he and his fellow soldiers stave off boredom, and deal with the weird sort of tension that comes from being in the middle of nowhere on a security detail where maybe one car comes through every eight hours, often driven by the same guy. A freak happenstance results the soldiers mistakenly killing a car full of (presumably innocent) young (presumable) arabs. And as Yonatan is struggling with the guilt, he is called back home for reasons unknown (to him).

Look at that hump! It's barely a b-cup!
Camel’s: Nature’s Sand Clowns

Act Three begins with mom and dad some months later—and Yonatan is dead. Apparently he never made it back. There are recriminations and grief, and it’s just miserable because you know this time, it’s for real. The mom gets more screen time (she’s mostly sedated in Act One), and there are some good moments here, but it basically borders on grief porn.

It’s not that I didn’t like it; I just wasn’t compelled by it. I kept looking for something to raise it to a higher plane but all the metaphors seemed so ham-handed (on the one hand) and so minor on the other. The very title, Foxtrot, is (as is explained) a dance where you always end up right where you started.

Huh.

The father isn’t admirable. He tells a story of trading in his family’s heirloom bible for a skin magazine, which he presents to Yonatan as a teen. Further, he’s hiding his own act of cowardice (beyond stealing the family bible and lying about it) that his son knows about. We actually don’t learn about the Mom much, and probably less still about their daughter. They’re a secular family (of course) so they have no tools to deal with their grief, but this feels like a void which the story itself rejects filling.

This crap bookends the movie!
I mean, look at this morose mofo.

The accidental deaths in Act 2 feel very forced. It’s so dull and so low-key out at Foxtrot, the idea that Yonatan is sitting with his finger on the trigger of a machine gun aimed at a car of kids—including a girl he’s flirting with—was a stretch.

It’s the sort of amorphous leftist war-is-bad-so-disarm-before-the-enemies-who-would-kill-you kind of anti-war message that goes over like a lead balloon among Israelis who don’t want to die, but compared to the America-is-Evil propaganda we get here, it seems pretty lightweight. I’m sure that message is what wins over the bulk of the critics.

It’s the lack of a genuinely larger issue, in my eyes, that makes it less worthwhile. It really does end up feeling like it has no other point than making one feel bad about the situation while offering no solution other than surrender. In the end, we all liked it all right, and really appreciated the artistry of the first two acts.

The Flower found it appealing as she’s reading the Bible lately, and appreciating God’s difficulty with his “stiff-necked” people. “They can’t get away from God!” she exclaims! My kids are funny.

Hump it for the camel!
Once again, the star of our show, The Dromedary.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

It was probably the whiff of family dysfunction that put me off The Royal Tenenbaums when it first came out. It is not at all that I can’t enjoy a good family dysfunction movie, as you can see by clicking on each of those words individually—and I assure you that those were just the first four movies that came up when I searched for family dysfunction films—but that a bad family dysfunction movie is second only to bad comedies and rape-heavy-torture-porn-horror in terms of unpleasant ways to spend an afternoon. This was the era of You Can Count On MeIn AmericaThe Hours and a host of other family dramas that (good or bad) were not necessarily something I was in the mood for.

Alas, they do not exist.
This is the only family dysfunction film featuring Dalmation mice, however.

But the thing about Wes Anderson films is that even when they deal with serious things—and all of them do—they use a light touch. We are all in this modern, soft world, sort of absurd characters, hyper-ventilating over minor offenses, while generally managing to rise to the occasion, to overcome the liabilities, to actually make something cool out of life. And The Royal Tenenbaums is a strong vehicle for that message.

In it, Gene Hackman, in one of his last roles, plays Royal Tenenbaum, a man completely unable to focus on his family. I don’t know quite else how to describe it. He’s unfaithful, sure. He can’t introduce his adopted daughter Margot (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) without pointing out every single time that she’s adopted. And eventually he just goes away, leaving his eccentric but driven wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) to raise the children. The children themselves are also eccentric, to say the least, driving toward their own sorts of success in their own weird ways.

We meet the kids as kids, and then flash forward about 20 years. Margot has written one book, well-received, but has basically caved in on herself, shacking up with a much older English professor (Bill Murray). Chas (Ben Stiller) is successful but has been widowed about a year before the movie’s current time, and has responded by being the prototype, archetype and apotheosis of a “helicopter parent”. Richie (Luke Wilson) was a fantastically successful tennis player—now traveling the world in obscurity because he flat out gave up at a single match. (The reasons for which are ultimately explained.) Added to the mix is Eli (Owen Wilson), the next-door neighbor kid who ends up being unofficially adopted by Etheline, and a good reminder that as weird as the Tenenbaums had it, it was still much better than many.

I played a lot of these.
Love this game closet.

The movie begins when Royal returns, seeking to reunite with his family, because he is dying of cancer.

This could be really bad. And if you don’t like Wes Anderson, this isn’t the movie that’s going to win you over, most likely. But the thing in evidence here is this: He respects his characters, even at their most ridiculous and even at their most awful. All of the kids have talent and ability—well, maybe not Eli, who seems to just be an opportunistic drug addict—and they are more or less able. As Royal rebuilds the bonds with his family (and tries scuttling Etheline’s burgeoning romance with her accountant, played by Danny Glover) the questions we are faced with are universal: What does family mean? Do we extend help to our family members even when they don’t deserve it? And if we can build bridges when things are desperate, why can’t we just build them whenever? Why does it have to be desperation?

And, when we’ve extended the mantle of family to another, is that a permanent, irrevocable thing? This movie seems to answer in the affirmative, as the roguish Eli, in his continuous evasion of the Tenenbaums’ attempts to get him off drugs, nearly kills Chas’ son. By the end, you’re less shocked by Royal’s uproarious laughter at a play based on him, written by Margot, and showing him to be callous toward her, and more just shrugging: Yeah, that’s who he is. He’s not even being mean. He just doesn’t comprehend the hurt.

Aw, Hackman! We hardly knew ye!
You probably wouldn’t want to sit next to him during the show, of course.

You could say this movie (and all them, really) is about tolerance. Family is a microcosm of society, and first and foremost, one must tolerate others. No matter how awful they seem. The nice thing about this movie is that you can see and empathize with the different characters. They all have good traits in the mix.

The kids all liked it. I did, too, quite a bit, and more than I expected. I suspect if I had seen it in 2001, I would be saying I liked it more this time—because that was true of all five films.

So good.
And look at that BLOCKING!