Be With You

Right here. This, this sort of movie, this is the reason we go see Asian films.

No! Don't be silly!
They show them on the wall of this little tunnel.

Be With You is a sweet little Korean film about a father and son, the father working hard at odd hours so he can make breakfast for his son and get him off to school, both of them kissing a picture of a woman on the way out the door. The woman is, of course, the wife/mother, who has passed away about a year ago. The movie, in fact, opens with her reading a story about a mother who has died and comes back down to see her child when the rainy season starts. Then she has to go back when the rainy season is over.

I forget what kind of animal it is. Sheep or duck or something. But it seems like an oddly specific story, doesn’t it? Needless to say, the movie begins right before the rainy season starts and the little boy is expecting to see his mother. The father, not having the heart to break the truth to him, does not correct the child.

Also, needless to say, the rainy season starts and there she is! (So we got ourselves some magical realism here.)

'cause...g-g-ghost!
Things are a little strained.

But there’s a catch (besides the obvious one): The mother doesn’t know who they are. And the movie becomes the progress of the family rebuilding itself around the amnesiac woman, telling us in little flashbacks and snippets how the two parents met in school, and how the father pined for her but couldn’t ever approach her. They don’t tell her anything about her own death, only that she’s been away for a year.

But then! She discovers her own diary. And she discovers that she did die, and from there on she changes radically, becoming more motherly and wifely, and gradually sets it all up so that when she has to go back, the audience is going to bawl its eyes out.

It’s cute, funny, poignant, charming and with a bunch of likable characters, like the husband’s would-be-Lothario of a boss, forever frustrated because all the girls much prefer the young widower (whose heart belongs to his late wife). And the “uncle” of the family, a comical college friend who, for all his obnoxiousness (especially in trying to fix up the hero with a new girl) turns out to have been the one that got the two of them together in the first place (precisely through obnoxiousness).

It's a shock.
Stumbling upon your private workshop you didn’t know you had.

And then, as we’ve seen so many times, you get to that final act and you think, “Well, this is solid and enjoyable, if not spectacular”—and the movie goes on for another 20 minutes completely shifting your POV around. In this case, when an American movie would’ve ended, instead we get to see the whole thing played out again (much abbreviated, of course) from her point-of-view.

The thing about magical realism, though, is that has to be delicately balanced. There have to be rules. And this one seems a little too neat, a little too tidy about how everything plays out. And then in the last 20 minutes, everything comes into sharp focus and you realize that everything you thought was just a convenience had a solid background of character development and a different kind of “magic” behind it. In other words, you think you get the rules, and the movie tells you at the end, “No, you had that wrong. This is what was really going on.”

Ouch.
It’s a sweet birthday pic…except you know what’s coming.

It’s quite a sleight-of-hand. And it works because you want it to. You want this all to be something amazing about love and life, and it does not let you down.

And that is why we go see the Asian films.

What? It's true!
Young love. And because they’re Asian, you don’t have to do any dumb makeup.

Seven Years of Night

There are a lot of distinctive differences between Asian and American films, which is generally why we like them. Some of the differences are just straight about quality in the sense of being better: They are more aesthetically shot, for example. They are not self-loathing (Koreans and Chinese are proud to be Korean and Chinese, warts and all). They’re less likely to feel safe or by-the-numbers. But, of course, some of the differences are about quality in the sense of being different. Other cultures of course have their own tropes, styles and even genres. Think of the scary-spooky-little-girl horror sub-genre, for example.

But it's more a horror show.
You wouldn’t be surprised if this turned out to be a horror movie.

The Koreans have a distinct revenge genre. American revenge movies are meant to be cathartic: You are supposed to cheer, after a fashion, when the good guy takes the bad guy out. This is not my favorite genre. I don’t really identify with Paul Kersey—at least not Charles Bronson’s Kersey—and I always felt like the 1974 Death Wish was exploiting the sensational brutality of the crimes. (The current one not so much.) I enjoyed Death Warrant but more for Kevin Bacon’s portrayal of obsession (he was great in Stir of Echoes, too) and its destructive effects than for any presumed catharsis. But the thing about the American revenge flick is that it is supposed to be, after a fashion, fun.

Not so the Korean revenge flick. At least I hope not. The Koreans, when they make a revenge picture, they are going to instruct you fully on the destructiveness of pursuing revenge. Justice, such as it is, does not focus narrowly on ne’er-do-wells like a sniper’s rifle. Oh, no. Revenge is more like a bomb that doesn’t just blow up large areas of space—it blows up large areas of time. A most famous example of this is Oldboy, which was famous/notorious enough to get an English-language remake by Spike Lee (!) and starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen. (This remake did about $2M on a $30M budget.)

But not!
Total horror movie.

Seven Years of Night is a revenge story in that model. The movie opens with a young man visiting his father in jail. The father has been accused of murder and then also mass murder and he is to be put to death on this day. His son is none to happy with him, to say the least.

Flashback to our hero—this would be the mass murderer, so let’s call him the protagonist—driving down a lonesome rural road to look at some kind of house/job situation. He’s drunk and his shrewish wife is raking him over the coals because he’s so late (he got drunk before going out to see this house) when this psychotic rich freak blocks his way on the road. Psycho guy is driving slow because he’s busy on the phone with his wife, issuing not-really-veiled threats to murder her. He waves drunk protagonist to pass him and then blocks him, tries to run him off the road and generally convince the audience that he’s a psycho. Because of this the protagonist misses his turn-off.

Or is it?
I’m sure it’s fine. Nothing ominous here.

Psycho guy goes home and beats his seven year old daughter for talking to her mother and using her makeup and whatever other reason he contrives. She escapes from him and runs through the woods. He chases her. Then she runs out into the road and the protagonist hits her with his car.

Psycho guy then spends the next seven years trying to destroy him.

You might be tempted to draw good-and-evil lines around Protagonist and Psycho (I was) but while the movie has no problem reaffirming that the Psycho is generally psycho—even his moment of sentimentality is utterly detached from reality—the protagonist is much, much worse than we originally realize. The amazing aspect of this movie is that it begs forgiveness even as it shows us the protagonist make bad choice after bad choice. It’s challenging. We’re clearly in the position of the son trying to understand his murderous father.

Eep.
Things go…awry.

The Boy liked it more than I did, but we both liked it quite a bit. There is some great photography, as always, as the Koreans don’t seem to feel the need to make a movie about ugly things itself ugly. The shots are stark, and spooky enough that you wonder if the movie’s going to go horror. (There is a ghost, but a feature of Asian movies is that the presence of ghosts means nothing more than it does in Shakespeare. They’re just…around.)

We were not disappointed, and the next movie would be even better—and completely different.

And the Koreans ain't gonna sugarcoat it.
Forgiveness ain’t easy.

Easter Parade (1948)

The second feature in our Astaire double-feature was the classic Irving Berlin/Fred Astaire/Judy Garland musical Easter Parade. Fred Astaire had tried to retire—he was in his mid-40s, for cryin’ out loud!—when Gene Kelly had a little fit on a volleyball court and hurt his ankle. Or so the story goes.

So, we'll WALK up the avenue...
A couple of swells.

The story had been done many times in many ways, and many of those times with Judy Garland. At least it feels that way. (Like, I remember For Me And My Gal with Gene Kelly and Garland having a similar plot and even the same climactic line: “Why didn’t you tell me I was in love with you?”) Judy is a farm-girl stumbling around in the big city when a sophisticated man takes her under his wing—in this case after being dumped by the stunning Ann Miller—and (as an act of vengeance) makes a star out of her.

In this case, our hero Don (Astaire) foolishly tries to make over Hanna (Garland) in the mold of Nadine (Miller), a sophisticated ballroom dancer. After this proves disastrous, he realizes she has plenty of talent as a comedic dancer and singer. (There’s a certain irony here, as the Astaires themselves were comedic dancers on vaudeville who incorporated elements of ballroom into their act.)

She's evil, but it's hard to care.
Possibly the loveliest antagonist ever.

Ultimately, of course, Hannah and Don begin to rival and even exceed Nadine, whose only real serious malevolent act (beyond perhaps ditching Don in the first place) is to provocatively dance with Don in a way that she knows Hannah can’t rival.

It all comes out in the wash, of course.

Great songs and dances. This is the one where the chorus is dancing behind Fred at normal speed, but he’s been in slow-mo. He’s also great when he cons the little kid out of the drum in the toy store, opening scene. Peter Lawford sings “Fella with an Umbrella” and actually seems like a much better fit for Garland’s Hannah character.

Judy was an amazing actress, too.
Just a fella. A fella with an umbrella.

I don’t know that Fred and Judy have any real chemistry, but their acts are completely incompatible, sort of contrary to the story premise. He’s a more elegant dancer, and she just dusts him with her singing. It all still works, of course.

Ann Miller’s big number is just amazing. I’d never seen this on the big screen and she is—well, not a talentless hack, as you might wish her character to be, even if that would make for a much worse movie.

Between Ann and Judy they had the "adoring look" down.
Jules and Ann would get together in “On The Town”.

There’s a great recurring bit with Jules Munshin as a put upon waiter. Jules would re-appear in On The Town as the other sailor (besides Sinatra and Kelly).

It’s one of those movies that makes you sad about modern films because every character has memorable role to play. Like they knew how to drew characters from the merest words or actions.

And he's white!
He’s 48 and he hangs in the air like Michael Jordan.

 

 

The Band Wagon (1953)

When they announced the Fred Astaire double-feature, I was instantly sold because of Easter Parade, not really having any idea what it was, but figuring—hey, Astaire and Cyd Charisse, who we saw not too long ago in Singin’ In The Rain (1951)—making me wonder if she couldn’t act, since she only danced in that film.

Well, yes, she can act. She sings okay, too. (She sings okay, as it turns out, because that’s not her singing but ghost singer India Adams.) And she’s byoooootiful. Every time she came on screen for a dance number, The Flower gasped. The gowns, by Mary Ann Nyberg lost to The Robe, which is a little hard to believe because these dresses (and Ms. Charisse in them) are amazing.

Yeah.
The dresses, The Flower noted, flow.

The story (as if it mattered) is that a washed-up movie hoofer Tony Hunter (Astaire) returns to his roots on Broadway because some old pals, a musical playwriting couple (composer/conducter Oscar Levant and the adorable Nanette Fabray, who just died at the age of 97) have written a boffo new musical they think he’d be perfect for. The premise is that a children’s book writer has to make ends meet by writing lurid crime novels—which, when you think about it, is all you need as a hook for some great musical numbers.

Things immediately go awry when they pull in serious drama director (Jack Buchanan) and he, in turn, gets serious dancer Gabrielle (Charisse) to join the shenanigans. Mr. Serious Director gets all the money people to sign on to this musical not as a light romp but as a re-imagining of Faust and after weeks of bloated and brutal rehearsal, the play flops on the first night.

If necessary.
I could post Cyd Charisse pictures all day.

Lamenting the failure, Astaire wanders into a tiny apartment where the supporting players are celebrating the show, and before you know it, songs and dances break out and Tony says, “Well, why can’t we put on the show we wanted to originally?” So he sells all his Degas and whatnot, and the troupe re-rehearses and takes the show out on the road.

Meanwhile—of course—Tony and Gabrielle are working out their professional (and personal) issues to be both a good team and (because audiences demanded this sort of thing, apparently) and romantic partners. Charisse was about 30 to Astaire’s 52, but it’s pretty well handled. Even young women tended to look like grown-ups back then, and they carried themselves in a way which seemed to say “She knows her mind.” But the romance isn’t over-played.

I mean, it's not rocket science but it's clever.
This is a good comic bit worth rewatching just to figure out how they did it.

I don’t think I need to elaborate on the dancing. The vaudeville-style comic song and dance numbers are also terrific.

Shortly after seeing this I read a book on the Astaires (Fred and Adele) and learned the original Broadway play had been written for them, and was their swan song. Though there’s little connection between the 1931 play and this movie, the scene where Astaire gets off the bus and points across the street to say “I had one of my biggest hits there…” is cute when you realize he’s pointing at the theater where he and Adele originally starred in The Band Wagon.

And mostly Cyd.
Back to Cyd and Fred.

A lot of this movie was written to reflect on Fred’s actual career, including his “retirement” and (briefly) diminishing star. Except, of course, his “retirement” was five years earlier, and it was immediately interrupted so he could take the place of Gene Kelly in our second feature of the night, Easter Parade.

Everyone loved this one. It would be hard for me to admit I liked it more than Easter Parade, but the two are very close in my heart.

Obvi.
More Cyd because…duh.

 

Isle of Dogs

In a first ever for us, we followed up our month of “themed” movies by seeing the new Wes Anderson flick Isle of Dogs. (Mr. Paul Thomas Anderson did not receive this courtesy, alas, with Phantom Thread being received with much disinterest from us all. Quoth the flower: “Wait, he’s a clothes designer with a girlfriend? Is that the twist? That he’s not gay?”) But we had liked all five of his older films quite a lot (Rushmore being The Flower’s favorite and The Royal Tenenbaums being The Boy’s favorite, with me undecided) and we all think that his last two movies (Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel) were actually better than all his previous work.

But not watching a Wes Anderson film on a tiny screen in the kitchen? No.
Glued to the screen.

And now we have a new favorite. Or at least, that was each of our impressions on leaving the theater. Over time, after the thrill of the moment has passed, it might not hold up, but this is definitely in the same class as the last two films. It’s as if Anderson is actually getting better with each film rather than worse, which seems to be the trajectory for filmmakers of late.)

Now, don’t get me wrong: This is an extremely WA film, and if you don’t like WA, this ain’t gonna change your mind. But we loved it.

The plot, summed up neatly in the trailer, is as follows: In a manga-esque future Japan, there’s a dog flu sweeping the city of Megasaki. Mayor Kobayashi orders all dogs quarantined on an island made of floating, the eponymous Isle of Dogs. The mayor’s ward, Atari, missing his dog “Spots”, ventures on to the island to try to save him. The dogs who find him on the island band together to help him locate “Spots”. Along the way, we discover the backstory of why the dog is so important to Atari (as if there needed to be a reason) and also learn more about the dogs who have been quarantined.

Not the people...
Pictured: The evil masterminds behind the plot.

The human dialog is primarily in Japanese with no subtitles, though there is a translator (Frances McDormand), and one of the primary characters is Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig), a foreign exchange student who develops a crush on the brave Atari, and (more importantly, since they barely meet) uncovers the secret shenanigans behind the conspiracy to get rid of all the dogs.

The cast is huge and top-notch, populated by many of the usual suspects: Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Roman Coppola, Anjelica Huston, and so on. Some other voices are provided by Scarlett Johansson, Yoko Ono (!), Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton and F. Murray Abraham among others. The lead dog, Chief, is voiced wonderfully by Bryan Cranston.

The same sort of gentle, whimsical spirit pervades, as it has in all of Anderson’s recent movies, but this movie also seems to be among the warmest of his films. He seems to have vastly improved his mastery of stop-motion animation since Fantastic Mr. Fox, with all the jerky, “weightless” motion gone, and the composition and blocking more like a traditional movie, while not lessening the aesthetic appeal of the medium.

We all felt like we could turn right back around and watch it again, actually, and we may go ahead and see it in its second run.

But with a different ending.
A Boy and his Dogs.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

By this point, we were psyched for anything Wes Anderson had to offer, including his new film, Isle of Dogs, and this one, Fantastic Mr. Fox, which I hadn’t loved originally. On reviewing, I feel like Burton’s execrable Willy Wonka movie had seriously soured my look at this film which, while still not that close to the Dahl concept is not as offensively far off, in terms of character relationships, as I had felt before.

I yam what I yam.
Sorry, dude. I can be a purist.

Dahl often had a hagiographic take on parents (the good ones) which is not found that frequently in children’s literature, and while this movie falls far short of that, Mr. Fox isn’t as self-absorbed as I remembered him.

My original complaints about the animation hold up: I don’t think Anderson had a good grasp on stop-motion physics yet, and the rapid motion, while still kinda funny, is visually jarring. (That kind of high-speed stuff is gone from Isle of Dogs.) This time, too, I was able to appreciate a lot more of the detail that went into the film.

He's good.
And the blocking! Always with the blocking!

The voice acting, again, is fine. Meryl Streep doesn’t stand out any more here than she did before, and Clooney is still perfect for the role—and he’s less ubiquitous these days so it almost seems like a George-Clooney-esque voice than actually him.

Of the films we saw this month, this also had the strongest sense of community. Fox is a genuine hero, not just to his family, but to all the underground animals. This makes his fall harder, and his ultimate redemption sweeter. I think the month of Anderson pictures really gave me a better perspective on that point-of-view.

Also, unlike all the other movies, Fox is less inexplicably awful, as seen in (e.g.) Royal Tenenbaum and Patricia. He’s ambitious and cocky, and sometimes has trouble relating to his kids, but he’s not just arbitrarily cruel. So, while I disapprove (somewhat) of the jokes aimed at the adults as non-Dahl-esque, I approve of the more heroic portrayal of father figures than is to be found elsewhere in oeuvre. In other words, I feel less like Anderson tried to hammer Dahl’s story into his own mold without regard for it—again, unlike Burton’s Wonka.

We had all seen it 8 1/5 years ago. We all liked it more this time.

The lean-out would be #1.
Let’s close with the second-most Wes Anderson shot possible.