The Flower has exploited The Boy’s and my enthusiasm for Asian pictures, and also expanded her circle of friends, requiring more and more trips to exotic locales. And when the Korean theater is booked up with…American superhero movies…we can sometimes escape to Alhambra which is like Chinatown, in the sense that Chinese people live there, and not like Chinatown, which is more a movie location these days.
In A or B, a businessman wakes up, trapped in his home (or is he?) and forced, Saw-like, to choose between two unpalatable options: Reveal your affair or let your business partner be sent to jail; uncover your money laundering or have your best friend be murdered. Stuff like that. Obviously, a sinister force is at work here, and our hero is the object of his vengeful fantasies.
I’ve spoken about the nature of Korean revenge flicks, and how they are steeped in a highly moralistic viewpoint that revenge is really wrong and will never work out for you. You know, unlike cathartic American revenge pictures, where the audience is expected to identify with the vigilante, Koreans revenge pictures tend to be told from the standpoint of the victim of the revenge plot. They can be very, very good—but they are in no ways fun. “We are all sinners, and forgiveness is our only hope,” basically.
It’s too soon to opine on Chinese revenge pictures, but this one has that sort of message without the Korean heaviness. Our protagonist is definitely flawed. I mean, flawed doesn’t do it justice: He’s basically a bad guy, much like the protagonist Seven Years of Night, though he commits his crimes for sheer ambition and greed. (This is a big Chinese theme, as we saw in Till the End of the World, and is its own kind of political correctness, of course.)
Unlike the Korean movies, though, the Chinese message of redemption (at least here) is ultimately light-hearted: no matter how bad things get, there’s gonna be a redemption. The story gets increasingly preposterous as the protagonist, having earned his shot at redemption by realizing the error of his ways, struggles to stay alive—and perhaps avoid punishment.
But there’s a strong moral force at work here, too: You know if the hero lives, he’s going to have to suffer somehow for all the harm he’s done. I’m okay with that.
The reviews on this were pretty negative but we went anyway, and we found ourselves really enjoying it, especially as it went from revenge picture to more action/thriller. We were also impressed that we could follow the plot (both of us could!) even though there were a lot of threads. I particularly liked how the protagonist went from unlikable to really unlikable, and then slowly back to more likable as he takes his journey toward redemption.
The Asians have not let us down yet…but nothing lasts forever, right?
So, here we have a sci-fi film with horror overtones getting generally good notices from critics and lukewarm reception from audiences, and this just screams The Boy and I. I had a vague recollection of the Red Letter Media crew speaking warmly of it, but they may have simply pointed out that it’s a sci-fi movie with an all-female team where that team arises organically (kaff) which is, shall we say, debatable.
This is the sophomore effort from writer/director Alex Garland, whose freshman outing Ex Machina was highly praised by critics and audiences alike, and which The Boy (especially) and I felt was a bit over-rated. A movie about a robot that turns on its creator is not exactly fresh but it was pretty stylishly done and help up as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Also, people seem to appreciate naked Alicia Vikander.
I wasn’t really aware of the movie’s pedigree going in. If I had been, I would’ve been completely unsurprised by the fact that this is another hoary old sci-fi tale done up in a stylish manner (though not that stylish, frankly).
If we did a breakdown, I would give this film a tepid thumbs up with a stern warning not to think about it very hard at all, and The Boy would give it a solid thumbs down, finding it both rather pale compared to the source material it’s ripping off (The Boy loves Stalker (1979) which is a clear influence here) and finding the acting awful and the denouement tipped from the first act.
The story is this: An object from outer space crashes near a lighthouse creating an anomalous field that is slowly expanding outward and probably/maybe gonna destroy the whole world but every mission they send in doesn’t come out and is probably dead so they figure “Well, hell, let’s just throw some girls in there maybe they’ll have better luck than the highly trained special forces dudes who didn’t come out and why not?”
I mean, that’s literally the “logic”. The (unspecified arm of the government) can’t think of anything else to do so they send in a (*squints*) psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a biologist (Natalie Portman), a physicist, an anthropologist and a paramedic.
Our “hero” is Natalie Portman whose husband (Oscar Isaacs) has vanished in the zone but then came back—the only one to escape The Zone though he remembers nothing and nobody knows how he got there (at which point The Boy immediately sussed out the whole plot)—only he’s real sick and the ambulance ride to the hospital is intercepted by guys in black cars, and they end up at Area X where Portman gets the necessary exposition to propel the team into the zone.
Up to this point, I was going along with it pretty easily. The set up is broody and atmospheric and there’s a sense of fatalism (ennui, even) that makes emotional sense—everyone’s going to die if something doesn’t change, so lets do stupid, desperate things—even if there’s no way on God’s green earth anything like that would ever go down in real life. This tone, I felt, was one of the big “lifts” from Stalker.
But we’re going to use this dubious set-up to do something smart and interesting, right? Well, no. Right at the beginning of the ladies’ foray into The Zone, they become aware that they’ve lost time. Like, five days.
Now, look, knowing that nobody else has come back alive (except our biologist’s husband), the first mysterious thing, what would you do? You’d head straight out. Just surviving gives you information you can bring back to base, and that’s more you had than before, when nobody had any information about The Zone. And of course, if you start thinking along these lines, you realize that what you’d do is send in maybe one guy and have him step in, then step right out. Maybe tie a rope around him, I dunno.
But okay, let’s go along. The inside of The Zone is all weird and mutate-y. Some nice design on the plants and animals. A kind of interesting premise involving cross-species gene sharing. Moody and mysterious exploration.
Then we get a boogen.
This is really jarring. It’s not scary or very exciting. One of the girls is taken but I think they rescue her. I can’t remember. As The Boy pointed out, the characters were mostly just their superficial characteristics. I thought the paramedic was sort of interesting—and completely unsuited for a mission like this—as was the psychologist. The Boy disagreed, finding it hard to care about any of the characters.
The big hook (not really a spoiler since it’s show in act one) is that Portman’s character is wracked with guilt over her faithlessness to her husband. This explains her motivation to go into The Zone—and the characters’ motivations are all this really has to distinguish it from any basic popcorn film.
The ending explains everything, and I had figured it out by act two but was sort of holding out hope for something better, but it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Like, we get the whole thing with biologist’s husband, but there’s no logical explanation for how he got to her, and how (having eluded the government in escaping The Zone) they discovered where he was. We sort of have to assume they were constantly watching the biologist, which I guess isn’t too far out.
Worse, though, and much like Ex Machina, there’s no reasonable explanation for the ending. It’s obscure without being interesting. It’s the kind of faux-depth that critics seem to adore.
As I say, a cautionary thumbs up if you like broody Portman and Leigh—and I do love me some JJL. She’s been one of the most consistently good actresses since she was Marcie on “Baretta”. But don’t be fooled: It’s really just a rehashed B-movie with some interesting aspects to it.
The first thing I had to break to the kids on this one is that Sunset Boulevard is not a musical. (And this was even harder to explain when we got to The Producers.) The Boy and The Flower like to make mix tapes and for our “streets, roads and highways” mix (one that vexed The Boy sorely), he had put on this song from an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which is remarkable mostly because I don’t hate it. (Not a fan of ALW, is what I’m saying.)
This actually set them back a bit, but I assured them that this would be a fine film even without the musical stylings of the guy who brought us Starlight Express. After all, we’d had good luck with Billy Wilderso far.
Even so, I think we were all taken aback by how great this movie was. William Holden plays William Holden doing William Holden—I mean, seriously, was the guy ever anything but a hard bitten cynic, down-on-his-luck, shady-side-of-the-street type?
Well, he’s good at it. And in this movie, he starts out dead. The movie explains how he got to be dead, which is basically by being a heel for 110 minutes. Holden plays Joe Gillis, a washed up screenwriter with the repo guys after him, who avoids them by turning into an abandoned home on Sunset Blvd (lol) which turns out not to be abandoned but in fact inhabited by silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, who would share the Oscar loss to Judy Holiday with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for All About Eve) who is alone except for her one caretaker, Max (played by silent movie great Eric Von Stroheim, The Honeymoon, Greed) and who has clearly lost her marbles.
She’s working on a comeback screenplay and Gillis, spotting a way out of his financial troubles, agrees to look it over for her, carefully tailoring his responses to her insane ramblings. But Desmond is manipulative on a level the dopey Gillis can’t comprehend: She moves him in to a room over the garage. She buys him clothes. When it starts to rain, she moves him into the house. She doesn’t give him money. And he lets her get away with it, because he figures he’s getting away with something.
Then he abandons her on New Years because he’s suddenly aware that she has hallucinated a romantic relationship between them. She attempts suicide, and then things get even weirder…
This is a really dark movie. You’re not going to find admirable characters here. Morose Max turns out to be operating more out of guilt than genuine loyalty. Even the ambitious, fresh-faced young writer, Betty (charmingly played by Nancy Olson) turns out to be ready to throw over one of the only genuine characters in the movie—her boyfriend Artie, played by a bubbly Jack Webb!—for her attraction to the broody Gillis.
Besides Artie, the only really nice person in the movie is Cecil B. DeMille (played, of course, by Cecil B. DeMille). Other people playing themselves include H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper. The presence of people playing themselves—or someone like themselves, as Stroheim—is a powerful technique, though it’s probably lost today on all but the most dedicated film fans. (Stroheim, it turns out, is playing a great silent filmmaker comparable to D.W. Griffith and C. B. De Mille, which is a fair description of him.)
But DeMille plays himself, treating Desmond as if hardly any time has passed, trying to keep her spirit from being crushed. The studio crowd turning out to shower love on Desmond alongside of his heartfelt monologue on the faded silent star are almost the only real warm (with a fatal irony) moments in the film. (Gillis’ interaction with Betty—before the realization that he can do nothing but destroy her life—is another one.) It’s utterly heartfelt. And underscored by Desmond’s instantly prima-donna-plus behvaior, showing us that even in her prime, this star was a terror.
Swanson is amazing here. She is tragicomic figure, exciting sympathy and a sort of derision borne of her comic struggle to be 20 years younger. It is a genuinely brilliant and some would say “courageous” performance. She chews the scenery, but in a situation where nothing less would work. The pathos is utterly amped by her cartoonishness. And the destruction she can wage by virtue of a few good investments made when Los Angeles was a tank town is no less than astonishing.
The thing is, Swanson is only 50 years old here. She’s still very good looking. Myrna Loy was 45 and in Cheaper By The Dozen the same year. (And was the romantic lead opposite Cary Grant only two years earlier in the terrific Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.) The point isn’t that Hollywood isn’t a savage mill grinding up feminine beauty, but that Desmond’s ridiculousness is solely and entirely due to her failure to accept any aspect of her age. I don’t know if acting is ever really “brave” but it’s certainly bravura here.
We loved it, and the kids had forgotten about the musical, more or less, by the time we got out.
This was by far the most conventional of movies we’ve seen in the Korean—and by “conventional”, I mean in the western sense. It is, essentially The Blair Witch Project, except that (being Korean, and it being 2018), instead of a couple of hand-held cameras augmenting a film camera, they have ALL THE CAMERAS, including motion-activated ones and a drone-mounted one for overhead shots.
Also, the film crew is going for a million Youtube(ish) hits. As one does these days. This provides the sorta thin motivation for the film crew to behave badly. Sometimes really badly and really dumbly as well.
(This review is gonna be a little spoiler-y because without that, there’s nothing more to write.)
The plot is that the producers of the Youtube(ish) series devoted to the paranormal collects a bunch of dupes to investigate a haunted asylum that everyone dies if they go in. (First thing Blake notices on interior shot: “There’s a whole lotta graffiti on the walls if everyone who goes in dies! That’s dedication to the craft!”) Our dupes don’t really believe in this stuff and, as it turns out, neither do our YouTube(ish) producers.
I can’t even qualify this as a twist. Obviously our showrunners are cynical hacks looking to exploit the paranormal for profit. They virtually say as much. So it’s not a surprise when it’s revealed that they’re behind the shenanigans when things get spooky. (House on Haunted Hill, anyone?) It’s also completely unsurprising when they’re not behind all of the shenanigans, and end up not knowing what’s going on. (Again, HoHH did this 60 years ago. With Vincent Price and skello-vision or whatever Castle called his flying skeleton gimmick.)
I guess it’s a little surprising how far it all goes. At points where you think the showrunners would be convinced enough that Bad Things were afoot—like when people have died—the chief guy just marches right on in to the death trap for his million hits.
As a movie, it’s just competent. Some jump scares. A nice way to spend 90 minutes if you like the haunted house thing (and we do). It’s beautifully shot, even given the constraints, because, hey, Koreans. They gots standards, especially visually. Many really, really nice non-spooky camera shots preceding the arrival at the haunted asylum. GoPro and drone-type things. Very creative and pays off toward the end for some shots.
Some nice horror effects and jump scares. Some of the nicer effects don’t make any sense if you think about them for very long, so don’t do that.
The actors are about as generic as they would be in an American film. One of the girls is named “Charlotte” and has spent some time in America and I think is more of a floozy than a good homegrown Korean girl would be. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Heh.
We liked it, but apart from the visuals (which, in fairness, are very important to horror films) it didn’t really stand out like most Korean movies.
Here’s a movie with a simple, not very informative title (Stand By Me) and production values comparable to a TV movie, along with a sort of Hallmark-y kind of plot: Grandpa is raising his two grandchildren, very unsuccessfully, after his son died and he threw his daughter-in-law out of the house. You gotta wonder, as a discerning moviegoer, if this is going to be worth your $15. (Yeah, movies in K-town ain’t cheap, and if you go see two the same day, as The Boy and I do, you can only get Moviepass to comp one.)
The title thing is interesting because a lot of times the generic-sounding titles aren’t really generic at all, they just translate poorly. Be With You was like that. In this case, however, grandson’s name is Deok-gu, and that is the name of the movie, and the distributors probably figure that anything is better than an actual Korean sounding phrase. They may be right in that, although I don’t see a lot of evidence that any of these movies get much play here in the states.
All that aside, the Koreans have such a fascinating cinematic relationship with their elders. Like Americans, in that the younger generations act radically different, but also unlike them in that there’s a lot more respect for a lot more radical behavior shown. This movie is a good case in point.
Grandpa works his butt off scraping grills (Korean barbecue!) to get money to raise his grandchildren, but he really has no clue what he’s doing or how the world has changed. He’s very poor, rural, and he’s very hard on the boy, making him yell out his ancestral family, and even engaging in corporal punishment. All because he threw out his daughter-in-law after his son’s death. Turns out she had absconded with the insurance money, and it was just too much for the distraught father. But as hard as the grandson has it, the granddaughter is positively reverting to an infant state. (I’m not sure of the science of this but at one point, the doctor just says “She needs her mother! This is what happens when kids don’t have their mothers!”)
The plot twist here, which is slowly revealed—at least to us, it may have been immediately obvious to the Koreans—is that the daughter-in-law is Indonesian. So this is a kind of issue by itself on the one hand—just like an Indonesian woman to run off with your son’s insurance money, I guess—while on the other hand, they can’t actually understand each other very well, leading to the issues that resulted in the old man evicting her from the family home.
The other thing set up almost immediately is that grandfather is dying. So he has to find the kids a home. He’s not crazy about foster homes but virtually everyone in Korea has more money than he does, so there’s that. Meanwhile, for all their friction, the grandkids don’t want to leave him.
The second act kicker is when he discovers that his daughter-in-law took the insurance money to pay for a close relative’s surgery (a niece?) that saved the child’s life. Our protagonist actually goes to Indonesia to discover this. (He tries to make the fare by convincing whatever powers-that-be in Korea that they should give him the insurance money for his impending death in advance, in a darkly amusing scene.) Turns out mom was in the big city in Korea all along, trying to scrape together enough money to pay grandfather back.
It all comes a-cropper when the grandfather decides to send the kids to the foster home rather than force them to watch him die.
Meanwhile, Indonesian mom, having heard of a crazy Korean boy yelling in the street for his mother—and repeating the litany of family history his grandfather beat into him—is racing back to try to convince grandfather to take her back and reunite the family.
Since this is a Korean movie, they’re gonna rip out your heart several times over, even as you know that things are going to have to be all right, more or less. Aren’t they?
It’s a messy, complicated film, really, and kind of beautiful in the way it shows how we all struggle to deal with what life throws at us, and at the same time create so many of those struggles ourselves. We both ended up liking it more and more as it went on, and our unbroken streak of successful Asian film viewing continued…
Well, nobody was more surprised than I when The Flower said she wanted to see this one again. I was barely on board six months ago about taking them to see it the first time. I’m not exactly the anti-Ready Player One—though I will allow to a certain degree of suspicion when it comes to things from the ’80s (and surrounding years). But not only did The Flower come to see it again, The Boy and His Girl joined us.
But the thing about Weird Science is that it’s just plain dumb fun. It’s not really trying to convey any serious message. The closest it comes to a message is something like “Lighten up a little. Be who you are. Be sincere and the chicks will dig that.” It’s probably not even very true, and most certainly pandering to the angst-ridden teen boys of the day—although, also girls, since the little girl love interests are (obviously) intimidated by Kelly LeBrock.
Part of the appeal for The Flower, of course, is Kelly LeBrock, because The Flower thinks ’80s fashions were really, really, really dopey and childish, “Like a kid got into her mom’s jewelry box” is I think how she describes the accessorizing craze of the decade. But she allows that Ms. LeBrock looked pretty good, even for having been stuck in the ’80s.
I would argue that the fashions aren’t really any better, and the best scenes don’t feature KLB in much of the way of clothes at all, and she probably wouldn’t argue. Although the evening dress she wears is very nice.
I probably liked it a little more this time than last, in fact. The Boy liked it a little less, he said, because there was no element of surprise. (The movie relies heavily on constant escalation for its comedy and suspense.)
Well, hell, there aren’t a lot of wacky teen sex comedies from any era that hold up after 30 years, so put this one in John Hughes’ “W” column.