Black Sabbath (1963)

I was fairly cool on this early Mario Bava entry in our “Not Scared of Subtitles” Halloween month—which still beats the tar out of Rocktober, which was the theme they always ran with prior to last year, as I explained to the kids:

  1. Horror anthology movies are almost never good
  2. Because anthology movies are usually built around one story that’s not long enough
  3. And so they’re padded out with lesser quality stories
  4. And tonally they tend to be very uneven, which compromises the atmosphere

Wild Tales is easily the best anthology movie I’ve ever seen, and it is very good (though barely horror). But others? I ran through a few in my mind—the ’80s were a treasure trove of horror anthologies, probably due to the success of Creepshow. But even Creepshow was a mixed bag. It had five stories, can you remember them all? There’s the very boring opener (“Tide”) with Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson…which I think is not the one where the guy wants his cake. I think that might be the third or fourth story, or might not be in that anthology at all. The second one, where Stephen King graces us with his screen presence and a shameless lift of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Colour out of Space”, is dopey and tonally goofy. The only really effective one is the last one, with E.G. Marshall as a Howard Hughes type who is being tormented by cockroaches. And I think the Adrienne Barbeau/Hal Holbrook monster-in-a-crate story is in this one, too.

How far have we fallen!
Standard bedtime attire for a single Italian girl in the ’60s, expecting no guests except perhaps her murderous pimp.

(Checks.)  OK, I did pretty good, apart from utterly forgetting the bookends and bumpers. Those are all five of the stories. But “Tide”, “Cake” and “Colour” are so hack as to make it nigh unbelievable that they’re actually in a modern movie. Tonally, they are campy. “Crate” is lifted by Barbeau’s harrowing performance as a World Class Shrew, and E.G. Marshall carries “Roach”.

And Creepshow is the most famous and possibly the best modern horror anthology. The ’70s had a bunch, like Tales from the Crypt (sans the crypt keeper) and The Vault of Horror (which I remember as having some very effective moments) as well as the generally well regarded TV movie Trilogy of Terror, which features Karen Black in all three stories. And Creepshow inspired a lot of TV shows (like Tales from the Darkside) and some feature anthologies like NightmaresCat’s EyeThe Twilight Zone MovieDeadtime Stories and From A Whisper To A Scream—as well as a bunch you’ve never heard of. And if you have heard of these, and even seen them, can you remember them? If you can remember all the stories in any of them, I’m more likely to be impressed by your recall than your taste. Nightmares has…Emilio Estevez playing “The Bishop in Battle” which is a reference obscure enough to mention a call out in Ernest Cline’s Armada, God Save Us All.

Still quality Boris.
Late era Boris.

I can’t back it up, but I feel like the horror anthology started in ’60 and has been going on consistently, with some peaks and valleys ever since. There’s a zillion of them these days, for much the same reason Black Sabbath was made: They’re cheap to do. Anyway, I think you get my point: Instead of being collections of highly polished gems, anthologies tend to not work all that well together and tend to be a few half-baked notions gathered around one or two strong ideas.

Also, you may have noticed that I’m stalling because while the kids were reasonably well entertained by this one, I…wasn’t crazy about it. Here’s the thing, it’s hosted by Boris Karloff, who appears in the longest story (doubtless the one that wasn’t quite long enough to be a feature and so required the tacking on of two other stories). But it’s subtitled, which means it’s first dubbed in Italian. Which means instead of Karloff’s incomparable lisp, you get some cheesy Italian dude with a voice an octave too high. In addition, because it’s Italian, virtually nobody is speaking Italian. It’s meant to have an international appeal, so there are people speaking French and English, and the dubs are distractingly bad. I get the pretensions of being “not afraid of subtitles” (Laemmle’s motto), but this was a film meant to be dubbed. (On the other hand, “The Telephone” in the American version is severely hacked because it was too saucy for 1963.)

Looks sorta like Swoosie Kurtz.
This Halloween mask-level effect is surprisingly effective.

There are three stories (the Italian title is “The Three Faces of Fear”):

The first is the story of a woman being terrorized by phone calls, which is basically a vehicle to show gorgeous gals in various states of undress and as lovers. It’s pretty by-the-numbers, and the music is too modern to be scary. The girls are quite good-looking, of course. The Flower’s comment was “I thought it was just Sophia Loren but she’s just the one we know about!” That’s true. And they probably put a few butts in seats in 1963.

The second is the longest story, “The Wurdalak”, about a family terrorized by their patriarch, because they don’t know if he’s alive or a vampire. It’s reminiscent of A Serious Man‘s “Dybbuk” opener, overlong and kind of obvious in most of its aspects. It is very well shot and atmospheric, and that and the music create a nice, spooky atmosphere!

The third story (and the first in the American cut) is called “A Drop of Water” and we agreed (and from what I can tell, most people agree) this is the strongest story. It’s tight, it’s spooky, it’s almost as by-the-numbers as the other two, but each moment and effect is used to build tension. Basically, a nurse steals a ring from a dead old noblewoman/spinster. The old woman is frozen in a rictus grin that works despite (because of?) its simplicity. It has an ironic echo at the end that is subtle enough to be convincing but not feel tired.

You’re gonna feel all 90 minutes of this one, even if you love it. Even so, it’s regarded as one of the better horror anthologies. A fun bit of lore for this movie is that the band Black Sabbath took their name (because they were going by “Earth” at the time and there was another band named “Earth”!) from this film because people were going to see this movie (and not their band). I don’t know if I believe that a band in 1968 named themselves after a five-year-old horror flick, but who knows?

Which is a vampire so why not call it a vampire?
Some nice haunted-housery in “Wurdalak”.

 

Beetlejuice (1988)

It’s easy—really easy at this point—to forget how brilliant Tim Burton was once upon a time. And, at the time, it was kind of easy to take him for granted, because his style was so fresh and delightful that everything seemed so easy.  Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was way better than it had any right to be. Beetlejuice gave us the most delightful dead couple since Topper. Even the Batman movies, which were ultimately disappointing, at least had set design worth the price of admission. And even the stuff he produced, like Nightmare Before Christmas was touched with magic.

Green pancake. Staple of the '80s.
Nobody makes jokes about suicide or civil servants any more.

So you can also see how one might be nervous, given the spottiness of his recent output, going back to re-view this movie. Even as it was a staple for some of the kids growing up, nobody had watched it in a while, and none of them had seen it in the theater. With the incredible datedness of the ’80s, and the Tim Burton style, it might be that some of the glamour would wear off.

Well, no worries after all, like quite a few of these ’80s movies. It really does hold up well.

The beautiful Geena Davis (who was at my mother’s engagement party, as I am required by family law to point out) and the remarkably slim, handsome and personable Alec Baldwin play a charming young couple who meet their fate when they swerve to miss a little dog who runs out in the road. For reasons never explained, except presumably in the densely dry tome, Handbook for the Recently Deceased, they must haunt their house for 100 years or so, which would probably fly by except for the new tenants.

Bedraggled.
Lovably incompetent ghost doofs.

It’s fair to say that teenage Winona Ryder was never better cast than as Lydia, the goth teen whose sensitivity is real but also over-dramatized. And Jeffrey Jones (never look these people up, is the Flower’s rule) is also perfect as the city boy who sorta thinks he wants to relax but is inherently predatorial and entrepreneurial. But the show is powered by the immortal Catherine O’Hara, as the unstable matriarch whose very skin crawls with the corny decor and homeliness of the deceased’s house. Her destructive disrespect for everything not Greenwich village/Westside/Warhol-esque drives Adam and Barbara (Baldwin and Davis, respectively) to take steps to get the unwanted family out.

In classic ’80s “high concept” fashion, we have our story: The Exorcist, except instead of the dead haunting the living, it’s the living who need to be exorcised.

The problem is that the kind-hearted couple aren’t really up to snuff, haunting-wise. At first they can’t get anyone’s attention but Lydia, and then their efforts backfire as the pretentious urbane witnesses to their haunting are more thrilled than scared, and want the two to perform like circus monkeys.

[stares meaningfully into the distance]
I myself am strange and unusual.
Enter Beetlejuice, of course perfectly played by Michael Keaton. He’s got the goods, but he’s a bad dude, and his motivation is to enter the world of the living again, which he can do if he marries Lydia. Adam and Barbara don’t want to summon him, but the incompetent paranormal actions of Otho (played delightfully catty by the late, versatile Glenn Shadix) end up backfiring on everyone and only Beetlejuice can save the day. And only Adam and Barbara can stop him from destroying everything one he does.

It’s got a good rhythm. The jokes range from merely cute to laugh-out-loud funny, but which ones are which will vary from person to person and viewing to viewing, and the movie doesn’t need to be funny. It is, but it’s also decent entertainment from the standpoint of the characters. The resolution basically has the good, corny, parental Adam and Barbara raising Lydia while the more driven, artsy Delia and Charles (O’Hara and Jones, respectively) take her in the small doses that all parties can tolerate. This is a little strange, but the whole movie is, in that good ’80s way.

I'd be disturbed if I started singing like Harry Belafonte.
It’s so quaint now, as is the blasé way they shake off their possessions.

The supporting cast is terrific from Anne McEnroe as the intrusive real estate agent, real life smarmy guy Dick Cavett, Robert Goulet, to silent movie siren Sylvia Sydney (as Barbara and Adam’s case worker in the afterlife). The rhythm is light, the family issues play naturally into the story (unlike perhaps later Burton efforts), the Danny Elfman score is archetypal, and the whole thing is tonally perfect, treading that delicate balance between absurd comedy, morbidity and genuine emotion.

Sometimes you see amazingly timeless stuff like this and look at recent efforts—not just from Burton but from other film luminaries—and you wonder: What does Hollywood do to people?

I better never need to look for a job again.
Is this half of a #metoo, or…

 

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies

The Barbarienne’s movie tastes are decidedly more conventional than either of her siblings, which may be due to her immersion in YouTube culture—she wants to talk about what other people are talking about—and, if it means sometimes going to see a movie like Infinity War, it’s a small price to pay to spend time with her. And seeing a bland movie is not the worst fate.

Also, I kind of wanted to see this one.

The Blue Bat one is trick. Is it Blue Beetle?
I can name about 2/3rds of these guys.

For those of you not attuned to the 2000-era cartoon scene, the Cartoon Network featured a very popular, highly-anime-influenced take on DC’s on-again, off-again comic line “Teen Titans”, which featured a variety of teenaged heroes (presumably with the notion that teen heroes might sell better), like Robin, Kid Flash, and briefly (if memory serves), a grown up (and black!) Joker’s daughter named “Harlequin”. The original TV Show, “Teen Titans”, featured Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Starfire and Raven, and was quite good as far as such things go. Not overly serious, not overly goofy (except in the way that comic books generally are). It ran for about three years and change (2003-2006).

Then, in 2013, for no apparent reason, the original cast was reassembled for entirely parodic take on its previous incarnation called “Teen Titans Go!” which ran for another five years! This used and abused anime tropes and superhero tropes and the characters’ specific tropes. Any momentary seriousness was quickly dispelled. The Flower, who had been a fan of the original series, could not watch the comic reboot, though she did allow that it was fairly funny from what she saw. The Barbarienne had no such qualms, and The Boy (whose Girl was otherwise occupied) tagged along.

The Barbarienne loved it, of course. The Boy said, “If there was something I didn’t like, I just had to wait 10 seconds for the next thing to come along.” And that’s a decent summary: This is the sort of movie that the Brothers Warner currently excels at. Like the The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, the gags are fast and furious and the environment so chaotic that it’s hard to ever get bored, exactly. (I suppose you could be annoyed by the pace and tone and that would probably lead to boredom.)

On the WB lot!
The Titans on their quest to be taken seriously.

I was not bored, but I also could’ve stopped watching 20 minutes into it. Then I probably would’ve come back later at some point to watch the next 20 minutes. And so on until I had seen the entire movie. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that (for my tastes) 22 minutes of the show is enough.

The plot is a none-too-gentle poke at superhero movies—which given WB’s luck with said movies might seem a little sour-grapey—where everyone gets a movie…except Robin and the Teen Titans, because they’re jokes. Which, you know, in this incarnation they absolutely are. The over-arching plot has superheroes being given movies as a way to distract them from fighting crime which might be a cute joke or might be a terribly accurate metaphor, though I’m not sure for what.

The Titans had screwed up by this point, and were not aware of it.
The A-Listers are not impressed.

The contours of the story follow the exact same one you’ve seen thousands of times for musical groups: A group gets popular, and an avaricious producer seduces the lead away from the rest of the group. It’s sort of amusing to see it here, which I’m guessing is a stable in kid-oriented TV sitcoms. This provides just enough dramatic hook to have you care about the characters—much like The Lego Batman Movie—which is deftly aided by the directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, who are the directors on the “Go!” TV show.

All the original cast members are there, which is nice. For a low budget animation, the amount of care that went into the little details—the backgrounds are filled with gags both superhero-related and just goofy—is impressive. It’s made to be freeze-framed, and I’m sure it will be. Nicolas Cage—Tim Burton’s choice to play Superman back in the ’90s before that project fell apart—finally gets to be Superman here.

You probably know from the outset whether or not you’re going to like this. It’s good, as I say, for what it is—and if what it is is the sort of thing you don’t like in the 22 minutes form, you’re not going to have a change of heart when it’s stretched to 90 minutes.

Manatees are cool, man.
The Titans crash through a “Utility Belt: The Movie” with a Batgirl and “Aquamanatee” poster in the background.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

October marked the beginning of the delightfully pretentious Laemmle’s “Scary Subtitles” month. (I like to think I’m delightfully pretentious, too, but I’m probably just annoying.) The first week’s entry was Guillermo del Toro’s companion film to Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone.

Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the movie opens on a rainy night with a bomb being dropped from a plane into an orphanage where one of the boys—who has just experienced something horrible—is standing. The bomb lands, but doesn’t go off.

Dad joke.
What happens if you cut short “boom”? That’s right, you get “Boo!”

The next day Carlos is brought in. He’s an orphan, but he doesn’t know it yet, and the man taking care of him is abandons him there against the orphanage’s wishes. But they’re all on the communist side and the food-strapped orphanage is also a cover for funneling supplies to the troops. The communists are losing, and the fascists are on the march.

The orphanage itself has its own issues, besides starving. The creepy matron, Carmen is being serviced by a young man, Jacinto, one of her former children, while Dr. Casares, an older man, pines for her. She has gold which cannot be used to buy food, but which Jacinto is planning to steal so he can run off with beautiful, young and none-too-bright Conchita.

Handsome psychos.
Conchita beginning to have some doubts.

Also, the orphanage is haunted.

The ghost is of a boy who went missing the night the bomb dropped. The official story is that Santi ran away that night, but the boys all know he’s real and Carlos is both drawn and repelled to this ghost.

GDT isn’t going to pussyfoot around. You get ghostly action, and lots of of it. The effect used for the ghost is poetic and haunting: He drowned after being struck on the head, so he is blurry, and the blood from his wound seems to float off into space. And much like Pan’s Labyrinth, Man’s Inhumanity To Man (and especially child) is going to be far worse than what the supernatural has to offer.

My favorite part, the thing from which the movie takes its name, is that of Dr. Casales. The good doctor has fetuses in jars, including one aborted because of “The Devil’s Backbone”, which is an old peasant name for spina bifida. The good doctor is a Man of Science, he announces, when Carlos asks him whether he believes in ghosts.

Bad taste. I confess.
Dr. Casale promoting his new line of “Gosnell” soda.

Then he pours off the juices the fetuses have been soaking in for hundreds of years to make some sort of snake-oil cure that the villagers buy up like crazy. (The intimation at one point being that they think it’s like Viagra, which makes his subsequent drinking of it more interesting.) He uses the fetus-juice money to buy food for the kids.

His fate is wonderfully ironic, and the whole movie works very, very well, reminding us why we love Mr. del Toro. The Flower was so taken with it, she said, “This makes The Shape of Water even more disappointing, Dad.” We had rushed out to see that movie on Christmas Eve, she was so excited for it, only to find its inappropriate and anachronistic view of the ’50s inexcusably hacky for such a brilliant director.

As good as it is, it’s not quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth is, but if you like del Toro, it’s a must-see.

The Negotiation

The big problem with seeing three movies in a row, if you’ve never done it, is that typically the third movie has to overcome the fact that you’ve just watched two previous movies. And in the case of The Negotiation, we had just seen two 2+ hour-long historical epics, so the relative prosaicness of a contemporary crime thriller was going to suffer a bit no matter what.

Could be!
If headlines are to be believed, these three stars of the three movies we saw back to back, are the top actors in Korea.

Our introduction to the lead negotiator, Ha Chae-yun (Son Ye-jin, Be With You) is by her leg. She’s getting out of a car in a short skirt, and her high-heeled clad foot hits the pavement awkwardly. She was on a date when they called her in. Apparently, she’s been thinking about leaving the force after a bad incident, but she gets called in to save the day here. It goes very poorly, indeed, leading her to resign for real and spend the next few days lounging around in tight tee shirts. (This could be mere exploitation—Ms. Son is quite lovely—but it’s a plot point of sorts, as is Chae-yun’s failure in the opening sequence.)

Her boss demurs on her resignation, telling her to take a few days off and they’ll talk when he gets back. But even her time off is interrupted, as her boss (who I think is the God of Violence in the Along With Gods movies) is kidnapped and the kidnapper demands to see her. “I heard you were hot,” he sniffs disdainfully.

Completely unsupportable.
Oh, is that what you heard?

Over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, Chae-yun and the kidnapper engage in their verbal jousting, with the negotiator ostensibly trying to buy time till a S.W.A.T. team can get into position, but really doing investigations behind the scenes with her team—most notably Sang-ho Kim, who plays a kind of goofy schlub who ends up putting a lot of the pieces together and being the first on the scene.

It turns out that there’s something much bigger afoot than a simple kidnapping, and there are no coincidences. I hope this doesn’t constitute a spoiler, but there is some corruption at the highest levels of government! In a Korean movie!

Look at those wall! They're clearly in Thailand!
And some amazing decor in the kidnapper’s den!

We enjoyed it, despite it being the third movie, and it was our least favorite. It was a little harder for us to tangle out the plot, because the villains (beyond the kidnapper) are essentially sitting in a boardroom the whole time and machinating. We also felt it suffered from the fact that Chae-yun is never shown as being especially competent. It’s an artifact of the plot which requires her to be unaware of forces arrayed against her, which forces are ultimately revealed, but nonetheless you do sort of think, “Well, maybe police work isn’t right for you, dear. Modeling?”

I kid. While Son Ye-Jin is certainly beautiful, she also manages to project authority at times, and a struggle when bad orders come down from on high. The plot ties together well and there is a typically strong moral sense, that one who is in honest and competent ultimately has a larger responsibility to all (given that the highest levels are invairably corrupt, heh).

Tiny Korean women.
In charge (but not large).

 

The Shining (1980)

I was a little surprised when The Flower said she wanted to see The Shining again, not because it’s not a great movie but it seemed like it wasn’t that long ago we saw it. However, she hadn’t come with us the last time, which was over four years ago! I think I had gotten confused because, being concerned friends her age only consume cultural garbage, she wanted to get together with them to see it when it came around last year. But that fell through. And as it turns out, she has never seen this in the theater.

Which, you know, with Kubrick, is like not seeing it at all.

You were the best of 'em, Lloyd.
It’s a fun movie. Lotta laughs.

The movie still works, of course. I had been inspired by this (frankly goofy) YouTube video positing that Danny was the source of all the evil in the movie. That Jack was psychically sensitive like Danny and Hallorann, but he didn’t know it, and it’s Danny’s psychic emanations that are driving him mad.

Yeah, no. Stephen King wishes he were that creative. C’mon, it’s Indian Burial Ground stuff. What struck me this time was how literally much of parallels to alcoholism work: Every stage of his insanity maps to different kinds of “drunk”: angry drunk, happy drunk, cheat-on-your-wife-with-a-woman-who’s-not-as-good-looking-as-you-thought drunk, etc. Except, as The Flower pointed out, the final scenes which are inexplicable allegorically. (She’s not a fan of overthinking things, especially things that make aesthetic sense.)

I noticed all the red this time. This is another case where overthinking is problematic. The video I watched said “red” was the color of youth and vitality, to the extent of denying that the stuff coming out the elevators was blood—something only a censor could be dumb enough to believe—and then points out that Danny is always wearing red. Except for one scene, where he goes into the forbidden room 237, which signified…something. But seeing that scene again, it’s apparent he’s not wearing red because he’s on the patterned carpet which is full of red, and there would’ve been no contrast. The aesthetic trumps the literal again, I believe.

Er, rum, red RUM!
Red carpet. RED CARPET!

But one thing has always bugged me about the movie, and that’s the end. The picture of Jack there at the party in 1921. I think the popular explanation is a sort of “Twilight Zone” type “twist”, that Jack has become part of the house. But I found the possibility intriguing that we, the audience, are being lied to, and that Jack doesn’t actually look like Jack at all. There are a lot of interesting mirror shots in this, which suggests…something…but I’m not sure it’s really supportable. (The aforementioned goofy video poses a theory like this, and suggests that’s why we don’t see Jack except in the hotel, while dismissing the fact that we see him in car on the way up too.)

This isn’t particularly mysterious, though. Kubrick himself says the photo suggest Jack is a reincarnation of an earlier Jack, the one in the picture. OK. Not how reincarnation works, of course, but follows the Moviegique reincarnation rule: You can’t have different actors playing the same character through reincarnation because the audience will reject that.

Something else I noticed: At the end, Wendy looks into a room wear a man in a bear/dog costume is kneeling over a bed and doing something presumably perverted to a man in a tux who is lying on the bed. I mean, the implication is oral sex, but that mask would make it impossible. Kubrick was on the vanguard of furry-dom, I guess.

Anyway, the two hours crawl by, of course, but if you like Kubrick, they’re a good crawl, and you can really enjoy the detail. We enjoyed it and The Boy, who was previously engaged, expressed sorrow that he had missed.

Almost.
Nicholson looks almost normal in ’20s attired.

Fengshui

I had a kind of uncanny feeling watching this Korean historical drama about a noble geomancer who is betrayed by his corrupt peers who mis-advise the king in order to reinforce their power: It’s a whole lot like the delightful The Princess and the Matchmaker. And, as it turns out, both are part of a thematic trilogy from Korean company Jupter Film, the first entry of which 2010’s The Face Reader. In each film, honest purveyors of a traditional Korean practice are met with corruption and deception from their fellows.

Hey, it's a Korean dude with a beard wearing a hat.
“I’ve seen these hats before…”

Which, as I pointed out in the previous review, just couldn’t be done here. Can you imagine a modern American film where an honest geomancer was betrayed by the self-serving members of the court in order to weaken the kingdom? It has to start from the premise that there’s an honest art to be practiced and corrupted.

Where The Princess and the Matchmaker starts out light and gets increasingly darker and more serious as the film progresses, this movie launches with the prince being poisoned. His grieving father and young son search for a proper burial place with the help of the court Fengshui masters, because burying the body in a propitious location will lead to good things for the family while burying it in a bad one could spell disaster. The court geomancers, however, are working with the Kims—the family behind the assassination—and mis-direct the king.

At the site of the burial, however, young Jae-sang objects: This is a terrible site, he says, which will bring misery on your family. The correct site is somewhere over…there. He is immediately corrected and later reprimanded and thrown out of the corps. This doesn’t bother him too much, however, because he really is skilled and knows he can find plenty of work. And being true is more important than fancy digs at the court. His buddy razzes him for not even having an outhouse, as they go for a whiz.

And then, while they’re bro-ing it up a discrete distance away, his wife and child are murdered, and his house set aflame.

Moon Chae-won.
This is a different woman, but her fate is also not propitious.

So, we’re already much darker than TPatM in the opening act. What’s more, this has become…a revenge picture. As I’ve observed previously, Korean revenge pictures are not fun or cathartic like Western revenge pictures. The moral of all of them is pretty much: You may or may not get it, but in the process, you will destroy yourself and everything you love.

In this movie, we flash forward 13 years, when Jae-san has a prosperous business (if lonely life) using his geomancy to help people decide where to live and how to set their businesses up for best results. In a particular scene, he helps the owners of a mall by telling them how to arrange their stores, and it seems a whole lot less like geomancy than good business sense. But it’s a good demonstration of his skills. Meanwhile, the new king (the son of the poisoned one) is a young man, floundering, childless and weak.

They team up with a low member of the royal family who is literally treated like a dog by the Kims in order to set things right, and what follows is a fun ensemble picture where the team works together to uncover a far-reaching conspiracy which involves the Kim family strategically burying their dead in propitious locations while misdirecting the ruling family so that they get increasingly weak.

I kid! It's a lovely country!
This spot is perfect…except that it’s in Korea.

Relatively light-hearted caper antics give way to darker and darker deeds which give the movie a real resonance, as you grow to like all the protagonists. The third act climax is especially good because two of our heroes have to choose whether to continue down the path of destruction—which will lead to the fall of Korea, no less!—or choose a more rational path.

This is a drama which (like the fanciful Detective Dee) weaves in a known event (a short-lived Korean at the turn of the 20th century), so that particular resonance is lost on those of us who are not up on their Korean history, and we were a little surprised when the movie—with its horses and swordplay—flashes forward to the end of our two buddies’ lives, and they are very clearly in the industrial age, still advising people. And, of course, working to help Korea free itself from Japan’s rule—the consequences of the wrong choices being made decades earlier.

We greatly enjoyed it, though we all had the problem of (as I put it), “Aw, crap, there’s another Korean dude with a beard and a hat…”, because (just like with American movies set in the ’50s) everyone ends up looking alike. But the funny thing was that we were all able to sort it out as the movie went on because the characters were well drawn. So, we’d get lost, but we’d find our way out. At one point, the hero, who has been easily identifiable by his white clothing, changes his color. This was confusing at first, but then also becomes significant as it really signals his departure from the righteous path.

Weird but more for the 1890s being so much like feudal Korea.
And suddenly we’re in the 20th century!

It’s gotten mixed reviews from critics, especially for some of the performances, but such subtleties were lost on us. It is, of course, beautifully shot and really burns through its 2:20 runtime, which was good, because we were off to see The Negotiation next.

The Great Battle

The Boy and I were immediately drawn to this film of heroism, which turned out to be a first for us: Instead of Japan invading Korea, it was China invading them! This was a rare triple-feature for us: We actually queued up this, followed by the historical drama Fengshui, and topped it off with the modern thriller, The Negotiation. We haven’t done a three-fer since the days of the After Dark Horror Fest 4 back in 2010! And this time, we had company as he brought His Girl. (The Flower would’ve liked to see one or more of these films, but she’s way too busy for a triple feature these days. As am I, but that’s another story.)

Suh-WING, battah!
Now batting for Korea: Yang Man-chun

So, the short capsule is this: The Great Battle is the Korean version of 300. It is the story of an outnumbered, outmatched army of 5,000 that staves off the Chinese Tang army of 100,000 (or is it 500,000?) that has been sweeping the land. This is so obviously inspired by 300, at a crucial scene when a character tries to kill the Tang General, she misses in exactly the same way and the General suddenly has a cadre of Persian Immortals at his side to protect him.

I mean, I presume they’re not really Persian Immortals, but we they are masked bodyguards, and the masks look a lot like the Immortals’, and we never see them up to that point, and they have little or no bearing after that point. I believe this is director Kwang-shik Kim’s way of saying, “Yes, you’ve seen it before—but you’ve never seen it in Korean!

They're probably Indian or Thai something.
Here’s one to the right. There were way better shots from the movie but it’s hard to track down the Korean ones.

This story is a bit different because it involves (as all Korean films must) incomeptence at the highest levels of government. The great Korean general has overthrown the king, and then led his troops into open battle against the far superior Tang army. Having suffered defeat, and seeing the forts along the Chinese/Korean border fall quickly to the enemy’s might, the petulant Korean general sends one of his soldiers back to his home town, Ansi with a simple mission: Kill the holder of that fort, Yang Man-chun, and evacuate.

Yang Man-chun, it seems, defied the general and refused to bring his troops to the battle (where they would’ve been slaughtered). Our hero goes back to his homeland—his people are dead for some reason, however—and ingratiates himself into the chain of command. The two spies who are with him are summarily executed, but he is left alive and actually becomes the flag-bearer and right-hand man to Yang Man-chun—who knows exactly why he’s there.

Cool.
Man-chun’s crack squad of chick crossbowmen.

Yang Man-chun undergoes a lot of struggle and doubt on his mission, as you might imagine, but of course he is won over by loyalty to his home town, and to Man-chun who claims to never have been disloyal, only sensible. The siege of Ansi is colorful and exciting, with some great historical material which (The Boy and I thought) was probably wholly anachronistic. But this is meant to be fun, and stirring, not a documentary and the movie lets you know this early on.

Man-chun’s daughter is the head of his all-female crossbow corp, who’s also in love with the head of the elite swordsmen. The head of the elite swordsmen has personality conflicts with the dual-axe-wielding barbarian squad. The town oracle, captured by the Tang, is the former girlfriend of Yang Man-chun has visions of the future which start with the defeat of the Chinese—but end with the fall of Ansi, and with treachery. Oh, and there’s a magic bow of legend no one can pull.

It’s just fun of the sort that we’re not allowed to have any more in the USA. (300 is just one of a great many stirring historical events which are not permissible in the current environment.)  We loved it, and probably enjoyed it the best of the three films, though Fengshui was also a strong contender for best of the day.

I liked the actors, but I didn’t really recognize them except the gorgeous Seol-Hyun Kim (Memoir of a Murder). I thought the CGI would be a little cheesier but it actually looked better than I expected. (A problematic effect in the trailer looked like it didn’t make it to the final cut.)

It’s fun. Check it out!

And just when everything was going so well.
Pictured: Fun.

The Spy Gone North (2018, Korea)

It is a tradition, over the past few years, for us to head down to Buena Park early on the eve we go to Knott’s Halloween Haunt so that we can get there in plenty of time and not have the evening jeopardized by a terrible traffic jam, and also have a little time to chill before going in to dinner. It started when we stayed at the hotel and has continued on even in the past few years that we’ve realized it’s actually far more restful to drive home that night than try to sleep in a weird place. But it is only this year that I realized that our second favorite movie chain, the CGV, has an outlet walking distance from Knott’s. The CGV has only two theaters in the United States (if not the world), and the other one is, yes, in Koreatown and is where we go see our Korean double- and triple-features.

When you say to an American the title “The Spy Gone North”, you get a kind of puzzled reaction. “Like…to Canada?” And then you point out that that’s the title of a Korean movie, and there tends to be a beat, then a sudden realization. “Oh, wow…”

Unification?
South Meets North in the stinger.

In this story, a patriotic Korean destroys his career and reputation to create a believable front as someone who might be open to North Korean overtures. He runs around Peking making a lot of noise and always talking about big scores until he’s approached by North Korean agents. He worms his way in to their good graces but this ultimately leads to some harrowing events, most notably, an invitation to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il’s palace. Kim Jong’s palace where, apparently, it’s standard practice to drug and interrogate all new visitors.

Meanwhile, back in South Korea, the anti-communist forces are busily arranging elections, and we learn that there always seem to be suspicious attacks by North Korean whenever they’re anti-communist forces are in danger of losing an election. Most of the story, in fact, takes place in the months leading up to an election that our hero spy’s bosses are potentially losing. They’re greatly concerned that the more progressive leader—whom they’ve framed as being a communist sympathizer—will disband their intelligence agency.

Over a hot glass of kimchi.
I like to make all my deals in dimly lit rooms with maps and rows of files.

Our hero, and a similar character on the northern side of the border, are working very hard to bring about a reconciliation—but of course, that’s really going to put the intelligence agency out of business. Ultimately, a great sacrifice is called for, and the question only remains of who is going to make it.

It’s quite good. The only thing I noticed as being somewhat lacking is that we never see our hero spy (Jung-min Hwang, The Wailing) outside of his job, so we never get the sense of what he has to lose back at home. We don’t see his family’s reaction to his sudden loss of face or how he deals with that. For all that, his story remains moving. We get more of his North Korean counterpart’s family life (Sung-min Lee) which is effective because he’s constantly dealing with the secret police.

There's some difference between north and south.
“You like kimchi? I like kimchi! You like concentration camps…?”

There are a lot of other interesting things, such as there being a scandal because North Korean products being sent to South Korea actually being just re-branded Chinese and Japanese goods—because of course NoKo can’t export anything. There’s a nice touch where, when pulling up to Kim Jong Il’s palace, the use the “Dies Irae”, a chant best known for being the theme to The Shining. Ji-Hoon Ju of the Along With Gods movies has a prominent role as the top spy who constantly tries to undermine Sung-min Lee’s character.

I was proud of myself, because all the time Kim Jong-Il was on screen, I never once started singing “I’m so…ronery…!”

Interestingly enough, we saw this on the day the North Korean and South Korean leaders met in Pyonyang, for the first time in over 60 years.

Or is it all propaganda?
Apparently there’s some poverty in North Korea.

The Lady Eve (1941)

I confess that I don’t really think of Barbara Stanwyck as a “great beauty” (and the wig in Double Indemnity does her no favors), but she was without a doubt one of those actresses who was charming and could act beautiful. In Preston Sturges’ screwball classic, The Lady Eve, she turns on the charm in the first half of the story while in the second half, she’s all glamour and beauty—except for the cunning streak of lovable roguishness that runs throughout.

She's so manipulative.
He hasn’t seen a woman in a year.

The film in some ways exemplifies screwball comedies: The premise is that rich nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) is picked up by a cruise ship after a year in the jungle, where he’s already known by every lady on board as the heir to a brewer’s fortune. A grifter, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his accomplice/daughter Jean (Stanwyck) spot him immediately for the whale he is, and Jean easily out-plays the other girls and seduces him.

But this is a screwball comedy, so the first twist we get is that Jean actually falls in love with the hasn’t-so-much-as-smelled-a-woman-in-a-year Charles, and decides to go straight, protecting Charles from the machinations of her merciless father. Within days the two decide to be married. Charles’ chaperone/bodyguard (William Demarest), meanwhile, is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense suspicious type who figures out Jean is not who she says she is, and manages to sabotage the burgeoning romance with an ill-timed revelation.

This is a great scene.
Henry Fonda thinks he’s playing cards but it’s really Stanwyck.

Now things get really screwy, as the broken-hearted Jean determines to have her revenge against her erstwhile lover by re-entering his life as a completely different character, the titular Lady Eve. She doesn’t disguise herself, except with a dubious English accent and the suspicious, stunned and immediately re-smitten Charles uses the very fact that Eve looks exactly like Jean to deduce that she couldn’t actually be Jean, because of course Jean would disguise herself in some fashion. (You know, she’d dye her hair or something.) Stanwyck parades around in Edith Head’s glorious creations like she was born to them, bringing a few gasps from The Flower.

But with the help of their grifter friend Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), who has already won over Charles’ father (the incomparable Eugene Pallette), Charles is easily won over by a preposterous Victorian tale of Eve having an evil twin sister, perhaps because their true father was the stablehand and not the…well, you get the idea. It’s all very scandalous and silly.

The story plays itself out a second time, down to the two re-falling in love again, while William Demarest denounces her the whole time. In the screwiest of all circumstances, Jean/Eve’s revenge extends to marrying Charles and living happily ever after with him, while he still doesn’t know. Or, more likely, doesn’t care.

He loved it.
America’s arguably greatest actor doing pratfalls.

The whole thing is so tremendously good-natured—something Sturges and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch were unparalleled at—and so brisk, clever and charming that it would be hard not to love. The escalation comes in the form of absurdity rather than in increasingly large, slapstick type shenanigans, but is no less fun for that.

We would miss the next week’s offering, Seven Year Itch, due to the annual jaunt out to Knott’s, and we would just skip Funny Girl because I have a hard time getting worked up to see Barbra Streisand movies. But I assured the kids—correctly, I believe—that the two movies we had seen (this as Philadelphia Story) were easily the best of the four.

“Screwball September” would give way to “Scary Subtitles” in October, and we all had high hopes for the selections there.

It's the same girl!
William Demarest is NEVER fooled.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The sound of music! The hills are alive with it, apparently! Wow, talk about a cold open, to have sweeping panoramic vistas from an airplane (or helicopter?), and then to zoom into your lead character, completely unknown and unanounced, singing and dancing on a mountaintop about how much she loves music—and hills! (The Alps seem like a little more than hills, but I suppose it’s the foothills of the alps she’s running over when she’s not nunning.)

Julie Andrews, forever typecast.
Your lead character, ladies and gentlemen.

It was a rare occasion in a theater where I thought to myself, “the volume could’ve been a little higher on that”. (The Flower, with her hearing as to loudness sensitive as mine was at her age—the perils of not listening to rock music really, really loud—disagreed.)

What you may take from this, however, is that I (at my advanced age and very advanced moviegoing) had never seen The Sound of Music before. ’tis true,  I think primarily because I grew up a little too close to the music. As a wee lad, no less than six of the soundtrack songs featured in various school performances, so I still know them by heart. And the reputation and presentation of the film (in snippets and posters) are devoid of any conflict, making it seem a little boring—a little too close to Mary Poppins. (And almost all the remaining songs I learned later.)

And it is a joyful film. But it’s a joyful film where about an hour into the movie, the boy pursuing the oldest daughter, Liesel (Charmian Carr), suddenly exclaims “Heil, Hitler!”

No, that didn't happen.
And you’re shocked when the nun yells out “Sieg Heil!”

The first two hours of the film is the romance between a young novice, Maria (Julie Andrews) and stern widow Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who I believe holds the record for longest career playing Nazis, though not here). Maria dismisses the grieving, angry von Trapp’s militaristic rules and brings the children up with playfulness and music.

Personally, I didn’t see where the two fell in love, but von Trapp’s fiancee (the late, lovely Eleanor Parker who was an oft-cast second banana/rival) does, and machinates to hie Maria back to the nunnery. Of course, the lovers (who don’t even know it yet) are reunited and all live happily ever after.

And the Flower and I had the same response: OK, they’re in love, movie’s over. Oh, we’re going to show a wedding. OK. Now the movies’ over. Wait, they’re on their honeymoon, which we don’t see…and the movie’s still going? For another hour?

The casualness of this photo makes it seem almost candid.
They’re wearing curtains, but not like Gone With The Wind curtains.

Back before people got stupid, musicals (for all their obvious tropes) used to tackle serious issues. For every Music Man or My Fair Lady, set in the gilded age, you had a Pajama Game or a South Pacific, dealing with workers’ wages or racism (respectively). This movie, in the first part, brings up the serious topic of religious vocation versus more worldly ambitions, coming to the sensible conclusion that some are cut out for the former and some for the latter, and there’s no shame in either. The second part has another issue on its mind.

Now, in 1965, the pressing issue of fascism was far in the future—1968, 1980, 2000 and 2016, in particular, when Republicans would be elected President—so Sound of Music must content itself with dramatized historical situations concerning literal Nazis instead of the (far worse) metaphorical ones we have today. Nonetheless, in a chirpy, almost frothy, musical, we have the actual threat of death against our beloved protagonists and coerced service to a malevolent force.

If von Trapp’s acquiescence (or failure thereof) is somewhat less suspenseful, if for no other reason that one has a hard time grasping the possibility of the movie ending with the Captain becoming a Nazi, the climactic moment of the movie where Liesel’s suitor Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond) must decide whether to rat the von Trapps out or not is remarkably suspenseful. Indeed the entire third act (or fourth, depending on how you count it) is amazing for the level of tension sustained.  Director Robert Wise of The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story, whose career would come crashing down hard enough to inspire the black comedy S.O.B., shows such a sure hand here that it makes you wonder what happened when he directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Obviously, it’s a great film. It’s one of those movies that despite the long runtime, earns every minute. We, of course, loved it.

She's not bad, really. But she's not a child-person.
The Baronness watches in dismay as the Captain reconnects with his children.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Denzel Washington is one of those actors I really like but seldom see in movies. Tell a lie—I actually have seen him in at least five movies in the past eight years, and the truth is I just don’t remember them. He was great in Fences,which is a fine film. That same year saw him turn in a serviceable performance in the non-movie The Magnificent Seven, which I forgot while it was playing. Before that, he turned in a superb performance as a broody, alcoholic pilot in Bob Zemeckis’ surprisingly subtle Flight. He was also in Tony Scott’s last two films, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, 3, only the latter of which I saw, but if compared to the former, I assume would be as indistinguishable in my memory as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State (except for Will Smith being in the latter, and running around a lot).

That Fedora!
Will Smith? Never heard of him.

What can we learn from this rant? Well, first of all, Tony Scott is the star of all Tony Scott’s movies. (Except maybe The Hunger, which features David Bowie, and the breasts of both Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve.) Second of all, I think we can safely say big stars are in big movies, and big movies are increasingly less different or memorable. (Even Fences is clear Oscar-bait and far from an “indie”.)

Lastly, and most importantly, it means that when there’s a Denzel retrospective, I’m gonna say, “Love his acting. Not crazy about his films.” In spite of that, however, we opted to see Devil in a Blue Dress as part of the “Everybody Loves Denzel” month at the local bijou.

But Albert Hall doesn't know it.
Lisa Nicole Carson, for example, loves Denzel.

And it is, by far, one of my favorites of his, both as a film and performance, and a reminder that even 20 years ago we could have a movie with racial themes that was still a good movie. Directed by Carl Franklin (who’s probably best known for his acting work on shows like “The A-Team”), the movie is primarily a hard-boiled detective noir, with Denzel as a down-on-his-luck factory worker who ends up trying to score some cash by locating a wandering girlfriend (Jennifer Beals). Seems this girl likes to hang out in the darker areas of town, and before you know it Easy Rawlins (Washington) is off on the adventure of his life.

Well, one of them. The movie is based on a book series by Walter Mosley, a half-black/half-Jewish writer whose works should probably be mined for a lot more source material.

The beauty of this construction is that: The hard-boiled detective is already an outsider, he’s already hated by the cops, and he’s always being targeted by thugs. As a black man in post-war L.A., Easy has all those problems squared. Bogie (whether Archer or Spade) can stand around and play it cool when the cops finger him for a crime, but the cops will just shoot Easy. So all the usual complications are amped up by the fact that he can’t be anywhere around the scene of a crime if it can be pinned on him.

Don Cheadle is the cheadliest.
If his best buddy doesn’t shoot him first.

The plot is convoluted, the characters colorful, and gives you a slice-of-life that you don’t see in movies: the black middle-class. Rawlins motivation in taking the job is to make his mortgage, and his sense of his home being his castle is highly pronounced. His neighborhood is modest, but nice, and there’s an optimism infused throughout the proceedings.

“Ya boi” Zach, of Diversity and Comics fame has a trope he calls “Good Guy Gordon,” wherein if you see a black person in a comic book, he has to be a bland, wise, generally even-keeled soul—this has among its many sins, the effect of making the character boring. Ain’t none of that here. Easy is a good guy, but he’s no saint. In fact, not a single character in this book is “all saint” or “all sinner”, and most of them tend toward a whole lot of “sinner” (again in classic noir style).  Don Cheadle steals the show as Easy’s childhood friend, Mouse, and he’s essentially psychotic, and there’s both comedy and drama associated with Rawlins trying to utilize Mouse’s willingness to do just about anything, while minimizing the damage he knows Mouse will cause.

The upshot of all this is that even though this is a racial story, with race suffusing every aspect of the plot, you’re not beaten to death with a pre-determined moral narrative, and you end up with basically what you wanted in the first place: A high quality mystery with no small amount of action and suspense, and a great deal of fun. Though this is one of Denzel’s “lesser films” by most rankings, we actually enjoyed it more than Glory—and there was no way we were going to sit through three hours of Malcolm X—the next week’s Denzel offering.

This is an easy film to overlook, but it gets our enthusiastic recommendation.

Remember her?
The devil herself. (Jennifer Beals)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It was Screwball Comedy month at the local bijou, and once again, they started out strong with Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, followed the next week with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. (The following week would be The Seven Year Itch, which we would miss due to the annual Halloween jaunt, and What’s Up Doc after that, which we would miss because…Barbra Streisand.)

I'm so catty!
Pictured: A young Barbra Streisand on set with Grant and Hepburn.

The Boy doesn’t really like screwball stuff, although I think he’s mostly turned off by the sad, loud, fat-man-falls-down stuff of his lifetime (or fat-woman-falls-down because, yay, equality!). There is, of course, a kind of escalation necessary in this sort of film which I think doesn’t appeal to him, broadly, but even he was charmed by Katharine Hepburn and a nebbishy (hah!) Cary Grant.

In this delightful film, Cary Grant is David, a museum curator assembling some sort of dinosaur and waiting on the final bone, while being gently (but firmly) rebuffed by his fiancee, Alice: Not until marriage, and even after marriage, his work comes first and pretty much exclusively! (In classic Hollywood style, Alice is played by the quite stunning 22-year-old Virgnia Walker—Howard Hawks’ sister-in-law—but with her hair in a very severe bun. She doesn’t even get glasses, as I recall.) The museum needs money, however, so he’s sent on a mission to implore Mrs. Carleton Random (oy) to give them the million dollars she has earmarked for some sort of charitableness.

Mayhem ensues when he, instead, runs into Susan (Hepburn) who—let’s not beat around the bush here—falls in love with him immediately. In her comically awful attempts at seduction—awful enough to be unrecognizable as such by mortal men—she creates chaos and destruction all around him, resulting in him missing his meeting with Mrs. Random.

Honestly, they do it with guys, too. Put glasses on them and they're so homely.
How could anyone fall in love with a nerd like that!

I was taken, as I watched this, by how old the manic pixie dream girl is, as a concept. Here, Alice is exactly that: She talks a mile a minute and runs David around the countryside, as he is more-or-less oblivious to her charm and vivacity. Hepburn is very appealing in this role, even moreso than The Philadelphia Story, having all the vulnerability and none of the prickliness that characterized that role (and probably most of her future roles).

But of course the ’30s were filled with dizzy blondes and brunettes, so it’s not like Bringing Up Baby is breaking new ground in that regard. What sold The Boy on the whole thing, though, was the titular Baby, who is a leopard. The leopard has been sent to Alice who’s going to take it to her Aunt Elizabeth out in the country, and there’s nothing David can do but be swept along for the ride.

I miss "gay". We should bring "gay" back.
“Why are you dressed like that?” … “I’ve gone gay!” Earliest known use in film of “gay” to mean “homosexual”?

Alice confides in us (indirectly) that she loved him at first sight and made a mess of everything, as things go spiraling out of control, a second leopard gets involved in the mix, and they all end up in jail, with Alice doing a bang-on ’30s “tough gal” gangster bit that is hilarious.

It’s a very funny, charming film. Like many of the films of its period, it relies on tropes that are no longer allowed (a woman wanting a man, a more domestic woman being preferable to a career woman, leopards being potentially dangerous…) and a society where manners mean something. Much like one of my other favorite comedies of the era, Heaven Can Wait, it’s one of those films that relies on people acting mostly sane and dignified, so that the rogue or buffoon stands out and has comedic value.

Tough to laugh about the crazy antics of a couple of people in a world where everyone acts nuts all the time.

And the leopard!
Katharine almost looks like Judy Garland in this shot.

Avengers: Infinity War

“That was really good!”

Five minutes later as we’re pulling out of the parking lot:

“That was really stupid!”

I managed to NOT sing that at all during the movie.
I am evil Ho-MER! I am evil Ho-MER!

And so The Barbarienne sums up nicely the latest mega-epic from Marvel Non-Comics-Cause-Moves-Are-Bigger-Moneymakers Studios. And she’s not wrong, though her description is perhaps not the most descriptive.

Before we get into details, though, I should probably delineate where I stand on the whole superhero thing in 2018. I think we can trace my spandex fatigue as far back as X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2011, as I will still pretty game for the (not very good) Iron Man 2 and (the notoriously forgettable) Thor: The Dark World.

It’s safe to say it hasn’t gotten better in the past 7-8 years. In fact, the movies have gotten increasingly formulaic and less interesting, and one begins to remember how much of the trend began with Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer’s distinctive visions, as well as (of course) Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance in the first official MCU movie, Iron Man.

Good lord, that's some drab coloring.
(Foreground, L-R) Bucky,Black Widow, Cap, Black Panther Chick, Black Panther. All your faves?

The superhero film is not really like, e.g., the western. It could be a genre of that sort, but the cost is so prohibitive—at least given the current standards—you have only big studios doing them and they’re not doing it because they have something to add to the conversation. They simply have characters they haven’t fully exploited yet. That’s why we’re getting increasingly 3rd tier characters, like Black Panther and Captain Marvel. And one wonders how badly this is going to sputter out, once they’ve drained the culture dry.

But then, I’ve been wondering that for about a decade, and here we are with Infinity War which absolutely is an impressive achievement. I don’t mean technically, because, good lord, I don’t care about any of that at this point. (A bunch of guys programming isn’t what I want to experience when I go to the movies.)

But it is genuinely ambitious in its attempts to tie the previous Avenger films, the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and others altogether in one epic film that manages to stay under 2 1/2 hours. It’s uneven in places and, yes, stupid in others but I want to stress that a lot of the stupidity is comic book logic and comic book tropes. So, if you haven’t been bothered up till now, you should be fine.

You can tell I'm not super-invested at this point.
(L-R) The newest Spider-man (until the next movie), Iron Man, Tattoo Guy, Star Lord, Antenna Chick

It shines in a lot of the predictable places: Where the other movies have also shone. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as has been pointed out, are basically new creations of James Gunn: The originals are probably D-list in the comic books and, whatever Gunn’s personal shortcomings, he created a franchise with likable, relatable characters. The Black Panther scenes convinced me I was right to skip that movie, as they are very by-the-numbers. (People are still relating to Wakanda as though it weren’t as fictitious as Pandora, but that’s okay. It’s even potentially good for people to do, I’m just not one of them.)

The more earthbound scenes—the ones more tied in with the previous Avengers movies—are kind of a slog. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson have a nice romantic bit, but I was just so hard-pressed to remember who they were. I remember Olson is Scarlett Witch, who seems to have unlimited divine powers, and Paul Bettany was…he’s a computer…but he’s not Ultron, because Ultron was the villain….but he was very close to Ultron in nature. He was a super-computer AI named Vision who was made into a real boy by one of the power crystals, and also nigh infinitely powerful.

Both of them are, naturally, utterly hamstringed in this film. Comically hamstringed, as toward the climax when Wakanda is under attack and the Scarlet Witch is by Vision’s side while he undergoes a delicate operation (which can only be done in Wakanda, and honestly, isn’t the whole Wakanda thing beginning to feel a little patronizing to anyone?). When she’s finally drawn out, her power so outstrips everyone else’s one of the characters remarks “Why wasn’t she out here before?”

Look, lampshading stupidity doesn’t really make it any less stupid. It just feels lazy, basically. And the emotional challenge the movie has been setting up since the beginning—that the Scarlet Witch must kill Vision to save the universe—ends up feeling weaker than it could.

I have nothing to add.
I probably could’ve pulled off another ensemble shot with characters not used in the previous two ensemble shots but…meh.

But a lot of the emotional moments do hit, and that’s fairly impressive. Thanos is humanized from his entirely villainous role in the comics. The outcome is sort of obvious at the beginning, if you haven’t seen a trailer or been spoiled in the past year from the Internet.

I didn’t care, and I did like it okay, as I think the Barbarienne did, even if she saw through the plot holes. Now, time for a spoiler picture, where you stop reading if you don’t want to get spoiled.

But whatever.
(L-R) Groot, Thor and Rocket Raccoon say “GO NO FURTHER!”

The most obvious issue is that Thanos, having the power of creation in his hand (literally) could just as easily have made more resources as kill half the population. The less obvious-until-you-think-about-it issue is that when you kill people, you create poverty (because wealth is not a thing, it’s an activity). Some individuals do well when the population drops drastically, as with the poor and some middle-class people in Europe after the plague, but this had more to do with labor value rising and unprecedented freedom to move around and exploit the new demand than the shortage of people.

In an infinity of space, is it likely that the real problem everywhere in this vast universe is overpopulation? It’s weird to see these ZPG arguments from the ’70s being rehashed, even though I’ve been predicting it for over 10 years now. (Global warming is sputtering out, so we need a new reason to control everything everyone does.)

Beyond that, there are some amazing self-owns here. Peter losing his temper over Gamora being killed such that Thanos’ defeat becomes his victory, for example. That was a weird one, because Thanos is nigh-infinitely powerful at this point, and he’s being defeated by a kid who can shoot webs, a guy in a robot suit, a guy with some space blasters and a magician. I had a hard time buying that. But I had a harder time, on some level, buying that a hero would so completely lose his shtuff when half the universe’s population is at stake.

The Wakanda thing, I already mentioned.

The thing the Barb noticed is that Dr. Strange already had the deus-ex-machina-in-a-crystal time-controlling gem from his movie, so why didn’t he just use that? I noticed that he didn’t use it because “he’d run all the scenarios” and found that he had to give up the crystal in order to make everything work out in the next movie, when they turn back the clock to save the day retroactively.

Which, as a lot of people pointed out, will make the deaths in this one seem cheap. Meh. It’s comic books. You gotta do something, but you can’t ever kill anyone for real.

This may be the genuine death knell for the series, though. They’re gonna need new actors for a new cycle, and their worst instincts seem to be on the rise over at Marvel/Lucas/Disney/Fox/WEOWNEVERYTHING.

That said, if you like this sort of thing, it’s a good example thereof. And that’s…impressive at this point.

Well, it's that they won't be making any more movies, right?
At least there’s a happy ending.

Death of a Nation

You know, I honestly don’t know what Dinesh D’Souza is up to, really. We saw his first movie, America: Imagine A World Without Her, and 2016: Obama’s America—that’s the one that landed him in jail. We skipped the Hillary one, sorta. I mean, you gotta move fast with these things, and of course it was gone really fast. If the dwindling returns he has gotten are any indication, I may not be the only one.

Sad Hitler!
Not coming soon: any Downfall-esque parodies.

So, let me say, the cool things about his movies is that they feel transgressive: You’re in the belly of the beast in the belly of the beast (a movie theater in L.A.) and here’s this dude saying things you’re just not allowed to say in polite society. It feels punk rock, and rebellious, which is all pretty funny given how mild the movies are.

But if we were to compare him to, say, Mr. Moore (after whom he patterns himself, I believe, at least on some levels), he does not have anywhere near the rhetorical skill. Of course, part of Moore’s rhetorical skill is best described as “lying”—and I don’t care if it’s done through deceptive editing or pretending you can’t get an interview with the head of GM when you already have, it’s all lying—and perhaps D’Souza doesn’t want to go down that road (which really closes off the big box office to him, since most really successful documentaries are just massive lies).

Nonetheless, Moore crafts convincing narratives. Does D’Souza? I don’t know. I don’t feel like he does. I feel more like he blasts stuff out there, shotgun style, and some of hits and some of it doesn’t.

Great Doc Holliday!
Good to see Val Kilmer working again, though.

In Death of a Nation—hell, I’ve already forgotten what the actual point was. He bookended it with Hitler and Eva committing suicide on the front, and Sophie Scholl on the back. But I’ve seen both Downfall and the recent Sophie Scholl movie (which no longer seems to exist—could it have been a re-release of the 2005 movie, or am I just conflating a different Nazi movie with the identical story, including a scene where she throws all her pamphlets into the lobby?), and D’Souza isn’t going to be anywhere near that level.

I guess his point is that, like the Nazis in Germany, the increasingly fascist Democrats could take over America. I suppose so, though the Germans rather smartly disarmed the Jews with their national registry whereas ours doesn’t even know about half the guns that are out there.

There’s a great bit at the end where a black choir (which I think featured in his previous films) sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. They’re awesome, but they don’t really advance the case.

Oh, he has a good interview with Richard Spencer, the white separatist. It’s really clear that there’s nothing “right-wing” about the guy, except I guess that he’s a national socialist rather than an international socialist. He’s no friend of small government, the Constitution, or anything that would make him a conservative in the American sense. He’s just another totalitarian, but one with a slightly different viewpoint than the rest of the leftists.

Overall, The Boy and I had similar reactions: We liked it okay, but with D’Souza’s jumping around from topic to topic, we found ourselves wanting more depth.

But I guess one doesn’t generally watch documentaries on big topics for depth.

On the three-point scale:

  1. The subject matter is obviously worthy, if we could only figure out what it was. Well, that’s unfair: It’s very broad, though.
  2. Presentation: Pretty good. The dramatizations are cheesy, of course, and there are too many pauses for “breathing”, for my taste, but it’s well done.
  3. Slant: Well, pretty obvious. It’s got a very specific viewpoint that D’Souza states up front and attempts to defend. Can’t complain about it any more than one could complain about Moore promoting Communism.

I don’t know: If you’ve seen D’Souza before, you’ve seen this, in a lot of ways. The only difference, really, is that you might (or might not) be tired of it.

They're good.
At least America will have an AMAZING funeral with these singers…

South Pacific (1958)

Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger. You may wash him out of your hair shortly thereafter, if you are carefully taught. That is the message of South Pacific, the great ’50s Rodgers and Hart musical with one big, glaring flaw—and a few smaller ones, too.

Look at that waist!
Nothin’ wrong with Mitzi Gaynor, though.

Our story (based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”) begins begins with young Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who’s been assigned a secret mission to that same island in order to spy on Japanese ship movements through a nearby channel. He seas a bunch of navy guys lazing around the beach, including the head rat, Luther (Ray Walston), and none of ’em have seen any action for months. They assure all of us that “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” in one of the best numbers of the movie.

They’re held in thrall by “Bloody Mary,” an island woman that provides various things and to the men, and (from what I can tell) also uses the men (through Luther) to get things to sell to her own people. There was some sort of unauthorized commerce going on. Meanwhile, she tantalizes them all with stories (and a song, of course) about Bali Hi, the forbidden island—basically where the natives have hidden all their women.

Or maybe it's just ... it is what it is.
Of all the restorations done, I can’t figure out why no one has thought to try to fix the tint here.

Into this, we have the focal point of our story, Nellie, a girl from Little Rock, Arkansas (!!!) who finds herself serving in the South Pacific in 1943, and falling in love with a much older French man, Emile (Rossanno Brazzi). I really had no sense of Mitzi Gaynor before this movie, but the Flower and I agreed she was definitely a “top-flight honey”. It’s a very post-war look, a la Doris Day or Donna Reed: almost angelic, girl next door bubbliness, combined with graceful movement and plausible-deniability clothes. It’s a package that exudes a kind of exuberant—yet somehow wholesome—sexuality.

She and Ray Walston are pretty much the only ones not dubbed, too.

At least well enough for this part.
That’s right: Uncle Martin can sing!

Nellie falls in love with Emile but pushes him away ’cause he’s old and she’s from Little Rock (a mixed bag, apparently), but then embraces him fully only to discover he has two young children already with his late Polynesian wife. The same struggle is experienced by Cable, when Bloody Mary introduces him to her daughter, the stunningly beautiful Liat (France Nuyen, who went on to have a prolific TV career).

The blurr-o-vision is a corny, too.
There are no bad pix of Ms. Nuyen, but there are few that do her justice.

Both Nellie and Emile push their loves away because MISCEGENATION! This is a message musical, tackling a hot topic of the day, with a song placing blame squarely on society: “They have to be carefully taught!” That, of course, isn’t the least bit true since humans natively (and arguably reasonably) favor the familiar. But let’s not let that stand in our way, with all the beautiful, quasi-operatic music and amazingly crafted score, weaving themes in and out of all the songs and scenarios. It’s quite amazing, really.

Less amazing—downright notorious, in fact—is the film tinting. The premise was that each scene would be bathed in a different color to evoke a different feeling, but they screwed it up royally. The first scenes, especially when Bloody Mary sings “Bali Hai”, are over-tinted into distraction. It does settle down but it hurts a lot having that up front. There are a lot of stories about who did what to whom here.

Overall, though, it shouldn’t kill  your enjoyment of the film. It truly is a great musical and worth seeing.

So cute! She's in a sailor outfit!
Unbelievably realistic mattes, too.

Charade (1963)

The second movie in our Cary Grant double-feature was Charade, and I realized when I saw it that it represented an entry in an entire subgenre of films that is no longer extant: The light-comedy spy caper. Now, you could bring up Spy, but it doesn’t really fit—and there hasn’t been a movie that fits the category since at least the Cold War ended, and probably since the ’70s. Let’s see if I can back this up:

Our heroes.
Don’t roll your eyes till I’m done, at least!

In Charade, Regina (Audrey Hepburn) comes home intent on divorcing her distant, lying husband only to find that he was far more distant and lying than she ever knew: He’s turned up dead, apparently, and without a lot of cash that he is supposed to be trying to smuggle out of the country. Workaday spy Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) fills her in on the details, and tells her her life is in jeopardy unless she finds that cash—which she sort of sloughs off until she is menaced in turn by Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leopold (Ned Glass). Fortunately, the debonair Peter (Cary Grant, in one of his last roles) is there to save her.

Or is he?

The one constant in this movie—presumably the reason for it being called Charade—is that Peter is not who he seems to be at all. He’s constantly lying about who he is and what his motivations are, and each reasonable explanation for his behavior is soon supplanted by a revelation that said explanation was also a lie.

Kind of cute gag, if true.
I’m wondering, in retrospect, whether Matthau stole someone’s lunch here.

This movie, primarily, is a Romantic Comedy. It doesn’t work quite as well as it should because of the apparent age difference between Audrey and Cary, which I’ve heard made Grant uncomfortable and was part of the reason he retired (even though he married the 27-year-old Dyan Cannon a couple years after this). The funny thing is, we’ve seen this age difference work before with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak (1958’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle) but Audrey Hepburn’s gamin look and her young mannerisms make her seem much younger than her 33 years (where Novak’s character always came off as more womanly).

If you can get past the age issues—and the movie works hard at this, pitting the stalwart (despite his shiftiness) Peter against Regina’s waif-y wiles—it’s quite enjoyable as a RomCom. But it’s not just a RomCom, it’s a spy movie. And that means, among the flirtations and misunderstandings, there are murders. Lives are at stake, and nobody knows who to trust. It’s actually kind of bizarre but, like I said before, it was a genre from about 1960-1980.

Life ain't fair.
All of these guys, even the really OLD one, are younger than Cary Grant. And they have no shot with Audrey.

In this part of the story, the various villains take turns menacing Regina and alternatively each other, as each suspects the other of already having found the money and pretending not to have, so they can keep it for themselves. The shocking twist at the end—well, it isn’t all that shocking, but 55 years later, the lack of shock is itself unshocking. I don’t remember when I figured it out, but it’s the sort of movie where you don’t really care much. Which really pushes it more into the RomCom territory than the Spy territory.

Or, if you prefer, the missing cash—with a solution out of Ellery Queen—gives it more of a Mystery film vube. It fits in that sense, because it’s a common trope in mysteries to just let the various corpses roll off one’s back, as it were. Nobody is too terribly bothered since the point is the mystery, not the drama. It’s all sort of preposterous and contrived; that’s what makes it fun. The whole feel of the genre doesn’t fit in the naturalist/communist ideals of the later ’60s/’70s, or the ironic enthusiasm of the ’80s, or the Cold War free ’90s. And if I keep going down this road, I would also have to point out we don’t have icons like Grant or Hepburn, clever scriptwriters like Peter Stone (Mirage, 1776), directors like Stanley Donen (Singin’ In The Rain, The Little Prince), to say nothing of studios that worry whether it will Play In Peking, and I’d just get depressed. So I won’t.

We all loved it, of course, though the age difference made The Flower especially uncomfortable (while again, she loves Novak/Stewart). For that reason, she preferred Blandings while the Boy was more on the fence. Either way, it’s worth checking out.

Hard, but fair.
They’re unconvinced that I made my case.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

In a now classic bit from the long-overdue-for-death TV series, “Family Guy”, the family is drowning and the father (Peter) makes a shocking, last-minute confession. “I did not care for the Godfather,” he says. While I can understand that, the bit basically ends with “I liked The Money Pit.”

For those who don’t remember it, The Money Pit was a 1986 film from Disney’s early Touchstone days. Touchstone was, I think, the brainchild of Michael Eisner, who managed to put Disney money behind a lot of R-rated, and morally gross films that would’ve tarnished the reputation of the studio, had said films been branded with the mouse moniker. It might have just been coincidence but it seemed like every Touchstone film I saw was at least a little bit sleazy. Things like Three Men and a Baby and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Some things never change.
Don’t you hate it when I cram these reviews like a Manhattan apartment?

The Money Pit has Tom Hanks at what may be the height of his (wrongfully disdained) physical comedy years, and Shelly Long mistakenly believing that being in a movie with Tom Hanks was a good time to end her wildly successful “Cheers” run. It has a distinctive ’80s Touchstone sleaze to it. But this circuitous intro gets me to the main point: If you want to see how far society fell between 1948 and 1986, watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and The Money Pit would give you a pretty good (if subtle) measuring tape.

In MBBHDH, Cary Grant is a Manhattan ad man, pulling down a handsome $15,000/year, but living in a cramped little 2 bedroom apartment with his wife (the eternal Myrna Loy, looking as lovely as she did 14 years earlier in The Thin Man) and two daughters—daughters who are being taught to loathe capitalism and advertising in their posh private school, no less!—and just one bathroom between them. Mrs. Blanding has a plan to remodel the apartment (which they do not own) by knocking down some walls and…well, you can’t do much but spend a lot of money to make things more fashionable.

He makes a good point.
“There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” – Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Blanding puts his foot down, but he ends up being seduced on a visit to the countryside. A classic old civil war (or was it colonial?) era house that he and the missus fall in love with, and immediately get suckered into paying too much for. (The story is narrated by family friend Bill, played by Melvyn Douglas.) The rest of the movie concerns the literal building of their dream house, and this is where the two films really start to diverge.

For the rest of the movie, the Blandings (unlike the Fieldings of The Money Pit) bring all their woes down on themselves. The only time the Blandings really get played is in buying the real estate. The Fieldings are played for saps for the entirety of the film. You might think that watching people be stubborn jackasses and fools would be less sympathetic than watching a couple be victimized, but the former is not only funnier, it works better as a cautionary tale.

Learning the awful news.
Which, frankly, good cautionary tales are in short supply.

Because they’re building their dream house, the two have uncompromising ideas about what they want, even when it’s very expensive, and even when it doesn’t make sense. They quickly set aside the wisdom of the architect and the contractor and even their lawyer pal, Bill, and the sky becomes the limit.

If you want another sense of how things have changed, the first time Blandings really loses it is when he discovers is house is going to cost $18,000! Why, that’s over a year’s salary! And remember, he’s the only one working. (The final house price ends up around $32,000.)

There’s a subplot of jealousy here, too, and it’s handled so much better in the old movie. In the ’48 film, Cary Grant is stupid jealous: Myrna Loy’s not going to cheat on him, because she’s Myrna Loy, fercryinoutloud. The theme keeps coming up, as the circumstances of Bill being around while Mr. Blandings is not become increasingly awkward (socially, and how’s that for another change?), but it never goes further than a gag. I don’t remember how Pit plays out, but I remember it creeped me out.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be the average experience, but for me, seeing Blandings a few years after Pit made me feel like I’d been robbed. Of my civilization. And this is unfair to Pit, really, which is fine with a great performance from Hanks. And maybe I over-estimate it, but The Flower actually preferred this movie to Charade (the second film in our Cary Grant double-feature), and The Boy might have also.

So, check it out.

And not like "Pac-man" is classic, neither.
Classic.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

After the highly entertaining antics of our afterlife bureaucrats in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, The Boy and I left the Flower to her teenage wasteland and trundled off to Chinatown to see Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, the latest in the Chinese Detective Dee saga. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, or maybe briefly back in 2010 when it first kicked off, but the trailer grabbed me, with dragons and magic and swords and what-not.

Look at 'em scowl!
The Four Kings are NOT amused. By ANYTHING.

It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable. It was also kind of cool that it was directed by Tsui Hark, who’s been around for quite some time. (As a producer, he worked with both John Woo and Woo-Ping Yuen, for example. As a director, he’s probably most famous for the Once Upon A Time In China series.)

The story is that Detective Dee, having so impressed the Emperor (it’s, uh, fantasy medieval time period of some sort) with his service, is rewarded (or tasked) with the care of a mystical mace. This sends the Empress into a jealous rage and she immediately sets her assassins on him, including one of Dee’s trusted friends. Dee is sent on a wild goose chase as the Empress searches his quarters for the mace (leading to a clever, cute scene where the would-be burglars fall for the detective’s many traps).

I don't know Chinese deserts.
Quick! Someone is trying to steal my egg tart!

But after the initial scene, the mystery/detective aspects of the film fall quickly to the action sequences. There is a mystery afoot, but it hardly feels very important between the action and characters. The funny thing here is that there is what one might call traditional kung-fu sort of magic, with various martial artists having techniques that might, in another part of the world, be regarded a superpowers—while at the same time there is drug-induced hallucination which appears to be magical. This adds a layer of shall-we-say-challenge? to actually figuring out the mysterious aspects of the film.

There’s a mystery-behind-the-mystery which is tipped off (not in a bad way) and probably more significant if you have a grasp of Chinese history and particularly with Sino-Indic relations, as the Empress is herself just a puppet for a greater evil. This greater evil is surprisingly literalized, though the whole thing is soaked in drug-induced illusion. Sort of amusingly, the movie’s semi/quasi-happy ending has multiple stingers which outline an entire other movie’s worth of action and shenaningans complete with a series of unhappy endings. I assume this is also related to Chinese history.

Lotsa arms on that guy.
How literal, you ask? THIS literal!

Each individual bit, however, whether it’s action or spectacle or character piece, comes off as entertaining, so you’re never bored despited the over-two-hour runtime. At the same time, this isn’t great the way the Korean movies typically are, or even the way the best Chinese films are. But The Boy came out with a pretty positive viewpoint, in which he expressed what he often does after seeing Korean or Chinese movies.

“It doesn’t feel like,” he often says, “the director hates me.” And this is true, Asian films want to be liked, and if they have snobbery and elitism (and how could they not?) it doesn’t come through. One really does feel, when watching them, that one is part of a “let’s have fun” activity. Again, it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact of Chinese Communism, but maybe it’s because even the Chicoms recognize the value of being popular in a way that Hollywood disdains.

We definitely had fun, and I was intrigued at the idea of watching the previous films in the series.

And there is no answer.
They will have to answer for these eyebrows one day, however.

 

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days

In the best, or possibly worst, tradition of blockbusters, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days was filmed simultaneously with its prequel, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds. I guess they knew the original would be successful—and it was, breaking South Korean box office records and bringing in a whopping $106M at the box office. That may not sound like much, but since that was all in Korea, it’s the equivalent of a movie making about $750M here—at least on a par with (if not better than) Black Panther.

But they're not getting it.
Here, our actors pray for a piece of the gross.

We had made the first movie part of our Christmas Korean movie “tradition” (the first one was The Handmaiden), and really enjoyed the action-adventure drama of a heroic character who dies and must go through the seven hells in 49 days or less so that his guides would have a chance at reincarnation. There were a few loose ends in that movie that get resolved in this one, but other than that, you don’t really need to have seen the first to enjoy this one. (The Flower allowed that she would have liked to see the first one, but really enjoyed this nonetheless.)

This movie flips the script considerably: The original movie had a heroic firefighter who died saving a child’s life, and revealed that while he had lived a virtuous life (a “paragon” in the movie’s vocabulary), he was not without considerable, grave sin. In this movie, a character who had been unjustly killed in a side-plot shows up, and he’s not interested in the proceedings. Meanwhile, the movie focuses on the backstories of the lead guide and the two goofy assistant guides, doing that magical Asian trick of turning comic characters into highly sympathetic ones, and tragic heroes in their own rights.

It's an Asian thang.
Goofy sidekicks with poignant backstories.

This movie also focuses on different hells, since its protagonist has entirely different sins from the last one, and there is less time spent in the underworld, generally. The assistants spend most of their time trying to coax a house’s guardian spirit (Dong Seok-Ma, the beefy arm-wrestler in Champion) into letting them collect an old man’s soul who is overdue, only to have to struggle themselves with the fact that the old man is the sole guardian of a young boy about to go to his first days of school.

While our new traveler doesn’t have the worst sin of all—the bottom-most sin of the Underworld where the king sits—the sin of filial impiety, said sin still features prominently in the movie in a surprising way. There’s also great romantic love here, and a big historical drama.

It’s just a lot of fun. The cast is great, with Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day ComesThe Handmaiden) reprising his role as the lead guide. Ji-Hoon Ju (The Spy Gone North) and child actress Hyang-gi Kim get to stretch their acting wings a lot here, going as they do from comic figures to heroic ones. The teenaged Kim looks especially young, as Asians often do, but which is played to tremendous effect in flashbacks, where she is taken out of modern makeup and given a “natural” look.

No, but he's a bad-ass, supernaturally speaking.
The “house god” challenges them to arm wrestling.

Kyung-soo Do, as the new entrant into the hells, who doesn’t seem to care what happens one way or the other, has a kind of interesting role, too. He’s a tremendously heroic figure—though less dramatically than the firefighter, his sins seem particularly contrived. (Recall from the first movie that the “prosecution” bureaucrats, while incompetent, are crafty in trying to convict people of sins.) At the same time, he became a revenant because of his unjust death (which he doesn’t really remember) and his stubbornness often seems more obnoxious than heroic.

This, too, has a payoff, when the guides try to convince him that he was unjustly murdered by the people he put himself on the line to help. And they have to hide this from him until the last possible second because they know he’ll resist. The dynamics are interesting and there’s a lot crammed into the 2:20 of this film, just like the last one. Even so, you kind of feel like you could watch them back-to-back and want more.

In America, these movies would probably be kicking off a TV series. They’d make an interesting pilot.

We all loved it. The Flower, for whom this was her first Korean flick (except for The Host, but this was her first going-to-Koreatown-flick) toyed with coming with us to see the second feature rather than hanging out with her friends, she liked this so much. (Well, that, and she’s cooled on her friends who are really just bog-standard teens. The thing being she doesn’t hang around teens just because they’re teens, and she’d rather hang around her 40-something godmother.)

We actually ended up going to real-Chinatown next to see Detective Dee. But I think we had a better time than she did.

So I'm chasing confession like Tom chases Jerry.
Atonement ain’t easy but it’s necessary.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

I had long been under the impression that George Lazenby was given a kind of raw deal when he first became James Bond, having to follow Sean Connery. He didn’t get all the perks (at least not until he figured out what they were) that Sean Connery had accrued for himself over his five films, and he was apparently so often saying “What’d the other guy get?” that the teaser stinger for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when his femme fatale runs off in his car, “I bet the other guy didn’t have to put up with this” emerged from his complaints.

He was conflicted.
Lazenby takes aim at his career.

Then, when the movie came out, it did worse than even the first film in the franchise, Dr. No (adjusted for inflation) where Connery’s Bond had gotten increasingly successful over the years. He was tepidly received by critics as well, and so I thought that he had been cut loose after his sole outing as 007.

Mr. Lazenby was with us for our viewing of this movie, however and set the record straight: He turned down Cubby Broccoli’s million dollar 7-picture deal. Why? Because he learned Clint Eastwood was making spaghetti westerns in Italy for $500,000 a pop, and much less intensive shooting schedules. (Bond can be grueling, apparently.) And because a guy in a suit couldn’t get laid in ’68, and if you can’t get laid, what’s the point of life?

Those were his words, paraphrased, though he did specifically say “get laid”.

Almost none.
I mean, really: What chance does a guy who looks like THAT have?

He did, however, see plenty of action as James Bond, as we discovered. He could’ve spent some quality time with Diana Rigg, with her only stipulation being that he keep it zipped otherwise while they were on set. (No doing the rest of the cast or crew, in other words.) It was kind of a cute story, in a sleazy ’60s way, because he impressed her by beating someone at chess—a smart someone, as I recall. (I don’t think it was Rigg herself but it was someone who had beaten her, if I recall correctly. Someone should be pumping Lazenby for all his stories, because…wow.) He doesn’t say how long it was between that and Rigg walking in on him with one of the stage crew, but I think not very.

The thing to keep in mind is that he was having more sex than most mortal men even as James Bond, but—I mean, read what I’m writing, here: He stopped being James Bond because being James Bond cramped his style, sexually speaking.

So I don’t feel bad for him any more. He chose his life, big time, and there were some great adventures he had along the way which involve sex, sailing, hurricanes, more sex, being broke, Bruce Lee, sex with “the staff” at hotels when you were too broke to get a room, etc. He didn’t go quietly into domestic life, getting “caught” by a woman who assured him she couldn’t get pregnant, but he seems to think his kids are pretty cool.

Yowza.
I actually prefer “The Avengers” Diana Rigg to OHMSS Diana Rigg, but who are we kidding?

And I haven’t gotten into the movie at all, which is the longest of the pre-Craig movies. And much like Goldfinger, it’s pretty spectacular, comic-book-y stuff with amazing stunts and effects, and the rear-projection stuff kills the suspension of belief even harder than it did in Connery’s ’64 outing.

The plot is suitably wacky, with Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas in this outing) holding the world for ransom. He’s going to destroy entire species of grains unless the world meets his demand: to be forgiven all his crimes and granted legitimacy. OK, looking pretty super-villain-ny, but can we amp it up a bit? Yes we can: His chosen vectors for this naughtiness are a bevvy of nubile international beauties who have come to his “behavior modification clinic” to be hypnotized and programmed to loose the agent (germ, or whatevs) in their home country.

Bond, posing as a suspiciously flamboyant expert in history (so Blofeld can claim his noble roots), ends up banging two of those ladies, which blows his cover and results him being imprisoned in Blofeld’s castle. Meanwhile he a complicated relationship with his femme fatale (Rigg, of course) that, if memory serves, had advanced to the engagement stage while he’s doing these other girls in the castle.

Hey, he’s on the job. You do what you have to, or you do what you don’t have to and what will threaten the mission if it means getting in bed with the chippies.

Randy beggar.
No sacrifice too great for Queen and country.

It’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and often places in the top 5 of pre-Craig Bonds, though I felt it came up a little short next to Goldfinger, which is tight. It’s often praised for attempting a serious relationship with Bond, but I can’t honestly say any of it felt particularly deep, and it’s all over pretty abruptly. Lazenby’s good, though.

The Flower did not attend, because she didn’t think she’d be able to adapt after Goldfinger. And, honestly, it took me a good 40 minutes or so to stop thinking, “That’s not Bond!” The Boy and His Girl liked it, however, and had a good time at the Q&A with Lazenby. Things are still fun in the Bond universe at this point. Connery would return for one outing in ’71 after which he thought (at 41!) he was far too old for the role, and then things would descend into camp with Roger Moore—three years older than Connery—and whatever the Dalton years were, before coming to crashing halt in the increasingly politically correct ’90s.

We didn’t see any of those, though I did notice the theater picked the best movies of those three eras (The Spy Who Loved Me, Licence To Kill, Goldeneye). I was modestly interested but I couldn’t really sell the kids and I wasn’t motivated enough to make the drive alone.

Telly, lookin' suave.
Behind the scenes with the two finalists in “The ’60s goofiest fashions” competition.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The second feature on our Monroe double bill—and the second smash hit for Marilyn in 1953, was the iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In fact, prior to a certain election, Dorothy and Lorelei were Little Rock, Arkansas’ most iconic exports. I was bemused by the theme of the double feature (How To Marry A Millionaire being the previous entry) which I described as “Sympathy for the Gold-digger.” But more on that in a moment.

Homina-homina-homina!
You almost can’t blame Bill, if this is what he grew up around.

Our heroines are of two decidedly different temperaments with the athletic, aggressive Dorothy (Jane Russell) being more about male pulchritude and the sweet but highly-focused Lorelei seeing marrying a rich man as the only sensible approach a girl can take. Lorelei has her hooks in the nebbishy Gus, Jr. (Tommy Noonan) and is genuninely warm and affectionate toward him…but Lorelei is also warm and affectionate to any man with a lot of money.

The girls have a show where they sing and dance exposition, so this is a musical where almost all the music has a rational-esque explanation. Russell has one number, “Isn’t Anyone Here For Love?” in a gym full of beefy dudes that doesn’t make sense as merely an ambient outbreak of song-and-dance, unless it was that kind of cruise.

The Flower points out that they may not ALL have been gay.
They’re here for love, honey, but not the kind you can give.

Anyway, Lorelei ends up going overseas to get away from Gus, Jr., who himself can’t break free of his suspicious, controlling father’s grasp, and the second act of the movie takes place on a cruise ship. She meets “Piggy”, a diamond king, and seduces away his wife’s tiara from him. But the suspicious Gus, Sr. has hired a detective (Elliot Reid) to keep on an eye on her—or more accurately to get evidence against her, and he snaps some compromising (if perhaps unfair) photos.

Lorelei and Dorothy scheme to get the evidence back, said scheme itself complicated by Dorothy’s attraction to the dick.

Indeed.
“If we can’t empty his pockets between us, then we’re not worthy of the name Woman.”

By the time the girls arrive in Paris, they end up penniless, under suspicion by the law and, worst of all, broken-hearted.  The do find success in a suspiciously large Paris nightclub, though.

It all works out for the best, as it must, but there is a terrific moment at the end when Lorelei confronts Gus, Sr. He claims she’s interested in Juniors money, and she retorts that that’s ridiculous, since Junior doesn’t have any money. She’s interested in Gus, Senior’s money! He’s appalled but that’s when she lays it out for him:

Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?

One thing they understood very well in the ’50s and (all prior history really), was that a woman can use her looks to “trade up”, socioeconomically speaking. The theme of both movies was that a woman of charm does herself a disservice by settling for a guy who’s going nowhere. It’s not for every woman. But neither is it some necessarily mercenary task. The vast landscape of civilization shows marriage as being a decision of trade-offs, and often the ones most “passionately in love” are the ones whose relationships fizzle out. (By survey, arranged marriages do better than those where the two people choose for themselves. That probably says nothing good about humans, but there it is.)

I submit they understood the realities of life back then, and also the distinction between marrying just for money versus taking the entire future life ahead into consideration when making decisions that impact that whole life.

Anyway, however anyone felt about the plot or the politics of it, they made a great movie. Monroe and Russell are both dazzling. The dance numbers are fun. The costumes won The Flower’s approval. There are a lot of good, wacky set pieces, in that ’50s style. We loved it.

And Marilyn was far more appealing in motion than in stills.
Iconic.

Goldfinger (1964)

One of the problems with the Laemmle’s theme months is that they often open with a classic. Like “Military May” began with The Dirty Dozen and of course couldn’t top that. (I missed that one, but The Flower was subsequently disappointed by M*A*S*H, e.g., because as she said, “The Dirty Dozen was great!” (And after M*A*S*H—heh—they showed PlatoonStripes and Three Kings.) When you’re having a Shaken, Not Stirred month celebrating James Bond, and you go in chronological order, you are begging for exactly this problem.

And you might as well pack it in after Goldfinger, often regarded as the best of the Bonds.

Huh.
Google Search’s “best guess” for this is “Quantum of Solace Dead Girl”.

This time around, 007 (Sean Connery, in his third outing) is investigating the nefarious Goldfinger! (You have to say it like that after hearing Shirley Basset sing the lurid theme song: Goldfingeeerrrr!) Goldfinger apparently has a gold smuggling racket, a penchant for cheating at cards and a nasty, murderous temper. As Bond travels the world (as he always must) his investigations reveal that Goldfinger is no ordinary villain—but a supervillain!

As we learned in Megamind, the difference between a villain and a supervillain is: style!

Not content with mere smuggling and hoarding of gold, Goldfinger has decided he’s going to take Fort Knox! Preposterous, as Bond points out, because all the gold in Fort Knox has been gone for years! No, wait, that would be if they did the story today. But seriously: It’s a fort, so you can’t get in. And if you could get in, you couldn’t get the gold out. But that’s not Goldfinger’s plan at all, no, he’s going to irradiate the gold! Thus removing it from the market and making his own gold more valuable.

Jowly!
I suspect that, more than gold, he loves carbs.

Which, when you think about it, means he’s less about loving gold—you don’t render something you love untouchable for decades, do you?—and more about being rich, but whatever. He’s the one with the super-elite squad of super-model fighter pilots, so who’s going to argue with him? Maybe you’d like to take it up with his ginormous, deadly-hat-throwing Korean wrestler, Oddjob? No? OK, then.

Also, to do this, he’s going to kill a lot of people. Not just with radiation but with poison gas that will allow him to get the dirty bomb into Fort Knox. And he’s involved the surprisingly gullible leaders of the American mafia somehow.

His super-elite squad of pilot-honeys are led by Pussy Galore, played by the inimitable Honor Blackman, late of the BBC spy show, “The Avengers”. (Sort of amusingly, the next week’s film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would feature Diana Rigg—also late of “The Avengers”—as the love interest.) She’s got a back story and doesn’t just roll over for Bond, at least not right away!

She offered her honor, he honored her offer, and all night long he was on her and off her.
Honor Guard

I should note, however, that Bond literally seduces his way out of trouble in this one. I don’t mean a come-hither-look-to-the-sexy-gaoler-so-he-can-get-the-keys kind of seduction, either. No, this is a lot more elaborate.

It’s goofy, goofy stuff. And I’m generally not a Bond fan. They all sort of run together in my head. (About six times while writing this, I had to erase something because I had it confused with OHMSS.) But there is something to seeing this on the big screen and enjoying its adventurousness and unabashed heterosexuality. It’s just fun. There’s no complex moral question being raised, just good vs. evil, and we all know who is who. (Even Pussy, who is closely associated with Goldfinger, is good at heart, and we all know that.)

As such, it rises and falls on its production values. The actors are likable, but hardly straining themselves dramatically. The sets are beautiful and appropriately over-elaborate. (Goldfinger’s HQ “war-room” being a great example.) The gadgets (including the now infamous ejector seat in the Jag) are fun. There’s never a bad reason to have a good-looking woman around. The action scenes are excellent—except that the rear projection technique sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a little jarring now to have the very practical effects interspersed with something that was end-of-life back in ’64.

I can't remember now if he's a Korean guy playing Japanese, or the other way around...
Honestly, who throws a hat?

It’s a good time. In some ways, it reminds me of From Dusk Till Dawn, which we would saw the month before (as part of the “Down Mexico Way” theme): It’s just fun, spectacle, sex and unpretentious fantasy, three of which are missing from the current Bonds. (There’s still spectacle, but the fantasy pretends to reality.)

The Boy missed it, and regretted it muchly, while The Flower just loved it. While she’s not a big fan of the ’60s, she does appreciate the fashion and appreciation of feminine pulchritude. She would subsequently demur on all Bond films: To her, Bond was Sean Connery, and she was concerned that even his other entries into the Franchise wouldn’t live up to this.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

While I am not a fan of “you ruined my childhood!” as a lamentation, it is possible to ruin something retroactively. With Avatar, for example, James Cameron basically did all of his old tricks, but in such a ham-handed way that one could conceivably go back to his older films and not be unable to see all the strings and levers. It turned out not to be the problem for Aliens (1986), but how would Terminator 2 hold up, given its heavy reliance on at-the-time-cutting-edge CGI?

Got that from "Bloom County".
Foreshadowing: The hallmark of all great literature.

The answer turns out to be: pretty damn well. It may even be better than it seemed originally, because we’re also all relieved of having to compare to the original Terminator, which is a much simpler and more visceral film. You don’t really even need to have seen the original to enjoy this, as the Flower very much enjoyed it. (This probably isn’t true of the subsequent sequels.)

This film takes place over a decade after the events of the first (only seven years of real time had passed), and Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton, who achieved iconic status in this time period, in no small part for this role) is locked in an asylum after trying to stop the future she sees as inevitable. Her son John (Edward Furlong) is a kind of jerk in foster care with some jerky foster parents, and in-between hacking phones and inappropriately employing the various survival techniques he learned from his mother, he thinks she’s genuinely nuts.

There’s not a lot of set-up though, because before you know it, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, but with a twist: He’s been sent back to protect Sarah and John from the newer, more menacing T-1000 (Robert Patrick, kicking ass).

Mayhem ensues.

A mixed bag, I'd imagine.
How badass was Linda Hamilton? Well, she survived being married to Cameron.

The action is top-notch, again. The CGI, while obvious, holds up very well because it’s visually simple and communicates very well. The menace conveyed by the building of a hostile intelligence from millions of nigh-indestructible nanobots was very trendy back then—almost as trendy as the black computer nerd. (I only point this out because, thirty years later, people like to pretend that the ’70s and ’80s, when all kinds of minorities were mainlined, never happened.)

In between the action, we learn about the characters, which manage to straddle that line between having depth and being, like, totally super serious you guys. Like, Sarah is a bad-ass in this—in a lovely contrast from her previous, more damsel-in-distress role—but John never hesitates to slap her down (metaphorically) when she gets all apocalyptic and preachy. To Furlong’s great credit (and Cameron’s, as the writer), John is a sarcastic teen we don’t hate. He is sympathetic despite his sarcasm and, where hyper-skilled teens are a nuisance in ’90s media, John at least has a reason for his skills, which aren’t much above mere vandalism.

And it's not his fault.
That haircut alone should make us hate him.

Arnold manages to emote while doing nothing detectable at all. It’s not that easy, when you think about it.

The rules governing Patrick’s behavior are a lot looser. He’s allowed (“programmed”, or whatever) to feign human emotion, so he comes off as chillingly sociopathic. Also, since he typically plays above his actual age (he turns 60 in November), it’s sort of surprising how young and handsome he looks here (at 33).

But when you get down to it, what this movie has that future Cameron movies wouldn’t have is a character like John: Someone to slap it down when it went too far up its own ass. That is to say: Terminator works because it is deadly earnest about what it is: An excellent sci-fi action flick with just enough resonance to feel a little deeper than it actually is. (The big peril, mind, is Artificial Intelligence, that boogeyman of sci-fi going back to before Asimov’s bubble-gum robot stories, and which presents itself as a new peril to every generation, apparently.)

You can be a black computer nerd, but you still have to die.
They’re like the three musketeers, if one of the musketeers was about to die.

It’s deadly earnest about being entertaining, in other words, without being too serious about its “message”. Its message is in the mouth of its heroine, Sarah, who herself realizes that she’s a little over the top sometimes.

Years ago, when Chuck Jones’ biography Chuck Amuck came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, you hated these producers, and they were surely uncreative dunderheads…but your genius emerged from fighting these guys.” It’s a common refrain in art. The greatest art has a form which is somehow limiting, often severely so, and the smartest artists realize this. (Robert Frost and his “tennis without a net”, Schoenberg objecting, rightly, to his 12-tone system being “free”, etc.)

But Hollywood, especially post-studio-system, is geared to tell successful directors that they can do no wrong. Go ahead and make a movie about a super-powered alien and a bat-themed vigilante that only makes sense in a three-hour cut? Two hours and ten minutes about a sexually ambiguous dressmaker? A space opera but without any heroics? You’re the one with the vision, boss!

Something like Terminator 2 is a truly rare beast these days: It’s a big-budget action flick with a very distinctive auteur, that never stops being fun.

He's a robot, see.
I like how Patrick never looks more than slightly put out by anything.

The Cakemaker

It had been a while since we’d seen an Israeli film, which was our staple before we switched to classics and Asian cinema, and this film The Cakemaker was getting the good buzz and hanging around, so we trundled off to see it. It had also been a while since we’d seen a gay movie, and this one was, yeah, really gay. But it’s Israeli, so it’s also moody and conflicted about the whole thing. And mostly not slanted, which makes things a lot more bearable.

A man in Berlin buys pastry for his wife back home in Israel. He chats up the baker with long, lingering looks and—”I’ve made a terrible mistake” pops into my head. But as the two lean in to kiss, fade to black. Cut to a year later, the two are hanging out in the German baker’s apartment, and we learn the two have been spending time together consistently whenever Oren (the Israeli) comes to town. He always goes home, but he always comes back.

Until he doesn’t.

Look at that. Yum.
And it’s not due to the pastry.

The story kicks off because our baker, Thomas, is completely bereft. He calls constantly. He finally goes so far as to return some property to the business where Oren works, only to find out that he has died. This does not improve Thomas’ emotional state, as you might imagine, and before you know it, Thomas has booked a flight to Israel.

Now, this is the sort of thing that, were you Thomas’ friend, you would strongly dissuade him from doing. But Thomas has no friends—had no friend but Oren, and so off he goes to track down Oren’s wife. This is also the sort of thing from which you would believe, rightly, that no good can come from. However, this is a movie, and…well, it’s still hard to say whether anything good comes from this. Even the movie punts.

Basically Thomas ends up working with Oren’s wife, Anat, who runs an unsuccessful dodgy little café that has scored a big win in being certified Kosher (the dodgy part being that she’s not really sincere or careful). As a newly single mom, she’s often having to close up the shop for maternal reasons, and Thomas is there enough to eventually score a job.

A LOT.
There’s a lot of baking in this film.

This leads to some difficulties, as he isn’t aware of the Kosher rules, and some Israelis are (shockingly!) suspicious of Germans. Ultimately, though, Thomas is such the consummate baker that the shop quickly gains a reputation for its highly distinctive baked goods. (This distinctiveness is going to lead to issues later on when Anat’s suspicions are in need of confirmation.)

Things get as complicated as you might imagine, and then some, because on top of the usual stuff you’d expect, there is a fascinating question of religion and godliness thrown in. Anat wants the benefits of being Kosher, but she wants nothing to do with the responsibilities. And as we’ve seen before, often and recently, the Israelis are not afraid to show secular people floundering with loss and grief, when they lack the support of their community. Which isn’t to say that the movie takes a side: Nobody’s suggesting anyone should change any behavior, no matter how destructive it is.

Which, heh.

Oy.
Pictured: Complications

Anyway, it’s a pretty good melodrama. There is a homosexual sex scene around the end of the second act which, I think, is meant to prove that the boys are really, really gay. I mean, in the current ZPG zeitgeist, heterosexuality is never the answer, and this fits in well with that, with no other real purpose. The movie had established both that Oren and Thomas were sincerely gay, and also that they occasionally fell off the wagon. (I think that’s an appropriate phrasing for the ZPG zeitgeist: Any sex anyone has that might result in a child is a mistake.)

We did all like it, though. The Flower loved the baking scenes (which are quite nice) and looked away during teh gay sex. I did not recommend it to my mom—who otherwise might have enjoyed it for the baking, and it’s definitely over-rated on Rotten Tomatoes. But if that’s not a deal-breaker for you, and you want to see a modestly paced complex drama, it’s worth a look.

I kinda don't think so.
But is it Kosher?

Three Identical Strangers

Probably the most horrifying thing about the Nazis is the fact that, no matter how much some try to cover it up, the philosophy itself (or some variation) seems to be the inevitable consequence of progressivism. It’s all very well to say “Never Again” with regard to the Jews—and it’s much easier to say than to actually enforce, as we see in Europe and increasingly in the U.S.—and then to neglect the Tutus, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Christians in China, the Middle East and elsewhere, and of course all the populations who stand against Communists when they come to power.

There’s a curious moment in this movie where the filmmakers track down a woman involved in this fairly horrific, dehumanizing experiment and she reveals that both she and the doctor in charge were kept in camps during WWII. As we walk by her photos with prominent left-wing politicians (e.g., the Obamas and Clintons) we are treated to an excuse that sounds much like Eichmann’s: Why, she was barely involved in this experiment and only for a little while.

The story behind Three Identical Strangers is one that goes from wondrous to weird to horrifying, and if you remember it (as I do) you probably never got past the “weird” phase. That is, the three men involved sort of dropped out of the media limelight before we learned the horrifying aspects of it. Basically, you have the story of a guy who goes to college his freshman year and discovers that he’s well known and very popular—but everyone is calling him by the wrong name.

I only remember Savitch because she died, TBH.
With Jessica Savitch. No, wait, with Jane Pauley. OK, I don’t remember.

After a short while of this, a clever third party puts the pieces together and the two boys go to visit what turns out to be mysteriously-popular-boy’s identical twin, adopted from an early age. Well, that’s exciting and the two compare notes and hit it off and make the local news. But they aren’t long in the local news before the story is seen by their identical triplet!

The amazing story skyrockets the trio into fame, fortune, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (and as we all know that story seldom ends well).

A cursory grilling of the adoption agency reveals a furtive “Oh, we always separated twins so that they’d be more likely to adopt,” an excuse that sounds plausible but of course pisses off the parents who would’ve adopted all three of the boys.

All’s well that ends well, right? The boys are happy discovering their similarities and that, despite their different upbringings, they have a tremendous amount in common. Weird, though, that one was adopted by a working class couple, one by a middle-class couple and one by a wealthy couple. Weird also that they each have an older sister. And further, that each was visited year after year by an evaluator who gave them IQ tests and monitored their behavior.

Almost like it was all arranged from the get go.

Yeah, it just gets creepier and creepier. Quite apparently, the adoption agency in question was working with psychs (-iatrists and/or -ologists) conducting experiments on identical siblings by placing them in different environments. They find an evaluator who also gives the “I was barely involved” excuse though they manage to break that one down. We begin to detect some shame in him, especially as we look back over what he did know and could have easily prevented simply by telling the parents.

I am disinclined to blame all the boys’ problems on this nefarious experiment. Although it didn’t help, the hedonistic life-style of the early ’80s was probably not the best for, well, anyone but least of all some young men who had a family history of emotional instability. At one point the moviemakers try to find out whether or not the study specifically targeted those with a history of emotional issues, but the details (and results) of the study are tightly controlled by The Powers That Be. (Also, you’re at an adoption agency. The odds are higher than average that such issues are going to exist, I should think.)

Is that a thing? It should be a thing.
I’m more likely to blame The Madonna Curse than anything.

On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Interesting, worthwhile, but ultimately soaked in a kind of futility.
  2. Presentation. Simple and straightforward. If you remember things like “Donahue” and Studio 54, the stock footage is kind of fun.
  3. Slant. I’m gonna call this one pretty “flat”: Obviously there’s an advocacy for the triplets (and the other separated twins who suffered under these experiments) and general lament about transparency, but it’s largely politics-free and doesn’t lionize or demonize anyone.

The aforementioned futility (point 1) comes from the lack of transparency (point 3) and the fact that they can’t get any answers about what was going on. But even more, the idea that there could be any answers from a study like this reminds me of the (incredibly stilted) arguments that were popular a decade or two ago: If the Nazis learned something from their experiments on their victims, is it wrong to use that information?

First of all, no, that’s dumb, knowledge is knowledge, and we aren’t so bloody smart that we can afford to throw any of it away.

Second of all, it’s even dumber because there’s absolutely no way to trust anything the Nazis said about what they were doing.

In this case, though, you have one of the typically dumb, non-scientific premises of psychs, which is that “if we separate twins at birth, we can measure the impact of environment versus hereditary.” Oh, you can, huh? What about the 9 months that the two of them spent in utero? You know, the nine most important months in an organism’s life? Not only is there a huge environmental impact there, it’s different depending on the twin and probably even more exaggeratedly different with a triplet.

It’s D.O.A. It can teach nothing.

The old Jewish lady who apparently internalized Nazism, on the other hand, she had it all figured out: “You haff no free will! Sorry!” And this is always the end game of progressivism: You have no free will, and therefore you need them to control you. You know, like they did with these three guys.

Check it out.

Life, I mean.
It doesn’t always work out for the best.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I was never a fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” (though now more than ever I appreciate the proper use of the possessive apostrophe), a sleepy little TV show that seemed impossibly gentle for its time (from 1968 till August 31, 2001). But over the years, I began to respect Fred Rogers as a genuine man because you only ever heard one thing about him: That he was exactly who he seemed to be on the show.

That, and he was a crack sniper in ‘nam. (He wasn’t.)

Millions of captured hearts.
89 confirmed kills.

But beyond celebrity gossip (Johnny Carson used to marvel how genuine Mr. Rogers was) which is, of course, subject to PR agencies and just run-of-the-mill slander and hagiography, you would also hear over the years from individuals who had run into him with the common theme of: He stopped everything he was doing (including trying to catch a plane) to talk to someone in need. In other words, beyond cultivating a persona of “grownup you can trust and confide in”, he actually lived that life.

There aren’t nearly enough of those stories in this otherwise fine documentary, which traces his beginnings as a minister and his concern over television as a babysitter. I’m phrasing things a lot more harshly than he did: He never says “TV is a babysitter and you all should be ashamed of yourself”. He simply observed that children were being exposed to a lot of television, and that television was very unfriendly toward them.

*shiver*
The only solution: Creepy puppets!

He never says, “The news media promotes chaos and fear because that’s what gives it power.” No, he talks about words children surely heard a lot of, like “assassination” in one of the earliest shows of 1968, and then he repeats his message about the goodness in people, and the trustworthiness.

I found myself objecting to the reality that Mr. Rogers lived in: One where children were set in front of a TV and had to be shown a safe, fake neighborhood with simple rules, basic manners, and small-C christian values; A world where public monies had to be spent to create even that fake neighborhood—and Mr. Rogers, per this documentary, was pivotal to PBS continuing at a time when the Nixon administration might have killed it; A world where his attempts to translate his success with children to success with adults was amazingly unsuccessful; In the end, a world where he was brought out of his retirement to try to address 9/11—something not suited to his overall message.

But I can’t object to how he navigated that world: With sincere and at least locally successfully attempts to make it better.

Somewhere around Day 2.
I, for one, could not have resisted (for 40 years!) marching Godzilla through this neighborhood.

Beyond the stage persona, the documentary shows us the charming behind-the-scenes aspects of his personality. There’s humor (not all of it appropriate for children) and struggle, and a little undercurrent of darkness—though thankfully nothing of the squalor which is de rigueur in these sorts of docs. The closest to anything of that sort is a little vignette of Francois (Officer) Clemmons.

Officer Clemmons is central to the movie’s premise of Mr. Rogers’ significance: In 1968, Mr. Rogers coaxed Clemmons into playing a police officer. In 1968, police officers were not considered too groovy in the black community…which is doubtless why Rogers wanted him to play that role. In 1969, on a hot day in the neighborhood, he invites Clemmons to splash his feet in a kiddie pool with him. These were pretty edgy things for a kid show.

A fabulous singer, Francois Clemmons is also a homosexual, which Mr. Rogers found out about due to certain indiscretions. Obviously, Mr. Rogers couldn’t have an “out” homosexual on the show, so Clemmons stayed in the closet and even had a sham marriage. I couldn’t quite piece this part together, since Clemmons has apparently been “out” since his divorce 1974, and was on the show until 1983 and then re-appeared in 1993.

Much less edgy.
Recreating the scene 25 years later.

I consider three main points when rating documentaries: (1) Is the subject matter worthy or interesting; (2) Was the presentation worthy of the material; (3) What’s the slant? So, on that scale:

  1. Subject matter: Mr. Rogers is a cultural icon to a lot of people. Despite having been in the target audience, I never made it 5 minutes into one of his shows, yet I knew quite a bit about him and the tropes of The Neighborhood. But beyond that, Rogers would’ve been interesting (though much different) if he had been a late night horror host.
  2. Presentation: Fairly minimal. This isn’t a big, stylized production. That’s fine for this topic.
  3. Slant: The movie begins with the irascible King Friday trying to build a big wall to keep all the strangers and modernity out. At the end of the movie, they have a clip of Brian Kilmeade on “The Five” talking about how Mr. Rogers is the problem with society (because he told everyone they were special)! The wall bit is kind of funny. The Fox bit is gross, because in the movie chronology, Mr. Rogers had just died and the Kilmeade quote had to be well over 10 years later.

Kilmeade is wrong, of course: When Mr. Rogers said “you are special”, he meant to him and (probably, though the movie doesn’t say this) to God. The overriding message of the show is service (you to others and others to you), and the relatively mild slant isn’t enough to drag that into mere politics. Still, I would’ve preferred less of this stuff and Clemmons and more of things like Jeff Erlanger, a five-year-old who asked to meet Mr. Rogers before undergoing spinal surgery, and who ended up being on the show a few years later.

I kid!
And who grew up to be Steven Hawking.

Still, I liked it despite not being a fan of the show, kiddie shows, public television or TV generally. My companions ranged from maybe-saw-a-show-once to born-after-Rogers-died, but they also found it worthy.

Glory (1989)

I am not a fan of the Civil War, which I actually found kind of boring, though it was kind of fun to hear The Boy swear for months every time he did a search on “Civil War” and got superhero stuff instead of the military info he was interested in. Dumb Marvel jokes aside, what I’m getting at is that I didn’t see this Matthew Broderick movie when it came out. Glory was part of this month’s “Denzel Washington” theme, but while he may be the main character of the story from a dramatic perspective (more on that later), most screen time is devoted to the young, essentially untried Colonel Shaw who is put in charge of a negro regiment during the War of Northern Aggression.

He can...only do an English accent.
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Elwes?

Edward Zwick was at the height of his “Thirtysomething” success when he directed this, and it fits neatly into his white-guy-teaches-natives-how-to-fight series, along with The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. I’m kidding, of course, though I somehow doubt this story (based on a real guy who did many of the things presented) would be made today.

Basically, Shaw is abolitionist loudmouth who ends up having to lead a troop of free blacks when a significant portion of the command structure wants them to fail. This bizarre situation was a recurring one in American history. Many black men were denied the right to fight in the Revolutionary War, and sometimes were allowed to fight only to return to their lives as slaves afterward. In WWI, the black troops, the men were delayed and delayed and delayed until the war was over. (This is detailed in George Schuyler’s terrific autobiography.)

Though I guess he could play him, if Denzel didn't beat him at the audition.
Pictured: Not George Schuyler

Shaw has to train them, with the help of his initially somewhat less committed pal (Cary Elwes), and they are stymied at every turn, with the army infrastructure denying them shoes, equal pay, and putting them on what is essentially clean-up duty rather than letting them fight. Although he’s occasionally shocked by the social consequences of actually helping blacks, he doesn’t really waver in his support for his men and their potential worth, ultimately proving to believe enough to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This makes him less interesting than Denzel’s character, Trip. He shares a tent with Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, and he is the sort of cynical character you’d expect from a onetime uppity slave. He’s defiant and he’s got the scars to prove it—but he’s also obnoxious as hell. In that sense, his begrudging transformation into someone who finally dares to care about something is the highlight of the film.

Best actor ever?
He’s so darn cool! He’s so darn clever!

The film won three Oscars, including a supporting actor Oscar for Washington. As with a lot of Zwick’s stuff, though, it just feels like entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes think I’m “supposed” to regard it as a more serious work. On the one hand, The Last Samurai was more entertaining, but on the other, Defiance seems less slick and a lot more heart-felt and complex. (To say nothing of way less politically correct.)

But, hey, maybe Zwick just got better over 20 years! Glory was his second feature (after the bowdlerized, forgettable About Last Night…) after all, and it’s a darn good film. We all liked it. The kids, I think, liked it better than they expected to.

God Bless America!
You do feel proud, though.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Dark night…it’s a daaaaark night! Say what you will about the oeuvre of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino—and I got a lot to say about (and probably to) both of them, the use of The Blaster’s “Dark Night” in opening of From Dusk Till Dawn is absolutely pitch-perfect. And the movie itself pulls off one of the only successful mid-movie genre switches in American cinema I can think of. (Asians do it as casually as Americans do training/dress-up montages. I have yet to fully grasp this.)

Like Darth Vader pouring water out in the ocean.
This…makes no sense. But is so perfect.

When I saw this back in ’96, I enjoyed it, but as is often the case with Rodriguez films, I felt that there was a lot of stupidity going on. A lot of things don’t make sense, not just from a plot standpoint, but from a physical universe standpoint. The speeds at which things move does not jibe with the length of time it takes for distances to be crossed. This is typically a verisimilitude breaker for me. And there’s no doubt that the big barroom vampire brawl makes no sense in any known physical realm. But I let it slide 20 years ago, because it was fun.

Now? Well, it mattered even less. It was even more fun. I’m not sure how that’s possible, except that along with skipping more important (to me) aspects of horror movies—like establishing a clear sense of rules so I can understand the peril to the characters—Rodriguez and Tarantino skip all the tedious parts. There’s no reason for any of this. At the end of the film, when George Clooney interrogates Cheech Marin (in his third role of the film) why he picked this bar, he says, “No reason. One place is as good as the next.” The only thing that could pass for exposition is that last shot, panning away from the bar, revealing it to be on a cliffside and the very top of an ancient Aztec pyramid.

Is there a later example of a matte in a major film?
How ya doin’, Matte?

Nice. And that’s the kind of movie this is. It’s sheer EC comic book “Tales from the Crypt” stuff. As such, the imagery is meant to be cool, not logical. And there is a ton of cool imagery.

Don’t expect any depth. George Clooney’s a bad man whose only redeeming qualities are loyalty to his brother and not being a pedophile. His brother is a sexual psychopath, played by Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino wrote the part for himself, presumably, and it includes a scene where he drinks booze off of Salma Hayek’s foot. (Tarantino is somewhere in between Woody Allen and Edward D. Wood, Jr., as far as putting his neuroses on screen.)

Meanwhile, fun fact: Most of these old movies, when they’re put into high-def, you discover all the flaws and shortcuts that were not available in “standard” definition. Seams in set walls, or marks, or just fakeness really pops in high def. And the actors tend to look a lot more ragged as well, too, having been made up for a lower resolution. FD2D gives us our only exception to date.

I think we can.
Can we get this scene in 4K?

Salma Hayek actually looks hotter in high-def, The Flower and I agreed.

Yowza. Anyway, the movie is powered with great performances from B-movie stalwarts like (makeup impresario) Tom Savini (last seen by us in Knightriders), Fred Williamson, and the generally-respected-but-no-stranger-to-B-movies, Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s part is one of those glorious clichés—he’s a fallen priest—that makes no sense, and actually has very little to do with the action as it unfolds, but given the existential nature of the crisis (vampires in Western culture are traditionally set against the Christian tradition, after all) it’s as wonderfully lurid as The Blasters’ electric guitar riff on “daaaaaark night”.

It reminds me a bit of Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, where Hackman’s not just fallen but downright angry at God, to the point where he is yelling at him while sacrificing his own life saving the others. (They’re playing The Poseidon Adventure in December, so I’m excited about taking the kids to see that gloriously bloated B-movie melodrama.)

I guess the point is that it’s a stylish comic book movie with no superheroes and no real pretensions except a desire to be cool and fun that succeeds on exactly that level. That ain’t bad. Our modern superhero flicks could use a lot more of that attitude, to be honest.

We all loved it.

QT can take a powder, too.
Clooney. Clooney! Down in front, man!

Animal World

The Boy and I have for years relied on our local independent theater for movie options when Hollywood has failed us, which was usual enough that said theater was our version of “Cheers” (and we were “Norm”s). And because the theater was Encino, we saw a lot of Israeli films amongst the more traditional European fare, and with a smattering of Persian mixed in. But a couple of years ago, we started venturing into Korean films, which were great, and this year we found a spot for Chinese imports. At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see).

Chinese films are wild. They’re basically the descendants of the chopsockey flicks of the ’70s, and you can still see The Shaw Brothers label on a lot of these films. But what has happened, I’m told, is that the Chicoms have some grasp on the power of cinema, and have been pouring tons of cash into their film industry. The Chinese have the sort of political correctness that results in death when violated, and yet ironically—perhaps because their restrictions are not ours, perhaps also because film makers are given wide latitude—their movies feel a lot freer than ours. (Straight up no permutation of the gloriously racist Detective Chinatown 2 could be made in this country.) And they tend to be highly moral.

And this brings us to Animal World, a delirious adventure into the no-holds barred world of underground Rock Scissors Paper, which ended Jurassic World‘s reign at the Chinese box office.

At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see). While not on that same level of success, Animal World is a delirious adventure into the no-holds-barred world of underground “Rock Scissors Paper”—and it did knock Jurassic World‘s off the #1 spot at the Chinese box office.

A commenter at Ace of Spades HQ, where this was originally posted, pointed out that the Chinese government could just be buying the tickets.

Our story begins with Kaisi, a loser whose job is to dress as a clown so unfortunate children can have their pictures taken with him. Kaisi has a nurse girlfriend he can’t marry (because he has no money), and while this bothers him, he’s basically too preoccupied with fantasies of mass murder to do anything about it. The opening scenes of this movie (after a teaser showing the climactic scene) are peppered with shots of him in a subway car, in full clown makeup, John-Wicking the hell out of monster-people.

Kung-fu Clown!
Insane Posse-less Clown

Other reviews of this movie I’ve read refer to these sequences as “fun” and “highlights”, but since they’re so context-less at first, I found them alienating. Movies that try to get their impetus from the audience having to guess “Is that real? Did that really happen?” sit poorly with me. Fortunately, Animal World leaves the fantasy world behind pretty fast for a possibly more bizarre reality. (The fantasy sequences return at the end, but re-contextualized in a way that was meaningful.)

The story gets moving when, against his better judgment, Kaisi puts his mom’s apartment as collateral for a loan to help his friend out. His mom is comatose in the hospital, and he can barely keep her from being moved out into the hall (socialized medicine FTW). Well, what do you know but that those papers he signed (but didn’t read) actually put him on the hook for his pal’s debt. It will take him his whole life to pay them off.

And this is when Michael Douglas (!) shows up, as Anderson, and offers our hero an out. If Kaisi goes on a secret boat trip with a bunch of fellow losers, he’ll have the chance to not only wipe out his debt, but actually come away rich.

Kirk Douglas' son!
Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband.

After a final, surprisingly long fantasy where Kaisi imagines himself breaking free of his captors—and when I say long, I mean there’s gun play and an elaborate car chase and yet, at this point, we’re well aware that it can’t possibly be real because our hero doesn’t actually do things—he finds himself on the boat named “Destiny” where he must play Rock Scissors Paper to survive.

The rules are simple:

  1. Everyone starts with 4 cards each of Rock, Scissors and Paper, and three coins.
  2. Each game consumes one card from each player. If it’s not a draw, the winner takes a coin from the loser.
  3. To get off the boat alive, you must have three coins, and no cards left.
  4. Coins can be used to buy cards and are worth money (to survivors).
  5. There are no other rules, except no fighting. (What kind of chop-sockey is this?)

A quick murder from Anderson of a player who tries to flush his cards down the toilet, and constant rumors about bizarre experiments in the ship’s “lower hold”, combined with the fact that a certain number of (often highly scarred) people are repeat customers quickly convinces us of the seriousness of the situation.

Kaisi quickly discovers a helpful fellow who points out that if they simply play the same cards at the same time, they’re golden. They simply use all their cards and end up with three coins and no cards. This works at first until the helpful fellow ends up “mistakenly” playing the wrong card. He quickly reassures our hero that he’ll throw the next match to even things out—and of course ends up taking our heroes second coin, leaving him with just one.

Who will betray our hero?
Friends, or at least allies—for a while.

As a real-world dramatization of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, this movie gets real compelling real fast. Anderon’s ship is the titular Animal World: A broken down society where it’s every man for himself. Our hero struggles to survive, first on his own, then with a small group of trusted confederates who figure out how they can use asymmetric info—only to be thwarted by Anderson—and then finally in the only way a civilization can be constructed out of a barbarism: By bringing a kind of law—a law which is fair and does not favor himself—into the chaos.

There are a lot of betrayals and disappointments, and the hero’s lassitude in real life is revealed to be this understanding (or contempt) for “civilization’s” lack of ethics. They are the animals (the monster-people of his clown murder fantasy sequences), and he will not join or encourage their lawlessness. It may be ironic that his solution is the very opposite of the violence he fantasizes about.

Or it may just be a way to stuff some fantasy action scenes into a crime story, I don’t know. We walked away impressed, and very entertained.

Loosely based on the Japanese manga “Tobaku mokushiroku Kaiji” which Google translates into “Gambling Apocalypse disclosure.”

Cavemen had to play rock-rock-rock, which was really boring.
Real life and fantasy blend at the RSP table.

The Accidental Detective 2: In Action

After seeing the smash hit Chinese comedy, Detective Chinatown 2, it was amusing to come across this Korean sequel to Accidental Detective—which we also had no knowledge of, even though it turns out that beyond the title and a general comedy/mystery feel, the two movies have nothing in common.

Is one even needed?
I have no caption for this.

If I can gather the premise of the first movie, Dae-Man is a comic book store owner who’s also a crime enthusiast/wannabe detective, and he crosses paths with the crusty-but-benign police detective Detective Noh during a crime case that the former (with the help of the latter) end up solving. In the opening of this movie, Dae-Man is wandering around the police department and various crime scenes looking for another commendation and making a general nuisance of himself. But unbeknownst to everyone in their lives, the two have started a detective agency. (Notably, they’re lying to their wives, and the secrets don’t stop there..)

But, of course, there’s hardly in crime in Korea, so the two are starving. When it looks like things are going to fall through, a widow comes by (with a fat insurance check) who believes her husband’s death wasn’t accidental.

Good-natured ribbing!
Start out laughing.

The two are off on a chase where a series of seemingly unconnected murders are in fact connected in a rather sinister way. By contrast with the Chinese movie, the comedy is far less broad and slapstick, though there is a comic relief character in the form of a computer hacker named Hopper. When our heroes aren’t abusing him (or vice-versa), they’re trying to keep him away from his share of the money.

Also unlike the Chinese film, we learn a bit about our characters, and they seem to grow a bit through the process, and the fate of our widow is important to our characters (and makes them more heroic to the audience). On the other hand, there’s nothing like the Chinese film’s fantastic special effects—though of course it’s beautifully shot.

We enjoyed it. The Boy thought he might’ve enjoyed it if not more than DC2, then in a different way.

That's from "Mad About You"!
End up crying…