Overlord

One of the parenting tricks I use on going to a movie with a child is to solicit said child’s opinion of the film first, and not offer my own at all unless asked. Sometimes a father’s power is awesome and unwieldy, and the last thing I want to do, even when coming out of something like The Zookeeper, is to impose my taste on my children. The Boy is the only one who picked up on this, in his mid-teens, perhaps because we’ve seen a lot of movies together, and he’ll ask me first before offering his opinion.

"Or is it just paratrooper?"
“Do I have spinach in my teeth?”

When we came out of Overlord, the WWII Nazi Zombie movie he asked:

“What did you think, pappy?” (He seems to think I’m a grizzled old mining prospector, hence the “pappy”.)
“Honestly…I was bored.”
“So, it wasn’t just me!”

Movie criticism (as I often say) is generally someone planting his butt in a chair, having a reaction exactly the way a general audience does, and then back-filling that reaction with “reasons” and “logic”. It’s similar to the way people vote or, honestly, do anything. So what I’m going to do here is explain where we were coming from going into the movie, and then contrast it with two other movies (Die Hard and Rampant) we saw recently to try to explain why we reacted negatively compared to those.

Part 1: Why We Weren’t Going To See It, But Did Anyway, And Were We Right?

I had tried to lure The Boy into seeing this film earlier, but the trailer had set off some warning bells: The story is about a WWII paratrooper crew sent in to destroy a communications tower hidden in a church on the eve of D-Day (hence the title “Overlord”) so that the Allies can offer good air support. But when they get to the small French village where the church is, they find Weird Nazi Science (which doesn’t involve Kelly LeBrock, alas). So far, so good.

But the hero is a black soldier paratrooping in with a bunch of white soldiers and, of course, WWII troops were segregated. This does not necessarily mean anything, but could be a warning sign that the movie was going to prioritize Social Justice Warrior concerns over things like plot, action and talent.

Nah, brother's by the door.
For realism, they have the black paratrooper sitting in the back of the plane.

Another possible warning sign was the jokey “Best Nazi Zombie Movie Ever Made” award. The Barbarienne made that joke followed tragically by the explainer “But how many of those are there?” I informed her I, personally, had seen half a dozen. And, let me tell you, it’s a low bar.  Shock Waves with Peter Cushing and John Carradine, Oasis of the Zombies and Zombie Lake were pretty standard fare on “Pay TV” back in the day. Not too long ago, also, I saw the rather bizarre 1943 (!) film Revenge of the Zombies (also with John Carradine, ha!), which is the first known example of the genre.

Thing is, they basically suck. Some are at least bad enough to wrap around to entertaining again, but most are just typical low-budget zombie grinds, with lots of padding. (They Saved Hitler’s Brain, if we may stretch the definition of the genre, contains a mere five amazing minutes of smirking Adolph’s head in a jar.) Easily the best of the genre to date, Dead Snow, is still about half-padding with typical college-kid cabin-in-the-woods style cavorting up front.

Happilywe were wrong on both counts. There isn’t any SJW stuff in the movie per se. It took me about 40 minutes to get used to Boyce (the very good Jovan Adepo, Fences) being a black dude in a somehow integrated paratrooper outfit, and I was utterly jarred in the first few minutes by Bokeem Wood’s “Sgt. Apone” routine, but the movie signals its tone early on: This is an issue “Weird War Stories” comics.

There also isn’t any padding. Stuff that happens happens for a reason, character or plot development, or atmosphere. It’s also a very good looking movie. At a “modest” $38M, any corners cut are probably to the movie’s benefit, as the Red Letter Media guys point out in their review, restraining excess.

Part 2: Why Didn’t We Like It?

I was gonna make several offensive racial jokes but...
There’s really nothing I can add to this expression.

So, we both went in rooting for this movie. RLM gave it a glowing review, with the hyperbolic Stoklasa claiming that it was the best movie he’d seen in a decade. (Part shtick, of course, but he was quite enthused.) But we just could not get engaged. We ruled out a lot of things that weren’t the problem, like the production values, most of the acting, the (fairly typical) military blunders.

Most of the acting was quite good, as mentioned, but The Boy did not care for Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt). He looked, per The Boy, as though he should be sipping a soy latte while doing a kind of “I’m Batman” voice. (I thought he was okay but, yeah, a little more charisma would have been welcome in that role.)

The tropes in play—squad of Americans hiding out in French village to sabotage the Nazis—are actually kind of charming at this point.  The squad is multicultural mostly in that WWII way: There’s an Italian, a Jew, a ginger, etc., a lot of male camaraderie, which the naive recruit, Boyce isn’t really in on. Newcomer Mathilde Olivier is perfect for the feisty French villager.

The music by Jed Kurzel (Macbeth, The Babadook) manages to rise above the usual Big Action mush, though not often enough, which is no fault of Kurzel’s, I’m sure but the nature of the beast with these modern studio films. The action occasionally wasn’t straight Hollywood, with some of the explosions given a more realistic treatment than the Big-Ball-of-Fire-You-Can-Walk-Away-From.

Ultimately, we were left to compare it with Die Hard. And actually, if we leap sideways from the music, we can see how the “just do it like all the other movies” philosophy robs us of a big part of the moviegoing experience.

Of ... anything.
Pictured: Not a weak point.

But the bigger part seems to be that in Die Hard we’re positively intimate with the bad guys. The bad guys have a plan, and no matter how much John McClane messes with it, Hans Gruber is nearly unflappable in his single-minded pursuit. Every time we see a bad guy, his character is developed as is his role. There’s a finite number of bad guys with finite abilities.

In Overlord, it was much harder to engage. We have two villains you could pick out of a line-up: Big Bad and Mad Scientist. The latter is essentially just a trope who receives no development. The former is developed in the sense of being shown to be evil at every opportunity (which really isn’t that many). Well, we weren’t expecting great drama, and cardboard baddies can be fun. But the bad guys’ role is inchoate. We see a couple of “experiments”, but there’s no real focused end point for them.

That is, we don’t see Mad Scientist struggling to, e.g., find the one element that will make his dreams of an army of atomic supermen (who will show the world that he can be its master), or—really, the bad guys doing anything that has much of a progression.

Dose glasses, tho.
What are his hopes and dreams? Sure, make a race of atomic supermen…but then what?

The good guys have a role, too, but it’s very unfocused. Yeah, they’re supposed to knock out this tower for D-Day, but while we get occasional reminders of that, they’re mostly dithering about in the little French house. It’s all “go look for other survivors” and “go find out where those guys I sent” went. And the movie can’t seem to decide if the village under constant surveillance and full of sympathizers so the heroes have to be very quiet, or they can casually torture a screaming guy for hours.

Our hero accidentally finds himself inside the compound where the church and tower resides, and thus reveals to us the evil nature of the Nazi’s plans. But much like the village, it’s unclear whether this is a highly staffed, well patrolled fortification, or a sparsely populated quasi-goof.

Action stories seem to exist on a scale: At one end are physically logical ones, where the action occupies a well-defined physical space, where well-defined characters move about and do things for well-defined reasons. On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, where physical realities are highly subordinated to narrative needs. How many stormtroopers are there on the Death Star? As many as are needed to pose a threat to the heroes, but not so many as to overwhelm them.

Die Hard tends toward the mechanistic. You know what everyone is doing and why and where, even when it’s dubious (like dropping C4 down the elevator shaft) or irrational (like deviating from the plan out of revenge). On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, like the Korean movie Rampant. They tell you up front that the  plague creating the zombie/vampire/demons takes a variable amount of time to take hold. To the point where, when you reach the climax and the villain embraces the plague and gains power from it, you’d have been disappointed any other resolution.

I think it’s safe to say that the former is a lot harder, especially for collaborative, market-driven spectacles like movies. The danger with the latter however, is that it allows you to cheat, and if the audience senses that you’re cheating, you lose them.

As much as we tried, we felt like the movie was cheating. You have to be quiet/go ahead and fire guns in the house. The nazi captain is escorted to his date by his menacing goons/nobody notices or cares when he’s gone all night. The compound is impenetrable/Except you can get in and out by an ivy overgrown side-gate, or just by accident. The four of us couldn’t possibly take on 40+ Nazi soldiers/Two of us can, though, even when wounded. We don’t know how many baddies there are/We can relax and let our guard down because we achieved our narrative goal. We can’t possibly plant the explosives inside/we don’t have enough to plant the explosives outside.

Each time we tried to buy into what the narrative was selling, it contradicted itself. But the overall production values of the film are quite good, and as noted, the movie doesn’t waste your time.  So we didn’t hate it: We were just bored.

Honestly, I forget what he was looking at.
Here, Boyce re-enacts a scene from “Psycho”. But why?

Die Hard (1988)

“Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.” Although it’s only been about two years since we last saw Die Hard, The Flower opined upon leaving the first showing that she could turn right around and watch it again. Even so, it’s been a fatiguing season for her, and she was seriously thinking about not going to this, the TCM presents of the 30th anniversary. (It’s also the 30th anniversary of MST3K, shockingly enough, though that goes back to its local Minnesota UHF TV days.)

Ho. Ho. Ho.
Best Christmas movie since “Silent Night, Deadly Night”

Despite the running time and the lateness of the hour—all the hours feel late when it’s winter and DST has ended—all of us (including The Boy and His Girl) agreed that this is a movie that rewards you for watching it multiple times. The attention to detail is tremendous. Ben Mankiewicz said in his intro that director John McTiernan wanted to keep an undercurrent of joy in the proceedings, and that intention is probably the key element behind this film’s success.

The sheer moments of fun—punctuated by Michael Kamen’s little woodwind flourishes—means the movie is never in danger of making serious commentary or bowing to the gods of realism. The references to Roy Rogers movies, like McClane’s vulgar reiteration of “yippe-ki-yay”, assumes the sort of simplified world that makes for fun action movies. The bad guys are bad. They’re somehow worse, perhaps, for being mere thieves (rather than terrorists), because their only motivation is greed. They haven’t even the fig leaf of idealism.

Mars Bar and Nestle's Crunch that we see but the wrappers!
This guy eats so much candy.

At the same time, they don’t seem like bad guys to hang out with. (Well, the German dudes are a little intense.) This may seem odd, but since you are actually spending over two hours with these guys, you really want to root against them while not being repulsed. The big flaw with Steven Seagal’s Die-Hard-On-A-Boat (aka Under Siege, one of the better DH clones) is that Tommy Lee Jones is so charismatic relative to Seagal, that you end up practically rooting for Jones. And with most other DH clones, the baddies are as interchangeable as Empire storm troopers.

Besides the cornier aspects of the various character arcs, such as Reginald VelJohnson’s hoplophobia and the McClane’s family reunification (nullified by subsequent sequels, starting with 3, I think), McClane’s own character arc is kind of impressive. He begins as a cop (probably a maverick who doesn’t play by the book but gets the job done) with all due restraint on killing the baddies, and by the end he’s yelling at Karl “I’m gonna kill ya! And I’m gonna eat ya!”

Heh.
The movie’s shocking black-on-black violence.

The zeitgeist of the time is crystallized in this movie: 77 cent gas. Big hair. Cocaine. Terrorism. Stupid, ambitious newshounds. Glib, self-important FBI agents. Stalwart workaday cops and their clueless bosses. Japanese conglomerates taking over the US. Time magazine. 60 minutes. Stockholm syndrome. Empowered career women. Smarmy business guy. Wealth. Using computers to do…whatever. Ooh, black computer nerds. (That was a big ’80s thing that nobody so much as mentioned, which made  it ridiculously better than the virtue signalling that goes on today.)

Maybe the thing here is that it is unselfconsciously itself. It is un-woke, if “woke” means (as it seems to) “introverting on every thing you do or say to make sure nothing ever offends anyone”. “Woke” is the antithesis of joy. And this movie is joyful.

Nobody regretted going to see it again.

Robert Davi!
Special Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson. (No relation.)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The annual Halloween double-feature tradition this year was a showing of The Invisible Man and this movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Universal sort of played this up with their recent attempts to revive their classic franchises, but their FrankensteinDraculaThe Invisible Man and The Wolf Man were the basis of the first “cinematic universe”. Which is to say, after they’d mined all the gold out of the originals and their sequels, they started doing crossovers. Frankenstein met the Wolf Man, and Dracula met Frankenstein, and they all lived in their various houses (i.e., House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula—though we never got a Doghouse of Wolf Man).

The screen wasn't big enough to hold them!
I don’t think Dracula, the Monster, and the Wolf Man appear in the same shot together—only in some stills.

This film features the original Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.), and the second Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) after Boris Karloff hung up his platform boots and neck bolts in 1939 after Son of Frankenstein. Sort of amusingly, Lugosi played The Monster and Ygor at various times, while Chaney had a turn at being the Monster, Dracula and The Mummy.

Point is, after about 15 years, the universe was played out, and here, it’s played for laughs—sorta, which is why this movie holds up pretty well after 70 years.

In this—the final outing for all three (except for a few TV shows) in their iconic roles, and the end of Universal’s dominance before the era of Hammer—Lyle Talbot phones a hotel from London to warn the baggage office not to deliver two crates to the nearby House of Horrors. And who should be managing the baggage office? Ya bois, Chick and Wilbur (Abbot and Costello, respectively).

Bullied by the horror house owner and besotted by Wilbur’s suspiciously hot and smart girlfriend, Sandra, the two end up making the delivery anyway where Wilbur (and only Wilbur, natch) witnesses the contents of the two crates (Dracula and Frankenstein) as they escape. The insurance company sends an investigator along in the form of Joan Raymond (the lovely Jane Randolph, last seen in the previous year’s double-feature as the foil in Cat People) who figures Chick and Wilbur for the culprits. Her plan? Seduce the pudgy Wilbur into telling her where the boxes went.

I think this must be a still. I don't remember it from the movie.
Wilbur’s girl is only interested in his mind.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Austro-Hungarian actress Lenore Aubert, who would return for the semi-sequel Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff) is actually in league with Dracula, who wants to revive The Monster using a more tractable brain, thus explaining her attraction to Wilbur.

Abbot and Costello are good here, funny and fun to watch, but they’re respectful to the various monsters and give them their due and the atmosphere is still there for the spookier parts. This approach makes sense, really: If the monsters are clowning around, you don’t have a chance to sympathize with the plight of our heroes. But Chaney, Lugosi and Strange are doing their traditional bits (except for one funny moment where The Monster sees Chick for the first time and recoils in horror) and that works well with A&C’s bits.

It does defy belief.
Abbot can’t understand Costello’s animal magnetism.

The whole thing would give way to the more science-fiction-y horror of the ’50s, and the slow moving (Lugosi is 66 by this time!) creatures seem less menacing than you would hope. Overall, this is still a good watch. The Flower, expecting something more akin to The Stooges, was pleasantly surprised by the (relative) subtlety. The Boy was also very entertained.

That’s almost as remarkable for a 70 year old comedy as it is to be won over by a 70 year old horror.

Atmosphere!
The boys do a lot of reading by candlelight, even though there’s an electric lamp not 10 feet behind them.

WarGames (1983)

The Flower bowed out of this one and we’re probably all be taking a pass on next week’s showing of Tron, but while I liked WarGames at the time, I’ve never had any inclination to see it again. I told the kids, “Well, it’s a fine movie from 1983.” And, yes, that’s what it is. It’s fine. I cannot make the same claim of Tron, which was boring at the time despite the effects, and I think practically unbearable today, where WarGames has a certain quaint charm going for it.

No helmets!
I will refrain from posting nothing but images of Ally Sheedy.

“Fine” was good enough for The Boy, though, so we rolled out to see it and I had the same thoughts now as I did 35 years ago: “Gosh, Ally Sheedy is cute in this.” Yeah, I never got all the Ringwald love, frankly, but Sheedy was in far fewer Brat Pack movies (and outside of the Hughes films, I didn’t see that many of those) and after Breakfast Club and Short Circuit I didn’t see much of her until she appeared on the ’80s-obsessed TV show “Psych” as a serial killer. (And I still liked her better than Molly Ringwald, who was also on that show in a much smaller role.)

But my peccadilloes and Sheedy’s pulchritude aside, this movie is just a competent John Badham action flick powered at the time by a kind riding the contemporary trends (unlike the recently reviewed Krull, e.g.) and now struggles along on nostalgia power.

The plot is that computer hacker David Lightman hacks into the Defense Department computer containing the WOPR super-computer (about equivalent to an iPhone 2) which has recently been put in charge of the nuclear arsenal. David starts a game of “Global Thermonuclear War” with it, but WOPR is playing for real. (For you kids out there, 35 years ago, the narcissistic showbiz cowboy who was going to destroy the world with nuclear war was Ronald Reagan. After that, of course, it was George H.W. Bush, then George W. Bush, and finally Trump. )

The High Life
8″ floppies and Rubik’s cube next to your 300 baud modem.

Anyway, David is captured by the Federales whom he easily evades with his super-hacker skills, then flees to find the creator of the program running the WOPR, a professor Falken. (Falken was designed with John Lennon in mind, apparently, and actor John Wood is sort of doing a John Lennon impression in this role. Not laying it on thick, but with a similar cadence and expression.)

Girlfriend Jennifer joins David on his road trip because Ally Sheedy is really cute and it allows the budding romance between David and Jennifer (how classic Americana are those names, btw?) to flower in the midst of an impending apocalypse.

Now, this is the first mistaken impression I had. I would’ve sworn David Warner played Falken. The second mistaken impression I had is that when Falken gives his, “We’re better off dead” speech, Jennifer responds with “I’m only seventeen. I don’t want to die yet. I haven’t even made love.” I remember that line so clearly (even more than the Warner thing) because it was so cringe-worthy, but I can find no evidence to back it up. (It may have come from yet-another-teen-apocalypse movie, but I don’t know which.)

Right on.
Power To The People! 👏!👏!

Anyway, they fly back to the defense base to try to save the day by teaching the computer the lesson that humans Just Don’t Seem To Learn: The only way to win a global nuclear conflict is Not To Play.

I guess that couldn’t possibly have been the point of Mutually Assured Destruction: Convince everyone that it wasn’t a game worth playing.

The Old Man enjoyed the film all right, though he considered it preposterous, and he was not wrong. The Boy found the absurdity pronounced, and you do have to go back to a popular ’80s understanding of how things worked to suspend your disbelief here. You also have to believe that ’80s school systems were plugged into computers that were just sitting around with modems waiting for calls, which is just slightly less probable than being able to call into a secure Defense computer.

There are some good nostalgia points:

  • Phone booths
  • Pop caps as litter!
  • Leg Warmers
  • 8″ floppies
  • Hi-resolution graphics (black-and-white, 320×200)
  • David riding behind Jennifer on her moped, no helmets
  • Gratuitous Eddie Deezen and Maury Chakin
  • A flight for two to Paris? $1,250, not adjusted for inflation
  • 300 baud modems

But overall, the movie is just…fine. Good supporting actors with Barry Corbin, Michal Ensign, Dabney Coleman, and William Bogert and Susan Davis as the clueless parents.

Or something.
We’re intensely looking intently at something intense with mal-intent…

The late Arthur Rubinstein, a frequent Badham collaborator, gives us a score that is very hit-and-miss—more hits than misses, fortunately, though the opening is interesting. The movie begins with a very intense scene: Two soldiers are starting their day’s work in their missile silo when the command to launch comes in. The older one (played by John Spencer) can’t do it, and hesitates enough to where the younger one (Michael Madsen, I think, but he’s so  young I barely recognize him!) threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t.

And! Cut to credits!

And a jaunty military theme that would be perfectly at home in Stripes! It was so bizarre. Almost like they felt they were getting to serious, so the backed out into kind of a Young Adult theme. (This really is a Young Adult movie. It’s very earnest but never very serious.)

Later, the score goes into a pure ’80s electronic mode…and that holds up surprisingly well. So I’m sort of inclined to think the musical misfires were more Badham or a nervous producer.

I think I mentioned the movie is: fine. The Boy said he was a little disappointed. That it was fine but he was expecting something more noteworthy. I had, however, warned him. This is probably while we’ll skip Tron.

About 1,000,000 dollars today.
Glorious high-resolution graphics for only $2,500 Reagan funbux!

Rifftrax: Krull

If had little to say about Space Mutiny, I probably have even less to say about Krull, the 1983 “classic” fantasy picture that allegedly escaped lawsuits from TSR Games (the makers of D&D) by tacking on an utterly pointless and disjointed sci-fi front end.

But “pointless” and “disjointed” typify this film. At some points, it’s sort of startling how high-budget it (apparently) was. Some of the sets are ingenious and fairly amazing, if they never quite escape the feeling of being sets. The principle characters, played by Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony, are as beautiful as they are forgettable. (And I don’t think it’s really their fault.)

No, I'm good.
Should you…put some water on that?

There’s something that’s pointed out by the riffers (Rifftrax and MST3K, alike), and that’s that they don’t do very many comedies, because there are only so many ways to say “This isn’t very funny.” With Krull, the problem seems to be similar. There only so many ways to say “What we are seeing doesn’t make any sense relative to what we’ve just heard, or what we’ve learned to this point.”

Not to say this wasn’t a funny riff, but like a lot of the bigger budget films, there’s almost an undercurrent of sadness here. People of reasonable competence (director Yates directed Bullitt, for example) get together to make a film that should be relatively easy: a competent fantasy/adventure film that cashes in on a number of contemporary trends. Marshall went on to be annoying in “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” before retiring, but Anthony seems to have had a lot of success, and much of her lack of appeal here may have been due to her voice being dubbed by Lindsay Crouse. Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson appear here as well, to no avail. Coltrane also has his voice dubbed!

What's up with that eye?
For all their virtues, practical effects never could make a could cyclops.

You know what it is? The film feels like it went from “safe” to “cowardly”, perhaps because it was so expensive to make.

“What if people don’t like the English chick’s voice?”

“No problem, we’ll dub her with someone from New York!”

The costumes appear to have been made without any respect for the action, and most of the villains stumble around unconvincingly. There’s swordplay but also ample laser-firing-weapons. Some of the best effects are hidden with photography tricks that do not help, probably, though the film hits the “bad effect” bar multiple times.

It’s a mess. The riff was funny though I don’t remember a lot of stand outs 3 months later. There’s a funny bit where the guy fetches his “glaive” from the fiery-hot-pool-of-death with no ill effects! And the large battle scenes are comically punctuated. And some other moments underscoring how little chemistry the leads have.

I don’t know. It was good, but given how much it probably cost them to put this together, I land on the MST3K side of “cheap and cheesy is better”.

I will elude you, and I will out-act you.
“Hey, get this guy! He says he has ‘a very particular set of skills’!”

Dark Figure of Crime

After Rampant, we checked the time for the (now working) crime drama, Dark Figure of Crime and we had just enough time to catch it (after a very hastened lunch of noodles) and—well, it’s completely different from Rampant, that’s for sure. It’s actually a kind of low-key film that sorta sneaks up on you with its based-on-a-true story.

Hyung-min (Yoon-Seok Kim of 1987: When The Day Comes) is a vice detective trying to get some information out of his unstable and creepy informer Tae-oh (Ji-hoon Ju, the male companion of the underworld guide in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days and its sequel, as well as The Spy Gone North), when Tae-oh is suddenly confronted and captured by Homicide. Turns out, he killed his girlfriend.

Hell of a thing. And it’s made worse by a clever legal trick resulting in a sentence of only 15 years.

Crazy. Like a crazy fox.
You can just look at the bad guy and know he’s trouble.

But wait, Tae-oh says he’s actually killed a lot of people. Six others. And he’ll tell Hyung-min where they are, in exchange for a few niceties. Hyung-min is suspicious, but since he knows Tae-oh is crazy and not especially bright, he figures its worth it to bribe him into cooperating.

Tae-oh, while not that bright, is rather cunning and spends a lot of time in jail studying law books. He gives Hyung-min enough information to convince him that he’s telling the truth, but a lot of that information is just slightly off, leading to a series of embarrassments for the detective, who has himself transferred to Homicide to pursue these cold cases.

This is another funny Korean trope, as seen in The Negotiation and many others: If you’re a bureaucrat—and the police essentially are—you’re expected to do things that keep your statistics up, while nobody cares about cold cases. At points, Tae-oh’s data is vague enough or wrong enough to utterly humiliate Hyung-min, and it appears like what he’s trying to do is discredit the entire investigation to get off on the one murder charge he’s been convicted of.

Weird.
He negotiates for glasses that turn dark in the sun.

Hyung-min is a “rich-enough” guy. He doesn’t need to be a cop, and this comes up a lot. He has to choose between silently letting the case go, or doing what he thinks is right even at the cost of his dream which, as it turns out, is being a cop. Nobody cares, as has been pointed out, and he has the chance to resolve issues for a lot of people missing loved ones. This haunts him and gives his character depth. Kim plays the part very low-key and for the most part, its the character’s actions which speak, and the emotion that escapes tends to carry some heft.

Ji-hoon Ju plays his character more broadly, as he must, but even there we’re not sure what’s going on. He’s crazy, he’s dumb, he’s cunning, he’s energetic, he’s capricious. He’s not without a depth, but he’s a far cry from a movie villain, like a Hannibal Lechter (though this movie is not without parallels to Silence of the Lambs).

The Boy was inclined to like this one less than Rampant, at least at first. It doesn’t bowl you over, but it does stay with you. You think about it. You reflect on it. The characters’ motivations really do feel strongly informed by real life, and there’s a weird kind of chemistry in the principle’s cat-and-mouse game, which flips back and forth enough to feel less cartoony than, say, Silence.

He came back three or four times to tell me he’d revised his opinion upward, and I tend to agree. It’s a different film that doesn’t rely on a lot of traditional movie tropes. It’s not spectacular, and the suspense is rather organic to larger issues (will the police find a body before someone pulls the plug?). But as I say, you can’t rightly complain about things being the same all the time and then bitch about it when you get something different.

Worth a watch, definitely.

Heh.
Can anyone here read Korean? I have no idea what I wrote.

Rampant

We were once again off to Koreatown, as The Boy truly loves him some Korean films, and was indeed disappointed that there were only two features on today’s docket instead of the preferred three. The first feature was Dark Figure of Crime, but the film broke.

No, of course not. Film doesn’t break any more because there’s no film. But there are projectors. And I think they’re basically just computers, and computers break all the freaking time. That’s progress!

Fortunately, we primarily had gone to see Rampant, and the film started about the time we were realizing DFoC wasn’t happening, so we did the ticket-exchange-dance and sat down in our assigned seating (D9, D10, as always) to watch this vampire/demon/zombie invasion flick that takes place in Joseon dynasty in Korea (as all things must, apparently).

It will not surprise you when I inform you that the culprit behind all the mayhem caused by the rampaging demons is corrupt and/or incompetent bureaucrats.

Shocked, shocked I am to find incompetence here.
My shocked face!

I guess this is what you do when you don’t have Indian Burial Grounds to blame.

There’s as much courtly intrigue in this film as there is zombies. In fact, the courtly intrigue dominates the first half of the film. The Crown Prince is murdered (as they must be, apparently) but he sends for his ne’er-do-well little brother (living the good life in China) to collect his pregnant wife and save her by carrying her off to that magical land.

When he arrives in a small outlying town (a literal boat-full of Chinese ladies weeping in his wake), he and his comic sidekick discover that it’s empty. There’s been a rebellion, according to the posters, but the absence of anyone at all speaks of something more sinister. While working it out, a group of assassins (sent by the adviser who killed the Crown Prince) arrives to “escort” him.

The ensuing battle is interrupted when one of the combatants is bitten by a demon. The so-called rebels emerge to save the day, driving off the assassins and monsters. The remaining townspeople, as it turns out, are in hiding. Their infected—those bitten by the demons—are kept in jail cells in the hopes of figuring out how to cure them. They need reinforcements, but the town is being quarantined because of the “plague”, so only the young Prince can get through to the capital.

The bikini line?
Lee Sun Bin delivers arrows to the sensitive areas.

But when he gets there, the demons are only part of the problem. The true monster, “Twilight Zone”-style, is man.

Heh. They can’t do that as a twist in a Korean movie, because it’s every Korean movie. Especially, if by “man” you mean “power hungry corrupt politician sacrificing the country for his personal gain”.

As a plot device, the movie treats its monsters rather loosey-goosey. The demons propagate by biting, like zombies, drink blood and are destroyed by the sun, like vampires. The movie lampshades the trope of “it can take as little or as much time as the plot requires” for a bitten human to turn, and this attitude, writ large, is sort of what buoys the film through a lot of the vagaries plaguing (heh) similar films.

But it doesn't always end well.
The comic sidekick is always the first to spot the monster.

That is to say: Much like The Great Battle, the story being told is metaphorical. Not allegorical, where everything maps to an exact historical parallel, but poetically, so that when the villain is (ironically, necessarily) bitten and sort of half-turns, it seems to work, as does the hero’s increasing martial prowess and the rank-and-file demons’ increasing relative destructibility and lack of focus.

We liked it. The character arc of “reluctant prince” is a familiar one by this point, but it was very well done here, with Hyun Bin (the antagonist of The Negotiation) convincingly reluctant to assume anything like power or responsibility for the Korea that seems destined to fall into his hands.  Much like his comic sidekick, he balances on the likability line, where you’re put off by the indifference (or whining in the case of the sidekick), but always seems to do the right thing—even if it’s at the last possible moment.

The cathartic ending where the prince realizes that Korea sucks because Korean politicians suck, and that the people themselves could make it a great place, is brief but (as always) heart-warmingly patriotic. Check it out, fans of Joeson Zombie flicks.

You do? OK, I'll put it in someone else.
Mind if I keep my sword there?

Rifftrax: Space Mutiny

The fourth and final ticket stub for 2018 the Flower and I came across—so far—was for Rifftrax: Space Mutiny, the first of (only two!) Rifftrax live shows of the year. Though, even now as I type this I realilzed, I never reviewed Krull (August 23rd) either.

No shoes, no shirt, no problem.
In space, no one notices if you forget to wear pants, apparently.

For Rifftrax, it’s easy to understand why I forget: There’s only so much you can say about it. There’s the movie, then there’s the riffs. The movies are typically spectacularly bad, although sometimes just unfairly maligned. (Not that a movie has to be bad or unlovable to be riffed.)

But when you write about the movie, you’re kind of missing the point of the riffing, and the riffing itself is (it seems to me) to be highly subjective. I laughed the hardest I can remember—to where breathing might have become an issue—on the Mexican Santa Claus, but on Godzilla I was just sort of depressed. I mean, not that I didn’t have fun, just that the movie itself is kind of depressing to me.

Wut
Cameron Mitchell had to be resuscitated on set by a passing Carly Simon.

I laughed hard as can be on Reptilicus and on Eegah (which I didn’t review) for the Watch Out For Snakes MST3K tour and found myself curiously detached from the second feature, a seriously goofy superhero movie on the level of Pumaman. So, I just don’t know: It seems unlikey to me that the riffs themselves vary as much in quality as my experience of them would suggest.

As “intimate” as this blog is, that’s probably even more useless and less interesting than my usual ramblings.

In this case we have the made-infamous-by-MST3K Space Mutiny featuring Reb Brown and his longtime wife Cisse Cameron, wherein the lighting and makeup on her is so bad, a running gag is how much she looks like (the 5-6 years older) Brown’s mom. Spectacularly bad production mistakes (as when the windows outside the ship were “color-corrected” so it looks like a bright summer’s day) combine with traditional low-budget errors (continuity has a character being murdered in one scene and immediately re-appearing the next) to make a difficult-to-watch film.

Like they looted a "Spencer's Gifts".
I’m not joking about the plasma balls.

The whole thing was padded out after the fact with space witches aerobicizing in leotards around one those plasma balls that were so popular in the ’80s.

The riffs were good, although (despite their best efforts), the boys didn’t match the inspired lunacy of “the many names of Dave Ryder” from the original, where they riff endlessly on alternate names for Reb Brown’s character.

We liked it, though. Given what appears to be a decreasing output over the past few years, I wonder if they’re phasing out the live shows, due to fatigue or lack of profitability.

There's a mutiny for your love....IN SPACE!
Cute couple, though.

Insidious: The Last Key

Update: I wrote this because it looked to me like I hadn’t reviewed it when I first saw it, and I came across the ticket stub. (Funny because I was sure I had reviewed it, but I often seem to mis-remember.) Turns out I had reviewed it, back at the time—I had mis-spelled it however, so it didn’t turn up in a search. Anyway, looks like my memory of it, while less sharp after 10 months, didn’t change radically.

The Boy and I have liked all the Insidious movies, despite their uneven reception generally, on a couple of bases. We like, for example, the attempt to do something a little different, and there isn’t another horror series around today that exploits the concept of an astral plane. We like also, the story and character development that Insidious trades on. It tends to be less about jump scares than peril to the heroes or the people they’re trying to help. The heroes are Specs and Tucker (series writer Leigh Whannell and the goofy, and doughy—for this role—Angus Sampson), who are reasonably competent at what can charitably be described as a difficult job (Ghosbusters!).

And of course, Elie Rainier (Lin Shaye), who plays the person who most often pays the psychic price for fighting demonic forces. Quick! Name another horror series centered around a 75-year-old woman!

"She's right in front of me, isn't she..."
“She’s right behind me, isn’t she…”

You can’t. ’cause there isn’t one. (Jamie Lee Curtis is only 60. But nice try.)

In this installment, our paranormal investigators are in a small ghost town where a man has sunk his life savings into a nice, but tragically haunted house. He calls on Elie, who is troubled with nightmares about her own past, and she finds herself investigating her childhood home. OooOOOOOooohhh!

Heh.

It turns out that her childhood was not a bowl of cherries. Her father was abusive in the extreme, and she fled home at a young age after her mother died, leaving behind her little brother (Bruce Davison). Things turn darker, and then darker still, as nothing is as it seems to be, and the old hauntings come back to terrorize her and her cute nieces, Imogen and Melissa, one of whom—and I forget which because I saw this back in January and it’s Halloween! ’cause this is one of those movies I forgot to review—is sensitive much like Elise is.

Ghosts usually are.
Elise with her mother. (It’s complicated.)

I won’t comment on the girls’ acting abilities—not because they’re bad, but because, in her ’70s, Lin Shaye has more expression in her face than either of these lovely girls will be able to manage for some time. I bring this up because I was worried that we were being set up for a continuation of the series with one of the younger girls in place of Lin Shaye, which I think would be the death knell for the series. But moviegoers rewarded this with an above-average box office for the series, so maybe not.

This movie has the worst Rotten Tomatoes critic reviews of the series by far, though about the same audience review, and that’s probably right: It’s more or less like the others in the series. I feel like they do a good job of keeping things fresh, so that you don’t feel like you’re seeing the same movie over and over again, and this movie has a tremendous amount of plain old material plane threat. This one leans heavily on Shaye, and to good effect as mentioned. The astral plane stuff is a difficult thing to pull off, and I think one that a substantial portion of the audience rejects outright, but as I say, The Boy and I like it.

If you like the others in the series, there’s no reason to believe you won’t like this one. If you don’t, well, this probably isn’t going to change your mind.

It's a pun. Get it?
But it might open your heart.

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale is the most feted of the monster movie directors, even getting a movie about his life (or the end of it) with the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, and this is probably deserved (though Tod Browning of Dracula and Freaks is certainly a contender). And he’s certainly the most successful early director to mix comedy and horror, as with Bride of Frankenstein and this movie, The Invisible Man.

Who's there? Who knows!
Classic entrance.

The Invisible Man opens on an English Inn/Pub where a bunch of rowdies are having a good time. In from the snow barges a man, all wrapped in bandages and wearing dark glasses, demanding a room. It’s a boss entrance, right there, and one of the best moments of the classic Universal horror pantheon. The irascible Griffith holes up in a room at the Lionhead Inn trying to “find his way back”, by which we of course learn he means, “Find his way back to being visible.”

The nosey and parochial villagers won’t leave him be and he snaps, revealing himself to be not just invisible but quite unhinged. He decides to embrace his invisibility, which apparently means conquering the world!

The sentence works no matter how you parse it.
The Invisible man loses his head. Everyone loses his head.

I’ve written about this one extensively in the past: Going back to ancient Greece and the ring of Gyges, invisibility as meant something akin to unlimited power (as seen in the Lord of the Rings, e.g.) which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you realize it’s not literal invisibility, but the ability to escape consequences for any action. (In a shame-based culture, if no one sees you do it, no shame can come from it.)

Here, however, the invisibility is literal and even 85 years later, pretty good to look at. You can see the edges of course: Some of the composites don’t work well, and some blue-screen magic (it was blue back then, I think, not green) clearly indicates a thing-you-can’t-see-but-is-still-blocking-your-vision, and a little of the wire work is unnatural or obvious (like the lines steering the bicycle).

But still it’s pretty amazing how much works. Probably the thing most hurt by the old technology was the mono-recording. A good sound designer could’ve made Claude Raines’ voice seem more integrated into the scene.

It's not that funny.
The Invisible Man rides a bike. (“The Invisible Man [whatevers]” being a standard set up for jokes since 1933.
Whale’s comedy plays out big as everyone has ideas of how to catch Griffin, but nobody actually wants to get near him or incur his wrath. The Boy felt this aspect of the movie was rather realistic. The comedy bits come sharply into relief as Griffin grows more mad and more murderous, at one point derailing a train for the fun of it.

Trying to save him is the heroine (’30s starlet Gloria Stuart, whose last days were boosted by her Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic) and her father, Griffin’s employer, played by Henry Travers (Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life). These parts are well done, as is Griffin’s rivalry with the wormy William Harrigan, and keep a nice mix between the near-Keystone level of the attempts to catch Griffin and the melodrama of a scientist who “meddled where he shouldn’t have”.

That'll show ya!
Just for that I’m throwing your priceless family heirloom into the ocean.

It may be the best of the classic Universal monster movies. The Boy enjoyed it, though he felt it needed more suspense. At the same time, he allowed as how you came into the movie expecting some invisible man action so there’s no reason to delay that. The Flower was not impressed. Although she liked both films (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein more than this) she found herself restless and didn’t think she’d want to see them again.

At 70 minutes, though, that’s not a ringing endorsement.

Dirty Harry is The Invisible Man!
Had it been America, they could’ve just blasted the crap out of the barn, “The Gauntlet” style.

Lady Bird

The second stub we came across was from early in the year, when we were still seeing the Oscar detritus, and The Boy and I had put this in our “Well, we kinda want to see it, but not today” category, which is where movies go to die. But I’d heard consistently good things about it, and even though my Greta Gerwig tolerance levels are low. I thought she might be more tolerable behind the camera. And I think this is probably true.

Girls in school uniforms never looked so unappealing.
Yeah, this about sums up our sense of enthusiasm.

Lady Bird is essentially the prequel to Frances Ha, where a quirky bohemian high school girl rebels against her mom and high school in the sort of highly unfocused way which is probably truer to life than, say, Rebel Without A Cause. She makes a lot of stupid, naive choices, including losing her virginity to a teenage boy who (shock of shocks) lies a lot to get in her pants. Her dad is a depressive with a lot of career issues, so she pretends to have more money than she actually does in order to become popular.

It’s pretty standard stuff, really, which fares better than usual at first because Saoirse Ronan is much more appealing than Greta Gerwig, but in the end because Gerwig, at 35, has a lot more empathy for her mother than she might have 10 years ago. And, really, this is a mother/daughter story, so while the rest of the cast and story is fine to good, there’s a reason Laurie Metcalf got an Oscar nomination.

How many car arguments between mothers and daughters?
I feel like there’s a lot of truth in this one shot.

The glib, hipster mannerisms of Gerwig—which, to be fair, she’s always been good at lampshading for their inherent contradictions and superficiality—are given the right amount of weight here. That is to say, not too much, but not none. Lady Bird is rebellious, daring to question nuns on the topic of abortion (in a wince-inducing scene), but also (as noted previously) prone to thinking that she’s too smart to fall for the same tricks smart people have been falling for forever.

Her mother Marion, while not entirely supportive (to say the least), is dealing with real issues of keeping everyone alive and fed while her husband works through whatever his issues are, and her daughter rejects her wisdom. But she doesn’t deal well with Lady Bird, tending toward not just over-protective but frequently downright shrewish.

In the end, we get a decent resolution, where Lady Bird returns to her given name (I forget what) and heads off to live her dream in New York. Of course, the details of Frances Ha lead one to believe she hadn’t really learned much by that time, but que será, será .

It’s a good little movie, though I’m not sure it’s five-Oscar-nominations good. It was better than we expected, for sure.

What a pitch-man.
“You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

The 15:17 To Paris

Inevitably, I miss a few reviews. Actually, I think I miss more than a few if my recent dig through movie stubs (and the history feature of late, lamented Moviepass app) is any indication. So far I’ve found four movies this year I overlooked, including this Eastwood picture from early March, based on the true events of the train to Paris where a terrorist was stopped by three American men, including two servicemen on leave.

Gimme a break, it's been 9 months.
Service man #1 as himself!

It was not a big hit (though $56M worldwide on a $30M budget is not a disaster), has poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and is listed as his worst film (by a far margin, below the very disappointing Firefox) on IMDB. The Boy, The Flower and I all liked it, however, while noting that even with a 90 minute runtime, it drags in the beginning. I don’t think we were bothered by the soldiers playing themselves—I think we rather liked the nearly documentary feel of those aspects—and I really got a sense (I think) of what Eastwood was trying to do.

The 15:17 To Paris is an attempt to show what makes a hero. This is the sort of thing Eastwood has been playing at his whole life (though he’s usually in the anti-hero camp), and much like with (the more fictionalized) Sully, he’s giving us a picture of the ordinariness of heroes, mixed in with just a few things that may have made all the difference.

Over there, they'll make you regret that you ever saved their asses in World War II.
America: Saving Frenchmen’s asses since 1918.

Since I saw this eight months ago, you’ll have to forgive the lack of detail on some points, but what I recall is that two of the boys moms were also close growing up, and one had to constantly fight to keep her kid off one of the many psychiatric drugs they force on schoolchildren these days. “My God is bigger than your statistics,” she tells the well-meaning bureaucrat who wants to zombify her son.

I think this boy is also the one who’s really, really into guns. (The Boy himself is into all sorts of weaponry, so I could relate here.) It reminds me that we just saw Friday the 13th, and the most shocking part is when Adrienne King runs into one of the cabins and it’s full of rifles. Because even in 1980, you could find summer camps where guns were plentiful.

It's not a great plan.
Most people go with the statistics and put their kids on drugs.

It’s not a portrayal you get much.

Anyway, single moms, sometimes troubled kids, patriotism, U.S. military, all coming together to remind the world that there is a thing called American Exceptionalism. This could’ve been Citizen Kane and it would’ve been trashed. As it is, the middle section, leading up to the fateful moment, drags (as mentioned previously), and is a place where the documentary style sort of lets the audience down.

The payoff is good, of course, but very low-key and documentary as well. As I said, we liked it, but its low-key and plain style doesn’t always work.