The Mule

One could uncharitably observe that Clint Eastwood’s latest movie has high-60s scores on RT—the cinematic equivalent of a “golf clap”—but as I like to ask my parents, “Well, hey, where’s your movie?” I mean, the guy is 88 1/2 (and you get to start counting half-years again at that age) and he still makes better movies than most. I would say it’s in my top 10 of new American films for the year but that’s a kind of backhanded compliment, since I sure didn’t see a lot of new American films.

Do you feel lucky, punk?
This is the kind of guy you don’t give a backhanded compliment to in person.

And what’s interesting and really good about this movie is that Clint is playing a character much like his others, but taking it in a new direction. Once again, Clint plays an old man with a lot of regrets. In this case, a man named Earl, who is a kind of bon vivant man-about-town winning all kinds of awards for how awesome his flowers are—yes, you read that right—while giving his family serious short-shrift. After an opening set-up where Earl doesn’t show up for the wedding of his daughter (played by real daughter Allison Eastwood), flash-forward 12 years to the now 90-year-old gardener losing his flower farm (to Internet-savvy flower providers) and having nowhere to go. With his granddaughter (presumably from an earlier marriage of his daughter’s—lotta missing men in this movie) now the one about to get married.

Well, he ends up muling because what could be less suspicious than a 90-year-old hauling pecans? He starts hesitantly, of course, but when he gets the money from these runs, things start to turn around for him. He gets a new truck. He’s maybe going to stop there but then he does another run and gets his farm back. Then it looks like he’s really going to stop, but there’s a fire at the VFW and where will all the vets go?

She's not unattractive.
Father and daughter.

He starts showing up for family events, even covers his granddaughter’s cosmetology school tuition. And he has a kind of civilizing effect on everyone around him: The thuggish drug-dealers start liking him because, even though he sort of meanders on his runs (stopping for pulled pork and not one but two hookers at a time), he tends to treat everyone like a human being. He isn’t—as most people in this modern world seem to be—fragile and pissy. So he’s quick to forgive.

Some of the classic I’m-A-Guy-From-The-’50s-So-I-Don’t-Know-The-PC-rules show up here, a la Gran Torino, though this isn’t as great as that movie. And if you remember how lukewarmly that film was received, except in this household and especially by The Flower, whose favorite movie it was for years, you realize that Eastwood’s films tend to age well. This one, I think, will, too: The direction struck me as a little slack in the early scenes, but the movie closes really strong with a kind of unexpected redemption for an Eastwood character.

The last act is altogether more emotional than anything we expected. (The Boy and I. The Flower was hanging out with her godmother.)

Spoilers!
“I’m going to love your death scene…wait, what?”

A few things didn’t work for me. The early direction, as mentioned, though I may revise that. And the flashback does not actually do much to make Clint seem twelve years younger. He seems to be muttering and frail in those early scenes, where later scenes he comes off a lot more robust. A lot of that, I’m sure was deliberate: As he achieves what he thinks is success, he becomes more confident and…uh…audible. But some of it felt off to me.

Overall, though, it’s one of those movies you like more the more you think about it. And again, the ending is unexpected and kind of nice in its own way. Check it out! I know I (probably) will, because The Flower will want to see it.

Let's see how he looks in 40 years...
Bradley Cooper’s lookin’ a little ragged. Michael Pena doesn’t seem to age.

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

What if Spider-Man were a migraine? I think it would look a little bit like this movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I should dial this back a bit: It has a 97/94% on Rotten Tomatoes, and if asked I would also give it a thumbs up. But it is chaotic. Visual, aurally, character-wise, tone-wise…everything but the plot which is as basic as apple pie.

A lot going on.
I think this is from the beginning movie, but I can’t swear to it.

In the forcible diversification of Marvel superheroes, Miles Morales is the best example of how to do it. Maybe the only example of being done well. Miles has a personality—quiet, studious, a little timid even, with a big love of music—unlike female Thor, female Hulk, Austrian-Chinese Hulk (Amadeus Cho?) and female Ironheart. As such, he’s someone you like before he gets powers, and someone whose issues can’t really be solved by powers (as Stan Lee advised). (UPDATE: Apparently Miles has no personality in the comics, so this was an innovation for the movie.)

In this story, Miles is from a universe with a blond Peter Parker (never a thing, AFAIK) who is murdered trying to stop the evil Kingpin from activating his inter-dimensional portal. Kingpin wants to do this to get his family back, because his family died fleeing in horror from his attempt to kill, you guess it, Spider-Man. With the real Spider-Man dead, it’s up to Miles to take his place—and he’s really not up to it.

Help comes in the form of loser Spider-Man, the fat, middle-aged, separated from Mary Jane Peter Parker that Brian Michael Bendis felt the need to create. We also get Spider-Gwen. Then, no joke, we get noir Spider-Man and Spider-Ham (Peter Porker), who is a pig dressed in a Spider-Man costume. Oh, and Japanese Girl With Spider-Robot Person Thing.

So it works, sorta.
The mismatch of styles is really obvious in a still, but the movie is never still.

This is a pretty fun movie. The characters are pretty good and likable, even if the whole thing sort of wavers between After School Special and Jokey Comic Book Special. And we can hang a lot on those working parts, because at least there are characters, however broad—and yes, even corny. I mean, sure the “one brother becomes a cop and the other becomes a criminal” thing was old when Humphrey Bogart was doing it, but it works.

The voice acting is good. I don’t know Shameik Moore from anything but he’s likable as the lead. Jake Johnson (Safety Not Guaranteed) is fat Peter Parker, Hallee Steinfeld (True Grit) is Spider-Gwen, Nicolas Cage is noir-Spidey, Lily Tomlin is Aunt May, and so on. The music is pretty good, too, though obviously at points geared to the younger, urban audience—which, of course, why wouldn’t it be?

The visuals are basically good. We saw it in Real 3D because that was the available time (and The Barbarienne had the post-Christmas blues and came to me hangdog asking when we were going to see it, so I said “RIGHT NOW!”) and to be honest, I wouldn’t pay the premium ever, if I had a choice. It’s okay, it has its moments, but mostly it’s a distraction. (At least 3D is not just throwing crap at the screen stuff these days.)

'cause why not?
Nic Cage should be in black-and-white in all of his movies.

But this movie is visually chaotic. The character designs of the various spideys are incompatible. They do a really good job of masking that here, and that shouldn’t be knocked. It’s a feat on a par with integrating Roger Rabbit into Avatar. But it’s still there, that incompatibility, and that incompatibility goes across tones, as well, with Spider-Ham dropping anvils and Spider-Noir being in black-and-white. It’s what you might call “a hot mess”.

Where this really negatively impacts the film is in the final act, when the world is thrown into utter chaos as all the various dimensions collide. But all you gotta do is shut off the machine and everything goes back to exactly the way it was. It’s poor drama because nothing’s really at stake.

Another big issue is what I’ve begun to call “Syndrome Syndrome”. If you recall the good Incredibles movie (not The Incredibles 2) the villain opines (at the critical moment), “When everyone is super, no one is.” I’ve never agreed with that sentiment, personally particularly in the context of a guy who makes machines like Syndrome does. I mean, if you took it to its logical conclusion (“With this device, you can move at speeds up to 800mph! It’s called an airplane!”) you’re basically undermining all of technology on the basis of preserving a few people’s natural gifts. But Pixar movies notoriously fall apart if you think about them for very long.

But from a purely narrative standpoint, yeah: If everyone’s super, no one is, and you ain’t got no story. Someone has to be exceptional in some way. Lately, because of muh representation, peripheral characters are gaining either super-powers or something very much like super-powers, and it’s annoying as hell. In this case, Aunt May is apparently the brains behind the (dead) Peter Parker’s spider technology, whipping up a set of web-slingers for Miles. (Oh, if you only know the movies, you may not be aware that Parker was a whiz-kid scientist, and invented rather than evolved his web-shooters, unlike the Sam Raimi/Toby McGuire Spider-Man.)

The Raimi movie was subtler?
Nice callback to Spider-Man 2, though.

And in this case, you have a bunch of wildly diverse Spider-dudes with sometimes really opaque powers. Like the Japanese girl from the future (Peni Parker) who has a link with a radioactive spider, and together they control a spider-robot that they ride around in. In the end, this spider-robot is destroyed and we’re supposed to be sad, but I didn’t understand why, since her actual spider-buddy was fine. Was this supposed to be a third character, the robot, separate from Peni and her bug bud?

I dunno. Like I said, it’s chaotic. And it’s fun if you’re not prone to headaches or seizures, which I am not. The comic book guy (The Barb and I had just gone to the store) said it was his favorite comic book movie ever, or maybe just superhero movie. I…yeah, not me.

I’ll stick with Superman.

Sheesh.
Maybe stop trying to be the icon and just be yourself? Ironically, that’s the movie’s message, when the movie is actually pretty much about being the icon.

Default

Now in it’s not-quite-consecutive third year, our tradition of going to see a Korean movie on Christmas Eve (Day) took us to Koreatown and Default, the story of the 1997-1998 Korean financial crisis, probably engineered by George Soros (who gets a mention) and used a front to bring Korea under the thumb of the IMF—engineered by Clintons, apparently, who aren’t ever mentioned, curiously enough, but only referred to as “American Interests”.

No, really, I can't. I have no idea what it would be.
I want to make a Vince Foster kimchee joke, but I can’t.

As an American, I can assure you my interests in Korea are limited to movies and food. I’m happy if they keep on being their Korean selves. But somehow in this world, we get the worst self-serving narcissists as leaders and their clearly selfish motivations get labeled their country’s interests.

Anyway, in the Korean tradition, this film is about government incompetence at the highest level, while the smart and insightful numerologist who really knows her stuff gets the short end of the stick and the country goes to hell. In this case, our heroine is Si-hyun (Hye-su Kim, A Special Lady) who says, “Hey, everybody’s over-extended and running around with bad loans, so we better come clean, take our lumps and try to salvage the economy while we still can.”

The government, of course, doesn’t want to do this. They HATE taking lumps. There is probably a situation in world history where an administration said, “Yeah, mea culpa. We let this get out of control and we’re going to fix it, sorry.” But I can’t think of one, and what happens instead is they say “DO NOT BE ALARMED. EVERYTHING IS FINE. WE ARE NOT TURNING YOUR COUNTRY OVER TO GLOBALIST BANKERS” while turning over Korea to globalist bankers—in this case being represented by Vincent Cassel (Black SwanShrek).

But he's doing business and not drinking!
Jung-hak rides the Business Bus!

Meanwhile, Jung-hak (Ah-in Yoo, of this year’s Burning, which the Boy saw but I did not) has noticed the financial shenanigans and leaves his comfortable job in BigKorp to strike out against the conventional wisdom. He is successful at exploiting all the ups-and-downs, but he’s also a kind of complex person—alternately unhappy about the destruction and indifferent to it. Whenever the government can do the right thing or the easy thing, he simply predicts they’ll do the easy thing, and makes a fortune.

Caught in all the mess is Gap-su (Jun-ho Heo) who runs a small bowl factory. Moments before things start to go south, his business partner convinces him to get into debt along with everyone else in order to fulfill an order from a large (and soon to be defunct) department store.

It’s like a Korean Big Short, without the Adam McKay smarm and with a lot more nationalism. Everyone in it is trying to do their best, except the IMF, which really does seem to be intent on bringing the world under a One World Financial Rule. It was interesting to me because I didn’t disagree with all the IMF’s recommendations in spirit: The Eastern world still seems to have a feudal approach to employment, where it becomes impossible to fire anyone and everyone is presumed to have the same trade for their whole lives. But even in that, I could see that the recommendations were designed to harm the little guy and keep the big, easily manipulated corporations—well, easily manipulated, and owned by foreigners.

Cool blackboard though.
“And this is why we’re all f***ed!”

And then, too, diversity don’t mean a thing if people don’t do things differently.

Typically good Korean film, in the sense that we’re rooting for our heroes, even when they may even be at odds. If Si-hyun succeeds, after all, Jung-hak will be ruined—but we sort of get the sense that Jung-hak would prefer to be wrong about some of these things. Gap-su is doomed because nobody will look out for him, but if he can persevere he can in the long run survive even this.

Yeah, I guess that’s the distinction between this and The Big Short: That movie was comical, cynical and had an everyone-is-rotten attitude. The Korean movie treats its people with dignity, and uses the idea of rottenness sparingly. The Korean attitude is more populist, I think: Adam McKay is saying “Americans are stupid. You in the audience are perhaps slightly less stupid.” Director Kook-hee Choi, by contrast, is saying “Keep your eyes open, be diligent and honest, and Korea can be better than ever.”

Interesting distinction and the reason we’ve seen movies in the Korean top 20 than in the American top 20.

Can he be otherwise?
Vincent Cassel bein’ evil.

Anna and the Apocalypse

What do you get if you cross High School Musical with Shaun of the Dead? Well, I can’t say for sure, because I never saw HSM, but I suspect it’d something like this movie: Anna and the Apocalypse. On the IMDB entry for this movie it says cross La La Land rather, but I’d disagree: La La Land is sort of dour and takes itself very seriously (for all its flights of fancy), where this movie is two kinds of schlock rather pleasingly blended.

How could they not?
They dance on cafeteria tables in HSM, don’t they?

It’s sort of interesting for this fact: It is a by-the-numbers zombie movie combined with a by-the-numbers high school drama. Anna is a girl who’s going to hike around Australia for a year, which fact she has hidden from her disapproving father from whom she has been alienated since the death of her mother. It’s her uber-beta best male friend—the one who pines for her while she shags the school jock/jerk—who lets this spill, and she worries she’s never going to have the happily-ever-after portrayed in all the pop culture these days (is it, even, though?). Meanwhile her quirky BFF and her boyfriend have the can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other going, while all at their school are tormented by the power hungry dean.

Meanwhile, a disease is turning people into zombies, a fact which eludes Anna and her best guy friend, who end up trapped at their job at the bowling alley and then must cross the town to the school, not realizing that the dean has gone crazy and is holding all their friends and families hostage. Along the way, they’ll run in to old friends and new enemies, and people will die, Ten Little Indians style in all the ways we’ve come to know (and love?) from the zombie genre.

But with singing and dancing!

Fun!
One of the best numbers has Anna obliviously singing about what a great day it is while the world dies around her.

I remember a few years ago…uh…about 35 years ago, when The Old Man and I were having trouble finding good movies to watch and we saw Fright Night. And we came out and said, “Hey, that was okay!” This was followed by, “You know, we really don’t ask for much.” We were pleased because we saw a film that was entertaining, fun and well-executed.

I had a sort of deja vu here because The Boy expressed pretty similar sentiments, with the added caveat that the movie also—for all its clichés—did something different with them, and put a nice flavor on top of some tired tropes. In fact, the use of these tropes made the movie very streamlined. There were about three things that made me roll my eyes, so tired were they as tropes, but mostly they allowed the movie to move from plot-point-to-plot-point (and song-to-song) quickly, such that the 90 minute runtime speeds by.

And it holds together pretty well in the third act, which is something both zombie movies and modern musicals (not to mention all oddball musicals like this, cf. Rocky Horror Picture Show or Phantom of the Paradise) have trouble with. Oh, also, as mentioned in La La Land, one of my issues with modern musicals is that nobody on screen looks like they could actually make the noise they’re making. It’s a kind of auditory uncanny valley that tends to alienate me, and the production here is smooth enough between the regular dialog and the musical numbers that I didn’t have that. (The only exception is with the dean’s big number, where he’s practically whisper-singing, and even that wasn’t too bad and was in character.)

If she's pushing...yeah.
Psst. Inside the cart is the friend zone.

Great cast of actors who, I believe, are primarily from the theater. If I were going to single out anyone it would be Marli Siu, as quirky girlfriend deeply in love with her boyfriend. She sings a song at the holiday show that takes “Santa, Baby” and kicks it up a notch, which works better than it has any right to. (It seems both prurient and sweet at the same time, perhaps because it’s directed at her missing boyfriend. But it works.)

From there, I might go to Ben Wiggins, who plays the alpha and has the most clichéd part of all, I think, but ends up winning us over anyway. Then I get to thinking of Chris, who also is annoying at first, but also kind of wins us over. Pretty soon, though, I’m talking about everyone. They’re all good.

It’s just a fun bit of alchemy, really. I guess what’s going on here is the movie uses the tropes to do what it wants to do (tell its story in its own way) but it’s not relying on them to keep everyone entertained. It brings a lot to the table.

I would probably watch this movie before La La Land again—and the music was largely more memorable and catchy, as well.

Cute and funny and a great singer.
They’re all great, but I get a real Anna Kendrick vibe offa Marli Siu.

Capernaum

I did warn the kids when Trump got elected that we were in store for a lot of bad movies, and that a lot of movies that might be good will torpedo themselves in an effort to take a shot at the President. But even movies that don’t have anything to do with American politics, it occurred to me watching this, will only be made (or distributed) if they fit the desired narrative.

This is probably always true.

And the only relevance to Capernaum (“Chaos”), really, is that it’s a movie about suffering refugees and therefore will get funded and distributed, while a movie about people suffering at the hands of refugees will not.

But not quite.
As a trope, it’s almost as tired as these cute little kids.

This is a good movie about crushing poverty and the tragedy it engenders—one of the many downsides of Academy Award season coinciding with Christmas—which at least has about the happiest ending you could expect for a movie like this.

When we meet our hero Zain, he’s been removed from jail for a trial to sue his parents—for being born. He seems like a kind of nasty, foul-mouthed kid and when the judge asks him if he knows why he was sent to jail, he says it was for “stabbing a sonofabitch”. Fifteen minutes later, we’re mostly left to wonder which of the many deserving sonfabitches he stabbed.

Zain is Lebanese, about 12. Nobody knows how old he is really, because he has no papers and his parents are awful. To me he seemed younger but for the story he must’ve been at least 12 since his younger sister, Sahar, is 11. He adores Sahar, but seems to have no feeling for his other, younger siblings. He works for their landlord who lets the family stay “for free” in the apartment, but he clearly has eyes for Sahar.

And they call it "civilization".
11-year-olds, dude.

His mission is to keep Sahar away from the storekeeper, though Sahar likes said storekeeper because he gives her candy and things for free. He realizes she’s had her menses and helps her cover it up, but ultimately loses the battle, and her parents trade Sahar for a couple of chickens.

Infuriated, he runs off, and finds himself wandering the streets, ultimately landing with an Ethiopian woman, Rahil. The Ethiopian woman came to Lebanon to work in a brothel—the amount of human trafficking in this movie is daunting—but quite when she fell in love and got pregnant. But now she’s alone with a one-year-old, Yonas, that she has to hide from her employers, who will send her back if they find out. And again, kind of staggeringly, the hellhole of Lebanon slums is better than Ethiopia.

She’s trying to get enough money for a newer, better fake ID, and Zain ends up watching Yonas while she works. This arrangement works until Rahil doesn’t come home and he must fend for himself and Yonas, whom he comes to love like a brother. Rahil has been caught, however, and sent to jail. Meanwhile, Aspro, the same creep who sells the fake ID has had his eye on Yonas, but Rahil has resisted all his advances.

The mall in Beirut, I guess.
Rahil. Also: wigs.

I didn’t quite get this aspect of it: I couldn’t figure out why Yonas was worth so much to Aspro. He claims that he has a family to place Yonas with, which would make sense money-wise, since adoption is a hell of a racket. But this turns out not to be true, so I don’t get why anyone would take a baby in those circumstances.

The dream escape for our street urchins is Sweden, where there are “entire villages of Syrians”.

It’s good, propaganda aside. Zain is convincing, perhaps because he himself is a refugee, and the movie contrasts his streetwise-ness with his childishness, such as when he’s making up excuses for Yonas being his brother. (“He’s black because our mother drank a pot of coffee a day while she was pregnant.”)

The guy who gets stabbed isn’t the one we expect, though certainly one who deserves it, but it’s basically a movie full of victims. Even the stabbed guy, who is at least as stupid as everyone else, comes off as a victim of circumstances.

We liked it. I, somewhat more than the Boy. Will probably get an Oscar nod. Shockingly, this is a Sony picture, and it doesn’t suck. And we’d see another Sony picture in a couple of days that also didn’t suck (about Spider-Man, no less).

That'd be cool, though.
You’re out of order! You’re all out of order!!

Airport (1970)

Disaster month closed out with the granddaddy of the genre, Airport. It broke the $100M mark—a rarity for the time, and what used to constitute a “blockbuster”. Based on the novel by Arthur Hailey, whom I constantly get confused with Alex Hailey (the guy who plagiarized the white guy to write Roots), it’s a seedy little soaper that is jam-packed with…stuff.

Classic.
“Roger!” “Huh?”

Oscar-winner Burt Lancaster, who hated this movie, plays Mel Bakersfield, the guy in charge of the Lincoln airport in Chicago, who is trying to get a runway cleared of snow while fending off his shrewish wife (Ilana Dowding) and having some kind of fling with his assistant, Jean Seberg. He’s all handling all the trouble his brother-in-law Vernon Demarest (Dean Martin) is making, while hating the fact that he’s gadding about with anything in a stewardess’s skirt (designed by 8x Oscar-winner Edith Head!).

In this case, the “anything” he’s gadding about with is Gwen Meighen (Jacqueline Bisset) who, like everyone else, has a last name. She’s pregnant and there’s a full-on discussion of abortion, which is safe and has no side-effects! (This is parodied in Airplane! by the P.A. announcers.) Gwen prefers to have the baby and put it up for adoption, which is good because his wife (Barbara Hale) is expecting him to give up his philandering ways, eventually.

I can't stop.
“Chump don’t want the help, Chump don’t get the help!”

Oscar-winner and disaster-movie icon George Kennedy is our only one-named (ok, main one-named) character, Patroni, whose job is to clear the snow out from in front of the stuck airplane, but nobody’s got the guts to get the job done. His goal is to get the plane free and go back to making out with his wife. He’s the sole happy marriage representative. (It’s 1970. Whaddayawant?)

Well, unless you count the widow Ada Quonsett (2x Oscar-winner Helen Hayes) who escapes Jean Seberg’s clutches to get on the doomed flight. She’s fun. The flight is doomed due to D.O. Guerrero (Oscar-winner Van Heflin) who has decided to blow up the plane so that his wife (Oscar-winner Maureen Stapleton) can collect the insurance.

Inspired by the actual incident.

Awful.
Jacqueline Bisset reassures Dean Martin that this ridiculous ’70s haircut will grow out fairly quickly.

Though it was an expensive shoot, it actually feels least gimmicky of the disaster movies, with the effects (except for maybe the volumes of plastic snow) seeming pretty organic. You can see how the tropes formed here, though: There is a wide variety of characters, mostly likable, and each involved in their little dramas which are thrown in to sharp relief by a sudden greater incident.

Acted out by some really fine actors. Helen Hayes won her second Oscar for this, beating out Karen Black and Lee Grant, who would both end up starring in one of the sequels.

A mostly great score by Alfred Newman—his last. The Boy actually pointed out how good it was, which he doesn’t usually notice. I loved most of it, especially how Newman managed to be so contemporary without sounding as shrill as that woodwind/brass heavy style of the ’70s tended to be. There are a couple of points that seem straight up pop music, though, which I didn’t care for much.

At least it's not another Airplane! quote.
What is this? An airplane for ANTS?!

It’s more than a little corny, with Dean Martin discovering he wants to settle down but with his pregnant mistress, and Burt Lancaster discovering that divorce is probably the best answer. I can see why Lancaster hated it. Maybe ironically, since I’ve started to feel like the ultimate template for the disaster movie was From Here To Eternity.

It’s not great cinema. None of these movies were. But they’re fun escapism which seems in very short supply these days.

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

Even if you hate Frank Capra’s post-war flop about a man who finds value in his life by seeing it undone, it can be startling how starkly it reveals why good human drama can no longer be made in America. And watching it this time, I realized what The Boy and I get out of the classics and new Asian movies we’ve seen this year.

I’ve probably seen this It’s A Wonderful Life more than any other movie, and I’ve certainly written about it more than any other. The noir photography, the depths of depression it plumbs, the libertarian Pottersville-is-better-than-Bedford-Falls nonsense, and most recently, the weird stuff on Potter’s desk. The Flower, who saw it for the first time in 2016, wanted to see it last year and again this year.

Yeah, yeah, I know.
Bert would be the most bad-ass cop in a Christmas movie till Al Powell shows up.

What struck me this time was how deeply flawed all the characters were, with the possible exception of Mary (Donna Reed, From Here To Eternity), and yet how George’s little acts of grace (however begrudingly he accept his role) gave them the room to express the better angels of their nature.

  • George (Jimmy Stewart, The Philadelphia Story) is belligerent. He’s quick to anger. He’s self-sacrificing to a fault: A lot of his despair comes from his inability to share any part of his burden, not even with his wife. He’s clearly planning to go to jail for Uncle Billy.
  • Speaking of whom, Uncle Billy (Oscar, Tony, Emmy-winner Thomas Mitchell, Gone With The Wind) is incompetent to the point of genuine danger, and probably an alcoholic. And he handles all the money, apparently.
  • On the subject of alcoholism, Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner, The 10 Commandments) nearly kills someone and boxes young George’s ears when he tries to stop him.
  • Sam Wainwright (Thomas Mitchell, Psycho) may be a philanderer, though it’s hard to say how seriously he takes any potential relationship with Mary, he does call her his girlfriend while having another honey hanging on him.
  • Violet’s (Gloria Grahame, The Bad and the Beautiful) sins are self-evident.
  • Even Harry, the war hero,  comes home all too conveniently with a wife and a fancy new job knowing full well that his brother isn’t going to be able to chain him to the Savings and Loan. He’ll make the sacrifice for George as George did for him, but he has to know (just as we do) that George won’t let him get “trapped”.
  • Mary comes closest to being perfect. But after his temper tantrum—when he’s trying to apologize—she says “why must you torture the children?” It’s that retort which sends him out to commit suicide.
  • The people of the town, when we see them, are quick to be manipulated by Potter. Although it is they, ultimately, who save the day, they are easily scared, gossipy, and overly-reliant on George’s good nature.

One is supposed to like these people. And, shockingly enough, one does. Mr. Gower buys George his getaway luggage (that he never gets to use) but is also seen leading the bond effort to support the war at home. Sam, once he’s contacted, is ready to float George a $25K loan. Violet sticks around to help George, and apparently to brave out rehabilitating her reputation.

Times wuz hard.
Spanish flu was a bitch.

In other words, these people are good in spite of their occasional (or even frequent) sins. They’re real people. For all the broad stereotyping here, there’s more life in each character who passes through Bedford Falls than in any big-ticket modern Hollywood movies. They’ve all sinned, sometimes gravely, yet all are shown to be worthy of redemption.

But the current media ethos is that there are good guys and there are bad guys—not even in the fun Star Wars way, but in a dreary universe where right-thinkers are untouched by sin and wrong-thinkers are condemned to, well, whatever hell the right-thinkers have in their power to create.

It’s weird to think we’ve seen more mainstream Korean and Chinese movies than we have top 40 Hollywood films this year. (Usually we see about half of the top 40, this year we’ve seen, or will see, about 5 out of our over 130 theater screenings.) And surely part of the reason is sheer novelty, since Asians have different tropes and archetypes which make things seem a little fresher. But part of it is that the characters are more human, probably because they’re not worried about oversensitivity. (Korean films, in particular, tend to be exclusively Korean. Even Koreans who spent some time in America are suspect.)

The whole move is, really.
Gloria Grahame was aggressively heterosexual.

But I remember the characters. For all my crustiness about superhero movies, there was a lot of impressive stuff in Avengers: Infinity War—but not, ironically enough, the characters. Whereas I remember the down-on-his-luck boxer who slugs his autistic brother once (in a moment of panic) and spends the rest of his movie trying to regain that brother’s trust. I remember the girl who rediscovers her vanishing mom through cooking. Even typing the trope makes my eyes roll, but I remember the soft, greedy businessman who finds love with the sensitive scientist at the south pole.

The thing is, to have a character arc, you have to have a character who can change. The change has to be personal and material, and it has to reflect a reinterpretation of how the world works—generally the admission that one’s previous view was wrong somehow. (You can have the character change badly, of course, but that’s more a horror trope or ultra-edgy indie drama conceit.) But if there’s only one correct way to think ever, only one correct way to be, there can be no meaningful change.

And if there can be no forgiveness, a character who was wrong once can never re-enter the ranks of good guys: Old Man Gower and Uncle Billy can’t sell war bonds, Mr. Welch should be sent to jail for punching George, Violet deserves to be slut-shamed (or shamed for thinking she should be slut-shamed?) and Clarence may as well have let George jump.

You don’t have to like this movie to see that it deals more with genuine human issues than anything turned out of Hollywood in 2018.

Merry Christmas, Moviegique!
I was going to make an “every time a bell rings” joke but it just wouldn’t be in the spirit of the season.

 

The Favourite

“I thought the ladies could take me to see The Favourite for my birthday.”
“…”
“Then I realized—”
“YORGOS LANTHIMOS!”
“—the guy who did The Lobster.”

My mother claims that The Lobster is the worst movie she’s ever seen. I completely lack sympathy for her on this, because she didn’t ask me about it, and I could’ve told her she’d hate it without ever having to see it myself. Of course, The Boy and I did see that and loved it, but couldn’t think of many people we would recommend it to. Bonus: You get to say “YORGOS LANTHIMOS” when you talk about it, which just rolls off the tongue.

Cold, baby.
Lack of sympathy is a hallmark of Yorgos Lanthimos films.

We were disappointed we missed the short-lived run of Lanthimos’ follow-up film Killing of a Sacred Deer. We were a little concerned we would miss this one, too, but the period piece has earned enough attention, perhaps for its subject matter and certainly its performances to make it good award bait.

And again, we wouldn’t recommend it to my mom, or to most anyone. Lanthimos has a clinical eye which is intriguing and (for us) effective, but it is not warm. It is devoid of romance and he seems to delight in deconstructing illusions.

In The Favourite, the disgraced Abigail (Emma Stone, Zombieland, La La Land) arrives at, uh, Queen Anne’s (Olivia Colman, Hot FuzzThe Lobster) place and is assigned to the kitchen by her disdainful cousin, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, The Brothers BloomThe Bourne Legacy). The disdain is not particular personal: Lady Sarah is a lady and hardly wishes to deal with the foul-smelling commoner whose father lost her in a game of whist. Abigail fares poorly in the kitchen, as the commoners have tremendous disdain for fallen ladies as well.

Eesh.
This is not a movie designed to make its leads look good.

However, Abigail is not without resources, and when she learns that Queen Anne is suffering from gout, she risks a beating when she rides out to the woods to get some remedial herbs. She’s actually mid-beating, when Sarah sees that the herbs have helped and, grateful for the relief to the Queen, promotes Abigail to her personal maid.

I mention the “grateful” part because one thing one must do when watching a Lanthimos film is be very careful about sussing out what is actual sentiment and what is merely mercenary. But for all her bullying of the weak-minded queen, Sarah’s affection is genuine, and it also seems very clear that her bullying is done in the name of what she truly believes is best for England. This becomes an interesting point.

Abigail’s motivation is to never, ever end up in the muck again. And as the movie progresses, we are slowly moved from rooting for her to…well, something else. By the end of the movie, we’re questioning whether or not we ever really understood Abigail, of whether she’s changed as a result of her success.

I need a powdered wig.
Those fashions, though.

Clouding the issue even further is whether or not the Queen is better or worse off. Anne and Sarah have a genuine relationship, with a sexual aspect that ultimately dooms them. Even beyond the sex, though, the relationship not an entirely healthy one. For all her care, Sarah is very opinionated and infantilizing in a lot of ways, leaving her cousin ill-prepared to handling the issues challenging England. Out from under her thumb, Anne’s competency grows, even if aspects of her happiness are dimmed.

It’s not really a crowd-pleaser. No way around it. But while we didn’t love it as much as The Lobster, we did really like it.

The performances are terrific. Colman will probably get an Oscar nom, Weisz gets more appealing (at least to me) with age, and Emma Stone manages to work her natural charisma to a kind of chilling end. We want to root for her, but it’s not that kind of story. In the end, she’s done some wrong—and unlike Sarah, her motivations are wholly selfish, with no regard for England—but you don’t despise her. At some level, one thinks, you’re supposed to pity her.

Bizarrely, this has a nomination for “best musical or comedy” Golden Globe.

Forget it, Jake. It's the Hollywood Foreign Press.
Maybe it’s for the bizarrely anachronistic dance number?

Gremlins (1984)

I have long felt that the script to Gremlins is possibly the dumbest ever developed into a major motion picture, even dumber than the other scripts that launched Chris Columbus’ wildly successful career (Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes). And despite that, it’s pretty watchable and weird, wild mess of Spielbergian cutesy-family stuff with Joe Dante’s black humor.

Not-very-bright lights.
“Let me punch up your script, Gizmo.”

Let’s get the dumb out of the way first. The premise: Inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) stumbles across a cute little fuzzy creature called a “mogwai” that he sorta steals from a Chinese junk shop to take home to his son Billy (Zach Galligan) for Christmas. The grandson of the mogwai’s real owner (perennially blind Chinese guy, Keye Luke) exchanges the creature for a couple hundred Reagan funbux and offers three warnings:

  1. Don’t expose it to bright light.
  2. Don’t get it wet.
  3. And never, never feed it after midnight.

I mean.

"Snatch the pebble, mofo! I dare you!"
Keye Luke disapproves, just generally.

There’s dumb fun: Like, we’re going to suspend our disbelief about these creatures that not only exist unknown in the world, but that a father takes home to his son as a gift with no one raising an eyebrow as to the whole “Hey, shouldn’t we have heard about this before? Isn’t this an important scientific discovery?”

Then there’s “the audience is dumb. So dumb, in fact, we’re going to put the plot right up front, all the points therein and ultimate resolution.” It’s like Chekov’s Gun For Dummies: The rifle isn’t just hanging on the wall, it’s hanging on the wall surrounded by neon flashing lights that say, “Hey! This gun is going to go off and accidentally kill his late mother’s beloved chihuahua!!”

Maybe it’s just me. It pissed me off greatly as a kid. It didn’t bother me much now, but if anything on review—and I haven’t watched this since its first release—I’m convinced that the things that makes the movies work were unlikely to have ever been in the script, and were the work of Joe Dante, of whom I used to be quite a fan. He had a way of turning dubious material into darkly fun romps (as in PirahnaThe Howling, and even Small Soldiers).

PG-13. The reason for the rating.
It’s a family film.

There’s a lot of fun stuff here. The feel-good Christmas aspect of the movie takes such a sharp turn south on the appearance of the actual gremlins. The first person to encounter the gremlins is Billy’s mom and she in turn: blends one, stabs another hard enough to pin it down to a bread board (though it’s still moving afterwards), and nukes a third in the microwave. (This is an under-rated performance by Frances Lee McCain and blow for kick-ass moms everywhere.)

This was the first PG-13 movie after Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom compelled the MPAA to create the rating in the first place, and while it’s wildly over-the-top violent, it’s, y’know, puppets. Much like Doom, this is EC horror comics, grade-school level violence that is meant to be enjoyed like a roller coaster ride. Sort of like the disaster movies we’ve been seeing, the point is to have fun with all the death and destruction. (The Boy queried, “Would you call this fun-house horror?” I would indeed.)

After the gremlins emerge, it’s set-piece after set-piece, most of which don’t really make a lick of sense—like, how do the gremlins manage to force Phoebe Cates to serve as bartender?—and which are completely devoid of moralizing, as well. Sure, the evil Ruby Deagle (Polly Holliday, who should’ve been sued along with Columbus by Margaret Hamilton for stealing her Wicked Witch act) meets her fate, but so does the largely neutral Murray Futterman (the great Dick Miller, who appears in all of Dante’s films). And even if Futterman is evil (he does have a “Nixon’s The One” poster hanging up), his wife seems nice. And the school teacher (“Another black nerd!”, noted the Barbarienne, remembering Theo from Die Hard) only drew a little blood in the name of science.

And better.
The muppets did it first.

No, there’s no morality play here. It’s just random mayhem, like, Phoebe Cates’ Best Christmas Speech Ever:

 The worst thing that ever happened to me was on Christmas. Oh, God. It was so horrible. It was Christmas Eve. I was 9 years old. Me and Mom were decorating the tree, waiting for Dad to come home from work. A couple hours went by. Dad wasn’t home. So Mom called the office. No answer. Christmas Day came and went, and still nothing. So the police began a search. Four or five days went by. Neither one of us could eat or sleep. Everything was falling apart. It was snowing outside. The house was freezing, so I went to try to light up the fire. That’s when I noticed the smell. The firemen came and broke through the chimney top. And me and Mom were expecting them to pull out a dead cat or a bird. And instead they pulled out my father. He was dressed in a Santa Claus suit. He’d been climbing down the chimney, his arms loaded with presents. He was gonna surprise us. He slipped and broke his neck. He died instantly. And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.

It’s horrible and funny, and she recites it as Billy is picking through the rubble of his ruined house.

But you have to be able to laugh at darkly chaotic events and the movie shows the warring that went on behind the scenes between Spielberg, Columbus and Dante and the studio—but also amongst themselves as the movie has a hard time settling on its tone. This is understandable, and probably best exemplified by Jerry Goldsmith’s score.

The Gremlins main theme itself is spot on: A macabre pre-Elfman tune, eminently whistleable suggesting that mischief is afoot one could imagine hearing outside a funhouse. Some of the other aspects—a heroic passage, and a more schmaltzy one—don’t seem quite on the mark, probably because those sentiments aren’t really captured in the film.

The puppets are pretty darned good although I find Gizmo a little creepy at this late date. The stunts and SFX are kind of impressive for a family-oriented dark comedy. Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates (I had no idea who she was at the time) are likably bland, which is very appropriate.

It’s pretty much the same fun watch today as it was 35 years ago. Enough to where it’s easy to look over the monumental dumb.

Zach is gonna lose this one.
Gizmo making his moves on Phoebe.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

Of all the disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is one of them.

It's hard to say!
“Toy boat, toy boat, toy boat…”

It’s probably my favorite. I never saw a need to re-watch Earthquake or The Towering Inferno, but The Poseidon Adventure seemed to get funnier every time I saw it! No, not funnier, just more fun. And despite the fact that at least one person in the theater had brought a party hat and noisemaker to blow during the New Years’ Eve scene, this is not really a campy movie, for all its broadness. It’s just meant to be fun.

Like Earthquake, you’re supposed to be able to grasp the situation quickly and know how to feel about it. You get that the blowzy cop (Oscar Winner Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-whore wife (Golden Globe winner Stella Stevens) love each other, beyond all the squabbling. That the old Jewish couple on their way to Jerusalem (Oscar Winner Jack Albertson and two-time Oscar Winner Shelly Winters) are good-hearted souls. That bro and sis (Eric Shea and Pamela Sue Martin) are gonna fight, but bro’s boyish enthusiasm for ship schematics will save the day. Soulful bachelor (Oscar Winner Red Buttons) is going to shepherd grieving lounge singer (lost-her-Golden-Globe-to-Stella-Stevens Carol Linley) through it all, and they’ll get married and lived happily ever after—if they survive! And you know that the Radical Preacher (two-time Oscar Winner Gene Hackman) is really gonna turn things around in whatever backward African country he’s going to.

But what do I know.
I’m not sure this match is believable.

Broad, yes. But not careless. And not unlikable.

Well, you know: Big title (typoe that I’m leaving in for its awful punny-ness) wave hits the ship (despite National Treasure Captain Leslie Nielsen’s best efforts), turning it over, and a handful of survivors led by the Preacher get it in their fool heads to head up to the engine room, which would be sticking out of water and is also where the hull is thinnest. For myself, I’d think that heading upward and away from water would be a no-brainer on a sinking boat, but we can only have so many people in our little melodrama, so with the help of a plucky waiter (shockingly Oscar free Roddy McDowall) our Ten Little Indians head off on their adventure.

Which is, The Boy and I thought, part and parcel of why we liked this movie so well. It’s a movie where a lot of people die, but you are supposed to have fun watching it. You’re supposed to be sad when someone dies but, you know, movie sad. You aren’t supposed to come out of it feeling like you wanna kill yourself.

One of these guys doesn't get out of the first room.
This was actually a pilot for “The Love Boat”. Not a lot of people know that.

Is that even a thing any more? You’d think, for example, superhero movies would be that way but, really, they don’t show death much and when they do, it’s very, very serious (because it’s one of the heroes, or someone the heroes have a longstanding relationship with). I saw the movie remake (there was also a TV remake)…I think. I sorta saw it? It was on TV and I put it on and lost interest immediately, it was so bland and cold and grim.

In the 1972 movie there are precisely two children on board, Shea and Martin. (And Martin’s 19, but clearly supposed to be 16-ish.) And both survive with very little harm (changed from the book, I believe) except for Martin’s latent crush on Hackman—which is way subtler than I remember it. The extras all die to their own stupidity, while most of the main cast that dies does so in more-or-less heroic struggle.

I don’t know. It’s hard for me to conceive of this film as “having a light touch” but compared to today? Can you imagine any survival/disaster film today being called an “adventure”?

So much leg.
It’s an adventure in legs is what it is.

I was impressed by Shelley Winters performance here. (She put on 35 pounds for the part and could never quite lose it afterwards.) There’s something sane about it: She’s fat. She knows she’s fat. She knows it’s a liability. Stella Stevens calls her out on it, rather rudely. It’s like people could talk about the elephant in the room (as it were). And yet, she’s not a clown, she saves the day. (This is an interesting switch from the script, which called on the Preacher to let Winters’ character risk her life for everyone else, which Hackman said—correctly—didn’t fit with his character.)

I was impressed by Ernest Borgnine’s biceps. That guy wasn’t just fat, as my generation knew him. He had some muscles.

John Williams’ score is, much like Earthquake, solid. Of the time but not embarrassingly so. Some very nice moments throughout.

The conceit that all the (not fat) ladies have to take off their gowns seems less prurient to me now than a few years ago. Even Stella Stevens’ underwear seems almost modest.

I’ve often felt the story could be analyzed as a religious allegory. The Boy noticed this, too. The people who insist on staying behind, then panic when the ship starts to flood. The doomed adventurers going the wrong way down the ship who refuse to join up with the survivors. The lighting seems sort of otherwordly and underworldly, as our heroes try to rise up to salvation.

It probably wouldn’t hold up too much under scrutiny. It’s just a fun movie.

Well, for some people.
There’s got to be a morning after.

Schindler’s List (1993)

I did not see the movie that ruined Steven Spielberg when it came out, as shocking as that may come to you, my loyal reader. I was lucky to get out to see Aladdin that year, and happy to see that Spielberg had genetically engineered actual dinosaurs for his Jurassic Park. But sitting in a theater for 3:10 watching a Holocaust-themed drama seemed, shall we say, unappealing. Or at least a poor use of my limited theater time.

It's rough.
I’d probably hug my kids a lot too if I were making this.

But I did sort of feel it ruined Spielberg as a director, as he could never again make just a fun movie, in the vein of Jaws or, say, Indiana Jones. Which is not to say he didn’t try. But his Jurassic follow-up The Lost World was roundly thrashed, and he never really got back into just plain fun stuff until the questionable The Adventures of Tintin.

I mean, Catch Me If You Can was relatively light, next to Amistad or this movie, say. But something like Minority Report or War of the Worlds, which should’ve been great and fun was needlessly heavy (and both were actually gray, come to think of it). Not bad but lacking a certain joie de vivre. And, actually, if you looked at the way the aliens in WotW vaporized people and realized the source of that was this movie (and the attendant research, of course), it gets even worse.

But it’s a little weird to sit in the theater 25 years later, after one has seen literally dozens of Holocaust (and Holocaust-themed) movies and watch this: This is still, hands down, the biggest budgeted film in the genre. Its slickness feels odd, and Spielberg’s cinematic tropes—immortalized as they were in such popcorn fare as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark—were particularly rattling to me.

It's great.
He did try to incorporate the Battletoads to lighten things up, but was voted down. (Click for more information.)

The Boy didn’t notice particularly, except in retrospect, so that’s probably just me.

John Williams, thankfully, composed a beautiful score without the heroic musical stylings that made him famous. Although I did find the use of a Bach Suite over the Nazi murders in the Warsaw ghetto rather bizarre—that was the point, to be bizarre.  (The Nazis misidentify it as Mozart, curiously.) The ending of the film, and the music thereby, may feel a bit ham-handed (as Spielberg can be) but it’s earned.

The story itself is almost subtle for Spielberg. Schindler is not a swell guy. He’s a womanizer. He’s greedy. He may not actually be lazy but he’s certainly exploitative. He’s selfish. What he isn’t, however, is a monster. And somewhere in bridging the gap of his sins and not being a monster, he becomes truly great, risking (and losing) everything but his life to save the lives of over a thousand Jews.

1994 was a very SJW time.
“I lost to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia? Seriously?”

Liam Neeson—The Boy commented, “I didn’t know he could act!” I guess after a bunch of Taken movies, it’s an easy thing to overlook. But he’s great here, as is the pre-Valdemort Ralph Fiennes. Spielberg gets good performances, as always. Ben Kingsley is the Jewish accountant—a kind amalgam of real-life characters, including one who used his power for self-enrichment.

That level of subtlety we’re not going to get here. If you want that, check out Lansmann.

But of course, Kingsley is great, and Embeth Davidtz, as the Jewess who has caught Goeth’s eye (Fiennes) is absolutely heartbreaking.

Tells a story!
Look at that composition!

The highest praise, perhaps, The Boy and I can offer: At 3+ hours, it moves by like a great movie. Is it a great movie? Currently, it’s ranked at #6 on IMDB’s (increasingly dubious) top 250, well ahead of Spielberg’s next highest entry, Saving Private Ryan, which is in the 20s. The RT scores place it after Close Encounters and E.T., more or less tied with Jaws.

I don’t know. We both liked it a lot. Spielberg does a lot of things to make a movie watchable. The novel The Color Purple, I’m told, begins with the heroine being raped by her father. Well, hell, you don’t start off a movie like that if you want people to come see it. A lot of the most compelling stories about the Holocaust, the camps, the round-ups are very, very difficult just to hear. When movies illustrate them, things get very weird and uncomfortable.

The experience, seeing it at this late date, is akin to seeing a horror movie for the first time decades later. It’s almost quaint. A little hard to judge. Certainly worth a watch. Very difficult to categorize.

The Sound Story

Do not ask the boy his opinion unless you really want it. A rule to live by, the relevance of which I will reveal shortly.

See, 'cause he has the microphones...
“WHAT? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

The Boy had a meeting in North Hollywood and wanted to catch a film but nothing was at the right time. I noted that the bargain theater (which gives us a second chance to see movies we didn’t want to see the first time around) was playing an odd little film called The Sound Story, the tale of OscarTM-winning Resul Pookutty in his adventure to record the Thrissur Pooram, a big festival in his part of India.

This appears to be a dramatization of actual events played out by the people who lived those events. In it, Pookutty reveals at the get-go that he’s always wanted to record Pooram, but he’s busily working, especially after his success with Slumdog Millionaire. His “best friend” emotionally blackmails him into the project in part in order to demonstrate value to a producer called George. George, in turn, is playing the importance game and parading Pookutty in front of everyone he can, to the detriment of the actual work. George is so obnoxious, he ticks off his own thugs, who then decide to sabotage the recording. This is after a fight where Pookutty decides to abandon the project, but then discovers that a school full of blind people want nothing more than to hear the festival, so he turns around and decides to do it all on his own. (But since George has a contract, he’ll still own the film, which is why his thugs disrupt it.)

There’s a happy ending where everyone learns a few things and grows, which is one reason I think the actors are playing themselves.

'cause that's what he does.
I hope you like lots of pictures a guy holding mics.

The Boy was high off of just seeing 2.0, an Indian superhero movie that is apparently so spectacularly nuts it wraps around to being good again. He’s been talking it up to everyone he meets. (Pookutty actually did the sound for it.) And he mentioned that there are safety-warning overlaid across the movie when a character does something the Indian government (presumably) doesn’t approve of. Like drink, smoke, or ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt.

When we exited the theater, a lovely woman (whom I would describe as Indian-American, but for all the confusion that would cause) asked us our opinions about the film. I said, “The sound design was amazing!” because it was, and I hadn’t really sorted out how I felt about the rest of it. The Boy did not. He felt the characters cartoonish, the visuals annoying, etc. A lot of the traits which added to his lunatic enjoyment of 2.0 were mere annoyances here. I felt a little bad for the young lady, who was there collecting accolades to pitch the film for some sort of Oscar award. The Boy wasn’t that crazy about the sound design, frankly, because he felt it was too loud. (I discount “too loud” mostly because it’s beyond the filmmaker’s control, unless they’re doing extreme quiet and extreme loud, a la most of Brad Bird’s movies.)

But as I say: You don’t ask The Boy his opinion unless you really want it. He’s not mean, but he’s not going to soft-soap it.

The thing is, I was sort of expecting what I got. It was kind of amazing how amateurish the acting was, to the extent where you could tell even if you didn’t speak the language (a mix of English and probably multiple Indian languages). Some of the visuals are quite good but when it comes to the sabotage at the festival—shown at the beginning of the film in a way that suggests bad karma, and later revealed to be genuine sabotage—there’s a series of shots followed by fade-outs which drove me to distraction. (That technique may or may not have worked in John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars, but it irritates greatly here.)

I liked the story, but it wasn’t tightly laid out. The whole MacGuffin is the live performance, but it’s unclear how long the festival actually runs for, if the plan was to record all of it or just this one particular group that’s featured, and given that the group plays it again afterwards so that Pookutty can record it, the whole question of what (if anything) was at stake is murky. Resul is presented as a pretty enlightened guy throughout (whereas several of the other characters are jerks) which means that his revelation of the importance of the recording to other people (the blind) has less impact than it might.

But I think what it all comes down to is this: It was unfocused. It was not a documentary about the festival, because we only learn a little about that. It’s not quite a travelogue of that part of India, though it’s quite beautiful from what you see. It’s not quite a drama because the characters are subordinated to these other festival and travelogue elements in a way that diminishes the narrative effect.

The sound design is amazing, though, and really a lot of fun. The movie focuses so much on the little symphonies of real life, artfully shaped in ways are soothing and even meditative. I think I was enough invested in that to not really care much about the rest, but The Boy’s reaction is probably closer to how most people would feel. Also, without a good sound system, like on a standard TV set up, that effect will be largely lost.

Serves you right.
Horns that you blow at yourself.

Earthquake (1974)

Well, our lovely throwback hostess, April, has been working on it for the better part of 2018, and finally managed to convince the head office to make December a month of disasters movie, showing the classic ’70s melodramas EarthquakeTowering InfernoPoseidon’s Adventure and Airport. They dropped out Inferno, tragically, because they don’t like to show a movie on the week between Christmas and New Years. Maybe the attendance is too low to justify the rental but I’m not sure how the finances work at all, given how all-over-the-map attendance is anyway.

The Flower bowed out, as she’s been tired with all her activities this Christmas season—she almost didn’t go to Elf, and is bowing out of Sunday’s presentation of White Christmas—which I think is a shame, since there’d be a mix of reactions to the aging stars like Charlton Heston and Ava Gardener as well as plenty of opinions about ’70s fashion. The Boy and I headed off alone, with me perhaps over-confident as to the entertainment value of the movie.

High melodrama.
Gardner maybe she’s channeling Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Blvd.”

My concerns were misplaced. If the Irwin Allen movies were not high art, they never pretended to be and they never lost sight of the goal: entertaining the audience. And as is very often the case, done well, that goal transcends generational changes better than many loftier ambitions. Directed by Mark Robson, who directed Humphrey Bogart’s last picture (The Harder They Fall) but who is probably best known for his work on the soapy potboiler Peyton’s Place, Earthquake follows the classic formula of 40-minutes of soap opera followed by disaster followed by your problems don’t seem all that important now, do they?

In this case, we have successful architect Charlton Heston in a dramatically unhappy marriage with Ava Gardner (who seems to be channeling Joan Collins) and being seduced by the queen of hearts herself, Genevieve Bujold. He works for a father-in-law (Lorne Greene) who seems to understand how difficult his own spoiled daughter is, and his secretary (Monica Lewis, who had a boffo music and TV career in the ’50s and became a disaster movie staple in the ’70s) is tight with Genevieve.

She's cute.
“Looks like it’s not gonna work out, byeeeee!”

Meanwhile, George Kennedy is a cop who puts the job ahead of political concerns: When we meet him, he’s on a reckless high-speed chase that ends with him crashing into Zsa Zsa Gabor’s (not featured) hedge. His explanation—that he witnessed the perp run over a little girl in the car he had just stolen—made me scratch my head a bit. (Like, if the guy never even slowed down, from what vantage point did you witness this, and how was that the same vantage point from which you could have seen the accident and manage to chase the guy. But these details are unimportant.) He gets suspended and ends up in a bar where Walter Matthau (billed with the fake name of Walter Matuschanskayasky) is drinking heavily and a bunch of classic ’70s heavies are arguing over pool.

He meets some old friends/guys he busted there: Daredevil Richard Roundtree (Shaft!) and manager Gabriel Dell (who was one of the original Dead End kids, I believe, and may forever be immortalized as the voice of Boba Fett in “The Star Wars Holiday Christmas Special”). They’re short of cash after being shaken down by the pool hustlers they owe money to, but manage to wheedle $10 out of Kennedy by letting him ogle their official T-shirt, currently tightly pulled over the magnificent chest of Dell’s sister (Victoria Principal).

Principal (whom I didn’t recognize with her ’70s afro) is great in this, actually. It’s a kind of thankless role, where she goes from being ogled, to being solicited by her brother and his friend to stand around and look sexy while he does his motorcycle stunts, to being in a rioting theater, to being arrested for looting (a donut), to being detained and repeatedly nearly raped by Marjoe Gortner.

I mean.
Maybe I wasn’t focused on her face.

Marjoe (forever famous here for Starcrash) is a former serviceman/reserve troop barely repressing his rage while working at a grocery store, and creeping up to Victoria who shops there with insufficient funds. Actually, in a movie that doesn’t trade in as broad stereotypes as you might guess, his character (and Ava Gardner’s) are the cheesiest.

There’s a small army of supporting characters, too, that make up the scientific and political backdrop of the story, and who mostly vanish when the earthquake hits. The Boy and I noticed this: Amongst this crew, there was surprisingly little nonsense and cartoonish behavior. Unfortunately, Jaws (1975) would set the trope for the “authority figures refusing to see reality”, but it’s done much, much better here.

We have a grad student who predicts a small earthquake correctly and using the same ideas predicts the big one—7+, which is nice in a world where your earthquake has to be an impossible 10 or GTFO—but his supervisor (the great character actor Donald Moffat) is reluctant to contact the political mucky-mucks without more proof, for fear of the damage it will do to the office’s credibility. They agree to contact the real brain behind the science, but he’s up in Northern California being murdered by the earthquake while planting seismic activity detection devices. Ultimately, the supervisor goes to the Mayor anyway.

This is nice.
I’m using this still because the other shots of Marjoe are seriously creepy.

The Mayor has a similar problem: He can contact the governor but it’ll cost him politically if he’s wrong—and the mayor isn’t even the same party as the governor (at the time it would’ve been Reagan). Despite his misgivings, he does contact the governor who then mobilizes Marjoe Gortner (and some other guys, too, like another great character actor, George Murdock, as “Colonel”). Meanwhile, up at the dam, there’s a lot of back-and-forth between a guy who’s convinced that the thing is going to go, and his boss who’s pretty sure it isn’t and has to balance the cost of draining the water to prevent a flood and keeping the water available in case of the kinds of shortages and fires that follow an earthquake.

The point is, everyone’s trying, even at personal risk, to minimize the potential damage: They just don’t have any great solutions. Again, unlike the mayor of Amity who simply has to tell people to stay out of the water till they handle the fish ish, this movie portrays a lot of the legitimate trade-offs that come with knowing there might be a disaster. It’s a weird thing to point out, perhaps, that Earthquake (beyond its soap opera story) handles the issue of disaster management more maturely than modern films, but we appreciated that.

Anyway, the earthquake hits and everyone’s in a bad situation. Genevieve has decided to go walking in the canyon, under all the houses on stilts. She’s sent her son off to play in the park, riding over a bridge that was rickety before the earthquake. (And this is why children have never since been let out of the house.) Lorne’s trapped in the skyscraper, while Charleton and Ava are fighting down below. Our daredevil pals are trying to pitch their show when it all falls apart under the shaking. George is in the bar where only Walter Matthau escapes unscathed and complaining about not being able to get a drink.

George and Charlton, being men of action, move around the city doing action-y things. George trying to save lives, Charlton trying to save his squeeze. A good time is had by all.

And you should see the Plaza.
Frank’s Hardware has a hell of a time.

The special effects—well, let’s just say it was the Golden Age of Albert Whitlock, who made matte paintings and other visual effects for The Sting and John Carpenter’s The Thing and a bunch of late era Hitchcock movies, and even has a credit in IMDB going back to Hitch’s 1934 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Glorious, glorious mattes as far as the eye can see, most of which still read pretty well. A few of the big-scale models don’t hold up to the current eye, along with some of the “heavy objects” that clearly are cardboard or foam. There is a laughably bad moment where an elevator full of passengers crashing to their deaths is depicted with a large glob of animated blood splatted on the frames.

But mostly they work because they do read well and make the action clear, and a few are still pretty impressive. Over 140 stunt men were involved, and there are moments where you are amazed. Like when Richard Roundtree’s stunt double does the motorcycle loop, he just falls off. It’s, like, a 20 foot drop with the motorcycle landing on top of the guy. Even the run-of-the-mill (for the time) car chases have a degree of danger you don’t tend to feel these days.

The musical score by John Williams lacks the catchy themes he would be known for later, but it’s actually a pretty nice piece of work. It combines elements of orchestral bombast, ’70s TV-cop-drama brass (though without getting obnoxious as those scores often did), and even some elements of horror.

At 2 hours and 9 minutes, we were not bored. It was a fun experience, and one I would recommend, though I would recommend it more as a big screen thing. In the original release, the studio championed Sensurround: basically mega sub-woofers that made the theater shake and rumble at points. Sensurround was not widely used and ultimately abandoned because it caused structural damage to theaters and surrounding buildings.

That’s commitment to the craft.

Here he's about to rush out and catch a Battlestar.
Lorne Greene was seven years older than his daughter.

Elf (2003)

I approach revisiting most of the comedies made in my lifetime with a degree of trepidation. Much like horror movies, comedies tend to lean on surprise and atmosphere (which I’m just realizing now as I type this), both of which are very ephemeral. Additionally, comedians tend to wear out their welcome rather quickly, and just mentioning their names can be eyeroll inducing. Then, when enough time has passed to forget (or at least forgive) the desperate last gasps of a great comedian, the original stuff is rediscovered and enjoyable in all its original genius.

Yeesh.
Some induced eyerolls (and worse) from day 1.

It’s been fifteen years since Elf came out, and that is well in the comedic danger zone. Will Ferrell sort of won me over in Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back as well as number of his early performances which, if they didn’t make me laugh uproariously, at least felt like, man, this guy is really trying his heart out. (It’s an exercise for the reader to determine why or whether Ferrell’s efforts are more appealing than similar forgotten and truly desperate comics of the day like Tom Green.) And unlike a lot of comedians, Ferrell proved in many of his later roles that he could seem like a real human and not a stumbling pratfall machine.

But that’s not relevant here—or is it? Because the great mystery of Jon Favreau’s 2003 tale of a human changeling visiting New York City for the first time, is that it worked at all back in the post-9/11-Bushitler days and actually holds up pretty well today. No small part of that must be attributed to Ferrell’s earnest performance. A popular film with all the kids, this was the first time they had seen it in the theater and we all walked away in the Christmas spirit—which is what you want in a Christmas movie. (And probably why Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie, since you just want to blow up terrorists afterwards.)

No, not really.
Although, if Buddy started blowing up terrorists, this movie would be ten times better.

Director Favreau has a way of making more out of movies than is actually there on paper. This is not a great reason to rush out to see The Jungle Book or Cowboys and Aliens, but goes a long way to explain Iron Man (and in part the success of the MCU) as well as this movie. (Though The Boy and I both feel like his best and most personal film is Chef.) Elf is a sincere film, clashing up against an insincere culture, and it shows up the insincerity for the worthlessness that it is—thus it wins.

It’s a simple, corny film: Due to a Christmas Eve mix-up, a human mis-named Buddy (Will Ferrell) ends up living with the toymaker elves before discovering that he is a human. He journeys down to NYC to meet his real father (James Caan) that Santa (Ed Asner) informs him is on the “naughty list”. After about an hour-and-a-half of fish-out-of-water jokes, Buddy’s father sees the light and helps to save Christmas. Along the way, Buddy brings a little light into the lives of children, felons, his stepmother (Mary Steenburgen, Time After Time) and half-brother, as well as love to a cynical department store sales clerk (Zooey Deschanel, (500) Days of Summer, playing the normal one for a change).

No exceptions.
You know this is on a fetish site somewhere out there.

The cast is nigh perfect, even down to the smallest supporting roles. Bob Newhart as Papa Elf. Faizon Love as the nervous department store manager. Michael Lerner as the Scrooge-ish publisher. Kyle Gass and Andy Richter as Caan’s toadying hack writers. Amy Sedaris as Caan’s chipper secretary. The great Leon Redbone in the role of the Burl Ives-style snowman (and doing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Deschanel in the closing credits). Hell, 83-year-old stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen is the voice of a stop-motion cub. Peter Dinklage—on the heels of his serious, moody breakout role in The Station Agent—is awesome as the hard-bitten primadonna master of kidlit.

The soundtrack really is perfect. It’s cool, with Louis Prima, Eartha Kitt and Ray Charles belting out classics over the comic montages (“Pennies from Heaven”, “Santa Baby”, “Winter Wonderland”, respectively). The score—that is the musical itself by frequent Favreau collaborator John Debney (The Stoning of Soraya MThe Passion of the Christ) has a nice theme and is otherwise competent if a little generic.

So there's that.
A very angry elf indeed.

Even so, the film could be disastrous if the jokes were wrong. There’s a small amount of scatalogical humor. Most of the jokes that might be sleazy are defused with Buddy’s genuine innocence. The Boy and I felt that the really broad physical violence didn’t hold up that well. (I’ve often pointed out that, if you hate Will Ferrell, Elf is a movie where you can watch him get thrashed by Peter Dinklage.) It’s not that it’s bad, it just jangles a little bit somehow these days.

Most of the humor, though, is based on this Christmas-fantasy-elf clashing with 21st century society. In many ways, sort of amusingly, it’s far less cynical than, e.g., Miracle on 34th Street which is powered entirely by a group of self-interested small-minded people, while Buddy’s charm is basically to win people over to his point-of-view because it’s right. That sort of feels weird to type but it’s also sort of obvious: Spirit, Christmas or otherwise, is created by each of us for ourselves and others, so you really better not pout, cry, etc.

On the flip-side, 34th Street is a classic because it makes its argument very well, and Elf is a little weak in this regard. Caan’s transformation isn’t as supported as you might want, maybe because the actor himself is more convincing in the crustier role. But even here, the movie is saved by Favreau’s light touch: It’s not trying to be serious or deep, just genuine.

We all came out in a good mood, humming Christmas tunes. (Sort of like Die Hard, come to think of it.) Check it out—again.

No amount of Christmas spirit could save it, alas.
Gimbels went out of business in 1987.

Shoplifters

Hirokazu Koreeda, which is a name I must type quickly before I forget how to spell it, has directed three previous movies that made it to our local indie outlet (as well as many that haven’t) and The Boy and I, liking all three and seeing the strong reviews for this one decided this was easily our best bet for viewing a filmed entertainment.

Only we're more suspicious looking.
Artist’s re-enactment of The Boy and I trying to find ANYTHING worth seeing.

The other three Koreeda films we’ve seen (Like Father, Like SonOur Little Sister and After The Storm) were all examinations of what it means to be “family”. Father was about two families discovering their six-year-old sons had been switched at birth. Sister was about three sisters whose overly generous father left them for another woman, and who meet their 13-year-old half-sister after he dies. Storm was about a down-on-his-luck detective/gambler/writer who couldn’t seem to reconcile his fierce desire to be a father (and husband) with his unwillingness to compromise or improve himself.

I liked these movies in about that order, so I was concerned that Koreeda might just be on a slow slide down (as often happens in Hollywood, it seems), but I (and the Boy) really liked this fascinating study of a family kept alive and together by government money, menial and dodgy jobs, and a healthy dose of shoplifting to augment their lifestyles.

The movie opens with middle-aged Shinoda (the improbably named Lily Franky of Storm) and his apparent son Shota in action, using their coordinated tactics to shoplift from a grocery store. (Shota forgets the shampoo as it turns out.) On the way home they spy a four-year-old girl picking through the garbage and they take her home and feed her. Shinoda and his wife or maybe sister Nobuyo (Sakura Ando) try to return the girl to her home, but when they get there her mother and her mother’s abusive boyfriend are having a violent quarrel and yelling loudly that they would rather not have the little girl around.

The littlest.
Little criminals.

The little family (Shota, Shinoda and Chinatsu) live with a woman they call “grannie” and an attractive younger woman (perhaps an aunt) named Aki (Mayu Matsuoko, who was in some spin-offs of the original Japanese version of Little Forest) They take pity on the little girl against their better judgment (and on seeing marks on the little girl’s body). They decide to keep her, noting that her “real” family hasn’t even filed a missing person’s report. In fact, they don’t find out the girl’s real name until the police somehow get wind of her absence and accuse her parents of murdering her.

The whole household is kind of a mess. It isn’t obvious who’s related to whom—they all sort of act like grannie is their real grandmother, the two women like sisters, and the man like a father/son-and-brother-in-law. The first sense we get of something being not quite as it seems is Shinoda’s light badgering of Shota to call him “dad”. Meanwhile, dishonesty in the larger cultural sense abounds: Nobuyo works in a laundry facility of some sort and steals what she can from the clothes that come through. Shinoda has a construction job of some kind but he gets injured early on and we never see him work again even though, as we discover, there’s no worker’s comp for part-timers. Aki works in what I would describe as the live version of a adult webcam, entertaining customers through a two-way glass by at least partly disrobing and bouncing up and down. Even grannie’s got her scams.

They're cooking up something...
Honestly, I don’t think the characters come off as suspicious as they look in the freeze-frames.

They are kind to each other, however. Not perfect, but reasonably decent and forgiving human beings. And if this were a Hollywood movie you’d expect some message about the power of family, or near-family, or whatever they are, and some kind of Robin Hood/socialism subtext, but this movie has none of that. When it hits the fan, the family disintegrates pretty fast, survival being paramount. Motives are revealed, or implied, and they’re not necessarily pretty.

But here again, the movie avoids moralizing: Even disintegrated, it’s not at all clear that the participants were not better off together. It is clear that their relationships, however dysfunctional at the social level, are a great source of comfort and humanity to all involved. The movie teases a murderous backstory (showing pretty well that the cops are not particularly interested about what psychic havoc they might be wreaking) and also what might be a pretty dastardly crime against Shota. It basically dares you to try to come away with a neat package of opinions.

We liked the richness. We weren’t sure we liked the amount of loose ends. (Loose ends are funny: To few, and a movie feels glib. Too many, and it feels unfinished.) There were scenes that we weren’t sure why they were in there, but Koreeda is the kind of director who convinces you he knows what he’s doing, and whose movies you kinda wanna rewatch to make sure you got everything.

Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.

Hang on tight.
Stability is fleeting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

The end of the video-game-themed throwbacks at the local bijou was Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which we hadn’t seen at the time for unclear reasons. I guess, in part, it was because we had Wright pretty strongly tied to his “Spaced”/Cornetto collaborator Simon Pegg, and this is a completely separate entity. (Although Wright’s smash-cut editing is in the foreground here, in its platonic form, which is perchance why he seems to have dialed it way back since then.)

And the manga had been based on a light novel.
It could only be better if the movie had been based on the video game that was based on the manga.

The other thing is probably just lack of recognition. What is this about? Video games? Or is it a romcom? It looks sorta campy. Stylistically speaking, it is campy, but it’s also very effective, to the point where The Boy placed it above the entries in the Cornetto trilogy. (This may have to do with where The Boy is on a personal level right now than the film itself, but that doesn’t invalidate the assessment.)

The story is from a series of six graphic novels which are neither rigorously photo-realistic nor deeply bound to reality (unlike a lot of the Crackle-based comic books which seem to exist to be picked up for a low-budget TV show) and it’s hard to imagine another director who could integrate the books’ reality-shattering devices while keeping the audience engaged with the story as a real thing.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 23-year-old loser (for lack of a better word) nursing a year-old broken heart by (chastely) dating a 17-year-old high school girl (the adorable Ellen Wong of “Dark Matter” and “GLOW”). His dreams, on the other hand, are haunted by a mysterious girl with pink (or green? or blue?) hair (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, A Good Day To Die Hard, 10 Cloverfield Lane) who turns up in real life.

Even with short blue hair.
Too cute for Scott Pilgrim OR Michael Cera, TBH.

Despite warnings from his bitchy older sister (Anna Kendrick, Into The Woods, and who also had a small role in The Hollars, as did Winstead), an even bitchier random girl (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) who seems to turn up everywhere to scold him in increasingly vile (but censored) terms, Scott gloms on to Ramona and the two experience something akin to love-at-first-sight.

Problem being, Ramona’s got baggage. But rather than the usual emotional baggage (of which there is plenty in the film), this baggage takes a more literal form: If Scott wants to be with her, he has to fight her “seven evil exes”—the seven lovers she’s had prior to meeting him.

Before he realizes what’s going on, he’s already fought and defeated the first “X”:  An eighth-grade boyfriend she held hands with for a week or two.

And also too cute for Cera.
Out-Ringwalding Molly.

The movie is painted with constant cues as to its nature, with CGI being used to create effects literally from a comic book. The phone rings and the word “RIIINNG” fills up the background. But when the first fight happens—a fight to the death!—the movie goes full-on video game. (Or maybe it’s when Scott goes to the bathroom and his “pee bar” is shown decreasing.) Down to the villainous ex being reduced to a scattering of coins (not enough to pay for bus fare, alas) and a score counter over Scott increasing.

Just describing it makes me think there is no way this should work. But it does.

For one thing, as far as any Wright movie goes: You always know who the devil made it. There is nothing bland or timid about his choices. For all its comic book nature, it’s sort of the anti-Marvel film. At no point do you get the sense that the director (or any producers) said, “Hey, back off here and do what every other movie does…we can’t risk the franchise!”

But probably because what other colors were you going to do? Yellow?
Winstead’s hair goes from pink to blue to green, allegedly in homage to certain video game characters.

The music is terrific, for example, which I guess is to be expected from the director of Baby Driver. I feel like the actors are wrong for their parts in a lot of cases, but that feeling is wrong. Like, it’s hard for me to take Cera seriously as a heart-breaker, but he wins me over, not the least because he seems to sort of do it by trading on female insecurity, and sort of on accident. (He’s not a heroic character at all, until he gets the idea that Ramona is something worth fighting for.)

Also, it’s hard for me to imagine throwing over Wong for Winstead, or his former girlfriend and drummer for his band Sex-Bob-Omb (the fiercely-cute/cutely-fierce Alison Pill, Hail, Caesar!), but Winstead brings a melancholy to the role which is appealing in its own way and also really appropriate for her (mercifully vague) backstory. Then there’s Jason Schwartzman, Rushmore graduate himself, as the alpha X. (It just shouldn’t work.)

Every aspect of the movie is done with care and precision, which one expects, and this movie certainly feels like it has more heart than (the also very, very good) Baby Driver.

The Boy’s take on it was this: It took its subjects seriously without taking itself too seriously. For something that is inherently gimmicky (what if relationships were video games!) it didn’t bury its story in the (excellently placed) special effects. At the same time, it didn’t try to be hyper-allegorical or pedantic, and it never misses a chance to make you laugh just by being silly.

For example, the #2 Ex (a pre-Captain America Chris Evans!) has psychic powers that come from him being a vegan and going to the Vegan Academy. That plays out all the way to its ridiculous conclusion, and while it’s amusing social commentary, it’s also a silly sidebar away from the heavier issue of romantic scars.

It didn’t do great at the box office, probably because a lot of people had the same reaction we did at the time: Wuzzat? But it’s a fast, fun watch that uses its central conceit in a way unlikely to be successfully done again.

But good lord, when you do...
They actually look reasonably cool if you don’t freeze-frame.

MST3K Live! The 30th Anniversary Tour: The Brain

If it’s true, as I maintain, that movies are better at the cinema, it’s also true that shows are better live, for all the same reasons augmented by the physical presence of the performers. Hercules vs. Vampires will probably not go down as one of the great operas of the 21st century, but it was enjoyable heard live on a level that, e.g., watching a recording of it would not be. Reptilicus was more enjoyable simply having Joel Hodgson MC it, and I’m sure the Rifftrax Belcourt performances are more enjoyable than watching them remotely, even if “live”.

This is better than a riff, though, in a lot of ways.
“Hercules vs. Vampires” has never been riffed, somehow.

With Joel’s discovery of the “bus” (as a stand-up he had done his circuit on a plane, which has many disadvantages) on the “Watch Out For Snakes” tour, the new “Mystery Science Theater 3000” crew is able to visit a lot of different places riffing on movies and having host segments live, and they are undoubtedly more fun than any given episode. We were front-row center (as we must) and while that made a little hard to see over the central desk (and had the effect of making Jonah seem normal sized and Joel kinda tiny) it also meant we were right there when Dr. Phibes had “The Brain” drool on us.

The “experiment” was an ’80s horror called The Brain, a late entry in Canadian auteur Ed Hunt’s film career about a brain from another…place (no explanation given)…that has the power of mind control. That control increases over time as it consumes people through various unclear means. David Gale (the villain of Re-Animator) plays televangelist of sorts, beaming The Brain’s waves through screens in order to control people’s minds (to various unclear ends). Assisted by his thug Verna (stalwart character actor George Buza), the two terrorize the only man who can stand in their way.

His Tumblr.
Jonah posted this picture of him with Deanna Rooney (Phibes) on his Tumblr.

That would be high-school student Jim (Tom Breshnaham, who racked up a lot of mainstream credits in the ’80s and ’90s) and girlfriend Janet (still working Canadian actress Cynthia Preston, who did a long stint on “General Hospital” after being a major player on the “Total Recall 2070” series). The two combine the best of feckless horror-movie heroes, sort of blandly moving through the proceedings with things just sort of working out as they must for the plot to go on.

Joel’s gotten increasingly savage editing the movies being riffed, which I have mixed feelings about. I’m fine with the removing or censoring of the ’80s-era nudity because that stuff was generally as pointless as it was mandatory, and there’s so much good riffing material in that pre-CGI era, but I notice the new season of the show (“The Gauntlet”) puts every movie into an 80 minute episode. Ator: The Fighting Eagle, for example, has a 98-minute runtime without the bumpers and sketches.

Now, we followed up watching the MST3K edition of Ator with a viewing of the Rifftrax Ator and while we see what was cut out, we weren’t exactly feeling robbed. Meanwhile, Atlantic Rim is an agonizing 85 minutes, so every minute cut out of that thing helps.

The jury’s out, in other words.

Look at that. It's great.
The cheesiness of the monsters means it fits in perfectly with the MST3K ethos.

For the live show, the premise was that Jonah (Ray) and Joel were riffing as a game show hosted by Synthia (Rebecca Hanson), and they paired up with Tom Servo and Crow. (Crow is played by Hampton Yount as he is on the TV series, with Baron Vaughn being replaced as Tom Servo—as he was last time, we hope because he’s spending time with his new baby—but I can’t remember by whom. I don’t think it was Grant Baccioco, who plays M. Waverly, or Russ Walker who plays Growler.) Basically the teams would riff along certain themes and be scored on how many riffs they made on those themes, with the score arbitrarily boosted by Synthia to keep Jonah in the lead.

Of course, in the end Joel wins by popular demand, because Joel understands the power of nostalgia, and as much as he wants to turn the spotlight over, he also knows what the audience wants. That said, as an on-stage riffer, his timing and delivery are impeccable—probably better than they were back in the day.

The new bit, with Deanna Rooney as Dr. Donna St. Phibes is classic MST3K: The adorable Dr. St. Phibes, strongly evoking a Hogwart-ian professor, takes care of the poor B-movie monsters after their brief stints with stardom. It was actually explained in more detail at the show than it is in the series, with the idea being that there is a space station housing these forlorn creatures, and St. Phibes having a mixed relationship as far as her ability to control and contain them. For this show, she brought out “The Brain”, which proceeded to slaver upon those of us in the front rows. (In the show, she has a charming “Lord of the Deep” puppet.)

It’s funny. And good-natured. Sadly (and I expect due to the expense of performing in L.A.) there was only the one feature on this date, while other cities also got to see “Deathstalker”, a popular ’80s target for sarcastic commentary.

I liked to think that she found dignified work artificially inseminating pigs.
The lovely Christine Kossak didn’t work much after this movie required her to “struggle” against the brain.

Shoah: The Four Sisters

Here’s something to be thankful for this weekend: You’re not a Jew in Europe in WWII. When we last heard from the late Claude Lanzmann, it was for his riveting 3:40 minute long interview of Benjamin Murmelstein interview, The Last of the Unjust. That movie came at a similar time, in cinematic terms: That is to say, there seems to be nothing worthwhile out, to the extent where a four-and-a-half hour documentary seems to be the best use of your movie-going time.

Now, don’t run away: This is actually four separate hour-plus interviews that will presumably show up as a series on Netflix or Amazon soon. And while, as a whole, they aren’t as riveting as Last of the Unjust, where we really were kind of on the edge of our seats, they are interesting, revealing and different. (They say it’s Lanzmann’s last film, as the director died in July at the age of 92, but with 350 hours of footage to cull from, I’d be surprised if more wasn’t culled from those interviews.)

This particular documentary tells the story of four women (not literal sisters), a Pole, a Czech, a Romanian and a Hungarian, I believe, all of whom had different (but similar) experiences of the “Shoah” (which I believe means “catastrophe”). And by “tells the story”, I mean Lanzmann asks occasional questions to get his subjects to talk.

I'm not making jokes on this one.
Ruth Elias

The Hippocratic Oath is the first story, told by Ruth Elias. This is one of those stories, were it a movie, you’d have a hard time believing it: Elias evaded death at every turn, in great measure due to luck, and you’d think “no one could be that lucky” except by definition, the only one to be around for an interview would be someone who was precisely that lucky. And “lucky” is a term that carries considerable ironic weight here.

She was a 19-year-old girl from a well-off family whose patriarch got them fake (non-Jewish) IDs to escape, but they were ratted out and sent to a camp. Her family was “selected” and shipped out to a death camp, but she was allowed to stay behind because she had managed to marry her boyfriend. She has three or four run-ins with this kind of near miss, including one where she manages to escape Auschwitz with a work crew by sandwiching herself between prettier girls (she was eight months pregnant).

She ends up back in Auschwitz receiving the personal attention of Josef Mengele, which is never a good thing. She survives, but at an incredible cost.

...
Ada Lichtman and her dolls.

The Merry Flea is the next story, and it is horror-movie creepy. (Actually, the theme of these stories are the insanity, surreality and degradation that accompanied the Holocaust.) Ada Lichtman was sent to Sobibor as a young woman, singled out for laundry work—again, one of those situations where in a group of thousands, only three survived—and ends up cleaning, repairing and making clothes for dolls. (She’s actually doing this kind of work during the interview.)

The Nazis would kill the Jewish children, but they would take their toys first (of course). They would then take the dolls home for their children to play with, and Lichtman was one who prepared those dolls for the children. This interview also features a man from the same camp, though he says very little. One of the effects (that now seems not only deliberate but calculated) of the various terrors visited on the Jews was to create a culture of shame that persists to a degree even to this day.

“The Merry Flea” was what the Germans called their quarters at Sobibor, hence the title of this segment.

On the beach in...Florida?
Paula Biren

The last interview is called Baluty, and the interview subject (Paula Biren, also apparently interviewed in Shoah) had been a girl who lived in the Ghetto of Lodz, after the Germans invaded and penned up all the Jews into the worst areas of town. The degree to which the Jews are shocked at their initial rough treatment gives an understanding of how they could be so ignorant of the Holocaust, with Biren being the only one who claims to understanding what was going on as early as ’42. (I think Lichtman says she didn’t believe until she smelled the smoke and ash.)

Biren is an interesting subject (who emigrated to America, where the others went to Israel) because of the tenor of her contempt for the Nazis and their “absurd” ghetto, and its stupid little programs, as well as her sense of betrayal by Poland after the war, when the Jews were not welcome back. (A theme echoed in Aftershock and 1945, among others.) She’s more spirited than the rest of her family, which sometimes serves her and them well—and sometimes doesn’t. Lanzmann digs (and it can sound like a challenge) when she discusses being on the Lodz ghetto “police force”, but he does a good job of making it more about the mindset than trying to attack, which brings us to the penultimate episode.

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Lanzmann with Hanna Marton

Noah’s Ark is an interview with Hannah Marton, who was saved from Auschwitz by Rudolf Kasztner, a man considered by some to be a war criminal. He was accused of collaboration in 1957, and cleared in 1958—posthumously—and with this interview we get into Last of the Unjust territory.  These are difficult matters now with virtually nothing at stake: How impossible were the choices made at the time?

I mention this last because it’s the only point where I felt like Lanzmann was getting at something: Something Marxist. I don’t want to make too much of it, but when he talks about who Kasztner saved, he’s stating outright that they were “privileged” people. Morton is kind of shocked by this: At first she takes it literally by pointing out that there were lots of poor people (like, everyone, since the Nazis had taken all their stuff), but when he switches to talking about the proletariat, she says there were a lot of tradesmen and the like. To say nothing of veterans (Jews were an unarmed part of the Hungarian army which was part of the routed German invasion of Russia) His attempt to cast this as some kind of class struggle is brief, but I did discover later that Lanzmann had been quite the Marxist after his time in the French Resistance.

To sum up on the three point Moviegique documentary scale:

  1. Topic. Obviously important, but also interesting.
  2. Presentation. As close to “nil” as imaginable. Lanzmann provides no context, which can make this movie a little hard to get into, if you have no idea what they’re talking about.
  3. Slant. Apart from the momentary Marxist outburst, Lanzmann does have a slant (beyond “Nazis are bad”). He strictly interviews victims (though there’s a lot of nuance in that word “victim”, which all the interview subjects understand) and doesn’t try to understand.

He’s criticized for this (e.g. in this Jacobin article) but—as long as his aren’t the only Holocaust documentaries in existence—there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, by not trying to understand, he probably spares the film from being terribly distorted. What we’re left with are truly challenging situations that you can grasp, and which bring a human richness to things in danger of being just numbers and words, like 6,000,000 and Holocaust.

It was a good movie to see right before Thanksgiving, and it makes me grateful (as many things do these days) above all for the Second Amendment.,