They Shall Not Grow Old

Since the passing of the pass of movie, The Boy and I have been AMC stubs/A-list/whatever-they-call-it members. Membership is $20/month and you can see up to three movies a week for free. The trick, the catch, the fly in the ointment and the monkey in the wrench…that’s finding three movies in a month at AMC, especially given this does not cover any of the things we usually go to the AMC for: Rifftrax, TCM Big Screen Presents, and the Hayao Miyazaki revivals. AMC tickets around here are so expensive, $12.50 for a matinee, that you only need to see two movies to make your $20/month back, and we’ve probably managed that for three of the six months we’ve had it. (One Chinatown triple feature makes up for a lot, though.)

So, what a delight to find an actual film—by Peter Jackson, no less!—that we wanted to see and which, while it was in 3D and a documentary, did not disappoint on every frame.

Great job.
Hardly ANY of the frames were disappointing.

This is a documentary about English soldiers in WWI. It is told entirely in their words, with recording made in the ’70s, and using only archival footage (from a specific source). It’s a moving and intimate portrait of what some have called “The Dumbest War”. (Where “some” is “me”.) There is no narrator, so the movie sort of floats from the beginning of the conflict to the end, without any sense of progress, really, which while highly abbreviated also feels very real. If you’re in the trenches of the war, you often don’t know what’s going on, whether the end is near or even who’s winning.

As a result it’s a kind of unique experience, and less documentarian than one expects out of movie like this. You don’t get facts and figures, or even much in the way of geography: This is all focused on France and trenches. You learn less about The Great War, perhaps, than you do about war, generally. I can’t really think of another film like it, and I can’t really find fault with it.

After the movie proper there is a “making of” feature with Peter Jackson explaining what they did to the footage to bring it to life and how they selected the audio tapes, and how they organized the moving footage (most of it) with the occasional stills (mostly of dead bodies, as it stands out in my mind). This was a tremendous cap to the film.

It's not going to end well.
These guys are all about to charge over that ridge.

When you’re watching, it’s pretty clear that the film has been colorized (though you can’t be sure, it’s done so well, and there was color film back in the day), and some depth has been added as well. (This is the least annoying 3D movie I’ve ever seen.) When the sound comes on, you’re sort of amazed, because sound recording, while not impossible, would’ve been very challenging in a war zone.

But of course Jackson has recreated the sound. In an era of “bad lip reading”, his conception of how the sound would be is very, very convincing. In one case, he found the speech being read by the subject. A soldier saying “Hi, mum,” is utterly charming and both expected and unexpected. Actually, the inability of the soldiers to ignore the cameras is charming, a la The Wizard of Oz. Less charming is that these people in many case died shortly after the footage.

I did spot the tactic of showing people in the movie and then showing stills of the corpses similar looking people. Like all of this stuff, it’s fairly moving and gives a sense of things. It’s literal but non-specific, is probably how I’d describe it.

People were not, in fact, in black-and-white.
It also seems more lively, more true-to-life.

On the three point scale:

  1. Obviously the material is worthwhile and the attitudes on display are interesting and noteworthy.
  2. The presentation is amazing: A fascinating use of state-of-the-art film technology.
  3. Slant: None that I could see. Not even an anti-war slant, really. At points, the soldiers are saying, “When we weren’t fighting, at times it was just like camping out with the boys.”

Probably the least surprising aspect of the film was discovering that Peter Jackson is a hoarder. When they’re getting the colors for the uniforms, well, of course he happens to have a few WWI English and German uniforms lying around for reference. Need to know what a WWI cannon looks like up close…well, he’s got a couple of those, too. (Though not working, since they had to use modern artillery for the sounds.)

Worth watching and worth watching for the making-of feature, too.

Tanks! For the memories!
I think Jackson had these in his garage.

Stormy Weather (1943)

It’s black history month and that means—well, probably that we’re not going to be super interested in the throwbacks. Next year, I’ll see if I can’t encourage them to feature blaxploitation flicks. I don’t think they’d go for our other idea, which was a “Blackface History Month”. You could show some great movies: The Jazz Singer and Holiday InnBirth of a Nation, too, but I think it would be more fun if you showed movies where blackface was highlighted positively.

Intriguingly enough, Stormy Weather is a movie you could show for blackface history month. Although it’s mostly song-and-dance, there is a rather funny comedy bit in the middle where two friends have a conversation without ever finishing a sentence, and the two light-skinned performers black up before going on.

So.
Miller and Lee do their funny bits in blackface.

Life is complicated. History, being all the lives that have gone before, especially so.

This isn’t so much a musical as it is a hyper-condensed musical review. It has the very rough shape of a typical musical: Bill Robinson plays a guy who gets back from WWI and falls in love with Lena Horne (because, duh) but hasn’t made a name for himself so he goes off to do that, the two run into each other again and Lena gets him a spot in the show she’s in, and ultimately the two go on to great success only to break up because Bill wants to settle down and Lena doesn’t.

Well, of course Bill wants to settle, he’s 65 years old. Lena’s only 26! (And neither of them age in the slightest between 1918 and 1943!)

And look at those dresses!
What’s a few decades between living legends?

The age difference never comes up because it doesn’t matter: This is an excuse for some of the greatest musicians and performers to do their thing and that’s what they do. If it’s not “great” in the traditional musical-movie sense, it is basically 76 minutes of sheer delight, most of which has been cut into individual bits and put on YouTube over the years. The Flower, for example, had seen Fats Waller’s numbers (“That Ain’t Right”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and The Boy and/or The Flower had seen the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning dance number.

Speaking of problematic, besides the blackface, there’s an African primitive number. Heh. Why, it’s almost like, at a time when racism was a far more serious concern, people were much less sensitive to nonsense.

Cab Calloway, possibly my favorite bandleader of the era, wears an amazing zoot suit for his number. (The Flower did not care for that particular fashion.)

Remember that?
I confess, it reminds me of the MGM wolf.

When he’s roped back into performing—the basic gimmick being that he gets to see Lena’s heartfelt rendition of the titular song—he’s lured in by someone saying “It’s for the soldiers.”

“Anything for the soldiers!”

It stuck out, you know? I mean, obviously this is WWII, but having just seen Mal-Mo-E, I realized that we no longer have the actual language to be patriotic and grateful for our own country. You can argue—not without basis—that Robinson’s patriotism was a virtual requirement for a movie of the time. Nonetheless, the language was there and it was delivered sincerely.

Anyway, it’s an amazing little time capsule and worth watching if you have any interest in the music of the period.

A movie of moments.
I could post great scenes from it all day.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The new office puts The Boy and I within striking distance of some of the usually hard-to-get-to theaters, and this created the felicitous circumstance where we actually able to see the Coen brothers’ new movie on the Big Screen, instead of just on Netflix. As a rule-of-thumb, I don’t watch movies on TV, but as another rule of thumb, I see all the Coen brothers’ movies. The former was winning over the latter until this fortuitous day.

There’s another rule of thumb: Anthology movies suck. This is in conflict with yet a fourth rule of thumb (I’m all thumbs!), to wit: Coen brothers’ movies are great.

That's him singing!
Tim Blake Nelson does not have a stunt yodeler this time.

The greatest anthology movie I’ve ever seen was 2014’s Argentine/Spanish movie Wild Tales. I may have even remarked at the time that it was the only good anthology I’d ever seen, but that’s a bit less defensible. Nonetheless, it is typically the case of anthology films that there is one good, well-developed story—often the longest story—that is not quite long enough to be a feature, and which is then padded out with some lesser stuff, sometimes things that don’t rise much about a shaggy dog story.

Now, we really liked this movie, but I feel like a lot of people are going to have the aforementioned reaction to it: Some of the stories are very good, and some are weaker. But I also feel like there won’t be broad agreement as to which is which.

Of the six stories here, we have the full range of Coen: The opening story is a broadly comic mashup with Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy—who’s also a cold-blooded gunslinger. (Think Raising Arizona.) The second story is darkly comic features James Franco as a bank robber who escapes the noose only to find himself in even deeper (?) water. (I’d say A Serious Man, though with more insouciance.)

Heh.
Have some dignity, man!

The third story has Liam Neeson as an impresario to an armless/legless actor (Dudley from Harry Potter!) who turns out record crowds as they travel around the West…at least for a while. (This feels sorta Miller’s Crossing.) The fourth story has Tom Waits as a prospector who finds a big vein of gold in a beautiful but isolated land. If I had to relate it, tone-wise, it might best fit No Country For Old Men, though it’s not as bleak.

The fifth story takes place on the Oregon Trail, and is a tale of hardship and romance, reminiscent of True Grit (down to the characters’ refusal to use contractions in their speech). The last story is basically a ghost story which probably calls Blood Simple to mind as much as anything.

So, you know, if you like their funny movies, the first two stories, and maybe the last are going to be more to your liking than the middle ones. I might say I liked “The Gal Who Got Rattled” (the Oregon Trail one) the most, because it’s a funny sort of love story that really throws into contrast life then versus life now. But it’s really hard to compare them one to the next because they are very different (apart from their innate Coen-ness).

She does so well, too, up to a point.
Zoe Kazan gets rattled.

We found the Liam Neeson one (“Meal Ticket”) the least interesting, perhaps because it played out exactly as we expected it to. The Tom Waits shouldn’t have been as interesting as it was, given that it’s mostly just one guy occasionally talking to himself.

The last one is odd-in-that-Coen-way because it’s not really a ghost story, or not exactly a ghost story. It’s much like the Dybbuk story at the front of “A Serious Man” and Brendan Gleeson (CalvaryThe Guard) and Jonjo O’Neill (Defiance) as the Irishman and the Englishman, respectively, spell out the Coen philosophy.

Nobody knows anything. (Pace Eddie Mannix.) If you think you know what’s going on, wait five minutes, and the tide will turn. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is moments of clarity where we briefly get a glimpse of the machinations of fate. Or, even if we don’t understand those machinations, we may be favored by them.

That was Waits, right?
Last time I remember seeing Tom Waits in a film, it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In this last story, the Irishman and the Englishman are bounty hunters on board a stagecoach with three other passengers. The stagecoach never stops till it reaches its destination. The five argue increasingly metaphysical points, with the Englishman saying:

Englishman: I must say, it’s always interesting watching them after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage.
Frenchman: Passage?
Englishman: From here to there. To the other side. Watching them try to make sense of it, as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it. I do. I do.
Trapper: Try to make sense of what?
Englishman: All of it.
Lady: And do they ever succeed?
Englishman: [smiles] How would I know? I’m only watching!

And at the end, the reluctance of the three other passengers to follow the Englishman and the Irishman into the spooky hotel suggests that they’re all dead. But if they’re all dead, what was the corpse that the two bounty hunters took into the hotel? It doesn’t work!

But then, I don’t think it’s supposed to. They just like looking into our eyes as we try to make sense of it. They do. They do.

I, for one, was not fooled. In particular, I was not fooled by the central conceit that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a real-live book with color plates and published long ago. These are original Coen stories, except for “All Gold Canyon” which is a Jack London story, and “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, which was “inspired by” a story by Stewart Edward White.

Great performances. I thought Jonjo O’Neill gave the best performance I ever saw out of Paul Rudd. (I kept looking at him thinking, “Is that Paul Rudd? He’s doing great here!”) Harry Melling does an amazing job without arms and legs. Zoe Kazan (the gal who ends up quite rattled indeed) manages to be appealing in a movie designed to make nobody look very good. (The Old West was dirty.)

Carter Burwell’s score, six of them really, each as different from the others as the stories themselves, is spot on. His score for “The Gal” feels very Randy Newman-esque, though perhaps more owing to the Newmeister’s love of old-style orchestration and folksy melodies.

We could see it again. If it comes out closer to home, we’ll take The Flower, in fact. It won’t change anyone’s minds about the Coen brothers, though.

Hell?
The Frenchman, the Lady and the Trapper on their way to…?

Your Name Is Rose (Rosebud)

This one had a lot of different titles. It showed up as Rosebud at the theater but I think I saw it as “My Name is Rose” and “Her Name is Rose”. When I translated the characters online, Your Name Is Rose is what finally came out.

It's cute.
Kids dressing up like their parents.

It’s about a girl named “Rose”, duh. It’s 1978 and a chance cancellation leads to this poor factory girl singing in a local dive. She gets spotted by a talent agent, but also wins the heart of a young medical student when the police crash the place because…well, because it’s Korea in the ’70s and that was a thing.

She has a shot at glory but a chance rainstorm leads to sex…presumably—this isn’t a western movie where you’re going to see things (pace Handmaiden)—and her career is ruined when she refuses to have an abortion. Her doctor boyfriend has already gone to America at the insistence of his father who doesn’t want him involved with a factory girl, and he’s not even aware she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, Rose struggles by as a single mother, constantly dedicating and re-dedicating her life to her daughter.

It reminded me of Mildred Pierce. It’s a sort of melodramatic soaper that relies on class distinction as well as an unexplained and inexplicable pride. Rose is very proud. She always does what she wants, at least until her daughter comes along. And even then, it takes a big scare to lure her away from her dreams of music. When the doctor re-emerges and discovers he has a daughter, Rose is recalcitrant and refuses to admit that even is her father.

They were...I think.
Korean movie captures are hard to get so enjoy pictures of people who were probably in this.

Meanwhile, through this journey, there’s a guitarist and songwriter who fell in love with her when she showed up to her talent agent, and tags along for the rest of her life, unrequited. The story is actually told in flashback as he shows up at her…beach music school?…with a bunch of kids. I feel like much was cut from this movie (which is over two hours) because when we open, the jilted lover has an album the two of them on it, and there isn’t any point in the movie where they actually had any success to make a record. There are a few other things that feel “missing” but it didn’t bother us much.

Interestingly—I’ve never seen this in an American movie—one set of actors is used for the  ’70s and ’80s segments of the film, and then in the ’90s, when the characters are middle-aged, a different set of actors fulfill the main roles. Usually, Hollywood movies try to use makeup to go one way or the other, and not very successfully.

Another thing which was kind of nice was that the movie teases a Mildred Pierce-type sad ending but has a last minute redemption with an almost lightly comic stinger. It’s like melodrama without being so…melodramatic. “These things happen”, it says, “and if you’re not careful, they’ll happen again.”

We both felt it dragged a little in the middle. The characters and events are always interesting, which keeps you from getting bored, but the movie (like Rose) feels unfocused at times. We groaned when we saw Rose take a promising job in the finance sector because we just saw Default and we knew that wouldn’t end well. We had no idea how badly it would end for her.

It’s not a super driven, highly focused narrative but it was still quite enjoyable. We followed it up with the patriotic Mal-Mo-E.

Maybe.
A wacky misunderstanding about to be cleared up?

Extreme Job

A down-and-out bunch of cops sets up a stakeout in a restaurant across the street from a drug-lord’s HQ, only to find the restaurant is shutting down. In a panic, the desperate detectives buy out the restaurant only to find that its surprising success greatly interferes with their ability to conduct their investigation.

Waitaminute.

That’s the plot of last year’s Lobster Cop, a Chinese film.

They do this ALL the time.
Caught you!

This is a completely different thing. It’s Korean. And they’re making fried chicken.

Actually, the kind of funny thing about this movie is that, yes, it is completely different and that is because it’s Korean. (The fried chicken vs. lobster distinction seems to be a minor consideration.) We also enjoyed it a fair amount more than the Chinese film, and perhaps the most of the day’s Koreatown triple-feature. It is interesting to note, when similar movies are released, why one favors one over the other. It’s not just “Korean” over “Chinese”, as we mostly enjoyed the Chinese Detective Chinatown 2 more than The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, but in this case I feel like the Korean POV played a big factor.

When we open, our heroes are trying to bust a small-time drug user/dealer in an illegal poker game by doing the fancy “rappelling in through the skyscraper’s windows” but instead of smashing through the windows, they just hang there outside, due to their new policy of minimizing property damage. This unfortunately allows their perp to escape. As four of them are chasing him through the streets, their fifth member glides by on his scooter and easily takes the perp down.

But it's a big Asian thing, I guess.
You have to be pretty cocky to gloat with THAT haircut.

While he’s gloating at his frustrated team members, the perp tazes him and gets away again.

Ultimately, the perp runs through the street causing a 15- (or 16-, there’s a lot of debate on this topic) car pileup, when he gets hit by a bus, and they finally nab him.

Cut to scene with angry chief and a last ditch attempt to nail a big fish, and pretty soon you’re running a fried chicken restaurant. Far more than the Chinese film, Extreme Job plays up the comedy inherent in trying to run a restaurant while being a cop. (It’s not really possible.) In the second act of Lobster Cop, the movie goes full-bore hard-boiled detective story in a way that’s not unusual Asian cinema but not entirely successful (although said scenes are themselves very effective).

At the end of the second act of Extreme Job, not only is our team suspended from the force, but their restaurant’s good name has been tarnished by a muckraking TV producer who felt jilted because they didn’t want to be on his show, and when the Captain’s wife is comforting him, she says while it will be hard, they can start over with his retirement money—which she doesn’t know he’s spent to buy the restaurant.

It’s dark, but not like people-getting-murdered dark.

The third act turnaround is a thing of wonder: Fully investing themselves in the fried chicken business (seeing no other alternative), they end up being franchised, but that franchise is just a front for the very drug lords they were trying to catch. When investigating the various poorly-performing franchises, they use all their police skills and finally piece together what’s going on.

There’s a climactic action scene which is fairly epic and fascinating because it explains how the team came to be in the first place, which was sort of the real mystery.

They're good at...things.
Our…heroes?

It’s fun. You like the characters. You’re not really sure till the very end whether they’re going to stay cops or just give it up and sell chicken. There’s more honor in the former, of course, but it wasn’t as unthinkable here as it was in Lobster Cop. (Though the chief’s wife was rather reticent: “We’ll do anything. Except run a chicken shop.”

There’s a bad-ass chick, which happens in Asian movies—was probably invented in that land—but Jang Hee-Jin is very convincing, martial arts wise. Lee Ha-nee (A Heart Blackened) is somewhat less so but she does a great job of being a kind of unappealing shrew…that you still like. (The same character appears in Lobster Cop and has the same kind of character arc, too.)

It was a good start to the day, and would be followed up with the soaper Your Name Is Rose and the historical drama Mal-mo-e.

She looks vicious, though, doesn't she?
I think that: a) Jang Hee-Jin is the bad-ass chick; b) This is Jang Hee-Jin. Korean movies are hard to research.

Groundhog Day (1993)

“Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!”

“It’s cold out there every day. What is this, Miami Beach?”

Name another. We'll wait.
Most iconic clock since Harold Llyod in “Safety Last”.

We had just re-viewed The Wizard of Oz and John Carpenter’s The Thing which, by themselves, speak to different (and often more effective eras of special effects), and which also reflect intense care in every shot, scene or sequence, and when Groundhog Day rolled around this Thursday, The Boy and I were interested—but not really excited—to go see it. (Around here, Groundhog Day is considered to be part of a trilogy with Edge of Tomorrow and Happy Death Day.)

Modestly received in 1993, with a box office sandwiched between Grumpy Old Men and Free Willy, this story of a weatherman forced to relive the same day over and over has grown in stature over time. Sometimes, of course, this happens from mere nostalgia but a close re-view shows that, like, The Thing and The Wizard of Oz, the moment-by-moment attention to detail that makes a good movie great.

This could’ve been a hacky rip-off of It’s A Wonderful Life, but two plot points elevate it: one by its absence and one by its presence. The absent plot point was a detail in the original script where Phil’s curse is revealed to have been placed on him by an embittered ex-girlfriend. Without that, we are left to see it as a punishment/gift from God—a chance for redemption. In fact, when Phil has his first sincere night with Rita, he tells her that he fell in love with her at first sight, and in that moment realized that who he was was not good enough for her. The “curse” can seen to be self-inflicted from that point.

As seen in these outtakes.
In Stephen King’s novelization, Phil slowly turns into an actual groundhog.

The second point happens right after that scene, when after finding true love and sincerity, Phil wakes up on the exact same day. In other words, love—not even “true love”—is not enough to redeem him. He needs to extend this love out to the world. He needs to be that person he wants to be, and have that be enough.

Huge points to Harold Ramis (who has a cameo as a doctor, just like Jon Favreau in Elf, making me wonder if this is some kind of bone thrown to Jewish mothers of actors) for cutting the curse scene, and for recognizing something a little more divine in the overall arc.

Obviously, though, this movie is powered by Bill Murray’s performance. After a disastrous plunge into serious drama—The Razor’s Edge, which he negotiated by agreeing to be in Ghostbusters—Murray began to put more dramatic depth into comedic roles. For a while, his signature role was “The Jerk Who Gets Redeemed”, beginning with Scrooged and sorta wearing out its welcome with Larger Than Life (one of two elephant-based films of the year), but finding something akin to perfection here.

Ned! Ned The Head! Needlenose Ned!
Murray and Tobolowsky, of course.

Phil Connors is deeply unlikable when we meet him. At his worst, Murray’s smarminess can seep into what should be sincere moments—in my opinion, a weakness of the original Ghostbusters—but here, he’s in full command of it. When he first sees Rita, he falls in love with her, but his way of dealing with people is by being a jerk, which is not a tactic that’s going to work with her. His arrogance is so severe, that he cannot accept the smallest kindness gracefully, as when Rita puts him up in the B&B instead of the “fleabag hotel”. (This isolation from the rest of his crew, Rita and Larry, is a good dramatic move as well.)

By turns, we see Phil go from arrogance to fear to a maniacal kind of anger to sly manipulation which, when it fails in his approaches to Rita, leads to despair, apathy and repeated suicides. (As The Boy noted, “Feel good movies can get really dark!”). At no point, though, do we get any sense from Murray-the-actor that he feels like he’s above the material, or see the kind of compulsive clowning and defusing of potentially strong drama. In fact, after Phil’s first near-miss with Rita, his desperate attempts to “be fun” feel almost like Murray self-parody.

Freed of any distractions, Phil begins to discover the world—and other people. And, while he pines for Rita, he’s ultimately happy in serving others in his never-ending series of “now”s. Again, Murray’s sincerity wins out and, by the end, even some of his signature smarmy moves come across as genuine, which is a hell of a feat. In fact, I don’t wonder if the fact that he is less identified with a certain style of comedy today than he was 30 years ago is part of what makes the movie better with time (cf. Edward G. Robinson’s performance in The 10 Commandments).

She makes noises like a chipmunk when she gets excited.
French poetry? Should’ve stuck with Nancy.

Beyond Murray, the supporting cast is perfect. I have noted in the past that Rita is the weak link—I mean, she majored in 19th century French Poetry and visibly disapproves of Phil because she always drinks to World Peace—but whatever limitations Andie MacDowell has an actress, she manages to make some insufferable characteristics charming. The World Peace thing, for example, looks to be less about disapproving of Phil for drinking to the groundhog, and more about his

insincerity.

Chris Elliott as Larry is, I think, kind of a reminder that even if we’re not all as bad as Phil, we all have our own kinds of arrogance and interest in having others love us more than we wish to love them in return. Stephen Tobolowsky’s Ned Ryerson—whose performance Ramis struggled mightily to rein in—is also one of those characters that would challenge the best of us to be generous and gracious, but in the context of the movie, that makes him more than just comic relief.

The movie never tries to tell us people are perfect, overly good or smart, but that they are worthy of being treated well nonetheless—and we are all served by doing so. And it does this without losing sight of the need to be funny and entertaining, and not preachy.

This, from the guy who directed Caddyshack and Vacation. It’s definitely worth a re-watch.

They'll never make another decent Ghostbusters.
R.I.P., buddy.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I bought tickets for this TCM-sponsored screening of The Wizard of Oz on the Thursday before the Sunday showing, and only the front row was open. It was a matinee and there were a mixture of old farts and youngsters, which makes for a noisy crowd. And then Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and theater went quiet.

Stupid dog, you make me look bad.
“Toto, stop looking at the camera. Toto. TOTO!”

I claim no objectivity (if there is such a thing) about this film, as a long time lover of Judy Garland: Pre-kids, we would rent every Judy Garland movie we could find, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter ParadeIn The Good Old Summertime, the Andy Hardy flicks with Mickey Rooney, and we loved them all, just like we loved the Decca years of “Zing! Went The String Of My Heart” and “Embraceable You” and so on.

What was interesting to me, however, is that much like our recent screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing, I found so much to admire in the technical aspects of the film. Before I get into that, though, I have to say that as corny and comic as the characters are, by the end of the 102 minutes, you feel like you know them and care about them. They tend to be unforgettable even if they’re on the screen for just a few seconds.

They tend to be unforgettable, even if after several decades of not seeing it, you haven’t thought of them. Like, when you think of the movie, you may not think of the cranky apple trees pelting the scarecrow with apples after he insults them, but you can probably picture it near perfectly now. (If you were a kid in the past 60 years, you may have watched it every year when it aired on TV, too.)

I said it.
Trees are jerks.

This is a movie that, for all its troubled production, never wastes your time. When the Tin Man (Jack Haley) does “If I Only Had A Heart”, he gets to do his (kind of amazing) dance number while Dorothy and The Scarecrow talk about inviting him along. But The Scarecrow also had a great dance number, less than three minutes long and chock full of special effects—cut. The only scene I’ve ever felt was (sorta) gratuitous was Bert Lahr’s “If I Were King Of The Forest,” but on viewing it anew, I think it gives us space for the Wizard’s minion to come back to tell them they weren’t going to be able to get in to see him, and to make their disappointment (however temporary) more stark.

Technically, this is a beautiful film. This is the last great gasp of Art Deco in cinema, and it’s perfect for the rounded towers of Oz. Every matte is lovingly detailed, and sold with utter conviction. (There are many times, in a modern high-def theater, you think they’re going to smack right into the wall.) Hundreds of hand-made flowers—never mind the field of poppies, there are flowers the camera pans past in Munchkinland that are amazingly detailed and on screen for literally two seconds.

Or am I reading too much into it?
Sleek and stylish but also sorta reminiscent of Kansan grain silos?

As I always say the test for special effects is not if they’re “realistic”, but whether they read. Do they communicate what you want them to, and nothing else, and do they fit the aesthetic of the film? But even 80 years later, the makeup on Dorothy’s three companions amazes. Not so much the plain silver of the Tin Man—though his costume conveys “metal” than I feel it should—but it’s hard to tell where the makeup starts and ends on the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow.

I hazily recall being able to see the string for the Lion’s tail, though I could not detect it at any point here. I’d suspect digital trickery but there seemed to be no serious indication that the copy we were viewing had been cleaned up in any way. (The sound was actually a little muddy and muted; AMC dropped the ball, I think.)

The witch flying out of her tower is a little comical, but the flying monkeys? Still freaky close up with some damn clever marketing. And definitely one of the all-time great scares in a kiddie movie. I think The Barbarienne remarked that there was a lot more murder in this kid’s movie than she expected (but it’s only two wicked witches, and they don’t count).

It's one of the millions of great quotes.
Fly, monkeys!

Of course the songs are literally iconic, not iconic in the way everyone throws the I-word around these days. But I bet you can also remember the Wicked Witch’s theme, and the guard’s chant (Oh-lee-oh, Lee-OH-oh!).

The performances, of course. Our four heroes were all veterans of Vaudeville. They say Vaudeville stank, and they’re not wrong: But the best of it survived to give us some of the best and most memorable moments in film and television. I mean, you could just look at virtually everyone’s feet and be amazed by the choreography, then crank that up to 11 as you realize Lahr’s costume weighed 100 pounds.

Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West is arguably the most imitated and referenced performance in history. The famously sweet lady was so frequently accosted by children asking her why she was so mean to Dorothy that she went on Mr. Rogers to explain that WWW was just a character.

No more brains than you.
Nor was it without biting satire. This whole scene is emblematic of “The Establishment” of any era.

I know that like It’s A Wonderful Life, a lot of people don’t like this movie and, well, de gustibus and all that. But it’s a hard film not to admire just on a technical and aesthetic level.

But, as I said, I am biased.

The Thing (1982)

I have a theory that nobody really wants effective horror movies. Or effective horror anything, really, because to be horrified is to be repulsed, to be made smaller, if you will. To paraphrase Mrs. Radcliffe (the mother of the Gothic Horror novel), terror expands the soul and horror contracts it. I think about this whenever I think about the reaction to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic, The Thing.

Heh, I wish I had this guy's hairline.
Portrait of the author, thinking.

Because at the time, in what is sometimes seen as a right-wing cultural backlash in the wake of Regan’s election (history, like Star Wars prequels, rhymes—and sucks), The Thing was labeled a kind of “pornography”. (I’m going off memory now so I can’t tell you who labeled it such, but my memory matches John Carpenter’s.) It didn’t do well, generated bad press, and basically ended Carpenter’s career. Yes, he went on to make many more movies but his confidence was shaken and he was never really given a budget again. (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, came out the very same weekend, and also disappointed at the box office.) Nowadays, The Thing is generally regarded as his finest film, and a masterpiece of horror.

Not for nothing, but the theater held this showing in its largest auditorium and it was sold out. Had more people pre-bought tickets, they would’ve opened a second screen.

Carpenter always wanted to do Westerns, but he came of age as a writer/director when the Western’s decade-long dominance came to an end and, of course, came to prominence as the director of Halloween. But you don’t have to look hard at a Carpenter’s film to see the Western influence, and the ghost of Howard Hawks.  (Assault on Precinct 13 is basically a low-budget, urban remake of Rio Bravo. The original Thing From Another World was produced by Hawks, and some have argued directed by him, but that’s a story in itself.) When he’s on his game, this non-sentimental Western style—tough people in tough circumstances—throws the supernatural elements of the story into sharp contrast in a way that few other directors can pull off.

Frontier justice!
Here, the townsfolk are going to lynch an innocent space alien.

I don’t think I’ve actually seen this movie since it came out. I own the DVD and started listening to the commentary but I didn’t get past the first 5-10 minutes (getting uninterrupted movie time is nigh impossible for me at home, which is why I go to the theater). I was (predictably) much less engrossed on this viewing than I was as a boy, but I was sort of surprised not just at how well it held up, but how expertly made it is.

First, has there ever been a director who got so much mileage out of a dog standing and staring?

I kid The Joker.
Despite his greater range, Jed lost the Best Supporting Oscar to Jack Nicholson.

The two most bravura scenes (the CPR scene and the blood test scene) are sheer wizardry. Beautifully shot, timed and executed, they hold up 35 years later, despite the outdated special effects technology. And when I say “outdated”, I mean “we don’t use them any more”, not “we shouldn’t use them any more.” I mean, almost nobody would do this because CGI is so much more forgiving, and for every brilliant Rob Bottin—he was 23 at the time—you’re going to get 100 Charles Band/Ghoulies-style animatronics. And for every Carpenter, knowing exactly how to light and angle the shot, you’re gonna get a Don Dohler who just turns out the lights.

Dean Cundey was the cinematographer here, and he would go on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Apollo 13 before ending up (as the boys on Red Letter Media like to point out) lensing Jack and Jill and Scooby Doo and the Curse of the Lake Monster. Let’s hope this guy gets a comeback.

The effects are still effective, is what I’m getting at, even today as I’m aware of all the tricks being used. It’s not important, I generally say, whether effects are “realistic” but it is important that they convey a persuasive aesthetic. And while Venom was fine, and probably the sort of thing you couldn’t do effectively any other way, I can’t help but notice I have a different reaction between “that’s a cool prop, a thing in the real world” and “that’s someone like me applying an algorithm to some pixels.”

You Quiero Taco HELL!
Bottin did get a little overwhelmed and Stan Winston stepped in to make Satan’s Chihuahua here.

More surprising to me was that, despite there being a dozen characters, they actually do seem to use their short screen time to demonstrate real character, not just bodies to be picked off. Carpenter worked with screenwriter Bill Lancaster (whose other credits are all The Bad News Bears-related) and had a strong hand in shaping things. Besides Kurt Russell’s MacReady and Keith David’s Childs, even more minor characters, like Palmer (David Clennon, Gone Girl), the cynical stoner who utters the immortal words “You gotta be f***in’ kidding”, feel straight out of other Carpenter films.

As much as I enjoyed the film back in the day, I would have agreed with the sentiment that it was somewhat nihilistic and the ending unsatisfyingly ambiguous. Upon a re-view, though, I didn’t get that vibe at all: Everyone’s actions, even when incompetent—and there’s a fair amount of believable incompetence, like dropping a grenade when you’re panicking—seem very sensibly survival driven. Even the nervous breakdown of Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) makes sense when you realize that he sees the bigger picture.

And as for the end, well, I think it’s actually pretty clear that our heroes have won. It’s even broken down earlier on: If either survivor is The Thing, he could simply fall upon the other and kill him. If both were The Thing, they’d have no reason to pretend they weren’t. I think it actually has a happy-ish, if rather paranoid, ending.

It’s just one of the many things you can find in the original criticism that I think is just plain wrong. Because I think what happened is that this movie really freaking horrified people, including movie critics, and they responded by attacking it.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? If something really and truly horrified you, you’d probably attack it. That’s why most “horror” movies these days are compilations of jump scares, smash cuts and cheesy CGI.

Nobody wants to get TOO scared.

Crunchy!
The problem with ordering an Hors d’oeuvre for the table is nobody wants to be the first to dig in.