True Grit (1969)

“Fill your hands you son of a bitch!” swears John Wayne iconically. He was against salty language in his movies, generally, but felt it was appropriate for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, one of the rare times where there’s a movie and a remake, and the movies are substantially different but both great. The original True Grit is often said to be marred by certain acting performances (*kaff*GlenCampbell*kaff*) but I didn’t find it to be as bad in that regard as I recalled. Certain performances are highly stylized to be sure but they were probably more affected in the remake.

Talk first, THEN put the rein in your mouth.
“Fmmm mmrr hanf moo fun vvva vich”

True Grit is the tale of young Mattie Ross who sets out to avenge her beloved papa after he’s murdered by the drunkard whose life he’s trying to save. She’s a tough bird, bargaining Strother Martin under the table and wielding her powerful attorney street cred around like a bull whip. (In a perfect touch, we learn that her lawyer, “Lawyer Daggett” is none other than Winnie The Pooh himself, John Fiedler.) Given her choice of Marshalls to go after the reprobate who killed her father, she picks the most murderous one, Rooster. Meanwhile, the callow La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) joins their mini-posse, and the three wander around the increasingly less wild West trying to hunt down the murderous Tom Chaney (great, ubiquitous character actor Jeff Corey, who was probably on every TV show in the ’60s and ’70s at least once).

Robert Duvall, not yet a breakout star, has a role as an outlaw who ends up on the wrong side of the Cogburn and La Boeuf’s firearms only to be saved by a loyal gang member he immediately sacrifices.  (But that poor soul has nothing on Dennis Hopper, who has a small role as someone who has chosen his associates poorly.) Kim Darby, who plays Mattie, was twenty-two at the time, but is perfectly believable here. (Darby was also the eponymous pubescent girl less than three years earlier from the Star Trek episode “Miri”.)

It works out.
She’s 22. He’s immortal.

I don’t have a lot to say about the film, really: Even though it’s over two hours, the time flies by. Darby’s Mattie is certainly softer and more sentimental than Hallee Steinfeld’s although we can certainly place that at the feet of the Coen brothers and the times. This would be one of director Henry Hathaway’s last films, and is probably generally considered his best, although How The West Was One has a certain cachet.

Great score by Elmer Bernstein, though I’m not sure Airplane! could ever be topped. By anyone.

Ahh-oooooh!
And Glen Campbell’s hair was FABULOUS!

The Curse of La Llorona

You know, you get this AMC Stubs membership and you only have to find two shows a month to break even. The challenge, of course, is finding two shows. (Fortunately our real-Chinatown theater is an AMC so if we head out there, it’s good for one to three flicks a trip.) But The Boy and I love us some horror and it doesn’t have to be that good, even, as long as it does something good. A lot of horror movies manage a good atmosphere, for example, and some manage some decent suspense, while a few turn out some good funhouse horror effects. But I just told The Boy I was going and he said, “OK.” and hopped on board.

Product needed!
Stubs is a regular monkey’s paw, it is.

We sort of turned and looked at each other in surprise when we realized this was part of the, uh, Conjureverse? The Warren Cinematic Universe? It’s a movie that refers tangentially to the Warrens, who are the central hubs of the Conjuring movies, Annabelle movies and a few oddballs like this one, I guess. In fact, before they were referenced, I was thinking to myself, “Holy crap, they’ve cribbed a lot of tricks from the Insidious/Conjuring guys…” But good tricks are good tricks, while they last, and this movie has a few.

The story is a basic, classic ghost story type where a woman (the titular La Llorona) murders her own children to get back at her philandering husband, but ends up paying the price in grief, and haunting the earthly plane for surrogates for the children she drowned—so she can then drown those, I guess.

Ghosts are dumb.
“I’ve been taking Mommy & Me classes just for this occasion!”

Looks, if ghosts were rational, they’d, y’know, just haunt journalists and get them to write their stories. Or, I don’t know, these days they could blog. Whatever. Going around rattling chains and murdering children doesn’t get you the sympathy you’d hope for, if you were a ghost.

This movie takes place in the ’70s—I don’t think the Conjureverse extends much later—when a well-meaning, widowed social worker (Linda Cardellini) ends up getting troubled mom (Patricia Velasquez, the hot-but-evil princess in the 1999 The Mummy) hauled in to one of Los Angeles finest family facilities, where she is unable to protect her children from La Llorona. Because, La Llorona, am I right? What is that, even? When they’re killed she sics the vengeful spirit on the widow and Bob’s Your Uncle. And La Llorona’s your revenant.

Cliche, OMG.
He’s a priest who doesn’t play by the Good Book.

It’s…okay. The lack of logic anywhere defuses most of the tension. You know, pretty solidly and basically right away, that the ghost’s destructive antics are going to stop right where the plot needs them to, as there are no limits to its spectral powers that are ascertainable. It’s got a pretty nice third act finish, however, as they bring in an exorcist ex-priest (the great Raymond Cruz, who was in that show you liked). This creates a little structure that the movie sorely needs, and facilitates a genuinely solid third act twist.

Some of my enjoyment of this movie was tempered by me thinking, “Man, Ellen Page looks old. I mean, she looks good and she’s doing a great job acting, but…” Well, of course, finding out it was actually Linda Cardellini made all the difference there. But it does kind of tell you I wasn’t super-engaged.

I mean, it’s the sort of mainline horror you expect these days: Well produced and acted but lacking in a lot of the more visceral scares that make horror movies legendary, or even memorable.

Yeah, I never said I wasn't a dope.
Pictured: Not Ellen Page

The Crow (1994)

Any mention of this tragic 1994 Brandon Lee movie results in me going into my South-Park-Satan routine, “You guys…nobody dress up as The Crow…” because really all I’ve ever known about this movie is that its lead character became the default douchebag Halloween costume of the ’90s. That and the director Alex Proyas would go on to direct Dark City which didn’t give me seizures, but made me wish I were susceptible to them.

"You guysssss...."
“Do the stupid South Park voice. Do it!”

I tamped down expectations but told The Flower whatever else about it, she might enjoy the visual style. This was not enough to induce her to come out as she was approaching her 18th birthday and, as she assures me is true of all young girls coming of age, she wants to be sure she’s ready to become a responsible member of society. So she goes to bed early and makes sure she studies her Bible diligently.

Anyway.

This is an odd, odd movie. It’s based on a comic book back when that wasn’t very common, and I feel like I need to go read the comic book to see if the weirdness is in there or if it was just that kind of strange undead-superhero-buddy-cop mashup from the go.

Overall, it’s…okay.

Birds, man.
Not an actual crow, but a raven. I guess.

The movie begins with the crime scene where Eric Draven and his girlfriend have been assaulted and murdered, but in the case of Draven it doesn’t take, and he wanders the city seeking revenge on his killers. On the one hand, I salute the in media res approach because why do we need to see another origin story (even in 1994 it was old hat) and also I hate the rape-murder scenes that fuel this kind of movie.

On the other hand, it’s curiously distancing. We don’t really know Eric or Shelly—and we barely get to know the former while not learning anything at all about the latter—so we end up with a basic supernatural revenant story where the hero chooses (for some unknown reason) to wear mime makeup. Ernie Hudson grounds the movie (as he often does) as a too-honest-for-the-city busted-down-to-seargent beat cop, but there’s not a lot of time for him.

Basically, then, we’re witness to a series of murders which are vengeance for those other murders. The bad guys are a mixed bag, as far as their own characters go. Like, I remember Jon Polito, because he’s Jon Polito doing his Jon Polito thing. (Think more The Big Lebowski and less Miller’s Crossing.) So too with David Patrick Kelly (most famous for being Luther in The Warriors). Bai Ling is creepy good but probably with more emphasis on the creepy, and Michael Wincott as the Big Boss is kind of generic. In fact, I went the whole movie thinking to myself, “Hey, is that James Remar? I think it is! Do I like James Remar? I never know until the show is over.”

This usually only happens in movies that James Remar is actually in.

Yeah, she doesn't look anything like Yeoh.
Pictured: Not James Remar with Not Michelle Yeoh

Another thing about this movie is its fakeness. The thing about all the aforementioned characters and especially Rochelle Davis (as Sarah, the young teen who was friends with the Dravens and becomes a friend to Eric in his afterlife) is that they all feel like props. It’s not the actors, really. And, more to the point, it’s not all bad. Proyas is going for stylized archetypes and it works surprisingly well in some places and less surprisingly not so well in others.

Like, the city itself is a mashup of miniatures, composition and CGI that looks completely artificial but not in a bad way. It communicates the surroundings well and you get more of a sense of space in this movie than you do in the modern CGI slugfests. But as the proceedings wear on the 2-dimensionality of everything gets increasingly evident. Like, the city seems to have no purpose or function. There are bad guys running the show, apparently, but there’s no indication that there is anything like normal human activity going on, with on exception: After we learn that the night before Halloween is like a mini-purge with criminals running amok, and that this is the night the Dravens were killed, and after seeing nothing but seedy, criminal and violent activities, a waning Draven is startled by images of monsters—only to realize they’re just happy-go-lucky kids on their way to a Halloween party.

Wait. Wut?

I liked it, though.
In a tiny metal pan in front of a too-close matte.

How does that happen? I mean, if we presume that there is, e.g., a good part of town where the privileged people live, that’s all well and good—but this all happens in the same dump with the dive bars and drug violence and so on.

It’s fine to be stylized. Even highly so. You could argue that this is the sort of trope that comic books work on, especially the darker, grittier comics of the late ’80s/early ’90s, like The Dark Knight Returns. But it jangles here.

Also, people are a little more dense than seems right. Like, a room full of baddies has an obscured, open field to fire all their weapons at Draven, and doing so fails to kill him. So then they spend the next few minutes trying to shoot him even more as he kills them. I dunno. Just seems dumb.

It’s not bad and some of the places where it gets things right are very cool. The Boy and I were glad we saw it, even, but I was pretty sure The Flower had made the right choice for her.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

In my most recent look at It’s A Wonderful Life, I referred to Gloria Grahame as “aggressively heterosexual”, a statement I stand by. That said, I hadn’t seen anything yet, because if that label applies to anything, it applies to a musical based on the Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. We happened to catch a viewing with Russ Tamblyn talking beforehand—the second actor from West Side Story we’ve seen in person, and with the Flower having the same response of “I wish they would do the Q&A after so I knew if these guys were any good”—and he and the host spoke in cautious, nearly whispered tones about how the movie would not be possible in modern times.

Can we stop saying “modern” and start saying “repressive”? Because it feels more repressive than modern to me.

Beautiful hides, indeed.
When I was a kid, six girls in their skivvies mean there was an axe murderer nearby.

Russ Tamblyn said the movie was premised on this peculiar circumstance: Gene Kelly, apparently, preferred to use gay men for his backup dancers so that he would be the focus of (female) attention during the dance numbers. So what if, Tamblyn mused, we made a movie where the dancers were all straight? Hold that thought; we’re going to revisit it.

This is the plucky story of a mountain man named Adam who comes into town looking for a wife. He is utterly confident that he will find one—he’s willing to trade his mule, after all!—and he stumbles across the small-but-feisty Jane Powell who is adorable and can cook, and seeing a chance to get out from under the grind of serving a bunch of ungrateful, demanding men, agrees to go along with him.

When she gets to Adam’s cabin, of course, she finds out that Adam has six brothers and they live like animals. But on seeing Jane Powell, they all decide they want wives, too, so she teaches them, Snow White-style, how to behave a little better and not eat like pigs, and about the sorts of things that women like in men. It’s the classic dynamic between the sexes, which is borne out by the fact that when the boys go to a barn-raising/dance they easily woo the women of their dreams away from their soft townie rivals.

Dopey, grumpy, sleepy...
The color coordination, while wholly anachronistic, helps you tell the brothers apart.

Now, nobody in 2019 has much to say about 19th century men in the wilds of Oregon, even if they are in a “town”, but compared to the Mountain Men, they are sissified. The movie does this very well, with the brothers being charming but not too smooth around the edges in a way that is beguiling to the nubile town girls and convincing to the audience. Naturally, their rivals (who had presumed they were going to marry these girls and were therefore perhaps a little lax in their pursuit of same) take considerable offense to this and start a ruckus to get the brothers kicked out of town.

The brothers, coincidentally, have only two books: The Bible (of course) and a collection of Plutarch which tells the story of the Rape of the Sabine. The word “rape” in this context of course means “abduction” but the idea that you could even use that definition of the word today without hysteria is unfounded. And to have the heroes of the movie rape the town? Literally impossible to imagine today. They even mock the emotional state of the women by pronouncing “Sabine” as “sobbin'” in one of the more memorable songs.

It is utterly charming. The oafish boys steal “their girls”—who were (and still are) attracted to them—are nonetheless understandably frightened, angered and just generally put out by this behavior. Milly, Adam’s wife, is particularly outraged and takes the girls’ parts, keeping them isolated in the house away from the boys. However, not too much mischief can go on because the farm is snowed in—and they forgot to kidnap the preacher so they could get married.

I mean.

What?
Winter’s gonna be long. And it’s gonna be hard.

Now, obviously…obviously…the rest of the movie is the boys successfully wooing the girls back, while the girls fret over a pregnant Milly and Adam traps (and sulks) in a tiny mountaintop shed. But at the end of the third act, the snow melts and the angry townspeople come back to get their women and to lynch the boys for their audacity. This is an amazing balancing act, I think. The movie acknowledges the crime, but as an essentially light-hearted romcom-type musical, it has to have a way back. But even logically knowing the movie could not end with seven hangings, I really was concerned. How do they get out of this mess?

A cute little bit of jujitsu, is all I’ll say. But this is a must-see for the non-triggered.

The music is pleasant but not legendary. “Goin’ Courtin'” is probably the only one I knew. The lyrics’ high applicability to the circumstances of the story make it less applicable to general use, I suppose. Johnny Mercer’s lyrics are fun but I’ve forgotten most of the actual music by now. Besides “Courtin'” I remember “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” and “Lonseome Polecat” with its hints of what lonely men do with sheep. Heh.

Catwoman!
Something about Julie Newmar always stands out.

The dance numbers are fantastic. Whether Tamblyn was playing up the Gene Kelly thing or not, these were the most rousing, masculine numbers you’d see outside of maybe those Russian folk dancers. Director Stanley Donen wanted seven good dancers and the studio said he could have four. The other two were kept in the background, but the third was Russ Tamblyn who was not a dancer but an acrobat/tumbler. Because he was still learning steps, the scene where Jane Powell teaches them all to dance looks very authentic—the other guys are fluid, long-time pros, and Tamblyn (who was around 18 at the time) is just jumping around like a puppy dog, hitting the moves but with the energy and choppiness of a beginner.

Of course we all adored this. Howard Keel as Adam comes across like a non-satirical (non-evil) version of Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston, and there’s some real chemistry between him and Powell. Of the six future sister-in-laws, one immediately jumped to the foreground, for obvious reasons: The saucy Dorcas, played by Catwoman herself, Julie Newmar.

But it’s that kind of movie. Men bein’ men. Women bein’ women. Nobody getting too upset for too long, or played for laughs if they do. It’s an unabashed and transgressive testament to heterosexuality.

No one spits like Gaston.
“There she is LeFou! The lucky girl I’m going to marry!”

 

Pillow Talk (1959)

So here is a movie I’ve avoided for years, because by this point in Hollywood history, the romcom is getting increasingly licentious and overt, and kinda gross. And taken as a harbinger of what’s to come, yeah, Pillow Talk is squarely in that category with a tomcatting Rock Hudson wooing an uptight 37-year-old Doris Day. But as an isolated film, it’s pretty cute. And while Doris Day was way too old for the part, she could’ve pulled it off except, as The Flower noted, the fashions of the era were not the older woman’s friend. (Of course, Day does pull it off because we, the audience, politely don’t notice her age.)

What?!
Or that Rock is actually checking out the cameraman.

The story is that Hudson and Day share a party line and she can’t ever make calls because he’s busy wooing women over the phone. Her frustration leads to a contretemps where he basically accuses her of not getting any, and I guess that’s close enough to home that it gets under her skin. Later, of course, he sees her, falls in love, but realizes he can’t possibly admit who he really is, ’cause he’s been such a jerk to her. This leads to a series of amusing torments he inflicts on her with his asymmetrical information.

It’s cute. Not great, but cute. Rock makes a convincing heterosexual. Tony Randall does not. (Though he is also charming in this.)

Old dad couldn’t keep his mouth shut, of course. I mentioned that it was ironic that Hudson did one of his bits as a flaming stereotype. She inquired as to why that was ironic and I had to break the news to her. She was…disappointed. “Other girls got Rock for two decades! I only had him for two hours!”

In my defense, I don’t quite get the appeal.

Well, maybe I get it a little.
I guess if you like strong jaws, full heads of hair, broad shoulders….

A subplot with Thelma Ritter has her being oblivious to the affections of Allen Jenkins, the elevator operator. Thelma Ritter, of course, comes up all the time in our viewing, even for just a moment. But Jenkins was also a mainstay of TV and movies for decades, one of those guys (if you’re of a certain age), you see and say “Hey, it’s that guy!”

Director Jack Gordon would go on to direct the James Garner/Doris Day vehicle Move Over, Darling, which is probably also fine and cute.

I guess my thing is I compare them to the great romcoms of the late ’30s/early ’40s. And compared to that…

Too many hungry people losing weight.
Too many people, sharing party lines.

The Pink Panther (1963)

The second feature in our Clouseau double-feature was actually the first Clouseau movie, The Pink Panther. But the funny thing about that is that The Pink Panther is not really an Inspector Clouseau movie. It’s a competent (if a little staid by modern standards) caper film wherein cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven) has had his girlfriend (Capucine) marry the bumbling French inspector Clouseau so that he can get away with his thieving shenanigans.

The screenplay is so very French, you’d think it was written by a Frenchman. And indeed it was: Maurice Richlin, who also wrote the suspiciously French-feeling Pillow Talk co-wrote this tale of seduction and thievery.

But who is REALLY the fool? Yeah, still Clouseau.
Capucine plays Our Man for a fool.

It’s very clear that the hero of the story (or anti-hero) is supposed to have been The Phantom, and we spend a lot of time with Niven in his conquest of The Princess (Claudia Cardinale) which, again, is competently done. And in the original script, Clouseau (originally to be played by Peter Ustinov) was more of a patsy than a buffoon. Sellers’ improvisations (and Edwards’ encouragement of same) created the character would immediately dominate the series.

And it’s easy to see why: Without Sellers’ Clouseau, it’s a bland, fun early ’60s crime caper with sort-of Bondian overtones. If you didn’t actually forget it, it would probably blur pleasantly in your memory with other films of the era. And then Sellers shows up and there’s magic. (Curiously, my mother, with a distaste for slapstick, buffoonery, and most kinds of comedy loves Sellers and these movies.) He has a perfect blend of overconfidence and incompetence but, as I noted in A Shot In The Dark, he’s still somehow likable.

It’s probably that his heart is pure: he has an almost Don Quixote-ish self-image, the upstanding gendarme, the detective in pursuit of the truth. He is more likable than the presumably more competent Inspector Dreyfus, because Dreyfus is (for lack of a better word) “establishment”. Dreyfus will do what he’s told, he’ll take orders from on high and shrug at corruption. Such a thing would offend Clouseau.

Comedies used to be classier.
Capucine with her co-conspirators (Nivens and Wagner).

This is why Clouseau trumps The Phantom as well: A lovable rogue has to be rebelling against the system (or some broken part of the system). Robin Hood has to be fighting King John. Han Solo has to be fighting (in the sense of refusing to be a part of) the Empire. Even Don Ameche’s unfaithful layabout in Heaven Can Wait is endearing because…well, that’s a more intriguing one which I will write on in detail some day.

But what’s Niven doing? He’s stealing from The Princess. He’s also trying to bed her, when she is appalled by the modern promiscuity of 1963. And he’s trying to set up a man who, for all his buffoonery, believes in justice and righteousness, and always acts (however comically) from that basic love what is good and right.

The punch line of the movie, immediately discarded, is that Clouseau ends up being framed as The Phantom and is on his way to jail. The detectives who arrest him, however, assure him that he will gain incredible fame and fortune as a result of his notoriety as a suave, sophisticated jewel thief, which seems to offer some consolation.

Wonderfully shot. Beautiful women. Besides Claudia Cardinale and Capucine, the late Fran Jeffries shakes her booty at the camera from about a foot away as she sings whatever forgettable ’60s pop-crooner tune they crammed into the film. And for the ladies, a young Robert Wagner (as The Phantom’s ne’er-do-well nephew) makes the moves on Capucine as well, when she mistakes him for his uncle. (Now, Wagner was 33 and Capucine was 35, but he’s supposed to be fresh out of the college he didn’t attend.)

Yow.
Besides music, Ms. Jeffries gifted us with many lovely photos.

Iconic music. Iconic titles by De Patie-Freling that netted a cartoon show based on the anthropomorphized…um…imperfection-that-looks-like-a-panther. Shot in the Dark would also result in a cartoon show, the title sequence actually receiving a standing ovation at…Cannes? But just as Clouseau outshines the Phantom here, cartoon Clouseau would be outshone by the cartoon Pink Panther.

I may prefer Claudia to Sophia.
Oh, you lucky tiger.

A Shot In The Dark (1964)

We’ve had tremendous success with the classic double-features which our theater puts on once or twice a quarter, and when they announced the Inspector Clouseau double-feature, I couldn’t resist, though I had reservations. The trailer they cut for it was not especially hilarious and comedy is possibly worse than horror for survival over time. The Flower, in fact, would declare that she did not like these movies—which may in part have to do with their general licentiousness and her relative fatigue, along with humor not enduring well.

Alert Benny Hill
I don’t know if this was the first movie to use the curved pool cue gag…might’ve been, though.

A Shot In The Dark is the second film in the Pink Panther series and very likely the funniest of them all. Based on a French play, when filming wasn’t going to Peter Sellers’ liking, he called in Panther‘s director Blake Edwards, who enlisted no less than William Peter Blatty to do a massive Inspector Clouseau-based rewrite. Vagaries of release dates and pre-production being what they were, this film was released 3-4 months after The Pink Panther, fueling speculation that it had been filmed beforehand. (Which, since Clouseau ends up going to jail in the first movie, sorta makes sense.)

In this Frenchest of plots, the carousing of a group of well-to-do-Frenchies (among themselves and their staff) results in a murder that implicates beautiful maid Maria (Elke Sommer, whom I thought I had been married to Sellers, but whom I had confused with Britt Ekland). Clouseau, instantly smitten and dumber than ever, decides that she cannot be guilty and spends the movie chasing her around as people drop dead around her. Of course, this is a comedy—for all the murders (9!)—and she is of course not actually guilty.

We swear.
There’s a perfectly logical setup for this.

Inspector Dreyfus (the great Herbert Lom) is increasingly agitated with Clouseau’s blessed incompetence, said agitation powering the second half of the movie as well as the rest of the series, and alternately puts him on and pulls him off the case, according to political and personal whims. This movie would also introduce Kato (the late Burt Kwouk) as Clouseau’s zealous sidekick, prepared to assault him at any moment, to ensure that his reflexes are all tip-top.

It’s pure silliness. At the time, the scene in the nude camp was probably pretty edgy, though that wouldn’t stop it from constantly making the rounds on TV less than a decade later.

If I didn’t find it drop-dead hilarious now, I was pleased at how much of it I did enjoy. Sellers was a master at this kind of comedy, a kind of human Homer Simpson, which is a tough thing to pull off: He has to both be an arrogant buffoon but also kind of likable, and he is. This film would set the tone for the series far more than the original, as we would see shortly.

Notable for not garnering composer Henry Mancini an Oscar. Not even a nomination! (He would win for Panther—which may have been the same year—of course.)

That eye twitch, tho'.
Even as one of Clouseau’s antagonists, Lom always came off sympathetically.

Ash Is Purest White

The thing about Asian movies (and foreign movies generally) is that appearing in an art house is not necessarily a sign of being an “art house” movie. While horror or chopsocky flicks don’t usually turn up,  sometimes just the fact of being foreign is pretentious enough to get on the marquee. On the flip side, having a different groups of different ethnicities nearby means that the movies those groups watch usually aren’t art house films. Around here the art house Indian films are swamped by the Bollywood mass market stuff, the Persian films are basically flip-a-coin, and European films are almost always the arty ones (with some notable exceptions).

Nice lighting.
Love will keep us together (when it’s not tearing us apart).

In other words, it’s hard to tell.

Which brings us to Ash Is Purest White, the story of a woman and her boyfriend who run the underground in a tiny town that is shifting under the massive weight of the Chinese government’s plans. They’re the kingpins in their tiny town when a plan gone wrong ends up with the boyfriend being beaten half-to-death in the street while the woman fires a gun to scare off the attackers and save him.

Of course, you can’t have a gun in China, and the cops interrogate her. She goes to jail for her man only to discover when she gets out that he’s started a new life and a new scam in a new city—with a new dame, and he’s not interested in having her around any more.

So who's fault is it, really?
He did teach her to shoot, sorta.

So, this is the story of a gangster’s moll whose love is a lot truer than the man she loves, and this movie details their desultory relationship over the course of twenty or thirty years. It’s an interesting play on the sensationalized, romantic, lurid gangster pix that the Chinese (and we!) love so well—but it’s definitely an art pic. It’s slow moving and morose, with an overarching message of crime not paying not so much on the local, immediate level, but really not paying on the larger life level.

Actually, the best bit in the movie is when our heroine, desperate for cash and stranded in a new city full of strangers, scams a guy out of some cash. She’s sitting in a restaurant watching the men who come in, and when she spots a mark, she walks up to him and whispers something along the lines of, “She lost the baby, you know. I’m her sister.” Despite being armed with this knowledge of masculine nature, she’s still kind of a chump for this gangster who is worthless from start to finish.

It’s not really a fun movie, like a traditional gangster flick—and perhaps worse, these are not characters you’re necessarily going to like, though at least you can find the heroine’s loyalty admirable. We did like it, but forewarned is forearmed: You will feel all 2 hours and 15 minutes of this.

Love is blind, I guess?
She’s kinda naive for a criminal/jailbird/conwoman.

Spaceballs (1987)

I was prepared for the final “March Mel-ness” movie to be particularly unfunny—my sister claimed to have walked out of it at the time—and, honestly, post-Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, everything Mel Brooks did was kind of anti-climactic, even the generally well-received To Be Or Not To Be. Hardly his fault: 1974 was a hell of a year for him. The Flower has posited, and it seems plausible, that Gene Wilder brought an extra level of heart and warmth to Brooks’ manic vaudevillian shtick.

Nice take.
She’s a good shot.

That said, this is a cute movie that holds up very well, despite (because?) being very ’80s. In it, Daphne Zuniga and Bill Pullman play generic sci-fi action princess and rogue, with Zuniga and her robot companion (Joan Rivers’ voice, Lorne Yarnell’s mime capabilities) escaping from her wedding to the even more generic Prince Valium (Jim J. Bullock!) and being rescued by Pullman and his furry sidekick John Candy. Their rivals are the incompetently slapstick Empire-stand-in, the eponymous Spaceballs. Headed by the always great Rick Moranis and peopled with the more interesting and funny cast, the Spaceballs are largely related (family name: Asshole), commanded by George Wyner—one of those character actors perpetually stuck in middle age—and, inexplicably, featuring that most ’80s of guest stars, voice-effects impresario Michael Winslow.

<insert sound effect here>
Hey, kids! Remember the ’80s?

Mix in Brooks’ stock characters: Himself as the corrupt mayor, himself as the Yoda-esque alien (see Blazing Saddles‘ Indian chief), the sexually voracious dominatrix (the lovely Leslie Bevis), some black people to make some black people jokes (the future “Star Trek Voyager”‘s Tim Russ amusingly enough), and Dom Deluise (who was a stock character for a lot of peoples’ movies), and you have yourself a pretty good time.

He's a mensch.
The schwartz MAY be with you. Who knows, really?

One thing that’s very nice is that, while the movie mocks the genre as a whole, and has quite a few notable direct parodies (like John Hurt, as himself, re-enacting his famous scene from Alien, “Oh, no, not again!”), the movie doesn’t really lean on them. There’s parody, reference humor, slapstick, vaudevillian sex jokes, along with just situational comedy adding up to a fun, if not especially amazing, time.

We all liked it, even if it was fourth on the list of four. Some of us might, maybe, put it ahead of The Producers, which we primarily like for the actual musical. But it’s hardly offensive, either comedically or socially, at least relative to Brooks’ other films, so I’m not sure why anyone familiar with Brooks would walk out. It’s probably offensive today, though the whole “combing the desert” gag is akin to the worst dad joke ever—is saved by the black guy twist.

Character actors with some muscle.
Moranis retired decades ago to raise his kids. Wyner only retired a few years ago, at age 70. Miss ’em both.
Image

The Wandering Earth

In the year 20whatever, the sun is going nova, and you know what that means!

ROAD TRIP!

No, seriously, remember when the earth was going to blow up, so we had to put all the people on spaceships and go to another planet but we didn’t tell the dumb people bec—

EXCUUUUUSE ME!
You’d think they’d have noticed but…dumb!

OK, shamelessly cribbing Steve Martin over. So, in the not-to-distant future, the sun’s going supernova, so the world decides to attach giant engines to the planet to push it out of orbit and into a new system (Alpha Centauri, I think) a few light years over. An advance ship is sent to clear the way containing our hero’s father, and his subsequent absence becomes a point of bitterness for the hero (who is, like, five, when this prologue occurs) fifteen years later.

Half the planet is dead by this point, and the rest is living underground in a dystopic nonsense world that looks like a movie representation of Hong Kong, with the hero grabbing his sister and a tractor-truck of some kind that he plans to use to escape to…well, I’m not sure where, frankly, given the earth’s surface is frozen and the underground cities fairly well controlled—though actually remarkably lax given the circumstances.

It's big but not very hot, I guess.
Here, they have wandered out next to a giant nuclear thruster propelling the planet.

Before comeuppance has a chance to, uh, come-up, the earth flies into range of Jupiter. This is a big, though known, hazard since the slightest miscalculation means that Jupiter will just slurp up the earth’s atmosphere (at best) or possibly the whole planet (at worst). I’m not going to spoil it, but there are some interesting twists and turns here, with the main story arc being the reconciliation between the hero and absentee his father, as they work together to literally save the planet.

It’s corny, hokey and preposterous, but it’s fun and it has heart. At 2:05, it doesn’t waste much time. The strong arc, as noted, is between father and son, with a little bit of time for grandfather and little sister. There’s no love interest. There is a nice bit that we see in the best movies where anyone with screen time is given some chance to demonstrate character. All different nationalities have a chance to show their best and worst, with cowards and heroes along the way.

Sure, that red thing is an "eye".
Jupiter turns out to be a real jerk, though.

It’s very good natured. And if you think, as some of you do, that it’s propaganda for a repressive Chinese government, I have to say that every Chinese movie we’ve seen is less anti-America than your average American film.

The CGI is a little dodgy in parts though, as is typical, it generally reads well enough so that you don’t care about the literal realism. Some of the lighting in the dark, frozen outer world is not as sharp as I’d have liked. But overall The Boy and I enjoyed it quite a bit, as did The Boy’s Girl.

The closing titles are cute. It starts with words on a page and I’m thinking “I don’t get it.” Then the earth is traveling through the words on the page and I’m thinking “I’ll still don’t get it.” Then the earth sails through a book and the credits read “Based on the novel by…” and I thought “OHHHHH!” So this was apparently a popular Chinese book. (Update: Nope, just a short story but…ok, it’s still a cool credits scene.) Currently airing on Netflix, so you don’t have to venture out to Monterey Park, as we did.

Crazy!
Cool credits, man!

Young Frankenstein (1974)

For “March Mel-ness”, we were offered four films. (Diane Keaton would end up getting five in May. Can I get a harrumph?) The Producers, which we had just seen. Blazing Saddles, which we had missed previously due to a Marilyn Monroe double feature. And Spaceballs, which I had not seen and had not really heard good things about, though it’s evolved to a sort of cult popularity over time. And then, of course, Young Frankenstein, which we had also just seen but which delighted The Flower so tremendously that she hesitated not at all at a second chance to see it. (“Of course we’re going to see it, dad.”)

Frau Blucher!
But let’s leave the horses at home.

The Barbarienne, who had loved the hell out of Blazing Saddles was also with us this time, and she also loved this film, though perhaps not as much. The Flower and The Boy actually ended up slightly cooler on it this time, which goes to show that a great deal goes into one’s enjoyment of a film that is extrinsic to the film. I noted this profoundly on my last two viewings of Airplane! I had seen it twice in fairly short order, and the first time I laughed a lot while the second I just sort had a pleasant buzz.

I don’t have that much to add to this. It’s startlingly corny, really. I mean, 1974 was the most jaded of years in so many ways. It was the era of porn chic and “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and first season SNL (which had Jodie Foster as a guest in which she referenced “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, which is why I was thinking of that)…and you got these clowns creeping around a lovingly recreated Frankenstein’s castle with swinging bookcases and thunderstorms with 19th century villagers lurking just outside.

At last, sweet mystery of life I've found you...
Madeline Khan, national treasure.

It’s broad, crude and often in poor taste but in a way that’s sort of charming in retrospect. The Flower looks at it this way: Gene Wilder had heart, and he brought that to his projects will Mel Brooks, which grounded those in a winning way. I tend to concur, though I think Mel’s own performances could be quite warm when not ridiculously broad.

It’s practically a worn out trope that he couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today. The sad truth is, he couldn’t make Young Frankenstein either.

Roll in ze hay!
The women are all wives and lovers. Apart from being hilarious, I mean.

The Wedding Guest

From director Michael Winterbottom, the guy who brought you Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull StoryThe TripThe Trip To Italy, and the TV series “The Trip” comes a movie that asks the daring question: What if you had a suspense thriller where all the elements of suspense and thrill were removed? The answer, unfortunately, is less interesting than the question—although on reflection, I guess that sorta makes sense.

Indian formal wear.
And he got dressed up and everything.

The fine Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) plays Jay, an uninvited wedding guest who turns out to have been hired to kidnap the bride Samira (Radhika Apte, who also starred with Patel in Lion). He does so, though in the process he kills a guard—I guess armed guards are a thing at Indian weddings—and things end up too hot for Jay’s employer, who was Samira’s boyfriend. Along the way there’s more blackmail, murder and flight, though at no point does Winterbottom stoop to lurid scenes of suspense, using dramatic lighting or music to create an air of uncertainty in the audience.

It’s basically a Jay’s story, as he goes from hard-core mercenary to patsy for Samira, a total alpha male who ends up being taken for everything—though he never realizes it, I guess, as he meekly accepts the fate that Samira heaps on him.

Radhika is not impressed by The Boy.
The Boy was not impressed with the cast’s looks.

I’m not being sarcastic or ironic here. That’s the story. And it’s fine, for what it is. Both The Boy and I felt like it was half a movie. In the other half, something would normally be revealed about Jay or Samira that changed the audiences’ view of them as characters, and perhaps that would lead to an exciting cat-and-mouse chase, or a high-tension drama where the two confront each other for their various shortcoming. But no, none of that’s in there. One really does sort of feel like Winterbottom, who wrote the screenplay, thinks anything that sensational is beneath him. We never actually learn anything about Jay’s backstory, nor anything that would lead us to believe he would end up where he does. Kind of frustrating in that regard.

It’s basically good performances that take place on the periphery of the action of another story we don’t see.

If not, move along.
Lotsa shots of Dev staring off into the middle distance. So if that’s your thing: Jackpot!