We followed up our Korean action/procedural/thriller with this simply animated story of the Khmer Rouge and—have you ever noticed that there are no Khmer Rouge apologists? Like, people (actively online) make excuses for the mass murdering champions of human history, the USSR and China, they make excuses for Cuba, they’ve forgotten Venezuela as much as they can, but you still find a few people saying the US (or the Jews, always the Jews) are responsible for Venezuela’s current situation, and yet nobody ever says “Well, the Khmer Rouge’s heart was in the right place.” I mean, The Killing Fields won three Oscars back in 1984 and starred reliable leftist Sam Waterston—but none of that bears on the merits of socialism, apparently, nor the wisdom of withdrawing from Vietnam.
Be that as it may, this reminded The Boy and I of The Missing Picture, the 2013 documentary where a man relates the horrors he experienced under the Khmer Rouge through wooden carvings. This film, from France, tells the story of a middle-class family—which has its troubles but ultimately food and work and family and a place to live—that is driven from the city, ostensibly due to some evil invading force but really just to round everyone up for slaves on the communal farms. (Hey,it worked for Stalin, right?)
The story is that our protagonists lose their young son in the migration, and the mother (Berenice Bejo, The Artist) is determined to be reunited with him (often putting unreasonable demands on her husband and others). As members of their family (and a few friends they manage to keep) fall victim to the brutality of socialism, and the mother continues to be rebuked by her overlords with (“How dare you think you can do a better job than the state at raising your child?”, which is an all-too-common refrain in “free” countries today). Ultimately they look to escape to Thailand, which is a journey fraught with peril, and with no certain safety once they get there.
There’s not a lot to say here really: The movie does a better job, perhaps, than The Missing Picture (which was from the perspective of a young child) at showing the humanity of those who were swept up in Communism. (For all their murderous cruelty, they were still human.) As such, there are a more moments of subversive heroism where people caught up in the system realize, “What have we done, O Lord?” And for all that, they are never able to reverse it. You can vote totalitarianism in but you can’t vote it out.
It’s good. It’s worth seeing. Much like The Missing Picture, the medium mitigates some of the horror, which makes the movie more watchable and is, I think, fine if you’re not considering it a full historical picture. Still, it wasn’t a fun ride, even if it is a necessary one.
Every now and again you get a Korean (but never Chinese) movie that’s been ripped from the headlines! I assume the dedication to accuracy is about the same there as here. Which, there (as here), is fine if it’s in the service of a good story. And this one works out to be a pretty good one.
The premise is this: There’s a serial killer (the Devil) who’s going around killing random middle-aged men but the ever-corrupt-and-incompetent Korean police department refuses to acknowledge it. Our hero (the Cop) is the only one who sees the pattern and he’s being put off by his police chief for two reasons: First, some of those murders happened outside his jurisdiction, so clearing those cases doesn’t even help his stats; Second, the chief is pissed off because the detective keeps busting this pachinko-running gang headed by the titular Gangster.
I saw where this was going almost right away. The serial killer’s MO is to rear-end some guy on an abandoned road and, while he’s preoccupied taking pictures, to stab the bejeezus out of him. So, of course, he picks the Gangster as his would-be victim, but said Gangster is a serious bad-ass and nearly kills him. The Gangster ends up in the hospital, which triggers a gang war, and the suspicions of the Cop but of course Gangster has zero confidence in the police. (I mean, he knows how easy it is to buy them off, right?)
It ends up being a kind of “buddy picture” with the Cop and the Detective pooling leads while trying to beat each other to the final capture. Because if the Gangster gets him first, he’ll kill him. If the Cop gets him, he’ll arrest and get the glory for closing a bunch of cases at once. (Also, less selfishly, if they don’t get a confession out of this guy, they may never really know how many people he killed.)
We saw this shortly after John Wick 3, and were favorably impressed by the action scenes. The choreography wasn’t that glitzy but it felt like—given the parameters of a bunch of mooks attacking a couple of hard targets—things hurt a little more, were a little more realistic or at least not so fantastic as to break suspension of disbelief. Also, there are only a few moments of this mixed in with a great many moments of genuine suspense as The Devil movies along trying to escape detection but increasingly less concerned about his neat little M.O. of only killing middle-aged dudes on abandoned roads. By the end, he seems to be killing everyone who crosses his path if he thinks he can get away with it.
The acting is good, with The Gangster being played by Dong-seok Ma (the lovable star of Champion and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, among others) and what works well here is that while he’s intrinsically fairly charming his character’s ruthlessness is well portrayed here. I mean, he’s not a good guy, though he does have a code. At one point, this code requires him to personally extract an uppity underling’s front teeth manually. The Cop is played by Mu-yeol Kim, who had a role in the movie that started it* all, Warriors of the Dawn; He plays very well off Ma. The Devil is played by Sung-Kyu Kim who had a small role in The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, and is very solid here as a maniac.
It scales up to what are eventually fairly absurd levels, but it also brings everything back in with a character-based twist, as The Gangster and The Cop have to slug it out to see who gets The Devil, and ultimately have to work together, after a fashion. We enjoyed it a great deal. After the Doris Day double-feature, this was a similar case where we wished we had seen this first and Funan second—and not because Funan wasn’t good.
The second movie in our Jarmuschian journey was, in the end, the best The Boy and I both agreed. We would be a duo for all four of these films, but of the four, this was probably the one we’d most likely recommend to more “normie” moviegoers.
The story starts out threefold: First, Zack the pimp (John Lurie) is tricked into thinking he’s going to get a new girl only to discover that the girl is literally a girl—pre-pubsecent—just as the cops are walking in. Second, drunk and broken-hearted Jack (Tom Waits)—girlfriend Ellen Barkin throws him out after he loses his radio DJ job—takes an offer for a $1,000 to “just drive” a fancy car across town, only to be pulled over by the cops who have tipped off that there’s a dead body in the trunk. Finally, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who we see briefly prior to Tom Waits’ drive, soliciting information on how to speak American phrases properly—information the drunken Waits doesn’t really provide, as you might imagine.
Roberto is the last to come to the jail cell where Jack and Zack have met, and ironically he’s in for a murder which he actually did commit (unlike the other two who were set up). It’s essentially a self-defense situation but still: When a man throws a pool ball at you, you probably should think twice before throwing it back, especially if you’re a really good shot.
Jack and Zack are surly and competitive in weird ways, doing the tough guy prison schtick from day one. Roberto on the other hand is basically unleashed Benigni and he brings a lot of energy and humor to the story that keeps it from being quite as deadpan as the other Jarmusch flicks. For example, he starts a little riff on “scream” which ends up with them chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream”. It seems dopey but it raises to the level of a prison riot in a kind of hilarious fashion.
I sort of assumed the rest of the movie was going to take place in the tiny cell the three shared but much to my surprise there’s a second act where they break free from jail and end up floating around the bayou trying to keep away from the law. Jack and Zack continue their weird competition and surly ways with Benigni still vamping hilariously. (Benigni tells a story of how his mom served him his pet rabbit which is apparently a true life story.)
In the final act, they stumble across (of all things) an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, staffed by a lone, beautiful girl who just happens to be Nicoletta Braschi. Braschi, who would also appear in next week’s Jarmusch flick Mystery Train, is Benigni’s real life wife and was his co-star in Life is Beautiful. So it’s love at first site and surprisingly plausible given the “aesthetic imbalance”. And so Roberto finds a home deep in the bayou while Jack and Zack end up going their separate ways.
It’s the most lively of the films, and beautifully shot (in black-and-white as most Jarmusch movies of the time were). Lurie provides the music again, with songs by Wait. It’s not a tight movie by any means but it is engaging and worth a look. If you don’t like it, you probably aren’t going to like any Jarmusch.
If you’ll recall, I had to go solo for the first John Wick movie, much to The Boy’s later dismay. But it looked like just-another-dopey-shooty-action-movie, and those are a hard sell for him. The Boy, The Flower and I all went to see John Wick 2, of course. I wasn’t sure that it was quite as good as the first one. Specifically, the expanded universe thing was fun but such things are always hazardous. (See: every sequel Pixar has ever made.) It seemed unlikely to me that the third movie in the Wick series would be anywhere near as good as the first two: Cinematic lightning, as we all know, almost never strikes three times. (The Toy Story trilogy is, I have argued, the only good trilogy in American cinematic history.)
So how was John Wick 3? Well, I thought it was okay, if a little dull. The Flower loved it. The Boy hated it.
I think we can agree that the opening fight scene was the best fight of the movie. It was excitingly choreographed and very much in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the movies. But The Boy and I both felt that after that, they seemed more like things that just happened in sequence. That might’ve been saved had the choreography been as engaging, but then again, perhaps the choreography couldn’t be as engaging because instead of hinting at a rich, mysterious history, we get little data points that remove the mystery without being especially clarifying.
For example, we find out Wick’s history: He seems to have been some sort of Slavic (Russian?) orphan who was raised in an assassin/ballet school by Anjelica Huston. He’s owed a number of favors, which is the only way he can survive now that he has been declared excommunicado. And to get out of his predicament, he has to go see the Big Cheese (I forget what they call him in the movie, but he’s the Big Bad, the Cheese, the Head Honcho of the Underworld), and he agrees to become a (metaphorical) dog to that guy.
Now, it had already taken us too long to get there. We had a whole unnecessary segment involving Halle Berry. She does okay but she doesn’t have Reeves elan as an action hero. (Catwoman should have been evidence enough for that.) But together they go visit a guy who, predictably, betrays them and yet despite being deep in his fortress, getting out for them is super easy, barely an inconvenience. It was one thing in the first movie when the Russian mobsters didn’t know they were dealing with John Wick, but here we’re talking about a general in this Underground army.
I feel like the second movie didn’t rely quite so heavily on disposable baddies. And in the long run this segment with Berry amounts to nothing, unless it pays off in the inevitable sequel.
But then, when you get there, I feel like Wick is diminished by dealing with the Big Boss. The secondary plot is that Mr. Big (Mr. Boss?) has sent his heavies around to all the people who helped John Wick, because that was in violation of the rules. Their fates seemed sort of random to us. The Adjuticator is played by Asia Kate Dillon, whose character is a dubious choice: She comes off like a hall monitor, ineffably smug because she’s protected by Mr. Big. This wasn’t fun, but I sort of imagine that it’s going to pay off in the next movie, when she is horribly murdered.
But that’s not a great payoff, honestly. Mostly, if Wick has an adversary worthy of the name, they’re more or less cool or menacing. Supercilious is a bad look. Given how many death sentences she delivers, it was inconceivable to me that one of them wouldn’t just kill her.
Probably what pushed me into the “Meh” category was the end, which I can’t discuss without SPOILERS, so beware if you care.
In the end, Winston (Ian McShane) does a heel turn, ambushing John Wick (who apparently lost his plot armor) and shooting him off the top of a building. So he’s riddled with bullets and falls 22 stories (the Flatiron building in NYC) but I don’t need to tell you he lives. None of this worked for me: Winston has put himself out for the entire movie, and the previous one, but all of a sudden flips on Wick. (Wick, by the way, was given the assignment to kill Winston, but instead defends him. And it’s only after this defense that McShane flips). It’s possible that this is a decoy heel turn—in fact, it seems impossible that it isn’t a decoy, but if so they’re cheating by selling this turn at points when no one (other than audience) is watching.
But if it’s not a decoy, John Wick was shot a bazillion times (though they have the super bullet-proof armor-cloth) and fell 22 stories. So he’s basically indestructible unless there was some secret plot to mitigate some of the apparent damage he took. I don’t see a good way out.
But when you get down to it, the battles are the song-and-dance of this movie, and that mostly didn’t work for me or The Boy. But it did work for The Flower, which probably gives you a sense of who is or isn’t going to like this.
The theme for the month of June was Jim Jarmusch—Jarmusch is on the loosh! as we would come to say—as a build up to the disastrous new film The Dead Don’t Die. I mean, I think we can say it’s disastrous, being critically meh’ed and publicly reviled, and raking in about $5M with a cast that includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and on and on. I’m guessing the budget was in the 8 digits, though at this point I can’t imagine a responsible person giving Jarmusch $10M to make a movie unless he was just a big fan and $10M was a trifle. I mean, I could see myself doing it if I had a $200M warchest, for example. (But not if I had to answer to stockholders.)
I’m not saying he’s bad, mind you. The Boy and I enjoyed all four of the films shown (which were all but his generally-regarded-as-best Night on Earth). N.B., however, that it was just the two of us—The Flower needs more motivation these days to stay out late—and we wouldn’t recommend the films for everyone. Stranger In Paradise was the weakest of the four films, one of the two “triptychs” (along with Mystery Train) though in this case tied together with the same three characters.
Part 1: Hungarian Eva stops by Cousin Willie’s (John Lurie, who did the music) place in New York City on her way to their aunt in Cleveland. Auntie has a hospital stay, however, and Eva stays with Willie for a week or two, smoking cigarettes and shoplifting. Though Willie is outright hostile at first, the very cute Eva (Eszter Ballint) wins him over, and especially wins over his pal Eddie. (Eddie is played by the very distinctive looking Richard Edson, who drove me nuts the whole movie because I recognized him from somewhere—at least, as I later learned, as the parking attendant in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.)
Part 2: Willie and Eddie fresh of a hot gambling win (in which they cheated, natch) decide to go up to Cleveland and see Eva. They bum around Cleveland a while while the mildly disaffected Eva mildly rebuffs mild romantic overtures made by mild Cleveland co-workers from her fast-food job. Finally, they all get the idea to get out of the north for the Winter and head to Miami.
Part 3: The three make their way to a small Florida town only to have a bad day at the dog races and lose all their money. Eva, feeling abandoned because the boys leave her behind (she may not be entirely legal) hangs out on the local boardwalk wearing a dumb tourist hat. That hat coincidentally is the key sign for a drug drop off, and she ends up with a big wad of cash. She decides to go to Europe with it. When the boys return—they’ve had a good day gambling then and are celebrating—they realize she’s gone to the airport and go to get her before she flies off. Because it’s way pre-9/11, Willie actually gets on the plane to Budapest to pull her off. But Eva wanted to go to Europe, or basically anywhere but Budapest—and one wonders how plausible it is that this tiny airport has a direct flight to Budapest, but also only one flight a day to Paris—so she ends up back at the motel while Willie, presumably, ends up on his way to Budapest.
This is the very definition of low-key. It reminded me a lot of a Kevin Smith movie, in the way that it was shot black-and-white with people who seem like new actors or barely actors at all (first acting role for Edson, only acting role for Cecilia Stark, an actual Hungarian immigrant), and low-key. Where it’s different is that it lacks the verbal humor of Smith’s movies, but also feels more like a real movie overall. Yes, it’s shot in black-and-white, but lovingly so with tremendous attention to the backdrop. The music is moody, original, one-man-band kind of stuff, which is very characteristic of Jarmusch. (Also, the one-man-band is John Lurie, who stars here and provided the music for three of the four films we saw.)
And, as mentioned, it’s very low key. There are laughs but one must be patient. If you can’t enjoy the experience between the laughs, you probably won’t enjoy the whole thing. The later films are a more developed thematically and narrative-wise, but none of the four were ever in danger of delivering a message (kind of refreshing, really) and were more “series of things that happened” than anything tightly plotted.
Not for everyone, but strong enough to sell us on the next week’s film, Down By Law, which would turn out to be our favorite.
As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently), the ’50s aren’t really my time. I’m a pre-War guy, a lover of screwball comedies and proto-noir movies. But I also love the music: the crooners, the assorted sister acts, and the sometimes-generously-referred-to-as-“jazz” music. So here we have a movie from ’55 with that quintessentially ’50s movie star, Doris Day—but it’s about Ruth Etting who, along with Annette Hanshaw and Ethel Waters, was one of my favorite chanteuses of the time. So how could I miss?
Well, one way is to use music I wasn’t super familiar with. I was shocked that I only knew about half of the 20 or so songs. (I guess I’m not such a fan after all.) Another way is to “jazz it up” but not in the ’30s sense of jazz but in the ’50s sense of super-slick sound and styling, which I generally don’t like.
But these are quibbles because this movie turned out to be much more interesting and complex than I expected. (If still doubtless far less nuanced than the truth.) Very loosely based on a few startlingly real events, this is the story of Etting (Day) who climbs her way to the top with the help of a lame Jewish gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder, played by James Cagney. Etting is shown as a savvy girl but a little too confident she can manipulate Moe into helping her without a quid pro quo. He does, but ultimately browbeats her into marriage. (There’s little-to-no-line here between browbeating and actual beating.)
There are however some subtle differences between being a gangster and being an entertainment manager, and Moe’s abrasive style and insecurities result in Ruth losing out on a dream job at the Follies, resulting in some heavy drinking and lamenting her lost (potential) lover, Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, once again looking smooth), who had been her accompanist in the early days. Things come to a head when she winds up in Hollywood shooting a film and meets up with said accompanist, which brings Moe’s jealousy to the surface. Then, shots are fired.
Parts of this are true: Moe did get her kicked out of the Follies and he did shoot her accompanist with whom she was romantically involved. (In real life, she was long separated from Moe when he shot Alderman, and she and Alderman had almost 30 happy and relatively peaceful years together.)
Even though this is Day’s double-feature (with Calamity Jane), this movie (which won a screenplay Oscar) is absolutely stolen by Cagney. He is a gangster, no doubt, but he’s also desperately in love with Etting and completely unable to work her. Indeed, part of his fascination has to be that he doesn’t really get what makes her tick. He knows she’s better than he is: She’s able to make it in society without beating the tar out of people. And he’s at turns defiant, piggish, brutal and heartbreakingly pathetic. Cagney would get an Oscar nom for this and would lose alongside Sinatra, Dean and Tracy to Ernest Borgnine’s Marty. (Another heartbreaking performance about a palooka, come to think of it.)
He’s so, so good. And the movie has a kind of classic, dark ’50s ending. Justice is served but Moe still has his day. I think we all agreed it was “better” than Calamity Jane, but it was also much heavier. I would definitely recommend it, but not for the reasons I went to see it: It’s worth it for Cagney alone.
We have pockets of slavs, which sounds sort of like an exotic fast food (Slav Pockets!) which is why we get oddball things like Russian flicks, Polish film festivals and then things like this: A Hungarian film being shown for no (obvious) reason in the middle of the week. Well, I asked, and it apparently there’s a guy who puts on a Hungarian film festival—that’s how many of these things there are, it’s impossible to keep track of all the film festivals—and he’s trying to keep the Hungarian energy going by showing a film, monthly, presumably to build up to the big event. This showing even featured an appearance from a star from this fun little ’70s flick, Egy erkölcsös éjszaka.
That translates into “A Moral Night” per Google, but the English title is “A Very Moral Night”, perhaps because we lack subtlety of mind or language. But a moral night it turns out to be, sorta.
The story, based on the novel “The Shroud House” from pre-Communist Hungary, is about a young doctor who is a bit of a gadabout but very popular with the girls of the local brothel. It’s never exactly clear why (although one of the girl’s suggests it is the generosity of his endowment, which seems kind of contra-indicated for a working girl) but it’s not that he’s handsome, smart, rich or even all that nice. Whatever the reason, they like him well enough for the Madam to realize that he could save some money and they could make some, if only he moved out of the town hotel (where he’s being gouged) and lived with them.
It’s an agreeable arrangement with only one caveat: His aunt, who sends him all his money, must never find out, as she is a very proper woman.
Amusingly enough, this fellow is so dissolute that even while he lives in the brothel, he spends most of his nights elsewhere, gambling and probably carousing amongst the amateurs and semi-professionals, and so he’s not around when the inevitable happens: His aunt shows up.
I mean, Chekov’s gun and all. What did you think was going to happen?
Partly out of greed, presumably, but mostly out of respect, the Madam doesn’t open the house for the evening and the girls all dress up to the best of their ability, and do their best to entertain the sweet old lady who is interesting and interested in modern life. (Life in the Hungarian countryside in, say, 1850 versus city life in 1930, e.g.) She’s also a wise problem solver who, honestly, the real question is: Does she figure it out or doesn’t she?
By the end of the night, the facade is cracking as the rowdy town officials come in looking for comfort, and she knows them or knows of them or their families, leading to another awkward round of social interactions. The actress (in her mid-’80s, if IMDB is to be believed) plays it very inscrutably. At one point, she’s talking to one of the girls who tries to commit suicide because she can’t marry her fiancee, and she’s acknowledging all of the problems (the girl’s occupation never entering into it) which has its own level of charm: They’re too close in age, they’re religiously mismatched, and so many things that Aunt Kelepei proposes solutions for and points out in 40 years, no one will care and those things won’t matter.
It’s charming. All’s well that ends well. Some good laughs, a rather shocking suicide attempt in one of the the worst possible ways. (Setting your room on fire and figuring you’ll get taken out with it.) Overall, fairly light of touch, and a little surprising to have come out of Hungary in the ’70s. But perhaps it reflects capitalistic decadence in a party way, or perhaps, like the Soviets, the spent Communist governments became increasingly unable to crush all the artists under their feet.
We rolled the dice, as The Boy would say, and were glad we did.
I could hardly resist a Doris Day double-feature, even if the ’50s are not my time, and even though this was not the film I was most intrigued to see. (Love Me Or Leave Me was the musical biopic that followed.) The Flower is increasingly tired of the fact that whenever we see one of these movies, the presenters have to point out that Day (or virtually any other female performer) was no shrinking violet, no mere mother and/or housewife, but a strong, defiant character with a lot to say about something or other. I believe, as one who aspires to wife and motherhood, she feels—correctly—that these ritualistic denunciations are meant to denigrate her aspirations.
But we can hardly blame Doris for this. She is absolutely terrific in this fine, if bland, musical romantic comedy where she plays the legendary Calamity Jane who befriends the more feminine Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) only to lose the apple of her eye, Lt. Gilmartin (Philip Carey) to her. But it all works out because she really loves Wild Bill Hickcock (the great Howard Keel, fresh off of playing the romantic lead in Annie Get Your Gun). And he loves her, smitten as he (and everyone else) is with the fetching Ms. Brown.
Right around 30 at this point, Day is an absolute pistol. She plays a blowhard “Calam” who is both respected and lightly mocked, and is by turns indifferent and offended by her own putative lack of femininity. She, of course, lacks nothing in the way of femininity. Oh, she walks with a nice swagger, she gets her voice down low and she wears buckskins throughout the movie but, no, at no point is it credible that people mistake her for a man. That’s okay, of course: No one is actually meant to. We’re only supposed to suspend belief long enough for her to believe she’s upset (intermittently) by it.
Calamity was no Annie Oakley: Her celebrity in part came from her relationship to Hickok and her various tall tales, though we only have her word that the two were ever married. This, like her alcoholism, has no place in a musical like this, wherein we’re free—nay, encouraged—to believe Keel and Day will live happily ever after. It’s quite charming and one of director David Butler’s better works. (Butler directed scores of movies, including quite a few others with Day, like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two. He would finish up in TV, directing “Leave it to Beaver” and that awful episode of “The Twilight Zone” where the hack writer summons Shakespeare to help him write teleplays.)
The music was fine. The best moments (to my ear) was the opening “Whip Crack Away” and the pseudo-meet-cute “I Can Do Without You” where Keel and Day demonstrate their intimate friendship by insulting each other, musically. The song “Secret Love” was a hit for Day and won the film an Oscar but I don’t recall it.
Interestingly enough, I think we all (The Boy, The Flower and I) agreed that the next film was better, but we wished we had seen this one first because it’s fun, light and frothy. Love Me Or Leave Me would be an entirely different beast altogether.
Ahhhhh. I was tempering the children’s expectations regarding this Zhang Yimou movie because it ranks well below House of Flying Daggers (on the ratings sites) which in turn ranks well below Hero, but I needn’t have worried. We loved this tale of a changeling general (the titular “shadow”) who is being set up to overthrow his Lord (because the real general was stabbed by a master and seems to be dying) through some series of plot devices that involve defeating the same master who stabbed the real general.
I’m being vague here because it’s been a few weeks and the plot was very intricate but we were pleasantly surprised: We all followed the plot and could tell the characters apart. Impressive, given that two of the leads are played by Chao Deng. But the characters are so different, I kept wondering if it was the same person.
Anyway, there’s a lot going on. The Shadow is increasingly unsure of being a pawn in this game (which pretty much has to end up with him dying, even though the general teases him with the possibility of getting back to his mother after it’s all over). The general’s plan seems to be flawless if the Shadow can defeat the master but that’s a big if. Meanwhile, the general’s wife, while maintaining a respectful distance, does seem to be getting more attracted to the Shadow—who after all is identical to her husband, except maybe less of a jerk. Meanwhile, the wife ends up coming up with the strategy that can defeat the master, and it involves…weaponized umbrellas!
It’s great. The indoor shots and a few of the battle scenes are filmed in black-and-white (probably color corrected after the fact), though the (obligatory) bamboo forest scene is a verdant green. It’s just a beautiful film, is what I’m saying, and it’s not just anyone who could make a battle scene involving an army of women with parasols work. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who could do it.
So, the set design is wonderful, the camerawork wonderful, the wire work amazing—though not over the top, which I appreciated, because the sort of super-heroic character implicit in the flying hero would’ve undermined the need for a solid battle strategy. The choreography is fun and the plot is engaging. The acting is good, kind of Shakespearean, with its weak kings and power mad generals. The stars are good looking and otherwise appealing. What more could you want? Music? The music is also really good, with drums and zithers dominating. (The stage name of the composer is, amusingly,”Loudboy”, although there’s some controversy over whether or not he plagiarized the work.)
Almost two hours long, but it’s thick. The ending…is probably not a people-pleaser. The three men are locked in a struggle, while the general’s wife has to figure out what her role in this is going to be. I liked getting to the end, and so was less invested in the details of the story’s resolution. I did see a couple of the twists coming (as did The Flower), but not all of them.
A lot of fun. Pure historical soap with kung-fu action. Don’t know why it didn’t do better.
I have theorized over the years that M. Night Shyamalan’s success was sort of accidental. It’s an observation (and not an insult) that sometimes artists put things together in a way that accidentally appeals to the zeitgeist which isn’t necessarily characteristic of their body of work. For example, R. Crumb is not someone whose art would generally be even acceptable in the mainstream, not as a matter of quality so much as content. But “Keep On Truckin'” spoke to a generation, apparently, and there you are. Another example: I knew when “Twin Peaks” became the hot ticket TV show of 1990, people were largely going to end up disappointed. They thought they were watching a murder mystery while anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work could tell you this was not a man who was going to make a murder mystery.
On the movie front, there’s Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly gives us a kind of murky story about alternate realities and heroic sacrifice that works in spite of its dangerous cavorting with the sort of philosophical questions that can make a movie unbearable. It was no surprise that The Box, which actually literalizes a hoary philosophical question, was generally regarded as unsuccessful. (I find it strangely compelling, like Frank Miller’s The Spirit, while note being able to shake the feeling that it’s awful the whole time—but “compellingly bad movies” is a great topic for another day.)
And so, with Shyamalan, I have often wondered that perhaps the elements that make up his style aren’t the sorts of things that would generally be very successful, and it’s just a coincidence that he became so staggeringly huge all at once, only to have one of the most depressing career arcs since Julius became Caesar. And The Sixth Sense was huge. It was #2 at the box office in 1999, coming in second to The Phantom Menace—and people still actually like this movie. It comfortably beat out Toy Story 2, Austin Powers 2 and made $100M more than the other really iconic movie that year, The Matrix.
I should note that there will be spoilers here, even though you nearly-29 year olds probably saw this on cable after it had already been spoiled. And it’s interesting to note that the trailers themselves spoil the movie.
I see dead people.
That’s actually a spoiler. It’s about 45 minutes into the movie and we’re not really aware of what’s going on with this kid, or we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t all seen the commercials. Pissed me off the first time I saw and it still pisses me off today.
The Big Spoiler, of course, is one of the biggest twists since Keyser Soze discovered his sled had a penis, and it is repeated and parodied far-and-wide. As “King of the Hill”‘s Lucky (voiced by the late, great Tom Petty) once said, “The worst thing you can yell in a theater is not ‘Fire!’, it’s ‘Bruce Willis is dead!'” So with the big twists out of the way—and I happily confess to not seeing this one coming at the time—the question remains, is this a good movie? Or, more than just good, if you take away the gimmick, could it still earn its success? The only one of us who hadn’t seen it was The Barb, and she is well-spoiled on basically every movie twist because that’s just how you make YouTube videos: By spoiling everything.
And, here’s the thing, with the Big Twist out of the way, it’s actually a much better movie. (How’s that for a twist!)
The build up to the twist—the sleight-of-hand that prevents you from seeing it—is actually sort of rickety. I remember someone complaining at the time that there are a lot of odd tropes abused by The Sixth Sense that (if you don’t overlook them) make it seem like you’re watching a very sloppy film. And I remember when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Huh. That was odd. That doesn’t make much sense. Why is that happening?” And I did overlook them and so was pleasantly duped.
But watching it again and knowing actually makes the movie much, much better. Because you know Dr. Crowe is dead even though he doesn’t, all of the scenes where people are ignoring him, his alienation from his wife, his ultimate grief at his own failure—they become much more poignant. And this is the best acting from Willis since probably Death Becomes Her (1992). The acting is great all around, although given about twenty years between this and Hereditary, I think we can agree that Toni Colette’s been typecast.
But Willis and Haley Joel Osment have to carry this film, and a few wags have pointed out that Osment gave his defining performance the same year poor Jake Lloyd gave his. A fair degree of credit can be given (in both cases) to their directors, and one thing Shyamalan has done consistently over the years is get good work out of kids. Too, Willis seems to lack the compulsive need to be the center of attention all the time, a compulsion which makes for jangly moments in other movies where the star seems to be in competition with his child co-star. (W.C. Fields’ classic warning comes to mind.)
All this adds up to the fact that the Big Reveal still works. Obviously, you can’t be surprised by it, but as a dramatic moment of realization, when you’re not going back over the whole movie in your head to see if you were cheated, it makes an arguably more powerful moment and certainly a more enduring one.
So, what I’d probably say at this point is that Shyamalan’s success isn’t accidental, but it did sort of ruin him as he increasingly reached farther and farther trying to capture the surprise that wasn’t even the best part of his movie. And the ironic twist here may be that it was his relative obscurity that made it possible: If the audience knew there was going to be twist in this movie, they would’ve figured it out—as we all pretty much ended up doing for all his subsequent films.
We have enough Russians in our neighborhood to occasionally warrant showing a contemporary Russian pop film, like the much enjoyed T-34 (protested as an act of “Russian Collusion”, if only half-heartedly) and on this particular Thursday, a charming little family film called Domovoy. Literally translated, “domovoy” means “god of the house”—a tradition found in other pagan cultures—but you can loosely translate it as “House Elf” and now you’ve got yourself a Harry Potter-sounding tie-in. Fun for the whole family.
And, actually, this is pretty darn good. Which, really, is kind of impressive because there are many opportunities for it to be bad, and it sidesteps them neatly.
The story is that a lovely single working mom leases a fancy, suspiciously-underpriced-but-still-more-than-she-can-reasonably-afford-so-she-has-to-hit-up-her-creepy-boss, apartment not realizing that the realtor has a deal with the domovoy to enchant her and her daughter so that they love it, and then to drive them out within a few weeks so she can least it again before the year is up. So, it’s a classic haunted house story with a classic Russian corruption angle.
In this case, the mom has a daughter, however, and the daughter is enchanted by the idea of having a ghostly pal, so she makes overtures which the domovoy responds to—even while trying to drive them out. The mom’s job is increasingly at risk, and this isn’t even the worst of their problems. It turns out that one of the former tenants of the room was a thief and the domovoy capriciously moved his treasure which is still buried somewhere under the floorboards. An evil witch knows this and has pressed her son into helping her get said treasure. Her son would rather just canoodle with his trashy girlfriend (hey, family movie or not, it’s still Russia) but he ultimately joins her plan to his ultimate sorrow.
While this is going on the mom puts her foot down and refuses to leave the apartment as the domovoy increasingly messes with her life. Little things like turning off her alarm clock, e.g., or defacing her work, giving creepy boss increasing reason to put pressure on her and—because she’s not that kind of woman—finally fire her. But this rebounds against the little girl, as well, giving our house god a little conflict.
Ultimately we find out that a domovoy isn’t really so much a feature of a house as it is a family. (Indeed, the true tradition seems to be rooted in the idea of beloved ancestors, much like the ones we see in Korea and China.) And when his family left without him, breaking his heart, he got bitter. After that, the families coming into the apartment were all varieties of bad, dysfunctional, abusive (a little rough for a family film, but again: Russia) and our impish spirit gets meaner and meaner and decides he’s going to protect the kvartira rather than the family.
Well, that’s a pretty good story right there, and a pretty good explication of degradation: The fall from being a helpful member of a group to just hating everyone and protecting your stuff, which itself just deteriorates.
But that said, it really works because it balances its various ingredients well. There’s a very broad scene early on with the fat realtor that makes you worry that the whole thing is going to be cheap slapstick (and is kind of painful for the whole “couldn’t find a stunt man that matched her body shape” thing we see occasionally), but while there’s some broad action and comedy later, it doesn’t go back to that well. And then you get the little girl and you wonder if maybe they’re going to lean on the cute factor, but they don’t do that particularly. There’s a little salt and a little pepper in there, not just sugar.
They could go fierce, independent woman—and probably would have in the western world—but there’s a great mix from the actress of strength and vulnerability. Her resilience as far as living with an actual poltergeist is pretty top-notch, but every now and again she breaks down and gets overwhelmed. Fair. No love interest per se but the only statement that makes is “we’re keeping the story lean”. (There is the implication of romance at the end of the film but it’s not detailed.)
Oh, yeah, and the big element here that kind of powers things is the cat. (You know, like Captain Marvel.) The cat can see and can talk to the domovoy and the two (naturally) hate each other. I don’t think I need to detail all the ways a talking cat can go wrong. (The guys at Rifftrax have you covered, though, if you’re interested.) In this case, the cat is really necessary to keeping the story dynamic and the motivations of the characters clear. It has some minimal impact on the plot: In the few situations where it could really help, it can’t do much because, you know, cat. But the voice is good, and you end up rating it as you might any comic relief character in a movie: It has a lot of jokes and gags, and some of them don’t work, but a lot of them do.
It ends up seeming less like a novelty where someone said “Let’s put a cat in there! The kids love cats!” and more like a necessary part of the story. That’s what you shoot for in this kind of thing.
The CGI is somewhat cheap by Hollywood standards but it reads well and (like a lot of the Asian movies) is more interested in winning you over with its style than trying to fool you. English composer Gary Judd wrote the score. I liked it.
Director Evgeniy Bedarev seems to be primarily a TV director, and not necessarily family-oriented, but he used the right touch here and I hope we see more of his work.
Proving once again that Chinese filmmakers can pull a fast one on a par with any American studio, distribution and promotion for this Chinese art film was akin to that of a standard blockbuster/date movie and it took in a whopping—oh, hell, I don’t know—ton of money on the first day when people didn’t realize what it was. Then it crashed but, hey, no refunds. They say most of its B.O. was from that initial rush.
That aside, how is it? Or maybe more to the point, what is it? It reminded me greatly of another Chinese art film from 15(!) years ago called 2046. Which is no help at all if you’re not one of the six people who saw that movie. But basically, it’s a dream-like narrative which roughly follows the story of a once young man who left his hometown and lost his girl on the night his best friend was murdered, possibly by him or her, and his dad dies and the baby he would’ve had with his girl she aborts and then it all goes 3D and the boy’s there all those years later in a metaphorical death trap which is probably pretty literal except nothing is very literal and then he meets a girl who’s sort of like his other girl but not really and they fly (literally, or as literal as anything is here) and that hourlong 3D shot at the end is continuous like Birdman and…
Hell, I don’t know. There are a lot of threads here. And it’s probably not meant to be sussed out in any traditionally coherent way.
This is one of those movies that The Boy and I both kinda liked but wouldn’t recommend to a lot of people. It’s “challenging”, as they say. And it gets hard to hang on to anything because while there are themes of love, loss, familial obligation, the meaning of life, magic, they are themes rather than straight up narrative experiences. So you have to work a little harder on the one hand while on the other, it’s also Chinese which means you have to suss out when you’re missing something because it’s Chinese or because it’s just not there.
I think what kept us engaged was that it never quite crossed the line (for us) into self-indulgence. There are a lot of related images and themes that recur and that gave you something to ponder or to absorb. Like a big part of the theme was women: At one point there was ambiguity about a character who was his mother, who blended in with his missing girlfriend, who later re-appears in the story by not re-appearing but having left another guy and a child behind (who might not be the guy’s), and then a low-rent pool hall girl who kind of looks like her but isn’t her and a different, older low-rent woman whom he both protects and harms in the same moment who’s sort of motherly and sort of girlfriend-y.
I mean, it’s just not what you might call a left-brain movie. Take it in and get what you can out of it. The 3D is pretty effective, which is not something I say lightly. It’s only 110 minutes long per the spec sheet—but you will feel each of those minutes.
We were headed down to see the Chinese version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night which, literally, you could not connect to the Eugene O’Neill on a bet, but before it was airing there was this intriguing flick about high-stakes brinksmanship in the snowy mountains after a heist gone wrong.
The story is this: our heroes, cops in a small alpine town who are both romantically attracted to the same girl, pull over to help some strangers lost on a back road. What they don’t know (but we do) is that these guys just murdered some people in order to heist some gold, and their accidental encounter will result in one being killed, and the other nearly being killed and feeling very guilty. So guilty that he can’t even pursue the girl any more, even though she was maybe more interested in him in the first place.
Flash forward a year and she’s getting ready to leave town for good (unless he stops her) but the real fly in the ointment is our burglars are back in action after hiding out and waiting for…I think they’re waiting for the winter again because the only way they can get the gold is by sliding it across the ice. Hardly matters. The point is, they’re sniffing around while our morose sheriff sees a chance for (partial) redemption if he can bring these guys to justice. Or at least kill them.
A lot of good tension. People in rooms with other people who want to kill them. Or who might want to kill them if the opportunity arises. Or who seem to be harmless but that’s a lot of gold, man, and you know how people get around lots of gold.
Although it’s very straightforward, even plain (though not ugly or poorly shot), it excels by giving everyone a fleshed out feeling. You get to know your characters, sometimes after only a few brief scenes. That’s quality filmmaking right there. So if it didn’t knock our socks off, we were entertained in a conventional way and found much to like.
Long Day’s Journey would turn out to be another story.