The King’s Letters

The Koreans? They don’t appreciate what they got, frankly. The Boy (and His Girl) and I had carted The Flower down to the OC for a day-long artistic boot camp, and we trundled over to the Orange County version of Koreatown (which I guess is, uh, Buena Park?) to see this historical drama—and a wildly entertaining action film, Exit, that trounced this one at the box office. We saw this one first because we figured Exit would be more light and fun (it was) but I came out of this thinking: Why can’t we get movies like this in America?

It's a mystery!
15th Century Korean King Sejong tries to figure out why modern American movies suck.

This is a historical drama based on a theory of how Korea got its alphabet. The premise is that Korea is under China’s thumb. The Confucian ministers are speaking Chinese in court (until the King corrects them) and presenting documents in Chinese. But the King, who is the literate type, is frustrated because the books he has written—writing books is a kingly thing in Korea if the movies are to be believed—are in Chinese and (therefore) impossible for his own people to read.

He wants to create a Korean alphabet but he’s stymied because all he has to go on are Chinese phonetics. While he’s fretting over this, a Japanese contingent comes and says, “Hey, give us your tripitaka.” The tripitaka is the Buddhist scriptures, carved in wooden blocks, and the King is astounded. “You want our national treasure?” he asks disbelievingly. They say, “Yeah, you guys are Confucians anyway, so either hand ’em over or just kill us ’cause we can’t go back without them.”

The king demurs to do either and is told by one of his counselors that the only one who can help him solve is alphabet problem is a pig-headed Buddhist monk named Shinmi.

Speaking as a smart jerk.
He’s smart. He’s a jerk. Smart jerks are the worst.

The backstory appears to be that the country had had a caste of Buddhist clerics who ran everything and became rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. Some bloody fights and accusations of (and convictions for) treason later, the Buddhists have all been replaced by Confucian monks—who have become rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. (All Korean historical dramas—and, actually, most Korean movies we see—are essentially about The Swamp.) Anyway, the Confucians are seriously no help because: a) they’re colluding with the Chinese; b) as long as reading and writing is hard, they can maintain their power.

So, the King meets with Shinmi, who is pissed off—his father was killed as a traitor—but sees in the opportunity a way to restore Buddhism to the country. And so he helps the process by informing the King that the answer to his troubles is in the tripitaka—written in Sanskrit, a phonetic language.

What proceeds from there is essentially an ensemble movie, where each member of the team—the monks, the king, the queen, the courtiers, and the ladies—all work together to create an elegant alphabet while undergoing the various dramas of their lives. One of the monks is a young man, for example, and one of the ladies of the court is quite taken with him, and the two end up exchanging notes drawn into the courtyard dirt (in the new Korean alphabet). One of the monks has a vow of silence, which makes the fact that he has considerable insight into things the others are missing very frustrating for him. The Queen, a Buddhist whose father was killed by the King’s father, is challenged by Shinmi who seems to completely miss the fact that the King and Queen, for all their families’ political struggles, are genuinely in love. Which doesn’t mean that their son doesn’t have to act as an intermediary between them during the occasional quarrel.

Sad.
The late Jeon-Mi Soon plays The Queen.

The King is a rich character himself. Suffering from diabetes and going blind (and dying) during the process, he is determined to have a Korea where every peasant can read and write, so the damned clergy can’t take advantage of them any more. Humiliated on the one hand by having to kowtow to China, and exasperated on the other because he’d rather be a scholar than a king, he has to navigate the moods of his Confucian monks—who apparently can impeach him!

Everyone contributes to the process, with egos and pride and political intrigue working against them the whole time. And the message is constant throughout: Korea is its people. The mistake of all the ruling class is forgetting that. And the thing is, this is more or less a fantasy. I don’t mean it’s not well-researched. But it’s legendary, mythical and nationalistic. No “other side” is presented here: We don’t get the Japanese POV or the Chinese POV. It’s Joeson or Joehome. (Heh. Korean pun. Joeson = longest running Korean dynasty.)

Not to sound like a broken record but America needs stories like that and we used to have them. Walt Disney used to trade in this sort of American legendry with Things like Johnny Tremain and “Elfego Baca: Attorney At Law”. Hollywood did generally, too: Young Mr. Lincoln, Plymouth Rock, and even things like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Wait, strike that last one.

But then again, maybe don’t: Maybe the case against these kinds of movies is that they can whitewash (no pun or social relevance intended) history. This excuse is uncompelling to me. The fact that something can be done poorly, naively or maliciously should not dissuade us from doing those things. It just means we should be competent, canny and approach the task with a good heart. The only real argument for eliminating patriotism is the belief that a country shouldn’t exist. Which, I’m afraid, is where we stand after decades of internalized anti-American propaganda.

Slickly produced, and perfectly acted (even if the characters are somewhat stock), including the final performance by Jeon Mi-Sun (as the Queen), the movie is controversial in Korea because it was accused of plagiarism and almost prevented from release. But also—more interestingly—because some people feel that the movie downplays the King’s actual contributions in favor of the fictitious Buddhist monk. I don’t have a horse in this race, obviously, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were fighting in America over whether or not a recent movie on (say) the making of the Constitution downplayed Madison in favor of Jefferson?

And it barely cracked the top 10 in Korea behind #1 (EXIT) and #2 (The Divine Fury, which also looks great). Also behind, #6 Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, which is a story about a girl whose magic shoes make her slender, and therefore beautiful, the trailer for which is making heads explode here in the U.S. Tell me Korea doesn’t have a far more interesting movie machine than ours.

"Ey" not "ayyyeee"!
I’m just trying to imagine this scene in “My Fair Lady”.

 

EXIT

If The King’s Letters was the sort of film that couldn’t be made in America because patriotism is considered toxic, EXIT is the sort of film that can’t be made because we have no sense of humor any more that we are aware of. This is an action-comedy film that actually manages to balance both well and keep you both laughing and in suspense.

I'm gonna keep quoting MiB...forever.
“Oh, no! Someone made an offensive joke.”

Our hero is Yong-nam. When we meet him, he’s being ogled by the old ladies in the park as he does a routine on the iron bars. But that’s about all the love he gets: A group of kids, including his own nephew, see him and refer to him as “IBM”: Iron Bar Man. (I have no idea how that translates, even after watching The King’s Letters.) His nephew pretends not to know him, and we see that he’s basically a loser.

There’s not a huge amount of back story here. He was a competitive mountain climber in college, and good at it even though he gets beaten by his crush Eui-Joo. She also LJBFs him, and it’s not really spelled out if this is the reason for it, but in the subsequent five years, things have not gone well for Yong-nam. Living with (and taking abuse from) his parents, berated by his meddling sister, no job, no prospects, no real ambition, and hung up on this 5-year-passed crush so much that he schedules his mother’s 70th birthday to be held at The Dream Garden, because Eui-Joo works there. (And he immediately tries, unsuccessfully, to fool her into thinking he’s not a loser.)

Up till now, we have a wacky dysfunctional-family comedy in that Korean fashion where everyone’s a little bit mean, very emotional, exaggerated—much like the horror movie The Host. And then a terrorist smashes a truck full of toxic chemicals into a building down the street, creating a poisonous cloud that is building up in the streets and rising upward. Yong-nam saves his sister and nephew’s life when they run down a street and try to escape in a car, but people are dying left and right rather horribly.

Girrrrl!
Toxic gas is…hilarious!

This is the kind of tonal shift that the Koreans and Japanese do so well and it works because, while the characters are comical in a lot of ways, they are meant to be real. You sympathize with Yong-nam, even as you want to slap some sense into him. The parents, the sister—they all do what they do from a place of love. You want them to live.

I don’t need to tell you, I hope, that Yong-nam has to save the day by climbing. And working with Eui-joo, they get everyone to the roof and rescued by the helicopter. Except there isn’t room for both of them. When the basket takes off, she gives a speech about how, being the (recently promoted) hotel vice manager, the guests have to come first. Meanwhile she’s crying under her breath “I wanted to get in the basket.”

I mean.
The Korean LJBF zone is the worst LJBF zone.

And that’s kind of the running theme throughout: The two of them perform increasingly daring stunts, but they are terrified each time. And about the third time they sacrifice themselves so that others might live, they start to get kind of hysterical and pissed off. Yong-nam has an actual tantrum at one point, when it looks like death is certain. The movie isn’t afraid to showcase their skills while still giving them more than a modicum of humanity. At one point, when Eui-Joo thinks Yong-nam has abandoned her, she boldly scales the side of a small wall to get away from the poisonous gas—only to find Yong-nam climbing up a ladder on the other side (one she could have easily reached) with gas masks.

In the end, it is the Korean people who give our heroes their last shot by way of a flock of drones they’ve flown in to watch the two survivors struggle. And while you kind of assume that they’re going to survive—this is meant to be a fun summer action flick after all—you don’t really know because, hey, Korean. They’re not afraid to mix up some spice with their sweet.

It was a whole lot of fun and I don’t expect to see a better new movie this summer.

Soooo Asian!
Climbing up the building with the help of the excellent Mr. Giant Crab.

A Job Who Is Near Us

And sometimes you end up feeling like an idiot. To wit, you see a movie title like “A Job Who Is Near Us” and you think, “Huh, some kind of pidgin-y thing going on? Maybe reflecting an underclass struggling to get by or something.” And then you realize, as the opening quotes for the movie unfold, that it’s not “jaaaahb” but “johhhhhb”. Job.

As in The Book Of.

So you’ve just walked blind into a Christian inspirational film about a Korean man in his late ’30s who serves as a deacon in his church who discovers he has stage 4 cancer. Then his wife, who has just given birth to their first child, also has stage 4 cancer. Then his mother commits suicide. And then he beats the cancer, but it comes back.

And so on.

And through it all, what? Well, our deacon keeps his faith in God. With each recurrence of cancer, he doubles down, though the pain gets worse each time, and the prognosis as well. They start recording moments in his day-to-day life because he’s still going out, being inspirational and telling him he couldn’t get through this without his love for Jesus.

He really does change, as you might imagine. With each succeeding recurrence, he seems to be more at peace in a lot of ways. Not wanting to die, clearly, but increasingly more because he knows how hard it will be on his mother, and how much he wants to be there for his daughter.

Not gonna lie: Some parts of the theology made more sense to me than other parts. But when he’s on his deathbed (spoilers?) as all the people he inspired come to see him, and when he’s looking at his daughter blow out her third birthday candles, and when he’s telling his wife if he had to do it all over again, he would be better at loving her—well, there are no dry eyes in the house.

And it’s powerful to know that he’s in extreme pain but refusing morphine because he can’t understand the scripture when he’s on morphine.

It’s not a long movie but it’s a hard watch and I’m not sure whom I would recommend it to. But I was glad I had seen it.

How many times do you have to beat cancer?
Happiness is relative.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Three or four years ago, I noticed that TCM was showing classics on the Big Screen. Then someone told me that the Regency theater right next to the office was showing an “old” movie every Tuesday (where “old” meant anything from the ’80s to the occasional ’40s/’50s classic, like White Christmas). There were Friday showings at the local Tristone. And then I discovered that our beloved local theater chain (The Laemmle) was having a “throwback Thursday”. And so, for the least 3 1/2-4 years, I have carted around The Flower, The Boy and The Boy’s Girl to all of these movies that were either very good, or at least had some sort of cultural significance.

Early on one of these trips, I said, “Enjoy it now, because this will pass.” Because showing classic movies is inexplicably (to me) a matter of fashion. It was hugely popular when I was a kid with entire theaters devoted to revivals and cult movies, but TCM (ironically enough) killed that as a business model. (“Why go out when you can stay in?” is most people’s thinking, I imagine. Mine is “Why stay in when you can go out?” at least as far as movies go.) But since then, I have seen classic series show up at theaters, only to be canceled after a few months or years.

TCM’s Big Screen Classic is still going strong (also ironic, perhaps). The Regency stopped showing classics last summer, with a brief (tepid) revival for Halloween and Christmas. Tristone sputtered out last year. And when we showed up to The Wicker Man, we were informed this was the last “Throwback Thursday” with some friendly but meaningless corporate-speak about how they were going to maybe possibly relaunch sometime in the future. No real explanation but I presume they make a lot more money renting out the theaters to the myriad, endless film festivals than selling to even a packed house.

Where's Rutger Hauer when we need him?
Gone, like tears in the rain—er, wicker men in the flames.

For the past few years, two thirds of our 135-150 theater viewings have been classics and, frankly, it’s been great. You want to see CGI Will Smith as a genie? Or better, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy outwit themselves while building a house!

It’s sort of fitting that the last showing was The Wicker Man because this 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee musical has a kind of apocalyptic, end-of-an-era feel. I hadn’t seen it in about 40 years and recalled it as being a counter-cultural paean, a mockery of the old values. But it’s not that at all. I also didn’t remember it was a musical. But the characters do, in fact, break out into (poorly auditorily integrated, ’70s-style over-produced) songs.

The story is this: The officious (and devout) Sergeant Howie (Woodward) receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle, a small Scottish island, saying that a young girl (about 12) has been missing for a year. Summerisle is a sort of cloud-cuckoo land, however, where everyone acts a little queer and he get no straight answers to his questions. Instead, he gets vagueness, contradictions and outright lies. (Even the missing girl’s mother pretends she doesn’t know who the girl is. Later, when confronted, she’s positively blasé about her death.)

He is further provoked by the bizarre behavior of the islanders, which is outrageously pagan. There is open prostitution and promiscuity, with virgin boys being deflowered by the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland, whose body double does a rather provocative naked dance at once point). There are rituals involving maypoles, jumping through fires, and maybe, just maybe human sacrifice.

Those Swedish gals.
If I posted nothing but pictures of Britt Ekland (and her body double) here, would anyone judge me? Probably. So here’s one of the few pictures of her with clothes on.

This is all justified by the stentorian Lord Summerisle (Lee), who justifies it with an interesting history and a lot of sophistry. The history is that when his grandfather came to the island, it grew nothing and its people had despaired of escaping their poverty. With his understanding of agriculture—and by indulging the pagan inclinations of the populace—he managed to turn the island into a happy, productive place.

It’s really a shaggy dog story.

It’s meant to be a horror movie, and it works in a low key way. Howie never seems to realize that he’s in any sort of peril, despite the obvious madness of the islanders. And it is portrayed as such here. The story is sympathetic, on some level, to the Summerisle people—but without pretending they have any higher rationality or spirituality. They’re degraded, and worshipping tree spirits and forces of nature to resolve their problems. And that they have no particular qualms with sacrifice is apparent.

The fact that Howie is shielded by the crown and feels invincible does reduce the aura of menace, but also makes for a stomach-dropping conclusion.

How do you prance naked over a fire in a leotard?
The isles are chilly. Wear a leotard.

Woodward and Lee are terrific. Ekland (dubbed since her Swedish accent would stand out, and body-doubled because she didn’t like her own butt) is charmingly seductive. Robin Hardy’s direction of Anthony Shaffer’s script produces a lot of dreamlike sequences (many of which were left on the cutting room floor, for better or worse) and an aura of “realistic fantasy”.

Certain scenes—like Howie wandering around at night watching all the public air fornication—are going to be basically invisible on TV. By contrast, the girls jumping “naked” through the fire are very clearly wearing body stockings on a modern high-def screen.

The music (pop songs by “Corn Rig”) is as dated as you’d expect but not unbearable.

The only movie I’ve ever seen that starts with The Eucharist, but one of several (sometimes surprising) films in recent viewings with heavy use of Christian iconography. (Others include The Return of Martin GuerreAnnabelle Comes Home and A Job Near To Us.)

We liked it, though it was with a heavy heart that we left the theater: What the hell are we going to watch now?

It's grim.
Entering the cinematic graveyard of contemporary films.

The Other Story

It is harder to entice The Flower to the movies these days. She’s got a lot going on (as young ladies will) and has opted for an early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy which she will break—but only if sufficiently motivated. Fortunately, she didn’t have to break it here, since we saw this show on a weekend afternoon, but she was all in for this Israeli movie about a young (formerly atheist) woman whose parents are scheming to split her up with her orthodox Jewish boyfriend. As part of their scheme, they enlist her in watching a similarly young, formerly orthodox woman who has fallen in with literal pagans.

Hence, “the other story”. By Avi Nesher, the director of The Matchmaker, this has all the nuance you’d want from such a difficult story.

Recursive.
Jews feeling uncomfortable amidst the Jews.

Our protagonist is Yonatan (Yuval Segal, FaudaZero Motivation) who has returned from the States after a long absence from Israel. His dad, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, GETT: The Trial of Viviane AnsalemThe Band’s Visit) has summoned him at the behest of his ex-wife Tali (Maya Dagan, Matchmaker) because she is deeply offended by her daughter Anat (Joy Rieger, Live and Become) who has turned away from a righteous atheistic (or at least so-liberal-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-goyim) lifestyle to a deeply orthodox one.

As hostile as Shlomo and Tali are toward religion, Yonatan is more circumspect. His ex- (understandably) and his father (perhaps less so) both paint a picture of him as a master manipulator, a near sociopathic engineer of getting what he wants from people. We never actually see this, as though Yonatan has changed in his time away.

That said, we learn Anat attempted suicide at her bot-mitzvah because Yonatan did not show up. And her life went to ruins when he fled to the U.S., with their only communication being an email every now and again. And we learn that she and her boyfriend were quite the sinners (if I may use Christian parlance) before their severe conversion. The boyfriend is a famous pop star, and the two made racy music videos (as one does), as well as having lots of pre-marital sex, getting high, and doing who knows what else.

It gets a little raunchy.
Improper care and handling of a motor vehicle, perhaps.

Shlomo says to Yonatan (basically), “Since you’re here, why don’t you help me with these couples I have to counsel before they can get a divorce?” Yonatan demurs, since he hasn’t been in practice for a while, having focused on writing books and engineering some kind of social prediction program back in the states, but Shlomo insists and soon Yonatan is counseling a traditional Jewish (conservative but not orthodox, I think) couple, where the woman is not merely resentful but seems somewhat unhinged and the man seems like a nice guy, just a little dweeby and maybe a bit dense. He’s convinced his wife is going to offer his son up as a human sacrifice at one of her pagan rituals.

Nesher artfully moves the story around from character to character: Anat’s pop-star husband is surrounded by groupies, but he keeps his distance, with his other bandmates making sure there are no hangers-on. This makes his conversion seem more genuine, but probing reveals he goes to a dodgy pharmacy in East Jerusalem (apparently the Israeli version of Canadian Drug Websites). Our newly pagan wife has plans to alienate the husband’s son from him as soon as they’re divorced—but on the other hand, he thinks she’s planning to literally kill the son, and his fear drives him to the movie’s most desperate act. Shlomo, while not crazy about Anat’s conversion, has his own hidden motives for calling Yonatan back to Israel. Yonatan himself has his own secret, his own motivations, and his own reasons for his relative contemplativeness.

Anat is certainly the most sincere and straightforward among them all, but at the same time she’s reacting: To her father’s abandonment, to the secular worldview of her mother and grandfather, to the emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle.

Not everybody with forelocks is a rabbi!
Maybe you’d like to tell the rabbi? (What do you mean he’s not a rabbi?)

It’s a beautiful thing to see it all play out. Nesher eschews the sensational in his storytelling while fully respecting the human tendency to veer toward the dramatic. As a result, he can show everyone with all their flaws without making a cartoon villain out of them. You come away understanding the characters and, shall we say, forgiving their trespasses in the  hopes that your own trespasses will be also be forgiven.

Easily in the top 5 movies this year to date.

Should you do nothing?
Sometimes you gotta do whatever to stop your daughter from marrying a schmuck, I guess.

The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

“That was very French—but in a good way!” So sayeth The Flower after we emerged from this classic French film about a man who returns from the war after many years a much better and much changed fellow. He’s so changed, in fact, that he becomes a relatively young and slim Gerard Depardieu, two attributes I have never really associated with Depardieu. This may, in fact, have been his “breakthrough” role for Americans. (There was a time French actors actually became semi-famous in America for being in French films. Then they’d do some American films and, well, usually go right back to doing French films.)

Much like King Tut.
The ladies like his style.

Our story, allegedly based on fact—actually, let’s unravel this a little because it’s kind of confusing: In 1941, author Janet Lewis published a novella called The Wife of Martin Guerre. This served as the basis for the movie, co-written by historienne Natalie Zemon Davis, who subsequently went on to write the novel The Return of Martin Guerre. Both those ladies were American (Davis apparently claims partial Canadian status but we’ll allow it), yet the very Frenchness of the story makes it not at all surprising that they would pick this idea up first. (The American version Somersby, when it was eventually made, featured Jodie Foster and Richard Gere at their heights and was not remembered well enough to be forgotten.)

Anyway, our story is that Martin Guerre marries Bertrand de Rois (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can) in what seems to be a felicitous arrangement for their families, but Guerre is a jerk. Young and impotent, many weird medieval remedies are applied to get him to, y’know, fertilize his wife. (This is a huge deal.) He succeeds and a son is conceived.

Then he runs off.

Many years later (seven or eight) he returns. “Here I am,” he says, “don’t you know me?” And one by one, the villagers all decide he is, in fact, Martin Guerre. Now, we, the audience, know it’s not Martin Guerre because we’ve seen Martin Guerre and he was no Gerard Depardieu. And there are a few suspicious lapses. But you know, maybe that’s just a movie thing. I mean, after all, the guy we knew was a skinny young teenager and Depardieu is in his 30s by this point, so maybe it is him.

But it can’t be him, not really, or you’d have no movie, right?

Looks like a Rembrandt.
Nathalie Baye doesn’t like my logic, but she can’t refute it!

Still, the movie expertly convinces us that it is him. Everything goes well for years, in fact, until Martin confronts his uncle (who has married his mother) over some family property. That’s pretty convincing, right? If you were an impostor, the last thing you’d do is bring attention to yourself. But even with us being pretty sure that it’s not Martin, the uncle is a bit of a fiend and certainly dishonest in his dealings with Martin, so you sorta do begin to suspect that it is Martin and the whole specter is being raised by the uncle to keep control of this property.

There’s even a hearing in the small village in which Martin definitively proves his identity. And you think, well, okay, maybe it’s him and maybe he’s just getting away with it, but good enough either way. But then the dastardly uncle forces (or forges) an accusation out of Martin’s wife and the whole thing goes to trial again in the big city of—I forget which, but it’s not Paris. It’s actually a pretty small town but all the witnesses have to relocate for the duration of the trial and they gawp at all the huge buildings…I mean, there’s like a three story building in there…and make their beds in various barns and what-have-yous.

The movie feels very authentic in this regard. The villagers are quasi-pagan in a lot of their rituals despite the omnipresent church. The villages are dirty and often the villagers are as well, but director Daniel Vigne never misses a chance to show the beautiful countryside and doesn’t wallow in the degradation of the people. A lot of them are as rough as you’d expect them to be, but never as squalid as you’d see in (say) a Terry Gilliam film. He’s very much about the decency of the people in difficult times, without glamorizing it.

It boils down to an unusual and very French love story, told with conviction and without a Hollywood sentimentality. We all liked it without reservation (cf. The Crime of Monsieur Lange).

Oh, no.
“Point is, there’s a happy ending, r—What? Let me see that script!”

Annabelle Comes Home

I was stuck in the OC for a limited time and, with a couple of movies to burn (in order to try to get my $25/mo out of the AMC Stubs membership), I found Annabelle Comes Home was playing at an opportune time. There was also a Chinese film called Dancing Elephant that, in complete ignorance, I would’ve rather seen, but when I got to the Orange 30—that’s right, thirty screens—I couldn’t remember what it was and I didn’t see it on the marquee. (I think they had half on one side and half on the other.) After I got my ticket to this, I figured I still had a good shot of catching Dancing Elephant (something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I felt justified) only to discover all the interior marquees were off, leaving me no way to tell which screen was playing it. After checking about 12 in the wing of the theater was in, I conceded defeat and settled down to the latest entry in the Warren-verse.

The Chinese take no prisoners when it comes to comedy.
Dancing Elephant is a comedy about a 13yo girl who goes into a coma and wakes up 15 years later grieved to discover she’s fat and old and will never realize her dream of being a dancer and now I’m really bummed I missed it.

This five year series consists of seven movies grossing $1.9B cumulatively and is the second highest grossing horror franchise next to Godzilla. And so it’s as bland and uninspired as you would imagine, as all the “cinematic universe” movies are. The epitome of “porridge”. But I wasn’t expecting brilliance.

I expected four things, basically: atmosphere with the threat being represented a general air of menace (not the same as atmosphere), reasonably interesting characters, some jump scares and a modicum of Christian iconography. The real Warrens were Catholic, I believe, and fought boogens the old-fashioned way: with crucifixes and holy water.

Two-and-a-half outta four ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible.

The story takes place after the stinger in the last Annabelle movie which I think may be the end of the first Annabelle movie (which we didn’t see). The Warrens take the doll home and put it in their Room Of Evil Artifacts, only to decide it still had power if you just let it hang out, so they put it behind the glass from a tabernacle of a demolished church. The sensitive Lorraine assures everyone that “the evil is contained”. (Someone asks “why don’t you just destroy it?” and Ed just shakes his head condescendingly, which I sorta enjoyed.)

In a move any B-movie would be proud of, the Warrens then run off to their next adventure leaving their much-less-expensive-to-have-on-screen daughter Judy at home with the doll and a Very Responsible Dresses Like Marcia Brady babysitter, Mary Ellen. Playing Veronica to Mary Ellen’s Betty is the feisty brunette Daniela, whose tough exterior is just a front for her grief over losing her dad. Bob, the good kid who works in the grocery store has a thing for Mary Ellen, and rounds out the cast for our adventures.

'cause, see....they look like those '70s characters...
L to R: Marcia Brady, Barbara Cooper and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Hey, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga aren’t cheap, I’m sure, and the kids (I presume) who go see these things would rather see some young cuties cosplaying the ’70s and shrieking their heads off than the serious, intense, sorta sad older people. Anyway, this is how you make a low-budget horror flick for…27 million? Holy cow.

I’m not sure if there’s some pandering going on here or what, but this sorta feels like it’s “Stranger Things” for the ’70s. The movie really seems to enjoy its callbacks: corded phones, board games, small screened but otherwise bulky TVs showing “Captain Kangaroo”, “The Dating Game”, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and I think a horror movie at one point, but that might’ve just been more “Dating Game” clips. It’s charming enough and manages to evoke the ’70s without being sleazy like the actual ’70s version of the movie would have been. (Mary Ellen and Daniela, e.g., are nice to look at but aren’t wearing revealing clothes or put in provocative poses.)

I do have to call BS on the premise that Judy, the Warren’s daughter, not having friends or being able to get birthday guests because her parents were exorcists. That stuff was lit in the ’70s. (One of the more popular “board games” of the ’70s being “Ouija”—not at all a game, but just an actual Ouija board. From Parker Brothers!) Daniela’s fascination would’ve been the norm. Also, one of the kids rejects her invitation by saying, “My parents say I’m not ready to process death yet.” It was an intentionally funny line, but more of an ’80s thing. The ’70s were more your parents slowing down the car a little as they push you out the door with “Wedon’tknowtheWarrensbuttheyseemniceandanywayyouaregoingtohavetodealwithweirdoswhenyougrowupsopickyouupinfourhours!”

Parents were not at their best.
The ’70s: “Oh, look! The new babysitter brought you a doll!”

Anyway, the key point is that Daniela, who knows not what she does, opens the glass case. This frees Annabelle to do mischief. The Annabelle movies are not—very wisely—genuine “creepy doll” movies: Annabelle is not animated. You never see her move unless gravity is the proximal cause. She shows up places and bad things happen around her. It’s as good an excuse for a “funhouse” horror flick where things happen purely for effect because the boogen in question feeds on fear (or whatever).

The first half of the movie is a nice ramp-up with good characters, and the last half is all spooky stuff, which was also a nice choice. There’s a good variation on the “stick your hand in the box” thing, similar to Phantasm but with a twist. (The Warrens, amusingly enough, have two Feely Meely games: One for playing, and on in the Artifact Room that is clearly possessed.)

So, if the acting is good, and it is—the girls are all seasoned veterans of shows I’ve never heard of, much like Kaya Scoledario from Crawl—and the characters are good, which they are—Daniela is sympathetic, for all her mischief, and even Bob proves his worth—and there are good choices made narratively, and reasonable feeling artistic choices (unlike some of the cheaty-feeling bits of The Curse of La Llorona) why am I so “meh” about it?

Hey, it's the '70s!
TFW you find your parents “home movies”.

It goes back to what I said up front: This movie is porridge. It’s skillfully made porridge, no doubt. But there is very little surprise to be had here. A good funhouse horror flick uses its license to do literally anything to present you with some outrageous imagery or mind-bending concept, and we get very little of that here. And I’d go even further to suggest stuff like that really isn’t wanted, either by studios or audiences.

As bad as it is for the regular load of Disney/Marvel gruel, it’s worse for horror movies. Very few genuinely scary horror flicks make money big box office. Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining being the only exceptions I can think of, unless you want to count Jaws as well, which I consider an adventure film. But to the extent that people like being scared, the general audience tolerance is low. So this movie will make back about ten times its budget (worldwide) and we’ll get the next seven movies in the franchise which will also doubtless be competently made blandness.

And that’s a little hard to get excited about.

Crawl

One of the horde had mentioned this creature feature to me and I had the idea that I liked the director (Alexandre Aja, Horns) so I told The Boy I was going to see it and he tagged along. AMC’s stubs ($25/month for up to three movies a week) would be a fabulous deal if AMC actually showed movies I wanted to see, but for us it’s also kind of a way to see movies we’re meh about because they’re “free”.

Harsh but fair.
This sign is more interesting than the movies playing at the AMC.

It’s a simple enough plot: Kaya Scodelario (I dunno…Maze Runner or the Clash of the Titans remake, or some crap like that) plays Haley, a college girl who swims well enough to be on the team (and get a scholarship, as we later learn). When we meet her, she loses her relay, and we flash back to her father (Barry Pepper, who was also in one of the Maze Runner movies as well as True Grit) coaching her aggressively as a child, and we quickly learn the relationship between the two.

He’s pig-headed and tough. She’s also pig-headed and tough. And they’re not talking at the moment.

This does not keep her from defying a roadblock to check on him after her more popular, likable, prettier (arguably, of course), married-with-children sister calls her up to say he’s in the path of an oncoming hurricane and not picking up his phone. When she goes to investigate his crappy condo, she finds his dog but not him. So she goes to recently sold family home where she finds him unconscious in the basement—with some highly suspicious looking teeth marks in his body.

OK, they’re not suspicious at all, they’re alligator teeth marks. (Or maybe crocodile teeth. Some member of the crocodylia order, anyway.)

You’re already kind of liking Haley, for all her pigheadedness and, let’s be honest, unwarranted pride that she is immune to hurricanes. (A lot of L.A. people think they’re immune to earthquakes *kaff* so I could relate.) And we like her even more as we realize she’s going to try to drag her unconscious dad out of the basement because it’s flooding and there’s no guarantee anyone will get to them in time.

That’s when she meets the gator in question.

What follows for the next hour or so is a game of cat-and-mouse. Or gator-and-swimmer. Or rather gator-and-swimmer-and-dad, because he wakes up. Or, really, swimmer-and-dad-versus-an-infinite-number-of-alligators, ’cause it turns out that the house is comically close to a gator farm that’s been flooded.

I mean it’s darkly comic, really, but are we going to split hairs, here? A lot of great horror has its foundation in humor gone awry.

Screenwriting 101
Amateurs save the cat. Professionals save the dog.

There’s not much more to say about this, really: It’s suspenseful. It plays its hand pretty well, we thought, overall.  You don’t want to see the principles die, which is of course not true of a lot of horror movies, and Pepper and Scoledario make for a convincing father/daughter team. When the threat ends, the movie ends, no wrap-up or filling in the dramatic blanks or nothing. Just roll credits.

In the words of the great Roger Corman: “Monster’s dead. Movie’s over.”

Still the audience was sort of shocked by this which, I think, tells you something about the attention paid to the characters on the one hand, and on the other how little deviance from established formulae the average moviegoer is expecting these days. The cinematography (by Maxime Alexandre, no relation) was good, and the score (by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum) even stood out in a few places—in a good way—which is also increasingly uncommon.

I mean, it works, so I’ll take it. Not gonna blow anyone away, but you can do far worse this season, and not much better. The Boy approved. My next well-I-gotta-go-see-something-at-AMC movie would be Annabelle Comes Home, which would end up unfortunately typifying the porridge of the year.

They're like the reptilian uncanny valley.
The cool thing about alligators is that real ones look so fake, the movie ones don’t look much different.

Violence Voyager

The Boy refused to say this was the greatest movie he’d ever seen. In fact, I’m not even sure that he said it was good—because, in any conventional sense, it is not—but he did say it was inspired madness that ranked it among the highest cinematic experiences he had had. And I can’t argue with that. At least not the “inspired madness”.

Almost false advertising.
The most normal moment in the movie, probably.

It was my fault we went to see this one-man project, and in fairness, I picked it precisely because it was the sort of weird little thing we enjoy. But what, exactly, is it? Well, if you search the web, you’ll see the claim that it was filmed in “gekimation” but is “gekimation” a real thing? I do not think so.

What filmmaker/manic Ujicha (yes, only one name) did was set up little backdrops through which he moved cut-outs of his characters through. He’s literally playing with dolls, in other words. Now, to his credit, you never see his hands (or whatever implements he used to create motion) but you cannot help but “see” them, as the characters bob up-and-down exactly as they would if you were watching a child put on a show. And at one point, when a creature is supposed to be dropping down through a portal, it’s very clear it’s being held by the (off-screen) edge and just dropped through. At times, the characters have liquids (bodily fluids) splashed on them or forced out through holes.

It is a truly transparent artifice. But one for which I was grateful when we started seeing rows-and-rows of naked pre-pubescent children corpses.

WTH.
Which is not even close to the weirdest part of the movie.

There aren’t all that many different poses and expressions for the characters, and they seem somewhat off at times. Thankfully, the voice-acting wasn’t just Ujichi doing all the voices and the Japanese cast is pretty high-powered. We saw the English dub which had some recognizable names as well.

The story goes something like this: Two boys (ignoring the warnings of wise elders) take a mountain pass to see a pal who has moved to a different village when they stumble across a ramshackle amusement park, the titular “Violence Voyager”. They are permitted to choose weapons (squirt guns) and instructed to fight the aliens (cheesy cut-outs that pop out at them). Ultimately they’re trapped in one of the attractions, where things start to get even weirder.

I say “even weirder” because, beyond the whole bizarro presentation, one of the boys has a waffle for a head. I mean, he’s got a pattern on his head like he was struck by a waffle iron. (His little brother has the same pattern!) What does it mean? Absolutely nothing, per Ujicha. He just liked the character design.

He's got his dolphin, though, so he's good.
Quite the character design.

But as they stumble around this cheesy amusement park attraction, they come across peers who have been trapped for days and transmogrified into horrible monsters. Why? Well, I think this is the old “Convert some poor sap’s body into a vehicle for your deformed/dead loved one” bit (a la The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or a zillion other ’50s/’60s B-movies) but there’s no real logic here. It feels, most of the time, like a genuine nightmare: Weird, disconcerting, and complete nonsense.

At various points, our hero encounters, let’s see: a cat, a bat and a chimpanzee. By the end of the movie, they’re fighting like teams of an impromptu superhero group.

It’s astoundingly childish. I mean, top-to-bottom: presentation, story, dialog, character motivations, and a weird ambiguity as to the characters ages. Like, they look like grade school kids. And, I mean, we see all of them naked which (under normal cinematic circumstances) provides clues as to age. But the boys’ pal—the one they were going to visit—was actually there on a date with his girlfriend. I mean, I guess twelve-year-olds might go on unsupervised dates into the woods with their girlfriends in Japan?

When we get some exposition, it turns out the kids were there because the authorities weren’t interested in missing children. So, to preserve their “journalistic integrity”—as an eight-year-old girl explains—they embark on their journey through the park without any adults. At one point, the hero’s father comes after him, and he takes the hero’s pal’s little brother along, because the only parents shown in the movie are the hero’s and the mad scientist.

Remember “The Naked Lunch” tagline? “Exterminate All Rational Thought”? Pshaw. Peanuts.

It all comes across as a juvenile nightmare. The Boy absolutely loved it. (We had gone after our late night work meeting and he had no regrets.) I…well, my feelings were mixed, to say the least. I was glad we had gone to see it, but I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it. I found the artwork so hard to parse sometimes that it was difficult for me to figure out who was speaking from time-to-time (mouths don’t move, of course) or to figure out what action was supposed to have taken place (but couldn’t be shown because cutout dolls don’t really interact well).

The hero ends up transmogrified early on, but the movie assures us that his mother still loves him and he conquered whatever difficulties came his way for the rest of his life. So that’s nice.

Check it out?

Huh.
This is a picture of three of the good guys.

Dead Man (1995)

This was the last of the Jarmusch flicks, and the apex of his budgets as well, possibly excluding the recent The Dead Don’t Die. And I think it shows that, given a budget, well, Jarmusch is gonna give you a lot of names (could they possibly be working for more than scale? and why?) no matter how brief or gratuitous.

He's got a few lines.
Names like: Robert Mitchum!

Case in point, this tale of William Blake (Johnny Depp, at the peak of his “doing weird Indie stuff” years), an accountant who travels to Machin (Oregon?) after the death of his parents, only to find that due to his delay, his job (working for Robert Mitchum!) has long been given away (per a toadying John Hurt). A brief dalliance with Thel (played by the beautiful Mili Avital) results in the murderous ire of Gabriel Byrne (I’m skipping character names, people are in this so briefly) which results in death for Mili and Gabriel and a delayed death for Johnny Depp, who goes on the run, since Byrne was Mitchum’s son.

The Dead Man of the movie, therefore is Depp, who has a bullet lodged near his heart and must flee the various villains Mitchum (whom we never see again) sends after him. Other celebrities with small roles: Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Crispin Glover and Alfred Molina as a bigoted Christian icon salesman out in the middle of nowhere.

The primary mover of the story, however, is Nobody, played by iconic character actor Gary Farmer who leads Depp deeper into the wilderness, helping him conquer his foes, only to vanish and leave him alone at the worst time, but then to re-appear again and help Depp finish his journey, in which he more-or-less kills him.

Nobody loves you when you're down and out.
Gary Farmer, “Nobody”.

The ending has Nobody pushing Blake off in a boat into the ocean. He’s not dead yet. But Nobody thinks that William Blake is the William Blake, the 18th century poet/artist and that, therefore, Depp is his ghost. I mean, spoilers don’t really matter much for a movie like this, but Nobody dies sending him out on that boat while killing the last bounty hunter out to get him.

Nice, if simple, camerawork. Black and white gives things an otherworldly feel. This was the only film not to have music provide not by John Lure nor Tom Waits. Neil Young, of all people, provides the soundtrack. Again, the Boy and I enjoyed it. It’s odd. It’s…well, it’s Jarmuschian. Deadpan, kinda funny, kinda interesting, no real message to be had. If you like Jarmusch, you won’t be disappointed, and this particular one may have broader appeal as it gives the sensation of a traditional story arc.

I mean. Maybe.
Johnny Depp may have used the same wig for Willy Wonka.

It doesn’t actually have a story arc, mind you. If Blake is our protagonist, while he goes through some remarkable changes he doesn’t really have an arc. He starts out with a blind thrust into the unknown, which kills him, and on his journey toward physical death, he discovers a more survival-oriented side to his nature—but even in the end, he’s passively pushed out to sea by his best and only friend who doesn’t understand that he’s not a ghost.

This would probably irritate the crap out of a lot of people, come to think of it, and the movie grossed a whopping $1M on its $9M budget. But The Boy and I enjoyed it precisely because it’s arranged along a more aesthetic logic and less conventionally predictable.

"I'm a big fan of your work!"
“Gabriel Byrne?! What are you doing here?!”

Mystery Train (1989)

The third in our Jarmusch-on-the-Loosh festival, this is the only genuine anthology, and makes more sense under its working title One Night In Memphis. It is the stories of three parties visiting Memphis, Tennessee: A Japanese couple who are obsessed with the Memphis music scene (she, especially, Elvis, he more Carl Perkins—though it’s possible he’s just being contrary), an Italian widow who finds herself sharing a room with a hard-luck chatty girl, and selfsame chatty girl’s not-husband who ends up rolling around the city getting into trouble with a couple of pals because he’s despondent she’s left him.

The first story is about Mitsuko and Jun, a young couple traveling across America, putting together a scrapbook of iconic Americana. Jun is a despondent, desultory character, enough to perplex the more chirpy Mitsuko. Their relationship is so prickly and distant, I thought they were brother and sister for a while. A late story sex scene with pillow-talk disabused me of that, and is the closest thing we get to overt revelation of character. Jun is rapidly finished with their encounter, and Mitsuko apparently unsatisfied. Jun says, “Mitsuko, do women…always worry about their hairstyle?”

It's for an odd, quirky reason, though.
I can’t remember why he’s wearing the lipstick, though.

I thought the implied end of the sentence was “orgasm” but she doesn’t pick up on it, and instead berates him for not shaving more. (“But I shaved two days ago!”)

The second story is about Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) who, for no explained reason, is in Memphis with the coffin of her husband. Her good nature is gently abused by local Tennessee-ans culminating with her staying at the same flophouse the Japanese couple is, and ending up going halfsies on a room with Dee-dee, a flighty girl fleeing from her husband, who is in fact her boyfriend, and is inexplicably English. We learn all about Dee Dee and virtually nothing about the much more intriguing Luisa, because she can’t get a word in edgewise.

The only time she manages to get anything out, it’s to re-tell “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” that a local used to scam her out of $20. The Memphis version has Elvis as the hitch-hiker, naturally, which leads to the high point of the film. But Luisa doesn’t even get to finish the story because Dee Dee, of course, has heard it before.

At least he didn't skin her and eat her.
Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero) scams the polite Luisa.

The last story concerns Johnny (the late Joe Strummer, drummer for The Clash), Will (the late character actor Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi, who mysteriously still lives). Johnny’s despondent over the loss of Dee Dee (and his job) and his pal Will calls in Charlie when Johnny starts waving a piece around. The three of them end up driving around Memphis, drinking more and more (a theme carried over from previous films), until Johnny gets the bright idea to stop for more booze and ends up shooting the guy behind the counter.

They end up ducking for cover in the same flophouse as the previous two stories, and several unexplained events from those stories are resolved here.

It's just a flesh wound.
The end of a long night.

The bellboy at the hotel is Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother) and the clerk is none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who provided the song, “I Put A Spell On You”)  that the Hungarian heroine of Stranger Than Paradise was obsessed with). Other nice Jarmuschiverse tie-ins are John Lurie (of both Paradise and Down By Law) doing the music and Tom Wait (also from Law) providing the DJing over the radio.

Jarmusch had a $2.8M budget and netted a whopping $1.5M in the US, which suggests a pattern. A pattern unheeded by the producers of the last movie in the series: Dead Man. It was the only one shot in color, though the color is on a pretty narrow band, with so much being shot at night.

We enjoyed it, especially for an anthology. But again, it’s not hard to see why Jarmusch lacks a broader audience.

I put a spell on y—on your sister.
Cinque Lee and Screamin’ Jay!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Not to be confused with the 1956 film, Godzilla COMMA King of the Monsters, this is more of a remake of the 1964 film, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. I didn’t really want to see it, but the Barbarienne…well, her tastes diverge greatly from mine, and a dad’s gotta dad. The Boy and I were kind of “…maybe?…” about it, but a “…maybe?…” means “No, unless we’re desperate” and these days our relative busy-ness is high enough to just forgo a movie rather than see something porridge-y. And, well, yeah. It’s more-or-less what you’d expect. No surprises, nothing challenging, just competently done oatmeal.

Bravo
2019 CGI devoted to making Godzilla authentic-looking, i.e., like a dude in a rubber suit.

Kind of a shame, considering director Michael Dougherty did the wonderful Krampus movie a while back.

The most common refrain about the movie is that “the monster parts are good and the human parts are not, but there aren’t many of them.” Truthfully, though, the monster parts are okay and the human parts are distractingly bad. I mean, you don’t think you’re going to lose the plot in a Godzilla movie, but none of it made a lick of sense to me and now I have to try to explain it to you.

The protagonists/antagonists of this story are the Russell family who were not in the 2014 Godzilla (and of course weren’t in the ’60s-based Kong: Skull Island). Honestly, I didn’t remember them not being in it. The movie sorta had me convinced they (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler) were in the 2014 movie but I honestly didn’t care and it’s probably easier to watch this movie without ever realizing it’s part of a “cinematic universe”. Anyway, the Russell’s work on communicating with kaiju—they’ve built a device that is like a whale-sound generator that actually can control monsters—and ended up losing a child in Godzilla’s last rampage.

Which, don’t you kind of remember that? I kinda do, but it’s probably one of those Sinbad-plays-a-genie things. And the fact that as movies get increasingly generic and wound up in epic catastrophic CGI events, it gets harder and harder to tell them apart. (Not just epic-catastrophic-CGI-events, either: The same thing happens when any genre becomes dominant, like romantic comedies or westerns.)

Nothing matters.
This might be from the movie or it might be a promotional rendering or fan art or a cut scene from a video game.

Anyway, the kaiju control team Monarch has all the biguns monitored across the earth, most frozen in ice or whatever, and they’re being raked over the coals by Congress because they want to keep Godzilla alive…for reasons they don’t really explain. But in the giant rubber monster movies of yore, Godzilla ends up having a purpose because he can protect from other, REALLY bad monsters. I’m not sure why Monarch doesn’t mention this but maybe it’s because at this point, nobody but them (and the human villains) know about Ghidorah.

Anyway, the Russell’s machine falls into the hands of the human villains, there’s a (very early) heel turn where one of the good guys turns out to be on the villainous side, and the whole plan, apparently, is to unleash All The Monsters so that—and I am not making this up—they will bring balance to the earth. Now, I confess, I missed this bit of exposition because I was getting the Barb a popcorn refill, but we were both really unclear on how 17 or so giant monsters were going to “bring balance”. (Maybe they have heretofore hidden ecological powers?) And the slight flaw in this plan—if you can believe such an airtight plan has a flaw—is Monster Zero, a.k.a. Ghidorah who steals Godzilla’s Alpha Kaiju Crown and thus commands the lesser kaiju and apparently is just a vehicle for terraforming (presumably for jump-suited aliens, if I recall my rubber-suit-monster lore). Wait, I guess that would “xenoforming”.

It’s a good metaphor for environmentalists who want to destroy all of humanity to restore the Earth to some previous pristine era. But I sorta don’t think it was meant that way. Actually, it’s a really good metaphor: “Hey, let us control everything and destroy everything we don’t like and that will make things perfect.” But movie narratives usually require more coherent and convincing plots than real life.

Security is lax.
It’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day at the kaiju factory.

Look, the giant monster genre has got a lot of built-in limitations. I think it’s possible to create an effective giant monster horror movie, like Cloverfield, by focusing on the human survival aspect. But that’s not what this genre is about. The horror aspect is quickly swamped by the spectacle. (Note the original Godzilla with footage of lots of suffering people with radiation burns has its own unique effect which is quickly abandoned in later films.) The problem that emerges quickly from the endless sequels is that monsters become not just less horrifying, they become downright goofy. (“Gamera is friend to all the children!”)

Fine for kiddie-fare, I suppose, though grossly at odds with the whole mass murder thing—at least in modern terms of trying to make kiddie fare hyper-realistic. Point is, this movie starts veering into the goofy, as the spectacle of the treacherous Rodan, the faithful Mothra, and a few of the other weirdos congregating with Godzilla is swamped by the fact they’re bowing down to him in a positively courtly manner.

The CGI is okay. It’s constantly rainy and dark (due to Ghidorah’s xenoforming) and I was amused but not uncharmed by the fact that state-of-the-art 2019 CGI can reasonably simulate a guy walking in a rubber suit. That’s really what it looks like, and it sorta has to, or it ceases to look like Godzilla. But the seams were pretty apparent in the movie and I suspect it won’t be long before all this stuff evokes the same chortles that the old rubber-suit stuff did.

The Barb liked it, though, so good enough.

Murky.
This is pretty exciting, though, right? The blob on the left is going to attack the one on the right, maybe? Or is asking it to make it a sandwich.