Your Name Is Rose (Rosebud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe.
A wacky misunderstanding about to be cleared up?

Extreme Job

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

Waitaminute.

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

They do this ALL the time.
Caught you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They're good at...things.
Our…heroes?

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

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

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

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

Groundhog Day (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

insincerity.

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

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

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

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

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

I said it.
Trees are jerks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, as I said, I am biased.

The Thing (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody wants to get TOO scared.

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

Venom

Of all the children, the Barbarienne is the most susceptible to Internet memes and just plain-old advertising, which makes her an oddity around here, and which also means that Yours Truly pulls dad duty and takes her to see films that would otherwise go by like dust in the wind. But this year, at least, it’s been an okay Avengers flick, and not something like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel.

And also this movie. Going on ten years now, I’ve mentioned “superhero burnout”, and there hasn’t been one made in the past few years I had any strong interest in seeing. I’d heard good things about Venom, but you hear good things about all of these movies, even as the Marvel formula drains more and more life out of each incarnation.

"Go back to your indie films, nerd!"
Tom Hardy’s sick of my whining.

This isn’t a Marvel picture, exactly, though. It doesn’t follow the formula, and it’s not Disney. (In fact, when the Sony logo came up, I did my best Plinkett imitation: “Oh, no….” which either amused or offended the Barb, it’s hard to tell)  Even odder, though, is that it’s not exactly a superhero movie. It’s a buddy-cop movie in superhero clothes. (I’d say “in tights” but there aren’t any tights and movie superheroes don’t wear tights any more.)

The story is that Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an hard-hitting investigative reporter who takes advantage of his fiancee (Michelle Williams) by sneaking a peak at a confidential email which happens to contain dirt on mega-tech-villain (the new standard, if you hadn’t noticed) that Eddie just so happens to be interviewing—with strict orders not to go all Mike Wallace on the guy.

Which of course Eddie does, losing his job, his girl, and making an enemy out of the evil tech-lord Drake (Riz Ahmed, Nightcrawler). However, dorky Scientist Girl (Jenny Slate, My Blind Brother, Abortions Are Awesome, and a bunch of kids movies, like Zootopia) gets cold feet when Drake starts using human subjects in his experiments with alien xeno…blobs. Whatever they are.

I think it's weird, is all.
On break, Slate describes her third abortion to a beleaguered Tom Hardy.

Drake’s convinced that the future of man is in the stars, and he’s gonna need an alien parasite…er, symbiont. Symbiote? We couldn’t figure out which it was, though the two words seem to be largely synonymous. The problem is that these xenoblobs, as eager as they are to hook up, tend to kill their hosts.

A little guerilla reportage gone wrong and before you know it, Eddie’s got parasites and is struggling to survive as Drake’s henchmen come after him, and his space-alien passenger likes to solve problems by eating humans.

It works better than it should: Tom Hardy is appealing, even as a kind of loser character, and the movie spends most of its time with him talking to himself. I mean, yeah, he’s talking to the parasite inside him, and we hear said parasite, but he’s basically talking to himself. Arguing with himself against eating random passers-by, and so on.

Can't prove anyone wrong.
If Venom were real, I guess this is what he’d look like?

Then Venom comes out and my interest flat-lines. The CGI is not bad but the character itself is so cartoony, that you’re never in danger of thinking that you’re watching anything real. Now, I couldn’t always parse what the gravelly-voiced creature was saying—voiced by Tom Hardy, so you know he really is talking to himself—but even the raspy voice has miles more charm and interest than the goofy 3D model.

Sort of like Thor: Ragnarok, the parts that work are the least comic-book-y aspects. There’s a car chase early on that’s pretty good and has realistic (in the ’70s sense of realism, as in “real cars were involved”) but goes on way too long. The final battle is also a bit too long and shows the real limitations of this kind of CGI spaghetti.

I mean, I can’t prove that this isn’t exactly how two blobbby space aliens fighting would look, but I can say it was overly busy and boring to look at. But they show it in the trailer, so clearly my tastes are not really the ones dictating these things.

Meh.
This was probably a really expensive shot and I couldn’t care less.

I would say director Ruben Fleischer (ZombielandGangster Squad) did about as good as could be expected with the material. Hell, probably everyone did. I feel like the whole superhero genre is kind of on automatic pilot with nobody really in control any more.

But that shouldn’t deter you, if you don’t mind a lot of CGI goofiness and some mild superhero antics. Oh, and Venom’s weakness is sound in the 3-5K range, which strikes me as improbable somehow. Like there are sounds going on in that range not infrequently, and we just never notice them. But that’s a nitpick.

The Barb loved it of course. I didn’t hate it, which is not nothing.

 

Cliffhanger (1993)

I have a new favorite Renny Harlin movie!

OK, I have a favorite Renny Harlin movie, where before I wouldn’t take free tickets to anything with his name on it. I associated him with A Nightmare on Elm Street 4Die Hard 2 and Lethal Weapon 2—the last of which he didn’t even direct (Richard Donner directed all four LWs) but it’s just how I thought of him: The guy who ruins franchises. Also, I knew he married Geena Davis and ruined her career with Cutthroat Island. And then did that awful shark movie.

This isn’t entirely fair. (Especially the Lethal Weapon thing.) But then, neither is life, especially when you’re trapped on a mountain by a madman bent on having you fetch his wads of fat cash from various snowy cliffsides.

Ugh.
Artist’s depiction of John Lithgow trying to give me tickets to see “Exorcist: The Beginning”.

Yep. It’s Die Hard On A Mountain. From the release of Die Hard (1988) for about the next 10-15 years, about 30% of all movies were Die Hard. There was Die Hard on a Boat (Under Siege), Die Hard on a Plane (Passenger 57), Die Hard On A Boat But On A Train (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory). Why there were even a couple of Die Hard In A Skyscraper But With Boobs: Skyscraper, and our own beloved Hard To Die which despite the title is actually a remake of Sorority House Massacre 2. For the piece d’resistance of this digression, there was in fact no Sorority House Massacre 1, so SHM2 is I guess the most original movie on this list.

In this variant, John Lithgow plays the evil genius who orchestrates a heist from a plane loaded with $1,000 bills (which, he knows a guy who can fence) but things go bad and suitcases full of cash go plummeting into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado…

…where our brooding hero is licking his wounds after letting his now alienated best pal’s (Michael Rooker of Guardians of the Galaxy) girlfriend fall to her death. His girlfriend (Janine Turner, Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer) is trying to bring him around, but her efforts are interrupted by the aforementioned shenanigans.

They're actually not as hard to see as this picture would lead you to believe.
Here Sylvester Stallone points out the many plot holes to Janine Turner.

It’s impossible to watch this movie even today without noticing what it gets wrong relative to Die Hard. For example, Stallone can act, but he mostly doesn’t here. The movie’s a little fuzzy on why he’s beating himself up so much, but the instant the action starts he stops being Broody Stallone and becomes Action Man. John Lithgow can overact and must not have sensitive teeth the way he chews the icy scenery here. Stallone’s dramatic arc with Rooker is basically pointless.

We’re not really here for high drama, though, and even Die Hard’s character arcs (particularly with Sgt. Powell) are corny, however well constructed. Cliffhanger tends to go to the dramatic cheese well a lot…which is kind of entertaining, at least, if dumb. Lithgow’s campily English-accented Qualen lacks any gravitas, and it’s really hard to imagine him planning anything with anyone, he’s so nuts.

Buckaroo Banzai reference!
Dr. Emilio Lizardo called to say “Hey, dial it back a bit.”

But Stallone’s Action Man (like Schwarzenegger’s and, come to think of it, most of the Die Hard clone heroes) can never really be hurt. He has setbacks, but they never imperil him personally—even when they do. There’s a war of attrition against John McClane and he shows it. Here Stallone gets shot, apparently in the gut—somewhere between the ribs and the stomach where I guess we just keep the meat we need so we can have non-serious flesh wounds—but after the scene where he kills the guy who shoots him (by lifting him up and impaling him on a stalactite, after the guy has beaten the tar out of him for several minutes besides shooting him) he just sort of shakes off the wound. I mean, there’s no indication of him ever having been shot there afterwards. I think even the bloodstain on his shirt that indicates he’s been shot just goes away.

He also gets trapped under the water in frozen ice. When he escapes the ice, he’s still at a high altitude on a snowy mountain and minus the clothes he had to shed from sinking, but by the next shot he’s dry and not even shivering. (They often don’t look cold in this movie.) It’s not that Die Hard doesn’t have its cheats. It’s that when the cheats keep piling up and piling up, it gets increasingly harder to care.

The movie lacks a good sense of time tension: The cavalry is on the way but that never really feels like time pressure for the bad guys or much chance of salvation for the good guys. Likewise, Qualen’s entourage is mostly just bodies for Stallone (or Qualen) to kill. I mean, after they’re all dead, John Lithgow manages to single-handedly capture Janine Turner from a helicopter by pointing a pistol at her through the windshield.

Despite all this, it’s fun. It’s probably more fun now than it was 25 years ago because you don’t have any hopes about it being another Die Hard, and a lot of what feels stupid also feels like a fun throwback to that heyday of action movies.

Really fine score by Trevor Jones, heavier on the majesty than the suspense, but top notch. I think Mr. Jones mostly scores his son’s movies these days, which is kind of nice.

We like nice.
Rooker would be teamed up with Stallone again in “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”, which is also kinda nice.

Roma

A middle-class Mexican family in 1970-1971 undergoes a lot of changes amidst the riots and earthquake, as seen from the perspective of their Indian maid. This is the kind of movie The Boy and I used to see a lot a few years back: It’s kind of a movie for cinephiles (apart from any regional or nostalgic appeal), and one of those movies that grows on you.

The basic story is that Cleo is a young Indian woman (we never learn her age) from a poor village who cleans up after the four young children and the extremely prolific dog of a quarreling middle-age couple. She has a boyfriend who gets her pregnant, but even as the family is falling apart, the mother is helping the (terrified and abandoned) girl out. The mother is struggling with her wayward husband, and Cleo struggles with the prospect of being a single mom.

I think they're Swedish.
This involves shooting things with her Swedish relatives, I guess.

This movie is very slow-paced. It’s not really done in a high drama style: A lot of things play out in real time.The only music is ambient. Meanwhile, the camera is kept at the same level and strictly perpendicular to the characters, making the audience feel like they’re there watching it play out. The black-and-white cinematography is nice, and sometimes strikingly beautiful, but there isn’t a lot of noir-ish lighting and, as mentioned, the angles are kept flat.

What keeps you interested are the real-ness of the characters and some concern for their fate. Which of course won’t work for everyone, but did for us. At the end of the second act, there’s a kind of gut punch—well foreshadowed to be sure, but still effective—and I was joking with The Boy that my indie-film PTSD made me worried throughout the third act that far worse was going to happen.

Pseudo-biographical.
I think Cuaron is represented by the oldest of the boys.

If you’ve seen a lot of arty films, you know that the downer ending more than occasionally gives way to the grotesquely morbid dark carnival of horror, and because I had come to care about the characters, I was a little worried we were going to get a “And then they all got Ebola and died.” The fact that this was autobiographical for Cuarón  was not entirely reassuring, since certainly stories get exaggerated in the re-telling. My only real reassurance is that Cuarón is not a hack.

Anyway, the third act is dramatic but not lurid, and satisfying. You don’t end up feeling bad that you spent two-and-a-quarter hours with these people. They’re not perfect but you like them and are rooting for them. But you do have to rev down for the ride.

Oh! I didn’t give a penis warning for Mandy and some people appreciate those, so let me just say there’s a penis in this one, too. A martial arts penis.

That's a Mona Lisa Smile.
Here, Cleo is looking at the martial arts penis.

Mandy

Finally! A movie based on Barry Manilow’s 1975 #1 monster pop hit “Mandy”! You probably remember these classic lyrics:

Oh, Mandy!
They came and they took you and burned you
So now I’m forging an ax
Oh, Mandy!

Or, as The Boy has it: “If Nicolas Cage forging his own axe isn’t enough to entice you into the theater, this probably isn’t the movie for you.”

Happy endings!
It’s got a choppy end, a pokey end and a stabby end.

I was going to open the year with a 2018-in-review style offering, but half of our 120+ screenings (the lowest since 2010) were classic revivals, and half of what was left were mainstream Korean and Chinese cinema. It was a bad year for Hollywood by my lights. This movie, for all its faults (and narrow audience under the best of circumstances) nonetheless has a lot more heart and soul than the top 10 2018 movies combined.

By the time we had heard of it, it had already been pulled from its widest release (about 250 theaters), but was popping up at midnight showings and revivals around the city. This week, it turned up at the Downtown Independent as part of double-feature of Panos Cosmatos (director) films, including Beyond The Black Rainbow. If you know Red Letter Media, Jay Bauman is a fan of both films, and Mike Stoklasa…less so. (Taste-wise, as far as weird horror, I tend to fall between the two of them.)

So, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: This is a movie that combines a popular ’60s-’70s era genre, the crazy cult (sometimes with, sometimes without actual supernatural connections) that kidnaps and/or terrorizes some normies with a revenge flick. In the first half, a logger and his girl are living a peaceful (but eerie) life in a small cabin in the woods, when the girl happens to be spotted on the side of the road by the leader of a small cult which apparently travels the countryside getting (and occasionally sacrificing) new recruits. The leader becomes obsessed with her and summons demonic biker mutants to help the clan invade the hapless couple’s home. In the second half, the logger seeks revenge on the demonic biker mutants and cult.

Notable entries in this breed include Wes Craven’s first film, Last House on the Left and Who Are We Kidding? This Is An Awful Genre Full Of Crap.

Can't they just have a nice minivan once in a while?
It’s always bikes and vans in these movies.

The first thing that hits you about Mandy, though, is an earnestness combined with no small level of skill, somewhat reminiscent of Evil Dead. The movie sets the tone immediately—well, first with a King Crimson tune playing over a really long opening credits sequence of the sort that hasn’t been seen much in three decades—but then with Red (Nicolas Cage) felling a tree in a color-muted forest and driving home while President Reagan opines about America’s rejection of pornography and moral degradation. The year is 1983. Red turns the dial away from the Gipper (to his ultimate misfortune).

His wife, Mandy (whose name I swear we don’t hear until the cult leader intones it 40 minutes later) is an artist and, if her t-shirts are to be believed, a fan of the darker musical arts like Black Sabbath. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough, Never Let Me Go, The Death of Stalin) has a scar on one side of her face going down from her left eye, which is never explained, and she apparently draws fantasy art, which we never see but which really impresses her husband.

They’re happy, after a fashion, though a pall hangs over them that is not entirely attributable to the score by frequent Denis Villeneuve collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson (to whom the film is dedicated). It’s almost as if everything has already happened and they’re powerless to stop it. This part of the movie is filmed with a lot of basic camera effects: Double-exposures, trails, color…uh…de-correction. The camera pans up to the sky occasionally revealing a heavy metal album cover.

Hard as it is to believe that.
This window is never smashed, somehow.

Actually, the whole movie could be described as a series of heavy metal album covers. In the second half of the film, which actually eases up on the psychedelic camera effects, there is animation that feels like it’s straight outta the 1981 movie Heavy Metal, presumably as dreamed by Red. Why? Well, why not? (I mean, I’m guessing that’s what Mandy’s art—that we never see—looks like, but that’s not really an explanation.) But this is just one of many “why”s.

Why, when Red tracks down the demonic mutant bikers in the house they’ve invaded, is there a smoke-filled bottomless pit adjoining the kitchen, down which one of the bikers falls never to be seen again? Why does the cult operate out of a giant empty barn with a huge cross carved in the back, but also a surprisingly deep underground cavern? Why does the clandestine drug chemist not only know exactly what Red wants without Red ever speaking a word to him? And why is he so swayed by Red’s unspoken argument that he lets out his caged tigers in shame? Are the demonic mutant bikers actually demons and/or mutants? What is that liquid they demand as payment for their services, the merest taste of which utterly disorients Red?

Why?
Wait…wut?

If you care about these questions, this isn’t the movie for you. These things happen because they’re cool, and we all know how this story plays out so why belabor the action with boring details? The movie teeters on the edge of pretentiousness but then pulls back with deliberately goofy moments: Red and Mandy are enthralled watching Don Dohler’s “Night Beast” on their 12-inch tube TV; Red has a showdown with the beefy cult baddy in the form of a chainsaw duel—something I haven’t seen since Motel Hell; At the moment of deepest despair, with Red realizing Mandy is gone, there’s a startlingly plausible but really gross commercial for Cheddar Goblin macaroni ‘n’ cheese (directed by the guy who created “Too Many Cooks”); the movie has a few “chapter titles” all done in unabashed ’80s metal fonts; even the climactic gore effect is practical and right out of the ’80s.

I don’t know if I’d say the movie was fun so much as it is a lot of things from the sublime to the ridiculous and it embraces all of them.

Drugs are a hell of a thing.
Nobody ever watched “Night Beast” like this.

Great performances all around: Cameo by Bill Duke, essentially reprising his Predator role. Linus Roache as Charles-Manson-by-way-of-Jame-Gumb. Andrea Riseborough manages a nice mix of haunted and haunting, vulnerability and strength. Everyone’s weird and creepy, which is appropriate.

And of course, Mr. Cage. The movie exploits Cage’s range, from his genuinely touching grief over the loss of his wife to his blood-soaked wild-eyed staring at things that aren’t there, which can’t help but draw laughs.

I can’t recommend it to everyone. The pacing was rather slow, all things considered. It is visually chaotic (though far less so than Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse). It is the platonic essence of a really bad genre that succeeds to the degree it does with sheer energy and artistry. But it ain’t formulaic—and in that sense it’s a cure for what ails us in current cinema.

I mean.
Also, happy ending!

Fargo (1996)

Fargo has come up a lot on this blog over the years, serving as a kind of touchstone for regional movies about the midwest (like Thin Ice and Frozen River) and just being culturally iconic enough to be a plot point for other movies (like Kumiko, The Treasure Thief), but this is the first time we’ve seen it in the theater since it came out, and the first time The Boy saw it all the way through.

Trivia as boring as it is irrelevant.
This statue exists but not actually on the way to Brainerd, I guess.

It’s a good movie. Tight. It cemented the Coen Brothers as legitimate auteurs in Hollywood Establishment, though they personally seem to change nothing about themselves, any more than they did when Miller’s Crossing first got really favorable critical notice. They followed this up with a little flop known as The Big Lebowski which Siskel & Ebert excoriated because (and I am not making this up), Fargo was about poor people and The Big Lebowski was about rich people.

Your periodic reminder that movie critics are have the same gut reactions to things regular moviegoers have and then backfill them with nonsense to make it sound like they know what they’re talking about.

I swear.
Unrelated picture.

Fargo begins with a lie about the movie being based on true events, which at this point in my understanding of the Coens I’m attributing as part of their overarching philosophy that nobody knows anything. Nobody knows what’s going on. And nobody knows cause and effect. Or perhaps just, “We plan. God laughs.” (Hail, Caesar! is the only exception tot his I can think of.) This little blurb at the front of Fargo becomes the vignette about the dybbuk in A Serious Man.

The story is that Jerry Lundergaard needs a lot of money. (One of the more tantalizing questions in cinema history is why he needs the money. He has no apparent drug habit, no side-girl, no apparent gambling debts. It’s almost as if his moral failings are innate, which raises in itself a lot interesting questions.) His father-in-law has a lot of money but (rightly) doesn’t really trust Jerry much at all. So he gets in touch with a shady guy named Carl to arrange for his wife to be kidnapped. Carl has a pal Gaear as an accomplice, but Gaear is kind of a loose cannon, and a lot of people end up dead before the  story’s over.

The first murders occur in Brainerd, where it falls to local sheriff Marge Gunderson, 7-months-pregnant, to solve the case which takes her from the Twin Cities all the way to the titular Fargo. Marge is really the main character here, representing the entire “Minnesota nice” culture. In fact, the key to this movie is a part that has puzzled me from the second or third time I saw it.

Besides the innate humor of very non-white people having regional accents?
What is going on?

This is a tight movie. Everything in it has a purpose. Sometimes, you can say, defensibly, that a scene serves to demonstrate character, but that’s a little flabby, so I was never happy with my understanding of this sequence where Marge meets up with an old high school classmate, the twitchy Mike Yanagita. Mike’s Minnesota-Nice breaks down as he sheds tears over his deceased wife, and the kind-hearted Marge is moved to comfort him. Shortly after, she discovers that Mike’s got mental problems. He was never married to the woman—and she isn’t even dead and Marge should give her a call.

I never could figure this scene out. Mike’s connected to nobody in the film. Nothing happens in that pair of encounters that forwards the plot, like when Marge and her husband are at the buffet and someone walks in a police report. I had heard someone (Frances McDormand, I thought) suggest that Marge was sorta feeling the waters out for an affair, but apart from primping her hair as she walks in, there’s not just no indication of that, there’s negative indication of it, as every slight advance from Mike makes Marge visibly and (gasp!) even vocally uncomfortable.

I think the hair primping is a sign of Marge’s (ever so slight) flaws, but I think what we’re seeing is pride. Marge is worried about how she’s doing in life, with her painter husband vying to get his painting on a bird-theme set of stamps and her first child on the way. But there’s no lust there.

Darn tootin'.
Getting the three cent stamp is pretty darn good.

But now it seems so obvious: Marge has come to Minneapolis to see Shep, and that leads her to Jerry’s car dealership. Jerry’s answer to the question about missing cars is glib, and he’s agitated by it. But because of the whole Minnesota-nice thing, she just takes him on face value. It’s her discovering that someone might lie about something in order to manipulate her that makes her go back to the car dealership. That in turn rattles Jerry’s cage enough for him to flee the interview, and accelerates his final doom.

This is underscored by Marge’s final words to the murderous Gaear: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” She doesn’t understand it. Not just her, but every Minnesotan who deals with a real monster—like the waitress smiling at the distraught Jerry, the hapless parking lot attendants Carl deals with, and so on—is nonplussed by fairly common rudeness and can’t really grasp an awfulness that goes beyond that.

As with all Coen brothers movie, we loved it and multiple screenings are worthwhile.

In The Big Lebowski, his last Coen movie, he is cremated.
Steve Buscemi ends up in increasingly smaller pieces at the end of each Coen movie.

 

The Mule

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

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

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

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

She's not unattractive.
Father and daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll stick with Superman.

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

Default

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can he be otherwise?
Vincent Cassel bein’ evil.

Anna and the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

But with singing and dancing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capernaum

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

This is probably always true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport (1970)

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

Classic.
“Roger!” “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

Inspired by the actual incident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times wuz hard.
Spanish flu was a bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need a powdered wig.
Those fashions, though.

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

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

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

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

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

Gremlins (1984)

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

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

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

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

I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And better.
The muppets did it first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schindler’s List (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tells a story!
Look at that composition!

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

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

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

The Sound Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serves you right.
Horns that you blow at yourself.

Earthquake (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s commitment to the craft.

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

Elf (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoplifters

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

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

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

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

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

The littlest.
Little criminals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.

Hang on tight.
Stability is fleeting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MST3K Live! The 30th Anniversary Tour: The Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The jury’s out, in other words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoah: The Four Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

...
Ada Lichtman and her dolls.

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

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

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

On the beach in...Florida?
Paula Biren

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

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

...
Lanzmann with Hanna Marton

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

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

To sum up on the three point Moviegique documentary scale:

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

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

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

Overlord

One of the parenting tricks I use on going to a movie with a child is to solicit said child’s opinion of the film first, and not offer my own at all unless asked. Sometimes a father’s power is awesome and unwieldy, and the last thing I want to do, even when coming out of something like The Zookeeper, is to impose my taste on my children. The Boy is the only one who picked up on this, in his mid-teens, perhaps because we’ve seen a lot of movies together, and he’ll ask me first before offering his opinion.

"Or is it just paratrooper?"
“Do I have spinach in my teeth?”

When we came out of Overlord, the WWII Nazi Zombie movie he asked:

“What did you think, pappy?” (He seems to think I’m a grizzled old mining prospector, hence the “pappy”.)
“Honestly…I was bored.”
“So, it wasn’t just me!”

Movie criticism (as I often say) is generally someone planting his butt in a chair, having a reaction exactly the way a general audience does, and then back-filling that reaction with “reasons” and “logic”. It’s similar to the way people vote or, honestly, do anything. So what I’m going to do here is explain where we were coming from going into the movie, and then contrast it with two other movies (Die Hard and Rampant) we saw recently to try to explain why we reacted negatively compared to those.

Part 1: Why We Weren’t Going To See It, But Did Anyway, And Were We Right?

I had tried to lure The Boy into seeing this film earlier, but the trailer had set off some warning bells: The story is about a WWII paratrooper crew sent in to destroy a communications tower hidden in a church on the eve of D-Day (hence the title “Overlord”) so that the Allies can offer good air support. But when they get to the small French village where the church is, they find Weird Nazi Science (which doesn’t involve Kelly LeBrock, alas). So far, so good.

But the hero is a black soldier paratrooping in with a bunch of white soldiers and, of course, WWII troops were segregated. This does not necessarily mean anything, but could be a warning sign that the movie was going to prioritize Social Justice Warrior concerns over things like plot, action and talent.

Nah, brother's by the door.
For realism, they have the black paratrooper sitting in the back of the plane.

Another possible warning sign was the jokey “Best Nazi Zombie Movie Ever Made” award. The Barbarienne made that joke followed tragically by the explainer “But how many of those are there?” I informed her I, personally, had seen half a dozen. And, let me tell you, it’s a low bar.  Shock Waves with Peter Cushing and John Carradine, Oasis of the Zombies and Zombie Lake were pretty standard fare on “Pay TV” back in the day. Not too long ago, also, I saw the rather bizarre 1943 (!) film Revenge of the Zombies (also with John Carradine, ha!), which is the first known example of the genre.

Thing is, they basically suck. Some are at least bad enough to wrap around to entertaining again, but most are just typical low-budget zombie grinds, with lots of padding. (They Saved Hitler’s Brain, if we may stretch the definition of the genre, contains a mere five amazing minutes of smirking Adolph’s head in a jar.) Easily the best of the genre to date, Dead Snow, is still about half-padding with typical college-kid cabin-in-the-woods style cavorting up front.

Happilywe were wrong on both counts. There isn’t any SJW stuff in the movie per se. It took me about 40 minutes to get used to Boyce (the very good Jovan Adepo, Fences) being a black dude in a somehow integrated paratrooper outfit, and I was utterly jarred in the first few minutes by Bokeem Wood’s “Sgt. Apone” routine, but the movie signals its tone early on: This is an issue “Weird War Stories” comics.

There also isn’t any padding. Stuff that happens happens for a reason, character or plot development, or atmosphere. It’s also a very good looking movie. At a “modest” $38M, any corners cut are probably to the movie’s benefit, as the Red Letter Media guys point out in their review, restraining excess.

Part 2: Why Didn’t We Like It?

I was gonna make several offensive racial jokes but...
There’s really nothing I can add to this expression.

So, we both went in rooting for this movie. RLM gave it a glowing review, with the hyperbolic Stoklasa claiming that it was the best movie he’d seen in a decade. (Part shtick, of course, but he was quite enthused.) But we just could not get engaged. We ruled out a lot of things that weren’t the problem, like the production values, most of the acting, the (fairly typical) military blunders.

Most of the acting was quite good, as mentioned, but The Boy did not care for Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt). He looked, per The Boy, as though he should be sipping a soy latte while doing a kind of “I’m Batman” voice. (I thought he was okay but, yeah, a little more charisma would have been welcome in that role.)

The tropes in play—squad of Americans hiding out in French village to sabotage the Nazis—are actually kind of charming at this point.  The squad is multicultural mostly in that WWII way: There’s an Italian, a Jew, a ginger, etc., a lot of male camaraderie, which the naive recruit, Boyce isn’t really in on. Newcomer Mathilde Olivier is perfect for the feisty French villager.

The music by Jed Kurzel (Macbeth, The Babadook) manages to rise above the usual Big Action mush, though not often enough, which is no fault of Kurzel’s, I’m sure but the nature of the beast with these modern studio films. The action occasionally wasn’t straight Hollywood, with some of the explosions given a more realistic treatment than the Big-Ball-of-Fire-You-Can-Walk-Away-From.

Ultimately, we were left to compare it with Die Hard. And actually, if we leap sideways from the music, we can see how the “just do it like all the other movies” philosophy robs us of a big part of the moviegoing experience.

Of ... anything.
Pictured: Not a weak point.

But the bigger part seems to be that in Die Hard we’re positively intimate with the bad guys. The bad guys have a plan, and no matter how much John McClane messes with it, Hans Gruber is nearly unflappable in his single-minded pursuit. Every time we see a bad guy, his character is developed as is his role. There’s a finite number of bad guys with finite abilities.

In Overlord, it was much harder to engage. We have two villains you could pick out of a line-up: Big Bad and Mad Scientist. The latter is essentially just a trope who receives no development. The former is developed in the sense of being shown to be evil at every opportunity (which really isn’t that many). Well, we weren’t expecting great drama, and cardboard baddies can be fun. But the bad guys’ role is inchoate. We see a couple of “experiments”, but there’s no real focused end point for them.

That is, we don’t see Mad Scientist struggling to, e.g., find the one element that will make his dreams of an army of atomic supermen (who will show the world that he can be its master), or—really, the bad guys doing anything that has much of a progression.

Dose glasses, tho.
What are his hopes and dreams? Sure, make a race of atomic supermen…but then what?

The good guys have a role, too, but it’s very unfocused. Yeah, they’re supposed to knock out this tower for D-Day, but while we get occasional reminders of that, they’re mostly dithering about in the little French house. It’s all “go look for other survivors” and “go find out where those guys I sent” went. And the movie can’t seem to decide if the village under constant surveillance and full of sympathizers so the heroes have to be very quiet, or they can casually torture a screaming guy for hours.

Our hero accidentally finds himself inside the compound where the church and tower resides, and thus reveals to us the evil nature of the Nazi’s plans. But much like the village, it’s unclear whether this is a highly staffed, well patrolled fortification, or a sparsely populated quasi-goof.

Action stories seem to exist on a scale: At one end are physically logical ones, where the action occupies a well-defined physical space, where well-defined characters move about and do things for well-defined reasons. On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, where physical realities are highly subordinated to narrative needs. How many stormtroopers are there on the Death Star? As many as are needed to pose a threat to the heroes, but not so many as to overwhelm them.

Die Hard tends toward the mechanistic. You know what everyone is doing and why and where, even when it’s dubious (like dropping C4 down the elevator shaft) or irrational (like deviating from the plan out of revenge). On the other end are movies that tend toward an aesthetic logic, like the Korean movie Rampant. They tell you up front that the  plague creating the zombie/vampire/demons takes a variable amount of time to take hold. To the point where, when you reach the climax and the villain embraces the plague and gains power from it, you’d have been disappointed any other resolution.

I think it’s safe to say that the former is a lot harder, especially for collaborative, market-driven spectacles like movies. The danger with the latter however, is that it allows you to cheat, and if the audience senses that you’re cheating, you lose them.

As much as we tried, we felt like the movie was cheating. You have to be quiet/go ahead and fire guns in the house. The nazi captain is escorted to his date by his menacing goons/nobody notices or cares when he’s gone all night. The compound is impenetrable/Except you can get in and out by an ivy overgrown side-gate, or just by accident. The four of us couldn’t possibly take on 40+ Nazi soldiers/Two of us can, though, even when wounded. We don’t know how many baddies there are/We can relax and let our guard down because we achieved our narrative goal. We can’t possibly plant the explosives inside/we don’t have enough to plant the explosives outside.

Each time we tried to buy into what the narrative was selling, it contradicted itself. But the overall production values of the film are quite good, and as noted, the movie doesn’t waste your time.  So we didn’t hate it: We were just bored.

Honestly, I forget what he was looking at.
Here, Boyce re-enacts a scene from “Psycho”. But why?

Die Hard (1988)

“Now I have a machine gun. Ho. Ho. Ho.” Although it’s only been about two years since we last saw Die Hard, The Flower opined upon leaving the first showing that she could turn right around and watch it again. Even so, it’s been a fatiguing season for her, and she was seriously thinking about not going to this, the TCM presents of the 30th anniversary. (It’s also the 30th anniversary of MST3K, shockingly enough, though that goes back to its local Minnesota UHF TV days.)

Ho. Ho. Ho.
Best Christmas movie since “Silent Night, Deadly Night”

Despite the running time and the lateness of the hour—all the hours feel late when it’s winter and DST has ended—all of us (including The Boy and His Girl) agreed that this is a movie that rewards you for watching it multiple times. The attention to detail is tremendous. Ben Mankiewicz said in his intro that director John McTiernan wanted to keep an undercurrent of joy in the proceedings, and that intention is probably the key element behind this film’s success.

The sheer moments of fun—punctuated by Michael Kamen’s little woodwind flourishes—means the movie is never in danger of making serious commentary or bowing to the gods of realism. The references to Roy Rogers movies, like McClane’s vulgar reiteration of “yippe-ki-yay”, assumes the sort of simplified world that makes for fun action movies. The bad guys are bad. They’re somehow worse, perhaps, for being mere thieves (rather than terrorists), because their only motivation is greed. They haven’t even the fig leaf of idealism.

Mars Bar and Nestle's Crunch that we see but the wrappers!
This guy eats so much candy.

At the same time, they don’t seem like bad guys to hang out with. (Well, the German dudes are a little intense.) This may seem odd, but since you are actually spending over two hours with these guys, you really want to root against them while not being repulsed. The big flaw with Steven Seagal’s Die-Hard-On-A-Boat (aka Under Siege, one of the better DH clones) is that Tommy Lee Jones is so charismatic relative to Seagal, that you end up practically rooting for Jones. And with most other DH clones, the baddies are as interchangeable as Empire storm troopers.

Besides the cornier aspects of the various character arcs, such as Reginald VelJohnson’s hoplophobia and the McClane’s family reunification (nullified by subsequent sequels, starting with 3, I think), McClane’s own character arc is kind of impressive. He begins as a cop (probably a maverick who doesn’t play by the book but gets the job done) with all due restraint on killing the baddies, and by the end he’s yelling at Karl “I’m gonna kill ya! And I’m gonna eat ya!”

Heh.
The movie’s shocking black-on-black violence.

The zeitgeist of the time is crystallized in this movie: 77 cent gas. Big hair. Cocaine. Terrorism. Stupid, ambitious newshounds. Glib, self-important FBI agents. Stalwart workaday cops and their clueless bosses. Japanese conglomerates taking over the US. Time magazine. 60 minutes. Stockholm syndrome. Empowered career women. Smarmy business guy. Wealth. Using computers to do…whatever. Ooh, black computer nerds. (That was a big ’80s thing that nobody so much as mentioned, which made  it ridiculously better than the virtue signalling that goes on today.)

Maybe the thing here is that it is unselfconsciously itself. It is un-woke, if “woke” means (as it seems to) “introverting on every thing you do or say to make sure nothing ever offends anyone”. “Woke” is the antithesis of joy. And this movie is joyful.

Nobody regretted going to see it again.

Robert Davi!
Special Agent Johnson and Special Agent Johnson. (No relation.)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

The annual Halloween double-feature tradition this year was a showing of The Invisible Man and this movie, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Universal sort of played this up with their recent attempts to revive their classic franchises, but their FrankensteinDraculaThe Invisible Man and The Wolf Man were the basis of the first “cinematic universe”. Which is to say, after they’d mined all the gold out of the originals and their sequels, they started doing crossovers. Frankenstein met the Wolf Man, and Dracula met Frankenstein, and they all lived in their various houses (i.e., House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula—though we never got a Doghouse of Wolf Man).

The screen wasn't big enough to hold them!
I don’t think Dracula, the Monster, and the Wolf Man appear in the same shot together—only in some stills.

This film features the original Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.), and the second Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) after Boris Karloff hung up his platform boots and neck bolts in 1939 after Son of Frankenstein. Sort of amusingly, Lugosi played The Monster and Ygor at various times, while Chaney had a turn at being the Monster, Dracula and The Mummy.

Point is, after about 15 years, the universe was played out, and here, it’s played for laughs—sorta, which is why this movie holds up pretty well after 70 years.

In this—the final outing for all three (except for a few TV shows) in their iconic roles, and the end of Universal’s dominance before the era of Hammer—Lyle Talbot phones a hotel from London to warn the baggage office not to deliver two crates to the nearby House of Horrors. And who should be managing the baggage office? Ya bois, Chick and Wilbur (Abbot and Costello, respectively).

Bullied by the horror house owner and besotted by Wilbur’s suspiciously hot and smart girlfriend, Sandra, the two end up making the delivery anyway where Wilbur (and only Wilbur, natch) witnesses the contents of the two crates (Dracula and Frankenstein) as they escape. The insurance company sends an investigator along in the form of Joan Raymond (the lovely Jane Randolph, last seen in the previous year’s double-feature as the foil in Cat People) who figures Chick and Wilbur for the culprits. Her plan? Seduce the pudgy Wilbur into telling her where the boxes went.

I think this must be a still. I don't remember it from the movie.
Wilbur’s girl is only interested in his mind.

Meanwhile, Sandra (Austro-Hungarian actress Lenore Aubert, who would return for the semi-sequel Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff) is actually in league with Dracula, who wants to revive The Monster using a more tractable brain, thus explaining her attraction to Wilbur.

Abbot and Costello are good here, funny and fun to watch, but they’re respectful to the various monsters and give them their due and the atmosphere is still there for the spookier parts. This approach makes sense, really: If the monsters are clowning around, you don’t have a chance to sympathize with the plight of our heroes. But Chaney, Lugosi and Strange are doing their traditional bits (except for one funny moment where The Monster sees Chick for the first time and recoils in horror) and that works well with A&C’s bits.

It does defy belief.
Abbot can’t understand Costello’s animal magnetism.

The whole thing would give way to the more science-fiction-y horror of the ’50s, and the slow moving (Lugosi is 66 by this time!) creatures seem less menacing than you would hope. Overall, this is still a good watch. The Flower, expecting something more akin to The Stooges, was pleasantly surprised by the (relative) subtlety. The Boy was also very entertained.

That’s almost as remarkable for a 70 year old comedy as it is to be won over by a 70 year old horror.

Atmosphere!
The boys do a lot of reading by candlelight, even though there’s an electric lamp not 10 feet behind them.

WarGames (1983)

The Flower bowed out of this one and we’re probably all be taking a pass on next week’s showing of Tron, but while I liked WarGames at the time, I’ve never had any inclination to see it again. I told the kids, “Well, it’s a fine movie from 1983.” And, yes, that’s what it is. It’s fine. I cannot make the same claim of Tron, which was boring at the time despite the effects, and I think practically unbearable today, where WarGames has a certain quaint charm going for it.

No helmets!
I will refrain from posting nothing but images of Ally Sheedy.

“Fine” was good enough for The Boy, though, so we rolled out to see it and I had the same thoughts now as I did 35 years ago: “Gosh, Ally Sheedy is cute in this.” Yeah, I never got all the Ringwald love, frankly, but Sheedy was in far fewer Brat Pack movies (and outside of the Hughes films, I didn’t see that many of those) and after Breakfast Club and Short Circuit I didn’t see much of her until she appeared on the ’80s-obsessed TV show “Psych” as a serial killer. (And I still liked her better than Molly Ringwald, who was also on that show in a much smaller role.)

But my peccadilloes and Sheedy’s pulchritude aside, this movie is just a competent John Badham action flick powered at the time by a kind riding the contemporary trends (unlike the recently reviewed Krull, e.g.) and now struggles along on nostalgia power.

The plot is that computer hacker David Lightman hacks into the Defense Department computer containing the WOPR super-computer (about equivalent to an iPhone 2) which has recently been put in charge of the nuclear arsenal. David starts a game of “Global Thermonuclear War” with it, but WOPR is playing for real. (For you kids out there, 35 years ago, the narcissistic showbiz cowboy who was going to destroy the world with nuclear war was Ronald Reagan. After that, of course, it was George H.W. Bush, then George W. Bush, and finally Trump. )

The High Life
8″ floppies and Rubik’s cube next to your 300 baud modem.

Anyway, David is captured by the Federales whom he easily evades with his super-hacker skills, then flees to find the creator of the program running the WOPR, a professor Falken. (Falken was designed with John Lennon in mind, apparently, and actor John Wood is sort of doing a John Lennon impression in this role. Not laying it on thick, but with a similar cadence and expression.)

Girlfriend Jennifer joins David on his road trip because Ally Sheedy is really cute and it allows the budding romance between David and Jennifer (how classic Americana are those names, btw?) to flower in the midst of an impending apocalypse.

Now, this is the first mistaken impression I had. I would’ve sworn David Warner played Falken. The second mistaken impression I had is that when Falken gives his, “We’re better off dead” speech, Jennifer responds with “I’m only seventeen. I don’t want to die yet. I haven’t even made love.” I remember that line so clearly (even more than the Warner thing) because it was so cringe-worthy, but I can find no evidence to back it up. (It may have come from yet-another-teen-apocalypse movie, but I don’t know which.)

Right on.
Power To The People! 👏!👏!

Anyway, they fly back to the defense base to try to save the day by teaching the computer the lesson that humans Just Don’t Seem To Learn: The only way to win a global nuclear conflict is Not To Play.

I guess that couldn’t possibly have been the point of Mutually Assured Destruction: Convince everyone that it wasn’t a game worth playing.

The Old Man enjoyed the film all right, though he considered it preposterous, and he was not wrong. The Boy found the absurdity pronounced, and you do have to go back to a popular ’80s understanding of how things worked to suspend your disbelief here. You also have to believe that ’80s school systems were plugged into computers that were just sitting around with modems waiting for calls, which is just slightly less probable than being able to call into a secure Defense computer.

There are some good nostalgia points:

  • Phone booths
  • Pop caps as litter!
  • Leg Warmers
  • 8″ floppies
  • Hi-resolution graphics (black-and-white, 320×200)
  • David riding behind Jennifer on her moped, no helmets
  • Gratuitous Eddie Deezen and Maury Chakin
  • A flight for two to Paris? $1,250, not adjusted for inflation
  • 300 baud modems

But overall, the movie is just…fine. Good supporting actors with Barry Corbin, Michal Ensign, Dabney Coleman, and William Bogert and Susan Davis as the clueless parents.

Or something.
We’re intensely looking intently at something intense with mal-intent…

The late Arthur Rubinstein, a frequent Badham collaborator, gives us a score that is very hit-and-miss—more hits than misses, fortunately, though the opening is interesting. The movie begins with a very intense scene: Two soldiers are starting their day’s work in their missile silo when the command to launch comes in. The older one (played by John Spencer) can’t do it, and hesitates enough to where the younger one (Michael Madsen, I think, but he’s so  young I barely recognize him!) threatens to shoot him if he doesn’t.

And! Cut to credits!

And a jaunty military theme that would be perfectly at home in Stripes! It was so bizarre. Almost like they felt they were getting to serious, so the backed out into kind of a Young Adult theme. (This really is a Young Adult movie. It’s very earnest but never very serious.)

Later, the score goes into a pure ’80s electronic mode…and that holds up surprisingly well. So I’m sort of inclined to think the musical misfires were more Badham or a nervous producer.

I think I mentioned the movie is: fine. The Boy said he was a little disappointed. That it was fine but he was expecting something more noteworthy. I had, however, warned him. This is probably while we’ll skip Tron.

About 1,000,000 dollars today.
Glorious high-resolution graphics for only $2,500 Reagan funbux!

Rifftrax: Krull

If had little to say about Space Mutiny, I probably have even less to say about Krull, the 1983 “classic” fantasy picture that allegedly escaped lawsuits from TSR Games (the makers of D&D) by tacking on an utterly pointless and disjointed sci-fi front end.

But “pointless” and “disjointed” typify this film. At some points, it’s sort of startling how high-budget it (apparently) was. Some of the sets are ingenious and fairly amazing, if they never quite escape the feeling of being sets. The principle characters, played by Ken Marshall and Lysette Anthony, are as beautiful as they are forgettable. (And I don’t think it’s really their fault.)

No, I'm good.
Should you…put some water on that?

There’s something that’s pointed out by the riffers (Rifftrax and MST3K, alike), and that’s that they don’t do very many comedies, because there are only so many ways to say “This isn’t very funny.” With Krull, the problem seems to be similar. There only so many ways to say “What we are seeing doesn’t make any sense relative to what we’ve just heard, or what we’ve learned to this point.”

Not to say this wasn’t a funny riff, but like a lot of the bigger budget films, there’s almost an undercurrent of sadness here. People of reasonable competence (director Yates directed Bullitt, for example) get together to make a film that should be relatively easy: a competent fantasy/adventure film that cashes in on a number of contemporary trends. Marshall went on to be annoying in “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” before retiring, but Anthony seems to have had a lot of success, and much of her lack of appeal here may have been due to her voice being dubbed by Lindsay Crouse. Robbie Coltrane and Liam Neeson appear here as well, to no avail. Coltrane also has his voice dubbed!

What's up with that eye?
For all their virtues, practical effects never could make a could cyclops.

You know what it is? The film feels like it went from “safe” to “cowardly”, perhaps because it was so expensive to make.

“What if people don’t like the English chick’s voice?”

“No problem, we’ll dub her with someone from New York!”

The costumes appear to have been made without any respect for the action, and most of the villains stumble around unconvincingly. There’s swordplay but also ample laser-firing-weapons. Some of the best effects are hidden with photography tricks that do not help, probably, though the film hits the “bad effect” bar multiple times.

It’s a mess. The riff was funny though I don’t remember a lot of stand outs 3 months later. There’s a funny bit where the guy fetches his “glaive” from the fiery-hot-pool-of-death with no ill effects! And the large battle scenes are comically punctuated. And some other moments underscoring how little chemistry the leads have.

I don’t know. It was good, but given how much it probably cost them to put this together, I land on the MST3K side of “cheap and cheesy is better”.

I will elude you, and I will out-act you.
“Hey, get this guy! He says he has ‘a very particular set of skills’!”

Dark Figure of Crime

After Rampant, we checked the time for the (now working) crime drama, Dark Figure of Crime and we had just enough time to catch it (after a very hastened lunch of noodles) and—well, it’s completely different from Rampant, that’s for sure. It’s actually a kind of low-key film that sorta sneaks up on you with its based-on-a-true story.

Hyung-min (Yoon-Seok Kim of 1987: When The Day Comes) is a vice detective trying to get some information out of his unstable and creepy informer Tae-oh (Ji-hoon Ju, the male companion of the underworld guide in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days and its sequel, as well as The Spy Gone North), when Tae-oh is suddenly confronted and captured by Homicide. Turns out, he killed his girlfriend.

Hell of a thing. And it’s made worse by a clever legal trick resulting in a sentence of only 15 years.

Crazy. Like a crazy fox.
You can just look at the bad guy and know he’s trouble.

But wait, Tae-oh says he’s actually killed a lot of people. Six others. And he’ll tell Hyung-min where they are, in exchange for a few niceties. Hyung-min is suspicious, but since he knows Tae-oh is crazy and not especially bright, he figures its worth it to bribe him into cooperating.

Tae-oh, while not that bright, is rather cunning and spends a lot of time in jail studying law books. He gives Hyung-min enough information to convince him that he’s telling the truth, but a lot of that information is just slightly off, leading to a series of embarrassments for the detective, who has himself transferred to Homicide to pursue these cold cases.

This is another funny Korean trope, as seen in The Negotiation and many others: If you’re a bureaucrat—and the police essentially are—you’re expected to do things that keep your statistics up, while nobody cares about cold cases. At points, Tae-oh’s data is vague enough or wrong enough to utterly humiliate Hyung-min, and it appears like what he’s trying to do is discredit the entire investigation to get off on the one murder charge he’s been convicted of.

Weird.
He negotiates for glasses that turn dark in the sun.

Hyung-min is a “rich-enough” guy. He doesn’t need to be a cop, and this comes up a lot. He has to choose between silently letting the case go, or doing what he thinks is right even at the cost of his dream which, as it turns out, is being a cop. Nobody cares, as has been pointed out, and he has the chance to resolve issues for a lot of people missing loved ones. This haunts him and gives his character depth. Kim plays the part very low-key and for the most part, its the character’s actions which speak, and the emotion that escapes tends to carry some heft.

Ji-hoon Ju plays his character more broadly, as he must, but even there we’re not sure what’s going on. He’s crazy, he’s dumb, he’s cunning, he’s energetic, he’s capricious. He’s not without a depth, but he’s a far cry from a movie villain, like a Hannibal Lechter (though this movie is not without parallels to Silence of the Lambs).

The Boy was inclined to like this one less than Rampant, at least at first. It doesn’t bowl you over, but it does stay with you. You think about it. You reflect on it. The characters’ motivations really do feel strongly informed by real life, and there’s a weird kind of chemistry in the principle’s cat-and-mouse game, which flips back and forth enough to feel less cartoony than, say, Silence.

He came back three or four times to tell me he’d revised his opinion upward, and I tend to agree. It’s a different film that doesn’t rely on a lot of traditional movie tropes. It’s not spectacular, and the suspense is rather organic to larger issues (will the police find a body before someone pulls the plug?). But as I say, you can’t rightly complain about things being the same all the time and then bitch about it when you get something different.

Worth a watch, definitely.

Heh.
Can anyone here read Korean? I have no idea what I wrote.

Rampant

We were once again off to Koreatown, as The Boy truly loves him some Korean films, and was indeed disappointed that there were only two features on today’s docket instead of the preferred three. The first feature was Dark Figure of Crime, but the film broke.

No, of course not. Film doesn’t break any more because there’s no film. But there are projectors. And I think they’re basically just computers, and computers break all the freaking time. That’s progress!

Fortunately, we primarily had gone to see Rampant, and the film started about the time we were realizing DFoC wasn’t happening, so we did the ticket-exchange-dance and sat down in our assigned seating (D9, D10, as always) to watch this vampire/demon/zombie invasion flick that takes place in Joseon dynasty in Korea (as all things must, apparently).

It will not surprise you when I inform you that the culprit behind all the mayhem caused by the rampaging demons is corrupt and/or incompetent bureaucrats.

Shocked, shocked I am to find incompetence here.
My shocked face!

I guess this is what you do when you don’t have Indian Burial Grounds to blame.

There’s as much courtly intrigue in this film as there is zombies. In fact, the courtly intrigue dominates the first half of the film. The Crown Prince is murdered (as they must be, apparently) but he sends for his ne’er-do-well little brother (living the good life in China) to collect his pregnant wife and save her by carrying her off to that magical land.

When he arrives in a small outlying town (a literal boat-full of Chinese ladies weeping in his wake), he and his comic sidekick discover that it’s empty. There’s been a rebellion, according to the posters, but the absence of anyone at all speaks of something more sinister. While working it out, a group of assassins (sent by the adviser who killed the Crown Prince) arrives to “escort” him.

The ensuing battle is interrupted when one of the combatants is bitten by a demon. The so-called rebels emerge to save the day, driving off the assassins and monsters. The remaining townspeople, as it turns out, are in hiding. Their infected—those bitten by the demons—are kept in jail cells in the hopes of figuring out how to cure them. They need reinforcements, but the town is being quarantined because of the “plague”, so only the young Prince can get through to the capital.

The bikini line?
Lee Sun Bin delivers arrows to the sensitive areas.

But when he gets there, the demons are only part of the problem. The true monster, “Twilight Zone”-style, is man.

Heh. They can’t do that as a twist in a Korean movie, because it’s every Korean movie. Especially, if by “man” you mean “power hungry corrupt politician sacrificing the country for his personal gain”.

As a plot device, the movie treats its monsters rather loosey-goosey. The demons propagate by biting, like zombies, drink blood and are destroyed by the sun, like vampires. The movie lampshades the trope of “it can take as little or as much time as the plot requires” for a bitten human to turn, and this attitude, writ large, is sort of what buoys the film through a lot of the vagaries plaguing (heh) similar films.

But it doesn't always end well.
The comic sidekick is always the first to spot the monster.

That is to say: Much like The Great Battle, the story being told is metaphorical. Not allegorical, where everything maps to an exact historical parallel, but poetically, so that when the villain is (ironically, necessarily) bitten and sort of half-turns, it seems to work, as does the hero’s increasing martial prowess and the rank-and-file demons’ increasing relative destructibility and lack of focus.

We liked it. The character arc of “reluctant prince” is a familiar one by this point, but it was very well done here, with Hyun Bin (the antagonist of The Negotiation) convincingly reluctant to assume anything like power or responsibility for the Korea that seems destined to fall into his hands.  Much like his comic sidekick, he balances on the likability line, where you’re put off by the indifference (or whining in the case of the sidekick), but always seems to do the right thing—even if it’s at the last possible moment.

The cathartic ending where the prince realizes that Korea sucks because Korean politicians suck, and that the people themselves could make it a great place, is brief but (as always) heart-warmingly patriotic. Check it out, fans of Joeson Zombie flicks.

You do? OK, I'll put it in someone else.
Mind if I keep my sword there?

Rifftrax: Space Mutiny

The fourth and final ticket stub for 2018 the Flower and I came across—so far—was for Rifftrax: Space Mutiny, the first of (only two!) Rifftrax live shows of the year. Though, even now as I type this I realilzed, I never reviewed Krull (August 23rd) either.

No shoes, no shirt, no problem.
In space, no one notices if you forget to wear pants, apparently.

For Rifftrax, it’s easy to understand why I forget: There’s only so much you can say about it. There’s the movie, then there’s the riffs. The movies are typically spectacularly bad, although sometimes just unfairly maligned. (Not that a movie has to be bad or unlovable to be riffed.)

But when you write about the movie, you’re kind of missing the point of the riffing, and the riffing itself is (it seems to me) to be highly subjective. I laughed the hardest I can remember—to where breathing might have become an issue—on the Mexican Santa Claus, but on Godzilla I was just sort of depressed. I mean, not that I didn’t have fun, just that the movie itself is kind of depressing to me.

Wut
Cameron Mitchell had to be resuscitated on set by a passing Carly Simon.

I laughed hard as can be on Reptilicus and on Eegah (which I didn’t review) for the Watch Out For Snakes MST3K tour and found myself curiously detached from the second feature, a seriously goofy superhero movie on the level of Pumaman. So, I just don’t know: It seems unlikey to me that the riffs themselves vary as much in quality as my experience of them would suggest.

As “intimate” as this blog is, that’s probably even more useless and less interesting than my usual ramblings.

In this case we have the made-infamous-by-MST3K Space Mutiny featuring Reb Brown and his longtime wife Cisse Cameron, wherein the lighting and makeup on her is so bad, a running gag is how much she looks like (the 5-6 years older) Brown’s mom. Spectacularly bad production mistakes (as when the windows outside the ship were “color-corrected” so it looks like a bright summer’s day) combine with traditional low-budget errors (continuity has a character being murdered in one scene and immediately re-appearing the next) to make a difficult-to-watch film.

Like they looted a "Spencer's Gifts".
I’m not joking about the plasma balls.

The whole thing was padded out after the fact with space witches aerobicizing in leotards around one those plasma balls that were so popular in the ’80s.

The riffs were good, although (despite their best efforts), the boys didn’t match the inspired lunacy of “the many names of Dave Ryder” from the original, where they riff endlessly on alternate names for Reb Brown’s character.

We liked it, though. Given what appears to be a decreasing output over the past few years, I wonder if they’re phasing out the live shows, due to fatigue or lack of profitability.

There's a mutiny for your love....IN SPACE!
Cute couple, though.

Insidious: The Last Key

Update: I wrote this because it looked to me like I hadn’t reviewed it when I first saw it, and I came across the ticket stub. (Funny because I was sure I had reviewed it, but I often seem to mis-remember.) Turns out I had reviewed it, back at the time—I had mis-spelled it however, so it didn’t turn up in a search. Anyway, looks like my memory of it, while less sharp after 10 months, didn’t change radically.

The Boy and I have liked all the Insidious movies, despite their uneven reception generally, on a couple of bases. We like, for example, the attempt to do something a little different, and there isn’t another horror series around today that exploits the concept of an astral plane. We like also, the story and character development that Insidious trades on. It tends to be less about jump scares than peril to the heroes or the people they’re trying to help. The heroes are Specs and Tucker (series writer Leigh Whannell and the goofy, and doughy—for this role—Angus Sampson), who are reasonably competent at what can charitably be described as a difficult job (Ghosbusters!).

And of course, Elie Rainier (Lin Shaye), who plays the person who most often pays the psychic price for fighting demonic forces. Quick! Name another horror series centered around a 75-year-old woman!

"She's right in front of me, isn't she..."
“She’s right behind me, isn’t she…”

You can’t. ’cause there isn’t one. (Jamie Lee Curtis is only 60. But nice try.)

In this installment, our paranormal investigators are in a small ghost town where a man has sunk his life savings into a nice, but tragically haunted house. He calls on Elie, who is troubled with nightmares about her own past, and she finds herself investigating her childhood home. OooOOOOOooohhh!

Heh.

It turns out that her childhood was not a bowl of cherries. Her father was abusive in the extreme, and she fled home at a young age after her mother died, leaving behind her little brother (Bruce Davison). Things turn darker, and then darker still, as nothing is as it seems to be, and the old hauntings come back to terrorize her and her cute nieces, Imogen and Melissa, one of whom—and I forget which because I saw this back in January and it’s Halloween! ’cause this is one of those movies I forgot to review—is sensitive much like Elise is.

Ghosts usually are.
Elise with her mother. (It’s complicated.)

I won’t comment on the girls’ acting abilities—not because they’re bad, but because, in her ’70s, Lin Shaye has more expression in her face than either of these lovely girls will be able to manage for some time. I bring this up because I was worried that we were being set up for a continuation of the series with one of the younger girls in place of Lin Shaye, which I think would be the death knell for the series. But moviegoers rewarded this with an above-average box office for the series, so maybe not.

This movie has the worst Rotten Tomatoes critic reviews of the series by far, though about the same audience review, and that’s probably right: It’s more or less like the others in the series. I feel like they do a good job of keeping things fresh, so that you don’t feel like you’re seeing the same movie over and over again, and this movie has a tremendous amount of plain old material plane threat. This one leans heavily on Shaye, and to good effect as mentioned. The astral plane stuff is a difficult thing to pull off, and I think one that a substantial portion of the audience rejects outright, but as I say, The Boy and I like it.

If you like the others in the series, there’s no reason to believe you won’t like this one. If you don’t, well, this probably isn’t going to change your mind.

It's a pun. Get it?
But it might open your heart.

The Invisible Man (1933)

James Whale is the most feted of the monster movie directors, even getting a movie about his life (or the end of it) with the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters, and this is probably deserved (though Tod Browning of Dracula and Freaks is certainly a contender). And he’s certainly the most successful early director to mix comedy and horror, as with Bride of Frankenstein and this movie, The Invisible Man.

Who's there? Who knows!
Classic entrance.

The Invisible Man opens on an English Inn/Pub where a bunch of rowdies are having a good time. In from the snow barges a man, all wrapped in bandages and wearing dark glasses, demanding a room. It’s a boss entrance, right there, and one of the best moments of the classic Universal horror pantheon. The irascible Griffith holes up in a room at the Lionhead Inn trying to “find his way back”, by which we of course learn he means, “Find his way back to being visible.”

The nosey and parochial villagers won’t leave him be and he snaps, revealing himself to be not just invisible but quite unhinged. He decides to embrace his invisibility, which apparently means conquering the world!

The sentence works no matter how you parse it.
The Invisible man loses his head. Everyone loses his head.

I’ve written about this one extensively in the past: Going back to ancient Greece and the ring of Gyges, invisibility as meant something akin to unlimited power (as seen in the Lord of the Rings, e.g.) which doesn’t make a lot of sense unless you realize it’s not literal invisibility, but the ability to escape consequences for any action. (In a shame-based culture, if no one sees you do it, no shame can come from it.)

Here, however, the invisibility is literal and even 85 years later, pretty good to look at. You can see the edges of course: Some of the composites don’t work well, and some blue-screen magic (it was blue back then, I think, not green) clearly indicates a thing-you-can’t-see-but-is-still-blocking-your-vision, and a little of the wire work is unnatural or obvious (like the lines steering the bicycle).

But still it’s pretty amazing how much works. Probably the thing most hurt by the old technology was the mono-recording. A good sound designer could’ve made Claude Raines’ voice seem more integrated into the scene.

It's not that funny.
The Invisible Man rides a bike. (“The Invisible Man [whatevers]” being a standard set up for jokes since 1933.
Whale’s comedy plays out big as everyone has ideas of how to catch Griffin, but nobody actually wants to get near him or incur his wrath. The Boy felt this aspect of the movie was rather realistic. The comedy bits come sharply into relief as Griffin grows more mad and more murderous, at one point derailing a train for the fun of it.

Trying to save him is the heroine (’30s starlet Gloria Stuart, whose last days were boosted by her Oscar-nominated performance in Titanic) and her father, Griffin’s employer, played by Henry Travers (Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life). These parts are well done, as is Griffin’s rivalry with the wormy William Harrigan, and keep a nice mix between the near-Keystone level of the attempts to catch Griffin and the melodrama of a scientist who “meddled where he shouldn’t have”.

That'll show ya!
Just for that I’m throwing your priceless family heirloom into the ocean.

It may be the best of the classic Universal monster movies. The Boy enjoyed it, though he felt it needed more suspense. At the same time, he allowed as how you came into the movie expecting some invisible man action so there’s no reason to delay that. The Flower was not impressed. Although she liked both films (Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein more than this) she found herself restless and didn’t think she’d want to see them again.

At 70 minutes, though, that’s not a ringing endorsement.

Dirty Harry is The Invisible Man!
Had it been America, they could’ve just blasted the crap out of the barn, “The Gauntlet” style.

Lady Bird

The second stub we came across was from early in the year, when we were still seeing the Oscar detritus, and The Boy and I had put this in our “Well, we kinda want to see it, but not today” category, which is where movies go to die. But I’d heard consistently good things about it, and even though my Greta Gerwig tolerance levels are low. I thought she might be more tolerable behind the camera. And I think this is probably true.

Girls in school uniforms never looked so unappealing.
Yeah, this about sums up our sense of enthusiasm.

Lady Bird is essentially the prequel to Frances Ha, where a quirky bohemian high school girl rebels against her mom and high school in the sort of highly unfocused way which is probably truer to life than, say, Rebel Without A Cause. She makes a lot of stupid, naive choices, including losing her virginity to a teenage boy who (shock of shocks) lies a lot to get in her pants. Her dad is a depressive with a lot of career issues, so she pretends to have more money than she actually does in order to become popular.

It’s pretty standard stuff, really, which fares better than usual at first because Saoirse Ronan is much more appealing than Greta Gerwig, but in the end because Gerwig, at 35, has a lot more empathy for her mother than she might have 10 years ago. And, really, this is a mother/daughter story, so while the rest of the cast and story is fine to good, there’s a reason Laurie Metcalf got an Oscar nomination.

How many car arguments between mothers and daughters?
I feel like there’s a lot of truth in this one shot.

The glib, hipster mannerisms of Gerwig—which, to be fair, she’s always been good at lampshading for their inherent contradictions and superficiality—are given the right amount of weight here. That is to say, not too much, but not none. Lady Bird is rebellious, daring to question nuns on the topic of abortion (in a wince-inducing scene), but also (as noted previously) prone to thinking that she’s too smart to fall for the same tricks smart people have been falling for forever.

Her mother Marion, while not entirely supportive (to say the least), is dealing with real issues of keeping everyone alive and fed while her husband works through whatever his issues are, and her daughter rejects her wisdom. But she doesn’t deal well with Lady Bird, tending toward not just over-protective but frequently downright shrewish.

In the end, we get a decent resolution, where Lady Bird returns to her given name (I forget what) and heads off to live her dream in New York. Of course, the details of Frances Ha lead one to believe she hadn’t really learned much by that time, but que será, será .

It’s a good little movie, though I’m not sure it’s five-Oscar-nominations good. It was better than we expected, for sure.

What a pitch-man.
“You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

The 15:17 To Paris

Inevitably, I miss a few reviews. Actually, I think I miss more than a few if my recent dig through movie stubs (and the history feature of late, lamented Moviepass app) is any indication. So far I’ve found four movies this year I overlooked, including this Eastwood picture from early March, based on the true events of the train to Paris where a terrorist was stopped by three American men, including two servicemen on leave.

Gimme a break, it's been 9 months.
Service man #1 as himself!

It was not a big hit (though $56M worldwide on a $30M budget is not a disaster), has poor ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and is listed as his worst film (by a far margin, below the very disappointing Firefox) on IMDB. The Boy, The Flower and I all liked it, however, while noting that even with a 90 minute runtime, it drags in the beginning. I don’t think we were bothered by the soldiers playing themselves—I think we rather liked the nearly documentary feel of those aspects—and I really got a sense (I think) of what Eastwood was trying to do.

The 15:17 To Paris is an attempt to show what makes a hero. This is the sort of thing Eastwood has been playing at his whole life (though he’s usually in the anti-hero camp), and much like with (the more fictionalized) Sully, he’s giving us a picture of the ordinariness of heroes, mixed in with just a few things that may have made all the difference.

Over there, they'll make you regret that you ever saved their asses in World War II.
America: Saving Frenchmen’s asses since 1918.

Since I saw this eight months ago, you’ll have to forgive the lack of detail on some points, but what I recall is that two of the boys moms were also close growing up, and one had to constantly fight to keep her kid off one of the many psychiatric drugs they force on schoolchildren these days. “My God is bigger than your statistics,” she tells the well-meaning bureaucrat who wants to zombify her son.

I think this boy is also the one who’s really, really into guns. (The Boy himself is into all sorts of weaponry, so I could relate here.) It reminds me that we just saw Friday the 13th, and the most shocking part is when Adrienne King runs into one of the cabins and it’s full of rifles. Because even in 1980, you could find summer camps where guns were plentiful.

It's not a great plan.
Most people go with the statistics and put their kids on drugs.

It’s not a portrayal you get much.

Anyway, single moms, sometimes troubled kids, patriotism, U.S. military, all coming together to remind the world that there is a thing called American Exceptionalism. This could’ve been Citizen Kane and it would’ve been trashed. As it is, the middle section, leading up to the fateful moment, drags (as mentioned previously), and is a place where the documentary style sort of lets the audience down.

The payoff is good, of course, but very low-key and documentary as well. As I said, we liked it, but its low-key and plain style doesn’t always work.

 

Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer

Back in early 2014, Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer found their attempts to crowdfund for their movie about Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortionist and convicted murderer, stymied by capricious and inchoate guidelines from Kickstarter. (Sound familiar?) Gosnell was not a movie I wanted to see and I have considerable doubts as to the ultimate quality of crowdfunded movies generally speaking, but the unfairness of the action put me in a pique. How, I wondered, can they say they’re a platform if they’re aggressively editorializing? Pardon my naivete, but in my defense, it was 4 1/2 years ago.

Ruined the name Kermit forever
Earl Billings as the avuncular, murderous Kermit Gosnell

When they moved to Indiegogo, I immediately chipped in $25, and have subsequently backed over a dozen other projects, because I’m semi-addicted to crowdfunding. But I don’t use Kickstarter if I can help it.

Despite having backed the project, I still didn’t want to see it. I like horror, I like gore, and I’ll happily munch popcorn through the worst Grand Guignol imaginable. But some subjects are not things I want to see, and abortion tops the list (along with rape and child abuse). So I didn’t go to the premiere, and I didn’t go on opening night. But The Flower and The Boy really did want to see it, so we braved the traffic to get to the overpriced AMC on Universal City Walk—the only theater playing it even remotely close to our area.

There’s a lot to talk about with this movie, but let’s get this out of the way first: It’s good. It’s very, very good. Not “good for a low budget movie” or “good for a values movie”. It’s just a good movie, a good watch, and one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in the theater in quite some time. And it achieves this, mostly, with amazing finesse and thematic juxtaposition. For example, our two lead characters are Detective James Wood (Dean Cain) and assistant D.A. Lexy McGuire (Sarah Jane Morris), and they’re both what used to be called “family men”. That is, despite having careers, they put their families first, or at least as first as possible given those particular jobs.

They're not believing their eyes.
Dean Cain and Alfonzo Rachel as the detectives.

So as the revelations come, as the story plays out, they’re with their families—their children. Nobody ever verbalizes a “pro-life” argument. Nobody ever needs to. There’s one point, after they’ve discovered the severed infant foots, that Lexy is playing with one of her kids’ feet and is, well, let’s say unsettled. When we first meet him, Wood is giving away his daughter and the camera stays on him as he reluctantly lets go. It’s heart breaking, in that good, bittersweet way, and before he has any idea of Gosnell. Later, Lexy is pulled out of her daughter’s recital for news on the case.

Searcy shows virtually nothing gory. Even the feet are more conceptually horrifying—more evidence of Gosnell’s true nature as a serial killer—than graphic. Everything else is pure reaction shot. When Wood or McGuire must autopsy an infant to see if it has a brain, or when a baby’s photo is shown at the trial, we don’t see it—but we do see others’ reactions to it. This draws viewers into the emotion of the shot without repelling them (or inuring them) with the actual photos.

The actors carry a heavy load. And they’re all up to it. It’s a smaller role, but Wood’s partner is played by Alfonzo Rachel (of “Zo Nation” and “Zo Loft”) and he’s terrific, great chemistry with Cain. Michael Beach as the D.A. and Eleanor T. Threatt as the judge both take the position that “the trial is not about abortion/women’s reproductive rights”, the former seemingly out of fear they’ll lose the case and the latter out of political expedience.

I can't make jokes in this.
Sarah Jane Morris as A.D.A Alexis McGuire

Defense lawyer Cohan (Searcy) on the other hand, wants to make it about abortion, because he knows he’ll win if he does. When Dr. North, a “reputable” abortionist (Janine Turner) details the acceptable practices in abortion, he does a fairly convincing Judo flip to paint Gosnell’s tactics as humane. Turner nails the kind of wide-eyed, progressive true-believer patter in a way that’s unsettling—because her character has also done thousands of abortions, but in a good way? Searcy’s Cohan is utterly focused on winning, and is otherwise a cipher, except for a brief moment during the Gosnell’s deposition where we can’t quite tell if even he is moved by the doctor’s enormity or if he’s just playing devil’s advocate.

Similar is (former Disney child star) Cyrina Fiallo’s Mollie Mullaney, a mash-up of Mollie Hemmingway and J.D. Mullane, who were instrumental in bringing what little attention the “local crime story” got. The implication, actually, is that Fiallo’s on the pro-choice side and she has certain markers (tattoos, hair coloring, antagonism) that suggest she leans left—but we never actually know because she’s doing real journalism. She’s the one who knows about Gosnell’s past (the Mother’s Day Massacre) and publicizes the photo of empty media seats in the courtroom.

In any politically consistent world, Gosnell would already be featured in a dozen horror movies, replacing Ed Gein (PsychoTexas Chainsaw MassacreThe Silence of the Lambs) as the serial killer of choice. And one could say, Earl Billings, in the title role, doesn’t “do” much. Like Adolph Eichmann, he is utterly banal. Genial, even. He gets put out when his home is searched. Billings’ wide-eyed innocence tops even Turner’s, as he blandly eats his Chinese food out of the carton without taking off his bloody surgical glove. We know, that he knows, he’s done some illegal things. But at no point do we ever get the faintest idea that he conceives of himself as morally wrong. It’s a truly chilling—and accurate portrayal.

Nice blocking.
Nick Searcy’s Defense Team prepares as the confident Gosnell watches.

Sarah Jane Morris’ Lexy is the main character of the story, and she has to portray the struggle between the normal human reactions and her professionalism as an officer of the court. As the lodestone for the movie, she’s also the one the audience tends to identify with, as a kind of Everyman who has her worldview shaken. I don’t know her TV work, but she makes this look easy and natural. She should be in more movies.

At 93 minutes, this is a tight, tight movie. While the film’s low budget shows at the edges—certain scene transitions felt TV-movie-ish—what’s remarkable is how rare those moments are. There are films with literally 100 times the budget where less care was put into every character, every scene, every line of dialog. The camerawork and lighting is not showy, but it’s also not flat or lazy.

I had a particular interest in the score, because there were so many wrong ways to go about it. Despite the horror of the story, you can’t give it the Psycho treatment. Boris Zelkin’s approach was more akin to Howard Shore’s understated but ominous theme from Silence of the Lambs, and again the sort of thing you’d expect from a higher-budget film.

Of course, just as the story was buried, and just as the crowdfunding was suppressed, the usual suspects have been busily burying this movie. Ann and Phelim managed to get it into an amazing 600 theaters (with a lot of elbow grease) but despite being in the top 10, a lot of theaters dropped it anyway. (This defense has been made before: “They’re in the business of making money! They don’t care about politics.” It is not true.) It covered its crowdfunding budget by the end of its second weekend despite that, and has already passed relatively hyped and widely-opened films like Assassination Nation and The Sisters Brothers.

If you can find it still playing, it’s a must see. If you can’t find it playing, and you can get a group of 15-25 people together, you can contact GosnellMovie.com to have it play near you.

Boo.
There’s a Halloween image for you.

Dead Snow (2009)

The last of our “Scary Subtitles” series for the year, this little Norwegian flick about “Nazi Zombies” made a bit of a stir when it came out 9 (!) years ago. It’s cabin-in-the-woods type horror, with a Scandinavian flavor and lots of snow (which is always welcome). The Flower bowed out for this one, being tired and figuring this was exactly what it appeared to be, so The Boy and trundled off on our own.

Crocodile Dundee: THAT'S a thread.
Hanging by a … that’s not a thread.

The first half of this movie is so by-the-book as to, frankly, be a little dull. It starts with a woman running through the mountains being chased by…something. That something, of course, is Nazi Zombies. You saw the poster. You know what’s going on. Now, they aren’t really zombies in any applicable definition. They’re more ghouls or revenants, and they move fast, use tools and plan attacks. They also don’t make any sense, in terms of their actions or plans. But I get ahead of myself.

Anyway, first girl is killed, and we cut to her friends traveling to the cabin she was headed for, four more guys and three more girls. They arrive at the cabin, goof off for a while, then get a scary visit from a mean old dude. Boyfriend of girl goes to find her on snowmobile—he’s also the only one who can find their way out of the mountains—and more goofing off ensues. Cute single girl inexplicably attracted to fat movie-geek dude (hey!) and has gross sex in an outhouse with him.

What could possibly go wrong?
They’re going to pay off their student loans with Nazi gold.

She’s promptly murdered, and that’s when things start in earnest. Fat guy goes next. We’re down to two guys and two girls in a cabin, and none of them are very bright.

But when the gore hits, that’s when the movie starts to shine. It’s ridiculously over-the-top, with fat guy’s head being split vertically, dropping his brain on to the floor, for example. And the ineptness of the kids as they’re fighting for their lives, along with comments, make the film more comedic and action-oriented than anything like horror.

In the first act, the movie foreshadows the oncoming events with references to the Evil Dead series and April Fool’s Day, and the second act the movie expertly treads the line between comedy and farce. That is, even if we’re not very interested in our characters, we do get that they’re in an existential struggle—even when that struggle takes on absurd dimensions. We actually grow to like the characters more as they struggle because, dammit, at least they’re trying. Director Tommy Wirkola references Evil Dead 2 with some quick zoom/cuts (a la early Edgar Wright) and an over-the-top amputation scene, but doesn’t just rip it off wholesale.

How evil are they?
These dead are evil.

We liked it: It was simultaneously more and less than we were expecting. Less, in the sense of atmospheric horror. More in the sense of funhouse horror. You sort of think you’re going to get a survival horror—which has pretty strict rules and ties to reality, a la Night of the Living Dead—but that doesn’t work here, because the Undeadzis are clearly smarter, better prepared, and immortal (though not immune to pain, curiously) than the college doofs. There’s no reason, were they acting in any way other than to set up the second act, that they couldn’t have wiped all the kids out in the first five minutes. But funhouse horror has its own rules, which are basically, “If it’s cool, do it.” The Boy drew a parallel to From Dusk Till Dawn, though we both agreed the ’90s film is better.

So, we were both a little set back by the slow opening however but this is still probably the best of the Undead Nazi genre. The sequel, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead actually has a higher rating on IMDB. And the third in the franchise is said to be in the offing. I don’t know if either of those count as “must sees” but you could do a lot worse the week before Halloween.

High on a hill lived a lonely Nazi...
About the same amount of Nazis as in “Sound of Music”, come to think of it.

Friday the 13th (1980)

“That was…a trashy movie, wasn’t it, dad?”

Impossible.
Pictured: Not Betsy Palmer’s hand.

I had told the kids that the original Sean S. Cunningham-directed slasher was not a good film, and there was no real reason to go see it, except that of all the hundreds of Halloween rip-offs, it was arguably the best (or at least most successful). They were on the fence about seeing it, but then a Nazi plane landed on the freeway and The Boy, being stuck near the theater in question decided to go see it. And we decided to join him since watching Friday the 13th alone in a theater seemed kind of sad.

It is a truism that movies are better on a big screen in a big theater, and Friday the 13th is no exception. The camerawork is competent if cheesy and cheat-y, The lighting is sufficient, for the most part: It doesn’t need the big screen like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, for example, where the screen makes the difference in an effective sense of horror vs. “What’s going on with the blobs and the dark?” Harry Manfredini’s score is a series of Psycho-violin-stabs-with-bass-rejoinders, and also Pino Dinaggio’s closing theme from Carrie which fits the stolen ending from Carrie perfectly.

I think they gave Betsy Palmer the ring, though. So there's that.
Woman being murdered by a tall, hairy-handed man.

The kids were okay with it. Not impressed, but they didn’t hate it. A couple of hours later, though, The Flower asks the opening question about it being a trashy movie. I guess she had noticed that the girls were running around with their clothes off and not putting them back on, even though it would’ve made a whole lot of sense to do so. Butts on the screen = butts in the seat, especially back in 1980.

We’re only a few years out from Roger Corman’s “breast count = success” formulation for teen sex comedies, after all. But the first 30 minutes of the film could’ve just easily veered into porno.

I’ve written extensively on this movie before, as part of an (aborted) series of posts on the entire series, which I maintain has the least continuity of any series ever.

Details. I notice them.
Implants would make their first appearance in Part 9 of the series.

This time, I really wanted a new workout program, maybe called Slash/Fit, because 49-year-old Betsy Palmer easily terrorized and manhandled (if you’ll pardon the expression) a bunch of college-aged men and women.

And then, because we had just seen it, I imagined “Mr. Voorhees Goes To Washington,” where a guy in a hockey mask and ill-fitting suit makes a plea. “We got a build a little camp for the boys. There’s some lovely property out by Crystal Lake…”

The Flower said it was wrong, but she laughed.

Hey, is that Kevin Bacon?
All your favorites! Jeans girl #1, and Indian head-dress guy.

I Saw The Devil (2010, Korea)

Korean revenge pictures, I warned The Flower, are not like American ones. They are not meant to be cathartic action films where you identify strongly with an aggrieved protagonist who is righting a wrong. After seeing I Saw The Devil, she said “I was listening to The Boy [enthuse about it] and agreeing with him, but I found the movie very upsetting.” American revenge pictures, she observed, were about justice. The hero constantly has to ask himself, “Have I gone too far? Am I becoming what I hate?” And the answer is usually “No,” because we want films where vigilantes pick up where the system fails, and all is well afterwards.

Even for a Korean revenge thriller, I Saw The Devil is extreme. A woman is brutally murdered by a serial killer, and her fiancee determines to avenge her death—by taking two weeks off from work to hunt down the culprit. (The “two weeks” thing is the first sign that something is not as it appears. He seems remarkably self-assured that he’s going to be able to do this and not need any extra time.) He starts with four suspects, whom he detains and tortures with a cold efficiency. Determining they are not the one he is looking for, he moves on to suspect #3. The killer, realizing he is caught, takes another victim—a school girl—and figures he may as well rape her (given his cover as a school bus driver is blown).

Dismembered, raped, eaten...
Women fare poorly in this film.

Our protagonist Soo-hyeon catches up to our killer, Kyung-chul at this point and proceeds to beat the tar out of him. While this is disturbing, it’s probably more disturbing that Soo-heyon seems completely indifferent to the rape victim. He doesn’t rush to stop the crime. He offers no comfort. His sole focus is on beating up Kyung-chul—and shoving a transmitter down his throat and a bunch of money in his pocket. The transmitter is a super-spy gadget that gives Soo-hyeon the killer’s location and actually also works as an eavesdropping device.

We are getting the idea that Soo-hyeon has a “particular set of skills”.

In almost John Wick-ian fashion, Kyng-chul flags down a cab which turns out to have just been stolen by the two guys pretending to be the driver and passenger, with the real driver dead in the trunk. The ensuing accident, to say nothing of Kyung-chul’s earlier beating at the hands of Soo-hyeon, leads him to a small town clinic where, after receiving treatment, he goes to rape the nurse.

After...not so much.
Kyung-chul before Soo-hyeon gets a hold of him.

Once again, Soo-hyeon catches up to him (leisurely indifferent to Kyung-chul’s latest victim) and begins beating the tar out of him again, this time including severing one of his Achilles’ tendons. Soo-hyeon’s plan is to track and torment the killer (for the next two weeks, presumably) to deliver an equivalent amount of suffering to him that Kyung-chul delivered to his fiancee and himself.

Kyung-chul’s next stop is a fancy house where two of his friends—also psychotic killers who may have been hoping to form a (John Wick-style!) league of super-psychotics that just “f*cked up the world”, as the subtitles put up. These latest pals are, on top of everything, cannibals, keeping a victim in house for the freshest cuts. Once again, our “hero” rather indifferently barges in, but now it’s three psychos against one.

As he must (at least in Korean movies, and in the American Death Warrant), Soo-hyeon overplays his hand and ends up losing control of the psychotic Kyung-chul, whose master plan is to kill everyone he can find that Soo-hyeon loves—and then turn himself in. (Amusingly, Kyung-chul realizes early on that it’s not the cops after him because Korean officials, police or otherwise, are basically incompetent. The #1 trope of Korean films.) Soo-hyeon is also getting pressure from his peers and superiors who have realized that he’s behind the violence.

That's a packet of money on his chest!
Kyung-chul AFTER Soo-hyeon gets a hold of him. The first time.

In the end, the final revenge is darker than dark, and our hero is left broken for having achieved it. Because Revenge Is Bad.

Great performances by Byung-hun Lee (who plays the lovable but thuggish boxer in Keys to the Heart and, uh, the Asian dude in the recent The Magnificent Seven) as Soo-hyeon, and Min-sik Choi (who gave a tremendous performance in A Heart Blackened but is probably most famous for the most famous Korean revenge picture, Oldboy) as Kyung-chul. At two hours and twenty minutes, you feel every cringing moment of this tense, suspenseful film, and The Boy praised its Hitchcockian technique, comparing it favorably with Frenzy. The Flower, as noted, did not disagree—but found the film upsetting and probably won’t be viewing any Korean revenge pictures in the future.

Which is fine.

I agree with both of them: It is a very well-crafted, tight and upsetting film. Recommended for those with strong stomachs. Post-viewing question: Who is it who saw the Devil, and who was the Devil? (And that is the original Korean title!)

Almost.
A girl about to do something that almost works.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

This TCM presentation marked the beginning of a strange week of moviegoing. The Flower was incredibly excited to see Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, part of his film cycle tribute to loving America which, despite it’s 2:09 runtime (a great deal of which consists of a man standing up and talking hoarsely in front a crowd of disinterested other men) ends so efficiently that you almost wish it were longer to see the fallout.

Hah, if only.
It’s called “Twilight”. I hear good things about it. I’ll read it to you now.

I mean, it’s kind of funny: the movie ends with the hero passed out on the floor, invisible to the camera, while one of the antagonists has been narrowly prevented from committing suicide, and with his new girlfriend (and soon to be wife, who are we kidding?) watching from the balcony, having never so much as held his hand.

But you also know everything’s going to be okay. As corrupt and cynical as the system can be—and I think of this film now as “Let’s go watch Jimmy Stewart get Kavanaghed!—in the end, truth will out, and justice will prevail, and men of conscience who have been led astray will see the errors of their ways.

Hooey.

Almost.
That’s back when lawmakers were still nearly human, though.

But it’s great hooey. Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Jefferson Smith (because Gary Cooper couldn’t reprise his Mr. Deeds role from ’36) finds himself appointed as senator, with machine boss Taylor (Edward Arnold) and his heavy (Eugene Palette, The Lady Eve) being barely assuaged that respected elder senator Paine (Claude Raines) can keep him in line. Taylor has big bucks riding on a bill about to go for a vote, and the last thing he needs is some Boy Scout, er, Ranger ruining his plans.

And it might’ve worked except for drunken impish reporters, like Diz (Thomas Mitchell, It’s A Wonderful Life) and the immortal Charles Lane (also IAWAL, and a zillion other things into the ’90s) goad him into realizing how he’s a patsy to Paine and Taylor. This gets under Jeff’s skin, and he enlists the aid of hard-bitten aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) to help him write a real bill, to help city kids get out to the country for the summer, which she does. Only to realize that he’s headed for trouble, since his innocent little bill falls directly in the road of Taylor’s.

And the one on the left, just isn't.
One day, that bring young man on the right’s going to be working for Potter!

Things look bad indeed, as the Smith is easily waylaid by the professional liars, with Paine’s elegant daughter Susan (Astrid Allwyn) leading him around by the nose, and then it’s only Saunders’ emotional plea to tell him to get out of town that makes him realize something is amiss. When Taylor tries to ham-handedly bring Smith into the fold, he balks, and the Taylor machine begins its work, framing him for wanting to push his Boy Ranger bill because he owns the very land he wants the government to buy! In other words, their scheme.

In typical Capra fashion, our intrepid heroes fight forces much more powerful than they, and it should be noted that much of this film hit close enough to home at the time to upset Joe Kennedy, the Washington Press Corp, and various political types who felt maligned. Much like “believe all women” falls afoul of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird, the Kavanagh hearings showed the very same demagoguery at work 80 years ago. Smear, fabricate, use all the media at hand, deny the legitimacy of any other media, and destroy if possible. I guess they were better at it back then, since Taylor and his machine have no trouble forging convincing evidence.

Or maybe that’s just “movie magic”.

He's ordering pizza.
Jean Arthur as the secretary with a heart-of-gold.

But what’s not to love here? This was Stewart’s breakout role, the fruits of which he got to enjoy for a couple years before going off to WWII in ’41. Even if Arthur didn’t get along with him—she had a much higher opinion of Gary Cooper—you’d never know it from her performance. Capra’s players are all at their top, and he somehow manages to make lovable urchins out of sassy war-era kids pulling wagons and saying things like “jeepers!” Harry Carey gives a peculiar undertone to the whole proceedings, as President of the Senate: He knows things are hinky, but he also knows the rules are important, and his bemusement at the process, his “Well, it’s wacky, but it works, by God”, really measures the emotional level of the movie. When he’s happy at the end, we know we have a happy ending.

The Flower loved it, and it was a good thing to fall back on, because the next two movies would be grim in completely different and disturbing ways. The Boy also loved it. As I did, and always do.

Really, it's terrific.
The truly inspired hat scene.

Black Sabbath (1963)

I was fairly cool on this early Mario Bava entry in our “Not Scared of Subtitles” Halloween month—which still beats the tar out of Rocktober, which was the theme they always ran with prior to last year, as I explained to the kids:

  1. Horror anthology movies are almost never good
  2. Because anthology movies are usually built around one story that’s not long enough
  3. And so they’re padded out with lesser quality stories
  4. And tonally they tend to be very uneven, which compromises the atmosphere

Wild Tales is easily the best anthology movie I’ve ever seen, and it is very good (though barely horror). But others? I ran through a few in my mind—the ’80s were a treasure trove of horror anthologies, probably due to the success of Creepshow. But even Creepshow was a mixed bag. It had five stories, can you remember them all? There’s the very boring opener (“Tide”) with Leslie Nielsen and Ted Danson…which I think is not the one where the guy wants his cake. I think that might be the third or fourth story, or might not be in that anthology at all. The second one, where Stephen King graces us with his screen presence and a shameless lift of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Colour out of Space”, is dopey and tonally goofy. The only really effective one is the last one, with E.G. Marshall as a Howard Hughes type who is being tormented by cockroaches. And I think the Adrienne Barbeau/Hal Holbrook monster-in-a-crate story is in this one, too.

How far have we fallen!
Standard bedtime attire for a single Italian girl in the ’60s, expecting no guests except perhaps her murderous pimp.

(Checks.)  OK, I did pretty good, apart from utterly forgetting the bookends and bumpers. Those are all five of the stories. But “Tide”, “Cake” and “Colour” are so hack as to make it nigh unbelievable that they’re actually in a modern movie. Tonally, they are campy. “Crate” is lifted by Barbeau’s harrowing performance as a World Class Shrew, and E.G. Marshall carries “Roach”.

And Creepshow is the most famous and possibly the best modern horror anthology. The ’70s had a bunch, like Tales from the Crypt (sans the crypt keeper) and The Vault of Horror (which I remember as having some very effective moments) as well as the generally well regarded TV movie Trilogy of Terror, which features Karen Black in all three stories. And Creepshow inspired a lot of TV shows (like Tales from the Darkside) and some feature anthologies like NightmaresCat’s EyeThe Twilight Zone MovieDeadtime Stories and From A Whisper To A Scream—as well as a bunch you’ve never heard of. And if you have heard of these, and even seen them, can you remember them? If you can remember all the stories in any of them, I’m more likely to be impressed by your recall than your taste. Nightmares has…Emilio Estevez playing “The Bishop in Battle” which is a reference obscure enough to mention a call out in Ernest Cline’s Armada, God Save Us All.

Still quality Boris.
Late era Boris.

I can’t back it up, but I feel like the horror anthology started in ’60 and has been going on consistently, with some peaks and valleys ever since. There’s a zillion of them these days, for much the same reason Black Sabbath was made: They’re cheap to do. Anyway, I think you get my point: Instead of being collections of highly polished gems, anthologies tend to not work all that well together and tend to be a few half-baked notions gathered around one or two strong ideas.

Also, you may have noticed that I’m stalling because while the kids were reasonably well entertained by this one, I…wasn’t crazy about it. Here’s the thing, it’s hosted by Boris Karloff, who appears in the longest story (doubtless the one that wasn’t quite long enough to be a feature and so required the tacking on of two other stories). But it’s subtitled, which means it’s first dubbed in Italian. Which means instead of Karloff’s incomparable lisp, you get some cheesy Italian dude with a voice an octave too high. In addition, because it’s Italian, virtually nobody is speaking Italian. It’s meant to have an international appeal, so there are people speaking French and English, and the dubs are distractingly bad. I get the pretensions of being “not afraid of subtitles” (Laemmle’s motto), but this was a film meant to be dubbed. (On the other hand, “The Telephone” in the American version is severely hacked because it was too saucy for 1963.)

Looks sorta like Swoosie Kurtz.
This Halloween mask-level effect is surprisingly effective.

There are three stories (the Italian title is “The Three Faces of Fear”):

The first is the story of a woman being terrorized by phone calls, which is basically a vehicle to show gorgeous gals in various states of undress and as lovers. It’s pretty by-the-numbers, and the music is too modern to be scary. The girls are quite good-looking, of course. The Flower’s comment was “I thought it was just Sophia Loren but she’s just the one we know about!” That’s true. And they probably put a few butts in seats in 1963.

The second is the longest story, “The Wurdalak”, about a family terrorized by their patriarch, because they don’t know if he’s alive or a vampire. It’s reminiscent of A Serious Man‘s “Dybbuk” opener, overlong and kind of obvious in most of its aspects. It is very well shot and atmospheric, and that and the music create a nice, spooky atmosphere!

The third story (and the first in the American cut) is called “A Drop of Water” and we agreed (and from what I can tell, most people agree) this is the strongest story. It’s tight, it’s spooky, it’s almost as by-the-numbers as the other two, but each moment and effect is used to build tension. Basically, a nurse steals a ring from a dead old noblewoman/spinster. The old woman is frozen in a rictus grin that works despite (because of?) its simplicity. It has an ironic echo at the end that is subtle enough to be convincing but not feel tired.

You’re gonna feel all 90 minutes of this one, even if you love it. Even so, it’s regarded as one of the better horror anthologies. A fun bit of lore for this movie is that the band Black Sabbath took their name (because they were going by “Earth” at the time and there was another band named “Earth”!) from this film because people were going to see this movie (and not their band). I don’t know if I believe that a band in 1968 named themselves after a five-year-old horror flick, but who knows?

Which is a vampire so why not call it a vampire?
Some nice haunted-housery in “Wurdalak”.

 

Beetlejuice (1988)

It’s easy—really easy at this point—to forget how brilliant Tim Burton was once upon a time. And, at the time, it was kind of easy to take him for granted, because his style was so fresh and delightful that everything seemed so easy.  Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was way better than it had any right to be. Beetlejuice gave us the most delightful dead couple since Topper. Even the Batman movies, which were ultimately disappointing, at least had set design worth the price of admission. And even the stuff he produced, like Nightmare Before Christmas was touched with magic.

Green pancake. Staple of the '80s.
Nobody makes jokes about suicide or civil servants any more.

So you can also see how one might be nervous, given the spottiness of his recent output, going back to re-view this movie. Even as it was a staple for some of the kids growing up, nobody had watched it in a while, and none of them had seen it in the theater. With the incredible datedness of the ’80s, and the Tim Burton style, it might be that some of the glamour would wear off.

Well, no worries after all, like quite a few of these ’80s movies. It really does hold up well.

The beautiful Geena Davis (who was at my mother’s engagement party, as I am required by family law to point out) and the remarkably slim, handsome and personable Alec Baldwin play a charming young couple who meet their fate when they swerve to miss a little dog who runs out in the road. For reasons never explained, except presumably in the densely dry tome, Handbook for the Recently Deceased, they must haunt their house for 100 years or so, which would probably fly by except for the new tenants.

Bedraggled.
Lovably incompetent ghost doofs.

It’s fair to say that teenage Winona Ryder was never better cast than as Lydia, the goth teen whose sensitivity is real but also over-dramatized. And Jeffrey Jones (never look these people up, is the Flower’s rule) is also perfect as the city boy who sorta thinks he wants to relax but is inherently predatorial and entrepreneurial. But the show is powered by the immortal Catherine O’Hara, as the unstable matriarch whose very skin crawls with the corny decor and homeliness of the deceased’s house. Her destructive disrespect for everything not Greenwich village/Westside/Warhol-esque drives Adam and Barbara (Baldwin and Davis, respectively) to take steps to get the unwanted family out.

In classic ’80s “high concept” fashion, we have our story: The Exorcist, except instead of the dead haunting the living, it’s the living who need to be exorcised.

The problem is that the kind-hearted couple aren’t really up to snuff, haunting-wise. At first they can’t get anyone’s attention but Lydia, and then their efforts backfire as the pretentious urbane witnesses to their haunting are more thrilled than scared, and want the two to perform like circus monkeys.

[stares meaningfully into the distance]
I myself am strange and unusual.
Enter Beetlejuice, of course perfectly played by Michael Keaton. He’s got the goods, but he’s a bad dude, and his motivation is to enter the world of the living again, which he can do if he marries Lydia. Adam and Barbara don’t want to summon him, but the incompetent paranormal actions of Otho (played delightfully catty by the late, versatile Glenn Shadix) end up backfiring on everyone and only Beetlejuice can save the day. And only Adam and Barbara can stop him from destroying everything one he does.

It’s got a good rhythm. The jokes range from merely cute to laugh-out-loud funny, but which ones are which will vary from person to person and viewing to viewing, and the movie doesn’t need to be funny. It is, but it’s also decent entertainment from the standpoint of the characters. The resolution basically has the good, corny, parental Adam and Barbara raising Lydia while the more driven, artsy Delia and Charles (O’Hara and Jones, respectively) take her in the small doses that all parties can tolerate. This is a little strange, but the whole movie is, in that good ’80s way.

I'd be disturbed if I started singing like Harry Belafonte.
It’s so quaint now, as is the blasé way they shake off their possessions.

The supporting cast is terrific from Anne McEnroe as the intrusive real estate agent, real life smarmy guy Dick Cavett, Robert Goulet, to silent movie siren Sylvia Sydney (as Barbara and Adam’s case worker in the afterlife). The rhythm is light, the family issues play naturally into the story (unlike perhaps later Burton efforts), the Danny Elfman score is archetypal, and the whole thing is tonally perfect, treading that delicate balance between absurd comedy, morbidity and genuine emotion.

Sometimes you see amazingly timeless stuff like this and look at recent efforts—not just from Burton but from other film luminaries—and you wonder: What does Hollywood do to people?

I better never need to look for a job again.
Is this half of a #metoo, or…

 

Teen Titans Go! To The Movies

The Barbarienne’s movie tastes are decidedly more conventional than either of her siblings, which may be due to her immersion in YouTube culture—she wants to talk about what other people are talking about—and, if it means sometimes going to see a movie like Infinity War, it’s a small price to pay to spend time with her. And seeing a bland movie is not the worst fate.

Also, I kind of wanted to see this one.

The Blue Bat one is trick. Is it Blue Beetle?
I can name about 2/3rds of these guys.

For those of you not attuned to the 2000-era cartoon scene, the Cartoon Network featured a very popular, highly-anime-influenced take on DC’s on-again, off-again comic line “Teen Titans”, which featured a variety of teenaged heroes (presumably with the notion that teen heroes might sell better), like Robin, Kid Flash, and briefly (if memory serves), a grown up (and black!) Joker’s daughter named “Harlequin”. The original TV Show, “Teen Titans”, featured Robin, Cyborg, Beast Boy, Starfire and Raven, and was quite good as far as such things go. Not overly serious, not overly goofy (except in the way that comic books generally are). It ran for about three years and change (2003-2006).

Then, in 2013, for no apparent reason, the original cast was reassembled for entirely parodic take on its previous incarnation called “Teen Titans Go!” which ran for another five years! This used and abused anime tropes and superhero tropes and the characters’ specific tropes. Any momentary seriousness was quickly dispelled. The Flower, who had been a fan of the original series, could not watch the comic reboot, though she did allow that it was fairly funny from what she saw. The Barbarienne had no such qualms, and The Boy (whose Girl was otherwise occupied) tagged along.

The Barbarienne loved it, of course. The Boy said, “If there was something I didn’t like, I just had to wait 10 seconds for the next thing to come along.” And that’s a decent summary: This is the sort of movie that the Brothers Warner currently excels at. Like the The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, the gags are fast and furious and the environment so chaotic that it’s hard to ever get bored, exactly. (I suppose you could be annoyed by the pace and tone and that would probably lead to boredom.)

On the WB lot!
The Titans on their quest to be taken seriously.

I was not bored, but I also could’ve stopped watching 20 minutes into it. Then I probably would’ve come back later at some point to watch the next 20 minutes. And so on until I had seen the entire movie. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that (for my tastes) 22 minutes of the show is enough.

The plot is a none-too-gentle poke at superhero movies—which given WB’s luck with said movies might seem a little sour-grapey—where everyone gets a movie…except Robin and the Teen Titans, because they’re jokes. Which, you know, in this incarnation they absolutely are. The over-arching plot has superheroes being given movies as a way to distract them from fighting crime which might be a cute joke or might be a terribly accurate metaphor, though I’m not sure for what.

The Titans had screwed up by this point, and were not aware of it.
The A-Listers are not impressed.

The contours of the story follow the exact same one you’ve seen thousands of times for musical groups: A group gets popular, and an avaricious producer seduces the lead away from the rest of the group. It’s sort of amusing to see it here, which I’m guessing is a stable in kid-oriented TV sitcoms. This provides just enough dramatic hook to have you care about the characters—much like The Lego Batman Movie—which is deftly aided by the directors Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath, who are the directors on the “Go!” TV show.

All the original cast members are there, which is nice. For a low budget animation, the amount of care that went into the little details—the backgrounds are filled with gags both superhero-related and just goofy—is impressive. It’s made to be freeze-framed, and I’m sure it will be. Nicolas Cage—Tim Burton’s choice to play Superman back in the ’90s before that project fell apart—finally gets to be Superman here.

You probably know from the outset whether or not you’re going to like this. It’s good, as I say, for what it is—and if what it is is the sort of thing you don’t like in the 22 minutes form, you’re not going to have a change of heart when it’s stretched to 90 minutes.

Manatees are cool, man.
The Titans crash through a “Utility Belt: The Movie” with a Batgirl and “Aquamanatee” poster in the background.

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

October marked the beginning of the delightfully pretentious Laemmle’s “Scary Subtitles” month. (I like to think I’m delightfully pretentious, too, but I’m probably just annoying.) The first week’s entry was Guillermo del Toro’s companion film to Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone.

Taking place during the Spanish Civil War, the movie opens on a rainy night with a bomb being dropped from a plane into an orphanage where one of the boys—who has just experienced something horrible—is standing. The bomb lands, but doesn’t go off.

Dad joke.
What happens if you cut short “boom”? That’s right, you get “Boo!”

The next day Carlos is brought in. He’s an orphan, but he doesn’t know it yet, and the man taking care of him is abandons him there against the orphanage’s wishes. But they’re all on the communist side and the food-strapped orphanage is also a cover for funneling supplies to the troops. The communists are losing, and the fascists are on the march.

The orphanage itself has its own issues, besides starving. The creepy matron, Carmen is being serviced by a young man, Jacinto, one of her former children, while Dr. Casares, an older man, pines for her. She has gold which cannot be used to buy food, but which Jacinto is planning to steal so he can run off with beautiful, young and none-too-bright Conchita.

Handsome psychos.
Conchita beginning to have some doubts.

Also, the orphanage is haunted.

The ghost is of a boy who went missing the night the bomb dropped. The official story is that Santi ran away that night, but the boys all know he’s real and Carlos is both drawn and repelled to this ghost.

GDT isn’t going to pussyfoot around. You get ghostly action, and lots of of it. The effect used for the ghost is poetic and haunting: He drowned after being struck on the head, so he is blurry, and the blood from his wound seems to float off into space. And much like Pan’s Labyrinth, Man’s Inhumanity To Man (and especially child) is going to be far worse than what the supernatural has to offer.

My favorite part, the thing from which the movie takes its name, is that of Dr. Casales. The good doctor has fetuses in jars, including one aborted because of “The Devil’s Backbone”, which is an old peasant name for spina bifida. The good doctor is a Man of Science, he announces, when Carlos asks him whether he believes in ghosts.

Bad taste. I confess.
Dr. Casale promoting his new line of “Gosnell” soda.

Then he pours off the juices the fetuses have been soaking in for hundreds of years to make some sort of snake-oil cure that the villagers buy up like crazy. (The intimation at one point being that they think it’s like Viagra, which makes his subsequent drinking of it more interesting.) He uses the fetus-juice money to buy food for the kids.

His fate is wonderfully ironic, and the whole movie works very, very well, reminding us why we love Mr. del Toro. The Flower was so taken with it, she said, “This makes The Shape of Water even more disappointing, Dad.” We had rushed out to see that movie on Christmas Eve, she was so excited for it, only to find its inappropriate and anachronistic view of the ’50s inexcusably hacky for such a brilliant director.

As good as it is, it’s not quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth is, but if you like del Toro, it’s a must-see.

The Negotiation

The big problem with seeing three movies in a row, if you’ve never done it, is that typically the third movie has to overcome the fact that you’ve just watched two previous movies. And in the case of The Negotiation, we had just seen two 2+ hour-long historical epics, so the relative prosaicness of a contemporary crime thriller was going to suffer a bit no matter what.

Could be!
If headlines are to be believed, these three stars of the three movies we saw back to back, are the top actors in Korea.

Our introduction to the lead negotiator, Ha Chae-yun (Son Ye-jin, Be With You) is by her leg. She’s getting out of a car in a short skirt, and her high-heeled clad foot hits the pavement awkwardly. She was on a date when they called her in. Apparently, she’s been thinking about leaving the force after a bad incident, but she gets called in to save the day here. It goes very poorly, indeed, leading her to resign for real and spend the next few days lounging around in tight tee shirts. (This could be mere exploitation—Ms. Son is quite lovely—but it’s a plot point of sorts, as is Chae-yun’s failure in the opening sequence.)

Her boss demurs on her resignation, telling her to take a few days off and they’ll talk when he gets back. But even her time off is interrupted, as her boss (who I think is the God of Violence in the Along With Gods movies) is kidnapped and the kidnapper demands to see her. “I heard you were hot,” he sniffs disdainfully.

Completely unsupportable.
Oh, is that what you heard?

Over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, Chae-yun and the kidnapper engage in their verbal jousting, with the negotiator ostensibly trying to buy time till a S.W.A.T. team can get into position, but really doing investigations behind the scenes with her team—most notably Sang-ho Kim, who plays a kind of goofy schlub who ends up putting a lot of the pieces together and being the first on the scene.

It turns out that there’s something much bigger afoot than a simple kidnapping, and there are no coincidences. I hope this doesn’t constitute a spoiler, but there is some corruption at the highest levels of government! In a Korean movie!

Look at those wall! They're clearly in Thailand!
And some amazing decor in the kidnapper’s den!

We enjoyed it, despite it being the third movie, and it was our least favorite. It was a little harder for us to tangle out the plot, because the villains (beyond the kidnapper) are essentially sitting in a boardroom the whole time and machinating. We also felt it suffered from the fact that Chae-yun is never shown as being especially competent. It’s an artifact of the plot which requires her to be unaware of forces arrayed against her, which forces are ultimately revealed, but nonetheless you do sort of think, “Well, maybe police work isn’t right for you, dear. Modeling?”

I kid. While Son Ye-Jin is certainly beautiful, she also manages to project authority at times, and a struggle when bad orders come down from on high. The plot ties together well and there is a typically strong moral sense, that one who is in honest and competent ultimately has a larger responsibility to all (given that the highest levels are invairably corrupt, heh).

Tiny Korean women.
In charge (but not large).

 

The Shining (1980)

I was a little surprised when The Flower said she wanted to see The Shining again, not because it’s not a great movie but it seemed like it wasn’t that long ago we saw it. However, she hadn’t come with us the last time, which was over four years ago! I think I had gotten confused because, being concerned friends her age only consume cultural garbage, she wanted to get together with them to see it when it came around last year. But that fell through. And as it turns out, she has never seen this in the theater.

Which, you know, with Kubrick, is like not seeing it at all.

You were the best of 'em, Lloyd.
It’s a fun movie. Lotta laughs.

The movie still works, of course. I had been inspired by this (frankly goofy) YouTube video positing that Danny was the source of all the evil in the movie. That Jack was psychically sensitive like Danny and Hallorann, but he didn’t know it, and it’s Danny’s psychic emanations that are driving him mad.

Yeah, no. Stephen King wishes he were that creative. C’mon, it’s Indian Burial Ground stuff. What struck me this time was how literally much of parallels to alcoholism work: Every stage of his insanity maps to different kinds of “drunk”: angry drunk, happy drunk, cheat-on-your-wife-with-a-woman-who’s-not-as-good-looking-as-you-thought drunk, etc. Except, as The Flower pointed out, the final scenes which are inexplicable allegorically. (She’s not a fan of overthinking things, especially things that make aesthetic sense.)

I noticed all the red this time. This is another case where overthinking is problematic. The video I watched said “red” was the color of youth and vitality, to the extent of denying that the stuff coming out the elevators was blood—something only a censor could be dumb enough to believe—and then points out that Danny is always wearing red. Except for one scene, where he goes into the forbidden room 237, which signified…something. But seeing that scene again, it’s apparent he’s not wearing red because he’s on the patterned carpet which is full of red, and there would’ve been no contrast. The aesthetic trumps the literal again, I believe.

Er, rum, red RUM!
Red carpet. RED CARPET!

But one thing has always bugged me about the movie, and that’s the end. The picture of Jack there at the party in 1921. I think the popular explanation is a sort of “Twilight Zone” type “twist”, that Jack has become part of the house. But I found the possibility intriguing that we, the audience, are being lied to, and that Jack doesn’t actually look like Jack at all. There are a lot of interesting mirror shots in this, which suggests…something…but I’m not sure it’s really supportable. (The aforementioned goofy video poses a theory like this, and suggests that’s why we don’t see Jack except in the hotel, while dismissing the fact that we see him in car on the way up too.)

This isn’t particularly mysterious, though. Kubrick himself says the photo suggest Jack is a reincarnation of an earlier Jack, the one in the picture. OK. Not how reincarnation works, of course, but follows the Moviegique reincarnation rule: You can’t have different actors playing the same character through reincarnation because the audience will reject that.

Something else I noticed: At the end, Wendy looks into a room wear a man in a bear/dog costume is kneeling over a bed and doing something presumably perverted to a man in a tux who is lying on the bed. I mean, the implication is oral sex, but that mask would make it impossible. Kubrick was on the vanguard of furry-dom, I guess.

Anyway, the two hours crawl by, of course, but if you like Kubrick, they’re a good crawl, and you can really enjoy the detail. We enjoyed it and The Boy, who was previously engaged, expressed sorrow that he had missed.

Almost.
Nicholson looks almost normal in ’20s attired.

Fengshui

I had a kind of uncanny feeling watching this Korean historical drama about a noble geomancer who is betrayed by his corrupt peers who mis-advise the king in order to reinforce their power: It’s a whole lot like the delightful The Princess and the Matchmaker. And, as it turns out, both are part of a thematic trilogy from Korean company Jupter Film, the first entry of which 2010’s The Face Reader. In each film, honest purveyors of a traditional Korean practice are met with corruption and deception from their fellows.

Hey, it's a Korean dude with a beard wearing a hat.
“I’ve seen these hats before…”

Which, as I pointed out in the previous review, just couldn’t be done here. Can you imagine a modern American film where an honest geomancer was betrayed by the self-serving members of the court in order to weaken the kingdom? It has to start from the premise that there’s an honest art to be practiced and corrupted.

Where The Princess and the Matchmaker starts out light and gets increasingly darker and more serious as the film progresses, this movie launches with the prince being poisoned. His grieving father and young son search for a proper burial place with the help of the court Fengshui masters, because burying the body in a propitious location will lead to good things for the family while burying it in a bad one could spell disaster. The court geomancers, however, are working with the Kims—the family behind the assassination—and mis-direct the king.

At the site of the burial, however, young Jae-sang objects: This is a terrible site, he says, which will bring misery on your family. The correct site is somewhere over…there. He is immediately corrected and later reprimanded and thrown out of the corps. This doesn’t bother him too much, however, because he really is skilled and knows he can find plenty of work. And being true is more important than fancy digs at the court. His buddy razzes him for not even having an outhouse, as they go for a whiz.

And then, while they’re bro-ing it up a discrete distance away, his wife and child are murdered, and his house set aflame.

Moon Chae-won.
This is a different woman, but her fate is also not propitious.

So, we’re already much darker than TPatM in the opening act. What’s more, this has become…a revenge picture. As I’ve observed previously, Korean revenge pictures are not fun or cathartic like Western revenge pictures. The moral of all of them is pretty much: You may or may not get it, but in the process, you will destroy yourself and everything you love.

In this movie, we flash forward 13 years, when Jae-san has a prosperous business (if lonely life) using his geomancy to help people decide where to live and how to set their businesses up for best results. In a particular scene, he helps the owners of a mall by telling them how to arrange their stores, and it seems a whole lot less like geomancy than good business sense. But it’s a good demonstration of his skills. Meanwhile, the new king (the son of the poisoned one) is a young man, floundering, childless and weak.

They team up with a low member of the royal family who is literally treated like a dog by the Kims in order to set things right, and what follows is a fun ensemble picture where the team works together to uncover a far-reaching conspiracy which involves the Kim family strategically burying their dead in propitious locations while misdirecting the ruling family so that they get increasingly weak.

I kid! It's a lovely country!
This spot is perfect…except that it’s in Korea.

Relatively light-hearted caper antics give way to darker and darker deeds which give the movie a real resonance, as you grow to like all the protagonists. The third act climax is especially good because two of our heroes have to choose whether to continue down the path of destruction—which will lead to the fall of Korea, no less!—or choose a more rational path.

This is a drama which (like the fanciful Detective Dee) weaves in a known event (a short-lived Korean at the turn of the 20th century), so that particular resonance is lost on those of us who are not up on their Korean history, and we were a little surprised when the movie—with its horses and swordplay—flashes forward to the end of our two buddies’ lives, and they are very clearly in the industrial age, still advising people. And, of course, working to help Korea free itself from Japan’s rule—the consequences of the wrong choices being made decades earlier.

We greatly enjoyed it, though we all had the problem of (as I put it), “Aw, crap, there’s another Korean dude with a beard and a hat…”, because (just like with American movies set in the ’50s) everyone ends up looking alike. But the funny thing was that we were all able to sort it out as the movie went on because the characters were well drawn. So, we’d get lost, but we’d find our way out. At one point, the hero, who has been easily identifiable by his white clothing, changes his color. This was confusing at first, but then also becomes significant as it really signals his departure from the righteous path.

Weird but more for the 1890s being so much like feudal Korea.
And suddenly we’re in the 20th century!

It’s gotten mixed reviews from critics, especially for some of the performances, but such subtleties were lost on us. It is, of course, beautifully shot and really burns through its 2:20 runtime, which was good, because we were off to see The Negotiation next.

The Great Battle

The Boy and I were immediately drawn to this film of heroism, which turned out to be a first for us: Instead of Japan invading Korea, it was China invading them! This was a rare triple-feature for us: We actually queued up this, followed by the historical drama Fengshui, and topped it off with the modern thriller, The Negotiation. We haven’t done a three-fer since the days of the After Dark Horror Fest 4 back in 2010! And this time, we had company as he brought His Girl. (The Flower would’ve liked to see one or more of these films, but she’s way too busy for a triple feature these days. As am I, but that’s another story.)

Suh-WING, battah!
Now batting for Korea: Yang Man-chun

So, the short capsule is this: The Great Battle is the Korean version of 300. It is the story of an outnumbered, outmatched army of 5,000 that staves off the Chinese Tang army of 100,000 (or is it 500,000?) that has been sweeping the land. This is so obviously inspired by 300, at a crucial scene when a character tries to kill the Tang General, she misses in exactly the same way and the General suddenly has a cadre of Persian Immortals at his side to protect him.

I mean, I presume they’re not really Persian Immortals, but we they are masked bodyguards, and the masks look a lot like the Immortals’, and we never see them up to that point, and they have little or no bearing after that point. I believe this is director Kwang-shik Kim’s way of saying, “Yes, you’ve seen it before—but you’ve never seen it in Korean!

They're probably Indian or Thai something.
Here’s one to the right. There were way better shots from the movie but it’s hard to track down the Korean ones.

This story is a bit different because it involves (as all Korean films must) incomeptence at the highest levels of government. The great Korean general has overthrown the king, and then led his troops into open battle against the far superior Tang army. Having suffered defeat, and seeing the forts along the Chinese/Korean border fall quickly to the enemy’s might, the petulant Korean general sends one of his soldiers back to his home town, Ansi with a simple mission: Kill the holder of that fort, Yang Man-chun, and evacuate.

Yang Man-chun, it seems, defied the general and refused to bring his troops to the battle (where they would’ve been slaughtered). Our hero goes back to his homeland—his people are dead for some reason, however—and ingratiates himself into the chain of command. The two spies who are with him are summarily executed, but he is left alive and actually becomes the flag-bearer and right-hand man to Yang Man-chun—who knows exactly why he’s there.

Cool.
Man-chun’s crack squad of chick crossbowmen.

Yang Man-chun undergoes a lot of struggle and doubt on his mission, as you might imagine, but of course he is won over by loyalty to his home town, and to Man-chun who claims to never have been disloyal, only sensible. The siege of Ansi is colorful and exciting, with some great historical material which (The Boy and I thought) was probably wholly anachronistic. But this is meant to be fun, and stirring, not a documentary and the movie lets you know this early on.

Man-chun’s daughter is the head of his all-female crossbow corp, who’s also in love with the head of the elite swordsmen. The head of the elite swordsmen has personality conflicts with the dual-axe-wielding barbarian squad. The town oracle, captured by the Tang, is the former girlfriend of Yang Man-chun has visions of the future which start with the defeat of the Chinese—but end with the fall of Ansi, and with treachery. Oh, and there’s a magic bow of legend no one can pull.

It’s just fun of the sort that we’re not allowed to have any more in the USA. (300 is just one of a great many stirring historical events which are not permissible in the current environment.)  We loved it, and probably enjoyed it the best of the three films, though Fengshui was also a strong contender for best of the day.

I liked the actors, but I didn’t really recognize them except the gorgeous Seol-Hyun Kim (Memoir of a Murder). I thought the CGI would be a little cheesier but it actually looked better than I expected. (A problematic effect in the trailer looked like it didn’t make it to the final cut.)

It’s fun. Check it out!

And just when everything was going so well.
Pictured: Fun.

The Spy Gone North (2018, Korea)

It is a tradition, over the past few years, for us to head down to Buena Park early on the eve we go to Knott’s Halloween Haunt so that we can get there in plenty of time and not have the evening jeopardized by a terrible traffic jam, and also have a little time to chill before going in to dinner. It started when we stayed at the hotel and has continued on even in the past few years that we’ve realized it’s actually far more restful to drive home that night than try to sleep in a weird place. But it is only this year that I realized that our second favorite movie chain, the CGV, has an outlet walking distance from Knott’s. The CGV has only two theaters in the United States (if not the world), and the other one is, yes, in Koreatown and is where we go see our Korean double- and triple-features.

When you say to an American the title “The Spy Gone North”, you get a kind of puzzled reaction. “Like…to Canada?” And then you point out that that’s the title of a Korean movie, and there tends to be a beat, then a sudden realization. “Oh, wow…”

Unification?
South Meets North in the stinger.

In this story, a patriotic Korean destroys his career and reputation to create a believable front as someone who might be open to North Korean overtures. He runs around Peking making a lot of noise and always talking about big scores until he’s approached by North Korean agents. He worms his way in to their good graces but this ultimately leads to some harrowing events, most notably, an invitation to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il’s palace. Kim Jong’s palace where, apparently, it’s standard practice to drug and interrogate all new visitors.

Meanwhile, back in South Korea, the anti-communist forces are busily arranging elections, and we learn that there always seem to be suspicious attacks by North Korean whenever they’re anti-communist forces are in danger of losing an election. Most of the story, in fact, takes place in the months leading up to an election that our hero spy’s bosses are potentially losing. They’re greatly concerned that the more progressive leader—whom they’ve framed as being a communist sympathizer—will disband their intelligence agency.

Over a hot glass of kimchi.
I like to make all my deals in dimly lit rooms with maps and rows of files.

Our hero, and a similar character on the northern side of the border, are working very hard to bring about a reconciliation—but of course, that’s really going to put the intelligence agency out of business. Ultimately, a great sacrifice is called for, and the question only remains of who is going to make it.

It’s quite good. The only thing I noticed as being somewhat lacking is that we never see our hero spy (Jung-min Hwang, The Wailing) outside of his job, so we never get the sense of what he has to lose back at home. We don’t see his family’s reaction to his sudden loss of face or how he deals with that. For all that, his story remains moving. We get more of his North Korean counterpart’s family life (Sung-min Lee) which is effective because he’s constantly dealing with the secret police.

There's some difference between north and south.
“You like kimchi? I like kimchi! You like concentration camps…?”

There are a lot of other interesting things, such as there being a scandal because North Korean products being sent to South Korea actually being just re-branded Chinese and Japanese goods—because of course NoKo can’t export anything. There’s a nice touch where, when pulling up to Kim Jong Il’s palace, the use the “Dies Irae”, a chant best known for being the theme to The Shining. Ji-Hoon Ju of the Along With Gods movies has a prominent role as the top spy who constantly tries to undermine Sung-min Lee’s character.

I was proud of myself, because all the time Kim Jong-Il was on screen, I never once started singing “I’m so…ronery…!”

Interestingly enough, we saw this on the day the North Korean and South Korean leaders met in Pyonyang, for the first time in over 60 years.

Or is it all propaganda?
Apparently there’s some poverty in North Korea.

The Lady Eve (1941)

I confess that I don’t really think of Barbara Stanwyck as a “great beauty” (and the wig in Double Indemnity does her no favors), but she was without a doubt one of those actresses who was charming and could act beautiful. In Preston Sturges’ screwball classic, The Lady Eve, she turns on the charm in the first half of the story while in the second half, she’s all glamour and beauty—except for the cunning streak of lovable roguishness that runs throughout.

She's so manipulative.
He hasn’t seen a woman in a year.

The film in some ways exemplifies screwball comedies: The premise is that rich nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) is picked up by a cruise ship after a year in the jungle, where he’s already known by every lady on board as the heir to a brewer’s fortune. A grifter, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his accomplice/daughter Jean (Stanwyck) spot him immediately for the whale he is, and Jean easily out-plays the other girls and seduces him.

But this is a screwball comedy, so the first twist we get is that Jean actually falls in love with the hasn’t-so-much-as-smelled-a-woman-in-a-year Charles, and decides to go straight, protecting Charles from the machinations of her merciless father. Within days the two decide to be married. Charles’ chaperone/bodyguard (William Demarest), meanwhile, is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense suspicious type who figures out Jean is not who she says she is, and manages to sabotage the burgeoning romance with an ill-timed revelation.

This is a great scene.
Henry Fonda thinks he’s playing cards but it’s really Stanwyck.

Now things get really screwy, as the broken-hearted Jean determines to have her revenge against her erstwhile lover by re-entering his life as a completely different character, the titular Lady Eve. She doesn’t disguise herself, except with a dubious English accent and the suspicious, stunned and immediately re-smitten Charles uses the very fact that Eve looks exactly like Jean to deduce that she couldn’t actually be Jean, because of course Jean would disguise herself in some fashion. (You know, she’d dye her hair or something.) Stanwyck parades around in Edith Head’s glorious creations like she was born to them, bringing a few gasps from The Flower.

But with the help of their grifter friend Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), who has already won over Charles’ father (the incomparable Eugene Pallette), Charles is easily won over by a preposterous Victorian tale of Eve having an evil twin sister, perhaps because their true father was the stablehand and not the…well, you get the idea. It’s all very scandalous and silly.

The story plays itself out a second time, down to the two re-falling in love again, while William Demarest denounces her the whole time. In the screwiest of all circumstances, Jean/Eve’s revenge extends to marrying Charles and living happily ever after with him, while he still doesn’t know. Or, more likely, doesn’t care.

He loved it.
America’s arguably greatest actor doing pratfalls.

The whole thing is so tremendously good-natured—something Sturges and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch were unparalleled at—and so brisk, clever and charming that it would be hard not to love. The escalation comes in the form of absurdity rather than in increasingly large, slapstick type shenanigans, but is no less fun for that.

We would miss the next week’s offering, Seven Year Itch, due to the annual jaunt out to Knott’s, and we would just skip Funny Girl because I have a hard time getting worked up to see Barbra Streisand movies. But I assured the kids—correctly, I believe—that the two movies we had seen (this as Philadelphia Story) were easily the best of the four.

“Screwball September” would give way to “Scary Subtitles” in October, and we all had high hopes for the selections there.

It's the same girl!
William Demarest is NEVER fooled.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The sound of music! The hills are alive with it, apparently! Wow, talk about a cold open, to have sweeping panoramic vistas from an airplane (or helicopter?), and then to zoom into your lead character, completely unknown and unanounced, singing and dancing on a mountaintop about how much she loves music—and hills! (The Alps seem like a little more than hills, but I suppose it’s the foothills of the alps she’s running over when she’s not nunning.)

Julie Andrews, forever typecast.
Your lead character, ladies and gentlemen.

It was a rare occasion in a theater where I thought to myself, “the volume could’ve been a little higher on that”. (The Flower, with her hearing as to loudness sensitive as mine was at her age—the perils of not listening to rock music really, really loud—disagreed.)

What you may take from this, however, is that I (at my advanced age and very advanced moviegoing) had never seen The Sound of Music before. ’tis true,  I think primarily because I grew up a little too close to the music. As a wee lad, no less than six of the soundtrack songs featured in various school performances, so I still know them by heart. And the reputation and presentation of the film (in snippets and posters) are devoid of any conflict, making it seem a little boring—a little too close to Mary Poppins. (And almost all the remaining songs I learned later.)

And it is a joyful film. But it’s a joyful film where about an hour into the movie, the boy pursuing the oldest daughter, Liesel (Charmian Carr), suddenly exclaims “Heil, Hitler!”

No, that didn't happen.
And you’re shocked when the nun yells out “Sieg Heil!”

The first two hours of the film is the romance between a young novice, Maria (Julie Andrews) and stern widow Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who I believe holds the record for longest career playing Nazis, though not here). Maria dismisses the grieving, angry von Trapp’s militaristic rules and brings the children up with playfulness and music.

Personally, I didn’t see where the two fell in love, but von Trapp’s fiancee (the late, lovely Eleanor Parker who was an oft-cast second banana/rival) does, and machinates to hie Maria back to the nunnery. Of course, the lovers (who don’t even know it yet) are reunited and all live happily ever after.

And the Flower and I had the same response: OK, they’re in love, movie’s over. Oh, we’re going to show a wedding. OK. Now the movies’ over. Wait, they’re on their honeymoon, which we don’t see…and the movie’s still going? For another hour?

The casualness of this photo makes it seem almost candid.
They’re wearing curtains, but not like Gone With The Wind curtains.

Back before people got stupid, musicals (for all their obvious tropes) used to tackle serious issues. For every Music Man or My Fair Lady, set in the gilded age, you had a Pajama Game or a South Pacific, dealing with workers’ wages or racism (respectively). This movie, in the first part, brings up the serious topic of religious vocation versus more worldly ambitions, coming to the sensible conclusion that some are cut out for the former and some for the latter, and there’s no shame in either. The second part has another issue on its mind.

Now, in 1965, the pressing issue of fascism was far in the future—1968, 1980, 2000 and 2016, in particular, when Republicans would be elected President—so Sound of Music must content itself with dramatized historical situations concerning literal Nazis instead of the (far worse) metaphorical ones we have today. Nonetheless, in a chirpy, almost frothy, musical, we have the actual threat of death against our beloved protagonists and coerced service to a malevolent force.

If von Trapp’s acquiescence (or failure thereof) is somewhat less suspenseful, if for no other reason that one has a hard time grasping the possibility of the movie ending with the Captain becoming a Nazi, the climactic moment of the movie where Liesel’s suitor Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond) must decide whether to rat the von Trapps out or not is remarkably suspenseful. Indeed the entire third act (or fourth, depending on how you count it) is amazing for the level of tension sustained.  Director Robert Wise of The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story, whose career would come crashing down hard enough to inspire the black comedy S.O.B., shows such a sure hand here that it makes you wonder what happened when he directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Obviously, it’s a great film. It’s one of those movies that despite the long runtime, earns every minute. We, of course, loved it.

She's not bad, really. But she's not a child-person.
The Baronness watches in dismay as the Captain reconnects with his children.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Denzel Washington is one of those actors I really like but seldom see in movies. Tell a lie—I actually have seen him in at least five movies in the past eight years, and the truth is I just don’t remember them. He was great in Fences,which is a fine film. That same year saw him turn in a serviceable performance in the non-movie The Magnificent Seven, which I forgot while it was playing. Before that, he turned in a superb performance as a broody, alcoholic pilot in Bob Zemeckis’ surprisingly subtle Flight. He was also in Tony Scott’s last two films, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, 3, only the latter of which I saw, but if compared to the former, I assume would be as indistinguishable in my memory as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State (except for Will Smith being in the latter, and running around a lot).

That Fedora!
Will Smith? Never heard of him.

What can we learn from this rant? Well, first of all, Tony Scott is the star of all Tony Scott’s movies. (Except maybe The Hunger, which features David Bowie, and the breasts of both Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve.) Second of all, I think we can safely say big stars are in big movies, and big movies are increasingly less different or memorable. (Even Fences is clear Oscar-bait and far from an “indie”.)

Lastly, and most importantly, it means that when there’s a Denzel retrospective, I’m gonna say, “Love his acting. Not crazy about his films.” In spite of that, however, we opted to see Devil in a Blue Dress as part of the “Everybody Loves Denzel” month at the local bijou.

But Albert Hall doesn't know it.
Lisa Nicole Carson, for example, loves Denzel.

And it is, by far, one of my favorites of his, both as a film and performance, and a reminder that even 20 years ago we could have a movie with racial themes that was still a good movie. Directed by Carl Franklin (who’s probably best known for his acting work on shows like “The A-Team”), the movie is primarily a hard-boiled detective noir, with Denzel as a down-on-his-luck factory worker who ends up trying to score some cash by locating a wandering girlfriend (Jennifer Beals). Seems this girl likes to hang out in the darker areas of town, and before you know it Easy Rawlins (Washington) is off on the adventure of his life.

Well, one of them. The movie is based on a book series by Walter Mosley, a half-black/half-Jewish writer whose works should probably be mined for a lot more source material.

The beauty of this construction is that: The hard-boiled detective is already an outsider, he’s already hated by the cops, and he’s always being targeted by thugs. As a black man in post-war L.A., Easy has all those problems squared. Bogie (whether Archer or Spade) can stand around and play it cool when the cops finger him for a crime, but the cops will just shoot Easy. So all the usual complications are amped up by the fact that he can’t be anywhere around the scene of a crime if it can be pinned on him.

Don Cheadle is the cheadliest.
If his best buddy doesn’t shoot him first.

The plot is convoluted, the characters colorful, and gives you a slice-of-life that you don’t see in movies: the black middle-class. Rawlins motivation in taking the job is to make his mortgage, and his sense of his home being his castle is highly pronounced. His neighborhood is modest, but nice, and there’s an optimism infused throughout the proceedings.

“Ya boi” Zach, of Diversity and Comics fame has a trope he calls “Good Guy Gordon,” wherein if you see a black person in a comic book, he has to be a bland, wise, generally even-keeled soul—this has among its many sins, the effect of making the character boring. Ain’t none of that here. Easy is a good guy, but he’s no saint. In fact, not a single character in this book is “all saint” or “all sinner”, and most of them tend toward a whole lot of “sinner” (again in classic noir style).  Don Cheadle steals the show as Easy’s childhood friend, Mouse, and he’s essentially psychotic, and there’s both comedy and drama associated with Rawlins trying to utilize Mouse’s willingness to do just about anything, while minimizing the damage he knows Mouse will cause.

The upshot of all this is that even though this is a racial story, with race suffusing every aspect of the plot, you’re not beaten to death with a pre-determined moral narrative, and you end up with basically what you wanted in the first place: A high quality mystery with no small amount of action and suspense, and a great deal of fun. Though this is one of Denzel’s “lesser films” by most rankings, we actually enjoyed it more than Glory—and there was no way we were going to sit through three hours of Malcolm X—the next week’s Denzel offering.

This is an easy film to overlook, but it gets our enthusiastic recommendation.

Remember her?
The devil herself. (Jennifer Beals)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It was Screwball Comedy month at the local bijou, and once again, they started out strong with Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, followed the next week with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. (The following week would be The Seven Year Itch, which we would miss due to the annual Halloween jaunt, and What’s Up Doc after that, which we would miss because…Barbra Streisand.)

I'm so catty!
Pictured: A young Barbra Streisand on set with Grant and Hepburn.

The Boy doesn’t really like screwball stuff, although I think he’s mostly turned off by the sad, loud, fat-man-falls-down stuff of his lifetime (or fat-woman-falls-down because, yay, equality!). There is, of course, a kind of escalation necessary in this sort of film which I think doesn’t appeal to him, broadly, but even he was charmed by Katharine Hepburn and a nebbishy (hah!) Cary Grant.

In this delightful film, Cary Grant is David, a museum curator assembling some sort of dinosaur and waiting on the final bone, while being gently (but firmly) rebuffed by his fiancee, Alice: Not until marriage, and even after marriage, his work comes first and pretty much exclusively! (In classic Hollywood style, Alice is played by the quite stunning 22-year-old Virgnia Walker—Howard Hawks’ sister-in-law—but with her hair in a very severe bun. She doesn’t even get glasses, as I recall.) The museum needs money, however, so he’s sent on a mission to implore Mrs. Carleton Random (oy) to give them the million dollars she has earmarked for some sort of charitableness.

Mayhem ensues when he, instead, runs into Susan (Hepburn) who—let’s not beat around the bush here—falls in love with him immediately. In her comically awful attempts at seduction—awful enough to be unrecognizable as such by mortal men—she creates chaos and destruction all around him, resulting in him missing his meeting with Mrs. Random.

Honestly, they do it with guys, too. Put glasses on them and they're so homely.
How could anyone fall in love with a nerd like that!

I was taken, as I watched this, by how old the manic pixie dream girl is, as a concept. Here, Alice is exactly that: She talks a mile a minute and runs David around the countryside, as he is more-or-less oblivious to her charm and vivacity. Hepburn is very appealing in this role, even moreso than The Philadelphia Story, having all the vulnerability and none of the prickliness that characterized that role (and probably most of her future roles).

But of course the ’30s were filled with dizzy blondes and brunettes, so it’s not like Bringing Up Baby is breaking new ground in that regard. What sold The Boy on the whole thing, though, was the titular Baby, who is a leopard. The leopard has been sent to Alice who’s going to take it to her Aunt Elizabeth out in the country, and there’s nothing David can do but be swept along for the ride.

I miss "gay". We should bring "gay" back.
“Why are you dressed like that?” … “I’ve gone gay!” Earliest known use in film of “gay” to mean “homosexual”?

Alice confides in us (indirectly) that she loved him at first sight and made a mess of everything, as things go spiraling out of control, a second leopard gets involved in the mix, and they all end up in jail, with Alice doing a bang-on ’30s “tough gal” gangster bit that is hilarious.

It’s a very funny, charming film. Like many of the films of its period, it relies on tropes that are no longer allowed (a woman wanting a man, a more domestic woman being preferable to a career woman, leopards being potentially dangerous…) and a society where manners mean something. Much like one of my other favorite comedies of the era, Heaven Can Wait, it’s one of those films that relies on people acting mostly sane and dignified, so that the rogue or buffoon stands out and has comedic value.

Tough to laugh about the crazy antics of a couple of people in a world where everyone acts nuts all the time.

And the leopard!
Katharine almost looks like Judy Garland in this shot.

Avengers: Infinity War

“That was really good!”

Five minutes later as we’re pulling out of the parking lot:

“That was really stupid!”

I managed to NOT sing that at all during the movie.
I am evil Ho-MER! I am evil Ho-MER!

And so The Barbarienne sums up nicely the latest mega-epic from Marvel Non-Comics-Cause-Moves-Are-Bigger-Moneymakers Studios. And she’s not wrong, though her description is perhaps not the most descriptive.

Before we get into details, though, I should probably delineate where I stand on the whole superhero thing in 2018. I think we can trace my spandex fatigue as far back as X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2011, as I will still pretty game for the (not very good) Iron Man 2 and (the notoriously forgettable) Thor: The Dark World.

It’s safe to say it hasn’t gotten better in the past 7-8 years. In fact, the movies have gotten increasingly formulaic and less interesting, and one begins to remember how much of the trend began with Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer’s distinctive visions, as well as (of course) Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance in the first official MCU movie, Iron Man.

Good lord, that's some drab coloring.
(Foreground, L-R) Bucky,Black Widow, Cap, Black Panther Chick, Black Panther. All your faves?

The superhero film is not really like, e.g., the western. It could be a genre of that sort, but the cost is so prohibitive—at least given the current standards—you have only big studios doing them and they’re not doing it because they have something to add to the conversation. They simply have characters they haven’t fully exploited yet. That’s why we’re getting increasingly 3rd tier characters, like Black Panther and Captain Marvel. And one wonders how badly this is going to sputter out, once they’ve drained the culture dry.

But then, I’ve been wondering that for about a decade, and here we are with Infinity War which absolutely is an impressive achievement. I don’t mean technically, because, good lord, I don’t care about any of that at this point. (A bunch of guys programming isn’t what I want to experience when I go to the movies.)

But it is genuinely ambitious in its attempts to tie the previous Avenger films, the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and others altogether in one epic film that manages to stay under 2 1/2 hours. It’s uneven in places and, yes, stupid in others but I want to stress that a lot of the stupidity is comic book logic and comic book tropes. So, if you haven’t been bothered up till now, you should be fine.

You can tell I'm not super-invested at this point.
(L-R) The newest Spider-man (until the next movie), Iron Man, Tattoo Guy, Star Lord, Antenna Chick

It shines in a lot of the predictable places: Where the other movies have also shone. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as has been pointed out, are basically new creations of James Gunn: The originals are probably D-list in the comic books and, whatever Gunn’s personal shortcomings, he created a franchise with likable, relatable characters. The Black Panther scenes convinced me I was right to skip that movie, as they are very by-the-numbers. (People are still relating to Wakanda as though it weren’t as fictitious as Pandora, but that’s okay. It’s even potentially good for people to do, I’m just not one of them.)

The more earthbound scenes—the ones more tied in with the previous Avengers movies—are kind of a slog. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson have a nice romantic bit, but I was just so hard-pressed to remember who they were. I remember Olson is Scarlett Witch, who seems to have unlimited divine powers, and Paul Bettany was…he’s a computer…but he’s not Ultron, because Ultron was the villain….but he was very close to Ultron in nature. He was a super-computer AI named Vision who was made into a real boy by one of the power crystals, and also nigh infinitely powerful.

Both of them are, naturally, utterly hamstringed in this film. Comically hamstringed, as toward the climax when Wakanda is under attack and the Scarlet Witch is by Vision’s side while he undergoes a delicate operation (which can only be done in Wakanda, and honestly, isn’t the whole Wakanda thing beginning to feel a little patronizing to anyone?). When she’s finally drawn out, her power so outstrips everyone else’s one of the characters remarks “Why wasn’t she out here before?”

Look, lampshading stupidity doesn’t really make it any less stupid. It just feels lazy, basically. And the emotional challenge the movie has been setting up since the beginning—that the Scarlet Witch must kill Vision to save the universe—ends up feeling weaker than it could.

I have nothing to add.
I probably could’ve pulled off another ensemble shot with characters not used in the previous two ensemble shots but…meh.

But a lot of the emotional moments do hit, and that’s fairly impressive. Thanos is humanized from his entirely villainous role in the comics. The outcome is sort of obvious at the beginning, if you haven’t seen a trailer or been spoiled in the past year from the Internet.

I didn’t care, and I did like it okay, as I think the Barbarienne did, even if she saw through the plot holes. Now, time for a spoiler picture, where you stop reading if you don’t want to get spoiled.

But whatever.
(L-R) Groot, Thor and Rocket Raccoon say “GO NO FURTHER!”

The most obvious issue is that Thanos, having the power of creation in his hand (literally) could just as easily have made more resources as kill half the population. The less obvious-until-you-think-about-it issue is that when you kill people, you create poverty (because wealth is not a thing, it’s an activity). Some individuals do well when the population drops drastically, as with the poor and some middle-class people in Europe after the plague, but this had more to do with labor value rising and unprecedented freedom to move around and exploit the new demand than the shortage of people.

In an infinity of space, is it likely that the real problem everywhere in this vast universe is overpopulation? It’s weird to see these ZPG arguments from the ’70s being rehashed, even though I’ve been predicting it for over 10 years now. (Global warming is sputtering out, so we need a new reason to control everything everyone does.)

Beyond that, there are some amazing self-owns here. Peter losing his temper over Gamora being killed such that Thanos’ defeat becomes his victory, for example. That was a weird one, because Thanos is nigh-infinitely powerful at this point, and he’s being defeated by a kid who can shoot webs, a guy in a robot suit, a guy with some space blasters and a magician. I had a hard time buying that. But I had a harder time, on some level, buying that a hero would so completely lose his shtuff when half the universe’s population is at stake.

The Wakanda thing, I already mentioned.

The thing the Barb noticed is that Dr. Strange already had the deus-ex-machina-in-a-crystal time-controlling gem from his movie, so why didn’t he just use that? I noticed that he didn’t use it because “he’d run all the scenarios” and found that he had to give up the crystal in order to make everything work out in the next movie, when they turn back the clock to save the day retroactively.

Which, as a lot of people pointed out, will make the deaths in this one seem cheap. Meh. It’s comic books. You gotta do something, but you can’t ever kill anyone for real.

This may be the genuine death knell for the series, though. They’re gonna need new actors for a new cycle, and their worst instincts seem to be on the rise over at Marvel/Lucas/Disney/Fox/WEOWNEVERYTHING.

That said, if you like this sort of thing, it’s a good example thereof. And that’s…impressive at this point.

Well, it's that they won't be making any more movies, right?
At least there’s a happy ending.

Death of a Nation

You know, I honestly don’t know what Dinesh D’Souza is up to, really. We saw his first movie, America: Imagine A World Without Her, and 2016: Obama’s America—that’s the one that landed him in jail. We skipped the Hillary one, sorta. I mean, you gotta move fast with these things, and of course it was gone really fast. If the dwindling returns he has gotten are any indication, I may not be the only one.

Sad Hitler!
Not coming soon: any Downfall-esque parodies.

So, let me say, the cool things about his movies is that they feel transgressive: You’re in the belly of the beast in the belly of the beast (a movie theater in L.A.) and here’s this dude saying things you’re just not allowed to say in polite society. It feels punk rock, and rebellious, which is all pretty funny given how mild the movies are.

But if we were to compare him to, say, Mr. Moore (after whom he patterns himself, I believe, at least on some levels), he does not have anywhere near the rhetorical skill. Of course, part of Moore’s rhetorical skill is best described as “lying”—and I don’t care if it’s done through deceptive editing or pretending you can’t get an interview with the head of GM when you already have, it’s all lying—and perhaps D’Souza doesn’t want to go down that road (which really closes off the big box office to him, since most really successful documentaries are just massive lies).

Nonetheless, Moore crafts convincing narratives. Does D’Souza? I don’t know. I don’t feel like he does. I feel more like he blasts stuff out there, shotgun style, and some of hits and some of it doesn’t.

Great Doc Holliday!
Good to see Val Kilmer working again, though.

In Death of a Nation—hell, I’ve already forgotten what the actual point was. He bookended it with Hitler and Eva committing suicide on the front, and Sophie Scholl on the back. But I’ve seen both Downfall and the recent Sophie Scholl movie (which no longer seems to exist—could it have been a re-release of the 2005 movie, or am I just conflating a different Nazi movie with the identical story, including a scene where she throws all her pamphlets into the lobby?), and D’Souza isn’t going to be anywhere near that level.

I guess his point is that, like the Nazis in Germany, the increasingly fascist Democrats could take over America. I suppose so, though the Germans rather smartly disarmed the Jews with their national registry whereas ours doesn’t even know about half the guns that are out there.

There’s a great bit at the end where a black choir (which I think featured in his previous films) sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. They’re awesome, but they don’t really advance the case.

Oh, he has a good interview with Richard Spencer, the white separatist. It’s really clear that there’s nothing “right-wing” about the guy, except I guess that he’s a national socialist rather than an international socialist. He’s no friend of small government, the Constitution, or anything that would make him a conservative in the American sense. He’s just another totalitarian, but one with a slightly different viewpoint than the rest of the leftists.

Overall, The Boy and I had similar reactions: We liked it okay, but with D’Souza’s jumping around from topic to topic, we found ourselves wanting more depth.

But I guess one doesn’t generally watch documentaries on big topics for depth.

On the three-point scale:

  1. The subject matter is obviously worthy, if we could only figure out what it was. Well, that’s unfair: It’s very broad, though.
  2. Presentation: Pretty good. The dramatizations are cheesy, of course, and there are too many pauses for “breathing”, for my taste, but it’s well done.
  3. Slant: Well, pretty obvious. It’s got a very specific viewpoint that D’Souza states up front and attempts to defend. Can’t complain about it any more than one could complain about Moore promoting Communism.

I don’t know: If you’ve seen D’Souza before, you’ve seen this, in a lot of ways. The only difference, really, is that you might (or might not) be tired of it.

They're good.
At least America will have an AMAZING funeral with these singers…

South Pacific (1958)

Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger. You may wash him out of your hair shortly thereafter, if you are carefully taught. That is the message of South Pacific, the great ’50s Rodgers and Hart musical with one big, glaring flaw—and a few smaller ones, too.

Look at that waist!
Nothin’ wrong with Mitzi Gaynor, though.

Our story (based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”) begins begins with young Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who’s been assigned a secret mission to that same island in order to spy on Japanese ship movements through a nearby channel. He seas a bunch of navy guys lazing around the beach, including the head rat, Luther (Ray Walston), and none of ’em have seen any action for months. They assure all of us that “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” in one of the best numbers of the movie.

They’re held in thrall by “Bloody Mary,” an island woman that provides various things and to the men, and (from what I can tell) also uses the men (through Luther) to get things to sell to her own people. There was some sort of unauthorized commerce going on. Meanwhile, she tantalizes them all with stories (and a song, of course) about Bali Hi, the forbidden island—basically where the natives have hidden all their women.

Or maybe it's just ... it is what it is.
Of all the restorations done, I can’t figure out why no one has thought to try to fix the tint here.

Into this, we have the focal point of our story, Nellie, a girl from Little Rock, Arkansas (!!!) who finds herself serving in the South Pacific in 1943, and falling in love with a much older French man, Emile (Rossanno Brazzi). I really had no sense of Mitzi Gaynor before this movie, but the Flower and I agreed she was definitely a “top-flight honey”. It’s a very post-war look, a la Doris Day or Donna Reed: almost angelic, girl next door bubbliness, combined with graceful movement and plausible-deniability clothes. It’s a package that exudes a kind of exuberant—yet somehow wholesome—sexuality.

She and Ray Walston are pretty much the only ones not dubbed, too.

At least well enough for this part.
That’s right: Uncle Martin can sing!

Nellie falls in love with Emile but pushes him away ’cause he’s old and she’s from Little Rock (a mixed bag, apparently), but then embraces him fully only to discover he has two young children already with his late Polynesian wife. The same struggle is experienced by Cable, when Bloody Mary introduces him to her daughter, the stunningly beautiful Liat (France Nuyen, who went on to have a prolific TV career).

The blurr-o-vision is a corny, too.
There are no bad pix of Ms. Nuyen, but there are few that do her justice.

Both Nellie and Emile push their loves away because MISCEGENATION! This is a message musical, tackling a hot topic of the day, with a song placing blame squarely on society: “They have to be carefully taught!” That, of course, isn’t the least bit true since humans natively (and arguably reasonably) favor the familiar. But let’s not let that stand in our way, with all the beautiful, quasi-operatic music and amazingly crafted score, weaving themes in and out of all the songs and scenarios. It’s quite amazing, really.

Less amazing—downright notorious, in fact—is the film tinting. The premise was that each scene would be bathed in a different color to evoke a different feeling, but they screwed it up royally. The first scenes, especially when Bloody Mary sings “Bali Hai”, are over-tinted into distraction. It does settle down but it hurts a lot having that up front. There are a lot of stories about who did what to whom here.

Overall, though, it shouldn’t kill  your enjoyment of the film. It truly is a great musical and worth seeing.

So cute! She's in a sailor outfit!
Unbelievably realistic mattes, too.

Charade (1963)

The second movie in our Cary Grant double-feature was Charade, and I realized when I saw it that it represented an entry in an entire subgenre of films that is no longer extant: The light-comedy spy caper. Now, you could bring up Spy, but it doesn’t really fit—and there hasn’t been a movie that fits the category since at least the Cold War ended, and probably since the ’70s. Let’s see if I can back this up:

Our heroes.
Don’t roll your eyes till I’m done, at least!

In Charade, Regina (Audrey Hepburn) comes home intent on divorcing her distant, lying husband only to find that he was far more distant and lying than she ever knew: He’s turned up dead, apparently, and without a lot of cash that he is supposed to be trying to smuggle out of the country. Workaday spy Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) fills her in on the details, and tells her her life is in jeopardy unless she finds that cash—which she sort of sloughs off until she is menaced in turn by Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leopold (Ned Glass). Fortunately, the debonair Peter (Cary Grant, in one of his last roles) is there to save her.

Or is he?

The one constant in this movie—presumably the reason for it being called Charade—is that Peter is not who he seems to be at all. He’s constantly lying about who he is and what his motivations are, and each reasonable explanation for his behavior is soon supplanted by a revelation that said explanation was also a lie.

Kind of cute gag, if true.
I’m wondering, in retrospect, whether Matthau stole someone’s lunch here.

This movie, primarily, is a Romantic Comedy. It doesn’t work quite as well as it should because of the apparent age difference between Audrey and Cary, which I’ve heard made Grant uncomfortable and was part of the reason he retired (even though he married the 27-year-old Dyan Cannon a couple years after this). The funny thing is, we’ve seen this age difference work before with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak (1958’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle) but Audrey Hepburn’s gamin look and her young mannerisms make her seem much younger than her 33 years (where Novak’s character always came off as more womanly).

If you can get past the age issues—and the movie works hard at this, pitting the stalwart (despite his shiftiness) Peter against Regina’s waif-y wiles—it’s quite enjoyable as a RomCom. But it’s not just a RomCom, it’s a spy movie. And that means, among the flirtations and misunderstandings, there are murders. Lives are at stake, and nobody knows who to trust. It’s actually kind of bizarre but, like I said before, it was a genre from about 1960-1980.

Life ain't fair.
All of these guys, even the really OLD one, are younger than Cary Grant. And they have no shot with Audrey.

In this part of the story, the various villains take turns menacing Regina and alternatively each other, as each suspects the other of already having found the money and pretending not to have, so they can keep it for themselves. The shocking twist at the end—well, it isn’t all that shocking, but 55 years later, the lack of shock is itself unshocking. I don’t remember when I figured it out, but it’s the sort of movie where you don’t really care much. Which really pushes it more into the RomCom territory than the Spy territory.

Or, if you prefer, the missing cash—with a solution out of Ellery Queen—gives it more of a Mystery film vube. It fits in that sense, because it’s a common trope in mysteries to just let the various corpses roll off one’s back, as it were. Nobody is too terribly bothered since the point is the mystery, not the drama. It’s all sort of preposterous and contrived; that’s what makes it fun. The whole feel of the genre doesn’t fit in the naturalist/communist ideals of the later ’60s/’70s, or the ironic enthusiasm of the ’80s, or the Cold War free ’90s. And if I keep going down this road, I would also have to point out we don’t have icons like Grant or Hepburn, clever scriptwriters like Peter Stone (Mirage, 1776), directors like Stanley Donen (Singin’ In The Rain, The Little Prince), to say nothing of studios that worry whether it will Play In Peking, and I’d just get depressed. So I won’t.

We all loved it, of course, though the age difference made The Flower especially uncomfortable (while again, she loves Novak/Stewart). For that reason, she preferred Blandings while the Boy was more on the fence. Either way, it’s worth checking out.

Hard, but fair.
They’re unconvinced that I made my case.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

In a now classic bit from the long-overdue-for-death TV series, “Family Guy”, the family is drowning and the father (Peter) makes a shocking, last-minute confession. “I did not care for the Godfather,” he says. While I can understand that, the bit basically ends with “I liked The Money Pit.”

For those who don’t remember it, The Money Pit was a 1986 film from Disney’s early Touchstone days. Touchstone was, I think, the brainchild of Michael Eisner, who managed to put Disney money behind a lot of R-rated, and morally gross films that would’ve tarnished the reputation of the studio, had said films been branded with the mouse moniker. It might have just been coincidence but it seemed like every Touchstone film I saw was at least a little bit sleazy. Things like Three Men and a Baby and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Some things never change.
Don’t you hate it when I cram these reviews like a Manhattan apartment?

The Money Pit has Tom Hanks at what may be the height of his (wrongfully disdained) physical comedy years, and Shelly Long mistakenly believing that being in a movie with Tom Hanks was a good time to end her wildly successful “Cheers” run. It has a distinctive ’80s Touchstone sleaze to it. But this circuitous intro gets me to the main point: If you want to see how far society fell between 1948 and 1986, watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and The Money Pit would give you a pretty good (if subtle) measuring tape.

In MBBHDH, Cary Grant is a Manhattan ad man, pulling down a handsome $15,000/year, but living in a cramped little 2 bedroom apartment with his wife (the eternal Myrna Loy, looking as lovely as she did 14 years earlier in The Thin Man) and two daughters—daughters who are being taught to loathe capitalism and advertising in their posh private school, no less!—and just one bathroom between them. Mrs. Blanding has a plan to remodel the apartment (which they do not own) by knocking down some walls and…well, you can’t do much but spend a lot of money to make things more fashionable.

He makes a good point.
“There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” – Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Blanding puts his foot down, but he ends up being seduced on a visit to the countryside. A classic old civil war (or was it colonial?) era house that he and the missus fall in love with, and immediately get suckered into paying too much for. (The story is narrated by family friend Bill, played by Melvyn Douglas.) The rest of the movie concerns the literal building of their dream house, and this is where the two films really start to diverge.

For the rest of the movie, the Blandings (unlike the Fieldings of The Money Pit) bring all their woes down on themselves. The only time the Blandings really get played is in buying the real estate. The Fieldings are played for saps for the entirety of the film. You might think that watching people be stubborn jackasses and fools would be less sympathetic than watching a couple be victimized, but the former is not only funnier, it works better as a cautionary tale.

Learning the awful news.
Which, frankly, good cautionary tales are in short supply.

Because they’re building their dream house, the two have uncompromising ideas about what they want, even when it’s very expensive, and even when it doesn’t make sense. They quickly set aside the wisdom of the architect and the contractor and even their lawyer pal, Bill, and the sky becomes the limit.

If you want another sense of how things have changed, the first time Blandings really loses it is when he discovers is house is going to cost $18,000! Why, that’s over a year’s salary! And remember, he’s the only one working. (The final house price ends up around $32,000.)

There’s a subplot of jealousy here, too, and it’s handled so much better in the old movie. In the ’48 film, Cary Grant is stupid jealous: Myrna Loy’s not going to cheat on him, because she’s Myrna Loy, fercryinoutloud. The theme keeps coming up, as the circumstances of Bill being around while Mr. Blandings is not become increasingly awkward (socially, and how’s that for another change?), but it never goes further than a gag. I don’t remember how Pit plays out, but I remember it creeped me out.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be the average experience, but for me, seeing Blandings a few years after Pit made me feel like I’d been robbed. Of my civilization. And this is unfair to Pit, really, which is fine with a great performance from Hanks. And maybe I over-estimate it, but The Flower actually preferred this movie to Charade (the second film in our Cary Grant double-feature), and The Boy might have also.

So, check it out.

And not like "Pac-man" is classic, neither.
Classic.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

After the highly entertaining antics of our afterlife bureaucrats in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, The Boy and I left the Flower to her teenage wasteland and trundled off to Chinatown to see Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, the latest in the Chinese Detective Dee saga. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, or maybe briefly back in 2010 when it first kicked off, but the trailer grabbed me, with dragons and magic and swords and what-not.

Look at 'em scowl!
The Four Kings are NOT amused. By ANYTHING.

It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable. It was also kind of cool that it was directed by Tsui Hark, who’s been around for quite some time. (As a producer, he worked with both John Woo and Woo-Ping Yuen, for example. As a director, he’s probably most famous for the Once Upon A Time In China series.)

The story is that Detective Dee, having so impressed the Emperor (it’s, uh, fantasy medieval time period of some sort) with his service, is rewarded (or tasked) with the care of a mystical mace. This sends the Empress into a jealous rage and she immediately sets her assassins on him, including one of Dee’s trusted friends. Dee is sent on a wild goose chase as the Empress searches his quarters for the mace (leading to a clever, cute scene where the would-be burglars fall for the detective’s many traps).

I don't know Chinese deserts.
Quick! Someone is trying to steal my egg tart!

But after the initial scene, the mystery/detective aspects of the film fall quickly to the action sequences. There is a mystery afoot, but it hardly feels very important between the action and characters. The funny thing here is that there is what one might call traditional kung-fu sort of magic, with various martial artists having techniques that might, in another part of the world, be regarded a superpowers—while at the same time there is drug-induced hallucination which appears to be magical. This adds a layer of shall-we-say-challenge? to actually figuring out the mysterious aspects of the film.

There’s a mystery-behind-the-mystery which is tipped off (not in a bad way) and probably more significant if you have a grasp of Chinese history and particularly with Sino-Indic relations, as the Empress is herself just a puppet for a greater evil. This greater evil is surprisingly literalized, though the whole thing is soaked in drug-induced illusion. Sort of amusingly, the movie’s semi/quasi-happy ending has multiple stingers which outline an entire other movie’s worth of action and shenaningans complete with a series of unhappy endings. I assume this is also related to Chinese history.

Lotsa arms on that guy.
How literal, you ask? THIS literal!

Each individual bit, however, whether it’s action or spectacle or character piece, comes off as entertaining, so you’re never bored despited the over-two-hour runtime. At the same time, this isn’t great the way the Korean movies typically are, or even the way the best Chinese films are. But The Boy came out with a pretty positive viewpoint, in which he expressed what he often does after seeing Korean or Chinese movies.

“It doesn’t feel like,” he often says, “the director hates me.” And this is true, Asian films want to be liked, and if they have snobbery and elitism (and how could they not?) it doesn’t come through. One really does feel, when watching them, that one is part of a “let’s have fun” activity. Again, it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact of Chinese Communism, but maybe it’s because even the Chicoms recognize the value of being popular in a way that Hollywood disdains.

We definitely had fun, and I was intrigued at the idea of watching the previous films in the series.

And there is no answer.
They will have to answer for these eyebrows one day, however.

 

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days

In the best, or possibly worst, tradition of blockbusters, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days was filmed simultaneously with its prequel, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds. I guess they knew the original would be successful—and it was, breaking South Korean box office records and bringing in a whopping $106M at the box office. That may not sound like much, but since that was all in Korea, it’s the equivalent of a movie making about $750M here—at least on a par with (if not better than) Black Panther.

But they're not getting it.
Here, our actors pray for a piece of the gross.

We had made the first movie part of our Christmas Korean movie “tradition” (the first one was The Handmaiden), and really enjoyed the action-adventure drama of a heroic character who dies and must go through the seven hells in 49 days or less so that his guides would have a chance at reincarnation. There were a few loose ends in that movie that get resolved in this one, but other than that, you don’t really need to have seen the first to enjoy this one. (The Flower allowed that she would have liked to see the first one, but really enjoyed this nonetheless.)

This movie flips the script considerably: The original movie had a heroic firefighter who died saving a child’s life, and revealed that while he had lived a virtuous life (a “paragon” in the movie’s vocabulary), he was not without considerable, grave sin. In this movie, a character who had been unjustly killed in a side-plot shows up, and he’s not interested in the proceedings. Meanwhile, the movie focuses on the backstories of the lead guide and the two goofy assistant guides, doing that magical Asian trick of turning comic characters into highly sympathetic ones, and tragic heroes in their own rights.

It's an Asian thang.
Goofy sidekicks with poignant backstories.

This movie also focuses on different hells, since its protagonist has entirely different sins from the last one, and there is less time spent in the underworld, generally. The assistants spend most of their time trying to coax a house’s guardian spirit (Dong Seok-Ma, the beefy arm-wrestler in Champion) into letting them collect an old man’s soul who is overdue, only to have to struggle themselves with the fact that the old man is the sole guardian of a young boy about to go to his first days of school.

While our new traveler doesn’t have the worst sin of all—the bottom-most sin of the Underworld where the king sits—the sin of filial impiety, said sin still features prominently in the movie in a surprising way. There’s also great romantic love here, and a big historical drama.

It’s just a lot of fun. The cast is great, with Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day ComesThe Handmaiden) reprising his role as the lead guide. Ji-Hoon Ju (The Spy Gone North) and child actress Hyang-gi Kim get to stretch their acting wings a lot here, going as they do from comic figures to heroic ones. The teenaged Kim looks especially young, as Asians often do, but which is played to tremendous effect in flashbacks, where she is taken out of modern makeup and given a “natural” look.

No, but he's a bad-ass, supernaturally speaking.
The “house god” challenges them to arm wrestling.

Kyung-soo Do, as the new entrant into the hells, who doesn’t seem to care what happens one way or the other, has a kind of interesting role, too. He’s a tremendously heroic figure—though less dramatically than the firefighter, his sins seem particularly contrived. (Recall from the first movie that the “prosecution” bureaucrats, while incompetent, are crafty in trying to convict people of sins.) At the same time, he became a revenant because of his unjust death (which he doesn’t really remember) and his stubbornness often seems more obnoxious than heroic.

This, too, has a payoff, when the guides try to convince him that he was unjustly murdered by the people he put himself on the line to help. And they have to hide this from him until the last possible second because they know he’ll resist. The dynamics are interesting and there’s a lot crammed into the 2:20 of this film, just like the last one. Even so, you kind of feel like you could watch them back-to-back and want more.

In America, these movies would probably be kicking off a TV series. They’d make an interesting pilot.

We all loved it. The Flower, for whom this was her first Korean flick (except for The Host, but this was her first going-to-Koreatown-flick) toyed with coming with us to see the second feature rather than hanging out with her friends, she liked this so much. (Well, that, and she’s cooled on her friends who are really just bog-standard teens. The thing being she doesn’t hang around teens just because they’re teens, and she’d rather hang around her 40-something godmother.)

We actually ended up going to real-Chinatown next to see Detective Dee. But I think we had a better time than she did.

So I'm chasing confession like Tom chases Jerry.
Atonement ain’t easy but it’s necessary.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

I had long been under the impression that George Lazenby was given a kind of raw deal when he first became James Bond, having to follow Sean Connery. He didn’t get all the perks (at least not until he figured out what they were) that Sean Connery had accrued for himself over his five films, and he was apparently so often saying “What’d the other guy get?” that the teaser stinger for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when his femme fatale runs off in his car, “I bet the other guy didn’t have to put up with this” emerged from his complaints.

He was conflicted.
Lazenby takes aim at his career.

Then, when the movie came out, it did worse than even the first film in the franchise, Dr. No (adjusted for inflation) where Connery’s Bond had gotten increasingly successful over the years. He was tepidly received by critics as well, and so I thought that he had been cut loose after his sole outing as 007.

Mr. Lazenby was with us for our viewing of this movie, however and set the record straight: He turned down Cubby Broccoli’s million dollar 7-picture deal. Why? Because he learned Clint Eastwood was making spaghetti westerns in Italy for $500,000 a pop, and much less intensive shooting schedules. (Bond can be grueling, apparently.) And because a guy in a suit couldn’t get laid in ’68, and if you can’t get laid, what’s the point of life?

Those were his words, paraphrased, though he did specifically say “get laid”.

Almost none.
I mean, really: What chance does a guy who looks like THAT have?

He did, however, see plenty of action as James Bond, as we discovered. He could’ve spent some quality time with Diana Rigg, with her only stipulation being that he keep it zipped otherwise while they were on set. (No doing the rest of the cast or crew, in other words.) It was kind of a cute story, in a sleazy ’60s way, because he impressed her by beating someone at chess—a smart someone, as I recall. (I don’t think it was Rigg herself but it was someone who had beaten her, if I recall correctly. Someone should be pumping Lazenby for all his stories, because…wow.) He doesn’t say how long it was between that and Rigg walking in on him with one of the stage crew, but I think not very.

The thing to keep in mind is that he was having more sex than most mortal men even as James Bond, but—I mean, read what I’m writing, here: He stopped being James Bond because being James Bond cramped his style, sexually speaking.

So I don’t feel bad for him any more. He chose his life, big time, and there were some great adventures he had along the way which involve sex, sailing, hurricanes, more sex, being broke, Bruce Lee, sex with “the staff” at hotels when you were too broke to get a room, etc. He didn’t go quietly into domestic life, getting “caught” by a woman who assured him she couldn’t get pregnant, but he seems to think his kids are pretty cool.

Yowza.
I actually prefer “The Avengers” Diana Rigg to OHMSS Diana Rigg, but who are we kidding?

And I haven’t gotten into the movie at all, which is the longest of the pre-Craig movies. And much like Goldfinger, it’s pretty spectacular, comic-book-y stuff with amazing stunts and effects, and the rear-projection stuff kills the suspension of belief even harder than it did in Connery’s ’64 outing.

The plot is suitably wacky, with Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas in this outing) holding the world for ransom. He’s going to destroy entire species of grains unless the world meets his demand: to be forgiven all his crimes and granted legitimacy. OK, looking pretty super-villain-ny, but can we amp it up a bit? Yes we can: His chosen vectors for this naughtiness are a bevvy of nubile international beauties who have come to his “behavior modification clinic” to be hypnotized and programmed to loose the agent (germ, or whatevs) in their home country.

Bond, posing as a suspiciously flamboyant expert in history (so Blofeld can claim his noble roots), ends up banging two of those ladies, which blows his cover and results him being imprisoned in Blofeld’s castle. Meanwhile he a complicated relationship with his femme fatale (Rigg, of course) that, if memory serves, had advanced to the engagement stage while he’s doing these other girls in the castle.

Hey, he’s on the job. You do what you have to, or you do what you don’t have to and what will threaten the mission if it means getting in bed with the chippies.

Randy beggar.
No sacrifice too great for Queen and country.

It’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and often places in the top 5 of pre-Craig Bonds, though I felt it came up a little short next to Goldfinger, which is tight. It’s often praised for attempting a serious relationship with Bond, but I can’t honestly say any of it felt particularly deep, and it’s all over pretty abruptly. Lazenby’s good, though.

The Flower did not attend, because she didn’t think she’d be able to adapt after Goldfinger. And, honestly, it took me a good 40 minutes or so to stop thinking, “That’s not Bond!” The Boy and His Girl liked it, however, and had a good time at the Q&A with Lazenby. Things are still fun in the Bond universe at this point. Connery would return for one outing in ’71 after which he thought (at 41!) he was far too old for the role, and then things would descend into camp with Roger Moore—three years older than Connery—and whatever the Dalton years were, before coming to crashing halt in the increasingly politically correct ’90s.

We didn’t see any of those, though I did notice the theater picked the best movies of those three eras (The Spy Who Loved Me, Licence To Kill, Goldeneye). I was modestly interested but I couldn’t really sell the kids and I wasn’t motivated enough to make the drive alone.

Telly, lookin' suave.
Behind the scenes with the two finalists in “The ’60s goofiest fashions” competition.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The second feature on our Monroe double bill—and the second smash hit for Marilyn in 1953, was the iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In fact, prior to a certain election, Dorothy and Lorelei were Little Rock, Arkansas’ most iconic exports. I was bemused by the theme of the double feature (How To Marry A Millionaire being the previous entry) which I described as “Sympathy for the Gold-digger.” But more on that in a moment.

Homina-homina-homina!
You almost can’t blame Bill, if this is what he grew up around.

Our heroines are of two decidedly different temperaments with the athletic, aggressive Dorothy (Jane Russell) being more about male pulchritude and the sweet but highly-focused Lorelei seeing marrying a rich man as the only sensible approach a girl can take. Lorelei has her hooks in the nebbishy Gus, Jr. (Tommy Noonan) and is genuninely warm and affectionate toward him…but Lorelei is also warm and affectionate to any man with a lot of money.

The girls have a show where they sing and dance exposition, so this is a musical where almost all the music has a rational-esque explanation. Russell has one number, “Isn’t Anyone Here For Love?” in a gym full of beefy dudes that doesn’t make sense as merely an ambient outbreak of song-and-dance, unless it was that kind of cruise.

The Flower points out that they may not ALL have been gay.
They’re here for love, honey, but not the kind you can give.

Anyway, Lorelei ends up going overseas to get away from Gus, Jr., who himself can’t break free of his suspicious, controlling father’s grasp, and the second act of the movie takes place on a cruise ship. She meets “Piggy”, a diamond king, and seduces away his wife’s tiara from him. But the suspicious Gus, Sr. has hired a detective (Elliot Reid) to keep on an eye on her—or more accurately to get evidence against her, and he snaps some compromising (if perhaps unfair) photos.

Lorelei and Dorothy scheme to get the evidence back, said scheme itself complicated by Dorothy’s attraction to the dick.

Indeed.
“If we can’t empty his pockets between us, then we’re not worthy of the name Woman.”

By the time the girls arrive in Paris, they end up penniless, under suspicion by the law and, worst of all, broken-hearted.  The do find success in a suspiciously large Paris nightclub, though.

It all works out for the best, as it must, but there is a terrific moment at the end when Lorelei confronts Gus, Sr. He claims she’s interested in Juniors money, and she retorts that that’s ridiculous, since Junior doesn’t have any money. She’s interested in Gus, Senior’s money! He’s appalled but that’s when she lays it out for him:

Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?

One thing they understood very well in the ’50s and (all prior history really), was that a woman can use her looks to “trade up”, socioeconomically speaking. The theme of both movies was that a woman of charm does herself a disservice by settling for a guy who’s going nowhere. It’s not for every woman. But neither is it some necessarily mercenary task. The vast landscape of civilization shows marriage as being a decision of trade-offs, and often the ones most “passionately in love” are the ones whose relationships fizzle out. (By survey, arranged marriages do better than those where the two people choose for themselves. That probably says nothing good about humans, but there it is.)

I submit they understood the realities of life back then, and also the distinction between marrying just for money versus taking the entire future life ahead into consideration when making decisions that impact that whole life.

Anyway, however anyone felt about the plot or the politics of it, they made a great movie. Monroe and Russell are both dazzling. The dance numbers are fun. The costumes won The Flower’s approval. There are a lot of good, wacky set pieces, in that ’50s style. We loved it.

And Marilyn was far more appealing in motion than in stills.
Iconic.

Goldfinger (1964)

One of the problems with the Laemmle’s theme months is that they often open with a classic. Like “Military May” began with The Dirty Dozen and of course couldn’t top that. (I missed that one, but The Flower was subsequently disappointed by M*A*S*H, e.g., because as she said, “The Dirty Dozen was great!” (And after M*A*S*H—heh—they showed PlatoonStripes and Three Kings.) When you’re having a Shaken, Not Stirred month celebrating James Bond, and you go in chronological order, you are begging for exactly this problem.

And you might as well pack it in after Goldfinger, often regarded as the best of the Bonds.

Huh.
Google Search’s “best guess” for this is “Quantum of Solace Dead Girl”.

This time around, 007 (Sean Connery, in his third outing) is investigating the nefarious Goldfinger! (You have to say it like that after hearing Shirley Basset sing the lurid theme song: Goldfingeeerrrr!) Goldfinger apparently has a gold smuggling racket, a penchant for cheating at cards and a nasty, murderous temper. As Bond travels the world (as he always must) his investigations reveal that Goldfinger is no ordinary villain—but a supervillain!

As we learned in Megamind, the difference between a villain and a supervillain is: style!

Not content with mere smuggling and hoarding of gold, Goldfinger has decided he’s going to take Fort Knox! Preposterous, as Bond points out, because all the gold in Fort Knox has been gone for years! No, wait, that would be if they did the story today. But seriously: It’s a fort, so you can’t get in. And if you could get in, you couldn’t get the gold out. But that’s not Goldfinger’s plan at all, no, he’s going to irradiate the gold! Thus removing it from the market and making his own gold more valuable.

Jowly!
I suspect that, more than gold, he loves carbs.

Which, when you think about it, means he’s less about loving gold—you don’t render something you love untouchable for decades, do you?—and more about being rich, but whatever. He’s the one with the super-elite squad of super-model fighter pilots, so who’s going to argue with him? Maybe you’d like to take it up with his ginormous, deadly-hat-throwing Korean wrestler, Oddjob? No? OK, then.

Also, to do this, he’s going to kill a lot of people. Not just with radiation but with poison gas that will allow him to get the dirty bomb into Fort Knox. And he’s involved the surprisingly gullible leaders of the American mafia somehow.

His super-elite squad of pilot-honeys are led by Pussy Galore, played by the inimitable Honor Blackman, late of the BBC spy show, “The Avengers”. (Sort of amusingly, the next week’s film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would feature Diana Rigg—also late of “The Avengers”—as the love interest.) She’s got a back story and doesn’t just roll over for Bond, at least not right away!

She offered her honor, he honored her offer, and all night long he was on her and off her.
Honor Guard

I should note, however, that Bond literally seduces his way out of trouble in this one. I don’t mean a come-hither-look-to-the-sexy-gaoler-so-he-can-get-the-keys kind of seduction, either. No, this is a lot more elaborate.

It’s goofy, goofy stuff. And I’m generally not a Bond fan. They all sort of run together in my head. (About six times while writing this, I had to erase something because I had it confused with OHMSS.) But there is something to seeing this on the big screen and enjoying its adventurousness and unabashed heterosexuality. It’s just fun. There’s no complex moral question being raised, just good vs. evil, and we all know who is who. (Even Pussy, who is closely associated with Goldfinger, is good at heart, and we all know that.)

As such, it rises and falls on its production values. The actors are likable, but hardly straining themselves dramatically. The sets are beautiful and appropriately over-elaborate. (Goldfinger’s HQ “war-room” being a great example.) The gadgets (including the now infamous ejector seat in the Jag) are fun. There’s never a bad reason to have a good-looking woman around. The action scenes are excellent—except that the rear projection technique sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a little jarring now to have the very practical effects interspersed with something that was end-of-life back in ’64.

I can't remember now if he's a Korean guy playing Japanese, or the other way around...
Honestly, who throws a hat?

It’s a good time. In some ways, it reminds me of From Dusk Till Dawn, which we would saw the month before (as part of the “Down Mexico Way” theme): It’s just fun, spectacle, sex and unpretentious fantasy, three of which are missing from the current Bonds. (There’s still spectacle, but the fantasy pretends to reality.)

The Boy missed it, and regretted it muchly, while The Flower just loved it. While she’s not a big fan of the ’60s, she does appreciate the fashion and appreciation of feminine pulchritude. She would subsequently demur on all Bond films: To her, Bond was Sean Connery, and she was concerned that even his other entries into the Franchise wouldn’t live up to this.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

While I am not a fan of “you ruined my childhood!” as a lamentation, it is possible to ruin something retroactively. With Avatar, for example, James Cameron basically did all of his old tricks, but in such a ham-handed way that one could conceivably go back to his older films and not be unable to see all the strings and levers. It turned out not to be the problem for Aliens (1986), but how would Terminator 2 hold up, given its heavy reliance on at-the-time-cutting-edge CGI?

Got that from "Bloom County".
Foreshadowing: The hallmark of all great literature.

The answer turns out to be: pretty damn well. It may even be better than it seemed originally, because we’re also all relieved of having to compare to the original Terminator, which is a much simpler and more visceral film. You don’t really even need to have seen the original to enjoy this, as the Flower very much enjoyed it. (This probably isn’t true of the subsequent sequels.)

This film takes place over a decade after the events of the first (only seven years of real time had passed), and Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton, who achieved iconic status in this time period, in no small part for this role) is locked in an asylum after trying to stop the future she sees as inevitable. Her son John (Edward Furlong) is a kind of jerk in foster care with some jerky foster parents, and in-between hacking phones and inappropriately employing the various survival techniques he learned from his mother, he thinks she’s genuinely nuts.

There’s not a lot of set-up though, because before you know it, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, but with a twist: He’s been sent back to protect Sarah and John from the newer, more menacing T-1000 (Robert Patrick, kicking ass).

Mayhem ensues.

A mixed bag, I'd imagine.
How badass was Linda Hamilton? Well, she survived being married to Cameron.

The action is top-notch, again. The CGI, while obvious, holds up very well because it’s visually simple and communicates very well. The menace conveyed by the building of a hostile intelligence from millions of nigh-indestructible nanobots was very trendy back then—almost as trendy as the black computer nerd. (I only point this out because, thirty years later, people like to pretend that the ’70s and ’80s, when all kinds of minorities were mainlined, never happened.)

In between the action, we learn about the characters, which manage to straddle that line between having depth and being, like, totally super serious you guys. Like, Sarah is a bad-ass in this—in a lovely contrast from her previous, more damsel-in-distress role—but John never hesitates to slap her down (metaphorically) when she gets all apocalyptic and preachy. To Furlong’s great credit (and Cameron’s, as the writer), John is a sarcastic teen we don’t hate. He is sympathetic despite his sarcasm and, where hyper-skilled teens are a nuisance in ’90s media, John at least has a reason for his skills, which aren’t much above mere vandalism.

And it's not his fault.
That haircut alone should make us hate him.

Arnold manages to emote while doing nothing detectable at all. It’s not that easy, when you think about it.

The rules governing Patrick’s behavior are a lot looser. He’s allowed (“programmed”, or whatever) to feign human emotion, so he comes off as chillingly sociopathic. Also, since he typically plays above his actual age (he turns 60 in November), it’s sort of surprising how young and handsome he looks here (at 33).

But when you get down to it, what this movie has that future Cameron movies wouldn’t have is a character like John: Someone to slap it down when it went too far up its own ass. That is to say: Terminator works because it is deadly earnest about what it is: An excellent sci-fi action flick with just enough resonance to feel a little deeper than it actually is. (The big peril, mind, is Artificial Intelligence, that boogeyman of sci-fi going back to before Asimov’s bubble-gum robot stories, and which presents itself as a new peril to every generation, apparently.)

You can be a black computer nerd, but you still have to die.
They’re like the three musketeers, if one of the musketeers was about to die.

It’s deadly earnest about being entertaining, in other words, without being too serious about its “message”. Its message is in the mouth of its heroine, Sarah, who herself realizes that she’s a little over the top sometimes.

Years ago, when Chuck Jones’ biography Chuck Amuck came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, you hated these producers, and they were surely uncreative dunderheads…but your genius emerged from fighting these guys.” It’s a common refrain in art. The greatest art has a form which is somehow limiting, often severely so, and the smartest artists realize this. (Robert Frost and his “tennis without a net”, Schoenberg objecting, rightly, to his 12-tone system being “free”, etc.)

But Hollywood, especially post-studio-system, is geared to tell successful directors that they can do no wrong. Go ahead and make a movie about a super-powered alien and a bat-themed vigilante that only makes sense in a three-hour cut? Two hours and ten minutes about a sexually ambiguous dressmaker? A space opera but without any heroics? You’re the one with the vision, boss!

Something like Terminator 2 is a truly rare beast these days: It’s a big-budget action flick with a very distinctive auteur, that never stops being fun.

He's a robot, see.
I like how Patrick never looks more than slightly put out by anything.

The Cakemaker

It had been a while since we’d seen an Israeli film, which was our staple before we switched to classics and Asian cinema, and this film The Cakemaker was getting the good buzz and hanging around, so we trundled off to see it. It had also been a while since we’d seen a gay movie, and this one was, yeah, really gay. But it’s Israeli, so it’s also moody and conflicted about the whole thing. And mostly not slanted, which makes things a lot more bearable.

A man in Berlin buys pastry for his wife back home in Israel. He chats up the baker with long, lingering looks and—”I’ve made a terrible mistake” pops into my head. But as the two lean in to kiss, fade to black. Cut to a year later, the two are hanging out in the German baker’s apartment, and we learn the two have been spending time together consistently whenever Oren (the Israeli) comes to town. He always goes home, but he always comes back.

Until he doesn’t.

Look at that. Yum.
And it’s not due to the pastry.

The story kicks off because our baker, Thomas, is completely bereft. He calls constantly. He finally goes so far as to return some property to the business where Oren works, only to find out that he has died. This does not improve Thomas’ emotional state, as you might imagine, and before you know it, Thomas has booked a flight to Israel.

Now, this is the sort of thing that, were you Thomas’ friend, you would strongly dissuade him from doing. But Thomas has no friends—had no friend but Oren, and so off he goes to track down Oren’s wife. This is also the sort of thing from which you would believe, rightly, that no good can come from. However, this is a movie, and…well, it’s still hard to say whether anything good comes from this. Even the movie punts.

Basically Thomas ends up working with Oren’s wife, Anat, who runs an unsuccessful dodgy little café that has scored a big win in being certified Kosher (the dodgy part being that she’s not really sincere or careful). As a newly single mom, she’s often having to close up the shop for maternal reasons, and Thomas is there enough to eventually score a job.

A LOT.
There’s a lot of baking in this film.

This leads to some difficulties, as he isn’t aware of the Kosher rules, and some Israelis are (shockingly!) suspicious of Germans. Ultimately, though, Thomas is such the consummate baker that the shop quickly gains a reputation for its highly distinctive baked goods. (This distinctiveness is going to lead to issues later on when Anat’s suspicions are in need of confirmation.)

Things get as complicated as you might imagine, and then some, because on top of the usual stuff you’d expect, there is a fascinating question of religion and godliness thrown in. Anat wants the benefits of being Kosher, but she wants nothing to do with the responsibilities. And as we’ve seen before, often and recently, the Israelis are not afraid to show secular people floundering with loss and grief, when they lack the support of their community. Which isn’t to say that the movie takes a side: Nobody’s suggesting anyone should change any behavior, no matter how destructive it is.

Which, heh.

Oy.
Pictured: Complications

Anyway, it’s a pretty good melodrama. There is a homosexual sex scene around the end of the second act which, I think, is meant to prove that the boys are really, really gay. I mean, in the current ZPG zeitgeist, heterosexuality is never the answer, and this fits in well with that, with no other real purpose. The movie had established both that Oren and Thomas were sincerely gay, and also that they occasionally fell off the wagon. (I think that’s an appropriate phrasing for the ZPG zeitgeist: Any sex anyone has that might result in a child is a mistake.)

We did all like it, though. The Flower loved the baking scenes (which are quite nice) and looked away during teh gay sex. I did not recommend it to my mom—who otherwise might have enjoyed it for the baking, and it’s definitely over-rated on Rotten Tomatoes. But if that’s not a deal-breaker for you, and you want to see a modestly paced complex drama, it’s worth a look.

I kinda don't think so.
But is it Kosher?

Three Identical Strangers

Probably the most horrifying thing about the Nazis is the fact that, no matter how much some try to cover it up, the philosophy itself (or some variation) seems to be the inevitable consequence of progressivism. It’s all very well to say “Never Again” with regard to the Jews—and it’s much easier to say than to actually enforce, as we see in Europe and increasingly in the U.S.—and then to neglect the Tutus, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Christians in China, the Middle East and elsewhere, and of course all the populations who stand against Communists when they come to power.

There’s a curious moment in this movie where the filmmakers track down a woman involved in this fairly horrific, dehumanizing experiment and she reveals that both she and the doctor in charge were kept in camps during WWII. As we walk by her photos with prominent left-wing politicians (e.g., the Obamas and Clintons) we are treated to an excuse that sounds much like Eichmann’s: Why, she was barely involved in this experiment and only for a little while.

The story behind Three Identical Strangers is one that goes from wondrous to weird to horrifying, and if you remember it (as I do) you probably never got past the “weird” phase. That is, the three men involved sort of dropped out of the media limelight before we learned the horrifying aspects of it. Basically, you have the story of a guy who goes to college his freshman year and discovers that he’s well known and very popular—but everyone is calling him by the wrong name.

I only remember Savitch because she died, TBH.
With Jessica Savitch. No, wait, with Jane Pauley. OK, I don’t remember.

After a short while of this, a clever third party puts the pieces together and the two boys go to visit what turns out to be mysteriously-popular-boy’s identical twin, adopted from an early age. Well, that’s exciting and the two compare notes and hit it off and make the local news. But they aren’t long in the local news before the story is seen by their identical triplet!

The amazing story skyrockets the trio into fame, fortune, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (and as we all know that story seldom ends well).

A cursory grilling of the adoption agency reveals a furtive “Oh, we always separated twins so that they’d be more likely to adopt,” an excuse that sounds plausible but of course pisses off the parents who would’ve adopted all three of the boys.

All’s well that ends well, right? The boys are happy discovering their similarities and that, despite their different upbringings, they have a tremendous amount in common. Weird, though, that one was adopted by a working class couple, one by a middle-class couple and one by a wealthy couple. Weird also that they each have an older sister. And further, that each was visited year after year by an evaluator who gave them IQ tests and monitored their behavior.

Almost like it was all arranged from the get go.

Yeah, it just gets creepier and creepier. Quite apparently, the adoption agency in question was working with psychs (-iatrists and/or -ologists) conducting experiments on identical siblings by placing them in different environments. They find an evaluator who also gives the “I was barely involved” excuse though they manage to break that one down. We begin to detect some shame in him, especially as we look back over what he did know and could have easily prevented simply by telling the parents.

I am disinclined to blame all the boys’ problems on this nefarious experiment. Although it didn’t help, the hedonistic life-style of the early ’80s was probably not the best for, well, anyone but least of all some young men who had a family history of emotional instability. At one point the moviemakers try to find out whether or not the study specifically targeted those with a history of emotional issues, but the details (and results) of the study are tightly controlled by The Powers That Be. (Also, you’re at an adoption agency. The odds are higher than average that such issues are going to exist, I should think.)

Is that a thing? It should be a thing.
I’m more likely to blame The Madonna Curse than anything.

On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Interesting, worthwhile, but ultimately soaked in a kind of futility.
  2. Presentation. Simple and straightforward. If you remember things like “Donahue” and Studio 54, the stock footage is kind of fun.
  3. Slant. I’m gonna call this one pretty “flat”: Obviously there’s an advocacy for the triplets (and the other separated twins who suffered under these experiments) and general lament about transparency, but it’s largely politics-free and doesn’t lionize or demonize anyone.

The aforementioned futility (point 1) comes from the lack of transparency (point 3) and the fact that they can’t get any answers about what was going on. But even more, the idea that there could be any answers from a study like this reminds me of the (incredibly stilted) arguments that were popular a decade or two ago: If the Nazis learned something from their experiments on their victims, is it wrong to use that information?

First of all, no, that’s dumb, knowledge is knowledge, and we aren’t so bloody smart that we can afford to throw any of it away.

Second of all, it’s even dumber because there’s absolutely no way to trust anything the Nazis said about what they were doing.

In this case, though, you have one of the typically dumb, non-scientific premises of psychs, which is that “if we separate twins at birth, we can measure the impact of environment versus hereditary.” Oh, you can, huh? What about the 9 months that the two of them spent in utero? You know, the nine most important months in an organism’s life? Not only is there a huge environmental impact there, it’s different depending on the twin and probably even more exaggeratedly different with a triplet.

It’s D.O.A. It can teach nothing.

The old Jewish lady who apparently internalized Nazism, on the other hand, she had it all figured out: “You haff no free will! Sorry!” And this is always the end game of progressivism: You have no free will, and therefore you need them to control you. You know, like they did with these three guys.

Check it out.

Life, I mean.
It doesn’t always work out for the best.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I was never a fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” (though now more than ever I appreciate the proper use of the possessive apostrophe), a sleepy little TV show that seemed impossibly gentle for its time (from 1968 till August 31, 2001). But over the years, I began to respect Fred Rogers as a genuine man because you only ever heard one thing about him: That he was exactly who he seemed to be on the show.

That, and he was a crack sniper in ‘nam. (He wasn’t.)

Millions of captured hearts.
89 confirmed kills.

But beyond celebrity gossip (Johnny Carson used to marvel how genuine Mr. Rogers was) which is, of course, subject to PR agencies and just run-of-the-mill slander and hagiography, you would also hear over the years from individuals who had run into him with the common theme of: He stopped everything he was doing (including trying to catch a plane) to talk to someone in need. In other words, beyond cultivating a persona of “grownup you can trust and confide in”, he actually lived that life.

There aren’t nearly enough of those stories in this otherwise fine documentary, which traces his beginnings as a minister and his concern over television as a babysitter. I’m phrasing things a lot more harshly than he did: He never says “TV is a babysitter and you all should be ashamed of yourself”. He simply observed that children were being exposed to a lot of television, and that television was very unfriendly toward them.

*shiver*
The only solution: Creepy puppets!

He never says, “The news media promotes chaos and fear because that’s what gives it power.” No, he talks about words children surely heard a lot of, like “assassination” in one of the earliest shows of 1968, and then he repeats his message about the goodness in people, and the trustworthiness.

I found myself objecting to the reality that Mr. Rogers lived in: One where children were set in front of a TV and had to be shown a safe, fake neighborhood with simple rules, basic manners, and small-C christian values; A world where public monies had to be spent to create even that fake neighborhood—and Mr. Rogers, per this documentary, was pivotal to PBS continuing at a time when the Nixon administration might have killed it; A world where his attempts to translate his success with children to success with adults was amazingly unsuccessful; In the end, a world where he was brought out of his retirement to try to address 9/11—something not suited to his overall message.

But I can’t object to how he navigated that world: With sincere and at least locally successfully attempts to make it better.

Somewhere around Day 2.
I, for one, could not have resisted (for 40 years!) marching Godzilla through this neighborhood.

Beyond the stage persona, the documentary shows us the charming behind-the-scenes aspects of his personality. There’s humor (not all of it appropriate for children) and struggle, and a little undercurrent of darkness—though thankfully nothing of the squalor which is de rigueur in these sorts of docs. The closest to anything of that sort is a little vignette of Francois (Officer) Clemmons.

Officer Clemmons is central to the movie’s premise of Mr. Rogers’ significance: In 1968, Mr. Rogers coaxed Clemmons into playing a police officer. In 1968, police officers were not considered too groovy in the black community…which is doubtless why Rogers wanted him to play that role. In 1969, on a hot day in the neighborhood, he invites Clemmons to splash his feet in a kiddie pool with him. These were pretty edgy things for a kid show.

A fabulous singer, Francois Clemmons is also a homosexual, which Mr. Rogers found out about due to certain indiscretions. Obviously, Mr. Rogers couldn’t have an “out” homosexual on the show, so Clemmons stayed in the closet and even had a sham marriage. I couldn’t quite piece this part together, since Clemmons has apparently been “out” since his divorce 1974, and was on the show until 1983 and then re-appeared in 1993.

Much less edgy.
Recreating the scene 25 years later.

I consider three main points when rating documentaries: (1) Is the subject matter worthy or interesting; (2) Was the presentation worthy of the material; (3) What’s the slant? So, on that scale:

  1. Subject matter: Mr. Rogers is a cultural icon to a lot of people. Despite having been in the target audience, I never made it 5 minutes into one of his shows, yet I knew quite a bit about him and the tropes of The Neighborhood. But beyond that, Rogers would’ve been interesting (though much different) if he had been a late night horror host.
  2. Presentation: Fairly minimal. This isn’t a big, stylized production. That’s fine for this topic.
  3. Slant: The movie begins with the irascible King Friday trying to build a big wall to keep all the strangers and modernity out. At the end of the movie, they have a clip of Brian Kilmeade on “The Five” talking about how Mr. Rogers is the problem with society (because he told everyone they were special)! The wall bit is kind of funny. The Fox bit is gross, because in the movie chronology, Mr. Rogers had just died and the Kilmeade quote had to be well over 10 years later.

Kilmeade is wrong, of course: When Mr. Rogers said “you are special”, he meant to him and (probably, though the movie doesn’t say this) to God. The overriding message of the show is service (you to others and others to you), and the relatively mild slant isn’t enough to drag that into mere politics. Still, I would’ve preferred less of this stuff and Clemmons and more of things like Jeff Erlanger, a five-year-old who asked to meet Mr. Rogers before undergoing spinal surgery, and who ended up being on the show a few years later.

I kid!
And who grew up to be Steven Hawking.

Still, I liked it despite not being a fan of the show, kiddie shows, public television or TV generally. My companions ranged from maybe-saw-a-show-once to born-after-Rogers-died, but they also found it worthy.

Glory (1989)

I am not a fan of the Civil War, which I actually found kind of boring, though it was kind of fun to hear The Boy swear for months every time he did a search on “Civil War” and got superhero stuff instead of the military info he was interested in. Dumb Marvel jokes aside, what I’m getting at is that I didn’t see this Matthew Broderick movie when it came out. Glory was part of this month’s “Denzel Washington” theme, but while he may be the main character of the story from a dramatic perspective (more on that later), most screen time is devoted to the young, essentially untried Colonel Shaw who is put in charge of a negro regiment during the War of Northern Aggression.

He can...only do an English accent.
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Elwes?

Edward Zwick was at the height of his “Thirtysomething” success when he directed this, and it fits neatly into his white-guy-teaches-natives-how-to-fight series, along with The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. I’m kidding, of course, though I somehow doubt this story (based on a real guy who did many of the things presented) would be made today.

Basically, Shaw is abolitionist loudmouth who ends up having to lead a troop of free blacks when a significant portion of the command structure wants them to fail. This bizarre situation was a recurring one in American history. Many black men were denied the right to fight in the Revolutionary War, and sometimes were allowed to fight only to return to their lives as slaves afterward. In WWI, the black troops, the men were delayed and delayed and delayed until the war was over. (This is detailed in George Schuyler’s terrific autobiography.)

Though I guess he could play him, if Denzel didn't beat him at the audition.
Pictured: Not George Schuyler

Shaw has to train them, with the help of his initially somewhat less committed pal (Cary Elwes), and they are stymied at every turn, with the army infrastructure denying them shoes, equal pay, and putting them on what is essentially clean-up duty rather than letting them fight. Although he’s occasionally shocked by the social consequences of actually helping blacks, he doesn’t really waver in his support for his men and their potential worth, ultimately proving to believe enough to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This makes him less interesting than Denzel’s character, Trip. He shares a tent with Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, and he is the sort of cynical character you’d expect from a onetime uppity slave. He’s defiant and he’s got the scars to prove it—but he’s also obnoxious as hell. In that sense, his begrudging transformation into someone who finally dares to care about something is the highlight of the film.

Best actor ever?
He’s so darn cool! He’s so darn clever!

The film won three Oscars, including a supporting actor Oscar for Washington. As with a lot of Zwick’s stuff, though, it just feels like entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes think I’m “supposed” to regard it as a more serious work. On the one hand, The Last Samurai was more entertaining, but on the other, Defiance seems less slick and a lot more heart-felt and complex. (To say nothing of way less politically correct.)

But, hey, maybe Zwick just got better over 20 years! Glory was his second feature (after the bowdlerized, forgettable About Last Night…) after all, and it’s a darn good film. We all liked it. The kids, I think, liked it better than they expected to.

God Bless America!
You do feel proud, though.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Dark night…it’s a daaaaark night! Say what you will about the oeuvre of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino—and I got a lot to say about (and probably to) both of them, the use of The Blaster’s “Dark Night” in opening of From Dusk Till Dawn is absolutely pitch-perfect. And the movie itself pulls off one of the only successful mid-movie genre switches in American cinema I can think of. (Asians do it as casually as Americans do training/dress-up montages. I have yet to fully grasp this.)

Like Darth Vader pouring water out in the ocean.
This…makes no sense. But is so perfect.

When I saw this back in ’96, I enjoyed it, but as is often the case with Rodriguez films, I felt that there was a lot of stupidity going on. A lot of things don’t make sense, not just from a plot standpoint, but from a physical universe standpoint. The speeds at which things move does not jibe with the length of time it takes for distances to be crossed. This is typically a verisimilitude breaker for me. And there’s no doubt that the big barroom vampire brawl makes no sense in any known physical realm. But I let it slide 20 years ago, because it was fun.

Now? Well, it mattered even less. It was even more fun. I’m not sure how that’s possible, except that along with skipping more important (to me) aspects of horror movies—like establishing a clear sense of rules so I can understand the peril to the characters—Rodriguez and Tarantino skip all the tedious parts. There’s no reason for any of this. At the end of the film, when George Clooney interrogates Cheech Marin (in his third role of the film) why he picked this bar, he says, “No reason. One place is as good as the next.” The only thing that could pass for exposition is that last shot, panning away from the bar, revealing it to be on a cliffside and the very top of an ancient Aztec pyramid.

Is there a later example of a matte in a major film?
How ya doin’, Matte?

Nice. And that’s the kind of movie this is. It’s sheer EC comic book “Tales from the Crypt” stuff. As such, the imagery is meant to be cool, not logical. And there is a ton of cool imagery.

Don’t expect any depth. George Clooney’s a bad man whose only redeeming qualities are loyalty to his brother and not being a pedophile. His brother is a sexual psychopath, played by Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino wrote the part for himself, presumably, and it includes a scene where he drinks booze off of Salma Hayek’s foot. (Tarantino is somewhere in between Woody Allen and Edward D. Wood, Jr., as far as putting his neuroses on screen.)

Meanwhile, fun fact: Most of these old movies, when they’re put into high-def, you discover all the flaws and shortcuts that were not available in “standard” definition. Seams in set walls, or marks, or just fakeness really pops in high def. And the actors tend to look a lot more ragged as well, too, having been made up for a lower resolution. FD2D gives us our only exception to date.

I think we can.
Can we get this scene in 4K?

Salma Hayek actually looks hotter in high-def, The Flower and I agreed.

Yowza. Anyway, the movie is powered with great performances from B-movie stalwarts like (makeup impresario) Tom Savini (last seen by us in Knightriders), Fred Williamson, and the generally-respected-but-no-stranger-to-B-movies, Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s part is one of those glorious clichés—he’s a fallen priest—that makes no sense, and actually has very little to do with the action as it unfolds, but given the existential nature of the crisis (vampires in Western culture are traditionally set against the Christian tradition, after all) it’s as wonderfully lurid as The Blasters’ electric guitar riff on “daaaaaark night”.

It reminds me a bit of Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, where Hackman’s not just fallen but downright angry at God, to the point where he is yelling at him while sacrificing his own life saving the others. (They’re playing The Poseidon Adventure in December, so I’m excited about taking the kids to see that gloriously bloated B-movie melodrama.)

I guess the point is that it’s a stylish comic book movie with no superheroes and no real pretensions except a desire to be cool and fun that succeeds on exactly that level. That ain’t bad. Our modern superhero flicks could use a lot more of that attitude, to be honest.

We all loved it.

QT can take a powder, too.
Clooney. Clooney! Down in front, man!

Animal World

The Boy and I have for years relied on our local independent theater for movie options when Hollywood has failed us, which was usual enough that said theater was our version of “Cheers” (and we were “Norm”s). And because the theater was Encino, we saw a lot of Israeli films amongst the more traditional European fare, and with a smattering of Persian mixed in. But a couple of years ago, we started venturing into Korean films, which were great, and this year we found a spot for Chinese imports. At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see).

Chinese films are wild. They’re basically the descendants of the chopsockey flicks of the ’70s, and you can still see The Shaw Brothers label on a lot of these films. But what has happened, I’m told, is that the Chicoms have some grasp on the power of cinema, and have been pouring tons of cash into their film industry. The Chinese have the sort of political correctness that results in death when violated, and yet ironically—perhaps because their restrictions are not ours, perhaps also because film makers are given wide latitude—their movies feel a lot freer than ours. (Straight up no permutation of the gloriously racist Detective Chinatown 2 could be made in this country.) And they tend to be highly moral.

And this brings us to Animal World, a delirious adventure into the no-holds barred world of underground Rock Scissors Paper, which ended Jurassic World‘s reign at the Chinese box office.

At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see). While not on that same level of success, Animal World is a delirious adventure into the no-holds-barred world of underground “Rock Scissors Paper”—and it did knock Jurassic World‘s off the #1 spot at the Chinese box office.

A commenter at Ace of Spades HQ, where this was originally posted, pointed out that the Chinese government could just be buying the tickets.

Our story begins with Kaisi, a loser whose job is to dress as a clown so unfortunate children can have their pictures taken with him. Kaisi has a nurse girlfriend he can’t marry (because he has no money), and while this bothers him, he’s basically too preoccupied with fantasies of mass murder to do anything about it. The opening scenes of this movie (after a teaser showing the climactic scene) are peppered with shots of him in a subway car, in full clown makeup, John-Wicking the hell out of monster-people.

Kung-fu Clown!
Insane Posse-less Clown

Other reviews of this movie I’ve read refer to these sequences as “fun” and “highlights”, but since they’re so context-less at first, I found them alienating. Movies that try to get their impetus from the audience having to guess “Is that real? Did that really happen?” sit poorly with me. Fortunately, Animal World leaves the fantasy world behind pretty fast for a possibly more bizarre reality. (The fantasy sequences return at the end, but re-contextualized in a way that was meaningful.)

The story gets moving when, against his better judgment, Kaisi puts his mom’s apartment as collateral for a loan to help his friend out. His mom is comatose in the hospital, and he can barely keep her from being moved out into the hall (socialized medicine FTW). Well, what do you know but that those papers he signed (but didn’t read) actually put him on the hook for his pal’s debt. It will take him his whole life to pay them off.

And this is when Michael Douglas (!) shows up, as Anderson, and offers our hero an out. If Kaisi goes on a secret boat trip with a bunch of fellow losers, he’ll have the chance to not only wipe out his debt, but actually come away rich.

Kirk Douglas' son!
Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband.

After a final, surprisingly long fantasy where Kaisi imagines himself breaking free of his captors—and when I say long, I mean there’s gun play and an elaborate car chase and yet, at this point, we’re well aware that it can’t possibly be real because our hero doesn’t actually do things—he finds himself on the boat named “Destiny” where he must play Rock Scissors Paper to survive.

The rules are simple:

  1. Everyone starts with 4 cards each of Rock, Scissors and Paper, and three coins.
  2. Each game consumes one card from each player. If it’s not a draw, the winner takes a coin from the loser.
  3. To get off the boat alive, you must have three coins, and no cards left.
  4. Coins can be used to buy cards and are worth money (to survivors).
  5. There are no other rules, except no fighting. (What kind of chop-sockey is this?)

A quick murder from Anderson of a player who tries to flush his cards down the toilet, and constant rumors about bizarre experiments in the ship’s “lower hold”, combined with the fact that a certain number of (often highly scarred) people are repeat customers quickly convinces us of the seriousness of the situation.

Kaisi quickly discovers a helpful fellow who points out that if they simply play the same cards at the same time, they’re golden. They simply use all their cards and end up with three coins and no cards. This works at first until the helpful fellow ends up “mistakenly” playing the wrong card. He quickly reassures our hero that he’ll throw the next match to even things out—and of course ends up taking our heroes second coin, leaving him with just one.

Who will betray our hero?
Friends, or at least allies—for a while.

As a real-world dramatization of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, this movie gets real compelling real fast. Anderon’s ship is the titular Animal World: A broken down society where it’s every man for himself. Our hero struggles to survive, first on his own, then with a small group of trusted confederates who figure out how they can use asymmetric info—only to be thwarted by Anderson—and then finally in the only way a civilization can be constructed out of a barbarism: By bringing a kind of law—a law which is fair and does not favor himself—into the chaos.

There are a lot of betrayals and disappointments, and the hero’s lassitude in real life is revealed to be this understanding (or contempt) for “civilization’s” lack of ethics. They are the animals (the monster-people of his clown murder fantasy sequences), and he will not join or encourage their lawlessness. It may be ironic that his solution is the very opposite of the violence he fantasizes about.

Or it may just be a way to stuff some fantasy action scenes into a crime story, I don’t know. We walked away impressed, and very entertained.

Loosely based on the Japanese manga “Tobaku mokushiroku Kaiji” which Google translates into “Gambling Apocalypse disclosure.”

Cavemen had to play rock-rock-rock, which was really boring.
Real life and fantasy blend at the RSP table.

The Accidental Detective 2: In Action

After seeing the smash hit Chinese comedy, Detective Chinatown 2, it was amusing to come across this Korean sequel to Accidental Detective—which we also had no knowledge of, even though it turns out that beyond the title and a general comedy/mystery feel, the two movies have nothing in common.

Is one even needed?
I have no caption for this.

If I can gather the premise of the first movie, Dae-Man is a comic book store owner who’s also a crime enthusiast/wannabe detective, and he crosses paths with the crusty-but-benign police detective Detective Noh during a crime case that the former (with the help of the latter) end up solving. In the opening of this movie, Dae-Man is wandering around the police department and various crime scenes looking for another commendation and making a general nuisance of himself. But unbeknownst to everyone in their lives, the two have started a detective agency. (Notably, they’re lying to their wives, and the secrets don’t stop there..)

But, of course, there’s hardly in crime in Korea, so the two are starving. When it looks like things are going to fall through, a widow comes by (with a fat insurance check) who believes her husband’s death wasn’t accidental.

Good-natured ribbing!
Start out laughing.

The two are off on a chase where a series of seemingly unconnected murders are in fact connected in a rather sinister way. By contrast with the Chinese movie, the comedy is far less broad and slapstick, though there is a comic relief character in the form of a computer hacker named Hopper. When our heroes aren’t abusing him (or vice-versa), they’re trying to keep him away from his share of the money.

Also unlike the Chinese film, we learn a bit about our characters, and they seem to grow a bit through the process, and the fate of our widow is important to our characters (and makes them more heroic to the audience). On the other hand, there’s nothing like the Chinese film’s fantastic special effects—though of course it’s beautifully shot.

We enjoyed it. The Boy thought he might’ve enjoyed it if not more than DC2, then in a different way.

That's from "Mad About You"!
End up crying…

Lobster Cop

I mean. The title. The title alone virtually guarantees you gotta go see this film. I mean, is he a cop who’s a lobster or is he a cop with jurisdiction over lobsters, or some kind of crazy mix of both?
Former owner, I think.
Or whatever…this…is.
And the answer is: Neither. He’s a cop who makes lobster. And, actually, it’s crawfish. But I guess Crawfish Cop, despite the alliteration, doesn’t have the same panache, so we got lobsters. The premise is simple: A rag-tag team of investigators trying to bring down a drug kingpin (they love their drug kingpin villains in China, which I guess makes sense given their history) opens up (as a front) a restaurant across the street from the bad guys’ hideout, and it turns out that one of them is very good at coooking—and before you know it, they’ve got a going concern as a popular spot for shellfish. It’s brisk, delightful and jam-packed, but not as adept at juggling tones as other Asian films we have seen. We’ve talked a lot about how good the Asians are at switching things up, going from comedy to drama, sometimes slapstick to apocalypse, in a heartbeat. I haven’t figured out how they do it so well, but I will note this one doesn’t quite.
Still endearing, though.
The crew is grungier than we’re used to seeing in Asian cinema.
It’s not that the funny parts aren’t funny—they are—or that the gripping parts aren’t gripping—they are, and how!—but that the success of shifts like this seem to depend a certain magic that leaves you more exhilarated than jarred. And the shifts here are sometimes jarring. You kind of forgive it because the movie is really good about making you care about the characters, and it’s funny while having a couple of the most tense standoffs I’ve seen in movies. There’s probably too much here for its 90 minutes, and the crime story is pretty by-the-numbers. I also would’ve liked to see the restaurant aspect developed more, and the surprisingly serious tone of the investigation given a lighter feeling, but as a freshman effort from the hotter-than-average director Xinyun Li, we weren’t disappointed.

How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)

I documented a few months back how The Flower and I were not really Marilyn Monroe fans. We didn’t get it, as they say. Some Like It Hot made believers out of us, and so we eagerly attended this Monroe double-feature instead of going to see the increasingly rarely-screened Blazing Saddles. (Eat-See-Hear is showing Saddles outdoors on their giant screen this year so I hope the tide is turning on hyper-sensitivity.) I, personally, have always had a hard time separating the first film in our double-feature How To Marry A Millionaire with the second, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which I am going to attribute to the fact that both were released in 1953, and both are centered around the idea of attractive women using their looks to bag rich men for husbands.

And both feature Marilyn Monroe, of course.

Top. Flight.

In HTMAM, we have three top-flight honeys (as The Flower and I call them), Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Our story begins when Schtaze Page (Bacall) finagles her way into a penthouse (or at least very high up) apartment, recently vacated by a guy named Freddie Denmark (the once ubiquitous David Wayne) who’s on the lam from the IRS. Her plan is simple: She wants to bag a rich man, and she’s not going to find a rich man unless she hangs out in places where rich men hang out, hence the apartment.

The problem is, she can’t even remotely afford it. She calls in pal Pola Debevoise (Monroe), and Monroe calls in Loco Dempsey (Grable) who proves her bona fides by managing to buy a formidable lunch for the three of them with only a quarter.

None of the girls have any money, but they’re game to the plan. There are some issues, of course. Roadblocks, as ’twere. Pola’s suitor (Alexander D’Arcy, in an eyepatch) is an obvious phony, hoping to get her alone in some isolated spot for a weekend or so. Loco’s guy (the choleric Fred Clark) is married, and simultaneously irritated by her and any insinuation that he would be doing anything untoward while simultaneously doing everything untoward, or at least setting up everything in a particular way. Schatze is spurning the attentions of young, handsome Tom Brookman, played by Cameron Mitchell—which is kind of fun because the Red Letter Media kids have discovered late-era Mitchell in their “Best of the Worst” series, which we’ve been enjoying lately.

That's a lotta star power.
L to R: Grable, Calhoun, some guy in the background, Bacall, Mitchell, Monroe and Wayne.

Here, though he’s young and handsome, Schatze spurns Tom because he’s a gas-pump jockey. She knows because she’s attracted to him, and that’s apparently sure sign of a gas-pump jockey. She’s divorced from one such specimen at the moment, and this is what spurs on her whole “marry a rich guy” quest. Her target is the very wealthy J.D. Hanley (William Powell) and he’s too savvy to fall for it: Not because he’s not attracted (duh) but because he feels the age difference, if not an issue now, would become one later in life.

Things heat up in the second act, when Loco flees from her married suitor into the arms of rich, rugged and handsome Eben (Rory Calhoun, speaking of guys with colorful end-of-life careers). All the timberland between this peak and that peak, he says, are his. But this turns out to be “his”, in the sense that he watches over them. ’cause he’s a park ranger living in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere.

It's so legit.
“Do not play coy. Do you not see that I have the eye-patch?”

Meanwhile, Pola keeps running into Freddie, who sneaks back to the apartment several times (there are many good gags around this) and when she gets on a plane to go visit eyepatch-guy, ends up sitting next to Freddie. The running gag with Pola is that she can’t see without glasses, which she doesn’t wear because she doesn’t want to look like an old maid. The movie plays this up appropriately. And in a not-too-surprising twist, J.D. realizes “Hey! Lauren-Freakin’-Bacall!” and heads back to marry her while Tom (who is clearly rich and hiding it) becomes increasingly annoyed with Bacall’s insistence on a rich husband. Even though he’s pretty hung up on her.

There’s a lot of good material here and the honeys, as mentioned, are top-flight. Now, Bacall, at 29 is really starting to show the effects of her smoking. Grable is cute, but she’s 32, which is a little long-in-the-tooth to play the ingenue—especially for the day—and she seems a little tired. She basically retired after this, remarking to Marilyn “You can have it” or something like that. The 26-year-old (third billed) Marilyn is perfect, and it’s no big surprise that they pulled her in after this for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But I could just post pix of those three all day.
We were wondering if they still did those fashion-shows for rich customers looking to buy clothes for the women in their life.

It’s a solid comedy with solid characters and a lot of fun bits, though it’s generally ranked well below Blondes. The Flower preferred this, however, both for the humor and the sheer quantity of honeys, especially Bacall. The Boy reluctantly would prefer Blondes. I…dunno. Both were terrific. And at 90 minutes, you can watch both in less time than the trailer for a Peter Jackson film.

 

Hereditary

We were, once again, without a second feature to see in Koreatown, so we trundled over to the Fairfax district and had our first experience in The Grove, a ridiculous, opulent mall opened up about 15 years ago where evening tickets for adults go for a whopping $16.75!

MoviePass may have made some serious miscalculations when putting together their business model.

Sucks now.
Me, when I heard about MoviePass’s new terms.

Hereditary is a moody, morbid tale that is reminiscent of last year’s The Witch, in the sense that it largely eschews jump scares and builds to increasingly freaky situations. It is seriously morbid, though, and not in a summer-horror way, which explains its 89/59 RT split. They should be happy with their $43M box office, though, all things considered.

I mean, it’s Toni Colette, and she’s doing what Toni Colette does best: Depress you, or at least excite your sympathy.

In this tale, she’s Annie, an artist who makes miniatures, models of things, e.g. like the family house, down to tiny details. She has recently buried her mother, with whom she had shall-we-call-it-complex? relationship with her mother.

I'll allow it.
Kinda cool, kinda creepy.

Annie is not a great mother, being very neurotic and especially self-involved, and this shows in the strain between her and her son Peter (Alex Wolff of “The Naked Brothers Band”), and in the fact she’s always pushing her weirdo daughter Charlie (the adorable Milly Shapiro, who does “dead eyes” almost as good as The Barbarienne) on her son. Gabriel Byrne rounds out the dysfunctional family as Steve, a dull-witted quasi-involved father and husband.

While Annie tries to cope with her grief by sorta going to a support group and meeting the creepily sympathetic Joan, and by losing herself in her art project, she demands Peter take Charlie to his teen “study group”, because apparently she has no knowledge or memory of what teens mean when they say “study group”.

You don't need a seance to know which way the wind blows.
So many red flags.

To say that “things go badly” is to underplay what is one of the most shocking scenes I’ve seen in a recent horror movie. It’s not shown. Instead, we see a character’s reaction to it, or rather said character’s complete inability to confront what has happened for hours and hours.

It was startlingly realistic besides being horrific. (I did mention this movie isn’t for everyone, right?)

Let’s just say there’s a lot more grief for Annie to handle, and one that pushes her into the arms of the Joan, and our first real supernatural moment.

I mean, we’re halfway into the movie at this point, and this will either work for you or not. Sometimes a sudden introduction of (essentially) magic will be very “impactful” (to use a word that pisses people off) or it will break your suspension of disbelief.

Not a spoiler. Could be anyone. Could be a dream.
People explode all the time.

Assuming the latter, and you stick it out, things escalate pretty quickly from there and go into a fairly elaborate occult plot, with a few more shocking moments.

The Boy and I liked it, of course, because we tend to like things that are different. But I would definitely say this is more “creepy and shocking” than “scary”. It’s got a nice, weird (in the traditional sense of that word) ending, reminiscent of The Witch, in that it doesn’t try to hedge its bets.

If you’re not hooked on the jump scares, and like the weird, this could work for you.

Don't they look happy?
It’s also nice to see a wholesome family dinner again.

Believer (2018, Korea)

Korean crime dramas are interesting. In a lot of ways, Believer reminds me of a Martin Scorsese film, as our hero cop chases a drug kingpin no one has ever seen. Maybe this is only because Scorsese’s The Departed was a remake of the Chinese crime drama Infernal Affairs, but I think, at some level, it’s the moral ambiguity.

'cause there are no good guys.
At some point, you have to start calling them “the worse guys”.

In this film, we focus on two main characters: The cop who has devoted his life to bringing down the mysterious Mr. Lee, and a kid who has grown up within the organization, and works as a sort-of executive assistant to Lee, and coordinates with the more ambitious thugs who do most of the dirty work.

Our story opens with a meth (or whatever) factory being blown up, murdering everyone inside except Rak (Jun-Ryeol Ryu, A Heart Blackened, Little Forest), but including his mother (and injuring his dog). Hero cop Won-Ho (Jin-Woong Cho, The HandmaidenThe Spy Gone North) sees an opportunity to get an “in”—filial piety being a big thing in Korea—and the two go off on an adventure of “catch the mystery man”.

Everybody wants to be in charge, and the hidden nature of things allows for all kinds of pretense and mistaken identity. One of the more gripping moments has Won-Ho’s team first pretending to be buyers for a new drug from foreign dealers (half-Japanese or half-Chinese, I forget, but miscegenation is a clear sign of a ne’er-do-well in Korean movies), then immediately flipping it around to play the same foreign dealers to get to the drug cartel’s buyers.

Yow.
They want to see you use the product yourself, that’s not a problem, right?

What you get from this is that Won-Ho is determined to the point of obsession, going so far as to take the brand new (and dubious) foreign drugs which he knows may kill him (and nearly do). He cares about his team, but secondarily to his goal. He’s been pursuing Mr. Lee for years, to the exclusion of all else, it seems, and he is determined to root him out.

Meanwhile, Rak, who has a very flat affect, seems to be rather amoral, but has a curious attachment to, e.g., a couple of peers who are mute and act as the cartel’s drug designers. He’s grown up in the organization, and has adopted its morality as a survival mode, but maybe hasn’t absorbed that morality. One gets the sense that he wants out, more than anything, and that, in a weird way, Won-Ho wants in.

He's thinking.
Nothing like waking up at the old crack farm early in the morn’ and watchin’ the sun rise.

The climax of the movie did not surprise me. It was necessary, in my opinion, to the satisfactory dramatic conclusion of the plot.

The stinger, on the other hand, was somewhat unexpected. A shot is fired. Someone, presumably, has died at the hand of another—or at his own hand. I think I know who, but it was an interesting choice.

Overall, it was an entertaining flick. The Boy and I both liked it. I found it less engaging—actually, in general, I find the Korean crime dramas have to work a little harder to pull me in (than the historical dramas or slice-of-life pictures), and I have to work a little harder to understand what’s going on. (The Koreans may have dumb, fun buddy-cop type flicks, like the Chinese seem to enjoy but I don’t think I’ve seen one yet.)

Worth a watch, for sure.

That affect. He was so nice in Little Forest, too!
Watch, but not in a creepy way.

Touch of Evil (1958)

In one of my favorite moments of one of my favorite films (Ed Wood), Orson Welles (played by Vincent D’Onofrio but voiced by Maurice LaMarche) laments to the transvestite hero that the studio is always interfering with his movies, recutting his films and even going so far as demanding he make Charlton Heston a Mexican! This charming lament shows that genius, real or imagined, shares the same problems.

Welles still holds the record for bags of peas, though.
Fun fact: D’onofrio would go on to beat Welles’ record at the “Mrs. Paul’s Fish Sticks Eating Competition”.

In fact, Welles was only supposed to act in Touch of Evil, and it was Heston who insisted on Welles being the director. Meanwhile it was Welles who changed Heston from a white, American lawman to a Mexican. He also race-swapped Janet Leigh, whose character was originally the hispanic. (Leigh and Marlene Detrich were there on the cheap because they wanted to be directed by Welles.) Welles actually noted that this was one of his favorite shoots, since he had so little interference, even though the film was re-cut by the studio. It would go on to be  restored (back in the ’70s, originally, before such things were popular), and re-restored again in the ’90s.

Welles suffered through the shoot carrying 60 pounds of fake fat, looking much more convincingly older than he did in Citizen Kane. (The Flower, who has a fondness for the ’90s TV show “The Critic”, winces a little bit whenever there’s a fat joke about Welles or Brando.) It’s hard to know whether the film’s re-cut by the studio helped or harmed it, but it seems unlikely that its packaging as the “B” picture with Harry Keller’s indifferent soaper The Female Animal (featuring Hedy Lamar in a lamentable last performance) helped its box office much. (Keller shot some extra scenes the studio wanted to clarify elements of the plot, while Welles was going for The Big Sleep style confusion.)

I should see that it again. It sounds too cute in retrospect.
Altman parodies this shot in “The Player” as characters are talking about it.

Setting all this aside, and setting aside certain cinematic firsts, such as the lengthy opening tracking scene and the first non-rear-projected car filming, it’s interesting that this movie is, a la Casablanca, a rather extraordinary “B”-movie. It’s very much of its time—and the 15 years between this and Casablanca shows a marked degeneration in culture—but it also cares about every single character who utters a line. (Apparently, Welles conducted a lot of rehearsals and solicited a lot of feedback, encouraging the actors to re-write their parts.)

The plot is that newlywed Mexican lawman Vargas (Heston) has put away some bad hombres who now want him dead, or at least discredited, so they can go on with their drug-dealing. Meanwhile, American lawman Quinlan (Welles) has a reputation to uphold as a guy who catches the bad guys, which he maintains by planting evidence as needed. Vargas and his bride Susan (Leigh) are babes in the woods here, with Susan being set-up to look promiscuous and ultimately like the ’50s equivalent of a crack whore.

And she can act!
If I tell you that Jamie Lee Curtis was conceived around the time this was filmed, would you be surprised?

The tension is thick. Most of the time while Vargas is out doing the investigating, she’s in a seedy motel run by a creepy pervert (foreshadowing!), who doesn’t stab her in the shower but instead looks the other way while she’s menaced by a bunch of creepy Mexican teens (including the uncredited Mercedes McCambridge). Being that it was still the ’50s, the situation is resolved in an unlikely way—that is, it’s never explained why the bad guys wouldn’t just drug and rape her, and throw her into the Tijuana whore house—but I can’t express enough how okay I am with that.

The main character of the film, though, is Quinlan. He’s crooked, but he’s going by a simple standard: He has to think someone is guilty before he’ll frame them. We learn a bit about his tragic past from a madame (Marlene Dietrich), in whose establishment Quinlan morosely listens to a player piano. He’s fallen, for sure, but in the course of this movie, he finds himself having to make deal with Mexican drug lords to take out Vargas, and that’s when he really hits the skids.

It’s all very melodramatic, in its way, again much like Casablanca. But in the hands of skilled performers at the top of their respective games, it transcends. It manages to maintain a visceral interest while not sacrificing its art.

Definitely praise-worthy, even for non-cinephiles.

At least I think so.
Welles has his own story about the film, but Heston is more believable.

The Incredibles 2

It is hard to over-estimate how greatly Pixar has fallen at The House of Gique. We view them as having produced the longest streak of perfect (or near-perfect) films in movie history: eleven. From Toy Story to Toy Story 3, coming to a crashing halt with the dismal Cars 2, and sputtering back to life briefly with BraveMonsters University, and Inside Out. The Flower, who was young enough for me to refer to as “The Flower” when I started blogging ten years ago, and who got excited to see the little white lamp jump out on a preview, now has to be coaxed into seeing anything the studio puts out. We all saw Coco, and we all agreed it was very good, but we also all agreed it wasn’t Pixar. It was straight-up Disney. (This is not strictly a quality matter. We also all agreed that Zootopia was very good, and rather more Pixar-y.)

The Boy and I were in the part of town where we usually will try to pack in two Korean or Chinese movies (’cause it’s a bit of a drive), and while we had settled on the (rather glorious) Chinese film Animal World—a movie about the high stakes world of underground Rock, Scissors, Paper—we were short a first feature. We go see a lot of movies, but have found very little mainstream stuff appealing lately, and we both sorta wanted to see this. And we both had the same reaction to it.

Meh.

First of all, they did the same thing they did with Coco (and maybe this started with Wreck-It Ralph) where some people who made the film (actors, in this case) come out before the movie to tell you how much you’re going to like the movie that you paid for and are waiting to see. It feels positively needy.

Second of all, they’re all 15 years older and it really, really shows. I don’t know if Holly Hunter smokes, but her voice has gone from a charming whiskey-soaked Southern twang to your grandmother.  Craig T. Nelson is no spring chicken either. Neither of them did “voices” for this, and that’s the price you pay. (Frank Welker can still sound like Freddie Jones of Scooby-Doo from 50 years ago, by contrast.) Writer/director Brad Bird’s Edna Mode is fine. And this may not bug most people, but I sorely felt the absence of the late Bud Luckey (who plays agent Rick Dickey, the guy in charge in keeping Mr. Incredible employed).

I mean, REALLY old.
“Old”

Third of all, SJWness (social justice warriors abound!). The Boy didn’t think it was so bad, but as I pointed out the examples, he began to see it, too. To elaborate it helps to get a light summary of the story:

We begin at the exact end of the previous movie with the Underminer running amok and our newly united super family ready to face him together! Except this is a new movie and we need a new conflict, so let’s pretend nothing was resolved by the last movie—the number one ways sequel screw up their classic origins—and let’s use the same conflict again, to wit, the Parrs are at each others’ throats and (despite saving the day) superheroes are still illegal. The Incredibles save the day from the Underminer, but this backfires due to collateral damage. (People are arguing that they didn’t save the day, but they stop his drill from smashing into City Hall or whatever, so even though he gets away with the cash, I’d say it still counts.)

Now, the Parrs are broke because the government can’t get them jobs any more. A reprieve comes in the form of a Jobs/Wosniak-style brother-sister team who assure the Parrs that, if only they wear body cams so people can see what they prevented from happening rather than just the after damage. They can use this to sway public opinion and get supers de-criminalized. Because Mr. Incredible tends toward the more destructive, Elastigirl will be the pilot, and her target is the mind-controlling Screenslaver. Bob will stay home and take care of Jack-Jack.

The Mr. Mom bit was reasonably fresh when Michael Keaton did it in 1983, and it doesn’t have to be the case that this kind of storyline is SJW, but the Bob Parr of this movie is more than just a middle-aged man looking to relive his glory days: He’s freaking psychotic, usually on the verge of a murderous rage. When his wife tells his how good the crime-fighting is going, he’s so riddled with envy, he has to fight his urges to congratulate her (even though her success means the realization of his goals).

Dude's a psycho.
Mr. Incredible in one of his happier moments.

He’s completely unable to do the house-husband thing at first. Just when I was about to check out, he has a good moment and I think, “OK, at least they’re not going to turn him into a complete boob.” Except that the next scene, he’s back to being completely overwhelmed. It doesn’t help that Elastigirl’s (already over-played) feistiness gets knocked into 12th gear here. She seems utterly unsympathetic to Bob, with only a token nod toward missing the biggest moments of her baby’s life.

The thing is, once you notice one of these things, they start to pile up fast. In the brother-sister team, for example, it’s the sister who’s the world-wise Wozniak (technical wizard), and the brother who’s the bubble-headed Jobs. The sensible Violet is victimized by her father’s blundering attempts to help, while Dash is basically  random destructiveness.

Then you got the second string heroes. Remember in the first movie, there’s a quick run-through of all the (murdered) super-heroes? You probably didn’t think anything of it, but all those characters were what you might call “conventionally attractive” and “rather idealized”. In this movie, all of the heroes (apart from the Parrs and Frozone) are what Diversity & Comics would call alt-lifestyle-freakazoids, except for the one white male who’s old and has irritable bowel syndromeacid reflux for his power. I mean, the most prominent one even sports the classic “mentally disturbed” hairstyle, blue and shaved on one side.

The black dude's nearly normal, I guess.
Who WOULDN’T want to look like these guys.

They look like the latex version of a furry convention.

Bird, whom I have loved since his early days on the “Simpsons” and “The Critic” (which also featured Zootopia’s director Rich Moore), was wrong to bristle at the Twitter dad who said his kid had trouble sitting still during the talky parts. There are two lengthy, pointless speeches that I think a more engaged John Lasseter would’ve gently guided Bird away from. At 2:05, it’s too long for woke, girl-power speeches which literally do nothing to advance the plot.

All this I could, believe it or not, overlook, but the story is as by-the-numbers as they come. The villain is supposed to be a surprise, but it’s tipped very early on, and the only way around it would be for the story to have lied to us (a la Frozen).  Elastigirl misses so many obvious cues—mind control is about as hoary a superhero cliché as they come—she ends up looking a little dumb. But I have a theory about that.

I mean, honestly.
Everybody looks fine in here!

I have mentioned many times that I think critics come out with a gut-reaction to a movie, like everyone else, and then backfill it with “reasons”, much like people do with politics. But with SJW-based fiction (not exclusively, but especially), we see artists desiring to see specific outcomes played out by certain demographics, and the stories are completely retrofitted to make those things happen however little sense it makes. This happens big and small throughout, as when Violet’s character arc shows her accepting the possibility that a teenage girl might occasionally, maybe, sometimes when there’s no other option, be suited to babysitting.

Our expectations were low, but we were still pretty disappointed. As I mentioned, The Boy hadn’t initially considered it too SJW, and he still gave it a “meh”.

The short up-front is very cute, by the way, about a little Chinese dumpling that comes to life and acts out life from babyhood to young adulthood with the middle-aged woman who made it. When the obvious climax occurs, people in our theater were shocked, and even a little upset. Because a story about a walking dumpling is of course completely literal.

And Animal World was the bomb, yo.

Meh.
The average audience member vs. me with regard to this movie.

Airplane! (1979)

Following the modest-but-unexpected success of their sketch-based comedy film Kentucky Fried Movie, Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker tied their scattershot comedy together using a mostly forgotten WWII based melodrama, Zero Hour and redefined comedy films for the next 25 years. Airplane! would be the #4 movie of the year, but only second in influence—and only arguably—to the #1 film, The Empire Strikes Back. (#2 was the girl-power office comedy 9 to 5.  #3 was Wilder and Pryor’s follow up to The Silver StreakStir Crazy.)

I’ve written extensively about Airplane before. Here’s a post detailing all the movie spoofs I noticed on one viewing.

Nobody shows up to our shows. :(
My Dixieland band named “Cockpit”.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is still amazing. We recently saw Devil in a Blue Dress, which Bernstein also scored and I noticed some similar themes. But this is why it works: The score stays away (mostly) from mwah-mwah trombones and deliberate goofiness. Instead, like the acting, it’s largely done dead serious (Jaws riff notwithstanding), and even overly dramatic.

I didn’t laugh as much this time, though. I enjoyed it; it’s a solid film and the references are not as chained to 1979 as you might expect. The Flower accompanied me to this one, and loved it.

And that’s all I have to say about that. This time.

"Christmas, Ted, what does that mean to you? It was living hell."
“…Loneliness, that’s the bottom line. I was never happy as a child… “

Saving Brinton

My follow-up to the dismal 2036 was such a delightful love song to small-town America, it completely erased any negative feelings from the previous films, as well as most memories of it. Check it out:

The old 16mm. I guess those are 16mm.
Zahs, or possibly Santa Claus

So, there’s a guy, Michael Zahs, a retired history teacher who, 35-odd years ago—in his first week of marriage!—discovered an estate sale (in a small town in Iowa!) for a turn-of-the-century entrepreneur/inventor named William Franklin Brinton. Brinton was one of these guys who, in the early days of film, would take reels of film around the heartland of America and put on shows! This is, quite literally, how the movies began out in the heartland, with those circuits being kept alive into the VCR era.

Brinton himself built (had built? was behind?) the State theater in Iowa, the oldest continuing running theater in the world, where he and his wife would put on the show.

133 years!
Not from the movie but from a Guiness Event celebrating the theater.

As directors Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherburne reveal the story to us, Zahs is revealed as a kind of eccentric, knowing all the stories and history behind so many items and landmarks and sometimes just trees. Zahs tells us the story of Brinton in tantalizing vignettes, such as the fact that his house (still standing) has a flat roof, per his design, so that he could land his flying machine on it.

I couldn’t help but feel we’d lost something in modern days. Brinton didn’t just build a landing pad for a flying machine he built an actual flying machine. Well, he built an actual machine, but it didn’t fly and, apparently, a mob gathered to watch him destroyed it after its failure. Brinton was a cutting-edge, technophile, American entrepreneur that—even though we only meet him through his actions—typified Gilded Age sensibilities.

Zahs himself emerges as a hero of an entirely different sort. He’s someone who cares. He cares enough to store cans of films and Brinton memorabilia in his house for decades when (impossibly it seems now) nobody cared. I’m sorry to keep italicizing things but nobody cared even though among these cans were lost films of Georges Méliés, the father of cinematic special effects.

Early cinema. Come for the effects, stay for the...oh, it's over.
Look, it’s a tiny man! Or a giant head! Maybe both!

As we go through the story, and Zahs’ struggle upward to get recognition for Brinton, we start caring about all these little things, too. (There’s a nice little vignette where Zahs puts his nativity scenes up, a collection I would’ve liked to learn more about.) Ultimately, the movie is a kind of love song to small town America, to American history, to movie lovers, and Zahs becomes a heroic figure on his own.

He sort of reminds me of Iris Apfel. If you remember that charming lady, she had a way of taking dime store junk and just imbuing it with her own aesthetic elan vital (for lack of a better word) so that, by the time she was done with it, it was something more stylish or just flat out beautiful. And she seemed to have a limitless capacity to do this, so while having more stuff than a hoarder, it was all organized and stored neatly in homes and warehouses across the world.

Lovely.
The Brintons, in their prime.

Zahs does a similar sort of thing with history. He finds the interest in everything he touches. In places where most of us would just see what’s there now (and just barely that), he looks for what was there—and of course there are rich histories all around for those who care to look. Part of it, in fairness, is that he’s in a part of the country that has aged slowly—big cities tend to bury their pasts quickly as possible—but the fact that he stewarded something of obvious cultural value while the rest of the world caught up to its (again, obvious) value.

We get a nice happy ending where he gets to premiere the video, and his long-suffering (and camera shy?) wife gets to see Italy (and also her husband lauded for his efforts), and the Smithsonian or AFI or some other official institution finally gets around to examining his find.

On the three-point Blake Documentary scale:

  1. The subject matter is great, though deceptively so, like The King of Kong, since Zah could just be a hoarder, except for his historical awareness.
  2. The style might be described as “staid”, but not in a bad way. It’s got a deliberate pace that fits perfectly with the subject matter and breathes just enough to give weight and life to everything.
  3. The bias, such as it is, is just one of general validation, which is fine. There’s no politics evident, though sadly you might become aware of the fact that the little churches and community groups respectfully portrayed here get approximately zero time in mainstream media these days.

It definitely salvaged an afternoon that began with 2036.

Not a hipster.
He sincerely and effectively wears overalls.

2036 Origin Unknown

Sometimes, of course, you know. You can tell just from looking at the (typically scant) promotional material. The paucity of IMDB information. The lack of Rotten Tomatoes ratings. The material that’s available looking suspiciously amateurish. You know you’re not going to a good movie. So you can’t really complain.

Felt like forever.
Gird your loins: This is where you’re spending the rest of your—what?! It’s only 90 minutes?

But, look, the Flower had a date by the beach, and there weren’t a lot of interesting options. The second feature was the more interesting (and ultimately excellent) documentary Saving Brinton. But this was about it as a lead-in.

I think it’s best to look at 2036 as if Ed Wood had directed 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you go in with that attitude, you’ll probably enjoy yourself.

No, you cannot.
And with effects like these, can you PROVE we didn’t fake the Mars landing?

Or if you’re just a Katee Sackhoff fan, I guess, as she pretty much carries the film, such as it is.

The premise is that, her father being killed on a Mars expedition, Katee runs a…a…hell, I’m not sure, but I think it’s an unmanned drone Mars expeditionary service. She decides when drones are going to be sent to Mars or not, or something. And when the movie starts she’s being made subordinate to an AI (voiced by Steven Cree). This decision has been made by her sister (Julie Cox), who is a Senator or something.

Dad was killed shortly after discovering a mysterious monol—er, cube, on Mars which is a mysterious and impenetrable CGI construct, and the source of Katee’s investigations. These investigations are complicated by the increasing (sorta) awareness of the AI—and there’s some sort of counter-effort going on at the same time which ultimately results in the movie’s only set (the room Katee sits in the whole time) being threatened by…some guys…and then breached by…another guy, whom she knows.

Definitely not that.
Pictured: Not a monolith.

It lacks a certain heft to pull off its schtick. Well, heft and clarity. Katee seems to be the sole operator of this business, and possessive enough to resent the intrusion of an AI—resentment that doesn’t seem really justified—and at the same time, well, she doesn’t seem to be very bright. She’s easily duped, placing herself in a very vulnerable condition for no apparent reason.

Even so, this gets worse, and I can’t tell you without “spoiling” the movie.

You don’t care.

I mean, trust me, the movie was spoiled before I got here.

I mean, wow. What a look.
Stop reading here if you don’t want to be SPOILED!

The upshot of Katee’s activities are to heroically kill every living human being other than herself. I kid you not. The climax of the film involves her struggling valiantly to make sure every man, woman and child dies. And when they do die, this is presented as a happy ending, because people are just so rotten.

Only Katee survives, and she goes off in her magic cube to…hang out at some remote corner of the galaxy with some other folks in cubes whom we never see but I guess we can presume they genocided their own people as well. This is actually less explicable than Kubrick’s ending.

No sets, few actors, cheesy CGI, okay music (though there wasn’t that much of it) and fourteen producers. Oh and “references” to 2001 which really didn’t make sense, like the AI lip-reading even though the people were well within earshot. Just kind of weird “throw in this shot from 2001” moments.

Hard to sit through, hard to recommend, unless you have a serious thing for Ms. Sackhoff. (And who am I to judge such things, ya freak?)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Sam Peckinpah’s magnum opus didn’t bowl me over when I saw it for the first time in a theater (with the old man, actually, as part of a western series), but I had a feeling I would like it more now, and I did. I think one of the reasons is that the series started in the ’30s, when good guys were good and bad guys were bad, and Wild Bunch‘s anti-heroes rubbed me a bit the wrong way. Whatever the reason…

William Holden plays the hard-bitten leader of an outlaw gang, to whom we’re introduced as they’re robbing a bank during a parade, while the murderous law enforcement mercenaries (probably railroad men) are ready to unleash hell outside, regardless of the innocent casualties. (L.Q. Jones has a nice, over-the-top scene as an outlaw who probably serves best by getting himself shot early on.)

Which Harlan Ellison liked, except the stinger.
Jones would go on to direct the cult classic “A Boy and his Dog”

We’re then treated to one of the gang being killed by (I think) Holden because he’s injured, and then left to be eaten on the rocks, because hey, we’re outlaws, no niceties for us, no sir.

The gang gets a hot job lead, for that One Last Job, stealing arms from the U.S. to sell to Mexican rebels, or maybe the Federales or, hell, I don’t know. In the morality play of this movie, the bad guys are the big governments, and the closest thing you get to good guys are the humble peasants being pushed around. Our heroes are good guys only in that they recognize that the poor are getting the short end of the stick regardless of who gets the guns.

Ya gotta have a gatling gun, or it's barely a Western.
And most importantly: Who gets the gatling gun?

Great performances from Holden (of course), Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates and Strother Martin, amongst others. Robert Ryan (Flying LeathernecksBad Day At Black Rock) apparently pitched a fit ’cause he didn’t get top billing, and they returned the favor by—rather than placing his name next to his face—placing his name next to a horse’s ass.

There are some insanely intense moments, made all the more insane by the director’s well known willingness to pay those scenes off in a violent and bloody fashion. There’s also just straight-up solid western action tropes, like horses bounding out of a train car in hot pursuit, a bridge being blown up, and so on.

Still disturbing is an opening scene where young peasant children cheer on a bunch of ants taking down a pair of much larger beetles. A metaphor, presumably, but I’m not sure for what.

It has a kind of epic feel, even though it’s actually pretty intimate overall, and it doesn’t waste any of its 2:15 runtime. The kids really liked it, too.

Dad joke.
Well, they’re bunched up here, but they don’t look very wild.

The Producers (1968)

I’m not really a Mel Brooks fan, and while I loved Gene Wilder, I was never a fan of shouty-humor.

THINGS ARE NOT FUNNY JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE SHOUTING!

You see what I mean.

Impossible to not love?
The faces of angels. Calm, non-yelling angels.

As such, when it comes to Mr. Brooks’ films in retrospectives, I have been guarded as far as recommending them to the children. (Not long after this, for example, Blazing Saddles was playing and I suggested we should see it because it was increasingly difficult to show the film for political reasons. But it was playing opposite a Marilyn Monroe double-feature, and we all agreed that we would almost certainly enjoy that more, so we shall have to wait for the next opportunity.) Also, much like with Sunset Blvd., I had to remind the kids that this is not a musical. Which is confusing, because it contains a musical. But it’s not that musical (from the ’90s/00s) in any event.

But we’d all liked Rhinoceros, and so I was cautiously optimistic (or is it cautiously pessimistic?) about this film, because if nothing else you’d have good chemistry between Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder.

Yowza.
Not to mention the “top flight honeys”, as The Flower and call them.

Zero Mostel plays a disreputable play producer in the last throes of his dying career when he stumbles across the feckless Wilder, an accountant who muses that if you could guarantee failure, you could make a lot of money by over-committing shares of the production. You could raise tens of millions of dollars and throw a play up for a few grand and walk away with the money. (This is just a less sophisticated version of Hollywood accounting but let’s not get distracted.) Since Zero has produced an unbroken string of flops, he’s sure he can produce another one by making something so reprehensible nobody would ever want to go see it.

Enter Springtime for Hitler, a musical romp featuring the wacky antics of the Third Reich, as played by a bunch of flower children and, I would swear, at least one black guy. And, of course, it’s not a couple of wash-outs doing it, it’s Mel Brooks entering the height of his creative power, and it’s by far the highlight of the movie. (I think Eichmann was a black actor, which was a nice touch.)

Bad taste?
These days, you’d have no basis for assuming it would flop.

We all liked it. The Boy and I actually preferred Rhinoceros, but for The Flower, the actual musical “Springtime For Hitler” put it over the top.

It was Mel Brooks directorial debut, and that really shows. There are some awkward shots, and some of the jokes don’t “read”, but even fresh out of the gate, Brooks never rests anything too hard on any particular gag or setup. If the jokes aren’t working for you, there’s always the top flight honeys shameless objectification of women. It’s not just a matter of having a girl like Lee Meredith in your film, after all, but having her in for the sole purpose of being a sexy distraction.

Much like Detective Chinatown 2, it hearkens back to times and places where you could do things because you liked them, and they were cool, funny or pretty, without having to weigh them on the impossibly fine scales of social justice. For that, it was refreshing in a way I wouldn’t necessarily have expected.

But they're more nuts than menace, even by 1968.
Gene still has some scruples about working with an actual Nazi.

Three Kings (1999)

When I saw this originally, I remembered being impressed that George Clooney had ditched the head tilt finally started acting. I also thought it was a genuinely great film. Twenty years later, I see a lot of warts and caveats, but I still think it’s a really fine film, and The Flower agreed. The Boy, on the other hand, hated it. And it pissed him off that we liked it. But it pissed him off because he realized he had the wrong mindset going in, and with that mindset, well, all of a movies’ glaring faults tend to pop out at you.

Maybe he saw a chiropractor before the shoot.
See? There’s a sliiiight head tilt on that mofo.

For those who don’t know, Three Kings is essentially an uncredited remake (or “update”, if you prefer) of Kelly’s Heroes, and instead of Clint Eastwood and the Donalds Sutherland and Rickles, you get Clooney, Mark Wahlberg and the Cube Ice. Wahlberg and Cube find an ass-map (well?) pointing to Saddam’s gold hoard and plot to go in and grab it. It’s a simple plan—aren’t they always?—although I wondered how on earth they were going to transport it anywhere where they could actually retrieve any of it at a later point.

Of course, it doesn’t even go that smoothly, with them stumbling over the victims of the war that just ended, Iraqis who have heeded George H. W. Bush’s call to rise up against Saddam, only to be left in the lurch.

Never been, no thanks, not for me.
Opening scene is weirdly disturbing, but I hear war is like that.

Now, clearly, that’s a shot at H.W. Just as clearly, to me, it’s well-deserved. Unmentioned, of course, is that he stuck to the U.N. charter rather than unilaterally invade Iraq, and every single attack you could level at him for stopping was flipped around when his son finished the job. (And a lot of what G.H.W. Bush foresaw as a consequence of an Iraqi invasion came to pass under his son.)

But I was fine with that POV in this movie then and now because it’s very clearly a POV. Not all the characters agree, none are shown to be particularly right or righteous, and even their individual acts of heroism are thrown into sharp contrast with the fragile reality of a post-war situation. Their attempts to be selfish fail spectacularly and their attempts to be heroic run the risk of failing even more spectacularly.

One thing was odd to me: I remembered Ice Cube’s character having a special relationship with God and I would’ve sworn that he said, at one point, that God had stopped talking to him. But I didn’t see that in this cut, perhaps because I dreamed it.

Carter Burwell’s score is terrific.

Also: The special effects, which are used in that distinctly late-’90s, not-quite-CGI way, have some great moments, as in the depiction of what happens when you get shot in the gut, are very memorable.

Well, maybe once. Just to see how it feels.
I mean, I never wanted to get shot in the gut before, but I REALLY wouldn’t like it now.

The atmosphere is good. One suspects a less than flawless understanding of the military, not quite as bad as Stripes, mind you, but not great. (On the other hand, others have said it’s remarkably accurate in a lot of places.)

It didn’t get nominated for any Oscars, though it was certainly a breakout for David O. Russell who would go on to to direct The Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, with their back-to-back Best Picture nominations. Also, he’d get #metooed because by all accounts, he’s a maniac on the set.

Anyway, it’s a good movie, and joins a prestigious list of other movies (Fight Club, The Matrix, The Iron Giant) that would also not be nominated for Best Picture, and of course those that were nominated (The Green Mile, The Sixth Sense, The Cider House Rules and The Insider) which would lose to American Beauty.

O Brother! Where Art Thou?
A lot of treasure hunts back around 2000.

Batman (1989)

The Flower puts a certain amount of weight on my cinematic opinions in gauging whether or not to go to a movie. Also, sometimes she gets really, really busy, so it doesn’t take much to hold her back. And the interesting thing to me about Tim Burton’s Batman movie is that my reaction to it today is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago, minus the hopefulness. That is to say, it’s not a very good movie, but it’s a movie with some very good elements. Back then, I hoped it would auger in even better Batman stories, and then we got the execrable Batman Returns where Burton just hammers down the point that not only does he not get The Batman, he doesn’t understand heroism.

Can't take that away from him.
Makes for great stills, tho’.

But at this point, you had a movie that took itself seriously enough to not look cheap, and to invest heavily enough in the visuals to really evoke a “Gotham city”. Basically, Burton nailed the atmosphere, found an improbably compelling Joker in Jack Nicholson, evoked an even more improbable Batman—but not much of a Bruce Wayne—out of Michael Keaton, and the rest is pretty much carried through by Hollywood’s competent technicians.

What works is Nicholson channeling Caesar Romero, Keaton in the outfit, Basinger being suitably beautiful, Robert Wuhl being dogged and a little grimy, Michael Gough’s Alfred being distinguished and concerned, Jerry Hall being hapless, and all the beautiful toys and sets. The plot and dialogue are serviceable. Danny Elfman’s score is iconic. The art direction choice to make it a sort-of-80s-sort-of-40s style both fixes it in time and still works exceedingly well. The stuntwork makes the otherwise ultra-stiff fight scenes come alive way better than they should. You can see why this would launch the (generally regarded as superior) animated series.

Serious.
Brainy Basinger (you know, ’cause of the glasses)

Some things have aged poorly: The Prince music feels like a stupid pop-trendy tie in, which it was; the rest of the cast smacks too strongly of hedging between the campy TV show and something more serious (the late great Pat Hingle’s Commissioner Gordon looks and sounds like a cartoon); Batman’s hyper-preparedness (a long-running gag predating even the TV show) really jumped out at The Boy, particularly when the Bat-Plane has built in jaws that could serve no other purpose than thwarting the Joker’s balloon-based plan; and the slowness of the action constrained by wire work. The sudden appearance of goons at the top of Gotham Church so that Batman will have someone to fight (when the movie makes pretty clear that Joker’s retreat to that Church was clearly impromptu) bugged me this time. The Boy said that was his planned retreat but there was no reason for him to ever retreat if his plan to kill everyone went off, right? Were they just waiting up there as a contingency? Does the Joker (who shoots one minion capriciously five feet away from another) seem like he’s up to that sort of long-range planning?

To name a few issues I didn’t mind as much back then.

Eyebrows. And laugh.
One of the least Joker-y faces imaginable, but he pulls it off.

Some things were bad then and are still bad now: Sam Hamm’s script, while it has its moments, tries too hard to make the Batman/Joker connection with the improbable and Gremlins-level-stupid “dance with the devil in the pale moonlight” line. This drove me nuts in 1989, but I would give credit to Hamm (or whoever) for not starting with Batman’s origin story. Then there’s Burton’s clear failure to grasp Batman on so many levels: His unwillingness to kill, for example, is somewhat diminished by his dropping a bomb in a factory and strafing the streets of Gotham in the Bat-Plane.

The idea that Batman is a complete loner doesn’t bear scrutiny, either. Sorry, kids, but no. Batman is not a Dexter in a cowl. He’s not a sociopath aimed in the right direction. He has friends, support crew, and always have, even if we don’t dwell on Ace The Bat-Dog or Bat-Mite, or any of the goofy stuff that evolved in the comics.

His first "Mr. Wuhl" show was good. His second was just an anti-W screed.
Wuhl, the lovable muckracker.

I personally have a problem with the notion that Batman is a cad. I see him as an ascetic monk; the playboy image is a front. The dumb ’80s notion that there must be a coupling was as bad as the notion that the villain had to be murdered at the end.

The rubber suit is just a disaster. I don’t knock the movie too much for it because how else you gonna get the look you want in ’89? But the poor man can’t even turn his head. Kudos to Burton for managing to play it off, sorta. And I guess you couldn’t really use tights, after the ’60s Batman. But, man, it’s…constraining.

The Boy’s Girl liked it, and has seen it many times before. (Her family watches videos, which we haven’t done here since The Flower was a baby.) But The Boy and I were pretty much on the same page.

Glorious.
This may have been the last great matte in movie history.

How Long Will I Love U

It’s an oddity that The Boy and I will see 120 to 150 movies (or more!) a year and yet only half of those will be in the top 40. The percentage goes up slightly, however, when you factor in Asian films. This year Detective Chinatown 2 (#6) was one of our favorites, and we really wanted to see Operation Red Sea (#5) but we couldn’t work it out scheduling-wise. Then there’s this film, floating around at #30: A time-traveling romantic comedy called How Long Will I Love U.

Dad joke alert!
It’s a corker of a question! How love will I love “u”, or “v” or “w” for that matter?

The Japanese love this kind of thing (last year’s romantic-comedy anime Your Name mixed time travel with body swap, for example), and this year’s Be With You adds a strong family element (also based on a Japanese novel which was made into a movie in 2004). Then there’s Shed Skin Papa, which is yet another Chinese familial time travel story based on a Japanese play.

Practice makes perfect, I guess, because this is one of those movies that’s a sort of sweet, dopey romance that turns action thriller at the end. And, once again, we see how easy it is to lose one’s soul in the pursuit of wealth. It’s both true and propaganda.

I can't even.
It’s at moments like these that I remember Lucasfilms added Kelly Marie Tran to “The Last Jedi” to appeal to the Asian market—and then frumped her up, I guess because the “Asian” checkbox was supposed to trump beauty.

In the year 2018, a woman, Xiao, discovers her apartment has merged with an older version of itself from 1999, when it was occupied by a single young man, Lu, aspiring to be a civil engineer but struggling with a corrupt boss. The woman is a status climber and gold digger of the worst sort, and she has no interest in the young man, except for using him as a prop to convince her school pals who married well that she also married well. Xiao, played by Liya Tong (who is the love interest in Chinatown Detective and has a cute cameo at the end of the sequel), just about borders on the despicable. There is a definite Chinese “type” we’ve seen in these films: The very haughty, shrewish, demanding female who finds fault with everything. And Tong plays this right at the edge of unlikability. Even beyond that edge, really.

I have always maintained that playing a bitch is the trickiest role for an actress. If she’s just straight up bitchy, she’s going to be unpleasant to watch, and that isn’t fun even if it’s true to some real world model. The trick is to be bitchy and somehow compelling, like Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind.

It's a tightrope.
He’s confused. She’s combative.

Tong manages it, at least long enough for us to get a feel for her history, which took a dark turn into poverty when her father died in a drunk driving accident. This seems to have turned into an increasingly grasping and desperate woman, who only begins to get interested in her time-traveling roommate when it becomes clear that the modern version of him is wildly successful.

On the flip side you have Lu, who is basically a wimpy dreamer. Talented, probably, but harangued at work by a bullying boss and increasingly at home by his time-traveling roommate, both leading him down a bad path. Again, this is a terribly hard role to play without it being uncomfortable to watch, but much like Tong, Jiayin Lei pulls it off. We end up liking him and wanting things to work out for him, and hoping he does the right thing. Furthermore, we know what that is when, empowered by the love of this new girl, he becomes supremely confident in his future success and starts telling the right people off.

But this is where it gets complicated, and I won’t get into too many details because it’s a good one to watch unravel: It becomes increasingly clear that the present Lu is really not a nice person. Not a good person, even. He’s cold, he’s calculating, and he figures out what’s going on—there’s a preposterous and irrelevant sci-fi hook here that “explains” everything—to come after Xiao, and to make sure that his past self takes the exact same path he did.

Then things get dark and scary. Because, you know, Asian films. They do that. It’s not quite as dark as Your Name but it’s pretty close.

It’s terrific fun on a lot of levels. Once again I note that the Asian films do not have anywhere near American levels of CGI tech. And yet, they’re better at it than we are. This, I believe, is because they’re looking to make an artistic statement, not a realistic one. The merging of the two apartments is also done with a lot of practical effects and wonderful, wonderful set design. We loved it.

I'm for it.
It’s not subtle, but it’s effective and aesthetic.

I loved this movie. The Boy found it a little alienating at the beginning because there’s a bunch of 1999/2018 time travel jokes, and they are very specific to Chinese culture. There’s a fish market joke that we didn’t really get (I could sort of guess at it) that basically brought down the house. By the end, though, we were both very pleased, however.

It’s increasingly hard to get us to American movies, really, unless they’re classics.

A Quiet Place

This is one of those movies that suffers from the hype, though it wasn’t as intense as the ridiculously over-hyped Get Out, which has a similar critic and audience split, with critics liking it about 10 points more than audiences. The Boy and I saw it because the AMC that plays Chinese movies only had one that day. (It was on our list but we’ve missed some new American movies because of the classics and foreign films we’ve been seeing, so this seemed like a good opportunity.)

Shhhhhh.
Just tone it down a little, is what I’m sayin’.

This is the post-apocalyptic tale of a family out on a farm who are hunkered down against some boogens that can only find you if you make noise. When the movie starts, they’re venturing into town for supplies—mom (Emily Blunt), dad (her real-life husband, director John Krasinski, who also directed and starred in the much-maligned The Hollars), two sons (one played by Noah Jupe, recently seen in Wonder), and one daughter (who is deaf). Something Bad Happens.

The rest of movie takes place about 300 days later, and family tensions are high as dad struggles to make daughter a hearing aid, while she’s pissed at him, and he’s upset with her. And mom is very pregnant. Meanwhile, older bro is reluctantly being made a man by dad. (He’s trying to teach him how to fish without getting eaten.)

More than you would think.
Which can be tough when there’s random old dudes yellin’ their heads off.

Basically, then, this is a family drama plus boogens. It’s a good family drama. The boogens add, if only marginally, to the tension of an ordinary family drama, but they provide some excellent punctuation to various dramatic set pieces. And, of course, when you’ve got some boogens, you don’t need to give anybody cancer or get them killed in a car to provide prospective: You’ve got boogens.

There are also a handful of very well executed suspense scenes. There is a real payoff here which make it more palatable to a wider audience than, say, last years It Comes At Night, and it’s not really a slow, atmospheric build-up like The Witch or Hereditary, so audiences like that more, too.

The deviciest of plot devices, if not the plottiest.
Pictured: Plot device.

The ending is obvious from the first post-title scene. That’s okay. It’s well done. But this is definitely something that fits in with the general “Don’t think too hard about any of this” tenor of the movie.

Some things rankle right away, like how did they get those beautiful, neat rows of corn if they can’t make noise? If sound volume falls out in a square relation with distance, how is it small sounds seem to attract the Boogens from far away, while those on a similar magnitude up close don’t seem to? If sound-proofing is possible, why don’t they spend most their time in sound-proofed areas? How could she not take the batteries out?

If they’re killed in such an obvious—even intuitive—manner, why did nobody think of that line of attack before?

Eh, nitpicking. it’s a fine film. It makes dramatic sense and aesthetic sense. It doesn’t have to make sense sense. The Boy definitely enjoyed it more than I, though. At least partly because he hadn’t been exposed to as much of the hype.

Eh. Turned off my brain, forgot to turn it back on.
The family that prays together gets slayed together. Wait, slayed? Slain?

Death Wish (2018)

I have never been a fan of the ’66-’75 era of cinema generally, and especially not of the style of violent cop/revenge action pictures—although Dirty Harry (1971) holds up pretty well (as does Bullitt (1968))—and I never really cared for the original Charles Bronson version of Death Wish in particular. Besides the very ugly violence which, to me, has always felt degrading rather than cathartic, I have a very low threshold for rape-as-entertainment.

Democrats.
They look so happy. What could possibly go wrong?

So, the original Death Wish, to me, has always felt like those old exploitation flicks where they show a lot of sex and violence and then moralize about how bad everything is and you shouldn’t exploit sex and violence. But I felt like the remake might actually be enjoyable, and it had a RT split worthy of a “Jesus-flick”: 17% from critics and a whopping 80% from audiences. The right noses appear to have been tweaked.

This was a very busy time and I didn’t have a lot of room for extra movies in-between the mandatory ones (the revivals of classics), and meanwhile the Flower’s pals were over and they wanted to see it. So I took them.

It’s an R-rated film, and the Flower’s not quite 17. One of her friends was 17, but she’s tiny, and both of the friends are relatively meek. They had no concept of how to bluff their way into an R-rated movie. I had to come with them. Fortunately, with MoviePass, it wasn’t really a problem. It didn’t cost me anything. (MoviePass has since changed their policy so that you can’t see the same movie twice, which is one of the many restrictions they’ve been adding that makes me think business isn’t going so well.)

It was a noble effort.
We’re down to three movies a month now which…

So, I joined them for the first half and snuck out in the second. What I saw was quite good, really. Bruce Willis is a very likable lead, of course, and—for all his action star pedigree—is also very plausible as a gentle spirit driven to desperation. The family set up is very endearing: You like the characters.

Director Eli Roth gained some notoriety for the extremity of violence/gore in his earlier pictures (like Cabin Fever and Hostel), but barring one scene in Hostel 2 I have never felt like he was doing “torture porn”: That is, the audience is squarely on the side of the victims in most cases, and not meant to enjoy or empathize with the villains. The problem (for me) with the original movie is that the violence is long enough and explicit enough for me to believe director Michael Winner meant for it to be titillating more than horrifying. (Death Wish 3, and Marina Sirtis’ relation of her experiences on that, sort of back me up.)

Well, except for the whole sexual abuse thing, but that seems to be a constant.
These girls don’t know how lucky they are.

Roth’s treatment of The Incident that leads to the ultimate vigilantism is much more sensitive—even nuanced. The guys breaking in are just looking for money, but there’s Worse Guy who, upon finding the wife and daughter, wants to rape them. Roth contrives the situation to avoid that, and for that I thank him. (Assault and murder is plenty bad in my book.)

Then we get Willis with the blues, and Willis is very good at that. Again, for all his action star background, he’s got a good Everyman quality to him which, I can only imagine, makes the revenge aspect of the film more satisfying.

I can only imagine because, well, I had to go. I checked out right before he gets a gun. And I was out of town and completely tied up when it went out of theaters, so I never did see the end. The critics did a good job of torpedoing this, I’d say, as much less well-received movies (Wrinkle In Time has 30%s) are still sputtering along.

The girls all liked it, though. And they’re very nice teen girls who, between them, have wide and largely disparate tastes. (The Flower only discusses politics and religion with them, because music talk gets too heated, and they don’t see a lot of movies.)

I suspect this movie will do better streaming, might even be a sleeper.

Which I think gets harder as an actor gets older.
Plus, Vincent D’onofrio seems to have lost a lot of his Magnificent 7 weight!

Stripes (1981)

At some point, I’m sure I mentioned this movie…well, somewhere online. But when they say “The Internet is forever” what they really mean is that your mistakes will be crystallized and catalogued and possibly used by the government to come after you at some point. Anyway, I had seen it in the last 10-15 years after enjoying it reasonably well when it came out. And I was seriously unimpressed on a re-view, so I was cautious about recommending it to the kids. Downplayed it, some would say. But our lovely host, April, really loves the movie and she was playing it up, and I’ve downplayed a few films that were much stronger upon reflection so the kids were probably expecting…more.

They're both dead now!
You really want John Candy to turn around and smack Harold Ramis, right?

It’s okay. It’s good even. A fun romp. About 15 minutes too long and that’s without this being the “extended cut” which adds another 15 minutes to the runtime. It basically drops to a little-too-dumb levels once our heroes graduate from boot camp and go on the RV adventure in Eastern Europe. It sort of makes the first part of the movie feel rushed and the second part very perfunctory. In a weird way, this problem is echoed by Full Metal Jacket (1987)!

So, there are a number of problems with this film: Bill Murray is one. It’s the beginning of his douchebag persona, which reaches its peak in Ghostbusters, except in the latter film his grounding in a cynical reality is buoyed by Ramis and Aykroyd’s nerdy enthusiasm and hyper-competence. (Aykroyd’s missing, Ramis is equally cynical but extra smirky, Candy and most everyone else is just being the sort of dummy that intellectuals imagine join the army.) And, of course, Ghostbusters is much tighter.

At all.
Not tight.

The Flower, afterward, pointed out something I had said earlier: “It’s a movie about the army made by a bunch of draft dodgers.” I don’t know that that’s literally true, but it really feels, at every point, like nobody had any concept of what the military is really like. Back in the dark days of Carter, I understand it was a pretty shabby experience, mind you. Nonetheless, there’s no sense of the point of boot camp, and you certainly can’t cram military drilling as Harold Ramis suggests.

What struck me this time was how preposterous it was that the girls—MPs, mind you, played by P.J. Soles and Sean Young—would find chronic screw-ups Murray and Ramis attractive.

Sean Young was cute, too.
P.J. Soles managed to seem attracted to the Ramones, though.

Does it really matter? I suppose not. Given the slander the military faced in the ’70s, this is fairly benign and the antagonist, a drill sergeant played Warren Oates, ends up being a good guy who (for some inexplicable reason) ends up having some sort of begrudging respect for Murray. John Laroquette is the stereotypical officer/doofus.

It made us laugh. Not a whole lot. But enough. Again, until the end, when it bogs down in action sequences which, when you think about it, prefigure Ghostbusters and its groundbreaking effects and action sequences.

But it is really weird to see your screwball comedy leads spraying machine guns and launching missiles at enemy soldiers who are also being portrayed as working stiffs of a benighted communist country.

Eh. Don’t overthink it. (Especially not the part where John Candy mud wrestles the ladies.) And you can have some fun. The kids, kind of interestingly, came down on Weird Science (1985) being more enjoyable.

Though a couple end up a local heroes, I guess.
You know this poor guy is screwed even without being shot by Bill Murray.

Champion

You were probably wondering how, given the fact that the Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling vehicle finished a mighty 68 at the 1987 box office (nestled between the Steve Reeves led Superman IV: Quest For Peace and the Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Burglar)—how, you were probably wondering, has it come to pass that there has never been a sequel, remake or even the faintest whispers of a soft reboot? Or a Korean version, for that matter.

Well, wonder no more! At least about the Korean version because there is now, in fact, a Korean version.

Itself a kind of fetish.
Score! (Sometimes this site feels like it’s catering to the world’s tiniest fetishes.)

And, yeah, it’s way better than the ’87 movie. Duh. But it’s probably not much less hokey.

In this movie, our hero is Mark (Dong-seok Ma, Along With Gods), a Korean who was adopted by an American family and works as a bouncer in a club in L.A. (The Koreans, charmingly, refer to such children as “the abandoned”.) He’s tricked into coming back to Korea for an arm-wrestling competition that can make him some cash. (He’s tricked by his weaselly pal, played by Kwon Yul, who also played a weasel in A Special Lady, if memory serves.) Weaselly pal, though, lets him know where his birth mother was living, which leads to Mark heading back—reluctantly, comically—to confront her.

Dong-seok Ma is a charming actor, and he plays on his size very well—okay, he’s about my size, but that’s pretty big in parts of Korea—and his general agreeableness and self-parody are a big part of what powers the movie. He can also turn on a dime (which, ya gotta be able to do in these Asian pictures) and give your character his dignity and honor when it matters.

AS IT MUST!
Before everything goes to hell in act II.

Of course, the arm wrestling circuit is corrupt, and this provides a certain degree of the tension, as Mark realizes this is his last chance to be a real champion (he’s come close many times). Ma is actually 47, but he’s playing 37, as I recall. Doesn’t matter.

The real wrinkle comes when he discovers he has a sister and a niece. He slowly settles into a role as brother and uncle, but as slowly as it happens, it’s also fierce. His sister tells him a lot about his mother, and the two form an bond as Mark comes to understand his mother’s motivations, at least at some level.

There’s a twisteroo at the end of the second act which pushes Mark to challenge all that he has come to believe up to that point, and force him to weigh whether a championship is worth more than his newfound family, and I’m not gonna spoil it. It’s maybe a little forced, or maybe it’s just a little more Korean—different values than Americans, or at least this native Californian. It doesn’t feel too awkward overall, and the movie is sympathetic to him at this darkest of points.

The ending is nicely over-the-top (and the Stallone movie is referenced, by the way) and the denouement satisfying in all the right ways. The Boy and I both enjoyed it.

I mean...really bulgey.
Bulgey

A or B

The Flower has exploited The Boy’s and my enthusiasm for Asian pictures, and also expanded her circle of friends, requiring more and more trips to exotic locales. And when the Korean theater is booked up with…American superhero movies…we can sometimes escape to Alhambra which is like Chinatown, in the sense that Chinese people live there, and not like Chinatown, which is more a movie location these days.

In A or B, a businessman wakes up, trapped in his home (or is he?) and forced, Saw-like, to choose between two unpalatable options: Reveal your affair or let your business partner be sent to jail; uncover your money laundering or have your best friend be murdered. Stuff like that. Obviously, a sinister force is at work here, and our hero is the object of his vengeful fantasies.

Not Korean dark, but still kinda dark.
This poster is WAY off. This is not a whimsical office flick.

I’ve spoken about the nature of Korean revenge flicks, and how they are steeped in a highly moralistic viewpoint that revenge is really wrong and will never work out for you. You know, unlike cathartic American revenge pictures, where the audience is expected to identify with the vigilante, Koreans revenge pictures tend to be told from the standpoint of the victim of the revenge plot. They can be very, very good—but they are in no ways fun. “We are all sinners, and forgiveness is our only hope,” basically.

It’s too soon to opine on Chinese revenge pictures, but this one has that sort of message without the Korean heaviness. Our protagonist is definitely flawed. I mean, flawed doesn’t do it justice: He’s basically a bad guy, much like the protagonist Seven Years of Night, though he commits his crimes for sheer ambition and greed. (This is a big Chinese theme, as we saw in Till the End of the World, and is its own kind of political correctness, of course.)

Fortunately, I'm adhering to a strict drug regimen...
So. Many. Threads.

Unlike the Korean movies, though, the Chinese message of redemption (at least here) is ultimately light-hearted: no matter how bad things get, there’s gonna be a redemption. The story gets increasingly preposterous as the protagonist, having earned his shot at redemption by realizing the error of his ways, struggles to stay alive—and perhaps avoid punishment.

But there’s a strong moral force at work here, too: You know if the hero lives, he’s going to have to suffer somehow for all the harm he’s done. I’m okay with that.

The reviews on this were pretty negative but we went anyway, and we found ourselves really enjoying it, especially as it went from revenge picture to more action/thriller. We were also impressed that we could follow the plot (both of us could!) even though there were a lot of threads. I particularly liked how the protagonist went from unlikable to really unlikable, and then slowly back to more likable as he takes his journey toward redemption.

The Asians have not let us down yet…but nothing lasts forever, right?

It's a definite "rough patch".
A good wife for a shall-we-say difficult marriage.

Annihilation

So, here we have a sci-fi film with horror overtones getting generally good notices from critics and lukewarm reception from audiences, and this just screams The Boy and I. I had a vague recollection of the Red Letter Media crew speaking warmly of it, but they may have simply pointed out that it’s a sci-fi movie with an all-female team where that team arises organically (kaff) which is, shall we say, debatable.

Not the Ghostbusters, for sure.
The fate of the world is at stake! Who ya gonna call?

This is the sophomore effort from writer/director Alex Garland, whose freshman outing Ex Machina was highly praised by critics and audiences alike, and which The Boy (especially) and I felt was a bit over-rated. A movie about a robot that turns on its creator is not exactly fresh but it was pretty stylishly done and help up as long as you didn’t think too hard about it. Also, people seem to appreciate naked Alicia Vikander.

I wasn’t really aware of the movie’s pedigree going in. If I had been, I would’ve been completely unsurprised by the fact that this is another hoary old sci-fi tale done up in a stylish manner (though not that stylish, frankly).

If we did a breakdown, I would give this film a tepid thumbs up with a stern warning not to think about it very hard at all, and The Boy would give it a solid thumbs down, finding it both rather pale compared to the source material it’s ripping off (The Boy loves Stalker (1979) which is a clear influence here) and finding the acting awful and the denouement tipped from the first act.

When will Hollywood stop stereotyping?
The villain, once again? Sentient cotton-candy.

The story is this: An object from outer space crashes near a lighthouse creating an anomalous field that is slowly expanding outward and probably/maybe gonna destroy the whole world but every mission they send in doesn’t come out and is probably dead so they figure “Well, hell, let’s just throw some girls in there maybe they’ll have better luck than the highly trained special forces dudes who didn’t come out and why not?”

I mean, that’s literally the “logic”. The (unspecified arm of the government) can’t think of anything else to do so they send in a (*squints*) psychologist (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a biologist (Natalie Portman), a physicist, an anthropologist and a paramedic.

55 years old!
Jennifer Jason-Leigh seems to only show her age when she wants to.

Our “hero” is Natalie Portman whose husband (Oscar Isaacs) has vanished in the zone but then came back—the only one to escape The Zone though he remembers nothing and nobody knows how he got there (at which point The Boy immediately sussed out the whole plot)—only he’s real sick and the ambulance ride to the hospital is intercepted by guys in black cars, and they end up at Area X where Portman gets the necessary exposition to propel the team into the zone.

Up to this point, I was going along with it pretty easily. The set up is broody and atmospheric and there’s a sense of fatalism (ennui, even) that makes emotional sense—everyone’s going to die if something doesn’t change, so lets do stupid, desperate things—even if there’s no way on God’s green earth anything like that would ever go down in real life. This tone, I felt, was one of the big “lifts” from Stalker.

But we’re going to use this dubious set-up to do something smart and interesting, right? Well, no. Right at the beginning of the ladies’ foray into The Zone, they become aware that they’ve lost time. Like, five days.

I keed! I keed!
Our heroines struggle to operate an electronic device without a man present.

Now, look, knowing that nobody else has come back alive (except our biologist’s husband), the first mysterious thing, what would you do? You’d head straight out. Just surviving gives you information you can bring back to base, and that’s more you had than before, when nobody had any information about The Zone.  And of course, if you start thinking along these lines, you realize that what you’d do is send in maybe one guy and have him step in, then step right out. Maybe tie a rope around him, I dunno.

But okay, let’s go along. The inside of The Zone is all weird and mutate-y. Some nice design on the plants and animals. A kind of interesting premise involving cross-species gene sharing.  Moody and mysterious exploration.

Then we get a boogen.

This is really jarring. It’s not scary or very exciting. One of the girls is taken but I think they rescue her. I can’t remember. As The Boy pointed out, the characters were mostly just their superficial characteristics. I thought the paramedic was sort of interesting—and completely unsuited for a mission like this—as was the psychologist. The Boy disagreed, finding it hard to care about any of the characters.

But this was a forgettable film.
Have a boogen! (I honestly don’t remember this scene.)

The big hook (not really a spoiler since it’s show in act one) is that Portman’s character is wracked with guilt over her faithlessness to her husband. This explains her motivation to go into The Zone—and the characters’ motivations are all this really has to distinguish it from any basic popcorn film.

The ending explains everything, and I had figured it out by act two but was sort of holding out hope for something better, but it really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Like, we get the whole thing with biologist’s husband, but there’s no logical explanation for how he got to her, and how (having eluded the government in escaping The Zone) they discovered where he was. We sort of have to assume they were constantly watching the biologist, which I guess isn’t too far out.

Worse, though, and much like Ex Machina, there’s no reasonable explanation for the ending. It’s obscure without being interesting. It’s the kind of faux-depth that critics seem to adore.

As I say, a cautionary thumbs up if you like broody Portman and Leigh—and I do love me some JJL. She’s been one of the most consistently good actresses since she was Marcie on “Baretta”. But don’t be fooled: It’s really just a rehashed B-movie with some interesting aspects to it.

I wonder if she held a gun at all?
Unrelated shot of Natalie Portman in her IDF days.

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Sunset booooulevard, twisty booooulevard!

The first thing I had to break to the kids on this one is that Sunset Boulevard is not a musical. (And this was even harder to explain when we got to The Producers.) The Boy and The Flower like to make mix tapes and for our “streets, roads and highways” mix (one that vexed The Boy sorely), he had put on this song from an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, which is remarkable mostly because I don’t hate it. (Not a fan of ALW, is what I’m saying.)

Honestly. I-VI-IV-V-I. That formula was mastered in the '50s.
TFW someone tells me how great “Mem’ries” is.

This actually set them back a bit, but I assured them that this would be a fine film even without the musical stylings of the guy who brought us Starlight Express. After all, we’d had good luck with Billy Wilder so far.

Even so, I think we were all taken aback by how great this movie was. William Holden plays William Holden doing William Holden—I mean, seriously, was the guy ever anything but a hard bitten cynic, down-on-his-luck, shady-side-of-the-street type?

Well, he’s good at it. And in this movie, he starts out dead. The movie explains how he got to be dead, which is basically by being a heel for 110 minutes. Holden plays Joe Gillis, a washed up screenwriter with the repo guys after him, who avoids them by turning into an abandoned home on Sunset Blvd (lol) which turns out not to be abandoned but in fact inhabited by silent movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson, who would share the Oscar loss to Judy Holiday with Bette Davis and Anne Baxter for All About Eve) who is alone except for her one caretaker, Max (played by silent movie great Eric Von Stroheim, The HoneymoonGreed) and who has clearly lost her marbles.

Look at him! Someone left his cake out in the rain!
A lot of silent-era directors did cameos in the ’50s and ’60s, but Stroheim is bringing the feels here.

She’s working on a comeback screenplay and Gillis, spotting a way out of his financial troubles, agrees to look it over for her, carefully tailoring his responses to her insane ramblings. But Desmond is manipulative on a level the dopey Gillis can’t comprehend: She moves him in to a room over the garage. She buys him clothes. When it starts to rain, she moves him into the house. She doesn’t give him money. And he lets her get away with it, because he figures he’s getting away with something.

Then he abandons her on New Years because he’s suddenly aware that she has hallucinated a romantic relationship between them. She attempts suicide, and then things get even weirder…

This is a really dark movie. You’re not going to find admirable characters here. Morose Max turns out to be operating more out of guilt than genuine loyalty. Even the ambitious, fresh-faced young writer, Betty (charmingly played by Nancy Olson) turns out to be ready to throw over one of the only genuine characters in the movie—her boyfriend Artie, played by a bubbly Jack Webb!—for her attraction to the broody Gillis.

It's complicated.
Only noble thing he ever does: Make her feel like crap.

Besides Artie, the only really nice person in the movie is Cecil B. DeMille (played, of course, by Cecil B. DeMille). Other people playing themselves include H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper. The presence of people playing themselves—or someone like themselves, as Stroheim—is a powerful technique, though it’s probably lost today on all but the most dedicated film fans. (Stroheim, it turns out, is playing a great silent filmmaker comparable to D.W. Griffith and C. B. De Mille, which is a fair description of him.)

But DeMille plays himself, treating Desmond as if hardly any time has passed, trying to keep her spirit from being crushed. The studio crowd turning out to shower love on Desmond alongside of his heartfelt monologue on the faded silent star are almost the only real warm (with a fatal irony) moments in the film. (Gillis’ interaction with Betty—before the realization that he can do nothing but destroy her life—is another one.) It’s utterly heartfelt. And underscored by Desmond’s instantly prima-donna-plus behvaior, showing us that even in her prime, this star was a terror.

A goofy grin, as Ernest Cline might say.
A picture of Jack Webb smiling to lighten the mood.

Swanson is amazing here. She is tragicomic figure, exciting sympathy and a sort of derision borne of her comic struggle to be 20 years younger. It is a genuinely brilliant and some would say “courageous” performance. She chews the scenery, but in a situation where nothing less would work. The pathos is utterly amped by her cartoonishness. And the destruction she can wage by virtue of a few good investments made when Los Angeles was a tank town is no less than astonishing.

The thing is, Swanson is only 50 years old here. She’s still very good looking. Myrna Loy was 45 and in Cheaper By The Dozen the same year. (And was the romantic lead opposite Cary Grant only two years earlier in the terrific Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House.) The point isn’t that Hollywood isn’t a savage mill grinding up feminine beauty, but that Desmond’s ridiculousness is solely and entirely due to her failure to accept any aspect of her age. I don’t know if acting is ever really “brave” but it’s certainly bravura here.

We loved it, and the kids had forgotten about the musical, more or less, by the time we got out.

Check it out, obvy.

Shun it!
Fame is a bitch.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum

“Blair Witch, eh? Hold my soju!”

This was by far the most conventional of movies we’ve seen in the Korean—and by “conventional”, I mean in the western sense. It is, essentially The Blair Witch Project, except that (being Korean, and it being 2018), instead of a couple of hand-held cameras augmenting a film camera, they have ALL THE CAMERAS, including motion-activated ones and a drone-mounted one for overhead shots.

Is that racist?
So. Many. Cameras.

Also, the film crew is going for a million Youtube(ish) hits. As one does these days. This provides the sorta thin motivation for the film crew to behave badly. Sometimes really badly and really dumbly as well.

(This review is gonna be a little spoiler-y because without that, there’s nothing more to write.)

The plot is that the producers of the Youtube(ish) series devoted to the paranormal collects a bunch of dupes to investigate a haunted asylum that everyone dies if they go in. (First thing Blake notices on interior shot: “There’s a whole lotta graffiti on the walls if everyone who goes in dies! That’s dedication to the craft!”) Our dupes don’t really believe in this stuff and, as it turns out, neither do our YouTube(ish) producers.

Thousands. Daily.
Apart from hundreds of taggers, nobody escapes alive.

I can’t even qualify this as a twist. Obviously our showrunners are cynical hacks looking to exploit the paranormal for profit. They virtually say as much. So it’s not a surprise when it’s revealed that they’re behind the shenanigans when things get spooky. (House on Haunted Hill, anyone?) It’s also completely unsurprising when they’re not behind all of the shenanigans, and end up not knowing what’s going on. (Again, HoHH did this 60 years ago. With Vincent Price and skello-vision or whatever Castle called his flying skeleton gimmick.)

I guess it’s a little surprising how far it all goes. At points where you think the showrunners would be convinced enough that Bad Things were afoot—like when people have died—the chief guy just marches right on in to the death trap for his million hits.

What could go wrong?
It’s probably fine.

As a movie, it’s just competent. Some jump scares. A nice way to spend 90 minutes if you like the haunted house thing (and we do). It’s beautifully shot, even given the constraints, because, hey, Koreans. They gots standards, especially visually. Many really, really nice non-spooky camera shots preceding the arrival at the haunted asylum. GoPro and drone-type things. Very creative and pays off toward the end for some shots.

Some nice horror effects and jump scares. Some of the nicer effects don’t make any sense if you think about them for very long, so don’t do that.

The actors are about as generic as they would be in an American film. One of the girls is named “Charlotte” and has spent some time in America and I think is more of a floozy than a good homegrown Korean girl would be. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Heh.

We liked it, but apart from the visuals (which, in fairness, are very important to horror films) it didn’t really stand out like most Korean movies.

Korean-American girls are hot?
Guess which one is from America!

 

Stand By Me (2018, Korea)

Here’s a movie with a simple, not very informative title (Stand By Me) and production values comparable to a TV movie, along with a sort of Hallmark-y kind of plot: Grandpa is raising his two grandchildren, very unsuccessfully, after his son died and he threw his daughter-in-law out of the house. You gotta wonder, as a discerning moviegoer, if this is going to be worth your $15. (Yeah, movies in K-town ain’t cheap, and if you go see two the same day, as The Boy and I do, you can only get Moviepass to comp one.)

Or is it?
Come on. Korean schmaltz is still schmaltz!

The title thing is interesting because a lot of times the generic-sounding titles aren’t really generic at all, they just translate poorly. Be With You was like that. In this case, however, grandson’s name is Deok-gu, and that is the name of the movie, and the distributors probably figure that anything is better than an actual Korean sounding phrase. They may be right in that, although I don’t see a lot of evidence that any of these movies get much play here in the states.

All that aside, the Koreans have such a fascinating cinematic relationship with their elders. Like Americans, in that the younger generations act radically different, but also unlike them in that there’s a lot more respect for a lot more radical behavior shown.  This movie is a good case in point.

Grandpa works his butt off scraping grills (Korean barbecue!) to get money to raise his grandchildren, but he really has no clue what he’s doing or how the world has changed. He’s very poor, rural, and he’s very hard on the boy, making him yell out his ancestral family, and even engaging in corporal punishment. All because he threw out his daughter-in-law after his son’s death. Turns out she had absconded with the insurance money, and it was just too much for the distraught father. But as hard as the grandson has it, the granddaughter is positively reverting to an infant state. (I’m not sure of the science of this but at one point, the doctor just says “She needs her mother! This is what happens when kids don’t have their mothers!”)

How cute are Korean kids?
That’s no excuse not to take beautiful pictures, however.

The plot twist here, which is slowly revealed—at least to us, it may have been immediately obvious to the Koreans—is that the daughter-in-law is Indonesian. So this is a kind of issue by itself on the one hand—just like an Indonesian woman to run off with your son’s insurance money, I guess—while on the other hand, they can’t actually understand each other very well, leading to the issues that resulted in the old man evicting her from the family home.

The other thing set up almost immediately is that grandfather is dying. So he has to find the kids a home. He’s not crazy about foster homes but virtually everyone in Korea has more money than he does, so there’s that. Meanwhile, for all their friction, the grandkids don’t want to leave him.

The second act kicker is when he discovers that his daughter-in-law took the insurance money to pay for a close relative’s surgery (a niece?) that saved the child’s life. Our protagonist actually goes to Indonesia to discover this. (He tries to make the fare by convincing whatever powers-that-be in Korea that they should give him the insurance money for his impending death in advance, in a darkly amusing scene.) Turns out mom was in the big city in Korea all along, trying to scrape together enough money to pay grandfather back.

It rains a lot in Korea.
The Big City is Big. And Rainy.

It all comes a-cropper when the grandfather decides to send the kids to the foster home rather than force them to watch him die.

Meanwhile, Indonesian mom, having heard of a crazy Korean boy yelling in the street for his mother—and repeating the litany of family history his grandfather beat into him—is racing back to try to convince grandfather to take her back and reunite the family.

Since this is a Korean movie, they’re gonna rip out your heart several times over, even as you know that things are going to have to be all right, more or less. Aren’t they?

It’s a messy, complicated film, really, and kind of beautiful in the way it shows how we all struggle to deal with what life throws at us, and at the same time create so many of those struggles ourselves. We both ended up liking it more and more as it went on, and our unbroken streak of successful Asian film viewing continued…

A#1!
Asian films #1!

Weird Science (1985)

Well, nobody was more surprised than I when The Flower said she wanted to see this one again. I was barely on board six months ago about taking them to see it the first time. I’m not exactly the anti-Ready Player One—though I will allow to a certain degree of suspicion when it comes to things from the ’80s (and surrounding years). But not only did The Flower come to see it again, The Boy and His Girl joined us.

Go figger.
Again? Yes, again.

But the thing about Weird Science is that it’s just plain dumb fun. It’s not really trying to convey any serious message. The closest it comes to a message is something like “Lighten up a little. Be who you are. Be sincere and the chicks will dig that.” It’s probably not even very true, and most certainly pandering to the angst-ridden teen boys of the day—although, also girls, since the little girl love interests are (obviously) intimidated by Kelly LeBrock.

Part of the appeal for The Flower, of course, is Kelly LeBrock, because The Flower thinks ’80s fashions were really, really, really dopey and childish, “Like a kid got into her mom’s jewelry box” is I think how she describes the accessorizing craze of the decade. But she allows that Ms. LeBrock looked pretty good, even for having been stuck in the ’80s.

Yeah, that's...something.
Ms. LeBrock may simply be genetically incapable of looking bad, however.

I would argue that the fashions aren’t really any better, and the best scenes don’t feature KLB in much of the way of clothes at all, and she probably wouldn’t argue. Although the evening dress she wears is very nice.

I probably liked it a little more this time than last, in fact. The Boy liked it a little less, he said, because there was no element of surprise. (The movie relies heavily on constant escalation for its comedy and suspense.)

Well, hell, there aren’t a lot of wacky teen sex comedies from any era that hold up after 30 years, so put this one in John Hughes’ “W” column.

What? Who DOESN'T wear a bra on his head from time-to-time?
It’s a movie that respects its characters’ inherent dignity.