Love & Taxes

And speaking of different, how about a movie about a red-diaper baby whose life comes a cropper when, in middle-age, he confesses to his tax-lawyer boss that he’s never filed his taxes?

Yeah, me, too.
Not what you imagined, eh? What? EXACTLY what you imagined?

Josh Kornbluth is a guy who does one-man shows about his life, and one day his boss comes to see one of his shows, only to tell him that he laughed hardest at the part where Kornbluth joked that he’d never paid taxes. Josh sheepishly explains that it’s not a joke, and his alarmed boss makes him get in touch with a savvy financial adviser who assists him in paying his taxes for free. (Our Hero is charmingly, if somewhat distressingly, naive about this and doesn’t really look too deeply into what he’s agreeing to.)

Once he files, his life—sort of puttering along at this point—suddenly takes off. As he humorously notes, it’s as if being in The System was his ticket to prosperity. His show takes off. He gets a groupie—and in an aspect that is charmingly nerdy, he ends up planning to marry her. Hollywood calls him up to make screenplays. (Which are all based on unfilmable stories of glorious class struggle and revolution.)

Things come a cropper, however, when the IRS comes up with a figure for how much he owes them, and his newfound success comes with expenses he’s allowed himself to be unaware of.

AGAIN.
The communist will ultimately be saved by the capitalist.

The climactic moment of the film comes when he’s talking with a tax expert—a guy who worked for Treasury for years—and trying to weasel out of this debt. The guy informs him that he, himself, is The Man. He’s the one who makes all the tax laws, by virtue of what he votes for, and what he endorses as a citizen. This has never occurred to him before, just like it’s never occurred to him that turnstile jumping is a fair betrayal of the public services he seems to endorse.

Naturally—Kornbluth is still a dyed-in-the-wool leftist, after all—he learns to stop worrying and love the Tax Bomb. As appalling a notion as that is for me, it definitely represents progress in the way of “Someone has to pay for all those things you want to give people. And by someone, we mean you.”

I'd feel more like The Man if any of my votes ever counted.
You. You’re The Man. You Pay.

It’s a charming story, told with bits of his stage act shown mixed with dramatizations of the stories he tells. Directed by his brother who, rather humorously, is much more handsome than the actor they hired to portray him.

Which is cute.
The “Love” part.

The Lure

If you see only one Polish horror/comedy/musical about mermaids this year make it The Lure!

How’s that for a quote you can put on a movie poster?

It's as important to sell the copy as it is for the copy to sell.
Stand back! I’m on fi-yah!

This is one of those movies where, I look to my left and think “The Boy’s not going to like this,” then to my right and think, “The Flower’s really gonna like this,” and I’m going to be somewhere in between. The last time this happened was A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which was sort of mysterious to me. With The Lure, though, it’s easy to figure out why.

The Flower has strong opinions about fairy tales. She wouldn’t go see, e.g., the recent Cinderella live-action remake, much less Beauty and the Beast. She doesn’t really trust modern Disney to do fairy tales right, either on the story level or the visual level. I’ve tried, half-heartedly, to persuade her that some of these are good. (Half-heartedly because it doesn’t matter much if they’re good in some abstract sense but whether they comport to her ideas of how they should be. Many of us have areas of expertise that we’re invested in to the extent that it’s hard to watch movies about those things.)

The Lure is a (yes, I’ll say it) gritty reboot of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Little Mermaid. Except that Andersen’s tale is a whole lot grittier than the Disney movie, with said mermaid being betrayed by the prince and given the option to murder him to regain her mermaid-hood or be consigned to sea foam.

Although the “sea foam” is a happy ending in the Christian (religion, not Hans Andersen) sense, as it means that after 300 years she will get to Heaven—something normally denied to mermaids, apparently—and for each good child she can find, a day will be subtracted from this period, while for each naughty child a day will be added. Remember, it’s a fairy tale and as such is designed to encourage children to behave.

The Lure hews a little more closely to this original vision, which I knew would go over The Boy’s head (he knows Grimm but wasn’t really a fairy tale kid) and hit The Flower squarely on the nose. But there’s more: The two women selected as mermaids also hew very closely to classic artistic interpretations of how mermaids should look: Very fair, very childlike, with an air of menace. The Flower is a virtual expert in traditional renditions of fairy creatures, at least the high art ones.

There are worse things!
Of course, that may just be a Polish girl thing.

So, that’s another strike against it for The Boy, but one which she and I really enjoyed.

The story is this: A Polish disco band (it’s never mentioned but I feel strongly this movie takes place in 1980 or so) goes out to the shore one night only to find two mermaids swimming there nearby. The mermaids (or sirens, more properly) enchant the two men of the group, initially, it seems, with intention of luring them out to eat them. (Some people call this a “Polish cannibal mermaid musical horror-comedy” but I don’t think mermaids eating humans can strictly be considered “cannibalism”.) Their opening lines, in fact, are something like “Don’t worry. We’re not going to eat you.”

When someone takes the time to reassure you they won’t eat you, that’s a red flag in my book.

Totally unfair. Running with it anyway.
Here, the menace is increased as they get jobs as United Airline flight attendants.

Instead, however, they change course and have the men drag them to the shore by their glorious tails. The tails truly are great. They’re not cute at all, but very, very fish-like, oriented in—well, I don’t want to say a more realistic way than the common cartoon approach, because if we make enough allowances to permit the debate of how mermaids would actually be structured, I could see an arguments for the traditional approach—but let’s say oriented in a very alien way. These girls are not human.

This movie rather quickly dispenses with the question of how mermaids can be sexual with human males, too. I’ll just say cloaca and leave it at that.

Anyway, with their magic voices, the mermaids quickly become a hit on the disco scene, and launch into a career as a pop duet.

Well, things turn weird from here. (I know, right? You thought they were weird already.) And a little bit of a falling out leads to the human disco band…disposing…of the mermaids. This is followed by a musical number showing their withdrawal from the effects of the siren song. I knew at that point, we had lost The Boy, since he didn’t get what was going on.

The Flower (who liked it the most) and I were talking about it afterwards and, to his credit, The Boy said “I think I needed to watch this movie better.” Part of it was that he didn’t care for the music. (I thought it was good enough with some very fine moments.)

It’s far from perfect as a film. It’s hugely ambitious, really, evoking ’70s fare like Tommy and The Man Who Fell To Earth (neither of which am I fan of), but on a shoestring budget which is well stretched. Director Agnieszka Smoczynska is sort of fearless here, and it pays off here, as she runs roughshod over the production’s limitations.

Obviously not for everyone. Ratings-wise it’s a “hard R”, I think, goes without saying.

Poles, man.
And forevermore, when some lout tells me he’s going to get “some tail”, this is what shall come to mind.

The Women’s Balcony

Although I joke about it sometimes because of the (relatively) few number of foreign films we see, it is undoubtedly true that a nation’s films reflect (as well as shape) its character. So, while my common refrain of “I know, right? French! is somewhat overplayed, when you see a foreign film that totally plays into your notions of that country’s art, there’s a kind of satisfaction there. (Unless it’s Germany and Toni Erdmann, ’cause, dude, what the heck is wrong with German people?)

Like, not Iran, Egypt, Iraq, or many other places that used to have large Jewish populations.
I suppose the scary thing here is how FEW countries a movie with this shot could feasibly be from.

Bonus if it’s Israel, because my notions there include a certain level of quality and an overall sense of humaneness.

Which brings us to the #1 (?) Israeli film of the year, The Women’s Balcony. This is the story of women in the temple who are worshiping on the balcony over the main area (where the men are) during a bar mitzvah when it collapses, injuring the rabbi’s wife and sending him into a funk where he is no longer able to perform his duties. His synagogue condemned and his flock (wait, Jews aren’t flocks, are they?) are stranded without a place of worship, and must navigate the difficulties of raising money for building repairs, a new Torah and, significantly, a new balcony.

In classic Israeli style, the opening scenes show the humanity of the dilemma to come with a small, humorous tableau. As it is the Sabbath, these conservative Jews may not work—including turning on the coffee maker. So, before sundown, they set up the coffee maker, thus allowing them to have the vital beverage without breaking the Sabbath. Before the bar mitzvah gets rolling, however, one of the grandchildren runs into the area with the coffee maker and, fascinated by lit buttons as all children are, he turns it off. His grandmother scolds him for breaking the Sabbath but then realizes that their celebration will be without coffee if the machine doesn’t get back on somehow.

First she tries coaxing the boy into turning back on, just in case he’s, y’know, still curious about buttons, but the lad is terrified of sinning again and refuses. Now what? (She turns it back on, setting up her character and the primary conflict for the rest of the film.) This setup is classic in another way: It’s very light-hearted, and it’s followed by a tragedy. The best (and most characteristic) Israeli cinema strikes a light tone without shying away from tragedy.

Anyway, the congregation struggles with rebuilding until they find Rabbi David, a young, energetic, devout conservative who helps them fulfill their requirements (they need some sort of quorum for services, it seems) while also navigating the tricky building permit laws. The catch is that David is considerably more conservative than the congregation, and his beliefs about women are particularly retrograde. (This is a peculiarity of very conservative religious groups: They extol women’s virtues in sermons—while oppressing them for their “sinfulness” in practice.) So, while talking on the one hand to the men about how women don’t need to study the Torah because they contain the Torah, he on the other hand chastises the women directly for not wearing the tichel (like a hijab) to cover their hair, among their many other sins.

He may be many things, but "nice" isn't the right word.
He seems like such a NICE boy.

One priceless sequence has each of these conservative (but loosely so) men bringing home a scarf for his wife to wear.

What’s interesting is how many of the women buy into the Rabbi’s outlook, and their reasons for doing so. But when they all get together and raise the money to get The Women’s Balcony repaired, the Rabbi machinates to put that money into the Torah and leave the women in a virtual closet where they can see nothing of the action in the main temple area.

This is great stuff. At least, I think it is: How Man reconciles his behavior with what he believes his religion requires and what his community requires and what his conscience requires—this is a real struggle. It’s the sort of thing Israelis do very well. Americans have never been great at it, though certainly there have been moments, such as with Friendly Persuasion or (to a much lesser degree) Witness.

Religion, community, conscience—and almost always, spouse. We see a variety of relationships, with our main characters having a particularly tender and respectful bond, with the husband being put into a terrible situation as he must choose between wife and God—or at least, what one Rabbi says God wants. A little vignette with the husband having a particular fondness for a little boy who likes to come around his spice shop highlights the struggle beautifully, as he worries if his own conservatism might cause a conflict with the little boy in the boy’s (non-conservative) community.

This being an Israeli film, we’re given a true kind of tolerance. The movie doesn’t really excoriate the Rabbi, even when he acts badly, nor does it look unkindly on the heroine and her husband, nor does it look on those who embrace their newfound conservatism (even when there’s hypocrisy behind it). People are people, it says. They have flaws, sometimes serious ones, but you love them anyway, and you tolerate them as best and for as long as you can.

The Boy liked it, though he didn’t find it as moving as I did. I, of course, loved it, and could easily see why it was so popular in Israel.

I don't drink coffee. :-(
Coffee! A fundamental part of any religion.

The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie is a necessary film, after a fashion. Necessary because, after Burton, Nolan and (God help us) Snyder, Batman movies have become grim, dour horror shows, largely devoid of humor and fun. Yeah, I’m going to put the Nolan films in there as well, because while they’re pretty good, they’re not really fun. This is a fun movie. Freed from the constraints of having to make a “realistic” costumed vigilante film, or really to explain much of anything, the movie is basically a running mockery of the “Lone Wolf” Batman which we can pin squarely on Burton. (I recently read someone saying Robin is there to bring in the young kids, but of course the kids identify with Batman, not Robin. They identify with Batman having a friend and someone to teach, but generally not on the side of the one being mentored.)

Although the "Teen Titans" one is pretty good.
Possibly the best Robin ever put on screen.

Batman’s a jerk to Robin in this movie. And to everyone. Again, pretty much encapsulating not just the live action movies but a good deal of the cartoons (like “Doom”, which in turn is based on a comic series “Tower of Babel”, in which Batman gets the entire Justice League murdered). But because we’re not being “realistic”, we can have a plot where not only is this considered not a good thing, it’s considered an unhealthy thing. Nobody gets along in life without friends.

In a lot of ways, this is actually better than the original Lego Movie, which (while entertaining) had a more frenetic feel. This movie has much of the same energy, a lot of it at a very fast clip, but it feels less effort-y, if you follow. Perhaps the success of the original made them less worried about packing every square millisecond with something. There’s a kind of pinpoint precision here that treads the line between “silly” and “disposable”.

He just wants Batman to HATE him.
First Batman movie with a sympathetic Joker character. Sorta.

The animation also treads a fine line: It’s quite beautiful, and manages to balance its visually rich world with the blocky, choppy nature of Legos. I mean, they certainly could have had the Lego characters themselves move in a fluid fashion, but it would look wrong. Legos are rectangular and need to be animated in what is essentially a stop-motion style, or they cease to seem like Legos. Doing the whole film in that style, however, would tend to look cheap and probably lower the audience acceptance rate. So they pull out all the stops for the non-Lego aspects of the film (e.g., the sky) while keeping everything else in a rough, Lego form—something often amusing just for where they manage to pull it off, like the fire.

The Barbarienne liked it. Because of course. Some day we’ll come out of a movie and she’ll say she didn’t like it, but it’s kind of nice for now that she loves everything so much. The Boy, who was on the fence about the whole endeavor, also really dug it. As did I.

N.B. that Rotten Tomatoes rates The Lego Batman Movie as the #2 Batman movie of all time, only behind the dour The Dark Knight Returns.

Those first three are from early, embarrassing attempts at "diversity".
I love how Apache Chief, Black Lightning, Samurai and the Wonder Twins got invited to the JL party (but not Batman).

Dirty Harry (1971)

I know what you’re thinking: “Did he fire six shots or only five?” Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement, I’ve kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world, and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’

Well, do ya, punk?

Do ya do ya do ya do ya wanna dance?
Do ya? Huh? Do ya? Do ya? Huh? Huh?

The fun thing about The Boy is that you can’t take him anywhere. I mean, you can, but he’s the honey badger of … I don’t know, humans? He’s been working with me in my big, cushy corporate gig* for a couple of years and it is just not in his nature to, as the French say, bullshit.

I realized this tendency ruled out higher education for him, but he had the right attitude and just enough chops to win employment from an internship spot I got him, and I have to admit, when I’m not cringing about it, I find his complete and utter honesty the most refreshing part of my day. N.B. that the cringing comes from me having fully absorbed the “social niceties” and certain workplace customs that are terribly counter-productive. Niceties like not being able to admit when you’re in trouble, or when you need help or when you flat out just don’t know what you’re doing.

We’re all there sometimes, at least in tech. It’s a constant learning struggle. But The Boy freely admits this without compunction and as such he gets more done and learns better than a lot of people do when they worry over the notion that admitting less-than-omniscience might lead to getting fired.

But only serial killing gets the movies made.
IT and serial killing: Two fields that are always pushing technological limits.

I bring this up only because it’s not constrained to the workplace, and when our theater had a plucky film critic come in to talk about Dirty Harry, The Boy found his thesis—that Harry Callahan was sort of a modern-day (for 1971) Paul Bunyan—wanting, and wasted no time in telling him so. You could almost hear the echoes of Eastwood’s voice…

Well…do ya, punk?

It’s hard for me to shoehorn any traditional American icon into Dirty Harry’s scuffed brogues—at least until you get to the gunslingers. Because, in essence, Harry is a cowboy transplanted to a liberal, cop-hating 1971 San Francisco, performing his thankless task in a world that apparently would rather he didn’t exist. Predictably, our critic viewed this entirely from the perspective of a progressive, though he had the good taste to mask this somewhat. But I think director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood were not lying when they said they were just trying to make an entertaining police actioner.

It’s massive success may be less due, as the progressives have it, to a reaction against the inevitable progress of society, and more to the fact that people don’t really go to the movies to be preached at and told how awful they are and how terrible their world is. As bad as crime got in the ’60s and ’70s, it may be, simply, that people just wanted a movie that was fun, that was suspenseful, that gave them heroes to cheer for and villains to cheer against. (And Andrew Robinson is wonderfully despicable, reminding me much more of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator (2000) than anyone else.)

Not a bad guy in this movie, just kinda clueless.
“Put Callahan on DOUBLE secret probation!”

In other words, America may have just stopped caring about movies by this time and reacted to this movie less because it reflected a distaste for current events and more because it was finally a chance to have a little fun. Although, Harry is largely not really “dirty” in the police sense. His only real abuse of power is when he tortures Scorpio (Robinson) to save a little girl. (Which, seems like the “is torture okay” debate’s been going on a long time, ey?) In every other circumstance, he only resorts to violence in self- or other-defense. It’s just that the criminals make it soooo easy.

Which is the fun.

And, if you want to get jiggy with it: It probably presaged the successes of films like “Star Wars”, “Jaws” (no, you didn’t root for the shark, you liar), “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and so on. Life is hard, and ambiguous, and sometimes it’s nice to just know what side to be on. This is what powered the westerns. This is what powers Dirty Harry. (Who never lost the plot—well, at least not until the Death Wish rehash that is Sudden Impact.)

You know the plot: Dirty Harry is assigned to a case trying to find the Scorpio killer (based, very loosely, on the Zodiac killer), who just gets increasingly evil and twisted. You can argue that he’s hamstringed (hamstrung?) by police procedure that cares more about criminal rights than their victims, but honestly, almost everything he does is “hot pursuit” which is pretty much covered under the law as far as I know it. (And you know my law degree, like my creativity, is ingenuitive.)

Ultimately, I think this film is less significant, beyond being a pretty good film, than it’s made out to be. It’s an early example of Social Justice Warriors (film critics, in this case) at work in America, but at a time when people cared a lot less what other people thought about everyone else’s tastes.

Good command of space. San Francisco almost feels like a real city. Very dark in shots, though the kids found this utterly acceptable, because even when the lighting was very, very dim, they could still tell what was going on, and they felt it added to the suspense. The Flower, whose favorite movie for years was Gran Torino, loved the whole “loose cannon” and ’70s detective archetype. The Boy had seen it before but felt it held up well.

Paul Bunyan, however, he didn’t see.

*gig may not actually be that big, that corporate or that cushy

It means HE GETS RESULTS!
BUT WHAT ABOUT TORCHAAA?

Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Reptilicus”

At last it can be told! We had shelled out the big bucks over a year earlier as a Christmas gift, and our big gamble was about to pay off. Actually, it had been paying off all along, from the exciting Kickstarter campaign to the frequent updates, the bonus videos, and the general sense that the TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was going to come back as strong as it ever had been.

It truly is crappy.
“It’s much cheaper looking than we could have possibly imagined!”

We went down to the Cineramadome and got our pictures taken on the red carpet: The line was slow but we struck up a conversation with another couple and the time flew by. There’s a definite mindset among MST3K fans, people that creator Joel Hodgson says, “Just get it.” So despite rather extensive delays, spirits were high and the vibes were good all evening long.

It was nice to see J. Elvis Wenstein (the original Tom Servo) in the audience, as well as Jackey Neyman Jones, whose appearance in the long forgotten Manos: The Hands of Fate ultimately helped her reconnect with her father. The thing about MST3K is that, I think, for many of its most devoted fans, it provided us a laugh at some point in our lives when we really needed one. And the problem there, as Hodgson was well aware, is that bringing it back means going head-to-head with your own nostalgia.

This episode, however, was nearly perfect. The initial expository host sequence was a little awkward—but then there is an awkwardness to the show that is deliberate, I remember having a similar reaction on seeing my second episode of MST3K, with its low-budget rock ‘n’ roll song “Sidehackers”. Similarly, the new “mads”, portrayed by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, have the sort of that sort of comic incompetence epitomized by Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff/J. Elvis, but without quite the same evil flair—but they’re not in the first episode much.

Felicia is cute, and so is Oswald.
They really began to grow on me as the season went on, though.

Apart from that, the weakest aspect is probably new host Jonah Ray, and he’s not really weak at all. He’s quite good. The fact that his first (at least in series order) big number is a song & semi-dance rapid-fire rap where he’s juggling a few dozen props while the puppetmasters crowd around him, that he barely screws up (but carries on in the tradition of the show), says nothing but good about him. I think it’s just a matter of him not having the presence of Hodgson—who is the first to admit he wasn’t the better MST3K host—or the polish (honed in four seasons of writing and guest starring practice) of Nelson. The key element is that he’s likable, which is vital for the center-stage human. His character is definitely more in the “Joel” mold: A goofy creative guy who succeeds with a mixture of kindness and oddness despite the desires of others to exploit him. (And while that’s getting deep for a puppet show that features the worst movies ever made, I think it’s probably emblematic all the same.)

So, when I say “weakest”, I’m really saying that the show is near perfect, as far as relaunches go, and also perfectly good in its own right, only suffering a little from the nostalgia parallax. Hodgson has done the nigh-impossible here by recapturing the spirit of the original without smothering the spark the new cast and crew bring. In fact, while it’s fair to note that Jonah’s voice is too easily mistaken for the new Tom Servo’s, I think one of Joel’s best choices was to let Jonah pick his Crow and Tom, played by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, respectively. The three of them have instant chemistry and play off each other better than they should (I mean, as far as the narrative goes, Jonah’s supposed to be new and—”it’s just a show, I should really just relax”).

The effects are wonderfully cheesy, like the original show’s, but treading that hardest-of-all-waters “charmingly cheap with a lot of love and attention to detail”. I’ve seen some people argue that Jonah’s “monster rap” (written by veteran comedy music duo Paul and Storm) was too slick to fit in with the show’s handmade, improvisational feel; I reluctantly acknowledge and promptly disregard that point. Sure, the show had a lot of improvisational-seeming silliness like “Creepy Girl” and “Kim Catrall, You’re Really Swell”, but “A Patrick Swayze Christmas” was a true, polished gem.

Kinga? Deep 13!
TFW you’re looking at the director to see if you should keep going.

The sound and picture quality are ridiculously better. I’ve seen people complain about that, to which I say, “You may all go to hell, sirs.” That is the point when you’ know you’re mired in nostalgia: In order to enjoy a new version of something, you have to degrade it to the quality of the old thing.

The movie selection is peerless. Unlike the wonderful Rifftrax, Hodgson’s vision of MST3K has always been about the cheesy movies. The whole ethos is one of people of dubious talent getting together to make a product that, well, turns out quite poorly. And yet, these movies are endearing by their earnestness, and MST3K brings a lot of love and attention to otherwise forgotten efforts. A particularly spot-on bit in a later episode of the season excoriates the “deliberately bad film” made by combining two threats into a meteorological phenomenon.

The first movie, Reptilicus, is a glorious example of earnestly bad film-making which is given a boost by both its wonderfully dated and Scandinavian attitude toward women and its belief that broad comedy has a natural home in the monster movie. Its ambitions are such that, while some might consider them modest—a kaiju movie in the Toho tradition—they were well out of the reach of this Danish-American film-making team.

I did my own screencaps for this one!
“I finally found a shade of lipstick I can die in!”

Good looking women in the cast, which is both a B-movie tradition and (perhaps coincidentally) a MST3K specialty. Ponderously old and goofy young dudes—another tradition, to be sure. Shockingly bad effects, though otherwise competent in a lot of basic film-making areas.

This holds throughout the eleventh season: Movies with good enough production values that you can actually follow what’s going on, with quality sound mixing so that the riffing comes to the fore, but the film’s non-riffed soundtrack is otherwise much as it would be if you were watching it on disc. This is a HUGE boon. It doesn’t help to riff off what someone in the movie says if the audience can’t hear what the person in the movie said.

In the glory of the Cineramadome on a Tuesday, we laughed so hard that our sides hurt until Thursday. It was among the most and hardest I’d ever laughed at a riffed movie, including Santa Claus, including MST3K episode 305, “Stranded In Space,” which I saw shortly after learning my father was going to live (after a 10-week nightmare of hospital-work-sleep), and I’d have put “Reptilicus” in my top 5 all time.

Obviously—obviously!—this couldn’t hold up on a second viewing on TV. Still hilarious, but without the big screen and the atmosphere and energy, merely a very, very good episode. But very, very good ain’t bad at all. And I like some of the new season episodes even more, all of which I helped make happen, which is icing on the cake.

So this stands as one of my most expensive—and best—entertainment investments ever.

Gypsy riffs!
“Now you’re MISTER Filing Cabinet!”

As a postscript, we’ve watched all but the last episode of the season, and discovered that most of the rough edges seem a lot smoother by the end of the season. The interaction between the Satellite of Love and Moon 13 (“the moon!”) gets better, as well as the interactions between the denizens of Moon 13. Rebecca Hanson plays Gypsy, and gets in a couple of quips every show, and also Synthia, a clone of Pearl Forrester. Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl in the original), Kevin Murphy (who played Tom Servo for a decade) and Bill Corbett (who played Crow for years after Trace left the show) do a couple of nice appearances.

The girls love the songs. They both dig the monster rap in “Reptilicus”. The Flower, being a fan of the Beach Boys, adores “Come Along Baby In My UFO” which is nestled into what would otherwise be an interminably dull scene in the hilarious “Starcrash” episode.

By-and-large, the guest star spots don’t play out well, which is sort of surprising after the season opener which featured a very funny bit by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray. One sort of boggles at the appearance of a Jerry Seinfeld or Mark Hamill, but doesn’t actually laugh. (The kids are all “Who is that?”) One sort of expects Neil Patrick Harris to show up, as he was an early booster of the original show. Season 2 (or 12, more accurately). The Mark Hamill bit comes very close to working. This may be where Mike Nelson’s contributions are most strongly missed: He played almost every “guest star” before taking over as host, including Steve Reeves, Michael Feinstein, MegaWeapon, Gamera, and so on.

The biggest bummer is that the next season must be at least a year away, and very possibly two depending on how long it takes Netflix to get off its tuckus. But still, thank you Joel Hodgson for teaching us how to laugh…and love…again.

Also, we totally got tickets to see the road show they’re doing to fill the void before season two. Truly, it is a Golden Age of Riffing.

Kedi: Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul

If one were to compare the experience of watching Kedi to watching about 75 minutes of cat-based YouTube videos, the comparison would perhaps be unkind but not entirely unfair. The overwhelmingly positive reviews (97/88 RT) can probably be attributed to the fact that, yes, this is exactly what it says on the tin: A documentary about cute cats in Turkey.

There are some people in this, too, but they serve solely to narrate the cat’s personalities and adventures. The accuracy of this may be dubious but the appeal is not in question. The cats cavort and frolic and fight and have their own little cat worlds, while the humans provide sustenance and occasional burial services.

You have to kind of like people who like animals (even Turks) and this anodyne, apolitical subject matter is a reminder that we all do have certain things in common, and perhaps that’s a subtly hopeful message implicit here.

But, really, it’s just a movie about cats. By the end, there’s an American Graffiti-style closing—for the cats—who are going to be what you remember here. ’cause, you know: Cats. If you like cats, cat videos, and plenty of ’em, this is a fine way to spend an hour-and-a-quarter.

'cause, you know, he's a fookin' cat.
Frankly, Aslan doesn’t care if you go see this movie, much less if you like it.

It Happened One Night (1934)

The Flower has been excited since this film turned up on the “flashback” schedule back in December. Years ago, I gave her a CD of Judy Garland’s first hits, and she fell in love with the “Dear Mr. Gable” song which was melded with the 1913 classic “You Made Me Love You”.

Dear Mr. Gable,
I am writing this to you
and I hope that you will read it so you’ll know
My heart beats like a hammer
and I stutter and I stammer
every time I see you at the picture show
I guess I’m just another fan of yours
and I thought I’d write and tell you so

And if you don’t wanna read this, well, you don’t have to.
But I just had to tell you about the time I saw you in “It Happened One Night”.
That was the first time I ever saw you, and I knew right then you were the nicest fella in the movies!
I guess it was ’cause you acted so, well so natural like!
Not like a real actor at all, but just like any fella you’d meet at school or at a party.

Besides becoming a Judy Garland fan, she really wanted to see a Clark Gable picture, and we got the opportunity two weeks in a row, this film and Gone With The Wind. And, the kids having recently seen It’s A Wonderful Life had come to learn of Mr. Capra’s work firsthand.

So much style.
On the road with Clark and Claudette.

The Flower had also come to see some of the more iconic scenes in the picture, like Claudette Colbert hitching a ride by hiking up her skirt a little bit and the classic “Walls of Jericho” divider—a blanket that Gable hangs up to demonstrate (however sarcastically) his good intentions with regard to Ms. Colbert.

The premise is familiar, even at the time, even with this film sometimes being considered the first “screwball” comedy: Colbert wants to marry a ne’er-do-well so her father has her locked in her room, she escapes and takes to the road in an attempt to reach her true love, and finds an unlikely assistant in a cantankerous, unlikable, and inevitable romantic partner (Gable). So, it’s a road picture, a romance, and a screwball comedy.

It’s also tremendously dated.

Women used be so much tougher.
“Racy” in 1934. But look at those heels she’s tramping cross-country in!

But it works. Oh, how it works. And I think it works because it never forgets that it’s there to entertain. More than anything, in fact, it wants to entertain. It has no aspirations—nobody involved in the making thereof thought much of it, including Gable (who was being punished by MGM for his affair with Joan Crawford), Colbert (who bitched the whole time and only did it because it was a short, four-week shoot for which she got a double-salary of $50K) and Capra (who wrote the script but realized there must be something terribly wrong since everyone turned down the parts).

You could say that it’s because Colbert and Gable were icons who worked well, somehow, together, and while that’s true, their later collaboration (“Boom Town”, helmed by the capable Jack Conway) is all but forgotten.

Besides each scene being designed to delight the viewer, there’s a peculiar Capra trait that stands out for me here, and I just realized it’s true of all of the Capra pictures I’ve seen: Every character, no matter how minor, is meant to be a real, relatable and also rather delightful, too. If you haven’t seen this picture, you can think of It’s A Wonderful Life: Apart from the evil Mr. Potter, the characters tend to be both relatable and likable, even when they’re being cranky. Just think of some very minor characters, like the middle-aged grouch goading George into kissing Mary, e.g., or Bert & Ernie, or Violet. Flawed, certainly, but having an almost realer-than-life feel, just by not feeling like they’re there solely to read lines or advance the plot.

Does look like Capra.
Like the bus full of people singing “Flying Trapeze”. (Allegedly the director.)

There’s also something so uniquely American about this: Gable is a rough, blue-collar guy while Colbert is a spoiled rich girl, and this movie manages to poke fun at both without making any real political statements. This kind of thing, come to think of it, was a lot more common. While Gable certainly shows up Colbert more than once, she gets in her licks, too. It’s almost as if they’re saying a person can be good even if they are rich!

Which is one of the ways, I suppose, this film comes off dated.

Another way is that Gable and Colbert act out a little dysfunctional domestic-abuse melodrama to hide from the private dicks her father has sent out to find her, and this is kind of played for laughs. I tend to see this as: Once upon a time, people understood that this sort of thing happened, and the fact that it was unsavory was no reason to pretend it didn’t or to turn it into a victim narrative.

Colbert, at right around 30, was rather old to play the role, but it doesn’t matter. She manages to ingenue her way through it. Gable, about 32, probably looks older than he was but he was Gable. Even if (or maybe because) their hearts weren’t in it, you can really see, and kinda buy, the whole wacky relationship. Which is after all the point.

We all loved it.

But perhaps he wore shirts susbequently due to the Hays Office, ey?
Gable’s lack of undershirt supposedly hurt T-shirt sales, so he wore them in his subsequent pictures.

Bitter Harvest

Well, golly, it’s been several months since I’ve asked the immortal question: Why is the New York Times allowed to exist? When not slandering the American public, they’re plumping murderous communists like Stalin.

Which is only obliquely related to today’s film Bitter Harvest, about Stalin’s purge of Ukrainians through starvation, that references the NYT’s perfidy with only a brief reference to a newspaper (printed in a font that looks an awful lot like Times Roman) which says something like “Things pretty swell in USSR despite some food shortages.” But any opportunity to remind the world that the Times is basically out to Kill Us All Morally, Spiritually and Physically should be taken, in my opinion.

She's a little touchy on the genocide thing, I think.
The Flower doesn’t like this one much.

But I digress.

Bitter Harvest is the story of Yuri and Natalka who fall in love as children, and come of age when the evil-but-lethargic Lenin is replaced by an evil-but-energetic Stalin. Stalin is collectivizing the farms where Lenin decided that would require more brutality than he was comfortable with. Stalin was not only comfortable with it, he greets resistance by gratuitously taking all the food in a deliberate plot to starve the Ukrainians.

I’ve read that it’s not certain that Stalin meant to starve all those Ukrainians, because some people feel that would make it better.

Lots and lots of vodka.
But only vodka makes it better.

After a scene where Yuri convinces Natalka that he loves her even if she is cursed to bring him misfortune, Stalin’s starvation policies drive Yuri to try to find work in the city. In the city he gets a taste of the increasing repression and finds his way back to the village, where Natalka and the villagers have been having a rough time of their own.

It’s not surprising that this has a HUGE Rotten Tomatoes split. What is surprising, perhaps, is that this has one of the biggest splits I’ve ever seen, with critics giving the film a 10% and audiences giving it a whopping 80%. That’s bigger than God’s Not Dead‘s 15/76! Which I think tells you that critics love Communism more than they hate Jesus.

So, what’s the deal with this? Like many films that don’t color inside the politically correct lines, it’s uneven. I could speculate that the Hollywood blacklist chases away talent or that the money guys decide to interfere when they shouldn’t, but whatever, there aren’t a lot of movies that in the Forbidden Zone that are well polished (see Heaven Is For Real and Miracles from Heaven for exceptions).

Hollywood blackists: Classic!
“There go our careers.”

In this case, this is an epic story that (minus credits) doesn’t clock in at much more than 90 minutes, so a great many things are not well-developed. Stalin, for example, makes a brief couple of cameos (played with scenery chewing Vader-esque evil by Gary Oliver). There’s a pro-Communist Ukrainian rally. There’s suppression of same. There’s an actual military resistance, immediately put down. And so on. In short, there’s a conflict between the magnitude of the film’s ambitions and its actual budget.

The movie also starts out rough, just in terms of editing. This makes the two leads look a little clunky.

There’s a kind of badass action scene in the beginning that made me almost think they were going to action-hero the whole film up, which could’ve been cool. But the rest is fairly straight, until the third act military resistance.

After the first act, the movie settles down a bit and seems better put together. The principles (Max Irons, Samantha Barks) are appealing enough though not developed as well as I’d have liked. And it definitely moves. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is pleasantly derivative and consistently good, as is Douglas Milsome’s cinematography (which has flashes of brilliance).

We all liked it, for all its flaws, including The Boy who was pretty sure the film was going to lose him up front. I don’t know if we’d say it was four-out-of-five stars but it’s sure not one-half-out-of-five.

This could be the cover of a romance novel!
Next up for Irons and Barks: A remake of Ridley Scott’s “Legend”.

John Wick 2

The thing about action movies is that when they’re done well, they look effortless. In fact, a common critical sneer against the genre is that anyone who can slap together a few car chases, gun fights and explosions can do it—and by implication, “serious” drama films are much harder, requiring “real” acting and “real” character development and so on. But this is exactly backwards.

Drama is easy. You put a recognizable character in a recognizable situation and you’re halfway to the goal line. Think about your own standards when watching a drama: A single actor can carry a drama, even if it’s not very well written, shot or scored. Comedy is probably the hardest. But action is a close second, since the cardinal sin of both is boredom, and if you’re not laughing—or thrilled!—the movie is failing.

Which roughly translates to "Haters gonna hate".
The original concept for this tattoo was “OSORES ODIET”

And if there’s any evidence of the truth of this, it’s that there just aren’t that many good action movies (by percentage). And this led to the pleasant surprise of John Wick: Chapter 2, widely regard as substantially better than the first (which itself was very well regarded).

I had snuck off to see the first one without The Boy, because he was a little too jaded by too many glowingly positive reviews of mediocre comic book films to be swayed, but both he and The Flower were with me for Chapter 2 because you really don’t need to see the first one to get this. (Plot summary for movie 1: Bad guys steal John Wick’s car and kill his dog. John Wick Kills All The People.) The producers found a loose thread from the first movie regarding Wick’s car to launch into the sequel, but this is more thankfully more of a catalyst to a new story than an attempt to keep the old one going.

In Chapter 2, someone Wick gave a marker to in order to get out of the underworld life, calls it in. Santino is an Italian mobster who wants Wick to kill his sister, who’s the head of the crime family, so that Santino can take it over. Complications ensue.

Or "ARF ARF ARF ARF ARF KEANU"
The dog looks nervous. “Complications? What complications?”

The thing that made the first movie so enjoyable was that beyond competent action sequences (including a command of the space in which the action takes place that is sorely missing from most modern action films), the film hinted at an epic underworld civilization with its own set of rules. An overeager assassin breaking the rules was a major plot point, in fact. (I credit this to a Hong Kong influence, though I haven’t researched it.) So, it’s not just 2 hours of Keanu Reeves shooting at people, which might get tiring no matter how well Mr. Reeves does it.

The second film fleshes this out in an almost Lankhmarian way: Besides Ian McShane reprising his role as the hotel owner, we’re introduced to The Bowery King (essentially the king of the beggars), played by Lawrence Fishburne in a nice Matrix callback. In this situation, Wick finds Santino leveraging the Underworld’s rules against him over and over again. (This movie reinforced my belief that everyone in New York City is a criminal. ) With someone skilled at manipulating the civilization’s rules, Wick is in a paranoid situation from which there is no apparent escape.

How does it go?
“Take the blue pill and your action franchise will suck. Take the red pill and…wait, I may have that backwards.”

There will be a sequel of course. Like many second movies in a trilogy, the end here demands it. It’s probably the fastest 2 hours I’ve spent in a theater since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom so I’m not likely to mind.

But beyond action (and lots of dead people) the movie is rich with characters that it draws better than a lot of dramas—and does so very succinctly. Claudia Gerini (The Passion of the Christ) has just a short time on screen, but it’s a memorable time. The Heavy in this film is played by Ruby Rose (in the latest installments of XXX and Resident Evil this year), who manages to not be a tired tiny-girl-heavy cliché somehow. You can just tell when a movie really cares—it uses characters to paint a picture, even when they’re small parts. (Think the candy-stealing terrorist in Die Hard, e.g.) It was nice to see house favorite Peter Serafinowicz (of the Cornetto trilogy and the recent “Tick” reboot), and of course Ian McShane just has to sit around and intone to make magic happen.

Speaking of caring, the cinematography is great. Just like a film can do more with characters than have them recite lines that advance the plot, and camerawork can do more than communicate one guy shooting or punching another, the right setting and lighting can do more than provide a place for said punching and shooting and talking to happen.

The kids enjoyed it. I also enjoyed it but I didn’t find myself quite as captivated as with the first film, perhaps because my expectations were lower for that. John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of those movies that makes action look easy.

What? It's the "OK" sign. What were you thinking?
She speaks sign language, but only one sign.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Well, hell. I had gotten out of going to see When Harry Met Sally. And it’s not that I don’t like that movie, but I don’t find myself nostalgic for the “great” movies of the past—well, honestly, not for any of the movies released in my lifetime. I tend to assume I regarded them as better than they were, just because of them being au courant, which makes rediscovering films like The Jerk and Young Frankenstein all the more pleasant. But The Boy had taken His Girl had gone to see it and his verdict: “It’s funny. It’s good as a comedy. But the characters aren’t interesting.”

Harsh, but fair.

She didn't mean to wreck the romcom.
Misty-eyed Meg Ryan agrees.

On the other hand, When Harry Met Sally is considered something of a classic whereas Sleepless in Seattleisn’t, although it probably is the best film Nora Ephron directed.  Anyway, after seeing An Affair To Remember, it was sort of mandatory and we actually all rather liked it, with the references to the classic Grant/Kerr film giving the film a bit of a lift, as it was so fresh in our minds. Some random points of interest:

  • Unlike when I first saw it, I knew just about every single song in the film by heart—those are my jams now! Not those renditions, which were (and still are) hipper and more contemporary than what I listen to (which is pre-WWII recordings) but, hey, that doesn’t happen often at all.
  • Nora really liked “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, didn’t she? She uses Ray Charles’ version here and I think she used Willie Nelson’s in You’ve Got Mail. At almost the exact same point in the narrative, if memory serves.
  • Holy crap: The cars in 1993 were ridiculously ugly. You see a lot of ugly cars in movies made since the late ’60s/early ’70s, but there are always a lot of pretty ones around as well, too, from earlier eras. In 1993, they’re all boxy crap. A reminder that Federal regulation (whether American or Soviet) ends up making cars like the Yugo and the Trabant.
  • Pretty sure Meg Ryan is nuts. Hard to believe, at this point, she was America’s sweetheart.
  • I don’t mean the actress. I’m agnostic there. But her character is a stalker who abuses the power of the Internet (just pre-web! so a high-tech stalker!) to hunt down her widower.
  • Cute to have a misunderstanding with Rita Wilson, considering she had been his wife for about 5 years at the time.
  • Holy cow! Tom Hanks has two kids from a previous marriage! (Previous to Rita.)
  • Tiramisu! Ha, I didn’t know what that was either! But when I found out I did love it!

But I digress.

I would, too. Wouldn't you?
Rita Wilson protects her man from a predatory Meg Ryan.

The movie works somehow. It probably shouldn’t. As I mentioned in my Affair review, the “Ephron Apartheid”, where romances and just plain romcoms end up being chick flicks, while not Ephron’s fault, probably, can be seen here—as Ryan’s character is objectively unhinged. Unethical. And really, really self-absorbed. This is a dramatic change over Affair, where the characters’ senses of ethics and concern for each other is the cause of their misery, here our characters are the guy who doesn’t really know what’s going on, and the gal who (at least rightly) realizes the perfect man isn’t the her perfect man, at least in part because she’s chasing unicorns.

It’s romance not just swept up in passion, but completely un-moored from reality.

It's a little weird, is what I'm saying.
“Let’s just let her keep the teddy bear and get out of here.”

Despite all this, it works. The gags are nice. And it does have that old-time feel, in the sense that it knows its job is to keep you entertained. A lot of recent movies—the ones that have really taking the “save the cat” thing to heart—seem to be padding in-between set pieces. This really wants each scene to say something. It does rely heavily on the charms of Hanks and Ryan, perhaps more than Affair relies on the charms of Grant and Kerr, but we shan’t be churlish about that: Romance movies (comedy or otherwise) can’t work without heaping helpings of charisma, and this movie fades out before any of the awkward questions need to be asked.

So, yeah, we all gave it thumbs up, which is actually pretty high praise.

One of the first people I ever chatted with online was the delightful Mary Ann Madden, who was good friends with Nora Ephron (and a lot of luminaries from the ’60s and ’70s, as I later learned). She had gotten cancer in the late ’70s/early ’80s and someone had set her up with CompuServe, so she could interact with people while recovering. How early an adopter was she? Her handle (’cause it was like CB-radio, so we had “handles”) was darling@aol.com. (Update: She was obviously an early AOL adopter, too. Her CS address was in that funky octal form they used, like 70303,373.)  She suggested to me that a certain “reticence” was wise, as far as divulging personal details online goes. (It’s good advice, even if I took it to extremes. Like, this blog being the first place I mentioned I had kids, even to online people with whom I had worked for over a decade. Heh.)

I think about her often and I could never track her down post-Compuserve. I thought about her again writing this review and discovered she had died last summer of a stroke. It’s sad, but she was 82 and the cancer never did get her, so I’m at least happy she beat that. Godspeed, Mary Ann.

An Affair To Remember (1957)

Sixty years later, a big part of the reason the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr romantic flick is remembered is due to the 1993 Nora Ephron romance Sleepless In Seattle. The later film was not just an homage to Affair but part of Ephron’s apartheid: The idea that not only do men and women enjoy different movies, but that they must enjoy different movies. It’s probably not her fault but in her wake, the romantic-comedy became “chick flick” country whereas it had, in the past, been more for general audiences. Romances, too, used to be not the exclusive domain of women, unlike now, in what we might call the “Nicholas Sparks era”.

I mention this because I had never seen this movie before and I loved it.

Despite the ridiculous back projection.
That’s a lot of “charming”, right there.

Directed by Leo McCarey whose career spanned the silents before hitting such highlights as Duck Soup and The Awful Truth, this isn’t a screwball comedy or even a romantic comedy. It’s just a straight-up romance from a time when that meant keeping the audience entertained in-between the heavy petting (the audience’s petting, I mean).

Grant and Kerr meet on a cruise, the former playing a ladies’ man who’s finally (and famously) decided to settle down and the latter also being engaged to a staid character who has sent her on a cruise because, holy cow, who knew Cary Grant would be there? Our previously timid about commitment characters discover, however, that they are wildly (and deeply!) attracted to each other but also unwilling to do anything rash and stupid, and so decide to split up for six months to take care of their (ahem) situations and then, if they still feel the same way, meet on top of the Empire State Building.

It’s actually a pretty decent and sensible thing, and you find yourself liking our heroes because of it, and not just because they’re Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.

Yep.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though: It’s a factor.

Well, things go wrong, of course, and our characters (now single in the world but pining for each other nonetheless) drift about in the second half of the film where misunderstandings and lack of information conspire to keep them apart.

A good romance has suspense, you know? This has suspense. One presumes that the conventions of the genre will get our characters together but it’s not safe presumption, and most importantly, it doesn’t feel safe. There could be a tragic outcome.

And I suspect, if I saw it again, I would still be unsure what the outcome would be.

I liked it. The Flower liked it. The Boy liked it. A good movie’s a good movie, folks. Don’t let your chromosomes define you. At least as far as what movies to watch. Maybe for what bathrooms to use, but you do you.

Looks like her, doesn't it? Maybe it's Tippi Hedren!
Love hurts. (The weird thing about this, though, is that Melanie Griffith is sitting behind them! (And she was born the month AFTER the movie was released!)

The Salesman

We’ve sung the praises of Persian director Asghar Farhadi before on these pages. A Separation was a truly fine film, as was (to a lesser degree, perhaps) The Past. The Boy doesn’t remember Farhadi’s last two films all that well, but he was game to see this new one on vaguely remembering that they were good. This film would go up against the bizarre Toni Errdman and a film that was in our all-around best for 2016, A Man Called Ove. Go up against and win, in fact—a situation The Boy would refer to as “bullshit”.

And he’s not wrong. The Salesman takes Farhadi’s penchant for low-key drama and dials it down into pusillanimity.

The premise is this, an actor and his wife move into a new flat where a sketchy former tenant had lived and, one evening, when the wife hears the front-doorbell, she buzzes her husband in and leaves the front door ajar. Only it’s not her husband, and when her husband does come home, he finds blood everywhere. The neighbors have had to take her to the hospital.

The movie is terribly vague about what happened here. Farhadi used a similar gag effectively in his previous two films (particularly A Separation) to force the audience to reevaluate the narrative he previously lead them to believe, and—at least I thought—bring out the repression of the Iranian regime, where a mistake or a convenience can bring a death sentence.

I understand Mr. Farhadi lectured Americans on their civil rights record, though. Which is interesting. No, wait, it’s that other thing: boringly predictable and hypocritical.

Booooooo!
Here, Farhadi uses his Oscar to demonstrate how to throw gays from rooftops.

Here, the issue at play is that Rana, the wife (played ably by Taraneh Alidoosti, Absolute Rest) who may have been sexually assaulted would have to defend herself against an Islamic-minded court, which would ask why she left the door ajar and why she buzzed someone who wasn’t her husband into the apartment. As in A Separation, in a repressive theocracy, a mistake can become not just a sin, but a mortal sin with corporal consequences.

The problem is, Farhadi’s a little too coy here. When husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini, A Separation, and who plays with Alidoosti on the TV show “Shahrzad”) finds the culprit and seeks to exact revenge, the murkiness of what actually happened becomes all too murky, and the timeline constructed for the crime begins to fall apart (and not in a good dramatic way, but in a way that just seems sloppy). If I have gathered the story correctly—and this may be a spoiler—Rana was not sexually assaulted at all, she was simply startled by a guy who was not entirely a Good Guy. Not fully on the up-and-up, and maybe not above taking a little bit of advantage of an opportunity.

Worth a slap, sure. Maybe even a good slug. Probably not murder. And I’m not saying he is murdered, by the way, but our hero—we’ll say that’s Emad—goes through a journey similar to ours and still has murder in his heart, regardless of whether he goes through with it.

What? I'll stop bringing it up when they stop doing it!
Here our heroes have gathered to watch the latest homosexual being thrown from a building.

He doesn’t, actually. Nobody goes through with much of anything here. The dramatic action is paralyzed with people who have no moral clarity.

The irony, mostly lost on The Boy, is that Emad and Rana are playing in a production of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and Emad has literally no insight or empathy into the antagonist in his own life, whose character is not unlike Willy Loman. This parallel is conspicuously drawn by Farhadi, and I would regard it as a slap in the face of actors generally (whether it’s true or not that acting gives one no insight or empathy toward other humans), and kind of an interesting counterpoint to his winning the award.

The Boy just felt it just wasted his time. I would note, even if I cautiously recommended it to a few, that while some actors lack the courage to empathize enough with the characters they play to see their parallels in real life, some writer/directors lack the courage to make a genuine statement. (“Nobody knows” not being a genuine statement.) And there were a lot to be made here: About theocratic repression, about the need for revenge, about forgiveness, and on and on. None are actually made because Emad can’t even decide to be wrong. He can only wait for things to happen.

That’s not good in life, but it’s terrible in drama.

I'm not a fan of THAT play either, come to think of it.
See, Biff, everybody around me is so false that I’m constantly lowering my ideals…

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, you never know what modern kids will think of a four-hour movie about a conniving civil-war Jezebel like Scarlett O’Hara, and my kids were a little bit dubious (as they often are with longer films) and The Boy’s Girl dropped out, I think having seen it recently on TV (boo!) or something. But they both loved loved loved it, and couldn’t scarce believe it had taken all of four hours.

White dress. Georgian BBQ.
Literal belle of the literal ball. Or at least BBQ.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I would think of it. I’d seen it once, when a revival theater opened across the street from my high school. For the opening week, they played this film, and it was packed solid, on a weeknight which—for all TCM has done for us it has undone some of this magic—is something you don’t see much these days. There were plenty of folks in the theater, though, including one who recited the lines, loudly, right before the characters on-screen did.

Old people, man. (If it’s not them, it’s young people. And if it’s not them, it’s foreigners. And…)

This movie cooks. You can see why it’s the #1 box office of all time (adjusted for inflation). I’m convinced more than ever, that the horrific misfire that is Serena was meant to hearken to this film, and there is something uniquely appealing about a character who is as awful and determined as Scarlett O’Hara. There’s a kind of magic in Vivien Leigh’s performance which is buoyed by a wonderful supporting cast, most notably Olivia de Haviland, who comes across as so very Christian in spirit, that you feel like there must be some good in Scarlett you can’t really see.

Even if you're not.
Olivia de Haviland knows you’re better than that.

Speaking of “classic movies you couldn’t make today” (all of them), GWTW is doubtless one of the more problematic ones with Hattie McDaniel, the house negress, looking down on her people being associated with the poor white trash of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Butterfly McQueen utters the immortal line “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”

Political correctness is not merely a nuisance: It’s a destroyer of art.

Clark Gable. What could you say about him except what we say around here about all celebrities (dontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternet)? He’s the perfect counterpoint to Leigh’s O’Hara: The cad who loves no woman, but somehow loves her, even seeing how awful she is, and how she doesn’t love him because she’s in love with Ashley (the great Leslie Howard) who (while wildly attracted to her because, c’mon!) is smart enough and honorable enough to keep his promises to the Good Girl. And we all know (and suspect Ashley knows) if they ever DID get together, Scarlett would get bored so fast, it’d make everyone’s head spin.

And what does it say about women that they love this whole set up? Yikes, ladies.

And he's in no position to judge anyone.
Clark Gable judges you.

The “print” (a Blu-ray DVD) is pristine, of course, having been recently restored but I would swear they changed Leigh’s eye color. Her actual eye color was green, but it was hand-painted blue on the master because Scarlett’s eyes were notoriously blue and they cared about details like that back then. I feel like they let the natural green come out more here which, if true, seems like a bad idea. If not, well, chalk it up to an aging memory.

I found myself less smitten with Leigh this time than when I was in high school. I really had little memory of the film (part of why I was nervous about committing four hours to it) but I remembered loving it and falling in love with Leigh (just as I would fall in love with Ingrid Bergman the next week, when they showed Casablanca). I still “get it”, in the sense that she was the perfect actress to have men fall over themselves for—no one else in the movie even comes close to her beauty—but I think I’m perhaps less inclined now to believe that she felt anything like a genuine love for Ashley, than something more akin to a woman used to getting whatever she wanted obsessing over something she couldn’t have.

Nevertheless, an outstanding picture. We could all see it again.

Fiddle-dee-indeed.
After a night of sex that can only be called “problematic”.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)

Few movies of the past 35 years have been as influential as Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction classic Blade Runner. Most of the sci-fi of these past few decades have wanted to be either Blade Runner or Road Warrior—moreso, stylistically, than even Star Wars. Producers wanted Star Wars’ box office but not really its cheerful, retro feel (like its almost campy scene transitions, hearkening back to the old Flash Gordon serials). Blade Runner and Road Warrior, on the other hand, were, real, man. They were gritty visions of an inescapable future.

Not quite as bad as what we might call “Zack Snyder disease” is today, but still pretty awful.

That codpiece is super real.
Humongous wants you to embrace the realism.

Blade Runner also had a huge influence on literature, being released two years before Neuromancer, William Gibson’s grim take on the future that sounded the starting gun on a cyber-implant, corporate-ruled-dystopia which, in retrospect, was no more realistic than utopic ’50s jetpack sci-fi, but a lot more dreary. It was also a big influence on video games.

Which is, all-in-all, not bad for the film that finished 27th at the Box Office in 1982, behind Tron, Lee Horsley’s magnum opus The Sword and the Sorceror and, of course, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. (It did beat out another iconic film: John Carpenter’s The Thing. So, it’s got that going for it.)

The movie tested so poorly that a desperate Ladd Company hacked it up and added a notoriously bad voiceover (by Harrison Ford) trying to explain the plot. This gave the movie an ersatz ’40s film-noir detective feel, which should have been a good thing, but (probably because they did it without any of the talent on board, except a frustrated Ford) just made hash of the whole experience. As such, there are no less than six subsequent cuts of this film trying to salvage it.

Also, he can't believe you left your bishop open like that.
Rutger Hauer thinks seven versions is excessive.

We saw “The Final Cut”, which is Ridley Scott’s last word on what he was trying to say and do here.

And it sucks.

I kid! I kid! but not as much as I wish I were. The truth is, Blade Runner is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have in a movie theater. Why? Because it is staggeringly beautiful. Even 35 years later, the special effects are the best practical effects have to offer. As I’ve maintained in this past 18 months (where we’ve shifted our moviegoing to half-or-more revivals of classics), what works, long-term, for special effects is not whether they look “realistic”. The word “realistic” really just means “conforms to the current idea of how this impossible thing might look”. Plenty of movies from the last 15 years that were heralded as breakthroughs in CGI look positively goofy now. (All that effort Lucas put into ruining his original trilogy, for example, looks even worse now than it did back in 1997’s “Special Editions”, before we realized ol’ George was gonna bury the originals.)

What matters in a special effect is how it reads. Does it communicate what it’s supposed to communicate? That’s why an old flick, be it Wizard of Oz or Forbidden Planet, still looks great: because it was made to look good, not necessarily real. (If you don’t believe that, try watching Oz next to any of the LOTR trilogy on the big screen.)

Well, in two years, any way.
Los Angeles 2019: It’s like looking out the window.

And there is no doubt that the city of Los Angeles reads. The constant rain, the giant video billboards, the massive super-structures (even though, as is barely pointed out, the earth is depopulating rapidly), all read dystopia—albeit a strangely beautiful dystopia.

And this is true in literally every shot. There isn’t a moment of this film that’s hastily put together. I’ve heard it was a hard shoot; I believe that. This is the sort of exacting piece of art that you’d get out of Kubrick (who would take a year to shoot The Shining).

The plot really isn’t hard to follow, as the “need” for a voice-over might suggest. Harrison Ford is a pseudo-cop whose job it is to destroy androids that can pass for humans. Also, the film takes a (very typical) viewpoint that said androids are essentially human, at least when it comes to the explicatory up-front text, where it explicitly says that destroying the androids isn’t called “execution” but “retirement”.

I kid because I love. He was great.
Brion James horribly miscast as “someone who can pass for human”.

That said, the whole point of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and, in fact, the whole point of everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote, apparently, is to call into question the difference between what is real, and what you perceive to be real, and whether it matters. (I would guess PKD dropped acid at least once.) The movie can’t communicate that subtltey: If the androids are “real”, they’re sociopaths, quickly changing their emotions to suit whatever is advantageous to the situation. (This was something the book could elide over.)

So the movies is left with this ambiguity with regard to—well, look, these aren’t robots or even androids. They’re sorta bionic clones. They’re organic in every way, except somehow in their ill-defined construction process. The movie is all about this big question—to the point where Scott and Ford argue about whether or not Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character) was actually a replicant—surrounding the difference between androids and humans, and it really fails to make it much of a question at all. If the replicants aren’t human (as far as it counts), there’s no moral dilemma whatsoever.  If they are, Deckard is a monster.

But none of this would actually matter except for one thing: The movie deliberately alienates you from everyone. If you can go through this film and find someone to give a damn about, you’re a better movie-watcher than I am.

This film launched Daryl Hannah's Career of Weird.
OK, they seem nice.

The kids noticed this, too. They all agreed it was amazing to look at, but that they were sorta bored. As it dragged on, I couldn’t help but think this was two hours of brilliant set design in search of a movie.

Except for Rutger Hauer and some great character actors like the late Brion James (Cabin Boy, Flesh + Blood), William Sanderson (“Newhart”, “Deadwood”, “True Blood”), James Hong (best known these days as Kung Fu Panda’s dad, playing old Chinese guys 35 years ago), Joe Turkel (Lloyd from The Shining), the performances come off as awful. Even Brion James doesn’t really come off as being very android-y—and while this was probably the point, it doesn’t help the movie much.

Everyone else is at arm’s length distance, at best. You could say (as some did) that Ford had not yet learned how to act, but I would defy you to describe his character, regardless of how well he played it. Then see if you could describe Sean Young, Darryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy or Rutger Hauer in terms of their character. Hauer brings a lot of “humanity” to his character, through little touches he added, but it just feels like the director is so taken with the idea of blurring the line between man and machine, that he pushes man toward the machine.

And that's what you want in a movie: Desktop wallpaper.
Not gonna lie: You could stop this movie at any random frame and come up with a good desktop wallpaper.

Hey, people clapped in the theater, so for some, two hours of visual beauty is apparently enough.

We were glad we saw it. It’s an important film. It’s an influential film. It has many truly great aspects. But it’s a hard film to enjoy in any traditional sense of characters-we-care-about-undergoing-struggles-we-understand. And it’s not something I’d recommend to non-movie-lovers. We didn’t clap.

And now I go into hiding before the legions of Ridlicants come after me.

Toni Erdmann

In the immortal words of one of those foul-mouthed “South Park” kids: What the [bleep] is wrong with German people?

And the hairy one is probably the more normal of the pair.
They’re BOTH German.

Toni Errdmann is an odd, odd film. We did like it, but we were utterly shocked to find it nominated for an Oscar. (Though it was doubtless better than the utterly pedestrian and rather cowardly Persian flick that won.)

The story is this: An old man is trying to connect with his middle-aged daughter, but she’s not really having much of it. We don’t really find out why, particularly, except that dad and mom divorced at some point, and he puts the blame for his current estrangement on that, it seems. She brushes him off, and so he dons a spectacularly awful wig and some bad teeth, and follows her on a business trip to Romania where he pretends to be a character named Toni Erdmann.

Feels like a lot of missed opportunity.
This character is always threatening to be more interesting than he actually is.

What ensues never fully commits to much of anything. We’re not sure why they’re estranged, as I mentioned. We’re not sure how or why, having gotten to this point, he should suddenly become obsessed with reconnecting with her. We’re sort of led to believe he might have the health problems, though the movie thankfully (I guess) steers away from such cheesy premises. The problem, overall, though, may be that it sort of steers a way from all the premises. Why does anyone do anything? the movie seems to ask. But this is a terrible thing for a movie to ask—at least one like this one.

Toni turns out to be disappointed in what his daughter does, too, apparently. She’s a “consultant”, which means she travels to companies around the world to provide them with justifications for downsizing and outsourcing. This is touched on, but not really developed. She seems to be alienated from everyone, including the local communities she works in, but this is also not really developed. She’s alienated from her lover, which is graphically and grossly illustrated against some poor petit fours. (At which point, you’re thinking: “Germans!”) She has a breakdown at one point, which she sort of plays off as a team-building exercise—but this is also left hanging, along with the movie’s various flaccid male members you just know to expect in German flicks.

Those poor pastries.
German movies exist to remind you (in graphic detail) that people have really pathetic sex lives.

Each scene of the movie exists as its own set piece, really. Engaging enough in itself, and often exciting a certain amount of compassion for these strange people. But it never really even tries to explain anything. Some things sort of make sense, like the daughter having an amazing singing voice. And other things, like the father showing up in a Weird Giant costume, end up seeming like fairly organic outgrowths of the story. But other things just exist of themselves, and nothing really pushes the whole thing forward—something which might have been provided by (an admittedly cheesy) health problem. (Like, if the father had six weeks to live but didn’t want to admit it, or something.)

And so, The Boy and I liked it, though we would only cautiously (at best) recommend it to others. A lot of our enjoyment came from the unusualness of the film which, if you don’t see 150 movies a year, may not be a major criterion for you.

Harold and Maude (1971)

My mother and father had very little in common taste-wise. I assume, like all blushing young lovers, they agreed on everything at first, but the years after their divorce revealed how much even the things they had in common, they didn’t really have much in common. They were even both in computers—at a time when that was a rare and lucrative thing—but they were in it for entirely different reasons and with entirely different interests.

Although my mother was 18 months older than my dad, which amused him no end.
Well, I guess they had their age in common at least.

My dad liked rock ‘n’ roll, and both car chase scenes in movies and talky foreign films, and he had two Citroens. You had to have two Citroens because one was always broken, but it was an engineer’s car—it came with a hand crank, e.g., so you could start it when the battery died, and its novel suspension made it possible to, if you had a flat, drive with the tire off the ground. Or something. He was tight as a drum in a lot of ways (though he grew out of that) and had zero interest in getting the Next Bigger House or Fancier Car. He was averse to exercise on near religious principles.

My mom liked Neal Diamond, movies without a lot of talk, or tear jerkers (like Brian’s Song), and had (though eventually grew out of) a lot of aspirational materialistic goals. She is the sort of lady who mourns the passing of the department store, where one was waited on and bought goods with the expectation that they would be well made and well supported by the merchant. She, endearingly, tried to get my dad into playing tennis, which worked right up to the point where she got to be as good as (or better than) he was at it. Her goal was to get him to exercise so he didn’t drop dead at 40 and his goal, noted earlier, was to not exercise.

The Old Man knew cars.
My dad liked to point out that the post-remodel Jaguar/hearse was a different YEAR than the pre-remodel.

This very long introduction—and as I’ve noted elsewhere, this site has become more of a diary and history than a film review blog—brings us to a movie they both loved: Harold and Maude.

Which probably sums up all you need to know about my family.

This “cult classic” features a goth-before-the-first-goth’s-parents-were-born in the form of Bud Cort as Harold, a morose boy of indeterminate age (though probably around 20) who delights in killing himself in front of his mother in order to shock, embarrass and ultimately gain sympathy from her. His mother, played hilariously by Vivian Pickles, just wants to get him all sorted out in life, by any means necessary, presumably to brag or at least not to hide him from her society friends. (This is all sort of implied: This rather low-budget film features a small cast but Pickles conjures up a world of tea parties and country clubs with her every expression.)

One of Harold’s hobbies is going to funerals, and it’s there he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon, at 75, more coquettish than she’d ever been in her previous movie career). Maude is a rebel. She has a ring of keys that allows her to basically steal any car. She can’t really be bothered with authority figures. She’s enamored of life and sensuality and experience, and she seems utterly fearless. In short, despite their common hobby, she’s the exact opposite of Harold.

And the two begin an affair.

Suicide is not at all painless: It's gonna hurt when he falls backward in that chair.
One of Harold’s more “mundane” suicides.

It’s a deeply funny movie, but not disrespectful to the concept. Their romance is played for laughs, but only in how others see it: The two of them are as deadly earnest as if both were teenagers. The question is, will Harold actually learn the lessons of living—will he take them to heart?

The score is by Cat Stevens, who has a cameo, and it’s one of the best uses of a pop soundtrack ever. Stevens wrote “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”—the latter standing in for Colin Higgins terrible song-poem in the book. (Those are never good, are they? Maybe some of Roald Dahl’s were okay?)

The Flower noted it was in Technicolor, though by the ’70s, they had turned the saturation levels way down (for “realism”, presumably, in that ugly era). Still, the color holds up well, and despite being as 1971 as all heck, it has aged charmingly and not in that clunky fashion so many things of the ’70s do. She loved it.

And sings Cat Stevens.
In a dark turn, Harold takes up the banjo.

The Boy and His Girl were not as taken with it, though they allowed as how they did like it. His Girl noted that she couldn’t say she “loved” a movie about suicide. (It’s not about suicide, I thought to myself. It’s about life!) The Boy pointed out—fairly!—that much like my beloved Heaven Can Wait (1943), the character of Maude is less impressive in 2017 than it was in 1971, because in 2017 everyone is Maude. (Just like everyone is Heaven’s Henry Van Cleve now.) It’s much less endearing to be a rebel in a world where nobody lives by the rules than it was when everyone was a lot more uptight (and responsible).

I still love it. And I got to see so much more this time, like how Harold’s outfit exactly matches in psychiatrist’s at one point. And how blatantly the movie cheats with its feigned death scenes. (Cuts and mutli-person special effects are used in a way that could not possibly play in real life. But I loved that aspect of it, too.) And whatever became of Cat Stevens, this was a glorious artistic moment for him, young director Hal Ashby, and fledgling writer Colin Higgins. Higgins and Ashby would light up the ’70s (before dying horrible deaths in the ’80s, but don’t let’s think about that).

I don't think it's supposed to extend to wardrobe, though.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, this is known as “transference”.

Goodfellas (1990)

I try to deny it but in the final analysis I am just not a Martin Scorsese kind of guy. Can’t even spell his name properly. (I want to spell it “Scorcese”, even though that would be “scor-chezz-ee”, at least in some dialects—and, look, Italian’s a mess of messy dialects.) I can totally get behind the man’s skill as a filmmaker and why people think of him as a cinematic genius, but the best technique in the world doesn’t make up (for me) movies about terrible people doing terrible thing to themselves and society. I could go full Godwin here and say “Leni Reifenstahl was considered a genius, too”, but that’s over the top and, frankly, I don’t hate his movies. I just never like them very much.

This scene is like if Ricky Gervais were a gangster.
He’s not a clown. He doesn’t amuse me.

This sometimes kills, as with Hugo, which by all rights, I should have loved but was just thoroughly bored by. And I really wanted to see Silence (about Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan when it was outlawed) but I know I wouldn’t like it.

And, to be brutally honest, and keeping in with my belief that movie critics by-and-large have gut reactions to films which they then use their extensive knowledge to justify, I should note that if my true objection to Scorcese was just about the messages he seems to send and the topics he covers—well, then I really should have loved Hugo, shouldn’t I have?

Sometimes, art is just not on your frequency, and you don’t like it and it doesn’t make any sense to go beyond that.

I usually save that for the hallway.
Sorry to fart at the table.

Which brings us to Goodfellas which, along with Raging Bull (and now Silence, allegedly, according to some) are considered the high water marks of Scorsese’s career.

This is the story of a lightly murderous psychopath who lives the good life, for a while, as a mob guy. He marries a nice, psychopathic Jewish girl, and gets himself the occasional psychopathic mistress.

It’s a well-done film, obviously, and people who really like it can point out all the great shots, like a really long tracking shot through a restaurant’s back entrance, kitchen and so on, when Our Hero takes The Heroine into a club, VIP style. It’s a good shot. Must’ve been a bitch to pull off. I really didn’t care much.

I was moderately interested, overall, up until the first time Our Hero (Ray Liotta, in a career-defining performance) gets nicked and goes to jail. The movie goes on for another three hours after that (well, okay, it only feels like three hours) as he gets out of jail and starts drug running against his boss’s wishes because, hey, you know, he’s a goddamned criminal and criminals do that sort of thing. But even for criminals drugs are bad, and his increasing dependence on the wares diminishes his ability to psychopath properly. Before you know it, he’s nicked again. (Well, not before you know it. It takes about an hour.)

I do. But perhaps I dreamed it.
Anyone remember when Debi Mazar hosted a comedy show on Comedy Central?

The movie’s stinger is, essentially, that he gets put into Witness Protection and is forced to live out his life in a quiet suburb: A fate worse than death or jail (except that he chose it over death or jail).

I would’ve given it a miss but I hadn’t seen it on the big screen, and neither had the Boy. So, with The Flower and The (Boy’s) Girl in tow, we sat through this. I probably liked it least, though The Flower and The Girl weren’t huge fans. The Boy was okay with it, but he noted that, like a lot of biographical movies, it was kind of formless and it lost a lot of steam after the first arrest.

Great performances, of course, from Liotta, Joe Pesci, De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Debbie Mazar and virtually everyone. I noted that the movie virtually dares you to like anyone in the film, and The Flower said that De Niro was charming. I pointed out that he was a heavily murderous psychopath (versus Liotta’s lightly murderous one) and she agreed that he was despicable, but that as an actor, De Niro was more charming.

He's miiiiiles away...murdering somebody.
You can tell his heart’s not really in the hug here.

Fair enough: Liotta’s eyes alone make it look like he’s always on the verge of killing you and, maybe, just maybe, eating you.

Whatevs. I’m not your guy for Scorsese reviews, or shouldn’t be, unless you don’t like him either.

Time After Time (1979)

If you fall, I will catch you, I will be waiting. Time after time.

That’s right! The blockbuster 1979 movie based on Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 smash-hit is…waitaminute. Well, look, it’s a time-travel movie so clearly, the producers went back in time four years anticipating the hit song or…

Time travel is confusing.

They were confused by time travel.
This is right before they make out.

But not here! What this movie recognizes—indeed, what most time travel movies and TV shows recognized until about the ’90s—is that time travel makes no sense, so don’t really explain it, don’t look at it too hard, it’s just a vehicle for telling an otherwise impossible story.

And what a great story to tell: In Time After Time, H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell) in 1893 has built a time machine which he plans to use to go to The Future, which he envisions as a utopia. (Always a big laugh from the audience, that.) Unbeknownst to him, his good friend John (David Warner, Time Bandits) is in actuality Jack The Ripper—who was the go-to slasher of the ’60s and ’70s, also featured in 1979’s Sherlock Holmes flick Murder By Decree—and he uses the machine to escape to the future of 1979! Through a number of contrivances, the machine itself returns to base unless its overridden with a key that JT Ripper didn’t have, so Herbert can then use the machine to chase after his erstwhile chess partner.

And so we have Wells and Ripper cat-and-mousing around late-disco-era San Francisco while a fiercely liberated Mary Steenburgen aggressively pursues a romantic relationship with the Victorian writer.

So aggressive. So cute.
“Herbert, I’m practically raping you.” (You could say that back then!)

We were fortunate enough to have Nicholas Meyer and producer/hetero-life-partner Steven-Charles Jaffe on hand and they had a lot of good stories about the making of this movie. Meyer in particular seems very comfortable with talking to a crowd, and with his own artistic and life choices. (He’s basically what you want in a panel speaker: He’s got a confidence that doesn’t require him to be right or appear perfect.) One of the things he said that rang true for me as someone who has seen this movie a lot was that the movie had five aspects that reveal itself to you at different viewings: It’s a thriller, a comedy, a romance, an action flick and, finally, mordant social commentary.

I’ve seen this movie a lot, as I said, but I haven’t seen it in quite a while, so I felt like those facets really presented themselves on this re-viewing. In particular, the comedy aspects of this movie work great. It’s fish-out-of-water stuff as Wells bumbles around SFO, and McDowell is utterly charming and likable, betraying none of the psychotic tendencies of his more famous earlier roles. (And, you better believe they had to fight the studio to get him in this.) Meyer would reuse his experience (and one of the gags) in Star Trek IV.

'cause it was a crazy time.
Obligatory “wacky ’70s San Francisco clothing” shot.

The romance works really, really well, too. It’s a little shocking—frankly, it was a bit at the time, too—how aggressive Steenburgen is. Now that aggression seems archaic in its own way, but McDowell and Steenburgen were about to embark on a long romance so the chemistry positively sparks.

The thriller aspects are buoyed by the romance. The fact that we care very much what happens to our main characters gives a lot of good suspense even when (as Meyer pointed out) the crucial climactic shot is bungled. (The Ripper gets his watch-fob tangled on this steampunky doodad that comes out the machine, and this allows a last-minute escape.)

The action is very, very ’70s. Car-chase stuff, mostly. Although there’s a foot chase that’s reminiscent of The Third Man, as is The Ripper’s final gesture. This stuff doesn’t age so well, I don’t think. It’s not Bullitt or The French Connection. It’s okay, though.

This is why we haven't made any progress in time travel: Our man-caves are lacking.
A Victorian man-cave.

The mordant social commentary is actually pretty awful and, in retrospect, naive. I mean, as a kid, I thought, “Yeah, man. This is no utopia!” But as nightmarish as the World Wars were, it’s not as if wars were unknown to Brits in the late 19th century. Let us not forget that Apocalypse Now is just ’60s windows-dressing over Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Roarke’s Drift. The American Civil War. The Napoleonic Wars were essentially the World Wars pre-enacted in a previous century.

Meanwhile, in gleaming 1979 San Francisco, you’ve got cars galore. You’ve got clean air—imagine comparing it to the air in London in 1893! You’ve got unbelievable wealth. How much poverty had Wells seen versus how much he would see in “modern” San Francisco. You’ve got computers and antibiotics and birth control—one has to wonder how that conversation would’ve gone down between Wells and his modern woman—and TV (which he’s too busy bitching about what’s on to marvel at the fact that even exists), and phones and movies and subscriber trunk dialing (as David Warner swooned over in last week’s film).

And the ’70s might have been the modern high-point (or low-point) for crime, but it was probably far better than London in the late 19th century.

And those prices!
One even wonders how a 19th century fellow would’ve ACTUALLY enjoyed “that Scottish place”. After all, the cheeseburger hadn’t even been invented!

Of course, this is what we thought at the time, so the reality doesn’t matter much. But it is that never gentle reminder that the current mode of thought will doubtless be as dated as the frequently-derided ’50s optimism is today. (The Reagan era reversed some of that attitude only a couple of years later, but we won’t really be free of it until the last of the post-modern, Marxist, black-propaganda of the 20th century is completely purged.)

The girls liked this film a lot. The Boy also liked it, but not as much as the rest of us, he averred.

I won a trivia question again, third week in a row. This one for identifying that a deleted scene where Wells is forced to listen to punk rock was later repurposed for Star Trek IV. So far, I’ve noticed I do the best with trivia questions that aren’t actually about the movie being exhibited.

Army of Darkness (1992)

“Good. Bad. I’m the guy with the gun.”

Come get some.
“THIS! Is my BOOMSTICK!”

I’ve never claimed to be a good parent. I’m just around a lot. And, because I’m around a lot, I enjoy teaching my children to quote movies. For example, The Flower at about two, would often yell out:

Where’s the money, Lebowski?

The Barbarienne had a more complex speech:

Drainage! Drainage, Eli, my boy! If you have a straw, and I have a straw, my straw reaches acroooss the room and drinks your milkshake. I drink your milkshake! I drink it up!

It’s adorable. But the pioneer of movie quoting was The Boy, of course, and there were so many phrases from this film we would quote around the house, you’d have thought we were a meeting of the Bruce Campbell Fan Club.

“All right you primitive screwheads, listen up!”

“Your primitive intellect wouldn’t understand alloys and compositions and things with… molecular structures.”

“Klaatu. Barada. Necktie.”

“Well, hello, Mr. Fancypants.”

“I live. Again.” (Usually said by me after waking up.)

“Like in the deal!”

“Hey, you got something on your face.” (Followed by throwing something on the person’s face.)

That said, I would’ve given the film a miss. It’s not a great film, really, just a whole lot of fun. But a movie that can still be a whole lot of fun after 25 years is actually pretty great, I’ve learned, again and again, and sometimes stupid, silly or wacky things can be transcendent, beyond just (say) The Marx Brothers, Chaplin and Keaton.

Oh, Embeth. You ARE good...
“I may be BAD. But I feel GOOD.”

There’s also a kind of low-budget jiu-jitsu that goes on, too. Since (almost) all special effects age into conspicuousness, a lot of things that seemed cheesy at the time for being low-budget or dated—like stop-motion and puppet skeletons—end up transcending their humble roots out of sheer appropriateness. By this time, of course, the Evil Dead “series” has gone from the sincere (and unintentionally campy) Evil Dead, to the crazy-but-still-oddly-effective-mix-of-horror-and-comedy sequel/remake Evil Dead II, to the action-comedy-with-some-horror-effects Army of Darkness, and the mugging skeleton puppets, Bruce Williams as a lich-ized version of himself (and similarly the beautiful/uglified Embeth Davidtz), mixed in with stop-motion-bat-winged baddies all just fits.

It’s an unusual film. Our hostess (April!) confessed to not really getting this one, and I understand that. It’s the Three Stooges Meet Night Of The Living Dead by way of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court and if you’re into it, there’s little better in this world. If you’re not, it’s probably just crazy hash.

Needless to say, of course, we all loved it. I think The Boy and I were particularly impressed because we had seen it so much on the little screen when he was younger it bred that kind of easy contempt one gets for “things that are always on”. But there’s nothing like going back to something you loved and not being embarrassed by having loved it in the first place.

I SLEPT TOO LONG!
From the alternate ending (not shown this evening).

North by Northwest (1959)

It’s probably only interesting to me and a few other nerds that Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick both have seven films in IMDB’s top 250. Of course, seven films represents over half of Kubrick’s output and only a little over 10% of Hitchcock’s, and there probably isn’t another director that has had a run like Hitch’s from the late ’40s to the early ’60s (unless it’s Alfred Hitchcock from the late ’30s to the late ’40s). And North By Northwest is considered in his top 5 films along with Psycho (1960), Vertigo (1958), Rear Window (1954) and Dial “M” for Murder (1954). I’m pretty sure nobody else has made two top 250 films in the same year .

He's not fighting this that hard, really.
No matter how much they had to drink.

The funny thing, though, about rewatching this film is that I was a little underwhelmed. And I think The Boy was, too. The Flower and The Boy’s Girl loved it, but this is where being a cinephile can have its downside. We (the Boy and I) both noticed the sparing use of music, and in places where music would’ve definitely improved things, like the cropduster sequence. The lack of music is positively odd there.

My theory on this, for a long time now, is that Hitch simply resented the brilliant musicians he worked with because they were geniuses who were not him. I don’t find this as sinister as my college music-for-TV-and-film prof (David Raksin) did. (Oh, he could rant about that “fat, old man”, he could, and understandably.) But Hitch was a guy (like Kubrick) who wanted to control every aspect of his film. He did not view filmmaking as a “team effort” even though it most certainly must be. I’ve heard it said that he made Psycho to prove he could make a movie without a story and The Birds to prove he could make one without acting (though I’m not sure either charge is justified).

But, hey, Hitch was in England during WWI. Maybe he had experience.
I always felt like Grant’s straight line running would be especially ineffective as a defense against a biplane attack.

Anyway. It’s still a great movie. A momentary misunderstanding leads to Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill being mistaken for a mysterious spy and abducted by evildoers working for James Mason and Martin Landau (in one of the great “heavy” roles), and the subsequent insanity requires him to flee in search of the real man he’s been mistaken for. On his journey he crosses paths with Eva Marie Saint (On The Waterfront) who just throws herself at him in one of the great screen romances.

I swear to God, every time I see this film, I have the same reaction. “Holy cow, Eve is throwing herself at him.” She doesn’t just flirt aggressively, but virtually challenges him to bed her down right then with the cops breathing down their necks. And then I think, “Well, he’s Cary Grant. That’s probably how it would go down.” And then she gets even more aggressive. And then I remember (after the film reminds me) that this is all part of the plot, a la Notorious. Nothing in this movie is an accident or just sloppy, of course.

James Mason is not amused.
Though I don’t recall this groping scene.

The other thing that gets me, every time, is the ending. I forget which filmmaker was talking about this, but he worked with Roger Corman, and he wanted to have a bit of exposition at the end of his film, to which The Corman said, “Monster’s dead. Movie’s over.” Hitch was the king of MDMO: In this film there aren’t thirty seconds between Eve slipping from Roger’s fingers to the train dalliance that the film ends on. It’s astounding. Dial “M” for Murder is another one like that:

“Take him away!”

(combs mustache)

The End.

Psycho is the exception and its lengthy post-Mother-mortem is a little hard to watch these days when of course we all know what psychotic mother-phobic slasher killers have going on in their crazy noggins.

At two-hours-and-fifteen minutes, this film still flies and is still fun with all its twist-and-turns. I’m just not sure if I’d rank it as highly today as I would’ve when I first saw it, or if it was just a mood thing. I could certainly watch it again, however, which probably tells you all you need to know.

But it would be in the shape of a giant gold top hat on Lincoln's head.
Sadly, there’s no actual house atop of Mount Rushmore. I feel like Donald Trump would live there, if there were.

Manchester By The Sea

I was on the fence about this one. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s last film (as auteur) was Margaret, which I did not see.  His prior film was 2000’s You Can Count On Me, which is what won me over, at least up to the box office window. YCCOM was a morose little film with Laura Linney and a relatively unknown Mark Ruffalo (playing the only role he’d ever play) as brother and sister whose lives were a wreck due to having suddenly lost their parents at a young age. Linney’s fragile life is upended when Ruffalo suddenly shows up after a long absence, and there’s virtually no chance of a “Hollywood” ending because It’s Just Not That Kind Of Movie.

Things Casey Affleck has never said.
“A screwball comedy, you say?”

But, here’s the thing: There’s a big difference between morose and nihilistic which Lonergan seems to appreciate really well. His characters are motivated out of concern for each other, and they’re trying to do the best they can but are just overwhelmed by the past. This tends to make a movie much more watchable than one about mostly functional people who treat each other badly, at least for me.

That brings us to today’s feature, Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck is Lee, a guy living a meager life as a handyman in Boston, who he gets word that his brother died and (inexplicably to Lee) puts him in charge of his nephew, Patrick. The movie is basically Lee’s struggle regarding what to do with Patrick. We are immediately tantalized with a flashback showing Lee and Patrick getting along famously on a fishing boat with Patrick’s father, Joe (Kyle Chandler, Zero Dark Thirty, Carol) at the helm, so the question becomes “What the hell happened to cause this split?”

Then we get flashbacks of Joe’s heart problem and bitchy wife (Gretchen Mol, 3:10 To YumaThe Notorious Bettie Page) and of Lee’s happy home life with salty-but-warm Michelle Williams and his three beautiful childr—

OHMYGODWHEREAREHISWIFEANDCHILDREN!?!?!

Which, no, they haven't.
Eaten by sharks, if movies have taught me anything.

Yeah. So. Best case scenario when you see this flashback, which is very early, is a bitter divorce that ruined Lee. But you know it’s not going to be anything that prosaic. Lee is a walking ruin. And where the hell is Patrick’s mother?

That’s your movie, right there. We live through Lee’s tragedy to understand where he’s coming from, but, as with YCCOM, we end up with a situation that’s not exactly a happy ending but still leaves us with respect for the difficult choices Lee makes. Affleck is good, of course, as he always is, though I’ve enjoyed other performances of his more (like Gone Baby Gone). Michelle Williams has a few scenes that’ll rip your heart out.

Yeah, this is a film that’s chock full of acting, and it’s not all of the weeping, broody stuff. That’s the Academy-bait stuff, of course, and Affleck’s turned in a body of performance of the sort that ultimately gains respect for a guy even if he is Ben Affleck’s brother.

Obviously, one doesn’t recommend this sort of film for everyone. But I don’t consider it a downer, myself: Bad things happen to people in life, and what matters is how they handle those things. The little flicker of not-quite-optimism-but-at-least-a-kind-of-indomitability that Lonergan keeps alive is what makes these movies palatable to me and raises it above the Oscar-grabbing despair of the pack. The Boy strongly approved, as well, and for much the same reason.

Just super.
Everything’s going great. Just great. Couldn’t be better. What? These razor blades? I shave. A lot.

La La Land

You never know. That’s sort of become my mantra. With my “reading-all-my-books” project, I’ve had a poor record of guessing which books I’d like, and even seeing classic movies, while I can guess that I’ll like them, I’m often surprised by them. (As in “I wasn’t expecting that sort of experience.”) But that can cut both ways, and there’s a lot of pressure on the guy (Damien Chazelle) who made one of my favorite films—if not my favorite—of 2014, Whiplash to hit it out of the park in his sophomore effort, a musical no less!

Unless of course Gosling and Stone can actually levitate.
And fully embracing the less-than-literal nature thereof.

And the opening of La La Land had me worried. It’s a lot of what I don’t like about modern musicals (when I’m unfortunate enough to see a number from one): Sort of bland, sort of generic, a reasonable set-up, surely, but with the over-produced vocal style that makes it so clear how fake the whole thing is. I mean, obviously The King and I and Singin’ in the Rain are fake. But those people (or the people dubbing them, heh) could stand on a stage and project something like the sounds you hear on screen.

When a crowd of people standing on an open freeway sound like they’re whispering in your ear, well, it just alienates me. It might be because of my college education, in which I was exposed to a ton of live (unamplified) music, or it might more likely just be some idiosyncratic aesthetic quirk, but the effect is to leave me utterly cold.

His characters, of course. Not him. He's lovely. Probably.
Or maybe I’m just a jerk. (J.K. Simmons pictured for no particular reason.)

Thereafter, however, the songs are mostly between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, and the intimacy makes the whole effect work, not least because of Chazelle’s deft technique and unabashed affection for the city, the business, and the spirit behind it all, but also because Stone and Gosling are endearingly offbeat.

Gosling, even when he’s heartthrobby (Gangster Squad, Crazy, Stupid, Love.) has an element of the unusual, which shines in his weirder roles whether lovable (Lars and the Real Girl, The Nice Guys) or menacing (Drive, Only God Forgives), but here we have a nice mix of intense oddness that is both lovable and a little menacing, as Gosling plays Sebastian, a guy who lives for restoring a long-despoiled L.A. club to its former jazz glory.

Pure jazz, he assures us. And, as a musician, I can think of no more oxymoronic phrase as “pure jazz”. But he’s talking about that sort of masturbatory “who cares what the audience thinks?” stuff that was represented so well in Whiplash, and most of the time accurately reflects an indifference if not outright hostility to the listener.

That’s neither here nor there, since this is a story about passion and improbable dreams, and his, certainly, is an improbable dream.

But I'm cynical that way.
Less probable than levitating at the Griffith, I’d say.

Stone, meanwhile, is a struggling actress like tens of thousands of others, particularly unsuccessful (like tens of thousands of others), and in the inevitable hookup, we get a kind of reverse Star Is Born scenario, where he sells out (i.e. achieves commercial success) which results in contempt (rather than jealousy) and she gives up and, as my aptly-named Twitter pal @JulesLaLaLand points out, this is more Umbrellas of Cherbourg than Singin’ in the Rain.

But it’s still, at heart, an affirmation for the creative effort, for the improbable dreams, and (in a scene that reminded me very much of Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris) ultimately used to an emotionally effective gut-punch of an ending. An ending which, whatever its larger intentions were, also works as a sort of apologetic for Hollywood marriage and divorce.

I didn’t love it as much as Whiplash because, to me, the 2014 film was just pitch-perfect at every step and a dead-on representation of that sort of insane musical pedagogy, but this film is much more ambitious, much trickier and a good omen for future Chazzelle films. This is a unique movie, despite having ten times the budget of the last one, and there had to be all kinds of struggles with the studio to get it out the way it is.

They're supposed to be watching "Rebel Without a Cause".
Odd, but oddly appealing.

Improbably, this has paid off with a $100M+ box office that may ultimately put it in the top 20 films of 2016, so that’s also a good omen. The Boy, who is not especially inclined to love musicals, was pleased. The Flower, who is on a serious Technicolor kick, and in a very judgmental mood regarding the limited color palette of todays’ films, was also mightily pleased by what she saw as homages to the great technicolor musicals of the past.

High praise indeed.

Singin’ In The Rain (1951)

The Flower avoided all films over the past two weeks to make sure she was over her cold well enough to see and enjoy this film. She was, as the kids say, “hype” about this 1951 musical classic, in all of its Technicolor glory. The Flower has become so entranced by the style of the classics we’ve seen, she’s vowed to bring back Technicolor and proper set design, wardrobe and whatever else it takes to Make Movies Great Again.

Milk was not, in fact, used.
“I’m happy again…”

A novice—a rank amateur, some would say—might worry about That Much Hype before a movie, but 2016 taught me that time has a way of picking winners. So, despite the occasional quips of “So, when does Malcolm McDowell show up?” I was not the least bit surprised that this film was a Huge Hit with her, as well as with The Boy and His Girl. And, really, with everyone. For some revivals, the theater uses a smaller auditorium but for this, they used one of the big ones, and it was packed.

And people clapped after some of the dance numbers, especially “Good Morning” and “Make ’em Laugh” because, really, what else can you do? I’m not really a big dance guy but I was impressed, repeatedly, by the numbers. (I’d seen the film before but only on TV which, meh. Yeah, I’m a snob. You should know that by now.)

Maybe they should've tried dancing on a cloud.
You can’t even see the flesh-colored bandage used to hide the burst blood vessels in Debbie Reynolds’ feet.

Almost ironically, the weakest part of the film is the opening number where the three leads sing the title song at a traditional tempo while stamping around in galoshes. “Singin’ in the Rain” had been a modest hit back in 1930 and appeared in half-a-dozen pictures before this one, but Gene Kelly’s brilliant decision to slow it down and give it a less frantic and more beatific tempo and style does as much for the song as Dooley Wilson’s relaxed-swing vibe does for “As Time Goes By”.

The hook of the film was pretty hoary even at the time: A silent movie duo finds their careers on the rocks with the advent of sound. Oh, he’s okay (Gene Kelly) but she (Jean Hagen) sounds like a gangster’s moll. Hagen’s performance is unquestionably brilliant. If she had just done a screechy voice through the whole thing, it would’ve been torture every time she came on screen. Instead, she makes these wonderfully weird attempts to sound “proper” and ends up with an accent hash of bad English, Queens and sorta proto-Valley girl. It’s a marvel.

Sublime.
She’s amazing, but probably overlooked in hindsight, since she has no song and dance numbers.

Donald O’Connor is, of course, brilliant. He’s also remarkably handsome, which isn’t something that was obvious (to me) on the small screen. Especially for a guy who’s comic relief, he supports the film easily and plays off Gene Kelly easily.

From what I can tell, nobody liked Gene Kelly (in terms of working for him on this set). The stories one hears are similar to those one hears about Fred Astaire. These guys were perfectionists and they had Big Tempers. In addition, he was apparently trying to get out of his contract with MGM. The beauty of this is how absolutely none of that ever shows up on screen.

Which brings us to the late, great Debbie Reynolds. Much like O’Connor, she suffered tremendously at Kelly’s hands, but neither of them would exactly say so. (Kelly would, and did, admit this much later in life.) And yet this 19-year-old with no dance experience doesn’t just keep up with the two experienced hoofers, she looks like she’s doing it easily, like she was born dancing and nothing could be more natural to her than playing off the greatest dancers of the era. Not just easily, but joyfully.

And some other parts of her.
Cyd Charisse’s legs are ALSO in the movie.

One of the recent retrospectives I read compared Debbie Reynolds with her daughter, Carrie Fisher, in terms of how they viewed life. To the end of her days, Reynolds seemed to go through life with a positive, grateful attitude, while Carrie Fisher could scarcely countenance such a thing. Fisher was from the Holden Caulfield era of everything-not-scuzzy-is-fake, and though I think (to some degree) she overcame some of this, it’s part-and-parcel of the ’60s tradition of cynicism and degradation. At some point, entertainers forgot that what they give people is a vision of beauty, wonder and, yes, fantasy; of states much higher than can be attained in our daily lives.

This is why a movie like this, rare even in the most upbeat of eras, is like a unicorn today.

Lion

One expects certain things from award season films. Competent crafstmanship, primarily, and typically actor-strong material. They will, of course, en masse tend to reflect Hollywood’s callow social and political sensibilities (to say nothing of their preferred emotional states) but individual films have some leeway. Also, when Weinstein is involved, all bets are off: That guy can pimp a film.

Some license was taken.
Artist’s rendition of Weinstein carrying Gwyneth Paltrow to her Oscar win.

But it says something—something that irritated The Boy in particular—that the lobby stand-up for Lion called it a “feel-good movie”. It’s not, really: It’s just not a feel-horrible film, which is, shall we say, a popular motif amongst award-bait films.

The story is this: Young Saroo nags his older brother to take him on a night job that he’s really too young for, but the older brother gives in only to find that Saroo can’t even stay awake. He lets the boy sleep while presumably chasing after work, and when Saroo awakens the station is empty and he is alone with no idea how to get home. An inopportune bit of exploration finds him aboard a train travelling over a thousand miles away from home, to a Bengali part of India where nobody speaks his language (Hindi) or recognizes his town name.

The first act of the movie consists of young Saroo’s adventures trying to get home, fleeing the multitudinous predators in Calcutta, and it is tremendous. Young Saroo is admirable, brave and resourceful, and the streets of India are parlous indeed. Worse still, it seems, is the orphanages, which are basically prisons.

But Charles Dickens just called from the grave to say "Whoa."
You don’t want to know what he’s hearing.

Then Saroo is adopted by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham (300, Public Enemies) which provides a few moments of interest as Kidman (who seems to have recovered from her plastic surgery) gets to pour her heart out to the orphan boy. We also see another adoptee, who seems to be autistic or otherwise (mildly) brain-injured, and how that plays with Saroo.

Now, cut to 2008, and Saroo is grown up, played by Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) and a chance encounter with a pastry turns the all-Australian boy into a Man Obsessed By His Past.

This is a little weak.

Now, this is based on a true story, and one cannot dismiss out-of-hand that Saroo simply internalized the “can’t possibly find home” idea until a pastry and Google Earth (seriously!) turned him back on to the idea. But I felt like (similar to AKA Nadia) we needed to see some of this. What it looks like is pretty-okay-to-say-nothing-of-darn-fortunate young man suddenly decides to treat everyone around him like crap because he’s suddenly got the fever. It may simply have happened this way, of course: the actual Saroo Brierly may have never given it a second thought for 20 years, and acting like a jerk might’ve seemed to be the go-to move.

'cause they do things. To their faces.
So glad I didn’t have to spend the whole movie thinking “What did you do to your face?”

But this is kind of my wheelhouse: I love movies about obsession and tend to be very forgiving toward obsessed characters. Which I’m sure is no reflection whatsoever on my own personality. But I had trouble relating to the guy and I shouldn’t have.

The Boy was pretty much out at this point. He loved the first part of the movie, really didn’t like the second part, to the extent of giving the movie a disappointed and frustrated thumbs down. I probably would recommend anyway, though reservedly.

What kind of cracked me up was that a major plot point of the film was that young Saroo had mispronounced the name of his village. But I could parse the name just fine, and I know nothing about India. I mean, seriously, when they did the big reveal of his actual town name I was all, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought it was.” So that particular reveal didn’t work for me. The only thing I could think was that maybe out in Calcutta, they don’t know anything about Hinduism since the general region is predominately Muslim but, no, Hindus dominate the city.

So, go figger.

The final scenes work very well, no doubt, but of course they would: Any reasonably competent set of actors could have wrung tears with the scenario set up. I’m not knocking this: It worked well enough for me to recommend, but of course it didn’t manage to win The Boy back over.

But! It’s not super-depressing. Which I guess makes it the “feel good movie” of the season. (Maybe everyone in La La Land has cancer, I haven’t seen it yet.)

Impossible!
How can anyone be depressed looking at that handsome mug?

Time Bandits (1981)

Oh-rye-in-eye-ay, oh-rye-in-eye-ay, oh-rye-in-eye-key-oo-lay.

Ka-lay-oo-lao-ay, oh-rye-in-eye-ay, sya-tay-lee-ay-vee-show!

I saw Time Bandits when it came out and was a bit disappointed, to be honest. Directed by Terry Gilliam and co-written by him with Michael Palin, with John Cleese, and with six dwarves representing each of the ex-Monty Python members, to say nothing of the premise, explained by George Harrison in deadpan on the talk shows (paraphrase from memory): “When God was creating the universe, everything that got done late on Friday afternoon had a few holes in it…”

Well, I expected hilarity. And this is not a hilarious movie. As such, when it rolled around as part of the Laemmle’s Time Travel month (the first week having been Back to the Future, which we had just seen), I was cool on seeing it. The Boy was “hype” though, as the young folk say these days, having not been to the movies since New Year’s Eve, and with The Flower bowing out because she had been under the weather and didn’t want to chance missing out on Sunday’s showing of Singin’ in the Rain, it was just he and I, just like the old days.

Well, except now his girlfriend tags along, too.

Which, if I’m bein’ honest, is a family tradition—and a salutary one, as she is a nice girl.

Not really. Can you imagine?
The Boy and The Girl.

Anyway, after seeing it, I basically forgot about it except for the closing song, “Dream Away,” one of the few memorable moments on George Harrison’s disappointingly forgettable Gone Troppo album. And for reasons known only to God and perhaps George, I have broken out into the nonsense chorus pretty routinely for the past 35 years. (Holy schmap!) Which served me well when the convivial host of the evening, April, mentioned that the soundtrack was supposed to be full of music by Harrison but most wasn’t used and then asked what hit song did come out of this movie.

Oh-rye-in-eye-ay…

Anyway, won a coupon for some free popcorn (I have a wallet full of these, because I seldom use them) and a pass, and also the very first issue of Space, a science fiction magazine that had a short run in the ’50s, courtesy of a local comic book shop. None of which gets me to the movie.

I ramble.
I need a freakin’ map to actually get to the movie, y’know?

Which, perhaps unsurprisingly, I liked better than I did the first time: Much better. Akin to Jaws, having the wrong expectations for a movie can really put a damper on the fun, and looking at it less as a zany Python flick and more as a kid’s adventure (and precursor to my much beloved Adventures of Baron Munchausen), I found myself really enjoying the whimsy, and general oddness.

It’s a surprisingly kind movie, except in how it regards the materialistic parents of our hero Kevin (Craig Warnock, who got the job when his brother auditioned—that must make for interesting family dinners—and didn’t act much beyond it), who are literally disintegrated after failing to heed their son’s admonishments vis a vis touching Evil. I’ve always imagined that Kevin would go on to be adopted by Fireman Sean Connery, since Agamemnon Sean Connery had already adopted him, at his insistence. In this particular regard, the movie inverts the fairy tale paradigm, in which the evil element injects itself after the parents have been lost in some fashion or another. (Quick! Name a Disney princess with two parents!)

You know, I feel like it’s worth noting, somehow, that in my life, I have read about far many more materialistically grasping, keeping-up-with-the-Jones-type suburbanites than I’ve ever met. Some step-relatives of mine were preoccupied with stuff-as-status, and I feel like my neighbor has a bit of that going on (though not a lot, necessarily).

Meh.
Who DOESN’T want The Most Fabulous Object in the World?

That aside, our heroes traipse through a battle with a height-obsessed Napoleon (Ian Holm), wealth redistribution in Sherwood Forest with an oddly insincere Robin Hood (John Cleese), and take a ride on the Titanic—managing to crash into an apparently frequently reincarnated and troubled amorous couple (Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall) twice—before venturing off into the Time of Legends, where they must outwit a seafaring ogre (the recently deceased Peter Vaughn, best known of late for his portrayal as the blind librarian on “Game of Thrones”) and his wife (Katherine Helmond, inexplicably un-made-up but just as cheerfully ogreish) before embarking on a quest for The Most Fabulous Object In The World.

Said object being nothing more than trap laid by Evil, in perhaps the least subtle attack on materialism ever. Evil is played by the great David Warner who, in the late ’70s and ’80s filled the roles that, post-Die Hard, seemed to always go to the late Alan Rickman. I mean, I don’t know: It just seemed like there was a disparity in the caliber of films he was in prior to Rickman’s break-out performance (The French Lieutenant’s WomanThe OmenTime After Time—which is the last movie on this month’s time-travel schedule) and after (The Unnameable II, The Ice Cream Man, Beastmaster III).

Well, whatever. He’s always good, and here he nails Gilliam and Palin’s eccentric view of the Devil: A narcissist who is obsessed with technology and denies that his prison is even really a prison, while randomly blowing up his minions or turning them wholly or partly into animals, and at least a third of whose lines consist of apologizing for the linguistic tics where saying something is “good” is not good when you’re evil, and so you lack any really coherent way to transmit your approval of things.

It’s fun. And the special effects work very, very well indeed. I think because they were never (as I think is always the case with Gilliam) obsessed with “realism”, only that distinctive aesthetic that carries over from Gilliam’s days doing the animated bits of Monty Python. Said aesthetic reaching its peak (in this blogger’s humble opinion) with the aforementioned Baron Munchausen.

Anyway, The Boy, who saw it a long time ago on TV, really enjoyed it. And it’s apparently a favorite of his girl, so that’s probably a good sign.

It's a muddle, theologically speaking.
God orders his minions to clean up the mess that, strictly speaking, He made.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

It is, perhaps, fitting that our first film of the New Year should be Kubrick’s tale of—wait, what’s this movie about again? And why is it fitting?

Forget it. I’m on a roll.

I’ve never seen this movie. I’ve started a few times, and never made it past the monkeys which constitute part one. This is followed by a cryptic moon investigation. This, in turn, is followed by an expedition to Jupter. And part four…well. At the start of part three, The Flower leaned over to me and said “This movie’s all over the map!”

See you next Wednesday!
So many guys in monkey suits, you’d think it was a John Landis film.

It does actually all tie together, though at least one original idea was to have it be a bunch of short stories. The MacGuffin, as it were, is a mysterious black monolith (“The Sentinel”, apparently, though this term is not used in the movie, I don’t think). This shows up at each part of the movie and is the (largely unexplained) catalyst for the various events. In the first part, about 25 minutes long, the monolith apparently bestows enlightenment on some proto-humans. A lot of people miss this.

I think it’s pretty clear but it’s not spelled out. In fact, of the 140+ minutes of the film, nearly 90 are dialogue free. The dialogue-free parts, especially in the beginning, work really well. The special effects, nearly fifty years later, are still pretty astounding, doubtless due in part to Kubrick hiring a battalion of animators to black out any of the tell-tale borders when compositing shots. You can see why people would believe Kubrick faked the moon landing for NASA, but my theory is that Kubrick actually had a space station, and helped NASA to get to the moon to provide cover for his advanced technology.

Prove me wrong.

.evaD ,taht od t'nac I yrros m'I
We’re through the looking glass here, people.

Someone asked me who the stars were in the film, and I realized on seeing it that there’s really only one: HAL. Voiced by veteran actor Douglas Rain, designed by Kubrick and (probably) Douglas Trumbull (who would go on to use his expertise to create Silent Running), the emotionless eye which calmly narrates the deaths of humans is an archetype for non-robotic computers to this day.

The third part of the movie ends up being the strongest thereby: With Keir Dullea’s Dave playing off the mellow, homocidal HAL in a struggle for survival, and set at Kubrick’s tortuous pacing, it is by itself one of the greatest movies in sci-fi movie history.

So, if the first part sets up a mystery, and the second part heightens the mystery and offers some clues, the third act satisfyingly builds to a tremendous climax. Then there’s the fourth act.

Well, look: For the sake of the narrative, you’ve gotta show a human evolving into something as wondrous as an ape evolving into a man. But your audience is chock full of humans! Worse, you’re a human yourself. So, what’s a guy to do? Drop some acid and hope that he remembers what it was like?

I’m not saying that, just because it was 1969, and the last twenty minutes are a sort of psychedelic mysticism that acid was involved. But I’m not not saying it, either.

Whoooooa.
What the actual F?

Jokes aside, it probably wasn’t. I mean, I don’t know, but if you’re a “control freak” on the level of Kubrick, it’s almost unimaginable to think you’d do something as unpredictable in its effects (including when it might come back to haunt you) as LSD. On the other hand, Trumbull was perhaps a big part of this sequence, so even if Kubrick never dabbled… Hey, I’m not here to judge.

Probably the weirdest thing about this movie is that it does work. I would argue that there’s almost no point in seeing it on the little screen, and that’s why I never managed. I don’t see how you can appreciate the effects, to say nothing of sitting at home for a 2.5 hour movie where 1.5 hours of it are silent. (If you live alone and turn off your devices, and get close enough to the screen: Maybe.)

It often finishes at #1 on “best ever” movie lists, on “best sci-fi”, and so on. I don’t know if I’d agree; that might depend on the day you asked. But the desire to make a non-kitschy, non-kid-flick (though it is rated G) sci-fi film definitely shows, as does the amazing attention to detail typical of Kubrick’s work.

The Flower liked it but wasn’t sure she could watch it right away again (like the other Kubrick films we’ve seen). I don’t know. Maybe. The Boy was sick so it was just the two of us, so we didn’t get his feedback on this one, alas.

Maybe if you’re not feeling super-antsy, this is one to check out.

They still haven't figured it out, though.
Pictured: Kubrick explaining to NASA how to get to Jupiter.

Fences

This would be the last film we would see in 2016, and I was really, really on the fence (ha!) about it. (We were actually planning to see Manchester by the Sea first, but it was sold out!) The trailers make it look like fairly typical, grim, end-of-year Oscar-bait. And in fairness, it is. But in more fairness, it’s a lot more than that.

Good stories told in bad chairs.
Like…sitting! There’s a lot of sitting!

Denzel Washington directs himself as the primary force, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s play Fences. This movie never shakes off its stage roots, which isn’t something that bugs us, but which some have criticized it for. One reviewer has said that the cinematic form isn’t exploited, and only serves to weaken the intensity of the original play, to which I say: Fine, it was plenty intense.

Troy is a garbage man, who rides with his pal on the back of the truck in 1956. He’s got some stress because he raised hell that black men weren’t allowed to drive the truck, only to haul the garbage.  Troy’s got a bit of an issue on this subject, feeling robbed of a glorious sports career because coloreds weren’t allowed to play the majors back in the…I think it was the ’30s. But the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t let the characters rest on the (brutally unfair) treatment they got in a truly structurally unequal society. They are the architects of their own destiny for good and ill, and there’s no rest for the viewer who wants a simplifcation.

Greedy.
“No, I won’t share my Oscars with you, woman!” “But you have two!”

One is entirely inclined to side with Maxson, as a likable, larger-than-life character—at least at first. But he’s not great with his sons. But then, he’s a pretty stand-up guy in a lot of ways. But in a lot of ways, he’s not. And it goes on-and-on like this, down to a backstory that’s just brutal (though not atypical for many turn-of-the-century poor kids).

The Boy, who was gung ho about this on the way out said, “That was some [expletive deleted] acting!” And he’s right. This is an actor’s movie and it’s chock full of acting from end-to-end. Washington and Viola Davis make you feel for these characters to where they vanish as stars and become truly three-dimensional. When Denzel gives his heart-breaking speech—he’s done wrong, he’s gonna keep doing wrong because it’s all he’s got—it’ll rip your heart out. But Viola counters with her own speech that reverberates twice as hard, because wrong is wrong, no matter the circumstances.

The two of them carry the film, by-and-large, but not because the supporting actors are not also great. Stephen Henderson is Maxson’s wiser-than-he-might-seem co-worker. Russell Hornsby is the older son, a seemingly shiftless musician, while Jovan Adepo is the younger son. Both look for approval from Maxson, who’s got none to give. Saniyya Sidney is the picture of innocence and forgiveness. And if Mykelti Williamson’s performance doesn’t rip your guts out, we can’t be friends.

Guts. Out.
Hornsby and Williamson.

My only sense of the story’s weakness is that it doesn’t have what would traditionally be considered a main character. It’s clearly Maxson, in terms of screen time and struggle, but he never actually changes at any point. Ever. His character (realistically enough, mind you) doesn’t even admit he’s wrong, no matter how wrong he is. It could’ve been Cory (Adepo), the younger son whose final confrontation with Maxson should be the turning point for him as a character, but it’s not really—whether or not he sees the wisdom in his older brother’s final words is pretty up in the air.

But, no point in being slave to a formula. This movie delivers real and sympathetic characters and tons of unabashed drama in a way I don’t expect to be equaled this award season. If some serious statuettes aren’t handed out to this near masterpiece, I’ll begin to suspect the whole thing is, as we say in the closing days of 2016, “rigged”.

Intension.
An especially tense moment amid 2-and-a-half hours of tension.

Die Hard

TNow I have a machine gun: Ho. Ho. Ho.

Ho. Ho. Ho.
Alan Rickman reading this is what makes it work.

Setting aside the issue of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, much less the best Christmas movie ever, it’s almost indisputably the best of the ’80s action films, edging out classics like Lethal Weapon, or anything with Stallone or Schwarzenegger. (To de-controversialize this, I’ll say it’s the best “Buddy Cop” movie of the ’80s, since one could quibble over Aliens or perhaps First Blood.) It is also one of the slickest movies ever made, and epitomizes the ’80s in a way no other movie does, except perhaps its sassy sister flick, Working Girl.

The hair is large. The cocaine plentiful. Rich douchebags, incompetent law enforcement, and unscrupulous media personalities nearly get everyone killed. No one will listen to the man (or woman) doing the actual work. Good and evil are plainly delineated, and violence is the answer to virtually every problem.

Or boobie, if you prefer.
Hans! Bubbeh!

The Flower contends that not only is this the best Christmas movie, it’s the Best Movie. (Although she may have been exaggerating for effect.) The Boy (and his girl) liked it, though they both had seen it before. I probably liked it more than I did in the ’80s, when we were driving by the Nakatomi building on our way to school.

The Boy remarked on how much love went into the proceedings, and he is truly correct there. Not a scene passes that doesn’t develop character, provide exciting action or suspense, advance the plot, or just generally ramp up the sense of peril. Classic touches include things like:

  • the vacuous anchorman who says “As in Helsinki, Sweden”
  • actually that whole running dialogue between the guy hawking the book and the news woman talking about how the hostages were growing to love their captors is priceless
  • Asian terrorist’s love of Nestle Crunch and Mars bars
  • Alan Rickman’s awful American accent
  • Alan Rickman’s everything
  • Michael Kamen’s glorious score which, of course, references Beethoven’s 9th, but also a minor key “Winter Wonderland” as a theme.
  • McClane’s clearly hetero affection for the pinup girls on the construction walls
  • Bonnie Bedelia, who tears up the screen for the few scenes she’s in
  • “This is agent Johnson. No the other one.”
  • Reginald VelJohnson reciting the ingredients of Twinkies
  • The Rolex Ellis wants to embarrass John with is the very one he unstraps to send Rickman to his death (I never noticed this before)
  • Alan Rickman

And on and on. The thing that makes the whole movie work in a way that most action films did not, at the time (and probably still today), is that McClane isn’t really an action hero. He becomes one over the course of the movie, naturally, but he’s really just a regular guy (plus a cop). He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. And he does some really dumb and improbable things out of desperation, which makes him less cool—I think Schwarzenegger turned the role down because he saw McClane as a wimp—but infinitely more relatable.

Crunch bars are good, too.
Mars bars appeal to the child inside every terrorist. And vice-versa.

Much like the troubled relationship he has with his wife makes him somehow more relatable than, say, a Liam Neeson finding his daughter or a Stallone rescuing a perfect wife or new girlfriend. Also, there’s something wonderful about the sense that John and Holly are going to make it work because this little episode in their life has given them a new perspective on what’s important. (This is one reason the sequels suck.)

Also, Alan Rickman. He sets the stage for all the awesome villains to come, leading to the classic, horrible ending of Under Siege, where the not-nearly-charimsatic-enough Steven Seagall kills the far superior Tommy Lee Jones.

A few things rankle. I still find the “TV dinner” line too close to the “Come out to the coast. Have a few laughs.” line. And VelJohnson’s “Call it a hunch” speech seems a little too forced. But these are quibbles. There’s a reason this film launched its own genre and for the next few years nearly every action film was “Die Hard on a Plane” (Passenger 57) or “Die Hard on a Boat” (Under Siege) or Die Hard in an Office Building (Hard To Die…wait, what?). They were everywhere, and the basic formula still acts as a template today.

To say nothing of the lasting impact on how we celebrate Christmas.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Perfect for warmth and self-defense.
Now available in sweater form.

Rifftrax Holiday Special Double Feature: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, Selected Shorts

They call him S-A-N-T-A! C-L-A-U-S! Hooray for Santy Claus!

It is common for B-movies to pad out their length in some scurrilous fashion, such as by adding confusing and/or irrelevant stock footage, or a dreary montage to a not-quite pop song, but Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is perhaps the only one that envisions kids sitting in a theater (or around a TV) singing the theme song for about 20 minutes after the movie is over. And, yes, I know at least one kid who did that—not me!—in those entertainment starved times of the ’70s, so they were perhaps not entirely wrong in a practical sense, even if they were 100% wrong in an aesthetic and, verily, even in a moral sense.

Aw, it's not that bad. Well, it is that bad but it's endearingly bad.
Pictured: People with no moral compass.

Heh. Nah. It’s a cute film. It has been riffed many times that I know of: First on the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” TV show, then by “Rifftrax”, then by “Cinematic Titanic” and now, again, by “Rifftrax”. It was part of the “Rifftrax Holiday Special Double Feature” which clocked in at nearly four hours, which is a lot of riffing, even for the riffiest fans. In fact, after “Santy”, I sort of left it open for us to leave the theater after any of the shorts, but we were not actually inclined to leave. That’s pretty impressive.

That said, the original MST3K riffing has never been equaled in terms of outright laughs. We watched again a couple weeks after this to see if it would hold up, and it did. Besides a good heaping helping of “lentils” jokes, the show features some of the best sketches that show ever had, including the unforgettable “Patrick Swayze Christmas” (written by our very own Michael J. Nelson, and performed by Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin J. Murphy). This version doesn’t live up to the sublime riffing Mike, Bill and Kevin did on Santa Claus, and the few sketches, while funny, have a sort of awkward feel to them.

Fleischer's cartoons are underrated.
Like Santa explaining why he has his reindeer sleep in beds.

Still, it’s darn good. Four hours good, right?

The highlights included: old TV toy commercials, for such not-quite-classic toys as Jimmy Jet, Gaylord and Dingalings; “Parade of Aquatic Champions” which was some sort of post-war short where celebrities (including Joan Leslie and Buster Crabbe!) hold a swimming exhibition in Beverly Hills, because apparently you can do that on Christmas in Beverly Hills (you really can’t, you’d never schedule such a thing, and only a passing reference is made to “winter” or “Christmas” at the beginning of the short); guest riffer “Weird” Al Yankovic; and a good Max Fleischer “Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer” cartoon that, nonetheless, is ripe for the riff.

And the boys.
Pictured: Tiny Al Yankovic

All this stuff’s available on the Rifftrax site, so if you like riffing, you can (and should) check it out!

The Handmaiden (2016)

Nothing says “Christmas Eve” like some rather explicit Korean lesbian eroticism, apparently, and so The Boy and I trundled down to Santa Monica to see The Handmaiden, the latest from Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy and producer of Snowpiercer. One of Mr. Park’s other films is I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK, and  I think you can probably infer from this what sort of films he makes. That is: Balls out, unapologetic, I-do-what-I-want films.

And that’s okay.

Heh.
It’s nearly explicit enough to make it on Talking Points Memo!

The Boy and I had been wanting to see this for a while but it was not playing at any convenient times or places, and the relative lack of traffic on Christmas Eve made it possible for us to catch an evening show, down in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, where I heard words that have possibly never otherwise been spoken: “One for Miss Sloane, please.” Heh.

This movie has a great opening scene that is immediately flipped on its head when Part One proper begins. Part One ends on a twist and Part Two fleshes that twist out in believable, but sort of chilling way. Part Three, having all the strings strung out, ties everything together in a way that makes sense and gives a satisfying conclusion.

I can't even.
Speaking of strings.

I don’t want to reveal too much, because it is a fine film, artfully done and fun. I will say that it is, essentially, a caper film, taking place in ’30s Korea and Japan, whilst the Japanese were oppressing everyone in sight. The central element of the caper requires that Lady Hideko be seduced, and this involves both the titular handmaiden Sook-Hee and the scurrilous Count. The Lady has been raised by her perverse uncle from childhood to ultimately become his wife so that he can inherit her fortune. The Count has other ideas.

The perversion and seduction “requires” some fairly explicit sexual elements. Lady Hideko has also been raised by Uncle to conduct readings of erotica in front of a bunch of creepy Asian dudes. (Well, of course they’d be Asian. Come to think of it, they’re probably all supposed to be Japanese, because the Koreans haven’t ever really forgiven the Japanese for their atrocities.) Uncle has an impressive porn collection, basically.

Not a lot of male role models in this film.
The Count’s not exactly a gem, either, though.

Meanwhile Hideko and Sook-Hee are strongly attracted to each other, and this is also fairly explicit in its realization. It’s not gratuitous; it all serves the plot. But it’s not for the bashful.

It is, however, beautiful. And I don’t mean because Tae-Ri Kim and Min-Hee Kim (no relation, one hopes) are beautiful and lithe and, uh, well, no need to carry those thoughts on any further. But Koreans have an aesthetic that goes beyond the color coding we see in Hollywood films, and is on full display here. Besides vibrant colors, The Boy particularly noted that the camera was very selectively focused. Things were sometimes gauzy or blurry, but all to create a deliberate effect.

In short, it’s a clever, pretty, funny, and even romantic film. Probably one of the best of the year (along with the Korean horror flick The Wailing come to think of it). But maybe not one you take your mom to see.

Raunchy.
Pretty.

Trading Places (1983)

This was one of those movies from my youth that I’ve been somewhat hesitant to take the kids to go see. For example, we skipped Ferris Beuller this year because, well, it’s okay, it’s fun, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it’s made out to be. I am breaking down and taking the kids to the next showing of The Breakfast Club, though I’m reserved about how well it will play to the kids. And while I consider myself a John Landis fan—aficionado, even, of his early work—I remembered this movie fondly but not as “a classic”.

But it actually still works really, really well. In fact, I think it’s aged far better than Landis’ Animal House, perhaps because it relies much less on shock value. I mean, it’s a preposterous film in that ’80s way: The rich guys are no different from the poor guys, except through circumstance and a trivial amount of education, and the really rich guys are, of course pure evil, while the regular rich guys are shallow and faithless.

Even though they only did it once!
There was a time when putting Aykroyd and Murphy in a film together was like printing money.

But everyone’s so gosh darn likable. Including the evil Mortimer and Randolph, who are caricatures of the worst sort, but ever so charmingly played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. Our heroes are in their respective primes, too: Dan Aykroyd as the callow young investor, doing the schtick he’d honed to a fine point on “Saturday Night Live”, for example.

What can you say about young Eddie Murphy, following up his smash hit 48 Hours—back when Nick Nolte was more than a mug shot!—with this, another smash hit? Well, the kids probably said it best: “He was so funny!” Yes, he certainly was, and this was really their first experience with that. The take he does to the camera when Bellamy says “And this is bacon, like you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich” is priceless. (Classic Landis mild 4th wall breakage, as in Animal House.)

Perfect expression.
Perfect timing.

Jamie Lee Curtis. I remembered she took her top off for this—also classic Landis—but I don’t remember thinking it was such a big deal. When she did it in this showing, the audience actually gasped, that’s how perfect her body is. And of course, she’s funny and smart and charming on top of being The Body. I mean, she pulls off being The Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, for crying out loud.

By the way, pretty topless gals were a common feature—a requirement even—for comedies in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Now, this sort of exploitation is a hate crime. You’d just never see it. The fashions are so bad, though, that the real hate crime is having the women not naked.

CUNW?
Awful dress, and not the worst by far. (Also, see you next Wednesday.)

Speaking of hate crimes, Dan Aykroyd wears the worst blackface in this movie since Gene Wilder’s in The Silver Streak. But the real offense today, I think, would be Eddie Murphy‘s disguise late in the film as a Muslim African exchange student. Along with Denholm Elliot’s drunk Irish priest and Curtis’ Austrian/can-only-do-a-bad-Swedish-accent disguise, the whole thing would just be problematic today. And it was so goofy and over-elaborate at the time—we used to call it comedy—that of course nobody took offense to any of it.

John Landis at his peak. He would follow this up with the tragic Twilight Zone episode that would basically cave in his career (though he’d continue to do some fine work up until even a few years ago—his two “Masters of Horror” episodes were among the best and really had his style and sense of humor. Best output of screenwriting team Harris and Weingrod (Twins, Kindergarten Cop). Oscar nomination for Casa ‘gique favorite Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A MockingbirdAirplane!). Gratuitous James Belushi. Al Franken when he was part of Franken & Davis, and not a damned Senator.

'cause: Hilarious. I guess.
Also, “guy being sodomized by gorilla” was a standard Landis trope back then.

Arleen Sorkin, who would go on to have a TV career in the ’80s that wound up with her being the voice and inspiration for Harley Quinn. Gratuitous Bo Diddley. In a nice twist, Dan Aykroyd’s upper-crust girlfriend is played by Jamie Lee Curtis’ sister Kelly. Gratuitous Frank Oz, a staple in Landis films. Paul Gleeson as the heavy, who would go on to be the doofus deputy chief of police in Die Hard, and the hardass principle in Breakfast Club.

It’s good stuff. And it features Dan Aykroyd wandering through the city of Philadelphia in a santa suit, drunkenly waving a gun around. So it’s a contender to challenge Die Hard as the Best Christmas Film Ever!

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

I do not know how many times I have seen this film. It was a holiday staple growing up. For years, it was a Christmas Eve staple to boot, on while we wrapped gifts. I can recite lines of dialog, and do, sometimes unconsciously. “Out you two pixies go, tru da door our out da window” being one of my favorites. So, what was I thinking going to see it on The Big Screen?

Well, I’ve never seen it on the Big Screen. The Flower never at all. And The Boy? Maybe part of it a long time ago.

Things are bleak...but wait!
I’ve failed as a a parent.

And the Big Screen makes a difference. People who don’t like this movie (or, as they’re known in the scientific literature, monsters) tend to not like it because it’s schmaltzy. And on the Big Screen, the opening seen is, well, it’s a lot. Zuzu is a lot. Almost too precious.

I said almost. And the thing about It’s A Wonderful Life is, it earns its sentiment. In the first 90 seconds, the movie tells you exactly what’s going on: A beloved man is going through a hard time and people are praying for him.

But then each frame of the film is designed to make you like George Bailey. He’s a decent fellow. He’s courageous, resourceful, imaginative and basically kind, though Lord knows, life gets him down. But the thing is, life doesn’t get him down for very long, it’s just this one moment in time where it looks like his life is really going to be over because of a mistake and an evil man, and he forgets in that moment how blessed he is.

Plastics. Ground floor.
One of the sexiest scenes in movie history.

A remarkable thing about people who meant to commit suicide and are prevented by some external, unexpected reprieve: They almost universally say they changed their mind at the last second. When, by all rights, it should’ve been too late. This movie is kind of a window on that, I think: That moment where you’re ready to end it all, and how a shift in your point-of-view can change everything when nothing in the universe has changed except you. (This is a common message in this era, and in Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street.)

The kids loved it. And seeing it in the theater, I noticed things I never had before. Like on Potter’s desk, when he’s offering Bailey a deal, there’s a skull attached to a chain. (Reference to A Christmas Carol, maybe?) I never noticed that after Mary tells George she doesn’t like coconut, and he calls her “brainless”, he follows up by spooning tons of coconut on to her sundae. I never noticed that the Baileys have an old model-T (or possibly model-A) even into the post-war period. I never noticed how many wrinkles 22 year old George Bailey had. (Jimmy Stewart was 35, I think) Heh.

From a defunct site.
I’m not the first to notice the weird desk stuff, apparently.

In my imagination, when the post-War prosperity really takes off, George gets to be pretty well off. Not too well off, because he’ll always be a bleeding heart. But well enough to spend his golden years travelling with Mary while kids run the Savings and Loan. Until the government shuts them down in the ’80s.

Anyway. Still an American classic, and now one a new generation is enjoying. So there, haters.

White Christmas (1954)

Another classic film I had never seen, and another film—seen just a few days after From Here To Eternity—that had a positive view of the American military. No big surprise, I suppose: Post-WWII America was pretty high on its role as saviors of freedom. (The current narrative, apparently, is that we were the good guys in WWII, and then we flipped around to being the villains in the ’50s. Because Communist propaganda is that good.)

But in this film, our heroes Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, decide to “put on a show” to help out their retired general, whose Vermont inn is floundering because there’s no what? You guessed it: No white Christmas. They stumble across it when Kaye decides to try to fix up business-minded Crosby with the delightful Rosemary Clooney, while the ridiculously cute Vera-Ellen sets her cap for confirmed bachelor Kaye.

Like the plot matters.

Though, honestly, the big scene which—I am not making this up—features enlisted troops singing a song of love for their general? Choked me up.

You’d think I’d get tired of saying it, and you’re probably sick of reading it but: Couldn’t be done today.

Funny, tho'.
Much like THIS hate-crime scene.

As for this movie, I wasn’t sure where I was gonna fall on the whole liking it/not liking it thing. (I’m prejudiced against ’50s films, I admit. This may have to do with them being on TV all the time when I was growing up, and me not liking TV.) But it is delightful. The Flower loved it, of course, but I was surprised at how much The Boy liked it, too, not being that musically inclined.

But back in the day, they made these movies to be funny and frothy and life-affirming and not too serious. Like classic romantic-comedies, you know that the guy and the girl are going to end up together, and it’s all going to work out—that’s why you go! The journey is the thing. And the journey here is a lot of fun.

Smooth moves.
Bing and Rosemary in the dressing room.

A lot of great song and dance numbers, though the original songs are not really great. The songs that really stand out, like “White Christmas” (which had already won Berlin an Oscar in ’42—that he presented to himself!), “Blue Skies” and “Heat Wave” were already classics. “The Old Man” brought a tear to my eye, for sure, but that was contextual more than the song itself. “Sisters” is another fun one that I don’t really remember much. And “Snow”—The Boy and I didn’t think that one worked well at all. I kind of liked it because it felt sort of experimental, but I’m not sure the experiment was a success.

The principals have buckets of star power, though, that still carries through to this day. Dean Jagger is utterly believable as the retired general—though he was the same age as Bing Crosby. The delightful Mary Wickes, who worked to the last days of her 85 year life was, always, a wonderful screen presence.

Don't start none, won't be none.
Mary Wickes about to start something.

I was unaware of Vera-Ellen prior to this movie. Beautiful and talented, I kept thinking “Oh, wow, she’s so skinny.” And the blessing/curse of the Internet is that I could look her up and see how she was anorexic and suffered terribly after her short career. But here? She’s remarkable. (Also, as with everything on the Internet, the whole “anorexic” thing maybe just a poorly sourced rumor.) Holds her own with Danny Kaye just fine, singing and dancing and matching his frenetic comic energy perfectly. And so, so cute.

The sum, I think, is greater than all the parts, and you end up walking out of the theater happy, which is not a bad thing to say about any film.

What more could you ask for?
Glamour, tunes, laffs and gals…

Arrival

This “first contact” type movie seems to polarize viewers with many loving it and many others hating it, or at least looking at the ones who are loving it with an expression that says “What are you? Stupid?” So, who’s right?

Trick question: The people who are right are the ones who agree with me, and since I haven’t told you what I think yet, you can’t answer the question.

But you knew that. Or will.
Hey…I’m just kidding. You don’t have to take it so hard.

There were some warning bells here before going to see it: You never know if the people liking it—well, critics, particularly—like it because it panders to a particular worldview. My dad used to argue that “widespread critical approval” meant the movie would be awful, but that’s a bit extreme, unfortunately. (What a handy rule that would be!)

It’s “talky”. It’s literally “talky”, in the sense of it’s all about how to communicate with aliens who are really, really alien. And whose really, really advanced technology does not include a way to communicate very effectively with verbal sorts, like humans—although keep reading for more on that. So maybe it’s not literally talky after all, since the aliens don’t talk at all in the conventional sense? I dunno.

Must be women. (Don't hurt me, please.)
Blah-blah-blah, these aliens just WON’T shut up!

It’s broody. It’s not what you’d call a “fun summer alien flick”, e.g. Neither E.T. nor Independence Day, here. It’s definitely “serious” and “arty”. The terrible death of a child, while not exactly portrayed, is a central element of the plot.

These are all things that might warn us off a film. Or at least the combination of “talky” and “broody” might, when mixed with critical adoration. On the other hand, it’s directed by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, whose films (Incendies, PrisonersSicario) I have never regretted seeing, even when I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to others. And I would recommend the three linked films most reservedly, not because I didn’t love them, but because they are not what you’d call “easy watches”.

The story is this: Aliens show up on Earth’s doorstep, and so Forrest Whitaker (Ernest and Celestine) shows up on super-linguist Amy Adams’ (Sunshine Cleaning Company) doorstep to help communicate with them before the Russkies or the ChiComs (amongst others) do. She meets up with nerd Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy) and leads a bold and desperate attempt to get what the aliens are up to. The U.S. Armed Forces are not really super-concerned about what the aliens are all about, beyond security fears, and certain misunderstandings (or are they?) lead to increasing tension as the need for security overwhelms common sense.

By which I mean the same thing that overwhelms commons sense in every aliens-come-to-earth movie, to wit: Any aliens species who could command the forces of the universe sufficiently well enough to cross the vast distances of space needed to reach us would be so far beyond us as to make any invasion or genocide plan unstoppable by us.

But, man, what boring movies that would make for. Every film would be, “Welp. Hope they’re friendly or we’re screwed.”

Okay, walls...whatever.
Oh, what a feeling…when we’re dancing on the ceiling.

That aside, it would be nice if someone acknowledged the issue once in a while.

Anyway, the MacGuffin here is (interestingly enough) time. The premise of the film (a popular, if incorrect, linguistic idea) is that human beings are hampered in their thinking by their language. It’s a dumb idea—people invent thousands of words a year in various technical fields and for fun so they can express concepts they don’t have words for—and I hate how popular it is in real life, but it’s actually used very cleverly and subverted here: The key to understanding the alien language becomes a key to understanding the aliens who think in terms that are way broader and deeper than humans do.

This sets you up for a hell of a gut punch. It’s not even a bad gut punch. It’s a good one, if that makes sense.

As for the people who didn’t like this film, I don’t want to say they didn’t get it—though most of the ones I’ve talked to didn’t—but there’s a fine line between “didn’t get it” and “didn’t buy into it”. The Boy and I both were favorably impressed, less by the artifice of the alien language and its potential, but more by the way it was used to tell a story of human experience. And not at all the one we were expecting.

So, as with all Villaneuve films, we recommend cautiously, but less so than his other films (which have tended to be unflinchingly violent), because he’s turned his acuity toward something a little less dark, and a little more affirming, even if it is still bittersweet. (Must rain a lot in Quebec or something.) This probably doesn’t help you decide whether or not to see it, alas, but that’s not always an easy call.

Can you imagine?
Er-NEST, er-NEST, my name is Er-NEST… Not really but that’s about the expression she’d have if he started singing that.

TCM Presents: From Here To Eternity (1953)

The TCM Big Screen Classics for 2016 closed out with this film which, not only had I never seen, I’d never had any interest in seeing. I mean, what does it even mean, From Here To Eternity? I guess it could be said for any point in present time (the time remaining stretches from here to eternity, right?) but as a movie title, wotsit? Actually, having seen the film, I still don’t know.

Nonetheless, as almost all the classics have been, this is a great film. It’s an unromantic, but not unkind, look at US military service around the time of the second world war, and it is, in a very real sense, soap opera and melodrama. Monty Clift arrives on a military base in Hawaii after transferring out of another base that had an inferior bugler promoted ahead of him, only to find that his new commander has selected him because of his boxing prowess. But Prewitt (Clift) doesn’t box any more on account of he blinded this guy in a match once. The pig-headed Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) figures he can coerce Prewitt into boxing, and begins a campaign of terror against him.

Menawhile, Holmes’ wife Karen (Deborah Kerr, whom we just saw in The King and I) is a sad woman with a bad reputation, none of which puts off Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who is the guy actually running the base as Captain Holmes run around seeing women in town. The affair between Karen and Milton leads to a famous scene, one that I’ve seen parodied so much that I assured The Flower the film was in color. It’s not, but every time it’s parodied, it’s in a color show, so…

Soggy smooching.
It’s in Black & White!

When Prewitt’s not getting the tar beaten out of him by his fellow enlistees and instructors, he’s falling in love with hostess Lorene (Donna Reed) whose cynical outlook on life doesn’t prohibit fooling around with a soldier, but whose life view is all geared toward being “the right sort”. And that takes money.

George would have a fit.
Oh, Mary! What’s become of you!

Rounding out our doomed cast is the “little spic” Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who’s a faithful friend, a terrible drunk, and prone to picking fights with the larger, meaner Sgt. Fatso (Ernest Borgnine, looking less avuncular than usual).

The beauty of this film is how the little threads get all wound up in a typical dramatic way, and then as Warden is lecturing on some big plot point right around the bend, a calendar in the background reads “December 6th”.

Well, hell. You thought you had problems. Your problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, to quote another famous war time flick.

I never liked the nickname "Fatso".
Oh, McHale! What’s become of you!

The movie works well the whole way through: The characters are flawed, to be sure, but they’re likable. (Except Fatso. He’s just psychotic.) The events that unfold are interesting, funny, revealing of character. The focal point is Prewitt’s refusal to box, to the point of having to beat the crap out of someone to prove his point. There’s also the lesser focal point of Warden and his affair with his boss’ wife, which is both romantic and dangerous—although not, to my modern, and perhaps jaded eyes, particularly erotic. (The kissing on the beach scene would barely have even registered with me if I hadn’t seen it referenced so often.)

The army itself is not romanticized either but—and this is the key point—it’s not really demonized either. The women aren’t crazy about it, but Warden and Prewitt, in particular, feel something for it. Prewitt seems to feel like he owes it, and there’s a sense of similar responsibility in Warden, though very much more clearly devoted to the men who serve in his battalion. And this feeling they have will trump even the feelings of the women they love.

So, we could certainly see why it was edgy for the time. According to Ben Mankiewicz, the other studios thought Columbia threw it’s money away when they purchased the rights to this film, since this wasn’t the sort of war film anyone in Hollywood was making. This is true, at least in the sense that the Army didn’t like it. But it was a film audiences wanted to see, ending up as one of the top grossing films of the ’50s. It’s edgy today because the service and its members are treated pretty decently.

I’ve heard that in Japan, schoolchildren aren’t taught that Japan was the aggressor in World War II. This’d be a good movie to show them.

We all liked it. As the Flower says when a movie gets her hyped up: “So good!”

But not in Japan. There they think we just dropped A-bombs on 'em 'cause we're jerks.
A day before a day which will live in infamy.

Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have found their own niche. And it’s a doozy. Following up on Lone Survivor, a movie about soldiers in hostile territory that tells you, right there on the label, how it ends, is Deepwater Horizon, about the amazing engineers—they used to call them “roughnecks”, I think—who make the floating oil rigs go. This is to be followed up by Patriot’s Day, about the police work around the Boston Marathon bombing.

While anyone could have their takes on any of these stories, the niche is unambiguously presenting all of the main characters as heroes. Just as Lone Survivor didn’t cover the politics of wars in the Middle East—and I’m willing to bet money that the same will be true of Patriot’s Day—this oil-based movie spends nary a moment on climate change, nor on any hand-wringing over whether or not it’s “worth it” to drill for oil. (It is. And if you don’t agree, GTFO your computer made of petroleum products and powered by burning oil, or by some product made drastically cheaper by the burning of oil.) In fact, our hero, Mike Williams, is presented as a hero because he slays the dinosaurs, as his daughter puts it.

You monster.
Yeah, you’re going to be able to not worry what happens to this little moppet’s daddy.

This makes a huge difference in one’s enjoyment of the film, especially if that one is me (or The Boy). It allows one to take the (correct) perspective of admiration for the amazing engineering behind these mobile oil rigs* which—this cannot be repeated enough—are really, really amazing. And, if you need to hate some greedy corporate types, a movie like this gives you the opportunity to do some deserved hating on the short-sighted middle management (played by John Malkovich).

Which is itself kind of amazing.
I figured it was CGI, but apparently they actually built this set.

Wahlberg has proven to be very effective as an Everyman, like a more masculine, blue collar Tom Hanks. Meanwhile Berg shows himself to be adept at giving us characters we care about before all hell breaks loose, so that we care that all hell is breaking loose (beyond the ‘splodey stuff). Kurt Russell plays guy-in-charge Jimmy Harrell who is the actual owner (I think) of the rig. Russell has achieved nearly iconic status for this kind of role at this point, and he’s great at it. Wives have a hell of a time in this niche, because they’re not in the action, but they carry the tremendous burden of keeping things going while never knowing if their husband is coming back, and Kate Hudson does a marvelous job at it.

This is the sort of role that gets denigrated and, indeed, is no longer allowed in mainstream movies, which is a shame because it’s both dramatically poignant and socially relevant, to say nothing of admirable. You can’t see movies like American Sniper without feeling a debt toward the women (and children) in these men’s lives. Most of the survivors of the fire, if I recall correctly from the closing credits, got out of the business—a perfectly understandable reaction to the horror.

So, Hudson represents an Everywoman, and does a great job. As does everyone in the little parts that Berg and screenwriters Matthew Micheal Carnahan and  Matthew Sand take care to invest with real character. People have lives, families, interests—they’re courageous under fire. Much like Eastwood’s Sully, you can’t see this without feeling like the director likes people.

Still pretty cute, tho'.
Worried.

A standout performance is delivered by Gina Rodriguez (“Jane The Virgin”) as Andrea Fleytas. I loved this role—and I’m sidestepping for the moment that Ms. Fleytas is a real person, who suffered a serious trauma, and I have no idea how accurately the movie reflects her part—because it felt real to me. She’s kinda bad-ass, reconstructing a Mustang in her driveway and being the only woman we see on the rig (there were three, apparently, in real life) and dealing with some complex machinery pretty confidently. But when the time comes to, uh, well, let’s say plunge to almost certain death (to avoid certain death) she needs a little help from the hero.

I would call this “believably bad-ass”, as opposed to the “women never show weakness” which seems to be the standard for competent women in movies these days. It’s weird: It’s not enough to be good or even great, you have to be flawless to be a movie heroine any more. You have to be the best at The Force or eagle hunting, or a demigoddess or whatever. It feels a bit like the “magic negro” ’90s, where black folk couldn’t just be folk—they had to have magical powers. I know lots of bad-ass women; none of them are demigoddesses.

Not invulnerable.
Bad-ass.

I assume this scene is contrived, as (like the entirety of Eddie The Eagle) it’s just too perfect. I’m going to say that the movie spends enough time on attention to detail—which, by the way, is not simple, what with the mechanics of oil extraction—that it gives itself room to take dramatic license.

The Boy and I both liked it. And we’re looking forward to Patriot’s Day.

 

*I’m using the term “rig” which may be inappropriate for these vessels.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I showed The Flower this 1947 black-and-white film a few years back and it instantly became one of her favorites. We both agreed that the best decision the filmmakers made when casting this was to get the real Santa to play himself. Oh, the studios covered it up well, arrange an Oscar for stalwart actor Edmund Gwenn, who would go on to have notable roles in The Trouble With Harry and Them! but whether St. Nick filled in physically for him here (a body switch not noticed because of certain similarities between the two) or whether some Christmas magic invested the spirit of said right jolly old elf into the character actor’s physical form, this film is definitive proof that there is, indeed, a Santa Claus.

Poor Natalie Wood.
And can do a pretty good “monkey”.

George Seaton (who directed the first Airport film in 1970) directs from a screenplay he wrote based on a story by Valentine Davies (The Glen Miller StoryThe Benny Goodman Story) and this is the first time it occurred to me while watching that there isn’t a single miracle (in the traditional sense) in the movie. Literally nothing that happens lacks a “logical” explanation, except for Kris speaking Dutch to the young girl at Macy’s, which is remarkable but hardly inexplicable—it’s just not explained. Even at the end, where he seemingly engineers a family and home (on Long Island!) for little Natalie Wood, every thing that happens has a perfectly reasonable explanation you can make for it.

Even the marriage of Fred (John Payne) and Doris, because who in their right mind wouldn’t want to marry Maureen O’Hara?

The Christmas cards alone would be breathtaking.
I mean, just look at her.

But this is just rationalization. And the movie is full of rationalizations as to how a man could be found to actually be Santa in a court of law. And while there are plenty of cynical excuses one could make—lazy postal workers, cowardly politicians, etc.—the movie makes them all with a wink and a nod. Because we know the truth.

And one of the truths we all know—or should know, anyway—is that the real miracle is consideration: The point of view we take on things in the world which imbues the ordinary with magic. The real miracle, of course, is taking a broken-hearted woman who has fallen into a materialistic, joyless mindset, and getting her to believe. Because the good things happen when you believe in good things and then act on those beliefs.

As simple as it is, we forget it to the point of sheer stupidity, and get trapped in our glamorous Manhattan careers throwing parades and the like, and just mechanically move through life.

Dammit.
Next to our ridiculously handsome neighbors with impossibly good views.

And that’s my holiday rant. Which, even if you don’t buy into, doesn’t change the fact that this grainy black-and-white film is one of the best. Funny. Touching but not schmaltzy, in a way very much in the style of Thurber or Preston Sturges, that hadn’t yet given way to gritty ’50s cynicism. Natalie Wood’s journey of faith is pretty brutal, at face value: She demands something akin to absolute proof before being willing to believe. And even Santa balks at such a tall order, while merrily presenting himself to the court to be vetted, after a mean, little psychiatrist plays up a well-deserved clonk on the head.

When Santa clonks you on the head, you have it coming.

Truth.
Coal is too subtle for some people.

The other journeys of faith are also good and fun. Doris believes, ultimately, because she must: she can’t let little Susan (Wood) grow up in such a joyless world. Meanwhile, Fred’s belief is entirely tongue-in-cheek—at first. There’s a fine line, he discovers, between pretending to believe and believing, but by the end, we’ve reason to believe even he’s won over in heart.

The camerawork is fine, and gets better as the movie progresses. The acting is top notch. Even the smaller roles, like Thelma Ritter as the beleaguered mother and a pre-Lucy William Frawley as a “campaign consultant” all sing. Perfect score by Cyril Mockridge (The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Ox-Bow Incident) with musical director Alfred Newman.

This is one of those Christmas movies that makes you remember why they keep trying to make Christmas movies, over and over again. A must-see. The Boy, who had not seen it before, loved it. The Flower and I loved it all over again.

 

Kubo And The Two Strings

The Boy had run off to see this with his girlfriend, and it was gone so fast from theaters that I only managed to get the Barbarienne to it through “heroic measures” on the last day. But he was pretty insistent that This Movie Be Seen. His point, which I think is valid, is that people bitch about movies being the same and Hollywood being bankrupt of ideas, but then when something different comes along, they don’t go see it. Which, as I frequently point out, is why Hollywood churns out the same crap over and over again. It works.

And Kubo isn’t really that different. It has Laika’s look (as seen in The BoxtrollsParaNormanCoraline and The Corpse Bride), though, refreshingly, they use enough of a different palette and style that you might not notice it’s them. In addition, the story is a little rougher, much like The Boxtrolls, and maybe a little more boy-oriented than most (though not more than Boxtrolls). Some of the tropes are drawn from Asian folklore, too, which is nice: It’s less like Mulan, with it’s pseudo-historical-presentation-plus-talking-animals, and more like an animated juvenille version of the Zhang Yimou films House of Flying Daggers and Hero.

Which, box-office-wise, they didn't have.
With a little paper Toshiro Mifune thrown in for luck.

Also, the traditional fairy tale’s dead-parent-or-parent trope is subverted rather cleverly (though I figured it out pretty quickly, if I say so myself). And it has a bittersweet ending, which was also refreshing.

On the other hand, it wasn’t alien or anything. Kubo’s on a Hero’s Journey to gather the artifacts of his (missing or decesaed) father. These will allow him to go against his demigod grandfather (momma fell in love with a mortal) and—actually, I forget what the upshot is supposed to be. Minimally, if he can kill his mother’s family, they’ll leave him alone. As it is, he has to be inside before it gets dark, or his aunts and grandfather will find him and steal his remaining eye. (Pop-pop already took one eye.)

Pretty metal.

Harrrdddcorrrrreee!
Mama is hardcore.

And good stuff. Liked the score by Dario Marianelli (Anna KareninaJane Eyre). Chock full of stunt casting, like Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Monkey and Ralph Fiennes (Hail, Caesar!Coriolanus) but not annoyingly so. Matthew McConaughey caught my ear because I recognized his voice, but it didn’t have his usual drawl. First time director Travis Knight (animator on the three most recent Laika flicks) does a fine job, working off a script in part credited to one of Paranorman‘s screenwriters (Chris Butler).

I guess Laika films have never been really popular, and Kubo has made only slightly less than Boxtrolls, but I guess the difference (for me) is that I would put Kubo at the top of animated films this year. (Caveat: We have not seen Moana yet.) Certainly better than the awful Secret Life of Pets, and much more poetic than the frantic (#1 film this year) Finding Dory. But I think it also transcends, emotionally, the fine Zootopia and has as an advantage, a completely apolitical, non-relevant (in terms of current fascinations with trivial offense) story.  And what’s frustrating (or would be for me, if I had made the film) is that, while critics rate it in the top 10 for the year (per Rotten Tomatoes), audiences—those who actually saw it—seem to rate it comparably to Finding Dory and substantially higher than (the much more financially remunerative) Kung Fu Panda 3.

Franchises. Sequels. This is why they get made. To say nothing of mediocrities like Troll and Sing—which are “original” but also distributed by the powerhouses (Dreamworks and Illumination, respectively). It’s almost like the system is…dare I say it?…rigged against the littler guys.

But maybe not. It’s hard to know what people like—and in our age of special snowflakes, the issue may have been that the movie didn’t have an unambiguous “they lived happily ever after” at the end—but I guess it’s not too hard to see what they will and won’t try. Nonetheless, this is a film worth seeing.

Nobody even knows it's supposed to be "ayes" any more.
The eyes have it.

The Big Sleep (1946)

As I was watching the classic 1946 movie based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, I found myself thinking, “Well this is all really straightforward and easy to explain.” But immediately afterwards, as I was trying to explain it to The Flower, I realized the logic of it had all slipped away from me, like a dream.

So fuzzy.
And when I awoke, I realized I had witnessed a murder. Or maybe killed someone myself. I’m fuzzy on the details.

But the amazing thing about this film is how little one’s ability to make sense out of it matters. It’s especially amazing because, as you’re watching, everything—every scene seems to follow logically, indeed, inexorably to the next. This is probably a credit to both the source material, awash in style, and screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Bracket and Furthman would go on to write Rio Bravo, just for example, and Bracket wrote the first draft of Empire Strikes Back which George Lucas claims he threw out. And you know this is true because Empire Strikes Back is such a great film, like the prequels and Jedi.

The story, starts with private dick Marlowe (Bogart, duh) being called in to help an old man, General Sternwood (silent movie veteran Charles Waldron, in his last film) who wants to handle a sensitive matter with discretion. Seems he’s being squeezed to pay for his wild daughter Carmen’s (Martha Vickers, who, sort of amusingly, we saw shortly after turn up in a Rifftrax short, showing a Hollywood Christmas where celebrities were swimming in Beverly Hills) gambling debts. But his usual man for handling things, Sean, has gone missing, and his older, less wild daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who also has gambling debts, thinks her father has hired him to find Sean.

Baby!
Still pretty wild. And world’s greatest side eye.

Well, in the course of sleuthing, Marlowe encounters a murder, a scam involving rare books, and a hot bookstore girl (future Oscar winner Dorothy Malone), and just when things are heating up, the General pays him off and takes him off the case. But now Marlowe’s got an itch, see? There are too many loose threads and just what the hell did happen to Sean anyway?

Well, damned if I know. Before it’s all over, people who are supposed to be missing aren’t missing at all but some are dead, and some other people end up getting murdered, and there are double-crossed, backstabs and, it all sort of works out the end in a way that makes sense, even if you can’t explain it. More than any specific details—like the old man in the wheelchair, the wild daughter with the more conservative older sister—it is the head fakes that make this seem like the real inspiration for The Big Lebowski. (In fact, I’ve often said that the plot for Lebowski mirrors Murder, My Sweet, the Dick Powell 1944 turn at playing Marlowe.)

Loved it. The kids loved it, too, despite the fact that it was the second feature (after High Sierra). Howard Hawks directs. Max Steiner does the score. Lensed by Sidney Hickox, who also did Bogie & Bacall’s To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage. Edited by Christian Nyby, who would go on to direct The Thing, which most people would go on to believe Hawks directed.

Classic cinema.

She knows the score.
I think Dorothy was my favorite film femme here.

High Sierra (1941)

I probably would’ve given this Humphrey Bogart double-feature (High Sierra along with The Big Sleep) a miss, as it wasn’t one of our scheduled days for movies and required accommodations be made, but we did basically start our old-time classics streak with The Maltese Falcon, and The Flower loves the era, the style and Bogie to boot, so I could hardly dampen her enthusiasm. Also, The Big Sleep is part of the inspiration (along with, I believe, Murder, My Sweet) for The Big Lebowski, and you know how we are about that particular flick (in the parlance of our time).

Too, I hadn’t actually seen High Sierra which sees Bogie in the last of his 2-bit gangster roles—the one that made him such a hit that he didn’t want to do Casablanca. He had to fight for this role, with director Raoul Walsh seeing him as a supporting player and the studio wanting big shot (of the time) Paul Muni in the lead. But Muni hated the script and demanded a rewrite, after which he still hated the script and after everyone else in the world  turned it down, Bogart entered movie history.

And the poorly received prequel "Low Sierra".
Followed by the sequels “Higher Sierra” and “Highest Sierra”.

The thing about this movie is that it’s like a ’40s version of, say, The Girl on the Train, where a popular novel has hit it big and the studios line up to make a movie about it. Or maybe it’s more like a Michael Crichton story. I don’t know any more which writers Hollywood is lining up to produce these days. But back in the day, it was W.R. Burnett, who wrote bestselling novels (with a crime or urban feel, back when “urban” meant Italian, probably) and award winning screenplays, and was a script doctor to boot.

Burnett had written the novel High Sierra, and worked on the screenplay with John Huston. He also wrote the novel The Asphalt Jungle, which ended up being made into a movie by John Huston, and Little Caesar. No lightweight, dude.

And, perhaps predictably, this movie is an amalgam of many of the gangster clichés of the ’30s. Bogie plays a guy who’s just gotten out of prison. He’s thinking about going straight, but it doesn’t last long, because his boss Big Mac’s got an idea, see, a good heist set up, but he needs a seasoned pro managing the twerps, the soda jerks, the screwballs and the young jitterbuggers he’s gotta deal with today.

Those jitterbuggers are the worst!
From left to right: Bogie, screwball, screwball, jitterbugger, screwball.

Heh. Yeah, this movie is jam packed with ’30s movie-gangster talk, and as we all know: the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Playing opposite Bogie is the great Ida Lupino who was quite dishy in her day. (We know her best around here for her ’70s TV work on “Columbo” and the “classic” The Devil’s Rain.) She plays a desperate dime-a-dance girl who’s hooked up with one of the new twerps that don’t know no better than to bring a dame on a heist. The twerps are Alan Curtis (who died at 44 from complications after a routine kidney surgery, alas) and Arthur Kennedy, who would go on to be nominated five times for Academy Awards, all of which he would lose. They end up fighting over Marie (top-billed Lupino) who ends up crashing with the much stabler, good-guy gangster Roy (Bogie).

But the real fly in the ointment is Mendoza, the greasy Spaniard, played by the Hungarian-Mexican Cornell Wilde. (I’m joking about the Mexican part, obivously.) Wilde would go on to remake Apocalypto some 40 years before Mel Gibson directed it, in an under-rated gem called The Naked Prey. (When I worked at Paramount, one of the ladies had a full-sized Wilde cutout from that film, in which he is mostly naked and, yes, even in his 50s he was a handsome, handsome fellow.)

That mutt could act!
Bogie, Lupino, and Bogie’s actual dog.

So, Bogie’s got his hands full wrangling the idiots, the backstabbers, and the dopey dames, all the while pining for a good farmer’s daughter (the gorgeous Joan Leslie who, like Wilde, would close out her career on Angela Lansbury’s “Murder She Wrote”). The farmer’s daughter is one clubbed-foot operation away from a floozy, though, and our sensitive, murderous gangster ends up settling for his second best.

The Hays Office would not! could not! allow the book’s happy ending, though, and the movie actually finds its way into the titular High Sierras for the final shootout.

And BAM! Floozy time!
Sure, she looks sweet now, but fix that club foot…

This movie is just dripping with essential ’30s-ness. The only thing really missing is that Bogie doesn’t have a brother or childhood friend who joined the priesthood/police force. But it’s one of those things that sort of laps itself: If it might have been (I’m just guessing) perceived as hokey by the ’50s, we’re far enough away to enjoy the pure action/suspense/romance angle of it by now.

We all really liked it.

Universal Horror fans will recognize “Doc” as Henry Hull in what some would say was the best werewolf film, 1935’s Werewolf of London. (And his hair looked fabulous!)

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

As a child, I received a boxed set of books. Four, I believe: The Martian Chronicles, The Big Sky, The Red Pony (or maybe Where The Red Fern Grows) and To Kill A Mockingbird. I read Martian and Red and Bradbury and Steinbeck became huge influences and my “go to” reads for years. I still have in my bookshelf the other two books, but I have not read either of them (yet). Which is, I suppose, bad enough.

Duvall!!!
Yeah, I’m disappointed in me, too.

Worse still, though, I’ve never seen the movie with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters and, goodness, lots of great actors young and old. Or I hadn’t, until recently when it rolled around to our new “classics” joint, The Regency. (Regency is a chain, so if you’re interested in classic films, you might be able to check some of these greats out, too!) And?

Well, we were all kind of surprised. The impression one would get from listening to, well, everyone, is that this is a movie about an unjustly accused black man in the South. But it’s not: It’s a slice-of-life story which features, as one of many elements, the story of the unjustly accused black man. Granted, that’s a big part of it, and the hub of the action, but the movie is really about Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch (Peck), and how she views the world (and herself) over the course of about 15 months.

I haven't seen THAT movie, either.
What’s a “Tatum O’Neal”?

In fact, the trial itself threatens to go on too long. The movie kind of stops when Finch is there defending defending Tom (Brock Peters), taking our attention off Scout (Mary Badham, little sister of the great director John Badham!), her brother Jem (Philip Allford), and their trouble-making summer pal, Dill (John Megna). And let me pause for a moment to note how incredible these child actors are. You can really see why Badham got the nod for acting Oscar (losing out to Patty Duke’s Helen Keller).

I couldn’t quite tell how while it was happening, but as the trial progressed, I got more drawn into it. I like Gregory Peck, of course, but why he’s great here is that he has to stand back and dial things down. Brock Peters (maybe best known to “kids today” for his voice work on shows like “Johnny Bravo” and “Samurai Jack” or his performances on “Deep Space 9”), kicks ass. William Windom (who, like Peters, worked like crazy for the next three decades, before getting a big boost from his recurring role on “Murder, She Wrote”) also does a standout job. The acting really is great, and it draws you in. The accuser (played by yet another stalwart TV character actor, Collin Wilcox Paxton) is so transparently unbelievable that you wonder how—but then, that’s the point, isn’t it?

They say women never lie.
What a great shot, too.

And then, all of a sudden: Bam! There’s Robert Duvall.

The black-and-white photography is a little grainy and, at first, I was worried the film wasn’t going to exploit the great set and lighting potential to its fullest, but the cinematography sort of sneaks up on you. It starts very simple, even pedestrian, but builds to some fine dramatic uses at important points.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is good. Not, like, Airplane! good, but still.

We all liked it, needless to say.

Boo!
And another great shot.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1960)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi saves Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I didn’t like the TCM presents aspect of this film, not because Tiffany Vasquez is bad, particularly. (She’s new and a little stiff but that’s understandable.) But she looks like they hired her based on some arbitrary checkboxes (non-white, non-male, non-old), and it doesn’t help that she makes the tired, predictable trek through running down Rooney and director Blake Edward’s stereotypical Japanese character, but papering over it with “Well, they felt bad about it.”

So sorry!
Nobody can take a joke any more.

Maybe. I think Rooney would’ve said anything at various points in his career, and you can check out his Wikipedia entry (just for this role!) where he talks about people, especially Asians, loving it. Which, frankly, makes sense, since it’s an Asian stereotype, i.e., not one invented by The White Man, but one you can see in Japanese and Chinese films (and manga, come to think of it) going back decades. It’s a particularly egregious kind of White Man’s Burden to say that only White Stereotypes Are Acceptable. (As a full-blooded Indian I knew once pointed out to his radical mother fuming over Warner Bros. caricatured Indian characters, “Look at Elmer Fudd”.)

Anyway, that aside, there are a couple of points in this movie where it is in danger of bogging down under its own hipness, its own ironic tragedy, its own cleverness that Yunioshi’s appearance brings it back down to earth. Without that, it would’ve gone straight into melodrama, iconic performances from Audrey Hepburn and that guy from “The A-Team” notwithstanding.

The acting is perfection, however. One can certainly see why writer Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the movie, and his own novella’s more ambiguous ending, and while that certainly would’ve been different and interesting in its own way, there’s about zero chance of it having become the iconic film that this one is. Note that, whatever the source material’s merits are, it doesn’t stand out in the annals of literature like this film does in the annals of cinema.

She didn't invent it, but she mad it (and orange cats) popular.
To say nothing of “the little black dress” of fashion.

And that’s largely due to Audrey Hepburn, who manages to play a much younger character—Marilyn would’ve only been three years older but less believable—and who manages to make the sort of hip superficiality of the character more endearing than tragic. The tragic element is still there, of course, just not as overwhelming as it would’ve been with Marilyn, who always brought a note of sadness to even straight comedic roles.

Another element she brings that few actresses (most especially the wonderful Monroe) could, is a sort of pre-sexual innocence. Shortly after meeting Paul—whom she insists on calling “Fred”, which is something few people can do without being irritating—she crawls into bed with him and spends a platonic night sleeping on his naked chest. One doesn’t have to believe that Golightly is virginal—she is married, after a fashion, as it turns out—but one has to feel like she might be. It’s not really an acting thing so much as a persona thing.

Can't see it.
He’s naked. She’s nearly naked. And this is platonic. Marilyn?

George Peppard is solid, of course, and a believable-if-too-stock-for-Capote Paul, who has his own drama going on with sugar momma Patricia Neal (pre-stroke), who is also great in this. Peppard’s character is very stock, versus the more sensitive, wounded artist portrayal that some (including Neal, apparently) would’ve preferred. But once again, I gotta go Hollywood: Holly is close to insufferable, and in her chaotic, helpless state, the last thing she needs is a whiny pajama boy.

Buddy Ebsen’s career got a two decade boost from his little bit here, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s rustic, sure, but there’s an element of both menace and vulnerability that’s remarkably endearing. John McGiver, a warhorse of TV and movies for three decades, absolutely steals his little scene from the ridiculously cute Paul and Holly, as the understanding Tiffany’s clerk. Allan Reed is—holy crap! It’s Fred Flintstone! (I say that every time I see this picture.)

It's a nice bit.
High class, while be warm and not condescending.

It all works, in glorious Technicolor. But you can see how fragile it all is, too: A little tweak here and there would utterly wreck its structure, its character, its charm. It’s so edgy (for the time), it really needs that anchor to the past, that Hollywood magic, which was sputtering to its death by this time. The Boy liked it a lot. The Flower loved it. We all loved Mr. Yunioshi.

So there.

I assume she's smiling at Audrey here.
And who DOESN’T love Beverly Hills?

 

Elle

I warned The Boy in advance that this movie would be weird and weirdly sexual. Knowing nothing about it other than it was directed by once mega-director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls), that little bit of information was enough to—well, look, his first American film was Flesh + Blood (where Rutger Hauer rapes Jennifer Jason Leigh who then falls in love with him) and his last film was the Nazis-aren’t-even-the-bad-guys where a Jewish girl spy and a Nazi fall in love.

I’m not saying he has issues, I’m just saying he’s Dutch.

Even I don't know what I'm saying with this.
Isabelle Huppert with the director on set.

Anyway, the story here begins with Isabelle Huppert being raped in her home (a scene that plays out, I think, a total of three times) and then just going about her business as if nothing had happened. Her business is being a high-powered successful game company CEO (whose games are rife with sex-like-violence), having sex of various sorts with the husband of her best pal/business partner, and setting up awkward social situations where she can humiliate her ex-husband—something she seems to do for sport more than out of cruelty, though she’s certainly cruel as well.

She’s also hated by the public-at-large, for something that happened 40 years prior, when she was 10. (Isabelle Huppert is 63, and while she doesn’t look young, she’s got that French thing going where she makes “mature” work.) This is why she doesn’t involve the police in her rape which, frankly, doesn’t seem very traumatic to her. And, in her pursuit to discover who her attacker is, she enlists the talents of a young programmer with the hots for her to spy on all the private computers of her employees. (Something which probably isn’t within the power of a game programmer; just because you can program a computer doesn’t mean you can crack into someone else’s. But it’s too much to ask for a movie to get that distinction correct.)

As nerds will.
And then he takes her shooting.

At the various points in the film where most narratives would crank things up and close them down, this film…does not. It just gets weirder. Like, discovering who made a distasteful computer animation of her reveals nothing about the rape mystery and a lot about her ethical “freedom”. A failed later seduction of the Christian neighbor’s husband, which might also have gone into a typical “twist”, does not. Even discovering her rapist—that actually happens fairly early on, and is not really the point of the proceedings.

There’s nothing normal about it. It’s just very Verhoeven. I’d say “very Dutch” but I haven’t noticed that other Dutch films are like this at all. But I often get the Danes, the Belgians (Frisians, I think?) and the Dutch mixed up. I actually can’t think of any non-Verhoeven Dutch films. Which says something about them or me, or both of us. Also, I think this movie is technically French, Verhoeven notwithstanding.

Tough negotiator.
“Look, just sign the contract and I’ll stop smashing dinnerware over your head.”

There’s a scene where Huppert starts arming up, and you think maybe this’ll turn into a day-of-the-woman style revenge picture (but only if you don’t know Verhoeven) and while it was odd to see self-defense positively depicted in a European film, it was not as odd as seeing someone say grace at the dinner table. First time I’ve seen that in a French, Dutch, German…any European film I can think of, actually.

Of course, the religion thing has a twist on it, too, ’cause, y’know, Verhoeven.

Getting the idea? If you liked Black Book, you’d probably like this. Maybe even Flesh + Blood would be a good indicator. If you like weird sex, rough sex, violent sex, this is probably the film for you. And it is well done, no doubt. The Boy and I liked it, but part of that has to be its sheer difference. This, like The Lobster, is not for everyone.

Jazz hands! Er, tongues!
The most normal scene in Verhoeven’s most normal movie.

IFF: AKA Nadia

As mentioned, repeatedy, numerously, and probably ad nauseum, Israeli films tend to be a little bit different because while they can be very western, there’s this element of constant existential threat in them which tends to give them a different flavor. In fact, last year’s films were sort of remarkable in that a few didn’t have that (like Ibiza and Galis, which are straight up teen sex comedy and teen escapist fantasy, respectively). But while it’s interesting to look at the ways this “distorts” traditional formulae, when it’s used as the hook, it can be heavy handed to the point of boring.

The dance stuff is modern, yo.
Enjoy my ten hour dance cycle: How the Jews Are Just Like Hitler

Beyond Hills and Mountains, e.g., had a lot of verve added by the Palestinian threat. Being a “rebellious teen” in Israel can take on terrifying dimensions you don’t get as a snowflake in a safe space. In A.K.A. Nadia, however, the situation is used as the hook, and doesn’t add as much as you might think to the proceedings.

The story is that of a 17 year old Palestinian girl who runs off to London with her fiancee, in defiance of her parents, and knowing that she can never return. If you go to London, apparently, you’re only going for terrorism training, and Israel apparently isn’t super-keen on re-importing trained terrorists. As you might imagine, things go south and the young girl finds herself alone in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know anyone, and from which she cannot get back home.

So, she works. And through others in her situation, she finds a guy (John Hurt, no less!) who can get her papers back to Israel, approximately. The catch is that the only papers he can get her are Jewish. So if she wants to go back at all, it has to be as Nadia who was killed in a car accident with her parents a few months earlier. (And I guess has no other interested family. I don’t know, that could happen.)

I crack me up.
“Welp. Guess I’m Jewish now. Moozel taupe. Wait, what do they say again?”

It’s not a bad hook, but the bulk of the movie takes place 20 years later, when she’s married with two kids, and living as a choreographer in a life which, if we’re being honest, is so much better than any she could’ve had as a Palestinian woman, it’s one of those blazing examples of “This is not a story with two sides.” This is barely touched on, though, which became an issue, as I’ll discuss further on.

Nadia meets with her real mother maybe once a week, and otherwise juggles her busy life as mom, wife and choreographer when, one day, an envoy from Palestine arrives on some sort of culture mission and who should be there but boyfriend-from-twenty-years-ago. He vanished, she didn’t know what happened to him, and she ignores her mother’s warning to leave the guy alone since he brought her and her family nothing but misery.

Her actions end up creating suspicion in her marriage, increasing agitation at her work, and ultimately chaos to her entire life.

o/~All o' my exes live in the Gaza strip~\o
Exes are like that, or so the country songs tell me.

This is one of those movies, though, where the circumstances and events seem plausible (even down to the destructive pursuit of the terrorist ex) to the movie’s detriment. It’s as though the author wants to shy away from drama so hard that much is left out. And much, also, is left in, which is to say there are long scenes of acting, where nothing is said or done, just emoted. Including a gratuitous shower scene which, normally, I’m for but which does a poor job of preparing us for what I think is meant to be the character steeling herself against (I think) the possible fall-out of incorporating part of her history in to the Big Show.

It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just low key. And it feels to me like it’s resting hard on the cultural situation, the audience’s awareness of it, and their sensitivity to same. Which, hey, these guys’d starve if they made their movies catering to the American audience.

I did think, though, that it also felt a little bit of a cheat in the sense that Nadia had to lie, repeatedly, over and over again, to her husband, her children, etc. And we see very little of that. We just get the “20 years later…” which is going to tend to make the protagonist one-sidedly sympathetic and the sense of betrayal seem unreasonably extreme. Which is how I felt, actually. Like, sure, she lied about everything (except maybe how she felt about her family) but the things she was honest about were the most important.

I think maybe the film could’ve better served the audience by giving us a taste of that pre-climactic life, which it only does in brief flashbacks which are sometimes confusing because the actress can’t really pass for 17. (The Boy missed the final flashback as a flashback, for example.)

Broody. Well acted, sure. And the ending wasn’t as horrible as it might’ve been, which is actually no faint praise, since it could’ve gone a lot of really awful ways. But tough to recommend.

And you know there MUST be some out there.
Unless you are a John Hurt completist.

IFF: Beyond the Mountains and Hills

Film festivals are, necessarily, crap shoots. Often, they’re crap shoots with really bad odds. No matter what sort of film you like (or even love), if you’re picking out of the film fest hat, you’ve got a really good shot of seeing something that makes you rethink your tastes. We’ve had such good luck with the Israeli Film Fest that The Boy is a little spoiled. Two years ago was so good, he’s more or less forgotten last year’s disappointments. This year, however, schedules were such that we were lucky to make the three films we did: the shorts (The Mute’s House, Anna, An Average Story), A.K.A. Nadia and this one, Beyond the Mountains and Hills.

Right.
Well, this looks like fun.

This movie is, basically, a mid-life crisis movie. I forget when the midlife crisis was invented, but I think it was in the ’70s, with the mainstreaming of the concept beginning in 1980’s Middle Age Crazy (Bruce Dern, Ann Margret). This would make sense as the Boomers were hitting their 30s (35 used to be “middle aged”, I remind the young folks today who are still “finding themselves” in their 30s) and the previous two decades of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll had to have given way to something more like a mundane lifestyle.

But the thing is, this is an Israeli mid-life crisis movie and the constant presence of an existential threat tends to focus the mind in ways that is largely unknown, for example, to average Americans and Europeans. In this film by Eran Kolirin (who directed The Band’s Visit, one of the earliest reviewed films here at the ‘gique), our hero is David, a guy who’s just retired from the military—protecting the home front—for the past 22 years and is now at loose ends, trying to find a purpose in life. The movie gives us a bit of a taste of that, as he ends up in a multilevel marketing scheme which, hey, might be good for some, but is really, really not good for our hero. (He sells one package by extorting a sleazy co-worker who is using him as cover for his affairs into a buying it.)

This picture bears no relation to the caption or the text, but I couldn't find a picture of Alon Pdut firing his gun into the hills. So deal.
What? In the MLM world that’s called “business as usual.”

Meanwhile his wife, Rina, is succumbing to the attentions of one of her literature students, his daughter is a radical activist and his son—well, his son seems to be pretty okay at first but he finds out about his mother and is tormented regarding whether or not to tell his dad, and this ends up bringing on the unexpected climax of the film. The daughter, Yifat, actually ends up being the focus of the picture and, if you like, a metaphor for Israelis generally.

Yifat has a radical activist boyfriend, who’s too cool to take a ride to the demonstration with David because it’d be like visiting concentration camps with Hitler. (No joke, that’s the analogy used.) But Yifat quickly discovers that Israeli leftist boyfriend has pretty clear limits of commitments, and she finds herself attracted to a Palestinian. The Palestinian is sketchy as hell, but when she demurs on his invitation to come to a little party with his pals in the hills, she feels guilty and probably racist. Later, she finds out he’s dead, and goes into Palestine to attend the funeral where she is abused by the dead guy’s wife.

Realizing she’s in trouble, she begs a ride from dead guy’s friend, and finds herself once again open to his sketchy advances.

And this is basically your movie: Our characters commit a variety of sins, and they also commit a variety of actions which might or might not have tremendous import, and the characters never know. But they are burdened.

It won't end well.
Sometimes, the burden is the sudden realization of what a moron you’ve been.

Gladiator (2000)

Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

Yeah, no matter how many times I say it, it never gets old. For me, I mean. I pity my children. Or I would, except The Flower just responds with:

CAN YOU COUNT, SUCKERS?

SUCKERS!
Which is silly. Cyrus was Greek.

The latter being a quote from The Warriors, which she also had not seen, but which she had confused with Ridley Scott’s Sword-and-Sandals classic Gladiator. And, given that The Warriors is based on the Ancient Greek Anabasis, it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially sound. It probably will sound even less far-fetched to see so many echoes of the recent political season portrayed in this 2000 film—and practically banal when you consider so much of this year’s drama was like so much of 2000’s election drama.

But the beauty of this film isn’t its political message, assuming it can be said to have one of any tremendous specificity. The beauty of this film is its beauty—and that it thankfully transcends the cheesy adventure genre from which it sprang. Scott, in the early days of digital post-processing gives us the muted gray palette that dominates the superhero genre. But because he’s not a hack seeking “credibility”, he doesn’t use it for every damn second of the film. He’s not afraid of colors, or he hadn’t learned to be back then. (I don’t recall being wowed by Prometheus‘ visuals, frankly.)

Color!
We got a gold tiger, and some gold gladiator shorty skirts, red banners…

He’s not above the tired lectures of “bread and circuses” and “rule the mob” and “we love violence”—but he’s also not above having lots of really entertaining violence in his film, either. Violence interspersed with melodrama and political intrigue. And lots and lots of crap floating in the air, in the Scott-ian style.

It holds up really well, this movie does. Every cheesy line delivered with utmost earnestness by Russell Crowe, Connie Nielsen (The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, and playing Wonder Woman’s mother in the upcoming film), Oliver Reed in (I think) his final performance, Derek Jacobi and so on. Some people didn’t like Joaqiun Phoenix’s over-the-top performance as the weaselly Commodus, but it holds up better than I remember it, as is often the case with the Big Performances.

WHO NEEDS IT?!?!
Here, Phoenix comments on the use of “subtlety” in acting.

The action shows a really good command of space, something we note in a lot of ’80s films. In fact, this may be one of the latest examples of a director really commanding space in his action sequences. You could say, “Well, it’s the arena, Blake,” but Lucas would go on to use an Arena in “Attack of the Clones” and it was just decoration. The arena amounted to nothing, in terms of limiting or controlling the actions of the characters. What’s more, Scott’s command of the space extends from the opening battle scene to the climactic confrontation between Commodous’ troops and the gladiators.

There’s also considerable suspense here. We are carried along by the emotional arc of Crowe’s character (Maximus!), seeing his personal plans for vengeance rise to the level of potential restoration of the Republic of Rome, and his expansion from a single-minded revenant to possible Hero of the Republic means we start really caring whether or not his plans come to pass. The love story between Crowe and Nielsen is even a bright spot among bright spots of the film, containing as it does the most recognizable characteristics of Judeo-Christian ethics (monogamy, fidelity, respect between the sexes, etc.).

It’s a really fine film that manages to not collapse under its own weight. And at nearly 3 hours long, that’s not an inconsiderable feat.

The children were entertained, if perhaps not overwhelmed by the experience.

Lotta crap. In the air.
In related news, extras from Scott’s films have filed a class action suit against him alleging that he has created a “hostile work environment for lungs”.

The Eagle Huntress

This movie, about a young girl who defies Mongolian tradition by learning how to hunt with Golden Eagles is beautifully shot, but quickly leaves the alert viewer with the sense that this is not at all a documentary, but a slickly packaged and edited “message movie” with a tenuous connection to any sort of reality. And then the credits roll and the name “Morgan Spurlock” comes up and confirms all suspicions. Or at least adds to the mountain of circumstantial evidence.

The movie begins with Father releasing his Golden Eagle to the wild. This scene was necessary because otherwise a person (even an indigenous one) who enslaved a wild animal to hunt other animals could be problematic. This is followed by us learning about his lovely pubescent (and soon to be married, at least theoretically) daughter who wishes to be an eagle hunter, as is common among the men of the tribe’s people. (This is a nomadic tribe, or quasi-nomadic, I suppose, since they live in yurts until it’s too cold to live in yurts, at which point they switch to houses.) We then cut to the old men of the tribe advising us that, well, she can’t be an eagle hunter because, y’know, she’s a girl and girls can’t be eagle hunters. Or at least shouldn’t be eagle hunters.

Then we see her father take her to kidnap an eagle. Then she trains the eagle. Then it’s time for the eagle competition, which she not only wins, but breaks records for “fastest eagle” or something. After which we see the elders once again talking about how, well, that’s nice for tourists, but she’s not an eagle hunter till she, y’know hunts with an eagle. So we see her hunting with an eagle. Which, after three tries (the magical three of narratives), she manages to succeed at. Her eagle kills a fox and her mother will make her a jacket out of it, or something.

Rocky IV was less stagey.

Now, I don’t know. I haven’t researched this people or their customs at all. But for a documentary, this film was remarkably unenlightening. We learn literally nothing about the people this family is supposedly a member of, except that they hunt with eagles (and I’m guessing most of them don’t, in fact, hunt with eagles) and they get married young by modern standards. This is probably true, though it looks a lot less horrible than the life of the Bedouin girls. I don’t think the people were Muslim, and they certainly weren’t the sort of strict Muslim of the Bedouin but the point here is that we never find out.

Like we never find out what they do for a living. At all. Are they just…nomads? With public schools?

Like we never find out what the significance of the eagle competition is. We’re told that our heroine will be competing against 70 other eagle hunters. But how are they picked? How is it that she (and maybe her father, it’s not clear) are the sole competitors from her area? Is it just one family from every tribe? If they’re the representatives for their tribe, exactly how much pull do these village elders who say “girls can’t hunt” have?

And when she gets there, people seem more enchanted than offended by the little girl, and the judges—apparently some sort of tribal elders themselves—do most of their scoring through a subjective 1-10 scale, so given that she wins, what sort of resistance is this girl actually facing to realizing her dream? Is it close to, I don’t know, zero?

Was this whole thing just a weak excuse for you-go-girl-ism? ’cause it really seemed like a weak excuse for you-go-girl-ism.

With an eagle.
The Eagle Huntress casually waits for the school bus.

I’m one of the few people who will actually defend Super Size Me, the “documentary” that made Spurlock famous. It is contrived, for sure, but there at least Spurlock says up front, “I am setting the rules for the game, and here they are.” You can say the rules are stupid. You can say they’re insulting (i.e., that Americans are so weak-willed that they will automatically “super-size” if a minimum wage employee suggests it). But you can’t say you don’t know what they are.

Subsequently, however, I think he discovered that your “documentaries” pack more punch if people don’t know the rules. And I feel like, in order to achieve a major feminist victory, the lede is buried. To wit: This is probably a practice few people care enough about to even get upset that a girl is doing it. Further, much like is suggested by the elders, it probably is a good selling point for tourists to have a girl do it. Just like it’s a good selling point for a documentary to have a girl do it.

Look at 'em. Ready to tear her apart.
The Eagle Huntress fights off the patriarchy.

Which is a shame. If it had gone that way (“Hey, this is a practice of a dying people and here’s a girl fighting to keep it alive!”) you could have had a much better—and much truer—story. At least, that’s my guess. As I said, I’ve done zero research. But I did see this movie, and it only makes its point weakly and in the most contrived way imaginable.

It is lovely, however. Lots of big, impressive landscapes, good-looking people, and truly majestic and formidable looking beasts. I would’ve loved it if it weren’t such a try-hard of a film.

The Boy felt similarly, though perhaps not as strongly. He was inclined to watch and dismiss, by-and-large.

Now THAT would've been a STORY!
The Eagle Huntress on her way to invade Europe.

Israel Film Fest: An Average Story (short, 2016)

Of the three shorts we saw packaged together, this one—An Average Story—was the only one we liked unreservedly. It’s an amusing premise: Our hero is told by a wild-haired statistician that he represents the “average” Israeli man. He’s average height, average weight, and has 2.3 children (his wife is pregnant). He’s sort of bemused, even a little pleased at first, but quickly becomes dismayed at the notion.

In a very Israeli moment, he asks his wife if she thinks he’s average, and she responds, “Only statistically.” This is a beautiful answer, even if our hero’s not sold on it. He’s even less sold on her plan to capitalize on his average-ness, but he ultimately capitulates, and soon they have a cottage industry trading on his “average-ness”.

You don't want to be mean.
A lot of work goes into being “average”.

But of course, with his newfound success, he ceases to be average, culminating in a warm and winning ending where he realizes that losing his extraordinary averageness leaves him extraordinarily appreciative of the very averageness that society at large no longer appreciates.

It’s not an “average” short but it is a very representative short, deeply invested with that Jewish philanthropy and humor that characterizes the best work of the IFF. Definitely worth checking out.

Just ask Fernando Sor.
The great thing about fame is that it’s permanent. Once you have it, you’re set for life!

Israel Film Fest: Anna (short, 2016)

The Boy felt this particular short was a waste of time. It really did seem like a piece of a larger movie which we probably would have regarded as a longer waste of time. The premise is that Anna, who works in a factory and lives with her 10(ish) boy finds herself at loose ends one evening when the boy’s father wants to have him over for the night. She wants to pull a double-shift to fill the time but that’s not allowed so instead she decides to try to get herself laid.

Well, you know.
Often, when choosing between working a double-shift in the sweatshop and sex…

This is kind of a sad effort—this one of a middle-aged woman sort of indiscriminately trolling for sex—and while the whole film is competently put together and the acting is fine and the camerawork (considering the limitations of the budget) has some well done aspects, we’re not really given much to hang on to here. Should we root for the woman’s promiscuity/empowerment? Are we supposed to be pleased that she doesn’t care if her lover is married, or particularly interested in her, or that her son wakes up to a strange man in the apartment?

I don’t know. Nothing makes me feel as old-fashioned as these European ideas of sex. (And they are, essentially European, as much of “liberal” Israel is.)

But literally we learn nothing about Anna except that she’s still reasonably competent at finding someone to have sex with her, which isn’t much of a feat for a woman.

This film does feature gratuitous nudity, though, which would turn up in other films in this year’s IFF. (We saw this short right after “The Mute’s House”.)

Still kinda sad.
Annas clean up pretty good, tho’.

Israel Film Festival: The Mute’s House (short, 2016)

Well, look, it’s a bad situation, this whole Israel/Palestine thing. The Israelis want to live in peace and the Palestinians don’t want them to live at all, and this is going to create some bizarre side-effects.

Nothing I could add would be in good taste.
Like little kids living in episodes of the Twilight Zone.

In this case, a house in an area (on the West Bank?) that has been evacuated (because the Palestinians kept using it as a way to attack Israel) is still being lived in by a woman and her son. The woman is deaf—not really mute from what I could tell, despite the title, or at least mute-by-choice. Like, I think her vocal chords work, she just doesn’t use them, because (surprise!) Palestinians aren’t particularly generous with regard to handicapped people.

She lives in the house with her son who has only one arm. Apparently, and sort of refreshingly, this is a congenital defect. That is, his arm was not blown off by an errant rocket or in retaliation for some perceived slight to Mohammed. He seems like a sweet kid. He (and maybe his mother) are the only ones allowed to cross from the evacuated area into Palestine. Palestinians, possibly including his father who lives on the other side of the wall, use him to smuggle booze into Palestine where it is, of course, forbidden.

The nerve!
None of this would happen if the Jews wouldn’t insist on, you know, being alive.

It’s a living.

As I say, it’s a messed up situation. The sort of thing that happens when one people is expected to share a country with people who wish to kill them. This short, one bundled with two others as part of the Israel Film Festival, was interesting without being particularly enlightening.

Back to the Future (1985)

You never know, you know? Movies that you loved at the time may, on a repeated viewing, turn out not to be as great as you remember them. Especially really hyped movies like, say, Back To The Future.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with Back To The Future. (Psych!)

Yeah, it's a long way for a lame joke.
Burn! Burned you like this cheesy composite shot didn’t come anywhere near burning Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

Its not just comical, but laughable, portrayal of the ’50s has lapped around to become quaint, like those Judy Garland movies about the gilded age: A reflection of a sort of smug modernity that we’re far enough from to find charming. (OK, I wasn’t bugged by the representation of the ’50s at the time, though I realized how exaggerated it was, but my dad wasn’t amused. Though he did like the movie.) And its representation of the ’80s is also similarly aged, however sincere it was at the time. (Huey Lewis and the News was “too loud”?)

This was before we politicized everything, however, so we can look at this without having to analyze what they were trying to say about the patriarchy or white power (though, naturally, a big deal Must Be Made about the gag where Michael J. Fox invents rock-and-roll). And the upshot is: This movie is such a tight construction of action, suspense and comedy that it’s greatest sin may be that it’s just too darn slick.

Wilson's a workin' man.
As slick as Biff’s (Thomas F. Wilson) hair.

I mean, here we have a time travel plot: A device that would be utterly annihilated in the ’90s by “Star Trek: Voyager” and a bunch of other lazily constructed TV and movie crap to the extent where when you see a time-travel plot to day, you almost have to roll your eyes. At least I do, because it almost invariably mean that the writer(s) have an unlimited supply of deus ex machina and they’ll  use it in a way that would make Homer blush. But here, as in some other ’80s movies (Terminator, e.g.), it’s done right. Not because it makes sense (how can a time travel plot ever really make sense?) but because it sets up the rules and it plays by them.

To wit: Marty has accidentally prevented his parents from getting together, and he must repair that or suffer the fate of non-existence, as shown by a photograph he has of his siblings where they start to fade out. Of course, this makes no sense, since they’d just vanish entirely, instantly, along with him as soon as he caused the problem—which, if he didn’t exist to cause it, how could he un-exist himself?—but there’s no fun in that. The point is, there’s a rule, and the movie expertly trades on the suspense generated by this rule, taking Marty’s fate down to the wire.

I wish modern filmmakers would grasp that: There have to be stakes, obstacles and limits on getting around them. But they’re too busy counting their billions of dollars, I guess.

It...kinda looks like Trump.
Probably lighting their cigars with moneys. (From the sequel.)

Even though the basic outcome of the movie is assured from the get-go—there’s literally no chance that this film can have an unhappy ending—the film manages to play the suspense angle relentlessly and successfully. Marty’s mom falls in love with him, instead of his dad, and all of his attempts to redirect that go awry. We’re pretty sure that Marty’s not going to screw up his history, but the movie gives us a twist there. We’re pretty sure he’s going to “get back in time”, but the movie dares us to believe it as every thing goes wrong on the night when the lightning strikes the clock tower. Doc Brown’s fate. Biff’s fate. Marty’s dad’s fate.

This movie sells you on outcomes you know just can’t happen, and convincingly. There’s no padding in this film: If it’s not plot or character development, it’s comedy (and it’s probably comedy and plot or character development).

Anyway, Zemeckis (and constant co-writer Bob Gale) has never been better; it was as if Spielberg’s competence and childlike love of cinema was contagious. I could probably ask a bunch of people who have seen this movie to draw a map of Hill Valley and the Twin Pines Mall and get roughly the same map. It’s the command of space that predominates these films, that gives them a thrill you don’t get from CGI. Alan Silvestri does a serviceable John Williams impression for the score, which is still memorable (if not on the level of Jaws or Star Wars). The effects—actually pretty sparing!—hold up very well. Even the old age makeup works! (And that almost never happens!)

Really!
It works better than some of the stills would have you believe.

If there’s a weak part to the movie, it’s probably Michael J. Fox. Marty’s character is a two-dimensional ’80s high-school cliche—this is raised to ridiculous levels in the sequels—and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that for the purposes of this film. It just seemed to me that Fox’s mid-20s high-school senior was more annoying (and less endearing) than I recalled from my original viewing. Fox was at the height of his fame, of course, and there’s maybe a bit more crossover between his Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly than makes sense. I don’t know.

The kids dug it. The Boy made pretty much the same observations regarding the command of space and suspense of the film, while The Flower commented on how impressed she was by the old age makeup. Perhaps amusingly, the only actor they know from the film is Crispin Glover—from his remake of Willard!

It’s always nice when a classic lives up to your memories of it.

Leah still looks great!
I guess Crispin Glover didn’t show up at the reunion.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

I like Mel Brooks, in theory. He seems like a nice bloke, his wife was the incomparable Anne Bancroft, and what’s not to love about a guy who taunted the Nazis in WWII? I mean, from close range.

It's a good bit.
In another life, I could’ve called him “buck and wing” friend.

But facts is facts, and the fact is, he’s never made me laugh much. The “Get Smart” TV show made me laugh, but after creating it, he had little to do with it. I listed the movies of his I had seen to my Twitter pal (and perhaps only compare to Bancroft) @Juleslaland—Twelve Chairs, High Anxiety, Silent Movie, History of the World, Robin Hood: Men In Tights—and she attributed my lack of laughs to my unfortunate selection.

I’m not so sure about that, but upon taking the kids to see Young Frankenstein (as part of the theater’s remembrance of the late Gene Wilder), I did, in fact, laugh. Mel Brooks, of course, makes no appearance in the film. But even when Young Frankenstein doesn’t make me laugh, I have loved its devotion to the original five movies (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man).

As glorious as it is silly.
They got some of the original equipment, even.

The incredibly broad humor—which is what I associated with Brooks—still doesn’t make me laugh, and I almost can’t comprehend how it was a hit in 1974, but it at least now has a kind of charming quaintness to it. The movie, for me, seems to peak in the build-up to the iconic “Putting on the Ritz” scene which is, perhaps, somewhat dampened by its own iconic-ness. The kids are well familiar with the scene from its “Family Guy” riff. (“Family Guy” motto: “Why write an original joke when  you can stealreference someone else’s?”) The Flower was elated to discover this was the movie it came from. (She hadn’t realized until that moment.) For me, I think I have some reservations about it because it stops being Frankenstein and starts being King Kong. (Hey, my taste doesn’t have to make any more sense than anyone else’s.)

There are a lot of good bits here, and the movie is pleasing over all, though what stands out most prominently are the performances. Feldman (whom I didn’t much like as a kid) is amazing. Even when the jokes he’s telling are older than the 2,000 year old man. Wilder is the perfect combination of charming and goofball. Teri Garr is adorable and also funny—not just a generic cutie. Nothing need be said about Madeline Khan, I trust, except that her role as the uptight fiancee is too small. Peter Boyle channels just enough Karloff to give his monster sympathy along with laughs. And Cloris Leachman was already hilariously playing mean old ladies over 40 years ago.

And all you can see is Teri's boobs.
They’re all worth watching at once.

That’s a lot of big names in one movie—Gene Hackman! Prime Gene Hackman!—and it’s become easy to forget (until you rewatch) the great performance of the late Ken Mars as Inspector Kemp. Mars worked for another 30+ years after this role as voice actor for decades as well as tons of character roles. (You may recall him as “Malcolm in the Middle”‘s Otto, on the ranch Francis inexplicably finds himself in latter seasons.) In a town full of mostly English accented people, he’s inexplicably German accented.

Or was it the other way around? It was seemingly random who would speak how at any time. But that is probably my favorite aspect of this film. The little unexplained touches like Frankenstein taking a train to New York City, and staying on the train to Transylvania. (Frankenstein was no more in Transylvania than his assistant was named “Igor”, but that’s missing the forest for the underwater trees.) The fact that as he moves east, he moves back in time.

Oh, Madeline.
KHAAAAANNNN!

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t try. But it hangs together as a story, and this leads to the other thing I like most about it: Wilder has said that he loved “Frankenstein” but he wanted a happy ending, and so he wrote this. And above all, there’s a good-natured feeling throughout. Like Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ other big 1974 hit (though not as obviously), it’s nigh impossible to conceive of this movie being made today. And yet, it’s so benign: There’s not a mean bone in this monster’s body.

It’s not surprising that, when asked, Wilder said he didn’t act in movies for the last decades of his life because nothing good came along. (Well, that and he really enjoyed writing his novels.) But outside of kid’s movies—something that must be considered a missed opportunity for Disney/Dreamworks/Pixar, never having enticed him into a role—and not always even in kid’s movies, you seldom see a comedy that isn’t at someone’s expense.

But I like to think that will one day change, and then?

I know it's not this scene, but I'm on a roll.
At last, sweet mystery of life, I’ve found yooooou!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

In a typically contrarian manner, I did not like the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was okay, as I often explain, right up until the submarine ride across the Atlantic. To which most people say “What sub trip?” And I remind them, in pursuit of the Nazis, Indy jumps on a German sub in the New World (maybe New York or Florida or something) and then rides on top of it all the way across the ocean. This is a good way to win bets, so few people seem to remember this scene.

They even say "DIVE!"
The appropriately named “Overthinking It” site has an article on this very thing.

Suspension of disbelief lost. I kept thinking, “What happens if the submarine submerges at any point in its 3,000 mile journey?” (Per this site, the Germans are actually saying “Dive!”) It’s one thing to engage in improbable (or in the case of climbing under the truck, impossible*) activities, and another to just figure you’ll get lucky on your  month long trip across the ocean. I forget how long it was actually supposed to take, but it really wouldn’t matter. All that would have to happen is for the boat to submerge halfway through the trip.

I had basically gotten over it by the time the Temple of Doom came out, though, having gained some appreciation for the silly serial antics of the genre, and so Doom came to be my favorite of the series, even while others particularly disliked it. I forget who, but someone described it as the longest five-minute movie ever, which is pretty accurate in the sense that the two hours flew by because you don’t get a lot of chance to breathe.

It’s fast enough, in fact, that it doesn’t seem slow even by today’s standards, though it doesn’t seem as frantic as it did 30 years ago.

The ride was actually in the script for Raiders.
What movie DOESN’T have a mine ride these days?

Upon reflection, Doom feels like it might have been an attempt to outdo the original. For example, the original features Nazis. You can’t go wrong having Nazi villains, but it’s hard to top and if you don’t want to repeat yourself, what do you do? Well, you make your baddies a brainwashing thuggie death cult that kills villages, steals children to work in their iPhone factories, and literally pulls people’s hearts out of their chests.

Said scene being the reason we have PG-13 now. The heart-pulling scene is so comic book, though, so bloodless—not only does the guy’s chest close up afterwards, he doesn’t even suffer from the lack of a heart—that the notion of it warranting an R-rating seems as unlikely as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre warranting a PG because of its relative bloodlessness. The tone of Doom is fantastic from the get-go.

HMOs, amirite?
I mean: Sure, he’s upset—what with having his heart ripped out and all—but he’s otherwise pretty hale until they lower him into the lava.

This may be another reason I liked it more than the first. If it had come first, you’d be prepared for the silliness in Raiders. The opening scene, while not mystical, is wonderfully over the top. It’s a masterful ballet that shows Spielberg’s command of space, and whereas anyone might have one MacGuffin, Spielberg has two: A priceless gem and a lifesaving serum.

A lot of people voiced complaints about Short Round (later seen in The Goonies) and Spielberg’s second wife, Kate Capshaw, but the former is not as annoying as one might think and the latter actually does a lot of good physical comedy. Interestingly, the kids objected to any characterization of Capshaw as annoying, which suggested to me (not surprisingly) that one’s exposure to the news surrounding a film can influence one’s idea of the film.

The special effects largely work, although the composites are sometimes shockingly bad. The mattes are obvious but, as mattes usually do, serve their purpose despite their fakiness. The mine/rollercoaster is still good, even though it has been done to death since the movie came out.

All-in-all, it’s a perfect movie for a grade-school boy, and the grade-school boy within all of us. I’m sure such a shockingly colonial representation of other cultures would not be allowed today, sadly.

Anyway, we all liked it.

Although I don't think the kids are allowed to work shirtless.
This movie also anticipated Apple’s iPhone factories.

Castle In The Sky (1986)

Some people consider Studio Ghibli’s first film to have been Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind but technically speaking—and when talking animé, we must always speak technically—that movie was produced before the Studio itself was actually founded. Their first official release, then, was this very animé tale, Castle in the Sky. Of course, all of Studio Ghibli’s films are animé by definition, but I would say Castle shows a lot more “having been influenced” than “influencing”—compared to other Ghibli films because, of course, this film has also been highly influential.

STFU ALREADY!
Here, a robot offers the kids a free Nintendo Gameboy if they can get me to shut up.

But it has a more traditional feel to it than, say, Grave of the Fireflies (or, as the Flower calls it, “the saddest movie ever”) or Only Yesterday, for example. The story is about a girl who is on a dirigible (natch) when pirates board, to save herself she climbs out her cabin window and in the ensuing chaos, falls. But rather than splattering on the ground, as one might expect in a children’s movie, her necklace begins to glow and she floats—almost right down into a nigh-bottomless pit before she’s rescued by a miner boy of approximately the same age.

No way you could guess where that is gonna go.

Unguessable. Whatevs.
It’s unknowable.

I kid. I’m a big fan of Miyazki’s romantic stories, and the odder the better perhaps (Ponyo). Anyway, boy and girl flee greedy pirates, a greeedier army, and an especially greedy and evil intelligence agent in their quest to discover the origin of the stone while fleeing across the impossibly vertical world of…wherever they are. In the third act, this, rather satisfyingly, leads them to the eponymous castle where the whole story comes together in a very Miyazaki way with technology at war with nature, with somewhat contradictory results.

The Boy noted that there were no deaths early on the film, which is true in that cartoon way of “Yeah, they show people running away from explosions and bullets” while the end has a lot of people plummeting from an unrecoverably high height. I didn’t find that to be remarkable since you still don’t see them die, but it’s certainly a far cry from, say, Princess Mononoke, where a guy gets his arms shot off (by an arrow!) in the first scene.

I just noticed!
Hey, there’s a Totoro on that blimp!

There’s still a ton of Miyazaki/Ghibli tradmearks, like eating fried eggs, dirigibles, flying machines based off of neat aesthetic (but dubious engineering) principles and, as mentioned, the very, very common theme of man struggling to separate from/coexist with nature. It also turns out that, between the pirates, the army and the intelligence officer, the pirates are the good guys.

It’s long! Over two hours! But it’s not padded, and there’s a fair amount of action.

The dub features Anna Paquin, Mandy Patinkin, Mark Hamill and many other famous names so we were sort of surprised to discover that the theater showed the subtitled version, just as they had with Kiki’s Delivery Service—though not with Akira. (The world of dubs vs subs is a dark and mysterious one, my friends.) In the original, the boy (Pazu) is played by Mayuma Tanaka, a woman who does a lot of boy’s voices (in a thankfully not-too-annoying fashion), and of course I have no idea whether the voice acting is actually any good or not.

We all enjoyed it, of course.

Ginger?
We’re not monsters, unlike the foppish ginger here.

Dracula (2016)

Well. Well, well, well. WELL!

There’s a documentary (The Ruins of Lifta) making the rounds, and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is having a re-release, but the former smacks of Jewish guilt over the revolution—which can be fine, except there’s never, ever, EVER Arab guilat to counter-balance it—and the latter we’ll have several chances to catch, most likely, so The Boy lit upon this Persian film called Dracula, if for no other reason than he loves to see Western culture “appropriated”. (Sincerely. We both do.) It took me a while to find it at IMDB because the Anglicization of the Farsi is “Derakula” which is…well, once you know it, it makes it easy to find.

Persian flix. Amirite?
Here, have a promotional picture. Actual frames from the film are hard to find.

Indeed, within the first few minutes, he leaned over and said, “This is the worst Dracula ever!” meaning not the movie itself but how badly the old, fat wheezing Persian guy clashed with our idea of what Dracula should look like and be.  But the movie plays fast-and-loose with the “vampire” concept, having them drink blood, yes, and become invisible in mirrors (but only when inclined to attack), and being somewhat longer lived than humans. It sort of brushes off the sunlight thing and the backstory has our Derakula as the descendant of vampires who fled Europe after WWII, their ancestors having met relatively mundane fates like automobile accidents.

Well, heck, I suppose a car wreck could drive a steering column through your heart, or whatever.

Anyway, the premise is this: Dracula’s wife has married him on the condition that he vow never to drink blood again (fruit juice, apparently, suffices) and they had a happy life together, including having a son but when it turns out the son is deaf, the resultant stress drives the guy back to his old ways, and he picks up a druggie at a local park to drink his blood. Once he’s started down this path, he goes full bore, picking up guys and killing them while hiding it from his wife, who nearly left him when she found out about the first incident a couple months earlier. (Which actually seems more like a metaphor for homosexuality than anything.)

For blooooood.
Note the tasteful CGI around the eyes as Derakula gets hungry.

When our story begins, our “hero” (’cause what’s a “hero”?), star and director Reza Attaran (Absolute Rest), is at said park doing drugs because he’s been out of work for a while—or is it, we later come to question, that he’s been doing drugs and thereby lost his job? Derakula picks him up but before he can kill him, his wife discovers the situation and leaves him. Our hero, with some persuasion (Dracula has money), decides to cover for him and the two form an unlikely friendship, along with other druggies and dealers (apparently everyone in Tehran is either one or the other, except the women).

The hook, which dates back to the ’60s at least, and probably much earlier, is that when Dracula drank the blood of that first junkie, he himself became addicted to opium. Hence, the subsequent desire to kill he could no longer control. Our hero is the one who tips him to the situation and also gives him his first dose of the straight stuff. This immediately cures the vampire’s desire to drink even more blood. So far, so good, right?

Step 2, of course, then, is to get off the junk. (And I’m not sure how many different kinds of drugs they do here. I’m not an expert in that by a long shot; I think hashish and possibly regular pot were in there. At the beginning our hero is looking to organize a strike against crystal meth dealers, who have jacked up the price. There may have been others.

But you, perhaps, see the problem here.

Derakula has enlisted the help of an addict to help him get off the stuff, and naturally the addict’s philosophy is pretty laid back. You have to be in the right mood to kick it. You can’t kick cold turkey. You can’t do—well, basically, anything effective. And if Mrs. Derakula didn’t like the blood drinking, she’s even less sanguine (heh) about drug addiction. So our poor fat wheezing vampire ends up worse and worse off.

Did I mention this is a comedy? It is for the most part. Nobody believes our hero when he claims to have been kidnapped (he’s a serial liar, as druggies will be), and his relationship with his wife is reminiscent of so many other Persian films we’ve seen. And also “The Lockhorns”, if you’re familiar with them.

So, there are some laughs here, and I enjoyed it. There were a couple of effective moments of horror, sort of surprisngly. But overall it was light-hearted enough (despite being about drug abuse) that I was sort of expecting a comic/happy ending in the mold of, say, 50 Kilos versus the darkness of Absolute Rest. But it does turn dark, rather abruptly, and then the movie is over, perhaps meaning to convey a message about the seriousness of recreational drug use, though leaving more than a few narrative questions.

At one point, Derakula scorns the hero’s characterization of vampires as bad guys, and delivers what is, essentially, a tirade against the brutality of radical Islam. Normally those speeches—often delivered by aliens or monsters—ring a little hollow, but when you realize this is Tehran and there really are ongoing acid attacks, dismemberments and stonings, vampires really don’t seem so bad.

I found myself enjoying it, basically. The Boy was on the fence. He liked parts of it, but he was a little disappointed in it, feeling it didn’t really go anywhere. This is true: The only motion in the film is the increasing dependency the characters have on drugs, and how unfettered access to Dracula’s money isn’t such a great thing for a person in that situation. But there’s only so much comedy you can fish out of a bunch of hebetudinous (thanks, Umberto Eco!) characters and the film probably relies to heavily on exposition to show the characters’ descent.

Just say "No" to couches, kids. And nature shows.
A lot of time is spent on this couch. Watching nature shows.

This was a special screening, so you may have to wait a bit for it to come around to your favorite Persian theater.

Rifftrax: Carnival of Souls

It’s probably the completely wrong thing to start out with, but Carnival of Souls is absolutely ruined by being colorized.

“But wait”, you cry, “Carnival of Souls was ruined by being made!

Well, frankly, that’s a little catty and I expected better out of you. The boys from Rifftrax (Michael J. Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy) snidely note one of the slower scenes—okay, I think it’s when the heroine is stopping for gas—as one of the scenes that attracted the “Criterion Collection” people. That’s right, you can actually pay over $30 for a Blu-ray of this film with a documentary on the making thereof, director commentary, deleted scenes, some kind of reunion thingy…

Shake hands with danger!
Herk Harvey decries your cynicism from the grave!

But, wait, we’re watching this because Rifftrax is making fun of it, right?

We are! And, quite frankly, they do a bang up job. The Boy was really favorably impressed: He has been noting that the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” approach—get low budget, slow-paced movies—works way better than the “taking all comers” approach of Rifftrax. The big budget fiascos, Godzilla and Starship Troopers, are fun but they’re also very hard to process. You miss a lot of the jokes. The other thing we all agreed was that the sketches of the TV show break up what can otherwise be pretty monotonous.

And I miss the robots. (But that’s why we backed the MST3K revival.)

It was called We Love The Dead.
Herk fronted a short-lived Alice Cooper cover band.

Anyway, the point is a moody, slow-paced, atmospheric horror film like Carnival is perfect for riffing: There’s so much air in it, about the only time you’re not laughing is when the movie has literally moved so slow, there’s virtually nothing left to riff on. (The films of Coleman Francis leap sluggishly to mind.) It’s a good riff, is what I’m saying, and if you like riffing, this riff is for you.

The story is simple enough: Three girls decide to race with a couple of guys down a badly maintained road and over a dubious bridge. The girls go off the side into the river, and only one emerges: Mary, the professional organist. She quickly leaves town to take a job in a church in Utah, but along the way, and once there, she’s haunted by a spectral vision. A pale man seems to appear, impossibly in her car window (as she drives along the highway), in front of her, out of her second story boarding house window, and so on.

Boo! Boo-pa-doo!
TFW you’re singing in the car and a ghoul starts singing backup.

And then, at times, she seems completely invisible to people. Even when she is visible, she’s distant. She’s distractable. She has no interest in men, or any other humans, or their activities.

It’s a creepy movie. And if you like creepy, slow-moving, atmospheric horror, I recommend it straight up. But even if you don’t, you can enjoy the Rifftrax version! And I can certainly easily recommend that.

Aliens (1986)

“Game over, man! Game over!”

He was good as the polygamist, too.
Bill Paxton: Always believable when he’s falling apart.

If there’s one thing that really stands out from the 1986 sequel to Aliens, 30 years later and upon reflection of the abysmal Avatar, James Cameron hates the military like a hippie, but loves destructive hardware like an eight-year-old boy. In fact, you sort of wonder if he’s ever known any military people, because his “marines” are such a disobedient, weak-willed lot, they can’t even take out a few xenomorphs (despite having experience with “bug hunts”). Having seen more accurate portrayals in recent cinema, these caricatures date the film more firmly than Paul Reiser’s suits and Sigourney Weaver’s Reeboks.

That said, it’s a great movie.

The Flower has not seen the 1979 original, but I told her that was okay because there’s not a huge connection between the two movies, which is true. Part of the reason this movie succeeds where so many fail is that it doesn’t even try to recreate the original. It borrows, of course, the titular aliens (most of their biology had been worked out for the first movie, I believe, but the budget was lacking), and gives us a little chest ‘splodin, acid bleedin’, robot-milk-blood spewin’, but rather than an old, dark house movie in space (which is what the Ridley Scott movie is), it’s a straight up action movie with Ellen Ripley back to take on the baddest mofos in the galaxy.

I like the "-lina" suffix over the "ette".
“Just call me ‘Rambolina'”, she reportedly said.

Accompanying her (though they think she’s accompanying them) is company man Burke (Reiser), robot Bishop (Lance Henriksen), precocious survival girl Newt (Carrie Henn) and assorted military clichés, like the tough-as-nails Sgt. Apone (Al Matthews), level-headed Corporal Hicks (Terminator‘s Michael Biehn), swaggery-but-cowardly Hudson (Bill Paxton) and, everyone’s favorite, the tough hispanic chick, Vasquez, played by lovable pale Jewess, Jenette Goldstein. Seriously, Goldstein does such a good job here, none of us realized she was white until Terminator 2, and really, really white until she played the Irish mother in steerage in Titanic. (But then, since she’s really Jewish, she isn’t really white, is she? Cultural Marxists are on the fence!)

We saw the original version, not the extended version you can see on DVD, which is about 15 minutes longer. Those are good fifteen minutes, they add a lot to the story, but you don’t need ’em (which is why they weren’t in there originally). Maybe the only really vital missing cut is one where Ripley is shown to have a child, which she doesn’t visit because it’s been 57 years since she last saw her, and which never comes up in any of the later movies either.

Hard science fiction, it is not.
Bill Paxton actually complains he’s “three weeks away from retirement”. Which makes the whole hypersleep thing kind of curious.

The special effects are almost as dated as Forbidden Planet and they also still read about as well, too. I mean, it’s really obvious that that’s a model armored car, and that’s a composite, but these shots have aged well aestehtically even if you wouldn’t be fooled (and certainly not wowed) as you were at the time. The Flower especially liked it, except for shots she thought were CGI—from what I can tell, she parses the rougher composites as CGI, which makes sense since they tend to offend the eyes (as it were) in the same way.

This, by the way, is the only real weakness of the film 30 years later (apart from the dopey anti-military bigotry): All those sweet-hot Cameron-mech displays take up time, and most of them are unnecessary and uninspiring today. On the flipside of that, though, is Cameron’s command of space. Throughout the movie you have a sense of where things are, where people are going, how scenes connect to one another. I mentioned this in the Phantasm review, the way director Coscarelli’s command of space makes the scenes feel connected and the spaces real, even when very limited. But if it’s big for horror, it’s probably even bigger for action. Without a sense of where things are, action becomes mere kinetics. (By the way, I think this is why the rare musical dance numbers these days tend not to work, too: As an audience, if we sense too much trickery-through-editing, we are much less invested in what’s going on.)

Anyway, The Boy and The Flower both liked it a lot, and we’re hoping the original Alien comes around soon.

Heh.
Unrelated: Lance Henriksen’s one-man-show about the 2016 election.

Sand Storm

As fans of the soon-to-be-revived ’90s show “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, the phrase “sandstorm” has a specific meaning around here. But despite that, and despite the fact that we didn’t really care for the last Bedouin movie we saw, we trundled off to see this tale of female disempowerment. Which brings me to this little rant.

I'm bein' oppressed!
Don’t try to silence me!

Every Labor Day, we get to hear the sleazy criminal bosses known as union leaders repeatedly say “you’re welcome for 40 hour work weeks” and “you’re welcome for weekends”, and not once in the mainstream media does anyone ever say to these SOBs: “Hey, if unions are so great and do so much for people, how about you work your magic in a country that needs it?” They can only seem to perform these economic feats of magic where the behind-the-scenes hard work of the free market has succeeded. So, Indonesia, you’re outta luck. Up yours, Malaysia! China? Don’t make me laugh. It’s already a worker’s paradise, right?

And what I couldn’t help noticing, in this tale of barbarians living barbaric lives and treating their girls like chattel, was an utter absence of feminists. The all-powerful feminism, which allows women to do whatever they want—and apparently men pretending to be women to do whatever they want, but not necessarily women pretending to be men?—can do nothing about a world where, in fact, they’re not already pretty much permitted to do whatever they want. There’s no Beyoncé here, though there is some pop music (that we don’t hear) that our lead character worries her mother might find inappropriate.

But with good reason.
Her mother finds virtually EVERYTHING inappropriate.

Anyway, rant over, and this is a really, really fine film. Our heroine, Layla (newcomer Lamis Ammar) is the apple of her father’s eye. He indulges her, treats her with respect, lets her drive a car (though only when no one is watching), and when the movie opens, daddy Suliman is about to marry wife #2. Jalila, Wife #1, is a bitter old crone, so you can sort of see why, and Layla’s contempt for her is transferred effectively to the audience. What does mom know, after all? We even get a glimpse into Suliman’s honeymoon suite, which is far nicer than the hovel Layla lives in with her mother and three sisters.

Things take a turn south when Jalila ends up with Layla’s phone when her secret boyfriend calls. We’re never actually privvy to the whys and wherefores of the shame of this, but apparently, the boy is a member of a different tribe, and this is the worst imaginable sin, just about. Jalila tries to warn her daughter that Suliman isn’t going to be as understanding as Layla thinks he is, but the brilliance of the movie is played out as we end up doing a complete 180 on how we see all the characters.

No spoilers but this is a deeply dysfunctional culture that should be eradicated as quickly as possible.

But do go on about "77 cents on the dollar".
A Bedouin girl gets one happy day, her wedding (because her husband isn’t there).

It’s not fun. It’s not just the soul-crushing abuse of women, it’s the complete abdication of humanity among men, too. At every turn, Suliman (right before doing something awful) says that he has no choice. He’s a weak man, to be sure, but that doesn’t make him any less right about not having a choice. Because, yes, it is awful, and it is ongoing, and it is entrenched.

And all the Beyoncé in the world ain’t gonna change that.

25 April

In the field of cinema—or perhaps more accurately, in the field of high volume cinema watching (including primarily movie critics and the occasional fanatic like yours truly)—the word “innovative”, while always welcome, is not always a sign of success. In fact, the opposite could be said to be true: Innovation leads to failure most of the time, the degree of likelihood of failure mapping pretty well with the degree of innovation. And very often, even when innovation does succeed aesthetically, it does not succeed commercially. Citizen Kane, for example, has often ended up at the top of “greatest American movies ever list”, but it wasn’t a hit at the time.

I'm not making that up.
Apparently, “rosebud” is what he called his girlfriend’s genitalia.

Nonetheless, when you see a lot of movies, you welcome those who would be adventurous in the making thereof. So, while the “innovative” tag applied to 25 April, a documentary about the Gallipoli Campaign, made me a little nervous, the scope of the innovation seemed well within the standard documentary tropes. Here’s the premise:

Writer/director Leanne Pooley and co-writer Tim Woodhouse have taken the letters of six New Zealanders who were involved in the Gallipoli campaign and have animated the things described therein. In between these animated reenactments of the war, they “interview” the six people. That is, they interview the animated avatars of the six (long dead) people who “respond” (presumably) with the words written in their letters.

Real scarce.
Actual 100-year-old footage is scarce.

It’s not a bad idea, really. But, as noted in the opening paragraph, innovation usually fails and, by-and-large, this does not work. Or, at least it did not work for The Boy and I. (The Boy has recently listened to All Quiet on the Western Front and become a bit of a WWI aficionado.) Though we agreed that the movie, largely, failed to resonate, we each isolated different elements that didn’t work for us.

But before I go into those, I do want to emphasize that the innovation itself isn’t bad. There’s no reason animation couldn’t be used successfully in exactly this way, at least aesthetically, with one caveat: Bad animation will work against you, and that is part of the problem here. It seems to be—well, I thought that it was partly rotoscoped, which is a time-honored way of animating on a budget, but I think it’s just motion-capture and CGI. The problem with CGI, as we all know, is that it can be very alienating. So while the voice acting is fine, and the movement of the characters is…well, it’s often fine, especially when they’re sitting down for their interviews, but less fine when they’re moving around the battlefield, the facial expression is flat. The style used for the faces, giving them severe arbitrary-looking lines indicating, I don’t know, cheekbones or something, indicates to me that they knew they had a problem with the faces being too smooth.

This still isn't bad, though.
Botox gone impossibly wrong.

Anyway, I found it very hard to connect with. The Boy, interestingly, thought the format was too much like a reality show. A shot of action, a shot of people being interviewed after the fact. Documentaries are often like that, I pointed out, and he raised some good points about how the whole thing seemed to echo that style, which is not great for a serious documentary. (It reminded me a bit of “Archer”, which is also not great for a serious documentary.)

I felt, also, that there was a desire above all desires, to make this movie an anti-war film. Some of the imagery, was clearly added to make a statement of that nature. Not all of it was bad, but all of it was unnecessary. Gallipoli was one of the biggest military disasters in history (and the subject of a Golden Globe winning Peter Weir/Mel Gibson film back in 1981, come to think of it). The particular horrors of WWI have been documented over and over again, and Gallipoli (along with Verdun and some others) are textbook “horrors of war” stuff. My point is not that there’s no room for more anti-war films. It’s that there’s no reason to “dress up” Gallipoli to make its horrors apparent. (I mean, if you want to make a strong anti-war statement, tackle the “splendid little war”.) You’re already taking liberties, right? With the whole animation thing? There’s no need to gild that particular lily.

The dog? Really? You gotta bring the dog into this?
This is an actual picture of a dog they animated for this film.

One way in which this approach was very successful, on the other hand, was that by having the animated avatar, and convincing the audience that that was the actual person, you could do some things that are literally impossible with a live action interview. (I’m being cagey so as not to spoil.) This was effective here, and it could be used and varied effectively in other contexts.

So, three point scale:

  1. Interesting topic. A ground-eye view of the action at Gallipoli has a lot of merit.
  2. Interesting, but not wholly successful style. ’nuff said.
  3. Slant was anti-war, which would be fine, but I thought it interfered here.

It’s worth a look!

They did it. They were ordered to, and they did it.
Just don’t stick your head out of the trench to do so.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One, two, Freddy’s comin’ for you. Three, four, better shut your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, better stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again. Eleven, twelve, kill the Keebler elves.

h/t "Family Guy"
He had KNIVES…for FINGERS, man!

Wait, strike that last one.

If Texas Chain Saw Massacre, in all its gloriously bell-bottomed nihilism, is the epitome of ’70s horror, then the relatively slick, Moog-laden, big-haired Nightmare on Elm Street is the epitome of ’80s horror. In this story, a child-murdering revenant haunts the dreams of the “ones who got away” as they struggle to get their dimwitted parents to realize A Good Night’s Rest isn’t really what the doctor is calling for here. By now, the full glory of the sexual revolution is on display, with our kids coming largely from broken homes, the children of the now grown-up rebels without a cause, seeking solace in casual (and/or possibly financially profitable) sex and lots and lots of booze, the sort of dysfunction that no amount of having your own Walkman and glorious 12-inch black-and-white TV in your room can fix. And that’s about it for social commentary of which this movie doesn’t have much more to say the times than Chain Saw, really, and thank God for that.

And she looked great in her nightie.
Those ’80s kids. Amanda Wyss (second from left) would go on to have a very respectable acting career.

The Boy said, after it was over, that Nightmare was more fun than Chain Saw, and that’s pretty indisputable. Chain Saw is probably a better movie overall, though. Some of the acting in Nightmare is terrible—though as I always like to remind people, in low budget-filmmaking, that’s often the fault of the director, the editor or sheer lack of time and money to do retakes. It stands out here, also, moreso than Chain Saw because the latter’s cinema verité-style doesn’t lend itself to much dialog at all where Nightmare has a boatload of it to explain “the rules”.

Without the rules, the movie would just be random (albeit cool) special effects. Without the rules, you can’t have a good ending (even if you do ruin it with an awful, inexplicable stinger). Without the rules you have A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

But sometimes the rules, but more especially having to explain the rules, sounds wooden and bogs the film down.

When the camera switches to the reverse view, underwater, it's a fulsome stunt woman.
It’s a lot to ask of a kid who hasn’t slept.

But these are, perhaps, nitpicks. The kids liked it, as did I; but I knew what was coming at every turn and the movie does rely quite a bit on the unexpectedness of its imagery. This same feature, though, also means that some of the sequels (#2 notwithstanding) are among the most watchable horror sequels. Whatever else is going to happen, and however poorly things might play out, it’s not going to be Jason hacking another camper’s head off with a machete. People maketop 10 lists of Freddie kills that are pretty awful—and still way better than the Jason kill lists.

To get strong thumbs up from Today’s Youth after being the second feature of a double-feature is a good sign this one is a keeper.

And handsome to boot!
You just KNOW this guy’s a sweetheart, like ol’ Angus Scrimm was.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

I, like so many of my generation, first saw Texas Chain Saw Massacre on a crappy VHS (or was it Beta?) on a small TV in an over-lit room, probably with a bunch of people talking at inopportune points and, thus, have never been especially impressed by it. It’s hard to see stuff; it’s hard to hear stuff; and for all it’s supposed shock value in 1974, it’s surprisingly not very graphic or gory. Interestingly, though, as I’ve talked about before, there is one shot of Teri McMinn approaching the Slaughter family’s house (and her doom) that is so iconic, I was able to identify the remake from the first second of the trailer because it aped that shot.

The Flower thought her completely backless top was amazing!
The camera dollies up from here so it’s not as prurient as this still makes it seem.

I was somewhat reluctant to take the kids to it, for that reason, and especially because it was part of a double-feature (the second feature being A Nightmare on Elm Street) but they were game for it, and it proved, beyond all else that seeing it in the theater is better. I mean, “You won’t miss much on the little screen” is a common refrain, but I can’t think of a lot of cases where that’s actually true, because it’s not just the size of the screen that matters, but the immersion: The lighting, the sound, the (relative) lack of distraction, etc.

In any case, it is very much not true for this film, which is startlingly effective in a theater.

EEeeeeeeeauuugh!
The scene doesn’t read at all at home. And it’s great in the theater.

I found myself really liking it even though it is exactly the sort of horror film I generally don’t like: I prefer the spooky, the ghost story, the monster movie, or even the slasher to a film like this, which has elements of a slasher, but which is a lot about the very creepy. At least one writer I’ve read has argued that the big shift in TCSM is that the interesting characters are not the kids who are being murdered—they’re in fact pretty disposable characters we don’t know that much about, and what we do know we don’t especially like. But the Slaughter family (that’s their last name, and they run the “W.E. Slaughter BBQ”, yes, they do!) has some real characters in it!

The set up, going in, is that our kids, in their archetypal van and their bell bottom pants (HUGE bell bottoms, except for shorty-short wearing McMinn) are off to visit the graveyard where their grandfather was buried, which has been the recent site of vandalism (or maybe harvesting, though one wouldn’t be thinking like that in 1974 Texas) and, reassured that he’s been undisturbed, continued on to his old house. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker (1974!) who has an awkward manner and fascination for knives.

Don't we all carry straight razors around?
And what’s wrong with that?

Well, that doesn’t work out very well for anyone, so they kick him to the curb and continue along their way to the old house. Nobody they run into thinks they should go out that way, but they do.

That doesn’t really work out very well for anyone either.

It’s a very creepy movie. If it were just creepy, it would be competent but not all that interesting. But about halfway into it, all hell breaks out. And in this respect, it’s actually a kind of unique film. This movie is creepy, creepy, creepy, BAM! (Literally. BAM!) And then BAM! BAM! BAM!

Then creepy, creepy, creepy, HOLY CRAP!

If you couldn't guess.
This is one of the creepy scenes.

There’s no real attempt to make a “spooky” atmosphere in the traditional sense. The opening features a cheesy intro explaining the documentary (I think “based on” not “found footage”) narrated by John Laroquette (!) and long stretches of the film are without music. When there is music it’s the sort of ambient electronic noise (kind of like Forbidden Planet) you might find in a haunted house maze today. This makes things sort of eerily real-feeling, the way some of the modern “found footage” stuff can be. Only with very skilled and energetic camera movement and positioning.

It’s also not gory. My impression as a kid was that the film was so notorious that it must’ve been extraordinarily gory or shocking in some way, and since the producers were, at one point, trying to get a PG rating (for real), they cut down on the gore. The movie is better for having to imagine some of the more awful things that happen to our poor campers. But, even without gore at all, there was no way that a movie this shocking (on the big screen, anyway) was gonna NOT get an R, for “thematic elements” or “shocking scenes of ickiness”. This may be part of why the film still works as well as it does: Gore, like all special effects, can start to look silly as it gets outdated.

The kids loved it. In some ways, the next feature (A Nightmare on Elm Street) would not fare as well.

 

Kamper

We managed, somehow, to sneak out to another Polish film festival entry before it went away, this one about a video game tester/manager whose nice life testing games for a living, playing games with his pals on his off-time, and hanging with his probably-too-cute-for-him wife is making him miserable. Our hero on this journey, and the name of the movie, is Kamper. The Boy immediately picked up on the significance of that name (which I didn’t because of the “K”). But in gaming, as you may not know, a “camper” is one who hangs out in a particular location waiting for people to come into his field of view so they can pick him off easily. It’s a legitimate strategy, but not a popular one with those who, you know, are victims of it.

And so, our Kamper is one who sits and waits in life, but unlike video games, camping is a very unsuccessful life strategy. Important goals don’t typically just walk in front of one to be plucked up. And as we first meet him, we discover that Camper’s wife, Mania, has cheated on him, though the extent and nature of this cheating is somewhat unclear. It’s unclear between them, it seems: She’s confessed, and he’s kind of torturing her over it, and torturing himself asking for details.

He's making car noises.
When he’s not being terrible at sex.

He’s having a hard time getting over it. He does not, of course, leave her. But neither does he forgive her. And instead, he decides to learn Spanish when he sees a very fetching Spanish lass in the café where he and his fellow testers hang out. And, quite frankly, not to knock the whole premise of these things, but Piotr Zurawski (Kamper) is very believable as a video game tester/afficionado and one has a little more trouble believing that Marta Nieradkiewicz (as Mania, his wife) and Sheily Jimenez (his Spanish teacher) find him very attractive.

But, hell, I don’t get this stuff. I’m certain I don’t get it in modern day American, much less modern day Poland. Nerds, while never attractive to women in the past (don’t lie, ladies), at least were hardcore engineers. They did things. Now that “nerd” status is conveyed on people who consume mass media television shows and video games, all of a sudden they’re attractive? (I don’t believe this, but I see it in movies. I don’t really see it much in real life, and I’ve known a lot of real nerds.)

Do you?
I don’t get it.

Anyway, the problem with a movie like this is that the hero is defined by his lack of action, which can be a bit boring. Freshman director Lukasz Grzegorzek (sorry we couldn’t stay for the Q&A, guy!) gets around this pretty well, by having Kamper do things, even if those things are essentially avoidance of his serious issues. There’s an interesting scene where his wife shows him her food truck that underscores a lot of the issues, specifically his overwhelming tendency toward doing nothing. This is realistic, at least. It’s not exactly riveting, though. Likewise, the end does have our hero taking action (I guess that’s spoilery, but if he didn’t do something the movie wouldn’t be worth watching at all), the best element of which is confronting the tiny, none-too-attractive ex-lover of his wife.

I guess?
The Polish Gordon Ramsey

The denouement is really the weak part, because his taking action doesn’t seem strong enough. He resolves, after a fashion, his love life—but his love life was never really his problem, and I wasn’t sufficiently sold on his character arc that I felt confident, like, “Yeah, now he’s going to make it!” The Boy and I liked it, though, I more than he, as he really felt it needed more development. (And while he didn’t care, particularly, he didn’t find their game testing scenes very realistic.)

So, it was okay. Film fests are always crap-shoots, but this wasn’t terrible.

Secret Sharer

It is sometimes said that Joseph Conrad, a native Polish speaker, was the greatest writer in English in history. And it is also sometimes said that “The Secret Sharer” is the greatest novella ever written. So it is perhaps fitting that Tsotsi producer Peter Fudakowski (who is English but whose parents are Polish) would make his debut film based on said short story. Wherever Conrad’s skills rank in the pantheon of great English Writers, Peter Fudakowski has one thing Conrad didn’t: A gorgeous naked Chinese girl.

Yeah. No.
Which, unlike this stuff here, might move some tickets.

But first: This movie follows the basic outline of Conrad’s tale, in that we have an unsure, untested captain, a recalcitrant crew, and a stowaway (sorta) who is sought after her decisive actions in a storm lead to the death of an incompetent (and in this case, politically connected) crew member. The action of the plot comes largely from trying to keep the stowaway hidden from the rest of the crew, since being found out spells curtains for the captain.

Added to that is the plot that the Captain (here named “Conrad” or “Kon La De”) has been sent on this mission to scuttle the ship for the insurance while its crew views it as their literal home, which they keep populated with greenery, homey decorations and occasionally women. This gives the crew an extra impetus to work against the captain (though the ultimate resolution of this story line is a bit facile).

The twist, if you haven’t guessed, is that while the Captain is English/Polish (like Fudakowski) everyone else is Chinese. (Note that both stories start outside of Thailand, or Siam at the time.)

Every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.
Downside: This guy never puts a shirt on. Upside: He never takes off his shorts.

Hence, the eponymous secret sharer becomes Li (actress/singer/electrical engineer Zhu Zhu), who’s being sought after by her husband (so he can turn her in!) and the Captain gets a potential love interest to share his room with. It’s an odd angle to take, but not a bad one.

The characters are fun: Not just the captain and Li but all the crew and The Boss have a lot of personality. (I don’t know any of the actors from anything else, with the exception of Jack Laskey, the Captain, who had a small role in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.) There is some good suspense and good humor, so the film is quite watchable. I liked the acting, but The Boy felt that it was a bit off when the leads were speaking English—like somehow the characters weren’t really connecting.

I felt the movie lost a bit of momentum in the third act, when it seemed like there wasn’t really any serious threat of the crew finding out about Li. Not that they might not have discovered her, but given the whole sinking-the-ship subplot, the danger of them finding out was minimal: There was too much of a bond by that point. Nonetheless, it was entertaining with a nice nod to the original at the end (the hat!). We both liked it, I more than the Boy, and we regretted this would probably be the only film of the Polish Film Festival we would have a chance to see. (Although, as it turns out, we did manage to sneak in one more: Camper.)

Is there any other kind?
Hot and steamy ACCORDION ACTION! (That’s his secret: He plays the accordion.)

Rock and Roll High School (1979)

One kind of cool thing about living in this city, is that you never know who’s going to turn up. I missed Nicholas Meyer (writer/director two of the better Star Trek movies, Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country, and one of my personal favorites, Invasion of the Bee Girls) when he made an appearance at a showing of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (which he wrote the novel and adapted the screenplay for), last week we saw the Phantasm gang, and next week we have to choose between a double-feature of the original Nightmare on Elm Street and Texas Chainsaw Massacre or a trip into Beverly Hills to see The Omen where Richard Donner (Superman (1978)The Goonies (1985)) will do a Q&A.

We don’t usually do the Q&As because I’m a res ipsa loquitur kind of guy. But the Phatasm/RaVager one was fun. And at the end of this showing of Rock and Roll High School Mary Woronov showed up with her dog to do a little quickie Q&A. Woronov is a cult icon who hung around with Andy Warhol and did his “films” but who also went on to an extensive career in a wide variety of mainstream and low budget/indie flicks. And, honestly, she shines in this film as she did in the Q&A, in that eminently unselfconsciously egotistical way the best crowd-handlers have. (It’s logical, really: You have to be pretty convinced that you’re worthy of people’s attention to be able to sell people on being worthy of their attention.)

Very mixed.
One wonders if Arkush had a teacher named “Togar” he had mixed feelings about.

Anyway, this is a late era Roger Corman cheapie, when he would throw Allan Arkush, Joe Dante, Paul Bartel a couple hundred grand and give ’em 30 days to make a film. Corman made his own way with this approach back in the ’50s creating such cult classics as Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood and also some less classic films like Creature from the Haunted Sea, and in the ’70s these guys would manage to turn out a number of still watchable films like Hollywood Boulevard, Pirahna, Death Race 2000, Cannonball and of course this film.

The basic premise—this was in the days when Corman’s New World Pictures was the “high concept” king—is that a delinquent, rebellious teenage girl (P.J. Soles) defies the authority of her Ilsa-esque principal (Woronov) in order to get tickets to see her favorite band, The Ramones. I’ve seen people claim that this was a big deal in making the Ramones a household name and also revering the film as a punk rock treasure. To the former, I can only say that they had several hits before the movie came out. To the latter, I can only say that this is mere coincidence: The movie went through several iterations with bands who were not punk, and was (I think) at one point called Heavy Metal High.

They were doing Phantom of the Park by this time.
Kiss was too big metaphorically (if not literally) to fit in P.J. Soles bathroom.

Nonetheless, there are several full-length Ramones songs padding out the meager story which, even with subplots and fake concert footage (they sold tickets to a fake Ramones concert and locked people in the auditorium to get their crowd footage) comes in at right around 90 minutes, and the Ramones even have a few lines at the end.

I think this will be the third time I’ve used this word for a late ’70s movie recently, but it’s actually kind of quaint. Riff (P.J. Soles) is obsessed but she’s never mean. A subplot has her pal Kate (Dey Young, looking lovely) trying to hook up with quarterback Tom (Vincent Van Patten, who seems to be back acting these days, after a 15 year hiatus), so she goes to the High School “fixer” Eaglebauer (Clint Howard, looking middle-aged), but Tom’s already gone to Eaglebauer because he’s only got eyes for Riff. It all works out, though, with virtually no drama whatsoever. Heh.

Low budget movies are entirely different from big budget movies.
Not realizing chicks go for the older guys, Patten (21) and Howard (19) plan to romance Soles (29) and Dey (24).

I’d call the movie “camp” but that doesn’t really do it justice. It’s more whimsical, where they just ran with whatever idea they had and took it to the extreme. This makes it pretty funny in kind of surprising ways. Eaglebauer has his “office” in the bathroom, like The Fonz (and it was cliché when the Fonz did it), except that Eaglebauer’s office really is an office. He’s got a desk, calendar, filing cabinets: It’s literally an office.

There’s a great bit about the effect of rock-and-roll on mice, which quickly goes into the silly, then gradually goes into full-blown over the top mode, with the future Oscar-winning Rob Bottin (who would shortly go on to do the stellar makeup effects in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Carpenter’s The Thing) running around in a costume, as a (literal) mouse who loves The Ramones. Every shortcoming in teen movies, especially low-budget teen movies, is essentially lampshaded and turned to 11. There was a strong interest here in not being boring, and we laughed pretty much through the whole thing. The music, perhaps ironically, perhaps not, was where the movie actually sort of stopped.

Punk or no, the music sounds to today’s kids’ ears as fairly quaint. Well, to my ears, and to The Boy and The Flower, who both really enjoyed this even though neither loves the music. (The Boy in particular has very narrow tastes, musically. The Flower recognized The Ramones cover of California Sun, I think.) It’s hard to imagine a better fit than the Ramones for the film, though, because the film-making crew’s attitude and this particular film’s attitude is very punk.

I'll bet they only needed a small bribe to shoot this. Today, it'd cost a fortune.
I’m sure this was 100% safe.

A literal demolition underscores the climactic scene. It was done close enough to the actors and crew that some of them walked off and wouldn’t come back. That’s pretty punk.

P.J. Soles was pushing 30 at the time this was made, about the same age as the Ramones and only five years younger than Woronov. (Occasionally it shows up, in that Woronov, despite the severe bun and bulky clothes, is still a beautiful woman). Ironically, it’s the balding Clint Howard, at 19, who’s the youngest of the main cast. The late Paul Bartel has one of the big adult roles, and if you look carefully you can catch Arkush and Dante in scenes as well. Dick Miller, who may have been in every single Roger Corman produced film since Bucket of Blood, has a nice little bit as an abusive cop. Woronov towers over him.

As I said, we enjoyed it, and we enjoyed the little chat with Woronov who I thought maybe was just there to pimp a book, but I think maybe was just there because she likes the limelight. It definitely clicked the coolness of the affair up several notches, but even if you can’t get her to appear in your theater, this is a fun watch, doubly so if you like the Ramones.

Probably studying the SAG bylaws to find out how many they've broken by being in this.
Like Riff. She likes the Ramones. You can tell ’cause she’s got posters.

A Man Called Ove

While we have seen some good movies this year and a fair number of okay movies, there haven’t been many at all that made us sit up and say, “Wow, this is easily one of the year’s best!” You know, if you go to the movies a lot, you get a sense for film that’s going to stand out, no matter whether it’s January or (as in this case) October. This Swedish slice-of-life drama/black-comedy is one of those films.

For reals.
Oscar-worthy.

Ove is a grumpy, old man who stalks around his little community terrorizing anyone who dares to break the rules. He’s an old school blue collar guy, possibly even illiterate—I’m trying to remember if he actually reads anything in the movie—but the guy you go to if you need some fixed. Or, really, if you just need something done. Curiously, despite his crankiness, the people of his community have a kind of mixed reaction to him. The rule breakers hate him, sure, but everyone else sort of treats him either mildly or with gentle attempts at friendship (summarily rejected).

As it turns out, Ove is a widow. A fairly recent widow. His wife was delightful, it seems, and even old Ove wasn’t such a bad guy, as pissed off as he is now. But Ove, as we’ve noted here, is a doer, and, on the surface, this movie is about his multiple suicide attempts.

I know: Swedish, right?

I guess the Swedes don't use Macs.
Ove’s new bosses. Pencil-necked geeks are the same the world over.

This is hilarious. I mean, it’s poignant for the fact that he misses his wife, and so day after day, he visits her grave and promises they’ll be together soon. But it’s hilarious because he just can’t pull it off. Like the old Parker poem:

Razors pain you
Rivers are damp
Acids stain you
Drugs cause cramps
Gas smells awful
Nooses give
Guns aren't lawful
You might as well live

The world, with its shoddy construction and constant need of attendance conspires against Ove to rob him of his reunion with his wife. But the attempts are cues for flashback, where we see Ove’s often tragic and occasionally glorious (Swedish, amirite?) life with its terrible, tragic losses and his determination to make things better, even if that means grabbing the hammer and nails and fixing it himself.

Women. Such nags.
Explaining to his wife why he’s late.

His arch-nemeses in life are the white shirts, who appear at various points in his life demanding things they have no right to, but always getting their way. Of course, I would look at this and say “government bureaucrats and their associated private sector cronies” but the Swedish interpretation may be different. It’s not just that, of course: The white shirt represents all people who do nothing, who contribute nothing, whose sole purpose is to tell others what to do.

Ove doesn’t care for them.

Eastwood’s Sully doesn’t either.

Interesting theme. Ove feels more like a WWII kind of guy though he’s squarely in the post-War generation (Boomers, here in America) but his rustic background and outstanding ethical sense puts him above the crowd. And that’s really where the seemingly petty tyrannies come from: Here in his little community, he has created with the agreement of the other tenants, a kind of well-ordered paradise where people can live in harmony—as long as they don’t drive jävla Volvos—and even if they do drive Volvos, everyone can live together without killing each other if they live by the rules.

Which no one is much interested in these days.

The bit about Volvos is from the film. I wish the Old Man could’ve seen it because Ove drives Saabs, like a real man. (The Old Man loved a Saab.) He gets into a lifelong feud with an otherwise good neighbor because that guy drives Volvos. Despite his pecadillos, Ove is above-all ethical. The guy is so conscientious that when he contemplates blowing his brains out, he first lays out plastic everywhere so there won’t be a big mess to clean up.

His concern for fairness and what’s right is so severe that he rides a train for three weeks to give money back to a woman who buys a train ticket for him. She’s so taken with him, that she asks for a date rather than repayment. And this becomes Mrs. Ove. It’s a beautiful, beautiful love story. Imagine the opening scene of Up played out for about two hours, and you wouldn’t be far off.

Even in '70s clothes.
Also, he rides the train for three weeks ’cause she’s really cute.

It’s just a great film; a simple story told well. It will be entered in this year’s foreign language Oscar category and while I hope it wins, it lacks the sort of social harmonic that Oscar seems to demand most years. But that doesn’t mean you have to miss it. And you shouldn’t.

Phantasm: Ravager (2016)

We followed up our viewing of the original Phantasm with the fifth movie in the series, called Ravager, I think, because you can capitalize the “V”. RaVager, ’cause it’s the fifth in the series, see? Like the fourth one was OblIVion, with a capital “IV”. Anyway.

Phantasm: VIIolated?
This naming scheme gets to be a problem when you get to VII.

I actually haven’t seen a Phantasm sequel since #2 came out in 1988, and while I enjoyed it a great deal, it obviously isn’t as iconic as the original. (How could it be?) I’ve seen bits and pieces of 3 and 4, and it’s kind of been fascinating and fun to see the series gradually shift into a post-apocalyptic survival horror, where Reggie and Mike (and sometimes Jody) go mano a mano with The Tall Man, somehow thwarting his evil plans without actually ever thwarting his evil plans. (In other words, where they seem to come out the winners to some extent, and to the degree that the Tall Man seems to find them mildly irritating, the world still slips into an abyss of undead horror.) This process started in the second movie, and it’s full blown here.

Sorta.

A beautiful day for apocalypse neighbors.
It’s a beautiful day in the apocalypse.

As a fitting conclusion to the series, our story begins with Reggie wandering in the desert—

Wait, let me back up a step: Given that a lot of people probably haven’t seen 2, 3 and 4, and maybe not even 1, the movie actually started with an educational short on what happened in the previous movies, called “Phantasm and You”. This was very cute.

BOOOOY!
They couldn’t use scenes from Phantasm II, so they…improvised.

The Boy and I couldn’t help but notice that while Boyhood took twelve years to make, the Phantasm saga took forty years to make, if it is indeed true that the initial production began in 1976 (and took over two years) and also that five was just finished. And while this is a humorous observation, perhaps, it does show on-screen in the movie’s best parts: Reggie and Mike have a lot of chemistry that feels very natural. (Mike was just a kid when the first movie started shooting, and half-a-lifetime of experience hasn’t hurt his emotional range.) Bill Hornbury doesn’t show up until the end, but he doesn’t phone it in in his brief scenes. Angus Scrimm, who died in January of this year, also manages to pull his weight, despite being in his late ’80s.

Director David Hartman (best known for directing animated kidvid like “Tigger and Pooh”, “Transfomers” and so on) wisely lets these guys do their thing, together and singly, including an amusing segment where Reggie tries to work his seductive powers on the new girl—I think every girl in the series is either The Tall Man or one of his minions or quickly killed by them, so abstinence might have been the most humane course, really—and, well, he’s a lot older now.

Time keeps on slippin' the clutch.
The ’71 ‘cuda, practically a baby when the first movie was shot, is now 45!

Hartman opts to split the movie in two parts: Half with Reggie in an old folks home/hospital, half with Reggie in the post-Apocalyptic world. The split allows for a lot of the dramatic bits that work (including Angus Scrimm with a walker, and both he and Reggie delivering lines from hospital beds), but is also, at times, alienating. It’s a difficult thing to do well, and often violates the “stay in the phone booth with the gorilla” rule (as I’ve written previously). It does pull together by the end, though, so you don’t feel like you’re just being jerked around. (Too, Hartman may not have had a lot of choice, given that this film was produced over many years, originally conceived as a web series.)

The post-apocalyptic parts are good but really show the limitations of the budget. The original movie used a guy throwing the silver spheres and then playing the film backwards to get the effect of them flying. They’re all CGI here but the old trickery was actually a lot better. It’s the level of CGI where you go, “Oh, this is CGI.” There’s some CGI trickery used with the “Lady in Lavender” (Kathy Lester), too, but let’s give her a hand for looking like that 40 years later.

That's a "good sport", right there.
And, once again, they made her bring her own dress and got blood all over it!

When you get down to it, though, the biggest weakness here is that it’s a fan film, even with Coscarelli’s blessing on it and some writing credits. However iconic the most memorable aspects of the original film were—and one could compare it to the Star Wars prequels and their similar flaws—that doesn’t mean those images can support an entire universe. The universe teased by the original film, really, could perhaps have found its closest parallel in Pitch Black and its subsequent sequel Chronicles of Riddick. But I almost can’t imagine the world where that would make any kind of economic sense.

There are many cinematic universes out there: None of them are horror. (Universal, allegedly, is working on one but of course they’re going back to the ’30s for it.)

Anyway, we did like it. There were some clever ideas and good bits in-between the genuine, deep emotion of those scenes. But it’s definitely by a fan, for the fans.

He wrote liner notes for The Beatles and Frank Sinatra!
R.I.P. Angus. The Tall Man Will Live On.

Phantasm (1979)

Forty years ago, a 22-year-old fledgling filmmaker by the name of Don Coscarelli noticed that his films, while well received, were not making a lot of money.  He also noticed that, well, horror movies seemed to do pretty well. Maybe he should do one of those. He spent the next two or three years shooting with a lot of the actors, writing, editing, of course pointing the actual camera, and in June of ’79, came out with one of the most unique and iconic horror films of all time: Phantasm.

Both the "screwball" and the "comedy", I guess.
Giving a new meaning to “screwball comedy”.

Two brothers—not these two brothers but more like these two—living together after their parents died (two years earlier) lose another friend to…I forget what the official story is (suicide?), but it’s not the real one. Anyway big brother Jody (Bill Hornbury) goes off to the funeral with buddy Reggie (Reggie Bannister) but leaves Mike (Michael Baldwin) at home because he had nightmares for weeks after his parents’ funeral. (As one would.)

But Mike basically follows Jody around everywhere because he’s afraid Jody’s going to leave, and leave him behind, which is exactly correct. Jody says at much while Mike (who has the mechanical aptitude, apparently) is under the car, fixing it. Anyway, Jody visits an old gypsy woman to find out the truth, and that’s not really much of a help, though it does end up helping him later on, when things get really weird.

I never could figure out what they were doing in this movie.
Maybe not gypsies. Not a lot of blonde gypsies.

But, back to the funeral: Mike sees it from a distance, and then sees a menacing figure (Angus Scrimm), forever known as The Tall Man, single-handedly lift a casket into a hearse. (This is a great shot, by the way: The casket, which must certainly be made of balsa or foam or something, really looks heavy!) He becomes obsessed with The Tall Man, and mysterious goings on at the cemetery, to the extent that he breaks in to the mortuary. At this point, things start to get spooky and beyond. There in the long, white marble corridors, he is menaced by The Tall Men, some short “men”, and an apparatus that flies through the air at very high speeds with nothing good on its mind.

Coscarelli shot over three hours for the movie, and it has a sort of epic feel even with the majority of that not making it into the final cut. There’s a dreamlike quality to things—well, ultimately, this is a funhouse horror flick, that entertains with shocking, wild or just plain cool imagery, to the extent that things don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Just from watching it, you can’t, for example, tell whether or not the movie actually happens. Like, “was it all a dream?”—but then, not really, because the movie very quickly assures you that, “no, it wasn’t all a dream, but it’s not necessarily reality, either.” Most likely, the Tall Man is some sort of illusionist—a theme that will recur in the four sequels.

Yes, he did. And it's great!
Like, did I dream it, or did the director ACTUALLY put a jam session in the middle of his horror flick?

We saw the recently remastered version, which was apparently somethinged (financed? overseen? curated?) by J.J. Abrams, whose 10 Cloverfield Lane and Cloverfield show the influence of Phantasm, as the horror in those films takes a turn you don’t necessarily see coming, and it can be very refreshing. The remastering is eminently respectful, with a few effects being polished (wires being removed) and things like the sound being enhanced (I think; it was better than I remembered it).

A few things I had not seen in previous viewings were much clearer here: A man suffering the film’s first (and only) really grisly death is shown lying on his back from the knees down as Mike cowers in terror on the floor next to him. And he (the recently deceased) pees. This scene apparently got the film an “X” until Charles Champlain (last seen in the review of Animal House) made a call to get it back to an “R”, at least per IMDB. There’s another scene where the pal killed in the first scene turns up driving a car and I’d never been able to parse that effect before. Now I could actually make it out.

I think it was Kathy Lester's own dress.
“The Lady In Lavender”: Just as I remember her.

But otherwise I would’ve said this is the same movie I knew growing up. And what’s striking about it is how tight it is. The lighting is terrific: Subjects are lit up to the extent that everything around them is utterly black. This, I suspect, has a lot to do with the budget, but rather than have an entire scene before the audience, most of which is unremarkable, you just have the main subjects lit in a dark, dark world—which is damned effective. The mortuary, which is (or was until a couple of years ago) a house in my neighborhood, is so pronounced it looks almost fake—but in a spooky, otherworldly way. The darkness at one point gives way to an utterly white room, which is another effective dramatic shift. (The Flower has been all about the “white room” thing lately, trying to find out where it originated, but it was big in the ’70s.)

The editing is tight. It’s almost too tight, to where, on a couple of occasions, the ADR feels like it’s been precisely timed to get the line in before the next cut showed the characters’ lips not moving. That said, low-budget filmmaking is all about the tough decisions, and this is one of many examples of Coscarelli making good ones.

It’s a hugely energetic film. Another excellent aspect of it—one missing from a lot of the green screen action films of today—is a command of the space. The mausoleum itself was, I believe, a sound stage (a warehouse, again in my neighborhood), and probably not very expansive, but you really get a sense of people moving through this labyrinth of passages. The same kind of command of space shows up when characters are on The Road, which is the thing they’re on whenever they need to get somewhere, but which is itself sort of otherworldly, never to have a cop or other car on it. (Again, a great choice which works with a low budget.)

BOOOOOY!
Look at that lighting. Well-lit, yet spooky.

We happened to see this on a Friday night in Beverly Hills with Don and Reggie in attendance to answer questions, as well as the director of the latest (and presumably last) in the series Phantasm: Ravager, and the two most interesting questions asked had to do with the disappearance of Michael Baldwin from Phantasm II and the possibility of the reboot.

In order to get $3 million for the 1988 sequel, Coscarelli said, the studio would let him keep either Reggie or Michael. He chose to keep Reggie, which was pretty much the only thing you could do—I mean, kid actors grow up and are replaced all the time (see Riddick, where Rhiana Griffith was replaced by Alexa Davalos) because, y’know, kids change. But he described this as having sold his soul to the devil: It was clear, even now, he feels bad about that.

Preposterous!
A man with a conscience? In Hollywood?

This segued pretty cleanly into the reboot talk, as fanatic movie guy (no, not me) pointed out all the reboots being done—all of them horrible! (which isn’t entirely true)—and would Phantasm suffer a similar fate? Coscarelli ended his answer with something like “Almost certainly.” But apparently he’d been in talks a few years back for a reboot, and he’d come up with some stuff that would make it what they call a “soft reboot” with characters from the original returning. But the studios don’t want or get that, I guess, unless it’s Star Wars.

And he said, convincingly, that he couldn’t imagine having to tell Angus (who passed in January this year) that they were going to make another Phantasm movie without him as the Tall Man. He said it would’ve broken his heart. And this, probably, is a big part of the reason Coscarelli  only has a smallish number of credits to his name outside of this franchise. He actually would care about breaking his friend’s heart. In every aspect of the Q&A session, he’d defer to or otherwise engage Reggie on any questions he could answer, and while you hear about film crews bonding over some production, you really got the sense that it was true here.

That’s cool. And, it’s a cool movie. The Boy and The Flower, who had no particular reason to feel anything about this old flick, both loved it.

Like children "pretending" to be demonic dwarves.
It’s the little things in life.

Interesting side note #1: The Oscar-winning screenwriter of Pulp Fiction, Roger Avary (Beowulf, Silent Hill) had penned an impossible-to-get-made sequel which Coscarelli said Avary let him pilfer from, from time-to-time.

Interesting side note #2: This movie was a big enough hit with the kids that we not only stayed for the Q&A, which we never do, but we stayed to watch the latest in the series Phantasm: Ravager.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Space opera is hard to do well. And it’s hard to think of a better space opera than the ’50s classic Forbidden Planet. It’s also hard to think of a more ’50s movie, which is probably the reason it works so well even to this day.

And more's the pity!
AMAZING! (Scene not actually in film.)

The year is 2200AD (I think). A few short years after landing on the moon (around 2090!), man has colonized all of the local worlds and has begun to colonize other worlds. Our story begins as the starship Bellerephon is approaching Altair IV. Their mission? To find out what’s going on with a colony sent nearly 20 years earlier. But as they approach, they’re warned off by an ominous disembodied Walter Pidgeon, forbidding them to come to the planet. (And that’s how you get a title, people.)

Captain Leslie (“don’t call me Shirley”) Nielsen in an early screen role and his crew, “eighteen competitively selected super-perfect physical specimens with an average age of 24.6 who have been locked up in hyperspace for 378 days” land on the planet anyway (or we ain’t got a pitcher!) and discover grumpy old Dr. Morbius (Pidgeon), the sole survivor of the colony. Everyone else, he says, was literally torn to shreds by some force that he and his wife were apparently immune to.

His wife died of natural causes, so if you would please be so kind as to depart the planet immediately before you discover his ridiculous hot and naive daughter that’d be…

And don't call me 'SHIRLEY'!
“So…uh…sublimate your id here often?”

…too late.

Well, turns out that they don’t have orders for what to do if everyone’s dead, so Captain and crew (including Jack “Bart Maverick” Kelley, Richard “Oscar Goldman” Anderson, Warren “That Guy From Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek Episode where they turn people into cubes” Stevens, George “Commando Cody” Wallace and Earl “I was in every episode of ‘Police Woman'” Holliman) start to build a transmitter to get a message back home.

While they didn’t, apparently, bring any kind of communication device with them that could reach Earth, they can manage to build one with the help of the one, the only, Robbie The Robot, star of greatest, most ’50s sci-fi movie poster of all time.

But before you can say “Based on William Shakespeare’s The Tempest“, equipment’s getting wrecked and crewmen are getting injured by a force that’s as unstoppable as it is huge and invisible.

Oh, my!
Huger, and more invisibler than this disintegrating tiger!

Maybe…just maybe…it has something to do with the ancient culture whose sole remnants are buried deep within the planet’s core.

Nah, that’s probably nothing. Forget I mentioned it.

You know the one.
A society so advanced, they had SAFETY RAILS! (Unlike a certain Jedi empire.)

This is great pulp, right here. An engaging story, maybe a little too exposition-y for modern tastes at times, but not so much that you don’t get a lot of action, mystery, suspense and space bimbo. Its influence on “Star Trek” is apparent. The “music”, all electronic beeps and boops, is still pretty avant-garde. The effects are beautiful: The mattes, the models, the sets and costumes are the apotheosis of ’50s future. Robby is still implausible as the “one man” factory/wrecking crew/synthesizer—that is, you have to believe what they tell you about him rather than your own lying eyes, and that’s cool, man.

Later, I'll carry some ridiculously heavy stuff in one arm without tipping over.
“Even though I can barely move my arms, I prepared this fine meal.”

Ann Francis is prototypical, archetypical and possibly the best to ever play the “what is a kiss?” role.

Heh.
“What’s a swimsuit?” <–actual line from movie

More than that, it all works because, while the story is pretty far out, pushing the edges of Clarke’s third law, it’s all based around the premise of all great ’50s sci-fi: The USA would grow to take over the world, then all the planets in the solar system, then other worlds. Because America rocks! That such a premise seems farcical now tells you how far we’ve degraded in the 60 years since this came out.

Along related lines, the Bellerophon is run like a navy boat, which gives it a realism common to the day but gone in modern films. It makes sense, really: Military experience was common among them even if they had been on average 24.6 years old (unlikely) and thus too young to serve in the war, some kind of military experience was common. (Pidgeon was in WWI, Nielsen, Stevens and Kelly had stints in WWII but not in the Navy. Holliman lied about his age to join the Navy in WWII, so “Cook” may be informed by some firsthand experiences.)

It's a Navy joke, people! You don't see those much here at moviegique.com!
By “Navy”, I mean “A bunch of people standing around watching other people work.”

In modern sci-fi, probably starting with Alien, ship crews tend to be slackers or ridiculous parodies of the military, as in Avatar, where Cameron has actual rednecks—like, plaid shirt-wearing, shotgun-toting bearded dudes—in the midst of his military briefings. The Freudian underpinnings (which I think are perhaps the silliest thing about the movie) carry the message of “Man can’t play God, and it’d be a bad idea if he could,” which is another interesting ’50s artifact: We can accomplish amazing things, but in a million years of technological advances, we will still be human.

MGM had dismantled its animation department, so the crew who put together the effects came from Walt Disney. If there’s a weakness, it’s that the monster, when revealed, looks a lot like a Disney monster. But it’s still pretty kick ass. You have to at least love the fact that they deliver on the beast.

If there’s a tragedy here, it’s that they didn’t shoot in technicolor. But the Eastman has held up okay especially because, while it wasn’t a big hit at the time, the movie became a classic quickly enough.

Well worth checking out. A must-see even.

Silver Skies

I can’t remember when my mom first used the phrase “checkout generation”—which was always in the form of “I’m part of the checkout generation! One foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel!” but I think it probably started when she turned 40. It’s stopped in recent years, however, perhaps as it’s a little bit closer to the truth. (If I were to quote my mother consistently, she would sound like a very dark person, but whatever words have come out of her lips over the years, she’s seldom actually lived like a dark person.)  But it is a common enough theme in cinema to have “checkout movies”, like the 1979 not-really-classic “Going In Style” with Lee Strasberg (d. 1982), George Burns (d. 1998) and Art Carney (d. 2003). As you see from the expiration dates of the leads, it’s more than feasible for an actor to do multiples. (Burns and Carney could’ve done a dozen!)

Two checkout movies came out at the same time this fall: One featured Jerry Lewis as Max Rose, a man who discovers his beloved, recently deceased wife had a “true love” somewhere that he knew nothing about. It looked like it had potential (though the critics panned it). Then there was this ensemble comedy, Silver Skies featuring a host of once famous actors or at least very memory-tickling faces. We chose to see Silver Skies.

R.I.P. Mr. Rocco
I’ll bet this was fun to shoot. (Hamilton, McGee, Rocco)

The plot isn’t really worth talking about (rapacious developer converting run down apartment housing old people into expensive condos they can’t afford) but it’s also not really the point. The point is to see some old-timers strut their stuff once more. We’ve seen a few of these over the past ten years, almost all low budget, and of varying degrees of quality, like The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez (Ernest Borgnine’s last role), The Man In The Chair (which we might’ve thought was going to be Christopher Plummer’s last role, but he’s just been kicking ass over the past decade), This Is Happening (Cloris Leachman), and so on, but this probably has the biggest cast of recognizables, most of whom get a turn at the juicy parts.

George Hamilton plays an old never-was who used to caddy (or something) for Dean Martin and now, in his occasional bouts of dementia, thinks he is Dean Martin. He’s assisted by the (relatively) young Jack McGee (MoneyballTRON: Legacy) who lives with him and provides some cash for the two with his race track job. Barbara Bain is the feisty not-gonna-take-it gal who—well, we’ll talk about her in a sec—is married to the more mild-mannered Jack Betts, who isn’t one of those guys you say “Hey, that’s Jack Betts” but is definitely an “I know that guy” kind of person, having memorable roles such as Boris Karloff in Gods and Monsters and the Federal-Pound-Me-In-The-Ass judge in Office Space. Bain and Betts are very strong both singly and together.

And more's the pity!
Bain and Betts, together…again? (No, I guess they’ve never worked together before.)

Unlike the late Alex Rocco, who turns in a touching performance, but does not look well. (I actually thought he had died in 2010, so I was surprised that he had passed in July of 2015.) Rocco is the one-woman-guy who mourns his wife but has a serious crush on the slutty Valerie Perrine (Miss Tessmacher!) who, even at this late date, is relying on her charm and flooziness to get by. She’s got herself some blue line-readings after a short, sleazy encounter with Howard Hessman, who doesn’t really look that much different than he did on “WKRP in Cincinnati” over 35 years ago.

Mariette Hartley plays the mystery woman; the woman they all know is rich, but who doesn’t associate with the rest of them, who is racked with guilt over something awful. The cast is rounded out by a few younger actors, like the maybe-a-little-too-pretty Heather McComb as the not-so-vicious realtor, the handsome young caretaker (Phillip Andre Botello) and lawyer (Todd Williams), and the beyond greasy Micah Hauptman.

MISS TESSMACHER!
This is what comes of hanging around Bad Boys all your life, like Lex Luthor and Kurt Vonnegut.

Dick Van Patten has an unforgivable cameo.

And I mention the actors extensively here because writer/director Rosemary Rodriguez keeps going back to the actors for the beats of the film. That is, each scene is an opportunity for the actors to really act, and they deliver, though this approach seems to come at the expense of a certain focus. Like, Heather McComb has a touching heel-turn scene with Valerie Perrine. It’s a good scene, and it resonates fairly well—though it’s a little hard from what we know of Perrine to see how her character connects to McComb (who is self-sufficient through non-sexual activity) except in the general sense of being hard and pushing away emotional attachments, but we don’t really have time to see get this in McComb. In other words, Rodriguez is leaning heavily on the actors.

This acting-opportunities-driving-the-story leads to some tonal issues as well. We start with a fairly light tone of feisty old people fighting for their homes, so Perrine’s scene with Hessman comes across as sort of shocking. But not as much as a later scene which ultimately leads to her confrontation with McComb. Hauptman is at first comically inept seeming, then weirdly creepy, and finally downright felonious, which gives Bain a chance to play off Hartley and, later, Betts, but man! is it dark! And that’s not even going into Hartley’s character’s backstory which is real dark, like domestic-abuse/burning-bed dark, and contrasts oddly with Hamilton’s latter-day Lothario approaches to her or McGee’s earnestly clumsy attempts at wooing.

I think that's Jack Klugman's hat.
Odd Couple.

It all somehow works, breezily packing in story arcs for half-a-dozen duos into a brisk 90 minutes, though you do have to turn your brain off more than once (that’s not how real estate works. that’s not how lawsuits work. that’s not how criminal law works. etc.), something Rodriguez makes easy by giving you something fun or engaging in every scene.

A few other oddities: The Boy asked, as we were walking out, “Was this…porn? I mean, there was actual porn in it.” Hauptman’s character is watching actual porn at one point and on the Big Screen, it was perhaps more detailed than expected by the filmmakers.

The music was really odd. There’s no credit listed for music at IMDB. But a couple of times during the film The Boy and I were kind of looking at each other with this “Wait, is that the music, or is that coming from another theater?” It was inappropriately sinister, and sort of “loud” musically even though you could barely hear it. Kind of like someone playing “Night on Bald Mountain” just below the level of hearing.

Anyway, The Boy and I liked it; the issues I’ve pointed out with it really didn’t seem to matter much. They wanted to put together a ensemble piece and strut their stuff and that’s what they did. Tough to complain about that.

Jeez.
What? I said we liked it! Don’t look at me like that! OK, I’ll call my grandmother!

Flash Gordon (1980)

My mom was a big Buster Crabbe fan and as a kid, the non-PBS UHF channel (I’ve had to explain to the kids the whole concept of over-the-air TV just to get to the whole UHF thing) used to show silents and, yes, old serials, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers which I absolutely adored. I loved the struggle of good vs. evil, and the crazy Art Deco spaceships with sparklers coming out the back, and the planet models and so on. And back in 1980, when this came out, I loved it, too, to the point where I didn’t get why it wasn’t more popular (23rd for the year, making about the equivalent of $100M today).

HE SAVED EVERY ONE OF US!
I still can’t hear “Flash!” without following it up with “AH-AH!”

These are situations where a parent might feel a bit…trepidatious…in taking his kids to see a film which, in retrospect, is currently regarded as a campy, cult classic (enough to where star Sam J. Jones ends up in Ted as kind of extended punchline) and which they might not appreciate the way said parent did at a young age.

Well, then.

Worries abated. This movie is non-stop fun, start to finish. There’s not a moment of pretentiousness to be had in this tale of a football player who finds himself shot into space with a crazy (but right!) scientist and a sexy (but sexy!) girl journalist, accompanied by music from Queen. And man, does Freddie Mercury sell it with absolute sincerity—like the whole movie start to finish. The underlying message, if a movie like this can be said to have one, is that people are good, Earth is awesome, and all you need to overthrow tyrants is to show people that it’s possible to be fair and put the interests of all above your own individual needs.

Corny, huh?

Look at those costumes!
Tell me they didn’t NAIL it.

And a lot of things that are “campy” about the movie are really more about how jaded things were back in 1980 (not unlike Superman).

I still think, even now, that Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson were under-rated here. Sure, they’re earnest, even ridiculously so—except that it’s impossible to be too earnest in the context of an evil space emperor who’s destroying your planet because he’s booooorred. Silly? Well, if that means we’re spared a trilogy of movies about how young emperor Ming was turned to the Dark Side by a series of pretty ordinary events, I’ll take it.

Any day of the week.
I’ll also take green tree world (Lucas swiped from Flash for Empire, it’s true!) over gray, boring sci-fi tint used today.

What’s more, this may be the most beautifully designed, decorated and costumed sci-fi/fantasy film since Wizard of Oz. That is, between 1940 and 1980, I can’t think of a single film that comes close to this in looks. Star Wars has better camera effects to be sure, but it’s positively drab compared to this.

There’s a whole lot of bold composition here: The design of space is organic, colorful, and alive, instead of a bunch of boring black cloths with holes bunched in it for stars. The costumes are late-era disco mixed with ’30s art deco (and there was a lot of similarity there, so the blend works).

The aliens are…well, who even knows what the heck’s up with those lizard dudes.

And they move like dancers!
Their eyes…are in their mouths!

Do I even need to mention the post-disco/pre-’80s space babes?

Smart, really.
“I believe you…but I don’t trust you.”

Ornella Muti?

Channeling Jay and Silent Bob here.
Princess Leia? I’m a nay-saya!

Fun fact, the little dude that followed Princess Aura around was named “Fellini” because de Laurentis wanted Fellini (who famously used little people in his dream movies) to direct. The guy playing Fellini is “Deep Roy” who was all the Oompa-Loompahs in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Melody Anderson?

It was pretty sensational.
A scene that’s both sexy AND creepy.

Random inexplicably posed slave girls? (Or maybe Amazonians. We’ll never know ’cause there was no sequel.)

It's a forward lunge!
Is that one on the left going to…race them to the throne?

We loved it. You’ll laugh, you’ll cheer, you’ll boo, you’ll boggle and you may even fly blind on a rocket cycle!

Admit it, you sang the "AH-AH!"
Flash!

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Traffic was really bad. I mean, really bad. Like “We’re gonna route you through Malibu bad.” Or “It’ll take you an hour to get home” bad. (Our commute should be about 20 minutes long, though it seldom is.) Then I made that fatal suggestion, “Well, why don’t we go to a movie?” I mean, the theater is five minutes away, and we’ve liked seeing so many classics there like Conan The BarbarianAkira (1988)Kiki’s Delivery Service and Jaws—and, in fairness to theater, it was just fine. It’s not their fault that Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington decided to remake the classic western The Magnificent Seven. It’s our fault for going to see it.

Nothin'.
I…I got nothin’.

I thought it would be okay. I haven’t seen the original. I haven’t even seen Seven Samurai. And early on, despite certain predictable stupidities (and a few surprising ones), I thought, oh, maybe, just maybe, this is going to go full on batty fun. But no. Fuqua decides his villain should be a capitalist spouting Marxist cant (though backwards, like a Satanist would say his “Hail, Mary” backwards) because in 1876, the Evil Bartholomew Bogue has read the book (in German or perhaps Russian, since the first English translation didn’t come out until the ’80s), absorbed its holy and wholly good message, and decided he’s the anti-Christ. And of course the townspeople know exactly what a “capitalist” is, and a “robber baron” (first use 1878) and even to apply it to Bogue who’s really just a…well, whatever the plot needed, I guess.

We won’t even get into Haley Bennet’s ridiculous push-up bra because, well, there are some anachronisms that I like and some that I don’t like. Although I’d note that neither Sophia Loren nor Claudia Cardinale needed push-up bras and, presumably, they would have had the good sense not to show the bra straps, like that would’ve even been a style in 1876 (if they’d even had bras).

Of course, she's a crack shot in the remake. Of course.
The original Magnificent 7 don’t care for my casting aspersions at the little lady’s costume.

But I’m digressing ’cause it’s a dumb movie with a lot of wasted talent and very little fun. Denzel isn’t even that compelling, like he’s tired or whatever. Virtually everybody here is interchangeable with another actor of that type. Ethan Hawke has his moments. Vincent D’onofrio is kind of the bright spot, following as he is, Orson Welle’s late-middle-age spread and being positively enormous as he stomps around hacking people with axes because, goshdarnit, bullets are just too slow. Sarsgaard is Bogue, and does his best to chew up the scenery, short of growing a toothbrush moustache. They all have moments, but nothing that’s going to stick with you—well, by the time the credits roll, it’ll be gone.

Good actor, tho'.
Seriously, he’s just a bag of frozen peas and a bottle of Paul Masson away.

Maybe you’ll remember this important lesson: Only white people aren’t bullet proof. (I guess that constitutes a spoiler about who lives and dies, but you’re not going to care, either way.)

Did I mention Bogue has a gatling gun? He sends in his army to take on the townspeople, and when he gets impatient, he unveils his gatling gun and fires from a distant hill. Maybe a hundred yards away. With a gatling gun. That easily pierces the town’s walls, often multiple walls, so that it can find some sort of fleshy target. At which point, you gotta wonder: If you could kill everyone from that far away, why bother with the army? Get two guns, and lots of ammo and done.

I'm not actually sure this is from the movie.
They even used the standard Western post-processing filters. ’cause the west is all sickly greenish gray.

Look, it’s just dumb. It’s not worthy of your time. But there are probably worse ways to waste your life, like ritual satanic sacrifice. We didn’t actually hate it, but that’s sort of the reason it’s so bad: It’s that it’s not that bad. It’s utterly calculated to be inoffensive. With worldwide distribution it’ll make back its money, though, and we’ll be subject to Fuqua and Washington remaking Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory next.

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week

As the Baby Boomers enter their dotage, an increasing number of them reflect on how awesome things were back in their day, and so we get documentary after documentary on some aspect of pop culture that was significant to some percentage of them. Sometimes this works out better than others. And so we come to this Ron Howard documentary on The Beatles’ touring years which has a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. I took the kids who are—they’re not even milennials, but post-milennials. I guess they’d be in the Snowflake Generation (though neither can really grasp the concept), and I figured they’d actually give the most objective take on the film.

Scheduling conflicts, maybe?
These guys are interviewed in the movie but never at the same time.

On Twitter, a popular #confessyourunpopularopinion—said oxymoron revealing in and of itself—is to say that the Beatles were overrated or that they were just outright bad. The latter is just sort of silly baiting, like saying Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie or putting catsup on your hot dogs. They may not be to your taste but in the context of their time, they were competent musicians (uncannily able to recreate their own recordings) with massive numbers of wildly popular hit songs in a realm where hit songs are the only metric that counts. Still, people aren’t particularly logical about anything, perhaps music least of all.

Now, overrated? That’s a different story. Upon seeing this film, one really has no choice but to say, “Oh, yes, they were absolutely, insanely, wildly overrated.” Because the mobs were nuts. And everywhere in the world they went, they were mobbed. You can still see the glimmer of insanity in the eyes of Sigourney Weaver and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Someone, I think it was Jon Savage (but it might have been Elvis Costello or Eddie Izzard) talks about the great musicians of history and ranks The Beatles up with two or three other guys throughout the history of music (Beethoven, Chopin and Mozart, if I recall correctly) in terms of quality melodies turned out. That’s not a proposition I’d want to have to defend since you’d literally have to listen to All The Music.

It'd be so much work to actually remember if they were used in the film.
I’m putting up more-or-less random Beatle pictures because—what else can I do, really?

One thing this film does really well is highlight the unprecedented nature of the group’s success. They broke a lot of records. They performed in a ton of increasingly large venues, becoming the first group to do stadiums. The albums didn’t make much money for them, somehow, but the concerts did so they played and played and played, and the fans screamed and screamed and no music was to be found anywhere. These frustrating circumstances, along with copious amounts of pot, led to their dissatisfaction with the touring and the end of their live performance days.

Amusingly, an unwilling journalist who followed them around on tour describes his first experience with the Stoned Beatles, and the movie presents their subsequent degeneration and dissatisfaction, almost like an anti-pot message. (I have no idea how Ron Howard feels about marijuana, but I do think that Gene Simmons knew what the hell he was doing when he demanded drug abstinence from KISS performers.) The movie doesn’t cover the later years with the paranoia, the foggy thinking, and the harder drugs, of course.

So...old.
Cute shot from the premiere with Ron, Paul, Brian and Ringo.

It was an enjoyable enough way to pass two-and-a-half hours. I was a Beatles fan in grade school (and a loather of KISS, as one must) and, well, I’m not embarrassed. The music was solid early ’60s (heavily Motown influenced) Rock. Fun, catchy, kind of worn out, I think, but that’s the fate of all really popular music: Can you listen to “Camptown Races” or “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and not feel like they’re STILL a trite (despite being out of regular play for decades?). And, of course, it was basically stuff I knew, though nicely presented. There was a lot about how decent they were in terms of how they treated the poor journalists and opening acts who had to tour with them. And also about how tight they were with each other and the sympathy they had for Elvis, who was all by himself.

The kids thought it was all right. Not “all right!” but fine. Wait, not fine, but…there must be a word that means “of acceptable if not overwhelming quality” that hasn’t been co-opted to mean “mind-blowingly wonderful” or “not very good at all” but I can’t think of it. Damn rock’n’roll.

It's been a hard day's night.
Better than the expressions on their faces would lead you to believe.

After the credits, the movie features a magnificently restored 4K version of the Shea stadium concert. I made the kids hang around so I could hear the opening, and then we left because, to be honest, that’s a terrible concert. It was their last American one, in a ginormous stadium before anyone had the technology to handle that sort of thing. (Another thing I hadn’t heard, from Paul, was that they had one or maybe two roadies. They never knew if the sound would even work when they got to venue.) It is remarkable to note how well they stayed in key and how professionally they managed to start and stop at the same time (a feat The Grateful Dead never managed, I think). But it’s still not a great concert. The live stuff recorded before they got big is both better and more fun: It makes it possible to understand how they got big, from a musical perspective.

So, yeah, go ahead and check it out. If you were there and a Beatlemaniac, you’ll probably dig it. If you’re not, it’s still pretty good. Though, obviously, if you hate-hate-hate the Beatles, this won’t change your mind.

Calm down. It's not like it's Bieber or someone big like that.
Eeeeeeeeeeeee!

Sully

The Flower has been a big Clint Eastwood fan since (at a young age that makes me a bad parent) she fell in love with Gran Torino—probably her favorite movie for years until she saw Silence of the Lambs. (Yeah, whatever, Child Protective Services.) So, she was anxious enough to see Sully and has enough confidence in Clint Eastwood to have wanted to see this film on the day we went to the Halloween Haunt. (We went to see Don’t Breathe instead, though.)

Don't these guys look sharp?
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the crew knows you have a lot of choices in movies, and would like to thank you for choosing SULLY…”

This is a really, really fine film. One of Eastwood’s best, and that’s saying something. The Flower has also been on a Norm MacDonald kick lately, and was relating how he had a good bit on having filmed the life of the airline pilot—but tragically before “The Miracle on the Hudson”, so he had no ending. (Norm did this bit right after the incident, so years before this movie.) But this movie isn’t really about Captain Sullenberg’s remarkable landing in the river but—I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this is an extension of Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” RNC speech in 2012—a story about people who do things, and those who do nothing but sit in judgment of people who do things. And despite the film’s 82% RT score from critics, a quick glance at the negative reviews pretty well confirms that a lot of critics see that, too. (More on that in a moment.)

The movie takes place right after the fateful landing (with copious flashbacks) as the workaday pilot—with a flawless forty year record—becomes both instant hero and instant goat. And I remember this at the time: The Internet was rife with Monday Morning Quarterbacking suggesting he didn’t really need to land the plane in the river. Because, you know, he was just some hot dog pilot who wanted to do that, apparently. Those voices were echoed in the news media (notably by Katie Couric, who plays herself as unselfconscious and unaware as one could hope), who are always just sure there’s either a hero or villain in any story, and as much as they love either, they love making a guy the former and then turning him into the latter. Perhaps even more seriously, however, is the hearing from the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal body that passes judgment on pilots (as directed by the Constitution in article Are-You-Serious?).

Top Gun with an Airbus!
Picture: Pilot on a lark, having a bit of a larf.

So, yeah, a lot of the criticism directed at this movie is along the lines of how-DARE-you-slur-the-fine-people-at-the-NTSB-for-your-tawdry-little-drama! which is the sort of thing we might call “letting the mask fall” if anyone had really been fooled by the mask in the first place.

Both Eastwood and Sully are working on a different principle: The drama in the film comes from an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation that he handles to the best of his ability, and which—with the help of a whole lot of other ordinary people—turns out in the best of all possible ways. In a lot of ways, this was the movie I needed to see at this particular moment in time, so I may be rating it higher than it deserves (though the kids both really liked it, too). Allow me a digression—like you can stop me (though you can skip the rant).

It’s hard not to look at the state of the nation (and the world, even) and not feel as though we’re “hollowed out”. Every society goes from stoic to epicurean, per Will Durant, and we are in a post-epicurean world where not only have our leaders abandoned the life of the body for the life of the mind, they’ve abandoned the life of the mind for a sort of moral hedonism. One of the great clichés of our society (repeated ad nauseum in film) is the hypocritical Christian whose religion is only proof of their own righteousness and their license to attack others. Those people still exist and they serve the religion of government: The all-powerful God that must be permitted all freedoms and challenged on none of its crimes.

This is why we have the VA killing vets and leaving their bodies to rot in morgues. Why the FBI can’t prosecute a flagrant violator of national security even when her crimes are right out there on the front page. It’s why our rebellion against the establishment has taken the form of a flim-flam artist. It’s why any law can be broken with impunity to save the status quo.

It’s life-affirming, then, to have a movie that portrays a very true fact: There are lots and lots of good people out there who do their jobs, who do them professionally, and who save lives. This is no minor point of the film. As awful as the government’s reaction to 9/11, even in that festering pit of corruption that is New York City, the emergency service guys are on the ball. Even the Federal government hasn’t reached the point where Muslim Outreach and Transgender Awareness completely dwarf the function of (in this case) the coast guard. While “Black Lives Matter” incites violence against cops (and makes life worse and more dangerous for black people), cops are actually down there helping people out of the water, along with firemen and medics and so on, none of them caring about race, sex, orientation, or anything other than “my job is to keep human beings from dying”.

Eastwood hired some of the real heroes of the day, too. Of course.
This rescue worker identifies as non-gender-binary and will not save you if you disrespect “xim”.

The film shows us the water landing three times—although punctuated by Sully’s repeated nightmares and visions of crashing his Airbus into New York City, which I have, and I’m not even a pilot, and I don’t live in NYC—and each time we see a different perspective. Although separated from his family, and with his own set of personal problems, while he’s on the job, that’s what he cares about. First, landing the plane safely, then getting people off the plane, then making sure they all made it, then worrying about the future consequences.

In a larger sense, this movie isn’t much different from a lot of Eastwood’s cowboy movies: Sully’s just a guy doing a job at a particular place and time where his actions are considered “heroic” even though (from his own perspective) he did what he had to do, literally, to keep the people who entrusted him safe—not just passengers and crew but the people of the cities he flies over. Tom Hanks is perfect here because at no point does he lose sight of that, even when the data from the NTSB simulations shake his own faith, hard won out of decades of flight experience, about whether or not he did the right thing. It’s as unheroic a presentation as possible.

Which, in a judo flip, makes Sully both immensely heroic and yet also attainable, in the sense that one could see being in that position, doing the right thing, and holding steady through the subsequent storm. That’s not a bad message to have during an election season because things tend to get a little messianic, with people suddenly vesting not just flawed human beings but ridiculously flawed human beings they wouldn’t trust to take out their trash with superhuman powers. But in fact the world runs on Sullys: People who just do their jobs.

People forget that.
And follow through. The follow through is so important.

Eastwood’s next project, according to IMDB, is about Richard Jewell, the guy who prevented bombings during the Atlanta Olympics who was subsequently annihilated by the media. One could even sense a theme here.

My Blind Brother

A man helps his blind brother through various athletic feats and resents him because, quite frankly, his brother is a big jerk. One day, this man finds a girl he really likes—at a wake for her boyfriend—and when she gets cold feet after their night together, she turns it into a one night stand, fleeing to devote herself to worthy projects. Of course, that worthy project turns out to be helping the blind, and soon she’s doing helper stuff with the titular blind brother, who also ends up sweet on her.

What won’t they think of next?

This was the second movie in our five-fer-five (Don’t Breathe, My Blind Brother, Sully, Eight Days A Week and The Magnificent Seven), which is one of those weird things where we just happen to go to the movies every single day for some stretch. In this case, it was probably because we were a little tired from the Haunt. If you can’t do much else, you can sit in a movie theater and eat popcorn, amirite?

Probably would've been more if Magnificent 7 hadn't killed our love of cinema.
Oh, come on, five movies isn’t THAT extreme.

This is one of those movies where you can give it a positive review and sound sort of condescending. Siskel and Ebert (see Life Itself) got into a thing once where Siskel chides Ebert for giving thumbs up to a Lassie movie but thumbs down to a flawed, but grand work (like Full Metal Jacket or something) and Ebert sort of fumbles with it, but the point is Lassie (or this movie) isn’t going to make you rethink your views on race relations or the Middle East situation. It’s probably not going to make you rethink how you feel about the blind (although we’ll come back to that) but it’s mostly not trying to do any of that. It’s just trying to sell its story about some people who got problems, and how they come through those problems, and do so in a reasonably amusing way.

So, success there. And not to be sneezed at.

(Don't Breathe)
I just realized we saw two movies in a row with jerky blind guys as major characters.

Nick Kroll (“The League”, the upcoming Sing) is Bill, our hero, the “My” in My Blind Brother, and he’s kind of a loser. He manages a copy shop (like a Kinko’s), though not very well, apparently, where he runs off copies of flyers to help his brother Robbie (Adam Scott, Krampus) in his various quasi-heroic fund-raising efforts. When he meets Rose (abortion enthusiast Jenny Slate, ZootopiaThe Lorax) she’s at a wake, stricken with grief over the death of her ex-boyfriend. The key is that she was breaking up with him when he got hit by a car, and so she feels guilty. Also, she was breaking up with him for some stupid reason, so she feels shallow.

This is remedied with a roll in the hay with Bill. But, of course, not really. She feels even worse the next morning, like (if nothing else) she should’ve been respectful of her recently ended relationship. She runs off without giving him her phone number and Bill is bereft, as he really felt a connection with her in their mutual desire to waste their lives watching television. Robbie, meanwhile, having detected Bill’s hostility toward yet-another-heroic-feat has decided to go to a blind support group to find someone who can help him train for his big swim. And that someone turns out to be…Rose. Through a misunderstanding, and Rose’s generally dissolute nature, she ends up in a relationship with Robbie. Bill’s a little ticked at this, but it turns out she still has feelings for Bill.

Yeah, well, that’s the world we live in, I guess.

Who am I to argue? No, I'm not posting it here. Bing it.
I think Slate knows she has a nice figure, as she shares it with us in the rest of this scene.

Debuting director Sophie Goodhart (writing and directing from a short she did in 2003) does a good job of making her characters likable enough even when they’re being kind of not likable. (Adam Scott seems to have made a career out of playing unlikable characters, Krampus notwithstanding.) Kroll is fairly appealing despite his lack of ambition. Slate is rather appealing both emotionally and physically in a kind of unique way. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of Elia) who plays Rose’s friend and the voice of reason in her life, also has a distinctive appeal to her.

So it gets points for being different, for sure. There’s a lot of jokes, not all of them blind-guy jokes. But the blind guy jokes are pretty good, and as I have frequently noted, it is often only the comedies that do justice to the handicapped by not venerating them, and by giving them the dignity of being real, flawed human beings. This movie is no exception. Robbie is a jerk, big time. But not unrelentingly so. He’s pissed about being blind. He kind of blames his brother. But he does love his brother. Scott straddles that line pretty well, probably from years of practice.

I’m going to go into “old fogey” mode for one final comment: These people are way too old for this. Scott is 43. Kroll is 38. Slate is 34. Kazan is 33. Our characters’ behavior was pretty irritating when it was common in the 20-somethings back in ’80s films. But people closing in on their 40s are moving toward tragedy. They used to say youth was wasted on the young: I wonder if they still would?

It's almost like he wrote the screenplay.
Zoe Kazan likes Nick Kroll, too, somehow.

Don’t Breathe

It has been our custom, as of a few years ago, to go to the movies right before the annual Halloween Haunt jaunt. Although Knott’s is only 50 miles away, it’s not 50 miles you would want to drive on a weekday in rush hour. So, we’d get there earlier and earlier, and hang out in the hotel until I thought, well, heck, rather than just sit around, let’s go to a movie. And, traditionally, it’s a horror movie, because, you know: get in the mood! I was a little nervous this year, because we weren’t staying in the hotel, experimentally, which meant I had to time everything just so, or wind up sitting around in the car or the parking lot or whatever.

Traditionally, also, we go to see a second run film: There’s usually a horror we want to catch before it goes away, and since we visit Knott’s on a Thursday, there’s a good chance that’ll be our last opportunity, but The Boy was hot to see this remake of Wait Until Dark called Don’t Breathe. So we saw that.

But let's not overreact.
Yes, the tickets were a little bit more expensive.

I’m kidding, mostly, about it being a Wait Until Dark remake. But here’s the plot: A team of thieves (two guys and a girl) break into a house to make that One Big Score only to find the tenant of the house is far more dangerous than—waitaminute. Didn’t we just see this movie? (What’s sort of funny there, is that people complained about Crush The Skull being a rip-off of an earlier, similar movie, but I think we can at least go back to Thief to find a similar story, and probably far further.)

Anyway, in this take, the smart guy is helping the dumb guy and the dumb guy’s desperate girl friend break into the house of a veteran who received a huge cash settlement after his daughter was killed in an auto accident years earlier. They figure the guy being blind makes him an easy target. They figure wrong!

Blind Fury. Maybe I should've gone with Zatoichi?
If only they had consulted Rutger Hauer first.

This is a good, gripping film, though I couldn’t help but whispering to The Boy “Everyone knows you need at least TWO MONTHS of staking out a house before robbing it!” Hell, the dumb guys in Crush The Skull were lambasted for only staking out their place for two weeks. Meanwhile, these guys walk in not knowing where the money they’re looking for is, not knowing whether it’s even there really, and the smart guy goes for it because he’s sweet on the girl. Which is, I guess, realistic.

Well, before you can say “inexplicably buff shut-in war vet with Jedi powers”, the three of them are in a heap of trouble, as they encounter Stephen Lang (AvatarPublic Enemies) who seems less concerned about the money than he is about other things.

Blind guy with gun...scary on so many levels.
When you live alone, you only have to worry about not shooting yourself.

The action is great. This movie goes in a cycle of tension, suspense, action, horror and back. Director Fede Alvarez may be unique among modern directors, as he has done the only remake/reboot of a classic horror franchise that’s really good: Evil Dead. But he and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues show they don’t need a proven franchise to work their magic. The acting is good, boiling down primarily to The Blind Man (Lang) and the girl, Rocky (Jane Levy, also from The Evil Dead and “Suburgatory”), though the two guys Daniel Zovatto and Dylan Minnette do a fine job of being typical alpha and beta males, respectively.

If there’s a weak part, really, to this film it is the characters. Rocky isn’t really an admirable person—she’s definitely a means justifying ends type—and the actress’s likability can only go so far. She has many opportunities to do the right thing, and almost always demurs. Apart from her struggle for survival, which inherently endears her to us, she takes some pretty horrible things—that she caused, directly or indirectly—rather cavalierly.

Snakes on a plane? How about pit bulls in the air ducts?
Like, she never once pets this lovable pooch.

But if, like a lot of movies, Don’t Breathe doesn’t encourage you to think, it also doesn’t give you a lot of opportunity to think, either. It envelops you in the struggle for survival pretty quickly, and very well. That’s pretty good for a horror flick. It’ll probably break $100M on its $10M budget which, I hope, doesn’t mean we’ll have to have a sequel.

Demon

We went into this Polish horror movie Demon completely blind, except knowing that it was a Polish movie, that it was a horror with some comedy elements (apparently), but if you check it out now, you’ll see that it has quite a few ratings, garnering a whopping 94% approval from critics but a measly 55% from audiences. The Boy and I both liked it, but there’s a good chance you won’t, especially if you, like most horror going movie audiences (even the Polish ones), are expecting a traditional shock/horror type flick.

This is not that film.

Or is it the chicken dance?
NO ONE WILL BE ADMITTED DURING THE RIVETING LIMBO SCENE!

It was bound to be the sort of film that garnered more critical praise than audience, because it has no starts, no scares, no shocks, and it’s more a sort of “the banality of evil” type dark satire. At the same time, the critics may be overrating it because the director Marcin Wrona, killed himself while shopping it around the festival circuit. It’s not always clear what the motivations are in a suicide, of course, and the dark nature of the film may have had something to do with it. Also, as we learned with Aftermath (Poklosie), the Poles have a pretty conflicted take on their treatment of the Jews in WWII.

The story is that of a young man, Piotr (Itay Tiran, The Debt, which was remade as The Debt) who moves to Poland to marry his girlfriend, Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) and so goes out to look at their ancestral manse where the two plan to live after the wedding. This being Poland, and not England, it’s not a mansion or villa, but rather a farm with a barn and a poorly tended field and the like. Piotr wants to fix the place up, including putting in a swimming pool, and in the process of digging, turns up a skeleton. Things go south from there. In fact, it looks a lot like the ground swallows him up.

Pools never do.
This doesn’t end well.

Next day he’s woken up in his bed by his future brother-in-law so they can all get ready for the wedding. The skeleton is nowhere to be found. And a lot of denials about any such thing even being possible (“it was a dog”) are proffered by the most-likely-candidates-to-know-something-fishy-went-down-in-the-past (the bride’s father, grandfather, etc.). Before you know it, though, Piotr’s acting odd. Like, talking about some other woman at his wedding speech odd. Bleeding for no reason. Having what looks like seizures.

The bride’s family is as socially conscious as they can be. The father-of-the-bride is none to sure about this English fellow marrying his daughter, as he only has the word of his flaky son (well, and her word, of course, but, y’know: chicks), and his inconvenient seizures at the wedding are downright embarrassing, to say nothing of talking like a teenage girl who’s been dead for decades. An old village Jew offers the sage advice that Piotr’s been possessed by a dybbuk—a notion the party atheist/communist takes more seriously than the priest, who can’t get out of there fast enough.

TFW when your groom turns out not to be a 14-year-old boy, but a 14-year-old girl.

Now, at some point—perhaps it was the first indication that the priest wanted more than anything to get out of that wedding—I began to realize that we had ourselves an allegory. The priest and the postmodern atheist doctor who no longer drinks (but is constantly caught hitting the bottle) engage in debates while chaos is going on all around them, and the party guests keep drinking and drinking. (Reminded me a bit of The Tin Drum, actually.) When it’s all over, the father of the bride stands in front of the hung-over and dazed crowd saying “None of this ever happened. It was all a dream.”

Typically, people don’t go to horror movies looking for dark political commentary on the Holocaust. So you can totally get why people would not give this the boffo reviews. And between the subtext and the dramatic backstory, you can see why critics would rate it highly. Overall, though, it is a good movie—just know going in what you’re getting, and make sure you’re in the mood for it, and you’ll have yourself an interesting time.

It’s ironic, if true, that the director killed himself (in part) because he didn’t win a particular award from a Polish group. The whole point of the movie is how the Poles have yet to confront this issue. They tell us that Poklosie was banned in Poland. That he could take a movie like this on the circuit would seem to be progress of a sort.

Not really.
It’s a laff riot.

Lights Out

This is a neat little horror movie about a boogen that haunts a family but can only move in darkness—though with some obvious exceptions since if it were really total darkness, you’d never be able to see it, and that wouldn’t fly in a movie today, most likely. Teresa Palmer (Mad Max: Fury Road, Warm Bodies) plays Rebecca, a young woman living her chaotic, solitary life who gets drawn back home when her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) ends up calling her because things have gotten weird at home, ever since stepdad (Billy Burke—not the good witch from the Wizard of Oz, but the guy who was in the Twilight movies)…uh…crap, no spoilers. Let’s just say stepdad has been having some work issues and mom (Maria Bello, PrisonersA History of Violence) has been having some “friends” over.

Jerks.
Friends who carve things into your RENTED APARTMENT’S FLOOR!

Like, the invisible kind of friends. That she argues with a lot. About whether or not to kill her family.

This movie doesn’t really tease the insanity angle. We know, right away, there’s some sort of evil spirit afoot. And through the course of the movie, Rebecca comes to understand her mother better, and understand that her difficulties in life could actually be reduced if she didn’t keep people at arm’s length—specifically, best-boyfriend-ever, Bret (played by Alexander DiPersia), who seems like the kind of guy who sticks by you through thick-and-thin, even when ghosts be throwing things at you.

Director David F. Sandberg keeps things movie briskly, working off his own short film (a common thing these days) with a script by remake-king Eric Heisserer (who did the screenplays for the recent Nightmare on Elm StreetThe Thing and Final Destination 5) and who knows how much assistance from horror maestro James Wan (The Conjuring 2Insidious). I mean, literally, who knows (other than them)? Sometimes people just throw their names on films for producer credits, or to do a “Joe Blow Presents”.

The Boy and I both really liked this one, and with a total runtime of 81 minutes (including credits), the only reason it’ll keep you up late is if, after watching it, you’re afraid to turn the lights out.

But I did. Oh, yes. I did.
Teresa Palmer can’t believe I went there.

 

The Hollars

As you may recall, one of the big questions we struggle with on this blog is “how little Jesus does it take to ruin a movie for a critic?” The Hollars demonstrates that it takes literally no Jesus at all for critics to hate on a film. We were quite perplexed when this cancer drama/comedy with Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Mary Kay Place and directed, produced and starring John Krasinski (written by James C. Strouse) not only came in with a low 44% score from critics—but audiences gave it a strong 74%. After receiving a warm review from a pal, who was sort of perplexed by the critic hate, and reading the bullshit assessment “seen it!” from critics, we virtually had to go see it.

In the first scene we see him in,  John (Krasinski) is shown drawing a cartoon. It’s only for a second, and it shows darkness and a baby saying “Don’t I get a vote?”

Cute, tho'.
No, little dude, you don’t. Even raising the question is career suicide.

Even though there might be a ton of possible explanations for that image, I’m going to say The Hollars was doomed at that point, because it could be considered as sacrilege against that most holy of all rights. Later on in the film, we learn that John’s brother Shelton’s (Sharlto Copely, District 9Elysium) ex-wife is seeing a youth pastor named Rev. Dan (Josh Groban, Crazy, Stupid, Love, some sort of musical stuff). Not only is Rev. Dan not a pedophile, he’s also a pretty good guy overall, genuinely concerned for Shelton’s well-being (moreso than Shelton’s ex, who would have him thrown in jail).

Two strikes for Krasinski right there.

Inexcusable!
He’s actually the most centered guy in the film.

The Boy pointed out later that our heroes in this film were small business owners. Suffering from hard times, these white, middle-class people were struggling to make ends meet.

Strike three.

I’m sorry Mr. Krasinski, but if you want good reviews, you’ll have to put in some transgendered stuff, or maybe some rich people acting horrible to minorities. Mere miscegenation (Shelton’s wife, played with gusto by Ashley Dyke, 12 Years A Slave, is black I think) just doesn’t cut it anymore, especially when you had several perfectly good chances to trash white people, Christians and the middle class. I’m not kidding: This is the reason the critics trashed this film, though they’d probably never admit it.

I recently asked a co-worker, "Are you?" when the topic of her black-ness came up. I'm just not good at it.
I wouldn’t know. I sure wouldn’t care.

Because this is a really, really good movie. The Boy and I were serially impressed by the way it could’ve gone wrong and didn’t. At first you think maybe this is going to be an attack on “those sorts”, whoever they may be. When we meet Sally (Martindale) and Don (Jenkins), they’re bickering, and Sally’s serious condition has gone untreated for years because—well, it’s both tragic and hilarious, the reason why. It’s also very real, if not very sophisticated. Salt-of-the-earth types with plumbing stores don’t go running off to the doctor for a little, uh, blurred vision and limb numbness.

The business is in trouble, of course, and Don is trying to protect Sally—but Sally does the books, so she pretends to let Don protect her, but confides in John that, of course, she knows, and Don and Shelton have had a falling out, which doesn’t help the situation for anyone, while Shelton is jealous and angry at John, and John can’t commit to his very pregnant and skittish girlfriend (Kendrick). You sort of wonder, at this point, if you’re just going to be watching 90 minutes of dysfunction. And the refreshing, and not at all common way that this is handled is: You’re not.

True to life.
The Everyman and Everywoman: They gots issues, but they’re decent sorts.

Yeah, the Hollars got problems, as do we all. But they’re not really dysfunctional, even if they need an occasional kick in the pants. What’s even better, though, is that the Hollars love each other and they actually show this. A lot of fatal disease movies (especially the chick flicks) have people treating each other absolutely awful, and only being dependable at the most dire of situations. That’s a weird sort of love, frankly. So, while the Hollars snipe and bicker, not infrequently, they also not infrequently don’t snipe and bicker. They help each other out; they’re nice, even. Which, quite frankly, might be another demerit for the professional critic.

The other thing that was really nice about this movie is that it doesn’t try to be depressing. It raises more than a few very serious and possibly sad questions. It doesn’t always give the happy answers. But there is a strong affirmation of life here. You can get far in life and maybe regret some choices, even some really big ones, but you gotta keep going, push through the fear, and above all keep on laughing.

The actual shape of the film, I will grant, is somewhat predictable: A movie like this can only go one of two ways, pretty much (live or die). And I knew how it would have to play out in order to work dramatically, though not right away. But the good news is that it did play out that way, and avoided being both wholly depressing and wholly panglossian. If you see only one cancer movie this year, this would be your best choice.

Oh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who did so well in 10 Cloverfield Lane and has been turning up in some sweet little roles lately (as in Swiss Army Man), has a sweet little role here as the ex-highschool girlfriend who sees an out in John. She’s definitely starting to win me over. (I guess the problem has never been her acting, but a lack of interesting roles in the things I’ve seen her in.)

John Goodman can't be wrong!
Second look at Winstead?

The Goonies (1985)

I am not, by nature, an envious person. (And to answer the implicit follow-up question: Yes, I think I would both know it and admit it if I were.) I do not look at others and think “I wish I were him.” For example, I sometimes think the reason I do not have more money than I do is because I really couldn’t handle it. I tend not to envy the wealthy, and while others dream of winning the lottery, I tend to divide such fantasies into two parts: The sort of winnings that wouldn’t really change your life (like two million or less), and those that really would change your life (like the sort of tens of millions or more where you’d actually have to do something with it besides stuff it in a mattress). The former isn’t really fantasy or envy fodder, while the latter is more harrowing than the indulgent sort of “I’d buy a yacht, and a car, and a fancy hat…” thing.

That and hypnosis. "My name is Elmer J Fudd, I own a mansion and a yacht." Oh! And the IRS!
Money RUINED Bugs Bunny!

But of course, narratively, speaking I now must reveal where I am envious. I sometimes envy Seth MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) only because his humor, at least in the early years, was fairly similar to mine, and his singing voice is way better. Like, if I were going to have someone’s talent, I’d probably have picked his. (Trey Parker is another guy in that category, though I favor show tunes over heavy metal.)

Which brings me to The Goonies, and things in the ’80s that used to piss me off. One of them was Ralph Macchio. I had been spending five hours a day, five or six days a week, for over a year to get some proficiency in martial arts. In The Karate Kid, he waxes some cars over the summer to get to magical proficiency. He then followed up a couple years later by being in a movie about his amazing guitar skills. Over six years of playing guitar, I wasn’t going to see Crossroads. But these are fictional characters.

In real life, there was this guy named Christopher Columbus (no relation) who was writing the crappiest screenplays imaginable and becoming successful off of them. For example, Gremlins. The movie is not bad; Joe Dante turned up the gore and darkness to make it watchable. The plot, with its transparently stupid devices (“Don’t feed them after midnight!”) is an embarrassment. Young Sherlock Holmes is also an embarrassment, down to its “We’ll have them fly! If we learned anything from E.T. it’s that kids love flying crap!” And then there’s this one.

Stereotypes are a dime a dozen.
An Asian kid who’s good at technology? Where DO they get their ideas?

I didn’t see it at the time. I was really iffy on seeing it now, but it seems to be a touchstone for people who were kid-kids in the ’80s. It’s also directed by Richard Donner, who I was pretty high on after this recent showing of Superman, so I checked it out. The script is pretty stupid, once again. OK, it’s really stupid, bordering on insulting at times.

It’s a pretty fun movie, nonetheless, full of people who would go on to become really big stars, or at least transiently popular ones. Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Joe Pantoliano, Robert Davi, Martha Plimpton, and even the late John Matuszak, who plays the deformed Sloth had a pretty decent career before his untimely death in ’89. And they’re all very ’80s here, with their hair styles and Cyndi Lauper hotter-than-heck doing the theme. And you know it’s an edgy-’80s kid’s movie, ’cause they swear and shit—including saying that word 19 times. It’s as pointless now as it was back then, really. (Side note: My work filter has this blog restricted as “adult”. What the fuck is up with that?)

No career, No Country For Old Men, Weird Career, LOTR, Temple of Doom, No Career, Super Mario Bros
From left-to-right: Cute Girl, Llewellyn, the Not-dead Corey, Frodo, Short-Round, Fat Kid, Princess Daisy

The premise is that the Goonies live in some unfashionable part of their beach community that’s about to be turned into something useful, and is a desperate bid to save the day, go searching for pirate treasure, the pirate treasure bit being stolen from a “Little Rascals” short because apparently what Spielberg was really good at was looting the vaults. Seriously, Raiders was a rip-off of a Burt Lancaster movie, close enough to where Spielberg obfuscated it’s source by citing Fritz Lang’s incomplete “Spiders”, which bears very little resemblance indeed vs. the movie he didn’t mention. (Anyway, you know what they say about artists who borrow vs. those who steal.)

On their way to find the treasure, they run into some desperate bank robbers (Pantoliano, Davi) and their brutish mother (Anne Ramsey of Throw Momma from the Train), and their deformed son they keep chained up in the basement (Matuszak), though I was a bit murky on whether this was a temporary hideout or what. It has a very ’30s feel, this aspect of the movie. Josh Brolin is the good big brother who ends up trying to round his little bro (Astin) and all his pals (Feldman as well as Jonathan Ke Quan of Temple of Doom and the fat Jeff Cohen, neither of whom made it out of the kid-actor ghetto, though at least Cohen’s not fat any more). Along the way he fights for his love interest played by the cute and fortunately legal Kerri Green, in a very short dress, and her tomboy friend (Plimpton) who has one of the dumber tagged-on romantic moments with Feldman. The rival for cute girl’s affection is a guy who might as well be named “Biff” but turns out to be “Troy” (Steve Anton, of the abominable Fast Times ripoff The Last American Virgin).

Oh, it's coming. You know it's coming.
This is from the “gritty reboot” of “The Goonies”.

The pace is good, the action, such as it is, is of the cartoonish “appropriate for children” style (which makes the swearing even more egregious somehow). The music is by Dave Grusin, who wrote the classic TV themes for “Baretta” and “Maude” and arranged the music for the Paul Simon flop “One Trick Pony”. It’s not John Williams, but it’s fine. The special effects are dated, of course, but not horribly so. They still read, and they’ve got enough panache to carry the moments. (A lot of them are very physical, of course: Pirate ship, moving traps, falling water. That helps.)

The movie probably couldn’t get made today since it stereotypes Italians and pirates, and makes fun of the handicapped. So there’s a certain charm there. I dunno. I didn’t hate it. The Boy took his girlfriend to see it (The Flower was not interested, and I couldn’t make a convincing pitch) and they both liked it, but of course they’re young and in-love. My straight-up feeling about this is that it’s passable, and will still be watchable down the line (as it is today) but that it probably occupies a similar plane as the brat pack movies of the error: They mean a lot more to you if you were in the demographic at the time.

As for Mr. Columbus, after leaving the glory-less world of being-just-a-writer, he went on to direct Home Alone (John Hughes’ screenplay, which he apparently never got over someone else directing his most successful film) and then wrote and directed the sweet Only The Lonely, at which point I forgave him his success. Then he directed Bicentennial Man, so I sorta felt sorry for him. Then the first two Harry Potter movies, in which the old Columbus came out, but not enough to smother those flicks. It’s been a career of ups-and-downs, really, so I felt for the guy.

Then he directed Pixels, and I think we can all hate him for that.

No, that's the late Matuszak.
Chris Columbus on the set of “Pixels”.

The Secret Life of Pets

And speaking of nullities, there’s this sad excuse of a rehash of Toy Story. I can see the pitch meeting now:

“It’s like Toy Story but with pets!

“That’s a great idea! Everybody loves animals! Everbody loves Toy Story! We’ll mix the two!”

Speaking of weirdly positive critical results, the critics like this movie more than the audiences, who scored it a tepid 65% to critics’ 74%. The fix is in, people.

That's right: All these animals are registered voters.
I ain’t just talkin’ RT scores, either.

I was paying attention to the audience while this was running—because there wasn’t really anything else to entertain me—and I heard two laughs through the entire movie: The first from a woman in the row behind me. The second came from a woman in the row in front of me. I didn’t hear the kids laughing. Actually, it was quiet as a tomb throughout most of the film. Which seems appropriate.

The Barb didn’t laugh at all but when I asked her what she thought of the film, she said, “I loved it! It was above par!

So I asked her, “Well, of all the movies we’ve seen, can you think of one that was just par? Or below par?”

“Nope!”

So, y’know. All this time I’ve been saying “Well, the Barb liked it so…” when perhaps that wasn’t the best recommendation. Honestly, I’ve practically forgotten this film already. It looks pretty good, I suppose.

Refrigerator smell.
That is a nice looking roast chicken. (But who puts a whole cooked chicken in the fridge uncovered?)

The story goes something like this: Max (Louis C.K. in his least memorable anything) is a dog who lives with a girl (Ellie Kemper, “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) in a standard, generic New York apartment (and, in fairness, this isn’t just some default; it does make sense for the movie to take place in NYC) when his girl brings home another dog, Duke (Eric Stonestreet, “Modern Family). Duke turns out to be a bit of a bully, and Max is miserable until he figures out he can frame Duke. This ultimately leads to the two of them being separated from their human and forced to wander the streets on the run from Animal Control. This takes them to an underground world of abandoned pets whose vicious leader is a bunny rabbit (Kevin Hart) with a taste for killing humans.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment, Max’s would be girlfriend, Gidget (abortion enthusiast Jenny Slate, The Obvious ChildMy Blind Brother) organizes the hapless house pets (including Lake Bell as a fat cat, that the Barb was sure was Susie Essman from Bolt) on a journey to rescue Max and Duke, where they meet Albert Brooks, Steve Coogan, and my-god-aren’t-you-bored-with-the-stunt-casting-yet?

Needless to say, one of these animals is going to end up driving a car, because nothing is funnier than animals driving a car.

He thinks he's people.
Funnier than The Secret Lives of Pets.

It’s a nullity. You may see this film. You might even chuckle once or twice, maybe. You won’t remember it after leaving the theater, though. It’ll be like a dream. A dream that really wasn’t very good or interesting, but you struggle to remember it, thinking there might be something there. But there isn’t. Just two hours lost to the void.

Alexandre Desplat’s music was probably good. I don’t remember it. I’ve noticed that music is being underplayed (as it were) more and more these days. There’s a great video on why Marvel music is so forgettable but it applies to just about everything made today.

From the people who inflicted Minions on you. Even begins with an unfunny Minions short. These people will go on to inflict Sing on us in the winter. So, Merry Christmas.

If you have to explain the joke...
See, it’s funny because it’s a cute bunny acting all tough and m—eh, forget it.

 

Captain America: Civil War

We put off seeing this until the last possible moment, but it had such good reviews (90% from audiences and critics on RT) that I really didn’t want to miss it. Now I’ve already pointed out that I’m kind of jaded about superhero movies. There have been so many of them, and they’re kind of all running together. So I thought maybe I was just not getting into the spirit of things when, at the end of this movie, I found myself thinking, “Wow, that was kind of boring” until I heard:

“Well, that was boring.”

Tobey Maguire makes this face at orgasm. Allegedly.
And this guy just plain didn’t like it.

Let us step around all the craziness of this film. A lot of it is not good comic book craziness, like Doc Ock (in Spider-Man 2) solving the problem of controlled fusion by first solving the problems of Artificial Intelligence and robotics, but just the sort of stupid unexplained plot conveniences the movie figures nobody will ask about. Like how the ultimate villain of the piece arranged the massive conspiracy needed to carry out his plan with no apparent relevant background or security clearance. Or like how the camera just happened to be rolling on this deserted road 25 years ago, providing incriminating footage that the faux-villain was not aware enough to avoid, but was aware enough to destroy the camera after all of his crimes had been recorded. I’m even willing to overlook the stupidity of a superhero—a high-tech superhero with all kinds of holographic and computer hacking skills—would immediately jump to “Well, there’s the bad guy, right there on a security camera, and we know that couldn’t possibly be faked. It’s beyond our technology!”

All this could be overlooked if the dramatic potential of the film weren’t so poorly set up and executed. The crux of the idea, from the comic books if I’m not mistaken, is that, in the wake of Avengers 2 the UN wants to regulate superheros. They’ll only be able to act if the world leaders agree they can act. We can ignore the stupidity of that, too, even though:

  • they saved the world in A2, but this seems to count for nothing;
  • when I read comix (lo, those many years ago), there were often codas where the superheroes would clean up the messes they had made, and everyone was happy but the fact that they don’t show this in the movies has become “Well, they never do it, and so we hate them”
  • this kind of plays the audience for chumps and/or means the heroes really are pretty awful.
I mean, seriously.
What the hell is Ant-Man doing there?

None of this would bug me (much) if this was all used in service of a great character-driven story, which is the whole point of the story to begin with. Well, okay, that’s not entirely fair: Hero vs. hero matchups are big because 10-year-old boys like to debate “Who would win in a fight between The Lone Ranger and Zorro?” (I suppose the classic pairing is “Batman vs. Superman” but of course Batman always has to win in a fight between him and Superman, because it’s the only narrative that provides any drama.) But here, one would expect to see the conflict between the libertian-ish, doesn’t like to be told-what-to-do Iron Man fighting against the Man while the law-abiding, America-loving and now (because we’re a global community, and the U.N. isn’t a corrupt rape-machine in this fantasy world) a U.N. loving Captain America signs up with the forces of law-and-order and…

Wait, what? It’s reversed? Iron Man is submitting to the whim of a third-party council of people who famously can’t agree on anything? And Captain America—who even has a speech about how he’s always been an outsider, even in the Army—which I’m guessing, as a guy who never read more than a single Captain America comic book in his life, would be news to his creators Simon and Kirby.

Well, okay, so there must be a good reason for all this. Why would Iron Man suddenly give up his autonomy? Oh, he killed an innocent person? Wait…an innocent person got killed while he was saving the world. And he feels guilty for that. Even though Alfre Woodard wouldn’t have been alive to tell him that had he not saved the world. He feels so guilty, and so completely convinced, that he’s ready to go out and kill another person—Bucky Barnes, Winter Soldier, or at least let him be killed without a trial because some grainy security footage and the U.N. says so.

You're cool with that, right?
Just gonna get in some murder here, Cap.

Actually, Mr. Stark is a total murder machine in this movie. First, he endorses this bit of authoritarian nonsense, and later wants to kill another character because of what that character did under mind control. Now, look: Everyone’s always getting mind controlled in comix. It’s like the “evil twin” in soap operas: Every single superhero at some point or another has been forced to do something against his will, including Tony Stark who’s always having his magic suits hijacked. The idea that you would kill someone because of what they did while under a sinister power’s control means you pretty much have to kill everyone.

It makes no sense. I’m still wondering how it rates 90% RTs. The Boy, who demurred from seeing this, kindly refrained from gloating when I told him about it, though he’s brought it up more than once since then, the little bastard. (I think he was nursing a grudge because he’s been researching the American Civil War this year, and gets pissed off every time he has to filter through this nonsense.)

OK, but at least the action’s good, right?

That bow & arrow, tho'.
“Why are we running at them? At least half of us have ranged weapons!”

Eh. Not really. It goes on too long and most of it has little flavor. Where you might enjoy it more than I is if you’re invested in the characters (such as they are). That way you might just consider the very match-up to be high drama. But it’s mostly nonsense. In the big fight scene at the end of the second act, they have to keep vanishing the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) because she’s basically infinitely powerful. Meanwhile the Black Widow and Hawkeye have their little slapfights while thousand megawatt energy bolts are flashing around them. And…good lord…Black Widow sides with Stark! War Machine (the once respectable Don Cheadle) even points out the insanity of this.

The highlights are the appearances of non-Avengers, Spider-Man and Ant-Man. The Spider-Man stuff in particular is entertaining, although Stark teaming up with Parker screws up the whole poverty storyline that is virtually Peter Parker’s rasion-d’etre. That aside, casting someone who is believable as a high-school student was a good way to potentially reboot the series (yet again). Paul Rudd is good as Ant-Man but he’s not in the movie much.

Look, it’s not great. It’s not even good, really. I’m just going to assume the crazy good reviews are a mixture of Marvel fanboys and critics who want to suck up to Disney. I can’t really recommend it at all unless the comic book thing—and maybe the Marvel thing explicitly—is your jam.

As if. Maybe they need to start turning these things into musicals!
Cool dance-off in the third act, though.

A Tale Of Love and Darkness

We’d sort of waffled on seeing Natalie Portman’s new movie—written, directed and starring Princess Padmé! though somehow this is not used as a selling point—because it didn’t have the boffo reviews, but I tried to sway The Boy on the basis that movies that portray Israel in any sort of positive light are necessarily going to be voted down regardless of merit. I didn’t actually succeed in convincing him, but we ended up watching this because of various timing issues, i.e., we were at the movies and this was playing.

Ha. This kid kicks Darth Vader's ass.
I think we all remember this scene from Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

This is a fine, fine film, despite the tepid 60s given on Rotten Tomatoes (by the small number of critics and reviewers), and those 60s are up from the initial scores which were 40s and 50s, if I recall. So I do believe the anti-Jew thesis holds up. Which would be funny, perhaps, if the pro-Israel statement here wasn’t both mild and factual, i.e., the Jews came to reclaim their homeland in the Middle East because Europe wasn’t safe for them any more. So, while A Tale of Love and Darkness hardly paints the new Israeli government as saints, neither does she throw her Founding Fathers under the bus (as we like to in America).

Primarily, though, this movie has little to do with Israel. It’s a touching reminiscence, based on a memoir by Amos Oz, of an early childhood with a mother who is depressed. This happens to be in Israel right around the time of the War for Independence, and the story incorporates that aspect into the emotional state of the mother, about which I’ll get to in a moment.

It's not.
And you thought the 2016 election was important.

First, let me say, this is a very difficult thing to do well: The problem with mental illness is that it doesn’t really conform to narrative. We want, as moviegoers, to see a story that makes sense. And certainly there are stories about sadness and other emotional problems where the problem can be clearly pinpointed and resolved in a satisfying way. But if the term “mental illness” is to have any meaning (and perhaps it doesn’t), it must be that the inappropriate behavior/emotional state doesn’t have its cause in a current situation. In other words, if your dog dies (as ours recently did, alas), it’s not “mental illness” to be sad. There’s probably something wrong with you if you aren’t at least little sad when your dog dies. It’s when the melancholy comes on for no (apparent) reason that it can be so classified.

Of course, from a narrative perspective, a problem that comes on for no apparent reason doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying narrative. Movies often just flat-out fail when they to tackle this stuff. Or, what will occasionally happen is that a narrative is built where the mental illness is orthogonal to another narrative, which can seem to trivialize the issue. Neither is a good moviegoing experience.

What Portman (and Oz, of course) do here is quite sensitive and touching: The main character of the story isn’t Fania (Portman) even if she dominates the screen; it’s little Amos (newcomer Amir Tessler). What we’re seeing is an old man trying to make sense out of what a young child saw, which is only bits and pieces of the whole story. For example, Fania’s mother (Dina Doron, I think) yells at her in the kitchen, complaining that they should’ve let her die in the camps (possibly instead of some other more valued family members). It’s the sort of memory you’d have as a child, someone wishing your mother was dead, but there’s not really more about it. In fact, you’d remember all sorts of hostile things about your mother, without the appropriate context.

Mothers & sons.
It’s profound, really.

This works surprisingly well. Because what we see is, even at this late date, Amos Oz loves his mother. He frames her depression in terms of disappointment: She had so many visions of life as a child, including one of Israel as the promised land, and all the wishes came true but without the beauty she imagined would go with them.

The Boy and I found it quite moving, really. Subtly, tastefully done, and successful at making Fania appealing when she might’ve (in those troubled times) just been viewed as a flighty, crazy whiner.

I should comment on the technical aspects of the direction, given that this is Mrs. Portman’s debut: It’s good.

Okay, more detail: There’s some nice blocking and tracking here. At first, it felt a little overeager, like she had a lot of tools in her toolkit and she was going to use them all come hell-or-high-water. But it calms down pretty fast and some of the bolder choices work very well, as a scene where the dizzy Fania is shot blurred for a moment before coming in to focus. You probably won’t notice, because overall it feels fairly confident, like she knew what she wanted and she knew how to get it (or who to ask about how to get it). I would not be sad to see her pursue this line of work.

It’s also nice to see her act. I presume an actress can only stand around pointlessly in so many Star Wars and Thor flicks until it gets old. This performance here is better than her Oscar-winning Black Swan performance which, truth be told, is probably a little one-dimensional (even if she did do it well). I felt more like Fania this was a real person, a complicated person.

So, ignore the haters and check it out.

I'm sure of it.
Cheer up, Natalie. This will age well.

Howard’s End (1992)

I was never a big Merchant-Ivory guy at the time they were hot property (mid-’80s to mid-’90s) and while a later viewing of Room with a View made me wonder if I was missing out, I do sort of think that maybe, generally, y’know, they’re pretty much as boring as they look. This is not a movie to dissuade anyone of that idea. It’s not exactly boring, but neither is it very exciting either. It shies away from action or even high drama like a sheep shies from a randy Scotsman. This is clearly a matter of taste rather than incompetence. The Boy put it best: “I didn’t know what it was doing, but I felt like it knew what it was doing, so I didn’t find fault with it.”

The Flower sort of lost it when she realized her beloved Anthony Hopkins—beloved for his role as Hannibal Lecter—was the love interest. She had a hard time accepting that. And, honestly, the movie doesn’t really sell it. There’s no apparent chemistry between Hopkins and Emma Thompson, but there really wouldn’t be.

Never.
Ever.

I don’t know. I have very positive memories of Room with a View and I think I expected a lot more out of this. It’s definitely precision, deliberate, but maybe not the story I wanted to see right then.

The attention to detail is definitely noteworthy. The windows have imperfect glass in them, just as they would have at the time. The carelessness of the condition of the upper classes to those of lower classes is certainly on display. It didn’t really grab me. Or any of us (including some other friends who went to a different show, perhaps also with high expectations). The restoration is nice. It looks new-ish.

It’s over the two hour mark, too, but that doesn’t really seem to be an issue, which is a positive thing. Like I say, the movie moves you along expertly as it flows, it’s just a slow moving flow about people it’s kind of hard to relate to.

As one must.
Unless you’re really into rowboats.

I dunno. Check it out, maybe, if you like this sort of thing. I may give it another 25 years to see if I’m more in the demo by then.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Longtime, diligent readers—which is to say, “me”—will recall what I call “The Buffy Factor”, which is where a movie so brutally mocks its audience that the audience takes their ball and goes home, or at least doesn’t buy tickets. One of the best counter-examples to this is Galaxy Quest, which makes fun of TV show fan-nerds, but in an ultimately nice way. And when I saw it back in 1999, I was generally pretty pleased—which isn’t to say I wouldn’t have enjoyed a savaging of said nerds, but savaging seems a lot easier to come by these days than a nicer, gentler, but still very funny approach. The kids were somewhat “meh” on seeing it at the theater’s “Trektember” month which featured 3 original-cast “Star Trek” movies, a documentary on Leonard Nimoy by his son, Adam, and this film, which some say is the best of all “Star Trek” movies.

OR IS IT?
It’s funny, y’see, ’cause it’s not a Star Trek movie.

The kids had, after all seen all or part of it on TV before, though not in many years. But if we’ve learned anything this year it’s simply this: Movies are much better on the big screen. Period.

And what stands out about this movie 15+ years later is that it’s really, really good. My initial impression was that it was a bit facile, a bit formulaic, and even reflecting now on my recent viewing, I’d still say that was true. But where that seems to be true, it’s done in the service of telling a good story (as opposed to “hitting the beats” per the Save_the_Cat formula). It balances the inherent cheesiness of the original (fictitious) TV series with the aspirational aspects of science fiction—said aspirations sincerely exemplifying the best aspects of mankind.

'cause, actors <> mankind. See Birdman.
The best of mankind, and on an unrelated note, actors.

The acting is about perfect. They say Harold Ramis dropped out because Tim Allen was cast, and later recanted after seeing his performance, and I can see both of those things occurring. He’s channeling Buzz Lightyear here (minus most of the delusional confidence) and doing a good job of it. Sigourney Weaver is delightful as the increasingly highly-strung and busty actress-who-repeats-what-the-computer-says. Of course Alan Rickman is great, with his self-loathing line delivery that switches into complete, convincing sincerity as the situation demands. Probably the most remarkable thing about Rickman is that he doesn’t overshadow everyone else, they’re all so perfect in their roles. Tony Shalhoub as the anti-Scotty, so laid back about virtually everything, including the tentacles on alien Missi Pyle (in an early role). Daryl Mitchell pitch perfect as the guy who actually has to drive the ship. And Sam Rockwell, fresh off of The Green Mile, doing comic relief as the guy, named Guy, who knows he’s expendable because he doesn’t even have a last name!

Heh.

Just makes her hotter, really.
FUN FACT: Those are Missi Pyle’s actual tentacles, not CGI.

Besides Missi Pyle, it was Rainn Wilson’s big screen debut, and Justin Long’s debut, period (even before the PC/Mac ads and Jeepers Creepers). It was a breakthrough role for Enrico Colantoni, who would go on to be a fixture on things like “Just Shoot Me” and “Person of Interest”, as well as a bunch of other movies and shows, demonstrating all the range of a great character actor. Actually, quite a few of the actors were well accomplished TV people, just not the big stars, perhaps because Dean Parsiot, who would later go on to direct a few episodes of Tony Shalhoub’s “Monk” (where a number of the other GQ actors would turn up over the years) is also a big TV guy. It doesn’t hurt.

It’s funny, it’s fast-paced, it’s good-natured—originally, the script by David Howard was much darker, and they trimmed it back. I’ll bet the cut stuff was very good, but the tone they ended up with was basically perfect. David Howard, somehow, has no other credits to his name, though his co-writer Robert Gordon is credited on the (much less memorable) Addicted to Love, A Series of Unfortunate Events and Men in Black II.

The score, by David Newman, the least Newman, reminds us that even the least of the Newmans is still pretty damn good.

It goes without saying that, 15 years out, the special effects are dated, but they still read and they still work. Stan Winston’s makeup is still awesome. The CGI shows its seams, as it must, but it has aged more like an old matte: Getting the idea across without seeming tacky.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, it’s definitely worth revisiting. The Flower and The Boy both loved it.

R.I.P. Mr. Rickman
Never give up. Never surrender.

 

The People vs. Fritz Bauer

When making a movie based on a historical event (as opposed to making a movie coincident with historical events), one generally has to figure out how to compress the elements of the actual occurrences into a smaller number of characters and a shorter period of time, in order to preserve the film’s watchability at the expense of accuracy. (Michael Bay’s 13 Hours may be a rare example of that not being the case, although even it is obviously not 13 hours long.) And in the process of doing so, one tends to add various fictional elements to give the movie more suspense, more action, more romance—whatever it takes to make the kind of movie one wants to make. In the case of the under-rated Labyrinth of Lies, for example, certain elements of action and suspense were focused into a character who was a younger, better looking composite of the people actually involved, who heroically recovers the story of the Holocaust from the memory hole. (I understand in Japan, by contrast, schoolchildren are basically taught that the US just dropped an atomic bomb on them for no reason.)

Shocked to discover I couldn't find a picture of Slim Pickens being dropped on Nagasaki.
And we all know how THAT turned out.

The People vs. Fritz Bauer is similarly themed: Bauer is a man in charge of bringing Nazi war criminals to trial in Germany. Problem is, the government doesn’t really want to do that, and works against him at every turn. This is undeniably the way governments work: Witness the various US governments’ eagerness to downplay their roles in slavery, segregation, euthanasia, forced sterilization and other great progressive notions. He’s supposed to be working with Interpol but—and this is the first time I’ve ever heard this admitted in a movie—Interpol was started and staffed by ex-Nazis. (And who knows how “ex-” they really were?)

Bauer’s big coup is that he’s pretty sure he’s found out where Eichmann is. If he reports it to his bosses, they’re report it to Interpol, and Interpol will warn Eichmann. Eichmann vanishes and gets away, and Bauer really doesn’t want that. Oddly, despite Eichmann’s banal evil, and despite the movie’s playing of recordings of Eichmann’s lamenting that they hadn’t managed to get all the Jews (a far cry from his defense), I didn’t feel as moved as I know I should’ve been. Emotionally, the movie is focused on Bauer getting around the barriers, and his assistant sacrificing his life and career to bring the Nazi to justice.

"Eichmann, you say? He's no big deal. They got thousands of them in the World Trade Center."
And that involves LOTS of paperwork.

You see, in order to make sure Eichmann doesn’t escape, Bauer goes to Mossad. But taking intelligence to a foreign government like that is treason. And The Powers That Be are determined to take Bauer down, certainly more to keep him from persecuting Nazis than out of a sense of patriotic duty, and Bauer has a fairly well-known secret: He’s homosexual. He identifies from his own team, a young go-getter who is also a homosexual, though in the young man’s case, this is not yet known to anyone. Well, the audience knows, since it’s pretty well telegraphed in the first scene, though the movie does (I think) try a fake-0ut by suggesting that he’s fascinated by a young woman. (They cheat, of course, as use an actual woman and a CGI penis or prosthetic or whatever.) But we were so not fooled we weren’t sure that they were trying to fool us.

Whatever the TV equivalent of "blackface" is, I guess.
Sort of a reverse crying game.

Various dramatic embellishments aside, the movie stays rather low-key. There isn’t the paranoia of Labyrinth, no action to speak of, and only a little bit of suspense. It kind of plays out exactly as you think it will, and even the climax is played with a teutonic phlegmatism that makes you (if you’re me) utter the refrain “That’s SO German!”

Anyway, we did like it: The acting and pacing is good. The atmosphere is good. Whatever liberties it takes seem to be pretty respectful. But maybe don’t watch it if you’ve been up for the past 48 hours.

Swiss Army Man

Movies, of course, do not have to be rational. They never are, actually, but they typically aspire to verisimilitude—or at least a worldview the audience can accept for seven reels. Even speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, sci-fi) tends to set up a certain number of rules within which the story operates in an otherwise recognizable way. When a movie tries to get outside that box, it’s in danger of becoming pretentious or just plain incomprehensible. At times, it can be hard to figure out what Swiss Army Man is trying to tell us but it neatly avoids pretentiousness with copious fart jokes. This movie is powered by fart jokes. Its main character, Hank (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy, Being Flynn) is literally powered by farts provided by the decaying corpse of “Manny” (Daniel Radcliffe, Horns, Woman In Black).

Right on!
Power to the people!

I am not a fart joke aficionado, personally, but a funny thing happens here. Flatulence goes through numerous interpretations as the movie wears on: It’s a dumb joke, it’s a dark joke, it’s a matter of joy, it’s a matter of tragedy, it’s a critical plot point, and on and on, to where you’re sort of wondering “How are they gonna fart their way out of this one?” It’s impossible to watch this and get the idea that they were just telling fart jokes. Something else, something much deeper, in fact, is going on, and the Daniels (the writer/director team of Dan Kwan, Daniel Schienert) are using noxious bodily gases to keep from straying into the pretentiousness almost inherent in a story about a man stranded on a desert island with only a corpse to help him survive.

Hank is a sad, desperate man both literally and metaphorically cut off from contact with others. When another person washes ashore on the same beach, he’s initially excited at the prospect of having company, only to find out the other person is just a corpse. But the corpse moves a little, as decaying corpses will, and of course releases the carbon and sulfur gases that provide the necessary…momentum…to keep the story moving. Hank calls his new pal “Manny”, and as the movie wears on Manny’s abilities become more and more uncorpselike. He’s slowly animated, not just by farts, but by Hank’s vesting of himself into him.

Which, y'know...
“Now I’ll make him say ‘I hate Harry Potter’!”

At points, it even gets hard to tell Hank and Manny apart. The corpse becomes not just a vehicle for literal escape (insofar as anything here is actually literal) but for Hank’s escape from the failures of his life. Hank puts his failures onto Manny and in this way has a chance to confront them—because, of course, it’s easier to look at someone else’s flaws than one’s own, and especially easier to look at someone’s flaws when they’re just like yours. Hank’s in a desperate place, quite apart from being trapped on an island (or is he?), and it’s occasionally not clear whether we’re seeing things through his eyes or through Manny’s. (Although, since Manny is literally dead, to the extent he literally exists at all, it’s probably safe to assume it’s all Hank.) Pretty spiritual, heady stuff for what’s billed as a “quirky comedy”.

The farts keep it from disappearing up its own ass, if you will.

A fart too far, if you will.
One fart joke too many.

This is one of those movies you don’t know whether you’re going to like it or not, or at least we didn’t. There are so many ways it could go wrong. Sort of weirdly, Audiences liked it rather more than critics (82%/67% respectively) which can either be attributed to rabid Harry Potter fans and/or the very earthiness that keeps it things from being too abstract, top pretentious, too boring. The Boy and I were both favorably impressed; there’s a level of skill in the filmmaking, and a care and attention to detail that can win you over if you’re not too put off by the grossness of the bodily aspects (which include more than farts, I should note).

It’s a two-man show, basically, so if you like Dano or Radcliffe—who does graduate from lolling his head around listlessly at various points, and who gets his own sorta Free Willy-style ending—there’s a lot to enjoy there. It’s hard to recommend generally for the various aforementioned reasons, but we certainly liked it.

Radcliffe is...interesting.
He should’ve had Dano drag him down the red carpet.

TCM Presents: The King and I (60th Anniversary)

Sometimes—frequently, in fact, when you’re going to classic movies—you see something so great it alters your sense of how great movies can be. There was a little bit of resistance in going to see The King and I: The Boy wasn’t super-interested, but as I know so much of the music and had never seen this (despite having read the book and seen other versions of the story), I felt it was worth the risk.  I merely had to tempt The Flower with tales of set and costume design (we had just seen the amazingly decorated and costumed Flash Gordon) and she was there, despite the two-and-a-half hour runtime. All the kids knew of this was the episode of “The Family Guy” (perhaps ironically) where Lois wants to put on this musical and Peter comes and ruins it with a sci-fi plotline, half-naked chicks and himself in the role of Anna.

If you know what I mean
There’s a fine line between satire and a cri de couer.

At first, I wasn’t sure I’d made the right choice. The movie starts just a little awkwardly with “Whistle a Happy Tune” on the ship bringing Anna and her son to Siam. Deborah Kerr (singing by the wonderful Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) is fine—great, even—as is little Rex Thompson as her son (though he’s not in it much), but when Yul Brynner steps on to the (gloriously appointed) soundstage, the movie takes off and just never slows down, even when the actual tempo of the music is slower.

The story is the one you probably know: In an effort to modernize his country, The King of Siam brings Anna Leonowens, an English widow, to Siam to tutor his many, many, many children. The main point of contention between them, initially, is he has promised her a place outside the Palace walls but has reneged on her arrival. He puts her off repeatedly, barely even acknowledging her concerns about raising her son in a harem. Another plot concerns his most recent wife, who arrives at the same time as Anna, but who loves another and who takes very strongly to the western teachings.

Her boyfriend was played by the famous Burmese actor Carlos Rivas.
o/~Things are all right in S-I-A-M/If you’re Siamese in S-I-A-M.~\o

I think it goes without saying that this is not a movie that could be made today. Actually, a relative of mine was a producer on the ’90s version with Jodie Foster, which was underrated I’m sure in part because of the shadow of colonialism or whatever excuse was in vogue at the time to garner attention for the would-be-victimized and to suppress art. But it was oh-so-tame compared to this now 60-year-old film. The Russian-ish Yul Brynner plays the King while Rita Moreno (!) plays the broken-hearted Burmese wife who—and this is one of the great scenes in movie history—puts on a Siamese version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In a musical written by a couple of Jewish(ish) guys.

I will say, without hesitation, that no one who has ever raised the meagrest concern about the racial/ethnic/appropriative aspect of this has never contributed anything of merit to art, and quite possibly has never contributed anything of value to anything.

Truly.
A sublime interpretation of Eliza’s escape.

Hammerstein’s (and Brynner’s) King is an immensely likable character, admirable even (in the context of his culture), and truly the hero of the piece. He’s struggling to make his country competitive in a global economy, and he knows that this means giving up many of the conceits that are central to his monarchy. He has an understand of the rightness and wrongness abstract concepts (particularly vis-à-vis slavery) with a sort of willful blindness about how this enlightenment should affect him personally (particularly as regards to an unwilling wife). This virtually makes him the Thai Thomas Jefferson.

Too, the love story between Anna and the King is a beautiful thing: He gathers that there is something special about this spirited English woman, and he respects that he cannot have her. Even more dramatically, he realizes he respects her, cares about her opinion of him—just as she realizes she’s strongly attracted to him, despite her disgust at many of his barbarous ways.

The Boy had the same initial trepidation that I had. We weren’t worried it was going to be bad, but we weren’t sure how good it was going to be. He was terribly pleased by the show, as was The Flower who loved the costumes and set designs as much as I imagined she would. This two make a rather strong recommendation for a movie from the ’50s, especially for one that is a stage play produced in a grand manner without reducing much of its essential staginess. We would all recommend it highly.

Yul Brynner played the King until he died.
Despite the similarities, the King bears very little resemblance to the Pharaoh.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…

Rifftrax Presents: Mothra

You know what time it is! It’s time for Rifftrax! (Rifftrax!)

And this quarter’s cinematic meatball-over-the-plate is the wonderfully bizarre and bizarrely wonderful Mothra. It’s a far cry from being terrorized by radioactive T-Rex like Gojira, or a pterodactyl like Rodan, or even a three-headed dragon like King Ghidorah. The Kaiju for most of Mothra isn’t even a moth, but more a lethargic (if overlarge) caterpillar.

I don't know if "chrysalize" is actually a word. But it should be.
“Do you mind? I’m trying to chrysalize here!”

Cribbing shamelessly from King Kong, the story goes that after an uninhabited island is used for atomic bomb tests, it turns out actually to have been rather heavily populated by a tribe of regular-sized people who—and I may have this wrong—worship a couple of tiny (foot tall) little singing girls. The Japanese Carl Denham goes to this little island along with, I don’t know, some scientists or something, and discovers the little girls but is prevented from capturing them to bring back to Japan (or some other country that isn’t exactly America) by the rest of the group.

Flash forward a few years (without even the courtesy of a calendar flipping montage, so you don’t realize it’s much later) and Denham-san has secretly gone back to the island and captured the girls and brought them back as a novelty act, like a less creepy Lemon Sisters. Problem is, they’re psychically linked to Mothra who hatches from his egg on the island and makes his way toward Japan. Before you know it—and I mean, like, well over an hour into the movie—this caterpillar is doing kaiju stuff and generally just wrecking up the place.

Wait, wut?
o/~Tonight, you belo-ong, to us! And our giant caterpillar!~\o

Until killed by the military.

Killed? Or just cocooned?

Well, I think you know the answer to that. So the last few minutes is more traditional Rodan-esque mayhem until the good guys figure out how to get the girls safely to their beloved giant moth. The climactic scene takes place in not-quite-America which is worth it just for the not-quite-English signs everywhere.

They call it "Rosilica".
I think that’s a Notatexico station next to the Notaneiffeltower.

It’s a pretty wild movie.

It also confirms our suspicion that the old, cheesy movies are best for riffing. This is not exactly a movie jam-packed with action or, well, much of anything but its bizarre premise. Even the special effects are kind of sleepy, kind of goofy, but also kind of fun. (And, in fairness to the technology of the day, some of them are pretty decent as well.)

All this adds up to room for quality riffing, and the boys do not disappoint. Definitely worth checking out.

The pre-show riff was about soap and it was as delightful as you can imagine. Four out of five stars. Would recommend. Would riff.

Animal House (1978)

Among the words one doesn’t expect to hear in a review about a movie called Animal House is “quaint”. And yet, nearly 40 years later, I will say that this film—the gross out, vulgar, raunchy comedy of its day—”quaint” is how I’d describe it. I recall Charles Champlain’s review of it (read years later when pulling old newspaper out of a shelf lined years earlier) where he gave it a large number of stars, like four out of five, but added “I wanted to like it more than I did.” That was how I felt about it when I saw it, after hearing rave (and often leering) reviews of the first, best and possibly only truly good film to come out under the National Lampoon banner. (John Hughes notwithstanding, Vacation is not really a good film.)

Well, NOW they do.
It’s funny ’cause college kids don’t act like children, see?

It is a good film but the comedy actually doesn’t hold up very well. That’s not a contradiction, really: The thing that made this movie a smash hit, I would venture to say, was the titillation and shock humor and shock humor (even more than titillation), like shock horror, loses its potency rapidly. So we didn’t laugh all that much, really. Another aspect which doesn’t hold up at all was that sense of rebellion: 1960 students bucking the system for no real end other than dissolution. That still, somehow, had some bite in 1978, I guess, especially for those who had some inkling of it growing up. Now it’s like trying to relate to Mildred Pierce. In our brave new world, everyone is Bluto, though certainly most lack his insouciance.

John Belushi’s bits hold up very well, having in them certain elements like a debauched Chaplin or Keaton. This talented fellow shot the film 4-5 days a week and ran off to shoot “Saturday Night” the other 2-3 days. It’s perhaps less astonishing that he died from speedballs than that it took him four years beyond this point to do so.

Stephen Bishop, who wrote the songs.
Seen here enjoying some folk music.

The movie itself is remarkably solid however, as a narrative, as a character study, and even as a study in camaraderie. It hangs together well: It’s not just a series of gags (though there are plenty of those); we do learn aspects of the characters’ natures. And it works because the apathetic creed that underlies it is never dressed up. Friendship with your fellow Delts is a dubious thing. They might be there for you, but they aren’t going to share your priorities. Put it this way: If we don’t laugh at a modern shock comedy (or even plenty of comedies back in the ’70s and ’80s), we’re bored because there’s literally nothing or no one less to care about: The characters are simply elements of a prop comedy gone staler than Gallagher smashing a watermelon in 1981.

Here, though, we sort of care about these guys. The world is stacked against them unfairly (if not entirely so) and they’re not really harming anyone, except the moral structure of the community which (as is always the case in these sort of counter-culture type things) is none too solid to begin with. (It never occurs to the hypocrisy crowd that a fragile moral structure might be a good reason to avoid messing with it, but that’s not really on point.) Too, their opponents are made as soulless as possible. It’s a comedy; we have to be free to enjoy the suffering of the unjust as much as we do in a revenge picture.

You know how that line starts, of course.
“You trusted us.”

Another thing that holds up really well? The naked girls. There’s this short window from the late ’60s to the early ’80s where women could be naked in a mainstream film, but before the ultra-lean-with-implant aesthetics took over. The Flower, who adores (as an artist) the pin-up, like the images on the sides of planes and the work of Gil Elvgren much favors the soft, feminine curves seen here versus the hard, muscular lines which have held sway for the past 30 years. The contrast is actually rather stark. And it probably makes them look younger, too. Mary Louise Weller, who has the most famous, 4th-wall-breaking nude scene (where John Belushi leers at the camera in-between ogling her) was in her early ’30s at the time. Movies from the ’80s, in stark contrast, tend to shove their silicone and sweat in your face.

So, yeah, as a quaint little movie with some laughs and quotable lines, it holds up okay. The Flower and The Boy both liked it, though it was no Dr. Strangelove or Planet of the Apes (1968), both of which seemed to transcend the limitations of their era much better.

Like I said: Quaint.
Naughty!

The Conjuring 2

James Wan has a pretty good track record. At this point, it’s probably his style that dominates modern horror, whether it’s the gritty physical peril of the Saw movies or the Old, Dark House style that Paranormal Activity brought back into vogue but which he appropriated (with the help of Paranormal producer Jason Blum) for the Insidious and, now, The Conjuring series. He hasn’t really done the more graphic, physical peril type of movies since the first Saw, interestingly enough, but he is remarkably consistent as a director of the spooky genre. This is not a small thing, as seen in the Paranormal Activity sequels and things like Sinister (which had a decent premise and fine actors). Spooky is hard.

I sorta get that.
Unless you’re a nun. Spooky (or sexy) are both oddly easy if you’re a nun.

The first movie added a nice element we don’t usually see in this genre. Typically, the victims of the ODH (old dark house) are some unsuspecting rubes who don’t own so much as a PKE meter (forget about a fully-charged, if unlicensed, proton pack). And, typically, they find their relationship stressed by this paranormal paramarital activity. The Conjuring is centered around Ed and Lorraine Warren, and their concern for each other when dealing with the forces of evility, and this raises the movie to a more heroic plane by giving us the characters’ long-standing concern for each other—that moment where they say they’re not going to do this, and then of course, they have to do it because somebody’s life and/or soul is at stake.

It’s nice. Real? Well, that’s also rather cleverly handled. The Warrens were involved with the Amityville Horror, which had been “discredited” by the time this incident, known as the Enfield Haunting  came up. The whole
“paranormal investigation” field is a cottage industry, as we all know, and full of fakes and charlatans. What we don’t hear about much is the “skeptic industry” which is at least as full, and which (wrongly) assumes the mantle of “science” probably more than ghost hunters do. Skepticism is not a scientific attitude: It’s a disposition to not believe in things that don’t already confirm your biases. To be a scientist, you must look at things as they are, which really permits neither of gullibility nor skepticism. That includes those things called “ghosts”, “UFO”s or whatever, like it or not.

It is a bit cluttered.
No human would hang crosses like that. Oh, wait.

That said, skeptics do a really good job of saying “This is discredited! By me! Because I found someone to say it’s not true!” and I wasn’t especially looking forward to a treatment of Amityville, which is how the movie opens. But it is just the opener, and the movie connects the Big Bad at Amityville to the one in England. And in the Enfield incident, we’re treated to a (no spoilers) very convincing discrediting of the Enfield Haunting. And it does occur to one that, were there demonic forces operating among us, it would be a trivial matter for them to contrive ways to discredit incidents that might attract attention.  “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled”, and all that.

I’m not saying that it’s not all bunk. I’m just saying the word of people who want to be fooled isn’t worth much. Either way.

Anyway, the Enfield case involves the Hodgsons, a mom (the ever lovely Frances O’ Connor) of a mess of kids whose (naturally spacious and architecturally gorgeous) house is falling apart at a slightly faster rate than the rest of her family, at least when the proceedings start. The problem comes, as it almost always with a young girl, or in this case, two young girls using a crudely fashioned Ouija board. This attracts a sinister boogen who seems to be the previous owner of the house, an angry old man who died alone and hasn’t realized it’s not really his house any more.

But that's silly: He should ask the mom, not the easily possessed little girl.
Here we see him demanding to the see the lease.

Of course, it escalates, and it’s rather nice that the movie doesn’t do the whole “is it? or isn’t it?” thing, with paranormal activity happening all over the place in front of witnesses. This makes more powerful the whole “It’s all a fake” revelations that dog the Warrens and the Hodgsons wherever they go (while they’re just trying to stay alive).  So, we have our human interest: Lorraine has visions of Ed (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson reprising their roles effectively and with even stronger chemistry than the first time around) dying, and is none too secure after her recent experiences in Amityville (although this isn’t developed much). And we have our sympathetic single mom (the always lovely Frances O’Connor) and her terrified children.

Mixed in, also very effectively, are frights aplenty. Wan has a big bag of tricks. He’s not above the near literal “BOO!” of a cat jumping out (though that doesn’t happen here), and he’s more than capable of building suspense from atmosphere and relatively benign creaks, knocks and scratches. He’s very good at stretching your attention out into the darkness by not using the same tricks over and over again. Sometimes it’s just a little frisson, sometimes you’ll jump out of your seat, sometimes it’s an oh-my-god-run-for-your-life.

James Wan is one of these directors, like Fury director David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Taika Waititi, who’s been tagged to direct a superhero movie. In this case, Aquaman. I don’t, personally, share the antipathy toward this superhero that began as somebody’s comedic routine (Richard Jeni?) and became this contemporary notion that Aquaman is somehow lamer than anyone else in the costumed vigilante world, but I do worry that Wan might end up producing something like Ayer (and, no, I haven’t seen Suicide Squad, but it looks awful, and the reviews are terrible and widespread). Still, this is a guy who did a Fast and Furious movie, so I suppose he’s gonna do whatever, maybe, to get out of the horror ghetto.

Which is a shame, because there’s really no one around as good.

They're dubious.
O’Connor and Wilson contemplate “The Conjuring 3” without Wan at the helm.

The Jungle Book (2016)

The Boy saw this well in advance of me—I was kind of cool on it and the girlfriend has more mainstream tastes than either of us (of course she does, we’re freaks)—so he went to see it and said, in essence, that he really liked the film except he thought the kid, Mowgli (Neel Sethi), was terrible. Of course, that’s a little like the argument that the Spanish version of Drácula  is better than the American one, except for Dracula. Mowgli’s kind of a big deal. My folks had seen it and not had the same reaction toward Mowgli, so when I took the Barbarienne (the Flower hadn’t the slightest interest) to see it, he was interested in my take.

And my take was basically: I really couldn’t get into it enough to feel strongly about the kid. Yeah, sometimes he’s awful, but he’s in a green room talking to blocks, and Jon Favreau (Chef, Iron Man) is telling him to overact because, honestly, who the hell knows how any of this is going to read once the computer nerds do their thing? So it’s sort of remarkable to me that there are times when he’s not awful. On the George-Lucas-to-M-Night-Shyamalan scale, the performance is probably closer to Lucas than Shyamalan most of the time, but again: Not the kid’s fault.

And there's nothing standing next to him, either.
What’s he lookin’ at? Who knows! Certainly, not him.

And that was kind of how I looked at the whole thing: There are parts of it that aren’t awful, and a lot of the times I wasn’t sure how they could’ve been done better. Damning with faint praise, I suppose, if it’s praise at all.

Well, look, the Barb liked it. That’s what counts.

I was distracted by the relatively realistic (though often weight-less feeling) movements contrasting with the wildly unrealistic mouth movements when the animals talked. ’cause, you know, animals don’t talk. They can’t move their lips and jaws in a way that looks like talking; it’s weird when they’re made to do so. At least, for me. A kind of animal-uncanny-valley, if you will. It’s got a whopping 95%/89% on Rotten Tomatoes, though, you know, so I’m probably not your guy here.

The story’s okay. It bears some resemblance to the book, which I have just finished reading. It perverts the rule-of-law a bit by having Baloo endorse lawlessness, where in the book only the monkeys, who were savage, brutal, capricious and easily distracted (and by some lights, Germans) did not respect the law. It is highly selective in terms of the violence it shows by some set of rules I didn’t quite grasp. The betrayal of Mowgli and the elders to Shere Khan by the wolf cubs was left out, and I could see why.

She is real flexible, tho'.
I don’t see what’s so special about ScarJo’s curves.

The voices might drive you crazy. Scarlett Johannson was a female Kaa, which was fine, although they recycled the original Disney cartoon Kaa rather than bringing in the far superior Kaa in the book. More menacing than the guy who provided the voice of Winnie the Pooh could be, but also fast friend of Mowgli. Idris Elba was okay as Shere Khan but has far more warmth and less menace than George Sanders. Ben Kingsley was a reasonable choice for Baghira. Except for Ms. Johansson, I was largely just bugged by their voices.

Bill Murray, notably, obviously, plays Baloo. They turned Baloo into Bill Murray, which was okay, in the sense that the original cartoon turned Baloo in to Phil Harris. So Bill was Bill and there wasn’t any attempt to copy the original, but let Murray do his thing. That works well. He even talk-sings “The Bare Necessities” which works better than it should, considering that, up till that point, there are no songs to speak of.

As if.
Bill Murray in a bear suit. Bold choice.

What should’ve worked similarly well was using Christopher Walken as King Louie. Another easily recognizable voice and one known for its menace, as well as its distinctive phrasing, Walken was a really inspired choice. But for some reason, they made him 100 feet tall. They say this is based on an actual ancient orangutan, and he’s only ten feet tall, but I think that’s nonsense. He’s Kong-like, smashing through the ruins of a city like only a Kaiju can. (They nailed the ruined city, though, gotta say. And it’s a nice homage, or maybe a really rude one, to Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now.)

And then he starts singing. But not like good Christopher Walken singing, but like Bill Murray talk-singing. It’s bizarre. Again, I hasten to point out the 95% RT score, but I didn’t get what they were going for here. Scary, like really scary, but wait, can’t scare the kids. It’s schizophrenic.

So, yeah, long-story short, I didn’t care for it much. Didn’t hate it, had a lot of sympathy for Favreu and company trying to make art out of some arbitrary set of standards imposed by MegaCorpWithEars. But found no reason to be excited about it, either.

Goodnight...spoon.
Goodnight…moon.

Captain Fantastic

I found myself being entertained by this movie about a “homeschooling” dad who takes his kids on a road trip to attend their suicidal mother’s funeral, but The Boy really nailed it when he said, “This is written by someone with no idea of what they’re talking about, and so they’re writing all this stuff they imagine to be true.” Captain Fantastic is, sorta, a variant on Beasts of the Southern Wild in the sense that the fantasy life portrayed (even if it’s not meant to be) is so spectacular, you can’t really see the other side of the argument.

That'll be just as good.
Nah, go ahead, sign me up for Algebra 2.

Because this is not “homeschooling” so much as “survivalism”. And an extreme form of survivalism at that, with Ben (Viggo Mortensen) putting his kids through morning calisthenics, self-defense training, hunting, mountain climbing—and other activities that used to be called “summer camp” back in the day—while having them read great literature and do research during the evenings.  The family is run as a pseudo-republic, with Ben having clearly set up the rules but ostensibly being open to his kids lobbying for changes based on a reasoned debate followed by democratic vote. But I think the idea is that he’s too overwhelming a personality for that to happen, which is something more convincing when it’s coming from (say) Robert Duvall in The Great Santini than here.

I’m going to be a bit spoiler-y here because the only way to talk about it is to point out the things that rang true and the things that did not, which requires some details. For example, early on, the oldest son, Bo (George MacKay, How I Live Now, Defiance) objects to his dad calling him something like a “Leninist” and says, “I’m a Maoist now.” The Boy bristled at that, and I was inclined to agree: Nobody becomes a Maoist without serious indoctrination and a severe deprivation of history. Ben retorts that both capitalism and communism are used to suppress the masses.

Later, the family celebrates “Noam Chomsky day” (in lieu of Christmas).

Property is theft ergo theft is property. Or something.
Celebrated in the traditional way: By shoplifting.

Now, I have met a number of homeschoolers who have abandoned the public school system because it wasn’t sufficiently leftist for their tastes. It’s a very common situation in Los Angeles, actually. Their special snowflakes deserve better than the system can give them (but by all means, increase that system into complete control of every other area of life). And rather astonishingly, these people complain about every interaction they have with the government while never once thinking that the problem is, you know, too much government.

But not a one of these people could survive without the easy life that the free market has given us all. Self-sufficiency requires a certain clear-eyed appraisal of actuality that is apolitical and gives no quarter to hurt feelings. So, maybe there’s a family out there like this. But more likely writer/director Matt Ross (a fine actor) made this up from whole cloth and opinion pieces because he wouldn’t find the actual sort of people who do these sorts of things very sympathetic.

And so we have some very bizarre situations that emerge.

  • At one point, Bo who has spent 18 years developing primitive survival skills, shrieks “I don’t know anything unless it came out of a book!
  • One of the daughters, who has spent her life freeclimbing sheer rock faces, is apparently thwarted and nearly killed by a cheap Spanish roof tile.
  • Upon falling, Ben, who has, I hasten to point out, trained his kids to free climb sheer rock faces, is startled to find that such activities have an element of danger.
  • The compromise reached at the end of the film is that the family relocates to a farm house, living a rural life and going to school, rather than being completely off the grid.
  • The whole premise of the film, that Leslie (Ben’s wife) wanted to be cremated after her burial, in accordance with her Buddhist beliefs is followed by a set of really un-Buddhist convictions and actions.  (I mean, really, why would a Buddhist care what happened to his lifeless body? This is really just a vehicle to trash Christians.)
It's trenchant commentary, I tell you what.
“Could we stop hiking long enough for me to complain about only knowing things from books, please?”

This last, the idea that of all the things wrong with Ben’s philosophy, the very worst idea was the homeschooling—not the playing with weapons, the extreme sports, the lack of any sort of hygiene for anyone, including a fully grown woman and her teenage daughters—is almost as bizarre as the notion that children who had been raised as cavemen would find sitting in a classroom for eight hours a day doable, much less a happy ending (as it is portrayed here).

Happiness, I guess, means immersing one’s self in the mediocrity of modern culture and public education. Weird.

Beyond these dubious points, the movie refuses to take any sort of a stand on the dramatic issues raised, which isn’t necessarily negative. That Ben’s wife and the children’s mother commits suicide, for example, raises the question of whether or not their lifestyle forced her to do it. It’s not really supported, but it’s fair to note that when one acts outside of the norm, ones actions (however unrelated) will be tied to any negative outcome. Like, the culture doesn’t look at women with high-powered careers, notes the higher suicide rates and says, “Hey, maybe women shouldn’t be so eager to do those things.” If observed at all, the reaction will be “Men drove her to it.”

Sometimes this ambivalence does work against the narrative, though: When Bo reveals he was accepted into every prestigious college in the country, Ben views it as a betrayal, until Ben reveals he had Leslie’s help. But why do it in secret? What happened to the debate and the vote? Was Ben really so unfaceable? Again, we’re left pondering the Great Santini (which also may have been utter nonsense, to be fair) and just not seeing that kind of personality in Ben. But his objection to college is weird: One of the reasons a person homeschools is to “school-proof” their child. To cultivate their sense of freedom, logic, reason and identity before throwing them to the authoritarians. But Mr. Ross seems to think it’s to keep the child from being exposed to…I don’t even know what given the presence of Chomsky and Mao on the reading list. The Sears catalog maybe?

As I said it was entertaining. Frank Langella plays the Evil Christian Republican as he does so often these days. But it doesn’t bear any close scrutiny and certainly doesn’t shed any light. Its high points are the fantastic and idealized notions of what life in the wild would be like. It’s low points are failing to convince us that the characters presented here have actually done that.

All life is suffering. Suffering comes from an attachment to Viggo.
“C’mon, kids! If Buddha stood for anything it was upsetting people and asserting our attachment to corpses.”

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Conan! What is best in life?

“To crush your enemies.
See them driven before you.
And to hear the lamentation of their women.”

Nah, he's not that bad. But he's no kind of good in the speaking department.
“Arnie! Arnie! ARNIE! Stop looking at the camera, Arnie! ARNIE!”

So goes the longest speech in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film career to that point and, we must be honest, it taxes him greatly. The musclebound dude, who had to lose 30-40 pounds to play Conan the Barbarian (a fact that delights The Boy no end) has not the grace nor even the diction to play Robert Howard’s character, but we love him nonetheless.  Indeed, nobody ever taught the man to open his throat, so even his cries of distress, when being attacked by a lascivious sorceress or giant snake, are comical.

Of all the revival films we’ve seen this year, this was the least attended. In fact, a showing of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was completely sold out. Alas, only a dozen people showed up to John Milius’ 1982 salvaging of another questionable Dino De Laurentis project, which is a shame because there is much to admire in this film.

Like Arnold’s physique. It’s not bad. You may have heard about it. Schwarzenegger was pretty well known at the time, bodybuilding having crept into public awareness in the ’70s as well as concerns about steroids. (It was probably an episode of “Quincy”.)  The strongman had made a few appearances in the past, of course. He played Hercules in Hercules Goes Bananas (aka Hercules In New York) but the film, as-released, had his voice dubbed over. (And the guy who did it—his voice is one of the most familiar sounds of my childhood but he’s given no credit.)

Looks badass though.
There’s virtually no chance that sword is sharp.

He would later stand around in some films until the largely forgotten 1979 Kirk Douglas/Ann-Margret homage to Road Runner cartoons, The Villain, where his countenance could be better described as clueless-but-benign. Not a lot of words for him in that, but if memory serves, Kirk Douglas is probably the only guy who can claim to have been in a movie with Schwarzenegger and stolen the girl from him. (Is it good? you wonder, perhaps. Well, let’s just say that IMDB puts it right in the center of director Hal Needham’s pack, with Cannonball Run near the top and Cannonball Run II near the bottom.)

And here he is front and center, though hardly loquacious but still pretty bogged down with a tongue that seems as clumsy as his body. The movie still moves well thanks to Mako’s narration—Milius wanted Arnold to be the narrator but the studio demurred; at this point we can cede the point to the studio—and his performance alongside a genuinely warm and fun Sandahl Bergman. Some clever editing makes their awkward love scene (a first for both of them) rather less so.

Hey, he didn't get famous for moving: He got famous for posing.
She usually looks more natural in the action scenes than he does.

Also carrying the film through its more-Kull-than-Conan-but-movie-audiences-aren’t-gonna-know-that opening and lengthy origin story is Basil Poledouris’ iconic score, used quite frequently since then to indicate battle and bloodlust. It’s almost inconceivable to think that Brad Fiedel didn’t have this squarely in mind when writing the theme to Terminator, but perhaps he was just cribbing from Holst, too.

James Earl Jones and Max von Sydow give assists, but the latter has a small part early on, and it’s possible that Jones’ physical presence is less imposing than his voice, or it may simply be that he seems to be remote from the proceedings in a way that makes them unconvincing (even if he can turn into a giant snake). The sets are nice, the costumes, too. The movie is at its best in the middle, when it’s more like a swashbuckling serial, and weaker at the ends when a tired-even-for-the-time tale of vengeance is shoehorned in. The effects hold up better than you’d think, for the most part.

Conan’s #1 fan, E. Gary Gygax gave a scathing review of this film when it came out, calling it “Conan Meets The Flower Children Set” and saying it’s passable for the effects but doesn’t capture the character of Conan at all. This is true, but neither has any film (ever, of the scores made) come close to capturing Tarzan—including the ones Edgar Rice Burroughs work on personally (and later mocked in his books, on the very sound basis that no mere actor could capture The Ape Man’s wildness).

The kids enjoyed it, probably more than I did, but the enjoyment to be had here is the kind that got Milius blacklisted: It’s a gung-ho embrace of macho, militaristic (at the time, “jingoistic”) ethos. (This and Red Dawn were enough to end his career.) It’s sincere, enthusiastic, and while not morally black-and-white, it certainly embraces the notion of good and evil as being things to strive toward and away from, respectively. Followed by an inferior sequel.

That wig, tho'.
Conan’s parents were killed by Darth Vader with an assist from Spinal Tap.

Superman (1978)

You will believe a man can fly. Or will you? This is the big question in revisiting a 40-year old film which, while state of the art at the time, is as far removed from today as it was from Wizard of Oz. Still, while 40 years can lend a lot of charm, it can also reduce things to the hokey and I wondered if the sincerity of the original Superman feature—for this was the first time Superman was given a full-length movie—along with the necessarily dated effects would come across as quaint or perhaps just cheesy.

On reviewing, this is easily the best Superman and possibly the best superhero movie ever made.

Also: More child genitalia than any superhero film to date.
I don’t know why people go on about child labor. They’re plenty strong.

When Christopher Reeve shows up, probably a good half-hour or more into the film(!), it’s instantly clear that no one to ever wear the cape has had his comic genius. He nails the persona of Clark Kent like no other actor has, fumbling and fainting and running in fear, all with an earnestness that’s true to the Superman character and the sly, hidden confidence that comes from nigh invulnerability. It was something you didn’t see much from Kirk Alyn or George Reeve, and something you’d never see at all from the new guy. (I don’t even remember if he ever shows up as Clark Kent in the Man Of Steel.)

But the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t forget the critical elements of moviemaking. Yes, there’s spectacle: It was heralded as the most expensive movie made at the time. (Of course, they don’t adjust for inflation, or the 1960 Cleopatra would’ve beaten it easily.) But even though Lex Luthor’s master plan will kill millions, Superman’s weakness is his love for Lois Lane. It is because of her he defies his father’s orders and goes back in time to save her.

That effect, by the way, still doesn’t read: When he’s flying around the earth superfast, it looks like he’s turning the world in the reverse direction. But that’s just silly (in a way the rest of the movie has not been) and wouldn’t turn back time. But I don’t know how else you could do this well.

You'll believe a man can time travel.
For one brief, shining moment, we were Saturn.

Gene Hackman is superb as Lex Luthor. The bored genius who casually kills people and in the most preposterous ways. In the cut we saw—and I’m not sure which cut that was, because the Krypton scenes were much lengthier than the 1978 release—he has a device whose sole purpose is to push interlopers in front of oncoming subway trains. He has a hall full of machine guns and flame throwers and, uh, ice throwers, solely to test Superman’s invulnerability. His plan itself is completely nuts: Blow up the San Andreas fault and push California into the sea to profit from the new beachfront community.

But it’s all so much fun.

And it’s so different from anything produced today. Superman spends his time saving people, by-and-large. Since no one can cause him any direct harm, he never fights anyone: He flies fast, he lifts big—really, big, like tectonic plate big— things, he drops criminals off at the police station or prison “until they can get a fair trial”. That line, by the way, got big laughs when I saw it in 1978, because those were cynical times preceded by movies dominated by vigilante heroes (and leading into the ’80s where villains had to be killed, sometimes outright murdered, and preferably in horribly spectacular ways).

The funny thing is that, in retrospect, it’s really the corny stuff that works best. The innuendo is okay, very mild by today’s standards. But Superman isn’t just a power fantasy, he’s aspirational: While we, perhaps, wish for his superpowers, we wish even more to believe that, had we those powers, we would be as good as he is. That we, too, would uphold “truth, justice and the American way”—words that may not even be spoken sincerely today. And that includes “truth” and “justice” not coincidentally to “the American way”.

That's a big advance, culturally speaking.
Part of the American Way is not murdering people without a fair trial first.

While not a Margot Kidder never fit the visual of Lois Lane (I think) she nails the personality in a not-taking-herself-too-seriously modern feminist way. Lois always was cutting edge, getting herself into predicaments to chase a story: Really an archetype of the fast-talking ’40s reporter girl of the sort played  by Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell back in the day. But she can be tough and fearless without needing to be Superman’s equal (an impossibility for anyone). And she can swoon, moon and—well, she couldn’t croon, I guess, or she would’ve sung Can You Read My Mind? rather than speaking it.

Point is, she’s reckless and lovable, which is not allowed these days.

But maybe I'm wrong.
I can’t even imagine a publicity shot like this today.

The rest of the supporting cast is great. Ned Beatty as the dull-witted minion to Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor. Valerie Perrine as the epitome of the moll, who takes advantage of Supes when he’s weakened. “Why is it I can’t get it on with the good guys?” she complains endearingly. Former child actor Jackie Cooper, approaching his sixth decade in the business, made an unequaled Perry White, and Marc McClure is a bang-on Jimmy Olsen (except of course too old because you couldn’t have kids working in offices in the ’70s). Glenn Ford and TV stalwart Phyllis Thaxter give warm, wholesome performances as the Kents. And, of course, Marlon Brando and Susannah York are the other-worldly Kryptonians.

Score, of course, by John Williams. You can probably hum it right now.

Director Richard Donner (Lethal WeaponThe OmenThe Goonies) and producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind (Santa Claus: The Movie) were at odds during the shooting of this resulting in the diminishing of the sequel with literal pie-in-the-face slapstick (and culminating about 10 years ago with “The Donner Cut” of Superman II), but it’s pretty clear Donner was correct: Superheroes don’t need any help being campy or comic. It’s kind of in their nature. You have to get at the human beyond the spectacle or you end up with something cold, something mechanical or something just dumb.

While modern superhero movies (especially the recent two with Superman) give us a “Superman as God” theme, this movie is much, much smarter and more relatable because it tells us even Superman isn’t God. For all his super-powers, he can still be brought to his knees by love. I don’t know, maybe that showed up somewhere in Man of Steel right before he snapped Zod’s neck. (Boo!)

The only Superman movie that comes close to this is Superman II (and I have not seen the Donner cut), but it may also be the best superhero movie ever. The Boy and the Flower were pretty sure of it.

I try not to hate on Zack Snyder. I don't always succeed.
This Pa Kent would never say, “Hey, maybe don’t save that busload of kids. ’cause…reasons.”

Akira (1988)

I remember when this movie came out in the US and even without having gone to see it, I could tell you what my reaction would’ve been: “Huh. I don’t get it.” Nonetheless, I took the kids, who are into animé as these modern kids tend to be—although they did adopt the preferred nomenclature of the time (“Japanimaton”!)—because Akira is fairly significant in the history of animated films. If a Japanese R-rated cartoon had been released prior to theaters this, I am not aware of it. (Per the Wikipedia, Lucas and Spielberg both rejected the film as “unmarketable”.

We always say "The kids'll love it!" in our best Nixon voices.
Can’t imagine why! The kids’ll love it!

And perhaps they were right, or perhaps it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the box office was about half-million 1988 dollars, putting in the same ballpark as the third Toxic Avenger and the second Eddie and the Cruisers movies, but well below the re-issues of the classics Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. In any event, it’s a half-million bucks more than somebody had before, and enough to create space for things like The Boy and The Beast and Empire of Corpses.

I spent time last year watching a some of the kids’ favorite animé—which is available on Netflix, again probably in some small part due to this film—and found a lot of it comprehensible and worthwhile, and some of it rather bizarre (and sometimes the two categories overlapped). So I can’t state the blanket assurance I have in the past that “I don’t get animé”.

With all that in mind, I came out of the theater saying to the kids, “I don’t get it.” It’s not exactly true. The kids on the other hand rather liked it, certainly a lot more than I did. But I do have an idea what I don’t like among the tropes of Japanimation, and this is the stuff I don’t “get”.

Hey, Eisner was in charge. Why not?
Seriously, Disney should’ve picked this up.

The story is this: Tokyo is kablooey. (The Boy, who actually read some of manga and didn’t care for it all that much, said Tokyo going kablooey is a pretty frequent occurrence in the source material, but here we get one or two kablooeys, tops.) It’s now the future, probably some crazy futuristic time—2019, in fact—when WWIII has turned New Tokyo into a stylishly dystopic, albeit apparently highly functional society, much like today (minus cell phones, ’cause, really, who saw that coming?).

Our heroes are a biker gang—scooter gang?—no, they’re bikers, but their futuristic motorbikes look like the sort of thing that would get you beaten up and any American biker rally. Anyway, it turns out that one of the gang has latent super-psychic powers, and his big-brother type has to rescue him from the clutches of the evil government latent-super-psychic-power institute. But it’s not that simple, because the kid is really getting more powerful and both less in need of rescue and less interested in his old pals than in the past.

It turns out, besides latent psychic powers, he had some latent bitterness over his lack of status in the gang.

So, yeah, it’s part Laserblast (or pick your schoolboy revenge fantasy), part Blade Runner (as was most Sci-Fi in the ’80s), part X-Men (in the sense that this is a superhero movie with a lot of telekinesis and some mind control), and part Cronenberg (don’t ask). It’s both hugely derivative of what came before it (I got flashes of Bakshi) and hugely influential on what came after it (so many tropes, here, some of them relatively original).

And a lot of hand cramping, 'cause you know: Not a lot of computer help in 1988.
A little bit “Blade Runner”, a little bit “Metropolis”.

And all leads to the mysterious titular Akira, who may have been like our poor psychic sap in this story, and who may have had something to do with Tokyo going kablooey. (Hard to say, what with all the war going on.)

So, my objections to this stuff tend to be the same—at least in the sense that unless the aesthetics of the movie compensate, I tend to get alienated: If I don’t have a clear picture of the limits of the power of a superhero (and that’s what they are, basically), I feel like I’m being manipulated on the cheap. One of the Flower’s favorite animés (“Soul Eater”) riffs on my exact objection: A team characters lose a battle, badly, perhaps more than once. When one of them suggests trying again, the other asks, exasperated, “We got our butts kicked repeatedly every time. How’re we gonna win this time?” And the response is, “I don’t know. With heart or something?”

It’s not that I can’t buy into it. A movie like The Boy and The Beast just pushes it a little, for my taste. But it’s very clear, in a lot of cases, it’s just—well, I won’t say sloppy writing, because that’s not fair. I’ll say it’s not something the writers are interested in.

Fair enough. They got their own thing. Miyazaki does something similar, though not really superhero related. The vicissitudes that visit his characters are the result of being emotionally  compromised. It’s very legitimate. (It’s done very ham-handedly by Sam Raimi in his Spider-Man movies.)  But even Miyazaki can strike Westerners as boring, because the conflict is not on a St. George versus the Dragon model.

Beyond that, for me, it’s just seeing the gears. Any problem can be ramped up to higher levels, sure—as high as 9,000!—but any problem can also be combated by ramping up solutions in a similar matter. The TV show, “Flash” uses this technique: The Flash doesn’t run fast enough! This Other Guy is Faster (or has some other thwarting feature), what can we do? The Flash will run faster! (I’m not saying it’s unsuccessful at it, just pointing it out, because it’s a big hazard of the superhero genre.)

I didn’t hate it or nothing. And, as I said, the kids liked it, and were glad they saw it.

Oh, kimono! Kimono! Kimono!
Oh Tokyo, They got some saki, and sashimi, and some clean sheets…

50 Kilos of Cherries

A bride given to a wealthy older groom by her father has her wedding overturned when it is discovered that the older groom is a con man and grifter. The wedding is already high-tension due to the morality police in the street, that the father is pretty sure he bribed, and when the groom opens fire to make his escape, chaos ensues. (Chaos including the upsetting of a tray of cherry juice, the 50 kilos of the title, presumably.) The bride’s best maid, Aida, rushes her off the scene, while Davoud, the best friend of the guy who wanted to marry the bride before dad got suckered, is trying to manage his escape and perhaps rendezvous with the bride.

But first, he has to change out of his clothes, which are covered in cherry juice.

Or at least reasonably warm chuckles.
Hilarity ensues.

Well, before you know it, he’s running around in a woman’s long coat in the streets of Tehran, being chased after by the morality police. He ends up in Aida’s car and—I’ll bet you didn’t know this—the Tehran morality police really frown upon men being in women’s cars alone, to say nothing of the whole “dressed in women’s clothes” thing. Rather heroically, Aida claims that they’re married, and that’s when our adventure starts.

This, by the way, is a Persian romantic comedy.

The complications arise when they go to the justice ministry and sit before some guy—he’d be sort of like a religious D.A. here, or pre-trial arraigning justice, perhaps—who decides he doesn’t like their story and asks if the wedding is registered. The fast-thinking but increasingly irritated Aida says they haven’t had a chance to register yet, and so the crafty official tells them they have to register by tomorrow, or he’ll go after them. This presents trouble for Aida, who is supposed to be going to Canada with her fiancee in a week, and for Davoud, because his girlfriend’s a straight-up dominatrix. (Seriously, her over-the-top performance, and the writing of her role is one of the highlights of the film.)

I know I do!
What? You don’t carry nunchakus to resolve traffic disputes, too?

Since this is, apparently, a more-or-less common occurrence in Iran, Aida’s family has a notary they go to for this sort of thing, so they plan to get married that day, and have it annulled the next, so they can go on with their lives. The notary was at the opening wedding, too, and he’s a very, very old and very, very unwell man.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

Yeah, it's...telegraphed.
’cause they were sure surprised.

Well, sure enough, a series of mishaps forces Aida and Davoud to spend more and more time together, whereby they realize they’re far more compatible with each other than they are with their betrothed. Aida’s boyfriend’s kind of a wet noodle—I mean, hell, he’s emigrating to Canada, amiright?—whereas, as her fake husband, Davoud takes a much more protective role. Meanwhile, dominatrix girl is just way too scary for a nice guy like Davoud.

Because this is Iran, there’s even a touching walk by a body of water, which turns out to be a literal minefield.

It was very cute, very charming, nice performances all around. A good enough exposition of life in Iran that it made me curious how it made it past the censors: Bribery, incompetent officials, couples being celebrated for following their hearts rather than doing what their parents want. But several scenes are outdoors, and it’s clearly not America, or these guys have a budget that…well, that they clearly didn’t have. It didn’t quite look like the Tehran we saw in Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (or any of the other films) but, yeah, I don’t know.

A solid bit of film making. More polished than the wacky Jimmy Vestvood: American Hero, feeling less low-budget and more like a mature film, but with a similar light-heartedness. Recommended.

Can you tell the difference between Persians, Arabs and Jews?
What more could you ask for?

Our Little Sister

Watching a foreign movie is a bit like watching a very old movie—no, not like Star Wars, you whippersnappers!—say, from the ’30s or earlier. Society, attitudes, outlooks have changed so much, that you have to put yourself in a different mindset in order to get what’s going on, sometimes in surprising ways. Years ago, while watching Le nom de gens, for example, I had to adjust my attitude to embrace French provincialism, because otherwise the whole tension created by a couple of white people (when one is a French Jew and the other half-Algerian)  in 2006 getting married. Or, a little closer to the topic at hand, in Only Yesterday, when the girl steps out of the house without her shoes and her father hits her—in what is essentially a sweet film!—you have to be able to assume the point-of-view where that action is understandable, or you can’t make it past that point.

Of course they didn't. Don't be silly.
For example, I still don’t know why they ate these sparklers.

Our Little Sister is the story of the three Koda sisters living together as adults in the house where they grew up. Their father ran off with another woman when they were children, and their mother ran off rather than deal with raising them. They’re all somewhat dysfunctional in their own way, except perhaps the youngest, who is odd, with odd taste in men, but seems to otherwise be in pretty good shape. The middle one pursues a series of poor relationships with awful men. The oldest acts as a surrogate mother, even though they’re all grown, and has a relationship with a married man.

The catalyst for the action is the death of their father. They decide, somewhat haphazardly, to attend the funeral. Dad has, since leaving, moved on to wife number three—he may have been widowed by #2, if I recall correctly—and bringing in tow the child from that relationship. This girl, Suzu, 13, is now relegated to life with her stepmother who doesn’t seem particularly interested in her, and in an apparently spontaneous act of kindness, Sachi (29) invites Suzu to come live with the three girls in the house.

They're like magnets!
You might as well just send engraved invitations to ALL the tentacle monsters.

This is somehow scandalous, apparently because Suzu is the product of the infidelity that broke up the Koda family. I get this, I suppose, but I feel like the watchword in America was put forth by Dan Hedaya in Clueless all the way back in 1995: “You divorce wives, not children.” But it’s important to get into the Japanese mindset, or you’ll miss that Sachi just might have another motive for bringing Suzu to live with them, a motive that even she doesn’t consciously grasp.

The first act is particularly fun, with the girls’ various dysfunctions being the sort of thing you might see in a wacky comedy, really. In the second act, though, you get a new perspective on those things. They’re not wacky, they are true dysfunctions. (And, in fairness, some of the dysfunction you see turns out maybe not to be.) In the third act, you end up seeing the characters as whole persons, hindered but not defined by their dysfunction. As such, this is a very satisfying film.

It’s also beautifully shot.

It's a fine line between manicured Japanese beauty and Disneyland.
Of course.

It is, of course, very Japanese. Much like Studio Ghibli films (and it felt like a live action Ghibli film in some ways), there isn’t some huge conflict with an Evil Force to be vanquished. There is, for example, a very dramatic third act break up which goes something like:

“We have to break up.”

“Darn, I was worried you were going to say that.” [walks away]

It is subtle, pretty much all around. One of the peripheral characters is dying of cancer, and as she’s saying goodbye to one of the girls who, we can tell, has been like a daughter to her, she ventures to dare a slight touch on the girl’s shoulder as she walks out the door.

The Japanese are not a huggy people, apparently.

The Boy and went out of our way to see this, having really enjoyed writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s last film, Like Father, Like Son, which was also a subtle affair about a highly emotionally charged subject. This may not have been quite to that level, but it was very, very good and we were pleased to have seen it.

Excellent traditional (Western) score by Yoko Kanno.

I find this photo touching somehow.
Aw, aren’t they pretty? And demure (at least by our premiere/award standards)!

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

The good news, at least from my perspective, about Stanley Kubrick’s highly lauded 1987 war flick Full Metal Jacket, is that the second act isn’t as wan as I recall. It is an oddly shaped film, sort of like two episodes of a TV show, stitched together to make a pilot. (“We’ve gotta have a boffo opening! Make the first episode two hours long!”) The bad news (again from my perspective) is that the first act is even less believable than I recalled. It’s a brilliant bit of filmmaking, and very compelling, no doubt. But it seems to fundamentally misunderstand human nature.

But we have a message to send.
Fine acting. But the subsequent “character development” is incoherent.

I mentioned the challenges of ranking Kubrick film in the Dr. Strangelove entry, although since then I have observed a curious thing about rankings: The aggregates tend to put Dr. Strangelove at the top and FMJ in the top half, but individuals who make their own lists seem to favor 2001 and respect FMJ much less. This is probably due to this 2-act narrative. (A critic is more likely to think that maybe, when a guy like Kubrick does something unusual like this, it’s worth more consideration than, say, some hack fumbling with a stupid premise. A regular moviegoer is more likely to say “I didn’t like it. It was weird.”)

But let’s look at the first act first. This is the narrative that launched R. Lee Ermey’s career, and he is spectacular in it. He is hilariously horrifying in his abuse of the soldiers, politically incorrect in extremis—and in a way that was shocking even way back in 1987, and would be unthinkable today. Part of the disconnected feeling of the second act, in fact, probably stems from the fact that his behavior does, in fact, seem to be completely arbitrary. That is, at no point are we ever prompted to recall the training which, in the second act would have been pretty critical to survival. But that’s not really the problem with the first act. The problem with the first act is Vincent D’Onofrio—or more rather, Kubrick’s relationship with “Private Pyle”.

And I don't see any horns. (No, it doesn't make sense. I'm on a roll.)
“Only two things come out of Texas, Private Joker: Steers and people who haven’t seen FULL METAL JACKET!”

This is, necessarily, going to be spoiler territory.

The first act has its own arc, as our hero, Private Joker makes his way through a hellish Physical Training, while he and his fellow recruits are being tortured because of the mentally deficient Pyle. And, here’s the problem: Pyle is distinctly represented as brain injured. Not just a little irresponsible or lazy, but genuinely impaired mentally. He has trouble making his bed or tying his shoe laces to military standards. (This guy wouldn’t get anywhere near today’s corps, I gotta believe, but I don’t know that such things weren’t possible back in the ’60s.)

Where it all falls apart is when the soldiers “fix” Pyle by beating him with soap wrapped in pillow cases. All of a sudden, Pyle is a lean, mean fighting machine. The Boy pointed out that that might not have been the case, and that that wasn’t what was intended, only that the movie showed the areas where he excelled afterwards (especially marksmanship). But this is what we see: Kinda friendly dope beaten into a murderous efficiency, literally.

But, of course, brain injuries don’t work that way. Volition doesn’t enter into it when a brain-injured person can’t figure out right from left, or doesn’t know what the responsible, correct action is. The idea that it a mental handicap can be remedied that way is what led to the torturous treatment of “morons”, “idiots”, “the retarded” throughout the 20th century and (of course) earlier.

What I think, though, is that Kubrick wanted to show the brutality of PT, and the warping of an innocent but dumb kid fit the narrative. And he went too far. In real life, if you beat a kid like that, they’ll have a nervous breakdown, not rise up in ability level.

Would you say that looks like "Criminal Intent"?
Yeah. No.

And the subsequent murder of the Drill Instruction by Pyle is completely unsupported, except through this magical personality change achieved through pummeling.

It’s funny, though: When I think of “directors with a strong understanding of human nature,” I don’t really think of Kubrick. I mean, if you’re recalling characters in Kubrick films, you’re thinking of what are, essentially, caricatures. Jack and Wendy Torrance, Alex from A Clockwork Orange (1971), the entire cast of Strangelove. Hell, what do people remember about 2001? The psychotic computer. (I haven’t even seen this one, and that’s what I remember.) Maybe Barry Lyndon and Spartacus are different, or maybe Kubrick’s wheelhouse wasn’t the traditional character arc found in a three act narrative.

Food for thought.

And this leads us to the second act, and maybe why I liked it better this time around. The second act is a series of things that happen, in sequence, that lead logically one to the next, but which don’t, particularly reveal character. In fact, I think that a number of the critical objections to this film are based around it’s “morally muddled message” (as I think Ebert put it). Our hero, Joker, is perhaps meant to be seen a bit more like Alex than a typical John Wayne character: He’s not a hero. He’s some guy who sort of trusts the institutions of the country enough to believe his presence will be a good thing.

Hard to fit on a bumper sticker, though.
“We had to destroy the village in order to save the rest of the villages from being destroyed by the Communists.” Not as catchy but as it turns out, true.

As such, his final action, the climax of the film, where he kills a young girl who has sniped several of his best friends, is rather anticlimactic. He does it; he moves on. He’s surrounded by battle-hardened veterans who have a problem killing this little girl, and he does it with only a little goading, and no subsequent remorse.

Maybe what Kubrick is getting at here is that Joker isn’t the person in question, the audience is. This maps pretty well with Clockwork Orange where we are inclined to root for Alex, not because he isn’t the embodiment of evil, but because there is something worse than that: Brutal inhumanity done to suppress the individual’s free will. Not that Joker is evil, exactly, but his smile isn’t exactly unlike Alex’s as he heads off to the next location where he will have to kill some more.

The kids liked it. The Flower loves “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” so I think she sort of recalls this as “The movie with the good music.” She also likes some Ermey (as do we all, except for The Engima, who refers to his program “Mail Call” as “History Shout”). I think The Boy also found the second act a little more palatable than he had previously.

I don’t know. I’m not sure if it’s “muddled” as Ebert said, or if it’s just war that’s muddled, and that’s what’s being shown. But it is, of course, as all Kubrick films, a technical masterpiece.

Buh-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow-bow...
She did point out that the girl in question was not actually wearing boots, however.

TCM Presents: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Late summer is always a challenge for The Boy and I, movie-wise. (The heat ain’t great either, but that’s not really relevant here.) The big budget films stay around longer than anyone (but the studios) want, even if they flop badly (like Jason Bourne, Star Trek Beyond and Ghostbusters) and that often seems to coincide with uninspired indie films, perhaps because the ones with the best prospects don’t want to get buried in the summer. (Like, it’s rather a bad sign for the Meryl-Streep-Does-A-Quirky-Historical-Character-Drama Florence Foster Jenkins to be released in mid-August. Earlier this year, we had Marguerite which was the same story and looked like a much better film from the trailer. The Streep one looks like an Oscar-bait misfire.)

Anyway, we’ve pretty much licked that this summer by seeing classic movies, from On The Waterfront to Dr. Strangelove. We now have three steady venues: TCM Presents has a classic monthly, our (nearly) local art house has “Throwback Thursday”, and a theater near where The Boy and I work has “Flashback Tuesday”. (Yeah, I don’t get it either, it should be “Trowback Tuesday” or something.)

But the funny thing about classic movies is, like classic literature, “classic” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, where “good” can mean “something that holds up over the years” or even “something I’m in the mood for now”. And a lot of times, over the years, our sense of a movie’s quality is influenced by our experience seeing it on TV, where it’s smaller, where we’re not as engaged, where we can pick over things in a way that was never meant. And, for me, Planet of the Apes was one of those movies I wasn’t sure was still going to work. The ape makeup. The zoom lens. The height of late ’60s/early ’70s nihilism. The staginess of the action scenes, particularly in this world of sweeping camera vistas and CGI everything.

I used a picture with no spoilers.
They finally made a monkey out of me.

On top of that, we weren’t able to catch the Sunday show, and we ended up having to see it on Wednseday afternoon, in the middle of the day. And the “projectionist” (by which, I mean the guy who presses “play” on the DVD players they use now) had screwed something up so it was 20-30 minutes late. And, bizarrely, this theater was so cold—something that almost never happens anymore—that the guys next to us used the delay to get blankets to cover up.

Then, I was a little nervous because comedian Dana Gould (whose ’90s stuff I thought quite funny) spends a fair amount of time interviewing with Ben Mankiewicz as “Dr. Zaius”, in full ape makeup, as though “Dr. Zaius” were an actual ape-man and actor who had landed the role in ’68.

Heh.
“I thought, ‘oh, they have one, too!'”

It’s a lot of build-up, if you know what I mean. And yet.

It’s great. Just great.

The only really awkward part of the film is the beginning. And while, in most cases, you probably shouldn’t front-load your message in your film (if, indeed, it must be loaded at all), here it actually makes a lot of sense, as does Taylor’s (Charlton Heston) broad cynicism. The movie really kicks into gear when the apes show up, but even the long trek across the wastelands at the front ends up paying off at the end.

It’s so well constructed, you think “Hey, what else has this guy directed?” And then you go look under Franklin J. Schaffner and see he has an Oscar for Patton and also directed Papillon and Boys from Brazil. And also that he directed many episodes of “Playhouse 90” and “The DuPont Show of the Week”.

Oh.

Well, I guess they made a monkey out of me. (Said song from “The Simpson’s” pretty much The Flower’s only exposure to this movie prior to seeing it.)

The Boy and The Flower were both enthusiasic, in spite of everything. And Gould as Zaius was really, really funny.

If you have a chance to see it on the Big Screen, by all means, check it out.

Can you say "depilatory"?
And remember, being an animal doesn’t mean you can’t shave your legs, ladies!