The Big Lebowski (1998)

Yes, I have created a monster.

Yes, The Big Lebowski played again as part of “Marijuana Awareness Month,” which I’m told is both “real” and a “thing”.

The Flower loves this movie and intends to trot us out for the next showing as well: The TCM 30th anniversary showing.

But she doesn’t like it when she looks over and I’m reciting the dialog.

But the Dad abides.

I can't really take comfort in that.
Apparently, the Coens have made a Jesus spin-off.

Keys to the Heart

Our second feature in our Korean outing was the shockingly good tear-jerker Keys to the Heart. My only disclaimer on this is that our lives with The Enigma make us particularly attuned to the sorts of problems that people who are handling autistic/brain-injured kids have. We might find it especially moving, in other words, although if The Boy was sniffling next to me, he was echoed throughout the rows and rows behind us.

Keys to the Heart opens with a church service, a choir is singing and a boy, Jin Tae (Jung-min Park), is banging away on the piano. While he’s playing he’s watching Street Fighter V videos on his phone and occasionally vocalizing in an agitated manner. His mother lectures him on the way home that he can be assured of entrance into heaven if he only would put away his phone. Jin Tae tends to respond with a simple “Yup” and “Nope”, straightforward to the point of comedy, but increasing our awareness of his limitations.

Well, for some people...
Maybe Heaven IS Street Fighter V videos?

The mix of comedy and tragedy here would be astounding, but actually seems to be characteristic of a lot of east Asian narratives, especially Japanese stuff. Even so, we were shocked at times.

Meanwhile, we meet Jo-Ha (Byung-hun Lee, Fortress, The Magnificent Seven), a middle-aged ex-boxer being kicked out of his gym (where he slept?) because he beat the tar out of an Olympic prospect in sparring practice. Reduced to his second job (handing out fliers) and with no place to sleep, he crosses paths with Jin Tae’s mother.

Who, by the way, is his mother.

For whom he has nothing but rage (and no small amount of grief). But a night spent sleeping in the library (all night libraries, maybe in a university?), another night drinking and then being hit by a car and dragged off to a rich person’s mega-mansion for intimidation, and diminishing funds encourage him to let his mother take him in and feed him the next night. He has never met his little brother, but his mother assures him that Jin-Tae is excited at the prospect of having a big brother, and happy to let Jo-Ha have his room.

Good form, too.
Lotta anger.

Which is fine until Jin-Tae wanders in to his old room in the middle of the night and the two end up cuddling. The freaked out Jo-Ha can’t handle the even more freaked out Jin-Tae and suddenly cold-cocks him.

This is funny and horrifying. I mean, seriously. You end up laughing but then, you know, this isn’t a comic book movie. A physically capable boxer knocked his autistic brother out cold. For the next several scenes, Jin-Tae always wears a catcher’s mask in Jo-Ha’s presence. This is also funny—and horrifying. Jo-Ha doesn’t even make the connection till the beginning of the third act, and convinces his brother to take the mask off.

But Jo-Ha has a temper and whenever he rages, Jin-Tae runs to put on the mask.

That's courage!
Still beats him at Street Fighter, tho’.

There are a lot of great comic moments in this movie, but they derive from the drama of the situation, and they all have repercussions later on. Jo-Ha’s roughness and temper is a problem, but it also creates an opportunity for Jin-Tae, and keeps him from condescending to Jin-Tae—who can seriously kick Jo-Ha (or anyone’s) ass in a number of video games, to say nothing of being a master piano player. (Jin-Tae also kicks the ass of the landlady’s coquettish 17-year-old daughter, who tries to tease reactions out of Jin-Tae in a way that astonishingly humanizes both of them. She treats him like a peer, basically, and despite his social deficiencies in a lot of ways, he’s completely unflappable and quick to taunt her with his “new girlfriend”.)

He really looks like he’s playing here, as does Ji-Min Han (the rich person behind the wheel of the car), which might be CGI but also might just be Korea.

But still!
OK, it’s more convincing from other angles.

Whenever it seems like Jo-Ha is going to warm up to his mom, something will happen that drives the two apart again. And their shared recollection (done separately) of the night she left him with his abusive father is one of the more heart-breaking things you’ll see in film—and the sort of thing I’ve seen before in Korean movies—and it’s really kind of fascinating the way they do things.

We understand mom’s motivations, to some degree. We understand Jo-Ha, certainly, though we can’t entirely excuse his behavior. We understand Jin-Tae by way of his brain problems, but a funny thing happens: We all gots issues, the movie is telling us, and what matters is how we deal with them. There’s plenty of victimhood to go around—and also plenty of victimizing. The movie doesn’t address the issue of whether there’s some cosmic scale balancing things out because for all intents and purposes, that does not matter.

Jo-Ha got a raw deal one way. Jin-Tae another. (And the way autism plays out in Korean society, with its relatively mannered culture, is way different from America.) Ji-Min Han (that’s the actress’s name, I don’t remember her character’s name) got a raw deal. The mom got a raw deal. The dad—well, he’s definitely more on the dishing out raw deal side, but that’s probably because we don’t know his backstory.

Ultimately, all the characters come to a certain resolution which is satisfying one way or another, and Jo-Ha’s transformation is wonderful and played wonderfully by Lee. The movie ends up being a feel-good tearjerker with bunches of laugh-out-loud moments. It’s truly a delight, and a film I could cheerfully watch again despite some of the heavier emotional moments.

The next week, we would end up seeing a Chinese double-feature which would also fare well in our eyes.

No idea what this is.
I couldn’t figure out if this is some kind of Korean library where they read nothing but Manga, or what.

1987: When The Day Comes

It was Korean double-feature time—which comes when The Flower wants to visit her friends near Koreatown and the theater is playing two Korean movies at appropriate times. Watching Korean movies in this context came about earlier last year when I hung out in the city and watched Warriors of the Dawn rather than try to make the trip out and back twice.

The double-feature I saw (A Special Lady and A Blackened Heart) fired The Boy’s moviegoing juices and he decided to accompany me this time. Among those I’ve seen, this was the hardest of the Korean movies to watch, because it’s a fictionalization of an actual series of events (remember when there was all that trouble in Korea?) so there are a lot of threads to keep track of.

You're not privvy, man...
People watching us try to keep track of all the threads.

The story begins when a doctor is called in to resuscitate a student but cannot. It’s clear that this student had some rough times prior to his heart failure, and quickly clear that those rough times were visited on him by the thuggish cops who are demanding he be resuscitated. It turns out these are members of the anti-communist task force (ACTF, I’ll call them) that is charged with “eradicating communism”.

The ACTF figures, no problem, we’ll just cremate the body before morning and claim he slipped in the shower. The problem comes when they go to get their rubber stamp from the prosecutor (Jung Woo-Ha, The Handmaiden, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds) and he realizes how hinky this all is and blocks them. (Nicely portrayed as a sense of ego at least as much as any desire for justice.)

He muscles his way into an investigation using—get this—Newsweek as a threat. It’s hard to imagine today that Newsweek was ever a thing, but they carried some clout for decades. (Not that they weren’t always hacks: In 1959 they had nothing to say about Castro except that he was honest and certainly not a Communist.) This ultimately gets him fired, but on the way out he just happens to leave a box of files by his car where an intrepid reported grabs the autopsy report for the dead student.

Solid US journalism!
Sold for a dollar? And busted for money laundering?

At this time, newspapers were only allowed to print what the government allowed, so there’s a real edge to a newspaper printing this story—unlike the legalistic wrangling so ridiculously overblown in American movies (hello, The Post), there was a real physical and existential threat to printing something the government didn’t approve of in the ’80s in Korea.

Meanwhile, apolitical college student (Tae-Ri Kim, who was the eponymous The Handmaiden, and who was only 15-years-old at the time, making that movie child pornography by current US law) is resisting her uncle’s constant attempts to use her as a courier to a revolutionary, only to find herself strongly attracted to a protesting student. She finds herself increasingly drawn into events and is, in a lot of ways, the most likable character.

So fashionable!
Her uncle  bribes her with a walkman. Look at that sleek personal entertainment device!

There’s a lot going on here. The thugs that make up the ACTF remind me of nothing so much as The Green Wave Iranian Revolutionary Guards, only—since it’s the ’80s—their “uniform” is basically denim, like the streets are being patrolled by angry Asian Footloose-Era Kevin Bacons, but I suspect that aspect of the story rings the truest. Thugs, after all, are thugs, regardless of who signs their checks.

Inspector Park (Yun Seok-Kim, The Fortress, which I did not get down to Koreatown to see, alas) heads the ACTF, and he is as ruthless an S.O.B. as you’d ever want to see. He was apparently a refugee from North Korea and the movie explains his zealousness both as an element of his patriotism (for South Korea) and, briefly, toward the end, the result of seeing the horrors of Communism in his youth.

The movie could’ve used more of that, frankly. Even with exaggerations, I feel like the basic representation of the ACTF was probably pretty close: Any secret group of intelligence agents operating above scrutiny is going to end up this way (*kaff*) or even start out that way (*kaff*kaff*kaff*haaacck*).

Hacky cough jokes. Heh.
This is a warrant for your hacky “cough” jokes.

But the beauty of it being a foreign country’s issues is that: a) They’re going to handle these kinds of questions differently from the way we do; b) You’re not awash in the conventional wisdom, so you don’t have to roll your eyes at all the stupid things “everyone knows”. I liked it quite a bit; the Boy liked it, too, despite having trouble following it in parts. I thought it did a really good job at making the story follow-able by having clear threads that were distinct (the girl, the prosecutor, the Inspector, the jail warden, etc.) but tied together in a way that allowed you to get oriented to how everything related, and who was who.

Although there isn’t the typical ’80s music (for an American movie, it could well be typical for Korean films), it was fun to see the clothing and electronics of the era. (They were about five years behind us back then.) There’s a lot of shenanigans with what we now call land lines, including a great brutalization of an old-school phone, with the prosecutor hammering the receiver down. (Try that with your cell phone, kids! No, seriously! Try it! Then go eat a Tide Pod!)

Check it out, kimchee fans!

Not a lot of concern for dignity, either. And that's cool, man.
Also, once again, we see that the Koreans do not mourn their dead quietly.

Wayne’s World (1992)

“Wayne’s World! Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!”

"Excellent."
“Party on, Wayne.” “Party on, Garth.”

I don’t think I ever actually saw the “Saturday Night” sketch that led to this movie, but I still sing the stupid intro “song” to it. It was the height of catch-phrase-era SNL, and people across the nation were adding “NOT!” to the end of sentences like it was funny. “That’s what she said” was also a line here, but that didn’t catch really on until “The Office”. (Although I do believe both of those phrases enjoyed some currency decades earlier, which probably proves something about something. I remember Frank Burns’ adding “NOT!” in the same manner, and thereby demonstrating a lack of intelligence and humor on “M*A*S*H”. Culture is a funny thing.)

The theme this month for throwbacks is marijuana although, much like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, no drugs are actually taken here other than alcohol, and never to excess. There is one character who spends the whole movie looking on the verge of throwing up; they say he’s “partied out”. Culture, as I say, is a funny thing.

The kids thought it was okay; it was funny how many of the references were lost of them. The Boy said—in reference to a scene where Wayne and Garth re-enact the opening of “Laverne and Shirley”, a show which he has never seen—it was kind of funnier not knowing the reference. “Oh, now they’re goofing off in a brewery.”

Funny?
Which is true.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the catch-phrase stuff was both lost on them and the weakest parts of the movie. “We’re not worthy!” got a mild chuckle. “Not!” didn’t, nor did “Schwing!” or “Exqueeze me?” or “Sphinctersezwhat?” Indeed, in these modern days, the humiliation of the Big Arcade Chain Owner (has there ever been one, really?) would be done deliberately for viral marketing purposes, and the idea of “sticking it to the man” doesn’t really play.

Actually, none of the plot plays at all. It’s basically the sort of thing that was old and stupid when Animal House parodied it in the ’70s, though it’s played straight here. We aren’t really given a whole lot of reason to think Wayne is a better match for Tia Carrerre than Rob Lowe. (Carrere sings her own vocals in the movie, by the way.) He lives with his parents and has a public access show while she’s at least the lead singer for a real band and has a ridiculous loft apartment (which may be cheap in Aurora, Illinois but it’s still more than your mom’s basement).

And I don't think Myers had his head on straight back then.
Aesthetically, she’s more a match for Lowe than Myers.

Myers schtick, intriguingly, barely plays. The catch phrases, the vocal ticks, the shit-eating grin and the weirdly passive-aggressive smarminess isn’t particularly funny. The Austin Powers series, I think, wears better because it’s more in line with benign Bill & Ted-style humor. (Even the bad guys in Austin Powers don’t really mean harm.) That’s probably it: Lowe’s character is a little bit greasy, to be sure—and a perfect role for him at the time, after his seminal (*kaff*) sex tape scandal—but his main crime is being a rival to Wayne for Cassandra’s affections. (And, honestly, who is Wayne to turn down Lara Flynn Boyle, crazy or no?)

The stuff that works? Ed O’Neill’s Dark Donut Guy bits are great. The segment where Cassandra and Wayne talk in increasingly intricate Chinese. The fake endings work, though not as well as I remembered. Alice Cooper’s dissertation on Milwaukee! (Doubtless not coincidentally, Cooper figures prominently in Meyer’s documentary Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon.) Unsurprisingly, then, I guess, the stuff that holds up is the stuff that has nothing to do with the SNL sketch.

And failing.
Mike Myers trying keep O’Neill from stealing the scene.

It was Blues Brothers that gave the world the idea that SNL sketches would be a good source of feature comedies, but if I recall correctly, the Blues Brothers weren’t a sketch at all: They were literally just Aykroyd and Belushi dressing in black suits and shades to do a musical number. Landis’ movie could’ve done virtually anything from there. If Wayne’s World has a particular sin, it’s furthering the notion that SNL-sketch-based-movies were a good idea.

The Flower liked the first ending the best, where the music producer comes in and says something like “You’re a very beautiful woman but I don’t think the time is right.” It is probably the only surprising moment in the movie, as far as the plot goes.

Poor Tia Carrera had to put up with random guys yelling “schwing!” at her for the rest of her life, though.

I didn't recognize her, though.
Needlessly unkind to ex-girlfriends.

Magnolia (1999)

You know, I would say I like Paul Thomas Anderson as much as the next guy, but I’m not sure that’s true, given that every film we saw of his after Boogie Nights not only sold out, but basically sold out the extra theater/showing they had to handle the overflow. Even Magnolia, his longest film (3:08 they say but I sorta wonder if that includes ten minutes of credits).

Sore butts: Always good for a larf.
When your butt is sore and you realize you have another hour of movie to go…

While we eschewed There Will Be Blood, because two-and-half-hours of limping is a lot, even when it’s Daniel Day Lewis doing the limping, we bought tickets for this the week in advance and the kids, while hesitant, were willing to give it a shot. Thing is, though, this is a three-hour adrenaline-fueled thrill-ride of drama. PTA has said there’s too much going on and he should have cut it down—a sentiment we all appreciated—but I asked the kids what storyline they would trim to make this shorter, and they couldn’t really think of one.

It was also kind of cool for The Flower, who is reading Exodus (in the Bible, not the Leon Uris thing), and the theme of Magnolia is Exodus 8:2. The Flower has been reading very carefully, raising all the classic questions (like why God hardens the Pharoah’s heart, or what that means, but also trickier ones like who, if any, were heroes of The Rape of Dinah), but she didn’t have Exodus 8:2 handy in her head.

Which is nice, ’cause it’s kind of a spoiler. (In the game show “What Do Kids Know?” an audience member  is waving a sign that reads “Exodus 8:2”, heh.) And it’s a great payoff to the movie, on akin to the “Drainage” scene in There Will Be Blood, but without the 150 minutes of limping preceding it.

And that's a lot of concern.
There’s a lot of concerned Philip Seymour Hoffman, tho’.

There are a bunch of stories: Jason Robards is dying and his wife Julianne Moore is having a hard time coping but nurse Philip Seymour Hoffman is there for him and is trying to connect him with his estranged son (Tom Cruise) who heads an infomercial-driven conference on “seduction”. Robards is a TV producer who produce “What Do Kids Know?” which is hosted by Philip Baker Hall, who has terminal cancer (but no one knows yet), and has been hosting the show for 30 years. A former “quiz kid” (William H. Macy) is struggling in the ruins of his life after winning big on the show 30 years previously, because his parents stole all his winnings, while a new kid is struggling in the ruins of his life because his father is obsessed with breaking that record. Meanwhile, Melora Walters (looking amazingly like Anna Kendrick)  is the coke-sniffing promiscuous daughter who won’t even talk to Hall (for some reason) but sees a chance for love and a kind of normalcy with goofus cop (John C. Reilly), who’s having a hell of a day after finding a dead body in a nearby house. At the climax of the movie, Reilly’s cop and Macy’s middle-aged “quiz kid” meet up, and we find the movie is, after all, about forgiveness.

Everyone’s dealing with the ruins of their lives and the question becomes: What can you forgive? Can you forgive others? Is there a limit? Can you forgive yourself? Can you have a relationship where you’re just straight-up and honest from the get-go, and non-judgmental, so that you’re not trapped in a world of lying, pretense and much worse—all so that maybe you don’t need to give and get forgiveness?

God, after a fashion, gets the final word on the subject, even if it’s just a “coincidence”—another theme of the movie.

Which, hell, I just did, didn't I?
Me, struggling to NOT make a Lebowski reference.

There is so much acting in this film, it’s ridiculous. PTA does this thing where the camera just stays on one actor, maybe with a slow dollying in. I mean, over minutes. They’re the sort of shots you take when doing a two-shot, where you get one actor talking, then a reverse shot to the actor talking, but PTA just leaves them on the one character and lets that mofo act.

For Cruise, it’s up with Rain Man in terms of his performance. It’s much less subtle than that overlooked bit of work, and it has a huge range, as his character goes from a angry/happy glibness, to just cold anger, to grief, etc. But everyone’s great. Well, maybe not Jason Robards, but just because he’s unconscious most of the time (and only had a year or so left to live to boot).

RECOGNIZE ME, YOU SONOFABITCHES!
Robards might’ve been going for an Oscar anyway, as these late-in-life-actors will.

I additionally loved it, of course, because Magnolia Boulevard is the central location of all the stories. My kids don’t know the city well enough, but we were sitting about a mile from Laurel Canyon and Magnolia, and—well, it’s just part of the larger area I consider “my neighborhood”.

A lot of Aimee Mann. At one point, all the characters are singing, in their own separate shots, the same Aimee Mann song. It’s just ballsy. Jon Brion provides a great traditional score at the various points that aren’t Mann singing, it adds a lot though it’s easy to overlook.

And it’s, seriously, about an hour of nailbiting drama, with a short break, followed by another even more intense hour. It’s really intense. Lotta swearing, though. George C. Scott turned it down because of all the f***ing swearing. The Boy and The Flower were enthusiastic.

Not so funny now, eh?
Macy with the late, great Henry Gibson—only 64 here but looking kinda older.

Django

I didn’t really know anything about Django Reinhardt going into this film, other than I liked the way he played guitar. Having seen the movie Django, I’m convinced I know less about him now than when I went in. Well, after seeing it and doing a cursory look at history. However, historical accuracy is barely relevant to a good movie, so let us tread forward and see about this historical fiction from Etienne Comar (Timbuktu).

No racist!
First of all, the real Django was in black and white.

It’s 1943 Paris, and careless—the blurbs describe him as “carefree” but he’s kind of a reckless, arrogant drunk, so I’m going with “careless”—master guitarist Django is commanding big bucks in occupied Germany, when the worst possible thing happens: The Nazis want him to do a tour in Germany. Django (who’s married and whose wife is expecting) escapes to a town on the border of Switzerland with the help of a former and occasional lover (and, in real life, distant cousin) only to get stranded there waiting for someone to escort him, his wife and mother across the border.

Soon desperate for money, he begins playing in local pubs with his gypsy pals. (Django is a gypsy—and he only had the use of the first three fingers of his left hand!) This does not, as you might expect, lead to his discovery from someone walking in and saying “Hey, that’s Django!” Instead, there’s a bar fight and when the Nazis are rounding up all the non-Nazi, the Nazi who kicks him out of his house arrests him for being a troublemaker, but he is saved the next morning by his cousin/lover who admonishes him to do a performance for the Nazis before going back to Paris (at which point, he’ll presumably have to tour Germany).

It's been known to happen.
A musician with a mistress? Slander! Calumny! Flagrancy!

This leads to a climactic scene where his playing is used to cover a daring escape/rescue of a pilot into Switzerland, as he seductively turns the Nazis into dancing sex fiends or something. It’s a pretty good cinematic moment that underscores the basic problem of the movie as a whole: It’s basically historical fiction that doesn’t “commit to the bit” as @DiversityAndCmx would say. (He’s far from the originator of the phrase but he seems to have made it popular in a big way lately.)

In real life, Django tried to escape Switzerland three times. The first couple of times he was captured, though with no apparent consequences. The time depicted in the film—where he leaves his mother and pregnant wife behind for theirs and his safety—he actually ventured out solo (as opposed to abandoning them on the trip) and made it to the Swiss border, where the Swiss promptly turned him back, probably because he was a gypsy.

So, we have a film that’s perfectly comfortable taking massive liberties with the facts, and yet misses out on the obvious potential for suspense. It runs close to two hours but The Boy and I both felt it could’ve been 15-20 minutes shorter. The extra time seems to defuse the urgency. I mean, he’s playing in a club on the Swiss border that’s frequented by Nazis and yet there are no near misses.

Missed opportunities.
His mother doesn’t even TRY to strangle him in this scene.

It almost feels like they set up all these dramatic moments and then felt too ashamed to actually exploit them. Some of the time was used to showcase Django’s music, which was fine—but for a remarkably large portion of it was not used. There’s no music, nothing happening, it’s just very slack. The Boy visited the bathroom and came back and there wasn’t really anything to fill him in on.

We liked it but. Not a whole lot. The lead’s pretty good. The acting is generally good. It’s all done competently and…I’d say it’s about at a good TV movie level. It’s the only time we’ve seen anything about the Nazis persecuting Gypsies that we can recall, which is something. But as I’ve noted before, the bar for this kind of movie is actually pretty high. We will probably see several better movies this year on Nazi atrocities.

Why it’s always gotta be Nazis is another kettle of fish, of course. Ooh, if you’re a guitarist you might enjoy the simulated Django playing, just on a technical level. I noticed that a lot of the closeups, Django’s hands got real old real fast. Not sure who the stunt double was.

No, of course not. But look at those outfits!
After the war, Django opens for Frankie Valli.

The Darkest Hour

We were cool on seeing this highly acclaimed film as we tend to be cool on seeing any/all of the highly acclaimed films that Hollywood regurgitates this season. But I did want to see it, and The Boy was cool enough to where I had to threaten to see it without him before he came along. (Also, his girl was busy that day or I probably would have ended up seeing it solo. Everyone else had the flu.) I had not known that it was directed by Joe Wright—and had I known, that probably would’ve just muddied things even further, since Wright’s track record is mixed, in my book. (I loved his Pride and Prejudice while Atonement has the title for top 5 worst movies I’ve seen in a theater. And Anna Karenina was as admirable as it was flawed.)

We are. Truly.
“I think you’ll ALL agree that we are long overdue in giving me an Oscar.”

The movie, of course, is about the same time as covered by Dunkirk, though from the perspective of newly minted Prime Minister Winston Churchill who fears that he is too late to save his little island nation. We can get out of the way that Gary Oldman is tremendous here. Churchill is, in some ways, the least likely of heroes, and I have no concept of whether or not the disaster at Gallipoli is representative of his judgment or not. One thing Wright does here is not try to simplify things.

But Oldman’s Churchill is not the towering historic figure that we see him as, but more like the one I suspect was: He’s old, somewhat enfeebled, reliant on drink, personally uncertain but publicly forceful. He’s a fat, bloviating old man disdained by the establishment for his lying and lack of concern for their approval, and can you imagine the heads that must explode when seeing the parallels with Trump? I suppose heads self-protect by not seeing the connection, but it was almost hilarious to me. Surely Wright could not have meant it.

A lot in the shot but not too much.
This blocking nice, subtle work.

When Churchill takes over, he’s inherited a situation where the entire English army is trapped on Dunkirk and apparently—this is never mentioned in Nolan’s movie—it’s the Germans who are the cause of all the difficulties. Yes, the Germans. I point this out because it’s still bizarre to me that the words “German”, “Nazi” or “kraut” never make an appearance in a movie about Allied troops in WWII about to be wiped out BY THE GERMANS.

It’s a nice little story, really, about a man who just really loves his home country and doesn’t want to see it overrun with Weinerwalds—which, I just learned there were WW’s in America for a while and I never got to eat at one, which is a shame because I really liked the German one I ate at—but is surrounded by Chamberlains. One of those Chamberlains is the Neville Chamberlain, a man synonymous for foolish attempts at reconciling with a psychotic barbarian and uttering the immortal phrase “peace in our time”. This guy really set the cause of peace back a couple of decades.

But it’s not just Chamberlain, it’s almost everyone in Chamberlain’s party of which Churchill is now the head, although Chamberlain still seems to be calling the shots among the various MPs (if that’s the right term). It’s the establishment. It’s His Bleedin’ Majesty His Own Self, for that matter. Winston is fine when he’s blustering about beating the Jerries and Long Live England and all that, and an utter basket case when he’s being wheedled into negotiating with Mussolini to broker a surrender with Hitler.

It’s not entirely unlike the Spider-Man movies where Peter loses his super powers when he doubts himself.

Women used to do that, y'know?
Nice little role for Kristin Scott-Thomas as the supportive, sacrificing wife.

Anyway, we get a nice story arc—I’m using “nice” a lot here, I realize—that’s way easier to understand and far more moving than Dunkirk, even though you’d think Dunkirk would have had the easier job given that its heroes were literally dying. But Wright does a good job showing how the characters are personally impacted by the decisions they make. Even Chamberlain, God bless him, really believes he’s doing the right thing and isn’t beyond admitting a mistake, no matter how painful. (The enormity of his mistake would tend to make it difficult for anyone to confront, I think we can agree.)

It’s a good movie. I’d put it in the top of last year’s, but The Boy, who liked it, was much warier about saying so. He thinks we saw some great movies last year, if only he could remember what they were. I sent him a list but he didn’t look at it. I assured him the only way to remain convinced that we had seen better movies was not to look at the movies we had actually seen. Anyway, it’s good—even very good, with top notch performances and some very nice blocking and camerawork from Wright & Co. I can recommend it fairly unreservedly. (My reservation might be if you don’t like this sort of thing at all, or if you’re hard of hearing, like the old couple in front of us who were very vocal in expressing their inability to understand what the mumbly Churchill was saying at any point. Though they still seemed to like it.)

As always.
And Lily James is cute as a button throughout!

Hard Eight (1996)

We had been turned away from Boogie Nights and didn’t bother to go to There Will Be Blood—which they played in two theaters and filled almost all of both, I’m told—but I figured this early Paul Thomas Anderson would not be so jam-packed.

I thought wrong. We sat in the front row, though at least somewhat toward the middle. This colored The Boy’s opinion of the movie because, as he put it, “There’s a lot of acting in this movie and all I could see was that guy’s nose.” That guy in question being none other than John C. Reilly, who is a loser rescued by Philip Baker Hall when the latter sees him hunched down outside a Nevada café.

See, he did Boogie Nights next.
“He doesn’t want to call it ‘hard eight’. He says it sounds like a porn—saaaay.”

Hall is a tremendously kind, though hard-edged, gambler who takes Reilly under his wing, and who seems to have endless tolerance for the young man’s foibles. Not just the Reilly, but also put-upon, flirtatious-or-possibly-soliciting waitress Gwynneth Paltrow, upon whom Reilly is sweet, and also upon whom Hall visits more of his apparent altruism. In fact, about the only guy he doesn’t seem to care much for is Reilly’s new pal, Samuel L. Jackson, who is crude and highly vocal with his crudeness.

Trouble begins when, through a very simple set of rather overt actions, he hooks up Reilly and Paltrow. This looks like the ultimate good deed except for the two people in question being dumpster files. And just when you think Hall has found his limit, he bails the two out of a very serious situation—one that could land them all in jail. Predictably, Jackson ends up being the monkey-in-the-wrench, and we get to see exactly who Hall is and why he does what he does.

That he likes wide shots in diners.
This shot…again. What’s PTA trying to tell us?

It’s a pretty darn good movie. It is, as The Boy notes, chock full of ACTING! Although the acting is fairly subtle and low-key, which is a good thing considering PTA’s love of close shots. It amuses one (me) to see all these people “looking so young”, except Hall has never really looked young. (Recently, he’s taken to looking really old, but the guy will be 86 this year, if he makes it, so we can cut him some slack.) The lovably homely Reilly seems to aged the least among all of them, including Samuel L. Jackson.

And speaking of Mr. Jackson, he actually acts in this one. The expectations for him to be a foul-mouthed bad-ass weren’t quite set in stone yet, and he shows some real range here, which is nice.

I gather that PTA had a lot of trouble with his producers on this. He wanted the title to be “Sydney” (Hall’s character), and he wanted to go straight to movie from title, rather than do the whole title sequence up front—the norm now, but edgy back in 1996. What’s more, they cut 30-40 minutes out of his film. The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it—she and I more than he—but we didn’t think 40 more minutes would’ve raised our opinions much.

This was why we skipped There Will Be Blood, after all. One-hundred fifty-eight minutes of Daniel Day Lewis limping is a lot, no matter how convincingly Mr. Lewis limps. Next week’s movie is Magnolia, which has a staggering 188 minute runtime but at least consists of more than one person doing more than just limping.

Jackson has no idea.
No sit down diner shot with Jackson. No, sir.

TCM Big Screen Classics: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” is probably one of the great misquotes in movie history, along with “Play it again, Sam” and “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more”, and perhaps all most people know about John Huston’s second great film (after The Maltese Falcon with just a few, forgotten features and a war between them).

"No, I AM your father."
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

The story is this: Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt (StagecoachSwiss Family Robinson) are moping around a Mexican town looking for work, and being taken advantage of by unscrupulous oil speculators when they run across a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) talking about the Evil That Men Do, especially when they get a taste of that sweet, sweet gold money. Greed, treachery, complete abandonment of their former persons, really. Holt and especially Bogey aren’t too sure about this. They know they’re the sorts of people who would hang on themselves and know when to quit.

This isn’t quite Gremlin’s three rules, which I often hold up as “the worst script premise imaginable”, but there can hardly be any doubt that the events of the movie are going to put their asserted morality to the test.

Sure enough, when they get together a little cash, they decide to throw it toward prospecting, and enlist the old man to take them into the back hills where the gold is. They quickly regret this choice because gold tends to be where nobody else has gone, in places nobody wants to go. And then they quickly unregret it when they actually find gold. But finding gold leads to more cycles of regret and renewal, as well as a lot of tragedy. It is a truly great adventure film.

The acting is top-notch, obviously. Bogie’s part is complex, but Holt also does a fine job in a simpler (but still not exactly simple role). Walter Huston, whom son John gave only a couple of words in The Maltese Falcon before he keels over serves as the movies anchor point, but more on that later. Great score by Max Steiner.

I lied to The Flower about this. Not knowingly, but she asked me if Bogie was the good guy in this, and I told her yes. She gave me the side-eye when he cracked early on, but he does get over it. At least for a while. Which is what I remembered, I swear. Look, it’s a complex role. I had only seen the movie once before, a good 20 years ago and on TV. And TV is never the answer.

Make any guy a little tense.
No, no, he’s just thinking about Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall.

The kids really dug it, which was nice. The Flower and I more than The Boy, I think, and The Boy more than his girl, who has been a constant source of delight in trying to figure out what she’ll like and what she won’t like. “Hard to get a bead on” is a good sign of someone who’s watching things for real and not going by some preconceived notions.

Obviously you should check it out. Huston’s next film would be Key Largo, which seems like a likely entry in next year’s TCM Big Screen Classics.

A sidenote: John Huston’s speech, and his subsequent behavior toward his unruly companions, is classically (small “C”) christian. He reports on the bad behaviors of men; he prepares for it and tries to avoid it; and he does not judge. In the wake of all the sex scandals lately, one’s initial reaction is to think “I would never!” and to be appalled by the behavior of the various bad actors. But these people wake up with a pile of gold in their midst—often old, awkward, unlovely men who are suddenly surrounded by young, beautiful women who really want to please them—and even if you haven’t been touched by such things and even if you wouldn’t be touched by such things (as Huston’s character clearly isn’t), it serves one to resist temptation to forget that human fallibility is a thing we are all subject to, if only in different ways.

Which is, perhaps the lesson of the film. That, and to take the adventure as it happens and move on.

Very good. Very good indeed.
Walter Huston contemplates what a good son he has.

Inisidious: The Last Key

After the first installation in the series, sequels to Insidious have been generally poorly received, if one is to believe the Tomatometer. The first one was modestly well-received, the second one less so, the third one more than the second, and now this one least of all. The lag on such things is interesting, sort of: The second one has far and away the highest box office, at $80M, while the 1, 3 and 4 hover around $50M, and it looks like 4 will finish ahead of 1 and 3. (I once had a discussion with The Old Man where I pointed out that a record album’s sales were likely to be based on the quality of the previous album. I don’t think he believed me, but I still think people’s eagerness to buy the latest thing is going to be based on how they felt after buying the previous thing. It was probably less true of albums than it is of ticket sales.)

The Boy was somewhat reticent about going to see this given the low RTs (31/52) but then he remembered that they’ve all been pretty low and we’ve liked all of them. So, off we went, expectations modest—and more than well met, frankly.

Not as romantic as it sounds.
🎶Here’s the key to my heart, so don’t lose it, use it!🎶

As a side note, I think it’s kind of neat that a horror movie can capture the #1 spot at the box office (even if it is just January) when the franchise’s leading character is a 70-something woman (Lin Shaye) who has two nerdy sidekicks (played Angus Sampson and series’ writer/creator Leigh Whannell). Add in the lovely Caitlin Gerard and Spencer (?) Locke for damsel-in-distress appeal with a few appearances by stalwart Bruce Davison (as Shay’s estranged brother) and you got your self a $10M dollar movie which makes back its money several times over. Ooh! And Kirk Acevedo as the sympathetic-but-high-strung client.

In this installment, psychic Elise Rainier (Shay) gets a new client who just-so-happens to live in the house she grew up in. (OK, this isn’t a coincidence, and it’s never really suspected as such, and how awful would it have been were we supposed to believe that.) It turns out she ran away from home back in the ’50s because her father beat her mercilessly for having visions. The house is on-site at a prison (or maybe just near—near enough to have the lights flicker when someone is electrocuted) and, needless to say, there’s no shortage of boogens afoot. When Dad (Josh Stewart) locks Elise in the cellar after a reasonably harmless sighting, she discovers major evil afoot in the cellar and ends up letting a Big Bad out.

And then, things take a turn for the worse.

Boo!
And just when everything was going so well…

But not, I daresay, for the predictable, which is nice. Not that there’s any huge shockers here, but the movie throws in a fair amount of material plane peril to go with the ghostly stuff, and a lot of genuine emotional connection to go with the scares. I suspect Leigh Whannel, as a writer, has enough invested in Elise to appreciate being able to do these movies with a certain sensitivity, because it really doesn’t feel like a paint-by-the-numbers story.

If you recall earlier reviews, one thing I particularly like about the series is the astral plane adventures (they call it “The Farther”). It’s sorta goofy, and no less so here than in previous installments, but it’s also kind of fun and interesting: It lets you put a haunted house movie inside your haunted house movie. And they make The Farther a fairly strong parallel to reality so there’s not too much in the way of cartoonish antics.

Anyway, we liked it. Didn’t love it. It felt like director Adam Robitel’s pacing was a little off, like some scenes went on too long. I did feel like he was trying to miss the obvious beats, which is the sort of thing that can make horror movies dully predictable. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, points for trying.

If you’ve liked the series, you won’t be disappointed.

A mixed bag, frankly.
🎶You’ll NEVER walk alone!🎶

Rhinoceros (1974)

Imagine, if you will, Night of the Living Dead but with rhinoceroses. That would be a pretty good summary of Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, if you added in that the play is meant, at some level, to be a comedy. It was a movie I had always wanted to see, despite not knowing of its existence until a week ago. (I did know of the play, though.)

Jokes on them, I guess.
I stole this from a site called “Not Coming To A Theater Near You.”

The premise is simple enough: A dispirited young accountant (Gene Wilder), bored to tears with life and drinking himself to death, is witness to a rhinoceros rampaging down the street of his small American town. (In the play, I believe it was a French town but even that may have just been a localization from Ionesco’s original Romanian concept.) He does not find much interest in the incident, and in his neglect is upbraided by his dear friend, a rather uptight conservative fellow (Zero Mostel) with a love of culture and contempt for the manners of the everyday people around him.

When he goes to work the next day, his co-workers and boss are all discussing the issue, with one left-wing fellow talking about how the papers always lie, and raving of conspiracies and treason, and the others—while accepting the incident—treating it as a rather banal event. The hallmark of the story is how banal everything is to people, and the ordinary phrasing and clichés they use to discuss even the most extraordinary events.

Nixon wouldn't resign for another 7 months.
Nixon…approves?…of rhinoceritis?

Things get knocked in to twelfth gear when the wife of a missing co-worker comes in breathless from having been chased down the street by a rhino. She came to deliver a key from her husband, who had gone out of town for the weekend and knew her boss would need it. “So conscientious!” sighs the boss, even as she relates that there’s a rhino in the lobby of the building. Later on, she recognizes a rhino attacking outside the window as her husband.

“How do you know it’s him?”
“Those are his glasses! Don’t you recognize him?”
“Yes…and no…”

Heh.
“Yes…and no…”

The first act is really quite a masterpiece of physical comedy and absurdity. The second is almost tragically absurd, as Wilder tries to help Mostel, who has been stricken with rhinoceritis. In the final act, Wilder and his office crush (a remarkably cute Karen Black) form a pact of love, though we already suspect that Black is doomed. While Wilder is struggling with the question of how to fight The Herd, Black insists that you have to let other people do what they want with their lives (even as they smash up the city and trample people). In the span of a few minutes they go from honeymooners to old married couple, and before you know it: rhinoceros! Wilder is left as the last man on earth, though even he seems as though he would give it up if only he could.

The Boy said, “The reason this works is because whatever it’s a metaphor for, it’s also about a guy dealing with the everyday problem of rhinoceroses!” And he’s right. I take it as a metaphor for communism—Ionesco himself talked of left and right-wing, but his right wing were things like Nazis—and the perils of group think and mob mentality (hello, Global Warming! Social Justice Wariors! Public School Systems!), but the story stays very concrete in the actual problem of herds of rhinoceroses. This enhances the absurdity on the one hand while grounding it, however weirdly, in the set up reality. It follows its own rules, we would say.

It's short, let me tell you.
The arc of a love affair…

It’s very ’70s. The music was a bit hit-and-miss, I thought. The Flower said “That was something different!” and I double-checked to see whether it was good or bad. Good, but not at all what she was expecting. The Boy and His Girl gave it a thumbs up. I liked it, too, quite a bit. It’s not for everyone: There is a great deal of shouting, though it is about as good as shout-comedy can be, done by people who did it the best, and what’s being shouted is pretty damn funny to boot. Also, you have to be able to accept the premise, but in a lot of ways, it’s a lot easier premise to accept than the actual history that inspired it.

It is remarkably applicable today, which is probably why it keeps popping up in various forms and re-enactments. (Though it was a popular play and won Mostel a Tony, too.) Allegedly, Zombie Strippers is based on this movie. The movie was not well received at the time, for all the reasons that we like it today, I suspect: From what is essentially an artsy play, director Tom O’Horgan makes a rather accessible comedy that isn’t bogged down by the sorts of politics that would get this movie a warm reception (and would be banal at best today, and incomprehensible at worst).

Fair point.
The poster in the back reads “Do not ever compromise yourself—that’s all you have.”

Coco

It was, to say the least, challenging to get The Flower to see the latest “Pixar” movie (scare quotes explained in a bit). Cars 2 was really quite a blow for a little girl (at the time) who idolized Pixar and their perfect record of moviemaking. When Cars 3 came out, she just ignored it, and she was prepared to do the same with Coco. We did finally drag her to it, though, with her little sister in tow and she found it…acceptable: “It was pretty good.” (Do not read that with too much emphasis on the “good”. Or the “pretty” for that matter.)

Tough crowd.
It’ll have to do, kid.

I would probably place it in my top 5 (and certainly my top 10) for 2017, keeping in mind that most of the movies we saw last year were not actually from 2017 and I don’t think we missed much, frankly.

Coco at least has the most heart-wrenching scene of 2017, during which the Barbarienne—who places this as possibly her favorite movie, naturally—was literally racked with sobs. There was a lot of sniffling in the house, and even I had a picturesque single tear roll down my cheek. So, all five of us (The Boy and His Girl were there) gave this a thumbs up, with varying degrees of “up”ness.

She feels things. She feels BIG.
Reasonable interpretation of the Barbarienne “racked with sobs”.

The story is that a young Mexican boy is descended from a family of shoemakers. His great great grandmother was deserted by her no-good musician husband, and started making shoes to keep herself and her young daughter alive. So, while the family is successful, they are also the only non-musical family in Mexico (per the story). The problem of course is that our hero, Miguel, does not love the zapatos and does love the music. He also loves his great grandmother, the somewhat addled old woman who doesn’t much remember people but pines for the father that abandoned her.

Mayhem ensues when Miguel, on his way to compete in the town talent show, hides his guitar under the family shrine. The family shrine has pictures of all the deceased members of the family, with a candle lit for Dia De Los Muertos, the only holiday the Mexicans have, apparently. He knocks his great-great grandmother’s picture off the top and discovers that the decapitated man (the missing great-great grandfather whose head has been ripped off to erase him from memory) is holding a distinctive guitar exactly like that wielded by the greatest musician of all time: Ernesto de la Cruz.

Excited by this information, he confronts his families with his dreams and in a fit of pique, his grandmother destroys his guitar.

The distraught Miguel runs into town and realizes he can still compete if he gets a replacement guitar. And his (presumed) great-great grandfather’s guitar is in the big crypt at the center of the festivities. Since de la Cruz’ motto was “seize the moment”, Miguel has only mild trepidation about stealing his guitar (miraculously still strung and in tune) for his own purposes.

Stealing from the dead on Dia De Los Muertos, unfortunately, earns you a one way trip to the land of the dead. And if Miguel wants back, he’s going to have to get a blessing from his decidedly music-hostile and dead family. Along the way he picks up a down-in-the-mouth skeleton pal who is rapidly fading due to the last person on earth forgetting him, and discovers the town mutt (he calls “Dante”) easily crosses into the world of the dead.

Lotta blurry light.
Land of the Dead, Pixar Style.

This movie is jam-packed, yet both The Boy and The Flower decided there was something not very Pixar-ish about it. It was more a Disney film, they thought. Indeed, since John Lasseter’s migration to head of Disney Animation, the two studios have become more and more alike. The Good Dinosaur, for example, felt very, very Disney. Zootopia felt very Pixar. The Boy was coming up with ideas as to why, which I was shooting down—like, he proposed Pixar villains were different from Disney villains, but I pointed out Hopper (A Bug’s Life), Syndrome (The Incredibles) and Lotso (Toy Story 3)—though without disagreeing with him.

He finally did nail it: This is a princess movie. Miguel is, basically, the ’90s-era Disney princess looking to find himself and reconcile that (if possible) with family. Much like Zootopia is more Pixar-like, because it’s about the individual’s relationship with their group, and is less about “finding one’s self and forcing others to see how awesome they are” than “trying to figure out how to reconcile self and group”.

There is something, too, about Pixar being, now, a 20-year-old established company: It lacks the energy it had 10 years ago. This is all very polished. It had a weird, weird segment up front talking about how many people go into making a movie like this which, if nothing else, constituted a minor spoiler about the land of the dead. Technical, the film is meticulous, as one expects from Pixar. But aesthetically? A (Mexican) friend of mine said The Book of Life—a three year old movie!—looked better than this, and she is not wrong. Life is a mediocre story with a balls-out unapologetically beautiful presentation by “Reel FX Creative Studios”. Who? You know, the guys who may eventually do The Book of Life 2.

It's better.
Land of the Dead, Reel FX style.

The vaunted city of the dead, discussed at the front of the film, is ridiculously detailed, no doubt, and pretty, but also wrapped in some kind of miasma. The town looks like one of the rundown places outside of Tijuana, though without the obeisance to the laws of physics, but it also seems to be shrouded with dust and smog like those places often seem to be—so you don’t really get to see it. You don’t get a sense of wonder that you get, for example, when Marlon finds himself in the open ocean and that’s just a plain blue field! (Not really, of course: There are lighting patterns and motes, but it’s very minimal and very effective.)

Here you have all the detail in the world and the talent to populate it, and…not so much. The Boy also noticed that the peripheral characters seemed less strong, when even the most minor characters in classic Pixar tend to stand out (like the walking binoculars in Toy Story).

Now look, this is good, as I said, and it’ll rip your heart out in classic Pixar fashion, but it’s definitely not the same. And when, like The Boy and The Flower, you’ve grown up with Pixar, these are things you notice.

It's good, though, I tell ya.
The cast of mostly forgettable dead characters.

Murder By Death (1976)

The Flower has a new favorite movie. It was challenging enough to explain when it was Gran Torino but now the conversations tend to go like this:

“Oh, yeah, Murder by Death is her new favorite movie. It’s a Neil Simon comedy/farce about detective stories.”
“What was her previous favorite?”
“…”
“…?”
Silence of the Lambs.”

The phrase "whiskey-soaked" comes to mind.
Eileen Brennan is nonplussed.

Well, kids are weird, and my kids doubly so. But this was funny, and much like The Jerk, I found that I had underestimated how funny it was 40 years ago. Some of this was not getting the references, of course. And some of this was not really liking the ending, which is a common (but sort of nonsensical) complaint.

The story is that Lionel Twain (get it? and his address is “Two Two Twain”) invites the world’s five greatest detectives (and their sidekicks) to dinner and a murder. Someone will be murdered and whoever solves the mystery by dawn will receive one million dollars. (Two modest stacks of bills, actually.) The five detectives are, naturally, parodies of famous literary characters and the cast is amazing, even today.

Nick and Nora Charles (Dashiell Hammet characters) become Dick and Dora Charleston, played by David Niven and pre-dame Maggie Smith.

Hercule Poirot (courtesy of Agatha Christie) becomes Milo Perrier, played by James Coco. His sidekick is played by a 26-year-old James Cromwell!

Charlie Chan (Earl Derr Biggers) becomes Sydney Wang, played by Peter Sellers.

Sam Spade (Hammet again) becomes Sam Diamond, played by Peter Falk. Eileen Brennan is his dame, but he won’t take a fall for her, see?

As big as Niven was in the day, you'd think more people'd remember him!
Columbo at the table with Mrs. McGonnagall and a British guy who wasn’t alive to be in Harry Potter.

Miss Marple (Christie) becomes Jessica Marple, played by Elsa Lanchester with her nurse played by Estelle Winwood (she was 93 at the time).

In one of the hoariest, but also funniest, bits of the movie, Alec Guiness plays a blind butler and Nancy Walker a mute maid.

The thing about this film? It’s one of the hardest working films I’ve ever seen. The jokes fly fast and furious and unapologetically. Neil Simon was at the height of his powers. This was Robert Moore’s feature debut, being more of a TV guy (and he would only do two more features: this movie’s sequel and Neil Simon’s Chapter Two, which sort of signaled the beginning of the end for Simon).

It has its own logic.
A writer pretending to be an actor berates actors who are acting as proxies for writers.

There is a lot of dumb, dumb stuff here. There are fart jokes. There are sexual deviancy jokes galore but in a reflection of the times, when Maggie Smith asks what anyone would want a corpse for, David Niven just whispers in her ear and she giggle uncomfortably: “Oh, how tacky.” In other words, things were much more oblique in mainstream films back then, which I guess warrants a big “Duh!”. But at some point wouldn’t it have to flip back? Or are we doomed to Idiocracy‘s “Ass: The Movie”?

On the flip side, the movie is rife with literary references to locked room mysteries, vanishing people, and red herrings—this movie deserves special praise for the wonderful absurdity of its red herrings, as when James Coco leaves the room only to come back dressed in the dead butler’s clothes, which don’t fit him and all he says “Dont’ ask!” Of course it never goes anywhere, is never explained and is basically impossible.

The most successful cinematic references are in Peter Falk’s Humphrey Bogart impersonation, which is bang on, and so hilariously off-kilter, that the whole theater (which was packed) was in an uproar. The Flower, a huge Falk fan, was delighted and wants to see the sequel, The Cheap Detective. (That movie is, of course, nowhere near as good—but we’re basically BOLO for any Peter Falk films anyway.)

My basic guess is that I get more of the jokes, I’m less uptight (because you’d have to be to survive in 2018), and just emotionally in a better place (this release came at really bad point in my life), and that’s why I enjoyed it more this time. I was still a bit surprised though: The theater was packed and everybody was laughing a lot. Also, like The Jerk, everybody laughed at the “racist” parts. Nary a gasp to be heard when Falk-as-Bogart-as-Spade goes off on a (genuninely) racist tirade. That was the joke and despite what we hear, people still get those.

I think it may have been part of the title sequence.
I don’t normally use non-photos here but I love this Charles Addams cartoon of the cast.

 

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Of the November detective movies, I was the coolest on this Robert Altman film, The Long Goodbye. I tend to be about 50-50 on Altman, finding him either brilliant or boring depending on the movie (or my mood). And 1973 isn’t exactly in my favorite time period. And rather than Humphrey Bogart playing Marlowe we have…Elliot Gould. Yeah, I was pretty cool on it, but the kids were into it so off we went.

He doesn't eat one.
That 25 cent ham & cheese looks good, tho’.

It’s really good. It’s got the ’70s sleaze, of course, because, of course, it’s the ’70s, and Hollywood was visibly sleazy then. (It’s still sleazy but up until recently, they had hid it better.) Gould’s Marlowe manages to be a man of his time but sort of reluctantly so, as he maintains a platonic but friendly relationship with his neighbors (a bevy of hippie girls who eschew clothing and do “yoga”, whatever that is), a bemused but friendly relationship with assorted dim-witted gangster types, and a less friendly relationship with local police.

Impossible to imagine how we ended up with AIDS.
Look at the pretty disease vectors.

The story is that, one morning, at around 2AM after going out to get food for his cat (Morris! in one of his many great roles from the era), an old pal needs to flee to Mexico. Seems he’s had a fight with his wife and he wants to be out of town until she cools off. Turns out the next morning, though, that she is dead—murdered!—with him as the number one suspect.

While Marlowe defends him to the police, he gets rousted and kept in jail for a few days. He’s finally released when the old pal turns up dead by suicide, which is a virtual admission of guilt, right?

Meanwhile, he’s approached by the wife of a man who knew his old pal and saw his picture in the paper. She wants him to find her wayward husband, whom she suspects is at the local sanitarium. She figures he’s trustworthy and can get to the bottom of things, which he does, after wrestling with Henry Gibson’s evil Dr. Verringer. (Metaphorically speaking. They don’t actually wrestle.) But something don’t quite add up, and the connection between his old pal and his new client becomes increasingly…connected, leading to a typically noir-y conclusion.

They probably had to tell him to stop at his drawers.
And now, to make up for the hippie girls, guys getting naked. Yes, that’s Arnold.

Gould does good. He doesn’t have the ’40s toughness but he’s not a complete clown. He mutters in a way that’s very funny and highly reminiscent of Altman’s 1980 flick Popeye, except that it made me laugh here. Nina van Pallandt is the damsel-in-distress, and she really made me think “Wow, Altman has a type” because she felt so evocative of Greta Scacchi (The Player). Even though Scachhi is Italian and Pallandt Danish, Scachhi was playing an Icelandic girl and there’s just a similar feel to them.

Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangelove) does a good job as the unstable, alcoholic writer. Dan Blocker was the original actor Altman wanted, but he died before production and the movie is dedicated to him. Altman was allegedly resistant to Sterling Hayden doing the part but was eventually won over.

The whole movie has the typically Chandler-esque murkiness where it’s unclear why this happened or who did what to whom. Like, I feel like Verringer has a bigger and largely un-exposited hand in the ultimate fate of Sterling’s character. Leigh Brackett (The Empire Strikes Back) wrote the screenplay, however, and (as always with Chandler) you end up not really caring about plot details.

If you got good tools, you don't need a lot of them.
Even some of the blocking reminds me of “The Player”.

The movie opens and closes with a tinny, scratchy rendition of “Hooray for Hollywood” which is a little out of place. There’s nothing really Hollywood about the story, except for the location (Marlowe and Hippie Girls live in the Hollywood Hills). All the other music, however, is the song “The Long Goodbye”, written by John Williams (with lyrics by Johhny Mercer, who also wrote the lyrics for “Hooray for Hollywood”), all ambient and done in a variety of styles.

It’s a cute gag: It plays on the car radio through the credits. When Marlowe goes into the supermarket, it’s done in Muzak-style. There’s also an elevator version, a version done in a “soul” version, a jazz version, a version played by a mariachi band at a funeral, etc. etc. It’s cute.

It does give you a sense of the film, though: Altman eschews a lot of traditional film devices, like dramatic music at tense times. He does a lot of ambient conversation stuff that has an improvisational feel (and sometimes is improvisation). He used to say that actors thought he was brilliant because whenever they’d ask him about what a character should do or say, he’d respond with “Well, what do you think?” Anyway, you want to know that going in, which you probably do if you’ve ever seen an Altman film.

The kids all enjoyed it, though, and it won me over.

I don't think so!
Marlowe at the “Burbank Sanitarium”. Were “sanitariums” still a thing by 1973?

The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936)

If nothing else, venturing out to see a French movie allows us all to sing a beloved song (from “The Critic”):

We like French films
Pretentious boring French films
We like French films
Three tickets
S’il vous plait!

Weird, though. And SO French.
“It’s not boring and only a little pretentious!”

Three now, because The Flower will sometimes come with us, as she did in the case of this Jean Renoir classic from the ’30s, which is utterly delightful when it’s not horrifying.

This 80 minute crime comedy-drama begins when a girl, Valentine, brings in a wounded man into a roadside inn. They are fleeing for Belgium—the Land of Freedom in 1936, I guess—when they have to stop because the man, the titular Lange, needs to rest from his wounds. The tavern denizens quickly realize that he is a fugitive and discuss turning him in when the girl comes out and confirms their suspicions: This is the wanted man. And all she asks is that they listen to the story before deciding whether to turn him in.

It’s a fine device, and it hinges on one premise: The movie must convince the audience that the crime is worthy of being excused, particularly if the fugitives do not get turned in.

What follows is a cute and creepily French story of a little publishing company that is run by a disreputable lout, Batala. Batala is both crooked as the day is long, swindling people and raping women, and completely devoid of creative talent, publishing the worst hacky material that (besides being bad) doesn’t really sell well. Messr. Lange is an idealistic dreamer who has written stories about the adventures of an American cowboy in Arizona (a place he’s never been, and situations that are comically fantastic) but Batala is not interested. As creative as Lange is, he’s also Batala’s polar opposite morally, refusing to even slightly pressure one of Valetine’s laundry girls who’s in love with another boy—a boy she assumes will no longer be interested in her because she’s pregnant with Batala’s child. (Did I mention that Batala is a rapist? And this is a comedy?)

"Seduction," they call it.
“She fainted! And I barely raped her!”

But while trying to swindle even more money out of some investors, Batala suddenly lights on the idea of shoehorning the investor’s product into Lange’s cowboy stories, though without telling Lange that he’s doing so. Lange gets his entirely innocent revenge when he neglects to pass on a message from one of Batala’s creditors and the crooked old man figures his jig is up. If Batala had had more time, he could’ve put them off, but since he doesn’t, he borrows as much money from everyone he can (including a girl he’s promised to marry) and flees town on the next train. The train crashes and Batale is listed as one of the victims (though the movie telegraphs something else is afoot).

Flash-forward a year and the little publishing company has taken off, mostly powered by the overwhelming popularity (with young French boys) of Lange’s cowboy stories which parallel the adventures of the actual company in a cute montage. The company itself has formed a cooperative (1936, remember, so we’re either socialists or fascists) and is doing well, down to where there’s interest in a movie about Arizona Jim.

Which is cute.
Monsieur Lange models Arizona Jim for the covers.

At this point, Batale returns. When the train crashed, he stole the clothes off a priest he had been talking to, and lived as said priest for a year while things cooled off. If he gets access to the money Arizona Jim is generating, he figures all will be forgiven and he can go back to terrorizing his staff and raping the girls from Valentine’s laundry. In a fit of pique, Lange shoots him, and this is his crime.

So, yeah, it’s a delightful movie except for a few bullet points:

  • Batala really seems to be a rapist. I mean, maybe you can put a gloss on it as extreme sexual harassment but he locks the door and physically imposes himself on (without striking) young women.
  • That’s bad enough, but they also all seem to be aware of this. Hell, Valentine sends the young girl to Batala’s office, when she has been a less than enthusiastic recipeint of his attentions.
  • None of the men do anything about this.
  • None of the men do anything about Batala, ever, until Messr. Lange, at the climactic moment.
  • The girl delivers Batala’s baby, but it’s stillborn, and when a religious old man says “It was part of the family,” everyone waits a beat, then laughs uproariously.
  • They laugh because the baby’s dead, see?
  • Apart from the villain, the only person with any agency is apparently Lange, and his only action is to be able to murder.

We’re American, of course, so maybe that’s just France: You can’t possibly stand up to anyone evil. You just have to keep working for them until you get so fed up you kill them. It’s weirdly infantile. But I would be far from the first noting that Europe in the 20th century was weirdly infantile. (And still is, really.)

France.
“I couldn’t possibly expose your crimes or tear up the contract. My only option is MURDER!”

The Flower, who has been reading the Bible, and who has been hearing of the harassment in Hollywood keeps asking why there are no Levis around? (If you don’t recall your Bible—he said smugly having just read the passage in question—Levi and Simeon kill the men of an entire village and rape all the women when their sister Dinah is raped.) I’m not sure she got the customary message from that passage but I do sort of wonder myself where all the Levis are. (Jeans joke omitted.)

Not in France, for sure.

Jean Renoir, who directed the fabulous The Grand Illusion, kind of let us down here and mostly we came out confused. The very leftist sentiment of the film led to him making anti-Nazi films on behalf of communists and subsequently fleeing to America during WWII, where he directed This Land Is Mine with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. I’m guessing that’s a better film—or at least one we could relate to more.

She only wants to be raped by Henri!
Estelle (Nadia Sibirskaia) is confused because Lange (Rene Lefevre) doesn’t seem to want to rape her.

Cat People (1942)

See these eyes so green? I can stare for a thousand years. Colder than the moon. It’s been so long.

As David Bowie sang. But that was for the remake of the 1942 classic Cat People, done by the always creepy Paul Schrader and starring the equally creepy Nastassja Kinski (daughter of the apex creep, Klaus Kinski) and Malcolm McDowell. Actually Nastassja and Malcolm probably aren’t as creepy as Schrader. Maybe only Klaus and Paul are on the same levels, creep-wise. But Nastasaja and Malcolm are actors, and they were actors working for creepy people at a time when creepiness was coming down from the all-time Creep High of the ’70s. And they turned this shall-we-say-“difficult” story of sexual repression into one of incest, which was forgotten almost as soon as it was released—leaving only a memorably chilling Bowie song in its wake.

Back to the topic of today’s movie-going venture, to wit, the 1942 film which is pretty damn edgy for its complete inability to be explicit.

Cats only need apply.
TFW you can’t reach the doorknob and the litter box is on the other side.

Simone Simon plays Irena, a Serbian immigrant in New York who has “no friends” when she meets the glib and handsome Oliver (Kent Smith) who charms her pants off—almost. Taking a fancy to the odd Irena, he woos and pursue and becomes absolutely smitten with her while she, slowly, becomes taken with him. It is through this process that we learn of her dark family history. This is dealt with rather circuitously in the movie, but I’m just gonna spell it out here because otherwise you can kinda find yourself going “Huh?” a lot.

Basically, Irena is part of a Serbian tribe that turns into panthers, but only when they have sex. (This is where the incest in the ’82 version comes into play, presumably, but that film is just straight up muddled as opposed to the 1942 version’s coy avoidance of censorship.) Oliver is a modern New Yorker—synonymous in every era with “know-it-all who gets himself into trouble because he’s a know-it-all”—and naturally considers Irena’s history a fairytale designed to keep young Balkan women chaste. So he pursues aggressively and even gets her to marry him.

But as the marriage wears on and there’s no connubial bliss (and not even Manhattan’s finest Freudians can help!), he begins to weary of her antics, finding her increasingly less charming as the days pass. Meanwhile, Oliver’s office “chum” Alice, while a decent enough sort to not push her affections on a married man, is increasingly looking like a more attractive partner on a number of levels. Irena, having a female’s uncanny sense of competition even before any males of the species are aware of it, was already suspicious of the whole relationship.

Unless you don't like being used as a scratching post.
Literally nothing could go wrong here.

In a classic moment, when Oliver’s deciding to leave Irena, he says something to the effect of, “The thing is, I’ve never had any trouble in my life. I don’t know if I’m unhappy because I’ve never been unhappy before.” Realizing that he prefers his old life of zero trouble and unhappiness, he rather casually tosses Irena to the side.

Guys, amirite?

(See, that’s a callback to The Mummy review.)

Savages!
Irene visits with one of NYC’s many Raw Meat vendors.

Of course, part of what makes this whole movie work is its acute awareness of all the limitations placed on it. They can’t really spell any of this stuff out, on the social level. They can’t show any cat persons because, c’mon, it’s 1942 and low-budget and even the ’80s version didn’t really do a good job with the whole were-panther thing. So it’s all done with shadows and implications and dramatic lighting, and director Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton would become the stuff of legend for how successful this approach was. (The story of the film’s making was inspirational to the Kirk Douglas chapter of the 5-Oscar winning The Bad and the Beautiful.)

Like The Mummy, this was more low-key and moody than shocky and schlocky, but it’s one of those films (at a scant 73 minutes) you can watch again and again and appreciate more every time you see it.

Cole Porter, right?
o/~Lovely to look at, deadly to hold~\o

The Mummy (1932)

Swan Lake, Op. 20 by Tchaikovsky. It was used in Dracula (and Drácula) and also Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), but nowhere is it used as extensively as it is in the 1932 Boris Karloff Universal classic monster pic, The Mummy. (Though it’s used rather touchingly in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, making me think he had used a public domain version of the tune in one of his pictures but I don’t remember a specific place and can’t locate it after a two-minute search.

Shot not actually from the movie.
Just take the I-5 to the I-115 and get off where it says “DOOMED!”

Ed Wood should have used it. He used a ton of public domain music. (Here’s what I think happened: Tim Burton used it for showing Johnny Depp watching the footage of Martin Landau who was recreating Lugosi’s scene in what would become Plan 9. Wow.)

Anyway, it’s very suited for The Mummy, which is the most tragically romantic of ’30s horror flicks, as our ill-fated “monster” Imhotep, who has suffered 3,500 years of agony to be reunited with his true love Ankh-es-en-amon. While he’s been holed up in a smelly sarcophagus, she’s been cavorting through history, living life again and again only to emerge as a scantily clad flapper in 1932. And, frankly, she’s got mixed feelings about this whole “five minutes of agony for an eternity of love” business.

Chicks, amirite?

Great headdress, though.
“Is eternal life gonna be, like, icky?”

It is somewhat challenging, in the modern era, to view Imhotep as a villain—at least, in my experience, on the small screen. Karloff is the only presence that carries through and you just wanna grab Helen/Ankh-es-en-amon by the shoulders and shake her. “You’ve got Boris Karloff here and you’re interested in foppish dandy David Manners?” Manners played opposite Lugosi in Dracula as well, to similar reactions (from me) and, if scurrilous Internet rumors are to be believed, really was gay. Which is neither here nor there, I suppose.

The makeup is still astounding. Not so much the mummy wrappings as the layer upon layer of wrinkled skin that makes Imhotep look 3-and-a-half thousand years old. Despite the limiting effect on his movement, Karloff still manages to project an air of menace—he comes off a bit more sinister on the big screen, I think, and the “ask” he has of Ankh-es-en-amon looks a lot more unholy—and German emigré Karl Freund (in his debut American feature) manages to create a suitable “weird” atmosphere, if not a grab-you-by-the-short-hairs kind of experience.

It’s short: Maybe too short. An extensive reincarnation scene showing Ankh-es-en-amon throughout the ages was cut. The whole thing comes in at about 1:15, which means that, on a double-bill with Cat People, it was hardly longer than an average movie today—about the same as one superhero film.

Which was okay, because it was late—The Flower and I decided to catch the later shows after handing out candy.

Tanning with Tana!
The Mummy is here to warn you about the curse of TANNING TOO MUCH.

A Special Lady

Last time I went to Koreatown while The Flower hung out with her friends, I managed to get there just in time to score a double-feature: A Special Lady and A Blackened Heart. While the latter was a mystery thriller with a heavily dramatic third act, this was more of a straight-up gangster action flick except that the main character is a woman, and for all the preposterousness of certain aspects of it, it was very true to the main character and the limitations she would have. Allow me to elucidate.

OR maybe that's what makes her so special.
This may not be her natural hair.

Na is the right-hand woman of Big Gangster guy. When the movie opens she’s running a brothel where many important men are having much sex (rather graphically, I might add) with many beautiful Korean hookers who are all in the pay of Big Gangnam. They’re also all being filmed, because duh. (This actually was a sticking point for me: I couldn’t figure out why all these Important Guys would go to the Known Brothel, except that the girls were really cute. They must not have known—in fact, the Big Bad Cop couldn’t have known or he wouldn’t have done what he did—but there’s a distinct implication that this is an open secret—to the extent it’s secret at all.)

Anyway, Na’s son is coming into town from his private school, where he’s been kicked out again. Oh, and he doesn’t know he’s Na’s son. He knows he’s the son of Big Gangnam, though. He doesn’t think much of his mother, not knowing she’s his mother.

They may be yo momma.
Which is why you should always be respectful to random hos.

The gist is: Big Gangnam is pulling a Big Scheme to Control All The Things; meanwhile, his right-hand man (not woman) Lim wants to expand the business to include drugs and guns, something which Big Gangnam refuses to do, arguing that it leads only to chaos. Also, Lim is hot for Na, and doesn’t realize that she has a son with Big Gangnam. And there’s a cop, too. He seems like a good guy cop but quickly turns out to be very, very bad. He wants to take down Big Gangnam, but only because BG has dirt on him. This creates the atmosphere for an alliance between Bad Cop and Lim.

"The Simpsons" used to be very funny.
Bad cops, bad cops, whatchoo gonna do?

Phew.

So, this is a pretty bog-standard gangster melodrama, as noted, except that the main character is the Special Lady in question, and rather refreshingly she’s allowed to be, y’know, a woman. That is to say, she’s allowed to care about her son even when he treats her horribly disrespectfully. She’s allowed to care about other women she sees going down a path similar to the one she regrets. She’s allowed to be a badass without being superpowered and invincible.

Or the Benny Hill take-off for a different tone.
They didn’t break out into “House of the Rising Sun”…but they could’ve.

The last, in particular, is something you don’t see much in American movies. Na gets into fights with men and, generally speaking, they beat the hell out of her. Because that’s usually what happens when men fight women. But she’s smart, and she knows her limitations, so she often comes up with alternate ways of dealing with the violence directed at her. Often these plans don’t work, but you end up admiring the hell out of her for trying, and admiring the movie for letting her be imperfect.

The ending sort of drops the ball as far as that goes, but only long enough to get her to her big dramatic moment. One tends to feel that the movie earned its moment of stretching hard, literal truths because it saves that stretch to build to the narrative goal.

I liked it. It’s probably on a par with a good American action movie, but the novelty of the approach raised it above the fold for me. Even as the second film of a double-feature I was not bored or tired, which is a good sign.

I may be misremembering that.
She brings her own dry ice!

The Maltese Falcon (1942)

<span style=”font-size: 1.5em;”>The Flower didn’t even hesitate.</span>

Of course we were going to see it again. It’s still great. This was actually the movie that launched our classic-film-going binge, almost two years ago! Check out the review at the link. My opinion has not changed. I’m still disappointed when it’s Mary Astor. I still think she did a great job. Etc.

The bird casts a shadow.
And there are still a bunch of great stills that are not actually in the movie.

 

Let The Right One In (2008)

This is a first for the site, I believe: I took the kids to see a “throwback” movie for a movie The Boy and I had already seen and I had blogged about when it first came up. But the Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In is a very interesting and different vampire movie which is typically (for Swedes) low-key punctuated by amazingly shocking moments.

The above-linked review still sums up exactly how I feel about the film, down the part that I don’t think worked. I still didn’t think it worked (and I had forgotten what I wrote 10 years ago, so I had to review that old entry to see how my thoughts held up). And I still won’t spoil it, though I will note that it is a very typical cinematic cheat (still).

I was right about it being made in America. I was right about it not being nearly as good, though apparently it was pretty good.

The Boy had seen it originally and still liked it. I wasn’t sure how The Flower would feel about it, but she really liked it and didn’t have the same issue I had with That One Thing. It’s not that she didn’t see the problem, it’s just that she dismisses these sorts of things, sort of like how she can watch a film that doesn’t interest her on a narrative level by just looking at the visuals.

Trivia question that earned me a free ticket: The word “vampire” is spoken only once in the film. (I got this because somebody else guessed “zero” first, and was wrong…)

Although...is the main kid the background shadow?
This is what happens when you don’t invite them in.

Rifftrax: Night of the Living Dead

We didn’t get on the “live” Rifftrax performances right away so it’s nice that they occasionally re-show them in theaters. I trust my opinion about viewing things in theaters versus on TV is clear by this time, and the benefits are particularly exaggerated in horror and comedy. So what about horror-comedy? Or comedy-horror? Whatever this would count as?

I had pretty high hopes for this, because Night of the Living Dead is a very effective film, but part of that is its cranked-up high-tension-drama which lends itself to riffing. (A movie doesn’t have to be bad to be riffed. And a movie can be too bad to be riffed.)

It was too edgy.
Most of the movies leave out the scene where Duane Jones offers to shine Judith O’Dea’s shoes.

And?

Well.

It was…okay. It picks up steam in the second half, but the first half felt a little unfair to us. (I had similar feelings about Carnival of Souls.) They’re critiquing the credits for being credits, for example. (High point: “If I see a sign for Valley Lodge, I’m out.”) Then the expository dialogue at the front of the movie (for being expository). Then the boarding up of the house. (“It’s a movie about carpentry!”)

Things start to swing into gear later on, when Mikes does a series of riffs based around the fact that the hero insists on staying in the main part of the house while villain wants to stay in the basement, and both monologue about it. “Let them stay up there!” (We will, it’s really great!) “We’ll see how they like it!” (Judy’s making brownies!)

We did like it, and even a so-so Rifftrax is pretty hilarious and a good time, but we also felt like the boys had gotten a lot better over time. Although this was the 9th show they had done so maybe it was just the movie. And for some people, it might allow them to watch the movie without getting freaked out. ’cause it’s still a freaky flick.

Have your parents spayed and/or neutered.
So creepy.

The Fly (1958)

“Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

That line is actually not from the 1958 version of The Fly but the 1986 remake, itself iconic in its own unique way. “Help me. Please, help me.” on the other hand is from the film’s still freaky conclusion.

It's a Thriller...diller night...
Unique. (Is it Jeff Goldblum or Michael Jackson?)

Our film opens with a night watchman at the Science Factory discovering Chief Scientist Andre Delambre crushed under a machine press, head and arm, and his wife Helene fleeing the scene. Helene calls her brother-in-law Francois to confess, and tells him to call the police, and with some goading, we get our story in flashback.

It’s remarkable how good this film is, for all its charmingly dated view on society (and less charmingly dated special effects). And despite its French-Canadian-ness. The kids did not pick up on the fact that it was set in French-Canadia until I pointed out all the names and that the Inspector looked like Captain Renault. (In fairness to the kids, though, this was supposedly taking place in winter and spring, but not a flake of snow was to be found and the lawn was green and lush in March.)

Kitty's in Limbo.
The movie’s attitude toward CATS probably wouldn’t go over big today either.

This is squarely ’50s sci-fi, not just because killer insect but because Delambre is an all-things-are-possible-with-science kind of mad scientist. He’s not even a mad scientist, really. He’s obsessive and perfectionist, though the movie itself is a cautionary tale about what happens when ya get sloppy. Also very ’50s: It takes a remarkably “don’t tamper in God’s domain” attitude, even though one wouldn’t think, necessarily, that teleportation would fall into the category of God’s domain (I mean, insofar as anything could be outside of God’s domain).

I suppose it’s because the nature of the…erm…error…is so horrifying!

The supportive wife who does everything her husband asks, even at a terrible cost to herself (and their son), is something you don’t see much these days. It creates an unusual dynamic that is missing from almost every recent film. It’s an element you see in modern religious films, and occasional secular-but-still-faith-based-films like Field of Dreams. You also don’t get this kind of indulgence from the police these days: The Inspector is very reluctant to arrest the wife, on the basis of her possible insanity or some other mitigating factor.

"You got somethin' on yer face..."
I hate it when flies land on me when I’m trying to sleep.

By the way, if you’re over 30 and you saw this movie on TV as a kid, you really didn’t see it. The shocks, which are especially shocking since the whole movie is so sedate and civilized, just don’t translate to small screen. It’s a situation where seeing it on TV just sorta ruins things.

The Fly was basically the start of Vincent Price’s second career—his successful career as a horror lead—at this point, and he’s sort of a necessary but minor character. He’s really doing the same sort of blandly charming thing that didn’t make him a leading man in the ’40s. He would follow this up with The House on Haunted HillReturn of the Fly and, significantly, Roger Corman’s “Poe Cycle”, cementing his status as a horror icon.

I'll be a CHEF!
“Maybe it’s time to retire. The acting thing isn’t really panning out.”

The other icon in this film, though you may not catch it, is Betty Lou Gerson, who plays the nurse. Gerson supplied the voice for Cruella De Ville in 101 Dalmations. (I recognized her name but couldn’t pin down her voice.)

Definitely worth seeing.

Trollhunter (2010)

“TROOOOLLLL!”

It is at this point in André Øvredal Trollhunter that it seriously begins distinguish itself from its inspiration, The Blair Witch Project. Because it is at this point in the film when our suspicious but bemused college videographers get a glimpse of their first troll. Unlike the earlier film (and many of its imitators), this Norwegian fantasy delivers on the trolls.

Someone is DELIBERATELY WRONG on the INTERNET!
Our hero discovers the Internet.

The story is that Thomas, Johanna and Kalle are investigating an unlicensed hunter who seems to be stalking and killing a bear that is ravaging the countryside. They manage to get to the location where the bear corpse is, but even casual observation of the site reveals that something else is going on: The tracks are all wrong. The bear seems not to have been killed there. The bear seems like maybe it’s not even from Norway.

They follow Hans, a sullen, grouchy hunter, whom they think may be the bear killer—or something more. And in a fit of pique, he comes clean: He’s a trollhunter. He works for the Norwegian government to keep trolls from leaving their areas, and hunting them down when they do. Typically he kills them with a light—trolls turn to stone in the daylight, so he has a powerful enough lamp to bring the smaller ones down—but sometimes, as in an early case they “document”, he has to get blood samples.

A really large enema, is what I was going for.
Good thing they didn’t want a fresh stool sample.

It turns out the trolls are behaving oddly, and fleeing their area for unknown reason, and the four of them work together to unravel the mystery.

It works. It works very, very well. Hans comes off like any naturalist you’ve seen. He knows his stuff. (Trolls are born with one head, but they grow others as they get older. The extra “heads” are really just protuberances that scare off rivals and impress the lady trolls.) But he’s also grumpy because he doesn’t get overtime or hazard pay.

There’s this combination of nature film, horror film and mockumentary here that makes it very appealing. Hans’ irritation over how he is treated, the giant syringe he must use on the trolls, the thorough grilling of the kids as to whether or not they’re Christian—trolls can smell a Christian’s blood, you see—all keep things kind of absurdly amusing. (And there’s a good bit on the Christian thing, since one of the kids is lying, and a fourth kid turns out to be Muslim.)

"I'm an atheist because I don't want to be eaten by trolls." is the best anti-Christian argument I've heard yet.
Trolling for trolls with a bucket of Christian blood.

There are also a lot of subtly amusing things, as when Hans places a billy goat on a bridge to lure out the troll he’s trying to catch. When that doesn’t work, he places another, larger one there. When that doesn’t work, he places a third one.

At the same time, the actual interaction with the trolls is treated with complete earnestness, giving us the opportunity to root for our characters, even though (apart from Hans) we don’t really get to know them as people. They are human and they have a sincere drive to discover the truth—for want of which several people are eaten every year while camping out in the wilds of Norway. Unlike, e.g., Blair Witch, you like the characters more as they come together under pressure rather than turning on each other, and pursue the matter when both the government and the trolls are out to get them.

A highly watchable film and easily the best movie about (real) trolls I’ve ever seen.

It's the Al Franken troll, starring me, Al Franken.
Unrelated: Recent press conference with Al Franken.

Bocaccio ’70 (1962)

The thing about The Boy is if you tell him there’s a 3 1/2 hour Italian anthology movie from the degenerate ’70s which is probably full of surrealism and perversion, he’ll be all Let’s Do This! He was not put off by Stalker‘s runtime, e.g., and he’s just very much into the whole “cinema” thing, regardless. The reviews on the film are only “good” (not great), garnering in the 75% range on Rotten Tomatoes, but this did not deter him, either.

Now, Bocaccio ’70 is from 1962, so it’s actually pretty sweet on a lot of levels. I had forgotten that “1970” was used for many years much in the way “2000” would be used after 1970: To mean the “not too distant future”. When originally released, 3 1/2 hours was a bit much, so the first film of the four was dropped. This was, apparently, the first time in history all four segments of the movie had gotten a showing in America. (Though that may not be true at all: Who on earth would police such things?)

Bevete piu latte!
I suppose this guy might.

It is quite the little time capsule, I tell you what. The four segments are:

“Renzo e Luciana”: Mario Monicelli (The Great War) directs this tale of a young girl (Luciana) and her beau (Renzo) who have to get married but also have to keep it hidden from her employer.

“The Temptation of Doctor Anthony”: Federico Fellini (8 1/2) directs this tale of a prudish middle-aged man who is tormented by a giant Anita Ekberg.

“Il Lavoro” (The Work): Luchino Visconti (Death In Venice) directs this first whimsical, then dark story of a marriage of convenience.

“La Riffa” (The Raffle): Vittorio De Sica (Marriage, Italian Style) helms this tale of a raffle held by carnies…for a night with Sophia Loren.

The movie opens with “Renzo and Luciana”, which was the film dropped because it featured no headliners. Luciana (Marisa Solinas, who acted pretty steadly into the 2000s) has gotten herself in trouble with Renzo (Germano Gilioli, who has only one other credit) and they convince Luciana’s parents that they just can’t wait to get married. The parents reluctantly go along with it, bringing Renzo back with them to live in their three room apartment with Luciana’s little sister, the father’s nightly card game, and the giant neon flashing “ABC” light outside the window. (They get 10% off the products, Luciana informs Renzo!)

Sure, this seems secluded.
So…wanna get busy?

Now legally married, they cannot find a moment’s peace to be alone and do what Italians do, married or not. The Boy was actually shocked by how crazy crowded Rome was: The movie theater was standing room only—something he’d never even heard of as a real thing. To say nothing of the smoking going on in the theater. The sides of the road are populated by construction workers, even in the late night. The public pool is a sea of humanity where Luciana runs into her wolfish supervisor, from whom she must hide her romantic relationship even as he pursues one with her.

This all comes to a head when she finds out she’s not pregnant and in an ill-time PDA, said wolfish supervisor (believing Luciana to be unattached) fires Renzo for sexual harrassment. Get a load of that! A sexual harrassment firing in 1962! In Italy! Before the phrase was even a thing!

WTH is that?
Sure, it’s crowded! But it’s never too crowded to wear your Speedo-diaper!

It all resolves in a nice, rather wry way where our lovers get their own space—but basically at the cost of never seeing each other. The Boy said this might have been his favorite. (As a side note, the 1827 novel Renzo e Lucia is one of the most famous in Italian history and involves a couple whose marriage is being thwarted by a local baron.)

Next up was Fellini’s joint, “The Temptation of Doctor Anthony” which is a pretty coherent narrative, only lapsing into WTFism with some surreal filigree at the very end. Italian comedic stalwart Peppino De Fillippo plays the good doctor, who is quite concerned with the moral uprightness of his (rapidly deteriorating) country, and marches around correcting people and warning Boy Scouts (the Italian branch, I guess) of the evils of success when quite unprovoked, the milk council puts up a billboard directly facing his apartment.

I mean, it’s totally unprovoked. And illogical. The board is in a low traffic area, facing his building! They have to actually set up the billboard support, since it’s just an empty lot before. It plays a rather inane tune (I think it plays it, we hear it a lot) that commands him to bevete piu latte! (Drink more milk!) And it looks like this:

I feel like Wisconsinites might find that funnier than it really is.
He’s a 2%er in a 4% world.

Oh. Well, I’m sure that moves a lot of gallons. Poor Doctor Anthony struggles to get the board covered up, and actually succeeds, with much perseverance, in getting the board covered. While basking in the glory, however, he starts to hear Anita Ekberg (the model in the poster, playing herself) lament what he has done to her. And when a storm uncovers the board, he goes down to vandalize it. This results in The Attack of the 50 Ft. Ekberg.

Poor Antonio is completely overwhelmed, metaphorically and literally!

It’s pretty cute, though a little less so 55 years later, I think, when we could do with a little more prudery. Ekberg, herself, just off of La Dolce Vita is certainly imposing at 50 feet—Viking women, amirite?—but we find little sympathy for the poor doctor, who doesn’t appear to be a hypocrite, just not a match for human frailty under constant provocation. There is something rather amusing about the kaiju approach of the era being used for such a purpose, though.

Yow.
“Giant Anita Ekberg is destroying our city! Reactions are…mixed”

The third story was really dark, and featured Romy Schneider as the rich wife in an arranged marriage where her husband’s infidelities have just been splashed across the tabloids. In “The Work”, we learn that our heroine is not as sanguine about her arranged marriage as she pretends, and as her husband pretends. Her response, however, is that she’s going to make her own way in the world, free of her husband and father’s influence.

No justice. OK, sure, she's beautiful. But non e Italiano!
The only nudity in an Italian film and it’s a German chick.

The tragedy, however, becomes apparent as she really has no skills. Not only no skills but no concept of life for people who aren’t completely free of responsibility. It’s tragic, and turns especially dark when she realizes she does have one skill.

The fourth and final story, “The Raffle”, should actually be darker and sleazier, as the premise is that our heroine, Sophia Loren, is allowing a carny and his wife raffle off a night with her in order to help them pay their back taxes so that their as-yet-unborn child won’t be without a home (the trailer they do their carny stuff out of). The impression I had was that Loren’s character owed the two a debt, but I couldn’t quite figure out the backstory. (It’s also not clear to me whether they’d done this before.)

Hideous.
The famously homely Sophia Loren.

But, you know, Sophia Loren. Up for auction. Could raise some money, even in the impoverished post-War Italy. And does. Zoe (Loren) positively drips with contempt over the men who pay for a chance at her—well, not just drips, but actively antagonizes and scolds them, because when you’re Sophia Loren, you don’t have to promote the product. It’s rather funny. Meanwhile, she’s actually pretty sweet on a hunky stableman, which makes more aesthetic sense to the audience, though he turns out not to be too keen on the whole selling-her-body-for-money thing.

In 1962, Italy, you could smack a woman pretty hard, if she had it coming.

Meanwhile, the winner of the lottery turns out to be the town sacristan, a nebbishy little dude who lives with his mother. (Said mother encourages him in this particular adventure, advising him to turn down the copious amounts of money being offered.)

It has a happy ending. No, not that kind, ya perv. Zoe and our sacristan reach a reasonable compromise, though one wonders about the fate of the carny and his wife.

Such disdain. I think it must be an aphrodisiac for some guys.
Sophia Loren is NOT pleased to see you. Or smell you.

The experience overall is almost that the interest overwhelms the quality of the film. Each segment is good. None of the segments is really great. It could safely be watched in four segments; the four don’t really relate to each other. I would note—when people are amazed that we can sit through the longer films—that a lot of people come home at 6 and watch TV till midnight, so it’s really not that extraordinary, except that the fact that we only go out to do this means we do this about 3 times a year, versus every night.

One does have to comfortable being out though.

Ghostbusters (1984)

I am one of those people—yes, one of those people, as we say when reciting Ed Begley’s wonderfully non-specific bigoted rant from 12 Angry Men—who feels that the original Ghostbusters is, in fact, over-rated. Good, for sure. Funny, yes. And there’s no denying it was a cultural phenomenon, down to Ray Parker’s plagiarized-but-catchy theme. But I remember, at the time, feeling like Bill Murray’s performance was somewhat perfunctory: He’d been doing this schtick in the movies for five years now (longer, if you count his “Saturday Night Live” years), and it feels like he really doesn’t want to be there.

I kid. But it was terrible.
“No, sorry, this the script for The Razor’s Edge.”

A couple of points: First, he really didn’t want to be there. He traded his performance in Ghostbusters to play in the dismal Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor’s Edge. (The Old Man told me that Tyrone Power had made the same arrangement to make the same movie, with pretty much the same disastrous results, back in the ’40s, but I can’t find any support for that.) The Boy said he felt that was true as well, so I don’t think I’m imagining this.

Second, even half-assed Bill Murray is awful good. If his performance here doesn’t have the same joie de vivre we expect from Murray, there are still few living or dead who could match his timing and delivery.

Overall, the kids felt this was pretty good. Not hilarious. Not the greatest movie ever, omg, which I think is probably because they have by this point seen a lot more of movie history than your average moviegoer (now or in the ’80s), but very solid. It sort of sticks with you with its quotability and its top-notch performances. I mentioned this before in the Spy review but some amount of the humor here is shock value, and that just doesn’t hold up well.

Kind of amazing.
The Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man? Still hot ‘n’ fresh!

What does hold up is Ray and Egon (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, also the screenwriters) and their ridiculously believable mad-science-nerd schtick. Despite the similarities between the two—that kind of Asperger’s-before-there-was-Asperger’s—Ray has a warmer, more childlike sense of wonder, while Egon really does seem devoid of any normal human emotions. Which of course makes him the perfect target for Annie Potts pitch-perfect tough-but-not-unlikable secretary. As I’ve said before, it’s Winston who’s the real Everyman: He’s there to collect a paycheck, for sure, but that doesn’t keep him from being part of the team.

Sigourney Weaver’s Dana manages to keep Murray’s Totally Inappropriate behavior on the charming side of the ledger rather than creepy. I actually was a little surprised how, em, forward he was, but I suppose I’m sensitized by recent events of a Weinsteinian nature. But her 6′ stature makes her appear up to the task of fending off Murray’s puppy dog advances. She, too, is an Everyman, much like Winston, caught up in events she really doesn’t understand and having to reconcile the serious nature thereof against a backdrop of Murray’s comedic mugging.

Rick Moranis was a gem.
I bet they had fun.

Rick Moranis—the kids really liked his performance here and it truly does shine. Apparently, he improvised the whole party scene with the always delightful Jean Kasem. Moranis, who retired when his wife died in the ’90s and he found his kids needed him—pretty awesome, eh?—hits the same perfect pitch as Potts, giving us a kind of hapless character, forever in pursuit of his dreams (which apparently involves Rather Tall Women, and also Big Tax Breaks) who still manages to be lovable.

And, really, every bit of the cast, even the minor roles does two things: Establishes a strong character (without the wacky antics the remake seemed to feel the need for), and also excites a certain sympathy. The librarians, the guy waiting for the elevator, the guy who has to shut off the grid—even the mayor! This is a sort of love song to New York City and a generally benevolent film.

Annie was a big enough start in part 2 to be able to wear a wig rather than chop her hair off.
“Print is dead,” Egon says presciently.

This can pretty clearly be traced to Ivan Reitman. His movies are more or less funny. The earlier ones (like this, Meatballs and Stripes) are probably funnier. All of them, though, have a lot of heart. Evolution is a pretty clear attempt to revitalize the Ghostbusters formula—which, frankly, seems pretty bold given the current approach of just “soft rebooting” them—and while it doesn’t have the same level of laughs by any means, you end up liking the characters portrayed by Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore and the criminally under-rated Sean William Scott. Same for Kindergarten Cop or, hell, My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

It’s this warmth and quasi-believability (as in, “these are real-seeming people”) that carries you through when the jokes don’t land or the laughs don’t last as long as they might. So, despite my seemingly-negative intro, I don’t really have much bad to say about this movie.

Which is nice.
Ready to believe you.

The Host (2006)

From the fevered mind of Joon-Ho Bong, the maniac who brought you Snowpiercer, comes an almost equally batty creature feature about a mutant-fish-serpent thingy who eats Korean people, but not always right away. The story begins, practically Re-Animator style, with a deranged American coroner demanding his Korean subordinate dump all his toxic chemicals into the sink. The sink which drains, as we are informed, into the Han river. (The doctor is played by Scott Wilson, who is best known these days as “Herschel” on “The Walking Dead”.)

It's a LOT, is what they're showing us.
The camera pans over the bottles for, like, five minutes.

This, in very, very short order, indeed, leads to a monster in the Han river. It seems like only a few hours pass, in fact, between the time poor oppressed morgue worker drains the fluids, commits suicide and The Monster leaps from the water to terrorize Korean river-goers. The initial appearance of the monster is, shall we say, a little “rough”, being both so bold and so clearly CGI (done by the defunct San Francisco CGI house, “The Orphanage”, which did movies like Iron Man and HellBoy) that it nearly breaks suspension of disbelief.

A funny thing about that, though, is that this bold daylight assault kind of inures you to the subsequent CGI-ness of things. If you can get past the first monster scene, you’re golden. Also, they used some traditional special effects later on for close-ups, so the monster actually seems to get more realistic as the proceedings wear on.

The movie is centered around the Parks, a family that ends up in the center of the action when the young girl of the family, Hyun-seo (Ah-sung Ko, Snowpiercer) is taken by the monster when her father, Gang-doo (Snowpiercer) mistakenly grabs the wrong child in an attempt to escape. The two live with the family patriarch, Hie-bong, in his little snack shack on the riverside, but when the girl goes missing (presumed dead), brother Nam-il (Hae-il Park, War of the Arrows and this year’s Fortress, which I really wanted to see) and sister/champion archer Nam Joo (Doona Bae, Cloud Atlas, “Sense8”) show up to berate Gang-doo and wail theatrically.

I mean, seriously theatrically.

It's so far over the top, it can't even SEE the top.
This is BEFORE it gets over the top.

The Korean version of the CDC shows up suddenly and tells them all that they’ve been exposed to a dangerous virus and must be quarantined. Then, the hero gets a call which seems to be from the missing Hyun-seo. Apparently The Monster doesn’t eat its victims right away but carries them off for later consumption, and she’s being stored in a giant sewer drain under the river somewhere. This sets up the park family for a grand rescue mission, which they execute poorly, and also sets them up against the U.S. and Korean government, which are (fortunately?) as incompetent as they are, and much less focused.

It’s a common theme in American films for the ne’er-do-well to rise to the occasion, so one of the most remarkable things about this film is that the characters don’t ever really rise above their incompetence, until the very end. And the incompetence is everywhere. The hero can’t stay awake much. He can’t keep himself from eating the tentacles off the squid he’s supposed to be serving to his customers. He can’t save his daughter. His inability to count gets someone killed, in a really memorable scene.

Not bright.
I don’t know: Run away from the monster, instead of parallel to it?

His siblings aren’t much better. His sister tends to choke in her archer competitions, and then decides a bow-and-arrow would be a good way to take down this killer mutant fish-thing that seems largely unimpressed by bullets. His brother’s just kind of a jerk. Between the three of them, there’s just the one kid, which is a potentially good metaphor for Korea as a whole, but works really well just in the literalness of it.

But the incompetence doesn’t end there. Besides the aforementioned coroner who starts the ball rolling, there’s an American who gets himself killed trying to stop the monster, and another American doctor (Paul Lazar, the crosseyed bug-guy from Silence of the Lambs who also has a role in Snowpiercer) who basically is spreading the rumor about the virus to avoid any information about the monster getting out. And part of his plan is to lobotomize Gang-doo, but he botches that, too. The Korean military fares no better, basically being run higgledy-piggledy by the buffoonish Parks.

Timing is every---thing.
Better (but not much) than the Korean military and police force combined? 2nd Place Archery Contest Winner.

And this is a common theme in the Korean films I’ve seen: They really seem to have no confidence in the government. Going back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. I mean, think about it: We had The Wailing, where the incompetent corrupt cop gets his ass handed to him by the devil; there’ve been a variety of Korean films about the Japanese invasion, in which the Korean government is varying degrees of incompetent from completely self-serving (Warriors of the Dawn) to just plain not there (The Handmaiden); the only positive view I can think of is from My Way, which is more about the military than civil service.

Interesting, no?

Oh, and then there’s the completely botched plan to capture the Parks for the reward, which reflects rather ill on Koreans as a whole. I mean, honestly. These guys have a pretty well run society but it’s not clear how that happens from any of the movies.

Ultimately, however, it makes for a unique moviegoing experience, as the sole, consistently competent character is Hyun-seo, the missing daughter, and she lacks competence at some very important moments. (*kaff*) Despite all this, one tends to like it because one ultimately ends up liking the main characters. Not admiring, exactly. But almost empathizing with, in a Homer Simpson sort of way.

The kids liked it, too.

But that's just me.
I prefer kids who don’t get captured by mutant river monsters.

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

I was tied up handling The Enigma, so I didn’t get out to see this one.

The Flower (who had watched the whole Cornetto trilogy on her birthday last year), and especially The Boy were struck by how much this was just a straight-up zombie flick. I pointed out that Hot Fuzz is also pretty striaght, and what you would get if Michael Bay directed The Wicker ManThe World’s End is pretty much pub-crawl-meets-The-Stepford-Wives, with an almost “Plan 9” climax and a “Mad Max” stinger.

They took The Barbarienne, which was nice. She’s a bit of a scaredy-cat—she does not join us for Knott’s Halloween Haunt—but she did all right, apparently, except for the part where Shaun’s mom dies. (This is a button with her: Moms dying. Every now and again I’ll start to play “Mother’s Last Farewell Kiss” and, well, that’s always a mistake.) Anyway, she liked it, and her older siblings didn’t object to bringing her along the next week for Ghostbusters, so that’s good.

Awk-ward.
When you meet your Ex during the apocalypse.

Timecrimes (2007)

The first in the subtitled horror movies (and followed in subsequent weeks with The HostTrollhunter and Let The Right One In), this was a neat little Spanish film I had never heard of. It’s an interesting journey into time-travel-gone-wrong and the nature of causality, which starts out kind of lightly funny and turns horror/thriller, then finally just horror. Our hero is Hector (Karra Elejalda), a pudgy, middle-aged man who’s moving into a new house. While taking a break from his efforts, he spies something across his (large) yard, in the woods.

Her shirt is Schroedinger's Cat.
Fatal cutie.

The “something” he spies is a good looking girl (Bárbara Goenaga) taking off her shirt. So he shoos his wife off to the store and tries to see more, because men are dogs. Not being able spy anything, he sneaks across his yard, across the road where some trash is strewn and a bicycle is askew, locating the area where he saw the girl. It is at this point, a lumbering figure with his face wrapped in a bloody bandage begins to chase him.

One thing the kids really liked was that Hector is out of shape, so he’s not really great at running. He’s often out of breath after a little bit. Somehow, though, his bandaged pursuer never catches up to him.

This may be a little bit spoiler-y, so if you’re spoiler-sensitive, you may want to stop reading. The Flower spotted it right away, as did I. Indeed the title sort of gives a big hint.

OK, forewarned is forearmed and all that.

Very badly indeed.
The star and director contemplating how badly things are going to go.

He is, of course, being pursued by himself. The pursuit leads him into some sort of research building where he’s lured by a young scientist (the director, Nacho Vigalondo)  into hiding into this vat full of goop. The goop closes on him and when he comes out, it’s morning…of the same day. And this is where things start to get hairy. The scientist is shocked to see him, since he had only powered the machine on for an (unauthorized) test, and now Hector must wait out the day without changing anything. There’s some murky stuff going on, as Hector is troubled to see his wife canoodling with some man, even if that man is himself. Kinda. (The scientist is a little vague on this.)

But at some point he realizes that he must have been a factor in the previous day’s activities and so must be a necessary actor in the events in order to not change anything. And soon we’re seeing all kinds of things that we didn’t quite get on the first pass explained in the second pass—though through a series of bizarre events that Hector must orchestrate. The problem seems to be, though, that he can’t quite get it all exactly the way it was.

That’s where the horror aspect really locks in.

It’s a neat, tidy story with a rather dark ending, which perhaps might also work as a metaphor for adultery (a common theme in Spanish/Latin films) but doesn’t have to, if you don’t want. We all were pleasantly surprised.

The worst!
And underneath the bandages was…a surprisingly mild looking, doughy old dude.

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Don't order the 50-egg special!
A local deli has this pic blown up and huge on the wall. Not sure what they’re trying to say.

This actually turns out not to be the case in Cool Hand Luke, the second show of our Paul Newman double-feature. Or not exactly, I guess. I’d say the real issue is less of communication and more of reality. I will elaborate on this shortly, but first: CLH is a Stuart Rosenberg joint, far-and-away his best film (among such films as The Amityville Horror (1979), BrubakerThe Pope of Greenwich Village and so on), and it’s also a relatively early example of the whole “Easy Rider/Raging Bull” era which I generally find so loathsome.

The premise is that, on a drunk, Luke (a war hero) goes into town and chops all the heads off the parking meter. He’s not stealing the money, he’s just vandalizing (as we later learn, some kind of imagined payback to…the system?). Nonetheless, he ends up in a prison with a bunch of other sweaty ne’er-do-wells who earn their keep by doing roadwork. He’s not popular at first, especially with the lumbering loudmouth Dragline (George Kennedy, bein’ awesome), but he wins over the much bigger man by losing to him in an epic fistfight, sorta. You see, Luke doesn’t know when to quit. He makes up his mind and he sticks to it. It’s his one principle, from what I could see.

Unhealthy body images for vandals?
This picture makes me think that male bodies in movies used to be more realistic looking.

Dragline knocks him down and Luke gets up, so Dragline knocks him down again, and Luke gets up again. He doesn’t know which way is up by this point, but he keeps getting up and you start to feel sorry for Dragline, having to keep knock him down like that. (Speaking of “Raging Bull”s!)

Later, in a poker game, Luke wins with nothing, again on the principle that he just doesn’t know when to quit but most people do blink if you stare ’em down long enough.

Things actually go pretty well after that, right up until the death Luke’s mother (Jo Van Fleet, Oscar-winner for East of Eden, but mostly a TV gal). The Warden, Captain (Strother Martin, another huge TV guy) tells him that he’s going in The Hole (or The Shack or whatever it is) because when a man loses his mother, he gets it in his head that he should be there at his funeral, and so—purely precautionary—he’s gonna have to go in The Hole.

And that ain’t right. You don’t put someone in The Hole before they’ve had a chance to deserve it. That’s the breakdown in reality between Luke and The System. One sort of suspects it’s the same kind of breakdown that occurred between Luke and The System right before he decapitated the parking meters. Things go downhill from here, though he’s become a kind of hero to the boys in his cell block, so they don’t see it.

But, generally, when there’s a breakdown between any given individual and The System, it’s the individual who suffers.

She owns a bakery in Burbank now!
Joy Harmon may not have been the first girl to wash a car in the movies, but she is the most memorable.

I had, not too long ago, seen this on TV (before the current rash of revivals) and I wasn’t crazy about it, but The Big Screen makes a Big Difference as always, and I liked it much more here than before, even though it suffers from some of the nihilism that plagued the era. The thing about Luke is that he’s likable, even admirable in a way. He’s operating (as Butch Cassidy would in a few years) on a different level than the rest of the bifocal-wearing world. For instance:

The boys do road work, and it’s nasty, hot and they’re surrounded by hostile men with guns, including a sunglasses wearing demon whom the Coen brothers had to be referencing in O Brother, Where Art Thou. So, they work slow, and they do a poor job. But Luke gets the idea to make a game out of it, and they race—while making careful work of it—to get the road done, and get it done in a fraction of time. The guards are alarmed, and the inmates are delighted, once they catch on.

It’s kind of a powerful statement, that: How we fit into these grooves and act like we have no more volition, because of a particular element of our circumstances. And Luke is a kind of a guy who just doesn’t fit into those grooves, and it doesn’t take much to set him off out of them. This is a particularly common theme of the era, and it works here (for me) unlike most other themes. Even here, you have the problem of, “Well, okay, then what?”

The whiter, the deviler.
“He’s white, as white as you folks, with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He likes to travel around with a mean old hound.”

Newman does so well here because it is, in a way, him. He didn’t seem to fit into the grooves much.

A heart-breaking rendition of “Plastic Jesus” by Newman who might actually have been plucking on the banjo while singing it. Most of the songs is provided by the late Harry Dean Stanton as Tramp but the great Lalo Schifrin provides the score. (Schifrin was to that era what John Williams would become in the ’70s, Danny Elfman in the ’80s.) Small part for “M*A*S*H”‘s Wayne Rogers and and an even smaller part for Dennis Hopper. Joy Harmon washes a car.

The kids liked it, but once again, it was not clear whether they preferred this (the obviously more iconic film) or Sweet Bird of Youth. The Flower found herself charmed by “Plastic Jesus” and is learning to play it on the guitar.

 

Sweet Bird of Youth (1962)

It’s time for a Paul Newman double feature, apparently, and this was the first film. Not one I’d ever heard of but directed by Richard Brooks, who I think is probably under-rated as a film director. Sweet Bird of Youth is the seamy tale of an aging-but-still-Paul-Newman-gigolo who rescues/kidnaps a famous-but-aging movie star (Geraldine Page) and brings her cross-country to St. Cloud (in the Florida panhandle) in order to extort a movie deal out of her that he can share with his once good-girl girlfriend, Heavenly. Heavenly is played Shirley Knight, now probably best known as Paul Blart’s mom, but last seen by us in Redwood Highway.

Heh. Time. Sucks.
Mama Blart, you’re hawwwt!

It’s so squalid and seamy and sultry and sweaty it feels like a Tennessee Williams play. Which, in fact, it was. (A co-worker pointed that out to me the next day.)

The story is that Chance (Newman) has driven Alexandra Del Lago (Page) to St. Cloud while keeping her drunk and stoned and with a master plan of getting her to confess on tape how she manages to smuggle in all the fabulous drugs she’s on. Well, specifically, hashish, a gift from our Arab friends. Hers is smuggled in from Turkey which, frankly, I don’t understand since it’s just a cannabis product, and there’s nothing that beats good ol’ American cannabis.

I have no idea what I’m talking about. Williams may have, he may not have. It’s hardly important.

Wrong ethnicity!
“Tell me about the jazz cigarettes, Duchess!”

Chance is trying to get to Heavenly but her dad, Boss Finley (played by Ed Begley, known around here as the hero of 12 Angry Men (1957)—well, next to Lee J. Cobb, of course) basically separated the two when they were young and in love by convincing Chance that he had to make a name for himself before whisking away the virginal Heavenly. Boss Finley then apparently spent the next ten years trying to marry her off to old men with money, and she apparently responded by floozing it up.

It’s all very Southern Gothic which, as you (should) know, I usually find as unpleasant as warm sweet tea. Nonetheless, I liked this film.

There’s some serious scenery chewing going on between Page and Newman, and it’s as good as it is ridiculously stagey. This is an actor’s film and these two can really act. Everyone does great: Begley gets to play a different kind of scumbag. Knight hits just the right balance between helpless victim and hero. Rip Torn, whom I did not recognize in the least, is fantastic as the thuggish son who does all of Boss’s dirty work, apparently without much support from his father, who seems ready to throw him under the bus as it becomes politically convenient. (As it turns out, everyone did great at least in part because they’d all been doing the roles on Broadway for hundreds of shows.)

Catholics?
Paul Newman’s probably one of THEM!

Did I mention the abortion? No? Well, the movie doesn’t either, exactly. Actually, I think it’s presented as a venereal disease, but that doesn’t make any sense. It was an abortion in the play and the last minute dodge here clanks. There’s also a scene at the end where it looks like they’re going to castrate ol’ Chance, but they do not. This does not make any sense either but I was grateful for it, and for what was, essentially, a happy ending.

This movie was remade with Mark Harmon and Elizabeth Taylor in the ’80s, but there is literally no way that could be good. Washed up Geraldine Page is not quite 40 here. Elizabeth Taylor would be nearly 70, which…yeah, no that don’t make no kind of sense. Also. Mark Harmon? vs Paul Newman? Help me out here, ladies…

Anyway, I can recommend this, sorta, if you like acting-heavy dramas (I do) and don’t mind your Southern Gothic watered down (I really don’t mind that at all). In some ways the kids would prefer this to the next feature: Cool Hand Luke.

And, most importantly, the Flower would finally be able to identify Paul Newman, whom she somehow envisioned as a cross between Paul Simon and Randy Newman. (Despite the whole Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid show we saw earlier.) That confusion? Cleared forever.

No color shots, just the stills for ol' Rip.
“If you can dodge an umbrella, you can dodge a ball!”

Memoir of a Murderer

I have, of late, become much less sensitive to crowds and noise, which is a real boon given the way the neighborhood’s been changing over the past decades of my life, and more directly helpful in terms of shuttling The Flower to her friend’s house which is in one of the most crowded areas of the city. I’ll drop her off and drive the five miles (it takes a good half-hour) over to Koreatown and catch a film like Warriors of the Dawn, or, in this case Memoir of a Murderer.

The bamboo forest?
Dodging all the trees is the worst.

The theme of an assassin with amnesia has been done quite a bit. The first one I recall seeing was the slick Flemish film Memories of a Killer(2003), where a hitman is trying to pull One Last Job while losing his mind. Then there was Liam Neeson’s Unknown back in 2011, which has a very similar plot but is based on a French book, rather than a Belgian book. This Korean film, based on a Korean novel, has a different take on the genre. Instead of a professional assassin, our “hero” is actually a serial killer. (There’s also a Korean movie by the name of Memories of Murder by the guy who did The Host and Snowpiercer, but I don’t think that has the amnesia element.)

He’s a quasi-sympathetic, semi-retired serial killer, I suppose, having not killed anyone since a horrible car accident 17 years earlier. That accident may be the source of his current dementia, in fact, and we learn in dribs-and-drabs what happened that fateful day.

The story is fairly simple. Byung-su, a veterinarian, lives with his doting daughter, Eun-hee, who tries to get him to remember things by talking into a tape recorder, and marking time until he can no longer work. Often he goes out into a forest that he planted decades ago and where the bodies of his victims are buried. On his way back, he has an episode out on the road and rear ends a guy. A guy with Something In His Trunk. Something bloody. Although his “victim” laughs it off and says its a deer, Byung-su knows: He was a serial killer, he can spot another serial killer.

The uniform seals it.
Oh, yeah. He’s a serial killer.

Perhaps surprisingly, he’s not particularly sympathetic to other serial killers. He had standards. To wit: He never killed anybody who didn’t have it coming. Though, naturally, as his career progressed, the definition of who “has it coming” got broader. (As a vet, a little animal cruelty was enough to earn you a trip to the woods, e.g., and that’s probably one of the crimes when the audience most sympathizes with Byung-Su.)

This serial killer is going after young schoolgirls, which is not OK. But when he reports to the police, they don’t do anything. First, they know he’s got The Health Problems. Second, the guy he fingered is a cop named Tae-ju. And that’s just ridiculous.

It takes Byung-su a while to report the incident in the first place because, while he records the information (realizing its import), he has an episode not long after, and is easily distracted after such an episode. Tae-ju most clearly is what Byung-su suspects him to be, and uses the old man’s memory lapses to take advantage of his situation—in particular by targeting Eun-hee. While Byung-su doesn’t generally approve of other serial killers, he really doesn’t like them dating his daughter, and often his episodes leave him kind of blank and without his serial-killer-detecting powers, leaving him to believe that Tae-ju is okay.

Sometimes.

Helpful.
“Remember not to murder anyone on your way home.”

So, Byung-su has a problem, which is that his normal handlings of these things involve brute force murder, and he’s about 30 years too old, to say nothing of his mental issues, to take on the young Tae-ju. There’s also the whole issue of, well, is he right about Tae-ju? What if Byung-su is the one killing the girls? He could be doing it and not remembering it, he supposes. There are substantial moments in the film where his understanding of things is shown to be tragically off-base.

There’s a flip in this movie that the kids, were they with me, would’ve called a Double Bluff Reverso (from “King of the Hill”‘s Dale Gribble). But the problem with the DBR—a twist that completely subverts your understanding of the events that have preceded—is that it usually feels like a ridiculously stupid attempt to surprise you, and invalidates everything else you’ve seen. When the movie pulls that, I was still along for the ride, but it sure made me feel like a sap.

But then!

It pulls another Double Bluff Reverso! And then everything sort of makes sense again.

I did say the story was simple, and it actually is, but the plot is very complex at times, and some folks have criticized this film for precisely that: Too much plot getting in the way of the story. I can see that; it is a bit overwrought, I suppose. But I rather liked it. There’s a subtext here about redemption and forgiveness—to the extreme to be sure—that actually made the movie work for me when things got crazy.

Or maybe I just like Korean movies. They’re kind of like Hong Kong potboilers mixed with Israeli films: Crazy action and plot but with a tremendous sense of respect for the characters mixed in. Typically good cinematography. Gripping ending. Nice denouement. If you’re in the mood for an Asian thriller, you could do worse.

OK, cheap shot.
Remember: “North” is the better Korea.

Kindergarten Cop (1990)

Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic!
(Reading writing ‘rithmetic)
Too much homework makes me sick
(Too much homework makes me sick!)
When it’s time to pass the test
(When it’s time to pass the test)
Kindergarten is the best
(Kindergarten is the best!)

*shudder*
A “predator” is nothing compared to a class full of four-year-olds.

I regarded Kindergarten Cop as a forgettable late-era Ivan Reitman/Arnold Schwarzenegger collaboration like Twins and Junior, but perhaps because we missed Total Recall and The Running Man, the kids were semi-interested—enough to actually amble down to the theater and check it out. (And as forgettable as it was, I always remembered the chant, and have considered the approach of handling mobs of children with strict police discipline a winner.)

It was a bit of a box office disappointment, taking in substantially less at the box office than the previous outing, Twins, and finishing only 10th for the year, under the also somewhat disappointing Total Recall (which finished 7th). Schwarzenegger blamed this on the movie’s violence. Upon reviewing, though, it seems to me that Reitman was trying to recapture the magic of Ghostbusters, which successfully blended comedy with the sci-fi/SFX-extravaganza by blending comedy—the RomCom, even—with the cop movie.

"I'm thinking! I'm thinking!"
“What do you mean, it’s either you or the truffle shuffle kid?”

What’s weird is: this movie holds up shockingly well. I might even enjoy it more now. Sometimes when a movie is better (or worse) in retrospect it’s because you’ve changed. Other times, it’s because, well, times have changed. And I think that’s the case here. The clichés of the ’80s cop flick were so well-established (much like those of the jungle-rescue, as seen in Predator) I think it was easy to dismiss them even when very well done. And here, it’s not so much that they’re well done as they are comically absurd—and deliberately so! Kimble (Arnold) is basically Venkman—Bill Murray’s character in Ghostbusters.

He’s a real cop, sure, unlike Murray’s faux-scientist, but his complete disregard for anything like procedure and his complete lack of concern for the consequences of his action when dealing with The Bad Guys (and you always know who they are!) is really in the same mold. Pamela Reed, in a typically great turns as his erstwhile partner, actually comes off as more by-the-book (though not at all uptight, saving us from another cliché). The damsel-in-distress is Penelope Ann Miller, with a red herring from Cathy Moriarty (got me this time, too), and her son (the now middle-aged Joseph and Christian Cousins) provides a good vehicle for our musclebound Austrian to demonstrate his softer side. (To say nothing of the mob of children.)

She doesn't do nearly enough voice work.
She was a regular on “Jericho,” which I’ve heard good things about.

And, you know what? He’s really good! He can speak about 10-times clearer than he did in Predator, which was only 3 years earlier, indicating to me that, even though wildly successful, he was working his ass off to expand his range. He can actually make with the funny, beyond (very) short quips. He has great chemistry with the kids; in a way, the “love story” is about him and the children, and there’s enough there to hang your hat on about the decision to work a career (a sometimes awful career like vice cop) versus appreciating your family in a place that’s a lot less seedy. (In this case, Astoria, Oregon, home of The Goonies.)

The kids were pleased, and I was surprised. Reitman was like that: Under even the least of his movies, there tended to be a lot of heart and soul, to say nothing of professionalism. I’m talking about him like he’s dead and not working on a sequel to Twins called Triplets (with Eddie Murphy as the genetic match to Schwarzenneger and Danny Devito).

Anyway, worth a second look.

And, apparently, the kids did NOT grow up to be freaks, which is nice.
Weirdly, this is the only cap I could find of the cute Gettysburg thing.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

This is more of a bookmark: I didn’t actually get to see this. We trundled off to the theater to catch this “first” Ghibli film, which (deep breath) is Hayao Miyazaki’s second film (after Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro) and an independent film produced by Isao Takahata, but which was made before Ghibli was actually formed.

After a few (fun) shorts, the movie started and…there were no subtitles. Apparently, the first lines spoken are gibberish so, no worries. But then…nope.

Our Japanese is a bit rough so we got a manager and they fooled around for a while and restarted and…no subtitles. Then they tried again with the dub, and that was fine (the Flower generally prefers dubs so she can focus on the visuals) but…the top and bottom were cut off. We tried watching for a few minutes but The Flower and the Boy’s Girl were starting to get uncomfortable with that, and I found it completely unwatchable.

So we adjourned. The kids went back on Wednesday to see the film but I couldn’t make it. They didn’t like it as much as Lupin, though they thought it was pretty good. The five minutes I saw (three times) looked a whole lot like they were inspired by Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards.

(I couldn't find a good screenshot from the actual film.)
From Roman Dubina on DeviantArt.

After this we would get the first Ghibli film, Castle In The Sky.

Kong: Skull Island

I dragged The Boy along to see this one. (The Barbarienne was an enthusiastic accomplice to my kaiju venture.) I never really got into the giant monster movies as a kid. King Kong aside, which of course I loved—along with any Harryhausen—I found them dumb and boring. (Although, I had a bit of a soft spot for Rodan and Mothra.) But if you take the kaiju movie for what it is it can be pretty entertaining, as we saw with the recent Godzilla flick, or Pacific Rim.

What? He's a big man.
Casting John Goodman as a Kaiju was a natural choice.

I didn’t stay to the end of the movie so I missed the (now obvious) tie-in to a kind of “Kaiju Cinematic Universe”, doubtless a bunch of planned CGI-extravaganzas centered around the classic Toho monsters and America’s only major contribution to the genre, RKO’s King Kong. (I don’t think anyone’s pining for the 50 foot woman or the Amazing Colossal Man or, I don’t know, the big ants from Them!)

But the movie stands on its own just fine. It takes place at the end of the Vietnam war and is laden with some of the most awful and egregious Vietnam war movie clichés you can imagine—which, actually, didn’t bug me. They were cheesy and out of place and get so ridiculously over the top with the help of Samuel L. Jackson (who’s no more believable as a general than he is a highly trained international assassin), who the script uses to tease every opportunity to present a differing viewpoint in a reasonable way only to utterly abandon any sense of humanity or decency by the end of the film.

Kong’s not the real monster here, guys. It’s the US military, top to bottom.

I should be offended, or maybe somebody should be, but at this point it’s like most movies are telling urban legends around a campfire when it comes to anything related to the US military and especially the Vietnam War. It’s like the Gravediggers Guild being upset by tales of “Burke and Hare”, or barbers getting upset over “Sweeney Todd”. It’s just so removed from anything like reality at this point, that it’s just a dumb trope.

I'm slurring apes with this kind of talk.
Saigon. Kong not believe he still in Saigon.

The story, as I recall it, is that a bunch of contemporary (early ’70s) soldiers/journalists investigate a mysterious island which is surrounded by a treacherous weather pattern that both hides it and keeps outsiders away. A mission to the island (for nebulous reasons) reveals a lost WWII-era soldier (John C. Reilly), numerous forms of threatening fauna and flora, as well as a Kong (King). Crazy-eyed Jackson decides he needs to kill it, out of revenge and because he’s representing the US military. The others become increasingly aware of his instability and menace to both them and possibly the world as a whole.

Sure, you’ve seen it before. A lot. And you’ll see it again. And like it, see? At least sorta.

Basically, nicely done effects (a little strained in some of the earlier parts), some good action, some good character interaction greatly shored up by Reilly, John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, and a light touch by “Funny or Die” (seriously) alumnus Jordan Vogt-Roberts. He does a good job keeping it light without being snarky or snide, and giving his characters some gravitas without making them thespian funeral dirges. It’s good popcorn stuff.

Twitter pal The Dude (@WoodWhisperers) actually gave me a mini-master-class on the best generation of Kaiju films, and he views this movie as somewhat disappointing, in terms of lost opportunities. (And when someone knows their stuff, you gotta file that info for future research.) But for a bunch of amateurs (The Boy and the Barb), it was an okay time, and we would probably recommend it, if you’re not an expert and you might like a movie about a Giant Gorilla of Justice.

Commie what now?
Gratuitous Tian Jing to capture that sweet commie Yuan.

 

Baby Driver

One of the lines used in Edgar Wright’s new action/crime flick is lifted (credited) from Fight Club: “How’s that working out for you?” When TV’s Andy Levy reviewed the picture, he put the line in context:

Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it’s very clever.
Narrator: Thank you.
Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?
Narrator: What?
Tyler Durden: Being clever.
Narrator: Great.
Tyler Durden: Keep it up then… Right up.

In Fight Club, it’s none-too-subtle dig at the Narrator’s use of “cute” and “snark” to avoid the implications of his own meaningless existence. Levy’s implication is not nearly so savage, I think. He’s pointing out that Wright is very clever and sometimes his movies can feel too clever.

My ears.
Firing a gun inside a closed car? Ow.

Which is a mild criticism, and one I might agree with, at least to the extent of feeling it was a bit over-hyped by critics. It’s fun. The Flower, The Boy, His Girl and I all agreed it was “pretty good”, which is fainter praise than it deserves, really. But let’s start from the beginning

Ansel Elgort (The Fault In Our Stars) plays “Baby”, a young man who drives for “Doc” (Kevin Spacey) on the various heists that he plans. Baby’s back story is that he was in an accident as a child, that killed both his abusive father and singing mother, and left him with tinnitus, so he uses music to drown out the ringing. (This movie might actually be somewhat annoying at points if you actually have tinnitus.) This contrivance allows Wright to string together action pieces with the specific songs Baby listens to while fleeing from crime scenes.

This is actually very strong: Wright has a great visual feel and the opening parts of the movie are near “silent”, in the sense of having minimal dialogue, and very well choreographed. From the campy direction of “Spaced” and the Shaun of the Dead, Wright has forged a style that’s distinctive and broader in tone than seen in the Cornetto Trilogy (ShaunHot Fuzz and The World’s End).

What the hell is that pink thing she's wearing?
Bad girl.

Anyway, Baby works for the bad guys because as a kid he stole Doc’s car, and doc has been making him “work it off” for the past several years. His step-father (C.J. Jones) doesn’t approve and, one imagines his potential girlfriend, the cute waitress at the local diner (Lily James, Cinderella), might not approve either. (Well, maybe a little.) Elgort and James are precious here, and one thing Wright does very well is handle their inherent cuteness with a level of finesse that keeps it from being cloying. I kept thinking I was going to end up disliking either or both but, nah.

Baby’s work means his colleague tend toward the psychotic, including Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Jon Bernthal (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Sicario), and sexy Mexican import Eiza González. The contrast between González and James is good: They’re both about the same age in real life (James is actually older) but Eiza’s dress and manner make her femme fatale material, whereas nearly 30 James looks like she’s fresh out of high school.

So good.
Good girl.

All these elements work toward a difficult (but relatively clear, morally speaking) set of choices for Baby, and the movie escalates the narrative in a “believable” fashion. I had a little trouble figuring out why Baby didn’t just bail in the middle of the third act—he’s given a lot of opportunities—but I think that he was afraid the rest of them would find him and kill him. I guess I needed a little more hand-holding there.

But as has been noted, especially by @JulesLaLaLand, Wright has a bit of an issue with his third acts. They tend to go a little nuts, and this one is no exception. It’s well done, but we all sort of thought the movie would have ended sooner (not that we objected to how it did end) and with the music and cars and the gunplay, etc., it almost feels like Wright lacks confidence in his own endings, so he amps the spectacle over the story.

I’m just guessing here. It’s a good movie, very good, and a lot of fun in a way movies are having trouble being these days. So big points for that.

Only more tattoos.
Every meeting I’ve ever been in.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

I’m not sure at what point I realized this, but The Hitman’s Bodyguard is essentially a modern take on the ’80s odd-couple/buddy-cop action genre. So, instead of two cops, one by the book and one a rebel who gets results, we have two high-level mercenaries, one who’s a hitman (Samuel L. Jackson in his least believable role since his computer hacking in Jurassic Park) and another who protects those who are likely hit targets (Ryan Reynolds, who The Flower thought was really fey at first).

That might not even be him.
Fey, you say?

This is a crowd-pleasing formula, though never a critic-pleasing one, since it essentially assumes the position that there is good and evil, and they can be delineated, if not easily. (Hence the 37/70 split on RT.) I would go so far as to say this film is under-rated, but I had literally zero expectations going in. (We wanted to see Baby Driver but we didn’t want to be late to Knott’s Scary Farm, so we opted for It, very reluctantly. Then the traffic was so bad, this was basically our only choice.)

The premise is that Darius Kincaid (Jackson) is a hitman who’s going to turn state’s evidence (whatever the international equivalent would be…states’ evidence?) on evil Belarussian prime minister (Gary Oldman, whom I didn’t actually recognize but just assumed was Gary Oldman because who else would you get for that role?) in order to save his foul-mouthed, murderous wife Sonia (Salma Hayek, spitting out paragraphs of dialogue like she’s in Dogma 2) . On the way to The Hague, the armored car carrying him is ambushed, in a scenario that Dairus is lampshading amusingly, leaving only him and one guard survivor, Amelia (Elodie Yung, who I guess is Elektra in the current Marvel TV thingies I don’t watch, but whom I last saw in 2011’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).

No, they're not. I don't know why that was ever a thing.
They’re the original odd couple!

Amelia goes to a nearby safehouse and contacts her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) whom she bribes into taking custody of Darius. They split because of a job that Michael thinks Amelia betrayed him on. Meanwhile, his reaction to seeing Darius is to try to kill him, and vice-versa.

Through a variety of mishaps, this turns into a cross-country road-trip where they learn a little, laugh a little, love a little. You’ve seen it a thousand times before, you will most certainly see it again. The entertainment factor of something like this depends on a few things: Is the action good, is the dialogue enough to make the non-action scenes un-boring, and (in the trifecta) does the movie actually make you care about the characters.

Now, this stuff is pure cartoon. Reynolds is basically being Deadpool without the bodysuit. Jackson is being psycho-but-lovable Jackson, and his over-the-top relationship with Hayek is sweet and silly. So, if you can’t buy into the goofiness, you won’t enjoy this.

I like the bartender.
Love is, admittedly, kinda goofy.

If you can, it’s worth the two hours. It’s funny, weirdly romantic, and the action holds together pretty well until the final set piece which seemed a bit overloud and overlong. It also—as these movies must—delineates the idea of good vs. evil, in this case with Darius making Michael question whether or not he’s been on the right side, if he’s essentially protecting killers. The acting is good: Jackson is not believable as an international hit man, as noted earlier, but that’s not really important and he’s fun to watch. Patrick Hughes (The Expendables 3) directs the proceedings confidently and unapologetically.

The Boy, The Flower and I all enjoyed it, and we were in a good mood heading into Knott’s.

Eep.
That expression makes me think you wouldn’t want her as an ex.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

We missed the Schwarz-tember (still sounds more Jewish to me than Austrian) showing of The Running Man in order to catch Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro which was Hayao Miyazaki’s first film, and the only film he made for someone else, I think. (Next week’s film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind would be his second film, not technically a Ghibli film because the studio hadn’t been formed, but also not “for” anyone else. And there’s your Japanimation lesson right there.)

He's just a happy thief.
Our hero after his first heist. (He’s driving, btw.)

I figured it would be pretty good, but my interest was mainly historical. I expected there to be flashes of interest in-and-amongst bits of goofy ’70s-era Japanese TV-level stuff. Before the movie started, there was an interview with John Lasseter and the creepy Fathom Events host, and Lasseter was just hammering how great this movie was. So funny, and great art and…

We all got a little nervous at that point. It was ten minutes of solid hype. And I know Lasseter is a huge Miyazaki fan, but could this (doubtless primitive) 1979-movie-based-on-a-series-based-on-a-Manga hold up under this kinds of expectations? (Apparently, he wooed his wife with this film!) It’s so funny, he said, many times over, often echoed by host-who-needs-haircut-and-better-fitting-clothes. Still…I think if you scaled it for inflation, the film made today would have something like a million dollar budget—and it wasn’t a hit at the time. Retroactively, sure, but people can be generous with their heroes.

And…mirabile dictu!…it actually is great. You do get all the historical aspects of it; The Flower and I were busy nudging each other at parts we would see turn up in later films, like the robots from Castle In The Sky (1986) and the already baked in influences, like the castle tower you can only reach through the retractable bridge (The King and the Mockingbird), and yes, there is a scene which would become basically a hallmark of Ghibli: A moment of near perfect calm, where nothing is happening.

Especially if you have a buddy who will change the tire for you.
Your moment of zen.

On that last point, it’s kind of a funny thing: The Japanese in general and Miyazaki in particular are not afraid to let a film breathe. They will take a long moment to show something beautiful or wondrous, where nothing is happening. The best ones use it either to contrast something else, or to set up an emotional moment or character shift. Occasionally, you can see it as a climax, where the hero, given a chance to breathe, figures a way out of his problems. American animators used to not be afraid of it so much, but now they all ooh-and-aah at Miyazaki-san’s pauses while treating any moment of calm in their own films like radioactive poison.

This, by the way, seems to include Lasseter. The closest any of us could think of to such a moment in a recent animation was the sloth scene in Zootopia, and that’s a gag with terrific reaction shots. Not the same beast.

And also, one suspects, it wasn’t the mode in the Japanimation of the day, either, since in this case, it’s a guy changing a tire. He’s not the focus of the action and the “camera” drifts to a nearby flowered field while it’s going on. But the spirit is there as the characters take a moment to enjoy life—right before chasing after some gangsters who are pursuing a beautiful fleeing girl into the mysterious country of Cagliostro. (The whole thing takes place in a fictional European country and is a typically delightfully askew view of Europe from the Orient.)

Patient zero.
His good nature is infectious.

The story is that the international thief Lupin III, fresh from a casino heist where he steals all the money only to discover that it’s counterfeit—a thing he finds hilarious—decides to see if he can find the counterfeiters and muscle in on their action. While changing a flat tire, he sees the girl fleeing from the gun-toting mafioso and (with his trusty friend Jigen, the best shot in the world!) saves her from their evil clutches…almost. As they abscond with her, he pursues them into Cagliostro and proceeds to figure out how to free her.

He calls for help from Ishikawa, his Samurai pal, and in checking out the place, he discovers Fujiko—his lady love/femme fatale/occasional caper co-conspirator—already performing a heist on the premises. What we learn is that there was a terrible fire about ten years back and the young lord of the castle died. The deceased lord’s sister, Clarisse is to be wed to the Count, thus consolidating Cagliostro under his authority and also…something else more mysterious and Gothic. (That whole marry-your-uncle/cousin thing is very Gothic romance-y. I wasn’t clear on their relationship, but they would actually be pretty distant cousins, he being from a branch that separated 500 years earlier.)

Quid pro quo, Clarisse.
Fujiko and the Princess Clarisse.

It is, as Mr. Lasseter says, very funny. It’s also very quick without feeling frantic, as Japanimation from that era can. It’s romantic, in that Clarisse finds herself falling for Lupin, and Romantic, in that Lupin knows he’s not good enough for her. (Well, he wouldn’t put it that way: It’s more, he’s too shifty—international jewel thief!—and he couldn’t take advantage of her, because he’s a knight errant at heart.) Lupin’s disregard for law-and-order is entirely good-natured, and he is that rarity of lovable rogue that has a light-hearted sense of humor.

This is a rarity today as well: He’s got a lot of flaws, beyond character flaws. He’s a terrible shot, for example. He’s just terrible with guns, straight up. Jigen has that covered, and has an interesting relationship with Lupin in that he regards Lupin as the boss, but it’s more of a “I trust this guy to make the right choices for our life of crime” thing. Fujiko is less a femme-fatale than an adventurous archetype with very traditional values. For all her competence as a cat burglar, she’s not super-powered, and her relationship with Lupin is one of a girl playing hard-to-get. A distaff version of Lupin, sorta, enjoying the chase more than any resolution.

I’m not gonna gush because…hell, it made me suspicious, but the kids were debating whether this might not be their favorite Miyazaki film! I would find it hard to rank them, but one way this movie succeeds is that it brings Miyazaki’s touch to a known commodity. Lupin III is a famous manga (by a guy named “Monkey Punch”, heh) now in its 50th year, but with a long-running TV series even by the late ’70s. The pressures on Miyazaki—pressures I would guess inspired him to start his own studio—mean you get a less poetically Miyazaki film on the one hand, but on the other, a film that’s just fun from start to finish, without any pretensions.

And...is that a SLIDE RULE?
And the ’70s means there’s more smoking and drinking than one expects in a kidflick.

So, best, top 5, or even worst (in a field of 11 films that are all worth watching and re-watching), this is not a “well, I’ll watch it for historical interest” but a “wow, this is gonna be fun!” experience. I did a quick survey of a dozen Miyazaki rankings and found this film on the bottom of half, and near the bottom of all the rest but one, who pointed out how much fun it was. But the best caption for one of these rankings was “Good To Best”, which is right: It’s sort of meaningless to rank these things; they stand on their own and provide their own joys.

The only extraordinary recommendation I would make here is that, if you don’t generally like Miyazaki, you might find you like this.

The ladies love his style.
…not to mention gambling and carousing…

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

We have been, as noted elsewhere, pretty burnt out on this whole superhero thing. We don’t even want to go see good superhero movies, particularly. But The Boy had gone to see this with His Girl, and possibly her parents, and reported positively on it, and The Barbarienne is easily the most into the superhero thing of all the kids, so we ambled out four months after its release to go see it. I mention that because it’s still playing, and may actually complete a five-month run if it hangs just one more week. (Note: It did not make it.)

Which is why we get credits for the lunch lady at the cafeteria where the server manager eats M-F.
Movie magic! Mostly it’s nerds on computers.

Movies don’t generally play that long any more. Wonder Woman will enter its fifth month next week, and it’s also still playing. Even for the #2 and #3 movies of the year (Beauty and the Beast is #1 and looking like it’s unlikely to be unseated), that’s pretty remarkable in the 2010s. But 2017 is different, and bereft enough that, believe it or not, The Emoji Movie is also still playing. Granted, that’s only a two month run, but even a spectacular failure like that may finish out in the top 40 for the year.

But rather than go on a rant about how the superhero thing may finally, really, be coming to an end, we should talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is actually better in every way than its (very good) predecessor, except in the soundtrack.

Pathos.
Your mileage, like tiny dancing Groot’s, may vary.

In this episode, we’re focused on Peter Quill (a.k.a. “Star-Lord” but just barely) discovering his real father (Kurt Russell!), or rather his father discovering him, while he’s fleeing from the Reavers (again). Turns out Yondu (Michael Rooker) was supposed to deliver him over, but kept him, apparently, because he was small and could fit into spaces they couldn’t. (Because a galaxy full of fantastic creatures does not support a single “small humanoid” species, I guess.) Yondu’s got his own issues, we discover, because of a longstanding feud with the rest of the Reavers brought on by trafficking in children, resulting in a throw-down with the Reaver “king” (or whatever), played by Sylvester Stallone.

Hearing Stallone’s cadence and pronunciations has a similar effect to hearing John C. Reilly’s in the original. Somewhat jarring at first, but also kind of refreshing. We could use less bland and generic science-fiction voices.

Meanwhile, green-girl is working out issues with blue-girl sister—I’m sorry, this is way easier than using their names—and raccoon-guy is fighting with Yondu (arrow-guy) but mostly because they’re so much alike, and Tattooed Muscles is hitting it off with a new character, Bug-Girl (completely not in that way because she’s so gross), and Groot is running around like an idiot because he’s basically a twig of his former self, and a combination of a little “young”, a little dumb and (as a tree) somewhat inscrutable.

Pardon my movie jargon.
Have I mentioned there are some “special effects” in this movie?

(Groot’s name, of course, is easy to remember because all he ever says is “I am Groot.”)

So, hero and demiurge Dad are hanging out, and we discover that Dad has a world which contains his essence and gives him both immortality and some degree of creative powers. I don’t mean like “He can write a song” but more like “He made the body he’s living in.”

But all is not as it seems!

I hope that’s not a spoiler. It shouldn’t be. What’s sort of funny, for me, is that in the opening scene of the first movie, when Peter’s mom is dying, I exactly anticipated the cause of her death, which is revealed in this film. (This isn’t canon, and I never read Marvel anyway, so it’s not like I had foreknowledge. But it’s not the first time I’ve seen this device used.) It’s not a big deal, really: The what is secondary to the why, and that I didn’t see coming.

Anyway, lotta good action. It’s a bit much at the end, as modern superhero movies seem to require. Writer/director James Gunn seems to respect the characters (which I think are not quite like their comic book counterparts, but I don’t know). There’s a lot of good laughs: Baby Groot is a terrific device for comedy and even pathos, and grownup Groot is kind of problematic since he’s basically magic. Gunn seems to take things just seriously enough so that the ridiculously high stakes don’t seem like a sham, but not so seriously that it’s not fun. He also seems to cleverly avoid a lot of the worn-out superhero tropes by dealing heavily in space opera—a field which, right now, is cinematically limited to Star Wars, I guess.

It’s all you could ask for in a superhero ensemble film. If you’re in the market for a superhero ensemble film. We liked it all right. The Barb loved it, natch.

Space dentistry!
Once more into the breach, dear friends.

 

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Of course, the only correct reaction after seeing this Isao Takahati/Studio Ghibli film, possibly the saddest movie ever made is:

“And that’s what you get for bombing Pearl Harbor!”

Noooo. Those are the fireflies, silly.
Pictured: The fire-bombing of Osaka.

The Japanese are funny. Not just funny ha-ha, because they are that, but also funny strange, which is such an obvious statement as to be a cliché at this point. But setting aside the weird cultural diversions they are famous for, and their inability to reproduce—which is probably the direct result of our wrecking their culture after WWII—they seem to have avoided the Western world’s self-flagellation.

That is to say, while I have seen many Japanese films about WWII, I have yet to see one from Japan that admits to any culpability outside of the generic “War is Bad” stuff. This creates an interesting situation where, for example, we have sympathy when our heroine in In This Corner of the World, when she rages that all her sacrifices were for nothing because Japan lost the war. And in The Wind Rises for the designer of the Zero—a plane used to kill many Americans—because he just wanted to make planes.

I’m not really making a judgment here. If there’s anything easier than virtue signalling about genocide, I’m not sure what it is. And I’m not sure it’s healthy the way the Germans, the French, the Italians, etcetera, beat themselves up over WWII, though this does absolutely nothing to curb their modern anti-semitism. (The Russians don’t seem do this, probably because it was the Soviets that sowed the seeds of guilt in the west after WWII.) I do wonder about the effect on the post-war Japanese, who seem to believe the United States dropped the A-Bomb on them on a lark. (In Corner, there’s a kind of echo of the sentiment “How dare they surrender while any Japanese are still living!”)

Right?!?
She’s gonna be fine, right?

But the attitude gives us a perspective which is perhaps truer to life: Namely, people tend to root for a particular side without necessarily any way to know what’s going on. I think the only film I know of that shows the insanity of Japan at the end of the war is Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima. But when a government (and its fellow travelers—kaff) completely controls the media and culture, you can have both situations: That is, one where people running up against the edge of the crazy experience it in full force while those who can’t even believe such things are going on.

Which brings us to this sad and beautiful film about two orphaned children starving to death in the final days of the war. Because who knows less about what’s going on, and is impacted more, than orphaned children? The movie begins with Seita, the narrator, starving to death in a train station, as various Japanese adults ignore him, and American soldiers distribute food. The rest of the movie is in flashback, where he describes his (failed) struggle to keep his baby sister Setsuko alive.

Not exactly “Heidi: Girl of the Alps” (one of the TV shows Takahata worked on before Ghibli).

Nah. Probably just a coincidence.
An actual firebombing. Say, I wonder if that’s meant to be a parallel?

It’s a touching story, obviously. It doesn’t really have to try hard: Just about any kids struggling to survive in this context would be touching. What surprised me in this context (seeing it again after only seeing it on video a couple of decades ago) was that it isn’t that this movie wallows in suffering, as sometimes happens with sad films. It’s basically a kind of coming-of-age story for Seita, where he, you know, doesn’t actually get the opportunity to come of age.

But their journey is charming in the way of a lot of kid’s adventure stories. If not for, you know, the malnutrition and the ending, you could easily see it being a kind of Pippi Longstocking thing. And the author of the original novel has said that it’s not meant as an anti-war treatise at all, but as an apology to his late sister.

This rescues it from the triteness of being merely “anti-war”: Seita’s pride ultimately results in his sister’s (and his own) death—somethign I hadn’t realized the first time I saw this but was inescapable now. He can’t stand his shrew of an aunt, who’s using his and Setsuko’s food to feed her own family, while constantly berating the two of them for not helping, and further chastising Setsuko for having nightmares about her recently deceased mother. She doesn’t really run them off; rather Setsuko runs away with Seita, envisioning an idealized world with just the two of them.

This, as I say, makes a far more powerfully poignant and heart-wrenching story than “Oh, war is bad, and bad things happen to kids in war.”

I brought Kleenex. I didn’t need them (much) but that’s because…uh…I’m really strong and not susceptible to this sort of thing. Honest. The kids loved it, of course, even with the Flower’s reservations seeing it. (She had also seen it on video when she was way too young.) One of my co-workers came and cried with us, which was sweet. (She was missing her own kid, who was off with her father.)

Beautiful film, but it’ll rip your heart out.

AAAAAUUUGH!
She’s gonna be fine RIGHT?!?!

Rifftrax Live: Summer Shorts Beach Party

I sometimes forget to review things and it doesn’t turn up until I go to link to those things later on. In this case, I was looking for this “Summer Shorts Beach Party” when doing the write-up for “The Five Doctors”, and realized I hadn’t done a write-up. This is typically just forgetfulness, although rarely because I want to mull things over. (This year, I’ve been so far behind with my reviews, the challenge is remembering the actual films and our reactions to them.)

What?
There’s a lot of ball fondling in Summer Shorts.

I don’t think there was more to this than forgetfulness, but I’ll be honest: I’m increasingly uncomfortable going to see Frank Conniff in a show because he’s so political. And by “political” I mean, virulently partisan. I cannot follow him on Twitter, and I was very worried about last year’s Rifftrax Presents: The Mystery Science Theater 300 Reunion because I worried his stuff would be mostly references to politics. (It wasn’t much, as a I recall. Just a little.)

It’s a shame because I think he’s a sweetheart of a fella outside of politics. (Remember kids, politics makes a man mean and stupid.) His MST3K colleagues seem to universally love him, and he seems to have a generous soul.

His political invective is so awful, however, I would not go see him and Trace do “The Mads Are Back”—their own light-weight Rifftrax/MST3K show—for fear of having to listen to him rant. This is maybe unfair. He and Trace do a movie podcast which doesn’t seem to have much politics in it, for example, but that’s free and I could turn it off. Paying $20 for a ticket to sit down to someone who might decide he’s got a two hour platform for gems like “A crazed sociopath just seized a podium at the U.N. and threatened to assasinate[sic] the world” is more than I’m willing to risk.

And, while the political invective was mild here, it also wasn’t very funny. This, as I say, is a tragedy because Trace (and Frank!) can be very funny.

It's what you call a "soft target".
Trace and Frank riff “Office Etiquette”.

This stuff, for me, is about escapism in its purist sense. I got to be very good, during the W years, about avoiding movies that set off my “Oh, man, there’s a 20 minute rant about Bush in this movie, isn’t there?” alarm. Even then, I saw way too much of it. The occasions where classic MST3K got political tended to be rare and very broad, and the new season carries that on, as does Rifftrax, generally.

A classic case can be seen in one of the funniest riffs ever, Rifftrax’s “Birdemic”. Insofar as I can follow the plot Birdemic is about global warming causing rampant spruce bark beetle proliferation which in turn, naturally, leads to killer, exploding birds attacking humans. It’s common sense really. But more importantly, the riff pretty much works because it’s not commenting on global warming one way or the other, only on the producer’s sincerely inept attempt to make an enviro-horror movie.

This is a lot of upfront to give one segment of a 6 or 7-segment show which  featured seven pretty mild political jokes. I reviewed it just now, to see how bad it really was, and counted: A Huckabee joke, three pay for women and one glass ceiling joke, mansplaining, O’Reilly and one I forget. They’re all pretty forgettable and on reflection, I think I’m disappointed just because these guys are so talented, and these are pretty lazy jokes.

A high point!
Mary Jo and Bridgett riff “The Griper”.

Of course, you gotta do, as an artist, whatcha gotta do. I’ve seen Frank’s (and other MSTers) retort to those who object to the politicization, and they’re not kind, so I wouldn’t expect my measly little opinion to have an influence on anyone. But I stopped watching TV in the W decade, and while I’m unlikely to give up movies, I can give a wide berth to anything even remotely smelling of politics. I’m pretty good at sussing out which ones are political from the critic reviews, too. I will opt-out, and I will do so aggressively. And seeing the general ratings of channels and shows that have done that, I’m not the only one. (And this week, the football thing. Oy. Mainstream entertainment is committing culture right alongside the mainstream media: At a time when they are at their weakest.)

Trace did most of the lines in the “Reunion” show (which doesn’t mean he wrote them all) but they were among the best in the show. This time the delivery is more 50-50 and just not as good. Paul F. Tompkins, one of my favorites going back over a decade, fills in for the Jonah/Joel MST3K team (they were understandably not represented this year), is good, wears a jaunty hat, and is hard to pick out from the regular boys sometimes. Bridget and Mary Jo, on the other hand, were better than last year. They’re both more polished and they have funnier quips. The group finale wasn’t as good either, though it was seriously buoyed by the surrealism of the short being riffed. (A weird ’70s acid trip called “The Baggs”.)

It's pretty good.
Paul F. Tompkins joins the regular crew for the riff on GM’s “A Touch Of Magic”.

Mike, Bill and Kevin were great. It felt a lot more like they were carrying the show this time, though.

I don’t know: It might simply have been a nostalgia/optimism factor, or it may just have been luck-of-the-draw, but overall, we didn’t find this one as hilarious as last year’s. Keep in mind, though: It was still pretty damned funny. The shorts are priceless. Some of the riffs are breath-taking (as in, you can’t breathe afterwards). And even if the Trace/Frank segment had a lot of misses, it had a lot of hits, too.

We’ll see how I feel about going next year if they do one. I have this live show on video, so I may watch it again to see what I think.

Eh, it's actually kind of cute, just out-dated and VERY riffable.
What in the actual…

Predator (1987)

“GET TO DA CHOPPAH!”

Yuge.
There are literally NO pictures on the Internet of the moment where Schwarzenegger says “Get to da choppa!” that don’t have the words “GET TO DA CHOPPA!” on them so enjoy this display of oversized guns.

OK, perhaps it’s not exactly poetry, but verbal poetry takes a back seat to memorable imagery and quotability in cinema, and Schwarzenegger was savvy enough to realize that in the heyday of his action career. I, personally, felt like Predator was a little cheesy at the time, but on reviewing it, well, it’s still just about as cheesy I remember (whereas most of the usual suspects from the ’80s have gotten a whole lot cheesier).

The kids loved it. And there are some very remarkable things about this film. The first third is a run-of-the-mill ’80s-Commando-Rescue plot, though ably directed by John McTiernan (whose next feature would be the Christmas classic Die Hard) featuring Apollo Creed and the other future governor, Jesse “I aint’ got time to bleed” Venture (who would show up in next week’s showing of Running Man as Captain Freedom, which we skipped to see the Hayao Miyazaki film Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro).

But even this third is sort of noteworthy as it is peopled by characters who might be boiled down to “Ripped Indian”, “Ripped Ugly Black Dude”, “Ripped Pretty Black Dude”, “Somewhat Less Ripped White Guy With Glasses”, etc., but who are actually attended to, despite the demands of the action story. This movie cares about its musclebound heroes, and has the advantage of a cast that actually kind of looks like it could do the amazing feats of strength and survival required (pace Tom Cruise).

That bicep is ridic. How does he Q-tip his ears?
More oversized guns. The only iron here is what they lift.

By the way, is it just my imagination or do the women who turn up in some of the Arnold films, like Elpidia Carroll and Maria Conchita Alonzo, look a lot like his baby mama?

Arnold's got a thing for the dark meat? as Chris Rock might say.
Eh. It’s a bit of a stretch.

Anyway, before you know it, Commando is turning into Ten Little Indians, although I was impressed retroactively at how well the movie disguises that. You kind of think that they aren’t all going to die, even when Billy says “We’re all gonna die” pretty early on. As I said, I think I liked it better this time than the first time, perhaps because the first part didn’t seem quite so clichéd. (I mean, seriously, what percentage of movies in any given ’80s year was a “jungle rescue” picture? 15%?)

There’s also something kind of patriotic, kind of “America is the good guys”, kind of flag wavy about the whole thing. We like that. Even when sneaky Carl Weathers is doing his (obvious) reveal, you also know he gets his chance for redemption, because, warts-and-all, America is still the Good Guys. (This is, like, the most ’80s/Reagan subtext possible.)

Where I was surprised was the Predator’s camouflage. That seemed like such a cool effect at the time, and it was, but it looks really rough now. Like “He’s standing right there! Are you blind?” rough. This, like those quick cuts that by now seem interminably long to our increasingly trained brains, did not age well. The puppetry/face mask stuff is still exquisite, though. The movie lost its visual effects Oscar to—I kid you not—the Joe Dante/Dennis Quaid/Martin Short comedy Innerspace.

No need to finish the sentence, really.
“You are one ugly m—-“

The kids loved it, as I said, way more than I did. And they don’t even know it was directed by the Die Hard guy. Alan Silvestri’s score holds up very well. And sure enough, that’s Shane Black as the thinking-man’s commando, before he went on to write the Lethal Weapon series. Black is actually directing the Predator reboot/sequel due out next year. I’m cautiously optimistic after his outing with Gosling and Crowe in The Nice Guys.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Bum-BUM-buum…

BUM-BUM!

I said in my review of Raiders of the Lost Ark that Lucas & Spielberg owed a lot to Harrison Ford, but they also owe a lot to John Williams. The Jaws theme, Indy’s theme, Star Wars‘ various themes, and so on. In the spoiler-y pre-show for the 40th anniversary, Spielberg said he was worried after Star Wars that Williams would have nothing left in him for another movie. Thank Jehovah, he did, as Close Encounters of the Third Kind depends on music for the plot. That could’ve turned out badly, indeed.

Yay! '70s!
Pictured: The World’s Largest “Simon”

If you don’t recall/haven’t seen it, the premise is that Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) is visited by aliens on an Indiana road one night and becomes increasingly obsessed in a world that’s particularly hostile to the notion of alien visitors. He loses his job, his family, and to no small degree, his sanity because he can’t stop thinking about this shape that the aliens have implanted in his mind.

I have to pause for a moment to point out that the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a hilarious episode based on the Spaghetti Sci-Fi Starcrash where the lovely Caroline Munro gets on to an unknown alien spacecraft in a sequence that takes well over a minute. (Starcrash is an extravaganza of drawn-out effects shots for not very good at all effects.) Jonah and the bots take this opportunity to sing a little Beach Boys-style song:

Surely no danger getting in a stranger’s UFO

She looks like a kitty cat but rides like an ace
Serenity and Slave One can’t keep the pace
Whitley Strieber and Roy Neary gonna join in the race
Yeah my UFO’s the coolest TTO in space

The Barbarienne and The Flower for that matter are not big MST3K fans, but they do love the songs, so they learned this one, and I tried to help them through the many references.

Check off: Roy Neary.

Fat screen TV!
Oh, like you don’t have scale model “Devil’s Tower” in YOUR living room.

I digress.

This is, quite possibly, my favorite Spielberg movie. I like movies about obsession, and I like Neary’s increasingly insane “it’s perfectly reasonable to throw trash into the living room to make a giant mountain” behavior. I didn’t know if it would hold up (and a few of the SFX are showing their seams, but not many and not too badly). In particular, this is a film about wonder, and there’s not a lot of that in cinema. (I don’t think there ever has been, because it’s just so expensive to do well, historically. And today we’ve swapped out wonder for spectacle in most cases, anyway.)

The kids really loved it, though. The Boy’s Girl had seen it—she’s probably seen more movies than they have, because she and her folks watched them on TV, which we largely did not do—but she did not get bored. I mean, that’s the real danger of this film, and I think people who don’t like it—they don’t ever buy in, so it’s just a bunch of flashing lights and people acting weird.

"Fire In The Sky" leaps to mind.
Variations on this shot have been used ever since.

Spielberg wrote the movie, which I’ll bet you can’t think of a single line of dialog from. There is some dialog here, a lot of it overlapping (and perhaps improvised), but the movie could be completely silent and work just about as well. I was glad I still could enjoy it, frankly, even while being more scrutinous now than when it came out. The ending is almost jarring in how much it delivers: Today we expect more of a tease and a promise.

Other notes: The 40th anniversary showing had tribute material up front. The Flower was ticked, because she doesn’t liked being spoiled and she actually didn’t have any idea aliens were involved. It also showed bits of scenes. Kinda annoying.

Also, kind of amusingly, right after Roy is playing with his mashed potatoes, the theater started flashing lights and booping. I thought maybe this was some kind of William Castle-style Emergo experience but, no, apparently the theater gets these sorts of false alarms pretty routinely. (It’s not a theater we go to much.) The Flower and I actually came back the next day to finish watching. (The Boy and The Boy’s Girl watched it over from the beginning, so that’s something.)

"Independence Day" beat the CRAP outta that kind of shot.
First time in a LONG time anyone had used a UFO contrasted with an earth object. It’s effective.

Wind River

It’s kind of like a millennial Thunderheart, I guess.  Remember that one? Val Kilmer was still a respected actor playing a half-Indian—he may even have claimed to be part Indian which, pace Senator Warren, has been an American tradition going back to Croatan, I suppose.

Trick question.
“Wait, does this mean I’m Maggie Eagle Bear?”

Writer/director Taylor Sherdian, who penned both Sicario and Hell or High Water—which slipped through the reviewing cracks, apparently, though we all liked it—and is probably best known for his acting work on “Sons of Anarchy” and “Veronica Mars”, brings us another tale of the clash of the frontier with civilization, where (again) civilization often seems to be the source of the problem.

In this case, Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a tracker who is called out to a murder scene in the cold Wyoming wilderness. An Indian girl has fled some horror that was great enough to set her off into subzero weather wearing very little clothes. Apparently, when the weather gets that cold, your lung sacs freeze, then burst, then you drown and/or asphyxiate in your own frozen blood, or something equally horrible. You get the idea.

Wonka FTW!
Honestly, he looks like Mike TeeVee all grown up.

Cory happens to know the girl, as she used to be best friend of his own daughter, who died a year previously under similar “mysterious” circumstances. (I put that in quotes because there seems to be little mystery as to what happened, except in the details, and the movie isn’t really a mystery, but a kind of action/thriller.) The death of his daughter seems ended his relationship with his wife (they were off canoodling when it happened) and left him with a whole passel of grief. When the movie starts, he’s picking up his son for his visiting time, and his wife says she’s moving to a different (nearby) city if she gets this good-paying job, and he should expect support to go up if that happens. (I didn’t quite parse the logic there but it’s not important.)

Anyway, daddy-son day is temporarily delayed as he goes to investigate with whomever the FBI sends up. And they happen to send up Elizabeth Olsen (as Jane Banner). This was perfect casting. A quick search indicates the Olsen is 5’6″ or even 5’7″ which, I suppose, is possible, but if so, I bet she struggles to hit 100 pounds on the scale. She’s wholly inappropriate for the job and the movie plays that to the hilt, complete with universal disdain amongst all the Wyomingans, whether Amerind or Caucasian.

Never mind.
She put on a lot of weight and facial hair for the ro—oh, that’s Graham Greene.

And, in a refreshing “twist”, no small degree herself. She knows she’s not the right person for the job, she’s just the person who happened to be closest.

Sheridan gets a lot of points from me for this character arc: She’s serious about what she does, but she’s forthright about her limitations and honest enough to see how severe they are in this context. She leans heavily on Cory, frustrated by the general lack of support the government is going to give this case. Her main contribution, in fact, is that she refuses to do things that will cause the case to simply be dismissed and her sent back to a warmer climate.

This is not nothing. Given her discomfort in the environment, it’s heroic in a way that Cory, whose actions are more traditionally heroic are not, as his are more personally motivated. Jane could just as easily signal half-a-dozen things to get herself out of there. (Of course, if she did, not much of a movie.)

As I say, it’s pretty clear upfront what’s going on, and the tale plays out too straightforwardly to be much of a mystery, but it’s good drama, with good action and some nice suspenseful moments, however quickly and violently those are resolved. The postscript tries to make hay out of the fact that the US doesn’t collect information on this kind of crime when they take place on reservations, but I think that’s because the US doesn’t collect any information on reservation crimes. It’s part of the faux-Indian-nation thing—a dumb charade that seems to provide nothing but opportunities for the government to behave badly, from what I can tell.

Anyway. Good film. Way better than Thunderheart, I’d say, even without Val Kilmer and Sam Shepard. And pretty refreshing in this day-and-age.

Avengers Disassemble!
Hey, it’s the Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye!

Knightriders (1981)

The classics theme for August was “hog wild” and featured a lot of motorcycle movies made between those most awesome of years 1965-1975. I didn’t want to see Easy Rider, as is often the case with movies of this era, but I resisted the sense of obligation to see it. Easy Rider is generally considered the best of the genre, and even it’s not exactly great by all accounts. It’s just very of its time. Besides the time period, motorcycle movies tend to be about the culture, man—the counter-culture, which, tbh (as the kids say these days) does not bear close scrutiny. Basically, these tend to be movies about dissolute criminals whose do a lot of drugs, commit a lot of crimes, and basically leech off society. (The “Mystery Science Theater 3000” riffing subject Sidehackers, e.g., while laughably bad, is not unrepresentative of the genre, in my experience.)

Yeah...groovy.
If only the Sidehackers had maces!

I was adamant, however, that I wanted to see this film, however, which was George Romero’s entry into the genre—long past its prime, and with a medieval theme. If I recall correctly, Romero wanted to make a medieval fantasy flick but, let’s face it, horses are expensive and a pain-in-the-ass. So he put it in modern times and put everyone on motorcycles instead.

Maybe that’s wrong, but that’s what I was told. A long time ago. By somebody. Probably.

Anyway, I was a little bit nervous because I had seen it a long time ago on TV and been impressed, but it’s—well, it’s just a long shot, you know? George Romero made a lot of movies, and he did not always hit it out of the park. After the first two zombie movies, for example, his undead output was less than inspiring. When he missed, the movies could get dull. And this is a kind of kooky concept.

I'm just a square, man.
“Kooky…how? Exactly?”

Which, actually, is why it works. The idea is that Ed Harris, in his first feature film, if I’m not mistaken, runs a kind of travelling sideshow—a Renaissance Fair, but with motorcycles. And the main draw is people riding around on these motorcycles jousting and sometimes engaging in more direct hand-to-hand combat, though with stage weapons or armor. But the underlying current here (as is common in the biker films) is the culture that coalesces around the fair. The troupe acts as a sort of extended family, with each person performing certain roles and getting the benefits of the commune. As happened in real life, these communes don’t hold up well under the stresses of ordinary life.

In this case, the big threat comes in the form of success: A slick and sleazy booking agent and an equally slick and sleazy…I dunno…producer(?) gal seduce the most contentious of knights (Morgan, played by Tom Savini) away in a bid to create a more marketable, national product. Their special, souped-up armor looks exactly like KISS, I realized watching it this time, which was kind of hilarious.

That "e" after "party" is a bullshit attempt to make it seem like I know how Chaucer would've spelled "party".
“I…wanna joust and duel all ni-i-ight…and partye every day…”

Anyway, Billy (Ed Harris) is “fighting the dragon” and insisting people live by The Code, both of which are sort of inchoate objections about, I dunno, capitalism, maybe? Modern consumerism? The System, man? It doesn’t really matter much because Harris is so damn good, and there is a principal there, even if never clearly defined. They all agree on it, they all live by it, except when they don’t, which is when things go to hell.

The other reason this movie works is that it’s fun, and it never loses sight of that. (Though, apparently, the original cut was seventeen hours long! And there’s a limit to how much fun that could’ve been.) The medieval patina allows Romero to borrow from historical (and largely dubiously followed and understood) codes while the modernization keeps the movie from disappearing up its own ass—which, by the way is what would’ve happened had the film been made in Hollywood instead of Pittsburgh. While the show uses medieval music (except in one scene where everything is falling apart), the members of the community are free to break into more contemporary and bluesy sounds. A few attempts at medieval-sounding speech are quickly dismissed.

And perhaps the underlying reason for the movie’s success is that it was Romero’s own struggle to do what he wanted instead of what Hollywood wanted. I mean, you can look at the cast and crew for this on IMDB, and you’ll see plenty of people whose only credit is this film, or this film and other Romero films. Romero liked his home base and liked to do what he wanted to, and this was a rare instance where he actually got to. It probably didn’t make much, if any money, except maybe on videotape. (I can find no box office info for this online.)

We were privileged to have the stunt coordinator (Gary Davis) and one of the stuntmen (Scptt Wilder, I think)  with us—Ed Harris was prevented by the rain from showing up, alas—and they gave us a lot of cool stories about the making of the film. Actually, it might have been good that Harris didn’t show, just because he doubtless would’ve dominated the Q&A and after talk, and we’ll doubtless have lots more chances to hear from him than we would from these guys. Also: stunt guys are the best. (Also delightful:  Gary Davis’ daughter Jennifer Elizabeth was a baby when the film came out, and she’s actually involved in one of the stunts. She was at the showing as well, and she has the best baby picture ever of being held by a mime after her mother runs off.)

Mime...mom...mime...mom...
“Oh, what the hell, mom!!!?!”

We have noticed (the kids and I) that some of these old films with their stunts seem a whole lot more impressive than the modern CGIed stuff (though that too involves a lot of stunts, quite often!). I mean, with a classic stunt, what you see is pretty much what happened, clever edits aside. And this movie—a low budget flick to be sure—is chock full of some great motorcycle stunts. Apparently, if the stunt guys had a cool idea, they’d run it by George and he’d set up the script and story so that the stunt made sense.

Which goes back to what I was saying about the film never losing sight of being entertaining. However personal a statement it may have been, it was definitely made for an audience. And I was pleased and a little surprised to find that both the kids really enjoyed all two hours and twenty minutes of it, and really enjoyed talking to the stunt folk. (Though the talking to the stunt folk part wasn’t that surprising: These are not shy people, The Flower and The Boy.)

It’s wild, sure, but it’s bold enough to pull it off. And it’s a whole lot less gory than the zombie flicks, though it’s often not rated as highly as those. And, in fairness, it isn’t the genre masterpiece that both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead are. But it is a unique entry in the canon, and that’s worth something.

Savini is legendary as a makeup guy, but he should be legendary for THIS.
And now, your moment of zen.

Dunkirk

I knew this Christopher Nolan picture would be technically excellent and, also, I knew I would be pretty “meh” about it. So, yeah, expectations met. It’s not quite a Scorsese thing, as I never get more than “meh” about Scorsese, and I really like Memento, as most people seem to. My favorite Nolan film, though, is Insomnia and most people don’t think that’s one of his best. I think it really captures sleep deprivation, though.

Which, upon reflection, may seem like an odd recommendation if you don’t know The Enigma.

Unlike me.
This guy has NO idea what sleep deprivation is.

Anyway, Dunkirk is the story of the evacuation of the British (and a little bit of the French) army from a disastrous invasion from the city of Dunkirk, which is about midway between Calais (where you’d land if you were trying to swim the channel) and Bruges (where you’d land if you were an Englishman on holiday). I’m going to pause for a moment to point out the oddity of western (and these days western-influenced) culture’s near pornographic love of failure and low points in one’s own society, because this is a movie that truly revels in a low moment.

I mean, spoiler alert: The British do win the war, though you’d never know it from this.

But that’s a bit of a cavil, like the people arguing that it doesn’t show the heroism of all the NON-English troops. Well, no. It’s just a movie, not a historical document, and in danger of seeming a bit unfocused at an under 2 hours runtime. It didn’t need to be longer or have more perspectives.

Another point which seems both weirder and less of a cavil: You’d never know they were fighting the Germans. That’s a little…odd. I know Hollywood does things to protect the sensitivities of the Chinese, a massive market which is the logical hyper-endpoint of political correctness, but I think the Germans know what’s what. We see all these movies from Germany about their role in WWII, and they make a bunch of documentaries, too. They self-flagellate like every other Western culture.

Anyway, the story focuses on three basic storylines…no four, four basic story lines: A British solder attempting to get off Dunkirk, one ship that was part of the impromptu navy of British citizens dispatched to rescue soldiers, one or more fighter pilots who are providing cover for the ships (which are being bombed by the Luftwaffe—er, enemy planes), and a captain who’s landed on the beach to oversee the evacuation.

All of these people are completely indistinguishable from each other, physically.

I don't think he's in this shot, actually.
Our hero: 4th from the left, 8th from the back.

I kid. But not much. And I was forewarned by my folks who saw this before me: You get a bunch of pasty Saxons together and damned if it’s not hard to tell them apart. So, mostly I did okay because I was really on the lookout for unusual characteristics: A Gallic nose, a high forehead, stuff like that. Even so, there’s a medium-shot about halfway in where I have no idea who’s who, or what they’re saying.

The dialogue was tough to parse: There isn’t that much of it, really, which means when people do suddenly start talking after an action sequence, your ears have to adjust to the (presumably appropriately thick) accents. And then they’re talking WWII slang. This didn’t really bother me. It’s not a dialogue movie.

Kenneth Branagh played the captain, so he was pretty identifiable. Cillian Murphy is easy to spot, generally. The guys on the ship tend to be easy to recognize because they’re on a fishing ship and too young/too old to be soldiers. Also, the one blonde is on the ship. The pilots? Forget about it. They’re wearing face masks most of the time. At the end, I had to laugh because the one pilot we may or may not have been following throughout the film was Tom Hardy.

Maybe someday.
“Tom Hardy’s in this? I’ve always wanted to work with him!”

I couldn’t really follow the pilot thing. In the beginning there are three planes. One just vanishes. The other is shot down and, I think, the pilot is picked up by our fishing boat heroes. The last one is defending the beach from the (admittedly rather desultory) air rads from the Germans. The Boy lit upon that rather half-hearted attempt by the Germans to wipe out the troops from the air. The raids would come in ones and twos, never an all-out attack. We still don’t know if that was based on reality or not. (It may have involved the aforementioned French and Belgian efforts not shown in the movie.)

I didn’t realize it until halfway through the movie but the three threads are, literally, three different stories happening at different times that also happen to intersect occasionally. I did not care for that at all. One storyline has it night. Then another has it day. (The pilot stuff was all day, I think.) Then we switch back to the night storyline. But then it’s clear from the next cut we’re just seeing things out of time sequence.

Really, I liked Memento but enough. Tell a story in order for once, ya hack!

I kid. Nolan’s a genius. Ask anyone.

Anyway, The Boy liked it more than I did, but not that much more. I didn’t hate it or anything, for all my griping. Maybe if I were smarter I could enjoy Nolan’s films more. Or if I watched them multiple times. I don’t know.

My WWII expert tells me that the accuracy of the film is pretty dead on, except (and this bugged him, natch) for the train shot at the end. It was a modern train, apparently. (Others disagree about the accuracy. When I get around to studying it, I’ll read a book.)

I dunno. We all gots issues.

People are helpful.
The “Cajun Navy” is not without its precedent.

The Sandlot (1993)

“You’re killing me, Smalls!”

That line is why I had to see this 1993 movie I had (deliberately) overlooked back in 1993. Critics were disapproving and even now it has a dismal 58% on Rotten Tomatoes, while the public scores it an impressive 89%.

I’m gonna side with the audience today.

Good for him!
Patrick Renna warns me that I better.

This is a coming-of-age story written and directed by David Mickey Evans and co-written by Robert Gunter, who have not exactly covered themselves with glory since this one came out. (They worked on a poorly received sequel, and in the interim Evans did some of the Beethoven movies.) And this movie is simultaneously too rough and too slick for its own good, but it somehow all works out.

The idea is that nerdy kid moves to new neighborhood where he falls in with a group of eight other boys who have a baseball team. The star of the team takes him under his wing and teaches him to play, and despite their initial reluctance, the boys turn out to be pretty solid pals. The summer leads them through a series of seemingly loosely connected vignettes, including a cute, but highly improbable story of lifeguard-esse seduction. Mostly, however, they play ball in a lot next to a house occupied by a sinister man with the world’s meanest dog. Possibly an immortal dog.

He had a stint on "Freaks and Geeks" and "Gilmore Girls".
The kid in the glasses (Chauncey Leopardi) looks like a mini-Charles Martin Smith!

The movie works because it goes all out on the boy’s imaginations. We see the dog only in glimpses (and giant puppet-y paws), magnified by their imagination. The whole show is on that principle: It shows us the world, as literally as it can, through their eyes (as filtered through their pubescent brains). This is undeniable fun, if you can let yourself enjoy it. (More movies should do it, frankly.) It makes certain aspects (like the puppet dog) kind of cheesy, but that also keeps in with the feel of things. (Seriously, today they’d CGI the hound and it would lose all character.

It’s a bit slick in that everything ties together just perfectly. But that’s okay. It’s not trying to be anything other than it is: A fun movie we can all kinda-sorta relate to if we were ever kids.

The acting is surprisingly strong. The boys seem pretty natural, even in absurd situations. The only one I recognized was Patrick Renna, who grew up to be on “The X-Files” and in the first movie of the first After Dark horror fest Dark Ride. There was also Dennis Leary, James Earl Jones and Karen Allen, of course, but adults are practically props in these kinds of movies.

We had fun, which is something to say about a 25-year-old kidflick. Evans has a number of upcoming films that look like they have real potential, so perhaps we’ll see some more good stuff from him.

Time, time, time: See what's become of me!
20 years later!

In This Corner Of The World

And that’s what you get for bombing Pearl Harbor!

USA! USA! USA!
Representative of the mighty Imperial Navy, now at the bottom of the ocean floor.

I kid the Japanese! I kid because I love! And also because we pretty much wrecked up their country after WWII. Not the bombs, but the liberalization. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine Japan achieving their current childless, robot-loving, otaku state without it. (Aw, dammit, I just used this same Pearl Harbor joke for Grave of the Firelies. I must think it’s really funny.)

But this movie, In This Corner of the World, takes place before all that, when a young Japanese girl did all she could for the war effort and pretty much resigned herself to marrying whomever and going off to live with him and his family.

I’m not gonna speculate on why it is that middle-aged (and older) Japanese men seem to be preoccupied with the fates of young girls (Studio Ghibli, prominently), except that maybe that’s who goes to the movies in Japan: young girls (and maybe men who wish they were young girls—but I’m not gonna speculate, I tell ya!). I will say that they seem to be pretty good at it, however.

No really. It's very sweet.
Young love. (This is actually one of the least “kawaii” moments, in terms of the art.)

This is the story of Suzu, who grows up during the Japanese empire’s brutal expansion and of the ’30s (and the subsequent denouement of the ’40s). It is, fortunately, not a retelling of Grave of the Fireflies. (Not because Fireflies isn’t brilliant, but because one movie about children starving to death is enough.) When we meet Suzu, she is a pubescent girl who delights in telling her littler sister stories, which she draws pictures for. There’s a boy she likes, kind of an oddball, whose father is serving aboard a naval ship.

We flash forward a few years and the war is really heating up. It’s turning against the Japanese, though this is only subtly hinted at, because of course the Japanese government presented a constant “victory is at hand” message, and even suggesting otherwise was treason. But the interesting thing is that Suzu never really questions it. She isn’t happy about the privation (not nearly as severe as Fireflies, obviously) but she’s happy to contribute to the effort. She’s a good Japanese woman.

Lots.
A lot of very pretty landscapes shots to be admired.

She moves away from home to marry a stranger—her path crosses with the oddball boy a number of times, but he goes off to war, and she ends up with a very nice man who is unfit for service. There’s an interesting moment where they send her home, and she acts and seems to believe at some level that her marriage (about 18 months long at this point) never happened. This actually confused me until the segment was over and she had returned. (I think, partly, the kawaii style of the character drawings was such that it made passage of time a little bit hard to distinguish.)

In another interesting vignette, the oddball boy comes back and, as a warrior, he can basically make a claim against her. Her husband actually pushes her into his arms (not happily but with a sense of duty) and Suzu and the soldier spend the night together. However, Suzu has realized that she really loves her husband, and her childhood friend has no interest in forcing her into anything, only returning to see her because he thought her (nearly random seeming arranged marriage) was an unhappy one he could rescue her from. This is a nice story though it takes an aggressive amount of tamping-down-on-the-imagination to not figure how this sort of arrangement usually played out. (Suzu is rather naive and runs into a destitute girl she had encountered years earlier in a red-light district without clueing in.)

Interestingly, Suzu starts out just outside of Hiroshima but her husband lives further away. When the bomb hits, she’s not there to witness it, but instead goes back later hunting for friends and family. This is poignant in a way that being there for the bombs would not have been.

Hey, I'd have been upset, too.
This is when Suzu finds out Japan lost.

Also interesting is that Suzu’s despair comes from losing the war. You don’t see that a lot, but of course it makes sense. The hardship the Japanese (and even German and Italian) people endured made sense in the context of some larger glory promised to them by the Japanese elite. Something about a run-of-the-mill, sweetheart girl like Suzu expressing imperialist sentiments brought that home in a way that, e.g., Letters from Iwo Jima did not precisely.

There is a shocking and unforgettable moment with a little girl and a land mine, too.

I don’t know, folks: The Japanese own this kind of animation as a vehicle for telling non-kid stories. I imagine this to be in the “young adult” category as most of the anime/manga stuff is. But they really do kick ass and bend the genre in ways we don’t see in America. The kids loved it—but so did I!

Seemed so very real to me.
Was it just a dream?

 

Rifftrax: The Five Doctors (1983)

The last new Rifftrax Live of the year turned out to be a skewering of an early-model-fan-service “Dr. Who” special called “The Five Doctors”. The original should probably be mandatory viewing for those who insist that “Dr. Who” is something other than a children’s show. (Much like the various Ewok specials should be mandatory viewing for those who take Star Wars too seriously.) And I say this as someone who likes classic “Dr. Who”.

Maybe he dropped out after.
One of these figures is, in fact, a wax dummy.

The Rifftrax version, of course, is pretty fine viewing for everyone, though it must be admitted that the show has so much low-hanging fruit—the series has never been a glitzy high-budget TV show like, say, the ’70s “Battlestar Galactica” *kaff*—it could be in serious danger of seeming cruel. Fortunately, while there are plenty of shots at the frankly comical budgetary constraints, a general sense of good-natured silliness pervades.

Wonder how they did that suit back then?
The guy in the skin suit is “The deadliest assassin ever created” or somesuch.

As an attempt to cash in on nostalgia, it suffers from the fact that they only got three out of the five doctors. (The original TV Doctor, William Hartnell, had died in ’75 and Tom Baker was through with it for a while, so they just used scenes from an unaired show he had done while he was playing the part.)

In and amongst the stunned silences, as one gets from the truly bad source material, and the hasty attempts to get out in front of things that already absurd (sometimes rendering riffs gratuitous), you have a lot of good, creative and outside-the-box jokes that make the whole thing worthwhile.

I liked it better than the Summer Shorts session, which I felt was very uneven somehow, and it was less disorienting than Samurai Cop.

These are not great drawings.
They maybe should’ve called it “Three out of Five Doctors”.

Annabelle: Creation

We’ve had mixed luck, at best, with the whole “Oh, traffic is so bad, let’s stay and watch a movie instead” approach. And “mixed” is probably being generous. Not only are the movies disappointing, frequently, the traffic hasn’t let up by the time we’re out.

Woooohhhhh
“And when they pulled on to the 101, IT WAS STILL JAMMED!”

But we try.

And in this case, it worked out all right. Annabelle: Creation is not, in fact, a sequel to The Conjuring or The Conjuring 2 but rather a prequel to Annabelle—which we never saw. Heh. It’s part of the same “cinematic universe” as they style it in these bloated, grandiose days, but it’s really only a kind of pseudo-continuity explaining how the evil doll featured prominently in those other movies came to be. This, apparently, was why David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) agreed to direct it in the first place.

It’s a little disappointing, in the sense that Lights Out was kind of fresh-feeling and had the weird kind of internal logic that the best horror movies have, and this—The Boy commented as we were leaving, and it was exactly what I was thinking—is a “funhouse horror” type flick, only with a sort of really heavy theological undertone that feels somehow inappropriate.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of “funhouse horror”, it’s a term I coined to describe horror designed solely to provide momentary, transient scares, like a funhouse ride. It’s the kind of movie where, one something happens, you think “Why did that happen?” and the answer is “Because it was scary.” Occasionally, as here, there’s an idea that the purpose of fear is fear, and the meta-explanation (“because scary movies should be scary”) has an “in-story” explanation as well (“the demons feed on fear”, a trope I’ve used myself on occasion). But this usually feels like a thin rationalization for producing often very cool imagery and scares. (And can be beaten to death in films like all the original Friday The 13th movies.)

This is not an insult, by any means. Some of our favorite horrors are funhouse: PhantasmAutopsy, A Nightmare on Elm Street and so on. It’s completely legitimate, just like a comedy movie that just makes you laugh is legitimate.

BUT IT'S SCARY!
For example, there’s no reason for this contemporary camera man to show up in a 1950s girl’s bedroom.

It’s a little off, here, though, because the Conjuring universe is a heavily Christian one. The Warrens (the paranormal detective couple from The Conjuring) were devout Catholics, and their sensibility—which is well respected in the movies—is more akin to The Exorcist than modern areligious horror. This is “hold up a cross to defend yourself” and “fear for your immortal soul” territory, not the more materialistic “the boogen’s gonna get us” stuff where any reference to souls is basically a transparent exaggeration meant to ramp things up.

It’s also a little off because our victims in this case, are children: Orphans who have been relocated from their orphanage to the house where Annabelle was made. Having children (not teens) endure pain and suffering, and to ultimately be the victims of demonic possession and torture, tends to take things out of the funhouse and (again) back into The Exorcist territory.

Challenge accepted, apparently.
Tormenting handicapped children is dangerous ground, is what I’m saying.

I’m just giving you all this to point out that the movie was weighed down a bit by its own universe. Otherwise, it’s a fine, fine funhouse horror. These guys—and I assume Sandberg had some input from James Wan (Saw, Death Sentence, Insidious, the Conjuring, etc.) and his crew—really know what they’re doing as far as atmosphere, timing, misdirection, and even character development. It really feels like it’s part of that same “universe” even as Sandberg puts his own style on it, which is good.

The funhouse feel works against a bit it in terms of escalation and suspense. The end feels like “we need a boffo finish” more than anything that proceeds from the previous events, but a film truly committed to the funhouse ethos can go balls-out crazy which wouldn’t fit in here at all.

Australian actors Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto (Eowyn from Lord of the Rings) provide the adult supervision, of sorts, to the gaggle of girls they’re hosting, and there’s some really fine acting amongst those lovely young girls, who basically have to carry most of the dramatic and horror aspects of the show. We liked it, but we had the same slight disappointment relative to both the quality of the other Conjuring movies and Lights Out, but I think it’s fair to say (without having seen it) that it’s far better than its predecessor, which is the strange world we live in these days.

No, that would be too horrible to contemplate.
“One more step and I make another sequel to ‘The Ring’!”

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

I didn’t expect to like this movie, this poster child for that era of filmmaking where the “director was the auteur” that the critics love so well, and that was killed by Spielberg, Lucas, Corman (if we’re being honest) and had the final nail driven into its coffin by the disaster that was Heaven’s Gate.

I didn’t expect to like it, and I was surprised to discover that, not only did I not like it, I was mostly bored throughout. I expected it to be, I dunno, more sensationally boring—and if you can’t imagine what “sensationally boring” would be like, think grindhouse or splatter, where everything is really conventional and dull but then there’s some gratuitous nudity and graphical violence in the mix—but this didn’t really have either. I mean, I guess it’s violent, but it’s ’70s cop drama violence. A little more (really cartoonish) blood than on “Kojak”.

I mean, maybe not in real life, who knows?
Pictured: Beautiful morons.

And this is the sort of movie The Old Man used to go on about. He would concede (e.g.) Martin Scorsese’s technical prowess but then say, “So why waste that on telling the story of a stupid, wife-beating drunk, whose main claim to fame was being too stupid to know when to fall down.” (A not inaccurate capsule of Raging Bull.)

In this case we have beautiful-but-moronic and sexually dysfunctional Clyde Barrows (Warren Beatty) who is yet still charismatic enough to lure beautiful-and-perhaps-slightly-less-stupid Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) away from her not-very-interesting life as a waitress to go bank robbing with him. Let me pause for a minute and discuss how stupid this set-up is: Barrow is all charm and sexiness when he seduces Parker but then when it’s time to put out, he’s practically surprised and a little appalled that she wants to have sex with him.

There’s no evidence for any of this, mind you. Besides not making sense, it adds very little to the story, except to give them duo a sort of character arc where they can have sex right before they’re murdered by the law. Jesus save us from the ’60s.

And "original sin" while we're at it.
I’d like a do-over on this “free will” business.

They’re not competent. They rob banks rather willy-nilly. And naturally, they end up killing some poor sap who takes his job a little too seriously. Barrows is sort of flabbergasted that he meets with any violence at all. Again, sub-moron level stuff. But it’s okay, ’cause they’re pretty. They get a kid mechanic, C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), on board—by this time he’s 28, but he played a teenager in a “Star Trek” episode (“Miri”) around the same time and I always sort of felt he was playing a kid in Roxanne 20 years later, and his hair was white then. Anyway, it’s actually Moss’s passion for double-parking the car legally that results in the first murder, I believe.

Later they hook up with Barrow’s brother (Gene Hackman) and sister-in-law (Estelle Parsons) who reluctantly joins in the shenanigans. This is kind of tragic and not really developed: She’s put herself out (as a minister’s daughter) on a limb to reform Hackman’s character, and she’s really upset by everything, and then she just sort of joins in. Later she rats them out to the cops, though not with any evil intention. (This also is entirely fabricated.)

Heh. I wish.
She literally screams “OSCAR!” at this point.

The law catches up with them really quickly, at least in part because they’re being used as scapegoats across the country by the perpetually dishonest media. It’s not quite two hours, but you’ll feel every minute of it as they wander aimlessly on a path of ever increasing violence. The movie expects you to sympathize with them, but it dares you to do so at the same time. If they had gotten less attractive actors, this flick never would’ve played at all.

They’re sociopaths, basically, as portrayed. They murder people and feel no remorse whatsoever. At one point, near the end, Bonnie asks Clyde what he’d do differently, and all he can come up with is that he would’ve planned his robberies better. She’s a little disappointed, though it’s not really clear why. It’s all murky.

One nice bit is when the gang kidnaps Gene Wilder and the gorgeous Evans Evans (widow of John Frankenheimer). It was Wilder’s feature debut, and if I recall correctly, it was his idea to play the sequence for laughs. Because, otherwise, it would’ve just been a horror show, and made you hate the gang even more. It’s a cute ensemble scene. I don’t recommend watching the full two hours just for that though.

Evans would go on to marry John Frankenheimer.
So shines a good deed in a weary world.

It was nominated for a bunch of Oscars but only captured the supporting actress statuette for Estelle Parsons (who plays the reluctant sister-in-law) and cinematography. The latter I don’t see, frankly, as it was up against In Cold Blood which I remember as being quite striking, and this—it wasn’t bad, or anything. Actually, a review of the Oscars for that year kind of says it all: In The Heat of the NightThe GraduateGuess Who’s Coming To Dinner (another film I expect to see and not like), even Wait Until Dark and In Cold Blood—these do not speak of a high vision. It’s as if Hollywood wanted to punish people for going to the movies (a sentiment not as far-fetched as you might believe).

This was pretty much the turning point for when the Oscars started to go to Hell. (Well, the previous year presaged it, but that year the amazing A Man For All Seasons won.)

Look at those sexy bullet holes!
Crime doesn’t pay, but at least it’s sexy.

Weird Science (1985)

I didn’t sell the kids on this one. So far, I’ve steered them away from the Hughes oeuvre, not because I think his movies were awful, but because I think they’re rather over-rated, especially by my generation (which grew up on them). But I did want to see this one in particular because its got a goofy premise that keeps it from being too pretentious (like, maybe, The Breakfast Club), and I thought the kids would also enjoy seeing the nerdy Anthony Michael Hall (before his jock-turn in Edward Scissorhands), Robert Downy Jr (pre-Iron Man) and a pre-Aliens Bill Paxton.

Also, it’s possibly the ’80s-est movie ever.

I think it had its own show, "Monsters".
Even the Bill Paxton monster is ’80s as all get-out.

The premise is basically Mary Poppins grafted on to a benign teen sex comedy. Gary (Hall) and Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith, who wisely chose to teach rather than act*) are hard up for female attention so they do what any super-nerd of the day would do: They use their super-powered Commodore 64 (actually a Memotex 512, which I’ve never even heard of) to build a girlfriend. (And, you know, for a boy in the ’80s, Kelly LeBrock is the sort of woman you would build, were you building one.) Said girlfriend then takes them on many adventures to get them to, basically, loosen up and be themselves.

Which was the motto of the day, as it is every day. They get a little life experience, which helps, and then they get a final confrontation with Vernon Wells, who is wearing the exact same clothes and playing the exact same character as he did in Road Warrior. Which was hilarious at the time. It’s still pretty funny because there’s literally no explanation for any of it, and things get really weird when the boys try to recreate their experiment for Robert Downey and Robert Russler’s characters, but end up making a tomahawk or some other deadly missile in the middle of the house.

I sorta think not but...
I wonder if this “classic ’80s moment” gets a shout out in “Ready Player One”.

It’s goofy. And like all of Hughes’ teen stuff it is obsessed with the notions of popularity and “in-groupism” in a way I couldn’t even relate to at the time, much less now. But it barely takes itself seriously beyond a respect for the characters that makes some of the (very light) drama work. Even Paxton, who gets turned, literally, into a typical-80s puppet/animatronic pile-of-crap, is given a degree of respect.

It runs about 90 minutes: Approximately the same length of time Hughes took to write it. But it holds up quite well for what it is. The kids liked it, especially the Flower, who begrudgingly allows that not all ’80s fashion was horrible.

On LeBrock.
The “half-shirt and boys brief” look, e.g., is a classic.

*Not because he’s a bad actor, but because…y’know, Hollywood.

Cape Fear (1962)

We followed up the Mitchum noir Out of the Past with the J. Lee Thompson thriller Cape Fear, which was famously remade into hash by Martin Scorsese. Possibly J. Lee Thompson’s greatest film (next to Guns of Navarrone, maybe) and holy hell what happened to Mitchum?! We had just seen him and he was so handsome and now, not only is he a murderous thug, he looks every day of his 45 years, and then some. It isn’t just the role: He was also in The Longest Day the same year and he still looks like an unmade bed.

Can't hide the double chin, though.
Peck and Balsam admire Mitchum’s Shatnerian ability to suck in his gut.

This doesn’t hurt that much here, because his attraction is only to the lowest of the low. In this case, Barrie Chase, the gorgeous 29-year-old dancer who manages to pull off “desperate runaway lowlife” really well, however badly it ends for her character.

Which is quite badly indeed.

Which is weird, because she basically calls Mitchum pond scum (affectionately).
Ms. Chase suspecting the date not going as well as she hoped.

Noticably missing from the original story here is any attraction between Nancy and Max Caty—but I get ahead of myself.

The story is simple enough: Good guy lawyer Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck, at his Peckest) finds himself terrorized by Max Caty, a vicious criminal he put away years earlier. Note that he put him away by testifying to crimes he witnessed Caty comitting—unlike the horrible, murkier Scorsese version where Sam frames Caty!—and that’s enough for Caty to want to torture and abuse his daughter Nancy. It’s payback, in his twisted mind, for the prison term that kept him away from his wife and son.

And Mitchum’s recounting of his vengeance on the wife is chilling, and entirely verbal.

OK, he's not that doughy.
Polly Bergen, reasonably freaked out.

The tension in this movie comes from Sam realizing that the law really does not protect you against bad actors who haven’t quite acted badly enough yet. And while Sam is no match for the brutal Caty, he doesn’t really fear him: He fears for his wife and daughter, though, as Caty has explicitly told him his plans. And so Sam must act in an increasingly lawless fashion to protect himself. Martin Balsam does a fine job as the lawman—The Flower recognized him from Psycho but not from 12 Angry Men, where he was much more wish-washy—and Tell Savalas (with hair!) provides the sort of seedy-undercurrent side of detective work, though to no avail.

The shenanigans all lead to a showdown outside of the titular Cape Fear, where Peggy (Polly Bergen) and Nancy (Lori Martin) must escape Caty’s evil plans. Bergen and Martin are terrific here. And, as mentioned earlier, unlike the Scorsese remake, there’s no attraction between Nancy and Caty which would be weird and gross (and really out of character). Whether it’s the toll of the years or just Mitchum’s acting (which is still top notch), it’s really hard to believe any decent woman would be attracted to him. I mean, he’s a dog murderer, for crying out loud.

Really fine film. Not as good as Out of the Past but head-and-shoulders above the remake which, in typical Scorsese style, favors moral ambiguity over the original movie (and James MacDonald book, I’m guessing) which is a struggle of good vs. evil, and how the veneer of civilization is about as thin as we let it be. It’s also more exciting, less overwrought, and generally more fun. I mention all this not to rag on Scorsese (as I do occasionally) but because I actually had some reluctance to see this film because the remake was (to me) so creepy and icky.

The kids liked this one, too, though. The Flower more than Out of the Past, the Boy more on the fence.

Which is plenty creepy.
I mean, honestly. Things are creepy enough as it is.

Out of the Past (1947)

To my generation, to the extent we knew of Robert Mitchum at all, it was as a doughy, baggy-eyed, sleepy-looking dude who showed up in the occasional miniseries and apparently had made a movie that Martin Scorsese remade called Cape Fear. The idea of him as a heartthrob seemed a little far-fetched by his 60s—even in his late 40s, as we’d find out when we saw Cape Fear after this.

I mean, you wouldn't think they'd need to these days.
A nice still (i.e., scene not actually in the movie). Do they still shoot stills?

But at thirty? Well, hubba-hubba, as the kids say. He was charismatic, dark, a little dangerous but deep-down, the right woman could change him. (The ladies love that, right?)

In this story, a remake of 2005’s A History of Violence (wait, what?) Mitchum plays Jeff, a small town gas-station owner who has the sweetest girlfriend in the area Ann (Virginia Huston, looking appropriately demure) and a local rival by the name of Jim who doesn’t much like his ways. Then one day an old war buddy, Joe (Paul Valentine, who’s probably best known for being married to stripper Lily St. Cyr) shows up looking for him.

But (shock!) Joe isn’t an old war buddy at all! He’s a thug working for a gangster named Whit (Kirk Douglas) who wants to use him for that One Last Job. Jeff starts to feeling guilty so he has Ann drive him to the rendesvouz so he can explain his sordid past to her in a glorious filmed noir flashback. Turns out he was consigliere to Whit until one day the boss sends him on a mission to retrieve his wandering girlfriend and the $40,000 she took from him. Jeff’s good at what he does and chases her down to Mexico where, you’ll be surprised to learn, he dsicovers she’s so freakin’ hot, he just doesn’t care about the consequences of maybe not returning her to Whit.

"And stop filling out my girlfriend!"
“I want you to fill out my 1040EZ, Jeff!”

Jane Greer (as Kathie The Moll) is ridiculously good looking in this film, no doubt. And she plays the femme fatale to a tee, painting herself as the victim of Whit’s abusive behavior and innocent of any stealing of any $40,000. Jeff bites (natch) and the two end up on the lam. It’s only when they’re holed up in a cabin in the woods, and one of Whit’s flunkies has tracked him down, that her true character is revealed. She murders the poor bastard, leaving Jeff to bury the body in the woods. Jeff also gets a glimpse of a rather suspicious $40,000.

Well, that’s about the time when ol’ Jeff decides to hang up his gangster shoes. Flashback over.

The ridiculously virtuous Ann assures him that, like Vegas, what’s in the past stays in the past as if she hasn’t even seen the title of this picture! But he needs to get his feelings about Kathie squared away and come back to her. And the movie does a pretty good job of presenting Kathie—who has returned to Whit—as appealing despite the whole murder/larceny thing. But they don’t play it too clever: It’s pretty clear that she’s horrible and Jeff’s only going to be a little duped by her hotness.

Those shadows, tho'.
If only sinning wasn’t so tempting.

This doesn’t last too long, though, when he realizes she’s spilled the beans to Whit about their relationship and, oh, also the dead guy Jeff buried in the woods who he’d totally get burned for killing. This leads to a typically noirish plot where he’s supposed to be getting this incriminating book from generic The Accountant and his hot secretary (Rhonda Fleming!) but it’s all a setup to frame Jeff because they kill The Accountant and call the cops but Jeff figures it out and moves the body and manages to come up with a plan to clear his name of both murders but it’ll be like walking a tightrope and…

Phew!

Point is, Mitchum is a dreamboat here and you totally get why the ladies swoon over him and the guys seethe with resentment at their relative lack of masculinity. He’s really good here. He would be good in Cape Fear as well but 15 years of marijuana usage will have done zero favors for his looks.

This movie, though, is one of the greatest noirs ever. The kids dug it. The Flower had her suspension of belief challenged by the ending, which is a car crash, because the cars are so clearly models. But Cape Fear would present its own challenges, in the form of middle-aged Mitchum…

o/~Get her out of my heart~\o
Help me, Rhonda.

Vertigo (1958)

The problem with giving kids information and letting them come to their own conclusions, of course, is that they often come to the wrong damn conclusions! I mean, if the British Film Institute’s Sight and Sound Magazine says Vertigo is the greatest film of all time, who are you to say otherwise?

My kids have no respect for authority.

Carlotta followed me on Twitter!
The Ghost of Carlotta Valdez disapproves.

I’m kidding, of course. Not about the “no respect for authority”; that’s dead on. But that I cared whether or not they agreed with the BFI or not. Actually, I warned them going in that, while the movie was very good indeed, it probably wouldn’t be their favorite of all time. And, in fact, they actually liked Frenzy (1972) a bit better, which is probably a bit unusual way to rank Hitchcock films, at least these days.

It only broke even at the time, and Hitch blamed Jimmy Stewart who, at 50, was too old to play Kim Novak’s love interest. On the other hand, Stewart and Novak were in the “blockbuster” Bell, Book and Candle the same year. Note that BB&C may not have actually been a blockbuster, since tortured and secretive Hollywood accounting doesn’t permit the truth to come out, and Wikipedia lists Vertigo in the top 10 box office for the year (“citation needed”) at around $5.5M but also gives a figure about half that under the entry for Vertigo itself, and doesn’t list BB&C at all in its top 10.

Whatever. The Novak/Stewart chemistry is just fine, in both movies, not so much because Stewart isn’t old but because the 25-year-old Novak has such poise and grace (as needed) she seems much older. She actually seems older than Stewart in BB&C, where she plays a 200-year-old witch.

My, my, my.
Amazing. 20-somethings who are also grownups.

However, The Flower pointed out the real problem, and this will be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film.

[Spoiler Space]

[More Spoiler Space]

[Below The Picture Spoiler Space]

Stewart does not get the girl at the end. Primarily, one presumes, because she falls to hear death from the mission tower when the spooky nun comes up. And I remember that bothering me quite a bit when I first saw it, too.

The second time I saw it, I thought it was overlong (2 hours and 8 minutes) and the animated sequences didn’t work.

Anyway, this time, I realized, well, Judy (Novak) is kind of a monster. She conspires with Gavin Elster to cover up the murder of his wife—which, one must note, has not happened yet, so she’s an accessory to murder—leaves Scottie (Stewart) on the hook for the murder, and lets him twist in the wind in a sanitarium thinking he let her fall to her death because of his acrophobia. (Somehow, when De Palma was ripping this off, repeatedly, he never once called a movie Acrophobia.)

I kid because what're they gonna do? Haunt me?
I AM OZ! THE GREAT AND POWERFUL!

Stewart’s bound to be, well, a little upset over this. And yet, in the Hitchcockian tradition, you kind of expect him to get over it, and for the two to live happily ever after. There’s a lot of betrayal and mistrust in Hitchcock movies between men and women, after all, though in most cases it’s misunderstanding based on exigent circumstances (like pretending to work for the bad guy, a la North by Northwest or Notorious).

In this case, no, Judy has genuinely psychically scarred Scottie, to where he walks around seeing her in every well-coiffed blonde on the street. (A great sequence that anyone who’s ever had a broken heart can relate to.)

Is it great? Undoubtedly. I buy into the supernatural angle every time, just like I always think that Eve is a real go-getter.

Is it the greatest? Mmmm. I dunno. I dunno if it’s the greatest Hitch film, much less the greatest film of all time. It’s awful dark, without Hitch’s usual sense of humor. I don’t want to blame the French, but the novelists were the same frogs who did Diabolique and Demoniac, which are not exactly light romps. You could argue that Psycho and Frenzy are also not light romps, but I think you’d be wrong: In most of Hitch’s films there is a clear good-vs-evil struggle and it is the clarity, not the magnitude of the evil, that makes a film darker or lighter.

In Vertigo, we’re presented a doomed love story where we can’t help but want Judy to succeed, to win, to escape, but the morality of the play insists that the murderer must meet his fate. So, we get darkness. All because Scottie couldn’t get over whatever it was Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes, a decrepit 36-year-old at the time) did to him in college, or whatever.

Great film, but if you’re expecting the greatest, you might be disappointed.

But SHE left HIM!
One can only hope Scottie comes around and goes back to Midge.

To Die For (1995)

You know, I missed this when it came out but I always sort of regretted it. At the same time, I had come to suspect that it was not, in fact, very good. But Nicole Kidman won a Golden Globe (best actress in a musical or comedy, which, okaaay) and she’s one of those actresses that I sort of like but not as much as I think I should—which, I suppose, is the sign of a really good PR agent.

Oh, we hadn't seen NOTHING yet, had we?
What’s not to love?

When all is said and done, Ms. Kidman is to be commended for a tremendous performance as the dimwitted sociopath but, yeah, it’s not a great movie. Between The Boy, his Girl, The Flower and I, I was the only one who really liked it, and I didn’t really like it. The Boy and his Girl were bored, I think because they didn’t get the element of cunning that was central to the Suzanne Stone (Kidman) character. They thought she was just a dummy, and so when she starts running around with Joaquin Phoenix while her none-to-bright husband (Matt Dillon, who I have always liked much more since he grew up) is away, they god bored.

But if you look at the whole thing as a set-up from the get-go. That she planned to kill him the moment he first says “No” to her, then it’s—well, it’s not a lot more interesting, but it’s less aimless. Buck Henry wrote the screenplay but none of the kids recognized him from The Graduate, nor did they recognize Phoenix from Gladiator.

I guess it's just what the "in" crowd was wearing in '95.
Did they give Kidman a Lewinsky-do? No, I guess this movie predates the scandal by a few years.

The story is simple enough: Suzanne is a small-town girl who is very ambitious. She hooks up and marries Larry (Dillon), which is fine because he has a little money and doesn’t get in her way. She cheats on him on her honeymoon because, somehow, having sex with George Segal will help her career. (In fairness, it probably has helped someone’s career at some point.)

She goes back to her small town to dominate the local cable access station, which doesn’t account for much until she lights on doing a “youth of today” piece featuring Jimmy (Phoenix), Russell (Case Affleck, whom the kids also didn’t recognize) and Lydia (Allsion Foland, who launched a 15-year career with this lucky break). Suzanne quickly lights on how easy it would be to manipulate them all, and she does.

It's just bizarre.
This dance scene is one of the many moments you realize how profoundly dumb the people you’re dealing with are.

It’s funny. But it’s funny in a dark way. Which people don’t generally like. Completely lost on the kids was the social relevance of the whole thing: This was just post Amy Fisher/OJ Simpson trial when one could suddenly become incredibly famous simply by being awful enough to fill some air time. The appalling cultural reaction to this—not so appalling that it curbed it in any way, mind you—is now barely a dull murmur in a world of Kardashians.

It’s okay. For my money, a really good black comedy has to have an unhappy or a  happy ending that’s all wrong, like Tim Robbins’ fate in The Player or Peter Finch’s in Network or the world’s in Dr. Strangelove. In this movie, justice is ultimately served, and while it’s kind of a funny gag, it feels sorta like it doesn’t fit.

I wouldn’t recommend it to many people.

Even if she is Nicole Kidman. Especially if she's Nicole Kidman.
Sometimes ya gotta listen to what mom and sis have to say about your girlfriends.

 

The Beguiled (2017)

This is one of those movies that has a controversy attached, which is so completely irrelevant to, well, just about anything, that you almost wonder whether the studio just ginned it up because, well, it wasn’t going to do very well anyway. This movie made about $15M box, which puts it at about twice as successful as the 1971 original (which made a paltry $1.1M, which works out to about $7M adjusted for inflation). I’m not sure you can realistically draw much from such a comparison, but that won’t stop me, as you’ll see.

She seems happier with Colin's attentions in the film.
Predatory film critic eyes remake.

But first, the “controversy”: Apparently, Sofia Coppola said she didn’t want to remake this movie until she saw that there was an opportunity to tell it from the feminine POV. I’ve heard this as “she remade the movie with women in the male parts” but from what I can tell (I haven’t seen the original) there’s really no room for anyone other than the one male in the story. But there are a lot of perspectives—well, not a lot, only about two interesting ones—from which you could tell this story and she told it in a more (I guess) female-positive way.

There are not a lot of role models to be found in this film. Maybe Clint Eastwood is more of a heroic figure in the original but, I doubt it. I suspect that’s why it didn’t do very well.

Anyway, whatever she did, which I feel confident was Sofia Coppola doing what Sofia Coppola wanted and not part of some larger political agenda, it met with protest amongst Social Justice Warriors who took her to task for making it all about white Women. Of course, had she thrown in any women of color, SJWs would then complain because she was co-opting the voices of women-of-color. And so on.

The indignity!
They’re not only white, they’re WEARING white!

More importantly, however, given that this is a story of a Union corporal named McBurney who finds himself recuperating in a girls’ school after a grave injury, using women of color would’ve been, well, interesting if not entirely authentic.

Coppola’s best choice, probably, was putting Colin Farrell in the McBurney (Clint Eastwood) role. Farrell is not much like Eastwood, and he has a glib charm and volatility which is hard to see as part of the Eastwood persona. (Actually, I’d say one of the best things about this movie is it put me in mind to see the original.) And with that part of the movie aside, we can really focus on what’s going on here without constantly comparing to the original.

The tension comes at first from the “Well, if we turn him over, they’ll put him in a camp and he’ll die from his wounds.” So the ladies have to essentially betray their countrymen in order to keep him alive. But this quickly turns into an attraction between him and Edwina, the old maid of the house (Kirsten Dunst, who is actually pretty plausible in the role). Although we’re never really clear to what extent this attraction McBurney is feigning his attraction to Edwina because he sees her as a potentially useful patsy to fall back on when things get rough.

Both, actually.
Old Maid or Seething Cauldron Of Untapped Passion?

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha, the house matron and, well, I’ll allow it. She can do cold-blooded with an underlying current of passion better than most, and that’s front-and-center here, as she is also attracted to McBurney. Ellie Fanning rounds out the adult players as Alicia, who’s what you might call a “difficult girl”. Or, you might, from another perspective, call her an “easy girl”.

Well, you see the problems inherent in this situation, I trust.

The movie quickly devolves into that most reviled of genres, Southern Gothic. OK, maybe I’m the only one who hates it, but I really don’t like it much at all. It’s horror without the fun. It’s more the horrible than genuine horror. It’s wallowing in human decadence.

I kind of liked the movie nonetheless. I’ve noticed that Sofia’s father has had a strong influence on the way she lights and blocks shots, and that’s not a bad thing. She gets good performances from her people, too—again, much like her father. But she always seems to have her own, highly personal vision of what she’s doing. Her voice is very clearly her own, in other words. That’s a good thing.

It's not James Wong Howe, but it'll do.
At least one director in Hollywood still knows how to block.

I was actually stuck in Santa Monica after dropping The Flower off at the beach when I saw this. I wanted to go to see Jodorowky’s new movie but it was all the way over on the other side of Santa Monica, about 5 miles from where I was. And that 5 miles was going to take a half-an-hour to do, by which time I would’ve been late. Which, perhaps wouldn’t have matter with Jodorowsky. Still, I probably enjoyed this more.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Yeah, it played again. Yeah, we saw it again. Yeah, we laughed our asses off, like we had never seen it before.

What more can I say? It was The Flower’s third time, and The Boy’s third time, at least. I’m sure I’m into double-digits by now. I don’t think I’ve ever actually done a real review…

And today is not that day either!

Double Indemnity (1944)

When Fred MacMurray first meets Barbara Stanwyck, she’s been sunbathing on the roof (possibly even in THE NUDE) and Fred says, “No pigeons around, I hope.” You can DuckDuckGo this. You’ll find a lot of articles that mention this. Some, rather thickly, in the context of misogyny or just flirting. I have yet to see one mention of the obvious:

Fred MacMurray is the pigeon.

Coo.
Barbara Stanwyck spots a pigeon. (That wig, tho’.)

That’s the beauty of the line. When the movie opens, Walter Neff (MacMurray) is bleeding to death (maybe) in Edward G. Robinson’s office while he records his confession—the story that unfolds in flashback. So the very first thing the movie tells us is: He’s the pigeon, and he’s not aware of it until the last possible moment.

It’s a timeless tale: Phyllis is a trophy wife (in the parlance of our times) who almost immediately hooks Neff into her plan to murder her husband for the insurance money. Since Neff is a sales guy who works closely with a claims investigator (a great performance from Edward G. Robinson) he knows you can’t get away with that kind of thing, see?

And you know you’re noir and in for it when your objection isn’t “Hey, you know, maybe killing your husband for money isn’t really a solid moral choice” but “You’ll never get away with it.” Because, of course, Neff’s given this a lot of thought, and he’s figured out the perfect way to commit a murder, and make it look like an accident so you get the double indemnity payout to boot!

We have move title!
“Can’t be done. Let me explain how to double your profits, though.”

Well, the fact that the movie begins with Neff bleeding and recording his confession pretty much tells you how it all works out, but it’s a terrific journey. Lots of suspense and paranoia and maybe—just maybe—you’ll learn a little something about, uh, not trying to base your love on adultery and murder.

This was Billy Wilder’s third film in America (Five Graves to Cairo and The Major and the Minor were his previous two) and he only directed one film in France previously (he himself was Austro-Hungarian!), but the whole thing comes off as polished and well-constructed as Hitchcock. (Hitchcock said people often praised him for Witness For The Prosecution—and apparently Wilder got a lot of praise for The Paradine Case, and Hitch is the winner in the case of mistaken identity.)

MacMurray is great. The warmth and wisdom he would later come to be synonymous with is utterly missing here. He comes off more like a Bogie type, except for being a bad guy. The movie doesn’t really do much to soften him: He’s hot for Stanwyck, but there’s no real romanticism of their love. He knows the kind of woman she is up front.

Eddie G!
“Now, I’M the good guy, see?”

Stanwyck…well, she had hair problems. She’s got a goofy wig on. She didn’t do it for me. (I liked her way better in The Lady Eve.) Which isn’t, by the way, to say that she was bad or anything. But I have a similar reaction to The Maltese Falcon. Mary Astor is the weak link, not because she can’t act, but because she isn’t smoking hot enough. (Like a Lauren Bacall or a Veronica Lake or a Rita Hayworth…)

The dialogue pops. It’s impossibly arch and awesome. Wilder wrote the script with Raymond Chandler, based on James M. Cain’s novel, so…yeah. The story is tight and the characters are sharply drawn. It’s just solid moviemaking. So much great camera work by John F. Seitz. It gets the point across stylishly without being super-showy.

Killer score by the great Miklós Rózsa.

Why wouldn’t you watch his?

Go figure.
This shot isn’t in the movie, but wow! I guess Neff lives to be put in the gas chamber?

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Duh-duh-DUH-duh! Duh-duh-duuuuuuh! Duh-duh-duh-DUH! Duh-duh-DUH! DUH! DUH! Duh-duh-DUH-duh! Duh-duh-duuuuuuh! Duh-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-dah-duh-DEE-duh-duh-duh (dee-duh-duh-duh).

You can totally sing the theme reading that. Don’t lie.

'cause it's a really drab font.
I bet you don’t remember THIS font from the title. I bet you remember the one from the poster.

Rather famously (infamously), I went from enjoying this movie when it first came out to just totally losing my suspension of disbelief in one scene: Indy’s sub ride. He gets on top of the sub to go somewhere (he doesn’t know where). And on DDGing (my new verb for web searching) it, I discover that the topic was apparently broached on “The Big Bang Theory”. (They ripped me off!)

See, if the sub dives, you’re dead. And why wouldn’t the sub dive? (They’re actually yelling “Dive! Dive!” in German.) In the original script, they put the periscope up and he ties his whip to that. Still. All they’d have to do is go deeper for a few minutes and he’d be toast.

It’s the sort of thing you do if you know you’re the hero and can’t die.

I was impressed, on seeing this again, at how short that sub ride is. Doesn’t negate my point, but it loomed so prominently in my mind—I thought that they crossed the Atlantic—that it was funny to see that they were in the Mediterranean the whole time. It didn’t offend me so much this time.

Wait, what?
It’s okay! It turns out the water only goes up to your knee anyway!

On the other hand, I’m at a loss (and the kids were, too) to distinguish this so strongly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I asked them afterwards which they preferred and they couldn’t really answer. I still think ToD edges it out for me, because—eh, I’m not sure. They both have a nice comic-book “Weird Tales” vibe.

The idea that either needed a new rating is a little silly, in my opinion. The violence is so comic booky.

Karen Allen and Harrison Ford have a nice chemistry. And Allen is less screamy than Mrs. Spielberg. I guess the second one is both broader in humor and in “drama”.

Sometimes I think, for all his inability to act, Harrison Ford basically made Spielberg and Lucas. (He got a lot better as an actor, too, which is always nice to see.) He definitely has charisma, and is probably the only guy in 40 years who could pull off the “lovable rogue” bit so iconically. I mean, hell, he is the only guy who’s pulled it off and become an icon. (Bruce Willis, maybe?)

In an action film!
A great love scene.

I mean, seriously, Hollywood seemed to churn these guys out at some point. And there are still actors doing the parts serviceably well. But…could you tell them apart?

Anyway. It’s a decent flick. Good acting in the bit parts from relative unknowns like John Rhys-Davies, Alfred Molina and Paul Freeman. Some good suspense. A lot of silliness. A lot of things that seemed positively gripping at the time that are mostly impressive now for their competence. Climbing under the truck, I noticed this time that they had dug the road out so that Indy could fit under there. But still, someone had to keep that truck out of that trench.

We find the practical effects more impressive now than we did at the time, which may be a kind of irony.

Sort of amusingly, between these kinds of movies and stuff like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, the kids are really getting an appreciation for Spielberg and Lucas’ effect on the movie biz.

We're all coyotes now.
It’s like life: Full of hard choices that you’ll think you’ve made correctly only to have a giant boulder squash you.

Dressed To Kill (1980)

I’m gonna just spoil this one right off the bat so if you haven’t seen it, give this review a miss. Because, by far, the best part of this movie was on the way home. The Flower thought the movie was okay, pretty good, and for me this was one of those movies where my expectations were just about met. That is, I expected to like this a bit less than I had when I saw it originally, and I did. But the Boy was disgruntled.

He thought it was going along fine until the end. The big reveal—which the movie told us way in advance—is that the killer is a transvestite. And so the killer was revealed to be a transvestite and he was, naturally, unimpressed, because what kind of reveal is that?

It’s a transvestite. We’ve heard all of the voice mails on Michael Caine’s answering machine. It’s his crazy trannie patient. So the big reveal was “just some guy.”

(Here’s the spoiler in case you haven’t ducked out yet.)

The real girl (Penthouse Pet Victoria Johnson) had red hair and ... had to dye it!
Spoiler: That’s not Angie’s 50-year-old body in the closeups.

(Ready?)

“MICHAEL CAINE WAS THE KILLER?!?!”

The Flower and I laughed so hard, it was the best part of the evening. The Boy has my inability to recognize faces (I was far worse than he at his age—I’ve gotten a lot better as I’ve aged) and I probably wouldn’t have recognized him either in the short glimpse given except that in 1980 Michael Caine was a huge star and he was in a lot of things.

But still—funny, because it would be a HUGE let down if it weren’t Michael Caine. In fact, there’s literally no one else it could be in the movie that makes any sort of narrative or dramatic sense.

That said, the movie’s okay. Brian De Palma directs this mashup of Psycho and…there’s another movie in there, too. Vertigo, sure, and I pointed out the museum scene when we saw that a couple weeks later . But I recall (a possibly foreign) film that does the time-lapse photography gag they use to “catch” the killer blonde but…whatevs. (Blow Out, which directly references Blow Up and may be De Palma’s best, would come next.)

But it looked like HER!
Kim Novak was also looking at a portrait.

The story is that sexually frustrated wife Angie Dickinson (in the Janet Leigh role) is murdered in an elevator with hooker Nancy Allen as a witness, and she teams up with the victim’s son (19 year old Keith Gordon, who directs “Fargo” now but would go on  to play high-school kids for the next seven years) to spy on psychiatrist Michael Caine, feeling that one of his patients is the most likely suspect.

There are a few good moments of suspense here. Not great, and not all that many of them. It’s kind of abrupt. The dialogue actually made the audience laugh out loud at one point. (“You really loved your mom, huh?” Nancy says to Keith after she’s been dead—I wanna say less than a week.) The performances are not top notch, and since the actors are all competent—Dennis Franz is the hard-boiled detective willing to risk Nancy’s life on a lark—the blame for that has to fall on De Palma.

Was she? No idea.
“You really loved your mom, huh?” “Well, she was great in ‘Police Woman’!”

In retrospect, it seems like the most appealing part of the movie was the nudity and violence. The violence seems a little comical now, being highly stylized and edited (by modern terms) “slow” and the nudity seems especially prurient (for the same reasons!) but also less interesting because, hey, it’s 2017 and gratuitous nudity is more transparently exploitative.

Well, at least to me. Back then, of course, this sort of thing seemed vitally necessary for the story but literally none of it is, and now it kind of clanks.

The cuts, now, seem so slow motion that it’s really obvious that it’s Michael Caine in a wig in that opening elevator scene. Such is the nature of art, though: You gotta make your movie for the audience you have, even if future ones find it hokey.

It’s not great, doesn’t hold up that well, but it never quite gets boring. It’s typically ranked among De Palma’s best. He still makes films—he’s got four coming out in the next few years (again if IMDB is to be believed) but he hasn’t really made a good one since the oddly tame Mission: Impossible and the last “famous” film he made was the disastrous Redacted: A sad attempt to slur troops in the Iraqi war.

Hopefully these upcoming pictures will be better, but I’m not optimistic.

Murder it. Though he's stopped here, unlike the murder of art.
Michael Caine, about to do to Nancy Allen what the desire to inject political messages does to art.

The Music Man (1962)

And sometimes: Exhilaration.

I love this movie. I love this musical. When the dorky animated credits start with the whistle blowing and the little toy marching band figures moving around, I enter another plane, securely in bliss from the opening rap—and it is, basically, a rap—to the closing “magical realism” marching band sequence/credits.

Don't care. Love it.
Stop-motion animation at its least animated.

I don’t even like marching bands.

The story, in case you don’t know it, is that of a con man (Robert Preston) whose scam is convincing people in small towns to buy musical instruments and marching band uniforms by telling them he’ll set them up a boy’s band, and then absconding the with the cash as soon as the uniforms arrive. He sets down in River City, Iowa, a town full of grumpy-but-good-hearted (crusty but benign, I suppose Paddy Chayefsky would say) farmers and convinces them (with the help of an old associate, played by Buddy Hackett) that their town is imperiled by newfangled things like “Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang” (one of the original magazine/comic books which launched the Fawcett Publishing Company), as well as various trends in clothing and language.

This scene is, of course, parodied and re-immortalized in a classic Simpson’s episode “Marge vs. The Monorail”.

The parody is brilliant but the source is sublime.
It’s more of a Shelbyville idea…

Our con man, who is going by the name of Harold Hill, is not a good guy. When he’s not evading the mayor and school board (who he turns into a barbershop quartet), he’s making love to the town librarian (Shirley Jones, looking and sounding divine) whom he believes is a “fallen woman”. He gets that idea from the nattering ladies of the town when he corrals their hen-party into a dance committee, but Marian (the librarian) is too smart and too suspicious to fall for his shtick, and threatens to undermine him even as he’s wooing her.

But—and here’s the thing that makes the story transcendent—it’s such a fine line between the thing and the illusion of the thing. To get the thing you have to be able to imagine the thing being there. And the Professor gets the whole town imagining something—I mean, this is an Iowan town! even if the same thing might be applied to dozens of towns across the west—where before their lives were farming, worrying about the weather and the occasional delivery on the Wells Fargo wagon.

Little Ronnie Howard, ladies and gentlemen.
“It could be thomething thpeshul, juth for meeeee…”

And that, ultimately, is what this movie is about. The illusion is so good, it becomes the reality. And you can, of course, see the flip side of all of this: Harold Hill is the consummate politician, saying whatever needs to be said to get agreement, and producing nothing; or you could say in a world like today where people are constantly going through the motions of producing without actually producing, this premise seems much less charming.

But the essential truth is there: Before you can make something, you must imagine it.

None of this even speaks to the music, which is gem after gem. (The weakest number in the bunch is the one made for the movie, “Being In Love,” which Shirley Jones does an excellent job with, but which managed to not even get nominated for the Oscar.) I mean, if I think about it, I can rattle off great lines from every song:

Whaddayatalk? Whaddayatalk?Whaddayatalk? Whaddayatalk?
But he doesn’t know the territory!

So, what the heck, you’re welcome
Join us at the picnic
You can eat your fill of all the food you bring yourself

Oh, we got trouble!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!

There’s not a man alive
Who could hope to measure up to that blend o’
Paul Bunyan, Saint Pat and Noah Webster
You’ve got concocted for yourself outta your Irish imagination, your Iowa stubbornness, and your liberry fulla’ books!

It was a hit for about 25 years.
But who was the teacher who sang “In the Gloaming”?

It is, of course, a great romance as well. Marian falls under Harold’s spell because she sees what it does to her little brother (Ronnie Howard!), which gives the spell more power than even Harold imagines it to have, including ultimately the power to capture him and make a new reality.

I’ve seen it before, many times—I think it was the first musical I ever saw, on a grainy 12″ TV in a mountain cabin with snowy reception at best—and I always see something new. This time I was struck by the comic genius of the ladies dance committee. They are priceless, both sympathetic as characters (for all their scurrilous gossip) and delightfully goofy in the loftiness of their cultural aspirations.

I’ve never really thought of it as an Independence Day movie, though I believe the big picnic is on the fourth of July (the movie takes place over about 6-8 weeks, I think, though it feels very much more compressed). More importantly, it is pure Americana: From the trains and the traveling salesman, to the farmers and townspeople, to the simultaneous suspicion and embracing of new things, and above all the dreams. “I always think there’s a band,” the Professor laments to Winthrop when the latter finds out he’s a conman.

The worst thing, though, would be never thinking there’s a band.

Maybe. Maybe not. But if you don't, they sure won't.
If you build it, they will come.

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Our Independence Day was a musical extravaganza with Yankee Doodle Dandy on a double-bill with The Music Man and, boy-oh-boy, that’s a lot of music. I had never seen Cagney’s brilliant performance, and his mimicry of George M. Cohan’s dance moves may be the only genuinely accurate part of this highly fictionalized (yet delightful) take on the great Irish-American’s life. At first I was suspicious. If you don’t know (and I didn’t), this movie is narrated by Cagney-as-Cohan to FDR, with Cohan in the last year of his 64 year life. (Though, presumably they didn’t know that.)

Or, I guess everyone ELSE was the dirty rat.
Light on his feet, for a dirty rat.

Anyway, Cagney as 64-year-old Cohan dances just like Cagney as 20-year-old Cohan, which seems unlikely, especially in 1942 when 64 was pretty hard won (and about the average life expectancy) but you can find videos of old Cohan and damned if the man didn’t dance like a man who was just made up to look old. (Although, unlike Cagney, he really did look old.) Cagney pretty much nails his sing-speak style, as well.

The music, of course, is woven into American history, somewhat to its detriment. That is, like Stephen Foster’s work, it’s so ingrained as to seem trite but then you realize, holy cow: This guy wrote “Over There” and “It’s A Grand Old Flag”, with the latter in particular being the sort of song one can imagine just evolving. But it didn’t! And in fact the original title—this isn’t mentioned in the movie—was “It’s A Grand Old Rag,” which I kind of like better. (I like the idea of recognizing that it’s just a piece of cloth but at the same time represents something much greater.) Other songs from the film by Cohan are “Harrigan”, “Give My Regards To Broadway”, “So Long, Mary” and “Molly Malone”.

Like you don't hardly see no more.
H! A! Double-R! I just wanted to point out that even here is great blocking.

Mixed in with these are classic Americana like “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Auld Lang Syne” (OK, it’s Scottish but we appropriated it), “My Country ’tis of Thee” and so on. Because above all, this is a movie about America and from a time when Broadway was a part of America instead of the Bolshevik enclave it is now. The story of Cohan’s life, as presented here, is the story of how immigrants can come to this country and have a kid who doesn’t just survive, doesn’t just succeed, but actually captures the national imagination for decades.

Though, as the movie points out, all fame is fleeting, and the new generation doesn’t know from Cohan’s classics (a little unlikely given my kids know quite a few of his songs) and are only into the fancy swing tunes, like “Jeepers Creepers” (1938). I guess it was more his shows (which he made mucho bank on) that were quickly forgotten—I hadn’t heard of them, but I’m more into the post-WWI, pre-WWII era—but such is the nature of live theater.

They probably weren't this good looking.
The Four Cohans, Hollywood Style

Anyway, the theme of this movie, beyond “America, Heck Yeah!” is the power of the family. Cohan (actually) got his start as part of The Four Cohans, where the other three Cohans consisted of his sister and parents. The movie shows him growing up, cocky to the point of arrogant and irascible enough to hurt The Four Cohans options for where they could play. So the family gets to stick beside him and he gets to sacrifice so they can succeed, and then he gets to succeed and then he gets to help them out, and then his parents get old and…oh, my, you get the picture.

Circle of life stuff. As trite as the music. But, as they say, everything true is trite, and if none of this actually happened, it’s a kind of idealization of the family life we all want. The sort of thing entertainment was made of before it got “real”: aspirational stuff. You wanna be there for your family and to know they’re there for you, and you’re willing to sacrifice because they have and will for you. Yeah, we all got choked up more than once.

Now, the only thing is: We’ve been sitting in the theater for over two hours at this point (well more because we got there early, and good thing, ’cause it was packed) and by the end were pretty “full” both cinematically and musically speaking. But The Music Man was next, and it’s a whopper (over 2 1/2 hours) and jammed with more music than even this. So the kids would be put to the test.

And forever in peace may it wave.
It truly is a Grand Old Rag.

Warriors of the Dawn

The Flower has friends downtown and, the way traffic is in the city, it takes an hour to make the trip. They often only hang out for a few hours at a time (none of the kids like sleepovers, curiously) so it seldom makes sense to come home in the interim. I hadn’t really looked around Koreatown since living there (pre-kids) and I thought it would be cool to see what had been done in the ensuing era. (Renovation had been talked about back then but it was basically a ghetto, if we can stretch the term. It still is, actually, with just a slightly bigger stretch.)

But with cell phones!
Everyone in Koreatown dresses like THIS.

And the thing about Koreatown is that you can go see Korean movies there. You can also go see American movies with Korean subtitles, like Wonder Woman and, actually, I might have gone to see that if it had been dubbed in Korean (with or without English subtitles). But I was actually excited to see that this movie, The Proxy Soldiers, was playing because the last Korean military movie I saw (My Way) was really good and, to me, culturally interesting.

The South Koreans, like everyone else who has adopted Western culture, has also absorbed all the black PR about the West. My Way was so astounding because it was just a straight-up patriotic film, and you don’t see a lot of that these days. So, for whatever reason, while the South Koreans seem to hate the USA (or perhaps that’s just the impression the media here gives us), they don’t seem to fully hate themselves (yet), and they can make movies like that, and like this.

But, sometimes, ya gotta...
The Man Who Would Rather Not Be King

The story goes that, in 1592, Japan invaded Korea, and the king escaped to China to beg for help. In order to keep the pretense that he hadn’t done so, he made one of his sons stay behind to rally the militia. In reality, nobody wants him to succeed. Similarly, nobody wants to be on the detail with him, so he ends with the other heroes of our film, the proxy soldiers. (Which is a way better title than Warriors of the Dawn but I suppose not as flashy.)

In Korea at the time, apparently, some term of military service was mandatory and the wealthy would get out of it by paying people to fight for them, hence, proxy soldiers. If the soldier died before fulfilling the contract he was proxying, the next eligible member of his family would take it over. If the movie is to be believed—and this seems so plausible as to be virtually inevitable—the trick the Korean elites pulled was to move a bunch of people to the inhospitable northern border and deprive them of any opportunity to make any other kind of living.

As you do.

This, of course, is the ultimate path of every government: Make everyone come to you for survival and you can pretty much get what you want. At least, right up until the Japanese invade.

And they will, ’cause, Japanese.

The proxy soldiers are at the end of their tours, and they’d rather get back to protect their families rather than waste their lives on a mission even they can see is a cynical ploy. But the leader is a guy who sees an opportunity which he initially sells (perhaps to himself as well as them) as a financial opportunity: Serving the Crown Prince—now the official King, even—means a way out of the lives they have been trapped into. (And their wishes really are, shall we say, modest: A lot of them just want the opportunity to take a test that will allow them to get into the real army.) But as he sees the bookish young man struggle with what is, essentially, a military command, he sees something greater: The possibility to give Korea a wise leader.

It’s packed full of action, but it gives enough space for the characters to grow and breathe. There’s a lot of band-of-brothers type camaraderie but all the characters are given a chance to fill out, as it were, including the prince-king’s personal ball-washer. (The prince-king does nothing for himself, you see?) There’s a lot of intrigue here, too, but for me it quickly veered into a kind of Warriors thing where all you know is the good guys are being besieged on all sides.

I think it was her. They all look alike.
You’d look like this if it were YOUR job, too!

I liked it, and as I was watching it, I kept saying to myself, “My God, The Boy would love this!” But, alas, he was not with me, so he had to hear how awesome it was secondhand (which is only fair since he ran off to see My Life as a Zucchini and Long Way North without us).

Fun fact: The last Korean movie we had seen was The Handmaiden, which was about how the Koreans fared under Japanese invaders in the early 20th century, and while I was waiting for this movie (about Japan invading Korea in the 1590s) to come on, there was another trailer for a movie called The Battleship Island, which was about Koreans trying to escape Japanese occupation during WWII.

It seems to be a theme.

That said, there appeared to be no actual rancor toward things Japanese amongst the Koreans I was with on this day (who I realized suddenly were the children of the people who were there the last time I was in Koreatown). They seemed to like Japanese stuff just fine.

I guess?
So, it’s agreed. We hate the Japanese but love “Hello, Kitty”.

Cabaret (1972)

I did a paper in college about how Cabaret was basically the death knell of the traditional musical and, these days, I probably couldn’t back that up (but back when it was much harder to research, I made a pretty good argument) but I’d still argue that it was a harbinger. By being so incredibly successful ( about $250M in today’s money) and utterly abandoning the traditional (and I probably can’t even back up “traditional” given the complex history of the musical) form. But the die was already cast by 1972, if you look at the (few) musicals made, they’re for kids (Snoopy Come Home), they’re historical/fantasy (1776, Man of La Mancha), or the music is ambient (like Lady Sings the Blues or this one). And I think it represented a shift in the ability of people to accept the form. “Nobody bursts out into song,” people say. And so passed musicals that dealt with real issues like labor disputes or racism or just poor life choices.

It’s not really Cabaret‘s fault. But it sure didn’t help.

Vaudeville was more like network TV.
Cabarets are creepy. They’re like vaudeville + sleaze.

And the funny thing is that, while I remembered how tight the movie was as a musical, I had forgotten how seamy it is as a drama. The dissolute Sally Bowles (Oscar winner Liza Minelli) strikes up a relationship (after we’re given to think she’s had a string of failed relationships) with the sexually confused Brian Roberts (Michael York) which finds complications with the completely decadent Baron Fancypanzer (Helmut Griem). There’s also a subplot with another fake-romance-gone-real between Fritz and Natalia, which is complicated by the fact that Natalia is a Jewess and it’s 1931 in Germany.

It’s a perfect fit for (Oscar Winner) Bob Fosse who was certainly of the decadent times (the West in the ’70s, not the West in the ’30s) but not oblivious to their portent. And it’s brilliantly done. The music is so thoroughly removed from the action that the Master of Ceremonies (Oscar winner Joel Grey) has no name and takes no part in the actual story—which fact did not keep him from winning the Oscar for best supporting actor. At the same time, it’s part of the woof-and-warp of the film. It would be done many times after this, but never better.

And I had forgotten—and we’re entering spoiler territory here—that our heroine resolves the dramatic tension of the story with an abortion.

Oh, Pinochet, we hardly knew ye!
The fascists will beat the communists, then we’ll reign in the fascists. Works every time!

It’s an awful, awful period in cinema. (Note that the movie snatched most of the Oscars away from The Godfather, where the hero is a cold-blooded murderer.) It’s still a great movie, and I find if I can spread watching the movies out from this period, I’m not overcome with their ennui and ugliness. (Cabaret is Technicolor, but it’s the under-saturated, “realism” that was typical for the era.) The music is quite good and the campy, ugly cabaret segments are well put together and often cutting.

The kids liked it, but I think they were a bit taken aback.

Hey, she won an Oscar. She can do whatever to her face.
And Liza Minelli never updated her makeup again.

It Comes At Night

Yes! It comes at night! What comes at night? you ask? Beats me. Still don’t know after seeing this.

Unless…what comes at night is fear, paranoia, savagery…and maybe Joel Edgerton.

It Comes At Night is sort of this year’s The Witch: A horror movie that isn’t really mean to shock, but meant to create a brooding atmosphere of foreboding against which our main characters futilely thrash. As such, it’s got a massive RT split 88/44 because horror movie audiences (and let’s face it: that’s a title designed to attract them) want the boogens and the jump scares and critics like to see other styles, and Joel Edgerton. (Joel was in 2015’s creepy The Gift as well as a bunch of other niche movies like Black Mass and Midnight Special.)

Spooky!
Look, waking up to this would scare you. Admit it!

The premise of this film is that the Something Has Happened. When the movie opens, Paul (Edgerton) and his son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) are going to bury wife Sarah’s father. We know it’s Sarah’s father because she’s played by Carmen Ejogo (Born to Be Blue, Away We Go!) and she’s black and he’s black and, refreshingly, none of this is ever mentioned or matters anywhere in the rest of the movie. But Travis is seriously haunted by this, and he’s having terrible nightmares.

Paul and Sarah discuss The Thing That Has Happened, which appears to be some really nasty, highly contagious plague. They’re way out in the woods somewhere, and relatively safe, I guess, although, hey, there was someone living with them who had this plague so…

The story heats up when someone breaks into their house, which is well defended, and Paul ends up shooting him (or braining him, I don’t recall which). It’s not fatal though, and it turns out that Will (Chris Abbot, James WhiteMartha Marcy May Marlene) is just a Regular Joe trying to keep his own family alive. After much debate, they decide to let him bring his family to their home.

None better!
Good way to start any relationship, if you ask me.

Shenanigans ensue.

And if you haven’t, at this point, guessed that this isn’t the kind of movie where The Boogen Comes To Get You but in fact the kind where The Real Enemy Is Man, I may as well revoke your popcorn privileges right now. It’s dark, and some might think it nihilistic, but The Boy and I both ended up liking it. I think it’s because the characters were likable and relatable. Harrison does a really fine job as the troubled teenager, but the cast is generally quite good, and this is an actor’s movie.

Also, it’s not actually nihilistic, however bleak, and if I were going to fault it, it might be for the paranoiac premise: but that’s the movie they set out to make, and they made it. Certainly not for the popcorn crowd (except The Boy and I because we’re always eating popcorn) but if you’re down for it, it’s well done.

What? The guy does "creepy" real well!
Nope. Still less scary than Edgerton.

Rocky (1976)

I’ve mentioned (repeatedly) about movies that were part of my youth, and the reticence with which I sometimes recommend them to my children, and while I didn’t have that with Rocky, I was still a little surprised when I took them to see it. I mean, it’s good, sure. But it’s really, really good. Great, even. And in ways that you might not remember immediately, especially in the wake of the…six?…sequels.

And then guzzling it down, raw.
Me, contemplating Twitter in the morning.

Something I didn’t remember at all, for example, despite having retained near perfect memories of Rocky waking up and training, was exactly how squalid conditions were in Philadelphia ’76. At least, in the movie. Rocky lives in a one room flat with a picture of Rocky Marciano and what looks like a Beatles pic taken from a magazine. Adriane and Paulie have a tiny home, which he resents letting her cook-and-clean in.

It’s a great love story. Talia Shire is brilliant, which is easy to overlook considering until I pointed out we had just seen her in a completely different role in The Godfather, something neither of the kids picked up on. And, their relationship is not at all glamorous, but still deeply romantic in a way you don’t seem much these days (if you ever did).

Which is good, 'cause we like them.
There’s a great familiarity and affection in this shot, and Avildsen never looks down on them.

The script is tremendous. One of the maddening things about the critics’ (entirely political) portrayal of Stallone as a meathead is that he wrote this script. And just as a dumb blonde can’t play a dumb blonde (the smart ones are the best at it), a meathead can’t write a meathead because, you know, meathead. But Stallone is so convincing here (and of course reinforced his image as a monosyllabic action hero) that his range and intellect were completely overshadowed in his films, or played out in lesser known films. (Like Oscar, an underrated comedic gem where Stallone is the smartest guy in every scene.)

There’s another funny aspect of this, which didn’t occur to me at the time, but which seems pointed in today’s hyper-racialized atmosphere. (I would say we’re more racially sensitive than we were back then—and the movies and TV would bear me out on that—but my own experience was pretty limited.) In this story, it’s Apollo and his team who are the shrewd, canny manipulators of a dubious system, with an odd mix of patriotism and cynicism that only 1976 could muster, while Rocky’s the sincere down-on-his-luck guy just hoping—not even hoping—for one lucky break.

Thuggish white man beating up on that beautiful black face? That's GENTRIFICATION!
Also, today Rocky would be a “hate crime”.

Burgess Meredith—kind of a household name around here—is terrific, of course, but he’s written great, too. The scene where he comes to ask Rocky to let him train him, and Rocky waits until he leaves to rant (though loudly enough it can be heard on the street) is really very powerful and touching. The Flower, who learned of Meredith’s existence from “Adventure Time” and has seen him on “The Twilight Zone” has said, “He was always old!” I told her, “Yeah, and he’d go on to be old for another 20 years!” (If the original Of Mice and Men comes around, though, we’ll definitely see it.)

Another thing that surprised me here was that the fight actually seemed rather short, and almost anticlimactic. Almost, but not quite. I didn’t stop watching the series until Rocky III (until Creed) and I think those later films had a lot more fighting in them. So I probably mixed up some of those fights. I remember Rocky II having long fight scenes, and Rocky III has multiple fight scenes. But here, well, it’s not really a movie about boxing, it’s a movie about a guy who happens to be a boxer. You can see both why it spawned so many sequels and why Stallone might have trouble letting go of this character, whom he made, and who made him.

Or run up a flight of stairs, if you'd rather.
Now, get out there and punch some meat!

Some Like It Hot (1959)

And some like it sweet. Hard to believe, perhaps, but I had never seen this movie. (Perhaps less hard to believe: I didn’t get that it was a reference to jazz, where “hot” was used to refer to improvisational riffing on the tune, and “sweet” meant playing it as written. Although for a guy who’s as in to Paul Whiteman like I am, it’s pretty hard to believe!) Men in dresses fall into two categories: The kind who are trying to be funny, and the kind who aren’t. The latter (in film) give me the heebie-jeebies. (As Cynthia Yockey @conservativelez said on Twitter, they trigger the “uncanny valley” feeling.) The former—well, I typically don’t find them funny (pace Monty Python), and I don’t find the premise inherently amusing as some do. Also, I never “got” the whole appeal of Marilyn Monroe (a sentiment The Flower shared with me).

Well, this movie changed our minds. Bigly.

The static shots don't do her justice.
Pictured: Not unattractive.

It’s so, so funny. And Marilyn is so, so sexy.

It’s based in 1929, during prohibition, when a couple of Chicago musicians (hurting in the post crash, hard-times-for-musicians winter) find themselves witness to a mass murder by a vicious mob boss. (I said this was a comedy, right?) In order to escape the boss’ unwanted attentions, they put on dresses and flee to Florida with a girl’s band. The lady killer of the two falls in love with dumb, sexy vocalist of the group, and poses as the sort of wealthy gentleman she imagines she wants, while the other fends off an elderly romeo of his own. The shenanigans come to a head when the gangsters, attending a—I dunno, a gangster-con?—end up in the exact same hotel as our girl’s band.

What are the odds?!?

Close to 100%, maybe.
No better than 5:8, I’m sure!

It’s been done so many times, of course, and mostly not well. I expected to like the film okay, but I didn’t expect to love it—which I did. Same with The Flower. (The Boy was putting off to the next date so he could see it with His Girl, but they ended up missing the movie.) I was particularly surprised at how daring the movie was. Granted, this was 1959, and the world was beginning its descent into smut, but this managed to be as charmingly unsubtle as Marilyn Monroe.

Who is brilliant in this. For her small role in All About Eve, she was famously “difficult” to work with, it was apparently due to nerves and wanting to get it just right when acting alongside of Bette Davis—and who could blame her? This time, she was at least as hard to work with, but in this case, it’s her “personal life” (i.e. “drug addiction”) that made her a huge liability.  Fortunately, that liability was Billy Wilder’s problem and not ours, and Monroe does an unparalleled dumb blonde that reminds one how sublimely difficult that can be to pull off. I mean, a few women have pulled off “funny dumb blonde” transcendently (like Gracie Allen), and quite a few mostly forgettable women have done the “sexy dumb blonde” thing. Not very many can pull off the sublimely funny and also irresistibly sexy thing. Now, add to the “sexy” and “funny” her secret ingredient: a kind of vulnerability (even sadness) that makes her sympathetic and elicits a protective nature in the audience (and not just men). Amazing.

The cast is perfect overall. Tony Curtis, doing an amusing impression of Cary Grant when he poses as the rich man, plays well off the apparently exhausting Monroe, but his chemistry with Lemmon is better. (Probably because of the fewer takes needed for them.) Lemmon is fabulous as the guy who’s too much a guy to be a convincing girl, but then learns to embrace the financial opportunities it presents him. Of course, if you look this up today, you’ll get lots of side hits for “LGBT” movies which this most assuredly is not: The very concept is played for laughs at every turn. Indeed, that’s why the movie works.

Never fails. I guess.
Tony Curtis doing the old “I have…a problem” gag to get her hooked.

That said, another reason it works is because it’s not homophobic. One could reasonably expect a strong aversion to the advances of men on our faux-women, especially given their own libidinous natures, but Lemmon’s whole subplot (with the sublime Joe E. Brown as a genuinely rich suitor with a thing for showgirls) is premised on keeping him entertained while Curtis does his Cary Grant schtick on Brown’s character’s boat.  This is what you call “subverting expectations”. Remarkably, it still works.

Another amusing angle on the issue is the fact that the boys quickly discover they dislike being the objects of predatory ’50s-era males, and rather than giving them empathy for women, their primary goal is to go back to being the predators. Because of course. Wilder himself was more of the playboy type, and (if his movies are any indication) was basically a live-and-let-live libertine.

And a brilliant director, perhaps at the height of his career, even the low points of which seem much better in retrospect. The timing is perfect. Even if a lot of the jokes are missed because, honestly, how many these days are going to remember George Raft gangster quirks (like coin-flipping) or that James Cagney grapefruit bit. I mean, I do, but it’s sort of like Shakespeare: You don’t get all the jokes, because they’re references to contemporary things, puns for words that no longer carry the meanings they did, and so on. But they can still be hilarious. I was surprised how much I enjoyed it.

I know and love the music, of course, with “I’m Through With Love” and Marilyn’s iconic rendition of “I Wanna Be Loved By You” being the most obvious among them. The composer of the former, Matty Malneck, was the composer of said song, and the song supervisor on this. Malneck was the composed only one musical score: Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. And to tie it all back together, Malneck was a “hot” jazz violinist with, you guessed it, Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.

Top 10 closing line?
“Nobody’s perfect.”

The Godfather (1972)

One of my favorite bits of TV, which goes back far enough that you get the sense of how little TV I watch these days, is from a fairly hacky 2006 episode of “The Family Guy” where the Peter, trapped in a room and about to drown with the rest of his family confesses the grievous sin:

Peter: But since we’re all gonna die, there’s one more secret I feel I have to share with you. I did not care for The Godfather.
Lois: What?
Peter: Did not care for The Godfather.
Chris: How can you even say that, dad?
Peter: Didn’t like it.
Lois: Peter, it’s so good! It’s like the perfect movie!
Peter: This is what everyone always said. Whenever they say…
Chris: Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, I mean, you never see, Robert Duvall!
Peter: Fine. Fine. Fine actor, did not like the movie.
Brian: Why not?
Peter: Did not…couldn’t get into it.
Lois: Explain yourself. What didn’t you like about it?
Peter: It insists upon itself, Lois.
Lois: What?
Peter: It insists upon itself.

Copyright law is weird.
It can be hard to find online (unlike the ACTUAL Godfather) because “Family Guy” is culturally significant.

If one wished to describe all of Francis Ford Coppola’s oeuvre with a single phrase, it might well be “it insists upon itself”. I’ve known plenty of people who felt Apocalypse Now (one of my favorite movies) was basically a bloated college film full of self-importance and, honestly, I can’t really disagree with that any more than I could disagree that The Godfather insists upon itself.

But I’ve actually never been a big fan of the film. When IMDB was first created, this movie and its sequel were #1 and #2. (They’ve been relegated to #2 and #3 since The Shawshank Redemption became ascendant.) And that’s all I have to say about that.

I wanted to see it again because I’ve never seen it on the big screen before and, frankly, that makes a world of difference. It’s a very dark film. I mean, literally, with scenes in the theater being almost complete blackness, like a higher budget Dirty Harry, and important things happen in those scenes that I can’t imagine I was ever able to make out on the little screen. There are a ton of people moving around here, and one needs a good visual image to keep track of the plot.

Coppola does this A LOT in his films.
Look at all the blacks! And here, it’s at least backlit. Often, nope.

The story is that an aging gangster is losing his grip on his little corner of the underworld because he refuses to deal drugs—and I believe this actually has some basis in reality—until a botched assassination ends up with his previously reluctant war hero son first fleeing after an act of revenge but soon re-emerging to take control.

I feel like that doesn’t matter, though. This is one of those movies practically overwhelmed by its historical impact. It won a ton of Oscar nominations, most of which it lost to Cabaret, except (oddly) for Best Picture (and it also won a writing award), and best actor (which Cabaret didn’t have a nom for), and when Marlon Brando won, he had a fake Indian come up and chastise the Academy and America (over Wounded Knee!). Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall were bit players (at the time, not in this movie). Talia Shire was the director’s sister. (What an actress, though!)

She would never look so angelic again.
Simonetta Stefanelli makes Al Pacino forget all about Diane Keaton.

And Coppola did everything “wrong” from a studio standpoint. He made it non-commercial. He made it about family rather than fun-times running-and-gunning, which would’ve been more in the mold of Bonnie and Clyde, which one imagines this was part of the spate of gangster movies that the Beatty/Dunaway vehicle inspired. The violence there is not fun, and it’s not glamorous. There’s a lot of it, and the movie lacks much in the way of heroic figures though, as antiheroes, Brando and Pacino’s characters are far from the worst we’ve seen.

You know, in the theater, when I could follow it pretty well, I found it hung together and held my attention for the THREE whopping hours it goes on. That’s no small feat. The kids basically responded with “That’s a lot of movie,” and again, I can’t disagree. We liked it. But I don’t think we have the superlatives for it that others seem to.

He ALSO would never look so innocent again.
Al Pacino starts out all American and reluctant to get into the biz.

Frenzy (1972)

It’s all very well to talk about “lesser Hitchcock” but, once again, even “lesser Hitchcock” is still pretty damn good, and the kids ended up really liking this, the penultimate and most graphic of Hitch’s movies.  One can (and to some degree I did) end up remembering the graphic aspects of the film to the exclusion of others which is a shame, since the graphic aspects are both the tamest things in it 45 years later, and the least remarkable (though one strangling is particularly bravura). The kids didn’t even comment on these aspects which struck me as somewhat needlessly vulgar when I was their age (I was about The Boy’s age when I first saw it).

I mean, honestly. Some murders are so undignified.
Today they’d CGI broken blood vessels in the eyes and tint her skin a little, probably, and it would look just as goofy.

What’s left, however, is confident, polished film making with enough pizzazz to put it in the upper half of Hitch’s films on a lot of people’s lists. (Though it’s intriguing to note that there is wild disagreement over how to rank said films, and both this and and Saboteur can end up in the top 10 depending on who’s compiling the list.) The premise is classic Hitch: In a script by relative newcomer Anthony Schaffer (who would go on to write The Wicker Man, Evil Under The Sun and Death on the Nile) our hero is ne’er-do-well Richard Blaney (John Finch, Death on the Nile, Ridley Scott’s 2005 muddle Kingdom of Heaven) who finds himself out of work unfairly (but us with the sense that he’s got a lot of self-inflicted wounds).

He goes to his wife to complain, and possibly for help, but rather than wound his pride she slips a few bucks in his pocket, which he then blows on a barmaid named Babs—which in itself might be considered a bit tacky, but becomes more problematic when the ex-Mrs. Blaney turns up dead. Strangled at the hands of the Shropshire Slasher…wait, wrong story…at the hands of the…uh…Nectktie Strangler. (I can’t remember if that’s his actual appellation, but he’s a strangler and he uses a necktie so good enough.) This makes Richard the #1 suspect for the police because, well, as we established in Saboteur, authorities are just not very bright.

Just awful.
But still WAY brighter than ’70s Fashion Designers.

Because of course serial killers don’t just up and kill their wives like that. Or, as the Inspector’s wife (the delightful Vivien Merchant, who didn’t do a lot of movies but got an Oscar nom for Alfie) puts it, couples who have been married for a long time don’t commit crimes of passion. She helpfully uses her marriage to him as a harmlessly pointed example of a lack of passion. The Inspector (Alec McCowen) and his wife have a relationship which provides endless humor in this film, with her perfectly and complacently aware of his dietary needs as she feeds him exotic gourmet grotesqueries from all over the world. (At one point she gives a margarita to one of his officers, which is amusing at this late date for being so mainstream. Needless to say, the salt-ringed glass does not especially appeal to the English gent.)

We have a wrongly accused man, and he’s going down for the crime, as he must in a Hitch film. We have multiple betrayals, including one where a couple who knows for a fact that our hero is innocent because he was with them during the murder, yet doesn’t come forward because it will put them in an awkward position vis a vis a property in France they’re setting up. (The late Billy Whitelaw, whose last film was Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz has a very bitchy role here.) This probably happened in some of Hitch’s American films but none are leaping to mind.

Hitch!
No one but Hitch can make dark humor so broadly appealing.

The story and dialogue are entertaining enough. You get the suspense you’d expect. There are also, even at this late date, some extraordinary bits of camerawork. There’s also, despite the concession/exploitation of “modern” lax standards, an underlying morality. The murderer is a source of suspense and humor, but he’s never given a cool veneer (like, say, a Hannibal Lecter). He’s a kind of loser, though he gets along well enough in a superficial world.

Anyway, the kids liked it. And I liked it more than I remember, which (if I remember correctly) is true every time I see it. I’m probably hearing my dad clucking about Hitch’s exploitative nature (which I think he felt about Psycho) at its worst. Intriguingly, they both would debate the quality of both this and Saboteur over North by Northwest and Vertigo!

Saboteur (1942)

We’ve had just tremendous luck with the anniversary double-features at our family-owned chain. It kicked off with 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution, and followed up with the Bette Davis double-feature (Marked Woman and Now, Voyager) and in June it was two lesser known Hitchcock films: Saboteur and Frenzy. Considered lesser Hitchcock films, I was eager to see Saboteur because, well, I hadn’t, though I tempered the kids’ expectations as I felt was appropriate.

And neither of these guys became icons.
It’s a lot of pressure: A lot to live up to.

Honestly, though, we all loved this film: Made during WWII, it’s so American you want to stand up and salute. Based on a story by  Hitch himself, the screenplay was written by Dorothy Parker (!), Joan Harrison (Hitch’s English secretary who came with him to Hollywood and ended up a writer at MGM and a producer at Universal) and Peter Viertel (who worked on African Queen and later wrote the novel White Hunter, Black Heart—also he was married to Deborah Kerr for nearly 50 years, until her death, and he died within weeks of her).

Anyway, the story is this: Barry (Robert Cummings, Dial M for MurderThe Devil and Miss Jones) is an average Joe, helping the war effort by working in a defense plant in L.A. (we had those until the ’90s!) when he stumbles across a letter to a guy named “Fry” (a sprightly 28-year-old Norman Lloyd), whom he and his pal locate but who doesn’t seem to be at all pleased by being found.

Before you know it, there’s a fire at the plant, and Barry’s pal perishes in it when someone gives him an extinguisher full of gasoline! He figures it was that guy Fry, but nobody can find any such person at work in the company, and the experts realize it’s sabotage! Wait, that’s a different Hitch movie. The experts realize Barry must be the Saboteur!

(No, it's not.)
This is why smokers have to go outside today.

Barry takes it on the lam because one thing he knows: If he musses around with the authorities, they’ll just foul things up until the real saboteur gets away—and maybe other good Joes like his pal will end up getting hurt. The beauty of this storyline is that almost everyone immediately figures out that Barry is a stand-up guy who’s genuinely going to find the real saboteur. You can tell just by talking to the guy he’s on the up-and-up.

There’s an implicit (and actually rather explicit) idea here that the authorities are incompetent, bless their hearts. Individuals working together can make a change the dunderheads in charge would completely miss. As I said, very American—and presumably British as well, given it’s Hitchcock, and he would revisit these themes constantly, as a sort of subhed to the “wrongfully accused” trope that was kind of his bread-and-butter.

But apart from the little guy, all the circus freaks love Barry. And apart from Pat (Priscilla Lane, Four Daughters, Four Wives, Four Mothers) pretty much all the normies know he’s on the up-and-up, too. Since Pat is his love interest, we gotta have a little tensions, y’know? Anyway, the plot gets thicker and thicker, and fills with tropes we would see Hitch use again in the classic North by Northwest. But the funny thing was that the kids (and even I) were unwilling to proclaim this as a lesser film. It’s much more pro-America, and while Robert Cummings was no Cary Grant, he was still Robert Cummings, and that ain’t nothin’.

NOTHING, I SAID!
Pictured: A scene absolutely NOTHING like the Mount Rushmore scene in North by Northwest.

There is a particularly charming scene at the beginning of the second act where the Bearded Lady makes a plea for Barry based on Pat’s willingness to stick by him—said willingness being not entirely voluntary, in fact—and Pat being so ashamed for not recognizing Barry’s innate goodness that she immediately supports him and, naturally, falls in love. (Said tension well set up before, of course, but resolved quited neatly in a single scene, as Hitch was wont to do.)

Climactic scene at the Statue of Liberty. Auction in a room full of well-connected and probably evil people. Battleship sabotage. Worlds longest paper-airplane/help note.

Good score by Frank Skinner, whose work is mostly known these days as “stock music used in crappy B-movie”.

Sandwiched between Suspicions and Shadow of a Doubt and considered distinctly “middle of the pack” Hitch. Which, as I told the kids, is still pretty damn good. They actually not only liked it, they enjoyed it more than Vertigo, which we would see a few weeks later.

Subtle!
Literally EVERYONE knows he’s innocent, except the love interest, and the tiny person in the circus everyone calls The Fascist.

Past Life

Not long after seeing the underwhelming zoo-based Holocaust movie, The Boy and I trundled off to see this Israeli movie about a couple of sisters in the ’70s whose father’s backstory is squarely in the scarier parts of WWII.

And not bad looking, either, but suspicious.
They’re suspicious.

The younger sister is a musician of some prowess who visits Germany for a concert. The young composer’s mother spies her and asks her if she is the daughter of Baruch Milch. When she answers in the affirmative, the old lady curses and yells at her as “the daughter of a monster!” and we’re off to the races.

The RTs for Zookeeper were 61/80 whereas the RTs for this film stand at 81/72, and much like I think the former movie’s relatively low rating among critics has to do with its rather pedestrian handling of an interesting premise, I think this movie’s higher rating among critics has to do with its cliched story given an unusual handling.

Sephi (our heroine, played by Joy Reiger, not seen on the ‘strom since 2005’s Live and Become—when she was eleven!) returns to Israel with all sorts of questions about her bristly father, and What He Did In The War. Her older, married sister Nana (Nelly Tigar, who gave a tremendous performance in the little seen “Israeli M*A*S*H” Zero Motivation) who is estranged (or nearly so) from her father wants to dig in with the mystery with both fangs, when she’s not busy berating her husband and her nudie-mag employer (she writes left-wing radical articles for him), while simultaneously avoiding her encroaching physical problems.

They don't look even a little guilty.
Nothing to hide?

The two do dig in to things, and find their father not especially secretive, though he’s still got some issues over what went down (as one would). They learn about his first wife, and what happened there. But something doesn’t quite gel, and when a concert takes Sephi to Poland, she and her conductor pal end up in a thriller that pits the revelation of the truth against Nana’s impending doom.

The movie has a near melodramatic feel to it, which wouldn’t work except that a melodrama would’ve ended with one of the (by now heavily overused) stock, shock endings. The “shock” of this movie is its lack of shock. Things sucked, a lot of people still gots issues over it, but people who survived the bad times were not saints, and having survived them, did not become perfect or even especially enlightened.

There really isn’t an upside to the Holocaust, is what I’m getting at. And it’s kind of interesting to have a movie that respects that—even among the victims—there is a rainbow of humanity. Not every cranky dad was a murderer working for the Nazis and not every weepy mom has her story straight, and so on.

The last twenty or so minutes is an attempt to bridge the gap between people who came into conflict, with mixed results. As such, it lacks the zippiness of a “Hey, turns out dad was actually Adolph Eichmann!” This kind of subtlety makes it less of a crowd pleaser. There’s also an interesting personality change, brilliantly performed by Nelly Tigar, which again had the effect of upsetting common dramatic tropes.

The Boy and I were won over. We didn’t realize that the director, Avi Nesher, had done one of our favorite movies a few years back (The Matchmaker) or we might have gotten our hopes up too high to enjoy it. But on reflection, it’s a similar story in the sense that it tries to treat its characters as complex creatures worthy of respect, and not turn them into two dimensional stereotypes. It doesn’t quite gel like that film, but for us it worked better than Zookeeper.

Hitch would approve.
Choirs are under-utilized settings for suspense sequences.

Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

Ben Mankiewicz claimed in the buildup to this that he preferred it to Star Wars which…well, I can relate, I guess. It’s not boring (like the early parts of Star Wars), the acting and dialogue is way better, and the action is passable. Also, Sally Field is cuter than Carrie Fisher.

OK, I can’t really back that last one up. But Sally Field is real cute in this, and it’s not a lie to say I remembered exactly one thing about this movie.

Years before this, actually.
“So, when did you first realize you were heterosexual?”

Yep. Sally Field’s butt. It’s the only thing I didn’t remember in the abstract. Like, I knew Burt Reynolds was in it, but could I have distinguished it from any of the innumerable follow-ups? I mean, Smokey and the Bandit II, Smokey and the Bandit 3, Cannonball Run, Cannonball Run 2, Stroker Ace…oh, and Hooper! Hooper even had Sally Field in it, too. (And Jan-Michael Vincent, though that’s not really germane.)

So, I warned the kids, as I sometimes do, but 40 years later the movie holds up pretty well. It’s not great; it was never great. (Sorry, SatB lovers.) But it’s fun, and it’s an amazing time capsule.

The plot (which, honest, I’m having a hard time remembering now) is apparently that The Bandit (Reynolds, duh) gets an offer from Big Enos (Pat McCormack, character actor/TV gag writer) and Little Enos (Paul Williams! the songwriter!) to make a beer run. For $80,000, they’re going to run Coors from Texarkana to Atlanta in 28 hours. “They” being The Bandit and Cledus (played by Country/Western star Jerry Reed, who would win the coveted People’s Choice award for his performance).

Why ARE there so many songs about rainbows?
Back when you just had to dress people alike to make ’em look like kin.

Along the way, they pick up city girl Carrie (Sally Fields) who’s fleeing from a shotgun marriage (!) between herself and Junior (Mike Henry, famous handsome man who played “Tarzan” in the ’60s and “Hotlips” fiancee in “M*A*S*H”). But if Junior is heartbroken, his father Sheriff Buford T. Justice (Jackie Gleason, stealing the show) is livid, and more than willing to chase The Bandit across several states, well out of his jurisdiction.

It’s all just a set up for driving, stunts, driving stunts, sight gags, jokes, some colorful language, and a palatable romance between soon-to-be-serious-real-life lovers Reynolds and Field. Fluff, all the way, except for one sort of fascinating bit about which not much is made.

At one point, when assessing their romantic prospects, The Bandit and Carrie each list various cultural shibboleths: “Chorus Line”, Richard Petty, Casey Tibbs, Elton John, Waylon Jennings, and so on, noting how they don’t have much in common. The Bandit says something about where you’re standing in the country having to do with how dumb you look. It’s not an original thought, of course, being as old as America (and older than the U.S.A.) but, man, does it resonate today.

Trick question: there isn't one.
Quick: Name a Burt Reynold’s caliber star of TODAY that embraces the country ethos?

Sort of the way the whole “Why the hell can’t you just buy Coors in Atlanta?” resonates. Although, for a different reason than you might suspect: Back in the day, Coors prided itself on making good beer and worried it wouldn’t stay fresh on the trip, so they just didn’t sell it. It was illegal only for tax reasons, I guess. Not exactly bootlegging in the ’20s. Coors actually made a conscious, corporate shift toward making bad beer, figuring they would be part of a 3-company monopoly.

But around this time, Carter deregulated the beer industry, and today there are hundreds of craft breweries countrywide giving them a run for their money, though obviously Coors Light is still a big player.

The kids enjoyed it. It’s a lot easier for me to enjoy today, I think, because the memories of the numerous awful spin-offs have faded.

I mean, literally, there was no one else in the movie. He played all the parts. For the lady parts he wore a wig.
I think SatB3 JUST had Gleason in it.

Stalker (1979)

And sometimes ya gotta see a three hour Soviet-era metaphysical Russian movie with lots of long, slow tracking shots, huge sequences without dialogue, and no clear explanation of what the hell’s going on.

I mean, ya gotta if you’re The Boy and I. Also, if you’re The Boy and I, you’re going to love it, and lament you can’t make the trip back downtown for the showing of Solaris, the director’s similarly paced, ambiguous space film, showing the next week.

Sometimes you can’t recommend a film to just about anyone, no matter how much you like it. This is one of those films. I should point out that this had been recommended to me by Sue (@Sky_Bluez), though, and I would have equally strongly recommend it to her, had I seen it first. But she’s about it.

I mean, honestly!
What the…?

The story is this: There is a place in the country called The Zone. It’s unclear what created this area, but it is full of existential peril. A small subset of people, known as Stalkers, are the only ones who can lead people in and out of The Zone safely. Why go in The Zone? Because deep in the heart of The Zone—and by “deep in the heart”, we surely mean metaphorically, since literal space is hard to track in this film—is a room that grants those who enter their heart’s desire.

People get this wrong and say “it grants a wish” but it doesn’t, and this is important, and very Russian, as we’ll see in a bit.

Anyway, our Stalker is leading two characters on a journey to The Room: A writer and a professor. Our Stalker is introduced in a scene where his wife/mother of his (crippled? mutant?) child begs him not to go back into The Zone, much in the way a woman might beg her man to stop drinking. But of course he goes (or we ain’t go no pickcha), apparently at the risk of being sent to jail for it.

Why? Who knows?
And then there’s this dog.

First, let’s look at the space issue. The beauty of this film is that it shows you as literally as possible the space that the action takes place in. The average shot length is around a minute, but there are many shots that are much longer, with slow pans across the “stage” that seem to loop around and reveal something about the space that you wouldn’t have thought possible. (Things like characters exiting stage right and re-emerging stage left. On an actual stage, this is no biggie, but when you’re tracking in a real world building, it’s both disorienting and oddly anchoring, because you end up with a very clear idea of the space but not how the characters can move in it the way they do.)

The space of The Zone is literally treacherous, however. The Stalker warns people that they can’t just cross from point A to point B. The one time a character tries that, he almost gets to point B before starting to believe The Stalker is right and retreating. (A voice calls out to him “Stop. Don’t move.” But whose voice?) There’s another point where a character The Stalker guarantees is a goner for having gone back (you can’t go back—only forward) is not only fine but has made his way easily to the point the Stalker and the other member of the party struggled to get through.

There are a lot of biblical references in this Soviet-era film. The filmmaker denied any religious interpretation (as he would, though he could’ve spoken out in the short time between his defection and death by lung cancer). It seemed to me, however, that The Stalker mapped pretty neatly as a kind of deconstructed (Orthodox Christian) cleric: He leads people to spiritual truth but cannot partake of it himself. He has a faith he desperately needs mixed with a deep cynicism, because the spiritual truth is not pretty.

Then again, maybe not, but maybe you'll wish it had!
And this tunnel…it may kill you.

This goes to the wish thing: The Room doesn’t grant your wish, it grants your deepest desire. Even if you go into it thinking “I’ll wish for world peace!”, you may wind up with hookers and blow. That’s one reason The Stalker never goes in The Room himself. The other reason is that, once you go in The Room, you can’t go back into The Zone. (I think that was the case, anyway. It was three hours long after all…) Yet another reason is that, of all the people he has led to the room, not one has found happiness. (Russian, eh?)

At the end, it’s not clear to me who goes into the room and who doesn’t. I think The Stalker himself might’ve gone in, and the movie teases us by making it look like his girl is walking at one point. But she isn’t, so did he go in and discover his wish wasn’t her health? Or did he not go in? Or…given the final scene where she can be seen with something like mutant superpowers, did he go in and unlock something else?

Maybe it’s just pretentious claptrap.

It was based off a sci-fi story but Tarkovsky radically reworked it into its metaphysical form, which makes some of the more traditional sci-fi tropes (nuclear weapons, mutations, etc.) stand out in an almost jarring fashion.

RUSSIAN!
Can’t even trust your own dreams.

There are trains in the movie that pass on four different occasions. On each occasion, at the height of the noise, music can be heard under the noise. “Ode to Joy” once. Ravel’s “Bolero” another time. Tarkovsky had a complex relationship with music in his movies. Well, maybe not that complex. He didn’t like it, thinking it distorted the emotions of the scene. (Which is of course the point, and one he must’ve realized since he didn’t move completely away from music till the very end of his career.)

 

There’s a Wizard of Oz quality: The movie starts in sepia and goes full color once they enter The Zone. Though there’s no literalization of it, the movie seems to have a happy ending. The final scenes are gently colored and lit and the sound is more soothing, and Mrs. Stalkera (“Stalker” declines to “Stalkera” in the Russian tradition) delivers a soliloquy to the audience about suffering being necessary to appreciate happiness. What it portends, I do not know.

Then there was the dog. I still don’t know what that was about.

It’s real Russian, as noted, though not real Soviet. (The government didn’t care for it, but 1979 wasn’t 1949.) To get into The Zone, you have to risk your life getting past soldiers set up at checkpoints to keep people out. (Much like getting out of a Communist country?) The Stalker explains that The Zone is dangerous, but it was the discovery of The Room, and its wish-granting power that caused the government to crack down against those who would venture into it.

It came off as pretty anti-government to me. Perhaps predictably, it came off as anti-materialistic as well. And, it doesn’t really have a lot of nice things to say about religion, except that in the context of the choices given (i.e., worship of government, worship of stuff, or worship of something higher), it’s possibly not just the best, but also the only choice.

Anyway, from all my rambling, you can see that we thought there was a lot here for us to like, and if you’re a patient movie viewer who enjoys doing a lot of the heavy lifting you might enjoy it, too. But otherwise you’ll want to steer clear.

Nobody listens.
Sometimes I feel like this guy.

Hair (1979)

This would be the sixth film in our five-film greatest-of-all-time series but I suppose I’ve spoiled it but pointing out that there were only five films in said series. Where Guys and Dolls had been a marvellous surprise and West Side Story about as good as it’s hyped to be, Hair was, by contrast, a crashing disappointment, and a new entry in my “Over-rated Boomer Artifacts” catalog, which previously consisted primarily of Forrest Gump. (It’s an okay movie, people. It’s just ain’t no ways Oscar-worthy and primarily owes its acclaim to pandering to a certain, tired worldview.)

But Hair is just miserable. To its credit, it’s not miserable in the most obvious of ways, which would be to elide the awfulness of the shiftless, amoral hippies who constitute its central characters. It seems to recognize the bankruptcy of their dissolution. The downside of this is that you’re watching a movie about awful people doing awful things.

There’s a reason I’ve avoided seeing it for all these years, but I sort of talked myself into it, with seeing Milos Forman (Ragtime, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus) as the director. Even so, I can’t say I was surprised at how bad it was.

Except: The music is awful, too. But I’ve heard some of these songs before, and they’re better elsewhere. The sound in the film is muddy and overproduced, so that these already antiquated late ’60s novelty pieces are smothered by disco-era duvets-of-sound. So, the one thing that might be really good here ends up lost in the shuffle. The title song, “Age of Aquarius” (and how dopey is that?) and “Good Morning Starshine” are shockingly wan.

Though, honestly, who thinks a song of words describing sexual acts (“Sodomy”) to, I guess, an uptight society woman, is…well, anything other than degenerate? How is this clever?

Marxism FTW!
It’s funny because they’re rich, and therefore evil.

But if the music has fallen to pieces since Guys and Dolls and West Side Story, the dancing is just chaos. If West Side Story chose a more emotive approach over Guys and DollsHair just wallows in meaningless motion. Any particular part of it might be good, I suppose, and there’s no arguing that it fits the whole slovenly endeavour, but there’s no fraction of the mastery displayed in those earlier films. (Leading to the current situation, where our best musicals have to be animated because nobody has the necessary skill to do a live musical.)

That said, the music and dancing are the high points. The grotesque story has our heroes, a band of hippies, treating a young soldier (John Savage) on his way to Vietnam to a week of drugs, sleeping in the street, jail, and generally upsetting the squares. He falls in love with a girl (Beverly D’Angelo, looking lovely and very Faye Dunaway-esque) and the two of them—hell, I don’t even know.

Christie Brinkley maybe not looking so naughty?
Man, if Clark ever found out about this…

There’s a kind of happy ending, where the dumb hippie leader (Treat Williams) gets himself sent off to war and killed in the place of the actual soldier. And if the movie’s going to play with the conceit that nobody anywhere in an army’s unit would notice a guy being replaced by an untrained goofball, I’m going to enjoy the fact that he ends up dead. And pretend that he only got himself killed and not everyone else in his unit.

As a gag, we (The Flower and I) dressed up in “square” clothes (others were to have dressed up in tie-dye but few actually did), but in the end, I really didn’t find much admirable in the film. (It’s well enough shot, I suppose, when it’s not a dance number.) I am very sympathetic to not participating in The System, but almost invariably “protest” doesn’t just include some bad behavior, it exists solely as a cover for it.

Weirdly, this movie seems to acknowledge that, while offering no rationale for its existence.

The kids weren’t crazy about it either, but they didn’t dislike it as much as I did.

Can you tell I'm not fond?
The real travesty being he’s buried next to real heroes.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

The problem, The Boy and I mused after seeing this tale of a Polish zookeeper during WWII, is that if you’re going to do a Holocaust story, you’ve really got to do it more than just “right”. It has to excel just to be less than forgettable. Because there are so many, many excellent movies on the topic.

Director Nik Caro (director of the excellent “Whale Rider”) and writer Angela Workman (adapting Diane Ackerman’s apparently none-too-great book, if you believe GoodReads) have delivered a largely competent yet strangely unmoving tale. One would have a hard time distinguishing it from a number of other films, except for the open slaughter of animals at two points in the film.

My mother asked if she could go see it, and I told her in no uncertain terms she should not. (Like many, she can tolerate human cruelty to humans, but not human cruelty to animals.)

INAPPROPRIATE DAY!
Hey…hey…you know what day it is?

But after the animals are slaughtered, you have a pretty standard “Good guy hides Jews from Nazis” story which lacks the mawkish effectiveness of, say, The Boy In The Striped Pajamas but also the subtle power of a Sarah’s Key. I don’t suspect Caro et al of simply trying to cadge historical horror to give their film some dramatic oomph, but it could come off that way given the almost rote feeling of the thing.

I don’t want to damn it with faint praise, though. It’s not bad. It’s even good. And the RT split (60/80) suggests that we might be suffering a bit from moviegoing excess vs. the general population. It also didn’t help, I’m sure, that this followed our 5-run-classic-streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls, Casablanca, West Side Story). That streak would actually curb our moviegoing for a while, because it was just too hard to follow up.

We’ve seen some great movies about the Holocaust in Poland, too, like Aftermath (Poklosie) and The Innocents.

But it's true!
Johann Heldenberg and his elephants can’t believe what I’m saying.

Quick capsule: A zookeeper (Flemish actor Johan Heldenberg) and his wife (Jessica Chastain), who despite the title is as much a zookeeper as her husband (from the looks of things) find themselves occupied by those Nasty Nazis, who wreck up their zoo. They save as many of their animals as they can, and then keep things running with the help of an old, now Nazi, friend (Daniel Bruhl, a Spanish actor who’s always on hand to play The Hun, as in Inglorius Basterds or Joyeux Noel) who, of course, at no time would ever use his power to make it with Jessica Chastain.

He can’t keep his fellow krauts from ultimately wiping the zoo out, but in an act of defiance, the zoo-peeps figure out they can turn their zoo into a pig farm for the Germans, while smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Sure, you’ve seen it before: Sneaking out people from under the Nazi’s noses, the assertion of authority, the living underground in darkness, the close brushes with death. But have you seen it in Poland? This year? In a zoo?

Ha, bet you’ve never seen it in a zoo. (Unless…no, my memory of The Zookeeper is blissfully blurry but I don’t believe there were any Nazis involved).

Not as much of a stretch as you might think.
Unless we stretch the definition of “nazi” to include Adam Sandler.

I usually go into Chastain movies thinking she’s over-hyped, until she wins me over somehow (like Marion Cotillard), but this time, I wasn’t super impressed. It’s not that she’s not good; it’s that she’s sort of Streep-ian. You can see her acting. Given her success in winning me over previously, I’m sort of inclined to think this is a matter of the director, the story and perhaps the editing. There’s more of a kind of polite respect here than empathy.

There’s a weird conflict between the married zookeepers, where He’s jealous of Her because of the Nazi, and that felt genuinely false to me. I mean, maybe that sort of melodrama occurred, but I can’t help but feel that if you were risking your life, moment-to-moment, to saves the lives of dozens of others against a recognized evil, you would be especially understanding of each others’ feelings.

I see that my concerns are shared with others who disliked the film—which, I hasten to point out, I didn’t, actually—so I suspect (as usual) it comes down to what you, personally, bring to the film. It’s kind of weird to say “lower your expectations” on this kind of film but, well, it can’t hurt.

Why muddy things up?
Not mentioned at any point is that the zookeepers are Christian, of course.

Robocop (1987)

As I’ve noted previously, I often have mixed feelings about the movies of my youth. One of the great surprises of the past year-and-a-half has been revisiting films like The Jerk (1979) and Young Frankenstein (1974) and finding that I enjoyed them more now. So far, there haven’t been any real disappointments, but I have steered clear of John Hughes entire oeuvre. Well, except Animal House (1978), which I felt was somewhat overrated back then, and, frankly, still think so.

Robocop is a movie that I was cool enough on that I think I swayed The Flower away from seeing it. It is a classic ’80s film for both good and bad sense of the word “classic”, and I wasn’t sure that revisiting it might not highlight the worst aspects of the era. The thing about ’80s action films is that they borrowed from old-style Westerns like Shane rather than moody ’70s-style cop dramas like Serpico or The French Connection. They did that because people like old-style shoot-em-ups a lot more than morally ambiguous stuff.

(Wait for it...)
As in: GOOD…

This didn’t kill the “morally ambiguous action” genre, but it did bury it under mounds of box office from people who—get this—go to the movies to be entertained, not lectured to. Which, as it turns out, is most of them.

Critics still blame Lucas and Spielberg for this, though Roger Corman is at least as much to blame as anyone.

Which brings us to Robocop and director Paul Verhoeven. If there was ever a man who would land on the “morally ambiguous” side of—of, well, anything! it’d be Verhoeven. I mean, fercryinoutloud, ElleBlack Book? It was probably bad for him in the long run that he directed this movie, because it would take him down the path that would ultimately lead to Showgirls and Starship Troopers. And back to Holland, probably.

Ronny Cox...so evil.
…vs EVIL.

The premise of Robocop is simple and, today, would’ve been taken from a previously written comic book: Peter Weller plays Officer Murphy, a man brutally murdered when he and his partner (Nancy Allen) are ambushed by a street gang they’re hunting. This street gang working for Ronny Cox, second-in-command at the giant corporation OCP, which is privatizing the police force (and possibly every other public service) and blurring the line between domestic police force and military with the classic ED-209 “civil deterrent”. (I don’t think they call it that, but they might as well have. Complete with scare quotes.) The ED-209 doesn’t quite work out (kaff!) and one of Cox’s ambitious cocaine-sniffing, two-whores-at-a-time competitors (the late Miguel Ferrer) comes up with the more successful cyborg cop idea.

In case you were wondering, yes, this is a movie directly inspired by Blade Runner.

Also, obligatory: ’80s, amirite?

The cyborg cop (or robocop) in question is Murphy’s reanimated corpse (or perhaps he was only mostly dead?) and he sets to work cleaning up the streets. This is a bit of a problem because the biggest, most troublesome gang in Detroit is six semi-punk middle-aged men—four white, one black, one Asian (which was the ’80s concept of diversity). Seriously, though, this street gang is old. Kurtwood Smith was the leader of the pack at 44, and the movie’s a little vague as to whether this is a street gang a la West Side Story or The Godfather. I guess the idea is that, since they’re soldiers in the OCP army, that’s adequate threat enough. But I think just about any city in the country would be better off if these six guys were the worst they had to deal with.

But I digress. We’re not here for the cohesive and well-thought-out social structure, any more than we were while watching Blade Runner. (Though, since it’s a Verhoeven film, we expect—and receive!—a coed locker scene.)

You wanted a co-ed shower pic, I suppose.
Detroit gang, or the PTA on Halloween?

So, for me, this works as Verhoeven’s best film because it has a genuine hero. Murphy is a good guy, a genuine good guy, as is Lewis (Allen). The appeal and “message” of the ’80s action film is that good guys can win. A single good guy, even, if he’s strong enough and tough enough and on and on. Maybe it’s a dumb message, but it’s one we like to hear.

This makes up for the rest of the film’s context, which is essentially a slap in America’s face. America is presumed to be stupid and greedy, as seen in the hit TV show with its stupid catchphrase, and its susceptibility to dumb advertising. (The commercials, per the credits, were directed by The Chiodo Brothers, who may have also animated the ED209, and who went on to direct the house-favorite Killer Klowns From Outer Space.) The escalation of violence feels both like exploitation and disapproval, though in fairness to Verhoeven that may be less him trying to insult the audience (or enlist them in an “in-joke”) and more to his own conflicted psyche.

You can’t talk about this movie without talking about Peter Weller, at the height of his career, who is nothing less than amazing. It’s exciting to watch him—I believe he took mime classes or something to get that “robotic” look. It’s so immersive that in one scene at the end of the movie, where he’s physically unable (by the constraints of the setting) to make his moves robotic, it’s utterly unsettling. I don’t know how a guy pulls that off when he can only act from the mouth down, but it’s a thing of beauty.

Nancy Allen was in attendance, and it’s as odd to me now as it was then that she was cast in this role, and yet she’s perfect for it. Despite a career, practically, of being a “woman in peril”, she’s somehow plausible as a tough police officer here. I mean, that’s sort of selling her other performances short, since they were tough characters, too, but they weren’t butch. She’s kind of butch here, but in that era’s way (cf. Margo Kidder in Superman) which still allowed for a woman to be feminine and “have it all”, if you will. (Allen frequently reiterated that “we shot the script,” which is a nice nod to the screenwriters, and also a probably explanation for why it isn’t completely muddled with moral ambiguity, as Troopers would be.)

It's pretty tender!
The tender “sighting the gun” scene.

Allen radiates charm and beauty in person, by the way. I’m always on the fence about the celebrity Q&As but she not only handled questions gracefully and graciously, she sparkled while doing it. I told her she should come back to talk about Blade Runner, since the theater didn’t have anyone from that film scheduled. Sometimes you can really see why people get to be “stars”.

The upshot of all this, anyway, is that Robocop is still a really, really good movie. It has a lot of iconic moments. It doesn’t waste a scene. The performers don’t waste a moment of screen time. Basil Poledorus (Conan The Barbarian) doesn’t waste a note of his musical score. The scene transitions are punctuated with the Chiodo Brothers wry commercials and stupid sitcoms. It’s a time capsule, but an effective one.

The Boy and His Girl liked it. The Flower ended up with regrets.

It looks...intimate.
The tender “strangling the baddie” scene.

West Side Story (1961)

When you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, to your last dying day. Which, y’know, given what early smokin’ will do to a guy, may not be that far apart.

So, even-steven.
OTOH, all that dancincg is goof for the respiratory system.

This was the fifth, and last, movie in our “All The Greats” streak (12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Guys and Dolls and Casablanca being the first four). And of the five, it’s the least accessible of the films. The staginess of Guys and Dolls gets a little bit harder to swallow in this famous rehash of Romeo and Juliet. At least, I think, for modern audiences. There was a distinct difference between Michael Kidd’s charmingly narrative dance bits and Jerome Robbins’ highly abstract, emotive dancing and while Robbins’ is inspired here, this style would lead inexorably to the awful randomity of movement of Hair (which would end our streak).

The Boy liked it, but not as much as Guys, and I think that’s part of the reason why. The Flower loved it, naturally. I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about it—it is often truly abstract in its form. It’s inspiration may well have been the Shakespeare play but it plays out as more the essence of that story. It sort of gives you the big picture, knowing you’ll fill in the details, sort of like an old cowboy picture. As such, to me it felt about as derivative of R&J as R&J was of Pyramus and Thisbe—not very.

Apart from the superficial, not much resemblance.
That balcony scene, tho’.

A few things struck me about this: A whole lot changed between 1955, where gangsters are basically lovable doofs, and 1960 where juvenile delinquency takes center stage. And society’s handling is—already!—by this point considered a cynical flop, as the marvelous song “Gee, Officer Krupke” has the JDs (as they call themselves) illustrates in cutting detail. (Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, disillusioned even back then, perhaps?) The song sends the whole establishment up as an employment program for barely-well-meaning do-nothings.

And this is before The Great Society.

Sure, there were plenty of potboilers prior to West Side Story featuring JD. It was a staple of the ’50s and even the ’40s, with the 1944 “classic” I Accuse My Parents, but those tended to be about how a “wild” kid would end up under the spell of the wrong element—typically gangsters of some sort. Here, the JDs are the wrong element—and they’re not so bad. It’s an interesting inversion from the earlier tropes, because you root for the gang members more than anyone putatively trying to help them.

And who cares about them?
Nobody’s gettin’ fooled by nobody, apparently, except the taxpayers.

Of course, another shining moment the Flower especially loved is the great mixed bag that is “America”. One could, at this late date, grow weary of this notion of immigrants coming to America and talking about how bad it is, but this song (again, Sondheim) does such an excellent job at depicting its words as points of view which are well earned (or at least understandable) by its singers.

I believe Michael Feinstein related that Leonard Bernstein was disappointed that he was remembered for this music. And part of me wonders if the movie might be more accessible had they used, say, Frank Loesser (of Guys and Dolls) for it. On the other hand, it’s such an iconic score, it’s hard to imagine “America” or “Maria” being any better, even if they’d been made more, I don’t know, hum-able.

Another random observation: There is only one Puerto Rican in the cast that I know of (the incomparable Rita Moreno). Try that today.

George Chakiris was with us that evening, looking great, and not at all 83. The only way I could tell he was old (and I think 83 is safe to call “old”) is that he had to have questions repeated to him by the hostess, and I’m pretty sure that’s because he was reading her lips. But I hope to be doing that well when (if) I get there. The funny thing about Chakiris here, is that he plays Bernardo, head of the PR gang in the movie—but in the play, he was Riff, head of the white gang. (Tell me we’re better off with racial bean counting than with the guy who’s best for the part getting the job.)

Dancers, man.
Yep, he still looks just like this.

Casa ‘strom favorite Gus Trikonis and his sister Gina have small roles in this film. Gus would go on to direct the MST3K fodder film Sidehackers (a.k.a “Five the Hard Way”) as well as a personal favorite, The Evil, and the semi-iconic Take This Job And Shove It, before settling down to a respectable TV directing career. (Trikonis was also Goldie Hawn’s first husband, prior to Bill Hudson, and perennial roommate Kurt Russell.)

What struck me most of all about this film was its sheer talent oozing from every scene, and its precision. Producer/director Robert Wise wisely (heh) let Robbins do what he needed to do (up to the point where Walter Mirisch, the money guy, fired him for excessive reshooting) and Chakiris alleged that they both worked cleanly in their different spheres without stepping on each others’ toes. They would win an Oscar for direction here, the only film Robbins would ever direct. Wise, who had directed The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Magnificent Ambersons, would go on to win Best Picture and Best Director for The Sound of Music.

If nothing else, Hair would be a reminder of how far the industry would fall over the next two decades.

Spray tan?
Now, you can go read about how horribly this was miscast, or just look at this sweet picture of Natalie Wood.

Casablanca (1942)

This was our fourth film in the series that would come to be known as the “we’ve seen all the good movies” streak and it’s hard to argue with this one. The Flower hadn’t seen it; The Boy and I had watched it on TV back in 2015, before we found all the in-theater revivals. I’ve seen it more times than I can count. Even so, it’s easy to forget how great it is.

Wilson was a drummer!
Like Dooley Wilson’s terrific fake piano playing.

The Flower made this observation afterwards (being unsure, she said, if she was going to like it, up front), that there were so many quotable lines. And it’s true: It’s basically wall-to-wall quotable goodness.

The cast is iconic, of course. Norma Varden, murdered in our #2 film, Witness for the Prosecution, is the wife of the poor dumb tourist who is pickpocketed by Curt Bois (who would go back to Germany in the ’60s and close his career out with a role in Wings of Desire). And who could forget the great French actor Marcel Dalio as Emile the croupier, and his wife Madeline LeBeau as Yvonne? Or the ever-present Herbert Evans and his dubious look when the roulette suspiciously picks out the same number twice?

I’m kidding, but not all that much. The cast is a who’s-who-wait-who? of character actors sometimes uttering iconic lines, and the IMDB listing shows almost a hundred uncredited “credits” because as much as nobody wanted to make the film at the time (except perhaps director Michael Curtiz and the brothers Warner), success has a bazillion hangers on. (Herbert Evans, intriguingly, has over 200 IMDB credits, the vast majority of which are listed as “uncredited”).

Actually victim of Nazi terror.
Emile!

A lot of this is probably due to the write-it-as-you-go script (based on a play but altered heavily from same, obviously) and Curtiz’ ambition to create a sense of a living community in every shot. It actually reminds me of the numerous extras in Guys and Dolls, minus the dancing of course, but with the same sense of there being a million stories in the city. (And that’s a lot of stories when you consider Casablanca in 1942 had a population of around 10,000.) But everyone has their own little drama to play out, and every moment on screen, no matter how trivial, supports that idea.

Brilliant, really. A reluctant Ingrid Bergman (pining to do For Whom The Bell Tolls) cries in that beautiful Hollywood way, while Bogart (who I’d heard felt this was a step down from High Sierra), but I can’t back that up) glowers with the sort of anger that only a suspicious wife can provide when hubby is smooching the Swedish blonde all day. (I can only imagine what Mrs. Bogart was like on the set of To Have and Have Not). Paul Heinreid, fresh from not getting the girl in Now, Voyager wasn’t keen on being second fiddle here, too, while Claude Rains (also fresh from Now, Voyager)—well, I don’t know if he wanted the role or not. But he wasn’t French! (That was an issue.)

Conrad Veidt, as well as a lot of the cast, really, really hated the Nazis. The aforementioned Dalio and LeBeau fled Europe because LeBeau was Jewish, and by this time in Hollywood history, the dangers of the Nazi party were understood by many. (Though not everyone, as Chuck Jones noted when relating how Fred Quimby wanted Tex Avery to tone down the anti-Nazi rhetoric in his cartoons.)

Well, what can you say? It’s fallen out of a favor as The Greatest Film Of All Time, ranking only #36 on the IMDB top 250, but this is probably because people are awful and have awful taste. The Flower saw that it was coming up again and November and wants to see it again, because she is not awful and has good taste. The Boy and His Girl were also enthusiastic.

Oh, Ilsa! Er, Ingrid!
(No caption needed.)

Ghostbusters (Extended Cut, 2016)

I’m making an exception for this movie: I did not go see it in the theater (like everyone else) and I had a strongly negative inclination to see it ever under any circumstances, in part because it seemed to me like an artistic failure turned cynical gambit to manipulate the sort of marginally sane women who feel like an all-female version of a juvenile ’80s SFX comedy somehow represents a blow for justice. And that’s crass even for Hollywood. (Actually, it’s exactly as crass as Hollywood.)

Primarily, however, it seemed unfunny. (In fairness, I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Ghostbusters 3, even if they had brought Harold Ramis back from the dead to write it, because there’s usually something sad about seeing old people try to do the same schtick they did when they were younger. George M. Cohan and George Carlin excepted.)

No joke.
Nothing about this looks funny. Any resemblance to funny comes from association with past works.

However, it was The Barbarienne’s birthday, and on her birthday, she calls the shots and when she has power, she prefers to use it for revenge. (Revenge for what is never exactly clear, but it has something to do with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.) And, in this case, the form of the destructor was the 2016 reblaunch (reboot + launch, get it?) of Ghostbusters—the extended cut.

Because a practice today is to take subpar movies that perform poorly at the box office (relative to expectations) and stuff them full of the crap that wasn’t even good enough to make it into the subpar movie to begin with—like an extra half-hour into the Batman vs. Superman fiasco, or the 18 minutes added here.

For what it’s worth the mediocrity of those extra minutes blend seamlessly in with the mediocrity of the rest of the film. At least I can’t tell which ones were added in, given the forgettable mash of stuff-that-happens.

We may never care.
Was this CGI slopfest in the original? Or was it carefully inserted into the Director’s Cut?

I like the original, though not as much as everyone else. As when I saw Spy (interesting connection), I had the sense watching the original that, even when it made me laugh, it was less something clever and more shock value. Oh, not a lot, unlike the aforementioned Spy, but Murray traded a whole lot on being insufferable in a world full of straight men, and he hadn’t hit peak boredom yet but he wasn’t far off. (He agreed to do the original, I believe, so that he could star in The Razor’s Edge, quite disastrously.)

But even talking about the flaws of the original is better than talking about this film. There is a kind of cultural vandalism going on here, and I honestly don’t quite understand it. I have a hard time believing Paul Feig set out to make a bad movie. Or any of the ladies. I like Wiig and McCarthy. I don’t know Kate McKinnon or Leslie Jones, but I imagine they’re talented. I mean, they’re not awful here. Overly broad (ha!) by contrast to the original, in which everyone played a straight man to Murray.

But completely unmemorable. I mean, I remember the stars were in this. But I can’t remember now which characters they were doing. Like, I think Wiig was doing her more victim-y basket case than twitchy sociopath. The latter might have mapped more closely to Aykroyd’s borderline autistic scientist. Or Ramis’ for that matter. But I can’t remember if McCarthy was doing her sweet flower bit or her vulgar fat-girl schtick. Leslie Jones is a way broader black caricature than Ernie Hudson was in the original. (In fact, in the original Hudson was sort of the audience voice. Somewhat reticent but along for the ride.) I remember someone saying that McKinnon was doing a lesbian thing. I couldn’t tell if that was exactly true or she was just being creepy, as she sort of fills in for both Aykroyd and Ramis.

There are at least some laughs in the Scooby sequel.
Ghostbusters 2016 or Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed?

The Wiig-McKinnon dynamic is the sort of thing that, if you were parodying female versions of films, you would do. They were friends in high school, but not with the cool girls, and…I swear, I can’t remember, but I think their eventual estrangement (which occurs before the film starts) becomes more than just a weepy, emotional plot point. Maybe not. Contrast with the original Ray, Egon and Venkman: The sum total of their history we know of is that they’re scamming a university. And Ray worked in the private sector once. And Venkman is the only real scammer but Ray and Egon need him because he’s as close as they’re going to come to having a “people person” on their team.

Ramis and Aykroyd embodied the nerdy engineer/scientist persona in a way that these women do not. Again, sort of funny, because they’re all capable of it, I think. Wiig easily could (and has, if only in voice form in Despicable Me 2) and I feel like it’s not a huge reach for the others (who may also have done it at some point).

None of it works. It’s fascinating to consider why, because even a bunch of random jokes thrown at the screen (which this very nearly is) would have a better hit rate than this does. I chuckled once. The Barbarienne proclaimed that she liked it, but I only heard her laugh twice, toward the end. (As I’ve commented before, she’s never seen a movie she didn’t love, or at least like very strongly, and I’m going to enjoy that, even when I don’t enjoy whatever it is she’s enjoying.)

But it really comes off like a bunch of girls playing dress up. I mean, it comes off bad. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s not as if Ramis (were he alive), Aykroyd and Murray could’ve come up with a phenom like the original. (They tried, and failed, with Ghostbusters 2, which I liked but which was in no way comparable to the original, culturally.) But it came off worse than it should have.

And I think the feminism angle (while it may have been part of the plan from the get-go) was only worked hard when they realized what a disaster they had on their hands. This is, essentially, exploiting the neuroses of troubled people. Which is sad.

Meh.
We have chosen the form of The Destructor and it is Grrl Power!

Get Out

It took a lot of effort—a lot—to get The Boy to this critically acclaimed horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele (of the very funny “Key and Peele” TV series) because it triggered so many of his alarm bells. There were constant warning signs like “it really makes you think” and somewhat dubious assertions that “it wasn’t racial” (or words to that effect), and to top it off there’s a scene in the trailer (actually not in the film itself, explaining the puzzled looks The Boy got when asking people who had seen it) with a guy in a crusader’s helmet.

Just a lot of red flags.

It's not really explained.
This is almost all the play the helmet gets, though.

The critical acclaim was alarming, in particular. At one point, I think Peele took to task the single reviewer who gave him a negative review. Now there are two. By comparison, Psycho has three negative reviews, and a 96%/94% to this film’s 99%/88%. When the critics are the throaty fan-girls to the relatively measured masses—well, ya gotta wonder.

So how is it?

Well, overall, it’s a shockingly hoary thriller that trips over its own logic, but it’s well-crafted enough that you might not notice. It tries so very hard to get you thinking one way that the Big Reveal may surprise you, sure, but you can’t reflect for even a moment on “How does any of this make sense?” I don’t mean this in a rational-look-at-horror way but as a trying-to-form-a-cohesive-picture-of-the-narrative way. See, the big thing is that it wants you to think that the story is racial so much that when it does its big double-reverse-bluffo (as we call overwrought twists around here) that you’re left with all these questions about the earlier scenes which no longer make sense because, surprise, it’s not really racial at all.

And I don’t consider that to be a spoiler but I am going to spoil in a bit here, so the capsule summary is: Well enough made, reasonably fun, ultra-cheesy horror flick that’s gotten blown way out of proportion by exploiting critics’ (and to a lesser extent audiences’) sensitivity to racial issues.

The man was a menace.
Hey, Obama was a disappointment to a lot of us, big guy.

SETUP BEFORE THE SPOILERS

So, the premise of this film is that a rich white girl (Allison Williams, “Girls”, apparently) from Connecticut (or wherever) is taking her black boyfriend (Daniel Kaluuya, the upcoming Black Panther movie, Sicario) up to her parents place. He’s really nervous because, but she’s encouraging, leading us to believe that perhaps she’s naive, or maybe sticking it to her parents, or something like that. She’s way more aggressive and sensitive to perceived racial slights to him than he is, and one gets the distinct idea that she is trying to Prove A Point.

GETTING SPOILERY HERE

When they arrive at the family house a number of things turn up: Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Stephen Root) are incredibly, awkwardly supportive of the situation, and the negro plight generally. Despite this, a couple of old black servants act strangely, robotically, almost as if their behaviors were constrained in some fashion.

The movie runs so hard in this direction, with black people not quite acting right, and white people acting really, really strange with our hero dismisses this as White People Acting Weird, that we’re inclined to believe that this is some kind of Stepford Wives situation, especially when it seems like “genuinely black” personalities break through to try to warn of The Danger.

This part was shockingly close to reality.
The In-Laws are Good-Hearted Liberals(TM).

So let me emphasize this again, before going full-on spoiler: The hero is so racist that he writes off the very suspicious white people behavior as Whitey Being White. And we don’t need to belabor the point that were the situation reversed—a white person getting himself into trouble because his personal racism allowed him to dismiss an entire group of people as Not Quite Right—there’s just no way we’d be permitted to see him as a hero, no matter what happened to him. (White Privilege strikes again!)

AND NOW, THE SPOILERS!

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Even Stephen Root (once again playing a blind man) wouldn’t have sympathy for you if you read past this point and spoiler yourself.

So, as it turns out, this isn’t The Stepford Wives so much as The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or The Atomic Brain or any of those other ’50s/’60s films involving implanting someone’s brain into someone else’s body. It’s not a full brain transplant, but some part of the white person’s brain goes into the black person’s brain and the white person then has control. Mostly. I don’t want to harp on the stupidity of this as a process because it’s a horror film and horror films are almost necessarily stupid (and I say that as a fan of the genre), and if you get to the point where you discover The Truth and Your Mind Is Blown then, very well, the movie is a success.

And this one most certainly is. But I’ll go out on a limb and say that that is, at least in part, due to the stupidity of our culture about race. Because as it turns out, there’s nothing racial here at all, the writer/director tells us. Blacks have been targeted much like one would buy pre-distressed jeans or an Apple Smart Watch. Our weird rich white people—who, in retrospect were not acting weird at all given their interest in the Hero—are using black bodies ’cause it’s kinda/sorta neat.

This is a perfectly reasonable explanation to pick a body, by the way, at least in any every day context where one is picking out bodies.

Oh Heavenly Dog! Underrated!
For example, Chevy Chase picked out this dog.

But in this context, it’s so unbelievably stupid that one has to wonder whether some of the praise of this movie is disingenuous. Here we have a rich, white Northeastern family whose patriarchs have decided, for giggles, to be black. Which is no problem at all, except they have to pose like the help whenever anyone comes around. (And they’re crappy at it.) All of a sudden, out of nowhere, this really, really white group is having really, really black members in a way that would seem to create legal issues as well. I mean, if you’re a member of a rich family and you want a piece of the action, you’re going to be able to wrest it away pretty easily from the help.

Basically, the whole aren’t-you-really-the-racist? angle is so belabored that it makes an otherwise well done film an eye-roller, at least for me and The Boy. I mean, people criticize Shyamalan, but this twist is the very definition of forced.

Also, some undetermined fraction of the new-body-owners’ behavior comes from the apparently incomplete control it gives them over the bodies. I mean, the original owners’ personality emerges at some awkward times. I guess this can be written off as “better than dying” but it seems like a pretty dubious value proposition to be trapped in a body with someone who hates you and can suddenly take over the body at any time. But I guess I can write that off as typical horror movie dumbness.

I did like the movie okay—unlike The Boy, who may have found it somewhat offensive even—and I think Peele’s got a lot of promise but I’d say this one is seriously over-hyped. I mean, for a mash-up of two crusty horror tropes it’s probably the best in its genre, but that’s a pretty low bar.

But I probably have this all wrong.
On some level, you gotta wonder if he relates.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Guys and dolls! They’re just a bunch of screwy guys and dolls!

Crap, this is some kind of gender hate crime, isn't it.
Pictured: Guy, doll, guy, doll.

The Flower was surprised to discover that that song (sung to the tune of “Hooray for Hollywood”) wasn’t actually in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1955 classic musical, but actually from a Mark Hamill guested episode of “The Simpsons”, which also gave us “Luke, Be A Jedi Tonight” (covered an almost shocking number of times on YouTube).

Multiple asterisks must be placed after calling this film Mankiewicz’s. The All About Eve director wrote it for the screen based on Swerling and Burrows’ stage musical (in turn based on a story by Damon Runyon), and a good portion of the movie is Michael Kidd’s choreography, to say nothing of how much the film owes to its set design, costumes, and so on. But the smart directors are the ones who know how and when to step back and let everyone else shine, and we were all pretty impressed by how great this movie was, how terrific the music was, and how entertaining the dancing was, to say nothing of the whole silly story.

It's like milk! We should give these to schoolkids!
Reminder: Cuba before Castro was full of coconut novelty drinks.

Marlon Brando, who could not sing or dance—and it doesn’t matter, opined The Flower, and she’s right—plays Sky, a savvy gambler whose over-confidence trips him into a bet/trap laid by Nathan (Frank Sinatra), whereby he must take a certain doll to dinner the next evening. In Havana. (Remember, Cuba used to be a hot spot before Castro wrecked it.) This doll turns out to be a Salvation Army (not exactly, but you know that’s what they were aiming at) do-gooder by the name of Sarah Brown (the impeccable Jean Simmons, who worked into the new millennium and voiced Grandma Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle) whose sole interest is souls. As in, she’s not saving any, and it’s quite distressing.

The music is terrific, even if you only know one song from the show: Luck Be A Lady Tonight. In one of the movie’s many amusing ironies, Frank and Marlon didn’t get along, and this is Marlon’s song (which he barely sings because, as noted, he can’t sing and he knew he couldn’t sing). Of course it became one of Frank’s signatures later. The music is really good in spite/because of its dedication to the movie itself. This means, also, that it’s not stuff that you hear much. There just aren’t many appropriate openings for singing “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” for example. There are the delightful “I’ll Know”and “I’ve Never Been In Love Before”, though the former is pretty tied into Sarah’s character and the latter is tied into Nathan’s, even if ironically.

This two-and-a-half hour movie (musicals are always longer) is hugely stylized but it all works. (The Boy had some reservations of the final craps game, because they didn’t use dice, but not much. It’s a terrific scene.) And it flies by. Little characters from the big dance numbers recur, and they all have their own mini-story-arcs which never enter into the text of the play, but you never have a chance to be bored. (20-year-old Jerry Orbach has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the opening number, by the way.)

The Flower adored it, and pronounced us “on a streak”, following as it did 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. It, in turn, would be followed by Casablanca and West Side Story.

Probably after this movie, given all the cheesecake Brando made him eat.
Geez, Sinatra’s 40 here and he’s still a geeky beanpole. When’s that guy gonna fill out?

Witness For The Prosecution (1957)

Billy Wilder is one of those directors who have largely escaped my attention, perhaps because his last movie—the one release of his I saw in the theater growing up—was the not-very-good-at-all Lemmon/Matthau pairing Buddy, Buddy. On the other hand Stalag 17 was sort of a “family classic” and I adore Ninotchka, though I had never really associated either with Wilder. As such, Witness for the Prosecution, the second film on our “legal” double-feature (along with 12 Angry Men) was a wonderful surprise.

Or any ignorance. He was quite literate.
Charles Laughton disapproves of cinematic ignorance.

Based on a smash hit play by Agatha Christie, Witness is about Leonard, a naive American (Tyrone Power) who finds himself seriously implicated in the death of a rich, elderly widow (character actress Norma Varden, who has a small role in Casablanca as the wife of the poor sap who gets pick-pocketed). His troubles lead him to the convalescing curmudgeonly barrister, Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton, who would lose the Oscar to Alec Guiness, Bridge on the River Kwai). Wilfrid is being henpecked by his nurse (Laughton’s real-life wife, Elsa Lanchester, who would lose her Oscar to Miyoshi Umeki, Sayonara) but cannot resist the urge to take this seemingly unwinnable case.

Obfuscating matters is Leonard’s utter dependence on his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich, who would not even get a nom for her tremendous performance) who simultaneously assures the barrister that she will testify on his behalf while implying very strongly that she’s making the alibi up, and outright demonstrating her contempt for her poor sap of a husband.

Complications ensue.

"And we're at WAR with them?"
“My wife is GERMAN?”

Coming as it did after 12 Angry Men, this movie seemed positively lax in its shots and blocking, as virtually any movie would have to. It’s not a fair comparison to make, obviously, and WftP has some tremendous shots, the sort of classic noir composition Wilder showcased in Double Indemnity. The acting is amazing. The score is good, too, which is interesting because the composer was Matty Malneck, whose only other similar credit was the Red Skelton comedy “Public Pigeon No. 1” from the same year.  Malneck was a ’30s bandleader who got his start with The Paul Whiteman Orchestra and who was best known for penning popular songs “I’m Through With Love” and “Some Like It Hot”—and who would oversee the music in Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (the next film of Wilder’s we would see, coincidentally).

Agatha Christie named this the only film adaptation of her work that she actually liked, until 1974’s Murder On The Orient Express—directed by 12 Angry Men‘s Sidney Lumet. So you can kind of see why The Flower was buzzed on classic films after this. We would follow up this with Guys and DollsCasablanca and West Side Story, leading her to pronounce that we had seen all the good movies (which opinion she wouldn’t fully retract for a month, when would see Rocky).

Listed at #68 on the (ever dubious) IMDB Top 250, this is the sort of gem that gets overlooked, though it is ranked higher on the same list than Bridge on the River Kwai (#138), as well as Sayonara, Peyton Place and The Three Faces of Eve (unranked), which would all win Oscars that year. It lost all six Oscars it was nominated for, just as 12 Angry Men lost the three it was nominated for. Only Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (nominated for zero Oscars) is ranked higher.

And they're not "It's an honor just to be nominated."
Laughton has a few choice words for the Academy.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Try this on for size: While 12 Angry Men is one of the greatest films ever made, if you think it’s socially important, you should feel exactly the same way if, in the end, the freed defendant goes and kills everyone who testified against him at the trial.

BUT HE'S ONE OF THEM!
You know Lumet picked this guy ’cause he looks harmless.

Greg Gutfeld thinks this movie was significant in turning the opinions of Americans leftward, against each other. A mostly diffident group of men—they don’t start out angry, except maybe for Lee J. Cobb—are about to put away a poor, unfortunate urban youth whose unfortunateness unfortunately extends to an unfortunate amount of circumstantial evidence which, unfortunately, is against him.

All around American good guy, Henry Ford, plays Juror #8, the lone holdout in sending our defendant to the chair. Over 90 or so minutes, Fonda grinds them down with “just asking questions” and taking apart the prosecuting case while not so subtly making the point that not everyone gets a fair shake in our legal system. But, like I said, if you believe that, the defendant going on a killing spree after being freed should not change your opinion.

Our system is not just about presumed innocence, but about holding back the awesome power of the state when it comes to locking people up.

Even when it’s THOSE people. And “you know what THOSE PEOPLE are like”, as Ed Begley intones at one point, speaking perhaps of, I don’t know, Italians? The Flower noted this at a later point, that no specific race or identifying slur was mentioned—she figures he meant Catholics. I pointed out that that was most certainly deliberate and completely unrealistic. (What racist doesn’t enjoy a good slur?)

Father to the green guy!
He makes a good point. I mean, after all Jack Klugman is One Of Them.

But politics and social commentary aside, this is a great movie, deservedly listed as one of the best of all time (#5 on the ever dubious IMDB top-250). Sidney Lumet’s first film, which might’ve been shot in one take like the stage play it feels like, but instead used hundreds of takes, masterful blocking, and a bunch of American greats doing their greatest. I think I can name them in order, one through twelve, just from memory: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Joseph Sweeney, Ed Begley Sr., George Voscovec, Robert Webber.

OK, I had to cheat for Edward Binns and George Voscovec, but I remember the characters they played very well—front-line salesman (versus Webber’s Ad Man) and noble immigrant—which is more important. All of them classic character actors who worked to the end of their days, if I’m not mistaken. And of course Fonda.

Shot on a modest budget—The Wayward Bus was shot in the same year on a $1.5M budget versus this film’s $350K—and ultimately disappointing at the box office, perhaps due to its “small screen” feel, being in black-and-white and taking place in a tiny room, it really pays to see this on the big screen. This is high drama, melodrama none would dare call it (except me), and its overwrought nature is testament to its greatness.

#1 and #3 are missing.
Twelve ang—no, wait, ten! Ten angry men!

I mean, seriously: Nobody’s really gonna chew the scenery like that in a jury room. It ain’t realistic or natural. I only point this out because a lot of the critics who love this film are in love with low-key anti-dramatic performances. Screenwriter Reginald Rose may have been inspired by a real stint of jury duty he did, but I don’t see people getting this worked up back in a jury room in 1957—that’s why you went to the movies.

Come to think of it, it’s more like an Internet message board.

The interpersonal dynamics are great. The way people ally and break and form new alliances and coalesce around what’s popular, etc., and little of it having anything to do with the received facts. You end up rooting for all the characters at one point or another, even No. 3, which is a sign of greatness.

He's probably right, if even for the wrong reason.
Unsung hero?

Obviously it’s tilted toward the notion the defendant is innocent. That’s really the only cheat. The screenplay never gives you much room to doubt that the guy is innocent, and being railroaded. Fonda is not as convincing—perhaps just because of who he is, iconically—as someone who would defend a murderer. The audience is given to believe that he’s right, not that he’s merely defending the concept of “reasonable doubt”. That may also be due to the iconic nature of the film.

There’s a wicked, brilliant Russian version of the film, which in some ways I enjoy more than this, because it turns the whole concept on its ear. The corrupt society this movie imagines can’t even hold a candle to an actually corrupt one.

Spare, effective score by Kenyon Hopkins, who would go on to do the score for The Hustler but who probably imprinted himself on America’s brain most effectively through his work on ’70s TV shows like “The Odd Couple”, “The Brady Bunch” and “Mission: Impossible”.

Ultimately, though, it’s the blocking and lighting that make this great and something you can watch again and again. Director of Photography Boris Kaufman had won an Oscar for On The Waterfront, but I can’t help feeling he was on a short leash here. Lumet’s cinematic style would be hammered in over the next 50 years. It’s a good collaboration here.

This was on a double-feature with Witness for the Prosecution and would start the series of five films we would see in a row—the last three being Guys and Dolls, Casablanca and West Side Story—after which The Flower would declare we had seen all the good films.

He'd cut a bitch.
Sadly, Henry Fonda’s campaign to personally stab everyone who bought a ticket did not help the box office.

American Graffiti (1973)

For a variety of reasons which I shan’t belabor (or rather, belabor even more than I already have, which is a lot), many of the Baby Boomers’ cultural artifacts leave me cold, often not because they’re bad per se but because they’re wildly overrated. Forest Gump, for example, made its way to Oscar success by name-dropping a bunch of tired old cultural references. The Graduate, while beautifully made, seemed pretty pointless to me, and the less said about Hair, the better.

I didn’t get the big deal about American Graffiti when it came out, either, but I was really, really young to appreciate a movie about shiftless teens driving around a small town in the last days of their summer before college. It wasn’t until I watched it this time that I realized it was basically a Boomer artifact. (My dad and members of his cohort used to bitch because they had done all that stuff first, five years earlier.)

That time is lost to federal fuel and safety standards.
There was a time when one car looked different from another.

The now iconic ending, where the fates of the characters are revealed in little capsules under their pictures, seems almost comically pointless today. The kids were sort of puzzled by it, like, “this wasn’t based on real people, was it?” And it also stands out, today, that Lucas nixed Huyck and Katz’s suggestion to provide fates for the female characters. Like, Steve (Ronny Howard) stays behind in Modesto to be with Laurie (Cindy Williams), presumably—this is kind of Steve’s character arc, and the bio tells us 0nly that he stays behind and starts an insurance business (or something). Not a peep about the marriage that presumably kept him there.

Animal House did it better. Yes, it’s a parody of this movie. Even so, it’s not just funny, it somehow manages to imbue the characters with genuine life after the movie. Graffiti turns them into disappointments, somehow.

But this is a relatively minor point. Of the seven films George Lucas directed, this is probably the best. It’s interesting to note that the problems that plague virtually all his other films (primarily wooden acting, clunky dialog and groan-worthy plotting) are missing here. I assume the lack of clunky dialog came from him drawing on actual experience, which in turn helps the acting. The actors, given characters they can identify and dialog they can say (Harrison Ford famously observed on the set of “Star Wars”, “you can type this shit but you can’t say it”) turn in endearing performances.

Oh, and Harrison Ford in a hat.
I think that’s the late Debralee Scott, who would be a semi-regular on “Welcome back, Kotter”.

And there is no plot.

Basically, Steve and his pals Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Terry (Martin Cruz Smith) and John (Paul LeMat) are driving around Modesto one night having a variety of adventures. Steve is splitting up with longtime steady girl Laurie because college girls are easy, and he’s going to college. Curt is getting cold feet about going to college with Steve. Terry is enjoying a brief moment of borrowed awesomeness as he drives around in Steve’s car. And John’s game is getting cramped when a bunch of cute girls foist a very cute, but very young little sister, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips, looking adorable).

Curt catches a brief glimpse of a dream girl (Suzanne Somers, in a now-famous cameo), whom he chases around, ultimately alighting on a plan to contact her through the local DJ, Wolfman Jack (as himself), in what could be the movie’s most allegorical segment. There’s an odd feel to the whole thing, like it’s a metaphor for chasing something that’s unattainable but still worth chasing. On the other hand, it’s probably just something that happened to George. (All four of the main characters are said to be Lucas at different points in his not quite 30 year life.)

I kid!
In homage to which, all of the actors are in their 30s.

This gets kind of fascinating when you consider Terry’s idol worship of John. See, John is a legendary drag racer (who’s being pursued by a reckless Harrison Ford) and he’s getting the idea that it’s time to hang up his fuzzy dice but Terry tells him he can go on forever, and he’s the best, and all that. It’s probably best not to overthink it.

I’m not sure but I think Harrison Ford’s girl when he first shows up is the late Debralee Scott, but then switches to a different girl the next time he shows up, before he finally winds up with Laurie. There’s a lot of little details in the movie, and a lot of time to notice them. It’s got a very casual pace. It feels all of it’s near two hour running time, but not in a bad way.

It is a lot like hanging out with a bunch of school chums.

We all rather liked it. Great cars. Gorgeous, gorgeous cars, really. Great music. The Flower and I knew almost every tune played. She, of course, is a big Beach Boys fan, and likes that music generally, which boosted the whole movie for her. I have a peculiar fondness for movies that take place over the course of one night, so I found it appealing in the regard. But The Boy, who has no especial affinity for the music, the automobiles or the time period also really enjoyed the movie.

So that’s a good indication it really is a good movie, beyond any value as a nostalgic relic.

I mean, she's cute and all but...
Never did get Suzanne Somers’ appeal, though.

All About Eve (1950)

I say, with not a hint of sarcasm, that every time I see All About Eve, I think “That Eve seems nice. A little intense, but nice.”

And then, of course, as the film wears on, I remember.

Oh. Right.

I mean, just look at her! Who wouldn't trust that face?
And that’s why I’d never make it in Hollywood.

I don’t remember the details of the movie much after the fact, though I’m never quite sure why not. It is a genuinely brilliant film, a breezy 2 hours and 20 minutes (something you know I don’t say lightly) that wastes no time, and isn’t too, y’know, actory. Despite being well ensconced in the showbiz world (the stage mostly, and not movies), the story is fundamentally about the nature of trust and friendship, and in no small way a comment on glamour.

If you’re not familiar with the film, the story is this: We open to a big awards show where Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) is being feted while her “friends” that she’s thanking can barely keep from rolling their eyes, their inner dialogues at odds with the scene presented. Flash back a year and we see the same Eve as a star-struck ingenue, hoping for the mildest of blessings from her heroine, Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Brought in by Eve’s friend, Karen (the wife of a playwright that helped make Margo famous) and encouraged by the writer himself, Margo ends up taking the young girl under her wing.

Once established, Eve encroaches more and more on Margo’s life in ways that alternately make the friends uncomfortable, but never enough for them to form a full picture of her ambitious designs. Hell, I fall for it every time, even though the movie hints right away that something is not quite right about Eve (and even though I’ve seen it at least three times before). That would be a tribute to Ms. Baxter, and to some exquisite writing from director Joseph Mankiewicz.

Warning: Not the actual dialogue.
You’re gaslighting me and I’m the jerk?

Needless to say the acting is perfect, as if the roles were made specifically for the players. After this, Davis’ career would sputter around in TV and lesser movies until she went full frump in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Which, when you think about it, really does mean it was the perfect part for her, as Margo is feeling the ravages of time and whether it was artfully misapplied makeup or just the facts of the case, Davis’ own age is undeniable. She wouldn’t be playing a lot of love interests after this.

George Sanders as Addison DeWitt, the critic, is quintessential Sanders. He gets Eve right away, and quickly out-maneuvers her—but in the end you can’t help but think his victory is a hollow one. Like the dysfunctional romance of Gone With The Wind, ratcheted up several notches to near sociopathy.

A surprise and delight every time is the canny performance given by Marilyn Monroe (in her first major movie performance) as Miss Casswell, a once again beautifully written part that plays marvelously off of Sanders’ droll cynicism. The Flower was very taken by her here, as I always am, even though I have never been a huge fan, nor entirely “gotten” Norma Jean’s appeal. The Flower, who is much taken with pinups and aspires to Gil Evgren-style artistry, independently expressed the same puzzlement prior to this film. (We would both completely reverse our reservations some time later watching Some Like It Hot.)

Goodbye, Norma Jean.
We feel for those who had to work with her but we’re happy she was there.

So: Perfect writing, acting, directing—oh! and dead-on score by Alfred Newman, which is not as easy as it sounds given the rather delicate tone needed to move the story along dramatically without descending into melodrama. This is one of those films you can’t even imagine being made today. It’s a talky actor’s film, essentially, but it endeavors in every scene, and every shot, to entertain. That is to say, this movie is what it is because of its actors, unquestionably, but it never depends on them to be the sole reason to see it.

Mankiewicz had an astonishing career in a lot of ways, starting as a writer in the last years of the silents, and this was probably the height of his creativity. But even with A Letter To Three Wives, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Guys and Dolls in this period, you can find his fingerprints on fun ’30s flicks like The Three Godfathers, as a producer The Philadelphia Story in 1940, and he would end his career in 1972 with one of his best films, the under-rated Sleuth, with Michael Caine and Laurence Olivier.

It’s not unique to call this an “essential”, but I will add my voices to that chorus. Virtuoso filmmaking,

Great ensemble work.
And look at that blocking!

The Graduate (1967)

Some movies I end up seeing just because they’re “classics”. I suspect I’m not going to like them and—well, in fairness, I have been surprised more than once in the past year-and-a-half. But there’s not much about The Graduate that has ever recommended itself to me, and in part I feel like certain movies are just “classics” because they appeal to a certain cohort (i.e. Boomers). I mean, Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross are good-looking. Dustin Hoffman can act.

Sure, she can act, too.
Pictured: Easy on the eyes.

Oh, the soundtrack. Yeah, that’s a pretty good soundtrack, though (I say with no small amount of trepidation as a fan of said music) I’m not sure it holds up as well as one might hope. It’s certainly well used here, but it is very, very dated. I don’t know: There’s nothing inherently wrong with old music, even if it’s highly stylized, but the music of that particular era could be rather insistent, and one perhaps wonders if “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine” survives post-60s all that well. And I love (and routinely play) Simon’s arrangement of “Scarborough Fair” but does the anti-war counter-melody “Canticle” add or detract from its use here?

The movie itself is very well constructed indeed, and marvelously shot. This was the late Mike Nichols’ sophomore film after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and there’s a distinct energy to it. The scene transitions are often clever and generally very communicative, though they sometimes confused The Flower. It’s in Technicolor (though the film treatment is definitely in the more “realistic” and less aesthetic realm, as was common in this era).

You can see why she likes Ben.
Here’s an odd shot.

So, these are all good things about the movie. I can see why people love it.

I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. But I found it like—well, like you might find a foreign film from a culture you didn’t understand. Or like “High Noon”, where we just know Gary Cooper’s the good guy, and we’re never really told what will happen if he just leaves town. I mean, I think the premise of the movie is that Hoffman’s character, Ben, is the White Hat. Mrs. Robinson, I guess, is the Black Hat. Although, I read someone recently saying something to the effect of “When I saw this as a young man, I saw Ben as the hero and Mrs. Robinson as the villain, but now I see Mrs. Robinson as the hero trying to keep her daughter away from a shiftless no-good bum.”

Forty years’ll do that, I guess.

OK, it's not odd at all.
It’s odd how the really unappealing but more representative shots aren’t the ones for promotion.

I suggested that perspective to The Flower, that Mrs. Robinson was trying to protect Elaine from Ben, and she said, “Nah, she was just bored.” And, in fairness, there’s nothing in the movie that imbues Mrs. Robinson with any great perspective on anything (unless, again, we assume the perspective that anything counter-cultural is good). If we’re not completely hostile to the notion that Ben just doesn’t want to “join society”—that one can, reasonably, decide not to participate in a game one finds distasteful—then his only real problem is that he’s been generally passive up to this point in his life, and this weird quasi-rebellion is heroic, in the severely diminished Frankfurtian concept of heroism): the first time he’s ever asserted himself.

But if we say that Mrs. Robinson’s goal all along is to keep Ben away from her daughter, she must be aware of all these things simultaneously: That Elaine will be so attracted to Ben she will want to marry him; that Ben will likewise be similarly attracted, even though he has utterly fought the notion up to that point; that Ben is also completely worthless, or a clone of her own (presumably awful) husband.

This is a lot of acuity to put on a drunk.

No cheating!
Squint your eyes: Are you looking at Dustin Hoffman, Matthew Broderick or John Cusack?

So, she could just be wrong. But then there’s the flip-side of this: Ben is basically rebelling against what everyone wants him to do. He doesn’t want to go into business. He doesn’t want to go into grad school (I think that was another respectable option for him, and one most rich, shiftless bums probably took). And he sure as hell doesn’t want to get hooked up with Elaine.

And his act of rebellion is what? Hooking up with Elaine.

This could’ve been great (for me, I mean, obviously other people do find it great) had there actually been a worthwhile character in the bunch. Instead—and the very famous ending underscores this—it just looks like two people have broken out of one automatic reaction (obedience to parents and society) into another automatic reaction (disobedience to parents and society). There’s not a moment of enlightenment to be found here. But I suppose that’s what makes it real, man.

It’s not terrible by any means, at least on a technical level. But it’s fair to say I didn’t get it. (We would see Hair not long after this, and I would not be nearly this sanguine.) The Flower enjoyed the aesthetics of it, and she can completely disconnect from a narrative she doesn’t like (unlike me). The Boy had seen it previously a few years ago in film class and wasn’t so bowled over that he felt the need to see it again.

Hey, he was in Bullitt, too!
Norman Fell presciently trying out for “Three’s Company”.

Your Name

The kids are into the Japanimation, as kids these days are, but even so, we had no information on this film, Your Name, and no strong inclination to see it. We’re not familair with the director’s (Makoto Shinkai) work and its remarkably high (98/94%) Rotten Tomato score is not entirely convincing, as one could assume a certain self-selection among those who had seen it and rated it—i.e., weeaboos. In fact, The Boy went to see it with His Girl first, and his recommendation was strong enough to incline The Flower and I to take in a later show.

And, here’s the thing: The movie starts out as a pretty standard body-switching caper, done in the light Japanese style where a city boy wakes up in the body of a country girl (and vice-versa), and the two inadvertently mess with each others’ lives—inadvertently at first, then mischievously later on. But then, on a dime, the whole gets a lot darker and a lot more serious, and the light romantic comedy (reminiscent in some ways of Keanu Reeves/Sandra Bullock light fantasy/romance “The Lake House”) reveals a tragedy underneath.

(Wait for it...)
From wacky teen body-switching comedy…

The movie is recommendable, at least to a certain audience, as a frothy teen manga interpretation (and I don’t know if it is based on a manga; I don’t think it is) but when it knocks into twelfth gear, if you’ve bought into it up to this point, it manages an artful tone transition and resonates a little more deeply. There’s mystery, suspense and high stakes (though not ridiculously high stakes as is increasingly common these days). And you don’t really know how it’s going to turn out, though you have to imagine certain endings would be a little too dark.

In fairness, a great many endings would’ve been a little too light as well. This one ends on a hopeful but almost bittersweet note.

We ended up enjoying it very much. It was beautifully animated—again, very much in the style of a fluffy teen comedy but an order of magnitude more polished. Available both dubbed and subbed, with no particular Hollywood celebrities doing the English voices.

In an hour, flat!
…to broody, mystical love story.

If Internet sources are to be believed, this is the highest grossing animé film of all time, surpassing the previous record holder (Spirited Away) by $100M—though keep in mind that’s not adjusted for inflation, and in the US it made only $5M to the Studio Ghibli’s film $10M—both too small to crack the box office for the top 5000 Shrek sequels.

Field of Dreams (1989)

After the previous outing, the “Randy Newman film” The Natural, the kids were a lot more amenable to baseball movies, generally, and I particularly wanted to see this one, remembering it rather favorably and yet constantly reading people online about how awful it is. Well, I’ve re-seen it, and I don’t get the hate. I mean, yes, it’s a kind of a paean to mental illness, but all magical realism is, if you want to look at it that way. (And some very much want to, it seems.) Magical realism (which works better in baseball than any other sport, I think) is all about whether you buy into it, and this movie does a very good job of coaxing a sale out of you.

How about a used wolf?
Would you buy a used boat from this man?

I think, perhaps, the objections may be related to the book. Because, you know: Once they read the book, some people (including me when I was a kid) can’t ever accept a movie unless it plays out onscreen in a way they can convince themselves mirrors what they saw in their head. (Though they must, I think, be editing the book vision post-hoc, because a movie never looks like the book.) So you expect people to be upset, because people need upset and this is a very safe thing to be upset about.

However, in my ongoing reading project (where I read the hundreds of books in my shelves I haven’t read), I just so happened to read Shoeless Joe (the book on which this was based), and I still don’t see the problem. It had been long enough since I’d seen the movie (28 years!) that I barely connected the movie with the book, so I was theoretically pretty fresh for both the read and the viewing. The movie lacks the books subtlety, certainly, but of course, it must.

Well, what did the author, W.P. Kinsella think about the movie? He gave it four-out-of-five stars. He faulted the movie for not making the evil brother-in-law (Timothy Busfield, “Thirtysomething”, “The West Wing”) evil enough. To that I say: He’s actually not all that evil in the book. A jerk, unpleasant and without magic, but not really evil. He also faulted the casting of the main characters’ daughter (Gaby Hoffman, Wild, Perfume) for not looking like she could actually be the main characters’ daughter. And, yeah, I suppose Hoffman is far too dark to be the child of Kevin Costner and Amy Madigan.

But what a cutie!
Here, Gaby learns she is adopted.

Madigan is pretty much perfect, though her hippie-esque speech at a community meeting is a little…awkward…this far out from the ’60s. Costner is maybe too All-American to play the free-spirited Richard Kinsella, but it works: This is peak Costner, and he exudes a classic Hollywood affability—Gary Cooper-esque to (say) Tom Hanks’s Jimmy Stewart-ish-ness. Casting-wise, Ray Liotta may, for the first and only time in his career, look like a lovable mug who isn’t about to murder the crap outta someone. (Yes, I wrote it: “murder the crap outta”.) James Earl Jones’ irascible J.D. Salinger stand-in (at the time I thought he was supposed to be the recently deceased James Baldwin, but I didn’t know about the Salinger mystique) is toned down from the book (again, necessarily) and is consequently more immediately likable than Salinger was in the book.

This also means his conversion to believer has a lesser impact, but we got an hour-forty-five here, people: Stuff’s gotta be compressed.

The story, if you don’t know it, is simple: Cash-strapped nouveau farmer Ray Kinsella hears a voice in his head saying “If you build it, he will come.” He becomes convinced that if he plows under some of his crops and builds a baseball diamond, the late Shoeless Joe (Liotta) will appear to play on it. Which, of course, is what happens. Soon, all the “Black” Sox (the shamed 1919 Red Sox who threw the World Series) show up. And before you know it, all kinds of baseball legends appear to play on the field, though not everyone can see them.

Wish THAT into your cornfield and smoke it.
Corn fields are such an American source of mystique.

The voice/feeling becomes more urgent, involving the Salinger stand-in and an old-time player Archibald Graham (Burt Lancaster, in his last feature role, and whom we’d just seen in From Here To Eternity), and resolving a bunch of Kinsella’s unresolved feelings about his deceased father.

It’s good stuff. Emotional stuff that guys can get into, ’cause, you know baseball! Great score by James Horner, if not exactly at the heroic levels of Newman’s score for The Natural (which would’ve been totally inappropriate).

We liked it. It made convincing The Boy to see the next baseball film, A League of Their Own, fairly easy—the Flower had wanted to see it all along for the girls’ uniforms—and this would be another film that held up surprisingly well.

What? Too soon?
Shortly before Lancaster himself went to Eternity.

Rifftrax: Samurai Cop (1991)

He’s the musclebound cop
In the lady’s wig
And the bad-fitting baseball cap

See him drive around the city
Running over bad guys
In his Chevrolet piece-of crap

On loan from San Diego
(We don’t know why)
They call him “samurai”
(His name is “Joe”)
But he doesn’t fit the profile
For a samurai
He doesn’t even have a sword…

o/~Then the bad guy dies and you realize they didn't apprehend a single criminal~\o
o/~And now they drop their swords and they go back to punching ’cause they’re not very good with swords~\o

And sometimes you have genius. In the late ’80s, Iranian Amir Ghaffar, fleeing the repression following the ’79 Revolution, rekindled his movie career in America, writing, directing and producing ’80s-style action films, and not letting a minor thing like a not-quite-secure-grasp on the native language or common tropes or budget requirements or scheduling…

Under the name of Amir Shervan, this wonderful example of American freedom gifted us with five films, of which Samurai Cop is the most legendary. The only release it received back in 1991 was a limited VHS distribution in Poland, and then was recently (within the last five years) re-discovered after Amir’s untimely death. In the age of the Internet, it became a legend.

It’s a bit raunchy for a riffing film, but that is one area where Rifftrax distinguishes itself from “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. For my own tastes, I prefer my riffing movies to be family-friendly, because awkward explicit sex scenes (as in The Room) are just that: Too explicit to not be a little awkward, even when the guys are at their funniest. To quote Kevin Murphy’s brilliant song some more:

He’s making dinner for his new girlfriend
Wearing nothing but a little black banana hammock
They’re gonna make sweet love and it kinda makes you feel
Like you’d rather see anything else

I was thankful, anyway.
I think these two have an even more explicit scene, but if so, it was excised here, thankfully.

Actually, Murphy’s song pretty much covers the whole movie, start-to-finish with a lot of droll observations. (The Flower, who did not see this with us in the theater, ended up watching the in-studio riffed version—which is the same, basically—with me, only to find herself simultaneously amazed at how dead on the song was, and how shockingly bad the movie was.)

The riffs are solid here. The problem with a movie like this is that it’s such a meatball over the plate, one can end up sounding like a Nelson Muntz, simply restating the movie’s many obvious, glaring flaws. There are only a couple of examples of this, where the mistake being lampooned is the sort of continuity error you might find in a normal, even good film. This actually works at one point, when Amir’s English-as-a-Second-Language comes out with “son of a bitches”. (Of course, in English, when we have a noun followed by a modifying phrase, the plural is formed by altering the noun, so “sons-in-law” not “son-in-laws” or “justices of the peace” not “justice of the peaces”.) As immortalized in “Samurai Cop Rockin’ Action Theme”

He’s tellin’ these son of a bitches
He respects the Japanese of this country
He’s gonna turn ’em into fertilizer
While making time with the gang-boss’ lady

Samurai cop!

So, if you’re in the mood for some riffing, and awkward moments with muscly-’80s-era dudes in banana hammocks don’t put you off too terribly much, this is a good use of your entertainment dollar.

o/~Now comes the final battle against the Big Chin Guy~\o
Also chins. You can’t be afraid of chins and see this happily.

Fun-ish fact: The sequel (the ingeniously named Samurai Cop 2) premiered at the North Hollywood Laemmle, which is one of our regular haunts, but does not seem to be one of the premieres we were on hand for.

The Natural (1984)

It was hard to get the kids interested in the baseball movie month at the local Bijou, and I wasn’t really up to pushing The Bad News Bears very hard so we missed that one.  However, The Boy loves him some classic Simpsons, and The Flower some Randy Newman, so I could pitch this as “The movie ‘The Simpsons’ was parodying in their softball episode with the classic Randy Newman score!” and they bought it.

The Death of Wonder Bat
o/~I’m talking sooft-ball~\o

The Flower bought it so hard that she called it “The Randy Newman movie with Sundance“. I couldn’t dissuade her from this, no matter how hard I tried.

But the film has a hell of a pedigree. It was Barry Levison’s (last seen by us directing the plague flick The Bay) follow up to his classic film Diner. Besides Robert Redford, it features Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger and Barbara Hershey as well as some of the great character actors of the era: Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Prosky and Joe Don Baker.

Of course, when Baker was on screen I had to yell “Mitchell!”. Every time. (OK, I just whispered it to The Flower but she was adequately annoyed for the whole audience.)

Hoyt Axton sang that.
Muh-muh-muh-Mitchell!

The screenplay was by Phil Dusenberry (who didn’t do much else) and Roger Towne, which makes you think, “Oh, the guy who wrote Chinatown!” But it’s not him. That was Robert Towne, who is apparently Roger’s overachieving brother. Nonetheless, it’s a fine script based on Bernard Malamud’s book.

The music is no less than iconic. G’wan. Sing it with me now.

buh-BUHHHH! buh-Buh-buh-BUHHHHH!

You can see the night game lights exploding in a shower of sparks, can’t you?

Or imagination. Or your brain-thinking.
There. Now you don’t even need to use your memory.

Great, thinly disguised morality tale of a boy who goes off to the city after leaving home and his girl, and ends up getting blasted by Barbara Hershey and never fulfilling his destiny of being The Greatest Ballplayer Of All Time.

I say “thinly disguised” but I should probably just go ahead and say “transparent”. This is a ridiculously simple story of good vs. evil, and sin and redemption. Redford plays Roy Hobb, the world’s oldest nineteen-year-old (he was 48, and the lighting does an admirable job hiding this, but there’s only so much darkness can do) whose true love Iris (Close, who doesn’t look much younger, at 37) gives him a farewell present before he goes off to the Big Leagues.

But he’s not on the train five minutes before he’s spotted by Barbara Hershey (actually a year younger than Close, but playing an older character) and, hey: Barbara Hershey!

A recurring theme in this film.
Easy on the eyes, hard on the baseball career.

Unfortunately, his probably not very innocent trip to her room ends with a botched murder/suicide and cut to fifteen years later and a tryout for team run by evil The Judge (Prosky). Pop (Brimley) runs and part owns the team, but he’ll lose it if to The Judge he can’t take ’em to the championship. The last thing he wants is a broken down forty-eight—er thirty-four-year old starter, but the joke turns out to be on him (and the Judge) when Roy smacks the ball outta the park with ridiculous frequency.

Dubious sports journalist Max Mercy (Duvall) introduces him to Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) in fairly obvious ploy to ruin him (because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to be ruined by Basinger?) and this strategy is as effective as it is elusive to Roy. Before you know it, the Mudhens (or whatever the team name is) are in jeopardy of losing their shot at the pennant, and Roy’s lifelong ambition is in danger of not being fulfilled. (But again: Kim Basinger.)

I did this already. But now it looks like a dirty joke.
When is she sincere? Who knows. But easy on the eyes and hard on the…

Things turn around when the team has a series of away games (as in away-from-Memo) and in Chicago a mysterious woman in White—long forgotten Iris—catches his eye. Before you know it, he’s putting the balls back over the fence and beginning to see through Memo (who is actually a genuinely tragic character in the film, both in her bought-and-paid-for nature and her yearning for something better).

An old man leaving the theater said “They don’t make ’em like that any more.”

Indeed, they do not. Truth be told, they didn’t make them like this in 1984. It’s an utterly bizarre throwback that would’ve been at home in the ’50s. But the magic of ’80s Barry Levinson is that it all works, somehow. Sure the acting is good, the lighting is inspired, the music iconic, and it has an overwhelming desire (as I’ve noted of a lot of surprisingly great films) to entertain.

This is something that It Happened One Night and Sleepless in Seattle have in common, and The Natural is similarly inclined, but in the case of The Natural, even the most minor scenes develop the story. It’s enough to make the whole “magical realism” thing seem perfectly…em…natural (sorry).

The kids loved it, and it made it much easier to get them to Field of Dreams the next week.

Hi, Tari!
Later, Close would become synonymous with “bunny boiler”.

Now, Voyager (1942)

After Marked Woman, the next feature was the one I really wanted to see: Now, Voyager. (I didn’t really have any idea what it was about, so perhaps only because it is generally well-regarded.) And, honestly, I am not a big Bette Davis fan. I don’t think she was especially pretty or charming, and her acting seemed to fall along fairly predictable lines, at least what I had seen of it. In this movie, however, she truly shines. I had a hard time believing it was her at points, as she plays Charlotte, a mousy, neurotic old maid (I don’t know, her character is probably, like 26 and Davis was 34) who is completely under the thumb of her mother (Gladys Cooper).

Salma Hayek could probably rock those brows.
Very mousy eyebrows.

She goes on a cruise and falls in love with a Jerry (Paul Henried, CasablancaGoodbye Mr. Chips). He’s married but miserable, and in fact his wife seems a lot like Davis’ mother (who has no first name in the movie), with their daughter Tina being the recipient of the sort of abuse Charlotte is personally familiar with. In the end, Jerry has a responsibility (to Tina primarily) to go back home, and Charlotte continues on her merry way.

The funny thing here being her way really is merry. Her brief, intense relationship with Jerry changes her. And once she’s seen the potential of life out from under her mother’s thumb, she blossoms. (And in classic ’40s de-frumpification, she takes off her glasses and gets less boxy clothes to signal losing weight.) When she gets home, she finds her family surprised at her newfound confidence, to say nothing of wardrobe.

Her mother, natch, wants no part of it. She wants her out of those slutty clothes and into her good, old spinster wardrobe, to throw out all those smutty books (I have no idea what those could be, but back in my mom’s day it was salty things like East of Eden), and to take the room right next to dear old mother so Charlotte can take care of the increasingly valetudinarian matriarch.

Left, Gladys Cooper before children. Right, after.

This movie surprised me. It surprised me that Charlotte blossomed. And it surprised me even more that she manages to stand up to the mother who formerly dominated her so thoroughly. I kept expecting there to be a big struggle between the two, but Charlotte handles her precisely right: She doesn’t allow herself to be baited while at the same time doing as she pleases.

The movie takes a third act turn (involving Jerry and Tina) which also surprised me. Much like Casablanca, though, Charlotte respects that her amorous interests are not the most important thing in the world. Her sense of ethics and morality , and the care of others, take precedence. And she finds a high degree of happiness in this.

It doesn’t have to be the only message in movies (it’s not always true). But it’s nice to see from time-to-time. (Quick: Name a contemporary mainstream film with that message.)

What a hat! What lapels!
The other foot has the shoe, now, eh, Paul Henried?

Bette Davis has never been better, if for no other reason than she plays against type, and does so utterly believably. Paul Henried is good, as always, though his role is relatively minor. Cooper (Rebecca, and that great “Twilight Zone” episode where she gets a phone call from Beyond The Grave) plays Davis’ mother, and is great. She’s too young for the role, but she doesn’t look it. (Charlotte’s supposed to be a “late in life” baby, but Cooper is only twenty years older.) Claude Rains plays the kindly psychoanalyst, but his sanitarium doesn’t seem to be very effective relative to pleasure cruises.

Max Steiner won an Oscar for the score.

It was the height of director Irving Rapper’s career. In the ’40s he would direct The Corn Is Green and Shining Victory, but his career would turn to B-movies by the ’50s and in the ’70s he finished up with The Christine Jorgensen Story (the movie Ed Wood was supposed to make when he made Glen or Glenda?) and Born Again (about Watergate figure Charles Colson). But here, he’s quite competent. This probably is more a commentary on the decline of Hollywood over those 30 years than anything.

The funny thing to me was that this more of a melodrama, by definition, in the sense of being about small matters (one’s emotional state is about as small a matter as drama can tackle) given a theatrical presentation, versus Marked Woman which is more about life-and-death and very noir-ish in its sort-of-flat-affect, but it felt more like a serious drama somehow. Maybe because the emotionalism is displayed as the problem rather than the reason for the story. And as Charlotte gets saner and saner, she makes better and better choices, less steeped in her internal psychodrama.

A good lesson for today, some would argue.

But subdued!
The love triangle. It’s…tense.

Marked Woman (1937)

The Flower has become especially enamored of the old films, the noir, and—let us be frank—the sartorial stylings of the pre-’60s era. As such, she’s more enthusiastic about seeing a double-feature with Bette Davis (who she had seen previously only in All Above Eve) than your average 15-year-old. (And more enamored of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart than—oh, I don’t know who the girls are swooning at these days. Robert Pattinson? Is he still a thing?)

He was skinny, probably in terrible health, and an actor, but he was a MAN.
Can’t imagine why. *kaff*

The Bette Davis double-feature was playing against a showing of Reservoir Dogs, which I did want to see, but which (as I pointed out to the kids) is likely to turn up within the year unlike, say, the 1937 soaper Marked Woman, in which Davis plays a Speakeasy “hostess” who gets mixed up in a murder case—just as the kid sister she’s putting through college shows up unannounced.

Melodrama, I suppose, but still remarkably effective 80 years later.

One interesting thing, possibly inspired by the looming specter of the Hay’s Office, is how heavily moralistic it is. Davis’ character compromises herself to help her sister get along, but the scandal destroys her sister’s chances at a socially advantageous marriage to a boy she likes—or at least the little sister perceives it as so, and that leads to a sort of nihilistic recklessness which, well, let’s say it doesn’t work out well for anyone.

The marking.
Life is rough on the mean streats…er, speakeasies.

Humphrey Bogart plays the hard-nosed A.D.A. who demands Davis come clean, but there’s an incipient romance there as well. The movie wisely doesn’t develop this much, but leaves it as a possible bright spot in the marked woman‘s future. And, this movie is not above making the markedness here literal.

We all actually really liked it, though it’s not a classic. It holds up better than you’d probably expect, and while it’s very much a creature of its day, it’s not something so far removed that its hard to enjoy. Director Lloyd Bacon directed nearly 100 films, including 42nd Street and Knute Rockne: All American, but this is one of his best.

Good music, too.
Music! Guys! Dolls! (No relation.)

Life of Brian (1979)

As you may recall, I get nervous sometimes when taking the kids to a movie that was really big in my life. You just never know how well something from your past is going to hold up, though, to be honest, so far the surprises have been mostly pleasant. And not once has one of the kids looked at me like I was crazy. (Well, I mean, not for any of these movies.) But Life of Brian loomed huge in my early life, and it’s not something that everyone gets. First, it’s Monty Python. Second, there’s a lot of Latin/Roman/religious humor in it, and that is not accessible to everyone.

"Romane ite domum," of course.
“‘Romanes eunt domus?’ The people called Romanis they go like a house?” “It says ‘Romans go home!'” “No, it doesn’t!”

But, even if John Cleese has changed his mind over the years and argues now that this movie is blasphemous/sacrilegious/whatever—he didn’t back in the day, and you can find some interesting stuff on YouTube about it—I maintain that this is, fundamentally, a movie about human nature. Actually, in one of these debates (moviemakers used to debate religious leaders on late-night talk-shows in England in the ’70s, apparently) the bishop or abbot takes a cheap shot at the movie for lapsing lazily into nudity and swearing and a more on-the-nose shot about the movie borrowing its cachet from Jesus.

The former is accurate but not true. The brief nudity is hilarious and to the point: In Brian’s case, it summarizes perfectly his naivete. In the case of Judith, it summarizes her zealotry. The swearing, if we take broadly all the various Britishisms as swearing, is still on the mark today, which puts a lie to the notion that it was lazy or shock-value. (And if you don’t believe that, look at just about any of those Airplane! ripoffs that flooded the market in the ’90s/’00s.)

"He has a wife, you know..."
“What’s so funny about the name ‘Bigus Dickus’?”

The latter is accurate, but avoided as much as possible.  Originally, the film was to have a lot more Jesus in it, but they noticed that whenever He came on screen, people stopped laughing. (There’s a lot of different ways to take that, I suppose.) So, after the film opening, where baby Brian is mistaken for baby Jesus (foreshadowing!), you have the first post-credit sequence (the Sermon on the Mount) and that’s it. And the first scene barely shows the manger while the second quickly focuses on the people in the back who couldn’t hear what Jesus said very well and who end up in a brawl.

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ah! what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

And we quickly leave Our Lord and head for greener comedic pastures, like a man being stoned for saying “Jehovah” by a bunch of women who are disguised as men because women aren’t allowed to go to the stonings. The meta-twist here being that since this is Monty Python, and it’s usually them dressed up as women, you have a bunch of guys pretending to be women who are pretending to be men.

Why aren’t women allowed to go to stonings, Mum?
Because it’s written, that’s why.

"How much worse can it get?"
He said “Jehovah!”

This is the only Monty Python movie with a truly coherent plot: Brian, in an attempt to avoid capture by the Romans, delivers a Sermon-on-the-Mount-like speech without quite finishing it. This leads people to believe that he knows something that he’s not telling them. (He cannot convince them otherwise.) As they follow him seeking answers, a crowd develops, and people become increasingly convinced that he is The Messiah. He immediately gains a prophet who places tremendous significance on a gourd he has discarded, and this leads to schism:

The shoe is the sign. Let us follow His example. Let us, like Him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign, that all who follow Him shall do likewise.
No, no, no. The shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in abundance.
Cast off the shoes! Follow the Gourd!
No, no! It is a sign that, like Him, we must think not of the things of the body, but of the face and head!

The last is a favorite quote around Casa ‘Strom. So close. But of course missing the point, as homo sapiens must inevitably do. When Brian tries to assert his Jewishness by joining a radical Jersualem terrorist group devoted to driving out the bloody Romans, this leads to another one of the great quotable moments:

And what have [The Romans] ever given us in return?!
The aqueduct?
What?
The aqueduct.
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

This, of course, goes on and on and on, leading to a running footnote to be attached whenever the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) strikes a blow against Romans.

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Brought peace.
Oh. Peace? Shut up!

I needn’t have worried. The kids may not favor it over Monty Python and the Holy Grail—most people don’t—but they did love it, and found themselves quoting it weeks and months later. They also allowed that it had a real plot, and genuine characters you end up caring about (albeit in an often weird way). There’s a rascal who constantly jokes around with the crucifixion process, and who ends up demanding to be put back up when he (in jest) gets Brian’s clemency order. (This scene recalls one in Spartacus, rather amusingly.) Mostly, you feel for Brian, whom everyone seems to be willing sacrifice on the Altar of Misunderstanding.

"Naw, I'm just kidding. I'm not Brian. Put me back!"
“I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!”

It is, undeniably, one of the greatest movie endings in history, and I’m not surprised to hear one of the kids whistling Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

It also has one of my favorite exchanges in movie history—well, several, really, but one in particular which would now be classified as a hate crime. And I will close this review on an excerpt:

Francis: Why are you always on about women, Stan?
Stan: [pause] I want to be one.
Reg: What?
Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta.
Reg: What!?
Stan: It’s my right as a man.
Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg: You want to have babies?!
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But you can’t have babies.
Stan: Don’t you oppress me.
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan—you haven’t got a womb. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?
[Stan starts crying]
Judith: Here! I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister, sorry.
Reg: [pissed] What’s the point?
Francis: What?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

His struggle against reality, indeed.

A funny, funny hate crime.
Pictured: A hate crime in progress.

The Red Turtle

It’s probably fair to say this is a French film, with its original title being La tortue rouge, but Studio Ghbili co-founder Isao Takahata (Only YesterdayGrave of the Fireflies) has both a “producer” and an “artistic producer” credit on it and Ghibli CEO Toshio Suzuki also has a producer credit, so it’s billed as a co-effort between Ghibli and, well, a bunch of French studios, none of which seem to be animation studios. The director is an Oscar-winning Dutch-born director based out of London named Michael Dudok de Wit. In fact, it was de Wit’s Oscar winning short “Father and Daughter” that, apparently, spurred Hayao Miyazaki to request from Wild Bunch that they let Ghibli distribute the short in Japan, and that de Wit make a feature film for Ghibli!

Well, whatever, there’s no dialog in this one.

This is a lovely, gentle, poetic film, one of those cases where you can see why the Academy nominated it but also where that’s not a bad thing.

But this is nowhere near as sad, thank God.
The crabs here look and act a lot like the one in “Fireflies”.

If you plan to see it, go ahead and see it and then maybe come back and read the rest of this. Part of the pleasure of a film like this can be not knowing where it’s coming from and where it goes. Beyond the setup, which is a man stranded on a desert island, the rest is both different and familiar, in the manner of a classic fairy tale.

If you’re on the fence, I’m going to summarize the main hook of the film now. Perhaps it will tantalize you.

The story begins when a man is shipwrecked on a classic desert island. He builds a raft to get off, but once he gets past a certain point, a mysterious force from the deep destroys his raft. He repeats this process with larger and larger rafts, only to have each one destroyed in turn. He finally discovers that the destroyer of the raft is a giant red turtle. (And we got ourselves a title!)

A giant ocean and STILL it's too crowded.
“I’m swimming heah!”

He goes to build an even bigger raft (with blackjack! and hookers!) but this time, while building it, he sees red the turtle emerge from the surf, apparently to escort a passel of baby turtles to the ocean. In a pique, he grabs the turtle before it can get back to the ocean, flips it over and smashes it with a rock. It slowly dies over the course of days as he sullenly continues work on his raft. One day, after it’s dead, he has a nightmare and awakes with a sudden horror of what he’s done, and he frantically tries to save the turtle by pouring water on it.

Instead of reviving it, however, the turtle splits in half.

Inside the red turtle? A woman.

And thus begins the love story that makes up the rest of the film.

From "Kramer vs. Turtle".
Where is it written that a Man isn’t as good a parent as a Turtle!?

Well, it’s nice. It’s short. It goes for telling its story with simple animation—The Flower was a bit concerned about the look based on the trailer, but the style won her over. Like a lot of Ghibli stuff, this movie isn’t meant to be an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. The world isn’t at stake, in the classical sense, though our hero’s perception of the world is.

And all with the only spoken sounds being less complicated the simglish. We all really liked it. But the animation category for the Oscars was really good this year: The Boy managed to sneak out to see My Life As A Zucchini when it played and said it was also excellent. This is probably a good sign, in light of my “damning with faint praise” view of Moana.

Animated version...
Meanwhile in “House of the Flying Daggers”…

Moana

I’m at the point—perhaps because I’m just that jaded, or maybe, just maybe, it’s something else—where a review of a kiddie movie is just the hardest thing to do. From the heady first decade of the millennium where every year or so brought us a new, great Pixar film, and all the other studios were putting out A-level efforts to try to compete, we’re at the point now where things feel too cookie-cutter, too formulaic. It’s not just in narrative or the blanding-down required by modern political correctness (Disney has permanent, salaried diversity consultants!) but the cyclical, industry-level tradition of finding something that works and beating it to death until you get enough embarrassing flops to find something new. (Which you’ll then beat to death until it can be milked no further.)

The other half is...<shudder>...Canadian.
Dwayne Johnson is great in this, but would he have gotten the role if not half Samoan?

Obviously the superhero movies reached that point a few years back. The Star Wars franchise instantly entered that phase once Disney took over.

The princess genre hit that mark in the late ’90s and, Tangled and Frozen notwithstanding, it’s never really recovered. Keep in mind that the inventor of the genre, Mr. Walt Disney made three princess films in toto: Snow White (1938), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). So, in almost 30 years of feature film making, he made about one a decade (and decided after Sleeping Beauty‘s failure that the public didn’t want any more princess stories). Since 1989, the Disney studios have made around ten princess films: Five between 1989 and 1998, and five since 2009 and Moana.

And, if we’re being honest, 1997’s Hercules is basically a princess film in a toga. Point is: That’s a lot of princesses.

Togas are pretty unisex since "Animal House".
You heard me.

Which brings us to Moana, and the number one perpetrator of ’90s princess films, Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules), who have returned from their exile after the (in many ways under-rated) 2009 flick Princess and the Frog to give us a tale of a Polynesian denies-she’s-a-princess who defies her father and seeks to save the world (which, in Polynesian terms means the little island her tribe lives on) with the help of a former pro-wrestler/demigod.

They get an assist from Big Hero 6’s directing duo, Don Hall and Chris Williams but I can’t really tell what that contribution is. (They’re listed as “co-director”s.)

Like I say, it’s hard to write a review because you’ve seen it before. A lot. Currently this film is sitting above The Little Mermaid review-wise, but I have to believe this will be tempered with time. The music is pretty good here, sure, but it’s not Ashman/Menken good. The mandatory “find myself” song is above par, though the most memorable song, by far, is “You’re Welcome” which is “sung” by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a demigod who is quite taken with his own contributions to humanity. It’s fun. Of course, the “find myself” song is the one that got the Oscar nod (losing the award to a song from La La Land which, of course, I don’t remember at all).

And I put “sung” in scare quotes but The Rock is hands down the best, most memorable part of this film which, I believe, will largely be forgotten and/or blended with the other half-dozen or more princess films of the decade.

Shrek?
“You remember! The one with dark hair!” “Mulan?” “No! The one with dark skin?” “The Princess and the Frog?” “Not THAT dark!” “Jasmine?”

Not saying it’s bad, mind you. Far from it. But it is a lead pipe cinch that the three archetypal Disney princesses are archetypes because for 50 years, they were all there were. There’s a difference between a formula you break out once a decade, and one you use every 2 years.

So I think the only real way to look at this is to look at it in terms of what stands out:

The artwork. Not because it’s especially good—it is, but I’m exhausted writing about how each new Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks animated feature pushes the boundaries of the technology, and you gotta be exhausted reading it. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s a little bit different. The color palette, the Pacific Island style. Even if the movie feels the same in almost every regard to the previous 9 Disney princesses, it looks somewhat different.

Lack of stunt casting. Really, apart from The Rock, the only “famous” face actors in this film are also accomplished voice actors: Alan Tudyk (Frozen, Wreck-It RalphTucker and Dale vs. Evil) and Jemaine Clement (The Lego Batman MovieWhat We Do In The Shadows, and a great David Bowie-esque bit on “Rick and Morty”).

The Rock. Stunt casting or no, it’s a perfect role for him. Also, it’s just a little touch but a nice one that the obvious cute sidekick gets left behind in favor of a completely useless one.

Realism!
Not just a NET negative but literally makes no positive contribution. ’cause it’s a rooster.

Less self-centered. The ’90s princess movies, taken as a whole, are a big middle finger to anything other than the sort of compulsive childish “self-expression” which became vogue in the ’50s (yes, the ’50s!) and which seem to be reaching their peak now. Moana (as a character) is different in that she sublimates her personal desires because it’s the right thing to do. This has to be Lasseter’s influence, as it was the theme of every Pixar movie up to The Incredibles, and it remains a common theme. The cheat is that she’s forced into doing what she wanted to do all along to save her people. (It’s a cheat, but I’ll allow it.)

The climactic battle isn’t as such. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good climactic battle. But what they set up—basically a battle of a demigod versus a demon with some magic cheat for the heroine—would’ve been off point. They essentially cribbed from Miyazaki, and that’s not a bad thing.

Speaking of which, I read someone’s exasperated review of the film, pointing out that Miyazaki is this huge influence on virtually every major American animator and yet not one of them (including Moana) can let their movie breathe. It’s a fair point: There’s a compulsive fear of having things be calm for a moment, almost like they have no faith in the beauty or wonder of the animation they pour their hearts into.

But, look, The Barb liked it, and that’s what counts, right? Gonna be interesting to see whether she keeps this “I love everything!” attitude into her teen years. (And by “everything” I mean “movies”. She’s less sanguine about most of the rest of life.)

It's true! Moana's grandmother is 35!
“When I was your age, Moana was called ‘Mulan’.”

After The Storm

Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese director who won our hearts with such films as Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister is back with a new look at modern Japanese family life. In this case, our protagonist is Ryota, a shiftless, gambling divorced dad, a one-time writer who works as a detective specializing in collecting incriminating information for divorces—”for the material”, he claims, though he hasn’t written in years, and when we first meet him, he’s shaking down a wandering wife for cash and lying to the husband (his client), turning a dubious profession into a straight-up dishonest one.

Probably not.
A face you can trust?

It’s a change from Like Father, where the characters were largely noble and struggling to what was best in a situation they had not created. It’s also a change from Sister, where the characters initial noble appearance had an uglier aspect underlying it (though they were not bad people, in the end). In this case, Koreeda is giving us a highly flawed character to sympathize with, without trying to entice us into sympathizing with his myriad sins.

Koreeda’s problem (besides all the obvious ones) is that he wants to be a father to his son, but he can’t make the support payments and, apparently, in Japanese society, if you can’t make the payments you don’t get to see your kid. The common reaction to this seems to be, “Yeah, just drop out of the kid’s life until he’s 18. If he wants to meet you then, he’ll turn up.”

The fact that Ryota is appalled at this prospect—perhaps the one truly decent instinct we see in him, and one that society seems determined to squash—makes him instantly more relatable as a character, even if his big idea for getting all the back support money is to bet on the races. (And, since this is Japan, he goes to the local velodrome to bet on bicycle racing. I don’t know why I found this weird, but I did.) Ryota still pines for his ex, who is trying to move on by dating a square. (A perfectly reasonable reaction, one supposes, to having been hooked up with a “spontaneous” artist who might blow the rent on a bicycle race or lottery tickets.)

Go figger.
His mother and sister don’t think much of him, either.

Ryota’s mother—from whom he would steal, if his shrewish, unpleasant sister hadn’t re-hid all her mother’s money, knowing Ryota would come looking for it—while emotionally undermining in a lot of ways, is also very interested in seeing the two get back together.

A curious plot point involves Ryota having an out: He has a standing offer to write manga (or perhaps a “light novel”), but he can’t bring himself to do this, even under a pen name, which (we are told) is how it’s commonly done by “serious artists”. (What a terrible designation to place on an artist, eh? “Serious.”)

The Boy and I liked it, overall, though it didn’t grab us the way the previous two films did. We’re highly likely to go see the director’s next film, The Third Murder, however.

Alas.
You hope it works out. It’s hard to see how it can, though.

Bullitt (1968)

Some say director Peter Yates will be best remembered for his sword and sorcery epic Krull, others insist it will be introducing the world to a young Harvey Keitel in Mother, Jugs and Speed, and still yet others say his Jaws-inspired (and even more inspired Jacqueline-Bisset-in-a-wet-T-shirt showcasing) The Deep—can I stop here? This is a dumb bit. Yates did a lot of good movies, and some less good movies. Bullitt would be in his top 5, typically behind such films as Breaking Away and The Dresser.

But neither of those films has Bullitt‘s iconic status. Or Steve McQueen.

Or is that a self-answering question?
How can he be cool when he hurts the environment so callously?

I think I said Dirty Harry was the prototype for all those ’70s detective shows but Bullitt hits almost all the same notes—and preceded that franchise by three years. Steve McQueen plays a rebel cop—he’s actually more laconic than Eastwood’s Callahan—who bucks the system (sorta) to bring down a connected mob stoolie (sorta). The only thing missing here is the cliché (maybe not yet firmly established) of his police bosses being in on it. No, curiously, and perhaps more realistically, the bosses are stupid and self-aggrandizing but not actually in on it.

This movie actually has a lot of what I hate about movies of the era, but I don’t hate them here: Muted color schemes (but still Technicolor!), existential ennui (it’s not overdone), a lot of stretches with just ambient sound and no music, brassy score when there is music (but Lalo Schifrin!), a lot of scenes which seem almost cinema verité for “realism”, a similarly “realistic” low-key quality, and so on.

The highlight of the film is a bravura car chase, most of which done by Steve McQueen himself, which probably explains the next ten years of movies and TV. I’m not much of a car chase guy but this is a good one.

In case you didn't know what that was.
Pictured: A car chase.

Some things that I found interesting: A realistic hospital sequence which is not all that gripping, but which is an interesting reminder of how much technology and lawyers have changed things in the past 50 years; gratuitous Vic Tayback; An airport sequence where Bullitt must chase down the bad guy but he can’t spot the bad guy because almost every man in the airport is in a suit!; 24-year-old Jacqueline Bisset who reminded me of how grownup 20-somethings used to be expected to be, and who reminded me strongly of an occasional blog commenter; Robert Vaughn’s complaint that this movie ruined his political ambitions—as if Teenage Caveman hadn’t done that; Norman Fell! As a toadying chief of police!; Robert Duvall still doing, essentially, whatever roles he could pick up; the protocols that Bullitt violates seeming a lot more realistic and restrictive (like failure to report a suspect dying) than those that later movie cops would violate (like blowing up buildings); $8 hotel rooms, and a myriad of other details, large and small.

Oh! No sex scenes yet. I’m trying to pinpoint when the sex scene became mandatory in movies. (The sex scene ceased to be mandatory somewhere in the mid-’80s. See Top Gun.) Dirty Harry didn’t have one either, but the sequel did, as I recall.

But if I had to guess why I liked this movie where subsequent similar films would leave me cold, it’s that there isn’t the same moral ambiguity in the later films. Bullitt’s struggle is that his job forces him to confront evil. It throws violence in his face. It’s not that the bad guys aren’t bad, or aren’t so bad, or that the good guys aren’t—well, okay, the “good guys” here aren’t great, but that’s at the higher political level, not at the “working-cop” level. The point is, I think as the years passed, the ugly aspects of aesthetic got uglier: Confusion/questioning gave way to nihilism, muted colors gave way to ugly colors, jarring violence got more violent and consequently less jarring—which is jarring in a different sense.

Anyway, we can’t really hold this movie responsible for the future; we were glad we saw it.

Aw, who is she kidding?
Questioning whether or not dating Steve McQueen is worth it.

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.