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.

The Lego Batman Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Harry (1971)

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

Well, do ya, punk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well…do ya, punk?

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

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

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

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

Which is the fun.

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

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

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

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

Paul Bunyan, however, he didn’t see.

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

It means HE GETS RESULTS!
BUT WHAT ABOUT TORCHAAA?

Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Reptilicus”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kedi: Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul

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

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

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

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

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

It Happened One Night (1934)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s also tremendously dated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all loved it.

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

Bitter Harvest

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Wick 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

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

Harsh, but fair.

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Affair To Remember (1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Salesman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gone With The Wind (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it sucks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toni Erdmann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harold and Maude (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the two begin an affair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodfellas (1990)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time After Time (1979)

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

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

Time travel is confusing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Army of Darkness (1992)

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

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

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

Where’s the money, Lebowski?

The Barbarienne had a more complex speech:

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

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

“All right you primitive screwheads, listen up!”

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

“Klaatu. Barada. Necktie.”

“Well, hello, Mr. Fancypants.”

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

“Like in the deal!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North by Northwest (1959)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take him away!”

(combs mustache)

The End.

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

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

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

Manchester By The Sea

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

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

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

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

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

OHMYGODWHEREAREHISWIFEANDCHILDREN!?!?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

La La Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

High praise indeed.

Singin’ In The Rain (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is a little weak.

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

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

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

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

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

So, go figger.

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

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

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

Time Bandits (1981)

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

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

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

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

Well, except now his girlfriend tags along, too.

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

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

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

Oh-rye-in-eye-ay…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2001: A Space Odyssey (1969)

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

Forget it. I’m on a roll.

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

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

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

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

Prove me wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoooooa.
What the actual F?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guts. Out.
Hornsby and Williamson.

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

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

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

Die Hard

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

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

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

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

Or boobie, if you prefer.
Hans! Bubbeh!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ho. Ho. Ho.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the boys.
Pictured: Tiny Al Yankovic

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

The Handmaiden (2016)

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

And that’s okay.

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

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

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

I can't even.
Speaking of strings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raunchy.
Pretty.

Trading Places (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

Perfect expression.
Perfect timing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Christmas (1954)

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

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

Like the plot matters.

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

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

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

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

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

Smooth moves.
Bing and Rosemary in the dressing room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TCM Presents: From Here To Eternity (1953)

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

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

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

Soggy smooching.
It’s in Black & White!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deepwater Horizon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still pretty cute, tho'.
Worried.

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

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

Not invulnerable.
Bad-ass.

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

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

 

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

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truth.
Coal is too subtle for some people.

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

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

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