Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

In my most recent look at It’s A Wonderful Life, I referred to Gloria Grahame as “aggressively heterosexual”, a statement I stand by. That said, I hadn’t seen anything yet, because if that label applies to anything, it applies to a musical based on the Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabine—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. We happened to catch a viewing with Russ Tamblyn talking beforehand—the second actor from West Side Story we’ve seen in person, and with the Flower having the same response of “I wish they would do the Q&A after so I knew if these guys were any good”—and he and the host spoke in cautious, nearly whispered tones about how the movie would not be possible in modern times.

Can we stop saying “modern” and start saying “repressive”? Because it feels more repressive than modern to me.

Beautiful hides, indeed.
When I was a kid, six girls in their skivvies mean there was an axe murderer nearby.

Russ Tamblyn said the movie was premised on this peculiar circumstance: Gene Kelly, apparently, preferred to use gay men for his backup dancers so that he would be the focus of (female) attention during the dance numbers. So what if, Tamblyn mused, we made a movie where the dancers were all straight? Hold that thought; we’re going to revisit it.

This is the plucky story of a mountain man named Adam who comes into town looking for a wife. He is utterly confident that he will find one—he’s willing to trade his mule, after all!—and he stumbles across the small-but-feisty Jane Powell who is adorable and can cook, and seeing a chance to get out from under the grind of serving a bunch of ungrateful, demanding men, agrees to go along with him.

When she gets to Adam’s cabin, of course, she finds out that Adam has six brothers and they live like animals. But on seeing Jane Powell, they all decide they want wives, too, so she teaches them, Snow White-style, how to behave a little better and not eat like pigs, and about the sorts of things that women like in men. It’s the classic dynamic between the sexes, which is borne out by the fact that when the boys go to a barn-raising/dance they easily woo the women of their dreams away from their soft townie rivals.

Dopey, grumpy, sleepy...
The color coordination, while wholly anachronistic, helps you tell the brothers apart.

Now, nobody in 2019 has much to say about 19th century men in the wilds of Oregon, even if they are in a “town”, but compared to the Mountain Men, they are sissified. The movie does this very well, with the brothers being charming but not too smooth around the edges in a way that is beguiling to the nubile town girls and convincing to the audience. Naturally, their rivals (who had presumed they were going to marry these girls and were therefore perhaps a little lax in their pursuit of same) take considerable offense to this and start a ruckus to get the brothers kicked out of town.

The brothers, coincidentally, have only two books: The Bible (of course) and a collection of Plutarch which tells the story of the Rape of the Sabine. The word “rape” in this context of course means “abduction” but the idea that you could even use that definition of the word today without hysteria is unfounded. And to have the heroes of the movie rape the town? Literally impossible to imagine today. They even mock the emotional state of the women by pronouncing “Sabine” as “sobbin'” in one of the more memorable songs.

It is utterly charming. The oafish boys steal “their girls”—who were (and still are) attracted to them—are nonetheless understandably frightened, angered and just generally put out by this behavior. Milly, Adam’s wife, is particularly outraged and takes the girls’ parts, keeping them isolated in the house away from the boys. However, not too much mischief can go on because the farm is snowed in—and they forgot to kidnap the preacher so they could get married.

I mean.

Winter’s gonna be long. And it’s gonna be hard.

Now, obviously…obviously…the rest of the movie is the boys successfully wooing the girls back, while the girls fret over a pregnant Milly and Adam traps (and sulks) in a tiny mountaintop shed. But at the end of the third act, the snow melts and the angry townspeople come back to get their women and to lynch the boys for their audacity. This is an amazing balancing act, I think. The movie acknowledges the crime, but as an essentially light-hearted romcom-type musical, it has to have a way back. But even logically knowing the movie could not end with seven hangings, I really was concerned. How do they get out of this mess?

A cute little bit of jujitsu, is all I’ll say. But this is a must-see for the non-triggered.

The music is pleasant but not legendary. “Goin’ Courtin'” is probably the only one I knew. The lyrics’ high applicability to the circumstances of the story make it less applicable to general use, I suppose. Johnny Mercer’s lyrics are fun but I’ve forgotten most of the actual music by now. Besides “Courtin'” I remember “Bless Your Beautiful Hide” and “Lonseome Polecat” with its hints of what lonely men do with sheep. Heh.

Something about Julie Newmar always stands out.

The dance numbers are fantastic. Whether Tamblyn was playing up the Gene Kelly thing or not, these were the most rousing, masculine numbers you’d see outside of maybe those Russian folk dancers. Director Stanley Donen wanted seven good dancers and the studio said he could have four. The other two were kept in the background, but the third was Russ Tamblyn who was not a dancer but an acrobat/tumbler. Because he was still learning steps, the scene where Jane Powell teaches them all to dance looks very authentic—the other guys are fluid, long-time pros, and Tamblyn (who was around 18 at the time) is just jumping around like a puppy dog, hitting the moves but with the energy and choppiness of a beginner.

Of course we all adored this. Howard Keel as Adam comes across like a non-satirical (non-evil) version of Beauty and the Beast‘s Gaston, and there’s some real chemistry between him and Powell. Of the six future sister-in-laws, one immediately jumped to the foreground, for obvious reasons: The saucy Dorcas, played by Catwoman herself, Julie Newmar.

But it’s that kind of movie. Men bein’ men. Women bein’ women. Nobody getting too upset for too long, or played for laughs if they do. It’s an unabashed and transgressive testament to heterosexuality.

No one spits like Gaston.
“There she is LeFou! The lucky girl I’m going to marry!”


Pillow Talk (1959)

So here is a movie I’ve avoided for years, because by this point in Hollywood history, the romcom is getting increasingly licentious and overt, and kinda gross. And taken as a harbinger of what’s to come, yeah, Pillow Talk is squarely in that category with a tomcatting Rock Hudson wooing an uptight 37-year-old Doris Day. But as an isolated film, it’s pretty cute. And while Doris Day was way too old for the part, she could’ve pulled it off except, as The Flower noted, the fashions of the era were not the older woman’s friend. (Of course, Day does pull it off because we, the audience, politely don’t notice her age.)

Or that Rock is actually checking out the cameraman.

The story is that Hudson and Day share a party line and she can’t ever make calls because he’s busy wooing women over the phone. Her frustration leads to a contretemps where he basically accuses her of not getting any, and I guess that’s close enough to home that it gets under her skin. Later, of course, he sees her, falls in love, but realizes he can’t possibly admit who he really is, ’cause he’s been such a jerk to her. This leads to a series of amusing torments he inflicts on her with his asymmetrical information.

It’s cute. Not great, but cute. Rock makes a convincing heterosexual. Tony Randall does not. (Though he is also charming in this.)

Old dad couldn’t keep his mouth shut, of course. I mentioned that it was ironic that Hudson did one of his bits as a flaming stereotype. She inquired as to why that was ironic and I had to break the news to her. She was…disappointed. “Other girls got Rock for two decades! I only had him for two hours!”

In my defense, I don’t quite get the appeal.

Well, maybe I get it a little.
I guess if you like strong jaws, full heads of hair, broad shoulders….

A subplot with Thelma Ritter has her being oblivious to the affections of Allen Jenkins, the elevator operator. Thelma Ritter, of course, comes up all the time in our viewing, even for just a moment. But Jenkins was also a mainstay of TV and movies for decades, one of those guys (if you’re of a certain age), you see and say “Hey, it’s that guy!”

Director Jack Gordon would go on to direct the James Garner/Doris Day vehicle Move Over, Darling, which is probably also fine and cute.

I guess my thing is I compare them to the great romcoms of the late ’30s/early ’40s. And compared to that…

Too many hungry people losing weight.
Too many people, sharing party lines.

The Pink Panther (1963)

The second feature in our Clouseau double-feature was actually the first Clouseau movie, The Pink Panther. But the funny thing about that is that The Pink Panther is not really an Inspector Clouseau movie. It’s a competent (if a little staid by modern standards) caper film wherein cat burglar The Phantom (David Niven) has had his girlfriend (Capucine) marry the bumbling French inspector Clouseau so that he can get away with his thieving shenanigans.

The screenplay is so very French, you’d think it was written by a Frenchman. And indeed it was: Maurice Richlin, who also wrote the suspiciously French-feeling Pillow Talk co-wrote this tale of seduction and thievery.

But who is REALLY the fool? Yeah, still Clouseau.
Capucine plays Our Man for a fool.

It’s very clear that the hero of the story (or anti-hero) is supposed to have been The Phantom, and we spend a lot of time with Niven in his conquest of The Princess (Claudia Cardinale) which, again, is competently done. And in the original script, Clouseau (originally to be played by Peter Ustinov) was more of a patsy than a buffoon. Sellers’ improvisations (and Edwards’ encouragement of same) created the character would immediately dominate the series.

And it’s easy to see why: Without Sellers’ Clouseau, it’s a bland, fun early ’60s crime caper with sort-of Bondian overtones. If you didn’t actually forget it, it would probably blur pleasantly in your memory with other films of the era. And then Sellers shows up and there’s magic. (Curiously, my mother, with a distaste for slapstick, buffoonery, and most kinds of comedy loves Sellers and these movies.) He has a perfect blend of overconfidence and incompetence but, as I noted in A Shot In The Dark, he’s still somehow likable.

It’s probably that his heart is pure: he has an almost Don Quixote-ish self-image, the upstanding gendarme, the detective in pursuit of the truth. He is more likable than the presumably more competent Inspector Dreyfus, because Dreyfus is (for lack of a better word) “establishment”. Dreyfus will do what he’s told, he’ll take orders from on high and shrug at corruption. Such a thing would offend Clouseau.

Comedies used to be classier.
Capucine with her co-conspirators (Nivens and Wagner).

This is why Clouseau trumps The Phantom as well: A lovable rogue has to be rebelling against the system (or some broken part of the system). Robin Hood has to be fighting King John. Han Solo has to be fighting (in the sense of refusing to be a part of) the Empire. Even Don Ameche’s unfaithful layabout in Heaven Can Wait is endearing because…well, that’s a more intriguing one which I will write on in detail some day.

But what’s Niven doing? He’s stealing from The Princess. He’s also trying to bed her, when she is appalled by the modern promiscuity of 1963. And he’s trying to set up a man who, for all his buffoonery, believes in justice and righteousness, and always acts (however comically) from that basic love what is good and right.

The punch line of the movie, immediately discarded, is that Clouseau ends up being framed as The Phantom and is on his way to jail. The detectives who arrest him, however, assure him that he will gain incredible fame and fortune as a result of his notoriety as a suave, sophisticated jewel thief, which seems to offer some consolation.

Wonderfully shot. Beautiful women. Besides Claudia Cardinale and Capucine, the late Fran Jeffries shakes her booty at the camera from about a foot away as she sings whatever forgettable ’60s pop-crooner tune they crammed into the film. And for the ladies, a young Robert Wagner (as The Phantom’s ne’er-do-well nephew) makes the moves on Capucine as well, when she mistakes him for his uncle. (Now, Wagner was 33 and Capucine was 35, but he’s supposed to be fresh out of the college he didn’t attend.)

Besides music, Ms. Jeffries gifted us with many lovely photos.

Iconic music. Iconic titles by De Patie-Freling that netted a cartoon show based on the anthropomorphized…um…imperfection-that-looks-like-a-panther. Shot in the Dark would also result in a cartoon show, the title sequence actually receiving a standing ovation at…Cannes? But just as Clouseau outshines the Phantom here, cartoon Clouseau would be outshone by the cartoon Pink Panther.

I may prefer Claudia to Sophia.
Oh, you lucky tiger.

A Shot In The Dark (1964)

We’ve had tremendous success with the classic double-features which our theater puts on once or twice a quarter, and when they announced the Inspector Clouseau double-feature, I couldn’t resist, though I had reservations. The trailer they cut for it was not especially hilarious and comedy is possibly worse than horror for survival over time. The Flower, in fact, would declare that she did not like these movies—which may in part have to do with their general licentiousness and her relative fatigue, along with humor not enduring well.

Alert Benny Hill
I don’t know if this was the first movie to use the curved pool cue gag…might’ve been, though.

A Shot In The Dark is the second film in the Pink Panther series and very likely the funniest of them all. Based on a French play, when filming wasn’t going to Peter Sellers’ liking, he called in Panther‘s director Blake Edwards, who enlisted no less than William Peter Blatty to do a massive Inspector Clouseau-based rewrite. Vagaries of release dates and pre-production being what they were, this film was released 3-4 months after The Pink Panther, fueling speculation that it had been filmed beforehand. (Which, since Clouseau ends up going to jail in the first movie, sorta makes sense.)

In this Frenchest of plots, the carousing of a group of well-to-do-Frenchies (among themselves and their staff) results in a murder that implicates beautiful maid Maria (Elke Sommer, whom I thought I had been married to Sellers, but whom I had confused with Britt Ekland). Clouseau, instantly smitten and dumber than ever, decides that she cannot be guilty and spends the movie chasing her around as people drop dead around her. Of course, this is a comedy—for all the murders (9!)—and she is of course not actually guilty.

We swear.
There’s a perfectly logical setup for this.

Inspector Dreyfus (the great Herbert Lom) is increasingly agitated with Clouseau’s blessed incompetence, said agitation powering the second half of the movie as well as the rest of the series, and alternately puts him on and pulls him off the case, according to political and personal whims. This movie would also introduce Kato (the late Burt Kwouk) as Clouseau’s zealous sidekick, prepared to assault him at any moment, to ensure that his reflexes are all tip-top.

It’s pure silliness. At the time, the scene in the nude camp was probably pretty edgy, though that wouldn’t stop it from constantly making the rounds on TV less than a decade later.

If I didn’t find it drop-dead hilarious now, I was pleased at how much of it I did enjoy. Sellers was a master at this kind of comedy, a kind of human Homer Simpson, which is a tough thing to pull off: He has to both be an arrogant buffoon but also kind of likable, and he is. This film would set the tone for the series far more than the original, as we would see shortly.

Notable for not garnering composer Henry Mancini an Oscar. Not even a nomination! (He would win for Panther—which may have been the same year—of course.)

That eye twitch, tho'.
Even as one of Clouseau’s antagonists, Lom always came off sympathetically.

Ash Is Purest White

The thing about Asian movies (and foreign movies generally) is that appearing in an art house is not necessarily a sign of being an “art house” movie. While horror or chopsocky flicks don’t usually turn up,  sometimes just the fact of being foreign is pretentious enough to get on the marquee. On the flip side, having a different groups of different ethnicities nearby means that the movies those groups watch usually aren’t art house films. Around here the art house Indian films are swamped by the Bollywood mass market stuff, the Persian films are basically flip-a-coin, and European films are almost always the arty ones (with some notable exceptions).

Nice lighting.
Love will keep us together (when it’s not tearing us apart).

In other words, it’s hard to tell.

Which brings us to Ash Is Purest White, the story of a woman and her boyfriend who run the underground in a tiny town that is shifting under the massive weight of the Chinese government’s plans. They’re the kingpins in their tiny town when a plan gone wrong ends up with the boyfriend being beaten half-to-death in the street while the woman fires a gun to scare off the attackers and save him.

Of course, you can’t have a gun in China, and the cops interrogate her. She goes to jail for her man only to discover when she gets out that he’s started a new life and a new scam in a new city—with a new dame, and he’s not interested in having her around any more.

So who's fault is it, really?
He did teach her to shoot, sorta.

So, this is the story of a gangster’s moll whose love is a lot truer than the man she loves, and this movie details their desultory relationship over the course of twenty or thirty years. It’s an interesting play on the sensationalized, romantic, lurid gangster pix that the Chinese (and we!) love so well—but it’s definitely an art pic. It’s slow moving and morose, with an overarching message of crime not paying not so much on the local, immediate level, but really not paying on the larger life level.

Actually, the best bit in the movie is when our heroine, desperate for cash and stranded in a new city full of strangers, scams a guy out of some cash. She’s sitting in a restaurant watching the men who come in, and when she spots a mark, she walks up to him and whispers something along the lines of, “She lost the baby, you know. I’m her sister.” Despite being armed with this knowledge of masculine nature, she’s still kind of a chump for this gangster who is worthless from start to finish.

It’s not really a fun movie, like a traditional gangster flick—and perhaps worse, these are not characters you’re necessarily going to like, though at least you can find the heroine’s loyalty admirable. We did like it, but forewarned is forearmed: You will feel all 2 hours and 15 minutes of this.

Love is blind, I guess?
She’s kinda naive for a criminal/jailbird/conwoman.

Spaceballs (1987)

I was prepared for the final “March Mel-ness” movie to be particularly unfunny—my sister claimed to have walked out of it at the time—and, honestly, post-Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, everything Mel Brooks did was kind of anti-climactic, even the generally well-received To Be Or Not To Be. Hardly his fault: 1974 was a hell of a year for him. The Flower has posited, and it seems plausible, that Gene Wilder brought an extra level of heart and warmth to Brooks’ manic vaudevillian shtick.

Nice take.
She’s a good shot.

That said, this is a cute movie that holds up very well, despite (because?) being very ’80s. In it, Daphne Zuniga and Bill Pullman play generic sci-fi action princess and rogue, with Zuniga and her robot companion (Joan Rivers’ voice, Lorne Yarnell’s mime capabilities) escaping from her wedding to the even more generic Prince Valium (Jim J. Bullock!) and being rescued by Pullman and his furry sidekick John Candy. Their rivals are the incompetently slapstick Empire-stand-in, the eponymous Spaceballs. Headed by the always great Rick Moranis and peopled with the more interesting and funny cast, the Spaceballs are largely related (family name: Asshole), commanded by George Wyner—one of those character actors perpetually stuck in middle age—and, inexplicably, featuring that most ’80s of guest stars, voice-effects impresario Michael Winslow.

<insert sound effect here>
Hey, kids! Remember the ’80s?

Mix in Brooks’ stock characters: Himself as the corrupt mayor, himself as the Yoda-esque alien (see Blazing Saddles‘ Indian chief), the sexually voracious dominatrix (the lovely Leslie Bevis), some black people to make some black people jokes (the future “Star Trek Voyager”‘s Tim Russ amusingly enough), and Dom Deluise (who was a stock character for a lot of peoples’ movies), and you have yourself a pretty good time.

He's a mensch.
The schwartz MAY be with you. Who knows, really?

One thing that’s very nice is that, while the movie mocks the genre as a whole, and has quite a few notable direct parodies (like John Hurt, as himself, re-enacting his famous scene from Alien, “Oh, no, not again!”), the movie doesn’t really lean on them. There’s parody, reference humor, slapstick, vaudevillian sex jokes, along with just situational comedy adding up to a fun, if not especially amazing, time.

We all liked it, even if it was fourth on the list of four. Some of us might, maybe, put it ahead of The Producers, which we primarily like for the actual musical. But it’s hardly offensive, either comedically or socially, at least relative to Brooks’ other films, so I’m not sure why anyone familiar with Brooks would walk out. It’s probably offensive today, though the whole “combing the desert” gag is akin to the worst dad joke ever—is saved by the black guy twist.

Character actors with some muscle.
Moranis retired decades ago to raise his kids. Wyner only retired a few years ago, at age 70. Miss ’em both.

The Wandering Earth

In the year 20whatever, the sun is going nova, and you know what that means!


No, seriously, remember when the earth was going to blow up, so we had to put all the people on spaceships and go to another planet but we didn’t tell the dumb people bec—

You’d think they’d have noticed but…dumb!

OK, shamelessly cribbing Steve Martin over. So, in the not-to-distant future, the sun’s going supernova, so the world decides to attach giant engines to the planet to push it out of orbit and into a new system (Alpha Centauri, I think) a few light years over. An advance ship is sent to clear the way containing our hero’s father, and his subsequent absence becomes a point of bitterness for the hero (who is, like, five, when this prologue occurs) fifteen years later.

Half the planet is dead by this point, and the rest is living underground in a dystopic nonsense world that looks like a movie representation of Hong Kong, with the hero grabbing his sister and a tractor-truck of some kind that he plans to use to escape to…well, I’m not sure where, frankly, given the earth’s surface is frozen and the underground cities fairly well controlled—though actually remarkably lax given the circumstances.

It's big but not very hot, I guess.
Here, they have wandered out next to a giant nuclear thruster propelling the planet.

Before comeuppance has a chance to, uh, come-up, the earth flies into range of Jupiter. This is a big, though known, hazard since the slightest miscalculation means that Jupiter will just slurp up the earth’s atmosphere (at best) or possibly the whole planet (at worst). I’m not going to spoil it, but there are some interesting twists and turns here, with the main story arc being the reconciliation between the hero and absentee his father, as they work together to literally save the planet.

It’s corny, hokey and preposterous, but it’s fun and it has heart. At 2:05, it doesn’t waste much time. The strong arc, as noted, is between father and son, with a little bit of time for grandfather and little sister. There’s no love interest. There is a nice bit that we see in the best movies where anyone with screen time is given some chance to demonstrate character. All different nationalities have a chance to show their best and worst, with cowards and heroes along the way.

Sure, that red thing is an "eye".
Jupiter turns out to be a real jerk, though.

It’s very good natured. And if you think, as some of you do, that it’s propaganda for a repressive Chinese government, I have to say that every Chinese movie we’ve seen is less anti-America than your average American film.

The CGI is a little dodgy in parts though, as is typical, it generally reads well enough so that you don’t care about the literal realism. Some of the lighting in the dark, frozen outer world is not as sharp as I’d have liked. But overall The Boy and I enjoyed it quite a bit, as did The Boy’s Girl.

The closing titles are cute. It starts with words on a page and I’m thinking “I don’t get it.” Then the earth is traveling through the words on the page and I’m thinking “I’ll still don’t get it.” Then the earth sails through a book and the credits read “Based on the novel by…” and I thought “OHHHHH!” So this was apparently a popular Chinese book. (Update: Nope, just a short story but…ok, it’s still a cool credits scene.) Currently airing on Netflix, so you don’t have to venture out to Monterey Park, as we did.

Cool credits, man!

Young Frankenstein (1974)

For “March Mel-ness”, we were offered four films. (Diane Keaton would end up getting five in May. Can I get a harrumph?) The Producers, which we had just seen. Blazing Saddles, which we had missed previously due to a Marilyn Monroe double feature. And Spaceballs, which I had not seen and had not really heard good things about, though it’s evolved to a sort of cult popularity over time. And then, of course, Young Frankenstein, which we had also just seen but which delighted The Flower so tremendously that she hesitated not at all at a second chance to see it. (“Of course we’re going to see it, dad.”)

Frau Blucher!
But let’s leave the horses at home.

The Barbarienne, who had loved the hell out of Blazing Saddles was also with us this time, and she also loved this film, though perhaps not as much. The Flower and The Boy actually ended up slightly cooler on it this time, which goes to show that a great deal goes into one’s enjoyment of a film that is extrinsic to the film. I noted this profoundly on my last two viewings of Airplane! I had seen it twice in fairly short order, and the first time I laughed a lot while the second I just sort had a pleasant buzz.

I don’t have that much to add to this. It’s startlingly corny, really. I mean, 1974 was the most jaded of years in so many ways. It was the era of porn chic and “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” and first season SNL (which had Jodie Foster as a guest in which she referenced “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road”, which is why I was thinking of that)…and you got these clowns creeping around a lovingly recreated Frankenstein’s castle with swinging bookcases and thunderstorms with 19th century villagers lurking just outside.

At last, sweet mystery of life I've found you...
Madeline Khan, national treasure.

It’s broad, crude and often in poor taste but in a way that’s sort of charming in retrospect. The Flower looks at it this way: Gene Wilder had heart, and he brought that to his projects will Mel Brooks, which grounded those in a winning way. I tend to concur, though I think Mel’s own performances could be quite warm when not ridiculously broad.

It’s practically a worn out trope that he couldn’t make Blazing Saddles today. The sad truth is, he couldn’t make Young Frankenstein either.

Roll in ze hay!
The women are all wives and lovers. Apart from being hilarious, I mean.

The Wedding Guest

From director Michael Winterbottom, the guy who brought you Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull StoryThe TripThe Trip To Italy, and the TV series “The Trip” comes a movie that asks the daring question: What if you had a suspense thriller where all the elements of suspense and thrill were removed? The answer, unfortunately, is less interesting than the question—although on reflection, I guess that sorta makes sense.

Indian formal wear.
And he got dressed up and everything.

The fine Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire) plays Jay, an uninvited wedding guest who turns out to have been hired to kidnap the bride Samira (Radhika Apte, who also starred with Patel in Lion). He does so, though in the process he kills a guard—I guess armed guards are a thing at Indian weddings—and things end up too hot for Jay’s employer, who was Samira’s boyfriend. Along the way there’s more blackmail, murder and flight, though at no point does Winterbottom stoop to lurid scenes of suspense, using dramatic lighting or music to create an air of uncertainty in the audience.

It’s basically a Jay’s story, as he goes from hard-core mercenary to patsy for Samira, a total alpha male who ends up being taken for everything—though he never realizes it, I guess, as he meekly accepts the fate that Samira heaps on him.

Radhika is not impressed by The Boy.
The Boy was not impressed with the cast’s looks.

I’m not being sarcastic or ironic here. That’s the story. And it’s fine, for what it is. Both The Boy and I felt like it was half a movie. In the other half, something would normally be revealed about Jay or Samira that changed the audiences’ view of them as characters, and perhaps that would lead to an exciting cat-and-mouse chase, or a high-tension drama where the two confront each other for their various shortcoming. But no, none of that’s in there. One really does sort of feel like Winterbottom, who wrote the screenplay, thinks anything that sensational is beneath him. We never actually learn anything about Jay’s backstory, nor anything that would lead us to believe he would end up where he does. Kind of frustrating in that regard.

It’s basically good performances that take place on the periphery of the action of another story we don’t see.

If not, move along.
Lotsa shots of Dev staring off into the middle distance. So if that’s your thing: Jackpot!

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959)

According to Wikipedia, 1959 saw the popularization of the sword-and-sandal epic through a smash-hit Italian film distributed in America as Hercules, starring Steve Reeves. No citation is given for this, but one wonders if another little film—you probably haven’t heard of it—called Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was a factor as well. A box-office monster, this film ranks #14 in the all-time adjusted-for-inflation box office—and as I like to point out, the adjusted-for-inflation does not adjust for population. Just as with TV 60 years ago, movies like this had an outsized influence compared to, say, the #15 film Avatar.

It won 11 Oscars, an honor only shared with two other movies, Titanic and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And while Ace’s love of 1982 is not unfounded, 1959 can give any year a run for its money: Some Like It HotNorth by NorthwestRio Bravo, Pillow TalkAnatomy of a MurderImitation of Life, The 400 Blows and on and on. As host Ben Mankiewicz pointed out in his intro, this film was so popular, the merchandising for it was bananas, and for years after it came out. You could even get Ben-His and Ben-Hur robes. As Mankiewicz doesn’t point out, making this movie 10 years later would’ve been utterly unthinkable.

None of us had ever seen Ben-Hur, but not one of us balked at the three-and-a-half-hour running time. (And when movies of yore ran this long, they put in an intermission at least!)

Ramming speed!
TFW you have to pee and you’re not sure when the intermission is coming.

The plot is basically Gladiator, if that film had a fourth act where the hero meets Jesus and comes to eschew revenge. Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is a wealthy Jewish prince whose childhood friend, Messala (Stephen Boyd) has returned to Judea to help put down the rebellious Jews. Miffed by Ben-Hur’s refusal to betray his people, Messala frames him and has him sentenced to a slave galley. Through a twist of fate, Ben-Hur survives the galleys only to become a prominent figure in Rome, whereupon he uses his freedom to return to his homeland in search of revenge. INTERMISSION. (In other words, you still have half the movie to go!)

This movie is jam-packed. There is no padding here. In fact, it feels kind of breakneck, with lots left out—probably due to the fact that it’s based on the 800 page smash-hit book that unseated Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the most popular book of the 19th century. We learn, for example, that Ben-Hur drove chariots in Rome but we never see that. He’s on the galleys for years but we only see a little of that. He journeys from Rome to Jerusalem, where he meets Balthazar and lays the groundwork for the ultimate chariot race—and that’s about all we see of that journey. It’s practically a highlight reel, with no time to spare.

As a result, the acting burden falls primarily on Charlton Heston. We can only experience things through him. He won the Oscar for this role and it’s well-deserved. It was de rigeur to deride his acting skills when I was a kid, and his iconic apocalyptic roles in Soylent GreenPlanet of the Apes and The Omega Man are cheesy—but that ’65-’75 period was a cheesy time. Put Heston in a big, heroic Biblical role like this (or The 10 Commandments) and he shines.

Leena is the Queen of Palestina
The lovely and moving Haya Harareet, a Palestinian from back when “Palestinian” meant “Jew”.

Even so, this movie works because of William Wyler, the director of some of Hollywood’s greatest films, like The Best Years of Our Lives and Roman Holiday, as well as one of the other great religious movies of all time, Friendly Persuasion (which has the most mature treatment of the challenges of faith I’ve seen from a Hollywood film). Wyler had turned down Ben-Hur repeatedly because he wasn’t a Big Spectacle picture kind of guy. Ultimately, producer San Zimbalist convinced him by saying the movie needed intimacy—the spectacle would take care of itself. So Wyler brought the human interest, and let the spectacle take care of itself. (Wyler didn’t even direct the chariot scene!)

And it is a spectacle! A glory of mattes, rear projection, models,  set design and lighting, all skillfully blended give a sense of real time and place. It all reads beautifully, even if it’s not perfect. The long shots of the fleet of galleys are pretty clearly models, and if you’re really paying attention, you can see the little stick figures. But you do have to be looking, for the most part. (I do look because as much as CGI bores me—a bunch of guys like me typing on computers to move pixels around—I love practical effects and all the various crafts involved.)

The chariot race is still spectacular. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road level of breathtaking, with horses and chariots flying everywhere and miraculously no stunt men dying.

White horses, black horses, you figure out who the bad guy is.
Me trying to merge onto the 101 in the morning.

What takes the movie beyond the traditional sword-and-sandals revenge flick is that the chariot race, which is the climactic action set piece of the film is book-ended by Ben-Hur’s redemption, where he realizes revenge isn’t going to save him or restore his mother and daughter. The peripheral-character-in-the-life-of-Jesus trope was a common one for centuries and it is done expertly here. The Flower especially appreciated the trope of never showing His face.

Helluva flick, is what I’m saying. And crazy influential, too, of course. Obviously the inspiration for the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar!, we also couldn’t help but notice that Life of Brian leans heavily on this (and Spartacus) for its portrayals of the Romans in Judea. What sort of surprised me was how some key points of Army of Darkness were echoes of this movie. For instance, the opening narration “My name is Ash, and I’m a slave.” is shot in a very similar way to Ben-Hur’s enslavement and the music cribbing from Miklos Roza’s brilliant score. To say nothing of the bizarre windmill scene where the tiny Ashes yell “Ramming speed!”

Those just leapt out at me. I’m sure a brief review of IMDB’s connections page would reveal much more.

We all loved it, and are primed for next month’s classic: True Grit.

"What's that, sir?"
“Stwike him, Centuwion! Vewy woughwee!”


Alita: Battle Angel

My interest in seeing this film was less than zero and less than Less Than Zero—the grimy and unlikely screen version of Brett Easton Ellis’ novel with Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz and Robert Downey, Jr. I mean, the poster presents the most generic-looking CGI manga-inspired female action hero with freaky-big eyes doing fighty stuff in a blandly porridge-y 2019 way. And the fact that it was directed by Robert Rodriguez (when I discovered that) made it even worse to my mind: Rodriguez is often cheesy, but seldom bland.

Kinda freaky for kidflick, tho'.
Say what you will about this “Spy Kids” makeup, it’s not bland.

Item the first: Weird critical/audience split. Rotten Tomatoes having gone completely into shill territory with Captain Marvel, I’m tentatively trying out Metacritic, but both show “Critics hate it, audiences like or love it.” OK, well, audiences a lot of time like bland action schlock so that’s not super strong—but the split was, at the time, over 30 points, which puts it in the territory of a film containing positive references to Jesus.

Item the second: Word of mouth is consistent and insistent. People like this movie, and fairly insistent that the CGI does not hit you with the uncanny valley effect.

Enough people on the movie thread and Twitter recommended it to me where I decided to take the plunge. The Flower was out, of course, since her taste falls to classics and movies of spiritual interest. The Boy was okay about it, but the way he picked his girlfriend over any actual showing of the film (and who could blame him), I realized it was one of those movies I would never get to if I waited for him. The Barbarienne is up for whatever, usually, but she was against it due to changes made from the manga (which she has not read, but the Internet will happily and angrily inform her of).

So, I, a father of four went alone to Alita: Battle Angel, which probably gets me on an FBI list, or should, anyway.

“My daughter, beware most of all of men who like your manga.”

Irony of ironies: This is basically a YA movie in the vein of Hunger Games or The Giver which, as yaboi Zack points out, probably would’ve felt a lot fresher 25 years ago when it actually ended it’s 5 year manga run. That said, I ended up liking it overall, and it’s definitely worthy of an examination for what it does right.

The story is this: In a dystopic (of course) future world, the peons live on the ground in subservience to the floating sky city Zalem—the last floating city since a war 300 years previous which resulted in all the other floating cities collapsing. Zalem takes the goods that Iron City produces through these giant tubes that look like they’re tethering the thing down, and then dumps its trash out of a big hole in the middle around which the city is congregated. A kind-hearted cyborg repair doctor discovers the remnants of a cyborg in the dump with a still functioning heart and brain, and takes it home to put it in a mechanical body he had made for his own daughter years before.

When she wakes up, she has no memory (natch), and struggles (a little) to adapt to her new surroundings while dealing with flashes of memory and bouts of super-combat-skills. Then we get bounty hunters (good and bad), serial killers, a game called roller—er, motorball, the winner of which supposedly gets to go to Zalem, roving gangs of punks stealing cyborg attachments, a love story, betrayals, an ex-wife redemption arc, interplanetary war backstory, Jeff Fahey with a team of robot dogs, gratuitous Edward Norton and Michelle Rodriguez, and the specifically allowed one instance of the F-word for PG-13 movies.

Also, he got cybernetic implants.
Jackie Earle Haley trained for six months to bulk up for this role!

There’s a lot of story, is what I’m getting at, and I’m sure I’ve left some major points out, as did (wisely) Rodriguez when he trimmed down James Cameron’s script to two hours. Honestly, all that stuff and the story arc is as generic as you’d expect a 30-year-old story from an increasingly over-mined genre to be.

But from go, the filmmakers invest in Alita as a teenage girl. There’s no “is she human or not?” nonsense. She is. She has normal teen reactions despite her brain having been in a junkyard for 300 years. She’s unsure, excitable, emotional, effusive, enthusiastic and quick to jump to the wrong conclusions. And she has freakishly large eyes.

The funny thing is, the eyes largely works to keep you out of the uncanny valley. For me, I know it didn’t completely work because I kept thinking about it—but it worked better than most CGI humanoids. And I think it’s because the big eyes tell your brain that there’s no effort to actually fool you. Meanwhile there are a lot of imperfections and human touches, along with some very good motion capture and voice acting by Rosa Salazar which makes for a compelling heroine.

Betrayal ensues.
At one point, she literally gives her boyfriend her heart.

Chris Waltz is great and does the main emotional heavy lifting apart from Salazar, and their father-daughter dynamic gives you something to really care about. Jennifer Connelly has a less well-developed maternal role to play, but she works it well. Keean Johnson threads the needle as the guy who’s smitten with a girl who can tear him limb-from-limb. In fact, all the characters are nicely drawn, probably because they were developed over six books. Jeff Fahey as the dog-themed bounty hunter and Jackie Earle Haley as the biggest baddie were inspired choices for cool characters.

You can tell that there’s a lot more story behind most of the characters. Besides Connelly, The Iron City boss played by Mahershala Ali and quite a few of the bounty hunters would’ve benefitted from more screen time. But I sincerely, deeply appreciated Rodriguez keeping this tight and giving us an ending that doesn’t feel like a middle finger. It doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, but it’s satisfying enough to not make you feel ripped off.

There are a few hiccups. Sometimes the actors aren’t looking in quite the right place when interacting with Alita, e.g., and occasionally the seams on the CGI show, which didn’t bother me because I feel like Rodriguez (like a lot of Asian filmmakers) is less interested in “looks real” than “looks cool”. (On the other hand, my understanding is this film cost somewhere between $175-$200M, and Cameron’s all about the “real”, but hey, not my money.) Rodriguez also really knows space, which means even his goofiest CGI-tacular affairs tend not to be disorienting, and in this case imbues Iron City with life you didn’t feel in (e.g.) Coruscant. The too-much-for-me-CGI of the motorball game is salvaged by a good sense of space and weight.

So, if you’re like me and have only heard enthusiastic things about this, I’ll temper that somewhat. I liked it, there was much to commend, and I had good feelings about it—but unless you’re in that demo, it’s probably not going to knock your socks off.

But not for long.
Jeff Fahey celebrates National Puppy Day.


Blazing Saddles (1974)

I did not actually see this when it came out.* Because I was not actually Mel Brooks fan. Partly a prejudice inherited from my parents, but largely because his style of humor is very, very broad. In fact, 20 years ago, my oldest buddy—who had seen it at seven—was shocked I hadn’t and purchased a copy for me so we could all view it at home. About a half-hour in (at the campfire/beans scene), we turned it off because literally none of us were laughing.

What a weird, censorious world we live in.
We didn’t want the n—- to get it!

But a funny thing happened over the subsequent decades: Blazing Saddles became increasingly transgressive. With its good-natured, casual racism and less good-natured misanthropy and cynicism regarding government, I began to think the kids would never see it screen publicly in their lifetimes. Then, last year a local theater played it—but against a Marilyn Monroe double-feature—so we missed our chance. But only for a few months, as it turned out. This seems like kind of a big deal to me, that this movie can still be shown—and to a packed laughing house of, yes, millenials in, yes, one of the leftier enclaves of one of the leftiest towns.

I still wasn’t expecting to enjoy it much, and I’m happy to report that I did. We all did, in fact, though curiously, we all rank Mel’s big three (The Producers and Young Frankenstein being the other two) in different orders and none of us with this movie at the top.

The premise is classic: A town is targeted by the greedy Hedley Lamar (Harvey Korman) who wants to buy up the land before the train comes through, and the unsuspecting town needs a sheriff to defend from his evil minions. The twist, of course, is that the sheriff is sent by Lamar to drive them away—not by virtue of any bad action, but by virtue of being black. On the one hand, Walter Moses Burton might have something to say about the likelihood of this, but if there were black sheriffs in the Old West, there weren’t any in the movies about the Old West which this is parodying.

There are worse.
Robyn Hilton had a light movie career consisting entirely of being beautiful and busty.

When sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and his drunken gunslinger pal Jim (Gene Wilder) outsmart him, the evil Hedley sends out his secret weapon, Lili Von Shtupp (Madelin Khan) to seduce him. She, of course, is won over by his prowess, making this the one of at least two movies in 1974 where Khan plays a vamp who is tamed by an enormous schwanzstucker.

The humor can be broken down into a few categories. The political satire (the parts with Mel Brooks himself as Governor Lepetomane) is neither subtle nor clever, though it serves the story well enough. The use of racism is hit-and-miss. The physical comedy works best when it’s paired with absurd visuals, such as when a man (and his horse) are being hanged, and least when it’s in the pratfall/conk-on-the-head level. The anachronisms and meta-jokes are kinda cute. When the production literally breaks out of its soundstage and onto the Warner Bros. lot, that is also very hit-and-miss, but nicely winds back on itself. (Unlike, say, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where you can feel a little cheated because you didn’t get the end of the story.)

But even when I wasn’t laughing, others were. This is the sort of movie that rewards not being easily offended or put off, because there are a lot of good gags, whatever your taste. And for all its heavy-handedness it actually never feels preachy. When your message is “racism is bad” and “politicians are corrupt and lazy”, you really don’t need to spell it out, especially if your subtext is along the line “When you can laugh at things, they’re not really that bad.” There’s also an overarching message of redemption and tolerance, suggesting that we can all live together in peace, even the Irish.

Not at all comfortable!
Madeline Kahn knew how to slip into something more comfortable.

Great performances from Little, Korman, Alex Karras as Mongo, with all the various Johnsons: Jonathan Hillerman (Higgins from “Magnum P.I.”), David Huddleston (the eponymous “Big Lebowski”), Liam Dunn (from Young Frankenstein) as the preacher, and so on. And these people are all dead, as is everyone in this movie except Brooks himself, Burton Gilliam (who still works and went on to be a regular on “Evening Shade”), and the lovely Robyn Hilton, whose last film role (at 44!) had her cavorting around in the most scandalous French maid outfit ever.

Wilder’s performance is outstanding. One of his best, and all done in his lilting soft-spoke voice. He doesn’t shout at all. Madeline Khan is sui generis, of course, as if her performance was never written down and she was just living it on screen for us. I didn’t care for Brooks as the governor, but there was a distinct endearing charm to Brooks as the Indian chief. (Can you say PRAH-BLAH-MATIC?)

At no point in the proceedings do you get the impression that anyone had lost the focus on making an entertaining picture. This movie uses racism (and in some pretty conventional ways) without depending on racism, which is an art lost.

They just did.
These guys had the best chemistry.

*I was also too young to see it but pace Obama, nobody gave a damn in the ’70s if toddlers wandered into R-rated movies.


This was the movie we were going to see when the Russian Tank flick intervened and we ended up having to make a late show in Beverly Hills to get it. But interesting films seem harder and harder to find, even from other countries, and this one had an intriguing, darkly comic premise.

It's all girls in the commercial.
Our hero wearing a costume pilfered from the bugspray commercial he’s doing.

Our hero Hasan is a blacklisted filmmaker who hasn’t been able to make a movie in over two years, relegated to doing bugspray commercials, losing his girlfriend, pissing off his wife (they have an understanding) while a serial killer runs around Iran killing all the great Persian filmmakers.

Hasan is increasingly concerned that he has yet to be targeted while a bunch of hacks are being hacked up (decapitated, specifically) his own genius is going unrecognized. At one point, he has a little breakdown and his mother reassures him that soon the killer will be coming for him. But all this is played out against a social media backdrop that Hasan doesn’t really understand and increasingly views as a hostile entity gunning for him. Ultimately, it becomes his goal to be validated in that consciousness, the Instagram world where random strangers accuse him of the most heinous crimes.

He has a stalker, too. A friend of his daughter wants to be in his movies and at least feigns attraction to him. (He’s not interested, though you can sorta see the wheels turning on that one.) But even that story is diverted by the power of social media.

Even Iran has millennials..
This girl maybe thinks HE’s the killer—but gotta get that all-important selfie.

The opening sequence has girls in hijabs running down the sidewalk taking Instagram selfies. Iran is weird. The presence of tyranny results in a kind of inchoate fear (as in Hasan’s inability to get a movie made for pissing off some cleric somewhere, presumably) mixes with the general incompetence of the oppressors and the irrepressibly modern Persian spirit and creates a sense of surrealism whether presented in a grim way or a comic one.

Despite the heavy-handed satire, director Mani Haghighi leans more toward the slapstick than the pretentious even when dabbling in a moment of cinematic surrealism: Hasan is arrested on suspicion of the murders—in Iran when you are arrested, they apparently don’t just handcuff you, they blindfold you—and then thrown in to solitary confinement for an undetermined period of time. Hasan is a big heavy metal fan—his wardrobe seems to consist entirely of shorts and heavy-metal-themed t-shirts—and begins to hallucinate being a guitarist, on stage, performing a song with full band and backup singers.

This is broken by guards letting him out of his cell, and dumping him out in the desert. Apparently because when you’re released in Iran, regardless of being cleared, they drop you off in the middle of nowhere. Later, this turns out to have been a dream, though Hasan holds it against the relatively fair-minded detective on his case for the rest of the movie.

Not for long, tho'.
The girl who throws him over for a bigger part with a working director.

Much like 50 Kilos, this movie veers between near-slapstick level comedy to grim (in this case very black) humor, and if never quite reaches the sublime level, it’s still a fun, rollicking way to spend 1:40. We were glad we saw it.


To Dust

A Hasidic cantor with two sons loses his wife and becomes obsessed with her transition back “to dust”. His obsession leads him to a community college biology professor who joins him on his unorthodox journey to grasp death and its meanings.

This is the sort of film that The Boy and I used to live off in the pre-Trump/pre-SJW era. It’s an odd, low-key, funny and sensitive character study with Géza Röhrig (Saul in Son of Saul) as Shmuel, the widower and Matthew Broderick as Albert, the middle-aged teacher living an aimless, lonely life.

Shmuel is skeptical.

The freshman feature from writer/director Shawn Snyder, I began to wonder early on if it was perhaps inspired by a personal experience (whether by him or co-writer Jason Begue). The year is not fixed but I would guess it to be the early ’80s, and Shmuel’s pre-pubescent sons are enduring his madness by coming up with interesting explanations for his late night adventures—namely, he’s been possessed by the dybbuk of his late wife. That whole subplot felt very authentic.

The story begins when, after the funeral, Shmuel begins visualizing his wife’s corpse rotting. He sees her toe split and then blossom like a rose. This is a little disturbing to see, and probably off-putting to some audiences, but helps us understand what Shmuel is going through.

He ends up interrogating Albert on the state of body decomposition. This is another sign of the early ’80s, because Albert doesn’t really know much about it, and today anybody who’s ever seen an episode of “CSI” is an expert. He teaches biology and, y’know, the circle of life and all that, but he’s never really dug into the nitty gritty.

It gets weird.
Shmuel tries to explain things by taking his boys out on a boat and it’s almost as awkward as the Godfather II.

Shmuel’s not thinking all that clearly, and his misunderstanding leads him to bury a pig in the woods. Albert then chides him for doing it all wrong, since he got the pig from a Chinese restaurant and it had already been cleaned.

All this stuff that Shmuel does, by the way, is a sin in his Hasidic world. He becomes increasingly troubled as a result.

Albert’s journey is a different one: As a classic “modern guy”, divorced, in a dead-end job teaching dumb students stuff they don’t want to know, he first finds some meaning in being an authority to the hapless Shmuel. But by the end of the movie—a bold attempt to get into Dr. Bass’ Body Farm—it’s become more personal. The two are friends, even if that friendship is unusual by both their communities’ standards.

Punctuated with nice comedic and dramatic moments, like the boys trying to exorcise the dybbuk from their father’s big toe, and a reticent but resonant interview with the demure midwestern widow Shprintzel (a nice little piece for the actress Isabelle Phillips’ reel), it’s classic movie making: A story about people, flawed for sure, but basically good, struggling to make sense out of life.

You might have a chance to see this. Although it’s only in a couple dozen theaters nationwide, it does seem to have legs so it may travel around for awhile rather than just disappearing.

The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it.

Mmmm. Ham.
Pig enthusiasts may object to some scenes.


We were hyped up to see this Iranian movie, Pig, but competing against it at the same time was a movie about Russian tank drivers in WWII. One showing only so off we went. (We would hit a late showing of Pig the next week.) One of our theater pals told us that they had received a few angry phone calls threatening protests if they dared show this Russian Propaganda! They went ahead and showed it, and we live in very silly times.

I mean, they’ve been showing Russian films there off-and-on for years and nobody has ever cared before but I guess in the era of Trump! and Collusion! it’s now an issue.

Often! But not always.
Tanks don’t always mean freedom.

But The Boy and I were glad to catch this fun Russian version of Fury, though it does grow wearying that every country in the world gets to be patriotic but ours. The Soviets, who treated their own troops (and everyone else’s) like fodder, don’t feel the need to insert that little datum into their WWII movies. It’s all “glory-to-mother-Russia, tovarisch” and “yay for us, we killed the Nazis” without so much as a mention of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

I’m just gonna reiterate that: Even the Russians who allied with the Nazis until the Nazis turned on them don’t feel the need to drag out all their dirty laundry for a fun war movie.

And it is fun. Our hero is a Russian tank team captain who beats the odds by taking out six German tanks on his first day, but who ends up being captured with his team and sent to a POW camp where, a few years later, he’s recruited to drive the new T-34 Russian tank in war games to train German Panzer crews how to fight against them better.

Preposterous, of course, and not the least surprising that the Russians outsmart their German captors to destroy the opposing tanks and flee across country to safety. It’s a fairytale but it’s a patriotic one, and Russians have a right to it, even if parts of it (the Communist-heavy parts) make me a little queasy.

Tank humor.
“Tanks are so dumb! I can’t ev—they’re right behind me, aren’t they.”

Setting aside nationalism for good and bad, this whole thing works thanks to writer/director Alexy Sidorov’s light touch, and deft hand at communicating the intricacies of tank battle in a convincing fashion. We get to learn about our tank team, and we get to see them bond as buds in a manly fashion. This is presented unreservedly and unabashedly as is the decidedly (lightweight, to be sure) heterosexual romance.

I mean, we don’t really ask for much. We’re not hard to please. If I want to be critical, I guess I could say that the romance is very lightweight, which you can attribute to the fact that the two principles are in a POW/concentration camp on the one hand, but on the other hand is also done completely sincerely. It’s a very WWII-era thing, the war-time romance is. I’m not gonna knock it.

The CGI reminded me of that seen in Chinese movies: It doesn’t seem to be overly obsessed with “realism” but more about reading properly. The set pieces of the film are, naturally, tank battles, and these are made exciting by panning out to give a sense of the physical space that the action is happening again. Although it occasionally reminds me of the classic Atari “Tank Wars” game, overall it creates a feel like a modern version of the old “I’m traveling, as you can see by the line moving on this map” effect.

In other words, you know what’s going on, and you can see the danger, so you’re less concerned about whether it looks “real”.

It would look good on a motivational poster.
And you thought YOU were having a bad day!

Another thing that was done was slo-mo tank shots. In this case, the point was generally to make clear the trajectories of the shells which would otherwise NOT be clear. The Boy regarded this CGI favorably and felt that it was probably well researched: Like tank shells probably did bounce off the ground sometimes and come up underneath; or they probably did occasionally scrape by each other in mid-air. Can’t swear that any of it happened, but it felt real enough.

Another very realistic-feeling thing was the impact of shells on the armor of the tank. It wouldn’t hurt the tank, but it would hurt the guys inside the tank a great deal. Their ears would be ringing for minutes afterward. At one point, the impact was so great that it seemed to knock some of them out. Again, that seems realistic, and if it’s not, well, at least it’s exciting.

So, if it was silly on some level, it was for trying to tell a kind of upbeat, patriotic story—I wanna emphasize again that this is a Russian movie. Russians must battle out with Finns for the most morose of Caucasian cultures, right? Even outright Russian propaganda films tend to be kind of dark, like Sergei Eisenstein or, hell, Stalker. This movie eschews death for heroic invulnerability, and I’m okay with all of that.

I say if the Russians can do it, so can we. Let’s get on this, America!

We can do anything except make those earflap hats look cool. Only Russians can do that.

My Fair Lady (1964)

I was a little surprised to discover that the running time for My Fair Lady was nearly three hours, and while that had no impact on my determination to see it, I had a slight concern about The Boy and The Flower. Slight, but not much, since they embraced Gone With The Wind, and when The Boy and I saw Lawrence of Arabia we both agreed we could turn around and see that again. (The latter film is coming around again this year—I don’t know what the contrived anniversary is, maybe Claude Rains’ 130th birthday?—and I imagine we’ll all see and enjoy it again.) But while I’ve seen this movie once thirty years ago on a 20″ TV, it became an instant favorite and the music is largely seared—seared!—into my memory.

Go figger.
Except for the bath scene struck me as kind of awful.

Watching it this time, I got why: The most iconic songs are very simple, sometimes with only two verses that are repeated over and over (“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?”), but always with a catchy hook (“Get Me To The Church On Time”, “With A Little Bit Of Luck”). I remembered a whole lot given how long ago I last saw it. There’s probably a lesson there for aspiring show-tune writers.

There’s a kind of odd frustration for me here: I love Rex Harrison’s performance but I feel like we’re missing out on some great melodies because he speak-sings them all. And I have mixed feelings about Marni Nixon dubbing Audrey Hepburn. I think it makes sense, probably, but I’d take an alternate track on a DVD where Audrey’s singing is there just for the experience. (She recorded all or most of the songs before they called in Marni.) Audrey (35) is too old for the role, and Rex (58) is positively ancient, but none of that matters. (The Flower pointed out that Audrey looking a bit older helps bridge the gap, because Rex would look like 20-year-old Hepburn’s grandfather.)

This, if you don’t know, is the story of a linguist who takes a common flower girl and, by the power of changing her accent, passes her off as a lady at the highest circles.

Step one in turning a flower girl into a lady: Find the flower girl who is Audrey Hepburn.

Henry Higgins (Harrison) is pretty much a monster throughout this movie. He’s arrogant in the extreme, and cold, though when it comes to it he’s actually sort of offended if anyone responds to him in kind. At the end of the movie, he’s slightly less awful, but not a lot.

This is a recurring theme we’ve noticed lately: Characters are flawed, but rather than being destroyed or shunned, people reach out to them. It’s not a thing in modern movies. This is one of the more extreme examples. Higgins is not mildly disrespectful of poor Eliza Doolittle, he refers to her as a “creature”—he very much objectifies her. And about all you can say for him is that he kind of does it with everyone, to varying degrees. The ending is oddly optimistic: You know Higgins is going to be a bastard but he’ll bad and make it up to her, eventually.

The Flower said, “Wow, between this and The Music Man, ‘The Family Guy’ ripped off everything.” It’s true. Stewie’s actually based on Rex Harrison. I think a mix of him and Hannibal Lecter.

It's a good mix.
The Flower approved of the ’60s fashions being channeled into the classier costumes of the gilded age.

The second act crisis is near archetypal perfection. The plan has been a complete success, everything’s gone off without a hitch, and Eliza is increasingly alienated by Higgins’ self-congratulatory celebrations and failure even to recognize her own contributions to this. So at the height of material success, the movie reaches its emotional nadir. And the forlorn former flower girl wanders around her old haunts realizing she can’t really go back to that way of life and her new way of life is oriented around women who could be little more than trophies. (I’m a little vague on the state of her young suitor. Apparently he has no money of his own, so I guess either he would be disowned for marrying her or he was from one of those lordly descendants who had only family connections and no money.)

He loves her, though. And she would work to support him. Something about this feels disastrously like her fathers’ many relationship but, more importantly, she doesn’t really love him however taken with his kindness she is.

Or women, tbh.
There are not a lot of KIND men in this movie.

The Flower gasped at a few of Audrey Hepburn’s gowns. And the excesses of the ’60s are tempered by the desire to create a “gilded age” impression, so some things work startlingly well, like the very mod-styled Ascot race with all the fancy clothes in black-and-white.

The Flower said she had a little trouble imagining Julie Andrews in the role but of course Andrews made the role…and then ended up winning the Oscar for Mary Poppins that year. I think they were planning for Cary Grant in the Rex Harrison role but he said he wouldn’t even go see the movie if they didn’t use Harrison, at least per Ben Mankiewicz.

Well, no one complained about the length. It’s really a very tight movie, for all that. Everything serves a purpose and shows some aspect of character or plot. And it ends up with a very epic feel for all the intimacy of the story.

Obviously recommended.

But lovable?
The Happy Ending: Higgins is still a class-A jerk.

Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission

When The Boy and I walked out of the theater from this one, we had never been more proud to be Koreans.

Which, of course, you know. But the point is, I grew up in an America where patriotism was corny at best and in bad taste at worst. Now it’s considered racism and Nazi-ism. Ironic, I suppose, given America’s role in WWII, but there is a pervasive and persistent meme that has America turning into the bad guys instantly after winning the war. (The Soviets started it and lives a life long after we have buried them.)

Without us, these guy’s’d be speaking Japanese.

It’s not surprising then, that you if you want to see a pro-America movie, it has to come from a different country (like last year’s Detective Chinatown 2). Even if it’s just marketing, people of other countries figure Americans like to hear good things about their own country. Truer than you might think, but less true than you’d hope in a time when a substantial portion of the population seems bent on destroying the country.

Now, Koreans? They got none of that.

Even in a damned historical zombie movie, it’s only Love Of Korea that’s going to carry the day—no matter how weak the the leaders are and how corrupt the government, and no matter how thoroughly under Japan or China’s thumb they are.

There's a lot of it.
They keep the “hentai” in the basement.

We like that. You know, I love that, in America, you can talk about how much you hate America. But it’s way overdone in the arts, and so bad that you can’t even count on the President of the United States being a booster. (The Flower still talks about my “malaise speech” rant.)

In this movie, the Japanese are in their 33rd year of occupying Korea. The situation is so dire, some Koreans think this is the new normal, and Japanese have been carrying out their program of cultural genocide by forbidding schools to teach Korean. Some Korean children have never spoken anything but Japanese. (They are being raised to be imperial cannon fodder in the less cultural part of the genocide.)

Enter into this a brave lexicographer, who runs one of the last allowed Korean language magazines, and who is being pressured by his father to join the Japan-Korea alliance—another front in the war against Korean culture. He and his ragtag group are assembling words from all the many dialects of Korean, and trying to create a “standard Korean” from that. This is difficult given the Japanese are inclined to kill anyone trying to preserve Korean culture.

The unlikely hero of the piece is an illiterate petty thief, who accidentally swipes the unfinished dictionary when he steals our lexicographer’s briefcase. The lexicographer tracks him down and fetches the contents back, but this begins a relationship when it turns out the team’s eldest member knows the thief from a stint he did in jail. Not surprisingly, most of the dictionary team have family members in jail and/or have been there themselves.

And other parts.
He literally saves this guy’s ass.

As a result our thief ends up helping around the office and learning to read and write. Meanwhile, the pressure is on: The Japanese shut down all the remaining Korean papers, and a raid results in one member of the team being captured and tortured and much work being destroyed, to say nothing of the trust of the team members.

At the same time, the team has to finish ASAP, or they may never finish.

Even our humble thief is getting pressure at home: His son (who’s around 13), desperate for his dad to stay out of jail, doesn’t want to speak Korean at home. (He gets beaten for lapses at school.) He doesn’t want dad to teach his baby sister Korean, either.

Not bad.
Shopping for glasses in occupied WWII-era Korea.

It’s more exciting than you might think a book about putting together a dictionary would be. And in classic Korean style, incompetent bureaucracy and foreign tyrants war with the People Of Korea, who are not limited to the rich, or the middle class, or even non-felons.

And you don’t really know if the dictionary is going to get made (unless you’re more familiar with Korean history than I am) or which characters are going to live or die. I assume most of the liberties were taken with the dramatic aspects. Other Korean movies we’ve seen have offered fanciful takes on well-known (to Koreans) historical events.

We decided we may have enjoyed the comedy cop flick a little better, but there is a value to patriotism, to racial/tribal pride, and even to nationalism, and it’s just not something that can be found in modern American movies.

It’s not that we mind re-watching Frank Capra, Michael Curtiz, et al. But there should be somebody out there now making movies that celebrate our country.

No, it's good, really!
THRILL to the harsh grading of spelling papers!

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

In a lot of ways, while the Brothers Warner haven’t been able to cash in on the recent sweet, sweet superhero money, they have done a good job counter-programming against it. In a world where superheroes are grim, pseudo-adult fare, movies like Teen Titans Go! To The MoviesThe Lego Batman Movie and the original Lego Movie manage to poke fun at both the current over-serious genre and the notion that being adult means having to take everything seriously.

That said, like the other films, I wouldn’t have gone to see The Lego Movie 2 if not for the Barbarienne.

It's not THAT bad. But it's bad.
She has the same blank expression I have when I try to remember the first movie.

In this movie, Legoland is devastated by enemies from the Sister System who are trying to hasten the Armapocalypse? Ourmomapocalypse? The end of the world. When all the gritty, grim characters are kidnapped, it’s up to the lovable, happy Emmet to save the day, which venture he approaches by enlisting the help of Rex Dangervest, a gritty, grimy roguish type who teaches him how to be a tough guy.

It’s cute. It’s not nearly as funny as the first one to be sure, but it’s also less frantic feeling. Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, directors of the first movie, are recently more famous for having been pulled off Solo: A Star Wars Story (which I had to type multiple times because it kept coming Soylo: A Soy Wars Soyry) and perhaps for being producers on the Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, which feels very influenced  by the Lego movies.

It's a girl. That's all I remember.
Who’s behind the mask? Honestly, I’ve already forgotten.

This also maybe suffers a bit because you know going in what the gag is. The Toy Story-ish relationship between the real world and the Lego world is even more tenuous than Toy Story and raises a bunch of questions that the movie glides over quickly, hoping you won’t think about it too long. This also means that the real-world resolution didn’t bite as much as it might’ve. I was, however, touched by the resolution—but then I’m a sap for these sorts of things.

They got new kids for the kids. Maya Rudolph plays mom. Will Ferrell’s voice plays dad. Chris Pratt is Emmet, Elizabeth Banks is Lucy, Will Arnett is Batman, Jason Momoa plays Aquaman (heh), and Bruce Willis does a really poor imitation of…himself. Seriously, I thought they got an imitator. But Die Hard was 30 years ago, maybe he doesn’t remember what he sounded like.

There are worse ways to spend 1:40, especially watching a kidflick. Very little in the way of scatological humor, which was nice. The next one comes out, The Barbarienne will probably be too old to care, so that’s…well, that’ll probably make me cry.

Or just a Bruce Willis movie?
So, I guess “The Lego Movie 2” is a Christmas movie?

They Shall Not Grow Old

Since the passing of the pass of movie, The Boy and I have been AMC stubs/A-list/whatever-they-call-it members. Membership is $20/month and you can see up to three movies a week for free. The trick, the catch, the fly in the ointment and the monkey in the wrench…that’s finding three movies in a month at AMC, especially given this does not cover any of the things we usually go to the AMC for: Rifftrax, TCM Big Screen Presents, and the Hayao Miyazaki revivals. AMC tickets around here are so expensive, $12.50 for a matinee, that you only need to see two movies to make your $20/month back, and we’ve probably managed that for three of the six months we’ve had it. (One Chinatown triple feature makes up for a lot, though.)

So, what a delight to find an actual film—by Peter Jackson, no less!—that we wanted to see and which, while it was in 3D and a documentary, did not disappoint on every frame.

Great job.
Hardly ANY of the frames were disappointing.

This is a documentary about English soldiers in WWI. It is told entirely in their words, with recording made in the ’70s, and using only archival footage (from a specific source). It’s a moving and intimate portrait of what some have called “The Dumbest War”. (Where “some” is “me”.) There is no narrator, so the movie sort of floats from the beginning of the conflict to the end, without any sense of progress, really, which while highly abbreviated also feels very real. If you’re in the trenches of the war, you often don’t know what’s going on, whether the end is near or even who’s winning.

As a result it’s a kind of unique experience, and less documentarian than one expects out of movie like this. You don’t get facts and figures, or even much in the way of geography: This is all focused on France and trenches. You learn less about The Great War, perhaps, than you do about war, generally. I can’t really think of another film like it, and I can’t really find fault with it.

After the movie proper there is a “making of” feature with Peter Jackson explaining what they did to the footage to bring it to life and how they selected the audio tapes, and how they organized the moving footage (most of it) with the occasional stills (mostly of dead bodies, as it stands out in my mind). This was a tremendous cap to the film.

It's not going to end well.
These guys are all about to charge over that ridge.

When you’re watching, it’s pretty clear that the film has been colorized (though you can’t be sure, it’s done so well, and there was color film back in the day), and some depth has been added as well. (This is the least annoying 3D movie I’ve ever seen.) When the sound comes on, you’re sort of amazed, because sound recording, while not impossible, would’ve been very challenging in a war zone.

But of course Jackson has recreated the sound. In an era of “bad lip reading”, his conception of how the sound would be is very, very convincing. In one case, he found the speech being read by the subject. A soldier saying “Hi, mum,” is utterly charming and both expected and unexpected. Actually, the inability of the soldiers to ignore the cameras is charming, a la The Wizard of Oz. Less charming is that these people in many case died shortly after the footage.

I did spot the tactic of showing people in the movie and then showing stills of the corpses similar looking people. Like all of this stuff, it’s fairly moving and gives a sense of things. It’s literal but non-specific, is probably how I’d describe it.

People were not, in fact, in black-and-white.
It also seems more lively, more true-to-life.

On the three point scale:

  1. Obviously the material is worthwhile and the attitudes on display are interesting and noteworthy.
  2. The presentation is amazing: A fascinating use of state-of-the-art film technology.
  3. Slant: None that I could see. Not even an anti-war slant, really. At points, the soldiers are saying, “When we weren’t fighting, at times it was just like camping out with the boys.”

Probably the least surprising aspect of the film was discovering that Peter Jackson is a hoarder. When they’re getting the colors for the uniforms, well, of course he happens to have a few WWI English and German uniforms lying around for reference. Need to know what a WWI cannon looks like up close…well, he’s got a couple of those, too. (Though not working, since they had to use modern artillery for the sounds.)

Worth watching and worth watching for the making-of feature, too.

Tanks! For the memories!
I think Jackson had these in his garage.

Stormy Weather (1943)

It’s black history month and that means—well, probably that we’re not going to be super interested in the throwbacks. Next year, I’ll see if I can’t encourage them to feature blaxploitation flicks. I don’t think they’d go for our other idea, which was a “Blackface History Month”. You could show some great movies: The Jazz Singer and Holiday InnBirth of a Nation, too, but I think it would be more fun if you showed movies where blackface was highlighted positively.

Intriguingly enough, Stormy Weather is a movie you could show for blackface history month. Although it’s mostly song-and-dance, there is a rather funny comedy bit in the middle where two friends have a conversation without ever finishing a sentence, and the two light-skinned performers black up before going on.

Miller and Lee do their funny bits in blackface.

Life is complicated. History, being all the lives that have gone before, especially so.

This isn’t so much a musical as it is a hyper-condensed musical review. It has the very rough shape of a typical musical: Bill Robinson plays a guy who gets back from WWI and falls in love with Lena Horne (because, duh) but hasn’t made a name for himself so he goes off to do that, the two run into each other again and Lena gets him a spot in the show she’s in, and ultimately the two go on to great success only to break up because Bill wants to settle down and Lena doesn’t.

Well, of course Bill wants to settle, he’s 65 years old. Lena’s only 26! (And neither of them age in the slightest between 1918 and 1943!)

And look at those dresses!
What’s a few decades between living legends?

The age difference never comes up because it doesn’t matter: This is an excuse for some of the greatest musicians and performers to do their thing and that’s what they do. If it’s not “great” in the traditional musical-movie sense, it is basically 76 minutes of sheer delight, most of which has been cut into individual bits and put on YouTube over the years. The Flower, for example, had seen Fats Waller’s numbers (“That Ain’t Right”, “Ain’t Misbehavin'”) and The Boy and/or The Flower had seen the Nicholas Brothers’ stunning dance number.

Speaking of problematic, besides the blackface, there’s an African primitive number. Heh. Why, it’s almost like, at a time when racism was a far more serious concern, people were much less sensitive to nonsense.

Cab Calloway, possibly my favorite bandleader of the era, wears an amazing zoot suit for his number. (The Flower did not care for that particular fashion.)

Remember that?
I confess, it reminds me of the MGM wolf.

When he’s roped back into performing—the basic gimmick being that he gets to see Lena’s heartfelt rendition of the titular song—he’s lured in by someone saying “It’s for the soldiers.”

“Anything for the soldiers!”

It stuck out, you know? I mean, obviously this is WWII, but having just seen Mal-Mo-E, I realized that we no longer have the actual language to be patriotic and grateful for our own country. You can argue—not without basis—that Robinson’s patriotism was a virtual requirement for a movie of the time. Nonetheless, the language was there and it was delivered sincerely.

Anyway, it’s an amazing little time capsule and worth watching if you have any interest in the music of the period.

A movie of moments.
I could post great scenes from it all day.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The new office puts The Boy and I within striking distance of some of the usually hard-to-get-to theaters, and this created the felicitous circumstance where we actually able to see the Coen brothers’ new movie on the Big Screen, instead of just on Netflix. As a rule-of-thumb, I don’t watch movies on TV, but as another rule of thumb, I see all the Coen brothers’ movies. The former was winning over the latter until this fortuitous day.

There’s another rule of thumb: Anthology movies suck. This is in conflict with yet a fourth rule of thumb (I’m all thumbs!), to wit: Coen brothers’ movies are great.

That's him singing!
Tim Blake Nelson does not have a stunt yodeler this time.

The greatest anthology movie I’ve ever seen was 2014’s Argentine/Spanish movie Wild Tales. I may have even remarked at the time that it was the only good anthology I’d ever seen, but that’s a bit less defensible. Nonetheless, it is typically the case of anthology films that there is one good, well-developed story—often the longest story—that is not quite long enough to be a feature, and which is then padded out with some lesser stuff, sometimes things that don’t rise much about a shaggy dog story.

Now, we really liked this movie, but I feel like a lot of people are going to have the aforementioned reaction to it: Some of the stories are very good, and some are weaker. But I also feel like there won’t be broad agreement as to which is which.

Of the six stories here, we have the full range of Coen: The opening story is a broadly comic mashup with Tim Blake Nelson as a singing cowboy—who’s also a cold-blooded gunslinger. (Think Raising Arizona.) The second story is darkly comic features James Franco as a bank robber who escapes the noose only to find himself in even deeper (?) water. (I’d say A Serious Man, though with more insouciance.)

Have some dignity, man!

The third story has Liam Neeson as an impresario to an armless/legless actor (Dudley from Harry Potter!) who turns out record crowds as they travel around the West…at least for a while. (This feels sorta Miller’s Crossing.) The fourth story has Tom Waits as a prospector who finds a big vein of gold in a beautiful but isolated land. If I had to relate it, tone-wise, it might best fit No Country For Old Men, though it’s not as bleak.

The fifth story takes place on the Oregon Trail, and is a tale of hardship and romance, reminiscent of True Grit (down to the characters’ refusal to use contractions in their speech). The last story is basically a ghost story which probably calls Blood Simple to mind as much as anything.

So, you know, if you like their funny movies, the first two stories, and maybe the last are going to be more to your liking than the middle ones. I might say I liked “The Gal Who Got Rattled” (the Oregon Trail one) the most, because it’s a funny sort of love story that really throws into contrast life then versus life now. But it’s really hard to compare them one to the next because they are very different (apart from their innate Coen-ness).

She does so well, too, up to a point.
Zoe Kazan gets rattled.

We found the Liam Neeson one (“Meal Ticket”) the least interesting, perhaps because it played out exactly as we expected it to. The Tom Waits shouldn’t have been as interesting as it was, given that it’s mostly just one guy occasionally talking to himself.

The last one is odd-in-that-Coen-way because it’s not really a ghost story, or not exactly a ghost story. It’s much like the Dybbuk story at the front of “A Serious Man” and Brendan Gleeson (CalvaryThe Guard) and Jonjo O’Neill (Defiance) as the Irishman and the Englishman, respectively, spell out the Coen philosophy.

Nobody knows anything. (Pace Eddie Mannix.) If you think you know what’s going on, wait five minutes, and the tide will turn. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is moments of clarity where we briefly get a glimpse of the machinations of fate. Or, even if we don’t understand those machinations, we may be favored by them.

That was Waits, right?
Last time I remember seeing Tom Waits in a film, it was Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

In this last story, the Irishman and the Englishman are bounty hunters on board a stagecoach with three other passengers. The stagecoach never stops till it reaches its destination. The five argue increasingly metaphysical points, with the Englishman saying:

Englishman: I must say, it’s always interesting watching them after Clarence has worked his art. Watching them negotiate the passage.
Frenchman: Passage?
Englishman: From here to there. To the other side. Watching them try to make sense of it, as they pass to that other place. I do like looking into their eyes as they try to make sense of it. I do. I do.
Trapper: Try to make sense of what?
Englishman: All of it.
Lady: And do they ever succeed?
Englishman: [smiles] How would I know? I’m only watching!

And at the end, the reluctance of the three other passengers to follow the Englishman and the Irishman into the spooky hotel suggests that they’re all dead. But if they’re all dead, what was the corpse that the two bounty hunters took into the hotel? It doesn’t work!

But then, I don’t think it’s supposed to. They just like looking into our eyes as we try to make sense of it. They do. They do.

I, for one, was not fooled. In particular, I was not fooled by the central conceit that The Ballad of Buster Scruggs was a real-live book with color plates and published long ago. These are original Coen stories, except for “All Gold Canyon” which is a Jack London story, and “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, which was “inspired by” a story by Stewart Edward White.

Great performances. I thought Jonjo O’Neill gave the best performance I ever saw out of Paul Rudd. (I kept looking at him thinking, “Is that Paul Rudd? He’s doing great here!”) Harry Melling does an amazing job without arms and legs. Zoe Kazan (the gal who ends up quite rattled indeed) manages to be appealing in a movie designed to make nobody look very good. (The Old West was dirty.)

Carter Burwell’s score, six of them really, each as different from the others as the stories themselves, is spot on. His score for “The Gal” feels very Randy Newman-esque, though perhaps more owing to the Newmeister’s love of old-style orchestration and folksy melodies.

We could see it again. If it comes out closer to home, we’ll take The Flower, in fact. It won’t change anyone’s minds about the Coen brothers, though.

The Frenchman, the Lady and the Trapper on their way to…?

Your Name Is Rose (Rosebud)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wacky misunderstanding about to be cleared up?

Extreme Job

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


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

They do this ALL the time.
Caught you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They're good at...things.

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

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

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

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

Groundhog Day (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

I said it.
Trees are jerks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, as I said, I am biased.

The Thing (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody wants to get TOO scared.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cliffhanger (1993)

I have a new favorite Renny Harlin movie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

I think Cuaron is represented by the oldest of the boys.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean.
Also, happy ending!

Fargo (1996)

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

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

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

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

I swear.
Unrelated picture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Mule

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

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

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

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

She's not unattractive.
Father and daughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll stick with Superman.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can he be otherwise?
Vincent Cassel bein’ evil.

Anna and the Apocalypse

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

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

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

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

But with singing and dancing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

This is probably always true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Airport (1970)

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

“Roger!” “Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

Inspired by the actual incident.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times wuz hard.
Spanish flu was a bitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Favourite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I need a powdered wig.
Those fashions, though.

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

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

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

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

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

Gremlins (1984)

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

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

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

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

I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And better.
The muppets did it first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schindler’s List (1993)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tells a story!
Look at that composition!

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

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

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

The Sound Story

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

See, 'cause he has the microphones...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serves you right.
Horns that you blow at yourself.

Earthquake (1974)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s commitment to the craft.

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

Elf (2003)

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

Some induced eyerolls (and worse) from day 1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The littlest.
Little criminals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not for everyone, obviously, but interesting.

Hang on tight.
Stability is fleeting.

Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MST3K Live! The 30th Anniversary Tour: The Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The jury’s out, in other words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoah: The Four Sisters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ada Lichtman and her dolls.

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

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

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

On the beach in...Florida?
Paula Biren

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

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

Lanzmann with Hanna Marton

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

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

To sum up on the three point Moviegique documentary scale:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2: Why Didn’t We Like It?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Die Hard (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody regretted going to see it again.

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

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WarGames (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right on.
Power To The People! 👏!👏!

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

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

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

There are some good nostalgia points:

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

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

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

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

And! Cut to credits!

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

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

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

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

Rifftrax: Krull

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Figure of Crime

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He negotiates for glasses that turn dark in the sun.

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

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

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

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

Worth a watch, definitely.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rifftrax: Space Mutiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insidious: The Last Key

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Invisible Man (1933)

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

Who's there? Who knows!
Classic entrance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lady Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 15:17 To Paris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a portrayal you get much.

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

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


Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a Halloween image for you.

Dead Snow (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How evil are they?
These dead are evil.

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

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

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

Friday the 13th (1980)

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

Pictured: Not Betsy Palmer’s hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flower said it was wrong, but she laughed.

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

I Saw The Devil (2010, Korea)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is fine.

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

A girl about to do something that almost works.

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe that’s just “movie magic”.

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

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

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

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

Black Sabbath (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still quality Boris.
Late era Boris.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Beetlejuice (1988)

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

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

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

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

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

Lovably incompetent ghost doofs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teen Titans Go! To The Movies

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

Also, I kind of wanted to see this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

Handsome psychos.
Conchita beginning to have some doubts.

Also, the orphanage is haunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Negotiation

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

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

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

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

Completely unsupportable.
Oh, is that what you heard?

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Shining (1980)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholson looks almost normal in ’20s attired.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yang Man-chun, it seems, defied the general and refused to bring his troops to the battle (where they would’ve been slaughtered). Our hero goes back to his homeland—his people are dead for some reason, however—and ingratiates himself into the chain of command. The two spies who are with him are summarily executed, but he is left alive and actually becomes the flag-bearer and right-hand man to Yang Man-chun—who knows exactly why he’s there.

Man-chun’s crack squad of chick crossbowmen.

Yang Man-chun undergoes a lot of struggle and doubt on his mission, as you might imagine, but of course he is won over by loyalty to his home town, and to Man-chun who claims to never have been disloyal, only sensible. The siege of Ansi is colorful and exciting, with some great historical material which (The Boy and I thought) was probably wholly anachronistic. But this is meant to be fun, and stirring, not a documentary and the movie lets you know this early on.

Man-chun’s daughter is the head of his all-female crossbow corp, who’s also in love with the head of the elite swordsmen. The head of the elite swordsmen has personality conflicts with the dual-axe-wielding barbarian squad. The town oracle, captured by the Tang, is the former girlfriend of Yang Man-chun has visions of the future which start with the defeat of the Chinese—but end with the fall of Ansi, and with treachery. Oh, and there’s a magic bow of legend no one can pull.

It’s just fun of the sort that we’re not allowed to have any more in the USA. (300 is just one of a great many stirring historical events which are not permissible in the current environment.)  We loved it, and probably enjoyed it the best of the three films, though Fengshui was also a strong contender for best of the day.

I liked the actors, but I didn’t really recognize them except the gorgeous Seol-Hyun Kim (Memoir of a Murder). I thought the CGI would be a little cheesier but it actually looked better than I expected. (A problematic effect in the trailer looked like it didn’t make it to the final cut.)

It’s fun. Check it out!

And just when everything was going so well.
Pictured: Fun.

The Spy Gone North (2018, Korea)

It is a tradition, over the past few years, for us to head down to Buena Park early on the eve we go to Knott’s Halloween Haunt so that we can get there in plenty of time and not have the evening jeopardized by a terrible traffic jam, and also have a little time to chill before going in to dinner. It started when we stayed at the hotel and has continued on even in the past few years that we’ve realized it’s actually far more restful to drive home that night than try to sleep in a weird place. But it is only this year that I realized that our second favorite movie chain, the CGV, has an outlet walking distance from Knott’s. The CGV has only two theaters in the United States (if not the world), and the other one is, yes, in Koreatown and is where we go see our Korean double- and triple-features.

When you say to an American the title “The Spy Gone North”, you get a kind of puzzled reaction. “Like…to Canada?” And then you point out that that’s the title of a Korean movie, and there tends to be a beat, then a sudden realization. “Oh, wow…”

South Meets North in the stinger.

In this story, a patriotic Korean destroys his career and reputation to create a believable front as someone who might be open to North Korean overtures. He runs around Peking making a lot of noise and always talking about big scores until he’s approached by North Korean agents. He worms his way in to their good graces but this ultimately leads to some harrowing events, most notably, an invitation to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il’s palace. Kim Jong’s palace where, apparently, it’s standard practice to drug and interrogate all new visitors.

Meanwhile, back in South Korea, the anti-communist forces are busily arranging elections, and we learn that there always seem to be suspicious attacks by North Korean whenever they’re anti-communist forces are in danger of losing an election. Most of the story, in fact, takes place in the months leading up to an election that our hero spy’s bosses are potentially losing. They’re greatly concerned that the more progressive leader—whom they’ve framed as being a communist sympathizer—will disband their intelligence agency.

Over a hot glass of kimchi.
I like to make all my deals in dimly lit rooms with maps and rows of files.

Our hero, and a similar character on the northern side of the border, are working very hard to bring about a reconciliation—but of course, that’s really going to put the intelligence agency out of business. Ultimately, a great sacrifice is called for, and the question only remains of who is going to make it.

It’s quite good. The only thing I noticed as being somewhat lacking is that we never see our hero spy (Jung-min Hwang, The Wailing) outside of his job, so we never get the sense of what he has to lose back at home. We don’t see his family’s reaction to his sudden loss of face or how he deals with that. For all that, his story remains moving. We get more of his North Korean counterpart’s family life (Sung-min Lee) which is effective because he’s constantly dealing with the secret police.

There's some difference between north and south.
“You like kimchi? I like kimchi! You like concentration camps…?”

There are a lot of other interesting things, such as there being a scandal because North Korean products being sent to South Korea actually being just re-branded Chinese and Japanese goods—because of course NoKo can’t export anything. There’s a nice touch where, when pulling up to Kim Jong Il’s palace, the use the “Dies Irae”, a chant best known for being the theme to The Shining. Ji-Hoon Ju of the Along With Gods movies has a prominent role as the top spy who constantly tries to undermine Sung-min Lee’s character.

I was proud of myself, because all the time Kim Jong-Il was on screen, I never once started singing “I’m so…ronery…!”

Interestingly enough, we saw this on the day the North Korean and South Korean leaders met in Pyonyang, for the first time in over 60 years.

Or is it all propaganda?
Apparently there’s some poverty in North Korea.

The Lady Eve (1941)

I confess that I don’t really think of Barbara Stanwyck as a “great beauty” (and the wig in Double Indemnity does her no favors), but she was without a doubt one of those actresses who was charming and could act beautiful. In Preston Sturges’ screwball classic, The Lady Eve, she turns on the charm in the first half of the story while in the second half, she’s all glamour and beauty—except for the cunning streak of lovable roguishness that runs throughout.

She's so manipulative.
He hasn’t seen a woman in a year.

The film in some ways exemplifies screwball comedies: The premise is that rich nerd Charles (Henry Fonda) is picked up by a cruise ship after a year in the jungle, where he’s already known by every lady on board as the heir to a brewer’s fortune. A grifter, Colonel Harrington (Charles Coburn) and his accomplice/daughter Jean (Stanwyck) spot him immediately for the whale he is, and Jean easily out-plays the other girls and seduces him.

But this is a screwball comedy, so the first twist we get is that Jean actually falls in love with the hasn’t-so-much-as-smelled-a-woman-in-a-year Charles, and decides to go straight, protecting Charles from the machinations of her merciless father. Within days the two decide to be married. Charles’ chaperone/bodyguard (William Demarest), meanwhile, is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense suspicious type who figures out Jean is not who she says she is, and manages to sabotage the burgeoning romance with an ill-timed revelation.

This is a great scene.
Henry Fonda thinks he’s playing cards but it’s really Stanwyck.

Now things get really screwy, as the broken-hearted Jean determines to have her revenge against her erstwhile lover by re-entering his life as a completely different character, the titular Lady Eve. She doesn’t disguise herself, except with a dubious English accent and the suspicious, stunned and immediately re-smitten Charles uses the very fact that Eve looks exactly like Jean to deduce that she couldn’t actually be Jean, because of course Jean would disguise herself in some fashion. (You know, she’d dye her hair or something.) Stanwyck parades around in Edith Head’s glorious creations like she was born to them, bringing a few gasps from The Flower.

But with the help of their grifter friend Sir Alfred (Eric Blore), who has already won over Charles’ father (the incomparable Eugene Pallette), Charles is easily won over by a preposterous Victorian tale of Eve having an evil twin sister, perhaps because their true father was the stablehand and not the…well, you get the idea. It’s all very scandalous and silly.

The story plays itself out a second time, down to the two re-falling in love again, while William Demarest denounces her the whole time. In the screwiest of all circumstances, Jean/Eve’s revenge extends to marrying Charles and living happily ever after with him, while he still doesn’t know. Or, more likely, doesn’t care.

He loved it.
America’s arguably greatest actor doing pratfalls.

The whole thing is so tremendously good-natured—something Sturges and contemporary Ernst Lubitsch were unparalleled at—and so brisk, clever and charming that it would be hard not to love. The escalation comes in the form of absurdity rather than in increasingly large, slapstick type shenanigans, but is no less fun for that.

We would miss the next week’s offering, Seven Year Itch, due to the annual jaunt out to Knott’s, and we would just skip Funny Girl because I have a hard time getting worked up to see Barbra Streisand movies. But I assured the kids—correctly, I believe—that the two movies we had seen (this as Philadelphia Story) were easily the best of the four.

“Screwball September” would give way to “Scary Subtitles” in October, and we all had high hopes for the selections there.

It's the same girl!
William Demarest is NEVER fooled.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The sound of music! The hills are alive with it, apparently! Wow, talk about a cold open, to have sweeping panoramic vistas from an airplane (or helicopter?), and then to zoom into your lead character, completely unknown and unanounced, singing and dancing on a mountaintop about how much she loves music—and hills! (The Alps seem like a little more than hills, but I suppose it’s the foothills of the alps she’s running over when she’s not nunning.)

Julie Andrews, forever typecast.
Your lead character, ladies and gentlemen.

It was a rare occasion in a theater where I thought to myself, “the volume could’ve been a little higher on that”. (The Flower, with her hearing as to loudness sensitive as mine was at her age—the perils of not listening to rock music really, really loud—disagreed.)

What you may take from this, however, is that I (at my advanced age and very advanced moviegoing) had never seen The Sound of Music before. ’tis true,  I think primarily because I grew up a little too close to the music. As a wee lad, no less than six of the soundtrack songs featured in various school performances, so I still know them by heart. And the reputation and presentation of the film (in snippets and posters) are devoid of any conflict, making it seem a little boring—a little too close to Mary Poppins. (And almost all the remaining songs I learned later.)

And it is a joyful film. But it’s a joyful film where about an hour into the movie, the boy pursuing the oldest daughter, Liesel (Charmian Carr), suddenly exclaims “Heil, Hitler!”

No, that didn't happen.
And you’re shocked when the nun yells out “Sieg Heil!”

The first two hours of the film is the romance between a young novice, Maria (Julie Andrews) and stern widow Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer, who I believe holds the record for longest career playing Nazis, though not here). Maria dismisses the grieving, angry von Trapp’s militaristic rules and brings the children up with playfulness and music.

Personally, I didn’t see where the two fell in love, but von Trapp’s fiancee (the late, lovely Eleanor Parker who was an oft-cast second banana/rival) does, and machinates to hie Maria back to the nunnery. Of course, the lovers (who don’t even know it yet) are reunited and all live happily ever after.

And the Flower and I had the same response: OK, they’re in love, movie’s over. Oh, we’re going to show a wedding. OK. Now the movies’ over. Wait, they’re on their honeymoon, which we don’t see…and the movie’s still going? For another hour?

The casualness of this photo makes it seem almost candid.
They’re wearing curtains, but not like Gone With The Wind curtains.

Back before people got stupid, musicals (for all their obvious tropes) used to tackle serious issues. For every Music Man or My Fair Lady, set in the gilded age, you had a Pajama Game or a South Pacific, dealing with workers’ wages or racism (respectively). This movie, in the first part, brings up the serious topic of religious vocation versus more worldly ambitions, coming to the sensible conclusion that some are cut out for the former and some for the latter, and there’s no shame in either. The second part has another issue on its mind.

Now, in 1965, the pressing issue of fascism was far in the future—1968, 1980, 2000 and 2016, in particular, when Republicans would be elected President—so Sound of Music must content itself with dramatized historical situations concerning literal Nazis instead of the (far worse) metaphorical ones we have today. Nonetheless, in a chirpy, almost frothy, musical, we have the actual threat of death against our beloved protagonists and coerced service to a malevolent force.

If von Trapp’s acquiescence (or failure thereof) is somewhat less suspenseful, if for no other reason that one has a hard time grasping the possibility of the movie ending with the Captain becoming a Nazi, the climactic moment of the movie where Liesel’s suitor Friedrich (Nicholas Hammond) must decide whether to rat the von Trapps out or not is remarkably suspenseful. Indeed the entire third act (or fourth, depending on how you count it) is amazing for the level of tension sustained.  Director Robert Wise of The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story, whose career would come crashing down hard enough to inspire the black comedy S.O.B., shows such a sure hand here that it makes you wonder what happened when he directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Obviously, it’s a great film. It’s one of those movies that despite the long runtime, earns every minute. We, of course, loved it.

She's not bad, really. But she's not a child-person.
The Baronness watches in dismay as the Captain reconnects with his children.

Devil in a Blue Dress (1995)

Denzel Washington is one of those actors I really like but seldom see in movies. Tell a lie—I actually have seen him in at least five movies in the past eight years, and the truth is I just don’t remember them. He was great in Fences,which is a fine film. That same year saw him turn in a serviceable performance in the non-movie The Magnificent Seven, which I forgot while it was playing. Before that, he turned in a superb performance as a broody, alcoholic pilot in Bob Zemeckis’ surprisingly subtle Flight. He was also in Tony Scott’s last two films, Unstoppable and The Taking of Pellham 1, 2, 3, only the latter of which I saw, but if compared to the former, I assume would be as indistinguishable in my memory as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State (except for Will Smith being in the latter, and running around a lot).

That Fedora!
Will Smith? Never heard of him.

What can we learn from this rant? Well, first of all, Tony Scott is the star of all Tony Scott’s movies. (Except maybe The Hunger, which features David Bowie, and the breasts of both Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve.) Second of all, I think we can safely say big stars are in big movies, and big movies are increasingly less different or memorable. (Even Fences is clear Oscar-bait and far from an “indie”.)

Lastly, and most importantly, it means that when there’s a Denzel retrospective, I’m gonna say, “Love his acting. Not crazy about his films.” In spite of that, however, we opted to see Devil in a Blue Dress as part of the “Everybody Loves Denzel” month at the local bijou.

But Albert Hall doesn't know it.
Lisa Nicole Carson, for example, loves Denzel.

And it is, by far, one of my favorites of his, both as a film and performance, and a reminder that even 20 years ago we could have a movie with racial themes that was still a good movie. Directed by Carl Franklin (who’s probably best known for his acting work on shows like “The A-Team”), the movie is primarily a hard-boiled detective noir, with Denzel as a down-on-his-luck factory worker who ends up trying to score some cash by locating a wandering girlfriend (Jennifer Beals). Seems this girl likes to hang out in the darker areas of town, and before you know it Easy Rawlins (Washington) is off on the adventure of his life.

Well, one of them. The movie is based on a book series by Walter Mosley, a half-black/half-Jewish writer whose works should probably be mined for a lot more source material.

The beauty of this construction is that: The hard-boiled detective is already an outsider, he’s already hated by the cops, and he’s always being targeted by thugs. As a black man in post-war L.A., Easy has all those problems squared. Bogie (whether Archer or Spade) can stand around and play it cool when the cops finger him for a crime, but the cops will just shoot Easy. So all the usual complications are amped up by the fact that he can’t be anywhere around the scene of a crime if it can be pinned on him.

Don Cheadle is the cheadliest.
If his best buddy doesn’t shoot him first.

The plot is convoluted, the characters colorful, and gives you a slice-of-life that you don’t see in movies: the black middle-class. Rawlins motivation in taking the job is to make his mortgage, and his sense of his home being his castle is highly pronounced. His neighborhood is modest, but nice, and there’s an optimism infused throughout the proceedings.

“Ya boi” Zach, of Diversity and Comics fame has a trope he calls “Good Guy Gordon,” wherein if you see a black person in a comic book, he has to be a bland, wise, generally even-keeled soul—this has among its many sins, the effect of making the character boring. Ain’t none of that here. Easy is a good guy, but he’s no saint. In fact, not a single character in this book is “all saint” or “all sinner”, and most of them tend toward a whole lot of “sinner” (again in classic noir style).  Don Cheadle steals the show as Easy’s childhood friend, Mouse, and he’s essentially psychotic, and there’s both comedy and drama associated with Rawlins trying to utilize Mouse’s willingness to do just about anything, while minimizing the damage he knows Mouse will cause.

The upshot of all this is that even though this is a racial story, with race suffusing every aspect of the plot, you’re not beaten to death with a pre-determined moral narrative, and you end up with basically what you wanted in the first place: A high quality mystery with no small amount of action and suspense, and a great deal of fun. Though this is one of Denzel’s “lesser films” by most rankings, we actually enjoyed it more than Glory—and there was no way we were going to sit through three hours of Malcolm X—the next week’s Denzel offering.

This is an easy film to overlook, but it gets our enthusiastic recommendation.

Remember her?
The devil herself. (Jennifer Beals)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

It was Screwball Comedy month at the local bijou, and once again, they started out strong with Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby, followed the next week with Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. (The following week would be The Seven Year Itch, which we would miss due to the annual Halloween jaunt, and What’s Up Doc after that, which we would miss because…Barbra Streisand.)

I'm so catty!
Pictured: A young Barbra Streisand on set with Grant and Hepburn.

The Boy doesn’t really like screwball stuff, although I think he’s mostly turned off by the sad, loud, fat-man-falls-down stuff of his lifetime (or fat-woman-falls-down because, yay, equality!). There is, of course, a kind of escalation necessary in this sort of film which I think doesn’t appeal to him, broadly, but even he was charmed by Katharine Hepburn and a nebbishy (hah!) Cary Grant.

In this delightful film, Cary Grant is David, a museum curator assembling some sort of dinosaur and waiting on the final bone, while being gently (but firmly) rebuffed by his fiancee, Alice: Not until marriage, and even after marriage, his work comes first and pretty much exclusively! (In classic Hollywood style, Alice is played by the quite stunning 22-year-old Virgnia Walker—Howard Hawks’ sister-in-law—but with her hair in a very severe bun. She doesn’t even get glasses, as I recall.) The museum needs money, however, so he’s sent on a mission to implore Mrs. Carleton Random (oy) to give them the million dollars she has earmarked for some sort of charitableness.

Mayhem ensues when he, instead, runs into Susan (Hepburn) who—let’s not beat around the bush here—falls in love with him immediately. In her comically awful attempts at seduction—awful enough to be unrecognizable as such by mortal men—she creates chaos and destruction all around him, resulting in him missing his meeting with Mrs. Random.

Honestly, they do it with guys, too. Put glasses on them and they're so homely.
How could anyone fall in love with a nerd like that!

I was taken, as I watched this, by how old the manic pixie dream girl is, as a concept. Here, Alice is exactly that: She talks a mile a minute and runs David around the countryside, as he is more-or-less oblivious to her charm and vivacity. Hepburn is very appealing in this role, even moreso than The Philadelphia Story, having all the vulnerability and none of the prickliness that characterized that role (and probably most of her future roles).

But of course the ’30s were filled with dizzy blondes and brunettes, so it’s not like Bringing Up Baby is breaking new ground in that regard. What sold The Boy on the whole thing, though, was the titular Baby, who is a leopard. The leopard has been sent to Alice who’s going to take it to her Aunt Elizabeth out in the country, and there’s nothing David can do but be swept along for the ride.

I miss "gay". We should bring "gay" back.
“Why are you dressed like that?” … “I’ve gone gay!” Earliest known use in film of “gay” to mean “homosexual”?

Alice confides in us (indirectly) that she loved him at first sight and made a mess of everything, as things go spiraling out of control, a second leopard gets involved in the mix, and they all end up in jail, with Alice doing a bang-on ’30s “tough gal” gangster bit that is hilarious.

It’s a very funny, charming film. Like many of the films of its period, it relies on tropes that are no longer allowed (a woman wanting a man, a more domestic woman being preferable to a career woman, leopards being potentially dangerous…) and a society where manners mean something. Much like one of my other favorite comedies of the era, Heaven Can Wait, it’s one of those films that relies on people acting mostly sane and dignified, so that the rogue or buffoon stands out and has comedic value.

Tough to laugh about the crazy antics of a couple of people in a world where everyone acts nuts all the time.

And the leopard!
Katharine almost looks like Judy Garland in this shot.

Avengers: Infinity War

“That was really good!”

Five minutes later as we’re pulling out of the parking lot:

“That was really stupid!”

I managed to NOT sing that at all during the movie.
I am evil Ho-MER! I am evil Ho-MER!

And so The Barbarienne sums up nicely the latest mega-epic from Marvel Non-Comics-Cause-Moves-Are-Bigger-Moneymakers Studios. And she’s not wrong, though her description is perhaps not the most descriptive.

Before we get into details, though, I should probably delineate where I stand on the whole superhero thing in 2018. I think we can trace my spandex fatigue as far back as X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2011, as I will still pretty game for the (not very good) Iron Man 2 and (the notoriously forgettable) Thor: The Dark World.

It’s safe to say it hasn’t gotten better in the past 7-8 years. In fact, the movies have gotten increasingly formulaic and less interesting, and one begins to remember how much of the trend began with Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer’s distinctive visions, as well as (of course) Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance in the first official MCU movie, Iron Man.

Good lord, that's some drab coloring.
(Foreground, L-R) Bucky,Black Widow, Cap, Black Panther Chick, Black Panther. All your faves?

The superhero film is not really like, e.g., the western. It could be a genre of that sort, but the cost is so prohibitive—at least given the current standards—you have only big studios doing them and they’re not doing it because they have something to add to the conversation. They simply have characters they haven’t fully exploited yet. That’s why we’re getting increasingly 3rd tier characters, like Black Panther and Captain Marvel. And one wonders how badly this is going to sputter out, once they’ve drained the culture dry.

But then, I’ve been wondering that for about a decade, and here we are with Infinity War which absolutely is an impressive achievement. I don’t mean technically, because, good lord, I don’t care about any of that at this point. (A bunch of guys programming isn’t what I want to experience when I go to the movies.)

But it is genuinely ambitious in its attempts to tie the previous Avenger films, the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Black Panther, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and others altogether in one epic film that manages to stay under 2 1/2 hours. It’s uneven in places and, yes, stupid in others but I want to stress that a lot of the stupidity is comic book logic and comic book tropes. So, if you haven’t been bothered up till now, you should be fine.

You can tell I'm not super-invested at this point.
(L-R) The newest Spider-man (until the next movie), Iron Man, Tattoo Guy, Star Lord, Antenna Chick

It shines in a lot of the predictable places: Where the other movies have also shone. Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as has been pointed out, are basically new creations of James Gunn: The originals are probably D-list in the comic books and, whatever Gunn’s personal shortcomings, he created a franchise with likable, relatable characters. The Black Panther scenes convinced me I was right to skip that movie, as they are very by-the-numbers. (People are still relating to Wakanda as though it weren’t as fictitious as Pandora, but that’s okay. It’s even potentially good for people to do, I’m just not one of them.)

The more earthbound scenes—the ones more tied in with the previous Avengers movies—are kind of a slog. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson have a nice romantic bit, but I was just so hard-pressed to remember who they were. I remember Olson is Scarlett Witch, who seems to have unlimited divine powers, and Paul Bettany was…he’s a computer…but he’s not Ultron, because Ultron was the villain….but he was very close to Ultron in nature. He was a super-computer AI named Vision who was made into a real boy by one of the power crystals, and also nigh infinitely powerful.

Both of them are, naturally, utterly hamstringed in this film. Comically hamstringed, as toward the climax when Wakanda is under attack and the Scarlet Witch is by Vision’s side while he undergoes a delicate operation (which can only be done in Wakanda, and honestly, isn’t the whole Wakanda thing beginning to feel a little patronizing to anyone?). When she’s finally drawn out, her power so outstrips everyone else’s one of the characters remarks “Why wasn’t she out here before?”

Look, lampshading stupidity doesn’t really make it any less stupid. It just feels lazy, basically. And the emotional challenge the movie has been setting up since the beginning—that the Scarlet Witch must kill Vision to save the universe—ends up feeling weaker than it could.

I have nothing to add.
I probably could’ve pulled off another ensemble shot with characters not used in the previous two ensemble shots but…meh.

But a lot of the emotional moments do hit, and that’s fairly impressive. Thanos is humanized from his entirely villainous role in the comics. The outcome is sort of obvious at the beginning, if you haven’t seen a trailer or been spoiled in the past year from the Internet.

I didn’t care, and I did like it okay, as I think the Barbarienne did, even if she saw through the plot holes. Now, time for a spoiler picture, where you stop reading if you don’t want to get spoiled.

But whatever.
(L-R) Groot, Thor and Rocket Raccoon say “GO NO FURTHER!”

The most obvious issue is that Thanos, having the power of creation in his hand (literally) could just as easily have made more resources as kill half the population. The less obvious-until-you-think-about-it issue is that when you kill people, you create poverty (because wealth is not a thing, it’s an activity). Some individuals do well when the population drops drastically, as with the poor and some middle-class people in Europe after the plague, but this had more to do with labor value rising and unprecedented freedom to move around and exploit the new demand than the shortage of people.

In an infinity of space, is it likely that the real problem everywhere in this vast universe is overpopulation? It’s weird to see these ZPG arguments from the ’70s being rehashed, even though I’ve been predicting it for over 10 years now. (Global warming is sputtering out, so we need a new reason to control everything everyone does.)

Beyond that, there are some amazing self-owns here. Peter losing his temper over Gamora being killed such that Thanos’ defeat becomes his victory, for example. That was a weird one, because Thanos is nigh-infinitely powerful at this point, and he’s being defeated by a kid who can shoot webs, a guy in a robot suit, a guy with some space blasters and a magician. I had a hard time buying that. But I had a harder time, on some level, buying that a hero would so completely lose his shtuff when half the universe’s population is at stake.

The Wakanda thing, I already mentioned.

The thing the Barb noticed is that Dr. Strange already had the deus-ex-machina-in-a-crystal time-controlling gem from his movie, so why didn’t he just use that? I noticed that he didn’t use it because “he’d run all the scenarios” and found that he had to give up the crystal in order to make everything work out in the next movie, when they turn back the clock to save the day retroactively.

Which, as a lot of people pointed out, will make the deaths in this one seem cheap. Meh. It’s comic books. You gotta do something, but you can’t ever kill anyone for real.

This may be the genuine death knell for the series, though. They’re gonna need new actors for a new cycle, and their worst instincts seem to be on the rise over at Marvel/Lucas/Disney/Fox/WEOWNEVERYTHING.

That said, if you like this sort of thing, it’s a good example thereof. And that’s…impressive at this point.

Well, it's that they won't be making any more movies, right?
At least there’s a happy ending.

Death of a Nation

You know, I honestly don’t know what Dinesh D’Souza is up to, really. We saw his first movie, America: Imagine A World Without Her, and 2016: Obama’s America—that’s the one that landed him in jail. We skipped the Hillary one, sorta. I mean, you gotta move fast with these things, and of course it was gone really fast. If the dwindling returns he has gotten are any indication, I may not be the only one.

Sad Hitler!
Not coming soon: any Downfall-esque parodies.

So, let me say, the cool things about his movies is that they feel transgressive: You’re in the belly of the beast in the belly of the beast (a movie theater in L.A.) and here’s this dude saying things you’re just not allowed to say in polite society. It feels punk rock, and rebellious, which is all pretty funny given how mild the movies are.

But if we were to compare him to, say, Mr. Moore (after whom he patterns himself, I believe, at least on some levels), he does not have anywhere near the rhetorical skill. Of course, part of Moore’s rhetorical skill is best described as “lying”—and I don’t care if it’s done through deceptive editing or pretending you can’t get an interview with the head of GM when you already have, it’s all lying—and perhaps D’Souza doesn’t want to go down that road (which really closes off the big box office to him, since most really successful documentaries are just massive lies).

Nonetheless, Moore crafts convincing narratives. Does D’Souza? I don’t know. I don’t feel like he does. I feel more like he blasts stuff out there, shotgun style, and some of hits and some of it doesn’t.

Great Doc Holliday!
Good to see Val Kilmer working again, though.

In Death of a Nation—hell, I’ve already forgotten what the actual point was. He bookended it with Hitler and Eva committing suicide on the front, and Sophie Scholl on the back. But I’ve seen both Downfall and the recent Sophie Scholl movie (which no longer seems to exist—could it have been a re-release of the 2005 movie, or am I just conflating a different Nazi movie with the identical story, including a scene where she throws all her pamphlets into the lobby?), and D’Souza isn’t going to be anywhere near that level.

I guess his point is that, like the Nazis in Germany, the increasingly fascist Democrats could take over America. I suppose so, though the Germans rather smartly disarmed the Jews with their national registry whereas ours doesn’t even know about half the guns that are out there.

There’s a great bit at the end where a black choir (which I think featured in his previous films) sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. They’re awesome, but they don’t really advance the case.

Oh, he has a good interview with Richard Spencer, the white separatist. It’s really clear that there’s nothing “right-wing” about the guy, except I guess that he’s a national socialist rather than an international socialist. He’s no friend of small government, the Constitution, or anything that would make him a conservative in the American sense. He’s just another totalitarian, but one with a slightly different viewpoint than the rest of the leftists.

Overall, The Boy and I had similar reactions: We liked it okay, but with D’Souza’s jumping around from topic to topic, we found ourselves wanting more depth.

But I guess one doesn’t generally watch documentaries on big topics for depth.

On the three-point scale:

  1. The subject matter is obviously worthy, if we could only figure out what it was. Well, that’s unfair: It’s very broad, though.
  2. Presentation: Pretty good. The dramatizations are cheesy, of course, and there are too many pauses for “breathing”, for my taste, but it’s well done.
  3. Slant: Well, pretty obvious. It’s got a very specific viewpoint that D’Souza states up front and attempts to defend. Can’t complain about it any more than one could complain about Moore promoting Communism.

I don’t know: If you’ve seen D’Souza before, you’ve seen this, in a lot of ways. The only difference, really, is that you might (or might not) be tired of it.

They're good.
At least America will have an AMAZING funeral with these singers…

South Pacific (1958)

Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger. You may wash him out of your hair shortly thereafter, if you are carefully taught. That is the message of South Pacific, the great ’50s Rodgers and Hart musical with one big, glaring flaw—and a few smaller ones, too.

Look at that waist!
Nothin’ wrong with Mitzi Gaynor, though.

Our story (based on James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific”) begins begins with young Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr), who’s been assigned a secret mission to that same island in order to spy on Japanese ship movements through a nearby channel. He seas a bunch of navy guys lazing around the beach, including the head rat, Luther (Ray Walston), and none of ’em have seen any action for months. They assure all of us that “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” in one of the best numbers of the movie.

They’re held in thrall by “Bloody Mary,” an island woman that provides various things and to the men, and (from what I can tell) also uses the men (through Luther) to get things to sell to her own people. There was some sort of unauthorized commerce going on. Meanwhile, she tantalizes them all with stories (and a song, of course) about Bali Hi, the forbidden island—basically where the natives have hidden all their women.

Or maybe it's just ... it is what it is.
Of all the restorations done, I can’t figure out why no one has thought to try to fix the tint here.

Into this, we have the focal point of our story, Nellie, a girl from Little Rock, Arkansas (!!!) who finds herself serving in the South Pacific in 1943, and falling in love with a much older French man, Emile (Rossanno Brazzi). I really had no sense of Mitzi Gaynor before this movie, but the Flower and I agreed she was definitely a “top-flight honey”. It’s a very post-war look, a la Doris Day or Donna Reed: almost angelic, girl next door bubbliness, combined with graceful movement and plausible-deniability clothes. It’s a package that exudes a kind of exuberant—yet somehow wholesome—sexuality.

She and Ray Walston are pretty much the only ones not dubbed, too.

At least well enough for this part.
That’s right: Uncle Martin can sing!

Nellie falls in love with Emile but pushes him away ’cause he’s old and she’s from Little Rock (a mixed bag, apparently), but then embraces him fully only to discover he has two young children already with his late Polynesian wife. The same struggle is experienced by Cable, when Bloody Mary introduces him to her daughter, the stunningly beautiful Liat (France Nuyen, who went on to have a prolific TV career).

The blurr-o-vision is a corny, too.
There are no bad pix of Ms. Nuyen, but there are few that do her justice.

Both Nellie and Emile push their loves away because MISCEGENATION! This is a message musical, tackling a hot topic of the day, with a song placing blame squarely on society: “They have to be carefully taught!” That, of course, isn’t the least bit true since humans natively (and arguably reasonably) favor the familiar. But let’s not let that stand in our way, with all the beautiful, quasi-operatic music and amazingly crafted score, weaving themes in and out of all the songs and scenarios. It’s quite amazing, really.

Less amazing—downright notorious, in fact—is the film tinting. The premise was that each scene would be bathed in a different color to evoke a different feeling, but they screwed it up royally. The first scenes, especially when Bloody Mary sings “Bali Hai”, are over-tinted into distraction. It does settle down but it hurts a lot having that up front. There are a lot of stories about who did what to whom here.

Overall, though, it shouldn’t kill  your enjoyment of the film. It truly is a great musical and worth seeing.

So cute! She's in a sailor outfit!
Unbelievably realistic mattes, too.

Charade (1963)

The second movie in our Cary Grant double-feature was Charade, and I realized when I saw it that it represented an entry in an entire subgenre of films that is no longer extant: The light-comedy spy caper. Now, you could bring up Spy, but it doesn’t really fit—and there hasn’t been a movie that fits the category since at least the Cold War ended, and probably since the ’70s. Let’s see if I can back this up:

Our heroes.
Don’t roll your eyes till I’m done, at least!

In Charade, Regina (Audrey Hepburn) comes home intent on divorcing her distant, lying husband only to find that he was far more distant and lying than she ever knew: He’s turned up dead, apparently, and without a lot of cash that he is supposed to be trying to smuggle out of the country. Workaday spy Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) fills her in on the details, and tells her her life is in jeopardy unless she finds that cash—which she sort of sloughs off until she is menaced in turn by Tex (James Coburn), Herman (George Kennedy) and Leopold (Ned Glass). Fortunately, the debonair Peter (Cary Grant, in one of his last roles) is there to save her.

Or is he?

The one constant in this movie—presumably the reason for it being called Charade—is that Peter is not who he seems to be at all. He’s constantly lying about who he is and what his motivations are, and each reasonable explanation for his behavior is soon supplanted by a revelation that said explanation was also a lie.

Kind of cute gag, if true.
I’m wondering, in retrospect, whether Matthau stole someone’s lunch here.

This movie, primarily, is a Romantic Comedy. It doesn’t work quite as well as it should because of the apparent age difference between Audrey and Cary, which I’ve heard made Grant uncomfortable and was part of the reason he retired (even though he married the 27-year-old Dyan Cannon a couple years after this). The funny thing is, we’ve seen this age difference work before with Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak (1958’s Vertigo and Bell, Book and Candle) but Audrey Hepburn’s gamin look and her young mannerisms make her seem much younger than her 33 years (where Novak’s character always came off as more womanly).

If you can get past the age issues—and the movie works hard at this, pitting the stalwart (despite his shiftiness) Peter against Regina’s waif-y wiles—it’s quite enjoyable as a RomCom. But it’s not just a RomCom, it’s a spy movie. And that means, among the flirtations and misunderstandings, there are murders. Lives are at stake, and nobody knows who to trust. It’s actually kind of bizarre but, like I said before, it was a genre from about 1960-1980.

Life ain't fair.
All of these guys, even the really OLD one, are younger than Cary Grant. And they have no shot with Audrey.

In this part of the story, the various villains take turns menacing Regina and alternatively each other, as each suspects the other of already having found the money and pretending not to have, so they can keep it for themselves. The shocking twist at the end—well, it isn’t all that shocking, but 55 years later, the lack of shock is itself unshocking. I don’t remember when I figured it out, but it’s the sort of movie where you don’t really care much. Which really pushes it more into the RomCom territory than the Spy territory.

Or, if you prefer, the missing cash—with a solution out of Ellery Queen—gives it more of a Mystery film vube. It fits in that sense, because it’s a common trope in mysteries to just let the various corpses roll off one’s back, as it were. Nobody is too terribly bothered since the point is the mystery, not the drama. It’s all sort of preposterous and contrived; that’s what makes it fun. The whole feel of the genre doesn’t fit in the naturalist/communist ideals of the later ’60s/’70s, or the ironic enthusiasm of the ’80s, or the Cold War free ’90s. And if I keep going down this road, I would also have to point out we don’t have icons like Grant or Hepburn, clever scriptwriters like Peter Stone (Mirage, 1776), directors like Stanley Donen (Singin’ In The Rain, The Little Prince), to say nothing of studios that worry whether it will Play In Peking, and I’d just get depressed. So I won’t.

We all loved it, of course, though the age difference made The Flower especially uncomfortable (while again, she loves Novak/Stewart). For that reason, she preferred Blandings while the Boy was more on the fence. Either way, it’s worth checking out.

Hard, but fair.
They’re unconvinced that I made my case.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948)

In a now classic bit from the long-overdue-for-death TV series, “Family Guy”, the family is drowning and the father (Peter) makes a shocking, last-minute confession. “I did not care for the Godfather,” he says. While I can understand that, the bit basically ends with “I liked The Money Pit.”

For those who don’t remember it, The Money Pit was a 1986 film from Disney’s early Touchstone days. Touchstone was, I think, the brainchild of Michael Eisner, who managed to put Disney money behind a lot of R-rated, and morally gross films that would’ve tarnished the reputation of the studio, had said films been branded with the mouse moniker. It might have just been coincidence but it seemed like every Touchstone film I saw was at least a little bit sleazy. Things like Three Men and a Baby and Down and Out in Beverly Hills.

Some things never change.
Don’t you hate it when I cram these reviews like a Manhattan apartment?

The Money Pit has Tom Hanks at what may be the height of his (wrongfully disdained) physical comedy years, and Shelly Long mistakenly believing that being in a movie with Tom Hanks was a good time to end her wildly successful “Cheers” run. It has a distinctive ’80s Touchstone sleaze to it. But this circuitous intro gets me to the main point: If you want to see how far society fell between 1948 and 1986, watching Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and The Money Pit would give you a pretty good (if subtle) measuring tape.

In MBBHDH, Cary Grant is a Manhattan ad man, pulling down a handsome $15,000/year, but living in a cramped little 2 bedroom apartment with his wife (the eternal Myrna Loy, looking as lovely as she did 14 years earlier in The Thin Man) and two daughters—daughters who are being taught to loathe capitalism and advertising in their posh private school, no less!—and just one bathroom between them. Mrs. Blanding has a plan to remodel the apartment (which they do not own) by knocking down some walls and…well, you can’t do much but spend a lot of money to make things more fashionable.

He makes a good point.
“There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” – Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Blanding puts his foot down, but he ends up being seduced on a visit to the countryside. A classic old civil war (or was it colonial?) era house that he and the missus fall in love with, and immediately get suckered into paying too much for. (The story is narrated by family friend Bill, played by Melvyn Douglas.) The rest of the movie concerns the literal building of their dream house, and this is where the two films really start to diverge.

For the rest of the movie, the Blandings (unlike the Fieldings of The Money Pit) bring all their woes down on themselves. The only time the Blandings really get played is in buying the real estate. The Fieldings are played for saps for the entirety of the film. You might think that watching people be stubborn jackasses and fools would be less sympathetic than watching a couple be victimized, but the former is not only funnier, it works better as a cautionary tale.

Learning the awful news.
Which, frankly, good cautionary tales are in short supply.

Because they’re building their dream house, the two have uncompromising ideas about what they want, even when it’s very expensive, and even when it doesn’t make sense. They quickly set aside the wisdom of the architect and the contractor and even their lawyer pal, Bill, and the sky becomes the limit.

If you want another sense of how things have changed, the first time Blandings really loses it is when he discovers is house is going to cost $18,000! Why, that’s over a year’s salary! And remember, he’s the only one working. (The final house price ends up around $32,000.)

There’s a subplot of jealousy here, too, and it’s handled so much better in the old movie. In the ’48 film, Cary Grant is stupid jealous: Myrna Loy’s not going to cheat on him, because she’s Myrna Loy, fercryinoutloud. The theme keeps coming up, as the circumstances of Bill being around while Mr. Blandings is not become increasingly awkward (socially, and how’s that for another change?), but it never goes further than a gag. I don’t remember how Pit plays out, but I remember it creeped me out.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be the average experience, but for me, seeing Blandings a few years after Pit made me feel like I’d been robbed. Of my civilization. And this is unfair to Pit, really, which is fine with a great performance from Hanks. And maybe I over-estimate it, but The Flower actually preferred this movie to Charade (the second film in our Cary Grant double-feature), and The Boy might have also.

So, check it out.

And not like "Pac-man" is classic, neither.

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings

After the highly entertaining antics of our afterlife bureaucrats in Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, The Boy and I left the Flower to her teenage wasteland and trundled off to Chinatown to see Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, the latest in the Chinese Detective Dee saga. Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, or maybe briefly back in 2010 when it first kicked off, but the trailer grabbed me, with dragons and magic and swords and what-not.

Look at 'em scowl!
The Four Kings are NOT amused. By ANYTHING.

It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was enjoyable. It was also kind of cool that it was directed by Tsui Hark, who’s been around for quite some time. (As a producer, he worked with both John Woo and Woo-Ping Yuen, for example. As a director, he’s probably most famous for the Once Upon A Time In China series.)

The story is that Detective Dee, having so impressed the Emperor (it’s, uh, fantasy medieval time period of some sort) with his service, is rewarded (or tasked) with the care of a mystical mace. This sends the Empress into a jealous rage and she immediately sets her assassins on him, including one of Dee’s trusted friends. Dee is sent on a wild goose chase as the Empress searches his quarters for the mace (leading to a clever, cute scene where the would-be burglars fall for the detective’s many traps).

I don't know Chinese deserts.
Quick! Someone is trying to steal my egg tart!

But after the initial scene, the mystery/detective aspects of the film fall quickly to the action sequences. There is a mystery afoot, but it hardly feels very important between the action and characters. The funny thing here is that there is what one might call traditional kung-fu sort of magic, with various martial artists having techniques that might, in another part of the world, be regarded a superpowers—while at the same time there is drug-induced hallucination which appears to be magical. This adds a layer of shall-we-say-challenge? to actually figuring out the mysterious aspects of the film.

There’s a mystery-behind-the-mystery which is tipped off (not in a bad way) and probably more significant if you have a grasp of Chinese history and particularly with Sino-Indic relations, as the Empress is herself just a puppet for a greater evil. This greater evil is surprisingly literalized, though the whole thing is soaked in drug-induced illusion. Sort of amusingly, the movie’s semi/quasi-happy ending has multiple stingers which outline an entire other movie’s worth of action and shenaningans complete with a series of unhappy endings. I assume this is also related to Chinese history.

Lotsa arms on that guy.
How literal, you ask? THIS literal!

Each individual bit, however, whether it’s action or spectacle or character piece, comes off as entertaining, so you’re never bored despited the over-two-hour runtime. At the same time, this isn’t great the way the Korean movies typically are, or even the way the best Chinese films are. But The Boy came out with a pretty positive viewpoint, in which he expressed what he often does after seeing Korean or Chinese movies.

“It doesn’t feel like,” he often says, “the director hates me.” And this is true, Asian films want to be liked, and if they have snobbery and elitism (and how could they not?) it doesn’t come through. One really does feel, when watching them, that one is part of a “let’s have fun” activity. Again, it’s hard to reconcile this with the fact of Chinese Communism, but maybe it’s because even the Chicoms recognize the value of being popular in a way that Hollywood disdains.

We definitely had fun, and I was intrigued at the idea of watching the previous films in the series.

And there is no answer.
They will have to answer for these eyebrows one day, however.


Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days

In the best, or possibly worst, tradition of blockbusters, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days was filmed simultaneously with its prequel, Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds. I guess they knew the original would be successful—and it was, breaking South Korean box office records and bringing in a whopping $106M at the box office. That may not sound like much, but since that was all in Korea, it’s the equivalent of a movie making about $750M here—at least on a par with (if not better than) Black Panther.

But they're not getting it.
Here, our actors pray for a piece of the gross.

We had made the first movie part of our Christmas Korean movie “tradition” (the first one was The Handmaiden), and really enjoyed the action-adventure drama of a heroic character who dies and must go through the seven hells in 49 days or less so that his guides would have a chance at reincarnation. There were a few loose ends in that movie that get resolved in this one, but other than that, you don’t really need to have seen the first to enjoy this one. (The Flower allowed that she would have liked to see the first one, but really enjoyed this nonetheless.)

This movie flips the script considerably: The original movie had a heroic firefighter who died saving a child’s life, and revealed that while he had lived a virtuous life (a “paragon” in the movie’s vocabulary), he was not without considerable, grave sin. In this movie, a character who had been unjustly killed in a side-plot shows up, and he’s not interested in the proceedings. Meanwhile, the movie focuses on the backstories of the lead guide and the two goofy assistant guides, doing that magical Asian trick of turning comic characters into highly sympathetic ones, and tragic heroes in their own rights.

It's an Asian thang.
Goofy sidekicks with poignant backstories.

This movie also focuses on different hells, since its protagonist has entirely different sins from the last one, and there is less time spent in the underworld, generally. The assistants spend most of their time trying to coax a house’s guardian spirit (Dong Seok-Ma, the beefy arm-wrestler in Champion) into letting them collect an old man’s soul who is overdue, only to have to struggle themselves with the fact that the old man is the sole guardian of a young boy about to go to his first days of school.

While our new traveler doesn’t have the worst sin of all—the bottom-most sin of the Underworld where the king sits—the sin of filial impiety, said sin still features prominently in the movie in a surprising way. There’s also great romantic love here, and a big historical drama.

It’s just a lot of fun. The cast is great, with Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day ComesThe Handmaiden) reprising his role as the lead guide. Ji-Hoon Ju (The Spy Gone North) and child actress Hyang-gi Kim get to stretch their acting wings a lot here, going as they do from comic figures to heroic ones. The teenaged Kim looks especially young, as Asians often do, but which is played to tremendous effect in flashbacks, where she is taken out of modern makeup and given a “natural” look.

No, but he's a bad-ass, supernaturally speaking.
The “house god” challenges them to arm wrestling.

Kyung-soo Do, as the new entrant into the hells, who doesn’t seem to care what happens one way or the other, has a kind of interesting role, too. He’s a tremendously heroic figure—though less dramatically than the firefighter, his sins seem particularly contrived. (Recall from the first movie that the “prosecution” bureaucrats, while incompetent, are crafty in trying to convict people of sins.) At the same time, he became a revenant because of his unjust death (which he doesn’t really remember) and his stubbornness often seems more obnoxious than heroic.

This, too, has a payoff, when the guides try to convince him that he was unjustly murdered by the people he put himself on the line to help. And they have to hide this from him until the last possible second because they know he’ll resist. The dynamics are interesting and there’s a lot crammed into the 2:20 of this film, just like the last one. Even so, you kind of feel like you could watch them back-to-back and want more.

In America, these movies would probably be kicking off a TV series. They’d make an interesting pilot.

We all loved it. The Flower, for whom this was her first Korean flick (except for The Host, but this was her first going-to-Koreatown-flick) toyed with coming with us to see the second feature rather than hanging out with her friends, she liked this so much. (Well, that, and she’s cooled on her friends who are really just bog-standard teens. The thing being she doesn’t hang around teens just because they’re teens, and she’d rather hang around her 40-something godmother.)

We actually ended up going to real-Chinatown next to see Detective Dee. But I think we had a better time than she did.

So I'm chasing confession like Tom chases Jerry.
Atonement ain’t easy but it’s necessary.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

I had long been under the impression that George Lazenby was given a kind of raw deal when he first became James Bond, having to follow Sean Connery. He didn’t get all the perks (at least not until he figured out what they were) that Sean Connery had accrued for himself over his five films, and he was apparently so often saying “What’d the other guy get?” that the teaser stinger for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, when his femme fatale runs off in his car, “I bet the other guy didn’t have to put up with this” emerged from his complaints.

He was conflicted.
Lazenby takes aim at his career.

Then, when the movie came out, it did worse than even the first film in the franchise, Dr. No (adjusted for inflation) where Connery’s Bond had gotten increasingly successful over the years. He was tepidly received by critics as well, and so I thought that he had been cut loose after his sole outing as 007.

Mr. Lazenby was with us for our viewing of this movie, however and set the record straight: He turned down Cubby Broccoli’s million dollar 7-picture deal. Why? Because he learned Clint Eastwood was making spaghetti westerns in Italy for $500,000 a pop, and much less intensive shooting schedules. (Bond can be grueling, apparently.) And because a guy in a suit couldn’t get laid in ’68, and if you can’t get laid, what’s the point of life?

Those were his words, paraphrased, though he did specifically say “get laid”.

Almost none.
I mean, really: What chance does a guy who looks like THAT have?

He did, however, see plenty of action as James Bond, as we discovered. He could’ve spent some quality time with Diana Rigg, with her only stipulation being that he keep it zipped otherwise while they were on set. (No doing the rest of the cast or crew, in other words.) It was kind of a cute story, in a sleazy ’60s way, because he impressed her by beating someone at chess—a smart someone, as I recall. (I don’t think it was Rigg herself but it was someone who had beaten her, if I recall correctly. Someone should be pumping Lazenby for all his stories, because…wow.) He doesn’t say how long it was between that and Rigg walking in on him with one of the stage crew, but I think not very.

The thing to keep in mind is that he was having more sex than most mortal men even as James Bond, but—I mean, read what I’m writing, here: He stopped being James Bond because being James Bond cramped his style, sexually speaking.

So I don’t feel bad for him any more. He chose his life, big time, and there were some great adventures he had along the way which involve sex, sailing, hurricanes, more sex, being broke, Bruce Lee, sex with “the staff” at hotels when you were too broke to get a room, etc. He didn’t go quietly into domestic life, getting “caught” by a woman who assured him she couldn’t get pregnant, but he seems to think his kids are pretty cool.

I actually prefer “The Avengers” Diana Rigg to OHMSS Diana Rigg, but who are we kidding?

And I haven’t gotten into the movie at all, which is the longest of the pre-Craig movies. And much like Goldfinger, it’s pretty spectacular, comic-book-y stuff with amazing stunts and effects, and the rear-projection stuff kills the suspension of belief even harder than it did in Connery’s ’64 outing.

The plot is suitably wacky, with Ernst Blofeld (Telly Savalas in this outing) holding the world for ransom. He’s going to destroy entire species of grains unless the world meets his demand: to be forgiven all his crimes and granted legitimacy. OK, looking pretty super-villain-ny, but can we amp it up a bit? Yes we can: His chosen vectors for this naughtiness are a bevvy of nubile international beauties who have come to his “behavior modification clinic” to be hypnotized and programmed to loose the agent (germ, or whatevs) in their home country.

Bond, posing as a suspiciously flamboyant expert in history (so Blofeld can claim his noble roots), ends up banging two of those ladies, which blows his cover and results him being imprisoned in Blofeld’s castle. Meanwhile he a complicated relationship with his femme fatale (Rigg, of course) that, if memory serves, had advanced to the engagement stage while he’s doing these other girls in the castle.

Hey, he’s on the job. You do what you have to, or you do what you don’t have to and what will threaten the mission if it means getting in bed with the chippies.

Randy beggar.
No sacrifice too great for Queen and country.

It’s nearly two-and-a-half hours long, and often places in the top 5 of pre-Craig Bonds, though I felt it came up a little short next to Goldfinger, which is tight. It’s often praised for attempting a serious relationship with Bond, but I can’t honestly say any of it felt particularly deep, and it’s all over pretty abruptly. Lazenby’s good, though.

The Flower did not attend, because she didn’t think she’d be able to adapt after Goldfinger. And, honestly, it took me a good 40 minutes or so to stop thinking, “That’s not Bond!” The Boy and His Girl liked it, however, and had a good time at the Q&A with Lazenby. Things are still fun in the Bond universe at this point. Connery would return for one outing in ’71 after which he thought (at 41!) he was far too old for the role, and then things would descend into camp with Roger Moore—three years older than Connery—and whatever the Dalton years were, before coming to crashing halt in the increasingly politically correct ’90s.

We didn’t see any of those, though I did notice the theater picked the best movies of those three eras (The Spy Who Loved Me, Licence To Kill, Goldeneye). I was modestly interested but I couldn’t really sell the kids and I wasn’t motivated enough to make the drive alone.

Telly, lookin' suave.
Behind the scenes with the two finalists in “The ’60s goofiest fashions” competition.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The second feature on our Monroe double bill—and the second smash hit for Marilyn in 1953, was the iconic Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In fact, prior to a certain election, Dorothy and Lorelei were Little Rock, Arkansas’ most iconic exports. I was bemused by the theme of the double feature (How To Marry A Millionaire being the previous entry) which I described as “Sympathy for the Gold-digger.” But more on that in a moment.

You almost can’t blame Bill, if this is what he grew up around.

Our heroines are of two decidedly different temperaments with the athletic, aggressive Dorothy (Jane Russell) being more about male pulchritude and the sweet but highly-focused Lorelei seeing marrying a rich man as the only sensible approach a girl can take. Lorelei has her hooks in the nebbishy Gus, Jr. (Tommy Noonan) and is genuninely warm and affectionate toward him…but Lorelei is also warm and affectionate to any man with a lot of money.

The girls have a show where they sing and dance exposition, so this is a musical where almost all the music has a rational-esque explanation. Russell has one number, “Isn’t Anyone Here For Love?” in a gym full of beefy dudes that doesn’t make sense as merely an ambient outbreak of song-and-dance, unless it was that kind of cruise.

The Flower points out that they may not ALL have been gay.
They’re here for love, honey, but not the kind you can give.

Anyway, Lorelei ends up going overseas to get away from Gus, Jr., who himself can’t break free of his suspicious, controlling father’s grasp, and the second act of the movie takes place on a cruise ship. She meets “Piggy”, a diamond king, and seduces away his wife’s tiara from him. But the suspicious Gus, Sr. has hired a detective (Elliot Reid) to keep on an eye on her—or more accurately to get evidence against her, and he snaps some compromising (if perhaps unfair) photos.

Lorelei and Dorothy scheme to get the evidence back, said scheme itself complicated by Dorothy’s attraction to the dick.

“If we can’t empty his pockets between us, then we’re not worthy of the name Woman.”

By the time the girls arrive in Paris, they end up penniless, under suspicion by the law and, worst of all, broken-hearted.  The do find success in a suspiciously large Paris nightclub, though.

It all works out for the best, as it must, but there is a terrific moment at the end when Lorelei confronts Gus, Sr. He claims she’s interested in Juniors money, and she retorts that that’s ridiculous, since Junior doesn’t have any money. She’s interested in Gus, Senior’s money! He’s appalled but that’s when she lays it out for him:

Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty? You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?

One thing they understood very well in the ’50s and (all prior history really), was that a woman can use her looks to “trade up”, socioeconomically speaking. The theme of both movies was that a woman of charm does herself a disservice by settling for a guy who’s going nowhere. It’s not for every woman. But neither is it some necessarily mercenary task. The vast landscape of civilization shows marriage as being a decision of trade-offs, and often the ones most “passionately in love” are the ones whose relationships fizzle out. (By survey, arranged marriages do better than those where the two people choose for themselves. That probably says nothing good about humans, but there it is.)

I submit they understood the realities of life back then, and also the distinction between marrying just for money versus taking the entire future life ahead into consideration when making decisions that impact that whole life.

Anyway, however anyone felt about the plot or the politics of it, they made a great movie. Monroe and Russell are both dazzling. The dance numbers are fun. The costumes won The Flower’s approval. There are a lot of good, wacky set pieces, in that ’50s style. We loved it.

And Marilyn was far more appealing in motion than in stills.

Goldfinger (1964)

One of the problems with the Laemmle’s theme months is that they often open with a classic. Like “Military May” began with The Dirty Dozen and of course couldn’t top that. (I missed that one, but The Flower was subsequently disappointed by M*A*S*H, e.g., because as she said, “The Dirty Dozen was great!” (And after M*A*S*H—heh—they showed PlatoonStripes and Three Kings.) When you’re having a Shaken, Not Stirred month celebrating James Bond, and you go in chronological order, you are begging for exactly this problem.

And you might as well pack it in after Goldfinger, often regarded as the best of the Bonds.

Google Search’s “best guess” for this is “Quantum of Solace Dead Girl”.

This time around, 007 (Sean Connery, in his third outing) is investigating the nefarious Goldfinger! (You have to say it like that after hearing Shirley Basset sing the lurid theme song: Goldfingeeerrrr!) Goldfinger apparently has a gold smuggling racket, a penchant for cheating at cards and a nasty, murderous temper. As Bond travels the world (as he always must) his investigations reveal that Goldfinger is no ordinary villain—but a supervillain!

As we learned in Megamind, the difference between a villain and a supervillain is: style!

Not content with mere smuggling and hoarding of gold, Goldfinger has decided he’s going to take Fort Knox! Preposterous, as Bond points out, because all the gold in Fort Knox has been gone for years! No, wait, that would be if they did the story today. But seriously: It’s a fort, so you can’t get in. And if you could get in, you couldn’t get the gold out. But that’s not Goldfinger’s plan at all, no, he’s going to irradiate the gold! Thus removing it from the market and making his own gold more valuable.

I suspect that, more than gold, he loves carbs.

Which, when you think about it, means he’s less about loving gold—you don’t render something you love untouchable for decades, do you?—and more about being rich, but whatever. He’s the one with the super-elite squad of super-model fighter pilots, so who’s going to argue with him? Maybe you’d like to take it up with his ginormous, deadly-hat-throwing Korean wrestler, Oddjob? No? OK, then.

Also, to do this, he’s going to kill a lot of people. Not just with radiation but with poison gas that will allow him to get the dirty bomb into Fort Knox. And he’s involved the surprisingly gullible leaders of the American mafia somehow.

His super-elite squad of pilot-honeys are led by Pussy Galore, played by the inimitable Honor Blackman, late of the BBC spy show, “The Avengers”. (Sort of amusingly, the next week’s film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would feature Diana Rigg—also late of “The Avengers”—as the love interest.) She’s got a back story and doesn’t just roll over for Bond, at least not right away!

She offered her honor, he honored her offer, and all night long he was on her and off her.
Honor Guard

I should note, however, that Bond literally seduces his way out of trouble in this one. I don’t mean a come-hither-look-to-the-sexy-gaoler-so-he-can-get-the-keys kind of seduction, either. No, this is a lot more elaborate.

It’s goofy, goofy stuff. And I’m generally not a Bond fan. They all sort of run together in my head. (About six times while writing this, I had to erase something because I had it confused with OHMSS.) But there is something to seeing this on the big screen and enjoying its adventurousness and unabashed heterosexuality. It’s just fun. There’s no complex moral question being raised, just good vs. evil, and we all know who is who. (Even Pussy, who is closely associated with Goldfinger, is good at heart, and we all know that.)

As such, it rises and falls on its production values. The actors are likable, but hardly straining themselves dramatically. The sets are beautiful and appropriately over-elaborate. (Goldfinger’s HQ “war-room” being a great example.) The gadgets (including the now infamous ejector seat in the Jag) are fun. There’s never a bad reason to have a good-looking woman around. The action scenes are excellent—except that the rear projection technique sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s a little jarring now to have the very practical effects interspersed with something that was end-of-life back in ’64.

I can't remember now if he's a Korean guy playing Japanese, or the other way around...
Honestly, who throws a hat?

It’s a good time. In some ways, it reminds me of From Dusk Till Dawn, which we would saw the month before (as part of the “Down Mexico Way” theme): It’s just fun, spectacle, sex and unpretentious fantasy, three of which are missing from the current Bonds. (There’s still spectacle, but the fantasy pretends to reality.)

The Boy missed it, and regretted it muchly, while The Flower just loved it. While she’s not a big fan of the ’60s, she does appreciate the fashion and appreciation of feminine pulchritude. She would subsequently demur on all Bond films: To her, Bond was Sean Connery, and she was concerned that even his other entries into the Franchise wouldn’t live up to this.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

While I am not a fan of “you ruined my childhood!” as a lamentation, it is possible to ruin something retroactively. With Avatar, for example, James Cameron basically did all of his old tricks, but in such a ham-handed way that one could conceivably go back to his older films and not be unable to see all the strings and levers. It turned out not to be the problem for Aliens (1986), but how would Terminator 2 hold up, given its heavy reliance on at-the-time-cutting-edge CGI?

Got that from "Bloom County".
Foreshadowing: The hallmark of all great literature.

The answer turns out to be: pretty damn well. It may even be better than it seemed originally, because we’re also all relieved of having to compare to the original Terminator, which is a much simpler and more visceral film. You don’t really even need to have seen the original to enjoy this, as the Flower very much enjoyed it. (This probably isn’t true of the subsequent sequels.)

This film takes place over a decade after the events of the first (only seven years of real time had passed), and Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton, who achieved iconic status in this time period, in no small part for this role) is locked in an asylum after trying to stop the future she sees as inevitable. Her son John (Edward Furlong) is a kind of jerk in foster care with some jerky foster parents, and in-between hacking phones and inappropriately employing the various survival techniques he learned from his mother, he thinks she’s genuinely nuts.

There’s not a lot of set-up though, because before you know it, the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back, but with a twist: He’s been sent back to protect Sarah and John from the newer, more menacing T-1000 (Robert Patrick, kicking ass).

Mayhem ensues.

A mixed bag, I'd imagine.
How badass was Linda Hamilton? Well, she survived being married to Cameron.

The action is top-notch, again. The CGI, while obvious, holds up very well because it’s visually simple and communicates very well. The menace conveyed by the building of a hostile intelligence from millions of nigh-indestructible nanobots was very trendy back then—almost as trendy as the black computer nerd. (I only point this out because, thirty years later, people like to pretend that the ’70s and ’80s, when all kinds of minorities were mainlined, never happened.)

In between the action, we learn about the characters, which manage to straddle that line between having depth and being, like, totally super serious you guys. Like, Sarah is a bad-ass in this—in a lovely contrast from her previous, more damsel-in-distress role—but John never hesitates to slap her down (metaphorically) when she gets all apocalyptic and preachy. To Furlong’s great credit (and Cameron’s, as the writer), John is a sarcastic teen we don’t hate. He is sympathetic despite his sarcasm and, where hyper-skilled teens are a nuisance in ’90s media, John at least has a reason for his skills, which aren’t much above mere vandalism.

And it's not his fault.
That haircut alone should make us hate him.

Arnold manages to emote while doing nothing detectable at all. It’s not that easy, when you think about it.

The rules governing Patrick’s behavior are a lot looser. He’s allowed (“programmed”, or whatever) to feign human emotion, so he comes off as chillingly sociopathic. Also, since he typically plays above his actual age (he turns 60 in November), it’s sort of surprising how young and handsome he looks here (at 33).

But when you get down to it, what this movie has that future Cameron movies wouldn’t have is a character like John: Someone to slap it down when it went too far up its own ass. That is to say: Terminator works because it is deadly earnest about what it is: An excellent sci-fi action flick with just enough resonance to feel a little deeper than it actually is. (The big peril, mind, is Artificial Intelligence, that boogeyman of sci-fi going back to before Asimov’s bubble-gum robot stories, and which presents itself as a new peril to every generation, apparently.)

You can be a black computer nerd, but you still have to die.
They’re like the three musketeers, if one of the musketeers was about to die.

It’s deadly earnest about being entertaining, in other words, without being too serious about its “message”. Its message is in the mouth of its heroine, Sarah, who herself realizes that she’s a little over the top sometimes.

Years ago, when Chuck Jones’ biography Chuck Amuck came out, I remember thinking, “Wow, you hated these producers, and they were surely uncreative dunderheads…but your genius emerged from fighting these guys.” It’s a common refrain in art. The greatest art has a form which is somehow limiting, often severely so, and the smartest artists realize this. (Robert Frost and his “tennis without a net”, Schoenberg objecting, rightly, to his 12-tone system being “free”, etc.)

But Hollywood, especially post-studio-system, is geared to tell successful directors that they can do no wrong. Go ahead and make a movie about a super-powered alien and a bat-themed vigilante that only makes sense in a three-hour cut? Two hours and ten minutes about a sexually ambiguous dressmaker? A space opera but without any heroics? You’re the one with the vision, boss!

Something like Terminator 2 is a truly rare beast these days: It’s a big-budget action flick with a very distinctive auteur, that never stops being fun.

He's a robot, see.
I like how Patrick never looks more than slightly put out by anything.

The Cakemaker

It had been a while since we’d seen an Israeli film, which was our staple before we switched to classics and Asian cinema, and this film The Cakemaker was getting the good buzz and hanging around, so we trundled off to see it. It had also been a while since we’d seen a gay movie, and this one was, yeah, really gay. But it’s Israeli, so it’s also moody and conflicted about the whole thing. And mostly not slanted, which makes things a lot more bearable.

A man in Berlin buys pastry for his wife back home in Israel. He chats up the baker with long, lingering looks and—”I’ve made a terrible mistake” pops into my head. But as the two lean in to kiss, fade to black. Cut to a year later, the two are hanging out in the German baker’s apartment, and we learn the two have been spending time together consistently whenever Oren (the Israeli) comes to town. He always goes home, but he always comes back.

Until he doesn’t.

Look at that. Yum.
And it’s not due to the pastry.

The story kicks off because our baker, Thomas, is completely bereft. He calls constantly. He finally goes so far as to return some property to the business where Oren works, only to find out that he has died. This does not improve Thomas’ emotional state, as you might imagine, and before you know it, Thomas has booked a flight to Israel.

Now, this is the sort of thing that, were you Thomas’ friend, you would strongly dissuade him from doing. But Thomas has no friends—had no friend but Oren, and so off he goes to track down Oren’s wife. This is also the sort of thing from which you would believe, rightly, that no good can come from. However, this is a movie, and…well, it’s still hard to say whether anything good comes from this. Even the movie punts.

Basically Thomas ends up working with Oren’s wife, Anat, who runs an unsuccessful dodgy little café that has scored a big win in being certified Kosher (the dodgy part being that she’s not really sincere or careful). As a newly single mom, she’s often having to close up the shop for maternal reasons, and Thomas is there enough to eventually score a job.

There’s a lot of baking in this film.

This leads to some difficulties, as he isn’t aware of the Kosher rules, and some Israelis are (shockingly!) suspicious of Germans. Ultimately, though, Thomas is such the consummate baker that the shop quickly gains a reputation for its highly distinctive baked goods. (This distinctiveness is going to lead to issues later on when Anat’s suspicions are in need of confirmation.)

Things get as complicated as you might imagine, and then some, because on top of the usual stuff you’d expect, there is a fascinating question of religion and godliness thrown in. Anat wants the benefits of being Kosher, but she wants nothing to do with the responsibilities. And as we’ve seen before, often and recently, the Israelis are not afraid to show secular people floundering with loss and grief, when they lack the support of their community. Which isn’t to say that the movie takes a side: Nobody’s suggesting anyone should change any behavior, no matter how destructive it is.

Which, heh.

Pictured: Complications

Anyway, it’s a pretty good melodrama. There is a homosexual sex scene around the end of the second act which, I think, is meant to prove that the boys are really, really gay. I mean, in the current ZPG zeitgeist, heterosexuality is never the answer, and this fits in well with that, with no other real purpose. The movie had established both that Oren and Thomas were sincerely gay, and also that they occasionally fell off the wagon. (I think that’s an appropriate phrasing for the ZPG zeitgeist: Any sex anyone has that might result in a child is a mistake.)

We did all like it, though. The Flower loved the baking scenes (which are quite nice) and looked away during teh gay sex. I did not recommend it to my mom—who otherwise might have enjoyed it for the baking, and it’s definitely over-rated on Rotten Tomatoes. But if that’s not a deal-breaker for you, and you want to see a modestly paced complex drama, it’s worth a look.

I kinda don't think so.
But is it Kosher?

Three Identical Strangers

Probably the most horrifying thing about the Nazis is the fact that, no matter how much some try to cover it up, the philosophy itself (or some variation) seems to be the inevitable consequence of progressivism. It’s all very well to say “Never Again” with regard to the Jews—and it’s much easier to say than to actually enforce, as we see in Europe and increasingly in the U.S.—and then to neglect the Tutus, Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Christians in China, the Middle East and elsewhere, and of course all the populations who stand against Communists when they come to power.

There’s a curious moment in this movie where the filmmakers track down a woman involved in this fairly horrific, dehumanizing experiment and she reveals that both she and the doctor in charge were kept in camps during WWII. As we walk by her photos with prominent left-wing politicians (e.g., the Obamas and Clintons) we are treated to an excuse that sounds much like Eichmann’s: Why, she was barely involved in this experiment and only for a little while.

The story behind Three Identical Strangers is one that goes from wondrous to weird to horrifying, and if you remember it (as I do) you probably never got past the “weird” phase. That is, the three men involved sort of dropped out of the media limelight before we learned the horrifying aspects of it. Basically, you have the story of a guy who goes to college his freshman year and discovers that he’s well known and very popular—but everyone is calling him by the wrong name.

I only remember Savitch because she died, TBH.
With Jessica Savitch. No, wait, with Jane Pauley. OK, I don’t remember.

After a short while of this, a clever third party puts the pieces together and the two boys go to visit what turns out to be mysteriously-popular-boy’s identical twin, adopted from an early age. Well, that’s exciting and the two compare notes and hit it off and make the local news. But they aren’t long in the local news before the story is seen by their identical triplet!

The amazing story skyrockets the trio into fame, fortune, sex, drugs and rock-and-roll (and as we all know that story seldom ends well).

A cursory grilling of the adoption agency reveals a furtive “Oh, we always separated twins so that they’d be more likely to adopt,” an excuse that sounds plausible but of course pisses off the parents who would’ve adopted all three of the boys.

All’s well that ends well, right? The boys are happy discovering their similarities and that, despite their different upbringings, they have a tremendous amount in common. Weird, though, that one was adopted by a working class couple, one by a middle-class couple and one by a wealthy couple. Weird also that they each have an older sister. And further, that each was visited year after year by an evaluator who gave them IQ tests and monitored their behavior.

Almost like it was all arranged from the get go.

Yeah, it just gets creepier and creepier. Quite apparently, the adoption agency in question was working with psychs (-iatrists and/or -ologists) conducting experiments on identical siblings by placing them in different environments. They find an evaluator who also gives the “I was barely involved” excuse though they manage to break that one down. We begin to detect some shame in him, especially as we look back over what he did know and could have easily prevented simply by telling the parents.

I am disinclined to blame all the boys’ problems on this nefarious experiment. Although it didn’t help, the hedonistic life-style of the early ’80s was probably not the best for, well, anyone but least of all some young men who had a family history of emotional instability. At one point the moviemakers try to find out whether or not the study specifically targeted those with a history of emotional issues, but the details (and results) of the study are tightly controlled by The Powers That Be. (Also, you’re at an adoption agency. The odds are higher than average that such issues are going to exist, I should think.)

Is that a thing? It should be a thing.
I’m more likely to blame The Madonna Curse than anything.

On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Interesting, worthwhile, but ultimately soaked in a kind of futility.
  2. Presentation. Simple and straightforward. If you remember things like “Donahue” and Studio 54, the stock footage is kind of fun.
  3. Slant. I’m gonna call this one pretty “flat”: Obviously there’s an advocacy for the triplets (and the other separated twins who suffered under these experiments) and general lament about transparency, but it’s largely politics-free and doesn’t lionize or demonize anyone.

The aforementioned futility (point 1) comes from the lack of transparency (point 3) and the fact that they can’t get any answers about what was going on. But even more, the idea that there could be any answers from a study like this reminds me of the (incredibly stilted) arguments that were popular a decade or two ago: If the Nazis learned something from their experiments on their victims, is it wrong to use that information?

First of all, no, that’s dumb, knowledge is knowledge, and we aren’t so bloody smart that we can afford to throw any of it away.

Second of all, it’s even dumber because there’s absolutely no way to trust anything the Nazis said about what they were doing.

In this case, though, you have one of the typically dumb, non-scientific premises of psychs, which is that “if we separate twins at birth, we can measure the impact of environment versus hereditary.” Oh, you can, huh? What about the 9 months that the two of them spent in utero? You know, the nine most important months in an organism’s life? Not only is there a huge environmental impact there, it’s different depending on the twin and probably even more exaggeratedly different with a triplet.

It’s D.O.A. It can teach nothing.

The old Jewish lady who apparently internalized Nazism, on the other hand, she had it all figured out: “You haff no free will! Sorry!” And this is always the end game of progressivism: You have no free will, and therefore you need them to control you. You know, like they did with these three guys.

Check it out.

Life, I mean.
It doesn’t always work out for the best.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

I was never a fan of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” (though now more than ever I appreciate the proper use of the possessive apostrophe), a sleepy little TV show that seemed impossibly gentle for its time (from 1968 till August 31, 2001). But over the years, I began to respect Fred Rogers as a genuine man because you only ever heard one thing about him: That he was exactly who he seemed to be on the show.

That, and he was a crack sniper in ‘nam. (He wasn’t.)

Millions of captured hearts.
89 confirmed kills.

But beyond celebrity gossip (Johnny Carson used to marvel how genuine Mr. Rogers was) which is, of course, subject to PR agencies and just run-of-the-mill slander and hagiography, you would also hear over the years from individuals who had run into him with the common theme of: He stopped everything he was doing (including trying to catch a plane) to talk to someone in need. In other words, beyond cultivating a persona of “grownup you can trust and confide in”, he actually lived that life.

There aren’t nearly enough of those stories in this otherwise fine documentary, which traces his beginnings as a minister and his concern over television as a babysitter. I’m phrasing things a lot more harshly than he did: He never says “TV is a babysitter and you all should be ashamed of yourself”. He simply observed that children were being exposed to a lot of television, and that television was very unfriendly toward them.

The only solution: Creepy puppets!

He never says, “The news media promotes chaos and fear because that’s what gives it power.” No, he talks about words children surely heard a lot of, like “assassination” in one of the earliest shows of 1968, and then he repeats his message about the goodness in people, and the trustworthiness.

I found myself objecting to the reality that Mr. Rogers lived in: One where children were set in front of a TV and had to be shown a safe, fake neighborhood with simple rules, basic manners, and small-C christian values; A world where public monies had to be spent to create even that fake neighborhood—and Mr. Rogers, per this documentary, was pivotal to PBS continuing at a time when the Nixon administration might have killed it; A world where his attempts to translate his success with children to success with adults was amazingly unsuccessful; In the end, a world where he was brought out of his retirement to try to address 9/11—something not suited to his overall message.

But I can’t object to how he navigated that world: With sincere and at least locally successfully attempts to make it better.

Somewhere around Day 2.
I, for one, could not have resisted (for 40 years!) marching Godzilla through this neighborhood.

Beyond the stage persona, the documentary shows us the charming behind-the-scenes aspects of his personality. There’s humor (not all of it appropriate for children) and struggle, and a little undercurrent of darkness—though thankfully nothing of the squalor which is de rigueur in these sorts of docs. The closest to anything of that sort is a little vignette of Francois (Officer) Clemmons.

Officer Clemmons is central to the movie’s premise of Mr. Rogers’ significance: In 1968, Mr. Rogers coaxed Clemmons into playing a police officer. In 1968, police officers were not considered too groovy in the black community…which is doubtless why Rogers wanted him to play that role. In 1969, on a hot day in the neighborhood, he invites Clemmons to splash his feet in a kiddie pool with him. These were pretty edgy things for a kid show.

A fabulous singer, Francois Clemmons is also a homosexual, which Mr. Rogers found out about due to certain indiscretions. Obviously, Mr. Rogers couldn’t have an “out” homosexual on the show, so Clemmons stayed in the closet and even had a sham marriage. I couldn’t quite piece this part together, since Clemmons has apparently been “out” since his divorce 1974, and was on the show until 1983 and then re-appeared in 1993.

Much less edgy.
Recreating the scene 25 years later.

I consider three main points when rating documentaries: (1) Is the subject matter worthy or interesting; (2) Was the presentation worthy of the material; (3) What’s the slant? So, on that scale:

  1. Subject matter: Mr. Rogers is a cultural icon to a lot of people. Despite having been in the target audience, I never made it 5 minutes into one of his shows, yet I knew quite a bit about him and the tropes of The Neighborhood. But beyond that, Rogers would’ve been interesting (though much different) if he had been a late night horror host.
  2. Presentation: Fairly minimal. This isn’t a big, stylized production. That’s fine for this topic.
  3. Slant: The movie begins with the irascible King Friday trying to build a big wall to keep all the strangers and modernity out. At the end of the movie, they have a clip of Brian Kilmeade on “The Five” talking about how Mr. Rogers is the problem with society (because he told everyone they were special)! The wall bit is kind of funny. The Fox bit is gross, because in the movie chronology, Mr. Rogers had just died and the Kilmeade quote had to be well over 10 years later.

Kilmeade is wrong, of course: When Mr. Rogers said “you are special”, he meant to him and (probably, though the movie doesn’t say this) to God. The overriding message of the show is service (you to others and others to you), and the relatively mild slant isn’t enough to drag that into mere politics. Still, I would’ve preferred less of this stuff and Clemmons and more of things like Jeff Erlanger, a five-year-old who asked to meet Mr. Rogers before undergoing spinal surgery, and who ended up being on the show a few years later.

I kid!
And who grew up to be Steven Hawking.

Still, I liked it despite not being a fan of the show, kiddie shows, public television or TV generally. My companions ranged from maybe-saw-a-show-once to born-after-Rogers-died, but they also found it worthy.

Glory (1989)

I am not a fan of the Civil War, which I actually found kind of boring, though it was kind of fun to hear The Boy swear for months every time he did a search on “Civil War” and got superhero stuff instead of the military info he was interested in. Dumb Marvel jokes aside, what I’m getting at is that I didn’t see this Matthew Broderick movie when it came out. Glory was part of this month’s “Denzel Washington” theme, but while he may be the main character of the story from a dramatic perspective (more on that later), most screen time is devoted to the young, essentially untried Colonel Shaw who is put in charge of a negro regiment during the War of Northern Aggression.

He can...only do an English accent.
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Elwes?

Edward Zwick was at the height of his “Thirtysomething” success when he directed this, and it fits neatly into his white-guy-teaches-natives-how-to-fight series, along with The Last Samurai and Blood Diamond. I’m kidding, of course, though I somehow doubt this story (based on a real guy who did many of the things presented) would be made today.

Basically, Shaw is abolitionist loudmouth who ends up having to lead a troop of free blacks when a significant portion of the command structure wants them to fail. This bizarre situation was a recurring one in American history. Many black men were denied the right to fight in the Revolutionary War, and sometimes were allowed to fight only to return to their lives as slaves afterward. In WWI, the black troops, the men were delayed and delayed and delayed until the war was over. (This is detailed in George Schuyler’s terrific autobiography.)

Though I guess he could play him, if Denzel didn't beat him at the audition.
Pictured: Not George Schuyler

Shaw has to train them, with the help of his initially somewhat less committed pal (Cary Elwes), and they are stymied at every turn, with the army infrastructure denying them shoes, equal pay, and putting them on what is essentially clean-up duty rather than letting them fight. Although he’s occasionally shocked by the social consequences of actually helping blacks, he doesn’t really waver in his support for his men and their potential worth, ultimately proving to believe enough to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This makes him less interesting than Denzel’s character, Trip. He shares a tent with Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher, and he is the sort of cynical character you’d expect from a onetime uppity slave. He’s defiant and he’s got the scars to prove it—but he’s also obnoxious as hell. In that sense, his begrudging transformation into someone who finally dares to care about something is the highlight of the film.

Best actor ever?
He’s so darn cool! He’s so darn clever!

The film won three Oscars, including a supporting actor Oscar for Washington. As with a lot of Zwick’s stuff, though, it just feels like entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes think I’m “supposed” to regard it as a more serious work. On the one hand, The Last Samurai was more entertaining, but on the other, Defiance seems less slick and a lot more heart-felt and complex. (To say nothing of way less politically correct.)

But, hey, maybe Zwick just got better over 20 years! Glory was his second feature (after the bowdlerized, forgettable About Last Night…) after all, and it’s a darn good film. We all liked it. The kids, I think, liked it better than they expected to.

God Bless America!
You do feel proud, though.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

Dark night…it’s a daaaaark night! Say what you will about the oeuvre of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino—and I got a lot to say about (and probably to) both of them, the use of The Blaster’s “Dark Night” in opening of From Dusk Till Dawn is absolutely pitch-perfect. And the movie itself pulls off one of the only successful mid-movie genre switches in American cinema I can think of. (Asians do it as casually as Americans do training/dress-up montages. I have yet to fully grasp this.)

Like Darth Vader pouring water out in the ocean.
This…makes no sense. But is so perfect.

When I saw this back in ’96, I enjoyed it, but as is often the case with Rodriguez films, I felt that there was a lot of stupidity going on. A lot of things don’t make sense, not just from a plot standpoint, but from a physical universe standpoint. The speeds at which things move does not jibe with the length of time it takes for distances to be crossed. This is typically a verisimilitude breaker for me. And there’s no doubt that the big barroom vampire brawl makes no sense in any known physical realm. But I let it slide 20 years ago, because it was fun.

Now? Well, it mattered even less. It was even more fun. I’m not sure how that’s possible, except that along with skipping more important (to me) aspects of horror movies—like establishing a clear sense of rules so I can understand the peril to the characters—Rodriguez and Tarantino skip all the tedious parts. There’s no reason for any of this. At the end of the film, when George Clooney interrogates Cheech Marin (in his third role of the film) why he picked this bar, he says, “No reason. One place is as good as the next.” The only thing that could pass for exposition is that last shot, panning away from the bar, revealing it to be on a cliffside and the very top of an ancient Aztec pyramid.

Is there a later example of a matte in a major film?
How ya doin’, Matte?

Nice. And that’s the kind of movie this is. It’s sheer EC comic book “Tales from the Crypt” stuff. As such, the imagery is meant to be cool, not logical. And there is a ton of cool imagery.

Don’t expect any depth. George Clooney’s a bad man whose only redeeming qualities are loyalty to his brother and not being a pedophile. His brother is a sexual psychopath, played by Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino wrote the part for himself, presumably, and it includes a scene where he drinks booze off of Salma Hayek’s foot. (Tarantino is somewhere in between Woody Allen and Edward D. Wood, Jr., as far as putting his neuroses on screen.)

Meanwhile, fun fact: Most of these old movies, when they’re put into high-def, you discover all the flaws and shortcuts that were not available in “standard” definition. Seams in set walls, or marks, or just fakeness really pops in high def. And the actors tend to look a lot more ragged as well, too, having been made up for a lower resolution. FD2D gives us our only exception to date.

I think we can.
Can we get this scene in 4K?

Salma Hayek actually looks hotter in high-def, The Flower and I agreed.

Yowza. Anyway, the movie is powered with great performances from B-movie stalwarts like (makeup impresario) Tom Savini (last seen by us in Knightriders), Fred Williamson, and the generally-respected-but-no-stranger-to-B-movies, Harvey Keitel. Keitel’s part is one of those glorious clichés—he’s a fallen priest—that makes no sense, and actually has very little to do with the action as it unfolds, but given the existential nature of the crisis (vampires in Western culture are traditionally set against the Christian tradition, after all) it’s as wonderfully lurid as The Blasters’ electric guitar riff on “daaaaaark night”.

It reminds me a bit of Gene Hackman in The Poseidon Adventure, where Hackman’s not just fallen but downright angry at God, to the point where he is yelling at him while sacrificing his own life saving the others. (They’re playing The Poseidon Adventure in December, so I’m excited about taking the kids to see that gloriously bloated B-movie melodrama.)

I guess the point is that it’s a stylish comic book movie with no superheroes and no real pretensions except a desire to be cool and fun that succeeds on exactly that level. That ain’t bad. Our modern superhero flicks could use a lot more of that attitude, to be honest.

We all loved it.

QT can take a powder, too.
Clooney. Clooney! Down in front, man!

Animal World

The Boy and I have for years relied on our local independent theater for movie options when Hollywood has failed us, which was usual enough that said theater was our version of “Cheers” (and we were “Norm”s). And because the theater was Encino, we saw a lot of Israeli films amongst the more traditional European fare, and with a smattering of Persian mixed in. But a couple of years ago, we started venturing into Korean films, which were great, and this year we found a spot for Chinese imports. At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see).

Chinese films are wild. They’re basically the descendants of the chopsockey flicks of the ’70s, and you can still see The Shaw Brothers label on a lot of these films. But what has happened, I’m told, is that the Chicoms have some grasp on the power of cinema, and have been pouring tons of cash into their film industry. The Chinese have the sort of political correctness that results in death when violated, and yet ironically—perhaps because their restrictions are not ours, perhaps also because film makers are given wide latitude—their movies feel a lot freer than ours. (Straight up no permutation of the gloriously racist Detective Chinatown 2 could be made in this country.) And they tend to be highly moral.

And this brings us to Animal World, a delirious adventure into the no-holds barred world of underground Rock Scissors Paper, which ended Jurassic World‘s reign at the Chinese box office.

At the time of this writing, the worldwide top ten features the martial-action (Yemen Civil War based!) Operation Red Sea and the hilarious Detective Chinatown 2, each with around $550M, of which about $1.5-2M came from America (which bears on the subject film of this post, as we’ll see). While not on that same level of success, Animal World is a delirious adventure into the no-holds-barred world of underground “Rock Scissors Paper”—and it did knock Jurassic World‘s off the #1 spot at the Chinese box office.

A commenter at Ace of Spades HQ, where this was originally posted, pointed out that the Chinese government could just be buying the tickets.

Our story begins with Kaisi, a loser whose job is to dress as a clown so unfortunate children can have their pictures taken with him. Kaisi has a nurse girlfriend he can’t marry (because he has no money), and while this bothers him, he’s basically too preoccupied with fantasies of mass murder to do anything about it. The opening scenes of this movie (after a teaser showing the climactic scene) are peppered with shots of him in a subway car, in full clown makeup, John-Wicking the hell out of monster-people.

Kung-fu Clown!
Insane Posse-less Clown

Other reviews of this movie I’ve read refer to these sequences as “fun” and “highlights”, but since they’re so context-less at first, I found them alienating. Movies that try to get their impetus from the audience having to guess “Is that real? Did that really happen?” sit poorly with me. Fortunately, Animal World leaves the fantasy world behind pretty fast for a possibly more bizarre reality. (The fantasy sequences return at the end, but re-contextualized in a way that was meaningful.)

The story gets moving when, against his better judgment, Kaisi puts his mom’s apartment as collateral for a loan to help his friend out. His mom is comatose in the hospital, and he can barely keep her from being moved out into the hall (socialized medicine FTW). Well, what do you know but that those papers he signed (but didn’t read) actually put him on the hook for his pal’s debt. It will take him his whole life to pay them off.

And this is when Michael Douglas (!) shows up, as Anderson, and offers our hero an out. If Kaisi goes on a secret boat trip with a bunch of fellow losers, he’ll have the chance to not only wipe out his debt, but actually come away rich.

Kirk Douglas' son!
Pictured: Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband.

After a final, surprisingly long fantasy where Kaisi imagines himself breaking free of his captors—and when I say long, I mean there’s gun play and an elaborate car chase and yet, at this point, we’re well aware that it can’t possibly be real because our hero doesn’t actually do things—he finds himself on the boat named “Destiny” where he must play Rock Scissors Paper to survive.

The rules are simple:

  1. Everyone starts with 4 cards each of Rock, Scissors and Paper, and three coins.
  2. Each game consumes one card from each player. If it’s not a draw, the winner takes a coin from the loser.
  3. To get off the boat alive, you must have three coins, and no cards left.
  4. Coins can be used to buy cards and are worth money (to survivors).
  5. There are no other rules, except no fighting. (What kind of chop-sockey is this?)

A quick murder from Anderson of a player who tries to flush his cards down the toilet, and constant rumors about bizarre experiments in the ship’s “lower hold”, combined with the fact that a certain number of (often highly scarred) people are repeat customers quickly convinces us of the seriousness of the situation.

Kaisi quickly discovers a helpful fellow who points out that if they simply play the same cards at the same time, they’re golden. They simply use all their cards and end up with three coins and no cards. This works at first until the helpful fellow ends up “mistakenly” playing the wrong card. He quickly reassures our hero that he’ll throw the next match to even things out—and of course ends up taking our heroes second coin, leaving him with just one.

Who will betray our hero?
Friends, or at least allies—for a while.

As a real-world dramatization of The Prisoner’s Dilemma, this movie gets real compelling real fast. Anderon’s ship is the titular Animal World: A broken down society where it’s every man for himself. Our hero struggles to survive, first on his own, then with a small group of trusted confederates who figure out how they can use asymmetric info—only to be thwarted by Anderson—and then finally in the only way a civilization can be constructed out of a barbarism: By bringing a kind of law—a law which is fair and does not favor himself—into the chaos.

There are a lot of betrayals and disappointments, and the hero’s lassitude in real life is revealed to be this understanding (or contempt) for “civilization’s” lack of ethics. They are the animals (the monster-people of his clown murder fantasy sequences), and he will not join or encourage their lawlessness. It may be ironic that his solution is the very opposite of the violence he fantasizes about.

Or it may just be a way to stuff some fantasy action scenes into a crime story, I don’t know. We walked away impressed, and very entertained.

Loosely based on the Japanese manga “Tobaku mokushiroku Kaiji” which Google translates into “Gambling Apocalypse disclosure.”

Cavemen had to play rock-rock-rock, which was really boring.
Real life and fantasy blend at the RSP table.

The Accidental Detective 2: In Action

After seeing the smash hit Chinese comedy, Detective Chinatown 2, it was amusing to come across this Korean sequel to Accidental Detective—which we also had no knowledge of, even though it turns out that beyond the title and a general comedy/mystery feel, the two movies have nothing in common.

Is one even needed?
I have no caption for this.

If I can gather the premise of the first movie, Dae-Man is a comic book store owner who’s also a crime enthusiast/wannabe detective, and he crosses paths with the crusty-but-benign police detective Detective Noh during a crime case that the former (with the help of the latter) end up solving. In the opening of this movie, Dae-Man is wandering around the police department and various crime scenes looking for another commendation and making a general nuisance of himself. But unbeknownst to everyone in their lives, the two have started a detective agency. (Notably, they’re lying to their wives, and the secrets don’t stop there..)

But, of course, there’s hardly in crime in Korea, so the two are starving. When it looks like things are going to fall through, a widow comes by (with a fat insurance check) who believes her husband’s death wasn’t accidental.

Good-natured ribbing!
Start out laughing.

The two are off on a chase where a series of seemingly unconnected murders are in fact connected in a rather sinister way. By contrast with the Chinese movie, the comedy is far less broad and slapstick, though there is a comic relief character in the form of a computer hacker named Hopper. When our heroes aren’t abusing him (or vice-versa), they’re trying to keep him away from his share of the money.

Also unlike the Chinese film, we learn a bit about our characters, and they seem to grow a bit through the process, and the fate of our widow is important to our characters (and makes them more heroic to the audience). On the other hand, there’s nothing like the Chinese film’s fantastic special effects—though of course it’s beautifully shot.

We enjoyed it. The Boy thought he might’ve enjoyed it if not more than DC2, then in a different way.

That's from "Mad About You"!
End up crying…

Lobster Cop

I mean. The title. The title alone virtually guarantees you gotta go see this film. I mean, is he a cop who’s a lobster or is he a cop with jurisdiction over lobsters, or some kind of crazy mix of both?
Former owner, I think.
Or whatever…this…is.
And the answer is: Neither. He’s a cop who makes lobster. And, actually, it’s crawfish. But I guess Crawfish Cop, despite the alliteration, doesn’t have the same panache, so we got lobsters. The premise is simple: A rag-tag team of investigators trying to bring down a drug kingpin (they love their drug kingpin villains in China, which I guess makes sense given their history) opens up (as a front) a restaurant across the street from the bad guys’ hideout, and it turns out that one of them is very good at coooking—and before you know it, they’ve got a going concern as a popular spot for shellfish. It’s brisk, delightful and jam-packed, but not as adept at juggling tones as other Asian films we have seen. We’ve talked a lot about how good the Asians are at switching things up, going from comedy to drama, sometimes slapstick to apocalypse, in a heartbeat. I haven’t figured out how they do it so well, but I will note this one doesn’t quite.
Still endearing, though.
The crew is grungier than we’re used to seeing in Asian cinema.
It’s not that the funny parts aren’t funny—they are—or that the gripping parts aren’t gripping—they are, and how!—but that the success of shifts like this seem to depend a certain magic that leaves you more exhilarated than jarred. And the shifts here are sometimes jarring. You kind of forgive it because the movie is really good about making you care about the characters, and it’s funny while having a couple of the most tense standoffs I’ve seen in movies. There’s probably too much here for its 90 minutes, and the crime story is pretty by-the-numbers. I also would’ve liked to see the restaurant aspect developed more, and the surprisingly serious tone of the investigation given a lighter feeling, but as a freshman effort from the hotter-than-average director Xinyun Li, we weren’t disappointed.

How To Marry A Millionaire (1953)

I documented a few months back how The Flower and I were not really Marilyn Monroe fans. We didn’t get it, as they say. Some Like It Hot made believers out of us, and so we eagerly attended this Monroe double-feature instead of going to see the increasingly rarely-screened Blazing Saddles. (Eat-See-Hear is showing Saddles outdoors on their giant screen this year so I hope the tide is turning on hyper-sensitivity.) I, personally, have always had a hard time separating the first film in our double-feature How To Marry A Millionaire with the second, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes which I am going to attribute to the fact that both were released in 1953, and both are centered around the idea of attractive women using their looks to bag rich men for husbands.

And both feature Marilyn Monroe, of course.

Top. Flight.

In HTMAM, we have three top-flight honeys (as The Flower and I call them), Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Our story begins when Schtaze Page (Bacall) finagles her way into a penthouse (or at least very high up) apartment, recently vacated by a guy named Freddie Denmark (the once ubiquitous David Wayne) who’s on the lam from the IRS. Her plan is simple: She wants to bag a rich man, and she’s not going to find a rich man unless she hangs out in places where rich men hang out, hence the apartment.

The problem is, she can’t even remotely afford it. She calls in pal Pola Debevoise (Monroe), and Monroe calls in Loco Dempsey (Grable) who proves her bona fides by managing to buy a formidable lunch for the three of them with only a quarter.

None of the girls have any money, but they’re game to the plan. There are some issues, of course. Roadblocks, as ’twere. Pola’s suitor (Alexander D’Arcy, in an eyepatch) is an obvious phony, hoping to get her alone in some isolated spot for a weekend or so. Loco’s guy (the choleric Fred Clark) is married, and simultaneously irritated by her and any insinuation that he would be doing anything untoward while simultaneously doing everything untoward, or at least setting up everything in a particular way. Schatze is spurning the attentions of young, handsome Tom Brookman, played by Cameron Mitchell—which is kind of fun because the Red Letter Media kids have discovered late-era Mitchell in their “Best of the Worst” series, which we’ve been enjoying lately.

That's a lotta star power.
L to R: Grable, Calhoun, some guy in the background, Bacall, Mitchell, Monroe and Wayne.

Here, though he’s young and handsome, Schatze spurns Tom because he’s a gas-pump jockey. She knows because she’s attracted to him, and that’s apparently sure sign of a gas-pump jockey. She’s divorced from one such specimen at the moment, and this is what spurs on her whole “marry a rich guy” quest. Her target is the very wealthy J.D. Hanley (William Powell) and he’s too savvy to fall for it: Not because he’s not attracted (duh) but because he feels the age difference, if not an issue now, would become one later in life.

Things heat up in the second act, when Loco flees from her married suitor into the arms of rich, rugged and handsome Eben (Rory Calhoun, speaking of guys with colorful end-of-life careers). All the timberland between this peak and that peak, he says, are his. But this turns out to be “his”, in the sense that he watches over them. ’cause he’s a park ranger living in a tiny shack in the middle of nowhere.

It's so legit.
“Do not play coy. Do you not see that I have the eye-patch?”

Meanwhile, Pola keeps running into Freddie, who sneaks back to the apartment several times (there are many good gags around this) and when she gets on a plane to go visit eyepatch-guy, ends up sitting next to Freddie. The running gag with Pola is that she can’t see without glasses, which she doesn’t wear because she doesn’t want to look like an old maid. The movie plays this up appropriately. And in a not-too-surprising twist, J.D. realizes “Hey! Lauren-Freakin’-Bacall!” and heads back to marry her while Tom (who is clearly rich and hiding it) becomes increasingly annoyed with Bacall’s insistence on a rich husband. Even though he’s pretty hung up on her.

There’s a lot of good material here and the honeys, as mentioned, are top-flight. Now, Bacall, at 29 is really starting to show the effects of her smoking. Grable is cute, but she’s 32, which is a little long-in-the-tooth to play the ingenue—especially for the day—and she seems a little tired. She basically retired after this, remarking to Marilyn “You can have it” or something like that. The 26-year-old (third billed) Marilyn is perfect, and it’s no big surprise that they pulled her in after this for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But I could just post pix of those three all day.
We were wondering if they still did those fashion-shows for rich customers looking to buy clothes for the women in their life.

It’s a solid comedy with solid characters and a lot of fun bits, though it’s generally ranked well below Blondes. The Flower preferred this, however, both for the humor and the sheer quantity of honeys, especially Bacall. The Boy reluctantly would prefer Blondes. I…dunno. Both were terrific. And at 90 minutes, you can watch both in less time than the trailer for a Peter Jackson film.