The Natural (1984)

It was hard to get the kids interested in the baseball movie month at the local Bijou, and I wasn’t really up to pushing The Bad News Bears very hard so we missed that one.  However, The Boy loves him some classic Simpsons, and The Flower some Randy Newman, so I could pitch this as “The movie ‘The Simpsons’ was parodying in their softball episode with the classic Randy Newman score!” and they bought it.

The Death of Wonder Bat

o/~I’m talking sooft-ball~\o

The Flower bought it so hard that she called it “The Randy Newman movie with Sundance“. I couldn’t dissuade her from this, no matter how hard I tried.

But the film has a hell of a pedigree. It was Barry Levison’s (last seen by us directing the plague flick The Bay) follow up to his classic film Diner. Besides Robert Redford, it features Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger and Barbara Hershey as well as some of the great character actors of the era: Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth, Robert Prosky and Joe Don Baker.

Of course, when Baker was on screen I had to yell “Mitchell!”. Every time. (OK, I just whispered it to The Flower but she was adequately annoyed for the whole audience.)

Hoyt Axton sang that.


The screenplay was by Phil Dusenberry (who didn’t do much else) and Roger Towne, which makes you think, “Oh, the guy who wrote Chinatown!” But it’s not him. That was Robert Towne, who is apparently Roger’s overachieving brother. Nonetheless, it’s a fine script based on Bernard Malamud’s book.

The music is no less than iconic. G’wan. Sing it with me now.

buh-BUHHHH! buh-Buh-buh-BUHHHHH!

You can see the night game lights exploding in a shower of sparks, can’t you?

Or imagination. Or your brain-thinking.

There. Now you don’t even need to use your memory.

Great, thinly disguised morality tale of a boy who goes off to the city after leaving home and his girl, and ends up getting blasted by Barbara Hershey and never fulfilling his destiny of being The Greatest Ballplayer Of All Time.

I say “thinly disguised” but I should probably just go ahead and say “transparent”. This is a ridiculously simple story of good vs. evil, and sin and redemption. Redford plays Roy Hobb, the world’s oldest nineteen-year-old (he was 48, and the lighting does an admirable job hiding this, but there’s only so much darkness can do) whose true love Iris (Close, who doesn’t look much younger, at 37) gives him a farewell present before he goes off to the Big Leagues.

But he’s not on the train five minutes before he’s spotted by Barbara Hershey (actually a year younger than Close, but playing an older character) and, hey: Barbara Hershey!

A recurring theme in this film.

Easy on the eyes, hard on the baseball career.

Unfortunately, his probably not very innocent trip to her room ends with a botched murder/suicide and cut to fifteen years later and a tryout for team run by evil The Judge (Prosky). Pop (Brimley) runs and part owns the team, but he’ll lose it if to The Judge he can’t take ’em to the championship. The last thing he wants is a broken down forty-eight—er thirty-four-year old starter, but the joke turns out to be on him (and the Judge) when Roy smacks the ball outta the park with ridiculous frequency.

Dubious sports journalist Max Mercy (Duvall) introduces him to Memo Paris (Kim Basinger) in fairly obvious ploy to ruin him (because, honestly, who wouldn’t want to be ruined by Basinger?) and this strategy is as effective as it is elusive to Roy. Before you know it, the Mudhens (or whatever the team name is) are in jeopardy of losing their shot at the pennant, and Roy’s lifelong ambition is in danger of not being fulfilled. (But again: Kim Basinger.)

I did this already. But now it looks like a dirty joke.

When is she sincere? Who knows. But easy on the eyes and hard on the…

Things turn around when the team has a series of away games (as in away-from-Memo) and in Chicago a mysterious woman in White—long forgotten Iris—catches his eye. Before you know it, he’s putting the balls back over the fence and beginning to see through Memo (who is actually a genuinely tragic character in the film, both in her bought-and-paid-for nature and her yearning for something better).

An old man leaving the theater said “They don’t make ’em like that any more.”

Indeed, they do not. Truth be told, they didn’t make them like this in 1984. It’s an utterly bizarre throwback that would’ve been at home in the ’50s. But the magic of ’80s Barry Levinson is that it all works, somehow. Sure the acting is good, the lighting is inspired, the music iconic, and it has an overwhelming desire (as I’ve noted of a lot of surprisingly great films) to entertain.

This is something that It Happened One Night and Sleepless in Seattle have in common, and The Natural is similarly inclined, but in the case of The Natural, even the most minor scenes develop the story. It’s enough to make the whole “magical realism” thing seem perfectly…em…natural (sorry).

The kids loved it, and it made it much easier to get them to Field of Dreams the next week.

Hi, Tari!

Later, Close would become synonymous with “bunny boiler”.

Now, Voyager (1942)

After Marked Woman, the next feature was the one I really wanted to see: Now, Voyager. (I didn’t really have any idea what it was about, so perhaps only because it is generally well-regarded.) And, honestly, I am not a big Bette Davis fan. I don’t think she was especially pretty or charming, and her acting seemed to fall along fairly predictable lines, at least what I had seen of it. In this movie, however, she truly shines. I had a hard time believing it was her at points, as she plays Charlotte, a mousy, neurotic old maid (I don’t know, her character is probably, like 26 and Davis was 34) who is completely under the thumb of her mother (Gladys Cooper).

Salma Hayek could probably rock those brows.

Very mousy eyebrows.

She goes on a cruise and falls in love with a Jerry (Paul Henried, CasablancaGoodbye Mr. Chips). He’s married but miserable, and in fact his wife seems a lot like Davis’ mother (who has no first name in the movie), with their daughter Tina being the recipient of the sort of abuse Charlotte is personally familiar with. In the end, Jerry has a responsibility (to Tina primarily) to go back home, and Charlotte continues on her merry way.

The funny thing here being her way really is merry. Her brief, intense relationship with Jerry changes her. And once she’s seen the potential of life out from under her mother’s thumb, she blossoms. (And in classic ’40s de-frumpification, she takes off her glasses and gets less boxy clothes to signal losing weight.) When she gets home, she finds her family surprised at her newfound confidence, to say nothing of wardrobe.

Her mother, natch, wants no part of it. She wants her out of those slutty clothes and into her good, old spinster wardrobe, to throw out all those smutty books (I have no idea what those could be, but back in my mom’s day it was salty things like East of Eden), and to take the room right next to dear old mother so Charlotte can take care of the increasingly valetudinarian matriarch.

Left, Gladys Cooper before children. Right, after.

This movie surprised me. It surprised me that Charlotte blossomed. And it surprised me even more that she manages to stand up to the mother who formerly dominated her so thoroughly. I kept expecting there to be a big struggle between the two, but Charlotte handles her precisely right: She doesn’t allow herself to be baited while at the same time doing as she pleases.

The movie takes a third act turn (involving Jerry and Tina) which also surprised me. Much like Casablanca, though, Charlotte respects that her amorous interests are not the most important thing in the world. Her sense of ethics and morality , and the care of others, take precedence. And she finds a high degree of happiness in this.

It doesn’t have to be the only message in movies (it’s not always true). But it’s nice to see from time-to-time. (Quick: Name a contemporary mainstream film with that message.)

What a hat! What lapels!

The other foot has the shoe, now, eh, Paul Henried?

Bette Davis has never been better, if for no other reason than she plays against type, and does so utterly believably. Paul Henried is good, as always, though his role is relatively minor. Cooper (Rebecca, and that great “Twilight Zone” episode where she gets a phone call from Beyond The Grave) plays Davis’ mother, and is great. She’s too young for the role, but she doesn’t look it. (Charlotte’s supposed to be a “late in life” baby, but Cooper is only twenty years older.) Claude Rains plays the kindly psychoanalyst, but his sanitarium doesn’t seem to be very effective relative to pleasure cruises.

Max Steiner won an Oscar for the score.

It was the height of director Irving Rapper’s career. In the ’40s he would direct The Corn Is Green and Shining Victory, but his career would turn to B-movies by the ’50s and in the ’70s he finished up with The Christine Jorgensen Story (the movie Ed Wood was supposed to make when he made Glen or Glenda?) and Born Again (about Watergate figure Charles Colson). But here, he’s quite competent. This probably is more a commentary on the decline of Hollywood over those 30 years than anything.

The funny thing to me was that this more of a melodrama, by definition, in the sense of being about small matters (one’s emotional state is about as small a matter as drama can tackle) given a theatrical presentation, versus Marked Woman which is more about life-and-death and very noir-ish in its sort-of-flat-affect, but it felt more like a serious drama somehow. Maybe because the emotionalism is displayed as the problem rather than the reason for the story. And as Charlotte gets saner and saner, she makes better and better choices, less steeped in her internal psychodrama.

A good lesson for today, some would argue.

But subdued!

The love triangle. It’s…tense.

Marked Woman (1937)

The Flower has become especially enamored of the old films, the noir, and—let us be frank—the sartorial stylings of the pre-’60s era. As such, she’s more enthusiastic about seeing a double-feature with Bette Davis (who she had seen previously only in All Above Eve) than your average 15-year-old. (And more enamored of Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart than—oh, I don’t know who the girls are swooning at these days. Robert Pattinson? Is he still a thing?)

He was skinny, probably in terrible health, and an actor, but he was a MAN.

Can’t imagine why. *kaff*

The Bette Davis double-feature was playing against a showing of Reservoir Dogs, which I did want to see, but which (as I pointed out to the kids) is likely to turn up within the year unlike, say, the 1937 soaper Marked Woman, in which Davis plays a Speakeasy “hostess” who gets mixed up in a murder case—just as the kid sister she’s putting through college shows up unannounced.

Melodrama, I suppose, but still remarkably effective 80 years later.

One interesting thing, possibly inspired by the looming specter of the Hay’s Office, is how heavily moralistic it is. Davis’ character compromises herself to help her sister get along, but the scandal destroys her sister’s chances at a socially advantageous marriage to a boy she likes—or at least the little sister perceives it as so, and that leads to a sort of nihilistic recklessness which, well, let’s say it doesn’t work out well for anyone.

The marking.

Life is rough on the mean streats…er, speakeasies.

Humphrey Bogart plays the hard-nosed A.D.A. who demands Davis come clean, but there’s an incipient romance there as well. The movie wisely doesn’t develop this much, but leaves it as a possible bright spot in the marked woman‘s future. And, this movie is not above making the markedness here literal.

We all actually really liked it, though it’s not a classic. It holds up better than you’d probably expect, and while it’s very much a creature of its day, it’s not something so far removed that its hard to enjoy. Director Lloyd Bacon directed nearly 100 films, including 42nd Street and Knute Rockne: All American, but this is one of his best.

Good music, too.

Music! Guys! Dolls! (No relation.)

Life of Brian (1979)

As you may recall, I get nervous sometimes when taking the kids to a movie that was really big in my life. You just never know how well something from your past is going to hold up, though, to be honest, so far the surprises have been mostly pleasant. And not once has one of the kids looked at me like I was crazy. (Well, I mean, not for any of these movies.) But Life of Brian loomed huge in my early life, and it’s not something that everyone gets. First, it’s Monty Python. Second, there’s a lot of Latin/Roman/religious humor in it, and that is not accessible to everyone.

"Romane ite domum," of course.

“‘Romanes eunt domus?’ The people called Romanis they go like a house?” “It says ‘Romans go home!'” “No, it doesn’t!”

But, even if John Cleese has changed his mind over the years and argues now that this movie is blasphemous/sacrilegious/whatever—he didn’t back in the day, and you can find some interesting stuff on YouTube about it—I maintain that this is, fundamentally, a movie about human nature. Actually, in one of these debates (moviemakers used to debate religious leaders on late-night talk-shows in England in the ’70s, apparently) the bishop or abbot takes a cheap shot at the movie for lapsing lazily into nudity and swearing and a more on-the-nose shot about the movie borrowing its cachet from Jesus.

The former is accurate but not true. The brief nudity is hilarious and to the point: In Brian’s case, it summarizes perfectly his naivete. In the case of Judith, it summarizes her zealotry. The swearing, if we take broadly all the various Britishisms as swearing, is still on the mark today, which puts a lie to the notion that it was lazy or shock-value. (And if you don’t believe that, look at just about any of those Airplane! ripoffs that flooded the market in the ’90s/’00s.)

"He has a wife, you know..."

“What’s so funny about the name ‘Bigus Dickus’?”

The latter is accurate, but avoided as much as possible.  Originally, the film was to have a lot more Jesus in it, but they noticed that whenever He came on screen, people stopped laughing. (There’s a lot of different ways to take that, I suppose.) So, after the film opening, where baby Brian is mistaken for baby Jesus (foreshadowing!), you have the first post-credit sequence (the Sermon on the Mount) and that’s it. And the first scene barely shows the manger while the second quickly focuses on the people in the back who couldn’t hear what Jesus said very well and who end up in a brawl.

I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers”.
Ah! what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

And we quickly leave Our Lord and head for greener comedic pastures, like a man being stoned for saying “Jehovah” by a bunch of women who are disguised as men because women aren’t allowed to go to the stonings. The meta-twist here being that since this is Monty Python, and it’s usually them dressed up as women, you have a bunch of guys pretending to be women who are pretending to be men.

Why aren’t women allowed to go to stonings, Mum?
Because it’s written, that’s why.

"How much worse can it get?"

He said “Jehovah!”

This is the only Monty Python movie with a truly coherent plot: Brian, in an attempt to avoid capture by the Romans, delivers a Sermon-on-the-Mount-like speech without quite finishing it. This leads people to believe that he knows something that he’s not telling them. (He cannot convince them otherwise.) As they follow him seeking answers, a crowd develops, and people become increasingly convinced that he is The Messiah. He immediately gains a prophet who places tremendous significance on a gourd he has discarded, and this leads to schism:

The shoe is the sign. Let us follow His example. Let us, like Him, hold up one shoe and let the other be upon our foot, for this is His sign, that all who follow Him shall do likewise.
No, no, no. The shoe is a sign that we must gather shoes together in abundance.
Cast off the shoes! Follow the Gourd!
No, no! It is a sign that, like Him, we must think not of the things of the body, but of the face and head!

The last is a favorite quote around Casa ‘Strom. So close. But of course missing the point, as homo sapiens must inevitably do. When Brian tries to assert his Jewishness by joining a radical Jersualem terrorist group devoted to driving out the bloody Romans, this leads to another one of the great quotable moments:

And what have [The Romans] ever given us in return?!
The aqueduct?
The aqueduct.
Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that’s true. Yeah.
And the sanitation.
Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

This, of course, goes on and on and on, leading to a running footnote to be attached whenever the People’s Front of Judea (or was it the Judean People’s Front?) strikes a blow against Romans.

All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Brought peace.
Oh. Peace? Shut up!

I needn’t have worried. The kids may not favor it over Monty Python and the Holy Grail—most people don’t—but they did love it, and found themselves quoting it weeks and months later. They also allowed that it had a real plot, and genuine characters you end up caring about (albeit in an often weird way). There’s a rascal who constantly jokes around with the crucifixion process, and who ends up demanding to be put back up when he (in jest) gets Brian’s clemency order. (This scene recalls one in Spartacus, rather amusingly.) Mostly, you feel for Brian, whom everyone seems to be willing sacrifice on the Altar of Misunderstanding.

"Naw, I'm just kidding. I'm not Brian. Put me back!"

“I’m Brian, and so’s my wife!”

It is, undeniably, one of the greatest movie endings in history, and I’m not surprised to hear one of the kids whistling Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

It also has one of my favorite exchanges in movie history—well, several, really, but one in particular which would now be classified as a hate crime. And I will close this review on an excerpt:

Francis: Why are you always on about women, Stan?
Stan: [pause] I want to be one.
Reg: What?
Stan: I want to be a woman. From now on I want you all to call me Loretta.
Reg: What!?
Stan: It’s my right as a man.
Judith: Why do you want to be Loretta, Stan?
Stan: I want to have babies.
Reg: You want to have babies?!
Stan: It’s every man’s right to have babies if he wants them.
Reg: But you can’t have babies.
Stan: Don’t you oppress me.
Reg: I’m not oppressing you, Stan—you haven’t got a womb. Where’s the fetus going to gestate? You going to keep it in a box?
[Stan starts crying]
Judith: Here! I’ve got an idea. Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb, which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’, but that he can have the right to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother. Sister, sorry.
Reg: [pissed] What’s the point?
Francis: What?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

His struggle against reality, indeed.

A funny, funny hate crime.

Pictured: A hate crime in progress.

The Red Turtle

It’s probably fair to say this is a French film, with its original title being La tortue rouge, but Studio Ghbili co-founder Isao Takahata (Only YesterdayGrave of the Fireflies) has both a “producer” and an “artistic producer” credit on it and Ghibli CEO Toshio Suzuki also has a producer credit, so it’s billed as a co-effort between Ghibli and, well, a bunch of French studios, none of which seem to be animation studios. The director is an Oscar-winning Dutch-born director based out of London named Michael Dudok de Wit. In fact, it was de Wit’s Oscar winning short “Father and Daughter” that, apparently, spurred Hayao Miyazaki to request from Wild Bunch that they let Ghibli distribute the short in Japan, and that de Wit make a feature film for Ghibli!

Well, whatever, there’s no dialog in this one.

This is a lovely, gentle, poetic film, one of those cases where you can see why the Academy nominated it but also where that’s not a bad thing.

But this is nowhere near as sad, thank God.

The crabs here look and act a lot like the one in “Fireflies”.

If you plan to see it, go ahead and see it and then maybe come back and read the rest of this. Part of the pleasure of a film like this can be not knowing where it’s coming from and where it goes. Beyond the setup, which is a man stranded on a desert island, the rest is both different and familiar, in the manner of a classic fairy tale.

If you’re on the fence, I’m going to summarize the main hook of the film now. Perhaps it will tantalize you.

The story begins when a man is shipwrecked on a classic desert island. He builds a raft to get off, but once he gets past a certain point, a mysterious force from the deep destroys his raft. He repeats this process with larger and larger rafts, only to have each one destroyed in turn. He finally discovers that the destroyer of the raft is a giant red turtle. (And we got ourselves a title!)

A giant ocean and STILL it's too crowded.

“I’m swimming heah!”

He goes to build an even bigger raft (with blackjack! and hookers!) but this time, while building it, he sees red the turtle emerge from the surf, apparently to escort a passel of baby turtles to the ocean. In a pique, he grabs the turtle before it can get back to the ocean, flips it over and smashes it with a rock. It slowly dies over the course of days as he sullenly continues work on his raft. One day, after it’s dead, he has a nightmare and awakes with a sudden horror of what he’s done, and he frantically tries to save the turtle by pouring water on it.

Instead of reviving it, however, the turtle splits in half.

Inside the red turtle? A woman.

And thus begins the love story that makes up the rest of the film.

From "Kramer vs. Turtle".

Where is it written that a Man isn’t as good a parent as a Turtle!?

Well, it’s nice. It’s short. It goes for telling its story with simple animation—The Flower was a bit concerned about the look based on the trailer, but the style won her over. Like a lot of Ghibli stuff, this movie isn’t meant to be an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride. The world isn’t at stake, in the classical sense, though our hero’s perception of the world is.

And all with the only spoken sounds being less complicated the simglish. We all really liked it. But the animation category for the Oscars was really good this year: The Boy managed to sneak out to see My Life As A Zucchini when it played and said it was also excellent. This is probably a good sign, in light of my “damning with faint praise” view of Moana.

Animated version...

Meanwhile in “House of the Flying Daggers”…


I’m at the point—perhaps because I’m just that jaded, or maybe, just maybe, it’s something else—where a review of a kiddie movie is just the hardest thing to do. From the heady first decade of the millennium where every year or so brought us a new, great Pixar film, and all the other studios were putting out A-level efforts to try to compete, we’re at the point now where things feel too cookie-cutter, too formulaic. It’s not just in narrative or the blanding-down required by modern political correctness (Disney has permanent, salaried diversity consultants!) but the cyclical, industry-level tradition of finding something that works and beating it to death until you get enough embarrassing flops to find something new. (Which you’ll then beat to death until it can be milked no further.)

The other half is...<shudder>...Canadian.

Dwayne Johnson is great in this, but would he have gotten the role if not half Samoan?

Obviously the superhero movies reached that point a few years back. The Star Wars franchise instantly entered that phase once Disney took over.

The princess genre hit that mark in the late ’90s and, Tangled and Frozen notwithstanding, it’s never really recovered. Keep in mind that the inventor of the genre, Mr. Walt Disney made three princess films in toto: Snow White (1938), Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). So, in almost 30 years of feature film making, he made about one a decade (and decided after Sleeping Beauty‘s failure that the public didn’t want any more princess stories). Since 1989, the Disney studios have made around ten princess films: Five between 1989 and 1998, and five since 2009 and Moana.

And, if we’re being honest, 1997’s Hercules is basically a princess film in a toga. Point is: That’s a lot of princesses.

Togas are pretty unisex since "Animal House".

You heard me.

Which brings us to Moana, and the number one perpetrator of ’90s princess films, Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules), who have returned from their exile after the (in many ways under-rated) 2009 flick Princess and the Frog to give us a tale of a Polynesian denies-she’s-a-princess who defies her father and seeks to save the world (which, in Polynesian terms means the little island her tribe lives on) with the help of a former pro-wrestler/demigod.

They get an assist from Big Hero 6’s directing duo, Don Hall and Chris Williams but I can’t really tell what that contribution is. (They’re listed as “co-director”s.)

Like I say, it’s hard to write a review because you’ve seen it before. A lot. Currently this film is sitting above The Little Mermaid review-wise, but I have to believe this will be tempered with time. The music is pretty good here, sure, but it’s not Ashman/Menken good. The mandatory “find myself” song is above par, though the most memorable song, by far, is “You’re Welcome” which is “sung” by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a demigod who is quite taken with his own contributions to humanity. It’s fun. Of course, the “find myself” song is the one that got the Oscar nod (losing the award to a song from La La Land which, of course, I don’t remember at all).

And I put “sung” in scare quotes but The Rock is hands down the best, most memorable part of this film which, I believe, will largely be forgotten and/or blended with the other half-dozen or more princess films of the decade.


“You remember! The one with dark hair!” “Mulan?” “No! The one with dark skin?” “The Princess and the Frog?” “Not THAT dark!” “Jasmine?”

Not saying it’s bad, mind you. Far from it. But it is a lead pipe cinch that the three archetypal Disney princesses are archetypes because for 50 years, they were all there were. There’s a difference between a formula you break out once a decade, and one you use every 2 years.

So I think the only real way to look at this is to look at it in terms of what stands out:

The artwork. Not because it’s especially good—it is, but I’m exhausted writing about how each new Pixar/Disney/Dreamworks animated feature pushes the boundaries of the technology, and you gotta be exhausted reading it. What makes it noteworthy is that it’s a little bit different. The color palette, the Pacific Island style. Even if the movie feels the same in almost every regard to the previous 9 Disney princesses, it looks somewhat different.

Lack of stunt casting. Really, apart from The Rock, the only “famous” face actors in this film are also accomplished voice actors: Alan Tudyk (Frozen, Wreck-It RalphTucker and Dale vs. Evil) and Jemaine Clement (The Lego Batman MovieWhat We Do In The Shadows, and a great David Bowie-esque bit on “Rick and Morty”).

The Rock. Stunt casting or no, it’s a perfect role for him. Also, it’s just a little touch but a nice one that the obvious cute sidekick gets left behind in favor of a completely useless one.


Not just a NET negative but literally makes no positive contribution. ’cause it’s a rooster.

Less self-centered. The ’90s princess movies, taken as a whole, are a big middle finger to anything other than the sort of compulsive childish “self-expression” which became vogue in the ’50s (yes, the ’50s!) and which seem to be reaching their peak now. Moana (as a character) is different in that she sublimates her personal desires because it’s the right thing to do. This has to be Lasseter’s influence, as it was the theme of every Pixar movie up to The Incredibles, and it remains a common theme. The cheat is that she’s forced into doing what she wanted to do all along to save her people. (It’s a cheat, but I’ll allow it.)

The climactic battle isn’t as such. Don’t get me wrong: I like a good climactic battle. But what they set up—basically a battle of a demigod versus a demon with some magic cheat for the heroine—would’ve been off point. They essentially cribbed from Miyazaki, and that’s not a bad thing.

Speaking of which, I read someone’s exasperated review of the film, pointing out that Miyazaki is this huge influence on virtually every major American animator and yet not one of them (including Moana) can let their movie breathe. It’s a fair point: There’s a compulsive fear of having things be calm for a moment, almost like they have no faith in the beauty or wonder of the animation they pour their hearts into.

But, look, The Barb liked it, and that’s what counts, right? Gonna be interesting to see whether she keeps this “I love everything!” attitude into her teen years. (And by “everything” I mean “movies”. She’s less sanguine about most of the rest of life.)

It's true! Moana's grandmother is 35!

“When I was your age, Moana was called ‘Mulan’.”

After The Storm

Hirokazu Koreeda, the Japanese director who won our hearts with such films as Like Father, Like Son and Our Little Sister is back with a new look at modern Japanese family life. In this case, our protagonist is Ryota, a shiftless, gambling divorced dad, a one-time writer who works as a detective specializing in collecting incriminating information for divorces—”for the material”, he claims, though he hasn’t written in years, and when we first meet him, he’s shaking down a wandering wife for cash and lying to the husband (his client), turning a dubious profession into a straight-up dishonest one.

Probably not.

A face you can trust?

It’s a change from Like Father, where the characters were largely noble and struggling to what was best in a situation they had not created. It’s also a change from Sister, where the characters initial noble appearance had an uglier aspect underlying it (though they were not bad people, in the end). In this case, Koreeda is giving us a highly flawed character to sympathize with, without trying to entice us into sympathizing with his myriad sins.

Koreeda’s problem (besides all the obvious ones) is that he wants to be a father to his son, but he can’t make the support payments and, apparently, in Japanese society, if you can’t make the payments you don’t get to see your kid. The common reaction to this seems to be, “Yeah, just drop out of the kid’s life until he’s 18. If he wants to meet you then, he’ll turn up.”

The fact that Ryota is appalled at this prospect—perhaps the one truly decent instinct we see in him, and one that society seems determined to squash—makes him instantly more relatable as a character, even if his big idea for getting all the back support money is to bet on the races. (And, since this is Japan, he goes to the local velodrome to bet on bicycle racing. I don’t know why I found this weird, but I did.) Ryota still pines for his ex, who is trying to move on by dating a square. (A perfectly reasonable reaction, one supposes, to having been hooked up with a “spontaneous” artist who might blow the rent on a bicycle race or lottery tickets.)

Go figger.

His mother and sister don’t think much of him, either.

Ryota’s mother—from whom he would steal, if his shrewish, unpleasant sister hadn’t re-hid all her mother’s money, knowing Ryota would come looking for it—while emotionally undermining in a lot of ways, is also very interested in seeing the two get back together.

A curious plot point involves Ryota having an out: He has a standing offer to write manga (or perhaps a “light novel”), but he can’t bring himself to do this, even under a pen name, which (we are told) is how it’s commonly done by “serious artists”. (What a terrible designation to place on an artist, eh? “Serious.”)

The Boy and I liked it, overall, though it didn’t grab us the way the previous two films did. We’re highly likely to go see the director’s next film, The Third Murder, however.


You hope it works out. It’s hard to see how it can, though.

Bullitt (1968)

Some say director Peter Yates will be best remembered for his sword and sorcery epic Krull, others insist it will be introducing the world to a young Harvey Keitel in Mother, Jugs and Speed, and still yet others say his Jaws-inspired (and even more inspired Jacqueline-Bisset-in-a-wet-T-shirt showcasing) The Deep—can I stop here? This is a dumb bit. Yates did a lot of good movies, and some less good movies. Bullitt would be in his top 5, typically behind such films as Breaking Away and The Dresser.

But neither of those films has Bullitt‘s iconic status. Or Steve McQueen.

Or is that a self-answering question?

How can he be cool when he hurts the environment so callously?

I think I said Dirty Harry was the prototype for all those ’70s detective shows but Bullitt hits almost all the same notes—and preceded that franchise by three years. Steve McQueen plays a rebel cop—he’s actually more laconic than Eastwood’s Callahan—who bucks the system (sorta) to bring down a connected mob stoolie (sorta). The only thing missing here is the cliché (maybe not yet firmly established) of his police bosses being in on it. No, curiously, and perhaps more realistically, the bosses are stupid and self-aggrandizing but not actually in on it.

This movie actually has a lot of what I hate about movies of the era, but I don’t hate them here: Muted color schemes (but still Technicolor!), existential ennui (it’s not overdone), a lot of stretches with just ambient sound and no music, brassy score when there is music (but Lalo Schifrin!), a lot of scenes which seem almost cinema verité for “realism”, a similarly “realistic” low-key quality, and so on.

The highlight of the film is a bravura car chase, most of which done by Steve McQueen himself, which probably explains the next ten years of movies and TV. I’m not much of a car chase guy but this is a good one.

In case you didn't know what that was.

Pictured: A car chase.

Some things that I found interesting: A realistic hospital sequence which is not all that gripping, but which is an interesting reminder of how much technology and lawyers have changed things in the past 50 years; gratuitous Vic Tayback; An airport sequence where Bullitt must chase down the bad guy but he can’t spot the bad guy because almost every man in the airport is in a suit!; 24-year-old Jacqueline Bisset who reminded me of how grownup 20-somethings used to be expected to be, and who reminded me strongly of an occasional blog commenter; Robert Vaughn’s complaint that this movie ruined his political ambitions—as if Teenage Caveman hadn’t done that; Norman Fell! As a toadying chief of police!; Robert Duvall still doing, essentially, whatever roles he could pick up; the protocols that Bullitt violates seeming a lot more realistic and restrictive (like failure to report a suspect dying) than those that later movie cops would violate (like blowing up buildings); $8 hotel rooms, and a myriad of other details, large and small.

Oh! No sex scenes yet. I’m trying to pinpoint when the sex scene became mandatory in movies. (The sex scene ceased to be mandatory somewhere in the mid-’80s. See Top Gun.) Dirty Harry didn’t have one either, but the sequel did, as I recall.

But if I had to guess why I liked this movie where subsequent similar films would leave me cold, it’s that there isn’t the same moral ambiguity in the later films. Bullitt’s struggle is that his job forces him to confront evil. It throws violence in his face. It’s not that the bad guys aren’t bad, or aren’t so bad, or that the good guys aren’t—well, okay, the “good guys” here aren’t great, but that’s at the higher political level, not at the “working-cop” level. The point is, I think as the years passed, the ugly aspects of aesthetic got uglier: Confusion/questioning gave way to nihilism, muted colors gave way to ugly colors, jarring violence got more violent and consequently less jarring—which is jarring in a different sense.

Anyway, we can’t really hold this movie responsible for the future; we were glad we saw it.

Aw, who is she kidding?

Questioning whether or not dating Steve McQueen is worth it.

Love & Taxes

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

Yeah, me, too.

Not what you imagined, eh? What? EXACTLY what you imagined?

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

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

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


The communist will ultimately be saved by the capitalist.

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

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

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

You. You’re The Man. You Pay.

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

Which is cute.

The “Love” part.

The Lure

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

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

It's as important to sell the copy as it is for the copy to sell.

Stand back! I’m on fi-yah!

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

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

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

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

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

There are worse things!

Of course, that may just be a Polish girl thing.

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

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

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

Totally unfair. Running with it anyway.

Here, the menace is increased as they get jobs as United Airline flight attendants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poles, man.

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

The Women’s Balcony

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

Like, not Iran, Egypt, Iraq, or many other places that used to have large Jewish populations.

I suppose the scary thing here is how FEW countries a movie with this shot could feasibly be from.

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

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

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

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

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

He may be many things, but "nice" isn't the right word.

He seems like such a NICE boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't drink coffee. :-(

Coffee! A fundamental part of any religion.

The Lego Batman Movie

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

Although the "Teen Titans" one is pretty good.

Possibly the best Robin ever put on screen.

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

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

He just wants Batman to HATE him.

First Batman movie with a sympathetic Joker character. Sorta.

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

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

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

Those first three are from early, embarrassing attempts at "diversity".

I love how Apache Chief, Black Lightning, Samurai and the Wonder Twins got invited to the JL party (but not Batman).

Dirty Harry (1971)

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

Well, do ya, punk?

Do ya do ya do ya do ya wanna dance?

Do ya? Huh? Do ya? Do ya? Huh? Huh?

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

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

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

But only serial killing gets the movies made.

IT and serial killing: Two fields that are always pushing technological limits.

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

Well…do ya, punk?

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

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

Not a bad guy in this movie, just kinda clueless.

“Put Callahan on DOUBLE secret probation!”

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

Which is the fun.

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

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

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

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

Paul Bunyan, however, he didn’t see.

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



Mystery Science Theater 3000: “Reptilicus”

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

It truly is crappy.

“It’s much cheaper looking than we could have possibly imagined!”

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

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

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

Felicia is cute, and so is Oswald.

They really began to grow on me as the season went on, though.

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

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

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

Kinga? Deep 13!

TFW you’re looking at the director to see if you should keep going.

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

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

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

I did my own screencaps for this one!

“I finally found a shade of lipstick I can die in!”

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

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

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

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

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

Gypsy riffs!

“Now you’re MISTER Filing Cabinet!”

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

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

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

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

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

Kedi: Nine Lives: Cats in Istanbul

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

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

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

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

'cause, you know, he's a fookin' cat.

Frankly, Aslan doesn’t care if you go see this movie, much less if you like it.