The Boy and I had tried to see this on Christmas Eve, but the subtitles hadn’t been made yet. However, The Flower and I had a day trip to the OC for her art studies, and beat the traffic by catching a matinee of this Korean movie about a monster volcano at the top of North Korea that’s poised to destroy the peninsula! (Or at least cover it with ash.)

Eventually I'll pick it up, right?

Dozens of movies, still no idea what these guys are saying.

And what’s remarkable about it, at least from an American perspective, is how little the actual volcano is in the movie. Back during our last volcano-craze in the ’90s, the fun was seeing a volcano throw lava up everywhere or destroy Los Angeles, or what have you. This movie is framed as a race against the clock: Our heroes must accomplish their mission in time or Joeson is Joast. (Wow, that’s actually worse than “Joeson or Joe-home”. Give me time, though, and I’ll come up with an even worse one.)

From the top: On the even of denuclearization, a long dormant volcano in North Korea suddenly erupts, collapsing large parts of…I think it’s Seoul. Our hero, Jo (Jung-woo Ha of the Along With Gods series) is driving around avoiding falling buildings and collapsing streets so he can get home to his pregnant wife (K-Pop cutie Suzy Bae) and assure her that he’s going to do this one little job and get back in time for them to evacuate on a U.S. carrier.

That little job having been arranged by a mucky-muck Jeon (Jeon Hye-jin) who has dragged the cowardly, nerdy geologist who is still bitter over the government ignoring all his warnings, but who has a plan to stop the eruption from blowing everyone up. The nerdy, cowardly geologist is played by the Flower’s favorite living actor, Ma Dong-seok, the hulking tough guy from Along With Gods: The Last 49 DaysThe Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos and our favorite arm-wrestling movie Champion among many others. It’s a brilliant bit of casting.

She's cute.

It takes a lot of makeup to make Ma (right) nerdy, and even more to make Bae (left) not scene-stealingly cute. Jeon is also easy on the eyes.

Any way, Jeon sends her top military guys along with her top nerd crew (the one containing Jo) on a bold mission to steal the uranium from the North Korean missiles so they can put it int heir own detonation device. From there, the nerds retreat back into South Korea while the Top Men penetrate further into North Korea where a double-agent, Lee (Byung-hun Lee, I Saw The DevilKeys to the HeartMemoir of a Murderer) will be waiting to take them the rest of the way.

Of course, the air is filled with ash and as they cross over to North Korea, the top military guys’ plane goes down…and now the technical guys have to complete the mission. And, as it turns out, double-agent Lee is not the most trustworthy guy.

It’d be enough for a movie, but then factor in that the American military really doesn’t want anyone getting hold of that uranium, and our South Korean nerds have to hold them off and/or escape from them in order to complete their mission. This is basically impossible. (The nerds know instantly they’re not dealing with some ragged NoKo force, but by that time most of them have been shot.)

Which one is Sandra Bullock?

Here our heroes are taking a break to re-enact “Speed” using only a shopping cart.

This was, I admit, a little difficult, rooting for the Koreans over the US. And the American position was eminently sane: Keep the nuclear weapons out of the hands of Chinese terrorists, which is exactly where the uranium was going to end up, given Lee’s machinations.

But Lee has a soft spot in the form of his daughter, who is very close to the volcano and who he thinks he can maybe get across the border in exchange for the uranium. So even he has a chance for a character arc. Geology nerd has to decide whether to actually keep going on his plan rather than escaping. Mucky muck has to decide whether or not to sneak into the American area to intercept communications. And so on.

It’s just a lot of fun. Good characters. The action is pretty good, even if the volcano stuff gets a little over-the-top. By the end, you’re sold on the story so it doesn’t matter so much, but I always wonder how people driving around in a city hope to escape an earthquake.

The Flower and I enjoyed it. The Boy had not had a chance to see it, at the time of this writing, but I’m pretty sure he’ll like it.

Maybe that's how they do it in Korea.

I’m just amused how this looks like a server room that also was a physical file room.

Forbidden Dream

This is one of those movies that makes me proud to be a Korean! I kid (sorta) but I would have to straight-up hate a country to not be able to appreciate a good origin story. Whether it’s a Tea Party or Thermopylae or Exodus, people finding freedom and creating their own ideal of a country is just rousing. (Well, I’ve assiduously avoided Reds which tells you something.) Anyway, the Koreans kick ass at this sort of thing.

Forbidden Dream concerns the same king we learned about in The King’s Letters. In the Korean mythology, he’s like a blend of Isaac Newton and King Arthur. He invented their alphabet so that people could read, per that movie—but by this one, he basically unleashed Korean astronomy. Koreans, as you will recall, were under the thumb of the Chinese at the time, and this really didn’t work out when it came to astrology and farmer’s almanacs.

Nothing but Star Bros.

Star bros.

Now, much like the trilogy of movies we saw in 2018, especially Fengshui, as a modern Westerner, you kinda gotta think, “Well, wait, isn’t this all bullcrap anyway?” But it’s not really the point. That’s like arguing that Sparta was a militaristic slave-driven society that really didn’t advance the cause of freedom.

The point, really, being that the world belongs to those who can take a stand. As scary as the Persian Empire was to ancient Greeks, so too the Chinese to medieval Koreans.

Anyway, despite being another movie at the same time as The King’s Letters, it’s entirely different from that film. TKL is an ensemble picture, very light-hearted despite the intense drama (and stakes). Forbidden Dream turns out to be, of all things, a buddy picture.

The story is that the King Sejong (Suk-kyu Han) comes into possession of some Indian knowledge (much like the impact of Sanskrit in TKL) on how to make a water clock, only they need an elephant. No good, as it turns out, because the one elephant they got (as a gift), well, they let it go because it ate too much. Honestly, his men can’t even read the instructions.

But it turns out, a low level slave, Jang Yeong-sil (the great Min-sik Choi, OldboyI Saw The DevilThe AdmiralA Heart Blackenedcan read it, and what’s more, he’s sure he can build the clock without an elephant, using only Korean stuff.

And he can.


Early Asian electronics.

So, Sejong promotes him from slave to fifth-level engineer, or some similarly low-level freed-man position. This causes tremendous strife amongst the bureaucrats who insist that the caste system is the only thing keeping chaos from destroying all. Sejong works out some sort of compromise, but he takes a huge liking to Jang and the two bond over the stars, which Jang helps the king see in a number of clever ways.

Jang is interesting, because he’s very much bonded to his slave identity. Even as he rises in the ranks, he’s still very much in that degraded mentality. Meanwhile, the advisers (who cause tremendous trouble throughout Korean history, heh) naturally scheme to find ways to alienate Jang from Sejong.

In fact, the movie opens with the Chinese demanding the Koreans destroy all the astronomy equipment (since they obviously stole it from the emperor) and King Sejong’s palanquin—a massively luxurious construct devised by Jang—collapsing, having been tampered with. And the whole movie backfills the story as to why that’s such a big deal and how it came to pass: How the slave and the king became best friends, and how they were driven apart.

Hocus pocus.

Korean movie medieval science labs look very wizardy.

My inclination, as with most of these historical dramas, is to pronounce it “GREAT” but I can accept that I’m possibly just starved for good, nationalistic material. The Koreans are really good at this, though. This story is largely made up, based on a handful of meager historical data, I have no doubt. But even as he shapes the story, director Jin-Ho Hur gives us interesting things to ponder.

So, of course, the bureaucrats are wicked and self-serving, as are the Chinese, but what’s interesting is that when the king confides in Jang that he’s making an alphabet for everyone, Jang is offended. He feels very much that the current order is as it should be, and worries about disruption. The king realizes the struggle he’s facing at that point.

In the end, the action boils down to Jang’s loyalty versus his desire to survive, and it’s interesting that the loyalty is (less prominently) to Korea or its king than it is to a man he considered a friend. His north star.

Of course, the big argument these days is that nationalism is evil and leads to war and whatnot, but I disagree. It’s not only fine to be proud of your country, it’s necessary.

Would the Korean AAA be the KKK?

When your palanquin gets a flat and there’s no AAA.

Ip Man 4

I think, though I cannot swear, that I’ve seen one of the previous Ip Man movies, perhaps Ip Man 3 or Ip Man 2. I know that we saw The Grandmaster which is also a movie about Ip Man made concurrent with some of the other Ip Mans. This isn’t even the first Ip Man 4, though it looks like the 2013 Ip Man: The Final Fight is only the second in its series and the attempt to brand it #4 may be a little trick to sell tickets. There was even an Ip Man TV series in 2013!

Man, there’s a lotta Ips.

But this is the last one, until they decide to tell the story again, and it’s a lot of fun: The aged, widowed Ip Man, who fights with his troubled son to keep the lad in school when all the boy wants is to learn martial arts, travels to America to see if that wouldn’t be better. He knows he has terminal cancer and wants to make sure his son is set in life.

And that's WHY everyone was Kung Fu fighting.

In China, all disputes, whether real estate, legal or governmental, are solved with Kung Fu.

Once he gets into the America of 1964, it turns out to be just like that song: That’s right, everyone wants to hold his hand. No, wait, everybody is kung fu fighting. Actually, the Americans are karate fighting and the noble Chinese are trying to get them to learn the proper art of kung fu. Our lead American Chinese is a young army man whose wildly racist drill sergeant is determined that karate is the only Asian martial art he’s going to have in This Man’s Army. (I swear they call the guy “gunny” but I also thought that was a marine title. Oh, well, there may be certain inaccuracies in this film.)

What Ip Man learns is that he can’t get his boy into a good private school (where he’ll be tormented by some racist white kids) without a letter of recommendation from the Chinese Business Association, and the CBA won’t give him a recommendation as long as his renegade student, Bruce Lee, continues to teach whitey (and darky, I guess) kung fu. Ip Man’s not really opposed to non-Chinese learning kung fu and has no control over Lee anyway, so things go poorly.

They go even worse when he defends the daughter of the head of the CBA from a racist assault, as an evil white girl gets her friends to attack the daughter over the head cheerleader role.

They're tough for actors.

This is Vanda Margraf’s first film, and also her primer in the brutality that is Hong Kong martial arts movie fighting.

And then there’re those times when, just sitting in a diner, a bunch of dudes come in and challenge Bruce Lee (this is pre-1966 “Green Hornet” fame) to a fight. “It happens all the time,” he says.

I mean, literally everyone is fighting using the martial art of their preference. The good guys are using kung fu, tho’.

I’ll confess that I loved this movie. Every hokey minute of it. It’s basically a straight-up ’70s era Shaw Brothers film, down to the look of the sets and colors used in that time, though using some modern technology to improve the production values. Even the racism, which is perhaps slightly skewed toward modern politics, comes more or less from the themes found in those self-same ’70s films: Racism is bad, no matter who does it. And good people are good people, regardless of the color of their skin, even if the Chinese are juuuust a bit better.

As an appetizer..

When he’s standing upright, Chris Collins looks like he could eat Donnie Yen.

Also, while Kung Fu is the best, a beastly American karate master (Chris Collins, a real life Wing Chun Kung Fu master) can pretty much kick everyone’s ass except Bruce Lee and Ip Man. This was a common theme in those old chop-sockey movies. You can’t really have a “best style” and also have any kind of narrative, so the putative “lesser” martial art has to be menacing. It is a little weird to Collins beat up, essentially, a bunch of old people (the masters of the other schools of kung fu), but martial arts may not, in fact, be a substitute for raw force.

It’s a lot of fun, basically. Even when—or maybe especially when—a San Franciscan suddenly starts talking with a British accent or Scott Adkins (Zero Dark ThirtyThe Expendables 2) uses a slightly off word like “undisputable” in the middle of a racist rant. I do often wonder why foreign languagers don’t ask, and native speakers don’t provide, idiomatic language corrections (see Tel Aviv on Fire for a funny take on this) but perhaps the theory is that no one watching the film will notice. (We recently saw Ma Dong-seok in a movie where he, once again, pretends to be American. And while his English is quite good, it’s also heavily accented.)

But whatever. You’re there for the fights, which a good and dramatic, and a touching story of parents at odds with their children. And if that’s why you’re there, you’re not going to be disappointed.

So there's that.

The look GOOD as they’re beating up all the senior citizens.

Uncut Gems

I don’t exactly hate Adam Sandler, though I’ve seen few of his movies and the most recent ones, under duress. I sorta like the “Phone, Wallet, Keys” rap. Basically, I look at his comedy as not-for-me, but he actually seems like a decent guy whose trying (at least occasionally) to do different or interesting things. And so I ignored the warnings about Uncut Gems. And…it was okay. The Boy rather liked it, in fact.

And he gets it.

Face status: punchable. In fairness, I think he’s going for that.

This is the “dumb criminal” genre, which isn’t my favorite. It’s the sort of thing Scorcese loves and a big part of the reason I don’t think much of his “best” films. It also meant that I knew how this movie was going to end right from the start. (The Boy didn’t, which contributed to his enjoyment.)

The story is that Howard (Sandler) is a Jewish jeweler who deals in especially gaudy merchandise and he has come into possession (through some machinations) of a lump of black opals. Howard’s life is utter chaos. He’s being chased by multiple loan sharks, placing bets on long shots while avoiding people trying to break his legs, cheating on his wife (Idina Menzel) with his assistant Julia (newcomer Julia Fox), and ultimately endangering the lives of his children with his reckless behavior.

And a Playboy bunny according to search engines.

Fox is good. And cute.

Not my favorite kind of story, though I will allow the Safdie brothers (writers/directors) do pull you into the story. The MacGuffin of the story, the rock full of opals, becomes an issue almost immediately as Howard lends it to a basketball player who becomes so enamored of it, it becomes a totem: The magic key to his success. But I guess he’s not one of the better basketball players ’cause he can only cough up about $175K for it while Howie is sure it’s going to auction for over a million.

I mean, I guess I’m sorta rooting for Howie. He’s not as bad as a great many of the people he associates with, for sure. But it was hard to get too excited, though there are some good moments of suspense here.

Meanwhile, the style is visually and aurally chaotic. The visual aspect wasn’t that bad, but the soundtrack was grating and noisy. I think another reason The Boy liked it more than I was that this didn’t bother him very much but I just found it jarring and more than occasionally inappropriate.

But I didn’t hate it. And Sandler was fine, so…take your shot, I guess.

And again.

About to do something stupid. Again.

Richard Jewell

Although we admire Clint Eastwood and his apparent willingness to do whatever he wants (at 89 1/2 years old), and despite the hysterical overreactions of the media and various bureaucratic mouthpieces, the movie Richard Jewell turns out to be just a very strong dramatic ensemble with a rather mild rebuke to overly ambitious newsmongers and stubborn law enforcement types. The Flower and I reckoned it to be a close second to Eastwood’s best movie of the decade, American Sniper.

Paul Walter Hauser plays the single-minded and officious Richard Jewell, whose general over-seriousness pays off big time when he forces his fellow security team members to take a neglected backpack seriously.

Hauser probably won’t get an Oscar for this role, which was the sort of thing that ’50s Hollywood ate up. He’s a kind of latter-day Marty. He’s grossly overweight and he assuages his low self-esteem by pursuing a course he believes to be good—a career in defending the rules, big and small, from all infractions.

Sam deserves ALL the Oscars.

“Listen, bud, I only have ONE Oscar, so I know how you feel.”

As an office clerk, his attentiveness and eagerness wins him the friendship of Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell, hitting it out of the park as always), but it’s not appreciated when he’s doing security campus jobs and trying to stop on-campus drinking, something the administration claims to want but really just wants to present a good front for.

Security theater, as we would come to know it in later years. Also: the odd but familiar hypocrisy of the pseudo-competent cowards who run things in this country.

The bomb that Jewell discovers at the Olympics does go off, of course, which infuriates FBI man Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) whose job it was to keep things safe. He’s not out to get Richard, at least at first, he’s just genuinely angry and embarrassed over his failure. You might get the idea that the FBI needed a scapegoat and Shaw targeted Jewell because this corpulent hick had shown him up. Hell, that might even be true, but that’s not how it’s portrayed here.

No, it’s the weaselly dean who throws Jewell to the wolves. And even he’s only acting on his best information. I mean, it’s kind of a xenophobia that Hollywood would show no remorse about were it the other way around, but Jewell’s not exactly university material and his sincere patriotism and gung-ho law-and-order attitude is the sort of thing that doesn’t sit right with the college administration crowd.

More damning is the FBI’s rush to apply the very dubious but oh-so-sexy pseudoscience of profiling to Jewell. Crazed loner seeking approval—obviously he’s the most likely target. Even though the facts, we quickly learn, do not align with this theory. Even so, this all might have been avoided without a certain catalyzing agent.

Sic transit gloria movie.

I remember when chicks on the Internet were drooling over Hamm rather than Cavill.

That catalyst would be Kathy Scruggs, played brilliantly by Olivia Wilde. She’s ambitious and deadly bored and at points she seems borderline sociopathic, but it’s really just the extreme sort of callousness you could expect from a member of a trade whose careers are literally built on human suffering. I don’t mean that as snark: As a journalist on any national or global scene, you’re going to quickly be exposed to more tragedy and bloodshed than any ordinary person could meaningfully address, psychically. You won’t be able to personalize it, so you pretty much have to learn to respond without emotion.

That’s bound to create some distortion.

Now, I have said (snarkily) that the least realistic aspect of the movie is when Scruggs realizes she’s done wrong and feels remorse, but that’s not fair, and the movie presents a complex, highly-flawed character. Wilde is really good here and it’s a shame that there had to be all that hyper-ventilating over using sex to get stories. I’m sure such things have been done as little more than actual prostitution—we don’t need to be coy about it—but here it’s presented as more of a mutual attraction thing, the sort of thing that would’ve happened anyway and, I mean, it’s  Olivia Wilde and Jon Hamm, so it’s definitely the sort of thing that is inevitable in movies.

I mean, femme fatale 101.

The lighting doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt, though.

I’ll come back in a moment and revisit the darker implications of this, but on a literal level, it’s NBD, as the kids say.

Anyway, Scruggs jumping the gun (heh) results in the media focusing in on Jewell and essentially destroying his life, as well as his mother’s (Kathy Bates). This puts the pressure on FBI to find him guilty even as their case is falling apart. They’re pretty sure they can beat—excuse me, trick a confession out of the naive Jewell who still, in his heart of hearts, believes in good guys and bad guys (and which are which in current-year America).

He’s not so dumb as to not catch on pretty fast, though, and soon he’s called on Watson Bryant to help him out. Bryant is more of a classic Eastwood hero. He’s certainly self-interested but also with a movie gunslinger’s righteousness. Nina Arlanda plays Nadia, Bryant’s bored secretary/love interest/future wife who goads him into staying the course when things look rough.

In the roughly 2 hour time period for the movie (not counting credits), Eastwood manages to create a real feeling of family between Jewell and his mother, Bryant and Nadia, and even various peripheral characters—friends who would be close to the Jewells as well as those who betrayed them.

Richard must come to grips with the fact that authority is not on his side, and his mother (who loves Tom Brokaw) has to come to the same conclusion with regard to the media. That’s the literal story here, well told, and very touching.

He sucks.

The painful and painfully naive, “Why is Tom Brokaw saying those things?”

The larger message, which I wouldn’t put into Eastwood’s mouth, but which seems very apparent to me, is actually a lot more horrifying. The establishment, which is not particularly competent but is viciously cruel, will turn all of its power on you to destroy you, primarily for the crime of not being them.

The literal idea of a report and FBI guy being attracted to each other (and becoming friends-with-benefits) is unprofessional, but the metaphor of being aroused by destroying a normie’s life—basically that the media is the enemy of the people, but so are the federal police forces, to where it’s actually a turn-on to exert your power over the peasants?

That’s as scary as it is true.

The movie has tanked by this point, which is interesting (though it actually seems to have some legs, so maybe it won’t be as big a flop as originally trumpeted). I would’ve expected the negative press to goose the BO a little, but I notice that even the complaints have been relatively subdued (compared to the insanity of other things going on in the news). It might be that TPTB have learned to kill things through neglect, rather than negative press (which is still press, after all).

It’s his most theatrical movie, I think, going back to Gran Torino. In recent years, his movies have been interesting but very on the “just the facts, ma’am” side. This movie has a lot of interplay between the characters, and he handles the actual explosion and aftermath very well. We all would definitely recommend it.

Fake news is not new.

If only we could run lie detectors on the news.