Meru

The Flower has been helping me straighten out my den, part of which includes (after the heavy lifting is done) going through hundreds of movie stubs. For me, it’s always fun to come across an old stub and remember the movie, who I saw it with (or if I saw it alone) and what we thought of it (or why I saw it alone). But I’ve got too many of them, and they fade, and my long term goal was just to capture the date I saw the movie and put it here for posterity.

The Flower is a curiously aware creature for a teenager, realizing that she’s on the cusp of the rest of her life and both trying to plan out how she wants it to go while realizing that prediction of the future—especially when it comes to wants and needs—is a tricky thing. You won’t see her, for example, getting a tattoo, and she’s quick to dissuade her friends from doing similarly permanent things. Her argument goes something like, “If you had gotten a tattoo last year, it would have been of [some pop culture ephemera]. Would you want that today? What makes you think you’re going to want anything you pick today five years from now?”

She’s not wrong, though her success rate in talking her friends out doing stupid things is not, perhaps, as high as she’d like.

She has a curious perspective on these stubs, therefore, as she remembers the movies (when she saw them). We came across Prince Caspian, for example, which was 10 years ago! She had been a fan of the books (which I read to everyone), and she said, “You told me after this one that the Narnia books were a Christian allegory. I had no idea!”

The thing is, it’s now been nearly five years since I saw Meru—can I really comment on it? I’ll leave that for you to judge.

But it's three...guys...on a rock.

I will not refer to this as “three idiots on a rock”. I will not refer to this as “three idiots on a rock”. I will not refer to this as “three idiots on a rock”.

This is a documentary on mountain climbers. Not those candy-ass day-trippers who do Everest, oh no. Anyone can do Everest these days, even if they have a 20% or so chance of dying. This is about the climbers who tackle Meru.

After five years, what do you remember about a movie like this? I didn’t remember, for example, whether or not they actually made it. I had to look it up, and I won’t write it here. So here’s what I do remember:

  • Somebody, a mentor or former member of the team, I believe, had died in previous attempts. I believe the team talks to his wife—actually, one of them may have married the poor woman, giving her the opportunity to be twice widowed.
  • Parts of the mountain outcrop horizontally, so you have to climb it upside-down. At one point, they have to spend the night suspended from one of these overhangs. They have a tent specifically made for this purpose, as there is apparently no guarantee you can avoid it.
  • One of the climbers apparently has a stroke during the climb. He loses his ability to talk or function very well. They continue the climb and he recovers!

So I’m left with quite a few impressions from this 90 minute movie, and my feelings then and now are sort of the same. I respect the drive of Man to do challenging things. I could wax poetic on this urge and how it contributes to humanity’s greatness.

But what the hell, people? If the urge to climb Everest was “because it’s there”, the urge to climb Meru was “because it’s hard”. Fatal, even.

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I may not contain multitudes but I got at least two in me: One going, “Yeah!” and the other saying, “Are you kidding me with this?”

OK, on the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. It’s not exactly King of Kong, but neither is it Created Equal. We’re dealing with a topic that’s interesting not because of any tangible outcome but because it reflects something interesting about human nature.
  2. Presentation: Well, the camera crew is up there on a lot of these shots. Even now I remember how amazing some were, and how The Boy and I were questioning how they could be done technically. It’s an impressive feat with some great moments.
  3. Slant: None, as far as I can tell. The filmmakers, arguably, are validating the pastime by making the documentary at all, but they never say this is good, or this is bad. There may be a slight slant in terms of favoring the documentarians themselves, just by managing to pull it off, but I think that’s fair.

Over all, we liked it, while maybe not entirely getting it. I’m stretching my mind back for this but I feel like it was ever-so-slightly too long, in that way documentaries have when they don’t realize that the audience doesn’t necessarily share their obsession. But definitely worth a look and way easier than actually climbing…anything. A hill. A ladder. A stepstool. Whatever.

You do it. I'm bitter.

Insert joke about “getting out on the wrong side of bed” here.

King Kong (1933)

This would be our last movie…forever? I had not really believed a lockdown would go into place, and further thought that it would not last more than a couple of weeks, but as we approach the end of month three, the motivations behind this become increasingly clear. And movie theaters seem unlikely to come out of this unscathed, or possibly alive at all.

Gettin' old.

Pictured: Epidemiologists snacking on the economy.

But this is a remarkably fine movie. I used to (not joking) say that you could watch the entire King Kong before the great ape even shows up in the dreadful 2005 version—and that you could watch the original twice in the same span of time—but I don’t think that’s quite true. I had it in my head that the original was only 70 minutes long, but it’s actually closer to 100 (though I think that runtime is exaggerated) and Kong shows up in the 2005 remake around the 75-80 minute mark.

You can tell I prefer this version. Brevity is a powerful influence. I will watch a very long movie but you better sell me on it. And the nice thing about the 1933 story is that—well, it’s nice. It’s a plucky tale of can-do, with the brash Carl Denham audaciously planning—he doesn’t even really know what! but he’s going out to Skull Island to get a new killer act for the show! And he knows he needs a dame, and the beautiful, desperate, starving Ann Darrow is his girl. She’s only got eyes for the rugged John Driscoll, which is going to make for cinema’s weirdest love triangle when Kong shows up.

That's SO five minutes ago!

I love how movies that mock moviemaking tend to use juuuust slightly out-of-style fashions and techniques.

But before the great ape makes the scene, you already like the characters (flawed though they are), and you’re rooting for them, even if they are committing what today would be considered a grievous ecological crime.

I always like seeing “primitives” in these old Hollywood films. They’d grab anybody remotely swarthy for most jungle shoots. I noticed this time that the natives were heavily black—and looked to be actual black people—but also that Skull Island was apparently in the South Pacific. Heh.

The CGI…er, stop-motion, is still among the best ever made and it’s delightful to look at where they used composites, giant real props, and straight up full stop-motion scenes for a while. About the time it starts to drag, bam! we’re back in New York. Then, a quick rampage, climax and denouement.

It’s just pure. That’s what it is. It reminds me of the Korean movies: It just wants to tell a story, a little boy meets girl meets ape story, and probably their only concern is the Catholic Decency League. Fay Wray is more lovely than I remember, Bruce Cabot more likably macho, Robert Armstrong more charismatic. The monkey is the spectacle of the piece, and gets the attention, but the others are holding the whole thing afloat. Wray’s performance is both tough and vulnerable—plucky, you might call her.

Fay Wray's so pretty in this one, too!

Most of the stills from this movie are just campy but this one is solid.

They would all go on to long careers, though none of them would get near anything quite this iconic again. Producer/Director Ernest Schoedsack and his screenwriting wife Ruth Rose would close out their careers with Mighty Joe Young, the second best giant ape movie of all time. Co-Producer/Director/Writer Merian Cooper—apparently best friends with Ernest—would go on to do a lot of work with John Ford on classics like The SearchersFort Apache and The Quiet Man.

Special Effects pioneer Willis O’Brien turned down an Oscar on the basis that his whole crew should receive them, which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined, and it is said this damaged his career. His assistant did most of the work on the cash-grab sequel Son of Kong and O’Brien worked fitfully thereafter. On Mighty Joe Young he mentored Ray Harryhausen, who would carry the stop-motion torch up to (and beyond) the end of its days. O’Brien would close out his career with the MST3K classics Black Scorpion and The Beast of Hollow Mountain, of which the latter would be based on his (essentially stolen) script.

The theaters are supposed to open again in a couple of weeks, but it remains to be seen what remains to be seen. I have not been supporting any exhibitors via streaming because while that’s been an option, they all seem to be “pay these guys and we get a cut and you get to…watch on your computer?” Much like the flailing comics industry, movie exhibition is a house of cards—but it’s not a charity. I suspect the dragging out of the pseudo-quarantine—which I suspect must at least go to November, and if a Republican wins in December, for another four years—will do a great many of them in, which will be unfortunate for me, but I also don’t think throwing money at an unhealthy industry does any good.

So, I guess we’ll see.

So Sue Me.

Pictured: Elected officials attack a recovering economy. (Yeah, and I’d do it a THIRD time if I wasn’t out of review.)

Loving Vincent

This was the first movie I went to see with my newly minted (and now defunct) MoviePass, intrigued by the gimmick and positive reviews. The gimmick is that this story, the last few days of Vincent van Gogh’s life, is animated by painting. I don’t really know what the technique was, but the visual effect is that of each frame switching and twisting as the brushstrokes for each are, naturally, different. It’s a bold idea.

This did not work for me. Motion attracts attention and everything on screen is in motion. If you’re familiar with stop-motion animation using clay figures, one of the things that happens is that the animators’ fingerprints are visible on the characters and they change and shift with each shot. But in stop-motion, the effect is, if not subtle, not exactly in-your-face either. The fingerprints come from moving the figures, so there’s a large motion associated with the smaller motions. You may not even notice the fingerprints. Everything not moved is static, as well.

In this approach, everything moved every frame. The background, the sky, whatever. Actually, maybe not everything—give me a break, here, it’s been over a year and I mostly forgot this right away. I seem to recall that some frames seemed to be a bit “cheat”-y, where a background was re-used, and this “cheat” gave you a respite. The thing about a painting is that it’s meant to be looked at, and you want to appreciate the details, even though they’re blurring by at fractions of seconds. The moments of relative static-ness were welcome.

But they were brief. And it was hard to concentrate on the story. It almost felt wrong to do so at times.

The narrative itself is not great. It’s a poignant story, which must be largely fictitious, concerns a boy tasked with delivering van Gogh’s final letter and his discovery of those final days. It sounds good. If I hadn’t already seen it, I’d want to see it. I sort of want to see it again. But my impression of it was that it was kind of cold, which I might attribute to the painting gimmick, except The Boy (who doesn’t usually notice such things) also didn’t think it was very interesting.

OTOH, the theater was packed, the film was nominated for an Oscar—it lost to Coco, of course, because the Academy isn’t going to be handing out that Oscar to weird foreign or arty films—the RTs both audience and critic agree (mid-80%) and it even has a 7.8 IMDB rating. So what do we know?

For me, anyway.

Any given frame is interesting. Animated it’s almost unwatchable.

1945

Two Jews return to their erstwhile home after WWII, and the town is racked with suspicion and guilt: Who are they? Why are they there? Are they going to try to get back all the stuff we stole? Yeah, we’ve seen it before. A lot. (My favorite example being the Polish Aftermath, which manages to be a really fine movie beyond the message.) But we haven’t seen it in Hungary yet, so here we go. (I suppose eventually we’ll get one of these for each European country that had a Jewish population.)

Ultimately this is a very simple, straightforward morality play. You could compare it to something like “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”, for example, because the town tears itself apart in fear and self-loathing. It’s well (but simply) shot in black-and-white, well acted—a little bit stagey overall.

But the bar for Holocaust movies is really high for me and The Boy. We’ve seen a lot of them. One of our running gags on going to see any Jewish movie is a bet on how long it takes to mention the Holocaust. (The last couple we’ve seen, interestingly enough, don’t mention it at all, but they’re definitely exceptions.)

So, this was good and mercifully short, but it didn’t really knock our socks off. You can’t get a lot of shock value out these stories at this point, just because we get it: Human beings are capable of the worst possible things, including collaborating with the Nazis. (Even being Nazis, but maybe people think that only Germans are capable of it.)

The resolution was satisfying, basically, but not surprising.

These look like suspicious characters, don't they?

Just gonna note the view date of December 2017 until I get the view dates showing on every post.

2018 Year In Review

We saw over 120 films this year, which is easily our lowest year since 2010. I had about three weeks where I didn’t see any movies—the longest stretch for me since The Boy was born, probably—and on top of that there were just weeks and weeks where someone would say, “Hey, let’s go to the movies!” And someone else would say “What’s out?” And then the inevitable response was “Nothing. There is absolutely nothing out worth seeing.”

It's nothing. But you have to see this nothing.

Lawrence of Arabia is the king of The Nothing That’s Actually Worth Seeing shot.

It’s not for nothing then over half of these movies were what we used to call “revivals”: movies that have achieved cult or classic status and are being re-shown in one or more theaters, often to more ticket sales than new movies. TCM’s showings of White Christmas and Die Hard for example, netted over $900K and $500K respectively. With over $3.5M, the re-release of 2001: A Space Odyssey out-performed such critically lauded fare as If Beale Street Could TalkThe Sisters Brothers and American Animals. (Admittedly, three of the films were being given the Rifftrax or MST3K treatment.)

But wait! Of the sixty or so non-revival films, about 30 were Korean or Chinese. Now, The Boy and I have long been fans of foreign and indie movies. We used to devote as many days to, for example, The Israel Film Festival, though in recent years that mofo has been packed and sold out making it nigh impossible for us to get in. But these Korean and Chinese movies were not in that category: These films were pure pop cinema: comic-book style fantasy, historical drama, romantic-comedies and straight-up romances, even a zombie movie (which was way more enjoyable than the American zombie movie we saw).

Of the remaining films, over half were in the indie/foreign category, documentaries or Oscar-catch-ups for 2017. There were some stand-out documentaries, like Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Three Identical Strangers and the (much less seen but highly worthy) Saving Brinton. In the Oscar-catch-up category (i.e., movies that we saw in 2018 but were released for 1 showing in 2017 to qualify for Oscars), I liked Wonder, but found The Darkest Hour somewhat marred by the increasingly weird revisionism (also seen in this year’s The Favourite) that has Churchill riding the subway where a mixed-race couple…I can’t even finish that sentence.

I'd make an anachronistic joke but the time isn't right.

Cellphone reception’s so bad, Churchill can’t even update his Insta, smdh.

What this boils down to is that of the top 40 films of 2018, I’ve seen…four: Avengers: Infinity WarThe Incredibles 2, A Quiet Place and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. Three our of these were part of my paternal responsibility (which will probably expand to include Venom, as well as the not-yet-in-the-top 40 Aquaman and Bumblebee). Add in The Mule, then you’ve got a fanatic moviegoer hitting about 20%. And it’s not just me: If you adjust for inflation, Black Panther hits 30th on the all-time box office. With over twice the population in the country, the #1 movie of the year sells about a third of the tickets Gone With The Wind did, or half what Star Wars did.

Worse, The Boy and I can usually be expected to express a certain degree of regret regarding missing a few popular films. All we could muster this year was “Well, I wouldn’t have minded seeing the new Mission: Impossible, Deadpool or Ant-Man movie.” I heard good things about I Can Only Imagine, which made it in the top 40 somehow (#34), and we were bummed about missing 12 Strong, which finished out around #62. But mostly, it was more like “Thank God I didn’t waste my time on that!”

And 2019 doesn’t look like it’s going to be much better, with expensive franchises being run into the ground and the margins being filled up with “woke” indies. On the other hand, TCM will be showing The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady and Alien on their Big Screen Classics program, so there’s that.

Terrible still.

“I’ve grown accustomed to her face…”

Our favorite new English-language movie of the year was…Isle of Dogs. We just love Wes Anderson more and more, really, and it was the only new movie where we said we could turn right around and watch it again. It’s hard to use words like “favorite” or “watchable” with Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer, but it was as tastefully done as such a distasteful story could be. This criminally under-rated film will get zero awards or notice, TPTB have already thrown it in the memory hole.

Remember, nobody really likes “edgy art that challenges their preconceptions”. They like art that challenges others’ perceived preconceptions. The latter makes you feel good; the former makes you uneasy, and Gosnell is the only movie this year to do that. There is no bravery to be found on the Sunset strip.

Choosing the best Asian cinema, on the other hand, is harder. As The Boy pointed out, flashy CGI movies like Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings aren’t great, but they have something their domestic counterparts don’t: Namely, they don’t seem to hate the audience. You don’t ever feel condescended to or looked down upon. So, here are my awards for 2018:

Best Animated Feature

Isle of Dogs: I know a lot of people don’t like Wes, but we do. A lot.

Best Crime Drama

Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer

Best Musical

Anna and the Apocalypse: (OK, it was the only new musical we saw but still…)

Best Action

Along With Gods: The Last 49 Days

Best Historical Drama

The Princess and the Matchmaker

Best Romance

Till The End of the World

Best Romantic Comedy

How Long Will I Love U

Best Slice-Of-Life

Tie: Little Forest/Champion

Increasingly simple.

Simpler times.

Update: I’m posting this now because it’s been three months since I’ve seen a movie in the theater. I had lost interest in it at the time (December of 2018) because Hollywood films had become drastically less interesting, as had the “year end retrospective” thing which doesn’t really mean anything given that most of the award-bait movies for a year are released in the last two weeks, and you have to watch them over the next three months.

My predictions for 2019 turned out to be right, unsurprisingly: It was another drab, uninspired year of (if anything) greater condescension from the “art” films and even more formulaic action flicks. 2020 was looking worse, at least for American films, but it will forever be marked with an asterisk that will be used to explain away the awfulness.

 

The Whistlers

“Forget what I did in Bucharest. That was just for the security cameras.”

That bravura line, delivered by the very attractive Catrinel Marlon (as Gilda) kick-starts the engine of this spy thriller about Cristi (Vlad Ivanov, Snowpiercer, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days), a man high up in the Romanian police who’s being recruited by a gang to help arrange a jailbreak. Who are they? Who are they breaking out? Are they the bad guys, or is the real bad guy the head of the Romanian police? Is Cristi a bad guy?

Yeeow.

I don’t think he’s gonna be forgetting it.

Damned if I know.

This is the kind of moody, somewhat murky crime film that has nothing but antiheroes in a quasi-police-state setting (I have no idea if Romania is but you sort of suspect a movie about a police state can’t actually be made in a police state) and dares you to care about the proceedings. As a heist movie, it has the curious gimmick of Cristi being taken to the Canary Islands to learn the whistling language of the Guanches. This will allow the team to coordinate in a way without the authorities knowing.

We end up kind of liking Cristi: At first because he seems to be the lone man against the power of the state, and then later because he seems to have some kind of compass. Though he’s not an honest cop—honest cops don’t survive—his sins are venial compared to those of his boss and the cutthroats who have roped him into this scheme. He’s enamored of Gilda—because of course—and although she discourages him (apart from that thing in Bucharest), his affection for her (and the subsequent decent actions he takes) gives you something to hang on to at the movie’s climax where a bunch of people kill a bunch of other people, and you mostly think, “Well, good.”

"There were natives there called 'Guanches'..."

“The Grand Canary Islands, the first land to which they came, they slaughtered all the canaries there that gave the land it’s name…”

You can sometimes get a sense from the tone of the film how it’s going to end up, and I was concerned we were going to go through the whole journey with, “And then they all died. Because real, man.” But the ending is satisfying and puts a cap on the whole premise of the film, so I liked it. The Boy also liked it.

We both agreed that it wasn’t quite the great film the critics had made it out to be.

As a side note, the film has a sex scene, and I was a little shocked by that, which brought to mind how things had changed over the decades. It’s interesting how uncommon that has become in films where—all kidding aside—the nekkidity is not absolutely essential to the plot, as Joe Bob Briggs would say. In this case, it really was.

Lovely but menacing.

Except for the expression on her face, this could be a travelogue.