Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island

The original premise of ’70s TV impresario Gene Levitt’s “Fantasy Island” was something akin to “be careful what you wish for”, and there was a distinct horror element to the TV pilot which I believe was greatly watered down in favor of comedy, romance, campy drama in the vein of—well, let’s just say it was a place where “The Love Boat” could (and did!) stop over. So while the idea of a remake of the show sounds like a dystopian nightmare of creative bankruptcy, it didn’t have to be. And a horror-based remake was right up my alley. On the other hand, the buzz was less than compelling.

Ladykillers.

Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait.

So, I went to see it at a time I knew pretty well I was going to end up being interrupted, and indeed I was, about halfway into the film.

The half I saw didn’t suck. Blumhouse usually spends some time developing characters so that you care when they’re gored through the eye with a dessert fork, and this is no exception. Our guests on the titular island are two bros who want to “have it all”, a middle-aged woman who regrets having said “no” to her dream marriage proposal, a young man who wanted be a soldier but promised his mother he wouldn’t, and a young lady who wants revenge on a high-school bully. Except for the last character, they’re all pretty likable.

Before I go on, I should point out the White Elephant in the room: Michael Peña as Mr. Roarke. Peña is a fine actor who does a fine job but he is no Ricardo Montalban. He might be a better actor, actually, than Montalban, I don’t really know. But Montalban essentially created the Corinthian leather industry (with apologies to Corinth and Bozell Advertising) from raw charisma. And the thing about Mr. Raorke is he looked good. His ’70s era white disco-leisure suit was always neat and perfect. Improbably so given the humidity on the sorts of islands we’re talking about.

Peña looks like an alcoholic who threw on the summer clothes of the island’s former dictator. The only time I really winced in this movie was looking at him shuffle around like a 21st century man in his rumpled linens. Now, this is all in-character, actually: Peña is on edge throughout the film, he is not playing Montalban’s Raorke, who was an angelic figure and part of the story hinges on that. But for me it felt like the collapse of Western Civilization.

OK, I’m being a bit dramatic. And if you don’t have any memories of the original show, you might not even notice. I didn’t care for it. But more on that later.

Oy.

He looks like he slept in that outfit.

Anyway, our two bros get their “all”, which basically involves drugs, scantily clad models and a nice beach house. This fits in with the original show pretty well. There was always some side-character who made a very simple wish and got it and was happy. But with revenge girl, Melanie, things get weird: She’s torturing her high school bully and quickly comes to realize, it’s not a hologram and she’s actually torturing someone, which wasn’t what she thought. (None of the four parties take the island very seriously at first.) So she ends up rescuing her putative victim and the two run through the jungle trying to evade Melanie’s former therapist, who is somehow now a monster. (Roll with it.)

The other two stories present a more intriguing problem. Up till now, everything has been essentially possible, but now we come to Gwen, who regrets her past, and Patrick, who wants to be a soldier. For Gwen, she literally goes back in time so she can accept the marriage proposal (or so it seems). Patrick ends up in Central America in 1989 with his father on the rescue mission where his father lost his life. (This is why he wanted to be a soldier and why his mother wanted him not to be.) But this ’89 mission hears the noise from Melanie escaping, so…what the heck is going on?

Pause for intermission. This is where I left, but I was intrigued enough to wander back in and finish watching it later. (With AMC stubs, the ticket doesn’t cost anything.)

In the intermission, I’m going to point out two things: First, this is a seriously United Colors of Benetton movie. The two bros are a older white guy (Ryan Hansen, Friday the 13th 2009) and his much younger Asian brother (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriot’s Day). Oh, and the Asian kid is gay. Gwen is played by the lovely Maggie Q (Live Free or Die HardMission:Impossible 3) and the man she jilted is a black man (Robbie Jones) in the mold of what Richard Meyer (of Comics Matter w/yaboi Zack) would call a Gordon Goodbrother. Roarke’s assistant is half-Jamaican. Etc.

I’m just going to say if you need—if you’re compelled—to be diverse, this is the way to do it. Maybe don’t put the diversity into ancient stories or historical tales—and when you do have the diversity, try to make the characters likable and deeper than their demographic checkpoints. (A movie has an advantage over a comic books, as yaboi would point out, because people have charisma and drawings don’t.)

So, while I rolled my eyes a bit, it didn’t grate in the way, oh, a mixed-race couple on the subway during WWII might.

Which, sometimes you do and sometimes you don't.

This is the whitest shot in the movie, especially if you count Asians as white.

Second, the reason the “Fantasy Island” series worked (to the extent that it worked) is that there wasn’t really an explanation for anything. At one point, I believe Mr. Roarke is shown to be something like an angel, and this is shown by him engaging in magical combat with Mephistopheles (Roddy McDowall). The rules, if there were any, were loosely defined at best.

Which brings us to the second half of this movie.

Gwen gets to say “yes” to her lover and wakes up on current day Fantasy Island with him, a young child, and five years worth of memories. Patrick convinces his father that he’s really his son and he’s really going to die on this mission, at which point the father’s like “Let’s get the hell outta here, then!” making Patrick feel like his father’s a coward. Meanwhile, the Bros discover that the house they were partying in used to belong to a drug kingpin when the kingpin’s enemies invade the house (and all the models lock the bros out of the panic room).

And Melanie and her companion end up encountering a crazed Michael Rooker, who’s a detective investigating the island. He’s discovered the fantasies are all powered by a magical alien rock buried in a cave. (One of the characters says it’s “ancient”, but I never could figure out how anyone would know that.)

But Gwen’s story seems to be the pivotal one: She made her wrong choice all those years ago because she felt guilty. And if she’d known that the island was real she would’ve had a different fantasy.

Now, here’s how the movie could’ve ended: She could’ve corrected her past mistake, in a story which tied in all the other characters, who also have learned a lot on their little stay, the end. But this is a Blumhouse movie, so we gotta have a horror twist and things gotta go weirder, even at the expense of any coherency.

All the characters are tied together by this mistake, and it turns out they’re in someone else’s fantasy (this is actually in the trailer), which is revenge on all of them. So they go hunt the magic rock down to kill it.

Picture pickin's are slim.

This is not them killing the rock but it’s as good anything I can find.

Of course, this whole plot negates most of the rest of the movie. Like, did they ever really get their fantasies, or was it all alien rock magic? Because at some points, it seems very clearly to be one way, and yet it cannot be. And if Rooker knows all about the island, his fate is especially pointless and dumb. Roarke himself is chained to the island for various reasons that were really unclear to me. (I don’t know if I zoned out or Peña was mumbling his exposition or what.) But to get out of their various fixes, there’s a lot of alien rock magic pulled into the overlong third act—which seemed geared to make this movie its own pilot.

The acting is good. Lucy Hale, while lovely and talented, has this new style of hair I can only describe as Garden Shear Homeless. I don’t know what that fashion is, but I see it a lot and I do not care for it. Maggie Q is quite moving. I didn’t want to hit The Bros repeatedly in the face, and they were sorta those kinds of characters, so good marks for Yang and Hansen. Charlotte McKinney is the model Chastity who is (of course) gorgeous but also provides some comic relief.

Do I blame writer/director Jason Wadlow (Kick Ass 2) for how it all falls apart? I dunno. It feels like a lot of it was quite good and promising, and also that several major points were foreordained by committee. And while it was critically and popularly reviled, it also made $45M on a $7M budget—that’s the Blumhouse secret!—so we might even see a sequel.

OK, I wanted to punch him in the face a little.

 

Enter The Fat Dragon

It is not, I have noted, that all Korean and (particularly) Chinese movies are great. It is, however, true that they’re capable of attaining greatness and that even when they’re simple, mindless fun, they aren’t in the American mold of hammer them to pieces with focus-group approved stimuli, patient zero for which I think I recently identified. They’re still allowed to have fun in the East. And pathologies are not enshrined and protected.

Which brings us to this film: Enter The Fat Dragon.

Chubby!

Coronawhatnow?

Martial Arts Master Donnie Yen (Ip Man 4, and 3, and 2, and 1, Rogue One) plays a supercop whose high-octane antics result in excessive property damage and embarrassment to his superiors and him be reassigned to the property room. Meanwhile, he’s pissed off his fiancee (native Angeleno Jessica Jann, Easy A) by saving a bunch of bank robbery hostages on the day they were to have their wedding pictures taken. (Note, Jann is 30 and Yenn is 56, though the age disparity is curiously not as obvious as it would be with Caucasian stars.)

So, Yenn, down on his luck and stuck in the property room for eight hours a day, depressed over his break-up, well, naturally he starts snacking. And snacking. And gets fatter and fatter and…well, actually not that fat by American standards, but fatter than one expects a kung-fu-master/action-hero to be. He gets sent on a busy-work run to Japan with a villain where, sure enough, he runs into his ex- and discovers the only good people in Japan are displaced Chinese.

But in a loose top.

While he’s still skinny.

I’m not kidding about that: Every Japanese person in this movie is criminal or complicit in crime. There’s even a scene where the police turn a blatant blind eye to Yakusa shenanigans because they’re Japanese, what do you expect? The Boy and I were amused because our view of Japan is that it is a very mild-mannered place with a very low crime rate. But I guess the Chinese aren’t over the Rape of Nanking yet. (And the Koreans clearly aren’t over the attempted genocide, as we saw in The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos.)

Whatever the veracity of it, our hero is on our own as his busywork mission becomes complicated by his ward being murdered, and a criminal conspiracy that reaches…well, not to the top, but high enough.

It’s fun. It’s funny. It has a lot of kick-ass action scenes, and Donnie and Jessica have a kind of complicated reconciliation/breakup/reconciliation/rescue that gets you in the feels despite the overall absurdity of many of the situations. Again, there are tonal shifts here that don’t work in American movies, typically. It starts out as a straight-up action/comedy film, then goes into pretty much straight comedy, then there’s an actual murder with dead body, then there’s more action/comedy, then there’s a pretty strong romance theme, and it kind of plays out action/comedy/romance/mystery.

Probably Chinese. I dunno.

We make pretty Chinese girls here in L.A.

It’s amazing what you can do when you respect your characters. (Well, except the Japanese characters.)

The Boy and I enjoyed it. We were surprised (and maybe a little disappointed) that there really weren’t a lot of fat jokes. I think we were expecting something broader—though Lord knows there are sharp limitations on “Fat Man Fall Down” humor, and it perhaps would have seemed a little unkind, given that I’m pretty sure Donnie Yen rolls around with a 4% body fat most of the time.

But, honestly, they make him up to be fat and virtually nothing else changes. He does all his signature moves perfectly, just with a gut. Yeah, alright. It’s kind of a low-key visual gag that doesn’t wear out its welcome and makes his character strangely sympathetic. I think, on an aesthetic level, it speaks to all of us who were in good shape once, and never changed on the inside. Heh.

Anyway: Fun action/comedy flick worth your attention. Check it out.

Whoa, Fat! North Korean review.

“Look, Fat.” — Joe Biden

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas In His Own Words

“I was born…a poor black child.”

Of course, Thomas is way too dignified to have started his movie like that, but he really was born into abject rural poverty at a time when racism was still a real, institutionalized thing. Even so, his memories of those times are pretty positive, until he was sent off to live with his mother in Atlanta. (Urban poverty being a wholly different thing from rural poverty.) When her place burns down, he ends up moving in with his grandmother and grandfather, who end up shaping his life.

...

He’s seen some things.

His path from there is a fascinating one: Working hard and keeping his nose clean to stay on grandpa’s good side, having a calling to the seminary which ends when his fellow priests cheer and gloat over Martin Luther King’s assassination—which departure alienates him from his grandfather—falling in with radicals and realizing the horribleness of the mob mentality from the joiner’s side, success in law school followed by an inability to get a job as a black man, ending up in the D.A.’s office, marriage, child, divorce, then re-marriage and of course all culminating in a high-tech lynching.

One thing I think is very important in these days of SJW grievance mongering is remembering that racism used to be routinely more than casting the wrong ethnicity character in a Disney movie, and institutionally speaking, racism among Democrat politicians was an issue into the confirmation hearings of the ’90s—and how much has changed since then? Destroy someone insufficiently woke for making a joke comparing a black person to an ape? Absolutely. Make those insults and far worse yourself, perhaps accompanied by threats of violence? Hey, whatever gets the job done.

Politicians seem to inevitably be the worst of us, but to see Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy smirking their oleaginous way through this politically-orchestrated slander was infuriating. Kennedy’s shamelessness notwithstanding, you just wanna punch Biden in the face. Seems like too many of the faces were familiar. Either still in office or just recently stepped down.

The creep...creeps.

“Sniff my hair. I dare you.”

Point being, a woke lynching isn’t much different from the old-fashioned kind, and certainly not from the perspective of the lynchee.

If Thomas were on the Left, he’d be getting the Full RBG treatment: There’d be movies and (more than one) documentary, tchotchkes, workout- and cook-books, but instead it’s: “He’s Scallia’s lapdog,” “He’s so dumb, he never asks questions,” “He’s an Uncle Tom”. That’s why he needed his own documentary.

Thomas has long been my favorite Supreme Court Justice for the simple reason I can understand what he writes. I can follow the logic. I usually agree, but whether I do or not, I don’t feel like he’s riding some hobby horse. (Scalia sometimes seemed to be twisting himself into what you might call pro-government positions, by contrast. And I didn’t always understand his logic even when I agreed with his general conclusion.) This movie talks almost none at all about his decisions, however, content to end with his arrival at the Supreme Court. (Though there is some coverage of the continued attempts to invalidate him.)

But what a ride. What an interesting person. He’s kinda pissed, and I don’t blame him. But you also get the sense he’s living his best life, and is kind of bulletproof now from the dirt kicked up at him because he knows his enemies have no shame and will stop at nothing.

On the three-point documentary scale:

  1. Subject matter: Obviously worthy.
  2. Presentation: Straightforward. Interview/narrative by Thomas himself, basically, with some segments from wife, Ginnie. Good enough photos and some relevant stock footage. Video of the hearings and a couple of other occasions exist. Appropriate music and for the interstitials there were low camera shots of the swampy island where Thomas spent his early childhood. Good music choices.
  3. Slant: Well, it’s his own story, in his own words. In that sense, it’s not slanted at all from what I can tell. Any biases or prejudices are Thomas’ own. There isn’t any apparent commentary around that.

On this last point, you could say it’s biased, obviously, because Thomas doubtless has his own. Anita Hill (speaking of leftists given tonguebaths by the media) is not given any more due than she actually deserves, though she isn’t dragged either. She’s just a slightly more emotionally stable version of the loons they dragged up for Kavanagh.

It only played a few days here in Gomorrah and it was only because I was down in the OC that I had a change to see it: It’s a definite recommend, if you have any interest in the man, or even just want to get a sense of what this slice of American history was like. Even if he weren’t a Supreme Court Justice, his story would be a worthwhile one.

Say my name, mofo!

“They call me MISTER Supreme Court Justice Thomas!”

Secret Zoo

Young lawyer-man has a chance to get out of his inferior internship and into a real position, and all he has to do is make a go of a client’s newly acquired zoo. One catch? When he arrives, all the big draw animals are being carted off, and he has no way to get any new ones within his deadline. Solution? Have the ragtag bunch of remaining employees dress up as the animals to draw customers to the park.

That’s what we would’ve called high-concept back in the day.

Judging the sloth.

“High concept” back in the day also meant you were high whenyou came up with it.

This is a cute ensemble comedy of mostly TV actors—nobody I know—which begins with an absurd premise, goes off on a more absurd spike, but always treats the characters with respect.

The idea for costumes is floated when the crew is drunk, and the young lawyer is scared by a stuffed lion. They find a movie effects guy—a twitchy old dude—who assures them it can all be done: lions, tigers, giraffes…dinosaurs… They pass on the dinosaurs and the first actual costume the guy makes is a giant sloth. (The lazy girl gets to wear that, though it’s much harder hanging on trees than it looks.) The ugly guy with the crush on the sloth girl gets the gorilla suit. The vet ends up with a lion outfit. And the old guy who used to own the zoo (and who “ruined it into the ground”, which I wasn’t sure was a translation error or a joke) ends up being the polar bear.

They’re bad at it, of course, but they get better with time. This allows for a lot of good sight gags.

Beats Dr. Doolittle.

The polar bear is pivotal.

The turning point comes when the lawyer, who’s been running the show from the comfort of the control room, has to spend the day in the polar bear suit because the old man is not well enough. Well, sure enough he gets ridiculously hot and uncomfortable and he runs out of water. Koreans (in this movie) think its funny to pelt him with Coca-Cola so when he thinks nobody’s looking, he chugs it down.

But of course, someone is looking and video taping, and sure enough the Coke-drinking-polar-bear goes viral. This (temporarily) saves the park but you can see the other problems it might (and does) raise.

In other words, it’s a kind of screwball comedy. But there’s room in there for the lawyer to develop feelings for the doctor, and the gorilla-guy to console the sloth-girl when her jerk of a boyfriend dumps her, and for the old guy to get a little redemption in, too. The lawyer ends up with the real moral crisis.

Tormenting caged animals seems particularly degenerate.

I would like to believe that the trash-throwing thing is just for the movie but I wouldn’t be shocked if it were true.

It’s nice. I’ve realized in the past three or so years that a lot of these movies aren’t as great as they seem to me at the moment, except in that moment. But it reminds me that we used to see (and enjoy) movies like this all the time out of Hollywood. And this is not a movie that could be made now in this country. Think about it:

The cast would have to be diverse, of course. But then there’d be implications about what race went into what costume. You’d have to have a black person, for example, but you couldn’t put them in the gorilla suit. You probably couldn’t put them in the sloth outfit, either. You couldn’t put a hispanic in the sloth costume, given stereotypes there. And then the simple love story of the not-so-handsome guy who is strong and stable and dependable and thereby wins a cuter girl? Even to the point of carrying her when she’s tired and burned out? That’s problematic. Then you gotta wonder if the animal rights people would complain (they would) about demeaning animals or cultural appropriation, maybe even.

It’s exhausting just to think about, but you know they do, and that’s probably why American product seems so exhausted. But I guess as long as we have Chinese and Korean movies to fall back on, we’ll be okay.

Sweatier, too.

More exhausting than wearing giant fur costumes all day.

Gretel and Hansel

Look, there’s\re just not a lot of options for even bad movies that are at least somewhat interesting, and while the trailers for this film smacked of “wokeness”, The Boy and I both thought there was potential here. Which, ex-post-facto doesn’t matter much, since this movie doesn’t really realize much of it. Tonally, it’s a bit like The VVitch meets Mandy but it lacks the stark realism of the former and the surreality of the latter. And it’s yet another horror which didn’t seem particularly good in the atmosphere department.

A steal at $979,000!

“Evil witch house” or “cozy fixer-upper with gobs of potential”?

In this version, big sister Gretel and her baby brother Hansel are thrown out of their house by crazy widowed mom, and wander around in the woods until they come to a…I dunno what it was, a manor house, maybe?…where they, for some reason figure they can crash, so they do, but they’re chased out by a zombie who’s murdered by a black dude with a super-crossbow who talks all Old Englishy and feeds them and tells them to go cross the forest to hang out with the lumberjacks.

Black Ranger is the second United Colors of Benetton moment in the movie, the first coming in the prologue, which itself is set up as a fairy tale where colonial-looking peasants, black and white, are living together as…well, I dunno, maybe it happened somewhere at some point in the 18th century.

It didn’t bug me much. It’s a little weird, but I’m willing to cut a fair amount of slack for something that isn’t meant to be real or realistic. There’s a later (repeated) incident that really jangles, though.

Anyway, the deal is they have to stay on the path, but they get hungry and stop to eat some hallucinogenic mushrooms. The film clocks in at around 80 minutes, not counting credits, so this is what’s known as “padding”. After the mushrooms comes finding the witch’s house.

Oh Mighty Brosis!

Cool hat, bro…er, sis.

The witch (Alice Krige!) invites them in to eat all the great food, for which there’s no non-spooky explanation, and the two kids settle in, with Hansel learning to lumberjack and Gretel learning witchcraft. The tension comes from Gretel’s awakening power, which coincides with her increasing awareness that being a witch is not an entirely savory (heh) matter.

At one point, we get a view of the witch’s previous child victims and this is the third UC of B moment: There’s an Asian kid, a couple of black kids, several brown-skinned kids who may have been some mix of Amerind, Indian, Hispanic, Middle Eastern…who knows. They all just happened to wander into the witch’s forest. I probably wouldn’t have cared but I (and I found out later, The Boy) was having a hard time caring about this. I was having trouble staying awake, even.

It didn’t grab us, is what I’m getting at.

Quite the hottie.

Alice Krige is good in everything. Like 1981’s “Ghost Story”.

There’s a good story to be had here: That of Gretel struggling with the decision to “sell her soul”, essentially, by sacrificing her little brother. The kid actors are good enough, but the director (and possibly the writer, though who knows how much of the screenplay made it on screen) seems to have one basic trick. Much like The Turning, you’re never really sure whether you’re seeing literal action in the real world or just a dream. Unlike The Turning, however, where this plays into the question of the governess’ sanity, here when it’s not literal, it’s premonitory or at least symbolic. In other words, it’s as good as real as far as real goes for this movie.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t make enough literal sense to be engaging, or enough poetic/aesthetic sense to compensate. Some good imagery, though again, we found ourselves underwhelmed by the atmosphere. Music seemed very ’80s, synth-heavy, which isn’t necessarily bad. This is just one of those movies where you can point to a variety of things, some good, some bad, some odd, but end up feeling like nothing quite gelled.

Is that a spoiler? I don't think it's a spoiler.

They should’ve crossed-over with “Ratatouille”: “Shut up and eat your brother!”

The Turning

If I said that I didn’t know what was going on in The Turn of the Screw, how would you know whether I was talking about the novella or the movie?

Well, the tip off is that I used italics. If I had meant the novella, I would’ve put it in quotes. Though, honestly, having read the story about 2 1/2 years ago, the movie is probably easier to follow overall, at least until the end.

That's the look the producer should've had.

“We had to stop making sense to be true to the source material.”

This is about the 40th version of this story, which became popular to film in the ’50s. (A quick Ctrl+F on IMDB reveals it to be the 39th version, but I’ll bet some are missing.) What’s it about? Well, a nanny goes to take care of a young orphan girl and her brother who are being tormented by the ghosts not of their parents, but of some mysteriously missing or possibly deceased staff. Or the nanny is going crazy.

I’ve read the book, as I’ve pointed out, and I don’t know. I do remember reading passages of the story over and over again trying to figure out what the hell James was getting at. I mean, just the physicality of it, let alone the “is she or isn’t she?” issue. I probably should take another stab at it—though I did not have difficulty with any of his other stories. (“The Aspern Papers” is really fine work, all intimation and implication.)

Movies, of course, can only be so coy: They almost have to show you things, but then—if they want to create ambiguity—they have to convince you that what you saw was or might have been a hallucination. Where (long-time music video, first time feature) director Floria Sigismondi does well here is to give us enough solid grounding in the various haunting up front, but then slowly increasing the unreliability of our narrator-nanny (Mackenzie Davis, who’s in a lot of mainstream stuff I don’t know, like Terminator: Dark Fate).

And then the doorbell rings.

Trying to convince the younger generation “Terminator” used to be a great franchise.

To this viewer’s eyes, though, there’s some cheating here. I think if you’re going to have an unreliable narrator, then you can’t show things that she’s unaware of and completely don’t affect her. That is, if you show the ghost in the mirror, if the ghost isn’t real and at the same time the unreliable narrator both couldn’t see it and isn’t affected by it, then it either has to be real or you’re lying to the audience. This happens a lot: I can imagine the Nanny hallucinating a ghost that she couldn’t actually see, but she must be affected by it or the ghost must be real.

See what I mean?

Another thing on the positive side, but which probably doesn’t endear it to the popcorn horror crowd is the pacing. It’s pretty good at building without being rushed. The deterioration of the nanny, and her periodic quasi-recoveries, work well to create a sense of instability, whether warranted or not.

Then you won't be wolfing so hard, will you?

Some day puberty will come for you, Finn Wolfhard.

The acting is good: Finn Wolfhard (most famously of “Stranger Things”) is getting a little old for this stuff, but that age ambiguity sort of works in his favor here. Brooklynn Prince (The Florida Project and The Lego Movie 2, both of which I’m sure I reviewed but cannot find now) pivots nicely between innocent and/or possibly evilly-possessed demon child. Barbara Marten does a fine job as the creepy (or is she?) chef, and Joely Richardson (late of Color out of Space) has a nice little role as the Nanny’s insane mother.

How is it, though, as a movie experience? Well, I’ve mentioned that a lot of these recent horror movies (The Grudge and Gretel and Hansel, in particular) have really fallen flat in terms of atmosphere, which is something I sort of expect the humblest of horror films to manage, and this is true here. The house looks more lovely than spooky. The “forbidden area” of the house doesn’t seem especially foreboding. This is true even when the scenes themselves have genuine menace.

Scenes of the nanny being threatened, as a young woman might be in those circumstances, are rather effective.

The first ending makes a certain sense and is ambiguous enough for my taste. But the second ending is contradictory and makes things downright murky, as does the stinger. I liked it better than The Grudge and I may have liked it better than Gretel and Hansel, but none of them are easy to recommend.

Sometimes that's ALL they make!

Hey, now, everybody makes a bomb once in a while.

Color Out Of Space

A strength of the written word over visual media is that it can convey abstractions that extend or even violate literal description. In a comically broad example, a writer can tell you “To all outward appearance it was a happy scene—but horror lurked underneath!” (And when filmmakers do this, as in Blue Velvet, it can be just as ridiculously ham-handed.) Personally, I can seldom bring myself to watch filmings of Ray Bradbury stories because, in my mind, those stories are always wondrous and emotionally vibrant, and that seldom comes out on screen.

But in the area of abstraction, the Waukegan poet had nothing on the Providence patrician, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who was fond of defining things in terms of impossibilities: Non-Euclidean geometry meaning “things that don’t conform to the laws of natural space”, sounds unlike any sounds a human could comprehend, and of course, weird alien colours (with the affected English spelling). And he managed (not always but often enough to persist over 100 years) to create a wondrous, weird, malignant universe with impossibly abstract visuals and a few choice details.

Which is damned hard to film. (I’m reminded of Adriane Lyne’s query to Bruce Joel Rubin over a script direction in Jacob’s Ladder: “The walls crack open revealing the unfathomable void.” Lyne asked him, “How many carpenters will it take to build the unfathomable void?”)

Aren't movies magical?

These days you could do it with a half-dozen doughy middle-aged dudes and a case of Monster.

Horror films generally are plagued by Joyce’s “ineluctable modality of the visible”—that’s an in-joke I’ll explain in the comments—but what I’m getting at is that the instant you show something, it becomes defined and you lose some of the horror. The original theatrical cut of Alien does an excellent job of teasing the alien, showing hints and having the human crew chase around clues that fill in the picture. Then, by the end, when you see it in all its glory, you’re suitably awed by it.

When the threat is known and clearly defined in a film, it becomes more an action/adventure picture no matter how many horror effects it borrows. The label “Survival Horror” sometimes get applied to such films, but one isn’t usually scared by, e.g., the Resident Evil movies. Or, say, Tremors, a fine film with a lot of suspenseful moments, but not scary. You can also contrast Alien to Aliens, or Night of the Living Dead to Day of the Dead. Particularly the latter: Zombies don’t even seem like much of a threat once you know their “rules”. But zombies are easy to do, and even Alien just needed a very tall, very skinny dude in an (excellently designed) rubber suit.

Now, get your costume designers on Yog-Sothoth:

“Imagination called up the shocking form of fabulous Yog-Sothoth – only a congeries of iridescent globes, yet stupendous in its malign suggestiveness.”

The very first (and still one of the best) adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories is Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace, featuring said Yog-Sothoth. It recapitulates the mood of his successful, broody Poe stories, but with a somewhat different flavor, all to build up to one of the great cinematic disappointments:

It’s actually worse in the movie, as they do a “wavy vision” effect over this static picture, and you’ve been built up to something dramatically that’s…well, you feel like the movie—and the world—deserves better. (Coincidentally, Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon directed a version of this story in 1991.)

Five-hundred words is a lot of preamble for any movie review (though not my record) but I think it’s important to understand the mindset of the HPL fan in going to a mainstream-ish feature based on his works: You hope (without much hopefulness) that it manages to capture some of the characteristics of the writing and that it does so without some utterly embarrassing issue cropping up.

On that front, this movie is a resounding success. For the most part, the CGI reminds me of the Eastern movies we see: It’s not the best technically, but it’s not trying to fool you—it’s trying to win you over. So let’s get into the deets:

The story is updated from the sullen New England family to modern-day refugees from city life. This is savvy: Our characters are isolated by choice, and instead of being ignorant, moody farmers, they’re all-too-hip post-hippie homeschoolers. Another great aspect is that they’re not cartoon cutouts. Our scarcely involved narrator Ward (Elliot Knight) first meets daughter Lavinia—an irritable poseur—as she’s casting a spell that she hopes will take her out of the forest life but also will cure her mother’s cancer.

Nicholas Cage plays Nathan, who’s brought his brood back to the family farm, out of the city to a safe, sane place where you drink water from the well, grow organic produce, and emotionally support your financial wizard wife (Joely Richardson, The PatriotThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) who’s recovering from cancer, and raise your three kids who aren’t entirely sold on this whole hicksville thing. The movie does a good job getting you to like these people which, well, it’s kind of a shame what happens to them. (Contrast with the 1987 version of this story starring Claude Akins and Wil Wheaton, The Curse, or even the recent Annihilation.)

Hey, kid, don't put your lips on that!

“What the HELL is that?”

What happens is that a meteor strikes their small farm. This is where we first get a taste of the movie’s regard for the source material: The meteor doesn’t just hit. There’s a build-up. Again, contrasted with other versions of the story (like the Creepshow entry “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill”), director Richard Stanley infuses the scene with an alien intelligence. As such, when the horrifying transmogrification begins, the plot feels almost like a sci-fi invasion story. Tonally, this is spot-on: HPL’s universe was cold and hostile, and his monsters flew through (or lived in) the vacuum of space or sat at the bottom of the ocean for eons.

The aesthetic is also spot-on: Given the limitation of having to present an actual color, the choice of the sort of purple-pink never-occurs-in-nature oddly-saturated hue works well. The color shows up in glints and flashes everywhere, though more and more prominently as the poison from the well spreads. The family experiences the meteor differently as well, the two teenagers (played by Brendan Meyer and Madeleine Arthur, both of whom have appeared in R.L. Stine material in the past, amusingly enough) seem to be the least affected, though they experience time shifts/loss, while young Jack Jack (Julian Hiliard) seems to commune with the voices only he can hear coming from the well. Meanwhile Nathan is assaulted by a smell no one else seems to be able to detect and Theresa (Richardson) seems to be semi-possessed.

We won’t even go into the alpacas.

They Get Thinged.

Concerned reader “Al” writes in to ask “WHY? WHAT HAPPENS TO THE ALPACAS?!”

A nice thing is that the characters’ behaviors are understandable. If I recall the original story, the transformation takes quite some time whereas here it happens in days. It’s not that everyone acts rationally—they are, after all, under the influence of a malignant space disease—but that you could see how a mildly diminished capacity would result in misunderstandings which result in fatal delays. So we are spared from the whole “Why don’t they just…?” syndrome common to horror films.

Some good spooky moments. No jump scares. A lot of disturbing things that felt Lovecraftian. Therese and Jack Jack have an encounter with The Color that is positively upsetting. A brief glimpse of an alien world. Another scene has Lavinia casting a spell by carving letters into herself with a box-cutter but you’re not sure whether this is the influence of the meteor or her attempt to fight that influence. A nice updating of the parental characters going mad: They start acting like their parents. (So to those who wonder, yes, Nic Cage does go crazy but it’s a different kind of crazy.)

One scene rips off John Carpenter’s The Thing which, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Tommy Chong has a role as paranoiac hermit Ezra (another rather savvy update to “the crazy old coot who lives in the woods” trope) whose exeunt is very effectively done. Producer Josh C. Waller (who also produced Mandy) plays a sheriff who, if I’m not mistaken, has a run in with a Shuggoth.

His Royal Alien Purpleness

Prince lives.

I’m not sure about that one, but easter eggs abound: The narrator is a hydrologist from Arkham (the nearest big town) and wears a Miskatonic University shirt. He reads Algernon Blackwood’s The Willows, considered by HPL to be the finest horror in the English language. And his name is “Ward”. (I think they say “Philip Ward” at some point but I may have misheard that.) The weather report is for Arkham and surrounding cities like Dunwich and Innsmouth. The book Lavinia tries to cast her spell from is the Necronomicon, (but it’s the Necronomicon you can buy on Amazon, not HPL’s version). Fortunately, the references settle down as the action picks up.

The Boy and I had to catch it separately but we both agreed that we liked it, that it was solid, but no Mandy, a comment which isn’t meant derogatorily because I probably liked this more. As good as the atmosphere is in most respects, we couldn’t help but wonder if it might not have benefited from a little more of Mandy’s surrealism. Nonetheless, for a guy whose last feature directing job was being thrown off Island of Dr. Moreau 20 years ago, Richard Stanley has shown a very sure hand here and I’m looking forward to the next movie in the trilogy: The Dunwich Horror.

The Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts (2020)

Melancholy.

I realized after watching: Cancer, death of a parent, dementia, abortion, dogfighting, deformity and death of a bird, that the Oscar-nominated (and honorable mentioned) shorts were almost relentlessly melancholy. Then a couple extra French shorts came on and they were cute, funny and charming—I mean, to the point where they didn’t really fit with the rest.

But still.

Cute, safe, predictable, “diverse”…only a little melancholy.

The first one was “Hair Love”. Watching this I knew it would win, not because it was the best, but because it was diverse. It was also one of the less melancholy entries, as a (black) father struggles to do his daughter’s hair. Black people and hair, man. It’s cute. The punchline involves cancer in a fairly predictable way, but it was not ineffective.

It's Czech.

Not cute, predictable or diverse. Very melancholy. But not ineffective.

The second was from the Czech Republic, “Dcera”, which means daughter. The animation here was a very rough stop-motion (or stop-motion-like) thing. I found it effective in telling the story of a woman watching her father die and recalling an incident in her youth when he failed to comfort her (though not callously), and a later incident where he’s putting her on a train. The Boy and I probably liked this the least, but I think it was because we didn’t really understand what was going on in parts of it. That is, I think part of the issue was cultural.

******

Cute, diverse, unpredictable, but probably “edgy” by modern Hollywood standards.

The third one was primitively animated—and, again, this isn’t an insult. It was actually interesting all the different modes of animation, and how they were used to different effect. In this case, the characters are simply drawn, and it’s a simple story of a man’s “Sister”. It’s a real gut-puncher and one of the best of the lot. Let me add that the topic here was abortion, and I don’t know when or why the word went out that China’s One Child policy law was bad, but I’ve been seeing a lot of indications TPTB are backing off their ZPG dogma (publicly). This doesn’t reflect on the creator of this short, whom I believe to be very sincere. But the gatekeepers control what gets out…and this got out.

Ceci n'est pas un pistol.

The imagery seemed artistically “true”…what dementia might feel like.

Another gut punch came in the form of the first French entry, “Memorable”. This depicts a man’s increasing dementia by diverging from a realistic depiction to an increasingly abstract one, with pieces missing. The Boy thought this one was the best. But…melancholy.

Not so cute.

It’s cute, right? Wait, why does the dog have so many scars?

The last of the nominated shorts was “Kitbull” about an adorable little kitty who befriends a pitbull kept chained up in the yard where the kitty hides out. Adorable, no? Well, not when you realize the pitbull is being trained as a fighting dog and his owner plans to beat him for losing. Good lord, people.

I know you’re depressed about Trump being President and probably winning a second term, but jeez.

It's like a theme.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m afraid you’re going to live.”

The first of the “honorable mention” shorts was “Henrietta Bulkowski” about a young woman with a hunchback who wants to fly. It’s sweet, but heavy-handed. I like that kind of…parable? allegory?…fairy tale, I guess, so I probably liked it more than The Boy. I think what weakens it is that Henrietta’s character is too self-possessed, when we finally hear her talk. It turns her into an emblem and makes her less sympathetic thereby.

Happy ending?

Shipwrecks are hard on the animals. I mean, the animals on the ship. The underwater animals seem to enjoy them just fine.

This was followed by the Irish “The Bird and the Whale”, another very melancholic fairy tale that isn’t allegorical, I don’t think. At least, if I start thinking about it in literal terms, it becomes horrifying. The medium of oil (?) on glass was interesting and lovely, for sure.

Funny!

They look like Don Martin characters, don’t they?

“Hors Piste” is French for off-road. This was our favorite. It’s done in an ’80s style TV-action show with a couple of Don Martin-type characters who helicopter into the Alps to save a skiier. But they crash their helicopter and end up having to ski back down. It’s just five minutes of silly fun, like a Road Runner cartoon, and while neither the Boy and I favor slapstick, it won us over. Now, part of this may have been the previous 70 minutes of melancholy, but still I think it’s much harder to make people laugh for five minutes than to cry or tug on heartstrings.

Fun, too.

Cute, charming and VERY short.

The last one, also from France, was a two minute pond-life-as-orchestra gag. It was done in a “realist” style and was charming and not melancholy.

That sums it up. We were glad to have seen it, overall, and found it interesting and entertaining, if depressive.

 

An American In Paris (1951)

I’m singin’ in the…Paris. Actually, Singin’ In The Rain was the next year and would win zero Oscars, while this film would take home six including Best Picture (over, e.g., A Streetcar Named Desire). And yet, An American In Paris is really a dance movie with a whopping 17 minute climactic dance number. That’s right: 15% of the movie is one dance number. It is the ultimate Golden Age of Hollywood dance musical.

Suffice to say, if you’re not a dance fan, this is not the movie for you.

Guess which one.

One of these guys is more into the musical aspect of musicals.

The plot is as lightweight as can be: Gene Kelly plays a painter living in Paris, spontaneously breaking out into song and dance with minor prompting from struggling pianist Oscar Levant and their mutual French friend (Georges Guétary), the two Americans (playing much younger men, presumably) are struggling to get by. Kelly’s fortune looks to be on the rise when he finds a benefactor in Nina Foch, who is a dowager preying on handsome young artists.

Her primary crime—besides being only ten years younger than Gene Kelly instead of twenty—is not being Leslie Caron, with whom Kelly falls in love-at-first-sight. Quoth the Flower: “She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen…” Well, I don’t know about that, but she’s certainly love and good enough a dancer that we didn’t miss Cyd Charisse. Her acting is primarily emotive and motion-based—a good thing since she didn’t really know English—and very effective for all that.

32!

She’s ancient and hideous.

Kelly and Caron have a sub rosa affair, the latter hiding her feelings from Georges, whom she has committed to marry due to his saving her during the war. (Guétary was actually younger than Kelly but, as I said, Kelly’s supposed to be playing a young man probably ten or more years younger than is actual 38.) Kelly’s more upfront with Foch about not feeling for her, but he’s still in dubious moral standing.

The plot is paused for Oscar Levant imagining he’s a successful concert pianist and Guétary’s show number, and it all comes to a head about 90 minutes in. Then we have the lead-up to the finale.

It’s thin and most modern estimations place it well below SitR but again, I think the key here is the dancing. If you’re into the dancing, there’s not going to be much like it. If not, you’ll probably find it pleasant, but not as engaging as many other musicals, six Oscars or no.

I mean, they're ALL cute.

There are actually a paucity of pix of Caron from this movie, but this one’s cute.

The Grudge (2020)

You could say I’ve got a grudge against The Grudge. I mean, you could say that but it wouldn’t be accurate. I do have a slight history of it, as when I went to see the 2004 version with Sarah Michelle Gellar, the two front rows (immediately in front of me) were occupied by teenagers who talked incessantly and…I wanna say they texted each other, but I’m not sure that was a thing in 2004. I remember it, though.

I was apoplectic. It’s a miracle I, and they, survived. I’ve never encountered such rudeness and I never hope to again. And I never did learn what The Grudge was about. I tried to watch it on TV once. At least, the original Japanese version by Takashi Shimizu (who did one of my favorite After Dark Horror Festival movies, Best of Fest) but…yeah, I’m not sure I made it all the way through or that it held my attention. It made little impression, in any event.

Same ol' funhouse.

Cool image, bro. But it’s kinda been done to death and 20 years later, you’re sorta looking for this to have some symbolic or resonant meaning.

To further add to the lore, my mother fell and fractured her femur shortly before I went to see this. The Flower and I were in the OC for another of her art classes (and we’d just seen Ashfall) when I got the message she was in the hospital. Since there was nothing we could do, The Flower decided to go to her class and I was just marking time with the new version of The Grudge, specifically because I didn’t want to have to care if I was interrupted.

I was interrupted, but I would not have cared. This review will be a little spoilery since I don’t really care.

Anyone remember the heartbreak of "bathtub ring"?

It was spoiled when I go there, I swear.

Nicholas Pesce directs his own screenplay—yeah, I don’t know who he is either, and I think the draw on this is Sam Rami’s name attached, and maybe Takashi Ichise (producer on the original)—but it’s just…well, it’s not very good. In the broadest sense, this is a “fun house” horror, which I do not mind, especially if they’re going HAM on the cool imagery. But lately the Blumhouse horrors (like last year’s The Curse of La Llorona and Annabelle Comes Home) seem to be falling back on the “funhouse” style just because it’s easier than writing a cogent script.

No, no, no. You’ve gotta wow the audience if you want them not to notice that nothing makes sense. And there’s no wow factor here. It’s very paint-by-numbers. Which makes the awful stupidity of the plot really jump out at you.

The premise is that if someone is pissed off when they die, that makes The Grudge, which is curse that kills all who encounter it.

I imagine most people are pissed off when they’re murdered. OK, ok, but they gotta be really pissed off. Oh, and it’s gotta be real violent. So, Chicago is littered with grudges. Which, maybe explains Chicago. OK, ok, so let’s assume they have to be extraordinarily violent, the sort of thing that only occurs when you need to reboot a horror franchise.

Really. Wouldn't piss me off at all.

This is fine.

Our story begins with a prologue where a (very!) enterprising American realtor goes to Japan to visit the Grudge House. Presumably she doesn’t know that it’s the Grudge House and is just there for all the spicy input only Japanese realtors can give, but once she goes to the Grudge house, she’s doomed. The Curse follows her home and she kills her family.

The main story starts when our heroine Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, the eponymous Mandy!, though honestly I didn’t recognize her) joins the rather hearty police department of what seems to be a pretty podunk town, and her first case is tied to the realtor’s Murder Home. Apparently, after the realtor killed her family, several other people (literally everyone who ever stepped foot in the house, per the movie) also ended up dead or insane (but then dead).

So, what’s the first thing we know? Well, The Grudge is apparently highly mobile. It moved from Japan, not just to kill the realtor and her family, but everyone else who ever stepped foot in that house forever. Do you see the immediate issue here? This means that everyone who steps foot in a Grudge house carries that contagion to…well, maybe not every other house they step into, but at least their own home.

Also, Muldoon immediately steps foot inside the house, so she’s screwed. She spends the whole movie piecing it all together, and decides (spoiler?) that she’s going to solve the problem by burning down The Grudge house. Well, obviously, that’s not going to work, because…I mean, we started with The Grudge moving from Japan!

She's kinda cute.

I couldn’t find a picture of the fire from this film, so enjoy a picture of Sarah Michelle Gellar from 15 years ago.

But that’s the shocking twist, I guess. You’re supposed to be surprised that it didn’t work. In the end, she gets flashes of the original murder (which we didn’t see at the time) and I could see that the Pesce was trying to tie in the mysterious ghostly images with the murders. OK, points for that, because up till then, quite a few of the images seemed really arbitrary. But it doesn’t really make up for so much of the rest of the movie seeming arbitrary. How ghosts come and go and what they can do and not do. I mean, I think the thing was they couldn’t do anything but they could make others do things, which makes the final seen where Muldoon is dragged off Raimi-style sorta pointless.

I actually became fascinated with this movie early on, in a meta-sense. You know, when a movie completely fails to get your buy-in, you start to wonder why (because what else do you have to do?). I thought maybe it was me being distracted. I was worried about my mom, to be sure. But I was noticing that the movie somehow fails to convey any atmosphere.

That, to me, is fascinating, because even the worst movies of the “After Dark Horror Festival” managed a convincing atmosphere. (At first, anyway.) So I kept thinking, “I’ve seen shots of spooky houses done just like this, but this one seems perfectly lovely.” And “What a nice day!” Just very weird. Made me want to analyze it against other films. (Later I would see The Turning and Gretel and Hansel and note that the former managed some pretty good—but not great!—atmosphere while the latter tries very hard but somehow doesn’t manage atmosphere at all. Maybe I’m broken.)

The movie is not told sequentially, and at first that’s annoying as hell. It’s four or so different stories all taking place between about 2004 and 2006-ish. This is fine once you get used to it, and probably the only way you were going to get this thing told. There’s: The realtors, the crazy cop, the interracial couple, the young and pregnant couple, and of course the Muldoon framing story. (Muldoon is a widow/single-mom for no real reason.)

The acting is good. Demien Bichir (A Better Life) is Muldoon’s partner who’s too smart to go into the spook house. Lin Shaye is great, as always, as is her “husband”, Frankie Faison, with Jackie Weaver as a Kervorkian-type consultant called in to dispatch Shaye. John Cho and Betty Gilpin are the young pregnant couple. Tara Westwood is the murderous realtor.

Music by The Newton Brothers. Something about it struck me at the time but damned if I can remember what.

A lot of competent, talented people and the biggest shock here is how ineffective it is, even by modern Blumhouse standards. That’s kind of spooky.

Boo.

Who snuck up behind me? It’s the Grudge! Boo!

Weathering With You

We memed ourselves, as the kids these days say, by going out to see this at the “special premiere” showing, because we didn’t realize it was going to get a wide opening the next week. For a Japanese anime like Weathering With You (Makoto Shinkai’s follow-up to his smash hit Your Name, based on his novel) “special premiere” means you’re in a theater packed to the gills with weeaboos who are going to cheer inexplicably at some things and weep loudly at the emotional parts.

Not cute.

Like this but with pasty, pudgy Americans.

Oy.

If you’ll recall, Your Name was a movie that struck me as so odd because it had these crazy good reviews, and as you’re sitting down to watch it, it basically starts up in full, standard Japanese-highschool-sitcom-anime mode, complete with a theme song that would not be out of place on Crunchyroll. And the first two-thirds of the movie is just a very good, light-magical-realism romantic comedy about a teen boy and girl, strangers, a hundred miles apart, who switch bodies at random.

And then it just ups the stakes to an existential level, cranking up the romance to a capital-R Romance, with lovers whose destinies entwine those of thousands of other people—people who may, in fact, just die if the two of them don’t figure out what to do.

Quite a surprise, well done, and dramatically increasing expectations for Weathering With You.

Hi, hi, hi.

High expectations.

In this story, we again have high-school protagonists: Morishima is a runaway trying to get by in rainy Tokyo without any kind of credentials, something which is apparently nigh-impossible. He meets a cheesy tabloid publisher who “saves his life”, then mooches off of him but gives him his business card. Later, he’s roaming the streets of Tokyo with no money, crashing in a MacDonald’s where a kind girl gives him a Big Mac. Not long after, he rescues that same girl, Amano, from a Very Bad Situation.

But their paths cross most significantly when Morishima is trying to “research” Sunshine Girls: these are legendary maidens who have the ability to make the sun come out simply by praying. Of course, his publisher doesn’t care if it’s true or not, he’s just generating clickbait, but it turns out that Amano is, in fact, a genuine Sunshine Girl. Tired of the pittance he’s being paid, Mori convinces Amano to go into business selling her power.

Classic magical realism, but there’s a catch: Every time she prays for sun, she gets it—but the subsequent weather gets a little worse. And it hasn’t stopped raining in a month. (It’s August.) And every time she prays for the sun, she becomes a little more less-of-the-earth and more-of-the-clouds. Traditionally, the sun maiden is sacrificed for good weather, and Mori and Amano struggle with keeping her alive vs. Endless Rain.

Don't walk through the gate.

If nothing else, this movie is a source of high quality desktop wallpapers.

And the thing about Shinkai is, he’s not afraid to massively change the world in his little magical RomCom, as we learned in Your Name. So it all turns out different than you’d probably expect going in. Subverting expectations, even. (Everyone seems to forget the second half of successfully subverting expectations: not sucking.)

Beyond the narrative, there was something else about this movie that really subverted expectations: It’s a movie about weird weather that doesn’t once mention Anthropogenic Global Warning. Weirder than that, it actually takes a stance that can only be described as “settle down about AGW, already”.

See, everyone’s freaking out about the weather. But when Mori and Amano go to the wise, old knows-about-sun-maidens sage they get a lecture on how short human experience is and how long the time-span of the earth is. Oh, you don’t ever remember it raining this long? Well, you’re 20 years old on a billions-year-old planet, so maybe dial back the hysteria. Back when they called the city Edo, Tokyo was actually a harbor.

Apart from being a good message when it comes to climate (“settle down”), it places Amano and Mori’s choices against a larger, yet still intimate backdrop. One of the problems with the blockbuster movies these days is that they always gotta save the universe, and you end up not really caring about the characters doing it. Much like Your Name, though, Shinkai presents the couple with an immediate peril, and direct, dire consequences of making the wrong choice.

Anyway, it’s a fine use of magical realism: Make a point that’s true about human beings, both in large groups down to pairs, by making the metaphorical actual. My kind of thing.

The Boy and The Boy’s Girl also liked it, as did the roomful of sniffly weeaboos. If you can hack the Japanese cartoon scene, it’s worth a watch (subbed or dubbed).

April showers

See it with your Sunshine Girl.

Ashfall

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.

Noooo.

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.

 

The Two Popes

The Koreans had let us down. Our Christmas tradition (starting in 2016 with The Handmaiden) hit a roadbump when The Boy and jetted down to Koreatown on Christmas Eve Day (about the only time you can jet down to Koreatown from The Valley) only to discover that the only Korean movie playing, Ashfall, did not yet have English subtitles. I mean, the website said there weren’t subtitles but I just couldn’t believe it. The trailer had subtitles. Why would you give the trailer subtitles if the movie didn’t have them?

Sigh.

They’re not kidding about the “Teaser” part.

Well, that’s the “yet” part. This Korean volcano drama (I mean, come on!) will eventually have subtitles, but that was no help to us. We wandered around the city, considering our options. 63 and Up was on our list but it’s 3 hours, which is more than we wanted to spend just then. There’s a movie about fungi, which—who doesn’t love fungi?—we thought about but it was both at an awkward time and we felt likely to be overburdened with envirotragiporn. Potentially interesting films, like 1917 or even Black Christmas, didn’t open until the evening.

So we gave up.

On the way back home I said we should stop by and pick up a movie card for The Boy’s grandfather, and we stood there looking at our options: Cats and The Two Popes. The former had some potential as a cringe-watch but I remembered The Boy’s grandfather saying he had enjoyed The Two Popes. Well, we left. Then when we were in the parking lot, The Boy said, “Dammit, I wanna see a movie.”

This has been a particular bone of contention this year, in which we’ve seen barely 100 films. We used to gamble all the time, The Boy points out, and it’s true—but my point is that, it’s not that we’re not gambling, it’s that Hollywood (and the affiliated indies) are being very, very predictable.

We decided to risk it, pausing almost to abort a third time when I noticed the poster. Oh, it’s a Netflix movie. That set off red flags for The Boy. Then I noticed it was by Fernando Meirelles who direct one of the best movies I’ve seen in two decades (City of God) and one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen (The Constant Gardener), and I have come to believe that the good movie was a fluke or the result of his co-director, Katia Lund. But we committed ourselves and in we went.

Not a thing.

The annual Benedictine vs. Franciscan football game is big at the Vatican.

Should have skipped it.

This movie feels like Catholic cosplay—a bunch of atheists sitting around making a nonsense story (in a silly, pseudo-documentary style) without any concept of what they’re doing. It literally seems like someone said, “Hey, the new Pope’s a progressive Marxist who agrees with all of our politics, let’s make a movie about him!” If anyone said, “Hey, should we study Christianity and the issues facing the Church beyond the headlines,” the answer was most assuredly “Nahhhhh”, or so it certainly felt.

I mean, early on, (the future) Pope Francis says to Pope Benedict: “Jesus didn’t build walls.” And I’m sitting there thinking, “He was a carpenter! If he didn’t build walls, he made some awful houses!”

This movie has it that Cardinal Ratzinger represents the old Church, with all its flaws and concerns for human dignity and general freedom, while the hip, happening Cardinal Bergoglio, who seems more devoted to “economic justice” (Marxism) than any spiritual concerns, is the New Church and its chance for success. Because if there’s anything that troubles leftist atheists, it’s that the Church might fail going forward.

The whole movie’s arc is Anthony Hopkins (as Ratzinger) coming to realize that his successor is better able to lead the Church than he is, and Jonathan Pryce (as Bergoglio) coming to grips with failing to be sufficiently revolutionary when the communists were trying to subvert the government of Buenos Aires. Although Hopkins is well past his prime, he’s pretty good here, and Pryce is great as always, so the movie has that to commend it.

The message is delivered in the same ham-handed childish fashion as the deplorable Constant Gardener. Nothing really makes sense the way it’s portrayed.

On a technical level, the movie suffers greatly from the shaky-cam pseudo-documentary style and a jarring use of music, as when entering the Sistene Chapel the first time, what do we get? A saxophone solo. There’s a cute moment where one of the cardinals (maybe Bergoglio, I don’t remember) is whistling “Dancing Queen” which Ratzinger asks after, not being very familiar with pop music. But that’s followed up by the cardinals filing into the chapel to the actual strains of “Dancing Queen”. Why? What’s the point of that?

What’s the point of anything beyond “Yay! Progressivism!” here? I have no idea. But this is the first time in recent memory I can recall The Boy and I literally regretting having seen a movie.

Meh.

These guys can act but that’s about all there is going on here.

No Safe Spaces

The Flower had wanted to see this documentary featuring Adam Carolla and Dennis Prager but as you might imagine it didn’t have a lot of screens playing it here in New Gomorrah. We had to trek out to God’s Country (Simi Valley) to check it out. Sort of surprisingly, and much like Richard Jewell, which we had seen two days prior on a Tuesday matinee, the theater was rather crowded. (Jewell was practically full. This was maybe half full, but that’s a lot for a Thursday.)

This is a fairly breezy documenting of the increasing mau-mauing of anything other than the strictest PC voices on college campuses (and ultimately how that would spread beyond the universities). As a result, much like Dinesh D’Souza’s Death of a Nation, there was very little here that was new to me. (Well, I didn’t know much about Carolla’s backstory—I’d always wondered about his mom—or Prager’s, but that’s not really the point of the movie.)

Similarly, the kids were pretty well-versed on all this stuff. They weren’t aware of the Evergreen College fiasco per se but the contempt with which they hold the university system generally means they weren’t really surprised by it either.

She's great.

The great Sharyl Atkisson shows up.

There’s also a segment on Ben Shapiro being a contentious bone. I don’t know if the movie meant to do this, but there is a definite comedy in hearing about Shapiro being a monster—then cutting to him and, I gotta say, he’s one of the least impressive people to ever cause a ruckus. He’s like a grown-up Greta Thunberg. I mean, in terms of tone, he’s a scoldy high-school class President: Strident, kind of hard to listen to, and sorta weaselly. (Carolla and Prager, of course, are great aurally, but in completely different ways. The former has a blue-class roughness to his pronunciation while the latter could narrate Penguin documentaries.)

The point of the movie is, of course, that he should be welcome to speak if people on campus want to hear him speak. He’s literally doing nothing other than expressing what used to be rather anodyne social and political commentary. That anyone’s scared of these ideas gives you a sense of how fragile the bubbles they’re building on campus are.

Fortunately (?) the process seems to make snowflakes rather than robust revolutionaries, or we probably would have had much more violence at this point. This revolution, should it occur, will be done with complicity between the swamp and the large corporations, and selective prosecution (which we’ve already seen). Antifa-type crimes will go unnoticed and unpunished but people defending themselves against Antifa will be prosecuted vigorously.

I mean.

I cannot honestly fathom being intimidated by Ben Shapiro.

On the three-point scale:

  1. The subject matter is important, the very lifeblood of the Republic.
  2. The presentation is quite good. More polished than, say, D’Souza’s efforts. It feels higher budget.
  3. Slant? Well, it’s right there on the label. These guys are speaking out for free speech and against censorship. You don’t get a lot of “the upside to censorship”, which might have been interesting but not really on  point.

There’s a nice bit at the end where Prager talks with some young black college men about whether America is racist, and how any racism that does exist expresses itself in modern day. There isn’t an attempt to resolve the issue, only to communicate different viewpoints on it, and its a very good example of how people really can talk, even over difficult issues, even when their backgrounds and experiences are radically different.

For us, of course, while we enjoyed it, it wasn’t exactly revelatory to us, and as I pointed out to the kids, we’re not the intended audience. Whether this will reach the intended audience—the average folk who don’t realize how bad things have gotten—remains to be seen.

Lookin' at you, Levin.

These guys talk a lot. Their voices don’t hurt my ears.

Citizen K

Here is a documentary about a Russian oligarch’s trials and tribulations that was interesting on a lot of levels. The backstory is this: When Communism fell in the Soviet Union, the USSR handed out little bits of paper signifying stock in formerly nationalized industries. Given that there wasn’t a lot of food to go around and the slips of paper were pretty useless short-term, a handful of people gathered up these papers and became the controlling powers behind most of the industry in the new Russian republic. This, of course, is so obvious an outcome it’s almost impossible for me to believe it wasn’t the intended outcome but whatever.

One of these oligarchs was a man named Mikhail’s Khodorkovsky  who started the first bank, then moved into the oil biz where he created a truly efficient, product-driven organization (after killing everyone who stood in his way).

Wait, what? OK, the documentary doesn’t say this at all about killing everyone. I just made it up because, again, I can’t imagine how else it was going to play out in a society which for eight decades had been governed by “will to power”. No, this documentary focuses on one death, in one town: The mayor of a drilling town where Citizen K fired a great many of the workers, and who was resisting Khodorkovsky’s takeover. Then, on Mikhail’s birthday, he dies. No, he’s murdered, there’s no doubt about that. But our oligarch is on the other side of the country when it happens so…couldn’t have been him, right?

Later, when Putin rises to power (with Khodorkovsky’s help), things start to go sour and Vladimir is basically going back to the old ways—I mean, it’s more strictly a form of fascism, but there’s just a hair’s difference between that and communism—doling out stuff to pals and suppressing dissent. And Citizen K objects to this. So Vladimir throws him in prison for…I forget the charge, and it doesn’t really matter. Some sort of fraud. Later when he is about to go free, they retry him on the charges of stealing half-a-billion barrels of oil, so you know the Russian judiciary is not super-concerned with making things look plausible.

He remains defiant in jail, where he stays many years, then finally flees to Europe when he gets wind of Putin’s plan to pin the death of the mayor on him and put him away for good.

And now he sits in London agitating with no clear degree of success against Vlad. And I have to admit, I was a little confused at this point because I feel like the director had a narrative, but it was being very muddled by the facts. Like, Khodorkovsky’s screen presence (and jail persona) is a little too perfect, a little too Nelson Mandela. A little too much “For Love Of Mother Russia”. As he coyly admits that despite Putin’s machinations he has a cool $400M tucked away.

I was not at all satisfied that he was not behind the mayor’s murder, either.

Now, here’s the thing: I’m not sure I would judge him for it. The ’90s were wild times in the former USSR. The vast majority of people were used to being peasants and probably if you didn’t want to be a peasant, there were all kinds of terrible things you’d have to do. But I feel like this documentary wants me to think of Citizen K as a good guy and Vladimir Putin (whose rise was facilitated by same Citizen K) as a bad guy, and while Putin is obviously a thug, the evidence Khodorkovsky isn’t is a bit, shall we say, light.

After the movie, I looked up the director—I had actually gone to see this on the basis of a tweet from the official account—and it was Alex Gibney. The only thing of his I’d seen before was Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, and interestingly I had a very similar reaction to it, except that one was much, much clearer in intent: You’re supposed to think of the Enron guys as crooks who thought of themselves as the smartest guys in the room. Yet from the documentary, they very clearly were the smartest guys in the room. Granted this is mostly because our elected officials are morons, but still, that’s who they were dealing with.

And while this documentary very thankfully stays away from Trump (except for one or two minor allusions), I think it’s pretty clear that this documentary exists because now it’s okay to talk about what a heel Putin is. Not back in 2012, when the President was “more flexible”. Not in 2008 or 2004 or even earlier when he was rising to power and crushing all in his path. Actually, that really stuck out to me, how little splash Putin made in our media back in the early- to mid-00s: It was far more important to drag W over the war than to shine a light on Russia which, of course, is the historic ally of the left in the US (and hence the media).

We were glad we saw and it was interesting for historical reasons, but that’s about where the Boy and I left it. On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter. Obviously important on so many levels.
  2. Presentation. Pretty good. Not flashy but gets the job done.
  3. Slant. Eehhhhhh. Maybe? Maybe not?

I mean, point 3 is the stickler, but maybe it’s also not very important. It probably wouldn’t have even stuck out except, like a lot of docs, the movie tends to wear out its welcome. After we’ve seen all the action, we get a lot of little scenes that don’t seem to add up to much, as if it wants to mean something important but it’s not exactly sure what.

You kind of get used to that watching docs so there’s not a real inclination to “dock” (heh) any points for it. It’s worth a watch.

Not us.

Beatific? Megalomania? Who knows?

White Snake

I was looking up information on Bram Stoker’s Lair of the White Worm, as one does, and came across the pronouncement that White Snake Changes Chinese Animation Forever or something of that sort. And I thought, hey, I like Chinese animation (as far as I know), I wonder what the hell that means? But rather than read an article about it, I found that it was playing in South Chinatown (not to be confused with the fake Chinatown in downtown L.A. or the real ones in Alhambra or Orange) and so The Boy and I jetted off to see this story of a man who falls in love with the snake demon who may or may not have been sent to kill him and his whole family.

The revolutionary aspect seems to be that it’s…sexual. Not graphic or gross, but the two lead characters fall in love and have sex. And there’s a demonic saleslady who has rather carnal overtones as well.

It's close, though.

Traditional rendering of the character. (Good stills for Chinese movies are hard to find.)

The story is a little hard to follow at first, because it’s opened with two snake-demon sisters talking about stuff we don’t know, and it actually doesn’t all come together until the very end—but I was very impressed by how the end so successfully clarified the beginning and aligned everything.

The story is that Blanca, a snake-demon is on a mission to kill an evil tyrant who’s been making all his villagers capture and kill snakes for his personal edification. (Magic. Go with it.) But she fails and in the subsequent battle she is nearly killed. She’s thrown from the boat (yeah, they’re on a boat, I can’t put all this stuff into one sentence!) into a river and ends up washing up on the rocks of one of these snake-killing villages where she’s rescued by a handsome young snake hunter.

So, we got your standard other-worldly love story here, star-crossed lovers if there ever were a pair. But it’s done expertly here, with a necessarily light touch on the character interplay. For example, when your girlfriend is a super-powered otherworldly demon, you might have trouble relating to her in the traditional masculine ways. When she’s fighting a sorcerer, you’re likely to not have a lot to contribute as far as trading magical blows goes. But if you’re alert and on your toes, you can pitch in at critical times and save the day.

No mister better come between 'em.

Sisters…

There was an interesting aspect, too, to the whole Demon-Snake world vs. Human Emperor dynamic was surprising. It came off, to me, like a battle between Communism and Fascism (as has been featured in so many movies) and the message seems to be “both of these suck hard”. I mean, I’m the last guy to try to figure out the hidden messages in Chinese films—although a lot of people feel very strongly about doing just that—but while the evil emperor seemed to be more fascistic, allowing a sort of shadow of trade to go on as long as it ultimately enriched him, and the snake goddess (not our heroine, but our heroine’s boss, essentially) seemed more communist, channeling everyone’s energy to a common good (which of course was ultimately her personally and individually), they mostly both end up killing a lot of other people (whether their own or the enemy’s).

Didn’t see it coming. Didn’t see the ending coming either. You don’t really know until the last possible second whether or not our heroes survive their adventures. And it’s the sort of ending that only works in the Far East. So that was cool.

It doesn’t seem that revolutionary to me but it was a solid flick. Oh, from a technological standpoint (in case that’s the thing that’s supposed to revolutionary), it’s not up to A-list American stuff but it’s very cleverly done to make budgetary restrictions less apparent. Wherever the focus was was done up with top-notch animation, and the background stuff was neglected so you might not (if you’re not super-attentive to these things as we are) even notice.

We were glad we saw it.

Tough row to hoe.

“We’re too different! You’re a mammal and I’m a divine magical quasi-reptile!”

 

Jojo Rabbit

If you were young boy living in a militaristic society, and you weren’t really very physically competent yourself but you had a lot of spirit, it stands to reason that you might idolize and even adopt as an imaginary friend the leader of that society. That said, when the militaristic society is Germany in the second world war and the leader Adolf Hitler, it might give you pause as the subject of a comedic coming-of-age film. Unless, of course, you’re Taika Waititi.

I mean, serious camping.

Taika on an unrelated camping trip.

Taika Waititi is popular around here for his What We Do In The Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, the latter of which was a candidate for one of our best films of 2016. But even though we liked Thor: Ragnarok, massive Hollywood success ruins most everyone and we weren’t sure what to expect from this.

Well, if you ever wanted your Nazis to talk with delightful kiwi accents, this is your movie! (I, for one, haven’t stopped talking like “rock guy” since I saw Thor.) I mean, they try German accents, but they’re all overlaid with the Kiwi and by the end it seemed like they just gave up on the German. The only exceptions were the Americans (Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johannson).

Anyway, the story goes that the little boy Jo, a proud Hitler Youth in the last days of the war, is trying to fit in to this rather aggressive (and increasingly desperate society). His inability to separate his fantasy life from reality causes problems, however, especially for his camp counselor/washed-up drunk played by Sam Rockwell. Jo’s mom (Johannson) then puts it on Rockwell’s character to keep the boy occupied and contributing to the war effort.

HOGAN!

Things in late 1944 Germany were a lot wackier than I thought.

The hitch (apart from the approaching Allied Forces) is that Jo discovers a young Jewish girl hiding out in his house. This inflames, then challenges his notions of what Jews are. He begins to write a book about Jews, depicting them as the monsters he’s been told they are, and filling in the extra details with information from Elsa, his hidden Jew. She’s more than happy to work out her rage by embracing the worst stereotypes (and fantasies) of the Third Reich and embellishing on them further.

Of course, it all ends in tears. I mean, sorry for the spoilers, but WWII ends in tears for the Germans.

The real thing about this movie is that, much like Wilderpeople, it is tonally all over the map. While it dips into as serious issues as there are (much like Wilderpeople) the comic relief (which is frequent) is very broad, even slapstick, with Rebel Wilson being a more-or-less constant dip into the deep-end of the comedy pool, while Rockwell’s character allows him to be on either side of the comic/serious spectrum. He has genuinely humane and touching moments, but his battle outfit design for the final onslaught which seems very much like Jojo might have come up with.

Jews secretly control the government of Israel, I've heard.

Jews are always being difficult by not dying and stuff.

Oh, yeah, and there’s Hitler. I mean, it’s Jo Jo’s Hitler, and of course Waititi gave himself that plum role. But still, Hitler.

It’s an odd film. Oddly endearing. Not boring at all. By turns funny and dramatic and rather suspenseful. But whether or not you can get through it—to enjoy it—may depend on how much whimsy you can bring to bear with regard to the last days of Germany in WWII. For example, my stepfather is quite the expert and student of all things WWII and he can’t bring himself to watch the movie at all. I understand that.

His counter-example was Inglorius Basterds which he found distasteful fantasy. As did The Boy and I, but we were glad we saw this and we enjoyed it, though we weren’t really sure overall how we “felt” about it, in that larger nebulous sense.

It didn't work out, I understand.

On the other hand, this picture is kind of a good metaphor for what Hitler did to Germans generally, too.

Forgiveness

After the giddy fun of Tel Aviv on Fire and the dour moodiness of God of the Piano, we were only able to see one other Israeli film during the festival. And it wasn’t easy. We went to get tickets for the first night and they were sold out, but we knew they had opened another show for the next night, so when we went to see God of the Piano we figured on picking up tickets then—but it had sold out before we got there. Then it occurred to me there was likely to be another slot opening up that Thursday they would put another showing in, and there was! But by the time it occurred to me (Tuesday) it had already sold out!

There was a showing that Sunday, but we’d have to go down to Beverly Hills, and it would be tricky—driving in the rain and with barely enough time to make it. Trickier than we thought, as it turned out, because we couldn’t buy tickets online for some reason. It wasn’t showing as sold out, though, so we risked it, only to find a line outside the theater going around the block. I dropped The Boy off in front to see if we could buy tickets and it turned out that we could! The line was just around the block because they were starting late and hadn’t let anyone in! (On a less happy note, the reason we couldn’t buy tickets online was that the theater was no longer part of our local chain, and we had seen so many fun things there.)

So, we did get to see it and it was delightful. And decidedly Israeli.

A rabbi who's out standing in his field.

When you struggle to see a film, and it’s good? That’s a mimtzvah.

Quite apart from geography and politics, and even without overt mentions of religion, you would still be able to tell this is an Israeli film, with its mixture of comedy, drama, overarching spiritual themes and a view of humanity that is benign—but never naive.

Guy Amir and Hanan Savyon write, direct and star in this comical tale about a serious subject: Forgiveness. The movie (which is translated into English misspelled as “Forgivness” and I’m not sure that’s an accident) opens with Shaul (Amir) and Nissan (Savyon) pulling some sort of heist. Shaul is the brains and the talent of the duo, and he’s going down into the sewer and…not sure how, but he’s busting into a safe at the post office, which he can crack because he knows the safe very well (and may have installed it). His motivation? Well, his young daughter is terrified of the air raid sirens, so he needs enough money to get an apartment with a safe room.

Unfortunately for him, Nissan is an idiot. When the sirens go off, Nissan starts yelling for him—so Shaul comes back to find out the problem. He gives Nissan the loot then goes back for his tools, but the sirens go off and once again Nissan panics. The upshot is Shaul goes to jail and Nissan gets away with the loot.

Flash-forward several years later and Shaul is getting out of jail, and Nissan is there to greet him. Only now Nissan is a devout, orthodox Jew. It’s the high holy days, and Nissan is feeling real bad about what happened, and he wants Shaul’s forgiveness. But all Shaul wants is the loot and nothing to do with the converted Nissan.

Friends!

Nissan later tries to help by embroiling him in another scheme with the local mob kingpin.

There’s your premise. Shaul’s trying to get his life back together, to make amends to his alienated wife and daughter, who has been accepted into the The Big London Ballet School. (Probably “the Royal Academy” but whatever. Shades of God of the Piano as a plot point, though.) His wife has been struggling to survive in his absence, and that loot Nissan got away with would sure come in  handy. Except, of course, Nissan no longer remembers where he buried it.

But Nissan is desperate. He has his own girl he wants to marry (the gorgeous pop star Shiri Maimon who does a nice job as the modest, unassuming traditional woman) but he feels he can’t while Shaul and his wife are in danger of splitting. And so he comes up with increasingly dumb and dangerous plans to get the money, which end up involving a local drug lord or two, more safecracking, and adventures right along the wall where the terrorists like to burrow in.

ENJOY IT!

Israeli movies are even harder to find good stills for than Korean films, so enjoy this portfolio pic of Shiri Maimon.

It’s very, very funny. Even wacky at times, as when the two conceive of robbing the local drug lord during a Palestinian attack by throwing a rocket at his wall, using sirens for cover. Needless to say the rocket doesn’t go off when they expect, and this is one of the times where the comedy seems to override what would be the actual reality. But none of that particularly matters.

We have a saying around here for the way a skillful filmmaker balances comedy and reality: The movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but it takes its characters seriously. No matter how goofy the proceedings get, and no matter how dopey Nissan and Shaul get (as when Shaul accidentally ingests hashish), none of this is used to detract from their basic humanity. If you take Shaul’s point of view, Nissan is the source of his difficulties (never mind that he shouldn’t have been safecracking), and Nissan certainly seems naive at times. On the other hand, Shaul is quick to express his frustration through violence, which is certainly not going to help matters.

We all liked it a lot and it got a lot of applause from the packed theater. It won “Best of the Fest” along with “Incitement” (about Rabin’s assassination) and “Love In Suspenders”. Tel Aviv On Fire won “audience choice”, I believe.

But fun!

Fat stacks of cash are the root of all evil.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Not too long ago I went to see Breathless—oh, wow, almost ten years ago!—and at some point in the future I will probably end up seeing both Taxi Driver and Mean Streets. I did, and will do such things even knowing that I’m not going to like a movie, if it has some significance to cinema. Sometimes you see a classic because it’s great, and sometimes you see it with the strong suspicion that you’re not going to find it great at all, but sometimes you just don’t know.

Which brings us to The Bicycle Thief.

Miracles and wonder.

We live in wondrous times.

See what you think: In the crushing post-war poverty of 1948 Italy, Antonio (a young married man with two children) secures a job which he can only take if he has a bike, since it involves putting posters up all over the city. He has a bike, he just has to get it out of pawn (which he does with his wife’s help), but on the very first day it’s stolen. He then runs all over Rome trying to recover it, and being faced with the increasing prospect of starvation. Filmed in black and white, using no actors—only real people. Part of the Italian Neo-Realism cinematic movement, which focused on the hard times of poor people.

There’s a lot of ways this could go horribly wrong, and despite (or perhaps because) its pedigree, I was not without trepidation.

But The Boy and I went. Much to my relief, this is a film which is both a sad story of hard times and a very watchable movie.

So many skinny hungry Italian dudes.

Don’t worry guys! It’s two thumbs up!

We see Antonio get the job, and we’re wondering…”Is he going to steal a bicycle?” But, no, turns out it’s pawned and he can only get it out by hocking his sheets. (There is a massive warehouse stockpiled with pawned goods. It’s amazing.) So he and his wife pawn his sheets, and they walk around the city enjoying their new potential prosperity. He carries the bike everywhere, and when he puts it down, you’re on the edge of your seat: Who’s going to steal the bike? There’s a particularly frightening scene where the wife has gone in to give money to a fortune teller, and he gets tired of waiting so he has a kid on the street watch his bike while he goes to fetch her.

But, no, the big deal is that post-war Italy is full of bicycle thieves. (The original title of the movie in Italian is The Bicycle Thieves which some are now using for the English title.) And these thieves are like car boosters today: They work in teams, distracting the victim, getting in his way, and the bike is ridden off and chopped up, only to be resold as an unrecognizable rip-off, or just as parts.

Because it’s so prevalent, and because it’s Italy, the police are no help. Antonio takes his squad and his boy all around the city on a hunt for this bike, being driven to increasingly desperate ends.

It’s great. It’s suspenseful. You feel for the characters. It’s sad but it’s not grief porn.

As you do.

Contemplating prosperity at the pawn shop.

There’s a scene, for example, when Antonio’s son Bruno is looking for parts of his father in the marketplace, and a pedophile approaches him. And follows him around, offering to buy him a bicycle bell. It’s creepy as hell, and Antonio realizes Bruno is missing and sweeps him away from the now non-chalant creepy guy. As I said to The Boy, “In a modern movie, the kid would’ve been kidnapped, molested and murdered and the wife would be turning tricks.”

And it’s true, it’s not enough to show honest struggle any more, you have to have degeneracy.

This is a very pure, simple movie—though its simplicity belies the huge amount of effort and skill that went into it. Not just working with non-actors, which required lots of coverage and retakes, but it’s beautifully shot and framed in ways that were not at all simple to arrange. It’s also a brisk 90 minutes, telling its story and getting out with a minimum of fuss. In contrast to the last movie we saw, God of the Piano, it showed how arty/indie films can do the whole “the movie just ends” thing without feeling like it ended because they ran out of film.

But then, I don’t know that it really counts as an “indie” film, either, since Vittorio de Sica was well-established as a director (and would go on to direct Sophia Loren frequently in films such as Bocaccio ’70, and before de Sica decided to go “all amateur” Cary Grant was floated as a possible lead here. Might’ve been a great movie with him, but it is an entirely different and great movie with the people actually living the hard times playing the people living hard times.

It did not disappoint. The Boy and I were enthused.

Go on. Palp it.

The intensity is palpable.

God of the Piano

One of the funny things about independent or arty movies (or whatever you want to call those films which are made with a “selective appeal”) is that they are just as hidebound to tropes as mainstream popular films. And one of those tropes is the non-ending. That’s where a movie just stops. Like they ran out of film. Sometimes there is a good character arc, perhaps subordinate to the main action of the film, and so you don’t mind a non-ending because well, there really is an ending, it’s just subtler. You know more or less how the character is going to handle things, so you don’t need to see it.

But sometimes—all too often—it feels like the movie is trying to avoid any drama or resolution because, well, that stuff is hard.

oy

The eponymous deity with his not-grandson. (It’s complicated.)

Here we have the story of a concert pianist, a young woman who is playing in a concert when her water breaks. She is seeking validation from her father, which is not forthcoming because she (and almost everyone else, apparently) lacks the artistic flare that separates the great from the technicians. But that’s okay, apparently, because she’s giving birth to a child who will fulfill all these dreams.

Only the child is deaf.

Now, the capsule for this movie suggested that she was driven by a merciless tyrant of a father, and the deaf child learns music but ends up rebelling against the grandfather.  This sounds like a kind of kickass movie, but that capsule is not accurate and what we got was much worse and much more banal.

This is a “woman in crisis behaving badly” movie which is just beloved of Indie filmmakers, I think, because you can reframe every awful action as stunning and brave, or something.

Stunning! Brave!

The morning after a stunning and brave adulterous affair.

As it turns out, our protagonist (the lovely Naama Preis) resolves the challenge of having a deaf baby by swapping it with one with good hearing. Flash-forward 12 years later and she’s been raising a child who looks nothing like anyone in her family. But he is a really good piano player and composer. She’s ultra-stressed out because he’s applied to the Best Conservatory In Israel and he needs to audition, and everything has to go perfectly!

So naturally she’s making everyone miserable, including her long suffering husband. She goes to further and further extremes, made worse by the fact her father is on the approval committee. Worse, not better.

But this woman is not well. She has a perfectly fine husband, handsome and virile, but she’s a groupie at heart, as we all too explicitly see. It all amounts to nothing, of course. And when it all amounts to nothing, she goes to spy on the deaf child she abandoned, who looks at her like the weirdo she is.

And…roll credits.

It’s not bad, really, on a lot of levels. The Flower did not care for it—it was a big letdown from the basically benign Tel Aviv on Fire—but The Boy and I understand this genre and can appreciate it. I liked it less as it wore on as there appeared to be no reason for this desperation on her part. And she is desperate to get this approval from her father, who is rather particular but not especially forceful. I mean, you’d think, from the capsule that he was beating her because she failed him, constantly being derogatory, but we never really see anything of the sort.

She doesn't look quite happy.

Watching her not-son and a concert with her brother.

There’s a run-in he has with his grandson where he wants the boy to play it one way and the boy insists it’s better the way he’s playing it, which is about as fundamental a thing a musician can do—play it their own way—and it results in…well, nothing but the boy playing things his own way. No drama, no violence, just a mild disagreement. Does the grandfather file this away to punish the boy later? Well, maybe? But not in any way the boy cares about, even if his mom lives and dies on it.

Grandfather is obdurate, at worst. And the story is really daughter trying to appease father, but the father doesn’t seem to be clamoring for appeasement. So we just see this woman spiraling into increasing levels of misery, ruining her life.

And I think the only thing that really annoyed me was that I didn’t really get that there was a character arc here. Is she just as crazy as she was at the beginning of the movie? Is she going to come to terms with the awful things she has done?

That, to me, felt like a cheat.

On the plus side, the lack of an ending makes it easy to bring in the movie at 80 minutes so, mazel tov.

We would follow this up with the very hard to see Forgiveness which would be one of the best films of the year.

I mean, they all look like Winston Churchill.

Eh. One baby’s as good as the next, right?

The Godfather II (1974)

I’ve already done the bit about not liking the Godfather, but while I’d never seen that movie on the big screen before, I’m not entirely sure I stayed awake through this one when I tried to watch it on TV. That said, while this movie is even longer, clocking in at a whopping 3 hours and 20 minutes, I think I like it better than the first one. It is, essentially, two movies: Al Pacino’s struggle to carry on his father’s business after the events of the first movie, and the story of his father as a young man who comes to America and rises to the top of the gangster world.

Robert DeNiro would've made a good wicked witch.

How about a little fire, sc—wait, wrong movie.

The plotting is trickier but feels easier to follow: Michael Corleone (Pacino) is nearly assassinated in his Nevada home after disciplining his cousin Frankie (Michael V. Gazzo) who is running the east coast business. He goes to Jewish gangster Hyman Roth (acting impresario Lee Strasberg) saying he thinks Frankie did it. But Michael’s not an idiot and neither is Frankie, so Michael tells Frankie that Hyman did it, and he’s setting up the Florida-based don (what’s a Jewish don?). But Hyman’s one step ahead of him and sends mooks to kill Frankie, and these mooks manage to not kill him and say they’re from Michael.

Frankie’s not dumb but he’s not that smart either so he buys this and ends up turning state’s evidence on Michael. So Michael has to deal with the Feds, the Jewish gangsters, rival Italian gangs, Nevada politicians, and his increasingly shrewish wife, Kay (Diane Keaton).

Doesn't make it any easier to watch, tho'.

Not without reason, of course.

It’s suspenseful even as it becomes harder to root for Michael, as the business changes him more and more into the thing he needs to be to run it. Kay should be sympathetic but is not, even as Michael treats her worse and worse. You end up rooting for Vito, and that doesn’t really make a lot of sense, but he’s an underdog through most of the movie and just trying to make a better life for his family—which means killing people, I guess.

Talia Shire has a much smaller role but once again shines as the formerly trashy sister who gains a little respect for the family. Duvall, as longtime consigliere Tom, is outstanding and subtle. The acting is pretty much terrific all around, even in the smaller roles like Gazzo’s and G.D. Spradlin (who plays a racist senator who thinks he’s going to strongarm the mob). But obviously the movie is centered around Pacino and De Niro.

So good!

Under-rated.

De Niro is probably at his best here and his charm still eludes me. I mean, I don’t hate him or anything, I just don’t think he stood out. He is, at least not the parody of himself he has become. Pacino—who is probably even more of a parody of himself these days—is great. Menacing, restrained, very seldom actually violent himself so that when he is violent, it’s very shocking. He’s also glib and smug and criminal…a smooth criminal, I guess, you might call him.

Anyway, I found it more enjoyable than the first one, in these recent viewings but just like its predecessor, I’m not sure I think they’re the greatest achievements in cinematic history. That strikes me as some Boomer revisionist nonsense, frankly. Although they’re better than The Shawshank Redemption probably? I dunno: My greatest flicks list would be from decades earlier than either.

He's a patriot.

Cameo by James Caan, shortly before he takes a swing at Al Pacino for (Michael) joining the army.

Tel Aviv on Fire

I have, in the past, noted the irony that Chinese films seem a lot less censored than those from Hollywood, and today I will note the irony that Israeli movies seem a lot less political. (This is true of Israeli movies, I will say, but absolutely not Palestinian movies. Palestinian movies—every one we’ve seen—framed blowing civilians up as a Good Thing, and indeed in many cases the only happy ending.) Case in point, Tel Aviv on Fire: a wacky comedy about a Palestinian soap opera writer who finds the fate of his soap opera characters—and the desires of people on either side of the wall regarding those fates—are tied to his own.

Let's watch!

Maisa Abd Elhadi (Mariam) doubts I can stick this landing.

Our hero is Salam, a slacker we first meet as he tries to win back his ex-, Mariam.  But as she points out, and he can’t deny, he’s just bumbling through life, and even the soap opera he’s starting to work on—well, he just got the job because his uncle, the producer, needs someone with good Hebrew for his Arabic actors (who are playing Israelis). Their soap opera, “Tel Aviv on Fire”, takes place on the eve of the Six-Day War, and the plot is that a Palestinian general sends his lover across the border to seduce and spy on (and ultimately kill, presumably) the Israeli General.

Salam helps out with some simple pronunciations but then immediately objects to a situation where the one of the generals compliments the heroine’s beauty by saying “You look explosive.” He earns the ire of the writer by objecting to that line but wins the favor of the French star, Tala. As tense as things are there, things really heat up for him when he’s stopped at the border by a belligerent commander, Assi. Salam tries to smooth things  out by claiming to write the show, and giving the commander some inside info.

Floozies.

Salam tries to keep it professional, but you know how actresses are.

Well, as it turns out Assi’s wife is a huge fan of the show, as are her girlfriends, and Assi is rather annoyed by her enchantment with the Palestinian general. “He’s a terrorist!” Assi exclaims in exasperation, to which his wife retorts, “Not everything is about politics.” (Of course, the Six-Day War was the attempt of the Arabic world to wipe out Israel and as we have seen nearly succeeded, and this soap is definitely meant as propaganda, but “not everything is about politics”.)

Anyway, Assi is pissed that the Israeli general is such a stiff and he demands Salam write him better. Salam, who is completely at Assi’s mercy—he cannot cross into Palestine without Assi’s approval—exploits this by suggesting Assi write the scenes that he wants to see from the Israeli general. Before you know it, the Israeli general is the hot ticket, and the dramatic conflict endears him even further to Lubna. But he’s also slipping in little messages to Mariam that she invariable sees because everyone in the hospital she works at watches “Tel Aviv on Fire”, especially as the audience grows with the shows unexpected twists and turns.

Salam grows as well. Assi’s contributions got him a shot to actually script the show (especially after the pissed-off writer quit) but he realizes that the Israeli commander’s experiences can only partly fuel thing, and so he starts to write the romantic things from his relationship (and from anyone he can eavesdrop on, like a true writer).

Assi unfortunately grows increasingly bellicose: Salam has promised him (back when he was pretending to write the show) that the Israeli general and the Palestinian spy would get married. But the show’s backers aren’t going to allow that. His uncle’s solution is simple: Have the wedding, but have Tala be strapped for explosives so she can blow everyone up. Salam argues that’s too cliché, they’ve all seen it a million times. (I wasn’t kidding about Palestinian movies.)

40+ years ago

The uncle is played by Nadim Sawalha, a character actor in many English-language movies, like “The Spy Who Loved Me”.

So at our climactic moment, we have Salam needing to assuage Assi, and his uncle, and his uncle’s Palestinian financiers, and Mariam (because Lubna is coming on strong), and not least to defend his newly acquired position as a writer of some skill and the self-respect that has brought him. The solution he does come up with is quite delightful.

It’s a lot of fun. And it’s really not very political. (In fact, you’ll see some critics complaining exactly that: It’s not political enough! It goes for goofy fun instead of biting satire!) The anodyne suggestion made here is, essentially, “what we’ve been doing up till now hasn’t worked, maybe we should try something different.” And I can’t help but note the subtext of the financiers basically stoking the fires of hate.

The stars of the film, Kais Nashif (as Salam) and Lubna Azabal (Tala, Coriolanus, Incendies), co-starred in 2005’s Paradise Now which was my introduction to Palestinian cinema, and features the “happy ending” of one of the characters blowing himself up on a bus full of Israeli soldiers. It’s a great introduction to the mindset, really, which is “Jews are evil. They oppress us and are responsible for all our woes. We must kill them all.” I can only recommend it for that purpose—understanding the mindset—because it was genuinely morally repugnant (and showered with awards, naturally).

It would be nice to think that that mindset were changing but director/co-writer Sameh Zoabi (writer/director of 2010’s charming Man Without A Cell Phone) is Israeli as are all the producers (from what I can tell). It’s pretty routine to hear cries for “solutions” and “compromise” from that side of the wall. But the next Palestinian movie I see with that viewpoint will be the first.

It's delightfully cheesy.

She’s hesitant because the targets she’s shooting at are…gasp…pictures of Palestinian “Freedom Fighters”.

The Addams Family (2019)

We laugh a bit, The Flower and I, over Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. She doesn’t remember eschewing The Princess and the Frog to see it, but when I tell her what she said (immortalized on the post above) she says, “That does sound like me.” The main point, I guess, being that as a Dad, you have certain responsibilities and sometimes those responsibilities lead to pain. Which brings us to The Addams Family.

love Charles Addams drawings, I loved the old TV series, I enjoyed the ’90s movies—first one more than the second, but the second had moments of brilliance with Christina Ricci at summer camp. The marital relationship between Morticia and Gomez is the best TV ever produced, and Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston did justice to that in the ’90s movies.

So you can understand why I wouldn’t want to see this. The thing about movies and books for children is that the truly great one survive for far longer than all but the best works for adults because they deal with basic themes. How many movies from 1939 (sometimes regarded as the best year in filmmaking) has the average person seen? I’m guessing it’s close to one, and that one is The Wizard of Oz. 1938? I’d say close to one again, and that one would be Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And while I could write at length about this topic, that gets me no closer to talking about this movie.

Would've sworn she was crazy fixer-upper lady.

An all-star cast, including Bette Middler as Grandmama.

There is a vast amount of creativity in here. I laughed once or twice, maybe more, but it was always at some throwaway gag that, actually, epitomizes the Addams sense of humor. The original cartoons were single panels and the ’90s movies did a really good job of showing the children (especially) acting out those jokes in a way that would be horrifying played out in real life, and there are a few good glimpses of that here.

This is all absolutely smothered by a story of persecution where Wednesday Addams is a Mary Sue.

We get Gomez (Oscar Isaacs) and Morticia’s (Charlize Theron) backstory—and it’s lifted from Hotel Transylvania, God save us. Fleeing the old country, Gomez and Morticia take up in an abandoned insane asylum which is completely occluded from the village below by a 13-year fog. The village has been taken over by an ambitious  renovator Margaux Needler (Allison Janney, and NOT Bette Middler, which was kind of funny because Needler’s demands for hyperconformity sounded to me like Middler’s twitter account) whose plan is to dupe people into living in a perfectly nice (but secretly monitored by Needler) planned community which she runs and profits from.

I guess it never gets old.

They end up in New Jersey because of course they do.

Having a brooding asylum overshadowing her idyllic town doesn’t fit into her plans and there’s your movie.

Of course, the entire gag of the long-form Addams family is that they skate through normal existence unaware of (or tolerant of) how normality works. They are utterly free from ordinary middle class concerns. Chuck Jones once observed that the Looney Tunes canon was basically populated by hard luck cases: characters for whom things didn’t generally work out. I forget if he was talking about the Bugs Bunny or Road Runner as exceptions, but you could put the Addams Family in that category. They are characters around whom other people go to pieces because the normal rules just don’t seem to apply. And the victims of this, we are inclined to believe, deserve their fates.

But in the most tiresome take possible, here they are victims. Excuse, the second most tiresome take. The most tiresome take being: The Addamses, the most prepossessed family perhaps in the history of Western literature, are saved by their daughter, who manages to instantly pick up (and for unclear reasons defends) a girl pack at junior high and never has an instant of trouble, and whose sole difficulty in life is getting a rise out of her mother.

Full disclosure, I went out to get the Barbarienne more popcorn and I didn’t rush to get back, because the arc of the story was so utterly predictable, down to the point where when she saves the entire collection of essentially super-powered monsters from a few not very angry or difficult to manage townspeople, she does so in a way that any of them could’ve done, but I guess didn’t think to.

Yuck.

Who’d want to live in a dump like this?

I’m not joking about the super-powered monsters thing, either. The B-plot is that Pugsley needs to do a swordfighting thing to be a true Addams, and he’s kind of a slacker (because boys must be in modern films) but he is good at explosives—and ultimately he avoids humiliation and exclusion by using his explosives to save the day, except for the part where Wednesday saves the day (because girls must always save the day in modern films). But in the scene where this is set up, he and Gomez are fighting and literally flying through the air by various means, explosives going off right-and-left.

Sure, some fat people with torches are scary. And what’s the Addams family ever doing being scared?

I’m not unsympathetic to the challenges of making long-form Addams-based entertainment, if one must, and I suppose one must because this movie grossed about $175M on about a $25M budget. (Yeah, $25M is cheap for an animated film these days, and while it looks cheap, except for the color design it mostly doesn’t look bad.) But it really needs to be done with a light touch, because the premise is absurd and meant for one-off jokes. It’s nigh-impossible to do any kind of real drama when everything is inverted, because suffering is good and happiness is bad, and…oy.

It’s a drab, predictable mess with a few points of fun in it. Hopefully, though, the Barbarienne (who is on a 10-year streak of liking every movie she has ever seen) will have grown out of this sort of thing by the time the sequel comes out.

Empowering <> funny

There are a bunch of articles about how “empowering” Wednesday is, so…yeah.

The Tingler (1959)

Our host introduced this movie as “camp” but on watching it, I disagree. One of the charming things about low-budget movies from this era—the better ones, anyway—is that they try to compensate for lack of money with tons of heart. Some of them are overwhelmed by incompetence or just crushingly low budgets (like Plan 9 or Cat Women) so that you end up just smiling at the audacity of it all, but The Tingler is genuinely and conventionally good if you can suspend disbelief enough.

Mostly.

It’s mostly black-and-white.

The plot is grandly audacious: Vincent Price plays a doctor, a mad scientist of a sort, who has an outré theory that the tingling caused in the base of your spine by fear (does anyone get that?) is caused by an actual creature, the titular tingler, and the only thing that keeps it at bay is screaming. And so he posits that if he could just get someone who couldn’t scream, that tingler would actually snap his spine. Well, in our opening scene at the electric chair, he meets the executed’s brother-in-law (?) Ollie (character actor Philip Coolidge, seen in Alfred Hitchcock stuff like North by Northwest) and ol’ Ollie just happens to have a wife that is mute.

In traditional William Castle form, there’s a set up for a murder, a mystery, a twist, some very hokey haunted-house level—’50s haunted-house level—horror effects, and then an actual tingler, which in these days of high-resolution is so clearly pulled along by a string that it makes you go “Awwwwww”. It’s fun.

Tingle with me!

The tingler attacks the projectionist IN YOUR VERY THEATER!

Castle knocks the audacity up a notch by coming out at the beginning of the movie to warn everyone of the dangers of not screaming, and in the climactic scene the tingler runs (squirms? is dragged?) through a darkened movie theater where the patrons must scream to scare it off. There’s literally about five minutes of people screaming, and I guess when people watch it these days, they scream, too, though our showing was relatively low-key.

A little less charming is the fact that the end of the film is grossly padded out with scenes from the silent movie playing in the theater, 1921’s Tol’able David, which was also made on a shoestring budget. It’s a poor choice besides all the obvious reasons because it’s not scary. I’m sure Nosferatu and several other spooky silents were in the public domain, but if I had to guess I’d say this is the movie Castle had cans of lying around. It is a little surreal the way it’s spliced in, but it steals the hard-won momentum provided by a suitably hammy Vincent Price.

Price’s wife (Patricia Cutts, who also had a small role in North By Northwest) is a harridan in this, much like Price’s wife (Carol Ohmert) in Castle’s other big picture in ’59, House on Haunted Hill. I’m not saying Castle had issues, but he sure loved the wife-harridan trope as much as he loved the pure-as-driven-snow-ingenue trope.

Our host thought the premise of the “preposterous”, but good horror premises are preposterous, and I thought it was an idea that could be done well, even if none of the other Castle remakes went over that well. But as I said: It’s fun, and charming, and at 82 minutes, did not disappoint.

Maybe a lot.

OK, maybe it’s a little campy.

Them! (1954)

“Them! Them! Them!” screams Sandy Descher and we are off to the races…and…well, The Boy was watching this and thinking, “You know if I didn’t know these were giant ants, I’d really be wondering what the hell was going on.” And, I mean, I guess I could say that’s a spoiler but IT’S ON THE DAMN POSTER! You sorta wonder if director Gordon Douglas (a workaday fellow probably best known for The Skin Game and In Like Flint) wanted the giant ants to be a surprise and then they just screwed him over with the poster (and trailer, if memory serves).

Mickey & MInnie are gonna have a hell of a picnic.

Love the menacing cartoon ants, with a more than a hint of Disney.

 

“Look, kid—”
“I’m 47 years old!”
“Look, kid, people won’t come to see a movie about a pronoun!”
“What about It? She? I, The Jury? You? Her? They Live?”
“Some of those haven’t even been made yet! We’re going with giant spiders on the poster!”

This film was probably the template for much of the low-budget sci-fi that flooded the ’50s. It itself is fairly low-budget, but so skillfully done that it encourages you to forgive its weaknesses. In the desert, a general store is ransacked by a mysterious force that pulled the walls down from the outside—pulled, not pushed—and left a trail of sugar scattered hither and yon.

It's funnier in GSI, of course.

This same shot is used in “Giant Spider Invasion” and I just realized it’s because you can hide the puppeteers behind the ridge.

Young Sandy Descher, who got her big break screaming in The Bad and the Beautiful‘s parody of Cat People, and who would go on to a modest TV career until she retired in her 20s, is orphaned and rescued by James Whitmore, a desert cop who doesn’t like the look of things. Tall and handsome G-man James Arness (the eponymous Thing From Another World, whom Walt Disney was scouting to be Davy Crockett but ended up picking Fess Parker, who has a small role as an excitable pilot) is called to the scene, as well as Dr. Grandpa and Dr. Sexy Daughter, who hits it off with Fess, I tell you what.

Dr. Grandpa is played by Edmund Gwenn, aka Santa, who’s still trying to provide cover for the fact that he actually is Santa Claus by taking a few summer roles in low budget flicks. Joan Weldon plays his daughter, the super competent scientist who…well, look, you know the trope. And it was probably semi-fresh here. A few archaic takes mixed with the kind of typical low-budget ham-fistedness, but otherwise holds up well. As does Weldon’s suit, which manages to be “all business” while being perfectly fit to her wonderful (yet tastefully modest) figure.

Same.

“If I shave my beard, no one will recognize me.”

About 30 minutes in we get ants. (Do you want ants? ’cause that’s how you get ants.) The ants are eradicated with ease by the professional men (and women! but mostly men!) of the U.S. Army. Then Dr. Scientists warns us there are MORE ants, and the professional men and women of the U.S. government hunt for the missing queens. One of the queens turns up in the L.A. sewer system, because that’s a lot cheaper than using the N.Y. subway system. (And apparently the head of the NYC subway system was horrified at the notion of his tunnels being filled with giant ants.) And then our professional men track them down in the sewer.

Monster’s dead. Movies over. Except for a little postscript from Dr. Scientist about how these are the first of MANY giant monsters which will emerge from nuclear testing. Fortunately, those mostly turned up in Japan.

It’s nicely matter-of-fact, really. Not a great movie but a really solid one for a shoot that only had enough money for 3 giant ants, and which relied heavily on the WB “city” lot for probably 1/3rd of its exteriors. (I worked there for years so I know it by heart.)

The Boy and I liked it. (I didn’t encourage The Flower for this double-feature since her track record with old horror movies isn’t great, and she was tired.) Next up would be The Tingler.

No danger at all.

Sandy Drescher protects herself from The Tingler.

Parasite

One of my co-workers is Korean. Well, Korean-American. OK, he’s an American but his parents are from Korea. He’s the polar opposite of The Boy and I, movie-wise, in the sense that he doesn’t generally like movies that don’t have a lot of CGI, and he’s also very particular about the CGI. He had gone to Korea recently to visit his wife’s family and when he came back, he mentioned having seen this. (I’m sure he downloaded it, so he didn’t even need to be in Korea but there you go.)

The reason I mention it, is that he thought Parasite was a very good movie, and there is no (noticeable) CGI in it at all. This is a drama from the guy who brought you Snowpiercer and The Host, and it’s very interesting indeed. I actually saw it the same night I saw Joker, and it, too, is about Society.

We start with the Kims, a family of losers. Bottom rung (but still part) of Korean society living in a basement apartment (which is serious because Korea has torrential rains and, yeah, the water goes right where you’d expect). Mom and Dad are middle aged. Bro and Sis are young adults, but not in college. (The reverence Koreans have for establishment education is…interesting.) They’re trying to make some money folding pizza boxes, but they half-ass the job and don’t get the money they expect—even as they try to angle getting the current part-timer working for the pizza company fired so one of them can take his place.

They’re kind of likable, though. They’re not unintelligent. The young people are attractive, and the mother and father seem to have a certain amount of wisdom and dedication. So when the brother, Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi, Train To Busan),  gets an opportunity from a friend to get a job with just a little lie, you’re thinking, “OK, this will be a good break for them.”

Gonna get dark.

Our protagonists.

The deal is, the Ki-woo’s friend is tutoring this sweet young girl, and he’s going off to America to study for a year or two, but when he comes back the girl will have graduated from high school and he’ll propose to her. He wants Ki-woo to tutor her in his absence, and you think, well, maybe Ki-woo is trustworthy but it’s fairly apparent the “friend” doesn’t view Ki-woo as a threat.

His sister, Ki-jung (So-dam Park) forges the papers and we’re immediately impressed by her skills and initiative, even though they’re being applied in a criminal fashion. Maybe, we begin to think, the problem really is that Society doesn’t give these obviously talented people a chance.

Ki-woo aces the interview with the scattered-brained mom (Yo-jeong Jo) who doesn’t (or claims she doesn’t) care about whether or not he’s in the university, and anyway she’s obsessing on her son, a little boy who’s just being a little boy, but that’s apparently pathologized among the Korean elites as well. Ki-woo sees an opportunity for Ki-jung and suggests her as an art teacher for the boy.

Because you wouldn't hire a family member, I guess.

Rehearsing their backstory.

Well, this goes off pretty well, too. Again, Ki-Jung is shown to be talented, intelligent and energetic and she easily gets the boy under control. But now we have another lie, which is that Ki-jung and Ki-woo are pretending not to be brother and sister. And it turns out that Da-hye, the girl that Ki-woo is tutoring, is jealous of her. Which leads to the revelation that she’s attracted to Ki-woo. (It’s not long, actually, before Ki-woo starts talking like his absentee friend about how he’ll propose to her when she graduates high school.)

OK, so far, so good. A few little lies, some likable, if roguish, characters. Director Joon-ho Bong doesn’t get lazy, though: Our rich family is not bad. In fact, we see through little glimpses that while their lives are comfortable materially, they have the same general issues as everyone else. In other words, where a modern American director (modern, hell, Paul Mazursky’s sleazy Down and Out In Beverly Hills was over 30 years ago) would make this a mockery of the gullibility of the rich, Bong isn’t going to give a simple message like that. Oh, no.

And a little bit titillated.

Our credulous wealthy couple.

In fact, if this film has a “message”, I do not know what it is. I know it has a story, though, which is a thousand times better.

Here’s where the film starts to get dark. Da-hye sees an opportunity for her father when the driver taking her home hits on her. She rebuffs him, but slips off her panties and tucks them under the seat where they’re sure to be found. Before you know it, Papa Kim is the driver for the family.

Getting rid of the nanny is the hardest part, and at this point, we’re starting to see exactly how selfish and short-sighted the Kims are. But not, interestingly enough, that they are not hard workers who are capable of doing the job. The Parks seem pretty happy with the Kims overall. (And, good lord, these last names are like the Korean “Smith” and “Jones”.)

Anyway, the Park’s young son’s “emotional issues” come from having seen a ghost and having a seizure as a result. The Parks therefore go away for his birthday every year, and when we see the Kims have a chance in the house, you begin to realize how awful they are. Why they are where they are. It’s never cartoonish, but it’s very disrespectful of private property, of others, of just basic truth. Ma and Pa Kim scheme how they can keep the facade going if Da-hye and Ki-woo get married.

They don’t despise the Parks, exactly, but their deceptions keep them from forming normal human attachments to them.

It seems to be that childish.

“The family’s gone, let’s make a mess!”

Then things turn even darker. The last act of the film is a series of (essentially) sitcom tropes, but treated seriously instead of as wacky adventures.

It’s getting a lot of buzz in the critical circles, but don’t let that dissuade you: It’s actually very good. Now, the Flower and I went to see this, and she is just not a fan of the dark stuff. This doesn’t rank anywhere near a Korean reveng flick, like, say, I Saw The Devil. But, well, let’s say a similar movie made by Ernst Lubitsch, where little lies are no barrier for True Love—those are more her speed. (The Boy saw it later, also on a double-bill with Joker and liked it a lot, too.)

What I liked about it the most, though, was what I took to be an utter lack of message. It wasn’t “poor people are saints” or “rich people are wicked” or “society is bad”. However you frame it, the actions of the Kims result in tragedy, and there’s no way the Parks “deserve” any of it. There are innocent victims, and even when someone “deserves” punishment, it tends to be outsized.

I suppose you could get “lying is bad, regardless”, from it, but I’m not sure even that’s true. If I look back at Snowpiercer, which could be seen as a clear allegory for “rich people oppress the poor”, I remember liking it because it was so beyond anything you could tether to a current reality. It was very much “Well, yeah, if entire population of the world was on a non-stop train, that’s how it go.”

The Flower noted that the family in The Host was similarly dysfunctional to the Kims, and she’s not wrong. Anyway, bound to collect some awards in February, and actually be worthy of them.

Heh?

Trying to keep the people from peeing in your window. (Unrelated live shot of L.A.)

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

I had an sci-fi coffee-table art book when I was a kid. It was photorealistic drawings of non-existing things, like flyings cities and whatnot. When I saw this documentary about Chesley Bonestell, I thought, “I wonder if that’s the guy who did that book?” Turns out it’s not, by a country mile. (I still don’t know who did my book. Looks a little like McQuarrie—except it’s not Star Wars—but I couldn’t find it online anywhere and I don’t recall it being in my library.)

Paprika next!

Mining the distant moon of Curry Powder.

Bonestell made his bones on “hard” science-fiction: Realistic (per the science of the time) landscapes of the surface of the moon and mars and, famously, Titan. And now we have a documentary about him, which is good because he led a life with some interesting high points and ended up being very influential in the field of speculative art, let’s call it.

Bonestell was born in San Francisco in 1888 and pursued art as teen, providing little drawings for magazines, and making his first painting of Saturn after visiting a local laboratory in 1905. In 1906 San Francisco got hit by the old shake-n-bake, with a magnitude 7.9 (approximately) quake followed by the whole damn city burning to the ground, including Bonestell’s artwork. Later in life, Bonestell would do a lot of apocalyptic stuff that the movie speculates was informed by this early experience.

The first part of the movie is a little weak as far as that goes. There’s a lot of “Chesley might have…” and similar weasel-words that let you know the filmmakers are just making stuff up. It’s not out of whole cloth but it does set my teeth on edge a bit, because I’m always thinking “Or he might NOT have…” I also tend to be suspicious of “Well, I talked to Chesley on the phone 30 years ago and…” which makes up another part of the interviews.

Dammit!

Tragically, the moon is not nearly as dramatic. And nary a cat woman to be found.

Anyway, the facts as reported are that Chesley’s dad was leery of the bohemian lifestyle artists in SF led back in 1906 and sent him off to be an architect. He dropped out of architect school soon, however, because he was more into art and less into math. Not long after, though, he went back into architecture apparently inspired by the devastation and rebuilding that would have to be done in San Francisco, and ended up contributing to some famous buildings both there and in New York City—most notably, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler building.

He gained national attention in 1944 for a series of paintings he made for Life magazine, depicting Saturn as seen from the surface of Titan. This led to a career in space art, which in turn led to a career in Hollywood matte painting and technical consultancy. The space art is interesting, however, because it’s very much part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. That era of Science Fiction was primarily concerned with keeping Man from blowing himself up by presenting visions of a future that could be and that would be, culminating in a book co-written by Chesley called Conquest of Space.

Now, realistically, if today we look at the ’50s and we look at space, we could’ve told all those guys they were never gonna make it. Space is too big. Too hostile. And you need a computer the size of an 18-wheeler to calculate the square root of four. Today, realistically, we have a much better shot in terms of computing power, manufacturing power and sheer wealth.

And yet.

They were the ones that believed they could do it, and they were the ones that actually did do it, with the 1969 moon landing. There’s a lesson here not expressed by this documentary, which is not just that Bonestell’s vision of space and the clarity of that vision (shared and expressed by all kinds of artists and writers), combined with the confidence of the time made something impossible happen. (And I still believe that the moon landing, while it did happen, was basically impossible.)

Pooh-pooh artists at your own peril. The subsequent 50 years of, well, Gerald Goode put it best: “Maybe there’s a downside to the constant drumbeat of apocalyptic defeatism.”

That's where I hide my porn.

All the worlds are yours, save Europa.

Anyway, cool stuff followed Conquest of Space and some of his mattes still survive. He did mattes for Destination MoonWhen Worlds Collide and consulted on War of the Worlds. His mattes were used and/or re-used in some classic bad cinema, such as house favorite Cat Women Of The Moon. And he painted metric tonnes of space art, mostly realistic but some not because money is money and sometimes money wants a winged space worm for the cover of “Wow! Space!” magazine, or whatever.

You get the idea, in other words, that Bonestell was a professional. He had an artistic vision but he was about making good product that people wanted to consume. Some of the interviews have the artist ascendant, which are of course the most charming parts.

Special Effects legend Douglas Trumbull is interviewed—the movie and/or he really wants you to know he’s also a director, but his most famous films are the cult classic Silent Running and Natalie Wood’s last film, Brainstorm, whereas he did the special effects on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind—and he talks about an early job he had for 2001: A Space Odyssey. He had figured out the moon would be smooth, and he made a large model of it, climbed up on a ladder and dropped rocks and things on to it. Kubrick said, basically, “Nah, we’re going with Bonestell’s look” and Trumbull still seems a little prickly about the fact that it’s the one aspect of 2001 that isn’t realistic.

In a recorded interview after the moon landing, Bonestell seemed pretty disgusted with the moon being so artistically boring. I’m guessing Titan isn’t going to map that closely, either, once we get a real look at it.

And it may have been.

You could totally see this being the cover for “R is for Rocket” or “Have Space Suit—Will Travel”.

The doc falls apart a little at the end, doing what The Boy describes as “Jesus 2.0”, where the filmmakers feel compelled to go beyond ordinary imagination and ascribe to their subjects things that aren’t really there. Bonestell was an agnostic and, as far as was described here, a materialist, but this takes on spiritual dimensions in the minds of others here. And he got some things right, we now know, and the movie harps on this while stating just as plainly (while somehow downplaying) all the things he got wrong. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

On the three point scale:

  1. It’s a worthy subject matter. Bonestell hit some interesting touchstones in his life and his vision of alien worlds was important to generations.
  2. The presentation is…it’s pretty meh. The interviews are mostly good, some of the graphic work is nice, but the scene transitions make it feel like this was made for the History channel. Needlessly cheap, IOW.
  3. There’s not really a slant, except for the one we expect from someone who makes a movie about a person. It’s not a hagiography, except the ending attempts to elevate an interesting life into a divine one.

On that last point, it turns out that Bonestell was pals with Werner von Braun, and this is simply a factor of Bonestell being interested in space travel and (former Nazi) von Braun being the expert in rockets. The movie doesn’t go into depth much beyond that, and I’m fine with that. I was okay with The Wind Rises, too, of course, so your mileage may vary. Bonestell’s very ’50s-style rockets were accurate to von Braun’s designs and precisely the right dimensions, which is cool.

The Boy and I liked it!

But this is cool.

Titan’s not gonna look anything like this, you realize.

Joker

I’m going to have to ramp up a whole bunch before actually getting to the actual review. I had zero interest in seeing Joker. Actually, I had less than zero interest. Let’s go to the “tale of the tape” as the boxing announcers say. Here are all the minuses (for me, YMMV):

  • Comic book superhero movie
  • Villain superhero movie
  • DCEU movie
  • Awful, awful trailers
  • “Gritty reboot”
  • Origin story
  • “Not actually a superhero movie”
  • Joaquin Phoenix
  • Not Caesar Romero
  • References Taxi Driver/King of Comedy
  • Critically acclaimed (at first)
  • Fountain of memes
OK, it was a TV show for the most part but still.

Nicholson? Oscar nom. Ledger? Oscar. Romero? NOTHING. HOLLYWOOD HATES CUBANS!

I’ve been done with superhero movies more-or-less for about 10 years (paternal requirements notwithstanding), the DCEU has just been a crushing disappointment (I was a DC kid), the Joker has a great backstory already (he was a ruthless villain, The Red Hood, who fell into a vat of chemicals when fleeing the Batman, turning his criminal mind into an insanely criminal mind), the trailers were basically just LOUD with this one-word-at-a-time-style for a way too long tagline (PUT. ON. A. HAPPY. FACE.) and everything about this movie says to me “Why? Why? Why would anyone go see this?”

And then something amazing happened! That is to say, I went to see it. (A few morons requested it, and I’m nothing if not easily influenced.)

And? I still don’t know why (almost) anyone would go see it. Now, don’t get me wrong: It’s actually a very good film. It’s well constructed. The creators really cared about it, that is very, very apparent. And they knew their stuff: Besides the aforementioned Scorsese pictures, this film pays its respects to a lot of great cinema without being slavishly derivative of any of them. Joaquin Phoenix delivers the best performance I’ve ever seen him put up. (Usually I find him a little cringe-worthy or at least off-putting.) But he does a fine, sensitive job here portraying a madman who just keeps getting crazier.

Mental stability is orthogonal to comedy.

TBF, he’s not any less sane than your average stand-up comedian.

So, I can totally see why a Joaquin Phoenix fan (there must be some) would go see it. But I can’t explain the $850M box-office. This is a movie that, had it not been titled Joker, would’ve ended up next to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on the Last Blockbuster’s “scary movie” aisle. It’s a movie that verges on misery porn, so ground down is its protagonist.

It has so little to do with the comic book character, the only really iffy parts were those that tried to tie it in to the Batman universe. A young Bruce Wayne is in the film which, if you do the math, means 30-year-old Batman is beating up a 65-year-old man. (Joaquin is probably supposed to be younger, however.) The Thomas Wayne character has no bearing on the one known to Batman fans—or even someone who read a couple of comics as a kid.

Wayne is kind of a bully and definitely a douchebag—a little Trump-esque, perhaps? Later, when a mob dressed as clowns is protesting—I dunno, society?—as represented by Thomas Wayne, I thought I saw a brief glimpse of a sign that said “RESIST”.

Thankfully, one of the things this movie does really well is avoid politics, though. If you decided that Wayne was Trump, well, that would mean that the clown mobs destroying everything are Hillary supporters, and their hero is a literal paranoid schizophrenic. (Say, maybe this does map!) Not just politics, though, the movie avoids anything like an easily verbalized allegory for some current social outrage. Arthur (the Joker) definitely gets the short end of the stick at every turn, but so do a lot of people in $CURRENTYEAR.

Especially if $CURRENTYEAR is 1981, which it is if we go by the fashions, the cars and the Excalibur and Zorro, The Gay Blade double-feature. (Apparently this is established by other DCEU movies as well.) But consider, if you will, that we have to go back nearly 40 years to find a suitable dystopia for creating the Joker. As the kids are saying, “1989 Joker, throw him into a vat of chemicals. 2019 Joker, throw him into…society.”

Or it would have outsold "Deep Throat".

This was the only anachronism I could find. 1) Thong underwear wasn’t popular until the late ’80s; 2) Phoebe Cates was never in a porno.

Anyway, the whole story arc is that of crazy-man Arthur who lives with his mother and takes a beating from the world, and one day kills some people who are beating on him. From this, he finds himself slowly empowered to—well, mostly to kill more people. At times it looks like his life is turning around, but nah, he just kills more people with less provocation. In the end he creates chaos in Gotham and ultimately creates the environment for the Batman. But without that last part, you’re talking any number of indie art house flicks about losers, which mostly vanish into obscurity.

As Joe Bob Briggs notes, Halloween was hardly the first great slasher, but it was the first one that didn’t look like it had been made by someone who might actually be a slasher. Joker is kind of like the Henry you can take respectable people to see.

The acting is good, with nice bits from supporting player Zazie Beetz as the single mom who shows some interest in Arthur, and Frances Conroy as Arthur’s mother. De Niro is not at all convincing as a late night talk show host, though I can see where he’s trying to ape Carson. (And the overall recreation of “The Tonight Show” is uncanny.) But face it: This is the Joaquin Phoenix show, and he does a great job.

Well-shot, slick, mostly well-paced, though the misery bogs things down a bit in the second act. Good use of music. Didn’t have the gawdawful color-coding that most movies have these days, and captured the feel of a gritty ’70s color palette without actually being that ugly. I guess I enjoyed it. I found much to admire, at least. And at #7 at the domestic box office, it’s the only top 10 film I’ve seen this year (until it’s crowded out by holiday releases that I won’t see).

But I still don’t know who I’d recommend it to.

And, hey, I'm a clown, too!

Clowns to the left of me. Jokers to the right.

Zombieland: Double Tap

Well, it’s been ten years and we’ve remade/sequelized everything else, let’s do a sequel to [*rolls dice*throws darts*sacrifices chicken to Baal*] Zombieland!

Which, hey, why not? It’s been a pretty good ten years for everyone, except maybe Jesse Eisenberg. I mean, I guess he got to be Lex Luthor but I think he’s now the most hated Lex Luthor in history, and not in a good way. But I don’t really know. Everyone’s back, though. Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone and grown-up Abigail Breslin reprise their roles.

Wut?

I think those torches were in the original movie, too, so, nice callback.

When our movie opens, Columbus (Eisenberg) and Wichita (Stone) are shacked up in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House while Tallahassee (Harrelson) is being Tallahassee and Little Rock (Breslin) is lamenting her romantic options, which are zero. Columbus proposes to Wichita, freaking her out, so she takes off with Little Rock in Tallahassee’s souped-up zombie car, leaving Columbus to mope while Tallahassee tells him to snap out of it, and that the girls are never coming back.

When you have to type them all out, you quickly realize how unwieldy this “call people by their home city” thing really is.

And so Columbus ends up meeting Madison in a mall. Now, Madison, played by Zoey Deutch is the best new addition to the Zombieland family. There are certain roles that are difficult for most actresses to pull off. Like “bitch”. It’s not just acting bitchy—almost any actress (any woman, amirite guys?) can do that. To be a great movie bitch, you have to be antagonistic and compelling and somehow even likable, or you just end up with an unwatchable cringey mess.

But Madison’s character is bubbly and superficially attractive while being appallingly shallow—and yet still likable. And Deutch manages to pull this off as the girl who’s hung out in a mall freezer for years to stay alive, but has lost not a sparkle of her glittery persona throughout the apocalypse. She jumps Columbus—of course just in time for Wichita to come back.

And she's prettier here, too.

This picture of Deutch is not from the movie, but here she looks a lot like Isla Fisher—who is also very good at being “challenging but appealing”.

Seems that Little Rock ditched her for a smelly hippie and there’s a horde of really nasty zombies (T-900s, I think they call them, because this movie is nothing if not culturally aware), so now the foursome have to venture out to rescue her.

This is not a movie that’s going to surprise you much. There are some twists, but they’re pretty transparent. There’s a cute bit where Luke Wilson and Thomas Middleditch play analogues of Harrelson and Eisenberg. Rosario Dawson is in this, and is far more convincingly attracted to Harrelson than she is to a certain Presidential candidate. Avan Jogia, as Berkeley, plays the hippie who woos away Little Rock by singing Dylan and “Freebird”.

Douchebag is probably a little easier for most guys to play.

The character you’re basically supposed to want to see get eaten.

The whole movie mocks the smelly peace-loving hippies, who in disarming themselves have left themselves open to a major assault by the newer, badder zombies. It has been pointed out that Hollywood is particularly unconvincing about their gun control position, since the theme of maybe most action films is, “Sometimes you need a gun.” But it’s not really a political movie. It’s fun, light, fairly brainless, and reminiscent of both the previous movie and director Ruben Fleischer’s other work (besides the last Zombieland, see Gangster Squad and Venom) which all seem to carry the message of no-real-message-just-sit-back-and-have-fun.

Worth a watch, if you liked the first one—oh, and you’re not squeamish. Though it’s not as gory as I recall the first one being, it still has its moments.

Nice stinger with Bill Murray. Oh, and another nice bit, riffing on Uber which was not a thing 10 years ago.

And I notice now that I have no pictures of the zombies or any zombie attacks and there aren’t a lot of them on the web. I may be wrong but I think the zombie thing is finally over (after 20 years, holy crap!) and it’s just an incidental part of this post-apocalyptic film series now.

Zombie apocalypses make people horny.

Emma Stone can’t believe you thought “you were on a break”.

Alien (1979)

In space, no one can hear you scream. It was such a great tagline, for such a minimalist trailer, and so iconic that today it’s almost impossible to hear without suppressing a giggle—because mostly what you remember are all the parodies of it. Fans of low budget cinema know, however, that the two most influential films of the ’80s were Alien and Mad Max, up until Die Hard, of course. Some might also include Blade Runner but that was too unsuccessful at the box office and also too expensive to bother with trying to imitate.

Is it cliché to do a "Mondays" joke?

Ugh. Mondays, am I right?

And speaking of Blade Runner, the version of Alien we saw was not, in fact, the original, since Ridley Scott seems to have George Lucas’ disease. I haven’t watched the movie in decades but I somehow know it by heart, probably from watching it repeatedly in whole and in part, as a kid. This version adds some back and forth between Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton which doesn’t advance the plot at all, though it gives you a little more insight into their characters. Wholly unnecessary insight since, they establish their characters quickly and succinctly early on in the discussion about their shares. There’s more time on the alien world which is cool, but de-escalates some of the tension.

Stanton’s exeunt from the proceedings is also much stretched out and shows more of the creature. And the ending, where Veronica Cartwright and Kotto confront the alien is stretched out a bit, as well, which makes Ripley look a little less like a heel for ditching them without “being sure” they’re dead. It’s also unnecessary because by that point, the audience is pretty sold on the invulnerability of the title character.

Kung Fu Hustle

That’s a big hand.

In short, this version makes a little more sense but is less tight and exciting than the original. The Flower, who had never seen the film before, objects in principle to these sorts of things and I agree: Preserve the theatrical release. I’m not dead-set against “re-cuts” on either a commercial or artistic level, but the originals are records. And in this case, the familiarity of the story argues more for keeping the original, tighter cut and not worrying about little plot holes here and there.

As has been pointed out by, I think screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, the biggest plot hole is the massive growth of the alien from a tiny little hand-puppet to a 6′ 10″ Nigerian dude in a very short space of time with no apparent access to food. ‘s fine. It’s a scary boogen. Enjoy.

It is, of course, just a haunted house movie or—I think more relevantly for the time—a slasher flick set on a space craft. ’70s science-fiction uber-fan and author of such great movie review books as The Science Fictionary and Monsters: From Screen To Scream, Ed Naha argued that Alien was just an unpleasant, uncredited remake of It! The Terror From Beyond Space. Well, even after 40 years, Alien is gripping. The characters and locations feel real. Even if the shock value is largely gone, there’s still a lot of good suspense and top-notch acting.

Thank you, Grampa Simpson.

They’re children! But none of them are wearing onions on their belts, which was the fashion at the time.

Sigourney Weaver looks like a damned child in this. Which is the first time in my life I’ve ever said that. She’s 29 or 30 in this, even, and she has a face that I’ve always felt looked mature, but she just seemed just this side of a high school babysitter. Which means, I guess, I’m really effin’ old or something. Skerritt, who is 45 in this, looked really young, too. But, I mean, he’s 85 now and had a great deal of success in the ’90s. Virginia Cartwright looks cuter than I remember. Stanton looks old, but he always looked old. Same, too, of Frodo, er, Ian Holm! Oh, and John Hurt. It almost seems odd that only two of the actors (Hurt and Stanton) are dead, 40 years later. Actually, I guess four are dead if you count Bolaji Bodejo and Helen Horton (who was the voice of Mother).

By contrast, five or six of the cast of It! were dead 40 years later, and I don’t know where I’m going with this.

Anyway, we all liked it, The Boy most of all—I suspect appreciating as he did the concise but colorful characterizations and the command of space that seems to be missing from a lot modern movies, to say nothing of the suspense which as I noted earlier holds up quite well.

'cause he's Nigerian, see...

“Greetings sir or madam, I request your assistance in transferring funds…”

An Accidental Studio

My favorite Beatle has always been George Harrsion, who was miscast as “the quiet one” in the PR for the band. After all, nearly anyone standing next to John Lennon would appear to be quiet, but it was George who insisted on things like the lads tuning their instruments before a concert which no one in the audience could possibly hear. It was George who bitched about taxes (first). It was George who wrote “Piggies” which allegedly inspired Manson. But the key thing about George, at least as it pertains to this particular documentary, was that he was not interested in celebrity—he was interested in art.

Bob Hoskins is small in stature.

And English things. Art and English things.

If you don’t know the story, when Monty Python was making the Life of Brian, they ran out of money. The distributor got cold feet. And (for English films) there weren’t a lot of options. Eric Idle is at a party in Los Angeles and complaining to (longtime Python fan) Harrison about their situation and George says something to the effect of, “That sounds like a funny movie. I’d like to see that.” And then he produces the money for the Pythons to finish.

I have heard that story for years and thought “That’s a good amount of money to have.” But until seeing this particular documentary, I did not realize that George had had to put up his house (and another property) to come up with money. And in order to make the whole scheme work, Denis O’Brien (who had assisted Harrison with various issues throughout the ’70s) came up with a plan: They would create a movie studio, which Harrison would want to call British Handmade Films.

Fame and power are not for everyone.

With mastermind Denis O’Brien.

But apparently you couldn’t apply “British Handmade” to anything without permission. I was unclear whether it was a matter of an existing trademark or something the UK government controlled. It seemed like the latter, especially when Harrison pointed out the companies that carried that name also sucked and/or lost money.  So, “Handmade Films” it was, though it’s interesting to note at this late date that at least part of the impetus for the studio (beyond Life of Brian )was that George wanted to see English films centered around English culture, instead of American films (I think in particular) or quasi-Brit films like James Bond.

Which, I think, is kind of cool. A part of what is making American movies so very bland these days is that they’re not really American any more. They’re tempered by global interests and censored to appease Chinese tyrants (who are savvy enough be pro-America in ways American movies haven’t been since the ’80s)—to say nothing of bowing to local tyrants and probably others of whom we are less aware. Handmade’s British focus earned Harrison the title of “Savior of the British Film Industry”, which he wryly points out meant they were the only studio surviving.

Over the next ten years Handmade would make 23 movies of varying degrees of quality and increasingly move away from Harrison’s vision which was basically “Let’s give money to artists we like so they can make the art we like” and more toward O’Brien’s ambitious international dreams. The first film HandMade financed was the classic Brit gangster flick The Long Good Friday. Which, had he known what it was about, Harrison never would’ve financed because he really preferred comedy or very British slice-of-life kind of things. I would say that he felt there was enough violence in the world, he didn’t really want to add to it.

O’Brien wanted Grace Jones (!) to be the ingenue in “Mona Lisa”.

The first film HandMade actually made, however, was Time Bandits, that Python-esque action comedy film where Terry Gilliam’s mad brilliance (brilliant madness?) began to shine through. In fact, per this film, the song “Only A Dream Away” was actually Harrison chiding Gilliam:

Stumble you may with the elementary
Lucky you got this far
All you owe is apologies

But if the future Madman of La Mancha was peeking through, O’Brien’s ambitions were almost immediately plain: He had a brilliant idea to create (in essence) a Python factory. This would be a conglomerate operating out of the Caribbean and producing comedy units (and merchandising) at a regular pace. The Pythons thought about this (they say) and rejected it utterly because that’s just not how Python worked. In fact, Harrison visited the set of Life of Brian and then quickly stopped visiting because the making the Python sausage—well, hell, it probably reminded him of the Beatles-sausage at the end (as featured in the almost unwatchable Let It Be).

As a result The Meaning of Life wouldn’t be a HandMade film. In classic archival footage, an interviewer asks George if he’s sorry he lost them and he says, he hasn’t lost them. He still gets to see the movie and he’s glad he could help them out. And they’re all still friends, which seems to have been true.

Time Bandits would be followed by the very British The Missionary and Privates on Parade, and then cataclysmic flop Water. But then, nobody expects every movie to be good and/or successful, and probably HandMade could’ve continued on until George’s death in 2001 but for one thing: It stopped being fun. Whatever the general merit of O’Brien’s ideas, he was pretty clearly bitten by the “importance” bug. Whereas George would hire someone because he liked him as an artist, O’Brien started getting the idea that he was the creative genius and began to meddle. Worse, he was bringing in the precisely the sorts of movies that George wasn’t interested in, like the Sean Penn/Madonna vehicle Shanghai Surprise.

"The problem! It's coming back!"

Michael Palin wrote himself in as Robin Hood for “Time Bandits” but was coaxed out of the part, at which point he became one of the multiply-reincarnated lovers (with Shelley Duvall).

At the height of “Penndonna” celebrity (nobody called it that), Penn was bullying the director and making bad press and George (who would end up writing songs for the movie!) had to go down and patch things up. As I pointed out earlier, if he had ever been enamored of fame, he was over it by this time, and this was the last thing he wanted to do.

So, on the three-point documentary scale:

  • The subject matter is interesting. Is it important? I don’t know. Did HandMade really save the British film industry? Or did it just give a handful an artists an opportunity to do some things they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to? I suspect the latter, but that’s something more than nothing. And HandMade’s contribution may have been primarily one of morale (“hey, this is a thing that can still be done by Brits”) but that, too, is more than nothing.
  • The presentation is fun, but increasingly less fun as it wears on. I can’t really blame the documentarians for this, it’s the nature of the beast on this kind of project. Eventually, things go to hell. And so there are a lot of fun interviews especially up front, but these get darker and sadder with time.
  • There is a slant here. We could call it a “pro-George” slant. Denis O’Brien is not interviewed at all, only archive footage of him is included. To the point where I thought he had died. The film doesn’t mention the lawsuit Harrison successfully pursued against O’Brien and O’Brien’s subsequent troubles.

So on that last point, we could also say it’s not really “anti-O’Brien” since O’Brien’s troubles were hardly limited to HandMade’s tale. But it feels a little weird not to have included him, or said at least something like “Denis O’Brien told us to ‘sod off'” or whatever. I’d still recommend it for anyone with an interest in oddball creativity. The Boy enjoyed it quite a bit, too, and he was pretty much only familiar with Life of Brian and Time Bandits.

Bittersweet.

George at (I believe) the ten year anniversary/obituary of HandMade.

Rambo: Last Blood

What if I told you the critics were upset about the latest “Rambo” movie? Would you think you had woken up in 1985? I mean, they always hated Rambo. Maybe not the Rambo of First Blood, where besides being an unstoppable killing machine, he’s also suicidal. But the smash hit sequels (full disclosure, I dipped out after the second one, which I enjoyed). But Stallone had an uncanny eye for ’80s-era American patriotism: We’d take our hits, but we’d keep on going—because no one else is going to fight for freedom. For critics who find America embarrassing and wish it would just go quietly into the global miasma, all of Stallone’s movies are problematic.

The only way you can.

Stallone deals with a critic.

So, let’s just set aside the frankly incoherent (and utterly banal) accusations of racism and look at this movie for what it is: A pulpy farewell to a beloved character. Well, probably a farewell. And sort of beloved. Yeah, I think beloved.

Rambo’s a guy constantly confronted with injustice. And his solution to that injustice is to kill nearly everyone.

There’s actually not a ton to write here. The various sites say this movie runs 89 minutes long. No, it does not. I timed it, and it was 79 minutes from opening scene to first credit. It may have had ten minutes credits, but actual content, you’re looking at a very, very fast story.

The plot is simple enough: Rambo is living his best life out in a farm on the border. His niece, whom he has raised for the past ten years like his own daughter, goes south of the border to find her father. In reality she’s set up and trafficked. This is horrifying.

Animals aren't that vicious.

Pictured: Not animals.

Unjust, even.

When Rambo finds out, he goes down to rescue her and ends up getting his ass kicked by the cartel. The cartel leaves him alive so he can live with the knowledge of his niece’s abuse.

Big mistake.

First he takes revenge. Then he sets up his farm as a honeypot for the poor, unsuspecting slavers.

They never really have a chance. Rambo’s never really in danger after the first scene. We couldn’t accept it as an audience, probably. We’ve seen him running around foreign countries for years dispatching people on their home turf. The idea that he could be taken on his own land seems preposterous. When you realize that Rambo movies are basically horror films where you overtly root for the slasher, it all kind of makes sense.

So, yeah, not a lot of surprises here. Stallone can still act, though. He plays Rambo entirely different from Rocky, and I liked that a lot. At this late date, both characters are eclipsed by Stallone himself, but he doesn’t phone it in. Rambo is damaged in a way that Rocky (for all his hardships) is not. There are other people in the movie but it hardly matters much. Overall the film did okay, not great, so this may truly be the “last blood”.

The Boy liked it quite a bit. I did, too. The Flower was taken aback by some of the violence but otherwise liked it.

He's not forging his own axe, though.

It’s important that the elderly take up crafts to stay spry.

Double Indemnity (1944)

“No pigeons, I hope.”

“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!”

Casually act?

“Act casually…”

OK, that second quote isn’t from Double Indemnity but Sleep Till Noon, a comedic novel by Max Shulman. I think we all felt the movie held up well on a second viewing, with the last viewing being almost exactly two years ago. We had to drive down to Pasadena for this one, and this was the follow-up to Laura. I think we all agreed this was the “better” film. If you wanted to define noir and just pointed at this movie, you wouldn’t be far off. The femme fatale is the fatale-ist. Fred MacMurray tends to gather sympathy even when he’s hard-nosed—he even manages this in The Caine Mutiny, where his character is deplorable and self-aware of that fact—and here he’s a stone-cold murderer, all business.

Stanwyck’s character is the real mystery, actually. She plays it so coy that even when we’re told this isn’t even the first murder she’s pulled off, you still don’t quite feel like she’s conniving to the degree she must actually be. Her plan, from the get-go, probably has to be that she’s going to bump off Fred’s character as part of a cover-up. And she even says she didn’t realize that she loved him until she realized she couldn’t fire the second shot into him that would kill him.

I mean.

You say you got domestic problems?

Not as much fun as Laura, I think, because Laura is pure frothy pulp. It doesn’t really make much sense and it doesn’t really try to—and it doesn’t have to. This one, with its complicated machinations and twists and turns, feels a little heavier, a little more “realistic” and a lot less outrageous. You really should see these multiple times, and at every opportunity.

See?

“Say, you ain’t got a dame behind that door, do ya? Nah, that’s just crazy talk.”

Laura (1944)

One of my college profs was David Raksin. He got his start orchestrating and composing with Charlie Chaplin and hit it big with the theme from this movie, Laura, which won him an Oscar. I actually don’t think it’s that great, I realized listening to it this time, the umpty-unth time I’ve seen this film. I wouldn’t take that assertion too seriously, though. I might change my mind next time I see it. It is very much of its time, however, as is the whole movie.

Now, film noir, as the French styled it, is one of the most ridiculous, affected, almost stagey genres of film. Laconic tough guys quicker to shoot than to talk, and when they do talk, it’s acerbic bursts of cynicism, and only a beautiful dame can win them over—and she’s probably a murderer, so she’s gonna hafta do time and…

So great.

He’s got the lamp out for the Third Degree! And the lighting is still PERFECT.

So great, and so influential that we’ve gotten to see it done badly for more decades than it was ever done well. And Laura is one of the greats.

Dana Andrews plays a hardboiled detective (of course, though he’s an actual cop here) called in to investigate murdered “It” girl (the heart-breakingly beautiful Gene Tierney) only discover everyone has a motive. The priggish Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) who “made” Laura but was permanently friend-zoned, dubious fiancée Shelby (Vincent Price, in a dull-as-dishwater role) with a shady past, dowager Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson) who wants Shelby for her own…and…well, her maid Bessie (Dorothy Adams) loved her.

Actually, they all love her. Because of course they do, she’s Gene Tierney.

SPOILERS FOLLOW, but it’s been 75 years, so come on!

I'm just gonna keep putting up pics of Gene Tierney all day.

Vincent Price at his least menacing. At least until that Brady Bunch episode.

The big idea here, though, is that the tough-talking, no-nonsense, pain-in-the-ass detective McPherson falls in love with her. And she’s dead.

Or so he thinks. I mean, he thinks she’s dead. He knows he’s in love with her.

I always remember the reveal of this part as being more dramatic than it is. McPherson falls asleep and Laura walks in, and I think he’s going to groggily look out into the shadows and see a form, only to have it resolve as Laura. But no, she just walks in.

In classic noir form, Laura and Mark fall in love—or, I dunno, just sort of agree that they’re in love. McPherson’s dialog is amazing. “I suspect nobody and everybody.” And “When a dame gets killed she doesn’t worry how she looks.” And: “Shut up.”

She's attractive, is what I'm getting at.

Clifton Webb struggling to maintain his sexuality in Tierney’s presence.

The gimmick, if we look at it, doesn’t really make sense in the details. Waldo knocks on the door, a woman roughly matching Laura’s appearance opens the door, and Waldo blows her face off with a shotgun. Then he stashes the gun in the clock. But he also runs away right away because Shelby’s in there. I mean, that has to be the way it worked out but…that means he carried the shotgun there, so why not just bring it back. I mean, it wasn’t quick to open up the clock’s secret compartment. He can’t have hid it there originally, or he’d have to get into the foyer to get it before accidentally shooting Laura. I guess that’s remotely possible?

Wait, the Flower is telling me that Waldo stepped in to the apartment after the murder, heard Shelby, hid in the kitchen, then when Shelby ran out, he hid the gun. Which I guess sorta makes sense, especially if you know Shelby is the sort of worm who would flee the scene of a murder. In his fiancée’s apartment. Where he had taken another girl. And she was wearing his fiancée’s clothes.

I dunno. The Big Sleep doesn’t make sense either but it’s also great.

The Boy and The Flower both liked it. The Boy said he didn’t think it was as good a movie, technically, as Double Indemnity (the next film on our noir double-feature), but that it was a fun, fast film. The Flower didn’t think it gained much for being on the big screen—except for Gene Tierney, who evoked a little gasp from her when she first appears in Waldo’s flashback.

Obviously you should see it. Again.

But I'm not sure I agree with myself.

I restrained myself from just posting 12 more pictures of just Tierney from the web.

How Rednecks Saved Hollywood

OK, I know I just covered Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show which isn’t even a movie, but when it turned out Joe Bob Briggs (government name John Bloom) was coming to Los Angle-eez for his presentation on “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”, I had to go see it—and if you have any love for movies, for low-budget movies, for rednecks, even, this is a great way to spend a couple hours.

Sparkly.

For his L.A. performance, he was wearing a white sequinned jacket Elvis would not have rejected.

I was surprised as hell, actually, that this show ran this long. But he got a standing ovation on his way in, and he got one on his way out—enough for him to do an interesting kind of encore—so I hope he comes back soon. He mentioned that he was reluctant to come out to Ellay—”they won’t get me there!”—but the old Egyptian theater was packed solid.

Somebody had given him a bottle of bourbon which launched a great rant. “You’ve got six of these local ‘artisinal’ bourbons…and I’m sure you’re all very proud of them…” Wherein we learned a little about Wild Turkey and how good bourbon aging has to do with being close to the source of the water—and obvious conundrum for L.A. Also, he expressed skepticism that a couple of kids studying bourbon on the Internet could compete with the guy in charge of the aging barrels at Wild Turkey, e.g., who had been supervising them for 65 years.

Anyway.

What was this talk about? How did Rednecks save Hollywood?  Well, it seems that back in the 16th century, in the lowlands of Scotland, John Knox founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and…

yo

O.G. Redneck

What? Did you think this was going to be some lightweight romp through “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Next of Kin”? Oh, no. To understand how rednecks saved Hollywood, you have to understand what a redneck is. And it begins with the pugnacious lowland Scots, and the hard-drinkin’, god-fearin’, establishment-fightin’ John Knox. How the Scots were relocated to Ulster county Ireland (giving us the “Scots-Irish”), and from there emigrated to America where they fled as far from the reach of establishment as they could (without running into Injun Territory). And that was the hills.

We learned the origin of the word “redneck” (coined by a travelogue-writing Revolutionary War widow trying to make ends meet while fighting for her husband’s war pension), “hill billy” (which doesn’t show up till nearly 1900!) and the main principles of redneck movie making which include illegal moonshine (or just “whisky”, if you’re a redneck), sexually aggressive women, and a rebellious attitude toward government. (The Whisky Rebellion, in fact, features prominently.)

Joe Bob covers the early days of redneck film-making, and the 25-year love affair the American public (but never critics) had with hillbillies, starting with the Li’l Abner comic strip and ending with a trio of box office poison pills, the most famous of which is Hillbillys In A Haunted House. These sorts of films were more “Redneck Lite”, and he showed the great musical number from Li’l Abner where the town is singing about the great Southern general that was an incompetent, drunk coward. The point being, I think, that the modern idea that these are all paeans to white supremacists grossly misrepresents (and needlessly polarizes) the issue.

I ask ya!

Who wouldn’t be proud of Jubilation T Cornpone?

Then we got an overview of ’70s “hicksploitation”, and the movies that introduced the world to The South as a hive of scum and villainy, Deliverance and Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This all builds to the two main premises: First, Hollywood needs a “go-to” villain class, which was (in progression) blacks, Nazis, commies, Arabs—but then in after 9/11 it became racist to suggest an Arab was a terrorist, so the go-to became rednecks. He shows “the slap heard around the world” from In The Heat Of The Night and points out that Endicott (the guy Sidney Poitier slaps, played by Larry Gates) is not a redneck. Rednecks didn’t own slaves. They wouldn’t know what to do with them. It’d be like always having a stranger on your property. (Rednecks not liking strangers is another important theme going back to John Knox.) Areas high in rednecks were slow to join the Civil War because…redneck! So there was a little Hollywood jiu-jitsu as rednecks are surreptitiously inserted into where the landed English slave-owning patriarchy rightfully was.

Second, that Smokey and the Bandit is the greatest movie ever made.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of that movie. I enjoyed it on my second (recent) viewing more than I did at the time. But in context of this talk, you have a rebellious, booze-running hellraiser and a woman of questionable background (not that Sally Fields exactly pulls that off) running from the law…and the face of John Knox emerges once again. It’s not often you see a cinematic tradition so compellingly traced from 16th century religious movements.

Rednecks don’t get respect in Hollywood. Burt Reynolds was the #1 box office draw for more consecutive years than anyone in history, I believe. Joe Bob also points out the “Ma & Pa Kettle” and Ernest P. Worrell series, about a dozen of each made, that nobody ever admitted going to see and nobody ever gave any awards to, and how something similar goes on today with all the hillbilly and rednecked themed “reality” shows.

I knew a great deal of this material. As Joe Bob was going along, leading up to particular movies or actors, I would say the title under my breath, “Haunted Hillbillies”, “Claudia Jennings”, “Li’l Abner”, “Ma and Pa Kettle”, “Patrick Swayze”—he had a redneck period, which Briggs maintains limits your career in Hollywood–to the point where my companion said, as we were leaving the theater: “You didn’t learn that much from that, did you?”

Claudia!

Half Animal! All Woman! (It was a big seller when I worked at Paramount.)

It’s true that I knew a great many of the movies.  (I had thought up until right them that “Scots-Irish” meant “Scottish and/or Irish, who can tell the difference?” embarrasingly enough.) And there were more than a few titles I did not know or had long forgotten. For example, did you know that Ginger Rogers and Doris Day were in a movie about the Klan? That was a new one on me. Ronald Reagan was the star of it! (I’m surprised we don’t see stills of it today to show that he supported the KKK.)

Another one I vaguely remembered was a big budget ’70s flick called The Klansman with Lee Marvin, Richard Burton, Lola Falana, Linda Evans, the Big Lebwoski himself, David Huddleston…and O.J. Simpson. Who, fleeing the police, carjacks a Ford Bronco. A white Ford Bronco.

I mean.

There are a lot of twists and turns here, really, a lot of fun, and basically for those of us who have watched JBB’s various hosting gigs over the years not for the movies (which we’ve seen a thousand times) but for his bits in the commercial breaks, it is a genuine treasure. Those of you not in deeply blue areas probably have a good shot at seeing him, and I can’t recommend it enough. But I imagine there will also be a video release, much like his Joe Bob Dead In Concert from the ’80s. Though, honestly, I think he’s just gotten better over time.

After his standing ovation at the closing, he came back and did a bit that the Shudder movie channel had objected to, that he had set up as a commentary for Sleepaway Camp, which is (as he said) “about sexual confusion”. And it was about the recent North Carolina law regarding transgender use of the bathrooms. That in itself was fascinating, because it expressed a viewpoint that was neither conservative nor liberal, in the modern uses of both words, but was more about being a decent human and not ramping up everything. As he put it, redneck men have two modes: Sheriff Andy mode and Barney Fife mode, and we just needed a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

And I got the impression that—as a guy who makes a living saying things that are “controversial”—it sort of hurts his feelings when he does get censored in what is basically a plea for humane treatment. Interesting that a redneck would be the voice of calm and reason but here we are.

Do.

Moviegique says “check it out”!

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

I remember back in ’96, the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” program had some bits about the upcoming Oscars, and Tom Servo said of this movie, “It’s about a Shawshank! And it gets redeemed! And it’s really, really good!” The gag, of course, being that they’d seen none of the movies they were talking about. I did finally see the movie, though I probably had to see it a couple of times to realize that Red is the eponymous character.

Oh, Rita.

They’re watching “Gilda”, of course, which may be the sexiest movie ever made.

This was the first time I had seen it in the theater, however, and I was struck at how much like an old-time movie it is. It’s basically a lot of characters engaged in their day-to-day lives with comedy, drama—sort of Best Years of our Lives style or maybe The Magnificent Ambersons. And in this respect, it is a really fine piece of moviemaking. The Boy and The Flower also enjoyed it, the former having seen it a few years ago and the latter seeing it for the first time but of course familiar with many of the memes spawned.

But it does suffer a bit from being The Best Movie Ever. It has been rated #1 on IMDB for a good 20 years now and, well, it’s not that good. Maybe because this was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen, but I began to notice a few dubious plot points. Like the guy who actually kills Andy’s wife and the Golf Pro? He explains how he’s scoping out the club for rich people to burgle and ended up in this guy’s house. But the Golf Pro isn’t the rich guy at a club.

I don't even drink.

Live look at me, taking potshots at one of the best movies of the past 30 years.

There are some other details like this, but they’re not really important. The acting is solid, the direction is tight and confident—impressive given it was Darabont’s first effort—the score is one of the best and probably enough to tip me over to the Thomas-over-Randy for Newman movie scores.

On multiple viewings, it’s really apparent how many of the beats of the movie do sort of depend on surprise, though, which takes some of the luster off. On the other hand, knowing what’s coming adds some depth that you miss the first time around. It’s not a wash—it’s not quite Psycho shower-scene level surprise, but it’s up there in once-you-know-it’s-not-as-good. Unlike, say, The Sixth Sense.

Still, it’s definitely one of the best movies made in the past 30 years.

Unabashed drama.

Lotta great shots.

Along With Gods: The Two Worlds

We actually tailored our trip to the Halloween Haunt to make sure we had a chance to see this film. The Boy and I had seen it when it came out in December of 2017—it may have been his first K-town movie—and the sequel (Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days) was The Flower’s first. But I had gotten way behind by the end of 2017 and never managed to put up a review, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. It is reminiscent to me of the best of Hollywood Blockbuster moviemaking, being both a effects-heavy spectacular that’s still strongly centered around a very emotional story.

I like how they all look at him like "What are you doing?"

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

In this story, a heroic firefighter dies and is taken to the afterlife. This being a Korean movie, the afterlife is governed by an implacable bureaucracy. The deal is you are taken through each of the seven hells and judged on your sins. If you fail, you end up suffering the torment for that sin. Our Hero, Ja-Hong learns all this from his after-life advocates who are a combination of defense attorney, bodyguard and psychic. It’s their job to defend Ja-Hong from the aggressive, and aggressively incompetent, assistant district attorneys of the underworld. I mean, they don’t call them that, but that’s their job: To find Ja-Hong guilty of his sins, to get him punished and to make sure he doesn’t get off too lightly (or perhaps at all). If he makes it through the trials, he gets to be reincarnated.

That in itself would make for a pretty good set-up, and it makes for the emotional core of the movie: Sort of a more dramatic version of Albert Brooks’ Defending Your Life. But there’s a twist: Ja-Hong doesn’t want to be reincarnated. He doesn’t believe he’s a paragon, and he’s indifferent or even hostile to his own defense—until he’s told that he other reward of making it through is to be able to appear in the dreams of a loved one, and there’s a message he really wants to get through to his mother.

But wait, there’s more!

Ja-Hong is also a paragon. What that means is that he would actually be capable of going through all seven trials in 49 days—which becomes a hook for the sequel—and if he can get through them all, as a paragon, he counts for one of the hundred paragons our defending attorneys need to achieve their own goals of reincarnation. So they are highly motivated to get him through, especially his bodyguard, Haewonmaek, and peppy psychic sidekick Dukchoon, since they have no memories of their past lives at all. (Again, grist for the sequel.)

Like Julie! Remember Julie? No?

In this movie, they’re sort of afterlife cruise directors.

That, you think, would be enough movie. But there’s still more wrinkles in this plot. Traveling between the hells, our heroes begin to come under assault by demonic forces. This, we’re told, means that one of Ja-Hong’s relatives has died and become a vengeful spirit. This apparently messes up the familial karma, speeding up time,  and will prevent Ja-hong from making it through in the 49 days or perhaps at all. Now you got an action comedy-drama afterlife movie.

This could get out of hand pretty quickly I think. But the thing is the action is just to add a little fun suspense to the dramatic aspects of the film. The way one travels through the hells, by this scheme, is according to severity of the crime, which works in both a philosophical and an aesthetic sense. So, as we go along, we see a great many “sins” that are not really sins at all. For example, the bumbling prosecutors try to get Ja-Hoong on cowardice because he left his colleague behind to die in a burning building.

But of course that wasn’t cowardice at all: His colleague insisted on him saving a civilian and “coming back for him”, even though they both know at that point there’s no coming back. And our hero tries anyway. And when he’s on trial for indolence, the Lord of Indolence Hell wants to put a statue up to him because he was constantly working, helping, sacrificing—until he says he did it all for money. But there’s a twist there, too, of course.

I mean, he’s a paragon, right?

I'm stretching the metaphor a lot.

And this is the cruise boat, basically.

But then when we get to the more serious crimes, betrayal and—apparently the worst possible crime—filial impiety, we see some very dark things indeed. The sins, in the order for this movie, are murder, indolence, deceit, injustice, betrayal, violence and filial impiety. Now, murder can be very indirect, which is how we get the trumped up charge of leaving behind his colleague. But the Lord of Filial Impiety is basically the uber-Lord of all the hells so, yeah, they take it seriously in the East.

Much like the bureaucratic aspect of this film, I cannot express how Korean this aspect of the movie is. Our hero is a bonafide paragon, literally labeled so by the powers of Heaven (or whatever) and he has some dark, dark sins under his belt. But there’s always a way back, and this movie is very much about forgiveness. (And we know what happens when you don’t embrace forgiveness for sins: You get a Korean revenge picture.)

This movie doubles down on the idea by introducing the vengeful spirit, from which state we are told no redemption is possible. But there’s a twist (and in fact the entire sequel) on this topic as well.

It’s not hard to figure out why this movie works, even with its (by Western standards) wonky kinda-sorta-Buddhist/Christian vision of the afterlife: It’s fun. It takes its characters seriously without taking itself seriously. It lets humans be their own messy selves in the way that humans are, but it’s very careful about judgment. In fact, the meta-story going on (which plays out in the sequel) is that of our three defense attorneys, who are wrestling with their own issues—but for a movie about Hell and damnation, there aren’t really any bad guys. There are only people who make mistakes.

Well, okay, the demons—the ones who are invoked by the vengeful spirit and have no purpose but to destroy Jang-ho—are bad guys. But they’re the genre’s requisite cannon fodder.

Tae-Hyun Cha, whom I don’t know, does a good job as Ja-hoon. Dukchoon is played Hyang-gi Kim, whom I only know from these two movies, is ridiculously adorable in this one, and shows a lot of depth in the sequel, where her youth (she was, like, 16-17 when this was being filmed) and innocence is a major factor. Jae-hoon Ju plays Haewonmaek. Here he’s competent but also dumb and fun, in sharp contrast to his roles in Dark Figure of Crime and The Spy Gone North (which we saw last year before the Halloween Haunt). Jung-woo Ha (1987: When The Day ComesThe Handmaiden) is the most inscrutable of the characters: He doesn’t have the emotionalism of his underlings, but there’s a lot going on under the surface.

And kick ass.

They’re both really cute, tbf.

The stinger features Dong-seok Ma who is, as mentioned, our current favorite and really big in Korea. The Flower and I were looking him up on YouTube. He’s going to be in Marvel’s Eternals but we figure he won’t get enough screen time.

From a technology standpoint, the CGI is fine, not really up to the highest of American standards. But it has held up well over the past two years because it always seemed to be aimed more toward a pleasing aesthetic than “realism”. Like we always point out: An effect just has to be pleasing to work. If it’s trying to fool us, it probably has a very limited shelf life.

The Boy and I liked it. The Flower was also quite taken with it. I think I liked it even more this time. I was a little overwhelmed the first time. It’s very epic, very “cinematic universe”—in fact, I’m sort of surprised there isn’t a (Korean) TV series or another film in the works. (There might be, I can’t really tell.) There’s a lot of heart-string-tugging here, I won’t lie. Ja-Hoon’s mother is a mute, for example, and the message he’s so desperate to get back to her is that he got her a rice-cooker for Christmas—one that makes burnt rice, which is something she’s been struggling with as she gets older.

I mean, come on. Rip my heart out. Go ahead.

The story of the vengeful spirit, too, is a tragic one. And the colleague left in the burning building, who leaves a family behind. Japanese stuff often does a remarkable job of tone switching, from super light to super serious (Your Name, e.g.), but the swings are often just amazingly wide. Here, it seems a little more natural: We go about our day to day lives as the goofballs we are, but those lives are obstacle courses of tragedy. I mean, Die Hard is a great action flick, but it’s the (admittedly ham-handed) moments of drama between Willis and Vel Johnson that gives it its heart and makes it a great movie.

What it might boil down to is, here in America we’re in “save the cat” mode: We have our stories hitting precise beats with the requisite number of humanizing moments that have been proven to yield box office results. Here, you feel like the filmmaker had a story to tell (and apparently these movies are based off a web comic!) and sometimes the beats come where you don’t expect them. It keeps things fresh and lively. The content of the beats may be heavy handed, but the beats themselves are not.

Maybe this is only the sort of observation you can make when seeing 120-150 movies a year, I don’t know. But it feels right, and I could watch both movies again, back-to-back.

Or lives, I suppose.

Defending your life.

The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

It was that time of year again: Halloween! Yeah, we basically celebrate it on the third or fourth Thursday of September, then kind of forget about it until October 31st. But on that Thursday, we go to Knott’s Berry Farm’s Halloween Haunt, and to avoid traffic we go down early. Which works out because Korean movie chain CGV opened a theater walking distance from the park. And which also was featuring a throwback showing of Along With Gods. But first up was The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos—or as I like to call it Korean Suicide Squad. Or you could replaced “Korean” with “Good”.

I kid. Sorta. I never saw Suicide Squad because if ever there were a string of movies that screamed “Product In Search Of Meager Artistic Expression” it would be the DC movies. WB knows it has something valuable but never stops to consider that the value is exploitable—but not intrinsic (any more than Disney realizes it with Star Wars and Marvel, which I think we are finally on the downswing of).

Anyway, this is a similar premise, without the (overt) super-villainy. A bus on its way to prison is flipped, releasing a bunch of baddies into the countryside, but the target seems to have been a gang leader. The only thing is, this leader is kind of broken down and his gang is small potatoes. Old, sick but honest cop, who was suspended for assembling a team of bad guys to round up even badder guys (with extreme prejudice) is called back in to…well, to do the same thing that got him suspended.

Boom.

Our heroes! Ma doesn’t need a gun. He has fists.

Much like the Chinese movie we saw prior to this, this is actually a movie spin-off of an earlier (2014) TV show which explains the allusions to the head cop’s former activities. I mean, it’s totally unnecessary for there to have been a past story or set of stories, but it’s kind of cool that there was and that some of the same actors were there. Dong-seok Ma who is now, I believe, all our favorite has a backstory with the very cute Ye-Won Kang, but she’s knocked out of commission early on. Given how little of their story is shown, it makes more sense that the audience itself might have a previous connection to her.

It’s fun. Dong-seok gets to stomp around like Yongary (think Korean Godzilla) smashing doors and sweeping his enemies aside with a brush of his mighty thews. (Checks dictionary…) Yes, his thews! They are mighty and smite his enemies with ease. Dong-seok is about 5′ 9″, though he is a bulky guy, and as I say, pretty much our favorite Korean actor at this point. Chang Ki-Yong is the young toughie, more typical of Korean gangsters which, as The Boy points out, are generally muscular and wiry but also skinny as hell.

Kim A-Joong is the femme fatale, which is always more adorable than fatale-feeling in Korean films. With the very notable exception of The Handmaiden, Korean actress tend to portrayed rather demurely. As we noted with Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, the girl with dubious moral values was one who had “spent time in America”. So Kim’s character here is saucily, y’know, wearing jeans. Then, when she’s really amping it up, she switches to…jorts? With long black stockings?

And while she is lovely, she is also skinny. Now, for Koreans (male or female) skinny doesn’t look scary as it tends to for Americans. But still, 5’6″ (probably exaggerated) and 105# (probably also exaggerated) doesn’t produce the same effect as, well, any more weight (or even height) would. And the camera never lingers or leers. Also kind of cute: As her character becomes less of a bimbo and more of a functioning member of the team, she starts dressing more professionally and behaving more demurely.

Unacceptable!

She’s got some dirt on her face. Ew.

I’m not gonna knock it. Modesty is underdeveloped in the West. We can’t seem to decide whether it’s oppressive or respectful and seem to have settled on a code of “Women never have to be modest, but no one is ever allowed to comment on it one way or the other” which is essentially psychotic.

Anyway, very mild spoiler here, as we unravel the mystery of the crime, it turns out the Japanese are behind it. I literally raised my fist into the air and cheered. (We were the only ones in the theater.) The movie actually draws a comparison to the occupation, which my Korean-American co-worker (who’s married to a Korean-Korean girl) suggests may be due to certain contemporary tensions between Korea and Japan. (He’s an American so he doesn’t pay attention to this stuff, but his wife rather insists.)

I mean, it’s gotta be the Japanese, right? I wonder if the apparency of that fact has to do with these current circumstances. I would find that amusing because the villainy of the Japanese is probably the most consistent element of the Korean movies we have seen, unless you count the lassitude and corruption of the Korean Deep State. But the Japanese are never unaccompanied by traitorous Koreans, so maybe they have edge.

In this case, the Japanese are just using Korea as the trial run for their neo-Imperialistic shenanigans on their way to China, and the heroes actually say it’s just like the occupation.  If it weren’t for the profusion of “Hello, Kitty” merchandise in the hands of actual Koreans, I might be worried. As it is, I assume they, like us, get their messages from their local large corporations and this is just some kind of squabble between Samsung and Sony.

You’re never really in danger of taking it seriously. It is earnest, with likable characters, but is mostly just trying to be fun and entertaining, and succeeds.

Tough to get good Korean stills.

While this is the poster for the movie, and not actually in the movie, this stuff is all in the movie somewhere.

Freaks (2019)

A weird, intense man keeps his seven-year-old daughter locked away in their house while training her to act like a “normal” person because if she doesn’t, bad guys will kill them both.

But enough about me.

So I sound-proofed it.

I, too, got tired of my children complaining about the ghosts in the tiny, dark room I locked them in.

In this movie, Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe)—who is not a young, skinny Jack Black, don’t be fooled—plays “Dad” to Chloe (Lexy Kolker) while nursing a seemingly paranoid fantasy about “bad men” who want to kill them. We immediately know not all is as it seems because Chloe is, indeed, a freak. In particular, she can see into remote locations—and be seen in those locations—though she’s not aware she’s doing it.

Chloe desperately wants a mom, since her own mother (Mary, Amanda Crew, “Silicon Valley”) died when she was a baby. Dad has a plan to train her to be normal, then let her live with the family across the street neighbors, which is something Chloe desperately wants. So much so that she projects into her future foster sister’s bedroom and makes her pretend to be her mother, cuddle her and tell her she loves her.

Dad, too, seems odd, since he insists he can only protect her if he doesn’t fall asleep. And when he does fall asleep, things happen: The lights in the house go on, the water starts working, strange noises emerge from outside, etc.

Or possbily anything anywhere.

Bruce Dern appears in an ice cream truck. Scarier than anything in “IT”.

I won’t spoil it, because this movie works by imposing a number of layers on top of each other, each of which by itself is fairly ordinary, but which keep you engaged until the next layer is pulled back. It takes about 30 minutes to get a strong picture of what’s going on, for example, with the mysterious ice cream man (Bruce Dern, aged hippie, and, oh, I dunno, From Up On Poppy Hill) who is aggressively trying to lure Chloe into his truck. But then you have the mystery of what the deal is with Dad. And is the (really hot) Federal Agent (Grace Park, who appears mostly on TV and in my better dreams) good or evil or somewhere in between, and more importantly: can she be trusted?

The thing that works about this movie is that it sets up its rules (which are admittedly rather broad, conceptually) and then lives by them. You learn X, and that explains certain phenomena that come before (and more importantly, in some ways, after). Then you learn Y, which explains some other stuff, and so on until you get a fairly good (if simple) picture of what the world is and how our characters play their roles in it.

And shock of shocks, for a movie which is about existential crises for all of humanity, it’s rather non-judgmental. The second half of the movie, when it seems like it could veer into straight up action, reminds us that what we’re viewing is actually pretty horrifying. There’s a lot of murder going on—and it’s all pretty understandable. Which is a kind of uncomfortable feeling. Obviously, we’re biased one way by the mere orientation of the telling—but on the other hand, we (the audience) would be the very definite losers of any the scenarios that play out where we’re rooting for one side over the other.

She's good looking, is what I'm getting at.

This movie makes me feel conflicted about Grace Park. That’s something I never want to feel.

It’s shockingly nuanced for a modern movie, much less a horror movie, and it does it without being political. I was worried because of this one line (naturally played in the trailer) where they talk about “making people illegal”—a red flag, stay-away sign for anyone not wanting to be bludgeoned with some heavy-handed pro-illegal-alien message. But in the movie, there’s: a) no connection made  (or even reasonably plausible) to our modern immigration crises; b) no real judgment as to whether or not “making people illegal” is good or bad. And not just immigration, the movie skillfully avoids any real sociopolitical commentary on homeschooling, racism or any of the other low-hanging fruit lazy writers go to these days.

The later half gets a little action-y, as mentioned, but there’s still a fair amount of horror, or at least horrific moments. The ending, involving a hellfire missile, edges into goofy, but in a sort of expected cinematic way, kind of like Ready Or Not‘s somewhat bombastic denouement. It didn’t bug me much. It’s still technically summer, after all. Also, that last section is a good, suspenseful build-up with a little cat-and-mouse between the (hot) federal agent and dad, as the latter stalls for time and the former is smart enough to put the pieces together

Besides being hot, federal agent woman is kind of a complex character. She comes off as a bleeding heart at times early on (when she’s on TV) but then she’s as tough and no-nonsense as her character would really have to be. Top notch acting, which is true of all the principals. Emile Hirsch’s torment bubbles under the surface but ends up explaining a lot of his nigh-hysteria, as he literally lives an existence no one else is for nearly seven years. (This makes perfect sense in context.) Amanda Crew has limited screen time but she makes the most of it, being both sympathetic on the one hand, and a little scary on the other (much like Dad). Why, Bruce Dern nearly convinces me he’s not thoroughly evil. (I kid the Dern, he’s quite good here, though I think his nose hairs should get 10% of his fee.)

It's a mountain?

If you look closely, you can see where Trump signed the wall. (I kid! It’s not even a wall!)

Speaking of small amounts of screen-time they do a lot with, the across the street neighbors played by Ava Telek, Matty Finochio and especially Michelle Harrison do great work in their one main scene. And a special shout-out to the thuggish Alex Paunovic, who provides the climactic moments of the film with its weird mix of horror and comedy. Paunovic and (sidekick federal agent) Reese Alexander were in Dead Rising: Watchtower, an earlier attempt by writer/director team Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this movie is better (not having seen the former) but I don’t think it will be very popular. Actually, I’m seeing now that it was only released into 111 theaters which means it probably won’t have a chance to be very popular, which is—well, it’s probably sensible from a business perspective. This story really inverts some common and very popular movie tropes, similar to Brightburn, which had much bigger names attached and got a much wider release and (I imagine) was a lot less challenging.

As I said early on: There’s a whole lot of murder in this movie and you really end up understanding all of it. That makes a man uncomfortable. And most people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

Every time.

I hate it when they pretend to be asleep so you have to carry them out of their burning room.

Ne Zha

Two, count ’em, two Chinese movies playing in Alhambra, and at the AMC which meant another month of squeezing value out of their $25/mo A-List service. But there was a rub: The last movie (Line Walker 2) got out five minutes after the this one started, and A-List doesn’t let you book overlapping events, which I can understand in principle. But, come on: A modern movie has a good five minutes of credits on it!

I struggled with it a bit. Then when Line Walker turned out to be 98 minutes long with credits, well, I was in a bind. It still wouldn’t let me book the film, even with a solid 20 minutes of spare time prior. But I’ve paid for this service. I could’ve tried to resolve the issue with the management but, come on, what’s a branch manager going to do about it? Best case is she—I don’t know why it would be a woman, but there it is—lets me in anyway. Worst case is she doesn’t.

You WANT to do the right thing.

Lookin’ innocent.

So we just sat down. Even though the principle is not damaged (we did not take anyone’s seat or displace any money, except maybe as far as recompensing Ne Zha‘s producers), I was not thrilled with the situation. I mean, I’m the guy who went to the After Dark Horror Fest year after year with The Boy and bought eight tickets, one for each movie, even when all I had to do was sit there and wait for the next to start. (At the time it worked out to about $200. Yikes.)

Then, after all that, as the credits started to roll on this one, I thought “Have we made a terrible mistake?” I mean, this is a kids film. And kids films are always risky, except for a few brief windows: Disney flicks in the ’90s, Pixar’s in the ’00s…uh…Disney Flicks in the ’50s…

I mean, it’s kind of funny because kid flicks have legs, you know? How many generations have watched the 1938 Snow White and how many non-kids can still enjoy those films. The best ones tend to be timeless because they’re not constantly bumping up against pop culture references (that the kids wouldn’t understand), politics, or complicated (and often bad) messaging.

But the bad ones, oh, Lord. They’re bad. And some of the CGI here is shall-we-say lower-budget looking compared to American fare. And yet.

Bit by bit the movie won us over.  Again, I am profoundly struck by how much freer Chinese movies feel compared to American ones—and this is compounded by the fact of being a movie for children. First, though, a quick look at the plot:

Hairy like a Chinese dragon.

Buckle up, this is gonna get hairy.

There is, in the heavens, a Chaos Pearl which can absorb heavenly energies. But it gets out of hand, so the Heavenly Father, Tianzun, sends two of his minions, the goofy riding-a-flying-pig chubster Taiyi and the lean and serious Chen to subdue it. It’s too powerful, though, absorbing all the energy they can throw at it, and Tianzun has to handle it himself, which he does by splitting it into its Spirit and Demon orbs. (Called “the Spirit Pearl” and “Demon Pill” in the subtitles, which has that kind of amusing pidgin-y sound you sometimes get on the mainstream Asian films.)

The Spirit Pearl is going to be given to Li Jing, the human lord guarding Chengdu Pass, who protects the human world from demonic onslaught. His wife will give birth to the reincarnation of the Spirit Pearl, whereas the Demon Pill will be smote by lightning in three years, destroying it. As a reward, if Taiyi can manage to watch over this process and make it all come off okay, he gets a spot on the Heavenly Council. The serious and, let’s face it, evil Chen is not having any of this, so he sets out to sabotage the process.

Which he does, by swapping out the Spirit Pill for the Demon Pill such that Li Jing’s new son ends up being a demon. Meanwhile, Chen gives the Spirit Pearl to the dragons, who have been chained up for eons since being defeated by the gods. The Spirit Pearl incarnation only needs to destroy the Chengdu Pass guardians (the castle and all the villagers) to free the dragons.

So there’s your setup, all done in the pre-credits opening. (Yes, the credits are up front, which I liked because the title guys are very creative.) Ne Zha is a demon by nature who is destined to destroy humans but is being raised by demon hunter parents who will do anything they can to save his life—remember, he’s going to be struck by lightning in three years. (He’s pretty much an eight-year-old throughout the movie.) Meanwhile, the “good guy” is being trained by dragons to murder a bunch of people.

It’s a good message: Be what you want, not what your “destiny” says you should be. And it’s one, more or less, that would be at home in an American kidflick, too. But then things get weird. And by “weird” I really mean, “not weird” because Chinese political correctness is not at all concerned with American SJW neuroses. To wit:

  • Taiyi is fat. There are a LOT of fat jokes.
  • Taiyi keeps a lot of things in his pants. At one point, his hands are full so he tells Ne Zha to rummage around in them. There are no overtones of sexuality here. The packed theater laughed a lot at the subsequent gags which were indeed pretty funny on a slapstick-y level.
  • The only woman who plays a major role is Nezha’s mother, and it’s to love Nezha so much that he realizes he doesn’t have to be a killing machine. (In fairness, she can also fight, but that’s a longstanding martial arts tradition.)
  • There is zero diversity.
  • Unless you want to count the big beefy dude who shrieks like a girl at any sign of peril. He does it a lot. It’s never not funny.
  • There is a message, but it’s a traditional one that is widely shared, so the movie doesn’t nag about it. You’re really just there for the characters.
  • Everyone has dignity and worth: Even the buffoonish Taiyi gets his moment of greatness.

This last is an interesting characteristic of Chinese films generally: There will be comic relief characters who are as broad as you can imagine. But whatever trouble they cause, they’re going to have a moment which reflects the goodness of their true nature. Nobody exists just for yuks—not even shrieking dude.

China-style.

He’s lazy, he’s a buffoon, but he has his moment of true wisdom.

There are a lot of fart jokes, and I laughed at them, not gonna lie. I’m tempted to say there was a philosophical theme behind them, as farts actually play a pivotal plot point, where they win the day versus, em, more conventional means of propulsion. But sometimes gaseous expulsions are just gaseous expulsions. I will say, however, that a lot of slapstick works on more than one level. Every mother ultimately feels like their son (or sometimes daughter) is a little fire demon, smashing into everything and everyone with gleeful abandon.

In fact, a lot of this feels very “boys will be boys”-ish. The Spirit Pearl child, Ao Bing (who is adult-sized) is serious, dedicated and conflicted, and the two “children” end up being each other’s only friends, because they’re the only ones not afraid of each other. They bond over hacky sack which, if you didn’t know (and I didn’t), is a traditional Asian sport, in China known as jianzi.

The Boy noted the combat scenes were exceptional. I’d compare them to animated combat scenes in kid movies but our kid movies don’t have much combat (except superhero movies), and these hold up to the best of those. There’s a very good command of space and motion that makes it feel more true.

Worldwide, Nezha is in the top 10 for 2019, and has the #1 box office for any non-English film, so it’s probably exemplary in a lot of ways. But I’m guessing the filmmakers’ relative sense of freedom is the same no matter what: Probably the Chinese filmmakers get approval from Beijing and know that they’ll be fine within those parameters. In America, you never know what the next thing that offends someone—thus necessitating a human sacrifice—will be. And I think creates a nervous tension that permeates a great many of our movies.

The fire demon's the good guy.

I mean, who to root for?

Line Walker 2: The Invisible Spy

I had to coax, ever so slightly, The Boy into seeing this modern-day Shaw Brothers picture, but not much. The trailer looks like a dumb action flick. But a fun dumb action flick. And he was pondering a bit why it was he would go see something like this where, for example, Hobbes and Shaw—excuse me, Fast and Furious Presents Hobbes and Shaw just leaves him cold. Is it just a kind of hipsterism? (This came up in spades for the second feature, Ne Zha, which is the sort of family film if, produced in America, we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.)

Very Bondian.

Car chase + bulls. Brilliant, really.

The story (which both of us lost track of at points, but got back fairly early on) is that two orphan boys who are super-smart and high-spirited and best friends (even while being fierce competitors) are approached by kidnappers at the orphanage. One manages to get away while the other looks like he’s done for. His pal hesitates, then runs back and rescues his little buddy—in the process being severely injured and snatched away.

I would think the injury would pretty much be the end of any kidnapping attempt, but the scar is super-important to the plot later on.

Anyway, rather than being sold into sexual slavery (because that’s the tragic most likely event, and we want a fun semi-gritty story, not a crushingly depressing one), he’s trained a school for—well, honestly, I’m not 100% sure what kind of school this was. Some sort of assassin/spy school, which is quite horrifying and not at all as fun as it sounds. Point is, he becomes a hostile agent being used by Evil Bastards Inc. for their grand schemes, which start with getting him on the Hong Kong police force.

But at the point our story begins, the two characters are meeting again, 30 years later, while the one guy is the agent/police-department-mole, and the other is a high-integrity super-cop who knows that there’s a mole in the agency and pretty well suspects both that the guy is his long-lost pal and the mole. They’re on a mission to collect and protect a hacker girl who managed to hack-into (and lock) Evil Bastards Inc.’s system, which is good, because Evil Bastards Inc. has got a lot of tricks up its sleeve.

Mayhem ensues.

Eventually, however!

Two of these guys we first see as kids. We’re not really supposed to know which right away.

The gun play is good. The car chases, too. The boy-turned-mole isn’t really evil, and that subplot is adequate to allowing us to like him. The acting is good—you like the characters. The bad guys are not super memorable. The hacker girl gets more character development without a lot of screen time than I was expecting. A lot of people get to be heroes, which is to say, they get to die to save innocent lives. This is endearing.

The action ramps up and culminates with (as seen in the trailer) a car chase scene during and co-located with the Running of the bulls in Pamplona. The ending is over-the-top in a fun, comic-book way.

The music is good.

It’s not necessarily a knock-your-socks-off kind of flick but did I mention it’s 98 minutes (with credits)? That’s not snark, that’s the movie telling us, the viewer: “Hey, we got a fun, fast story to tell you and it’s more-or-less completely free of any particularly deep message or politics. We think you’ll have fun.”

Where do you start?

Now, when you’re explaining this to your insurance company…

I mean, maybe there’s a subtext in there about…I don’t know what, the evils of capitalism? A lot of Chinese movies will have that, but it’s always phrased in a way where it comes out “Don’t be consumed by materialism”, which is pretty basic advice.

It’s a sequel to a 2016 film which itself was based on a TV series from 2014, with the original actors reprising their roles. I would have guessed (had you asked) that the “Line Walker” premise was just a phrasing device where a few characters passed through to anchor the series and the main stars were replaced—because they died—every time. But death isn’t a very serious thing in Chinese movies, or more accurately, the appearance of damage that should obviously kill someone is only as serious as the character lets it be.

Obviously a pretty common action trope, taken to the nth degree here. It works. I mean, when the bulls come in, you know all bets are off. I wouldn’t be surprised to see everyone back for a sequel.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Cute hacker girl seems more plausible when she’s Asian.

The Matrix (1999)

I somehow got the marquee time for this wrong and we ended up a half-hour late for this 20th anniversary showing—which, with all the trailers and folderol meant we only missed the opening scene with Trinity fighting the agents. The Boy and I kind of liked that better, honestly, as it made the film more mysterious and horrifying (even when knowing what was to come) but I think it made it harder for The Flower to get into it.

At the time it seemed sooo cool.

This effect does not hold up, tragically.

We had split reactions to this one, agreeing on some of it and not on the rest. The Flower liked it the least: We saw it in “Dolby” which is like the old Sensurround system but with more kidney punches.  The Boy liked that part, but The Flower ended up giving her ear plugs to The Barbarienne, which definitely reduced her enjoyment. The Boy and The Barbarienne liked the look of it whereas The Flower thought it looked like old cutscenes from video games The Boy would play. I was sort of taken aback by how dated they were: I had sort of expected them to be in the more loop-around-to-charming but they really looked awful cheesy to me.

The Boy and I liked the characters. The Barbarienne thought Neo had more chemistry with Morpheus than he did with Trinity. The kids all thought it looked very ’90s, but to me it looked like that late ’90s interpretation of the ’80s, a la Fight Club and Three Kings.. The fight choreography still worked, by-and-large. I thought the big lobby fight scene was too slow and silly but The Boy (somewhat surprisingly) was able to embrace it.

It's fuzz, but she has more of it than Keanu.

In HD you can see Carrie-Anne Moss’s facial hair.

The warning signs are all there of course. Sure you have the vinyl fetish and the androgyny, but most telling of all are the lengthy pseudo-philosophic speeches that would take up 60% of the second movie and 95% of the third one. And probably all their subsequent films, too, but who watches those?

It’s still pretty fun and watchable, though. Keanu’s performance has aged well, probably because he has 20 years of extra distance from the time where his defining role was Ted “Theodore” Logan. (A performance, I maintain, which is still sorely under-rated.)

In fact, we all decided that The Matrix is the alternate timeline where Ted gets shipped off to military school and “Wild Stallions” music never does save the day.

Also, The Flower had moment of shock followed by a bout of the giggles when I told her that Hugo Weaving ended up being cast as the king of the elves and, well, more or less played it exactly the same way. Heh. So, we were glad we saw it, to varying degrees, but it’s a mixed bag. It was rather over-rated at the time: You can get a sense of how large it loomed by the vast number of rip-offs, homages, parodies and spiritual successors it had.

But since it was cutting edge of a constantly evolving technology, it stands as a victim of that success. As The Flower said, “I’ve seen everything it does, only better.” Yowch.

Unwatchable for me.

“You will go to Mordorrrrrr.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Although The Boy had seen (and loved) this movie when it was aired for its 50th anniversary, this was The Flower’s first viewing of the film and she was, as she put it, surprised. It is, I agreed, a rather surprising film. The opening sequence has Lawrence dying in a motorcycle accident, and then features a funeral where a wide variety of viewpoints are expressed, most commonly “I didn’t really know him”. And here is a 220 minute film, after which, the audience isn’t really sure they know the man—nor even if the man knew himself.

Nah, it's Omar Sharif.

“Who’s that comin’ down the street, the sweetest who you’ll ever meet…”

I’m not sure if she liked it. I think she did. I think she thinks she did. But it wasn’t what she was expecting. Lawrence was a complicated man. If I had to describe him, it would be as someone who saw the opportunity to do a great good, but who then touched off a sort of megalomania in himself that was definitely not good. I can’t fault him for it: A certain amount of megalomania (or something very close to it in appearance) might be necessary if you are doing grandiose things, like leading a people out of slavery.

And the fact that he fails, finally—the British did take over, the Bedouin never really could get past their tribal roots, nor have the Arabs done that yet, really—doesn’t really diminish the scale of what he was trying nor the successes that he did have.

Cinematically, it’s the sort of film that maybe shouldn’t work, though it does, and is virtually unthinkable today, on so many levels. It’s a historical drama and, as we all know, history is very problematic. It portrays Arabs as backwards savages. It portrays a white man trying to save them (and failing because they can’t grasp what he’s getting at). Women are hidden (Bedouin culture), or (briefly) cheerleaders, ululating on the hills. Or, they’re raped and brutalized, leading to a brutal slaughter. The only actual Arab in the cast is Omar Sharif.

Fake nose, though.

Identfies as Arab. At least for a paycheck. (Nothing new under the sun.)

And that’s just the content.

The style is long, sometimes static shots of the desert, as a figure emerges from the distance. It’s amazing how compelling this is, how an audience of moviegoers will strain their own eyes trying to make out a shape on the horizon (which, y’know, you can’t do because it’s a film and it’s not in focus until it’s focus, but still you try), and how effective this is at creating a sense of scale, privation and just plain reality.

Also: It made $70 million at the box office, which I think pretty comfortably put it at #1 for the next couple of years: El Cid, another highly problematic film released earlier that year, made a whopping $30M at the box office. The next year would see the release of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, which would come close by making $60M. But it wouldn’t be until the following year, with From Russia With Love that another film would pass Lawrence (with nearly $80M). Well, okay, the numbers are a little dodgy, as Hollywood’s numbers always are—gotta screw everyone!—and Box Office Mojo says the movie only made $45M, but the point stands. It was hugely popular.

"Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face..."

“I come from a land from a faraway place where the caravan camels roam…”

There aren’t a lot of 3:40 minute movies I can bring myself to watch, but once again, I feel like this is a movie I could easily watch again. The Boy, too, was very excited by it, because there was so much he had missed the first time around. It is just an amazing picture on so many levels.

Ben Mankiewicz said there was a $100,000 screen-test done with Albert Finney. You look out on the desert and see the hundreds, maybe thousands of people, all camping out in the desert. (There probably were some mattes in there, but there were definitely a LOT of people, too.) You hear Jarré’s unforgettable score, with the theme played approximately a zillion times in the four hours, and you just get an amazing sense of competence at every level combined with no meager aesthetic brilliance.

It is a wonder.

This bit didn't work for him quite as well as he got older.

Oh, Florence.

The Divine Fury

An atheist MMA fighter develops stigmata and ends up punching demons for Jesus? How can you not love that premise? Well, I’ll tell you how: You can be a mainstream critic.

I don’t have any review sites I visit regularly any more: IMDB became fairly worthless years ago, and Metacritic (which I probably hit the most these days) has a system that tends to put everything into a narrow band of “meh”. After the Captain Marvel fiasco, it was apparent that Rotten Tomatoes is essentially owned by Disney and SJWs—and, honestly, long before that, they seemed to be rating nearly every big Hollywood release as good or great or The Best Movie Ever.

But RT shall be forever remembered as the home of the “Jesus split”: Any movie featuring the merest mention of Jesus was going to get at least a 30-point hit from the critics. I noticed that The Divine Fury had a whopping 89/38 split, and I was sold. I mean, even more sold, because again: atheist MMA fighter who punches demons.

Hell, I'd assemble the "expendables" of exorcists.

You’re gonna need an old priest and a young priest. Don’t ask why, you just are.

Of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. Yong-hoo is a boy who lives with (and adores) his policeman father. One day at church, the priest mentions prayer and he asks his dad if he didn’t love his mom, who died in childbirth. The father is startled and asked why, and the boy tells him, well, if he prayed enough, she’d have lived. Now, the father replies that he thinks the mother just prayed harder for Yong-hoo’s well-being, which is sort of a slippery slope theologically speaking, but perhaps understandable under the circumstances.

Inevitably, the father ends up being injured by a street-racing villain (who also happens to be possessed) and Yong-hoo prays fervently with the priest to keep his dad alive. But, alas, the father dies anyway and Yong-hoo renounces God in a quite dramatic fashion. And ever more “sees red” whenever he comes into contact with The Cross.

I mean, his eyes glow red. I don’t know if it was meant literally but it’s shown literally. And Yong-hoo hears voices. Like, Friday the 13th-style voices.

So, not really an atheist, though hardly the first person to claim the mantle of “atheist” when they just hate God.

At least you're not a Jew. Those guys are always being chosen.

I’d be put out, too.

Anyway, Yong-hoo ends up with stigmata. They don’t hurt or get infected. They just won’t heal, and they do tend to, em, ebb and flow, as it were, sometimes bleeding a lot more than others. He ends up going to a Korean astrologer—his driver gives this amusing spiel, and we are reminded that Korea is simultaneously very Christian and very pagan (see The Wailing)—and the astrologer tells him to go to this church that night, where a man would help him.

And when he gets there, what should be going on in that church but a good, old-fashioned exorcism! And it’s going badly. Lo and behold, Yong-hoo discovers, in the natural course of events, that his stigmata are instant exorcism-ers. He also discovers that a cross and blessings from the old Father (Sung Ki-Ahn) stop the voices in his head and allow him to get some sleep without all those demon-infested nightmares.

So, there’s your movie: Action exorcisms plus story arc as our hero learns not to blame or hate God for not giving him what we wanted.

You can't rule out possession EVER in a movie like this.

Is she possessed? Or is her mother just crazy (or possessed)?

Much like Roar (which we saw the same day), it’s not great but it’s good, solid fun. It doesn’t hate you, moviegoer, and for all the Christian references—I mean, we’re performing exorcisms, here—it isn’t preachy. Obviously, the critics have to hate it because it’s full of Our Father’s and Hail Mary’s and holy water and rosary beads and all that, and it generally validates the notion that there is Good and Evil and Christian clergy are on the side of Good, while drug-addled materialistic blood-sacrificing cultists are on the side of Evil. This passes for controversial among the smart class, I guess.

But The Boy liked it. And The Flower, who is not used to double-features, also liked it a great deal (more than Roar). Seo-Joon Park (who had a small role in Be With You) is a likable hero, even when he’s being tempted by demons to violence. Do-Hwan Woo is appropriately evil as the…well, I’m not sure what he was, exactly. I think he was human but he was so vested with demonic powers, he might as well have been human. Seung-Joon Lee has a nice role as the father.

Worth a watch, if you’re in the mood and not a Christophobe.

This one's for you!

If you love punching…

The Battle: Roar to Victory

At one point, most of the Korean movies we had seen were about Japan invading, or about evil Japanese occupiers, etc. (Last year’s The Great Battle was different in that it was China that was invading.) It’s probably not true any more but we can say confidently that the Evil Japan Well is not one the Koreans are afraid to go to. That said, if The Battle: Roar to Victory stands out, it’s because it deeps very drinkly of that well, indeed.

Villainous monsters shrouded in—nah, I just couldn’t find a good image. Maybe I should go to Korean Google?

The movie is about a 1920 battle where a ragtag bunch of farmers, thieves and merchants delivered a blow to the Japanese Imperial Army by luring them into a deep gorge where, if all goes well, they will be set upon by the more regular forces. Our farmer’s army—a concept beloved to any American—is already tormenting the Japanese with their guerrilla attacks when they find themselves couriering money to Manchuria to keep the resistance forces alive. Well, not couriering so much as providing cover for the couriers.

Honestly, I couldn’t quite figure this part out. The money has to get through or the war is over (for the Koreans) but it seems like that money has no actual impact on the story of the battle itself. It’s not like the money gets through and then a bunch of soldiers say, “OK, we’re in.” Maybe it was for longer term issues. I’d probably know if I were Korean.

Well, I lost it, anyway.

“Here’s where we’ll lose the plot.”

Our hero is the always charming Yoo Hae-jin (the criminal in Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission, 1987: When The Day Comes) who’s kind of like a Korean Lee Marvin. We see his character in a flashback when some Japanese soldiers blow up his little brother, who sacrifices his life for him. Now he’s running this bunch of fighters, and doing the occasional official mission while harassing the Japanese as circumstances permit. A lot of the regular army think the band really are just thieves (and some of them were in the past) so they don’t have a lot of support.

By contrast, Lee Jang-ha (Jun-yeol Ryu, Little Forest, Believer, A Heart Blackened) is a young, serious man on some kind of mysterious mission that seems to be related to the money but then maybe isn’t, and he’s doing a lot of risky stuff.

There’s a bunch of military maneuvering in the movie which I could follow pretty well. About the end of the movie, when it seemed like maybe this early plotting wasn’t going to pay off, they recapped it and tied everything together, which was nice. I assume this was a natural extension of the fact that this battle actually happened, but it helped make sense out of things.

Clive Owen, "Sin City"

“And things seemed to be going so well.”

The overall vibe is kind of The Expendables-ish in that (per The Boy), the characters never felt endangered. This gets Rambo-esque at the end as Yoo’s character charges through artillery fire without a scratch or hesitation. The characters are likable, however, and it’s fun to watch them interact. Jo Woo-jin (1987Rampant) is particularly enjoyable as the former-thief current-sniper pal of Yoo, who is exasperated by Yoo’s complete inability to hit anything with a bullet. Yoo’s swordfighting also makes for some fun moments. There’s apparently a big cameo at the end but I didn’t really get it because, hey, not that up on my Korean culture.

It’s fun. It’s patriotic. Makes you proud to be a Korean. It reminded me a bit of Warriors of the Dawn (the movie that started it all) but lacks the same sort of realism. Still worth checking out, though.

Permanent...friends. Wait, what?

Yoo Hae-Jin about to make friends with some tourists.

Ready Or Not

Part of the problem with modern Hollywood fare is that, not only are the movies terrible—or at least terribly bland—the trailers are awful. You can’t tell whether you want to see a movie because the trailers are all the same and they all seem to spoil whatever meager surprise the movie might have in store. In the case of Ready or Not, for example, there are no less than two accidental murders (“accidental murders” makes sense in context) shown which set the tone, yes, but also spoil a lot of the early jokes. And AMC is showing 20+ minutes of trailers now, not to mention pre-trailer “content” as if we didn’t all have so much consarn content in our lives we actually needed more.

I do. Sorta.

I swear, it’s less of a commitment these days to get married than to go to a show.

But I sat through one of these 20 minute trailer/torture sessions and learned the following:

  • LOUD is EXCITING!
  • LOUD is DRAMATIC!
  • LOUD is FUNNY!
  • LOUD is SCARY!
  • LOUD is EVERYTHING!

I mean, I assume that 1) I’m an old man, and; 2) young whippersnappers today are just hollering their heads off while texting on their gizmos instead of paying attention to the (awful, awful) trailers. But the aggressive loudness and corporate sameness of the trailers actually makes the current crop of movies look worse than they probably are.

But, hell, I pay my $25/month tithe to AMC so I’m gonna see a damned movie, no matter how awful. And I had a feeling that this one might be to my taste, as I love a good black comedy—or even a bad one, to be honest. (I’m not as picky as my critique might suggest.)

And? Well, Ready or Not was good. It’s not gonna knock your socks off by any means, but it’s fun and well-made, and (as The Boy) pointed out, made by people who seemed to actually care about what’s going on.

Because she cares.

Andie MacDowell, looking like she cares. (She does, but she’s gonna kill you anyway.)

The story is simple: Grace (Samra Weaving, Three Billboards Outside Ebbings, Montana) has married Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien, Arrival) and per family tradition, the new member must play a game. Alex’s very wealthy family runs a gaming dominion—board games, quaintly enough—and this is just one of their little quirks. Why, the two most recently married siblings played Old Maid and chess. How charming!

But Grace gets “Hide and Seek”, and as the movie opener shows, in hide-and-seek, the new member hides and the rest of the family seeks—and kills—the hapless newlywed. This happened 30 years earlier and we see Alex’s older brother Daniel (played in adult form by Adam Brody, Yoga Hosers) protecting him from viewing the murder or participating. (Daniel is now an alcoholic jerk who likes to hit on Grace.)

Anyway, this is your set up: A bunch of rich people and their servants chasing Grace around a mansion and points beyond.

It never does.

It doesn’t end well for the servants.

The story raises a lot of questions, of course: We can gloss over the whole underlying question of why would anyone do this, though the movie gives us a premise that is serviceable enough for the genre. But what the movie does rather well is address the emotional “why”. Why would Alex, who presumably genuinely loves Grace, put her into this situation? The movie gives us several possible answers all while raising a lot of absolutely necessary questions regarding Alex’s character. This creates some good tension.

And it’s the sort of thing that The Boy and I talk about when we say “somebody cared”. It’s easy enough to have some cool effects and thrilling moments all piled up into a hash. But when you treat your characters with a certain amount of respect—not just as vehicles for plot points—you get what we call “a real movie”.

For example, it’s very clear that none of the Le Domases really wants to do this. They feel they must. And they’re not especially competent—a fact highlighted in the over-revealing trailer—which leads to the darker comedic moments. But they all have different reactions to their fates.

Alex’s mom, Becky (played by Andie Macdowell, whom I liked better here at 60 than I did in heyday in the ’90s) is really nice to Grace and seems to really mean it. But she also really means it when she sets out to kill her—for the family. Meanwhile, brother-in-law Fitch (Kristian Bruun, Mark O’Brien’s co-star in How To Plan An Orgy In A Small Town), is very much on the fence as to whether or not the murder is really necessary. By contrast, Daniel’s wife Charity (the very hot Elyse Levesque, who shares credits with Bruun on “Orphan Black”) is in the “better safe than sorry” camp.

A great wedding picture.

L-to-R: Bruun, Melanie Scrofano (who plays Bruun’s drug-addled wife), Henry Czerny (as papa Le Domas), MacDowell and Levesque.

In other words, from a comical/comic-book premise, we get characters who act how people might actually act in such bizarre circumstances. So you end up caring. That means that when Grace suffers, you feel some of that pain. When she nearly gets away, you root for her to make it that last mile. When she stops one of her attackers, you’re happy for her, in sort of a grim way. This is a hard thing to do in black comedy, which has a tendency to flatten characters out to make some sort of ironic point.

I realized how it was going to play out just before the climax of the film, but at the point where there was only one reasonable dramatic choice, so it kept me guessing as long as it could—without ruining itself by trying to add a shocking twist! I could tell from the beats how the denouement was going to go as well, and it was a bit…garish…I guess you’d call it? But it was probably the only thing a modern audience would’ve accepted, so no points deducted there.

Co-directors and frequent collaborators Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett have only one other feature under their belt, the disappointing Devil’s Due. But if they can pull off a movie like this—and it does seem to be doing well—they have a bright future ahead.
For instance.

As bright as a bride on the morning after her wedding.

Rifftrax: The Giant Spider Invasion

It’s probably difficult to imagine in our climate-hysterical modern days but the ’70s had it all over us in the “nature gone amok” genre. In classic pagan tradition, nature was just a generally malicious thing whether it was killer bees or earthquakes—but one way or another she was pissed and we were gonna pay. If the $15M box office for this $300K movie is accurate, Bill Rebane’s Wisconsin-based magnum opus finished ahead of The French Connection II and The Eiger Sanction but behind the Bronson/Ireland thriller Breakout and the Burt Reynold’s comedy W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen The Giant Spider Invasion. It was a staple of late night T.V. when I was growing up. It’s weird and funny and kind of amazing that it achieved what it did at the budget it had—on an apparently disastrous shoot where spiders didn’t work and guys hiding in VW vans were suffocating while trying to move spider arms, and things weren’t breaking down or blowing up when they should, only when they might actually hurt someone.

Desperate times.

And this would always be part of the teaser. Only it was grainier.

Alan Hale (Jr.) plays a small town sheriff who barely leaves his office (classic low budget trick) and Barbara Hale (no relation) plays a scientist who comes with a fellow scientist (longtime TV actor Steve Brodie) to discover what fell from the sky into a pasture in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, it fell in the farm of (veteran character actor) Robert Eaton and (TV legend) Leslie Parrish, the former of whom is a jerk and the town whore’s #1 customer, and the latter of whom is an alcoholic (and not precisely a prostitute but certainly a cheap date). The meteor-ish object that hits the ground is full of geodes that may or may not be diamonds—movie characters repeatedly say they’re not but also demonstrate complete unreliability.

It’s the sort of plot that would lead to murder and mayhem in most circumstances, but here it all just leads to spiders. Lots and lots of spiders. (Oh, and there’s a preacher who interacts with literally none of the movie’s characters, though the characters do reference him a lot.)

Ouch.

The actors did their own stunts, which is somehow more amusing than the usual B-movie case where it’s very obvious they don’t.

And these are some gorgeous spiders, too. I actually felt a little bad for them, being in this movie. Tarantulas are not really show-biz people, and they get buffeted around and dropped onto people and I think it was a good edit, but it looks like one gets squashed with an iron. The girl in her underwear squashing the tarantula with the iron was usually the scene they’d show when this movie was going to be on “The Late, Late Show” or whatever.

But the fake spiders are great, too. Cars in tarantula costumes. Puppets of some kind. I’m still not sure how they did the scene with the giant spider in the street. I guess it was more of a marionette, but while it’s completely unconvincing on any level, it’s fun. Which sort of sums up this movie.

Giant spiders!

It’s a shame making this wasn’t as fun as it looked.

This is great riffing material and Mike, Bill and Kevin do a great job here. There’s a lot of good guffaws and giggles, and there are plenty of moments—especially in the opening short which is all done with the creepiest marionettes and is about using the telephone sensibly—where no commentary is needed.

Kevin Murphy has another great song for this one, too, in the style of Neil Young, called “Giant Spider on the Highway”. Worth watching!

Funny.

“Well, it’s 9AM somewhere.”

The King’s Letters

The Koreans? They don’t appreciate what they got, frankly. The Boy (and His Girl) and I had carted The Flower down to the OC for a day-long artistic boot camp, and we trundled over to the Orange County version of Koreatown (which I guess is, uh, Buena Park?) to see this historical drama—and a wildly entertaining action film, Exit, that trounced this one at the box office. We saw this one first because we figured Exit would be more light and fun (it was) but I came out of this thinking: Why can’t we get movies like this in America?

It's a mystery!

15th Century Korean King Sejong tries to figure out why modern American movies suck.

This is a historical drama based on a theory of how Korea got its alphabet. The premise is that Korea is under China’s thumb. The Confucian ministers are speaking Chinese in court (until the King corrects them) and presenting documents in Chinese. But the King, who is the literate type, is frustrated because the books he has written—writing books is a kingly thing in Korea if the movies are to be believed—are in Chinese and (therefore) impossible for his own people to read.

He wants to create a Korean alphabet but he’s stymied because all he has to go on are Chinese phonetics. While he’s fretting over this, a Japanese contingent comes and says, “Hey, give us your tripitaka.” The tripitaka is the Buddhist scriptures, carved in wooden blocks, and the King is astounded. “You want our national treasure?” he asks disbelievingly. They say, “Yeah, you guys are Confucians anyway, so either hand ’em over or just kill us ’cause we can’t go back without them.”

The king demurs to do either and is told by one of his counselors that the only one who can help him solve is alphabet problem is a pig-headed Buddhist monk named Shinmi.

Speaking as a smart jerk.

He’s smart. He’s a jerk. Smart jerks are the worst.

The backstory appears to be that the country had had a caste of Buddhist clerics who ran everything and became rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. Some bloody fights and accusations of (and convictions for) treason later, the Buddhists have all been replaced by Confucian monks—who have become rich and powerful and neglectful of their duty. (All Korean historical dramas—and, actually, most Korean movies we see—are essentially about The Swamp.) Anyway, the Confucians are seriously no help because: a) they’re colluding with the Chinese; b) as long as reading and writing is hard, they can maintain their power.

So, the King meets with Shinmi, who is pissed off—his father was killed as a traitor—but sees in the opportunity a way to restore Buddhism to the country. And so he helps the process by informing the King that the answer to his troubles is in the tripitaka—written in Sanskrit, a phonetic language.

What proceeds from there is essentially an ensemble movie, where each member of the team—the monks, the king, the queen, the courtiers, and the ladies—all work together to create an elegant alphabet while undergoing the various dramas of their lives. One of the monks is a young man, for example, and one of the ladies of the court is quite taken with him, and the two end up exchanging notes drawn into the courtyard dirt (in the new Korean alphabet). One of the monks has a vow of silence, which makes the fact that he has considerable insight into things the others are missing very frustrating for him. The Queen, a Buddhist whose father was killed by the King’s father, is challenged by Shinmi who seems to completely miss the fact that the King and Queen, for all their families’ political struggles, are genuinely in love. Which doesn’t mean that their son doesn’t have to act as an intermediary between them during the occasional quarrel.

Sad.

The late Jeon-Mi Soon plays The Queen.

The King is a rich character himself. Suffering from diabetes and going blind (and dying) during the process, he is determined to have a Korea where every peasant can read and write, so the damned clergy can’t take advantage of them any more. Humiliated on the one hand by having to kowtow to China, and exasperated on the other because he’d rather be a scholar than a king, he has to navigate the moods of his Confucian monks—who apparently can impeach him!

Everyone contributes to the process, with egos and pride and political intrigue working against them the whole time. And the message is constant throughout: Korea is its people. The mistake of all the ruling class is forgetting that. And the thing is, this is more or less a fantasy. I don’t mean it’s not well-researched. But it’s legendary, mythical and nationalistic. No “other side” is presented here: We don’t get the Japanese POV or the Chinese POV. It’s Joeson or Joehome. (Heh. Korean pun. Joeson = longest running Korean dynasty.)

Not to sound like a broken record but America needs stories like that and we used to have them. Walt Disney used to trade in this sort of American legendry with Things like Johnny Tremain and “Elfego Baca: Attorney At Law”. Hollywood did generally, too: Young Mr. Lincoln, Plymouth Rock, and even things like Gone with the Wind or Birth of a Nation. Wait, strike that last one.

But then again, maybe don’t: Maybe the case against these kinds of movies is that they can whitewash (no pun or social relevance intended) history. This excuse is uncompelling to me. The fact that something can be done poorly, naively or maliciously should not dissuade us from doing those things. It just means we should be competent, canny and approach the task with a good heart. The only real argument for eliminating patriotism is the belief that a country shouldn’t exist. Which, I’m afraid, is where we stand after decades of internalized anti-American propaganda.

Slickly produced, and perfectly acted (even if the characters are somewhat stock), including the final performance by Jeon Mi-Sun (as the Queen), the movie is controversial in Korea because it was accused of plagiarism and almost prevented from release. But also—more interestingly—because some people feel that the movie downplays the King’s actual contributions in favor of the fictitious Buddhist monk. I don’t have a horse in this race, obviously, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were fighting in America over whether or not a recent movie on (say) the making of the Constitution downplayed Madison in favor of Jefferson?

And it barely cracked the top 10 in Korea behind #1 (EXIT) and #2 (The Divine Fury, which also looks great). Also behind, #6 Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs, which is a story about a girl whose magic shoes make her slender, and therefore beautiful, the trailer for which is making heads explode here in the U.S. Tell me Korea doesn’t have a far more interesting movie machine than ours.

"Ey" not "ayyyeee"!

I’m just trying to imagine this scene in “My Fair Lady”.

 

EXIT

If The King’s Letters was the sort of film that couldn’t be made in America because patriotism is considered toxic, EXIT is the sort of film that can’t be made because we have no sense of humor any more that we are aware of. This is an action-comedy film that actually manages to balance both well and keep you both laughing and in suspense.

I'm gonna keep quoting MiB...forever.

“Oh, no! Someone made an offensive joke.”

Our hero is Yong-nam. When we meet him, he’s being ogled by the old ladies in the park as he does a routine on the iron bars. But that’s about all the love he gets: A group of kids, including his own nephew, see him and refer to him as “IBM”: Iron Bar Man. (I have no idea how that translates, even after watching The King’s Letters.) His nephew pretends not to know him, and we see that he’s basically a loser.

There’s not a huge amount of back story here. He was a competitive mountain climber in college, and good at it even though he gets beaten by his crush Eui-Joo. She also LJBFs him, and it’s not really spelled out if this is the reason for it, but in the subsequent five years, things have not gone well for Yong-nam. Living with (and taking abuse from) his parents, berated by his meddling sister, no job, no prospects, no real ambition, and hung up on this 5-year-passed crush so much that he schedules his mother’s 70th birthday to be held at The Dream Garden, because Eui-Joo works there. (And he immediately tries, unsuccessfully, to fool her into thinking he’s not a loser.)

Up till now, we have a wacky dysfunctional-family comedy in that Korean fashion where everyone’s a little bit mean, very emotional, exaggerated—much like the horror movie The Host. And then a terrorist smashes a truck full of toxic chemicals into a building down the street, creating a poisonous cloud that is building up in the streets and rising upward. Yong-nam saves his sister and nephew’s life when they run down a street and try to escape in a car, but people are dying left and right rather horribly.

Girrrrl!

Toxic gas is…hilarious!

This is the kind of tonal shift that the Koreans and Japanese do so well and it works because, while the characters are comical in a lot of ways, they are meant to be real. You sympathize with Yong-nam, even as you want to slap some sense into him. The parents, the sister—they all do what they do from a place of love. You want them to live.

I don’t need to tell you, I hope, that Yong-nam has to save the day by climbing. And working with Eui-joo, they get everyone to the roof and rescued by the helicopter. Except there isn’t room for both of them. When the basket takes off, she gives a speech about how, being the (recently promoted) hotel vice manager, the guests have to come first. Meanwhile she’s crying under her breath “I wanted to get in the basket.”

I mean.

The Korean LJBF zone is the worst LJBF zone.

And that’s kind of the running theme throughout: The two of them perform increasingly daring stunts, but they are terrified each time. And about the third time they sacrifice themselves so that others might live, they start to get kind of hysterical and pissed off. Yong-nam has an actual tantrum at one point, when it looks like death is certain. The movie isn’t afraid to showcase their skills while still giving them more than a modicum of humanity. At one point, when Eui-Joo thinks Yong-nam has abandoned her, she boldly scales the side of a small wall to get away from the poisonous gas—only to find Yong-nam climbing up a ladder on the other side (one she could have easily reached) with gas masks.

In the end, it is the Korean people who give our heroes their last shot by way of a flock of drones they’ve flown in to watch the two survivors struggle. And while you kind of assume that they’re going to survive—this is meant to be a fun summer action flick after all—you don’t really know because, hey, Korean. They’re not afraid to mix up some spice with their sweet.

It was a whole lot of fun and I don’t expect to see a better new movie this summer.

Soooo Asian!

Climbing up the building with the help of the excellent Mr. Giant Crab.

A Job Who Is Near Us

And sometimes you end up feeling like an idiot. To wit, you see a movie title like “A Job Who Is Near Us” and you think, “Huh, some kind of pidgin-y thing going on? Maybe reflecting an underclass struggling to get by or something.” And then you realize, as the opening quotes for the movie unfold, that it’s not “jaaaahb” but “johhhhhb”. Job.

As in The Book Of.

So you’ve just walked blind into a Christian inspirational film about a Korean man in his late ’30s who serves as a deacon in his church who discovers he has stage 4 cancer. Then his wife, who has just given birth to their first child, also has stage 4 cancer. Then his mother commits suicide. And then he beats the cancer, but it comes back.

And so on.

And through it all, what? Well, our deacon keeps his faith in God. With each recurrence of cancer, he doubles down, though the pain gets worse each time, and the prognosis as well. They start recording moments in his day-to-day life because he’s still going out, being inspirational and telling him he couldn’t get through this without his love for Jesus.

He really does change, as you might imagine. With each succeeding recurrence, he seems to be more at peace in a lot of ways. Not wanting to die, clearly, but increasingly more because he knows how hard it will be on his mother, and how much he wants to be there for his daughter.

Not gonna lie: Some parts of the theology made more sense to me than other parts. But when he’s on his deathbed (spoilers?) as all the people he inspired come to see him, and when he’s looking at his daughter blow out her third birthday candles, and when he’s telling his wife if he had to do it all over again, he would be better at loving her—well, there are no dry eyes in the house.

And it’s powerful to know that he’s in extreme pain but refusing morphine because he can’t understand the scripture when he’s on morphine.

It’s not a long movie but it’s a hard watch and I’m not sure whom I would recommend it to. But I was glad I had seen it.

How many times do you have to beat cancer?

Happiness is relative.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Three or four years ago, I noticed that TCM was showing classics on the Big Screen. Then someone told me that the Regency theater right next to the office was showing an “old” movie every Tuesday (where “old” meant anything from the ’80s to the occasional ’40s/’50s classic, like White Christmas). There were Friday showings at the local Tristone. And then I discovered that our beloved local theater chain (The Laemmle) was having a “throwback Thursday”. And so, for the least 3 1/2-4 years, I have carted around The Flower, The Boy and The Boy’s Girl to all of these movies that were either very good, or at least had some sort of cultural significance.

Early on one of these trips, I said, “Enjoy it now, because this will pass.” Because showing classic movies is inexplicably (to me) a matter of fashion. It was hugely popular when I was a kid with entire theaters devoted to revivals and cult movies, but TCM (ironically enough) killed that as a business model. (“Why go out when you can stay in?” is most people’s thinking, I imagine. Mine is “Why stay in when you can go out?” at least as far as movies go.) But since then, I have seen classic series show up at theaters, only to be canceled after a few months or years.

TCM’s Big Screen Classic is still going strong (also ironic, perhaps). The Regency stopped showing classics last summer, with a brief (tepid) revival for Halloween and Christmas. Tristone sputtered out last year. And when we showed up to The Wicker Man, we were informed this was the last “Throwback Thursday” with some friendly but meaningless corporate-speak about how they were going to maybe possibly relaunch sometime in the future. No real explanation but I presume they make a lot more money renting out the theaters to the myriad, endless film festivals than selling to even a packed house.

Where's Rutger Hauer when we need him?

Gone, like tears in the rain—er, wicker men in the flames.

For the past few years, two thirds of our 135-150 theater viewings have been classics and, frankly, it’s been great. You want to see CGI Will Smith as a genie? Or better, Cary Grant and Myrna Loy outwit themselves while building a house!

It’s sort of fitting that the last showing was The Wicker Man because this 1973 Edward Woodward/Christopher Lee musical has a kind of apocalyptic, end-of-an-era feel. I hadn’t seen it in about 40 years and recalled it as being a counter-cultural paean, a mockery of the old values. But it’s not that at all. I also didn’t remember it was a musical. But the characters do, in fact, break out into (poorly auditorily integrated, ’70s-style over-produced) songs.

The story is this: The officious (and devout) Sergeant Howie (Woodward) receives an anonymous letter from Summerisle, a small Scottish island, saying that a young girl (about 12) has been missing for a year. Summerisle is a sort of cloud-cuckoo land, however, where everyone acts a little queer and he get no straight answers to his questions. Instead, he gets vagueness, contradictions and outright lies. (Even the missing girl’s mother pretends she doesn’t know who the girl is. Later, when confronted, she’s positively blasé about her death.)

He is further provoked by the bizarre behavior of the islanders, which is outrageously pagan. There is open prostitution and promiscuity, with virgin boys being deflowered by the innkeeper’s daughter (Britt Ekland, whose body double does a rather provocative naked dance at once point). There are rituals involving maypoles, jumping through fires, and maybe, just maybe human sacrifice.

Those Swedish gals.

If I posted nothing but pictures of Britt Ekland (and her body double) here, would anyone judge me? Probably. So here’s one of the few pictures of her with clothes on.

This is all justified by the stentorian Lord Summerisle (Lee), who justifies it with an interesting history and a lot of sophistry. The history is that when his grandfather came to the island, it grew nothing and its people had despaired of escaping their poverty. With his understanding of agriculture—and by indulging the pagan inclinations of the populace—he managed to turn the island into a happy, productive place.

It’s really a shaggy dog story.

It’s meant to be a horror movie, and it works in a low key way. Howie never seems to realize that he’s in any sort of peril, despite the obvious madness of the islanders. And it is portrayed as such here. The story is sympathetic, on some level, to the Summerisle people—but without pretending they have any higher rationality or spirituality. They’re degraded, and worshipping tree spirits and forces of nature to resolve their problems. And that they have no particular qualms with sacrifice is apparent.

The fact that Howie is shielded by the crown and feels invincible does reduce the aura of menace, but also makes for a stomach-dropping conclusion.

How do you prance naked over a fire in a leotard?

The isles are chilly. Wear a leotard.

Woodward and Lee are terrific. Ekland (dubbed since her Swedish accent would stand out, and body-doubled because she didn’t like her own butt) is charmingly seductive. Robin Hardy’s direction of Anthony Shaffer’s script produces a lot of dreamlike sequences (many of which were left on the cutting room floor, for better or worse) and an aura of “realistic fantasy”.

Certain scenes—like Howie wandering around at night watching all the public air fornication—are going to be basically invisible on TV. By contrast, the girls jumping “naked” through the fire are very clearly wearing body stockings on a modern high-def screen.

The music (pop songs by “Corn Rig”) is as dated as you’d expect but not unbearable.

The only movie I’ve ever seen that starts with The Eucharist, but one of several (sometimes surprising) films in recent viewings with heavy use of Christian iconography. (Others include The Return of Martin GuerreAnnabelle Comes Home and A Job Near To Us.)

We liked it, though it was with a heavy heart that we left the theater: What the hell are we going to watch now?

It's grim.

Entering the cinematic graveyard of contemporary films.

The Other Story

It is harder to entice The Flower to the movies these days. She’s got a lot going on (as young ladies will) and has opted for an early-to-bed, early-to-rise strategy which she will break—but only if sufficiently motivated. Fortunately, she didn’t have to break it here, since we saw this show on a weekend afternoon, but she was all in for this Israeli movie about a young (formerly atheist) woman whose parents are scheming to split her up with her orthodox Jewish boyfriend. As part of their scheme, they enlist her in watching a similarly young, formerly orthodox woman who has fallen in with literal pagans.

Hence, “the other story”. By Avi Nesher, the director of The Matchmaker, this has all the nuance you’d want from such a difficult story.

Recursive.

Jews feeling uncomfortable amidst the Jews.

Our protagonist is Yonatan (Yuval Segal, FaudaZero Motivation) who has returned from the States after a long absence from Israel. His dad, Shlomo (Sasson Gabai, GETT: The Trial of Viviane AnsalemThe Band’s Visit) has summoned him at the behest of his ex-wife Tali (Maya Dagan, Matchmaker) because she is deeply offended by her daughter Anat (Joy Rieger, Live and Become) who has turned away from a righteous atheistic (or at least so-liberal-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-goyim) lifestyle to a deeply orthodox one.

As hostile as Shlomo and Tali are toward religion, Yonatan is more circumspect. His ex- (understandably) and his father (perhaps less so) both paint a picture of him as a master manipulator, a near sociopathic engineer of getting what he wants from people. We never actually see this, as though Yonatan has changed in his time away.

That said, we learn Anat attempted suicide at her bot-mitzvah because Yonatan did not show up. And her life went to ruins when he fled to the U.S., with their only communication being an email every now and again. And we learn that she and her boyfriend were quite the sinners (if I may use Christian parlance) before their severe conversion. The boyfriend is a famous pop star, and the two made racy music videos (as one does), as well as having lots of pre-marital sex, getting high, and doing who knows what else.

It gets a little raunchy.

Improper care and handling of a motor vehicle, perhaps.

Shlomo says to Yonatan (basically), “Since you’re here, why don’t you help me with these couples I have to counsel before they can get a divorce?” Yonatan demurs, since he hasn’t been in practice for a while, having focused on writing books and engineering some kind of social prediction program back in the states, but Shlomo insists and soon Yonatan is counseling a traditional Jewish (conservative but not orthodox, I think) couple, where the woman is not merely resentful but seems somewhat unhinged and the man seems like a nice guy, just a little dweeby and maybe a bit dense. He’s convinced his wife is going to offer his son up as a human sacrifice at one of her pagan rituals.

Nesher artfully moves the story around from character to character: Anat’s pop-star husband is surrounded by groupies, but he keeps his distance, with his other bandmates making sure there are no hangers-on. This makes his conversion seem more genuine, but probing reveals he goes to a dodgy pharmacy in East Jerusalem (apparently the Israeli version of Canadian Drug Websites). Our newly pagan wife has plans to alienate the husband’s son from him as soon as they’re divorced—but on the other hand, he thinks she’s planning to literally kill the son, and his fear drives him to the movie’s most desperate act. Shlomo, while not crazy about Anat’s conversion, has his own hidden motives for calling Yonatan back to Israel. Yonatan himself has his own secret, his own motivations, and his own reasons for his relative contemplativeness.

Anat is certainly the most sincere and straightforward among them all, but at the same time she’s reacting: To her father’s abandonment, to the secular worldview of her mother and grandfather, to the emptiness of the hedonistic lifestyle.

Not everybody with forelocks is a rabbi!

Maybe you’d like to tell the rabbi? (What do you mean he’s not a rabbi?)

It’s a beautiful thing to see it all play out. Nesher eschews the sensational in his storytelling while fully respecting the human tendency to veer toward the dramatic. As a result, he can show everyone with all their flaws without making a cartoon villain out of them. You come away understanding the characters and, shall we say, forgiving their trespasses in the  hopes that your own trespasses will be also be forgiven.

Easily in the top 5 movies this year to date.

Should you do nothing?

Sometimes you gotta do whatever to stop your daughter from marrying a schmuck, I guess.

The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)

“That was very French—but in a good way!” So sayeth The Flower after we emerged from this classic French film about a man who returns from the war after many years a much better and much changed fellow. He’s so changed, in fact, that he becomes a relatively young and slim Gerard Depardieu, two attributes I have never really associated with Depardieu. This may, in fact, have been his “breakthrough” role for Americans. (There was a time French actors actually became semi-famous in America for being in French films. Then they’d do some American films and, well, usually go right back to doing French films.)

Much like King Tut.

The ladies like his style.

Our story, allegedly based on fact—actually, let’s unravel this a little because it’s kind of confusing: In 1941, author Janet Lewis published a novella called The Wife of Martin Guerre. This served as the basis for the movie, co-written by historienne Natalie Zemon Davis, who subsequently went on to write the novel The Return of Martin Guerre. Both those ladies were American (Davis apparently claims partial Canadian status but we’ll allow it), yet the very Frenchness of the story makes it not at all surprising that they would pick this idea up first. (The American version Somersby, when it was eventually made, featured Jodie Foster and Richard Gere at their heights and was not remembered well enough to be forgotten.)

Anyway, our story is that Martin Guerre marries Bertrand de Rois (Nathalie Baye, Catch Me If You Can) in what seems to be a felicitous arrangement for their families, but Guerre is a jerk. Young and impotent, many weird medieval remedies are applied to get him to, y’know, fertilize his wife. (This is a huge deal.) He succeeds and a son is conceived.

Then he runs off.

Many years later (seven or eight) he returns. “Here I am,” he says, “don’t you know me?” And one by one, the villagers all decide he is, in fact, Martin Guerre. Now, we, the audience, know it’s not Martin Guerre because we’ve seen Martin Guerre and he was no Gerard Depardieu. And there are a few suspicious lapses. But you know, maybe that’s just a movie thing. I mean, after all, the guy we knew was a skinny young teenager and Depardieu is in his 30s by this point, so maybe it is him.

But it can’t be him, not really, or you’d have no movie, right?

Looks like a Rembrandt.

Nathalie Baye doesn’t like my logic, but she can’t refute it!

Still, the movie expertly convinces us that it is him. Everything goes well for years, in fact, until Martin confronts his uncle (who has married his mother) over some family property. That’s pretty convincing, right? If you were an impostor, the last thing you’d do is bring attention to yourself. But even with us being pretty sure that it’s not Martin, the uncle is a bit of a fiend and certainly dishonest in his dealings with Martin, so you sorta do begin to suspect that it is Martin and the whole specter is being raised by the uncle to keep control of this property.

There’s even a hearing in the small village in which Martin definitively proves his identity. And you think, well, okay, maybe it’s him and maybe he’s just getting away with it, but good enough either way. But then the dastardly uncle forces (or forges) an accusation out of Martin’s wife and the whole thing goes to trial again in the big city of—I forget which, but it’s not Paris. It’s actually a pretty small town but all the witnesses have to relocate for the duration of the trial and they gawp at all the huge buildings…I mean, there’s like a three story building in there…and make their beds in various barns and what-have-yous.

The movie feels very authentic in this regard. The villagers are quasi-pagan in a lot of their rituals despite the omnipresent church. The villages are dirty and often the villagers are as well, but director Daniel Vigne never misses a chance to show the beautiful countryside and doesn’t wallow in the degradation of the people. A lot of them are as rough as you’d expect them to be, but never as squalid as you’d see in (say) a Terry Gilliam film. He’s very much about the decency of the people in difficult times, without glamorizing it.

It boils down to an unusual and very French love story, told with conviction and without a Hollywood sentimentality. We all liked it without reservation (cf. The Crime of Monsieur Lange).

Oh, no.

“Point is, there’s a happy ending, r—What? Let me see that script!”

Annabelle Comes Home

I was stuck in the OC for a limited time and, with a couple of movies to burn (in order to try to get my $25/mo out of the AMC Stubs membership), I found Annabelle Comes Home was playing at an opportune time. There was also a Chinese film called Dancing Elephant that, in complete ignorance, I would’ve rather seen, but when I got to the Orange 30—that’s right, thirty screens—I couldn’t remember what it was and I didn’t see it on the marquee. (I think they had half on one side and half on the other.) After I got my ticket to this, I figured I still had a good shot of catching Dancing Elephant (something I wouldn’t ordinarily do, but I felt justified) only to discover all the interior marquees were off, leaving me no way to tell which screen was playing it. After checking about 12 in the wing of the theater was in, I conceded defeat and settled down to the latest entry in the Warren-verse.

The Chinese take no prisoners when it comes to comedy.

Dancing Elephant is a comedy about a 13yo girl who goes into a coma and wakes up 15 years later grieved to discover she’s fat and old and will never realize her dream of being a dancer and now I’m really bummed I missed it.

This five year series consists of seven movies grossing $1.9B cumulatively and is the second highest grossing horror franchise next to Godzilla. And so it’s as bland and uninspired as you would imagine, as all the “cinematic universe” movies are. The epitome of “porridge”. But I wasn’t expecting brilliance.

I expected four things, basically: atmosphere with the threat being represented a general air of menace (not the same as atmosphere), reasonably interesting characters, some jump scares and a modicum of Christian iconography. The real Warrens were Catholic, I believe, and fought boogens the old-fashioned way: with crucifixes and holy water.

Two-and-a-half outta four ain’t great, but it ain’t horrible.

The story takes place after the stinger in the last Annabelle movie which I think may be the end of the first Annabelle movie (which we didn’t see). The Warrens take the doll home and put it in their Room Of Evil Artifacts, only to decide it still had power if you just let it hang out, so they put it behind the glass from a tabernacle of a demolished church. The sensitive Lorraine assures everyone that “the evil is contained”. (Someone asks “why don’t you just destroy it?” and Ed just shakes his head condescendingly, which I sorta enjoyed.)

In a move any B-movie would be proud of, the Warrens then run off to their next adventure leaving their much-less-expensive-to-have-on-screen daughter Judy at home with the doll and a Very Responsible Dresses Like Marcia Brady babysitter, Mary Ellen. Playing Veronica to Mary Ellen’s Betty is the feisty brunette Daniela, whose tough exterior is just a front for her grief over losing her dad. Bob, the good kid who works in the grocery store has a thing for Mary Ellen, and rounds out the cast for our adventures.

'cause, see....they look like those '70s characters...

L to R: Marcia Brady, Barbara Cooper and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Hey, Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga aren’t cheap, I’m sure, and the kids (I presume) who go see these things would rather see some young cuties cosplaying the ’70s and shrieking their heads off than the serious, intense, sorta sad older people. Anyway, this is how you make a low-budget horror flick for…27 million? Holy cow.

I’m not sure if there’s some pandering going on here or what, but this sorta feels like it’s “Stranger Things” for the ’70s. The movie really seems to enjoy its callbacks: corded phones, board games, small screened but otherwise bulky TVs showing “Captain Kangaroo”, “The Dating Game”, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and I think a horror movie at one point, but that might’ve just been more “Dating Game” clips. It’s charming enough and manages to evoke the ’70s without being sleazy like the actual ’70s version of the movie would have been. (Mary Ellen and Daniela, e.g., are nice to look at but aren’t wearing revealing clothes or put in provocative poses.)

I do have to call BS on the premise that Judy, the Warren’s daughter, not having friends or being able to get birthday guests because her parents were exorcists. That stuff was lit in the ’70s. (One of the more popular “board games” of the ’70s being “Ouija”—not at all a game, but just an actual Ouija board. From Parker Brothers!) Daniela’s fascination would’ve been the norm. Also, one of the kids rejects her invitation by saying, “My parents say I’m not ready to process death yet.” It was an intentionally funny line, but more of an ’80s thing. The ’70s were more your parents slowing down the car a little as they push you out the door with “Wedon’tknowtheWarrensbuttheyseemniceandanywayyouaregoingtohavetodealwithweirdoswhenyougrowupsopickyouupinfourhours!”

Parents were not at their best.

The ’70s: “Oh, look! The new babysitter brought you a doll!”

Anyway, the key point is that Daniela, who knows not what she does, opens the glass case. This frees Annabelle to do mischief. The Annabelle movies are not—very wisely—genuine “creepy doll” movies: Annabelle is not animated. You never see her move unless gravity is the proximal cause. She shows up places and bad things happen around her. It’s as good an excuse for a “funhouse” horror flick where things happen purely for effect because the boogen in question feeds on fear (or whatever).

The first half of the movie is a nice ramp-up with good characters, and the last half is all spooky stuff, which was also a nice choice. There’s a good variation on the “stick your hand in the box” thing, similar to Phantasm but with a twist. (The Warrens, amusingly enough, have two Feely Meely games: One for playing, and on in the Artifact Room that is clearly possessed.)

So, if the acting is good, and it is—the girls are all seasoned veterans of shows I’ve never heard of, much like Kaya Scoledario from Crawl—and the characters are good, which they are—Daniela is sympathetic, for all her mischief, and even Bob proves his worth—and there are good choices made narratively, and reasonable feeling artistic choices (unlike some of the cheaty-feeling bits of The Curse of La Llorona) why am I so “meh” about it?

Hey, it's the '70s!

TFW you find your parents “home movies”.

It goes back to what I said up front: This movie is porridge. It’s skillfully made porridge, no doubt. But there is very little surprise to be had here. A good funhouse horror flick uses its license to do literally anything to present you with some outrageous imagery or mind-bending concept, and we get very little of that here. And I’d go even further to suggest stuff like that really isn’t wanted, either by studios or audiences.

As bad as it is for the regular load of Disney/Marvel gruel, it’s worse for horror movies. Very few genuinely scary horror flicks make money big box office. Psycho, The Exorcist and The Shining being the only exceptions I can think of, unless you want to count Jaws as well, which I consider an adventure film. But to the extent that people like being scared, the general audience tolerance is low. So this movie will make back about ten times its budget (worldwide) and we’ll get the next seven movies in the franchise which will also doubtless be competently made blandness.

And that’s a little hard to get excited about.

Crawl

One of the horde had mentioned this creature feature to me and I had the idea that I liked the director (Alexandre Aja, Horns) so I told The Boy I was going to see it and he tagged along. AMC’s stubs ($25/month for up to three movies a week) would be a fabulous deal if AMC actually showed movies I wanted to see, but for us it’s also kind of a way to see movies we’re meh about because they’re “free”.

Harsh but fair.

This sign is more interesting than the movies playing at the AMC.

It’s a simple enough plot: Kaya Scodelario (I dunno…Maze Runner or the Clash of the Titans remake, or some crap like that) plays Haley, a college girl who swims well enough to be on the team (and get a scholarship, as we later learn). When we meet her, she loses her relay, and we flash back to her father (Barry Pepper, who was also in one of the Maze Runner movies as well as True Grit) coaching her aggressively as a child, and we quickly learn the relationship between the two.

He’s pig-headed and tough. She’s also pig-headed and tough. And they’re not talking at the moment.

This does not keep her from defying a roadblock to check on him after her more popular, likable, prettier (arguably, of course), married-with-children sister calls her up to say he’s in the path of an oncoming hurricane and not picking up his phone. When she goes to investigate his crappy condo, she finds his dog but not him. So she goes to recently sold family home where she finds him unconscious in the basement—with some highly suspicious looking teeth marks in his body.

OK, they’re not suspicious at all, they’re alligator teeth marks. (Or maybe crocodile teeth. Some member of the crocodylia order, anyway.)

You’re already kind of liking Haley, for all her pigheadedness and, let’s be honest, unwarranted pride that she is immune to hurricanes. (A lot of L.A. people think they’re immune to earthquakes *kaff* so I could relate.) And we like her even more as we realize she’s going to try to drag her unconscious dad out of the basement because it’s flooding and there’s no guarantee anyone will get to them in time.

That’s when she meets the gator in question.

What follows for the next hour or so is a game of cat-and-mouse. Or gator-and-swimmer. Or rather gator-and-swimmer-and-dad, because he wakes up. Or, really, swimmer-and-dad-versus-an-infinite-number-of-alligators, ’cause it turns out that the house is comically close to a gator farm that’s been flooded.

I mean it’s darkly comic, really, but are we going to split hairs, here? A lot of great horror has its foundation in humor gone awry.

Screenwriting 101

Amateurs save the cat. Professionals save the dog.

There’s not much more to say about this, really: It’s suspenseful. It plays its hand pretty well, we thought, overall.  You don’t want to see the principles die, which is of course not true of a lot of horror movies, and Pepper and Scoledario make for a convincing father/daughter team. When the threat ends, the movie ends, no wrap-up or filling in the dramatic blanks or nothing. Just roll credits.

In the words of the great Roger Corman: “Monster’s dead. Movie’s over.”

Still the audience was sort of shocked by this which, I think, tells you something about the attention paid to the characters on the one hand, and on the other how little deviance from established formulae the average moviegoer is expecting these days. The cinematography (by Maxime Alexandre, no relation) was good, and the score (by Max Aruj and Steffen Thum) even stood out in a few places—in a good way—which is also increasingly uncommon.

I mean, it works, so I’ll take it. Not gonna blow anyone away, but you can do far worse this season, and not much better. The Boy approved. My next well-I-gotta-go-see-something-at-AMC movie would be Annabelle Comes Home, which would end up unfortunately typifying the porridge of the year.

They're like the reptilian uncanny valley.

The cool thing about alligators is that real ones look so fake, the movie ones don’t look much different.

Violence Voyager

The Boy refused to say this was the greatest movie he’d ever seen. In fact, I’m not even sure that he said it was good—because, in any conventional sense, it is not—but he did say it was inspired madness that ranked it among the highest cinematic experiences he had had. And I can’t argue with that. At least not the “inspired madness”.

Almost false advertising.

The most normal moment in the movie, probably.

It was my fault we went to see this one-man project, and in fairness, I picked it precisely because it was the sort of weird little thing we enjoy. But what, exactly, is it? Well, if you search the web, you’ll see the claim that it was filmed in “gekimation” but is “gekimation” a real thing? I do not think so.

What filmmaker/manic Ujicha (yes, only one name) did was set up little backdrops through which he moved cut-outs of his characters through. He’s literally playing with dolls, in other words. Now, to his credit, you never see his hands (or whatever implements he used to create motion) but you cannot help but “see” them, as the characters bob up-and-down exactly as they would if you were watching a child put on a show. And at one point, when a creature is supposed to be dropping down through a portal, it’s very clear it’s being held by the (off-screen) edge and just dropped through. At times, the characters have liquids (bodily fluids) splashed on them or forced out through holes.

It is a truly transparent artifice. But one for which I was grateful when we started seeing rows-and-rows of naked pre-pubescent children corpses.

WTH.

Which is not even close to the weirdest part of the movie.

There aren’t all that many different poses and expressions for the characters, and they seem somewhat off at times. Thankfully, the voice-acting wasn’t just Ujichi doing all the voices and the Japanese cast is pretty high-powered. We saw the English dub which had some recognizable names as well.

The story goes something like this: Two boys (ignoring the warnings of wise elders) take a mountain pass to see a pal who has moved to a different village when they stumble across a ramshackle amusement park, the titular “Violence Voyager”. They are permitted to choose weapons (squirt guns) and instructed to fight the aliens (cheesy cut-outs that pop out at them). Ultimately they’re trapped in one of the attractions, where things start to get even weirder.

I say “even weirder” because, beyond the whole bizarro presentation, one of the boys has a waffle for a head. I mean, he’s got a pattern on his head like he was struck by a waffle iron. (His little brother has the same pattern!) What does it mean? Absolutely nothing, per Ujicha. He just liked the character design.

He's got his dolphin, though, so he's good.

Quite the character design.

But as they stumble around this cheesy amusement park attraction, they come across peers who have been trapped for days and transmogrified into horrible monsters. Why? Well, I think this is the old “Convert some poor sap’s body into a vehicle for your deformed/dead loved one” bit (a la The Brain That Wouldn’t Die or a zillion other ’50s/’60s B-movies) but there’s no real logic here. It feels, most of the time, like a genuine nightmare: Weird, disconcerting, and complete nonsense.

At various points, our hero encounters, let’s see: a cat, a bat and a chimpanzee. By the end of the movie, they’re fighting like teams of an impromptu superhero group.

It’s astoundingly childish. I mean, top-to-bottom: presentation, story, dialog, character motivations, and a weird ambiguity as to the characters ages. Like, they look like grade school kids. And, I mean, we see all of them naked which (under normal cinematic circumstances) provides clues as to age. But the boys’ pal—the one they were going to visit—was actually there on a date with his girlfriend. I mean, I guess twelve-year-olds might go on unsupervised dates into the woods with their girlfriends in Japan?

When we get some exposition, it turns out the kids were there because the authorities weren’t interested in missing children. So, to preserve their “journalistic integrity”—as an eight-year-old girl explains—they embark on their journey through the park without any adults. At one point, the hero’s father comes after him, and he takes the hero’s pal’s little brother along, because the only parents shown in the movie are the hero’s and the mad scientist.

Remember “The Naked Lunch” tagline? “Exterminate All Rational Thought”? Pshaw. Peanuts.

It all comes across as a juvenile nightmare. The Boy absolutely loved it. (We had gone after our late night work meeting and he had no regrets.) I…well, my feelings were mixed, to say the least. I was glad we had gone to see it, but I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed it. I found the artwork so hard to parse sometimes that it was difficult for me to figure out who was speaking from time-to-time (mouths don’t move, of course) or to figure out what action was supposed to have taken place (but couldn’t be shown because cutout dolls don’t really interact well).

The hero ends up transmogrified early on, but the movie assures us that his mother still loves him and he conquered whatever difficulties came his way for the rest of his life. So that’s nice.

Check it out?

Huh.

This is a picture of three of the good guys.

Dead Man (1995)

This was the last of the Jarmusch flicks, and the apex of his budgets as well, possibly excluding the recent The Dead Don’t Die. And I think it shows that, given a budget, well, Jarmusch is gonna give you a lot of names (could they possibly be working for more than scale? and why?) no matter how brief or gratuitous.

He's got a few lines.

Names like: Robert Mitchum!

Case in point, this tale of William Blake (Johnny Depp, at the peak of his “doing weird Indie stuff” years), an accountant who travels to Machin (Oregon?) after the death of his parents, only to find that due to his delay, his job (working for Robert Mitchum!) has long been given away (per a toadying John Hurt). A brief dalliance with Thel (played by the beautiful Mili Avital) results in the murderous ire of Gabriel Byrne (I’m skipping character names, people are in this so briefly) which results in death for Mili and Gabriel and a delayed death for Johnny Depp, who goes on the run, since Byrne was Mitchum’s son.

The Dead Man of the movie, therefore is Depp, who has a bullet lodged near his heart and must flee the various villains Mitchum (whom we never see again) sends after him. Other celebrities with small roles: Iggy Pop, Steve Buscemi, Billy Bob Thornton, Crispin Glover and Alfred Molina as a bigoted Christian icon salesman out in the middle of nowhere.

The primary mover of the story, however, is Nobody, played by iconic character actor Gary Farmer who leads Depp deeper into the wilderness, helping him conquer his foes, only to vanish and leave him alone at the worst time, but then to re-appear again and help Depp finish his journey, in which he more-or-less kills him.

Nobody loves you when you're down and out.

Gary Farmer, “Nobody”.

The ending has Nobody pushing Blake off in a boat into the ocean. He’s not dead yet. But Nobody thinks that William Blake is the William Blake, the 18th century poet/artist and that, therefore, Depp is his ghost. I mean, spoilers don’t really matter much for a movie like this, but Nobody dies sending him out on that boat while killing the last bounty hunter out to get him.

Nice, if simple, camerawork. Black and white gives things an otherworldly feel. This was the only film not to have music provide not by John Lure nor Tom Waits. Neil Young, of all people, provides the soundtrack. Again, the Boy and I enjoyed it. It’s odd. It’s…well, it’s Jarmuschian. Deadpan, kinda funny, kinda interesting, no real message to be had. If you like Jarmusch, you won’t be disappointed, and this particular one may have broader appeal as it gives the sensation of a traditional story arc.

I mean. Maybe.

Johnny Depp may have used the same wig for Willy Wonka.

It doesn’t actually have a story arc, mind you. If Blake is our protagonist, while he goes through some remarkable changes he doesn’t really have an arc. He starts out with a blind thrust into the unknown, which kills him, and on his journey toward physical death, he discovers a more survival-oriented side to his nature—but even in the end, he’s passively pushed out to sea by his best and only friend who doesn’t understand that he’s not a ghost.

This would probably irritate the crap out of a lot of people, come to think of it, and the movie grossed a whopping $1M on its $9M budget. But The Boy and I enjoyed it precisely because it’s arranged along a more aesthetic logic and less conventionally predictable.

"I'm a big fan of your work!"

“Gabriel Byrne?! What are you doing here?!”

Mystery Train (1989)

The third in our Jarmusch-on-the-Loosh festival, this is the only genuine anthology, and makes more sense under its working title One Night In Memphis. It is the stories of three parties visiting Memphis, Tennessee: A Japanese couple who are obsessed with the Memphis music scene (she, especially, Elvis, he more Carl Perkins—though it’s possible he’s just being contrary), an Italian widow who finds herself sharing a room with a hard-luck chatty girl, and selfsame chatty girl’s not-husband who ends up rolling around the city getting into trouble with a couple of pals because he’s despondent she’s left him.

The first story is about Mitsuko and Jun, a young couple traveling across America, putting together a scrapbook of iconic Americana. Jun is a despondent, desultory character, enough to perplex the more chirpy Mitsuko. Their relationship is so prickly and distant, I thought they were brother and sister for a while. A late story sex scene with pillow-talk disabused me of that, and is the closest thing we get to overt revelation of character. Jun is rapidly finished with their encounter, and Mitsuko apparently unsatisfied. Jun says, “Mitsuko, do women…always worry about their hairstyle?”

It's for an odd, quirky reason, though.

I can’t remember why he’s wearing the lipstick, though.

I thought the implied end of the sentence was “orgasm” but she doesn’t pick up on it, and instead berates him for not shaving more. (“But I shaved two days ago!”)

The second story is about Luisa (Nicolette Braschi) who, for no explained reason, is in Memphis with the coffin of her husband. Her good nature is gently abused by local Tennessee-ans culminating with her staying at the same flophouse the Japanese couple is, and ending up going halfsies on a room with Dee-dee, a flighty girl fleeing from her husband, who is in fact her boyfriend, and is inexplicably English. We learn all about Dee Dee and virtually nothing about the much more intriguing Luisa, because she can’t get a word in edgewise.

The only time she manages to get anything out, it’s to re-tell “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” that a local used to scam her out of $20. The Memphis version has Elvis as the hitch-hiker, naturally, which leads to the high point of the film. But Luisa doesn’t even get to finish the story because Dee Dee, of course, has heard it before.

At least he didn't skin her and eat her.

Tom Noonan (Manhunter, Last Action Hero) scams the polite Luisa.

The last story concerns Johnny (the late Joe Strummer, drummer for The Clash), Will (the late character actor Rick Aviles) and Charlie (Steve Buscemi, who mysteriously still lives). Johnny’s despondent over the loss of Dee Dee (and his job) and his pal Will calls in Charlie when Johnny starts waving a piece around. The three of them end up driving around Memphis, drinking more and more (a theme carried over from previous films), until Johnny gets the bright idea to stop for more booze and ends up shooting the guy behind the counter.

They end up ducking for cover in the same flophouse as the previous two stories, and several unexplained events from those stories are resolved here.

It's just a flesh wound.

The end of a long night.

The bellboy at the hotel is Cinque Lee (Spike’s brother) and the clerk is none other than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (who provided the song, “I Put A Spell On You”)  that the Hungarian heroine of Stranger Than Paradise was obsessed with). Other nice Jarmuschiverse tie-ins are John Lurie (of both Paradise and Down By Law) doing the music and Tom Wait (also from Law) providing the DJing over the radio.

Jarmusch had a $2.8M budget and netted a whopping $1.5M in the US, which suggests a pattern. A pattern unheeded by the producers of the last movie in the series: Dead Man. It was the only one shot in color, though the color is on a pretty narrow band, with so much being shot at night.

We enjoyed it, especially for an anthology. But again, it’s not hard to see why Jarmusch lacks a broader audience.

I put a spell on y—on your sister.

Cinque Lee and Screamin’ Jay!

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Not to be confused with the 1956 film, Godzilla COMMA King of the Monsters, this is more of a remake of the 1964 film, Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster. I didn’t really want to see it, but the Barbarienne…well, her tastes diverge greatly from mine, and a dad’s gotta dad. The Boy and I were kind of “…maybe?…” about it, but a “…maybe?…” means “No, unless we’re desperate” and these days our relative busy-ness is high enough to just forgo a movie rather than see something porridge-y. And, well, yeah. It’s more-or-less what you’d expect. No surprises, nothing challenging, just competently done oatmeal.

Bravo

2019 CGI devoted to making Godzilla authentic-looking, i.e., like a dude in a rubber suit.

Kind of a shame, considering director Michael Dougherty did the wonderful Krampus movie a while back.

The most common refrain about the movie is that “the monster parts are good and the human parts are not, but there aren’t many of them.” Truthfully, though, the monster parts are okay and the human parts are distractingly bad. I mean, you don’t think you’re going to lose the plot in a Godzilla movie, but none of it made a lick of sense to me and now I have to try to explain it to you.

The protagonists/antagonists of this story are the Russell family who were not in the 2014 Godzilla (and of course weren’t in the ’60s-based Kong: Skull Island). Honestly, I didn’t remember them not being in it. The movie sorta had me convinced they (Vera Farmiga and Kyle Chandler) were in the 2014 movie but I honestly didn’t care and it’s probably easier to watch this movie without ever realizing it’s part of a “cinematic universe”. Anyway, the Russell’s work on communicating with kaiju—they’ve built a device that is like a whale-sound generator that actually can control monsters—and ended up losing a child in Godzilla’s last rampage.

Which, don’t you kind of remember that? I kinda do, but it’s probably one of those Sinbad-plays-a-genie things. And the fact that as movies get increasingly generic and wound up in epic catastrophic CGI events, it gets harder and harder to tell them apart. (Not just epic-catastrophic-CGI-events, either: The same thing happens when any genre becomes dominant, like romantic comedies or westerns.)

Nothing matters.

This might be from the movie or it might be a promotional rendering or fan art or a cut scene from a video game.

Anyway, the kaiju control team Monarch has all the biguns monitored across the earth, most frozen in ice or whatever, and they’re being raked over the coals by Congress because they want to keep Godzilla alive…for reasons they don’t really explain. But in the giant rubber monster movies of yore, Godzilla ends up having a purpose because he can protect from other, REALLY bad monsters. I’m not sure why Monarch doesn’t mention this but maybe it’s because at this point, nobody but them (and the human villains) know about Ghidorah.

Anyway, the Russell’s machine falls into the hands of the human villains, there’s a (very early) heel turn where one of the good guys turns out to be on the villainous side, and the whole plan, apparently, is to unleash All The Monsters so that—and I am not making this up—they will bring balance to the earth. Now, I confess, I missed this bit of exposition because I was getting the Barb a popcorn refill, but we were both really unclear on how 17 or so giant monsters were going to “bring balance”. (Maybe they have heretofore hidden ecological powers?) And the slight flaw in this plan—if you can believe such an airtight plan has a flaw—is Monster Zero, a.k.a. Ghidorah who steals Godzilla’s Alpha Kaiju Crown and thus commands the lesser kaiju and apparently is just a vehicle for terraforming (presumably for jump-suited aliens, if I recall my rubber-suit-monster lore). Wait, I guess that would “xenoforming”.

It’s a good metaphor for environmentalists who want to destroy all of humanity to restore the Earth to some previous pristine era. But I sorta don’t think it was meant that way. Actually, it’s a really good metaphor: “Hey, let us control everything and destroy everything we don’t like and that will make things perfect.” But movie narratives usually require more coherent and convincing plots than real life.

Security is lax.

It’s “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day at the kaiju factory.

Look, the giant monster genre has got a lot of built-in limitations. I think it’s possible to create an effective giant monster horror movie, like Cloverfield, by focusing on the human survival aspect. But that’s not what this genre is about. The horror aspect is quickly swamped by the spectacle. (Note the original Godzilla with footage of lots of suffering people with radiation burns has its own unique effect which is quickly abandoned in later films.) The problem that emerges quickly from the endless sequels is that monsters become not just less horrifying, they become downright goofy. (“Gamera is friend to all the children!”)

Fine for kiddie-fare, I suppose, though grossly at odds with the whole mass murder thing—at least in modern terms of trying to make kiddie fare hyper-realistic. Point is, this movie starts veering into the goofy, as the spectacle of the treacherous Rodan, the faithful Mothra, and a few of the other weirdos congregating with Godzilla is swamped by the fact they’re bowing down to him in a positively courtly manner.

The CGI is okay. It’s constantly rainy and dark (due to Ghidorah’s xenoforming) and I was amused but not uncharmed by the fact that state-of-the-art 2019 CGI can reasonably simulate a guy walking in a rubber suit. That’s really what it looks like, and it sorta has to, or it ceases to look like Godzilla. But the seams were pretty apparent in the movie and I suspect it won’t be long before all this stuff evokes the same chortles that the old rubber-suit stuff did.

The Barb liked it, though, so good enough.

Murky.

This is pretty exciting, though, right? The blob on the left is going to attack the one on the right, maybe? Or is asking it to make it a sandwich.

Funan

We followed up our Korean action/procedural/thriller with this simply animated story of the Khmer Rouge and—have you ever noticed that there are no Khmer Rouge apologists? Like, people (actively online) make excuses for the mass murdering champions of human history, the USSR and China, they make excuses for Cuba, they’ve forgotten Venezuela as much as they can, but you still find a few people saying the US (or the Jews, always the Jews) are responsible for Venezuela’s current situation, and yet nobody ever says “Well, the Khmer Rouge’s heart was in the right place.” I mean, The Killing Fields won three Oscars back in 1984 and starred reliable leftist Sam Waterston—but none of that bears on the merits of socialism, apparently, nor the wisdom of withdrawing from Vietnam.

Look, ma! I'm memeing!

This is fine.

Odd, that.

Be that as it may, this reminded The Boy and I of The Missing Picture, the 2013 documentary where a man relates the horrors he experienced under the Khmer Rouge through wooden carvings. This film, from France, tells the story of a middle-class family—which has its troubles but ultimately food and work and family and a place to live—that is driven from the city, ostensibly due to some evil invading force but really just to round everyone up for slaves on the communal farms. (Hey,it  worked for Stalin, right?)

The story is that our protagonists lose their young son in the migration, and the mother (Berenice Bejo, The Artist) is determined to be reunited with him (often putting unreasonable demands on her husband and others). As members of their family (and a few friends they manage to keep) fall victim to the brutality of socialism, and the mother continues to be rebuked by her overlords with (“How dare you think you can do a better job than the state at raising your child?”, which is an all-too-common refrain in “free” countries today). Ultimately they look to escape to Thailand, which is a journey fraught with peril, and with no certain safety once they get there.

Communism is great for weight loss.

You can never be too thin or too collective.

There’s not a lot to say here really: The movie does a better job, perhaps, than The Missing Picture (which was from the perspective of a young child) at showing the humanity of those who were swept up in Communism. (For all their murderous cruelty, they were still human.) As such, there are a more moments of subversive heroism where people caught up in the system realize, “What have we done, O Lord?” And for all that, they are never able to reverse it. You can vote totalitarianism in but you can’t vote it out.

It’s good. It’s worth seeing. Much like The Missing Picture, the medium mitigates some of the horror, which makes the movie more watchable and is, I think, fine if you’re not considering it a full historical picture. Still, it wasn’t a fun ride, even if it is a necessary one.

Cue the Creedence.

There goes the neighborhood. Again.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

Every now and again you get a Korean (but never Chinese) movie that’s been ripped from the headlines! I assume the dedication to accuracy is about the same there as here. Which, there (as here), is fine if it’s in the service of a good story. And this one works out to be a pretty good one.

The premise is this: There’s a serial killer (the Devil) who’s going around killing random middle-aged men but the ever-corrupt-and-incompetent Korean police department refuses to acknowledge it. Our hero (the Cop) is the only one who sees the pattern and he’s being put off by his police chief for two reasons: First, some of those murders happened outside his jurisdiction, so clearing those cases doesn’t even help his stats; Second, the chief is pissed off because the detective keeps busting this pachinko-running gang headed by the titular Gangster.

And he is! Just not in this movie!

He seems nice.

I saw where this was going almost right away. The serial killer’s MO is to rear-end some guy on an abandoned road and, while he’s preoccupied taking pictures, to stab the bejeezus out of him. So, of course, he picks the Gangster as his would-be victim, but said Gangster is a serious bad-ass and nearly kills him. The Gangster ends up in the hospital, which triggers a gang war, and the suspicions of the Cop but of course Gangster has zero confidence in the police. (I mean, he knows how easy it is to buy them off, right?)

It ends up being a kind of “buddy picture” with the Cop and the Detective pooling leads while trying to beat each other to the final capture. Because if the Gangster gets him first, he’ll kill him. If the Cop gets him, he’ll arrest and get the glory for closing a bunch of cases at once. (Also, less selfishly, if they don’t get a confession out of this guy, they may never really know how many people he killed.)

Lotta punchy.

Deals, and people, being struck.

We saw this shortly after John Wick 3, and were favorably impressed by the action scenes. The choreography wasn’t that glitzy but it felt like—given the parameters of a bunch of mooks attacking a couple of hard targets—things hurt a little more, were a little more realistic or at least not so fantastic as to break suspension of disbelief. Also, there are only a few moments of this mixed in with a great many moments of genuine suspense as The Devil movies along trying to escape detection but increasingly less concerned about his neat little M.O. of only killing middle-aged dudes on abandoned roads. By the end, he seems to be killing everyone who crosses his path if he thinks he can get away with it.

The acting is good, with The Gangster being played by Dong-seok Ma (the lovable star of Champion and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, among others) and what works well here is that while he’s intrinsically fairly charming his character’s ruthlessness is well portrayed here. I mean, he’s not a good guy, though he does have a code. At one point, this code requires him to personally extract an uppity underling’s front teeth manually. The Cop is played by Mu-yeol Kim, who had a role in the movie that started it* all, Warriors of the Dawn; He plays very well off Ma. The Devil is played by Sung-Kyu Kim who had a small role in The Accidental Detective 2: In Action, and is very solid here as a maniac.

Flunk

“Try not to look suspicious! Try not to look suspicious! Try not to look suspicious!”

It scales up to what are eventually fairly absurd levels, but it also brings everything back in with a character-based twist, as The Gangster and The Cop have to slug it out to see who gets The Devil, and ultimately have to work together, after a fashion. We enjoyed it a great deal. After the Doris Day double-feature, this was a similar case where we wished we had seen this first and Funan second—and not because Funan wasn’t good.

*In this case, “it” is the Korean movie watching.

 

Down By Law (1986)

The second movie in our Jarmuschian journey was, in the end, the best The Boy and I both agreed. We would be a duo for all four of these films, but of the four, this was probably the one we’d most likely recommend to more “normie” moviegoers.

Right?

Thee prisoners playing “Go Fish”. Delightful!

The story starts out threefold: First, Zack the pimp (John Lurie) is tricked into thinking he’s going to get a new girl only to discover that the girl is literally a girl—pre-pubsecent—just as the cops are walking in. Second, drunk and broken-hearted Jack (Tom Waits)—girlfriend Ellen Barkin throws him out after he loses his radio DJ job—takes an offer for a $1,000 to “just drive” a fancy car across town, only to be pulled over by the cops who have tipped off that there’s a dead body in the trunk. Finally, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) is an Italian tourist who we see briefly prior to Tom Waits’ drive, soliciting information on how to speak American phrases properly—information the drunken Waits doesn’t really provide, as you might imagine.

Roberto is the last to come to the jail cell where Jack and Zack have met, and ironically he’s in for a murder which he actually did commit (unlike the other two who were set up). It’s essentially a self-defense situation but still: When a man throws a pool ball at you, you probably should think twice before throwing it back, especially if you’re a really good shot.

Or it's just an average day in N'orlens.

Tom Waits re-considers Ellen Barkin as a romantic option.

Jack and Zack are surly and competitive in weird ways, doing the tough guy prison schtick from day one. Roberto on the other hand is basically unleashed Benigni and he brings a lot of energy and humor to the story that keeps it from being quite as deadpan as the other Jarmusch flicks. For example, he starts a little riff on “scream” which ends up with them chanting “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice scream”. It seems dopey but it raises to the level of a prison riot in a kind of hilarious fashion.

I sort of assumed the rest of the movie was going to take place in the tiny cell the three shared but much to my surprise there’s a second act where they break free from jail and end up floating around the bayou trying to keep away from the law. Jack and Zack continue their weird competition and surly ways with Benigni still vamping hilariously. (Benigni tells a story of how his mom served him his pet rabbit which is apparently a true life story.)

Sounds like a Linda Ronstadt song.

The three actually spend a fair amount of time floating in the bayou.

In the final act, they stumble across (of all things) an Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, staffed by a lone, beautiful girl who just happens to be Nicoletta Braschi. Braschi, who would also appear in next week’s Jarmusch flick Mystery Train, is Benigni’s real life wife and was his co-star in Life is Beautiful. So it’s love at first site and surprisingly plausible given the “aesthetic imbalance”. And so Roberto finds a home deep in the bayou while Jack and Zack end up going their separate ways.

It’s the most lively of the films, and beautifully shot (in black-and-white as most Jarmusch movies of the time were). Lurie provides the music again, with songs by Wait. It’s not a tight movie by any means but it is engaging and worth a look. If you don’t like it, you probably aren’t going to like any Jarmusch.

How can you NOT love Benigni?

A happy ending for the guy who probably most deserves it?

John Wick 3: Parabellum

If you’ll recall, I had to go solo for the first John Wick movie, much to The Boy’s later dismay. But it looked like just-another-dopey-shooty-action-movie, and those are a hard sell for him. The Boy, The Flower and I all went to see John Wick 2, of course. I wasn’t sure that it was quite as good as the first one. Specifically, the expanded universe thing was fun but such things are always hazardous. (See: every sequel Pixar has ever made.) It seemed unlikely to me that the third movie in the Wick series would be anywhere near as good as the first two: Cinematic lightning, as we all know, almost never strikes three times. (The Toy Story trilogy is, I have argued, the only good trilogy in American cinematic history.)

I keed.

At an early dress rehearsal before they had guns.

So how was John Wick 3? Well, I thought it was okay, if a little dull. The Flower loved it. The Boy hated it.

And there you go. Our first three-way split since the Persian A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

I think we can agree that the opening fight scene was the best fight of the movie. It was excitingly choreographed and very much in keeping with the spirit of the rest of the movies. But The Boy and I both felt that after that, they seemed more like things that just happened in sequence. That might’ve been saved had the choreography been as engaging, but then again, perhaps the choreography couldn’t be as engaging because instead of hinting at a rich, mysterious history, we get little data points that remove the mystery without being especially clarifying.

For example, we find out Wick’s history: He seems to have been some sort of Slavic (Russian?) orphan who was raised in an assassin/ballet school by Anjelica Huston. He’s owed a number of favors, which is the only way he can survive now that he has been declared excommunicado. And to get out of his predicament, he has to go see the Big Cheese (I forget what they call him in the movie, but he’s the Big Bad, the Cheese, the Head Honcho of the Underworld), and he agrees to become a (metaphorical) dog to that guy.

(Shades of Matrix 2.)

That opening sequence is REALLY good.

Now, it had already taken us too long to get there. We had a whole unnecessary segment involving Halle Berry. She does okay but she doesn’t have Reeves elan as an action hero. (Catwoman should have been evidence enough for that.) But together they go visit a guy who, predictably, betrays them and yet despite being deep in his fortress, getting out for them is super easy, barely an inconvenience. It was one thing in the first movie when the Russian mobsters didn’t know they were dealing with John Wick, but here we’re talking about a general in this Underground army.

I feel like the second movie didn’t rely quite so heavily on disposable baddies. And in the long run this segment with Berry amounts to nothing, unless it pays off in the inevitable sequel.

But then, when you get there, I feel like Wick is diminished by dealing with the Big Boss. The secondary plot is that Mr. Big (Mr. Boss?) has sent his heavies around to all the people who helped John Wick, because that was in violation of the rules. Their fates seemed sort of random to us. The Adjuticator is played by Asia Kate Dillon, whose character is a dubious choice: She comes off like a hall monitor, ineffably smug because she’s protected by Mr. Big. This wasn’t fun, but I sort of imagine that it’s going to pay off in the next movie, when she is horribly murdered.

But that’s not a great payoff, honestly. Mostly, if Wick has an adversary worthy of the name, they’re more or less cool or menacing. Supercilious is a bad look. Given how many death sentences she delivers, it was inconceivable to me that one of them wouldn’t just kill her.

Probably what pushed me into the “Meh” category was the end, which I can’t discuss without SPOILERS, so beware if you care.

You end up wearing a suit in the desert.

This is what happens with no leash laws.

In the end, Winston (Ian McShane) does a heel turn, ambushing John Wick (who apparently lost his plot armor) and shooting him off the top of a building. So he’s riddled with bullets and falls 22 stories (the Flatiron building in NYC) but I don’t need to tell you he lives. None of this worked for me: Winston has put himself out for the entire movie, and the previous one, but all of a sudden flips on Wick. (Wick, by the way, was given the assignment to kill Winston, but instead defends him. And it’s only after this defense that McShane flips). It’s possible that this is a decoy heel turn—in fact, it seems impossible that it isn’t a decoy, but if so they’re cheating by selling this turn at points when no one (other than audience) is watching.

But if it’s not a decoy, John Wick was shot a bazillion times (though they have the super bullet-proof armor-cloth) and fell 22 stories. So he’s basically indestructible unless there was some secret plot to mitigate some of the apparent damage he took. I don’t see a good way out.

But when you get down to it, the battles are the song-and-dance of this movie, and that mostly didn’t work for me or The Boy. But it did work for The Flower, which probably gives you a sense of who is or isn’t going to like this.

Bill & Ted 3 gonna be LIT!

Don’t be Sad Keanu. We still love you.

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

The theme for the month of June was Jim Jarmusch—Jarmusch is on the loosh! as we would come to say—as a build up to the disastrous new film The Dead Don’t Die. I mean, I think we can say it’s disastrous, being critically meh’ed and publicly reviled, and raking in about $5M with a cast that includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton and on and on. I’m guessing the budget was in the 8 digits, though at this point I can’t imagine a responsible person giving Jarmusch $10M to make a movie unless he was just a big fan and $10M was a trifle. I mean, I could see myself doing it if I had a $200M warchest, for example. (But not if I had to answer to stockholders.)

Or don't.

THRILL! To a couple of young people watching TV at night.

I’m not saying he’s bad, mind you. The Boy and I enjoyed all four of the films shown (which were all but his generally-regarded-as-best Night on Earth). N.B., however, that it was just the two of us—The Flower needs more motivation these days to stay out late—and we wouldn’t recommend the films for everyone. Stranger In Paradise was the weakest of the four films, one of the two “triptychs” (along with Mystery Train) though in this case tied together with the same three characters.

Part 1: Hungarian Eva stops by Cousin Willie’s (John Lurie, who did the music) place in New York City on her way to their aunt in Cleveland. Auntie has a hospital stay, however, and Eva stays with Willie for a week or two, smoking cigarettes and shoplifting. Though Willie is outright hostile at first, the very cute Eva (Eszter Ballint) wins him over, and especially wins over his pal Eddie. (Eddie is played by the very distinctive looking Richard Edson, who drove me nuts the whole movie because I recognized him from somewhere—at least, as I later learned, as the parking attendant in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off.)

Something pop-new-techno-wave-romantic. I don't know music.

Very cute. Very ’80s. Looks like an album cover, doesn’t it?

Part 2: Willie and Eddie fresh of a hot gambling win (in which they cheated, natch) decide to go up to Cleveland and see Eva. They bum around Cleveland a while while the mildly disaffected Eva mildly rebuffs mild romantic overtures made by mild Cleveland co-workers from her fast-food job. Finally, they all get the idea to get out of the north for the Winter and head to Miami.

Part 3: The three make their way to a small Florida town only to have a bad day at the dog races and lose all their money. Eva, feeling abandoned because the boys leave her behind (she may not be entirely legal) hangs out on the local boardwalk wearing a dumb tourist hat. That hat coincidentally is the key sign for a drug drop off, and she ends up with a big wad of cash. She decides to go to Europe with it. When the boys return—they’ve had a good day gambling then and are celebrating—they realize she’s gone to the airport and go to get her before she flies off. Because it’s way pre-9/11, Willie actually gets on the plane to Budapest to pull her off. But Eva wanted to go to Europe, or basically anywhere but Budapest—and one wonders how plausible it is that this tiny airport has a direct flight to Budapest, but also only one flight a day to Paris—so she ends up back at the motel while Willie, presumably, ends up on his way to Budapest.

The end.

Stills.

I don’t think this is in the movie.

This is the very definition of low-key. It reminded me a lot of a Kevin Smith movie, in the way that it was shot black-and-white with people who seem like new actors or barely actors at all (first acting role for Edson, only acting role for Cecilia Stark, an actual Hungarian immigrant), and low-key. Where it’s different is that it lacks the verbal humor of Smith’s movies, but also feels more like a real movie overall. Yes, it’s shot in black-and-white, but lovingly so with tremendous attention to the backdrop. The music is moody, original, one-man-band kind of stuff, which is very characteristic of Jarmusch. (Also, the one-man-band is John Lurie, who stars here and provided the music for three of the four films we saw.)

And, as mentioned, it’s very low key. There are laughs but one must be patient. If you can’t enjoy the experience between the laughs, you probably won’t enjoy the whole thing. The later films are a more developed thematically and narrative-wise, but none of the four were ever in danger of delivering a message (kind of refreshing, really) and were more “series of things that happened” than anything tightly plotted.

Not for everyone, but strong enough to sell us on the next week’s film, Down By Law, which would turn out to be our favorite.

Movie trickery!

Look! Same shot different background! But if you’re getting the idea that there’s a lot of standing around cars and inside dingy little rooms, you have the right idea.

Love Me Or Leave Me (1955)

As I’ve mentioned (probably too frequently), the ’50s aren’t really my time. I’m a pre-War guy, a lover of screwball comedies and proto-noir movies. But I also love the music: the crooners, the assorted sister acts, and the sometimes-generously-referred-to-as-“jazz” music. So here we have a movie from ’55 with that quintessentially ’50s movie star, Doris Day—but it’s about Ruth Etting who, along with Annette Hanshaw and Ethel Waters, was one of my favorite chanteuses of the time. So how could I miss?

Not a bad waistline, either.

Doris Day, once again vastly cuter than the woman she’s portraying.

Well, one way is to use music I wasn’t super familiar with. I was shocked that I only knew about half of the 20 or so songs. (I guess I’m not such a fan after all.) Another way is to “jazz it up” but not in the ’30s sense of jazz but in the ’50s sense of super-slick sound and styling, which I generally don’t like.

But these are quibbles because this movie turned out to be much more interesting and complex than I expected. (If still doubtless far less nuanced than the truth.) Very loosely based on a few startlingly real events, this is the story of Etting (Day) who climbs her way to the top with the help of a lame Jewish gangster Martin “Moe” Snyder, played by James Cagney. Etting is shown as a savvy girl but a little too confident she can manipulate Moe into helping her without a quid pro quo. He does, but ultimately browbeats her into marriage. (There’s little-to-no-line here between browbeating and actual beating.)

Go with your gut, sister.

Charming. And brutal.

There are however some subtle differences between being a gangster and being an entertainment manager, and Moe’s abrasive style and insecurities result in Ruth losing out on a dream job at the Follies, resulting in some heavy drinking and lamenting her lost (potential) lover, Alderman (Cameron Mitchell, once again looking smooth), who had been her accompanist in the early days. Things come to a head when she winds up in Hollywood shooting a film and meets up with said accompanist, which brings Moe’s jealousy to the surface. Then, shots are fired.

Parts of this are true: Moe did get her kicked out of the Follies and he did shoot her accompanist with whom she was romantically involved. (In real life, she was long separated from Moe when he shot Alderman, and she and Alderman had almost 30 happy and relatively peaceful years together.)

Even though this is Day’s double-feature (with Calamity Jane), this movie (which won a screenplay Oscar) is absolutely stolen by Cagney. He is a gangster, no doubt, but he’s also desperately in love with Etting and completely unable to work her. Indeed, part of his fascination has to be that he doesn’t really get what makes her tick. He knows she’s better than he is: She’s able to make it in society without beating the tar out of people. And he’s at turns defiant, piggish, brutal and heartbreakingly pathetic. Cagney would get an Oscar nom for this and would lose alongside Sinatra, Dean and Tracy to Ernest Borgnine’s Marty. (Another heartbreaking performance about a palooka, come to think of it.)

He’s so, so good. And the movie has a kind of classic, dark ’50s ending. Justice is served but Moe still has his day. I think we all agreed it was “better” than Calamity Jane, but it was also much heavier. I would definitely recommend it, but not for the reasons I went to see it: It’s worth it for Cagney alone.

The '60s must've been rough for him.

The great Cameron Mitchell gets the girl…again.

A Very Moral Night (1977)

We have pockets of slavs, which sounds sort of like an exotic fast food (Slav Pockets!) which is why we get oddball things like Russian flicks, Polish film festivals and then things like this: A Hungarian film being shown for no (obvious) reason in the middle of the week. Well, I asked, and it apparently there’s a guy who puts on a Hungarian film festival—that’s how many of these things there are, it’s impossible to keep track of all the film festivals—and he’s trying to keep the Hungarian energy going by showing a film, monthly, presumably to build up to the big event. This showing even featured an appearance from a star from this fun little ’70s flick, Egy erkölcsös éjszaka.

But maybe that's just Hungary.

The time-period seems to be “gilded age by way of ’70s porn”.

That translates into “A Moral Night” per Google, but the English title is “A Very Moral Night”, perhaps because we lack subtlety of mind or language. But a moral night it turns out to be, sorta.

The story, based on the novel “The Shroud House” from pre-Communist Hungary, is about a young doctor who is a bit of a gadabout but very popular with the girls of the local brothel. It’s never exactly clear why (although one of the girl’s suggests it is the generosity of his endowment, which seems kind of contra-indicated for a working girl) but it’s not that he’s handsome, smart, rich or even all that nice. Whatever the reason, they like him well enough for the Madam to realize that he could save some money and they could make some, if only he moved out of the town hotel (where he’s being gouged) and lived with them.

It’s an agreeable arrangement with only one caveat: His aunt, who sends him all his money, must never find out, as she is a very proper woman.

Amusingly enough, this fellow is so dissolute that even while he lives in the brothel, he spends most of his nights elsewhere, gambling and probably carousing amongst the amateurs and semi-professionals, and so he’s not around when the inevitable happens: His aunt shows up.

I mean, Chekov’s gun and all. What did you think was going to happen?

Human attraction is a bizarre thing.

He plays extreme favorites among the girls as well.

Partly out of greed, presumably, but mostly out of respect, the Madam doesn’t open the house for the evening and the girls all dress up to the best of their ability, and do their best to entertain the sweet old lady who is interesting and interested in modern life. (Life in the Hungarian countryside in, say, 1850 versus city life in 1930, e.g.) She’s also a wise problem solver who, honestly, the real question is: Does she figure it out or doesn’t she?

By the end of the night, the facade is cracking as the rowdy town officials come in looking for comfort, and she knows them or knows of them or their families, leading to another awkward round of social interactions. The actress (in her mid-’80s, if IMDB is to be believed) plays it very inscrutably. At one point, she’s talking to one of the girls who tries to commit suicide because she can’t marry her fiancee, and she’s acknowledging all of the problems (the girl’s occupation never entering into it) which has its own level of charm: They’re too close in age, they’re religiously mismatched, and so many things that Aunt Kelepei proposes solutions for and points out in 40 years, no one will care and those things won’t matter.

It’s charming. All’s well that ends well. Some good laughs, a rather shocking suicide attempt in one of the the worst possible ways. (Setting your room on fire and figuring you’ll get taken out with it.) Overall, fairly light of touch, and a little surprising to have come out of Hungary in the ’70s. But perhaps it reflects capitalistic decadence in a party way, or perhaps, like the Soviets, the spent Communist governments became increasingly unable to crush all the artists under their feet.

We rolled the dice, as The Boy would say, and were glad we did.

How could I NOT use it?

This lurid Italian poster for the movie bears little resemblance to anything that occurred on-screen, in the grand tradition of awesome Italian posters that make you want to see a crappy movie.

Calamity Jane (1953)

I could hardly resist a Doris Day double-feature, even if the ’50s are not my time, and even though this was not the film I was most intrigued to see. (Love Me Or Leave Me was the musical biopic that followed.) The Flower is increasingly tired of the fact that whenever we see one of these movies, the presenters have to point out that Day (or virtually any other female performer) was no shrinking violet, no mere mother and/or housewife, but a strong, defiant character with a lot to say about something or other. I believe, as one who aspires to wife and motherhood, she feels—correctly—that these ritualistic denunciations are meant to denigrate her aspirations.

But we can hardly blame Doris for this. She is absolutely terrific in this fine, if bland, musical romantic comedy where she plays the legendary Calamity Jane who befriends the more feminine Katie Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie) only to lose the apple of her eye, Lt. Gilmartin (Philip Carey) to her. But it all works out because she really loves Wild Bill Hickcock (the great Howard Keel, fresh off of playing the romantic lead in Annie Get Your Gun). And he loves her, smitten as he (and everyone else) is with the fetching Ms. Brown.

Whee!

Shortly before (or after) killing two (or five) Indians.

Right around 30 at this point, Day is an absolute pistol. She plays a blowhard “Calam” who is both respected and lightly mocked, and is by turns indifferent and offended by her own putative lack of femininity. She, of course, lacks nothing in the way of femininity. Oh, she walks with a nice swagger, she gets her voice down low and she wears buckskins throughout the movie but, no, at no point is it credible that people mistake her for a man. That’s okay, of course: No one is actually meant to. We’re only supposed to suspend belief long enough for her to believe she’s upset (intermittently) by it.

Calamity was no Annie Oakley: Her celebrity in part came from her relationship to Hickok and her various tall tales, though we only have her word that the two were ever married. This, like her alcoholism, has no place in a musical like this, wherein we’re free—nay, encouraged—to believe Keel and Day will live happily ever after. It’s quite charming and one of director David Butler’s better works. (Butler directed scores of movies, including quite a few others with Day, like Lullaby of Broadway and Tea for Two. He would finish up in TV, directing “Leave it to Beaver” and that awful episode of “The Twilight Zone” where the hack writer summons Shakespeare to help him write teleplays.)

“I got to be in BOTH cowgirl movies.”

The music was fine. The best moments (to my ear) was the opening “Whip Crack Away” and the pseudo-meet-cute “I Can Do Without You” where Keel and Day demonstrate their intimate friendship by insulting each other, musically. The song “Secret Love” was a hit for Day and won the film an Oscar but I don’t recall it.

Interestingly enough, I think we all (The Boy, The Flower and I) agreed that the next film was better, but we wished we had seen this one first because it’s fun, light and frothy. Love Me Or Leave Me would be an entirely different beast altogether.

Cute gingham.

Dolled up.

Shadow

Ahhhhh. I was tempering the children’s expectations regarding this Zhang Yimou movie because it ranks well below House of Flying Daggers  (on the ratings sites) which in turn ranks well below Hero, but I needn’t have worried. We loved this tale of a changeling general (the titular “shadow”) who is being set up to overthrow his Lord (because the real general was stabbed by a master and seems to be dying) through some series of plot devices that involve defeating the same master who stabbed the real general.

In black-and-white-ish.

Meanwhile, a horse contemplates crossing a bridge.

I’m being vague here because it’s been a few weeks and the plot was very intricate but we were pleasantly surprised: We all followed the plot and could tell the characters apart. Impressive, given that two of the leads are played by Chao Deng. But the characters are so different, I kept wondering if it was the same person.

Anyway, there’s a lot going on. The Shadow is increasingly unsure of being a pawn in this game (which pretty much has to end up with him dying, even though the general teases him with the possibility of getting back to his mother after it’s all over). The general’s plan seems to be flawless if the Shadow can defeat the master but that’s a big if. Meanwhile, the general’s wife, while maintaining a respectful distance, does seem to be getting more attracted to the Shadow—who after all is identical to her husband, except maybe less of a jerk. Meanwhile, the wife ends up coming up with the strategy that can defeat the master, and it involves…weaponized umbrellas!

Doesn't keep out the rain for shit, either.

That is one nasty bumbershoot!

It’s great. The indoor shots and a few of the battle scenes are filmed in black-and-white (probably color corrected after the fact), though the (obligatory) bamboo forest scene is a verdant green. It’s just a beautiful film, is what I’m saying, and it’s not just anyone who could make a battle scene involving an army of women with parasols work. In fact, I can’t think of anyone else who could do it.

So, the set design is wonderful, the camerawork wonderful, the wire work amazing—though not over the top, which I appreciated, because the sort of super-heroic character implicit in the flying hero would’ve undermined the need for a solid battle strategy. The choreography is fun and the plot is engaging. The acting is good, kind of Shakespearean, with its weak kings and power mad generals. The stars are good looking and otherwise appealing. What more could you want? Music? The music is also really good, with drums and zithers dominating. (The stage name of the composer is, amusingly,”Loudboy”, although there’s some controversy over whether or not he plagiarized the work.)

Though it was trouble from the start, tbh.

Trouble a-brewin’.

Almost two hours long, but it’s thick. The ending…is probably not a people-pleaser. The three men are locked in a struggle, while the general’s wife has to figure out what her role in this is going to be. I liked getting to the end, and so was less invested in the details of the story’s resolution. I did see a couple of the twists coming (as did The Flower), but not all of them.

A lot of fun. Pure historical soap with kung-fu action. Don’t know why it didn’t do better.

YOU be the judge!

Deadly umbrella squad or scrubbing bubbles?

 

The Sixth Sense (1999)

I have theorized over the years that M. Night Shyamalan’s success was sort of accidental. It’s an observation (and not an insult) that sometimes artists put things together in a way that accidentally appeals to the zeitgeist which isn’t necessarily characteristic of their body of work. For example, R. Crumb is not someone whose art would generally be even acceptable in the mainstream, not as a matter of quality so much as content. But “Keep On Truckin'” spoke to a generation, apparently, and there you are. Another example: I knew when “Twin Peaks” became the hot ticket TV show of 1990, people were largely going to end up disappointed. They thought they were watching  a murder mystery while anyone familiar with David Lynch’s work could tell you this was not a man who was going to make a murder mystery.

On the movie front, there’s Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly gives us a kind of murky story about alternate realities and heroic sacrifice that works in spite of its dangerous cavorting with the sort of philosophical questions that can make a movie unbearable. It was no surprise that The Box, which actually literalizes  a hoary philosophical question, was generally regarded as unsuccessful. (I find it strangely compelling, like Frank Miller’s The Spirit, while note being able to shake the feeling that it’s awful the whole time—but “compellingly bad movies” is a great topic for another day.)

I mean the one Osmont is wearing.

Just wanna point out that that is a GREAT toupee.

And so, with Shyamalan, I have often wondered that perhaps the elements that make up his style aren’t the sorts of things that would generally be very successful, and it’s just a coincidence that he became so staggeringly huge all at once, only to have one of the most depressing career arcs since Julius became Caesar. And The Sixth Sense was huge. It was #2 at the box office in 1999, coming in second to The Phantom Menace—and people still actually like this movie. It comfortably beat out Toy Story 2Austin Powers 2 and made $100M more than the other really iconic movie that year, The Matrix.

I should note that there will be spoilers here, even though you nearly-29 year olds probably saw this on cable after it had already been spoiled. And it’s interesting to note that the trailers themselves spoil the movie.

I wish.

In a deleted scene, Osment swings his door out to whack the biker as she rides by.

I see dead people.

That’s actually a spoiler. It’s about 45 minutes into the movie and we’re not really aware of what’s going on with this kid, or we wouldn’t be if we hadn’t all seen the commercials. Pissed me off the first time I saw and it still pisses me off today.

The Big Spoiler, of course, is one of the biggest twists since Keyser Soze discovered his sled had a penis, and it is repeated and parodied far-and-wide. As “King of the Hill”‘s Lucky (voiced by the late, great Tom Petty) once said, “The worst thing you can yell in a theater is not ‘Fire!’, it’s ‘Bruce Willis is dead!'” So with the big twists out of the way—and I happily confess to not seeing this one coming at the time—the question remains, is this a good movie? Or, more than just good, if you take away the gimmick, could it still earn its success? The only one of us who hadn’t seen it was The Barb, and she is well-spoiled on basically every movie twist because that’s just how you make YouTube videos: By spoiling everything.

And, here’s the thing, with the Big Twist out of the way, it’s actually a much better movie. (How’s that for a twist!)

The build up to the twist—the sleight-of-hand that prevents you from seeing it—is actually sort of rickety. I remember someone complaining at the time that there are a lot of odd tropes abused by The Sixth Sense that (if you don’t overlook them) make it seem like you’re watching a very sloppy film. And I remember when I saw it the first time, I was like, “Huh. That was odd. That doesn’t make much sense. Why is that happening?” And I did overlook them and so was pleasantly duped.

I mean...I guess?

Everything on the Internet tells me this is Donny Wahlberg. I cannot process.

But watching it again and knowing actually makes the movie much, much better. Because you know Dr. Crowe is dead even though he doesn’t, all of the scenes where people are ignoring him, his alienation from his wife, his ultimate grief at his own failure—they become much more poignant. And this is the best acting from Willis since probably Death Becomes Her (1992). The acting is great all around, although given about twenty years between this and Hereditary, I think we can agree that Toni Colette’s been typecast.

But Willis and Haley Joel Osment have to carry this film, and a few wags have pointed out that Osment gave his defining performance the same year poor Jake Lloyd gave his. A fair degree of credit can be given (in both cases) to their directors, and one thing Shyamalan has done consistently over the years is get good work out of kids. Too, Willis seems to lack the compulsive need to be the center of attention all the time, a compulsion which makes for jangly moments in other movies where the star seems to be in competition with his child co-star. (W.C. Fields’ classic warning comes to mind.)

All this adds up to the fact that the Big Reveal still works. Obviously, you can’t be surprised by it, but as a dramatic moment of realization, when you’re not going back over the whole movie in your head to see if you were cheated, it makes an arguably more powerful moment and certainly a more enduring one.

So, what I’d probably say at this point is that Shyamalan’s success isn’t accidental, but it did sort of ruin him as he increasingly reached farther and farther trying to capture the surprise that wasn’t even the best part of his movie. And the ironic twist here may be that it was his relative obscurity that made it possible: If the audience knew there was going to be twist in this movie, they would’ve figured it out—as we all pretty much ended up doing for all his subsequent films.

Good actress!

Toni Colette got to stretch out in that Showtime series where she had multiple personalities, at least.

Domovoy

We have enough Russians in our neighborhood to occasionally warrant showing a contemporary Russian pop film, like the much enjoyed T-34 (protested as an act of “Russian Collusion”, if only half-heartedly) and on this particular Thursday, a charming little family film called Domovoy. Literally translated, “domovoy” means “god of the house”—a tradition found in other pagan cultures—but you can loosely translate it as “House Elf” and now you’ve got yourself a Harry Potter-sounding tie-in. Fun for the whole family.

Devooshki!

Pretty Russian girls!

And, actually, this is pretty darn good. Which, really, is kind of impressive because there are many opportunities for it to be bad, and it sidesteps them neatly.

The story is that a lovely single working mom leases a fancy, suspiciously-underpriced-but-still-more-than-she-can-reasonably-afford-so-she-has-to-hit-up-her-creepy-boss, apartment not realizing that the realtor has a deal with the domovoy to enchant her and her daughter so that they love it, and then to drive them out within a few weeks so she can least it again before the year is up. So, it’s a classic haunted house story with a classic Russian corruption angle.

In this case, the mom has a daughter, however, and the daughter is enchanted by the idea of having a ghostly pal, so she makes overtures which the domovoy responds to—even while trying to drive them out. The mom’s job is increasingly at risk, and this isn’t even the worst of their problems. It turns out that one of the former tenants of the room was a thief and the domovoy capriciously moved his treasure which is still buried somewhere under the floorboards. An evil witch knows this and has pressed her son into helping her get said treasure. Her son would rather just canoodle with his trashy girlfriend (hey, family movie or not, it’s still Russia) but he ultimately joins her plan to his ultimate sorrow.

Stereotypes don't spring up out of nowhere, usually.

Playing chess with the house elf because, hey, you’re Russian.

While this is going on the mom puts her foot down and refuses to leave the apartment as the domovoy increasingly messes with her life. Little things like turning off her alarm clock, e.g., or defacing her work, giving creepy boss increasing reason to put pressure on her and—because she’s not that kind of woman—finally fire her. But this rebounds against the little girl, as well, giving our house god a little conflict.

Ultimately we find out that a domovoy isn’t really so much a feature of a house as it is a family. (Indeed, the true tradition seems to be rooted in the idea of beloved ancestors, much like the ones we see in Korea and China.) And when his family left without him, breaking his heart, he got bitter. After that, the families coming into the apartment were all varieties of bad, dysfunctional, abusive (a little rough for a family film, but again: Russia) and our impish spirit gets meaner and meaner and decides he’s going to protect the kvartira rather than the family.

Well, that’s a pretty good story right there, and a pretty good explication of degradation: The fall from being a helpful member of a group to just hating everyone and protecting your stuff, which itself just deteriorates.

Or an '80s throwback.

Pictured: Things deteriorating.

But that said, it really works because it balances its various ingredients well. There’s a very broad scene early on with the fat realtor that makes you worry that the whole thing is going to be cheap slapstick (and is kind of painful for the whole “couldn’t find a stunt man that matched her body shape” thing we see occasionally), but while there’s some broad action and comedy later, it doesn’t go back to that well. And then you get the little girl and you wonder if maybe they’re going to lean on the cute factor, but they don’t do that particularly. There’s a little salt and a little pepper in there, not just sugar.

They could go fierce, independent woman—and probably would have in the western world—but there’s a great mix from the actress of strength and vulnerability. Her resilience as far as living with an actual poltergeist is pretty top-notch, but every now and again she breaks down and gets overwhelmed. Fair. No love interest per se but the only statement that makes is “we’re keeping the story lean”. (There is the implication of romance at the end of the film but it’s not detailed.)

Could be a brother, though.

In fact, it’s literally just the presence of this out-of-focus masculine figure in the foreground.

Oh, yeah, and the big element here that kind of powers things is the cat. (You know, like Captain Marvel.) The cat can see and can talk to the domovoy and the two (naturally) hate each other. I don’t think I need to detail all the ways a talking cat can go wrong. (The guys at Rifftrax have you covered, though, if you’re interested.) In this case, the cat is really necessary to keeping the story dynamic and the motivations of the characters clear. It has some minimal impact on the plot: In the few situations where it could really help, it can’t do much because, you know, cat. But the voice is good, and you end up rating it as you might any comic relief character in a movie: It has a lot of jokes and gags, and some of them don’t work, but a lot of them do.

It ends up seeming less like a novelty where someone said “Let’s put a cat in there! The kids love cats!” and more like a necessary part of the story. That’s what you shoot for in this kind of thing.

The CGI is somewhat cheap by Hollywood standards but it reads well and (like a lot of the Asian movies) is more interested in winning you over with its style than trying to fool you. English composer Gary Judd wrote the score. I liked it.

Director Evgeniy Bedarev seems to be primarily a TV director, and not necessarily family-oriented, but he used the right touch here and I hope we see more of his work.

I kid DeCoteau but he can be very disappointing.

“Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau. Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau. Please don’t let the director be Dave DeCoteau.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Proving once again that Chinese filmmakers can pull a fast one on a par with any American studio, distribution and promotion for this Chinese art film was akin to that of a standard blockbuster/date movie and it took in a whopping—oh, hell, I don’t know—ton of money on the first day when people didn’t realize what it was. Then it crashed but, hey, no refunds. They say most of its B.O. was from that initial rush.

If you're Ed Gein.

Doesn’t it just scream “GREAT DATE MOVIE”?

That aside, how is it? Or maybe more to the point, what is it? It reminded me greatly of another Chinese art film from 15(!) years ago called 2046. Which is no help at all if you’re not one of the six people who saw that movie. But basically, it’s a dream-like narrative which roughly follows the story of a once young man who left his hometown and lost his girl on the night his best friend was murdered, possibly by him or her, and his dad dies and the baby he would’ve had with his girl she aborts and then it all goes 3D and the boy’s there all those years later in a metaphorical death trap which is probably pretty literal except nothing is very literal and then he meets a girl who’s sort of like his other girl but not really and they fly (literally, or as literal as anything is here) and that hourlong 3D shot at the end is continuous like Birdman and…

Hell, I don’t know. There are a lot of threads here. And it’s probably not meant to be sussed out in any traditionally coherent way.

Beats me.

Limbo, possibly. Mambo, unlikely.

This is one of those movies that The Boy and I both kinda liked but wouldn’t recommend to a lot of people. It’s “challenging”, as they say. And it gets hard to hang on to anything because while there are themes of love, loss, familial obligation, the meaning of life, magic, they are themes rather than straight up narrative experiences. So you have to work a little harder on the one hand while on the other, it’s also Chinese which means you have to suss out when you’re missing something because it’s Chinese or because it’s just not there.

I think what kept us engaged was that it never quite crossed the line (for us) into self-indulgence. There are a lot of related images and themes that recur and that gave you something to ponder or to absorb. Like a big part of the theme was women: At one point there was ambiguity about a character who was his mother, who blended in with his missing girlfriend, who later re-appears in the story by not re-appearing but having left another guy and a child behind (who might not be the guy’s), and then a low-rent pool hall girl who kind of looks like her but isn’t her and a different, older low-rent woman whom he both protects and harms in the same moment who’s sort of motherly and sort of girlfriend-y.

I mean, it’s just not what you might call a left-brain movie. Take it in and get what you can out of it. The 3D is pretty effective, which is not something I say lightly. It’s only 110 minutes long per the spec sheet—but you will feel each of those minutes.

But where's the "long day's journey" part?

I do think it’s literally night the whole time, though.

Savage

We were headed down to see the Chinese version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night which, literally, you could not connect to the Eugene O’Neill on a bet, but before it was airing there was this intriguing flick about high-stakes brinksmanship in the snowy mountains after a heist gone wrong.

Prove me wrong.

Who invited the deer? They always screw up heists!

The story is this: our heroes, cops in a small alpine town who are both romantically attracted to the same girl, pull over to help some strangers lost on a back road. What they don’t know (but we do) is that these guys just murdered some people in order to heist some gold, and their accidental encounter will result in one being killed, and the other nearly being killed and feeling very guilty. So guilty that he can’t even pursue the girl any more, even though she was maybe more interested in him in the first place.

Flash forward a year and she’s getting ready to leave town for good (unless he stops her) but the real fly in the ointment is our burglars are back in action after hiding out and waiting for…I think they’re waiting for the winter again because the only way they can get the gold is by sliding it across the ice. Hardly matters. The point is, they’re sniffing around while our morose sheriff sees a chance for (partial) redemption if he can bring these guys to justice. Or at least kill them.

I mean, he doesn't even dry off before leaving.

The trailer plays it up, but this is literally the only kissing in the movie and it’s over within seconds.

A lot of good tension. People in rooms with other people who want to kill them. Or who might want to kill them if the opportunity arises. Or who seem to be harmless but that’s a lot of gold, man, and you know how people get around lots of gold.

Although it’s very straightforward, even plain (though not ugly or poorly shot), it excels by giving everyone a fleshed out feeling. You get to know your characters, sometimes after only a few brief scenes. That’s quality filmmaking right there. So if it didn’t knock our socks off, we were entertained in a conventional way and found much to like.

Long Day’s Journey would turn out to be another story.

Audience reaction to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.

True Grit (1969)

“Fill your hands you son of a bitch!” swears John Wayne iconically. He was against salty language in his movies, generally, but felt it was appropriate for his portrayal of Rooster Cogburn, one of the rare times where there’s a movie and a remake, and the movies are substantially different but both great. The original True Grit is often said to be marred by certain acting performances (*kaff*GlenCampbell*kaff*) but I didn’t find it to be as bad in that regard as I recalled. Certain performances are highly stylized to be sure but they were probably more affected in the remake.

Talk first, THEN put the rein in your mouth.

“Fmmm mmrr hanf moo fun vvva vich”

True Grit is the tale of young Mattie Ross who sets out to avenge her beloved papa after he’s murdered by the drunkard whose life he’s trying to save. She’s a tough bird, bargaining Strother Martin under the table and wielding her powerful attorney street cred around like a bull whip. (In a perfect touch, we learn that her lawyer, “Lawyer Daggett” is none other than Winnie The Pooh himself, John Fiedler.) Given her choice of Marshalls to go after the reprobate who killed her father, she picks the most murderous one, Rooster. Meanwhile, the callow La Boeuf (Glen Campbell) joins their mini-posse, and the three wander around the increasingly less wild West trying to hunt down the murderous Tom Chaney (great, ubiquitous character actor Jeff Corey, who was probably on every TV show in the ’60s and ’70s at least once).

Robert Duvall, not yet a breakout star, has a role as an outlaw who ends up on the wrong side of the Cogburn and La Boeuf’s firearms only to be saved by a loyal gang member he immediately sacrifices.  (But that poor soul has nothing on Dennis Hopper, who has a small role as someone who has chosen his associates poorly.) Kim Darby, who plays Mattie, was twenty-two at the time, but is perfectly believable here. (Darby was also the eponymous pubescent girl less than three years earlier from the Star Trek episode “Miri”.)

It works out.

She’s 22. He’s immortal.

I don’t have a lot to say about the film, really: Even though it’s over two hours, the time flies by. Darby’s Mattie is certainly softer and more sentimental than Hallee Steinfeld’s although we can certainly place that at the feet of the Coen brothers and the times. This would be one of director Henry Hathaway’s last films, and is probably generally considered his best, although How The West Was One has a certain cachet.

Great score by Elmer Bernstein, though I’m not sure Airplane! could ever be topped. By anyone.

Ahh-oooooh!

And Glen Campbell’s hair was FABULOUS!

The Curse of La Llorona

You know, you get this AMC Stubs membership and you only have to find two shows a month to break even. The challenge, of course, is finding two shows. (Fortunately our real-Chinatown theater is an AMC so if we head out there, it’s good for one to three flicks a trip.) But The Boy and I love us some horror and it doesn’t have to be that good, even, as long as it does something good. A lot of horror movies manage a good atmosphere, for example, and some manage some decent suspense, while a few turn out some good funhouse horror effects. But I just told The Boy I was going and he said, “OK.” and hopped on board.

Product needed!

Stubs is a regular monkey’s paw, it is.

We sort of turned and looked at each other in surprise when we realized this was part of the, uh, Conjureverse? The Warren Cinematic Universe? It’s a movie that refers tangentially to the Warrens, who are the central hubs of the Conjuring movies, Annabelle movies and a few oddballs like this one, I guess. In fact, before they were referenced, I was thinking to myself, “Holy crap, they’ve cribbed a lot of tricks from the Insidious/Conjuring guys…” But good tricks are good tricks, while they last, and this movie has a few.

The story is a basic, classic ghost story type where a woman (the titular La Llorona) murders her own children to get back at her philandering husband, but ends up paying the price in grief, and haunting the earthly plane for surrogates for the children she drowned—so she can then drown those, I guess.

Ghosts are dumb.

“I’ve been taking Mommy & Me classes just for this occasion!”

Looks, if ghosts were rational, they’d, y’know, just haunt journalists and get them to write their stories. Or, I don’t know, these days they could blog. Whatever. Going around rattling chains and murdering children doesn’t get you the sympathy you’d hope for, if you were a ghost.

This movie takes place in the ’70s—I don’t think the Conjureverse extends much later—when a well-meaning, widowed social worker (Linda Cardellini) ends up getting troubled mom (Patricia Velasquez, the hot-but-evil princess in the 1999 The Mummy) hauled in to one of Los Angeles finest family facilities, where she is unable to protect her children from La Llorona. Because, La Llorona, am I right? What is that, even? When they’re killed she sics the vengeful spirit on the widow and Bob’s Your Uncle. And La Llorona’s your revenant.

Cliche, OMG.

He’s a priest who doesn’t play by the Good Book.

It’s…okay. The lack of logic anywhere defuses most of the tension. You know, pretty solidly and basically right away, that the ghost’s destructive antics are going to stop right where the plot needs them to, as there are no limits to its spectral powers that are ascertainable. It’s got a pretty nice third act finish, however, as they bring in an exorcist ex-priest (the great Raymond Cruz, who was in that show you liked). This creates a little structure that the movie sorely needs, and facilitates a genuinely solid third act twist.

Some of my enjoyment of this movie was tempered by me thinking, “Man, Ellen Page looks old. I mean, she looks good and she’s doing a great job acting, but…” Well, of course, finding out it was actually Linda Cardellini made all the difference there. But it does kind of tell you I wasn’t super-engaged.

I mean, it’s the sort of mainline horror you expect these days: Well produced and acted but lacking in a lot of the more visceral scares that make horror movies legendary, or even memorable.

Yeah, I never said I wasn't a dope.

Pictured: Not Ellen Page

The Crow (1994)

Any mention of this tragic 1994 Brandon Lee movie results in me going into my South-Park-Satan routine, “You guys…nobody dress up as The Crow…” because really all I’ve ever known about this movie is that its lead character became the default douchebag Halloween costume of the ’90s. That and the director Alex Proyas would go on to direct Dark City which didn’t give me seizures, but made me wish I were susceptible to them.

"You guysssss...."

“Do the stupid South Park voice. Do it!”

I tamped down expectations but told The Flower whatever else about it, she might enjoy the visual style. This was not enough to induce her to come out as she was approaching her 18th birthday and, as she assures me is true of all young girls coming of age, she wants to be sure she’s ready to become a responsible member of society. So she goes to bed early and makes sure she studies her Bible diligently.

Anyway.

This is an odd, odd movie. It’s based on a comic book back when that wasn’t very common, and I feel like I need to go read the comic book to see if the weirdness is in there or if it was just that kind of strange undead-superhero-buddy-cop mashup from the go.

Overall, it’s…okay.

Birds, man.

Not an actual crow, but a raven. I guess.

The movie begins with the crime scene where Eric Draven and his girlfriend have been assaulted and murdered, but in the case of Draven it doesn’t take, and he wanders the city seeking revenge on his killers. On the one hand, I salute the in media res approach because why do we need to see another origin story (even in 1994 it was old hat) and also I hate the rape-murder scenes that fuel this kind of movie.

On the other hand, it’s curiously distancing. We don’t really know Eric or Shelly—and we barely get to know the former while not learning anything at all about the latter—so we end up with a basic supernatural revenant story where the hero chooses (for some unknown reason) to wear mime makeup. Ernie Hudson grounds the movie (as he often does) as a too-honest-for-the-city busted-down-to-seargent beat cop, but there’s not a lot of time for him.

Basically, then, we’re witness to a series of murders which are vengeance for those other murders. The bad guys are a mixed bag, as far as their own characters go. Like, I remember Jon Polito, because he’s Jon Polito doing his Jon Polito thing. (Think more The Big Lebowski and less Miller’s Crossing.) So too with David Patrick Kelly (most famous for being Luther in The Warriors). Bai Ling is creepy good but probably with more emphasis on the creepy, and Michael Wincott as the Big Boss is kind of generic. In fact, I went the whole movie thinking to myself, “Hey, is that James Remar? I think it is! Do I like James Remar? I never know until the show is over.”

This usually only happens in movies that James Remar is actually in.

Yeah, she doesn't look anything like Yeoh.

Pictured: Not James Remar with Not Michelle Yeoh

Another thing about this movie is its fakeness. The thing about all the aforementioned characters and especially Rochelle Davis (as Sarah, the young teen who was friends with the Dravens and becomes a friend to Eric in his afterlife) is that they all feel like props. It’s not the actors, really. And, more to the point, it’s not all bad. Proyas is going for stylized archetypes and it works surprisingly well in some places and less surprisingly not so well in others.

Like, the city itself is a mashup of miniatures, composition and CGI that looks completely artificial but not in a bad way. It communicates the surroundings well and you get more of a sense of space in this movie than you do in the modern CGI slugfests. But as the proceedings wear on the 2-dimensionality of everything gets increasingly evident. Like, the city seems to have no purpose or function. There are bad guys running the show, apparently, but there’s no indication that there is anything like normal human activity going on, with on exception: After we learn that the night before Halloween is like a mini-purge with criminals running amok, and that this is the night the Dravens were killed, and after seeing nothing but seedy, criminal and violent activities, a waning Draven is startled by images of monsters—only to realize they’re just happy-go-lucky kids on their way to a Halloween party.

Wait. Wut?

I liked it, though.

In a tiny metal pan in front of a too-close matte.

How does that happen? I mean, if we presume that there is, e.g., a good part of town where the privileged people live, that’s all well and good—but this all happens in the same dump with the dive bars and drug violence and so on.

It’s fine to be stylized. Even highly so. You could argue that this is the sort of trope that comic books work on, especially the darker, grittier comics of the late ’80s/early ’90s, like The Dark Knight Returns. But it jangles here.

Also, people are a little more dense than seems right. Like, a room full of baddies has an obscured, open field to fire all their weapons at Draven, and doing so fails to kill him. So then they spend the next few minutes trying to shoot him even more as he kills them. I dunno. Just seems dumb.

It’s not bad and some of the places where it gets things right are very cool. The Boy and I were glad we saw it, even, but I was pretty sure The Flower had made the right choice for her.

Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954)

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

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

Beautiful hides, indeed.

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

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

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

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

Dopey, grumpy, sleepy...

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

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

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

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

I mean.

What?

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

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

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

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

Catwoman!

Something about Julie Newmar always stands out.

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

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

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

No one spits like Gaston.

“There she is LeFou! The lucky girl I’m going to marry!”

 

Pillow Talk (1959)

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

What?!

Or that Rock is actually checking out the cameraman.

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe I get it a little.

I guess if you like strong jaws, full heads of hair, broad shoulders….

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

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

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

Too many hungry people losing weight.

Too many people, sharing party lines.

The Pink Panther (1963)

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

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

But who is REALLY the fool? Yeah, still Clouseau.

Capucine plays Our Man for a fool.

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

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

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

Comedies used to be classier.

Capucine with her co-conspirators (Nivens and Wagner).

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

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

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

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

Yow.

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

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

I may prefer Claudia to Sophia.

Oh, you lucky tiger.

A Shot In The Dark (1964)

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

Alert Benny Hill

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

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

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

We swear.

There’s a perfectly logical setup for this.

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

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

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

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

That eye twitch, tho'.

Even as one of Clouseau’s antagonists, Lom always came off sympathetically.

Ash Is Purest White

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

Nice lighting.

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

In other words, it’s hard to tell.

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

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

So who's fault is it, really?

He did teach her to shoot, sorta.

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

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

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

Love is blind, I guess?

She’s kinda naive for a criminal/jailbird/conwoman.

Spaceballs (1987)

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

Nice take.

She’s a good shot.

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

<insert sound effect here>

Hey, kids! Remember the ’80s?

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

He's a mensch.

The schwartz MAY be with you. Who knows, really?

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

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

Character actors with some muscle.

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

The Wandering Earth

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

ROAD TRIP!

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

EXCUUUUUSE ME!

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

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

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

It's big but not very hot, I guess.

Here, they have wandered out next to a giant nuclear thruster propelling the planet.

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

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

Sure, that red thing is an "eye".

Jupiter turns out to be a real jerk, though.

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

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

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

Crazy!

Cool credits, man!

Young Frankenstein (1974)

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

Frau Blucher!

But let’s leave the horses at home.

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

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

At last, sweet mystery of life I've found you...

Madeline Khan, national treasure.

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

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

Roll in ze hay!

The women are all wives and lovers. Apart from being hilarious, I mean.

The Wedding Guest

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

Indian formal wear.

And he got dressed up and everything.

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

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

Radhika is not impressed by The Boy.

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

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

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

If not, move along.

Lotsa shots of Dev staring off into the middle distance. So if that’s your thing: Jackpot!

Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show

I am not a television watcher, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious as I struggle even making it through one 20-hour series since February. But even with my (almost exclusive) preference toward theater viewing, I am tempted by things like TCM and Criterion and so on. But when I heard Joe Bob Briggs had re-emerged on the Shudder channel, I pulled the trigger and actually committed to a pay channel. (I had been musing with getting Shudder for a while. My aversion to watching movies on TV doesn’t necessarily extend to trashy horror, it seems, and there’s scant chance of most of these films appearing on the big screen again soon.)

Joe Bob is back in town!

Joe Bob Briggs is, I think, both the last and the greatest of the horror movie hosts. If you’re almost 29 (like me), you may not remember the days of the local TV horror show host, like Sinister Seymour (Los Angeles), Ghoulardi (Cleveland), or Svengoolie (Chicago). The American era of the local horror host is (fittingly) bookended by Vampira (who ironically gained immortality for her appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space) in the early days and Elvira (sued by Vampire for stealing her act) at the end. Elvira would gain national prominence in the era of expanding cable channels and syndication, parlaying that into a 40-year career that includes a movie or two, a lot of campy live shows (she “hosted” Knott’s Berry Farm’s annual Halloween Haunt for years) and a ton of merchandise.

Unlike these past luminaries, however, Joe Bob is more of a straight-up movie reviewer (he shifted from reviews of traditional and classic movies when he discovered the fascinating mechanics behind successful exploitation film-making), a serious writer (nominated for a Pulitzer for his accounts of 9/11) and a much less campy and more sincere lover of drive-in movies. When he gives Phantasm four stars, he’s being sincere, and he’s not afraid to give C.H.U.D. two stars and call it out for a bunch of “Shakespeare in the Park” actors “going slumming”. Likewise, if his persona is somewhat affected, it’s not shallow: He’s from Texas, went to school in Arkansas, and he’s currently touring with a lecture called “How Rednecks Saved Hollywood”.

He got his hosting start on The Movie Channel, Showtime’s cheaper cable sibling, and was largely forced to pick from their often sub-par catalogue of films. (As I understand it, the old cable channels would rent a package of films for the month, and they weren’t taking requests from the horror host.) This was probably the worst way to be a horror host, given he got one intro, one interstitial between features, and then a final outro, usually well after 1AM. The highlights were his interviews with the great ’80s scream queens like Michelle Bauer and Linnea Quigley, and some of the more conflicted starlets, like Kathy Shower. (Also fun are his interviews with Andy Sidaris, which are available on the “Girls, Guns and G-Strings” collection of his films.)

He also interviewed more mainstream luminaries like Tippi Hedren on his various other TNT series.

The low points were the zero star movies, usually the second feature, which Joe Bob would offer a free “Iron Joe Bob” t-shirt to anyone who could sit through, and who mailed him a plot summary. There was one particularly unwatchable film which had an off-the-charts breast count—it was basically an advertisement for the Goldfinger Strip Club in Florida, as I recall—that I never made it through.

The breast count. Joe Bob ends his reviews with a tally of drive-in movie highlights, e.g., “9 dead bodies, 4 breasts, 2 motor vehicle chases (with crash and fireball), scissors fu, wine bottle fu, 2 heads roll, 2 1/2 stars, Joe Bob says ‘check it out’.” He told the story of the breast count at some point this way: Interviewing Drive-In Movie Legend Roger Corman, he asked what predicted the success of a teen sex comedy. Completely dead-pan (and probably dead serious), Corman replies, “The number of breasts.” As a gag, Joe Bob put that into one of his reviews and when the right people got pissed off about it, it became a permanent fixture and part of the legend. (“That’s how you destroy the sacred cow,” he says in one interview.)

Sample Drive-In Tally, which can only be for David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”

After the TMC show ended, he moved on to the basic cable channel TNT with “Monstervision”, “Joe Bob’s Hollywood Saturday Night” and “Joe Bob’s Summer School”. While I didn’t see many of these (because I loathe commercials), the format really benefited the “premiere movie critic of Grapevine, Texas”. In “The Warriors”, Walter Hill’s classic retelling of Anabasis, he traces the gang’s progress from Central Park to Coney Island by the trains and streets they take, while poking fun at the cast’s coordinated outfits and dancer’s bodies. He once hosted “Back to the Future II” and used the commercial breaks to explain the time-travel theory and argued that the Law of Entropy made the story impossible.

With Shudder, we get the best of both worlds: Uncut movies (mostly—the short shower scene from C.H.U.D. is weirdly redacted from Shudder’s cut) with breaks for commentary. Now, this means you shouldn’t necessarily watch these movies for the first time on “Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show”. The first Phantasm movie relies heavily on atmosphere. Same with The Changeling. The more police procedural-oriented films like Q: The Winged Serpent and C.H.U.D. are fine, and the great but very-hard-to-watch Castle Freak gets a bit easier to watch with the breaks where Joe Bob interviews the under-rated Barbara Crampton.

The first set of shows (last summer) was popular enough to tax Shudder’s streaming service, locking a lot of people out, suggesting that perhaps Briggs’ show should’ve been revived sooner. This was followed up with a Thanksgiving special and Christmas special (featuring the Phantasm movies). Besides a staggering amount of movie trivia and an impressive personal history in-and-around the movie and theatrical scenes of New York and L.A., the show features a fair amount of cultural commentary. (One rant, e.g., is on the removal of the swimsuit competition from the Miss America Pageant.)

His audience for the show, as always, is the crew (whom you can offer hear laughing) and “Darcy, The Mail Girl”, being played in this incarnation by the buxom Diana Prince with the right mix of sass and patience, and no small amount of (warranted) eye-rolls. A picture of the original (?) mail girl, Honey Gregory, is featured prominently behind the easy chair inside the trailer.

If you love drive-in horror, if you love the betamax era of video, and if you don’t take yourself too seriously, this is a must see. Moviegique says “check it out”.

Dangerously close to mullet territory in 1991.

 

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

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

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

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

Ramming speed!

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

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

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

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

Leena is the Queen of Palestina

The lovely and moving Haya Harareet, a Palestinian from back when “Palestinian” meant “Jew”.

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

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

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

White horses, black horses, you figure out who the bad guy is.

Me trying to merge onto the 101 in the morning.

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

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

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

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

"What's that, sir?"

“Stwike him, Centuwion! Vewy woughwee!”

 

Alita: Battle Angel

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

Kinda freaky for kidflick, tho'.

Say what you will about this “Spy Kids” makeup, it’s not bland.

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

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

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

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

Otaku-coo.

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

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

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

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

Also, he got cybernetic implants.

Jackie Earle Haley trained for six months to bulk up for this role!

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

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

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

Betrayal ensues.

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

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

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

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

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

But not for long.

Jeff Fahey celebrates National Puppy Day.

 

Blazing Saddles (1974)

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

What a weird, censorious world we live in.

We didn’t want the n—- to get it!

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

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

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

There are worse.

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

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

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

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

Not at all comfortable!

Madeline Kahn knew how to slip into something more comfortable.

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

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

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

They just did.

These guys had the best chemistry.

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

Pig

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

It's all girls in the commercial.

Our hero wearing a costume pilfered from the bugspray commercial he’s doing.

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

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

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

Even Iran has millennials..

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

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

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

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

Not for long, tho'.

The girl who throws him over for a bigger part with a working director.

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

 

To Dust

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

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

Frequently.

Shmuel is skeptical.

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

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

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

It gets weird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it.

Mmmm. Ham.

Pig enthusiasts may object to some scenes.

T-34

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

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

Often! But not always.

Tanks don’t always mean freedom.

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

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

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

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

Tank humor.

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

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

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

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

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

It would look good on a motivational poster.

And you thought YOU were having a bad day!

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

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

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

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

Barely.

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

My Fair Lady (1964)

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

Go figger.

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

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

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

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

It's a good mix.

The Flower approved of the ’60s fashions being channeled into the classier costumes of the gilded age.

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

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

Or women, tbh.

There are not a lot of KIND men in this movie.

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

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

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

Obviously recommended.

But lovable?

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

Mal-Mo-E: The Secret Mission

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

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

Aiyiyiyiiyi!

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

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

Now, Koreans? They got none of that.

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

There's a lot of it.

They keep the “hentai” in the basement.

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

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

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

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

And other parts.

He literally saves this guy’s ass.

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

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

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

Not bad.

Shopping for glasses in occupied WWII-era Korea.

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

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

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

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

No, it's good, really!

THRILL to the harsh grading of spelling papers!

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

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

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

It's not THAT bad. But it's bad.

She has the same blank expression I have when I try to remember the first movie.

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

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

It's a girl. That's all I remember.

Who’s behind the mask? Honestly, I’ve already forgotten.

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

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

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

Or just a Bruce Willis movie?

So, I guess “The Lego Movie 2” is a Christmas movie?

They Shall Not Grow Old

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

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

Great job.

Hardly ANY of the frames were disappointing.

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

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

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

It's not going to end well.

These guys are all about to charge over that ridge.

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

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

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

People were not, in fact, in black-and-white.

It also seems more lively, more true-to-life.

On the three point scale:

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

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

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

Tanks! For the memories!

I think Jackson had these in his garage.