Heaven Can Wait (1943)

I am far behind on my movie reviews, which happened a lot a few years ago, but which I had been rather disciplined about since about 2015. The lockdowns knocked that into a cocked hat, somehow—and as someone who personally came through the ordeal largely better off than I went into them, I am still discovering the ways the incipient police state messed with my head—and I sit here wondering how best to celebrate the season.

Last Thanksgiving, I talked about that most thankful of movies, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and the year before that I covered Friendly Persuasion (1956). Prior to that I wasn’t theming around holidays. I am grateful, really, that I have so many options to choose from this year, even if it seems like, some weeks, with 40 titles playing, there isn’t one worth seeing. So I looked through the backlkog: The Manchurian Candidate, a classic that is well worth discussing, or The Exterminating Angel—Luis Bunuel’s surrealist story about a dinner party no one can leave. I also just saw Only In Theaters, which is a decent documentary on the Laemmle theater chain in Los Angeles that barely made it to the pandemic and was dealt blow after blow with the unending, uncertain lockdowns—which seem to provoke exactly no reflection on the part of the owner as to whether any of it was necessary. (And it is no surprise to me that the indie movie box office was down enough in 2019 to threaten the chain’s viability, but I’ll save that for a dedicated review.)

But while gratitude plays a big part in that movie, it’s not really the tone I want to set for the week, and so I went to the well of possibly my favorite director, Ernst Lubitsch, and possibly my favorite film Heaven Can Wait.

You need the picture in the background or people might think it’s a drama.

Based on a play called “Birthdays”, and bearing no relation to the play “Heaven Can Wait” (which served as the basis for 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan as well as the 1978 Warren Beatty Heaven Can Wait), Lubitsch’s film is a series of vignettes centering around one Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), a spoiled rich kid at the turn of the century who grows into an equally spoiled man who, on dying, decides he might as well go straight to Hell since he certainly won’t be welcome in heaven.

You often have heard me say “they couldn’t make this today”—at least until I retired that phrase—but the interesting thing about this movie is that the moorings that make it work simply don’t exist any more. Sort of like remakes of Mildred Pierce or The Women, where the tensions on which the drama is based no longer exist, the problem with a modern Heaven Can Wait would be that today we’re all Henry Van Cleve (sans the charm, as I noted here in this review of While We’re Young).

Sympathy FROM the Devil.

The vignettes the movie is centered around are all charming in their own right: As a baby, Henry’s nurse is a two-faced canoodler, doting on him in front of his parents and neglecting him to make out with her policeman boyfriend. As a boy, his weakness for (future) women leads him to give away both his beetles to a girl in exchange for being allowed to walk her home. As a teen, he kisses a girl, and is beside himself with the thought that now he must marry her—until an enterprising French maid/tutor explains that, in 1887, it isn’t necessary to marry a girl just because you kiss her.

The French maid presumably teaches him a lot of things, and his life of dissolution begins in earnest. He embarrasses his hard-working, wealthy-but-still-solidly-middle-class family with his cavorting with “musical-comedy girls”. He shows no interest in doing anything of productive value.

And one day he meets Martha Strabel (top-billed Gene Tierney).

Every time I see a Gene Tierney movie I have to restrain myself from posting nothing but pictures of her.

This is over a half-an-hour into the movie! But it’s love at first sight and Henry professes—in complete earnestness—how his love for this girl he’s seen once has cured him of all his wicked ways. He’d do anything for her. He idealizes her above all else in the world.

Martha has the choice between marrying Albert, respectably, staying in Kansas as a 23-year-old spinster (because her parents cannot agree on anything, including acceptable suitors for her), or scandalously marrying Henry. Albert loves her, insofar as he’s capable of such things, but he’s so convinced of his own correctness in all matters that a preview of her life with him—where he corrects her for sneezing inopportunely (during Mrs. Cooper-Cooper’s coloratura, no less)—presents a picture of dull misery, even if secure in certain ways.

Albert’s correction drives her literally into Henry’s arms, where it’s quite clear that the two make each other as happy as they’ve ever been. But Henry can’t live up to his own ideals, and after ten years of employing the same manipulative tactics that worked so well on others in his life, Martha leaves him. (This could be analyzed from an Aristotelean perspective, but I’ll spare you.)

Jasper tries to smooth things out at the breakfast table. (Ma is having lambchops, while we quickly lose track of how many “wheatcakes” Pa must be eating.)

I often forget this part, but when Henry goes to retrieve her, he actually does reform. It’s a little vague as to whether or not he runs the Van Cleve enterprises, and certain that he never pursues it as much as he pursued showgirls—and it’s also a little vague how much of his “settling down” is due to simply aging—and this is the thing about Lubitsch. Explaining him is like trying to explain a joke. Or maybe more like trying to explain a haiku.

Martha understands Henry and loves him and doesn’t regret her life choices for an instant, even when she’s left him. She won’t speak a bad word about Henry to others and won’t have anything bad said about him in her presence. When Henry says “if I hadn’t met you I’d hate to think where I’d be right now,” she replies sweetly, “probably outside some stage door, or even inside the dressing room, and having a wonderful time.” And while that’s true, it doesn’t alter the fact that he’s much happier with Martha.

Maybe this is why we root for him. And maybe because, come Judgment Day, he’s not presenting himself at the Pearly Gates trying to charm his way in. He recounts his own life unflinchingly, but not lugubriously or dismissively, because he feels the weight of his own sins. His redemption, such as it is, comes in an act of confession—to the Devil (a pitch-perfect performance by Laird Creger, right before he was lost to a Hollywood weight-loss surgery fiasco).

Grampa, Martha and Henry caught on their way to their second elopement.

It has, of course, great performances from a fun and interesting supporting cast. In particular, Marjorie Main and Eugene Pallette as the Kansas pig-farmers, the Strabels, who act out their aggressions on each other by reading spoilers from the comic strips at the breakfast table. Charles Coburn as Grandpa. Spring Byington and Louis Calhern as Henry’s stiff, befuddled, and over-indulgent parents (this is not a trope invented by the Baby Boomers). Allyn Joslyn as Henry’s morally-upright, apple-polisher cousin. Dr. Clarence Muse (Jasper, the Butler) who probably portrayed porters more than anyone in Hollywood history. (He was a fan of “Amos & Andy” because it showed black people in white collar jobs.)

They’re all actors who, if you’ve seen any Golden Age movies, or even a lot of ’50s/’60s TV shows, you recognize instantly, and Lubitsch characteristically imbues them with their own drives, making the world seem alive. There are sometimes villains in his movies: Bela Lugosi as the Soviet commissar in Ninotchka or Mr. Matuschek’s (unseen) wife and his treacherous employee in Shop Around The Corner, but there is no real bad guy here—just people with conflicting sensibilities.

If we’re all being judged for our sins, it may well be that we are our own harshest critics, and the people who love us are more forgiving than we are (than perhaps we feel we deserve, even).

And that’s something to be thankful for.

For more pictures of Tierney, see my review of Laura.

Horror Hosts and The Birth of Meta

The Boy and I had gone down to Knott’s for a daytime tour of the Halloween Haunt, and since the park is right next to the Korean movie theater, I had planned to see and review The Devil in the Lake for you all. But as happens occasionally—actually, I think it may have happened last on Halloween—there were no English subtitles for the film yet.

But Knott’s was more-or-less the birthplace of the modern horror “switchover” that so many theme parks do these days, and on this tour, I was surprised to learn that the guy who got the ball rolling was none other than Larry Vincent, the local Los Angeles horror host for about five years in the ’70s. He had a show called Seymour Presents, and some of my earliest TV memories are being trapped in a snowy cabin in Lake Arrowhead and watching Little Shop of Horrors with “Sinister Seymour” as the host.

Larry got the idea to take his show live one year, so he went up to Magic Mountain. The show was apparently a hit, marred only by the constant sound of roller coasters. So he took the idea to Walter Knott, who had just built a theater that would be far more suitable for spooky hijinks. Knott liked the idea but insisted they do it up big, with a three-day celebration the weekend before Halloween 1973. The rest, as the say is history.

And the tour we took was very interesting, but not what I wanted to talk about. The remembrance of “Seymour” and the appearance of Cassandra Peterson on Joe Bob Brigg’s Halloween special last weekend got me thinking about horror hosts and the nature of commentary, or “meta” entertainment.

That waist is impossible. She makes Lisa Marie look thick.

The Horror Host

Home video technology has gone through multiple iterations with each succeeding wave of technology repeating almost fractally. As TV became commonplace, but content limited, many larger metropolitan areas needed content, they needed it fast and they needed it cheap. Network consolidation happened gradually and never comprehensively, and then cable came along and instead of geographical lines, we saw demands geared toward genres (The Comedy Channel and the original American Movie Classics, e.g.)  and demographics (MTV and the Cartoon Network). More bandwidth brought more specialization (although never an ESPN 8, talk about a missed opportunity) which the old conglomerates (like Disney and WB) are still struggling to absorb.

And of course the Internet blew the demand into millions of tiny hyper-specialized pieces. And while YouTube has too much control this, too, shall pass. (If the fractal pattern continues, with even more independent and idiosyncratic entertainment niches.)

One of the odder manifestations of the need for content is the rise of the horror host. Television stations with limited film libraries (not always legitimately sourced, as in the early days of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” on KTMA) needed to entice people to watch, and they did it with commentary on the movie itself, or at least thematically appropriate schtick.

Vampira and Zacherle

Maila Elizabeth Syrjäniemi, better known as Maila Nurmi, and even better known as Vampira was the first. She had a short run in ’54 on the local (L.A.) ABC station followed by another short run in ’56 on KHJ a local (L.A.) independent station. From what I can tell, while the popularity wasn’t sustained, it was intense, and Vampira became burned into the public consciousness. In later generations, perhaps ironically, it would be her brief appearance in Plan 9 From Outer Space that kept the image and character alive.

Sort of Garbo-esque without her Vampira makeup.

In Philadelphia in 1957, John Zacherle debuted the character of Roland on “Shock Theater”, a ghoulish horror host who broadcast from a crypt with his lab assistant Igor and his entombed wife. At the final movie intro for “The Last Drive-In” which Joe Bob Briggs presumed would be his last intro on his last show (for the movie Pieces of all things), he gave a lovely tribute to the recently deceased host (d. 2016 at the age of 98!) as well as a brief (insofar that anything JB does is “brief”) horror host history.

Briggs makes the distinction that Vampira hosted in the sense of appearing in the interstices to tell corny jokes that weren’t particularly related to the film, whereas the films were central to Zacherle’s performance who did things like cut his own reaction shots (the Kuleshov effect) into the film. I’m not sure that these two branches of hosting are cleanly separable, since I think Vampira did do some movie commentary, and Elvira certainly has over her various iterations. (And Briggs is certainly in the Zacherle camp but he also traditionally begins his shows with an off-topic commentary.)

However, Zacherle’s injection of his own material directly into the existing stuff (mostly cheaply licensable RKO pictures) is significant as a major progenitor to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in the ’90s, and to wide swaths of YouTube accounts today.

Unlike Vampira, Zacherle kept his character alive for decades in a variety of different formats: Besides guesting on many other horror hosts’ shows, he filled in on “American Bandstand” (!), recorded a number of songs including a minor hit in the “Monster Mash” era (“Dinner with Drac”), and edited a couple of collections of horror short stories. His last credited “Roland” appearance on IMDB was in the ’80s for a “last” show not unlike the Briggs marathon in 2018, though he kept playing the ghoul into the 2000s—into his 90s, in other words, and was definitely the inspiration for the flood of horror hosts to come.

Dubbed “The Cool Ghoul” by Dick Clark.

Svengoolie and the Locals

Tarantula Ghoul: The rare hostess without cleavage. And with a snake.

In much the same way there were local kiddie show hosts, a thousand late night horror hosts blossomed, all with their own stories and bits. In Fort Worth, Bill Camfield played kid show host Icky Twerp by day and Gorgon, host of “Nightmare” after dark. In Detroit, Sir Graves Ghastly had a show that ran from the ’60s to the ’80s. In Portland, Suzanne Waldron played Tarantula Ghoul, and had an intense short run ended by a scandalous pregnancy. In Brazil, an aspiring horror filmmaker creates a character called Coffin Joe who ends up escaping the confines of the movies to become his own character. “Moona Lisa”, the alter ego of a San Diego-based newscaster (who had a brief bit as a Siamese twin in Saboteur!) had a show through the ’60s and briefly took over for the ailing Larry Vincent in L.A. and even appeared with him at Knott’s for one year.

Almost all of Moona Lisa’s stuff is gone and even good pics are rare as hen’s teeth, but I think we can see here she managed to combine cleavage with…leggage.

Meanwhile, Ghoulardi out of Cleveland was a breakout hit who might have achieved national prominence had Ernie Anderson not wearied of portraying him (lured out only one before his untimely death to appear on “Drive-In Theater” in the ’90s). Svengoolie, out of Chicago, deserves special mention. Originally created by Jerry Bishop, the character was taken over by Rich Koz (original “Son of Svengoolie”), it’s sort of “the show that wouldn’t die”, running initially from 1970-1973, brought back in 1979 with Koz until ’86, brought back again in the ’90s, ’00s and currently runs today on MeTV.

The mythos/community of Svengoolie reminds me of “The Simpsons” with jokes and characters and memes built up over decades, but I also see it as a kind of cultural artifact: the horror host gig is “postmodern vaudeville” as Briggs would say, and to watch Svengoolie is like holding up a fun-house mirror that reflects somehow back to the 19th century.

Svengoolie The Immortal

Elvira

The greatest of all these—”great” meaning “large or immense”—was certainly Elvira. In the early ’80s, after Sinister Seymour had passed and “Fright Night” petered out, KHJ wanted to bring back Vampira. They invited Maila Nurmi back who quit when the producers rejected her idea of getting Lola Falana to play the part. (Falana was pulling down $100K/week in Vegas; I’m not sure how Nurmi thought KHJ was going to entice her away with a cheap horror host gig. But Nurmi seems to me to have been highly unstable.)

Enter former go-go-girl, pin-up girl, showgirl, starlet and someone you totally wouldn’t expect to fall for the old “just take off your clothes for a test shoot, honey”-bit Cassandra Peterson. Peterson was also a Groundling and had created a “Valley Girl” character that would serve as the basis for the new Vampira. Since Nurmi had withdrawn her support, Peterson decided to model her new character after Sharon Tate’s in Fearless Vampire Killers which would’ve been quite different from anything in the horror host world before (or since!).

Left: Sharon Tate in “Fearless Vampire Killers”. Middle: Cassandra Peterson. Right: Elvira.

But the suits said, no, all black. And although they had no notes on her improbably plunging neckline, they did tell her to make the slit in the leg higher. The 71-year-old Peterson, who has now retired the wig (not for the first, but possibly for the last time), has a memoir out called Yours Cruelly for those interested in more details. Elvira’s Movie Macabre ran from 1981-1986, but the character lived on and on and on in movies, video releases, merchandising, and—to tie this back to the beginning—became the face of Knott’s Halloween Haunt for decades.

The Boy and I her saw retirement show at Knott’s 2001—and then (with the Flower in tow this time) her most recent retirement show in 2017. It was a fun, polished act, being performed by a sexagenarian in six-inch-heels, which probably impressed me more than anything. (I hope I can rock heels like that when I’m 65!) In last week’s appearance on “The Last Drive-In” she talked about how much work it was as part of the reason for retiring—and I cannot quibble with that.

Why did Elvira take off and go national where others failed to break out? Was it the boobs? It was probably the boobs. Except boobs were prominent in most hostesses going back to Vampira. No, I think it was a mix of things: Syndication was getting to be a huge factor. Elvira’s character dovetailed perfectly with Frank Zappa’s (only) hit song: “Valley Girl”. Elvira was sexy but dealt in pretty safe (again, vaudeville level) double-entendres rather than overt crudeness. And Peterson’s dedication to performance (even while she felt Elvira would be a short-term gig) came through. Also: Boobs.

The Cable Guys

Cable created a whole new world for hosts, as well as new libraries for them to exploit. The horror host had expanded into a “general schlock” host. USA’s “Up All Night” (primarily hosted by the buxom Rhonda Shear and the late, great Gilbert Gottfried) seemed entirely focused on teasing the audience. From Shear’s provocative outfits to her guest players (b-movie starlets like Michelle Bauer, Darcy DeMoss, Monique Gabrielle, etc.) to the movies, which were insanely varied and might be a Spielberg or Woody Allen movie one week but might just as well be a (heavily edited) Marilyn Chambers erotic anthology or the latest entry in the “Bikini Beach Squad Car Wash Ninjas” franchise.

Front row (L-R): Darcy DeMoss, Shear, notorious madam Jody “Babydol” Gibson and Monique Gabrielle. Back row: Debra Lamb, Linnea Quigley and Ray Hesselink. (And if I’m wrong, who’s gonna know?)

An honorable mention here to Pat Prescott of “Night Flight” who, even as a voice only, was a constant companion through that new iteration of content creation: All manner of public domain movies, shorts, music videos, comedy bits, etc., stretching out over long nights, suitable for whether you were partying or studying or just staying up because your parents were out of town.

This same era saw the concept of riffing a movie in the movie—remember Zacherle’s Kuleshov effect back in the ’50s!)—continuously integrated into the film itself in the form of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”. The movie was practically incidental to the experience. So even when John Bloom’s drive-in film critic persona Joe Bob Briggs who would introduce his show with, “You know what? Just go ahead and switch over to Rhonda Shear because we’ve got nothing but dogs tonight,” you stayed tuned in—or at least switched back for his closing commentary.

The Joy of Idiosyncracy

While the oft-cited Joe Bob and aforementioned Ghoulardi are with us today, and MST3K and Rifftrax thrive, the hosts of tomorrow are, without a doubt, being founded on YouTube. My own kids, who are not big fans of any of the hosts of the past, watch commentators like Danny Gonzalez and of course Red Letter Media. And there are literal horror hosts as well, in the exact same mold as Vampira or Zacherle. And that’s cool.

The thing about horror hosts—or any of these “meta” commentary characters—is that they are touchstones in our lives much the way other elements of popular culture are: Wherever you are now, if you were a kid in Miami 50 years ago, the name M.T. Graves will take you back, or the opening to “Creature Feature” if you were a Bay Area kid in the ’70s. If “House of Wax” is on, you might remember the 3D frenzy of the ’80s, and Elvira throwing popcorn at you.

You might even remember the movie itself, but it’s not necessary.

The Machiavellians: Four Films From The Perspective Of National Narratives

I recently read The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom by John Burnham, one of two books Michael Malice recommends (along with The Righteous Mind) for understanding the current political situation and it had the side-effect of crystallizing for me what it is that I like about Korean movies. I caught the Korean disaster movie Emergency Declaration and followed it up with Hansan: Dragon Rising, and both of them underscored a central point raised in The New Machiavellians. I then caught two Western movies: A Love Song and Medieval, which tended to reinforce what I was thinking. So let’s dive in!

The New Machiavellians

As I understand it, Machiavelli’s premise is that all countries are (by necessity) ruled by a small group (maybe even just one) person, and this person or group stays in power by virtue of a myth. Once pointed out, this seems obvious—and I think it’s fair conclusion that Machiavelli was reviled primarily for giving the game away. The myth, ultimately, bears no connection with actual governance as the oligarchs involved are primarily motivated by maintaining their own power.

I often say, on coming out of a Korean movie, that it made be proud to be a Korean. Although the sentiment is tongue-in-cheek, it references a very real experience: In just a handful of films—actually within the first few films I saw—the myth was a clear expression of a national identity that, while it showed flaws and humility, did not contain self-abnegation—even in cases where it arguably should have, from a strictly historical standpoint.

Hansan: Dragon Rising

That’s turtle power!

This story of Admiral Yi, the 16th century naval officer who scored devastating wins against the Japanese with both tactics and technology—super-cool “turtle ships” that spook the Japanese enough that they name them bokaissen, after sea monsters. Struggling with a bureaucracy/royal court that has no shortage of cowards, narcissists and traitors, Yi boldly takes the correct action to defeat the real enemy (always and forever the Japanese).

The theme of “man with integrity does the right thing for Korea in the face of corrupt, cowardly bureaucrats and hostile foreigners” sums up a great many Korean movies, both historical and contemporary. Critical to this theme is that the Korean people themselves deserve competent leaders who do not oppress them overmuch and who recognize that their job is to serve the public, not exploit it. (In the Machiavellian sense, this myth has nothing to do with what actually happens, but we’ll come back to that at the end.)

This is the #2 highest grossing Korean movie this year. A similar American movie might be The Patriot (2000)—and that was more successful overseas than in the U.S.

Emergency Declaration

Cooties: The Movie

The next movie on my double-feature was actually a fairly old-school disaster movie: Emergency Declaration. A maniacal terrorist infects a plane with a deadly disease, creating multiple crises as the issue becomes where should they land? Should they land at all? The classic formula of having many people from many different walks of life (though all Korean, of course) gives you the melodrama of social clashes in parallel with the desperate race on the ground to solve the problem.

One of the heroes of the drama is the Minister of Transportation, a no-nonsense woman who shakes down the evil PharmCo (and its white American CEO, heh) for information and accountability. The responsive, intelligent bureaucrat is far more common in Korean films than in American films. The Korean myth still includes the possibility of functional government, with a strong hint of foreign influence being behind corruption. The shocking thing about this movie is that the terrorist is Korean—I would’ve bet $50 that he would be all or part Japanese.

Ultimately, when the dust settles on the various dramas, we’re left with a message that Koreans are fundamentally decent people, and while they can be selfish and short-sighted, when push comes to shove, they’ll do the right thing and even sacrifice themselves without complaint to save their friends, family and countrymen.

Critics are very lukewarm at best toward this movie for some reason. I found it incredibly effective even as I marveled at how manipulative it was. Although critics compare it to The Host, to me it felt right at the tone of, say, The Poseidon Adventure, though with stock characters that aren’t quite so melodramatic as the doubtful priest, the cop married to the hooker with a heart of gold, etc.

The American equivalent? Independence Day would be my closest analogue. (Earth is invaded, sure, but it’s America that saves the day.)

A Love Song

Desert bloom

Just by virtue of having three weeks between these blog posts (at Ace of Spades HQ), I had time to stumble across A Love Song. This is a low-key slice-of-life story starring Dale Dickey (Hell or High Water, Winter’s Bone) as a widow who meets up with childhood near-boyfriend Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans, Mystery Men) on a campground out in the Utah desert.

The most pro-American movies I’ve seen in the past 20 years were the German film Schultze Gets The Blues (2003) and the New Zealand film World’s Fastest Indian (2005). This is the first American film I can think of in that time period which captures some of the feel of those pro-America movies as the hopeful widow meets an assortment of characters that represent and reflect American decency. (It has what yaboi Zack might call a “statistically improbable black lesbian couple” who work fine as a characters in an individual movie, but in 2022 feel more to me like genocide on the down-low.)

It’s probably not fair to compare a low-key indie that maxed out around 100 theaters and made a quarter-of-a-million dollars to Korean big-budget summer flicks, but then again, how many American big-budget flicks can we compare for our purposes? (We’ll talk about the box-office elephant in the room at the bottom.)

Medieval

Grunge metal

Medieval seemed to pop up from nowhere, and actually maxed out around 1,000 theaters, with a million BO in America and a million BO foreign. I had not heard of it but The Boy and I ventured out to see it before it vanished as mysteriously as it came. It has Ben Foster as the Czech hero Jan Žižka (zhizhka)—which should actually be the title of the movie—and Michael Caine as a (fictional, I believe) go-between trying to stabilize the teetering Holy Roman Empire by getting King Wenceslas IV to Rome to be blessed by the preferred Pope.

For giggles, I checked Medieval on RT and it had a score of 37/72. The Boy and I side with the audience here: It’s got problems, and director/judo champ Petr Jákl is definitely more comfortable with action scenes than drama, but it also fits beautifully into the discussion of the Western myth. Because while the Koreans are constantly reinforcing their myths, with so many Joeson-based films they have to compete with each other on terms of action, romance, adventure as well as historicity, this is the only 2022 candidate for promoting the myths of Western civilization that I can find and it’s an also-ran about the last time things really went to hell (the 14th century).

This is a pretty light year for Koreans, actually, in terms of serious historical drama but even so, two of their big popcorn movies (The Pirates, as well as Alienoid, which I plan to catch this week) have a big heaping helping of identity myths.  Medieval, alas, is no 300, either in terms of its action or myth-building.

Oh, No, You Read The Content

The box-office elephant alluded to earlier is, of course, Top Gun: Maverick. From the perspective of the American myth, it’s actually not very powerful. The original Top Gun spurred enlistment in the Navy and I’m fairly confident the sequel did not. It’s almost atavistic in its vision of a competent military—although, come to think of it, the military isn’t that competent in the movie, is it? But it has this little spark in it. Here’s a movie about America and Americans and we don’t suck and we’re not rotten to the core—and Americans showed up in droves, as did people worldwide in countries where it was allowed to be shown.

It’s the runaway #1 film in America—and also France, the U.K., Sweden, Italy and so on. (It’s #2 in Korea behind The Roundup—but ahead of Hasan.)

They used to say the only color Hollywood cared about was green—it was all about the money. That was never true, but never more obviously so than in the wake of Passion of the Christ, which should have resulted in a bunch of serious Biblical epics by true believers (or Jewish immigrants, like in the Golden Age of Hollywood). No matter how starved people are for the American myth, I don’t believe we’ll see much from Top Gun: Maverick. They’ll put it all on Cruise, or the lockdowns or anything else.

The #155 movie at the box office in 2022 USA is Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America: I can 100% guarantee we’ll see more like that. Another Top Gun—or even Top Gun-style blockbuster? I’d bet against it (barring a huge shakeup).

The hard question, though, is…is that a good thing or a bad thing? Quite apart from doomed Hollywood, does it at this point make sense to shore up the American myth? The opening of New Machiavellians is the 1932 Democrat party platform, where they swear to rein in expansive government and to balance the budget. In the sense of doing anything to shore up the complete nonsense of politicians whose entire ethos is “what do I have to say to get you to do what I want?” I can think of little more evil.

But in at least one sense, the myth has value: As a group, we are not our government or our “elite”, and when I think of those most pro-American movies (Schultze and Indian), what stands out is how Americans are portrayed as decent, generous, kind to strangers—probably not for nothing they don’t spend a lot of time in the cities, now that I think about it—which is an aspect of the American myth which is true, irrespective of the “intellectual” narrative.

And it makes for much better moviegoing: I would rather see a movie about good people, even if they’re not in my “tribe”. Hence, Korean movies it is.

My Donkey, My Lover and I

My long-running gag whenever reviewing a French film is to wait until the movie strikes its inevitably libertine sexual plot-point and say, “I know, right? French!” Foreign movie distribution is a funny thing, and we seem to get movies from particular countries in streaks, so it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a French movie (that wasn’t part of a revival), and My Donkey, My Lover and I throws a curveball in my well-worn saw.

French films are almost redeemed by French women.

Our protagonist is Antoinette, a young—wait, we’ll get back to her age—sexy school teacher carrying on a torrid affair with one of her students’ parents. In fact, when we meet her, she’s changing (in her classroom, after instructing her students not to peek) into a sexy dress so she can lead them in a song which is just wholly inappropriate for the 2nd graders (approximately) that they are. But which goes over really well with the crowd of parents because, y’know, France.

Her illicit plans are shattered, though, when she discovers that the wife of her lover Vladimir has scheduled a journey across the Cevannes—the same journey made by Robert Louis Stevenson as a young man in an attempt to cure him of his disapproved-of attachment to an older woman. Antoinette settles on a mad plan: She’ll also take this journey and “coincidentally” run into Vladimir and his family.

Now, this is already French up to the gills right? Except there’s a slight air of disapproval about the whole thing. Wait, that may be too strong: There’s a less than hearty endorsement of this affair, as opposed to the usual “sophisticated” view of the French. Maybe it’s just the recklessness of the act that could cause a family breakup? But I’m reading too much into it.

“I’m chasing my married lover and his family through the mountains” is apparently a good opener.

The point of the story is how Antoinette learns to re-view her life through her relationship with a donkey. I liked this because it’s sort of gently mocking. I felt like writer/director Caroline Vignal was sort of taunting the viewer a bit: “I dare you to take this donkey as an allegory,” she’s saying. “Because it is! Except when it’s just a donkey.” Ultimately, this works as a story of a how a rather self-absorbed woman learns to get just a bit outside herself by being forced to deal with an animal that demands her attention in the here-and-now.

This works in a large part because Lauré Calamy (as Antoinette) is very appealing, without being lionized. You can see how she ended up where she was. You can get caught up in her passion without exactly admiring it. You can laugh at and with her as she deals with the donkey. And mostly with. She seems so genuine and harmless that when she goes up against The Wife—who is perfectly within her rights and defending her family—you feel sympathetic for her ever getting entangled (even though it was very much on her). The husband ultimately comes off as a jerk, which is fair.

Our heroine with the family she’s planning on wrecking.

Now, the funny thing is Calamy is beautiful in a girl next door way (if France is next door). She’d never make it in Hollywood because she has greater than 5% body fat (which I sometimes suspect is at the root of why European actresses look better longer without drastic work being done). And, doing the math, she was 44 when she filmed this in 2019! Yet her character’s practically an ingenue. The wife of her paramour is about six months older, on the other hand, and looks much older than 44. The actor playing her husband is actually 34…I don’t know what’s going on here!

Probably they just got people who fit the idea of what they wanted to portray and hired appropriate actors without stressing about calendars. The Europeans are like that. And it all works. Olivia Cote as Eléonore is likable—but don’t mess with her. Benjamin Lavernhe de la Comédie Française—which is how he’s billed, so I guess he was on loan—is very charming but also kind of a shallow jerk.

The Guardian reviews this as “Eat, Bray, Love”, which I am FAR too sophisticated to not think of and then steal.

And our Antoinette? Well, she’s also pretty shallow, but likably so.

With all these vaguely moral undertones it wasn’t until the third act—when we discover that sex with the wrong person is remedied by sex with the right person that I felt like I could really trot out the old I know, right? French! saw.

I feel like it’s basically a shallow movie overall, and it gets by on charm, but then again, so what? That’s not such a bad thing.

 

Apples

During a worldwide pandemic, sudden amnesia is striking people and forcing them to start new lives completely removed from their old existences.

And then I went to the movies!

The thing about Apples, a Greek movie, is that apparently filmed before the Mass Formation Psychosis of 2020. The Boy and I were intrigued by the premise and since he’s out of town, I went to see it on my own.

Everyone adapts to the pandemic in their own way.

Our protagonist Aris sits alone, depressed, in his apartment, mostly in the dark with just enough flashes of the news to give us the necessary background on the amnesia thing. And after a while of this he gets on a bus, and by the time the bus gets to the end of the line, he’s forgotten who he is.

Since no one picks him up or identifies him, he’s placed in the hands of bureaucrats who have a system to handle the amnesiacs. The process involves doing normal things and taking photos of it: He goes to the park. He goes to the store. He goes to a party. He has casual sex.

How to do lifelike things without enjoying them.

They tell him up front “you’ll never get your memories back”. Sure enough, everyone he meets with the same condition has forgotten everything forever. This includes whether or not they like apples. That is, their amnesia goes down to the memories of what they like and don’t like.

Now, where do you go with this intriguing premise? Turns out, nowhere at all. There’s a semi-twist that was obvious enough to me from the get-go (if not the trailer) that I’m not convinced it was meant to be a twist. Like, normally a filmmaker would do some sleight-of-hand to explain why the thing that was just thoroughly detailed didn’t apply, but this just goes right ahead and says, “Yeah, we said it and it means exactly what you think it means.”

Ride a tiny bike. Maybe that will help.

Which is fine by itself. The problem is the movie feels like half a movie. Not that you don’t feel all ninety minutes of it. Just that the denouement feels like it should lead to something more. Our hero basically ends up where he started.

There may have been something more, something deeper in the metaphor of the apples, but I actually ended up feeling like that whole bit (which was fine as a story element) was pseudo-profound. That is, something that didn’t really have any great significance but was stuck in there to make you think that it did. I see that the director Christos Nikou worked with Yorgos Lanthimos on Dogtooth and this does kind of have that Yorgos feel. But for whatever reason, it did not resonate with me.

It was at least less frustrating (and substantially shorter) than Memoria.

Oh, look, it’s the title of the movie!

Maverick: Top Gun

OK, let’s put our cards on the table: The ’80s were really stupid, and nowhere was this more clearly reflected than in the cinema. Except maybe the politics. And the music. Oh my God, and the fashion. The fashion should probably be at the top of the list. Did I mention the politics? I did? OK, let me mention them again because: dumb.

Hollywood had discovered, thanks to Spielberg and Lucas and Corman, that it was still possible to make money at the movies. The trick was to make movies that people wanted to see. The Shark and the Space Wizards and what-not made execs realize that their tastes weren’t perfectly in line with the moviegoing public—i.e., the people whose money they wanted. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the action movie, which could be downright jingoistic even with a vein of ’60s counter-culture anti-Americanism running through them.

This was true of 1986’s Top Gun at first, too. “Mixed” reviews and a modest opening gave way to one of the biggest box office hits of all time, and the first video to sell a million copies, which is a big contributor to its staying power. Someone got the bright idea to cross-promote it with McDonald’s and sell it for $20 rather than $40-$60 (the going price for a recent movie on VHS) and a classic was born.

Jet! (Ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh!)

Director Tony Scott was a master of style and…yeah. Style. And Top Gun oozes style. For characterization, it rests heavily on the talent of its young crew (Cruise, Kilmer, Edwards) who are so macho, nobody at the time so much as hinted at any homoerotic overtones in the volleyball scene. For plot, there’s hardly any, and it veers into the goofy. It’s hammy and ham-handed, and it all kind of works in that ’80s way.

I wasn’t, therefore, really clamoring to see Top Gun: Maverick. Consistently, however, I heard nothing but good about it. And on and on. Damn movie is still playing! It’s in its third freaking month and is #3 at the box office this weekend! That’s nuts! (Update: And it is now the only film to be #1 on both Memorial Day and Labor Day!)

Setting aside that the movie is just a goofy, from a technical standpoint, as the original, it’s so much better than the original, it’s—well, it’s almost dangerous (to quote the original) because it shows that a reboot/remake/sequel/whatever can be really good and successful. Even if, in 2022, we (or at least I) completely lack the ability to believe “there’re some bad foreigners we need to blow up” but just like in the original, the foreign threat is just a MacGuffin for our characters to test their mettle.

The premise is that Maverick, now testing ever faster jets even while the Air Force is more interested in drones, has to be called back to Top Gun to train the new recruits for a special mission. There he meets back up with old issues, especially Goose Jr. (ably played by Miles Teller), Penny (with Jennifer Connelly being an excellent choice to replace Kelly McGillis) and of course Iceman (Val Kilmer).

Connelly has just the right presence for the movie and role.

Not only that, did you ever notice that the Top Gun cadets are jerks?

Heh. The sort of behavior they engage in is what we call toxic masculinity today, with the only real twist here being that it’s not even remotely exclusive to men. There’s a nice bit of subtlety here: At first, you’re looking at Cruise and Connelly, and the other older actors like Ed Harris, Jon Hamm, Charles Parnell who, even in small parts, seem to be acting circles around the younger actors, who are kind of glib and callow and—say, that’s exactly how the cast of the first movie was!

Even though they don’t necessarily get a lot of screen time, they get some motion as far as their characters go, and by the end, they’ve all developed into characters to some degree richer than anything in the original.

Cruise famously still looks young, but in my opinion, not terribly so and so much the better for him. He’s still got the smile and swagger but it’s tempered by so much life experience. Although he can and does look vital when he needs to, he can look like the weight of the world suddenly dropped on him. His character is still reckless but not inconsiderate (which is a neat trick). He’s an anachronism, and he knows it, and that brings a genuinely fascinating dimension to his character. The movie spends some of its nostalgia points wisely by taking its callbacks and adding that thirty year spin—such as Maverick escaping out the window from Penny’s bedroom, only to be caught by Penny’s daughter.

Nice shot. Age can be an actor’s friend.

Val Kilmer doesn’t get a lot of screen time and, due to his vocal issues, does most of his acting via text. But I thought—and The Boy agreed so I don’t think it’s a nostalgia thing—that he was just a powerhouse in his big scene. The way that is handled is remarkably effective, and Kilmer is still up to the task.

It’s a series of well-made choices, which is just rare in this kind of big-budget filmmaking. And it builds up so much good will that by the time you get to the final act—a true homage to the dumb, goofy action tropes of the ’80s—well, it pretty much had won me over and sucked me in, even as I’m chuckling at how outlandish it is.

Does it make sense to call a movie humble, especially when the movie is about very un-humble people? It felt genuinely humble and humbly genuine, down to the opening where Cruise thanks the audience for showing up to the theater. A common trope today is “Why go to the movies when the people who make them so clearly hate me?” And this movie doesn’t hate anyone. It’s genuinely feel-good.

Domestic box office-wise, adjusted for inflation, it will be in the all-time top 30. Worldwide, where adjusting for inflation is too complicated, I guess, it’ll finish in the top 5, maybe higher—without a Chinese release. Some people think Hollywood will learn something from that; I think Hollywood’s thinking “Hey, we could’ve earned another $250M, if we didn’t piss off the Chinese Communists!” I’m not actually sure what the hell there is for the CCP to object to, but catering to them doesn’t seem to produce better movies. Hell, sometimes they just laugh at you when you cater to them.

While it’s way better than the original, I do think it’s somewhat over-hyped. (Not that I blame anyone involved for hyping it. It’s a huge victory over lockdowns and ennui.) But you know, I haven’t seen the original since it came out and still don’t particularly care to. But I’ll almost certainly watch this again.

Reunion.

The Fifth Element (25th Anniversray)

I was wondering to myself when I wrote this up: Was Luc Besson ever very successful? Wiki says The Fifth Element “was a strong financial success, earning more than US$263 million at the box office on a $90 million budget.” That’s worldwide, which means I think by today’s standards $270M would be considered “break even”, right? $90M plus $90M for US advertising plus $90M for the rest of the world. I dunno: Researching things from the dawn of the Internet is challenging. The only thing I could be sure of is that critics have never much liked Besson.

But the further we get away from a movie in time, the better we can evaluate it on its own merits, apparently. Whether it’s It’s A Wonderful Life or Sleeping Beauty or The Big Lebowski, some films take time to appreciate. And, of course, some films that were hits at the time don’t age that well. So where does The Fifth Element fit in the scheme of things? Overblown? Underappreciated?

I’d say: yes and yes. What worked about the film in 1997 still works today. The performances, the set pieces and the little moments, the score, the production, the set design, the art design, the sound design, the music—as a feat of filmmaking, it’s still quite remarkable. It’s a bit over two hours and feels epic, like there’s a cast of thousands (with two or three dozen listed on the credits). It does successfully what Lucas—not to pile on the guy—never managed with the prequels: It feels alive, futuristic, alien, operatic.

Ian Holm is in this. As is John Neville. And Luke Perry. All living the “no small parts” axiom.

Most of the stuff that didn’t work back then still doesn’t work, though I for one care a lot less (about what doesn’t work). There is not a lot of there there. For each cool scene, e.g., you are left with a bunch of questions about how what you saw makes sense in any context at all. In our futuristic police state, e.g., three or four different groups try to pass themselves off as Korben Dallas and his wife. This raises no security flags whatsoever. In fact, we witness a scene early on with Dallas in his apartment being rousted by cops who of course have access to his photo, but none of the people pretending to be Dallas make any attempt to look like him while collecting his galactically-famous prize.

It’s a good scene. Just like Gary Oldman is a great villain who is literally evil and a one-man-evil-band on a—well, speaking of Sleeping Beauty, he’s about Maleficent level. He employs millions, maybe hundreds of millions, and he can casually fire bunches of them for no real reason. He doesn’t answer to anyone. He is essentially a exemplar of Evil Corporate Guy. Just like Bruce Willis’ Dallas is a paragon of Tough Guy, who can walk into a room full of warriors and just shoot the leader between the eyes—the leader that the warrior race utterly depends on but also apparently take no pains to protect.

Hey, that’s another great scene. Makes no sense at all.

There is no honor among arms dealers.

The movie puts cool ahead of anything else at every moment and…you know, that’s okay. Amongst a host of dumb, mega-FX summer flicks, it stands out for still being entertaining.

Willis and Oldman are in top form, and it may be the best role Milla Jovovich ever has played. (Although what exactly she’s playing is unclear.) But her delivery of the language she and Besson invented is really perfect and I feel like subsequent roles she’s had haven’t really put a lot of great words in her mouth. She also gets a great range of emotions to display and comes off very likable.

Back in the day, I found Chris Tucker’s androgynous Ruby Rhod nigh-unbearable. He’s dialing schtick up to ten and yet, by today’s standards, he doesn’t seem all that outré.

Still obnoxious, not really outré.

It does sorta make you wonder why Valerian was such a stinker. A lot of people blame the two leads, but they’ve both gone on to turn in respectable performances elsewhere. The mysterious “chemistry” one’s always hearing about? I mean…did Bruce and Milla have chemistry here or were they just two charming and hot people? Dunno.

I do know that the universe of The Fifth Element feels more real to me, and looks better than its 20-year-newer predecessor. On the other hand, it may just come down to Besson. Making movies is hard, the movie business is hard, and it takes a lot out of people. Almost nobody who was hot in the ’90s is still hot now. (Tom Cruise and Milla Jovovich, basically.)

I would say that this movie, rather remarkably, is more or less just the same experience as it was back then. Weird, really.

Am I the only one that thinks Milla is 1000x better looking when she’s NOT in a movie?

Marcel The Shell With Shoes On

A young boy and his grandmother who have been separated from their family enlist the help of a documentarian to reunite. There’s a concise capsule review for you of Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, which elides only that the boy and his grandmother are, in fact, shell creatures.

Marcel and his grandmother in their garden.

Over a decade ago, future ex-spouses Jenny Slate and Dean Flesicher-Camp created the whimsical Marcel for a series of shorts and a couple of children’s books. In this feature, a newly single Dean (played by Fleischer-Camp) discovers the shell creatures at his AirBnB after splitting with his girlfriend, and decides to make a documentary about them.

Dean’s backstory is lightly told, mostly as the curious Marcel probes the reluctant filmmaker about his situation, and is one of the many light and artful touches to a story that could have been twee and insufferably shallow. Slate provides the voice of Marcel, and back in 2010, this was her first voice-acting role and would lead to a robust voice career (“Bob’s Burgers”, Despicable Me, The Secret Life of Pets, and most famously as Bellwether in Zootopia) augmenting her somewhat desultory acting career (My Blind Brother, Hotel Artemis, Venom).

The Shell Clan watching TV in bed.

The focus here is on Marcel who is, of course, very cute. As we’re introduced to him, we discover his modes of travel (inside a tennis ball, for example, for high speed movement, and putting honey on his shoes so he can walk on walls and windows), his means of support (formerly snacks from humans, now a garden), and his relationship with his elderly grandmother Connie (Isabella Rossellini). Apparently, long ago (Marcel is not good with time, which sets up some good gags) the owners of the house split up and in a rage the man dumped all the contents of a drawer into his bag and left.

Marcel and Connie were not there because they were early to the shell family’s weekly viewing of “60 Minutes”.

After a series of entertaining sight and verbal gags—Marcel is not sarcastic or caustic, but he is very pointed in his questions—Dean lights on the idea of making Marcel a YouTube channel to see if anyone can help him find his family. This section of the film is fairly interesting commentary on the utility of Internet fame, where Marcel discovers that his main interest to the “influencer” world is as a prop to their self-aggrandizement.

Ultimately this leads to attention from “60 Minutes” and the real prospect of reuniting with his family.

There’s your story: Short, sweet, cute, but also showing how the struggles of life are universal: We deal with dreams, loss, friendship, family, fame, and all from the perspective of a one-eyed shell.

You really have to admire Marcel being willing to risk compromising his integrity by appearing with Stahl.

I almost didn’t go see it. The whole “60 Minutes” bit and lionization of Lesley Stahl made me wonder if there wouldn’t be some other messaging in there. But there isn’t really: It’s a simple story, well told. And it’s a fairy tale, so I don’t mind that it takes place in a semi-functioning world (unlike our own) where journalists actually do fearlessly seek out the truth. Stahl’s earnest recreation of her interviewing style as she talks to a stop-motion-animated shell only highlights the absurdity of our current establishment.

It’s weird to have this as a consideration for a children’s movie, but this is where we are. (It recalls to me somewhat my experience of Ghost Writer, where in order to avoid seeing a movie about anal rape, I had to go see a movie by Roman Polanski.) But Marcel is probably saved because it’s a passion project for Slate and Fleischer-Camp, who I’m sure they’re reliably left (and Slate starred in the pro-abortion film The Obvious Child) but a good artist tells a good story first and foremost, and this simple adventure is a good story—a hero’s journey that understands the hero has to have some troubles and overcome obstacles and so on.

After a limited release, the film took off, sorta, and ended up with about $7 million at the box office. (DC’s Super-Pets, by contrast, has made $70 million—but on a budget of $90 million, which is a tad higher than Marcel, and with much less interesting results.) I was amused to see the Chiodo Brothers name on this for the animation—I know them best for Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Robocop, An American Werewolf in London—but they’ve been around a long time and have done plenty of family fare as well (Elf, “Goosebumps”).

I suspect the film will really take off in streaming, but it hasn’t shown up on any services yet.

Dean Fleischer-Camp with ex-wife Jenny Slate.

Black Phone

The Boy said, after the movie was over, that he found himself thinking “Hey, this is a lot like a Stephen King story…but a Christian is shown in a sympathetic light.” I informed him that the author, Joe Hill, was Stephen King’s son. “In other words, we just saw a story about an abusive anti-religious alcoholic who beats his children, but I’m sure it’s not autobiographical.”

I kid the King. I hear he’s a real nice guy. Like many celebrities, he’s a good example of why neither politics nor religion should be discussed outside of very narrow spaces.

Serial killer/child-rapist?

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine who the “author insert” is.

Anyway, Black Phone? Good movie. One of the screenwriters was wandering around Joe Bob’s Jamboree and seemed like a real cool dude. If I had to pick him out of a lineup, I would’ve gone with C. Robert Cargill but this is why you shouldn’t trust me with a lineup. Since everyone was saying it was the guy who also wrote Sinister and Doctor Strange, it had to have been Scott Derrickson. Who also directed this film after “creative differences” on the set of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

The creative differences probably being that the last thing Marvel Studios wants is creativity.

So, whadda we got here? Kids in the “Stranger Things” era are being kidnapped and killed by a local masked villain known as The Grabber. Our protagonist, who lives at home with his abusive dad and his shining sister, is a wuss who lets his sister get beat, who gets beat up by school gangs, and who generally has a hard time confronting difficult things. Needless to say, he ends up a victim of aforementioned serial kidnapper. His only hope? The vengeful spirits of those who have gone before him, but who are rapidly losing their identities and memories.

Sure we’ve seen it before. But have we seen it…uh…set in Denver in 1978? Probably not?

Originality isn’t really the thing here. There are elements of The Shining, of Carrie, and especially of Silence of the Lambs. I mean, the entire third act feels like the climax of Silence of the Lambs. None of that really matters.

Mask by Tom Savini.

What do you mean, we’re out of lotion? Have you seen my skin?

The execution is top-notch. There’s no sin in telling the same story others have told if you do it better, and this is, as the Boy termed it, a “solid thriller”. The pacing is dependable. There’s no reliance on jump scares. The atmosphere is terrific: It’s not dogmatically color-coded in cyan so you know it’s a horror movie. The menace feels very real because it’s not relying on supernatural cues but on the fact that it’s the ’70s and kids just went places and were occasionally kidnapped. The characterization is mostly excellent, occasionally a little type-y just because you’ve got quite a few of them who are both important and have very little screen time in your 100 minute movie.

The worst and most graphic violence in the movie is fights our protagonists have with bullies. Which is plenty violent, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like the movie’s “R” is largely due to the language—which very accurately reflects 1978 playground language, as I recall it.

There’s very little violence involving The Grabber himself. Ethan Hawke is getting a lot of praise here for channeling Ted Levine, and there are elements of Francis Dolarhyde here, though I’m not sure whether it’s more Ralph Fiennes or Tom Noonan. He’s doing exactly what I’d expect Ethan Hawke to do, so I’m not sure what all the ooh-ing and ah-ing is about. I mean, it works, but who was surprised by that? Hawke conveys—without the movie ever having to show, and only exposits through past victims—a sadistic, perverted, self-pitying monster. The movie doesn’t need to show anything because we know what he’s done, broad strokes, and he gives enough hints to be horrifying.

Nice.

Mmmm. Mustard yellow.

The decor! The fashion! The glitz! 1979!

Jeremy Davies, as the abusive father is quite good, treading that line between utterly despicable and utterly pathetic. The little girl, Madeleine McGraw, does a great job with her part, even if it does feel a little…go-girl-ish? I’m going to assume this character will feel fine in a more normal time than we’re currently in. It’s kind of necessary for her to be aggressive because her brother is so passive.

Mason Thames knocks it out of the park as Finney, our hero. He’s passive, which we understand given his environment, and his situation is totally unfair but we for God’s sake want him to stand up for himself and what’s right and all that. Thames manages to keep Finney likable, not just sympathetic, and his character arc is what the movie is all about.

The Boy was not blown away. But he really liked it, as did I. It’s such a simple, uncomplicated story that it almost feels strange to praise it. But then you think about the little details, the great performances and the attention to the story—this isn’t some franchise piece somebody crapped out for a quick buck. It has heart and rewards you, rather than punishes you, for having seen it.

That's telekinesis, Kyle!

There’s someone here who keeps saying I should kill the Grabber “with mind bullets”.

Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree: Sunday

In a vain attempt to reduce the size of my coverage of Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree, I summarized a lot of things. Then that was too long, so I split it into two posts. You can see the first part of the weekend here at Ace’s (where comments will get you banned) or here at Moviegique’s (where nobody comments and we don’t know how to ban).

Today let’s talk about Sunday on a sweltering summer day in Memphis. (I actually found it quite pleasant but I’m used to 100+ weather.)

Hogzilla

“Say ‘Hogzilla’ one more time…”

Sunday night began with a riff of Hogzilla. Led by “Mystery Science Theater 3000’s” Jonah Ray, and helped by “The Last Drive-In” team (Darcy the Mail Girl, Austin Jennings and John Brennan) as well as riffs from the crowd, it’s safe to say this movie doesn’t really get any better with time. Darcy dug up a print to air a season or two back to torment Joe Bob with—to this day, the slightest provocation will get the crew and audience chanting “Hogzilla! Hogzilla! Hogzilla!”—its major crime, really, is claiming to star Joe Bob when he’s in very little of the movie. (This, of course, is a low-budget tradition.) That and, the rest of the cast is aggressively unlikable, which I think is less to do with them than a kind of cheap way to add tension when your monster budget is low to non-existent (also a low-budget tradition).

There’s not much to it, alas: It’s just a slasher movie with a giant feral boar taking the place of the slasher, but otherwise behaving exactly as a slasher does, down to picking off people alone and…well, I guess he doesn’t hide the bodies or anything but they seem to pop up unexpectedly anyway. This is the sort of movie that runs 90 minutes (if you count the very, very slow moving end credits) and really needs some riffing to get through. Ideas for Hogzilla 2 were floated, as well, such as Hogzilla 2: Pig In The City and 2 Hog 2 Zilla.

This is one of those movies that isn’t even going to make it to cult status.

The 2022 Hubbies

 

Purty, tho'.

For some reason, I’m thinking of the Mechanical Turk/Billy Bass gag from “What We Do In The Shadows”.

The Sunday night close-out and the ostensible reason-for-the-season was the Drive-In Academy Awards (the “Hubbies”). I actually re-scheduled my flight and took Monday off so I could be here for this, and I don’t regret it. Out of 250 submissions, ten winners were picked and then screened after the announcements. I missed two of them because I was waiting in line for an autograph, but the one takeaway I have from the eight I did see was: Wow, the technical level of the indie film has gone through the roof!

Of course, I’m seeing the top 4%. The other 96% almost certainly contained some more amateurish stuff, but the first one up was “Polybius“, based on the urban legend about a video game with a sinister effect on young minds. (If you go to the Wiki link, there’s an FBI meme in the offing: The FBI you wish you had fought crime; The FBI you’d settle for are evil high-tech geniuses; The FBI you get raids arcades because a kid has a seizure playing Tempest.) Trailer.

Anyway, this very ’80s premise was executed on a level to where you didn’t notice the budget. That’s kind of a big deal, I think. If you can walk away from a 20-minute $50K short just thinking about the contents of the short and not how they cut corners, that’s really something. For scale, consider the budget of the 1960 Little Shop of Horrors was over five-times that (adjusted for inflation) and used existing sets, and still feels inescapably cheap (for all its amusing aspects).

So, something is going on here which is potentially very good. Tom Atkins is in this one, by the way, and damn, can he still act. I mean, he’s 86 and he can’t hear very well, but he still projects strength and authority on screen. Very impressive.  (Atkins won a Lifetime Achievement Hubbie.) Writer/director Jim Kelly was floating around and seemed like a hell of a nice guy, too. From Mount Sinai, New York.

Get it?

“One day, Rockford’s ass will be MINE!”

I missed the feature winner Greywood Plot because I was standing in line to get an autograph. Joe Bob and Darcy The Mail Girl powered through the weekend on a couple of hours of sleep (after which they ran off to do a show above the Mason-Dixon line) at least partly due to JB’s insistence that he see everyone. He was dead on his feet—on his butt, actually, since he was sitting—by the time I got to him and still managed a sincere smile and chit-chat. (Trailer here.)

From Josh Stifter and Dan Degman of Crystal, Minnesota, Greywood is the tale of wannabe influencers who end up on an all-too-successful cryptid hunt. Kudos for the trailer effectively giving a brief shot of the monster. That’s just a rare thing period. (They either don’t show it or you wish they didn’t.)

The animated short The Mechanical Dancer, was not only as good as anything I’ve seen from a studio, it’s legitimately aesthetically superior to anything I’ve seen recently. A stop-motion-looking cartoon done in the style of the 1920 film The Cabinet of Caligari, this takes elements of that plot with a twist of Frankenstein/Bucket of Blood…it’s just nice to look at. Josh and Jenna Jaillet are professional artists and have produced something that you might find in front of a Pixar flick, minus the corporate blandification. From Sunrise, Florida.

Threshhold: A voice-over artist is haunted by ghosts…or is she just crazy? Or both?! (Entire short here.) Directed by Mike Thompson of Louisville, Kentucky.

Last Day for Videos: A documentary about the closing of the last video store chain in America. (Entire short here.) Nostalgic, melancholic, and oddly affecting considering video stores were about a 35-year phenomenon. Hell, you nearly 29-year-olds probably barely remember ’em. Directed by Chad Campbell of Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Be Mine: This black comedy short reminded me heavily of a Julie Nolke bit gone horribly wrong, when a guy on a Valentine’s Day date is ready to take his relationship with his new “from out of town” girlfriend to the next level, only to realize he knows absolutely nothing about her. From Ryan and Anthony Famulari of Long Island, New York, I cannot for the life of me find a trailer or even a still of this, and “Be Mine” is a title shared by about a dozen horror shorts made in the past decade. But it made me laugh out loud!

Lethalogica: Calling this “micro” budget probably doesn’t do justice to the word “micro”. The budget was about $800 per director Tony Reames and co-writer Haley Leary. Leary stars in the film with Luke Tanner as a couple who have a slight misunderstanding that unfolds in a very drive-in way. From Georgia. No trailer I can find.

The Thing About Beecher’s Gate: Another micro-micro, made for about $250 over two weekends by Jeremy Herbert of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, the premise of this 26-minute short is that a new deputy in a small town must undergo a hazing ritual (or is it?), guarding a shed overnight which—well, let’s say it’s inspired by Assault on Precinct 13 and leave it at that. This was entertaining to me, but somewhat disappointing in that it’s clear that the events of the night don’t play out as planned, but it made me wonder what the “going right” could’ve possibly meant. Trailer.

Mannequins:  Directed by David Malcom from the UK, this story of mannequins playing out horror stories is fun, unusual and also has a kind of arty feel. Mannequins haven’t been this sympathetic since Kim Catrall! (Entire short here.)

Ew.

A cable box only a Cronenberg could love.

The last film was a full-length feature called HeBGB TV. Sketch films are always kind of hit-and-miss but the noteworthy aspect is that there are some hits, and the technical/aesthetic quality is overall a pleasant callback to those old Rubinstein TV shows like “Tales from the Darkside”. From Jake McClellan, Adam Lenhart and Eric Griffin of Lancaster, PA. This is just a remarkable first time effort!

The takeaway for me was this: You could sit through these and think, “Hey, these are pretty good.” As opposed to “Hey, these are pretty good for the budget.”

JB has decided next year the Hubbies will be the first night instead of the last, which is a good move. Winning a Hubbie isn’t necessarily a ticket to fame and wealth or even to being able to make another movie—the people who get that far should be feted by the crowd that loves them best. We were up past 3:30AM Monday AM seeing these, and a lot of people had to leave beforehand.

I had no regrets a few hours later when I stumbled through the Nashville airport: Totally worth it!

Cha Cha Real Smooth

The sixth and final film in our accidental series of passion projects, this one written and directed by Cooper Raiff, Cha Cha Real Smooth is the story of a recent college graduate, Andrew, who is kind of aimless and living at home with his much younger brother (Evan Assante), his mom (Leslie Mann), and his stepfather (Brad Garrett) that he doesn’t much care for. His plans are so inchoate that they basically involve working at the Meat Sticks in the mall until he can get enough money to join his college girlfriend who is spending a year in Spain and pretty much has told him their whole college deal is over.

Meat Sticks!

I, too, would work at the Meat Sticks just for the merch.

The first thing that stands out about the movie is the character of Andrew (played by Raiff). Andrew is a really nice guy. Genuinely nice. Not perfect by a long shot. But a big part of his aimlessness comes from knowing that he wants to do something good and not being able to figure out what that would be.

Attending a flailing bar mitzvah with his family, out of a sincere desire to make things better, he…makes things better. He gets the party started. He gets people dancing. He does such a good job, people hire him as a professional party mover. This path leads him to Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt).

The attraction between the decade-older Domino and Andrew creates immediate tension because Andrew is really cool and gentle and excellent with Lola but Domino has a fianceé she is conflicted about on the one hand, but not in the movie-logic “Well, the young man who hasn’t even started his life should totally hook up with the mother with the teen daughter” way. The tension weighs on Andrew and he begins to lose his general coolness.

He acts like a dick, in short. And we see that, to some degree, his intense romantic feelings are a way of diverting from his aimlessness.

But she has some!

Still shots of Dakota Johnson do not really capture her charm.

This all works remarkably well. Minefields abound (from the standpoint of building a narrative). Andrew could be smug and unlikable (as is the way of the youth) but he’s not. Even his aimlessness is less a The Graduate-style inchoate loathing for The System, Man and just a “I want to make the world a better place, I just haven’t figure out how yet.” He could also be movie-perfect and he is not.

Here’s another refreshing aspect of the film: The characters in the movie that are positioned as his antagonists (his stepfather and his would-be girlfriend’s boyfriend), far from irremedial villains, are actually real live people with their own goals and feelings. In fact, wherever one might be tempted to reduce a character to a particular type, some atypical (for a movie) depth of character turns up.

Well, okay, there is the Prick family. Literally listed in the credits as Little Prick and Mr. and Mrs. Prick. Little likes tormenting Lola and as awful and cartoonish as it sounds, yeah, that’s well within the realm of reality, as well as the parents who indulge their children’s cruelty.

Good job.

Typical neuroatypical? She’s smart about some things, dumb about others.

The acting in this is award worthy. I have never seen a better performance from Mann. I’ve never noticed Johnson that much (though she was good in Black Mass), but here she is supremely effective: maternal, sexy, vulnerable but not stupid, you can understand both Andrew’s attraction to her and her conflict. Brad Garrett could be the butt of all the antics, but with very little time, he is a big part of young-Andrew-not-quite-getting-things. So, too, with Raul Castillo, who you could easily believe is abusive—he’s cut, he’s angry, he’s a lawyer—but ultimately is more mature and sensitive than Andrew.

Vanessa Burghardt. I was just commenting to The Boy that Tropic Thunder had really put a stop to the I’m-Mentally-Handicapped-Give-Me-An-Award genre. This, thankfully, is not that. Burghardt does good here. The movie does a good job of portraying the essential weirdness of certain types of brain injuries without glamorizing it, and Burghardt’s performance is more true-to-life than awards-bait.

Raiff himself does an excellent job in the lead. As I said, the minefield is not small. Pulling off writer, director, producer and lead is done more frequently than it’s done well, and it’s done well here.

It made a nice close to the six flicks.

Better blocking would've made the kid visible, too, somehow.

There’s a lot of story in this one shot.

 

Joe Bob’s Drive-In Jamboree: Friday and Saturday

I have a massive write-up already on the whole weekend in Memphis, where we spent all night watching drive-in movies, the days in a convention, and even a morning trip to Graceland, but it’s too long for a Saturday Evening movie post, so here are the movie highlights. Even this is massive. Oy. I’m cutting this into two bits.

Halloween III: The Season of the Witch

It’s a joke. On the children.

One of the bones of contention between Joe Bob and Darcy the Mail Girl has been Halloween 3. It’s been a comedic whipping boy for him since it came out, while for Darcy it’s a beloved classic, perhaps second to only Scream as her favorite horror movie. Darcy is a genuine fanatic and expert on horror movies, who can rattle off the names of Giallo directors from movie titles like Death Walks On High Heels (“Ercoli!”) and Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have The Key (“Martino!”) and has interviewed I think most of the cast and crew on her podcast Geek Tawk.

So when JB let her program the first movie on Friday night, she naturally picked H3 and invited the stars Tom Atkins and Stacy Nelkin, as well as director Tommy Lee Wallace, to watch with them and make Joe Bob defend his stance on the film. She even had “The Last Drive-In” director Austin Jennings create a supercut of all the Joe Bob H3 bashing done over the years, on The Movie Channel and TNT, which cut had to be shortened for time.

The conventional wisdom, I think, on H3 is that it would have been more successful had it not been named Halloween, that people went to see Michael Meyers slashing up teens and they didn’t get that and were disappointed. I don’t know about that: I was the exact demographic that movie was aimed at, I knew exactly what Carpenter was doing and respected it. I certainly didn’t want to see just another movie about teens being carved up after the (literally) dozens of slashers made in the 1978 to 1982 period.

While that may have had a chilling effect on its box office (it made around $15M on a budget of $2.5M), I’d be just as willing to bet the downright mean violence of Halloween II had as much a suppressing effect. (The original Halloween has virtually no blood, and is powered by style and atmosphere, so the sequel was kind of an unpleasant shock to me.) But the biggest suppressor is doubtless the movie itself: Enough people saw it for it to take off via word-of-mouth, had people liked it enough.

I’m doing a full break down on this, but the summary at this late date is this: Like a lot of the older films we used to discard, there’s a tremendous amount of skill at work here. The third act is genuinely bravura as is its commitment to the sort of horror which, while not bloody, is genuinely horrific in its implications. The acting is fun, the camerawork top-notch, the music effective. But the first two acts really don’t feel much like a horror movie. (As Joe Bob quipped that night, “It’s sort of become ‘Murder, She Wrote’, hasn’t it?”) The upshot is that, unless you’re fully bought into it from the get-go, the movie’s logical leaps keep hitting you in the face—and the movie doesn’t do what it needs to in those first two acts to help you buy in.

That said, I will watch this again, just for the filmmaking and to try to pin down why it isn’t as great as I think it should be.

This first night was our early night for the weekend. We got out around 1:30-2AM.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

I got this one autographed by P.J.

I’ve reviewed Rock and Roll High School—holy crap, six years ago, “Rocktober” 2016—when Mary Woronov came to a local showing. At the Jamboree, we had P.J. Soles,  and I think this movie gets better every time I see it. A JB pointed out (after yelling “F*#& John Hughes!”), this was the “last” high school movie that dealt with all the usual high school issues with a truly light-hearted attitude. My fellow mutants and I were calling out the Savage Steve Holland—with me embarrassingly referring to him as “Screaming George”, mashing up The Real Don Steele’s “Screaming Steve” character with special FX artist “Screaming Mad George”—classics One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead and no doubt there have been others, but there was a definite angsty sentimentality to Hughes work which has encouraged me to keep most of his films away from my kids. (Exception.)

P.J. Soles was in attendance and a live version of the title song was attempted, more or less successfully, and I have to say that she really sells the Riff Randall character (and in a way I don’t think her #1 competitor, the rather younger Rosanna Arquette, would have been able to). There’s also something endearing/refreshing about story arc not about being “in love” with the Ramones, but just loving the music and wanting them to sing the songs she’s written. (This may have something to do with it being the realization of director Allan Arkush’s high school fantasies about, like, The Rolling Stones or a male group of that generation.)

Bubba Ho-Tep

Elvis and JFK on their way to fight evil.

The second film on Saturday night was Bubba Ho-Tep, and I can honestly say that it was the first time I’ve ever been in an audience with not only a group of people who had already seen it but who, like me, saw it during its initial short-run, which consisted of director Don Coscarelli and his team running the 32 prints of the movie around the country. The backstory of this movie is awesome: Back in the ’90s, someone put together a collection of essays and short stories reflecting on Elvis, who had been dead 15 to 20 years at that point. Joe R. Lansdale (Cold In July), an East Texas writer a grossly neglected-by-Hollywood, came up with what he considered the most unfilmable story possible. (In this case, the “unfilmable” has more to do with the completely a-commercial aspects of the story rather than, say, The Naked Lunch style of unfilmability.)

In an East Texas old-folks home, Elvis (Bruce Campbell) lays rotting away after an accident left him in a coma for 20 years, and rather disabled with a…genital deformity. When members of the home start having their souls sucked out by an ancient Egyptian mummy (who has acclimated to life in Texas enough to adopt the local clothing customs), he rouses himself to fight it, with the help of John F. Kennedy, played by Ossie Davis.

If you haven’t seen the film, you doubtless have questions. How is Elvis alive and why doesn’t anyone know it’s him, for example. Or, why is JFK black? How did an ancient Egyptian mummy end up in East Texas?

While the story explains all these things, to some degree, the magic of the movie is in the dramatic poignancy of the characters, realized by the performance of the actors. I feel that needs italic emphasis because it’s not what you would reasonably expect. But it’s the first time I saw Campbell and thought, “Hey, this guy really can act!” (This is not a dig: Campbell is a classic “movie star” and I think generally when people hire him, they don’t want acting, they want Bruce. Here he’s Elvis-as-a-human-being without being a cheesy impersonator.) Ossie Davis, despite being near the end of his life, is a powerhouse. Even the relatively minor part of the nurse, played by Ella Joyce, has just the right mix of nursely-authority and warmth.

It holds up really well after 20 years, I have to say. We were out of the drive-in by around 2:30-3, because we had to get up the next morning for our field trip to Graceland.

 

Wild Men

We were on a streak of seeing truly odd and unusual movies—unique, even—when we decided to catch this more conventional Danish film about a middle-aged man who flees to the forests of Norway to get in touch with his Viking heritage. There is little more disheartening than seeing the way modernity has sapped the Vikings, the Scots, the Western US and Canada—places we associate traditionally with vigor and independence—and one feels that our hero, Martin (Rasmus Bjerg) shares those sentiments as he bumbles around the forest with his cell phone and poorly crafted bow.

The story is that Martin has, under pretense of going on a business trip, decided to just live in the wild. Without telling anyone. Including his wife. He’s also completely unprepared, really. When we first see him, he manages to put an arrow in a little deer but not actually kill it. Desperate for food, he raids a nearby convenience store. This is our first real indication he’s actually in the modern world, although we’re not actually surprised by this.

IYKWIMAITYD

The police officers and the swarthy gentlemen don’t exactly reek of VIKING!

Martin looks soft. He looks modern. His skin and hair are well cared-for, even if he has let his beard grow out. He’s in the woods but he’s got his little cheats: A tent, a sleeping bag, the occasional convenience store raid—though as he rationalizes later on, stealing from others is about the most Viking thing you can do.

Enter into this less than idyllic scene, one drug mule named Musa (Zaki Youssef, The Looming Tower). Musa’s with his two buddies on his way to make a drop off when their car hits an elk. An elk, for those who don’t know is like a miniature moose, but since the car they’re in is also a miniature, it’s totaled and the two buddies are incapacitated. Musa, realizing the penalty for failing to make a drop-off and not wanting to get busted by the cops, heads off into the woods to find the little town where his relay is stationed.

Instead, he finds Martin who chases off the cops he believes are looking for him for the convenience store thing. Musa convinces Martin to go to the nearby Viking village—a kind of Nordic themed Renaissance Festival—which also happens to be on the way, while the cops (who really would rather be anywhere else) are reduced to explaining their failure to their crusty old boss.

Eventually, the two drug buddies recover, hijacking the car of a man and his shrewish, pregnant wife. Martin thinks he’s found heaven-on-earth in the Viking village where a classic Nordic giant greets him as a kin—right until the flirty grilled-meat wench tries to ring him up on her iPad and spoils the illusion. (We had a bunch of those Danish grilled meat places try to take hold here pre-pandemic but they don’t seem to have last. Also, I swear they were all called “döner”—er, maybe with a slash through the o and not the umlaut—which is how “kebab” filtered through Europe. Hardly classic Viking.)

What?

The lights are pretty but the Vikings didn’t get electricity till Tesla invented it in the 14th century.

Anyway, you can see what’s going on here. Martin, the decent family man feeling robbed of his Viking birthright by modern comforts; Musa, the lone wolf but essentially not evil criminal; his two drug buddies, genuinely murderous thugs; the hen-pecked powerless husband; the crusty old sheriff (Bjørn Sundquist, Dead Snow, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) from an older time… We’re struggling with the concepts of masculinity.

I think Martin had the right idea, even if his execution lacked any sort of reasonable plan or path to success.

Overall, it’s an effective film. Somewhat melancholy and low-key as Scandinavian movies tend to be but with a rather surprising third act: This isn’t really a comedy or played for laughs overall, as the question of what it means to be a man takes on a literal life-or-death situation. Director Thomas Daneskov’s last project was a miniseries documentary called “Just Boys IRL” about teen gamers meeting for the first time and I can’t help but think that informed this movie.

Worth a watch.

Though the bow keeps knocking over the chip displays.

How I dress for shopping, too, tbf.

Ninja Badass

Resisting the urge to see Mad God again when venturing down to the tony side of town, the Boy and I opted to see Ninja Badass on its last day. It was a surreal experience on a number of levels. First of all, this is a truly bizarre film—a comedy, sort of an action comedy, sort of a buddy picture where the buddies swap out mid-film, a kind of editing tour de force where the final product is way slicker than the source material somehow.

Second of all, it was Q&A night, but the only other people in attendance besides us were the writer/director/editor/star Ryan Harrison, his mom (who was in the movie) and his pal (who was not by virtue of being in L.A. when shooting was done).

I was more enthused by it than the Boy, who said, “I think you like bad movies more than I do.” Well. Fair enough. But there’s “bad” and there’s “bad” and so many other shades of “bad”, and this movie has a lot of good to it, and only a few bad things that genuinely work against it.

It's badass.

That hair, tho’.

The premise: Rex (Harrison) who lives with his mom (Harrison’s mom, Tara, “Miss Hot Body 1988”) wants to upgrade to the pet store hottie but she’s captured by Big Twitty’s Super Ninjers Squad, and he must rescue her if he’s to have any chance of a lovelife. He and his best pal Kano (Mitch Schlagel) seek out the grand master Ninjer Haskell to learn the necessary skills to succeed. Haskell confronts Big Twitty (Darrell Francis) and ends up an arm short, and through a series of vicissitudes I didn’t quite follow, Kano vanishes and Rex continues his journey with BT’s daughter Jojo (Tatiana Ortiz). Jojo is looking to improve her relationship with her father, which task is complicated by the two of them always trying to kill each other.

I assumed from this that Schlagel had to drop out and Ortiz filled in in spots. He does return later for the shocking twist.

Sure, why not.

Our heroes when they start on their journey.

None of this is super important, of course. This is a micro-budget film and passion project, and this really shows in the editing. It succeeds on the whole by moving you from moment to moment: The cardinal sin of the low budget feature has always been boredom—which generally wins out because padding the film to feature length is more important, traditionally—and Harrison does a lot to keep things interesting. If you don’t like a particular bit, another one is coming along in five sec—well, there it is already.

The film’s biggest weakness is that it feels like there isn’t quite enough material to cohesively hang together on the one hand, and more than enough material that other parts don’t feel developed.

Lee Van Cleef has nothing on this guy.

The Master Ninjer. And his cows.

The film’s next biggest weakness is the sound design. I don’t think there is any per se, and while I wouldn’t call it a nit-pick, it’s so common as to be practically de rigeur in low budget indies going back to the beginning. Still, it’s a definite minus. While I could hear the dialog quite clearly, it was always accompanied by loud background noise. A lot of it. Like an ambient microphone recording that had been boosted to make the dialog clear. (Our particular showing was way too loud, too, hurting our ears.)

Despite the disjointedness of it, and the extremely broad nature of the comedy, it manages to hang the funny bits and the outlandish bits together in such a way that you still sort of like and root for the characters by the end, especially Rex and Jojo.

And despite taking over a decade to make, there isn’t the sense of ennui that you seem some other extended projects. Harrison commits to the bit, follows through, and comes up with a surprisingly funny 100 minutes.

Can I recommend it? Well, it’s not for everyone™. It’s crude. There is a lot of sexual humor. There is a ridiculous amount of ridiculous violence. The word “ninja” is pronounced “ninjer”. There is a penis more or less right off the bat. (I didn’t ask Harrison if it was his.) He turns his mother into a running “yo mama” joke. (What a good sport! Actually, both seemed like real sweethearts.) There’s dracophilia. Sorta? Does it count if the dragon is one of those Chinese parade puppets? But also sort of a real dragon? I don’t know.

It defies classification, really. If you’re looking for something different and you’re not overly sensitive (both metaphorically and literally, given the visuals and audio) this will turn the trick.

Mad God

I had spotted this film in the upcoming features for our local bijou and then the trailer, airing on Shudder during the intermission of “The Last Drive-In” got us all excited, so we trundled off over the hill to catch it when it opened just a few days later.

Mad God is an effort that’s been constructed over 30 years. A product of special-effects impresario Phil Tippet’s studio, boosted by some crowdfunding and Shudder money, presumably, it could perhaps best be described as a stop-motion Inferno. It begins with the Tower of Babel (or something like that) being consumed by smoke and fiery clouds, which led me to believe that this was, literally, about an angry god. But madness of the other sort prevails.

After the tower is (presumably) destroyed along with the world, we have a future where the world is in ruins, hellish and dystopic, and yet actually pretty sane compared to what is to come. An agent is sent into the earth below where we see layers of Hell (or something close enough to it as to make no never mind) where life is tortured and destroyed, and maybe even created—only to be tortured and destroyed. The agent is on a machine. He’s got a suitcase with a bomb in it. He’s gonna blow up Hell or something.

I could describe the whole plot as I perceived it and it wouldn’t really be even slightly spoilery. It also wouldn’t match up at much what I presume the canonical description of the plot (per Wikipedia) is.

It’s not really about the plot, though. I realized that early on and just enjoyed the visuals trying (but not too hard) to make sense of the proceedings. It’s a novel creation, a truly unique filmed experience, sometimes beautiful in its horror. The Boy was so taken by the first half of the film, the second half disappointed him somewhat, as he didn’t feel it tied things together that well. We agreed, leaving the theater, that we could turn around right then and watch it again.

To say that it’s not for everybody is to do violence to the phrase “not for everybody”. This is genuinely weird, more than occasionally uncomfortable, existing outside of normal concepts of “morality”—existing outside normal concepts of “normal”. It’s disturbing. And this is me saying that.

Just as much as it isn’t for everybody, it is really, really for us. Seeing someone’s “completely different mind working on full blast” is one of the reasons we go to the movie, and this delivers in spades.

It’s the sort of movie that rewards you for watching closely, and gives you lots to speculate on. Maybe the imagery is just random and meaningless, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like every set-piece, every 5-second shot for that matter, has a backstory and could be the basis for a whole ‘nother story. If the movie doesn’t quite delivery a satisfying “why”, it makes up for it by giving lots of potential answers.

We saw this right after Crimes of the Future, and any movie that makes a Cronenberg body-horror seem tame in comparison has definitely got something going on in my book!

 

Crimes of the Future

My kids primarily know David Cronenberg from an early “Rick and Morty”, where Rick carelessly but typically turns the entire population of planet Earth into grotesque monsters that they call “Cronenbergs”. There’s even a Rick and Morty mutation that refer to each other as “Cronenberg Rick” and “Cronenberg Morty”. IMDB lists the Canadian primarily as an actor, stating that he’s best known for being the obstetrician in Dead Ringers and the gynecologist in The Fly. (I’m sensing a theme, here, David.) His first major acting role was as the evil Scarecrow-esque psychiatrist in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, a movie worth watching—but only the director’s cut. (It’s a long, long story.)

Cronenberg David Cronenberg?

So this would be…Cronenberg David?

Despite his roles in that and the fact that he’s maybe done more acting recently than directing, and despite the fact that his most recent movies have been what you might call “respectable”—Map To The Stars, A Dangerous Method, Eastern Promises, A History of Violence—I think it’s fair to say that his greatest contribution to cinema, his essential Cronenberg-acity, is from his earlier films, specifically The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, even Naked Lunch, which define the aesthetic of Cronenberg body-horror.

Scanners, obviously, is one the movies he’s most known for, but the body horror is limited to that one famous scene, and doesn’t have quite the “look”. No, Cronenberg’s aesthetic is so remarkable that you know it the instant you see it.

I mean.

Like this chair that helps Viggo digest his food.

Needless to say, the introduction to Viggo Mortensen’s character in this movie, entombed as he was in one of several inexplicable and bizarre, not-really-science-fiction-type chairs and beds, put a rather big smile on my face. (The Boy, not having any association with the style thought it was interesting but could sense his own ignorance. Interestingly enough, we’ve never had a Cronenberg-fest locally in his lifetime that I am aware of.) It was also nice to see that Cronenberg, who turns 80 next year, could still direct an old-school dystopic body horror flick like he did 40 years ago—and even get some walkouts at Cannes.

I would hope it goes without saying that if you don’t like that kind of movie, you aren’t going to like this. But if you do, I felt this was a solid example, even if IMDB rates it at the bottom of his output. To me, it made aesthetic sense and just enough “logical” sense that I could follow the plot, understand the motives, and get what the overarching point was.

The story: In a grimy dystopic future, people no longer get pain or infection—this provides an amusing potential why for the griminess: people don’t clean or take care of things because there are no consequences to NOT doing it—but they are growing novel organs rather mysteriously. Saul (Viggo Mortensen) and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) are performance artists: He grows these organs and she publicly excises them through a baroque surgery device, the technology of which seems to have been lost or forgotten. The two have a reasonably lucrative gig doing this—although money never seems to change hands, so the payment may be in fame or attention or something else. They definitely (especially Saul) have a kind of rock star status.

And...naked.

Caprice’s beauty stands in stark contrast to Saul’s deformity.

The Government is taking an interest in these new organs, however, starting a Novel (or National, though which nation?) Organ Registry which Saul must visit—this is a little murky, actually. He’s got to register the organs, so it’s a public function, but it’s also a secretive thing that no one is supposed to know about, at least not yet. This kind of Kafka-esque situation includes a bureaucrat, Timlin (Kristin Stewart), who develops a thing for Saul.

It’s a good time to remind yourself that Kristin Stewart can act when they let her. In this she has a nervous sexual energy that threatens Caprice but is mildly amusing and flattering to Saul.

Anyway, there’s a secret police (I mean, any movie involving the government that doesn’t have a secret police is bigger fantasy than this, amirite?) agent named Cope who takes the position that there is a transformation going on in the world, and this transformation is from human to something inhuman, with all the implied menace. The core of the story centers around a murdered child whose internal organs may reveal something about the nature of this transformation, and Cope wants to shape the outcome of the investigations of the boy and round up all the pro-noveux human types.

So we got ourselves a paranoid, futuristic body-horror conspiracy fetish movie.

Sort of interesting to me: I couldn’t remember a Cronenberg horror movie with a major black character in it—I mean, he made the early ones in Canada in the ’70s initially—and I thought it was interesting that Cope was played by a black man (a Guinea actor named Welket Bungué) and his concern was with, essentially, racial purity. It was a nice touch, even if purely coincidental.

Despite his name.

Cope does not cope well.

But the main issue is where Saul stands on all this. Because even he’s not sure. In fact, we get the impression that he, too, is rather repulsed by what his body is doing (body horror, after all) and views his surgical performances as a way to fight that. But he’s also increasingly sick, and some of the crazy conspiracy theories are starting to make sense to him.

I liked it quite a bit. It was different (in the overall marketplace sense; it fits in well with Cronenber’s oeuvre) and weird and distinctive.

Sexual fetishism plays a role here. Cronenberg has never shied away from highly charged eroticism which is both rather explicit and absolutely necessary to the plot. (A History of Violence‘s extended mutual oral sex scene between Mortensen and Bello, e.g.) Here we discover that Saul is good at…well, whatever passes for sex in this weird future, but not at the old-fashioned kind. And there is an extended scene of Caprice naked which serves to remind one (in case one had forgotten since The French Dispatch) that Ms. Seydoux looks awfully good naked. Anyone else, you might think it’s cheap bait, but it’s so critical and perfect to have the contrast between the oddly mutated Saul—an uncomfortable future—and the practically perfect Caprice.

The only weakness, to my mind, was the unwillingness to crank it up a little bit. The ending seemed so obvious and inevitable to me—which is in itself a kind of achievement when you’re dealing with something this surreal—that I thought Saul could have used a bit more drama to goose his arc. But even this, I know, is deliberate, and I wonder if it’s just to keep everything as grounded as possible under the circumstances.

Anyway, I’d recommend it up there with Existenz, e.g. I think it makes its point and is interesting and disturbing. The Boy also liked it though he didn’t have a strong a positive reaction as I did.

Stewart is aggressively weird sometimes.

Paints a picture, don’t it?

The Roundup

Ma Dong-seok! Ma Dong-seok!

Thus goeth the chant on the way to Koreatown to see The Roundup, the latest Ma Dong-seok cop action flick. We like Mr. Ma. He’s got charisma. So the fact that this is a sequel to 2017’s The Outlaws (“based on a true story!”) didn’t bother us even though none of us have seen that older film. You can tell it’s a sequel, though, in the sense that there are many characters you’re sort of supposed to know to go along with the new characters who are central to the current story.

But it’s kind of nice in this regard: The people from the previous film feel like fleshed out characters even if you haven’t seen the first flick. They have their traits and interests and goals, and it’s a good reminder that you don’t need a lot of screen time to build a character.

The story is about Korean tourists in Vietnam being kidnapped and held for ransom and/or murdered. Ma plays Ma Seok-do (which I think would be like Jean-Claude van Damme playing a character called Claude Jack Van Damme, but what do I know?) a loose cannon cop who doesn’t respect international borders when it comes to justice.

I’m not really exaggerating here. Ma has a bad habit of making his own people look bad in the papers (at least according to his boss) and to get rid of him for a while, sends him to do an extradition in a foreign country. Classic. It reminds me of a blend of American films from the ’50s to the ’80s, with a sincere patriotism, good-natured enthusiasm and a genuine good-vs-evil narrative. I do find the comical treatment of police brutality grating, as I have in American films. On the other hand, I liked the whole “Hey, we’re supposed to bring justice, why does it matter what country we’re in?” ethos.

The supporting cast is strong, from the genuinely evil villain to the wacky comic-relief—a low-level grifter whose schemes are constantly being thwarted by Ma, but who ends up saving the day, even if unintentionally. There is that whole kind-of, “Sure, there are petty thieves and con-men, but when you’re up against real evil, even they’ll be on your side” trope which is nice.

Good action. Nice twist at the end which is explained after the fact. I’d sorta figured it out but the explanation was helpful. Otherwise you could walk away thinking Ma was just magic and had successfully guessed where the bad guy would be.

The Flower came with us for this one. Ma Dong-seok may be the only contemporary movie star* she’s ever gone to see a movie because he was in it. She even toyed with going to see The Eternals, as someone who hasn’t seen a marvel movie since 2015, but we both figured there wasn’t going to be enough Ma to make it worth our whiles.

*Ma Dong-seok and Clint Eastwood. Even though he’s barely contemporary, she’s been a fan of his since and because of Gran Torino, so he counts.

Literally.

Ma looms large.

Memoria

Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (say that name three times fast, or once slowly for that matter) has been showered with awards over his 20-odd year career, and Memoria is no exception, garnering six awards and nineteen nominations from places like Cannes, Ghent and Chicago, where it won a Gold Hugo! (I was unable to ascertain why the Chicago International Film Festival awards Gold and Silver Hugos but Mr. W has three previous nominations with this film being his first win.

This is a spare, moody, slow-pa—ok, it sucked.

I kid. Sorta. The Boy and I didn’t hate it per se it but it spurred some discussion about why the tactics used here have worked so well in other films and didn’t land for us here.

Yes, there is a climactic nap.

So, for the big finale, we’re gonna sit here and talk for, about 30-40 minutes. Well, not, talk actually. We’ll nap.

The story is that Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is—well, here let me give you the capsule from the movie’s website:

Ever since being startled by a loud ‘bang’ at daybreak, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is unable to sleep. In Bogotá to visit her sister, she befriends Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), an archaeologist studying human remains discovered within a tunnel under construction.

Jessica travels to see Agnes at the excavation site. In a small town nearby, she encounters a fish scaler, Hernan (Elkin Diaz). They share memories by the river. As the day comes to a close, Jessica is awakened to a sense of clarity.

Huh. Well, we didn’t guess that she was in Bogotá to visit her sister. I didn’t get that she was traveling to see Agnes—it actually seemed to me like she was going out to try to solve the mystery of the big badaboom. I didn’t really get that she wasn’t able to sleep until she explicitly says so well into the picture. (The handling of time is murky, deliberately, I’m sure.) So in the movie’s 135 minute runtime, I got about 40% of these six sentences. And not a whole lot else.

The Boy and I have been captivated by a number of slow-moving films in our day, setting aside Kubrick and Lean whose movies tend to have big payoffs, there’s Stalker, which is much longer than this film and has shots as long or longer, though generally with some motion to the camera or the characters, or some revelatory or purposeful intent. In this movie, you watch the fish scaler take a nap. I mean, there’s a purpose to it, but…oy. The camera sits there for I don’t know how long. Another scene takes place where Jessica listens to music through headphones—you hear none of it.

And that’s the whole movie, really: A camera sitting in one place, with one very static image.

Slow, is what I'm saying.

Images like this say so much after you’ve stared at them for 12 minutes. Things like, “I have to go to the bathroom” and “I wonder if I can get a refill on my popcorn.”

There’s a scene where Jessica stops by a classroom (?) where a jazz combo is playing and the camera holds on her, in the midst of this small audience, as she listens to the combo playing. And listens and listens and listens. Now, the longer you hold a shot on a character observing something, the greater the expectation you create for the reverse shot. The audience wants to see what’s so damn fascinating! An Airplane!-style riff at this point would’ve been to reverse the camera to reveal everyone was just looking at a radio, e.g. This two-minute Saturday Night Live/Steve Martin sketch plays on the concept by never switching to the reverse.

In fact, I can think of way more comedic uses of the technique than dramatic. And horror uses, where it usually results in disappointment (because the reverse shot is of the monster, and…monsters are hard and usually disappointing). In drama, it’s typically used to show a character’s emotional change, a curve up or down as the character has various realizations about things and becomes more despondent (usually) or happier. It’s also not typically done as a medium-shot in a crowd scene, because it can be hard to read changes from that distance.

Maybe that was the point: Maybe we were being shown Jessica’s increasing alienation from reality. But if that’s what was going down, it was too subtle for either me or The Boy to pick up. And that’s only one type of static shot. There’s another where she’s looking at an art installation (I think that’s what it was) for a good several minutes, and again the camera is at a medium-to-long range so…I mean, alienation is a thing you’re communicating with that, but do you really want to alienate your audience?

Subverting expectations!

The movie changes from “staring at someone staring at something” to “staring at someone listening to something”.

I would describe the story thusly: Jessica hears a loud noise that wakes her up one night. She lives her life not knowing whether the noise is real or not. Further, people she interacts with seem to disappear not just physically but from the memories of everyone around her. Is she crazy or is something else going on?

Here’s another technique that works against the film: The mysterious noise is often followed by car alarms going off in a pattern. One starts, then another, and this builds till all the alarms are going off. Then they die off one-by-one until they’ve all stopped.

Now, for myself, when a film director shows me something and there is no character around to observe it, I take it as literal. There can’t be an unreliable narrator if there’s no narrator. The car alarm symphony is shown from a completely neutral location the first time, signaling to me that it’s actually happening.

The second time we hear the noise, Jessica is walking along the street and the entire city appears to be reacting to the noise. I took that as proof that the noise was real. There was a little sleight-of-hand there, potentially, though, and maybe everyone was reacting to something else unrelated to the noise. But there’s an entire character that just vanishes from the story, too, and who never existed according to the other characters (including complete strangers who would have to have known) so in retrospect I would have to say that Jessica is hallucinating the whole time.

I don’t think you could even argue very strongly that her sister is real, or the archaeologist, or any other part of the story for that matter. Why am I sitting here?

In the long run, this struck me very much like Under The Skin in that it’s basically a B-movie plot that’s done in such an abstract way that critics finally allow themselves to enjoy it. For myself, I kept waiting for there to be something—anything—on these long shots to justify them. Even as studies in acting, the camera is too far, or Swinton is too subtle (for me) to enjoy.

But I suppose that’s the kind of thinking that keeps me from winning a Gold Hugo.

I got nothing.

“Help, I’m trapped inside a pie crust!”

Hatching

For me, taking the Boy to go see a Finnish horror movie has a real “we’re back!” feeling to it. (For purposes of this review, we’ll set aside the question of whether Finland actually exists.) It helps that Pahanhautoja is odd and interesting and tragic, very contemporary and has a somewhat ballsy take on “is this literally happening? or is this a metaphor?” (See also Northman, The.)

*shudder*

Already the most horrifying image you’ll see this year.

A beautiful 12-year-old girl, Tinja, lives with Mother and Father (that’s all they’re called) and her brother Tero in a lovely little home in a tract in the woods, with their lives being a perfect Instagram drama staged by Mother. Played by Sophia Heikkilä who channels the ancient primal spirit of Karen, Mother must have everything perfect all the time: Matching clothes, expensive and fragile furnishings, overt demonstrations of strong sexual attraction to Father, champion gymnast daughter, and so on. So, in the opening scene, when a crow flies in (another Northman parallel) and smashes up the joint, we’re not surprised when Mother kills it.

Tinja is awoken later that night by the cries of the crow who, it turns out, is not dead but limping along in pain with a broken neck. The upshot of this odd, supernatural sequence is that Tinja ends up with a suspiciously large egg she nurtures in secret. The suspiciously large egg grows suspiciously larger, and Tinja becomes increasingly clever about hiding it while we (and she) learn more about the true dysfunction in her family.

At the end of the first act, the egg hatches.

There's an update for ya.

The Suspiciously Large Egg and I

This is important, cinematically, for a lot of reasons. You could do an entire movie, e.g., where Tinja hides the egg that grows bigger and bigger until…well, in that kind of story, the hatching could be the climax and would tend toward an entirely metaphorical reading like, say, Rhinoceros. In this movie, the egg hatches—with a nice mix of what appears to be puppetry and CGI—and the problem gets worse. So while we’re given prompts to see it as a metaphor for the onset of menses and eating disorders, among other common modern problems, it’s the movie’s misguided characters who make those interpretations, only to be taken by surprise by a literal monster.

This monster has a tendency to try to eliminate anything or anyone that slightly annoys Tinja. I mentioned earlier that Tinja is beautiful, and this is important. Early on she gets a new neighbor her own age, who is as beautiful if not more so than she. And who is better at gymnastics. And who has a yippy dog who barks when Tinja’s trying to sleep.

You get the picture.

Pretty tho'.

Tinja’s competition Reetta is played by Ida Määttänen, who has too many umlauts.

Mother, of course, is the real monster in this movie. Besides demanding the feigned perfection, she utterly disregards her son, and her apparent love for her daughter—well, let’s digress here for a moment. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote (back in 2007) was on the line between parenting and friendship. Many arguments can be had on where the line might be drawn, but we can probably all agree that enlisting your daughter in your adulterous schemes is well over where any non-narcissist would draw them.

Interestingly, Mom’s lover (who quickly moves from secret to right out in the open) is the only male in the movie worth a damn. A widower with an infant child, he is the polar opposite of the nebbishy Father—a strong, sensitive handyman who is the only adult in the movie who deals with Tinja with any level of compassion or understanding. He lives in an old, rustic farmhouse that Mother cheerfully describes as a “fixer-upper” and at which she brings Tinja to spend the weekend. Mother, it would seem, is preparing to replace her old family with a new one, with Tinja being the only thing she plans to bring with her. And even Tinja’s role is clearly disposable with an adorable new infant for Mother to hyperfocus on.

The eyes have it.

This image conveys something subtler than you might realize at first.

Even with Tinja resenting her mother’s impending dissolution of the family and her subsequent replacement, she’s not a monster, and this is ultimately what powers the film. We empathize with her. She’s trying hard to please her mother, whose constant demands on her make it impossible for her to forge any friendships elsewhere. Nonetheless, she’ll sacrifice the approval she craves to do the right thing. She’s just a kid with a situation that’s gotten out of hand.

I’m not sure how I feel about the ending, which is a step up from “oh my god, I hated the ending”. It did not have a “twist”, for which I was grateful, but I felt like maybe there should have been some kind of coda. “What happens next?” is necessarily not a bad place to leave the audience, though, and almost any extra material after the obvious climax of a horror movie

Overall, a worthy watch and, as noted, one that really made things feel “normal” for your moviegoing correspondent. Sadly, the ten-day period that gave us seven interesting movies would be followed by three weeks of nothing and the local AMC being shut down. At least today we would have a chance to see the latest Ma Dong-seok movie.

Six Different Minds Working On Full Blast

Years ago, when we saw Violence Voyager, The Boy introduced me to a concept he had picked up on the Internet called “someone’s different mind working on full blast”. And, truly, the Internet is both a source and a destination for such things. In the span of about a week, we had the opportunity to see six such films. These are movies that do not feel like “product”: They are someone’s vision, someone’s fever dream, someone’s wild hallucinations put to celluloid.

For the most part, they’re way more entertaining than 90% of the movies that will make it to the top 20. I’ll have independent reviews of each of these in the upcoming days but since I couldn’t pick one to single out, here are capsules of each.

(Note: This post originally appeared at Ace of Spades HQ Saturday Night Movie Thread for 25 June 2022.)

Crimes of the Future

Not the most unpleasant thing Stewart has had to stick in her eye for a movie. (I don’t even know what I’m implying here.)

This is pure classic Cronenberg which, I have to say, it’s kind of heartening that he can still make this kind of movie. He has a unique vision—he basically defined his own genre of body horror that, for the most part, other people don’t even try to imitate. And that’s for the best. Sometimes he hits with me and sometimes he doesn’t—I like there to be a kind of logic that I can follow, and this movie definitely has that. The premise is that humans, inexplicably, are growing new organs. Viggo Mortensen has a career as a performance artist who grows these organs so that Léa Seydoux can extract them on stage.

The government has set up a registry to keep track of all these new organs, with at least one strain of thought being that the presence of these organs transmogrifies former humans into…something else. The paranoid subplot doesn’t quite have the oomph you’d hope for—it’s all very low-key given the topic which in itself is very Cronenberg—but I enjoyed it. The Boy was less sure what to do with this one, not having any experience with the genre. It’s not a starter film, for sure, like The Fly.

Memoria

“OK, Tilda, look up…you’re looking up…good…look up…hold…hold…keep looking…hold…for about 20 minutes…”

This one has awards up the yin-yang from Cannes and, by our lights, was the only read dog in the bunch. It’s super static. Now, the Boy and I love static movies, generally. Kubrick and Lean, for example, but even more to the point, Stalker. (Or, in my case, Schulze Gets The Blues.) What I’m getting at is, we’re not impatient. This one, to me, reminded of Under The Skin: It’s basically a B-movie plot about Tilda Swinton wandering around Colombia having either a psychotic break or being haunted or something, and the lack of action makes it “arty”.

Actually, if you take it that she’s having a psychotic break, the movie both makes more sense and is more pointless than the overt answer to the riddle of “Where’s That Loud Banging Coming From?” The Boy had sort of assumed that early on, whereas I felt the movie gave too many cues that things were happening in the real world. Unfortunately, the answer is hugely unsatisfying. But, like, I said: Lots of awards.

Mad God

Eye…have no idea what’s going on.

This is many someone’s different minds working at full blast, and over 30 years, as Special FX impresario Phil Tippet has allowed a variety of animators to gain experience by working on bits and pieces of this fever dream. What’s it about? I’m not sure, exactly. I think it’s about a guy in Hell who ventures into Worse Hell in order to blow it up, but doesn’t make it, and then…something happens. Well, look, lots of things happen. Lots of weird, inexplicable, nightmarish things.

I could tell early on that the narrative wasn’t really going to make a lot of sense, so I kind of let it all wash over me, whereas the Boy loved the first half so much, he was somewhat disappointed by the second half not quite feeling tied together. Both of us felt we could go see it again right after seeing it the first time. Kickstarter and the Shudder horror streaming channel had something to do with this, and it is available to watch on Shudder. It’s a hell of a funhouse ride. Very dark and disturbing.

Ninja Badass

There is some male genitalia in this film I suspect to be the director’s but I didn’t ask.

We ventured out to see this one a few days after Mad God, and it was, apparently, “closing night” with a Q&A featuring the director. Sadly, it was just the Boy and I, as well as the director, his mother and a friend of the family who had turned out, which is a shame. This is a colorful, chaotic mess of a comedy that’s also oddly rather polished. Written, directed, starring and edited by Ryan Harrison, this is the story of a weird loser whose (unwilling future) girlfriend is captured by ninjas—”ninjers”, because it’s Indiana, I guess—and who must rescue her if he’s ever going to graduate from the blow-up doll and move out of his mother’s house (Miss Hot Body 1989, played by his real mother).

On his journey, he’s accompanied by his friend and a girl ninja, but they all have competing ideas about how things should go down, and at one point the friend disappears—I suspect some of this due to the extended length of time the movie took to film—and comes back in a surprise twist that didn’t quite make sense.

It’s funny, in parts, and resists the urge to completely beclown every character—the denouement makes everyone seem almost normal. The editing kept it super lively. It was too loud in the theater, and the sound mix was too chaotic (perhaps covering up for unevenness in ambient recording?), but while I liked it more than The Boy, it kind of stuck with both of us. Too many films go for that “cult classic midnight showing” thing—this one feels like it’s eminently re-watchable. It’s jam-packed.

Wild Men

We won’t talk about his bow technique. Or crossbows. Never talk about crossbows.

Of the six movies, this was the most “normal” of films. A Danish film written and directed by Thomas Daneskov, this is a story of a guy who decides he wants to chuck modern life and goes out into the Norwegian wilderness to live like a Viking—a life for which he is completely unprepared. His path crosses with a drug courier, and the two go on a journey that takes them through a Viking-re-enactment village, being pursued by cops and a bereft wife, and gives the filmmakers a chance to ask, repeatedly, what it means to be a man.

Because, let’s face it, Scandinavian dudes are seriously cucked. To my way of thinking, the doof who wanders off into the wilderness was the guy who had the right idea (even if a poor execution). But the characters are (all too) real and the journey interesting. Also, as always, Norway is gorgeous to look at. I wish they’d shot this on film.

Cha Cha Real Smooth

Bar-mitzvahs have changed since I was nearly 13.

Produced, directed, written by and starring Cooper Raiff (Raiff Cooper?), Cha Cha tells the story of a fresh-out-of-college, directionless romantic named Andrew, who is working at the Meat Sticks and trying to raise enough money to go out to Barcelona (where his girlfriend went and is already cheating on him, though he’s not exactly Mr. Faithful, either) because he doesn’t really know what else to do. The thing that makes the movie work is that Andrew is really nice, like, a genuinely good person, and in a successful effort to salvage a bar mitzvah that’s dying as a party, he ends up being a professional party starter.

At one of these party he meets young mom Domino (Dakota Johnson) and manages to get her autistic daughter on the dance floor. The three of them begin a relationship, complicated by Domino’s fiancée, and the ten-year age difference—a problem she recognizes but he does not. The thing that makes this movie really stand out is all the characters feel real, feel like they have genuine motivations, and just because they piss off Andrew doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy human beings.

The dangers in the story were immense—Andrew could have come off like a supreme douchebag—yet we ended up comparing it favorably to other character-driven classics (like from the ’30s and ’40s). Top notch acting all around. Leslie Mann is amazing. Johnson is more appealing than I’ve ever seen her. Brad Garrett is a kind of a bump-on-a-log that we come to respect. Etc. A shockingly pleasant film, if you can imagine such a thing.

Bonus: Top Gun: Maverick

Totally not in this category but is also good. Better than the original by a long-shot.

Let It Be Morning (35th Israel Film Fest)

In what might be a metaphor, an allegory, perhaps a parable, when the self-proclaimed Palestinians make a movie by themselves, it’s usually a horror show about how Jews are monsters and it’s therefore a good thing to kill them while when they work with Jews, there’s a lot more empathy toward all viewpoints. Whatever it is, it’s probably not a coincidence.

You don’t necessarily know what’s what going IN to one of these movies, however.

The director and co-writer Eran Colirin also wrote and directed The Band’s Visit, a relatively early (for me, 2007) Israeli film experience (after 2004’s Ushpizin which remains one of my favorite movies ever), so I needn’t have worried. This is actually much like that film in terms of pacing and tone.

Oy.

I feel like flying a kite in the DMZ is a bit more exciting than it is other places.

I would describe both films as “interesting”, actually. Kevin Smith once said that in Hollywood when someone says your movie is “interesting” that means they didn’t like it. Well, fine, we needn’t be constrained by Hollywood “manners”: When I say something is “interesting” I mean it, and it’s a good thing.

Sami is an Arab Palestinian living and working in Tel Aviv who comes back for his little brother’s wedding. We get the usual tropes of “successful city dweller returning to his rustic roots”: The village people hold Sami in a kind of awe and he is very concerned about keeping his distance from these rubes, both embarrassed by their behaviors and his connection to them and ashamed of his shame. His father is building him a house using day laborers, as if he were going to return home. He has a mistress in Israel, a Jewess no less, and has no interest in his hot but bitchy (with good reason) wife.

Seriously unsubtle.

There is an unsubtle metaphor about doves not flying here.

He flees the ceremony with his wife and kid only to find himself trapped. Apparently due to—well, we never really know if it’s pending nuclear war between America and Iran, a political shakedown, or an attempt to find terrorists amongst the day laborers—and when he retreats back to his brother’s pad, he discovers both his brother and his brother’s new bride eager to take his kid and—as becomes increasingly apparent—keep as far away from his hot new (constantly texting) wife as possible. Turns out he also has (or wants?) a Jewish mistress, and a job amongst the Chosen People in Israeli, and to get out of the old country.

What the hell’s going on here? Well, again, if it were a purely Arab film, this would be part of a Jewish scheme to…I dunno…steal the precious bodily essences of strong Arab men.

What we get instead is an interesting mixture of a lot of life’s complexities. The town thugs are busy rousting people and cooperating with the (seemingly) unreasonable demands of the Israeli authorities. The vital security issue being address apparently only requires a single guard on the border. Sami and his wife Mira are having trouble, sure, but Sami’s parents weren’t a picture of good marital health either.

Jews, probably.

Something ominous on the horizon.

They can’t even connect with the day laborers, because the day laborers look at them and think “These guys have it easy.”

Meanwhile Sami’s pal, whom he’s been avoiding since he moved to the city, is scraping by trying to impress his (slutty) ex- and Sami, but has just got himself in hock with the local thugs.

It’s a mess, as life often is, and one can relate to it in a purely apolitical fashion. The Palestinians here don’t want anything other than basic freedom and decency. They’re so cowed they can barely gin themselves up for a protest at the border.

It’s always dangerous to try to apply movie narratives to the real world but I tend to believe there is some truth in this. While not neglecting the extremely virulent anti-Semitism that exists (and receives generous funding) in those territories, I think there must be those who would be willing to put their love of their children over their hatred of Jews, as Golda Meier put it.

Pray for peace.

Amazing more people don't get shot.

I feel like there’s a lot of “assing around” on the border, as Winston Groom might put it.

Plan A (35th Israel Film Festival)

Did you know that there was a plan by angry Jews to poison the bread of SS being detained in American POW camps after WWII as revenge? It’s true! The Jews were working in a bakery that was feeding the camp and they were going to poison the bread, with the main problem being that they didn’t want to poison the Americans.

This was Plan B.

What was Plan A, you ask?

Poisoning the water supply in Nuremberg to kill as many Germans as possible.

Eep.

You can tell just by looking at them which spent a lot of time in the camps.

The 35th IFF gives us a movie about the band of rebel Jews who decide “an eye for an eye” means six million Germans should be killed. This is based on a real story though of course certain liberties were taken. I’m not sure, for example, that the six million number was being bandied about by Jewish survivors in 1945. (Wikipedia uses the number as well and seems to put it in the mouth of the head of the movement so…maybe?)

Our protagonist is Max, a Jew recently freed from the camp (sans deceased wife and child) to go to his old homestead only to get the tar beaten out of him by the German who stole it in his absence. (This is an entire sub-genre of post-WWII movies.) While fantasizing of revenge, he runs across a group of soldiers—the British army had divisions of Jews which were, of course, called Palestinians—whose extracurricular activities involve finding everyone who helped with the Shoah and killing them.

Max (August Diehl, The King’s Man) enjoys this a little too much, and when the Palestinians are recalled (presumably because Israel looms), he falls in with British Intelligence, which is trying like the dickens to stop all the revenge killings. They figure Max has a chance to get in with Nakam, a small group of terrorists plotting to carry out the eponymous Plan A. Nakam is rightfully suspicious of Max, but when he manages to get a sensitive job at the water treatment plant (by pretending to be SS, no less), they ultimately absorb him into their ranks.

The tension in the movie comes from the whole will he?/won’t he? struggle of Max as he decides what side he’s on. Does he want to stop Nakam? He’s pretty pissed. And just because the war is over doesn’t mean the Germans actually like Jews all of a sudden. (The arc of Germany, as seen in a variety of movies, seems to have been “nothing happened”, “we’re sorry” and now “we will never erase this stain on our souls”.)

Indeed, the weakness of the film is that you don’t really get a sense of Max’s struggle—because he doesn’t really seem to be struggling, at least not with the question of whether or not poisoning six million people is a good idea. He’s struggling with his trauma, he’s struggling with not being outed as a Jew, but mostly he seems okay with the plan. Excited, even.

In fact, Anna (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049 and Sylvia Kristel in the upcoming biopic), a Nakam member who strongly distrusts Max only to end up in a relationship (of sorts) with him becomes the film’s real main character after a while: She is at least as traumatized as Max is by the loss of her child, but she can’t completely dissociate herself from the idea that German’s also have children who have done nothing to warrant being murdered. She becomes the focus of the audience attention as she genuinely does seem to struggle.

Obviously, the historical outcome of the story is known to all of us in advance (unless you want to go Galaxy Brain on Jewish conspiracies) so the main interest of the movie is the aforementioned struggle and the movie is somewhat weaker than it might be. There are some interesting elements as far as planning goes, and as far as not wanting to poison completely indiscriminately, and also whether the consequences of a successful terrorist attack on this level might thwart the Jews attempt to claim Israel.

We did like it, but it didn’t quite gel for us. Like a lot of the Israeli films, it was at least interesting and different.

A million here, a million there...

“Second thoughts? No, why do you ask?”

April 7, 1980 (35th Israel Film Fest)

We moved seamlessly from an actual documentary about Albert Speer into a dramatization of the events of April 7th, 1980, which is probably a very significant date if you were alive at the time, and living in Israel.

Assuming you’re too young or not Israeli enough to know, the broad strokes are this: A small group of terrorists invade the Misgav Am kibbutz to get hostages and thereby negotiate the release of their fellow terrorists. They screw up and end up inside the kids’ dormitory. An abortive attempt at a quick rescue results in a dead soldier, and the Israelis are forced to pretend to negotiate with the terrorists until they can mount a better raid.

Spoiler: They're not.

They seem nice.

Apparently one title for this film was The Longest Night, and while it’s only about 80 minutes long (excluding credits), it’s plenty long enough. Even with a 20 minute lead-in where you get to know some of the people, you’re still looking at a solid hour of wondering when kids are gonna get murdered. The action scenes are done shaky-cam, which I get, but which I felt was kind of mistake. The shaky-cam creates a chaotic situation where you don’t know what’s going on and are reduced to being anxious about the results, which is fairly reflective of real life violence.

On the other hand, the shaky-cam creates a chaotic situation where you don’t know what’s going on and are reduced to being anxious about the results. I think I might have preferred the other extreme, where the action was all done in a remote way.

It’s not a bad movie; we liked it all right. (I wouldn’t say we enjoyed it, exactly.) One thing about being short is you can make a clean statement—say about the traumatic existence of being a Jew surrounded by animals who will kill your children—without wearing out your welcome. You can give a sense of the experience without seeming to be lecturing.

I pointed out to the Boy that there are certain things the Jewish side of the conflict does in their movies that the Arab side does not. In this movie: a) the terrorists goof, they end up in the kid’s dorm accidentally; b) some of the terrorists are conflicted, they don’t want to be there; c) commonality is shown between the Arabs and Jews. I’m sure (c) is true—it can be hard for those of us not caught up in the conflict to tell them apart. I read the (slim) Wikipedia entry and didn’t see any evidence of (a) and (b).

Interestingly, too, the Wiki describes the deaths that occurred, and the movie changes the order and nature of those deaths. I presume this was just for greater dramatic purposes.

Not for everyone.

It’s an hour of feeling like these people look.

In the real incident, the terrorists come in and immediately kill a 2-year-old. Obviously, if they had done that in the movie, that would’ve undermined all of (a), (b) and (c), and removed a considerable amount of tension.

The group was the Arab Liberation Front which, naturally, had me thinking of Life of Brian. I half wanted one of them to start cussing out the Liberation Front of Arabia.

Speer Goes To Hollywood (35th Israel Film Fest)

Did you know a lot of Nazis have IMDB entries? Literal, classic Nazis, not these Ukrainians or Trump supporters I’m always hearing about. Like, Adolf Hitler has many entries as “Self” and “Archive Footage” and, okay, writer (for Mein Kampf), but also “commissioned by…” for Triumph of the Will and “worst boy” for Airplane! My favorite would be the “Thanks” credits: for Blubberella (Uwe Boll, you scamp!) and a much milder acknowledgement from the great Downfall.

Tangentially, are people actually watching Downfall? I love the Hitler memes (and am very sorry Bruno Ganz didn’t) but that’s a damn good movie and Ganz is just wonderful.

Albert Speer, an architect who became Hitler’s war minister and boosted the slave labor quotient, also has some IMDB entries. On Triumph of the Will, e.g., he was the production designer. He served a similar role on Leni Riefenstahl’s first propaganda film, Victory of the Faith. These from the ’30s.

He also was the author of an Emmy-Winning 1982 TV miniseries, Inside the Third Reich.

Wait, what?

Gettin' away with it.

Speer at Nuremberg.

This documentary details how Speer, one of the few big Nazis to escape capital punishment at Nuremberg, set out to rehabilitate his reputation, to the extent where he had Hollywood player Andrew Birkin (The Name of the RosePerfume) out at his house thrashing out an essentially heroic biopic that would—after his death and much amelioration—become Inside the Third Reich.

It’s a fascinating little tale, and as noted by other reviewers, it is important to realize that the tapes you hear while listening to this are recreations. The filmmakers declare these were strict reproductions and done for clarity’s sake, since the old tapes are badly degraded, and to be honest the content is sufficient to make any points needed without dramatic enhancement.

Speer, clearly, is looking for historical salvation. He’s either savvy enough (or completely unsavvy, I guess) to cop to a lot of things. He pressed internees into slave labor. He had a broad picture of the war effort. He was Hitler’s right-hand man in a lot of ways. A lot of times he’ll say, “I don’t think I heard that, but I wouldn’t have objected to it, if I had.”

But he didn’t know about the Holocaust.

Did people know? Didn’t people know? That’s often the Big Question that comes up in these sorts of things. Everybody had more-or-less the same facts, I think. For some people that was sufficient to “know” but for others, I think, they told themselves if they never looked, they’d never “know” and they therefore were not responsible.

But with Speer, the Herculean effort it would take to “not know” even in this specious sense strains credulity. His story has him leaving right at the time the Jew-exterminating was being discussed, every time, over and over. If this kind of not knowing is excusable in some contexts, it certainly wouldn’t be here.

A little self-referential...

Speer reading Speer.

In fact, the impression I got from him, over-and-over, was that he didn’t care. He says as much in multiple places. He wanted to build things. Jews (et al) were not his concern. This seems no less monstrous to me.

Birkin’s also an interesting player in the drama that unfolds. It’s an exciting history and would be red meat to any writer wanting to tackle the most difficult of subjects. But the two discuss, frequently, that they’re mythologizing Speer for the sake of drama. Speer of course knows that will serve to reclaim him but Birkin’s creative drive seems to be blinding him to the implications. At a couple of points, he calls Carol Reed (The Third ManOliver!) who keeps pointing out the dangers of eliding the very real facts of Speer’s case.

And they’re both right, really: The better story, dramatically, is of a man who finds himself caught up in a massive evil and is at a loss as to what to do; the actual story, apparently, is that Speer went along with it and either didn’t care or downright engineered it.

Eventually, sanity prevailed and the movie was never made. The miniseries incorporated some less self-serving material and presented probably a fairer picture than Speer’s memoir.

To paraphrase Uwe Boll in Blubberella: Thanks, Hitler, for making all these great movies possible! (I guess?)

This was the first film we saw as part of the 35th Israel Film Festival which came early this year (probably due to being canceled last year).

Together again!

Speer and Birkin

The Duke

Well, here ya go! A nice little English movie with established actors and producers and what-not that does what nice little English films should do: Treat us to an adventure with fun characters living their quirky little lives and “taking the piss” with (with? on?) overbearing government bureaucrats. This is a time-honored tradition in England, even if it only results in more bureaucrats over time.

They just need, I don' t know, snooker cues?

English Gothic

Kenneth Bumpton (Jim Broadbent) is a poor old crank living in a cruddy English village, unable to hold down a job because he’s just got so many damned opinions about everything in the unjust world of 1961, while his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren) pleads with him to just do something to help out their actual household. They have a son who’s got ambitions to be a boat-builder (which ambitions seem to be out of his class, ’cause England), an older son who’s dodgy, and they also have a deceased daughter Mrs. Bumpton doesn’t want talk about.

When the movie opens, Kenneth is on trial for stealing a very expensive painting of the Duke of Wellington. Flash back six months and we find that among Kenneth’s hobby horses of worker rights and racial justice, he really thinks TV should be free for old people, and he expresses his opinions by writing (presumably) bad teleplays and sending them to the BBC and also by setting up petitions no one signs. He harasses TV fine collectors by arguing his TV can’t get the BBC and therefore he shouldn’t have to pay the tax. (He’s removed something from the TV but I wasn’t sure—I mean, a tuner is a tuner, right? You can’t really remove the “BBC piece”, can you?) He rails at the news story that government paid millions for an old painting instead of using that money to give old people and vets free TV.

Curls for justice!

I assume the whole wig-wearing thing is a flex: “We dare you to laugh at our beautiful white curls.”

He promises his wife he’ll settle down after taking one last stab down in London to make his point heard. After the trip turns disastrous, the titular painting goes missing and turns up in Bumpton’s house. He tries then to ransom it for the money to go to the cause and, as we see from the opening scene, ends up on trial for grand larceny.

I question the whole goal of getting TV to seniors so they won’t be lonely. To me that would be a nightmare scenario. Lord knows the Marxian revolution Bumpton imagines has been a nightmare scenario to everyone who managed to survive one. His efforts to stand up for his “Paki” co-worker had a very good chance to get them both fired, so even when his heart’s in the right place, his follow-through could use some work.

But you can’t help but like the guy, and his wife, and that’s what makes the whole movie work. The little guy fighting against the system lands a blow against all odds and manages to embarrass it quite nicely. David & Goliath-type stuff. I feel like most modern governments would just drone him, so as bad as the U.K. was back then, I think we’re in a much worse place as far as tyrannical rulers, and on that level it’s easy to sympathize. The sub-plot with the dead daughter gives things a little emotional depth they would not have otherwise had, and the resultant breaking down of Mrs. Bumpton’s barriers toward speaking of it gives Mirren a good arc to sink her teeth into. Subtle, yet moving, played perfectly off Broadbent’s character’s larger emotionalism.

Or when returning it.

When stealing art, be sure to bring a large enough overcoat.

Broadbent and Mirren ooze charm, of course, and even though they’re too old in calendar years for the parts, they’re just right for 1961-era 60-ish people.

It’s English and as one expects, the acting is good down to the extras in crowd scenes and the pigeons in Piccadilly Square.

The last film of director Roger Michell, who probably hit his peak popularity around the turn of the century with Changing LanesNotting Hill and Venus. Not a bad one to go out on, really.

I think this was technically released in the US for the 2022 Oscar season so I don’t think it got the nominations the producers were hoping for, and I don’t think it quite cleared its $14M budget, though it did score some noms in the AARP movie awards. I’m not making that up.

Still, worth a watch.

Hell, she's probably pulled it herself a couple of times.

Mirren’s probably wise to the popcorn trick by this point.

Happy New Year/A Year End Medley

In the category of “movies you didn’t know you needed”, how about a Korean version of Love, Actually? Anyone? Anyone? @JulesLaLaLand?

Confession time: I saw Love, Actually when it came out and thought it was “fine” and never thought of it again for about ten years when I realized it was a bone of considerable contention. The aforementioned Jules has a number of criticisms—well, okay, mainly one, that it’s just eight under-developed screenplays—and I can’t argue with that. Partly because it’s true, and partly because it’s been 20 years, and any sort of reflection on the film (apart from some performances and a tragically prophetic plotline for Liam Neeson) would—well, let’s just say I don’t see how I come out a winner by dwelling on it.

Too, I do recall that the connections between the stories in Richard Curtis’ film felt tenuous and contrived like, “Well, let’s thread these stories together…somehow.” But again I watched it and moved on back in 2003.

But maybe I'm wrong.

I don’t think I’m the only one who would look at this and think, “Oh, a Korean ‘Love, Actually’!”

Nonetheless, the poster for the Korean version recalled the English film enough that I intuited that the Korean movie was emulating it. And the Korean movie, the title of which I still don’t really know—apparently made for TV according to IMDB!—tackles two of the main issues with the original film: It has only six stories, instead of eight, and the stories are more tightly woven together, all taking place in a fancy hotel between Christmas and New Years. It’s also less preposterous. Do these changes help?

Maybe. It felt like the two main characters Big Businessman and Hotel Maid had stronger character development than Prime Minister and 10 Dowling Street Maid. And their story arcs allowed/required them to care about other people in a larger sense I don’t recall from the 2003 film. For The Boy and I, having to sort out six stories and distinguish all the characters was a minus Koreans doubtless wouldn’t have as much trouble with. Then there’s that highly memed but rather troubling story arc with the guy from “The Walking Dead” pining after Keira Knightly when she’s just married his best friend—I didn’t sense any equivalent of that, thankfully.

Awful. I apologize...for nothing.

Pretty maid all in the snow?

The Boy was not super-impressed. I liked it a little bit more. With both of us, of course, the bar for Korean movies is pretty high and this would definitely be on the lower side.

I did find it amusing that the Christmas carols played in the movie were Jesus-heavy. I seem to recall that the ones in Love, Actually were pretty non-denominational, except for “Silent Night” in the aforementioned “lie to your new husband scene”.

Also somewhat interestingly the movie was popular enough in Korea that it was (or is going to be) shown as a six-episode TV show, with the stories fleshed out a bit more. That might actually work better.

Belle

It’s not really rolling the dice to go see a Mamoru Hosoda film. Even if he’s never quite hit the heights he did with the first film of his we saw (Wolf Children), he’s always more interesting than his story premises might suggest. In this movie, he returns to a Summer Wars-style virtual reality, where an unassuming girl takes the (virtual) world by storm and finds herself involved with a destructive player who eludes the ruling authorities and creates havoc at community events.

The beautiful Belle finds herself captivated by the “beast” and ultimately finds her way back to his secret castle. At certain points, here, rooms in the castle are directly lifted from the 1946/1991 Beauty and the Beast and the movie teases a plot like that film—and then it veers in an entirely different and ultimately more interesting direction.

This shift and the heroine’s comically aggressive friend who arranges Belle’s meteoric rise and runs cover for her are the highlights of the film, as well as the animation and music.

It probably won’t knock your socks off, but it’s a fun movie with a serious undercurrent, and that unique Hosoda flavor.

 

Policeman’s Lineage

Of the various genres we’ve experienced in Korean cinema, the crime dramas are often the hardest to follow. Since the plots tend to be deliberately murky and the characters often look alike, it’s very easy to get confused. Similar to watching film noir, however, the point is very often the style, the melodrama, the cool characters—the plots don’t even have to make sense.

So it’s sort of ironic that Policeman’s Lineage is well acted with strongly drawn characters and a very easy-to-follow plot, and ultimately ends up being somewhat paint-by-the-numbers and forgettable. It’s not bad—it’s quite entertaining, even—but it doesn’t stand out four months later (which is when I’m writing this review).

The plot is a classic “rookie by-the-book cop is enlisted by Internal Affairs to investigate a heroic, high-profile cop who isn’t so by-the-book and also seems to be quite wealthy”. Add a dash of “my father was a cop but he’s in jail now” and you get that kind of gangster story James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart cut their teeth on back in the ’30s.

When you go back to Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, you have this situation (probably not the first) where the P.I. pretends to be crooked because that’s the best way to deal with crooks. And since then, you have the drama in these sorts of movies coming from the tension of “is he or isn’t he (corrupt)?” A common trope these days is “Well, he is, but not without principles because he sold out in order to do good” or somesuch nonsense. And there’s an interesting chemistry—an excellent chemistry between the two leads—that ends up defusing the tension.

The elder Cho Jin-woong (The Spy Gone North, The Handmaiden) radiates such moral uprightness that even when he physically throws the protégé (Choi Woo-sik,  ParasiteThe Divine FuryTrain To Busan) down and threatens to kill him, you don’t get a sense that he’s doing so for any venal reason. In other words, you kind of feel like Cho is the only genuinely honest guy around and the real tension is whether or not Choi is going to go “by the book” rather than do the right thing.

So it’s still interesting and enjoyable, but almost along a more “is this going to be a Shakespearean tragedy or buddy cop action comedy?” line. Ultimately it didn’t quite pack the punch of a really dark crime drama or the fun of a action comedy, but it was still very watchable.

The Northman

When Robert Eggers makes a movie, I presume two things: 1) That I’m going to like it; b) That I’m not going to recommend it to most people.

This is a lot of prejudice considering I’ve only seen one movie of his, The Witch, all the way back in 2016. Though time is different these days, as if two years had been stolen. He also made The Lighthouse, which I did not see, but which sounded much like The Witch: Something The Boy and I would enjoy but wouldn’t recommend to someone whom we didn’t know had a taste for kind of slow-moving, tension-building historical dramas.

Hi ho to you.

Per The Boy, authentic weaponry enhances the film. Goofy Hollywood fighting detracts.

Despite this limited info, I was correct: I did enjoy The Northman and I would not recommend it to very many people. But not because it was slow moving, rather because it’s too alien to most people’s understandings and, let’s be honest, most people don’t go to the movies to expand their horizons. I was not surprised by one old lady a few seats in front of us who scoffed, finding the whole thing outrageous, apparently. The RT 89/63 split makes perfect sense, except I even think that 63 is a bit too high for a general audience. (This isn’t a movie that a “general audience” would go to, so it self-selects for people more likely to enjoy it.)

I would describe it this way: Imagine, if you will, Christianity had never conquered Scandinavia. The Vikings, instead (somehow) had continued to thrive as a culture and make their colonies in America stick. Fast forward a few hundred years and Hollywood is formed by Norse Pagans, and they want to tell a religious story, like the Ten Commandments.

This is the movie they’d make.

Red gold. Chicago tea.

Come listen to a story ’bout a Viking named Am, his uncle killed his father and then he went ham…

Allegedly based on the same legend that inspired Hamlet, our protagonist is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, What Maisie Knew, Melancholia) who as young boy sees his father murdered and his mother raped (in the classical sense of “carried off”) by his uncle and, barely escaping swears revenge. Twenty, thirty, forty years later—Skarsgård is 46 so, yeah—he comes back for revenge. Except that he can’t go back for revenge because his treacherous uncle was immediately displaced by King Harald and is currently unemployed! In Greenland!

OK, Iceland, but you get the idea: Amleth is going to Iceland to wreak havoc and settle an ancient blood debt without any clue of what’s going on any more. It’s strictly revenge for revenge’s sake.

This is not, generally speaking, a crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t reach the excesses of Korean revenge flick, thank Odin. But it is, at points, basically a slasher film from the slasher’s perspective.

It’s also not really the interesting part of the movie, though this is well done. The interesting parts, at least to my perspective, and why I relate it to, like, the Viking Ten Commandments is that the mythic nature of the story is teased but ultimately validated, and in spades. (Shades of The Witch.) The film is filled with omens and agents of the gods that all incline Amleth to act in the way he does. There’s a scene lifted straight out of Conan—though it wouldn’t surprise me if Howard himself had lifted the story from mythology—but this story is done in a coy fashion, a kind of “did it? or didn’t it?” happen.

Hallucinogens make the issue murky.

Both.

Am I hallucinating or is that Willem Dafoe is a goofy costume?

But by the end, if we are to believe anything in the story, I think we have to take the mystical elements at face value. The gods want blood and they reward those who spill it.

The Vikings are shown in all their brutal glory: They rape and pillage and enslave and it’s hard to actually root for anyone or anything, with the possible exception of Amleth’s slave lover, Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy). She seemed to be a Christian capture but she’s pretty fully pagan by the end so I don’t know what’s going on there. Other than, wow, who thought this little girl would be such a good actress. She mostly just has to emote her way through The VVitch, which was pretty low key, but she’s got some range.

Amleth’s mother is played by Nicole Kidman in some quality scenery chewing scenes. Her various “beauty treatments” seem to have settled in, and she’s rather convincing and eerie as a kind of ageless, almost goddess-like figure. I remember being disturbed by her face in Paddington, by contrast and—say, she’s doing a lot of villainess roles lately, isn’t she? Well, she’s good at ’em. I can’t claim I understood her character here. Was she insane or was she crazy like a fox? (Another Hamlet parallel!)

Clae Bass plays Fjolnir, the uncle of contention. Ethan Hawke is dead dad. Bjork gets to be the sorceress she was always meant to be. Willem Dafoe fits right in there with a small role.

Good acting. Good action, mostly. The final battle is a sword fight on a river of lava, and it’s way better than the last one of those you saw, swearsies. It’s hard to tell who is who in that fight, which I think is deliberate, and underscores the fact that there’s no victor possible in a conventional moral sense but also that we, the audience, don’t necessarily care who wins.

Nobody has the high ground here.

“It’s over, Amletkin! I have the high ground!”

Now, look, if you were a Viking descendant living in a Pagan Norse America, you probably wouldn’t have any problem rooting for the characters in this film—actually either Amleth or his uncle, frankly. One of the things the movie does, in its own weird way, is validate the morality of the characters which was both ubiquitous pre-Christianity in Europe and really, really awful.

So for me, I kind of like that, especially in a historical context. (I’m not crazy when Palestinians do it today, mind you.) When they say a movie is “challenging” this, I think, is a shockingly high-budget example of just that. It bombed in theaters, but may have made its money back streaming; I don’t know how those things are, really, and I presume it’s because Hollywood is hiding the real numbers until they figure out how to extract maximum cash from people. I also presume that they poured money into this because they still kinda-sorta understand “good” in terms of movie craft, but don’t at all understand their alleged audiences. And that’s why everything is a sequel or a franchise based on 30-80 year old property.

The Boy really liked its historical accuracy, right up until the fights, which he felt were dumb Hollywood schlock, all the more painful because the rest of it (at least in terms of the armor and weapons he’s so fond of) was so close.

A narrow recommendation at best, is what I’m saying.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent

If you are a close reader (and who got time for that?) you may notice that I don’t actually recommend movies very often, at least in any unqualified sense. Some of y’all read my review of Everything Everywhere All At Once and mistook my enthusiasm for that film as a recommendation, even though I qualified it six ways from Sunday. There are a lot of reasons to dislike the film, from vulgarity, to absurdity, to a fairly close hewing to political correctness, to say nothing of its occasionally hyperkinetic style.

The last time I recommended a film outright was on of the Christmas Ornaments suggestions, Joyeux Noel, and even there I didn’t qualify only because of space constraints. The point is, really, that there aren’t a lot of General Audience pictures these days. If we go back 40 years to what some ignoramuses claim is the greatest year in movie history, our top ten certainly seems more “general” than the top ten of the past decade: E.T.Indiana JonesRocky IIIOn Golden PondAn Officer and a GentlemanPorky’sArthurStar Trek II, Best Little Whorehouse and Poltergeist. (And I only liked four of those at the time!) You have to infer that any unqualified recommendation has the disclaimer “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’ll like.”

I do recommend movies, but I do it for individuals that I know. For example, I don’t think my mother or The Flower will like Everything but I think the Barbarienne will. What I try to do here is give you a sense of my experience watching something so that you’ll get a sense of whether you might like it regardless of how I felt.

Seems like a big lead-in, no? But that’s because we got another Nicolas Cage movie: The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent.

Some hate him, some love him and for some (probably most, though they’re quiet) it depends entirely on what he’s doing in the movie, and it is the last group that has the most to gain or lose from any given review of a Cage picture. So what is he doing in this movie?

Everything.

Hi-keeba!

I also greet everyone this way.

Cage plays himself, sorta, “Nick” rather than “Nic”, a Hollywood actor who has all the same roles as the real Cage (with a fictionalized family) but who is in desperate need of constant validation, to the point that he grossly neglects his soon-to-be-ex-wife and daughter while running himself to debt with reckless purchases and living at the Sunset Towers. Play It Again, Sam!-style, he is advised by his alter-ego, a digitally de-aged version of himself from the Wild At Heart years who insists he’s not an actor he’s a movie star and that’s what matters in life. It is hard to know which is more pathetic: This young, stupid Cage or the older, neurotic one who is bullied by him.

When he loses out (cameo by David Gordon Green, who directed him in one of his best roles, Joe) on his dream part his agent suggests he do a birthday party for a billionaire in Spain who’s a big fan. Neal Patrick Harris plays the agent, and I found this to be the only miscast—not because NPH doesn’t kill it but because he’s recognizable and it sort of breaks the illusion that you’re watching Cage’s real life. (This, again, is idiosyncratic: I don’t know that he’s generally any more recognizable than, say, Sharon Horgan who plays Mrs. Cage and is all over TV, apparently. Or Pedro Pascal, who’s apparently on “The Mandalorian”.)

The Spanish billionaire (Pascal) turns out to be really cool and the only man in the universe who loves Cage as much as he loves himself, a love which bonds the two in what turns into a rather charming buddy picture. This second act is full of references (most of which I didn’t get because I’m not really a Cage fan) and as the two decide to write a script together, it turns into a fun meta-ironic description of the movie we’re all watching at the moment, to the point where when they talk about the third act needing to be a dumb action picture to attract audiences, you know that’s more than light foreshadowing.

Beefcake?

Lllllllllllllllladies!

Because, unbeknownst to Cage, the CIA is using him as a spy because Spanish billionaire is actually an evil drug cartel leader—or is he? The CIA coerces him into doing stuff, ostensibly to rescue a kidnapped girl.

This part was interesting because, I don’t know about you, but I’m not at a place in my life (if I ever have been) where I can accept the CIA’s word for anything. So while I had no trouble accepting that there were bad guys afoot, I couldn’t really see the CIA as good guys. Intriguingly, the movie also seems to take that stance: The CIA may or may not be right, but they’re certainly grossly incompetent here. That struck me as very believable.

Anyway, the whole spy thing gave us yet another marvelous way to poke fun at actors, stars, and other delusional people and the movie has such a breezy, good-natured sense of humor, you really regret the inevitable third act descent into a dumb action picture. Now, it’s not all bad: This is what gives “Nick” his chance at redemption, when he finally has to prove that he cares about his daughter instead of just using her as a means to get attention. And it’s still pretty light and fun, with a seamless transition into an actual in-movie movie to give us the “Hollywood ending” but in a tongue-in-cheek manner that allows Cage to mock the at-times over-the-top style he’s notorious for. It’s just not quite up to the light-hearted lunacy of the first two acts.

There is a connection.

If you don’t like Cage’s broader acting styles in some roles you might appreciate the exasperation of the excellent supporting cast.

The wonderful thing, if you like Cage at all, is that the movie does give him the chance to act in a broad range of styles. He’s almost Woody Allen-esque at the beginning. Well, okay, a kinetic version of Allen, anyway. When he finds a friend in his biggest fan, this is by turns subtle and comically not, especially when he’s acting as a spy. And despite the corniness of the action-y resolution, you get here the very sincere Cage that feels very real. You end up rooting for the guy.

Directed by Tom Gormican and co-written with Kevin Etten, one or both of the two wrote apparently the script on spec meaning without any up-front cash or assurance that Cage would go along, and initially he wasn’t interested. At one point, apparently, Cage considered playing the Spanish billionaire, but even irony has its limits. Some good cinematography from Nigel Buck and a flexible score from the great Mark Isham, as well as just fun location shots (although supposedly Majorca, actually…Budapest?) round out a pretty darn good “general audience” picture.

It is rated R, for language primarily. There is some drug use, too, most notably an acid trip done for laughs and probably for some commentary on the thinking processes of “creatives”. And there is a kind of interesting message outright stated twice: “Never shit on yourself”, Nick says (right after screwing something up, I think) and “This is why I must trust my shamanic instincts as a thespian” when he realizes how screwed up the CIA—who didn’t trust his shamanistic instincts as a thespian—is. “Never shit on yourself” and “trust your instincts” is actually pretty solid advice, even if you are a neurotic Hollywood movie-star/actor.

'cause young Nick Cage is mega-creepy.

This is one of those cases where the creepiness of CGI de-aging works in the movie’s favor.

We followed this movie up with a Finnish horror movie called The Hatching, The Northman, The Duke, Speer Goes To Hollywood, Plan A, April 7, 1980, and when this is posted I’ll be watching The Raft. The last four are part of the Israeli Film Festival and, with the Finnish horror flick, really made us feel like we were “back”. Sadly, our local indie theater’s demo—elderly American Jews and assorted Middle Easterners—has not come back with us, and this bodes ill for its future.

But for now, we’ll soldier on.

The 2022 Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts

Well, that just happened. The Boy is off on vacation and I’m trying to get back into the moviegoing habit, which ain’t easy, because: a) arbitrary demands for masks and passports could pop up at any time; b) available screenings suck. But I thought I’d roll the bones for the animated shorts which are always hit-and-miss, but at least not usually 100% misses.

In fact, the first two shorts lulled me into a false sense of security that the last three exploited most expertly, leaving me in WTAF mode. The shorts were longer this year (sounds like a fashion statement) so there were only the five noms and none of the honorable mentions. The clearly best one, Boxballet, had about zero chance to win before the limited Ukrainian incursion Biden, Zelensky and Putin are playing out, but now probably will stand as a way for the Academy to rid itself of all those Russian sympathizers it’s been cultivating for the past six decades.

I digress. On to the shorts:

Robin, Robin (UK): A half-hour story about a robin raised by mice. Mice are sneaky. Robins are singy. Combined, you get a robin who sings about how sneaky she is. Overall, very cute indeed, if a little bland. A magpie (Richard E. Grant) sings a song about stuff that conceptually reminded me of Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid but with a melody like Be Our Guest. Gillian Anderson chews the scenery as an evil cat.

Charming, if not exactly fresh.

Boxballet (Russia): In some ways the perfect short story for our time. An up-and-coming beautiful ballerina and a pug-ugly boxer meet and fall in love, and both are presented with unethical options for getting ahead in their respective fields, but at an incalculable cost to their dignity and happiness. I don’t even remember if there was dialogue in this one. There was some background chat (untranslated from Russian but in that clear TV accent that makes it super easy to parse) and a few titles like “Supermarket” but primarily the story is acted out. Truly excellent and memorable and reminded me a bit of the great, melancholy short We Can’t Live Without Cosmos from 2016. A very pure idea and story told in a touching way.

Russian. Very, very Russian.

At this point, there was a card saying “Hide yo kids! Hide yo wife! Shit’s about to get real!” And you never really know what sort of thing is going to happen. Back in 2016, “Prologue” had this and it had some violence and nudity but I didn’t think I would necessarily rush a kid out of the theater. But, yeah, the next two get weird.

Affairs of the Art (UK/Canada): If anything represents modern Anglo culture better than a 60-year-old narcissist lamenting her life and indulging in weird art projects at the expense of all those around her while idolizing her literally psychopathic, childless sister, I don’t know what it is. When I say “psychopathic,” I’m not kidding: The narrator’s sister tortures and kills small animals and I guess the twist is that she goes out to Hollywood to get a lot of plastic surgery and taxidermy rich people’s pets. I don’t say the film approves of any of these characters—it didn’t seem to take a stance—and the thing about shorts (animated or otherwise) is that they don’t have to be to your taste. But, man, it ain’t charming, and if it’s meant as straight-up satire—I still would give it a meh.

Ugly and narcissistic.

Bestia (Chile): Dog decapitation and bestiality are the highlights of this Chilean short, allegedly based on alleged allegations. What this comes down to is Pinochet. Hollywood, of course, loves Communists, but it hates fascists, even when (like Pinochet) they just step down after a vote. An office worker takes her dog to a place every night where it rapes (and kills?) people. I don’t know. The only thing I’d say about this one is that it’s at least a genuine horror story and has some merit on that level. But you’re probably not going to like it.

Ugly. Really ugly.

The Windshield Wiper (US/Spain): This one is also emblematic of the decline and fall of Western civilization, in this case a series of vaguely connected images about disposable relationships in the modern world. The only “adult” content here is an actual, if ordinary sex scene, of an R-rated nature. It was relatively welcome after the previous two shorts, and I’m sure the whole thing resonates with a lot of modern people. It didn’t do much for me. I’m not really a fan of the animation style.

We have a saying, tongue-in-cheek but inherited from my mother’s father who said it in earnest: “We could all be dead tomorrow!” The ultimate rebuttal to someone worrying about some future event, I guess? The Windshield Wiper has an almost clichéd (almost?) use of indie folk-rock type songs, including one called “We Might Be Dead Tomorrow,” which made me actually laugh, particularly as a basis for romantic relationships one hopes to persist.

Imagine the “Sims” without the nudity blurred. Ennui worthy of any Frenchie.

2 out of 5 ain’t great; I was glad the Flower opted to stay home.

UPDATE: “The Windshield Wiper” won the Oscar.

The Conversation (1974)

Sandwiched between the 1972 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather and the 1974 Best Picture Oscar-Winner Godfather II, Francis Ford Coppola directed a low-budget, low-key character study called The Conversation. A modest success (returning 3-4x its budget, but orders of magnitude less than Godfather) and a critical darling, I tried watching it once on the small screen and could not get into it. Even though it’s the opposite of the epic gangster flicks, I still would primarily recommend it be watched on the big screen: it’s a movie that demands a lot of attention to detail. It is very clearly among the best of Coppola’s films.

A "plumber".

Gene Hackman contemplates life as a plumber.

Released four months before Nixon’s resignation but conceived in the mid-’60s, Coppola claims to have been shocked at how closely the technology used by the White House Plumbers mapped with what he filmed. (He wrote, produced and directed.) It’s no surprise that the movie still resonates on the topic of privacy, even though the story itself (the eponymous conversation) is just solid thriller material that works as pure entertainment without the larger themes.

The Conversation has three major aspects that show our protagonist Harry Caul in different lights: It is a mystery; it is a deep-dive into the questions of privacy; it is a showcase for the hottest privacy invasion technology of the ’70s. Let’s take the last first because there’s a big sequence that takes place at a security convention, and it’s kind of amazing nearly fifty years later.

The convention is pretty standard, complete with booth bunny and a bunch of nerds and creeps talking technical details, but the sense of wonder as you see tiny bugs and phone taps that are activated by calling the subject’s phone is unparalleled in 2022 when you realize everyone: a) carries around and lives with devices designed for spying on them; b) has more invasion privacy power by sheer accident than pros did in ’74.

Basically.

“Why would anyone want to carry this in their pocket?” “We’ll, invent a thing called ‘Twitter’…”

The point of this convention is to horrify us: These highly paid creeps have access to technology that allows them access to every private conversation we think we’re having. It’s meant to make us paranoid and it still works! Only now the highly-paid creeps are massive corporations and corrupt governments whose entire basis of operation is violating privacy. This aspect of the movie gives us the most “heroic” view of our protagonist, played expertly by Gene Hackman.

Harry is a true professional: He is excellent at his job, he builds his own equipment, he is sought after and has a kind of integrity in that he refuses overtures that could be very profitable and takes no personal interest in his subjects: He does his job without prurient interest, and even without human curiosity as his assistant (the sadly short-lived John Cazale) points out.

But this focus on the job underscores the fact that Harry is a literal tool. He takes a job to listen to “the conversation” (between Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) and rejoices in the technical aspects of the task (in sequences very reminiscent of Blow Up and later echoed by Blow Out), but when his client (Robert Duvall) has his heavy (Harrison Ford) running interference, he begins to suspect that the young couple’s lives are at stake.

Look at Harrison Ford back there.

A couple years later, at 29, Cindy Williams would go on to portray a young single girl in the late ’50s for the next decade.

What’s more, when one of Harry’s rivals (Alan Garfield) turns the tables on him, eavesdropping on him as a joke, we can see that Harry really, really doesn’t like it. In fact, Harry is paranoid: His lover (Teri Garr) knows nothing about him, he makes business calls from pay phones, he is alarmed when people wish him a happy birthday, and he spends considerable time cajoling the spare key from his landlady.

As he becomes increasingly agitated at the prospects of his work being used for nefarious purposes—something that has happened before to disastrous consequences, we learn—his sense of urgency to do something, to get involved, to try to stop a tragedy, dramatically highlights his limitations. Besides being a tool, Harry’s a coward, and his insistence professional ignorance raises an insurmountable barrier as far as knowing whether or not he’s serving good or serving evil.

I can't decide which is worse.

Cazale would go on to star in “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Deer Hunter” before succumbing to Meryl Streep and cancer.

The dramatic climax of the film comes at about 90 minutes, and could’ve gone any number of ways. It could’ve been completely ambiguous, for example, with Harry completely unaware of what his actions resulted in. (It’s not, but how 1974 would that have been?) This is followed by about 20 minutes of twists and revelations in which we see very plainly the effect of trying to avoid responsibility in the name of professionalism.

Shot in Technicolor, though the drab ’70s version of it (which suits here), with deliberately wonky sound in parts and a lot of repetition of parts up front, I still don’t think I could sit through it on the small screen. A use of Jazz Age classics heightens the sense of paranoia. Like, you can understand being on a secret mission and hearing “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob-Bob-Bobbin’ Along”, only to later hear someone else singing it—that might make you suspicious because who in 1974 was singing that song? Also, because the music is so upbeat in contrast with the tone of the film, it’s almost ironic in and of itself.

Composer David Shire (who would go on to win an Oscar for Norma Rae) slips in some traditional music later on in the film; I didn’t catch exactly when. The first part of the film, however, is all diegetic—the music all has a source within the film—and the shift is subtle and effective, as is the whole transition from an almost documentary feel to a more traditional cinematic experience.

That Coppola guy could make a movie, once upon a time.

Everything Everywhere All At Once

I’ve been a Michelle Yeoh fan going back to Supercop in the ’90s. She and Maggie Cheung and the late Anita Mui were kind of the chop-socky version of the American Scream Queen trio (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens, Michelle Bauer), and were a credit to any film they were in. It was on the strength of that I ventured to the theater to see Everything Everywhere All At Once.

However, if I had known that Daniels had directed the picture, I would’ve gone without trepidation. Daniels is the name Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert go by when they’re directing music videos, but I know them for their freshman feature effort, 2016’s Swiss Army Man. The simplest possible review is probably the most accurate one: If you liked that, you’ll probably like this, too, because it is very, very tonally similar. Or, to put it in another light, this is the Matrix trilogy, if 2/3rds of the Matrix trilogy didn’t suck.

Hong Kong was LIGHT YEARS ahead of Hollywood.

Cheung, Mui and Yeo in “The Heroic Trio”.

In EEAAO, Yeoh plays Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant running a hectic laundry business that she’s trying to expand. She’s getting heat from a goblin IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis) for her copious, dubious business expenses. (A karaoke machine for a laundromat?). Also from her father (the great James Hong, still kicking ass at 93!) who has always considered a failure because she’s not a son.  She transfers this paternal disdain to her kind of dopey, affable husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, best known as Short Round from Temple of Doom) and her chubby lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, “The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel”).

Comics Matter host “Yaboi Zack” has talked about having “black woman PTSD syndrome” in comics where, if you see a black woman in a comic, you just cringe because you know exactly how that character is going to play out just through the process of eliminating all the ways it can’t play out in modern politically correct terms (and just heuristically seeing the way all such characters play out in current day media). And I have to admit, I cringed a bit—still knowing nothing about the movie—what have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately, Joy is not a cartoon cutout or a stand-in for some virtue. There is a message about acceptance, of course, but the message is a universal one. Hsu has to run the gamut from villain to victim, and she does well.

Wangs. Heh.

(L-to-R) Hsu, Quan, Yeoh, Hong: The Wangs experience Mandarin Officiousness American Style!

The movie kicks into gear pretty fast when Waymond—and I feel like I would be attacked for naming a Chinese character Waymond, or Wichard, or Bwian—suddenly switches into super-secret agent mode, and the plot begins to resemble that of Highlander (or more closely, Jet Li’s 2001 bomb The One) with Evelyn on the run from a multidimensional villain who believes—well, we start with “the villain wants to kill you” and evolve into something much more interesting.

This would have been fine as a film, really. Even at 60, Yeoh can fairly convincingly pull off some martial arts moves—though let’s give a shout out to her stunt double (Kiera O’Connor) as well as Hong’s (Alfred Hsing), Curtis’ (Elisabeth Carpenter) and Hsu’s (Gemma Nguyen)—and a quality action film is as welcome as it is rare.

But while there’s plenty of action, the multiverse concept is used to explore various ideas and relationships between the characters, with the notion that they are the same people (somehow) but in different circumstances, their antagonisms and affections might be reversed or altered in previously unthought of ways, and the things they think are so important in one reality don’t even occur to them in others.

This also would have been just fine, because a good philosophical/dramatic hook in a sci-fi/action film is even rarer than a quality action film. Mostly sci-fi is ham-handed or murky and almost inevitably ends so far up its own ass, it feels like being lectured by a dorky 14-year-old on the perils of climate change. But I hasten to point out again the Daniels are the guys who did Swiss Army Man.

Goofy.

You have to open your third eye, man. Did I mention your third eye is a googly eye?

That film, you may recall, also tackled the really big philosophical issues but the main plot mechanic was, literally, flatulence. Here, there are two comedic aspects that keep the film grounded and interesting. First, in order to fight interdimensional enemies, our protagonists have to make decisions that take them along unlikely paths toward universes where they have specific skills. Like, Waymond needs some martial art skill, but to get to that universe where he has that skill, he has to eat a tube of lip balm. Or he’ll have to give himself four separate paper cuts, or chew the gum off the bottom of the desk, et cetera. As the movie progresses, these decision paths require increasingly bizarre actions. And as random as these things are, there’s an aesthetic logic to it that pays off in the climactic sequence, which maps more or less to a fight scene but isn’t exactly.

The second is that the presence of the multiverse allows for very jokey things to occur, like an earth where everyone has hot dogs for fingers. But the twist there is that, when the Daniels introduce us to a concept like that, they go from the outlandish joke (a view of a primeval earth where sausage-fingered apes wipe out normal-fingered apes) to the very earnest representation of people living in a modern society where their fingers are basically useless, and how they evolved to deal with that.

You may notice a similarity to “Rick and Morty”, which has done similar gags for their “Interdimensional Cable” shows. But whereas that cartoon revels in nihilism, EEAO lets us view nihilism (it’s a bagel, literally) and then lets Evelyn find meaning the only way meaning can be found in an infinite universe of random particles. I found this to be a winning combination, just as I did Swiss Army Man‘s absurd path to something with meaning. The Daniels clearly want to talk about the Big Issues, but there is really the sense that they do want to converse and not lecture, which is the mark of great art.

Tonally, these shifts—from broadly comic to deadly serious to melodramatic—won’t work for everyone. It’s rare for an American movie to do it well, and it’s going to be jarring for some. But if you can enjoy those kinds of swings, it’s as well done here as I’ve ever seen.

This is not where the subtlety lies.

What happens is EXACTLY what you’d expect to happen with those IRS Trophies that look like really hostile butt plugs.

Excellent performances:

Yeoh could still carry a movie, though she doesn’t have to here. In a way, her part is the most straightforward since as our central character, she’s the stable point from which we view the other universes. Her arc is at times subtle and is probably the most relatable, as she views the different outcomes different life paths would have brought her to, which (in a very Buddhist-feeling vein) is presented as a kind of “grass is greener” trap.

By contrast, Hsu’s role is broad: She’s bratty, moody, and by turns sympathetic and unsympathetic, very human and inhuman. It’s a tough role and she handles it well. Quan, who hasn’t worked much as an adult, is very effective in his low-key role. (Fun fact: Quan worked as a stunt choreographer on the aforementioned The One.) Intriguingly, the universe where Evelyn and Waymond are the most “successful” is the one where they don’t get married. Waymond and Joy are, besides being well-fleshed out character, opposite poles for Evelyn to play against, and the movie literalizes this in a way I didn’t pick up on even in a second viewing.

Jamie Lee Curtis is fantastic. Initially, as the Javertian IRS agent bound and determined to make the Wangs pay their fair share, she is the movie’s primary antagonist. She segues seamlessly into a soulless minion of the Big Bad. And she factors in to the Wang’s multiversal existence.

The editing by Paul Rogers, who doesn’t have an extensive resume at this point, is Oscar worthy. The score by Son Lux (a New York based experimental group) is seamless across the tonal shifts. The sound editing, production and design, generally, is masterful.

Lots goin' on.

“Famous Evelyn” images include shots from Michelle Yeoh at the premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians”. This shot, I realized when pulling it from the web, has an interesting twist in it.

I said last time that I would (probably) stop saying of old movies “You couldn’t make THIS today!” Here, at least is a movie you couldn’t have made at any time in the past. Granted, the limitations would have been largely technical—that is, I don’t think there’s much about the story that would have been objectionable over the past 40 years—but this is a highly artistic use of technology that is used to tell the story.

The Boy was out of town when I went to see this, but when he came back, we went to see it again, and he found it entertaining (though he was too jet lagged to take it all in). I concur, to the extent that a second viewing, knowing all that was coming, was enjoyable just to see so many clues that seemed ell-oh-ell-so-random! the first time and realize they pay off later on. There are few movies (apart from kiddie fare) that are this dense and also this carefully constructed, while seeming so utterly chaotic at times.

The Quiet Man (1952)

I get tired of saying it—so this may even be the last time—but you can’t help but notice that The Quiet Man is one of those classic Hollywood films that couldn’t possibly be made today. I think I’d be shocked to see one you could make at this point. The (semi-) positive aspect of this, I suppose, is that, like the Korean and Chinese films that took up such a substantial portion of my pre-lockdown viewing, these classics feel fresher and bolder and more fun than they might have only a few years ago, to say nothing of more interesting in terms of their commentary on the Human Condition.

Which, ultimately, The Quiet Man is in its own beautiful, charming way. The plot is one of the simplest: Sean Thornton, an American from Pittsburgh, returns to his family’s old home in Castletown, Ireland, where he meets and immediately falls for Mary Kate Danahar whose brother, Will, he alienates by purchasing the old family farm, thus creating the barrier to his ultimate happiness with Mary Kate.

The moment when Sean first spies Mary Kate and Michaleen warns him off. Michaleen is played by Oscar-winning Barry Fitzgerald, and his character is varying degrees of drunk throughout the film.

The wrinkle is that Sean is a peaceful man, a “quiet” man, because he doesn’t fight. Will constantly offends him and Mary Kate, and Sean’s reaction is to not care. He’s an American, so he’s shocked to find that as the Danahar patriarch, Will can prevent their marriage. He’s wealthy, at least by Irish standards (though nobody seems to pick up on that), so he doesn’t understand Mary Kate’s attachment to her dowry, or the 350 pounds that Will has specifically refused to hand over.

This ultimately boils down into Mary Kate losing respect for Sean and thinking he’s a coward, at which point we learn Sean’s secret, and what he must overcome to win Mary Kate’s love.

The Flower pointed out to me, quite astutely, that the moral of the movie was that Sean had to learn to fight with love. And of course, the movie ends with one of the most extended brawls in movie history (John Carpenter having used it for inspiration for the Roddy Piper/David Keith battle in They Live) and almost certainly the most joyous. The entire village swarms around Will and Sean as they roll from hill to street to field to river, everyone drinking and cheering.

I can’t even.

The Duke’s look of shock here is genuine: O’Hara has said something truly outré, at John Ford’s prompting. The price of her saying it was that no one would ever know what she said.

The movie trucks in stereotypes, romanticization, idealization and is so heteronormative, Disney Co. is probably lobbying to have it burned, and it’s absolutely wonderful and completely inoffensive to those not looking to take offense. Much like Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), it comes from a time when cultural differences were a topic of amusement, rather than a profit center for useless PhD holders.

I don’t suppose anything has to be said about six-time Oscar-winner John Ford, who won for The InformerThe Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and this film, as well as for two WWII semi-documentaries (The Battle of Midway and December 7th: The Movie) but who (I don’t think) ever went to the ceremonies. He was not even nominated for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Searchers, My Darling Clementine, Mister Roberts or Fort Apache.

About our three principals, John Wayne (Oscar for True Grit), Victor McLaglen (Oscar for The Informer) and Maureen O’Hara (honorary Oscar in 2015), what can we say? They’re all too old (by at least ten years) for the parts they’re playing and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. Wayne is at his Wayne-iest, but it couldn’t feel fresher than it does in this fish-out-of-water scenario. McLaglen is convincingly belligerent but somehow still likable as the antagonist.

It’s a huge cast. I mean, physically. Wayne is about 6’4″, McLaglen, 6′ 3″, Ward Bond, 6’2″. I mean, Humphrey Bogart could be in this shot and you’d never see him because the frame ends at their shins.

O’Hara is the engine that drives the picture, though, and she has the toughest role. One has no trouble believing the “meet cute”, if you can call it that, considering it’s just John Wayne driving along the road while she’s foraging or something, and she sort of flees and sort of looks back, and you know the two are instantly in love (because it’s Wayne and O’Hara!), but O’Hara has to play hard-to-get but not too hard because she’s already crazy for Wayne, and also she’s a mercurial red-head, and also an older unmarried woman—the look she shoots anyone when they call her a “spinster” is priceless—there’s more acting here than Meryl Streep has done in her entire career. But it never seems like acting.

It may have been that her pedigree as “The Pirate Queen” wasn’t strong enough to land her even a nom for this role (Shirley Booth would win for Come Back, Little Sheba, but the rest of the nominees were in movies you probably never heard of), and that just goes to show you the Oscars have always sucked, just not as hard as they have in their recent, more violent incarnation.

Not based on any previously written source material, Ford called on frequent collaborator Frank S. Nugent with a fellow named Maurice Walsh, who had some expertise in Irish matters, I think. Victor Young provides the delightful score, Technicolor the delightful color, Winton Hoch would win his third Oscar for cinematography.

In the end, this is just a joyous and fearless representation of a culture that has a sense of humor about itself (or had, at least), by people who loved it, and who didn’t have the culture cops bearing down on them. I look forward to future times and art forms where this can be true again.

John Ford, the dunce, puts WAYNE in the wet, white shirt.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Santo in the Treasure of Dracula

And just as mysteriously as they arrived, the passport requirements vanished. I was actually able to go see a movie, sans mask, sans documents, with the only downside being it was the Norwegian contender for best international picture, The Worst Person in the World. I kid (somewhat) but it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser. While y’all are reading this I will be seeing a Korean double-feature (the political thriller Kingmaker and In Our Prime, which appears to be a Korean Good Will Hunting) and tomorrow I’ve got The Quiet Man. Could things be returning to normal?

Well, at least until they figure out how to screw them up again, anyway.

Instant classic: The robot wrestler sketch.

Last Friday, on the other hand, was the premiere/beta of season 13 of the ever abiding “Mystery Science Theater 3000” and the “Gizmoplex” which is a sort of streaming service/virtual theater concept. For those unfamiliar with the show, it took the concept of movie “riffing”, where an existing filmed entertainment is played and humorous comments are made over the film’s original soundtrack and mainstreamed it by setting up a flimsy but vital framing story: That of a man shot into space by mad scientists and forced to watch these movies as part of their evil experiment.

Over the series’ initial 11-year-run it had many homes—starting with a copyright-law-dubious season 0 on a local Minneapolis UHF channel, leading to the Comedy Channel which was absorbed by Comedy Central, and finally to the SciFi channel—and many cast changes. When it was canceled after season ten, many attempts were made to revive the general format with and without a framing story.

The three main riffers of the last MST3K seasons, Michael J. Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett went on to do “Film Crew” and then found success with “Rifftrax”, which provides pure riffs both integrated with movies and—through an ingenious app—allows you to play the commentary over films you already own unriffed. (This also gets around the prohibitive licensing issues for many movies.) Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff have been touring and recording as “The Mads are Back” since 2015. MST3K creator Joel Hodgson himself refurbished the concept in 2007 with  the fairly successful “Cinematic Titanic”, reuniting himself, Beaulieu and Conniff, and MST alumni Mary Jo Pehl and J. Elvis Weinstein (who started with season 0 of the show at age 17!).

(L-to-R) Hodgson, Weinstein, Pehl, Beaulieu and Conniff

In 2015, 16 1/2 years after the show’s “final” cancellation, creator Joel Hodgson—having spent half a decade acquiring rights and clearing a path—announced a Kickstarter to bring back MST3K. This would raise a record $5.76M to create new episodes with a new cast for Netflix. Setting aside all the differences that a couple decades will make, season 11 must not have been what Netflix wanted, since season 12 was streamlined for binge watching: Six movies released all at once, for back-to-back viewing in a gimmick called “The Gauntlet”. Exeunt Netflix.

Last year, Joel launched another Kickstarter, racked up another $6.5M and started on season 13: 13 episodes plus a concept called the Gizmoplex, which most people look at and say “Oh, it’s a streaming service,” but there’s a distinct emphasis on community experience. More on that in a bit. Unencumbered by Netflix, but encumbered by lockdowns, Hogdson & Co. nonetheless managed to film all 13 episodes in under a year, and made the first episode available on March 4th, 2022—

A riff based on the Mexican wrestling “classic” Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, wherein the titular Santo invents time-travel, sends a girl back to her past life to discover she was romantically involved with a Dracula and that said Dracula had a treasure they try to retrieve in current day 1969 “to help the children”.

I set that apart because I don’t want anyone to think I’m making it up. It’s pure MST3K glory, taking an insane movie and just running with the various concepts and cultural oddities therein. It’s made all the more wonderful by the fact that El Santo was a kind of Mexican legend and a decent fellow, and the only quality print remaining is “the European cut” which features a lot of nudity El Santo did not approve of. (He was a friend to all the children!)

Santo never took off the mask, even for Bridge Night at the Kiwanis Club.

With all the different riffing ventures, there is of course some overlap in movie choices but Santo is just very MST3K. Rifftrax, by contrast, does a lot of popular films. It is, for example, the only way I would (and have) watched the Twilight series. Rifftrax also does a lot of infamous cult movies (recently, for example, they took on the Canadian microbudget/wth-is-this flick Feeders). I don’t see the main three rifffers doing Mexican wrestling pictures. (MSTie alumni Pehl and Bridget Jones Nelson get a lot of mileage out of old Sherlock Holmes and teen-sploitation films under the Rifftrax banner so I could see them doing it.)

The Netflix years got mixed reviews from fans of the old show and while I liked them, this felt like real MST3K. This episode paces jokes more like the original run. That’s important, I think. The movie has to have enough room to breathe on its own; this makes the riffs funnier when they come. It feels less frenetic. The new riffers (Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn) are fairly seasoned by this point and much more comfortable. This season will also feature episodes with the latest “experiment” subject played by the charming Emily Marsh, as well as new voices for the robots, who I believe all worked together on the live tour.

(L-to-R) Crow, Hampton, Jonah, Baron, Tom Servo

The Netflix era had one fewer host sketch, which season 13 has restored. This also helps the pace. One serious flaw with Rifftrax, for my taste, is that sometimes you really, really need a break from the film. It’s hard to watch Manos: The Hands of Fate straight through with no interruptions! Also, the sketches allow the crew to develop both the show universe and the in-movie gags. This episode featured an instant classic: a sketch where Crow (Yount) and Tom Servo (Vaughn) are being “interviewed” by ’80s era wrestling announcer (Ray) and say increasingly nice things about each other in an increasingly belligerent manner.

Due to the lockdowns, the visuals are hampered by having everyone in front of a green screen: A critical part of the charm of MST3K has always been a reliance on low-budget models and sets reminiscent of the movies being riffed. Nonetheless, the joy over having a new episode and the episode being such a high quality, generally overrides the misgivings over details like this.

Now, the Gizmoplex? That’s another story. Historically, it’s the sort of thing that has never worked. That is to say, it is in part an attempt to create an experience out of what people commonly view as interface elements. The idea that you can browse in the lobby hang on in the lobby or have an avatar in the theater has not been one that has caught on much in the past although the emphasis here is very much on “a place you can bring your friends to share experiences with”, and this might be the definitive factor. It reminded me a whole lot of what Joe Bob Briggs aims for on “The Last Drive-In”, with the show airing on Friday night and not being available for streaming right away, and during which Joe Bob and Darcy—mostly Darcy—interact with the viewers.

In this context—that of a cult following that can throw together 7 figures for a new season—community building in a virtual space could work. We shall see if it does here. Indeed, the only thing that would concern me, were I Hodgson, would be that even though the latest campaign raised more money, the original “Bring Back” campaign in 2015 had a third more backers. Ultimately the idea is for the Gizmoplex to fund future MST3K seasons—something that seems somewhat unlikely to me to occur by the summer (where they’d have to have enough money to start making season 14), but I’m hopeful and curious.

The new season should be available to the public in May. The Gizmoplex itself I suspect will roll out piecemeal over the next year.

A real cineplex on the moon would charge you $40 for a bucket of oxygen.

Christmas Ornaments 2: The Deckoning

It’s Christmastime again, which of course means It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Grinch, Die Hard and all the Shane Black movies, but last year I compiled a list of Christmas-themed filmed entertainment that were lesser known or at least lesser exposed. That list is here, and included: The Shop Around The Corner, Holiday Inn, The Bishop’s Wife, The Holly and the Ivy, White Christmas, the MST3K episode “Santa Claus Conquers The Martians”, the Rifftrax Live! episode “Santa Claus”, “The Tick Loves Santa”, Joyeux Noel, In Bruges, Rare Exports and Krampus. A little something for everyone in that list.

But can I come up with another quality list this year? I think I can, especially after stealing all your ideas from the last movie thread.  Before getting to the lesser known items, I wanted to take a little time to re-appreciate some of the classics which grinchier hearts in the past may have dismissed:

A Miracle On 34th Street (1947, Comedy, Drama): It’s easy to misremember this as treacly plum pudding, but its every major plot point and the behavior of most of its characters is shockingly cynical. The underlying premise is that due to the self-serving interests of everyone involved, a crazy man is going to be authenticated as Santa Claus.

Elf (2003, Comedy): Yeah, I know, and I agree. The man-child schtick gets old fast and Will Ferrell is the King-Prince of Man-Children but under the sure hand of Jon Favreau and a relentlessly good-hearted core—well, if you’re ever gonna like anything Will Ferrell, this is probably it. Terrific holiday soundtrack. Pre-saturation Deschanel.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945, Romantic Comedy): Some of us like our Christmas movies to start with U-boat attacks, is all I’m saying. Peak Barbara Stanwyck with great support from Sydney Greenstreet and S.Z. Sakall in this screwball comedy that would form the basis of about 9,000 sitcom plots in the TV age. Remade in 1992 by director Arnold Schwarzenegger and starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson and Tony Curtis. ISYN.

It's part of the kink.

“Hello, yes, I’ll be needing a shed. No, not too comfortable.”

Now, on to the lesser known gems.

The Three Godfathers (1936/1948, Western): This came up a lot in last year’s thread. There are half-a-dozen versions of this tale (including 2003’s Tokyo Godfathers) about three desperados who find themselves in charge of a baby on Christmas, basically having to decide how bad of a badman  each wants to be. The 1936 Boleslawski version features Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Walter Brennan, and is largely superior to the version that John Ford made in 1948 to honor Harey Carey, which boasts John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz, Harey Carey, Jr. and Ward Bond, but lacks the edge of the earlier film perhaps due to Wayne not being convincingly “bad” enough to provide the tension.

La grande illusion (1937, War, France): It’s just not Christmas for me without a WWI story, and this (the greatest of Jean Renoir films) is the story of French soldiers escaping from a German POW camp. A big Christmas party is involved. The title is a wry reference to a 1909 book The Great Illusion, which argued that war made no economic or social sense, and which was used by the experts to “prove” that there would be no World War I. The author then won a Nobel Peace Prize for his book…in 1933.

Remember The Night (1940, Romantic Comedy): Before Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray teamed up for murder and love in Double Indemnity they teamed up for laughs and love in this Preston Sturges penned offering from Mitchell Leisen, director of “the dregs of 1939” classic Midnight, the most excellent 1924 Thief of Baghdad, and that episode of “The Twilight Zone” where Roddy MacDowell crashes on Mars.

Susan Slept Here (1954, Comedy): In Who The Devil Made It, Peter Bogdanovich interviews the great Hollywood directors and also Frank Tashlin, a brilliant cartoon director who moved on to live features like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It, and this. As a premise, “35-year old screenwriter takes in a 17-year-old runaway in the days leading up to Christmas” is a sketchy one, but the movie has some charm if you can get past the fact that 22-year-old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 way more convincingly than 50-year-old Dick Powell plays a 35 year-old for whom the 24-year-old Anne Francis is aging out. Actually, Reynolds is so good…I don’t know, maybe fast-forward past the Powell parts.

Hollywood sits on a throne of lies.

Old maid Anne Francis (shown here with AARP spokesman Powell) was only two years away from playing jail bait herself in 1956’s “Forbidden Planet”.

Blood Beat (1983, Horror): I’m a sucker for Vinegar Syndrome’s archaeological expeditions into lost ’80s horror, and this year they made quite a splash with New York Ninja—an unfinished film they edited together and ADRed with era-appropriate actors like Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Linnea Quigley. A few months ago I “discovered” this very odd VS offering from rural Wisconsin, about a guy who brings his girlfriend home for Christmas only to discover she has a psychic link with the samurai ghost that’s murdering the neighbors. Apparently, Jay of Red Letter Media watches this every Christmas, and he and Josh did a “re:View” of it this past week.

The Lemon Drop Kid (1951, Comedy): Based on the title of a Damon Runyon story, Bob Hope plays a swindler who needs to raise $10 Gs or a gangster will axe him on Christmas. Bob Hope in movies mostly irritates me but if you don’t suffer from that limitation, this one is not bad. Partly directed by Frank Tashlin.

I’m not a big TV watcher as you may or may not know, but last year I managed to come up with some TV show episodes, and you guys brought up some forgotten classics:

“A Muppet Family Christmas” (1987, Children): Of course none of us nearly 29-year olds can appreciate it, but our parents might enjoy this crossover of Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. The story involves the Muppets going to Fozzie’s mom’s house for Christmas where they encounter their Sesame Street ancestors and Fraggle Rock offshoots, with Jim Henson doing a cameo as a dishwasher. The Swedish Chef plots to cook Big Bird for dinner while Kermit frets over Miss Piggy fighting a snowstorm. Features third-act mega-Christmas Carol medley. Available all over YouTube but completely unobtainable legally due to licensing. (My youngest recommended this one.)

“The Homecoming: A Walton’s Christmas” (1971, Drama): Did I say parents? Our grandparents might enjoy this pilot for “The Waltons”. Loaded with charm, if somewhat hampered by pedestrian editing (a consequence, I believe, of a show meant to be frequently interrupted by commercials), featuring Patricia Neal and Edgar Bergen in a rustic Great Depression story. Directed by Fielder Cook whose film Patterns (teleplay by Rod Serling) was mentioned back in the February movie thread, and who was kind of a TV movie titan, managing to pull off well-respected TV versions of Brigadoon and Harvey, as well as a less respected Miracle on 34th Street.

I've never seen the Waltons TV show, tbh.

All the kids from the movie would come back for the show, but none of the adults would except “Esther”.

“The Bear Who Slept Through Christmas” (1973, Children): Based and red-pilled worker bear (Tommy Smothers) is canceled when he challenges the Cathedral bear-narrative by searching for the conspiracy known as “Christmas”, said to happen when all blue-pilled bears are hibernating. He ends up living in the alien world of New York City away from all he ever knew and loved. Complete with organic foods, mini-dresses and astrology, this actually made me laugh-out-loud with some remarkably au courant observations.

“Santa and the Three Bears” (1970, Children): Similarly themed but not as woke, this concerns a ranger and bears in Yellowstone, totally not meant to be confused with Jellystone, with the kiddie bears wanting to stay awake to experience Christmas and a mother wanting them to sleep. Tubi has an unending stream of Christmas cartoons from this era which I think are short enough to avoid being interrupted by commercials.

“Mr. Monk and the Miracle” (2008, Mystery): I like this episode not for the (frankly absurd) plot but for putting Monk’s correctness against his complete inability to comprehend faith and consequent misery and neuroses.

“Joe Bob Ruins Christmas” (2021, Horror): Every year people bitch about the movies shown (for EVERY holiday) on “The Last Drive-In” so this year, Joe Bob and Darcy ruin Christmas by exchanging movies as gifts, each picking one that the other has been wanting to host for years. One of them gets his wish and the other gets the cinematic equivalent of a pair of argyle socks. Opening with a dissertation on the 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem that winds up as a screed against cancel culture, the interstitials are used to auction off various odd memorabilia to raise money for four separate charities that relate (very roughly) to the Nativity story. (The auction and merch selling for charity runs until Tuesday here.)

Classic!

Last year’s auction included the classic Vincent Price Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture Kit, which doubtless appeared on many a nearly-29-year-old’s list to Santa.

You guys mentioned a ton of other things, and I actually ended up finding a ton of stuff in building this post up, so I’m already good for next year. Keep the recommendations coming and maybe we’ll do Christmas in July!

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

When I was a boy, the greatest of the secular holidays—if you’ll forgive the oxymoron—was Thanksgiving. It sat defiantly on a Thursday and, fortified by the mythology of America, simultaneously closed the stores and clogged the airports and the bus stations. Gourmandizing aside, it was—and still is—a holiday that defied commercialization because its elemental substance was gratitude. So it is perhaps unsurprising that, encroached on one side by the increasingly commercialized Christmas and on the other by a Halloween metastasized from ever -expanding childhoods, Thanksgiving has not been a font of pop culture. Or, as Loudon Wainwright III put it:

Suddenly, it’s Christmas right after Halloween
Forget about Thanksgiving, it’s just a buffet in-between

(Wainwright’s thoughts on Thanksgiving can be found here.)

Up until a few years ago, when John Hughes’ Planes, Trains and Automobiles emerged from the cinematic soup of the ’80s as a modern Thanksgiving classic (and setting aside the second best Peanuts special), the film I most associated with Thanksgiving was The Best Years of Our Lives. So ingrained was this in my head, I was rather surprised on a recent viewing to discover Thanksgiving makes no appearance in the film whatsoever—though it was released one week before Thanksgiving in 1946.

No Thanksgiving, but a whole lot of giving thanks.

Hoagy Carmichael in the back, and from left-to-right: Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Frederic March

Directed by William Wyler from a screenplay by Robert Sherwood (RebeccaThe Bishop’s Wife) from a novella/poem by MacKinlay Kantor (who also wrote the book Follow Me, Boys! was based on), it would be the top grossing film of the decade and win seven regular Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Screenplay and both Best Actor Oscars, and two special Oscars.

Our story begins with three servicemen returning from the war: An army sergeant (Frederic March), a Navy Petty Officer (Harold Russell) and an Air Force bombardier (Dana Andrews) who share an uncomfortable 16-hour plane flight to get to the fictional town of Boone City where each discovers that while the town  hasn’t changed, they and their relationship to it has.

There’s nothing more American than the fact that their status in the military service has nothing to do with their non-military lives. (See this Al Jolson song, “I’ve Got My Captain Working For Me Now”.) Sergeant Al (March) was a wealthy banker, Petty Officer Homer (Russell) was a solidly middle class high-school sports star, and the highest status among them, Bombardier Fred (Andrews) was a soda-jerk from the wrong side of the tracks.

(insert inappropriate joke about “getting over Macho Grande” here)

Al returns to loving wife Milly (top-billed Myrna Loy) and two children who have grown to adulthood in his absence. Milly is so patient and so adept at handling Al that daughter Peggy thinks (Teresa Wright) that they’ve never had a single marital difficulty. Although Al finds himself welcome back at his old job (in charge of G.I. loans), he wants to use his gut sense about men—his faith in their abilities as he saw them during the war—as a basis for making loans. (This is literally illegal now.) And he finds himself dealing with the stress by drinking.

Homer’s difficulties stem from the loss of his hands. Russell won two Oscars here, both for best supporting actor and an honorary one for supporting disabled veterans because the Academy assumed he couldn’t win the regular Oscar, not being a professional actor. It’s a powerhouse of a performance because Homer, who has already wrestled with his disability, has to repeat the grieving process with practically everyone he comes into contact with.

In an excess of decency, he wants to free his best girl Wilma (Cathy O’Donnell) from feeling obliged to stay with him while she struggles to make him realize her feelings haven’t changed.

Getting a piano lesson from Hoagy Carmicheal while Dana Andrew (way in the back) is doing the right thing. (Look at that blocking!)

The main arc of the movie belongs to Fred. A genuine war hero who ends up working for the kid who probably was too young for the draft and whose home-town pharmacy was bought out by a big conglomerate, he’s also suffering from what we now call PTSD, and his party-time pin-up gal wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he married two weeks before shipping out, doesn’t really have anything in common with him any more and also really hates that he can’t hold down a job. The movie’s great irony being that the least grateful and understanding person in the film, Marie, is the one who bitterly utters the words “the best years of my life”.

Complicating matters further is that an encounter with Peggy convinces Fred that she, rather than the bubble-headed bimbo, is what he really wants in a wife. This doesn’t go down very well with Al.

I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that things more-or-less all work out for the best, and some critics, especially in later years, would regard the movie as too “neat”, but the whole point of the film is giving thanks. When Homer is describing the process of how he has to put on the harness that holds his hook-hands, he says, “I’m lucky. I have my elbows. Some of the boys don’t.” (Sort of a variant on “I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”)

It isn’t really “neat”, though: All three of our heroes have to face the fact that life is going to be full of new challenges. Al’s challenge is moral and institutional, Harold’s is physical, and Fred basically has to start over. But a big part of giving thanks, as it turns out, is not giving up—and the guy who stands in the future suggesting a movie like this should end in despair is like the conspiracy theory guy (Ray Teal) who calls the servicemen “suckers”: he deserves a sock in the jaw.

With a relentlessly emotional score by Hugo Friedhoffer (and directed by Emil Newman), and occasionally blocked so arrestingly that a home viewing has the vital advantage of letting you pause and rewind to appreciate it, this is a unique film that has me choked up for almost the entirety of its 2:50 runtime, every time I watch it—and feeling that I need to be more thankful.

“There oughtta be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” — Jimmy Stewart

Rifftrax Live “Amityville: The Evil Escapes”

See, the thing is, The Amityville Horror had about one thing going for it: It was “based on a true story” during a glorious time when we still believed in Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle and Nessie and so forth. So it racked up a whopping $86M at the box office, finishing only behind—I’m not making this up—Kramer vs. Kramer, the #1 film of 1979 and the only film of the year to be a “blockbuster” (at the time defined as “a movie that breaks $100M at the box office”). It would beat out the first Star Trek movie, Rocky II, The Jerk, Apocalypse Now, and many other films that fit into that category broadly defined as “good”.

The 1982 sequel dropped precipitously—about on a par with the Exorcist sequel—and then an attempt at 3D made it clear that there was no cash left to milk from this poor cow. But as we all know: Evil Never Dies and nothing is more evil than someone who owns a horror franchise, and five years after the 3D attempt, Barry Bernardi (who up till then had been mostly co-producing John Carpenter films) found himself really enjoying a book (I guess, this already sounds preposterous) called Amityville: The Evil Escapes. He sent it to Sandor Stern, who had written the first Amityville script asking him to write it and direct it, and Sandor said “Sure, but this book sucks, let me do my own thing.”

So it wouldn’t be until Amityville: The Next Generation until the book called Amityville: The Evil Escapes would actually be film.

Sandor’s “own thing” turns out to be an evil lamp sent to Oceanside, CA—a lovely place for a haunting—where it kills assorted people in Jane Wyatt’s life. Jane has just taken in her daughter Patty Duke and her three kids. On the other hand, who cares? This is a silly movie with some good actors who just aren’t going to overcome the silliness, through no fault of their own.

Of course, Kevin, Bill and Mike cracking wise doesn’t help. I mean, for taking it seriously. Good riffs here, and another gimcrack song from Kevin, a little Beach Boys-y number called “2000 Miles From Amityville”.

The initial short is also pretty great: It’s a work safety film that  is obsessed with tomatoes-as-fruit and ends with our lecturer playing toreador with a forklift.

Hope we get to see more of these boys in the future.

The Evil Dead (1981)

“The most ferociously original horror movie of 1982.” — Stephen King

That quote of Stephen King’s could not have come earlier than June of 1982 when John Carpenter’s The Thing had just been released, which has essentially the same plot—monsters that can turn into anyone kill a group of people one by one—as well as truly ferocious (and revolutionary) special effects, but we’ll cut the ole Maine schlockmeister some slack here: His glowing praise made the movie’s success possible, launching the career of Sam Raimi and perhaps tangentially the Coen Brothers (who leaned on Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell for their film debut, Blood Simple).

Cheers!

“Here’s to a perfectly nice weekend without so-called ‘friends’ poking my sprained ankle with pencils.”

It’s possible The Boy had never seen this—as a toddler he was a huge fan of Army of Darkness, and when he was older Evil Dead II—so I was tempering, somewhat, his expectations. The acting in this film is some of the worst ever recorded, and in a charming intro by Bruce Campbell (for the 40th anniversary showing at a drive-in) he notes that his most famous work is also his worst. (My rebuttal would be that he really didn’t turn in a good performance until 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, so there was a fairly high chance of that happening anyway.) Someone asked him for advice for actors and he said something to the effect of “Do anything because you’re going to suck at first.”

The girls do better than the guys, and Richard DeManincor (as “Scott”) does better than Bruce, but you can see the beginnings of what would become the more successfully hammy and manic performances Campbell turns in for the highly regarded Evil Dead II, which today would probably be called a “soft reboot” rather than an “incoherent sequel”. (It is supposed to be a sequel, except Ash dies at the end of the first movie, and even if he hadn’t died, why the hell would he take another girlfriend into a cabin in the woods?)

Hypothetically.

“Honey, if you were possessed by a demon and I had to chop your head off but later I met another girl and wanted to bring her to this cabin, would you be okay with that?”

And you can’t really talk about this movie without covering the occasionally shockingly bad special effects. A 1950s era lightning strike on a tree (which Sam Raimi got removed from some early cuts). Several composites of the moon being occluded by black smoke. The jarring stop-motion animation. Bruce Campbell made reference to George Lucas’ Star Wars CGI shenanigans and basically said you won’t see any of the here: All the wires are still visible, and you can see the hose pumping blood. Which actually leads me to the point of all this, because I never have seen those wires and hoses. I was even looking this time.

From a 20-year-old Sam Raimi’s endless well of energy, and his intuitive sense of moviemaking, we get a movie that basically dares you to not take it seriously. Some apologists have suggested that the camp moments in the movie were deliberate, to which Raimi has responded that everyone involved was deadly earnest. This movie is powered by that force: Ellen Sandweiss’ brittle emotionalism after being raped by the woods; Bruce Campbell asserting that they can’t bury Shelly, whom they’ve just hacked to pieces, because “she’s our friend”; DeManincor’s Scotty’s decision to flee and leave the injured Linda to her fate. A single wink-wink to the audience would ruin it all.

And Demon-Hos?

Bros before She-Demons.

The opening scenes of the Olds Delta 88 (a family car that’s been in most of his movies) are not quite Manos: The Hands of Fate level bad, they’re still the sort of rough-cut, badly overdubbed kind of thing you see in horror films all the time, but the instant the car hits the rickety bridge, the camera transforms into a weapon, a hostile entity—literally, as it represents the Force In The Woods. Dutch angles, shots with improvised tracks (they couldn’t afford a dolly), Sam Raimi hanging from the rafters by his legs to get a back-to-front shot of Campbell’s head, as Ash begins to realize he’s in a demonic madhouse…these were filmmakers taking their best (and probably only shot) at getting noticed.

It not only becomes easy to overlook the film’s flaws, it becomes hard not to. I was not particularly a fan at the time, but I liken it today to re-viewing Mel Brooks movies: When I watch them now I see a man whose sole interest is in making me laugh, and nothing is beneath him in that task. I see in Evil Dead a passion to scare me, to win me over, to make good on the promises of the ’70s exploitation horrors (which often were quite dull and almost always ploddingly pedestrian in their presentation), and a tremendous amount of care which one doesn’t see in low-budget flicks that aren’t “arty”. The foreshadowing of the demonic peek-a-boo with Ash and Cheryl’s flirtatious peek-a-boo early on; Bob Dorian reading the exact description of what’s going to happen later on in the film; the Joel Coen-edited scene of Ash securing Cheryl to dismember her, which act he cannot go through with, even if it seals her fate and his; the endless dark basement where Ash gets his first (fake) scare that he realizes he has to go back into later on.

So ugly.

1980 Fashion To Young Women: “I’ll swallow your souls!”

The rape scene is somewhat controversial even today, with Raimi claiming to regret it today. I believe this claim; Raimi seems like a rather gentle spirit who was driven to get whatever he felt he needed to on film. I hated it at the time. I had (and still have) a very low threshhold for “rape as entertainment”. In retrospect, though, I think it actually adds pretty well to the horror of the situation. Nobody believes Shelly when she says the woods have attacked her, and she doesn’t go into details—they wouldn’t believe her. (So, if you like, it works as a metaphor for unheard victims.) It’s suitably audacious and fits in with the random demonic torture that is the movie’s theme.

Joel Coen was working for an Edna Ruth Paul who, I think, was from a time when credits were not so exhaustive. She probably deserves considerable credit as well, given the film was originally nearly 2 hours long. I would like to see the two hour cut, but my guess it would be much, much worse.

Even Joe LoDuca’s score—his first—rises above the time when cheap synth tracks and drum machines ruled the earth.

It’s just one of those cases where the energy and talent exceeds well past the limitations of the budget and the constraints of the genre, and it was delightful to see it again, 40 years later, with a grouchy, jowly Bruce Campbell still grousing about Raimi and (producer Rob) Tapert poking his injured ankle with pencils to get him riled up before a scene. The Boy was much enthused.

Also hungry for souls. Which you don't expect from a deer.

The deer head only has a cameo in Evil Dead, but it’s a major player in Evil Dead II.

 

Old Henry

Pete: “I’m votin’ for yours truly!”
Everett: “Well, I’m votin’ for yours truly, too!”
[they look at Delmar]
Delmar: “Okay. I’m with you fellers.”

The Coen brothers professed a certain glee in putting the highly intelligent Classics major Tim Blake Nelson into the role of the affable dunce, Delmar, for O Brother! Where Art Thou and it was the sort of breakthrough role that could get you typecast for years; it’s certainly the role I most remember him for, at least until now. In Old Henry, Nelson plays a farmer with a backstory who stumbles across an injured man (Scott Haze, Venom, also in Bukowski with Nelson)  and a satchel of loot that badman Stephen Dorff (Blade, Zaytoun, and many child acting roles like The Gate) and his rowdies would like very much to recover.

In other words, writer/director Potsy Ponciroli has given us a good, old-fashioned Western, and The Boy and I (and the six other people in the 16-seat theater) liked it!

Not such an affable dunce any more.

Dare you to call him dumber than a bag of hammers now.

The story follows a simple path—you could see Clint Eastwood doing this 30 years ago—where a tough, laconic farmer in 1906 New Mexico (?) on a hardscrabble farm has trouble relating to his teen son, who’s champing at the bit to get out into the big city, while Old Henry is there admonishing that things aren’t necessarily that great out there. He’s smart enough at first to not take the money or get involved with the injured man but in that a twist that ensures we have a movie, his wisdom is fleeting and he does, in fact, get involved.

Now, he’s attracted the Bad Men who claim to be sheriffs, and he’s none too sure about the injured man he rescued, who also claims to be a sheriff. Horseplay ensues. Gunplay also. And it’s all cowboys all the time.

Quoth The Boy, “Cowboys are cool.”

If you're luck, it's not the BACK end they smell like.

They smell like horses, though.

Tim Blake Nelson pulls off the hardass role quite believably and actually kinda looks more like those old cowboys did—not that rugged handsomeness of even a just pre-geriatric Clint Eastwood. He looks like he’s had a hard life. He’s narrow shouldered and stringy. He doesn’t move in a cool, stylish way, but in more unpredictable, kinda dopey looking ways that might actually keep someone from being able to draw a bead on you.

Gavin Lewis as the son, Wyatt, is annoying but it’s not his fault. His character is the punk kid, semi-whiny teen—nowhere near Skywalker annoyance levels, mind you—and you know he’s going to come to some understanding of the world that—well, let’s just say it’ll all come to tears, ’cause it kind of has to. Dorff is menacing, Trace Adkins (An American Carol, The Lincoln Lawyer) is stalwart as Old Henry’s brother-in-law, and the cast does a fine job all around.

As you do.

Sometimes a boy just wants to go hunting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon.

The cinematography (by John Matysiak) makes wonderful use of the terrain, and makes me weep this wasn’t shot on film. Lots and lots of good shots that fit nicely in those classic Ford/Hawks-type styles, though not nearly as dry looking. (Westerns make me thirsty.)

The music (by Jordan Lehning, who collaborated with Ponciroli on an early project called Super Zeroes) was also very effective, both in when it was used and how effective it was.

I mean, it’s weird to have so little to say about it, I guess, but it’s just a good, fun, old-school Western that doesn’t seem to pack even the meagerest agenda, and just seems to be about making a good, old-school Western. There’s a twist of the sort that normally makes me roll my eyes, but it worked for me here.

The Boy liked it a little less than I did, but we both were very happy to have seen it. Cowboys are cool.

Not robot cowboys. They have to protect the pig-o-lets.

Sometimes a cowboy gets sad, though.

Scream (1996)

You know how you see an old movie—and I think we can call Scream an old movie, as this was the 25th anniversary showing—and you say, “They all look so young!”? As I was watching this, I was thinking, “I don’t think I’ve seen any of them since this movie came out!” Well, sure, Scream 2 and Scream 3. Rose McGowan on Twitter, I guess that counts. At first I was inclined to draw some sort of conclusion from this, but “ever thus” in Hollywood: Young 20-somethings are not likely to be icons 25 years later. Where was the Brat Pack in 2010? Frankie and Annette in 1990? You get your occasional Judy Garlands and Tom Cruises, but fame is fleeting.

The Janet Leigh move.

Drew Barrymore has some sort of talk/news show. It was cool that she opted for this role when she could’ve had the lead.

Of all of the cast, W. Earl Brown as Courtney Cox’s toady cameraman is about the only one I recalled seeing much after this came out, as he is one of those character actors who turns up all the time and I was a fan of “Deadwood”. I realize at this belated date, Brown is dressed exactly like Silent Bob in Clerks and has very little dialogue. This is not an accident. This whole movie is so chock full of knowing cultural references that it’s surprising how well it holds up, only occasionally annoying the viewer. (Well, your mileage may vary.)

From Wes Craven’s cameo as a rugby-sweater wearing janitor named “Freddie”, Linda Blair as an obnoxious reporter yelling “The public has a right to know,” Henry Winkler as the principal who keeps the Fonz’s leather jacket in his office closet, to all the (slightly) subtler nods, like “Billy Loomis” (Dr. Loomis is Donald Pleasance’s character in Halloween) recreating Johnny Depp’s climb-in-throw-the-window scene from Nightmare on Elm Street, Jamie Kennedy’s character, Randy, yelling “Turn around Jamie!” at Jamie Lee Curtis while the killer is coming up behind him, or for that matter, Randy explaining the entire plot in the video store down to the red herrings.

See, it's commentary, not exploitation.

McGowan’s nipples being the most prominent part of this scene is no accident. We get it, Wes! We get it!

We wouldn’t get a movie this meta again until Cabin in the Woods. One of my pet peeves, however, is this notion of The Final Girl, and specifically Jamie Lee Curtis, being virginal. JLC did four non-Halloween horror films (before going on to get topless for the first time in Trading Places, as noted by Randy here) and in none of those is she a virgin—something she’s noted ironically over the years. (In The Fog she jumps into bed with Tom Atkins within minutes of him picking her up as a hitchhiker.) Friday the 13th played up the sexuality of the teens (because it’s a narratively cheap way to get nudity into your film) but the first (contemporary) victim in F13 is a girl whose sole crime is liking animals and children the Final Girl was having an affair with the middle-aged head counselor. (I don’t think there is a virgin in the F13 series until maybe #7.) Yes, Nancy is a virgin in Nightmare on Elm Street, but by the time you get to Nightmare 5, the Final Girl is pregnant.

What I’m saying is that “virginal final girl” trope was ginned up ex-post-facto by Carol Clover in her 1992 book , and it was far more a staple of teen comedies than it ever was of horror. (And not just a staple but the staple and sole plot point of all ’80s teen comedies.) So it’s kind of irritating that it turns up in the mouth of a supposed horror expert. The first “Final Girl” (at least according to Joe Bob), Sally, in Texas Chainsaw Massacre is probably not a virgin. Olivia Hussey in Black Christmas is actually in the process of arranging an abortion—her virginal pal is the first victim. Graduation Day, Happy Birthday To Me, Final Exam, The Initiation, My Bloody Valentine, Funhouse—and if you want to stretch the definition, we could include Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley as non-virginal final girls.

But I digress.

Truly inexplicable.

The chemistry was real. Inexplicable, but real.

Horror-comedy is a challenging genre, and we can probably find the best examples of in the late ’80s and the early ’90s, when bad spoofs like Saturday the 14th and Student Bodies gave way to more interesting mixes, like April Fools Day, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night. As the horror movie petered out after the orgy of slashers spawned in the wake of Halloween (and gave way to the erotic thriller), and Wes Craven looking to get out of the horror biz, it was more than a little gutsy to make a slasher movie by 1996 even with a comedy element.

This is an entertaining film, and clever (perhaps too clever) and does a good job with the suspense, comedy and mystery aspects. Despite the oft-repeated, would’ve-been title Scary Movie (later cribbed by the Wayans brothers for a comedy spoof that would end up having more sequels than Scream), it’s not very scary. Well, scratch that, it is scary, but in a suspense-movie way, not really a horror-movie way. The movie takes great pains to keep itself out of supernatural realms and “ghostface” is decidedly mortal and rather easily injured.

The initial kills are nicely gory and the movie went through some 50 gallons of blood, still the violence seems so tame to me, I’m sort of shocked that they struggled to get an R and left a lot of stuff out (but I’m willing to admit to being jaded on that front). Beyond that, though, it feels more like a whodunnit, with a mystery story’s calculation—a feeling that is compounded by the movie’s meta-commentary, such as when Sydney loses her virginity. It’s not the worst movie deflowering by a long-shot, yet its unlikelihood—that her change of heart would come at that exact moment in time with a boisterous party (after all the girls have left, no less), and its self-conscious tweaking of the trope (explaining the significance of the topless shot downstairs while using Skeet Ulrich to block the same shot as it’s going on upstairs) begins to feel, as I said, a little too clever, like the characters are just pieces in a puzzle.

Very creepy.

You probably don’t want to look to this movie for male role models, unless you’re aspiring to be a creep.

The characterization, in retrospect is thin—though “thicker” than most horror movies, if we’re being honest—while the acting is top-notch. Neve Campbell is likable and more believable than your average 23-year-old high-schooler. (Drew Barrymore, who was actually two years longer looks way too old to me, but perhaps that’s just because she’s been in the public eye so much longer.) Matthew Lillard clocks in at 25, but acts like such a doofus it works. (Molly Ringwald turned down the role, not wanting at 27 to still be playing high schoolers. It was probably a wise choice.) I didn’t care for Rose McGowan’s performance at the time, as it felt too on-the-nose blond bimbo, but in retrospect I’d say she actually manages to pull it off. David Arquette and Courtney Cox have a genuine chemistry that would lead to a 15-year marriage.

It’s fun and frothy and very safe feeling. Not in terms of who lives and who dies; the movie does a fine job with that aspect of the horror movie ethos. But you’re not going to see anything offensive here beyond the basic Camp Crystal Lake blood bath, which is doubtless why it was so successful and probably led to the subsequent spate of well-produced, well-crafted, well-acted PG-13 horror movies of the next ten years starring a crop of fine young actors who cut their teeth in television.

The house, which was pretty packed, applauded at the end—I didn’t look closely but I assume these were people who had bought into the franchise’s original three movies (Wes Craven also tried a New Nightmare kind of gag in 2010 with Scream 4, which in turn led to an on-again/off-again TV series) and were maybe even bringing their kids to this one.

And we’re getting a remake/reboot next year. So, whee.

Which ain't easy.

On the plus side, Neve Campbell may actually be even better looking now.

A Place Among The Dead

I remember when I first heard Juliet Landau announce she was working on a documentary about vampires. It was on Twitter and it was at least five years ago. (I had to check: I would’ve guessed more like ten.) It’s been a while, is what I’m saying, and it finally went to streaming last year after the brief fall reprise from lockdowns. I wanted to see it on the big screen and I finally got my shot when it played for one night at a local theater, with Ms. Landau and her husband Deverell Weekes in attendance (who actually gave us a spare ticket). Ms. Landau was brightly greeting everyone who had communicated with her on social media and the house was pretty full. (We neither stayed for the subsequent Q&A nor the after-party but it seemed like a friendly feeling all around.)

Looking good in the right light. (Though, in fairness, she’s quite radiant in person, too.)

Now, something happened in the making of the vampire documentary (which is actually still being edited, I think), which was that she got it in her head to meld the documentary stories with a more traditional narrative and produce this film, A Place Among The Dead. The premise is that she’s interviewing Gary Oldman, Ron Perlman, Robert Patrick, and there’s some recurring Incident That Happened 15 Years Ago with a serial killer who thought he was a vampire. She then goes back to the scene of the crime (in beautiful Santa Barbara city!) to investigate what happens.

There is a moment of brilliance early on here where she’s constructed this parallel between vampires and actors: the narcissism, the hunger for attention, the vanity and desire for eternal youth—that essence of the glamour of constructed beauty. The cinema verité aspect combines with a more traditional aspect and we see characters (especially her) in their most unflattering views, often immediately juxtaposed with their more traditional look. An actress (Meadow Williams?) whose work I’m unfamiliar with and who isn’t in the actual documentary, as far as I can tell, appears in such flattering light with such heavy makeup, it’s impossible not to view it as some sort of statement. (She’s in her 50s and she doesn’t look it here, though she doesn’t look entirely human, either.)

But not afraid to look rough.

This movie is chock full of the sort of raw, emotional acting that actors do in acting workshops with other actors. The movie begins with pictures of her parents (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain) and phrases they presumably said to her about not being pretty enough, about not daring to challenge them, etc. which is brutal. She’s a compelling actress, and the vampire metaphor makes a strong comeback at the end, when she has to face the serial killer/vampire.

The Flower sort of wanted to see this, as a fan of the old “Mission: Impossible” series and someone who went through a “Buffy” phase and when I told her about it, she said she would’ve liked to just given Landau a hug. (Barbara Bain apparently said Juliet would never be as pretty as she was, which was funny to us because we’ve always thought that Juliet looks like both her parents, but somehow makes it work better.)

That said, the rest of the movie—the bulk of it—is hard to take seriously. The basic idea here is a sort of “found footage” type thing, but it’s constantly undermined by, on a mechanical level, the profusion of reverse shots (and occasional visible camera man), and worse, on a narrative level, the framework of a police procedural—where we’re supposed to accept the Santa Barbara police working closely with an actress to catch a serial killer, doing things like inviting her into a (potentially hot!) crime scene and admonishing her and her husband (who is actually documentary cameraman, by the way) not to touch anything. Also, since we, the audience, are there to see Landau, and not her husband, he holds the camera while sending her into the supposedly dangerous locations ahead of him. In the hands of Christopher Guest, it would be high comedy.

Dig that '90s double-exposure, tho'.

I’m not saying the film could’ve used more exposition, but I’m really not sure who this other woman was suppose to be. An earlier victim?

The last act just goes full on Blair Witch Project, down to being lost in the woods alone for no reason and giving a long, impassioned, apologetic speech to the camera, in this case the speech being oriented around her husband. Which is nice. But between that and the extended mega-death-scene—oh, geez, and the extended chanting spells in Spanish scene—you’re gonna be feeling your butt by the 70 minute mark. Those last 4-5 minutes are going to hurt.

It needed much tighter editing, but it was barely feature length as it is.

I was glad I saw it, and pained mostly by the potential greatness that’s not realized. The raw materials in tighter rein could’ve been brilliant as a micro-budget film can be. The Boy, having none of the backstory—you wouldn’t necessarily even get that there was a documentary, originally, going on, if you weren’t plugged into Landau’s social media accounts—had a hard time following what was going on, and was left with a bunch of people he didn’t know (though he liked Gary Oldman anyway even without knowing who he was, because he’s Gary freakin’ Oldman) talking about vampire stuff that was a little too on-the-nose, and then some very goofy and highly improbable serial killer (or is it a vampire?) hijinks.

I’m afraid this narrows the audience for the film tremendously.

Some goofy ones, too.

Some nice images here and there, though.

Cry Macho

“It was awful!

I had asked The Boy what he thought about the new Clint Eastwood Cry Macho, and he said, “It was okay. What did you think?” I said, “Yeah, it was okay.” A nearby lady then exclaimed “It was awful!” and The Boy said something about opinions at that point.

Happens to us all.

It’s one thing not to let the old man IN. I think the old man is getting OUT these days.

You have to give Eastwood half-a-star for being 91 and starring in and directing his movies, I say, but you don’t have to give him any more than that, and there are aspects of this movie that are challenging, let’s say, to the viewer. Let’s talk about the good: Eastwood still has a fair amount of vitality for his age. He knows redemption stories better than anyone. He knows how to make a story that is complex without being complicated.

In this case, he plays a washed-up cowboy, Mike, who’s been carried by his employer, Howard, (Dwight Yoakam) f0r the past few decades(?) since the death of his wife and kid and his subsequent slide into alcoholism. Howard’s had enough, and fires him, but doesn’t kick out of the house he’s apparently let Mike stay in, but he does send him down to Mexico to fetch Howard’s son (Eduardo Minett) from his crazy mother. Mike (reluctantly, natch) agrees and goes down to Mexico City(?) where he finds the crazy mother living an opulent life and the boy out on the street cockfighting, because the mother will otherwise pimp him out to her friends. Eastwood and the boy set out back to America, said trip complicated and extended by crazy mother (Fernanda Urrejola), who has enough money and power to get the cops riled. (The economics of this are never explained.)

So, we got ourselves a road picture, a buddy comedy, a fish out of water, a bildungsroman and a gray caper, or whatever you call it when old dudes pull shenanigans.

He fights.

No greater love is there than that of a teenage boy for his cock.

The good aspects are when Eastwood pulls off a few of his old tricks: He throws a decent punch, he holds a gun briefly, he even rides a horse. (And they got a very skinny stunt double for the horse-breaking scene, so it’s not so obviously not Clint.) There’s a nice warmth to the proceedings, with Eastwood not hammering the crusty side of his crusty but benign character. The supporting actors have their moments, sometimes, and are affable enough. The story is interesting for the most part, though it doesn’t bear a whole lot of scrutiny.

The bad aspects largely stem from Eastwood being 91. This is his 30th year (since Unforgiven) of playing a badass cowboy (or cowboy in spirit) who is trying to redeem himself for his sins, even though the harms visited him in his life appear to be completely unrelated to said sins. If I had to guess, I would say his character age in this film is supposed to be mid-60s, and the age difference is distracting.

Old folks, for example, have trouble breathing sometimes, and this shows up in an inability to say a complete sentence without breaking for a breath. And I suspect it shows up here also as an unwillingness to do another take when you’ve flubbed a line. As I mentioned in Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality, things read differently on old people than they do on younger ones (like running crouched when you’re old just looks like your spine is curved). There are places where this is hidden well, and when it’s not, it’s jarring.

I mean, ew, but you get the point.

Gotta sting a little having your advances spurned by your great-grandpa.

The most difficult part is in accepting Clint as a romantic lead, when he spurns his charge’s mother’s sexual advances: We can believe she’s crazy and slutty, sure, but hot for nonagenarian? Even if it’s Clint Eastwood?

And the main plot point of the story is the elder cowboy teaching the younger one the tricks of the story in a small Mexican town where the pretty owner of the diner makes eyes at him, and offers him (in a plot sense, she doesn’t outright say this) a chance for a peaceful life with a family as she raises her recently orphaned granddaughters. “Aha,” you think, “at least he’s getting it on with a grandmother, right? Not like, say, in The Mule where he has a threesome with girls who might be his great-great-granddaughters.”

“Oho,” says I, “this grandmother is still young enough to be his granddaughter.” (Natalia Traven, the Mexican grandmother, is 52 as it turns out. You do the math.)

As I said, we liked it okay. There’s enough going on that I’m willing to suspend belief.  It’s just that said suspension gets to be a bigger and bigger ask with every movie.

She's not THAT busy.

Maybe next movie, Clint could date an older woman, like Betty White.

Prisoners of the Ghostland

Is it too soon to do another Nicolas Cage movie review? I swear that guy makes movies faster than most people can watch them. And this is going to make a great contrast with the relatively sedate (dare I say mature?) Pig, because this is probably the kind of performance people are thinking of when they say they don’t like Mr. Cage, and the sort of movies they think he’s making. Malignant is tame by comparison.

If you want something more conventional, I offer you the blandly pleasant Free Guy, the well-meaning-but-occasionally-shockingly-amateurish Tango Shalom, or Malignant. I guess people are talking about and shocked by the latter, but it was essentially a solid slasher with a well-telegraphed reveal which you’re either going to buy or not. No, no, you want weird? Let’s get weird.

Naked Cage!

There’s a perfectly rational explanation for th—okay, no, of course not. Don’t be silly.

Here we have the…I don’t know…43rd? film by Sion Sono (director of such hits as Why Don’t You Go Play In Hell? and Bad Film) about a bank robber (Cage) in a dystopic Old West town (called “Samurai Town” and full of samurai and geisha as well as cowboys) who is turned loose (although constrained by a leather suit with time-bombs wired to his arms, neck and ‘nads) by the evil governor (Bill Mosely) and sent on a mission to retrieve his “granddaughter” (Sofia Boutella) who we’ve seen escape through the mysterious Ghostland into a city where forlorn urchins listen to Enoch (Charles Glover) as he reads them things like Wuthering Heights, as the wretched men of the town work night and day pulling a rope to keep a giant clock from advancing.

Sure we’ve seen it before, but have we ever seen it with Nick Cassavetes playing a psycho ghost named Psycho who, underneath his penchant for blowing children away, is actually a decent sort of guy? I think not!

Abandon all rational thought.

Outside the bank: A dirty 19th century town with people dressed in peasant clothes. Inside the bank: pristine white décor with women dressed in 1960s-style primary-color dresses and a boy in a cable-knit sweater.

This movie is what you call a pastiche: The premise is Escape from New York (or more likely Escape from L.A.), the setting is Mad Max (Beyond Thunderdome especially, but with elements of Road Warrior), there are costume elements that reminded me strongly of Running Man, there are story elements from westerns (the bank robbery reminded me of Peckinpah, if he’d made his shootouts in a brightly lit banks where everyone was wearing primary colors, and the giant clock recalled Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, as did elements of the ersatz Old West towns), and there are action sequences and blood effects that are straight out of samurai movies (Lone Wolf and Cub leapt to mind).

None of it makes a lick of sense. This is kind of interesting to me because the screenplay writer (Persian?) Reza Sixo Safai, whom we know around here for his role in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, apparently spent over a decade trying to get this made. Enough time, one would think, to iron out the kinks, were one so inclined.

As do we all.

Sophia Boutella wonders what the hell is going on.

So, we have to assume that it isn’t really trying to make sense, and indeed embracing that is about the only way you’re going to enjoy this film. The Boy and I? We enjoyed it. One thing that won me over early on was that it’s quite beautifully shot. Some of these Japanese directors will turn out two, three…six!…movies a year, and yet they’ll often be more interesting visually and more engaging than the bland, focus-tested, color-coded fare we get in America.

The tone is, shall we say, uneven? It’s mostly pretty serious, with heavy overtones of the weird—dreams, fate, ghosts—but it does occasionally and quite consciously get silly in places, not always to the best effect. Much worse is how many truly great things were left on the table: The big clock has no meaning, really. There’s a whole theme about time that doesn’t really go anywhere. There’s a heroic samurai whose backstory just kind of peters out. It’s a tale of redemption, in the classic western mold, but it’s too busy doing other things to give weight to the various story elements that make that sort of story resonate.

You want sense or you want beauty?

I think these are the boss’ girls on their way to the manor house, walking in front of the enslaved girls, though there’s a lot of reasons that doesn’t make sense. But look at the colors!

Hats off to the 57-year-old Cage doing a pretty good job as an action hero. We’ll see how he fares in 2028, when he’s 66—Harrison Ford’s age in Indiana Jones and the Walker of Impending Mortality. (I can’t even hear about the Indy 5 shoots without wincing.)

This is not for everyone, obviously. Hell, it’s not for most people. And if it hadn’t been so visually interesting with over-the-top performances, it would’ve been boring. More than anything it would’ve felt like one of those ’80s Italian versions of Mad Max or Escape From New York; Italians also don’t care much about making sense. But we were glad we saw it. We had some laughs and least manage to get out into the city ahead of the impending vaccine passport fascism.

The plot is less important.

Somebody really cared about getting good shots. (Less so about plot.)

Malignant

I sold the latest James Wan horror to The Boy by reading him part of Joe Bob Briggs’ review (“4 stars! Check it out!”) which emphasized the bat-guano elements of the plot, and he said if he had any particular surprise in the film, it was how it was basically just a solid slasher flick. Which, if you’ve seen the movie, tells you something about how far the bat-guano meter has to be pegged to register around here. And it’s true, if you’ve seen—oh, let’s say for no particular reason at all—Frank Hennenlotter’s 1982 cult classic Basket Case, this may seem tame by comparison.

Or is it a fromage?

It’s not a “rip-off”, it’s an “homage”.

The story here is of a troubled woman, Madison (Annabelle Wallis) who becomes the focus of a crime investigation when her abusive husband—no spoilers here but if seeing a pregnant woman get beat is a deal broken for you, consider the deal broken—turns up dead after an apparent home invasion. Not long after, doctors who all worked on the same remarkable case 30 years earlier start turning up dead, another woman goes missing, and Madison seems to have a psychic link to the murderer.

Sure we’ve seen it before! But have we ever seen it with…uh, wait, yeah, we’ve seen it with just about everything. Wait! Seattle! Have we ever seen it set in Seattle?! (Probably.)

What sets the movie apart is what you might call “the third act ask”. At the beginning of the third act (or the end of the second, depending on how you parse these things), the nature of the killer is revealed and it’s really, really silly. And a little cheat-y, though really only in the ordinary sense of horror cheats. That is, you aren’t being asked to accept anything that isn’t standard for the genre—just a lot all at once. It’s kind of a horse pill of horror. That said, it’s also basically the only possible non-mundane resolution of the issue, so the Boy and I embraced it wholly—and it’s probably why the $40 million dollar movie flopped and has let’s-call-them-“mixed” reviews.

The thing is, this feels like a real movie. We all sorta enjoyed Free Guy, by contrast, but that movie feels like a series of programmed sequences, possibly generated by the world’s dumbest AI, with as little human interaction as possible to screw it up. Wan, on the other hand, can have a black female detective (Michole Brianna White) who feels like a real character, who isn’t perfect, a dumb blonde little actress sister (Maddie Hasson) who flirts with the male detective (George Young) and gets excited when she thinks the police are using psychics but who’s also true-hearted and brave, a cute nerdy CSI gal (Mercedes Colon) who’s also crushing on the detective.

Hollywood magic!

Slap some glasses on this and you got yourself a nerd!

I mean, the thing is, whatever else you might say about it, it felt like the director gave a damn and took some risks.

Apart from the budget, Malignant is like Wan’s other unsuccessful post-Saw projects like Dead Silence and Death Sentence. The former took a crack at the ventriloquist-dummy genre (pioneered by the silent Gabbo, probably most famous now as the source for a setup on “The Simpsons”) and the latter squarely in the vein of post Death Wish revenge horror flicks. As a horror guy, I’ll take any of them over Furious 7 or Aquaman.

The 3rd Act Reveal is followed by a “empty the precinct house” slaughter similar to The Terminator though really reminding me of Maniac Cop 2. That went a little long for my taste. Also, I didn’t super care for the sequel set up, though I don’t suppose there was any other way to do that. I guess we won’t have to worry about seeing a sequel, at least. We could always just watch Basket Case 2, I suppose.

"Like HELL I'm doing that!"

Annabelle Wallis watching “Basket Case 2”.

Free Guy

It was that time of the year again again, as in last year was the first time Knott’s Halloween Haunt was canceled in its history, and this year it was back on (and the crowds were back with a vengeance) and we were looking for movies to see in Buena Park before the show. Usually we go to the CGV, which features Korean films, but they were not doing any shows before 4PM, nor was the AMC. However, the nearby Krikorian was open before noon, even, and we decided on a 2:30PM showing of Malignant. Typically we go for earlier shows and a double-feature, but there weren’t two movies we wanted to see.

The catch being, unfortunately, that the later we start the journey, the more traffic there is, and we actually didn’t get there until after 3PM, leaving us with just enough time to catch this goofy answer to Ready Player One: The Ryan Reynold’s vehicle Free Guy.

Charming!

Here, have a nice “Free Guy” cast “selfie”.

It was exactly the sort of porridge we expected, though we all liked it more than we expected.

The premise is that Reynolds is Guy, an NPC who works at a bank in a “Grand Theft Auto”-style game. One day he catches a glimpse of Jodie Comer (Millie/MolotovGirl), and something in him changes, and he begins to break his routine in order to interact with her. The in-game conceit is that players wear sunglasses and NPCs do not and through a series of mishaps Guy ends up putting on the glasses and discovering the game elements, like floating first aid kids, wads of cash, weapons or whatever.

Since he’s not acting correctly, everyone assumes he’s a PC who’s found a way to hack the game so he can wear an NPC skin, but Guy knows no other world than the simulation, and begins to level up to impress Millie. Back in meatspace, Millie’s real mission in the game is to uncover that Soonami, helmed by Antwan (Taika Waititi), stole her revolutionary code, that she wrote (or co-wrote?) with an old friend named Keys (Joe Keery) who now works for Soonami.

It’s basically Frankenstein or maybe Short Circuit, and it contains the usual libels against gamers. Millie and Keys’ revolutionary idea was to have code that evolved (I guess like “Spore”) and have players watch the NPCs rather than kill them (I guess like “The Sims”) but Antwan stole it for his GTA game for…reasons…and it’s somehow the reason for the game’s success, even though the entire plot hinges around Guy achieving sentience just as the game is being phased out.

Yup.

Charming.

Look, it’s stupid. I mean, really, really stupid.  Not Cryptozoo stupid, but close. But it’s lively and enjoyable and full of fun background gags and Ryan Reynolds is cute and Jodie Comer is cute so shut up and eat your popcorn.

The movie is stupid vague about Keys’ role, except to be the neglected love interest. He basically has the worst sort of role feminists complain about for women: He exists for the girl, who’s the real hero, to discover. They’re presented as a platonic team working on Nobel prize-worthy code, but for no conceivable reason (other than “so the movie can happen”), he’s just a game admin for the guy who ripped him off.

As bad as that is, Antwan is actually worse, embodying the worst stereotypes of Silicon Valley bosses, but who somehow codes the Final (in-game) Boss, and whose only answer to trying to prevent his thievery from being discovered is to take a literal axe to the game servers.

It's cute.

Reynolds and pal (Lil Rel Howery) chat during one of the regularly scheduled bank heists.

So, so dumb. The overarching message is dumb, too: It presumes the notion that enjoying simulated violence reflects a character flaw, and wouldn’t it be better just to, you know, be nice? Last I looked, one of the biggest video games of all time is Minecraft, which destroys the basis of the question before it’s even asked.

This is just one of those movies where you can enjoy it at the moment and only at a few points feel the edges worn down by focus test groups and relentless fear of alienating anyone. I mean, we could, anyway. There are many nice little touches to the film, like a guy in the background who just runs into walls (“that’s me!” I says) and the cute little bit about Millie using an English accent filter (she’s actually English, but does a good American). Millie’s alter ego is still Jodie Comer, though I swear they did some tricks to make her look different, especially at first. I mean, digital tricks like straightening her nose, not just “shapewear” (as The Flower called it) and makeup.

The only thing that made me want to walk out was at the very end, there’s a brief moment where Captain America’s shield makes an appearance (with a semi-cute/semi-nauseating Chris Evans cameo) and then a (completely useless) light saber, and then I realized “Oh, I’m watching a Disney product.” Actually, if I’d known that I wouldn’t have gone.

But mostly, it’s fine. Like most Hollywood product these days, it lacks any kind of reason to care much about it beyond superficial characteristics of the stars, and the glitzy CGI. You’ll see it, you’ll forget it, except for a vaguely beneficent feeling. Unless you start thinking about it, like I just have.

Also "cartoonishly evil and ineffective" is a little close to home these days.

Its not so much that he’s cartoonishly evil, it’s that his cartoonishly evil actions would be cartoonishly ineffective…and this is “real life”, not the game.

Tango Shalom

A man in dire financial straits whose family has big problems to boot determines to save the day by a winning a competition.

Sure we’ve seen it before, about a million times, even when the competition is a dance competition, maybe even when it’s a tango competition. But have we ever seen it when the competitor is a Hasidic rabbi who is forbidden to touch his dance partner (since she is not his wife)? I think not!

She's not bitchy in the movie, for the most part, either.

The lovely Judy Beecher inflicts a Karen haircut on herself, which is a far too extreme form of method acting.

Well, that idea and a kind of geniality is about all Tango Shalom has going for it, which I enjoyed but The Boy felt frustrated about because it’s not better. In fact, we both agreed it felt like someone’s first movie. It’s not, though: The director is Gabriel Bologna, whose parents Joseph Bologna and Renee Taylor (character actors who shared an Oscar nom for their adaptation of their own Broadway play, Lovers and Other Strangers) are both featured in the film.

The good here: It’s a broadly comic movie that has a few laughs and treats its characters sympathetically. It also moves along at a—well, I’ll call it an interesting pace, because it’s breakneck in some places and in other places ridiculously slow, and I actually kind of liked the shift in emphasis between from what would normally be considered major plot points to extensive montages of our hero wandering around Crown Heights wrestling with his religious dilemma. I also like the balls-to-the-wall absurdity of solving the dilemma by dancing the tango with a balloon to prevent the two bodies from ever touching.

Just sayin'.

You’re gonna need a bigger ballon.

And, look, as I’ve said, for me that was enough. Also, I find particular enjoyment where people’s moral codes are put to the test (Friendly Persuasion, God’s Neighbors, Machine Gun Preacher, etc.)—even if, as in this case, the solution is clearly a gross technicality and entirely against the spirit of the prohibition. And it’s not that these are the only good aspects to the movie, but by God, they better be enough for you because this movie feels shockingly amateurish at times.

I’m following Len Kabasinski’s latest shoot, Pact of Vengeance, and looking at the stills and re-viewing of his works, and one of the thing that strikes me is how ragged everyone ends up looking. Contrast that to someone like Anna Biller (The Love Witch) where every scene is going to be beautiful and everyone’s going to look beautiful in it. (Biller lugs huge lights around for her shoots and works as her own grip and gaffer, as well as shooting on film. It’s not for nothing she has two feature credits to Len’s 10 to 20.)

So it’s a little shocking to see everyone look so ragged in this film—more toward the Len side than the Anna side, if you know what I mean—and also look stiff and unconvincing a lot of the time. It’s hard to say where the fault lies, though I suspect this was a team effort. A clue may be in the dancing scenes: Our heroic rabbi, Moshe (Jos Laniado, who co-wrote the script) has to dance, obviously, and we’re all familiar with the tricks used in movies to make it look like someone is dancing when they’re not. The two basic ways of handling this well are to do a really good job with the shot transitions (and these days, they’ll CGI in a face, a la Black Swan), or to kind of ham it up and let the audience know we’re all in on the joke. (I’m pretty sure the Naked Gun movies pulled this trick, and I saw Elvira do it live once quite hilariously.) Here it looks like Laniado knows a little footwork, but the camera is trying to convince you he doesn’t because it’s so choppy—and the stiffness in his upper body makes it really, really hard to suspend belief. It’s a very strange effect, overall.

There are a lot of strange effects, like Moshe’s brother (played by his real-life brother, Claudio) seeming very old. The “aesthetic imbalance” between Moshe and his wife (played by Judi Beecher) is not so obvious, especially with the “Karen” haircut they give Beecher, but Claudio seems just a bit too ready for the retirement home to be wooing Marci Fine. Meanwhile, it’s sweet to have your daughter playing your daughter, but Justine Laniado does not look like she could be the offspring of Jos Laniado and Judi Beecher—though she does like she could be the offspring of Jos and the woman who starred in his 2009 short about tango—and does not sound here like she’s ever done a line reading before.

I mean, honestly. How suspended do you want this disbelief?

The blushing newlyweds.

These are little jarring moments. The big jarring moments are what diminished the experience for The Boy. Like, when Moshe meets Viviana Nieves (the lovely and graceful Karina Sminoff, who seems to have done something to put her lips into a permanent “duck” state), she gets a phone call and, in about 30 seconds, ends up being dumped by her fiancee/dance partner, and instantly coming up with the idea to replace him with the dancing rabbi.

Then we get, I dunno, forty minutes of the rabbi struggling with his dilemma. I actually felt like, oh, the whole movie is going to be about him struggling over it, and the dance competition is going to be a kind of afterthought. But the movie goes for almost a full two hours—and to its credit only feels overlong at the end, and during some of these “How am I going to dance the tango, Hashem?” sequences.

So he goes to a rabbi, a priest, an imam and a mystic. No, really. And they’re all as useless as you might imagine. The movie struggles in its feel-good attempt to equate religions because it’s frankly hard to say all religions are the same but also have a value beyond fortune cookie bromides. The rabbi says “On the one hand…but on the other hand…but on the other hand…” and goes on and on like that which is broad enough as a stereotype to qualify as antisemitism. The priest and the imam both say something along the lines of “Find a way to do it without sacrificing your beliefs.” And the Hindu gives him a balloon. The balloon that he uses to dance with.

The balloon is another issue where the lack of camerawork shows up as the point is to show how it keeps him from touching his dance partner but there are tons of shots where it looks like they’re smack up against each other, balloon or no balloon. And through a conspiracy to hide what he’s doing from the rest of his community, Moshe unites his warring family, and isn’t that what community is all about?

The ham-fisted, after-school special message of the movie is “All religions should get along because they all serve God.” I mean, this gets down the final scene where the rabbi, the priest and the mystic are sent a banana by the imam who can’t go to a wedding reception, where the peels represent the various religions and the banana is God. Subtlety is not to be found here, people, though I give the movie credit for showing the Muslims being hostile to Moshe, even though the imam does try to help. On the flip-side, the mystic looks like an absolute creep. I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault, but man, it’s a hard line between “being serene” and “looking zonked out”.

I could find fault with it endlessly, but I didn’t really. I was willing to go along with the absurdity and ham-fistedness for what struck me as reasonable cause. It’s a big ask, though, and the Boy wasn’t into it. Looks like they trying to maneuver the film into a My Big Fat Greek Wedding indie-breakout mold. Worth a shot, I guess, and anything that shows broad, ethnic humor doesn’t have to be mean and can be allowed to exist seems like a worthwhile endeavor to me.

I mean, honestly.

A much bigger balloon.

Night House

I realized, when watching this, that there is a distinct subgenre of horror film where the horror is a metaphor for depression. The Babadook and Lights Out are two other relatively recent popular films where this is true—I mean, overtly true, where the filmmakers have just openly said, “Yes, this is a metaphor for depression.” (Certainly the trope in film goes back to the German expressionists, and we hardly need mention Edgar Allan Poe.) The ending of Lights Out caused some controversy because if you’re going to be very thorough—that is, following through on the metaphor and mapping it back to real world behavior—it’s not exactly a great message to send depressed people. That’s just peanuts compared to this movie’s ending, however.

A funny thing happens, though, when you take the abstract concept of depression and turn it into an external force that can be confronted: It becomes interesting to watch and strangely hopeful. (Cf. when you turn it into an external force that will destroy everything, which becomes boring and nihilistic).

I mean.

Almost every picture of this movie I could find is Rebecca Hall with her mouth open.

We went in completely blind to this movie and I think its little reveals and twists are important to enjoying the film, so I’m going to speak in broad generalities: Basically, the film is about recently widowed Beth (Rebecca Hall), and how the death of her husband Owen (Evan Jongkeit) undermines everything she thought about not just her life, but life in general. She’s a school teacher lives in a lovely custom-built house deep in the woods on a lake. She’s got a friend (Sarah Goldberg) and a friendly neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, whom you’ll all remember as the star of “Cop Rock”) but she’s mostly just pissed off and wants to be alone.

Now, this is an interesting choice. Most movies play up the sympathy angle for young widows but Beth has a got a chip on her shoulder a mile wide, bordering on the unlikable even given her very recent tragic loss. There are two layers two this: The first and most obvious being the death of her husband; the second being that she was actually always a kind of difficult person and it was her husband who kept her more balanced. She is dark and atheistic and nihilistic and, really, one gets the sense that it was her relationship to her husband on which she grounded herself.

And the movie is a process of undermining that entire relationship while also challenging her worldview as she is most decidedly haunted.

Handy, I mean.

Haunted by her handy man husband? Or is she? Or is he?

Director David Bruckner (SouthboundThe Ritual) takes us down a rabbit-hole where we are free—some might say encouraged—to speculate on the base nature of Owen’s secret life. He takes us far enough down to where I was pretty sure there was no getting out. That said, the ending worked for me, though it does not necessarily bear close scrutiny and good lord, you don’t want to go too heavy on the “solutions for depression” metaphor.

This movie walks a fine line in a lot of ways. I’ve mentioned that the lead character is borderline unlikable, but there is a lot of “and then she wakes up” which is often just a lazy, sloppy device for getting out of a mess created by the urge to create funhouse horror, but it’s actually developed here in an interesting and even deep way. There are a few jump scares but not too many and, this is an odd thing, they’re more directed toward Beth than they are toward the audience. That is to say, I don’t think the director was trying to get us to jump out of our seats, but to alarm and disturb the main character, making her more sympathetic and growing the horror from a sense of her fate rather than, e.g., “oh my god that loud noise was so scary ha ha it was just a cat”.

There's a reason, granted.

Hall and Curtis-Hall on a walk through some lovely woods they get all spooked over.

Another line, which it actually treads really well, is the “if the ghost is someone you loved, why is it scary?” line. And the character development, and relationship development is trickled out in a way that you really, really want what the main character wants—for the things that she believed were true to be true.

The acting is solid. This is basically the Rebecca Hall show and she’s up for it. I said to the Boy, “Look, it’s Rebecca Hall!” and he said, “Who [tf] is that?” and I said, “I don’t know, but she’s billed over the title!” We’ve seen Ms. Hall in about a million things over the past 15 years (The Prestige, Frost/NixonThe TownEverything Must Go, and The BFG, just for example) but this is the first time I can recall seeing her headline a film, and it’s a genuinely great performance of a difficult role.

The music is just right, the cinematography has some brilliant moments, and a low-key, satisfying ending was preferred over, say, the house exploding (thank you Steven Spielberg). We were pleasantly surprised, as moviegoing has just been a series of “let’s see something that we won’t absolutely hate” these days (cf. Cryptozoo).

If you’re up for an atmospheric, non-gory haunted house-type story, you could do worse.

Stocking stuffers for the whole family!

The merchandising on this movie is gonna be LIT.

 

Cryptozoo

I thought we would go see Demonic, the Neil Blomkamp film, but the reviews are so bad on it that it seemed like a “watch the trainwreck” kind of affair. Then I thought maybe we’d see The Macaluso Sisters, about five Sicilian orphan girls who rent out doves to make their way—but the reviews on that were 100% critically positive (with no real human beings having seen it). And the critic reviews referred to how “haunting” it was more than the reviews for Demonic, and talked a lot about childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma movies are to critics what movies about feet are to Quentin Tarantino. No, I have no idea what that means, either, other than I got a seriously bad vibe off of that kind of critical response. So I says to The Boy I says, “Screw it, let’s see what’s at the Nuart”—our local and relatively famous “cult cinema” theater which is now owned by Landmark.

Cryptozoo: A crudely animated film about a world where an old hippie grandma wants to keep the cryptids of the world (gorgons, unicorns, krakens, whatever) in a Disneyland-type environment that normies can visit and ultimately grow to accept the monsters that live among them.

And this is not the hippie grandma!

The critical reviews of this gush over how “beautiful” it is.

It’s a profoundly dumb film and animated at the level of “South Park” (the ’90s era TV show, not the movie) with a kind of Yellow Submarine sensibility and a color palette reminiscent of Fantastic Planet—but despite this, it was still almost certainly the best choice of the three films.

Directed by Dash Shaw, the creator of My Entire High School Is Sinking Into The Sea, this is the story of Lauren Grey (Lake Bell, In A World), a woman who’s The Best At Hunting Cryptids, on a journey to track down the Baku, a Japanese dream-eating monster which is apparently the most powerful thing ever (it’s not really explained) in competition with a similar (male) hunter working the U.S. Army who has a dream of capturing all the cryptids to use in the war in Vietnam. You see, it’s 1967 and…

The first thing struck me about this movie was how utterly prosaic it was for a movie about cryptids. The next thing that struck me was how perfectly aligned with modern political correctness it was. There are no positive human male characters in the film, except for the black guy who is going to marry the white (Hispanic? Italian?) gorgon, and he’s not only a minor character, he’s clearly gay. (I have no idea who voices him—Dash Shaw, maybe?—as this is the whitest movie you’ll ever see, but we did laugh out loud whenever he spoke. The “black men are not allowed to be masculine or aggressive” is a weird one. This guy’s entire main scene he does lying on his back in bed.)

So...ugh.

So stunning. So Brave. So crude and blotchy.

Even among the male cryptids, the only one that qualifies as good is a sasquatch-y type thing that has been domesticated by hippie grandma (Grace Zabriskie, playing something other than a ball-buster for once in her 40 year career). Oh, and there’s a sniveling grade-school age hand-torso thing who’s being beaten by his mom (probably). The other male cryptids are universally destructive, if they’re mentioned at all.

The thing is, I’m sure it’s unconscious. Watching Hollywood product today is like watching a play in medieval Europe. “Gosh, how will they ever get out of this mess? Oh, Jesus saves? What a surprise!” That is, they’re so steeped in dogma at this point, they can’t conceive of any other way to tell a story.

None of this would bug me much, and it might not bug you. You might just enjoy this little morality play where Man tampers in God’s domain—excuse me, Woman tries to Control Nature, and it all goes wrong.

But I’m on this kick of late (say the last 20 years or so, really starting with the Harry Potter movies) where I say, “OK, you’ve changed the rules of the universe to allow for some impossible thing. Now, how does the universe unfold in response?” It’s really noticeable in the fifth movie, I think it is, where some sort of wizard camp-out is broken up by death-eaters. And I say to my self, “Self, every dadblamed one of these consarn wizards is carrying the magical equivalent of a Colt .45, except that it never misses or runs out of bullets. HOW IS ANY OF THIS HAPPENING?”

This is really underscored in mainstream comics where someone will say they saw aliens or something and the authorities will respond with “Oh, you saw aliens? Cuckoo! Cuckoo!” Like the whole world hasn’t witnessed alien attacks. It’s lazy.

In this case, there’s a kind of sloppy storytelling which makes it seem like everyone’s aware of cryptids because except for the first two characters everyone else in the movie is either aware of cryptids or IS a cryptid. Also the movie starts in 1967, which you have to suss out (that’s a ’60s idiom!) from the two hippie characters encountering their first cryptids, then flashes back to the end of WWII where Lauren encounters the Baku as it eats her nightmares, and nobody believes her. But this, too, is not a big deal.

We had to eat the village in order to save it.

NGL, using a hydra for crowd control sounds pretty boss. I mean, gotta be cheaper and more reliable to just SHOOT them but much less cool.

Where it falls apart is the whole concept of the cryptozoo. Joan (Zabriskie) has a vision getting people to come to accept cryptids and to this end, she’s collected all the cryptids of the world she can find into one place, and with such security that literally a naked hippie chick can bring the whole thing crashing down. It begs the question of how all the creatures were collected in the first place? Lauren? How’d she manage to get the kraken and the giant worm? Since the creatures appear not to be supernatural, what does the kraken eat? And is that a salt-water lake? Who built it?

Who built the giant (but apparently easily scalable) unguarded, unmonitored, electric fence? Given that most of the creatures are apparently capable of (and relatively indifferent to) murdering humans, what was the plan for having families come visit the cryptozoo? Not just murdering, but mind-controlling (will-o-the-wisps) and raping (satyrs and centaurs) as well!

Who changes the tires on the Batmobile?!

Or to quote a line from a classic TV series, “repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax”. Take it as a fable (that you’ve heard a million times before) and you’ll be fine. For me, well, this is one I’ve heard my whole life and I regard it as a call to apathy, and this presentation rather childish.

I rather enjoyed the crazed cryptid hunter’s fantasies of using cryptids as weapons. Like “Now we can use dragons to burn villages in Vietnam!” A feat previously impossible, I guess. My favorite was “We can use hydras for crowd control!” Well, look, all the hydras are gonna do is eat people, which is admittedly cool, but probably much harder logistically than just shooting them.

The Boy said, “I think I liked it more than you because the hippie guy dies in the first five minutes. Also, monsters are cool.” Fair points.

HOW?!

How did you even GET this to San Francisco?

Pig (2021)

Imagine, if you will, a kind of John Wick story where instead of being an assassin, he was a chef, and instead of his dog being killed, his truffle pig is kidnapped, and instead of shooting everyone who gets in his way, he instead devastates them with psychological and culinary insight. That’s Pig. Also instead of Keanu Reeves, it’s Nic Cage. (Not to be confused with the 2019 Iranian flick Pig, the sadly overlooked satire of the Persian establishment and film industry.)

It means very little at this point, I suppose, but this is the best new American film since the lockdowns.

Continuity's a bitch, though.

Fun fact: Nic Cage does NOT use makeup. When a scene calls for him to be beat up, he has highly trained professionals beat him until the correct effect is achieved.

Now, some people don’t care for The Cage, who gets a whole lot of memeing for his freakout roles, like Mandy and much, much less for his understated and powerful performances like, oh, Matchstick Men, and gets almost no acknowledgement at all for when he has an understated performance where he breaks out the crazy as appropriate, like Joe—or, say, something like Color Out Of Space, where he’s even-handed to the point of  madness. So I suspect he won’t get the accolades he deserves for Pig where his personality is that of a normal (albeit severely depressed) man who has opted for living life as a hermit.

Cage plays the once famous chef, Rob, who acts as a supplier of truffles for Amir (Alex Wolff, From Up On Poppy HillHereditary) in a pretty sweet deal for the latter: According to Truffle Farm, truffles retail from anywhere between about $40/lb. for the cheap ones and over $1,500/lb. for the pricey ones. Judging by Amir’s car and watch, etc., he’s doing okay for himself reselling the truffles, given that his Master Restaurateur/mobster father (Adam Arkin, The Sessions, A Serious Man) has cut him off. OK, he’s not really a mobster (I don’t think) but given the cutthroat food service industry he may as well be.

McNugget Tuesdays!

Foodies Rob and Amir visit the Portland McDonalds.

While Rob’s odyssey through Portland is unusual in a lot of ways and, yes, somewhat reminiscent of John Wick, it’s more of a condensed reality than a surreal one. That is to say, the whole movie takes place over 3-4 days, and you see some strange things but nothing fantastical. About halfway through, Rob makes a speech about Portland’s inevitable demise due to a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and I thought, “Well, is this why some people are gaga about this movie?” Nihilistic speeches don’t really ring my bell, though I had been entertained up to that point, I was worried the movie was going to just slide into pretentiousness.

And some of you might feel that it does, to be fair, but that monologue is the first of several—and the only one that’s nihilistic. It reflects Rob’s depressed state where every other action or speech shows something greater underneath.  The next speech Rob gives on his journey is to a financially successful chef played by David Knell. Knell did most of his film and TV work in the ’80s—he was the lead in Sean Cunningham’s teen-sploitation “classic” Spring Break and had small roles in SplashTotal RecallTurner and Hooch and so on—and his part here consists primarily of listening to Cage strip him bare. It’s a truly great bit of acting, and par for the course in this film where “there are no small roles”. (A lot of credit has to go to David Blackshear, senior editor, and all the editors who make these difficult scenes pop.)

Brilliant.

TFW you’re a successful fraud listening to your life being deconstructed.

When Rob comes out of the forest, he connects with Edgar (Darius Prince) who’s doing the Paul Giamatti role. (I briefly wondered if it was Giamatti, but then I just decided I sort of expected him to be there, and then The Boy asked me after: “Hey, was that Paul Giamatti?”) Alex Wolff has to be the sorta “normal” guy to Cage’s forest hermit. Arkin, of course, knocks it out the park with a role you see going one way which then flips to another. There are small, moving roles played by Dalene Young (a prolific writer of teleplays in the ’80s and ’90s) and Gretchen Corbett (who might be known to your grandparents as “the girl who played Jim Rockford’s lawyer”), and every part is done with care and attention to details that elevate the whole.

For example, Young’s character (who run a mortuary/wine cellar?) is masked by shadows, while Cage and Corbett’s interactions are done from a high-angle medium shot. It conveys very well the idea that these are characters from the past, like the shades Ulysses encounters in Hades, though it’s inverted since Rob has more or less consigned himself to a living death.

I couldn’t find a picture of Adam Arkin in “Pig”, so enjoy this picture of Adam Arkin (with Barry Corbin) in “Northern Exposure”, where he plays a misanthropic master chef who lives like a hermit in the woods.

And there’s something else I noticed: The story is about identity. Two things about this shocked me. First of all, it’s actually about something, in a way that’s reflected not just narratively but in the construction of shots and atmosphere. Second of all, it is fairly meticulous in its approach. Amir is the obvious candidate: He wants to be someone who can win approval from his father, and he’s so far gone down this path we almost never get to see the real him. But so is Finway (Knell) and Amir’s Dad (Arkin), and ultimately so is Rob. A third shocking thing, and probably why this movie will ultimately be ignored, is that it’s genuinely about identity and demonstrates the hazards of following fashion to please an unthinking, uncaring mass—a totally off-brand and even radical message for an American film.

But everything in the movie pays off, ultimately. (Well, maybe not the Fight Club thing.) Down to the level of something I noticed in the very opening scenes where Cage is truffle-hunting with his pig—a detail which I think most filmmakers would expect you to overlook—is revealed to be essentially the keystone of the whole thing at the end of the second act.

Damn, son. That’s filmmaking. We liked it a lot, and we liked it even more as time passed.

A kind and steady heart is sure to see you through.

That’ll do, “Pig”.

The Forever Purge

This is the first time I’ve ever taken a movie recommendation from Alex Jones who mentioned this movie during this interview with Michael Malice. Stay tuned to find out if I ever take another one, after this brief message from our sponsor: I HATE EVERYTHING.

I’m getting freaking PTSD from these awful, awful trailers they’re playing before the movies, to which I’m already coming in 15 minutes past marquee time to avoid the bulk of. I hate the biopic of Aretha Franklin so much already. Why? Because they make it look like she wrote “Respect” as opposed to getting it from Otis Redding. (Where Redding got it is another matter.) This was followed by a trailer for the new Candyman, which trades its spooky gothic plantation origin for a modern hands-up-don’t-shoot narrative. I’m not a big Candyman fan but as I recall, he was a badass even in the midst of genuine slavery, and not some poor waif gunned down by rogue police.

No.

That is, I’m not taking any more movie advice from Alex Jones. Now, in fairness, he didn’t say it was a good movie, he just said that the movie shows the bad guys are the people in charge. This is true. In fact, the thing that keeps this movie from being awful as it wants to be is its complete and utter incoherence. We dipped out after the first one—which, holy cow starred Ethan Hawke and Lena Heady—not because we didn’t like it, but because we both agreed that as a concept it was just too stupid to sustain. (Beware Pixar!)

Hate

Variety: Is America Catching Up To ‘The Purge’ Films?

This movie was so stupid, I was tempted to go back and look at the second film in the trilogy to see if they just got progressively stupider, only to discover it’s not a trilogy but a pentalogy with a freakin’ TV series spinoff. We regretted not going to see the Escape Room sequel. Or, hell, Pig again.

This entry in the already dubious pile of crap that is the Purge Cinematic Universe has us believe that the purge has gone off, once again without a hitch, and people just go back to normal the next day. The one good part of this whole movie, story-wise is that the actual purge night is only a small fraction of the film. You could easily have believed they were going to do the whole as one extended night, but we get a little break before realizing that people aren’t going back to normal the next day.

Dumb

Den of Geek: Why ‘The Forever Purge’ Is The Series Most Relevant Move Yet

Which is, of course, the obvious stupid thing that was obvious and stupid from the first movie.  The “Star Trek” episode (“Return of the Archons”) that the movie rips off at least has, as its premise, that the inhabitants of the town are mind controlled by a rogue computer, and their “festival” day is a release valve for repressed emotions. It’s a dumb explanation but at least it’s an explanation. In the Purge-verse, the idea is that people just cut loose one day and then go back the next day to normal.

And also that the good people cower while the (often mercenary) vandals, rapists and murderers run amok. Oh, and also that the good people get caught outside during the purge.

All of this is too stupid to contemplate, and this film may be the ne plus ultra of the America-hating we saw in the first film.

So, in this profoundly dumb entry, “the purge” doesn’t stop and America falls to these gangs of roving purgers who are (probably?) hired by the richies that run things or who may have just decided to take things over for themselves. Our “heroes”—we got one separatist guy who actually gets a chance to reform, which is almost novel—are going to flee to Mexico. And when they get there, they’ll all be expected to speak Spanish.

Also, the Mexicans and the Canadians are only giving Americans a short window to escape—failing which they’ll trap all the refugees in a fascistic hellhole where they will be murdered, raped and enslaved. But Americans have that coming, right?

Prekrasnaya!

RT: ‘The Forever Purge’ begs for liberal praise by devolving into anti-Trump fanfiction for CNN viewers

See, that’s the thing with a movie like this, that wears its politics on its sleeve: It refutes itself with its own stupidity. It also reveals a special brand of cowardice that’s so far from American Exceptionalism, you can tell there’s no one around who understands or dares express the idea. You get a movie made like this which looks exactly like the Antifa/BLM riots but you have to make the baddies White Supremacists. You have to, of course, there’s literally no way you could make a movie about actual villains.

The White Supremacists ultimately come up against Native Americans who are, I guess, illegal immigrant smugglers—and have been fighting this war for 400 years, or something, they say—but they are woefully underprepared when six dudes in dune buggies show up. The Boy groused about this: It’s one of those action scenarios where it’s not clear why anyone is doing anything, nor how many bad guys there are, since the number seems to be “however many we need till we’re done with our action piece.” Two of the bad guys get into a firefight with the heroes in a little mud hut, are killed, and the other bad guys don’t even notice.

What would really happen—and why The Purge is just a left-liberal fantasy—is that the rioters would run amok in the cities where leftist mayors give them free reign and then they’d stop before they got to the country—hell, the suburbs—where America’s ONE BILLION GUNS live. They’d end up with empty cities, where they would starve to death, and they’d be killed pretty quickly the instant they tried anything elsewhere.

But you can’t have that. No, the story is: All the good guys are disorganized, unarmed cowards who would flee the instant they met trouble. Literally anyone who would fight for America is a villain.

Dumb. Hateful. Tedious. But Alex is right about the frogs.

Srsly

Live look at the audience!

La Cercle Rouge (1970)

At some point, when you take yourself to your sixth ’60s/’70s era French film with Alain Delon, you have only yourself to blame. Fortunately this was only our second such film, having skipped Indian Summer, Le Samourai and some others that our local indie chain insists on showing for some reason, and this one was a heist film. It recalls Rififi, though France was certainly not spared the countercultural revolution, and this film is nowhere near as fun as that one.

Although there were only two of us.

Our approximate expressions on the way to the theater.

Let’s get the important stuff out of the way: There are no female characters to speak of in this film, which means the saving grace of La Piscine (copious female pulchritude) is limited to a very gratuitous bit with Anna Douking, who is Alain Delon’s ex-squeeze and now with the guy who left him holding the bag, and who listens from that guy’s bedroom as the two talk. Completely naked, of course. Apart from that, you get showgirls in shockingly modest uniforms.

By the way, I may be mixing up Alain Delon and Yves Montand, so.

Anyway, a guy gets out of jail after serving his time and goes to shake down his old partner, who is a mob boss now (or something). Meanwhile another guy is being taken to jail and stages a daring break, fleeing from his train into the woods and finds himself in the trunk of guy #1. The two bond through a some evading the police and murder, and end up (in spite of even their limited decision making skills) planning a mega-jewel-heist. Their compere on this adventure is an alcoholic sniper, and much like Rififi (IIRC), the heist goes just fine. It’s the subsequent aspects of the crime that go wrong.

Not exactly "tight".

This is Anna Douking’s entire role: She stands behind this door for five minutes, naked. Never comes back. Never factors into anything.

Apparently this is a great movie. They tell me this is a great movie. I don’t know why they tell me this. A lot of times, when they tell me things like this, I can see what they mean even if I don’t agree. This is one where I don’t get it at all, really. It’s quite slow, which is not an issue per se (cf. Stalker). The characters are okay, I guess. It seems like a fairly conventional, somewhat grim story.

The cinematography’s okay but nothing to write home about. Nothing special about the blocking or set design (though the alcoholic’s house is kind of cool in an awful sort of way). The use of music is kind of interesting—there isn’t any at first, probably for about 15 minutes. Then there’s some ambient music. Then there’s some regular orchestral stuff. That stuff works.

I guess it all works, eventually. And I will say that I had trouble telling people apart, particularly—and this is key—the mob boss and a saloon owner being coerced by the police. In the end, the characters meet their fate by believing a clearly untrustworthy person implicitly. I thought that was kinda dumb. Sorta like, “Well, the movie has to end, so let’s do this.”

The Boy liked it somewhat more than I did, though he had similar issues. For a 1970 French film, it was acceptable.

These guys gonna die.

I would watch it again at gunpoint, anyway.

Chariots of Fire (1981)

If you had told me that forty years ago, the Academy Award for best picture went to a film about Man’s relationship with his religion versus his duty to his nation, I probably wouldn’t believe you. Because I had never seen Chariots of Fire, the true-ish-to-life story of the 1924 English Olympic track team. If the Internets are to be believed, this movie began as an attempt by producer David Puttnam (Midnight ExpressFoxes) to create something with a sort of Man For All Seasons level of drama, and he very nearly makes it.

lol

The beauty and grace of world class athletes.

Our two central characters in the drama are a Jew, Harold Abrahams (played by Ben Cross, who played Barnabas Collins in the ’90s reboot of “Dark Shadows”) who is ambitious and driven to finding acceptance in English society, and a Calvinist Scotsman, Eric Liddel (played by Ian Charleson, who was in Gandhi and a lot of British TV shows before AIDS got him in 1990) who has to balance his God-given athleticism with his literal mission (which in real-life took him to China and eventual internment at the hands of the Japanese).

There are other characters as well, but The Boy and I are not great at telling people in these period pieces apart. (This would make our next film, La Cercle Rouge, a real struggle.) Also, the other characters seem to exist primarily to throw Liddel and Abrahams into contrast. In particular, I struggled with telling Nigel Havers’ (from that English TV series you like, and also Empire of the Sun) Lord Andrew Lindsay from Nicholas Farrell’s (from that other English TV series you like, and also the 1984 Tarzan movie, which featured Ian Charleson as well) Aubrey Montague till about halfway through the movie. Lindsay was kind of interesting because he was portrayed as being not driven like Abrahams and Liddel—just the kind of upper class fellow who did things on a lark, but was still good enough to make it to the Olympics. (Speaking of Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller would win three gold medals at these Olympics, before going on to play the best Tarzan in the 1932 adaptation.)

Sploosh.

Just havin’ fun, gettin’ muddy.

This character, Lord Lindsay, is a composite, apparently, but a surface look at the whys and wherefores is murky and contradictory, and I didn’t go see this movie for a history lesson.

Abrahams is the most compelling character, because he’s—as the kids say—a total chad. He does this legendary race around the Cambridge quad, “The Great Court Run”, and is the first person to beat the challenge since Aethelred the Unready or something. (In reality, it was the Lord Lindsay character who did it first.) When one of the guys (Aubrey?) takes him to see the Gilbert and Sullivan Society production of Mikado because he has a crush on the star (prime Alice Krige, most famously known as the Borg Queen but who I’ve had a thing for since Ghost Story), it’s Abrahams who asks her out—during the intermission.

Colin Welland’s script shows Abrahams as a character who is distinctly English and yet excluded from society, or at least suspect, because of his Lithuanian Jewish descent. Though it should be noted that the movie opens with Abrahams very, very Christian funeral while not ever mentioning that Abrahams converted. His utter lack of religion makes the entire focus about the English establishment, which ends up being less interesting. Krige has a good line early on when they’re on their first date: “Nobody cares.” I’ll leave it as an exercise for the viewer as to why that’s so great.

With apologies to Gaston.

“Who is it?” “Me! The man you’re gonna marry, you lucky girl!”

Liddel’s situation is more interesting. He’s running for God. And he doesn’t roll on shomer freakin’ Shabbos! He spends the whole movie (in-between training) delivering sermons and re-assuring his sister that he’s not being seduced by worldly temptations. And then his Olympic meet happens to fall on a Sunday. At that point, it’s a little unclear whether the French are just recalcitrant (the Olympics were being held in Paris that year) or whether the Brits were just too proud to ask a bunch of frogs to do some rescheduling, but it comes down to everyone (including future abdicator, the Prince of Wales) demanding Liddel run on a Sunday.

Liddel runs like a geek, which The Boy noted, and which I assured him was doubtless thoroughly researched. Amusingly, Liddel’s wife objected to the portrayal of his running, but the producer swears by the accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe him. Nobody could make that gait up.

Overall, whether or not to run doesn’t quite have the intensity of Thomas More standing up to Henry VIII, to be honest, but I liked it because it seems like such a novel thing, lo, these two score years later. The Boy was less impressed: He liked it but didn’t think it was a must-see. He did have to recalibrate while watching because so much of the film has been aped and parodied—especially the music, which perhaps ironically, I found very hit-and-miss—he had to remind himself that this was the original.

The Old Man was salty about this movie back in the day. It was put in the Best Picture category (which it won) whereas a similar Australian film, Gallipoli, was put in the foreign language category and didn’t even make it to the nomination phase. He would not be surprised that Gallipoli is rated higher on IMDB. Of course, virtually every other film nominated that year is currently ranked higher. Raiders of the Lost Ark towers over the others, but Atlantic CityOn Golden Pond and even Reds—the odds-on favorite, especially after Beatty won Best Director—are all rated higher. Meanwhile there was Das BootThe Road WarriorThe Evil Dead, Excalibur, Blow OutEscape from New York and the debut film of Serbian director Emir Kusturica, Do You Remember Dolly Bell? But the Oscars post-’60s tended to split between empty echoes of former glories and communist agitation, until it gave way in the past decade to something resembling complete self-abnegation. (Nine of the last ten “best director” awards have gone to foreign born nationals.)

Anyway, even if there are twenty better films from this year, it’s still worth a watch.

Go figger.

An utterly unremarkable long shot that is also iconic.

The African Queen (1951)

The most depressing thing, for me, about seeing John Huston’s classic film The African Queen was not coming out of the theater to see an add for Disney’s Jungle Cruise, but watching the movie and recalling a scene I’d just seen extracted from the new Marvel Black Widow movie. Allow me to elaborate: In 2015’s Age Of Ultron, there was one of those rare moments of a thing called “character development” where Black Widow tearfully confesses that part of her training involved a full hysterectomy—a little reminder that the besides being a plot-armored quasi-super-hero, she’s also a human being.

This little moment was controversialized by the perverse childless weirdos who dominate “journalism” and who cannot ever allow the possibility that a woman might find considerable meaning and value in fulfilling a woman’s biological role, i.e., having children. And so, in the new movie, one of the (now apparently dime-a-dozen) Black Widows recalls the same incident as a flippant joke.

The African Queen is a love story, first and foremost. It’s also an action-adventure-war picture, because Hollywood used to adore that sort of broad crowd-pleaser. The action-adventure stuff is what happens in the movie, but it’s about love. To wit, old maid missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn), upright and uptight but genuinely strong of character, finds herself fleeing German advances in Africa at the dawn of WWI with the low-class, crass and vulgar Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart), and the two strengthen each other through a burgeoning affection and shared purpose—which is of course a sort of last ditch, long-shot heroic gesture against the Hun. Talk about “they couldn’t make that today”.

Look at that! Just look at it!

Chock full of fabulous blocking, of course.

Having grown up with late-era Katharine Hepburn, I was not a fan, and it wasn’t until years later when I saw things like Bringing Up Baby (where she’s basically a manic pixie dream girl) and The Philadelphia Story where I began to realize that she could genuinely act—in a role that didn’t have her as an uptight New England patrician. And I suspect it may have been this role that guided her career into that mold because she’s so, so good at it. Yet the beauty of this part is her transformation: She knows what’s right and she is steadfast, but she also has feelings which occasionally, fleetingly break through to the surface; when she “warms up”, as it were, she allows herself more emotion, but if anything is more determined and uncompromising.

On the flipside we have Hobo Bogart, who is also the sort of actor you could easily forget could actually act because he was so good at the hard-boiled detective thing. But here he’s not suave or cool or heroic, rather a kind of unprincipled drunk living a life of ease. (I actually had some concern about The Flower seeing him in this condition.) This movie is, essentially, a buddy comedy/road movie, and our principles are the oddest couple.

They’re both way too old for their roles, of course—Hepburn was mid-40s, Bogie was mid-50s—but it doesn’t much matter. Nor does the fact that they’re supposed be English. (Well, in the book Charlie is cockney, but for the movie they switched that to Canadian.) The effects, largely consisting of actually being in Africa and rolling the cameras, are quite good, with the exception of some of the rear projection shots where the two stars are not actually on the boat because, holy cow, can you imagine sending your middle-aged superstars to shoot the rapids?

Except for the part with the leeches. *shudder*

Most of the stills and outtakes from this movie are pix of Hepburn and Bogart sitting in a boat—because most of the movie is about Hepburn and Bogart sitting in a boat.

Two things, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t work too well for me. I’m a fan of technicolor but I don’t like the palette used here. It feels a little degraded, like—well, like Kodacolor always seemed to get after about six months. (Seriously, movies shot in the ’70s—the prints would get super grungy looking by the second run, beyond normal wear and tear.)

The other thing I didn’t care for, on the whole, was Allan Gray’s score. It has some very good moments, but I noticed it a lot and it seemed sort of jarring or misplaced. There’s a scene early on which felt positively riff-able: Bogie and Hepburn are getting on the boat and there’s a pretty grim strain playing. I could just hear Tom Servo saying “Thrill! To the getting-on-the-boat-scene!” I mean, I got that it was kind of a big deal because Hepburn’s leaving her home and the Germans are probably menacing some people somewhere, but there’s nothing at the moment that justifies it. I guess I felt, at a lot of points, like the music wasn’t well integrated. Sometimes it just be that way.

Minor nitpicks, however. This really is a movie for all ages: Their physical journey is entertaining, both fun and funny, with director John Huston never missing a chance to have something exciting happen; and each event along the way, reveals their emotional journey, which is dramatic and moving.

I dunno.

The palette’s not QUITE this washed out, but it felt that way sometimes. Jungle heat?

Unlike most of the great old directors, Huston didn’t have a short “golden” age where he produced masterpieces. Obviously The Maltese Falcon (his first film!), Key Largo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre were classic ’40s flicks, but in the ’50s he had this movie and both Moby Dick and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; in the ’60s, Night of the Iguana; in the ’70s, The Man Who Would Be King, and even into the ’80s, The DeadPrizzi’s Honor and Under The Volcano (which I hated—but it’s not always about me).

African Queen would not even be nominated for best picture (which went to the over-rated An American In Paris), and John Huston would lose both directing and writing awards to A Place in the Sun (which won six of its nine nominations). For his only Oscar, Bogie would beat out Frederic March (Death of a Salesman), Marlon Brando (A Streetcar Named Desire) and Montgomery Clift (A Place in the Sun)—all heavyweight dramatic roles, making me suspect that the Academy was feeling sheepish about not having awarded him sooner. Hepburn would lose out to Vivien Leigh (Streetcar) and would have to console herself with her 1933 Oscar (Morning Glory) and her three subsequent wins (Guess Who’s Coming To DinnerThe Lion In WinterOn Golden Pond) and seven other nominations. This may be my favorite role of hers, however.

As I suspected, the Boy loved it. The Flower did have some issues with Hobo Bogart, but she also loved it.

Esophageal cancer. No one said "noir" didn't have it's price.

Bogart would end his career with three of his strongest performances: The Caine Mutiny, The Harder They Fall, and Sabrina.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

The worst thing is when I write a review of a movie which was bad or just okay or maybe just exactly what you’d expect, and then it somehow gets eaten. I’m absolutely positive I wrote about The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard but somehow my text has vanished and it’s really not worth much time to recreate it. As I recall, I started by saying, “You could probably just read my review of The Hitman’s Bodyguard from a couple of years—wow, FOUR years—back and it would serve,” and this is true. This is basically more of the same, dumb, loud, silly nonsense featured in that film—and that ain’t bad.

The Flower went with me on this one—The Boy was a bit too busy with his new job and is also, post-pandemic, much harder to interest in anything that looks like typical Hollywood crap, even if it’s on the better side of porridge. It’s still porridge, and we’re so accustomed to it that even the slightest deviations from the norm feel kind of daring. For exmaple, this movie treats us to quite a few minutes of (plot necessary!)  Salma Hayek wearing a halter-top. And somehow, in this “foil the male gaze” era, this seems incredibly edgy.

How YOU doin'?

Ms. Hayek will be 55 this September.

The last time I recall anything this rewarding to the male gaze in a mainstream Hollywood production, it was Megan Fox in the first Transformers movie, which came out before this blog started 15 years ago—and which Ms. Fox decided to denounce. (I know Ms. Johansson has decried the sexualization of the Black Widow character, but is there anything in any part of the Marvel universe that can match, e.g., the heat of fully clothed Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment?)

Anyway, there’s some very mild and goofy stuff involving Morgan Freeman—the least of which being the idea that he could somehow thrash Ryan Reynolds—that also feels “edgy”, but that’s because this is where we are now: We literally cannot take a joke.

You know?

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson are in this movie, but why would I waste blog space posting pictures of them?

Point being, really, that we liked this movie. We forgot about it almost instantly, but when it is recalled to memory, it has a kind of pleasant, gauzy feel. It’s not quite as good as the first one, I don’t think, but I don’t really remember the first one much, either.

The premise, if it matters, is that Reynolds is a kind of loser bodyguard who has been thwarted at various times by an assassin, played by Samuel L. Jackson. In the first movie, the contrivance was that he had to protect Jackson. In this movie, it’s that he (sorta) has to protect Hayek, a psychotic murderer who desperately wants to have a baby and start family. I mean, she’s 54 and he’s 72, but biology (in any form) doesn’t play much a role in the plot.

Hayek, at one point, has to pretend to be English, which feels like a kind of lampshading, because her comically bad accent is comparable to Antonio Banderas’ Greek accent—which sounds amazingly like his regular ol’ Spanish accent. Now, I’m actually up for whatever as far as accents go—I think it’s sort of silly, e.g., that everyone has to have a British accent in these big dramas like Rome or Game of Thrones—and I thought this was kind of cute.

Think of the opportunities.

Any man who wouldn’t “ride bitch” with Salma Hayek is no man at all, I say.

The Flower and (mostly) I were talking on the way to the theater about how even the lower budget older movies—talking now about the ’80s and ’90s—had a sense of weight, of reality, of gravity, that newer ones do not because you quickly realize that nothing you’re seeing is actually happening. Joe Bob Brigg’s “The Last Drive-In” featured, for example, Maniac Cop 2 last season and there’s a bit where a guy gets punched through, like, six cubicle walls—and we found ourselves marveling that some stunt guy had to actually be yanked through those (fake) walls. The Barbarienne is big into the ’80s Little Shop of Horrors and re-watching it myself, I’m blown away by the “realism” of the giant, talking plant.

As we had explosion after explosion in this flick, with flaming barrels dropping all around, I couldn’t help but think “back in the old days, the actors had to DUCK if they didn’t want to get hit by the explosions”. It’s okay here, because this is a silly movie and meant to be fun and funny and unreal, but we would do well not to lose the vast body of technology that the FX guys of past decades built up—before it all came down to computer nerds, making elaborate SFX on their computers before the movies are even scripted (as in the MCU).

Basically, if you liked the first one, you’ll probably like this. If not, well, it’s a bunch of swearing, killing and not nearly enough Salma Hayek to make up for that.

Happy? It's almost the whole cast.

(L to R): Some guy, some guy, Salma Hayek, some guy.

Cursed Official

The Boy has not really gotten back into the moviegoing swing of things, but it didn’t take too much to talk him into seeing this one-night-only Russian movie about an official who is cursed so that he can no longer take a bribe. I’m thinking Liar, Liar going in, and it was that, but because it’s Russian, it’s mixed with Drag Me To Hell. That is to say, it is a comedy, but there are elements of genuine horror—’cause it’s Russian. Seriously, 12, the Russian take on 12 Angry Men, and possibly my favorite take is social commentary—mixed with horror. Hell, that Russian family film we saw about The House Elf? It’s sorta E.T. or Mac and Me or something like that—mixed with horror.

I mean, would you even KNOW their Russian names?

From left-to-right: The Heavy, The Good Girl, The Director and The Hero.

Russia is a seriously dysfunctional society, is the common message throughout these things. And yet, even in this movie, which is literally about what a hellhole corrupt third-world country this so-called superpower is, they are proud to be Russians. Hell, coming out of this, I was proud to be a Russian—not as proud as I am to be Korean, but prouder than I am to be an American, coming out of a typical Hollywood film.

And it’s really, really easy to see the difference: The theme of every Korean film, underlying or overt, is that the people of Korea are great, it’s just the corrupt, incompetent state forgets that Korea is its people and twists things to its own ends. And the theme of this film? Pretty much the same: Russians are great, but The System is so thoroughly corrupt that the inability to give or receive bribes is potentially fatal. An American film, by contrast, is going to show Americans as the problem.

In “Cursed Official,” our “hero” is a corrupt official who’s about to make the big play to become mayor of the city, and all he has to do is engineer a Kelo-style takeover of a local neighborhood so it can be razed to put up—well, not luxury condos, ’cause…Russia, but overpriced, poorly built, highly lucrative dwelling units. In his haste to meet with his important gangster partners, he gives short-shrift to an old lady whose only wish is to be buried next to her husband, which she can’t arrange because arranging literally anything requires a bribe, and she is poor. She curses him, and from that point forward, he can no longer take bribes.

Look, just be nice to old folks, okay?

Before Keanu Reeves was “Baba Yaga,” it was this lady.

While comical in its effects—first because of Maksim Lagashkin’s physical talents, then because of the undeniability and untenability of the situation—the movie uses typical horror techniques (like severe musical riffs, violently shaking camera, etc.) to communicate that the curse is real and horrible even as we’re joking about laughably overt corruption and violence. And an odd thing is that we’re actually rooting for Maksim (I’m using the actor’s names for the characters because I don’t remember the characters’ names) from the start, even though we know he’s corrupt. This is a clever trick by director Sarik Andreasyan and his writers.

Maksim is corrupt, sure, but the whole dirty system is and he is, at least, competent in what he does, unlike the nepots that pass through his area on their way to bigger and better things. He’s devoted to his very vacuous wife (a wonderful performance by Lyubov Tolkalina) and only a little exploitative of his secretary, Elizaveta Arzamasova, a lovely girl-next-door-if-nextdoor-is-Kiev type that literally everyone assumes he’s banging. But he’s not, and he’s genuinely repulsed by the degeneracy around him, which gives us some element of decency to hope for.

The lights aren't even on.

Those eyes. They’re like a vacant lot.

In the end, he finds the only one he can count on is the extremely loyal Elizaveta—and wouldn’t you know it, it’s her neighborhood he’s paved the way to demolish. So, the two of them are running around trying to get him uncursed, to save his life and his career but ultimately at the cost of her community, which makes for a fine opening to a third act.

Meanwhile, the corruption is staggering. You can count on a ticket when you’re driving, for example, and you can count on a friendly, money-filled handshake to get you out of it. Need to stay overnight in the socialized-medicine hospital? Bribe your doctor. Need to get out of the socialized-medicine hospital? Bribe your doctor again.

But the movie never loses sight of the fact: the government, the cops, the doctors…these are not Russia. The Russian people are Russia, and they’re good people ground down by an awful system.

We should be so lucky as to have filmmakers with that kind of insight in the U.S.A.

It's a bear.

Elizaveta struggled with morning sickness on set, apparently.

La Piscine (1969)

The Moviegique trope re French Films is simple. You describe the film until you get to the perverted sex part, or since a lot of them start with perverted sex parts, you describe the film until the perverted sex reaches a peak (as it were) and say:

I know, right? French!

But there’s more to French movies than sexual perversion. There’s usually a lot of drinking and smoking, too. And ennui. A French film without ennui is like a Disney movie without a Uyghur slave camp. Theoretically, I mean. There may be some French movies without ennui.

In a black bikini!

Romy Schneider is in this.

But there’s French, and there’s French, and this may be the Frenchiest French film I’ve ever seen. It’s exactly what I was expecting (a pretentious, boring French film) and I liked it as much as I expected. (That is to say, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t actually see any reason to dig it up after 50 years and show it, either.)

The pluses are: Romy Schneider and Jane Birkin are beautiful, and the French have a unique and delightful appreciation for women that isn’t as cookie-cutter as (e.g.) the ones American producers seem to favor. There’s a big party with a bunch of other good, and different, looking, women as well. I can’t judge the male pulchritude, but I can confident in saying they’re very French, and the lead is quite fit to boot and shirtless most of the time. So if the Gallic thing is your cup of meat, chow down. Also, despite being 1969 high fashion, the look of the film actually works. Part of it is that the men are more conservatively dressed, on the whole, and another part is the beauty of the women. But costume deignser André Courrèges exercised tremendous taste, I think.

The minuses: Ennui, ennui, ennui. Slow-moving. Erotic for 1969 which set the audience tittering, and they were old enough to have seen it first run. Finding anyone to relate to or admire beyond their attractiveness? Challenging. Nihilistic? Not terribly over the top for the time, but undergirding the whole thing nonetheless.

Nice.

Jane Birkin is also in this film.

If you know where you stand on French films during this awful, awful period, you don’t need me to tell you that this is one of those, and you’ll probably like it (or hate it) as much as any other. And if you don’t, this film’s as good as any other to calibrate your taste. So the rest of this is going to be spoilers.

Here’s how it all goes down: Not Diana Rigg and Not Karl Urban are holed away in a rich friend’s mansion, hanging out by the pool and aardvarking like teenagers about to get the axe in a horror film when Not Joe Biden shows up with his 18-year-old barely legal daughter, Not Taylor Swift. (Not Joe Biden doesn’t actually look anything like the putative President, but he does a lot of creepy smelling and touching, including of his daughter, so The Boy leaned in and said, “Who does this guy think he is? Joe Biden?” And it stuck in my head.) It’s instantly obvious to Not Diana Rigg and all but the dumbest audience members that Not Karl Urban is going to end up deflowering Not Taylor Swift, but it’s not going to be a short journey: This flick is over two hours long.

Naturally.

Romy has multiple swimming outfits but this was the only bikini, so it’s used in all the publicity stills.

The points of interest here are that “our heroes” are libertine which, of course they are: It’s France and it’s 1969, but Not Karl Urban (who is at least a supreme jerk) has a hang up about an affair he believes Not Diana Rigg and Not Joe Biden had. He’s fine with all her other past lovers, but he and Not Joe Biden have some sort of rivalry which is never really explained, and comes to fruition unsurprisingly right about the time he deflowers Not Taylor Swift.

At that point, I suggested to The Boy the only thing that could make this Frencher is if Not Karl Urban killed himself.

He doesn’t, though. Instead, he murders Not Joe Biden.

After the funeral Not Stanley Tucci shows up—and I actually thought this would’ve been a delightful turn, making the movie about a French Columbo getting Not Karl Urban to confess—and plants the seed of suspicion in Not Diana Rigg’s head. This seed of suspicion is confirmed, and Not Diana Rigg gets Not Karl Urban to send Not Taylor Swift back to her mother, but lest we think she’s done this to secure Not Karl Urban romantically, she then decides to leave him.

But in the end, they stay together.

Ta-Dah.

Almost makes the movie tolerable.

Some days she doesn’t wear the bathing suit. We call these “the salad days”.

That’s awful, and I apologize for writing it that way. The high point for me was probably listening to the old people behind me. “This is French?” And after the murder. “This is awful.” and “Now what?” in reference to the pickle Not Karl Urban got himself into.

But as I say, there’s no excuse for disappointment. It’s exactly what you’d expect if you knew anything about cinema. Or the French. Or 1969.

Romy Schneider (as Not Diana Rigg) is lovely and sympathetic, which she always manages to be even when she’s being kind of bitchy. Alain Delon (as Not Karl Urban) and Maurice Ronet (as Not Joe Biden) struck me as fairly typical French jerks, but they had a good chemistry (even in their bad chemistry, if that makes sense). All three were real life friends, which makes the film unwatchable by Delon, who is the only survivor. But the filmmaking itself doesn’t carry this: It’s all on the actors.

Germans.

I guess this is how the film was advertised in Germany.

Jane Birkin (as not Taylor Swift) pulls off a convincing just-18-year-old (she was 23) but that’s virtually the extent of her character. Her interaction with the rest of the cast is almost perfunctory. Makes sense, since they are old friends.

Not long ago, I read something about “film noir” (a term that went mainstream in the ’50s) and discovered they used to refer to “film noir” as “melodrama”! But the definition of “melodrama” is very broad: It’s characterized by intense emotions and even action, over characterization. Strictly speaking, Die Hard is melodrama. Lots and lots of films are melodrama. For example, anything with William Shatner.

I’ve been watching silent dramas for part III of my silent movie series (Part I, Part II) and they’re all melodramas. Post-war moviemaking went further and further away from melodrama till it hit this kind of stuff, which is practically anti-melodrama. Nobody cares about anything and even things that should be big, emotionally, are flat. (This is sometimes referred to as “realistic” by pretentious film critics who aren’t me.)

But if that sort of thing is in your wheelhouse, this is your movie. For me, it never really got beyond the eye candy.

I guess it was kinda obvious.

Jane Birkin says “Duh.”

The Ladykillers (1955)

“Hey, you want to come see ‘The Ladykillers’ with me and The Boy?”
. . .
“It’s got Alec Guinness in it! He played Obi Wan Kenobi, you know.”
. . .
“He was also in your favorite movie.”
“Who was he in ‘Murder By Death?'”
“The blind butler.”
(laughs) “Hey, is he one of those guys like the guy in ‘Columbo’ who didn’t do it?”
“Ray Milland? You don’t understand: Ray Milland is ALWAYS guilty.”
“Robert Culp trumps Ray Milland.”
“True. But what about Milland?”
“Is Alec Guinness one of those guys who’s always old?”
“Oh, this should be Alec Guinness in his prime.”

Ish.

To be fair, the average lifespan of a human in 1955 was 39.

Update: Alec Guinness was always old. He actually looks fairly old in Great Expectations, when he’s only 32. And by this time he’s 41, and is (for comic purposes) sort of hunchbacked, buck-toothed and stringy-haired—he’s basically doing Alistair Sim, whose Scrooge, some say, is the best—as he leads his gang of misfits on a mostly successful caper launched from the bedroom of a B&B run by a 75-year-old little old lady who reminisces about the queen dying on her 21st birthday. “Who’s she talkin’ about? Old queen who?” says One-Round, the muscle.

This is a clever black comedy, which takes English manners to an extreme, as our criminals manage to successfully pull of the heist using Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce as their bag man, but on the verge of getting away reveal themselves to her and thus decide they must eliminate her. The irony being that as tough and even murderous thugs as they are, they don’t quite have it in their hearts to kill a little old lady. The other irony being that the old lady has made herself such a nuisance to the police, they wouldn’t believe her anyway, though the thugs don’t know that.

Classical music.

“Do you play In ‘A Gadda Davida’?”

A wonderful breakout performance from the 77-year-old Katie Johnson who would win her first and only BAFTA. Speaking of English manners, the director requested that she be given top-billing on the film because it might be her last. He had been her first choice for the role, but the producers feared she might not be able to complete the production at her age, and so they cast a younger actress—who died before filming started.

The first thing I noticed, after Alec Guinness’ Sim imitation, was that both Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom were part of the squad. Sellers was a little heavy and Lom was quite thin—a situation that would be reversed when the two played in The Pink Panther eight years later. Sellers, in his first real acting role is quite restrained and very nervous, which may not have been acting but which was quite effective. Lom is genuinely menacing here, and quite good, as always. (I have a soft spot for the old Bohemian, who worked over 70 years in just about anything—including a bunch of low-budget horror in the ’70s—and was always good.)

Strike that. Reverse it.

“Look, I dunno, Lom, maybe you could be a bumbling detective and Peter here could be your straight-laced boss. Or…waitaminute…”

The crew is rounded out by Cecil Parker, who was a go-to for “If you need an English-looking colonel-type” and you couldn’t get Terry-Thomas, and Danny Green who looks amazingly familiar, though I can’t recall anything specific. He reminds me of Fargo’s John Carroll Lynch.

Director Alex Mackendrick, best known as the writer/director of Guinness’ breakout role in Man in the White Suit, lets the action build slowly. Movies used to do this sometimes: You’re introduced to a character who is amusing and empathetic (Mrs. Wilberforce) and show the menace literally shadowing her (in the form of Guinness’ “Professor Marcus”), and when the gang shows up at the boarding house, you wonder where they’re going with this plan and why Louisa is a part of it.

It’s not just a matter of where she lives, which is one advantage this film has on the 2004 Coen Brothers remake, where the landlady is just a bystander to the shenanigans. One is genuinely taken by the cleverness of the Professor Marcus’ plan, even if Louis (Lom) correctly identifies it as the sort of plan someone in a looney bin would make up. Another advantage it has it that it’s a distinctly English film at a time when that meant something. We can believe that, even if there is no honor among thieves, there is among even the lowest of Englishman a sense of propriety that does not allow for casually murdering an innocent old lady.

It’s a fun thing to spend 90 minutes with characters who are bank robbers and murderers that you still kind of like and feel sorta bad for when things don’t go their way.

Consistently rated as one of the greatest English films ever made.

No, really!

Blocking used to be one of those “core competencies” for a filmmaker.

A Quiet Place II: Even Quieter

There was nothing, apart from box office, that suggested the 2018 survival horror A Quiet Place needed a sequel. Indeed, in the classic sci-fi/horror tradition, “monster’s dead, movie’s over” as Roger Corman once said. More narrowly, in the Invaders sub-genre, “Once you find the aliens’ weakness, there’s a quick mop-up and the movie’s over.”

Mars Attacks parodies this, for example, with the Slim Whitman albums (which is remarkably relevant to this franchise). In Night of the Living Dead, once it’s discovered that zombies are slow, weak and stupid (forget the beginning of the film), there’s a quick redneck rampage to handle it. They didn’t do that in the first A Quiet Place, but it sort of goes without saying these days.

Why do you people even listen to me?

Director cameo. Yes, the deaf girl directed this.

Let’s look at that box office again: The original placed 15th for 2018, beating out horror franchises for Halloween, The Nun (Conjure-verse), The First Purge and Fifty Shades Freed. For non-horror franchises it beat out Ocean’s 8Fantastic Beasts, and desperate wannabe franchise Ready Player One—all on a $50M budget. That kind of success demands to be franchised. (Which is why Netflix made that Sandra-Bullock-is-blind movie.)

Writer/director John Krasinski returns with a script he has sole credit on, and the movie begins with some prequel action where he’s in front of the camera as well. The first movie began in media res, as they say, with us only knowing the world as it has become—infested with super-fast murder machines—and, frankly, that’s okay. Exposition is dumb. Seriously, leave it out. All we really get in the prequel action is “Well, they’re from outer space.” Doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. The movie wisely goes no further than that.

The Internet has let me down again.

This is not the aliens coming from outer space but I couldn’t find a picture of that.

Then we pick up right where the last movie ends, with the survivors moving on for reasons I did not understand. Something was on fire? Not, “Oh my God, we have to get this super-easy way to defeat monsters out to the general public so we can reclaim the planet!” The whole set-up is a little “the movie had to happen”. The find a pre-disaster friend who’s all “You gotta go.” But then the deaf girl gets it in her head to do the obvious (save the world) and the friend goes after her because Emily Blunt—whom he was just about to consign to death, infant and all—begs him to.

I would, too. Emily Blunt is very convincing. I never think I’m going to like her but I do, every time. And this is a good time to talk about why this movie works, just like the first one: Krasinski is an actor, and he makes his movies about acting. A good actor doesn’t need Shakespeare. A good actor just needs a character and a situation—horror’s as good as any. Blunt tears it up. She’s not the main character though, and this is another good thing about the film: It does not try to remake the original. It is a completely different story.

The main characters in this are Millicent Simmond’s deaf girl, Regan (the actress is genuinely deaf) and the sidekick, the reluctant friend, played by Cillian Murphy.

That’s right: Krasinski is the only American in this film. Everyone else is British or Irish or French/Beninan (Djimon Honsou).

Heh.

Hollywood’s subtle reminder that diversity is possible, as long as no actual Americans are involved.

Oh, the cowardly son, played by Noah Blum also has his moment in the sun, which is nice.

I knew how the second act was going to play out by the end of the first act, and how the third act was going to play about by the end of the second act, but this does not detract from the quality of the execution. I did not know, for example, precisely who would live or die, and Krasinski apparently didn’t feel obliged to kill characters to give the movie any extra faux-gravitas.

The very thin movie premise, which was already strained by the end of the first film, is not helped here and the inevitable sequel is going to rip it to shreds. The monsters are literally just murder machines: They kill for no purpose whatsoever. It’s hard to imagine why. It’s not for food. We’re not a threat, somehow. It could be the noise we make, but All God’s Creatures make noise. Why us? Furthermore, they just kill and then go away, typically. Not always in this sequel, which is a situation so obvious it undermines the first film. But it’s fine.

As a movie-going experience, it was also fine. The trailers are back to full-on bludgeon-you-into-having-fun mode, which is really not fun. I was grateful for the parts of the movie that were from the deaf girl’s perspective, because my poor ears were battered by the first part of the film. I don’t know if they (my ears) have just had a year to recover or what, but they were throbbing by the time I left and I will be bringing ear plugs in the future.

As a fully vaccinated American, from all diseases and tyranny, now into the future, I didn’t have to wear a mask even in the lobby, which was nice. They’re rumbling about locking us down again of course, at which point this movie becomes simply a preview of the horrors to come.

Second universe, same as the first!

Me trying to escape the Quiet-verse.

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It

In terms of percentage, the most profitable modern “universe” is probably not the MCU, but the, uh, Conjure-verse. Begun back in the halcyon days (ha!) of 2013 the eight or so films have a combined budget of approximately $200M with a gross of $2B, meaning they brought in about ten times what they cost to make. By comparison, for the Marvel Universe to accomplish that it would have to rake in about one trillion dollars!

He lapped himself.

Taking Limbo too far.

And, intriguingly, the stars that power this massive vehicle are the unassuming, pleasantly middle-aged Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga playing Ed and Lorraine Warren, the real-life ghost-hunters who permeated ’70s pop-culture, along with the Ancient Aliens, The Bermuda Triangle, Bigfoot and The Loch Ness Monster. OK, obviously the Warrens were never that big: You wouldn’t see them teaming up with the Six Million Dollar Man to fight the Ancient Aliens. They’re more in the category where you’d say, “The Warrens” today and people would squint their eyes and and say “Who?”, and you’d mention “Amityville”, and they’d say, “You mean, like in Jaws?” and you’d say, “No, no, as in Horror” and they’d say, “Ohhhh! Right.”

And some might even remember this particular case, where a young man stabbed another young man to death and claimed, as the newspapers had it, “The Devil made me do it!”. For those who are younger than nearly 29, the phrase “The Devil made me do it!” was made popular by Flip Wilson, who had a smash hit variety show in 1970, at a time when blacks were routinely stoned to death for appearing in public. Mr. Wilson himself was stoned every night after his show, if you believe the authorities, which you shouldn’t. Interesting to note that the phrase itself was a catch-phrase before the smash-hit horror The Exorcist. It’s possible that Mr. Blatty got the idea for his book from Mr. Wilson, and owes royalties to the man’s estates. We are not lawyers here.

But let us focus.

Shockingly.

“The most original film I have ever seen.” — William Peter Blatty

I am somewhat “flip” about based-on-a-true-story stuff because I’m a student of the before-times, and I remember The Blair Witch Project, the many Exorcist and Amityville spin-offs, the antics of one William Castle, and of course Horace Walpole’s 1764 Castle of Otranto, which launched the gothic horror novel and was made of whole cloth despite Mr. Walpole’s assertion that the book was assembled with the 18th century version of found footage: A crazy old coot’s diary. But if it helps people get into the spirit of things, I’m not against some “enthusiastic” marketing.

The secret sauce of the three main Conjuring films, absent from the five largely inferior spin-off movies (three Annabelles, a Nun with a second Nun due out shortly, and The Curse of La Llorona), is that you care about what happens to Ed and Lorraine. The other movies at least keep the stakes as intimate, but ultimately these movies are love stories (and, like the Fast and Furious franchise, they’re all about family) and Lorraine, as the more sensitive of the two, deals directly with the forces of evil while Ed has an old-school chivalry drive to try to protect her.

In this installment, where they search for the source of the demonic possession that results in the murder of a really annoying, alcoholic but basically innocent, rocker, Ed has suffered a massive heart attack and is constantly forgetting to pack his life-saving serum. Another twist is that they have a corporeal enemy—recalling the latest (and last?) Insidious film—and, hell, let’s be honest, this one’s at least a 4th Level Magic-User. We got some serious witchery going on here. Spell’s-a-poppin’!

Or possibly an anti-Paladin.

“She may be multi-classing as a druid.”

Anyway, you take your name actors (Wilson and Farmiga) and throw in some cheap character actors and then mix-in some young people to get the kids out to the show—actually, I think the most experienced of the young actors was ten-year-old Julian Hillard, who was in “Wandavision”, “Penny Dreadful” and the “Haunting of Hill House”, to say nothing of Color out of Space—and you can bring the picture in for under $40 million while raking in over $200M box-office world-wide, even as the world reels from its experiment with global fascism.

I, and everyone else in the theater, which is to say, again, I liked it well enough. There’s a certain transgressive quality to it which comes less from the horror (fairly traditional witches and boogens) and more from the Holy Warrior aspect which is inextricably Christian. I sometimes think I get the same perverse thrill out of hearing an “Our Father” in a movie-theater in the suburbs that raincoaters used to get from going to naughty films on 42nd street. Shock the squares, indeed.

I think, if you liked the other two, you’ll like this one. Is it as good as the others? I can’t really say. Honestly, three movies over eight years doesn’t leave me with too much of an impression beyond, “Oh, yeah, I liked that” and the little dribs-and-drabs that stuck with me. Director Michael Chaves, is certainly no James Wan (who’s too busy directing Aquaman 2 at this point, I’m sure), but this is better than his last Conjureverse flick, The Curse of La Llorona.

Wilson and Farmiga are better than ever, and that makes up for a lot. It’s kind of nice that they’re both about the same age and the same age as the Warrens were at the time of the story. (In a universe full of backstories, this one gives us the story of the Warrens’ first date, and it actually relates to the plot.) Not a bad movie to re-enter the theaters on, or just catch on HBO Max, I guess.

I kid. They're tiny acting people. Ed Warren could've eaten both of them.

They may be wearing the Warrens’ actual clothes at this point.

Final Account

Don’t be a Nazi. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times! No matter how beautiful, charmingly quirky, sexy, or kinky, they make it look, no matter how much you hate Jews, or commies, or the French, or gays, or fairies, no matter how much power, prestige, privilege, wealth, art, gigs, animals or memes they offer you: Don’t. Be. A. Nazi.

Seriously, I think I’ve averaged five or six documentary or narrative Holocaust-based films a year for the last two decades, and just once I’d like to see some pro-Nazi propaganda! Wait, I did see Triumph of the Will and—well, I wasn’t impressed. I did not see (not-see?) the appeal, but I suppose one wouldn’t at this late date. Bringing me to Final Account, which among the fairly standard “I see nothing!” and “Everybody Knew!/Nobody Knew!” tropes we’ve come to expect from the folks around at the time, contains an actual unrepentant paleo-Nazi.

Not this guy. This guy repents. He’s still regretting choices made 70 years ago. (Filmed in 2008).

I stress paleo-Nazi, because the neo-Nazis seem to be all anti-Zionists or at least “anti-Zionists”. But back in the day, one popular solution for “the Jewish Problem” was, of course, giving them their own homeland. So our one Waffen SS guy who doesn’t blame Hitler for the Holocaust, also didn’t agree with Der Fuhrer’s “opinion” that all the Jews should be murdered. He didn’t say he was pro-Israel, and I fault the late Luke Holland for not asking him directly.

In Holland’s defense, on the other hand, is the fact that he inserts himself very little. There’s certainly some careful editing going on, but for the most part he lets the old Nazis chatter about what they knew, what they didn’t know, what they did or didn’t do or shouldn’t have done without a voice-over to pronounce “Nazis Is Bad”. The high point, besides letting the old Waffen SS guy speak his (still pro-Hitler) mind, is letting everyone contradict each other, and sometimes just letting them contradict themselves, while asking what their own culpability might be.

The low point is the Wansee conference (no, not that one, but taking place in the same building for obvious reasons) where modern German nationalists are put in front of a remorseful ex-Nazi who’s basically saying, “Hey, we killed a bunch of people, therefore you should be happy about Albanian criminals walking your streets.” I mean, this part is gross exploitation (of an old Nazi, no less) and doubtless engineered by the typical “Turn The First World Into A Feudal Fiefdom” crowd where the genuine grief of a guy who made some Very Bad Choices seventy years ago is being used to blackmail some guys whose thought crime may be only that they want to control their borders.

Those Hugo Boss uniforms were TIGHT, tho’.

Because, look: What do we hear about from these people who were sometimes literal children? Well, a bunch of progressives got into power, instituted eugenics, virtue signaled like crazy, demanded complete fealty to an intellectual and morally corrupt government, and—well, at one point, a woman defends her ignorance of Jews being interned by saying “we”—and it’s almost always “we” and not “I” in these stories—had thought they were political prisoners as if that somehow made it more palatable. Another says something to the effect of, “You have no idea the amount of pressure that was brought to bear [to enforce compliance].”

This was recorded in 2008, though, so I’ll cut him some slack. Because I think, now, we all do have a pretty damn good idea. This is an overlooked aspect to “Never again” which is simply that if you don’t understand what happened in the past, you have no chance of preventing it in the future. (See Watchers of the Sky for a great example of a documentary that seeks to end a phenomenon it doesn’t grasp in the least.) I think I understand it very well, and I find it challenging to judge these survivors: Responsibility has both a collective and an individual aspect to it, and societies such as the Nazis (and practically every modern government in the world, if we’re being honest) are oriented around the principle of creating apathy in their citizenry so they can do whatever they want. Which means the only way we can really “Never again” is by refusing to accept the notion that we can’t do anything, individually or in groups, to “change the status quo” or “fight the system” or whatever it takes to prevent a repeat.

This picture, rather than the cute-happy-Aryan-girl pictures, is the one that’s singled out in the promos and yet I feel it invites you to speculate baselessly.

On the ‘gique-doc scale:

  1. Subject matter: It’s well-trod ground, and I’d sure like to see the victims of Communism arrange a push like the Jews have to get those crimes as well known, but that doesn’t detract from the value.
  2. Presentation: Pretty standard. Interviews and assorted archival footage that looks semi-related.
  3. Slant: Well, I guess you could say it’s anti-Nazi. But as I mentioned, the best aspect of this is that it’s not really slanted that way. I mean, if you were pro-Nazi (I think there’s, like, six pro-Nazi people in the world not already in this documentary) you could go into this and not be especially moved.

I have no idea why it took Holland 12 years to edit this into a movie, except maybe his more profitable work (and his 2015 cancer diagnosis) interfered, though part of me wondered if it wasn’t the rise of Trump (and nationalism world-wide) that spurred it on. As it (mostly) avoided contemporary issues, I was okay with it. It doesn’t have the compelling aspect of Shoah or Last of the Unjust, or the niche appeal of The Art of the Steal, but it at least avoided the weird self-flagellation of Hitler’s Children.

Answered the question “Are we the baddies?” with “Nooooo!”

 

In The Earth

We’re trying to get back to the movies, but even though we’re very avid moviegoers, it’s not like life actually stopped during the lockdown. Instead, we found more and more non-movie things to do, and now have to figure out how we’re going to fit movies in to our newly packed schedules. But as far as that goes, In The Earth was a good movie to start with. Director Ben Wheatley (High Rise/”Dr. Who”) gives us a tale of a couple of government officials going out to connect with some other government officials, to do official things in the forest, when things go wrong.

VERY wrong.

Pictured: Things going wrong.

I apologize for the vagueness. The movie starts with a whole bunch of Covid protocols which actually have nothing to do with the story, but which are actually pretty effective from the standpoint of creating an atmosphere of alienation and paranoia. (Just like in real life!) Science-guy Martin (Joel Fry, Yesterday/”Game of Thrones”) is going out into the field to assist Dr. Olivia Wendle, and Ranger Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar) is the guide who walks him there.

Martin’s kind of twitchy. He’s in crap shape (which I assume is just good acting on Fry’s part, but maybe he’s a method actor and just sat around doing nothing for the past year) and he’s lying about things. Little things, like keeping fit, for example, or having as his motivation the desire to re-hook-up with Dr. Wendle whom he knew in some less-than-official capacity previously. It takes about a half hour for things to go south (metpahorically), and the movie turns into a survival picture.

If only.

Accountants after reviewing Disney’s 2Q profits.

But from a survival picture, it goes into a supernatural horror. It feels a bit like Color Out Of Space—which, along with Mandy, seems to have had an outsized influence (relative to box office) on recent horror. But besides those, it has a bit of a The Witch thing going, and borrows from certain concepts about what is “alive” in the world that remind me of certain Japanese movies. At times, it recalls the infamous The Happening but it leaves enough wiggle-room in its increasingly psychedelic actions to allow for any number of explanations as to what actually is going on.

Martin has a hell of a time, though. If something bad’s going to happen, it’s probably going to happen to him.

Fine performances.  Besides the aforementioned actors, Dr. Wendle is played by the Very English Looking Hayley Squires, while “League of Gentlemen” veteran Reece Shearsmith plays Zach, a squatter hiding out in the forest. There’s a lot of acting going on here, which is good, because the story elements are thin. (That’s not an insult: The story elements in Psycho are super-thin.)

"Hey kid, don't put your lips on that."

“What the hell is that?”

Good use of music. The sound design generally was quite strong, though I warn any sensitive people that this movie is chock full of strobes and potentially painful noises. This is part of the plot. The Boy and I were not bowled over by these effects but we both thought there was a good balance of using them but not over-using them. Had The Flower come, I suspect she would’ve hated it.

Some exceptional photography on the one hand, while on the other (and I assume this was deliberate) things looked not just like they were taken on a phone, but like I had taken them on my phone.

Back on Valentine’s Day, Joe Bob Briggs showed The Love Witch and had on the director Anna Biller, who seems to make about one movie every ten years, shooting on genuine film. And one could say a lot of things about The Love Witch but the aesthetics of it really threw into contrast how lifeless modern cinematography is. I’ve seen very little new since then that didn’t make me think, “If only they’d shot on film.”

But apart from that prejudice, it’s competently done with some notable highlights.

At least three, which makes a trend.

I’ve noticed a return to ’70s style credits in horror movies of late.

Overall, we liked it. There are some jump scares and some rather cringe-inducing gore. Atmosphere-wise, movies about the horrors of nature have an advantage over other horrors because they’re absolutely true, but that wasn’t its real strength. It seemed, at times, like the director was dabbling in body horror, and that might have made for more compelling horror. But it was certainly watchable and it wasn’t boring.

Silents Are Golden (Part II): The Weird

In Silents Are Golden Part I (ace link, gique link that you can comment on without getting banned), we looked at some films in the talkie era that with long stretches of no-dialogue, and you guys came up with some great ones. Spaghetti westerns, action films, and great dramas, many of which I had thought of but elided for brevity (ha) and many others that I didn’t know or had forgotten.

One thing that came up is that “silent” movies were never actually silent. Music was mandatory. At one point, movie houses were the primary form of employment for musicians—and this during the dawning of the “big band” era. Rudimentary sound-effects were also employed in some cases, though they were usually at least quasi-musical, like whistles or drums.

So, when we say “silent”, we really mean “without dialogue” and—for me personally—words. That is to say, there are silents with massive amounts of cards explaining every little detail and snip of dialogue and plot, and they feel (to me) like movies that are “waiting for the talkies”. They’re attempts to put stage plays on the screen (like a lot of the early talkies did) or even books, and they don’t really exploit the medium.

Once again, you can download freely and legally almost all the films mentioned here. Some are for sale in cleaned-up/restored form as well. Many of these films have more cuts than Blade Runner and there’s a wide variation on music as well—and frame rates!—so be careful about which you pick. Ironically, there is sometimes a language barrier, as with Faust, which has a wonderfully scored version on The Internet Archive—but with title cards only in German! (However, a lot of these movies have title cards in one language but easily available subs in English.)

The Weird

My entrée to the world of silent movies was not, in fact, the comedies but horror and sci-fi. My grade school did a showing of Nosferatu which was quite affecting to me as an eight-year old. Around the same time, Jack Palance played “Dracula” in a TV movie, which I also found pretty gripping. Today, however, I still get the chills from the silent—the set design and the remarkable fidelity to the (purloined) novel’s vision of the Count are quite literally iconic (and the source of the trope that sunlight kills vampires).

It's a blue, blue summer.

Tinted sunlight, however, has no effect.

Also, since they were free, our UHF stations would frequently play silent movies (and Flash Gordon serials, which is another story), especially Metropolis. I can’t say how many different versions of this movie I’ve seen with how many different soundtracks. (I did not see the Moroder version, however.) One claim is that it originally ran 3 1/2 hours, though the recent restoration claims to be all but five minutes of it and is only around 2 1/2 hours. There is debate over what frame rate it should be run at. Moroder claimed that director Fritz Lang wanted the film tinted. I reviewed the most recent version, but the more I see this movie, the less relevant I think the details of its content are. Not because Western society is not eternally thrust into the “fascism vs. communism” false dichotomy, but because Metropolis is about something greater aesthetically.

We can go 25 years back to Georges Méliès’ charming little shorts to see the seeds of special effects being used to create worlds, and many of the films we’ll cover later do a great job of creating scale and epic feel from their visuals. (1914’s Cabiria, for example, is said to have influenced Metropolis.)  Metropolis is the culmination of the art—a fully-realized fantasy world that stands alone, cinematically, at least until the 1939 Wizard of Oz. (And you have to go decades forward from Oz before you can find challengers to either.) I don’t use the phrase “must see,” but it’s hard to imagine any earnest student of film not seeing this one.

Lang was fond of—and good at—the epic fantasy. I’m not saying Peter Jackson studied his two-part Die Nibelungen series before doing Lord of the Rings but  I’m not not saying that either. He would close out his silent career with the Space Epic Woman in the Moon. If Metropolis is the king of fantastic world-building, Woman is king (queen?) of hard-sci-fi for 1929, complete with epic special effects, a countdown, a rocket with multiple stages, G-forces knocking the crew unconscious, weightlessness and a captain’s log! All that’s missing is a matte by Bonestell! (I find this far superior to the 1924 Soviet film Aelita, which is similar though there is some great set design in the earlier work. It’s also interesting to me how these films prefigure later ’50s potboilers like Cat Women in the Moon.) Now, on top of that, you get a fully human-compatible moon atmosphere, a divining rod which aggressively leads to water, and comic book reading kid who’s smart enough to fly the ship but not quite bright enough to figure out the implications of losing half the oxygen. Frankly, if you were looking for a Steampunk replacement, you could worse than Art Deco Punk.

Giant rockets.

It’s huge!

A good part of Lang’s success is probably attributable to the writing talents of his wife, Thea von Harbou, who collaborated with him from his early classic Destiny (1921) through M (1932), when she joined the Nazi party. She would also have a successful career post-war. (The villain in Woman recalls a young Hitler, which must’ve created some marital stress.)

Lang fled his wife and Germany to go on to a successful Hollywood career, after directing Peter Lorre in his breakout role as a child-serial-killer Hans Beckert in M, which would serve as the inspiration for Randy Newman’s creepy “In Germany Before The War”. (Lucas and Spielberg would claim Lang’s post-WWI serial, The Spiders, served as their inspiration for the Indiana Jones movie and, while there are clearly influences—as there are from M!—in Raiders, we can speculate they were deflecting at least a little from accusations they had straight up lifted the 1954 Charlton Heston film, Secret of the Incas.)

Nosferatu‘s director F.W. Murnau (whose Hollywood career was cut short by a fatal auto accident) also gave us a tremendously fun version of Faust. Starting with a beautifully shot image of the War between Heaven and Hell, and the Devil challenging the archangel Gabriel to prove there is a virtuous man on Earth, the movie goes into some weighty topics before devolving into an almost slapstick comedy around the third act where Satan is romantically pursued by an aggressive housefrau. (It comes back around by the end, but I’m not sure how or whether that comic section works, frankly.) An American version of Faust by D.W. Griffith the same year called Sorrows of Satan never quite reaches the same heights, but does feature some female nudity (in the European cut).

Did YOU eat the last of the popcorn?

An archangel confronts Mephisto.

The Phantom Carriage is a Swedish supernatural tale of a wicked man who dies and has to ferry the evil dead to Hell for the next year (where each day seems like 100 years!). It’s often regarded as a horror film but the fear it conveys is a moralistic one; The ghost is just a vehicle for seeing the depths of despair one’s acts can drive others to (sort of like “A Christmas Carol”). That said, Kubrick lifted the axe-to-the-door bit from The Shining almost straight-up from this film. Ingmar Bergman is said to have watched this movie annually and, yeah, even an ignoramus like me who’s never seen a Bergman film can pick up the influences.

Next to Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a good place to start your “weird” silent movie viewing, if for no other reason than it is quite short (about 75 minutes). It’s also easily among my favorite horror movies, with its mad set design and other-worldly feel. An insane hypnotist uses a somnambulist to carry out crimes for him, including kidnapping a girl whose fianceé knows Caligari is behind it all but can prove nothing. If Faust has some great narrow, twisty street-scenes, it’s because that’s the way the streets in those old European cities are. Caligari‘s streets are designed to be what H. P. Lovecraft would’ve called “non-Euclidean”.

If the plots of these films strike you as especially dark and seedy, well: yeah. German Expressionism arose as a reaction to the horrors of WWI and—one can’t help but speculate—in anticipation of the horrors foreshadowed by events unfolding in the Weimar Republic. Consider, for example, the Frankenstein-inspired novel Alraune, in which a professor takes semen from a hanged murderer and impregnates a prostitute with it to create a child who has no concept of love was filmed no fewer than four times between 1918 and 1930.

Not to leave the Americans out in the cold, during this time period Lon Chaney reigned supreme, but it’s not always easy to see his films and while he was great, the movies he was in did not always age well. I love Phantom of the Opera—and once managed to catch a showing with a live organist— and when Chaney is on, the movie crackles. When he’s not, you’re mostly waiting for him to appear. This is back when makeup hurt—a lot—and there seems to have been no limit to what sort of torture Chaney would put himself through. He stars in Tod Browning’s 1927 body-horror classic The Unknown (with a 19-23 year old Joan Crawford, whose birthdate is in some dispute) which benefits greatly from being, basically, all Chaney all the time.

We’ll come back to Chaney next time when we cover the dramas. Until then: Shhhhhh!

A mob of clowns is downright scary.

“There’s nothing funny about a clown in the moonlight.” — Lon Chaney

 

The Ten Commandments (Redux)

The Boy and I saw The Ten Commandments five years ago for the 60th anniversary and somehow it was fitting that our moviegoing should resume with the 65th anniversary of the same. Rereading my review from back then, I have to say: I nailed it. My impression is largely unchanged from back then. (The Flower was with us this time, so she got to see this for the first time and really enjoyed it.) I was less struck by the datedness now than I was before, though in fairness, it can be hard to gauge how dated something seemed 65 years ago. (It’s easier to spot when they make concessions to the era they were made in.)

You're NOT gonna believe this.

“The wet weather is backing up traffic on the 405 today…”

But if I were going to describe this movie in one word?

Swagger.

Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner are dueling alpha males whom the ladies swoon over, with Brynner being the loser (generally and from a narrative perspective) because he has no principles other than self-worship. Besides those two, you have the fierce Joshua (John Derek, who doesn’t put on a shirt until he’s supposed to be around 60-70) and the oh-so-sleazy Master Builder (Vincent Price) and taskmaster (Edward G. Robinson). Just walking around in the background, you got Mike “Touch” Connors and Clint Walker.

Sexuality is everywhere. This is seriously one of the lustiest movies ever made, which fits pretty well with Exodus and the Bible generally: From the ever-thirsty Ann Baxter to Jethro’s seven, man-starved daughters, everybody’s getting with someone, trying to get with someone, trying to get away from someone so they can get with someone else. A whole lotta begetting going on. This brings a lot of fun and humanity to the proceedings.

He had...something.

John Derek with his ugliest wife, Patti Behrs who was born in 1922. He would leave her in 1957 for Ursula Andress (b.1936), leave Andress in 1966 for Linda Evans (b.1942), and finally leave Evans in 1976 for Bo Derek (b.1956)

Speaking of Baxter, the way Edith Head’s dresses hang off of her and Debra Paget, they might as well be naked most of the time. Yvonne De Carlo is more modestly dressed as the Bedouin girl but she’s still got that barely-repressed Lily Munster sexuality oozing from every pore. (Or have I said too much?)

Beyond the sexuality, the overall humanity is key. Exodus is light on the details as far as how Moses came to be The Deliverer, and it’s such a brilliant idea (dramatically) to place him among the Egyptian royalty. As a story of deliverance from bondage, Exodus is (obviously) epic and mythic—in the sense of larger-than-life—but by giving the Pharaoh a personal stake, it also becomes more intimate in terms of human drama. (The historical accuracy of Exodus is one that scholars seem to go back and forth on, but I particularly enjoyed hearing Yul Brynner “debunking” the plagues in the words that modern skeptic use to debunk them, because he’s watching them as they happen.)

You feel for Cedric Hardwicke’s Sethi, because he truly loved Moses. And the degradation of Nefertiri becomes that much harder because (while she is kinda psycho) she seems to have both a genuine affect for Sethi and Moses, and a truly unhealthy obsession with the latter. The death of the firstborn sons for Passover sends a strong message vis a vis messing with God and his Chosen People.

Hochie-mochie!

This publicity still showcases a provocative outfit that isn’t in the movie. Clever. For (a lot) more of this beauty, search “Debra Paget Snake Dance” and thank me later.

The King of Swagger here is obviously C. B. DeMille, who got WB to foot the bill in 1952 for $8 million plus any overages of which there were another $5 million, and made an all-time box-office smash on a last-of-breed epic. A remake, no less of his own silent epic (which I’ll cover in an upcoming “Silents Are Golden” piece). There’s conviction here at every turn: conviction that the story is worth telling and True (in the most important sense); conviction that people love spectacle and that he could deliver something they’d love; conviction that he could make people relate to a 3,000 year old story which is, by any account, rather odd and often gruesome.

Conviction that, well into his 70s (back in the 1950s, when the life expectancy was 68) he could manage a cast of thousands. Who can do that now? What’s more, some of the greatest scenes involve these thousands of cast members hauling out of Egypt, and the little touches of humanity that are seen at every point in this migration keep it from being mere spectacle.

Conviction that Western civilization is good, and that freedom and individuality is good, and that this story is an essential to the modern experience of both.

And to all the Pharaohs and Governors out there I say:

LET MY PEOPLE GO

bad things will happen

And no matter HOW hot she is, don’t let Anne Baxter talk you out of it.

Silents Are Golden (Part I)

In his fascinating book, Who The Devil Made It?, Peter Bogdanovich interviews the greatest directors Hollywood ever produced and tries to figure out what it is that makes them so great. One thing I thought was interesting was how many were into airplanes—like, one (besides Hughes) was an actual airplane mechanic. And of course they all had lives much broader and richer in experience (almost all served in one war or another, although Hitchcock—who studied to be an engineer—was apparently not combat material even at 18) than most Hollywood directors for the last sixty years. But the thing Bogdanovich latches on to is that they all directed silent movies.

And the funny thing, to me, when reading this, was how absolutely obvious that seemed. As Kevin Smith likes to say (to the jeers of his crew), film is a visual medium. While there are (many) great dialogues and monologues and narration in film, they’re only a part of any film—often a small part. Worse, words can be a crutch—and movies ruined by bad words is an entire topic of its own.

But the past, as they say, is a foreign country, and if this sort of film seems too foreign to you, there are ways to get there.

Crappy '70s color!

Silent, but curiously enough, also in color.

The Warm Ups

If you have trouble warming up to the idea of spending a couple of hours without the spoken word, there are a few easy cheats. There are a ton of great movies that have long stretches of silence (consider 2001Lawrence of Arabia or the recently reviewed, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring). Quips aside, wouldn’t Die Hard still be a great movie without dialogue?

When you’re ready to take the plunge, you have some good modern examples of silents: 2011’s Best Picture Winner The Artist, which is more than just a clever French ruse to win an Oscar from provincial Hollywood rubes (and maybe Harvey Weinstein’s last power play). This movie is a serious homage to silents of yore, and you’ll surely get more out of it once you know your classics, but that’s true of all the mainstream modern silent films. (There’s been a rash of low-budget silent movie making in the 21st century, but I can’t vouch for it. I hear good things about Call of Cthulhu, at least.)

Case in point, Silent Movie: Mel Brook’s 1976 follow-up to his impossible 1974 double-hitter Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles was relatively coolly received but is chock-full of his madcap zeal to entertain and his passion for cinema. To not know the source material is a little like seeing Spaceballs without ever having seen Star Wars (or any of its many clones). But it’s still upper tier Brooks.

A movie that you might not consider a silent, but which satisfies the criteria of no spoken words, is Quest for Fire. Can’t talk if you haven’t invented speech yet! Bonus naked Rae Dawn Chong!

Lastly, my research turned up Biancanieves (2012) as a silent. I saw this movie when it came out and I did not remember it as a silent. Much like The Artist is very French, Biancanieves is very Spanish, featuring a Snow White who is a matadora—I guess to be politically correct, we should call her a matadorx—and her dwarven friends as her picadors, sorta. It’s odd and moody, as Spanish films always seem to be.

And one's wearing a wig.

There are six dwarves because one of the dwarves is dead, IIRC.

The Comedies

The gateway drug for silent movies (for most people) is comedy. In general, comedy (and horror) age especially poorly. The sitcoms of yesteryear are nigh unwatchable today, and people today don’t really pine for the comedy stylings of Cheech and Chong, Lewis and Martin, Nichols and May much. You get a little more buzz off of older teams, like Abbot and Costello, the Marx Brothers, even Laurel and Hardy or the Stooges, I think. And yet, the most accessible comedy across time and space is almost certainly found in Chaplin, Lloyd and Keaton.

These guys were memes back when memes were called “icons”. Harold Lloyd is undoubtedly best known for Safety, Last! wherein at one point, he hangs from a clock tower. Girl Shy is another of his classics, wherein the inexperienced Lloyd writes a book on wooing women.

Even though this pic is widescreen, movies wouldn’t start to be filmed in widescreen until the ’50s, which can be kind of jarring when you’ve equated widescreen with real cinema.

Buster Keaton is probably most famous for the image in Steamboat Bill, Jr. where a house facade falls down over him, but he is spared because of the fortuitous placement of the second story window. Keaton’s physical genius can be seen echoed in the works of Jackie Chan, and his character was typically feistier than Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

One of the great moviegoing experiences of my life was seeing The General in a packed revival theater in my neighborhood. There were people who had seen the movie as children and had brought their grandchildren to see it, and it was uproarious. Joe Bob Briggs talks about the importance of the shared experience, and it’s definitely true: Movies are better in theaters, and they’re best when packed with people who are having a good time.

The General was a disappointment at the box office, in part because choosing to set a comedy in the Civil War was controversial at the time. Its poor performance would set Keaton down a far less happy path in the arts.

Damn, son.

One clever gag they used to use was to film something backward so it looked more dangerous than it was. Not in this case. That’s two tons of façade coming down on Keaton with 2″ of clearance.

Charlie Chaplin is indisputably the 800-pound gorilla in the silent movie comedy room. Writing, producing, directing, editing and starring in, and also doing the music for his movies (I had a college professor who started his career co-writing music for his films). And when I was growing up, his was the name you heard, and whose picture you saw on the deli wall. Modern Times and City Lights were a standard double-bill for revival houses.

These days The Kid and The Gold Rush are given more love than in the past, and there’s a lot to be said for their lack of any pretensions. People complain about Chaplin’s sentimentality, but I think it’s safe to say it was heavily market-driven and as focus-tested as it could be for the time. Per my aforementioned professor, Chaplin said of the happy couple walking over the horizon at the end of Modern Times, “someone just over the ridge is about to kick them in the pants”.

Like me. My head.

“The Oceana Roll” was a popular song from the 1910s, which is a joke that goes over most people’s heads 100 years later.

There were other comedies as well, though I find that if I go through a list of great silents and see a title I don’t recognize, it’s probably going to be Lloyd or Keaton. But there are noteworthy others. The Hungarian film (and N.B. in a silent, the country of origin is significantly less important than in a talkie) Hyppolit The Butler is a kind of proto-Mr. Belvedere, and still regarded as one of the greatest Hungarian movies.  Most people know Marion Davies from her caricature in Citizen Kane, but her relationship with Hearst was much more complex than that movie shows, and movies like Show People reveal that she wasn’t some talentless hack Hearst was foisting on the studios and the public. (Some say his attempted bullying actually hurt her career, which is certainly plausible.)

But maybe comedy, or these comedies anyway, isn’t for you. Next time we’ll look at the weird, the epic, and the dramatic silents. (And by the way, almost every film mentioned here is available free and legal for download on YouTube, Internet Archive and elsewhere.)

Westerns For The Fillies

Last time, NaturalFake brought up The Wind Rises and suggested a post on movies that present subjects from difficult POVs. For example, The Wind Rises is a charming historical fiction about an airplane designer whose only outlet—because he’s Japanese and it’s the ’30s—is building Zeros. The viewer must sympathize with a protagonist whose major early accomplishments involved killing a lot of American soldiers and helping drag the US into WWII. I started to build a list of other such movies—Birth of A NationTriumph of the WillParadise Now (or literally any Palestinian film since every single one of them is about how it’s a good thing to blow up Jews), and a few others which are even darker in subtler ways—and it was, frankly, a depressing exercise.

It feels like a bad time to be depressing. But if there’s a strong interest in the topic, I’ll cover it next time.

Too busy moving the camera around.

Liberty Valance: Stewart, Vera Miles, Wayne and Edmond O’Brien. Nobody knows how to block like this any more.

Instead, let’s talk about Westerns. And women. My #3 kid (“The Flower”) has been smitten with Jimmy Stewart since before we saw Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, so I showed her The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Well, now she was smitten with John Wayne, too. I suggested (the non-Western) Ball of Fire, where a bookish Cooper woos gun moll Barbara Stanwyck, and now she loves Gary Cooper (and understands Stanwyck’s appeal better versus the poodle wig Stanwyck of Double Indemnity).  Since we were unable to go out to see movies, she suggested I put together a series of Westerns we could watch.

I put together a list of a couple dozen classics: Stagecoach, The Searchers, Shane and so on. But a funny thing happened when we put on a random 1938 flick, The Cowboy and the Lady: I remembered that once upon a time, Hollywood made films like the Koreans make them now. Even a lot of “less than classic” Westerns are really good, they’re charming and entertaining and make you feel good. Not only that, the Western was such a comfortably American genre that hosted every other genre within them (romance, musicals, horror, etc.).

While “Western” as a genre tilts masculine, smart studios were always trying to woo women as well. Tales of gunslingin’ and cow-punchin’ draw in the men, so why not goose things a bit by throwing in some courtin’? In Cowboy and the Lady, Merle Oberon plays a post-college girl whose father has an ambition to be President, and who threatens said ambition by going out to a jazz club for a night on the town—when it is raided. Dad ships her off to their Palm Beach home where, desperate for any kind of entertainment, she convinces her maids to take her on a blind date with a bunch of cowboys in town for the rodeo.

Yowza.

This picture of Merle Oberon makes my brain stop working.

Cooper has her at “hello”, but he’s so proper—and aggressively uninterested in loose women—she has to use every trick her maids have taught her just to get a kiss out of him. (Look, embrace the fantasy, okay?) That kiss is enough to convince him that she’s the wife he’s been looking for, which puts her in an awkward position. Things escalate rapidly and before you know it, the two wed just in time for Daddy to bring home the political power brokers he needs to get the nomination.

Is it silly? Of course. The breakneck pace of Cooper and Oberon’s romance is the sort of thing you might expect from a Lubitsch screwball comedy. Cooper delivers an unfortunately relevant lecture to a bunch of stuffed shirts condescending to him that reminds one that “the elite” have long scorned the rest of us. (Hollywood used to at least pretend to be on our side.) It wasn’t critically well-received (the NYT criticized its politics, as if that mattered), but it’s a crowd-pleasing feel-good time. Terrific supporting cast with faces you’ll know, like Walter Brennan and Patsy Kelly and music by Alfred and Lionel Newman (Randy’s uncles).

Another film that might appeal to the distaff set more than a traditional Western is Johnny Guitar. This actually is recognized as a classic Western, but the focus isn’t a lawman, but an unbeloved saloon owner played by Joan Crawford (looking pretty good for 50 but only few years from her Baby Jane turn). The mere presence of Crawford turns this into more soaper than oater, to say nothing of the catfights between Crawford and Mercedes Cambridge (probably best known to y’all as the voice of Pazuzu in The Exorcist), and probably enhanced by the fact that Crawford was a real-life terror, destroying Cambridge’s wardrobe in a fit of pique (and allegedly having her blackballed for years). Nicholas Ray claimed he threw up on the way in to the shoot every day.

What a force.

“You sure we don’t need a stunt double for the hanging scene?” “No, Joan, it’s perfectly sa—er, fine. It’s fine this way.”

Poorly received at the time, it may be Republic’s best Western—certainly up there with Rio Grande—and maybe even their best picture period, next to The Quiet Man. Supporting cast includes Ward Bond, Ernest Borgnine and John Carradine.

Another potential view for the fairer sex is The Furies, based on the novel by Niven Busch. Barbara Stanwyck plays a terror of a daughter to a terror of a man who lords over his cattle-land with an iron fist. Stanwyck rules over him, however, at least until he gets a girlfriend. Stanwyck, of course, was a powerhouse in the world of the Western. I’m not a TV guy but if IMDB can be believed, some of her best work was on “The Big Valley”, “Wagon Train” and “Rawhide”.

When the musical romantic comedy invades the western, it’s hard for me to view it as much of a western, as “musical” overwhelms all. If someone made an opera out of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (not as improbable as it sounds, considering the existence of Hercules vs. Vampires), your takeaway would be “opera” not “Western”, I think. That said, Calamity Jane is a fun, frothy time with a western dressing. Like many of the musicals of the day (and many of Day’s musicals), it’s fairly forgettable.

But the thing is, it won’t make you feel bad. And maybe that’s the key: Virtually nobody in Hollywood at the time thought they had a mission to make the audience feel bad. Even the occasional downer (The Ox-Bow Incident) proceeded with the notion the audience would root for justice. The point was never to blame or degrade. And that’s why a lot of even “middling” Westerns are still worth watching decades later.

Ya dope.

Doris Day movies are crimes against history. But what are you trying to get history from a movie for?

Two By Kim Ki Duk

The first Korean film I may have seen, as a wee nearly-29-year-old bairn, was Yongary, Monster from the Deep, the Korean Godzilla, if you like, which was almost as popular in its day as the giant Japanese lizard. Then for nearly 29 years…nothing. And then in 2003, this odd film called Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring actually turned up on some local (not even art-house) screens, and we decided to go see it.

Not by a long shot.

Not the worst living arrangements I’ve ever seen.

I was actually going to talk about it last time, but that was right after Christmas and Spring is a quintessentially Buddhist film. An old monk living on an island/houseboat has a young boy for a ward. They live a simple life, but the boy sneaks off and torments small animals, and the old monk teaches him a painful lesson. In the Summer section of the film, the boy is now a young adult, and learns about the temptations and pitfalls of sex. He goes out into the world and discovers ever more and more trouble, and his own capacity for evil. The film never leaves the area with the houseboat, but the now-grown man comes back looking for peace and sanctuary against a vengeful society. In Winter, the young man has become old, returning to the house boat after learning that peace and happiness are not necessarily found in pursuit of worldly things, and in the final Spring, a new young boy is delivered to the boat, and the cycle continues.

Beautifully shot and a reminder that Korea is a beautiful place (if you’re not fighting a war there), the film is slow paced and poetic, as well as almost passive. That is, it never tries to excite sympathy: We are observers to the vicissitudes of life, but we are outside them. Thus, when the boy (and later man) does things that are wrong, we are not inclined to hate him, or weep for him, or do anything other than hope he is steered on the right path.

Compared to life in, oh, say, America, say, right at this moment, it is the antithesis. It is calm and simple and all about the current moment. It was unlike any movie I had seen up to that point.

Is that some kind of Eastern thing?

Some days you tie a rock around the frog and some days, well, the frog ties a rock around you.

Because I had found this film so moving, I endeavored to see the director’s next film, 3 Iron in the theater. But as often happens with foreign features, it played for a week at most (if it played at all), and I ended up seeing it on cable. I was similarly blown away by the story of Tae-suk, a strange outsider who has what is the most demeaning job in Korea (next to cleaning saunas): Posting flyers on people’s doors. But what Tae-suk does is go back to the neighborhood where he posted his flyers and see which ones weren’t removed or discarded—and then he breaks into the house or apartment and crashes there for the night.

While he’s there he does things like use their cookware, food and even toothbrushes, but he also fixes up the place, especially any broken devices. He’s never been caught at this, as far as we can tell. But one night he does it to a very nice house which turns out not to be empty: A woman, Sun-hwa is there hiding from her abusive husband, and things shake out that Tae-Suk basically beats the tar out of the husband (when he comes home) by launching golf balls at the guy using his own 3 iron (which he then steals).

Not by a long shot.

Not the worst basis for a relationship I’ve ever heard.

Tae-suk and Sun-hwa go on their own road adventure, posting flyers and breaking into houses until the vengeful husband comes to track them down. While Spring has elements of what you might call magical realism—as Spring goes along, we begin to wonder how the old monk ends up in such perfect vantage points to view things when the boy has taken the boat which is the only means to get off the island—3 Iron takes its metaphorical conceit, a young man figuratively invisible to society, and turns it literal.

It’s not magical realism in the western sense—where a momentary non-flashy, even dubiously legitimate suspension of the physics provides a plot resolution or advancement. This isn’t “the magic was inside you all along” get-out-of-jail-free card-type bromide.  Tae-suk, while likable, isn’t a particularly heroic figure except somewhat in his defense of Sun-hwa, who herself is more tragic than heroic (we piece together that she’s married the wealthy man because he supports her parents). Their relationship is interesting, and the resolution of the films is downright spooky.

The unseen.

Does this bother you? I’ m not touching you!

There’s not a lot of talking in either of these films. In 3 Iron, the lead characters don’t talk at all for the first half-hour or more. And they are very measured in pacing, with the (never formally trained) director eschewing any temptation to sentimentalize or sensationalize. But to me, they represent an amazing and relatively rare use of cinema.

Kim Ki-duk directed over two dozen films in his 20 year career without ever really approaching this level again, as far as I know. He was #metoo’ed a couple of years ago and fled to Latvia when his prospects in Korea dried up. (I have no comment on the veracity of the claims made against him, but he was an indie in his country and I have no doubt protection extends to some more than others, as it is everywhere. I would also point out that he himself plays the criminal adult pursued by the law in Spring.) Kim died last month, a couple of weeks before his 60th birthday, apparently of the coronavirus, out-living his namesake by only a few years.

His directing namesake—Kim Ki-duk, no relation—died a few weeks before his 83rd birthday in 2017. This Kim, however, directed cheesy soapers and, most famously, the giant monster movie Yongary.

Christmas Ornaments

One of our evolving Christmas traditions had been to see a Korean movie on Christmas Eve. Since the Korean chain is closed forever, and since most of the other theaters are still shut down for me (and possibly forever)—and since Wonder Woman 84 (the only thing playing at our local drive-in) doesn’t exactly scream “Christmas!” (though I guess they’re trying to market it that way)—I thought I’d assemble a list of Christmas Classics you may have missed and which may enhance your holiday season.

Nothing on my list is from the ’60s or ’70s or ’80s, I notice as I complete it. That’s because the ’60s and ’70s sucked for Christmas material, except for the really well-known gems, your Grinches and Charlie Browns, your Rankins and your Basses. My favorite Scrooge, Albert Finney’s Scrooge! is in there, but preferred versions of Dickens’ story are highly personal and contentious. The ’80s gave us Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, Edward Scissorhands and so on, but a lot of nearly-29-year-olds give those plenty of play.

So without further ado, a dozen films you might not have seen, or at least seen recently.

He's just not sure!

Jimmy Stewart giving Margaret Sullivan the side-eye in the publicity still.

The Shop Around The Corner (1940): Comedy/Romance/Drama

Less screwy than Preston Sturges and warmer than Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch has a special place in my heart among the romcom directors of the ’40s. This story takes place at the Matuschek Company in Budapest, Hungary—speaking of things that just aren’t done any more, placing things in foreign countries without any worrying about accents is one—where a brilliant but imperious Jimmy Stewart picks fights with a lovely but stubborn Margaret Sullivan, neither of them aware that they are courting each other through the mail. The dialog and characterization in this make a mockery of any modern Hollywood film. Remade as a cute (but inferior) musical, In The Good Old Summertime, with Judy Garland and then remade again with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as the cute (but vastly inferior) You’ve Got Mail. (Free on HBOMax)

Holiday Inn (1942): Comedy/Musical

Kind of an obvious one, I suppose, but under-rated in modern times: Singer Bing Crosby wants to run off to the country and settle down with partner Virginia Dale, but she’d rather stay on Broadway with their other partner, Fred Astaire. The comic conceit is that Bing has had it with the hard showbiz life and wants to run a nice, easy farm. That, of course, is brutally hard, and he ends up running a hotel that’s only open on holidays. There he meets the beautiful and talented Marjorie Reynolds, whom he hides from visiting partner Astaire by slathering her in blackface for Lincoln’s Birthday. (One of my favorite cinematic blackfaces next to Stormy Weather and Gene Wilder in The Silver Streak.) ($3.99 on Redbox and Play)

The Bishop’s Wife (1947): Comedy/Drama

Bishop David Niven, troubled with his efforts to get a new church built and an increasingly unhappy wife, prays for guidance and gets it in the form of Dudley, an Angel played by Cary Grant. Everyone loves Dudley except the Bishop, who finds his life becoming increasingly hectic even as his wife (Loretta Young) is increasingly enchanted with the attentions paid by an angel. A very troubled production which (according to some) started with Grant as the Bishop and Niven as the angel! Somewhat overlooked these days (except to remake as The Preacher’s Wife with Denzel Washington a ways back), this is a clever and charming movie, with Young managing to outshine Niven and Grant. (Free on Prime)

The Holly and the Ivy (1952): Drama

You’re up for some heavy holiday drama but you’ve already watched It’s A Wonderful Life 348 times this week. Try this English drama about a widowed pastor whose children don’t tell him what’s going on in their lives because, well, he’s a pastor and they’re sinners (and a saint). Encapsulates the increasing alienation between secular and religious culture (though in a less materialistic way than Bishop’s Wife). Sir Ralph Richardson (Time BanditsRollerballDr. ZhivagoFour Feathers, etc.) stars, with a small role featuring William Hartnell, the original Dr. Who. (Public Domain at Internet Archive)

It's a safe bet.

Bing, Rosemary, Danny and Vera suspect there may be snow in Vermont.

White Christmas (1954): Comedy/Musical

The follow-up (twelve years and one World War later) to Holiday Inn sees Danny Kaye take the co-starring role next to Bing, with new dames Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen. Though not much less frothy than the original, the plot is the somewhat more serious one of enlisted men (Bing and Danny) trying to help out a man who had been their general during the war, but is now reduced to hard times. This makes for some very moving moments, including a rendition of the title song, and Vera Ellen is a delight to watch. (Free on Netflix and Philo)

“Santa Claus Conquers The Martians”  (“Mystery Science Theater 3000”, 1991, Season 3, Episode 21)

Typically coming in high in any list of MST3K, the Pia Zadora vehicle Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is a holiday classic only improved by copious riffing. Some of the simplest in-film jokes (“headbutt”, “lentils”) have stuck with us for years, and Crow T. Robot’s rendition of “Patrick Swayze Christmas” (written by Michael J. Nelson) surely competes with Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” as the definitive ’90s Christmas Carol. (Free on YouTube—don’t forget your ad blocker!—and lots of other places.)

You heard me.

Old Pitch tempts a pure-hearted orphan, while Santa and Merlin cook up some Christmas cheer in Santa’s lab on a cloud. (Santa Claus, 1959)

“Santa Claus” (“Rifftrax: Live!”, 2014, Season 6, Episode 14)

Speaking of holiday riffing, the live version of Rifftrax’ take on Santa Claus (the 1959 Rene Cardona kiddie film) stands as the funniest Rifftrax episode ever. When I saw it originally, I was laughing so hard I had trouble breathing. Rifftrax generally suffers from the lack of host segments (which can help break up an otherwise hard to watch film) but this film is so off-the-wall, so very much of its time-and-place, and such a melange of religious and secular ideas, the WTFness manages to keep the momentum going all the way through. (Rifftrax) Some people consider the MST3K version better than Martians.

“The Tick Loves Santa” (“The Tick”, 1995, Season 2, Episode 10)

I was a fan of “The Tick” comic book back in the day, and used to love the cartoon show as well. These days the sound mixing on all those ’90s era cartoons is jangly and jarring as hell, with the overly broad, brassy comical score overwhelming the dialogue (see also “Sam and Max”). In this, a bell-ringing-corner-Santa is cloned, and ends up using his clone powers for evil, presenting a problem for The Tick who obviously cannot punch Santa Claus. Contains a line I’ve been finding excuses to say for the past 25 years. (Free on YouTube, complete with great opening theme song.)

Joyeux Noel (2005): War

World War I stuff always chokes me up, I think because it was just such an outbreak of insanity and failure of global elites—well, of course, these days, that hits a little too close to home. This movie, about the outbreak of peace in the trenches on Christmas 1914, is a reminder that the people of Christendom are not natural enemies and we really should just be fighting the Muslims. (A little Christmas kidding!) Good movie, and I also recommend the book Silent Night on the same topic, which gives a lot more detail. (Redbox, Prime, $2.99)

In Bruges (2008): Crime/Drama/Black Comedy

A couple of hitmen (Brendan Gleeson, Colin Farrell) are sent to the Belgium tourist town of Bruges after screwing up a job with the underlying idea being that they’re not coming back. The first (and best) of three features (to date) by Martin McDonough (Seven PsychopathsThree Billboards Outside Ebbings, Missouri). (Free on Peacock)

Ho, ho, ho: Who wouldn't go?

A right jolly old elf, if you’re Finnish. (Rare Exports, 2010)

Rare Exports (2010): Horror/Adventure

This Finnish gem deals with a “mining” company that is actually just a front for a mad old coot who’s trying to excavate Santa Claus from the frozen grave angry Laplanders put him in hundreds of years ago. The topic is treated earnestly, though without taking itself too seriously, and it has a very kid-movie vibe—with the primary gore coming from a scene where the boy-hero’s father butchers a pig (and tells him to close his eyes) and a fairly long-shot of some reindeer carnage. There is a whole lotta Santa dong, however, which (while it makes perfect sense in the plot) is not something you see in your average holiday film. (Without that, this could easily have been a PG-13 flick, or maybe even PG.)

Krampus (2015): Horror/Drama

A heart-warming family drama that shows a bickering family that comes together to fend off the evil Santa monster on Christmas Eve. I reviewed it when it came out, and I stand by that review (except perhaps to amend my snark about Christmas Evil, which is an odd film for sure and clanky in a low-budget way, but also not without interest).

In conclusion, I hope you find something in hear to enjoy and to brighten your holiday before the coming horrors of 2021. Merry Christmas to all, and God Bless Us Every One.

Freaky

Pickings, as noted, have been slim, though they were much fatter a few weeks ago before The Tyrant Newsom capriciously shut everything down again, and we had a chance to trek out and see a double-feature. The first feature was John Wick which the kids actually hadn’t seen (I couldn’t get them to go with me the first time). There was an interesting movie from the people who did Secret of the Kells and Song of the Sea, but with 6 of 30 seats already taken, the three of us couldn’t get tickets because that would exceed 25% capacity.

But The Flower (and to a lesser extent The Boy) was semi-intrigued by this horror remake of Freaky Friday. As she said, “It’s not like it’s a classic that they’re screwing up, Dad.” It’s a fair point: Her version of the movie is the cute-but-not-classic Jamie Lee Curtis/Lindsay Lohan, whereas mine is the also cute-but-not-classic Barbara Harris/Jodie Foster version. The premise, if you don’t know, is that a mother and daughter, frustrated with their impressions of how easy the other’s life is, end up swapping places. Body swapping in the movies goes back at least to the Thorne Smith story Turnabout (which Hal Roach made into a cute movie with Adolphe Menjou and Carole Landis), where it’s a frustrated husband/wife swap.

What a honey.

Carole Landis manspreads in “Turnabout”.

But in this case, instead of swapping with her mother, our teen heroine Millie (Kathryn Newton, Three Billboards Outisde of Billings, Montana and Lady Bird) swaps with the crazed slasher who is trying to kill her, thanks to his recent acquisition of a Zuni doll or a totem or whatever. Where the usual playbook is for the swapped characters to struggle comically being a fish-out-of-water in their unfamiliar surroundings, in this case—well, it’s exactly the same here, just one’s a psycho.

Now, really, this is pretty much an actor’s storyline. It had a lot more “bite” back in 1940, but seeing Adolphe Menjou flounce around while Carole Landis “manspread” in Turnabout is that movie’s primary entertainment value. I don’t remember the ’70s version well enough to say much about the acting, but I remember being disappointed by the ’00s version, because Jamie Lee Curtis’ has so many easily imitable mannerisms, and the “swap” doesn’t change either hers or Lohan’s at all. (Annette Benning dropped out of the role just six days earlier, which may account for this.)

Nice right hook!

This “Freaky” is about a psycho whereas most are about teen girls and stressed moms and I probably better stop right there.

In this case, Vince Vaughn (whose doesn’t play psycho-killers nearly enough) gets to flounce around like a teen girl (and even kiss a boy though that is thankfully obscured) and Kathryn Newton gets to play a slasher who’s constantly confounded by her sudden loss of strength. I liked this aspect of the film: I mean, it was absolutely necessary that this 105-pound girl not be very physically intimidating for the premise to work, but if the past 30 years of entertainment have taught us anything, any woman can beat up any man at any time using nothing more than girl power. So it was actually kind of refreshing that this movie pointed out the obvious.

The movie opens with a clichéd (almost campy) murder of a quartet of obnoxious teens you’re largely glad to see die, and when you first meet Mille and her two besties, you pretty much want them to die, too. One of the besties is very out gay boy and the other is a soulful-saint black girl, checking off vital diversity boxes—but as with other Blumhouse features, they do extend a bit beyond mere tokenism. The actors (Celest O’Connor and Misha Osherovich) are fine, though the movie couldn’t resist throwing in a closeted football player—I’m almost surprised they didn’t have a closeted Klan member.

Method actor?

Vaughn, 50, is still pretty convincing as a maniac.

Millie is lives in strained circumstances with her recently widowed mother (Katie Finneran, of the underrated 1990 Night of the Living Dead remake) and her snarky sheriff sister (Dana Drori). Mom gets drunk and forgets to pick up Millie after the game and that’s when The Butcher (Vaughn) finds her. The next morning he wakes up in her bed and she wakes up in an abandoned mill. The next hour involves Millie (in The Butcher’s body) convincing her friends who she is and trying to unravel the mystery while The Butcher (in Millie’s body) goes on a killing spree, utilizing his/her new privileges as a cute teen girl. (Of course, any horror fan knows that about 15% of all slashers are cute teen girls but whatever.)

It’s cute, but not classic, much like it’s predecessors. It might end up as my favorite version of Freaky Friday, for what that’s worth. Some laughs, not really any big scares. A fair amount of legitimate suspense as you wonder how they’re going to swap back before midnight (at which point the swap becomes permanent). There is a tension that comes from mixing genres: If it were straight horror, you’d sort of expect them not to switch back or—given that body swapping is a staple of horror far more than comedy—for Vaughn to end up in yet another body, but it still has the same kind of After School Special feel of its predecessors. It’s really hard to imagine good won’t prevail.

The gore is pretty perfunctory as is the (minimal) sex, and it wraps up pretty well in the hour. (I’m seeing now that it’s supposedly an hour and 42 minutes, which I don’t think I believe. At the theater, they had it listed as 85 minutes.) In any event, there’s an end to the movie followed by a denouement which made the movie feel overlong and was a little too “yass kween” for my taste. It doesn’t fit, but it doesn’t really ruin the movie.

We had fun and that’s all we were looking for, even though the theaters themselves are a weird and alienating experience in post-Covid California.

If I had a nickel...

TFW you convince your friends you’re not a slasher on a spree.

Friendly Persuasion (1956)

Friendly Persuasion is a gem I discovered later in life, like Sweet Smell of Success, which it seemed to me belonged in the canon alongside of Casablanca and Citizen Kane but which is unknown to a lot of even fairly savvy moviegoers. It is the most sophisticated treatment of religion and dogma put to test against real world travails I’ve ever seen, outside of Israeli films (where it is a staple).

Trucker lingo is appropriate for this, right?

A nice, quiet ride to church—right before Jess puts the hammer down.

Gary Cooper and Dorothy McGuire are Jess and Eliza Birdwell, Quakers living in Indiana in 1862 with their three children, the teens* Josh and Mattie and their young son Little Jess, all of them struggling in their own ways to adhere to a lifestyle that, even in 1862, was sorely constraining: No music, no dancing, no fancy clothes and no fighting!

And, boy, do they struggle. The opening scene features Little Jess in a blood feud with his mother’s prize goose. Followed by Mattie primping and preening for church. The trip to church turns into a carriage race between Jess and a neighbor (which Jess blames on the horse “wanting to race”). And at their church—a meeting where they reflect quietly and make observations about what they need to get closer to God—they are interrupted by a Union General looking for soldiers. Here we get to see what each character feels about violence.

Or rather—and this is key—what they say they feel about violence.

War, man.

Mark Richman (who is 93 this year!) as the union soldier explaining how polite conversation isn’t going to help in this context.

Because this is a movie about hypocrisy. Not the way Boomer-era movies have been about hypocrisy, but the real acknowledgement that it is difficult to live by principles, not all principles are equally worthy of living by, and one doesn’t really know what one will do until confronted with a difficult choice.

The Birdwells go to the county fair, and Mattie ends up dancing, a neighbor boy ends up fighting in a contest—only to stop when winning for fear of hurting his opponent which causes more trouble, Little Jess ends up helping people win at a shell game, and so on. Mama Eliza is the spiritual taskmaster and the minister of the community, while Jess is more the sly-wink-and-a-nod who trades out the racing horse to please her—but gets an even faster horse instead. When Jess and Josh go out to visit customers, they encounter a widow and her three daughters who are far more boisterous than they’re used to, and it’s Jess who joins in their raucous singing.

When Jess buys an organ because he really loves music, Eliza goes to sleep in the barn in protest. Jess goes in later when it gets cold, and the next morning, he explains to his neighbor Sam (the great character actor Robert Middleton) that he “reasoned with her” but Sam (and the audience) have no doubt as to how things were actually resolved. The organ stays in the house, though this causes problems later because they have to hide it from the rest of the community.

Plus, it keeps you warm.

No better way to solve marital disputes.

In the style of From Here To Eternity, though, everything gets put to the test when WAR comes to town. Nothing quite turns out the way you expect and there’s considerable subtlety, too. The movie challenges the notion of pacifism without ridiculing it. It dares the audience to imagine themselves in those situations and what they would do without being grimly moralizing or cynical. It’s also a very fun film for the first 90 minutes, which is a big part of what lends it its ultimate power.

Directed by William Wyler, who is in the running for greatest all-time director, having given us Ben-Hur: A Tale of the ChristThe Best Years of Our LivesRoman Holiday and so on. Written by Jessamyn West (based on his book) and Michael Wilson (It’s A Wonderful Life, Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes).

Gary Cooper is immensely charming in one of his last big roles, with Wyler insisting on him staying true to the book’s character despite Peck’s protestations. Dorothy McGuire, though she essentially plays an uptight moralist, is nonetheless warm and appealing. The supporting cast is all terrific, of course, including the aforementioned Robert Middleton and Mark Richman, and with Marjorie Main as the mother of the three wild girls.

Was Psycho a curse or a blessing?

Perkins used to hitchhike to the set every day and get on the lot by pretending to be his own stunt double.

It’s not Technicolor, but the composition is great and the DeLuxe Color holds up okay, at least on the version I have. The score is impeccable, height-of-his-talent Dmitri Tiomkin. There in an unfortunate (to my ear) pop song—”Thee I Love” sung by Pat Boone. It was actually quite hot back in ’56, my stepfather tells me: It was in heavy rotation on his college campus being used to lure co-eds into frat houses. Heh.

It’s not that it’s bad per se, but it was such a common thing of the ’50s and ’60s, to attach a very contemporaneous pop song to what otherwise feels timeless. I find the song in True Grit similarly jarring. (I don’t find it jarring in movies like Casablanca, and my only excuse is that “When Time Goes By” was already a kind of standard, not something they whipped up for the movie. I admit this is a capricious distinction.)

That aside, this is basically a perfect movie. Even at 2 hours and 17 minutes it blazes by. Each scene is meant to entertain, to charm, to teach you about the characters so that when their time in the crucible comes, you care what happens and you feel less inclined to judge them and more inclined to understand.

It’s available on the cheap from all kinds of streaming services so check it out!

*The teens are played by a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins, who was 24, and Phyllis Love, who was 31!

So peaceful.

Jess about to very peacefully resolve a conflict when Caleb Cope (John Smith) decides to stop wrasslin’, upsetting a few gamblers.

The Wolf of Snow Hollow

Old habits die hard and it wasn’t too long after our first outing that we got the itchy feet to go out again! The only Korean film playing that we hadn’t seen was a spy thriller (which turned out to have a hilarious Trump stand-in), so I was a little dubious about centering the day around that; Korean thrillers are often good but the more political or historical they get, the harder time we have following them. However, I watched a trailer for another film playing, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, and damned if it didn’t win me over. It’s a werewolf movie written, directed and starring Jim Cummings (best known as the writer, director and star of The Wolf of Snow Hollow), though with an emphasis on the characters involved. Not in a Jarmuschian way, but more like: Hey, these are real people, with real struggles. And a werewolf.

Damn lawyers.

The Late Robert Forster syaing “I won’t ask you to pray with me…’cause of the damn lawyers” was part of what won me over.

Cummings plays Deputy John Marshall, who views himself as the only sensible guy in the Snow Hollow police department—which, in retrospect, seems a bit oversized—and certainly a great many of his colleagues are goofballs, or minimally less than professional. But John is a wreck: A recovering alcoholic who is also a basket-case over the deteriorating condition of his father the Sheriff, fiercely caustic to his ex-wife, neglectful of his daughter, and with a temper that made us all suspect at some point that he may have been the actual werewolf. He fires people with aplomb. And while he may not go off on wild goose chases, neither does he seem particularly good at his job.

The trouble begins when walking-bro-cliche PJ (Jimmy Tatro, “American Vandal”) brings his beauty-queen girlfriend (Rachel Jane Day) to a cabin in Snow Hollow where she suffers a brutal death and the removal of her lady parts by…something. Is it a man? Is it an animal? I’m not going to tell you because that would spoil it and it’s worth seeing unspoiled.

A brisk eighty minutes and suffers none of the usual werewolf movie malaise. The editing is great, if a little tricky. The editing emphasizes the after-effects of the murders, as John sits in funerals or suffers the indignities of catcalls and abuse. It’s the sort of thing you might find jarring but we got used to it quickly, and it shifts the film more toward what it wants to be, which is a drama with horror overtones. Some unexplained aspects of the story lead me to believe that the editing was perhaps too severe in places.

It just doesn't gaf.

This frame has almost a were-badger look. And if you think wereWOLVES are bad, you ain’t never seen a wereHONEYBADGER.

Of course, when I see a movie about a place that has snow, I want to see lots of beautiful vistas. As a desert dweller, beautiful snowy landscapes are basically a plus one rating, and D of P Natalie Kingston delivers in spades. I can’t imagine the budget on this film was very high—but the editing and filming (and lighting, come to think of it) make it look and feel like a “real” movie, and one that could stand alongside of much, much more expensive films.

But if the technical craftsmanship was great, it is matched by the acting. I’ll talk last about Cummings, and first about the ophidian Riki Lindhome—best known to us as “Garfunkel” from “Garfunkel and Oates” and as the way I taught The Flower what “ophidian” means. Riki plays Julia, John’s partner and is the backbone of the movie. She’s the most professional, and also walking that thin line between trying to keep John from crashing and wrecking his life and keeping him from doing real harm. This is not easy, and like most of the movie’s characters, she’s given some depth and works well with it. The late Robert Forster plays John’s dad, and if he ever turned in a bad performance in his 50 years, this wasn’t it. (In classic character actor style, he has yet another movie coming out this year.)

The smaller roles (Chloe East as the saucy, sassy daughter, the aforementioned Jimmy Tatro, assorted deputies and townsfolk) all have a vitality we’ve come to associate with Asian films. It’s like the actors and the writer (Cummings, as mentioned) took the “no small role” seriously, and everyone plays their role like they’re going to go on after the scene with their own stories and narratives. It raises the film above the usual “this person is an exposition/plot delivery vehicle” fare.

Or someONE.

You got something on your shoe there, buddy.

Which brings us to Mr. Cummings himself. In the low-budget world, you get guys who make vanity projects which cast themselves as the (typically action) heroes—Red Letter Media’s “Best of the Worst” has covered a few amazing examples—and there are certain markers of these kinds of projects: A low charisma middle-aged dude, a genuinely hot chick who has to get naked with him at some point, a black tank top showing off a modest musculature. But when actors make movies, what you tend to get is a lot of acting. And Cummings’ cop-on-the-edge (which I believe was also his character in his previous, even-lower-budget film Thunder Road) goes from snarky, to ragey, to nervous-breakdown-grief-y, and even has something like a moment of peace.

This is where The Boy and The Flower split, and a quick glance at the now seldom visited “Rotten Tomatoes” reveals an 88/76 split, critic over audience. They both liked it. But at the end, where we get some character resolution with our troubled sheriff, The Flower would’ve preferred more explication of the Mystery of the Werewolf. She didn’t really care about the sheriff, and it’s undoubtedly the case that he’s a complete asshole from the beginning of the movie to the last few minutes. (She suspects there’s another edit of the film she’d prefer.) Meanwhile, The Boy found that focus refreshing.

I see both their points. As a character study, this movie is quite good. As a mystery, it’s far too thinly fleshed out, so that the reveal is less effective than it could be. And as a metaphor, with the sheriff’s raging id represented by a werewolf—well, it mostly just toys with that idea. We all liked it, though, and that’s saying a lot.

He seems lovely.

Good job, Jim. Next time maybe stretch your wings a little and play a decent human being.

Steel Rain 2: Summit

This movie was an unexpected delight. I’m always a little leery of making a long trip for a Korean spy thrillers because the political stuff can be quite hard to follow. But it usually pays off pretty well, as we saw with The Spy Gone North—a movie The Flower still talks about and thinks should be remade for American audiences. (Yes, so that someone has to sneak into Canada.) But this was a political thriller like Air Force One is a political thriller: A goofy action film with a very broad “message” (Korea = Good, Everyone Else = Varying Degrees of Less Good). And it features a tremendous performance by Angus Macfadyen (Braveheart, Saw V) which was really the highlight of the film for us.

It's great.

(From L to R): South Korean President, North Korean Chairman, Rogue North Korean and TRUMP!

The premise is that Japan and the U.S. are doing military movies in the nearby, oft-contested waters between Japan and Korea, which is provocative to China, and which South Korea doesn’t usually get involved with. But the U.S. is coercing South Korea to join in this time, and it’s all at the behest of the devious Japanese (OBVIOUSLY) who are planning to set up North Korea to start a war with China that will require the U.S. to be on their side. The provocations was  to be North Korea launching a nuclear missile at South Korea, I believe.

I had a hard time buying it. Actually, the kids and I were giggling through this whole thing, the political caricatures were so broad, and I was frankly a little bored of the whole South Korean shtick where they’re the mature adults in the room trying to negotiate peace with the childish North Koreans and Americans.

Regardless, the monkey in the wrench is that during peace treaty talks between South Korea, North Korea and America, the three leaders are kidnapped by the rogue North Korean group planning the nuclear strike. They’re taken as hostages aboard the submarine the Japanese want to launch the missile against the Koreans. Well, these North Koreans are bastards but they’re not rat bastards, and they’re going to launch a missile all right—but they’re going to strike Japan. They’re not rat bastards, but they’re also not very bright because striking Japan would necessitate a US counter-strike on North Korea and/or China.

Go figger.

Kristen Dalton plays the VP. I couldn’t quite figure out, politically, what the movie was trying to say with her. She seems like an opportunistic neocon on the one hand but she jumps at the chance to rescue Smoot.

In the midst of this supreme silliness we have the silliest thing of all: Angus Macfadyen as the United States President Smoot. I assume this is a reference to Reed Smoot (of the Smoot-Hawley Act) and not, say, the scientist/”Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”-winner George Smoot, or Oliver Smoot of the “smoot” unit of measurement, but I could be wrong. Either way, it’s just a dead on Trump parody.

President Smoot is belligerent, childish, narcissistic, cowardly, gluttonous and greedy. He’s rude to the (very svelte!) Chairman of North Korea (a Kim Jong Un stand-in) and talks so fast his translators can’t keep up with him. And he’s also clearly a metaphor for America. He’s aware of the plot, though not of the double-cross, but the moment of finding out is what turns the tide on this portrayal. Held captive by the rogue submarine captain and injected with a truth serum, he yells something to the effect of:

“Your weak communist drugs are no match for my American blood!”

So they hit him with another dose. And we get, eventually, an acknowledgment of the fact that while “South Korea wasn’t a signatory to the cease fire”, it wouldn’t even exist without America. And when the North Koreans say they’ve captured Smoot as insurance against the US destroying them, he laughs and says (again, paraphrased):

“Do you know how many people want me dead? The Republicans would look the other way. The Democrats would probably throw a party. The neocons are convinced we’re going to war with China anyway. I’m the only person standing between your country an annihilation.”

Huh.

'cause they're raping everybody everywhere.

The UN is here! Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!

And when things start going down, and the two little Korean dudes are trying to block the door, Smoot picks up a desk that is bolted down, rips it out of the floor and barricades the door, securing the room.

Go figure. It’s like the opening where the Japanese villain behind the plotting tells the story of how evil America cut off Japan’s oil supplies forcing it to go to war in self-defense, ending when those awful bullies bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I get the Korean bias—but I’m pretty sure that’s how WWII is frequently portrayed in Japan. The Koreans don’t like America, but they do at least acknowledge our historical usefulness.

Anyway, Smoot gets to abscond with Slim Jong Un, leaving the South Korean President to figure out how to save the world, and this works pretty well, though honestly as soon as Macfadyen is off-screen, the movie gets a lot less fun and interesting. Anyway, it presented a really clear and interesting ranking of the human species:

  1. South Koreans
  2. North Koreans
  3. Rogue North Koreans Willing To Launch Nuclear Missiles Without Provocation
  4. Chinese
  5. Americans
  6. [infinity]
  7. Japanese

I’m ticked by the fact that they apparently rank Chinese over Americans, but everybody’s kissing China’s ass these days, which will work out fine right until it doesn’t.

It’s complete nonsense, but it’s kind of fun, and everybody is redeemable as long as they’re not Japanese. If you’re not overly sensitive about it—and we weren’t, we were howling—it’s actually a fun time.

Smoot is a baws.

There’s a great shot of Smoot piling his place with hamburgers and donuts but I couldn’t find it, so enjoy the three leaders plotting their escape from the sub.

Okay Madam

In Our Oriental Heritage, volume one of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization—the greatest set of books nobody ever reads—Durant points out that the ancient Egyptians actually had art that evolved beyond what we know as the stereotypical Egyptian style. At point they had developed shading and perspective and more 3D looks, but those were all squashed by the priest class, which was in control of all art. As a result, Egyptian art didn’t change for centuries. Everything had to be vetted by the high priests whose primary interest is preserving their power, and this how art—and ultimately civilization—dies.

I think of this when I listen to Diversity & Comic’s yaboi Zach talk about the problem with Social Justice Warrior (SJW) comic books (most of the mainstream these days). The main problem is: they’re boring. If there’s a blond white guy, you know he’s a villain (if not the villain). If there’s a black woman, she’s a lesbian with the side of her head shaved, and probably fat. And black people are soulful saints, because you can’t show any member of a “marginalized” group having character flaws. Disney SJWed up the Mulan movie to make Mulan a superhero, which completely destroys the actual heroic aspects of the story: Overcoming her innate physical weakness (at great personal risk) to save her country and her father. She couldn’t train, obviously, because she-don’t-need-no-man is part of our High Priests’ Moral Code.

I mean, you can't see the Samsung logo so...

The Koreans use a wardrobe-based system to identify characters: Here, the leather coat and lack of a Samsung phone indicates “villain”.

This leads tangentially to the second movie in our “Almost Free!” double-feature: the delightful action comedy, Okay Madam, which works so well because it surprises on so many levels. A boisterous lower-middle class couple wins a Free Trip to Hawaii, which they’re not going to take until their daughter throws a tantrum. Now, this could be awful. And I’ve seen some Chinese movies where it was, actually, because the husband and wife are grating and you wanna kick the kid, but somehow in these opening sequences, you end up really liking our poor little family. The wife tells her husband not to bother entering contests, for example, because he used up all his luck—meeting her. And he doesn’t disagree.

There’s an inherent lack of meanness in their antics, which makes you not regret sitting down with them for 100 minutes. Meanwhile, a group of terrorists is plotting to hijack the plane, because a long lost asset has surfaced and will be on the plane with our unlucky travelers, as well as a host of different characters.

On the plane we meet: the tough-as-nails stewardess who’s sunshine to the passengers and a drill sergeant to her crew; the goofy steward who always wanted to be a spy and imagines hearing conspiracies; the woman who would literally rather die in business class than go back to economy; the pregnant daughter-in-law who can’t stand her, but who is being shuttled to Hawaii so she can birth an American child (our birthright citizenship laws are nuts, aren’t they?); the elderly grandfather who wants to talk your ear off; the movie star traveling incognito; the teenagers who are all fans of hers; the guy with the fear of flying. And so on.

Wafer thin!

The difference between “living the dream” and “being trapped in a nightmare” can be wafer thin.

Then there are the terrorists who are searching for the agent who defected and hasn’t been seen in a decade. There’s also an agent of South Korea on the plane who’s supposed to stop the terrorists.  (At some point, you almost think, well, hell, everyone’s an agent for some side or another.) We don’t know who any of the good guys are at first. And while there are some bad-asses among the terrorists, there’s the one guy who got the call late and doesn’t speak Chinese (which they’ve all agreed to speak exclusively during the mission) and who keeps blowing their cover.

You know how this stuff is supposed to play out, and yet so much of it doesn’t. Because while the characters can be played for jokes at times, they also all get their moment. They’re allowed to be something other than the butt of jokes. (The sole exception is a Korean congressman who’s constantly asking if people Know Who He Is. He’s a jackass the whole time. I’m okay with that.) Even the terrorists have a motivation that we can actually get behind: The agent they’re trying to get is the key to stopping a nuclear war. And there are numerous twists on that front as well.

But wait, there’s more!

There is a female super-agent and she has to fight seven (or eight…or nine…as one of the gags goes) men. And while she can fight and the action scenes are quite good, sometimes the men will literally just pick her up and slam her down, and she doesn’t recover from that easily. In other words, the ability to fight never obviates the massive discrepancy in weight and strength of men versus women.

So there.

Who is the mysterious passenger? (Well, it’s Sun-Bin Lee from Rampant, but that clarifies nothing!)

I’m eliding a lot because the little twists and turns are what make the film so much fun and I was constantly struck how such a light bit of fluff is literally impossible in America. The plane would have to be apportioned by ethnicity (only one ethnicity in Korea), and each ethnicity would’ve been constrained by the allowable permitted by the SJW moral code. My advice for people wanting to see fun movies these days is learn to read subtitles.

One thing I spotted: The housewife in the movie is supposed to be about 40 (her age is point of some comedy). But I knew both that she was older and also she was hotter than they were making her out to be because they wanted her to be a little frumpy. They put her in baggy clothes and gave her the Korean version of a Karen haircut:

Awful, awful picture.

OK, Karen.

But in her day-to-day life, she’s actually fifty and looks like this (from a Korean tabloid):

Deals with the devil...let's not rule them out.

Like a Korean Elizabeth Hurley or something.

There’s a Korean in-joke here, since the actress (Uhm Jung-hwa) is sort of a cross between Mariah Carey and Sharon Stone, having a very successful music career on the one hand, and starring in romcoms, erotic thrillers and action flix on the other. Her ability to make the naggy, parsimonious housewife thing appealing—treading that fine line between caring and domineering—is a big part of the reason this movie works.

Train To Busan presents Peninsula

Ending the longest movie drought in 30 years, The Boy and I trucked out to Orange County, where cinemas are kinda sorta open to see a Korean double-feature of Peninsula and Okay Madam.

The Koreans seem to have come to the zombie party late, relative to the western world, with Rampant (2018) and the smash hit Train to Busan (2016) which provided Ma Deong-sook the breakout role that would ultimately land him a part in the Marvel’s upcoming movie The Eternals. (Prediction: Movie will be awful and unsuccessful. He’ll be great but not in it much.) The influences of the Korean zombie movies are pretty clearly the 28 Days Later “Rage virus” style (pioneered by Return of the Living Dead) and not your mopey George Romero zombies, though as in all post-Romero zombie movies, the real monster is always Man.

Nah, these are the good guys.

Pictured: The Real Monsters

Peninsula is a sequel to Train, though merely taking place in the same universe four years later with no overlap in characters, hence the Train to Busan Presents title. It’s really just another movie in the same universe. At the same time, I felt there was a connection, as the movie kept presenting flashbacks and it took place in an army base that was originally set up for rescue but which has gone feral. (The final scene of Train has the survivors finding an army base—but since they were headed to Busan and Peninsula centers around Inchon on the other side of the country, it seems unlikely to be the same base.)

The hook here is a bunch of people have escaped Korea and are living in Hong Kong, where they’re being treated quite badly by the Chinese, who suspect them of carrying the disease and also of being Korean. This part of the movie is in badly pronounced English which is kind of cool because you’re thinking “I can understand Korean!” but, no, English is the, em, lingua franca between Asians, it seems.

Anyway, our refugees are offered a chance by some very dodgy individuals: Go back to the peninsula (Korea) and retrieve a truck containing 20 million dollars (in Ben Franklins, no less) and split it with these dodgy guys. Then you can live a life of luxury and not care that everyone in Hong Kong hates you. It’s too much for our rag-tag team to turn down, though the most reluctant of the group is, naturally, the most capable and heroic. He goes out of an obligation to help one of the others, whose wife and children he had to sacrifice in order to save everyone else.

Creepy!

I got a real “Escape from New York” vibe from this scene. Also, there’s a creature that reminds me of “In The Mouth of Madness”.

The trick is this: The zombies are basically blind at night. So if you move fast and quiet you can get around okay. And in the least surprising development, things don’t go as planned. Turns out the rogue army base likes to go around and light up the areas around any “wild dogs” scavenging. Those that aren’t killed are rounded up for games of “Plants vs. Zombies” where they play the role of the plants. There are also some “wild dogs” who have survived the past four years outsmarting the increasingly insane army guys—this is what happens when you have a draft, if you ask me—and the movie becomes a chase centered around the $20M and how to use it to get off the peninsula.

It’s basically 28 Months Later with elements of Road Warrior and Escape from New York, and that was okay with us. I felt some of the dramatic parts were strung out too long, and some other action-movie-shorthand-tropes were a little too short hand: For example, one of the major characters is a “wild dog” who escaped from the army base when it started going nuts and who lives with her two young daughters. The older of the two is probably twelve and expert driver. (It was unclear to me how she would ever gain expertise in that context, but whatever.) At one point, the mother knows the hero is going to strike the army base to rescue his former companion. I couldn’t figure out why she would know that. I couldn’t figure out why she would wait. Later, I couldn’t figure out why she would risk her life to save him. (The only thing I could figure is that she thought he might be useful getting her girls out, but I’m doing a lot of heavy lifting at the point.)

The acting is good and the set design is good. It’s more convincing when it’s humans in an (obviously CGI) backdrop, and less so when there’s any car chase (which is all clearly CGI). Critics are “meh” about this one but audiences like it okay (it made $4M opening day at the box office in Korea, which is apparently a record), and we’d put ourselves in the latter camp. It’s frothy fun with characters to love and hate, and it’s not boring. Written and directed by Sang-ho Yeon, who wrote and directed both Train to Busan and the animated prequel that led to it. (The hero, Dong-Won Gong, was in 1987: When The Day Comes but that was one of those movies where I was just struggling to figure out what was going on, so I didn’t recognize him here.)

Worth a watch. And our first post-pandemic movie!

It wasn't that bad. Lockdown has its uses.

Staring down The 5 freeway to get to the O.C.

Host

We were supposed to be opening up—well, hell, we were supposed to be opening up in April. (Remember that? in time for Easter!) But the latest “we were supposed to be opening up” was August 20th, at least for the movie theaters. The AMC has been taunting me with visions of a Train To Busan sequel, a Rocky marathon, hell, The Empire Strikes Back—the only good Star Wars movie (out of the 14) I will sometimes say if I want to start Internet fights.

Something about "humpng a doorknob".

Patches O’Houlihan probably felt the same about Internet debating and pandemic leadership as he did watching a bunch of Average Joes play dodgeball.

But as you may know, I live in Los Angeles, and we are to be punished at least until the election, and possibly after if the “elite” don’t get their way. So I drove around to the AMC, then to the Regal in Simi Valley, which is in Ventura County (or “God’s Country”) thinking that, at least might be relatively free of the stupid  but no luck.

I’ve been falling back on the horror streaming service, Shudder, more often, whether to watch Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In Show——the “Summer Sleepover” episode featured the classic Slumber Party Massacre 2 and the relatively recent (and delightfully old school) slasher Victor Crowley—or just to see what new stuff they have and what old stuff they’ve brought back. (I re-watched Dan Curtis’ Dracula, with Jack Palance as the Count, which I remember watching with my parents back when it came out nearly 29 years ago.) One of their new movies, however, was a clever little flick, recently made, called Host.

I'm not bitter. YOU'RE bitter.

Like every work teleconference, it’s starts out cheerful and ends with bloody murder.

The setup is just as ordinary as can be: A bunch of friends get together to have a seance and things go spooky.

Sure we’ve seen it before—a lot. But have we seen it done as a Zoom meeting?

That’s the gimmick: Everyone is locked down, so they decide to have the seance over Zoom. And the challenge level (production-wise) is that the cast and crew are genuinely locked down in the UK and therefore the actors had to do a lot of things on their own: lighting, make-up, special effects (except for the ones done in post), etc. And it’s actually surprisingly effective. Shudder recommends you watch it on your laptop with the lights out and I think a blanket draped over you and the screen. I didn’t go that far (because I’m not that big a goofball and also I don’t think inhaling your own CO2 is a great idea) but I did enjoy it.

It’s in the Paranormal Activity mode, though it benefits greatly from being only about an hour long, getting in, getting out, not explaining much, and just trading on the essential realism of the situation. At this point, we’ve all done these video meetings, and we’re familiar with the little tricks and idiosyncrasies, so it’s kind of nice to see them put to more creative uses, like scaring the crap out of people.

Heh.

The five girls have a male friend who’s supposed to take part, but none of them like his new wife/girlfriend.

Relative newcomers, the lot of them. Rob Savage is supposed to have a genuine feature coming out next year, called Seaholme, and I’ll be checking that out (if it pans out). The actresses are good-looking but not glammed up. You could genuinely get the idea that the actual actors (whose character names are their real names) just call each other up a lot and chat. There’s some good character development, though not overdone.

And about the time you’d start getting claustrophobic (in a bad way), it’s over.

It’s a fun little film, and a good example of making lemonade out of lemons.

At least they're not locked down any more.

Ten Little Indians: Lockdown Style

 

The Book Wasn’t Better

I just got through reading Fay Weldon’s 1983 feminist “classic”, The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, and it got me to thinking about revenge pictures. But then I started thinking about how the Meryl Streep/Roseanne Barr movie had little to do with it, and while basically forgettable, was almost certainly a better time than the nihilistic power-fantasy of the book. Like, I don’t remember the movie much, and if I were casting it from the descriptions in the book I’d be casting Jessica Lange or Jane Seymour across from Geena Davis (in 1988), or Kristin Bell and Gwendoline Christie today, but I do remember being pleasantly surprised by Streep’s comedy chops (normally I can’t stand her) and Barr’s sympathetic portrayal.

The book is not funny; it’s not fun. The number one word used to describe it is “wicked” and I tend to agree that that fits, if we emphasize more the medieval qualities of the word and less the modern campiness. In short, the book wasn’t better.

Which is a topic someone had brought up on Twitter recently: The book is always better, right? No, not even close. Insofar as you’re comparing apples and oranges, you can certainly measure the impact of a movie versus a book, and perhaps more importantly your own experience of the two. One need not look farther than Alfred Hitchcock to see an entire catalog of movies that were better than the books.

Not a fan.

Or, as my music prof David Raksin used to call him: “That fat, old man.”

For example, just prior to She Devil I had read Psycho, which is fine, solid book that the movie hews surprisingly close to—and which is a footnote in horror history compared to the movie. I mean, I could read it again easily—it’s a brisk 150 pages—but I almost can’t believe I won’t see the movie several more times in my life. Alongside The Exorcist, it typically ranks as the greatest horror movie of all time. It isn’t something I necessarily agree with, personally, but if we’re measuring impact, Psycho is the grandfather of every slasher movie for the past 60 years. And speaking of The Exorcist, is the book better? Maybe. But it also has nowhere near the impact of the movie, which is the grandfather of every possession move of the past 45 years.

Sometimes a movie follows the book very closely and comes out better, for whatever reason. I enjoyed Silence of the Lambs as a book, but was surprised at how little it added to the movie. I had heard that it goes more into the motivations and psychology of the two serial killers, but when reading it, I didn’t really get the sense I knew them any better. (By contrast, the book Psycho plays a lot more with Norman Bates’ psychology as part of justifying its unforunately-forever-spoiled-shock-ending.) Lambs is one of the great movies, but is Thomas Harris’ book going to join the canon of great books? Some classic noir exmaples: Double Indemnity practically reads like a screenplay for the Billy Wilder movie but I’d rather watch the movie. Laura minus a few twitchy details is fine but nowhere near the classic the film is.

And not at all Ed Gein.

The late Philip Seymour Hoffman fit, physically, the description of Norman Bates by Robert Bloch.

Sometimes a movie follows the book and improves on it by leaving out things that wouldn’t work in filming, but also are awful. The Godfather famously contains chapters devoted to one of the girl’s search for a penis that can fill her cavernous vagina. Jaws wisely leaves out the soap opera sexual dalliances and focuses on The Shark. Never Cry Wolf makes its main character likable—a tactic used by Jurassic Park, I’m told, and by many movie producers smart enough to realize hating someone for two hours doesn’t usually make for big box office.

Sometimes a book switches up quite a few things but manages to convey both the essence of the novel and qualities of the director to make something epic. Wizard of Oz has many of the qualities of the first book, in terms of tone and setting, though it diverges in a lot of major ways. (The Oz series is also wildly inconsistent from book to book.) Hayao Miyazaki manages to really capture the flavor of Howl’s Moving Castle while ultimately giving us something pure Miyazaki. I have to re-watch Hitchcock’s The Vanishing Lady—the movie that brought him to the attention of Hollywood—to decide if it falls into that category, because the novel is one of the greatest thrillers I have ever read. The many, many versions of the novel Dracula tend to fall into this category, which could be a topic unto itself. Ready Player One is probably best left unmentioned.

And so much!

Nobody appropriates culture like Miyazaki. So great.

And then sometimes a movie is so superficially connected to the book, it’s just a different thing. A classic example of this would be Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining which borrows everything from the Stephen King book except plot, atmosphere and characterizations. It’s also up there alongside of Psycho and The Exorcist on greatest-of-all-time lists. It is said that Philip Dick wept when he saw Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner because it was so exactly what he envisioned, but the script wasn’t even originally based on the novel, it shares none of the plot points, and the central thesis of the book, if actually applied to the movie, renders the movie a muddle. Still, it’s one of the greatest and most influential sci-fi films of the ’80s—though possibly just due to set design.

The Howling is a fairly typical ’70s horror paperback turned into a fun and campy practical effects spectacle, and there are many, many cases of so-so books being turned into so-so movies where the only connection between the two is mediocrity. What is perhaps most interesting is that following the book faithfully or abandoning it completely has no apparent bearing on the final quality, except to disappointed fans of the book.

What films do you love that exceed the book in some ways?

Dark comedy, you might call it.

I think the hole in his forehead is from when he gave Dee Wallace “a piece of [his] mind”.

Reviewing The New Classics

As we’ve been shut out of the theater since King Kong, and as the strategy seems to be to lock everything up tight until it’s completely destroyed, I’ve been taking to showing the family some of the movies I have seen (sometimes but not always with The Boy)—almost as sanity checks. Were these the good, sometimes great, films that I thought they were, or was my enjoyment unreasonably enhanced by being allowed to go outside? I mean, we saw Reptilicus live with a bunch of other MST3K fans (and the cast!), I came away with the impression it was one of the best episodes of any season of MST3K. I still think it’s strong, but I’m not sure about “best ever”. And of course SFX are better in theater, there are fewer distractions—the popcorn’s better at home, but I don’t think that impacts the viewing experience that much.

Too, these films are becoming increasingly more available to streaming services, filling some of the gap the shuttered “Drama Fever” streaming service once occupied, so it’s not such a big deal to find most of them these days, with some exceptions. This adventure actually started with Little Forest, because I had found it on YouTube. I don’t recommend watching it on YouTube (and it’s now on Amazon Prime), however, because it’s very low-res, probably to thwart the copyright gods, and it’s definitely meant to be beautiful to watch (beyond just starring Tae-Ri Kim, that is). One of the things we like to do around Casa ‘Gique is watch movies about food or featuring food prominently—while eating said food. (See also Deli Man and Jiro Dreams of Sushi.)

The girl nextdoor, if you live in Seoul.

Tae-Ri Kim, star of “The Handmaiden“, “Little Forest” and the upcoming “Space Sweepers”.

Little Forest is about a young woman, post-college, coming home from the city because it’s unfulfilling (lacking nourishment) and coming to grips with the mother that abandoned her immediately upon her graduation from high school. As she recalls the dishes her mother made, she comes to know her better through the lens of an adult, rather than a child. Just describing it, I feel like this should be a boring movie or one that’s potentially ponderous or melodramatic or overwrought. But it’s actually very charming and sweet and it went over well.

I followed up with Along With Gods (both The Two Worlds and The Last 49 Days), which I’ve seen 2 and three times respectively. This one I was concerned about because it’s special effects heavy. But I have maintained for quite some time, SFX are better when they’re done for aesthetic reasons, rather than trying for “realism” or to “fool the eye”—especially over time, because the eye learns and fast. The thing about these two movies is that they have a strong emotional content, and a strong ethical component. The characters take huge risks and stand up to a bureaucratic afterlife (get it wrong and go to hell!) all to do the right thing by their families. The “sequel” (which was filmed at the same time and is really just part of one sprawling story) may actually be better than the original, which relies just a bit too much on action. (We’re supposed to get #3 and #4 in the series next year.)

Next I went with Be With You (Prime). This one is about a man with a debilitating health problem and his son, whose wife has died and who comes back a year later for the rainy season—except that she doesn’t remember either of them. This movie is one that you get to what seems like the end and think, “Well, that’s solid. Good, not great.” And then there’s a 20 minute “stinger” that forces you to re-evaluate the whole thing. It has probably the strongest “pro-life” message I’ve seen in a movie, without ever going near the topic of abortion at all.

So outré!

Wait, a family drama that’s all about mom and dad being in love and taking care of their son? What kind of transgressive crap is this?

Up till now, I’d been showing things that were pretty easy to get, but the best new comedy I’d seen in years was Detective Chinatown 2, and I was curious as to how it would hold up on a second view. But here’s the rub: This is not a movie you can stream. Or buy for that matter—at least not from American sources. The comedy is ridiculously broad with “racist” and “homophobic” stereotypes—part of why I loved it—and I’m pretty comfortable thinking that this is why you can’t see it here easily. But I ordered a copy—from Malaysia! which is how I get around modern censorship—and it went over huge. Not only did I like it on a second view, everyone did, to the point where they wanted to re-watch it (because besides being goofy fast-talking fun, it has a fairly hardcore mystery plot about a serial killer). Detective Chinatown 3 has been was supposed to come out last February but some plague turned the world population into vampires and only I remain.

Shadow (Netflix) was an easy choice. It’s so amazingly beautiful, it doesn’t need much else. But there’s a good, strong plot that feels operatic or Shakespearean (King Lear, not Midsummer Night’s Dream). By far the most confusing part of this tale of courtly intrigue and martial arts are the great performances by Chao Deng, who plays two characters who are supposed to look alike, and it can drive you nuts because both are played by Deng but they look and act nothing alike. Zhang Yimou (Hero, House of Flying Daggers) has a real knack for turning martial arts soap opera into high art.

Haley Mills laughed at that.

Chao Deng and Chao Deng in…The Parent Trap!

Then I took another gamble: Fengshui (Prime), which is another courtly drama taking place at the end of Joeseon era, which means they’re all wearing the same clothes and have the same facial hair. It’s like trying to figure out L.A. Confidential, or any random ’50s movie where everyone’s got the suit and the slicked-back hair. It’s also about geomancy and the integrity of a lone geomancer standing against a crooked court (naturally) but we still had the same reaction to it, which was, “You really feel like you’ve watched a movie.”

None of these movies have high IMDB ratings. They’re all 6s and low 7s at best. And yet, you really feel like you’ve watched a movie when you’ve watched these. That you’ve seen characters who have interests and struggles, that their actions have made sense—if not in terms of reaching their goals, then in terms of the traits that interfere with getting there. That the filmmakers don’t actively hate you, and everything you hold dear.

You know, all that corny biz about people helping each other, and girls wanting to get married and have families, and that having value apart from any career they might have, and standing up against “the experts”, and loving your country? All that stuff we’re only capable of doing ironically in this country? It’s absolutely sincere in these films. I called this “The New Clsasics” tongue-in-cheek, but if I understand what persists in art—what makes it classic—I may not be far off.

Check ’em out.

A guy who thinks he's crazy is actually the only sane one.

We watched Animal World next. It’s almost the anti-“Joker“.

 

Meru

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, on the three point scale:

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

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

You do it. I'm bitter.

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

King Kong (1933)

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

Gettin' old.

Pictured: Epidemiologists snacking on the economy.

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

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

That's SO five minutes ago!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, I guess we’ll see.

So Sue Me.

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

Loving Vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me, anyway.

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

1945

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

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

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

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

The resolution was satisfying, basically, but not surprising.

These look like suspicious characters, don't they?

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

2018 Year In Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrible still.

“I’ve grown accustomed to her face…”

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

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

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

Best Animated Feature

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

Best Crime Drama

Gosnell: America’s Biggest Serial Killer

Best Musical

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

Best Action

Along With Gods: The Last 49 Days

Best Historical Drama

The Princess and the Matchmaker

Best Romance

Till The End of the World

Best Romantic Comedy

How Long Will I Love U

Best Slice-Of-Life

Tie: Little Forest/Champion

Increasingly simple.

Simpler times.

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

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

 

The Whistlers

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

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

Yeeow.

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

Damned if I know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely but menacing.

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

Beasts That Cling To The Straw

I thought the title of this Korean thriller was Beasts Clawing At Straws but sometimes these translations are a bit fuzzy. We ended up going to see it because it was too far a trek to see Closet not at a 8PM showing. The Flower wanted to see Closet, which features actors she recognizes from other Korean films (she’s better at that than The Boy and I are), but this looked like it might have elements of a revenge picture, and she never wants to see another Korean revenge picture.

It’s not, but this thriller is still fairly in that category of films where the activities you’ve been entertained by for the past two hours are things you should never ever do. Exploitation, essentially, though classy when the Koreans do it, maybe.

The Korean uniform of "bad girl".

If she’s dressed like this, she’s trouble.

There are three stories told in an interlocking manner: A man who works at a sauna comes across a bag full of money; A customs officer who owes money to a loan shark after he lent it to his wandering girlfriend is trying to scam a bunch of money off an old friend who obtained it illegally, and; A woman with an abusive husband finds a patsy to kill the husband so she can collect his insurance.

It’s a tale of twists and turns, as you might imagine and, as you might also predict, the money all three are chasing is the same. The other thing you might predict is that they’re all worse human beings than you initially believed. And still another thing that might fall into the “predictable” category is that the money almost seems supernaturally cursed, by the end. This isn’t done with coincidence, mind you: It’s just that the forces involved with this money are nihilistically destructive and single-minded.

He's still dressed better than most people I see.

All you gotta do is look at the guy to know he has his act together.

The sauna guy is the closest thing to a hero, here.  (From my experience with Asian films, sauna custodian is the lowest rung of the ladder for employment.) He’s trying to keep his household afloat with sauna money, which ain’t great. He has no respect from his wife or daughter, but he’s honest and diligent while working for a boss who accuses him of every nasty thing, including stealing snacks.  His mother, who lives with him and hates his wife, has dementia and his boss has no sympathy for his lateness and fires him.

So, you can sorta see why this guy would be tempted, and you sorta feel like, well, if anyone’s going to have the money, it might as well be him. On the other hand, the only thing this guy really has (besides his humble house) is his integrity. So, you’re kind of rooting for him, if nothing else than to do the right thing.

Actually, you root for a number of the characters as they go along. Like our customs officer, apart from being a lowlife loser, is actually a kind of devil-may-care rambling guy whose bold gambling really pays off—or would, if he weren’t surrounded by other lowlife losers. It’s easy to have sympathy for an abused wife, although said sympathy tends to evaporate when her way out ends up leading to a lot of…unpleasantness. Though it sort of surges again when…

Well, look, there’s a lot of twists, as I said.

A fun, little, nasty debut movie from Yong-Hoon Kim. Check it out!

Relatable, you see.

Bags o’ cash are probably the best MacGuffins.

 

The Man Standing Next

Back in the O.C. and avoiding seeing the Korean horror flick Closet because The Flower wanted to see that as well, I opted for this Korean thriller based on the death of their dictator in 1979. I always feel a little bad on these historical dramas when they cross over into American history, as this one did, because the movie’s all “This is a BIG deal in the United States” but I never remember the events. I honestly wasn’t aware that Korea had a dictator prior to the dictator they overthrew in 1987: When The Day Comes. Piecing it together, I guess they had some poor sap running the joint from 1979-1987, who was different from the guy running it from 1960-1979, with the only commonality being they had to hate The Communism.

America did a poor job messing around in these things. It’s all about hating The Communism, which is certainly necessary but hardly sufficient.

But, tbf, that's where we all knew it from.

The look you get when you say “I mostly know Korea from M*A*S*H.”

Anyway, this is more Korean myth-building and once again they do a fine, fine job. Here you have a story about corruption at the highest level of government—far more thorough than even the corruption portrayed in the Joeson dramas—but even though our main character is an assassin who ends up killing the leader and throwing the country into chaos, he is the undisputed hero of the tale.

The interesting thing, I suppose, is the recognition that there are degrees of dictators. The Left despises Pinochet, for example, alone among all dictators, but as we learned with No, to get rid of him they…just had to hold an election that he lost and he stepped down. As opposed to the kind of dictators the Left loves, who only step down when murdered.

I barely remember this movie.

This the man. He’s standing. And he’s next.

But this story is interesting because our dictator, while bad, isn’t the worst. There is some freedom in Korea and the problem comes when civil unrest results in riots, and the dictator decides to go along with his more iron-fisted, murderous advisers, figuring a few million dead countrymen is better than not being in control of the country. Our dictator’s primary gag seems to be to (obliquely) tell one of his advisers to terminate a problem with extreme prejudice, then to hold them up as criminal and traitorous for having done so.

It’s entertaining. There are little bits of interest that stand out. Our hero is the head of the Korean CIA which is known as…the KCIA. Heh. Parts of the movie take place in France and my old man’s beloved Citroens are everywhere.

This is the sort of movie that would’ve lost the kids, but I mostly did pretty well following along. I confused a couple of characters early on. And there was a point where someone has to die, and there are two factions duking it out for who gets to kill him. The hero goes through a lot of trouble to make sure his team pulls it off even though, at that point, he must’ve known it was going to be his death knell. Then again, maybe he didn’t know that but then why be so adamant to be the one who did do it?

I don’t know how close it is to the real thing, but as I said, it’s a good myth. The Korean notion that there’s always one man willing to sacrifice everything to straighten out their perpetually flanged-up government isn’t a bad one. I liked it, but I was sorry in retrospect to have missed Closet.

Pre Tienamen.

“Just admiring my parking job.” (Double-parking a tank is either very challenging or very easy.)

(Note, this was pre-Covid, February 22, 2020.)

The Art of Allusion, or: I Get That Reference

I was enjoying an episode of “Mystery, Incorporated”—and believe me, I could do an extensive essay on how neatly “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” fits in with the works of 18th century gothic romance maven, Mrs. Radcliffe—and musing on three references you don’t necessarily expect to find in a kid’s TV show: Cast AwayMad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and Aguirre: Wrath of GodFitzcarraldo. The last is both the most obscure and most integral to the series story arc, involving conquistadors who drag a boat full of gold over a mountain, creating the Curse of Crystal Cove (the Big Mystery the gang solves over two seasons). These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only references in the episode, most obviously the “Night on Bald Mountain” segment of Fantasia, and homages to “The Munsters” (or maybe “The Twilight Zone”) and “Deadwood”.

My blog. My opinion.

Scooby went with a hotter looking demon. IMO.

Not surprising for a show that’s oriented around the obscure ’90s doomsday theory of Nibiru and which borrows from H.P. Lovecraft, “Twin Peaks”, The Warriors, Marlon Brando’s The Wild OneProm Night IIBlood Beach, Terminator and on and on, and which is stuffed with myriad callbacks from previous incarnations of the show, like Don Knotts, Scatman Caruthers, Vincent Price and Scrappy-Doo (“We all promised we would never speak of him!”). What is surprising, perhaps, is how enjoyable it all is.

By contrast, one of the most loathsome books I’ve read in the past few years is Ready Player One. I read it as part of the bad book club/podcast 372 Pages We’ll Never Get Back, but I had assumed that it would be fun trash, maybe not on the level of Tarzan or Conan, but at least on par with, say, some lesser graphic novels. But this New York Times bestselling book contains entire passages of nothing but lists of ’80s movies and video games. Rather than making me nostalgic for a decade I barely remember (being not quite 29), it made me rather embarrassed, forcing me to re-evaluate mildly pleasant past times as, perhaps, a huge waste of my youth. But a lot of people—intelligent people, I swear—claim to have enjoyed the book, so it must have provided some kind of pleasant stimulation.

It’s not just someone like Cline (who seems to be incapable of writing) who can fall for this kind of thing. Much more literary and erudite examples can be found in the poetry of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury, who is at times my favorite author, writes some cringeworthy stuff calling out the great Romantic poets.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000″—and all of its cultural inheritors, from direct clones like “Cinematic Titanic” and “Rifftrax”, to game play-throughs and other YouTube-based meta-commentary—is based heavily on referencing—alluding to—things the audience will associate with ostensibly unrelated imagery. (MST3K just lapped itself by doing a live riff of an old episode. In other words, they had the new cast riff the old cast.) This is popular enough to be a cottage industry, though the quality surely follows Sturgeon’s law.

Meta.

The new Tom, Gypsy, Crow and the charming Emily Marsh in the “Joel” role, seen here riffing the original Joel, Tom and Crow.

Airplane!, the classic that redefined movie comedy, was almost entirely references to other things, including—intriguingly enough—being a direct lift of Zero Hour, a movie which was not that well known. Over the next 30 years, this formula would be repeated, finely honed and refined to make some of the least funny movies ever made.

One fascinating cultural change over the past 60 years is alluding to Jesus and Christianity: Provocateurs used to be able say something blasphemous or borrow the iconography for their art/horror/comedy film and get a little boost. These days the audience seems to be cleanly divided between those who yawn at such stuff for hackery, and those who have such a vague idea of any of it that it doesn’t really give any kind of boost (pace Dan Brown).

It's a sign!

If you don’t know Western Civilization, you’re not really in on the joke.

As consumers (and creators) of art, it seems that the technique of allusion is one of the trickiest ones to handle. Just as it is impossible to not “appropriate culture”, it is impossible to not reference other things. The forms we use for our art (landscapes, fugues, novels, sitcoms) all have grown out of past experiences. Our language is allusion to the real world. Ceci n’est pas une pipe applies not only to paintings of pipes, but all communications involving pipes. (And don’t even get me started on music, where serious composers would suddenly insert the equivalent of “Shave and a Haircut” or “Pop! Goes The Weasel” into the middle of their serious symphony.)

So, what’s the difference between good allusion and bad allusion? Ultimately, it’s whatever works for you, even if it’s (shudder) massive lists of ’80s movie titles. But the references (allusions!) above made me realize what doesn’t work for me: Even if I have fond memories of spending hours with my dad playing “Colossal Cave”, a mere reference to it—especially one made with a broad, cheerleading “WASN’T THAT GREAT!” attached—repulses me. A reference to something better (think of every shark movie that reference Jaws) tends to irritate me. A reference to something better that’s also critical is cold death. And an obvious reference—one that’s pervasive throughout the culture—tends to be tiring. (Kevin Smith’s “Star Wars” bits in his movies were quite amusing back in the ’90s, now if “Star Wars” vanished from the world entirely, I would not miss it.)

But if we look at Airplane! and “Mystery, Incorporated!” and, as I was writing this, I was thinking of those old Warner Bros cartoons I loved as a kid which were just gags based around long dead celebrities I barely recognized, if at all. And while most kids (most people!) haven’t seen Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Zero Hour or—hell, these days, how many people get the Folger’s Crystals, or the Saturday Night Fever, or the Howard-freakin’-Jarvis jokes in Airplane!?

It seems pretty simple: If you’re bringing something to the table that’s excellent and original, you can borrow more from others. In other words, the less you need to rely on mere recognition of past things (ref. again the latest Star Wars trilogy), the more enjoyment the audience will get from a well placed allusion. Those who are not aware of your references can still enjoy what you’ve made while those who speak the same language will enjoy it that much more.

Fite me.

On the left, the best “Star Wars” movie. On the right, the best “Star Trek” movie.

Picture credits:

  1. (left) Fantasia, “Night on Bald Mountain”; (right) “Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated” episode “Night on Haunted Mountain”
  2. “The MST3K LIVE Social Distancing Riff-Along Special”
  3. Monty Python’s The Life of Brian
  4. (left) Spaceballs; (right) Galaxy Quest

Drink Entire: Against The Madness Of Crowds

(NOTE: You guys have asked in the past for links to the movie(s) referenced in a review. I put something together which I’ll post in the comments.)

It would be easy, nay, even hacky to prepare a “pandemic movie watching list”. Fear of widespread disease arose in the wake of post-WWII nuclear holocaust fears, thanks (as always) to our always media’s tireless reliance on monetizing panic . IMDB’s earliest movie tagged with #pandemic is actually a British comedy from 1961 about smallpox of all things. (Smallpox was a big topic in the ’70s and ’80s because the disease had been eliminated except for lab samples, and the provocative question of the time was “should those be destroyed”?) It stars that epitome of Englishness Terry-Thomas and the always hot Honor Blackman (who would’ve been 95 this August had she not passed last week). It’s called A Matter Of Who, if you want to track it down.

Seems fair.

Terry-Thomas for the ladies. Sonja Ziemann for the guys.

Of course, you can’t really trust IMDB taggers for much: The second earliest film tagged is Charlton Heston’s Omega Man which is ten years later meaning people tagged the 1971 film without noting its predecessor, Vincent Price’s Last Man On Earth. Last year’s remake of Rabid is noted but not David Cronenberg’s 1977 seminal body-horror original.

Then there’s the whole question of what constitutes a movie about a pandemic in the first place. The highest rated film on the list is 12 Monkeys, by Terry Gilliam (whom we will revisit) which is more of a time-travel film. Next is the competently dopey Children of Men—a chase movie at heart. The 2016 Korean horror Train To Busan is essentially a zombie film, and a bunch of films fall into that particular rubric, like the 28 Days and Resident Evil series, Jim Mickle’s early effort Mulberry Street, and on and on. Hell, Color Out Of Space is basically a movie about the start of a pandemic. Pretty soon, you’re pulling in 1984’s Night of the Comet—the only post-apocalyptic film I am aware of with a dressing-in-different-outfits montage—and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

For my money, it’s not really about the disease unless people are getting gross (a la Rabid) and/or the focus is on curing and containing, like The Andromeda Strain or Soderbergh’s Contagion (in which a slutty Gwyneth Paltrow dooms us all, as many have predicted).

What's in the box!?! Gwyneth Paltrow's head. Oh, okay, then.

Admit it. You knew it would be her. (Also, I just learned they used the fake head made for Se7en in Contagion which is cool.)

But to be honest, this isn’t my favorite category of movie.

The thing is, a pandemic doesn’t serve up great narratives. You can treat it like a disaster movie—have disparate people thrown together by a crisis—and could be enjoyable on that level, but unlike a disaster movie the opportunities for visually entertaining physical peril are limited. I mean, you could have a disease that struck suddenly and end up with pilots or engineers suddenly passing out, sorta like zombie movies do. But in a movie about a disease, humans should be pretty aligned in wiping it out and controlling the spread and so on. Which, being far from true in a way that is comitragically on display in our current situation brings me to a kind of movie that really does interest me: Movies about the dynamics of crowds.

Let me elaborate on what I mean by that through contrast. The big Disney animations of the ’90s and ’00s were all about the main character. The movies, bad or good, were incredibly narcissistic. I have to be me! (The reasons for this then and the consequences now are too obvious to cover here.) By contrast, the Pixar movies (arguably excepting The Incredibles) of the same time period were starkly about the consequences of pursuing selfish interests (even with the best of intentions) on the group. Ultimately, Woody and Flick and Lightning all have to learn to temper their individual desires with consideration for others. (Unlike Ariel and Jasmine and Pocahontas who have to make the stupid outside world see the error of their ways.)

Back when the current panic was getting into full swing, I was reminded of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and put up a mini-thread on Twitter. Besides being an aesthetically pleasing and fun movie, the framing device for all the various Gotham-esque tales—and the Wise Men of Gotham and those related stories fit in neatly into a discussion of crowd dynamics—is that of a rational, reasonable, official expert in things who assures the people of the city that they should remain frightened and behind the walls of the city or The Turk will get them!

NEVER!

I will never tire of this Uma Thurman sequence.

Meanwhile, the Baron is recounting the story of exactly how he made The Turk so angry, and how he ultimately defeated the Turk and how, therefore, The Turk is no longer there. The Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson, who never once shows a drop of fear at the constant bombardment of the Turk at the city walls, becomes panicked at the notion that the people will look beyond the walls themselves. The authority, the expert, the establishment that sells its people out to the enemy has only one fear: That people will look for themselves.

Normally in movies, though, communities and crowds are little more than props, either scared or angry or gullible, or some mix of all three. The lynch mob of The Ox-Bow Incident or the munchkins under the thumb of the Wicked Witches East and West. Springfield of “The Simpsons” (speaking of the Wise Men of Gotham) tends to add lazy and incompetent to the mix—but of course in many cases they’re directly parodying classic mobs like those found in The Music Man and It’s A Wonderful Life.

IAWAL shows the community scared, turning it around at the end to show strength and, after a fashion, a kind of debt-paying to the Baileys. Another Capra film, It Happened One Night shows a random bus crowd that’s cheerful—a scene recalled humorously by Planes, Trains and Automobiles. And, come to think of it, I’m always reminded of the final scene of IAWAL by Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, where a post-9/11 New York City crowd bands together at a critical moment to stand up to much more powerful forces.

In the ’50s, you had communist and anti-communist ideologies waging war on screen. Spartacus showed the power of banding together to defy authority—and I must constantly remind myself that Marxists view themselves as anti-authoritarian—while High Noon showed…well, honestly, I never have been able to figure out what High Noon was trying to get across. Something like “the masses won’t help you save even their own skins”? On the flip side, there’s Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront, which has a more sophisticated take on crowd dynamics and the urge of people to do good, generally, and how that can be corrupted and restored. Roger Corman’s only serious film (and rare money-loser) The Intruder shows a racist William Shatner firing up crowds down south in 1962.

But that didn't work out so they went for making the dosh.

Corman and Shatner were serious artists in 1962.

Probably one of my favorite places for crowd dynamics is horror: Not zombies, because zombies are expressly inhuman. Sure, they’re metaphors for mindless consumerism or whatever that old hippie Romero was getting at, but I’m thinking more like when a superficially functional society is actually populated by supernatural horrors. Although edited into hash, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’ Messiah of Evil has scenes that I still find disturbing: People eating directly out of the meat area at a grocery store, a howling mob of business men in suits, a theater that slowly fills up with ghouls, and so on.

John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness (which recalls elements of Messiah) has elements of this along with the recurring Carpenterian theme of large masses of entities with menacing but vaguely defined purposes (Assault on Precint 13, The Fog, Prince of Darkness). Richard Kelly’s fascinatingly awful The Box, where a couple can receive a million dollars if they open a box but a random person will die as a result. Reality as they know it starts to fray as a consequence of their actions. Kelley’s breakthrough film, Donnie Darko also has interesting group dynamics—in essence being about how the world perceives Donnie versus the reality of Donnie’s impact on the world.

Ultimately, I think the crowd dynamic reveals a lot about…well, everyone: The clumsy filmmaker reveals himself by how he views his fellow man, and perhaps it’s not focused on as much as I’d like because it’s so easy to get wrong and have the audience laugh at or reject a crowd reaction. But when done well it can add an extra dimension to films that can’t be achieved any other way.

AND CROSSFIT!

WE’RE KETO!

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 modern lynching isn’t much different from the old kind, even if the TV cameras make the hanging unnecessary, and the lynchee doesn’t care how “woke” his assailants are.

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 chance 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.