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.


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.)


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).


“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?)


“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.)


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.


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.



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.



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 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 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.)


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.


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!)


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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).


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.


“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?


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.


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:


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.


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.


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.”


'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.


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.


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.


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“.



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.


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?


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.


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!


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.



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.


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.


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.



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)


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Eventually I'll pick it up, right?

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

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

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

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

She's cute.

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

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

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

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

Which one is Sandra Bullock?

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe that's how they do it in Korea.

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

Forbidden Dream

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

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

Nothing but Star Bros.

Star bros.

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

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

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

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

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

And he can.


Early Asian electronics.

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

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

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

Hocus pocus.

Korean movie medieval science labs look very wizardy.

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

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

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

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

Would the Korean AAA be the KKK?

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

Ip Man 4

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

Man, there’s a lotta Ips.

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

And that's WHY everyone was Kung Fu fighting.

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

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

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

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

They're tough for actors.

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

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

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

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

As an appetizer..

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

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

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

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

So there's that.

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

Uncut Gems

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

And he gets it.

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

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

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

And a Playboy bunny according to search engines.

Fox is good. And cute.

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

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

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

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

And again.

About to do something stupid. Again.

Richard Jewell

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

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

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

Sam deserves ALL the Oscars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sic transit gloria movie.

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

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

That’s bound to create some distortion.

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

I mean, femme fatale 101.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sucks.

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

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

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

That’s as scary as it is true.

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

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

Fake news is not new.

If only we could run lie detectors on the news.


The Two Popes

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


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

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

So we gave up.

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

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

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

Not a thing.

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

Should have skipped it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

No Safe Spaces

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

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

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

She's great.

The great Sharyl Atkisson shows up.

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

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

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

I mean.

I cannot honestly fathom being intimidated by Ben Shapiro.

On the three-point scale:

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

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

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

Lookin' at you, Levin.

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

Citizen K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not us.

Beatific? Megalomania? Who knows?

White Snake

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

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

It's close, though.

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

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

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

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

No mister better come between 'em.


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

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

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

We were glad we saw it.

Tough row to hoe.

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


Jojo Rabbit

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

I mean, serious camping.

Taika on an unrelated camping trip.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jews are always being difficult by not dying and stuff.

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

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

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

It didn't work out, I understand.

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


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

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

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

A rabbi who's out standing in his field.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

But fun!

Fat stacks of cash are the root of all evil.

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

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

Which brings us to The Bicycle Thief.

Miracles and wonder.

We live in wondrous times.

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

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

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

So many skinny hungry Italian dudes.

Don’t worry guys! It’s two thumbs up!

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

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

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

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

As you do.

Contemplating prosperity at the pawn shop.

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

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

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

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

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

Go on. Palp it.

The intensity is palpable.

God of the Piano

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

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


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

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

Only the child is deaf.

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

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

Stunning! Brave!

The morning after a stunning and brave adulterous affair.

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

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

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

And…roll credits.

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

She doesn't look quite happy.

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

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

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

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

That, to me, felt like a cheat.

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

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

I mean, they all look like Winston Churchill.

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

The Godfather II (1974)

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

Robert DeNiro would've made a good wicked witch.

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

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

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

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

Not without reason, of course.

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

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

So good!


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

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

He's a patriot.

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

Tel Aviv on Fire

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

Let's watch!

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

40+ years ago

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

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

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

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

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

It's delightfully cheesy.

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

The Addams Family (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess it never gets old.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Empowering <> funny

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

The Tingler (1959)

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


It’s mostly black-and-white.

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

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

Tingle with me!

The tingler attacks the projectionist IN YOUR VERY THEATER!

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

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

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

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

Maybe a lot.

OK, maybe it’s a little campy.

Them! (1954)

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

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

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


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

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

It's funnier in GSI, of course.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

No danger at all.

Sandy Drescher protects herself from The Tingler.


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

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

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

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

Gonna get dark.

Our protagonists.

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

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

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

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

Rehearsing their backstory.

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

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

And a little bit titillated.

Our credulous wealthy couple.

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

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

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

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

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

It seems to be that childish.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future

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

Paprika next!

Mining the distant moon of Curry Powder.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

And yet.

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

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

That's where I hide my porn.

All the worlds are yours, save Europa.

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

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

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

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

And it may have been.

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

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

On the three point scale:

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

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

The Boy and I liked it!

But this is cool.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental stability is orthogonal to comedy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or it would have outsold "Deep Throat".

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombieland: Double Tap

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

And she's prettier here, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zombie apocalypses make people horny.

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

Alien (1979)

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

Is it cliché to do a "Mondays" joke?

Ugh. Mondays, am I right?

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

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

Kung Fu Hustle

That’s a big hand.

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

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

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

Thank you, Grampa Simpson.

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

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

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

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

'cause he's Nigerian, see...

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

An Accidental Studio

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

Bob Hoskins is small in stature.

And English things. Art and English things.

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

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

Fame and power are not for everyone.

With mastermind Denis O’Brien.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The problem! It's coming back!"

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

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

So, on the three-point documentary scale:

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

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


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

Rambo: Last Blood

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

The only way you can.

Stallone deals with a critic.

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

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

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

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

Animals aren't that vicious.

Pictured: Not animals.

Unjust, even.

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

Big mistake.

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

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

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

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

He's not forging his own axe, though.

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

Double Indemnity (1944)

“No pigeons, I hope.”

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

Casually act?

“Act casually…”

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

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

I mean.

You say you got domestic problems?

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


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

Laura (1944)

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

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

So great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously you should see it. Again.

But I'm not sure I agree with myself.

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

How Rednecks Saved Hollywood

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


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

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

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


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


O.G. Redneck

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

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

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

I ask ya!

Who wouldn’t be proud of Jubilation T Cornpone?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

I mean.

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

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

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


Moviegique says “check it out”!

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

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

Oh, Rita.

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

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

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

I don't even drink.

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

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

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

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

Unabashed drama.

Lotta great shots.

Along With Gods: The Two Worlds

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

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

I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

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

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

But wait, there’s more!

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

Like Julie! Remember Julie? No?

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

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

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

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

I mean, he’s a paragon, right?

I'm stretching the metaphor a lot.

And this is the cruise boat, basically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And kick ass.

They’re both really cute, tbf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or lives, I suppose.

Defending your life.

The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


She’s got some dirt on her face. Ew.

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

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

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

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

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

Tough to get good Korean stills.

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

Freaks (2019)

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

But enough about me.

So I sound-proofed it.

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

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

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

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

Or possbily anything anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's a mountain?

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

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

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

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

Every time.

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

Ne Zha

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

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

You WANT to do the right thing.

Lookin’ innocent.

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

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

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

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

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

Hairy like a Chinese dragon.

Buckle up, this is gonna get hairy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The fire demon's the good guy.

I mean, who to root for?

Line Walker 2: The Invisible Spy

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

Very Bondian.

Car chase + bulls. Brilliant, really.

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

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

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

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

Mayhem ensues.

Eventually, however!

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

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

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

The music is good.

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

Where do you start?

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

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

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

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

Tell me I'm wrong.

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