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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
First he takes revenge. Then he sets up his harm 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.
“Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin and I was off on the greatest adventure of my life!”
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.
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.
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, 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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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?
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 Comes, The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.