a woman, a gun and a noodle shop (zhang yimou, 2009)

In 2009, Zhang Yimou’s recent filmography included such movies as the Oscar-nominated historical adventure Hero and House of Flying Daggers, both nominated for Oscars. Steve Fore had some smart and pointed critiques of Hero in the comments thread. He noted that his early-90s films were Zhang at his peak, but after that, he seemed to succumb to the desire to please the Chinese leaders. He wrote, “House of Flying Daggers, is Hero lite, a deliberately ‘entertainment’-oriented martial arts action movie that all but screams ‘NO POLITICS HERE, NO SIRREE BOB.’”

The point is, I’m thinking of Zhang for his epic adventures, but he may have already spilled over to the entertainment side of film making by 2009. Which better explains why he made A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop.

This movie is a remake of the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. He dumps the plot into an earlier century, in China, but it is recognizably Blood Simple. To be honest, I saw the Coens’ movie so long ago I barely remember it, but I’ll take everyone’s word that Zhang is taking off on the American movie.

To be sure, I don’t see what the point is of this remake, but an artist goes where their muse leads them, I guess. The film looks great, as all Zhang’s films do. But I like to have something besides pretty pictures when I watch a movie. A Woman contains a lot of slapstick, which isn’t normally my cup of tea. I never shook the feeling that some of the humor was funnier if you were part of Chinese culture. The actors who perform most of the slapstick just annoyed me. The twists and turns of the plot didn’t interest me.

The best things I can say about A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop is that it wasn’t made for me, so YMMV. But my mileage says 5/10.

anything goes (robert lewis, 1956)

Musical with a nice pedigree, but it falls flat. In the 1930s, the play, with Ethel Merman, ran for more than a year. A movie came out in 1936 with Merman and Bing Crosby. Twenty years later, here comes the remake, and Bing Crosby is back. But the plot has nothing to do with the original. In fact, other than the title, the two movies have only one thing in common: several Cole Porter songs. Bing Crosby, Cole Porter, Donald O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor ... what could go wrong?

Well, this movie is dreary. Everyone seems to be going through the motions. You get Porter classics like “Anything Goes” and “I Get a Kick Out of You”, but not much else. Zizi Jeanmaire does a ballet number that stops the show, and I don’t mean in a good way. The plot, a farce about love, lacks sizzle, which makes sense when one of the couples of Bing (53 years old) and Zizi (32 years old).

Gaynor is the best thing about the movie, the only person with a pulse. I’m reminded of a Randy Newman article in Rolling Stone back in the early 70s.

Once he went to see Liza Minnelli rehearse a TV dance number, and after it was over she asked him how he liked it.

"You were a real Mitzi Gaynor out there," he replied, an assessment that apparently did not impress Liza. "But I always liked Mitzi Gaynor," Randy explained later with a shrug.

The great Glenn “DVD Savant” Erickson points out that the best film version of the song “Anything Goes” remains the opening scene from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom:

Here is the whole movie, if for some reason you are dying to see it:


music friday: happy daily mix

From Daily Mix 2. No comments this week ... I wrote last night (4/20), and was in no shape to come up with words.

Etta James, “Tell Mama.”

Otis Redding, “That’s How Strong My Love Is.”

Ben E. King, “Stand by Me.”

The Impressions, “It’s All Right.”

Jimmy Reed, “You Got Me Dizzy.”

Isaac Hayes, “Theme from Shaft.”

The Ohio Players, “Skin Tight.”

Professor Longhair, “Cry to Me.”

Stevie Wonder, “Superstition.”

Otis Rush, “I’m Satisfied.”

throwback thursday, new blu-ray player edition

Got a new Blu-ray player yesterday. Everyone streams nowadays, so you can get Blu-ray players for cheap. To test it out, I watched a favorite of mine, Don’t Look Now. I wrote a fairly long post on this four years ... it was a request at the time. It’s worth reading, including the comments section:

By Request: Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).

I got the Blu-ray just after I’d watched it for the above post, which is why it sat unopened for four years. It looks and sounds great, no surprise since it’s a Criterion release. I still love this movie after many viewings over the years.

Even though the new player is mostly functional and lacking many bells and whistles, it has many more features than my old Panasonic that served me well for so long. Most of those bells and whistles are irrelevant to me ... you can watch Netflix and Amazon and all that stuff, but I already have a Roku box, a Chromecast dongle, and an Amazon Fire Stick, so I don’t really need that. The one improvement that I’ve already taken advantage of is Bluetooth. I listened to the movie on Bluetooth headphones. It worked fine, and I didn’t have to worry about being too loud while my wife was working down stairs.

godzilla’s revenge (ishirô honda, 1969)

The title has nothing to do with the movie, and it would probably be better to use an alternate English title, All Monsters Attack, which is at least closer to what we see on the screen.

I’m sure many people think all of those old Japanese Godzilla movies are equally bad, with perhaps a nod to the original, which is actually a fine movie. Well, even fans of the movies tend to agree that Godzilla’s Revenge is the worst Japanese-made Godzilla movie of all time. Just think of how bad some of those movies are, and then try to imagine the depths to which Godzilla’s Revenge must go to take the title of Worst Ever.

For instance:

The fight scenes among the monsters are footage from earlier Godzilla movies (and not necessarily the best ones). Godzilla does not go on a rampage in a city with a large population. He lives on something called “Monster Island”.

“Monster Island” doesn’t actually exist ... it’s a place the hero, Ichirô, dreams about when he sleeps.

Thus, none of the monsters, including Godzilla, are “real” within the context of the film’s universe.

Ichirô is a latchkey kid who lacks parental advice because they are always working, and who is regularly bullied by the other kids.

When Ichirô dreams of Monster Island, he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, who speaks, thus allowing them to have conversations where Son of Godzilla explains that his dad is trying to teach him not to be a coward.

When Ichirô is awake, he uses his dream memories to emulate Little Godzilla, finally getting the courage to fight back against the bullies.

Oh, there’s also a plot about two bank robbers that are captured thanks to Ichirô.

Seriously, this is one awful movie. And I confess, I watched it on our DVD copy. Yes, I own Godzilla’s Revenge. 2/10.

13 reasons why

[Spoilers aplenty]

To get the basics out of the way (and if you are reading this, you know the basics, so this isn’t really a spoiler), 13 Reasons Why tells the story of Hannah Baker, a high-school student and recent suicide who left behind a box of cassette tapes that she recorded just before she killed herself. Each side consists of Hannah singling out someone who is in some way one of the 13 reasons. There are seven tapes ... the B-side of the seventh tape is blank, because she only needs 13 sides to tell the story. The subject of the first tape gets the box of tapes and listens to them all, after which they give the box to the subject of the second tape, who etc etc until all thirteen subjects have heard all of the tapes. The person who has the box throughout the series is Clay Jensen, and as he listens to the tapes (one per episode ... yes, there are 13 episodes to the series), we get flashbacks to the events on the tapes.

The performances are solid from top to bottom, but two actors are most important. Dylan Minnette plays Clay, and he is equal measures sympathetic and irritating, which is entirely appropriate for the part. The should-be-star-making role of Hannah goes to a newcomer from Australia, Katherine Langford, and she is the best thing about the show.

13 Reasons Why does a great job of showing the endless trauma of attending high school, where awful big things happen occasionally, but where mostly awful little things happen every single day. If you aren’t one of the cool kids, you’re screwed. Many of us got through high school by becoming part of a subculture of non-cool kids. But there are always those who are both non-cool and friendless ... it barely matters if the kid is actually cool and actually has friends, if they don’t recognize those facts ... and their high school lives are abysmal. Hannah is new to the school, and almost immediately she gets slut-shamed, from which she never regains a positive status among her peers. She has some friends, but she tends to push them away, usually because those friends are unthinking and do things that hurt Hannah (these things being the focus of each individual tape recording). 13 Reasons Why shows how cliques work in high school, and how reputations are made. It does this is a mostly realistic way.

Knowing how the story ends creates an ever-growing tension as we watch the episodes. Hannah’s life is crumbling before our eyes, but in the flashbacks, the kids don’t realize their part in how Hannah’s life ends ... to them, it’s just high school. Eventually, events shatter the composure of some of the kids ... auto accidents, physical assaults, things that can’t be ignored. But only Hannah, the author of her story as she records the tapes, takes in the accumulation that threatens to ruin her.

The implication is that Hannah commits suicide for the 13 reasons, and in the context of the series, this is believable. Some have criticized the show, though, for blaming events, when many suicides come from a place of deep depression that might be chemical rather than social. Hannah is increasingly disturbed, and she becomes crucially sensitive to how others treat her, but there is never a suggestion that she might have a chemical imbalance that could be alleviated via drug therapy. No, Hannah’s suicide grows entirely out of those 13 reasons, all of which are about how she is treated by others. (This also leads to a final “message” that we all just need to treat each other with more kind attention.)

The decision of how to show the most horrible events in the story are powerful, and I don’t think there’s any reason to dismiss the approach the show takes, although some will find it too hard to watch these scenes (which is partly the point). There are two rapes, and while the first is mostly in the dark, the second is much more visible. Director Jessica Yu (she did two episodes ... other directors include Tom McCarthy, Helen Shaver, Gregg Araki, and Carl Franklin) shows just enough visual context that we know what is happening, but she spends almost the entire scene on the girl’s face. We see the trauma, and we see on her face the terrible way she becomes an empty shell. Far from being exploitive, the scene is sickening and upsetting.

Hannah’s suicide is also unbearable. In that episode (directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez), we see the final hours of Hannah’s life, and then we watch the final minutes. Many have complained that the actual suicide (via slit wrists) is so graphic it could serve as a how-to for troubled viewers. But the people behind 13 Reasons Why specifically wanted to avoid the usual presentation where we see the suicidal person about to commit the act, then cut to someone discovering the act after the fact. They wanted to show the ugliness of suicide. They insisted that the audience was repulsed. I have seen a few comments claiming that 13 Reasons Why romanticizes suicide. Well, the actual suicide is the least-romantic act imaginable.

There is, in fact, very little romanticizing being done throughout the series. We are always aware of the effect of the accumulation of events on Hannah’s psyche, and at no time do we think, gee, I wish I was Hannah.

While the series is on Netflix, I strongly advise against binge watching it. It would be emotionally overwhelming, for one thing, and each episode deserves processing before moving on to the next. The series is too long, and at times it is repetitive, but it’s a bit like the way Clay listens to every tape from start to finish. You’ll want to do the same with 13 Reasons Why.

I want to single out a couple of actors. Justin Prentice does such a great job of playing a rich, privileged jock that you always want to slap the smirk off his face when he shows up. And then there is Wilson Cruz, who first came to our attention in My So-Called Life as Rickie Vasquez. Cruz appears as a lawyer in a handful of episodes in 13 Reasons Why, and between the ever-lasting love his fans have for Cruz, and the obvious connections between his first series and this one, it is delightful to see him. (His character is named “Vasquez”, which has led some to imagine it’s just Rickie, grown up with a new first name.)

Finally, I have read a few people saying 13 Reasons Why promotes revenge. This supposedly even makes suicide more appealing, since Hannah gets “revenge” by exposing everyone in her tapes. Again, there is nothing in this show that makes me wish I had led Hannah’s deeply sad life. (People looking for a revenge drama might check out the fine vigilante show, Sweet/Vicious.)

high noon (fred zinnemann, 1952)

It’s hard to talk about High Noon after all these years. It almost exists more as a symbol or representative of its time than it does as an actual movie. And I can’t help but bring some of that baggage to my watching it again.

There’s all the stuff surrounding the Hollywood blacklist. Supposedly, High Noon is an allegory about the blacklist, although I think this isn’t nearly as obvious as is assumed, unless all it takes to be an allegory is to have a situation where everyone turns their back on the hero. Screenwriter Carl Foreman was working on High Noon when he was called before HUAC. He refused to “name names”, and was subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood, after which he moved to England. Stanley Kramer was the producer of the film, the same Stanley Kramer who later made a gazillion “socially relevant” movies of variable quality, the same Stanley Kramer for whom the Stanley Kramer Award of the Producers Guild of America was created after his death, dedicated to movies which “illuminate provocative social issues”. Kramer wanted Foreman kicked off of High Noon because Foreman wouldn’t name names. There are various versions of this story.

Meanwhile, other people had problems with High Noon, most notably John Wayne, a passionate believer in the blacklist, and director Howard Hawks. Together, they later made Rio Bravo, claiming it was intended as a counter to High Noon. It’s all a big mess ... what really matters is Rio Bravo is arguably the best Western ever made, while High Noon is barely even a good film.

High Noon “works” ... the setup is irresistible, with the near-real time action, the train carrying the bad guy into town, Gary Cooper forced to stand alone. On the surface, it’s worth seeing. All of the other stuff makes it more interesting as a cultural document, but the movie itself is basic, simple, easy to take in. Cooper is far too old for the part of Will Kane, but he does exude Essence of Cooper. Grace Kelly is mostly wasted, and the part where her Quaker character shoots a bad guy is confusing at best. It’s fun seeing Lee Van Cleef in his first role. I’m not trying to keep people from watching High Noon, although they’d be better of watching Rio Bravo. But its status as a classic is unearned, in my opinion. #393 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. (I should add that the theme song of the movie, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’”, which won an Oscar and was a big hit, becomes unbearable after the 3,000th time you hear it during the movie.)

the panic in needle park (jerry schatzberg, 1971)

Noteworthy for the appearances of many actors at or near the beginning of their film careers, starting with the leads, Al Pacino and Kitty Winn, who had worked in the theater. Both had minor roles in one film prior to The Panic in Needle Park ... they were effectively unknowns. Coppola used Pacino’s performance here to convince the studio to let him cast the actor as Michael Corleone. Richard Bright, soon to be known as Al Neri from the Godfather movies, is also here in one of his earliest movies, as are actors like Raúl Juliá, Joe Santos, and Paul Sorvino. The screenplay, by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, was their first. And it was only the second feature directed by Schatzberg, who was (and perhaps still is) known as a photographer who took the picture that became the cover of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

So there’s a lot of talent from before they got famous (Winn may give the best performance ... she won Best Actress at Cannes ... but her last film was in 1978, so she never really “got famous”, she was just that person who was so good in Needle Park). And the talent shows. Pacino and Winn carry the movie. As was so often the case in the early years, Pacino reminds us of Bruce Springsteen at a similar age. Winn’s gradual descent into a junkie’s life is highly regarded to this day. All down the line, the cast feels carefully chosen to climb into the skins of their characters.

Care is also taken to make New York City look “real”. More important, care is taken to make the junkie life look “real”, with detailed sequences of fixing and shooting up, and plenty of junkies asking everyone they meet if they are carrying.

It is so careful, in fact, that it misses some of the messiness of these characters’ lives. Or rather, the messiness looks constructed. There is a distance in the filmmaking, despite the attempt to get in the audience’s faces. Pacino and Winn give convincing portrayals of junkies, but they never convinced me they weren’t performances, which goes against the realist feel of the film.

It is also a very dreary picture, which is perhaps appropriate given the subject matter, but there is none of the humor of the similar Sid and Nancy. That film had more than just junkies, which made their story more heartbreaking. But Pacino’s character is on heroin from the beginning, and Winn’s character is clearly headed down the same trail. The result is a movie that might be “good for us”, and might turn us away from drugs because there is nothing exciting about what we see, but I can’t help wanting more. I wish one of those extras playing junkies had tried to steal one of the movie cameras. It might have seemed spontaneous, and there is nothing spontaneous here.

The Panic in Needle Park is impressive. It is worth seeing for a variety of reasons. But it is far from great. 7/10.

music friday: return of the son of daily mix

This is from Daily Mix 6. Looks like it’s old-school country time!

Hank Williams, “Hey, Good Lookin’.” When I hear Hank Williams, I think of The Last Picture Show.

Patsy Cline, “I Fall to Pieces.” Her first #1 Country song.

The Carter Family, “Can the Circle Be Unbroken.” Old folk song that A.P. Carter turned into the song seemingly every artist covered.

Don Gibson, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Gibson wrote it, although Ray Charles is probably more in people’s minds today.

John Prine, “Lake Marie.” Bob Dylan’s favorite John Prine song. He has good taste.

Gram Parsons, “Sleepless Nights.” Recorded by The Everly Brothers in 1960. Emmylou Harris joins Gram on this one.

Wanda Jackson, “Nervous Breakdown.” Old Eddie Cochran song, recorded by Wanda with Jack White when she was in her 70s and still rocking.

Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodel (T for Texas).” The first of Rodgers’ “Blue Yodels.” A great video.

Trio, “Telling Me Lies.” The best song from the Parton/Ronstadt/Harris grouping, and arguably Linda Ronstadt’s greatest moment.

The Everly Brothers, “T for Texas.” Yep, the Jimmie Rodgers song, from their late-60s album, Roots.

doctor strange (scott derrickson, 2016)

I was only a casual comic book reader as a kid. When we were sick, our dad would often stop at the store on his way home from work and get us a 7-Up and a comic. But I didn’t keep up, didn’t know much about them.

In 1970-71, though, I had my first chance to be a hippie, which meant I did a lot of psychedelic drugs. I’m relying on Wikipedia here, because of my aforementioned lack of knowledge about comics (by then, I’d discovered comix, but that’s for another discussion), and because, well, who remembers what we did when we took a lot of psychedelic drugs? I don’t know how we discovered the books, but somehow we became aware of Dr. Strange. Again using Wikipedia, I can state that Dr. Strange became its own comic book in June of 1968, beginning with Issue #169 (because it was a continuation of the Strange Tales series, which had introduced the Doctor in 1963). There were 15 issues of Dr. Strange, running through November of 1969, before Marvel took a different route, leaving Strange to pop up now and then, finally settling in for a long run in 1974. All of this comes from Wikipedia ... I lost track of Dr. Strange after those months as a hippie.

We bought all 15 issues of the late-60s Dr. Strange, and read them over and over. Funny thing is, I barely remember them now. When I was watching Doctor Strange, I realized I had little idea of what was to come, which was fine. The one thing I thought I remembered was that Strange wore a cape ... turns out I was thinking of the Cloak of Levitation, which eventually turns up in the movie.

This is a bit pointless, describing things I didn’t remember as if they had something to do with my experience watching Doctor Strange. But I did come to the movie with a bit more happy anticipation than I usually do for the Marvel movies, which I am not up to date on (I do watch a few of the Marvel TV series). I was willing to give the movie a chance, which I don’t always do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (OK, I liked Ant-Man a bit.) And yes, I liked it. I don’t know how it played with the Marvel fans, but it did make a shitload of money.

Much as is currently the case with Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Doctor Strange had a casting controversy because Tilda Swinton, who played The Ancient One, is not Asian. In the comics, he is a Tibetan man ... Derrickson has a complicated explanation for why he wanted to avoid stereotypes, with the solution being to turn the character into a Celtic mystic played by Swinton. I admit this didn’t bother me, since Swinton is always so odd, she is sui generis no matter who she is playing.

The cast was good overall, although I was pleased to find that “Mads Mikkelsen admitted that with all the computer-generated imagery he got a bit lost on how to film his scenes”. He was great, of course, but when I watch these movies, I often wonder what it’s like to try and act in them.

I didn’t care about the mystic angles, which were likely my favorite parts in my hippie days, but neither did ruin things for me. It’s just a case of accepting the world created in the film, and they’ve done well with that here. I have no idea how it all fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but that doesn’t bother me when I’m watching Jessica Jones, so it’s OK here, as well. It gets in under two hours, is a good blend of CGI spectacle and solid, human acting. It’s not a waste of time, which is to say, it’s at least as good as Ant-Man. 7/10.