Saw a Takashi Miike picture called The Great Yokai War. "Yokai" is a Japanese term for monsters from folklore, as opposed to the more familiar kaiju. It's a kids' picture, about a young boy from Tokyo sent out to live in the countryside with his older sister and his intermittently senile grandfather. When a vengeful spirit appears, the boy gets caught up in a war between warring groups of yokai and must find his courage to become the "Kirin Rider", the hero who will set everything to rights. It's not a bad picture - nothing deep, but an amusing story. Some of the yokai are really trippy, Japanese folklore can get pretty "out there", apparently.

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I watched Vice last night. There was a lot that I did not know about Dick Cheney and a lot I never knew. Extremely well-acted by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Tyler Perry, and Allison Pill.

Continuing my look at Marx Brothers movies in random order.

THE COCOANUTS: I thought I’d follow up the Marx Brothers’ last movie (Love Happy) with their first. I recently referred to Animal Crackers as my favorite of the early films. The Cocoanuts is my least favorite. Not only is it the very first Marx Brothers movie, it’s one of the first talkies, period. As such, it’s not very technically proficient. The sound is kind of fuzzy, and the shots are very static. Consequently, it’s probably very much like what seeing The Cocoanuts on stage would have been like. Except that, used to wandering around and delivering their lines from anywhere, the Marx Brothers had to learn to hit their marks. Also, they couldn’t ad lib as much as they were used to, because the microphones tended to pick up stray noises and translate them as “fuzz.” A musical dance number was shot from a bird’s eye view (this was still years before the famous Busby/Berkley musicals), and even the reviews (from one of my books) were still inventing the language of movie reviews. I appreciate it, but it’s still not my favorite.

MONKEY BUSINESS: If I thought Animal Crackers was a bit disappointing when I re-watched it recently, I didn’t feel that way at all about Monkey Business. It was fast-paced and frenetic, both in dialogue and action, just the way I remembered it. I think the reason Animal Crackers had been my favorite is that I still thought of it as something of a rarity. It had been tied up in rights issues for years, and finally released to the theaters on a double-bill with a revival of The Sting (still my favorite double-feature except for maybe Bugs Bunny Superstar and Monty Python and the Holy Grail). One year, the day we returned home from a 10-day vacation, Animal Crackers was being shown on prime-time network TV for the first time ever.

I tell you, I could have recited the dialogue right along with Monkey Business when we watched it Saturday (but for Tracy’s sake I didn’t). One thing I do like is finally “getting” jokes that had eluded me in my youth. For example, the following exchange from Monkey Business:

SHIP CAPTAIN: I ought to have you thrown in irons!

GROUCHCO: You can’t do it with irons, it’s a mashie shot.

First of all, I was never sure of exactly what he was even saying, but last night it came to me. (It’s a golf joke.) And from The Cocoanuts:

GROUCHCO: Now let me show you these blueprints. Do you know what blueprints are?

CHICO: Sure, oysters.

I never did get that one, either, until Saturday night it just came to me: it’s a pun on Blue Point Oysters.

I never did get that one, either, until Saturday night it just came to me: it’s a pun on Blue Point Oysters.

So that's what it means! I had never heard of Blue Point Oysters until I read your post. Is that the origin of Blue Oyster Cult's name as well?

Sadly, no. According to the almighty internet: "Pearlman had also come up with the band's earlier name, 'Soft White Underbelly', from a phrase used by Winston Churchill in describing Italy during World War II. In Pearlman's poetry, the 'Blue Oyster Cult' was a group of aliens who had assembled to secretly guide Earth's history." He may have gotten the name from Blue Point Oysters, however.

Ok, I don't want to break the conversation on the Marx Brothers ('cuz I'm a fan. My favorite is "Duck Soup". Frankly, it's  brilliant....and funny); but, more currently, I saw SHAZAM.

Once again, I'm sure it's reviewed elsewhere; but' me being me, here is my take on Shazam: This movie had more than its' share of laughs; but, it wasn't a straight up comedy. Yes, it was funny; but, in a very real sense. Where else do you get to experience what its' like to be a teen-ager that suddenly finds himself with superpowers (even if you're not sure what they are?)? Of course, you do what a fifteen year old boy would do. Even so, the ever pervading "pure of heart" question looms. This Billy Batson is by no means a saint. He is a fifteen year old boy. But yet, his intentions are indeed, pure. I believe this plays out in the end, bringing laughter along the way. More important than the made me smile. In other words, on some level, I could relate. On some level, I was fifteen again.

Now, if you are a comic book purist, you may be somewhat disappointed. First off,  Sivanna, is less a scientist than he is a would be sorcerer (although, this is not entirely out of character). True, he is referred to as "Doctor", leading one to believe he does possess the credentials (likely in psychology,  by what I can see); but, he's definitely more obsessed with the supernatural than fans may be accustomed to. All in all, this is not an issue for me. I found it to be a good portrayal, over all. Don't let this ruin it for you. The dynamic between Billy and Sivanna is properly established. That's good enough for me. Second, Mary (Batson) is not established as Mary Batson (she's just "Mary"). Again, don't let this ruin it for you (the character holds her own, sister or not. Heck, she may very well be a Batson. We may not know it yet). There are several other deviations from tradition. None take away from the story.

If you enjoy the character, you'll enjoy this film. It captures the essence of the character, in a current fashion. Without question, I want a sequel (which is more than I can say for DC's other contributions to cinema, in general).


HORSEFEATHERS: If you ever come to my house on Superbowl Sunday, we will start with You Gotta Be a Football Hero (Popeye cartoon) followed by the short subject Three Little Pigskins (The Three Stooges). The feature presentation will be the Marx Brother’s Horsefeathers. Horsefeathers gets off to a good start with Groucho’s song “I’m Against It.” It also includes the “Swordfish” sketch shortly after that, but I didn’t enjoy Horsefeathers quite as much this time around as I did Monkey Business.

I really enjoyed Shazam! DC has encountered a few difficulties with (1) handling Fawcett's characters and (2) movies. They get both right this time.I'm stealing from my own review, elsewhere, but this adaptation has the heart of its source material:

Pure wish fulfillment, the superhero stripped to its essence.

That doesn't mean his movie can't take some dark turns. Parts of Shazam! turn very dark for what is ostensibly a kid's movie. Dark as a fairy tale. You think kids don't understand that? But they also want the goofy, grinning guy with muscles and superpowers and a lightning bolt on his chest having fun and saving the day. This is a hero, who, to quote Jules Feiffer "could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels"3. Yes, I wish they had softened a few of the film's edges, because some of them feel unnecessary, but they're not fatal to the tone. Approach this movie with caution, but know that things will turn out all right.

In the comic, the wizard, Shazam, chose Billy because, despite the death of both parents, he endured, and represented the best in humanity. Fawcett Comics' Billy was a walking Citizenship Award.

The movie's Billy, at first, is kind of a dick, in the way early adolescent boys tend to be, especially when life has kicked them around. He has a good heart. He just has to find it. Along the way, he also finds his new family. The interpretation may be new, but it develops from the source material....

...Of course, darkness has its champion, and it takes the form of the evil Dr. Sivana, played with real menace by Mark Strong. He's used science to corral magic, and given himself powers that rival Billy's.

Despite his very dark backstory, Sivana gets the single funniest supervillain monologue in the history of superhero films. For my money, Sivana has Mike Myers's Dr. Evil beat, because Sivana is no mere cartoon parody of evil. As presented here, he's actual cartoon evil. For a character in a family film, this guy engages in some disturbingly dark activities. Making him look like a total tool pays higher dividends. As for the monologue trope itself, it has been so entirely worn out that even children get the joke.

The film also features a twist, rooted in the character's history, that may be the most satisfying thing I've seen in a superhero movie in quite awhile. You know that, when things are looking darkest for our absurdly-dressed hero, he'll come up with something. Faced with a super-powered psychopathic genius and his seven sinfully disturbing associates, Billy Batson comes up with something spectacular. It's a D-Day moment. The battle hasn't been won yet, but we know and, in his dark, demented heart, our villain knows, that he's going to lose. The ten-year-old inside me wanted to punch the air and yell, "yeah" but I didn't want to steal that moment from the actual ten-year-olds.

I've also seen Annihilation (great, strange, enigmatic SF), Sorry to Bother You (an uneven but often brilliant comedy that goes increasingly dark and satiric), and The Tale (a film about sexual abuse and the stories people tell to make sense of their lives. It is not for all tastes, but thoughtful and very well acted).

A few I haven't commented on:

  • Fantastic Voyage. One of those movies I've always heard about but never seen, so I watched it. The premise: A scientist who has invented a process to miniaturize items is gravely wounded during an assassination attempt. To save him, a crew is placed in a submarine and all are miniaturized and injected into his body, so they can dissolve a blood clot in his brain and save his life. I was surprised by how oppressive the Cold War theme was, but it was a product of its times. Being a product of its time, it's a lot slower-paced than one would want, but still entertaining enough. The movie makers had no less a personage than Isaac Asimov write the novelization of the screenplay; it was published a few months before the movie was released, making people think the movie was an adaptation of an original novel, which it wasn't. In the novelization, Asimov took care of a huge plot hole: We are told that after an hour, the miniaturized objects return to full size. In the movie, the crew escapes from the man's body but leave the submarine behind, and there's no problem. (Asimov pointed out this plot hole to the filmmakers, and they told him to sit down and shut up.)

  • What Men Want. I usually think of Taraji P. Henson as a dramatic actress, but she's pretty decent in comedy. Whatever she does, she's a strong presence. (She was in The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttion for only 16 minutes, but those are the only parts of that two-and-a-half hour movie that my wife remembers.) Anyway, in What Men Want, Henson is a hard-charging sports agent who is expecting, and doesn't get, a big promotion. Determined to prove she deserves it, she resolves to land a big client -- a hot high-school basketball prospect expected to be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Through the kind of contrivance that can only happen in a situation comedy, she gains the power to read men's minds and, as they say, hilarity ensues. With the aid of the Gay Best Friend, she strides forward in her mission to win over the prospect's father, handle office politics and navigate a new relationship with a handsome bartender.

  • Captain Marvel. I'm a bit surprised there wasn't more discussion about it here in the Comics Cave. We found it entertaining, if a bit confusing in the early going. I didn't read many of the Captain Marvel comics this must have been based on, which probably helped me enjoy it more. It was a hoot seeing Nick Fury with hair, and the whole '80s milieu. And I knew right off there was something freaky about that cat!

"I'm a bit surprised there wasn't more discussion about it here in the Comics Cave."

Me, too.

DUCK SOUP: This movie ranked #1 online. It’s the one I watch least often these days simply because I have seen it so many times on weekend matinees in my local market growing up. It has a reputation of being a strong anti-war film, yet Freedonia goes to war only in the last 15 minutes of the film. I think an equally steong case could be made for it being a spoof of bureaucracy, government, even business. Still, Duck Soup and the television show M*A*S*H both collided upon my consciousness at roughly the same time. On their first date, my brother took his future wife to a showing of Duck Soup. Like Dick Cavett, I became familiar with Groucho first from the quiz show (my local PBS station showed reruns of You Bet Your Life) then from the movies. Those of us of a certain age may recall the Scholastic magazine Dynamite. The first one I ever got had an article of Groucho’s one-liners from the movies. I read that article until the pages fell apart. Oddly, Duck Soup doesn’t feature a Harpo harp solo or a Chico piano solo; I don’t think I ever noticed that before. Years after the movie, Harpo performed the “missing mirror” scene with Lucille Ball on I Love Lucy. If I had to rank their five early films from best to worst based on my reaction this time, I think it would be…

1. Monkey Business
2. Duck Soup
3. Animal Crackers
4. Horsefeathers
5. The Cocoanuts

I posted a Captain Marvel column -- anybody who wants to can comment there.

For my part, I liked Captain Marvel well enough -- I found it about Ant-Man and Wasp level. But I don't have much else to say. It felt kinda generic to me.

My wife, on the other hand, really loved it, and every once in a while will tell me that she likes it more as time passes. I think I sometimes forget how few times women see themselves represented as anything other than sidekicks or arm candy in movies. My wife thrills to seeing a woman as the unabashed star of a heroic movie, and loved both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel profoundly.

I have two more Marx Brothers movies to review, but I’m to post about Groucho’s “solo” movies first. I was going to save these until last, but Tracy was out of town last weekend so I thought I’d get them out of the way and save two of the best for last. I’ve been too busy all week to write them up, so I thought I’d better post something soon before the details (such as they are) begin to fade from my mind.

COPACABANA: Back in the ‘90s, knowing of my life-long fondness for the Brothers Marx, my mother picked up a colorized copy of Copacabana on VHS. Brief aside: my wife’s sister doesn’t think too highly of me, and believe me, the feeling is mutual. Years ago (before I knew better), upon finding out she liked “You Bet Your Life” I offered to loan her my Copacabana tape as a gesture of… I don’t know, whatever. I had seen it only once at that time, and when I requested its return she said she had “misplaced” it. WTF? I eventually bought a b&w DVD copy to watch. One, day, three years after she had borrowed it, she returned it, acting as if she were doing me a favor. But I digress…

Groucho and Carmen Miranda have an act that isn’t doing so well, so Groucho quits to become the manager of Carmen’s solo act. In order to appear as if he has more than one client, Groucho invents the fictional “Mademoiselle Fifi.” The club owner wants to hire them both, and hijinks ensure.

DOUBLE DYNAMITE: In this one, Groucho shares the bill with Jane Russell and Frank Sinatra. I saw this movie for the first time last weekend. It hasn’t even been a week since I saw it and already the details fade from my mind. All I remember is that, at some point, hijinks ensue.

A GIRL IN EVERY PORT: In his last feature role, Groucho co-stars with William Bendix who are sailors who come into possession of a racehorse. Their horse can’t run, but its identical twin sibling can. Marie Wilson plays the movie’s love interest. She owns the fast horse and hijinks ensue.

None of these movie is really worth watching unless you are a completist.

NEXT UP: A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

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