Empire of the Sun, and six more movies

Empire of the Sun

No film about war should be this beautiful. 

In the stampede to get away as WW2 comes to China, a privileged British brat (introducing Christian Bale, age 12) is separated from his upper-crust parents. The chaotic scenes in Shanghai were filmed in Shanghai.

The boy fends for himself, and ends up in a Japanese-run prisoner of war camp, where John Malkovich tutors him in scumbag capitalism. The boy is fascinated by the military planes, of which there are lots because the prison camp is at an air base, but he doesn't understand anything about war and death. He's at the mercy of luck and his wits.

Steven Spielberg is in charge, so there are several 'movie magical' moments and choirs sing, making war into a gee-whiz experience, but damn the movie's a heart-tugger. Written by Tom Stoppard, based on the novel by J G Ballard.

The kid's ability to identify planes high in the sky and his almost worship of them reminds me of my old man, an aviation freak who spent his life at Boeing.

And the kid, Bale, is so good I could almost forgive him for what he and Christopher Nolan did to Batman twenty years later.

There are two crowd scenes handled poorly, with people moving per stage directions instead of the way people would actually move, and that's on Spielberg. Everything else in the movie feels exactly right, the way war might look to a kid, and that's on Spielberg too. This was his last inarguably great movie.

Verdict: BIG YES.

And yeah, those were Ben Stiller and future Doctor Who Paul McGann in small roles.

♦ ♦ ♦

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

Full disclosure at the top: I fervently dislike Leonardo DiCaprio, and am generally bored by the late-career work of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, so the odds were against me liking this movie. Giving it a fair chance, though, I'll admit that it doesn't suck.

It's a "true story" via Hollywood, which doesn't mean it's a true story, and I have my doubts about a lot of it. DiCaprio stars, playing con man Frank Abagnale Jr, who in reality forged a lot of checks, and worked as a pilot and doctor and lawyer despite having no training.

Tom Hanks plays the FBI guy on his tail, and he's better than I'd expected, which is not to say he's good, playing a determined but sorta dull-witted lawman with a fake Bawston accent.

Spielberg directs, serviceably but sluggishly at first, laying a thick coating of 1960s panache over everything, and with gallons of predictable pop music from the era.

It has fine supporting work from Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen. Amy Adams wears grotesque braces to unconvincingly play a teenager.

And it stars DiCaprio, ugh, always the cocky actor I can't stand. He's in love with himself, so he's a natural in the cocky con man scenes, where people are fooled into believing he's something he's not — a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer, and an actor. He's not so good in scenes where he's supposed to be insecure, endangered, worried, or in love with someone who's not Leo.

Verdict: YES, but I would've liked it better without Hanks, Spielberg, and especially DiCaprio. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)

This is all about cars and car thieves, and for security reasons, everyone refers to the cars by their code names — Christy, Patti, Marion, Janet.... The film's top-credited actor is "Eleanor," the given name for a yellow 1973 Ford Mustang that's at the center of the film's amazing car chase.

The first half of the movie is the set-up. The thieves strike a deal to steal 48 specific cars by the weekend, all of them expensive, and all of them code-named — a few Rolls-Royces, Lyle Waggoner's Intermeccanica Italia, Parnelli Jones's tricked-out Bronco, and dozens of swanky sports cars, including Eleanor. 

The second half of the movie is the chase, and it's spectacular. There's none of the yawn-inducing slow-motion imagery of cars jumping over obstacles and through the air. Instead, these cars keep banging into things, and into other cars, and light standards, and getting stuck in the dirt and underbrush. There are hundreds of wrecks, sideswipes, and fender benders in this grand chase, and by the time it's over Eleanor isn't nearly as pretty as when she started.

I hate cars and car-centric movies, but this is different.

First off, it's not really about the cars, it's about the wrecks, and the car thieves.

More than that, though, this movie was made with true passion. It was written, produced, and directed by H B Halicki, who also acts and drives. Most of the human actors seem amateur, but none of that matters. Halicki's passion sells everything, and it makes Gone in 60 Seconds a whole lot of fun.

"Stay on 190th. It'll take you right to the Harbor Freeway."

The film's auteur, Halicki, made only a few movies, apparently all in the auto-wreck genre. He was killed driving a car for a stunt wreck in 1989, while filming a never-finished sequel to this movie. True passion, I tell you.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Charles Laughton, young, suave, and monstrous, plays H G Wells' infamous Dr Moreau. He's using surgery and blood transfusions to make animals into humans, sort of, giving them limited speech and the ability to walk on two legs, at his secret island laboratory.

Co-starring Bela Lugosi and "The Panther Woman," this is an excellent old-school thriller, with hairy creatures and mad science and lots of angry dramatic speeches.

"Are we not men?" ask the creatures who clearly aren't men, but the doctor's creations have created a society of their own in the jungle, with rules of right and wrong best not forgotten.

The film retains the novel's basic setup, wherein a marooned survivor of a shipwreck finds himself on Moreau's uncharted island of  "beast folk", but it adds two romantic subplots and subtracts most of the highbrow intellectualism, leaving only the frights. Lots of frights. 

Laughton is great as the scientist who's clearly crazy but seems perfectly sane, delightfully erudite amidst the vivisections and screams. All the elements of a great horror movie are here, but it's Laughton who makes it all work.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦

Kenny & Company (1976)

Don Coscarelli wrote and directed Phantasm, John Dies at the End, the enchanting Bubba Ho-Tep — and this kiddie movie I'd never even heard of.

It's mostly about a couple of 10- or 12-year-old boys, best buddies for their short lives. They play flag football, ride bikes, go to school, throw food in the lunch room, make prank phone calls, build a toy race car, make a bear mask for Halloween, ride skateboards (but not all that well), and otherwise goof around for an hour and a half.

And that's it.

There's a bully who wants protection money, and a girl one of the boys likes, and a sick dog that has to be taken to the vet and put to sleep, but these are all minor subplots — if a movie without a plot can have subplots.

The acting is very low-key, the adults are all good-natured and wise, and nobody learns an important lesson. It's all completely innocent, with none of the conventional ingredients of kiddie movies.

It's almost feel like I didn't just watch a movie, but instead spent an afternoon being a kid again, hanging out with some other kids. That's pretty terrific.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Monkey Business (1931)

"Don’t forget, my fine fellow, the stockholder of yesteryear is the stowaway of today."

The Four Marx Brothers are stowaways on a luxury liner, and spend most of the movie avoiding capture.

Thelma Todd replaces Margaret Dumont as Groucho's foil. He delivers every quip with precision, of course, and Harpo is even funnier, appearing as a puppet in a puppet show, among many other magical moments. Chico and Groucho in the barber shop is one of my all-time favorite Marx bits, and Chico's piano solo is hilarious, as is Harpo's harp duet. Even Zeppo is funny, for just a moment, twice.

As in the earlier Marx Brothers films, it becomes unfunny when the story gets in the way, and especially when the Marxes are off-screen, but most of this is the Marx Brothers and they're pretty dang funny.

"Look at me — I've worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty."

There are some odd cuts, but don't blame the brothers or even the film. Monkey Business was made before the Hayes Code, which demanded morality in film, but later it was re-released and edited down to 'code', and now, only the censored version survives.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Payday (1973)

Rip Torn was usually a supporting actor, and usually marvelous, but here he's the leading man, playing fictitious country singer Maury Dann. It's country, so there will be fiddles, but the movie is much more about Maury than his music.

He's a self-centered drunkard, surviving on booze and pills. He can be charming when necessary, but only if it advances his goals, which are generally getting drunk, getting laid, getting money, and getting into fistfights.

The man's bleakness is especially clear when he visits his dying mother, and later his harried ex-wife, leaving before their children get home. He's an awful man, really, but no more than most men would be with his level of success, fame, and money.

The movie moves slowly, but it's never dull, and Mr Torn is marvelous — arrogant, petulant, vulnerable, smart, and stupid. I don't know if the role was written for him, but he was born to play it.

Payday is set in the South, and most of the accents seemed wrong or fake to me, but it's a grand, bittersweet film, and deserves to be seen. 

The star's chauffeur and general fixer is an obese man who goes by 'Chicago', because Dann's never bothered to learn his name. He's the movie's most likable character, and he's played by another venerable character actor, Cliff Emmich, who died only a couple of months ago, but I'd missed the news.

"We only pass this way once. Might as well pass by in a Cadillac."

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Seven more movies, all winners. That's 14 in a row. Writing a bad review keeps my blood circulating, so there's gotta be a stinker somewhere in my watchlist. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Coming attractions:

• Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)
• The Maury Island Incident (2014)
• Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)
• Queen of Snakes (2019)
• Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015)
• Space Mutiny (1988)
• Ted and Venus (1991)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

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Illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. Reviews are spoiler-free. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

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  1. Just reading about Gone In 60 Seconds makes me want to watch it again.

    Did I ever mention The Last American Hero (1973)? Great early Jeff Bridges film about white trash bootlegging, stock car racing, etc. While you're at it, have a look at Talladega Nights, there's some surprisingly funny scenes, in particular a very long before-meal-prayer which is like something out of Mike Judge's Idiocracy. John C. Reilly must be one of the funniest men on the planet.

    Daryl duke (Payday) also did a pretty interesting heist film with Elliott Gould called Silent Partner.

    1. I believe it was you who nudged me toward GONE IN 60 SECONDS, so thank you sir. I think I'm all car-ed out, though.

      THE SILENT PARTNER looks good...

    2. Jacques Tati, who made my third favorite film ever - Playtime (1967) - made a wonderful film about cars called Trafic (1971) which should be seen, especially if you're car-ed out.

    3. TRAFIC is apparently a sequel to PLAYTIME, and seeing both will probably make me French, but now they're both on my list. Merci beaucoup.

    4. This is, despite being from someone who is apparently a video game critic, a surprisingly witty and astute intro to the film, and its style and intentions:


    5. I saw enough of that video to be further intrigued, but clicked it off. It's showing too much, for someone who hasn't seen the movie.

      How have I not seen this movie, though? I've *definitely* seen a few shots and clips, but not the whole movie, and I don't remember it ever even playing at the Neptune or Castro or Roxie...

      And get this: It's not in the King County Public Library. And I'm having no luck pirating a copy with subtitles. Am I gonna have to take that very long bus ride to Scarecrow Video?

      Which, by the way, I love, but it's such a hidden and hard-to-get-to location.

  2. The dialogue is so infrequent and so inconsequential in all his films, it's essentially unnecessary. I think he once said he was making silent films with sound effects.

    I'm surprised the SPL doesn't have a copy.

    1. Claude Reigns, TaxpayerFebruary 6, 2023 at 1:33 PM

      Oh - King County Library, maybe that's different than SPL?

    2. I did get the impression, skimming through it to see if the subtitles had copied over, that there's not much dialogue. You don't think I'd be missing anything, watching it in French?

      Yeah, I don't know why, but Seattle and the surrounding county have two different library systems. By quirk of geography, I have easier access to more county branches than city, despite living in the city.

    3. Truly, it's a visual film. If you're reading subs, you're missing what's *really* happening.

      His previous two films (also recommended highly):


      have more dialogue, but even in these

      " spoken dialogue is limited to the role of background sounds. Combined with frequent long shots of scenes with multiple characters, Tati believed that the results would tightly focus audience attention on the comical nature of humanity when interacting as a group, as well as his own meticulously choreographed visual gags. However, the film is by no means a 'silent' comedy, as it uses natural and man-made sounds not only for comic effect but also for character development"


      "The dialogue in Mon Oncle is barely audible, and largely subordinated to the role of a sound effect. The drifting noises of heated arguments and idle banter complement other sounds and the physical movements of the characters, intensifying comedic effect. The complex soundtrack also uses music to characterize environments, including a lively musical theme that represents Hulot's world of comical inefficiency and freedom"

      A lot of people like Mon Oncle better, and it is excellent, a "warmer" film, but Playtime is just... stellar, almost a science fiction film. It's like the 2001 of sight gags, and frankly just as profound. There's no other film like it, although you'll see its obvious influence on Gilliam's Brazil and a few others.

    4. So it's a franchise, a whole bunch of movies about Monsieur Hulot. And you love 'em, which is usually a clue that I'll love 'em too.

      Should I bump them ahead of my upcoming Jan-Michael Vincent Film Festival?

    5. Hulot starts out as the focus, or crux of attention, then with each film becomes less central. By Playtime, he's incidental, and there are even several "fake" Hulots within the film. It's an interesting progression. Even Truffaut put a fake Hulot in one of his films. It's interesting to watch the Tato films in order because of this, but for anyone who knows films (you) I'd recommend Playtime as the straight dope, and then Mon Oncle. Hard to say, though, he does have his detractors.

      I love Jan-Michael Vincent. Kids today have Timothée Chalamet; when I grew up we had motherfucking Jan-Michael Vincent and Charles Bronson. I'll leave others to deduce how that indicates a fallen world - but it surely does.

    6. "Tato"?

      I beg your pardon, that should read "Tati"

    7. Jan-Michael Vincent disappeared inexplicably, but I was always a fan, even of his cheapest B-movies.

      Young Charles Bronson was something to see. Old Bronson was something sad.

      I am about to transfer the past few weeks of piracy from my surfing machine to my watching machine, and I'm eager to see what Hulot's got.

    8. One of Bronson's better last roles was in Sean Penn's masterpiece The Indian Runner. I think Penn's first three films are all masterpieces - The Indian Runner, The Crossing Guard, The Pledge. The latter two have two of Jack Nicholson's better late performances as well. Excellent films.

    9. I've never yet seen any films directed by Sean Penn. Reckon I oughta rectify that.


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