Review of LUCKY GRANDMA (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B
Comedy, Drama
Not rated (would be PG-13)

Timing matters, and this first full-length feature from director Sasie Sealy comes to Blu-ray at a time when Bong Joon-Ho’s surprising Oscar-winning Parasite is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Like that South Korean film, Lucky Grandma, set in New York’s Chinatown, is a black comedy that veers into thriller territory. It’s a mash-up of genres that also carries an unspoken social message. With Bong it was class inequity; with the New York-based Sealy, it’s aging. And her main character, the recently widowed Grandma Wong, refuses to go gently into that good night, or even move in with her son and his family.

Don’t bother looking up Sealy’s Wikipedia page, because she’s so new she doesn’t even have one yet. So far her big push to get on the film world’s radar has come from her participation in Manhattan’s Tribeca Film Festival, which twice honored her with Student Visionary Awards (Elephant Garden, 2008; Dance Mania Fantastic, 2005). But with a first feature that’s as solid as Bong’s own black comedy debut (Barking Dogs Never Bite), she’ll be getting that Wikipedia page and probably more awards soon enough.

If your family liked Parasite, you’ll like Lucky Grandma. It’s a film for families that like to push their entertainment boundaries. Children who enjoy it will be old enough to handle the mixed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese voice track with English subtitles, because when it comes right down to it that’s the biggest factor. There’s violence, but not nearly as much as what’s shown in the average superhero movie. There’s language, but again nothing compared to what Hollywood has been producing lately. And there’s smoking, but it’s more of a comic device than anything else.

Chain-smoking Grandma Wong (Tsai Chin, The Joy Luck Club) learns in the opening sequence with a fortuneteller that October 28th is going to be a very lucky day for her, so she rebuffs her son’s pleas to move in with them so he doesn’t have to pay rent on two apartments. She’ll be able to pay her own rent soon, she tells him. To claim the fortune that fate has foretold, she boards a bus headed for a casino and ends up returning with a big bag of money. But she runs afoul of a Chinese gang trying to get that money, and after she goes to a rival gang to “rent” a bodyguard, well, one thing leads to another. Apartments get ransacked. People get roughed up. There’s shooting. And this woke Grandma wields a big wok to make her own point.

Lucky Grandma may sound a bit like Bad Grandmas (about four elderly women who accidentally kill a con artist and find themselves in hot water with the man’s partner), but the tone, the level of artistry and sophistication, and the screenplay itself locate it more in Bong territory, with one big difference: Bong’s third act goes completely off the rails as the action becomes more and more surreal, while Sealy’s takes turns that are less outrageous. She rides the brakes, while Bong lets it go Expedition Everest out-of-control. The only real negative is that, as a result, a sense of inevitability gently erodes the edges of surprise and quirkiness that Sealy had established early on with an indie-influenced quirkiness and music. That third act just doesn’t have the zip and zing of the first two. After it’s over you think, yes, of course, while after Bong’s you’re still going WTF.

There’s a little incredulity here, but it comes from watching the amazing Chin, who does have her own Wikipedia page. The classically trained actress, who earned a Master’s degree and also had a singing career in the 1960s, once played a “Bond girl” in You Only Live Twice. After her stellar stage, screen, and television career, it’s not surprising that Chin still has a compelling screen presence and is able to carry Lucky Grandma . . . until you do the math and realize that she made this film at age 86! Jack Nicholson was 65 when he made a similar-themed film, but if I had to pick only one to watch over and over, I would choose Lucky Grandma, not About Schmidt. The latter dwells on the pain of aging and loneliness; Lucky Grandma shrugs it off like a bullet that only grazes you.

Some critics have made a bigger deal about the relationship between Grandma Wong and bodyguard Big Pong (Hsiao-Yuan Ha), but, really, Sealy keeps the focus squarely on the Grandma, resisting the urge to turn it into another Driving Miss Daisy. The emphasis in this film is on the action and on a feisty, stoic, and determined main character whose behavior seems ageless. What children haven’t sung Happy Birthday to a grandparent, watched them struggle slightly to blow out the candles, then wished them a warm goodbye, thinking of them only in terms of what they see? Lucky Grandma pulls back the curtain to show what the family doesn’t see: in this case, a character who’s almost as “gangster” as any of the bad guys she encounters. If you look past the crustiness, Grandma Wong is also someone who’s determination can be a lesson for anyone feeling the burden of limitations, whether those limitations are age, gender, physiology, race, or anything else. Despite her selfishness and lack of filter, there’s much to admire in this Lucky Grandma, who probably thinks that Dylan Thomas should stop whining about not going gently into that good night and instead get out there and do something about it.

Entire family: No (junior high and older)
Run time: 87 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: Mandarin, English, and Cantonese DTS 5.1 (English subtitles)
Bonus features: C
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG-13 for smoking, drinking, violence)

Language: 5/10—Two f-bombs, both spoken by a youngster

Sex: 1/10—One offhanded remark concerning a prostitute

Violence: 5/10—There’s shooting and some deaths, but mostly off-screen; there are also fistfights and one character dies after hitting his head accidentally; the cringiest moment actually comes when a man runs a knife across his own tongue and spits blood, but he’s unhurt

Adult situations: 6/10—There’s smoking and drinking at the casino, an uncomfortable bus ride, and Grandma’s chain smoking

Takeaway: After Snowpiercer, Bong returned to black comedy and gave movie-lovers an even stronger one than his debut film, an Oscar winner; here’s hoping this isn’t the last black comedy we see from Sealy

Review of AGAINST ALL FLAGS (Blu-ray)

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Grade: B-
Not rated (would be PG)

Hollywood made a lot of Westerns in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but they also made a fair number of pirate movies. Against All Flags (1952) wasn’t one of the absolute best, but it gave audiences a rare pairing of Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara—both of whom had starred in swashbucklers before.

For Flynn, who first played a pirate in Captain Blood (1935) opposite Olivia de Havilland, his best swordplay was behind him. In Against All Flags he’s less jumpy, calmer, mellowed a bit with age, and no doubt slightly slowed by his bad-boy partying lifestyle. Yet, in this film that only makes him interestingly more human and less of a cardboard Hollywood leading man. For O’Hara, who had appeared in Spanish Main costumers with Tyrone Power and John Payne, The Black Swan remains her slightly superior pirate pic, but she’s at her feistiest in Against All Flags.

Here are my Top 10 pirate movies, so you can appreciate where I’m coming from:

  1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)—A
  2. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)—A
  3. Captain Blood (1935)—A
  4. The Sea Hawk (1940)—A-
  5. The Crimson Pirate (1952)—A-
  6. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007)—B+
  7. The Princess and the Pirate (1944)—B+
  8. Treasure Island (1950)—B
  9. The Black Swan (1942)—B
  10. Against All Flags (1952)—B-

Growing up with Disney and Depp can spoil you, but those who are able to accept older films on their own terms will find Against All Flags pleasant escapist fare. Those used to seeing CGI or trick props will quickly realize that these are actual metal foils and swords, and they don’t have safety tips on them. Yes, there’s one camera shot that doesn’t capture the angle just right so that you can actually see a “stabbing” go several inches to the side of an abdomen. But after smiling, it occurs to you that the rest of the real-time action is fast and believable enough to require some precise stage combat skills to avoid injury. The actors did most of their own stunts, and that’s all but confirmed by the fact that Flynn broke his ankle during filming. There was only one scene where he reportedly used a stunt double for a rather extraordinary stunt.

Even O’Hara gets into the act, and she’s as good with a blade as anyone on set. In fact, O’Hara is one big reason to watch this film. She famously complained to the Mirror in 1945, “Because I don’t let the producer and director kiss me every morning or let them paw me they have spread word around town that I am not a woman—that I am a cold piece of marble statuary.” Her character, “Spitfire,” is just as defiant when it comes to men. “I kiss when I want to kiss,” she says. Not only does she fend men off as deftly as she handles a foil. She’s a feminist who also remains feminine despite her toughness, and that’s going to be of interest to young people who might be surprised to learn that there were strong female characters back in the ‘50s. Her character is all the more impressive compared to another woman, a Far Eastern princess (played by a white actress) who’s so helpless and naïve that she seeks kisses from Flynn’s character, with the running-gag request, “Again!”

Though it’s ostensibly set in the Caribbean, Against All Flags was shot almost entirely at Universal Studios and remains a pretty good example of the studio back-lot film and the inventive set designs that kept the illusions going for audiences. It has all the colorful costumes from the Technicolor era, and real-looking sets and props. It’s only apparent in several dock shots that it’s a Hollywood set, with a background that looks two-dimensional until you see people walking in the distance. And the only really glaring anachronism is a crow’s nest that appears to be made of chain link mesh, which wasn’t invented until 1844.

But this isn’t a documentary, it’s an adventure, and that adventure begins with officer Brian Hawke being flogged and publicly broken in rank aboard a ship in the Royal British Navy. We quickly learn that it was staged, and Hawke and two other miscreants are put in a longboat. Their mission? To land on an impregnable island used as a base for pirates and somehow discover and disable the cannons that have been destroying the ships of any nation that tries to catch the pirates. With a signal that the mission has been accomplished, the British warship will enter the harbor to take on the pirates.

Brasiliano and the rest of the pirate captains are wary of Hawke, but his smooth gentlemanly ways make him a favorite of “Spitfire” Stevens (O’Hara), daughter of the gun and sword smith who was responsible for designing the island’s fortifications. She inherited a ship and an honorary captain’s title, and her word largely saves the three men so they can attempt their mission—one that’s substantial enough to drive this film.

Young history buffs will take additional pleasure in recognizing the names of real pirates that appear, including Roc Brasiliano (played by Anthony Quinn), Captain Kidd (Robert Warwick), and Bartholomew Roberts (James Logan), but except for Brasiliano they’re as fleeting onscreen as seagulls . . . or whatever birds fly near Universal Studios.

As always, Kino Lorber did a fine job with this reissue, as their catalog of classic films continues to expand. The visual images are sharp and the sound, though 2.0, has a nice presence to it. Could Captain Blood or The Crimson Pirate be next?

Entire family: No (but darned close)
Run time: 84 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: DTS 2.0
Bonus features: C
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)

Language: 0/10—Squeaky clean, mateys!

Sex: 2/10—Some forced kisses, some mutual, but that’s it

Violence: 4/10—Lots of cannon fire, swordfighting, and people doubling over and obviously dying, but the tone of the film and the bright colors can make it seem like movie action; there’s also a slap across the face, but overall far less violence than in the Pirates of the Caribbean series

Adult situations: 2/10—Drinking, swaggering, and men staked out at low tide awaiting death-by-crabs 

Takeaway: It would have been interesting to see Flynn and O’Hara paired up earlier in their careers; they don’t sizzle here, but they are darned interesting together