I watch many movies. Here are the last few.
23. Based on a novel by Herman Hesse, starring Max Von Sydow, and advertised as having some innovative special effects for the time, I was ultimately bored and disappointed with the dour high-school existential pontifications of Steppenwolf (1974). It’s a damn shame really, because there’s a good movie somewhere in there, I think. It has pieces, but just a hollow presentation. No momentum. Stale direction.
22. My first foray into the films of Christoph Schlingensief has left me unsure as to whether or not I will indulge further into this anarchic German director’s oeuvre. United Trash (1996), starring Udo Kier and Kitten Navidad, chronicles the exploits of a mad German UN soldier in Africa and a possibly Messianic birth. The whole affair was wildly gross. There is clear satire at play, but ultimately I found it too abrasive for my tastes, despite my initial intrigue, and abandoned the movie before it finished.
21. Get a load of this. Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton in a movie together. Also Bud Cort with half his skull removed (and yes, that is George Kennedy in the photo, Naked Gun fans). It’s Brain Dead (1990) (not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s far more interesting Braindead from 1992), a weird sci-fi about brain science, evil corporations, and jam-packed with surreal dream logic. It’s loosey-goosey with logic, but enjoyable enough. It feels small and cheap at times, but that’s just part of its charm.
20. Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines; Or, How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes (1965) is one of those old classic comedies from the 1960s about a wacky race loaded with a who’s-who of celebrities-of-the-day in the cast (think The Great Race, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Those Daring Young Men and Their Jaunty Jalopies, or even Around the World in 80 Days). English, French, Italian, German, Japanese, and American pilots show up at a green field in England in 1910 to race across the English Channel in biplanes and glorified kites. I remember seeing this on TV as a kid and forgot everything. Revisiting it hasn’t made much of it stick either. But it’s an interesting time capsule of a film that features some fun, eye-catching turn-of-the-century vehicles, as well as Terry-Thomas. The theme song ain’t bad either.
19. I dug the original Creepshow anthology and while its sequel, Creepshow 2 (1987), isn’t anywhere near as good, it still offers up some decent, light-weight Halloween-flavored yarns – and an epilogue with a plea to take comic books seriously and remind people of the struggle horror comics historically have had through the years. A vengeful wooden cigar store Indian, an oil slick that eats teenaged swimmers, a ghostly hitch-hiker, and a little boy trying to evade some bullies all feature in this passable horror anthology. Honestly, the oil slick was the best one. The animated bits are wonky.
18. John Carradine looks to be about 100 years old in this sleazy, cheesy sexploitation horror flick. Vampire Hookers (1978) doesn’t try to hide what it is. It’s right there in the title. Some American navy boys are looking for prostitutes in Manila and get lured to a cemetery where a bevy of vampire ladies lurk. There are a few laughs to be had (both unintentional and not), but the real star of the film is the hilariously long sex scene about 2/3’s the way through and and the accompanying ridiculously unsexy musical track. I love John Carradine, but the real MVP here is Vic Diaz (a mainstay of cheap Filipino flicks of the time).
17. Rosamund Pike is Marla Grayson, a slimy legal guardian who uses the courts to prey upon the elderly to steal their money in I Care a Lot (2020). She essentially abducts an able-bodied old lady (Diane Wiest), lies to the court about her mental status, moves into her house, sells all her stuff, steals her savings and diamonds, and abuses her mercilessly in a nursing home. These facts do make it extremely hard to root for her as a protagonist. Even after she finds herself in hot water when it’s revealed the woman she has had the state kidnap is actually the mother of a deadly Russian gangster (Peter Dinklage), it’s hard not to be somewhat more sympathetic to the gangster’s side. It’s a bit derivative and has a few plot contrivances that may be hard to take seriously, but the cast is good and the twists and turns are well-executed. I love a good hustle or an antihero, but Marla is so unlikable from the start and her con so nasty, that it was very hard to want her to succeed in the end. But maybe that’s the point? But this isn’t exactly a Wolf of Wall Street style satire.
16. If you ever wanted a glimpse into the dramatic world of the Japanese queer and trans underground in the 1960s, then Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) is the movie for you. Loosely based on Oedipus Rex, it’s a bit documentary, a bit arthouse, and wholly its own thing. This is probably the earliest cinematic example I’ve seen of portraying trans people in a human light.
15. Enigmatic jazz composer and musician, Sun Ra made a movie. It incorporated a lot of his cosmic and pseudo-Egyptian themes and aesthetic, and not nearly enough of his music. Space is the Place (1974) features Sun Ra as a mysterious being returning to Earth to recruit Black people to go back with him to populate a strange, mystical planet. This movie is an interesting product of its time (and artist). I just wished it had leaned a bit more into its musical side.
14. I am a dirty slut for Alejandro Jodorowsky. Endless Poetry (2016), his last narrative film and a sequel to his autobiographical Dance of Reality, is more of what you come to expect from this surreal Chilean mystic as he looks back on and re-examines his life, casting his own family as younger incarnations of himself. Self-indulgent doesn’t even begin to describe it. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? While not my favorite Jodorowsky film by any means, I think these two last films are a kind of miracle. We have here a truly unique artistic voice utilizing one of his favorite mediums to visualize his own insane autobiography on his own surreal terms; reliving past traumas and rebuilding lost fragments of times and places that have long since moved on. Like all telling autobiographies, they sometimes inadvertently reveal the shortcomings and blind-spots of their subjects in a way that is more honest than a retrospective could do. Perhaps more compelling than Jodorowsky’s evolving philosophies themselves, are the ways these two movies attempt to touch the past.
13. We were all let down to different degrees when it came to Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy. One of the biggest missteps from the start, many agree, was the choice to turn the lighthearted children’s book into a grandiose, bombastic epic stretched across multiple 3+ hour movies. Many have made their own edits so I decided to check one out. The Hobbit: The Bilbo Edition (2015) is still a 4 hour epic, but it trims the fat a great deal in service of remaining more faithful to the book and focusing on the real protagonist: the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins (played just as endearingly as ever, by Martin Freeman). Azog is mostly gone. So is Legolas. No Radagast, Sauron, Tauriel, Galadriel, Alfrid, barrel chase, and a whole lot more. With these omissions, the construction of the story feels sturdier, more streamlined, and never off focus for too long from its chief protagonist and his journey. It works! Mostly. Better than the theatrical and director’s cuts anyway. It’s still too long. And things begin to crack under the weight of the lofty task by the time we get to the Battle of the Five Armies stuff. Some cuts, in their efforts keep it pure, get a little abrupt. All in all, however, this is a marvelous exercise. We all knew there was good stuff in the original movies. This edit does an excellent job of highlighting what it got right.
12. Everyone wants to bang the castle master’s wife in Walerian Borowczyk’s Blanche (1971). A clever little love triangle (only there’s like 5 people so…pentagon??) loaded with clammy castle textures and atmosphere. Admittedly, I found it slow, but the last act got me hooked.
11. The ultimate 90s American action movie features Harrison Ford as the President of the United States and the only thing that can stop Kazakh terrorists (led by Gary Oldman) and save his family in Wolfgang Petersen’s Air Force One (1997). I must have seen this a bunch of times on TV as a kid, so this was a total guilty pleasure hot dose of nostalgia. It’s over-the-top and ridiculous, but that’s exactly why it works. Great cast, high stakes, and plenty of suspense. It’s superb blunt force trauma action movie directing. Would make a great double-feature with Con Air.
10. Speaking of planes, Spanish auteur, Pedro Almodóvar, made a somewhat overlooked sex comedy about a flight that can’t land called I’m So Excited! (2013). While not my favorite Almodóvar flick, it’s breezy, funny, and oh so very gay. If you want something light, fun, and offbeat, I recommend this little film.
9. Takashi Miike may be a mad genius. 13 Assassins (2010) is a great samurai action movie that I will forever be unable to unfavorably compare to Kurosaw’s Seven Samurai. I’m just happy somebody is trying to keep the samurai genre alive. It’s so rich with mythology and tropes.
8. Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (2018) follows a girl (Elsie Fisher) on the cusp of going to middle-school. And boy does this movie capture the anxieties of middle school. And it understands the digital age and how images on social media impact our lives. Very clever and much softer than Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse.
7. A young boy (James Rolleston) idolizes his itinerant (absent) father (Taika Waititi) until he returns and the cracks in his fabled imaginary version of the man begin to show. Boy (2010) is another deadbeat dad and coming-of-age movie, but with Waititi’s trademark humor and gentle humanism. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see it.
6. A young woman (Stephanie Sigman) enters a beauty pageant and gets sucked into the dangerous world of the Mexican drug cartels in Gerardo Naranjo’s Miss Bala (2011). Inspired by real events, it’s a tight suspense thriller that pulls you into this seedy underworld.
5. A man who has had a mustache for decades suddenly, on a whim, shaves it off. When no one – not even his wife – notices or even believes he ever had a mustache, it causes him to question the fabric of reality and anything even is. La Moustache (2005) could be about a lot of things or it could just be a bit of French absurdist comedy. Either way, it’s an enjoyably weird little drama.
4. I am a diehard silent cinema stan. Like many, my gateway into early cinema was through the comedies. Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton are still recognizable names even after over 100 years have passed since their screen debuts. It is a resounding testament to their cinematic impact, iconic images, and well crafted gags. The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018), directed by Peter Bogdanovich, touches upon most of the common knowledge stuff surrounding the life of the amazing stuntman and stone-faced comic performer, Buster Keaton. This documentary delves into his early life as a child Vaudevillian, his filmography, his relationship with Fatty Arbuckle, his writing process, his risks, his hits, his injuries, his flops, his wives, his alcoholism, his connection to Charlie Chaplin, his renaissance, and his legacy. And all of it is set to glorious footage of his most daring stunts and most hilarious gags.
3. This is not the 1952 crime melodrama starring the conjoined Hilton Twins who also were featured in Tod Browning’s 1932 Freaks. That is a different Chained for Life. Although, I suspect a movie this in tune with how the film industry (and generally life itself) fetishizes and exploits people who are different, is aware of that other film. Chained for Life (2019) is an offbeat, satirical drama about making a movie with people that have physical abnormalities. It cleverly teases about the fact that many films that seek to humanize these people, ultimately cannot avoid being disingenuous to their proposed cause. One of their performers, played by Adam Pearson (Under the Skin), leads a group of different extras and bit players to make their own short films at night that better reflect the stories they themselves would tell. Chained for Life is astute, funny, and unique, and if any of that intrigues you, go check it out.
2. China is changing. It, like many countries, is an unwieldy mélange of ancient traditions and hyper-modernization. Dead Pigs (2018), directed by Cathy Yan, presents a comedic collision of the old world and the new as it follows several characters all trying to make it by in a quickly evolving and ever alienating Shanghai that seems to be leaving them behind. The events of the film begin in the wake of a mysterious occurrence; an unknown plague is killing off farm pigs whose bodies are found floating down the river. Heartfelt, honest, and humorous, Dead Pigs is one of the most enjoyable films I saw recently. It is perhaps also notable for being the first movie (I’ve seen anyway) that touches upon the weird topic of “white monkey jobs”.
1. Perhaps the film(?) that best captures this present moment of pandemic burnout, quarantine malaise, and social media induced existential dread is the one-man-show, Bo Burnham: Inside (2021), written, directed, lit, composed, performed, and edited by Bo Burnham. Oftentimes it takes a singular creative vision to distill the zeitgeist and subsequently lampoon it while also taking it very seriously. Inside is a musical meta-commentary on the collective nightmare we all seem to be experiencing…or, at least our performance of it. Who better to tap into our narcissistic, performative (and yet also real) depression and our destructive connection to the digital realm than an artist who started out as a YouTube sensation? Brilliant musical arrangements and piercing lyrics seeking to call everyone out, not least of all Burnham himself. The whole performance and execution is quite a feat. Compelling, very funny, and deep.
Fabrice Aragno’s Lakeside Suite (2019) is a visual meditation on clouds and water. This short puts the viewer in a quiet, peaceful, and contemplative state, if you let it. Just enjoy and respect the power and calm of nature without frills.
Emmanuel van der Auwera’s The Sky Is on Fire (2020) reiterates that our impermanence causes us to imagine the world is ending at every turn, because how could there be anything after we are gone? It reiterates this over and over as the camera takes us through a computer generated dystopic world that seems familiar yet eerily empty and fading away.