THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXV – The Worsening

I do it again. I watch da moobies. I list da moobies werst 2 best.

Nothing means anything. Watch more movies.

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Dolls (1987) is a disappointing combination of unappealing characters played by actors trapped in terrible horror movie that’s a much worse comedy. Haunted dolls kill people and awkward humor esnues. One or two cool but all-too-brief shots of stop-motion dolls and the little grins are creepy, but the premise, tone, and morals (when people aren’t getting murdered by porcelain figurines or teddy bears) feel like a children’s story. It’s watchable, and has a few funny WTF moments, but not essential.

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In Freejack (1992), Emilio Estevez gives perhaps his blandest performance to date but still manages to outshine a woefully miscast Mick Jagger in a story about a race-car driver who is brought to the future so his body can be a vessel for the consciousness of a dying Anthony Hopkins. Rene Russo also stars in this insane disaster of a film. How Did This Get Made is going to do an episode on it soon. I suggest you check it out as it’ll probably be good.

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The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) is an incomprehensible mess of the highest order. Some really good production values, special effects, R-rated violence, and dehumanizing female nudity, but this fantasy adventure is an endurance test of human understanding. We laughed through the whole thing, but were so frustrated with how difficult this convoluted plot was to follow. Clearly either footage was lost or they ran out of money. Highlight: semi-nude hero man is crucified at a banquet and rips his own hands off the beams and sword fights a room full of people using a triple bladed sword with projectile sabers.

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The Nightmare (2015) is a Rodney Ascher documentary about sleep paralysis. Instead of giving scientific insight into the dreadful experience (I’ve had it myself multiple times), he just lets people talk about their recurring nightmares and then they stage scary reenactments. That’s it. That is literally it. The reenactments are cool, I guess. Maybe I was expecting something somewhat in-depth.

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Don’t Think Twice (2016) will test your appreciation for the art form known as improv. It’s a good character drama and it has humorous moments and maybe I’m a Philistine but the improv scenes and wacky offstage theater kid banter just reminded me of why I prefer the company of stand ups. The story is relatable and moving, even if the writing doesn’t justify that the characters are supposed to be funny.  Mike Birbiglia is still a man to watch. He’s a clever storyteller with a lot of heart. Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard round out the improv troupe. 

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Ex Machina (2015) is a snazzy looking film with a few clever twists that you can probably see coming. The weird bro-y tension between Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson is great. The female actors all get the job of playing tormented, submissive, sexy sex robots. It’s good science fiction, but how you feel about women will probably impact your ultimate enjoyment of the movie.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is a re-watch from childhood. It’s beautiful, extravagant, hammy adventure times but Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) brings every magical moment to a screeching halt with his high-school-quarterback-trying-to-do-drama performance. The stop-motion Ray Harryhausen creatures are great (skeletal bug men, a cursed baboon, a giant bee, a mechanical minotaur, a giant troglodyte man, a witch-possessed saber tooth tiger). My main issue with this film (from a narrative point) is that the heroes don’t really sacrifice anything or do anything heroic. The villain (played with gusto by Margaret Whiting) has the actually harrowing adventure. She sacrifices and loses so much along the way that I sympathized with her far more than any of the protagonists.

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John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) is a classic horror movie about a sleepy beach town beset with an evil mist that harbors vengeful ghost pirates. The story is very silly, but the atmosphere is a lot of fun. Features Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook, but is is Adrienne Barbeau as local radio DJ Stevie Wayne that makes it fun. The story is dumb. I know. I just liked that little world.

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Loving Vincent (2017) is a breathtakingly gorgeous and artistically immersive realization of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. If every frame feels like it could be hung on a wall, it’s probably because they all have. The story takes place a year after Van Gogh’s death. The son of a postman has to deliver a letter to the dead man’s brother and then decides to interview people to see how Van Gogh died. And this is the problem. The story doesn’t feel justified or motivated by anything. It’s rather bland, aimless, boring, and without stakes. In the end, it doesn’t really say much about Van Gogh either. Sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at (so much work went into this to paint every single frame), pity they didn’t have a story to tell.

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Miracle Mile (1988) is a bleak apocalyptic thriller that feels like a cross between After Hours and Dr. Strangelove. A milquetoast man meets the woman of his dreams at the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles. A power outage causes him to miss a date with her but then a payphone tells him that America has launched a nuclear attack and the country should expect impending retaliatory destruction. Then it’s a mad dash to find the girl and get to the airport. Fun but bleak as only 1988 can deliver.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is fine. It’s fine. If you loved the original 1982 Ridley Scott classic then you’ll probably enjoy Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. Maybe I like this new movie better? I don’t know. The atmosphere, special effects, and cinematography are spectacular and I actually enjoyed the slow pace. But, to me, both films still suffer from a lack of interesting characters (Rutger Hauer and Ana de Armas excluded) and clear stakes and goals. Do our memories make us human? I don’t even get why people geek out over this question. It’s pensive. It’s moody. It has a great score and amazing visuals. I’m not disappointed I saw it. I just kind of wanted a clearer point. This isn’t Béla Tarr. 

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If Blade Runner is too needlessly complex, Desierto (2015) is simple.  Gael García Bernal and some other Mexicans are trying to illegally cross the border. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a sadistic vigilante who tries to kill them all. He also has a very mean dog. That’s it. And that’s perfect as is.

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Fresh (1994) is the story of a 12 year old boy (Sean Nelson) who delivers drugs and plays all of the drug dealers. Every move the kid makes is like chess. It can only work if he can see several of his opponent’s moves in advance. It’s a focused hood movie with compelling characters and building suspense. Features Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson.

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Chinese Take-Away (2011) is an Argentine comedy about an anal hardware store clerk who gets stuck with a lost Chinese man who speaks no Spanish. It’s a cute premise, but the characters and performances bring out more than expected. It has its sweet moments, its heavy moments, its light comic moments, but it is all anchored by Ricardo Darín’s perfectly pitched performance.

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Miami Connection (1987) might be as wonderful as Samurai Cop. A middle-aged Korean man named Y. K. Kim apparently wanted to be the next Bruce Lee. So he made this movie about himself and some middle-aged looking college students who sing rock songs about friendship and stopping ninjas. They are also skilled in taekwondo and are frequently shirtless. The hilarious, family friendly human drama is punctuated by some fun action scenes, brutal deaths, and boobs. If you love bad movies, this cannot be missed.

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) stars Caroline Munro’s glistening torso and her heaving, perfect breasts. Also some more great Harryhausen monsters (a cyclops/centaur, a giant walrus, a griffin, a couple homonicuses, a possessed ship figurehead, and a sword fighting Kali). And Tom “Dr. Who” Baker plays the villain. This was another re-watch. Caroline Munro really spoke to me in my childhood. Of the three Sinbad movies in this series, this one is probably my favorite.

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Broadcast News (1987) is a romantic comedy drama I can get. Holly Hunter is a TV news producer with two guys vying for her affections, the unscrupulous but charming William Hurt and the principled nebbish, Albert Brooks. It’s a simple, sweet story with some fascinating insights into what goes on behind the cameras. The whole cast is great. I loved it.

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I finally finished Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). Shot almost entirely from the POV of a disembodied ghost, we hover over the neon streets of Tokyo and into traumatic memories of the past. It’s an aggressive, surreal, artistic masterpiece and I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is the best Planet of the Apes movie (after the original 1968 film). I keep trying to write off the series with each movie, but each entry into the new trilogy is better than the last. Brilliantly realized ape characters, beautiful cinematography, and wonderful post apocalyptic action. This film establishes the stakes early and builds the tension gloriously until it’s satisfying conclusion. It’s a good, smarter-than-average popcorn movie done right.

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) must have just hit me when I was in the right mood. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) gets her house robbed and when the police are good-for-nothing, she awkwardly teams up with her weird neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood), to track down the thieves. What I liked about this movie was how it set up the worldview of the protagonist—that being “people can’t be assholes” [and get away with it]—and basically makes the plot conform to that worldview somehow. It’s kind of beautiful in a way and perhaps what elevated this little crime drama to something special. It’s fun. It’s unpretentious. It’s got Elijah Wood with a rat-tail.

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The Similars (2015) is my favorite thing listed here. It’s a tongue-in-cheek Mexican sci-fi horror flick in the style of a 1960’s melodrama. Don’t read anything about it. Don’t spoil it. If any of the description intrigues you, just watch it. I found this to be an exceedingly clever and playful movie with just the right doses of terror, surrealism, and offbeat dark humor.

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THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXIV – I have a life, I swear.

Again. I did it again. I rank the last few movies I watched.

Ultra Warrior (1990) is incomprehensible gibberish of the incomprehensiblest order. A cinematic Frankenstein monster mash up of nonsensical exposition stapled across hatcheted up footage from other sci fi schlock. It’s kind of a miracle.

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Order of the King Kong movies from best to worst: King Kong (1933), King Kong (2005), The Son of Kong (1933), Godzilla vs King Kong (1962), Kong: Skull Island (2017), King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives (1986), and whatever else the Japanese did with him.

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The cartoon cash grab exploiting our apparent addiction to reality singing competitions and pop music? Sing (2016). A solid ensemble voice cast and all around cuteness. Leave me alone. I liked the pig.

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Like Joon-ho Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer, I think pieces work and certain ideas touched upon are brilliant yet the whole eludes me just the same in Okja (2017), the story of one brave little girl’s love for her giant genetically engineered super pig. Also Tilda Swinton.

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Who likes their cowboy western’s slow, arty, ambiguous, and nearly inaudible mumble-core? Me. Sometimes. Apparently. Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Slower than Slow West, to give you an idea. Worth checking out for the patient among you.

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Ever wondered where all these golden arches and diabetes came from? The Founder (2016) explores the inception of the American franchise. Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are the brothers that begat McDonald’s. As charismatic as a door to door milkshake salesman.

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Moana (2016) is Disney doing their thing again. Come for Jemaine Clement as a giant coconut crab, stay for the lush, beautifully rendered Polynesian scenery. Does the plot even matter? Can you really not guess the ingredients to a Disney princess movie? I still liked it.

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Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness (1973) is basically a kaleidoscopic parade of violently surreal demon rape set in a highly stylized fairy tale world. With some trepidation, I say it is a gorgeous animated film. The soundtrack is amazing.

 

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Like movies with better questions than answers? Well, you’re in luck because The Man From Earth (2007) is a thing that exists. A guy asks his colleagues, hypothetically, what if he were a several thousand year old caveman? Well worth playing along.

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Early John Carpenter sci fi and black comedy, Dark Star (1974), is next. It’s so low budget and rough around the edges, yet this unpolished fratboy look at the mundanity of space travel delivers the absurdity and the hopelessness of it all with an engagingly detached spirit. And the theme song “Benson, Arizona” sets the tone perfectly.

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Elaine May wrote the screenplay. You shouldn’t need more, but you got it. The Birdcage (1996) is the American remake of the French film, but it’s the kind of remake you should watch. A very fun comedy about a gay father (Robin Williams) trying to play it straight for the night to deceive his son’s conservative future in-laws (Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest). And then Nathan Lane in drag shows up.

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Lucio Fulci (A Lizard in Woman’s Skin) directs another perfectly sleazy giallo film. Boys in a small Italian village are turning up murdered. Who did it? Was it the village simpleton? The witch? Naked Barbara Bouchet? Watch Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) to find out! Memorably stylish and gruesome.

 

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You probably know about the American prison system and racism in America. But not enough. Go watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016).

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Everyone in town thinks Daniel Radcliffe murdered his girlfriend in Horns (2013). Then he grows devil horns that make people be uncomfortably, horrifyingly honest with him. A devilish, atmospheric mystery with a tasty, dark wit.

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The Little Hours (2017) is the best comedy I’ve seen since What We Do in the Shadows. Gleefully raunchy nun movie sound too exploitation cinema-y? If it helps, it’s based on 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Don’t you feel so cultured now watching your smut. Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisan, and Nick Offerman are great and the detailed period setting sucks you into the world despite all the hilarious anachronistic language.

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My favorite movie this time around was, hands down, the Argentinian anthology film Wild Tales (2014), directed by Damián Szifron. Six short films about humans under pressure explore our more depraved and desperate sides. Stylish. Dark. Funny. Brilliant. 

Go watch some stuff.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXIII – Son of the List

I watched more movies. Here’s what I thought of them. As always, the further down the list you go, the stronger my cinematic satisfaction.

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Frog Dreaming (1986), directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, stars Henry Thomas (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) as a science-whiz orphan boy somewhere in Australia. There’s some mystical, magical stuff happening in a nearby pond and since it’s the 80s this ancient aboriginal mystery can only be solved by kids! This movie was also called The Quest, but that title was maybe a little too vague. So they went with Frog DreamingFrog Dreaming. That’s the title. It has some fun moments, but the garish daylight settings removed a few layers of spookiness and I was a little let down by the big reveal at the end. It’s an interesting enough one to check out, so I won’t spoil it. If nothing else, subscribe to Trailers from Hell to enjoy the wonderfully fascinating Brian Trenchard-Smith’s frequent commentary on wild movie trailers.

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Cult horror movie man, Wes Craven (Nightmare On Elm Street, Scream) directs The People Under the Stairs (1991), a film I thought was a family horror film in the same vein as The Gate or Monster Squad up until Ving Rhames gets savagely eviscerated and cannibalized by Everett McGill. I actually think this film would have been a whole lot better as a family horror, given the awkward comedy and silly plot. It’s not bad as a wacky, spooky comedy horror—it is a lot more wacky and fun than scary. The story concerns a young boy named Fool (Brandon Quintin Adams) who gets roped into burglarizing an old spooky house to get their hidden gold so they can pay rent. The twist is that the couple who lives there is a perverted brother-sister duo who abduct kids and try to brainwash them to be exactly as they want them to be, but when they rebel they are punished and sent to live in the creepy basement where they devolve into a nightmarish existence of troglodytic cannibalism. Also the man of the house eats people too. It’s an unusual roller coaster that never quite gets scary, but is enjoyable for what it is. Also stars A.J. Langer, Wendy Robie, Bill Cobb, and Sean Whalen.

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Cosmos (2015) was Andrzej Zulawski’s final film. I loved Possession and was fascinated by On the Silver Globe and so was anxious to see his last work before he died. It was odd. Perhaps if I was more familiar with the writings of Witold Gombrowicz (where the story comes from) I’d have gotten it a bit better. As it is, it’s a beautiful and odd film. I’m still not sure what it was about. I could describe character quirks (the old narcoleptic lady) and specific events that happened (a sparrow on a noose), but I would be hard-pressed to summarize what it was all about. There’s plenty of oddball mischief and it has a disconcerting atmosphere that keeps you expecting something, but without fully understanding where anything was going I confess I felt disconnected from the parade of quiet oddness. I may watch this one again. But probably not anytime soon.

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If wacky costumes and zany sets (lavish miniatures and matte paintings) could sell a film all by themselves. Each era has its own visually specific version of the future and the 70s has some of my favorite imagined futures. Logan’s Run (1976), directed by Michael Anderson (Around the World in 80 Days), comes only a year before Star Wars yet it feels like it could be older. It’s quaint and fun and the whole questioning-reality thing is great, but watching this you can really see how much of a game changer Star Wars was for the science fiction genre. Logan’s Run is the story of a Sandman (Michael York). Sandmen are enforcers. They hunt down and kill runners. Who are runners? People who don’t want to be “renewed”. Renewal refers to the weird ritual where people who have reached the age of 30 don silly masks and figure skating attire and float up towards a glowing crystal where they explode. Allegedly they are reborn and their life cycle starts over. But Logan (York) learns this might not be true and maybe renewal is all a myth. Also they live in giant quarantined self-sustaining bio-domes in a post apocalyptic world. There are so many moving pieces and important bits of information to construct this universe and the logic of their culture and, yes it is silly and there are a lot of questions left unanswered, but the style and surreal adventure of it all more than made up for it. Also stars Richard Jordan, Jenny Agutter, Peter Ustinov, and Roscoe Lee Browne.

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The classic western. An American staple. When people want to understand the traditional American mindset, look to the golden age of Hollywood cowboy movies. George Stevens (Gunga Din, Giant) directs Shane (1953), the story of a mysterious gunslinger (Alan Ladd), trying to leave his violent days behind him and helping out an honest homesteader (Van Heflin) and his family in the wild frontier. The Starrets, the family Shane elects to settle down with, have a problem though. The local cattle men are greedy about the land they helped tame years ago and don’t take kindly to farmers using up the land. Their bully tactics drive farmers away, until Shane decides he can’t give up the gunman’s life so easy. Towering mountain landscapes, a pretty great saloon brawl, unspoken longings, a satisfyingly American finish, and a really annoying kid (Brandon De Wilde) make Shane one of the memorable westerns. Co-starring Jean Arthur, Jack Palance, Emile Meyer, and Elisha Cook, Jr.

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Perhaps this next one I unfavorably compare to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Both take place in late 1700s to early 1800s. Both have loads of frilly costumes and elegant scenery. Both contain copious amounts of dueling. Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Alien) is the director behind The Duellists (1977), a period drama about a hot head Lieutenant (played by Harvey Keitel) who duels at anything and the Brigadier-General (Keith Carradine) sent to arrest him. The attempt at arrest leads to a stalemate duel which sends the two stubborn men on a decades long feud for honor and satisfaction. Whether they meet in a tavern or on a military campaign, they will inevitably duel again. And again. We watch the events unfold through the eyes of the Brigadier-General. We watch as over time the obsession fades and their scrapes with death become more of a nuisance. It’s a much quieter and simpler film than Kubrick’s epic. It’s also Scott’s directorial debut, making it all the more impressive. It’s well worth a look for fans of Napoleonic drama and realistic battles with swords and pistols.

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This next one is like a 20th century Duellists. Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Richard Dreyfuss (What About Bob?) star as rival aluminum siding salesmen in 1960s Baltimore in Tin Men (1987). Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Rain Man) directs this little film of tit for tat petty vengeance. A simple car accident brings the two men together and instantly at odds with one another. First it’s breaking windows then it’s seducing a wife. The gag is, DeVito is sort of happy to be rid of his wife (Barbara Hershey) and Dreyfuss reluctantly falls for her. In addition to their public spats is the ever looming specter of the Maryland Home Improvement Commission cracking down on dishonest sales practices and threatening to strip them of their tin man status. It’s a nice, little, efficient comedy and the period setting gives it some extra visual interest. Also features John Mahoney.

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Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers) might be best known for the cult classic Robocop (1987). This one is a re-watch. This was always on TV when I was a kid, but I confess this viewing was the first time I had seen it totally uncensored. And by god, is it great. A good cop (Peter Weller) is brutally shot up by bad guys (led by Kurtwood Smith), but is resurrected as a cyborg supercop by Omni Consumer Products to protect the grimy, dystopic city of Detroit. Like Starship Troopers, Robocop is a hyper violent sci-fi action thriller with a deft sense of self awareness. The satire is perfectly pitched. Everything from the dopey title to the character’s flatness to the heartlessness of the corporations profiting from all the carnage to the insincerity of the news hosts. It’s brilliant, brutal, and darkly hilarious. Also stars Ronny Cox, Nancy Allen, Dan O’Herlihy, and Miquel Ferrer. 

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In a not so thinly veiled look into the weird world of the first days of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) directs Philip Seymour Hoffman (Magnolia), Joaquin Phoenix (Her), and Amy Adams (Arrival) in The Master (2012). Phoenix is Freddie Quell, an alcoholic WWII veteran who stumbles his way into the life of obscure cult founder, Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman as a quasi L. Ron Hubbard type). The two share a bizarre friendship that immerses the viewer into the charismatic realm of “The Cause”, Dodd’s huckster woo woo religion. It’s a slow, pensive drama, but worth it for the fine performances and cinematography.

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So many great directors on this list already. What’s a few more? Film legend, Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street) gets historical once again in Silence (2016). Based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō, the story concerns two Portuguese Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who go to Japan to retrieve an allegedly fallen missionary (played by Liam Neeson). Once in Japan (circa. 17th century), the two men encounter firsthand the hidden church and the fear accompanied with the horrific persecution its practitioners endure. In addition to the brutal deaths and the serious implications of the earthly harm they are doing to the Japanese believers (justified only by their belief in an eternity of bliss, after death), there is another horror: the utter silence of God. Where once God was seen everywhere, in the face of such adversity and peril, the priests begin to fear faltering in their faith and committing the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit, apostasy. It’s a hard watch, but recommended for those willing to be challenged. Issey Ogata gives a wicked performance as the Inquisitor.

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This is one, I’d been meaning to get to and I’m glad I did. This period piece (set somewhere in the Paleolithic) says everything you need to know in the title. When a neighboring clan of hominids attacks the cave-dwelling Ulam, the defeated tribe goes on the run, but their sacred and much valued fire is doused in the swamp. The tribal elder sends three guys (played by Everett McGill, Ron Perlman, and Nameer El-Kadi) on a mission to find fire for the tribe. That’s it. It’s a quest for fire. Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Quest for Fire (1981) might be the best caveman movie out there. There’s no super smooth cavegirls in hot fur bikinis. There’s no stop-motion dinosaurs. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE sexy cavegirls and stop-motion dinosaurs, but there’s something to be said for depicting the lives of early humans as unapologetically dirty, violent, and rapey. With a script full of only primitive grunts and a mention of putting shag carpeting on some elephants to make woolly mammoths, Quest for Fire sets the stage for a very simple, but very effective journey.

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When I was a kid I remember watching Godzilla marathons on TV. Naturally, I had my favorites (Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, Godzilla vs. Mothra, etc.), but I lost interest in most modern takes on the classic lizard. They just felt silly or too pandering—seemingly more in love with the brand than cinematic potential. Shin Godzilla (2016), directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, restored my faith in the iconic atomic monster. It feels unmistakably Japanese. It has respect for the character as evidenced by the return to the classic creature design (but with a few added flourishes), heavy use of musical cues from the 1954 original, and making the story more political once again. Giant dinosaurs smashing cities is great, but what set the original film apart was the nightmarish metaphors for atomic warfare. This time around, the central focus concerns the response and relief efforts in the wake of a shocking disaster and Japan taking care of itself rather than relying on foreign aid. A secondary menace in the movie is keeping the American military response at bay long enough to stop the monster. Treated with almost documentarian detachment (that I know some will find boring), this was the Godzilla film I’ve been waiting for. It’s more The Host than Pacific Rim and that’s sort of what I admired about it. I love big, dumb monster movies, but a clever, more subtle monster movie can be even more horrific. Come for the giant reptile, stay for the commentary on radiation leaks and disaster relief.

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Maybe cavemen and radioactive reptiles don’t do it for you. Maybe you want something a little more real. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi: A One and a Two (2000) is a quiet and moving film about a Taiwanese engineer named NJ (Wu Nien-jen), his teenage daughter, Ting Ting, and his young son, Yang Yang. When NJ’s mother-in-law goes into a coma, his wife has a mini mid-life crisis and goes on a spiritual retreat. NJ is alone and trying to find meaning in his work when an old flame re-enters his life. Meanwhile his philosophical son deals with a difficult school life and his daughter falls in love with her best friend’s boyfriend. It’s a long, lingering experience, but definitely recommended.

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Park Chan-wook (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy) takes us to a mysterious Victorian mansion in Japanese occupied Korea for a twisting, erotic thriller in The Handmaiden (2016). I don’t want to give away too much, because the plot contains a few twists and turns. Actually just go and watch this one. It’s sexy, sumptuous, and full of intrigue and double-cross. Also scissoring. Stars Kim Tae-ri, Kim Min-hee, Ha Jung-woo, and Cho Jin-woong.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016) is a documentary about the fascinating American figure, James Baldwin. Directed by Raoul Peck and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, the film attempts to adapt an unfinished manuscript by Baldwin that was meant to explore the lives, tragic deaths, and social impacts of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers. Even for people who are not familiar with the author and playwright, James Baldwin, this is a highly recommended documentary. It chronicles Baldwin’s observations, criticisms, and despair concerning black-white race relations in the United States. Baldwin’s words are cutting, brutal, and honest and the manner in which the filmmakers assemble and present the narrative is wonderful and ever prescient.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXII – The Quickening

Movies again. Further down you go on the list, the more I liked it. What did you see?

Salomè (1972), directed by Carmelo Bene, is an Italian is a neon arthouse extravaganza featuring raucous debauchery in King Herod’s palace and vampire Jesus. Apparently I have an artsiness threshold because I could not finish this one. I can’t even review it because I didn’t watch enough of it to make any sort of assessment. But I include it here because, although it may not have been my cup of tea, it sure was weird and people, at minimum, should know this thing is out there. I’m sure it’s for someone, but I guess I wasn’t in the mood for psychedelic ass slapping.

Italian schlock cinema is notorious for ripping off other films, but perhaps O.K. Connery (1967) is remarkable in how brazen it is. Sean Connery’s brother, Neil Connery, plays the brother of the famous fictional secret agent, James Bond. I genuinely felt bad for the goatee’d Neil as I’m sure he’s been compared to his brother outside of this travesty of a film. It’s a bad 007 knockoff, but I will admit to liking the theme song.

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I got on a weird Soviet fantasy flick kick and watched Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1961). Directed by Aleksandr Rou, t’s based on a collection of short stories by Nicolai Gogol. I enjoyed the charming innocence of the stories and the dated special effects. There’s a romance and some comedy and a few fun creatures. I wish I had been able to find a cleaner copy.

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Purveyor of big-titted camp cinema, Russ Meyer (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), and legendary film critic, Roger Ebert (Siskel & Ebert), worked together in 1970 to bring to life the legitimately bonkers musical satire Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. This is one wacky movie with insane melodrama and hilariously awkward dialogue delivered with incredible earnestness and ineptitude. This is a cinematic endurance test, but the zaniness and relentlessly disorienting editing make this oddity anything but boring.

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Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is maybe too arty and winky to laugh out loud at for its entire run time. Enter Neil Breen. Neil Breen is the writer, director, producer, and star (in addition to credits for “music department” and “production design”—which might explain why there are so many bleached human skulls and leg bones along the roadside of the Nevada desert) of Double Down (2005). And this perfect storm of incompetence, naivete, and delusional hubris is just what makes this one of the best movies you could ever see. Self described as an “edgy action thriller”, most of the film is spent observing a paunchy, uncomfortable middle-aged man skitter around the desert and pretend to type on five laptops (plugged into nothing) as he eats cans upon cans of tuna fish while his nonsensical inner monologues try to explain what the hell he’s doing. Haunted by his past and obsessed with what comes after death, he plans some sort of biochemical terrorist attack on Las Vegas. He writes himself to be the smartest and best at everything but the script’s betrayal of how little the writer actually understands regarding how the world functions is just adorable. It’s like if Donald Trump made a movie.

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Back on the Soviet fantasy wagon is Viy (1967). Based on another Nicolai Gogol story, the plot concerns a recent seminary student, Khoma, who ends up killing a witch, whose father makes him stand vigil alone, praying over her corpse for three nights. Each night, more menacing things happen to haunt Khoma. Flying coffins and goblins abound. I’ll admit it’s a little slow, but the ending was crazy enough for me to recommend. The special effects are, again, very dated, but I found the quirky and charming. There is also a more loose adaptation of the same story made in 2015.

More Fun:

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When I first saw Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) I was perhaps too young to appreciate it. It freaked me out to be honest (as did the show. Chairy?! Come on! Nightmare fuel.). Having since matured, I decided to revisit the quirky road movie of the weird man-child’s quest to find his stolen bicycle. While I may not have the same nostalgia many associate with Burton’s feature directorial debut, I can finally say I get it. The character (played by its creator, Paul Reubens) is annoying and the world he inhabits is a plastic, colorful explosion of 80’s tackiness. The story is episodic and the humor very odd. But it’s subversive and great too. Glad I gave it a re-watch.

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Not sure many have heard of Tom Schiller’s Nothing Lasts Forever (1984). Produced by Lorne Michaels (Saturday Night Live), this never released oddity stars Zach Galligan (Gremlins) and features Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Mort Sahl, Imogene Coca, Sam Jaffe, and Futurama’s Lauren Tom. Designed to emulate the cinema of the 1930s and utilizing copious amounts of stock footage, it follows one young man’s saga to become an artist. At turns cutting and funny, at others rather slow and aimless, it doesn’t always work, but it’s good-natured oddness and cast make this Guy Maddin-esque journey of self-discovery that takes you from New York City to the Moon and back worth a look for the curious movie consumer.

 

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The Raid (2011) is an Indonesian martial arts action thriller about cops trying to get a bad guy in a very tall building. That’s all you need as an excuse for the impressive fight choreography that follows. The best action movies sometimes have the simplest setups. A few twists and turns keep things interesting and absurd amounts of shooting and punching keep it exciting throughout.

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Iconic entertainer Josephine Baker stars in Princess Tam Tam (1935), a French melodrama that would probably be considered culturally insensitive today, but is charming nevertheless—thanks to Baker’s infectious exuberance. A French novelist takes a shine to a free spirited but uncouth (by Parisian standards) Tunisian girl named Alwina (Baker). He takes her back to Paris and tries to introduce her to society as Princess Tam Tam. Think My Fair Lady meets Dersu Uzula (but instead of an old Siberian mountain man, it’s a vintage Manic Pixie Dream Girl). Baker dances and sings and exhibits a wildly playful and extremely likable screen personality (more than can be said of much of the rest of the film). It’s occasionally stilted, but it has some great moments peppered throughout.

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Here’s the Jim Henson Company and cult filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family) stars as the leader of a coven of witches that meet at a hotel to plot to kill children…by turning them into mice. Irritating child acting aside, this is a lot of fun. This is one of those kid’s movies that’s not afraid to be scary. And the grotesque makeup and ghoulish transformations certainly work well, as does the puppetry. Co-stars Mai Zetterling and Rowan Atkinson.

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Cult filmmaker John Carpenter (The Thing) directs the Lovecraftian thriller, In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) stars as an insurance investigator sent to track down a Stephen King type author in a fictitious town where evil lurks behind every corner. The film, while imperfect, boasts some fine atmosphere and Lovecraft inspired creatures. I quite enjoyed it. Julie Carmen, Jürgen Prochnow, David Warner, and Charlton Heston co-star.

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Beautiful Girls (1996) is a sweet little movie featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Michael Rapaport, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, Rosie O’Donnell, Martha Plimpton,  and Uma Thurman. Old high school friends meet again in a snowy Massachusetts town for their school reunion. It’s a quiet slice of life built out of good feelings, love, and wistfulness, but more than anything it’s just a pleasant experience to spend some time with these characters that somehow all feel familiar.

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By far my favorite premise for a movie on this list. In Jaco Van Dormael’s The Brand New Testament (2015) God is a grouchy old fart with a wife he dislikes and a headstrong daughter. They live in a crappy apartment in Brussels where he capriciously manipulates the lives of tiny mortals. When his rebellious daughter, Ea, sneaks into his office and onto his computer she decides to text everyone on Earth the dates of their deaths, plunging the world into a chaotic existential crisis. She then escapes to Earth and enlists the aid of a homeless man as a scribe to write a Brand New Testament. If Jesus rewrote the Old Testament, Ea is determined to one up her big brother. The story is a series of episodes surrounding Ea’s new disciples and the rules of physics and nature she eschews.

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From Lethal Weapon to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, writer/director Shane Black knows how to make a solid buddy action comedy. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe star in The Nice Guys (2016). And it is loads of fun. A broke gumshoe (Gosling) – and his daughter (Anjourie Rice) – and a brutal enforcer (Crowe) find each other at adds as they unravel a murder mystery set against the backdrop of gaudy 1977 Los Angeles. The dialogue crackles and the plot allows plenty of room for comedy and danger. Kim Basinger and Keith David co-star.

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Frank Oz deserves more respect as a comedy director. More than a celebrated member of the Jim Henson Company (famously voicing Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover, Yoda, and more), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Little Shop of HorrorsWhat About Bob?, and Death at a Funeral are just a few of the gems he directed. In & Out (1997) tells the story of a high school English teacher (Kevin Kline) in a small town, days before his wedding (to Joan Cusack), who is outed as gay by a former student (Matt Dillon) on national television. While it may not be as progressive as it was 20 years ago, it does give the always enjoyable Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) a chance to play another high-strung character. It’s the sort of positive, feel-good comedy I sort of miss and the social commentary is handled with the right amount sensitivity to balance the broader comedic strokes. Maybe it just hit me at the right time, but I really liked it. Co-stars Tom Selleck, Debbie Reynolds, Wilford Brimley, and Bob Newhart.

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Debonair Carey Grant (North by Northwest) and titillating Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady) star in Charade (1963), directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain). When Regina Lampert (Hepburn) returns from a ski trip  to discover her husband has been murdered and that the killers and the CIA (led by Walter Mathau) are after a missing $250,000, she becomes entangled in one of the more stylish comedy-romance-thrillers this side of Alfred Hitchcock. Mrs. Lampert must locate the money, avoid getting murdered, uncover hidden identities, and look fabulous doing it while she seduces a mysterious American (Grant). If you love classic Hollywood (and I find it hard to dislike Audrey Hepburn or Carey Grant and their very specific styles for line delivery) then check this one out. It’s colorful, suspenseful, and sexy. Also features James Coburn and George Kennedy.

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Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) writes and directs the truly brilliant and chilling horror/satire Get Out (2017). Brimming with cutting racial commentary and a mounting atmosphere of suffocating paranoia, this is a perfectly pitched and very prescient horror. Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to the country to visit his white girlfriend’s family. Subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments are made with seemingly good intentions, but there’s something off about all the black people in the house and Chris, though trying to keep calm, is getting nervous. Turning important social topics into an effective genre film is an excellent way to communicate to a general audience. And it handles its subjects with great intelligence. It’s a perfect execution of its premise and talking points. See it in theaters. Also stars Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Lil Rel Howery, and Stephen Root.

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Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic fable gets a respectful retelling and a built-in sequel in computer and stop-motion animated film The Little Prince (2015), directed by Mark Osborne. I could gush about the brilliant character design and clever architecture of the adaptation or the clever art direction and sensitive performances, but I was perhaps most touched by its thematic depth and wealth of imagination. The story follows a young girl (Mackenzie Foy) who escapes her mother’s rigidly organized plans for her life by befriending an old aviator (Jeff Bridges) who met the Little Prince many years ago. At each encounter the old man reveals more of the story and ruminates on life and its meanings. The movie also goes beyond the original narrative and embarks on a quest to figure out what happened to the Little Prince after his final meeting with the snake. Somber and adult while also also being playful and childish is a tight rope to walk, but the filmmakers succeed here and deliver a thoroughly beautiful and emotionally resonant work of art. The voice cast also includes Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, Paul Rudd, Bud Cort, Albert Brooks, Ricky Gervais, Paul Giamatti, and James Franco. Osborne is supposedly adapting Jeff Smith’s graphic novel, Bone, and I hope it is a success.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXI – A Star Wars Story

Once again, ordered by what I thought of them. The further down the list you go, the stronger I recommend. I wrote a bit more than the usual blurb about Rogue One because it’s Star Wars. And there weren’t any films this time I thought were awful. Everything’s got something worth checking out.

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Bamboozled (2000) is a satirical look at race as it is portrayed on American television. Directed by Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing) and starring Damon Wayans, this pairing may make it difficult to find the tone of the movie. There are serious themes worthy of unpacking here, but the tone feels off. Sometimes it’s silly and almost clever and then the sledgehammer comes down along with heavy emotions. Pierre Delacroix (Wayans) pitches a blackface minstrel variety show to the network as a joke, but they love the idea and run with it. The most effective moments, in my opinion, feature the actors in the show going through the conflicting process of donning the dehumanizing makeup. Despite a clever premise and what feels like great potential for scathing satire and serious conversation, the movie is a bit of a dud.
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That’s Not Funny (2014) is a documentary about comedy and taboo topics directed by Mike Celestino. It talks about what offends and why and why it may not even matter. It’s a dry examination that works mainly because it’s so straightforward. For people already entrenched in the comedy world, it doesn’t offer much new insight, but for the casual comic observer maybe there’s more value in it.
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Train to Busan (2016) is a Korean zombie movie directed by Sang-Ho Yeon. It’s more of a sleek action movie than a bleak horror thriller. It hits a lot of familiar zombie movie markers, but setting it on the KTX (a train I have taken many times) from Seoul to Busan gave it a dose of novelty. It’s not a great zombie flick, but it has some fun moments and for people who don’t like their horror too moody, scary, or bloody Train to Busan might be a decent alternative. Dong-seok Ma (The Good, the Bad, the Weird) is easily the best part.
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Sausage Party (2016) is the story of food discovering the horrible truth about their destiny. Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and written by Seth Rogen and company, this unrelentingly crass smorgasbord of Pixar and piety skewering satire boasts more creativity than it probably needed. There’s a lot of juvenile jokes, but also a satisfying adventure arc as well as a cute social commentary (spoiler alert: religions are just evolved permutations of old stories to find reason and hope in a horrifying universe and living in a world where Rick and Morty exist makes the satire here seem amateurish and trite). A bit obnoxious, but still funny and the animation is quite good. The Stephen Hawking character in the third act elevated the whole shebang for me.
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Off Limits (1988) is a buddy cop movie directed by Christopher Crowe. What sets this police investigation action thriller apart is that it’s set in Saigon at the height of the Vietnam War. Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines star as McGriff and Albaby, two loose cannon military cops trying to uncover who’s murdering all the prostitutes with mixed race kids. It’s a bit of a trashy premise and an underwhelming revelation in the finale, but the middle bits have enough suspense, tough-guy talk, and memorable standoffs that it feels good revisiting this mostly forgotten buddy flick. Co-starring Fred Ward, Amanda Pays, Keith David, Scott Glenn, and David Alan Grier.
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True Lies (1994) is a classic action movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and directed by James Cameron (Aliens). Although I had seen it on TV as a kid a few times, this was the first time I actually sat down to watch the whole thing. Harry Tasker (Schwarzenegger) is a secret agent married to Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her most fun roles), a bored wife who thinks he’s a computer salesman. After learning the truth of her husband’s identity and a truly provocative striptease, the couple both become mixed up in a terrorist plot (headed by Art Malik). While I personally prefer the more sincere Schwarzenegger action movies (Conan the Barbarian, Terminator, Predator, Total Recall, Commando) than the winking parodies, this is honestly a lot more fun than Last Action Hero. The action set pieces are fun (horse in the elevator?) the film never takes itself terribly seriously. Tom Arnold is obnoxious, but the presence of Tia Carrere makes up for that maybe.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a science fantasy adventure that takes place like 30 years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ends a few minutes before Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) begins. But if you’re not a giant Star Wars nerd then I guess you could you say this is a wartime espionage adventure set in outer space.
OK. Because this is Star Wars and, like many of you, the original trilogy was a very important part of my formative years, I feel I should be slightly more in depth. I realize my tastes are fairly predictable. I love the original trilogy (Empire Strikes Back still being one of my favorite space movies), intensely dislike the prequels, and upon re-watching The Force Awakens sober, I’m not a fan (it looks great, but some of the awkward humor and acting choices along with the cloying nostalgia and the disquieting sense of the messy, convoluted script being composed by a committee checking off boxes sucks a lot of the fun out for me). That said, I basically enjoyed Rogue One. There’s stuff I hated too. Who knows what I’ll think if I see it again.
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Things I liked:
1. The cinematography and abundance of real props, sets, locations, etc. all serve to make the world feel real and lived in and steeped in a detailed and immense intergalactic history. The costumes and most of the puppets also look great (the squid guys are looking sillier and sillier though). This movie genuinely feels like an expansion of a familiar fictional universe.
2. It is different enough in tone and execution to make up for my qualms with Force Awakens being too similar. Even if not all of those choices work.
3. I liked the robot and the two Chinese guys. K-S20 (Alan Tudyk) gets the best lines and Chirrut Îmwe  (martial arts master, Donnie Yen, basically playing space Zatoichi) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) have a nice friendship (just about the only interesting relationship in the movie) and are kinda cool. Wish they had had more to do.
The story is reminiscent of WWII commando adventures. This ain’t exactly The Devil’s Brigade or Guns of Navarone, but it seems to come from that tradition. It’s just got great space battles too…which maybe makes up for a lot of the characters being rather tepid by comparison. Which brings me to my next segment.
Things I didn’t like:
1. The two main characters, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), look good but are rather flat in the personality department. This really killed the intended impact of the finale for me. The central figures should not be an emotional vacuum in a movie like this. The rest of the characters are sadly forgettable.
2. Some of the fan service nods to the other films are handled well, but there’s still a lot of awkward inclusions.
3. Possible spoiler: there are a couple characters from the original 1977 movie that make appearances, but due to old age or death they are performed by CG versions of the actors (or touched up original footage in the case of a few pilots). In each instance it is strikingly disorienting. The CG humans are finely rendered (we’ve come a long way since The Scorpion King), but their inclusion is dumfoundingly distracting and unnecessary. We’re still in Uncanny Valley territory, and it feels super weird. It does, however, make me want to watch The Congress again.
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Darth Vader’s in it too and they make him scary again. It’s a big improvement over the whiny, pathetic prequel Anakins and his descendant, Kylo Ren. I just couldn’t remove the image from my head of an 85 year old James Earl Jones reading lines into a microphone in a gray, squishy room. But I’m weird and this is just how my brain works.
All things considered, Rogue One, while not stellar, is a ballsy Star Wars movie in a lot of ways. I like some of the freshness that Gareth Edwards was allowed to bring to it and admire some of the risks Disney took (not all). There’s a lot that just doesn’t work in this movie and it’s pretty emotionally dead, but if you like Star Wars, you’ll probably enjoy it even with its imperfections. There’s a reason people hold this series to a high personal standard. Like them. Hate them. At this point, they are intrinsically designed to be over-analyzed and talked about forever. It’s annoying, but who doesn’t like to indulge just a little bit?
Also stars Riz Ahmed, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen, Forest Whitaker, Genevieve O’Reilly, and Jimmy Smits.
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Swiss Army Man (2016) is a bromantic comedy about a hopeless misfit (Paul Dano) and a farting corpse with a penis that points north (Daniel Radcliffe). It was written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Although savagely surreal and whimsical, the movie creates a weirdly touching relationship between the two characters. The curiosity and innocence of the corpse causes Hank (Dano) to relive a lot of experiences and emotions and see much of his own life from a new perspective. As a surreal adventure comedy it works and as a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the nature of identity, it also somehow works. Check this one out.
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Arrival (2016) is a minimalist science fiction drama directed by Denis Villeneuve (Sicario). Amy Adams stars as the American linguist who figures out how to communicate with the enigmatic alien squid monsters. If you want a movie about boring old diplomacy then this is it. The central theme of the story is that communication takes time but it is time that must be given if the quest for understanding is a pure one. It also examines how language structures understanding of the physical world (and potentially our understanding of time itself). Gorgeously shot and thoughtfully acted. A highly recommended film. Also stars Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg.
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A History of Violence (2005) is a modern noir directed by David Cronenberg (Dead Ringers). Viggo Mortensen (Return of the King) stars as a small town guy who becomes a local hero after he stops some bad dudes. This act, however, unleashes nothing but trouble for him and his family as aspects of his past are questioned and unearthed and more mob guys show up and begin harassing his family. Like all Cronenberg films, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The lead performances are quite good (Maria Bello is a standout as Mortensen’s wife). It’s a small, tightly told story with suspense and a few turns that genuinely surprised me. Also stars Ed Harris, William Hurt, and Stephen McHattie.
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True Romance (1993) is a crime drama about a comic store geek (Christian Slater) who marries a call girl (Patricia Arquette) and steals her pimp’s (Gary Oldman) cocaine. Written by Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Tony Scott (Enemy of the State), this star packed thriller crackles with exciting dialogue, unpredictable encounters, and stylish directorial flourishes. It’s violent, funny, flashy, unapologetic, and damn good fun. I feel dumb for having not seen this one before. Don’t make my mistake! Co-starring Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, David Rapaport, and Samuel L. Jackson.
So what did you see recently?
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Brad Pitt in True Romance (1993)

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XX – I Halloween the 80s

I did it again. Some 80s horror treasures in here. Not all the films on this list are horror and I realize it may be unfair to rank mostly 80s horror movies—with their oh-so-specific aesthetic—against whatever else I’ve been watching, but here it is.

No to Meh:

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Hard Rock Zombies (1985) directed by Krishna Shah. Was it trying to be funny? I think so. That makes it worse. Because it wasn’t not funny. For a movie with a zombie rock band, Nazis, and a demon puppet(?) that eats himself for no discernible reason, it’s an extremely boring affair even for the schlock I knew it would be. Bonus: it won’t be too hard to get wasted playing a drinking game with this one.

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Curtains (1983) directed by Richard Ciupka. Actresses auditioning for a sleazy director in his mansion, but there’s a killer who wears an old lady mask who picks them off. Who is it? Doesn’t really matter. It has one or two decent scenes (one pictured above to give you an idea what we’re working with) and it had the weird temerity to use stage curtains for scene transitions. Bonus: creepy doll.

More Fun:

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*NOT HORROR* 6 Days to Air: The Making of South Park (2011) directed by Arthur Bradford. I love what Trey Parker and Matt Stone do. Seeing the insane process of how they make it work and how quickly they turnaround a new product was just a fun little treat. Trifling, but passably informative. [Made for TV documentary.] Bonus: Wait…Bill Hader?

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Night of the Comet (1984) directed by Thom Eberhardt. There is enough to enjoy here and, scene to scene, I was never sure where we were ultimately going. Catherine Mary Stewart plays Regina, one of the remaining Earth survivors following a mysterious comet that kills everyone (either disintegrating them or turning them into zombies because CONSISTENCY). It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is really its best asset. How many other post apocalyptic horror movies feature wacky shopping montages? More odd than great, but worth a look. Bonus: Danny Mason Keener, a.k.a. DMK.

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The Monster Squad (1987) directed by Fred Dekker. It’s a cult classic and I’m sure had I watched it when I was a kid I’d be more about this. It’s like The Goonies but with the classic Universal monster lineup attacking the town. I like the kids for the most part (and their old Holocaust survivor neighbor) and it has a few good jokes, but I just didn’t like this movie’s portrayal of my favorite monsters. It feels like an homage to Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Mummy as Halloween costumes rather than their infamous silver screen personas. Not a bad little film and I get the cult status, but it not my favorite. Bonus: settles what qualifies as a virgin for magical incantation.

Higher Ground:

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Lifeforce (1985) directed by Tobe Hooper. The weirdest vampire movie ever? Possibly. Soul-sucking giant bat aliens, pretty good special effects, plenty of nudity (I felt so bad for actress Mathilda May since she’s completely naked for nearly the entire film), and a young Patrick Stewart. For a Cannon Films production, this one is actually pretty high quality. Bonus: co-stars Frank Finlay.

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*NOT HORROR* Fletch (1985) directed by Michael Ritchie. Bad New Bears director puts Chevy Chase in the role of loose, beach detective, Irwin ‘Fletch’ Fletcher. He’s a fairly unscrupulous Philip Marlowe type, but also a master of disguise. The mystery is low key, the humor is subtle, and the musical score is wildly 80s. It gets by largely on slacker coolness and sarcasm. Bonus: Chevy is a dick to everyone. Double bonus: Harold Faltermeyer’s score https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8cLJcm_RoU

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Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. Tom Atkins stars as a lecherous doctor who stumbles upon a convoluted witch conspiracy to destroy the human race through television and haunted Halloween masks. There’s also robots and a magic rock. It’s silly, but it’s also sumptuously Halloween-y. Maybe not technically as good or iconic as the original Halloween with Michael Myers, but I found the departure from teen-targeting pseudo-supernatural serial killer trope rather refreshing. Kinda loved it. Bonus: kid’s face turns into snakes.

More!:

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Night of the Creeps (1986) directed by Fred Dekker. This is the campy horror throwback I wanted. Monster Squad director nails the 50s teen horror feel and updates it with gross special effects that only the 80s could deliver. Brain-eating slugs are jettisoned off an alien spaceship and wreak havoc on college housing. It knows exactly what it is. Dekker certainly has a knack for balancing tongue-in-cheek humor with fun scares. Bonus: Tom Atkins plays another badass.

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*NOT HORROR* Casanova (1976) directed by Federico Fellini. More Fellini grandiosity, this time staring Donald Sutherland as the infamous Italian ladies’ man. The film wrestles with what Casanova wanted his identity to be and juxtaposes it alongside his wild libertine escapades. More sad and grotesque than sexy, which is sort of the point. Bonus: a very young Daniel Emilfork (The City of Lost Children) makes a brief appearance.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) directed by Don Siegel. I’ve been a fan of the 1978 remake for some time, and it’s somewhat embarrassing it took me this long to get to the original classic. The sense of hopelessness and increasing paranoia marked a lot of 50s horror-sci fi and this may be one of the best examples of it. Is it communism? Is it conformity? Whatever it is, it’s coming and it’s taking over…everyone. Bonus: reminds you that you really can’t trust anyone. Because they could be alien duplicates.

Better and better:

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The Entity (1982) directed by Sidney J. Furie. This was an upsetting film. It’s like The Exorcist but instead of Pazuzu, it’s a nameless rape demon out to get Barbara Hershey. Some genuinely disturbing and scary scenes and overall sense of dread, especially when no one believes her. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you felt The Babadook was too on the nose, maybe give this one a look. Bonus: ice death cannon of science.

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*NOT HORROR* Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) directed by Travis Knight. Laika studios strikes again with another gorgeous looking stop-motion feature film. More beautiful, technically impressive, and emotional than anything else, this adventure simply warmed my cockles. Bonus: any stop-motion is a bonus unto itself.

Greatness:

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*NOT HORROR* Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) directed by Richard Linklater. A soul sequel to Dazed and Confused, the pointless saga of a college freshman in a rowdy frat house a few days before school starts in 1980 is immediately engaging. The characters are wonderfully written and funny in that hey-I-know-that-guy kind of way. It’s not a raunchy bro comedy. It’s simply a slice of life. I’m not even a jock and I loved it. Bonus: let Blake Jenner melt you with his smile.

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*Technically NOT HORROR* Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) directed by Todd Solondz. Remember Napoleon Dynamite? If you felt it was too quirky and twee then this uber dark comedy about the life of one 7th grade misfit girl is for you. Heather Matarazzo plays Dawn Wiener, a poor girl who can’t catch a break between her horrible life at home and her horrible life at school. Happiness director will make you cringe again and again with this hopelessly real portrayal of American suburbia. Bonus: not Napoleon Dynamite.

Fantastic:

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*NOT HORROR* Song of the Sea (2014) directed by Tomm Moore. Basically, if you liked Secret of the Kells you’ll probably be into this. If you can picture Irish folklore told with an almost Miyazaki-esque sense of magic then you have a decent idea of what you’re in for. The animation is unique and elegant and the story is beautiful and touching. It’s a splendidly magical fantasy with loads of sumptuous hand-drawn visuals to tantalize you. Bonus: I love the owl lady.

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The Gate (1987) directed by Tibor Takács. I loved this way more than I expected to. Some kids discover an ancient portal to hell in their backyard and have to figure out how to seal it up before countless demons get out. It’s a perfect family horror flick with enough clever special effects and creepy atmosphere to whet your appetite for Halloween. Bonus: best friend Terry (Louis Tripp) is the best kid punk nerd ever. #KillerDwarfs

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The Dead Zone (1983) directed by David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken stars as a quaint, conservative teacher gets in a car accident. When he awakes from his coma years later, he discovers that he’s lost a lot in the time he’s been unconscious, but he also discovers a strange psychic power that transports him into traumatic events in people’s lives—past, present, and future. Revelations about the future, put him in the dilemma of whether or not he should act on his visions. Also stars Herbert Lom, Brooke Adams, and Martin Sheen. Bonus: fake bad politicians still more believable than real ones.

Modern classics:

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Attack the Block (2011) directed by Joe Cornish. John Boyega stars in this fantastic sci-fi action horror comedy. Weird, furry, gorilla-wolf alien monsters start landing in a low income British neighborhood, making a small gang of teen scofflaws and stoners the only thing fighting back against the creatures taking over the block. All the action takes place over one night and the choice of protagonists gives it a very different feel. The design of the monsters is also pretty great. Bonus: this proved to be a perfect film to double feature with The World’s End.

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*NOT exactly HORROR* Spring Breakers (2012) directed by Harmony Korine. Gummo director turns “Girls Gone Wild” into a dark art-house piece. Perhaps a glib satire on social privilege, but seamlessly also a bleak, spiraling descent into the depths of crime. Entitlement, desperation, and ultimately depravity, this psychedelic tailspin is truly hypnotic. Bonus: Selena Gomez and James Franco and maybe not the way you expect them.

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*NOT HORROR* Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) directed by Taika Waititi. What We Do in the Shadows director steers this wonderfully funny and heartwarming tale about a troubled orphan and his reluctant foster father on the run in the New Zealand wilds. Sam Neill and young Julian Dennison star, but every single character is fantastically written and perfectly cast. The cinematography is also quite beautiful and clever. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll find better reasons to visit New Zealand than Hobbits. This may be my favorite film of 2016. Bonus: it would make a nice double feature with Moonrise Kingdom plus who doesn’t love a Kiwi accent?

Kubo and the Two Strings

I’m a sucker for stop-motion animation. From Harryhausen to the Brothers Quay, I have a fascination with the weird incremental dance of the puppets. There’s a tactile intensity and homespun charm in it that other mediums cannot convey.

Laika Studios‘ latest film, Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), directed by Travis Knight, is an impressive visual treat and wild technical marvel. The story is about stories and perhaps how the telling of stories is integral to humanity—in the film’s universe it is a crucial element that separates humans from the realm of immortal gods and spirits.

Young orphan Kubo (Art Parkinson) is thrust into the midst of an adventure story that was started by his parents long before he was born. He has some magical skill to manipulate origami figures with his shamisen, a traditional three stringed Japanese instrument, but he will need much help and guidance to control his powers and obtain the magical armor that can protect him from his two evil aunts (Rooney Mara) and his strange grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), the Moon King. To teach him on his quest are two teacher companions, Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey).

It’s a wonderful adventure full of magic and samurai action that is anchored by some genuinely compelling characters. The relationship between Kubo, Monkey, and Beetle is the true heartbeat of the film. Which is kind of the point. All the fantastical spectacle in the world would be totally weightless without character or consequence. And the writers (Marc Haimes, Chris Butler, and Shannon Tindle) know this. The characters have a natural chemistry and the dynamics between them are what can make a huge epic fantasy like this also feel quite intimate. And the subtly expressive animation conveys that intimacy wonderfully well.

I haven’t seen a movie mix genuinely exciting action with strong themes of family love since Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Like Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), and The Boxtrolls (2014), the worlds created for Kubo are wholly unique and sumptuously detailed. They also all favor a slightly darker edge than some of their competition. While all the Laika films can’t seem to help but end with a showdown with a big monster, their solutions are often a bit more novel than simply kill the bad guy. Perhaps not quite Studio Ghibli, but we’ll take it.

I may gripe that finding the armor pieces felt like arbitrary video game McGuffins (Coraline had this problem too), but the overall experience overshadowed these elements. The story isn’t really about the armor anyway. It’s about Kubo discovering his identity and how to end the story his mother and father began. The warmth of the characters and the respect for the audience is what stuck out to me most.

One more weird note. For a movie set in Japan, it may be a little odd that all of the Japanese voice actors are relegated to background extras. Sorry, George Takei.

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I definitely recommend Kubo and the Two Strings, especially on a big screen. The whole family can enjoy this one. A lot of talent went into this project and it shows. And since music is also such an important feature throughout the movie, it seems only fitting that George Harrison’s “As My Guitar Gently Weeps” (covered by Regina Spektor) should play as the credits roll for this somber tale.