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.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XIX – The Reckoning

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys. If you have different opinions please share.

Meh:

I remember watching the Disney Jungle Book (1967) as well as the Sabu Jungle Book (1942) and reading the original Rudyard Kipling stories many times as a kid. As far as Jon Favreau as a director goes I can say I enjoyed Elf. Everyone is talking about the amazing visuals in the Disney reboot of The Jungle Book (2016) and, if I’m totally honest, I’m not sure how special effects alone still manage to be a box office draw when every mainstream big budget movie looks exactly the same. It’s not a bad film (and yes, the special effects are impressive), but I found it just sort of tedious and uninspiring. Disappointingly, I think Bill Murray and Christopher Walken (voicing Baloo and King Louis respectively) were dreadfully miscast and distractingly out of place. Ben Kingsley (Bagheera) and Idris Elba (Shere Khan) were fine. If you saw a trailer you’ve already seen the entirety of Scarlett Johansson’s scene as Kaa. The songs feel forced and out of place and visually I was a bit bored with the hour and a half spectacle, but it’s passable and light for kids. If I want to watch a young Indian boy in a dazzling CGI environment battle a tiger I’ll re-watch Life of Pi.

As a big fan of Comedy Central’s Key and Peele I was eagerly looking forward to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s big screen debut in Keanu (2016). It’s not a bad film, but it just falls so short of the madcap surreal energy and comedy of absurd escalation that their show was famous for. I realize that maybe that’s not what they were trying to achieve here. And that’s fine. The problem here is that there’s really only one joke and it doesn’t escalate enough. The plot: two suburban squares have to play gangster to get their cat back. There are a couple scenes that are funny, but overall it’s sort of a by-the-numbers liar-revealed Hollywood comedy plot with not much surprise or innovation. Watching Key and Peele in this movie is like looking at a parakeet with clipped wings sit in cage that is too small.

I Like It:

Possibly the most anodyne entry on this list is The Peanuts Movie (2015). I was in love with the animation that managed to be state of the art and finely textured while maintaining the vintage lo-fi style of the old cartoons and simple comic strip that preceded it. All the hallmarks of Charles Schultz are on display in this gentle little film. It has a pleasant sense of humor and a quiet feel-good optimism that plays off Charlie Brown’s insecurities and social shortcomings. If you know the characters, they are pretty much themselves (Linus is a bit less sage here and I would have liked a bit more Schroeder, but we can’t have it all). My only real complaint is that, like Star Wars and Jurassic World, it seems like it is trying too hard to hit all the familiar nostalgic marks without developing much new. Like the old TV specials, the stuff with Snoopy is gold.

Up in Smoke (1978) was the screen debut of the stoner comedy team of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. The film itself is a bit of an amateurish hit-and-miss episodic road comedy. It means well, but not all of the jokes land like they should. A handful of funny moments, a mean sheriff (Stacy Keach) in pursuit, and the relationship between the two stars make it a warm little adventure. As perhaps the first stoner comedy, it’s more iconic than it is a masterpiece. Still worth a look.

I appreciated the character design and the social commentary better than the actual mystery in the animated Disney police procedural, Zootopia (2016). Voice cast was fine. Story was fine. Jokes were good. As a movie goer, I was perhaps most impressed with the world it created (Tundra Town, Rainforest District, etc.) and the ways that the city accommodated animals of wildly different sizes and shapes. Everything was fine, but I just really enjoyed the world they occupied and some of the character designs were wonderful. Additionally, the commentary on racism and prejudice was a refreshingly specific and important lesson that was handled well.

Guilty Pleasures:

This next schlock flick would be a great double feature with They Live. The Stuff (1985) is a delightfully cheesy horror comedy parable about consumerism and consumers not really knowing what’s in their food. When a mysterious viscous alien entity bubbles up from the ground it tastes simply too good to not be quickly packaged and sold in stores everywhere. The addictive substance is a living parasite that needs addicted host bodies to keep consuming it until it takes over. It’s a grim but refreshingly unusual sci-fi story with some gross special effects and Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) as a weirdly racist army general. It’s more campy and gross than it is scary, but that’s sort of as advertised. You can’t get enough of The Stuff.

I don’t get most superhero movies. I also have not been a fan of Ryan Reynolds (The Voices). I’ll admit it straightaway. That said, Deadpool (2016) was pretty fun, and, although not nearly as clever and edgy as it pretends to be, I still liked it better than pretty much all of the other Marvel movies I’ve seen. It pokes fun at obnoxious Marvel cliches (as well as its own one-note schtick) and has a charismatic wacky cynicism. I don’t remember the action much (I liked the fight between Colossus and Angel Dust because it had some interesting character moments alongside the punching), but I remember the snark and the snark was fun (Deadpool spelling out his nemesis’s hated name in henchman corpses was funny). Basically, if you thought Darkman needed more pop culture references and fourth wall breaking winks, this crass revenge flick is for you. More Morena Baccarin, please. All this said, I really want this to be an anomaly. We don’t need fifty more cynical, winky, ultra violent superhero movies. It works because it’s a novelty.

After all these years I finally got around to see the cult Lovecraft adaptation Re-Animator (1985). Honestly, I loved From Beyond (also directed by Stuart Gordon) a lot more and The Frighteners still contains my favorite Jeffrey Combs performance, but I get why this became a subversive hit. It slowly builds to being a zombie movie and then goes all out schlocky berserk in the final act. It’s silly, slimy sci-fi 80s mayhem. A lot of fun.

Rocking Harder:

After my disappointment with Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and modest feelings toward Inside Out, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Finding Dory (2016). Taking notes from Finding Nemo and Toy Story 3 in that much of the film is a convoluted prison break plot with multiple characters in different locations trying to rescue each other, Finding Dory is also a bit more fast and loose about its water-bound characters moving with ease from impossible situation to the next than its predecessor (Nemo’s hangup was in one small fish tank while the sequel moves through several tanks, pipes, buckets, etc.). The movie’s focus is all on Dory’s search for her parents and her past and, in addition to being a fast, funny adventure full of fun characters (Hank the octopus is a nice addition) and harrowing situations with innovative solutions, the fact that the main protagonist suffers from a difficult mental disorder (short term memory loss) and is able to overcome her countless obstacles through her perseverance and abundant cheerfulness should bring hope to sufferers of all kinds of problems. The animation is gorgeous, the characters are enjoyable and deeply moving (Ellen Degeneres shines in her role), and I applaud the writers’ ingenuity in figuring out ways to move characters that essentially need to be in the water at all times. It’s funny. It’s sweet. And it deals with very human emotions and problems in ways that are respectful and hopeful.

Two young boys trying to run away from home stumble upon a police squad car and hit the road in Cop Car (2015). To make it more interesting, the cop car belongs to a murderer and bad sheriff played by Kevin Bacon. It’s a tight, small movie with just enough moving parts to keep the suspense building. I don’t want to spoil too much so I recommend just checking this one out.

Last list I watched The Lobster and I didn’t get it. So I gave director Yorgos Lanthimos  another try with his earlier film, Dogtooth (2009). It’s a dark and disturbing surreal tale of three teenage siblings (Angeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, and Christos Passalis) being sequestered in their home by their controlling father (Christos Stergioglou) for reasons that are never explicit. A weird system of rewards and punishments is placed upon them. Weird sexual experimentation, gender favoritism, and sudden bouts of savage cruelty remind us just how innocent our protagonists are and how demented their parents must be. It is a quietly troubling film that has stuck with me. Watch it if you dare.

 

If you can get past Charlton Heston (Planet of the Apes) playing a Mexican and Orson Welles (Citizen Kane) wearing a putty nose then you will enjoy Welles’ noir thriller Touch of Evil (1958). Crime and corruption in a Mexican border town are the ingredients and playground for this classic. From the famous opening long take shot to the final bullets fired, Touch of Evil is a magnificent looking film and a pleasure to watch. Also features Janet Leigh, Joseph Calleia, Akim Tamiroff, and Marlene Dietrich.

Love It:

Terrence Malick. Some people love him. Others find him slow and pretentious. From Days of Heaven to Tree of Life, his films all look breathtaking. The New World (2005) was Malick’s take on the story of Pocahontis. It is a slow movie, but one whose languid pace, for me, added to the richness of the environment and emotional weight to the almost wordless plot. The refreshing take on this historical narrative comes in the way the film depicts its characters as complex human beings bound by culture rather than a sanitized Hollywood romance. These are difficult situations that befall young Pocahontis (Q’orianka Kilcher), her father (August Schellenberg), the pirate John Smith (Colin Ferrell), and pious John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and the solutions are not easy and may never come. The New World, like Malick’s best, is a profound and beautiful work that resonates well beyond the screen. Pocahontis is an exciting and curious and tragic figure and this film gives the legendary icon perhaps more respect than any other pop culture incarnation has. Strongly recommend.

Two men from 1991 (played by Jerzy Stuhr and Olgierd Lukaszewicz) are supposed to be put into hibernation for three years as a test, but wars lead them not being awoken until 2044. The Polish sci-fi comedy Sexmission (1984),  directed by Juliusz Machulski, depicts a not-too-distant future where men are extinct and asexually producing women have taken over a technologically advanced subterranean colony. While the premise might seem like a childish slam against feminism (in part, it may be) it is in fact a more fascinating critique on Soviet rule. The fantastic set work and fun costumes look great and the story is legitimately interesting as straight science fiction. The social satire on the politics of Poland at that time keep it from feeling like just another high-concept comedy. This one was a fun find.

If you are not already a fan of Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) then this may not be the best place to start, but I really liked The Forbidden Room (2015) (co-directed and co-written by Evan Johnson). Like all Maddin movies, it looks like it’s about 100 years old and operates on a surreal sense of wacky logic. Stories within stories unfold in an elliptical and episodic manner making it difficult to find your grounding. One minute we’re in a submarine quickly losing oxygen and the next we are in a night club singing about a strange doctor’s obsession with butts. If you have the right sense of humor and don’t mind feeling occasionally lost then I definitely recommend this one. It’s unique, to be sure.

Francis Veber adapted his own play for film in the French comedy The Dinner Game (1998). Mr. Brochant (Thierry Lhermitte) is a successful publisher who enjoys the pastimes of the wealthy: in this case, finding the most oblivious dolts to take to a weekly dinner to showcase their oafishness and have a good laugh at the expense of these lowly peons. Although he believes he has found an idiotic champion in François Pignon (Jacques Villeret), Brochant has injured his back golfing and cannot go to the dinner. But getting rid of Pignon is more difficult than originally anticipated, especially once Brochant learns his wife is leaving him. Over the course of the evening, the good-intentioned Pignon creates, dissipates, and escalates innumerable predicaments and causes some needed reflection to be done on the part of his heartless host. Once the film gets going it is on a roll. The Dinner Game is an immensely pleasing comedy that took me by surprise.

The Peak:

Color me freaked out by Robert Eggers’ feature debut The Witch (2015). A family in the 1630s builds a homestead on the edge of a forest. The forest happens to contain a witch. Hence the title. What makes this such a good horror film is the raging sense of dread and discomfort you feel as the horrible events unfold. It’s a deeply unsettling slow-burn that haunts your soul rather than your basic jump-scare torture-porn splatter-fest. With the presence of the witch, the family dynamic is strained and the overwhelming paranoia and creeping sense that evil is getting closer all pay off chillingly. It made me uncomfortable and I think that’s what good horror is meant to do. Stellar acting (Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Harvey Scrimshaw) and sumptuous cinematography (Jarin Blaschke) brings this minimalist period piece to terrifying life. Watch out for goats.

I’ve been coming around to zombie films. I still don’t like zombie storylines that play it all too straight. I still like a little bit of satire or whimsy in my undead carnage. Maybe I’m giving away too much by using the word “zombie” here. Pontypool (2008) (directed by Bruce McDonald, written by Tony Burgess) is a brilliant lo-fi horror thriller with enough cleverness and mounting unease to keep you glued to the screen despite the lack of onscreen action. Self-contained in a church basement broadcasting local radio, grouchy disc jockey Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) and the show’s producer (played by McHattie’s wife, Lisa Houle) gradually learn of a mysterious outbreak. The viewer watches the skepticism vanish and the horror set in on the faces of our insulated leads. How they learn about the virus, what the virus is, how it is spread, and how to counteract it are all part of what makes Pontypool unique and wonderful. Go watch it.

And finally, if only because any chance to mention animator Don Hertzfeldt should be seized, I submit a cheat. World of Tomorrow (2015) is a short film, but it was so good it must take the top slot. Hertzfeldt has impressed us all before with his uncanny ability to marry crude simplistic illustrations (Rejected) with immense richness of thought and personal creativity, combining bleak and absurd humor with existential postulation (It’s Such a Beautiful Day) in ways few filmmakers are capable of doing. World of Tomorrow is the story of Emily. Toddler Emily (Winona Mae) is visited by her adult self from the future (Julia Pott)—or rather, what is the latest in a series of genetically cloned copies of herself in the future’s attempts at attaining immortality. Adult Emily has summoned the girl to find a memory, but the implications of little Emily’s future, while death is technically staved off for the moment, is not a cheerful one. It is a cold, clinical, and lonely future full of more questions than answers and riddled with many of the same social inequalities of toddler Emily’s time—albeit manifested in uniquely horrifying ways. This short explores the nature of self, the nature of life, the nature of death, and the nature of progress. World of Tomorrow is overflowing with brilliant ideas treated as nonessential throwaway gags and, in addition to being exceedingly clever, is also wonderfully funny. I highly recommend this one.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVIII – Here We Go Again

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys.

Meh:

Remember. It’s funnier than an average rom-com, but that’s a low bar.

Comedian Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) stars in Trainwreck (2015), a mean-spirited by-the-numbers rom-com with one or two really good laughs. Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) directs and Bill Hader (SNL) co-stars as the perfect but vaguely awkward man who lets an alcoholic Amy treat him like garbage until she decides to just be with him. It’s a story of a character’s personal growth, but if you never really like the character you won’t care and if you’re not sure if she’s even learned anything you may be hard-pressed to call it an arc. I don’t care what the genders are, people being selfish and crappy to each other is neither romantic nor charming. Also features Alison Brie, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park, and Dave Attell.

If we keep running we might find “The Road to Wellville.”

I did not get Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). I did not dislike it. I just didn’t quite get it. Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), sporting a truly wonderful mustache, is a quiet man at a surreal mansion getaway where tenants are required to find a mate within 45 days lest they be turned into an animal (Colin chooses a lobster). I think it’s a metaphor for the social stigmas of being single, but it was all a little too dry and slow for me. A tepid, but refreshingly strange outing to the cinema. Also stars Rachel Weicz, Michael Smiley, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw.

No peace. No pussy.

It took me awhile to get into the rhyming dialogue and beat poetry delivery of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015). Lysistrata (played by the fabulous Teyonah Parris) starts a revolution to end gang violence in the bloody streets of Chicago by getting all women to deny their men sex of any kind until the shootings stop. It’s a bit stagey at times (in a stylized but awkward way that doesn’t always work), but the energy and humor and pulse of desperation make this movie worth a look. A bit tonally uneven, which is a shame because I feel like there’s a great film in there somewhere. Also features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson.

Guilty pleasures and amiable lectures:

Close the door! You’re letting Tarantino’s ego out!

Quentin Tarantino. An obnoxious egotist who makes some fun movies. The Hateful Eight (2015) looks great and packs some great people into its tiny cast. A bounty hunter called The Hangman (Kurt Russell) escorting his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution gets snowbound in a shifty cabin full of untrustworthy characters. The moments of tension are great—although nothing close to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained—and it has a few surprises, but when every character is so hateful it can become hard to care about what happens to them. Samuel L. Jackson is half the reason the movie is as entertaining as it is. Jackson has a fantastic mental showdown with Bruce Dern’s character too. Also stars Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.

So it has come to this. I’m doing a Samurai Cop sequel.

Samurai Cop (1991) is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It truly is one of the BEST bad movies out there and you owe it to yourself to watch it now. The surprise sequel Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) is decidedly underwhelming by comparison. The film spends a lot of its time winking at the audience and dusting off all of the old cast for their own quality moments of varying hilarity. Instead of a crappy old school B-action movie we get a seriously incomprehensible Lynchian mess of flashy colors and lady murder. In a post screening Q&A, Matt Karedas (Joe “Samurai Cop” Marshall, himself) expressed disappointment with the finished product and said he was uncomfortable murdering so many women in the film, feeling it was against Joe’s character. For however impossible the plot is to follow, I loved a lot of the cheesy winks and wacky, forced cameos. Bai Ling and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau add a lot of over-the-top zany surreality to the finished product, but seeing Mark Frazer and so many of the original cast reprising their roles in this stupid film was just what I needed. It looks like everyone is having fun. And this movie actually gave me newfound respect for Bai Ling. She plays it well beyond eleven. Fans of the original will undoubtedly be as dismayed and baffled as Matt, but should check it out anyway for a stupid adventure with your favorite cult movie heroes.

I came here for Keegan-Michael Key. Excited for “Keanu”!

Jason Strouse’s quiet little comedy-drama about an ineffably likable high school teacher (played wonderfully by Matt Letscher) is sweet. It’s charming. It’s actually a bit too clean and simple at times. But Teacher of the Year (2014) manages to more closely resemble the anxieties of actual teacher life than most teacher flicks. Mitch Carter (Letscher) is a great educator who has to make a choice between staying where he’s always been or taking a bigger job across the country. The cast is good (Keegan-Michael Key and the Sklar Brothers add needed hilarity) and it has enough satisfying character moments to eclipse some of its contrivances. It’s not pretentious and it should make you smile, whether you’re in education or not. Co-stars Tamlyn Tomita, Jamie Kaler, Larry Joe Campbell, and Sunny Mabrey.

A bit more on board:

I’m the best part of the movie and barely mentioned on the poster. Admit it. You can’t pronounce my name.

I love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and even lower tier Coens is still watchable (Ladykillers is pushing it though). Hail, Caesar! (2016) is not a masterpiece, but it is breezy and fun. The story is pulled in perhaps too many directions (The Big Lebowski made it work). Ultimately we may be a little fuzzy on what was being said and why we should care (Burn After Reading did it better). It’s all rather showy and cartoony (Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona were more successful here). It’s about old Hollywood (Barton Fink, while weird, was far more engaging). It tries to depict a crisis of faith (A Serious Man, anyone?). In the end, Hail, Caesar! is a series of wacky scenes vaguely connected and told in the mock-buildup fashion of classic Coen shaggy dog tales. Not great. But not bad. Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich (possibly the best part of the show), and a host of cameos from Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Clancey Brown, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, etc. So what’s it about? The red scare? The calculated fakeness of showbiz? Who cares? Eat your popcorn.

Say “War on Christmas” one more time.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a gleefully dark Christmas story full of demonic gingerbread men, ghoulish holiday gifts, and the wicked elf ruler of them all. A boy accidentally curses his family’s stressful yuletide proceedings when he summons the dark version of Santa Claus: Krampus. It’s silly and simple, but the surreal sense of dread, coupled with the right tone of comedy, propel this anti-holiday flick beyond Gremlins (perhaps). Did I mention the fantastic creature effects? The evil Jack-in-the-box and the nightmarish lord of them all look wonderful! The use of puppets and suited monsters definitely add to the uneasy texture of this kooky flick. Features an extended stop-motion flashback sequence and Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Conchata Ferrell, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.

The closest I’ve gotten to being interested in soccer.

What if you could get the two lowest FIFA ranked teams in soccer and have them compete against each other on the same exact day as the World Cup final? Two Dutch soccer fans did just that and made it into a documentary called The Other Final (2003). If you like underdogs, this is for you. It’s underdogs versus underdogs! Watching the sadly forgotten teams of Bhutan and Montserrat meet on the patchy green amicably and in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is a charming little departure from big commercial athletics. As a bonus, I learned more about the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat than I ever knew before.

Let’s take it up a notch:

You will forever think differently about fish, pigs, and monkeys.

I’m a Stephen Chow fan. Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle are masterpieces of comic fantasy. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) is a fantastically innovative adventure and compelling retelling of the classic Chinese legend. While some of the ambitious visuals may falter beneath occasionally uneven special effects, one must applaud Chow’s typically confident direction of the impossible mayhem. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in this action-packed tale of demon hunters and romance unrequited. Like Chow’s previous films mentioned, Journey to the West is accessible to children for its monsters and fantasy but complex and surprising in its narrative cogs. At the end of it all, I found myself both exhausted and delighted at having seen something unique. Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, and Huang Bo star.

And I want to come out on a swan.

Kristen Wiig (SNL) plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and decides to make a show based on herself (her thoughts, her memories, her hobbies, etc.) in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me (2014). Honestly, I can’t imagine a single other person playing this character. Wiig straddles a weird line between comedy and sympathy for mental illness. The usual obvious satirical fodder of television politics rears its head too, but the real heart of the film comes from the endearing character and Wiig’s performance. There’s a lot of goodies in this clever little movie that I’ll just recommend you watch it. Also features Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, and Alan Tudyk.

Say “Tommy Wiseau” in the mirror three times and a drama student rejoins the fastfood industry.

If you got excited by Tommy Wiseau’s mention in Samurai Cop 2, then you’re going to love this: The Room fan Rick Harper got deep into Wiseau’s world a few years back. So deep they may not be on speaking terms anymore. So deep he tracked down most of the original cast and crew and made a documentary about the famously awful cult movie. I had the special privilege of seeing the world premier of Room Full of Spoons (2016) in Madrid. If watching The Room brings you joy; if Tommy Wiseau fascinates you with his captivating oddness; if you’ve ever had questions about how the film was made or where Tommy comes from…watch this documentary.

What’s this Panama Papers thing I keep hearing about?

2016 Oscar winning film about the Catholic priest pedophilia cover up, Spotlight (2015), is solidly cast, well written, and an important reminder of the significance of investigative journalism in our world. This is like the sister film of All the President’s Men (1976). Not merely satisfied with looking into the interviewing process of gathering data via cold calls, personal interviews, and reading through old documents, Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, deals a lot with the nature of the politics game and media strategies involved in a high profile, high risk scoop dependent on secrecy and facts. And the personalities uncovering the story bring added realism to this slow-burn drama. Stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.

MORE! MORE!

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It was a slow night.

I gave a needed re-watch to a film I never really got on board with as a child. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our home did not celebrate the knockoffs I later came to love. Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars have since become films I frequently recommend. Knowing this, and somewhat prompted by “Trailers From Hell“, I gave The Last Starfighter (1984) another chance. No, not all of the effects hold up (some of the earliest examples of CGI), but it is such an amiable breath of fresh air that it hit me just right. A video-gamer named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) living in a dusty trailer park gets a surprise visit from a strange alien visitor (The Music Man‘s Robert Preston) sent to recruit him to defend a distant planet. Alex’s alien mentor, Grig (played by Dan O’Herlihy), is an understandably favorite character. It’s basically everything you want it to be. It’s unapologetically fun and squarely 80s sci-fi cheese. Maybe never confused with a truly “great” film, I submit we retain slots for the wonderfully good.

Him: There’s pigs. Her: I know.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is a hypnotic, elliptical enigma. If you thought Primer was alienating and indecipherable, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Categorized as a sci-fi movie, imdb.com summarizes the plot thusly: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Which is more than the film itself clearly communicates and more succinct than I could blurb. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it immensely. But then…I also liked Beyond the Black Rainbow and Under the Skin a lot too.

Imagine how betrayed you’d feel if this picture was all you knew about the movie.

High-Rise (2015) is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. Tom Hiddleston plays a businessman who moves into the latest architectural wonder created by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). It’s got all the modern conveniences and it is stylish beyond compare, but things gradually devolve into anarchy as the classes and perceived entitlements of its tenants begin to clash. This is not Snowpiercer. This is not an action movie. The objectives are intentionally vague. It’s brand of satire is unabashedly dark and murky. It’s sexy and weird and claustrophobic. Also stars Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.

Well, at least it’s not Scientology.

Here’s a slow-burn that caught me off guard. I went to see Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) knowing pretty much nothing about it. I think that helped. The story of a group of estranged friends reuniting under cryptic circumstances—and what increasingly feels like a cult pitch—sucks you in and holds you under as the tension and suspense uncomfortably builds before a final act that does not disappoint. The driveway to this California dinner party is lined with warning signs. Watch it. Stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch.

This is the end:

After all that, what could I list as my top three films? (As my whims sit these evening anyway.)

That’s never a good sign.

S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has been lauded. And for good reason. Bone Tomahawk (2015) blows Tarantino’s latest film out of the water. Kurt Russell is Sheriff Hunt. He and his elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a greasy gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and one man with a broken [possibly gangrenous] leg (Patrick Wilson) go on a rescue mission to save the cripple’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a mysterious tribe of albino cannibal troglodytes. Valley of the Gwangi was cowboys versus dinosaurs. Now we got cowboys versus cave-people. And for however schlocky the synopsis may sound, this is a genuinely good movie. It is sensitive and earthy. More drama than gore-fest (though, there’s a bit of that too). It’s a well-written surprise whose humor and heart make it more than just that movie with the cannibal troglodytes in the wild west. And can we just give all of the acting awards to Richard Jenkins for his performance already? The man is glorious. Also features Sid Haig, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, James Tolkan, and Sean Young.

Caitlyn who?

How does a kinetic comedy-drama about a jealousy & meth-fueled transgender sex-worker on Christmas Eve in Hollywood filmed entirely on iPhone 5s sound? The very first scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) sets up everything you need to know: Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of prison and just found out her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cisgender chick (Mickey O’Hagan). In addition we have the subplots of Sin-Dee’s best friend (also trans, also a sex worker), Alexandra (Mya Taylor), quiet ambitions of being a singer and an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) trying to avoid his family on Christmas Eve to find Alexandra. The whole chaotic pot comes to a boil and we, the audience, are there for the show. Maybe you don’t feel like you relate to any of these characters. Perhaps it all sounds too much like an episode of Cops. Or maybe you don’t mind walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and observing their lives and their dreams and their problems. These characters are not the typical archetypes of American cinema. It may take a moment to step into their world and get used to the frenetic tempo and saturated colors, but perhaps you shall be rewarded.

Welcome to Wakaliwood.

Nabwana I.G.G. has been making insane, low-budget action movies in the slums of Uganda for years. I was introduced to his work via Alan Ssali Hofmanis, an American who moved to Uganda and dedicated his life to helping Nabwana complete more films. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), on all accounts, could not be a good movie. But it is. The plot is all but incomprehensible and the effects and props are fakey-fake. But this was made in the slums. For nothing. And a mad, anarchic joy permeates every moment of this glorious, cacophonous proceedings. Unlike The Room, which I love because it is terrible, I love Captain Alex because it was so alien and new and wonderful. By way of the Voice Joker (gleeful narrator who vaguely helps tell the story between wisecracks), we are given a glimpse into life in the slums and, more tellingly, their interpretation of American action cinema, the genre they were first introduced to and the one they choose to troll. They are having fun. Infectious fun. I can’t guarantee that you will like it as much as I did. But after hearing the history of slum cinema from Alan and viewing this feature on the big screen at midnight I only know one thing: I can’t wait to see Nabwana’s next film in which I may have a brief cameo getting my own head blown up by the Ebola Hunter. Call me crazy, this was my favorite movie-going experience in awhile.

That’s my list. Disagree? What did you see?