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.
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 Dreaming. Frog 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.