THE LAST FEW MOVIES XXXVIII – Mostly Good

As I continue to do this, an unmistakable personality profile of myself emerges. I am what I am.

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18. The Ultimate Warrior (1975) may feature Yul Brynner as a mysterious fighter in a post apocalyptic New York City, but is ultimately a slow, boring affair with hammy acting, a world that seems as limited as its small set, and only one or two fun fight scenes.

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17. All of the Disney Star Wars movies at least look very good. Lighting, costumes, music, digital and practical effects, etc. are all top notch. But Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), like the rest of the series is a heaving, hulking, unwieldy mess of a science fantasy whose onscreen misfires belie numerous behind-the-scenes debacles. J. J. Abrams was given the apparently joyless task of dismantling everything Rian Johnson did in The Last Jedi. I had a lot of problems with the Johnson movie as well, but I was actually kind of intrigued by some of the new directions he was trying to pull the franchise. Abrams undoes it all. Or disregards it. This third installment feels completely disconnected from the previous two movies. It’s big, loud, and dumb but at least Ian McDiarmid is having fun as Emperor Palpatine again.

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16. I’m pretty sure Bigfoot vs D.B. Cooper (2014) was made by a guy who didn’t know about the internet and was too timid to make a straight up gay porno. Both title characters are barely featured. Instead most of the film is a group of dopey shirtless beefcakes taking their pants off and posing in front of mirrors for minutes on end. They’re supposed to be going on a turkey hunt (in what looks like a local park), but they aren’t exactly dressed for the occasion. Despite potential protestations from the filmmaker, this is essentially a plotless string of unrelated scenes. We get lots of disconnected airport scenes with tedious voice-over, random northern forest footage, a dude flexing in his underwear and then showering, and – if you’re real patient – a Bigfoot punching someone. This may be one of the most inept films I’ve ever seen. Not as good as Ben & Arthur or a Neil Breen, but we did laugh a lot.

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15. I remember seeing The Land That Time Forgot (1975) when I was kid. I had been enamored by the great artwork on the cover. Sadly, the movie did not live up to the cartoon poster. In 1916, a German U-boat destroys a British passenger ship. The survivors board the submarine and the upper hand is traded until they wind up in uncharted waters and trapped on an island locked in prehistoric times. I gave this clunky Doug MacClure vehicle another look and it is still a plodding embarrassment punctuated by inappropriately adorable dinosaur puppets (OF WHICH THERE ARE ENTIRELY NOT ENOUGH OF). McClure is hammy and brash as usual (as it should be), but the German U-boat captain (played by John McEnery) rises above the hokey material to give a nuanced performance. There are a lot of great ideas (the novel was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs) and some interesting commentary on war and nationalism, but the film never manages to do most of these ideas justice. It’s a long, slow windup to an ending that is technically cool but over way too fast.

OK. From here on out, I genuinely enjoyed the movies. Although I still may have a weird soft spot for Land That Time Forgot even if it is garbage.

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14. Sassy and free-spirited Melanie Griffith woos a hapless Jeff Daniels in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild (1986). As the duo trek from misadventure to misadventure, they may be falling for each other for real. And then her ex-husband (Ray Liotta) shows up and things get complicated. It’s breezy and fun and the cast is solid.

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13. Logan(2017), to me, is way more compelling than Joker as far as dark and gritty superhero flicks go. A washed-up, nihilistic Wolverine begrudgingly takes care of a senile and dying Professor X in a distant future where all the X-Men are dead. It’s depressing and somber and has some bloody good violence and apparently it’s what has been missing for me in the X-Men franchise. Folks who follow my ramblings know I struggle to appreciate most superhero movies. I solidly loved Logan. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart give great performances.

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12. What if a color was so weird it ruined a family? Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space (2019) has some hammy acting and some clunky dialogue, but if you let the neon pink-infused nightmare overtake you, there’s plenty to thrill you. Nicolas Cage is an aspiring alpaca farmer that’s relocated his family to the sticks. A meteor from outer space with an un-describable glow starts making everyone act weird. Because it’s based on a Lovecraft story. It’s a bit of Annihilation meets The Thing and reminded me of From Beyond. The color saturation, some artsy sci-fi/horror elements, and Nicolas Cage’s acting crazy may cause some to draw comparisons with Mandy. While Color Out of Space is nowhere near as good as those films mentioned (but more fun than Annihilation), it’s got its own weird, hypnotic vibe that keeps ratcheting up until the wild ending. Also starring Elliott Knight, Madeleine Arthur, Joely Richardson, and Tommy Chong.

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11. I gave Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) a re-watch and, questionable depictions of the Himalayan people aside, it’s a stunning drama with gorgeous colors and copious amounts of matte paintings. Some nuns (with Deborah Kerr at the helm) are sent to turn a windswept mountaintop palace into a school and hospital. Try as they might to tame the land, their inexperience and the hostility of the region make progress exceedingly difficult. They wrestle with their faith, are haunted by their past, and begin to lose their grasp on their own sanity. Co-starring David Farrar (in some cheeky short shorts), Kathleen Byron, Sabu, and Jean Simmons.

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10. I do love me some Cronenberg. And this earlier work, Shivers (1975), is a brilliant sort of nightmare. Essentially a zombie movie, but instead of undead corpses desiring to feast upon brains (how hack), a scientist develops a parasite that removes inhibitions and creates sex-crazed violent maniacs. Can one become so controlled by one’s primal urges that one ceases to be oneself? This chilling movie has the answers.

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9. Jack Nicholson plays a depressed radio host who lays his soul bare for whatever listeners he has before getting strung along on a fishy real estate deal scheme concocted by his charismatic brother (Bruce Dern) in Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972). Set in an overcast Atlantic City that feels like purgatory, this drama really sucks you into a sad but fascinating world similar to Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. It’s funny. It’s pathetic. It’s weird. It’s soul crushing. Ellen Burstyn gives a phenomenal performance as one of Dern’s lovers who is lamenting her fading youth. This is a movie for people who like gritty 70s dramas. So I loved it. Also features Scatman Crothers and Julia Anne Robinson.

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8. Steven Spielberg’s first feature, Duel (1971), is a masterful exercise in minimalism and visual language. Penned by sci fi legend, Richard Matheson, Duel concerns a dweeby businessman (Dennis Weaver) who passes a filthy big rig marked “flammable” on a lonely desert highway and thus inadvertently incurs the disproportionate wrath of the unseen driver. It’s all one long deadly game of cat and mouse on the road. And it is up there with Jaws and Jurassic Park for Spielberg action and suspense.

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7. I don’t even know what I can say about One Cut of the Dead (2019) that won’t ruin it. It’s a zombie movie, but it’s actually not. It’s more about filmmaking itself and it is clever and funny and heartwarming. It takes the concept of Noises Off and transposes it from the stage to film. And it is a wholly enjoyable affair. Better than Noises Off, because this one has zombies. A weirdly heartwarming movie about filmmaking.

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6. This one’s a re-watch, but I am here to say The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) holds up as a brilliant detective farce with absurd visual gags aplenty. Leslie Nielson is at the top of his comedy game here as he delivers ludicrous lines with fierce deadpan stoicism. Based on the sadly short-lived TV series, the first Naked Gun is the best one and one of the best movies Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker ever did.

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5. Tutto a posto e niente in ordine (1975) (aka All Screwed Up) might be my first Lina Wertmüller movie. She’s a renown Italian auteur best known for her comedies. This film is a chaotic pastiche of life in Milan. Gino and Carletto are bumpkins dazzled by the big city bustle and quickly take to pursuing women. A wild flatting situation and the relentless pursuit of work, money, and romance leads to series of funny episodes. I really enjoyed this madcap farce of city life and will be discovering more Wertmüller in the weeks to come.

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4. Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) is a refreshingly British picaresque adventure. When an execution goes awry and the French man (Jean Franval) climbs out of his coffin, he forcibly enlists the help of a young boy (Stephen Hirst) to make his getaway. Along the way they meet fops, grifters, vagabonds, snake oil salesman, and a young mad girl being sent away. You may need the subtitles on (the accents may be a bit thick), but Black Jack is a winning adventure for fans of period drama.

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3. Under the Silver Lake (2018), directed by David Robert Mitchell, is like a double postmodern neo noir that satirizes Hollywood, manhood, and pattern-seeking primates’ innate yet inane search for meaning in a cosmically dispassionate universe and skewers our voyeurism, paranoia, and hypocritical sex politics in subtle and sublime ways. It’s Hitchcock. It’s Lynch. It’s a bit of the Coens. And it is a masterpiece. A 33 year old loser dangerously close to being evicted (Andrew Garfield) meets a pretty girl who then disappears and so he embarks on a haphazard sleuthing mission that takes him to psychedelic parties and bomb shelters and cult huts. Beautifully shot. Great performances. Some visceral and truly memorable scenes. And darkly, devastatingly funny.

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2. I gave Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987) a re-watch. It’s a very slow and poetic film, but its unshakable humanism is captivating. Bruno Ganz plays an angel in a black and white world. Humans are fascinating to him. For thousands of years he has silently watched their joy; their despair; their loves; their discoveries; and their curiosity. Does he dare sacrifice his heavenly wings and immortality for a fleeting taste of what it means to be human? Peter Falk plays himself, an intensely introspective actor doing a film in Berlin and his presence adds a gentle touch of peaceful wisdom. Wings of Desire is the type of movie that will make you think about your humanity and our relationship to each other as well as whatever else might be out there.

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1.  With zero irony, Nabwana I. G. G.’s Wakaliwood action comedy, Bad Black (2016), is my unadulterated favorite film in a while. While the narrating Video Joker may offer some playful commentary and added meta-textual comedy, the story itself plunges you headfirst into the slums of Uganda. Bad Black (Nalwanga Gloria) is a young girl (played by Kirabo Beatrice as a kid) who winds up in a child gang, but when she kills their oppressive leader she becomes the baddest gang lord in Kampala. The movie gleefully shifts from heavy themes of human trafficking and murder to wacky kung fu fights (that are legit decently choreographed). You also get a white American doctor (Alan Ssali Hofmanis) being trained by a kid named Wesley Snipes (Kasule Rolean) to become a “commando”. Twists and turns and revelations connect everything back to truly satisfying conclusion. Wakaliwood is famous for its low budget, but this is real world cinema. Who Killed Captain Alex? blew me away when I first saw it. But Bad Black is a solid improvement. It’s faster, easier to follow, funnier, and arguably has better action (more kung fu!).

BONUS SHORTS

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David Lynch interrogates a monkey in What Did Jack Do (2020). It’s very David Lynch. I like David Lynch. I did not like What Did Jack Do.

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Special effects maestro Phil Tippett has been working on his stop-motion passion project, Mad God (2013-?), for several years now. And he’s still going! In a dystopian hellscape, a mysterious, be-goggled urban spelunker is deposited on a voyage of exploration into mechanical catacombs and pulsing corridors of suffering. A horrific, tormented fever dream awaits all those who dare enter. A work of art, to be sure.

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