These are the last few movies I watched. Mostly, they were fun. The first two are rough watches, but they still offer unique experiences in their own right. Folks wondering why they can’t find most of these movies on Netflix, might I suggest Criterion streaming, MUBI, and even Kanopy?
A sweeping, costumed spectacle of historical warfare and an impressive wrangling of literally tens of thousands of military extras cannot save the poorly plotted, dramatically dull, and abysmally acted 2+ hour Waterloo (1970) directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. The cast is good on paper. Rod Steiger is Napoleon and Christopher Plummer is Wellington, but the bad script and uninspired directing (I hope you like joyless soliloquies filmed six inches from the actor’s eyes) make this a hammy and yawn-inducing slog. Credit where it’s due: the staging of the immense battles is fascinating – if not exactly thrilling or consistently coherent. This Soviet/Italian co-production doesn’t hold a candle to Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon. Seriously, watch the silent one instead. The opening snowball fight alone is worth it.
On a technical level, Chester Novell Turner’s fetish-horror flick Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984), is worse than Waterloo. And although it may not feel like it, at 1 hour and 10 minutes, it is mercifully shorter. It’s an amateurish mess, but it is a unique experience. A good, chaste, church-going woman purchases a dreadlocked ventriloquist dummy from a local thrift shop and soon discovers the doll is alive(?), evil, and has the power to awaken her repressed sexually ravenous side. It was a deeply uncomfortable watch and I ended up apologizing to my guests. This one is only for die-hard fans of blaxploitation, weirdo cinema, and so-bad-it’s-questionable movies.
I think this a dead genre. The romantic action comedy. Peak Mel Gibson. Peak Goldie Hawn. And Bird on a Wire (1990) still is a bit too silly for the action to hold any suspense. Gibson plays a regular guy (who happens to be a mechanic, a pilot, a carpenter, an inventor, and an almost unkillable athlete) in witness protection and hunted by bad guys who want to stop him from testifying against them. But then his old flame (Hawn) discovers him at a gas station and gets sucked into car chases, motorcycle chases, helicopter chases, shoot outs, and a grisly action finale in a highly implausible zoo. It’s not as good as Romancing the Stone. Pretty meh actually, but fuck, Mel and Goldie look great and seem to be having fun. Also features David Carradine, Bill Duke, and Stephen Tobolowsky.
I just wanted to watch Al Pacino chew some scenery. I recalled The Devil’s Advocate (1997) being on TV when I was a kid and caught non-chronological snippets of it so had an idea what I was getting into. Keanu Reeves is a Florida lawyer (with a dubious accent) who defends an unrepentant child molester so well that he gets an invitation to go to New York City and work with the big boys. It’s Satan. His new boss is Satan. That’s the movie. The movie itself is kind of dopey, but it has a few good scenes and Pacino plays one hell of a devil. Also features Charlize Theron, Tamara Tunie, and Craig T. Nelson.
Surreal, psychedelic Italian cinema perhaps doesn’t get any more bizarro than Giulio Paradisi’s The Visitor (1979). Casually blending Star Wars and The Exorcist, The Visitor may not be a good movie in the traditional sense, but it is unlike anything you’ve seen (if you discount the previously mentioned two movies and The Omen and The Birds and Wild Beasts and a bad acid trip). A bad girl (Paige Connor) with inexplicable telekinetic powers torments her mother (Joanne Nail) and instigates violence so much that it causes space Jesus (Franco Nero) to send an old man (John Huston) to use the power of birds to stop her. It’s mean and it’s crazy. Also features Lance Henriksen, Shelly Winters, Mel Ferrer, Glenn Ford, and Sam Peckinpah.
Film enthusiast and director, Peter Bogdanovich, slams together two different movies in Targets (1968). The parallel narratives follow an aging horror movie icon who feels like an obsolete relic (respectfully cast to legend, Boris Karloff) and a young man who gets “funny ideas” that ultimately lead him to go on a slew of murder sprees. The movie juxtaposes camp horror fantasy thrills with the real life horrors of American gun violence. And it is chilling. The tone shifting may feel a bit off kilter, but maybe that’s the point. Watching this movie in 2020, after growing up in a country seemingly plagued by mass shootings, this film almost feels irresponsible and disrespectful, but perhaps in 1968 this particular flavor of terror was still new.
Regrettably, I spent much of my time watching Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987) unfairly comparing it to The Lost Boys. It starts a little slow, but it does pick up and get interesting by the third act. Adrian Pasdar plays a cowboy who gets bit by a strange girl (Jenny Wright) and winds up in a violent, trailer trash vampire clan. It’s honestly worth it just for the novelty of neo-western vampires and a pretty good truck explosion. Also stars Bill Paxton, Lance Henriksen, and Jenette Goldstein.
I remember seeing this a lot as a kid. It was my grandpa’s favorite movie. Grandma hated it. “If I had a husband like that, I’d throw him out the window!” she’d holler. The Out-of-Towners (1970) follows the Kellermans, a simple married couple from Ohio (played expertly by Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis) as they descend into the weekend from hell in a manic race to make it to a life-changing job interview in New York City. It’s one of those simple-objective-but-everything-goes-wrong type of anxiety-inducing cringe comedy. Lemmon’s character is such an obnoxious, stubborn, weak, impotent, petty, name-taking asshole that he basically brings each of his misfortunes on himself. His stoic wife is along for the ride, but, while supportive, is a great comic foil. Their dynamic and their calamities feels a little too believable at times, making the comedy darker. If you’re a fan of After Hours, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, etc., check this Neil Simon scripted gem.
Although frequently grotesque and juvenile, The Dictator (2012), directed by Larry Charles and starring Ali G/Borat/Bruno himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, is a great modern comedy. In typical Cohen fashion, it gleefully skewers multiple self-aggrandizing targets with fearless abandon. Aladeen (Cohen) is the deranged tyrant leader of the fictional country of Wadiya. When his uncle (Sir Ben Kingsley) plots to remove him on a trip to the United Nations, the deposed despot winds up penniless and powerless in the streets of New York City. His new humble situation gives him some perspective on the world. But not much. I laughed out loud quite a bit and maybe that is because I, too, am a bad person. Features Anna Faris, Jason Mantzoukas, Bobby Lee, John C. Reilly, Rizwan Manji, Fred Armisen, and more.
Edgar Wright makes fun movies. Baby Driver (2017) is a fun getaway car chase set to fun music. It’s fun. Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a quiet kid, but a highly skilled driver indebted to a gangster (Kevin Spacey). He drives the cars for heists so he can be free, but crime is never that simple. Great action, tension, and performances make this flick a blast to watch. John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza González co-star.
After watching Terminator last time, we figured it was time to revisit the legendary sequel, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). This is James Cameron’s second best film (Aliens beats it, in my opinion) and a perfect sci-fi action movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton are back, this time teaming up to protect her son (Edward Furlong) from another advanced robot from the future, the T-1000 (Robert Patrick). The special effects still hold up and the action set pieces are fantastically well done. The original Terminator is more of a gritty thriller, while the sequel has a lot more fun with its premise and does a great job of expanding on the lore.
Family has to come to together to help family because family is all family has sometimes. Unfortunately, family is also the worst. The Daytrippers (1997) is an intimate indie road drama about the Malone family as they drive into the city to confront the man who might be cheating on the eldest daughter, Eliza. Warm and perfectly cast and expertly balanced between humor and drama, you’ll probably want to call your parents or siblings after this. The knockout cast includes Hope Davis, Parker Posey, Liev Shreiber, Anne Meara, Pat McNamara, Stanley Tucci, Campbell Scott, Marcia Gay Harden, and others great character actors.
Adam Curtis’s documentary, HyperNormalisation (2016), summarizes several key world events since 1975 in an attempt to explain how we arrived at the current nonsense world in which we live. A global, interconnected domino effect of individual optimism, hubris, and nefariousness. A world in which we are all, in a way, both victim and perpetrator of our own personal dystopias. It’s a long, depressive journey through banks, politics, and cyberspace and if that’s your idea of a good time, you’re gross. But the movie, I daresay, is an important watch for anyone seeking to contextualize our current climate.
I originally had watched Mamoru Oshii’s Angel’s Egg (1985) years ago and was taken by the beautiful animation and bleak, surreal atmosphere. Watching it again while actively trying to unravel its mysterious symbolism has given me even more appreciation for it. A young girl in a dark and empty city guards a strange egg, meets a soldier, and observes living statues hunt the shadows of giant fish. I’ve heard a few different interpretations, and I’ll let the viewer discover its meaning on their own. It’s weird, but there is a deep poetry to the imagery.
An inherited sword that allegedly proves that the South won the Civil War is taken to a pawn shop and thus begins our journey into a modern analysis of the lies we believe and the confirmation biases we live with. Sword of Trust (2019) kind of surprised me with how clever it was and is a testament to how far you can get with a decent script and a good cast. Very funny, but also quite subtle and tender. It’s on Netflix. Just go watch it. Stars Marc Maron, Michaela Watkins, Jillian Bell, Jon Bass, and Toby Huss.
Ingmar Bergman hits your soul in the gut with his Swedish spiritual ennui and despair. Winter Light (1963) is the story of a pastor (Gunnar Björnstrand) who has lost his faith, but continues to go through the motions until he can contain his heresy no longer. The moment he does, the world appears to break. Bergman fearlessly wrestles with faith and doubt in ways few other filmmakers even attempt to approach. Hauntingly shot by regular Bergman cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindblom, and Max von Sydow co-star.
Sicario (2015) is a slick, slow-burn suspense thriller from director Denis Villeneuve. Emily Blunt is an FBI agent who has been recruited by a secretive government task force to take down the drug cartels on the US-Mexican border. She’s kept in the dark about most of the details of the mission and slowly realizes how this twisted world actually works. Bleak and tense, but then I kind of enjoy a movie that’s cool with cynically pointing out how irretrievably vile every aspect of a nebulous system really is. Also stars Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, and Daniel Kaluuya.
As absurd as the plot twists in François Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969) get, the characters seem to model all the typical beats of a romantic relationship. Or maybe I’ve just had some wacky relationships myself. Anyway, a rich tobacco plantation owner (Jean-Paul Belmondo) on the tropical Réunion Island orders a mail order bride (Catherine Deneuve), but when she does arrive she seems to be hiding something. I would rather not spoil the story. It’s a mean but funny romantic melodrama with lots of sexiness.
Another dive into an unfamiliar world, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006) is a peek into the slums of Kuala Lumpur and the dramas that unfold in grimy alleyways and abandoned construction sites. The static camera forces the events of the story to play out like distant tableaus. We are observers, not participants here. It is a very melancholy and human film and it sucked me in.
Since we were on a bit of a Schwarzenegger kick (we also tried re-watching End of Days but gave up less than 30 minutes in), my roommates and I were trying to figure out what his best movie was. Predator? Conan? Terminator? Commando? Twins? After much debate, it was unanimous. We re-watched Total Recall (1990), which is probably also RoboCop director Paul Verhoeven’s best movie too. It’s typically violent, lumbering, and satirical, but with that added layer of being adapted from a Philip K. Dick short story. Douglas Quaid (Arnie) is your average guy who’d like to try out vacation memory implants. Unfortunately, the process awakens something within him. Is he a real secret agent? Is he insane? Is he even the good guy? These questions lead Quaid on a far out adventure to Mars and into the world of corporate greed and underground mutant rebellions. It’s a goddamn perfect movie and just as fun as when I was ten. Features Sharon Stone, Ronny Cox, Rachel Ticotin, Michael Ironside, and some truly memorable puppetry and effects by Rob Bottin.
I dig novelty. Show me something I haven’t seen before. That’s my attitude when it comes to movies. The Boxer’s Omen (1983) is one of the craziest movies out there. It’s so insane that it’s almost a spiritual experience. So what is it? It’s a Hong Kong horror-action flick about a boxer who gets sucked into a world of tantric Buddhism and black magic in Thailand, Nepal, and the spiritual realm. The plot doesn’t matter. Magical showdowns with bonkers special effects. That’s all you need to know. The thing I dug most about this movie is that it really gets neck deep into the nonsense mechanics of witchcraft. The movie is all about leveling up and the process and insane rituals involved in, say, reanimating chomping alligator skulls. It’s gross and messed up and completely out there. If you haven’t seen Boxer’s Omen and you like crazy movies, watch this one immediately. I love this movie.
Sally Potter adapts Virginia Woolf in the gender-bending magical realism period drama Orlando (1992). Tilda Swinton stars as the young nobleman, Orlando, who experiences wealth, privilege, and heartbreak before (for reasons unexplained) wakes up one morning as a woman. The story presents the newfound disadvantages of being female throughout the centuries as Orlando, on Queen Elizabeth I’s request, never grows old and merely persists on living for hundreds of years, discovering new things about herself and her identity. Marvelous scope and sumptuously ornate costumes, Orlando is a unique transporting film experience with a cheeky sense of whimsy that brings an element of refreshing sarcasm to the wacky plot.
Writer/director/producer, Anna Rose Holmer, in her debut film, The Fits (2015), deftly captures and poetically rebrands the intricacies of gender and puberty. Toni (Royalty Hightower) is an eleven year old tomboy, lured perhaps by the call of conformity, becomes fixated on transitioning out of the male dominated sport of boxing and into the female dominated realm of dance. The complexities of gender politics abound, yet the film is quiet, distant, and hypnotic. Toni quietly wrestles with her identity as she navigates the two realms and then… the fits begin. Randomly, girls in her dance club start having fits. Some need to be hospitalized. Questions buzz around the potential causes and if and when it will strike another one of them. The metaphor creeps up on you as the film sucks you deeper into its artfully photographed high school world. An exceptionally sublime film about adolescent self-discovery.
Tezuka Osamu visually interprets Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, for Pictures at an Exhibition (1966). It’s cheeky and has a bit of satire. Reminded me a bit of the Italian Fantasia parody, Allegro non Troppo.
The Brothers Quay pay tribute to the Czech stop-motion master in The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984). It’s unmistakably Quay, but their homages to Svankmajer have never been more apparent. It’s a strange little journey into the surreal.
Joyce Chopra chronicles her pregnancy, birth, and the transition into motherhood in Joyce at 34 (1972). This is the film I think we should have watched in health class.
I am a huge fan of Russian animator, Ivan Maximov. His bizarre worlds, imaginative creatures, rich sound design, and dreamy atmosphere are perfect for the medium of animated shorts. I recently forced a few of his shorts on someone and I do hope they enjoyed them as much as I do. Most of them can be found on YouTube. In this particular session we watched From Left to Right (1989), Wind Along the Coast (2004), The Additional Capabilities of the Snout (2008), and Long Bridge of Desired Direction (2013).