The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXXVI – Halloween 2019

It’s Halloween and I am watching some spooky movies about it. As always, the films are ranked in order of what I thought of them. If you’re looking for something to watch, there’s a few in here that are definitely memorable.

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19. I hope you like more underwater footage than Thunderball. This is Beyond Atlantis (1973). And good grief is there a lot of swimming. Here’s the plot: a bunch of slimy city folk (including the late Sid Haig playing a character named East Eddie) travel to an island inhabited by a tribe of people with huge eyeballs to collect priceless pearls. Sid Haig and hot bikini bods (mainly Leigh Christian) make this Filipino-American flick sporadically watchable, but a bit tedious.

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18. I think it’s fairly apparent that I am a ravenous Redlettermedia fan. They are living the dream. And they recommended Suburban Sasquatch (2004). So I watched it. Most of it. It is so laughably amateurish that it becomes more of a slog to sit through. It’s tepid and boring and vaguely Christian. Bigfoot sucks. He sucks as a character. He sucks as a cryptoid. I hate it. This movie had us laughing out loud at quite a few parts, but it just becomes so repetitive and profoundly ugly to look at that all the hammy acting and cheesy dialogue in the world can’t justify the product as a whole. Perhaps I will finish the last 20 minutes. But I don’t feel any pressing need to.

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17. R.O.T.O.R. (1987) is another sci-fi B-movie with some funny moments (that stupid mouthy robot in the picture is a highlight) but ultimately not very memorable. It’s derivative of Terminator and Robocop, but there are a few laughs to be had. Fun fact: the title “R.O.T.O.R” stands for Robotic Officer of the Tactical Operations Research/Reserve Unit. For reference, the rest of the film is just as clunky.

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16. What a series. I keep watching Howling sequels, guys. I still haven’t seen the acclaimed Joe Dante original. But this series is a trip. Each new entry is bad in remarkably different ways. Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf is still my favorite (mainly because the of killer song, Sybil Danning, Christopher Lee, and its unabashed sleaziness). Howling III: The Marsupials is easily the stupidest (and most objectionable – straight up marsupial werewolf birthing sequence). Howling IV: The Original Nightmare is the most uninspired and boring. And now, Howling V: The Rebirth (1989) gets a few points from me. Perhaps the most ambitious in its first act. It assembles a gaggle of unlikable haircuts that have been selected to tour an ancient castle in Hungary. A castle that was abandoned 500 years ago. A castle that’s cursed. Yes, it’s stupid and almost entirely bloodless with only slightly more werewolf sightings that Howling IV, but the castle is neat and it has actual cinematography. You’ll be begging for it to end by the third kill, but you’ll keep watching because it’s The Howling.

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15. I like Zach Galifianakis. I think he’s a very comical actor with a lot more talent and personal whimsy than Hollywood knows what to do with. Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019) takes Zach’s webseries: a celebrity interview show riffing on public access programming, and stretches it as far as it can go. It’s not bad, but less is more with this concept maybe. Is Zach an oblivious oaf bumbling over poorly constructed interview questions or is he a cunning critic playfully skewering the rich and famous? The movie informs us he is somehow both. And it doesn’t exactly work. It has some good humor, but the hardest I laughed was at the outtakes during the end credits and I think that’s because that’s when it was the most genuine. The template of a phony interview show, giving the host an opening to roast his subjects is classic, but as an engaging narrative subject, it’s on wobbly ground. Somewhere between Jiminy Glick, Ali G, and Eric Andre is Zach Galifianakis. Sitting, awkwardly, between two ferns.

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14. A deaf woman is trapped in a waking nightmare when a murderous lunatic stumbles on her house in the woods and decides to psychologically torture her as he gets closer and closer in Hush (2016). It’s pretty direct and minimalist and gets the job done with a small cast in a single setting and it does it effectively. There’s a bit of ham, but it taps into that primal fear of being watched and having your privacy stolen. Once the killer removes his mask (way too early), the movie never feels as sharp, but it still works well enough.

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13. Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (2017) starts off as a tale of a quiet wife (Jennifer Lawrence) and an intense poet (Jarvier Bardem) living in an idyllic house in the country. When the poet allows a stranger (Ed Harris) to stay in their house, things get awkward. As he overstays his welcome and invites more people, it takes a toll on the wife (the centerpiece of the film and whose perspective all of the action is viewed from). About a third of the way in, the symbolism gets so heavy-handed that you begin to see what the whole thing is about. Sort of. But I feel like this movie, while thought provoking and dealing with interesting themes (many of which I genuinely want to see explored more in cinema), gets mired in its own pretentiousness and shocking grimness. Is it art? Yes. Do I want to see it again? No?

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12. I re-watched Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) with some mischievous tykes and, I gotta say, I think there’s a reason my mind blocked out the memory of the Mr. Toad segment. It not good. It’s beautifully animated, but as a story it simply goes nowhere and is no worthy adaptation of The Wind and the Willows. The Legend of Sleep Hollow part with Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horsemen make up for a lot of time wasted though. I fun little dose of nostalgia. The last fifteen minutes are pure animation gold. Basil Rathbone and Bing Crosby trade off narrating duties on these two classic literary tales.

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11. Ever since I saw Young Frankenstein I have been in love with Marty Feldman. Marty Feldman: Six Degrees of Separation (2006) is a BBC documentary on the memorable actor’s inspired and tragically short career. From his early days in radio and television to the good movies and the bad movies, this biography chronicles his struggles as an artist and his unrelenting humor, joy, and creativity.

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10. Tina Fey’s Mean Girls (2004) is a hot dose of high school anxiety. Lindsay Lohan is the new girl in school and she quickly gets sucked into the teenage drama of warring factions of duplicitous girls (and guys) all vying for status in what is indisputably the most important time in their lives. It’s smart. It’s funny. It’s got a lot of pink. Rachel McAdams, Amanda Seyfried, Lizzy Caplan, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Lacey Chabert, and Tim Meadows round out the very funny cast.

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9. Did Spielberg secretly direct Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982)? Who cares? It’s great ghostly fun with wonderfully ghoulish special effects. When a typical suburban family starts to notice weird stuff happening in their house they defer to the experts to figure out what is going on. It’s ghosts. Zelda Rubenstein, JoBeth Williams, and Craig T. Nelson give great performances as well.

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8. Rob Zombie’s first film, House of 1000 Corpses (2002) is basically a haunted house ride turned into a movie. It’s aggressive, wacky, and steeped in a familiar Halloween atmosphere all while paying homage (or ripping off) classic scary movies, but with an extra coat of grime and whimsically mean-spirited edge. And it’s funny as hell. It’s a bit of a mess and it won’t be for everybody, but I kind of loved it. Features Sid Haig, Sheri Moon Zombie, Rain Wilson, Karen Black, Walton Goggins, Tom Towles, and even more great faces.

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7. The Body Snatcher (1945), directed by Robert Wise and based on the story by Robert Louis Stevenson, is a classic horror yarn about grave robbing for medical research and the unseemly lot a man of science can find himself in all for the pursuit of greater surgical knowledge. Despite some typical period melodrama, the plot and characters are refreshingly complex. Stiff-lipped Henry Daniell gives a typically restrained but compelling performance as the medical instructor who is haunted by his guilt and Boris Karloff is glorious to behold as he connives and cajoles his way from scene to scene. Their relationship is more horror than all the cemetery desecration and skeletons combined. Bela Lugosi also has a small role as a quiet janitor who’s always listening.

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6. This next one is an indie flick that is rough around the edges, but well worth a look. Charles Burnett’s My Brother’s Wedding (1983) is a gritty, human view of life in the ghetto. Pierce is a smart young man with little ambition and his friendship with seedy sorts puts him at odds with his family. At times funny, at times tragic, it’s the sort of unapologetic film that feels like a series of snapshots into the lives of real people. This is what independent cinema was made for.

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5. This movie sets up a brilliantly wacky premise and just keeps delivering with creative twists and turns the whole way through. Dave Made a Maze (2017) is about a cardboard labyrinth that takes on a life of its own and traps its creator and his friends in a deadly world of dead-ends and booby traps. The movie loses me a bit with its heavy-handed metaphors for artists and their creations (not nearly as bad as Mother! though), but its charm, levity, and genuine originality push it to something great and truly memorable. Inspired verbal and visual comedy, a somewhat sappy earnestness, and a raging Minotaur make this whimsical horror comedy an adventure you won’t want to miss.

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4. Tales from the Hood (1995) is a brilliant horror anthology laced with scares and scathing social satire to spare. Clarence Williams III (who is fantastically over the top) plays a sinister funeral director who takes three gang members for a little ride through four tales of terror in order to teach them something. I saw the sequel first and thought it was cheesy but fun. This one is legit great and I loved it.

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3. This is how you do a remake. Dario Argento’s 1977 original film is a high octane, psychedelic, expressionistic horror house that, one may argue, is aggressively style-over-substance. It’s an unforgettable cult classic for a reason. Luca Guadagnino’s remake flips the script entirely and creates a more subdued arthouse horror more focused on unspoken drama and witch politics. While Suspiria (1977) is frenetic and vibrant, Suspiria (2018) is slow and sumptuous. The color palette is muted. The skies are gray and rainy. The Berlin wall looms just outside the windows of the creepy ballet academy. The twists are macabre and surprising, especially if you’ve seen the original. Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, and Mia Goth star and Jessica Harper (the lead from the original) makes a cameo. The only thing that I found a little jarring (in that it took me out of the film) was Professor Lutz Ebersdorf. I get it and it does create an eerie and sort of experimentally otherworldly atmosphere, but it kept distracting me because I couldn’t help but look for the reason behind the odd choice. Ultimately, I think it served the film well and I loved it.

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2. There’s something special about French science fiction (especially animation and comics) from the 70s and 80s. Moebius and others were undoubtedly a huge influence on the style and scope of surreal world building. Gandahar (1987) is very much in this vein. Directed by René Laloux, whose Fantastic Planet remains perhaps the most important sci-fi animation of all time; Gandahar (aka Light Years) is a lesser cousin, but still a wonderfully weird and transporting experience. It’s a tale of oppression and war, but much like Fantastic Planet, it is perhaps even more concerned with the mechanics of this fictitious universe it posits and the ecosystems and overlapping cultures of these alien planets. Time travel elements and the heady concepts explored make this a must see for fans of animated sci-fi. Some disputes over the soundtracks. I watched to the English dub which I believe had the American electronic score. It was good, but I would like to find the French version as well to compare.

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1. I was a big fan of Robert Eggers’ previous film, The Witch, so naturally I could not wait to see The Lighthouse (2019). Shot in glorious black and white on 35mm film and presented in 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film instantly transports you into a different time period. The forgotten and windswept rock you are stuck on is cold and wet and miles and miles from any living soul save for the briny, old lighthouse keeper played by Willem Dafoe (who chews the scenery like it’s a dinner of lobster claws). Robert Pattinson plays his new assistant, a former lumberman looking to make a few bucks working on the remote, gull-tormented island. Together the two strange men will battle the elements, each other, and their own sanity. The Lighthouse works as a grim psychological horror or as a very black comedy about bad roommates. And it crashes like ice cold waves upon the jagged northeastern cliffs. It festers and blurs. Sexual nightmares of mermaids and guilt come and go as the two men grow further isolated from everything in this world. Unsettling to contemplate and gorgeous to look at.

BONUS SHORTS

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Rowan Atkinson plays an irritating little man who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness that will end his life in 30 minutes. Dead On Time (1983) shows him racing through the streets trying to fill the fleeting moments of his life with meaning. It’s a diverting little sketch that utilizes its premise well. Suspense, laughs, and a pure heart.

The Hour After Westerly (2019), directed by Nate Bell and Andrew Morehouse, follows a man who loses an hour trying to get home one night. Where did the missing hour go? And why does he keep having visions of a lighthouse? And who is this woman? Gorgeously shot and quietly introspective. Reminds me of The Twilight Zone.

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I hope you like weird anime short films. Cat Soup (2001), directed by Tatsuo Satō, is surreal, grim, bizarre, and cute. A cat travels to the land of the dead to rescue his sister after she drowns. The animation is inspired and beautiful.

Hope you enjoyed that and maybe picked up a movie suggestion or two. You know, as much as I wasn’t into Beyond Atlantis, I can’t deny it had one of the greatest freeze frame endings of all time. Happy Halloween, folks.

RIP Sid Haig

Everybody Loves Satyajit Ray

Not all Indian cinema is bombastic Bollywood musicals.

Every so often a film or filmmaker reaches us at just the right time in our lives. Thus was my late introduction to Indian auteur, Satyajit Ray, and his films Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959), together making up the Apu Trilogy. Perhaps it is just the unpredictability of life and apparent insensitivity of fate featured in these movies that make them so readily understandable despite the great cultural gap, or perhaps it is something more. Granted, tragedy plays a huge part in all three films, but I do not think I would love them so much if they were devoid of any hope or redemption.

pather panchali2Ray’s style is almost documentarian in execution and one must pay very close attention to the women in his films. Like Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi (Ugetsu monogatari, 1953), Satyajit Ray likes to portray the struggles and plights of women in patriarchal society with compassion and humanity. The Apu Trilogy is a family history. Characters are introduced, but not all will make it to the end. (Warning: spoilers ahead…but I do not think revealing too much can weaken these films’ impact).

The first film, Pather Panchali (a.k.a. The Song of the Little Road) is the story of the Ray family in the provincial village of Bengal, India in the 1920s. The struggling Brahmin family consists of the naive poet father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee); the stoic mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee); their daughter, Durga (Runki Banerjee and Uma Das Gupta); Sarbajaya’s elderly sister-in-law, Aunt Indir Thakrun (Chunibala Devi); and soon Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is born.

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The narrative is not forced. Pather Panchali feels like a slice of life and reminiscent of Vittorio de Sica with its Neo-Realist approach and use of non-actors. Things happen. Emotions rise and fall. We see the whimsy of old Aunt Indir and we see the simple ideals of Harihar wax away. We see a poor mother’s internal struggle with her foolish husband (reminding me quite a bit of Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu monogatari) and her strained relationship with Indir and her torment at the hands of the village folk who persecute her for the way her daughter behaves. We see young Durga steal fruit and cause her mother much duress and we thrill with little Apu and his beloved sister when they makeup after a fight and they see the train rush by for the first time as they race through fields of tall grass.

We are introduced to these characters as if they are real people, not mere pawns to move a plot forward. In a way, there is no plot. Satyajit Ray’s character’s are the impotent victims of the unsentimental storm of life and our hearts are broken for them as we witness their misfortunes and we count the lines on their weather-worn faces as the years go by. Death’s sting is especially potent in this film. Sickness, death, and other hardships meet this family and rob them of much, and as the glue that holds them together is rubbed thin we find a melancholy solace in the knowledge that sometimes we must simply press on.

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The second film, Aparajito (a.k.a. The Unvanquished) is just as heart-rending. The dwindling Ray family must continue on. This marks one of the first sequels (for me anyway) where I was really saddened that certain characters would not be returning. I noticed the quiet expressions in their faces when they were thinking about their loved ones who did not make it.

Apu (Pinaki Sengupta and Smaran Ghosel) is growing older and making friends in the city of Benares where they have moved. His father, Harihar, works as a priest, but when he falls sick and does not survive, Sarbajaya is left alone to provide for herself and her young son. They move to the Ray ancestral village of Mansapota and she works as a maid.

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Sarbajaya is my favorite character. Her struggles as a woman, a wife, and a mother in a harsh world that has not done her any favors is mesmerizing and tragic. She is stoic and levelheaded, but over the course of the two films we witness the toll the tough years take on her. She is just one woman who has not ended up where she probably originally hoped or thought, and she must take care of her family despite all her pain. Her portrait, brilliantly played by Karuna Bannerjee, is beautiful, powerful, and heart breaking.

Apu is apprenticed to be a Brahmin like his father, but attracted by some children playing along a road, asks his mother to let him go to school. He discovers the joys of learning. Sarbajaya feels like Apu can learn and bring honor back to the family. Perhaps the next generation of the Ray family will not be as unfortunate, Sarbajaya’s eyes read. Apu proves a diligent scholar and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious school in Calcutta. At the sudden prospect of being truly alone, Sarbajaya tries to dissuade Apu from furthering his academic career, but realizes how much it would mean to him and gives Apu her savings and allows him to go. Apu grows and learns while Sarbajaya grows lonely and older. She hides her failing health from her son but quietly wishes he would return to see her. When he does return it is too late. Devastated, Apu ignores the urging to stay in the village and be a priest so he returns to Calcutta to perform the last rites for his mother. He will make something of himself even if no one will be there to see it.

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The final installment, Apur Sansar (a.k.a. The World of Apu) shifts all focus onto an older Apu (Soumitra Chatterjee) as a poor graduate living in Calcutta. He sells his books to pay rent and he lazily searches for work to pay for university tuition and works on writing a novel based on his life. He meets an old friend, Pulu (Swapan Mukherjee), who must attend a cousin’s marriage and, not desiring to go alone, urges Apu to join him.

They travel to the village of Khulna for the ceremony where things do not go exactly as expected. As Satyajit Ray continues this exploration of the tragedy and beauty of the unexpected, the bridegroom shows up on time, but has a severe mental disorder so the bride and bride’s mother become extremely upset. The father and elders insist that their daughter, Aparna (Sharmila Tagore), will be cursed if she does not marry on the appointed day. In their efforts to fix the doomed marriage, Pulu and the elders elect Apu as the replacement groom. Apu, disturbed by the sudden idea, finally agrees to marry Aparna (since his life isn’t really going anywhere else). Apu warns Aparna that he is very poor and although she is initially disappointed with their meager wages and shabby apartment, she does indeed fall in love with him.

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The marriage actually gives Apu a wake-up call and he begins working as a cleric. He teaches his wife things that he learned in school. They write letters when they are apart and their love grows, but tragedy (naturally) strikes when the beautiful Aparna dies giving birth to their son while away. Apu rejects everything and runs away from the world. He hates the child he has never seen, but he sends money to his father-in-law to take care of him. Apu lets the wind take his manuscript as he releases it on a mountaintop and weeps. Life without his beloved Aparna is not worth living. Why would fate torment him like this?

After many years of forsaking his fatherly responsibilities Pulu finds him and urges Apu to see his son, Kajal, and father the boy (who is becoming quite wild in his grandfather’s care). After much convincing, Apu goes to retrieve his son from his father-in-law, but the boy does not think Apu is his father, but perhaps he may accept his confidence as a friend. They depart together to start a new life.

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As the saga of Apu and the Ray family comes to a close and we dry the tears from our eyes and take a deep breath at the emotional depths these movies have taken us, we can pause and thank God for directors like Satyajit Ray. Pensive cinematography, shimmering sitar score composed by Ravi Shankar, close-ups loaded with emotion and thought, and the journey of one filmmaker are just a few reasons to find these movies and watch them. We see Satyajit Ray grow as a filmmaker and become more sure of humself with each new chapter in this beautiful trilogy. This experience really whet my appetite for more films of Satyajit Ray.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” January 30, 2010.