THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXIX – Son of the List

The last few movies I saw in order of what I thought of them. Special bonus round of short films from the Batroun Mediterranean Film Festival! Visiting Lebanon has been fun.

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If the whole cast played it with the weird over-the-top winky humor of Nick Kroll, it may have been salvageable. As is, Uncle Drew (2018) is depressingly unfunny, uncool, tone deaf, and the basketball action is filmed so badly and lazily it embarrasses everyone involved. Your favorite NBA players pretending to be old and crushing it at basketball shouldn’t be a joyless slog. It should be light, breezy, silly, and fun.

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Love, Simon (2018) is a coming of age tale about a high school student coming out as gay to his family and friends. In an unrelatably kush and affluent town at an unbelievably twee and pristine movie high school. Color me jaded. I did not like the presentation.

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I like creature features. I’m easy. I know this. Critters 2: The Main Course (1988) is fun, schlocky mayhem with enough cheesy puppets and gore to satisfy fans of the Gremlins-knockoff sub-genre of horror comedy. Alien bounty hunters and giant, killer critter balls of destruction galore.

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Laserblast (1978) is the unintentionally hilarious story about loser who finds an extraterrestrial arm cannon death-ray and becomes a real jerk. This movie is cheap. It looks like shit. The nasty stop-motion aliens are regrettably adorable. I kind of dig the gun though. The small town desert setting was interesting. And just the joy of this idiot getting revenge on all these bumpkin townsfolk before the aliens can unceremoniously stop him, is worth it. More than anything though, it made me want to watch Turbo Kid again.

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I recently re-watched a move that I must have seen dozens of times. The Golden Child (1986) was always on TV when I was a kid. Watching it as an adult, it’s got a lot more chinks in its armor that I wished to remember. Eddie Murphy is sleepier and less funny than in most of his other movies from this time. The tone bounces from quirky supernatural hijinks (like a less inspired Big Trouble in Littler China) to a young murdered girl’s blood found in oatmeal to get a magic Chinese baby to eat it so demons can take over (or something). It doesn’t work most of the time, but it still has a dancing Pepsi can and one or two memorable supernatural encounters. Charlotte Lewis is still hot. Charles Dance is still menacing. And who doesn’t get lost in Victor Wong’s face?

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Italian cinema is great at being either arty or wonderfully violent and sacrilegious. The Church (1989) was co-written by Dario Argento and I, for one, will suffer through the slow incomprehensible bits to get to the glorious punctuations of wicked insanity. It’s not the best example of Italian horror, but there’s enough in here to make it an occasionally restrained bonkers. An old cathedral is built on top of a mass grave. Naturally, demons happen.

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I’ll be honest. Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) has a LOT of problems. Some of them casting. Some of them directing. Most of them lighting. Why is every scene so washed out and dark and impossible to see? For all my misgivings, of all the Disney-helmed Star Wars movies, this one had the best plot. It’s actually kind of a fun space adventure. At least you can feel that in the script. And it does have its moments. Chewbacca was fun in this one. Childish Gambino had a few cute scenes. At least everything wasn’t terrible. Which, for me these days, is a rave review of a Star Wars movie.

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Tickled (2016) is a documentary about Kiwi journalist David Farrier and his haphazard discovery of the online tickle fetish community and a sick and seedy underworld character who maliciously entraps and blackmails his victims. Truly, anything can happen on the internet. Best beware. A fun trip down a dark rabbit hole that more resembles a spider’s web the further Farrier explores. I wish the film were able to provide more closure.

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Ghost Stories (2017) is a handsome looking modern supernatural horror with just the right balance of black humor to spine tingles. Three spooky tales are connected as a paranormal debunker (played by Andy Nyman, who also co-wrote and co-directed) tries to unravel the mysteries to prove to himself and the world that there is nothing to be afraid of in the dark. But no matter how empirical and skeptical one may be, some things still haunt you. Clever, delicious twists, and genuine chills.

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Jean-Marc Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) is another coming-of-age story about a young man discovering he is attracted to men. He’s up against homophobia, four brothers, and a very conservative father. Set in Quebec in the 1960s and 70s, the film has an impressive soundtrack of popular songs. It’s an entertaining little drama with humor and heart.

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Spike Lee doing genre movies is…well, it takes getting used to. He infuses a bit of racial commentary, but Inside Man (2006) is just a pretty solid heist thriller. Well cast (Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster are standouts) and tightly wound, it’s nice to see just a good, focused crime drama. Even if I will forever unfairly compare movies like this to Dog Day Afternoon, but that’s my own bit of baggage.

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I don’t usually watch concept album movies so I’m not sure how to score this. Singer Janelle Monáe stars in Dirty Computer (2018). It’s more of a long, stylish music video than a movie. But there’s a thematic narrative in there. All in all, I loved the music and the look. But this may be cheating to include in here. What’s next? I include standup specials I watch? Maybe.

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Welcome to low-key high-stakes world of hifalutin modern art galleries and the denizens that keep it all going. This is Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017). It’s a subtle and satirical film that follows a museum curator who deals with personal drama while promoting a new installation and trying to avert scandal. It is a barbed film that skewers artist pomposity, viral marketing, manufactured controversy, free speech, classism, and the politics of balancing it all while remaining relevant and edgy (but not too edgy). A slow burn, but great.

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Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018) is a brilliantly stylized black comedy and brutal social commentary on corporatism and race politics. The dark absurdist sense of humor takes a bit getting accustomed to, but by the end you will be glad you did. Struggling call center employee Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) dons a “white voice” to maneuver up the corporate ranks, but at what cost? Perhaps his very humanity.

BONUS ROUND!!!

So after finishing the month of August at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I went to Beirut, Lebanon with a comedian friend to unwind. In the fishing town of Batroun I got to attend the Batroun Mediterranean Film Festival. In a beautiful outdoor atrium in a museum showcasing the Lebanese diaspora, I got to see the opening ceremonies and four short films. Including the festival winner!

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Como yo te amo (2016) is a Spanish comedy directed by Fernando García-Ruiz Rubio. A petty thief falls in love with the officer that arrested him and spends the next several years committing crimes just for the chance to see her again.

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“Santa Claus is a capitalist.” Kapitalistis (2017) is a Belgian comedy directed by Pablo Munoz Gomez. A poor father takes on odd jobs in order to get his 5 year old son the expensive Power Max backpack he desperately wants. It’s cute and quirky and the just the right amount of dark holiday cynicism.

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Sound of Vladivostok (2018) is a Russian documentary directed by Marios Ioannou Elia. In the spirit of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 The Man with a Movie Camera, this wordless, plotless journey is more about showcasing the aural grandeur and majesty of this amazing Eastern city. Short, but inspiring and beautiful.

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The festival winner was the Lebanese sci-fi comedy mockumentary, Manivelle: The Last Days of the Man of Tomorrow (2017), directed by Fadi Baki Fdz. It chronicles the life of a decaying and increasingly delusional mechanical man. Once an impressive gift bestowed to the people of Lebanon by the French in the 1940s, later a wannabe movie star and socialite and political weapon, now a decrepit out of touch mass of wires and parts who refuses to acknowledge the sins of his past. It’s a great short and I also cannot thank the director enough for letting me crash at his place during my stay in Beirut. For folks on my Instagram, that’s whose cat has been sleeping on me all the time.

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THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXVIII – The Good, the Bland, and the Fugly

I did it again. What did you see? Anything good?

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19. Deathstalker (1983) somehow garnered multiple sequels. Set in a dimly lit Medieval fantasy hell-scape, the character of Deathstalker is an unrepentantly selfish, impulsive, violent rapist on a quest to just get power for himself. He is our hero. And he learns nothing throughout his adventures. This was an uncomfortable watch. There is one extended sequence that had me questioning everything though. The evil wizard turns his oafish henchman into a pretty lady to spy on Deathstalker…who immediately rapes him, gets upset because he senses something is wrong, and then kicks him out into the hallway where he gets comforted by some women before they murder him. I almost forgot how stupid the bad guy’s head tattoo was.

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18. Full Moon Pictures’ Dollman (1991) started out so promising. A no-nonsense cop from another galaxy with a special gun that has exploding bullets chases a mutant head creature bad guy through space before ending up in the grittiest city on planet Earth. Only to find he’s just a few inches tall on our planet. After about the first 20 minutes it just becomes a boring slog of bad low angle shots.

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17. This next one is almost unwatchable, but part of me has a soft spot for the homespun special effects. Winterbeast (1992) is the story of some park rangers having to deal with a spate of supernatural murders. My no-frills synopsis is more exciting and coherent than the movie. I do give the film some credit. Even if nothing makes any sense, I applaud them for having so many different kinds of monsters (chiefly realized via poorly done stop-motion). If the audience understood the rules or if the monsters had some clear motivation or predictable strike pattern instead of just random, chaotic nonsense we would get at least some semblance of suspense or stakes. The guy who runs The Wild Goose Lodge is hilarious.

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16. I know I watched Sorceress (1982), but don’t remember anything about it. I want to say there was nudity and a couple weird monsters. Man. I am drawing a blank here. Oh wait. Yes, I do remember one thing. I remember finding the creepy, horny satyr to be deeply upsetting.

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15. If you love big, expensive, sanctimonious religious epics watch Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments. If you’re somehow into The Robe or Androcles and the Lion, then check out Quo Vadis (1951). It’s a clunky film on the whole, but the spectacle and sheer bigness of everything is cool. The Coliseum scenes are no Ben-Hur hippodrome, but it is something to see 1950s Hollywood reimagine ancient Rome. Watching Nero (played by a particularly hammy Peter Ustinov) torch the city was fun. Also stars Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor.

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14. Ever since RLM reviewed the obscure, low budget, sci-fi horror flick Xtro (1982), I’ve been intrigued. And I finally got a chance to see it. It is dark and strange and gross and ambiguous. A loving husband and father gets abducted by aliens and shows up years later…but something is different. Gozu points for having a scene where a woman births a grown man. Also killer toy soldier man. Definitely some imagination at work in this movie.

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13. What happens when six brothers are trapped in a small NYC apartment by their controlling father for their whole developing lives? In the documentary The Wolfpack (2015), we meet the Angulo family and their pure obsession with movies (their only connection to the outside world). A fascinating look at isolation and what people bind themselves to and how they cope with trauma. The boys are so likable and their love of recreating all of their favorite movies is so infectious that the film is hard not to enjoy.

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12. OK, so Predator (1987) with Arnold is a masterpiece. People have been very mean about its first sequel, Predator 2 (1990) with Danny Glover. But honestly, it’s a blast. Changing the setting from the jungle to the city and the military guys to brutal L.A. gangs just makes the most logical sense. It expands on the Predator’s backstory in effective, visual ways. My only beef? Danny Glover just kind of gets lucky whereas Arnold had to use his wits. Also stars Gary Busey and Bill Paxton.

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11. The Ornithologist (2016) is a surreal Portuguese film that I wish I understood better. A bird watcher gets kayak-wrecked by rapids and meets two Chinese pilgrims lost on the Camino de Santiago. They tie him up and then things get weird. I loved the first half of the movie, but once the symbolism began to compound, my unfamiliarity with the life of Saint Anthony of Padua kept a lot of the meaning hidden. It’s atmospheric and odd and beautifully shot.

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10. Brooding noir/horror filmmaker Jacques Tourneur directs the weirdest adaptation of Jane Eyre out there. I Walked with a Zombie (1943) features steamy jungles, sugar plantations, voodoo magic, and, of course, zombies. Before Romero, zombies were more like the ones in this movie and White Zombie. You decide which version you like better.

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9. I bet you thought we were done with bad movies? Nope. David Prior’s Deadly Prey (1987) is a legend in the bad movie community. A squadron of rogue mercenaries kidnap people to practice their killing. Until they kidnap Michael “Mike” Danton (Ted Prior). The best fighter the sadistic colonel ever trained. Classic bad action movie setup. A perfect blend of macho humorlessness and unintentional silliness.

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8. Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) did not do too well, if I understand correctly. And I get why. The leads have negative charisma and the whole world is a complicated jumble of ideas and we rarely feel any tension. I will say this though: the worlds within the film were fascinating and beautifully realized and there was more imagination in the simple details. It’s silly fun and sort of a shadow of The Fifth Element, but with the right chemicals, it’s a fun watch. Better than Avatar and a notch below John Carter. Screw you. I liked the monsters.

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7. Here is the internet’s synopsis of the Japanese-American production Latitude Zero (1969): “A journalist is saved by a giant submarine captained by a 200 year old man who takes him to an underwater paradise city where no one ages. That’s when monsters and mutants sent by the captain’s rival, a 200 year old scientist, attack.” Directed by frequent Godzilla director, Ishirô Honda, this is one wacky movie that is uncomfortably stuck in a 1950s style while trying to be a bit edgier and flirt with the oncoming 70s. Any movie that puts a woman’s brain into a lion’s skull and then attaches condor wings to its back, can’t be all bad. Features Joseph Cotton and Cesar Romero.

6. I hadn’t seen Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire: The 

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Vampire Chronicles (1994) in years. It holds up. Great period costumes and settings. The question of what one does with eternity and unfulfilled desire is to die for. People may have been gushing over Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in this when it came out, but Kirsten Dunst and Stephen Rea steal every scene they are in. If you like your vampires sexy and emo and not-so-subtly gay then revisit this fella. Also features Antonio Banderas and Christian Slater. Also a quick shout out to Neil Jordan’s werewolf movie, The Company of Wolves (1984).

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5. I have teared up at Pixar movies. Not even a little ashamed. But man, did I lose it at the end of Coco (2017). It’s typically clever, vibrant, and impeccably animated, but I was initially skeptical about a Día de Muertos themed Disney flick. But, I’ll be damned if this wasn’t a beautifully touching story about family, mortality, and memory. I’d like to double-feature this with Corpse Bride (but Coco last because it’s better).

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4. L.A. Confidential (1997) is a sexy modern look back at classic noir stories. The 1950s setting is gloriously realized and the cast sizzles. If you want to see Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, James Cromwell, and more in a sumptuous period crime drama loaded with double-cross and murder then pop this baby in.

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3. Pedro Almodóvar is a treasure. Talk to Her (2002) is the story of two men and the women in comas they love. Like other Almodóvar films, it’s sad and funny and colorful and complex and human. Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti star.

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2. I Am Not Madame Bovary (2016) is the story of a stubborn Chinese woman spending years of her life trying to get the government to acknowledge her divorce was a fraud and force her husband to admit to her that he lied. If the slow pace and mise en scène being limited to a portal view doesn’t put you off then check this one out. The more I let myself become immersed in the films world the more I loved it. It is a very subtle comedy, but what really sells it is the style, the creaking bureaucracy, and Bingbing Fan’s performance as Li Xuelian. There are no villains. This movie is too big for that.

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1. And finally, Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017). Like his previous film, Tangerine, this also takes a decidedly unglamorous look at unlucky, broken people on the fringes of society. A little girl makes friends and gets into trouble while her mother makes increasingly bad decisions that cost them dearly. It’s a beautiful and sad drama with the heart to make you care about people you might otherwise have tried to ignore. Also stars Willem Dafoe.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXVII – More of the Same

I make the movie list again. You don’t own me. The order is based on vaguely how much I liked them.

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Ghoulies (1984) kind of sucks. It’s just barely better than Dolls. It has one or two fun scenes, but it’s altogether too bloodless and devoid of even cheesy scares. If you’ve ever had a rubber puppet that got half melted from being left on a hot porch for a week and played with it afterward, I guarantee you that was more entertaining. Demon conjuring should be more fun than this.

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I love Stephen Chow. Or, perhaps, more accurately, I really liked Shaolin Soccer and keep hoping I’ll get something close to the genius of Kung-Fu Hustle again. The Mermaid (2016) is a chaotic mess. It’s crammed with madness and some unconventional convolutions and it does have a couple moments that approach humor or elegance, but ultimately this fantasy tale of a mermaid posing as a human to lure and assassinate an eccentric billionaire developer to save her dying clan (pod? school? shoal?) is just ugly and bounces a bit too concussively between awkwardly handled wacky, cartoon slapstick to shocking, serious violence laden with ham-handed heavy environmental messaging. I guess it’s a kid’s movie. Credit for being imaginative (read as “different”). It’s still ugly to look at.

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Director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood) adapts Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (2014) with Joaquin Phoenix as stoner detective Larry “Doc” Sportello in 1970s Los Angeles. It’s stylish, dry, and I’m sure it’s not bad, but I have no memory of anything that happens in it. Every time I try to recall something from this movie I can only come up with scenes from The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. All other movies I love and actually want to see again.

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Malibu Express (1985) is terrible, sexist 80s action schlock of the highest order. It’s dimwitted, gratuitously nudity filled, and wonderfully unintentionally hilarious. If you liked Samurai Cop, Miami Connection, or Hard Ticket to Hawaii, this should be next on your list.

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Before Sam Raimi directed Spiderman and fresh off the Evil Dead trilogy, there was Darkman (1990), a wholly original superhero revenge fantasy thriller seemingly taking cues from classic horror (like 1932’s Doctor X). Liam Neeson is a scientist who gets blown up by the mafia, but comes back with a hideous disfigurement, super-strength, uncontrollably volatile mood-swings, an unevenly portrayed aversion to the sun, and the ability to scientifically replicate anyone’s face with synthetic flesh to exact revenge and attempt to maintain a normal relationship with his girlfriend (Frances McDormand). This is a re-watch as it was on TV a lot when I was a kid. I think I have developed a newfound appreciation for it. It’s bonkers and great fun. The makeup, special effects, and action set-pieces are a great. This character straight up murders dudes. Spiderman doesn’t do that. This is pure, over-the-top Raimi.

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Hidden Figures (2016) is based on the inspiring true story of the black female mathematicians who had to deal with both sexism, racism, and personal hardship to help NASA get to space to compete with the Soviets. It’s a quiet, safe, historical movie you can watch with your mom (which I did). The only real prejudice this movie has to overcome with me, however, is my longstanding beef with movies about math. The excellent cast and clean cinematography elevate it a notch above charming and the historical significance bumps it up another couple notches. I did spend an inordinate amount of time subconsciously anticipating Taraji P. Henson getting it on with a fish monster. Thanks, Del Toro. You’ve ruined female-protagonists-working-for-the-US-government-during-the-Cold-War-co-starring-Octavia-Spencer movies.

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I’m not a monster. I swear. I understand fully that Howling II: …Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985) is objectively a horrible movie. It is also the hardest I’ve laughed in a long time. The end credits simply destroyed me. I was left in total disbelief and in physical pain from laughing. I don’t even remember the plot making much sense. I just remember grotesquely awkward werewolf orgies and Christopher Lee. No matter how awful the movie is, Mr. Lee retains his dignity throughout. Like a goddamn champ. Sybil Danning (Malibu Express) also shines as Stirba, the werewolf queen or something. Legit, she’s fantastic and having a blast with this stupid, stupid movie.

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Neill Blomkamp will never live down the success of District 9. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how to make interesting, junk-filled sci-fi worlds. Chappie (2015) is the gritty reboot of Short Circuit we didn’t know we wanted. It has some decent action and the robot effects look amazing. But in my humble opinion, casting Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Visser) was hands down the best decision made here. Dev Patel is good too, but he has a tough time competing with mulleted Hugh Jackman murder-gasming in a Robocop death robot. Then they start downloading souls into computers and it’s just too stupid for me. I can handle a lot of stupid (see Howling 2), but come on. This is what this movie is about? We’re downloading souls? But I’m weird. I want a whole movie of Yolandi Visser reading storybooks to a robot.

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Thor: Ragnorak (2017) is the first Marvel movie I think actually liked. Not just tolerated, but more or less enjoyed.  Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy were decently entertaining too. This was better. No small part of this has to do with director Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), I’m sure. It’s still a lot of mindless CG bloat, but it has the spirit of fun about itself. The actors are actually charming in this one too and it might be the first time I didn’t totally hate how the Marvel Cinematic Universe directed all of its action scenes.

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Political chaos! This seems familiar. I enjoyed Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) not as an accurate portrayal of the political power vacuum in the Soviet Union following the death of Joseph Stalin, but for it’s sheer viciousness in depicting the cutthroat, two-facedness of modern politics. This is pitch black comedy at its pitch blackest. Like In the Loop, the script crackles with fork-tongued insults being flung by an exceedingly capable cast. Simon Russell Beale, Jason Isaacs, Jeffrey Tambor, and Steve Buscemi are stand-outs.

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Wes Anderson gonna do what a Wes Anderson do. All of his typical motifs are here. Twee, quirky, dry adult despondency galore. That said, he knows his strengths and winds them all up tight as a drum in this complex—and surprisingly political—plot about dogs, boys, Japan, propaganda, and love. This is Isle of Dogs (2018). Even if the emotional distance his characters typically insist upon alienates you, it is stunningly gorgeous to look at. And the offbeat comedy, sprawling cast of favorites, inventive stop-motion animation, and continuously rising stakes should pull you in even further. The world and atmosphere of this movie is pure cinema magic. And one that can only be realized via stop-motion.

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Aubrey Plaza stars in Ingrid Goes West (2017). Ingrid is a troubled social media addict who stalks an Instagram celebrity (Elizabeth Olsen) into friendship. And eventually her haphazard tapestry of lies and deceptions catches up with her. This is the type of bleak, black comedy that perhaps functions better as a subtle horror movie of our modern world. Very well written characters and marvelous tension.

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In Five Easy Pieces (1970), Jack Nicholson is an underachieving wash-up who leaves his job on the oil rigs to return home to see his dying father. He is an angry, impulsive, sad man spinning his wheels but going nowhere, unable to create meaningful relationships and perhaps it is refreshing to know these symptoms are not a Millennial affectation. The great performances, gritty unglamorousness, and the transportative time-capsule quality old movies possess are more than reason enough to check this classic out.

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Police Beat (2005) is the simple tale of an African immigrant bike cop in Seattle going through the monotony of facing mysterious crimes whilst battling a paranoid internal monologue regarding the departure of his American girlfriend. It’s weirdly hypnotic. A real surprise treat. I loved it.

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This is another re-watch. I first discovered Peter Jackson’s Meet the Feebles (1989) while doing my college radio show that specifically sought out batshit movies. Upon each viewing, I realize newfound appreciation for this little gem. Meet the Feebles may be my favorite Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings) movie. It is such an unapologetic assault on the viewer that you actually have to admire the revolting excesses the filmmakers put their all-puppet cast through. There are multiple disgusting and depressing plots to follow, but the basic outline is that it is the premier of a brand new variety show and everything goes wrong. It has ups and downs throughout, but once you hit the final act, buckle up for pure Jackson unhinged. Sex, drugs, gore, mass murder; you name it, this movie has it. And all with puppets. And it’s a musical! Mean-spirited, sleazy, gross, and completely hilarious. Meet the Feebles is hideous and wonderful. It won’t be for everybody, but screw those guys.

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Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Synecdoche New York) and Duke Johnson team up to create the most depressing stop-motion film possibly ever. I loved it. Anomalisa (2015) is the story of Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a depressed middle-aged man who is suffocating in the mundanity of existence. Literally every single voice he hears—whether it’s the radio, cab drivers, airline passengers, or his own family—sound exactly the same (all voiced by Tom Noonan). And then he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Anomalisa is a gorgeously, subtly animated film that might feel a little too real for comfort. On a list that includes The Death of Stalin and Ingrid Goes West, this is the blackest comedy here. It’s an emotionally gutting experience. But sometimes, I like to be gutted.

The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXVI – Kneel Before Breen

I watched more movies because I’m stupid. Ordered, as always, worst to best.

This list contains a perhaps uncharacteristically high number of what would traditionally be labeled as “bad” or “so-bad-it’s-good” movies. I take movies very seriously. Not all movies—or even all bad movies—are created equally. As subjective a scale as it may be, I have tried to rank the films (good and bad) by genuine enjoyability. For this reason, we must look beyond the technical aspects to the deeper things within.

21. The Wizard of Paws (2015) was a stupid decision. Talking magic dog and a kid reeling from the death of his dad or something. We didn’t finish it. It was perplexing, upsetting, and awful, I’ll give it that, but, as you will see, there are far better bad films out there. Just wait.

20. James Franco directs and stars as infamous bad movie icon, Tommy Wiseau, in The Disaster Artist (2017). Like many folks, I have a long, torrid, personal relationship with The Room. From my first viewing of it years ago and finding everything Wiseau had ever done to some awkward, fresh-out-of-college attempts to pitch a series with him, we go way back. That said, turning the celebrated bad movie into a standard Hollywood comedy about making a bad movie in Hollywood has risks. It has its moments, but it will never be as entertaining as The Room and that’s probably obvious. However, it also falls short of being as interesting or revealing as Rick Harper’s documentary Room Full of Spoons. And for movies about making movies I think it’s hard to compete with Tim Burton’s Ed Wood or Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion. You can tell they love The Room, but this one feels more geared toward James Franco and Seth Rogen fans rather than The Room aficionados.

19. Re-watching Peter Yates’ sword and sorcery and science-fiction epic, Krull (1983), reminded me why I remembered it and why I hadn’t watched it in so long. Really good start and moments of fun, but ultimately a bit of an aimless slog. With an impressive budget, this space-fantasy misfire boasts some wonderful sets and visuals, yet these high points are dashed by weak leads, a dopey story, and every single scene going on for way too long. Krull could have been as fun as Flash Gordon but, in its attempts to take itself more seriously and mimic Conan the Barbarian (and failing), it falls short. Despite being geared to adults craving high fantasy, Dark Crystal is more grownup than Krull. Watchable, but meh.

18. One of the last cel-animated feature films for Disney (and one that apparently tanked so hard they put all focus onto CG features after that) was Treasure Planet (2002). The environments, atmosphere, and animation are fluid and beautifully rendered. A lot of the comedy doesn’t quite work, but it’s a beautifully realized adventure story that, while not be perfect, is still a lot of fun. It’s Treasure Island in space. Kid me would have loved this. The Ice Pirates is another pirates in space movie if you need more.

17. Star Wars: the Last Jedi (2017) is another Star Wars movie. This is a series that continues to draw me in with its nostalgia and continues to be alternately interesting and disappointing. Mark Hamill gives probably his best performance as Luke in this one, despite his misgivings about the script. You’ve already seen the movie by now. It’s a bit of a mess. As a Star Wars film or just as a film, it just doesn’t feel complete or focused. Like The Force Awakens, it at least looks good and it’s not completely devoid of entertainment value. Just not something I feel the need to see again.

16. You really couldn’t ask for a more uninspiring title for a movie about hitmen (and women) than Hired to Kill (1990). A bro-y mercenary guy (Brian Thompson) assembles a crack squad of mercenary ladies to pose as fashion models so they can go kill somebody in South America for some reason. It’s stupid and laden with cringeworthy machismo, but the villain being played by a blatantly drunk Oliver Reed really bumps this one up.

15. Wolfgang Petersen (NeverEnding StoryDas BootAir Force One) directs the sci-fi flick about overcoming your intergalactic differences, Enemy Mine (1985). Unwieldy double entendre title and out-of-place attempts at wacky hijinks aside, this space version of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific is actually pretty good. Dennis Quaid (the human) is serviceable, and Louis Gossett, Jr. (the hermaphroditic alien) puts more effort in than what might be required. The makeup and special effects are pretty good and it has some solid scenes between the two uneasy allies. It suffers from some awkward tonal shifts and a lagging pace, but it’s worth a look. Or just watch Hell in the Pacific instead with Toshio Mifune and Lee Marvin.

14. I never saw Bad Santa (2003) before. It was funny. It had a good cast. I liked the story. Director Terry Zwigoff (Ghost WorldCrumb) has an eye for oddballs and misfits. Billy Bob Thornton is an alcoholic burglar who poses as a mall Santa Claus. He’s bad. Get it? His reluctant relationship with a socially inept boy (Brett Kelly) is the heart of the movie. Tony Cox, Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, and John Ritter round out the cast of funny people.

13. This next one is in the same wheelhouse as Samurai Cop and Miami Connection. Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) is the movie the biggest meatheads in your high school would have put together. Hilarious amounts of unjustified nudity, over the top nonsensical violence, thinly veiled homophobia, misogyny, and overall amateurishness, make this schlocky low-budget action flick a must-watch. Its incompetence make it a little hard to follow, but it has enough laugh-out-loud moments that I have to recommend it.

12. More aliens! I sought this one out after The Nightmare documentary piqued my interest. Christopher Walken is suffering from selective amnesia after aliens probe him in Communion (1989). This was actually better than I was expecting. It’s a little cheesy, but the performances and ominous surreality elevate it into something genuinely fascinating. Communion is a movie that treats its “out there” subject with refreshing compassion.

11. Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) is a very well-crafted sci-fi rumination on what it means to be human yada yada yada. I’d hate to spoil anything, but it is more than Act II of 2001: a Space Odyssey. Sam Rockwell gives an amazing couple of performances here. The Clint Mansell score is also pretty good.

10. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) turn their documentarian eye toward religion once again. Hasidic Jewish community of New York City are the focus of One of Us (2017), and it is every bit as upsetting as Jesus Camp. The Hasidic community has a lot in common with the Amish. For all the piety and devotion to tradition, there is also a controlling insularity that seriously hinder development and impede escape. Watch this with Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie and then take a long moment and seriously examine your own religion and the walls it may also have.

9. Monsters again. I was honestly expecting C.H.U.D. (1984) to be another so-bad-it’s-good creature feature, but, to my surprise C.H.U.D. (aka Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers) simply delivers as a movie. It’s got a solid cast you care about, gritty and atmospheric locations, and surprisingly human portrayal of the homeless. There are reports of disappearances in the sewers and only one cop (Christopher Curry), a homeless preacher man (Daniel Stern), and a photographer (John Heard) seem to be interested in uncovering why. Kim Griest and George Martin also have fun roles. Despite the films intentional lack of closure, C.H.U.D., while maybe no They Live or The Stuff, is well worth a watch. Weirdly, the monsters themselves are the weakest element in the movie.

8. Wadjda (2102), directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, is a Saudi film about a little girl who wants a bike in a culture that forbids girls to ride bikes. Simple setup. Waad Mohammed gives a natural performance as the title character, Wadjda. Traditions and culture can be stifling and the filmmakers understand that all too well. The characters’ struggles are real and by the end, you really, really want her to get that damn bike.

7. Too cultural? Not enough monsters? What if we combine the two? Kimiyoshi Yasuda’s Yokai Monsters: One Hundred Monsters (1968) is everything. A little more Kwaidan than Hausu, but great fun all the way. One hundred Japanese ghosts and demons come together to thwart the bad guys. Also there are samurai. Wonderfully fun practical effects and puppetry give the production a very unique feel. I’ll be watching this one again soon.

6. Let’s stay in Japan a half tick longer. Woman in the Dunes (1964), directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara (The Face of Another), is the story of an entomologist (Eiji Okada) who winds up trapped in a hovel buried in the sand with a strange widow (Kyōko Kishida). That’s all you need to get started. Sumptuously photographed. Beautiful and compelling.

5. You may think I’m insane, but holy hell, was Chopping Mall (1986) a lot of fun. It was everything I wanted in a movie about mall security robots that get struck by lightning and become evil and go on a murder spree against some unsuspecting teens. I laughed out loud. I cheered. I yelled at the screen. Chopping Mall knows what it is and is having a blast doing it. We are at maximum cheese here. Get ready for gleeful, creative violence, hammy acting, and a killer synth-pop score by Chuck Cirino.

4. Under normal circumstances this would be a B movie. But not so. Dear Guillermo del Toro, please, continue to make adult fairy tales. The Shape of Water (2017) goes right alongside Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth. Sally Hawkins gives a captivating performance as the mute cleaning lady who falls in love with a South American fish man and possible god (Doug Jones) while working at a secret underground government facility . The style, quirkiness, and danger are balanced very well. Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Shannon, and Michael Stuhlberg provide great support. The Shape of Water is beautiful and brimming with imagination and tenderness.

3. OK, so after The Shape of Water I developed a slight crush on Sally Hawkins and was recommended Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky (2008). Hawkins plays Poppy, a spunky primary teacher exploding with positivity and charm that can come off as annoying to folks like her tightly-wound driving instructor (played by Eddie Marsan). Optimistic, genuinely funny, and affectingly human, Happy-Go-Lucky is a breath of fresh air. I absolutely fell in love with the character of Poppy and her hopeful worldview. Maybe you will too.

2. Silver Streak (1976), starring Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, and Jill Clayburgh is one of the great train movies. Directed by Arthur Hiller (The In-Laws, The Man in the Glass Booth), Silver Streak plays like a sexy hybrid of North By Northwest and The Taking of Pelham 123. The chemistry between the actors is brilliant (no wonder Wilder and Pryor would go on to do three more movies together—all of which fall short of this perfect flick). A book editor (Wilder) is taking the Silver Streak from Los Angeles to Chicago when he meets a beautiful woman (Clayburgh), witnesses a murder, and gets thrown from the train again and again trying to save the girl. On one of his detours he meets up with a thief (Pryor) who becomes a friend and help on his mission. I had seen this movie years ago, but I don’t think I fully appreciated it at the time. Also features Ray Walston, Ned Beatty, Scatman Crothers, and Richard Kiel.

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  1. OK. Let’s break the world. My absolute favorite movie screening was a drunken double-feature of two Neil Breen films. I had previously reviewed Double Down and found it to be something special, but in context of Breen’s entire oeuvre, it has catapulted in significance. We hunkered down with our mellow selves to enjoy Fateful Findings (2012) and I Am Here …. Now (2009) back to back. Then a week later we polished off his canon with Pass Thru (2016). Honestly, if you love strange, incoherent, singular visions unimpeded by studio demands or audience expectations and drunk on their own delusional obsessions and ham-handed messages, then please, for the love of everything, watch Neil Breen. Breen eclipses Tommy Wiseau and James Nguyen (Birdemic) in a way that is should be impossible. 

In a way he is a miracle. A gift given by the gods of film. Breen is driven by several passions and you can begin to assemble a fairly probable biography of the writer/director/actor/producer/caterer/music-picker-outer/etc. from spotting repeated motifs and child-like fixations in his work. I could explain the shenanigans that go on within the meticulously constructed worlds he builds in each movie; their flaws, their quirks, their incomprehensible plots, their Tim and Eric-flavored acting, but Breen truly must be seen to be believed. No other person has given me more joy in recent memory, which maybe is sad. Maybe it’s crazy. But I believe in Breen and cannot wait for his new movie, Twisted (which you can help make happen here: https://www.gofundme.com/Twisted-Neil-Breen-Film).

Not all movies—or even all bad movies—are created equally. The films of Neil Breen feel like anthropology classes. They are an intense, intimate character study of the filmmaker himself. They contain endless mystery and questions and I mean this with no irony: I fucking love them.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXV – The Worsening

I do it again. I watch da moobies. I list da moobies werst 2 best.

Nothing means anything. Watch more movies.

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Dolls (1987) is a disappointing combination of unappealing characters played by actors trapped in terrible horror movie that’s a much worse comedy. Haunted dolls kill people and awkward humor esnues. One or two cool but all-too-brief shots of stop-motion dolls and the little grins are creepy, but the premise, tone, and morals (when people aren’t getting murdered by porcelain figurines or teddy bears) feel like a children’s story. It’s watchable, and has a few funny WTF moments, but not essential.

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In Freejack (1992), Emilio Estevez gives perhaps his blandest performance to date but still manages to outshine a woefully miscast Mick Jagger in a story about a race-car driver who is brought to the future so his body can be a vessel for the consciousness of a dying Anthony Hopkins. Rene Russo also stars in this insane disaster of a film. How Did This Get Made is going to do an episode on it soon. I suggest you check it out as it’ll probably be good.

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The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) is an incomprehensible mess of the highest order. Some really good production values, special effects, R-rated violence, and dehumanizing female nudity, but this fantasy adventure is an endurance test of human understanding. We laughed through the whole thing, but were so frustrated with how difficult this convoluted plot was to follow. Clearly either footage was lost or they ran out of money. Highlight: semi-nude hero man is crucified at a banquet and rips his own hands off the beams and sword fights a room full of people using a triple bladed sword with projectile sabers.

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The Nightmare (2015) is a Rodney Ascher documentary about sleep paralysis. Instead of giving scientific insight into the dreadful experience (I’ve had it myself multiple times), he just lets people talk about their recurring nightmares and then they stage scary reenactments. That’s it. That is literally it. The reenactments are cool, I guess. Maybe I was expecting something somewhat in-depth.

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Don’t Think Twice (2016) will test your appreciation for the art form known as improv. It’s a good character drama and it has humorous moments and maybe I’m a Philistine but the improv scenes and wacky offstage theater kid banter just reminded me of why I prefer the company of stand ups. The story is relatable and moving, even if the writing doesn’t justify that the characters are supposed to be funny.  Mike Birbiglia is still a man to watch. He’s a clever storyteller with a lot of heart. Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Tami Sagher, and Chris Gethard round out the improv troupe. 

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Ex Machina (2015) is a snazzy looking film with a few clever twists that you can probably see coming. The weird bro-y tension between Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson is great. The female actors all get the job of playing tormented, submissive, sexy sex robots. It’s good science fiction and there is a point to it.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) is a re-watch from childhood. It’s beautiful, extravagant, hammy adventure times but Sinbad (Patrick Wayne) brings every magical moment to a screeching halt with his high-school-quarterback-trying-to-do-drama performance. The stop-motion Ray Harryhausen creatures are great (skeletal bug men, a cursed baboon, a giant bee, a mechanical minotaur, a giant troglodyte man, a witch-possessed saber tooth tiger). My main issue with this film (from a narrative point) is that the heroes don’t really sacrifice anything or do anything heroic. The villain (played with gusto by Margaret Whiting) has the actually harrowing adventure. She sacrifices and loses so much along the way that I sympathized with her far more than any of the protagonists.

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John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980) is a classic horror movie about a sleepy beach town beset with an evil mist that harbors vengeful ghost pirates. The story is very silly, but the atmosphere is a lot of fun. Features Tom Atkins, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Hal Holbrook, but is is Adrienne Barbeau as local radio DJ Stevie Wayne that makes it fun. The story is dumb. I know. I just liked that little world.

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Loving Vincent (2017) is a breathtakingly gorgeous and artistically immersive realization of the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. If every frame feels like it could be hung on a wall, it’s probably because they all have. The story takes place a year after Van Gogh’s death. The son of a postman has to deliver a letter to the dead man’s brother and then decides to interview people to see how Van Gogh died. And this is the problem. The story doesn’t feel justified or motivated by anything. It’s rather bland, aimless, boring, and without stakes. In the end, it doesn’t really say much about Van Gogh either. Sumptuous and mesmerizing to look at (so much work went into this to paint every single frame), pity they didn’t have a story to tell.

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Miracle Mile (1988) is a bleak apocalyptic thriller that feels like a cross between After Hours and Dr. Strangelove. A milquetoast man meets the woman of his dreams at the Museum of Natural History of Los Angeles. A power outage causes him to miss a date with her but then a payphone tells him that America has launched a nuclear attack and the country should expect impending retaliatory destruction. Then it’s a mad dash to find the girl and get to the airport. Fun but bleak as only 1988 can deliver.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2017) is fine. It’s fine. If you loved the original 1982 Ridley Scott classic then you’ll probably enjoy Denis Villeneuve’s sequel. Maybe I like this new movie better? I don’t know. The atmosphere, special effects, and cinematography are spectacular and I actually enjoyed the slow pace. But, to me, both films still suffer from a lack of interesting characters (Rutger Hauer and Ana de Armas excluded) and clear stakes and goals. Do our memories make us human? I don’t even get why people geek out over this question. It’s pensive. It’s moody. It has a great score and amazing visuals. I’m not disappointed I saw it. I just kind of wanted a clearer point. This isn’t Béla Tarr. 

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If Blade Runner is too needlessly complex, Desierto (2015) is simple.  Gael García Bernal and some other Mexicans are trying to illegally cross the border. Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a sadistic vigilante who tries to kill them all. He also has a very mean dog. That’s it. And that’s perfect as is.

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Fresh (1994) is the story of a 12 year old boy (Sean Nelson) who delivers drugs and plays all of the drug dealers. Every move the kid makes is like chess. It can only work if he can see several of his opponent’s moves in advance. It’s a focused hood movie with compelling characters and building suspense. Features Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson.

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Chinese Take-Away (2011) is an Argentine comedy about an anal hardware store clerk who gets stuck with a lost Chinese man who speaks no Spanish. It’s a cute premise, but the characters and performances bring out more than expected. It has its sweet moments, its heavy moments, its light comic moments, but it is all anchored by Ricardo Darín’s perfectly pitched performance.

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Miami Connection (1987) might be as wonderful as Samurai Cop. A middle-aged Korean man named Y. K. Kim apparently wanted to be the next Bruce Lee. So he made this movie about himself and some middle-aged looking college students who sing rock songs about friendship and stopping ninjas. They are also skilled in taekwondo and are frequently shirtless. The hilarious, family friendly human drama is punctuated by some fun action scenes, brutal deaths, and boobs. If you love bad movies, this cannot be missed.

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) stars Caroline Munro’s glistening torso and her heaving, perfect breasts. Also some more great Harryhausen monsters (a cyclops/centaur, a giant walrus, a griffin, a couple homonicuses, a possessed ship figurehead, and a sword fighting Kali). And Tom “Dr. Who” Baker plays the villain. This was another re-watch. Caroline Munro really spoke to me in my childhood. Of the three Sinbad movies in this series, this one is probably my favorite.

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Broadcast News (1987) is a romantic comedy drama I can get. Holly Hunter is a TV news producer with two guys vying for her affections, the unscrupulous but charming William Hurt and the principled nebbish, Albert Brooks. It’s a simple, sweet story with some fascinating insights into what goes on behind the cameras. The whole cast is great. I loved it.

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I finally finished Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009). Shot almost entirely from the POV of a disembodied ghost, we hover over the neon streets of Tokyo and into traumatic memories of the past. It’s an aggressive, surreal, artistic masterpiece and I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

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War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) is the best Planet of the Apes movie (after the original 1968 film). I keep trying to write off the series with each movie, but each entry into the new trilogy is better than the last. Brilliantly realized ape characters, beautiful cinematography, and wonderful post apocalyptic action. This film establishes the stakes early and builds the tension gloriously until it’s satisfying conclusion. It’s a good, smarter-than-average popcorn movie done right.

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) must have just hit me when I was in the right mood. Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) gets her house robbed and when the police are good-for-nothing, she awkwardly teams up with her weird neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood), to track down the thieves. What I liked about this movie was how it set up the worldview of the protagonist—that being “people can’t be assholes” [and get away with it]—and basically makes the plot conform to that worldview somehow. It’s kind of beautiful in a way and perhaps what elevated this little crime drama to something special. It’s fun. It’s unpretentious. It’s got Elijah Wood with a rat-tail.

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The Similars (2015) is my favorite thing listed here. It’s a tongue-in-cheek Mexican sci-fi horror flick in the style of a 1960’s melodrama. Don’t read anything about it. Don’t spoil it. If any of the description intrigues you, just watch it. I found this to be an exceedingly clever and playful movie with just the right doses of terror, surrealism, and offbeat dark humor.

THE LAST FEW MOVIES I SAW: EPISODE XXIV – I have a life, I swear.

Again. I did it again. I rank the last few movies I watched.

Ultra Warrior (1990) is incomprehensible gibberish of the incomprehensiblest order. A cinematic Frankenstein monster mash up of nonsensical exposition stapled across hatcheted up footage from other sci fi schlock. It’s kind of a miracle.

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Order of the King Kong movies from best to worst: King Kong (1933), King Kong (2005), The Son of Kong (1933), Godzilla vs King Kong (1962), Kong: Skull Island (2017), King Kong (1976), King Kong Lives (1986), and whatever else the Japanese did with him.

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The cartoon cash grab exploiting our apparent addiction to reality singing competitions and pop music? Sing (2016). A solid ensemble voice cast and all around cuteness. Leave me alone. I liked the pig.

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Like Joon-ho Bong’s previous film, Snowpiercer, I think pieces work and certain ideas touched upon are brilliant yet the whole eludes me just the same in Okja (2017), the story of one brave little girl’s love for her giant genetically engineered super pig. Also Tilda Swinton.

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Who likes their cowboy western’s slow, arty, ambiguous, and nearly inaudible mumble-core? Me. Sometimes. Apparently. Meek’s Cutoff (2010). Slower than Slow West, to give you an idea. Worth checking out for the patient among you.

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Ever wondered where all these golden arches and diabetes came from? The Founder (2016) explores the inception of the American franchise. Michael Keaton is Ray Kroc and Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are the brothers that begat McDonald’s. As charismatic as a door to door milkshake salesman.

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Moana (2016) is Disney doing their thing again. Come for Jemaine Clement as a giant coconut crab, stay for the lush, beautifully rendered Polynesian scenery. Does the plot even matter? Can you really not guess the ingredients to a Disney princess movie? I still liked it.

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Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness (1973) is basically a kaleidoscopic parade of violently surreal demon rape set in a highly stylized fairy tale world. With some trepidation, I say it is a gorgeous animated film. The soundtrack is amazing.

 

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Like movies with better questions than answers? Well, you’re in luck because The Man From Earth (2007) is a thing that exists. A guy asks his colleagues, hypothetically, what if he were a several thousand year old caveman? Well worth playing along.

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Early John Carpenter sci fi and black comedy, Dark Star (1974), is next. It’s so low budget and rough around the edges, yet this unpolished fratboy look at the mundanity of space travel delivers the absurdity and the hopelessness of it all with an engagingly detached spirit. And the theme song “Benson, Arizona” sets the tone perfectly.

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Elaine May wrote the screenplay. You shouldn’t need more, but you got it. The Birdcage (1996) is the American remake of the French film, but it’s the kind of remake you should watch. A very fun comedy about a gay father (Robin Williams) trying to play it straight for the night to deceive his son’s conservative future in-laws (Gene Hackman and Diane Wiest). And then Nathan Lane in drag shows up.

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Lucio Fulci (A Lizard in Woman’s Skin) directs another perfectly sleazy giallo film. Boys in a small Italian village are turning up murdered. Who did it? Was it the village simpleton? The witch? Naked Barbara Bouchet? Watch Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) to find out! Memorably stylish and gruesome.

 

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You probably know about the American prison system and racism in America. But not enough. Go watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th (2016).

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Everyone in town thinks Daniel Radcliffe murdered his girlfriend in Horns (2013). Then he grows devil horns that make people be uncomfortably, horrifyingly honest with him. A devilish, atmospheric mystery with a tasty, dark wit.

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The Little Hours (2017) is the best comedy I’ve seen since What We Do in the Shadows. Gleefully raunchy nun movie sound too exploitation cinema-y? If it helps, it’s based on 14th century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Don’t you feel so cultured now watching your smut. Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, Aubrey Plaza, Dave Franco, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Fred Armisan, and Nick Offerman are great and the detailed period setting sucks you into the world despite all the hilarious anachronistic language.

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My favorite movie this time around was, hands down, the Argentinian anthology film Wild Tales (2014), directed by Damián Szifron. Six short films about humans under pressure explore our more depraved and desperate sides. Stylish. Dark. Funny. Brilliant. 

Go watch some stuff.

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.