The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XXXV – Very Important Stuff

It’s like I keep watching movies or something. That’s crazy. Anyway, if you’re new to this format. I watch several films at random and arbitrarily rank them against each other based on my subjective whims.

Related image

19. What can you say about Hal Needham’s Megaforce (1982) that Team America: World Police hasn’t already? For a movie engineered around doing motorcycle stunts and blowing stuff up in the desert with tanks, this is one long, dull, and very beige slog. Barry Bostwick stars as Ace Hunter, the leader of a crack squad of international soldiers armed with the best technology ever dreamed. Together they go after Duke Gurerra (Henry Silva) and kind of just mess up his base. But then it turns out it’s a trap and Gurerra won’t let them leave. Megaforce has a couple laugh-out-loud WTF moments, but most of the time I was trying to figure out the plot.

Related image

18. The original Jaws is a natural disaster/creature feature masterpiece. The concept is straightforward. The cast is great. Infamous for its slew of sequels of diminishing quality, Jaws 2 (1978) follows Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) dealing with yet another shark on Amity beach. No Robert Shaw. No Richard Dreyfuss. No epic bond forged by three hapless shark hunters on a mission. Instead we get some teens and Brody running around being as sweaty as ever. It’s forgettable, but it’ll entertain while it’s happening.

Related image

17. I keep watching Howling movies. I still have yet to see the original Joe Dante film, but I have developed an obsession since watching Howling III: The Marsupials and Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (aka Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch) and now Howling IV: The Original Nightmare (1988). And, yes, in that order. Admittedly this series is a hot garbage mess with fluctuating cinematic ineptitude, but dammit if they aren’t fun as hell. There is barely any werewolf stuff in this movie. Possibly three seconds total, mostly of a pretty bad looking puppet head only shown in closeup and most assuredly, not originally filmed for this movie. These movies may be unapologetic schlock, but they still make me howl.

Image result for a night in heaven movie

16. A Night in Heaven (1983) is the story of a love triangle between a NASA scientist, his frumpy and affection-denied speech teacher wife, and her failing student who strips to pay his way through college. And it is told in the most un-cinematic and confusing of ways. Who is the main character? What is the moral? Is it just a slice of life cutting between male strip club hijinks and a quiet engineer ominously loading his gun? I really want to spoil the ending here because it is insane. After the woman (Leslie Anne Warren) finally succumbs to her student’s advances and she gets one night in heaven, she’s ready to throw it all away. But then stripper boy sexes someone else up. The only way to reset the timeline and undo this horrible infidelity is for NASA husband to secretly kidnap stripper boy, take him to the swamp, force him to strip naked at gunpoint, shoot at him, and leave him for dead. Then he goes home and forgives his wife and the music swells. I get that the character needed to reassert his dominance and masculinity, but the movie posits that this was a good thing?? The movie is bonkers and we laughed a lot, but truly the soundtrack is fantastic.

Image result for i am mother

15. Robot thrillers are becoming less and less clunky as a subgenre. And that is reason to celebrate. I Am Mother (2019) is the story of the robot Mother (Rose Byrne and Luke Hawker), her human daughter (Clara Ruugard), and the strange woman (Hillary Swank) who enters their self-contained world. A twisty and turny slow-burn that keeps you paranoid and guessing. Sleek sci-fi minimalism with wonderful puppetry.

Related image

14. For the life of me, I can’t remember which Thin Man movies I’ve already seen. If you’re a fan of the sardonic sleuthing alcoholic couple of Nick and Nora Charles (played, as always by William Powell and Myrna Loy) then why not polish off the series with this race track caper, Shadow of the Thin Man (1941) and whatever other movies are left? More sarcastic remarks! More sleuthing! Markedly less alcoholism. They have a kid now. Like a lot of famous detectives, the show is less about the mystery plot and more about the detectives themselves. And I, for one, am chill with that.

Related image

13. Dennis Quaid is a loser navy pilot who gets shrunk down to the size of a cell in a top secret science experiment, but then gets accidentally injected into Martin Short’s ass. This is Joe Dante’s Innerspace (1987). It’s a wacky plot with plenty of clever twists and turns and unique problems to solve and ultimately becomes the story of a nebbish learning to listen to his literal inner-voice to find the courage to be a man. Wonderful visual effects and tightly structured storytelling. Meg Ryan and Robert Picardo co-star.

Image result for lupin iii the castle of cagliostro

12. I love Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. I’m human. How could I not. For the life of me, I have seen Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) more than once and I still don’t really know what it’s about. Gentleman thief saves a girl from a gangster yadda yadda yadda. The real star of this movie is the castle. All the nooks and crannies. All the gears and cogs. All beautifully animated and marvelous to look at.

Related image

11. I hope you’re well-versed in Japanese prefectures and their stereotypes. Fly Me to Saitama (2019) is essentially a live-action anime. Cartoonishly over-the-top melodrama and flamboyant costumes in outlandish situations reveling in the absurdity of the empty quest for status and nurturing of regional pride. Framed as a radio drama on a ride from Saitama to Tokyo, the story may be a trifle, but it’s a passably humorous romp into a zany world where everyone has donned their most ridiculous cosplay.

Related image

10. This next one is real hard to score. Night God (2018), directed by Adilkhan Yerzhanov, is a surreal intersection of a mystic Kazakh past and an oppressive post-Soviet present. A depressing series of weird, cold, and wet tableau vivants steeped in cultural despair and existential dread. I could not tell you what Night God is about. I’m not even sure I could honestly recommend it to anybody. Amidst the gradual succession of dilapidated interiors, I found myself feeling frustrated, curious, depressed, disconnected, and full of unease. Less a film and more an unabashedly arty lingering Kafkaesque nightmare that absolutely refuses to hold your hand. While not typically the norm, sometimes I like to be challenged in this way by something I’m completely unfamiliar with.

Image result for society 1989

9. Well, I’m glad I finally got around to this bad boy. Society (1989) is exactly the type of satirical body-horror bizarro teen flick that appeals to me. OK, so not as good as They Live or The Stuff, and Society‘s lead (try as he might) is no hunky Marty McFly, but come on? A twisted riff on the upper class’s insidious control, incestuousness, and alien-ness with a grimly gross final act? Count me in. The tone may feel a bit wobbly, but it’s definitely worth a look. And WAY better than TerrorVision.

Related image

8. I am very late to the party, I realize, but up until recently I had never seen Quentin Tarantino-Robert Rodriguez experiment known as Grindhouse (2007). I have been a casual fan of both filmmakers as well as a few real classic grindhouse/exploitation flicks. And I love that the two directors tackle the assignment of making a modern grindhouse movie with very different tools and visions. Rodriguez’ Planet Terror is a perfect zombie apocalypse gross-out gore-fest. It’s effortlessly bonkers and absurd and positively wonderful in its darkly cheesy tone. If Rose McGowan with a gun for a leg riding a motorcycle doesn’t make you cheer, you are dead inside.

Image result for deathproof

7. Planet Terror may be a fun throwback to classic undead gore, but Tarantino’s Death Proof is an utterly brilliant slow-burn horror. Kurt Russell plays a stuntman who kills women with his souped up car and the film is more or less just a big wind up to its signature car chase. Death Proof is cleverly structured and gleefully suspenseful and, honestly, stands on its own as just a solid movie outside of the grindhouse concept. The fake movie trailers that punctuate both films in this wild double-feature are also hilarious and fantastically entertaining. The trailers were directed by Rodriguez, Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. While everyone may have their favorites of the bunch, it’s best to watch them together as they were meant to be seen.

Related image

6. The Hot Rock (1972), directed by Peter Yates, is a heist movie starring Robert Redford, George Segal, Moses Gunn, and Zero Mostel. Getting the diamond out of the museum was only the first part. The suspense continues as they keep having to do more cons and more capers to keep track of it and deliver it to their benefactor. Sleek and fun.

Related image

5. The Burial of Kojo (2018), directed by Blitz Bazawule, is a pensive, lyrical Ghanaian film about a little girl’s journey to the spirit world to save her father who has been betrayed by his jealous brother. Slow but sumptuous. Steeped in vibrant colors and an unsettling atmosphere of  tragedy, it’s a rich visual experience that operates on a sort of poetic dream logic.

Image result for lake michigan monster movie

4. Writer/director/actor Ryland Brickson Cole Tews marries his cartoonish sense of humor to the aesthetics of a Guy Maddin film for Lake Michigan Monster (2018), a freshwater shanty concerning a deranged faux lighthouse captain’s quest to murder the creature that killed his daddy. Or did it? Or did it have a good reason? Or what even is the Lake Michigan Monster. A briny yarn caked in barnacles and slapstick nonsense. I enjoyed the whole schmear, but the third act is where it captivated me with its bonkers creativity and wonderfully silly special effects.

Related image

3. Yasujirō Ozu (Tokyo Story) is the master of subtle, sublime, slice-of-life storytelling. Good Morning (1959) follows a family in a small Tokyo suburb and the many mini-dramas that play out when two brothers take a vow of silence to pressure their parents into buying a television set. Soft and gentle and simply human.

2. Miguel Llansó (Crumbs) has as unique a cinematic vision as you may ever find and it is exactly my kind of bonkers. Put him alongside Jim Hosking and Harmony Korine. Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway (2019) is a spy-fi retro-futurist spoof of, I guess, the internet. Agent Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) gets sent on a suicide mission into the VR world of Psychobook to destroy a virus that wears a Stalin mask. From there we get corrupt African president Batman and some kung-fu scenes and a tragic romance and we even find religion. Or do we? At every turn, Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway surprises, inspires, and confounds and just when you think you’ve figured it out, there are another several spinning plates to keep track of. This won’t be for everyone, but it was most definitely for me. My favorite film I got to see at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival.

Related image

1. Once again. I am late to the party. I was told it was good, but holy smokes. I may not be much of a fan of superhero movies, but as an animation enthusiast, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse (2018) may be one of the best animated features ever made. Spider-People from multiple dimensions team up to stop Kingpin, but there is so much more going on in this action-packed adventure. It might be too smart and too weird and too beautiful to have not done better. The writing is sharp and clever. The emotional hits hit. The action is mind-bending and brilliantly choreographed. Perfect voice cast. Gloriously beautiful character design. All this AND it’s funny? Spider-verse legit inspired me and filled me with joy. This one deserves the hype.


SHORT FILMS BONUS

Image result for Mike Pinkney, Michael Reich picnic

Picnic (2019), directed by Mike Pinkney and Michael Reich is the story of three women going for a picnic. That turns into a surreal nightmare, for perhaps no reason whatsoever. Enjoy the cake.

Image result for possibly in michigan

Cecelia Condit’s Possibly in Michigan (1983) is another surreal nightmare showcasing the golden age of American malls.

Related image

Legendary silent comedian and insane stunt choreographer, Buster Keaton, may be old, but he still has the gentle comic timing of an old master in The Railrodder (1965), a cross country adventure that doesn’t mind if it doesn’t know where it’s going. OK so he’s 70 years old here so don’t expect any over the-top-stunts. Consider this a quiet lollygag for fans.

Image result for borom sarret

Just broaden your world and watch more films by Senegalese filmmaker pioneer Ousmane Sembène. Borom Sarret (1963) is a humble, almost documentarian short about a poor cart driver in Dakar.

Image result for uncle yanco

French filmmaker Agnès Varda travels to Sausalito, California to document a distant relative in Uncle Yanco (1967). It’s a short little tribute to her eccentric kin, but colorful and stylish and full of good, warm feelings that make you sort of envious of the special times they shared making this movie.

Koyaanisqatsi, Powaqqatsi, Naqoyqatsi—life outta whack

I hope you all like wordless non-narratives.

Sometimes you just have to take a few great, big steps back and look at things from a different angle. Film can show us new angles we might have otherwise missed. Good cinema conveys compelling emotions. It expounds on provocative ideas about the world we live in or what the world used to be like or what it can become. It may be persuasive. It may be informative. It may have stunning visuals. It may be beautiful and captivating. It may be arresting and ugly. Good cinema may have some of these things mixed together unevenly, but great cinema does it all. Great cinema is exploratory and revelatory and revolutionary. It has all these things, but it does not require the cumbersomeness of words. Director Godfrey Reggio proves this point with his amazing trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi (1982), Powaqqatsi (1988), and Naqoyqatsi (2002). Through this series Reggio explores and explains our world as a glorious and terrifying ballet of images and motion set to a powerful Philip Glass score.

I know what you’re thinking: “those are the most alienating titles I have ever seen.” Well, they each come from the Hopi Indian language and each film deals with a different direction society has taken. Let us proceed in order, shall we?

The first film is entitled Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and translated it means “life out of balance.” It opens with cave paintings and rocket exhaust and then beautiful and powerfully awesome pictures of nature. Dazzling rock formations jut out of the earth and mountains and canyons sculpted by the forces of nature whiz by like an incredible, living mosaic. The music pumps wonder and energy into every frame. Even when the camera lingers on subjects and is still it is nothing short of jaw dropping. Gradually the lush terrain becomes entangled in modern man-made constructs. Billowing smoke stacks protrude out from labyrinthine nightmares of wires and pipes. Towering buildings blot out the sun and mimic the sky as they reflect the shifting clouds. People bustle through streets and subways and supermarkets. Assembly line systems from hell (or maybe Detroit) rage on interminably. Urban renewal wipes out slums and old buildings with merciless precision. Machines whir and hammer away incessantly. Metal sparks blaze forth from the pulsating industry. Modernization spins its web ever faster until moving at an exponential rate. As the music becomes more intense and the editing becomes deliriously fast, the images begin to blur together and transform from a wondrous ballet to an unbearable barrage of nightmarish images reflecting all that is wrong with mechanization. Just when the chaos reaches its zenith, Reggio backs off and gives us more peaceful images (peaceful in the sense that they are slower and the music is quieter). The images themselves are still quite compelling. The last thing we see before the curtain is drawn is a spaceship, the Challenger, launching and exploding in the atmosphere in slow motion. The rocket’s engine tumbles down from the sky as Glass’s score resounds like an ominous funeral dirge. Has mankind flown too close to the sun on wings of wax? Have we spoiled the earth so much and reached too high and too selfishly to the heavens that God has stifled our Tower of Babel a second time? Before the credits roll Reggio closes his film with a parting shot of more prehistoric cave paintings.

If a picture is worth a thousand words then this movie is worth millions. It says so much without vocalizing anything. It is elusive yet definite. It is tranquil yet violent. It is the visual representation of “life out of balance.” It is a history lesson and a science lesson and a warning and a lament all at the same time. And it is beautiful and stirring. Koyaanisqatsi will leave the viewer with much to ponder and all without plot or characters.

The second film always gets flack for “not being the first film” but it is still a great movie. Again Reggio employs both silent images and motion with the music of Philip Glass. Powaqqatsi (1988) comes from the Hopi language again and it means “life in transformation” or “parasitic way of life.” The second installment in the trilogy deals chiefly with the third world of the Southern Hemisphere and those first sooty steps toward the door of industrialization. The images are more about the struggle for life and survival as a forlorn parade of wide-eyed, sallow-faced visages pass from the screen to our eyes. Gaunt bodies and bent backs do work most Americans would never dream of doing. People struggle to work and prepare meals and to entertain themselves. This is the feather-filled pageantry of the tribal world clashing and struggling to become the industrialized doomed nations Koyaanisqatsi depicted. The results are more toxic smoke and fumes. The transition from third world country to mechanized city can be uneven and difficult and the film is no less compelling. Powaqqatsi is the cinematic equivalent of a coke-frenzied flip through several “National Geographic” magazines. If you are going to watch this movie, be prepared to be moved and compelled by the human face. The film is another staggering achievement.

Godfrey Reggio conveys so much without any words. What the filmmakers have done with these two movies is attempt present the world we live in. The meaning and message behind Powaqqatsi may be more elusive than its predecessor, Koyaanisqatsi, but it is no less captivating.

The final installment in the Qatsi Trilogy is Naqoyqatsi (2002) which means “life as war” in the Hopi language. Its message is not so subtle. It leaves subtlety at the doorstep as it opens on the very Tower of Babel and gradually zooms in. It is no longer a process; man has gone too far in Naqoyqatsi. Reggio once again teams up with Philip Glass to bring entrancing symphony to startling imagery. Naqoyqatsi features digitally enhanced footage and inverted colors to create a surreal fascistic nightmare about life as being completely mechanized and totally artificial. Nothing is natural or organic. The world has become an all out war on nature and nature is nowhere to be found. It has been eclipsed by the cold, artificiality of mechanization. The sky is gone. Trees and shrubberies have retreated back into the earth. Technology has dominated society and the planet, leaving only ghostlike figures pointlessly wandering the crowded streets. Soldiers march, satellites rotate, and numbers dance through a void. The whole ordeal is a chaotic orgy of logos, binary, and blurred lights. Hollow technology reigns supreme and humanity has been reduced to spectral cogs in a violently impersonal machine. The tampered with footage and digital imagery is not quite as compelling as the first two films, and the message more closely resembles a sledgehammer than the spellbinding display that provoked so much thought with the first two movies, but it is still well worth the time to watch it. It’s more impersonal, but maybe that’s part of the point Reggio is trying to make…no wait, of course it is.

Like Ron Fricke’s (Reggio cohort and cinematographer on the Qatsi series) Baraka (1992) and Dziga Vertov’s amazing The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Godfrey Reggio manages to interpret the world in a direct and transcendental way. They move beyond conventional storytelling and conventional documentary making to become something truly unique and mystical. Life is a vigorous battle of both immense beauty and horror. The scope and wonder captured in the Qatsi Trilogy is nothing short of staggering and the delirium with which it is all captured will leave you breathless. I cannot recommend enough that you treat yourself to Reggio’s film work, the Qatsi Trilogy.

picture references:

moviemail-online.co.uk

screentrek.com

smh.com.au

thecia.com.au

narod.ru

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 20, 1010