The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode XVIII – Here We Go Again

As always, I rank the films on no concrete scale or rubric. Just what I thought of them. The further down the list, the more I liked it. It’s not science, guys.

Meh:

Remember. It’s funnier than an average rom-com, but that’s a low bar.

Comedian Amy Schumer (Inside Amy Schumer) stars in Trainwreck (2015), a mean-spirited by-the-numbers rom-com with one or two really good laughs. Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) directs and Bill Hader (SNL) co-stars as the perfect but vaguely awkward man who lets an alcoholic Amy treat him like garbage until she decides to just be with him. It’s a story of a character’s personal growth, but if you never really like the character you won’t care and if you’re not sure if she’s even learned anything you may be hard-pressed to call it an arc. I don’t care what the genders are, people being selfish and crappy to each other is neither romantic nor charming. Also features Alison Brie, Colin Quinn, John Cena, Tilda Swinton, Randall Park, and Dave Attell.

If we keep running we might find “The Road to Wellville.”

I did not get Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster (2015). I did not dislike it. I just didn’t quite get it. Colin Farrell (Seven Psychopaths), sporting a truly wonderful mustache, is a quiet man at a surreal mansion getaway where tenants are required to find a mate within 45 days lest they be turned into an animal (Colin chooses a lobster). I think it’s a metaphor for the social stigmas of being single, but it was all a little too dry and slow for me. A tepid, but refreshingly strange outing to the cinema. Also stars Rachel Weicz, Michael Smiley, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw.

No peace. No pussy.

It took me awhile to get into the rhyming dialogue and beat poetry delivery of Spike Lee’s Chi-raq (2015). Lysistrata (played by the fabulous Teyonah Parris) starts a revolution to end gang violence in the bloody streets of Chicago by getting all women to deny their men sex of any kind until the shootings stop. It’s a bit stagey at times (in a stylized but awkward way that doesn’t always work), but the energy and humor and pulse of desperation make this movie worth a look. A bit tonally uneven, which is a shame because I feel like there’s a great film in there somewhere. Also features Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Steve Harris, Dave Chappelle, Jennifer Hudson.

Guilty pleasures and amiable lectures:

Close the door! You’re letting Tarantino’s ego out!

Quentin Tarantino. An obnoxious egotist who makes some fun movies. The Hateful Eight (2015) looks great and packs some great people into its tiny cast. A bounty hunter called The Hangman (Kurt Russell) escorting his bounty (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to her execution gets snowbound in a shifty cabin full of untrustworthy characters. The moments of tension are great—although nothing close to Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained—and it has a few surprises, but when every character is so hateful it can become hard to care about what happens to them. Samuel L. Jackson is half the reason the movie is as entertaining as it is. Jackson has a fantastic mental showdown with Bruce Dern’s character too. Also stars Tim Roth, Walter Goggins, and Michael Madsen.

So it has come to this. I’m doing a Samurai Cop sequel.

Samurai Cop (1991) is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. It truly is one of the BEST bad movies out there and you owe it to yourself to watch it now. The surprise sequel Samurai Cop 2: Deadly Vengeance (2015) is decidedly underwhelming by comparison. The film spends a lot of its time winking at the audience and dusting off all of the old cast for their own quality moments of varying hilarity. Instead of a crappy old school B-action movie we get a seriously incomprehensible Lynchian mess of flashy colors and lady murder. In a post screening Q&A, Matt Karedas (Joe “Samurai Cop” Marshall, himself) expressed disappointment with the finished product and said he was uncomfortable murdering so many women in the film, feeling it was against Joe’s character. For however impossible the plot is to follow, I loved a lot of the cheesy winks and wacky, forced cameos. Bai Ling and The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau add a lot of over-the-top zany surreality to the finished product, but seeing Mark Frazer and so many of the original cast reprising their roles in this stupid film was just what I needed. It looks like everyone is having fun. And this movie actually gave me newfound respect for Bai Ling. She plays it well beyond eleven. Fans of the original will undoubtedly be as dismayed and baffled as Matt, but should check it out anyway for a stupid adventure with your favorite cult movie heroes.

I came here for Keegan-Michael Key. Excited for “Keanu”!

Jason Strouse’s quiet little comedy-drama about an ineffably likable high school teacher (played wonderfully by Matt Letscher) is sweet. It’s charming. It’s actually a bit too clean and simple at times. But Teacher of the Year (2014) manages to more closely resemble the anxieties of actual teacher life than most teacher flicks. Mitch Carter (Letscher) is a great educator who has to make a choice between staying where he’s always been or taking a bigger job across the country. The cast is good (Keegan-Michael Key and the Sklar Brothers add needed hilarity) and it has enough satisfying character moments to eclipse some of its contrivances. It’s not pretentious and it should make you smile, whether you’re in education or not. Co-stars Tamlyn Tomita, Jamie Kaler, Larry Joe Campbell, and Sunny Mabrey.

A bit more on board:

I’m the best part of the movie and barely mentioned on the poster. Admit it. You can’t pronounce my name.

I love the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men) and even lower tier Coens is still watchable (Ladykillers is pushing it though). Hail, Caesar! (2016) is not a masterpiece, but it is breezy and fun. The story is pulled in perhaps too many directions (The Big Lebowski made it work). Ultimately we may be a little fuzzy on what was being said and why we should care (Burn After Reading did it better). It’s all rather showy and cartoony (Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona were more successful here). It’s about old Hollywood (Barton Fink, while weird, was far more engaging). It tries to depict a crisis of faith (A Serious Man, anyone?). In the end, Hail, Caesar! is a series of wacky scenes vaguely connected and told in the mock-buildup fashion of classic Coen shaggy dog tales. Not great. But not bad. Stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich (possibly the best part of the show), and a host of cameos from Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Clancey Brown, Wayne Knight, Christopher Lambert, etc. So what’s it about? The red scare? The calculated fakeness of showbiz? Who cares? Eat your popcorn.

Say “War on Christmas” one more time.

Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a gleefully dark Christmas story full of demonic gingerbread men, ghoulish holiday gifts, and the wicked elf ruler of them all. A boy accidentally curses his family’s stressful yuletide proceedings when he summons the dark version of Santa Claus: Krampus. It’s silly and simple, but the surreal sense of dread, coupled with the right tone of comedy, propel this anti-holiday flick beyond Gremlins (perhaps). Did I mention the fantastic creature effects? The evil Jack-in-the-box and the nightmarish lord of them all look wonderful! The use of puppets and suited monsters definitely add to the uneasy texture of this kooky flick. Features an extended stop-motion flashback sequence and Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Conchata Ferrell, David Koechner, and Allison Tolman.

The closest I’ve gotten to being interested in soccer.

What if you could get the two lowest FIFA ranked teams in soccer and have them compete against each other on the same exact day as the World Cup final? Two Dutch soccer fans did just that and made it into a documentary called The Other Final (2003). If you like underdogs, this is for you. It’s underdogs versus underdogs! Watching the sadly forgotten teams of Bhutan and Montserrat meet on the patchy green amicably and in the spirit of pure sportsmanship is a charming little departure from big commercial athletics. As a bonus, I learned more about the countries of Bhutan and Montserrat than I ever knew before.

Let’s take it up a notch:

You will forever think differently about fish, pigs, and monkeys.

I’m a Stephen Chow fan. Shaolin Soccer and Kung-fu Hustle are masterpieces of comic fantasy. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (2013) is a fantastically innovative adventure and compelling retelling of the classic Chinese legend. While some of the ambitious visuals may falter beneath occasionally uneven special effects, one must applaud Chow’s typically confident direction of the impossible mayhem. Tragedy and comedy go hand in hand in this action-packed tale of demon hunters and romance unrequited. Like Chow’s previous films mentioned, Journey to the West is accessible to children for its monsters and fantasy but complex and surprising in its narrative cogs. At the end of it all, I found myself both exhausted and delighted at having seen something unique. Shu Qi, Wen Zhang, and Huang Bo star.

And I want to come out on a swan.

Kristen Wiig (SNL) plays Alice Klieg, a mentally ill woman who wins the lottery and decides to make a show based on herself (her thoughts, her memories, her hobbies, etc.) in Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me (2014). Honestly, I can’t imagine a single other person playing this character. Wiig straddles a weird line between comedy and sympathy for mental illness. The usual obvious satirical fodder of television politics rears its head too, but the real heart of the film comes from the endearing character and Wiig’s performance. There’s a lot of goodies in this clever little movie that I’ll just recommend you watch it. Also features Joan Cusack, Linda Cardellini, James Marsden, Wes Bentley, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Robbins, and Alan Tudyk.

Say “Tommy Wiseau” in the mirror three times and a drama student rejoins the fastfood industry.

If you got excited by Tommy Wiseau’s mention in Samurai Cop 2, then you’re going to love this: The Room fan Rick Harper got deep into Wiseau’s world a few years back. So deep they may not be on speaking terms anymore. So deep he tracked down most of the original cast and crew and made a documentary about the famously awful cult movie. I had the special privilege of seeing the world premier of Room Full of Spoons (2016) in Madrid. If watching The Room brings you joy; if Tommy Wiseau fascinates you with his captivating oddness; if you’ve ever had questions about how the film was made or where Tommy comes from…watch this documentary.

What’s this Panama Papers thing I keep hearing about?

2016 Oscar winning film about the Catholic priest pedophilia cover up, Spotlight (2015), is solidly cast, well written, and an important reminder of the significance of investigative journalism in our world. This is like the sister film of All the President’s Men (1976). Not merely satisfied with looking into the interviewing process of gathering data via cold calls, personal interviews, and reading through old documents, Spotlight, like All the President’s Men, deals a lot with the nature of the politics game and media strategies involved in a high profile, high risk scoop dependent on secrecy and facts. And the personalities uncovering the story bring added realism to this slow-burn drama. Stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, and John Slattery.

MORE! MORE!

https://i2.wp.com/thedoteaters.com/tde/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/bitstory_tls_snap_crowd-624x274.jpg

It was a slow night.

I gave a needed re-watch to a film I never really got on board with as a child. I saw the original Star Wars trilogy when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our home did not celebrate the knockoffs I later came to love. Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars have since become films I frequently recommend. Knowing this, and somewhat prompted by “Trailers From Hell“, I gave The Last Starfighter (1984) another chance. No, not all of the effects hold up (some of the earliest examples of CGI), but it is such an amiable breath of fresh air that it hit me just right. A video-gamer named Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) living in a dusty trailer park gets a surprise visit from a strange alien visitor (The Music Man‘s Robert Preston) sent to recruit him to defend a distant planet. Alex’s alien mentor, Grig (played by Dan O’Herlihy), is an understandably favorite character. It’s basically everything you want it to be. It’s unapologetically fun and squarely 80s sci-fi cheese. Maybe never confused with a truly “great” film, I submit we retain slots for the wonderfully good.

Him: There’s pigs. Her: I know.

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) is assuredly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is a hypnotic, elliptical enigma. If you thought Primer was alienating and indecipherable, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Categorized as a sci-fi movie, imdb.com summarizes the plot thusly: A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives. Which is more than the film itself clearly communicates and more succinct than I could blurb. For whatever reason, I enjoyed it immensely. But then…I also liked Beyond the Black Rainbow and Under the Skin a lot too.

Imagine how betrayed you’d feel if this picture was all you knew about the movie.

High-Rise (2015) is Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel. Tom Hiddleston plays a businessman who moves into the latest architectural wonder created by Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons). It’s got all the modern conveniences and it is stylish beyond compare, but things gradually devolve into anarchy as the classes and perceived entitlements of its tenants begin to clash. This is not Snowpiercer. This is not an action movie. The objectives are intentionally vague. It’s brand of satire is unabashedly dark and murky. It’s sexy and weird and claustrophobic. Also stars Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, and Elisabeth Moss.

Well, at least it’s not Scientology.

Here’s a slow-burn that caught me off guard. I went to see Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (2015) knowing pretty much nothing about it. I think that helped. The story of a group of estranged friends reuniting under cryptic circumstances—and what increasingly feels like a cult pitch—sucks you in and holds you under as the tension and suspense uncomfortably builds before a final act that does not disappoint. The driveway to this California dinner party is lined with warning signs. Watch it. Stars Logan Marshall-Green, Tammy Blanchard, Michiel Huisman, and John Carroll Lynch.

This is the end:

After all that, what could I list as my top three films? (As my whims sit these evening anyway.)

That’s never a good sign.

S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut has been lauded. And for good reason. Bone Tomahawk (2015) blows Tarantino’s latest film out of the water. Kurt Russell is Sheriff Hunt. He and his elderly deputy (Richard Jenkins), a greasy gunslinger (Matthew Fox), and one man with a broken [possibly gangrenous] leg (Patrick Wilson) go on a rescue mission to save the cripple’s wife (Lili Simmons) from a mysterious tribe of albino cannibal troglodytes. Valley of the Gwangi was cowboys versus dinosaurs. Now we got cowboys versus cave-people. And for however schlocky the synopsis may sound, this is a genuinely good movie. It is sensitive and earthy. More drama than gore-fest (though, there’s a bit of that too). It’s a well-written surprise whose humor and heart make it more than just that movie with the cannibal troglodytes in the wild west. And can we just give all of the acting awards to Richard Jenkins for his performance already? The man is glorious. Also features Sid Haig, David Arquette, Evan Jonigkeit, James Tolkan, and Sean Young.

Caitlyn who?

How does a kinetic comedy-drama about a jealousy & meth-fueled transgender sex-worker on Christmas Eve in Hollywood filmed entirely on iPhone 5s sound? The very first scene of Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) sets up everything you need to know: Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) just got out of prison and just found out her pimp and boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone), has been cheating on her with a cisgender chick (Mickey O’Hagan). In addition we have the subplots of Sin-Dee’s best friend (also trans, also a sex worker), Alexandra (Mya Taylor), quiet ambitions of being a singer and an Armenian cab driver (Karren Karagulian) trying to avoid his family on Christmas Eve to find Alexandra. The whole chaotic pot comes to a boil and we, the audience, are there for the show. Maybe you don’t feel like you relate to any of these characters. Perhaps it all sounds too much like an episode of Cops. Or maybe you don’t mind walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and observing their lives and their dreams and their problems. These characters are not the typical archetypes of American cinema. It may take a moment to step into their world and get used to the frenetic tempo and saturated colors, but perhaps you shall be rewarded.

Welcome to Wakaliwood.

Nabwana I.G.G. has been making insane, low-budget action movies in the slums of Uganda for years. I was introduced to his work via Alan Ssali Hofmanis, an American who moved to Uganda and dedicated his life to helping Nabwana complete more films. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), on all accounts, could not be a good movie. But it is. The plot is all but incomprehensible and the effects and props are fakey-fake. But this was made in the slums. For nothing. And a mad, anarchic joy permeates every moment of this glorious, cacophonous proceedings. Unlike The Room, which I love because it is terrible, I love Captain Alex because it was so alien and new and wonderful. By way of the Voice Joker (gleeful narrator who vaguely helps tell the story between wisecracks), we are given a glimpse into life in the slums and, more tellingly, their interpretation of American action cinema, the genre they were first introduced to and the one they choose to troll. They are having fun. Infectious fun. I can’t guarantee that you will like it as much as I did. But after hearing the history of slum cinema from Alan and viewing this feature on the big screen at midnight I only know one thing: I can’t wait to see Nabwana’s next film in which I may have a brief cameo getting my own head blown up by the Ebola Hunter. Call me crazy, this was my favorite movie-going experience in awhile.

That’s my list. Disagree? What did you see?

The Eagles Are Coming: Birdemic!

There is a storm brewing on the horizon. Ever so ominously does it gather wind. The dark spectral clouds spread their terrible girth to blot out both sun and hope. Its power will be both awesome and inexplicable…to some. Has cinematic ineptitude triumphed once again? Yes. Yes, it has. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) has arrived and it is gradually picking up steam. I’d grab an umbrella if I were you.

...O...M...G...

…O…M…G…

For those of you who celebrate bad cinema and were wondering what—if anything—could possibly follow Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), wonder no more. I saw Birdemic at a sold out screening at The Silent Movie Theater (a place that has never let me down). There I witnessed firsthand the birthing of a growing cult. And writer/director/producer, James Nguyen, was there to answer questions following the show. It was a night to remember.

birdemic 2

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is the story of a quiet coastal town that is beset by extremely aggressive birds amidst all the human drama of a budding romantic relationship and an impromptu genesis of a makeshift family unit. If it sounds like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), it’s no wonder because Nguyen loves that movie and made this film as a respectful homage to it. Nguyen’s film is decidedly more ludicrous, but, I submit, equally entertaining. Protagonist, Rod (played by Alan Bagh with heightened vapidity reminiscent of Keanu Reeves on a really bad day), is in sales. Rod also has a horny best friend, a hybrid car (that never seems to go more than 12 miles per hour), a plan for inexpensive and efficient solar power, and he just met a girl he went to school with back in the day. Said girl, Nathalie (Whitney Moore who, God bless her, is trying), is a working model that just got a gig with Victoria’s Secret. She and Rod hit it off pretty well despite the absurd awkwardness of their first encounter and their abrasive lack of chemistry. Rod has got it pretty good. Sounds that way, doesn’t it? You’re probably thinking it would be pleasurable enough just watching Rod fill his car up with gas, close ambiguous million dollar sales from his woefully ill lit cubicle, and go on awkward date after awkward date with Nathalie. What more could a movie need? If you’re Birdemic you already know the answer: hordes of psychotically bad CGI eagles and vultures inexplicably dive bombing people (and exploding into flames) that represent a thinly veiled (or perhaps bludgeon-like) plea to stop global warming.

Revelations spoke of this.

Revelations spoke of this.

Soon our heroes (heroes?) are on the lam from their avian attackers. They pick up some new—and just as emotionally and intellectually absorbing—characters along the way. SPOILER ALERT: some will not make it to the end of the movie. FORTUNATELY: all the characters have the memory/attention span/I.Q. of goldfish thus rescuing the movie from getting bogged down in the senseless mourning for the dead. When a little girl can go from crying about eagles mercilessly slaughtering her parents on the roadside to complaining she wants a Happy Meal in only a few hours, you know this movie is not terribly preoccupied with the human condition…unless perhaps it is all a metaphor or scathing social satire (she was all smiles a few minutes after their death when presented with a Gameboy).

The screeching mayhem unravels the town and stretches the wills of all who fall victim to it, until at long last the birds just decide to leave. The end.

Hair?

Hair?

I’m getting sidetracked because it’s not about the plot. The hilarious acting, writing, directing, music, and cinematography all work together (or not) to make something that by all accounts and reasoning should be atrociously unwatchable, yet somehow this movie succeeds. Never before has nothing working together resulted in so much mirth…well, maybe not. Bad movie aficionados will recognize the obvious charm of excessive delusion. Wiseau’s The Room, Sam Mraovich’s Ben and Arthur (2002), Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 (1990), Rick Sloane’s Hobgoblins (1988), Antonio Margheriti’s Yor, Hunter from the Future (1983), Cetin Inanc’s Turkish Star Wars (1982), George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977), Harold P. Warren’s Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), Vic Savage’s The Creeping Terror (1964), Nicholas Webster’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), Phil Tucker’s Robot Monster (1953), etc. are all watched today by happy movie schlock buffs. James Nguyen’s Birdemic: Shock and Terror takes its rightful seat right next to the films I have just mentioned. And I’d rather watch these movies than the perplexingly popular Transformers.

Just hangin' out. Hangin' out. Hangin' out with my family. Havin' ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Just hangin’ out. Hangin’ out. Hangin’ out with my family. Havin’ ourselves a paaaaarrrrtay.

Why do we remember and celebrate names like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space, 1959) and Coleman Francis (The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1961) while we tend to completely whitewash from our memory names like Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, 1939)? It is because these filmmakers, for better or worse have conspired to say something personal. They put all of themselves into their work. They were earnestly attempting to capture some of the greatness of the films they themselves loved. For some reason their failure is so complete that they achieve a kind of immortality. No one will remember a mediocre or merely bad movie, but everyone will remember the epically awful. There is a greatness and a power in that.  So I ask, did they really fail? They bring happiness and joy to millions of people. Is that not what good films are trying to do? Why do I still watch Godzilla movies? Because they delight me.

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

Eagles and vultures only known natural enemy: coat hangers

But what of the filmmakers themselves? Are they not distraught and humiliated that their finest work is presented as a laughable sideshow and monument to their own ineptitude at the craft they have devoted their lives to? Some are, yes. Denial, vanishing into obscurity, devolving into drugs and alcoholism, suicide attempts, etc. are all examples of some of the coping mechanisms of a few of these directors. Some, however, do find the humor in it all. It may not have been the recognition they were searching for, but their films are being celebrated and enjoyed by generations. That’s a magic that can only exist on its own. It’s a magic that cannot be manufactured. They had to believe in their work or it wouldn’t be funny.

James Nguyen

James Nguyen

James Nguyen seems to be taking things well. I’m glad. I don’t know whether he understands everything about his film or exactly what is fueling its mounting popularity. He knows people laugh at his movie. He knows he didn’t have the money he needed to fully realize his vision. He knows it didn’t work the way it was supposed to. Seeing it in the venue I did—a sold out midnight screening—really made the experience too. Like the cult following The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), people jam-pack the theater and shout at the screen. Movie-going becomes much more lively and informal for films like this. It’s a special kind of audience with their own unique electricity in the air. It reminded me of the first time I saw Troll 2. It was with a large group of people, some had seen it already, others were new to it, but we all had a blast. People curled up into balls of mirth and collapsed rolling in the aisles for Birdemic. Mr. Nguyen brought that happiness to us.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

I think what we learned today was that mankind is the real vultures and eagles.

Nguyen is currently winding up for a sequel (set to be released this September). As he grabbed the glasses on my face and jerkily jiggled them, he crazily announced it would be in 3-D. Will it go the route of the Turkish Star Wars and Hobgoblins sequels; too self-aware to duplicate the unexpected magic of the original? Let’s hope not. In the meantime, let us support James Nguyen and his cock-eyed vision that is Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

[Update: The sequel has been completed and I wait with bated breath to see if it will live up to my ambivalent expectations…I have been informed that it is fun, but nowhere near the wondrousness of the original.]

 

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 13, 2010.