***You can find the original, 200+ movie rating list here.***
*As list 1 became laggy with length, I decided to begin a new list of movie ratings and mini-reviews.
All rankings are personal and combine my own enjoyment, my opinions on the quality of acting, story, effects, visuals, dialogue, etc.
Movies are rated on (1)–(99) scale.
RT = Rotten Tomatoes, a shorthand I frequently use. The critic/audience score is displayed as (75/63) (for example), and is the score at the time I am writing the rating.
To put the scale into the “stars system,” think 90–99 = 5 stars. 80–89 = 4.5 stars. 70–79 = 4 stars. 60–69 = 3.5 stars. Et cetera. Above a (60) = fresh. Anything below a (60) = rotten.
Each review may have spoilers.
Each review may have spoilers.
Each review may have spoilers.
Smash that “command+f” and search to see if I’ve covered any of your favorites or just see what I’ve rated most recently.
Promising Young Woman (2020)→ (87) In her directorial debut, Emerald Fennell gives us one of the most stylish, interesting, and enjoyable movies of 2020. Promising Young Woman is an attack on the ostensible “nice guy”. As far as actors go, you can’t get farther away from the juiced-up, hot-head stereotype than Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, and Bo Burnham — and yet, these are our villains, the beta-male predator. The palette gives a fun, contrasting color to this dark material. After a few scenes, I wasn’t sure what Cassie (Carey Mulligan) actually did with her prey. I was expecting something in the castration-realm — and I now love the nod to this expectation of violence with the jelly donut — but it’s actually bloodless shame she uses as her weapon. My single favorite shot comes when Cassie, face-up on the bed, unveils her sober self with a smirk and direct stare into the camera as Jerry (Brody) is doing his thing down by her legs. This moment reveals what we have to expect from our protag, and we’re immediately hooked. One by one, Cassie confronts all of those who wronged her late friend, Nina, in one way or another. It’s as if in every few scenes, Cassie finds a key to a new door, which unlocks a new challenger, which provides a new key, and so on. However, the marketing for this movie does it an injustice. A tone shift occurs that you know can’t necessarily last, but if you’re an immersive watcher like me (not just trying to figure out the plot before it happens) you’re waiting for whatever is going to happen, to happen. Maybe you can forget Carey Mulligan in a wig and sexy nurse outfit, but I certainly cannot, and therefore was just waiting for that memorable shot from the trailer to roll onto my screen. Yes, some trailers purposefully put in fake scenes or scenes that didn’t make the cut, but those are few and far between. My initial reaction was to love the ending, but after reflecting on it, maybe all of the pieces fell in line a little too perfectly. I mean, it’s a goddamn gut-punch that, had it just sorta ended after that, might’ve caused a riot. But I think the ultimate revenge could’ve been a little more creative. Nevertheless, the consensus on this one is spot-on. Watch this movie.
Minari (2020)→ (85) Will pursuit of the American Dream fracture a family? Minari seems to be in the middle of the pack for the Best Pic win, and while I didn’t enjoy it as much as Judas and the Black Messiah (86), Nomadland (89), or Sound of Metal (90) (actually, Da 5 Bloods scored my highest rating of 2020/2021 (91)) I could still see it winning, if the Academy were ok with having back to back, Korean-language films taking the top prize. The plot concerns the Yi’s, a Korean immigrant family who goes West to East, from California to rural Arkansas in 1983 — quite the change. Upon reflection, my favorite moment of this film is when Jacob (Steven Yeun) cradles a fistful of dirt from his new property in his hand and tells his wife, “This is the best soil in America. This is why we moved here.” (para.) I mean, moving across the country for the quality of the soil to create your Garden of Eden! What’s more American than that? It mostly follows the relationship between Jacob and his wife, Monica (Han Ye-ri), and that between the young son, David (Alan Kim), and his maternal grandmother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung). You sympathize with every member of the family. There is no antagonist, except for maybe life itself. It’s weird, you want Jacob to succeed, but you’re also kind of asking yourself, “at this point, why not go back to California?” The rotating close-up shots of Jacob and Monica after the Oklahoma City deal are really well-done. The climax felt meritorious; the ending was heartwarming. But what happens next? Maybe that’s not the point, but I wanted to know. It was just missing something for me to push it into the high-80s or even 90s, but it’s still a great movie. I don’t think it will win Best Picture, or any major category outside of maybe the score, but it definitely deserves to be there.
Red Dawn (1984)→ (87) Red Dawn needs to be protected at all costs. Is it a hyper-unrealistic, masturbatory Reagan-era concoction? Yes. Is it completely and utterly badass? Also, yes. Suspend disbelief: the Soviets and Communist Cuba and Nicaragua somehow launch a mostly successful land invasion of the U.S.A. Teenagers engage in guerilla tactics throughout the Colorado wilderness to fight back. What’s not to like? The movie immediately springs into action with the iconic scene of paratroopers descending onto the high school campus and spraying the building with bullets. Our crew hops into their trucks and books it outside of town. Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) is the kind of leader you’d follow into the maw of hell. It’s 1984, so we’re only using practical effects here, which is what makes this film so memorable. I love the scenes of varsity jacket-clad, AK47 wielding, teenagers riding horses across the gorgeous Rocky Mountains. Is it realistic that a 17-year-old would know how to use an RPG without any prior experience? (I always appreciate a classic 80s “Alright!” thereafter) Probably not, but so what? He just shot a helicopter out of the sky! I’d forgotten how action-packed the film is, as it could’ve focused much more on the terrible conditions the group was living in and how that would needle their relationships. Instead, we get ambush after ambush of the gang blasting commie ass. It didn’t try to be schmaltzy or pull a “we are really our own worst enemies” kind of crap. It was very clear who were the good guys and who were the bad — the bad were the ones who executed people and buried them in mass graves, burned books, and created re-education camps. Bits of pieces of “World War III” are provided to us from Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Tanner (Powers Boothe) and from context. My favorite scenes are when the guerillas pop out of the ground to mow down Soviets chasing after Toni (Jennifer Grey) and when one of our fighters (I can’t remember who, they’re usually covered in similar looking gear) tosses aside the shotgun cover and begins executing wounded Spetsnaz operatives. The bad in this movie is some of the dialogue (to be expected), the strange and unnecessary character development with Col. Ernesto Bella (Ron O’Neal) — what the hell was that letter and narration? — , the Daryl (Darren Dalton) twist, which was good for the plot, but felt like a previous key-scene was missing, and the final attack scene. The invaders were portrayed as bumbling idiots throughout the film, but you’re telling me Jed and Matt (Charlie Sheen) attack the town, with all its fortifications, and even get that far? I mean, they’re sneaking around and you hear machine-gun fire in the distance. What would they be shooting at? It’s just the two brothers! Also, Jed fucking announcing himself before taking the kill shot… The emotion was there, but we could’ve had the same result without such a stupid, uncharacteristically designed plan. Nevertheless, the final scene of the memorial and rippling flag is great — the end credits might be some of my favorite of all time. I love this movie, even with its faults.
Mortal Kombat (2021)→ (75) I didn’t come for logic, I came for blood, and to that extent it delivered. Mortal Kombat II for SUPER NES had a monumental impact on my childhood, as did the movies Mortal Kombat (1995) and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (1997). This 2021 installment succeeds in fight scenes and hopefully laying a foundation to a fun, fan-pleasing franchise. Although Kano (Josh Lawson) gets more screen time than anyone asked for, he did serve as comic relief and as a foil to the stoic champions Liu Kang (Ludi Lin) and Kung Lao (Max Huang). I loved the “leg sweep” scene, which was a nod to gamers, and even enjoyed the beginning character development for Scorpion (Hiroyuki Sanada) and Sub-Zero (Joe Taslim). We got a few gory fatalities, some soul-sucking, and a new take on the techno-classic song. However, a few unnecessary changes and head-scratching decisions hurt the movie. First, why did we need Cole Young (Lewis Tan)? In the original, Lou Kang is our main protag and nothing indicated that Ludi Lin couldn’t handle that role. The Cole character seemed insipid and pointless. If Scorpion was a “good guy,” why was he stewing in hell for like 500 years? Also, I get the lore of Scorpion being Japanese and Sub-Zero being Chinese, but they would just kinda talk at each other without Scorpion understanding his enemy — the same issue arises later when Scorpion speaks to Cole, who doesn’t indicate that he understands a word of the language. Maybe this is just my preference, but Kabal (Daniel Nelson/Damon Herriman) and Reiko (Nathan Jones) were odd choices to include to revitalize the franchise. Why no Reptile (We get a reptile, but nothing resembling the reptilian-ninja), Cyrax, Sektor, Rain, Baraka, Nightwolf, or Ermac? I actually did want a tournament here, at least a few rounds until the plot took an understandable different route, but the layered battles were still fun. In the end, we do get what we all came for, a Scorpion v. Sub-Zero showdown. I’m team Scorpion, so was enjoyed the result, even if the fight underwhelmed. Mortal Kombat is a solid (75), a must-watch for MK fandom, probably not the most enticing for everyone else.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)→ (76) This film annoyed me. It started off so well that I was smiling after the first few scenes, expecting Ben Sanderson’s (Nicolas Cage) riotous bender in super 16 mm arthouse film to continue. Instead, Figgis pulls the rug out from under us and shows a story more focused on Shera’s (Elisabeth Shue) life as a prostitute than the main attraction — Nic Cage losing his shit. No, I haven’t read the book, but you don’t cast Cage to sideline him after a few brilliant scenes; the slow-motion shot of him in the car screaming, the hand recorder in the bank, the failed pickup attempt in the bar, were all notable. The plot is pretty simple: Sanderson wants to move to Vegas and drink himself to death. I don’t need scenes cut in of Sera reminiscing about him to… I’m not even sure exactly, a therapist? A friend? The film had a style to it, which I will always appreciate it even if I don’t necessarily like it. Although the plot became predictable and even boring, there’s enough good here to merit a (76), or a 4-star on the RT scale. I’m more upset about its potential — I just want to see the film Leaving Las Vegas should’ve been.
Amadeus (Director’s Cut) (1984)→ (94) What’s worse, the fact that your nemesis is better than you or the fact that your nemesis doesn’t consider you their nemesis? It’s been years since I last watched this movie and although I always liked it, I didn’t appreciate its beauty — in both plot and appearance — and found its run-time to be a drag. As noted, this is a review of the director’s cut, which includes approximately twenty more minutes. This added time doesn’t impact the film in a negative way. The sets are stunning. Vienna is the most “imperial” feeling city I’ve ever been to and Amadeus, set during the Holy Roman Empire times, does its grandeur justice; for the record, “wig culture” seems super fun. Our titular character, wunderkind Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), is not what we expect. When we first meet him, he’s chasing a girl (Elizabeth Berridge), is making fart jokes, and erupting in a grating, high-pitched laugh that seems to take a bit of Salieri’s (F. Murray Abraham) soul with each soprano-screech. It is actually through Salieri’s recounting (to a priest) of his time spent with Mozart in the royal court. Salieri, the court composer of Emperor Joseph II, both admires and loathes Mozart for his talent — he also hates God for giving the little shit his abilities. The ebb of flow of Salieri’s detestation and appreciation for Mozart moves the film. Both Abraham and Hulce give excellent performances — I especially liked Abraham when Salieri is old (he looks like his rotting away in his seat) and when Hulce when Mozart is feverishly scribbling some of the greatest compositions the world will ever know by candlelight, in debt, and drunk. The apogee of this relationship, however, is the single best scene of the film. Mozart isn’t giggling, but on his deathbed, letting his genius avail itself, and Salieri isn’t plotting, he’s absorbing; they are co-dependent, completing the famed Requiem. The ending, with Salieri “absolving mediocrities everywhere,” is perfect. I think the concept of this movie has turned off the casual viewer, but I promise Amadeus is a piece you must see once before you die.
Contact (1997)→ (66) Although there are a handful of nice shots and solid special effects for the time, Contact doesn’t scratch that Sci-Fi itch for the casual viewer. It’s the late-90s and the movie lets you know it. We get Netscape, we get fear of the Religious Right, we get the Japanese playing a pivotal role in the plot. Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway gives a compelling performance as the protag, a worker of the SETI program that seeks to discover alien life through sound transmissions. Somehow, she manages to receive an incredible amount of funding that goes nowhere for years until a “breakthrough” happens and the entire world joins the effort to return contact by building insanely expensive machines that will somehow, using the alien technology, transport humans to Vega, the calling planet. Ultimately, a congressional committee considers the whole thing a hoax, and determines that the government has done what the government does best: wastes everyone’s time and money. Or did they? Alien movies need to deliver on the aliens themselves, and that is NOT what we got here. The Matthew McConaughey storyline also seemed unnecessary and a way to add a positive religious element to the movie. When asked why humanity should believe her experiences, Dr. Arroway says “faith…” and now we’ve come full circle. Meh. Joss (McConaughey) and Arroway slept together once, didn’t see each other for years, and then he’s like changing the trajectory of her life? It was weird. The absolute worst line came off-screen, after multiple people were brutally murdered in a suicide bombing and trillions of dollars were flushed into the Banana River, someone calmly states, “Now everyone just settle down.” Settle down?! Wow. It was fun to see Rob Lowe an obvious impression of Ralph Reed, even if he was only in a couple of scenes. The way they included Bill Clinton was surprisingly well done for 1997. The best two scenes were Foster sitting on her car in the field of VLAs and the impromptu campsite at Cape Canaveral, which acted as a magnet for every shade of crazy. Nevertheless, the film was a disappointment to me. It’s probably only for the most ardent Sci-Fi fans.
Red Hook Summer (2012)→ (57) Spike Lee’s film definitely takes an engrossing turn for the dramatic, but by that point, Red Hook Summer is sort of a drag, as if you’re there with the characters in the humid Brooklyn heat. Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) is the charismatic and virally devout preacher at a small congregation in the titular neighborhood. Peters delivers a fiery performance and had the film focused on him more, it likely would’ve been a better experience. Thomas Jefferson Byrd as Deacon Zee also has some memorable scenes, most notably, his (sometimes audience-less) speeches concerning the stock market. Unfortunately, the film struggled from some unnatural and clunky dialogue, which makes sense since I’ve read the two child characters weren’t even actors… not a smart move. It meanders too much in the middle and doesn’t grab your attention back until Blessing Rowe (Colman Domingo) shows up. Here, we get Lee’s signature “double dolly shot” with the single best scene in the entire movie as Rowe confronts Rouse, and recites the Book of Solomon. Nevertheless, and even though we get a Mookie (Lee) cameo (who’s somehow still working at Sal’s), the ending is unsatisfying and sort of weird. The only people who need to see Red Hook Summer are those who want to say they’ve seen all of Lee’s films.
Upgrade (2018)→ (84) An enjoyable and (hopefully not) prescient look at our near tech-filled future, Upgrade never comes off as stupid and keeps the viewer engaged during its 100-minute run-time. Luddite, Grey Tracey (Logan Marshall-Green), and his successful and tech-accepting wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), are the victims of a brutal attack that leaves the latter dead and the former a quadriplegic. Through Eron (Harrison Gilbertson), a tech-engineer wunderkind-type with a subterranean home/lair, Grey is implanted with STEM, which not only allows him to fully function his body again but is a super-set of eyes and turbo’d instinct — basically, an ass-kicking machine. I got Her vibes, which is a good thing, considering it’s one of my favorite movies, mixed with pretty much any revenge fantasy you can think of. The Sci-Fi elements have both foreseeable (self-driving cars — that, of course, can be manipulated — talking home systems, printing food) and far-fetched (reloadable shotguns built into the arm, cough attack?) but it’s all fun nonetheless. I’d say there was too much with Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), but it actually wraps up nicely at the end. Unfortunately, the movie had some bad dialogue that could’ve been avoided. I wanted more backstory on these menacing super-soldiers (Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne). The ending was excellent and definitely bleak. With only a $3 million budget, Upgrade exceeded my expectations and is a Saturday night popcorn movie even technophobes can enjoy.
Whitewash (2013)→ (67) “No good deed…” you know the rest. Thomas Haden Church has a special place in my heart from Sideways, which is the only reason I added this film to my watch list. With a huge RT discrepancy (84/34), I wasn’t sure where I’d land — mind you, the critics only have 25 reviews while the audience has over 250. Nevertheless, Whitewash exceeded my expectations. From start to finish, I wanted to know more about Bruce (THC) and arrive at his fate. It has that Cast Away concept of a man hopelessly out of his element. However, the voiceover was distracting and, like usual, hurt the film. I get it, we all want to hear THC’s voice, but then don’t cast him in a movie where he’s in the frigid Quebec wilderness for 75% of the run-time. Although it would’ve been predictable, I would’ve liked to see how Church performed a man’s descent into madness, but we don’t really get that. He saves a man from killing himself, only to accidentally kill that man — he’s a sympathetic character who deserves a better ending. I can recommend Whitewash to THC fans or those who enjoy watching a human struggle for survival, you don’t have to raise your hands.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)→ (92) This 225-minute epic concerns the perilous journey of one man tasked with the (often self-appointed tasks) of traversing the desolate desert and uniting the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Turks. This man is T.E. Lawrence who becomes “Lawrence of Arabia” (Peter O’Toole). Like space, the Antarctic, and the Amazon rainforest, the Arabian desert is one of those landscapes that disturbs me. I’m terrified of these vast, empty spaces where one misstep could determine the end of your life — likely in an agonizing fashion. But Director David Lean takes the terror of the expansive wasteland and makes it beautiful, and dare I say, inviting. O’Toole plays Lawrence as a soft-spoken and even coy individual. The focus of the film is his evolution from smart-ass, overly educated Lieutenant to hardened guerrilla warrior. He has to execute a man he put his life at risk to save (I.S. Johar) and one of his young servants (Michael Ray) to put him out of his misery, and helplessly watch as his other servant (John Dimech) drowns in quicksand… If this isn’t enough to request a desk-job assignment, then I’m not sure what is. But Lawrence wins over warring tribes with his courage and intelligence. There are good things and bad things that happen when a movie is made in 1962. The good are the practical effects. There are mesmerizing scenes in this film, most notably the attack on Aqaba, when we first meet Ali (Omar Sherif), when Daud (Dimech) reunites with Lawrence, and when all of those beautiful horses are hopping down from the train. The bad concern “brownface,” which is ample in this film, and some strange decisions concerning authenticity. I don’t know much about the historical accuracy of the film and don’t really care, but there is virtually no Arabic in the entire movie. It gets a pass because of 1962, but it wouldn’t make sense that Arabs speaking amongst each other would be using English — unfortunately, we still see these decisions in contemporary movies. However, there are some head-scratching moments that are unacceptable despite the release date. Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn) chases after a plane with his sword… I get what they were trying to do here, but the Howeitat tribe had guns and knowledge of modern technology, but this scene makes them appear like a remote Amazonian tribe. My biggest gripe with the movie came towards the end where Lawrence and Ali sneak into a Turk-held city, Lawrence assaults the “Bey” (general) and is severely flogged before being tossed into the street. Even after reviewing the plot, I still do not understand what the plan was here. It felt like a contrived way to make Lawrence second-guess future actions, but came off as moronic, especially for someone who had been so smart with military operations up to that point. The ending is a personification of the mantra: “It’s much easier to blow up trains than to make them run on time.” The bureaucracy of governing newly freed lands doesn’t seem nearly as enticing as cutting down fleeing Turks. Lawrence of Arabia gave us the classic, “No prisoners! No prisoners!” (gently roll the tongue on the “p” for the full effect) and won Best Picture at the 35th AAs for a reason.
Enter the Dragon (1973)→ (76) I’m not certain if this was the first “secret invite-only martial arts tournament movie,” but it’s certainly the most iconic. Enter the Dragon is filled with many beautiful scenes of Hong Kong (it was filmed on-site) — especially overhead shots and shots out on the water — but that’s not what you came for, is it? If you put on Enter the Dragon to watch Bruce Lee devastate countless, nameless henchmen, then you’ve chosen wisely. Like Bloodsport, the actual martial arts scenes are incredible. Unlike Bloodsport, the non-martial arts scenes aren’t nearly as corny and the overall plot is better, if not a little campy at times. Cinephiles loves tropes (and also hate them) and sometimes it’s fun to see where they come from. Again, not positive if this film was the first “evil, reclusive, ultra-rich villain who pets a white cat and is surrounded by hot babes on a secluded island with lots of artifacts and booby traps and nameless henchmen” movie, but it’s the earliest one I can think of at the moment. Unfortunately, the biggest letdown of the film is that there really isn’t much of a tournament at all. We’re introduced to some cool fighters — Roper (John Saxon), Williams (Jim Kelly), Bolo (Bolo Yeung) — who do engage in one v. one melees, but lacked the panache of Bloodsport and Mortal Kombat when it came to the actual tournament. *Side Note* I love Bolo Yeung; complete badass and all-time fight-face guy. Because of this, we don’t get the classic montage of our fighters rolling through the tournament, one ass-kicking at a time. We even had a 70s-forward score that would’ve paired nicely with Lee round-housing opponents in the face… oh well. I think everything there is to say about Bruce Lee has been said, so I’ll just add this, “Be water, my friend.” And he was. The greatest of all time. *(100/100 for the Angora cat, of course.)
The Lighthouse (2019)→ (87) Misery loves company, until they want to kill each other. The Lighthouse ends the viewer’s pre-conceived notions of pretentiousness with the rip of a fart. The film is shot on 35mm, black & white, which has an inky feel to it — all the better. Willem Defoe as Thomas Wake speaks in Shakespearean sermons with the argot of an Ahab parody. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) even calls him out on his performance, but it is he who is truly doomed to the fate of a famous literary figure. About halfway through the film, you’re still not sure in which direction it is headed, which is not a critique, as the buildup — to whatever the crap we’re headed toward — is an engaging ride. The script reads like a well-written play and I commend Eggers’ use of light throughout, but especially during Wake’s “curse” on Winslow. The final few scenes are delectably freaky. However, it felt like a penultimate scene was missing, one more link in the chain before Winslow’s Promethean demise. I highly recommend The Lighthouse; I do not highly recommend turpentine and honey.
Up in the Air (2009)→ (76) I started clapping during the opening credits of Up in the Air as the list of excellent actors, one by one, appeared on the screen. However, many of the names you’d like to see more of (J.K. Simmons, Zack Galifianakis, Sam Elliot, Danny McBride) have either cameo roles or, in McBride’s case, a miniscule part. The focus here is Clooney, and how can you blame them? Ryan Bingham (Clooney) ruins people’s lives for a living — he jetsets around the country, firing employees for spineless companies who don’t possess the cajones to do the deed themselves. I have no idea if a business even resembling one like this exists, but it makes for many entertaining, cringeworthy, and downright depressing confrontations. Travel affects people, and I wish the film dove a little further into how flying 300+ days a year could really mess up someone’s mental health. I did enjoy the “miles” concept — “It’s just about the miles” — and the sometimes illogical drive for something for that something’s sake. The argument between Ryan and Natalie (Anna Kendrick) felt contrived. Alex (Vera Farmiga) is an excellent character and a stone-cold bitch. It started to get stale around the wedding, but took a detour providing the viewer with a solid final thirty minutes or so. The script was original and I always appreciate movies that give a glimpse of a particular industry, even if that industry concerns turning people’s lives upside-down.
Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)→ (82) This movie understands what it is and benefits because of it. Instead of forcing love-story subplots or some other political message, it delivers on what the title promises: two monsters beating the ever-living shit out of each other. I went into this one Team Godzilla all the way, but have to say that Kong really won me over — of course, I really just wanted them to be friends and work together to save humanity. *SPOILERS* Well, I got my wish on the team-up part, but not on the “save humanity” part, as the absolute carnage of this movie, which isn’t addressed in the slightest, is hilarious. Whether it’s Zilla v. Kong or Zilla/Kong v. Mechagodzilla, the city of Hong Kong is leveled, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, are horrifyingly decimated, entire family lines are wiped out with one swing of Godzilla’s tail, and the global economy would collapse, causing further human misery and suffering. And yet, our characters look on, awe-inspired, a tear appearing in the corner of our collective eye as we bid farewell to our aquatic, nuclear-fire breathing “savior,” as he disappears into the South China Sea — I love it. The characters give you just enough information to hook you — “inverse gravity or something, it’s dangerous, but we built these ships” (para) — and don’t bog you down with silly science nonsense (I was waiting for my “complicated scientific concept explained through layperson analogy, but never got it) and get back to smashy. I also didn’t fully comprehend Simmons’ (Demián Bichir) motive with Apex and his Mechagodzilla, but wasn’t it to put humanity back in control of our own destiny again? If this is the case, isn’t he and his creation… the hero? Of course, he would likely use Mechagodzilla to wreak havoc and submit entire nations to his will, but that’s just pessimistic speculation on my part. Strictly within the movie, assuming he defeated Godzilla and Kong and shut down Mechagodzilla forever, wouldn’t that save countless lives and provide Earth with a state of normalcy? If a new titan did appear, humanity could activate Mechagodzilla to fight back; and so goes the process. Idk. The movie includes humans just enough not to take away from the spectacle we all came for. Godzilla v. King exceeded my expectations. While I didn’t see it in theaters, it feels like the perfect movie to enjoy on the silver screen.
Another Round (2020)→ (88) Four friends and a hypothesis — that human beings are operating at a .05% BAC deficit — makes for a highly entertaining and beautifully structured movie. In college, a friend and I took a bottle of vodka to an academic building to crush a couple of final papers, the alcohol performing as a creativity lubricant — I’m well-aware of this theory. In Another Round, four teachers at a Danish high school engage in the imbibing experiment, each for a different reason. Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) is the protag, a history professor who has become dull and uninspired, so much so that students’ parents meet with the administration to address his lackluster performance. The plot’s conflict is foreseeable, but it doesn’t take away from the story. The film benefits from following each friend’s experience, not just Martin’s, and how the alcohol affected their lives and careers. Stories that focus on alcohol can fall into tropes and become stale, but that never happens here. Instead, the (many) drunk moments are funny, realistic, and devastating. The cut to the group fishing off the dock was my favorite. The scene where “things start to get dark” was cinematically pleasing and beautiful. I loved that when it was time to kick it into hyper drive, the group drinks Sazeracs. The ending was teetering on deus ex machina, but the film needed to have an overall positive conclusion — I generally dislike dance scenes for endings, but this one actually made sense (they brought up Martin’s ballet history earlier) and was contained within the confines of the film. Mikkelsen’s performance was commendable, but all around there isn’t a weak link — Thomas Bar Larsen as Tommy also deserves recognition.
Softness of Bodies (2018)→ (83) *Full Disclosure* I’m a big fan of the Red Scare podcast, which Dasha co-hosts, but I still attempted to view the film with an unbiased eye. Softness of Bodies feels like one of those narcissistic artist-driven films that should take place in Brooklyn, but instead is set in Berlin — which is basically Germany’s Brooklyn. Charlotte “Charlie” Parks (Dasha Nekrasova) is in Berlin on an artist’s visa, reads poetry at a little bar at night (where she’s developed a rivalry with another poet, Sylvie (Nadine Dubois)), and spends the rest of her time seemingly smoking cigarettes and working at a coffee shop while learning as little German as possible. Charlie possesses a proclivity for thievery: candy bars, shirts, shoes, verse, mentos, boyfriends. There’s a love (*starts counting) hexagon here, which makes for plenty of drama. However, Charlie is our protag and we never want her to leave the screen. Nekrasova plays a millennial like a disaffected Gen Xer — she should always have a cigarette a few inches from her lips. You see a little different side of her depending with whom she’s interacting, but I especially enjoyed her relationship with Remo (Johannes Frick), her gay roommate. I’ve always said that writers are the worst people in the world (I can say that, I am one), but I might be wrong, that title may go to poets. My issue with the film is simply that it’s too short. At a trim 75 minutes, there are some loose ends that I naturally want the answers to. Because this is a lesser-known film I’ll refrain from spoilers, but this isn’t the movie where you’re just waiting for “who’s she gonna end up with?” and thank God for that. Softness of Bodies has the feel of many other films concerning young artists (actors, poets, photographers) trying to make it, but it also stands out in enough ways to merit a watch.
Ford v. Ferrari (2019)→ (86) While it sputters out of the start, the back half of Ford v. Ferrari is such exquisite movie watching that I’d recommend the film to anyone, not just your local, neighborhood “car guy”. Christian Bale, for once with a British accent, is our speed-junkie, Ken Miles. Ken is a sympathetic character who pairs well with Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a household name for motorheads, who had been a part of the winning team for the insane, 24-hour Les Mans race. Their friendship is a highlight of the movie — especially when it comes to the stunts (no pun intended) Shelby pulls to put Miles in a position to succeed. Ford II (Tracy Letts) in the car with Shelby was definitely the funniest scene. The movie is full of car porn and motorhead porn, which I still appreciated even though I don’t know about automobile minutia — I’ll assume it’s very authetic. It’s a long movie, clocking in at 152 minutes, but the “race scene” never really dulls, to my surprise. The Ford v. Ferrari rivalry was understandable, but the rivalry (or “hatred” is really the better word) between Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) and Miles felt forced. At every turn (again, no pun intended) Beebe attempted to sabotage Miles to the point you’d think the racer fucked his wife. It seemed like a forced way for the movie to create a villain. The ending to the race was a jaw-dropper, but not in the way you’d expect. At least real recognized real, when Enzo (Remo Girone) tipped the cap. I had been putting this one off because I don’t really care for racing movies, but it also offers a piece of history, a couple of great storylines, and the US of A stickin’ it to the Europeans — something I can always get behind.
BASEketball (1998)→ (77) It’d been a good twelve years for me and I’ve gotta say, it holds up. I’m not saying this movie, as is, would be produced in 2021, but that’s part of the fun. It’s surprisingly prescient concerning the state of professional sports — at least the moving cities and celebrations parts. It’s also wholly original, and I think that’s what I appreciate most about BASEketball. Sure, it has the typical “Fat Cat” (Ernest Bergnine) who puts money above all else, but it also has the running gag of him NOT using the hot, blonde, gold-digger (Jenny McCarthy) for sex. Trey Parker and Matt Stone have plenty of one-liners that will make you chuckle with just as much physical comedy, mostly centered-around “Squeak/Little Bitch” (Dian Bechar). No, the “transgendered” bit wouldn’t fly anymore. No, the “how to speak San Franciscan” bit wouldn’t fly anymore. No, the “random make-out” at the end of the movie wouldn’t fly anymore. No, the “child labor factory in Calcutta” bit wouldn’t fly anymore. But that’s the glory of comedy movies — they make a statement on what’s acceptable for the times (and we wonder why the 2010s were abysmal in this genre…). The soundtrack features (in person too) Real Big Fish because the 90s — you liked Skaa, admit it you f*****g liars! Also because 90s, it includes a drinking game during Jerry Springer — we play the same in my house but instead it’s House Hunters and we drink whenever they say “backsplash” or “open floor plan” or “need a view”. It’s fun to see Parker do some of the South Park voices (Cartman, Garrison). However, what most surprised me during this viewing, which I had completely forgotten about, was Al Michaels and Bob Costas playing themselves, with Michaels making inappropriate remarks, usually concerning the scantily-clad cheerleaders. It’s silly, but I don’t think it ever drifts into stupid. There are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments. The most quotable line my friend group still uses to this day: “If you rip on me 13 or 14 more times, and I’m out of here.” I’d actually forgotten it was from this movie. If you need to shut the brain off and laugh at the expense of offensive stereotypes, BASEketball is the movie to throw on.
Nocturnal Animals (2016)→ (72) A (72) still correlates with a 4-star review, but I have to say, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, with a killer-sounding plot and formidable cast, was a letdown. I’ll use hyperbole sometimes, but I mean it when I say that this movie has the worst opening credits I’ve ever seen. Susan (Amy Adams) lives in her soulless California mega-rich-person house with her equally soulless husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer). Susan’s ex-hubby, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), sends her a manuscript for his new novel seemingly out of the blue; it concerns a fictionalized version of their family enduring horrific events. As viewers, we’re immersed in the novel, too. There is an incredibly tense scene concerning “novel” Edward, Susan, and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber) and a bunch of West Texas rednecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo). I found it unrealistic that none of the parties involved had a gun on them — something even Det. Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) questions — as the struggle solely concerns Texans, but then again, this is from novel within the film. I’d like to believe this was done on purpose, as in, things that probably wouldn’t happen in real-life do happen in the “novel” to make a more entertaining story. An example of this concerns Edward (Tony, in the novel) constantly returning to the small town where everything went down to help Det. Andes solve the murder, sometimes even going so far as to question suspects and drive the f*****g cop car. I love Michael Shannon and think this is an under-appreciated role of his. I also really enjoyed Laura Linney as a stereotypical, pearl wearing, big-haired, Texas stereotype in Anne, Susan’s mother. If you thought Amy Adams and Isla Fisher look similar, so does everyone else, as Isla plays “Laura,” Susan’s novelized counterpart — something I didn’t realize until about halfway through the movie… Even though there are some dumb moments in the “novel” portion, it still aggravates me (JUST SHOOT HIM IN THE LEG OR SOMETHING!) which always takes me out of the movie. In the end, you don’t really like or are invested in Susan at all. The ending itself stinks and just ends. Basically, this movie has a handful of powerful scenes, but doesn’t have compelling enough main characters and is bookended by two shitty scenes.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)→ (99) There is not a wasted scene or frame in this entire movie. I’ve seen it before, but not in a while and not with a critical eye. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a masterpiece. Jack Nicholson gives the performance of a lifetime as Randall Patrick “R.P.” McMurphy and alone could carry the film. However, the entire cast is fantastic, from the medical staff to the other patients — Sydney Lassick as “Cheswick” was my personal favorite, but there’s four or five that I could argue for a supporting actor nom (Brad Dourif as “Billy” did get the nom at the 48th Academy Awards). Then there’s Nurse Ratched, who Louise Fletcher plays with a calculating coldness. McMurphy and Ratched are engaged in a tug-of-war over control of the ward, even if it’s largely subversive. It’s difficult to tell if McMurphy wants to embarrass his overlord, or if he genuinely just wants to enjoy himself. Nevertheless, he’s a threat and needs to be neutralized. The film explores comradery, loyalty, self-confidence, madness and anarchy and power-structures. There are too many good scenes to recount, but the “fishing expedition,” the “basketball game,” the “Christmas party,” and the reveal that “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson) is neither mute nor deaf (“Mmm, Juicy Fruit.” Classic!) all come to mind. Chief is a legendary figure, and I love him. The smile he cracks on the basketball court warms my heart — the hug he gives his sweet prince at the ending is cry-fuel. We end up where we start: “medication time”. The opening and closing tracks are perfect. The casting is perfect. One of only three films to ever win all five of “The Big Five” Oscar categories, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest might be as close to a perfect movie as I’ve ever seen. To date, it’s only my second (99). One of those rarities where the movie is better than the book (the book is also fantastic), I entreat you to watch it as soon as humanely possible.
RoboCop (1987)→ (87) Paul Verhoeven’s signature numbness to violence is at full-force in RoboCop, a prescient film concerning crime-ridden cities and the militarization of the police. WARNING: If you’re averse to saying, “fuck yeah,” don’t watch this movie. The plot is simple and tasty. Murphy (Peter Weller) is new to the precinct, brutally dies doing something foolish — like bringing a handgun to an AR-15 fight — and is born anew as a crime-fighting cyborg, RoboCop. The film is from the 80s and is a critique of the 80s, so there’s a greedy capitalistic component to it, because naturally. Kurtwood Smith (with an all-time receding hairline) as Boddicker is our villain and leads a multi-racial criminal enterprise, which always warms my heart. Verhoeven is synonymous with gratuitous violence. I broke out in laughter during the first scene with the ED-209 — think the AT-ST Walker from Star Wars, but with Gatling-gun attachments — as it malfunctions and fills an executive (Ken Page) full of lead; certainly Verhoeven was living vicariously through the bot during this scene. The film is broken up with fake commercials with the intention of adding context to this near-future world, much like he does in Starship Troopers. For example, there’s a version of the board game Battleship, but with Nukes, aptly named Nukem. Of course, there’s the cyborg sentience concept, but let’s leave that for Blade Runner, that’s not what we came for. How RoboCop looks is iconic, and I’d like to note that I think it was smart to leave his jaw/chin/mouth exposed, to keep that human element, even if it doesn’t make much sense from a practical standpoint. Which reminds me, 1987 is a glorious time for practical effects. Lucky for me, Rob Bottin conjures up something straight out of The Thing when Emil (Paul McCrane) plows into a tank of toxic waste, causing his flesh to fall off the bone like Central Texas BBQ — “fuck yeah.” There were a few corny lines and weird moments — like when Boddicker dips his fingers in wine and sniffs them(?) — but whatever, RoboCop is a must-see for cinephiles, practical effects junkies, and anyone who just wants that mindless violence itch scratched.
Dredd (2012)→ (70) *In movie trailer voice* In a world where “Judges” are officer, judge, jury, and executioner, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is an expedited, ass-kicking force for good. I watched Dredd as a dessert to RoboCop, and while the latter is the far better movie (it’s also satire while Dredd is very much serious), the former has enough to offer for a brain-shutdown good time. It’s filled with just enough Sci-Fi, dystopian world-building for context (we don’t need to see “Iso-Cubes” or “Meat Wagons” to envision these things), even if the plot barely unfolds outside of the vertical city, “Peach Trees”. *For the record, I know nothing about the comic. Lena Heady as sadistic “Ma-Ma,” leader of our antagonist gang, is ghoulish. I also liked Olivia Thirlby’s performance as the recruit who is having a heck of a first day on the job, and am surprised I haven’t seen her in more stuff. Dredd himself is a stoic BAMF and pretty classic as such. Yes, we get “villain talks for too long instead of killing hero(es) and then dies” and we get an incy wincy twist with judge corruption, but this plot is straightforward and benefits because of it. Dredd has a feel to it, a style, and I’ll always appreciate that even if it doesn’t always land. Oh, and it’s really violent. Dredd is dystopian meat and potatoes while RoboCop is Lobster Thermidor, they both serve their purpose.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)→ (87) Capote’s short story birthed a literary legend, but the film adaptation gave us an icon with Audrey Hepburn as the charming Holly Golightly. Let’s discuss the “yellowface” in the room. It’s bad here. Mickey Rooney as Holly’s upstairs neighbor, Mr. Yunioshi, doesn’t only play a Japanese man, but is an offensive caricature and is probably what appears if you search the term “yellowface”. However, it is part of the movie and I think Amazon (how I streamed the film) does the right thing by adding a “yellowface” warning along with the usual drugs, sex, violence, etc. etc. tags at the beginning of the film instead of cutting the scenes or censoring the film altogether. Moving on. To put it bluntly, Holly is a prostitute — in our modern parlance, she’s more of a “sugar baby”. But guess what? So is our male lead, Paul (George Pappard), a struggling writer who becomes one of Holly’s other neighbor’s in a posh UES brownstone (with the darkest blue wallpaper you just want to go swimming in) that he can only afford by sleeping with his “decorator”. To my surprise, there’s basically no judgment. I’d say the plot becomes a love-triangle if one point is Paul, one Holly, and the third the “richest men in America (or Brazil) under 50”. Holly makes gold-digging look classy. I used the term “charming” up there ^, and if you read any other review for this film, you’re bound to come across the word many times over, but I’d also, more so, define Hepburn’s performance as electrifying — you never want her to leave the screen. Apparently, Marilyn Monroe was Capote’s first choice for the role — the short story’s character does have a more Monroe-like description — but Hepburn is Holly Golightly and I can’t imagine anyone, not even in a remake, taking on the part. Maybe it’s COVID, but there was just something so tantalizing about seeing a reckless party take place in a cramped NYC apartment. Of course, changes were made from the short story for the screen, most notably the Hollywoodified ending. I get it, it’s a crowd-pleaser, but it’s just so… expected. The true ending speaks so much more to who Holly is and leaves a pinch of mystery for the imagination. However, in both mediums she does her cat, “Cat” (Orangey), dirty, and fuck her very much for that. Moon River is a gorgeous song and I’m glad they include it, but don’t go a whole “she’s really a musician” route. Maybe not every girl, but many of the girls at my college had this movie poster in their dorm room — it’s the equivalent of the John Belushi from Animal House poster for the boys, you know the one — which speaks to what this character means for cinema. Lastly, 100/100 for Orangey, the real star of the film.
His House (2020)→ (78) Guilt makes the world turn. In His House, Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) are refugees fleeing the carnage of civil war in South Sudan. They’ve successfully arrived in the U.K. and are one of the select few who are granted asylum (on a probationary period), which includes a small stipend and an apartment. Through flashbacks and visions, the characters relive the horror in their old country. Racked with grief over losing their daughter during the perilous journey, and survivor’s guilt for actually making it, the couple separate in belief for what their futures will hold: Bol wants to assimilate entirely into British culture — he pushes English as their language, forks and knives for dining, and even learns soccer chants — while Rial has resolved that they will be returned to South Sudan and seems to long for the country, even though many of her friends and family were massacred. Rial does have a poor experience when she does finally leave the house: a trio of teens mock her accent, tease her with the directions she asked for, make offensive ululations, and tell her to go back to Africa because Britain is for the British. However, if you pictured racist skinheads saying these things, you’d be understandably wrong — they were three Black British boys. Did I mention that this is a horror movie though? That’s right, an apeth or a “night witch,” (Javier Botet and Cornel John) has become the couple’s roommate and incessantly haunts them. The scares are pretty good, especially when Weekes makes use of the holes in the wall, but there’s nothing here that’s going to keep you up at night. The scene with the apeth… I guess… “entering” Bol suffered from not the best CGI, but it was still creepy. The final shot serves its purpose and might be the most haunting of the movie. This is an original, genre-bending plot, and I definitely recommend His House. *Side Note* I purposefully misstated a plot point because the movie is relatively new and not the most well-known and to accurately recount it would’ve been a spoiler.
Sonic the Hedgehog (2020)→ (79) My first videogame system was SEGA Genesis. My first video game for SEGA Genesis was the “6 Pack” — samples of six games on one cartridge. The first game on that first cartridge was Sonic the Hedgehog. Basically, that speedy, blue, alien-mammal holds a special place in my heart — the sound of hitting those rings is a nostalgic ASMR. That being said, videogame movies don’t have a good track record and I’m rarely rushing to see them (Mortal Kombat is an exception). However, Sonic the Hedgehog was very enjoyable and actually gets significantly funnier and more interesting as the film progresses. The “power of friendship” plot thread isn’t anything new, but it’s usually a winner. I was afraid Jim Carrey thought he’d need to overdo it to carry the movie, but that’s not what happened at all. In fact, he’s kind of… subdued? I thought Carrey as Robotnik would be cringe-worthy, but instead, it’s believable as a tech-obsessed, nerd-revenge stereotype — reminded me of J.P. (Joel Moore) from Grandma’s Boy, but with the U.S. government’s resources at his disposal. Sonic (Ben Schwartz) took a little getting used to, but I suppose that’s expected when adding a voice to a voiceless character. His animation looked great, especially when it came to his blue hair follicles, which I know are some of the most difficult things to animate. The movie really excels when Sonic and Tom (James Marsden) are together. There were a few laugh-out-loud moments, which were a few more than I had expected to have. The subtle “probed” line and the Vin Diesel reference were two of my favorites. Yes, these movies always include references that don’t always age well — was “flossing” even still a thing in March 2020? — but that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. The most unrealistic part of this movie wasn’t the lightning-fast hedgehog, but the fact Tom and Maddie (Tika Sumpter) planned to leave their roomy, arts and crafts-style home in bucolic Montana for a $4,000/m (they had the Zillow up!) apartment in human shit-laden San Francisco. I didn’t cynically roll my eyes at the sequel reveal and actually welcome it — show me that it features Knuckles, and I’ll see it in theaters.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)→ (90) A cornerstone of the “New Hollywood” period, Bonnie and Clyde is exceptional not just for its role in cinematic history, but also as a popcorn-munching Saturday Night adventure. If you want a deep-dive into the real eponymous characters, I recommend LPOTL’s podcast three-part series, if you want the 111 minute cavalcade of entertainment, watch this movie. Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) leads the “Barrow Gang” through Texas and the Great Plains of the Midwest, robbing everything from banks to corner stores. Bonnie (Faye Dunaway), is his partner in crime and love of his life — it’s fitting that she catches him in flagrante attempting to boost her mother’s car. The titular couple has become a reference in their own right, even if they actually weren’t all that great of criminals. That being said, Clyde was allegedly a fantastic driver, which were showcased in the film with many a car chase scene — how these cars going fifty or more miles an hour on nothing thicker than bicycle wheels didn’t constantly flip over is beyond me. C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), Buck Barrow (Dustin Hoffman), and Blanche Barrow (Estelle Parsons, who took away the only acting Oscar from the film) round out the gang. Crime was different in the 1930s, as in significantly easier to pull-off, as is epitomized during the scene where Buck shouts “We’re the Barrow Gang!” to the frozen bank customers and staff, even raising his mask inches from the guard’s nose and stating, “remember this face” (para) thereafter. The film was revolutionary in its depiction of sexuality — the painfully handsome Clyde has impotence issues — and violence. Early on, there is a grotesque scene where Clyde shoots a banker in the face as the victim jumps on the side of the getaway car. Later, a shoot-‘em-up style firefight with the police in Iowa kind of brings you back into the danger this world permits — I found it comical that the police arrive and just start blasting away. Most notable, however, has to be the final scene. The embarrassed (and legendary) Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle), takes a cohort of lawmen and fills our gorgeous couple full of lead long after they’ve stopped flopping around the ground and car like fish. Youth can’t be leaving the theaters thinking the criminals get away with it, no matter how much we may be rooting for them. Hamer left a message — and a scene — that has gone down in history. Bonnie and Clyde is a cinephile’s staple and a glimpse into a Hollywoodified period-piece on the Dust Bowl, Great Depression, and two American legends.
Hero (2002)→ (89) Hero grabs your interest with Matrix-esque, physics-defying fight scenes and keeps it with a foundational myth concerning the creation of a nation. When I was 14, a group of friends and I went to see this movie in theaters because we heard Quentin Tarantino was involved…somehow, heard the foreign language and saw the subtitles, and left — I’m happy to say my interest in foreign-language films has done a complete 180. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get to enjoy the film for another 16 years. Visually, it’s a wonder. Expansive, mountainous backdrops, color-themed melees, and water-dancing sword-fights remind you that you’re watching a myth unfold. In fact, there’s so much sword-play I couldn’t help but ask, “is this too much?” — it reminded me of the light-saber overload in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Jet Li plays our nameless protag, a master swordsman who holds the balance of a unified China on his blade. Sure, there’s lots of melodrama, but that’s part of the fun — that, and a love-triangle, which unsurprisingly ends with more swordplay. While gorgeous shots and scenes abound (the fight in the gaming house, the deluge of arrows on the calligraphy school, the duel on the lake, to name a few) is there anything more breathtaking than the ending “silhouette in arrows” shot? Hero is grand, mesmerizing, and the sort of experience that deserves to be viewed in a theater, despite my 14-year-old self’s judgment, but can still be enjoyed at home.
Death Proof (2007)→ (84) The “ugly stepchild” of Tarantino’s oeuvre — the director himself says it’s the “worst movie he’s ever made” — critics seem to gleefully pile on Death Proof as a way to knock Quentin down a peg. I didn’t love the film after my first viewing in the late-aughts, but I never understood the scorn either. After watching the film in 2021, I still don’t get the hate. Here’s a viewing tip: consider this “Stuntman” Mike’s (Kurt Russell) movie, not Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier) and Co.’s. Yes, removing the group of women (Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) who we were growing an attachment to halfway through the film (especially in such gruesome fashion) is an antagonizing maneuver, but remember, this isn’t about them. Shot on 35 mm film and damaged, I love the retro look of the “grindhouse” style, but again, can see how it’s not for everyone — the “lap dance” scene just sort of ends as if a piece was missing. (I’ll call it) The “Texas” part of the film mostly takes place at an all-time movie bar that I need to visit, wherein Kurt Russell (with a great head of hair) downs a plate of delicious looking nachos. The “Tennessee” part of the film is definitely the less memorable, where I think a lot of the dialogue criticism is rightly directed. Tarantino films are known for interesting, pop-culture heavy dialogue and here it feels… inauthentic? If you like car chase scenes, this is the movie for you, but it does go on for a while for this viewer. However, the use of Zoe Bell, a real-life stuntwoman doing her own death-defying stunts, was much more appreciated this time around. Death Proof introduced me to The Coasters, for which I am forever grateful. It makes me want to buy a muscle car and eat a nachos grande. It’s fun, violent, and suspenseful, you should give it another shot.
Good Time (2017)→ (85) I like Safdie Bro’s style. After Uncut Gems and Good Time, I still can’t quite put my finger on it yet except for… sweaty? It’s probably vapid at this point to say that Robert Pattinson is actually a really good actor, but Good Time adds another check for that category in my book. Constantine “Connie” Nikas (Pattinson) and Nikolas “Nick” Nikas (Benny Safdie), his developmentally disabled brother, rob an NYC bank, which quickly degenerates into a dye ink covered shitshow. I applaud the decision to not focus on Nick in jail, as it would’ve been too depressing. Instead, we get a high-octane, on-the-run thriller of Connie attempting to break his brother out of the clink. Brotherly love is always one of my favorite themes — having one being disabled and assaulted in Rikers adds a new dimension. The score is phenomenal. My favorite shot scene was the foot-chase shot from high up in the apartment building. *Side Note* I was pleasantly surprised to discover “Necro,” a rapper I used to listen to in HS played Caliph. I also loved/hated that Cellino and Barnes made a quick cameo. The style of the ending — credits included — I suppose was somewhat uplifting, but I don’t think the Safdie Brothers really care about that, and that’s okay.
Nomadland (2021)→ (89) That’s a powerful concept, “home”. Fern (Frances McDormand) even corrects the idea that she isn’t homeless, but “houseless”. You see, Fern is a nomad who travels the American West and Great Plains, taking part-time jobs here and there and meeting other nomads here and there. Fern doesn’t do this in a way to discover herself (à la Wild) or because she has become disenchanted with contemporary society (à la Into the Wild), Fern does this out of necessity. She loved her home when it was a house, located at the edge of a company town in Northwest Nevada, where she lived with her beloved husband and remained after he passed away. The mineral plant closed and town with it — the zip code was deactivated shortly thereafter. Zhao shoots this film like a documentary. It’s subtle, nothing is forced. Like Fern and her nomadic lifestyle, the plot never really goes where you expect it to — beginning with the dog. I was expecting to encounter nomads who were “houseless” for the more perceived reasons — drug abuse, mental illness, evading the law — but we get nothing of the sort. In fact, Fern wants to work, she “likes work,” but work is scarce. It’s deeply American with “salt of the Earth” feelings throughout. It feels authentic because it is authentic; except for McDormand and David Straitharn, who plays a love-interest (but remember what I noted about this meandering plot), most of the characters are themselves nomads. God, I loved Swankie (Swankie). Her little rehash of her life, why she’s accepted her fate, is one of the most moving couple of minutes I’ve seen in a while. I’m not much of a crier, but this brought me damn close — the beginning is cut btw. (How is she not an actress?!) I also thought Fern was going to follow Swankie, I wanted Fern to follow Swankie, but that’s not what we get, and that’s okay. I appreciated this movie the more I let it settle in. I like movies that do that. I don’t think it’d be my 2021 Best Picture, but I’d be happy if it won. Watch it.
Snatch (2000)→ (77) A hot-potato version of a heist film, Snatch weaves an eclectic cast of characters throughout an entertaining, if not at times disorienting, bare-knuckled plot. Part of the fun of a Guy Ritchie film is the dialogue, even if Turkish (Jason Statham) says his partner-in-crime’s name, “Tommy” (Stephen Graham, who always seems to play a gangster or thug of some kind) more than any actual human would. Brad Pitt gives the best performance, whether his shirt is on or off, as Mickey, an “Irish Traveller” armed with the proclivity to knock-out his boxing opponent with a single punch. There are far too many characters to discuss, but I don’t think any plot threads needed to be clipped. That being said, there is something missing in this movie that I can’t put my finger on — I know that’s not a good thing to put in a review, but I’m not being paid to write these things. Turkish as the narrator didn’t take anything away for me, but I happen to enjoy this sort of English accent. Other directorial decisions worth mentioning were some of the freeze-frames — especially during fight scenes — and the quick-cuts for when “Cousin Avi” (Dennis Farina) was flying to and from London. I did find it ridiculous that “Bullet Tooth” Tony (Vinnie Jones) fires no less than six shots from a desert eagle (with NO kickback, mind you) into Boris (Rade Šerbedžija) before finally killing him. The ending put a smile on my face, which is saying something considering my open hostility toward gypsies. Watch for the thrills, but be warned, you might start speaking in an accent like you’d just returned home from studying abroad.
Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)→ (86) Daniel Kaluuya steals the show as Chicago Black Panther Party leader, Fred Hampton. It was strange to discover Hampton was 21 when he died (Kaluuya is 31), but it doesn’t take away anything, the performance is worth the price of admission alone. I had anticipated that the plot largely follow career-criminal turned FBI informant William “Bill” O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), the film benefitted with more of a split between the two. We get glimpses of what the BPP did in Chicago, most notably, forming the “Rainbow Coalition” of rival blacks, southern-heritage whites, and Latinos, the teachings of the 10-point system, and the free breakfast for children program, but I wanted a more expansive view of what they did and their mission. It was obviously anti-police, but we see very little police injustice before they’re locked in urban fire-fights, at least what the Panthers would be privy to. That is, until the end, of course. Deceit is one of the best plot devices, and we get that front and center here — Judas may be the most recognizable deceiver in human history. I’m still mulling over how Bill was written here. I’ll assume it corresponds with the real man and that he never really considered joining the BPP or expressing much sympathy to their cause. He absolutely respected Hampton and provided him with mercy, but I was surprised that he never considered warning the leader or other panthers of their inevitable demise. Jesse Plemmons as the morally ambiguous FBI agent Roy Mitchell, also gives a solid performance — I especially liked that Plemmons-look when he’s in the crowd during a Hampton speech. This is a brand-new movie, but I must discuss the ending: Holy cow. I mean, the raid felt Hollywoodified up to, and including, the ridiculous line, “He’s good and dead now.” Well, apparently, all of that was horrifically true. There was a lull in the third act, which was saved by this gripping, action-packed ending — Bill’s face when he asks Hampton for a drink signals to the viewer, “It’s go-time.” Overall, this is a very enjoyable film that avoids cliché and predictability.
Malcolm & Marie (2021)→ (84) Shot on 35mm film, Malcolm & Marie has explosive moments and tender subtleties and mercilessly rips into liberal, race-baiting, identity-obsessed, journalists and critics. The critic RT score had been at (59) the night I watched this and had just moved into the “fresh” (60) the day I wrote this review. Why? Because Malcolm (John David Washington), a break-out filmmaker, eviscerates a (positive) review of his new film and all those of critic’s ilk, and for this, I applauded him. “You can’t hang everything on identity” basically sums up Malcolm’s breakdown after reading a review from the Los Angeles Times. But really, this is a film about the titular couple. It’s a 2021 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? without the “rival” couple. A lesson taken from both movies: sometimes, it’s better to just go to bed. Unlike WAoVW?, which is a Tower of Terror free-fall, Malcolm & Marie is a Rolling Thunder roller coaster. (I now see Rolling Thunder closed in 2013). The saying, “you can’t un-ring the bell” doesn’t do this two-hour long argument justice, this is a neighbor’s car alarm. Body-blows and haymakers abound as Marie (Zendaya) and Malcolm’s five-year long relationship, and the years before that, is peeled back layer after layer until each side gets to exactly it is they want need. “You’re a level one boss” was somehow one of the milder insults, but also the most poignant one-liner. I found the film ascetically pleasing in black and white — black just comes off better on film, whatever the heck that means. I couldn’t tell if Levinson was being cheeky (no pun intended) when he has Malcom’s film criticized for having unnecessary sexuality, when Zendaya wears a nipple-forming shirt and ass-cheek-clutching underwear (when she isn’t in a revealing evening gown or completely naked, that is) for the entire film. Yeah, it probably could’ve combined one of those peaks and troughs with another and ended within the 90-minute mark, but at 106 minutes it wasn’t detrimental. Zendaya, who gets her own shots in on the biz, especially concerning wealthy celebs and the redistribution of wealth, nails it with one line: “Disgust gets clicks.” Yep. COVID has thrown a wrench into moviemaking, I’m glad to see this group adapt and give us something like this.
The Sisters Brothers (2018)→ (78) A film that feels like a novel — unsurprisingly, it is an adaptation of one — The Sisters Brothers is a neo-western that gets you to bite with the cast, but reels you in with its depth. As you can see, I did zero research about this film before watching, and really only gave it a shot because of Joaquin Phoenix, who plays ½ of the titular duo, the other being John C. Reilly. Having Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed round out the main cast seemed too good to be true. The film splits screen-time between the brothers, Charlie (Phoenix) and Eli (Reilly), assassins hired by a rich businessman (Rutger Hauer), and Hermann Warm (Ahmed), the target, and John Morris (Gyllenhaal), a P.I. The film makes you want to go on a hike, even if the protags are bitten by poisonous spiders and attacked by a bear. The wilderness landscapes are beautiful and I was surprised to find that these shots of “Oregon” and “Northern California” were actually shots of Spain. “Paella Westerns” are nothing new, even if they are less famous than their mellifluous sounding brethren, “Spaghetti Westerns,” with the most famous likely being The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I was fooled into thinking that really was rugged Oregon, but it’s still as American a story as they come. The themes of innovation, utopian ideology, get-rich-quick schemes, blood money, and alcoholism fuel this story: “We can kill anyone we want here!” Eli shouts upon witnessing San Francisco’s grandeur. Eli is the most complex character — unsurprising when you discover he’s the narrator of the book — and I think this is one of Reilly’s best roles and happy to see him take the lead. It has hints of comedy, but very much is a dramatic performance. While there are expected shoot-‘em-up scenes scattered throughout, the film takes a brutal turn at the end. I’d love to know more about Warm’s sought-after “solution,” even if it’s entirely based in fiction for the story. The ending was fitting; I couldn’t imagine what “home” would feel like after all that. Westerns aren’t my favorite genre, but The Sisters Brothers offers Reilly in a lead amongst three other leading actors and an overall enjoyable adventure.
Sputnik (2020)→ (79) Drawing obvious comparisons to the Alien franchise, Sputnik slackens the suspense and ups the gore in a film that doesn’t disappoint to extraterrestrial screen-time. It’s a space-themed movie with very little taking place in the atmosphere — very little takes place outside of the Russian compound, actually. Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) is the cosmonaut and involuntary host to the alien that curls up inside of his esophagus like a cat, availing itself (via Konstantin’s mouth) every night to feed. Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina) is the psychiatrist the Russian military brings in to separate Konstantin from the alien, who seem to have formed a symbiotic relationship — also like me and my cat(s). To no one’s surprise, the military wants to use the alien as a weapon. To no one’s surprise, Tatyana wants to help Konstantin escape, and the alien along with him, even if this means putting innocent people in danger, as the alien feeds on living humans and not whatever its host is consuming, contrary to what everyone initially believed. The color pallet feels very Arrival, which is a good thing. I think the scenes with the child in an orphanage could’ve been cut and it was strange that Tatyana spoke Latin… But let’s discuss what everyone is here for: the alien itself. Sputnik is commendable for not doing what so many movies pull: the bait and switch. Once the alien is introduced, with a sleek, slithery, aquatic-mammal-like design, it blesses the screen time and again. This is not a “see it in the shadows,” quick glimpses because of the budget sort of movie. In this sense, it’s far more horror/action than thriller/suspense like Alien. Rounded out with a score I’m trying to find on Spotify, Sputnik is familiar, a little slow at times, but definitely an enjoyable movie-night watch.
I Care a Lot (2021)→ (80) The guardianship/conservatorship issue has taken center-stage in the American entertainment world, (**Side Note** Free Britney) and I have a feeling it’s losing popular support. I Care a Lot is a film filled with the most conniving members of society, both in the open and those operating beneath the surface. I’m conditioned to enjoy Rosamund Pike as a narrator from the success of Gone Girl, but after a scene or two, the narration seemed to disappear. Oh well. Marla Grayson (Pike) uses her network of doctors and nursing homes to put the unassuming elderly into a web of Kafkaesque experiences and bilk them out of their life savings and assets. She’s a “girl boss” who doesn’t take “no” for an answer whose hatred of men turned her into a lesbian, probably. It’s new, so I’ll refrain from spoilers on this one, but let’s just say Marla picks the wrong retiree and gets caught up with the Russian mafia — or mafia-adjacent? The film suffers from the hackneyed “complicated-way-of-killing-someone-instead-of-just-shooting-them-in-the-head-and-they-inevitably-escape” trope and Marla, a businesswoman without any shown martial arts or combat training, turning into Jack Reacher. It was a delight seeing Peter Dinklage on screen, even if it felt like the role subdued his proven abilities. There’s barely a sympathetic character throughout, which I think hurts the film, but the ending more than makes up for this. The message seemed to be heading in a different direction before the final minute, which would’ve sent this review in a different direction, too.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) → (95) It’s the greatest 2 hours and 10-minute high-octane train-wreck you’ll ever watch. The film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play of the same name, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf concerns two miserable people who must make everyone else around them miserable, and (scientifically speaking) a metric fuck-ton of scotch. More drinks are poured during this one night than every season of Mad Men combined, and the film begins at two in the morning. At first you feel for George (Richard Burton), as he just wants to go to bed, but his gadabout (and drunk) wife (Elizabeth Taylor) invites over a young couple (George Segal & Sandy Dennis) for a night-cap or forty-seven. What ensues is a cavalcade of every type of cringe-worthy insult (some under-handed, some poignantly direct) George and Martha can sling at each other while constructively holding the young couple hostage — unfortunately, they do not own a dog for their guests to pet throughout. Mike Nichols (The Graduate) is masterful in his directorial debut. The film has such an intimate feel it’s as if you’re trapped on that 4th wall couch. The “rifle” scene and George sitting alone on the swing especially stood out to me, but there isn’t a dull moment, even if you’re kinda dying for one. Nick and George personify their respective departments at the unnamed college: Nick, biology, young, strapping, blond, handsome; George, history, old(ish), archaic, a thing that is passed. Apparently, Elizabeth Taylor gained 30lbs for the role, pulling a Christian Bale in 1966, and deserved the shit outta that Oscar. She’s not just a tour de force but a force majeure, she’s my worst nightmare, in her own words, she’s “the Earth mother and [we] are all flops”. They’re Kong and Godzilla and Nick and Honey are 100,000 shrieking civilians — the real terror comes, however, when our monsters team-up. Misery loves company, misery loves co-dependency. I loved this movie. Not sure why I had put it off for so long, might’ve been the title.
You’ve Got Mail (1998)→ (74) 1/3 of the Hanks-Ryan romantic comedies, You’ve Got Mail ages better than you’d think — definitely not that “Brooklyn” line, however. Yes, parts of it (that AOL dial-up brought me back to middle school, the “soaring through space” screen-saver) are like a time-capsule of the glorious late-90s, but others — like small-independents vs. large-chain, classic vs. tech, and meeting over the internet — have only become more relevant. I enjoy Nora Ephron and her NYC-centered stories. Here, our protags, Joe (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen (Meg Ryan) are emotionally cheating (I think?) from the start. I’m uncertain if the intent was to provide us with imperfect characters, but it worked for me. Kathleen owns an independent children’s bookstore and Joe is the son of the mega-chain, Fox Books, that opens a store down the street of the quaint Upper West Side neighborhood — a mortal sin. Neither one of them is with the right person and the film sets it up so you think there’s going to be a sort of “wife-swap”. Frank (Greg Kinnear) delivers the timeless line by comparing the emergence of *new thing* to “the end of Western Civilization” — here, it’s that a bunch of public employees in Virginia were playing too much solitaire. That being said, when civilization does inevitably fall, the internet will likely be to blame. The plot unfolds with a series of unplanned run-ins that eventually become very-much planned “run-ins”. The back half of the movie falters and I didn’t like where it went with Joe knowing his online love’s identity, but not vice versa. There’s not that much comedy in this romantic-comedy (Hanks has a handful of laugh-out-loud lines), but it definitely scratches that picturesque, NYC in the fall, itch. It did feel like a waste of Dave Chappelle and Steve Zahn, but it was also 1998. It has a lovely final line when the pair come to their pre-destined conclusion, but the time it spent getting there pulled it down from the low-(80)s for me.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)→ (79) This movie was a revelation to the extended D’Alessio family when it smashed onto the scene in 2002; substitute “lamb” with “veal” and they’re just Italians with more fun names who cross themselves in the opposite direction. There’s basic WASP enters non-WASP–but still white–family conflict, which usually is resolved in a scene or two. The laughs exclusively come from Toula’s (Nia Vardalos) stereotypical, large, animated, extended family — which almost exclusively come from Aunt Voula (Andrea Martin), the gem of the film. “What you mean he don’t eat no meat?” is a line I still use to this day when I’m alerted of an associate’s vegetarianism. The “Windex as a panacea” is also a gag I still reference today — the plastic coverings on the furniture and the statues on the front lawn always make me smile. I was happy to learn that the Portokalos house is based on a real house in Winnepeg. It was strange to learn that the actor who played Ian’s (Mike Corbett) friend, Mike (Ian Gomez), was Nia Vardalos’ husband in real life at the time of shooting. The family patriarch, Gus (Michael Constantine), gives a simple but touching speech at the wedding — his gift was also one final cheeky joke for the end of the movie. It’s a feel-good film that feels good. It delivers with a little more.
My Big Gay Italian Wedding (2018)→ (68) My Big Gay Italian Wedding is a 90-minute movie that needed 30 more minutes. I usually end with the ending, but here I’m starting with it: It’s one of the worst I’ve seen in recent memory. The film weaves in a handful of conflict-threads that deserve time and logic to untangle. Instead, we get… a musical number. The highlight of the film is Civita, a picturesque Italian town located on a cliff where the vast majority of the film takes place. Here, Antonio’s (Cristiano Caccamo)) father, Roberto (Diego Abtantuono), is the mayor and already in hot-water with the town-council over accepting refugees. However, Roberto doesn’t share the same progressive proclivities with his son, whom he discovers is gay when he comes home from Berlin to visit for Easter. Antonio is accompanied by Paolo (Salvatore Esposito), his fiancé with whom he lives in Berlin, Benedetta (Diana Del Bufalo), the young land-lady (who also lives with them?) who loves to sing, and Donato (Dino Abbreschia), an Italian bus-driver who moves to Berlin after his wife discovers him wearing her clothing — the day he arrives in Berlin, he immediately turns around to tag along with the crew back to Italy. Antonio and Paolo each have a parent who disapproves of their sexuality. Roberto commits a felony to ruin the wedding and then just like… feels guilty and not only accepts it but officiates the wedding? Paolo’s mother (Rosaria D’Urso) doesn’t even invite the group into her Naples apartment when they hand-deliver her wedding invitation, then she just shows up at the wedding and is cool with everything. Right. Then there’s the stalker, Camilla (Beatrice Arnera), who cannot accept that Antonio is gay and — surprise, surprise — also attempts to ruin the wedding because she’s still in love with him. That was a lot. The thing is, the set-up for it all was pretty good. There are laugh-out-loud moments (especially with Donato, who serves as comedic relief) and legitimate stakes — Antonio’s mother (Monica Guerritore) threatens divorce if Roberto doesn’t support their son. But I cannot get over the ending. Did they just run out of money? Ugh. Make this two hours and My Big Gay Italian Wedding is likely in the mid/high (70s).
Moulin Rouge! (2001)→ (86) Set in the magical neighborhood of Montmartre, in the famed titular venue, Moulin Rouge! blends Belle Époque bohemian with contemporary (or 90s-2001 contemporary) into a wildly entertaining extravaganza. I’d always enjoyed Luhrmann’s well-known works (Romeo + Juliet, The Great Gatsby), which also use this mixed style, but understand it’s not for everyone. I’ve viewed Moulin Rouge! a couple of times before, but never with a critical eye — I was not disappointed. At its core, this is a forbidden-love story with a showmanship (and prostitution) twist. The setting — and set for that matter — in the north Paris neighborhood in 1899 is as perfect as you can get for this sort of story. “We’re creatures of the underworld,” says Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent), owner of the Moulin Rouge, “we can’t afford to love.” The love-triangle between Christian (Ewan McGregor), Satine (Nicole Kidman), and The Duke of Monroth (Richard Roxburgh), is just complicated enough to keep it interesting, something I had not appreciated on earlier viewings. Enough of all this, what about the music?! “Sparkling Diamonds,” “Your Song,” “Elephant Love Medley,” and “Come What May” are all highlights, but nothing tops “El Tango de Roxanne”. It’s layered, powerful, the choreography is divine — in fact, a complaint would be to show more of the dancers and slow it with the quick cuts — and it fits into the plot perfectly. This film is one banger away from the low-(90s). One thing that didn’t change is how irritating Toulouse’s (John Leguizamo) accent was. Lastly, I think Le Chocolat (DeObia Oparei) deserves some credit for being the hero who not only catches Satine from falling to her likely death, but also prevents her from getting raped, and doesn’t even receive a thank you(??) It’s a tight ending and somehow still pulverizing, despite its anticipation. Moulin Rouge! has passion, jealousy, sacrifice, and bohemian dreams — these are a few of my favorite things — and you should watch it to warm that cold heart during the Valentine’s season, you empty wretches.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)→ (94) Charlie Kaufman’s beautiful screen-play that made me put “Visit Montauk in Winter” on my Things to Do list before I die — I still haven’t made it. All of us — and every single one of you — have wished that Lacuna memory-erasing technology existed at least once in our lives. It’s an elixir for heartache. This is my first watch in a long time and there are so many poignant scenes that make-up this original plot. To name a few of them, when Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) are under the blanket together, when they’re in bed on the beach, the Grand Central scene, and, most notably, when Clem is saying goodbye to Joel as the beach-front house is crumbling behind her. *Side Note* This is the movie that introduced me to the name “Joel,” which I named the protagonist to my first novel. The plot is clever, but not confusing. It’s smart and layered, but not pretentious. There’s also an excellent sub-plot concerning the Lacuna Co.’s doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and the receptionist (Kirsten Dunst), which shows how the procedure can be abused and ineffective. The effects hold-up and brilliantly portray what erasing a memory might look like. It also contains hints of creepiness, with blank, contorted faces like something out of The Ring. The ending answers its own question for its protags, but poses one for the viewers: If you heard everything your (ex)partner had to say about you before they erased you from their memory, would give it another shot? I like the answer we get for Joel and Clem.
The King of Staten Island (2020)→(87) The 2010s were piss-poor in the comedy department, so if The King of Staten Island is any indicator, the new decade should have at least one bright spot. To start, the basement scene had a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, which made me want more scenes of just Scott (Pete Davidson) and his crew (Moises Arias, Ricky Velez, & Lou Wilson), but that would’ve left out much of the deeper parts of the plot. The bad tattoo gag was funny, but also gave Scott a passion that eventually helps him connect with Ray (Bill Burr), his mom’s new boyfriend, in a comical way. The film is semi-autobiographical for Davidson, whose father was a fireman who lost his life on 9/11 — in the film, he loses his life aiding victims trapped inside of a burning building. I know I always say it’s difficult to review comedies, and this one is no exception. I will say that there isn’t a weak component to this movie. I did think they’d go more into the issues with his friends after the (hilarious) burglary-gone-wrong scene in the pharmacy, wherein our criminal geniuses’ ringtones keep going off. Maybe there were just too many relationships for the plot to package — to its credit, at 136 minutes the film flew by. I actually found the ending a little abrupt. If anything, it felt like 2–3 scenes were cut to bring the run-time down (I’d bet there are a handful of Jimmy Tatro scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut, as his appearance felt like a tease). Big props to Bel Powley who plays Kelsey, who transforms into the epitome of a Staten Island girl despite being British. Of course, we are introduced to Bill Burr mid-tirade, but I think he has an excellent performance and is kind of the perfect on-screen match for Tomei. I was an early fan of Davidson, even though I’ve kinda found him to be more annoying recently (which may have been why I delayed viewing this movie), but was pleasantly surprised with his performance. I had expected it to be a bunch of giggling lines about weed, but he delivers with a range that creates a character you sympathize with, even if you know he’s an idiot. Of course, a major final moment had to occur on the Staten Island ferry, which is basically the Staten equivalent of Washington Square Park. I’m gonna be honest, I don’t get what a good chunk of critics (74 RT) didn’t like about this movie. The King of Staten Island far exceeded my expectations — give us a good decade, Apatow.
Selena (1997)→ (77) I knew nothing about the Tejano super-star (Jennifer Lopez) before watching her biopic. The plot is mainly linear, with one flashback to her father (Edward James Olmos) being rejected from performing with his du-wop trio at a bar because they were Mexicans. The man’s love for music and rejection from all venues — his trio is later run out of a Mexican bar because they weren’t performing “Mexican music,” poor guy couldn’t win — makes him form a family band, with a young Selena (Rebecca Lee Mesa) fronting on the vocals. The family hits the road in the Southwest playing at poorly attended county fairs, living out of the bus. In the blink of an eye, we have Selena grown-up, sporting a “bustier” on-stage and crushing it on the vocals. I could take or leave the music, but the concert scenes — and there are many — are the highlights of the film. My biggest criticism is the lack of conflict. Apparently, the family was consulted on the story and would only sign-off if it wasn’t misinterpreted or inaccurate. We don’t get any of the rebellion, jealousy, narcissism, substance abuse, or resentment that (understandably) are featured in every super-star biopic. Selena very well might not have had a single selfish bone in her body, but she almost felt too perfect. Her biggest act of rebellion was… falling in love? Her father gives a good speech about their heritage — too Mexican for the Americans, not Mexican enough for the Mexicans — which causes him to delay having the family perform in Mexico. He cites her poor Spanish — I found it interesting that she only began learning the language after learning to sing in it, despite her Tejano heritage — and the Mexican media’s criticism of her for this reason. But even here, the conflict is resolved in one scene as Selena turns on the charm and the journos are eating out of the palm of her hand. That being said, there is legitimate, historically accurate conflict that happens all of the sudden… and roll credits. The plot would’ve benefitted from working this horrific angle more but can understand why the family wouldn’t want that to happen. I had learned she died young (23!) but purposefully didn’t look it up before the movie; I guessed car accident, drug overdose, domestic homicide, and illness, and none were correct. It’s a biopic on the lighter side that I’m sure every fan of Selena’s would’ve already seen, but can definitely recommend as an enjoyable watch for everyone else. *Side note* the real Selena had a dump-truck that even J-Lo couldn’t replicate.
A Most Wanted Man (2014)→ (75) A multi-layered espionage thriller, A Most Wanted Man is tantalizing, but is that enough to satisfy? I’m split between critics and audience (RT 87/65) on this one. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the king of minuscule movements and idiosyncrasies, is fantastic as Günther Bachmann, a German spy in Hamburg, Germany. The film opens by providing the viewer with context that the plotters of the 9/11 attacks began in Hamburg, a very cool city that is rarely the setting of a film. Günther and his team (Nina Hoss, Daniel Brühl) — which are not affiliated with the local authorities but operate beneath the surface — receive intel that a Chechen refugee (Grigory Dobrygin) who has come into an enormous inheritance, but also is an Islamic Fundamentalist, has arrived in the city. From here, the plot unfolds not with gunfights and car-chase scenes, but with psychological pressure and manipulation. The concept is equated to fishing — using a minnow to catch a barracuda, a barracuda to catch a shark — and I think that’s fitting. However, the film falls prey to one of my biggest movie bugaboos: the language. The cast is excellent — PSH, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright — but with the exception of Wright, the rest play Germans. I’m fine with that, it’s acting, but it doesn’t make sense for Germans, in Germany, only speaking to other Germans, to speak… English. This isn’t a Death of Stalin situation where the actors speak their language (English) in their own accents even though they’re playing historical Soviet individuals and it’s just part of the movie. If there is an international conversation, then yes, it would almost always make sense for the speakers to default to English, but very often — like most of the movie — entire convos that would be German are in English (with a German accent..) and it’s dumb. The ending was a gut-punch that sucks the air out of the room, but what is the message? Wouldn’t this “betrayal” completely undermine the cooperation between the three parties at play: Günther’s team, the German authorities, and the U.S. government? It felt realistic, in a good way, for a spy-movie, and if you can overlook the language issue, it’s an enjoyable watch.
The Little Things (2021)→ (64) My high expectations for the film deteriorated by the scene as John Lee Hancock’s film plodded along, culminating in an unsatisfying ending. The Little Things strings you along with promise and solid performances — most notably is Jared Leto as janky weirdo (and possible killer?) Albert Sparma. The film concerns a string of murders interrupted by at least a decade, but nothing the average American isn’t exposed to from a true-crime podcast or Netflix documentary. It feels like Seven, the Saw series, True Detective, and the like have inoculated us from the run-of-the-mill basic grotesquerie. But that isn’t really the point of The Little Things: it’s a whodunit with a redemption sub-plot. However, it doesn’t really deliver on either. There are some excellent shots — I especially enjoyed the jogger (Maya Kazan) being tailed by the killer as the camera takes us up from the hills into the L.A. skyline — and enjoyable scenes, but it felt incomplete. Rami Malek as Detective Baxter and Denzel as Joe “Deke” Deacon, a deputy sheriff from Kern County, have chemistry I would’ve like to see explored more. Perhaps The Little Things would’ve fared better as a series, something that hurts me to say because so many stories that could be great films become series instead, but that’s the truth here. The ending leaves the whodunit question open without really leaving it open, which is the worst of all options. I get what it was meant to do, but unless there’s clear intention of a sequel — something I don’t think anyone is asking for — it’s just not going to satiate a general audience. It’s still in the recommends for the performances and for keeping the viewer engaged, but it had the potential to be a really excellent film that never materializes.
The Squid and the Whale (2005)→ (81) Marriage Story made Noah Baumbach a household name in 2019, but it’s not his only film centered around a divorce. The Squid and the Whale follows a family of four on the fritz. Bernard and Joan Berkman (Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney) are the intellectual (the word ‘philistine’ is used to death here), well-read and traveled, writer, Brooklyn-based parents that share too much of their personal lives with their impressionable children, Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). Like a goldfish, I always think how cool it’d be to have parents like this, with their black & white photos adorning the back of a hardback novel, published in the New Yorker, living in our boho-chic Park Slope brownstone — by the halfway-mark, I thank God I don’t. The whole family is kind of a mess and it begins with the parents. Walt idolizes his father and, to the best of his abilities, attempts to become Bernard’s carbon copy. Frank is a future serial killer who possesses a penchant for ejaculating in his hand and depositing his cum throughout the school. I appreciated that there wasn’t really a character to root for. Instead, we get how each character handles the family’s dissolution, although, we definitely get the least of Joan. The only character who really gets an arc is Walt, which is nice, if not a little sudden. I found it unrealistic that Walt twice claimed he wrote Pink Floyd’s “Hey You,” performed it during a school talent show, and no one called him out at the time? The song had been out for 7 years by 1986 and given his parents’ tastes, I couldn’t believe they’d never heard it. However, this film is semi-autobiographical, so maybe there’s some truth here. The use of Tangerine Dream’s “Love on a Real Train” while Frank does his mirror-moments is very good and very 80s. Do Bernard and Joan pass the test for not completely fucking up their children? No, no they don’t. But at least they’re entertaining while doing it.
Barry Lyndon (1975)→ (96) Stanley Kubrick is simply the master — this is not a controversial statement. I’ve delayed viewing this film because I tend to find pieces set during this time period (by “this,” I mean Renaissance to Pre-WWI, a big-ass gap in time) to be highfalutin and kind of a drag. We get the opposite in Barry Lyndon. Based on the picaresque novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, the film sets the tone early with a picturesque duel — and this will be far from the only duel in this story. Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neal — an American who can pull of the accent), the Irish Rogue, embarks on a voyage launched by love and heartbreak (and another duel) onto the European continent where he is subjected to the horrors of war. Given the film’s style, length, and (96) score, it’s unsurprising that it contains everything: the loss of friends, newfound love, bare-knuckle boxing, desertion, corporal punishment, drinking and swindling, monetary success and social status — and bankruptcy — the thirst for revenge, attempted suicide, and, most gorgeously constructed but heart-wrenchingly painful, the death of a child. There are scenes that look like they’ve been lifted straight out of a Vermeer painting. It is one more testament to the investment of practical effects. I could go into detail about the magnificent “Card Game” scene, but just watch this section of a Cinefix YouTube clip instead. The dialogue is sharp and doesn’t get lost in “oldspeak” (mine). Moreover, I had flinched at the beginning when I heard the narrator (Michael Hordern) — as I had recently switched off a Netflix series because of the awful voiceover — but found it not only tolerable, but necessary for the film. David Morley as Barry’s son (Redmond Barry becomes Barry Lyndon) is one of the better child actors I’ve seen. The way the story comes back to Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali), Barry’s mistreated step-son, couldn’t have been better for the ending conflict. You root for him — at least I did — even though you’ve been on this ride with Barry for 2 ½ hours already. *Side Note* It’s insane how they take turns during a duel instead of engaging in the turn-and-shoot version with which I had been familiar. Barry Lyndon joins good-company with A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, and 2001: A Space Odyssey as Kubrick creations that sit at the top of my favorites.
The Slammin’ Salmon (2009)→ (72) The Broken Lizard full-length feature sandwiched between Beerfest and Super Troopers 2 (the troupe produced a film, Freeloaders, in 2012 with cameos from the group), The Slammin’ Salmon doesn’t get much attention and I wouldn’t be surprised if the average viewer didn’t know it existed. Like Waiting, you’ll enjoy this movie more if you’ve worked in a restaurant, even if the gags are completely over-the-top. The movie does a surprisingly nice job of keeping the staff’s — six waiters and the manager — plots interesting. However, I would’ve cut Paul Soter’s second character (the new-hire busboy) and just focused on the angry chef character, which had some early screen-time but was largely forgotten throughout the film. Cleon Slammin’ Salmon (Michael Clark Duncan), is our ex-heavy-weight champion turned restaurateur-villain. He is verbally and physically abusive to his staff, poor with money, and an overall psychopath — he also has many of the best lines, in which he jumbles words and phrases and becomes irate when he is corrected. “Don’t assume. When you assume, you make an asshole outta ya self,” (para) is a line friends and I still use. However, many of the best lines come from ancillary characters (a trend I’ve noticed in not-great comedies), including “I’m the black woman from law and order,” and “Twins are disgusting man.” Jay Chandrasekhar as “Nuts”/“Zongo” didn’t get as much screen-time as I would’ve liked. Even though his wild, alter-ego (Zongo), was cliché and annoying at first, the character was actually one of the funnier subplots by the end. The Will Forte character as the War and Peace-reading “Lone Diner” is a solid gag, which had to end the way it ended. The Slammin’ Salmon isn’t up there with Super Troopers, Beerfest, or even Club Dread, but it’s an enjoyable isolated-location comedy with enough laughs to merit a watch.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)→ (82) The legacy of the beloved titular character, Totoro (Frank Welker), outshines the rest of the Studio Ghibli film. Watching the film in 2021, I caught myself waiting, scene after scene, for the Snorlax-like creature to return to the screen and take me away into a land of wonder and amazement. However, much of the film centers on two sisters, Satsuki (Dakota Fanning) and Mei (Elle Fanning), whose family has recently moved out of the city and into the countryside. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in general are masters at capturing those difficult-to-describe moments of childhood. Here, the excitement of moving to a new house — a house which, everyone in the family hopes, is haunted. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Miyazaki story about those formidable years of youth if a child’s imagination wasn’t involved. Only Satsuki and Mei can see Totoro, the other miniature.. uh… Totoros(?), — What is a Totoro, anyway? — and the cat-bus (my personal favorite character), while their father (Tim Daly) and the other townsfolk cannot. The only conflict concerns their sick mother (Lea Salonga), who is bedridden in a hospital, and a sudden message on the state of her affliction. The animation was so impressive that my co-viewer (and fiancée) didn’t believe that it was made in 1988 — I told her she needs to watch Akira — most notably, the translucent mini-Tots. The bus-stop scene (the one that adorns the cover/poster) is worth the price of admission alone, and I’m surprised it wasn’t some stand-alone short from which the full-feature had sprouted. I can see this film appealing much more to children than adults — I don’t always feel that way about Disney/Pixar films anymore — which is who the film is made for, anyway. It’s a tame adventure, for Ghibli standards, and offers a sibling story that won’t rip your heart out — I’m looking at you, Grave of the Fireflies. While Totoro outshines the story as a whole — a new line of Totoro-inspired handbags is what made my co-viewer want to watch the movie.. — it’s still a fun ride without any of the depressing stuff “children’s” movies seem to require nowadays.
Mank (2020)→ (80) David Fincher’s first film since Gone Girl had all the fixin’s for an instant classic. And while it thrives in cinematography, style, and dialogue, the non-linear timeline was difficult to follow and there was nothing that really stuck with me upon completion — this is unlike other Fincher films, some of which are my favorites: Gone Girl, Fight Club, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Zodiac, and The Social Network. Given the director’s movie-making, six-year hiatus, this felt like a passion-project for a movie-lover — that, and the backstory to the script, which his father had written but was never able to produce. Like many films set during the “Golden Age of Hollywood,” Mank is a film about show-business — from the studios and producers to the writers to the key-grips. More definitively, it is a film about the creation of one of the most studied movie-scripts of all time: Citizen Kane. Coincidentally, I had watched Kane for the first time only a month ago, so it is still fresh — this also made me want to see much more Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the dearth of which was a detriment to the film. Also like Kane, Fincher makes black & white beautiful. Gary Oldman plays our protag, Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz, the witty and brilliant drunk. Oldman, expectedly, is fantastic. He always knows what to say (or what exactly not to say) regardless of how many Gin Ricky’s or Singapore Slings or whatever the hell they drank back then he’s had. We watch Mank interact with many characters, but most notably Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and his wife, Sara (Tuppence Middleton). This is Seyfried’s stand-out performance, as I was never crazy about her, she felt like the most transformed actor in the film. For Sara, an afterthought for Mank, this relationship was… strange. I hated the scene when he stupidly gambles away $24k (on an election that was all but officially decided) and she just gives him that “oh, there goes my husband again” look before taking his hand in a slow-dance. Although we get a drunken soliloquy from Mank explaining (I think?) why he loathes William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), his obsession with the name still felt attenuated. There’s a good amount of politics, which we always need more of, and Bill Nye (the science guy) makes a brief cameo as uppity Upton Sinclair. Mank’s morals are also put to the test when the evil Republican supporters at MGM make a smear campaign against Sinclair, who he believes is California’s only hope — Mank would be happy to know the Democrats completely control the Golden State now and everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Last note, keeping with tradition in Fincher films, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross conducted the score. Breaking with Fincher films, the score was unremarkable. Most movie-buffs and Hollywood historians probably already jumped at this one — if you’re not in either of these two categories, you likely won’t enjoy this film.
Sound of Metal (2020)→ (90) While there haven’t been many (and I still have a few more to view), Sound of Metal is likely my #2 movie of 2020, only slightly behind Da 5 Bloods. Unsurprisingly, Riz Ahmed as our protag, Ruben Stone, is incredible and, again, #2 performance of the year only behind Delroy Lindo in Da 5 Bloods — Elisabeth Moss is also up there for her performance in The Invisible Man. What is surprising is that Darius Marder made his directorial debut with this thought-provoking, touching, and entertaining film. Stone is ½ of the punk-rock duo, Blackgammon, the other half being his girlfriend, Lou (Olivia Cooke). Ruben — with the punk adage “Please Kill Me” tattooed across his chest — is a drummer who suddenly loses 90–99% of his hearing. If this wasn’t enough, Ruben is a recovering addict, 4 years without using, and therefore needs — to his chagrin — not only a deaf-living house but sober-living, too. Marder uses sound in a way I’ve never experienced before — maybe because it’s never been done(?) — to portray Ruben’s disability. There was a moment when I thought the entire movie might’ve been conducted in this manner, which would’ve made a powerful point, but definitely would’ve been difficult to complete, but instead switches between regular hearing and the hearing-impaired. The direction and acting also beautifully showcases the frustrations of not being able to communicate. If there’s one shot to stick with you, it’s when all of the deaf school-children are resting on the grand-piano, Ruben right there with them. This movie is still new, so I’ll spare more details, but the last three scenes, upon reflection, is one of the best sequences I’ve had the pleasure of viewing for a long time. There weren’t many must-watches from 2020, but this is absolutely one of them.
Dark Waters (2019)→ (89) If you’re a sucker for super-lawyer movies like I am, you’ll love Dark Waters. The film dramatizes Robert Bilott’s (Mark Ruffalo) 20-year legal battle against the chemical company, DuPont. Unlike Travolta’s character in A Civil Action — a film with a similar, more isolated plot — Robert is far from a Class Action/Tort litigator. In fact, when we meet Robert, he defends chemical companies at a fancy Cincinnati-based law firm. It’s not until a cantankerous farmer (Bill Camp) shows up at his office (all the way from W.Va) that Robert tugs on a thread that will reshape his family life, career, and morals. At first, the movie does seem like a 2019 version of A Civil Action — poor, rural town whose water is poisoned — but quickly expands far beyond anything I had imagined. Moreover, the story arc is, well, not an arc at all, but a roller-coaster peak and trough excursion of wins and losses. Tim Robbins plays the gray-haired managing partner and delivers head-nodding pro-lawyer, pro-human speech. The ending is satisfying, but maybe not satisfying enough for what the company has done to each and every one of us.
Boiler Room (2000)→ (76) The opening of the “stock jock” stampede with Seth’s (Giovanni Ribisi) narration offered a movie that never materialized into what was promised — fitting for the film’s topic. I remember watching Boiler Room back in the early 2000s and thought how insane the whole concept was to begin with — handing over thousands of dollars, sometimes a life-saving’s worth, to someone you’ve never met to invest in something you don’t know anything about because they called you on the phone? Nevertheless, these “pump and dump” schemes were common back in the 1990s and weren’t even the worst things “Wall Street” has done. See The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street. Scorsese’s TWoWS actually diminishes the value of Boiler Room, even though it isn’t fair to compare the two. The highlights include Ben Affleck’s opening speech to the trainees — clearly influenced by Glengarry Glen Ross — the hip-hop soundtrack, Ron Rifkin as Seth’s father, and the POV shift to the swindled client (Taylor Nichols), which adds a face to JT Marlin’s numerous victims. Unfortunately, the film falls victim to the same plot-lines so many films still follow today: a love triangle, a father-son story. When done well, these can create some of the greatest stories we have as a culture, but far too often they feel like a way to increase run-time. The crux of the plot is so interesting — twentysomethings “cold-calling” potential investors and scamming them out of their hard-earned money — we didn’t need the love-triangle between Seth, Abbie (Nia Long), and Greg (Nicky Katt). I mean, she’s one of the only women in the entire company and of course she’s a secretary and of course she had a thing with Greg and of course Seth falls for her. It was shallow and forced. Seth’s relationship with his father better, as it explains his motivation for joining JT Marlin, but it too hurt the film simply by taking us away from what really made it interesting. Also, the way his father (a federal judge..) got roped into the scheme was stupid. The movie has one of the douchiest scenes of all-time (I mean this as a compliment to characterize “the gang”) wherein Seth, Greg, Jim (Affleck), Chris (Vin Diesel), Richie (Scott Caan), and Adam (Jamie Kennedy) are sitting in Greg’s very bachelor mansion, line-by-line quoting Wall Street while eating pizza and drinking beer. The movie doesn’t have the most satisfying ending, as we don’t see what actually happens to the firm, but whatever it is, we know there will always be finance dirtbags ruining the “American Dream” family by family — it’s one of the few guarantees in life.
Mean Streets (1973)→ (88) Scorsese’s overlooked third film makes Taxi Driver come-off like a Disney production. Mean Streets is gritty in style and content, showcasing low-life mafia crime of 1970s NYC (one of my favorite film settings), specifically, the Little Italy neighborhood. This film doesn’t have any of the glitz and glam of Goodfellas, Scarface, Johnny Brasco, The Godfather, or The Sopranos — no casinos, no beautiful prostitutes, no major drug hauls, no Miami beaches, no mansions in the suburbs. This is the grit of bar fights, restaurant shake-downs, and small-time loans. Harvey Keitel as Charlie is our protag while De Niro as “Johnny Boy” is the loose-cannon best-friend: both are phenomenal. I mean, you see why Scorsese made Taxi Driver with De Niro only a few years later and why he cast Keitel in a similar, street-thug role therein. I’d like to see a movie that has “Johnny Boy” and Travis Bickle meet — with today’s de-aging and CGI technology, I think we could make this happen. The directing makes you feel like you’re one of the guys, a “mook,” so to speak, which lends itself to creating many tense scenes full of energy. It’s also the earliest move I can recall that uses the “drunk cam” — ya know, that angle where the camera is a foot or so away from the stumbling character. (Think Ed Helms waking up in the hotel room in The Hangover.) You knew that ending was coming, just not the specifics, but it still works really well. I highly recommend Mean Streets for the cinephile and fan of gritty, NYC-based films.
Diner (1982)→ (88) I love a good banter movie and that’s what we get with Diner. Set in 1959 Baltimore (one of Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore Tetralogy”), the actors that make up the group of friends interact as if they’d all really known each other their entire lives. Apparently, Levinson wanted the actors to improvise to build fluidity and the bond of real friendship; it worked. Sometimes, we forget how much of a heartthrob Mickey Rourke really was back then — he’s a naturally cool character that isn’t over-the-top. I’m also partial to diners as an establishment, as an NJ native this film could’ve been set in Montclair or New Brunswick or Haddonfield and it still would’ve fit — just substitute Eddie’s (Steve Guttenberg) love of the Colts with the Giants, Eagles, or Jets. Took one look at that gravy on fries and I knew I’d like these guys. There isn’t a plot in the traditional sense, and that’s ok here. Some films can thrive on just character building, solid acting, and a certain time period in the characters’ life — that time when, like a domino effect, bachelorhood starts to come to an end. Eddie making his fiancée (Sharon Ziman) pass a quiz on the Baltimore Colts before he’d tie-the-knot reminded me of my father. *Side Note* I’d pay to see a short film of Eddie handling the news of the Colts moving to Indianapolis. While weddings have served as endings to stories since Shakespeare, this one was perfect with an equally perfect final shot of the gang sans Eddie. Diner is for everyone but definitely will resonate with men in their late twenties and early thirties.
Born in Flames (1983)→ (85) A documentary-style drama set 10 years after the “Socialist Revolution,” Born in Flames is just as relevant today as it was in 1983 and is well worth a watch. The film follows two feminist factions in NYC: one headed by young, white, punk, lesbian Isabel (Adele Bertei), the other by older, black, activist, Honey (Honey). Although the USA has gone through “the first true socialist democracy the world has ever known,” (How many times are we gonna hear this one?) many women, especially racial and sexual minorities, still don’t believe they have been provided with the benefits of the change and engage in pamphleting, wheatpasting, protests, subversion, and eventually, terrorism. The style shot both like a documentary, but also like an investigation on the women — Adelaide (Jean Satterfield), one of Honey’s followers, becomes a focus of the investigation. There is a “gender war” aspect to the film — when a woman gets gang-assaulted in broad daylight, a patrolling, whistle-blowing group of bike-riding women come to her aid — but it avoids an opaque narrative and instead shows the inner struggles of the movement, i.e. those that want more moderate, political means of equality (as they admit life now is much better than it was pre-revolution), while others demand a direct action approach. There are too many political issues to discuss in a “pocket review,” but one that bends the typical Leftist narrative in 2021 is the abolition of prisons. Here, rapists and sexual assaulters don’t go to prison and instead are “rehabilitated,” as their affliction is considered mental illness or a disease, much to the chagrin of NYC’s women, who get no treatment or support. While this change from punishment to rehabilitation is a product of the socialist revolution — something socialists today would largely support — it’s one of the many embers that ignites the feminist-revolution’s ardor. The other notable socialist policy is the President’s (Bill Tatum, a black President in 1983) “wages for housework” concept; a concept that might excite Andrew Yang, but our protags reject as a “pacifying” maneuver. Lastly, a most presciently, the ending involves bombing the World Trade Center… I did watch this on TCM, which had an interview with the director, Lizzie Borden, and she stated that the activists (terrorists) solely bombed the antenna on top of the WTC. I think Born in Flames is ripe for a remake concerning the numerous gender issues in 2021 (trans, TERFs, vagina-owners, birthers, et al.), but is a provocative and entertaining watch as is.
1917 (2019)→ (93) Of course, I had heard that the film appears to consist of only two continuous shots, and I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this. Well, the verdict is in: I loved it. Although my brain has been conditioned for scene-breaks at certain moments, I found the directorial decision refreshing. While all war is Hell, World War One’s iteration is always considered some of the most hellish as men — boys really, a lot of them were just boys — scurry from their holes and rush headlong into certain death. The plot is a simple one, and one as old as time, as an “Accidental Hero,” “False Protagonist,” whatever trope you want to call it, Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay) is selected to aid his comrade (Dean-Charles Chapman) in a death-defying mission simply because he was sitting nearby. The mission, if successful, will save (or prolong) the lives of 1,600 British soldiers. Lance Corporal Thomas Blake (Chapman) has a personal stake in the outcome — his older brother is with the frontline regiment — but Schofield solely has the motivation for duty to one’s country; a duty that doesn’t always seem worth it. What we get is a “man behind enemy lines” story that is filled with as much action as there are bloated bodies floating down the river. I’m annoyed with myself for not viewing 1917 earlier, as Dunkirk didn’t wow me and WWI was more known for soldiers losing their minds in the underground tunnels from the incessant shelling than for gripping, cinematic heroics. As for “the run,” the promotional scene for the movie, was better than I had imagined. We get snippets of some of our favorite British actors — Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden — but Andrew Scott as Lieutenant Leslie was my favorite supporting character, sending our two heroes off in a baptism of scotch. The ending said to me, “We might end up where we started, but we’ll never be the same,” and I liked that. 1917 reminds us why movies are special.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)→ (59) Known for languishing in “development hell” (I always thought “development purgatory” was more fitting), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It’s absurdist/surreal with a historical twist — that’s the good. For the bad, it’s confusing and exhausting. The film’s detractions are not for lack of acting talent. Jonathan Pryce is one of the most underrated actors out there. Adam Driver is always good. The film suffers from a ridiculous script and the “is it real or is it fake” trope that beats the viewer over the head. I’m also not sure if there were any takeaways from this movie. Upon reflection, none come to mind. Gilliam frequently includes mentally unstable characters in his films (Jonathan Pryce in Brazil, Robin Williams in The Fisher King, Brad Pitt in Twelve Monkeys) and here Pryce again as Javier, a cobbler in rural Spain who Toby (Driver) casts in his low-budget, student film about the famous literary character, Don Quixote. To Toby’s surprise, upon returning to Spain years later to shoot a commercial, Javier has not dropped the character and has fully embraced the role of the hero of La Mancha. It’s a solid premise that should’ve been taken in a completely different direction than what we get. We do get Olga Kurylenko, a top-fiver on Ben’s teenage crush list, which is nice. We also (likely) get introduced to Joanna Ribeiro, a Portuguese actress who I’ll be keeping my eye out for. I’ll give pretty much anything that takes place in Spain a try, that is directed by Terry Gilliam a try, that stars Pryce and Driver a try, but TMWKDQ falls just below the recommends due to a sloppy, strange script and lack of direction.
Amulet (2020)→ (50) With more confusion than scares, Amulet leaves viewers with questions that demand answers five minutes after the movie ends, until they go do anything else. So… demons need guardians now? Why exactly? So… he (Alec Sacareanu) did kill it (Anah Ruddin)? Was he supposed to kill it from the beginning? Oh, so he’s the… ya know what, I’m doing it again. I had very few notes on Amulet. It wasn’t bad enough for me to rage-write, but not good enough for me to recommend or really detail. Imelda Staunton commands whatever scene she’s in, maybe they should’ve given her more than three of them. Skip it.
Only Yesterday (1991)→ (76) Only Yesterday contains immense staying power with its strong, universal themes of childhood. The plot concerns Taeko (Daisy Ridley), a 27-year-old office worker in Tokyo who takes a work-vacation in the bucolic countryside. Starting on the train out of the city, Taeko recalls several memories from when she was a 10-year-old girl (Alison Fernandez) in 1966. During these memories, the story connects with the viewer concerning common childhood experiences: struggles with siblings and bullies, strict parents, school crushes, the jealousy of peers’ vacation plans, dreams of grandeur, and math homework. Moreover, the film seems to want the viewer to reflect on their own life. I wasn’t surprised when I read that Taeko was 27, as it was around this time, maybe a little later, that I really started to understand myself — my mother had always said you discover yourself at 30. I’ve been 30 for six months now and am finding that to be the case. I’m starting to see patterns with Studio Ghibli films, one being food always an important plot point — there always seems to be at least one or two scenes of characters quietly savoring their meal — the other being the lack of big revelations like we get in Disney films. Only Yesterday includes the former and appears to include the latter until after the end-credits! I really enjoyed the animation here, especially with the characters’ faces, there was just something noticeably different with the style. The plot concerning Taeko at the farm, however, was too slow at times, which would’ve benefitted if something of a little more substance had occurred. I think the climax was Granny (Nika Futterman) addressing Taeko’s status as a working, single-woman in the big city and stating what Taeko (maybe) had been thinking this whole time: She should marry Toshio (Dev Patel). Meh. Only Yesterday has a nice ending and is a sweet movie. It lacks the magical realism you find in many Ghibli films, but that was refreshing here. While it will definitely connect with some demographics more than others (I couldn’t empathize as well with Taeko getting her first period, for example), I guarantee any viewer will have some connection to the film, and most will find it enjoyable.
Hairspray (2007)→ (84) The energetic musical with one of the strangest castings ever was much more enjoyable this time around than I remember back in the late 2000s. Hairspray kicks off with the excellent “Good Morning, Baltimore,” is laced with many good-to-solid numbers — most notably “I Can Hear the Bells,” and ends with the infectious “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” We’re in Baltimore of the early 1960s, a segregated city during the fomenting “Civil Rights Era”. Although the film stars many well-known actors — John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, et al. — Nikki Blonsky, steals the show as our protag, Tracy Turnblad. It was also nice, if not a little sad, to see Amanda Bynes. I just learned that the character of “Edna” is traditionally played by a man in drag, which makes the Travolta casting more understandable, but even still I can picture Robin Williams or Steve Martin (a couple of other alleged considerations) before Travolta; it’s just something about the face. Nevertheless, I found the part really enjoyable, especially when paired with Walken. On that note, don’t overlook Walken here, as we get many of the beloved Walkenisms including, but not limited to, the Walken accent, Walken dancing, and, most underrated, the “Walken-sit”: board-erect back, chest out, legs spread far, far apart. *Side note* Does Baltimore have an accent? The message concerning integration felt obvious in 2007, and yet, we seem to have come full-circle… I especially enjoyed the absurd literal dividing-line on the dance-floor, where white and black dancers could be within arms-distance to each other, but not actually touch. Hairspray is full of life, concerns an important snapshot of American history, and has good music; what more could you want?
Soul (2020)→ (83) While it may become too abstract for its own good at times, Soul delivers on what you expect from a Christmas-release Pixar movie. Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is our jazz-obsessed protag who works at an NYC public school. While he seems to find some satisfaction in teaching students music, his dream is to become a jazz-pianist. For some reason, Joe can’t be a jazz musician and a full-time teacher — he’s less than thrilled at the news of receiving a full-time position, wherein the principal (Cathy Cavadini) even tells him about the increase in pay, the health benefits, the vacation, etc. — you’d think Joe just got fired instead of a raise. A public-school teacher in the city is an excellent job and isn’t jazz music, like all music, performed at night? This felt like a contrived way to build conflict between Joe and his mother (Phylicia Rashad). I enjoyed the suddenness of Joe’s death — even if we knew it had to happen — and the concept of the “Great Before”. The cubist-inspired soul counselors (Richard Ayoade & Alice Braga), who were all named “Jerry” (along with the soul counter “Terry”) were created with mesmerizing animation. Terry is the closest thing we get to a villain, but labeling him that would be a stretch. “Choosing your spark” a.k.a. your raison d’être, is a concept I have a lot of feelings about, although, I am on the other side of the spectrum when it comes to one’s “destiny,” which is a topic for another blog post, I do think finding one’s passion(s) is immensely important to mental health and well-being. It gets tough to discuss Soul because of these existential concepts. Feelings are kinda personified (similar to Inside Out), but not as on the nose, which may make this less enjoyable for children, which I still believe is the target demographic for Pixar(?). Where the film excels is showcasing the feeling of “I’m alive!” and that crestfallen feeling of accomplishing something, but not receiving the satisfaction you thought you would. The end of the movie definitely lost me a little. While the “I’m going to live every day to the fullest!” message is nice, I think how we get there was kinda…bland. A deus ex machina (in literal form) and then poof! movie over. I was expecting for Joe and 22 (Tina Fey) to find each other, both in human form — even if it looked like she was headed to Asia, she knew where he lived, as she was him for a day. But that’s not what we get. *Side Note* I’m all for having cats NOT die in movies (the amount of abuse towards these creatures in film bothers me), but how exactly did the cat’s soul return to Earth, as it was already on the ethereal escalator to the “Great Beyond”? No matter. If you enjoy Pixar movies (i.e. if you have a… soul) you’ve probably seen this already or will soon. It’s not up there with the greats (Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, Toy Story, The Incredibles, Coco, etc.), but Soul is really good.
Citizen Kane (1941)→ (92) The film that revolutionized filmmaking, a name that has become synonymous with magnum opus — a true masterpiece — Citizen Kane is the film student's film for a reason. Yes, I had viewed many YouTube videos about Citizen Kane before ever watching the film, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment; I had actually completely forgotten what “Rosebud” meant anyway. Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) is on his deathbed in the palatial Xanadu when he murmurs “Rosebud” before expiring. Discovering what this American Titan’s last word actually meant propels the film, if only superficially. Welles — who is also the (25 year old!) director — lays it all out in a news-breaking montage of Kane’s life, the peaks and valleys, before seeing him as a child playing in the snow. We pretty much know everything that happens 15 minutes-in, now we get to fill in the gaps. Kane is ahead of his time as the newspaper mogul (think Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch today) who, on day one of taking over The Inquirer, states: “News is 24 hours”. Thus, changing the way the city — and eventually, the nation — learned about the world, especially considering he filled those pages with the filth we gobble up like a smorgasbord today. Considered a communist to some, a fascist to others (how topical), Kane engages in many of the activities you’d expect a super-wealthy businessman to engage in — expands his empire, ends friendships, ends marriages, begins new marriages, and builds a palace down in Florida with the biggest fuck-off fireplace I’ve ever seen. Considered a composite character, your opinion on Kane is probably justified and misguided.. That’s to say, he’s neither hero nor villain. Although Welles didn’t necessarily invent many of the shots in his film, he absolutely changed the director’s efficacy in storytelling, with too many to count here. A few include: the shot of Kane’s parents (Agnes Morehead & Harry Shannon) with the banker (George Coulouris) who becomes his legal guardian as young Kane (Buddy Swan) is playing in the snow, Kane giving a political speech — the most recognizable scene of the film — with a gigantic poster of himself in the background, and the final shot of all the crates housing his treasures. “One word can’t explain a man’s life.” Our powerful departing words. Oh, and what is “Rosebud”? Eh, watch the film to find out. If anything, to pay homage to that gif you probably (sarcastically) use all the time.
Chef (2014)→ (86) The food-porn movie where social media both causes and mends conflict, Chef is an enjoyable watch centered around friendship, creative freedom in your art, and a surprisingly well-developed father-son story. It feels like a movie that captured the food-truck movement of the early-mid 2010s. Jon Favreau as the titular chef clashes with the owner of the restaurant (Dustin Hoffman) where he works, erupting in a “viral” meltdown aimed not at Hoffman, but at food critic Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt). As both a creator of art and critic myself, I completely understand Carl’s (Favreau) anger, but the buildup makes it seem like he was going to return to the restaurant with his home-cooked meal in hand for Ramsey to try on the spot. The fact we didn’t get this at first disappointed me, but after letting it settle, I appreciated the decision for Carl’s emotions to get the better of him. I should mention that the Twitter exchange between chef and critic is phenomenal — “You wouldn’t know a good meal if it sat on your face,” should be archived in the Twitter HOF. This movie makes you want to eat and travel — from L.A. to Miami, Carl, his son, Percy (Emjay Anthony), and Martin (John Leguizamo), remodel an old taco truck and drive it across the sunbelt, stopping in New Orleans and Austin. Putting corn starch on your scrotum? No problem. It’s what men do. Just guys bein’ dudes. There’s something about restaurant culture and banter that never gets old to me (even though I hated working in a restaurant) and there’s a little of it here. Leguizamo pulls out a tray of cracklin’ bacon just to make us horny, but that’s just the tip of the shot-after-shot of delicious-looking food. The father-son subplot felt legit, not smarmy. I cannot stand when a film pushes either a 1. romance subplot, or 2. a parent-child subplot on us. Chef does neither, although, they never really address Favreau’s relationship with Scarlett Johansson? (He remarries Sofia Vergara, btw…) *I could write a piece on men writing gorgeous female counterparts into their scripts. I feel cozy giving this an (86), snug between the RT of (87/85).
Total Recall (1990)→ (85) Paul Verhoeven directed one of my all-time favorites in Starship Troopers and created a sci-fi psychological thriller seven-years earlier with Total Recall. There’s enough indulgent violence and sex for the teenagers (a woman in a futuristic Mars bordello flashes her thrice-breasted chest), and enough existential questions for the adults. That’s not to say there aren’t visual delights for the rest of us, for Total Recall has a secret weapon — Rob-f****n’-Bottin (The Thing), the master of practical effects. If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you’ll know I gush for practical effects, and Bottin gets to flex his muscles with the eye-popping, head-deformed, mini-humanoid-bulging-out-of-his-brother’s-body moments. As an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short-story (We Can Remember It For You Wholesale), the movie includes many of the signature futuristic, sci-fi elements that have become staples of the genre: self-driving cars/cabs, omnipresent screens, body scanners for weapons/contraband, holograms, space colonies, etc. But what is centrally featured in Total Recall is the timeless concept of memories and dreams. Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is just your average construction worker (bet your ass we get a shot of his sleeveless arms working a jackhammer) with dreams of travel… or he’s a secret agent… or he’s the memory of a secret-agent inside the mind of an average construction worker? Quaid travels to Mars (or he doesn’t) to answer the question of who he really is, or he pays the Rekall company to have these action-packed, sex-filled memories implanted in his brain — the 2089 equivalent of a “staycation”. *Side Note* I love how Arnie’s accent, in any movie, is never questioned, sort of an unwritten rule. Sure, the film has typical stupid action movie moments — when he arrives at Mars comes to mind — but I suppose it’s part of that Verhoeven schlock. The “red light” district on Mars is one of the coolest sets I’ve seen and the film has a bunch of the same actors we later see in Starship Troopers: Michael Ironside, Marshall Bell, and Dean Norris. Pretty standard message of “whoever controls the resources (here, air) controls society”. Total Recall is a must-watch for sci-fi fans. So long as you don’t mind a badass dwarf (Debbie Lee Carrington) shooting a machine-gun, three-breasted prostitutes, eyes being sucked out of heads and other gratuitous violence, you will also enjoy this film.
Chronicle (2012)→ (88) I was pretty blown away with Chronicle when I first saw it in theaters back in college, eight years later and it still holds up. The “found footage” subgenre almost exclusively exists in the larger “horror” genre, which made a sci-fi/superhero plot that much more inventive. You see the inspirations from Akira and Carrie (I’m not familiar with The Fury) with the cocktail for revenge: 1-part school bully, 1-part alcoholic father, 1-part sick mother, infinite telekinetic and physical powers. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) morphs from meek loner to “apex predator” as his abilities begin to outgrow those of his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and charismatic, popular, Steve (Michael B. Jordan). How the trio gains the superpowers, which include, flight, immunity from (most) physical harm, and telekinesis, aren’t exactly explained — underground, glowing, rock…thing — the film is far more concerned with the “rules” the group creates to control their newfound powers and their descent into inevitable abuse. The style of a singular camera works for two main reasons: 1. Andrew has the ability to suspend the camera in mid-air, which forgoes the oftentimes nauseating “shaky cam” of this style, and 2. It creates natural tension. Yeah, the “hubris” chat was a little on-the-nose, but the movie lacked shitty dialogue overall. The last 40 minutes are really, really good, as we finally see Andrew get the lead out — even if that means doing a number on downtown Seattle that would make Antifa jealous. Allowing Chief Seattle to be the guardian of the city was a nice touch, along with the final scene, even if it maybe asked the audience to be more sympathetic to Andrew than he deserved. At the end, I caught myself thinking, sometimes you need something like this.
The First Line (2014)→ (37) I’m down for any film that showcases lawyers as champions for a just cause. While I’m personally interested in the so-called “Elgin Marbles” issue — first having learned about the topic while studying in London — I don’t see topic enticing most potential viewers who are scrolling through Netflix movies. In a nutshell, a British Earl in 1801 claimed to have permission from the Ottoman Sultan (who at that time had ruled Athens) to remove major parts of the Parthenon and take them to England. Since their independence in 1832, the Greeks have been trying to get them back — efforts most seriously revamped in the 1980s. However, the film is far from a courtroom drama. It felt as though half of the run-time was Andreas (Pantelis Kodogiannis) giving impassioned speeches about why the monuments should be returned to Greece (Andreas is Greek-American). The courtroom scene, the deposition, the said impassioned speeches, were over-acted and melodramatic. The director made some strange decisions — why did they keep flashing shots of some little girl?? Andreas gets hit in the head with a police baton and then just keeps walking down the street?? — and there was one line early on that almost turned this into a (Did Not Finish/DNF). The British Museum’s curator (Michael Byrne) was a cantankerous British-stereotype of a villain. The coolest scene was the 3-D creation of the “re-united” Parthenon, even though, after conducting a little research, it appears this would not be the plan if the marbles are retunred to Greece — they would simply go from a British museum to a Greek one. While the Greeks may have the better argument (or not, I’m really not sure) the film avoided all nuance and felt more like propaganda than a dramatic rendering of the struggle. It’s an interesting topic that’s better left to a college debate topic or documentary. Skip it.
Sideways (2004)→ (98) (re-watch/re-rate) It’s no secret I love this movie, it’s a “vault film” for me. Ya know, “desert island,” “Groundhog’s Day” re-watchability. I’ve probably seen it at least 7 times and try to take away something new on each viewing. My fiancée had recently finished the book and had the ganas to see the film — don’t have to twist my arm. One area of focus was Miles’ (Paul Giamatti) connection to the Pinot Noir varietal. His affinity for the grape powers beyond taste, but how “it’s delicate and needs lots of attention,” (para), unknowingly (or knowingly?) talking about himself. The conversation between Miles and Maya (Virginia Madsen) is one of my favorite conversations ever put on screen. The director, Alexander Payne, whose style throughout the film I’d like to commend, keeps us intimate with close-ups and over-the-shoulders while they’re on the couch, only to pull back in a more voyeuristic angle when Miles finally decides to make his ill-timed move. Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, who plays soon-to-be-wed, Jack, make such a great duo — their juxtapositions on… well… pretty much everything is the driving force of the film. Both seriously flawed characters, their friendship and its many tribulations never disappoints. What also never disappoints is the “Merlot” line, which Giamatti delivers like a buzz-saw. A line that single-handled delivered a blow to the entire merlot-market, which I also have written about here. (However, Sideways makes up for it by making pinot noir a household varietal.) There were more laugh-out-loud moments than I’d thought, with Jack’s tone-deaf response to Miles’ “I’m not even relevant enough to kill myself” woes taking the cake. You’re gonna tell me Giamatti didn’t deserve an Oscar-nom but Leo got one for The Aviator? Depp for Finding Neverland? What a disgrace. Miles’ face when his ex-wife (Jessica Hecht) tells him that she’s pregnant is the greatest confluence of emotions I’ve ever seen, probably. Lastly, we have the ending, and that ’61 cheval blanc. From the depths of his closet, Miles pulls out his most prized possession, and in a greasy-spoon he uses the red elixir to wash down a burger and onion rings — out of a Styrofoam cup, no less. I’ve never had anything close to that quality of bottle, but in that moment, I could taste that wine. I never bothered to research what grapes exactly make-up a cheval blanc. And guess what tidbit I discovered? Cheval Blanc, like most “left bank” Bordeaux, is 40–60% Merlot… Sideways (2004)→ (From Original Post: 2/24/2019) (98) Watch this movie about once a year. It just hits me in a certain place every time. The book is also fantastic, making this one of my favorite book-film combos.
El Ángel (2018)→ (89) After only a few scenes, I retitled this film The Devil in Curls. That is until I searched the movie and realized it was a true crime story concerning Argentinian serial killer, Carlos Robledo Puch (Lorenzo Ferro), who garnered the nickname “The Angel of Death” and “The Black Angel” during his crime-spree in 1971 Buenos Aires. Ferro plays Puch as irresistible, charismatic, and carefree when it comes to the repercussions of his actions — he also has the same baby-face of the real killer. Ferro was intoxicating in his role and I am surprised to see that the actor doesn’t even have a wiki page. His IMDB shows his only other credits from a TV show and another film in pre-production. This is a young actor I’m going to keep my eye on. El Ángel is a story of when bad (Chino Darín) meets evil (Ferro). Ramón (Darín) is the tall, dark, and handsome counterpart to Carlos’ (or Carlito, as he usually goes by) blond, svelte, mischievousness — together, and with the help of Ramón’s parents (Mercedes Morán and Daniel Fanego), they engage in a smorgasbord of criminal activities that tends to end in murder. I’d never heard of Puch before this film, but the RogerEbert.com reviewer states there is no evidence of homosexuality between Puch and Ramón — or Puch whatsoever, for that matter — and did feel like it was included just to add tension and a jealousy element. My single favorite scene was when Carlos reflexively shoots an old man while they’re burglarizing his house, and just sort of follow him around his mansion while he bleeds out — Carlos ultimately steals the very cool painting the man stares at before expiring. There are a handful of other excellent scenes — the police force with his parents, the back and forth with the chief, him crying on the train, seemingly the entire freakin’ Argentinean army waiting outside the house — that gives the film excellent style and makes it more than just a platform to observe a rising star. A true-crime story you’ve (likely) never heard of, El Ángel should be added to your watch-list. The film opens with Carlos dancing and ends with Carlos dancing, and even though you now know he’s a cold-hearted bastard, ya kinda wanna dance with him.
21 Bridges (2019)→ (78) Cop known for killing cop-killers must keep cops from killing cop-killer in order to catch crooked cops — if you didn’t catch it the first time, there’s a spoiler in there, so don’t go back now. 21 Bridges, with a big RT discrepancy (53/91) as I write this, has enough action, twists, and political commentary for an enjoyable watch. Coincidentally, I watched this movie on Boseman’s 44th birthday (R.I.P.), and it saddens me even more to get a glimpse of the actor in a leading, non-Marvel role. Detective Andre Davis (Boseman) comes from a law enforcement background and possesses a particular strain of disdain for cop-killers, as the film opens on his father’s funeral, which was accelerated at the hands of a cop-killer.. We get shot of young Andre (Christian Isaiah) — and a very cool overhead scene of the procession — before we’re with adult Andre being questioned for discharging his weapon once again. Andre faces ethical dilemma after ethical dilemma, most notably when it comes to addressing the slowly availing issue of police corruption. I liked how the film didn’t do a complete switcharoo, as in, those criminals (Stephen James & Taylor Kitsch) who killed all those cops and other innocent people are actually not really bad and only misunderstood — no, they’re bad, just not the only ones. *Side note: It warms my heart when the bad-guy team is interracial. ❤ (: ❤* We also get J.K. Simmons as Captain Matt McKenna, who delivers the funniest line shitting on Mayor DeBlasio: “He eats his pizza with a fork!” Sure, there are a couple meh lines that are borderline corny — we also can’t have a “cop” movie without an argument “with the feds” over jurisdiction — but there’s nothing that falls into eye-rolling category. To its benefit, the plot augments as it proceeds, culminating in an enjoyable film that’s part Escape from New York, part Serpico.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988)→ (76) Take Bambi’s mom dying, the opening montage of Up, and the ending of Toy Story 3 mix them together, and you get the cheerfulness that is Grave of the Fireflies… This film is depressing to a fault, which begs the question: Who is this for? The 1988 Studio Ghibli movie concerns two siblings, teenage Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) and his kid sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), at the end of World War II. We generally follow Seita as he does the best he can for providing for his sister after his mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) dies from burns sustained during an American firebombing campaign. It’s standard to render the protag(s) orphans in a children’s movie, but the animation showing their mother’s death is particularly brutal. It’s a story about resilience, desperation, and (stubborn?) pride. Seita and Setsuko end up leaving their condescending distant-aunt’s (Akemi Yamaguchi) home for a life of complete freedom in an abandoned bomb-shelter. Desperate for food, Seita even takes to running into the city as it’s bombed to scavenge for resources while its inhabitants take cover. Besides a handful of moments of the siblings enjoying their bucolic freedom — most notably, the gorgeous scene of the fireflies unleashed inside the shelter — there are very, very few moments of hope. Grave of the Fireflies has a (100/95) score on Rotten Tomatoes, so my expectations were pretty high. And while the film has plenty of courageous and heartwarming (and depressing, it’s okay to feel the blues) scenes, there were three changes I would’ve made: 1. Why the heck does Seita take so long to bring his child sister to the doctor? She’s clearly dying (of malnutrition? Some skin disease?) and it feels cruel that he doesn’t take her much earlier — eventhough the doctor isn’t helpful at all. 2. He had access to his dead mother’s bank account this entire time, but just let’s himself and his child sister starve? That scene was jaw-droppingly shocking. And 3., on a more artistic note, I wouldn’t have revealed the siblings reunite in the afterlife in the beginning. It’s such a beautiful scene, especially the way it shows them overlooking the modern-day city skyline (which gave serious A Ghost Story vibes) that its impact would’ve been felt in the chest had it not already been revealed — it also would’ve made Setsuko’s death that much more shocking and their reunification, dare I say, a happy ending?
High Fidelity (2000)→ (74) Have I had High Fidelity on my watch-queue for over a year? Yes. Did I know what High Fidelity was about? Not really. Except for a few clips of three men in their 30s hanging around a record store — and one of Jack Black singing on stage — I figured this leaned heavier onto the comedy pillar of the romantic-comedy genre. I was wrong. Rob Gordon (John Cusack) is a self-conscious record store owner who somehow dates women well out of his league (*See Iben Hjejle, Catherine Zeta Jones, Lisa Bonet) and has a penchant for speaking directly into the camera. I enjoy 4th Wall breaks when they’re tempered and offer a brief respite from the main plot (à la The Big Short), but here it almost feels like half of the movie Rob is just complaining to the audience — might as well just give us voiceover. We all know a place like Championship Vinyl — whether a record store, book store, café, vintage clothing, etc. — a keystone in the neighborhood that profit be damned, is still alive and kicking. Although the employees are dicks, you’re a glutton for abusive relationships and seek out their acceptance through your own specialized knowledge in their area of expertise — I apologize if I’m projecting. There’s a lot of moving parts in this film that made it feel rushed. Laura (Hjejle) is the apple of Rob’s eye and telos of the film, despite her distracting bangs and shitty move to get with their stereotypical, tantric-douchebag, Ian “Ray” Raymond (Tim Robbins). Can we talk about her bangs though? The style of the late 90s/early 2000s is bad (carve-out for women’s low-rise jeans), but I’m not exaggerating when I say that her bangs took me out of this film. And no, she’s not some bohemian artist, but a CORPORATE LAWYER. The skater kids being legit musicians came out of nowhere and deserved a bigger place in the plot. Is the takeaway from this movie supposed to be, “Fellas, if your girlfriend leaves you, just make sure her dad dies shortly thereafter and there’s a chance you get back together”? Feels like I’m being harsh when it does merit a solid (74). Jack Black is fantastic as Barry, the half-employee, half-music snob (hidden musical talent), thriving in the role he was born to play. The only letdown however is that Barry is a rocker (as is Black) and the decision to avail his talents to the world (or the small Chicago venue) with Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” seemed like an odd choice. I also found myself craving more Todd Louiso as Dick (needed to phrase that sentence a certain way), the mild-mannered, but equally music-knowledgeable counterpart to Barry. I feel like this film benefitted from its very popular book. Idk, I didn’t read it. Anyway, the fashion sucks, the music rocks, you should probably check it out.
Rushmore (1998)→ (88) Wes Anderson’s 2nd feature film, Rushmore sows the seeds of the many hallmark Andersonian details that have become staples (and elicited parodies) in his popular movies: shots with a character staring directly into the camera, calligraphy, a je ne sais quoi color palette, an affair, handwritten letters, record players, precocious kids, theater, and other retro knick-knacks and activities, to name a few. It also marks Schwartzman’s first film, who plays Max Fischer, the lower-middle class student at a prestigious private school who compensates his status by joining and championing various clubs, sports teams, and educational groups, all to the detriment of his GPA. We all knew a Max Fischer, which is what makes him appealing, annoying, and even detestable at times. However, you can’t help but root for the schmuck, even if it isn’t for the ridiculous goal of scoring with the First-Grade teacher, Rosemary (Olivia Williams). I was pleasantly surprised with how good Bill Murray, as wealthy businessman and Rushmore graduate, Herman Blume, was in the film, as I likely hadn’t viewed it since the early 2000s. He has a handful of great lines, which typed out wouldn’t give them justice, and also swats a child’s jump-shot — just good stuff. Wrapped together with an excellent soundtrack of “British Invasion” rock, Rushmore toes-the-line as a “must-watch”.
Tokyo! (2008)→ (81) (cumulative rating) An anthology film — comprised of three disconnected short films all taking place in Tokyo — makes for an interesting watch. Notably, all three directors are non-Japanese (two French and one Korean), with each one offering high enough entertainment value, even if each one is incomplete in their own way. The first short-film, Interior Design, concerns a Japanese couple (Ayako Fujitani and Ryo Kase) new to the mega-city who futon-surfs in an apartment that would make your average Manhattan studio look like the Biltmore. While apartment-hunting might seem like a boring topic, I actually enjoy the tactic as it allows a director to showcase a city at a rapid pace — especially given the 35–40 min runtime. Besides Akira (Kase) planning on becoming an avant-garde, arthouse film director, the couple doesn’t seem to have much of a plan. Considering this film is available on Amazon Prime and I feel like many haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil any of the endings, but let’s just say Hiroko (Fujitani) transforms her role into supporting a man who may (or may not!) be her partner. Our second film, Merde, is the strangest of the set, as it’s the most violently and verbally graphic, but also the most exhausting, mainly because of the made-up language. Merde (Denis Lavant), which is French for “shit,” is a leprechaun-like, humanoid creature that lives in the sewers of the city. At random, he rises through a manhole and terrorizes Tokyo’s citizens — at first by licking their arms, stealing their cigarettes, eating their flower, but then by launching grenades in the air, killing many of them — without an iota of remorse. He speaks an obnoxious language that only a French lawyer (Jean-Francois Balmer) can understand and respond in kind — the lawyer later represents him in his criminal trial. Merde has an unexplained disdain for the Japanese and mocks them openly in court. He is sentenced to death and like… doesn’t die, somehow, in the noose, which was an unsatisfying ending to the overall most entertaining short-film. This film felt the most political, as Merde lives amongst a cache of weapons, banners, and war-time graffiti from the Japanese Empire — the grenades he used were from these supplies. For instance, graffiti on the wall praises the “Nanjing Massacre,” a dark part of Japanese history that some members of the country have not fully recognized. I suppose the message here may be “Japan will continue to randomly suffer until it fully embraces its violent past,” or something to that effect. However, maybe a Japanese instead of a French director (Leos Carax) should be making this point; just my 2 cents. The last film of the three was the most disappointing, which was surprising because none other than the now super-famous, Bong Joon-ho directed it. Shaking Tokyo centers on a man (Teruyuki Kagawa) who only refers to himself as a “Hikikomori” — a person who has voluntarily removed himself from society. The film sets itself up to be a success, with a somewhat empathetic protag whose life (literally) gets shaken to the core by 1. an Earthquake and 2. a love-interest. The Hikikomori’s home is (neatly) filled to the brim with toilet paper, paper towels, and 10 years’ worth of pizza boxes. The pizza delivery girl (Yū Aoi) has a number of strange tattoos, most important of which is a “power button” that seems to work when pressed. Unfortunately, we don’t get much more exploration of this potential Human-AI hybrid, and the film follows our protag meander through eerily quiet Tokyo streets in search of the girl. Seeing the famous Shibuya crosswalk entirely empty gave off 28 Days Later vibes, but beyond that, the rest of the film is a letdown. I’d recommend this anthology to most, but definitely to a viewer who adores the city of Tokyo like I do.
Mary Magdalene (2019)→ (66) Even with a clean 120-minute runtime, Mary Magdalene feels both rushed and prolonged, as it touches on Jesus’ major moments — healing the blind, bringing the dead back to life, being crucified, etc. — with Mary Magdalene (Rooney Mara) just sorta there helping. The film really portrays how truly awful life was back in 33 A.D., especially for a woman. Mary joins Jesus (Joaquin Phoenix) and Co. after they make a stop in her small village of Magdala. The rugged Judean countryside and mountains makes for a beautiful backdrop. I’d like to talk to you all about a friend of mine, Jesus Christ. Phoenix portrays my Lord and Savior as a soft-spoken figure who loves to remind everyone about “His kingdom”. What exactly he means by this creates only real tension in the film, between both Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Mary, and Judas (Tahar Rahim) and Mary and Peter and… Jesus. (?) There is a little bit of “So… we’re letting women into the club now?” but it never really goes beyond a couple of conversations. I did enjoy Judas’ motivation for betraying Jesus, which instead of turning on him solely for silver or jealousy or other reasons typically shown, it is more to light a fire under Jesus’ ass to get started on this kingdom — “now he’ll have to save himself” (para) Judas reasons, smiling as the Romans drag away the Messiah. Mary Magdalene falls victim to one of my biggest vexations by having the characters speak an unidentifiably accented English, sprinkled in with random words and sentences of the geographic lang; here, Aramaic, Hebrew? I’m not even sure. Either do the film in English or in the accurate language (See The Passion of the Christ), don’t do both. Although my favorite actor (Phoenix) plays my favorite historical figure (Jesus), the performance felt subdued. Even during the infamous “turning over the change tables” scene, I was expecting the director (Garth Davis) to let him really get the lead out. The end of the film does get the main message across: Mary Magdalene was NOT just some prostitute (not a prostitute at all actually), but the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection and messenger of “His kingdom,” and should be held in the same regard as the Apostles. It’s a somber film that would likely only interest believers or Biblical scholars or Fourth Wave feminists.
The Boy Downstairs (2018)→(83) I was nervous at the beginning of this movie, as we quickly get the typical quirky-white-girl (Zosia Mamet)-moves-to-NYC-to-be-a-writer-but-works-in-the-service-industry (wedding dress shop)-and-somehow-can-afford-to-live-in-a-gorgeous-airy-classic-brownstone, but going forward, The Boy Downstairs was an enjoyable watch. Mamet was one of the more likable characters on HBO’s Girls, but suffered from having the worst-written arc. Since then, I don’t believe I’ve seen her in anything, and found her presence refreshing — given the initial concerns — and her wit authentic and unforced. Diana (Mamet) moves into a building wherein, unknowingly, her ex-boyfriend, Ben (Matthew Shear), lives downstairs. This plot could’ve taken a silly turn, amounting to silly run-ins and moments of silly happenstance, but instead it covers all the bases of awkwardness, jealousy, and re-surfacing feelings expected in the set-up, but keeps it grounded. The film mixes in flashbacks of Diana and Ben’s first date, move-in, and break-up, which sometimes became a little confusing. There’s a pretty good “Declaration of Loveologue”™ and I think an answer to the “will they or won’t they?” plot. Sure, some of the film plays like a fantasy — besides the apartment, Diana has the greatest relationship a tenant has had with her landlord (Deirdre O’Connell) ever put on screen — but The Boy Downstairs never gets smarmy, saccharine, silly, and most importantly, boring. *Last note, the “Radiohead” line is laugh-out-loud funny.
Secrets of the Heart (1997)→ (74) Secrets of the Heart is a coming-of-age film with an adorable young protag (Andoni Erburu) who can’t catch a break when it comes to hearing the adults in his life have sex. Javi (Erburu) is the epitome of innocence, who gets caught up in his brother’s (Álvaro Negore) shenanigans and his family’s history, which contains a secret no one wants to address. Well, *spoiler*, the secret is that his father shot himself — whether it was an accidental suicide or not, I’m still unsure. Nevertheless, the family has made the decision to keep the bloodstained chair wherein it took place, which seems like the opposite thing you’d do if you wanted to avoid the topic. Over the course of the film, poor Javi hears his uncle (Carmelo Gómez) bang his mother (Silvia Munt), watches his dog get sexually assaulted by another dog, sees his aunt (Vicky Peña), with whom he lives to attend a better school, get lavishly drunk off table wine every night, and copes with a friendly neighbor’s suicide. The film feels like a warning sign to adults: “Children see the shit you do.” But Javi is resilient and the film provides a nice ending showcasing brotherly love. It’s probably too slow for most viewers nowadays, but if you like movies set in Spain (this is around Pamplona), Secrets of the Heart has enough to offer. *Side note,* I’d like to see the film from Gutierrez’s perspective, kid can’t catch a break.
Barton Fink (1991)→ (88) In true Coen Brothers fashion, we get a film with fantastic characters and a strange, sometimes bizarre, plot — we also get John Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi. Barton Fink follows Barton Fink (Turturro), an NYC playwright who takes a job in L.A. to write (lucrative) B-Movie scripts. When Barton arrives in L.A., it’s as if he enters a new world, entirely. I’m a sucker for creepy, art-deco styled hotels — which are abundant in the city of angels — but it’s more than just the lodging here that makes the city interesting. Every character Barton meets is fast-talking, charismatic, or just a little off, or a combination of two or three. In this area, I especially enjoyed Mr. Lipnick (Michael Lerner), Mr. Geiser (Tony Shalhoub), Detective Mastrionatti (Richard Portnow), Detective Deutsch (Christopher Murney), Goodman as Charlie and, although only in a few scenes, Buscemi as Chet. Early in the film, Barton passionately expels the virtues of “the common man” while continuing to cut off Charlie — a traveling insurance salesman, the epitome of the 1940s “common man” — from sharing “some stories”. I think the film would’ve benefitted more from exploring this angle and its relevance to today’s growing disdain for “coastal elites” who not only believe they know better than everyone else, but know better for everyone else. While I knew something was off with Charlie pretty early on, I didn’t like the direction of the plot (not really a twist) or the ending. The ambiguous ending gives hard Hotel California “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave” vibes, especially paired with Lipnick’s perpetual contract (this is illegal btw, but I won’t let my lawyer show) and the girl on the beach, but extended to all of Los Angeles. Barton Fink has fantastic camerawork and a very cool scene concerning the Bible. It also has one of my favorite lines in cinema: “Jesus, throw a rock in here and you’ll hit [a writer]. And do me a favor, Fink, throw it hard.” (As I writer, I’m allowed to say this.) I’d bet if you asked a cinephile to name favorite Coen Brothers’ movies, Barton Fink wouldn’t even make the top 5–7, but it’s a wonderful film only a solid ending away from cracking the (90)s.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)→ (84) It’s a Sorkin film, so you can expect the dialogue to drive the plot, which at first was concerning, given the breadth of characters, but actually worked out well. This is the Hollywoodified recounting of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests — for a more accurate and nuanced story, read The Nix — that shuffles the timeline of the protest and trial, focusing much more on the latter and its comically ridiculous injustices. I wasn’t in that courtroom and can’t imagine all of these incidents actually taking place, nevertheless it personifies Judge Hoffman (Frank Langella) as “the Man,” the epitome of what “The Seven” had traveled to Chicago to protest in the first place. There’s a conversation between Abbie Hoffman (no relation to the judge, which is addressed in the courtroom) (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) that represents the Far-Left and the Center-Left, both of which would be considered Alt-Right by Antifa-Progressives today. For example, during Hoffman’s fantastic testimony, he admires the virtues of Abraham Lincoln (instead of tearing down his statue), promotes American patriotism and democracy, and quotes Jesus Christ. The “action” scenes that take place during the protest flashbacks would’ve been a fart in the wind compared to the summer of 2020. Cohen steals the show as Hoffman and his performance is worth the price of admission alone. Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin — think Cheech to Hoffman’s Chong — also has a stand-out performance as the counter-culture icon whose wiki page reads like so many of these activists’: “[A]n American social activist, anti-war leader, and counterculture icon during the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s, he became a successful businessman.” Womp, womp. The Trial of the Chicago 7 excels as a courtroom drama — more so in the ridiculously unjust procedures and hijinks from the defendants than eliciting damning testimony or smoking-gun evidence — and a snapshot of the tumultuous late-60s layered in Sorkin wit.
Paris, Texas (1984)→ (85) Visually stunning, Paris, Texas showcases the beautiful glory of the American Southwest while letting drip-out a story of dissociation or abuse or grief or all of the above. Harry Dean Stanton plays Travis, a disheveled man aimlessly wandering the desert. How Travis is even alive is astounding, what happened to him to make him wander the desert is at both the forefront of both viewer’s and his brother’s (Dean Stockwell) mind. At first, it’s difficult to tell if Travis has a disability or is just feeling a little… off. As Travis’ layers peel back, the performance shines through even more, and you root for him to find his wife, Jane (Nastassja Kinski) even though maybe he shouldn’t considering it was whatever happened with his wife that has caused him to wander Texas for four years! Travis’ degeneration not only affected his own life, but that of his son, Hunter (Hunter Carson), whom his brother had taken in as his own. Child actors appearing in films in 1984 make me nervous, but Carson was actually excellently ascended from the typical plot-device to an interesting character. Most notable about the film are the couple of “peep show” scenes in a seedy section of Houston. It pulverizes Travis to find Jane working there, but instead of immediately disclosing his identity through the one-way glass, he speaks with his wife — oftentimes turned around in his chair — and we discovered “what happened”. These scenes were powerful, no doubt — “I hear your voice all the time. Every man has your voice” captures Jane’s last 4 years — but were also a bit of a letdown given the build-up. Yes, tying Jane to a radiator and Jane setting their trailer on fire still didn’t feel like a satisfying pay-off. Nevertheless, Paris, Texas offers gorgeous shots of Southwest desert, the Los Angeles skyline, and a red sun setting over Houston.
The Invisible Man (2020)→ (86) The Invisible Man far exceeded my expectations. Part psychological thriller, part action-horror (in that order), and a pinch of sci-fi makes for an engaging movie that never falls victim for dumb tropes. Elisabeth Moss as Cecilia has a break-out performance that offers a range of her acting abilities. I mostly know Moss from Mad Men, a little bit of The Handmaid’s Tale, Us, and Get Him to the Greek, (no, I have not viewed nor plan to view The Kitchen), none of which even come close to showcasing her full-potential. Cecilia escapes from her boyfriend’s wildly modern and expensive house overlooking the Pacific Ocean — think the house from Parasite, but much larger and with even less character… While I knew going in that the film concerned domestic violence, I had assumed it to be much more allegorical and therefore psychological, but I was wrong. It came out this year, so I’ll refrain from spoilers, but there is very literal violence and a moment that will take your breath away. Upon escape, Cecilia seeks refuge with her friend James (Aldis Hodge), an SFPD officer, and spends the remainder of the film battling seemingly unnatural and telekinetic forces — or is it just the trauma of her abuse? The Invisible Man poses plenty of questions, but makes sure to answer them all before wrapping up an entertaining movie.
Ad Astra (2019)→ (69) A film with a huge RT discrepancy (84/40 as I write this), I can see the audience’s vitriol for the film, while still finding enough merit to award a (69), a 3 ½ star on the scale. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “space” movies frighten me far more than any conventional horror. In Ad Astra, we’re shot into the late 21st century that feels realistic enough to be a plausible future — space travel is normalized — Roy (Brad Pritt) is even charged $125 for a pillow and blanket as if he were flying Ryanair — and several countries have settlements on the Moon and even Mars. Space travel has extended to the farther reaches of the galaxy, wherein an American-led ship has been stationed outside of Neptune’s rings for 16 years, exploring the galaxy for a combined 29. Roy is the son of the captain of that expedition, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who takes the “I WANT TO BELIEVE” meme to a whole new level. The film rightly has drawn comparisons to Apocalypse Now! (which is an adaptation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). There must be a rule somewhere that after so many iterations of a property it is mandatory that one take place IN SPACE. There’s definitely plenty of space-exclusive action — the rover chase scene on the Moon was especially cool, but I think set expectations too high, as it was included in the trailer — but the film still felt contained, for lack of a better word, in all its epic vastness. This might be due to the fact we hear Roy’s voice more often in his head than spoken from his mouth. Moreover, the “world,” as in the boundaries of Earth that had extended into the galaxy, were so tantalizing, but like the tragedy of Tantalus himself, our thirst is never quenched. We get space baboons… for some reason, so there’s that. Overall, it’s a touching story with a nice message — maybe we’re all alone in this universe, and that’s OK — but let’s just say Roy’s father won’t ever be buying a t-shirt sporting: “I love someone who followed in my footsteps to Neptune and back.”
The Exorcist (1973)→ (95) Oh boy. I was a kid in the candy store putting on this film, a film that causes my Catholic-educated mother to leave the table whenever it is brought up in conversation. Although released 47 years ago, many still consider The Exorcist the scariest movie of all time, which is a testament to Linda Blair’s abilities as a child actor and the horrifying practical effects for every aspect of the possession. Besides a couple of times when Regan’s mouth didn’t perfectly match up with her possessed voice, it is incredible how well this movie holds-up in 2020. This is the gold-standard for exorcism movies, and, like Halloween with “slashers,” laid the foundation for an entire horror sub-genre. Unlike Halloween, The Exorcist itself is a fantastic movie that showcases grief, confusion, (crises) of faith, and all of the “rules” for an exorcism film. Here, we get the “possessed young girl,” the “reluctant priest,” the “seasoned priest,” the possessed speaking in languages she’d never learned/know, deep, different voice, physical pain from holy water, intense bodily functions, uncharacteristic sexual desires, unexplainable extreme drop in temperatures, uncontrollable movements (including floating in the air), personal knowledge of other characters the “host” would never know, etc. It had been a while since my last viewing, and this time I noticed how long it actually takes to get to the exorcism itself. No matter, the ultimate battle between good & evil is well worth the wait. When Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) arrives at the D.C. townhouse is one of my favorite single frames in all of cinema. If anything, the scene cuts away too quickly, taking away from the power of that moment: It’s time to fight back. A critique would be they should’ve explained/hinted at how Regan became possessed to begin with better and that the Devil could fairly easily switch hosts, a part of the film (and sub-genre in particular, when applied) I never really liked. With the indisputable best theme music in horror, The Exorcist is disturbing for all the right reasons and is a must-watch for those who can stomach it.
Jeepers Creepers (2001)→ (61) Characters referencing scary movies while being in a scary movie should be a sub-genre on its own. “You know the part in scary movies when someone does something really stupid?” says Patricia (Gena Philips) to her brother, Darry (Justin Long) right as he’s about to do something really stupid. The first 30 minutes of Jeepers Creepers is actually really entertaining, offering a pretty color-palate and legitimate suspense. Moreover, the “Creeper’s” (Jonathan Breck) cave — with one-hundred or so bodies pinned to the walls and ceiling — was overall the best part of the film. However, the director stated that due to budget and time constraints, the third act wasn’t what he originally intended. Makes sense, but need to grade what’s on the screen. The psychic character (Jezelle Gay Hartman) felt completely forced and the final showdown/monologue was dull. The “Creeper” monster itself is a combination of a vampire from Van Helsing and the Creature from the Black Lagoon — not bad. The ending was unsettling but leaves room for a sequel. And oh baby, were there sequels. Ya know why?? Because horror movies get the bag. I viewed the excellent Being John Malkovich (1999) on my last additions, which netted $19.4 mill. (box office — budget). Jeepers Creepers? $49.2 million! It’s slop alright, but just good enough to crack the recommends.
Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut (1986)→ (88) I’ve loved Little Shop of Horrors since my Middle School performed the play back in the mid-2000s. This quirky dark-comedy is filled with interesting characters, social commentary, and excellent musical numbers. The film is extremely impressive, most notably for its “Skid Row” set, which looks like it was filmed in an actual city and not a studio in London, and the man-eating plant, Audrey II (Levi Stubbs (voice)), which somehow was not computer-generated, but completely practical. Stubbs, the lead-singer of The Four Tops, is perfect, plain and simple. Watching each iteration of Audrey II (apparently 6 in total) is one of the joys of the film. Rick Moranis as our protag, Seymour, is also perfectly cast, as the down-on-his-luck florist-shop worker who discovers the peculiar looking plant in Chinatown. Ellen Greene, with her helium-pitched voice (which does take some getting used to), plays Audrey, a “skid row” resident in an abusive relationship. Greene’s got pipes she showcases in a handful of numbers. Steve Martin as Audrey’s sadist boyfriend/dentist, Orin Scrivello, is also a gem of a character. John Candy as a whacky disc-jockey and Bill Murray as a masochist (and one of Orin’s patients) make for fun cameos. LSoH is the perfect type of musical, as it has excellent numbers, but doesn’t keep the characters in sing-songy dialogue throughout. Then there’s the ending(s). The original ending to the play and the ending to the Director’s Cut are the same, which is funny and morbid. However, audiences hated this ending so much that the producers demanded it be changed if the film would ever be released — the “theatrical” ending was happy and boring. If you’re planning to watch the film, you probably have somewhat of a dark sense of humor anyway, so definitely go with the Director’s Cut. The final montage (which took up approx. ¼ of the budget) is delightful destruction — plus, the DC ending contains a comment on American consumerism (and FOMO, in today’s parlance). Little Shop of Horrors is so much fun and is the kind of musical that entertain the less musical-inclined viewer.
The Last House on the Left (1972)→ (59) The film that inspired the name for one of my favorite podcasts (The Last Podcast on the Left) is a disturbing exploitation film that doesn’t have enough redeeming qualities to crack the recommends. Most of the movie is a horror-show to the fullest extent, following two friends, Mari (Sandra Peabody) and Phyllis (Lucy Grantham), as a trip to the city gets derailed when they stop to purchase drugs from a strung-out youth (Marc Sheffler). What ensues is a tale of kidnapping, rape, humiliation, desecration, and murder. In his directorial debut, Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) teases the viewer with liberation for the two girls, only to put the kybosh on it in an anti-climactic way. Up to this point, the film is tolerable because you expect some sort of revenge pay-off from Mari’s parents (Eleanor Shaw, Richard Towers), but what you get is an absolutely ridiculous “plan” the two concoct that is illogical and downright asinine. Some the scenes don’t even make sense. For example, Mari’s body is moving, her eyes are open, and then her father just declares: “She’s dead.” Like… are ya sure? After considering using a hammer and some other tools on his workbench, dad just sorta “discovers” his shotgun, as if it wasn’t sitting in his basement for the exact situation when 3 homicidal maniacs were in his house. Lastly, the entire subplot of the bumbling sheriff and deputy could’ve been cut, thereby giving more attention to the only plot that mattered. The redeeming qualities are the performances from David A. Hess and Fred Lincoln (both escaped murder-rapists) and the lighthearted, at times silly, soundtrack. Even if you’re into “torture porn,” I don’t think this film has enough of that to satisfy the… itch. With a coherent ending, I might’ve been able to recommend The Last House on the Left, but that’s not what we got. Skip it.
Halloween (1978)→ (76) What Halloween created — as the nexus for an entire, extremely lucrative and culturally significant sub-genre — is more important than the film itself. (More on that in a second.) After much deliberation, I’m giving the theme-song a tie for 2nd best in the horror category of all time: tied with Suspiria, behind only The Exorcist. The plot is straight-forward and enticing (insane-asylum (you could say that in the 70s) escapee pursues reign of terror on his leafy, suburban hometown), but some of the performances are painfully cliché, which I know is part of the charm, but it was still hard to watch at times. Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, in her first and probably most well-known role, is our heroine, even if it felt at times like she was missing from the screen for far too long. Some of the creepiest shots were of Michael Myers (Nick Castle) donning his stretched-out Captain Kirk mask in broad-daylight. The film really only hits you with the scares in the last 20 minutes, where teenagers start dropping like flies. Halloween changed the game. So many of the tropes you know and love and were explained in meta-detail in Scream and The Cabin in the Woods got their (American) start with Halloween. The “rules,” some of which were taken from Hitchcock and Italian “Film Giallos,” include: don’t go anywhere alone, don’t have sex, be a female (who doesn’t have sex) and become the “virgin survivor,” and the killer is never dead/defeated — sequels beget sequels. It’s definitely not the best horror, but is a classic for a reason, providing us with “killer POV,” gravity-defying knife-play, and one of the indisputable members on the horror “Mt. Rushmore” in Michael Myers.
Friday the 13th (1980)→ (72) Jason Vorhees (Ari Lehman here) is cemented in horror-villain canon, but you wouldn’t think that from watching Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th. For most of the isolation-location, teenager pick-off film, you get “Killer POV,” a couple of shots of arms and weapons, and the ultra-parodied “ch ch ch ch ha ha ha ha” instead of the the retro hockey-mask wearing, machete slicing, vengeful psychopath. While Friday the 13th ups the gore where Halloween is much more subdued, a couple of slow-motion effects and poorly choreographed fight-scenes (I’m using the term liberally here) teeter on laugh-out-loud poor. I’ve been especially attracted to the setting, as Camp Crystal Lake (Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Hardwick, NJ) is located only 15 miles from my family’s Lake House I grew up visiting in Sandyston. The film follows a bunch of the “rules” set down in Halloween, laying it on heavy with the “NEVER HAVE SEX” rule, don’t go anywhere alone, the “virgin” survivor discovering the bodies of all her fallen comrades during “the chase,” making moronic decisions (hide in the cupboard) during said “chase,” the killer is still alive (sequels, baby), but added a new one with the “ALWAYS trust the hick-ish locals that warn you NOT to do something/go somewhere”; they’re always right. There was also a nice “bait and switch” with our protag. It was like once 1980 hit, we needed more gorecore, but that didn’t do enough to get me past the low-70s. It’s something you should throw on between October 24th and 31st every 4–7 years.
Being John Malkovich (1999)→ (91) Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are just a good duo. Back when original movies were still being made — that magical cinematic year of 1999 — Kaufman wrote this jaw-droppingly interesting script that gives us the gem, Being John Malkovich. I first viewed it years ago, and remembered the main premise, but had completely forgotten about the love-triangle (quadrangle?) between the characters. Upon a 2020 viewing, it felt prescient in the commentary on the omnipresence of live-streaming and reality-TV — they even make a note of the experience being 15 minutes inside of Malkovich (John Malkovich), your 15 minutes of fame. But focusing only on this feels superficial, as Kaufman’s work centers on deeper concepts, always, herein being consciousness, self-control, destiny, and reincarnation. What I love about BJM is that there’s really no one to root for. Craig (John Cusack), Lotte (Cameron Diaz), and Maxine (Catherine Keener) are all pretty shitty in their own ways — Lotte being the least shitty, but not the most sympathetic either. There’s a lot here to discuss for a pocket review, so I’ll only address the reincarnation concept, which I actually think could’ve been expanded on more and introduced earlier. It’s an area I’ve been super interested in recently, but here it felt sloppy; all of the sudden, a bunch of elderly individuals are going to live inside Malko’s head… together? Will they control him, like Craig does? I also didn’t completely understand how Craig stayed inside for months/years. I loved how the puppeteering became a larger part of the plot and not just a way to show Craig is unique. There’s also commentary here on the privilege of the celebrity-class. As Craig is inside of Malko, his skills as a puppeteer have remained the same, but because he’s now a well-known celebrity, he “reinvents” himself as a master puppeteer and given credit for reviving the art form — when Craig (inside Malko) tells his agent he wants to quit acting for puppeteering, his agent responds, “Okay. Great. Fine. Poof! You’re a puppeteer.” (para.) Cannot help but compare it to the recent Chrissy Teigen-Alison Roman spat. Other notes: The “Many Malkovichs” scene is unforgettable, Keener was really good in her diabolical role, and John Cusack makes the same facial expressions as his sister, Joan. It’s such an interesting and original film, I’d think any sort of cinephile has viewed it already, but Being John Malkovich is a must-see for pretty much anyone.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)→ (55) By far the largest RT (99/20) difference I’ve ever seen, I find myself near the middle of Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but short of the recommends. The critics’ reviews feel disingenuous, focusing instead on a hyper-political topic (teen abortion) than the substance of the film itself. The audience, on the other hand, sometimes takes the other side of the issue into the rating, or just calls the film boring, boring, boring. From the beginning, every man in this film is either sentient garbage (classmate who calls Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) a slut while she’s on stage, guy taking out penis on the subway, guy who kisses their hands when they turn in their cash-register money at work, her step-father/mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Eggold)) or is a more moderate piece of shit (guy who hits on Skylar (Talia Ryder) and guy (Théodore Pellerin) who uses their financial situation to get some action). The male = evil theme was so heavy-handed, I even considered if this was a satire; if anything, it turned out to be more like a documentary. NRSA could’ve really benefitted from some nuance, as there is a tender story here about a girl who travels from Central Pennsylvania to NYC get an abortion because she’d need a parent’s signature to do so in the Keystone State — although we never find out who the father is, this moment and one other indicate it’s possibly her step-father/mother’s boyfriend and it definitely was not consensual. Autumn and Skylar’s relationship (they’re cousins) deserved more fleshing-out, which suffered from the entire film’s lack of dialogue. Autumn was in severe emotional pain, which comes across especially well in the film’s namesake scene, wherein a Planned Parenthood social worker (Kelly Chapman) asks Autumn a series of questions that can be answered 1 of 4 ways: Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always. There is also a touching scene wherein Autumn holds Skylar’s hand from behind a pillar, the latter making-out with a guy so he will fund their trip home. It’s a moment of solidarity during yet another sacrifice of self-esteem. However, as a movie instead of a documentary, there was very little plot and, as many of the RT “audience” reviews stated, boring, boring, boring.
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019)→ (57) The collections of short stories that scared the bejesus out of me as a child fell well-wide of the mark in the movie. I had been excited for Guillermo del Toro’s involvement in the film, as that usually entails stellar practical effects, but the parts that were good were far and few between the mundane story. I had anticipated Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to be cut up into vignettes (like a horror version of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) and this had actually kept me from viewing the film — looking back, it probably would’ve benefited from five-six 20 minute stories that really built the tension and delivered on the scares. That being said, the way they decided to connect the monsters with an old book magically receiving additions via blood-ink wasn’t terrible. About those monsters, which is what we came for, the “Big Toe Corpse,” played by the delightfully terrifying Javier Botet, probably delivered with the most suspenseful scene, the “Pale Lady” (Mark Steger) was a huge letdown, and the “jangly man” (Troy James/Andrew Jackson) was just annoying — and overly CGI. The ending was… weird. Is there gonna be a sequel? Is anyone asking for a sequel? I can’t recommend this movie, not even for the nostalgia factor, and suggest just revisiting the books.
The Vatican Tapes (2015)→ (36) If you have concerns for complications from the COVID vaccine, add “satanic possession” to that list. In what might be the dumbest way someone gets possessed (and eventually becomes the anti-Christ) in any exorcism movie I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of exorcism movies — Angela (Olivia Taylor Dudley) becomes host to the Lord of Darkness after slicing her finger while cutting her birthday cake and receiving a serum in the hospital; I don’t remember which malpractice tort “causes patient to become possessed” falls under from law school. I was surprised because The Vatican Tapes actually starts with a pretty cool opening montage and then shows us Djimon Hounsou as Vicar Imani paired with Peter Andersson and his un-placeable Northern European accent as Cardinal Bruun. You’d expect these two, who are watching recordings of obviously possessed American, Angela, from Rome to jet-set to the States and start kicking some demonic ass. Well, you’d be wrong. Instead, these two aren’t seen for quite some time and instead, we see the weird story of Angela, boyfriend, Pete (John Patrick Amedori), and Dad (Dougray Scott), cope with her possession in awkwardly acted and paced scenes. When it’s time to finally bring in the calvary (religious pun FTW), we only get Bruun, who delivers one of the dumbest lines I’ve ever heard in an exorcism movie: “Sometimes, we must move away from God.” … Excuse me? You’re a priest, performing an exorcism, and you don’t want the help of Jesus Christ?? **Spoiler Alert** the exorcism lasts like 7 minutes, it fails, Angela is the literal anti-Christ, etc. etc. etc. Some moments were okay (dislocating joints while in restraints, pretty standard), others were just weird (spitting up 3 eggs, which forms the Holy Trinity??), and Djimon is in one more scene towards the end just to make the viewer feel like they weren’t completely swindled. The Vatican Tapes is very bad movie that I cannot even recommend to the exorcism aficionado.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)→ (85) Undeniably a staple of 1980s horror that helped define the “slasher” sub-genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street operates on a different level with its scares than it does with its acting and dialogue, and that’s okay. The plot of the film offers a nice change from the masked “psychotic killer” trope, even if he is still killing promiscuous teens, and instead gives us Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), an undead, flesh-melting, child-killer bent on revenge… in our dreams! Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) turns out to be our main protag, after we get a little bait-and-switch with Tina (Amanda Wyss). Unfortunately, there were more than a few moments in the film that made me feel like I was watching an after-school special, but ANoES more than makes up for it with iconic horror-scenes, including, but not limited to, “Freddy’s claw in the bathtub,” Johnny Depp getting sucked into, then exploded out of, his bed, and the handful that take place in the nightmarish boiler-room. What knocked it down a few points was the ending — was this an Inception thing? Layers of dreams? I’m not sure, but Nancy’s mom (Ronee Blakley) getting yanked through the window was comically bad, which is surprising considering how well-done much of the practical effects are throughout the rest of the film. So, ignore the fact that A Nightmare on Elm Street takes place in Ohio but you can see palm trees, and enjoy a piece of “slasher” canon before Halloween.
Crazy Heart (2009)→ (94) They say you begin to look like your pet after a while, but I think that can also apply to cars. In Crazy Heart, “Bad Blake” (Jeff Bridges), resembles his rusted, clunky, beat-up truck. I love this movie and the bourbon-slathered trip we take with “Bad,” which makes the viewer think we’re going to follow him on a redemption tour across the country, only to have him suffer a car-wreck, centering the protag in Santa Fe and Houston, his home. Santa Fe is where he meets Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a journalist about half his age, whose relationship quickly turns personal from professional. From the beginning, we know that “Bad’s” (real name Otis) drinking is going to be a problem, to what extent, we have to sit and wait; don’t fall for the red herrings. Jeff Bridges really sang all of his songs, and while I’m not a fan of country music, especially not stadium, contemporary stuff, I remember after first viewing this film in 2010 researching Ryan Bingham — an “Americana” artist who plays in one of “Bad’s” local bands — and still listening to his music a decade later. Throughout the film, “Bad” is composing bits and pieces of a song he eventually titles “The Weary Kind,” which causes Jean to break into tears at both its beauty and annoyed that someone can create something so beautiful seemingly without even trying. Such is “Bad Blake”. A man who I want to grab and shake by the shoulders to start making the right decisions because, even at 57 (something he repeats), he’s still got the talent — this is after I give the man a glass of water, as he seemingly drinks nothing but bourbon and soaks his shirt in sweat during each local show. Pride, one of the more complicated deadly sins, is what derails “Bad” from securing himself to the healthy track of a stable income and notoriety. The climax felt unfair — the lesson is that your reputation is a whole darn lot in life. The ending is wonderful. Crazy Heart is a fantastic movie about betterment, self-fulfillment, pride, and addiction. Anyone can enjoy the film — if you love country music, it’s an added bonus.
The Devil All the Time (2020)→ (74) This awesomely titled film (same as the novel) grabbed my attention with an intriguing cast and “Southern Gothic” setting — I soon learned it takes place in Ohio and West Virginia, but same difference. Unfortunately, we don’t spend enough time with the characters to fully develop who they are, which likely lends work like this to thrive in novels instead of 2 ½ hour movies. Instead, many of the characters feel one-dimensional with the exception being Arvin (Tom Holland), who is our main protag. For instance, Robert Pattinson as Rev. Teagardin is terrible from the get-go instead of reeling us in before revealing his awfulness. He also gives a clinic on gaslighting, a snippet of a sermon, and not much else. Bill Skarsgård character, Willard, gets a little more developed but also takes a sudden turn from not-much-of-a-believer to committing a stomach-churning act of sacrifice. The film doesn’t shy away from the “Gothic” genre, with fiery preachers (spiders are substituted here with the more commonly used snakes), decrepit houses, sexual taboos mixed with violence, and more than one thing getting crucified — I did not say “human” on purpose. While I don’t always agree with the line from Adaptation, “And God Help You If You Use Voiceover in Your Work, My Friends!” It definitely did not work in The Devil All the Time. I appreciate the decision to use the author in the film, however, a cameo would’ve been a much better directorial decision than the voiceover. The many threads tie up nicely by the end of the film, but I’m comfortable with my (74). As of 9/20/2020, the RT score is (65/83), so I’m right in the middle of the critics and audience. I can recommend this film for gothic aficionados like myself, but if you’re coming for 2+ hours of Pattinson or Skarsgård, you’re gonna be disappointed.
Munich (2005)→ (77) The theme of Munich can be summed up in one line spoken by a PLO operative to an under-cover Avner Kaufman (Eric Bana), “Home is everything.” After 11 Israeli athletes are kidnapped and ultimately murdered during the Munich Olympics, Kaufman and Co. embark on an ass-kicking, continental-tour of the “Black September” masterminds behind the attack. Mossad doesn’t mess around — or does Kaufman work for Mossad? There’s an entire scene dedicated to Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush) belaboring the point that Kaufman technically doesn’t work for Mossad or for the Israeli government. Nevertheless, Kaufman and his group of Jewish assassins jet-set to many, many cities throughout Europe and the Near East to hunt their targets. While it was nice to see the gang shake out the cobwebs during their early attempts — think of a high school football team just not clicking on offense during the first game — they become killing-machines by the end. They’re so good at killing, in fact, that Kaufman begins to question his morals and retire as a family-man in Brooklyn. The film’s 163-minute runtime does not work to its favor. The middle is choppy, with practically every other scene taking place in a new city to meet with this informant or murder that Palestinian. Part of the fun with movies is that you get transported to new countries and cities with the cut of a scene, but Spielberg overdoes it here. Moreover, there’s this strange relationship Kaufman has with his French informant’s (Mathieu Amalric) father (Michael Lonsdale) that was completely unnecessary. There’s this bucolic, provincial home in the French countryside where a guy lives who knows the whereabouts of seemingly every terrorist and terrorist hunter in Europe? Cool. I’d like to know more about the operation, not turn it into some father-son relationship for “Papa” and Kaufman. It was interesting to see the CIA actually foil a Mossad attack, showing there are more actors at work than meets the eye. I also must note that Munich has one of the strangest sex scenes I’ve ever watched. Wet like he just burst out of a pool, Kaufman is just… just plowing his wife while having a vision of the 1972 Olympic attack — a good example of why the “sex scene” is largely gone from movies. Everyone was killing everyone else in the 70s, and Munich does an entertaining job of showcasing a sliver of that violence. But the biggest takeaway is what it means to belong somewhere; what it means to be “home”. Kaufman’s mother (Gila Almagor) says towards the end, “We have a place on Earth at last.” For some, they must ask themselves, “It that a place worth dying for?”
Judy (2019)→ (85) One of the classic — likely original — tragic stories of American childhood fame, I first learned about Judy Garland’s life on the excellent show, Too Young to Die. Judy’s (Renée Zellweger) mother formulated an amphetamine-heavy daily cocktail that’s lasted her into her late forties. You’re not alone if you think the past few years have been musician-biopic heavy, but Judy is absolutely worth the watch for an outstanding lead-performance and lesson on self-destruction, redemption, and self-destruction again. Like Rocketman (also an (85) from me), I give a ton of credit to Zellweger for actually singing the songs herself. What I appreciated more here however is that unlike many biopics that play-out chronologically, Judy starts at the last couple of years of her life with flashbacks to her traumatic childhood on numerous studio sets. This decision allowed the film not to feel rushed and become more intimate with our protag — this is opposed to the choppy Bohemian Rhapsody (77), wherein Malek, understandably, had to lip-sync the tunes. While you know that Judy is going to implode, perhaps several times, you never know when which keeps you engaged. It’s a perfect example of star-power — a blessed, select few of us, no matter what’s going on in their social lives, no matter how many competing chemicals are coursing through their bloodstream, can just turn it on when they hit the stage; that was Judy Garland. I also loved her relationship with the gay couple (Andy Nyman and Phil Dunster), whom I’m uncertain are based on real characters or act as a microcosm of what she meant to that community — nevertheless, it’s touching and makes us want to root for Judy. “You won’t forget me, will you?” she asks the London audience during her swan song. Never, Judy. We never will.
Adult World (2014)→ (78) Sure, there are plenty of films concerning the post-graduate, early twentysomething with a worthless degree, but Adult World offers a fun, funny, and at times endearing take on the sub-genre, even if Amy (Emma Roberts) can be painfully obnoxious. I had first seen this film around 2015–2016 and remember enjoying it — unlike most films of the niche genre that have the protag move to NYC or L.A. to make their art, Adult World keeps us in snowy Syracuse, NY, where Amy graduated from the eponymous university. With an RT (54/38), I don’t understand the hate. Amy is a stand-in for the entitled 21st-century college graduate who was told — by parents, professors, awards, SAT scores — that they were special. This is literally the climax of the movie, where Amy throws a temper-tantrum in front of her (prior) mentor and (prior) poetic wunderkind, Rat Billings (John Cusack). Cloris Leachman plays a minor role as the pornography store owner and Evan Peters plays the store’s manager and vacillating love-interest for Amy, who has a surprising arch himself. But the most notable character has to be Rubia (Armando Riesco), a trans woman who begrudgingly befriends Amy and has ¾ of the film’s laugh-out-loud funny lines. Rubia is everything Amy is not: experienced and a graduate of the “School of Hard Knocks” (or maybe SUNY-Cortland). What Rat does to Amy is beyond cruel, however, which she seems to forgive way too easily. Also, Amy makes a huge deal about meeting the poet, who is also a resident of Syracuse and professor at the school from which she just majored in poetry? He teaches a class there, but she has to chase him down in a parking lot after a signing? If Rat was literally her favorite (living) poet, I assumed she would’ve signed up for his class or at least met him during office hours — albeit, Rat Billings does not seem like the kind of professor to keep office hours. Adult World is about that time of your life when the idealist artiste is still fully alive within you and hasn’t been obliterated by the crushing gravity of the Real World, yet.
Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum (2018)→ (90) While the plot is unoriginal — a found-footage film about young adults investigating a haunted asylum — Gonjiam exceeded my expectations, altered the sub-genre, and had some of the best final 25 mins of horror I’ve ever seen. The alterations: instead of a Blair Witch Project shaky cam or Paranormal Activity hidden cams, much of the film is shot through personal cameras attached to each paranormal investigator — there were some hidden cams, but they really didn’t add anything to the scares. Moreover, these mostly twentysomethings weren’t just conducting the investigation as a passion project, but as a revenue-generating live-stream. Even though this cast of Koreans takes a page out of the White People Guidebook to Horror Movies by immediately splitting up (and conducting the investigation in the first place), the scares are at a minimum for the first 60 minutes. It’s suspenseful — one of, if not the best, tone for a movie — but I became concerned the film was going down the Paranormal Activity route with largely invisible happenings; fun, but not what I would’ve expected nor wanted from a Korean horror. Boy, was I wrong. When Gonjiam gets going you wish it’d go back — “jibberish girl”™ (Park Ji-hyun) is nightmarishly creepy. I don’t think many have seen this one (it only has 11 critic reviews on RT (91)) and it’s October, when many fill their horror quotas for the year, so I won’t go into much more detail, but this film benefits by refraining from cheap scares, building suspense, and creating a realistic cast of characters who get in too deep. (You’ll find this last part clever after you watch the movie.)
Seven Samurai (1956)→ (93) Generally considered one of the greatest films of all time, Seven Samurai spins the American Western for feudal Japan while also laying the foundation for dozens of films over the next 70 years. Boiled down, the film concerns a village that faces annual ruthless attacks from bandits, which depletes them of food and women. The first chunk of the film focuses on two villages, Mosuke (Yoshio Kosugi) and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari) convincing ronin (masterless samurai) named Kambei (Takashi Shimura) to aid them in their struggle. However, the poor villagers cannot offer anything except for food, so Kambei must find honorable warriors who will fight for duty and glory over money — this kicks-off five consecutive “you son-of-a-bitch, I’m in” moments. According to Wikipedia, Kurosawa had originally planned to name the film Six Samurai but decided six stoic warriors was too bland, so he added the character of Kikuchiyo, played by the incredible Toshiro Mifune, to add some un-predictableness, comedy, and an entire subplot that comments on who a samurai is and what he stands for. Kikuchiyo, the most recognizable character from the film, wields the most recognizable symbol — an oversized katana that exemplifies his outsider status. A bull in a china-shop, Mifune showcases his acting prowess just as much here as he does in Throne of Blood (and likely many other films). Apparently, Mifune was supposed to play Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), but the Kikuchiyo character addition opened it up to Miyaguchi, who was excellent as the stealthy, totally badass sword-master of few words. The last hour and a half — which is the length of many full movies — is just fantastic filmmaking. It’s high-stakes intensity with nothing but practical effects; it’s the 1950s, after all. I did find it unrealistic that the bandits would just continue the same tactics even though they weren’t working early on. Kambei’s final words, “In the end we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us,” followed by the shot of the burial mounds is a somber ending that sheds light on the true nature of ronin.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum (2019)→ (86) Third time I’ll be saying this, but the John Wick franchise does action right. While Chapter 3 is scored slightly lower than the first (88) and the second (89), is still is enjoyable to the final scene — a final scene that somehow blends into a logical 4th installment. As if we hadn’t seen every way to kill someone in the first two movies, we open with John (Keanu Reeves) in a museum lined with weapons from different cultures — basically an assassin’s playground — as he officially becomes a marked-man in an NYC where everyone seemingly is a killer. He’s killed a couple with a pencil, so it’s only natural that his first kill here is with a book. Naturally, John flees the city on horseback, seeking refuge with the Russian Mafia whom he hopes will spirit him to greener pastures. (Here, we learn John is Belarusian, although I could’ve sworn he was Albanian?) Typical of sequels, we get a more expansive view of this world, this time heading to Casablanca and the Sahara Desert. One of my favorite parts of these movies is how different “Continentals” dot the map, the Moroccan one possessing its own Maghrebi flair. However, the big Casablanca fight scene felt a little too dragged out and was one of the few times I was bored — I also found myself yelling at my TV, “STOP HURTING DOGS!” There’s an interesting Bedouin-yakuza moment, which did give the impression that this was a side quest, but also provided insight into how the assassin network hierarchy operates. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is great fun and is an excellent addition to a franchise that shows no signs of slowing down.
Lake Mungo (2008)→ (72) This documentary-style, home-footage, horror-drama sucks you in, but doesn’t keep you there, despite the run-time of only 89 minutes. Lake Mungo disarms the viewer by initially showing how a family deals with the grief of losing their teenage daughter (Alice Palmer) to a supposed drowning accident in the titular lake. It then takes a turn into a murder mystery chock-full of a motionless corpse in the background of the mirror — every other seen felt like Alice was just out of sight of the Palmer family, only for the next scene to be them realizing she was present after watching recordings. There is an interesting twist with the brother (Martin Sharpe) damaging the credibility of the supernatural with his artistic tampering, but the real juicy subplot — consisting of the man (Scott Terrill) for whom Alice was a babysitter — barely received any attention. I really think the short run-time hurt this film, as at least an extra 30 minutes could’ve fleshed out so much more about how Alice perished. It really didn’t offer much closure. Moreover, the mid/late 2000s grainy phone footage gets tedious. It still has its blanket-raised-to-nose moments and is a fun date-night watch, but given the (94) from critics on RT, I was expecting more.
Harriet (2019)→ (79) Concerning one of the most badass people in American History, Harriet is a solid biopic that details the abolition movement in the northernmost slave-states and the hub of freedom in Philadelphia. I liked how one of the first scenes was the black preacher (Vondie Curtis-Hall) reciting the passage from Colossians used throughout the slave-states to legitimize owning people from the porch of the “Big House”. If that weren’t enough, we also get to see how even the very, very little legal redress the slaves had could be ended in an instant. In this case, Harriet (Cynthia Erivo) — at this point, still going by her slave name, “Minty” — presented a contract to her owner wherein she, her sisters, and mother (Vanessa Bell Calloway) should’ve been freed years ago, is destroyed on the spot: poof. Harriet’s escape to the North, considered a suicide mission, is not only successful, but even more impressive after she’s able to do it several more times — at first, to meet with her husband, a freedman named John (Zachary Momoh). After discovering John has already taken a new wife, believing Harriet had perished on her escape, she makes the decision to become a full-time slave rescuer. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet, much to her chagrin, flees to Canada only to (I think) quickly return to the states and take up slave rescuing again — this time, all the way to Canada. One of my issues with the film is the passage of time. A few dates would help the viewer understand if she was in this city or that country for a few weeks, months, years. I also wish they had focused less on her relationship with her old slave owner, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), and more on her role within the abolition movement itself. While it was shocking to find black freedmen acting as slave-catchers (Omar Dorsey and Henry Hunter Hall) for the white landowners, the constant run-ins with Gideon felt forced. Lastly, while I can appreciate the (very literal) “white passing” scene, it was over-the-top that a mixed-race, female slave could convince a bridge-full of angry whites that she was the son of a slave-owner just passin’ through. The abolition movement in antebellum America is one of the most interesting periods in US history and Harriet is an enjoyable addition to the genre.
Quarantine (2008)→ (65) Yes, REC, the Spanish original, is better. A one-sentence summary: A news reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) follows an L.A. fire department to an apartment-building whose residents become infected with a rabies-like virus, turning them into flesh-craving zombies. The found-footage style at first is exciting but becomes nausea-inducing when the shit-hits-the-fan. My main issue is that long after the residents — who by this time have been forcibly quarantined inside of the building (like, try and escape and a sniper puts one between the eyes, quarantined) — have determined what the heck is going on, they still make really, really stupid decisions. The single camera-man style shooting did make for some cool feature, however, like when he (Steve Harris) uses his camera as a weapon to smash in an infected’s face. Lastly, the most detrimental part of the film is the ending, which felt like a bland version of what we get in REC, void of the soul. Quarantine still lands itself in the recommends for being an entertaining zombie-thriller, but when you remake a critically acclaimed film, you’re already operating at a deficit and need to deliver.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020)→ (84) Stellar performances by Jesse Plemmons and Jessie Buckley (and Toni Colette and David Thewlis) turn a psychological thriller that doesn’t have much of a plot into an edge-of-your-seat watch. I’m Thinking of Ending Things sets itself of so the viewer believes at any scene, at any moment, the entire story could take a drastic turn. This is a Charlie Kaufman film — the same guy who directed Synecdoche, New York — so structure or linear time is not important. However, ITET is adapted from a novel of the same name (a novel I have not read) so I have no idea how much of the film is taken from the author’s work or from Kaufman’s brain. I’m a fan of movies where two or more people just kinda… talk, so long as it’s done well. The “young woman” (Buckley), who goes by many names throughout the film, is bright, witty, and artistic, but also a scientist depending on which girl she is at that time… I think. I’m writing this review without reading any articles concerning the film, so my assessment could be off from what others are saying. The plot for most of the film is the “young woman” and Jake (Plemmons) taking a trip from a small city/town to Jake’s parents’ in the country. Two separate car scenes must’ve taken up at least ¼ of the film, but they are woven with existential conversation, pop culture references, and even an ice cream parlor jingle. I caught the references, which were very enjoyable — I happened to have watched A Woman Under the Influence a few months ago, but considering it’s from 1974, I’m assuming many have not — and was waiting for the moment when “young woman” was going to realize Jake could hear her thoughts. Where ITET tapered off for me was in the final quarter: I hate random dance numbers. I hate them. I hate them. I especially hated this one. Why put it there? Why then and there? At that time? Around the midway point I wrote down (yes, I take notes as I watch) “please don’t be stupid”. Well, the ending was stupid. Perhaps those smarter than I will concoct some interpretation on why the ending was not only not stupid, but ingenious. At first, I thought this was a film centered on “gaslighting” taken to the extreme. Then it was merely a man peeking (at times, literally) into imaginary lives of his own that never materialized. Then maybe it was all in Jake’s head and the “young woman” was a recurring figment of his imagination? The film lacked both climax and closure. The very solid (84) score is more reflective of the acting and tension that I’m Thinking of Ending Things provides; had it had even a decent ending, it would easily have cracked a (90).
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)→ (89) I appreciated this film much more in 2020 than I had upon my first viewing back in the late-Aughts. A visually stunning movie, from the fashionable fascist uniforms (think Spanish Nazis) to the incredible practical effects that bring Guillermo del Toro’s magical realism to life. The most recognizable character is the titular Pan (or Faun, Spanish title being: El laberinto del fauno) played by Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adán. The other noteworthy, magical character — more like something out of a child’s nightmare or Brothers Grimm story — is “The Pale Man” (also, Doug Jones). While eyeballs in your hands somehow overcame practical evolution, the Pale Man’s singular scene is haunting and pertinent to our protag’s plot. Ofelia (Ivanna Baquero) embarks on a three-part quest in the universe that exists outside of her reality; a reality that includes living in a barracks filled with Francoist soldiers and a new evil step-father (Sergi López) hunting rebels in central Spain 5 years after the Spanish Civil War. I think the first time I viewed the movie, I was too interested in the fantastical elements and didn’t pay enough attention to the excellent story taking place in real life. It is a story of resistance, cruelty, and sacrifice. Our human villain, Captain Vidal, Ofelia’s new step-father, engages in the sorts of evil tactics you’d expect from a fascist captain hunting rebels in the mountains of central Spain. The ending was a little weird, as Ofelia being a literal princess was, for some reason, surprising to me. However, her final test was the perfect bow on this gripping film.
The Trip to Greece (2020)→ (66) So, here we have the 4th installment of the “The Trip to…” universe, which offers just enough chuckles to make it into the recommends, but is definitely not for everyone. My fiancée even asked, “are you just watching two old guys talk?” Yeah, kinda, and do impressions. (The two old guys here are Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing fictionalized versions of themselves.) This installment may be the most impression-laden of the bunch, where besides the waiters and chefs giving brief explanations of the food, there is little else about Coogan’s actual work. A huge letdown was the dismissive conversation concerning the ending of The Trip to Spain, wherein it is believed Coogan is kidnapped by Islamic Fundamentalists in the Moroccan desert. This could’ve been a chance for an entertaining flashback or story about how Coogan escaped their clutches — maybe they weren’t terrorists or maybe he used his British wit to let their guard down, I don’t know, but anything would’ve been better than just saying, “Oh, remember that time you were lost in Morocco?” (para.) Lastly, the shoe-horned storyline about his father’s death felt out of place and just a reason to add some drama to a drama-less movie. Just stick with the “Two witty, ageing men, gallivant across a beautiful European country, holding random discussions and eating delicious food.” The Trip to Greece lands itself in my recommends for the vast majority of the runtime that follows this formula. Unfortunately, the ending didn’t feel like the conclusion of Steve and Rob’s saga, which naturally sets up The Trip to Germany, The Trip to France, or, God-willing, The Trip to Belarus (despite what the move poster says).
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)→ (85) I miss Mister Rogers. Coincidentally, his show, which touched the lives of millions of children ended exactly 19 years to the day that I’m writing this: August 31, 2001. I didn’t realize until the opening credits, but subconsciously it appears, I had been nervous about anyone portraying the man that as close to perfection as we’ve seen in a while — a sentiment that Fred Rogers disliked and refuted. Well, Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers far exceeded my expectations, as I found myself forgetting I wasn’t watching the real guy on the screen. However, this is not a biopic of Mr. Rogers, and instead, the plot concerns a jaded journalist, Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), his work-life balance, and the fractured relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). You can probably see where this is going, but the storyline doesn’t feel played-out and the lessons that Mr. Rogers is teaching to children can still be applied to even the most cynical New Yorker. I really enjoyed the miniature set pieces of NYC and NJ that mimicked the ones from the real show that transitioned from scene to scene. The surreal parts when Lloyd is on the show himself were also a nice touch. Rightly so, they had to get in a few of Mr. Rogers’ most well-known topics, including his famous line “I just can’t imagine eating anything with a mother,” responding to whether he is a vegetarian and Fred laughing off questions concerning his alleged stint as a dead-eye sniper in the military — something I had thought myself until watching the doc, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I’d assume A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood would be required viewing for anyone who had Mr. Rogers in their childhood, and is still a lovely watch if they didn’t.
The Founder (2016)→ (86) When I had first viewed The Founder back in 2017, the cheeky title had gone completely over my head. Ray Kroc, superbly played by Michael Keaton, saw a vision for something big, something American Big, the only problem was, he didn’t have any rights to it. Richard “Dick” (Nick Offerman) and Maurice “Mac” (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald, had created a family-friendly restaurant out in San Bernadino, California, that only wanted to use real ingredients, was opposed to “crass commercialism,” and was hesitant on expansion because of the lack of oversight. It’s difficult to imagine a world where 5 McDonald’s locations in Cali and 1 in Arizona was too much for the Micky D’s bros — there are eleven within ten miles of my suburban NJ home today — but the true founders were legitimately concerned about their name getting a bad reputation. Biopics catch a lot of flak, often for good reason, but this one absolutely does it right. It gives just enough information about who Ray Kroc is before discovering McDonald’s, what the state of “fast food” was in the mid-1950s, and how one man’s monster is another man’s “American Dream”. The drama feels legitimate and not “Hollywoodified,” keeping it all in the family and in the business without a dull moment or wasted scene. *Spoiler Alert* Ray Kroc is a bastard man who refused to uphold one of the most sacred bonds of American business: The Handshake Agreement. *Spoiler Alert cont.* He opened up a location directly across the street from the brothers’ (true) original — forcing them out of business — and stated that his location in Des Plaines, Illinois was the original, far, far away from the California desert.
The Land That Time Forgot (1975)→ (41) They need to get to the dinosaurs earlier, it’s why we’re here. For the first 20–30 mins, it was a continual back and forth over who controlled the submarine: the Germans or the British (with the aid of a swashbuckling, American (Doug McClure)). The descent into this land from which time is no longer counting was actually pretty cool, marked with the quick introduction of the plesiosaur. My hopes were pretty high at this point, thinking to myself, “We finally made it. Let the wild rumpus start!” And while overall I did enjoy the low-budget dinosaurs, the story and acting falls apart, leaving me checking the remainder of the run-time on several occasions. A notable exception to the dinosaurs are the pterodactyls, which were indefensible in their low-quality; neither their mouths nor wings moved, as if an invisible hand was carrying them through the air. It felt like a movie that came out closer to 1955 than 1975, but the little charm it had quickly wore off. The ending also left me scratching my head, as I couldn’t understand why everyone in the submarine was like… dying? Considering that the 2009 remake of the film has a (Not Rated/9) on RT, maybe TLTTF should remain as a novel.
Nightcrawler (2014)→ (95) This is a story of when Bad meets Evil — decide for yourself who is who. Typically included with Zodiac (which I gave a (90)) and Prisoners (95), as thriller-like, neo-noir-ish films in which Gyllenhall plays a/the protag, he gives his best performance here as Louis “Lou” Bloom. What he does with the character, which easily could’ve been played a straight-laced creeper with a dark side, blew me away. Even cruising 100mph through L.A., Bloom keeps his composure while simultaneously lecturing his intern, Rick (Riz Ahmed), on maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity, establishing goals, and increasing your value when salary-bargaining, amongst other tidbits of life advice you’d expect to hear in the conference room at the Sheraton by the airport. You see, Lou works as a “stringer,” or a photojournalist who arrives at the scene of any news breaking story, and in the Los Angeles of 2014, as is the case in every city or town across America, the more violent, the more cultural overlap — the phrase “urban crime spreading into the suburbs” is used a few times — the quicker it can make it onto the air, the more lucrative the clip. Lou forms a business relationship that soon shifts into a sexual-control relationship with Nina (Rene Russo), the morning news director at a local station. “How much can we show?” “Legally?” “No, morally. Of course, legally.” Pretty much sums Nina. A single scene shifts the tone of the film from one of sleazy and unethical to downright criminal: Lou moves a bloodied body from a car crash, where he had been the first to arrive, even before the police, so he could block it better for the recording — the entire time music like something out of Friday Night Lights plays, as if he were the star Quarterback scrambling for the pylon. The best line of the film and the one that finally offers some insight into why Lou is so…idiosyncratic comes after rebutting Rick’s statement that Lou doesn’t understand people: “What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people, but that I just don’t like them?” I was late to the game on this one, so I won’t detail the climax, but man o’man is it shocking. One small thing I would’ve changed is a detail about the ending. Lou has grown from a 1–2 man operation to a small crew assembled of four interns, clad in matching uniforms and vans. However, a huge part of Lou’s success was due to his upgrade from some crappy clunker to the Dodge Challenger that graces the movie posters, which offers him speedier access to the scenes. It would’ve been a more impactful final scene had the crew departed together — after Lou’s “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself” line — in badass muscle cars instead of the vans. Nevertheless, Nightcrawler is a must-see and has been one of the most enjoyable viewings of the year.
The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas (2013)→ (65) An exercise in self-indulgence, Antonis (Christos Stergioglou) fakes his own kidnapping in an effort to bolster his waning importance on the Greek public. A la The Shining, Antonis spends his time hidden in a luxury hotel that has closed for the winter season. He can only cook himself pasta and spends much of his time watching old DVDs of himself as a news anchor/MC for events (New Year’s Eve, Miss Greek, etc.) and the current edition of his show featuring his young replacement. There is no dialogue for the first ten minutes or so, and the first two-thirds of the film is slow enough to turn off some viewers. However, there is a burst of excitement that comes when Antonis decides to ditch the “ransom” plan and take matters into his own hands — by cutting off a finger to leave behind to grab more attention. The penultimate scene was jaw-dropping, but when the film ends shortly thereafter, it only leaves you unsatisfied. A member of the so-called “Greek Weird Wave,” (most notably including Dogtooth, which also features Stergioglou), I can only recommend Antonis Paraskevas for the patient movie-watcher who would enjoy watching man watching his own funeral, so to speak.
Richard Jewell (2019)→ (84) I hate the media, all of them (okay, NPR is fine), so if you’re like me, then you’ll enjoy Clint Eastwood’s, Richard Jewell. Paul Walter Hauser plays the titular character, a well-intentioned but flawed man who lives with his mother working mailroom and security gigs. Richard’s actions after spotting a lone backpack at a concert during the Atlanta Olympics epitomize the equation: Luck = Preparation + Opportunity. However, soon thereafter, Richard becomes the prime suspect of the FBI and gets eviscerated by the media and court of public opinion. Now, while this is based on a true story, that does not mean that every conversation or scene even took place. And when it comes to Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), the insufferable “journalist” at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I want to believe lines like “Is anything crimey going on here?” never, ever were spoken — considering they were directed at Agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm), a composite character representing the ruthlessness of the FBI, I’d like to believe it was fictional. That being said, Scruggs did write the piece that ignited the flaming bag of dog-shit that became Richard and his mother’s life with not a shred of remorse — her tear-drenched character arc didn’t feel the least bit satisfying. Richard’s lawyer, Watson Bryant — exceptionally performed by Sam Rockwell — is the story’s real/other hero, as he’s battling the strength and corruption of the FBI with only his paralegal/wife, Nadya (Nina Arianda). It doesn’t help that Richard seems to do the exact opposite of whatever Watson advises him to do and not to do. There comes a point where you want to grab Jewell but his fat cheeks and yell, “Listen to your fucking lawyer!” Rockwell delivers the film’s simple, but most impactful line, “You ready to start fightin’ back?” What this film was surprisingly missing was how the public and public personalities — Jay Leno famously cracked jokes about Jewell on his talk show, calling him the “Unadoofus” — took pleasure in ruining the man’s life without even an arrest being made, let alone charges. While the film does use one real clip on the Jewell’s very mid-90s television, which shows how well PWH portrayed the protag, I think the movie missed a huge opportunity to showcase how it’s not just the media who jump to conclusions that have immense consequences.
This Is the End (2013)→ (78) This ensemble apocalypse-comedy really kicks-off when Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel — like every character, they are playing fictionalized versions of themselves — go to James Franco’s brand-new pad for a house-warming party. As mere plebeians, we want to believe that all of these characters are friends in real life and that Michael Cera is actually a huge piece of garbage — Cera is probably the most referenced part of this film, which makes it sad they kill him off so early, but I suppose that’s what makes them so special. That, and Jonah Hills “Your references are out of control. You always have the best references.” Discovering that Jonah actually does hate Jay, solidifying Jay’s suspicions, was a nice touch. There’s plenty of physical comedy and laugh out loud moments, and I can also appreciate the celeb’s self-deprecation, but for a film filled with so much talent, there’s not much that sticks with you after watching. I wouldn’t think the budget would be an issue (unless perhaps you had to pay all these actors a premium to be in the film), but I can’t think of any other reason why the group didn’t venture outside of the house. Practically, the smart thing to do was to remain inside, but that’s not very fun and their hijinks became stale in the meat of the film. Moreover, after accepting that the apocalypse very much was upon them, I would’ve liked to see some other maneuvers the gang did for God to pull them from Hell-on-Earth that wasn’t just sacrificing oneself for the group. I commend the original plot and taking not just an ensemble comedy cast, but a cast playing themselves, playing on their reputations, I suppose I just expected more staying power.
El Asesino de Los Caprichos (The Goya Murders) (2019)→ (49) A serial killer in Greater Madrid is leaving murdered victims posed in positions from famous Goya paintings? One, please! Unfortunately, the film does little in terms of thrills and shock (with one notable exception) and continues with detective stereotypes so played-out they’ve exited the fashion cycle completely. Det. Carmen Cobo (Maribel Verdú) is the liquor-in-the-coffee, chain-smoking, child-hating half of the duo assigned to the strange case; her “better” half is Eva (Aura Garrido), a family-woman who enjoys karaoke as much as her children. The first half of the film gives us a couple of murders, but they almost feel like little reminders that this is a murder investigation instead of the film concerning Carmen’s sexual endeavors with a couple/few(?) different men, one being her boss. There was also an infuriating scene wherein Carmen, out on her own searching for the killer, finds a suspicious white van that eventually leads to a chase — she’s found him. However, instead of calling in the van and having any number of patrol cars aid her in the chase, she calls her obviously sleeping partner and gives her shit for not answering even though Carmen was doing her own thing. The plot does disclose why Carmen hates children, which I guess is nice, but discovering who the killer(s) was/were, rendered little more than an “oh, okay” out of this viewer. This movie is pretty new, so I won’t spoil the ending, but there’s a shocking scene towards the end that I appreciated. Is El Asesino de Los Caprichos (The Goya Murders) an edge of your seat thriller? No. Is it original? Kind of. Is it good? Not really. Do not recommend.
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927)→ (91) By far the oldest film I’ve pocket-reviewed, The Passion of Joan of Arc pioneered what the “close-up” means and provides a haunting account of Joan’s (Renée Jeanne Falconetti) trial and execution by using the actual transcripts pulled from the archives. The rumors that surround the film also lend to its importance, as the literal film of Dreyer’s original cut was lost for decades, only for a copy to resurface in Oslo in 1981. Dreyer was known for his borderline-abusive directing style that absolutely would not fly today — his working relationship with Renée Jeanne Falconetti during shooting has been described as both “sadist” and “normal”. I suppose that’s an effect of it being 93 years old. Lastly, Falconetti only has one other acting credit to her name, as she took to the stage, eventually fleeing the Nazis and ending up in Argentina where she tragically died from an eating disorder at fifty-four. Okay, the movie, a French silent film that uses so many close-ups it becomes suffocating, and that’s the point. We never see Joan on the battlefield, but solely in front of dozens of men, always literally looking down on her with, at best, suspicion, but mostly with contempt — a couple do feel for her, trying to save her life (not just her soul) and one even flings himself at her feet, declaring her a saint. The inquisition is heavy on the devil-speak and many a threat o’torture, as any true medieval inquisition should. Her judges become obsessed with the fact that she wears men’s clothing that at times they seem to care more about her wardrobe than whether Satan had commanded her on the battlefield. Perhaps it was the combination of the Gregorian chant and Falconetti’s giant, marble eyes, but the film puts you on the verge of tears and anger throughout. The Passion of Joan of Arc didn’t invent the close-up, but redefined it, changing filmmaking forever. I simply can’t do its power justice in print, so watch a clip and explanation from Cinefix here. I had assumed that it would be melodramatic, given that they don’t speak the way we watch today, but the acting, plot of injustice, what’s at stake (no pun intended) make it required viewing for the cinephile and history buff. When asked along the lines of “why?” she took up her crusade and she responded, “To save France.” I wanted to search for any English to drive out of my neighborhood.
JoJo Rabbit (2019)→ (90) Hitler was a rock star and the opening of JoJo Rabbit, with the fuhrer exiting planes and waving to adoring fans all set to The Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”) was funny and terrifying all at once. In fact, Hitler was such a star that he captured the imaginations of German youth to the point where Johannes “JoJo” (Roman Griffin Davis) conjures him as an imaginary friend (Taika Waititi) — that’s where this adventure begins. It’s funny, but dark, as JoJo is thrust into the dilemma of supporting his beloved Germany — in the indoctrinated, Hitler Youth kind of love — and reporting the Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) stowed away in his sister’s old room to the authorities, or keeping his mouth shut, as doing so will protect his mother’s (Scarlett Johansson) and hers. Elsa’s “Lessons on the Jew,” again, toe the line between hilarious and frightening, as JoJo takes the outlandish statements — from the well-known “Jews have horns,” to the lesser-known “Jews live underground” — as absolute fact. Let’s talk about Hitler. Waititi’s performance as the silly side-kick of JoJo’s imagination is commendable, and I especially enjoyed the gag of him constantly offering his young friend a cigarette. The scene where Hitler is lying in JoJo’s bed, as “friend’s keep their friend’s beds warm” was probably the best line. Hitler does take a back seat the second half of the film, which I think was a smart move as it let the seriousness set in and silliness subside. Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf, the alcoholic Nazi officer and youth camp director has the single funniest moment as he finally gets to showcase his Elton John-like battle uniforms as the Allies come closin’ in. His second-in-command and secret gay-lover, Finkle (Alfie Allen (Theon from GoT)) did seem like a waste, as he barely had a single line. Of course, the film is far from just a satire with childish Nazis and touches on the very real, very futile resistance movement ordinary German people took up against the Third Reich with JoJo’s mother, Elsa — if you’re interested in the topic, I recently read Han Fallada’s excellent novel, Every Man Dies Alone. When you see those red shoes again… it’s a gut-punch, if I’ve ever felt one. JoJo Rabbit takes dark point in history — and an actual book on hitlerjugend “Caging Skies” — adds an original spin, and somehow makes it fun without losing the importance of the message.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)→ (89) I gave the original an (88), and to my surprise Chapter 2 merited one point better. The sequel expands on the John Wick universe where potential death seems to literally be lurking around every corner. Taking the viewer from NYC (John (Keanu Reeves) lives in NJ, for the record) to Rome and back again, we get the enjoyment of peeling back the layers of this assassin-saturated cities and how they operate. We see John sealing up his arsenal below cement within the first 15 minutes and a small part of me wanted the next hour and forty-five just be him hanging around the house with his dog — but a ring comes to John’s door and with it a Camorra mafia boss (Ricardo Scamarcio) who needs John to kill his sister. When John declines, thus breaking the blood-oath sworn all those years ago, a series of rocket-propelled grenades come to his door… and his windows… and his walls. While director Chad Stahelski keeps us on the hook for a few moments as John groans in fire and broken glass, his dog enters the screen — another dead dog for motivation would’ve been too much for this viewer to handle, but I loved the tease. Although the fight scenes are as good as the first, mixing in a little bit of “shaky cam,” but largely pulls back far enough for us the appreciate the choreography with guns, knives, and fists, my favorite part was the montage of John meeting with all the specialists to prepare for the hit and shitstorm thereafter — “The Sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz), the historian, the tailor (Luca Mosca) — each one surprised to see him, then treating him with the utmost respect. After Gianna (Claudia Gerini) goes out like Seneca, John cuts through mafia grunts with Stormtrooper-accuracy to escape from Rome, battles Gianna’s bodyguard, Cassian (Common) here and there, ending up through a window in the Continental Hotel-Rome, kills assassins taking up Santino’s bounty on the prescient police-less streets of NYC, and we even get to see him finally kill a guy with a pencil — the story had been true. The most realistic part of the movie was NYC subway passengers remaining quiet and seated while two men engage in a knife fight in the middle of the car. I couldn’t have been the only one who was shocked when he pulled the trigger in the Continental-New York, but I loved it. The ending wonderfully set-up a Chapter 3, which I may have to watch sooner rather than later.
Iron Will (1994)→ (76) Iron Will was a pleasant mid-90s Disney surprise that I could’ve given a little higher score had a couple of scenes been cut. Cute sympathetic animals? Check. Parent (John Terry) dies within first 15 minutes? Check. Protag (Mackenzie Astin) has to literally save the farm against all odds? Check. I didn’t fully understand why Will’s father was sinking into the lake and couldn’t get out, but his death fuels Will’s decision not to attend college and enter into the 500-mile, international dog-sled race — complete with a cash-prize that would pay off the farm’s debts. After a silly montage where Will is trained by the family’s wise, Native American friend (August Schellenberg), our protag takes off for Winnipeg and enters the race alongside seasoned Swiss, Norwegians, Canadians, an American, and an evil Swede (George Gedes). The rest of the film, which focuses either on Will’s journey or the tycoonish-businessmen who spend most of their time in swanky train cars following the race, smoking sugars, drinking brown liquor, and wagering on the outcome. Kevin Spacey plays a reporter for a Chicago paper who sees the potential in “Iron Will” — a nickname he created — and turns the race into a patriotic story of American perseverance; this takes place during WWI after all. The action is more fun than I had expected, and I even appreciated the relationship between Will and his lead dog, Gus, who have an Ash Ketchum and Charizard-like relationship until the respect is earned. Two scenes I could’ve gone without were when Will punched Spacey in the face for “using him to sell papers,” which is what journalists do..? Moreover, Spacey turns Will Stoneman into a household name, bringing him notoriety and the potential for an income, which is exactly why he entered the race to begin with? Lastly, of course, we had to have the “Disney ending” where a slow-motion, by-a-nose finish felt forced, as there was enough action throughout. Iron Will is an example of Disney+ opening viewers up to lesser-known movies in its catalog.
The Skeleton Twins (2014)→ (82) This character-driven dramedy has a handful of laugh-out-loud moments and a slowly unraveling plot that will keep you engaged until the end. Maggie (Kristin Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader) play the titular twins, both of whom are on the verge of suicide, one just a little more so. Wiig and Hader have phenomenal chemistry, whether it’s when they’re lip-synching to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” or when they’re airing out the dirty laundry from high school. Milo, the sardonic, homosexual, decade-long waiter in L.A. trying to make it as an actor — and all the charm that comes with that life — who somehow is the far more likable character. Maggie struggles with not having sex with men who aren’t her husband, Lance (Luke Wilson). If that wasn’t enough, we get Ty Burrell as Rich, Milo’s high school English teacher who plays a far more pivotal — and disturbing — role than I ever pictured Ty Burrell playing. The Skeleton Twins is a funnier, more charming version of The Savages, chock-full of the family dysfunction we all love to see.
Tampopo (1986)→ (92) A film of gourmands, for gourmands, Tampopo had the most lasting impression on me than any film I watched in my college Japanese film class and is still exquisite in its comedy and commentary on mid-1980s Japan. Note* It took me forever to find this on a streaming platform, but HBO MAX has an excellent selection of domestic and foreign films, FYI. The film follows the main plot of Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) and her trials and tribulations she endures to create a successful ramen shop — not just successful financially, but in creating a truly great product. Her team, which grows throughout the film like a heist movie, consists of Gorō (Tsutomo Yamazaki), the leader and reluctant sensei, Gun (Ken Watanabe(!)), Pisuken (Rikiya Yasuoka), Shōhei (Kinzo Sakura), and “The Ramen Master,” (Yoshi Katō). Together, they train Tampopo in the art of broth and noodle making and conduct reconnaissance on competitors. However, the film doesn’t just follow this plotline, but branches off into several other food-centric vignettes, most notable being the salaryman lunch where, after reviewing a classical French menu (in French), and none of the stoic men able to read it — but too stubborn to ask — all order the same exact meal (sole, consommé, and Heineken). However, the young associate/intern, literally physically assaulted for dropping briefcases and kicked underneath the table, places and elegant, inquiry-laden order with the waiter all to the chagrin of his elders. My two other favorite vignettes were the “woman who keeps touching the produce and pastries” and the “spaghetti-eating lesson,” which features a westerner who keeps interrupting the clinic with slurping of his own. A recurring subplot involves the “Man in the White Suit” (Kōji Yakusho), a yakuza who would be called a “foodie” by today’s parlance. The gangster and his mistress (Fukumi Kuroda) use food as sex-toy, beginning with something out of Varsity Blues to live-shrimp splashing on naked stomachs and mouth-swapping egg-yolks. His speech to his lover while bleeding out in the street, concerning yam sausages harvested from the belly of wild boar, is gold. It’s a film about the boom of 1980s Japan, where even the homeless can describe Bordeaux wine like a sommelier and a woman rises seemingly from the dead to cook her family one final meal. With a feel-good ending, our cowboys riding off into the sunset, I love this movie and can’t recommend it enough.
Force Majeure (2014)→ (91) What happens when one of your most primal instincts — survival — works so well that it unravels your picturesque marriage? That’s the question that Force Majeure puts forth at the expense of Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his beautiful Swedish/Norwegian family. Set to the backdrop of a ski resort in the French Alps that somehow feels more like a gothic castle than a European-clean holiday retreat, this movie takes Medieval European torture out of the dungeons and into cringe-inducing dinner scenes and conversations over drinks. While enjoying their breakfast on the balcony, an avalanche comes hurtling down the mountain. As one (or everyone) does in the 2010s, Tomas begins taking a video of the scene, reassuring his family that everything is under control. When it turns out it very well might not be under control, Tomas snatches his belongings from the table and runs in the opposite direction, leaving his wife and children — screaming “Papa! Papa!” — to fend for themselves. While the avalanche does only create a powdery cloud for the diners to overcome — there are a few nervewracking seconds there — the real avalanche that is about to hit Tomas is how is manhood, fatherhood, husbandhood(?) are called into question again…and again… and again. You want to believe you would’ve acted with more courage than Tomas, but who knows when death is barreling its white face down a mountain directly towards you. He’s a coward and doesn’t do himself any favors going the denial route while Ebba questions him and presents video evidence. Their friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju a.k.a. Tormund from GoT!) tries to explain how you’re not yourself in those moments, citing the Estonia disaster and other scientific research, even getting into a fight with his own girlfriend (Fanni Metelius) over the scenario had it been them dining al fresco that morning. Tomas finally comes to grips with his wrongdoing and has a breakdown outside their hotel room door that was cathartic for me, not sure for him. The ending is what pushed this film into the low-90s from the high-80s for me. Östlund gives us the feel-good ending that, had the movie ended then and there, would’ve been nice — Tomas redeems himself, with his wife in his arms, drops her next to his children (Clara and Vincent Wettergren). But wait, then we get the real ending, with Ebba completely ditching her family on a tumultuous bus ride down the mountain as if her husband and children didn’t exist. You hear that sound? It’s the sound of table legs turning on the linoleum. Everyone gets off and Tomas, after initially turning down a cigarette from a fellow passenger, changes his mind and accepts while telling his son, “yeah, sometimes I do smoke.” You smoke that cigarette, Tomas.
Mars Attacks! (1996)→ (67) Camp needs to be self-aware to be camp, but maybe not this much. The good: the aliens, with their gigantic brains and rayguns that vaporize humans, pervade sci-fi culture in 2020 where when I still think “Martian,” I think of these horny, chattering, green fuckers. Looking back on that cast, can’t believe how star-studded it was (or why some of those actors were in it to begin with). Jack Nicholson, Michael J. Fox, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jim Brown, Christina Applegate, Danny DeVito, Jack Black, Pam Grier, Martin Short, Ray J, Natalie Portman. Problem was, the film was so actor-saturated that some only had a few lines and stupid subplots. Moreover, Tom Jones, the singer, playing the singer, Tom Jones, was probably the best part of the movie. Lastly, the discovery of how to defeat the aliens — by playing Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call” — and carrying out that musical assault, was pretty good. The bad: It’s not very funny. I noted one line, “Forget grandma, she’s halfway to outer space already!” delivered by a side-character (Joe Don Baker) that made me laugh. The overall plot was pretty stupid. That first human massacre was satisfying, but to then invite the Martians into the capitol building? The ugly: That mid-90s CGI. I’m sure Burton was working with very-good if not the best technology available for 1996, but some of it was just hard to watch. Aliens came out 10 years earlier and is a beautiful film to watch in 2020. Independence Day came out the same year and used practical effects that still work today. If anything, I think Mars Attacks! would’ve benefited from space-age movie practical effects to really lay on the campiness. I first viewed this one when I was around nine or ten and that’s probably the proper demographic. A space invaders movie where the war-mongering hawk General is actually right. Who knew? Come for the nostalgia, stay for the Tom Jones.
Honey Boy (2019)→ (84) If you share a fascination for the lives of child actors like I do, this is definitely the movie for you. Shia LaBeouf wrote the script for Honey Boy — his childhood nickname — as an exercise in rehab concerning his upbringing as a child actor and his unstable father. To turn that into a film — a film wherein LaBeouf plays his own father — can sound self-indulgent, the product we get on screen is anything but that. The film switches between Otis at 22 (Lucas Hedges) and Otis at 12 (Noah Jupe); the former on set of a blockbustery movie to drunk-driving car-crash to rehab, the latter living with his dad (LaBeouf) in a shitty motel and performing acting gigs to support the both of them. The film solely focuses on his father, as we only hear his mother over the phone — how the multiple felon (why he can’t find work and Otis supports them) won custody of his son is never addressed. James, the father, is charming, a good acting coach, and attentive to his son’s health — screaming at the director for keeping him too late (“There are fucking child labor laws!” (para)), not letting him smoke, not letting him have sex with the attractive young woman (FKA Twigs) who lives across the motel lot and may be a prostitute. However, he is also physically abusive, ill-tempered, and although he proudly states he’s four years sober, he still indulges in drugs when the going gets tough. I do wish the film showed more of young Otis’ acting roles, as I could never tell if they were movies or shows or even plays. Moreover, if he was getting so much work, why were they living in such shitty conditions? I suppose the work could’ve been spaced out, but he remained 12 throughout his section of the film. With Honey Boy and The Peanut Butter Falcon, I’m starting to see a LeBeoufaissaince that will hopefully push him past the meme.
Rio Bravo (1959)→ (75) This may be the only classic Western I’ve viewed and only added it after reading it’s one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies. A (100/91) on RT, I had high standards for Rio Bravo, which inexplicably felt too slow given all of the rifle-firing action. My inexperience with Westerns will likely come through here, but was everyone really so chill about people getting shot in bars and on the dirt roads separating hotels and saloons? John Wayne, the Western King, plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a lawman who, along with his on-the-wagon deputy, Dude (Dean Martin), handicapped assistant, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), who has a notable, yokel laugh, and young-gun, Colorado (Ricky Nelson), take on Nathan Burdette (John Russell) and his gang who seek to remove Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) from custody. The film would’ve benefited much more had it actually been a single-location, “Call of Duty-Zombies” style hold-out. The opening bar fight felt kinda dumb and I was nervous there would be a lot of eye-rolling, but the action itself is pretty good — especially the shoot-out when Chance and Co. go on the offensive. I actually enjoyed Dude’s struggle with alcoholism, as it wasn’t just a character trait but helped propel the plot. Dino and Nelson had the kind of chemistry singing together you’d expect to see in High School Musical. I did a dog-head tilt when first hearing “The Cutthroat Song,” before realizing its connection to Kill Bill. The most notable line, which I’ve been repeating in my terrible John Wayne impression, was “You want that gun? Pick it up. I wish you would.” Would’ve it made more sense just to release the prisoner and have the U.S. Marshals, who were six days away at the start of the film, pick him up at the Burdette Ranch or its environs later? Sure, but this is the Wild West, baby! Less jukin’, more shootin’.
Aliens: The Director’s Cut (1986)→ (96) After enjoying Back to the Future (review in last additions) more than I had expected, I decided to watch another 80s blockbuster, and oh my Lord did Aliens blow me away. Unlike Alien, an isolated, monster pick-off cast one-by-one set in space, Aliens ups the action, ups the effects, and ups the thrills. I always appreciated the series’ vision — not steampunk, not quite cyber-punk, and not 2001: A Space Odyssey-like where everything is efficient and sheen, Aliens has a gritty feel while including the technological and scientific advancements of a space-set movie. 57 years after the first film, we find our heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), in stasis, i.e. asleep in pod where she doesn’t age, with her orange cat, Jonesy! (100%, 10/10, 100 gold stars for him.) Somehow, Ellen’s lawyer (Paul Reiser), who is also a rep for the corp she works for (?), convinces her to go to an isolated colony to investigate their lack of communication. To be honest, this was the weakest part of the movie, as there really was no reason for Ellen to go on this mission, but hey, it puts our badass protag back into conflict. Accompanied by a team of meathead Marines, Private Hudson (Bill Paxton) delivering the famous, cracking “That’s game over, man! It’s game over!” line, the team starts on a rescue mission, which quickly becomes an alien-killing mission. Corporate greed, grief, the loyalty of artificial intelligence, and motherhood all intertwine the plot beautifully. But what so many came to see were right there in the title: The aliens, dammit. I always loved their hellish design and here we get a lot of them. Their ability to basically unfurl from the wall, scale the ceiling, their acid-blood, spear-whip tails, and, of course, those Russian-doll mouths make them delightfully terrifying and a formidable opponent. This movie is a practical effects junkie’s wet dream. Those last 20–30 minutes, full of fire, alarms, explosions, and the “Queen” are to die for. I mean, it’s just prime action-movie watching. The practical effects during scenes with the Queen, from her laying eggs to tearing apart Bishop (Lance Henriksen), are incredible. But most noteworthy, what probably comes to mind while discussing this series the most (only after the famous “chestplosion” of Alien), is the melee between Big Momma and Ripley in the loader suit. “Get away from her, you bitch!” is such a good line to ring the bell. While I could’ve gone for a maneuver other than “space ejection,” as it was the tactic used in the first film, I think it served the plot best by showing Bishop, an android, saving Newt (Carrie Henn) from being shot into space. Ripley questions Bishop’s allegiance to humanity early on, and it is further questioned when he is missing at the pick-up point. But even severed in half — his white innards dangling on the ground — he manages to be a hero. This franchise gave us one of the first female, sci-fi heroes and is a pillar of the genre. While James Cameron has become somewhat of a punchline with his many… many Avatar sequel updates, Aliens is a reminder of what the man is capable of.
Primary Colors (1998)→ (75) A solid-75, Primary Colors feels like an exaggerated snapshot of the early 1990s when 24/7 media was at the forefront politics, but the internet was still far on the horizon. The Stantons (John Travolta as Jack and Emma Thompson as Susan) are a fictionalized version of the Clintons during the Democratic Primary leading up to the General Election. However, we view the duo — and their grassroots team — from the perspective of Henry (Adrian Lester), a young black man and grandson of a civil rights activist who’s hesitant to join Stanton’s campaign. At first, believing he is only be used for his name and for a white southerner to have a black man running his campaign, Henry eventually falls for Stanton’s charm and joins the action. One scene, Stanton is engaged in a group hug with illiterate adults and the next he’s buttoning his shirt while a female union staffer is sneaking out of his bedroom or he’s chucking his cellphone out the car window in a rage. Despite Jack’s faults, which Travolta plays really well, Henry sees a leader in the man, even oogling in admiration after Stanton delivers a speech to a fisherman’s union in New England. This movie would not be made in 2020 for several reasons, the first being they would never have the same guy, Richard (Billy Bob Thorton), expose himself to a female staffer in broad daylight and tell a black man that “I’m blacker than you are” while remaining an otherwise intelligent and likable character. But what really didn’t age well was the fact that besides the rampant cheating, the ethical standard in which the campaign holds itself to when they uncover information that would decimate their opponent. Kathy Bates as Libby is in perfect form as the fast talkin’, no-nonsense idealist is the beacon that holds the campaign to this standard and suffers because of it. However, in 2020, that standard is comical. The realpolitik ending was refreshing. Overall, Primary Colors is an enjoyable political drama that scratches that 90s-nostalgia itch we can’t seem to quit.
Palm Springs (2020)→ (85) I’ve been a critic recently of unnecessary romance subplots, but here it’s done well. Palm Springs is meta (“ya know, like one of those time loop things” (para)) and full of laugh-out-loud funny moments that culminate into a nice love story. Nyles (Andy Samberg) has been stuck at his fiancée’s, best friend’s wedding in Palm Springs, California, reliving the day for an unknown amount of time. Sarah (Cristin Milioti) unfortunately joins him in the loop after following him into a supernatural cave. I have a soft-spot for Milioti after HIMYM and that episode of Black Mirror, and really hope to see her in more leading roles after the critical success of Palm Springs. Her and Samberg’s chemistry makes the meat of the movie — that part after denial and before making the big break — very enjoyable. J.K. Simmons as Roy, an unintentional looper who takes pleasure in inflicting as much pain on Nyles as possible, does play a solid role and also provides us with a satisfying ending. Only noted criticism are the dinosaurs. What did they mean?! The screenrant “answer” is very unsatisfying, so if anyone else has better theories (despite the fact the actors and writer gave us that one), feel free to share. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Palm Springs much more than I had imagined, and really just threw it on to watch something from 2020 (God knows The Hunt didn’t do it any favors), but it turned out being a lovely Saturday night movie.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)→ (72) Beautiful visuals make this Studio Ghibli animated film worth the watch, even if the plot feels disjointed and incomplete. Set in a fictional, steampunk, Central European-feel setting, Howl’s Moving Castle is staunchly anti-war, and Miyazaki had stated the creation of the film was a response to the American-led Iraq War. It follows Sophie (Emily Mortimer/Jean Simmons (I’ll be using the English-dubbed voice-actors, as that’s the version I watched), a hat-maker who is vexed by a witch (Lauren Bacall) and makes her way to a “moving castle” — more of a coughing and choking, steam-powered mansion on four legs. The mysterious and powerful Howl (Christian Bale), owner of the castle, keeps Sophie as a maid on the castle and eventually falls in love with her, after she’s returned to her young, beautiful self, of course. I can appreciate how there is not that typical hero vs. villain storyline, and Howl acts as an antagonizer to both sides of the war. The perks of the film, in typical Miyazaki fashion, is the genre-bending magic that takes place in setting and plot devices — the rotating door-portal and the sentient scarecrow (Crispin Freeman) are two fine examples here. Billy Crystal as Calcifer, the eternal-ish fire that powers the castle, serves as comic-relief and is excellent with his quips. The steampunk creations, from the flying warships to the castle itself, are a marvel to watch. Where this movie drops for me is in the unsatisfying plot, the scarecrow subplot, which was head-scratchingly strange, and the inconsistencies of Sophie’s physique. She went from young to old to kinda-old to young to middle-aged, and back, one age when she slept, one when she woke up, without explanation. It’s been a while since I’ve viewed anything from Studio Ghibli, and now that the library is on HBO MAX, I’ll be watching them all over time, but Howl’s Moving Castle is a visual delight and deserves the view for that reason.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)→ (80) Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) — remember the name — is a black homicide detective from Philly who unfortunately finds himself in a one-horse town in rural Mississippi… in the 1960s… The overt racism begins with him being arrested for the murder of a white man because he’s black — your standard redneck racism (rebel yells from cars with confederate flag plates popping into his bumper to run him off the road, not being served in a diner, not wanted in the same room, etc. etc.) and for some reason, Virgil argues with police chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger, who won an Oscar for his performance) to stay in the town to help solve the murder. The dead man is a businessman who was setting up a factory in the small town and may have made a few enemies. Or, maybe he was the victim of a senseless crime?! Honestly, it doesn’t really matter because the crime and its resolution aren’t very interesting. Instead, In the Heat of the Night merits a view for the acting — the scene with Virgil, Gillespie, Purdy (James Patterson) and Delores (Quentin Dean), is phenomenal — the thrills of watching Virgil escape the roving rednecks, and the friendship forged between the Philadelphian and the Mississippi police chief. I mean, the film did win Best Picture at the 40th Academy Awards, although, The Graduate is definitely the better film. Also, Poitier gets to slap a racist white man… in Mississippi… in the 1960s, which was yuge — the slap-back heard round the world. And, of course, can’t leave out the famous “They call me Mister Tibbs!” ranked 16th on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes list.
Back to the Future (1985)→ (93) Back to the Future is the quintessential blockbuster, coming out in the heart of the summer (July 3rd) in the heart of the 80s (1985). The opening, starting from Doc’s (Christopher Lloyd) walls of clocks and bunker of gadgets to Marty’s (Michael J. Fox) “I’m gonna be late for school!” to the skateboarding scene serenaded by Huey Lewis and News’ “The Power of Love” is the best opener ever, probably. The film has violence and real stakes for the characters, wrapped up in just enough sci-fi to keep the viewer on edge for what tiny mistake will have detrimental consequences. Every good blockbuster needs a symbol and Back to the Future has one of the most recognizable ever with the DeLorean-turned-time-machine — I can’t imagine when the car is brought up out of the film’s context. As Doc famously says, “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” The school dance scene is classic. I couldn’t help but smile when Doc drops the “Back to the Future!” line while pointing into the camera. Marty inadvertently travels 30 years into the past and, after a series of unfortunate events, almost erases his existence with the therapy-requiring encounters with his teenage mother. He must juggle several plotlines all while timing them up perfectly before returning to 1985. And that ending — a quotable line during a segue into the sequel? *Chef’s kiss. A re-watchable must-watch, Back to the Future can and should be enjoyed for generations to come.
It Follows (2015)→ (85) The horror genre is budget defying and It Follows forms into the mold. With a $2,000,000 budget, the film is full of suspense and doesn’t just rely on jump scares, although there are a few. Instead, backed by a lovely, Stranger Things-like synth-heavy score, it offers legitimate terror following the obvious metaphor for STDs — if you get it, you better pass it on or “it” will track you down until it kills you, then proceeds to whoever is next in line. The film is never clear during what time of year it takes place — one second, our protag, Jay (Maika Monroe), is floating in her swimming pool, and the next she’s in a winter jacket — or what year, exactly, it is supposed to be set. The cars seem older than 2000, and Jay and Hugh (Jacob Weary) go on a date to an old-timey movie theater, but then Yara (Olivia Luccardi) will be reading an e-book on an oyster phone(?), which has to be the least convenient way to read Dostoevsky. Moreover, the gang (rounded out by Paul (Keir Gilchrist)) are always watching “Golden Age” movies on bunny-ears TV sets. I don’t know. However, the film definitely takes place in Detroit, as Yara’s (seemingly unnecessary) spiel about “8 Mile Road” is a pregame to the climax… at the indoor swimming pool. The film does get a little choppy around this part, even before it, with the physics/science within the film not being consistent. For instance, “It” can’t open a door and has to resort to breaking-in through windows, but somehow “It,” in a male, butt-ass naked form, is just standing on top of a house while the gang pulls away? (*Side note: I’d love to see the permit the director had to obtain to get that shot.) Also, Jay shoots “It” directly in the neck, and it crumples to the ground only to rise like 2 seconds later. So… why is it a question of whether “It” is alive or not when she shoots it at the pool? Moreover, I think science in real-life is off in the pool scene, as Mythbusters disproved the famous Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach scene pertaining to bullets traveling through water. Lastly, when we finally see “It” kill in action, it’s a huge letdown after seeing the girl’s (Bailey Spry) mutilated corpse on the beach in the opening. The final shot is good in typical, sequel-teasing, “did they really kill the monster?” fashion, but would’ve been even better with a stronger third act. Overall, It Follows is a must-watch for the horror-fan and a highly recommend for everyone else. **R.I.P. to Mike Lanier as Giant Man.**
The Farewell (2019)→ (87) A common plotline is for a character to receive news they have a terminal illness and for the audience to observe how that person decides to spend the rest of their days. In The Farewell, Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen), is the only member of her family who doesn’t know she has terminal lung cancer, as it isn’t illegal in China for doctors to share medical information without the patient’s consent. Apparently, it’s common practice for the family to receive the bad news and bear its burden, even going so far as to have the hospital change the records to indicate that the patient is healthy — this batshit logic forms the base of the film’s plot, as family members must hold back tears and dance around the topic at many a tense dinner scene. I could see someone making a pool on “who is going to spill the beans?” Billie (Awkwafina) is a struggling NYC writer who can’t make the rent and just received a rejection letter from the Guggenheim Fellowship — considering we don’t see anything else about her writing, no past successes or publications, this seemed like a tall order. We actually don’t see much of anything in Billie’s American life — besides surprising her family that she can still/does still play the piano. It is solely a film about family and the differences in American and Chinese cultures. Family that has moved abroad, to the US, to Japan, to other parts of China, come together ostensibly for a wedding, but in reality, to spend time with Nai Nai. There are a handful of excellent shots, including, but not limited to, the “umbrellas in the forest,” the slow-motion “drinking game at the wedding,” and when the entire family is walking down the street near the end. The Farewell is well-acted and we see a side of Awkwafina far from her persona in Crazy Rich Asians and beyond — a controversial topic I’m not addressing here. I highly recommend the film as an enjoyable movie and for the health advice it provides — that shit must really work! He! Ha!
Audition (1999)→ (79) If Valerie Solanas was given carte blanche to direct a film, she would’ve directed Audition — at least those final few scenes. As I’m no stranger to the absolute gorecore™ that can overpower a strain of Japanese horror films, I was expecting this one to get to the nasty quick. To my surprise, even at an hour in, we only get a couple of creepy scenes and minimal violence. There’s a point where the film could’ve remained mainly the same and taken the turn into a romance-drama, and it would’ve been fine. ***If you’re reading this and you have NOT seen this movie, I need you to listen to me here.*** There is a scene so vile, so disgusting, that I came the closest I’ve ever been to vomiting during a movie — the scene does NOT involve blood or guts or conventional violence. You’ve been warned. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower who, when he decides to take the plunge back into romance, conducts a plan to ostensibly audition actresses for a film role — with the help of his movie producer friend, Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura) — but actually to find a new wife. Besides the plan itself being sleazy, Shigeharu is a tepid guy who takes care of his high school-aged son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) and falls-in-love-at-first-headshot with Asami (Eihi Shiina). Asami is a tall, pale monster and is the star of the show. Her hunched over body, sitting on the floor, staring at the phone waiting for it to ring, is legitimately freaky. When she finally unleashes her plan on the unsuspecting Shigeharu, well, the film has been considered “torture porn” and inspiration for Hostel, Saw, and The Devil’s Rejects — it’s as if behind every great American horror movie, there’s a Japanese one. However, the quantity of the violence isn’t even close to its siblings in the genre, and really only take place over a few, disturbing scenes. While we learn that Shigeharu maybe wasn’t the most faithful husband, he didn’t do anything to Asami and had been quite the gentleman while courting her, which makes his torture at her hands all the more difficult to watch — unsurprisingly, a man had abused Asami as a child. Audition is far from the splatterpunk, torture porn film I was expecting it to be, while still offering a fair share of stomach-churning scenes. It may be one of the few films I’d advise you research before watching. Also, if you don’t like animals being killed and feet not being attached to legs, it isn’t the film for you.
The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)→ (55) Going into this film without any knowledge of its history or the source material, you’d think it was some sci-fi nerd’s, anti-war recitation of a wet-dream — a ridiculous concoction of government absurdity. However, “Project Jedi” (or the “Stargate Project” IRL) was very much taxpayer-funded and very much badass, in the hippie, “New Earth Army” kind of way. Check out the entertaining podcast detailing it here. A unit of the US Army trained in psychic combat — a way to reduce the casualties and atrocities of conventional warfare — that rendered actual results must be one of the coolest topics on which you could base a movie. And yet, The Men Who Stare at Goats is just… bland. I can appreciate that it’s not a film solely about the psychic unit, and instead about a journalist’s adventure, from Michigan to Iraq, into the confidences of that unit, but I couldn’t care less about Bob’s (Ewan McGregor) failed marriage or his personal journey. It’s considered a “satirical dark comedy war film,” but how is it satire if it’s largely based on historical people and true, if embellished, events? Dr. Strangelove, a nuclear war satire, is based on a very serious action novel. The Men Who Stare at Goats is a more of a “You seein’ this shit? Crazy, right?” kind of film. It’s obviously anti-Iraq War, but then is attempting to lampoon a program that would essentially end all wars like the Iraq War, if it were to be successful. It had a few laugh-out-loud moments, but nothing I could even remember or bother to note. Lastly, maybe determine why the prisoners are detained before releasing them? Sure, some were probably wrongly imprisoned and tortured, but others were probably… ya know… insurgents who wouldn’t hesitate to blow your head off? The ending was definitely an eye-rolling, Hollywood moment. All this film really made me want is for a film about the Stargate Project. Someone make this happen.
Da 5 Bloods (2020)→ (91) The film has a huge RT discrepancy of (92/54) as I write this, and as you can see, I’m going to side with the critics on this one. With a 154-minute run-time, the film keeps you engaged (with maybe one scene that went on too long) with phenomenal acting — especially from Delroy Lindo as Paul — a new take on the “buried treasure” trope, and the smart, if not initially head-tilting, move to not de-age the actors at all during the Vietnam War flashbacks. Plot-in-one-sentence is four vets, Paul, David (Jonathon Majors), Otis (Clark Peters), and Eddie (Norm Lewis), travel back to Vietnam to 1. Find the remains of their 5th “blood,” Norman Earl “Stormin Norman” Holloway (Chadwick Boseman), and 2. To find gold buried in the southeast Asian jungle. All four have their issues, which take the form of the standard “blew all my money” to “I have a child with a woman I met during the war” to “I’m a Trump supporter”. Paul, the MAGA hat-wearing star of the film — a MAGA hat that gets put through the wringer — steals the show and is worth the price of admission. Clearly, the man is suffering from PTSD and as a viewer, you’re just waiting for his fuse to run out. For a few seconds, I thought we were getting Léa Seydoux, but it turns out Mélanie Thierry, also a French actress possesses a striking resemblance to her countrywoman. I’m glad Thierry, who plays Hedy, a member of a mine-locator non-profit, gets folded back into the story — even though her boyfriend(ish), Seppo (Jasper Pääkkönen), had some pretty cliché shitting on America lines back in the bar. The film had more conventional action in the present-day portion than I had expected, and also a few excellent twists. This film is new, so I’m not going to spoil anything, but man, how Norman went out had my jaw in my lap. The one part of the film that left me shaking my head was the father-daughter reconnection that took place between Otis and Michon (Sandy Hương Phạm). It felt so collateral but then, using the same dolly-style shot he utilized to end BlacKkKlansman, they show us out of the film, sliding down the hall cheek-to-cheek. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again, most films do NOT need either a love-interest or parent-child reconnection. As the “sex scene” has largely been removed from movies, I think this constant need to push these tropes into films only hurts them. This film had four black vets returning to the country of their trauma to find the remains of a friend and treasure. It had action, drama, political commentary; it didn’t need anything else.
Selma (2014)→ (85) Of course, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) is at the forefront of the film, but what I appreciated about Selma was how much it showcased the lesser-known members of the civil rights movement. The “report write-up” style that brought us in and out of scenes was a lovely directorial touch, which showed a stark juxtaposition of who Dr. King was and how is activities were described — as a domestic terrorist plotting to overthrow the American government. However, viewers hoping to see the famous March and Washington and even more famous “I Have a Dream” speech will be disappointed, but that’s not what this film is about. Selma concerns the kitchens and living rooms where Dr. King’s team — Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson), John Lewis (Stephen James), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce), James Bevel (Common), and Andrew Young (Andre Holland), to name a few — debated and calculated not just their steps for “civil rights,” but specifically for the right to vote, free of the numerous restrictions designed to keep Black Americans out of the polls. The first march across the bridge to Montgomery is terrifying, which after being captured on television, sends protestors from all over the country to the small town of Selma, Alabama. While there are plenty of performances to praise here (including Tim Roth as infamous segregationist governor, George Wallace — I swear, did Americans stop acting?) Oyelowo’s deserves the most praise, even mimicking the notable vibrato in Dr. King’s voice. While that final speech at the State Capitol isn’t “I Have a Dream,” it’s still pretty damn good, forcing me to say to myself, Rein it in, Ben. Rein it in.”
Ghost in the Shell (1996)→(76) A staple of not only the vast anime library but a seminal work of cyber-punk, Ghost in the Shell hits deep on the existential crises of humanity and A.I. — there are also lots of boobs. It’s a film whose impact on culture outweighs the work itself. I’ll use “influenced” here, but The Matrix, Westworld, and Ex-Machina (to name a few) toe-the-line on their similarities to Oshii’s work that it becomes borderline derivative — that being said, there’s plenty of similarities to Blade Runner here too… I typically only view movies in their original language and use subtitles, but I’m finding that with anime, I can only get the dubbed versions and don’t find them to be distracting. Nevertheless, there is some pretty bad dialogue here and lots of exposition. But, rest assured, there is still lots of violence and nudity, as the manga on which Ghost in the Shell is based is seinen manga, or material specifically created for men between the ages of 18–30. The animation is disappointing when comparing it to the other most well-known, similar-genre’d anime, Akira, which came out 8 years earlier. Most admirable about the film is what it had to say about the future in 1996, when the internet was in its infant stages. Here’s the departing line: “The net is vast and infinite.” It’s prophetic, if not redundant. If you’re into anime, you’ve seen this one already. If you want to break in, ask yourself, “Do I want to understand everything in the movie I’m watching?” If the answer is “yes,” then this is not for you. If you want to enjoy classic cyber-punk with cool animation, questions considering consciousness, what it means to be human, and typical, unnecessary but tantalizing anime nudity and violence, then throw it on.
The Nice Guys (2016)→ (78) A buddy-cop (or buddy-P.I.) that straddles the line of comedy/spoof and neo-noir drama, The Nice Guys gets off to a rocky start but pulls it together in the second half on both fronts. There are some dead-pan, random weirdness in the beginning that may throw you off, but the acting, especially from Gosling as Holland March, keeps you engaged. March and Healy (Russel Crowe) have solid chemistry, both before and after the latter breaks the former’s arm. Also, shout-out to Kid on Bike (Lance Valentine), who doesn’t have a wiki page, but was hilarious. Eventually, the yarn begins to unfurl just enough for you to perk up and guess at what this madness is all for — when your suspicions are verified or satisfied, it’s a nice twist. One aspect I wasn’t sure was supposed to be a gag or not was Angourie Rice’s character, Holly, March’s daughter. Holly is frequently driving her father around — due to the man’s drinking — but doesn’t look a day over 13. The actor was approximately 15 when the film came out, so maybe it was a joke or she had her permit? I don’t know, but my fiancée must’ve asked me 10 times how old the girl is supposed to be — otherwise, her performance was very good where those sorts of characters can become annoying. A couple of comedic notes were the “your sister’s such a slut” line, and the look March gives when the bartender tells him that drinks are free on the rooftop bar. The Nice Guys is a film that had me questioning if it knew what it wanted to be, but becomes an enjoyable watch by the end.
In the Name of the Father (1993)→ (90) Somehow, I had not realized this was a true story until the closing text. I had never even heard of the “Guildford Four”. While it is categorized as a “courtroom drama,” the couple of courtroom scenes are absurd in the Kafkaesque kind of way, which I did learn while writing this piece, were some of the more embellished scenes of the movie. Really, In the Name of the Father should be considered a “legal system drama” or “prison system drama” because that is the shit that made this film horrifying — that and DDL’s (unsurprisingly) stellar performance. Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a young Irishman from Belfast in search of the late-60’s “free love” in 1974 London. A bomb explodes inside of a pub in the southern English town of Guildford. I.R.A. violence is peaking in the mid-70s, and Conlon and friend, Paul Hill (John Lynch), the new Irish arrivals, are rounded up under the “Prevention of Terrorism Act” and forced to confess to the bombing under sickening conditions of physical and mental abuse. While Conlon and Hill don’t do themselves any favors in the courtroom — their snickering and laughing reminded me of the “West Memphis Three,” who thought it unimaginable that they could possibly be convicted of their crimes, given their trust in the legal system and to God — the courtroom scenes are ridiculous. Basically, everyone who has known Conlon, including his father, Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon (Pete Postlethwaite), are rounded up, tried, convicted, and serve time in prison for conspiracy and other charges under the “Act”. The 15-year epic of Conlon and his father in prison makes up the bulk of the film, with their eventual acquittal due to a diligent lawyer, Gareth (Emma Thompson), creating a satisfying conclusion — always warms my heart when a lawyer is a “good guy”. Maybe not knowing the true story made this a more enjoyable film, but it also made it all the more terrifying. In the Name of the Father is a superb film concerning a timeless topic: injustice.
Knives Out (2019) → (90) A whodunit that both praises and spoofs the genre (in meta format), Knives Out is wonderfully entertaining, even if some of the characters serve more as archetypes instead of human beings. This film is still pretty new, so I’m not going to spoil the ending, but about halfway through it takes a lovely turn from a typical whodunit to a cat-and-mouse, but with many more twists to come. The cast is star-studded, with Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon — who I would watch do anything — and Daniel Craig, whose accent is just ridiculous enough to be believable; his baseball throw, however, belies his southern drawl. Toni Colette, Lakeith Stanfield — who I swear is in every movie I watch nowadays — Don Johnson, and Ana de Armas, who I wouldn’t say steals the show, but is the nicest surprise, are just a few more to add. As you can see, there’s a lot to unpack here in terms of characters, so I’m not going to bother with names, but basically a rich crime novelist is dead with a slashed throat, a famous PI is hired, anonymously, and it (mostly) takes place in a gorgeous Victorian home with the coolest study I’ve ever seen. The film is also a snapshot of the times, with terms like “Alt-Right Nazi, Lifestyle Guru, et al.” being used amongst the characters. The best running gag was how each character said de Armas was from a different country — Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador, Brazil. Of course, have to mention that circular knife centerpiece that is never directly addressed, but plays a larger role than just general badassery. Maybe I’m just a big dumb dumby, but why couldn’t the detectives just ask de Armas if she committed the murder? I’d go into more detail, but said earlier about no spoilers. Comment if you know the answer. Knives Out delivers exactly as it should, which is sometimes all I want in a movie. Pairs great for a date night and red wine.
The Hunt (2020)→ (36) The Hunt had the honor of being the first film I viewed from 2020 and tracked with the rest of this shit-storm of a year. It begins Hunger Games-ish with strangers vying for a crate full of weapons, which really only served as an illusion to equity as the characters are picked-off by an omnipresent force… the liberals. Duh duh duhhhh. After having the rug pulled out from under us with both Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley (no, I’m not calling them by their stupid fucking “names”) being killed in their first scene, we finally learn who our protag is. Crystal (Betty Gilpin) has to evade and then seek revenge on her hunters, the coastal elites that I don’t feel like naming, but includes Dennis from Always Sunny, some others, and Hilary Swank. This group is insufferable. They make lame-ass gibes at each other concerning veganism and political correctness that don’t land… except for one: “It’s perfectly fine to call them ‘black’ again.” “According to who??” “…NPR.” That was actually funny. Basically, the libs joked about creating some hunt to kill “deplorables,” the text chain went viral on right-wing conspiracy sites, so they actually did make the hunt because the right-wingers willed it into existence. Did you follow that? Did I miss some political commentary there? And I believe the writers thought they were being really clever and edgy with this script. In an interview with Variety, the director, Craig Zobel, says they wanted to “satirize both sides of the political divide,” that Fox News Commentators have called it “sick” and “awful” (shows what geniuses they are), and that an early script had working-class conservatives as the heroes. But… the movie, which came from the final script, had exactly that. The conservatives are obviously the heroes, the victims, and only sympathetic characters whatsoever. Donald Trump should pay to have this thing streamed for free into every home in Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Fox News should play it on a continuous loop on all of their channels. The only other funny part was when the libs were giving Sgt. Dale (Steve Mokate) crap for his consultation on Tears of the Sun. The Hunt is satire without knowing what it’s satirizing. And that final showdown in the kitchen is derivative of Kill Bill.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)→ (85) With a few minor changes, A Woman Under the Influence could be set in 2020 and wouldn’t miss a beat. A husband (Peter Falk) loves his wife (Gena Rowlands) so much that he does whatever it takes to make her “normal,” even if that means putting her in situations you know aren’t going to end well — I’m looking at you, dinner scene with his entire crew. I would say Gena Rowlands as Mabel Longhetti steals the show, but she’s the star from the start. Mabel doesn’t represent the typical association with mental illness — on the street, committing crimes, doing drugs — but the suburban housewife who can seemingly turn it off when she needs to take care of her children. Of course, there are the big moments, I mentioned one earlier, but it’s the little things, the mannerisms and talking to herself, even when she isn’t the focus of the shot, which makes the entire performance not just convincing, but special. During the tense scenes, of which there are ample, the Cassavetes pulls in the camera tight, as if what we’re going through isn’t enough already. While I think we like to believe we handle mental illness better in 2020, I was surprised to see how much more open Nick, her husband, and the rest of her family and friends handled her situation. He even threw her a welcome home party — which wasn’t the wisest idea — but his heart was in the right place. Nick, the working man for the city of Los Angeles, by the end of the film, is exhausted, uncertain, but just loves his wife and seems to accept his role in the family. It’s not a conventionally happy ending, but it’s a satisfying one. Thirty minutes definitely could’ve been shaved off of this film and it would’ve had the same impact. I would think any movie buff would need to watch it at least once.
Volver (2006)→ (68) There’s something about Almodóvar’s films that give me the warm-and-fuzzies, even when they deal with rape, incest, and murder, somehow. Perhaps it’s my predilection for Spain, or the color palette, the language, the excessive cheek-kissing, the whimsy of them all, but Volver had so much going for it until the second half of the third act. To start, this is a film about women. Besides a creep who gets what’s coming to ‘im, a couple of scenes with a restaurateur, and a love interest that never materializes, the relationships surrounding six or so women drive the plot. We mainly follow Raimunda (Penélope Cruz, surprise, surprise) and her teenage daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), after their husband/father (Antonio de la Torre) tries to rape Paula and ends up dead in the kitchen. But this family, including Sole (Lola Dueñas), Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), sporting glasses that Bubbles would envy, and friend, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), are already hurting from something no one seems able to put a finger on. It got a little strange with the whole “ghost” concept and was too “magical realism” for my liking. Augustina wouldn’t spill details on that crappy talk show to get lifesaving cancer treatment in Houston?? Also, super strange sentiments concerning Raimunda’s husband at the end. “Glad he’s resting there.” You killed him after he tried to rape you? Lastly, there’s this massive information dump that tied the story together, but would’ve been more enjoyable had it been revealed little-by-little. Volver has its moments — one of them being Penélope Cruz singing Flamenco — and warm relationships, and other je ne sais quois that come with an Almodóvar film, but I just wish it was unpackaged more neatly.
Ghost (1990)→ (86) Had been on my watch-list for a while really just to see the famous pottery scene set to The Righteous Brothers’ Unchained Melody, but was floored with how much I enjoyed this movie by the time the end credits rolled. About that scene *begins heavy breathing, gulp “that’s a lot of clay.” I loved how the song was weaved throughout to the very end. Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg are an excellent trifecta, which is elevated a film with a good plot (and admittedly, pretty solid special effects for 1990) to an (86) score. Carl (Tony Goldwyn) is the quintessential Wall Street yuppie and also gives a commendable performance, especially when that account is blinking $0.00 — I still love how every film that has anything to do with business or real estate in the 1980s and 1990s has to mention the Japanese. I think the film would’ve benefited even more by having Sam (Swayze) encounter more ghosts throughout the city, but did appreciate the one on the subway (Vincent Schiavelli) and their strange relationship. A couple of critiques would be the matter-of-factness of the ghostly ability to possess a living person — would’ve appreciated diving deeper into that concept. The film begins to unravel a little when Sam is able to touch objects — not grab, but move with plenty of force. I mean, couldn’t he have just pushed Carl in front of a car? A subway? Might be nitpicking too much. Yeah, the ending is a tear-jerker. A 3/5 on the cry-o-meter, which translates to teary-eyed and a little snot. I loved how right before it cuts out, you can see human shapes embrace Sam in heaven. Lastly, the film proves that cats can see ghosts. 10/10, A+ performance for Floyd, the cat.
The Idolmaker (1980)→ (87) I had heard on a Lights Camera Barstool interview (can’t remember with whom) that The Idolmaker is a must-watch; I had never heard of it before. The titular character, Vinnie Vicari (Ray Sharkey), is a musician, songwriter, talent scout, but most importantly, the manager for Tomaso “Tommy Dee” DeLorusso (Paul Land) and Guido “Caesare” (Peter Gallagher), two local Bronx boys who Vicari molds into teen-idols. Although talented himself, Vicari knows that he’s “over the hill” and doesn’t have “the look” to be a star — never did. I loved the unpredictability of this film. While we know right away that Tommy Dee isn’t the best guy, we shockingly learn he’s a total creep! We’re strapped in to enjoy this rising star’s arc and bam! Douchebag. But what’s this? This isn’t really about Tommy Dee to begin with, and it’s Vicari whose story we follow — maybe shouldn’t’ve been a surprise given the title, but Tommy Dee’s so talented, so good-looking. And right after seemingly all is lost for Vicari, Guido, a bus-boy at the restaurant where Vicari recently worked himself, drops a bunch of plates on the talent scout’s table. Another project, another investment, Vicari has his work cut out for him to turn the young Guido into Caesare, Super Star. The film is full of energy, even if the viewer needs to suspend disbelief a little bit here and there for the lightning-fast transformations of the talent. Is it fucked-up how these older boys/men are purposefully marketed to get tween girls to screech, cry, and tug at their hair? Yes. Has that changed since the 1950s? Not really. *Side note: while I did want more Joe Pantoliano as G.G., Vicari’s right-hand man, I did see this was his first supporting role.
Amerika Square (2016)→ (75) Amerika Square would’ve benefited from a longer run-time to allow for Billy’s (Yannis Stankoglou) story with Tereza (Ksenia Dania) to fully develop. From the film’s hook blurb and its adjoining picture, I was expecting for Billy, a tattoo artist, to be the racist-nationalist, but instead, it was his offish friend, Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou). Nakos possesses such a strong nostalgia for a Greece free of immigrants, he keeps score of the Greeks v. Non-Greeks who take up residency in his apartment building, where he still lives with his parents. While there is a trio of stories the plotline follows, it remains most focused on Nakos’ hatred for immigrants — and his ultimate plan to scare them out of Athens — and that of Tarek (Vassilis Koukalani), a refugee fleeing the carnage of the Syrian Civil War, ultimately seeking asylum in Germany with his young daughter. Tarek’s story is the most intense and Nakos’ seemed like the archetype for hatred expressed not just in Greece, but across the world — middle-aged male who hasn’t accomplished much seeing his childhood home beginning to change. I didn’t understand why Tarek couldn’t get on the plane. He had a connecting flight in Rome but a final destination… where? Wouldn’t he need one to buy the ticket? I also really appreciated Nakos’ ending, as I was totally expecting him to soften his views against immigrants when one literally saves his mother’s life after he accidentally poisons her… nope! Still keeping score. Billy’s ending, on the other hand, was melodramatic and completely unnecessary, like the film needed to go out with a bang… I’ve been learning Greek, so if you have any film suggestions, let me know and I’ll add them to the queue. Oh! And, of course, God the cat (is there a more perfect name for a cat?) got a 100/100 for his short cameo.
Just Mercy (2019)→ (85) If it wasn’t based on a true story (BOATS), I wouldn’t have believed it, and maybe that’s an issue. To start, a black man (Jamie Foxx) in Alabama — not just anywhere in Alabama, but in the same town Harper Lee set To Kill a Mockingbird, Monroeville — was sentenced to death for the murder of a white, female, teenager. The evidence against him is so scarce that it doesn’t even come close to circumstantial. But we aren’t present for his trial. Through Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a recent Harvard graduate from Delaware, we dive into Walter “Johnny D” McMillan’s appeals process and the seedlings of the Equal Justice Initiative. The racism is so overt — sometimes ironically so, as the Sheriff (Michael Harding) complains he’s alleged as being a racist while using the N-word in the same sentence and when the prosecutor (Rafe Spall) tells Stevenson to check out the TKAM museum, as it’s one of the best civil rights monuments of the south, after summarily denying to review Stevenson’s exculpatory research — and so blatant that it doesn’t even, for one moment, make you think Johnny D may have committed the crime. Typically, these courtroom dramas have some sort of evidence where at least on the surface level, a reasonable jury could’ve found the man guilty. Not here. Just Mercy is putting the system on trial, but, hear me out, it may be counter-productive to the conversations taking place right now. This takes place over 30 years ago, it’s Alabama, and there is so little nuance to the racism that white people in 2020 can say, “Well, it’s not like that anymore. That is racism. I would be against that, anyone would. That racism is systematic… but the system has changed.” Again, I appreciate them sticking to the BOATS, but we don’t get the courtroom drama I was expecting. In fact, Stevenson does such an incredible job (right out of law school, which I don’t think is a thing anymore? I believe capital cases require seasoned attorneys) that he not only gets his client the retrial, but the charges thrown out completely with a motion — the best outcome he could ask for. Watching Herb (Rob Morgan) get executed was rough. I mean, the electric chair itself is enough to make your stomach churn — and from what I’ve read on the topic in Dead Man Walking, they laid off the gore here — but just making him sit there and get his entire body shaved, even his eyebrows, makes you sick. The sentiment of how a country treats its poor and condemned, not the rich and privileged, is a wonderful sentiment similarly shared in Endo’s Silence, “Christ did not die for the good and beautiful, but for the miserable and corrupt.” (para.)
The Possession (2012)→ (52) As an exorcist connoisseur, I’ll give the vast majority of the sub-genre’s films a shot. And while The Possession did have a few interesting changes of note, it was largely predictable with a pay-off not worth the build-up. The movie gets right down to business with a box, etched with a Hebrew inscription, mumbling something in a foreign language, forcing an elderly woman (Anna Hagan) to twist and contort to death… so I had believed. It was actually a pretty gnarly and promising opening scene. I’ll add, however, that it was a disappointment this woman didn’t come back into the plot, even after they made the point of showing she was alive. The meat of the story is predictable and can be summarized as divorced father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) struggles to connect with daughter (Natasha Calis), who becomes obsessed with, and subsequently possessed by… something in the box. Then there is a bunch of “young white girl does progressively crazier shit because she’s possessed,” followed by her father seeking conventional medical treatment, a specialiast/professor (Jay Brazeau) of occult, a religious individual (Matisyahu) to fight spirit — pretty standard. That being said, although the “rogue priest fighting Satan/demon” is one of my favorite archetypes, I really enjoyed the Jewish angle and always wondered why there weren’t more exorcism-like films in different religions, as so many believe in similar evil spirits. As mentioned above, freakin’ bonus that — “HaShem’s rays fire blaze burn bright and I believe” — Matisyahu was the exorcist. I did find it a bit comical that he had to travel all the way to Brooklyn, from I think Virginia or North Carolina(?), to find a Jew… The exorcism itself also offered something different, as there was a literal little creature inside of the girl, like a little gollum sitting snug up against her ribcage, just chillin’. I mean, this is what we’ve been waiting for and it just didn’t deliver. It was in this weird kind of slow-motion with Matisyahu reciting the Torah in the whirlwind until the dybbuk named Abyzou (Cameron Sprague) just kind of crawls out of father (he’s the possessed one at this point) and slunks back into the box. There’s maybe one or two flickering fluorescent light scenes that give a little scare, but it was a meh reveal. The film ends in typical “you haven’t seen the last of me!” fashion. I definitely cannot recommend The Possession to the general viewer, and maybe for the sub-genre fan, just to say you’ve seen it.
Short Term 12 (2013)→ (82) The second film on this “additions” directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy being the other), Short Term 12 portrays the complexity of child abuse, social workers, parental rights, and the legal system in which it operates. The chemistry between Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) was a delight. Rami Malek’s character, Nate, on the other hand, was a complete waste of space. I understand he’s supposed to be the vessel through which we are pushed into the group home — the film begins on his first day as a volunteer — but he is so out of place and ineffective that he reminded me of one of those good-intentioned American teenagers who go to Africa to build homes, only to have the locals re-do the work at night. The intimacy of the camerawork, if at times claustrophobic, made the home feel tight and on-edge, even when engaging in something as simple as morning work group — you know, the typical seated circle where feelings are to be discussed, always to the chagrin on its circulants (word mine). I also wanted to note Kaitlyn Dever’s performance as Jayden, the snarky, borderline acerbic, newcomer to the home whose story becomes central to Grace’s arc. My only real gripe is why did Grace immediately make the appointment for an abortion, then tell Mason they’re having a baby and accept his proposal, only to revert back to her original decision (which she then flip-flops on again)? It felt like the whole reason for the initial appointment was so she could drop the line “I already made the appointment”. Was it supposed to be a trial run of some sort and she reserved her spot in case she wasn’t satisfied with the results? Wherever this was, it didn’t seem like abortion openings were few and far between. The tear-jerker ending was deserved and satisfying.
Uncut Gems (2019)→ (89) The Sand Man kills it as Howard Ratner, the diamond dealer, in this high-octane thriller featuring The Weeknd (as himself), Ethiopian Jews, loan-shark muscle that don’t take no crap, and Kevin Garnett. The Rotten Tomatoes score of (92/52) as I write this is wild — 40 points is an enormous difference, and I’m gonna have to side with the critics on this one. I have such a weak stomach for gambling that I can barely watch someone else bet on sports. You know Howie has a problem from the beginning, as he’s already gotten himself into deep shit with Arno (Eric Bogosian), the loan shark whose thugs always seem to be right on Howard’s tail. Much of the criticism I read had to do with the film having no “likable characters”. First, I disagree and find many of the characters very likable, just not in the conventional sense, and second, we’re dealing with Midtown, diamond-district, precious gem dealers and gambling addicts, not the best place to find likable people — since when did “likability” become the only driving force of an entertaining story? You root for the guy despite the fact you’re feeding his addiction — the alternative would only get him killed. Sandler does these little gestures throughout the film that I loved, including, stepping on the bathroom scale when he’s arguing on the phone and when he takes this little, barely noticeable, moment of reflection after making the KG sale and throwing the whole score — a score that would pull him out of his tub of hot water — on tonight’s game. Even still you cannot tell me anyone in any audience anywhere is hoping he loses that 6-way parlay so “he learns his lesson”. Bullshit. Can’t stop when you’re hot. I loved Idina Menzel’s portrayal of Dinah, Howie’s non-shit-taking Jewish wife and also of Julia Fox’s Julia De Fiore, Howie’s paramour and very likable character, I might add. I know Uncut Gems just dropped on Netflix, that’s how I watched it, so I’m sure many who hadn’t viewed it yet will do so soon, but I’m not gonna spoil the ending anyway. Let’s just say, throw a dollar in the “jarring jar” for this guy.
Hustlers (2019)→ (81) With an excellent 2000s soundtrack, Jennifer Lopez looking like that at 50, and a cohesive story that pulls you through till the end, Hustlers delivers as not only a unique take on a crime drama, but as a snapshot of the service industry pre and post 2008 crash. The mentor-mentee relationship turned friendship between our protag, Destiny (Constance Wu) and Ramona (Jennifer Lopez), is in the lavender-gel spotlight. We follow Ramona teach Destiny the basics of working the pole, which, after seeing the way Ramona lives, makes Destiny absorb everything she has to say or do about making it in the biz. Post-crash, the women need to get creative as the cash flow from conventional stripping has all but dried up — unless they want to give $300 blowjobs in the champagne room. Oh, the times they are a changing. Like any crime drama, you know the good times can’t last forever, and had Destiny been running point, it may have lasted a little longer. I perked up when in the beginning the “based on real events” flashed onto the screen, but at the end of the movie, I couldn’t believe their racket lasted as long as it did. Some highlights were the Christmas scene with Grandma (Wai Ching Ho) sharing her story about Frankie Valle, the drug-making montage, the trial and error montage of their scheme, and, of course, “Motherfucking Usher is here!”. Oh! And I loved seeing Mercedes Ruehl as “Mama”. I am curious why during the “2014” scenes with the journalist (Julia Stiles) they never address why Destiny is living in an obviously beautiful home in a well-manicured neighborhood while everything had fallen apart and Ramona was working in a cramped desk job. I’m assuming that after clearly showing Destiny had the best head on her shoulders throughout, and after being the only one to take the plea deal, she made something of herself while Ramona took a different path. However, none of this is addressed (or it is and I missed it).
The Andromeda Strain (1971)→ (65) A science fiction film for the sci-fi fan, and no one else, I don’t think Michael Crichton, the author of the novel with the same name, would’ve minded that. While I can appreciate some of the cool practical effects and split-screen shots, there was too much science-talk and not enough danger — it was marketed as a “thriller” after all. An unknown, untraceable virus of some kind has (almost) completely wiped out a small town in New Mexico. The flyover over the infected town and the search thereafter was chilling, even if there was a deadpan “Look at his buttocks.” ‘That’s not funny.” Line was laugh-out-loud funny, and I don’t think it was meant to be. The best part of the film was the subterranean, multi-layered complex in the Nevadan desert and other space-agey outfits, colors, and science therein. Kate Reid as Dr. Ruth Leavitt was a fun character, even if she became a little too curmudgeony after a while. It got a little confusing when there were simultaneous issues concerning the complex, and its biochemical warfare-researching creation, and the virus itself. But most disappointingly, we 1. Do not get to see any aliens, and 2. Do not get our requisite complicated scientific issue rendered into an easily understandable analogy. The Andromeda Strain should either be a COVID-era, masochistic viewing or as a strike-through on the sci-fi canon. Other than that, probably doesn’t have much appeal.
Marty (1955)→ (64) I’d had Marty on my watch-list since it was an answer to a question in Quiz Show. It took home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay at the 28th Academy Awards. It has a (100/87) on RT… a (100) from critics! To put it bluntly, I expected more, literally — I’ll get to that. Marty Piletti (Ernest Borgnine) is a guy you root for right away, in everything — with his butcher shop, with women — and Borgnine’s portrayal of the titular character is why this film is placed in the (60)+ recommends. Moreover, his mother (Esther Minciotti) is a lovely character who perfectly embodies the “careful what you wish for” idiom. I believe this film resonated with so many, and still does to this day, because it is about two “ugly ducklings,” way past their prime, finding each other in a world filled with intrusive Italian-American mothers pestering anyone over 25 about when they’re going to settle down and have a family. By the way, these guys are brutal about the way they talk about Clara (Betsey Blair). Say what you want about the gentlemen of the 1950s, I don’t think men talk this way about women to each other anymore, but that’s a generalization for another convo. As hinted above, my absolute biggest issue with the film is that it builds this interesting tension between multiple characters, and then it just ends. Kaput. I honestly thought one of my cats stepped on the remote and fast-forwarded to the end. Yes, the film is from 1955, things were different, but as a reference, I checked all of the other Oscar-noms for the same year and each one is longer, most closer to 2 hours where Marty clocks-in at 90 mins. It needed that other 30 minutes. I want that other 30 mins. It didn’t feel like a bad ending, but no ending at all.
Freaks (2018)→(86) Freaks delivers as the kind of movie-length, (early) Black-Mirror-like Sci-Fi you need. Its low-budget is a testament to the writing, acting, and plot — how low, I was unable to find, and I cannot believe it was only $2,000. Most importantly, the film keeps you engaged as the plot releases pieces of information that you begin to place into a puzzle to create context. The one-sentence tease on my TV was barely enough for me to click-on it — the Emile Hirsch casting put it on my watch-list. Like all children in dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies, Chloe (Lexy Kolker) can’t seem to follow instructions meant to protect her. Unlike (most) children in dystopian/post-apocalyptic movies, Chloe has… powers. The film is only a couple of years old and not well-known, so I’m going to refrain from spoilers, but the concept of the “crazies” or “abnormals” and how to tell them apart from “us”, the ADF (think Sci-Fi ICE, but more murdery), and Madoc Mountain — a super-max torture-prison that could be a little more well-guarded — create a futuristic society that doesn’t seem too farfetched from where we’re headed. Of course, without the superpowers. While it has obvious political messaging, it doesn’t come off as preachy, unlike (late) Black Mirror. Freaks is yet another excellent example of indie films doing on a shoe-string budget what studios can’t accomplish with truckloads of cash-money.