Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exploitation Sampler

Inspired once again by Pure Cinema Podcast, whose most recent episode is what they call a "sampler platter" of various flavors of exploitation (blaxploitation, hicksploitation, Canuxploitation, sexploitation, etc.), I wanted to offer up a sampler platter of my own.

BLAXPLOITATION -- This subgenre has some obvious classics, like Sweet Sweetback's Baadassss Song, Blacula, SuperFly, Coffy, Shaft, etc. And my own choice might seem obvious as well, but I couldn't resist.

PUTNEY SWOPE (1969)

Putney says she's gotta have soul! No list of exploitation movies is complete without this one. Directed by Robert Downey (original recipe), who also ended up dubbing the voice of the main character himself, this movie was kind of a forerunner of the blaxploitation subgenre. After the head of the executive board of an ad agency dies (in one of the most hilarious scenes I've ever seen -- "How many syllables, Mario?"), the token black man on the board (the titular Putney, played by Arnold Johnson) is accidentally made the new boss, and he proceeds to turn everything upside down. The story is a pretty basic "power corrupts" narrative, but the real magic of the movie is in the series of commercials made by the fictitious "Truth and Soul, Inc." -- particularly the ads for Face Off face cream, Ethereal Cereal and Fan-A-Way ("You can't eat an air conditioner.").

I had the privilege of seeing a 40th anniversary screening of this in Harlem in 2009, with Downey in attendance, and it's one of my favorite experiences of living in New York.


HICKSPLOITATION - I went a bit outside the box for this one. We tend to think of hicksploitation as strictly taking place in the American South, but I submit that you don't have to be southern to be a hick. In fact, you don't even have to be American.

THE WICKER MAN (1973)

I defy you to tell me this isn't hicksploitation. I'm sure most people familiar on any level with the horror genre have seen this, but I think it's kind of interesting to look at it through the hicksploitation lens. The plot is the plot of nearly every hicksploitation flick ever made. A city-dwelling interloper (Edward Woodward) goes into a remote, rural area. He almost immediately meets with resistance from the mysterious and creepy locals, but he doesn't do himself any favors by not respecting their customs and culture. He is tempted by the farmer's daughter (or in this case, the landlord's daughter -- a naked, wall-slapping Britt Ekland). He comes face to face with the village's leader (Christopher Lee), whose proxy in most of these films is a small-town sheriff. And no matter what he thinks is going on, the truth is way more messed up than he anticipated.


CANUXPLOITATION - I'm not sure I have a handle on what does or doesn't count as Canuxploitation and what's just a Canadian film, but after consulting the exhaustive list on canuxploitation.com, I settled on this one, which I saw a few years ago and highly enjoyed.

CANNIBAL GIRLS (1973)

Starring Andrea Martin and an extravagantly afro'd Eugene Levy, and directed by Ivan Reitman, this is your basic Texas Chainsaw setup, but plays much more as a spoof. One stand-out feature (which is explained in the film's amazing trailer) is that the movie sounds a kind of bell tone whenever something gross or scary is about to happen -- to alert the more squeamish members of the audience so that they can look away. It might not be the best movie of its kind, and it's frequently an uneasy mix of horror and humor, but it's certainly entertaining and you can see why Reitman and Levy and Martin all went on to have noteworthy careers.


SEXPLOITATION - I'm not as well versed as I might be in this particular subgenre, and there are a lot of "nearby" genres that often get mistaken for this one. But I went with a movie from a known purveyor of a very particular type of sexploitation -- Jean Rollin.

FASCINATION (1979)

I was tempted to go with Rollin's Requiem for a Vampire (aka Caged Virgins), which I like slightly better, but that movie leans a bit more to the horror end. This movie also has a good bit of horror, but it leans more toward sexploitation. This subgenre often dovetails with horror, especially the surprisingly robust "lesbian vampire" canon, and Rollin made a lot of films like this. Like a lot of European erotic horror, it's best not to try too hard to nail down the plot. Basically, a thief, after cheating his partners out of their share of loot and running off, takes refuge in a mountain chateau. He encounters two beautiful women and tries to intimidate them, but he turns out to be in way over his head and gets caught up in a ... well, it's not entirely clear. A love triangle? A vampiric cult? Both? Whatever it is, there is no moment in this film more amazing than the scene depicted above, in which Eva -- clad in nothing but a black cloak and boots -- lays waste to the thief's remaining accomplices with a big ole scythe.


EXPLOIT ANYTHING - For the wild card slot, I'm swinging for the fences, exploitation wise. I've talked about this film before, but it's been a while. A classic I first encountered at BNAT back in 2004.

TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN (1972)

I guess this would most accurately be categorized as toysploitation? This movie might be easily discarded as trash, but while it's certainly sleazy, it's also pretty danged good. The narrative structure is provocative in a way that you don't normally see in films like this. Wait -- films like this? Scratch that, there are no films like this. The very first thing you see in the film is our heroine, Jamie, writhing on the bed, caressing a plush toy soldier and moaning "Daddy," so right away you know you're in for a wild ride. As you might guess, Jamie has severe daddy issues, brought on by her own father's abandonment and her mother's verbal abuse. She also has an unusually fierce attachment to toys (her main connection to her father being the toys he gave her when she was little). Not as lurid as it undoubtedly sounds, this movie nonetheless forces viewers to join Jamie on her obsession spiral, which takes her from toy shop employee to unhappy wife to New York prostitute as she gets closer and closer to realizing her twisted fantasy. The climax of this movie is just flipping unreal. I can't believe this movie exists.

Monday, January 1, 2018

2017 in Film - The Favorites

I did 20 honorable mentions, listed in alphabetical order because I had a hard enough time narrowing down and ordering the top 10.

HONORABLE MENTIONS


Baahubali 2: The Conclusion - I thought nothing could top the beauty, majesty and utter insanity of the first film. I was wrong. I do prefer this one, because we spend more time in the flashbacks (and the courtship story is not as creepy as the one in the first movie). I’m not the biggest fan of the music in these movies, but Devasena’s “lullaby” to Amarendra is lovely and one of my favorite scenes. (available for rent on streaming services)

Blade Runner 2049 - Gorgeous and epic, and it gives a new richness to the original film. I wish it had been better with its female characters, but the world building is pretty fantastic. It’s wonderful to see Harrison Ford as Decker again, but make no mistake, this is Gosling’s movie. (available on streaming services)

Brawl in Cell Block 99 - From the moment Vince Vaughn tears up a car with his bare hands, I knew I was in for a ride. Vaughn has been pretty hit and miss but this was a great role for him — no sass, just a simple man trying to look out for his family. This movie is unbelievably brutal, but truly great, and I wish it had been advertised more aggressively and found a bigger audience. (available on streaming services - Amazon has it for $0.99 right now)

Call Me By Your Name - Beautiful and devastating. Where the heck did Timothée Chalamet come from? And why did it take so long for someone to figure out how to best use Armie Hammer? Will I ever be able to eat a peach again? Homosexuality issues aside (ba-dump-bump-chhh), the story unfolds like any romance between two people with a bit of an age gap where it’s impossible to take things beyond the infatuation of a summer. I love that they don’t really like each other at first and that it takes a while for the sparks to really ignite anything. And is there anything more heartbreaking than the final shot of this movie under Sufjan Stevens' "Visions of Gideon"? (no longer in theaters, not yet streaming)

Colossal - This is such a great movie, and I wish it had gotten more attention (and perhaps been advertised a bit better, though part of the magic of the movie is how it surprises you). Anne Hathaway is falling apart in her hometown when she discovers, on a hungover morning, that she has a kaiju avatar in Seoul, North Korea. It only appears when she steps into a particular small park and once she figures out what’s going on she manages to make things right. But that’s only half the story. Jason Sudeikis is an absolute dick in this movie — toxic masculinity run amok. Unfortunately a movie very much for our times. (available on streaming services)


Dunkirk - Most of you have surely seen this by now. A brilliant examination of three perspectives on the “miracle at Dunkirk” - from sea, from land, and from air. It took me far too long to get the hang of the different time settings, but it’s a very clever way to thread the stories together. One drawback for me is that it feels too detached. I don’t know any of these people, and that’s probably the way it’s supposed to be, but it’s harder to get invested that way. It’s a spectacular achievement nonetheless. (available on streaming services)

Girls Trip - If you didn’t see this in a theater full of people, I don’t know that watching at home will give you anywhere near the same experience. This is a wild ride from start to finish, and *another* film this year where someone has sex with a piece of fruit. Regina Hall, Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett-Smith are all in fine form here, but the true star of this movie is Tiffany Haddish, whose wild antics give the film much of its humor but who also gives it a lot of its heart. (available on streaming services)

Good Time - After a bank robbery goes badly, Robert Pattinson spends the rest of the night trying to raise the money to get his mentally handicapped brother out of a Rikers Island holding cell. Like the characters in Dog Day Afternoon, this guy survives one crisis only to find himself neck deep in another, and so on and so forth. I really liked this, not only for Pattison’s incredible performance but for its bleary-eyed neon-soaked visuals that reminded me of Taxi Driver and the synth pop pulse that reminded me of an 80s Tangerine Dream soundtrack. I suppose that makes it sound derivative, and I guess in a lot of ways it is, but it steals from the best so who cares? (available on streaming services)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer - I liked this even more than The Lobster, and I love that Yorgos Lanthimos has found a kind of muse in Colin Farrell. Here, Farrell plays a doctor who is forced to make an impossible choice after losing a patient. Nicole Kidman plays his chillingly practical wife, and Barry Keoghan (who also appeared in Dunkirk) is our villain, who makes eating a plate of spaghetti into the most horrifying and threatening thing on earth. This movie makes a commitment and sticks to it through the bitter end, and it goes to some dark and hilarious places. The scene where Farrell’s character goes to his kids’ school and interrogates the principal to figure out which of his kids is “better” is one of my favorite moments of anything ever. (available on streaming services)

Lady Bird - I can’t quite nail down why I didn’t connect as much with this as everyone else seems to have, but I’d never deny that it’s a well-made film that has a lot of great things to say. The relationship between Christine and her mother is wonderfully real, and Beanie Feldstein is the best thing in the movie. This is a rare movie that’s about the lower middle class — the people who have been struggling the most since the economic meltdown. I do love Christine’s taste in music and related so hard to her indignant response to being judged for having a “greatest hits” compilation (“but … they’re the greatest”). Despite my relatively lukewarm (though still warm!) reception to this movie, I’m very eager to see what director Greta Gerwig (I love saying that) does next because she is one of my favorite people. (still in theaters)


Lady Macbeth - A Victorian drama with tremendous bite and a wonderful lead performance by newcomer Florence Pugh. Pugh plays Katherine, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage who is willing to go to any lengths to have the life that she wants. Florence’s connection to her Scottish counterpart is not exact. Rather than power, she seeks sexual freedom, which was itself a kind of power for women of the time. The movie also has some subtle things to say about white supremacy. (available on streaming services)

Logan - What a great farewell for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It’s not often we get to see the latter days of a superhero’s life. They’re constantly being reinvented and rebooted with new, young actors so that we’re spared this part of the story (because this part is depressing as hell). And as sad as Logan’s role in this is, Patrick Stewart’s declining Professor X is even more heartbreaking. And don’t even get me started on the incredible Dafne Keen. (available on streaming services; on HBONow for free)

Logan Lucky - Ocean’s Eleven with rednecks is the simplest summary, but this is a bit more than that. The characters in this movie are incredibly smart, even sophisticated in their own way, and their motives (Jimmy’s, anyway) are more sympathetic. And in a year where a third of all movies, it seemed, used a John Denver song, there was no better use than “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in this movie. (available on streaming services)

The Lost City of Z - I had no idea what this movie was before slapping eyes on it, but it’s really remarkable. Based on the true story of Percy Fawcett’s explorations of the Amazon and his efforts to find the lost city, it’s a welcome example of a story that takes great pains to make the case that there was indeed civilization before white people started invading the world. Charlie Hunnam is good, but Robert Pattinson outshines him a bit. (available on streaming services; free on Amazon Prime)

Mudbound - I had several chances to see this on a big screen and I blew it, having to settle instead for my television. This is a beautifully shot movie about two families — one black and one white — who work on the same land and struggle to co-exist (and just exist in general). I hated Jonathan Banks SO MUCH in this movie. Mary J. Blige gives a wonderful, understated performance that I hope gets recognized on the awards circuit. (available on Netflix)


Okja - Another one I wish I could have seen on the big screen, but I don’t think I ever had a chance to. This movie made me care way more than I expected to about a giant CGI pig. It’s not the first film to exploit our stubborn separation of animals we love and animals we eat (which are frequently the same animals), but it very effectively sets up its heroine as a David fighting the Goliath of the meat industry, while also bumping up against an animal rights group that has its own motives.  An exceptional film. (available on Netflix)

The Post - Another film for our troubled times. This is Meryl’s movie, period, and it’s her best performance in years. I mean, she’s always great, but she’s truly exceptional here as Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. The other MVP is Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, who actually procured many of the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsberg. This is a great celebration of the media’s role in holding the powerful accountable, but I’m not sure how much power a paper like this has nowadays when anything you don’t like you can just declare fake until people forget about it. Still a great movie. (wide release Jan. 12)

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women - Seems a strange coincidence that this came out the same year as Wonder Woman, but it does add some meaningful context. This is based on the real life relationship between William Marston (creator of Wonder Woman), his wife Elizabeth, and a woman named Olive who was Marston’s teaching assistant and who becomes romantically involved with both of them. We see how this relationship and the two women inspire the creation of Wonder Woman and how they struggle as an unconventional family in the 30s and 40s. There aren’t many movies about polyamorous relationships, and they’re usually presented as salacious, but this was beautifully done. (only available on DVD/Blu for now)

Thor Ragnarok - The exact kick in the pants these movies needed. So much humor and connection to the rest of the Marvelverse — I usually find the endless easter eggs and references to the other characters’ movies tiresome, but the Thor movies have been somewhat distant from all that up to now, so the connections feel more fresh. Hela is a welcome addition to the saga, and I loved the subtle condemnation of colonialism. (still in theaters)


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Goes in directions you don’t expect, and that’s exciting. Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell are the MVPs (Rockwell’s arc makes the movie, in my opinion), but Woody Harrelson gives a beautiful performance as well. The script also boasts the best line of dialogue of any movie this year — “Penelope said ‘begets’?” (still in theaters)

**********

And now...

THE TOP TEN


Ay, mi familia, oiga, mi gente, canten a coro
Let it be known
Our love for each other will live on forever
In every beat of my proud corazón!

I cringed pretty hard when I first heard about this movie, because while Pixar is one of the more progressive studios, they're still overwhelmingly white. And here they were making this movie about Mexican culture -- how was this not going to be hugely awkward and embarrassing? It's a good thing, then, that they stacked the cast and crew with massively talented Mexican storytellers and actors. From the moment I heard the Disney fanfare played by a mariachi band I was in love. Coco is steeped in the rituals of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), a tradition where families pray for and remember those they have lost. People bring gifts and food and other offerings to encourage the souls of the departed to visit them. The plot here is fairly standard Pixar stuff, but the visuals are some of the most vivid and beautiful in any of their films. It might seem strange that a movie where most of the characters are skeletons is so bright and uplifting, but it feels like the true spirit of the Day of the Dead. Not sombre, black-draped mourning, but a brilliant celebration of life and the generations that have gone before. And the music! Everyone loves "Remember Me," and it's getting the big awards push, but my heart belongs to "Proud Corazón" (quoted above). (still in theaters)



Nancy gets hit once, and the whole world shits! For me, it's an all-the-time occurrence!

Unable to reconcile the highly conflicting stories told respectively by Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly, the filmmakers decided to just show the audience everyone's point of view and let them decide what they feel the truth is. For my part, as someone who followed figure skating in the 1990s and went to a "Tonya vs. Nancy" party in college during the '94 Olympics, this movie forced me to seriously reconsider what I had always thought about Harding and the whole "kneecap" affair. (I'm convinced she had no part in the actual assault -- she wanted to defeat Kerrigan too badly to cheat herself of the satisfaction of outskating her.) And though she does dole out more blame to others and never really accepts any guilt herself for any of her misfortunes, you do get the impression that she never really got a fair shake, particularly in the skating world, where the judges only saw her as white trash who didn't belong in their rarified world. Performances in this movie are off-the-charts great. Margot Robbie is equal parts vulnerable and tough, and Allison Janney has literally never been better (no, not even in The West Wing, if you can imagine). (still in theaters)



These are the rooms we're not supposed to go in... But let's go anyways!

This movie takes place in a world I never knew existed, and if this story were told from anyone's point of view but Moonee's, it would be unbearable and exploitative. We see a summer in Orlando, Florida through the eyes of a six-year-old who lives in a pay-by-the-week motel with her indifferent mother. The reality of her life is objectively terrifying, but she doesn't see it that way herself and her perspective gives the movie a bizarrely magical quality, making you *almost* forget to feel sorry for her. The movie's cast of mostly unknowns is breathtaking, anchored by a thoroughly engaging Brooklynn Prince, who defies the scores of cloying, clever-beyond-their-years child performances that came before her. Willem Dafoe does some of his best work to date here as the motel manager who is a reluctant psuedo-parent, and Bria Vinaite -- who director Sean Baker found on Instagram and who never acted before this -- is astonishing as Moonee's mother. This movie has one of the greatest endings ever, and while everyone will talk about Moonee's breakdown or whether or not everything that follows is really happening, *the* moment for me is Jancey's reaction, which is the purest "I got you, girl" I've ever seen. (still in theaters, though not for long)



What's my stance on 9/11? Oh um, anti.
It was a tragedy, I mean we lost 19 of our best guys.

There are two ingredients I have always considered the secret weapons to making great romantic comedies: (1) fantastic supporting players (such as Carrie Fisher and Bruno Kirby in When Harry Met Sally) and (2) something going on other than the love story (e.g., the political goings on in The American President, the turbulent baseball season in Bull Durham). You've got to have at least one of those two things, in my opinion, but The Big Sick has both. In many ways, this movie is really a love story between a guy and his girlfriend's parents, perhaps more so than between the couple (whose relationship, until the very end, only spans the movie's first act).  Kumail Nanjiani (who plays himself, or a version of himself) wrote the movie with his wife, Emily Gordon (a version of whom is played in the movie by Zoe Kazan). Based on the actual events of their courtship, this movie beautifully explores the meat of relationships beyond the flurry of attraction and the initial stages of dating -- what happens when you actually try and merge your world with someone else's, taking on all the quirks of their life while asking them to take on yours. (available on streaming services; free on Amazon Prime)



The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.

I've long been a fan, but I fell deeply in love with Edgar Wright this year, both as a filmmaker and as movie enthusiast in general. I love that he came out of what must have been a disappointing experience with Ant-Man and decided that this was his next step. A movie he'd been wanting to make since well before the Cornetto days. A loving homage to the car chase movies of the 60s and 70s and an absolute feast of perfectly chosen songs (sweet mercy, that first six minutes!). That's right -- a friggin' car chase musical! There's a great deal of flash in the cast, including a boss cameo by Paul Williams, but it's all anchored by an understated (and frankly underappreciated) performance by Ansel Elgort. All of Wright's films reward multiple viewings, but this one especially seems to have about a million easter eggs and I'm still trying to find them all. I think of all his filmography so far, Hot Fuzz still has my heart (I could watch this gif on a loop until I slipped into a coma), but Baby Driver is a bold and ballsy step in a completely different direction and I am one hundred percent here for it. And it makes me incredibly excited to see what he does next. (available on streaming services)



If I could, I would have voted for Obama for a third term.

Remember when we elected Barack Obama and white people thought racism was over? Then the 2016 election happened, and we learned what black people had known all along? Like another film on this list (see #1), this movie could not have come at a more auspicious time. Get Out brilliantly punctures the hubris and complacency of white liberals who consider themselves allies because they have non-white friends, vote for a black president, and use "woke" hashtags on Twitter, but nevertheless contribute to white supremacy. It's also a reminder that you don't have to use the n-word or fly a Confederate flag to be a racist. Perhaps my favorite thing about this movie is that (SPOILER) there is not one single "white savior" to be found; I'm certain that a white director would have had at least one white character who was a "good guy" who stepped in to save the day or at least said "hey, that's not right." Jordan Peele has no time for #notallwhitepeople, and his movie is all the more powerful for it. (available to stream on HBONow)



Your mum was tough at first. Kept saying I was her best friend at school. It drove me nuts! It's not like she had a boyfriend. Just me. And then we had our first kiss. And I understood.

One of my main takeaways from this movie is that hazing in French veterinary school is hella hardcore. Our heroine, lifelong vegetarian Justine, is starting at a vet school which her older sister is already attending, and after one hazing ritual where she is forced to eat raw rabbit kidneys, she descends into a spiral of insatiable hunger (of many kinds, but most especially hunger for raw meat). Filmmaker Julia Ducournau very cleverly gets the audience on Justine's side by putting her into a situation at the very beginning where she is being yelled at and forced to do ridiculous, humiliating things, which compels us as viewers to mentally rebel against it along with her and therefore identify with her. She then spends the next two hours challenging that identification by showing us Justine's cannibalistic impulses and compelling us to see the humanity in them. Heavily influenced by the work of Cronenberg, Ducournau uses the language of body horror to tell a story about growing up and figuring out who you are, and about how doing that changes the way you see the world and your place in it. Not for the squeamish, but a very rewarding watch if you dare. (available on streaming services)



Don't you start using that filthy, little word, "chic."
Whoever invented that ought to be spanked in public.

On the surface, a movie set in the world of high fashion in 1950s London is not a movie I would have expected from the filmmaker behind Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Inherent Vice. Daniel Day-Lewis (in what he claims will be his final role) plays a renowned fashion designer who has a strict routine and very particular ways of doing things. He's had a series of muses who he eventually discards (usually with a parting gift of one of his gowns), but his latest one, Alma, upsets all that and upends his neatly ordered universe. Anderson is playing a bit in Hitchcock's sandbox here -- the film bears a passing resemblance to Rebecca and maybe a little Rear Window -- but that should not suggest that this is derivative. It feels like an old fashioned movie but the relationship and power dynamics are handled with a modern touch. You already know Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal, so I won't belabor that point except to say that he still is. I don't know where Vicky Krieps came from, but I demand to see more of her because she is gobsmackingly great in this, as is the always great Lesley Manville who can take a gesture like pushing her hair behind her ears and give it the oomph of a Rocky montage. There is a wealth of rich detail in the production design and the costumes (the dress pictured above nearly made me cry) and the food. And it's all tied together with an astonishingly beautiful score by Jonny Greenwood. (wide release Jan. 19)



He's a wild creature. We can't ask him to be anything else.

There's a moment in this movie that so thoroughly charmed me that I melted nearly to the floor of the theater. The story is essentially Creature from the Black Lagoon but where the Creature gets the girl. There are so many moments that could have been disastrous and unintentionally funny, but Guillermo del Toro's empathy, imagination and skill as a filmmaker make it work exceedingly well. To the point that I'm confident saying this is his best work to date and is a textbook example of that corny term "movie magic." This movie is about outsiders, and it's incredibly satisfying to watch this band of misfits come together and carry out a heist (not to mention overcome a villain who has a winning ticket in Bigot Bingo). Everyone in this movie shines -- Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones -- but none more so than the spectacular Sally Hawkins, whose joy and heart practically bleed onto the screen. (still in theaters)



Only love can save this world. So I stay. I fight, and I give ... for the world I know can be.

This is a movie I needed this year in so many ways. A female-directed, female-centered movie that I could wholeheartedly support, and not just because another one might not get made otherwise, but because it was genuinely good. A movie with a woman hero to whom it does not occur that she shouldn't speak up in a room full of men, to whom it does not occur that she should cover her entire body in clothes that restrict her ability to move so as not to be objectified or be a "distraction," and who cannot fathom a cause so hopeless that it isn't worth fighting for. In a year of "nevertheless, she persisted" and women speaking uncomfortable truths about powerful men, Diana the Wonder Woman is a hero that women desperately needed. And it's incredible to have a film version of her that's iconic in it own right and truly honors who Wonder Woman is. The image above might as well be the symbol for women in 2017.

Go back and listen to the old theme song from the Wonder Woman television show. I would particularly draw your attention to the lyrics "Make a hawk a dove ... stop a war with love ... make a liar tell the truth" and "Stop a bullet cold ... make the Axis fold ... change their minds ... and change the world." I know the wait was ridiculously long for a movie about Wonder Woman, but I think it could hardly have come at a more appropriate time. (available on streaming services)

2017 in Film - Errything Else

Top 10s and honorable mentions aren't enough. I simply have to write *something* about every new thing I saw this year. Split into categories, as usual.

FOR EVERY ACTION … THERE IS A JACKSON

Lots of wildly different action films this year — from sword fights to car chases to shootouts to outer space shenanigans.

Jailbreak - Cambodia’s first action flick and it shows, but there’s a lot to like here, especially all the kickass ladies (something that is apparently a revolutionary idea in Cambodia).

The Great Wall - Not great, but not bad at all, and not the “white savior” narrative you might think it is. It is strange to see Matt Damon in this kind of movie, though.

Blade of the Immortal - Brutal and bloody and just what you’d expect from Takashi Miike. Lovely relationship between the immortal samurai and his charge. I still prefer 13 Assassins.

The Fate of the Furious - I think the series peaked with 4 and 5, but this is still a highly enjoyable entry in the Toretto saga. I love how these movies take antagonists and just absorb them into the big family.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets - This is visually stunning and worth watching for the market scene alone. It gets less great toward the end, but I still liked it a lot.

Atomic Blonde - I had a couple of problems with it (guys, we can’t use “Putting Out the Fire” anymore because Tarantino already immortalized it), but it’s still pretty great. Another Charlize Theron Will Destroy You role.

John Wick: Chapter 2 - I love love LOVE this universe, and I was beyond happy that this movie expanded it beyond what we see in the first movie. The ending is the perfect cliffhanger to make audiences (well, certainly ME) want to see more IMMEDIATELY.


AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS

This was a banner year for horror and horror-adjacent movies. You will see more of them in my honorable mentions and top 10.

Applecart - Barbara Crampton is great in this, as she is in pretty much everything, but she’s not quite enough to save the rest of the movie.

Life - This is a straight-up Alien ripoff, but it mostly works. The ending still makes me mad.

It Comes at Night - This reminds me a lot of It Follows or Messiah of Evil — a psychological horror movie that gets its juice from a creeping dread that eats into every corner of the film’s world. It’s sad a lot of people expected something else and blamed the movie for not being that.

The Wall - This looks like a war movie, and it is also that, but it is definitely a horror movie. It’s like if the first 10 minutes of Scream were stretched out over a full movie. Couldn't help thinking of Return of the Living Dead and "send more cops."

Split - A welcome return to form for M. Night Shyamalan, but without the obligatory “big twist.” Okay, there’s a little twist, but the Big Moment comes much earlier, when the girls realize all those people are actually one person.

It - I never saw the original miniseries, but I feel like I don’t need to now. This movie has a great cast with excellent chemistry, the new Pennywise is *deeply* terrifying, and it means something to me that I’m exactly the same age as these characters (or I *was* in the year it’s set). This movie also made me want to listen to NKOTB again.

Super Dark Times - Wonderful, character-driven horror movie (some people might call it a thriller, I guess, but I think it’s horror). It reminded me a lot of Chronicle in its character dynamics. The first 10 minutes should be taught in every screenwriting class.

Prevenge - Funny but also effectively scary. Compelled by what she believes to be the commands of her fetus, a pregnant woman seeks revenge on those she blames for her husband’s death. Alice Lowe directed and starred in this while she was actually pregnant. And filmed most of it in about two weeks.

Gerald’s Game - This is EXCELLENT, and it’s a shame it never saw a real theatrical release (though it did get some festival play). Carla Gugino is amazing, and I will remember the “de-gloving” scene for a very long time. Last few minutes nearly ruins it, but it’s still great.


BASED ON A TRUE STORY

True stories are one of the four food groups of movies, and there were some good ones (also some ehh ones) this year.

Rebel in the Rye - Fairly by-the-numbers biopic about J.D. Salinger writing (and dealing with the success of) Catcher in the Rye.

The Greatest Showman - Highly (wildly, even) fictionalized version of the rise of P.T. Barnum. Musical numbers feel anachronistic and often awkward, but “This Is Me” is a genuinely great moment. 

Detroit - Accurate or not, this movie was incredibly painful to watch. And not necessarily in a good way. Goes well past the point of too far and almost feels irresponsible.

My Friend Dahmer - Jeffrey Dahmer: The Teenage Years. Works well as a teen drama, even without the true story element. Man, those kids had no idea who they were dealing with.

Battle of the Sexes - Emma Stone is wonderful. Steve Carell is over-the-top, but that’s the idea. I loved how the Billie vs. Bobby story was framed by the fight for better compensation for women tennis players across the board.

Darkest Hour - Gary Oldman chewing every bit of scenery he can find, and it’s great. I fear this will turn out to be a movie for our times. If so, Churchill’s example is a good one — there is no negotiation with men like Hitler.

All the Money in the World - All most people will talk about with this movie is the reshoot with Plummer, but that’s a disservice to the excellent work by Michelle Williams (this is *her* movie), Mark Wahlberg, and the movie’s MVP in my opinion, Romain Duris. Another great example of creating tension when most people already know the ending.

Molly’s Game - Aaron Sorkin becomes a director with this movie, though he’s always written like one. Jessica Chastain is phenomenal and Kevin Costner reminds us why he’s a star. A bit like The Big Short in how it addresses the audience and uses visuals and graphics to help people understand what’s going on.

The Disaster Artist - This was in my top 10 for a while, but it’s faded a lot as time has worn on. It’s very entertaining, but I’m afraid people are learning the wrong lesson about The Room with this movie. An entertaining bad movie is still a bad movie. The thing that sticks with me the most is the scene where Wiseau humiliates the actress and the script supervisor and DP stand up for her. I couldn’t help thinking how many movie sets there must have been where no one ever did that.


DOCS

I did not get to many documentaries this year. I never do, but TWO?? I’m ashamed of myself. I should have seen Jane, at least.

Haunters: The Art of the Scare - Takes a brief dip into the history of haunted houses and how it used to be such a Thing for churches to put them on. But the character studies of the people who do these and spend enormous amounts of their own money to construct these scare factories is the fascinating part. Screw that McKamey guy, though.

Step - This was really, really good. You get so invested in these girls and their successes both on the stage and in real life as they struggle to get into their desired college or find a place in post-high school programs. This is such a make-or-break time for all of them and you feel that through the whole movie.


REMAKES

None of these were really necessary or broke new ground, but they all have their virtues.

Beauty and the Beast - Emma Watson is seriously miscast here. Belle is not the same person as Hermione. Loved Gaston and Lefou. Loved “Evermore.”

The Beguiled (2017) - Beautifully made, but not as compelling as the original (to me, anyway). And I *hate* that they cut the Hallie character.

Murder on the Orient Express - Lovely. Great opening sequence establishing who Poirot is. Excellent cast. Love that Branagh manages to make it suspenseful, when surely most people have seen the original or read the novel.


FRANCHISES/SEQUELS/REBOOTS

Some movies that would go here also fit other categories, but here’s “the rest” of them.

Cars 3 - I actually kind of liked this (more than Cars 2, anyway) and like several franchise movies this year, it had good things to say about passing the torch to a new generation.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - I love these movies, including this one. I just wish they had paid a bit more attention to the series mythology. Great to see Will and Elizabeth again; they were sorely missed in On Stranger Tides.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle - Not quite as good as the first one, but still highly enjoyable. I love it when a villain kind of has a point. And I *loved* that they took what a lot of people saw as a crass “butt stuff” joke from the first movie and turned it into an actual relationship.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 - Not quite at the heady heights of the first one, but Kurt Russell and his epic hair are unforgettable. And let’s not forget the true hero of this movie — Mary Poppins, y’all.

Kong: Skull Island - Loved the nod to Hell in the Pacific. Loved how flippin’ enormous Kong is. As always, I wish Brie Larson had more to do.

Lego Batman Movie - Favorite Batman movie since the Burton days. 

War for the Planet of the Apes - Epic, emotional conclusion to this prequel trilogy. It’s criminal that Andy Serkis’s work doesn’t get more love from awards bodies.


GOOD HEAVENS, DON’T MAKE ME GIVE THIS A NUMBER

One of these I’m too emotionally attached to to give a proper ranking. The other is so WTF that I can’t possibly stack it against any of the other films. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which. :P

mother! - This was insane and beautiful and amazing. Aronofsky was given a ton of money and just went balls to the wall, riffing on creation and inspiration and how we’re destroying the planet. Bless him. If I learned one lesson from this movie, though, it is to never, EVER sit on an unbraced sink.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Haters, please familiarize yourself with the left-hand evacuation procedure. You had to know, if they were going to be making more Star Wars movies, that this would HAVE to happen eventually. We have our trilogy with Luke and Leia and Han. Now it’s time for a new generation of heroes, and I could not be more excited. (Also, I don’t care what anyone says, I LOVE the casino sequence!)

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2017

Most years, in addition to my top films of a particular year, I like to copy from Rupert Pupkin Speaks and do a list of film discoveries -- vintage movies that I saw for the first time this year. I saw around 95 "new to me" vintage movies and here are 10 standouts.

(Note: It may go without saying, but I usually don't include obvious classics here, because I'd rather spotlight relatively lesser known or less appreciated films. A few of these *are* pretty obvious classics to many, but I just didn't want to stack the list with stuff like Elephant Man and Twelve O'Clock High.)


Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
1965
dir. Russ Meyer

I’d seen a couple of Russ Meyer’s other movies, but never this classic. Three wild, unapologetic nasty women raise absolute hell for most of this movie — driving fast, breaking necks, kidnapping innocents, and using their womanly wiles to try and find the location of some hidden cash. This is subdued by Meyer’s later standards, but he’s on his own scale.


Shakedown
1988
dir. James Glickenhaus

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t something this genuinely good. Okay, Sam Elliott and Peter Weller don’t have the best chemistry, but they don’t spend a ton of the movie together anyway. The movie has some pretty great action set pieces (the roller coaster omg!), and I love that the hero succeeds because he’s good at his job, not because of some plot device. Weird side note: I always think of the Bob Seger song when I see the title, but it was on the Beverly Hills Cop II soundtrack and has nothing to do with this movie.


The Driver
1978
dir. Walter Hill

This was only Walter Hill’s second movie, and it’s completely amazing. Obviously a huge influence on Drive and this year’s Baby Driver, this is a fairly lean movie, with characters that are more archetypes than fully fledged human beings. That’s not a criticism, by the way — we know no more about the main three characters than we absolutely need to, and it’s just what the movie needs. There are a bunch of great car chases in and around LA, and it's all centered on a role that handsome blank slate Ryan O’Neal was born to play.



Four Times That Night
1971
dir. Mario Bava

I caught this during Quad Cinema’s "Bava-thon" and was delighted to scratch this deep cut off my to-watch list. It employs one of my least favorite tropes, but it’s done cleverly enough that I actually was charmed by it. We see four different versions of what happened between a man and a woman on a date, so it’s basically Sexy Rashomon. I usually associate Bava with his thrillers and gothic horror movies, but this cheeky gem is a nice change of pace.


Road Games
1981
dir. Richard Franklin

I wrote about this one in the "What the Truck" entry for my horror triple features series, so I won't repeat myself. But in case you missed it … Stacy Keach as a bleary-eyed truck driver. Jamie Lee Curtis as an adventurous hitchhiker. Grant “Stunt Rock” Page as a serial killer.

I loved this so much.



Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II
1987
dir. Bruce Pittman

I don’t know anything about the original movie other than that disco scene, but it doesn’t matter because this one completely stands alone and is AWESOME. Bless all the incredible 80s fashion in this movie. Bless the plot device of Mary Lou having being killed in a tragic stink bomb accident. But most of all, bless Mary Lou and her barren field of f***s to give.




The Hidden
1987
dir. Jack Sholder

My favorite by far of this year’s "Dismember the Alamo" festivities. This movie boasts Michael “Flashdance” Nouri and Kyle “Blue Velvet” MacLachlan (Twin Peaks was still a few years off) and was directed by Jack “Nightmare on Elm Street 2” Sholder. It’s basically a buddy cop movie where one half of the duo is a body-swapping alien hunting another of his kind. Nouri and MacLachlan are great together, and it’s pretty gory for the late 80s. It also has a bitchin’ theme song


Yentl
1983
dir. Barbra Streisand

If you are a fan of Barbra Streisand, you’ve likely already seen this; if you’re not, I don’t know that it’s for you, but I suspect you might be pulled in by it if you can get through the first 15 minutes or so. For years I had let this movie’s reputation among its detractors keep me from watching it, but I’m so glad I finally saw it. Following the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to study the Torah (which is forbidden to women), this movie is kind of revolutionary in its use of the musical numbers and how it plays with diagetic and non-diagetic music. The sexual dynamics are pretty fascinating as well, even by today’s standards.


7 Women
1966
dir. John Ford

When I think of John Ford, I think of classic westerns and war movies and rugged manliness. So this film, his final completed film, was a complete surprise to me. Anne Bancroft (taking over for Patricia Neal) plays a doctor who takes a post at a mission in rural China run by mostly women (and Eddie Albert). There’s some cringey “yellow face” (including Woody Strode in a small role), but otherwise this is a pretty outstanding flick.



Donkey Skin
1970
dir. Jacques Demy

I was compelled to watch this because Anna Biller (director of The Love Witch) talks about it all the time and has been frequently inspired by it. All I can say is … wow. Wait, that doesn’t mean what you probably think. Catherine Denueve plays a princess whose recently widowed father has decided he wants her to be his next wife. And before you can say “Toys Are Not for Children” she gets the heck out of Dodge to go and live in the woods.  Can't say I blame her. This movie has things you simply would not believe — a king whose throne is literally a giant plush cat, a donkey that poops gold and jewels, a princess who clones herself in order to bake a cake. And the costumes! They must have blown half the budget on the gowns alone! This movie is bazonkers in the best way.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day the Final


Today's movies don't really have much in common except that they're horror movies and they all feature characters who are dressed up in costumes. But it felt like a fitting way to close out the Halloween season.

HELL NIGHT (1981)

Linda Blair, several years out from The Exorcist, leads this cast of fraternity/sorority wannabes who have to spend the night in a spooky mansion as part of their hazing (why the guys and gals all seem to be pledging the same organization and why there are only four of them is unclear). Their tormentors have devised a bunch of fake scares for them, but some very real (and very deadly) scares are in store for them instead. This movie is pretty goofy, especially at the beginning, with some laborious joke set-ups, but I love that everyone is in costume and the story that gives us the background of the spooky house is pretty well done. This movie also boasts a rare character who actually acts in his own interest and is proactive - CONCEPT!


TERROR TRAIN (1980)

The old "prank gone awry" chestnut is so much of a trope that I almost made it a triple feature of its own. This prank is particularly sick -- perhaps even worse than the pig's blood prank in Carrie, if you can imagine such a thing. The use of costumes in this is actually relevant to the plot, since the killer keeps exchanging costumes with their victims, which means no one knows anything fishy is going on until well into the movie. This movie boasts Jamie Lee Curtis post-Halloween and not many more actors of note. It also features David Copperfield as a (wait for it) magician, but not as himself -- the kind of magician who would take a job entertaining college kids at a party that takes place on a train. This is a pretty cool slasher, even if for a brief period of time the killer strongly resembles film critic Gene Shalit.


TRICK 'R TREAT (2007)

This movie is a new Halloween favorite of mine and it's a shame it never got a proper theatrical release. It's an anthology film, but not like most that you're used to. Rather than being short stand-alones, these stories all happen on the same night, in the same town, and overlap and criss-cross in unexpected ways. Over the course of the film we see: a father carving "pumpkins" with his son; a group of Sexy Disney Princesses (pictured above) out for a wild night, teasing the youngest among them about her "first time"; a group of kids paying their respects to children who tragically died many years before (and another entry "prank gone awry" pantheon); an old man terrorized by ... well, I'm not sure what to even call it; and a few other little plots that tie things together. A new horror classic, as far as I'm concerned, and it's juuuust scary enough to be fun.

***

I hope anyone who read these enjoyed them, and perhaps tried one of them out for themselves. Happy Halloween, everyone!

Monday, October 30, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 5

Final girls are a staple of the horror genre, and particularly of slashers. There's a pretty famous list of tropes final girls are supposed to adhere to, but no final girl fits them all. Heck, they're not even all girls (*waves to Jesse from Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and Alfred from The Burning). They're definitely the last victim left alive, the closest thing horror movies have to a heroine/hero. They usually defeat the villain (often with a phallic weapon). They're sympathetic in some way, usually fulfilling the "good girl" role (she's either a virgin or she doesn't drink or do drugs like the other characters). And she's usually the only one who takes the villain seriously from the beginning, while everyone else laughs off the "legend" or whatever device the movie has concocted for telling us about the Big Bad.

If you're a horror fan, there are probably a bunch of final girls you'll instantly think of -- Laurie Strode (Halloween), Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Sally Hardesty (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), Ginny Field (Friday the 13th Part II), Kirsty Cotton (Hellraiser), Ellen Ripley (Alien), Sidney Prescott (Scream), etc. But I want to shine a light on a trio of lesser known (or perhaps just less frequently heralded) final girls.



Nora Davis, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1963) -- This movie is technically a giallo (though originally written as a romantic comedy), but these movies were the forerunners of slashers and Nora (played by Leticia Roman) was a prototypical final girl. Stranded in Rome after the death of her aunt, and believing that she has witnessed a murder, Nora's life becomes as exciting as the mystery novels she's constantly reading. Why, she's even cavorting with a young John Saxon! She may be a bit hysterical, but she's also clever, resourceful and tenacious. A worthy predecessor to the likes of Laurie Strode and Chris Higgins.

Jess Bradford, BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) -- Jess (played by Olivia Hussey) has something not many final girls have. A fully fledged character arc. Probably her only rival in this respect is Sidney Prescott, but Sidney gets four movies while Jess has to win us over in just one. The abortion subplot may seem a little out of left field, but not only does it give us a great red herring in Jess's overwrought pianist boyfriend, but it also gives us a lot of subtle character development. She bucks the "good girl" cliche (which didn't even exist yet) but proves you don't have to be a goodie two shoes to be a good person.

Erin Harson, YOU'RE NEXT (2013) -- I almost feel sorry for the killers in this movie. (Almost.) They've shown up like they're in a heist movie, but they soon find themselves in a zombie apocalypse movie (not really, but with the same level of carnage), up against Erin (Sharni Vinson), who seems like she's already lived through one of those and knows all the tricks of survival. Her closest spiritual predecessor among the final girls is probably Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street, but even Nancy could never have dreamed of being *this* badass. Nancy studied survival techniques only after she found herself in a crisis. Erin has all that knowledge ready to go. No preparation montage required.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Halloween Horror Triple Features, Day 4

One of my FAVORITE horror tropes -- and one of the tropes that genuinely scares me the most -- is the conspiracy plot, the idea that everyone is in on it but you (or the main character, rather). The feeling of not being in control and that everyone else is operating under a different set of rules or different information than you is TERRIFYING. Sometimes these fears are unfounded, but I really love the ones where the fears are justified and the character has to deal with how far the conspiracy goes and who they can and can't trust. Here are three movies that utilize this trope extremely well.


GET OUT (2017) -- The newest addition to this trope, and a confronting look at race in America. Chris goes with his white girlfriend to spend the weekend with her parents, and even before the usual horror stuff starts, the racial awkwardness is already horrifying. From the cop's profiling of Chris to Dean's interrogation to every horrific conversation at the garden party ("Is it true? Is it better?"), this movie is as deliberately cringe-inducing as any David Cronenberg body horror. Like a lot of movies of this subgenre, Get Out gets a lot of mileage out of making you suspicious of something (like a phone being unplugged) and then undercutting it with the knowledge of how ridiculous it sounds to speak that suspicion out loud. Surely it can't be what it looks like -- that's ridiculous! Right? TSA Rod's conversation with the cops is this whole trope in a nutshell. We know what he's saying is (mostly) right, but it sounds so insane you wonder why he thought anyone would believe him. (Strangely not available to rent online. You can buy a digital version on most streaming sites, but it costs about as much as buying a physical copy.)

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) -- I love Mia Farrow's Rosemary more and more every time I watch this. It would be easy to read her as a weak, passive character, but in truth she's anything but. She's suspicious of the Castevets almost immediately, but her husband assures her that there's nothing to worry about. Her biggest mistake is trusting him, but who would suspect their spouse of the things Guy is doing? Especially at that time when gender roles were so different than they are now. Rosemary puts up a good fight, though, and it's only through deception and manipulation (Guy is just disgustingly passive aggressive and gaslight-y) that the devil worshippers are able to keep her under control. I still say she should have known something was up, though, when they were able to afford an apartment in that building, which in real life is one of the most famous and exclusive buildings in New York. (Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.)

SOCIETY (1989) -- A good percentage of this movie is cheesy 1980s "rich people partying" goodness, but there's a lot going on here and it's frighteningly relevant to our current times. (There's a theme song that actually has the lyric "when you get tired of winning." #somuchwinning) This movie is one of the better examples of undercutting the protagonist's point of view, because Billy does have genuine psychological issues and hallucinations. And feeling alienated from his family could just be a result of his having his own life and his own friends. The third act has to be seen to be believed, and it's a vivid (and perhaps on the nose) metaphor for how the rich suck the life out of the poor. (Streaming on Shudder.)