Saturday, February 29, 2020

I Heard You Paint Houses

Films: The Irishman
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

While I’ve never shirked from long movies in the past, I can’t say that I’m always geared up for them. The Irishman is far and away the longest movie on the latest batch of Oscars, so when I had a spare day to watch it, I did. Kind of. I watched about 2 ½ hours of it and finished it up in the morning. Seriously, it’s a long friggin’ movie. It’s also very much a return to Scorsese’s roots, as well as the roots of much of his main cast. It was probably a foregone conclusion that The Irishman would score a slew of nominations, and now that I’ve seen the movie, I can understand why.

This is the story of Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a simple Teamster who ran a route delivering meat. Through a series of chance meetings and coincidences, Frank became involved in the Pennsylvania Bufalino crime family headed by Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). Through additional connections, Frank eventually becomes an enforcer and semi-bodyguard for Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Frank, we quickly learn, has no qualms about killing, something he learned in Italy in World War II. As it happens, this turns out to be a very useful skill.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Quatermass Lite

Films: X: The Unknown
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I have a penchant for 1950s science fiction and horror movies. There’s something pure about them that I love. Don’t get me wrong—I love the later stuff and the current stuff, too, but there is a particular vibe to the science fiction in the Cold War/Space Race years that I love. Hammer Studios was a big part of that, and so I’m always interested when one of these comes in over the transom. In this case, that’s X: The Unknown, a film that deals with the idea of nuclear power and radiation in a world that was steal dealing with the literal and figurative fallout from Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Like a lot of the science fiction movies from this era, the emphasis is going to be less on the science and far more on the fiction. Soldiers on a routine training assignment in Scotland are learning to use a Geiger counter when a new source of deadly radiation appears, killing one of the soldiers and burning another one badly. Two scientists, Dr. Royston (Dean Jagger) and “Mac” McGill (Leo McKern), both of whom have atomic energy backgrounds, are called in to investigate.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


Film: Carriers
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Plagues are inherently scary, I think. When it comes to movie monsters, in most cases, or at least some of them, it feels like you can fight back against them. Sure, most of us are going to be dropped pretty quickly by a vampire, but with a sharpened stake, at least you’ve got a chance. Someone’s gonna end up being the final girl, after all. But with plagues, it feels like there’s not much that can be done. With the coronavirus now moving through the world, the idea of a killing pandemic is especially terrifying. So, naturally, I watched Carriers, a film about a virulent plague that more or less wipes out the entire planet.

We’re not going to see a lot of the plague here in terms of masses of people dying. Carriers starts with the unnamed plague having more or less wiped out most of the human population. We have four people driving in a car to start with. These are Brian (Chris Pine), his girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), his brother Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), and Danny’s putative girlfriend Kate (Emily VanCamp). We learn about the plague more or less from a bit of exposition right before the title card drops. The plague is highly contagious and anyone coming into contact with a plague carrier needs to disinfect anything that that person has touched in the last 24 hours. Plague carriers are also highly contagious themselves, as the contagion is airborne.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

I'm Not Crying, You're Crying

Films: Toy Story 4
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

Fucking Pixar. As a film company, they’ve finally had a few missteps and films that haven’t really attracted much acclaim, but when they are good, there’s no studio better. I was initially very worried when I heard that a Toy Story 4 was in the works. They’d ended the trilogy well, getting the toys through to Andy going off to college and passing them on to a new child. There was nowhere the story needed to go, and tacking on a fourth film honestly felt like it was going to be a cash grab. But I’ll be damned if they didn’t make this work, produce a tremendously good story with some genuine laughs, and get to an ending that makes sense and, hopefully, legitimately ends the series on a very high note.

You should know the basics here. Cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks) and spaceman doll Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) now belong to young Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). This is a difficult transition for Woody, who for years was Andy’s favorite toy. Now, he is frequently left in the closet, his sheriff’s badge being placed on cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack). Woody is feeling ignored, since all of the other toys are getting played with. When Bonnie goes off to kindergarten orientation, Woody sneaks inside her backpack.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Not Another Power Tool Movie

Films: Saw III
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

I suppose since at this point I’ve watched more than half of them on the main list, I’m actually pursuing the They Shoot Zombies list of horror movies. There is literally no other reason I would have spent time today with Saw III, which is thankfully the last of the franchise on the list. I just hope it stays that way.

The Saw franchise is a great exemplar of the notion that not only do sequels tend to be worse than the original film, but that they get exponentially worse as time goes on. Admittedly, this is a trend frequently bucked, but the basic idea is still a common one, and this franchise might well be the poster child for it. The original Saw is surprisingly good. At the very least it’s a great idea for a film—a serial killer offers people a chance to save themselves by earning their freedom, generally through some trial of terrible physical pain and suffering. The killer, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), has a philosophy that thinks people should appreciate their lives. Most don’t, he believes, and thus he sets up these gruesome contests to make those who survive appreciate the lives they have.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

One is Too Many

Films: The Two Popes
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

Say what you will about NetFlix, but the company is aggressively going after talent. At least two of the Best Picture nominees from the recent Oscars were NetFlix movies (Marriage Story and The Irishman), and they are absolutely seeking top talent both in terms of actors and directors. The Two Popes was directed by Fernando Meirelles, the director who also made City of God. For the average person, that might not mean a great deal but for even casual movie fans, that’s a quality pick up.

The Two Popes is not some wacky alternate universe where there are two guys living in the Vatican sharing duties (although that would have been fun), nor is it a clash between the guy in the Vatican and the Coptic patriarch in Egypt excommunicating each other (although that would have been entertaining). No, this is the much more prosaic story of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. We go more or less from the death of John Paul II through to the abdication of Pope Benadryl and the election of Pope Frank. If it seems that I’m being glib, well…I am.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Melt It Down

Films: House of Wax (2005)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

There are horror remakes and there are horror remakes. The Mystery of the Wax Museum was given a very straight, standard remake in the 1950s starring Vincent Price, with the name changed to House of Wax. It was a lot of fun, adding in goofy 3D effects and playing up the camp. Someone had the bright idea to make a film with the same name, but with nothing beyond the presence of a wax museum in common with the original story. That’s a problem, because the original story was fun, and this version stinks on ice.

The House of Wax remake comes from 2005, right in the middle of a collection of horror movies that decided gore and torture was a good substitute for old-fashioned horror. What this means is that we’ll be focusing a great deal on gore here, using that to generate disgust more than it generates real fear. This is a gross-out movie wearing the clothing of classic horror.

Saturday, February 15, 2020


Films: Dracula: Dead and Loving It
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on various players.

How exactly does this happen? There was a time when Mel Brooks was the best and most fearless satirist and comedian in Hollywood. This is a guy who did both Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles in the same year. This was a guy whose first movie as a writer and director won an Oscar for its screenplay. And the last movie he ever directed was Dracula: Dead and Loving It, which is like Stanley Kubrick ending his career with The Room.

This is going to be a relatively short review because it’s goddamn depressing. Brooks was once incredibly edgy. Blazing Saddles--still funny after 45 years—was incredibly edgy in 1974. Characters said things that were dangerous in that movie, and did it for a laugh. And the guy that wrote and directed that movie ended his directorial career with a “comedy” so timid that it takes not a single risk.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Opera, Yes. Phantom? Not as Much

Film: Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

I’ve seen multiple version of Phantom of the Opera, and I have to say that going in, I was interested in the 1943 version of the story. Some of that comes from having Claude Rains in the title role. The Phantom is not really one of the Universal monsters in any real sense. There was no series of films concerning the character and no continuing mythology beyond this one story. Part of that probably stems from the fact that, unlike many of the other Universal monsters, the Phantom is literally just a man. He’s not supernatural or devolved or anything else—he’s just a crazy dude with scars.

Another reason I was intrigued by this version of the story is that one of the leads is played by Nelson Eddy. I’m not much of an opera fan and I can’t say I love the stylings of Eddy that much, but it would be interesting to see a role in the film really handled by someone with impressive pipes.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Worst of the Worst?

Film: Plan 9 from Outer Space
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on The New Portable.

Just as people are going to go back and forth about what is the greatest whatever in history (greatest basketball player, greatest book, greatest television character, etc.), they’re going to fight about the worst as well. I’ve gone on record as saying that Andy Warhol’s Vinyl is the worst movie I have ever seen, even reserving the ½ star rating on Letterboxd for it. But everyone is going to have a different idea of what’s the worst movie ever made. Sure, Vinyl is my pick, but I’d rather rewatch it than a number of other movies I can think of (Salo, for instance). One of the contenders for many people, at least years ago before the days of the internet, was Plan 9 from Outer Space.

So let’s discuss that for a second. How bad can it really be? The truth is that it can be pretty bad, and it is pretty bad, but it’s nothing like the worst movie ever made. It’s goofy and silly, terribly acted, has a ridiculous plot that makes no sense, and a set design and special effects that were made on a budget less than that for a fast food meal for two. Plan 9 from Outer Space is inept in every way it can be.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

The Devil's Playthings

Film: Idle Hands
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on The New Portable.

Horror comedies are evidently really hard to make. I say this because so few of them are any good. The vast majority of them appear to be comedy first, horror second. This works out to the detriment of both the comedy and horror elements. Oh, sure, there are some really good ones out there (Tremors, Slither, Shaun of the Dead and any number of others), but most of them aren’t funny and even fewer are actually scary. Idle Hands manages a few laughs and no scares, so I guess in that respect it’s slightly ahead of the curve.

There’s a surprising amount of plot for such a nothing of a movie. At least there are a lot of plot elements with which I need to contend. Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa) is a high school burnout who wants nothing more from life than to sit on the couch, watch television, and smoke a huge amount of pot. This is a philosophy shared with and endorsed by his two friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson). Despite his constant television watching, Anton is unaware of a killing spree going on in his town that has recently included his parents. This is despite the fact that Anton himself is responsible.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Why Remake This?

Film: Maniac
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on The New Portable.

Remakes tend to have a poor reputation, and with reason. Frequently they are made as something like a cash grab, trying to capitalize on name recognition. There was a decade or so-long trend of immediate American remakes of Japanese horror movies, most of which were terrible and most of which seemed to be nothing more than trying to make a buck from an audience that won’t watch something with subtitles. Still, I can understand the appeal of a remake. Your story is already written, and if you feel like you can add something to the way in which that story was told, the remake seems like a perfect choice. All of this leads me to a single question: of all the movies that someone could remake, why in hell would someone want to remake William Lustig’s Maniac?

Yet, that’s where we are here, with a 2012 remake of a film that feels honestly like the actual film stock was made of oil and grease. This remake features two things that make it perhaps more interesting than the original version. The first is that it stars Elijah Wood as the deranged killer obsessed with mannequins who goes around New York killing women, scalping them, and attaching their hair to his mannequin collection with a staple gun. Do yourself a favor—reread that sentence, since that is the plot here, and decide whether or not this is worth your time. The second potentially interesting fact about the film is that it is filmed like a first-person perspective video game. While Wood appears in pretty much every shot, we see his face only in mirrors and similar objects.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Thing's Starring Role

Films: I Lost My Body (J’ai Perdu Mon Corps)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

It seems that in a futile effort to watch as much as possible before the surprisingly early Oscars ceremony this year, I’ve decided to focus almost entirely on the Best Animated Feature category. At least that’s where my reviews have been for the new additions. I Lost My Body is the oddball entry into the category. There’s often one film that is either substantially unusual in some way or that is clearly not made for children. Traditionally, this is the “Oscar is really stretching out to reveal exciting and interesting film” nomination, and it’s one that has no chance of winning.

So what can I say about this film? It’s certainly unusual, and it’s one of those movies that has a long and storied path of getting made. It spent a good seven years in development, only to be released, nominated for an Oscar, and immediately picked up by NetFlix.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Stop Bugging Me!

Films: Phenomena
Format: DVD from NetFlix on The New Portable.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I’m not a massive fan of a lot of Italian horror. So much of it turns out to be nonsensical in my opinion. I get the sense in many cases that a lot of Italian horror—Dario Argento’s films as much as anyone else’s—are not written with the plot in mind. Argento seems to write with scenes he wants to film and then writes something that sort of loosely connects them. That seems like the case with Phenomena, a film that has particular plot points that seem like they should be important and then turn out not to be.

So let’s dive into this thing head-first. We’re going to start with a murder—a young woman gets abandoned by a tour bus somewhere in Switzerland, gets attacked, and is beheaded. Eight months later, Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) show up in roughly the same area as a new student for that favorite of all Argento tropes, an all-girls school. We’re going to learn three things about Jennifer that are of varying levels of importance based on what you think the movie is going to be about. First, she is the daughter of a famous actor. Second, she frequently walks in her sleep. Third, she has the ability to talk to insects.