Monday, November 30, 2020

Never Bet Against a Sicilian

Film: Lamerica
Format: DVD from Addison Public Library through interlibrary loan on the new portable.

The story is that when the new version of the 1001 Movies book was created, the movies that were removed left a gap in 1994. This is why, out of the blue, there was a new 1994 entry. While ’94 is already a relatively packed year for The List, there are a few missing films that would have been very nice additions. Speed, for instance, is a 1994 movie. So are Shallow Grave, Leon, Quiz Show, Ed Wood, and Interview with the Vampire. But instead, we get Lamerica.

I’m not going to go off on a rant here, because, for what it’s worth, Lamerica won a few awards. It does seem like an odd pick, though, which is something I feel like I can say about roughly 15% of the full 1001 Movies list. There’s always been an aspect of The List that feels like it’s there to show off a little. There are plenty of movies that certainly belong for one reason or another that are instead ignored for what feels like movies listed specifically for cinematic hipster reasons. “Oh, I’ve seen this obscure film from Cote d’Ivoire. You probably haven’t heard of it.” And so, we get Lamerica instead of the excellent movie-related biopic of Ed Wood, the ridiculous pop goofiness of Interview with the Vampire, or Danny Boyle’s brutal big-screen debut.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Now That's a Winning Smile!

Film: Mr. Sardonicus
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I am not someone who believes much in the concept of the “guilty pleasure.” No, I affirm that the movies I like are movies that should be enjoyed. Even movies I know are objectively bad--Soldier, Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, Pootie Tang--are ones I freely and happily admit that I enjoy. And so, it’s without irony and without any shame that I say that I love the work of William Castle. Castle’s movies for the most part weren’t that good objectively. What they were, though, was filled with gimmicks. From the electrified seats of The Tingler to the “Fright Break” of Homicidal, Castle was a genius of weird gimmicks and promotions. His greatest may well have been the “Punishment Poll” designed for Mr. Sardonicus. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Our film opens with Castle himself talking to the audience about what they should soon expect from the movie they are about to see. We’re going to be going back in time to the late 19th century in London, where we will meet Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis), a skilled doctor assisting a young patient. Cargrave is dedicated to his work, but when he receives a letter from an old flame, he cancels all of his appointments indefinitely and heads to the Continent. Here he is taken to the castle of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), who has married Cargrave’s ex-fiancee, Maude (Audrey Dalton).

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

There's Something in the Water

Film: The Crazies (1973)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

Say the name “George Romero” and pretty much everybody is going to think of the zombie films. If you’re not a horror nerd, it can be difficult to think of anything that Romero did that wasn’t awash in the living dead. The Crazies (sometimes called Code Name: Trixie) is one of those Romero films that is easy to forget or, honestly, not know about. There’s a lot here that feels very much like what you’d expect from a George Romero film, though, including some very zombie-like behavior.

I also have to say that the middle of a pandemic is probably not the right place to watch a film like The Crazies. The elevator pitch is that a plane carrying a deadly strain of bacteria (or a virus—they call it both) goes down near a small down in Pennsylvania. The bacteria gets into the water supply, and over the next couple of days, it starts to affect the townspeople. The two results of being infected are either death or insanity, and those who go insane also become homicidal. Of course, the military shows up to try to shut things down, but in George Romero’s world, the military is as incompetent as everyone else, and things quickly spiral out of control.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

This is Why I Don't Trust the Clergy

Film: House of Mortal Sin (The Confessional)
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I love when a movie or show seems to be prescient. I recently watched the Watchmen television show, which came out in 2019. Everyone in the show wears masks, and at one point, someone literally says the words, “Masks save lives.” So much of that show feels like it actually came out this year. House of Mortal Sin, also known as The Confessional has a bit of prescience in it as well. While it’s not the first film to have a wayward and cruel member of the clergy, it does very much feel like the first film to feature a clergyman who is both the villain of the story and who is clearly motivated by sexual frustration.

The film opens with the evident suicide of a young woman. We then meet Jenny Welch (Susan Penhaligon) almost being run down in the road by her old friend, Bernard Cutler (Norman Eshley). It turns out that Bernard is now Father Cutler and has been placed in this parish. Later that day, Jenny heads to the church, hoping to find Bernard in the confessional. Instead, the confessional is manned by Father Xavier Meldrum (Anthony Sharp). Jenny, unwilling for whatever reason to tell him the real reason she is there, instead confesses to problems with her boyfriend, and also to having had an abortion in months prior.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

They'd Never Try This in Queens

Film: Vampires vs. the Bronx
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

While there are plenty of zombie films since George Romero failed to copyright Night of the Living Dead, There is probably no movie monster with more movies than the standard vampire. Because of this, it’s hard to do something really new with the monster. There are particular tropes we expect when it comes to vampires, and then there are tropes we expect for movies that attempt to do something different. Vampires vs. the Bronx is much more of the first variety. This is, essentially, Attack the Block but with vampires instead of aliens.

We’re going to spend most of our time with Miguel, also known in the area as Lil Mayor (Jaden Michael) and his friends Bobby (Gerald Jones III) and Luis (Gregory Diaz IV). The three of them more or less grew up in the local bodega, run by Tony (The Kid Mero). But the neighborhood is in trouble. More and more of the buildings are being purchased by a new real estate company called Murnau. And, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Murnau is actually run by vampires (after all, it’s named after the guy who directed Nosferatu). The vampires are assisted during daylight hours by Frank Polidori (Shea Whigham) while the kids, especially Miguel, do what they can to save the neighborhood.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

All Wrapped Up

Film: The Mummy’s Ghost; The Mummy’ Curse
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on basement television.

I’m continuing to find my way through the Universal monster films, and have now made it to the end of the Mummy franchise, more or less. With The Mummy’s Ghost, we’re going to get a great deal of movie packed into a one-hour running time. We’re also going to get Lon Chaney Jr. playing the title character. It would seem that eventually, all roads lead to Lon Chaney Jr. in the Universal monsters world.

We’re going to start with a lot of exposition, giving us the back story of how Kharis (Chaney) become the undead monster he is. It’s the way all of these movies start, more or less. We learn about Kharis and his love for Princess Ananka. An attempt to raise her from the dead gets Kharis cursed for all eternity, and naturally his tomb was eventually discovered and his body brought to America. Now, his new high priest, Yousef Bey (John Carradine!) must retrieve the body of Kharis and Ananka and bring them back to Egypt.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Marlboros and Sweat, Perhaps?

Film: Her Smell
Format: DVD from Cherry Valley Public Library through interlibrary loan on the new portable.

There are actors who define generations of film. Meryl Streep is clearly one of those actors. I think the same will be said of Saoirse Ronan, but it’s also increasingly something that I think needs to be said of Elisabeth Moss. Best known for her role in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Moss has been putting together a string of performances that demonstrate just how good she is in just about any role she’s handed. I expect her to be nominated for an Oscar in 2020, either for The Invisible Man or for Shirley, but we really should have been talking about her a couple of years ago in Her Smell.

Her Smell is an episodic story about a punk rock star with the stage name of Becky Something (Moss), one of the truly great punk names ever created, along the lines of Jello Biafra, Cherry Vanilla, and John Doe. Becky’s band Something She is formative for punk, and specifically for women-driven punk. Along with bandmates Ali van der Wolff (Gayle Rankin) and Marielle Hell (Agyness Deyn), Something She has become a force in the music world. But, as the film starts, the entire enterprise is starting to break down.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Cheaters Sometimes Prosper

Film: The Guardsman
Format: Internet video on laptop.

Adolysti has come through once again. Just as I was resigned to leaving the Oscar list at “all but 8,” Adol found The Guardsman online. Not only does this get me that one step closer (and almost certainly the final step from these earliest years), it completes both Best Actor and Best Actress for 1931/32 for me. In fact, it completes the entirety of the 1930s for both of those categories.

My initial experience with this was similar to the one I had with Libeled Lady. I went into The Guardsman completely cold. In both cases, my first thought was that the movie was going to be serious. The original picture I had found for The Guardsman looked like it was a serious, tragic romance. It’s not. It’s a farce and a screwball comedy, and it’s a very good one, very much like Libeled Lady in that regard.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Under the Streets of Paris

Film: As Above, So Below
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

I’m not a huge fan of the found footage subgenre. In fact, one of the only things that makes them remotely tolerable for me is that they tend to be pretty short, so they don’t hurt my brain and eyes that much. As Above, So Below manages to buck that trend, sadly, running just over 90 minutes. It also follows a very different path from the typical found footage movie. This is not going to just be running around with an unfocused camera always getting to what is happening a few seconds late.

In the way the story works, there are a number of parallels I can draw to As Above, So Below. The first and most obvious connection is that it’s very much an escape room. A group of people are put into a terrible and dangerous situation and more or less have to think their way out of it. Naturally, not everyone makes it out. What we’re going to get is a lot of puzzle solving while weird and supernatural things are happening. There are also similarities here to books/movies like The Da Vinci Code in that we are dealing with ancient relics and secret codes designed to keep a particular treasure hidden, which means there’s a touch of National Treasure here as well. There are elements of the Indiana Jones style films here as well—booby trapped passages and weird occurrences make this a natural connection.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Bad Dog! No Biscuit!

Films: The Curse of the Werewolf
Format: DVD from Nippersink District Library through interlibrary loan on downstairs television.

Of all of the monster genres, werewolf movies might be the most interesting to me in a lot of respects. There are dozens of takes on the vampire myth, many different Frankenstein stories, but werewolf stories all tend to have one aspect in common: they are almost uniformly tragic. It’s something we get from The Wolf Man when the old fortune teller says “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” That’s the tragedy of the basic story. No one chooses to be a lycanthrope, but is cursed to become a beast beyond their control. This is exactly the ground we’re going to travel for The Curse of the Werewolf.

To get there, though, we’re going to have to take a very strange path. We start with a beggar who shows up in a town just as the local marquis is getting married. The marquis is uniquely cruel and essentially forces the beggar to sell himself to his new wife. Shortly thereafter, the beggar is tossed in the dungeon and forgotten, which indicates that the new marchioness isn’t much better than her husband. The beggar is kept alive by the jailer and his mute daughter. Eventually, the jailer dies and the girl becomes the beggar’s only contact. Eventually, with the marchioness gone, the young girl finds herself serving the marquis, who naturally attempts to assault her (and since she is mute, she can’t object). She refuses him and is thrown into the dungeon where she is naturally raped by the now-insane beggar. She is released, goes back to the marquis, and kills him before running off.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

What I've Caught Up With, October 2020

The end of October was pretty much devoted to horror movies, and since most of those are on the They Shoot Zombies list, they aren’t on the list of movies I need to otherwise catch up with. Because of that, I didn’t actually see a lot of movies in October from the giant list of suggestions. Still, there were a few that I saw early in the month that are worth discussing.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Death Becomes Her?

Films: The Farewell
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

One of the phrases that is becoming more and more popular online and elsewhere is that representation matters. I get it. As someone who has been commonly represented in film, I understand exactly why other people want to be represented as well. I can go back to the very early years of movies and see plenty of cis/het white guys as the hero. But I also see how atheists are typically portrayed in movies. If we’re not the villain, our reasons for atheism are stupid. We always come back to the fold. And when we don’t, we’re portrayed as autistic (Bones from the eponymous show), smug (Sheldon Cooper), or brilliant but assholish (House). So it’s always refreshing when we get an Ellie Arroway from Contact or Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. A movie like The Farewell, as steeped as it is in Chinese culture, is one that could easily be told about a lot of families. That the characters are Chinese allows for that culture to be used to tell the story. That these characters are Chinese does not (or should not) in any way detract from our ability to empathize with them.

The basic story is this. Billi (Awkwafina) lives in New York, where she and her parents moved years before when they emigrated from China. Billi learns that her parents (Tzi Ma and Diana Lin) are going back to China for the wedding of her cousin. A little bit of prying reveals a deeper and darker truth. Billi’s grandmother Nai Nai (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of stage-4 lung cancer. The family has decided not to tell her that she is dying and are essentially staging a fake wedding to get the family back together one last time to say goodbye to their matriarch.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020


Films: Avengers: Endgame
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on various players.

Well, it was a long time coming. When Jon Favreau directed Iron Man in 2009, who knew that a decade later we’d be ending the huge character arc of dozens of characters in a three-hour epic? I mean, I guess someone might have foreseen this, or decided that this was where we were going to end up, but I doubt it started in 2009. But Avengers: Endgame was the wrap-up of a 22-movie arc of multiple intertwined characters and stand-alone series that make up the MCU. Well, technically, this is the 22nd movie in a 23-movie arc, since Spider-Man: Far From Home is considered part of the MCU Third Phase. Still, the MCU is moving into the next part of its evolution, but Endgame really does feel like the end of something huge, well, because it is.

Much like the Harry Potter series, it feels like half of Hollywood is in this movie. The “let’s show everyone who is in this” scene at the end, which short shrifts a chunk of the cast but gives huge sexy poster shots including the actors’ signatures for the original Avengers, goes on for what feels like five minutes. It’s a lot like the multiple endings of The Lord of the Rings. It’s extensive, but it also feels kind of necessary after all we’ve been through.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Survivors' Guilt

Films: His House
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on the new internet machine.

Recently over on his website, Dell posted a list of new horror movies he’d seen, most of which he recommended. I’ve heard of most of them, but had not really heard of His House, which also seemed like the one that sounded the most interesting to me. Dell and I don’t agree on every movie, but I’ve come to trust his opinion in general. Additionally, right now, most of the best horror movies are being produced and directed by women and people of color. Horror is always a reflection of the fears of the time. In America right now, the fears of women and people who are not white are intense, intensified, and needing expression. And that’s true in the U.K. as well, where many political realities are similar to those in the U.S.

His House follows Bol (Sope Dirisu) and Rial Majur (Wunmi Mosaku), two refugees from Sudan, as they are brought to London provisionally in the hopes of them staying permanently. We discover that the trip has cost the life of their daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba). The Majurs are given a house to live in and are presented with a huge list of rules. They have a small amount of money they will need to use to live on. They are not allowed to have jobs or make money a different way. They need to report in every week to their caseworker Mark (Matt Smith). And finally, they cannot move from the house where they are placed. For some reason, their house is quite large, and they are not asked to live with other people.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Space Gremlins

Films: Critters
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on various players.

The order that one sees films in is often important. We will frequently look at one film as being derivative of another when the influence should go the other way. For instance, I would love to tell you that Critters follows the same formula as films like Arachnophobia and Tremors, but this came out four years before both of those films. It also has a lot of similarities to The Hidden, but it predates that film by a year. Instead, Critters is very clearly influenced by Gremlins to the point where it’s very much an adjacent film, a sort of spiritual sequel with a much larger science fiction element. It’s closer to the truth to say that it’s a shuffled deck of cards, half Gremlins and half Buckaroo Banzai, with perhaps an element or two of Ghoulies.

We start in outer space where some prisoners are being transferred to the outer space equivalent of a prison. The creatures, known as Crites or Krites depending on whether you’re looking at IMDb or Wikipedia steal a spacecraft and escape, naturally heading to Earth. A pair of bounty hunters are sent to recapture them.