Thursday, December 31, 2020

End of Year Eleven

Year 11 and still going strong, or at least limping along.

It seems that even with a pandemic I can’t quite hit that 400 movies in a year goal. I came closer this year than the previous two, however. As I write this, I stand at 395 movies on the year with a little bit of time left to get there, but I think it’s unlikely. This has, of course, been a terrible year in almost every aspect. My father and one of my sisters have dealt with cancer, one of my brothers spent a week or so in the hospital with COVID, my other brother was hit by a car while on his bike, my niece shattered her knee falling off a ladder, and my wife was out of work for seven months. But we’ve made it through—everyone survived, and my wife is employed once again. Still, I’m happy to see this year in the rearview.

As lousy as this year was, I hit some milestones. Until the new Oscar nominations are announced in March, I’m done with the Oscars. I’ve also got only 11 more Oscar Got It Wrong! posts before I’m complete. There are also only two more movies left on the latest 1001 Movies list. So, while I didn’t hit all the milestones, I got very close to many.

So what’s next? Horror movies, certainly—there’s a lot remaining on the They Shoot Zombies list. And, I’ll be tackling a lot more of the suggested movies and likely reviewing a lot of them in full.

In other words, I’m not done yet. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Miss Jackson if You're Nasty

Film: Shirley
Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on basement television.

When I watched The Invisible Man earlier this year, I said that Elisabeth Moss should be nominated for an Oscar. Having seen Her Smell this year, I think Moss was snubbed a couple of years ago for that performance. And now, with Shirley, I think I’ve seen the performance that gets her the nomination she’s deserved for some time. Moss is the title character of Shirley, playing mercurial author Shirley Jackson, but it could be argued that she’s not really the main character of this film. Regardless, she haunts every frame of it, and any acclaim she has received for it is absolutely deserved.

We start not with Jackson but with Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) heading by train to Vermont. Fred has taken a job as a lecturer, working with Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who happens to be married to Shirley Jackson (Moss). Fred and Rose are going to stay with the couple until they find their own place. What they soon discover is that Stanley and Shirley have a contentious at best relationship. Shirley is antagonistic evidently to everyone, and while Stanley seems to take this as a joke, it’s clear that he bites back just as hard.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Soul Mining

Film: Soul
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on basement television.

Pixar makes interesting choices with their films. We’re not going to see Oscar nominations until March in 2021, but that gives me a lot more time to find potential nominees early. With two Pixar movies this year, it’s pretty likely one or both will make it in. Soul, released at the tail end of 2020, is almost certainly going to be a nomination (and I think Onward is likely as well). Soul, though, is interesting because it might be the first Pixar movie that is legitimately made for adults.

Soul is the story of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a musician who, while dreaming about gigging professionally while marking time teaching middle school band part time. He’s clearly not happy teaching band, and when he’s told that he’s being given the opportunity to work the job full-time, he’s not really sure how to react. Sure, a regular paycheck and benefits are important, but it’s not really what he wants. It is, however, what his mother wants for him and what she has always wanted for him.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Hello, Yes, No, Goodbye

Film: Witchboard
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

There are some movies that scream out from the decade in which they were made. You can often tell a ‘70s movie by the fashion, for instance. For the ‘80s, there’s something harder to define yet no less obvious and clear. ‘80s horror movies especially have a particular look and feel about them. I’ve seen a lot of horror movies from that decade; as someone who graduated from high school in 1985 it is probably my most formative decade. Of all of them, there may be no more a film of its time than Witchboard.

If you guessed that this was going to be a movie that focused on a Ouija board, you’d be right. If you also thought there was going to be an actual fight over the pronunciation of the board, you’re more prescient than I thought. We are told in no uncertain terms that it’s pronounced “Wee-jah” and not “Wee-jee.” This isn’t ever going to be important to the plot in any meaningful way, but a lot is going to be made of this.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

An Early Present

Christmas falls on an Oscar day this year (note the order there—Oscar day does not fall on Christmas), so I’m putting up my yearly list of ten suggestions for the 1001 Movies list a day early. I’ve done this before, so it’s not that strange, but it’s different enough that it’s worth noting. This has been a difficult year, but I've completed a milestone or two on this blog. I'm done (for now) with my Oscar movies and am almost done with the Oscar posts. And so, this yearly list of suggested films comes at an interesting moment in this blog's life.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Hair of the Dog?

Film: Hangover Square
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

There are plenty of sand and tragic stories in Hollywood. Tragic stories recently would include actors like Chadwick Boseman, taken by terrible illness and Anton Yelchin, killed in a freak accident. Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy would rank high. Of all the tragic stories, that of Laird Cregar might be the most tragic. Trapped in a hulking frame of 6’3” and more than 300 pounds, Cregar had something of the soul of a poet. Upset at the possibility of being forever cast in the role of heavies, Cregar wanted to be cast in romantic leads.

Desperate to be seen as a true leading man instead of a villain, Cregar went on a crash diet that involved, among other things, massive amphetamine use. For Hangover Square, Cregar more or less needed to be filmed in order because of his massive weight loss. Additionally, the amphetamine use caused him to become erratic as he dropped to 200 pounds. His heart couldn’t take it, and while his final role—in Hangover Square--had him still in some respects the role of the heavy, he finally got some of the romantic moments he wanted. And it killed him.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Open the Door and Let 'em In

Film: The Gate
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

It’s always a mixed bag when you’re watching films based on a list. That’s especially true when the list (like the They Shoot Zombies list) is a very big one. You’re going to get some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a lot of stuff that falls in between. I can’t say that the first 15-20 minutes of The Gate had me very excited, and that was an opinion I had a good half hour or so into the movie as well. But once things start going, this turns into exactly the sort of mid-late 1980s horror movie that I grew up on.

This is going to be a “we summoned a horde of demons on accident” movie, and it’s going to involve some pretty good stop-motion Claymation effects in the second half. We start with young Glen (Stephen Dorff, yes really, in his first big role, and his only theatrical role pre-1992), whose treehouse is torn down in the family back yard. When the tree is torn up, Glen discovers a geode. Exploring the hole with his friend Terry (Louis Tripp), Glen finds an even larger geode. Extracting it gives Glen a splinter, and he puts a drop of blood or two into the dirt surrounding the hole.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Lords and Ladies of the Flies

Film: Monos
Format: Streaming video from Hulu on rockin’ flatscreen.

The last set of additions to the 1001 Movies list felt a little non-English heavy this year, but that’s probably a good thing. For a list of this size, there are a lot of significant gaps. It’s still pretty West-centric in a lot of ways. There are only a couple of Bollywood movies on it, for instance, and it’s still unforgivable that there’s not a single instance of Ray Harryhausen’s work to be seen. Anyway, Monos is a rarity on the List in that it is Colombian. There aren’t a lot of South American movies that made it to canonization (at least this version of canonization), which makes this one particularly interesting.

That said, this is not a happy or fun film. This is a film about child soldiers fighting in an unknown battle for one side or another of a conflict. We are given remarkably little information, which is a part of the point. Monos happens without a great deal of context. We have no idea what the conflict is, although it is likely that it is based on the Colombian conflict. A group of young people, ranging in age from probably 12 to about 16 known exclusively by nicknames are camped in the mountains where they are trained as a paramilitary group by a man referred to as the Messenger (Wilson Salazar).

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Hell on Wheels

Film: The Car
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on The New Portable.

The Car is one of those movies I had heard about for years. Imagine my surprise when I found the dang thing at a library. It’s always a little bit of a shock to me when libraries have this kind of weird horror movie. I like to think that libraries are a little classier than movies about a car demon that drives over people. But hey, it’s nice to be proven wrong about that.

Anyway, that is literally what this movie is about. We have a gigantic car that suddenly appears in the middle of nowhere and starts killing people. In a very real sense, The Car is the natural cinematic child of a film like Duel. In fact, the biggest difference here is that in Duel, we know that there’s a man behind the wheel of the truck. While the truck is scary and a behemoth, it’s the driver who is the real monster. In The Car, we eventually discover that there is no driver, or at least not a driver of flesh and blood.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Happy Birthday, Satan!

Film: The Day of the Beast (El Dia de la Bestia)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

I love it when a movie has a completely insane premise but sticks with it completely, continually doubling down until we get to the end. That’s absolutely the case with The Day of the Beast, better known as El Dia de la Bestia. This is much more a black comedy than it is a horror movie, a sort of comedy of errors where everything that happens is horroresque, painful, and darkly funny. It also concerns the apocalypse and the birth of the Antichrist, so there’s plenty of comedy there, too.

We’re going to start with a Basque priest named Angel Berriartua (Alex Angulo). Father Angel has discovered a code in an apocalyptic text. He has determined that the text is actually a code that leads to a number. That number, translated into days, reveals the birthdate of the Antichrist, which happens to be Christmas Eve, 1995. Father Angel determines that his only course of action is to sell his soul to Satan, find the location of the birth (he has narrowed it down to somewhere in Madrid), and murder the Antichrist, saving the world even if it means his own soul.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Oh, Lynch

Film: Lost Highway
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

What are you going to get when David Lynch writes and directs a neo-noir? Well, you might get Blue Velvet, a film I find I have been able to watch exactly once every 10 years or so and not more. You might also get Lost Highway, a film that tells a story but also seems to go out of its way to not make any sense to anyone.

I honestly don’t even know where to start with this one. I like Lynch well enough in general, but Lost Highway is the sort of film that offers a narrative, but also wants to make about as much sense as Eraserhead. I tend to focus on plot and narrative on this blog, but Lost Highway is the sort of film that has a narrative built like a pretzel. I’m not going to try to follow the narrative here, but I’ll talk in broad sweeps.

Monday, December 7, 2020

By the Pricking of My Thumbs...

Film: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Format: DVD from Somonauk Public Library through interlibrary loan on the new portable.

I am publicly not a religious person, but there are a few people who I refer to as “saints.” Musically, for instance, there is St. Warren of Zevon, and the trio of St. Bobs—Dylan, Geldof, and Mould. In the literary world, there is St. Ray Bradbury, who didn’t teach me to read, but taught me to love books and stories and to love dark tales. Bradbury was prolific, but few of his works have been successfully translated to the screen. There’s a part of me that will always love the Disney production of Something Wicked This Way Comes despite its many faults, because it so desperately tries to be everything that Bradbury wanted it to be.

The truth is that Bradbury’s prose doesn’t translate well to film. No one really speaks like a Bradbury character, and when they try, they just sound florid and strange. On the page, the work is evocative and beautiful, but when you actually hear someone speak his words, it simply doesn’t sound like a real person. That’s even true of this adaptation, both despite and because of the fact that Bradbury did the adaptation himself.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Organ Grinder's Monkey

Film: Mank
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

Long-time readers of this blog (and let’s be honest—that’s most of you) will know that I’m usually behind the times. Oscar nominations come out in January and I’ve usually seen no more than two and I don’t get them all watched until late September, and sometimes not until the following January. The pandemic, for as terrible as it has been, has changed the way films are released. This gives me the opportunity to watch a few likely contenders early. One of those contenders is Mank, the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the man who wrote Citizen Kane for Orson Welles. More realistically, it’s the story of how that screenplay came to be. It’s a likely contender for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Gary Oldman, possibly Best Original Screenplay, and it might turn up a nomination for Amanda Seyfried for Best Supporting Actress, and a Best Supporting nod for Arliss Howard.

It will not come as a surprise, or should not at least, that Mank takes its cues from Citizen Kane itself. We’re going to get a series of vignettes that show us the history of the players as well as the story in the film’s present of Mankiewicz actually writing the script while convalescing from a serious car accident. We’re going to go back and forth in time, learning the backstory of the screenplay and then the actual creation.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

What I've Caught Up With, November 2020

There were a few movies that came off the giant list of suggestions that I watched in November that I did full reviews on--His House, for instance, was one that I figure will eventually show up on one list or another, and even if it doesn’t, it was worth the space and effort. I also put up full reviews of Her Smell and Vampires vs. the Bronx. Otherwise, there a scant five that I managed to watch. A busy work month combined with holiday planning, Thanksgiving, and more meant that I wasn’t really able to see a lot of these movies this month.

What I’ve Caught Up With, November 2020:
Film: Tension

A classic film noir from the late 1940s, Tension gives us Richard Basehart playing a meek pharmacist married to a woman who strays, played by Audrey Totter. When he decides to kill the man she’s run off with, he creates a new identity for himself and plots the deed, but can’t go through with it. When the man turns up dead anyway and the cop on the case has a thing for his wife, well, the tension mounts. Features Cyd Charisse in a non-dancing role and William Conrad as a tubby cop. It’s good, but not quite great. Still, it’s worth tracking down if you like the style.

Film: Sicario

Solid thriller about Mexican drug cartels and the people that are involved in tracking them down and stopping them, sort of. What we learn is that a couple of FBI agents (Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya) find out that the world of the cartels is a lot more dangerous than they could have imagined when thye end up on a task force that includes CIA, Army, and U.S. Marshals. There’s a lot of killing here, and a lot of innocent blood spilled in an effort to get a corner on the drug market or to stop drugs from coming through the border. Except, that stopping the drugs turns out to not really be the issue here—it’s more about controlling who is shipping them.

Film: The Misfits

This was the last film of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. It also features Eli Wallach, Monty Clift, Thelma Ritter, Kevin McCarthy, and Estelle Winwood. Hell of a nice cast. This is the story of a group of people come together almost out of necessity to catch wild horses and make a living for themselves. Each of them is broken in various ways by past events, but together, they almost make a couple of functioning people. It’s a fine enough film, but still features that May/December romance issue between Monroe and Gable, when she was clearly better suited to Wallach or Clift. Ah, well.

Film: Point of No Return

This remake of La Femme Nikita, made in the best American tradition, a couple of years after the original version, features Bridget Fonda in the role of drug-addled violence addict turned spy. Truth be told, I love me some Bridget Fonda, and her retirement from films was a sad day for me, but she’s better than this. Point of No Return is the answer to the question, “What do you get when you take Pygamalion and mix it with The Long Kiss Goodnight and then have it filmed by Quentin Tarantino?” Sounds great on paper, but the actual results, despite the presence of Gabriel Byrne, Lorraine Toussaint, and Miguel Ferrer, are less than stellar.

Film: The Flight of the Phoenix

Another one of those mid-1960s movies with a cast that you could kill for, The Flight of the Phoenix includes performances from James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, and more. The high concept is pretty simple—a plane filled with oilmen and military personnel goes down in the Sahara. Now they need to rebuild the plane and get out before heat and dehydration kill them. This is the definition of a Boys’ Own adventure. It’s not bad, but it’s overlong, and doesn’t give a great deal to do for a large portion of the cast. Ian Bannen was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in this film, and I’m not sure why.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

This is Why I Ask for Charitable Donations...

Film: Gremlins
Format: DVD from personal collection on the new portable.

Everyone has holes in their viewing history. There are a few movies I’ve never seen that it feels like everyone else on the planet has watched, and I’m not just talking about recent releases, since I’m always a year or so behind the curve. No, I mean movies like Gremlins, which I had never seen until just now. It’s interesting to see this kind of film this late in the game, especially when it’s such a beloved film. I can see exactly why people love it, but I can also see all of the inherent problems with it that its audience missed as kids and is blind to now.

The obvious issue, of course, is that Gremlins evidently started life as a much more vicious film and much more clearly geared toward horror. In fact, it is rumored that the original cut of the film was much more violent and graphic, and would have clearly been given an R-rating. As it stands, it’s one of the movies that made the requirement for the PG-13 rating necessary. It’s not dark or harsh enough to warrant an R, but it’s definitely got elements in it that make it harsher than PG.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Stupid White People

Film: Sinister
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.

There are plenty of subgenres of horror movie that I am lukewarm at best on. I don’t love found footage, for instance, and I’m always a little suspect of anthology films. By far my least favorite subgenre of horror movie is what I’m going to call “stupid white people.” This is a varied genre that contains entries from all over the horror spectrum but has in common really stupid white people who act like idiots until they die. The family in The Amityville Horror, for instance, decides to stay even though the walls are bleeding. The couple in Paranormal Activity are happy to hang out and even taunt the demon until the movie ends. And now we get to add Sinister to that genre. (And for the record, Poltergeist doesn’t qualify—Carol Ann gets sucked into the TV early on, and they stay because they don’t want to abandon their daughter.)

Our stupid white people for Sinister will be the Oswalt family, headed by Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), renowned true crime author. As the film opens, after we witness a very disturbing video of a mass murder, we see the Oswalt family moving into a new house. Ellison is confronted by the local sheriff (Fred Thompson), and it’s soon apparent that he’s not a favorite of the police. It turns out that the book that made him famous was not charitable to the police in the murder case, and so many a local officer around the country is not a fan of the work of Ellison Oswalt.