Wednesday, March 31, 2021

I Don't Practice Santeria

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

One of the problems that can crop up in horror movies is that minority cultures, or at least non-dominant cultures, can be shown in less than favorable lights. They can, for instance, be shown as savages, either noble or otherwise—as sort of “wannabee Westerners” who are still culturally children. It’s easy to show other cultures as backward, or as somehow evil because they aren’t normalized. That’s the significant problem with The Believers, a film that is otherwise a really sold horror/thriller with a great cast.

Be warned—that’s the drum I’m going to be beating here, because there are films that demonstrate that minority cultures and “exotic” cultures can be shown in films in much fairer and more nuanced ways. The Serpent and the Rainbow, for instance, uses Voodoo as the foil, but the majority of the characters who are a part of that culture are either neutral on the good/evil dynamic or are actively positive characters. Something as old as I Walked with a Zombie shows Caribbean culture/Voodoo practices as just as valid as anything more culturally American. Even something as odd as True Stories sees less-practiced religions as meaningful and deserving of respect. The Believers, admittedly based on a book that may have this same problem, fails in this aspect.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Now Hear This

Film: Sound of Metal
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are certain general things that make for good movies. Sports, at their best, are inherently dramatic, and so make plenty of good movies (plenty of bad ones, too, but that’s not the point). This is also why there are a lot of courtroom dramas—it’s naturally going to create a great deal of drama. Music is hypothetically a lot more interesting, because it has great potential for drama but doesn’t always pan out. This is precisely why there are four versions of A Star is Born of varying quality. And so we come to Sound of Metal, where the drama is going to be baked in from the very beginning.

Ruben (Riz Ahmed) is the drummer half of heavy metal duo Blackgammon. The other half is singer/guitarist Lou (Olivia Cooke), who is also Ruben’s girlfriend. The two travel around the country to gigs in an RV, living what can only be described as a sort of hard rock Bohemian idyll. Their basic needs are met, they have everything they want, and they are touring and performing their music for fans.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Steal this Review

Film: The Trial of the Chicago 7
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on basement television.

There’s something very special about a really good courtroom drama. It’s absolutely one of the reasons a television show like Law & Order and its multiple variants have lasted as long as it has. Aaron Sorkin writes a good courtroom drama evidenced by A Few Good Men, which ranks near the top for the subgenre. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is only the second film Sorkin has directed, and the first that has gotten a Best Picture nod; he’s two-for-two in getting screenplay nominations for films he’s directed. I went into this expecting it to be very good, mainly because I have a tendency to like Sorkin’s writing.

This is very much a courtroom drama, covering as the title suggests, the trial of seven (and eight for some time) defendants accused of starting a riot in Chicago in 1968 around the Democratic National Convention. We don’t actually get a great deal of the convention; we get a nice introduction to the various players and then we’re straight into the beginning of the trial.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Uncanny Plot Valley

Film: Xtro
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Every now and then, I come across a movie that I have no explanation for. It’s not that the movie is weird (They Live and Bad Taste are weird); it’s that the movie has literally no explanation. Like it was written by two different people, one in the middle of a psilocybin overdose and the other screaming into a tape recorder while in a sensory deprivation tank. Liquid Sky was an experience like this. I know it was a movie and things happened, but I have no idea what actually happened by the end. It’s been a while since I’ve had that experience, but Xtro brought me right back. There’s a story here, but it really feels like pieces of multiple stories inexpertly glued together.

We start with Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer) and his son Tony (Simon Nash) at their farm when, without warning, there is a flash of light and Sam has vanished. Three years later, the light returns. An alien has returned with it. It kills a couple in a car and then impregnates a woman, who soon gives birth to a fully-grown Sam Phillips, who appears none the worse for wear, aside from that rather disturbing birth. Clearly, Sam has undergone a few changes in his three years of alien abduction.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Night He Came Home...Still

Film: Halloween II (1981)
Format: DVD from Nippersink Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

There’s a part of me that is very leery of sequels. This is evidenced by just how many sequels I haven’t seen, even of movies I like a great deal. It’s taken me this long, for instance, to get to the first sequel of Halloween. Halloween II picks up immediately from where the first movie left off. We’re still on that same Halloween night and what we’re going to see is not merely the aftermath of the rampage of Michael Myers, but the continuation of it.

I’m going to assume you remember the details of the first film. If you don’t, that’s on you. The details that are important here are that Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has managed to survive; Dr. Loomis, who treated Michael, has put six bullets into him; and finally Michael, despite being shot multiple times, has vanished.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Space Junk

Film: The Deadly Spawn
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I saw an interview with Sam Raimi once, probably the extras on the Evil Dead II DVD, where he said something about the benefits of working with a very low budget production. Essentially, he said, not having a budget forces you to be creative in a way that having money to throw around doesn’t. If you have thousands to spend on a single shot, you can find a way to spend those thousands. If you have to do it on what’s currently in your wallet, though, you’re going to find a way to make it work. This brings me to The Deadly Spawn, a movie that seems to have found its budget dropped out of somebody’s pocket in a parking lot. This apparently came from the Maya Deren school of, “They spend on lipstick what I spend on my whole film.”

The Deadly Spawn is a monster movie, as the title would indicate. It’s also a sort of alien invasion movie in the sense that the creature in this case arrives on a meteor. A couple of campers investigate a meteor and are quickly devoured by the critters that emerge from the meteor in question. The critters then slither off to the basement of a nearby house. They appear to be big fans of damp, so the fact that it’s raining is going to be a problem. And, of course, the people who own the basement in question are going to have a very interesting story to tell the exterminator.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

School's Out Forever

Film: The Faculty
Format: DVD from Peru Public Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

Some tropes are bulletproof enough that they can take a lot of different forms. The basic story behind The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both the Jack Finney novel and the various incarnations of the movie, are one such trope. The Faculty, produced in the late ‘90s, is one such version. This is very clearly a take on the idea of pod people, and more specifically the idea of aliens coming to Earth and taking over the bodies and minds of the people in a small town with an eye toward grander conquest. In fact, as should be expected, The Faculty explicitly references Finney’s work, albeit incorrectly (but we’ll get to that later).

I’m going to assume that you at least know the broad strokes of the basic story. Alien critters arrive on Earth and, through one means or another, start to take over, control, or otherwise dominate the minds and bodies of the locals. We’re more or less led to suspect that high school football coach Willis (Robert Patrick) is the first victim. He quickly infects fellow teacher Karen Olson (Piper Laurie), and the pair then turn the school principal (Bebe Neuwirth).

Saturday, March 6, 2021

What I've Caught Up With, February 2021

There are six movies I managed to scratch off the giant list of recommended movies. I probably added that many last month as well, so I feel like I’m treading water. Five of those movies appear here; the six was Ready or Not, which received a full review. I genuinely am hoping for more than half a dozen off this list for March, but my intentions are always good in that respect.

What I’ve Caught Up With, February 2021:
Film: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

I’m predisposed to like a movie that stars a Spanish actress like Salma Hayek (or Penelope Cruz, or Macarena Garcia, or Paz Vega…), but Beatriz at Dinner is one of those movies that applies its message with the subtlety of a meat tenderizer. Beatriz (Hayek) is a “healer,” in quotes here because most of it is spiritual woo. She gets stranded at the house of an obscenely rich client and ultimately sits in at a dinner party of the ultra-rich. Look, my political position is “Bernie Sanders should move left,” but this kind of allegory is embarrassing. Hayek is great, and John Lithgow is a standout as the real estate billionaire, but this is as artful as a knee to the crotch.

Film: October Sky (1999)

I am very much a nerd when it comes to stories about space exploration, especially when they are based on real stories. October Sky is the story of Homer Hickam, Jr., who wanted nothing more than to escape from the West Virginia coal mining town where he grew up. He finds his outlet in rocketry at the beginning of the space race. This is a damn good story about what he manages to overcome—and good because it’s not necessarily what you think it’s going to be. Jake Gyllenhaal is very good as Hickam, as is Laura Dern as the teacher who inspires him. But it’s the always-excellent Chris Cooper as Homer’s dad who makes the movie.

Film: Bernie (2011)

Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, a slightly effeminate assistant mortician in an East Texas town. Bernie befriends a widely disliked wealthy woman (Shirley MacLaine), who slowly becomes more and more possessive of him and his time. Bernie, at his wits’ end, shoots her in something like a fugue state, then hides her in the freezer. When the truth comes out, local DA Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) sets out to prosecute him, but the locals seem more set on having Bernie’s back. This is based on a true story, and it seems that the movie doesn’t do a lot to make the story juicier or sexier. McConaughey is good, as is MacLaine, but this is Jack Black’s defining moment on camera. He’s clearly Jack Black, but he’s never done work like this before.

Film: Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

For my money, the best war movies take place in submarines. There’s something about a sub—the close quarters, the claustrophobia—that ramps up the drama. Submarines, especially in World War II, are a fascinating combination of raw and deadly power with surprising vulnerability. Run Silent, Run Deep is, essentially Moby Dick told with subs and destroyers. A solid cast is led by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster, ably supported by Jack Warden, Brad Dexter, and Don Rickles, among others. I’m not a huge fan of jingoistic military movies, but I am a sucker for a good sub drama. The drama here is good, but the effects are straight out of the bathtub, which is a downer.

Film: The Pink Panther (1963)

While the cartoons that were spawned from the titles of this movie are more famous, this remains a classic comedy of its era. The truth is that the heist aspects of the movie are still a good amount of fun, but the comedy hasn’t managed to hold up very well. Inspector Jacques Clouseau is perhaps the most famous cinematic creation of Peter Sellers, but he’s really just clumsy. The whole thing revolves around a large pink diamond (the “panther” of the title) and, like many a Blake Edwards film, is really just an excuse for a sex comedy. There’s a lot of drinking and everyone seems to be hot for Clouseau’s wife (Capucine). David Niven, Robert Wagner, and Claudia Cardinale round out the cast. I expected this to be a lot funnier than it was. Bit of a disappointment.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Tales from the Cryptid

Film: The Abominable Snowman
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

I have a friend who loves cryptids and cryptozoology. Her penchant is much more for Mothman than for anything else, but name a cryptid around her and she’s going to know the lore. The Abominable Snowman (sometimes given the longer and more impressive title of The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas) is a movie with her in mind. Not only is there the titular cryptid beastie at the center of this, it also features the great Peter Cushing as the sort of gentleman adventurer/scientist that he was born to play.

Dr. John Rollason (Cushing) is a botanist working in the Himalayas along with his wife Helen (Maureen Connell) and their assistant, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis). They are guests of the local lama (Arnold Marle) when a second expedition appears. This expedition is lead by Dr. Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), who brings with him a trapper named Ed Shelley (Robert Brown), a photographer named McNee (Michael Brill), and a native Sherpa named Kusang (Wolfe Morris). This expedition is geared to find, capture, and bring back a yeti to display to the outside world. Not realizing the full corporate greed of the expedition, John Rollason agrees to join, motivated by a desire to know about the creature. He goes, despite the protests of both Helen and the lama.

Monday, March 1, 2021

Return of the Giant Hogweed

Film: The Day of the Triffids
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine.

A good storyteller can make just about anything scary. Some things are certainly harder than others; Night of the Lepus demonstrated that. So what about killer plants? Invasion of the Body Snatchers sits on one end of the “scary plant” continuum with probably Attack of the Killer Tomatoes on the other end. Somewhere in the middle is Little Shop of Horrors, and right along the same line is The Day of the Triffids (sometimes called Invasion of the Triffids. Our creatures are killer man-eating plants from outer space, more mobile than Audrey II, and without the luxurious singing voice.

The film opens with a little backstory on carnivorous plants and introduces us to the triffids, which (in the movie, not the book) crash landed on Earth on a meteor. Triffids can grow to seven feet high or so, and are capable of uprooting themselves and “walking.” This characteristic is interesting, because it brings up something that’s important to talk about before we get into the story aspects of this: influence.