Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Baby, You Can...

Film: Drive My Car (Doraibu Mai Ka)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on basement television.

On a film nerd site like Letterboxd, it’s not a surprise when a critical darling and arthouse film like Drive My Car (or, in Anglicized katakana, Doraibu Mai Ka) comes in with 130,000 reviews at 4 stars and higher and about 325 reviews at the dreaded half star. A less artsy crowd—Rotten Tomatoes, for instance—is still overwhelmingly positive, but has user ratings at about 78%. That seems closer for this film. Sure, the audience for a slow, three-hour Japanese drama on grief is going to self-select in large part, but this is a film that moves at a snail’s pace.

We are initially introduced to Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Oto Kafuku (Reika Kirishima). Yusuke is a theater director and actor, and Oto is a successful screenwriter. Oto’s stories come to her during sex, and she narrates them during the sex act, asking Yusuke to remember them so she can write them down. After a performance of Waiting for Godot, she introduces her husband to Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor she is working with. Yusuke eventually discovers Koji and Oto in flagrante delicto, but doesn’t tell anyone. Shortly after this, Oto dies suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Everything Bagel

Film: Everything Everywhere All at Once
Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

A few months ago, trying to catch up on all of the MCU stuff that I haven’t watched. I tried to watch Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but since I hadn’t watched WandaVision at the time, I realized I couldn’t follow what was happening. And so, I stopped, figuring I’d get back to it someday. But there was already a multiverse movie I could watch that didn’t have all of the necessary required viewing. That movie is Everything Everywhere All at Once.

I tend to focus on narrative in these reviews because it’s narrative that I find most interesting in movies and in general. I’m interested in story. Normally, that works, but for Everything Everywhere All at Once (which I will start shortening to EEAaO), where the story truly is the thing that this is entirely about, there’s so much that I don’t know where to start. This movie is all story, but that story is so complicated that I don’t think I can do it justice without spending several thousand words attempting to tease out all of the various threads of it. I’ll offer a few paragraphs, but I won’t go much more than that, because there’s just too much here.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, August 2022

I watched a lot more television in August. There are too many cultural references that I'm simply not getting without having at least a little television knowledge. In addition to Midnight Mass below, I also watched WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and also got through all eight seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. As usual, less than I'd like, but I was also finishing up a huge work project this month--I had to work on a project pitch for people about five pay grades above me--I find out on Monday if my team is getting funded. So...fingers crossed.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Answer the Call

Film: The Black Phone
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When The Black Phone came out, there was a good amount of hype regarding it, and as a horror fan, I knew it was one I would get to eventually. So, when I finally saw it pop up on the new acquisition shelf at the local library, I snatched it up. All I really knew about it was that Ethan Hawke is in it and that he was playing the killer/bad guy, and that the masks he was shown wearing were immediately being entered into the Horror Movie Creepy Mask Hall of Fame. Seriously, these are really good masks.

We’re going to start with a large bit of creepiness here, because it’s soon evident that the killer in this movie, given the name The Grabber (Ethan Hawke) by the local media, is someone who is targeting children. The person we’re going to spend most of our time with is Finney Blake (Mason Thames), which means that eventually, Finney is going to be, well, grabbed.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Riddle Me This

Film: The Batman
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

In 1989, my girlfriend and I went to see Batman on opening night. Sixteen years later, I saw Batman Begins. Now, another 17 years later, I am watching yet another iteration of the Caped Crusader, The Batman. Leaving out the animated versions of the character, in the course of my lifetime, the character of Bruce Wayne/Batman has been played by Adam West, Michael Keaton (my favorite Bruce Wayne), Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and now Robert Pattinson, and this is only the guys who have played the role in movies. This movie is also close to three hours long, and I really had to consider whether or not I wanted to subject myself this once again. How many times do I need to see this origin story? How many times do I need to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get shot?

The other thing is that this is yet again a “dark and gritty” reboot of the franchise. Tim Burton did that originally, and while Keaton’s Batman had a touch of camp, it was a darker, more Gothic world that eventually reverted to camp thanks to Joel Schumacher. Nolan gave us a new, revamped dark and gritty Dark Knight series. And once again, we’re going dark and gritty with this one. But with all of this, there’s a great deal here to recommend this latest incarnation.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Catharsis?

Film: Men
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t always need to fully understand every movie I see, but I do want there to be some place where I feel like I am connected to the story and where I can understand what is happening. With Alex Garland’s Men, I don’t know that I ever really get there. This is a film that is highly allegorical and clearly allegorical, but is also pretty opaque. I’m happy to work at getting a meaning from something when I need to, but I really have to wonder if Men is worth the work I would need to put in to understand it.

The film is going to take a pretty roundabout way to tell its story, and we’re going to flashback a great deal, so I’ll smooth the path a bit here just so that what follows is a bit more linear. Harper (Jessie Buckley) has rented a house in the country in England to find a place for her to heal. Shortly before this, she had told her husband James (Paapa Essiedu) that she wanted a divorce, after which he told her that he would kill himself and it would be her fault. A fight ensued, he attacked her, and she kicked him out. Shortly thereafter, James forced his way into the apartment above and either intentionally or through misadventure, fell off the balcony to his death.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Kung Fu Dracula

Films: The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires
Format: DVD from Reddick Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

Where has this movie been all my life? Think of the most ridiculous plot you can for a vampire movie, and you wouldn’t come up with what is presented in The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. This is a Hammer horror movie—the last of the Hammer Dracula films. It is also equally a Hong Kong action cinema Kung Fu movie. I can’t believe that I’m saying this and that it’s taken me this long in life to watch this--The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires is a Peter Cushing Dracula movie that features Kung Fu battles. If I had known this movie existed when I was 15, it would have been my favorite thing in the entire world.

We get a short intro, where a Chinese man named Kah (Chan Shen) arrives in Transylvania, asking for help from Count Dracula (John Forbes-Robertson). Kah is the emissary of the 7 Golden Vampires, who hold sway in a remote area of China. But their power is fading, and Kah has come to ask for help. Dracula does help, but does so by essentially absorbing Kah, stealing his appearance, and going to take charge of the vampires himself.

Monday, August 15, 2022

My Name is Luca; I Live on the Ocean Floor

Films: Luca
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on Fire!

There was a time when Pixar could do no wrong. That probably stopped around the time of the Cars movies, or perhaps The Good Dinosaur. Going into Pixar these days doesn’t come with that virtual guarantee of the near perfection of their earliest films. But, even a weaker Pixar film tends to be a lot better than a lot of cinematic fare for children, and it’s the rare Pixar that doesn’t nab an Oscar nomination for animated feature. This is why there are only a couple of their films I haven’t seen. I knew I’d get to Luca sooner or later.

I’ll drop the dime immediately; Luca is mid-range Pixar at best. It’s a fine movie, which is generally true of Pixar in general, but it doesn’t feel like it’s really doing a whole lot that is new. It did almost immediately become a movie that was embraced by the LGBTQIA+ community for reasons that are immediately apparent to anyone who isn’t completely thick. It evidently wasn’t made specifically to be a metaphor for what some of my friends proudly call the Alphabet Mafia, but it’s close to impossible not to see it that way.

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Something is Rotten in the State of Iceland

Films: The Northman
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

A lot of stories have a great deal of similarity to other stories. That can be accidental, but it’s often by design. There are plenty of people who had their minds blown when they realized that The Lion King is a Disney animated musical version of Hamlet. There’s no such surprises or shocks when it comes to The Northman. If you can’t figure out in the first 20 minutes that this is based on Hamlet, it’s because you’ve never seen or read Hamlet.

In fact, the story goes that The Northman is an adaptation of a story that Shakespeare used to inspire Hamlet. Much more than half of Shakespeare’s play is going to be present here—murdered king, throne usurped by a brother, queen taken in marriage by the usurping brother, banished prince, lots of death. We’re not going to have an adjunct of Polonius here, nor a Laertes in any real sense, and while there will be a love interest, the plot is going to be very different to her than Billy Shakes was to Ophelia. Still, it’s more than just the bones of Hamlet that we will be working with.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Kühtaamia

Films: Prey
Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on rockin’ flatscreen.

The original Predator movie is formative for science fiction/action films. Movies that have come after it are in one way or another either a reaction to it or attempting to distance themselves from it. I’ve seen the first sequel (years ago) but none of the others, and haven’t bothered with the AvP films that are tangential but clearly related. Prey, though, is one that interested me. Alien invasion movies are a dime a dozen, but we don’t get a lot where the aliens are showing up before the advent of modern technology. At the very least, the idea is a great one.

Prey takes place in the early 18th century somewhere on the Great Plains of North America (west of the Mississippi, east of the Rocky Mountains). A young Comanche woman named Naru (Amber Midthunder) believes she is ready to become a hunger despite her being trained as a healer. Her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) is good natured about this, both supportive of her desire to hunt but also enjoys teasing her as an older sibling. Naru believes that she has seen a thunderbird in the sky and that this means she is ready for a solo hunt, hunting something that is also hunting her, called a Kühtaamia.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, July 2022

July was a strange month. Not only did I go to a theater (the first time since Dune), but I also spent a week in St. Louis, during the flooding, pet/house sitting for my daughter. I did a lot of rewatching in July, and have also been trying to catch up on shows that I have missed. I have missed a lot of shows, which leaves me out of the loop in terms of pop culture. It’s slow going, but I’ve seen Castlevania, What If….?, and Squid Game, and I’ve been slowly working my way through a few others.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Shell Game

Films: Marcel the Shell with Shoes On
Format: Marcus Ronnie’s Cinema, St. Louis.

I’m winding up my week in St. Louis dog/housesitting for my daughter, so last night I gave myself a rare treat: I went to the movies. I saw Marcel the Shell with Shoes On because I knew it would never open within 30 miles of the corn town I live in. The theater, sadly, was mostly empty, although that did mean that I had a great choice of seats. But I have to say that I think I know a part of the reason the theater was so empty—it was $14.54 for a ticket to a 5:00 show. Sure, the seat was nice and everything, but that’s an insane price for a ticket.

Anyway, Marcel (which is how I will refer to this now—the full name is long enough that typing it out fully is tedious) is the story of a tiny inch-high seashell with a single eye, shoes, and an animated mouth. Marcel (voiced by Jenny Slate) and his grandmother Connie (voiced by Isabella Rossellini) live together in a huge house that is used as an Air B&B. Amateur filmmaker Dean (actual director and ex-husband of Jenny Slate Dean Fleischer-Camp) moves into the house during a separation with his wife where he encounters Marcel and decides to make a documentary about him.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Godfather of Fashion

Films: House of Gucci
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on the kid’s television.

Before Oscar season this year, I expected House of Gucci to be on my list of Oscar movies. There was enough going on here that I thought there would be at least a Best Picture nomination. However, that’s not at all what happened. Instead, I’m watching this on my own because its lone Oscar nomination was for hair and makeup, a category I don’t address on this blog. Now that I’ve watched it, I have to agree with the Academy; this didn’t live up to the hype.

On the surface, House of Gucci is the story of Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) and her marriage to, divorce from, and eventual contracted murder of her husband, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver), the heir to half of the Gucci fashion empire. And, on the surface, it’s hard not to expect that there will be a lot here to like. The cast is a good one and this is helmed by the generally reliable Ridley Scott. Even better, House of Gucci is very much a mob film at its heart. There are a lot of parallels here to The Godfather films, for instance.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Measure of a Man

Films: Cyrano
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on the kid’s television.

When I first saw that there would be a new version of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac, I was intrigued. It’s a hell of a good story, and I’m always a sucker for a sad romance. The story of Cyrano is one of the truly tragic romances. The basic story is that a truly great spirit, guardsman Cyrano de Bergerac, is a true Renaissance man, a warrior poet as gifted with the pen or wordplay as with the sword. But, the story goes, he is cursed with a giant nose, which prevents him from being loved, or so he believes. The twist in 2021’s Cyrano is not that the story has been turned into a musical but that the title character is played by Peter Dinklage.

And that really is the story. We open with one of the classic scenes of the Cyrano story. We are introduced to Roxanne (Haley Bennett), who is both poor and beautiful. She is being wooed—unsuccessfully—by Duke De Guiche (Ben Mendelsohn), who has a great deal of money to waste on her. He takes her to the theater to see Montfleury (Mark Benton), the most celebrated actor of his day, but the performance is interrupted by Cyrano (Dinklage), who dislikes him intently. While the actor runs off, Valvert (Joshua James) challenges Cyrano to a duel. Cyrano humiliates him, chants at him in rhyme, and eventually runs him through.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Sex and Violence

Film: X
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on various players.

When you think about horror movies in generic terms, sex and death are probably the two words that come up for most people. That is the simple genius behind X, Ti West’s latest horror film. The conceit here is that in the late 1970s, a group of people rent a place in the middle of nowhere in Texas to shoot a pornographic film. It turns out that they chose poorly and all sorts of bad things happen to them. Like plenty of horror movies, X is little more than its elevator pitch in terms of plot, and like many horror movies that use this sort of story, it doesn’t really need a great deal more than the elevator pitch to serve as the plot.

We’re going to have a group of six on their way to make the film. Executive producing is Wayne (Martin Henderson), who evidently has a history of poor returns on money-making ventures. RJ (Owen Campbell) is the prospective film director whose goal is to produce an artistic pornographic film, something more than just smut. He is accompanied by his girlfriend Lorraine (Jenna Ortega), who is essentially the entirety of RJ’s crew. Acting in the film are Jackson Hole (Kid Cudy), Bobby-Lynne (Brittany Snow), and Maxine Minx (Mia Goth), who is in the role of what we assume to be our final girl. She is also Wayne’s girlfriend and is single-minded in her goal of becoming famous.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Grass is Greener

Film: The Worst Person in the World (Verdens Verste Menneske)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on various players.

I haven’t been posting a lot lately, not because I haven’t been watching a lot of movies or even movies on one or more of the lists I pursue, but simply because I’ve got a lot going on. Work has ramped up, and I’ve got an additional project with work that I’m dealing with; my younger child has spent the last week and a half in France, so there was all the prep for that; my wife has been traveling for work; and there are other things (not bad things, but things that take time) going on around me as well. It took me several days to watch The Worst Person in the World (or Verdens Verste Meneske if you prefer) not because it was hard to watch but because I didn’t have a ton of consistent time to watch it, especially as a film that was subtitled. That meant a few minutes here and there as well as at the gym. I can’t say I’m necessarily conflicted on the film, but my thoughts on it are…complex.

While The Worst Person in the World does have a plot, it’s closer to a character study of Julie (Renate Reinsve). Julie is what a lot of people would call a “flake.” She starts the film as a medical student but soon transfers to psychology and then to photography. This inability to settle on something and always looking for more in her life is going to be something of a theme for the rest of the film. Starting to dabble in writing, she meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic book artist much older than she is, and begins a relationship with him. Everything is fine until Aksel floats the idea of children, which causes her to start to pull away.

Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Title Really Needs an "s" on the End

Film: The Pit
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on various playes.

I am not the sort of person who revels in bad movies. I want the movies that I watch to be good movies, not shlock. I enjoy movies that challenge me and that have something to say. Movies that don’t have an internal logic or that feature ugly and stupid characters aren’t things that I enjoy watching because I don’t like “so bad they’re good” movies in general. I bring this up because The Pit is an aggressively stupid movie on a lot of fronts and is also loaded up with characters who are decidedly unpleasant. This is especially true of our main character.

In The Pit, we’re going to spend a great deal of time with Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders), a friendless 12-year-old who is one of the most annoying main characters I have come across. Jamie’s parents are looking to move to Seattle, so they have to find someone to watch their weird kid. They decide on Sandy (Jeannie Elias), a psychology student from the local college. Because Jamie is a pubescent 12-year-old, he immediately falls in love with Sandy and doesn’t know how to react to her.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, June 2022

No real theme this time, and admittedly, the first movie on this list isn't one that anyone told me to watch. Instead, that was the choice for June's movie of the month at my library movie club. Otherwise, just a couple knocked off. My last quarter of classes was brutal, which explains the relative lack of movies in general for me during June.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Key of L Sharp

Film: Studio 666
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on basement television.

I have to admit that I didn’t expect a great deal out of Studio 666. This is clearly something that Dave Grohl wanted to do and figured he could. In that respect, Dave Grohl is a lot like Snoop Dogg. Both of them have essentially won life and are now just playing through the side quests. So why not make a horror movie?

Of course that’s what Studio 666 is. With that name could it really be anything else? It’s going to feature the members of Grohl’s band Foo Fighters as movie versions of themselves, more or less. I honestly don’t know enough about them to know how much their portrayals are exaggerated for the film. I imagine, like many instances like this, that these are intensifications of who they are.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Double Trouble

Film: The Black Room
Format: Internet video on the new internet machine.

Horror movies have always been sort of the red-headed stepchild of movies. While some are certainly as good as you’ll get, as a genre, it’s looked down on in general. That’s even the case when you have an actor like Boris Karloff who is far classier than the genre would have you believe. The Black Room is a film that was billed as a horror movie, although there’s not a lot here that would qualify it as horror today. It’s much more of a thriller than anything else. It’s also a dandy little film that could really stand another 15 minutes of screen time. That said, it really does a fine job of tying everything up in its short little package.

We start with a twin birth near the start of the 18th century. The twins, Gregor and Anton, have been born to the local baron. But the fact that they are twins is bad news for the family. The family history started with twins, and the younger killing the older in the black room of the family castle. The room is sealed off, but not before a prophecy is laid. The family will end as it began, with twins and the younger one killing the older one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

With Anchovies

Films: Licorice Pizza
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I looked forward to Licorice Pizza for some time, so when I saw it on the shelf at the local library, I snatched it up. I expected a great deal from this movie and the reviews would seem to back up that expectation. Four stars is by far the most popular review on Letterboxd, and the IMDb average rating is above 7 out of 10. Well, I’ve watched Licorice Pizza now, and I genuinely wonder what everyone sees in it. I don’t seek out movies where I disagree with almost everyone else. Sometimes, though, it just happens.

I’m probably not going to do a significant rundown of the plot of this movie because there really isn’t a great deal of plot. It’s very similar to a character study, except that it’s not a character study for one person but a relationship. A great deal happens in Licorice Pizza, but it all feels episodic. We’re looking at a series of unrelated events over the course of a year or so in the life and relationship of a couple of people.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

More than a Bit of Barney

Film: Cockneys vs. Zombies
Format: Streaming video from Amazon/Freevee on Fire!

There’s a reason that zombie movies make really good fodder for comedy. It’s because zombies—the slow ones—are very easily made comedic. What makes zombies such fantastic monsters is exactly that. One zombie is at least potentially funny. It’s slow and clumsy. A horde of zombies is terrifying, though. As the numbers get bigger, the ability to fight them off is reduced. It’s easy to go from comedy to horror and back again. And that is the premise of Cockneys vs. Zombies.

On the surface, Cockneys vs. Zombies looks very much like its trying to capitalize on Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and honestly that’s not a bad thought. It very clearly is made in the same vein and is at least in part trying to do something very similar. The difference here is that we’re not looking at slackers dealing with zombies or the Odd Couple after the apocalypse, but Guy Ritchie meets Dawn of the Dead. What that means is that we’re going to be dealing with a bank heist that happens right around the same time that the zombies show up.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

I'll (Still) Swallow Your Soul

Film: Evil Dead (2013)
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on my phone.

This is honestly probably the first time I’ve watched an entire movie on my phone. Why would I do that, you might ask. Well, since my run-in with COVID, I’ve decided that I need to get back into the gym. The place I go has very nice treadmills and such; they come with screens that show you wooded paths and the like. You can also stream things on NetFlix and a few other services. But they don’t do Tubi, and I had a hankering to watch the 2013 remake of Evil Dead. It was an interesting experience, watching a brutal horror movie in public. It was also an interesting experience seeing people attacked in the woods while walking on a treadmill with visions of a lovely wooded walk scrolled by.

This version of Evil Dead takes some license with the original story. Of course, it almost had to. The first Evil Dead is essentially the ur-version of a cabin in the woods story (okay, the original Night of the Living Dead might have a little to say about that, but I think the point stands). The plot of the original film is, essentially, five people go to a cabin in the woods. While there, they find recordings of someone reading from an ancient cursed book, and the recordings release demons into the world. So, it’s not like we were starting from a place of rich and deep storytelling.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, May 2022

May wasn't my best month personally. If you're wondering how long I would survive in a zombie apocalypse, it's two years and two months. I say this because last month, I got COVID. As predicted, I was killed by my family; my daughter came home from college with it. Get vaccinated if you're not--it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. I took eight movies off the list in May. Three of those I reviewed fully--Antlers, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and Swan Song (the Udo Kier version). The other five are the ones listed below.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Back from the Dead

Film: Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

Any time someone messes with a classic, there’s going to be some worry. Look at what happened with the Ghostbusters reboot, for instance. While I thought it was about as good as it could be, all things considered, it never found its own voice and relied far too much on trying to ape the original film. There were worries about Ghostbusters: Afterlife for the same reason, at least for me. How do you add on to one of the greatest genre films in history nearly 30 years afterwards?

That’s not to say that this hasn’t been done before, and done successfully. The 2018 direct sequel of Halloween is a case in point. With Ghostbusters: Afterlife, we are very much looking at the same sort of thing—an iconic film with a reboot that may or may not tarnish the reputation of that original film. There’s no way it could honestly measure up to the first film, but we can hope for it to at least be good, right?

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Someone's Horny

Film: Antlers
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

It will be a shock to no one who reads this blog with any regularity that I am a fan of Guillermo del Toro. That said, it’s worth noting that del Toro has a much better track record as a director than he does as a producer. If you remove his own directorial efforts from his producing and executive producing roles, it’s much more hit or miss. On the one hand, you get a masterpiece like El Orfanato and on the other, you get Mama. Sadly, Antlers falls more on the Mama side of the scale both in terms of overall quality and to a disturbing degree in terms of the overall story.

Antlers is a new spin on the Wendigo myth. We start with what feels like a poem in Ojibwa that seems to talk about something like a vengeful spirit arising because of the destruction of the environment. That, we will soon learn, is the Wendigo of the story. Or that’s the idea. In truth, our Wendigo doesn’t really seem to have a particularly serious environmental bent to it. This may be the cause of its arrival, but it’s not like the creature is specifically hunting down corporate executives dumping toxic waste into Oregon’s water tables or greedy lumber company bosses.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

We Need to Talk About Bruno

Film: Encanto
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on laptop.

When you think of Disney animated films, there is a particular sense that you almost certainly have in your head. A lot of that is going to be the basic Disney Princess story. We’ve got a naïve (often) young girl who has some magical powers in one way or another, or who is special in some meaningful way and is going to spend the bulk of the film essentially finding the guy she’s going to marry. Disney has honestly gotten better at this in the last decade and a half. A film like Tangled, for instance, follows that traditional Disney pattern on the surface but gives our heroine a lot more agency. That’s more the case in Frozen. With Encanto, we’re changing a lot of the script, and the movie is all the better for it.

When I say that Disney is changing a lot of that script, I mean that almost all of the things that you associate with a Disney Princess movie are not here to the point where I’m not sure that our main character would even qualify as a Disney princess. In fact, she is the one person in her family who doesn’t have special powers. But I see I’m getting ahead of myself, so allow me to take a step back.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

(Ro)Dental Problems

Films: Willard (1971); Ben
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

I used to have pet rats. When I say that, I learn that there are two basic types of people. There are a few people who know the joys of pet rats, but by far the most common response is a slight recoil and a wrinkling of the nose. I’ll happily tout just how good rats are as pets. They’re smart, affectionate, and trainable. In fact, the only real drawback to them is that they don’t live very long. We had a rat who lived for three years, and that’s sort of the equivalent of a human living to 110. I bring this up because Willard is a rat movie.

There are a few kinds of creature movies when we’re talking about real-world creatures. Jaws is the classic version of a big creature going on a rampage, and most other films of the same vein are pale shadows (Orca and Grizzly come to mind). There are also the classic giant vermin films that have good examples (Them, for instance) and plenty of terrible ones (The Deadly Mantis, The Killer Shrews, Night of the Lepus, and The Giant Leeches to name a few). And then there are swarm movies. Phase IV, Squirm, Frogs, Piranha, Kingdom of the Spiders and more fit into this category. That’s the category for Willard, with the swarm being rats.

Willard Stiles (Bruce Davison) is an introvert and something of a loser. Is job is at a plant that was started by his father but taken over by a man named Martin (Ernest Borgnine), who treats Willard terribly in the hopes of getting him to quit. Willard lives with his shrewish mother (Elsa Lanchester) in a dilapidated house that she constantly demands he fix. One of those fixes is getting rid of a nest of rats. Willard attempts to drown them but takes pity on them instead and keeps them in a shed. Slowly, he learns to like the rats, and has a favorite named Socrates. He also has a rat named Ben, who seems to have more a dark influence over him and his thoughts.

With the rats as the main positive in his life, the rest of Willard’s world spirals out of control. His mother dies, leaving him not money but a pile of debt. The house is going to be foreclosed on, and his boss desperately wants to buy it to knock it down and put up an apartment building. Willard, though, wants something like revenge. He’d also like a life with Joan (Sondra Locke), a temporary worker at his office.

What separates Willard from the rest of the swarm movie pack is that in this case there is a mind controlling the swarm. Willard trains his rats to obey simple verbal commands, and because he treats them well, they do as he asks. This includes helping him steal money to pay the back taxes on his house and helping him get revenge on the people who have wronged him. Willard only wants a normal life, but it appears that there is nothing but obstacles in front of him, preventing him from having it.

Willard is not the movie I thought it was going to be. Based on what I had heard about it, I expected something along the lines of Sugar Hill but with rats. Willard hunts down the people who have treated him poorly and sics his rats on them, allowing them to gnaw on his enemies and getting them a free meal out of it in the process. True, this does happen a time or two, but the movie is smarter than this. Willard isn’t so depraved an individual that he sees his actions as being entirely justified and justifiable. As the ending comes close, we see that Willard has decided that may rodental revenge isn’t always the best choice.

Bruce Davison is very good in this. Willard works because Davison is pitiable, and we need for Willard to be someone for whom we feel sorry. Even when he takes things too far, we need to be in his corner and rooting for him. He’s the one who has been put upon, and the is where our loyalties need to lie, and for the most part, they do. Ernest Borgnine is delightfully campy and chews all of the scenery, and it’s glorious to watch.

I’m not sure I’m keen on the ending of Willard, but overall, it’s a fine movie, and kind of surprising.

Willard was successful enough that it spawned an immediate sequel, Ben. This is the story of Willard’s surviving rat Ben looking for a new person to live with and looking to lead the pack to prosperity, or at least what counts as prosperity for a rat. We start the film with the last five minutes or so of the previous film. That was probably a good idea in 1972 since the audience likely needed that refresher, but when you watch the movies back-to-back, it’s a very odd recap.

Ben the rat escapes and makes his way to the house of the Garrison family. It’s here that he encounters young Danny Garrison (Lee Montgomery). Danny has heart problems (he’s clearly had heart surgery at one point, and shows his scar) and is something of a weird, introverted kid because of it. He likes to play with puppets and make them sing, and seems to be unable to do so without laughing at his own wit. He is also desperately lonely, which makes him a perfect target for Ben the rat. Danny lives with his mom (Rosemary Murphy) and his older sister Eve (Meredith Baxter).

What happens is that Ben shows up to Danny’s “workshop” where he keeps all of the things he likes to build and play with. Ben becomes his new friend despite the fact that there is essentially a city-wide rat hunt for the swarm of rats that is known to have attacked several people and that apparently lives in or around the old Stiles place. Not wanting his friend to be hurt, Danny keeps Ben safe and even lies to the police about the location of the rat swarm’s nest and about having seen any rats in the area. Despite his best intentions, the rats are spotted several times and eventually the police call in extermination experts and guys with flamethrowers(!) to deal with the menace.

In truth, the most notable thing about Ben is probably that the title song, which can only be described as a young man telling a rat that he loves him. The song was originally performed by Michael Jackson, so it’s got that working for it, too.

I’ll be blunt on this one: Ben isn’t nearly as good a movie as Willard is. There’s far less plot for one thing, in large part because a great deal of the film is about the police going into the sewers and attacking the rats with flamethrowers. Believe me, it’s not nearly as fun and exciting as it sounds like it’s going to be. The bigger problem with Ben is that a great deal of the plot simply doesn’t work. We have to make a lot of intuitive leaps to get from where we start to where we end up (which in this case happens to be a city sewer, covered in filth).

Ben isn’t bad. It just isn’t that great, either.

Why to watch Willard: A swarm movie with a difference.
Why not to watch: It’s not the ending you want.

Why to watch Ben: More ratty goodness.
Why not to watch: It makes less sense than Willard and it’s sappier, too.

Monday, May 16, 2022

A Drop of Dandelion Wine

Film: Belfast
Format: DVD from Nippersink Library through interlibrary loan on basement television.

Before the release of Belfast, Kenneth Branagh had a very odd relationship with the Oscars. He had been nominated five times, all in different categories but had never won. Finally, with three nominations for Belfast, he finally got a win. I like Branagh in general, and I tend to like a lot of what he does. His Hamlet is pretty great and I’m still of the opinion that his Henry V is the best one available. I think he should have won for that, for director at the very least.

Belfast is a story about growing up in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles,” the euphemistic name of the internecine war between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy (Jude Hill) is eight or nine and appears to very much be a stand-in for Branagh at this age. Buddy is vaguely aware that there are problems—hard to be ignorant of them completely when there are riots and house fires on his street. His family is Protestant, as are most in the area, and most of the people in the street don’t seem to care that much that some of their neighbors are Catholic. But, of course, religion remains a great divider, and those who want the Catholics to leave are starting to get violet.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, April 2022

While there are only five movies listed below, I watched a bunch from last year that I put up as full reviews. These include Mass, The Last Duel, and Halloween Kills. So, that’s a total of eight removed from that giant list that, the more I look at, appears will never go away. I’m always hopeful I’ll get more done, but life intervenes sometimes. A new work project and an intensification of something in my private life (nothing bad, just time consuming) has left me less time for movies, though, so that seems less likely. O, fortuna!

Friday, May 6, 2022

The (Not So) Straight Story

Film: Swan Song
Format: Streaming video from Hulu Plus on Fire!

I say regularly that the Oscar posts on this site are not a celebration of the Academy but a reckoning. After watching Swan Song (the one with Udo Kier and not the one with Mahershala Ali), it might be closer to say that this is an indictment. The entire ridiculousness surrounding Will Smith could have been solved by nominating the right people. For starters, Jason Isaacs should have been nominated for Mass, but the fact that Udo Kier never got a look is a damned crime.

Kier has been in some very strange movies over the course of his career, and it would be easy to write him off as someone who did a lot of strange, experimental horror and the like. It would be easy to think of him as someone who is more gimmick than anything else. Swan Song demonstrates just how much of a lie that truly is. If he never did anything else, if everything else he had ever done was garbage, he would have this movie to look back on as his career. For a younger actor, this is a career movie, and for someone the age of Udo Kier, it might well still be that.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Gidget Goes to Innsmouth

Film: The Dunwich Horror
Format: Streaming video from Pluto on Fire!

Some authors don’t translate to the screen well. Ray Bradbury, a favorite author of mine, is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen in large part because no one really talks like his characters talk. Another author is H.P. Lovecraft. When you write stories about creatures that the author tells you are impossible to describe and impossible to exist in the real world, you’ve got something hard to depict. Lovecraft stories and Lovecraft-inspired films are hit and miss. Generally, films that are more Lovecraft-inspired (like Carpenter’s The Thing or Annihilation) are better than direct translations of his work to the screen. Sure, there are some good exceptions--Dagon, The Color Out of Space, and Re-Animator come to mind. Of all of them, The Dunwich Horror might be the most accurate, which is ironic considering how far it deviates from the source material.

The film starts with a woman giving birth, and it’s heavily implied that the birth does not go well. We then jump forward 25 or so years into the future and meet Dr. Henry Armitage (Ed Begley), lecturer at Lovecraft-made Miskatonic University. When the film starts, Armitage has just finished a lecture on local history and has used a rare book called The Necronomicon (just leather bound and not “bound in human skin and written in blood” as Evil Dead fans might expect). As he returns the book to the library with his assistants, a strange man asks to see it.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Got a Black Magic Woman

Film: Sugar Hill
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

In 1973, there was a movie called The Girl Most Likely to in which a nerdy woman played by Stockard Channing, after a serious accident, has her face reconstructed so that she is both unrecognizable and gorgeous. She uses that new sex appeal and anonymity to go back through her previous life, seduce all of the men that wronged her, and kill them. If you replace Stockard Channing with Marki Bey, replace the car accident with her boyfriend being murdered, and add in a heaping helping of Voodoo, you end up with Sugar Hill.

Sugar Hill is a Blaxploitation film that dabbles in the same end of the cinematic swimming pool as Ganja & Hess and Blacula. I name those two films specifically because I genuinely like both of those films, and Sugar Hill is a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a hard film to dislike, even if it ultimately doesn’t have a great deal of plot.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Separated at Birth

Film: Parallel Mothers (Madres Paralelas)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There are a few people in film who I will watch in pretty much anything. Toni Collette and Patricia Clarkson come to mind. There are others I could name, probably a dozen or so, but all of them will always take a back seat to Penelope Cruz. I am fond of saying that I would watch her fold laundry, by which I mean that I think she is capable of making just about anything interesting. And so I was interested in seeing Parallel Mothers (or Madres Paralelas), Cruz’s nomination from the most recent Oscars.

Its actually not that hard to figure out where this is going. I figured out the main plot twist less than half an hour in. The big twist happens relatively soon in the movie, although I’m not going to spoil it here. It’s not that hard to guess, and for a filmmaker like Pedro Almodovar, I had higher hopes for where the story goes in that basic sense.

Monday, April 25, 2022

It's Not a Minotaur

Film: The Maze
Format: Internet video on Fire!

When you pull up an older horror movie, you’re never really sure what you’re going to get. Sometimes, you get something that’s a lot of fun and sometimes you get The Maze. This is a movie that desperately wants to present its audience with something new and terrible and does so for two acts. And then the third act happens. I’m not going to spoil the third act of this; it deserves to be seen. Suffice it to say that what happens in the third act of this film is one of the most unintentionally funny things I have ever seen in a movie in years.

It's almost a shame because the idea here is a very good setup for a horror movie. Gerald McTeam (Richard Carlson), heir to a Scottish castle and title, is engaged to Kitty (Veronica Hurst). Everything is fine until Gerald receives a telegram that tells him to return to the family castle immediately. He does so, and also ceases communication with Kitty and her aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). Soon enough, a missive arrives from Gerald releasing Kitty from their engagement and more or less telling her not to ever seek him out.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

They Grow Up so Fast

Film: Joshua
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s something upsetting about evil kids in movies. You’re already thinking of a bunch of them right now. Well, to that mix you can add the title character of Joshua, a sociopathic 9-year-old who decides that he’ll do whatever he can to get exactly what he wants. You’ve seen a movie like this before, more than likely. There are shades of The Other, Orphan, The Good Son, The Bad Seed and even The Omen here.

You’re going to get a lot of this from the set-up. Parents Brad and Abby Cairn (Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga) have a son named Joshua (Jacob Kogan), who is a piano prodigy and dresses like the most repressed Republican in the world. When the movie starts, the Cairns welcome their new daughter Lily. It’s clear right away that Lily is going to cramp Joshua’s style, and since Lily proves to be a difficult baby, things are tense right away. Joshua starts to bond with his uncle Ned (Dallas Roberts) and uses his sister and her difficulties to move away emotionally from his parents.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Wanna Date?

Films: Frankenhooker
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

One of the classic archtypes of horror movies is the Frankenstein monster. Lots has been done with the concept since Mary Shelley created the idea of the modern Prometheus. Some of these have been good and serious. Others have been terrible. The idea of a created human, something like a golem but made of flesh, is an ancient idea—ancient enough that you could call the creation of Adam in the Old Testament a version of a golem story. Of all of the various versions of bringing the dead back to life in whatever form, few have been as wholly bizarre as Frankenhooker. (And because it’s wildly funny, the Spanish language version of the film is called Frankenputa.)

It's not surprising that there are going to be a lot of references here to Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, but there are echoes of other stories (and much worse films) here. For instance, there are absolutely shades of The Brain that Wouldn’t Die in this, just by way of example. Normally, that wouldn’t be something worth bringing up, but that’s exactly the sort of movie that would be an inspiration for director and co-writer Frank Henenlotter.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Prodigy(ies)

Films: King Richard
Format: DVD from Cortland Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I knew I would get to King Richard sooner or later. While the movie itself hasn’t been surrounded by a lot of controversy, what happened at the Oscars certainly has. I’m not going to comment on it after the next sentence or two. I think everyone acted pretty badly, and that’s all I’m going to say. But it’s true that what happened has cast a shadow over the film. There’s no way out of that. You can’t say King Richard without thinking of what happened on Oscar night.

It's also worth saying that it’s really useful to have friends with a particular power. I have a number of friends who are librarians. One of them noticed that I had put King Richard on hold and was like 20th on the wait list, so she purchased a copy for the library and reserved the copy for me, so I got it about a month earlier than I thought I would. It’s good to have friends who are there to help you out, even when it’s something minor like this.

Monday, April 11, 2022

(Royal) Family Feud

Films: Spencer
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

There’s a specific breed of actor that has gained the ability to do whatever the hell they want to do for the rest of their careers. Elijah Wood never needs to work again thanks to the Lord of the Rings movies. The same is true of the Harry Potter franchise kids. It’s also true of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. Neither of them need to work again, and they can pick and choose whatever projects they want to work on. It’s meant that a lot of them have done some really interesting projects. And that’s led us to Kristen Stewart’s work in Spence.

This is, of course, the Princess Diana movie that doesn’t suck as opposed to the 2013 Naomi Watts film. Anyone who has followed Kristen Stewart’s post-Twilight career isn’t terribly surprised at her Oscar nomination for Spencer. She’s done fantastic work over the last half dozen years and probably deserved a nomination for Personal Shopper at the very least. To finally see her get a nomination, and one that is clearly earned, feels like a little bit of justice.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

More Trick, Less Treat

Films: Halloween Kills
Format: Blu-ray from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

In the world of slasher movies, there are few final girls who can match up with Laurie Strode. Oh, sure—Ellen Ripley, Nancy Thompson, Sidney Prescott, but Laurie is the OG final girl. A lot of the final girl tropes come from Laurie and the original Halloween. Unlike many, I liked the direct sequel from 2018. I thought it played with the mystique of Michael Myers well and gave us a realistic update on Laurie Strode. So I was very interested to see where things would go with Halloween Kills.

The answer to that question, sadly, is “nowhere interesting.” That’s a real shame, because there was potential here and a very clear idea of where it wanted to go. There’s a lot here that wants to connect with the original series and maintain the lore of Michael Myers, but the film spins off in unfortunate directions, and never gets to where it wants to get to.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

Let's Talk

Films: Mass
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’m not going to talk a great deal about Mass in the first two paragraphs of this. I’ll talk only in generalities. The reason is that the link to the full review comes after the first two paragraphs, and Mass is a rare movie that needs to be seen with as little knowledge as possible. If you came here via direct link and haven’t seen this, I’d recommend backing out now. I’ll warn you enough to say that this is not a lighthearted or even a fun movie. It’s like being repeatedly punched in the stomach. But it is an incredibly important movie, and one that demands to be seen and taken seriously.

It's also the directorial debut of Fran Kranz, who will always be the stoned joker character from The Cabin in the Woods to me. It’s hard to reconcile the reality of this, a film of deadly seriousness, with that character, but here we are. It’s a reminder that everyone, or most everyone, has depths that can be plumbed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

A Good Reason to Push the Button

Films: Class of Nuke ‘Em High
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Okay, deep breath. Class of Nuke ‘Em High, based on the title alone, is not going to be a serious movie. When you discover that this is a Troma movie made in part by Lloyd Kaufman, that’s going to clearly be the case. This is going to be a horror-comedy, with the emphasis on comedy. We’re going to get mostly gross out stuff, bad acting, and stupid jokes. At their very best, Troma films are funny like a cat sliding off a newly-waxed table is funny. Class of Nuke ‘Em High is not Troma at its best.

I am more than happen to buy into a lot of ridiculousness when it comes to horror comedy films. That doesn’t mean that I’m willing to accept anything for the sake of comedy. A film like Class of Nuke ‘Em High has all of the problems of a film like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. What I mean is that it presents a world where the people, the situation, the setting, and everything else is so much of an extreme caricature that it doesn’t touch on reality. It’s not even parody. The people are ridiculous and stupid, miss the obvious, and only by the grace of a higher power haven’t stuck a fork in an outlet at this point.

Monday, April 4, 2022

Rasho-Mano a Mano

Films: The Last Duel
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

When The Last Duel came out, there was some initial thought about Oscar time, but the film seemed to tank at the box office. Ridley Scott famously blamed the failure of the film at the box office on Millennials not having the attention span for a movie of this length or it not appearing on their cell phones. That seems like sour grapes, apologizing for a movie that is, to be honest, too damn long.

I’m not going to apologize for that opinion. The Last Duel is very much in the style of Rashomon in the sense that we get three different takes on the same story, three perspectives on a tragedy, concluding with the duel in the title. That may seem like that means there’s a lot of ground to cover, but Kurosawa did four version of the same story in Rashomon and did it in an hour less of running time. The Last Duel is bloated, and while there’s plenty here that’s good, there’s a lot that can and should be cut.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

What I've Caught Up With, March 2022

While there are only six movies here, I watched a lot more than just these six off the giant list. Four more--Free Guy, Last Night in Soho, The French Dispatch, and Candyman were all movies I gave a full review to. I also watched Wonder Woman 1984, which wasn't on the list and was disappointing enough that it didn't even warrant a short review here. There were a couple of others as well. I recommned the Time Warp series of three films about cult movies. There's not a serious discussion here, but it's fun to listen to people talk about crazy movies they were in.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Sellers' Market

Films: Dream Home (Wai dor lei ah yat ho)
Format: Streaming video from Amazon Prime on Fire!

I’m not sure what I expected with Dream Home (or Wai dor lei ah yat ho if you prefer), but it wasn’t what I got. The elevator pitch of this one seems like it should be a comedy, or at least that it could be a comedy. A woman, desperate to purchase a flat in over-priced Hong Kong, saves up for years for her dream apartment. When the deal falls through because of the owners’ greed, she goes on a killing rampage to, for lack of a better way to say it, lower the market value of the real estate.

Tell me that’s not a great pitch for a comedy/horror movie. It has enough reality to be relatable (the movie is from just after the sub-prime mortgage crash) but a great deal of potential for some funny deaths, the sort of wacky hijinks that are common in a standard horror comedy. That is absolutely not what we get in Dream Home. This is a surprisingly dark and brutal movie with substantial, shocking gore moments that come out of nowhere. I think we’re supposed to sympathize with the main character as well, something I found impossible to do.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The New Yorker

Films: The French Dispatch
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on basement television

I like Wes Anderson. I realize that on a movie blog, admitting to being a Wes Anderson fan isn’t really coming out of any kind of intellectual closet. A lot of movie people—probably most movie people—have at least some respect for Anderson, whose movies always have a sort of handmade, bespoke quality to them. I have genuinely liked most of Anderson’s films that I have seen even if I have to be in a mood for them. Discovering The French Dispatch at my local library proved to be too irresistible a temptation, so I brought it home and popped it into the spinner.

And with that, I don’t really know where to begin. The French Dispatch isn’t so much a traditional movie as it is an anthology. We learn right away that the editor of a fictional magazine called The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun has died. This editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr. (Bill Murray) has run the magazine for years, starting when his father, the owner of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun sent him to France for some life experience. Arthur started the magazine, which is very clearly an homage to The New Yorker. We also learn that upon his death, the magazine was to be cancelled, people refunded their subscription money, and the presses melted down and destroyed, pending one final issue. The movie, then is that final issue—four stories and an obituary.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

That's a Killer Dress

Films: Last Night in Soho
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I don’t love all of the movies of Edgar Wright (I absolutely hated Scott Pilgrim), but I do tend to like them. I heard a lot of good about Last Night in Soho. It’s also worth saying that Wright doesn’t direct nearly enough; this was his first non-documentary, feature-length film in four years (thank you for the correction). So what did four years away from the director’s chair give us? I was curious to find out.

It's not immediately obvious what decade we’re going to be in at the start. We’re introduced to Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), who is enamored of the 1960s in all things—the music and fashion especially. It’s fashion that is her passion, though, and we soon see that she has been accepted to study at the London College of Fashion. She bids farewell to her grandmother (Rita Tushingham) and heads to the big city.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Shark Attack

Films: West Side Story (2021)
Format: Streaming video from Disney Plus on rockin’ flatscreen.

When dealing with any list of films, I’ve always made a concerted effort to knock out the longest films on the list as early as I could. So, when Spielberg’s version of West Side Story showed up on Disney Plus, I knew I’d be watching it sooner rather than later; it was the second longest film on the current Oscar list I have. It’s also the fact that I knew this would be a tough watch for me. Ten years ago, I would have told you that that was because I didn’t like musicals. These days, there are plenty that I like. No, the issue is that I don’t love West Side Story as a piece of work because I genuinely dislike the source material.

There’s no getting around that fact. I really dislike Romeo and Juliet as a play and even as a concept. There are those who look at Romeo and Juliet as the height of romance. I look at it as a story where two kids (Romeo is canonically 16; Juliet is all of 13) decide that they can’t live without each other and over the course of a couple of days, a bunch of people die for their rash stupidity. West Side Story is that with a couple of really good songs.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Maybe She's Born with It, Maybe It's the Holy Spirit

Films: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker as the punchline of a lot of jokes. The Bakkers were at one point the premiere televangelists in the country, with an entire compound of homes, an amusement park, and one of the largest broadcasting networks in the world. Jim was overly pious and smarmy and Tammy Faye was noted for extreme makeup and for a lot of runny mascara when the waterworks started. And then they lost it all when Jim got caught in some affairs, not exclusively heterosexual. Well, these days, Jim Bakker is back on television hawking buckets of food to prepare for the Rapture. Tammy Faye died 15 or so years ago from cancer, and for as crazy as her persona was, she managed to do at least a little bit of good in her life. All of this said, I can’t say I was looking forward to her biopic, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

This isn’t going to quite be a warts-and-all biopic, but there will be warts enough. We learn that the young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head as a child, and then Jessican Chastain) was something of a pariah in her own family since she was the child of her first mother’s first marriage, the equivalent of a scarlet letter for their Minnesota community. Eventually, Tammy Faye heads off to college where she meets Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield). The two get married despite it being against the rules of the college. From there, they head off doing ministry on the road, mainly to kids and using puppets created by Tammy Faye.

Monday, March 14, 2022

Say His Name

Films: Candyman (2021)
Format: DVD from Julia Hull District Library through interlibrary loan on various players

There’s a moment in Candyman, the spiritual sequel of the classic horror movie, where our main character walks through a library to do some research. This is not specifically worth mentioning except for the fact that that is not a library in Chicago but in DeKalb, IL. It is, in fact, Founders Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University. I know this because I worked at that library as an undergraduate. This has nothing to do with a review of Candyman; I just think it’s cool. DeKalb County, IL doesn’t have a lot of connections to movies, so when one shows up, I feel like it’s worth commenting on.

I wasn’t sure what to think about Candyman. I thought going in that it was going to be a remake of the classic, but it’s not; it’s very much a sequel that builds a great deal on the original movie in terms of how the legend builds and works. Much like Halloween from 2018 pretends that the sequels and remakes didn’t exist, Candyman pretends the sequels don’t exist. Instead, we’re just multiple decades in the future where our original Candyman seems to have been forgotten, destroyed along with the projects at Cabrini-Green that were so central to the feel and racial injustice of the original.

The big change, or what appears to be the biggest change in connection to the original story, is that our Candyman in Cabrini is Sherman Fields (Michael Hargrove), possessed of a hook for a right and with a penchant for fur-lined coats, was beaten to death by police after being falsely accused of putting razor blades in candy, a crime for which he was posthumously cleared.

Decades into the future, Cabrini-Green has been leveled and the neighborhood gentrified. Living in the area is artist in a slump Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who lives with his girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). Brianna works as the director of a gallery and is supporting Anthony at the moment while he is searching for inspiration. He gains that inspiration from Troy Cartwright (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Brianna’s brother when he and his partner Grady (Kyle Kaminsky) have dinner with the couple. Intrigued, Anthony does some investigation in the Cabrini neighborhood and, after being stung by a bee, meets Billy Burke (Colman Domingo), a Cabrini resident who confirms a great deal of the story of Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen from the 1992 film) and introduces Anthony to the legend of the Candyman. The crux of the legend is saying “Candyman” in a mirror five times summons the spirit of Sherman Fields, who will then kill the summoner.

This becomes the theme of Anthony’s entry at a gallery show. It is initially panned by art critic Finley Stephens (Rebecca Spence) as being essentially more of the same—gentrification, violence, and racism. But, that night, Brianna’s partner Clive (Brian King) and his girlfriend Jerrica (Miriam Moss) are killed when Jerrica says “Candyman” in the mirror on Anthony’s piece five times. And thus the murders begin, baffling the police. We, as the audience, get the privilege of seeing the murders take place, and they are quite inventive. Why inventive? Because the summoners can see the Candyman but he essentially lives inside the mirror, but his actions take place in the real world.

You know where this is going, right? Anthony digs deeper and Candyman kills people foolish enough to summon him. Meanwhile, that bee sting that Anthony got starts to do some upsetting things to his body. We also discover that there are connections between Anthony’s story and the first film, with Helen Lyle, and more. And, more importantly, we learn that there is a much deeper connection between Anthony, Sherman Fields, and the original Candyman, Daniel Robitaille (Tony Todd in the original film, and for a moment or two in this one).

There’s a great deal to like with this revamped and updated version of Candyman. There is a very clear attempt to connect this not just to the original 1992 movie but to the idea of legend and legend building, and of the cyclical nature of abuse, death, social ills, generational violence, and more. Much of the legend is told with gorgeous and detailed shadow puppets a la The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and these moments are truly beautiful.

The problem is that Candyman wants to absolutely cement the connection between this film, the previous film, and the entire legend that is being built. For as good as a great deal of this film is, this is very clumsy and doesn’t work as well as it should.

Still, this is a solid attempt at making the Candyman idea and character relevant to a new audience, and it is a story that should be relevant. Many of the ideas of race and racism of gentrification and of generational trauma not only still exist but have become prevalent and much more exposed in the last few years. It’s worth seeing for this regardless of how disappointing the third act is. The original is still better, but this is a solid follow-up.

And, y’know, there’s a cool library in it.

Why to watch Candyman (2021): This is a movie with something to say.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t live up to the original.