Fright Night


1985 horror comedy

Rating: 12/20

Plot: A high school kid starts to believe his neighbors are vampires and recruits a pair of friends and a washed-up movie star to help him prove it.

After seeing this on a few "best of" lists, I anticipated something unique and fun, especially for somebody like me who actually likes the horror-comedy genre. Unfortunately, I didn't get much from this one.

Some of the special effects are pretty good, but I've seen better effects in 80's horror movies. The comedy works about as well as other 80's comedies. The characters are very typical of the types of characters you would expect to see in a movie like this from this particular time. The exception might be Roddy McDowell who plays a washed-up actor who may or may not be a vampire killer when he's not filming movies. He plays the character like he's playing Vincent Price playing the same character, and I liked him more than the others. I wanted to like the suave vampire guy, but he was a little boring. Munching on apples, being suave. That's pretty much all he had going for him there. I really hated the over-the-top Evil Ed character and thought Stephen Geoffreys was pretty awful.

It's not that anything about this movie is really bad. It's just not really anything great. A lot of its parts are very good, but I can't figure out why the sum of those parts is anything that people actually remember or think is worth watching a second time.

I'm bumping this up a point just because I know I'm biased against vampires. That's what happens when one harassed your entire family when you were growing up. I also think I might have loved this had I seen it when I was supposed to. The 12-year-old Shane might have really dug this. Unfortunately, a vampire-hating middle-aged Shane is the one who saw it first.

The Brand New Testament


2015 comedy

Rating: 16/20

Plot: God, lounging around in a bathrobe in a Belgium high-rise, is a bit of a jerk as he plots on a desktop computer ways to make our lives on earth miserable. Already having dealt with a rebellious hippie son who sneaked away to mess things up for him with humans, he now is faced with a situation where his only daughter whisks away to collect her own apostles and have somebody scribe a brand new testament.

With Mr. Nobody, Toto the Hero, and this, Jaco Van Dormael has proven to be, if not the most prolific director who ever lived, a cinematically creative force. The style of this reminds me most of the Caro/Jeunet collaborations (Delicatessen, Amelie). There's an outlandish visual appeal that is refreshing, and there are just so many ideas in this thing. It's like Van Dormael thought up this slightly blasphemous concept, brainstormed pages and pages of ideas that he could use in the story, and then couldn't get rid of a single one of his ideas because they were like his babies or something. I believe I criticized a recent blockbuster for having too many ideas, but with Van Dormael, it just seems to fit in with his overall aesthetic. It's perfectly alright if a little of this director's soup gets spilled on the tablecloth and probably ok if it ends up in my lap, too.

So in The Brand New Testament, you get a look at God and his relationship with his wife, the daughter escaping and finding first a scribe for her new testament and then six apostles to help her do whatever she thinks she's doing, backstories for each one of those apostles, explanations for why dropped toast always falls jam/jelly-side down, possible explanations for why giraffes don't roam the streets of Brussels, and this investigation of how different people might react if given a countdown of how much time they have left on earth. It's a lot for one movie to tackle, and although it doesn't dig in enough with any one of those to make any profound statements, the whole thing is completely delightful.

The tone is mostly breezy although there's a lot of darker comedy. A concept that on the surface seems like it would be very cynical and maybe even offensive winds up not being that way at all. Well, this would more than likely offend most Christians, but we're talking about the same people who are offended by Harry Potter. And actually, just the role that female characters play in this might be enough to offend most Christians. You don't even really need this meanspirited slob of a God to do that. But my point is that I don't think Van Dormael's intentions are to offend or criticize religion or spirituality or piss anybody off. Like all good religious movies, this really investigates human nature more, has this philosophical heart at the center of all the crazy comedy. Even the ending, which I won't give away, probably has more to do with humans and our place in the world than on deities and their roles.

It's really a very lovely movie.

Catherine Deneuve winds up in bed with a gorilla in this one. That's right, people. That's the type of movie we're dealing with here. Oh, and Dominique Abel--that guy in The Fairy and L'Iceberg--is also in this. He gets a comical and visually-clever nude scene early in the movie before making his exit.

Lost in America


1985 comedy

Rating: 13/20

Plot: Two unfulfilled married people decide to sell off everything, buy a Winnebago, and live free like those characters in Easy Rider. It doesn't go very well.

This starts with a lengthy tracking shot through our married protagonists' home as a Larry King interview with Rex Reed plays. This irritated me right off the bat. It reminded me of Leonard Maltin popping up in that Gremlins sequel, seeming like an obvious attempt to get at least one good review.

It didn't really need that kind of help as this seems to be a well-regarded comedy. It's got a Criterion release, after all, the main reason I decided to check it out before compiling a best-of-1985 list. Like a lot of comedies from the 1980s, this satirizes corporate life. Yuppie comedies, I guess. How many movies from the 1980s were about people either getting promotions or not getting promotions?

I thought writer/director/star Albert Brooks was about as charming here as I've ever seen him. It's fun to watch him get angry in movies because it's a way that only people in the 1980s could get mad. My parents were mad a lot, but they were never Albert Brooks mad, that way of being mad where you start to sound more and more like Wallace Shawn the more you unleash. I almost always like seeing the mousy Julie Hagerty. Here, she plays a mousy Julie Hagerty. The characters are easy to identify with even if their individual actions or their relationship never really makes much sense.

My main problems with this comedy would be that it's just not very funny and it doesn't really seem to be saying much of anything. A comedy doesn't necessarily have to say something in order to be a success, but it seems like this wants to say something about life in the corporate world or marriage or following one's dreams but is too shy to actually say it.

I like the poster for Lost in America better than the movie.

The Rider


2018 horse movie

Rating: 16/20

Plot: A budding rodeo star deals with a head injury that threatens to derail his promising career.

I'm not sure if it's best to know a little something about this movie and its characters and performers before you see it or not. I knew just enough, I think. There's an interesting mix of documentary and drama here--so I guess it's a docu-drama?--that could make this a more enriching experience if you go into it with some background.

You know how that last Clint Eastwood movie, The 15:17 to Paris, had the real-life heroes playing their cinematic equivalents? Director Chloe Zhao does the same thing here, only it's a lot more effective. Brady Jandreau, the titular character in this movie, really is a cowboy who was curb-stomped by a horse and is probably one more head injury away from dying. The difference between Jandreau and the enthusiastic but awful acting of the trio in Eastwood's movie is that Jandreau seems to have some acting chops. At the very least, you can say Zhao knows how to use Jandreau, when to have his character be completely still, how Jandreau's head will look great silhouetted against the Badlands' horizon. Jandreau brings a reflective quiet to this story that makes this character work perfectly and really brings out mostly unspoken emotions. You feel this young guy's torment, his dilemma of risking death doing what he's really good at and not risking death but living a life that doesn't excite him at all. Sure there are a few blemishes in the performance. It's not a perfect performance at all. But what it is is a really authentic performance. This is a guy who has lived through what a lot of this character is going through, and it really does help give it that documentary-life realness, that verite.

This is most evident in the scenes where Jandreau is shown training horses. There's a really great extended scene that--if the sky is any indication--seems to have been filmed all day long with a real undomesticated or antsy horse and a real guy who actually has a special gift in training these animals. There was just something so poetic about that scene, and although I'm sure Daniel Day-Lewis could live on a ranch for three years or so or just wander around the prairie and look for stallions to train in order to appear like he knows what he's doing, having the actual guy who knows how to do that added to the realism. If you would have told me before the movie started that there was this lengthy scene with the character trying to break a horse, I would have probably guessed that that would be the time I'd be checking my phone or something. After all, I've already seen that in Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. However, I found it engrossing.

Really, I was impressed with all the amateur performances here. Brady's actual dad plays his fictional dad here. His sister plays his sister. I had problems with her character while watching the movie. She provides a bit of comic relief as his developmentally-challenged younger sibling, and at first, I thought it was a young actress playing a developmentally-challenged character. And I just didn't get that at all. Once I found out that Lilly was his actual sister, it made more sense. Brady's friends are played by, I'm assuming, actual friends or rodeo acquaintances. The best performance, although he's in a limited number of scenes, might have been Lane Scott, also playing himself. Scott was a rodeo superstar who you can check out on Youtube if you're interested. He was involved in an accident that has paralyzed him, and he can only communicate with sign language using one hand. I thought Scott was really great here, all three (as I recall) scenes being ones that had to be troubling for him physically and mentally. His last scene is a real stunner.

One thing that I should point out is that this narrative does not match these guys' realities. Scott, for example, was not involved in a bull-riding incident that paralyzed him; instead, it was a car accident. Jandreau's story doesn't quite match up with the story of the real Jandreau. This is where Zhao is blending dramatic fiction and reality. She's not pretending to make a documentary or give us the actual events as they happened. She's using real people in these real situations in this real place--a really beautifully-filmed place, it should be noted--to tell a creative story. That story is one that works as a thematic foil to Aronofsky's The Wrestler or maybe Whiplash in the way it looks at risking it all to follow dreams.

Speaking of that, here's a question for you: Does this movie have a happy or sad ending? I think it's certainly debatable.

Men and Chicken


2015 dark comedy

Rating: 15/20

Plot: Following the death of their mother, a pair of estranged brothers decide to investigate dad's whereabouts. They discover a lot of family secrets along the way.

This might be the first movie I've ever watched as a result of thinking the movie's title was awful. Men and Chicken? That just doesn't sound right. Shouldn't both be plural? Men and Chickens? The Danish title looks more like Men and Hens to me although I don't know any other language but English because I'm American.

Any plot synopsis of this one that doesn't involve any spoilers is going to make it sound pretty conventional, but this is not a conventional movie at all. The characters are eccentric; the plot twists are dark and, well, twisted; and the way this movies from Point A to Point B is downright wacky. I saw a description in a review that said this was a mix of The Three Stooges and the Island of Dr. Moreau. I wanted to find where I read that and credit the source, but that's apparently a combination that's been used by multiple reviewers. It's an apt description because there's some very silly Stooges-esque slapstick violence, complete with thonking and pinging cartoonish sound effects, and there's a science fiction element that does feel Moreau-esque.

If this movie didn't have me at the singing saw during the opening credits, the quirk of one character that involves masturbation would have gotten me. The first time we see that character, played by Mads Mikkelsen actually, he is on what turns out to be one of the funniest movie dates I've seen in a long time.

I know nothing about the director, Anders Thomas Jensen, but I love the aesthetic and sense of humor and creativity in this movie enough to check out his other work. Maybe he'll end up being my favorite personal discovery of 2018.

Deadpool 2


2018 superhero sequel

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Deadpool, following a personal tragedy, tries to stop a time-traveling guy with a metal arm from killing a kid who can make fire with his hands or something.

Ryan Reynolds, his character, and a couple of the other characters are much better than the actual movie, which takes a slight dip in quality from the first movie. Part of the problem is that this character's antics are no longer novel. This largely dicks around in the same way the first movie did, only instead of an origin story that satirizes countless other superhero origin stories some of us are kind of sick of seeing, it satirizes the adventurous good vs. evil stories of already established superheros.

Well, sort of. Where the movie succeeds is where it's not really taking anything at all seriously. Quips and throwaway one-liners, really good physical comedy that really has no place being in a Marvel movie, odd character dynamics, and unpredictable silliness that you'd expect to see more in a Looney Tunes cartoon than in a superhero movie. Those are the things that really work. When this has a tongue firmly in a cheek--likely with Deadpool turning that into an obscene gesture, making you think it's a dick he's got in there--this is a lot of fun. Its boisterous frenetic energy still feels fresh, and the whole thing moves quickly and is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, there's a whole lot of story and character development going on here, and when director Leitch and the writing team--two alliterative names (Rhett Reese and Ryan Reynolds) and another guy with a boring name (Paul Wernick)--demand that the audience takes all this seriously, it doesn't work as well. And there are even times when a lot of the fun is sucked right out of the room. Take that moment of tragedy that Deadpool--more accurately, Wade Wilson--has to deal with. Sure it's toyed around with during yet-another funny opening credit scene, but in order for a lot of the serious parts of this to work, that moment of tragedy has to feel real and have some weight. And it just doesn't. During the first half of this movie, I even felt a little bored at times. There were humorous blips, but watching Deadpool being mopey and trying to find himself in a narrative that mattered just took a little too long. It felt like the pace was a little off, and the clash of tones didn't quite work.

Once this thing ventures into your typical superhero chaos with big CGI choreographed fight sequences and supernatural fisticuffs, the story might even get more generic and typical. And there's way too much going on. We have this personal tragedy that's at the heart of this character's story, this stuff with this kid, time-traveling guys played by the same guy who voiced the big baddie in the last superhero blockbuster, an assembled X-Force posse, another villain thrown in, some political stuff that feels more like something that would belong in the X-Men movies or an X-Men television show if that's something that actually exists and isn't something that I'm just making up in my head. It's really a lot of stuff thrown at the audience at once. And it's really hard to buy into something entirely when it's both lampooning action movie tropes and cliches and plot devices and using all of those to move a story or three forward.

Airplane came to mind as I was thinking of why parts of Deadpool 2 didn't work. No, I'm not saying that Airplane is some comedic masterpiece or anything, but I think the reason Airplane works as a comedy and has lasting appeal is because the narrative isn't complicated at all. There's the potential disaster, and there's a rekindled romance. It's about as complex as most silent movies, and I think that gives the movie's gags and jokes a lot of wiggle room. Deadpool 2 might try to bite off a little more than it can chew at times.

Would I rather watch Airplane or Deadpool 2 right now? Well, Deadpool 2. For one, I know there are references and jokes that I missed the first time. The writers are taking that approach where they care less about each and every bit of humor being perfect and just throwing as much as they can out to get as many audience chuckles as they can. It's raunchy at times and sometimes I think they're trying a bit too hard to self-referentially take the piss, but a whole lot of this lands. This sequel probably does have that rewatchability factor because there's so much packed in there. And so much of it is really really clever that I don't even think I'd feel guilty about watching it again instead of some Czechoslovakian movie from the early-70s.

What else did I like? Well, I definitely liked Josh Brolin's character more than I thought I would in the previews. Knowing nothing about the comics and his character made him sort of a confusing character to me. I always underestimate Brolin, and I'm not sure why because he's really good in almost everything I see him in. I figured he'd play this Cable guy like the Thanos guy, but he handles both the humor and the action in this sequel that makes this performance better than the one in the Avengers sequel sequel. I also enjoyed Zazie Beetz (maybe my current favorite actress name, by the way) and her character, especially the way the movie plays with her superpower that isn't really a superpower, at least not, according to Deadpool, a cinematic one. I'm not sure what else I can say about the rest of the X-Force without spoiling a lot of what makes that part of the movie so much fun.

I supposed Deadpool might start to wear out his welcome in a third installment. The overuse of ironic song choices during action scenes, the quips, the contemporary references, and the dick jokes might start to bludgeon more than delight. For now, this character is still a lot of fun, and it's the perfect vehicle for the particular talents that Ryan Reynolds brings.

One more thing that doesn't need to be said but I'll say it anyway: the geniuses behind the marketing for this should win some sort of award. There's a whole other dimension of funny with this franchise before anybody even sets foot in the theater. I'm pretty sure other studios will try to duplicate that and fail, but it's certainly a lot of fun now.

To Live and Die in L.A.


1985 action movie

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A cop guy tries to avenge the death of his partner, who was only a few days from retirement.

He was only a few days from retirement! Why, of course he was because this is an 80's movie and that's how 80's movies deal with emotion.

I'm still working my way through 1985 and not enjoying it all that much. This William Friedkin joint is fairly entertaining and completely inoffensive even though it's wearing the same skin that loads of other cop movies have worn. A lot of those movies are low-grade B-movies which, 32 years later, makes this seem much cheaper than it might have been in the middle of the 80s. There's an 80's sleazy sheen over the thing, or maybe it's more like a film, and the gun fights, the protagonist, the sex scenes, and a lot of the dialogue just stink of that particular time.

There are some nice touches. There's a random little person, for example. There's also a lengthy car chase that made it seem as if Friedkin, who wasn't exactly delivering blockbusters prolifically, decided he needed to return to his roots and try to duplicate something he'd had success with in The French Connection. That car chase is entirely, as far as I can remember, sans music, and it's better for it. There's enough musicality in the screeching of tires and cacophonous honking of horns.

It was also fun watching a young Willem Dafoe at work. There's nothing really that stands out about his character, the villain in To Live and Die in L.A., other than him being Willem Dafoe. He does get his own 80's sex scene and shows some side-butt if that's your thing or even if it's a thing at all. My favorite part of the entire movie might have been watching him work at his counterfeiting craft. I'm not sure the attention to detail there is as good as something like Rifiki or Thief, but there did seem to be a deliberate attempt by Friedkin and Dafoe to make that seem as legitimate as possible.

Faces Places


2017 documentary

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Agnes Varda makes a new buddy, and they travel around France together to meet even more friends and plaster their pictures on the sides of buildings.

God bless Agnes Varda. I really need more Agnes Varda in my life. Cinema needs more Agnes Vardas, and you know what? The world needs more people like Agnes Varda, too. Varda, just like with Gleaners and Beaches is an octogenarian explorer. She's more curious about minutia than most people are about things that are really significant. I love watching her interactions with the subjects she and JR, the photographer and co-writer/director of Faces Places, encounter. When you watch this, listen to the questions that she asks. JR asks questions as well, trying to get to a heart in these everyday folks' lives. But when Varda probes, they are these simple questions that seem like the kinds of questions everybody would think to ask but actually wouldn't think to ask them at all. She and JR spin this ginormous portrait plastering idea into unique territories a few times during this, and with the majority of these, the results are rewarding and sometimes even moving. Take that woman in the mining town, for example. Her reaction to seeing her face on the side of her house is one of the best reactions to art that I think I've ever seen. Listen to the reactions from the factory workers who posed for a couple of group photos. And watch how the focus switches from the dock workers to their wives near the end of the movie.

I also love the friendship that develops between our co-directors. Although JR hides his eyes behind these sunglasses all the time, much to the chagrin of Varda, you can still tell that he has a genuine affection for his collaborator. They bicker a bit, playfully; they tease each other about those sunglasses and the past affections for men's buttocks; and they share philosophies, sometimes contrasting because these are two artists at different stages of their lives. This is almost like a buddy road comedy at times, and their partnership is the kind of thing that could easily be a television series. Faces Places--or Visages Villages, the title I actually prefer--could have gone on for days, and I would have enjoyed every second of it. This feels like such a small serving!

Sadly, Agnes Varda isn't going to be around forever, and a lot of the conversations in this are about her mortality, her failing eyesight, her fatigue. It doesn't make me sad that Varda is a mortal. What makes me sad is that there just aren't enough people like her. If only more people desired making connections with others, understood that there is art in the everyday, and had a willingness to explore and find out more about the world and its people, then we would be in much better shape.

Godard, by the way, really comes out of this one seeming like an asshole.

Tully


2018 drama

Rating: 15/20

Plot: A mother of three, following the birth of the third one, battles postpartum depression. The acceptance of a "night nanny" helps her get back to feeling like herself.

Don't read this unless you've seen the movie. Actually, it's debatable whether or not you should read this even if you have seen the movie.

I didn't have this movie spoiled for me or anything, but I did know a little too much going in which helped me figure out something that I didn't want to figure out. It didn't really take away from my enjoyment of the movie or anything, but it would have been nice to see how this movie's surprises would have affected me had I not figured out what was going on too early. And I really hope you didn't read even that if you haven't seen the movie because I think knowing that there are surprises or twists in Tully is enough to mess it all up. I mean, that's all I basically knew going in.

This is the second collaboration with Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman with Charlize Theron, and I want to start with her. Once again, her performance shines in this thing. Watching this and Young Adult so closely together shows off her versatility. The movies have similar tones and a similar blend of drama, humor, and everyday darkness, but the roles are so much different. Here, Theron has put on fifty pounds to play this beleaguered mother of three, and there's such a physicality to her performance that makes it all seem so real. It's more than just putting on a lot of weight. It's how she carries that weight, and combined with how well she uses her eyes in this movie and other subtle or not-so-subtle movements in this, it really makes you believe in this character. Theron is an A-list movie star, but there weren't many moments in this where I was aware I was watching an A-list movie star playing the part of an exhausted and likely depressed mother. It really felt like I was watching an exhausted and likely depressed mother. Theron, maybe more than any other actress working right now, has this ability to transform herself into these different characters. She's staggering once again.

Once the titular nanny (and if those aren't the hottest words ever put together, I don't know what would be) enters the scene, Theron's character gradually changes. There's a newfound brightness and an exuberance. She nearly glows in some scenes, and a lot of that could have been the way she's being filmed by Reitman, but I think a lot of it is just how Theron lets this character move. I'd have to see the whole thing again to look for clues that there were fractures in this exuberance and brightness all along. This is definitely worth a rewatch to see what clues foreshadowed the big reveal at the end.

Tully is played by Mackenzie Davis who, once it's revealed who she actually is, doesn't seem quite exactly right for the part. But now that I've typed that, I don't know what I even mean because she seems perfect for the part. She's a cute little free-spirited spark plug of a human being. Once you do realize who she actually is, you wonder if things have moved too quickly. The twist seems a bit jolty and quick, and there's not really much time to process what's going on or what it means. But when I think about how the rest of the movie is paced, it feels about right. The opening sequence shows the struggles with Theron's character with just two children (one who has special needs) and a husband to worry about. When the baby is born, the postpartum depression, or maybe it's just pure exhaustion in the eyes of the audience at that point, is shown through a clever montage. Things move briskly in Tully, and while there's not a lot of time for development, it still tells its story well enough.

What this does a very good job of doing is helping a guy like me empathize with a mother like Marlo. I watched this in a theater all by myself, and I really connected with this character even though I'm not a woman and have never, as far as I know, been pregnant or given birth. My wife, on the other hand, has given birth four times. At least that I know about. And maybe it was because I saw some of myself in the aloof-but-halfheartedly-well-meaning husband character played by Ron Livingston, but I connected to this family and really felt like I was learning more about the connection between mothers and newborn babies and the emotions that some mothers are working through following birth. This was enlightening to me as a guy, and I bet my wife wishes this movie would have come out twenty-five years ago so that I would have more awareness and understanding about what was going on with her.

So that twist. Does it work? Part of me wonders if it was a cheap trick and if I'd like this movie nearly as much if I saw it a second time. I also wonder if too much is explained to viewers. There are times when I felt like I was being nursed along through the story and was ready for a sippy cup. The moments I appreciated most were the smaller ones that showed instead of told. There are plenty of those that would make any parent cringe with a specific memory or nod knowingly.

Louie Bluie


1985 documentary

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Painter and country-blues musician Howard Armstrong takes us on a tour through his life and career and introduces us to some of his friends.

When I lived in Knoxville, I was exploring the "Old City" neighborhood with my wife (my girlfriend at the time) and some other friends. We ran into a street musician named Boots and talked to him for much longer than my girlfriend (later wife) wanted to. Boots was filled with all kinds of stories, the kind that just gushed from him like you'd accidentally knocked into a spigot and couldn't figure out how to plug it back up even if you wanted to. He was really disturbed that Chubby Checker was performing nearby because Chubby Checker only had one damn song and Boots could play circles around the fool anyway. I could have sat there talking to this old blues guy for hours.

Louie Bluie reminds me a little of that guy, and if you would have had the same experience with Boots that I did, you'd know that this is a high recommendation. Terry Zwigoff, nine years before his second film Crumb and sixteen years before his first narrative film Ghost World, wisely lets this obscure musician and artist lead the way. There's no commentary at all here. There's no exposition, and there's no narrative. This is just a slice of this guy's life. We get to see Armstrong shopping for junk, playing music with various friends and family members, and convincing his friend to give him an ugly shirt for five bucks. It's just like we're getting to hang out with this guy for a little over and hour, and I wouldn't have minded spending a few more hours with the guy. It's the same way I felt about my time with Boots.

Since Louie Bluie is a musician, there are plenty of musical moments in this. And man, oh, man. That cat can fucking play! He plays both the mandolin and fiddle, even rockin' on the former while holding behind his head when he's feeling extra frisky, and the music is as lively as any music you'll ever hear. I was going to pick a favorite musical moment from this, but they're all just so good. He plays with a good buddy, he plays with a side-burned guitarist and a Golden Girl on piano, and he plays with this guy who looks like a gangster. It doesn't matter who he's playing with because he's going to have a good time doing it, and that energy just bleeds through the screen and energizes the viewer. I don't know a lot about music, but it seemed to me like Louie Bluie is the kind of performer who is capable of making everybody around him play better.

He's also a visual artist. You get to see some of his artwork, including a pornographic ABC book that he wrote and painted by hand. That, my friends, looked like it could be one of the most important literary texts of the 20th Century, a real work of beauty and creativity and randiness.

Seriously, I don't want to sound greedy or anything, but I'd love to see a ten-hour director's cut of this.

Sugarbaby


1985 romantic comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A lonely woman who works with corpses at a funeral home falls for and begins stalking a subway train operator.

This is a movie with two distinct halves, the first which I enjoyed a lot more. The first half, when we meet our main character and watch her fall in love with this guy and begin laying her trap to seduce him, reminded me of Kaurismaki or Jarmusch. There wasn't a lot of dialogue, and the camera wasn't doing a whole lot of anything in most of the scenes. There were a lot more cuts than a Kaurismaki or Jarmusch film, a montage showing this woman's lonely life, one in which she doesn't seem to have any sort of connections at all with anything that isn't food. The first shot, one where she's floating in a pool, has another human being in it--one who is squeegeeing the sides of the pool. But there's no interaction at all between them, and you get the sense right off the bat that all of Marianne's human relationships are just about the same as that. The way this character's loneliness is created visually really reminds me of a silent movie.

The random shots of escalator steps, subterranean architecture, and off-colored meats in a supermarket add to this quirky visual style. Most conspicuous is the use of striking colors. The color palette isn't all that strange for something that came out in the mid-80s, but it still gives the movie an unexpected look. Add that weird rhythm to the quirky use of colors, and you've got something that could have been pretty special. There are great early scenes, including the one where the woman and her love interest sort-of meet for the first time.

Unfortunately, I didn't dig the second half nearly as much. Weighed down with conversations I didn't really care about, the movie kind of lost its freshness. Additionally, there were some extended scenes where the camera was swirling around the room, and I couldn't figure out why. The playful camera and use of montage vanished in this second part of the movie, and the director (Percy Adlon) only seemed to have one trick left up his sleeve which he repeated over and over again. The colors remained, but they weren't enough.

The ending also reminded me of Jarmusch, by the way. And so did a scene where a pair of characters are playing foosball.

Marianne Sagebrecht was really good, an uncharacteristic leading lady. She's in other Percy Adlon movies. I don't believe I've seen anything else by Adlon, but I liked this enough to check out Bagdad Cafe sometime.

Come and See


1985 war movie

Rating: 18/20

Plot: A kid finds himself a gun so that he can join a resistance army and kill off some Nazis. He ages about thirty years in somewhere around three days.

Those who have faithfully read every word I've written know that I'm not a huge fan of war movies. I might, however, like artsy-fartsy war movies because I love the harrowing and intensely poetic Come and See, an artsy-fartsy war movie.

It begins with the first of countless close-ups. This one is the back of a guy's head as he calls for and threatens a pair of children, one of them who is about to become our main character. There are lots and lots of close-ups, and I guess they succeed in making the violence in this feel more personal. I didn't like the look of the version of this I was watching on DVD. It was a little grainy, and I was setting myself up to be bored for a hour and a quarter or so. But once this kid moves on from his house--a preceding scene showing a conflict with his mother that actually was visually interesting as the camera kind of swam around their home--things get and stay electric. This really is more haunting and more disturbing than any war movie I think I've ever seen. And honestly, the graininess might have contributed to that a bit. It definitely didn't hurt it.

Bombings that lead to deafness, the sound and camera and effects conspiring to inhabit the viewers' nightmares. Jitterbugging in the rain, a quietly trippy scene that is framed with an improbable rainbow and a stained bird. Trudging through the thickest mud, a mud with a layer of mud on top of it. One shot that only one of the two characters happened to see. Flies on dolls. A tracking shot through trees into these clusters of people leading to a haunting "I told you so" from a crispy man. A Nazi skull used to assemble a terrifying effigy with a creation that strangely foreshadows some stuff in the climax. A single-shot cow theft. That same cow's eye as the animal's going and going and gone. Oppressive fog. A church filled with abject fear, the kind of chaos that is almost given order by the screams. A rubbery-faced old lady in a bed, burning structures in the background. A pair of pictures set up and taken, one of them with stillness fooling me into thinking it was a photograph until the wind blew some cloth around. Legs covered in dried blood. An extinguished torch. German soldiers emerging from a fog-drenched truck that functions like a clown car. All of those explosions. Liquidy fire splashed on the ground. That Nazi's pet marmot or whatever that animal was. An assault on a framed picture half-covered in mud and the ensuing manipulated stock footage imagery.

It's poetic image after poetic image, but the sound plays just as important a role as the visuals. It's complete experimental pandemonium at times, and you fear for the actors and the cows. This isn't Tarkovsky, but the imagery recalls a Tarkovsky who's a little maniacal. There aren't any animals set on fire in this one that I recall, but this is the type of movie where it felt like animals should have been set on fire.

I'm not advocating for the burning of live animals, by the way. I want to make that clear.

The main character is nearly in every scene, and it's an amazing job by a kid giving his first movie performance. The guy's name is Aleksey Kravchenko. He would have been 16 when this came out, and Kravchenko says that the filming was such a strain on him physically and emotionally that he came back to school much thinner and with gray hair. I know I keep using the word haunting, but I have a limited vocabulary, and "haunting" is just the perfect word to capture Kravchenko's performance. He's very much a kid in those early scene, even when you find out that he's looking for a rifle buried on the beach so that he can run off to kill people. But as his story progresses, he just keeps looking impossibly older. Lines appear on his face, and his hair really does look grayish. The film's in color, but the longer this kid's story goes on, the more and more black and white he appears. I'm not sure how this kid's mind survived the filmed atrocities that Elem Klimov put him through.

Speaking of Klimov, this was his last movie. It probably gave him a few gray hairs, too. He would have been in his early-50s when this came out, and the decision to not make movies was a personal one. I don't know anything about his previous work although his biopic about Rasputin and a satirical comedy about camp children called Welcome, or No Trespassing look like things I'll need to check out.

If I made a list of "most disturbing" movie experiences, this one would be a candidate. If that sounds like your kind of thing, this is must-see stuff. I have a bad movie memory, but I'm not likely to forget some of the things Elem Klimov made me see in this movie.

Young Adult


2011 dramedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: A writer of young adult romance literature makes a trip back to the old hometown to attempt to rekindle a relationship with a former flame even though that former flame is happily married with children.

I felt the need to see this Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody collaboration before seeing Tully. I'm glad I did because it really shows off the versatility of Charlize Theron in these semi-comedic roles. Truthfully, her character is more sad than funny, and everything that is funny in Young Adult is the kind of funny you feel a little guilty laughing at. Theron's Mavis is a thunderstorm descending on her former stomping grounds, leaving the potential for the genuine ruination of people's lives and awkwardness in her wake. The character is one of the least self-aware characters I've seen in recent memory. She's almost impossible to root for, especially since she doesn't seem like she's capable of learning anything or growing. She's a mess at the start of the movie, a shot where she's sleeping hungoverly on her face, and you get the sense that she's going to be a mess at the end of the movie, too. Recurring shots of her sleeping on her face are visual cues of that anyway. She has no ability to empathize, she uses people, she's selfish, she's narcissistic, and she's a complete fraud. At a major crossroads of her life, the only thing she can think to do is turn around and go back. Despite venturing out into the big city and finding a little fame and success as a writer, she seems to be a complete loser. And the worst thing about it all is that lack of self-awareness. Mavis doesn't even realize that she's the loser in this cluster of characters.

But back to Theron's performance. If you can get past not liking anything about the character, Theron's portrayal of this unlikable character is really good. There are a lot of emotions Mavis has to exude, and Theron nails them all without doing anything obvious to nail them. There are parts of this little slice of Mavis's life where the character's in despair, but you really have to hunt for it because it's hidden beneath a thin shell of pride and faux-happiness. And there are probably a couple of moments when the character is actually happy, but you have to look for those, too. Mavis is a bit of a riddle, a woman who is trying to hard to keep it all together while at the same time very obviously not holding anything together at all. Other than an eruption and a confession to her parents, nothing Theron is doing with this character makes it clear where the character is really at or where the character is going. And physically, Theron and her team of make-up and wardrobe people pull off some great tricks. There are times when she looks like the world has beaten on her for a while. She's still Charlize Theron and more beautiful than anybody you'll ever meet in person unless you've met my wife, but she's the human equivalent of her car after she's done with it in one scene. And then she cleans up and manages to overwhelm anybody else in any scene with her.

Patton Oswalt is also in this, but I didn't buy his character as much. He's about the perfect person to play this geeky guy approaching middle-age and holding on to his action figures, hybrid figures that play a symbolic role that is a little too on the nose at one point in the story. His character's got some dopey lines though. Patrick Wilson plays her love interest, a guy with a name that would fit perfectly for a character in a young adult romance novel. Buddy Slade. There are lots of directions this character could have been taken, and I was happy with the direction Cody and Reitman chose.

This movie feels like a coming-of-age story for a woman who should have come-of-age a long time ago. I'm not exactly sure what the point of the whole thing is, and it's hard to learn from a character who isn't learning anything, but with a great performance, it's worth watching.

My favorite scene involves a dog, by the way.

Oh, and [Spoiler Warning for both this and Tully]: Charlize Theron characters should stop driving in these Cody/Reitman productions.

The Last Polka


1985 mockumentary

Rating: 14/20

Plot: The Shmenges and friends perform a final concert.

I had no idea what this was even after I watched it, but friend Josh informed me that these were all SCTV performers and that these were characters from that show. I know next-to-nothing about SCTV and have nothing to add about that. You'll have to research that yourself if you're interested.

Mockumentary-veteran Eugene Levy and John Candy co-wrote this and star in it, and they also, apparently, play their own instruments. The latter might be the most impressive part as they bounce around the stage with their accordion and clarinet. I enjoy the accordion as much as the next guy and probably a lot more than the three or four guys after that, and I got a kick out of the concert footage, apparently a parody of The Last Waltz. There's nothing exactly profound about hearing a polka version of Michael Jackson's "Beat It," especially when Weird Al has unleashed all those polka montages over the last thirty years, but it's still fun. Rick Moranis pops in as a character named Linsk Minyk to show off how supremely talented he was at this stage in his career. His cover of a Doors' classic manages to top the original, but that's probably what you'd expect when the original didn't even have a single accordion.

Imagine Jim Morrison playing an accordion. Tight leather pants, no shirt, and an accordion. Music history could have been changed.

I don't know how well this works as a mockumentary and it's not really funny at all, but I was entertained enough to be happy that I watched it.

Fool for Love


1985 motel movie

Rating: 15/20

Plot: A dusty soap opera unfolds at a tacky desert motel.

First, I think I'm a sucker for movies that take place in motels, hotels, and Holiday Inns. I'm also probably a sucker for rap lyrics that contain the words "motels, hotels, Holiday Inns," but that's another subject. The Florida Project, Barton Fink, The Shining, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Somewhere in Time, Mystery Train. Some day, I need to make a list of favorite "hotel/motel" movies. Actually, I probably don't need to do that because I just did.

I'm also a sucker for Robert Altman's work, so in researching for an upcoming list of Best Movies of 1985 (capitalized only because it makes the whole thing seem more official), I couldn't just not see Altman's film from that year. This is still a few years before his reemergence as a director to take seriously, definitely not in his most fertile period as a filmmaker (though I do like O.C. and Stiggs), but this one is worth seeing. As a largely one-setting filmed version of co-star Sam Shepard's play, this had the potential to be a little stiff, but Altman keeps things cinematic from the opening shot, a long shot of this weird desert motel that makes the isolation of these characters we're about to meet palpable. There's something ghostly and mysterious about the whole thing, and the whole thing's set up as if it might be post-apocalyptic. Harry Dean Stanton stumbles out to play some harmonica, and the vibe is set.

Altman's eye really helps this thing flow, even more than the story or the dialogue. There's not much that you'd describe as flashy here, but there's a choreography with these desert soap opera characters--trucks arriving in window reflections, voyeuristic shots of characters through frames, characters popping into the background almost like they're doing it accidentally--that I really liked. The tacky motel neon lighting also adds to the mystery.

The Sandy Rogers-penned country and western songs help with that mystery, too. They're mostly played from Shepard's truck. Her voice is perfect for that pick-up and A.M. country radio, like transmissions from some whisky-stained, dilapidated town nobody wants to visit anymore because everybody's died in a coal-mining incident except for one radio disc jockey and the radio disc jockey's sun-baked bones. Tarantino used Rogers' title track in Reservoir Dogs, so that's where you know it from.

The story's a strange one, but its strangeness sneaks up on you. Shepard's screenplay gives you morsels that keep you guessing about the relationships of these characters, and when he eventually has those characters reveal exactly what's going on, it's almost enough to choke you. Or maybe even choke Sam Shepard's character's horse. The performances are exactly as good as they need to be. Kim Basinger is just the right mix of manic and stoic, and she brings a sexual allure that legitimizes everything that is going on with Shepard's character. Shepard's having some lanky fun as this cowboy, lassoing jukeboxes and damaging furniture. And Harry Dean Stanton plays that mostly-quiet bundle of mystery that he's so good at playing. He mostly stands around, leaning on things and sometimes chortling or playing that harmonica, and he blends in with the desert scenery so well that you really have doubts that the character exists as anything more than this ethereal specter with a good taste in haberdashery. He almost plays dual roles, but I wouldn't want to get into that for fear of spoiling surprises. Oh, and Randy Quaid is in there, too, much more suited for this kind of performance that I would have given him credit for.

There's at least one scene that left me confused about why it needed to be in the story, and some of the dialogue was a little too soap-operatic, but I thought Altman and company did a really good job of creating tension and this claustrophobia in this wide-open space filled with nothing but dust and regret. I guess that would be more agoraphobic, wouldn't it? Whatever it's called, the fear of all these possibilities of these hopelessly drifting characters is something that is very real during the last shots of the movie. These are characters who are free to leave whenever they want, but it's impossible for them to escape their own feelings which makes fleeing a useless endeavor. Cue the harmonica.