Torn Curtain


1966 spy suspense movie

Rating: 13/20

Plot: It's trouble for a defecting scientist when his suspicious fiance/assistant follows him to one of the two Germanys that existed during the Cold War to see what he's up to.

Here's Hitchcock making a movie the exact same way he would have done it fifteen years ago and winding up with something pretty flat. Paul Newman looks bored, like he's surprised that this is what being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie is like, and he and Julie Andrews don't really feel like they're on the screen at the same time even in scenes where they are. The movie's often too talky, yet somehow you want more talking during the silently suspenseful parts. A quiet chase scene in a museum nearly worked, and a climactic series of events where the characters try to escape could have worked better had they been killed at the end.

And there's not a single curtain in the entire movie!

I did enjoy one fight scene, the positioning of scientists, and a cute little scene in which Newman finally explains to his girl what's going on, the characters inaudible as they stand on a hill far from the cameraman. By far, the best moments in this movie that don't have anything to do with Paul Newman having his shirt off involve Wolfgang Kieling's Hermann Gromek character. He's great at both lurking and knowing everything, and it's a shame that his character departs about halfway through, probably so that he could go find a Coen Brothers' movie to look simultaneously comical and menacing in.

Bored early, I decided to hunt for Uncle Alfred's cameo, and I was happy to find it. He was pretending to be a lamp in a hotel room.

I really missed a Bernard Herrmann's score here. Apparently, the two had had a falling out, leading Hitchcock to go with something really bland and unmemorable. I guess it fits perfectly with this movie though.

Rampage


2018 action movie

Rating: 9/20

Plot: The Rock tries to save Chicago from monstrous animals while attempting to reconnect with his gorilla friend George.

I'm at a point in my life when any movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson is going to get me to the theater. The dude emanates charismatic action heroics, and as he says at some point in this movie, he's got big arms. Call it a man crush if you want, friends, because I have no shame. The Rock distracts from every other human character in this movie. It's almost like the canister from space landed near his house and farted that green stuff on him. He gets a few one liners (a deadpan "That sucks" being my favorite), shows off how indestructible he is, and somehow manages to have rapport with a CGI gorilla. The Rock is a force.

Rampage, based on the video game that I used to play all the time at Hills on the north side of Terre Haute, Indiana, has a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo to wade through before you get to the money shots of monsters destroying the Windy City. Once it's there, the special effects are spotty while the logic is spottier. In fact, go ahead and throw all logic off the top of the Sears Tower or whatever the hell they call it now. Cowboy scenery chewing from Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who I'm reading plays a popular villain on The Walking Dead, emerges from the leveled buildings and underdeveloped stock characters. Maybe that's why Johnson overshadows them all so effortlessly--they're really dull characters. Most embarrassing are the villain siblings played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy who seem like they just wandered in from a cartoon or something. These are some lame bad guys.

The monsters themselves are fine unless they're interacting with the environment, people, or vehicles. Then things get a little cartoonish. There's something nearly fun about watching the, um, rampaging, the willingness to cinematically destroy some notable landmarks in Chicago. I was really hoping to see the giant alligator (or is that a crocodile?) eat a Harry Carey statue but ended up disappointed.

This is a movie that isn't afraid to get really stupid, and if it had just embraced that stupid instead of trying to make it all somehow scientifically viable, it probably would have worked a lot better. As it is, it's harmless and largely forgettable as a mildly fun action adventure.

Note: This loses a full point with a gesture that the gorilla makes. No, it's not the gesture he makes twice. It's the other one. It got a big laugh in the theater, but I was really annoyed.

The Firemen's Ball


1967 Czech comedy

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Firemen fail in their efforts to throw a party for an elderly comrade.

I think I killed Milos Forman.

A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy


1982 romantic comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: An inventor and his wife, who are having problems in the bedroom, invite two other couples to their country home on the eve of a wedding. Conflicts and sexual hijinks ensue.

The older I get, the more problem I have with women being attracted to Woody Allen in his movies.

Like a lot of Woody Allen movies, this is more clever than it is hilarious. Riffs on Bergman and Renoir give him a palette to explore sophisticated or farcical romantic comedy touches, and a weird mysticism or maybe magical realism only slightly derails. It's good to see Julie Hagerty, especially in this role as sort of a mousy whore. I thought Allen was going somewhere with the contrast between scientific thought and that mysticism, but he didn't seem to have much of an interest in that.

Isle of Dogs


2018 dog cartoon

Rating: 16/20

Plot: A kid named Atari steals a flying machine and heads to Trash Island where dogs, including his beloved Spots, have been quarantined after an epidemic of Snout Fever. Gradually, characters realize that there's something more sinister afoot.

I searched my blog to see if I had used the word "afoot" before. I did in a write-up of The Asylum's Sherlock Holmes rip-off (the one with a dinosaur) when I compared its use to digging up Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and urinating on his corpse, it popped up when I wrote a plot synopsis for Them!, and I used it accidentally in a typographical error when writing about The Searchers. I don't know why I think anybody would care about any of this.

It's nearly impossible for me to write objectively about a Wes Anderson movie. They're comfort food, and I'm not sure this one could have come along at a better time since I've been in a major funk lately. Middle-age, futility, a depletion of creative energy, a lack of really comfortable shoes. Seeing the same preview for this over and over for months gave me hope that some stop-animated, droll dogs and a twee appropriation of Japanese culture could turn my frown upside down. Or sideways! That would be cool. I could walk around like a Picasso.

The stop-animation is so well done. There's a rich attention to detail that will make this a rewarding rewatch and probably equally rewarding the other thirty or so times I watch it since that's what I do with Wes Anderson movies. You've got individual shots that had to have taken hours to create, and although they're completely unnecessary to our plot or understanding of the situation these characters are in, they add so much wonder to this world Anderson and his team of animators are trying to create. Background details that most people aren't going to even bother noticing with a superficial first viewing color this world and give it depth. I assume that's true anyway. I'm writing this after a superficial first viewing. Visually, this is an artistic triumph, and I wish there could be an award given to every single person who helped comb dog fur or move a Japanese doll's arm a fraction of an inch.

There's a complexity to the storytelling that would probably make this tough for children to follow. It might even be tough for dumb adults to follow. There's also a darkness that would make it tough for children. Some real violence, skeletal remains, all that apocalyptic trash, government conspiracies and subsequent cover-ups. The boy's search for his dog at the heart of this is about as simple as a story could be, but Anderson and his co-writers, regular collaborators Roman Coppola and Jason Schwartzman as well as some guy named Kunichi Nomura who has no other filmwriting credits but did appear in Lost in Translation and Grand Budapest, give the story plenty of wrinkles, making it convoluted and chunky. I suppose you could say it's a bit too heavy with ideas, and the last half an hour or so gets a little too wacky in that same way that Mr. Fox and Life Aquatic do.

Children would also have trouble with the disjointed narrative. A narrator helps a bit, and title screens telling us when the action is moving forward twenty years, or back five months or ahead thirty minutes keep us from being completely confused. It also might be a little hard to adjust to the untranslated Japanese in this. We (and the dogs) don't know what Atari is saying, and a lot of the Japanese politicians or scientists aren't translated either. You can always figure out just enough so that the untranslated dialogue still pushes the plot forward though. And I liked the irony that we can understand the dogs perfectly but not most of the human characters. But I can see that being a source of frustration for some people.

The voice performances are great from the top of the credits to the bottom. I'm not sure all of the characters were completely necessary, but when Wes Anderson wants to make a bunch of figures to move around this stop-animated world, I'm not going to argue with him. Does Scarlett Johansson's Nutmeg need to be in this movie? I don't know, but I'm glad she was because it's not often you get to be sexually aroused by an animated dog. It's happened to me more than you might think, but it's not a regular occurrence or anything. All of the voices, even when they're at their most animated and bombastic, have this NPR-ish quiet to them that I really liked. Everybody also just sounds like himself or herself, making these non-human characters feel more natural. Nobody pushes here. It's refreshing voice work in a world inhabited by yelling cartoon vampires and irritating minions. I thought Cranston, Norton, Abraham, and Goldblum were especially great. I'm not sure I fell in love with any of these characters like I have in other Wes Anderson movies, but maybe that will happen eventually.

And Bob Balaban is in this which is always worth a bonus point. And so is Yoko Ono, the best Beatle. And Anjelica Huston is credited with voicing a mute poodle.

I'm not sure what to think about this cultural appropriation criticism. I don't see it, but I'm probably not the right person to ask. It seems more like a loving tribute to a culture and filmography from that culture than anything else. I thought the music added to the homage. And although the drumming that bookends the movie, the exquisite shots of sushi being prepared, and the random shots of sumo wrestling could be seen as an American filmmaker pulling from a hastily-brainstormed list of "cool Japanese stuff," this feels more on the side of loving than offensive. I wonder if a lot of the criticism has to do with the way Anderson's worlds almost feel like fairy tale versions of reality anyway.

There's great humor and heart, animated perfection and a propulsive score, and all sorts of detail that will make this one worth watching again and again. I think it's a step up from The Fantastic Mr. Fox and look forward to a completion of this unannounced stop-motion Wes Anderson trilogy in a few years.

A Quiet Place


2018 sci-fi horror movie

Rating: 15/20

Plot: A family plays a really intense version of the quiet game.

I'm actually growing to like this movie more the more I think about it. Like all horror movies, I try to find the subtext. These sorts of sci-fi movie critters don't actually exist, so there must be something else--something real but abstract--that the humans are scared of in these movies. It's so obvious what this one is about that I don't know why it didn't hit me on the way home from the theater. This is very much a movie about family, raising children, loss, and (perhaps ironically) communication between parents and children. For a movie with very little dialogue, it really does say a lot about the importance of communication in raising your offspring.

This really works as a horror movie. It does it with some typical jump scares, ones complete with loud noises or screeching strings, and it does it with a gimmick. Some of the former ones effectively made theater patrons jump, probably more noticeably with a movie that was so quiet at times, and the latter can be forgiven because it is used so effectively. This is a technically brilliant horror film. The creature design is the most menacing since maybe Alien, the set pieces are intricately designed and shot to bring out every ounce of possible tension, the attention to details in the limited settings is terrific, and the use of sound is just about perfect. This may have a little too much score for my taste, but I can't remember a movie that used sound so well. Every floorboard creek resonated in that theater, and the sound design had a mostly full theater holding its collective breath so that we didn't get that guy from The Office and his family killed.

Krasinski is fine, hitting all the right notes as an everyman, but the kids and Emily Blunt are incredible. Blunt has a range of emotions to play around with here, and the way she manages to deliver them all while being so still is stunning. Millicent Simmonds, that girl from Wonderstruck, and Noah Jupe are both great, too. But this is really Blunt's movie to shine in, and she nails it, right down to her last shot of the movie.

As good as the sound design is, my favorite thing might be the pacing and the unique storytelling. This movie has almost no exposition at all, and it's a better story because of it. We never find out why the monsters are here, and we're only gradually given clues along the way about this family and the world's situation. Just as the monsters are only revealed to us piece by piece before finally being shown in all their glory, we're fed the story in the same way. Inferences have to be made, but there are more than enough clues to make it easy. This isn't a thinking man's movie at all. It's just simple storytelling with almost all of the fat removed so that the viewer can enjoy the thrills. Are there plot holes and questions that are left unanswered? Oh, yeah. But when a movie is pieced together so well and has a little something to say about how scary it is raising children in a terrifying world, you can almost forgive them.

But seriously, how is there that much corn?

There's one scene featuring a Neil Young song that I want to mention. He strolls out of a silo playing a banjo and singing "Cinnamon Girl" before a monster pops out of a cornfield and decapitates him. I thought the scene was completely unnecessary.

Bad Movie Club: Love on a Leash


2011 dog movie

Bad Movie Rating: 5/5 (Josh: 4/5; Fred: 4/5)

Rating: 2/20

Plot: A dog looks for love and eventually settles for a woman who's had no luck with romance lately, probably because she likes the color green too much.

This was the worst movie that I saw during a weekend in which I saw Cool Cat Saves the Kids. That should tell anybody who has seen Cool Cat Saves the Kids everything he or she needs to know.

Something's been bothering me since I saw this travesty. There's a composer named in the opening credits. However, the movie has absolutely no score. Prince the dog kind of sings some improvised little ditties, but I don't think those are "composed" exactly. So why is there a composer credited?

This movie's currently sitting at a perfect 10/10 on IMDb. It's one of those bits of insanity like the webpage with that Japanese guy putting pancakes and things on his rabbit's head that makes the Internet such a wonderful place.

It didn't take me long to ask, "Is this the worst movie I've ever seen?" My 2/20 rating would indicate that there are worse. The experience with this one was almost otherworldly though. I spent the first minute or so troubleshooting, thinking that I had accidentally turned my volume off or something. And then when the dog talked, I realized that opening the movie with no sound at all was the stylistic choice that director Fen Tian wanted. There aren't sound effects much either except when a lady trying on a dress farts early on, another indicator that you're watching a special kind of movie. And I'll tell you what--the whole thing works. At least if "works" has some kind of meaning that means the opposite of what it normally does. Because no, the lack of sound and music in this clearly does not work. Combined with maybe the worst pacing I've ever seen in storytelling, this is a movie that almost makes you forget how to watch a movie. You have to sort of learn how to watch Love on a Leash as you go, and it's a weird experience.

The movie's got itself a weird plot anyway. We're thrown into the protagonist's situation en media res, not having any idea if he's always been a wisecracking dog or if he's been transformed into a dog by a witch or if all the shots of ducks Fen Tian gives us have anything to do with anything. It turns out that they do because the pond they are scooting around in is a magical talking pond that is trying to teach the dog a lesson.

The ducks could make this an interesting yet likely deadly drinking game, by the way.

Now my gut tells me that Fen Tian is trying to teach us all a lesson about love and redemption here. Josh disagreed and thought this whole thing was just an attempt at pointless entertainment. He's probably right actually.

Aneese Khamo plays Prince. Well, he's obviously not playing the dog. A dog is playing the dog. Khamo is playing the man version of Prince. I'm not sure if he's doing the voice of the dog when he's a dog or not, but it didn't sound like the same guy. Whoever voices the dog was obviously being shown the movie and just told to make up lines that the dog might say. Some of them make a little bit of sense; most of them don't make any sense at all. If it's Khamo doing both the voice work and the trying-to-act-like-an-actual-human-being part, this is one terrifically bad performance. Jana Camp isn't nearly as bad as his love interest Lisa (though IMDb says the character's name was Jana), but she's still bad enough. They're given a terrible script, and the montage-heavy and plot-hole-stuffed narrative doesn't help them become real characters in a real story.

This might all sound like a bad family movie, but with some more adult references, a suicide attempt, and a kinky photo session where the human version of Prince is actually put in a leash, I don't think it is. I can't imagine any child actually enjoying this anyway. I can't imagine any adult enjoying it either. A person who is sort of into bestiality but only wants to be teased by promises of bestiality without really getting any money shots might enjoy it. Maybe that's the audience.

What the hell is with all the green in Lisa/Jana's apartment? Somebody's going to have to help me out with that one.

You know what wasn't so bad in this? The dog! That was a solid animal performance.

Things that especially baffled me: The simultaneous lifting of forks in a dinner scene--four characters in a shot putting forks to mouths at the exact same time. And it happened twice! Most of the dog's lines. A great scene where we get to see him transform from man to dog, dangerously as Lisa's friend is in the room. The special effect involves shoving a tail down the back of his pants. All of those fucking ducks! How Lisa still had her job after she was fired and then quit following a sequence where her boss tried to rape her. Why I'm thinking about stuff like that last one instead of doing something better with my life. That's probably most baffling of all. No, the confusing ending complete with really bad wigs was likely the most baffling thing of all.

Anyway, if you love a dose of magical realism and doggy style erotica in your romantic comedies, you can't go wrong with Love on a Leash.

Saturday Night Fever (Redux)


I have nothing to add to an almost perfectly written review from a few years ago.

Here's something I might have noticed seeing this on the big screen but can find no confirmation of in a half-assed Internet search--a shot of a ventriloquist with a dummy using a phone booth. I know what I saw. If there's one thing that can distract me from shots of John Travolta's crotch, it's a ventriloquist dummy.

Help?

The Guatemalan Handshake


2006 comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: During an electrical outage, the boyfriend of the daughter of a demolition derby champ turns up missing. His friend, a little girl named Turkeylegs, searches for him.

I'm not sure what a "Guatemalan handshake" has to do with anything here. You can look that up and judge for yourself, but I'm pretty sure the title is a non-sequitur. This is a bit of a non-sequitur of a movie, one that plays like a stranger and darker Napoleon Dynamite or something that Quentin Dupieux would make. There's an absurdist humor, plot and character developments that don't make a whole lot of sense, and what appears to be an entire music video in the middle of the thing, but while it doesn't appear to be on the surface saying much of anything, I'm pretty sure it's a movie that deals with loss. It approaches any themes like a splatter painter, but I think it might be there.

Will Oldham is in this and even sings half of that song in the aforementioned music video. That's a take on the Moldy Peaches "Jorge Regula" with entirely different lyrics.

I've seen a couple Todd Rohal shorts and The Catechism Cataclysm. I enjoy this particular brand of humor but can see how most normal people would find it disconcerting. You've got to admit one thing though--the guy knows how to title a film.

Cool Cat Saves the Kids


2015 anti-bullying propaganda

Rating: 2/20

Plot: An orange cat tries to take down a bully in his down time from crashing Hollywood parades.

The poster proclaims at the bottom that this is "cooler than Barney the Dinosaur!" I thought it was just at the bottom of one image, but it's on all of them, right there with Cool Cat, Cool Cat's creator Derek Savage, a little girl, Vivica A. Fox, and Erik Estrada. I'm not sure if Barney's people even got close to having Vivica A. Fox or Erik Estrada on the program, so maybe Cool Cat really is cooler.

Nothing I write about this is going to seem all that coherent, so I'll make one of those lists that my wife appreciates. This is based on some notes that I took because I'm the type of person who is going to jot down some notes while watching Cool Cat Saves the Kids. I'm surprised I have friends or a family.

1) The dance-y opener certainly has a lot of energy. I won't doubt Cool Cat's dancing prowess, but I am a little confused about why Cool Cat is listed as an executive producer.

2) I'm more confused about the relationship between Cool Cat and Derek Savage. Are they a couple? Did he just call him daddy? How does one human man spawn an overly enthusiastic cat mascot anyway?

3) There's something both endearing and irritating about the way Cool Cat screams every single one of his lines with all of these weird pauses. I'm not sure the person voicing Cool Cat (not in the credits, by the way, because we wouldn't want to kill any of the magic) knows how to read.

4) Butch the Bully. You know he's going to be a problem by the way he says "Dagnabbit." Butch is played by Connor Dean, and it looks like he might become my favorite actor by the end of this movie.

5) I should have played a drinking game--a shot each time Cool Cat says "_______ has a saying. . ." It's a go-to line in this screenplay. "Screenplay," I mean.

6) At the 13:45 mark, Cool Cat has fallen to the ground, and his leg starts shaking. This is the kind of thing that starts religions! Or cults.

7) Cool Cat screams, "Exquisite!" and I pee a little.

8) Well, that answers my earlier question. Derek Savage (or his "Daddy Derek" character) is married to a female cat mascot. I don't even know what to say.


9) Cool Cat can't surf the web without musical accompaniment. The "Surfin' Superstar" musical number was something. 

10) Holy hell! That nightmare sequence! That was, dare I say it, almost Lynchian. 

11) 19:34: shaking again. Are these seizures? 

12) I believe there are continuity errors with Cool Cats shirt. That seems like a situation where a t-shirt continuity error would be more difficult to pull off than not having a continuity error. I mean, you have to change a t-shirt on a mascot. I've changed clothes on dolls before. It's not easy. A mascot is like a big doll. 

13) Derek Savage locks his car for safety purposes, but he doesn't roll up the windows. My God, I love this movie! 

14) I also love Cool Cat's gait. While hiking in the mountains last summer with my family, I developed a half-walk/half-skip style of walk that annoyed everybody in my family. Cool Cat's walk reminds me of that and has inspired me to walk like that even when I'm not hiking. 

15) Cool Cat's funhouse--I'm intrigued but very concerned about a disappearing dog walker. 

16) Hollywood Parade! Mom's response: What are you talking about? Mom's just don't get it, man. They just don't. 

17) "Eeeeee!" Whatever you think about Cool Cat, nobody can deny that the guy knows how to get excited. 

18) Cool Cat just made a listening motion where he held his hand up to where his human ear would be, about a foot below where his cat head's ear is. It's the little details, Derek Savage. 

19) Shit, Cool Cat just broke the 4th wall. . .and my fucking mind! 

20) "Mama went to the beauty parlor with Vivica A. Fox." Maybe Vivica A. Fox isn't actually in this movie at all. Maybe she just agreed to be on the poster and have her name used. 

21) "How could I forget about boogie woogie?" This song might be stuck in my mind for years. Who's singing though? Cool Cat? Is he singing about himself? Are these Spanish lyrics I'm hearing or is my mind still broken from when Cool Cat broke the 4th wall? 

22) Wait a second. I think this song is awkwardly squeezed into this movie just so Derek Savage can show the world that he has a guitar signed by Van Halen. 

23) Oh, God. Now he's rapping. And he's setting the genre back about 30 years. This might be the worst song I've ever heard in a movie. 

24) "I bet the kids will boogie to that song!" Moms. 

25) "There's no ghost here." This was Derek Savage's attempt to cleverly reference Ghostbusters. That would be a swing and a miss. 

26) At a Hollywood car show, there's a Herbie spotting. And others. I'm surprised Ready Player One fans haven't creamed all over this movie. 

27) This red carpet footage and the endless (and slightly apocalyptic) parade footage feels like guerrilla filmmaking. It seems like they're crashing this parade and filming without permission. 

28) Erik Estrada is the parade emcee. He might have thought that was the peak of his career, but wait until he gets to drink lemonade in this movie with Vivica A. Fox. 

29) "I bet you will, you fine-looking kitty cat, you." --Derek Savage to his cat wife. I don't usually get nauseous when watching a kid's movie, but that line got me there. 

30) Vivica and Estrada drinking lemonade. A belch! And Erik Estrada's reaction shows that we are dealing with professionals here. 

31) "Hey, who's that kid?" --Erik Estrada's reaction to Butch the Bully made me laugh all by itself. But Vivica A. Fox's reply of "I don't like bullies. It better not be a bully."? How did these two end up in this movie? And how did they feel reading lines like this? 

32) "I'm a bully." Butch doesn't hide his true self, and you almost have to respect that about him. 

33) Vivica has a line about how she yelled, but Cool Cat has been yelling the entire movie. There's nothing at all to apologize, Vivica A. Fox. 

34) "Give me your lunch money!" "I'm a bully, and I don't like your sand castle!" I'm pretty sure an adult wrote this movie, but he had to have help from being clobbered in the head with a bat or something. 

35) Wait, there's a writing contest now? With all these shots of Cool Cat struggling with writer's block, I think this might turn into Barton Fink. Is Butch the Bully the equivalent of John Goodman's character? 

36) "This is my best story yet. And you know what? I think it's some of my best work." You can tell he's a writer because he puts words together so elegantly. 

37) Do they switch houses at some point in this movie? Somebody please watch this and let me know. 

38) Suddenly, Cool Cat is talking to the audience more. It makes me uncomfortable every single time. 

39) A Teletubbies-esque sun, teethbrushing in the mirror, or walking down stairs? Which is more magical? 

40) Mikey with a stunt! 

41) This movie contradicts itself. There was all this stuff about how it's important to look both ways before crossing the street, and then Cool Cat darts across the street without looking either way in his pursuit of the bully. I think this movie is messing with us. 

42) Oh, boy. A gun. You know what Hitchcock said about guns. I'm putting my money on Cool Cat's mom getting a bullet. 

43) A slow motion walk to school for absolutely no reason! That's Tarantino-esque! 

44) A lesson was just revealed: "Kids need to follow their heart." 

45) I haven't been able to stop thinking about this movie since I watched it seven days ago. 

The Trip to Italy


2014 road trip comedy

Rating: 14/20

Plot: Coogan and Brydon travel through Italy, eating food and sharing impressions.

They're not as feisty in this one as they were in The Trip, but there's still enough tension to give their relationship a comedic edge. This is pretty much the same as that first movie, so if you liked what you saw there, you're likely to enjoy this. More impressions, more shots of food being prepared, more banter. This adds the beautiful landscapes of Italy and Alanis Morissette sing-a-longs.

This trip made me laugh just as the last one did, and I like the non-comedic sides of these characters, too. They each have personal conflicts, and most of the time, the writers don't waste a lot of the audience's time giving a bunch of unnecessary background. The drama settles in as naturally as the comedy.

My favorite bits might have been during their visit to Pompeii.

I was just skimming user reviews on IMDB for this. People really seem to hate it. It's unclear from most of them whether they've watched the first one or not. I'm sure they'd hate that, too.

I'll watch the third of these soon enough.

Ready Player One


2018 blockbuster

Rating: 8/20

Plot: An eccentric creator of a virtual world that everybody is obsessed with in the 2040's passes away. He's left behind an Easter egg within his creation, something that everybody wants to dig through all the 80's pop culture references to find so that they can control the Oasis.

Spielberg, with what might be the worst movie he's ever directed, has forgotten how to tell a story. My greatest surprise when watching this candy-coated garbage of a movie wasn't that it was irritating or devoid of any real meaning or message. From the previews, I had halfway expected that. No, my biggest surprise was that I wasn't entertained at all while watching this. In fact, I found almost every second of this unpleasant. On a Facebook post from one of my blog's 3 1/2 occasional readers, I commented that I "kinda despised" this movie. I didn't fully despise Ready Player One, but since I'm a guy who grew up in the 80's on sugary cereals, plastic toys, and Saturday morning cartoons and should be the perfect audience for this kind of dystopian plunge into artificially-sweetened nostalgia, even "kinda despising" this movie makes it a major disappointment.

From the thick exposition shared through boring Tye Sheridan's boring character Dwayne Wayne's narration through jarring and queasy action sequences in a virtual world that are about as exciting as watching somebody else play a video game through the laughably cliched conclusion, I kinda despised it all, and I left the theater covered in high-fructose corn syrup that I still haven't been able to completely wash out of my hair. It's like I was forced against my will to squeeze into a room stuffed corner to corner with cotton candy in order to search for a nickel that somebody had sworn they left in there before revealing, almost two-and-a-half tiresome hours, that it had been in his pants pocket the entire time.

Let's talk about those Easter eggs and all those allusions to 80's pop culture. It's probably the only thing that can be discussed about this movie. It's as if Spielberg, in a movie where characters are literally trying to find an egg, decided to craft a motion picture that would give his audience a big old Easter egg hunt instead of any characters to give a crap about or a narrative that would keep the viewers' interest. I know I missed bunches of the references because I either wasn't a good enough 80's kid or the characters popped into existence when I was a little too old. One lengthy sequence references a movie that I adore, and that was the one spot in the movie where I got a little excited. Unfortunately, that part of the movie devolved into something pretty silly, but it was a lot of fun for this cinephile to see some of those visuals on the big screen again. Another reference to an Atari game that I fondly remember came too late for me to care, but I did get a kick out of the prominent role a Madball played. I can't really get into any of  those three references further because it'd spoil things. It'll probably spoil things to talk about how the Iron Giant is completely misused in this movie, too, so I won't do that either. Other than those, the references had no effect on me, perhaps because the part of my brain that registers nostalgia has been removed and replaced with circuits and wires.

Even if the references had made me giddy as it seems they've made other people, there's such a lack of depth to all of this that I would have still thought it was a bad movie. There are plenty of opportunities for ideas. Spielberg and the screenwriters could have had something to say about those personas or avatars that we hide within in the 21st Century, love in the digital age, corporations and greed, the role of nostalgia in the creation of new art. Instead, they merely scratched surfaces and threw candy at the audience's faces instead. All of that is there just so Spielberg can get to the next action sequence bloated with references. The narrative rush and dizzying action sequences also left no time to think within this flabby running time. This movie gives you no space to breath and makes it impossible to connect with anything that's happening or any of these characters--real or virtual--who are running around.

Those characters might be the biggest cause of this narrative emptiness. They're floating bodies in a computer's innards. Dwayne Wayne and his girlfriend, whom he falls in love with even though the only thing he knows about her is that she can drive a video game motorcycle really well (something that might be enough in the 21st Century as far as I know), are developed generically. The problem might have been the amount of time we were forced to spend with these characters in virtual reality, but they had about as much depth as Pac-Man, a character who actually doesn't appear in this movie at all. The peripheral characters are even flatter, almost to the point where they don't matter. There's an 11-year-old, Dwayne Wayne's best friend, some other guy, some bad guys. I really can't tell you much of anything about any of those characters. There's a predictable twist with the best friend character that provides a tiny bit of character development, and Ben Mendelsohn's character is greedy and nefarious in that way villains in children's movies are traditionally greedy and nefarious. Mendelsohn, by the way, is completely wasted in this generic role. He's playing a character who is about as interesting as a saltine.

I did kind of enjoy T.J. Miller's character, a gnarly-looking bounty hunter. And I liked Mark Rylance and his borderline goofy performance as the creator of the Oasis, the one character who really does end up meaty. Other than him, these characters only seem to exist because Spielberg has been making movies long enough to know that movies need the have some.

But bad storytelling made it impossible to care. A mess of characters run around all these plots and subplots that never seem to matter. Welp, my parents are dead. Oh, and my uncle is a real jerk. Oh, and did I tell you that I love this girl on the motorcycle? It feels like this movie should have been a mini-series to adequately cover everything about these characters that the writers wanted to cover. At the very least, the movie should have been split into two or three parts. Ready Player One 2, Ready Player One 3. I'm not sure that could have saved this, but they definitely could have made a lot more money. And maybe they could have talked Disney into letting them throw in those Tron cars or something.

The Sacrifice


1986 action thriller

Rating: 18/20

Plot: As World War III looms, a man attempts to save his family and world and tree with nothing but a little spunk and some levitation.

I'm not sure what tantric sex even is, but whenever I imagine him having sexual intercourse, something that I probably do more than the average person, I imagine him levitating like the guy does with the witch in this movie.

My trek through the filmography of Andrei Tarkovsky has been a slow one, and I'm not sure why because I've loved everything I've seen. And I'm not just talking about loving every movie that I've seen. I'm talking about loving nearly every single (usually extended) shot in every single movie I've seen. Anyway, it was Tarkovsky's birthday, and that gave me the excuse to watch this. Also, I want to impress a Russian friend of mine. My Russian friend was not impressed.

This movie might have ruined Ready Player One for me. If you've read my ramblings before, you probably know that I like movies that give me a lot of breathing room, space to contemplate, movies like koans. Tarkovsky's movies all have that space. Ready Player One, which I saw the night after I watched this, is the exact opposite of that. I don't think I would have liked Spielberg's latest popcorn butter-covered blockbuster anyway, but seeing The Sacrifice the night before watching it probably made me despise it more than I should have.

There will be no levitation for me, friends. Not with a Russian or a Swede or Sting or my wife who is the only woman I will ever sleep with. I've done some haphazard internet research and can't find any instructions, and Sting has not returned any of my emailed inquiries. The Russians are mysteriously quiet on the subject.

"In the beginning was the word," and if there's a criticism of this movie, it's that it's too wordy in its first chunk. Realize that's part of the point as Erland Josephson's Alexander, who pontificates about Hamlet and his own problems with verbosity, transforms into a man of action after a life of being a man of nothing but words. Josephson, by the way, is fantastic in this. I imagine these enigmatic characters--the kinds that it seems like only foreign directors can accurately make--would be tough to create. Here's a guy who wakes up every day and waters a tree and burns down his house because God and Nietzsche told him to, and Alexander's the type of character whose arc is different from what is normal in movies. Instead of the character growing and becoming easier to relate to or understand, he becomes more distant and more difficult to figure out. Josephson is the same actor who plays the guy trying to carry that candle across the pool in Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. I almost want to think that it's the same character and that this is a prequel to Nostalghia, but that probably doesn't add up and isn't an idea that would impress my Russian friend or Sting.

Tarkovsky was exiled at the time he made this, and there are likely personal parallels (most notably, the character's son, Little Man). Filmed in Sweden, this movie, according to a lot of cinephiles, resembles Bergman more than Tarkovsky's earlier work. I'm not nearly smart enough to write about something like that, probably the reason why I spend so much time on tantric sex even though it doesn't have anything to do with anything. What I do know is that this movie is beautifully filmed. Maybe frequent Bergman-collaborator Sven Nykvist is the real hero of this thing, as these shots, maybe which are elaborately choreographed extended shots, are stunning. Blowing curtains lighting and darkening Little Man's room as the kid sleeps. Ingenious movements with mirrors and cabinet doors. The opening shot with landscape and the tree that bookends our story. Sheep choreography. People choreography. The aforementioned haunting levitation sequence. A dream sequence where a car has apparently crashed into a bunch of chairs, surreal and quietly apocalyptic chaos. A big war movie action sequence done in a way that only Tarkovsky could do it.

And the finale with a burning house? I'm not sure how things were timed so perfectly (having to rebuild the house and do the whole thing a second time probably didn't hurt), but I was floored while watching this scene unfold. I think I've told several people, including my Russian friend and Sting (in an email), that this scene is the best one I have ever seen in a movie. That's likely not true, but I know one thing--it's not far off. And it makes everything that is splashed on the screen in Ready Player One look like an amateur threw it together.

This movie has lots of water, chairs, and mirrors. It also has lots of Japanese music, at one point surprising the viewer by being diegetic. A Russian guy forced to finish his career in Sweden and obsessing over Japanese culture? I'm not sure I'm smart enough to get the link there either or understand all the symbolism.

I had predicted this movie would focus more on mortality, probably because I knew it was sort of a deathbed film for the director. I don't think it has much to do with mortality at all though. It has more to do with tantric sex and witches and nuclear bombs and mute kids watering trees.

I'll watch Andrei Rublev next, probably sometime in June, and then I'll have gotten through Tarkovsky's major works. Who wants to watch it with me?

The Death of Stalin


2018 historical comedy

Rating: 16/20

Plot: Following the death of the lovable dictator, his cronies jockey for power.

I've read that Russia has banned this movie. That's too bad because it's hilarious!

Armando Iannucci has done something pretty remarkable here. The Death of Stalin, in this seemingly effortless way, blends historical drama about an oppressed people and power-grabbing, back-stabbing wannabe tyrants and the death of this guy who was about as much of a force as an individual can be in a country with this irreverent, absurd, and really wacky humor. The way the two co-exist transforms that absurdity into drama and the drama into absurdity. The very real historical figures are dragged, almost kicking and screaming, through the very real historical situations, but it's like they're Stooges in a Marx brothers' movie. There's an energy to the history lesson that is exhilarating, and if there's anything at all to be learned, it's that there's a large amount of absurdity in politics and the desire to control or have power.

The cast is excellent. Being historically illiterate, I won't pretend to know whether any of these people--other than Adrian McLoughlin who played Stalin and McLoughlin's mustache that played Stalin's mustache--actually looked like the historical figures they were playing, but that really doesn't matter. Iannucci wasn't going for authenticity here, and that's clear in his instruction that none of the performers even attempt a Russian accent of any kind. So you've got Steve Buscemi looking and sounding just like Steve Buscemi and Jeffrey Tambor making that same face that Jeffrey Tambor always makes. It seems like the sort of thing that might be a complete distraction, but it reminds the viewer right off the bat that the primary function of this is to make you laugh and that any history learned from the thing is just extra.

The entire cast struck a perfect tone, but I was especially impressed with Simon Russell Beale as a manic Lavrenti Beria in a Best Supporting Actor caliber performance. Buscemi, Tambor, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs--they just fit so naturally into this wacky production, almost like they're a comedy troupe that has been doing this kind of thing together for years. The verbal humor is fast and furious, trying to keep up with Stalin's assassination squads, but there's also a lot of visual humor and even some moments that you'd describe as slapstick. There's one right off the bat as two of the characters are introduced vigorously chest-thumping like college basketball players after a big win. Repeatedly. I don't think I ever learned any 20th Century world history in high school or college, so I'm not sure if Nikita Khrushchev was a chest-thumper or not. Maybe he was.

This packed with so much humor that I really feel like I need to see it again to catch more. It was the same feeling I had with Iannucci's In the Loop. Also like In the Loop is this almost terrifying way that the movie, even though the action takes place decades ago, contains ideas that still feel relevant in today's political climate.

So a movie that can horrify and tickle, astound with a visual flair and a big score, and somehow manage to nail this almost impossible high-wire act has to be applauded. And there's part of me that feels like if I don't say nice things about this movie, somebody's going to come to my house and execute me.

I'm sorry. I probably shouldn't joke about that.

Best F(r)iends (Volume One)


2018 comedic thriller

Rating: 10/20 (Josh: either a 4/20 or a 10/20)

Plot: A homeless drifter befriends a mysterious mortician, and the two develop a business partnership involving the selling of gold teeth. Then, things get really confusing.

As Josh says, this is a hard one to rate. On the one hand, I don't think I've laughed this much in a movie theater in my entire life. If this is intended as a comedy, it's a complete success. The weird thing is that even with my experience appreciating bad movies, I'm still having a difficult time knowing whether I'm laughing at this movie or with this movie.

In fact, I'm not even sure it's possible to be with this movie. The plot, the characters, the little twists and turns, and the nuances are all so completely bizarre that it's hard to connect with anything that's going on. Supposedly, Sestero based this screenplay on real-life experiences with Tommy Wiseau and a road trip. It's doubtful that the experience actually involved any teeth, a mysterious ATM machine, the tragic death of an entire clown family, or creepy masks. Sestero is clearly covering up the reality in mounds of metaphor, and somebody with any background on Sestero and Wiseau's relationship--like, somebody who's read Sestero's book The Disaster Artist was adapted from--will see some parallels. The problem--and I don't want Greg Sestero to read this because I don't want to hurt his feelings--is that he's just not enough of a writer to pull this sort of art-house flick steeped in metaphor and symbolism off.

It's easy to find bad movies where the director failed at horror or failed at comedy or failed at drama. My favorite bad movies are the results of writers/directors who are absolutely full of themselves. I'm not accusing anybody who helped make this as being full of themselves, but it's clearly an attempt at an artsy, Lynchian sort of movie. And to see something like that fail so spectacularly is a unique opportunity.

Here's what I expected going into this project. I knew that Sestero had written it, and I knew he had written it with the specific purpose of giving his friend Wiseau a part that would be perfect for him. After seeing previews, I really did think it might succeed as an artsy kind of film, the kind of thing where the natural oddness of Wiseau could be used in completely unnerving ways. Josh and I both thought that with the right direction, Wiseau maybe could not be so bad. He could be a fringe character in a David Lynch movie, the kind who pops in to one scene and talks about how it's hard for him to find pants that fit because his legs are two different lengths and that there's always a frog in one of the pockets and then is never heard from again.

This shattered those expectations. Tommy Wiseau is a fucking force that is impossible to ground. You just can't control Tommy Wiseau, and if he wants to wear high-heeled boots that he can barely walk in or pretend to lick a car or improvise lines or sing random lines or mess up a line and quickly correct himself, there's just no point in stopping the guy. His character looks ridiculous, sounds ridiculous, and is ridiculous. No character like Wiseau's Harvey actually exists on this planet even though the character clearly tells another that he is from planet Earth at one point. But you know what? Before I saw The Room, I didn't know there was a person like Tommy Wiseau either. And he singlehandedly takes something that would nearly be unwatchable with an absolutely oppressive soundtrack, pretentious editing with incoherent montages, and a narrative that doesn't make a lick of sense into something that is enormously entertaining. You just can't take your eyes off the guy when he's on the screen. Every bit of dialogue. Every movement. Every scene when he gets to display his athletic prowess (in this film, it's basketball). Every flubbed line. Every exaggerated gesture. Every laugh. Just everything the guy does here is completely magical.

Is he good? No! If Sestero wanted to write him a character that would be perfect for him, he failed. He wrote him a character that Wiseau is going to play exactly like he would play every other character he gets the opportunity to play--ineptly. He clearly can't remember his lines. He doesn't understand the character's motivations. He doesn't understand how one actually interacts with another human being. He's hilariously awful! But I'm pretty sure anything else would have been a disappointment.

Sestero isn't much better. For the first twenty minutes of the movie, I thought he was a mute, and I didn't think he would have handled that nearly as well as Sally Hawkins. There are times when he and Wiseau have some chemistry, the kind of chemistry that I don't think Wiseau could have with anybody else, but there are other times when even Sestero seems befuddled by what his friend is doing in these scenes. And the other actors and actresses seem even more lost in scenes they have with Wiseau. In a way, it makes things even more uncomfortable.

There are a few nods to The Room (like that aforementioned basketball scene) in this that might have been a little too obvious. I did appreciate how weird this movie was willing to be. I mean, that clown family. A very strange trailer for Volume Two (which comes out in June) was shown after this (along with about 20 minutes of other bonus footage including a music video) that makes it seem like it might be even stranger than this first installment.

So if this is a comedy, it might be a resounding success. If it's a straight thriller, it's a laughable failure. Whatever it was, I was about as entertained as I've ever been in a movie theater. And I can't wait for Volume Two!

I got to see this with my fiend Josh.