Vampires, Aliens, Ghosts, & Walt Disney: July ’16 in Film

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Although I did watch a satisfactory amount of films this past month, I would have watched a lot more if not for a single, solitary new inclusion to my daily life: Pokemon Go. Yes, it’s true – I have become one of the devotees (go Team Mystic!) and as a consequence (or reward?), I am outside a lot more often during times I would usually be indoors watching movies. Ultimately, this is good news. Sure, I’m far from the two-movie-a-day average that I was following this time last year or two years ago. But the game has also been surprisingly helpful in dealing with my constant anxiety; at last, movies and TV don’t serve as satisfactory excuses to stay inside and allow my negative thoughts to overtake me. I’m still unsure as to how long this will last, since my attention span with video games and the ilk is pretty short, but for now it’s a welcoming change.

All of this also means that I’ve had considerably less time to discover new music as I had in the past. Fortunately, I was able to listen to The Avalanches new album Wildflower – I’ve listened to it several times since and it’s easily become my favorite record of the year so far. I’ve also fallen behind on reading, although I did finish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and a few comics. TV was, not surprisingly, another weak spot for me this past month, although I binge-watched Bojack Horseman‘s new season once it came out (definitely the best of the show so far) and also started Stranger Things, which, while being predictable almost to a flaw, maneuvers through its tropes in some rather interesting ways regardless. Also, Barb is the greatest and she totally deserved better.

Also, among all of this, I wrote up my overview of 1977 in pop music, so you should totally check that out!

So without further ado, here is the full list of what I watched this past month. As always, asterisks indicate rewatches.

  1. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015)*
  2. Wiener-Dog (Solondz, 2016)
  3. Imitation of Life (Stahl, 1934)
  4. Paris is Burning (Livingston, 1990)*
  5. They Live (Carpenter, 1988)*
  6. Dark Star (Carpenter, 1974)
  7. Nashville (Altman, 1975)*
  8. Batman (Martinson, 1966)*
  9. Timbuktu (Sissako, 2014)
  10. Break My Fall (Wichmann, 2011)
  11. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (Ford, 1949)
  12. Barbara (Petzoldt, 2012)
  13. A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, 1957)
  14. Jaco (Marchand & Kijak, 2014)
  15. A Life Less Ordinary (Boyle, 1997)
  16. Erin Brockovich (Soderbergh, 2000)
  17. Rififi (Dassin, 1955)*
  18. Stephen King’s It (Wallace, 1990)
  19. Saving Mr. Banks (Hancock, 2013)
  20. Piper (Barillaro, 2016)
  21. Finding Dory (Stanton & MacLane, 2016)
  22. Ghostbusters (Feig, 2016)
  23. Welcome To Me (Piven, 2014)
  24. Thirst (Park, 2009)
  25. Don Jon (Gordon-Levitt, 2013)
  26. A Canterbury Tale (Powell & Pressburger, 1944)
  27. Sneakers (Robinson, 1992)
  28. The Mummy (Sommers, 1999)
  29. Cooley High (Schultz, 1975)
  30. Doenjang (The Recipe) (Lee, 2010)
  31. Quills (Kaufman, 2000)
  32. Sans toit ni loi (Vagabond) (Varda, 1985)
  33. The Best Man (Lee, 1999)
  34. The Sandlot (Evans, 1993)
  35. Deliverance (Boorman, 1972)
  36. Jigoku de naze warui (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?) (Sono, 2014)
  37. A Walk to Remember (Shankman, 2002)

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As always, I’m far behind on my 2016 releases than I had initially intended on being. Having only seen about twenty features from this year so far, I’m almost guaranteed another year where I marathon everything I missed in December/January. I’m find with this. In July alone, I watched three features: Wiener-DogFinding Dory, and Ghostbusters, in which I was disappointed to some degree by the former two. While I am familiar with Todd Solondz’s 90s output (namely Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), Wiener-Dog has me feeling like I’m not really missing much from his more recent stuff. It’s evident that the underlying theme is that of death, as it follows the titular dog around as she is transferred to and from increasingly morbid familial situations. While I did like the film overall, I felt that many of the caricatures at play never really came together in a cohesive image, instead seemingly serving as half-baked reasons for Solondz to believe that today’s world is doomed. While I thought Danny DeVito’s section was the strongest (certainly amongst his best acting work), I also thought this was a total waste of Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Burstyn. This is probably only for Solondz purists and/or appreciators of pitch-black humor.

While I was anticipating not enjoying Wiener-Dog at least somewhat, I was really disappointed with my straight dislike for Finding Dory. Unlike a lot of people, I never really considered that Finding Nemo (one of my favorite Pixar films) really needed a sequel – its solo finished form is splendid on its own! Yet in today’s world, the mere idea of an un-sequeled franchise is preposterous. So here we are. My distaste for it comes mainly from how uninteresting I found the story. We weren’t given much of Dory’s background in the first film, so the attempt to squeeze in the emotional story in which she was separated from her parents as a child just doesn’t hit as hard as it should. While old cameos are a warm welcome, the ones they do use aren’t utilized effectively to make an impression, not to mention that most of the new characters are utterly forgettable (except for the clam, who got the biggest laugh out of me). Even worse are the scenes in which Marlin and Nemo are split apart from Dory, during which the narrative just drags on and on to almost a screeching halt. The sea animation is beautiful, though – a noticeable step up from the original – and I do like the underlying message of learning to accept and love oneself despite a debilitating disability that urges otherwise. I just don’t think that these elements were pronounced enough to make this an enjoyable experience overall. (On the other hand, Piper, the short film that preceded the Finding Dory‘s theatrical screening, was a delight and the animation is the best that Pixar has ever accomplished.)

On the contrary, I watched Ghostbusters the weekend it opened and found myself surprisingly delighted by what I saw. Sure, it is a Paul Feig movie, containing all the directorial misfires one would expect from a film of his. Nonetheless, the four ladies were so charismatic it was impossible to not smile during the entire viewing. It also helped that I never really loved the original, as I definitely prefer this one over the super-dated 80s version. It’s not perfect, of course. In particular, I hated the way Leslie Jones’ character was treated; she didn’t get nearly the same comedic liberties as her co-stars and I felt they could have done much better justice with her character’s role in the narrative. This, along with the backlash Jones has gotten since the film only makes me want to support her on her future endeavors even harder. Still, while I was initially swayed by Jones and Melissa McCarthy to watch the film, it was Kate McKinnon that kept my eyes glued to the screen. Lady engineers are always a great addition, but she was also easily the funniest character and just plain awesome all around.

One of the highlights of this last month for me was getting to watch two John Carpenter classics on the big screen in 35mm, one of which I watched for the very first time. I used to do these kinds of double-features all the time when I went to the Castro Theater on a weekly basis, but have fallen off for various reasons. So it was nice for me to get back into that audience-driven atmosphere once again. The first of the two features was They Live, which I had seen about two or three times prior. While I can surely appreciate this film for its cultural significance and do enjoy it quite a bit, I never saw it as top-tier Carpenter personally. The film doesn’t do anything wrong per se – it just doesn’t feel extraordinary for me. Still, Roddy Piper is a delight to watch throughout and that alleyway fight scene with Keith David is a stand-out moment that I always look forward to and revel in.

The second of the two films was Dark Star, Carpenter’s debut. It was a student film he made while still in his 20s and it certainly feels like it. Designed as a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the space effects are cheap, the acting is stilted, and the sense of humor is just plain weird. It’s far from a masterpiece and it drags at several bits. Its cheapness is succinctly encapsulated with its “alien” character, essentially nothing more than a painted beach ball with feet and antennae, making gurgling noises. Nonetheless, the story is interesting enough to make for a decently crafted story that held my attention from beginning to end. It’s also extremely 70s, which is a big plus for me personally.

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This month was a pretty good one for my #52FilmsByWomen challenge. In total, I watched five films that were directed by women, four of which were first time watches. The one rewatch was Paris is Burning, which I watched at a charity screening for the victims of the attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. It definitely seems like the kind of rare, powerful film that could only get better and better with each subsequent viewing. The second woman-directed film I watched was Kanchi Wichmann’s Break My Fall, which has been stated elsewhere as being one of the greatest lesbian movies of all time. It definitely falls in the “tragic queer story” trope, as the couple at the center of the narrative here demonstrate abusive tendencies, particularly in their reliance on drugs and alcohol and how they enable each other day by day. I’m no stranger to these types of stories, as The Panic at Needle ParkBlue Valentine, and Heaven Knows What rank among some of my favorite movies. If anything, this is rather refreshing being about a same-gender couple for once. I just found it a bit difficult connecting with the characters on a significant level and that really dampened my overall enjoyment of the film. Nonetheless, it’s a promising first feature for the director and I’m eager to see what else she’ll come out with (hopefully soon!).

The next two women-directed features I watched were just so weird and surreal, they only further prove that women can do anything. Shira Piven’s Welcome to Me may or may not be an accurate depiction of Borderline Personality Disorder, and thus I cannot really judge on that merits if it was effective in its humor or just plain offensive and downward punching. It does, however, prove that Kristen Wiig has one of the most interesting acting careers particularly within the past three years or so. Although The Skeleton Twins may be a more sensitive depiction of mental illness, Wiig takes her very limited material and runs with it the best that she can. The movie as a whole tends to fall apart often, but I think it’s still worth a watch. Next, I watched Anna Lee’s The Recipe, which I found to be a bizarre yet enamoring watch from beginning to end. Essentially, it’s a murder mystery-thriller that revolves around a suspicious bowl of soup and the woman who holds the recipe. By the final third, however, the story switches to a full-blown romantic drama, which leads me to draw comparisons with the other Korean drama I watched recently, My Sassy Girl. They are very different films, of course, but the drama aspects of both are amongst their most prominent and strongest features. Though my viewing of The Recipe was slightly draggy, I find myself thinking back upon it very fondly. I would highly recommend it for anyone looking for an unusual story to shake up their viewing schedules.

For my fifth women-directed viewing, I finally watched another film from Agnés Varda, a director who occupies one of my most shameful blind spots. I watched Cléo From 5 to 7 a few years ago, and while I loved it I somehow never got around to any of her other stuff. I guess it’s the onset of the 52 films challenge that motivated me enough to catch up. The film I watched was Vagabond, one of her most highly acclaimed works, and I absolutely loved it. At first the cold, detached tone of the narrative and atmosphere was off-putting but Sandrine Bonnaire puts on such a fascinating performance I couldn’t helped but be hooked. She’s not a very sympathetic character on her own, but her death being shown so early on gives the rest of her story added shades of sadness and hopelessness. Yet the way this film builds upon her interactions with the people is so alluring, magnifying the preciosity of life’s moments and giving some tinges of positivity to the otherwise bleak tale. I will now more actively seek out Varda’s other work for sure.

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While I’ve been mostly unsuccessful with catching up on some classic cinema, this past month I actually watched five films made before 1960, four of which were new to me. The first of these was Imitation of Life. I watched the original film from 1934, but something tells me I may have been better off with Sirk’s remake from two decades later. Good intentions were certainly evident in the attempt to create a story of tolerance, dealing with issues such as class and race, especially with Pecola’s mixed-race identity. The execution of these ideas, however, often tread on some uneasy tropes and stereotypes, ending up being harmful in and of itself. The more interesting narrative arcs – Delilah being played as a pawn in the capitalist framework; Pecola struggling with the ramifications of her identity – are often pushed to the side in exchange for Bea’s own uninteresting romantic storyline. While much of this could be simply due to its time frame, I’m suspicious about the Hayes Code’s role in watering down what might’ve been a more powerful, resonating tale. In any case, it’s tremendously dated and has me wondering if Sirk’s remake is any improvement and in what manner.

I also watched Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, during which I really regretted not watching it sooner. It’s the kind of tragic morality tale we’ve seen numerous times since – the “rags to riches to utter depravity” – but Elia Kazan’s early effort remains one of the best I’ve seen. Andy Griffith gives off one fine performance, transforming before our very eyes from a simple, bright-eyed guy with a small town charm, to the very face of wicked political corruption. It’s as multilayered as they come – as we’re devastated by the turns in tone this film makes, it also invites us to criticize the structures of media exploitation and they’re own major part in the narrative. Besides Griffith, Patricia Neal is also fantastic as the woman in the background who had brought Lonesome Rhodes to the spotlight, gradually realizing her profound role at unleashing this monster from his cage. A Face in the Crowd is a great one and I shall be revisiting it sometime soon.

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I also watched Saving Mr. Banks this past month and hated it so much. It’s essentially about a woman who gets constantly harassed by a fame monster and his unconditional supporters until he manages to push the right buttons to convince her to hand over her material. I guess in that sense it’s slightly similar to A Face in the Crowd, but at least Elia Kazan had the decency to offer a fair amount of criticism toward the protagonist’s actions and behavior. Here, it’s encouraged through the untrue assumption that Disney is a genius and could do no wrong, while Travers is just a stubborn woman who is hindering his creativity and preventing the Greatest Film Ever from coming into fruition. Seriously, I love Mary Poppins as much as anybody else, but watching this with its unrelenting, sugary-sweet praise for the film just reminded me that I could be watching the original, colorful musical instead. Emma Thompson is supremely wasted in this piece of trash and if I never had to watch Tom Hanks in another film ever again, I think I’d be okay with that.

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After watching Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst, I’ve decided that Korean cinema is some of the most ambitious in combining numerous dissimilar genre styles into one film. While a vampire horror film at its heart, there are also elements of a drama, thriller, dark comedy, and romance. And like My Sassy Girl and The Recipe, the love story is the one that seems to outlast the rest of its elements, all the way up to the final third. I guess this is similar to the Western convention of forcing a minor, unneeded love story into action and adventure flicks. I really didn’t like this one as much as I thought I would. While I’m not willing to completely write off the vampire aspect of it completely, it really isn’t as new and fresh as it thinks it is. The themes of outsiderness and violent sexuality still reign supreme, though the film tries to cram so much into itself, it ends up drowning in its own style. Still worth a watch.

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My mom had been telling me to watch Cooley High for years, so I finally got around to it near the end of the month. As a whole, I was blown away – coming from someone who is generally sick of coming-of-age films (especially coming-of-age films about boys), I’m really shocked that this one doesn’t really get mentioned among the greats. It takes place in Chicago during the 60s and while many films depict the 60s as a countercultural wave, this one depicts the city as realistic and one still hostile to its young, black citizens. There’s a scene at the beginning where Preach, after ordering a hot dog, is refused condiments by the (white) employee of the stand. We soon learn that this subtle act of discrimination is actually depended upon, as his buds steal chips from the stand while he continues to plead for ketchup.

At its core, however, this is actually a very heartfelt film. While mostly episodic in its narrative delivery, we also get the story of Cochise who is a star student with academic excellence and desperately wishes to leave the city to make a name for himself. His friend Preach is a poet, a skill that does him no good on the streets but remains an utmost passion nonetheless. Just like typical high schoolers, these kids are seen getting into various hijinks – playing basketball, fighting over girls, underaged drinking, partying. Unfortunately, the hostile environment in which they’re living lingers and threatens their existence at every turn. There is a social message at its heart, which is so refreshing from the constant pointed fingers that blame the reckless black boy for his downfall and not the society that justifies it. Given its low budget, it’s impressive just how well composed this film is, punctuated with the consistent soundtrack of some of the best Motown hits from the 60s. It’s really tragic how unappreciated this film is, and I really think it should be watched by more.

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On the contrary, here’s a highly praised coming-of-age film that I don’t think I’ll ever learn to love, having never been a thirteen-year-old boy. It starts off well enough; despite being utterly predictable as hell, at least there is a sense of nostalgia and innocence wonder that is sometimes represented rather nicely. The pinnacle of this, I think, comes from the Fourth of July scene, where the kids gaze in wide-eyed wonder at the fireworks ablaze in the sky as Ray Charles’ version of “America the Beautiful” plays in the back. American propaganda is one of my peeves, but this brief moment captures the essence of childhood, seemingly frozen in time, rather well. It’s too bad, then, that the film from that point delves into the goofy, uninteresting conflict where the kids try to retrieve a Babe Ruth-autographed ball from the jaws of a mangy mutt. It’s fun for a little bit, but then just gets tedious and caters to much to the slapstick crowd for my enjoyment. This isn’t even to mention the casual sexism that pops up now and again (“You play like a *girl*!”) that, while casual, does play its part in turning young boys into entitled adults. I can’t get on board with this one.

I’ll end this post with a brief review of A Walk to Remember that I typed up pretty quickly last night (originally posted on my Letterboxd):

It actually kinda makes sense how Mandy Moore wouldn’t let her boyfriend know that she’s had leukemia. Right after she breaks the news to him, the movie devotes an entire Sad Boy Montage to him, including chats with his bros on how he’s getting along. And it takes him a while to not get super offended by her confession. After that point, despite all the moments they’ve shared together – dinner, stargazing, discussing bucket lists, applying removable butterfly tattoos – he now only sees her for her illness. Which is real fucked up.

In general, I can’t imagine how anyone could enjoy this film, except as a profession of Good Christian Morals, which nonetheless justifies the terminal illness of a nice, smart girl. The film isn’t even about her as much as it is about Landon’s road to maturation – hypermasculinity and daddy issues abound – with a little help from the sick, sad girl who teaches him the true, important beauty of life itself. It’s just a real hateful movie. At least we get a good Male Crying Scene, so there’s that.

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