With the end of August comes yet another awesomely productive month for me! I still enjoy typing up my mini-reviews for the films I’ve recently watched, but as of late, the lengthy posts I’ve been doing on pop music have been relatively more satisfying. This past month, I published my overview of Billboard’s Hot 100 of 1978, which was one of the most fun inclusions to the series that I’ve done so far. While this is still, at its heart, a film blog, I am feeling very pleased with my recent decision to shift this over to a more music-focused project (if only for the moment). For example, I recently finished listening through all of Madonna’s studio albums and have been contemplating writing a post that ranks them all, which is the first time I’ve truly been inspired to write a post outside of my normal stuff in a while. I might even do the same with both Missy Elliott (whose wonderful discography I finished months ago) and Diana Ross (whose wide display of albums spanning several decades I am currently working my way through).
Yet even though I’ve made this transition, it’s clear that I can’t deny my first true love. The two big pop music-related movies of ’78 were Grease and Saturday Night Fever and I made sure to intersperse a bit of film critique amongst analysis of their songs that charted. I am also still good and active in Letterboxd, which leads me to wonder if maybe list-making would be more my forte than long, in-depth reviews that many others are so much better at. In any case, I did watch a heck of a lot of movies as, as usual, will write about the most notable viewings down below.
First, here’s the complete list of what I watched in August. As always, asterisks indicate rewatches.
- The Stranger (Welles, 1946)
- The Trip (Corman, 1967)
- Cop Car (Watts, 2015)
- Abre los ojos (Open Yours Eyes) (Amenábar, 1997)
- Six Degrees of Separation (Schepisi, 1993)
- Little Women (Armstrong, 1994)
- Hunt For the Wilderpeople (Waititi, 2016)
- Killing Them Softly (Dominik, 2012)
- Lilting (Khaou, 2014)
- The Invitation (Kusama, 2016)
- The Motorcycle Diaries (Salles, 2004)
- 30 Days of Night (Slade, 2007)
- Robinson Crusoe on Mars (Haskin, 1964)
- Speed Racer (Wachowski & Wachowski, 2008)*
- How the West Was Won (Ford et al., 1962)
- The Matrix Reloaded (Wachowski & Wachowski, 2003)
- The Killing Fields (Joffé, 1984)
- The Fast and the Furious (Cohen, 2001)
- 2 Fast 2 Furious (Singleton, 2003)
- Real Life (Brooks, 1979)
- The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Movie (Jones, 1979)
- Flandersui gae (Barking Dogs Never Bite) (Bong, 2000)
- 5 to 7 (Levin, 2014)
- Red River (Hawks, 1948)
- Liebe ist kälter als der Tod (Love is Colder Than Death) (Fassbinder, 1970)
- Indie Game: Life After (Pajot & Swirsky, 2014)
- Hud (Ritt, 1963)
- The Uninvited (Allen, 1944)
- Showgirls (Verhoeven, 1995)*
- The Doll Squad (Mikels, 1973)
- Mississippi Grind (Boden & Fleck, 2015)
- Looney Tunes: Back in Action (Dante, 2003)*
- Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)*
- Exporting Raymond (Rosenthal, 2011)
- The Wicker Man (LaBute, 2006)
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam & Jones, 1975)*
- Evil Dead (Alvarez, 2013)*
- Kubo and the Two Strings (Knight, 2016)
- Café Society (Allen, 2016)
- Sleepwalk With Me (Birbiglia, 2012)
- Southside With You (Tanne, 2016)
- Defending Your Life (Brooks, 1991)
- Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)*
- Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Stuart, 1971)*
While I’m still generally watching mostly newer stuff, I’ve finally gotten into the hang of checking out more classic cinema! This time around, I watched a total of seven films from earlier than 1970, and most of them were pretty good. The first I watched was actually also the first of the month for me – that being Orson Welles’ The Stranger. I’ve been meaning to check out more of Welles’ stuff; judging just by the power of the other members of his first four (Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Lady From Shanghai), it’s clear that he’s a force to be reckoned with. While this is a noticeable dip in quality from Kane and Ambersons, it continues to follow along the nice wave of superb filmmaking talent that Welles had set up for himself. At its heart, it’s a compelling cat-and-mouse game with a Nazi war criminal amidst an unbreakable cover and the detective who works tirelessly to demolish this veil. Welles pretty much steals the show, both in his antagonistic performance and distinct thriller style, but Edward G. Robinson gives off a mighty fine performance as well. The nail-biting tension tends to fall a bit flat around the final third, but it still holds a pretty fine overall impression by the end of it.
The second film I watched was another classic, albeit one on a far different caliber than the last. Roger Corman’s The Trip is pretty much exactly what one would expect from a Corman film titled The Trip. The film is almost entirely made up of a man (played by Peter Fonda) on a wicked LSD trip that falls into some truly wacky territory. Although I have never taken any psychedelic drugs (me having epilepsy kind of nullifies any budding interests I might have in the experience), I’ve heard from others that have that this is probably the most accurate one could come to depicting the true grotesque nature of an LSD trip. Interestingly enough, the film was written by Jack Nicholson – who had previously worked with Corman in The Little Shop of Horrors – and also features Bruce Dern as our protagonist’s trip guru. Narratively, this one runs very, very thin, but as a relic of the psychedelic 60s it’s nothing short of fascinating. If anything, it’s a great film to put on in the background of a raging party or whatever.
And now for the bit of classic cinema I did not enjoy. I first heard of Robinson Crusoe on Mars through visiting a local movie theater here, which has an original poster of the film hung up on their wall. Coincidentally, I stumbled upon this strange-sounding little movie on Netflix and decided to give it a viewing – only to find out that it is frustratingly dated. First of all, one of the selling points of this film is that it features Adam West. What they don’t tell you, however, is that West is only present in the first ten minutes and then for a few more minutes in the second third. Instead, the Crusoe of our story is played by Paul Mantee, who is far, far less interesting to follow around. The photography is stunning for its time, for sure, but so much focus is placed upon establishing shots of the Mars scenery that it half-forgets to tell a story in the meantime. And yes, for anyone familiar with Robinson Crusoe, there is a Friday character here and the way they treat his presence is rife with colonialist, white savior bullshit. At least this movie has a cute monkey for the majority of the runtime – who is, honestly, much better at surviving on an unknown planet than the actual astronaut is. And there was definitely a bit of sexual tension going on between West and Mantee, so I guess keeping that in mind during their brief interactions make is slightly more tolerable.
In August, I also watched three critically acclaimed westerns which, given my general distaste for the genre, is pretty amazing! The first of these was How the West Was Won, the box office smash that flaunted a multitude of stars through a multi-generational, sweeping epic narrative. One of the film’s strongest assets is its Metrocolor cinematography, filling the screen with some truly vibrant, naturalistic hues and ensuring that every shot is beautiful. However, the film was originally meant to be projected through a three-screen Cinerama process, while I simply watched the DVD at home on my 35″ screen. While the miles of empty space along the sides of the screen did little to diminish my enjoyment overall, the dissonance was definitely very present. The story-telling was surprisingly strong, especially given that it’s divided up into six sections separately-directed by three different filmmakers. Essentially, though, the bulk of the film was directed by Henry Hathaway, who does a fine job, but John Ford’s centerpiece Civil War story was my personal favorite. Moreover, despite (or perhaps because of) its multitude of Hollywood stars in its cast, not very many of them are given a real chance to shine through the bloated nature of the film. I did love Debbie Reynolds, though, but that almost goes without saying. All in all, its technical and emotional flaw notwithstanding, this is a pretty good, important pop western of its time, albeit one that hardly does much to change my opinion on the genre.
On the other hand, Howard Hawks’ Red River has to be one of the finest examples of the genre, rivaling even John Ford’s best work. Just like the other Hawks-directed western I’ve seen, Rio Bravo, this one also stars John Wayne, whom I think I’m finally getting around to appreciating as a legitimately fine actor. His performance here, as a stubborn rancher on a journey to open up a farm, is one of his finest. While the film lacks much of the emotional pull of Ford’s westerns, it makes up for it with some fine-tuned writing and characterization. Besides Wayne, I was also quite fond of Walter Brennan, Joanne Tru, and especially Montgomery Clift’s performances (the latter being his debut film appearance, I found out later). As I want to eventually watch as many Hawks films as possible, I’m sure this will end up being among the cream of the crop by the end of the journey.
The third western I watched this month was Hud, further proving to me that Paul Newman can perhaps do no wrong. It’s less of a traditional western, without all of the sweeping scenery shots and gunslinging action, and more of an interpersonal war between the generations. It’s not unlike the turmoils of James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (although this one is rooted more in a contempt for capitalistic pride), which is a character that I wouldn’t think of Newman playing, but after watching this it all makes sense now. Newman and Melvyn Douglas are both excellent as a pair of haughty individuals certainly of their time, while the young Brandon deWilde serves as a foiling bystander to their butting heads. It’s clear, however, that Newman pretty much steals the show, playing a character that is just too despicable to get behind, yet strangely charismatic nonetheless. I guess if there’s a certain brand of western I’m more drawn to than others, it would have to be this type of character study western that digs just a little deeper.
While this was a good month in the quantity of female-directed films I watched (six), it was not so much in the amount in which I actually enjoyed quite a bit (two to three). Still, the ones I did love are indispensable. The first I watched was Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, which I has shockingly never seen before. This is actually quite a shame, because I read the book when I was in middle school and I know if I had watched the movie around that same time, it would’ve for sure been an all-time favorite. As it stands, though, I’m glad I finally watched it when I did. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt adaptation of the Alcott novel with all five of its lead actresses bringing something unique and wonderful to the picture. As such, I was totally enamored with Winona Ryder’s portrayal of the ambitious Jo March, a character in which I definitely see a bit of myself. It’s just such a beautiful, well-crafted film, with moments of humor and pathos equally spear-headed by the utmost important of familial and especially womanly bonding. It’s such a cozy little movie and one I could definitely see myself making a holiday staple.
In August, I also watched two different films from The Wachowskis. While I was not as fond of The Matrix Reloaded (though definitely expecting not to be), it was my revisiting of Speed Racer that gave me some of the most joy this month. It did help that my partner and I have recently been watching through the original anime, enjoying every bit of it in spite of its flaws. The Wachowskis’ interpretation of the story, however, is nothing short of brilliant, even if it did take a second viewing for me to really see it. It captures pretty much everything that makes the show so much – colorful racing scenes, abrupt changes in tone, madcap chaos in general – but also injects a broader sense of humanity in these admittedly one-dimensional characters. The stakes are much higher here when Speed is basically fighting for, not only his life, but his lifeblood, his freedom. Much has already been said about its flashy visuals, but the fact that its aesthetic still seems so unique for its world nearly ten years later is a huge feat. Moreover, family has always been an important part in Speed Racer‘s story, so it’s great that the Wachowskis chose to give more weight to these qualities amidst otherwise pretty empty conflicts. Trixie also becomes so much more awesome in the film, as well as Mom Racer, which is awesome considering how often she’s pushed aside in the cartoon. Altogether, this is an awesome film and one of the finest blockbusters of the 21st century for sure.
And I’ve just now realized that I watched two women-directed films this month that feature Susan Sarandon in terrific mom performances. This leads me to believe that she should play all the moms in every movie ever.
I did a little better with watching more 2016 releases this month, having watched five of them. Two of the five are ones that have become fast favorites and will probably stick around near the top part of the year-end list. The first is Hunt for the Wilderpeople directed by Taika Waititi, whom I’ve been steadily gaining interest in since watching his comedy What We Do in the Shadows early last year. Wilderpeople, I think, is not only the strongest of the two but easily the funniest film I’ve seen all year so far. The chemistry between the grumpy Sam Neill and fierce, fresh-faced Julian Dennison is one for the ages and help to drive this film along beautifully. It follows a simple “fugitives on the run” narrative, though with a few unexpected surprises along the way and run-ins with some strange characters (including Waititi himself in a hilarious cameo). It’s clear that Waititi has a real flair for comedic writing and direction, and I cannot wait to see what else he’s got up his sleeve in the coming years.
I also watched Kubo and the Two Strings, the latest offering from the imaginative studio Laika. In terms of animation, this is easily their most ambitious, with exceptional amount of world-building and figure development that practically changes the face of stop-motion animation immediately. And while the studio has been no stranger to tackling dark issues in their films, this one is the most weighted in depicting the struggles of the human condition, giving particular importance to memories and perseverance in the face of betrayal and trauma. While the story is a bit flimsy and tends to slightly fall apart by the final third, it’s very clear that its heart is set firmly in all the right spots. While Coraline is still their best work in my eyes, Kubo continues the wave of pure, bonafide quality that Laika has set up for themselves (not counting The Boxtrolls, of course, because fuck Boxtrolls).
One of the most profound viewing experiences I had throughout the previous month was that of Hong Khaou’s Lilting, a film that I meant to get around to watching last year but just never did. It’s led by two powerhouse performances by Ben Whishaw – one of my current favorite actors – and Cheng Pei-Pei – an actress of whom I now know to seek more from – navigating through a tender tale of love, loss, and consolation amidst language barriers. It is very much a story of generational dissonance, with Cheng’s character unable and unwilling to see eye-to-eye with her deceased son’s gay identity and, thus, holds a wall between herself and Whishaw, his partner (the son, Kai, is also played quite well by Andrew Leung, even if we don’t see him much). It’s a quiet film, though one brimming with huge emotions that rely on character-building conversations more than anything else – a risky move, since each of the two characters see the other’s Muttersprache as utterly foreign to them. Still their performances complemented each other surprisingly well and emitted some true humanly emotions that left a real lasting impact on this viewer. I was especially surprised with how much I loved Cheng, since it was Whishaw’s presence in this film that drew me in specifically. All in all, it’s a lovely film that, while dealing with the awful trope of gay tragedy, makes up for it with emotional resonance and sensitivity.
I noticed that recently Netflix went ahead and made every feature film directed by Albert Brooks available for streaming. Admittedly, I had never seen a single one of these movies, only being familiar with Brooks through his performances in Broadcast News and the Finding Nemo franchise. I chose to start with Real Life as my first of his films, mainly due to its pretty high prestige and a plot that seems relatively palatable. To quote the Letterboxd page: “A pushy, narcissistic filmmaker persuades a Phoenix family to let him and his crew film their everyday lives, in the manner of the ground-breaking PBS series “An American Family””. It’s not that hard to anticipate where the troubles could possible come into play – one could see the true life media industry allegory from a mile away. What I failed to predict, however, is just how far the “narcissistic” edge would be pushed in this particular picture. The filmmaker – played by Brooks himself – treats the central family like garbage for pretty much the film’s entire runtime. And there’s no sugarcoating it either, highlighted by the ridiculous lengths he takes in order to sculpt work of art he can take all the credit for. This all culminates to a truly madcap climactic scene that… well, really must be seen to be believed. While simple in form, the fact that this flick came over twenty-five years before the rise in reality TV’s popularity makes this an astounding foreshadowing of darker times to come. I’m not sure if Brooks’ other films are quite as strong, but Real Life alone may be just as important as Woody Allen and Mel Brooks’ 70s output in setting a model for strong, effective cinematic comedies to come.
On the other hand, I didn’t hold as high praise for Defending Your Life, the second of his films I watched this month. Don’t get me wrong, though – I did enjoy it. I love romantic comedies and the concept of this one – being almost entirely in the afterlife in a subversion of the courtroom drama – is certainly one of the more memorable ones. It remains rooted in strong, secular ideas of death and the afterlife, despite it’s high concept, and actually keeps its story very compelling from start to finish. Meryl Streep is also in this one and is definitely one of the film’s strongest aspects. It does tend to drag a bit and often dwells into some tiresome romantic comedy tropes. But the love story at its core is strong and believable enough that I found myself very enthused at the film’s beautiful climax. It’s not quite as well-grounded in its theme as Real Life, but as far as rom-coms go, this is one of the good ones.
Besides Kubo, the only other fully animated film I watched in August was Chuck Jones’ The Bugs Bunny / Road Runner Movie (I also gave a rewatch to Joe Dante’s partially animated Looney Tunes: Back in Action – yep, still fun). These days, a movie like this is less than impressive. It’s basically just a collection of classic Looney Tunes shorts (all previously directed by Jones) spliced together with a narration by millionaire celebrity Bugs Bunny as he lounges in his mansion and reminisces on old times. Besides the Bugs scenes, watching each of these shorts in order is as easy as making a YouTube playlist. Yet considering that this was in a time before such complications were more uncommon, I’m sure it must have been a delight to get all these great cartoons in a nice, neat package back in those days. And great these ‘toons are, consisting of such classic gems as Rabbit Seasoning, Duck Dodgers, Duck Amuck, What’s Opera, Doc?, and all the Wile E. Coyote & Road Runner hijinks one could wish for. It’s true, though, that the title is slightly misleading – Bugs definitely outshines Road Runner here by a very prominent degree, sometimes even to a fault. Still, as far as Looney Tunes films are concerned, one could do far worse; as far as compilations are concerned, I doubt one could do much better.
I finally rewatched Showgirls for the first time in… well, quite a while. I am pleased to say that, while I never disliked the film to begin with, I feel completely renewed in a newfound love and obsession for this film. Nomi Malone is now my idol. I love Elizabeth Berkley’s performance to bits and I really think she deserved a more prestigious follow-up career. While I already initially appreciated Berkley as Nomi and loved Gina Gershon as her twisted antagonist, this viewing gave me a greater love for Gina Ravera as Molly, Nomi’s roommate/bestie who fully completes the perfect portrait of girl bonding so relevant to this film. It’s pretty much the sheerest definition of “sassy” imaginable, with its endlessly quotable dialogue being an important contribution to its classless, campy tone. I say it’s Verhoeven’s masterpiece – well, right next to Starship Troopers, anyway.
As per usual with each passing year, I watched the latest Woody Allen film, this one entitled Café Society. I wrote a big review about it here, this also being the first full-length review I’ve written in a while. I am also very proud of it and I think it best demonstrates the style of writing in which I’ve found myself the most comfortable.
I capped off this month by paying tribute via double-feature to one of my favorite comedic actors of all-time, Gene Wilder, who just passed away a few days ago. I began the double-feature with Blazing Saddles, one of my favorite Mel Brooks films. I’ve seen this movie probably about a dozen times now and it still remains my favorite from Brooks, despite certain elements that are undoubtedly problematic and make it unlikely to be effectively remade today. Still, I love the narrative, all the totally insane characters, and the endlessly quotable rows of dialogue and music. Wilder was always one of the highlights for me (along with the incomparable Madeline Kahn) as the broken-down, alcoholic Waco Kid, who still manages to be kind of charming in his distinct, deadpan kinda way. He’s a big reason why Blazing Saddles could very realistically be my favorite western.
The second film I watched was Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, which was a great way to bid farewell to an immensely talented individual. While it had been about five years since I watched the whole film through, I had watched it countless number of times as a kid and have much of the dialogue and songs committed to memory. It’s interesting how much my views of this film have changed since then, though; for one, I now see just how messed-up it is that the Golden Tickets had been planted in only Western countries, as well as how the Oompa Loompas are essentially a justification of slave labor and the white savior complex. Yet as jaded as I’ve become, the impeccable performance from Wilder instantly brings me back to simpler days of childhood. From the moment of his surprise somersault introduction, to that hug he gives to Charlie in the glass elevator, the magic that exudes from Wilder in this almost completely deadpan performance is for the ages. The “Pure Imagination” scene is still beautiful, the boat ride is still creepy (and still makes absolutely no sense), the candy creations are still gleefully colorful and psychedelic. And at the center of it all is Wilder, with his purple suit and a script full of sarcastic quips and literary references. It’s his best role and easily one of the greatest roles of the 70s. It definitely left a mark on my childhood, and will continue to leave very fond memories in the unforeseeable future. I’ll miss you, Gene.