Is It October Yet?: September ’16 in Film

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September was a pretty cool month for me. For one thing, it was my birthday month! My family – who all live over 300 miles away – came up to visit me for the whole weekend and some great times (with a lot of drinking) were had. While I initially assumed this would all cut into my movie-watching time, I was still somehow able to exceed my movie-a-day minimum (I should really stop being surprised every time this happens).

Besides my Billboard challenge, I haven’t listened to much new music this past month (or really, these days, ever). I’m still slowly but surely working my way through Diana Ross’ entire studio album discography. I’m also including The Supremes discography into this equation as well, culminating into a total of over fifty albums I get to dig into! But otherwise, these days I’ve been mostly listening my way through various hit singles of times past. In September, I wrapped up the 70s with my overview of the top 100 singles of 1979. The 80s are next and I cannot be more excited – especially since I’m already very familiar with much “alternative” culture of the 80s and I’d love to check out what was actually popular with the general masses. My reading goal is a bit of the same way. I’m glad to say that I’m finally getting back into nonfiction, which I think are the kinds of books I love the most. I finished Packing For Mars by Mary Roach, which is one that I’ve been putting off for a while now, and now I’m obsessed one again with astronomy and space travel. I’m currently reading Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, which I’m enjoying greatly, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, which is making me realize that it’s particularly hard for me to transition back to the dense prose of 19th century Russian literature.

Near the end of the month, I got very sad and depressed about my current life state and wrote a blog post about it. But – if I may offer a bit of introspection for a minute – I think that the post also serves to demonstrate my pervading tendency to never give myself enough credit where and when it’s due. For instance, it’s not very fair of me for assuming that my writing serves no purpose for anyone when, early in the month, I began to curate a Queer Canon of characters from my childhood that helped me to realize that I’m bisexual. Also, I started working on some video reviews in a new project called Lyzette Talks; even though I’ve fallen off of the project a bit during the past few days, it’s helped me to develop my voice and also aid in my own social anxiety over public speaking. It’s not fair for me to belittle my own development and ideas I’ve had recently, and I think output such as these should work as reminders of my own potential for greatness.

Anyway, back to movies! Here’s a full list of what I watched this past month. Asterisks indicate rewatches, and relevant titles are linked to my video review.

  1. Maps to the Stars (Cronenberg, 2014)
  2. On Golden Pond (Rydell, 1981)
  3. Boy (Waititi, 2010)
  4. What’s Up, Doc? (Bogdanovich, 1972)
  5. The Peanuts Movie (Martino, 2015)
  6. Don’t Think Twice (Birbiglia, 2016)
  7. Don’t Breathe (Alvarez, 2016)
  8. I Shot Andy Warhol (Harron, 1996)
  9. The Day of the Triffids (Sekely & Francis, 1963)
  10. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (Chadha, 2008)
  11. Free Willy (Wincer, 1993)
  12. The Lord of the Rings (Bakshi, 1978)
  13. Chariots of Fire (Hudson, 1981)
  14. G.I. Jane (Scott, 1997)
  15. Birth (Glazer, 2004)
  16. Bad Milo! (Vaughan, 2013)
  17. Hell or High Water (Mackenzie, 2016)
  18. All Over Me (Sichel, 1997)
  19. Cat People (Schrader, 1982)
  20. Girl, Interrupted (Mangold, 1999)
  21. Something, Anything (Harrill, 2014)
  22. Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Zhao, 2015)
  23. Sanshô dayû (Sansho the Bailiff) (Mizoguchi, 1954)
  24. Kyss mig (With Every Heartbeat) (Keining, 2011)
  25. Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie (Konner, 2016)
  26. Chi-Raq (Lee, 2015)
  27. Belle (Asante, 2014)
  28. Design For Living (Lubitsch, 1933)
  29. I Know What You Did Last Summer (Gillespie, 1997)
  30. Troll 2 (Fragasso, 1990)*
  31. El Dorado (Hawks, 1966)
  32. Bride of the Monster (1955)
  33. Puppet Master (Schmoeller, 1989)

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I’ve been trying to get through as many Oscar-nominated films as possible for the past couple of years, and I have found the Oscar seasons of the 80s to be especially trying. This past month, I watched two so-called “Oscar bait” films of 1981: Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond and Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire. Of the two, On Golden Pond is easily the strongest – although still not particularly strong. I always love seeing Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda on screen, so there was a bit of a novelty charm in having them play a bickering older couple with as much charm as I’m used to seeing from either of them. What it does suffer from is utter predictability, wherein I could confidently assume the steps that the film takes as soon as the first third closes. Of course there’s going to be a disconnect between the old and new generations clashing heads – and of course they’ll find some compromise by the end and live in blissful harmony by the end. I’m all for sentimental, fell-good movies, but this one just felt far too safe to feel deserving of all the acclaim it inevitably received. Still, it’s perfectly harmless and I wouldn’t object to a rewatch.

This much cannot be said, however, for Chariots of Fire, which I legitimately hated. I’ve found a lot of these critically acclaimed films from the 80s have, for some reason, not aged well at all, and this movie is no exception. It is painfully boring from beginning to end, not helped by its stiff acting, even stiffer storytelling, and a slew of action montages of which my eyes consistently glazed over. It is often praised for Vangelis’ score, and while it’s definitely got some good music, it never seems fitting for its particular scene. Even that iconic opening scene, in retrospect, promises more epic, sprawling storytelling than what ever actually occurs. While the 80s have given us some rather disappointing Best Picture winners, Chariots of Fire may in fact be one of the very worst.

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After watching Hunt For the Wilderpeople in the previous month, I felt obliged to check out Taika Waititi’s acclaimed feature film Boy, from 2010. I had watched the film previous to this one, Eagle vs. Shark, about a year ago, and while that was charming in its own awkward kind of way, it never really resonated with me to a substantial degree. Boy, on the other hand, really won me over with its seamless combination of laugh-out-loud humor and tender humanism, all through the eyes of its eleven-year-old protagonist. I’ll admit, I’ve grown pretty tired of coming-of-age films about boys lately, mainly because there’s just so many of them and they all tend to tread the same playing fields. Boy, however, genuinely stands on its own in its portrayal of its titular character trying desperately to connect with the father than he never had. The father is played by Waititi himself, and while he is as superb as ever, the real star of the show is James Rolleston, whose nuanced performance really blew me away. The film is an excellent example of just how to ride the thin line between comedy and tragedy; Waititi has proven himself numerous times since, and this is just another support to the fact that he is one of the most interesting filmmakers working right now.

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I watched three films in theaters this month, which for me is honestly not that bad. The third film was Hell or High Water, on which I did a video review (see the above list for link). The other two were watched on the same day, and by sheer coincidence have pretty similar titles; they are Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice and Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe. I watched Birbiglia’s previous film Sleepwalk With Me late in the previous month to prepare, and I’ll have to say that I liked it really well in spite of how its minimalism tends to sacrifice its personality. In Don’t Think Twice, however, the minimalism works entirely in its favor. Opting instead to carve out the character traits, good and bad, among its collected group of actors, the film focuses on a stupendously realistic depiction of friendships and relationships when tried against difficult times. It’s a testament to doing what you love, even if it doesn’t make you wealthy or even if there’s seems to be no concrete future in whatever endeavors may occur. Every actor involved puts out a great performance, but my heart goes out especially to Gillian Jacobs, who has further proven to steal my heart in practically everything I’ve seen her in so far. This has also made improv comedy all the more interesting to me, giving me all the more incentive to do something to support these artists.

Immediately after I came out of Don’t Think Twice, I was invited to a screening of Don’t Breathe – hence how the similar titles are nothing but pure coincidence. Much like I did with Birbiglia’s film, I also gave Alvarez’s debut, the Evil Dead remake from 2013, a rewatch. I really thought highly of the film when I first watched it in a movie theater, but now after a third viewing, I see it as lukewarm at best, falling into many typical traps of horror remakes and especially dragging around the exposition bits. On this note, I think Don’t Breathe fell in the opposite problem – well, sort of. There were many shots and moments that were very successful at getting a rise out of me, but for the most part, I just felt annoyed at how incompetent the protagonists were and how half-baked the antagonist’s motives were at trying to kill these kids. I also can’t help but notice a recent trend in horror where antagonists are afflicted with some kind of disability and/or mental illness. Of course, these have always been around, but their popularity has spiked in the past year or two, which leads me to ponder the potential ableism at marking these traits as inherently monstrous. With Don’t Breathe, I doubt the appeal would have been nearly as pronounced had the bad guy not been an old blind guy with war-cause PTSD. But anyway, for what it is, the movie’s not bad, but it just shows that Alvarez has yet to prove that a true, seasoned artistic vision exists beneath the fold.

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This month, I did really well on my quest to watch as many woman-directed films as possible. My total count in September was six, and as I mentioned before, it’s become more and more easier to divert from movies directed by men – especially since most of these films I watch are diverse and interesting in their own special unique ways. A good example of this would be the first female-directed film I watched in September, Mary Harron’s debut I Shot Andy Warhol. To me Lily Taylor is the backbone of this entire film, portraying second-wave feminist Valerie Solanas with as much intensity as poignancy. Solanas’ reputation has been tarnished in recent times (partially for good reason, but mostly not) and Harron’s stylized biopic works in some semblance of sympathy into her character and humanity. While I didn’t exactly love the film, I doubt that a male director would be nearly as compassionate in this approach. This is also worth watching for Jared Harris’ portrayal of the titular Warhol, which is more nuanced than I was expecting and compellingly so.

I originally started watching Alex Sichel’s All Over Me with the intent on making it my first video review on a movie directed by a woman. Those ideas soon went out the window, as I realized that the film hit far too close to home for me to be comfortable talking about on camera (at least for now). Now these are the types of coming-of-age films that need to be given more of an outlet – that of young, queer, female youth fighting for survival in an age of utter confusion. It was amazing how much I related to Claude in her attempts to do the right things in life and also her personal search for her sexual identity. On the other hand, I also really, really felt for Ellen, who seemed so stuck in a toxic relationship utterly eating her life away, so very unsure how to escape the cycle. On top of all this, the film takes place in the urban 90s, which is my current aesthetic obsession, from the clothing to the music to the goddamn room layouts. It’s this quietly authentic portrayal of the decade (also found in The Watermelon Woman and Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (apparently women directors are the best at this – awesome!)) that appeals to me with such inexplicable warmth and familiarity.

Amma Asante’s Belle was one of the first films of which I caught the opening weekend when I started working at the movie theater I’m currently at. Yet somehow, I never got around to watching it in its entirety until now (I had watched various scenes out of order at work when it played). It does suffer from the same kind of simple stuffiness that infects many of these period dramas, but it’s pretty lovely as a whole. Much like The Watermelon Woman fabricated a bit of film history in order to give a story to Black women, Belle does much the same for its own story, which I find rather commendable. While the backdrop of slavery is ever-present through the narrative, its main focus here is on the complexities of class and a rather conventional romance story threaded through for good measure. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is an amazing actress, as exemplified by Beyond the Lights and now this, and I truly hope she gets the recognition she deserves.

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I never grew up watching Free Willy – despite the fact that I had an obsession with orcas for a short time when I was nine – so I decided to check it out. To be honest, I really wish I hadn’t. Apart from this being yet another coming-of-age film about a boy that follows all the same beats and conventions from hundreds of others, it’s also clear now that this was one of the driving forces behind Sea World’s popularity. Sea World, as we all know now, is a terrible captivity organization for aquatic life, and they especially marketed the hell out of their orcas in the 90s. It’s a dreadful irony that the premise of this film preaches that orcas should not be held captive, all while using an actual captive whale for their film and peddling imagery that serves as pretty blatant advertising for the kinds of places that continue to profit off of these animals’ captivity to this day. Every time I saw Keiko’s floppy dorsal fin and sad eyes, I felt nothing but anger and wished that such a film simply ceased to exist.

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I’ve been meaning on watching Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff for quite a while now. I watched Ugetsu a few years ago and its perplexing story and obscure imagery still haunts me to this day. With that being said, Sansho the Bailiff may be an even greater film, if only for its pronounced veil of poetic melancholy that hangs over its narrative. Mizoguchi has such a distinct brand of lyricism that he brings to practically every frame of the picture, making this one of the most poignant films I’ve seen recently. Its portrayal of slavery is quiet enough to not be at the forefront so often, yet harrowing enough to leave a lasting impression. Slavery belittles the rights of a human being down to how productive they are and how hard they can (constantly) work; it cares not of emotions and it tears families apart, leaving all involved plagued by memories and painful longing for what they once knew. The women in the film particularly resonated with me – both Anju and her tireless attempts to escape her hell until she tragically yielded to self-sacrifice, and Tamaki’s own tireless yearning for her children to save her from her own circumstances until she is left an old, blind woman, tossed like a rag doll to die all alone (“Isn’t life torture?”). There’s no denying just how sad this movie is, with every even slightly hopeful moment quickly being overturned by life’s cruel irony. Still, it is a must-see for anyone interested in watching a true cinematic master at his peak.

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I finally got around to Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq last month, a viewing that I honestly wasn’t really looking forward to, given how little I’ve enjoyed his recent work and how much I’ve been swayed by the reviews for this one. Surprisingly, though, I liked this one quite a bit. Lee appropriates classic Greek comedy to fit a more current climate of urban poverty and turmoil. While it’s been a few years since I’ve read Lysistrata, it’s more fascinating at how Lee takes these very real, serious issues affecting people of all walks of life to this very day, and effectively filters it through a format of a sleazy comedy. So in between the social messages regarding gang violence, a truly entertaining film manages to work itself through as well.  Teyonah Parris is definitely a highlight here, as is one scene led by (weirdly enough) John Cusack. Chi-Raq is far from perfect and definitely messy at many scenes, but its enthusiasm is infectious nonetheless. Truthfully, though, my boyfriend Malcolm’s review does the film far more justice than my paragraph (also, he doesn’t use the site much and maybe some more followers could help that…?)

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In my continuing journey to get back into watching classic film, I checked out Lubitsch’s Design For Living, a Pre-Code classic that was one of my more shameful blind spots. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the thing I love the most about Pre-Code cinema is just how risqué it is, and Design For Living definitely fits those qualifications. I haven’t seen very many Lubitsch films, but of what I have seen it’s fairly evident how great he is at incorporating dynamic female characters into his stories, and Miriam Hopkins is no exception here. In the farcical attempts for her, Frederic March, and Gary Cooper to co-exist platonically, she takes them along for the ride, playing with their desires for her and using them to her advantage. It’s so great to watch a film from this era where a woman can be sexually promiscuous and not end up broke, diseased, or otherwise in repentance for her “sins”. The writing is fantastically witty and all three performers are exquisite in both their comedic timing and their pathos. While To Be or Not To Be is still my favorite Lubitsch, this one has the potential to upstage even that masterpiece, given a rewatch or two.

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If you know me at all and/or have been following this blog for a while, you should know by now that October is the happiest month of the year for me – because it’s horror movie time! Although, since I anticipated that this Halloween season would pass quickly before my eyes (like it does every year), I got a bit of a head start in September. My first horror video review was on Bad Milo!, and the second came a week later with Bride of the Monster. Neither of those movies appealed to me much, but finding amazing horror is besides the point. For me at least, the journey to seek out all of these weird horror movies make up the bulk of the fun. I watched the 1982 remake of Cat People from Paul Schrader, finding it a bit boring and tremendously dated, although I’d still probably prefer it over the original. I watched I Know What You Did Last Summer and finally understood some more references in Scary Movie, though the film itself follows its tight formula a bit too closely while also feeling very dated. Late in the month, I watched Puppet Master for the first time and… yeah, it’s obviously just a slow, sleazy B-movie homage that primarily serves the excuse to sell toys – although the kills in this one were kind of cool. Yet after getting in my annual rewatch of Troll 2 (easily one of my favorite bad movies ever), I am reminded of what gets me pining for horror movie season all year long. It’s like I’m a kid again, reaching into an bottomless bag of candies, though I’ll probably enjoy whatever sugary confection I pull out regardless of its flavor.

Most of my horror-related content will probably be in the form of video reviews, as my goal is to film at least fifteen through the course of the month (while making improvements on their general quality). I will try to write a review or two in between as well – although it’s going to be mighty hard, considering I’ve also got to get in 1-2 Billboard challenge posts in the mix as well! Productivity is good and it’s what keeps me happy, so here’s to hoping this next month is relatively satisfying.

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