Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, December 31, 2017

Zack Clopton's 2017 Film Retrospective

“You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had very fine...


...on both sides.”

We went into 2017 honestly feeling like the world could end at any minute. It's an anxiety that hasn't truly subsided and has occasionally flared up, whenever our dotard of a president would threaten nuclear war. It was a year largely characterized by natural disasters, sexual abuse, and the rich robbing the poor. But there was also protest and some justice. We may be living in a new era of Trumpian dumbness and flagrant corruption but at least some of us are fighting back.

None of this has anything to do with the focus of this blog: Movies. You'll have to excuse me, I get philosophical at the end of the year. As far as cinema goes, 2017 was a pretty good year. Not for me. I completed fewer Director Report Cards than last year, blogged less in general, and struggled to keep up with my monthly expectations.

But when the movie theaters were packed with such a variety of interesting and exciting films, it's hard to be too upset. I mean, shit, even the big budget blockbusters were really good this year. All together, I saw 81 films, up by all of 1 from last year. So without further ado, here is a complete list of all the new releases I saw in 2017.


1. The Lure
A hugely original horror take on the mermaid premise that links budding sexual desires to a need to eat people. Changing the sirens song to pop music produces uniformly great results. Marat Mazurek brings an undercurrent of sadness and rawness. Michalina Olszanska is wide-eyed and instantly likable. Director Smoczynska maintains the tragedy of her fairy tale inspiration.

2. Ingrid Goes West
As a satire of Instagram, a website I don't use, I'm not sure how successful this is. Mostly, I related to Ingrid. Her loneliness, her desperation, her desire to appear genuine, her fear of being discovered as a fraud, her hatred of Taylor's frat-bro brother. Frequently hilarious but also penetratingly sad, this is an incredibly empathetic film about needing to be loved.

3. Coco
Gorgeous visuals are paired with a touching story. The film expresses the importance of the autumn festivals, how they connect us with our past. The music is great. Many of the characters, like little Dante, are lovable while the humor happily veers towards the surreal. A plot twist concerning a major character is easy to guess but, otherwise, this is another win from Pixar.

4. Boys in the Trees
Ultimately, a story about teenage boys stumbling towards adulthood that uses its fantasy world as a metaphor for growing up, where monsters represent adolescent fears. The Halloween setting is heavy on pumpkins, costumes, candy, and pranks. Bolstering the film are two amazing performances, from a subtle Toby Wallace and deeply sad Gulliver McGrath.

5. Atomic Blonde
From start to finish, pure bad-assery, as every new action scene somehow tops the previous one. Charlize Theron is magnetic as an uncompromising heroine, while the supporting cast is full of likable performers. The plot keeps you guessing while staying out of the action's way. The Cold War setting and new wave soundtrack are totally up my alley.

6. Baby Driver
Maybe the first carsploitation/crime/musical in cinematic history. Ansel Elgort matches his fittingly baby-faced appearance with a youthful energy and a tough, resourceful exterior. Just like its speedy protagonist, “Baby Driver” moves like quickly, building itself around a series of increasingly elaborate vehicular pursuits. Aside from a slightly weak ending, this is aces.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
James Gunn is keeping Marvel weird. His odd ball humor and wild visual easily elevates the film. The cast is separated but the script never feels off-balance. There's a lot of personal stuff about deadbeat dads and loneliness in here that I really responded too. And, of course, the dialogue is hilarious, the action scenes are a blast, and the in-jokes are fantastic.

8. Super Dark Times
I'm a little younger than these characters but it's still obvious how accurate this depiction of being a teenager in the mid-nineties is. Moreover, the film captures the intimate details of teenage boy friendships, prickly and overly vulgar. The direction is moody, especially in several ominous nightmare scenes. The paranoia and tension builds to an unnerving conclusion.

9. Lady MacBeth
Genuinely erotic and deeply disturbing, the film tells the tale of a woman forced to be ruthless but a hateful world. The chilly direction and sparse music emphasizes the protagonist's isolation, the audience sympathizing with her despite her horrible actions. A spellbinding performance from Florence Pugh cements this as a powerful and meaningful thriller and pitch black character study.

10. War for the Planet of the Apes
A summer blockbuster that is thematically complex and emotionally bracing. Andy Serkis' Caesar continues to be deeply thoughtful. The film delves deeply into the cost of vengeance. Woody Harrelson is terrifying. Yet the film goes out of it ways to paint parallels between McCullough and Caesar. Director Matt Reeves seems eager to build deeper references into the film.

11. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Maybe a bit early to call this the best “Spider-Man” movie but this captures the tone you'll want from a modern version, by mixing teenage slice-of-life stories, hilarious and sarcastic humor, with perfectly executed superhero action. The cast is top-notch, with Holland and Keaton shining especially. It integrates the character with the wider Marvel universe without overdoing it.

12. Get Out
Letting horror grow out of sociological anxieties, “Get Out” is a boldly political genre film that builds on the awkwardness of being black in a white community. Effective thriller elements eventually descend into full-blown surreal horror. The cathartic ending has the repressed getting righteous revenge on their tormentors.

13. I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore
Essentially two movies in one and I loved both. It begins as the most hilarious, quirky, light-hearted vigilante story you've ever seen. Near the end, it takes a hard right turn into ultraviolent crime thriller, a change that shouldn't work but does so amazingly. At the center is Melanie Lynskey's hilarious frustration, Elijah Woods at his most lovably oddball, and a totally sincere anti-asshole message.


14. Your Name.
Beginning as a really cute romantic comedy, full of funny and sweet moments, that transforms into a powerful meditation on loss, time, tradition and the power of love midway through. Beautifully animated, especially during a key moment that visually illustrates the characters' connection. This is by far Shinkai's most accessible and personable film yet.

15. The Lego Batman Movie
The perfect cast guarantees non-stop laughs, even if the manic pace threatens to burn the audience out. The film embraces Batman's long history, throwing in his goofier villains and attributes. Not to mention the massive crossover that not even the most crazed fanboy might have imagined. The script even explores the loneliness at the root of Bruce's personality, albeit in a sarcastic manner.

16. John Wick: Chapter 2
The action sequences are beautifully choreographed, balletic in their violence. The random mythology references and the building on the first movie's world add depth to this elaborate shoot-em-up. There's also the sense that John is self-destructing, that Keanu's stotic anti-hero is slipping deeper into misery. Which is quite an achievement for what is otherwise pure ownage.

17. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos' directorial style – already cold, mannered and off-putting – is perfectly suited to horror. An ominous air hangs over it, which only grows more unsettling as the story becomes stranger. The film progresses with the look and feel of a nightmare. The results is a motion picture that is both tragic and funny in the darkest, weirdest way.

18. Patchwork
Grisly horror/comedy that is also surprising cute, it approaches its Frankenstein'd premise in a novel way. The three-in-one protagonist is brought to life by a lovable, hilarious trio of actresses. The story grows crazier as it goes on, building towards more outrageous acts of hyper-violent action. I wasn't a big fan of a late film plot twist but found this one really likable, overall.

19. Colossal
Beginning as a goofy comedy about a screw-up and the kaiju she controls, the film evolves into a fascinating story about toxic masculinity and self-worth. Hathaway is heartbreakingly human while Sudeikis is a terrifyingly commonplace (but still sympathetic) villain. Even during the more serious moments, the quirky humor and inventive sci-fi spirit is maintained.

20. Thor: Ragnarok
Extends the impish humor of the “Thor” films to its natural conclusion. The cast is in top form and all the new additions are highly lovable. The synth score is fantastic. Cate Blanchette is utterly enchanting as the villain and I honestly wish the film had more of her. Leaping between the different locations does make the story feel a little scattered at times.

21. mother!
Part environmental allegory, characterized by free-floating gender anxiety and religious/cultural symbolism. This stuff is obvious but still powerfully executed. It's also an absurdist nightmare, about personal space being invaded, that ratchets from darkly funny to deeply disturbing. Mostly, I love that Afronosky tricked so many J-Law fans into seeing something this confrontational.

22. Brawl in Cell Block 99
Vince Vaughn is surprisingly convincing as one of the year's most determined bad-asses. The film is a contrast between slow-paced moments of simmering atmosphere and extremely harsh, bone-breaking action scenes. This climaxes in a massively gory final act, the titular brawl. It's too long, and perhaps too stoic on the whole, but extremely satisfying in its own way.

23. Blade Runner 2049
Expands upon the original's world and explores its themes, of what it truly means to be human, in a rich way. The spectacle is visually impressive and the action scenes are tight. The cast, including one of my favorite villains of the year, is fantastic. This is big budget, thoughtful sci-fi with heart and a sense of wonder. It's probably longer than it needed to be though.

24. Cult of Chucky
Don Mancini is insistent on trying new things. This is the most psychological and twisty entry in the franchise yet. The snowy asylum setting is gorgeous. The direction shows an obvious debt to DePalma, bringing a grace and beauty to the murder scenes. He brings back a lot of humor, as Chucky remains a total hoot. It's also peppered with in-jokes and call-backs to previous films.

25. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Shows the series' heroes struggling with their legacies. The returning cast grow while some notable new names are introduced. Rian Johnson returns some of the weirdness to “Star Wars.” Has several moments designed to make viewers cheers, based on skillfully engineered action theatrics. Yet my favorite moments are designed to misdirect expectations.

26. XX
One of the most consistent horror anthologies we've gotten recently. “The Box” is a chilling exercise in existential horror. “The Birthday Cake” is an amusing black comedy with anxiety inducing direction. “Don't Fall” is a spooky creature feature with clever effects. “Her Only Living Son,” meanwhile, may be one of the best films I've seen about being raised by a single mom.

27. Creep 2
Brilliantly gives Mark Duplass' (still massively entertaining and fascinatingly weird) titular creep a worthy adversary, in the form of the lovable Sara. Maintains the original's unpredictability and double-downs on the humor, which includes a deconstruction on the jump scare. This would've been a four star flick if it had ended two minutes earlier, as the brief epilogue is unnecessary.

28. Better Watch Out
At first, appears to be one type of horror movie. It's well done but turns out to be an elaborate misdirect for where “Better Watch Out” is actually going. In addition to perhaps saying some things about male entitlement, the movie becomes an effective battle of wills. One death scene involves probably the most morbid homage to “Home Alone” you'll ever see.


29. Raw
Frames coming-of-age angst – growing up, discovering sex, sibling rivalry – as gruesome body horror. The film is intimately concerned with the sweaty, up-close, nasty details of the human body. The visceral quality of the gore contrasts intensely with the girl's previously meat-free world. Buoying the film are excellent performances from Garance Marillier and Ella Rumpf.

30. Brigsby Bear
Surprisingly sincere, this works best when commenting on how young people relate to life through pop culture. The oddball, fish-out-of-water story is elevated by a lovable cast and a lot of heart. It's frequently really funny too. I do wish we spent a little more time in James' artificial world at the beginning, as I loved everything about how it looked and felt.

31. Logan
Obviously the best of the “Wolverine” films, the slower pace and more character-based script mark this as a clearly personal film. It also creates a slightly overlong run time. Still the brutally violent action scenes, elegiac tone, western references, and focus on the central trio create an excellently acted, thoughtful, absorbing, even occasionally tear jerking film.

32. Kong: Skull Island
Steeped in the Vietnam era, “Skull Island” directly concerns itself with the weight of war. Deep down, it's a big B-movie. The filmmakers make sure Kong has a personality. The other creatures are equally cool, leading to several notable monster fights. The script could've used some ironing and the excellent cast is mostly underserved. That post-credit scene did get me pumped.

33. The Devil's Candy
Who would've expect a heavy metal/satanic panic-themed serial killer story to feature one of the best depictions of a father/daughter relationship I've ever seen? The horror sequences are tensely directed and unnerving. The cast includes a sympathetic but still terrifying killer and a man struggling with artistic anxiety. Not all the subplots pay off but this was still a pleasant surprise.

34. Okja
I love the floppy-earred hippo-pig and the affection our young heroine feels for her. Joon-ho Bong's latest is a rather shaggy satire, depicting a girl who just wants to take her friend home, torn between corporate evil and self-interested protesters. There's an amazing chase scene, some grotesque overacting, and cute animal antics existing alongside horrifying sequences.

35. Wonder Woman
Exhibits growing pains typical of the first entry in a series. The last act overloads on CGI destruction. The action scenes are a little heavy on the slow-mo. Otherwise, the film captures the spirit of the character, understanding Wonder Woman is both a warrior and someone driven by compassion. An aces supporting cast and strong score makes this easily the best DCEU film yet.

36. Prevenge
A really funny, extremely dark comedy about grief and the anxiety of bringing life into the world.
Star/writer/director Alice Lowe balances the funny scenes with its overtly horrific ones. Throughout, she's dryly hilarious but her convictions are impressive and intense. Ruth's interactions with her potential victims are often awkwardly hilarious.

37. The Transfiguration
Sets out to be the most grounded vampire movie possible and largely succeeds. The naturalistic direction and pacing is effective. The young cast is very talented, especially Eric Ruffin as a young sociopath struggling with his unnatural urges. The film happily engages with the subtext – social and sexual – of the vampire. This kind of low-key horror won't be for most but I dug it.

38. IT
More faithful to the book's spirit than its actual plot, this is a surprisingly fun movie. The scares go for the throat but are balanced with heart and humor. Helping matters greatly is an exceptional cast, Finn Wolfhard and Sophia Lillis being the stand-outs. Bill Skarsgard is suitably creepy but not as good as Tim Curry. The film left me elated but excited, creeped out but comfortable.

39. The Babysitter
Raunchy and a little too self-aware, this horror/comedy succeeds when showing off a surprising sweet side. I like that the killers alternatively attack and encourage the young hero. It's enjoyable watching the kid come into his own. The best gags are wacky digressions from what you'd expected. The cast is solid, especially Samara Weaving, who gives a break-out performance.

40. M.F.A.
Visceral anger boils out of every frame of this feminist reclaiming of the rape/revenge genre. The story is rather thin actually, little more than a collection of tensely shot confrontations. However, an overriding mood of nervous tension holds the film together. Along with a star-making performance from Francesca Eastwood, who is startling and powerful.

41. Gerald's Game
Finds a clever way to make a largely internal novel external. Carla Gugino is so compelling that I wish the inevitable flashback didn't leave her behind. The basic premise is nerve-wrecking enough and leads to a jaw dropping moment of visceral gore. Disappointingly, the film also maintains the book's exposition heavy epilogue, which tarnish an otherwise very good adaptation.

42. 1922
Grisly character study about the weight of guilt, manifesting as a decaying house, flesh-eating rats, and horribly disfigured ghosts. Thomas Jane gives a career-best performance as the weary voice narrating the story. I dug the rustic period setting and slow burn atmosphere. It's a bit too long, thanks to an extended denouncement, and features one unnecessary subplot.

43. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography
Gives the audience a no-frills impression of Elsa Dorfman. She talks a lot about her background. In older interviews, she talks openly about her work.  By clinging to an bygone piece of technology, it also shows how much technology has changed. This feels like a minor work from Morris but is a pleasant movie that gives us insight into the life of an interesting artistic voice.

44. The Belko Experiment
Mostly concerned with saying some grim things about human nature. The way the employees coldly decide to execute each other is chilling. The intense carnage almost takes on a comedic element. Yet, whenever things get too funny, we snap back with more cruelty. That constant back-and-forth between dark comedy and deeply unnerving violence create a seasawing tone.

45. Split
As a movie, it's solid. The different story threads are juggled nicely, despite an anticlimactic ending. The theme of trauma is potent and the animal symbolism isn't too on the nose. The shift from thriller to horror/supervillain story is handled nicely. As a showcase for James MacAvoy, it's even better, as he conveys several character with only his voice and body language.

46. Alien: Covenant
Sturdier than “Prometheus,” which the sequel actively apologizes for, but not as ambitious. The body horror is fantastic, the monster attacks are extremely well done, and the last act is very tense. But it's not satisfying as a definitive origin of the Xenomorph and includes a predictable twist. In many ways, it feels like an entertaining but shallow retread of previous “Alien” films.

47. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
There are visually gorgeous sequences: The opening - I would watch a whole movie like that - and Valerian's run through the layers of the satellite. The entire world is fascinating. The alien designs are beautiful. But the two leads are pretty terrible and their romance is utterly cringe-worthy. The plot is very episodic, suggesting this was adapted from multiple stand-alone stories.

48. Dig Two Graves
The Southern Gothic atmosphere goes a long way, leading to several creepy moments. The performances, especially Ted Levine's regret-strewn starring turn, are very good. The way the story leaps around in time is interesting. Ultimately, the slightly convoluted plot – which teases a supernatural element that is then discarded – drags the film down a bit.

49. The Void
Obviously beholden to John Carpenter and other eighties horror classics, this is a grim picture about overcoming loss. The hideous monsters are impressively creepy and brought to life with good old fashion latex and rubber. I wish the screenplay and characters had as much meat on their bones as the Lovecraftian abominations do.

50. Justice League
It's fine. Entertaining even! The action beats are good. Cast is solid, with Ezra Miller emerging as the break-out star. The first act is bumpy but, once the League starts kicking ass together, I was sold. The last act features several satisfying moments. It's really obvious which moments are Synder's and which are Whedon's. A lot of stuff was clearly cut out, rewritten or rearranged.

51. Dave Made a Maze
Worth seeing just for the crazy production values. The sets, traps, and creatures show off an amazing imagination. This leads to some really fun sequence, like the bit with the paper bag puppets or blood being replaced with confetti. Sadly, the script doesn't match up with the visual design's creativity, as the story is thin and characters are broad caricatures.

52. A Ghost Story
Follows its premise – a ghost story told from the ghost's perspective – to some unexpected places. 
To start, the film is very still and almost unbearably sluggish. It's going somewhere though and leads to a visually philosophical last act. If nothing else, a white sheet has never been this expressive before.

53. Marjorie Prime
Has some interesting things to say about memory and grief. The near future, sci-fi technology is portrayed in a plausible way. The cast is very strong, especially Jon Hamm's performance as a hologram. However, the script leaps around in time too much, causing us to loose the story's emotional mileage.

54. The Mummy
Met my expectations as a middling popcorn muncher with some minor spooky touches. Sofia Boutella is good. Mr. Hyde is goofy but fun. I did not care about Cruise's love interest, which is sadly what the emotional crux depends on. Action is a little shaky but generally easy to follow. I was digging it until the last 15 minutes, when the film goes to absurd lengths to set up a sequel.

55. Aftermath
Dour drama about grief, responsibility, and revenge. Schwarzenegger's performance is the primary reason to see this. Arnold is a raw nerve, intensely sympathetic one moment, glowering and frightening the next. I understand why the movie told the air traffic controller's story but wish it could've focused on Arnold exclusively. The ending simplifies the themes a bit too much.


56. Blood Money
You can see Lucky McKee trying to put his mark on the undistinguished material, mostly in the fleshed out female anti-hero driving the story. Add a quick pace, a sarcastic John Cusack, and some brutal violence, and you've got a movie that almost rises above its inglorious roots. The premise is still derivative and there's far too much bickering in the woods.

57. Pottersville
Frequently pulled between a very cheesy type of sentimentality and rather crude streak of broad comedy. And then there's that furry business. The cast is wildly overqualified. Still, the film is way too weird not to be a little bit charming. I mean, shit, where else are you going to see a Christmas movie about Bigfoot and furries?

58. Monster Trucks
Creech, the meme-tastic monstrosity in “Monster Trucks,” is genuinely cute. The film is thankfully free of the shrill humor that characterizes too many kid's flicks. Some of the action scenes are even cool! The script is unquestionably inane, the movie's too long, and Lucas Till isn't the most engaging lead. However, it's clear the filmmakers were trying to create something neat.

59. Free Fire
Feature length Mexican stand-off and a dark comedy about how many bullets the human body can adsorb. The cast is colorful, as are their varied accents, but the characters are ultimately underwritten. The music is clever and the direction is dynamic. However, it's all a distraction from a film that is build entirely around loud confrontations, one gun fight after another.

60. Mayhem
Starts with smarmy narration and asshole characters, before escalating into a series of brutal, almost cartoonish action scenes. However, the endless carnage becomes monotonous before the end. Eventually, you do start to warm towards the protagonists, especially during their irrelevant digressions about pop culture. I liked the use of music too.

61. We are the Flesh
Is there any point to the film's in-your-face sexual violence beyond pure provocation? I'm not sure. Hedonism is a main theme. The messed-up family kind of appeal to me. The performances help sell this unusual dynamic, especially Maria Evoli. Visually interesting, there's a strong color palette. I'm not entirely sure what to think but “We are the Flesh” is, if nothing else, interesting.

62. Cars 3
Faith praise incoming: “Cars 3” might be the best of the “Cars” movies! The themes of aging, obsolescence, and easing into retirement with dignity are interesting. The relationship between Lightning and Cruz is cute and develops in a satisfying way. There's still some wacky broadness but the irritating elements – like Mater and the country-bumpkins – are reeled way back.

63. Killing Gunther
Watching the cartoonish characters being constantly outmatched by their target. The cast is fairly likable. Schwarzenegger's performance as the asshole villain is especially amusing. The mockumentary angle was probably unnecessary, though it does lead to some clever action beats near the end. It's definitely way too broad at times and super minor but I liked it alright.

64. The Bad Batch
As a post-apocalyptic mood piece, this is fairly interesting. The muscle-freak cannibals, trailer trash crazies, and EDM cults are fascinatingly assembled. Yet the film is practically plotless and the characters are thinly written, their motivations and inner lives remaining mysterious and unexplored. I did like the soundtrack.

65. Hounds of Love
Dear Australia, while I enjoy your brutal, true crime inspired serial killer films as much as is possible, I object to their continued use of violent animal deaths for shock value. That moment, along with the script's repetitive nature, is what made me turn on this one a little. (Also, the lack of Kate Bush.) The cast is strong and the ending is earned but this one didn't quite work for me.

66. Happy Death Day
The audience never quite gets over the initial impression of the protagonist as a bitchy sorority girl, even though she gets better. Despite this, it's a fun little mystery, functioning like a whodunit for most of its run time... At least until the decoy ending that the momentum never quite recovers from. The kills are clever but the mayhem too often proves literally and figuratively bloodless.

67. Power Rangers
I admire how much time is spent developing the teens. There's a number of fun call-backs. Once the Rangers get in their Zords, this becomes entertaining. That doesn't happen until the last half-hour, thanks to a slow pace. Some of the changes made to the mythology are questionable. The direction and soundtrack are often obnoxious, leading to a middle-of-the-road reboot.

68. It Comes at Night
A post-apocalyptic, light-on-plot drama with light horror elements. A looming sense of dread floats over the entire film, climaxing in terrifying nightmares. This threatening atmosphere boils over into a senseless act of violence. Unfortunately, I didn't care about any of these characters. The film keeps its commitment to being vague up through its unsatisfying conclusion.

69. Ghost in the Shell
Visually, the film's cyberpunk world is quite cool. Those giant hologram advertisements go a long way. The action is decently organized, if a bit unmemorable. Scarlet Johannson has certainly cornered the market on vaguely inhuman action heroine roles. Yet the story is nothing special, featuring a lame villain reveal and lacking any of the source material's far-out ideas.

70. Leatherface
Frustrating. In some ways, it's the first reboot that feels like it respects the original. Yet it takes a while to circle back to this point. The bloody effects are vivid. Disappointingly, the duo leans on that most dreaded of cinematic styles – shaky-cam – a little too much as well. A big mid-film twist is bugged me a lot. Ultimately, it doesn't feel much like “Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”


71. Lake Alice
Very much a slow burn, interchangeably tense and tedious. If you're expecting a gore-fest, you're going to be disappointed. Too often, the murderer sneaks up on the victim in an obvious way. The short run time and minimalist plot combines to make a movie that doesn't offer much. The choice of favoring suspense over gore is an admirable one. It doesn't quite work though.

72. The Untamed
Full disclosure: I think this one went over my head. The thread of sexual frustration running through the film is interesting and its eventual pay-off – tentacles are involved – is certainly unexpected. However, how the various threads connect and what it all means is beyond me. The distant atmosphere makes this one even harder to crack.

73. The Blackcoat's Daughter
Well, it's got a sustained atmosphere of moody dread. That's about the only thing this overly vague, difficult to follow, and ultimately hollow demonic thriller has going for it. The performances may be solid but the script is so undefined, you can't get a bead on any of the characters. A time shifting twist adds nothing to the story, which is otherwise extremely thin.

74. Welcome to Willits
Backwoods tweakers vs. aliens is a dynamite premise which, in a far too clever turn, is undone quickly. The shaggy slasher set-up is charming at first but soon degrades into a loose collection of scenes. The special effects are solid but under-utilized. The cast is decent but the script is directionless. In other words, it's another flawed attempt to expand a short to feature length.

75. Flatliners
Despite some minor moves forward, this is as exactly mediocre as the original. I found the cast to be likable and not just Ellen Page. It rolls along decently until it has to become a horror movie. Eventually leans on CGI too hard, while the scares are lame and worn out. There's a moral about self-forgiveness that couldn't be more unearned.

76. Beauty and the Beast
So unerringly faithful to the cartoon that the new additions feel unnecessary at best and distracting at worst. The new songs, in particular, are all awful. The CGI/3D pageantry, extending many of the musical numbers, is simply excessive. The cast is solid, even if Emma Watson clearly can't sing, but this remake has no clear reason to exist.

77. Kill 'Em All
Should've been a straight-forward potboiler. Instead, the screenwriters had something more elaborate in mind. The constantly shifting timeline is distracting. Van Damme seems very tired.
The potentially colorful supporting cast is underutilized. This is probably most worth seeing for Van Damme and Daniel Bernhardt's fight scene. Sadly, the rest of the action is disappointing.


78. It Stains the Sand Red
The horror cliché of “Stupid characters making stupid decisions” is alive and well in this indie. The film doesn't commit to its admittedly clever one girl vs. one zombie premise. The plot gets dumber, including an insultingly graphic sexual assault, before becoming a standard zombie flick in the last act. Also, the zombies roar for some reason, which really bugged me.

79. Amityville: The Awakening
Long-delayed meta reboot that is somehow more exploitative than any previous “Amityville” movie. This is a typical jump scare/CGI-fest that becomes unintentional hilarious as it heads into a preposterous last act. Jennifer Jason Leigh gives an uncharacteristically terrible performance. I did relate to the horror nerd character lusting after his disproportionately attractive female friends.

80. The Bye Bye Man
Dumb jump scares and increasingly ridiculous scenarios make it impossible for the audience to take a potentially creepy premise seriously. Heavy-handed direction turns screams into laughs. The acting is stiff, even from Carrie Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway. Despite the silly title, you see how this could've been good. Instead, it's a Babadook/Slenderman mash-up for morons.


81. Gun Shy
Dire attempt at an action/comedy. The jokes – peeing statues, lecherous Australians, vomiting llamas, snakes biting penises – are utterly desperate. Antonio Banderas embarrasses himself by committing to the lousy material. The violent action scenes come off as hopelessly mean-spirited. It also doesn't know when to end, the film dragging on through the credits.


Say so long, 2017. I wish I could say I'll miss you. If you actually read all the way through this list, thank you so much. If you're a regular Film Thoughts reader, thank you even more.

Come back tomorrow for my annual list of my most anticipated new releases of the new year.  Thank you once again.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2017)

7. Blood Money

Over the years, I've sung the praises of Lucky McKee quite a bit. “May” is one of my favorite movies and I recommend it whenever possible. “The Woman” is a brutal, powerful piece of subversive horror. I've even grown to like “The Woods” over the years, despite its flaws. But the director's last few films have disappointed me. McKee's remake of his own “All Cheerleaders Die” tried to do too many things. His “Tales of Halloween” segment struck me as forced. When it was announced that his next movie would be a direct-to-video thriller starring John Cusack, I didn't get my expectations up very high. “Blood Money” is still not McKee operating at maximum power but, let's give credit where credit is due, it was better than I expected.

Every year, three friends meet in the woods to go rafting, hiking, and camping. Lynn, Victor and Jeff have been friends since high school. Lynn and Victor had a romance many years ago, which Vic still has regrets about. Now Jeff and Lynn have begun dating, which they're attempting to keep a secret from their third friend. Meanwhile, pilot Miller has stolen several million dollars from his airline. After a parachute-assisted escape, his bags of cash have disappeared in the woods. The trio of friends discover the bags, Lynn deciding to take them for herself. But Miller is soon on their trail.

Another reason while I had muted expectations for “Blood Money” was because of its generic title. Though a slight step-up from the film's working title - “Misfortune” – it's still not a very unique name. There's been at least one other movie released this year with the same title. The premise is hardly anything new as well. It's derivative of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “A Simple Plan,” and probably several other films. For extra measure, screenwriters Jared Butler and Lars Norberg season in a little “Deliverance.” The hiking-trip-goes-wrong, rafting scenes, and the role of a hunting rifle seem to purposely recall John Boorman's classic.

My big concern about “Blood Money” is that too much of the film would be devoted to one of my least favorite horror/thriller cliches: Jerks bickering in the woods. And, indeed, the movie has its share of that. The bitterness between Lynn, Victor and Jeff's friendship begins to simmer to the surface almost immediately. Before even finding the money, they are arguing. They argue about the romances in their past and in their present. After the cash is discovered, the three quickly begin fighting about what to do with it, whether to keep it or leave it or go to the cops. None of this stuff is especially compelling and “Blood Money's” desire to feature so much of it is its biggest flaw.

Nearly all of Lucky McKee's films have featured female protagonists. The inner lives of women is clearly a topic of interest for him. “Bloody Money” is mostly an ensemble film but Willa Fitzgerald's Lynn emerges as the strongest personality. She's a woman at the center of a love triangle and she does not care for this at all. As the film progresses, she becomes more and more aggravated with her male cohorts. She tells Vic that she preferred their friendship before she entered puberty. Before he only saw her as a potential sexual conquest. She is fed up with men fighting over her, considering her an object to be won. This is a surprisingly sharp perspective for the movie to take, a refutation of various “nice guy” philosophies.

As interesting as this dynamic is, “Blood Money” still treats Lynn as more-or-less the story's villain. She is the one who insists on keeping the money. She wants to pay off her college tuition, after loosing a scholarship because of a bad knee. However, her true motivation – simple greed – soon reveals itself. As the film goes on, Lynn becomes a bigger threat to her friends than Miller. Willa Fitzgerald starts out playing the character as a girl taken apart by her concerns. As her mad greed takes over, Fitzgerald turns Lynn into an evil bitch beyond redemption. I wonder how much of this was McKee's work and how much came from the screenwriters. I can imagine McKee inserting more depth into the evil women character.

Further boosting Lynn, suggesting she's meant to be sympathetic, is how doofy her two suitors are. “Boyhood's” Ellar Coltrane co-stars as Victor. Coltrane plays Vic as a constant sad sack. He's clearly possessive of his ex-girlfriend, resents her new boyfriend, and proceeds to mope about it. Vic's big plan to win her back – buying himself and Lynn matching monogramed knives – is the most blatant example of his foolish personality. Jacob Artist as Jeff isn't any sillier. He's responsible for loosing half of the money. His insistence on rafting home through a certain path nearly gets the three caught. By the end, he's been reduced to a weeping baby. Both actors give decent performances, trying to breath some life into the thin characters.

The marquee name in “Blood Money” is John Cusack. The film is the latest in a long line of direct-to-digital, low budget titles Cusack has lent his name to. The actor has clearly entered the Nicolas Cage portion of his career. Despite this, Cusack is having fun in “Blood Money.” He brings a lot of humor to the part. He has several sarcastic one-liners. Miller's villainous determination ends up playing more as comedic exasperation, not unlike Cusack's more famous turn in “Grosse Point Blank.” (Which is slyly referenced in dialogue.) He's not a wicked villain, just a regular guy with really loose morals. Cusack ends up elevating the film quite a bit.

Aside from “Red,” which was finished by another director, “Blood Money” is McKee's first effort outside the horror genre. Though just barely. The thriller premise – of a determined hunter chasing after his victims – isn't totally dissimilar to a slasher movie. Moreover, McKee's treatment of violence remains very intense. An early moment, where a man trips and smashes his head onto a rock, is cringe inducing. Later, a bullet to the head produces a startling amount of blood. Yet sometimes human bodies are surprisingly resilient  Later, one of the trio is grazed in the head by a bullet, bleeding profusely but not dying. The director clearly still has a talent for creative carnage.

“Blood Money,” for the most part, looks and feels like a Lucky McKee movie. It's hard to pin down but something about the general appearance of the film, from its opening shots of cascading countryside to more intimate moments inside a tent, seems abreast with his earlier films. McKee incorporates a few cool shots, from the perspective of Cusack's rifle. Sadly, there's several moment of hard-to-follow, shaky-cam direction in the movie. I hope that was a second unit's fault or something. There's nothing matching the beauty of “May” but “Blood Money” is a generally alright looking movie.

As a thriller, “Blood Money” produces an occasional moment that's thrilling or kind of neat. The way Cusack's killer turns from casual to predatory, once he realizes Victor has some of the money, is a solid sequence. The chase that follows builds some minor intensity. In its last act, “Blood Money” shifts location to an underground tunnel. This is an atmospheric setting for the long chase scene that comprises “Blood Money's” last act. In particular, a tangled mess of branches leads to probably my favorite scene in the film, when a body is tugged by two people between the branches.

“Blood Money” also moves along at a decent pace. The film runs under ninety minutes. It doesn't take long to get going. Once the movie starts, “Blood Money” remains speedy. After the story wraps up, the movie ends immediately, not bothering with any long-winded resolution. McKee's long time collaborator, Zach Passero, handles the editing. Which might explain why this feels so much like a Lucky McKee movie. The script is clearly pulpy but the director makes sure it doesn't overstate its welcome.

“Blood Money” has another distinction. It's one of the better Saban Film releases I've seen. The House the Power Rangers Built has recently distinguished themselves as the distribution company of choice for low budget, low expectations, straight-to-digital action flicks. Perhaps the bar being set so low is why my impression of “Blood Money” is more positive than expected. This is destined to be one of McKee's forgotten films. I'm not even sure it's a good movie, per say. However, it's mildly entertaining and functions fairly smoothly. When it's 2017 and your movie stars John Cusack, that's really the most you can ask for. [Grade: B-]

Friday, December 29, 2017

Catching Up with the Bangers n' Mash Show Again

Once again, I've fallen behind with posting episodes of the Bangers n' Mash Show, by a margin of several months. It's not too big of a deal. Since the summer, I've only managed to get about six episodes out. In case anyone is still listening to the show through the blog, here's the playlist including the most recent episodes.

In order: JD and I chat about the "Planet of the Apes" movies. We did an episode discussing the contentious film work of Mr. Rob Zombie. We reflected on this year's Monster-Mania. Our Halloween episode looked back at a bunch of evil clown movies. Our most recent Nerd Vomit was primarily focused on "Justice League." The newest episode features Guy Vollen from Medleyana talking some Gamera with me.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (2016)

12. The B-Side
Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

In 2017, Errol Morris would deliver something new that would easily become his most discussed work in years. After attempting, and failing, to get new narrative films off the ground for several years, Morris would change direction slightly. “Wormwood” is a true crime inspired docu-drama, a six part mini-series that was released to Netflix. Like many shows in our binge-watch era, “Wormwood” has become hotly discussed. But I'm not here to talk about that because, despite what anyone says, a TV show is a TV show and not a movie. Morris' latest excursion into long form story telling has largely overshadowed the actual new film he released this year. I'm talking about “The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography.”

“The B-Side” has Morris turning his camera on fascinating characters talking about their lives. He leaves behind the political work of the War Trilogy and returns to one of his favorite subjects: Artists and their art. “The B-Side” is an extended interview with Elsa Dorfman. A Massachusetts-based photographer, Dorfman would become most famous for her series of portraits taken with a large-scale Polaroid Land 20x24, essentially a giant Polaroid camera. Dorfman reflects on her work first getting attention in the sixties and seventies, where she rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. She talks about her family, her work, and how technology has changed.

For his twelfth feature, Morris leaves behind one of his favorite techniques. “The B-Side” does not utilize the Interrotron, famous from most of his other documentaries. Instead, it's a far more casual interview. Dorfman stands in her studio, talking casually to Morris. The director is often heard asking questions and even appears on-screen a few times. This gives the audience a no-frills impression of who Dorfman is. This fits her portraits, which present her subjects standing in front of simple backgrounds, the edges of the set-up often visible in the photos.

Much of “The B-Side” is made up of lengthy interviews with Dorfman. Often the film will cut between the recent discussion and older archive footage of the photographer. In the modern day, Dorfman does not seem especially concerned with the artistic intent of her work. She talks a lot about her background. She mentions her Jewish heritage repeatedly. She tells stories about her husband and son, with a notable one being her husband's tendency to buy her black balloons on her birthday. Her accent makes her geographical background apparent. Beyond this, Dorfman also spends a lot of time talking about the technical aspect of her work.

The archive footage, meanwhile, presents a very different angle. In older interviews, Dorfman talks openly about what she hopes to accomplish with her work. She says she has no interest in capturing the deeper aspects of her subjects. She is only concerned with the surface. So she presents people as they are, standing before simple backgrounds with few exaggerations. And yet, despite her stated objective, Dorfman clearly captures something more intimate. Her stated preferences for what she calls the b-sides – the rejected portraits the family's leave behind – suggest that she is intent on putting something more than just the surface on film. She'll also comment on the happy accidents that have benefited her. Such as how a cord fell in a self-portrait or a particular flower being near-by at just the right time. This provides insight into the specifics of the artistic process.

Considering her long history in the business, Dorfman has also rubbed shoulders with many notable historic figures. She's more than happy to share these anecdotes. She talks about meeting Bob Dylan. How the bouncers at the club he was playing at would confiscate any cameras people attempted to bring in. After meeting her, and realizing who she was, Dylan allowed Dorfman to take his photo. Especially of note is Dorfman's long friendship with Allen Ginsberg. Elsa met Ginsberg, and many other Beat luminaries, while working as a secretary at famous publisher Grove Press. Dorfman would photograph Ginsberg many times over the years. One especially amusing story involves Ginsberg's willingness – and apparent insistence – in appearing nude in several of these portraits.

The film doesn't just capture a specific place in time through Dorfman's friendships with notable figures. It also shows how technology has changed over the years. The photographer's earliest work was done with traditional dark rooms. When the instant Polaroid came out, she considered it a revolutionary product. Dorfman loved the ability to instantly produce a photo. From there, she discovered the large-scale Polaroid, a giant version of the mass-produced model. Of course, the conversation eventually circles around to Polaroid's bankruptcy and dissolution. By clinging to an bygone piece of technology, “The B-Side” shows how much things have changed and gives the benefit of a doubt to obsolete processes.

Near the end, “The B-Side” starts to get a little more philosophical about the nature of photographs. Ginsberg's death comes up. Dorfman reflects on a photo's ability to capture a moment in time. This puts all of her work in a greater context. Because of the outright ordinariness of most of her portraits, Elsa gets at something greater. She freezes the everyday attributes, the little things we don't even think about, in one image. It puts all of life in a greater context This is what good photography is suppose to do.

The presentation of “The B-Side” shows Morris incorporating a continued visual dynamism into his documentaries. Morris peps up the interview with archive footage. He frequently puts Dorfman's images upfront, making her work come alive with bouncy editing. One of my favorite shots in the film has Morris' camera panning out over a huge collection of Dorfman's portraits. (She estimates her total number of portraits somewhere in the thousands.) In order to give a sense of scope to the technology on display, Morris will also focus on the cameras themselves, depicting them in a series of close-ups. Tying it all together is Paul Leonard-Morgan's score which is light-hearted but provocative.

“The B-Side” feels like a minor work from Morris. I know he didn't intend it this way but “Wormwood” was destined to overshadow this. The movie doesn't say anything super important about the world or the artistic process. It's also another short film from the director, only running a little over seventy minutes. However, I said the same thing about “Tabloid” the first time I watched it, which has since become probably my favorite Errol Morris movie. So maybe history will be kinder to “The B-Side,” a very pleasant movie that gives us insight into the life and career of an interesting artistic voice. [Grade: B]

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 24

It should be apparent by now that my Christmas movie marathon has gone totally off the rails. At some point, I had to make a decision between my holiday movie viewing and catching up with new releases. I decided the new stuff was more pertinent. As I've said, Film Thoughts' Christmas marathon is always something of a last-minute thing and success is never guaranteed. Better luck next year, I guess?

So I hope you had a nice December and will be enjoying yourself today. Merry Christmas, faithful readers.
Pottersville (2017)

Back in January, I rounded out my list of most anticipated films with “Pottersville.” I was sold on the movie, based on two factors. It had a great cast. Secondly, its premise – a man accidentally turning his small town into a mecca for Bigfoot enthusiasts, after a drunken rampage in a gorilla suit – seemed right up my alley. There wasn't much news following the announcement and I assumed it disappeared, as a lot of projects I get excited about tend to. Instead, a while ago, reviews of the film started rolling in. And they were extremely negative. Also, “Pottersville” is apparently a Christmas movie, with a subplot about the furry subculture. So somehow this movie became even weirder, meaning I absolutely had to check it out. Even if it was awful.

Pottersville is an idyllic, if economically depressed town, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Maynard, the man who runs the local shop, makes an upsetting discovery. His wife is having an affair with the town sheriff. Also, they're furries. He gets black-out drunk, puts on a gorilla suit, and drunkenly stumbles through town. This is mistaken for a sasquatch sighting. Overnight, Pottersville becomes the hot spot for Bigfoot hunters the world over. Maynard watches his hometown flourish but, as Christmas gets closer, he wonders how much longer he can go on with this lie.

Being a comedy starring Michael Shannon, I imagine “Pottersville” as being a particular type of comedy. Probably veering towards the sardonic, weird, or dark. This is not, it turns out, the tone “Pottersville” is going for. Instead, the movie is frequently pulled between a very cheesy type of sentimentality and rather crude streak of broad comedy. The film has compared to a Lifetime movie, which it resembles in visual design and tone. It has that kind of vaguely glossy but flat look of a television movie. This is ultimately a movie about community and the power of togetherness, especially when it comes to a homey small town, all themes common to cozy cable networks. Meanwhile, there's also jokes about people shitting in the woods, eating bugs off trees, long-winded Bigfoot songs, and Hollywood phonies. It creates a bizarre back-and-forth.

And then there's that furry business. That particular subplot was left out of the earlier plot descriptions of “Pottersville.” As usually happens in pop culture, the film depicts all furries as fur-suit enthusiast who are fairly kinky. At the same time, the furries are also shown to be harmless and there's no actual animal-suit-on-animal-suit humping in the movie. This still results in the film's most delirious sequence, when the Bigfoot hunters wander into a furry love-in in the middle of the forest. It's definitely not a moment you would expect in a Christmas movie, even one about Bigfoot. Even more hilariously, the furry subculture ends up affecting the main story in a very minor way.

Aside from the Sasquatch-adjacent story, what really attracted me to “Pottersville” was its cast. It's true that the film's cast is wildly overqualified. Michael Shannon's starring role, which cast the crazy-eyed actor against type as a humble everyman, can be explained. Shannon previously made a film with director Seth Henrikson, a short called “Zamboni Man.” But the rest of the cast? Christina Hendricks is stuck in another thankless role as a sexually vivacious but ultimately untrustworthy woman. Ron Perlman gets a few funny roles as a town sheriff perhaps too forthcoming about his kinks. Ian McShane also gets one or two funny moments as the overly serious big game hunter. Judy Greer's part, as Shannon's back-up love interest, could sadly be played by anyone. Tom Lennon's role, as the fallaciously accented Bigfoot hunter, has the performer embracing his more annoying tendencies.

“Pottersville,” being both a Bigfoot movie and a Christmas movie, could've made an interesting statement about the power of belief. Christmas is a mass delusion, of being nice to each other for twenty-five days, we all choose to believe. Bigfoot, similarly, is a big lie people buy into because it's nice. It's nice to believe in something mysterious and magical. “Pottersville” taps into this in a very superficial way, with an ending that is fairly easy to predict. But it could've done a lot more with this idea. Ultimately, this is more of a Bigfoot movie than a Christmas movie, the two aspects not crossing over much.

“Pottersville” isn't that good of a movie. Its tone is scattershot, its approach is mawkish, and its script is wildly uneven. Still, the film is way too weird not to be a little bit charming. I mean, shit, where else are you going to see a Christmas movie about Bigfoot and furries? Just based on the “can you believe this shit?” level, I have to sort of recommend this one. “Pottersville” is likely to grab a cult following due to this. If nothing else, this is certainly the oddest holiday movie to come out this year. I think that can be said with certainty. [6/10]

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 15

The Gathering (1977)

Just yesterday, I reviewed one of the many inane and cheap cartoons Hanna-Barbera produced throughout the seventies and eighties. Now, there's no doubt that their cartoon creations, whatever you may think about their quality, are bound to be the company's greatest legacy. But the studio occasionally tried their hand at something live-action. One such production was “The Gathering.” A made-for-television film that aired in 1977, the movie couldn't be further from what you'd expect from Hanna-Barbera. A slow-paced, downbeat drama dealing with serious themes of death, family, and forgiveness, it couldn't be more different than “Yogi Bear.” The film was well-received, winning an Emmy. Despite its relative obscurity, the film seems to have its place in television history.

Adam Thornton has just received the news. He's been diagnosed with a terminal condition and he only has a few months to live. Adam is estranged with most of his family, having separated from his wife several years ago. Most of his children resent him. He hasn't even met several of his grandchildren. Knowing his time is short, Adam decides to invite everyone to a Christmas family gathering. Adam doesn't tell his kids that he's sick, instead hoping to just have a normal, peaceful one last Christmas with his family.

“The Gathering” is a TV movie from the seventies. The visual presentation is fairly stationary and unmoving. However, this ends up working in “The Gathering's” favor, in an odd way. The frills-free presentation forces the audience to focus on the character and their performers. We see the characters have intense, emotional conversations in intimate, personal settings. It's a lot like a play in that way. Considering “The Gathering” is a simple story of a family putting aside their differences, this approach really benefits the film. If it wasn't for the television presentation, “The Gathering” probably would've pushed into melodrama. Instead, things are kept grounded.

The main reason I was really curious about “The Gathering” was that it's a starring role for Ed Asner. As a man grappling with the end of his life, Asner is perfectly understated. He keeps the tidal wave of emotion mostly under the surface, doing his best to apologize for a life time of mistake. Asner leads an overall very strong cast. Maureen Stapleton displays a surprising strength as the matriarch of the family, who is determined to make this reunion successful. Bruce Davison is nicely nervous as George, the husband of one of Adam's daughters, who fears the rest of the family thinks of him as a no-good mooch. Gregory Harrison is also well cast as Bud, the son Adam has the most tense relationship with. Really, the entire cast of “The Gathering” does a very good job.

Due to its intimate tone and strong cast, “The Gathering” is able to pull off a truly effective atmosphere of warmth. The scenes of the family together, reconnecting, feel genuinely sweet. Some of the holiday shenanigans they get up to might seem too large on paper. One scene has Adam setting off fireworks on the front lawn, in the middle of the night. Another has the men singing songs and dirty limericks while drinking too much. Yet it all works well, especially when placed next to the quieter moments, such as the kids deciding on who shall receive what gifts or the grandchildren getting exciting and unwrapping their toys. You truly feel like you've stepped into a real family's lives, watching them go about their business, aware of the tension bubbling underneath and pleased to see them overcome that.

I don't know what inspired Hanna-Barbera to try their hand at a serious drama like this but I'm glad they did. “The Gathering” is actually really well done. Though pretty melancholy, it's ideal Christmas viewing, as the film acutely understands the stress and pleasures of reuniting with family around the holidays. “The Gathering” was such a success that a sequel, checking in on the family two years after their father's death, was produced in 1979. Asner, obviously, did not reappear in the sequel. I don't know if that one is worth seeking out but maybe it will surprise me. The original did. [7/10]

The Nanny: Oy to the World

Who hear remembers “The Nanny?” It was a starring sitcom for screechy voice actress Fran Drescher. Every episode began by explaining the program's premise: Drescher was a cosmetics salesman from Flushing who randomly ended up at the how of a rich English widower. She was then selected to be the family nanny, despite her flashy style obviously clashing with the family's dignified appearance. Over the course of six seasons, Fran attempted to seduce the dad and raise the kids, while sniping with C.C. Babcock, a rival for Mr. Sheffield's affections. It was a pretty stupid show but, for whatever reason, my Mom and I watched it together all the time. Even weirder, in its third season, “The Nanny” featured an animated Christmas special.

This might seem especially random but makes a little more sense in context. That expositionary theme song was accompanied by an animated opening, showing the main cast as cartoon characters. “Oy to the World” - the Vandals reference was presumably unintentional – extends the animated bit to a full-length episode. It also adds a talking dog. The plot concerns Nanny Fine taking the family's middle son out on Christmas day to the homeless shelter, in order to teach him a lesson about giving. Along the way, Fran hits her head and has an elaborate dream. In her dream, her boss is recast as Santa Claus, the kids become various elves, and she has to rescue Christmas from an evil wintry wizard.

As I said, “The Nanny” doesn't hold up very well, as far as stupid bullshit I remember from the nineties goes. The show was heavy Bursh Belt schtick that was already dated when it originally aired. “Oy to the World” is no different. The animated special has several especially groan-worthy jokes. The leader of the elves is named Elv-ish, leading to several obvious Elvis jokes. Several of Santa's reindeer are re-imagined as a grouchy jew and a flamboyant gay. The plot is resolved with a dumb-ass reference to “Rain Man.” Here, the area surrounding Santa's work shop is made of chocolate and sweats, leading to far too many gags about Fran pigging out and watching her weight. Buried within these lame one-liners are one or two cute bits, like the talking dog's annoyance at not being taken seriously.

I've long suspected that “Oy tot he World” was meant to launch an animated spin-off of “The Nanny.” The special has a somewhat uncertain reaction to being animated. There's a few moments of overly cartoon-y theatrics, like running legs become a spinning swirl, that seem deliberately on the noise. Then again, there's a pretty terrible musical number, suggesting the show creator were fairly sincere in their attempt at creating a holiday special. (I guess the mostly unearned moral about giving feeds into that as well.) By the way, the animation is okay. The character designs are at least distinctive. Mostly, I rewatched “Oy to the World” mostly to confirmed that this thing I vaguely remembered from my childhood actually existed. Now that I know this is real, we may go back to never mentioning it ever again. [5/10]

Saturday, December 16, 2017

NO ENCORES: To All a Goodnight (1980)

1. To All a Goodnight (1980)
Director David Hess

One of the reasons why the slasher genre ruled the eighties horror landscape was due to how easy it was to replicate that formula. Horror's always been a pretty cheap genre but, with the slasher, filmmakers could dispense with expensive haunted house sets or rubber monster suits. All they needed was a decent setting, a cheap mask, some actors willing to get naked, and a few buckets of fake blood. These attributes were especially irresistible to first time filmmakers. After starring in so many low budget horror movies, David Hess – best known as the star of “The Last House on the Left” and several of its Italian knock-offs – decided to make one himself. The result was “To All a Goodnight,” a Christmas-themed slasher that is widely dismissed even by hardcore fans of the genre. Save for a documentary short film, it was Hess' first and last attempt at directing.

Likely taking some cues from “Black Christmas,” “To All a Goodnight” is set in a sorority house during Christmas break. It's against the rules for the girls' boyfriends to stay overnight but the sisters have different ideas. They drug their house mother while the boys fly in – one of them is a pilot – for a night of yuletide partying and nookie. But someone else has different plans. A killer, wearing a red Santa suit, is stalking the sorority house, killing the girls. And that's about all there is to the plot.

Made fairly early into the subgenre's existence, “To All a Goodnight” feels no need to resist slasher cliches. It's almost astonishing how many of the expected beats this movie hits. It begins with a crime in the past, a harmless prank turning deadly in a way not totally dissimilar to “Prom Night's” opening. Young people getting together to bone and drink seemingly draws the attacker out. The police are useless, quickly being offed by the killer. The murderer severs the phone line just when someone's ready to call for help. The girl that ends up surviving, making it to the next morning, is pointedly a virgin. The ending twist, meanwhile, recalls the original “Friday the 13th.”  It's hard to believe that these story troupes were already so well known in 1980. But it certainly feels like Hess and his team were trying to hit every item on a checklist.

As a filmmaker, David Hess makes some questionable decision. He films the opening flashback through a circling white haze, an odd move. More than once, he deploys some odd, halting slow-motion, such as when an axe flies through the air towards someone's head. A few other times, he has the screen fade to a bright red color, a move Hess' former director Wes Craven used more effectively in “The Hills Have Eyes.” Hess was a musician but he didn't compose the film's music. Instead, Rich Tufo provides a score full of shrieking synth and blooping noises. Even the editing is a bit of a mess, as characters frequently seem to switch locations at random. Over all, this is not a very professionally assembled film.

Despite its incompetence, I sort of liked “To All a Goodnight” the first time I watched it. This is mostly because of its cast of characters. Now I'm not saying the acting is good. In fact, it's quite mediocre. The performances range from shrill to flat. None of the characters are especially well written. Most of them fit the expected slasher movie archetypes. You've got the slutty girl, the nerdy guy, the jock. A lot of the characters don't even get that much development. However, the film's treatment of its characters are mildly interesting: Practically all of them appear to be swingers. The characters switch sexual partners throughout, going from one bed to another. One night, a girl seduces the nerdy guy. The next day, he's chasing after the virginal final girl. The woman he just slept with then goes off with another guy. That's not something you see frequently.

So “To All a Goodnight” delivers soundly on the “sex” part of the slasher genre's sex and violence equation. What of the gore and dismemberment? “To All a Goodnight” is one of those slashers largely composed of people wandering around, wasting time, in between the various murders. While evenly spaced throughout the film, the deaths seem few and far between. Not many of them are very memorable. You have your typical throat slashings, stabbings, and blunt force trauma. Only a few moments make an impression. The killer trades out the Santa get-up for a suit of armor in one scene, interrupting a sex scene with a crossbow. Later, a pilot – played by porn star Harry Reems, of all people – and one of the girls meet the business end of a plane propeller. So there's just barely enough slaughter to satisfy.

There's quite a few Christmas-set slasher films. “Black Christmas” and “Christmas Evil” all engage with the Christmas setting to some degree. "Silent Night, Deadly Night" at least utilizes the holiday as a decent gimmick. “To All a Goodnight” barely feels like a Christmas movie. It's set in California, so there's no snow on the ground. There's a tree in the sorority house but it's hardly paid much attention. The killer dresses as Santa Claus but it truly feels like an afterthought. Honestly, if it wasn't for the Santa costume and a few lines of dialogue, you'd probably never know the film even took place in December.

For years, the only copies of “To All a Goodnight” that circulated were from old VHS copies. These tapes were notoriously dark, making a sloppily edited film even more difficult to follow. You can now watch “To All a Goodnight” on a crystal clear Blu-Ray but that only goes so far to improve what a lackluster experience this is. David Hess passed away in 2011. He played a great horror villain in “Last House on the Left” but that clearly didn't translate into being a great horror filmmaker. “To All a Goodnight” is a stock-parts slasher, made on a shoestring and hastily thrown together. It's easy to see why Hess wouldn't direct a feature again. [5/10]

Friday, December 15, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 13

It Happened on Fifth Avenue (1947)

New York City is the most Christmas-y city in America. Though many other places claim the title, Manhattan and Christmas are irrevocably linked in my mind. The city has got the Rockettes, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, and the big Christmas tree. Filmmakers seem to generally agree with this assessment, as several classic Christmas movies take place around the Big Apple. “A Miracle on 34th Street” is the big one but there's one other black-and-white holiday flick named after an NYC street. “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” was nearly directed by Frank Capra, who decided to make “It's a Wonderful Life!” instead, and was a hard-to-find film for many years. Now, it regularly gets airings on Turner Classic Movies around December, which is how I watched it.

As the opening tour guide scene informs us, 5th Avenue is home to some of the richest families in New York City. Along that street sits the mansion of Michael J. O'Connor, the second richest man in America. O'Connor spends the winters in the south, leaving his mansion unoccupied. During the off-season, homeless person Aloysius T. McKeever takes up residence in the house. Soon, a recently evicted veteran named Jim joins McKeever in the house. An eighteen year old girl named Trudy soon appears at the house too. Trudy claims to be homeless but is actually Mr. O'Connor's daughter. As Christmas approaches, the millionaire decides to investigate the people squatting in his mansion.

Only about half of “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” takes place at Christmas. Winter rolls in about an hour in. The film concludes on New Year's Day. Snow and Christmas trees might only occupy a portion of the story but the movie concerns itself with themes befitting the season. Charity and giving, in contrast with greed and stinginess, is what motivates the script. Jim and Aloysius soon invite more homeless people into the mansion, opening their home and heart up to anyone in need. Mr. O'Connor is, at first, aghast that people are squatting on his property. The millionaire's greed is what's responsible for Jim's homeless status in the first place, as he ordered the apartment he lived in to be evicted. Naturally, the rich man learns about kindness and the power of giving before the story is over.

Of course, themes about giving and sharing wouldn't mean as much if we didn't care about the characters. Luckily, the cast is fairly likable. Victor Moore appears first as Aloysius, entering the film whistling. Moore brings a jolly and light-hearted attitude to the role. This makes a later scene, where he dresses as Santa Claus, especially fitting. Don DeFore stars as Jim, establishing a rebellious personality early on when he refuses to be evicted from his building. DeFore has a decent way with a comedic line, being a suitably likable leading man. As Trudy, Gale Storm is lovely and entertaining. Like a lot of female characters in these forties rom-coms, she's equal parts sass and vulnerability. Watching the character interact, creating their own little world in this unoccupied mansion, is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, the film's primary subplot did nothing for me. I'm not sure making Judy the daughter of the millionaire was the most organic decision. It helps brings the story together but I honestly think I would've preferred this to be a story about strangers meeting and helping each other. Having the millionaire disguise himself as a homeless person, living inside the mansion with the others, really just emphasizes what a jerk he is. When the potential materiel from this subplot is burned out, the story brings Judy's mother – O'Connor's ex-wife – into the house as well. None of these inclusions are especially compelling and they feel slightly forced-in, as if they were included to beef the story up.

“It Happened on Fifth Avenue” is sometimes classified as a musical. There's only about three songs in the film. Only one of them, a sweet song performed around the Christmas tree, feels like a proper musical number. Otherwise, the film's genre belongs more to the romance and comedy. I wanted to like “It Happened on Fifth Avenue” a little more than I actually did. The cast is fun and the main plot is strong. Sadly, a pretty lame subplot really drags the proceedings down. The film captures the Christmas atmosphere well but isn't quite the classic I was led to expect. [6/10]

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land (1982)

Back in the nineties, Cartoon Network used to play all sorts of weird holiday programs around December. This is how I first saw “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land.” As a kid, I didn't think it was strange that there was a Pac-Man Christmas special. I just accepted its existence at face value. Only as an adult does it dawn on me how weird this thing is. Pac-Man is a video game about a circular yellow shape eating smaller circular yellow shapes while being chased by ghosts through a maze. Somehow, this was popular enough to support a pop song, loads of merchandise, and a Saturday morning cartoon. And, somehow, a Hanna-Barbera executive thought it was worth producing a special episode of that cartoon that introduced Pac-Man to Christmas. The mind boggles.

This cartoon presupposes that Pac-Man lives in an entire village of Pac-People, along with his wife and infant child. It seems pretty peaceful, except for the band of asshole ghosts – the special insists on calling them “ghost monsters – that occasionally attempt to cause mischief. Anyway, while the Pac-Family is out attempting to enjoy the snowy weather, Santa Claus is flying overhead. The fat man crashes his sleigh. The Pacs help Santa and his reindeer get back on their feet. The ghosts, meanwhile, grab the missing bag of toys. Will Pac-Man retrieve the toys before Santa leaves on his Christmas trip around the world?

I know you have questions. I have them too. Is Pac-Land located on Earth or in another dimension? How did Santa Claus come to fly above this alternate world, especially since he seems to have no familiarity with it? What are the ghost monsters ghost of? Are they the spirits of dead Pac-Men, return from the grave to seek vengeance on the living? If so, why do they steal Santa's toy? If you're expecting answers to any of these questions in “Christmas Come to Pac-Land...” Okay, I don't think anyone was expecting answers from something called “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land.”

Yes, it's completely inane. The comedy is shrill and childish. The animation is cheap. The voice-acting is broad. The characters, especially the ghosts and Baby Pac, are highly annoying. The way the conflict is resolved – with Santa's reindeer being fed Power Pellets so they can deliver gifts in time – is baffling. The special doesn't even follow the rules of its own fucked-up universe. When Pac-Man chomps on a ghost, they are reduced to a pair of eyeballs. Like in the video game! But when the ghosts attack Pac-Man, he's simply beaten into a stupor, instead of shriveling up into nothingness. Also, there's not a single maze in sight. Mostly, “Christmas Comes to Pac-Land” is worth watching just to confirm that it exist. And you say there was a whole accompanying cartoon show? Good God. I wonder if the Wacky Wall Walkers Christmas special is this fucking weird... [5/10]