Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Zack Clopton's 2019 Film Retrospective

“You're not God or my father.... Or my boss! Or...

ZACK CLOPTON'S 2019 FILM RETROSPECTIVE!!!”

2019 was simultaneously the longest and shortest year on record. I'll think back to something that happened in February and will, at the same time, wonder aloud “That was this year?” At the same time, February also seems like it was just yesterday. Is this what getting old is like? Your perception of time gets all fucked-up?

Not that my relative perception of time and space have anything to do with the topic of this blog. I just thought it would be a pithy thing to open this, my twelfth annual look-back at every new releases I've seen within the year. My yearly retrospective is, in fact, the oldest reoccurring feature here at Film Thoughts. I've been doing this shit since 2007, which I can hardly believe. Actually, it's been even longer than that, as I use to do the exact same thing for my Myspace blog before creating Film Thoughts. The point is, yes, I'm a complete fucking dinosaur now. People don't even really use Blogger anymore.

In the oldest movie retrospective of mine that I can find – from 2005 – I saw 24 new releases. 2019, meanwhile, marks the second year in a row where my year-end total tops out over 100. Which means my use of time has either gotten better or worst, I'm not sure. As for Film Thoughts itself, it was an okay year. I tied with 2015 for my second most productive year, posting 260 blog post. Not bad. Next year, I will try and do better. I'm still struggling to balance my professional, relationship and film obsessive lives. Here's to figuring that shit out in the 20s.

Enough bullshit. Here's THE LIST, a ranking of every 2019 film I saw in 2019, from most favorite to least favorite.












FOUR STARS

1. The Art of Self-Defense
One of the best films ever made about the fragility of the male ego, this perfectly examines and deconstructs every stupid thing guys do to make themselves feel tough. In addition to that, it's also a hilarious comedy, extremely deadpan dialogue and increasingly absurd situations being delivered as deftly as a fatal blow. The script logically follows its premise to the darkest places, subverting audience expectations in the most brilliant of ways.

2. The Lighthouse
As you'd expect, this story of seaside madness is filled with ominous isolation, emphasized by the constricted aspect ratio, and increasingly unnerving episodes. (The use of seagulls is especially creepy.) What wasn't expected is how damn funny it is, as Eggers exploits old-time-y sea captain speak for as much absurdity as possible. Dafoe and Pattinson grow increasingly unhinged and blustery, as the film goes more mind-altering and perverse.

3. Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood
The latest in Tarnatino's lines of films about the power of cinema. A beautifully insecure Leo DiCapario and Brad Pitt, at his laconic best, cement this as a delightful hang-out movie... But also a story of toxic men struggling with their upcoming obsolescence. Nostalgic scenes co-exist alongside a sense of almost unbearable tension. Before the mvoie explodes into a hysterical shock comedy in its final act. A fantastic experience.

4. Avengers: Endgame
From a narrative perspective, this is an incredible juggling act that somehow never looses you. While definitely not as bold as “Infity War,” the pure joy with which the film approaches its many cheer-inducing, fanboy moments is infectiously gleeful. Marvel spent a decade building up to this, so they probably deserve the victory lap. And it's sweeter in its focus on the characters and their relationships than it had to be.

5. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
I enjoyed this motion picture immensely. You can tell that Michael Dougherty is a true monster-loving Godzilla fan and that affection is evident all throughout. Godzilla and his kaiju friends and enemies are treated not just with respect, but love. You can see this in the obvious personality they are gifted with. The action is immense, the cast is filled with lovable character actors doing their thing, and the story gets out of the way. Perfect.

6. Ma
“Ma” is two movies and they are both excellent but I wish the moments they intersected were less awkward. Sue Ann's world is one of intense loneliness, of hurt that can never heal, and is brought to life beautifully. Her struggles and deepening madness are very much worth watching. As a horror movie about bored teens trapped in the deadest of nowhere towns, “Ma' is also quite well done, with a quiet tension that slowly ratchets up. When these two worlds meet, a lot of humor crops up and I wonder if that was the best choice.

7. The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot
A stunning portrayal of an old man weighed down by a lifetime of regrets and pain. The film takes the idea of an outrageous hero and deconstructs it. Sam Elliot's power as a performer allows him to imbue every line with a mythic importance. The flashback scenes bristle with an uneasy tension. This take on Bigfoot is pretty cool too, an emaciated and diseased ape-man. Krzykowski also shows a Spielberg-like grip on sentimental nostalgia, with a Williams-like score that strains for big emotion.

8. Knife+Heart
A film defined by longing, desire, and passion always left unfulfilled. This successfully captures the heavy emotions wrapped up in the reasons why people consume porn. Also an example of virtuoso film-making. Director Yan Gonzalez clearly has an eye for stylish, Italian-style sequence, packing the film with not-so-subtle symbols driven by the incredible electronic score. Vanessa Paradis gives a shockingly unvarnished performance. A mesmerizing experience.

9. Midsommer
A story of relationship toxicity woven into a folk horror narrative, a rise out of grief that ends in catharsis. It's Aster's highly detailed direction that makes “Midsommar” such an immersive watch. Even the expected moments are made compelling by the deliberately paced story, which draws the viewer in a naturalistic way. Creates an unnerving, freaky atmosphere that is broken up by sudden bursts of high impact violence. There's also a lot of absurdist humor to the proceedings.

10. The Nightingale
Certainly among the year's most bracing watches, as Jennifer Kent's depiction of imperialism's cruelty is unflinching. Yet Kent's true interest lies with the moments of human connection that form between her disenfranchised protagonists, touching and insightful in their shrieked catharsis.    Aisling Franciosi's moment of defiance against her tormentor is spellbinding and Kent's dreary, intense direction is ever-watchful.












THREE AND A HALF

11. Luz
Hypnotic from the first frame, with a demonic story that leaps around in time, location, and personality. While this is slightly confounding, the visual style – a mixture of long takes and intimate close-ups – and fascinating performances keep you locked in. There's more under the surface too, with hints at a larger lore and themes of cultural isolation. Really feels like a lost eighties classic, more-so than other recent retro-horror outings, and features one of the year's best scores.

12. Alita: Battle Angel
As a big fan of Kishiro's original books, seeing so much of his world recreated so faithfully is a blast. This also nails the themes integral to this story, of division, of contrast and complexity. Rosa Salazar is so friggin' good, showing Alita's humanity to the audience. Robert Rodriguez punctuates the action with shots of slow motion, emphasizing the power of the blows. In order to combine the manga's episodes into a smooth narrative, this overreaches a little and piles on far too many sequel hooks.

13. Us
Peele's trademark mixture of social commentary and comedy is still present yet “Us” is still damn effective as a horror picture. The monsters of “Us” follow a surreal dream logic. Clearly about the class divide in America, how the comfortably living upper class don't even realize the effect they have on the poor. The Tethered are human, no matter how monstrous they act and the violence against them is portrayed as equally brutal. I love the moment when the story opens up wide but disliked the twist ending.

14. John Wick: Chapter 3
A series increasingly defined by two styles: Beautifully choreographed and fantastically brutal action sequences and long scenes of dudes in suits talking about the most incomprehensible bullshit imaginable. But who can complain when the action is really that good and the special guest players this entertaining? (I say this unironically: Halle Berry gives a career best performance.) I also like how part three trades out part two's Greico-Roman influence for a distinctly Asian atmosphere.

15. Depraved
Fessenden successfully updates the story of “Frankenstein,” awash in modern American anxieties.The Frankensteinian sutures and scars are physical manifestations of the psychic scars of PTSD, of traumatic brain injuries, of a long road to recovery with no end in sight. Also, by far, the director's most visually stylistic movie since “Wendigo.” A shift in protagonist derails the film somewhat in its last act, sadly.

16. Tone-Deaf
“ok boomer: The Horror Movie.” Exposes the foibles of both generations by making both examples terrible people. Yet, no matter how grotesque Richard Bates. Jr. gets, he still maintains a basic sympathy for his fucked-up protagonists. Robert Patrick has never been better, delivering several rants of bitter rage directly to the camera. The director throws in some of his trademark surreal nightmare scenes too, just to make the mood even kinkier.

17. The Siren
A trio of characters – a gay man looking for revenge, a mute missionary, a lake monster who can neither understand nor control her mythical hungers – weave through this dreamy, lyrically paced dark fantasy about overcoming grief and finding forgiveness. The excellent sound design produces some surprise scares. The performances are wonderful, especially from Margaret Ying Drake as the conflicted water nymph.

18. Under the Silver Lake
Conspiracy theorists look for patterns and secrets because, like all of us, they are scared of the random chaos of reality. “Under the Silver Lake” understands this and plays its deliberately absurd conspiracy for as many ridiculous laughs as possible. It doesn't actually mean anything, though David Robert Mitchell peppers the story with as many actual references as possible. Instead, it's a big, sexy, funny, wonderfully stylish, and sort of sad metaphor for the search for meaning.

19. The Intruder
Delightful trash! The script is super dumb and goes to great lengths to foreshadow every twist and turn. (It was obviously written with white leads in mind, as the film in no way addresses the racial connotations of its premise.) Yet an atmosphere of heightened, pulpy ridiculousness makes it all go down easy. Dennis Quaid is perfectly cast and there's even some mild tension in the back half. The theater crowd was so into it too, so I had a great time.

20. Piercing
Wherever you think this is headed, expect something else. From the opening minutes, this is subverting audience expectations in wonderfully bizarre ways. The story gets extremely kinky. The leads produce a lot of weirdo humor, especially once that brilliant final scene begins. The retro production design creates a nicely artificial feeling. The giallo soundtrack sets the mood. Go as in knowing as little as possible and reap the sicko joys.











THREE STARS

21. Crawl
Amusingly exploits every possible outcome of its delightfully pulpy premise and engineers surprisingly effective jump scares around its reptilian antagonists. These incredibly pissed off gators sure like to tear people apart and every attack is as painful as possible. Surprisingly good sound design, stylish direction, and a strong performance from Kaya Scodelario make this a well-oiled thrill machine, even if the themes of family are a little underdeveopled.

22. A Vigilante
Slowly takes us inside the traumatized protagonist world with long, naturalistic sequences. This is also apparent in the film's approach to violence, which is brutal but largely off-screen, so as to deny us that action movie catharsis. Olivia Wilde gives a scorching performance, most evident during a heart-breaking monologue midway through. This becomes a little less interesting in its second half, as the vigilante-ing stops and a one-on-one showdown starts, but never looses that intensity.

23. Girl on the Third Floor
Puts an impressively visceral, body-horror packed spin on the haunted house genre, producing a number of creepy, gooey, squirm-inducing images. The performances are quite strong, especially the Bruce Campbell-ian turn from pro-wrestler C.M. Punk. The themes are a little tangled – is this a story of a bad man getting his just desserts? A twisted tale of conception? Or a grander moral about human foibles? – and the attempts to forge a lore here get a bit heavy-handed. But I appreciate how sick this is.

24. Head Count
Successfully captures the hang-out movie vibe of a classic slasher better than most modern examples. Maybe a little too well, as the pacing sags a lot in the middle half. The tension ramps up a lot once the clever idea for a monster appears, director Elle Callahan generating a sense of unease with strong editing and solid atmosphere. Even if none of the characters ever truly emerge as very memorable and a creepypasta is a plot device.

25. Little Monsters
Maybe the most adorable zombie movie I've ever seen? Sure, there's the expected amount of gore and an obnoxious subplot about Josh Gad as a depraved children's host, which falls totally flat. Yet most of this is devoted to a group of adorable kids being cute, with an admirably wholesome Lupito N'yonga as their highly protective, incredibly earnest teacher. Watching the man-child protagonist grow up over the course of the story is even rather touching.

26. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark
My favorite thing about this is the fantastic Halloween atmosphere it captures and the wonderful creature effects, which beautifully re-create the illustrations from the book. Smartly weaves the original stories in-and-out of a new narrative. While there are a few jump scares, the movie is also impressively grisly. (And the Red Room sequence is by-far the creepiest moment.) It uses the events and attitudes of the late sixties to comment on modern politics in an interesting way. The cast is likable but I could've done without the “And the adventure continues!” ending.

27. The Farewell
Delightful and touching comedy that draws both humor and pathos from keenly observed interactions within the family. There's a lived-in reality to the scenes of conversation around the dinner table or a visit to the grandfather's grave. The film also grapples with some heavy issues of cultural identity. The cast is lovely too, especially Zhao Shuzhen as the best grandmother to appear in any movie this year.

28. Velvet Buzzsaw
Highly amusing as a broad satire of the shallowness, greed, and pretensions of all who dare make commerce out of art. The cast is on the correct campy wavelength. As a horror movie, many of the set pieces stick in the mind as creepy or nicely morbid, with some nicely creative direction. (The “Sphere” sequence is a high-light.)  Gilroy doesn't catch all the balls he throws up in the air but I was still left with a dorky smile on my face.

29. Shazam!
A superhero movie determined to be as fun as possible. The winning cast power a number of hilarious comedic set-pieces. The film's sense of discovery extends to a thunderous climax, which isn't afraid to pull in more comic book elements. Yet there's genuine emotion here too, with a moral about finding your own family. Only a slightly bland bad guy and weirdly mean-spirited violence undermines this one.

30. Ad Astra
“Daddy Issues... IN SPACE!” The film, heavy-handed in its themes as it is, sure knows how to engineer some thrilling sequences. The moon buggy shoot-out and the space baboon attacks are both highlights. A convincing not-too-distant future world is created here, with a lot of well utilized little hints and details. Brad Pitt is excellent, even if his narration is totally unnecessary.

31. Jojo Rabbit
While mocking Nazi Germany and everything it was built upon, he's also making a film about the boundless of boyhood energy and a kid being transformed by loss and love. (The chemistry between Roman Griffin Davis and Thomasin McKenzie excellently makes this point.) Taika Waititi's trademark quirkiness is maintained, though it's sometimes at odds with the serious subject matter in weird ways.

32. Daniel Isn't Real
The tension central to the premise, of how far Luke's homicidal imaginary friend will push him, sustains things pretty well for the first hour or so. The strong lead performances, especially from Patrick Schwarzenegger, propels that. Just when things are starting to run stale, wacky body horror, creative special effects, and hints of cosmic weirdness keep this running to the inevitable conclusion.

33. Toy Story 4
By far the most inessential of this series but certainly, by no means, a bad movie. The humor and heart is absolutely still there, as I laughed plenty of times and the movie still made me tear up. The new characters are all lovable, with Duke Kaboom being especially Keanu-licious. The film's villain, meanwhile, is so sympathetic and well realized that she really ceases to be a villain at all by the end. This seems to bring the franchise to a somehow more definitive end than part three did but Disney's shareholders will probably demand a “Toy Story 5” at some point anyway.

34. Rondo
Drew Barnhardt's long-awaited follow-up to “Murder Loves Killers Too” doesn't disappoint. There's a preciseness to the direction and dialogue, so staccato an absurdist quality emerges, that I really appreciate. (Sometimes it's a little too precise, as the style becomes overly show-y occasionally.) The use of an omniscient narrator is especially clever. The story is unpredictable, bends in a likably kinky direction, and ends in a hyper-violent exploitation-movie-style conclusion. Good shit.

35. Dragged Across Concrete
Ya know, if it wasn't for his distracting (possibly ironic? I don't even know, man) politics and obsession with meandering plots, S. Craig Zahler would be My Type of Shit. Even the meandering can be kind of fun, as Jennifer Carpenter's needlessly cruel subplot matches the film's brutal world-view so perfectly. Tough dudes trading extremely hard-boiled dialogue and just sitting around is a lot of fun. The neo-funk soundtrack, Zahler's gorgeous shot composition, the tense and extended shoot-outs... It's all awesome, once the movie stops fucking around.

36. Satanic Panic
The creatively vulgar dialogue is often hilarious. The running gags build nicely. The script has fun with the premise of witchcraft, creating some inventively grisly spells and clever monster attacks. The cast is having fun, with Rebecca Romijn being delightfully bitchy. For once, we have a horror protagonist whose emotional trauma actually ties into the story in a meaningful way. In other words, a lot of fun!

37. Missing Link
As always, Laika's visuals are absolutely spellbinding in their detail, their quirky character designs, and inventive camera angles. The physical comedy gags are so wild and broad, they become impressive acts. Mr. Link is a delightful character: A sasquatch who is shy, socially awkward, but with a wholesome heart. The moral lesson – find true friends, not the social group society tells you to go with – is obvious but does produce at least one surprising plot twist. And the voice cast is having a ball. Definitely the best of the recent wave of Bigfoot-themed animation.

38. Spider-Man: Far from Home
A “Spider-Man” movie for our era of alternative facts that, disappointingly, lives in the shadow of Tony Stark. We savvy viewers know a reveal concerning the villain is forthcoming, making the early scenes feel somewhat protracted and listless. (Mysterio is otherwise perfectly handled.)
Visually, this is a solid film full of high-flying web slinging and especially impressive fantasy with a wonderfully entertaining supporting cast.

39. Glass
Shymalan intentionally keeps things small in scope, refusing to give into superhero movie excess and even outright questioning the motivations of the genre. Yet the inevitable confrontations between heroes and villains is still very satisfying, especially once the twists reveal themselves. The ending is devastatingly anticlimactic, by design, but the bluntness of that is forgiven with an extended epilogue. It is a bit slow to start though and will definitely piss people off.

40. Captain Marvel
The cosmic first act is surprisingly muddled and the action scenes get a little shaky but, once we arrive on Earth, this becomes a delightful buddy flick. The filmmakers really nail that nineties look and feel, the needle-drops are absolutely inspired, Larson and Jackson are having fun together. A major revision to Marvel lore is interesting... We'll see how that plays out. Oh, also, the pre-release hype around Goose the Cat was completely justified.

41. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Brings the series to a concise conclusion, in a way that's almost too neat to be satisfying. As the series veers towards a bigger scope, the comic relief is increasingly out of place. (Though Ruffnut gets some moment.) This undoubtedly has the best villain of the series. The relationship between Hiccup and Toothless remains the cuddly heart and goes to some interesting places here. And the titular Hidden World sure is awfully pretty.

42. Annabelle Comes Home
Charming in an unexpected way. As a horror movie, it's really goofy and the film leans into that, so even its big dumb jump scares start to become fun. The episodic structure, each new ghost getting a sequence devoted to it, is blatantly an attempt to set up further spin-offs... But it also turns this October-set boo-show into a monster mash and I kind of love that. Setting almost the entire movie in one location over the course of a few hours is also a bold decision. The central trio of young actresses are also all delightful and the seventies setting is well utilized. There's still some trite Catholic mysticism in the plot but it's easy to overlook.

43. Body at Brighton Rock
The “everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” premise feels oddly plausible, which is probably thanks to Karian Fontes' lovable lead performance and not the increasingly contrived script. The isolated forest setting, and night time scenes especially, create a nicely spooky feeling that goes a long way. The bear fight climax, and the twist that follows, are not totally convincing yet I still had a fun time with this enjoyably retro genre effort.

44. Greta
The twisting story plays out in predictable fashion. However, there's a melodramatic glee to every reveal. As Greta's psychosis grows more over-the-top, the film delights in making her an elderly supervillain. Huppert's performance gets a lot of credit, playing entirely straight with a mischievous gleam in her eye. Neil Jordan engineers some fan set-pieces, in the form of nightmare sequences and the increasingly lurid climax.

45. Frozen II
Lacks the strong plotting of the origianl, as the story sometimes gets bogged down in too many plot lines and exposition. However, this has more exciting set pieces, involving the taming of the Water Nook and the Earth Giants. The theme of maturity is repeated over and over again but the movie wimps out at the new in truly embracing change. The animation is, of course, lovely but most of my criticism surrounding the songs – too many crowd-pleasing ballads, not enough that move the plot forward – remain.

46. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
Visually, just as spectacular as the first, with a lot of the same wild creativity and cleverness. This is especially apparent in the meta-story of sibling bonding, which plays an even bigger part. However, simply put, it's not as funny as the original. There's a lot of good gags – mostly involving dinosaurs – but the belly laughs never quite come. I like the extra musical numbers but they also feel somewhat unnecessary, adding to a slightly shaggy, aimless film.

47. The Kid Who Would Be King
Has a bit of a slow start, contributing to a too long runtime, and can't quite overcome the corniness inherent in its kid's movie style, especially in its humor which largely doesn't land. However, the fantasy elements result in a lot of really fun stuff, like skeleton warriors and killer trees. I also really appreciate how the film attempts to make historical archetypes and the malleability of mythology palatable to young kids.

48. The Prodigy
A little deeper than trashy February horror usually is, focused more on a grim atmosphere (and some interesting cat symbolism) than jump scares. When those come, they are effective – like a moment stolen right from Mario Bava's “Shock” – or fittingly nasty, like the gory last act. Though the script is fairly predictable and the actors playing the parents could be better, Jackson Robert Scott is very effective as a creepy kid.

49. Nightmare Cinema
“The Thing in the Woods” has a clever twist on the slasher premise. “Mirari” operates fairly tensely but ultimately leaves the audience feeling uncomfortable for the wrong reasons. There's  alot of spooky build-up in “Mashit” but Kitamura eventually cuts loose wildly. With ”This Way to Egress,” David Slade combines his obvious influences to create a nightmarish tone for a story that otherwise makes no sense. “Dead” feels like a pilot chopped down to fit into this anthology.

50. The Head Hunter
The decision to keep the monster fights largely off-screen, and to keep the main character's dialogue minimal, adds to the impressively grim atmosphere. The director employs a number of visual techniques to keep the tension high, the production design is effectively gritty, and the moral about the price of revenge is predictable but well deployed. None of this disguises that there's just not much story here, not even for such a short film.

51. Batman Vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The wide differences between the two cast and the in-jokes sprinkled throughout provide much of the fun factor. This sometimes double-down on edgy violence, in an attempt to prove how PG-13 they are. The animation if forgettable and the story is nonsense. Yet seeing your childhood toy box play sessions realized in animation does provide a thrill or two.

52. The Addams Family
Thankfully,  largely resists the temptation to make the characters hip and modern. The film has a seriously episodic narrative. Which story line the film is focused on shifts from scene-to-scene. The jokes mostly stay on the right side of kooky and spooky. Helping make even some of the weaker comedic set pieces land is the star-studded cast.

53. Hail Satan?
As a crash course in the history of the Temple of Satan this is informative. Aside from the sequences devoted to the Satanic rituals, it's disappointingly un-cinematic at times, functioning largely as a series of talking head interviews. I wish this focused more on the conflicts within the Temple, as that struck me as more dramatic than the feel-good, fluffy stuff about the group's myriad protests.

54. High Life
Definitely a movie I admire more than I like. Yes, it's full of heady ideas about sex, justice, conception, dogs, and nothing less than the search for a meaning to existence. The visuals, the composition of shots and direction, are often mesmerizing. The cast gives intense performance. Yet it is so slow, running two hours and feeling like four, and so ponderous, with its nonlinear plotting and artsy obliqueness.

55. Zombieland: Double Tap
Almost certainly composed of left-over ideas from the premise's TV origins. The plot is heavily episodic. It's not until the last third does the story seem to cohere into a narrative whole. The road trip structure allows for a number of new characters, some of them are truly amusing additions. The returning cast steps back into these roles easily. As with the original, “Zombieland: Double Tap” works best when playing out its absurd zombie-comedy action movie theatrics.











TWO AND A HALF STARS

56. Joker
The first half is an utterly miserable character drama. Women are too easily blamed for many of Arthur's problems. Are we meant to be terrified of his rise to supervillain-dom or are we suppose to cheer on his bloody revenge? The script invokes political ideas, of both the left and right-wing variety, without actually engaging with any of it. Yet Joaquin is phenomenal, several scenes are fantastically directed, and the film is, if nothing else, interesting.

57. Escape Room
Utterly preposterous and predictable, when it comes to guessing who will die next. Yet the rooms and traps are clever in their designs, especially in how they play on the common fears of the characters. (Heights, suffocation, fire.) The characters fit into stock archetypes but are decently brought to life by a solid cast. The extended last act is unnecessary and goofy but does feed into a decent subtext about not trusting the rich. In other words, this is a lot better than you'd expect.

58. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
As crowd-pleasing spectacle, “Detective Pikachu” definitely features its share of impressive action. The world works brilliantly, every corner of the film full of so much personality. Yet something about the emotional core rings hollow. Pikachu's snideness makes it hard to relate too much to the life-changing friendship he's supposedly forming. The mystery cheats several times before the end.

59. Dumbo
Maybe it's because my expectations were very low but I ended up liking “Dumbo” a little more than expected. After an extremely slow first act, it picks up a lot and starts to feel more like a Tim Burton movie. Granted, it's a Tim Burton movie without not enough heart in its story and too much CGI but at least it's recognizable as a Burton film. As uneven as it is, the director's anti-corporate themes emerge in a big way. And, it turns out, an adorable baby elephant goes a long way.

60. Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase
Decent attempt to woke up this nearly eighty year old character for modern kids. The mystery is easy enough to unravel, the pacing sags a bit, and the film feels a lot like a television pilot that was released to theaters for some reason. But Sophia Lillis, and much of the young cast, is delightful. That, along with Katt Shea's attempts to add a little horror movie flare, keeps this kiddie programmer light, fluffy, and inoffensively entertaining.

61. 3 from Hell
A Rob Zombie greatest hits reel that certainly does not justify its own existence. It's a tired film, hopelessly straining in the shadow of “The Devil's Rejects.” It's not even a good tribute to Sid Haig, as he's just replaced with Richard Brake. But it's not totally worthless either, as the killers' personalities are evolving in mildly more fleshed-out ways. After a repetitive first hour, this becomes a spaghetti western pastische which is kind of fun and cool.

62. Stuber
Casting Iko Uwais as the villain and then shooting all the action scenes in that fidgety, terrible Hollywood shaky-cam style is the film's biggest sin. Kumail Nanjiani does get laughs, though his smarmy back-talk is not as funny as the movie thinks it is. Dave Bautista's incredible skills as a physical comedian are more consistently entertaining. The heart of this buddy cop comedy is totally full of shit, as our heroes go from hating to loving each other over the course of a single scene, but it's reasonably entertaining for most of its runtime, getting a decent amount of chuckles.

63. Rabid
Starts out promising, by directly addressing many of the issues I have with the original. Namely, by shifting the focus to Rose and her struggle with her new condition. Setting the story within the world of fashion was an inspired choice. However, much like the original, the outbreak subplot proves to be a distraction. This remake totally falls apart with its hard turn towards mad scientist melodramatics in its last act.

64. Doctor Sleep
Where “The Shining” was cold and calculated, “Doctor Sleep” is sentimental and meandering. (It often feels like a Netflix show cut down to a feature.) Despite that, Mike Flanigan is reverent of Kubrick, distractingly recreating several shots from the original. This is also the kind of movie where the dialogue directly explains the themes. It's all pretty dopey yet the actors – McGregor especially – are quite good, the villains are occasionally fascinating, and the trippy psychic communication scenes are pretty fun.

65. Sweetheart
Functions best as a solo desert island survival story, as Kiersey Clemons is most likable when given minimal dialogue. The slow reveal of the monster – a semi-decent shark-man, though still very typical of Neville Paige's style – works pretty well. Once a group of other people float into the story, the film degrades into directionless bickering and other attempts to pad this out to feature length.

66. Star Wars: The Rise of Sykwalker
Left me exhausted in the worst way a big effects movie can. Its plot is a jumbled mess, full of MacGuffins, contrived plot twists, exposition, inexplicable character introductions, and an eventual descent into incomprehensible Jedi mysticism. The retcons to the previous movie border on the depiscable. Yeah, there's some neat creatures, some likable performers and a handful of interesting action sequences. But it's not enough to make me feel any less annoyed or baffled.

67. Klaus
The animation is nothing short of spellbinding. “Klaus” often gives the impression of a painting that has sprung to life. There's a depth and vividness to the colors, the film glowing with natural-seeming light. Sadly, its gorgeous visuals are about the only thing “Klaus” really has going for it, as the script as bland as possible. Every beat of the plot is totally predictable and the broad humor is piled on. As a Santa Claus origin story, this also offers few surprises.

68. The Banana Splits Movie
Considering the trashy premise and the obvious small budget, this is a lot better than expected. The special effects and gory murders are fairly unconvincing, which is probably for the best. There is, indeed, something unnerving about watching these forgotten, cutesy children's show characters brutally dismember people. That disconnect isn't quite enough to sustain an entire movie, as the script dissolves into repetitive plotting and inessential subplots quickly enough. Still, this is a pretty novel way to revive an old I.P./rip-off “Five Nights at Freddy's.”

69. Gags the Clown
Found footage films that cut between multiple perspective largely miss the point of the gimmick. Switching between the multiple stories prevents any of them from building much momentum, though a few of the plot threads – like the cops or the teens – aren't that interesting to begin with. The titular entity never actually does much, until the pretty clever gag at the very end of the film. Ultimately, Lauren Ashley Carter's enjoyably bitchy performance of the reporter is the main reason to see this.

70. Charlie Says
Mary Harron's latest shows how someone like Charles Manson could become a cult leader, scientifically breaking down the methods of manipulation, without making the audience feel why this was possible. Despite a fiery Matt Smith performance, the Manson Girls remain fawning sketches that never truly come to life. Harron keeps the murders largely off-screen, which does make them more unnerving but continues the oddly detached feeling.

71. Cuck
The first hour of this is blisteringly effective, as it depicts the main character's sad, pathetic world in as uncomfortably real a way as possible. A kinky, very literal plot twist brings the asshole protagonist the first real comfort in his life, the bitching synth score soaring. After that, the film completely falls apart, listlessly going through the motions on its way to becoming a pretty tasteless horror film.

72. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
Approaches the most fascinating thing about Bundy – the contradiction in what he appeared to be versus what he actually was – in the most awkward way possible, playing almost like a mystery. The film flip-flops on whether its telling Liz Kendall's story or not. Zac Efron is perfectly cast, scarily so, and John Malkovich is entertaining. But the film around them is too uncertain about its goals.

73. Happy Death Day 2 U
The first half-hour feels weirdly disconnected from the rest, as if two separate sequel ideas were awkwardly mashed together. Part two focuses much more on comedy. While there are definite laughs here, like in the suicide montage, the script's wackiness is sometimes overbearing and self-satisfied. Jessica Rothe gives a solid performance and the sequel still has some heart yet I can't help but feel this would've been better if it focused on horror over sci-fi/comedy antics.

74. Darlin'
The sequel feels slightly half-baked, lacking the brutal suspense of its predecessor. The film is especially preoccupied with (the less interesting subject of ) the Catholic Church's treatment of women. The Woman's subplot often feels like a digression from the main story. There's a certain absurd humor to some of these scenes that jives badly with the film's otherwise serious tone. Pollyanna McIntosh shows a certain visual flair as a director but the pacing is painfully slow. Most of the other teen girls are reduced to bizarre gimmicks.

75. Greener Grass
Excessively weird and uncomfortable satire of suburban foibles, full of the kind of cringe comedy and surreal grotesqueness that is best taken in small doses. Granted, I like some of the gags here. Like a child becoming a dog, a soccer ball being adopted as a baby, an obsession with pool water, or a bleeding haircut. And there's obviously some smart points being made about societal pressures and conformity here. But you can only take this kind of stilted, in-your-face weirdness for so long.

76. The Wind
One of those horror films that nails the creepy atmosphere, especially inherent in its isolated location, with a long line of foreboding incidents... But totally drops the ball when the time comes for the big scares, as those scenes are driven by cheesy special effects and hokey premises. The performances are decent but the characters never quite come to life, the script being a bit too thin. Which is most evident in the shrug of an ending.

77. The Fanatic
Obviously, this is terrible. The screenplay – with its awkward narration, plot points that are often forgotten, halting pacing, and incongruous switcharoo last act – is awful. The performances are often embarrassingly overdone. John Travolta makes many, let's call them bold, acting choices as the ambiguously autistic protagonist. Yet there's something lovably goofy about unhinged man-child Moose. The film almost comes close to understanding why film nerds become so attached to certain stars and movies. This might've been insightful if it wasn't so horribly dumb.












TWO STARS

78. In Fabric
After seeing two of his films, I think I can conclude that Peter Strickland's high-camp, style-over-substance approach just isn't for me. Yes, the colors are lush, the visuals are striking, and the giallo-esque musical score is cool. The absurdist sense-of-humor is painfully conceited. The story is a series of digressions, tot he point where it concludes its original plot and starts another forty minutes before the end. Eventually, all pretenses are abandoned in favor of abrasive abstraction.

79. Child's Play
I think this remake is so messy because it was being pulled in different directions. It was trying to be something totally different, with its radical reinvention of CHucky but also forced to remain faithful to the series as it has existed up to this point, with its one-liners and gory kills. But it also wanted to cash-in on modern trends, with the high-tech story and hip young cast. The result ends up satisfying no one, not fans or newcomers.

80. My Days of Mercy
The most Ellen-Page-y movie Ellen Page could make in 2019. Which is to say it's an incredibly dour activism movie, weighed down by its own sense of importance and a maudlin pace that never picks up. Ellen and Kate Mara have wonderful chemistry, a sense of fun and genuine eroticism to their moments together. But it's all in service of a truly lifeless movie.

81. Prey
Blumhouse's other deserted island monster movie this year, I wanted to like this more than I actually did. I like the lead actors, the monster design is kind of cool, and you can see Franck Khalfoun's visual style appearing again. However, it's paced way too slow. There's a little too much CGI, lame jump scares and overbearing music during the attack scenes. Like “Sweetheart,” this one also falters when it brings in additional characters to pad out the body count.

82. Trick
At the very least, this is trying to put a clever spin on the slasher genre, attempting to show how a Michael Myers figure would emerge in the modern age. The filmmakers clearly find the eventual twist far more clever than the audience does. There are too many attempts to make Trick cool and bad-ass, which quickly becomes silly. Eventually, “Trick's” plot degrades into one endless chase after another. Lussier's direction is frequently overdone, with images flashing on-screen, handheld shots, and over-editing.

83. Lucky Day
Roger Avery attempts to recapture his “Pulp Fiction” heyday with this digressing crime comedy, There's frankly pathetic faux-shocking dialogue, shallow characters, obnoxiously broad humor, and a streak of annoyingly twee quirkiness. This would be total dross if it didn't star my boi Crispin Glover, absolutely decimating the scenery as a psychotic assassin with a goofy French accent going on a senseless killing spree. He alone makes this dreadful movie watchable.

84. Wounds
Begins with a reasonably creepy note and some nicely gooey gore effects. However, it soon becomes clear the movie isn't actually going anywhere with its occasionally spooky imagery. The movie recognizes that the lead character is an asshole but doesn't do anything with it. There's a thematic element here about emptiness, which is a little on-the-nose since the movie itself isn't about much.

85. Ladyworld
Feminist-themed, aggressively artsy-fartsy mix of “Lord of the Flies” and “No Exit.” The premise is clearly allegorical, the dialogue frequently oblique, and the sound design/music whispery. Some of the performances, Ryan Simpkins especially, are strong. An anxiety-inducing, nightmare-like tone is occasionally captured. However, this is largely a tedious, obnoxious, self-consciously pretentious experience.

86. Terminator: Dark Fate
The one-long-chase-scene pacing is almost always up-hill but the execution lacks the grim tension of Cameron's original. There's almost nothing interesting about “Dark Fate's” story at all. The Rev-9 is just a lazy mash-up of the first two Terminators. The action direction is weirdly terrible. The cast is good, with Mackenzie Davis as a surprisingly effective action hero, Arnold's Terminator as a delightful deadpan Dad figure, and Linda Hamilton as a grizzled bad-ass.

87. IT: Chapter 2
I liked the first “It” just enough to be disappointed in “Chapter Two.” The structure is seriously episodic, the runtime bloated, and the tone is uncertain with too many sarcastic quibs. The best moments, like the demonic fortune cookies, are taken directly from the novel. I was left wondering why the screenwriters decided to make-up some goofy bullshit instead of utilizing more good stuff from King’s book. Instead of these profound statements about small town evils, “IT: Chapter Two” becomes an unsightly sentimental story of self-forgiveness, of overcoming fear, ridiculous CGI monsters, and dumbass love triangles.

88. Hellboy
Ultimately, this reboot can't satisfy the desire for del Toro's “Hellboy 3.” David Harbour's teenage take on Hellboy is interesting. Neil Marshall creates some metal album cover worthy images – ectoplasm, wild demons emerging from Hell, an apocalyptic scene – and Baba Yaga is a highlight. However, the plot is overburdened by backstory. It seems all the dialogue is either exposition or lame quips. The film is also a little over-the-top in its need to prove how R-rated it can be.

89. Haunt
I was pretty into this for its first half-hour or so. Various traps featured throughout put the characters in very uncomfortable situation. The killers have a really cool look. However, “Haunt” features a lot modern horror tropes that I'm just so bored with. The protagonist's trauma is used to add emotional weight in a cheap way. The characters are mostly foul-mouthed assholes. By the end, “Haunt” is even relying on shaky-cam visuals and a blaring musical score.

90. The Death of Dick Long
For a comedy about white trash depravity, this is shockingly low-key. Oh, it's funny. The idiotic characters deliver circular dialogue in as deadpan a manner as possible. However, the approach is weirdly maudlin throughout. Once the central shocking act is revealed, the movie simply flounders its way towards the end. A major step down from “Swiss Army Man.”

91. The Dead Don't Die
Genuinely baffling attempt at a zombie parody. The execution is utterly lifeless, which was no doubt an intentional pun. The large cast shuffles through characters with no personality. The gags get increasingly, desperately wacky. The fourth-wall breaking nods are unbearably smug. The film revels in its own meaninglessness, most evident in its abrupt non-ending. Bill Murray and Tom Waits made me chuckle a couple of times. This largely comes off as Jim Jarmusch and his famous friends goofing around but it's way less fun than that implies.

92. Black Christmas
More-or-less in-name-only remake that doesn't utilize the Christmas setting in any interesting way. This was so obviously shot with an R-rating in mind and the cuts around the gore are jarring. The editing in general is frequently hard to follow. The film's politics are ham-fisted, didactic, frustratingly shallow, and occupy the majority of the film. Which is a bummer, since the cast is likable and there's a few clever sequences and ideas.

93. Riot Girl
I dig the punk rock aesthetic and jocks vs. freaks premise but that's pretty much all the movie has going for it. Its character never evolve pass the thinnest sketches. The acting is uniformly bland. The pacing is totally inert, with too many scenes of mindless bickering. The comic book transitions and references are in general trying-too-hard.

94. Brightburn
The main problem with this “What if Superman was a serial killer?” thriller is that Brandon, the boy discovering his amazing powers, has no inner life. His transformation from normal but gifted kid to murderous superhuman happens over the course of a single scene. This refusal to deepen his personality makes this perversion of a beloved icon come off as needlessly ugly and mean-spirited. Which leaves little to enjoy aside from some fucked-up gore and a literal last-minute cameo.

95. Bliss
Clearly, Joe Begos has a stylish visual sense. The attack scenes are effectively brutal and well shot. The doom metal atmosphere and day-glo visuals at least achieve what they are after. Otherwise, this blood-soaked acid trip is far too in love with its own abrasiveness, starring an absolutely obnoxious protagonist and a shrieking tone that gets tiresome immediately.

96. The Hole in the Ground
Somehow it's comforting to know that A24's “elevated horror” isn't above tired-out horror tropes, like a shrieking jump scare laden score, some seriously misplaced CGI, or every lame creepy kid cliché in the book. After an sluggish hour, this briefly becomes a newly energized monster movie before it just ends. Definitely one of the more prominent disappointments of the year.

97. Dark Phoenix
Truly, a fiasco. None of the character arcs make any sense, Beast's especially. Half the cast are thin roles without any depth at all. The villains are embarrassingly generic. The nineties setting is never utilized. We, as a culture, have evolved past superhero adaptations that toss out cool comic book stuff in favor of boring movie shit the filmmakers invented. The only reason to see this are some clever action beats – a weaponized watch, Nightcrawler going homicidal, a subway train yanked from the ground – and Dazzler's cameo.

98. Candy Corn
A tale of supernatural Halloween revenge but it's hard to be invested when the victims are juvenile delinquents that enjoy torturing the town weirdo. Are we suppose to cheer on the killer's retaliation or be afraid of him? It's hard to know because he has no personality. The acting is stiff, the direction is melodramatic, and the gore is unconvincing. This does, occasionally, nicely capture that dreary, small town, October feeling sometimes.

99. Aladdin
Aladdin and Jasmine's romance has more build-up but is less believable. Jafar has more backstory but is less intimidating. The musical numbers seem out of place and the new song is forgettable. The production design is fantastic but the film is frequently shot in a weirdly confined fashion. Will Smith is no Robin Williams but his decision to play Genie as Aladdin's sassy gay friend is the most entertaining thing in the film, along with some awkward comedy. As with most of Disney's live action remakes, this just makes me want to go back and re-watch the cartoon.

100. Critters Attack!
There's a certain novelty to seeing the first R-rated Crites adventure. The additions to “Critters'” lore, such as the good Crite, are cute but mostly make this more of a “Gremlins” rip-off than ever before. Too many scenes are devoted to the main girl angsting about her inability to get into a fancy university. This causes “Critters Attack!” to feel overly serious and sluggish, even when there are decent gags like the Crites pocketing some sushi or coughing up bubbles.

101. Wrinkles the Clown
Clearly one of those documentaries with not enough material for its (very short 78 minute)  length. The film fills time with rambling anecdotes from fans of Wrinkles, discussions of internet folklore, and the evil clown phenomenon in general. This is aside from the bogus meta twist, which makes most of the first half feel like a complete waste. When the actual Wrinkles is interviewed, it's mildly interesting but that comprises about ten minutes out of the entire movie. The reenactments of what people think Wrinkles gets up to are at least well done.

102. Abominable
Sometimes the animation is really pretty yet, other times, it's very flat. The same can be said of the character designs, as most of them are forgettable. The constantly sarcastic dialogue is tiresome but there are a couple cute visual gags. (Like the whooping snakes.) The story takes a couple of narrative short cuts that really bug me. There's an obvious degree of corporate propaganda here: The film is essentially an animated travelogue of China and an evil billionaire is revealed to be a good guy. But it's relatively inoffensive.

103. Adam
I don't know why I watched this. The premise is obviously offensive, in ways I'm not going to attempt to detail here. Some of the performers are likable. Mostly, this fails as a comedy because it's way to maudlin to be funny. It isn't sexy, too caught up in trying to navigate the controversial elements of its story. Also, I guess it's time to start getting nostalgic for the early 2000s movie nerd culture.

104. Men in Black: International
Another disappointing “Men in Black” sequel. The script is shockingly laughless, not a single one of the jokes landing. The plot is utterly predictable. The alien design are deeply unimaginative, which is emblematic of the entire film's lack of imagination. Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth are charming but given absolutely nothing to work with. The MacGuffin is a cool idea for a weapon, I'll give it that much.

105. Pet Sematary
Frustratingly bad because it was so nearly good. Individual moments stand out, like the foggy walk to the burial grounds or the fatal collision on the road. The new script also cleans up the book's pacing and logic problems. Yet there's still plenty of lame jump scares. The remake completely shits the bed once the zombie kid shows up, relying on a deeply un-scary “creepy” kid, ridiculous nightmare sequences, and a needlessly mean-spirited ending.


ONE AND A HALF STAR

106. Godzilla: The Planet Eater
Disproves the adage that no movie with Godzilla in it can be boring. The anime trilogy remains enamored of its own bullshit mythology, devoting long chucks of this final part to conversations with space-elves. The new take on Ghidorah is cool but his fight with Godzilla is a non-event. Mothra is teased but never appears. There's an excruciating fifteen minute epilogue, after the entire story is resolved.

ONE STAR

107. The Car: Road to Revenge
Like most of Universal's direct-to-video sequels, this has abysmal production values, needlessly vulgar dialogue, lots of laughable digital effects, and next-to-no understanding of what made the original work. This Car barely does anything cool and, up until the end, doesn't even look that interesting. Demonic ambiguity is traded out for a generic sci-fi revenge plot, with lots of extra bullshit that's impossible to care about. Half-a-star added for some semi-decent fight choreography, Ronny Cox's cameo, and the mere fact that a 40-years-later cyberpunk sequel to “The Car” exists in the first place.

108. The Curse of La Llorona
Absolute tedium. A delivery system for the loudest, most obvious jump scares imaginable. These comprise probably fifty percent of the film's run time, ruining even otherwise decent moments, like a mildly suspenseful bathtub scene. Naturally, the script is completely ignorant of La Llorna's deeper cultural meanings or mythological importance. The script is quite dumb in general, characters making senseless decisions, leading to a laughable conclusion. The Conjuring-verse's weird hard-on for the Catholic Church continues here as well.

-

Another year in the books. If you made it to the bottom of that, I want to thank you for reading along. Here's to 2020 being even better.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Director Report Card: Mary Harron (2019)


6. Charlie Says

Following his 2017 death and the fiftieth anniversary of his most infamous crime, there has been a renewed interest in Charles Manson and his notorious Family. 2019 has seen several films inspired by the topic, ranging from the high-profile “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” to the regrettable lows of “The Haunting of Sharon Tate.” In-between these two poles resides “Charlie Says.” The new film from the “American Psycho” team of Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner, it is Harron's first theatrically released film since 2011's “The Moth Diaries.” You'd think this combination of director, writer, and topic would generate more conversation but “Charlie Says” has been greeted with, at best, lukewarm buzz.

Beginning in 1972, the film follow Leslie “Lulu” Van Hounton, Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel, and Susan “Sadie” Atkins – otherwise known as the Manson Girls – as they sit in prison cells on what was formerly California's death row. Despite his and their interactions, the girls remain faithful to Charlie and his apocalyptic visions. Psychologist Karlene Faith interviews the girls, attempting to reach them. As Lulu and the others recall their days at Charlie's ranch, the turth about their time there – and the gravity of their crimes – begin to dawn on them.

It would seem Harron's primary goal with “Charlie Says” is to depict, in an almost clinical way, how a man like Charles Manson successfully manipulated so many people. He knowingly preyed on the psychologically vulnerable. Some of the girls came from abusive backgrounds, the Family providing comfort and acceptance. Some where just adrift, in search of a philosophy to guide them. Manson isolated them from their support nets, forcing them to cut off all contact with their family. He broke down their own sense of personal identity, giving them new names and roles. In their place, he forged new identities, dependent on him as a figurehead. Anybody who wasn't already vulnerable to Manson's tactics, who didn't buy into his bullshit, was dismissed. As depicted in a scene where a potential new Family member is brought to the ranch, immediately questions Charlie's authority, and is swiftly sent away. This is why otherwise reasonable people fell under Manson's control. He took away all their other options for emotional support, made them rely solely on him, until they were literally willing to kill for him.

Anybody familiar with how cults, or even abusive relationships, works will recognize these tactics. In fact, I think that might have been a reason why Harron chose now to tell this story. Manson's Philosophies are blatantly racist. Part of why he's such a effective manipulator is how he places himself and his followers as special, against an enemy he dehumanizes – by calling them "piggies" – until they seem utterly alien. This is not too dissimilar to how radical factions, ranging from ISIS to the Alt-Right, draw in followers. Manson largely targeted vulnerable young women, instead of disenfranchised young men, but the principals are the same. It would seem, when it comes to charismatic psychos talking people into committing horribly violent acts, not much has changed. And there's value in recognizing that.

Unlike other films, which have depicted Manson as a wide-eyed lunatic, “Charlie Says” acknowledges that he was charismatic. He's a galvanizing speaker and is even sweet and comforting at times. This provides context for why Leslie and the others stayed. Yet the film never backs away from Manson's ugliness. His rants grow increasingly egotistical and nonsensical. He's a hypocrite, one of the attributes he tells the girls to hate about the world outside their commune. During a musical rehearsal, he berates the girls into disrobing. After the audition goes poorly, Charlie vents his anger by beating one of the girls. This is all behavior they accepted because Manson taught them it was okay. Harron acknowledges that the girls were sometimes disturbed by his behavior. Leslie is shown as scared or confused by Manson at times. She even clearly considers leaving at one point. But fear – more-so of the outside world than the Family – kept where she was.

So “Charlie Says” is a thoughtful and well-researched depiction of what happened. So why isn't it a better film? Some of this is strictly a pacing issue. The flashback structure was clearly chosen to foreground the women's recovery, sot eh audience would understand them as more than just murderers. This has almost the opposite effect. We meet the Manson Girls as fawning, obsessive followers. As opposed tot eh flashbacks, where they seem like still reasonable, easy-to-relate-to people. It's just the nature of the narrative that the flashbacks are what we are most interested in. We want to see the lurid stuff. Focusing on the women's recovery is an admirable choice but the prison scenes are slow, often interrupting the flow of the more fascinating flashbacks.

More than even that, “Charlie Says” never truly brings its subjects to convincing life. The depiction of the Manson family is respectful, showing the machinations that led Leslie and the others down that path. It's also somewhat impersonal. It seems we never truly get inside the heads of Leslie, Sadie, and Katie. They exist as either victims of Manson's manipulation or his brainwashed followers. Rarely, do we get an idea of what they are thinking or feeling. The film pulls back when it should get closer. It goes scientific when a more emotional, personal approach was needed. We understand why this happens but we don't feel it.

I want to say Turner and Harron were making an intentional choice there, perhaps to further emphasize the women's victimhood over their statuses as killers. Yet even the acting has that oddly withdrawn quality. Hannah Murray plays Leslie Van Hounton, our PO.V. into this world. Murray projects a wide-eyed naivety throughout the film. She hints at the panic and confusion Leslie felt without exploring it deeper. Sosie Bacon as Katie has a similar approach while Marianne Rendon, as Sadie, goes more unhinged. Merritt Wever as Faith, the psychologist, is fine, especially considering she is given some of the movie's most difficult dialogue.

By keeping Leslie and the others as blanks, something perhaps uncomfortable happens. Charles Manson becomes the most interesting character in the film. Matt Smith plays him as a frustrated wannabe with a talent for manipulation. When his music career fails to take off, he becomes more obsessed with his messiah fantasies and his violent tendencies. He uses and abuses the women arund him to build up his fragile, masculine ego. This sees Harron returning to ideas she last explored in “American Psycho.” (And like Patrick Bateman, Manson is virulently racist and homophobic.) Smith invokes all these sides of Manson, making him a complex and disturbing presence.

Of course, Patrick Bateman was a fictional character and the bloody mayhem he wrought was stylized, exaggerated. Charles Manson was real and the murders he orchestrated were tragedies. Harron approaches the murders tastefully while still making them unnerving to watch. She keeps the violence largely off-screen. She devotes screen time to the victims' lives before they are violently ended, giving us an idea of what was lost. We see the grisly aftermaths, often presented starkly and straight-ahead. When we do see the violence happen, Harron remains focused on the characters' faces, on what they are feeling in that moment. The effect is visceral without turning the real life deaths in a trashy horror movie.

There's a certain documentary-like edge to these scenes. That is something she attempts to extend to the rest of the movie, less successfully. Most of “Charlie Says” looks just fine. The night time scenes around the Family fire place have a suitably warm glow to them, with just an undercurrent of danger. The day time scenes have a fitting sense of desert heat. The prison cells are appropriately cold and gray. Yet occasionally the camera adopts a shaky, hand-held quality that's a bit distracting. Especially during a moment when Sadie tears all the posters off her cell wall, when the camera seems to collide with an actress' shoulder. I don't what was up with that.

Whatever disappointment I felt with “Charlie Says” crystallized as it reached its end. Throughout the film, Faith makes various attempts to connect with the girls. (A darkly humorous moment occurs when a black man explains the racism of Manson's ideas to the clueless girls.) Finally, after recounting the murders, Leslie finally realizes the gravity of her crimes. And that's pretty much the end of the movie. It's an abrupt conclusion and also one that feels like a cheat. Leslie having a slow realization of guilt would've been more compelling. As would have an epilogue detailing how she grappled with the enormity of what she did. Instead, “Charlie Says” ends just when it's getting most interesting.

Clearly, Harron and Turner's goal with “Charlie Says” was to depict Lulu, Katie, and Sadie more as victims of Charles Manson and not-so-much co-conspirators. (They're not alone in this cause. In his book, “Role Models,” John Waters argues for a similar case.) While the film convincingly lays out the evidence, I wish it was more exciting. The director and writer of “American Psycho” making a movie about Charles Manson promises a lot. While some elements of the film – namely Smith's performance and Harron's handling of the murders – work, “Charlie Says” is a disappointingly cold and withdrawn film. The muted response was totally justified. [Grade: C+]

Sunday, December 29, 2019

RECENT WATCHES: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)


It's 2019 and I'm sick of “Star Wars.” I thought “The Last Jedi,” the previous entry in the Skywalker saga, was an exciting, beautifully executed film that dismissed all of the things I found irritating about the series. Yet most of the conversation surrounding that film has revolved around the vitriolic response a certain subsection of the fandom had to the movie. (At least some of which was generated by Russian propaganda bots, because that's the world we live in now.) Inevitably, this discourse has consumed all discussion surrounding the franchise, to the point where even the cast has felt the need to chime in. And now, the ninth and supposedly final film in this particular saga, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” has seemingly been built around addressing these concerns. I might be sick of talking about “Star Wars” but I feel compelled to say my piece on this latest entry in the billion-dollar franchise.

In the aftermath of “The Last Jedi's” events, it's been revealed that Emperor Palpatine, the evil Sith lord that led the original trilogy's Galactic Empire, has been resurrected. From the legendary Sith home world, he has built a fleet of Star Destroyers outfitted with Death Star technology. Soon, Kylo Ren and his First Order are united with the Emperor. He is commanded to hunt down Rey, the last Jedi. Rey's friends in the Resistance soon follow alongside her, as they seek out the device that can lead them to the Emperor's world. The fate of the galaxy hangs in the balance.

Just from a story perspective, “The Rise of Skywalker” is a mess. It often feels like J.J. Abrams' film packs in enough story for two franchise sequels. The first hour of “Episode IX” concerns the heroes chasing after various MacGuffins, some of which lead to other MacGuffins. At one point, a chart hidden within the hilt of a magical dagger leads Rey to the exact location of another plot device. Exposition arrives by the ream. Characters jump around locations quickly, to the point where the audience is baffled by their appearances. New superpowers are gained throughout the plot. Revelations are made concerning spies and then they are forgotten, the movie onto its next story beat.

The sequel reviving the Emperor from the dead within the opening scroll, instead of the actual movie, is emblematic of its many problems. Abrams is still obsessed with recreating the original trilogy's events. So we have to have an Emperor, even if “The Last Jedi” swiftly dealt with our Palpatine stand-in. It's not “Star Wars' without a Death Star, apparently, so an entire fleet of ships become mini-Death Stars. Eventually, the film's obsession with family bloodlines, magical powers, and ancient rivalries between space wizard sects consumes it. The last act is an incomprehensible mishmash of Jedi and Sith mysticism, the audience completely lost.

When it was announced that J.J. Abrams was returning to finish the trilogy he started, I instantly became worried he would undo all the most interesting ideas Rian Johnson introduced in “The Last Jedi.” As the cast started to bitch about the last movie, it became increasingly clear “The Rise of Skywalker” would attempt to win back the disgruntled fanboys who had already washed their hands of the series by this point. So, yes, the interesting idea that a galaxy far, far away doesn't revolve around specific bloodlines is tossed out. Rey's parents are someone important. The mystery box nonsense surrounding Snoke is revived, with the reveal that Snoke was basically Palpatine the entire time. Rose, a nice new character so hated by the toxic fans that they drove her actress off social media, is reduced to a minor role. The film even pauses to mock the Holdo Maneuver. It's exhausting and frankly disgusting that Disney, once again, was capitulating to the worst corners of the fandom.

If you believe that Kylo Ren is meant to represent that creed of “Star Wars” fan, “The Rise of Skywalker” even seems to have a special message for them. The main villain of the new trilogy, who has committed any number of atrocities in order to gain control of the galaxy, gets a hugely unconvincing redemptive arc. (Probably because the main villain of the original trilogy got a redemptive arc.) Via a dying hero interceding, a near-death experience, and the inexplicable appearance of a ghost, Kylo changes his mind about being evil. And just like that, all is forgiven. He even gets a romantic moment, so sudden and awkward it almost becomes hilarious. It is, to say the least, horribly messy. Adam Driver is a good actor but he can't overcome the ridiculous shortcuts and unconvincing plot twists the film uses to foster this change.

While the movie's flaws are impossible to ignore, “The Rise of Skywalker” isn't without its moments. Occasionally, “Episode IX” does feature the things I actually like about “Star Wars.” In their journeys through a number of different planets – including another desert planet, which I guess there are a hundred of in the galaxy – the Resistance heroes encounter a number of neat aliens, robots, and new cultures. The highlight of which is Babu Frik, a Mowgai-sized genius engineer, who speaks in adorably clipped dialogue. There's also a super cute new robot, in the form of the amnesic and cone-headed D-0. Among the other groups encounter are tapir-nosed desert dwellers and a group of First Order deserters living as vagabonds on one of the moons of Endor. It helps that J.J. Adrams, if nothing else, is committed to using as many practical creature effects as possible.

If nothing else, the new films certainly continue to have a likable cast. Some of the sequel's best moments revolve around just watching our friends have adventures together. There's something to be said for watching Rey, Poe, Fin and C-3PO wander through a mysterious, underground tunnel. Or a daring escape from a First Order vessel. Even if the script pushes her through the most ridiculous revelations, Daisy Ridley continues to deftly mix determination and vulnerability as Rey. John Boyega and Oscar Isaacs are still obviously having a blast. It's also nice to see Billy Dee Williams, who has lost none of his inherent coolness. Sadly, the movie can only cut around the Carrie Fisher-shaped hole in its heart for so long, as the use of old footage of her digitally inserted into new scenes is obviously awkward.

And, yes, the film does feature some cool visuals and neat action sequences. The psychic link between Rey and Ren results in a number of confrontations, one of which builds into a lightsaber dual, elements from different settings bleeding into each other. Another highlight is another dual across the surface of the Death Star's wreckage, giant waves crashing along side them. These moments certainly prove more interesting than the giant space battles, which grow increasingly chaotic and same-y by the film's end. The climax even feature that modern blockbuster cliché of a blue light shining up into the sky.

Ultimately, “The Rise of Skywalker” left me exhausted in the worst way a big effects movie can. Its plot is a jumbled mess. These sort of movies are suppose to distract me from the hellscape we live in. How the film goes out of its way to turn back the clock on so many of the previous entry's elements, all in the name of placating internet trolls, reminds me of all that stupid bullshit. Yeah, there's some neat creatures, some likable performers and a handful of interesting moments. But it's not enough to make me feel any less annoyed or baffled by the movie. Instead of ending on a triumph, the Skywalker Saga ends on the most confounding of shrugs. [5/10]

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Christmas 2019: December 5th


Three Godfathers (1936)

Never let anyone tell you that Hollywood makes too many remakes or sequels nowadays. Anyone with a proper grip of cinematic history understands that the golden age of Hollywood, the thirties and forties, ran on sequels. They also know that filmmakers have been remaking other movies since pretty much the beginning of filmmaking. Some well regarded classics are, in fact, remakes. Look at John Ford's classic Christmas Western, 1948's “3 Godfathers.” That is actually the sixth film based on that story. It followed three silent versions, a sound adaptation in 1930 under a different title, and another sound version under the proper title merely six years later. Probably because I'm weird, I decided to watch that particular take on “Three Godfathers” this December.

Four outlaws ride into the South-Western town of New Jerusalem, a week before Christmas. They are the black-hearted Bob, the illiterate Gus, the scholarly but ill Doc, and troubadour Pedro. They rob the local bank, Bob senselessly killing the teller and Pedro being gunned down. The three survivors ride into the desert, on the run. At the first watering hole, they discover a sickly woman and her baby. After she dies, the three men take the child with them as they begin the long journey through the desert to the nearest town. After their horses drink from a poisoned well, they continue onward on foot.

“Three Godfathers” swings wildly between two different tones. The first half-hour is largely concerned with light-hearted humor. The character of Gus provides a lot of comic relief, especially when compared to the erudite Doc. The outlaws are invited to the town's before-Christmas feast, which includes a cute scene of Gus slicing the florets off some asparagus spears. Or the odd practices of the town dentist. Yet even this amusing, laid-back beginning has its grim touches. Such as Bob's decision to murder the bank teller, strictly because he's that big of a bastard. Earlier, he menaces an ex-girlfriend of his, who is marrying another man soon. While there's humor and Christmas atmosphere in “Three Godfathers'” first half, dark things are ahead.

This proves true after the trio head into the desert. At that point, “Three Godfathers” becomes a surprisingly grim survival drama. It seems every watering hole the men come across on their trek is poisoned. Their canteens soon run empty. The sun beats down, the film focusing on the flatness of the land and the sweat on their foreheads. The audience truly feels the heat of the desert sun, the men's growing exhaustion. “Three Godfathers” shockingly never backs away from the hopelessness of their situation. Even in this dire situation, the film finds room for moments of touching humanity. Such as when Doc, realizing the end of his life is near, asks Gus to hand him his copy of “MacBeth,” the other man unable to read the covers. Or Gus similarly awakening in the middle of the night and recite a Bible verse he recalls from his childhood.

What makes “Three Godfather” even more endearing are the likable performances at its center. Its surprising how unforgiving Chester Morris is as Bob. He makes no attempt, at first anyway, to play the character as anything but a total bastard. It takes quite a while for his heart to defrost, making his eventual redemption seem totally earned. Lewis Stone as Doc is effective at hiding his inner pain while projecting a caring and intelligent exterior. Walter Brennan, who would win an Oscar the same year for “Come and Get It,” is utterly charming as the child-like Gus. Honestly, both characters are so sweet that you wonder what they are doing hanging out with a scumbag like Bob.

“Three Godfathers'” holiday elements might seem on the margins. After all, this is probably not the holiday you associate with desert heat and Western outlaws. Yet the Christmas feast features  a man dressed as Santa, some garland, and the singing of carols. Moreover, the film's themes of forgiveness and innocence speak to the deeper meaning of the holiday. Naturally, there's a reference to the Three Wise Men as well. While the John Ford version from the next decade is more widely regarded – I guess I'll review that one next December – I have to say the 1936 take is very strong itself. It'll be hard for a remake to top its grimness and sincerity. [7/10]



Pinocchio’s Christmas (1980)

As I've mentioned before, after their iconic successes in the sixties and seventies, Rankin/Bass kept making Christmas specials. And as the eighties dawned, the company was clearly starting to run out of ideas. Which brings us to “Pinocchio's Christmas.” Carlo Lorenzini's iconic little puppet boy and his dad Geppetto are getting ready to celebrate Christmas. Pinocchio receives an arithmetic book and, disappointed, turns around and sells it to earn money to buy a gift for his dad. He soon encounters the traitorous Fox and Cat, who hoodwink the boy in various ways. A convoluted series of events follow that include Pinocchio working in a marionette show, falling in love with an inanimate puppet, fleeing into a haunted forest, meeting a talking cricket and a blue-haired fairy, being sold to a local nobleman and given to his kids as a Christmas gift, and eventually meeting Santa Claus.

As I've previously discussed, the plots for the Rankin/Bass' holiday specials are frequently bizarre, winding affairs. “Pinocchio's Christmas” makes a typically random yuletide plot even more ridiculous by attempting to also adapt Lorenzini's book. (Which had a highly episodic plot to begin with.) The result is one of the most rambling Rankin/Bass specials yet. By throwing in well-known episodes from the “Pinocchio” story – such as a villainous puppet master, two animal swindlers, and appearances from Jimminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy – in addition to a typical Christmas-y message about the power of love and gift giving, the special just becomes a series of events that are happening around to Pinocchio. There's no forward momentum to the plot at all. It's just one dumb thing after another.

Then again, criticizing a Rankin/Bass special for its lack of narrative fortitude is really a fool's errand anyway. These things have always floated by on their likable characters, catchy songs, Christmas atmosphere, and charmingly lo-fi animation. “Pinocchio's Christmas” only has that last detail covered. The stop-motion techniques Rankin/Bass employed had gotten pretty fluid by 1980, as far as these things go. Everything else sucks though. Pinocchio's characterization here is closer to the book, where he's a mischievous little asshole. The villains are especially annoying, as the simple-minded Cat speaks in a stoned mumble and the puppet master peppers his speech with annoying geological references. The Christmas elements feel largely disconnected from the living puppet premise, as Pinocchio teaching the nobleman a moral about family and Santa's appearances are shoved hastily into the back end.

The songs, however, are the most grating part of the special. All of Geppeto's numbers, which include a duet with his reflection, are hopelessly sappy. Fox and Cat's big song features, by far, the most painful melody and rhymes I've heard in any of these things. Almost none of the songs contribute to the actual plot, further adding to the meandering story. Just as the special is getting ready to end, a disco-esque number about Pinocchio teaching the toys in Santa's workshop to dance is added. In other words, this is another one strictly for Christmas completest only. I suspect Rankin/Bass was hoping to launch an on-going series of “Pinocchio” specials, as this ends with a postscript featuring other well-known events from the book. (They previously produced a stop-motion Pinocchio show in the sixties and this might've been an attempt to revive that.) [4/10]



Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas 2019: December 4th


The Nutcracker in 3D (2009)

My quest to watch the worst Christmas movie of all time continues. I've already scrutinize previous candidates for that title such as “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” – charming in its lo-fi dumbness – and “Santa Claus Meets the Ice Cream Bunny” – almost unbearable but, admittedly, an experience. Another candidate for this title emerged as recently as ten years ago. I remember reading about “The Nutcracker in 3D” when it hit theaters. The film was a passion project for director Andrei Konchalovsky, previously of “Runaway Train” and “Tango & Cash.” It received acerbic, baffled reviews and bombed hard at the box office. This reception has afforded the (otherwise totally forgotten) film a certain degree of infamy. Now I see if it's truly as bad as that reputation implies.

The film rather loosely follows the plot of E.T.A. Hoffman's “Nutcracker” fairy tale, with a number of bizarre divergences. At a family Christmas party, Mary and her little brother Max eagerly await the arrival of their beloved Uncle Albert. (Who is, in the first of the film's odd historical references, blatantly Albert Einstein.) He presents with them with an elaborate doll house full of wind-up automatons and a humble nutcracker. That night, the Nutcracker springs to life. He reveals to Mary that he's actually a prince from a magical land populated by fairies and toys. The fascist Rat King has taken over the kingdom and transformed the prince into a nutcracker. Soon, both siblings as well as their uncle are pulled along into a wild adventure to stop the Rat King.

The first half-hour or so of “The Nutcracker” plays out like a relatively normal holiday fantasy flick. Do not be deceived. With the introduction of the Rat King, the film takes a hard turn into weirdness. Konchalovsky visually patterns the Rats – humanoid save for their noses – after Nazis. They firebomb the Toy Kingdom from steam-punk jet packs, ride on motorcycles with mounted machine guns, and hunt people with robot rats the size of dobermans. The Rat King electrocutes a shark to death, which leads to a most unexpected homage to Damian Hirst. At another point, he casually tears a character's head off. His mom, the Rat Queen, is introduced wearing frilly underwear. A truly horrifying touch has the rat people's faces expanding into a more accurate rodent-like maws. The plot eventually stretches to involve a magic mirror that can transverse dimensions, a humanoid chimpanzee, a break dancing drummer, and a giant toy-incinerating factory.

Yet for all the inappropriate historical references, horrifying visuals, and weird bullshit Konchalovsky adds to this story, his “Nutcracker” is still a cheesy family movie. In addition to everything else that happens, the film also includes a trite moral about Mary's father learning to appreciate the magic of childhood again. The Nutcracker provides a lot of wacky slapstick. After Max accidentally breaks the doll, the Rat King tries to recruit him, dragging him to a massive toy-burning bonfire. (Yes, really.) Max and Mary eventually learn a lesson about forgiveness. Even later, the seemingly dead Nutcracker is wished back to life via the power of belief. Tim Rice was also somehow roped into providing a few songs, all of which are totally forgettable and rather poorly inserted into the film.

Obviously, “The Nutcracker” wanted to be a star-studded event. Yet, probably owing to it being totally psychotic, the script didn't attract many high-profile actors. Thus, the producers were left with some unexpected stunt casting. Nathan Lane plays Albert Einstein. The comedian's schtick is a rough fit for the famous historical figure and he quite literally winks at the camera several times. John Turturro, wearing a Nehru jacket and a fright wing, plays the Rat King. Turturro goes wildly over-the-top, shrieking and gesticulating throughout. Squeaky Shirley Henderson shrieks her way through the movie as the Nutcracker's voice. On the more muted end is Richard E. Grant as Mary's dad, his first of two appearances in hugely misguided “Nutcracker” adaptations. Elle Fanning is as studious and serious as ever as Mary, giving a genuinely good performance in a film that in no way calls for it.

Konchalovsky is obviously enamored of the movie's special effects and 3D photography. The movie is loaded with elaborate costumes, expansive sets, and mediocre CGI. During the various chase scenes, flying sequences, or moments of combat, stuff is thrust directly into the viewer's eye. I watched the movie flat, so I didn't really get the full effect here. Though it has its long tedious stretches, I'm still surprised more people don't talk about “The Nutcracker in 3D.” Likely to frighten children with its bizarre plot, grim imagery, and freaky visuals, the film is too utterly demented not to be embraced by cult movie fans. Trash cinema devotees will probably do right by adding this bit of kiddie movie weirdness to their holiday marathons. [6/10]


The Angry Video Game Nerd: Winter Games

James Rolfe's fowl-mouthed video game review series has been going for so long that his third Christmas special, covering the NES port of Olympic sporting game “Winter Games,” was released nearly ten whole years ago. While wearing a spiffy looking Atari jacket, the Nerd delivers his grievances about this particular video game. He largely focuses on the bizarre controls, which come across as needlessly cryptic and ineffective. His increasingly enraged and baffled reaction leads to some amusing lines of dialogue: “Was this game designed for monkeys?” and a rambling monologue that concludes with “You push buttons” being two examples.

And, yes, watching the Nerd looses his shit at a shitty video game is fun. His breakdown of the character name screen leads to a decent pay-off. His reaction to the “Winter Games'” screeching musical score or the bizarrely constructed bobsled game, which from vulgar bafflement to dry sarcasm, both made me laugh. The episode concludes with a wonderfully edited sequence, matter-of-factly depicting the Nerd repeatedly destroying the game cartage in a number of low-fi ways. The final image here – “Burn, motherfucker, burn!” – is one I think about and quote quite frequently.

However, the secret strength of Rolfe's creation has always been its potential for absurd digression. We see this in his highly imaginative use of profanity and the occasional oddball reaction to the game's weird design choice. The “Winter Games” designers decided to name the ski jump portion of the game “Hot Dog Aerials,” leading the Nerd to imagine more literal depictions of this event. This is also unquestionably a Christmas episode, as it begins with the Angry Nerd delivering a short rant to the people who always bitch about “Happy Holidays” every December. Truly, episodes like this ensure we can all have a Happy Shut-the-Fuck-Up. [7/10]