Nightcrawler (2014)

Nightcrawler (2014) movie poster

director Dan Gilroy
viewed: 03/25/2015

Longtime screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut, Nightcrawler, is a glimpse into another seedy underbelly of Los Angeles.  Through the character of a cypher named Lou, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, we see the city’s nightlife and the gruesome toll of traffic, crime, and human misery.

Starting as a minor criminal with hopes of something more, Lou discovers the racket that is ambulance-chasing cameramen, those who get the video that leads because it has bled, a callous uncaring for the reality that the camera captures, Lou sees this opportunity as a path to corporate success.  He buys himself some cheap equipment and pushes himself into the scene as a freelance cameraman peddling to LA’s lowest rungs of television news, finding a willing partner and accomplice in Nina (Rene Russo), a producer willing to push the boundaries of good taste.

It’s a psychological affair.  And a creepy one too.  And beautifully shot and well-conceived.

Lou is both a budding filmmaker (an artist!) but more than that, he’s a budding businessman.  He quickly hires on a lackey, spewing fake corporate mumbo jumbo at him as if he truly runs a major corporation with real human resources and a ladder to climb.  Lou is self-made though he’s still in the midst of that construction.  He’s not one to quibble if he has to rearrange a crime scene to make it more dramatic, nor is he unwilling to cross into crime scenes to capture gory images without police consent, or even unwilling to orchestrate a brutal and bloody crime scene of his own doing.  He’s as American as apple pie, a corporate climber, a man of industry.

And dark.  Heartless, ruthless, and utterly amoral.

If anything, Lou’s cypher-like persona reads odd to me only because he’s a man in his thirties.  In some ways, if the character was played by someone younger, his gross naivitee and rapid assimilation of information and adaptation to the games would make more sense.  As a man in his thirties, I wonder what he’s been up to all this time before and the hole of a backstory seems more problematic.

As my only real complaint, I’ll leave it at that.  Pretty good movie overall.

A Cat in the Brain (1990)

A Cat in the Brain (1990) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 03/20/2015

Lucio Fulci’s A Cat in the Brain is a strange and interesting mess of a film.  Compiled somehow by Fulci from pieces of other films he had made, he features himself in a starring role as a horror film director whose work is getting to him.

Shooting limbs getting sawed off and blood spurting and heads rolling eventually leads the filmic Fulci to hysterical hallucinations and delusions of real-world gore.  He takes himself to a local psychiatrist to try to cope with the visions, but unfortunately for him, his psychiatrist is a closeted killer himself, who hypnotizes Fulci into believing his visions are real and goes on to commit crimes that Fulci also comes to believe that he has committed.

Considered by some to be the “maestro of gore’s” Fellini-esque 8 1/2 (1963), it’s an odd and still very gory self-reflection of potential real trauma.  Did Fulci really have such visions?  It would be easy enough to imagine.  I had a job in a deli as a meat slicer one summer and dreamed of my hands constantly slicing through fresh and sinew.

Sadly, it’s a kinda crappy movie ultimately, made in Fulci’s later years when he was facing poverty and obscurity.   You feel the sincerity but the quality just slacks off.  The ending exemplifies this in that the capture of the killer is all off-screen in a rather unusual unfolding of climax into anti-climax.  Possibly some compromises led to this?

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

The Deadly Spawn (1983) movie poster

director Douglas McKeown
viewed: 03/18/2015

Charmingly DIY, The Deadly Spawn is a 1983 horror film made on the cheap with wonderful quirkiness and excellent low-budget practical FX.

It all starts with some leech-like alien spores brought to Earth via meteorites.  They attack campers and then hole up in a house and feast upon a family.  Luckily for the human race, there is a kid who is super-steeped in science fiction and horror films of the classic ilk and ultimately he figures it out.

The creature effects and the camerawork are the best things about this odd little gem.  For a film that doesn’t feel like it had much of a budget, these qualities are actually pretty surprising, clever, and interesting.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994) movie poster

director Frank Darabont
viewed: 03/13/2015

1994’s The Shawshank Redemption has gone on to become one of the most popular and beloved movies “of all time.”  I put that in quotes simply because any present day list of best movies “of all time” tends to focus on movies that have come out within its generation rather than actually having any sense of perspective “of all time,” even though “all time” would actually extend back about 100 years for motion pictures.

Shawhank‘s popularity is notable.  If you are interested, I recommend reading Vanity Fair’s article on the subject, “The Little-Known Story of How The Shawshank Redemption Became One of the Most Beloved Films of All Time”, in case you think I’m projecting its popularity on it.

For my money, it’s a good film.  Morgan Freeman’s voice-over narration has become a point of parody 20 years out, but his voice and cadence have that lulling comforting Americana almost totally perfected.  For a film shot by notable cinematographer Roger Deakins, it’s a capable but not fantastically beautiful.

For my money, Shawshank is a 7 out of 10. A good film.  A solid film.  A likable film.  I have absolutely nothing against it.  Other than it’s the #1 highest rated film on imdb (oddly enough, right up there with two other movies that I consider oddly over-rated in the American film canon, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), heretical as that is to say.)

This viewing we watched because my son Felix was wanting to see it, recommended as a favorite to him from a number of various people.  I hadn’t seen the film myself since it first came onto home media (I don’t think I saw it in the theater at the time, nor had I seen it since.)  And he liked it pretty well.  As did Clara.  What’s not to like?  It’s kinda long Felix noted (142 minutes).

It’s a good movie, I would say, not a great one.  But that’s just me.

Fury (2014)

Fury (2014) movie poster

director David Ayer
viewed: 03/11/2015

Fury is the first film from David Ayer that isn’t set in today’s greater Los Angeles and focused upon the cops and criminals therein.  It’s a WWII picture, starring Brad Pitt, last seeing “killing Nazis” in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).  Here Pitt is “killing Nazis” yet again, though this time not with some elite group of revenge-seeking killers but with a Sherman tank and a crew pushing deep into Germany in the final months of the battle.

For all the movies made about WWII, it does seem to opt for a somewhat unique perspective, set in the confines of the war machine and in the brutal final months of a massive war, deep within the fighting, not knowing that the end is actually so near.  The Germans they encounter fight and kill with a passion and vitriol that could be desperate but is lethal and raging.  Men march and roll toward their deaths and the deaths of many others under the weight of survival and righteousness.

Ayer’s heroes are indeed heroes, fighting the good fight by killing Nazis.  Brad Pitt’s character Wardaddy sums up the perspective on this war: “I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Then France. Then Belgium. Now I’m killing Germans in Germany. It will end, soon. But before it does, a lot more people gotta die.”

The Germans are the bad guys.  Nazi Germans and SS, in particular.  Americans are the undisputed good guys.  Killing a suspected SS soldier, a prisoner of war, in cold blood?  That’s what you do.  That is the lesson to be learned by newcomer Norman (Logan Lerman) who comes to replace the tank team’s recently killed compadre.  It may seem brutal, but it’s right.

And Nazis die in big numbers here.  It’s oddly unambiguous.

Ayer’s other films about cops and criminals tend to focus on the hazy lines between right and wrong and righteousness.  I’ve never spent a lot of time poring over it, but I always took it to suggest that good and bad are not purely codified in either side of the law, nor even within the individual.  This seems to be a running theme in his films.  People do good and bad, no matter what side they seem to be on.

I guess, unless they are Nazis.

It was, perhaps, the last war in which right and wrong seemed so utterly clear and doubtless.  Still, I guess I was surprised how doubtless and certain the morality of Fury seemed.

Interestingly, it’s been a pretty successful commercial film.  It’s brutal and gory but also rather beautifully shot.  Its characters are not perhaps utter cliches but for all their intensity and acting aren’t anything new.  Is it the film’s lack of ambiguity that has made it so successful?  I don’t know.

Railroaded! (1947)

Railroaded! (1947) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 03/10/2015

Railroaded! is a nifty noir from director Anthony Mann with effective cinematography from collaborator John Alton.   Clocking in at only 72 minutes, this is a deft and defining genre and style picture.

There is a blithe simplicity to this story and set-up to this story about a young kid that gets framed for the killing of a cop by some callous crooks.  That simplicity belies what lies beneath this picture of crime, killers, cops, and the average citizen.  What’s odd and interesting is that the story isn’t focused on the kid who becomes the fall guy for the killer, but rather on his sister (Sheila Ryan) who wants to prove him innocent to the detective on the case (Hugh Beaumont).  Only the killer (John Ireland) is a pretty wily fella, only too willing to kill others to keep his secret.

The opening robbery sequence is a keen highlight, but so is the ending shoot-out.  This is a solid little film.

Anthony Mann continues to impress.

Chappie (2015)

Chappie (2015) movie poster

director Neill Blomkamp
viewed: 03/08/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Parts Robocop (1987) and parts A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), filtered through a South African lens by director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp, Chappie is a frustratingly mixed bag of qualities and short-comings.

The biggest plus of the movie is its featuring South African rap stars Ninja and Yolandi Visser from Die Antwoord, though more so Yolandi, the strangely-coiffed, oddly-voiced pixie-woman who is both gangster and mother to the robot boy, Chappie.  Though Ninja’s own odd mullet, echoing early 1980’s Joe Strummer, and his lanky tattooed gangster persona is also something interesting.  And Chappie himself, a CGi robot, acted by motion capture by Blomkamp’s standby Sharlto Copley, is also quite effective.

Either South Africa is the haven of mullets or at least that is how Blomkamp sees it because almost everybody here seems to hate bangs and sideburns, but likes to keep it long in the back (in case a party breaks out).  Sorry, some of these observations are a little more off-the-cuff than others.

Really, the film’s problems are in the forced terseness of the story.  Chappie is a robocop with a new artificial intelligence chip plugged in and then is meant to be a bit like a newborn baby or perhaps a primate in his intellect.  Why he is not already programmed to understand English makes no sense (other than they want to do a scene where he doesn’t understand English) because he moves through learning curves in super-illogical ways.  Dev Patel, who is Chappie’s creator, essentially tells him, “Don’t do crimes!” a mantra that Chappie adheres to while learning the gangster life from Yolandi and Ninja.

The improbability problem is rife throughout the film for narrative conveniences that ultimately were very off-putting.  I was reminded of the power of Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, whose emotional heart is keyed into believing in this robot boy suddenly achieving consciousness because Chappie strives for a similar fairy tale quality in a more rough-and-tumble SA tough guy world and just fails and fails hard.

And yet it’s likable.  Now, several days out from having watched it, I’m still more annoyed by the niggling shortcomings of the story than charmed by the characters or the inventiveness.   I guess it’s aging already rather poorly in my mind.  I didn’t find it terrible at the time.  The kids had been keen to see it and liked it okay.  But I was definitely disappointed.

It’s probably apropos to compare it to Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) with the Johannesburg settings and Robocop dystopia.  But so many things made it feel less visionary and more just dumb.  One thought that also crossed my mind was that the big tank robots crafted by Hugh Jackman’s character should have proved more popular given the way that urban police forces in America have taken to over-arming themselves with more military grade technology than necessary.  It actually felt like the wrong bell was rung when he gets shot down by the police association for suggesting ground to air missiles in contrast to the humanoid robo-cops that have already proven successful.

Science fiction is often as about the present as the future, but it was this sort of lack of vision and ingenuity that made it seem less and less sophisticated than it really strove to be.

It’s funny, this post has turned more negative than I had intended.  But I guess that’s where my brain has been lingering since we saw it on Sunday.  It was disappointing.

So now as excited as I might have been about Blomkamp’s coming Alien (1979) revitalization, I’m left to wonder if he’s really got the ability to make something truly worthwhile.

And another thing, in a movie set in South Africa, why were there no “people of color” in any significant roles?  I’m not the kind to focus on these types of issues generally, but there was even an American Latino character in the main gang but not a native black African?  Weird stuff.

Weekend at Bernie’s (1989)

Weekend at Bernie's (1989) movie poster

director Ted Kotcheff
viewed: 03/07/2015

Clocking in with only 52% at Rotten Tomatoes and moderately better at IMDb with 62% positive ratings, 1989’s Weekend at Bernie’s might not qualify in everyone’s book at a comedy classic.  Those meager estimations are partial testament to why I don’t endorse those site’s rating systems too much.  But as Google pulls those stats on its results pages at present, they would be one of the average person’s first assessments of the 26 year old comedy about “two schmucks” who try to ingratiate themselves with their boss by exposing corporate malfeasance only to become potential patsies of the corrupt titular Bernie Lomax (Terry Kiser).

I’ve always liked Weekend at Bernie’s.  I don’t think I saw it when it was first in the theaters but rather on VHS or cable in the immediate aftermath, and I liked it pretty well from the very get-go.  I couldn’t tell you the last time that I’d seen it in part or in whole, but somehow, scanning the reaches of my movie-watching brain for movies that my kids might like, something triggered, and I queued it up.

The story of two low corporate cogs on vacation for Labor Day weekend with their sleazy, rich boss who is setting them up to be killed, only to find him whacked already, maybe isn’t the first thing one might think of a kid-friendly fare.  In fact, I’ve proven twice already in this post how hard it is to summarize simply in a sentence or two — even though it’s actually a pretty simple conceit that leads to rampant sight gags and slapstick humor.  These two schmucks, Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy (never better, really), have to run around with a corpse all weekend, trying to pretend Bernie is still alive for a spate of oddball reasons.

It’s directed by Ted Kotcheff, a strange and varied director, who really only came to my attention a few years back when I happened to watch his brilliant Australian nightmare film Wake in Fright (1971) (which I can never recommend enough).  He has also directed such notable flicks as North Dallas Forty (1979) and First Blood (1982), the first Rambo movie.  His comic timing and efficacy with characters isn’t showy in the least.  You’re not drawn to wonder about who made Weekend at Bernie’s, you’re just along for the ride, which in a lot of ways, is why the movie is so funny and effective.

Shot in parts in late 1980’s Manhattan and various coastal spots in North Carolina filling in for some fictional New York getaway, aspects of the film have always stuck with me, like the New York summer that McCarthy and Silverman’s characters are suffering working through before the “weekend” begins.  McCarthy is particularly hilarious as the shlubby slob next to Silverman’s tidy button-up wimp.  And Kiser is fantastic in his establishing scenes as the sleazy boss and later as the inescapable corpse.  Also have to mention Don Calfa as Paulie, the hit man who keeps having to come back to off the seemingly deathless Bernie.

It may not be a classic at the level of His Girl Friday (1940) or Bringing Up Baby (1938), but it is funny.  In fact, I think it is probably one of the funniest of its era.

And I’ll tell you, Felix and Clara both loved it.  They thought it was hilarious.  So points to me for picking it out for them.

The title sequence is so cheap that it looks like a television show intro of the time.  You can kind of see that this was a sort of B picture comedy, one that out-performed itself as a cult hit once it got to video and cable.  They even made a sequel three years later, which I’ll admit that I’ve never seen, though seems to have some aspects of its own cult legacies.

It’s very funny, well-cast, with some great performances.  Really, maybe it should be better respected as a classic.  It’s old enough now.

Tusk (2014)

Tusk (2014) movie poster

director Kevin Smith
viewed: 03/04/2015

I last found myself swearing off Kevin Smith movies again after watching Red State (2011).  And I also had a similar feeling about star Justin Long (last criticized by me in After.Life (2009).  So why then did I find myself intrigued by a Kevin Smith movie starring Justin Long as a guy abducted by a psychopath and surgically transformed into a human walrus?

Okay, it must have been that walrus thing.  Maybe the concept would have intrigued me more if it hadn’t come from Smith, but intrigue me it did.  And seeing Long subjected to indignities seemed like a better use of Long than otherwise.  Still, I had my doubts.  I should know better by now.

The thing is, I actually liked this movie.  It’s not great, don’t get me wrong, parts of it are lumpy and crap, but parts of it are strong and weird and compelling.  Michael Parks is brilliant as the demented loner serial killer with a penchant for human walruses, and Smith actually gives him dialogue that really sings at times, quoting poetry and spinning yarns of dubious merit.  He’s quite brilliant in it.

And then there is Johnny Depp.  In effective make-up, Depp appears as Guy Lapointe, a shabby, funny Québécois detective on the trail of the walrus-obsessed killer.  Oddly, Depp isn’t credited in the film, rather Lapointe is credited as Lapointe, but it’s Depp and he’s really quite a funny character.  The only two times that I laughed in the film were at his lines and delivery.  I even thought he would be a good character to see in other films.

Well, lo and behold, Tusk is the first of a three-part Canadian-themed horror trilogy that Smith has envisioned, apparently each featuring Depp/Lapointe.

The film also features a moderately-sized role for Haley Joel Osment, now an adult, quite a far cry from his gentle intensity that he brought as an amazing child actor.

I watched Smith in an accompanying interview on the DVD after the film, just to get more background on the story-development/making of the film.  I came to realize that I don’t really care for him personally.

But I will say, that this might be his best film.  I know, Dogma (1999) was his most successful of his early work, but I’ve never really liked any of his movies.  Tusk is weird enough alone to be kind of interesting.  Michael Parks’ performance elevates the film.  And Depp’s Lapointe offers further quirky amusements.  The long and the short of it is just that I was really surprised that I enjoyed it at all, much less that I actually enjoyed it pretty well.  I don’t know what else Smith has up his copious hockey-styled sleeves for the next two parts but if he can find what he found in Tusk, who knows?  Maybe I’ll have to change my tune on him.

Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010)


Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore (2010) DVD Cover

directors Frank Henenlotter, Jimmy Maslon
viewed: 03/01/2015

Since I first read about it back in 2010, I was pretty keen to see Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore.  I’m typically up for documentaries about the more obscure and unusual of filmmakers, especially ones with such significant cult classics to their names, and even more so of ones about whom I only know so much.  I had it hopefully waiting in my Netflix queue, in the section called “Saved” for movies that they didn’t have on DVD and often had not timetable for acquiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it become available on Full Moon Streaming and somehow even more surprised that it was co-directed by Frank Henenlotter.  Or maybe just that it was directed by Henenlotter and that I for some reason hadn’t realized it.

Actually, it’s a predecessor akin to Henenlotter’s That’s Sexploitation! (2013), which makes a lot of sense.  Henenlotter, along with Mike Vraney and others founded Something Weird video back in the 1980’s, collecting tons of cult nudies and other exploitation films, named after one of Lewis’s flicks and featuring Lewis’ oeuvre as part of their core catalog.  Somewhere along the line Henenlotter and crew must have realized that Lewis and one-time partner and produced David F. Friedman weren’t getting any younger and that no one else was interviewing them about their history in the exploitation biz and that they might as well go ahead and make the documentary themselves.

Friedman has since passed away, but shows up both here and in That’s Sexploitation!, talking about the heady days of nudie cuties and the advent of the splatter movie, the concoction of Lewis and Friedman in the form of Blood Feast (1963) and several others.

The Godfather of Gore is a better doc than That’s Sexploitation!, in part because its focus is keener and it’s got Lewis himself talking through the shoots and experiences of making his famous “Gore” series, nudist films, and strange gamut of filmmaking innovations and practices.  You’ve even got John Waters on hand to pay homage to Lewis and field his always witty perspectives on the films.  Henenlotter and Maslon also venture back to some scenes of the crimes, taking Friendman and Lewis to the town where they filmed Lewis’s personal favorite film, Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) along with cast and crew.

What’s most funny to me is my own sense of Lewis and his movies when I first saw them as a teen.  I didn’t know anything really about them other than their legendary status and cult influence.  They seemed cheap and campy to me (which they are) but I wasn’t able to fully appreciate them for that back then.  I had no idea that they’d been filmed in Florida, where I grew up and lived at the time I first saw them.  And I didn’t know who Lewis really was, the intelligent, funny, free-wheeling character that he is and was.

It’s funny too that this legend of cult splatter horror films is also a legend in the direct marketing business, a world he conquered after leaving movies in the 1970’s.  It’s a testament to his bootstrapping cleverness, if perhaps a far cry from his goriest moments and cinematic perversities.  I’m glad Henenlotter and team had the wherewithal to record these folks while they could, capturing some of the oral histories of the wild days of exploitation and the strange, carnival spirit of the men.