Polter-Cow (spectralbovine) wrote,
Polter-Cow
spectralbovine

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Pandemic Panic

And so the Beforetimes came to an end and I decided to throw myself into watching a shitload of movies. So many theme weeks, starting with a week of KOREAN REVENGE THRILLERS!

Kung Fu Hustle: I always thought Kung Fu Hustle looked silly and stupid, but apparently it's very well regarded, so I gave it a try, and...I just could not get on its wavelength. Perhaps because I'm not a wuxia connoisseur, as Stephen Chow has clearly made a loving homage/spoof of classic Chinese martial arts films. Like the best spoofs, it tries to be a legitimate version of what it's making jokes about, with traditional Chinese music and straight-faced cinematography, but that tonal disconnect did not work for me, as I could never tell how serious I was supposed to be taking things. Well, not "never"—obviously the excellent gags about challengers in a crowd not being what they seemed and the ridiculous Looney Tunes chase scene are supposed to be funny. But it took me a long time to figure out who the main character was supposed to be and then what the main story was supposed to be, and it certainly didn't help that I was sleepy, but eventually I had no idea what was going on or why I should care, but there was some cool fighting? Without clear storytelling or cohesive comedic sensibility, I was left unmoored. While I enjoyed bits of the movie, I just didn't...get it most of the time, like I wasn't in on the joke. B

Jacob's Ladder: I've wanted to watch Jacob's Ladder for years because it always seemed like A VERY SCARY MOVIE when I was a kid, and I am irritated that I managed to somehow remain unspoiled for most of my life until, like, the last year when I kept getting repeatedly spoiled. So while that did slightly mar my viewing experience, it did not ruin it, largely because Adrian Lyne only made one horror film but goddamn was he ever good at it. Even in the opening sequence that depicts a horrific attack during the Vietnam War, it's clear Lyne—working with cinematographer Jeffrey L. Kimball and editor Tom Rolf—knows how to pummel the viewer with that visceral nyeeeerrrrgggghhhh, and it's cranked up in Tim Robbins's hallucinations years later. Jesus, the dance floor scene. Holy crap, the hospital sequence. Lyne somehow manages to shock with subtlety AND bluntness as Robbins tries to figure out why he's seeing demons everywhere, and the constant shifts between "real" and "not real" start to make the viewer call into question what level of reality they may be seeing at any given time. I appreciate that it works as both a horror film and a Vietnam War film (war is hell, after all), though I'm not quite sure how much depth it has by the end. Yet it's a wonderfully unsettling experience, and holy shit, is that Macaulay Culkin?? Yes, that is Macaulay Culkin. B+

The Breaker Upperers: I heard nothing but good things about The Breaker Upperers, and I am here to also say good things about The Breaker Upperers, the delightful Kiwi komedy written by, directed by, and starring Jackie van Beek and Madeleine Sami. The premise is so brilliant I'm surprised it's never been done before, a reversal of the typical matchmaking rom-com story with two friends who get paid to break up couples. They fake deaths, they fake adultery, they just deliver the bad news in person, anything to help people avoid having a mature and difficult conversation. They're an odd couple, van Beek the mean one and Sami the nice one, and soon they're at odds themselves. The script weaves together a couple cases gone awry with their own story, and it's kind of astonishing that it gets everything done in under ninety minutes. It's amusing throughout with several big laughs as well; it's produced by Taika Waititi—and also stars Boy from Boy, now a Teen!—so if you enjoy that dry New Zealand humor that offers lines like "She's delicate like a delicate flower, but she's also persuasive like a persuasive...flower," then you'll like this. Plus it's got some wonderful musical moments and a half-Indian/half-Irish woman (she's a curry potato!) singing Celine Dion. B+

McCabe & Mrs. Miller: I knew McCabe & Mrs. Miller was considered essential viewing for Deadwood fans, but, wow, Robert Altman's classic revisionist Western is so clearly the inspiration for Deadwood I found it comforting and familiar, like it was some sort of lost AU Deadwood episode. It still took me some time to find my footing in this world with its Leonard Cohen songs and its incidental dialogue (I eventually turned on subtitles because it was so hard to hear what the hell anyone was mumbling while someone else was mumbling), but I could tell Warren Beatty's McCabe was an Al Swearengen type, strolling into town and quickly becoming the top dog as a small businessman who begins building a saloon. When Julie Christie's Mrs. Miller enters the picture, however, the movie really comes alive and it becomes apparent McCabe is only playing at being the top dog because she's the one with all the business acumen. Yet despite the title, the movie isn't totally focused on the story of McCabe and Mrs. Miller; it flits around to various townspeople as well even though no one emerges with anything close to parity. It's like a hybrid of an Altman ensemble film like Nashville or Gosford Park and an Altman character-focused film like 3 Women. I liked the story of frontier capitalism, with a small businessman fighting a big company, and how it was mirrored by the theme of individual vs. community, both of which figure into the climactic final scenes. But most of all I just really enjoyed the character of McCabe, a man trying to be more than he actually is, a sly subversion of the typical Western gunslinger hero. This movie is pretty funny whenever it takes the piss out of him. B+

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance: I loved Oldboy back in the day but only just now got around to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a slow burn black comedy of errors masquerading as an "action thriller" (Wikipedia, what will you think of next). Shin Ha-kyun is a deaf man whose sister needs a kidney transplant, and when he gets fleeced by unscrupulous organ dealers, his girlfriend, Doona Bae, cooks up a plan to kidnap Song Kang-ho's daughter. Things...go awry. Shin and Bae are very cute together, but oh gosh the script by Park Chan-wook, Lee Jae-soon, Lee Moo-young, and Lee Yong-jong does not care how cute they are because it just wants to cause trouble. It's kinda fun and horrifying to watch the chain reaction throughout the film as a cycle of vengeance kicks off and gives Song Kang-ho a more prominent role. Park Chan-wook saves the brutal violence for the second half, and he's not shy with the gore. The camera makes Park's POV seem detached, with many top-down shots like a God's-eye-view, as if he's just watching and shaking his head. Anyway this movie is basically a plea for universal healthcare since none of this would have happened if the kidney transplant didn't cost so much. B+

Oldboy: I remember being blown away by Oldboy over a decade ago, and I decided to revisit it as I make my way through Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy. While it's true that it can never affect you the same way as the first time if you know the ending, it's still a dazzling display of filmmaking craft, especially compared to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The premise—a man is inexplicably imprisoned for 15 years and then just as inexplicably released—is inherently compelling, and luckily I'd at least forgotten the details of the mystery and its investigation (apart from that that iconic hallway fight, obvs), so watching Oh Dae-su and Mi-do work together to figure out what the hell is going on is a treat. The script by Park Chan-wook, Hwang Jo-yun, and Lim Jun-hyung is deliciously, gut-wrenchingly twisty, but its exploration of guilt, revenge, and human cruelty has a lot more meat than you'd expect a film known for a man eating a live octopus to have. This is not a brutal, provocative film that's fucked up for the sake of shock value. Well, at least not entirely for shock value. But Choi Min-sik's harrowing, soulful performance and Cho Young-wuk's operatic score make this film an exquisite vengeance tale that leaves the viewer dazed by the end. A-

Lady Vengeance: I capped off Park Chan-wook's Vengeance Trilogy with Lady Vengeance, which, despite the hype from my friends, ended up being my least favorite of the three. The premise is solid, and—coincidentally or not—it's a hybrid of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, with a woman being released from prison after over 13 years, having taken the fall for a child kidnapping and murder. (Plus it features a small role for Song Kang-ho and a large role for Choi Min-sik, further tying all three films together.) Lee Young-ae makes this whole movie work as "Kind-Hearted Geum-ja," who is more cold-hearted than her angelic appearance would suggest. While I enjoyed the first half's focus on her various cellmates in prison and out of prison, I got so lost trying to follow the story as it jumped back and forth, and I couldn't get a hang of her master plan buried underneath all these other women's stories. But the more linear second half settled into a sobering, fucked up story of the emotional cost of vengeance (and seemed to pay homage to Agatha Christie), so I came out with mostly positive feelings thanks to the thematic underpinnings, the striking visual style, and that baroque score. This is probably the most emotionally mature, contemplative film of the three, so I can understand why some consider it the best, but the other two were more up my alley. It was interesting to see how distinct each film actually is, despite the recurring vengeance plot! B/B+

Easy Rider: I never had any interest in Easy Rider, but I finally became intrigued enough by its lauded reputation to give it a shot since at least it was only 95 minutes...that I could have spent watching literally anything else. This movie is just 95 minutes of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding motorcycles across America and doing drugs and saying things are "groovy" because it's the seventies, man. Gosh, this movie is so fucking seventies! Especially that soundtrack, which certainly sets the mood, along with all those shots of the Southwest whizzing by. But not that horrendous rendition of "Does Your Hair Hang Low?" that hurt my ears, or that horrendous editing back and forth between scenes as a transition that hurt my eyes. Apparently I do not give a flying fuck about seventies counterculture because I didn't care about anything in this movie and then that fucking ending made it all seem pretty fucking pointless. Easy Rider reminds me why I assume I won't like classic, influential films. B-

I Saw the Devil: I did not see the Devil, but I saw I Saw the Devil...through half-closed eyes a lot of the time because Jesus fucking Christ, what a brutal goddamn movie. The setup is the stuff of classic revenge thrillers—Choi Min-sik kills Lee Byung-hun's fiancée and Lee vows...revenge—but writer Park Hoon-jung and director Kim Jee-woon are here to take you on a RIDE. Because the psychopathic serial killer is a straight-up monster, performing horrific acts of violence on strangers (mostly women), but the cop pursuing him? A-also a monster?! That's what revenge does to you, man; this is the lesson of basically all revenge thrillers. You will be shocked at how much head trauma a person can survive! Even at nearly two-and-a-half hours, it never flags, especially since the cat-and-mouse game really heats up in the second half, which pulls off the astonishing feat of...almost making you feel sorry for the torture the horrible rapist-murderer is being put through?? It's fun! (?) It doesn't quite pull off a satisfying character arc for Lee Byung-hun, who just goes straight from "lovey-dovey dude" to "LET'S FUCK UP ANYONE RRWWAAARGGGHH," but Choi Min-sik, who was so good in Oldboy, is also excellent here (and practically unrecognizable clean-shaven). Man, this movie is fucked up. B+

The Man from Nowhere: I first heard of The Man from Nowhere when it appeared as a frequent recommendation after everyone wanted to watch more Korean films following Parasite's Best Picture win. Thus, I came at with the expectation that it would be, like, a Good Movie. Instead it turned out to be a...decent popcorn movie? Especially following I Saw the Devil, which came out the same year, this movie feels super generic, a collection of tropes that parades around thinking it's cool and stylish and powerful (listen to that dramatic music!). And, sure, Won Bin does look pretty cool (and hot), and the bond he forms with a little girl is cute and mildly affecting, but honestly I was kinda done with this movie ten minutes in when said girl's mother ACCUSES HIM OF BEING A CHILD MOLESTER...and then tells him to ask her out, he's easy on the eyes, she'd date him. What the fuck. I might understand this movie's reputation if it had exceptional action scenes, but they, like everything else about this movie, are simply...fine. There's a cool explosion, a pretty badass climactic fight scene, a nice bit with bulletproof glass—but none of it's really worth watching the whole movie for. I couldn't follow the whole gangster drug lord plot at all, and I did not care about any of it, but I did like the scenes between this badass killer and this cute little girl. Even if I did not care nearly as much about them as the movie wanted me to, largely because the titular man from titular nowhere is kind of a cypher of a character with a dead wife. But hey, this movie's got a vial of eyes, so there's that. B

The Villainess: I closed out my week of Korean revenge thrillers with The Villainess, which HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS, the action scenes in this movie FUCKING SLAP, why is everyone not talking about this movie. It opens with a bonkers eight-minute sequence that begins first-person before gloriously shifting to third-person as Kim Ok-vin slices and dices her way through an entire fucking gang all by herself, the camera spinning and swerving in time with the mayhem. Director Jung Byung-gil and cinematographer Park Jung-hun put the audience right in the thick of it, and every camera movement is precise, even if rapid; lesser filmmakers attempting to pull this off would simply create incoherence. Instead, it's fucking thrilling. There are multiple incredible action setpieces, like a motorcycle swordfight two years before John Wick: Chapter 3 did it and a wild fucking climax that made me think of The Raid. While the action is no doubt the selling point, the story of this woman seeking revenge on the man who murdered her father and getting recruited to be a government assassin is solid, if hard to follow thanks to the non-linear structure that will just throw flashback after flashback at you, sometimes flashbacks WITHIN flashbacks, so that I couldn't quite get a grasp on the big picture and what certain characters' motivations were. And there is some good character work here, plus a very cute chubby child. This movie looks great, it's got a bangin' soundtrack, and at one point the main character drives a car while sitting on the hood, to which she has secured herself with an ax. It's badass fun. B+

First Love: I heard First Love was a wildly entertaining Tarantino-esque crime thriller/romance, and I...do not know what movie other people saw because I just could not get into this one, sadly. I appreciated the strange mix of genres and tones Takashi Miike throws into this film, but sometimes that kind of hybrid clicks with me and sometimes it doesn't. There's a cute conceit here, in that a heavy amount of screentime goes to a bunch of Yakuza drug shenanigans, complete with decapitations and explosions, but the actual story is about a boxer just diagnosed with a brain tumor and a sex worker haunted by her abusive father who cross paths on this wild night and have a romance or something. The problem is I just...didn't care about the Yakuza shenanigans, which were hard to follow, and I wanted to care more about these two sweet, innocent characters caught up in the middle of it. It takes a long time for the threads to intertwine, and I just wasn't very engaged, and then halfway through a gangster punches an old lady in the face, and I laughed, so maybe the second half would actually be funny? No, it was an improvement over the first half, but it was still just...okay. There's something here about life affirmation, and I can see the seeds of a movie I would have enjoyed more, but this wasn't it. B

The Platform: I loved The Platform, the Spanish dystopian sci-fi film that made waves at TIFF and just dropped on Netflix. The premise is simple: a man wakes up in a vertical prison where each level eats the leftovers brought down by the titular platform from the level above. But doesn't the food eventually run out for the people at the bottom? Now you're getting it. If you like obvious class metaphors with worldbuilding delivery as philosophical discussion, welcome to your new favorite movie. (One critic described it as "grindhouse Buñuel," which is THE BEST DESCRIPTION.) Iván Massagué is a likably idealistic protagonist, who immediately recognizes this inequality and seeks to effect social change, and Zorion Eguileor is fucking wonderful as his cantankerous old cellmate, who tells this young pup to shut up and let the system run its course, it's every man for himself in here. David Desola and Pedro Rivero's script is remarkable in its ability to comment on the real world without bludgeoning you over the head. It's just a light tap, as the way they've constructed this world crystallizes the idea of "...Maybe food is a human right???" into a solid narrative instead of simply an abstract idea. Yes, of course, on an intellectual level, you probably know that those above should help those below, but you also know that is not what actually happens, and this movie manifests that cynicism with violence and gore. And yet Our Hero doggedly continues to want to help people, and that's admirable. Besides the smart script, this is just excellent filmmaking overall, with claustrophobic cinematography, grody production design, and an evocative score that sounds like banging pots in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the film doesn't stick the landing, but goddamn, the rest of the movie is so fucking good that I'll let it go. Director Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia is going to be one to watch. B+/A-

Outbreak: I am kind of embarrassed by how much I legitimately loved Outbreak. I'm sure I enjoyed it back in the day, and now it's one of the most-watched movies on Netflix, so it's time to enjoy it once again! And my God, this movie is incredible, it's amazing, it's not so bad it's good, it's just GOOD...but also kinda bad in a fun way. God, what a wonderfully dopey nineties thriller that centers its emotional core on divorced virologists Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo and makes a big deal about their dogs because that's how you get people to care about your characters. It's sensationalistic as all get-out, which makes it easier to watch as a ridiculous what-if, James Newton Howard's bombastic score trying to make everything exciting and ominous. The whole subplot about a military cover-up means you eventually get a lot of great helicopter shenanigans, as well as Morgan Freeman and Donald Sutherland yelling at each other. Everyone is acting their damn hearts out, especially Hoffman, who really grounds the film. The script by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool is packed to the gills with content, and it's cheesy fun to follow the transmission of the virus and then the heroes' attempts to backtrack to find that fucking host monkey. Director Wolfgang Peterson knows his way around thrillers, and goddamn, this movie is over two hours but it fucking MOVES. It's silly and over-the-top, yes, but it also kinda makes you wish we'd been silly and over-the-top a month or two ago, even though real life is not as simple as the movies. But seriously there is a scene in a movie theater that basically shows droplet-based transmission and it's a perfect explanation for why we need social distancing. So yeah, turns out Outbreak is a surprisingly entertaining and suspenseful thrill ride! B+

Contagion: I watched Contagion years ago and probably enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Steven Soderbergh's other hyperlink films, but I watched it today as a documentary. While much of the film is heightened and more severe than the current situation—quicker onset of symptoms/death, much higher mortality rate, accelerated global response, more violent public response—it's scarily prescient, and I basically had an elevated heart rate and was on the verge of tears for the entire movie. Much of that was due to Cliff Martinez's fantastic electronic score, whose rhythmic thumping the composer specifically said was meant to be "the sound of anxiety." Writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh chronicle this respiratory virus pandemic through the eyes of several characters played by a star-studded cast, and while some of their stories intersect, the point is not in the intersections but in the perspective each provides. The Everyman, the CDC, the WHO, the conspiracy theorist blogger, and so on. The intent was always to create a "realistic" thriller, and it's incredibly effective, as the film does not elide over many of the practical concerns that come about in a situation like this. Plus the structure of the film brilliantly focuses on the viral pandemic in the first half before shifting to the fear pandemic in the second half. I loved the cinematography and lighting, with different colored filters for various locations, as Soderbergh did in Traffic. Because the film jumps between different characters, it's always in motion, always moving forward, and the count of days and the reminder of the population size of various cities becomes more and more ominous. Yet the personal, emotional stories hit hard thanks to the performances, so you feel everything all at once, a tapestry of global pain. But, thankfully, the film is not entirely doom and gloom, and there are acts of human kindness that almost broke me. I will not lie: if you are prone to anxiety, this film WILL fuck you up right now, so take care of yourself. But goddamn, as a cinephile, I've gotta say: wow, you've got to watch this thing. A-

Raazi: I have been wanting to watch Raazi for a very long time, as I sure thought I'd like an Alia Bhatt spy thriller from Talvar director Meghna Gulzar. And I did! I didn't know anything about the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 before, but that's what Wikipedia and movies are for. Bhatt plays a fictionalized version of an anonymous Indian woman who, at the age of goddamn twenty, is asked by her dad to marry into a Pakistani family and become a fucking spy to serve the motherland. And she does, because that's what you do for the motherland. Bhatt is introduced saving a squirrel, which is how you know she's a Good Person, and it's going to really hurt her to, you know...do the things you're forced to do when you're a spy. It takes a training montage and some new husband-wife tenderness to get to the spyjinks, but once this movie gets cooking, it delivers, especially in the second half once things start to go south. Morse code! Codenames! Talking in code! A SPY UMBRELLA. This movie's got everything. It's fun, but it's also quietly devastating as you see the toll it all takes on Bhatt (typically great), and as things get worse and worse, you're really not sure how things are going to turn out for her. While it's a spy movie, it also ends up being a war movie in how it comments on the way war utterly destroys people, nationalistic fervor superseding basic humanity. B+

Re-Animator: I am once again finally checking out a movie because the director has died. Stuart Gordon was best known for Re-Animator, a very loose H.P. Lovecraft adaptation that...definitely does not have the tone I would expect a Lovecraft adaptation to have. The wonderful Jeffrey Combs makes for a delightfully dry (yet quite unhinged) mad scientist who develops a serum that, well, reanimates the dead. Unfortunately, they basically reanimate as bloodthirsty zombies. Whoops! Technically, Combs is not the main character, but nobody really cares about this other med student and his girlfriend and their love story, we're here for bloody, gruesome mayhem. And Gordon delivers! The first half of the movie follows a fairly predictable build, and it's fine, but at a certain point, the movie falls headfirst (pun intended) into the utterly absurd, and then it's a fucking riot. Hilarious and awful in the best ways. This movie is very silly, so don't expect any Pet Sematary-like meditations on grief and mortality as people keep dying and being brought to life, but do expect to have a good schlocky time. B+

Moonstruck: I had no fucking idea what Moonstruck was about but apparently people really loved Moonstruck so I watched Moonstruck and did not really love Moonstruck. This is the most Italian movie I've ever seen, and I've seen many Mafia movies. The classic comedy fell largely flat for me, one of those movies where I could see that something was probably supposed to be a laugh line, but it was not inducing laughter in me. The sly dryness never quite hit me in the right way, though I did laugh occasionally. Cher is very, very good in this movie, and Olympia Dukakis is also good, so I'm not surprised they won Oscars (though somewhat surprised because, what, for a comedy??), but John Patrick Shanley's Oscar-winning script weaves together stories of infidelity and attempts to explore the question of "why men chase women" without actually engaging me in any of these characters' lives. I straight up could not buy the central relationship between Cher and Nicolas Cage, who just randomly fall in love (and Cage is also decent here, with only one moment of Full Cage), and so I found it hard to care about...whatever the movie was trying to do, reaching for emotion and charm and whatnot. I can see why this movie could be beloved if you fell under its spell, but I did not. B

Clemency: I'm sad Clemency flew relatively under the radar last year, as it would make a very good double feature with Just Mercy, another 2019 film about the death penalty. But rather than focus on a brave lawyer fighting for a death row inmate (Clemency does have one in Richard Schiff), writer-director Chinonye Chukwu tells the story of a warden who oversees all these executions. It's an interesting perspective, albeit questionable at times when you wonder why you should care about Alfre Woodard's emotional pain over, you know, the man who's going to be executed. Thankfully, while Alfre Woodard does give a complex, nuanced portrayal of a woman struggling with her role in what's shown to be a pretty horrific act right at the start, Aldis Hodge's fucking heartbreaking performance ensures that he doesn't get short shrift in this story. Excellent performances all around in this film, very powerful stuff, and Wendell Pierce really brings it as Woodard's husband, making the usual "oh boy look at this DOMESTIC DRAMA, her JOB makes it tough at HOME" story more compelling than it otherwise would be. Chukwu uses both silence and emptiness well; this is an almost oppressive watch. As with Just Mercy, it's hard not to come away from this movie not wanting to completely abolish the death penalty. B+

Aguirre, The Wrath of God: I have never seen a film by Werner Herzog, but after unexpectedly loving Apocalypse Now last year, I knew I needed to see Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And now I have! Oh boy, the influence is clear: this is basically Apocalypse Now if you subbed Kurtz in for Willard traveling down the river. Despite the buzzing electronic score by Popol Vuh that definitely enhances the religious undertones (overtones?), I didn't find this film as hypnotic an experience, as it's very...matter-of-fact. You just watch these Spanish explorers (speaking German) on their expedition as they encounter mishap after mishap, and it's astounding because it's very clear that they literally went to the jungle and essentially did everything you're seeing in the movie for real, but apart from Aguirre himself, I wasn't hooked into many of the characters. Thankfully, Aguirre himself is entertaining to watch, a dour Klaus Kinski (with, apparently, someone else dubbing his dialogue) proclaiming himself the greatest traitor and seeding discord in an attempt for fame and glory on this mission to El Dorado. Aguirre yells at a horse, Aguirre throws a monkey in the river, Aguirre is the motherfucking wrath of God. There's a lot going on here with regards to power, obsession, and colonialism, not to mention a classic Man vs. Nature story, so I did appreciate the epic journey, even if I wasn't entirely in love with it. B/B+

Bacurau: I heard all the hype about Bacurau and yet I had no idea what the hell I was actually in for with Bacurau, a Brazilian film that's part Western, part grindhouse, part sociopolitical satire, and all weird. The small town of Bacurau is populated with colorful characters like a bard with a snazzy guitar and a DJ who announces town happenings, and for the first half of this film, it's unclear what the hell the movie is about. There are some strange things like the fact that the town has inexplicably disappeared from the map and, uh, something that's better left a bizarre surprise, but nothing seems to add up. Until...it does. Once this movie reveals what's going on, it gets fucking wild. And fucking brutal. The slow build did try my patience at times, but one review called this movie the best John Carpenter movie John Carpenter never made, and by the end, I totally understood the comparison. It's a slow build, but it pays off, with lots of threads from the first half tying together and taking on new importance. You end up rooting for the denizens of this isolated town, practically forgotten by the rest of the world, paid lip service to by their own government. Writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles shift points of view with ease, making it unclear whether this film has a main character at all; it's not about one character's journey but the town itself. While it does deliver on fun and mayhem, its deeper message gets under your skin, as you realize just how expendable certain people would consider poor, rural Brazilians. This movie has all the makings of a cult classic, so get in on the ground floor now. B+

Compliance: I've been wanting to watch Compliance ever since I saw Dreama Walker in Don't Trust the B---- in Apt. 23, but it was even better to see it now since I saw Ann Dowd in The Leftovers. And since I haven't seen The Hunt yet, I could watch one of Craig Zobel's previous films. The film immediately announces that it is INSPIRED BY A TRUE STORY, and it's good to keep that in mind. Someone really called a fast food restaurant pretending to be a police officer and convinced the manager to hold one of her employees for questioning and...well, buckle up, kids, this is a rough watch. Ann Dowd is extremely compelling as the manager who believes she's simply doing what she believes is right because an officer of the law is telling her to do it, and Dreama Walker gets put through the wringer, again, believing she might be in real trouble. Pat Healey is incredible as the voice on the phone, clearly not a police officer yet speaking with such deft manipulation that it's terrifying. Especially because he's not even there. He doesn't get off on doing things to people, he gets off on making people do things to people. Like poor Bill Camp. It's astounding that everyone goes along with what the man on the phone says, but here's the thing: it all really happened, and if anything, the movie version is tamer than the real thing. It's extremely tense and uncomfortable and upsetting, and while it doesn't feel exploitative, it does eventually start to feel like psychological torture porn. The third act is somewhat rushed, and the film misses the chance to dig into the story beyond having recreated the actual events of the story, but overall, it's a strong, fucked up outing. B+

Obit: I first heard of Obit, a documentary about the New York Times obituary writers, when scanning for movies I might want to see at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2016. Four years later, I finally made time to watch it in a time when those obituary writers are likely to be very active. And yet, this is not a depressing film in the slightest. In fact, it's surprisingly life-affirming; as Margalit Fox notes, only ten percent of an obituary is about a person's death. It's mostly about their life. And so director Vanessa Gould takes us through the mechanics of writing obituaries, from calling to confirm the person has actually died (there's a great WHOOPS story) and determining whether the person merits 800 words or a front page to devising a creative lede and crafting a compelling narrative that truly captures the spirit of the deceased. The film touches on both writing about the incredibly famous as well as quirkier subjects who gained new fame from the resurrection of their rousing stories. There's just a LOT of fun stuff packed in here. There's no real sense of structure, but it's compelling throughout, thanks to its lively talking heads who deliver profound truths about the nature of their jobs and, well, life itself. It's the kind of film that makes you think about your own life and your impact on the people around you and what you will leave behind and take comfort in the fact that we all truly live longer than our short time on this planet. We are all stories to be preserved in the collective memory. Who would have thought a movie about people who write about the dead would be so uplifting? B+

That Thing You Do!: I never had the inclination to see That Thing You Do! since a movie about the rise and fall of a fictional 1960s one-hit wonder pop band (thanks, Wikipedia, for always knowing how to describe movies) seemed like an enjoyable lark but not something I needed to see. But when Adam Schlesinger dies and one of the main things people remember him for is writing that titular one-hit wonder, it's time to check it out. In fact, why not the EXTENDED CUT, which is forty minutes longer but feels as breezy as it would have been at under two hours, and based on the differences, is a much richer journey. Tom Everett Scott is a drummer who turns a ballad into a rock and roll sensation, Steve Zahn is a goofy guitarist who's always trying to stop being single, Ethan Embry is a bassist who doesn't even get a name, Johnathon Schaech is a lead singer who thinks he's hot shit, and Liv Tyler is the girlfriend who is also the unofficial fifth member of...the Oneders! Er, the Wonders, it's less confusing. Writer-director Tom Hanks eventually shows up to take them to stardom, and you know the rest. Yes, the plot follows a pretty predictable path, but that doesn't keep this film from being consistently entertaining for TWO HOURS AND TWENTY-EIGHT MINUTES. There's a scene that's simply pure unbridled joy as I've never seen before, the catchy-as-fuck hit made me happy every time it came on (and it comes on a LOT), the romance between Scott and Tyler is super cute, and also Charlize Theron is terribly amusing. This movie is such a love letter to the sixties pop scene, especially the Beatles and Beatlemania, but it also captures the, well, wonder of creating art that somehow connects with the world, and even if everything doesn't work out, that one hit, that one song that people loved, that was worth making. B+

Music and Lyrics: I continued paying tribute to Adam Schlesinger by watching Music and Lyrics, an utterly charming romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, who are both, well, utterly charming (Barrymore maybe more than she's ever been???). It kicks off with an infectious eighties New Wave pastiche I was surprised to discover was NOT written by Adam Schlesinger because, oh boy, Andrew Wyatt and Alanna Vicente nailed that sound. Which is true of all the songs in the film, including the fictional pop tunes for Haley Bennett, a white girl with very EASTERN INFLUENCES whose songs are amusingly real without crossing the line into actual parody. Schlesinger was, however, responsible for the song the movie would not work without (just as That Thing You Do! would not work without its title track), the song that has-been Grant (music) and plant girl Barrymore (lyrics) collaborate on. Writer-director Marc Lawrence knows his way around the genre, but this movie really only starts to feel truly formulaic in its third act. It's sweet and genuine throughout, and the relationship that develops between the two stars feels completely earned. You've got your entertaining side characters played by Kristen Johnston, Brad Garrett, and Aasif Mandvi too. Plus it's such a joy to watch two people create art! This is an extremely pleasant film, a solid rom-com with catchy songs, and it melds two characters' individual character arcs with their burgeoning romance beautifully. B+

Josie and the Pussycats: I capped off SchlesingerFest 2020 by revisiting Josie and the Pussycats, a movie I watched long ago and enjoyed, possibly even before it was jerkin' to declare that this box office bomb was Good, Actually. Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont of Can't Hardly Wait fame put together a sharp and silly satire of consumerism, the music industry, and the intersection thereof in which Rachael Leigh Cook (the titular Josie), Rosario Dawson (a titular Pussycat), and Tara Reid (another titular Pussycat, giving an incredibly endearing dim bulb blonde performance) discover that pop music is full of subliminal messages almost two decades before Andrew Garfield does. To put an even finer point on it, this movie has more product placement than every other Hollywood film ever made combined, and if you take a shot every time you spot a brand name, you will die before you even get to hear the Adam Schlesinger-penned "Pretend to Be Nice," another fictional chart-topping hit in his repertoire. The "Pretend to Be Nice" montage is an absolute highlight, with the most dazzling visual style on display; while the entire movie isn't always that dazzling, cinematographer Matthew Libatique uses the music video aesthetic to great effect throughout. Adam Schlesinger also produced several of the songs, though they aren't as memorable as "Pretend to Be Nice," but another Adam (Duritz) co-wrote a few other fun songs sung by Letters to Cleo's Kay Hanley that might get stuck in your head if you're susceptible to that brand of spunky punky alt-rock. While the characters and relationships are very thin and the ending is kind of a letdown, this movie is very funny throughout, and it knows how ridiculous it is without going TOO over-the-top. Unless you're Parker Posey. Bless her. Anyway, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER! B+

Joe Versus the Volcano: I knew I would like Joe Versus the Volcano when, after a "Once upon a time..." introduction and a very pointed anti-capitalist opening sequence, the first thing Tom Hanks says is, "I'm losing my sole," literally referring to the sole of his shoe but metaphorically referring to the soul of his life. Oh, John Patrick Shanley, you stinker. I always thought this movie about a man versusing a volcano took place on a tropical island where the man decided whether or not to jump into the volcano, but in fact the majority of this movie is spent getting the man TO the tropical island after he's already made the decision to jump into the volcano. (It is for the best that the movie does not spend too much time on the island as it is probably wildly offensive to Polynesian culture. Or a sly satire of colonialism.) Framed as a fairy tale, it's about the journey more than the destination. A journey during which he meets Meg Ryan! And then...Meg Ryan? And then...MEG RYAN! I knew Meg Ryan was Hanks's love interest in this movie, but I had no idea she played multiple roles, so I was always like, "Is...that Meg Ryan? She doesn't look or sound like she normally does. Nah, it can't be." But then the One True Meg Ryan comes along for a sweet movie love story. This movie is delightfully strange, folks, and, hell, I would have enjoyed ninety minutes of Ossie Davis driving Tom Hanks around. The second half loses some of the quirky energy of the first half, but it has its really sweet moments. It doesn't play by traditional conventions, and it doesn't really resemble...anything I've ever seen before, and I found that unique sense of whimsy very endearing. Shanley allows Hanks and Ryan to sell his life-affirming message without giving them a lot of overly sincere dialogue; the idea that life can be a beautiful, joyous, magical thing no matter how long or short it is comes through as bright as a gigantic moon that fills half the screen. Moonstruck may have left me cold, but Joe Versus the Volcano warmed my heart. B+

I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK: I love Park Chan-wook films and love stories about robots struggling to be more human, and I'm a Cyborg, But That's OK is one of those things! After the Vengeance Trilogy, Park threw everyone for a loop with this quirky romantic comedy about a woman in a mental institution who believes she's a cyborg. One critic called it "part One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, part Amélie," and...yeah, pretty much. The first half introduces a whole host of other patients with their own distinct maladies, but most of them fade away in the second half as the film begins to focus on the romance between Im Soo-jung and Rain, a kleptomaniac who likes to steal so much he even steals other people's personality traits. Like I said, this movie is quirky, and it's always a treat whenever Park Chan-wook shows Im as a cyborg, especially because the metaphorical implications are always clear. While she's clearly mentally ill, her condition is still relatable in the sense that we all have certain parts of ourselves that no one else seems to acknowledge or understand, and the beauty of the central romance is how this one person finds a way to connect with her in a way no one else does. It's also an unusual look at eating disorders since her primary issue is that she refuses to eat food because she thinks she's a machine, so...he must find some clever methods to keep her from starving to death. This movie is so unexpectedly goddamn sweet in the weirdest, cutest ways. While I really liked a lot of it, I did find the plotting a bit meandering, as it does take a LONG time for the central romance to kick in, and it goes on a few hairs too long after passing by a perfectly good ending to tie up a final loose end. Anyway, I've never smiled and laughed so much at a murderous rampage, that's the kind of movie this is. B/B+

JSA: Joint Security Area: I was excited about Joint Security Area, the Korean blockbuster that put Park Chan-wook on the map, but...I have no fucking idea what happened in this movie. It starts off promisingly enough, with two Swiss officers arriving at the DMZ to function as neutral investigators of the deaths of two North Korean soldiers. Curiously, a man has already confessed, so the question is not who killed them, but why. I enjoyed the initial scenes of Lee Young-ae (Lady Vengeance herself!) doing detective work, trying to put the pieces together, even though the scenes of her and Christoph Hofrichter speaking very stilted English were awkward (Lee at least acted well in a language not her own; the same could not be said for Hofrichter). And of course I was pumped when Song Kang-ho appeared, even though it turned out he was playing a Commie bastard. But, gosh, I could not follow what the hell was going on in this movie, and it was probably because I was sleepy that I couldn't keep the timeline straight and distinguish flashback from present-day, so while I could tell the story generally revolved around the tensions between North Korea and South Korea and the fraternization of soldiers from both sides and conflicted loyalties and other things that should have been compelling to me, I was just...lost. I couldn't keep the characters straight, who was on which side, and it all just went over my head, which was disappointing. Reading the Wikipedia summary several times, I finally got a basic understanding of what I was supposed to have gotten out of the movie, but even so, the storytelling here just didn't appeal to me. B

Sleuth: It's too bad that Sleuth is all but impossible to watch through any legal means right now because it's pretty fun and a clear influence on Knives Out. This sly, suspenseful two-hander finds Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine giving two excellent damn performances as they engage in a series of mind games. Olivier, a successful mystery author who lives in a large mansion filled with creepy automata, invites Caine over to discuss the matter of his wife, whom Caine would like to marry. Why not stage a burglary to help fund the lavish lifestyle she's become accustomed to? He's just a lowly hairdresser after all. And so the games begin! Sleuth's twists and turns aren't exactly hard to see coming, but Anthony Shaffer's screenplay (based on his play) mines a lot of tension from the classism and racism that separates the two men, and it's clever enough to always make you question what's really going on at any given time. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and his production designers have a ball with that fucking house, and the frequent cuts to the automata enhance the tension and the theme of artifice. At nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it's a long-ass movie, but although it does build very slowly, it gets better and better as it goes on so by the end you hardly realize it's been a long-ass movie. Gosh, Michael Caine is so fucking good in this. B+

Swallow: I know the premise of Swallow won't go down easy for many people, but if you can stomach a film about a newly pregnant housewife who develops pica—a compulsion to eat objects that are most definitely not meant to be eaten—it's a very compelling drama with a strong lead performance by Haley Bennett. I envy anyone who managed to catch this film in a theater, as the production design and cinematography would have been even better; Katelin Arizmendi captures this glass home as a metaphorical prison quite well, and so many shots are exquisitely framed. Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis may have begun with a provocative idea, but he has far more on his mind than tawdry shocks. Bennett's desire to swallow everything from marbles to batteries is not simply a mental disorder but an act of defiance, a way to control something in her life and do something for herself rather than to make her husband happy. In a weird way you almost...root for her to eat things. The third act certainly takes a turn, and I'm not quite sure how I feel about the exploration of her trauma, but it does seem to tie in with how it explores the control of women's bodies, not only what goes in (thumbtacks) but also what comes out (babies). Swallow is, at times, an uncomfortable watch, but it's not nearly as gross as you might think. The most distressing aspects of Bennett's story are all intangible. It's a strangely satisfying journey. B+

Someone Great: I have been meaning to watch Someone Great for, like, a year since my friends raved about it, and now that I've finally gotten around to it...yeah, I get it. While it could be lumped into the broad category of "romantic comedy," it's not a rom-com at all; in fact, while it does have its funny moments, it's really more of a light drama. Gina Rodriguez and Lakeith Stanfield break up after dating through their whole fucking twenties, and she wants one last fun day with her best friends, DeWanda Wise and Brittany Snow, before she moves across the country. The basic plot engine of this movie is pretty standard "get tickets to an exclusive concert and also acquire drugs" stuff, but it's all about writer-director Jennifer Kaytin Robinson's execution. While the script does focus on Rodriguez dealing with her break-up with lots of flashbacks, it also finds time for Wise and Snow to deal with their romantic lives on this fateful day, but the romances are simply the manifestation of what the movie is really about, which is the decision to really Grow Up as you transition from your twenties to your thirties. The three of them have amazing friend chemistry, and their banter feels natural and genuine in a way that's honestly kind of rare. The movie also has a keen sense of the importance of music and how it's connected to memories, and it deploys pop songs so damn well, from a perfect use of Lorde's "Supercut" to score a Searching-esque montage of the Rodriguez/Stanfield relationship to a poignant use of Mitski's "Your Best American Girl" in a scene it feels like it was written for. It actually feels long despite being only 92 minutes because it packs so much in yet still offers the characters time to breathe and/or dance to Lizzo. Yeah, this is very good stuff. Maybe even great stuff. B+

Next up: I go on a documentary binge!
Tags: making the grade, movies
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