Films I Saw is a self explanatory monthly column dedicated to cataloging each and every film I saw within that month. Each film will be given a grade and a mini review.
Feb. 1—Vice Squad (1982)
Of all the authors and directors that have claimed Cameron has ripped them off, I’m amazed Gary Sherman isn’t one of them. The Terminator may borrow heavily from Ellison but I wouldn’t be surprised if ol’ Jimmy ‘sticky hands’ Cameron didn’t also lift plot elements from this as well. They’re almost the exact same film except one has time travel and the other is unrelentingly slimy.
Both involve a woman being pursued by an unstoppable killing machine with only a guy in a trench coat (I’m not 100% sure either one wore a trench coat, to be honest but they feel like they should) to save her and while that may sound like a thousand different movies, I’m not joking when I say both films involve an unstoppable murder machine.
Ramrod the insane pimp (Wings Hauser in a brilliantly over the top performance) may just be flesh and blood but he’s every bit as unrelenting as Ahnold’s time-traveling robot. He’s a nasty piece of work that might actually be scarier than both the T-800 and the T-1000 because they just want to assassinate their target. He doesn’t just want to kill the woman he’s after, he’s going to rape her, mutilate her body and then kill her. As you can tell, this film isn’t a pleasant watch but if you like your thrillers as nasty as the gutter, few get as sleazy as Vice Squad.
Feb. 2—Miss Americana (2020)
A music doc that charts the evolution of Taylor Swift from a young’n with musical aspirations, to a country singing phenom to an icon of pop. It delves into her eating problems, her insecurities, and her songwriting process. Although it feels more manufactured than authentic, it nevertheless delivers what it promises on the tin: a behind the scenes look at one of the biggest names in music. If you’re not a fan, this won’t convert you and if you are, you don’t need me to sell you on this. It’s 90 minutes of T-Swizzle, you’re either in or you’re not.
Feb. 3—Top of the Heap (1972)
Top of the Heap is an odd little movie. It feels like the pissed off love child of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Bad Lieutenant. It’s the story of a black police officer who, due to a strained family life and a volatile workplace, is slowly losing his grasp on reality. The film is a relentlessly cynical exploration of corruption and injustice; the hero fantasizes about being the first black astronaut to walk on the moon, while in reality, his life is in shambles and no one gives him any respect. Top of the Heap is an angry movie about an angry man who takes his anger out on all those around him. He’s lashing out against the city and the system and his life, which ends exactly how you think it will. I don’t know if it’s entirely successful nor do I think it’s exactly “good” but it is certainly unique enough to recommend.
Feb. 4—Overnight (2003)
Or alternatively: How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Burn your Hollywood Career to Cinders in Five Easy Steps. A documentary that tracks the rise and glorious fall of bartender-cum-filmmaker-cum-asshole Troy Duffy as he fights with literally everyone before, during and after the making and release of his film The Boondock Saints. It’s not a comprehensive doc (the film is missing crucial bits of information and footage like what Duffy’s band sounds like, how it finally got released after Weinstein tried to bury it and most importantly of all: the making of the movie itself) but as a portrait of a raging asshole who completely and utterly kills his career as effectively as humanly possible? It’s delightful.
Feb. 5—One Year in a Life of Crime (1989)
Made for HBO for their Documentary Films series, One Year in a Life of Crime follows three criminals in Newark as they rob, steal, get high and engage in an assortment of various Petty crimes over the course of a year. Filmed by a hidden camera, the film grants an unprecedented look into the world of the burglar, how they go about stealing and what they do with their money after they sell it. Spoiler alert: it’s drugs. If they weren’t all unrepentant assholes, their incompetence would actually be enduring. They’re so bad at their jobs, like, really, really bad at stealing shit but their ineptitude is hilarious in a schadenfreude kinda way. I mean, they steal linens and burglar alarms and get out of prison time by using fake names. That’s the level of dumbass we’re dealing with. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t so incredibly sad.
Feb. 6—Charley Varrick (1973)
A man, his wife, and their friend stage the perfect bank robbery, problem is, the bank is run by the mob and they just took their money. On the run with nowhere to hide, the trio must stay one step ahead of murderous gangsters if they plan on being alive long enough to spend their ill-gotten loot. Charley Varrick is a no-nonsense crime thriller whose biggest draw is it’s killer cast of That Guy actors. There’s the evil father from Hellraiser, the bad guy from Point Blank, the big stick carrying hero from Walking Tall, Mr. Roper from Three’s Company and of course Walter Matthau, who’s never been more stone-faced and deadly serious. It’s another solid film in a filmography made up of solid films.
Feb. 7—Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020)
Although she debuted on the critically acclaimed Batman cartoon from the 90s, Harley Quinn wouldn’t join the official DC comics continuity until 1999. She proved such a hit amongst fans, that she was pushed into more and more Batman stories until she got a comic of her own. Few comic book characters have become as beloved as quickly as she has. She’s become as recognizable and as popular as any other superhero even though she’s technically barely old enough to legally drink.
Which meant that it was only a matter of time before she got her own movie and while Birds of Prey is certainly a step up from her previous cinematic outing (the unwatchable Suicide Squad), it’s still pretty dire. Outside of McGregor and Robbie, every character in this is either one-note or annoying, the action is badly choreographed and uninspired, the humor is cringe-inducing (this film really wants to be DC’s Deadpool) and it wastes its R rating. I cannot for the life of me think of a single element of this film that justified it’s rating. There’s almost no blood or swearing (from what I remember) and there’s definitely no nudity. I truly don’t understand why it was rated R. It also has the laziest and most pointless end credit scene in the history of end credit scenes. It can’t even tease shit property, that’s how inept it is.
Feb. 8—Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese (2019)
Even though I’m not the biggest fan of Dylan, I decided to check this documentary out because A) it was directed by Scorsese and B) I actually want to get into Dylan at some point and thought this would be as good an entry point as any. I was wrong. I have no idea who this documentary is for, but it sure as fuck wasn’t for me. I don’t get what the point of it is. Because this isn’t just a music doc, it’s a fictionalized account of tour nobody gives a shit about that’s coated in a thick layer of impenetrable meta-humor I don’t care enough about to even attempt to try to decipher.
There are actors portraying fictitious characters, real people relating fake stories and at the center of it all is Dylan himself, an enigma too old and uninterested in any of it to collaborate or contradict anything being said. At the beginning of the doc, he says something along the lines of “what’s the point of this?” and if he doesn’t know, I sure as fuck don’t either.
Feb. 9—You’ve Got Mail (1998)
You’ve Got Mail is a classic rom-com, but it also feels like something of a love letter to New York. We take the same journey with Joe (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen (Meg Ryan), from fall through winter and into spring, and every shot of the changing seasons is beautifully captured, feeling as romantic as the online relationship itself. I wanted to visit The Shop Around the Corner, along with Fox Books and the cozy little cafe where Joe finally realizes that Kathleen is in fact, Shopgirl (her online screen name). It felt like they were living in a different world, and obviously, this is merely a fantasy of what it would be like to actually live in New York (and only if you have the money for an amazing apartment in a nice neighborhood), but Ephron does a marvelous job at capturing the city’s magical energy.
I would say my favorite part, beyond the snarky banter between Joe and Kathleen, occur after Joe realizes he wants to be with Kathleen. He’s aware that Kathleen is Shopgirl, but she has no clue he’s actually NY152, and he plays her confidante as they become friends and she tells him about her online friendship/romance, which Joe uses to his advantage (yes, I feel like this could have been manipulative but there is no malice behind his intentions). There is a lightness to the ending of the film, as the two become actual friends and Kathleen begins to struggle with her feelings for Joe while still wanting to meet NY152.
Ryan and Hanks’s chemistry has stayed consistently charming since Joe Versus the Volcano, and even if they never film another romantic comedy together, I’ll be more than satisfied with You’ve Got Mail finishing off the ‘Hanks and Ryan Trilogy’ of romance.
(Taken from the You’ve Got Mail write up from the 50 Greatest Romantic Comedies List)
Feb. 10—VFW (2020)
Released mere months after the sexy vampire thriller Bliss, Joe Begas’ follow up is an Assault on Precinct 13-inspired siege thriller about a group of old Vietnam vets who have to survive an onslaught of drugged up mutant punks. It’s not exactly a good movie but it’s good in that midnight movie kinda way. The selling point, and the thing that separates it from every other siege film, is its cast. Check out this lineup: Stephen Lang, William Sadler, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt, Martin Kove, and Fred Williamson. That alone should put your ass in a seat but that’s not all it has going for it. It’s also incredibly violent. Like over the top gruesome, the kind of violence you only saw in notorious horror films of the late ’70s and early to mid ’80s. If Death Wish 3 is one of your favorite action movies, you will probably love VFW.
Feb. 11—Oliver & Company (1988)
Oliver Twist, like A Christmas Carol and Little Women, is a property that will have a new adaptation every a couple of years or so, which means that it not only has to be judged against everything else released around the same time but also against all the previous film adaptations. Which puts Oliver & Company in an impossible spot, to begin with. It has to somehow live up to the impossible standards of every Disney animated movie that came before it and also be a good adaptation of a beloved novel. It fails at both of these things. The characters are uninspired and uninteresting, the songs are flat and unmemorable and the setting is boring. This is Disney at their most creatively bankrupt.
Feb. 12—Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985)
The original Pumping Iron followed male bodybuilders (most notably Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno) as they prepared for and competed in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, while this one follows a group of women as they train for and compete in the 1983 Caesars Women’s World Cup. While the two docs are similar, their approaches are quite different. The first one focused mainly on the rivalry between Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, which, bodybuilding aside, is just one of the all-time great on-screen rivalries. Ferrigno is the perfect underdog and Schwarzenegger makes for an amazing villain.
He’s so good, that every sports film feels inadequate by comparison. This film wisely decides to sidestep that problem by focusing on the debate about whether the sport’s focus should be on feminity (the modelish Rachel McLish) or muscular development (the overly muscled Bev Francis) and while it’s a great hook, it’s ultimately undercooked and underdeveloped. It needed to either pit these two ladies against each other or have the debate be the entire film because, without a strong narrative or entry point, it ultimately ends up being about nothing.
Feb. 13—Isolation (2005)
I would give any amount of money to see Billy O’Brien try and sell this to producers because the elevator pitch– “Alien on an Irish farm but with a mutated cow instead of a xenomorph”, would’ve gotten him laughed out of any elevator or meeting. I can’t fathom what he could’ve said to sell this to anyone because after he drops that on you, he has to immediately follow it up with “oh, and it’s also not a comedy”. I can see it as a fun animal attack creature feature but as a deadly serious drama about the ethical issues of genetic engineering? That’s a bridge too far.
But like every hypothetical Hollywood exec who definitely would’ve denied him money, I’m a fool without vision. Unlike many modern horror films, O’Brien favors building a tense and foreboding atmosphere rather than relying on cheap jump scares. It’s an exceptionally well-acted monster movie with a nice escalation of dread and a message that isn’t preachy or annoying, which is sorely missing in films nowadays.
Feb. 14—Waking Sleeping Beauty (2005)
Waking Sleeping Beauty tells the incredibly true story of one of the great comeback stories in Hollywood history: the Disney Renaissance of the late 1980s. Internal fighting between artists hungry to innovate and old timers not yet ready to relinquish control, an animator walkout lead by Don Bluth and a changing of leadership resulted in a series of box-office flops that nearly sunk the company. They were this close to being bought by a Japanese studio and they probably would’ve ended up taking the deal if The Little Mermaid would’ve flopped but thankfully for them, it was a monster hit. Told by the animators who were there, Waking Sleeping Beauty is a comprehensive and surprising intimate tell-all that reveals as much as it informs.
Feb. 15—Murder Rock (1984)
You would think since there’s not a whole helluva lot of films within the killer-picking-off-members-of-a-dance-troupe subgenre, Murder Rock would be one of the best but even with Fulci at the helm, it’s probably the worst. Even if I threw in the slashers that involve nothing but hot bitches exercising like Killer Workout or Death Spa, it would still be at the bottom. It’s boring as fuck, the kills are lame, the music is repetitive and annoying and the identity of the killer is painfully obvious. Not even its plethora of titties can save it.
Feb. 16—Counter Destroy (1989)
Godfrey Ho is often referred to as the “Ed Wood of Hong Kong” and while he’s certainly earned that moniker, it would be more accurate to call him the “cut-and-paste king”. His films are Frankenstein-ed together by odds and ends and footage from various obscure or unreleased Asian films, most of which he didn’t shoot himself. He would film footage for one micro-budget picture, splice in footage from a completely unrelated film and then marry the two with a little bit of dubbing. Since most of his films involve ninjas, it’s not overtly obvious but every so often Ho decides to stray from his patented formula and the end result is always incomprehensible.
The IMDB plot synopsis for this film says it involves a woman renting a house in order to pen a horror movie and unbeknownst to her, the house is haunted and her presence unleashes a whole slew of otherworldly creatures and while that’s technically true, it’s about as accurate as calling Hitler a painter who created the Autobahn. There’s a spy subplot, a faux RoboCop thread, a bunch of ninjas, a Freddy Kruger character running around and to top it all off, a handful of hopping vampires are thrown in because fuck it. That sounds like a recipe for trash gold but it’s way less exciting than that. It’s boring, impossible to follow and has about 10-15 minutes worth of actual quality entertainment. Skip it.
Feb. 17—Lost Highway (1997)
Somehow, and I guess I can kinda see it, this film is loosely based on or inspired by OJ Simpson. There’s a murder, an innocent man goes to prison, an innocent man goes free and Jesus Christ my eyes just went retarded. Trying to think like Lynch is a fool’s errand. He’s beyond pretentious and crazy. This shit makes sense to him and he also doesn’t give a fuck if you understand it. But the thing is, I love that he makes this shit. I don’t like it and it ain’t for me but the world needs this kind of originality. We need artists like Lynch to inject some weirdness into the world every once in a while. I love him and I’m glad he exists but I’m done watching his shit.
Feb. 18—Derailroaded (2005)
A documentary on the life and music of manic-depressive, paranoid-schizophrenic cult music icon Wild Man Fischer. The film gives you a great overview of Wild Man’s life and career, his many ups and downs and his lasting legacy in the underground music scene. It details his less than stellar childhood and how his turbulent home life left him emotionally scarred, resulting in his frequent visits to mental institutions.
The story of Wild Man Fischer is a sad story of a broken man who got to touch fame (he went from a street performer to working with Frank Zappa in a matter of months) but who’s terrible psychological problems prevented him from ever holding it. Derailroaded is a fascinating look at an unknown artist whose career and personal life ended in shambles because of his unfortunate mental illness. The same problems that lead him to create music, were ironically the same problems that killed any chance that he’d ever have of recording said music.
Feb. 19—Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)
Despite being under heavy sedation, a young woman tries to make her way out of the Arboria Institute, a secluded, quasi-futuristic commune. Why she’s there, why she’s being observed/isolated/experimented on and what the deal is about the baby faced masked thugs, I sure as shit don’t know. In fact, I didn’t understand anything that happened in this film. I don’t know why anyone did a single thing they did, I don’t know why they’re all there and frankly, I stopped caring about ten minutes in. I tried my damnedest to piece it all together but much like Lynch, that was a fool’s errand. It’s beautiful to look at and the director deserves props for pulling off what he did with the budget he had but this one wasn’t for me. It’s long, confusing, boring and has about ten minutes worth of story that’s been stretched to 100 minutes. Skip it and just watch a bunch of Tool videos instead.
Feb. 20—Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken! (2017)
This seemingly pointless sequel to Super Size Me is actually a pretty decent doc about big chicken and how they bully and intimidate farmers into working for them, the inhumane way we raise our chickens and the crazy loopholes there are to getting around every law designed to better treat our livestock. You probably won’t learn anything new (we treat animals like shit and the food industry is a business run on bullshit and lies) but it’s entertaining enough to keep you from turning the channel.
Feb. 21—Saludos Amigos (1942)
The first of the six package films produced by Walt Disney Productions in the 1940s, Saludos Amigos is a live-action animated anthology/travelogue set in Latin America that’s made up of four different segments. One involves Goofy learning how to cowboy, two involve Donald Duck hanging out with José Carioca (in his first appearance) and getting harassed by alpacas and the live-action one has Walt messing about in Mexico. At 42 minutes, it’s the shortest official feature released by Disney which makes me wonder why the other package films weren’t this short as well. It’s utterly forgettable like the rest of the films released that decade but due to its incredibly short runtime, it’s an easy watch. Which puts it above most of them by default.
Feb. 22—Dolls (1987)
I am sick and tired of the nostalgia boner everyone has for the fucking ’80s. Every goddamn movie and TV show has to either be set in that decade and or reference it ad nauseum. It’s a trend that’s been going on forever that I soon hope dies a painful death. Having said that and at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I would give anything for Hollywood to bring these types of films back.
The extremely low budget schlock you only rented because of the awesome VHS cover. I am fully aware that Charles Band is still cranking these kinds of movies out but it’s not the same. Digital has killed the tactile feel of cheese. Like a pampered raccoon, I dine on only the fanciest of trash and there ain’t nothing fancy about digital. It’s too clean, too professional looking.
I guarantee the films Band makes now have the same budgets and production quality of Dolls but it’s missing the magic. Make no mistake, Dolls isn’t good but it’s bad in all the best possible ways. There are giant man-killing teddy bears, tons of murderous puppet mayhem and it even has glorious stop motion work. Every once in a while, I get the hunger for some cheesy video store trash and Dolls left me satiated. Bring this shit back Hollywood!
Feb. 23—Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980)
Raimi and Jackson may be the kings of the over the top, everything and the kitchen sink approach to horror but what none of their films have is kung fu. No kung fu zombies. No kung fu hopping vampires. No kung fu, period. Which puts them at an extreme disadvantage when compared to the Jiangshi films of the ’80s. Originating in Hong Kong, Jiangshi is a regional subgenre (which is named after the hopping vampire that all the films center around) that blends horror, comedy, and action into one movie that would prove so successful, dozens and dozens of films would copy the formula. The progenitor? Encounters of the Spooky Kind.
A mixture of Western horror movies and Chinese literature as well as slapstick kung-foolery and black magic, Encounters of the Spooky Kind is a slam-bang supernatural adventure that never stops throwing new and bizarre things at you. This is about as seamless a combination of action/horror/comedy as you’re likely to see in any realm of cinema.
Feb. 24—Mortuary (1983)
Roger Ebert loved the work of Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmet Walsh so much, he created what he called “The Stanton-Walsh Rule,” which states that “no movie featuring either actor in a supporting role can be altogether bad” and while I, too, love both of those actors, my “Stanton-Walsh Rule” features but one actor: Bill Paxton. No matter how bad a film is (and God knows he’s made a bunch of stinkers), his mere presence keeps it from being unwatchable and no film has tested this theory harder than Mortuary.
Filled with subplots that go nowhere (the main character sleepwalks for no discernable reason), pointless red herrings (there’s a coven of witches that serves no purpose) and an unbearably slow pace, Mortuary is a Z-grade slasher whose sole saving grace is Paxton. Every second he’s on-screen is the best part of this film. He’s delightfully over the top as the murderous mortician with a penchant for Mozart. If this character was in a stronger film, it might be an all-time great villain but unfortunately, he’s stuck in a terrible movie unworthy of his talents.
Feb. 25—Gargoyles (1972)
There was a time, a glorious time, where made-for-tv horror movies reigned supreme and that time was the 1970’s. Every week, one or more of the major networks would release a horror movie with whatever star they had laying around and it proved highly successful. For a brief period of time, audiences decided to stay home and watch Karen Black get harassed by a possessed tiki doll or Valerie Harper fend off a crazy kid brandishing a pizza cutter instead of going to the theaters.
Gargoyles may not have that top tier TV star cast like it’s contemporaries but it has a goddamn gargoyle in it, which trumps a Robert Wagner or Dennis Weaver any fucking day of the week. With makeup effects by the legendary Stan Winston, a fantastic performance by Bernie Casey and an action scene involving dirt bikes that are gloriously cheesy, Gargoyles is made-for-TV gold.
Feb. 26—Sleep Tight (2011)
An interviewer once asked Stephen King what truly terrifies him (this was before Trump was president) and he said it’s not spiders or snakes or deranged killers, it’s the feeling you get when you’re home alone and you see a door open you knew you shut. It could be simply a cabinet or a bedroom door but the sensation that someone might be in your house is the worst feeling in the world. Sleep Tight is an unsettling Spanish thriller that plays on the small fears that regular people have, even if only at the back of their minds subconsciously. Which can range from the mundane “did I lock the front door?” and “did I leave my closet open when I left this morning?” to the outright terrifying “why does it sound like someone is breathing under my bed?” Unlike most home invasion films that’ll make you paranoid that someone can break-in at any moment, Sleep Tight will convince you that someone already has.
Feb. 27—Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981)
Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is what would happen if the most unpleasant parts of 4Chan and the sleaziest incest related videos of Pornhub merged together like some sort of Brundlefly abomination. The film is about an orphaned teenager who finds himself being dominated by his aunt who’s hell-bent on keeping him with her…at all costs. That doesn’t sound too bad until you find out that the aunt is played by Susan Tyrrell who, if you didn’t know, is batshit insane.
She’s the only actress who makes Randy Quaid and Crispin Glover look sane by comparison. She doesn’t act, she beams her performances in from outer space. She operates a completely different wavelength than everyone else and this is her at her most unhinged. She’s a force of nature in this film. She’s sexually obsessed with her nephew who, spoiler alert, turns out to be her own son, has no qualms about killing anyone who tries to take him away and keeps the corpse of an old lover in her attic. She’s Kathy Bates in Misery but turned up to 1000. The movie is her performance and her performance is absolutely amazing.
Feb. 28—The Insufferable Groo (2018)
The Insufferable Groo, as the title suggests, is about a director named Stephen Groo who’s about as insufferable a person you’re ever going to find. He is the most prolific director you’ve never heard of. In just two decades, he’s made about 170 low-budget movies, shorts, and music videos. His latest challenge: a remake of his 2004 human/elf fantasy drama The Unexpected Race. All of that sounds impressive on paper but there’s a reason you’ve never heard of him. Everything he makes is unwatchable garbage. There are a million documentaries about no-budget directors who don’t let their incompetence hinder their creativity and there’s a million more about assholes who ruin their careers by fucking up at every conceivable turn.
This might be the first film about a talentless asshole director who hasn’t made anything even resembling something that could inflate an ego and yet he acts as though he was somehow robbed the career he so rightfully deserves. Hubris can be funny, so can assholes with enlarged egos but what isn’t funny, is the fact that he’s spending all of his money on these films while his wife struggles to pay the bills. The Wiseaus and the Breens and the Ed Woods of the World stop being adorable once you see their significant other cry about their money problems. This documentary will most definitely piss you off and it will more than likely make you end up hating Groo but that’s probably the point. I mean, it is in the title after all.
Feb. 29—The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974)
All Italian horror films fall into three categories: the boring yet beautiful, the incomprehensible but entertaining or a combination of the two. If it’s a slow burn, you know the kills will be amazing. If the plot is nonsensical, odds are the soundtrack is incredible. If it’s absolutely gorgeous, it’s either a slog to get through or weird as hell. Most fall into either the first or second categories because the third was made specifically for films like The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue.
Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue starts off as a poliziotteschi (Italian crime film) that turns into an action film that makes a hard left turn into a zombie picture. The film is a checklist of every adjective you can ascribe to Italian horror films: It’s slow-moving, illogical, poorly acted and misleading (the film never goes to Manchester) but it’s also gorgeous, atmospheric and grotesque. It’s a grab bag in terms of quality but that’s no different than any other Italian film.
What did you watch last month?