Films I Saw in January 2021

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.

Jan. 1—The Mirror (1975)

Every time I talk about the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, I feel as though I’m in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Like I have to announce it as if it’s my problem that I’m trying to deal with and in a certain way, it is. With the exception of Stalker, every film of his I’ve seen as left me cold or worse, confounded. I go in every time wanting to like the movie, hoping that this will be the one that turns it around and every time I’m left disappointed. Either everyone is fucking with me and they don’t like him either and are just pretending, or they’re seeing something I don’t that’s so mind-blowingly good, they consider all of his shit to be masterpieces. I don’t like Malick or Lynch either but at least I can see what others take from their films. I legitimately don’t understand what anyone is getting from Tarkovsky.

This movie was 120 minutes of pretentious gobbledygook. You could remove every other scene or edit the scenes out of order and it wouldn’t matter. There is no through line to follow. I’m assuming it’s about a man’s recollection of his life and his mother but the editing is so scattershot, it could be about a mother thinking about her son before she dies. I have no fucking idea. There’s no denying Tarkovsky’s skills as a visualist (the barn burning down is an image that will stick with me forever) but as a storyteller, his shit is nonsensical. I don’t care about anyone in the film, I’m not connected to the story in anyway and there’s nothing keeping me invested outside of the fact that I can’t cross it off my list unless I finished it. I believe I have three more films of his before I complete his filmography and I fear I’m going to just copy and paste this review each time.

Grade: F

Jan. 2—Nightmare Sisters (1988)

It’s pretty ironic that David DeCoteau, an openly gay director who’s made dozens upon dozens of softcore erotica featuring shirtless dudes, made one of the most gratuitously titty filled films I’ve ever seen. Shot in four days with a budget of five thousand dollars, Nightmare Sisters is a no budget horror film about three geeky college girls (Linnea Quigley, Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer in the most unconvincing ugly girl costumes you’ve ever seen) who, desperate for a date, invite some other geeks over for a seance and due to inexplicable plot shenanigans, become sex crazed demons. As demons, they’re constantly topless and they love eating the genitals of men. After they fuck em. So you get tits before the murders, tits during the murders (because of the sex scenes) and then tits after the murders. It’s a buffet of tits and not much else. If you ever wondered what The Evil Dead would be like if it was made by an amateur pornographer, this is the answer.

Grade: C

Jan. 3—New Year’s Evil (1980)

Since the majority of slashers are all derivative, it only takes a minor change to the formula for me to get excited. New Year’s Evil has a good enough premise (a killer is going around town on New Year’s and is killing people at Midnight when it hits New Year’s in different time zones, all the while taunting a VJ on the air) but the thing that stuck out the most to me, was the fact that the killer isn’t that good at killing. He’s not exactly a bumble butt but he’s not exactly Johnny Suave either. Calling himself Evil, the killer kinda reminds me of Norman Bates from Psycho II and Psycho III. He’s not a criminal mastermind and watching him try and kill his victims or even survive a motorcycle gang, is slightly entertaining. It’s like the best episodes of Breaking Bad or Dexter, where the main characters would find themselves backed into a corner and then seeing them figure out a way out of the corner through cunning and wit. It’s like those situations but if the main characters of those shows were incompetent. Outside of the performance of Kip Niven, there’s not much here to recommend.

Grade: D+

Jan. 4—The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2018)

A red hot up and coming director who was the talk of the town due to the phenomenal The Ruling Class, Peter Medak immediately had offers coming at him from every which way. Every actor and studio wanted to work with him but the one that eventually landed him would be the one to almost torpedo his career. Peter Sellers had just purchased the rights to the novel ‘Ghost in the Noonday Sun’ and wanted to turn it into a swashbuckling farce and thought the director of The Ruling Class — a film about a man who thinks he’s Jesus who becomes cured of his delusions, only to end up thinking he’s Jack the Ripper — would be perfect for the job. To Medak’s credit, his lack of comedy expertise was not the problem. From day one, Sellers proved to be a pain in the ass and the problems only grew from there.

It took him forever to finalize the script and once they started shooting, he used every excuse under the sun to get out of the production. He faked a heart attack, fought with his costar so much, that entire scenes had to be scrapped because neither could be on set together in fear that they’d actually kill each other and he even tried to stage a mutiny. His antics all but guaranteed the film would be unreleasable and it was. While it didn’t outright kill his career, the failure of the film drastically changed the filmography of Medak. Who knows what films he could’ve made if it wasn’t for this film. This documentary covers that disaster in depth and acts like an exorcism in the last third. He needs to purge himself of the ghost that’s been haunting him all of these years, hence the title. While it does dip a bit too much into the old “oh woe is me”, it nevertheless offers an interesting look into the filmmaking process and covers a topic most of us have never heard of.

Grade B

Jan. 5—World of Tomorrow Episode Three: The Absent Destinations of David Prime (2020)

A heady mixture of sci-fi tropes and philosophical concepts, the World of Tomorrow trilogy is Hertzfeldt’s most ambitious project yet; which is saying a lot considering he made an entire short examining the meaning of life. In the first one, Emily is an infant from the present day who meets an adult clone of herself from the future. The malfunctioning third generation clone time traveled for two reasons: 1) To tell the extremely disinterested child what life will be like in about 100 years and 2) To retrieve a memory from the child the clone can no longer remember. In the second one, the clone comes back to tell the still infant Emily about the story of David, her doomed lover and in this one, she visits one of the first Davids to give him a mission that involves killing one of his future clones.

Hertzfeldt’s vision of a world made up of scientifically created orphans, human life cycle as an art exhibit, romantic entanglements with rocks and clones and time travel, is definitely the most cerebral and profoundly moving depiction of the future I’ve ever seen. I have to see this a couple of more times before I make one of my trademark hyperbolic statements but right now, this is the best time travel story I’ve ever seen. The logic makes sense and it ties the previous two films together in a way that’s brilliant and touching. Hertzfeldt is a genius and this is his masterwork.

Grade: A+

Jan. 6—The Caller (1987)

This film feels like it was born out of either a bet or a writing exercise. The Dogme 95 movement had more freedom for a creator and those guidelines were notoriously strict. Not only does The Caller have just two actors in it, the film doesn’t even tell you what it is about till the final fifteen minutes. There are many movies with miniscule casts but they’re almost always showcases for an actor to act. Tom Hardy and Ryan Reynolds both garnered rave reviews for their performances in Locke and Buried respectively but you knew what those films were about from the first frame. They were films built around the performances, not the mystery. The Caller has the impossible job of keeping you engaged while telling you nothing and the fact that it does so with just two actors, it’s kind of incredible. Malcolm McDowell plays a mysterious stranger who asks a woman (played by Madolyn Smith Osborne) if he can use her phone to call a tow truck. She’s obviously reluctant because he’s a stranger and she’s by herself in the middle of the woods but as the conversation goes on, it seems like she’s hiding something that she doesn’t want him finding out. I’m not going to reveal anymore but trust me when I say, whatever you think the twist is, I guarantee you you’re way off. Since the information it doles out is limited and since the characters both act cryptic and vague, the film can feel a bit frustrating at times but stick with it because the revelation is worth it.

Grade: C+

Jan. 7—Who Am I This Time (1982)

A made for TV movie based on a short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Who Am I This Time tells the story of a shy hardware employee who, like Daniel Day-Lewis, is so method, that his entire persona changes whenever he takes a part in a local amateur theater production. On a whim, a new girl in town decides to audition for the role of Stella for the latest production of A Streetcar Named Desire and due to her instant and magnetic chemistry with the hardware employees Stanley, she lands the role. Before anyone realizes the affection that’s been growing between the two during script readings and rehearsals, she falls deeply in love with the sexy brute, not knowing what the real man is like.

A simple premise I’m amazed hasn’t been remade a million times by now, Who Am I This Time is a breezy romcom (it runs barely 70 minutes) buoyed by strong performances from the two leads played by Christopher Walken and Susan Sarandon. He’s at his most Walken-esque (you haven’t lived till you’ve seen him as Cyrano de Bergerac) and she’s at her most wide eyed adorable. It’s also worth noting that Jonathan Demme directed this. He doesn’t do much to make this seem less stagey but it’s not like he had the budget or resources to elevate the material. If you’re looking for a romantic movie you’ve never seen or want to see a great Walken performance you’ve never heard of, give it a shot.

Grade: C+

Jan. 8—Cinema Paradiso (1988)

I put this in the same category as something like Full Metal Jacket or Stripes, films that have amazing first halves and ok second halves. I guarantee the people who adore this film only think about the first section because the second section is almost forgettable. The first starts with a movie obsessed eight year old who wants nothing more than to be a projectionist. Because the village he lives in is so small, the theater that he frequents is at the epicenter of everything. Everyone in the village goes to the movies, so to young Salvatore, the projectionist is solely responsible for making people believe in magic. He gives them happiness and for a couple hours a day, makes them forget about their troubles. It’s the dream job and he wants it more than anything.

His passion and love for cinema is infectious. Rom-coms wish they had male leads that look at their female costars the way Giuseppe looks at movies. He’s drunk in love with cinema and his journey to becoming a projectionist is as delightful as it is entertaining. The second part is also a love story but since it’s about a 17 year old Salvatore trying to woo a girl he has a crush on, it’s nowhere near as interesting. The film becomes a standard romance movie and while the quality never drops below watchable, it’s still disappointing that the film dips at all. I will say the ending goes a long way in saving the second half and actually makes that section with it. It’s not a perfect film but on the strength of that first half and that ending alone, I can see why people consider this a masterpiece.

Grade: B

Jan. 9—Blood Games (1990)

An attempted collection of a baseball game’s gambling debt goes terribly wrong when both the manager of a girl’s baseball team and the captain of the men’s team wind up dead. With his father out for blood and a team looking for revenge, the girl’s baseball team must band together to survive a vicious attack that will leave most of them dead, raped or both. An exploitation film that feels like it should’ve been made fifteen years previous, Blood Games is a slight Deliverance knock off in that there’s people being hunted in the woods by rednecks and obviously the rape. While not as prevalent or explicit as many films within this genre, there’s still a rape scene and even an attempted rape scene, so just know that going in. I don’t think either scene detracts from the overall experience but like scenes of animals dying in films, I know it’s something that immediately turns people off. If you can look past that, this is a surprisingly decent entry in the Deliverance knock off sub-genre.

Grade: C+

Jan. 10—Burst City (1982)

There’s two kinds of punks: the anarchic and the chaotic and there’s a difference between anarchy and chaos. One wants no rules and the other wants a different set of rules. Anarchists are usually a bit more pro active in their mission, while typical punks are just bums with designer clothes that are meant to look trashy. Burst City is a movie about those types of punks. The ones that think they’re rebelling against the system because they don’t conform, man. They don’t wear fancy suits and ties and go to work because that’s what society wants you to do. They’d rather wear the exact same shit as everyone around them and do nothing but be loud and obnoxious. That’ll show em! That’s this film in a nutshell. It feels like that movie Mr. Brainwash tried to make with the footage he shot for years that Banksy eventually turned into Exit Through the Giftshop. It’s unfocused, loud and annoying and it’s filled with enough sharp edits and shaky cam to make you vomit. If this movie was a punk, the only thing it would be rebelling against is good filmmaking.

Grade: F

Jan. 11—Wise Blood (1972)

I love Brad Dourif and I love when he’s given the chance to actually act in something because he attacks a role like a junk yard dog but not even he can save this film. Hell, this film has two of the all time great scene stealers (Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty) and even they can’t save this film. Wise Blood is about a street peacher who wants to start a new religion in which you are your own redeemer, not God. You don’t have to pay anything and you don’t have to pray. You fix your own problems. It’s a premise ripe for potential. You could easily make a razor sharp satire out of it with religion and/or televangelists being the major targets. You could explore why people follow other people and why we find comfort in believing in an unseen entity. There’s so many avenues you could go down and this film doesn’t go down any of them. There are so many pointless digressions in this movie. There’s a character who steals a gorilla costume and goes around town scaring people, there’s a subplot involving a mummified baby, another one about a blind peacher who turns out to be a grifter and another one about a con man who stole the main character’s religion and is trying to capitalize off of it himself. I don’t understand why the film goes out of its way to focus on everything but the plot but that’s the 70s for ya.

Grade: D

Jan. 12—The Prey (1983)

If you were to remove every second of stock nature footage and every moment that feels directly lifted from Friday the 13th, the only thing left from this movie would be it’s incredibly gross implied ending. And I guess its fantastic tagline. “It’s not human and it has an axe” is enough to sell any diehard horror fan but man, the creativity ends there. It really is nothing but gratuitous nature shots that feel wedged in just to pad the length and scene after scene of uninteresting “teens” walking around the woods. There’s not a single good or even passable kill, not a single titty to keep you invested and the monster is laughably bad. The only memorable thing is the ending, which I previously mentioned is awful. I have to give the director credit, I haven’t seen an ending that skin crawling gross in a long time. He turned the sound of a baby laughing into a thing of horror, which is really impressive. Too bad there’s nothing else even remotely that good or interesting anywhere else in this film.

Grade: F

Jan. 13—Affliction (1997)

A small town policeman (Nick Nolte) must investigate a suspicious hunting accident but due to the investigation being stonewalled at every corner and the sudden arrival of his father (James Coburn) back into his life, the policeman’s mental state slowly starts to disintegrate. While I’ve never heard then mention this movie directly, I can’t imagine this wasn’t a huge influence on the work of The Safdie Brothers. It has the same anxiety inducing tension as Uncut Gems and Good Time but without the ticking clock of dread. You know from frame one that those films are building to an explosive climax because the tension starts immediately, where as this is a slow build up to everything falling apart.

Once Nolte’s character starts to unwind around the halfway point, you start to suspect that shit isn’t going to end well. And it’s from that point that it reminds me of a Safdie Brothers movie. Much like Sandler and Pattinson in those films, he’s slowly drowning and if they’d just hold on to the life preserver, they’d survive but they just can’t. They have to see their terrible plans to the bitter end and it becomes their undoing. It’s a fascinating character brought to life by a career best Nolte. He, along with a solid cast of amazing actors such as Sissy Spacek, Willem Dafoe and the aforementioned Coburn (who also gives his best performance in this) make this one of Schrader’s best.

Grade: B+

Jan. 14—One Night in Miami (2020)

Adapted by Kemp Powers from his own play, One Night in Miami tells the fictitious story of four African American icons meeting up in a hotel room and how history changed for all of them after that fateful night. There’s Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), who’s five seconds away from converting to Islam and becoming Muhammed Ali, Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), who’s put together this shindig in order to convince him to join his cause and to get Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) to do more for the civil rights movement and Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) who’s basically there to keep everyone from killing each other. First time director Regina King does an amazing job of keeping their conversations from feeling like a history lesson by periodically leaving the hotel to show the impact of the events.

You don’t just hear Malcolm X talk about Cooke’s amazing cappella performance that saved a concert hall from being destroyed by an angry mob, you get to see it. When Clay talks about being the greatest fighter in the world, it’s not just bravado because we witnessed the fight with our own eyes. It’s not just monologue after monologue (and honestly, the performances are so good, it could’ve been and I still would’ve loved it), it’s legendary events brought to life with vivid descriptions and amazingly acted flashbacks. I have no idea whether or not the events happened exactly the way they’re portrayed in this film, but as The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance put it “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” This isn’t a history lesson or a documentary, this is myth making and I want a hundred more myths this good by King.

Grade: A

Jan. 15—Brute Force (1947)

If it wasn’t for the cheeseball flashbacks, I’d consider this a perfect film. They don’t ruin the film by any means but they do feel studio mandated. Since every flashback portrays each inmate as a softy who did what they did out of love, it really feels like the director had to make them all likable for test audiences. Or that he had to compromise by either keeping the violence (which was pretty shocking for the time) or making the inmates good guys. You eliminate the flashbacks and the pace is instantly better and it keeps the characters morally ambiguous. It’s a small nitpick but since the rest of the film is so great, it’s frustrating that there’s only one element keeping it from being perfect. But like I said, the rest of the film is so great, it’s easy to overlook the 10% of cheese. Burt Lancaster is fantastic as a timeworn inmate desperate to escape and Hume Cronyn is on fire as the sadistic leader of the guards. Both of their individual stories are captivating (one half is Lancaster planning the heist and the other half is Cronyn torturing everyone he suspects of being an accomplice) and everything around them that helps fill in their plots are just as great. If you’re a fan of prison escape movies, Brute Force is essential viewing.

Grade: B+

Jan. 16—The Banker (1989)

I’d bet dollars to donuts that Bret Easton Ellis had this in mind when he wrote his 1991 novel American Psycho. The two stories are very similar but where they diverge is in there point of views. Ellis just took the villain of this, removed all the weird cult bullshit and made him the focal point. Which looking at the two stories, was obviously the right call. Nothing outside of the deranged banker in this is interesting except for Robert Forster. Forster takes a one note detective and injects him with that Forster likeability you see in every character he plays. He’s one of those actors like Bill Paxton or Michael Ironside that just makes every movie 10% better just by appearing in it. His performance, along with Duncan Regehr as the killer, are good enough to make this a slight hidden gem.

Grade: C+

Jan. 17—Save the Green Planet (2003)

When done properly, genre mashups can result in some of the most unique stories around. Comedy, like chocolate, seems to go well with everything. That is of course when you’re only mixing it with only one other thing. Horror and comedy go well together, as does action and sci-fi but mixing all of them plus torture porn is a recipe in failure. Save the Green Planet throws every genre into a bag, shakes it vigorously and the end result is a mess. Believing that his country’s leaders are actually toxic reptilian aliens sent down to launch a takeover of his beloved Earth, a young man decides to abduct a businessman to force the truth out of him with torture.

There are films that have used torture to comedic effect and there are films that have used insane conspiracy theorists as protagonists but the tones of those films are clearly comedic. This movie wants it both ways. The torture scenes and the investigation are played straight but then everything else is pitched at such a wacky tone, that it’s almost whiplash inducing. I never know what I’m supposed to latch onto. Am I supposed to sympathize with the lead? Am I supposed to think he’s a villain? Am I supposed to believe him? The premise is great and if it stuck to one tone (and fixed that terrible ending), I could see this inspiring a great remake.

Grade: C

Jan. 18—Alone (2020)

A stripped down, bare bones cat-and-mouse thriller that excels at keeping the plot simple but engaging. It doesn’t do anything new but instead focuses on doing everything right. A recently widowed traveler (Jules Willcox) is kidnapped by a cold blooded killer (Marc Menchaca), only to escape into the wilderness where she is forced to battle against the elements as her pursuer closes in on her. Kidnapping thrillers are usually broken down into three parts: the woman being stalked or pursued, the woman trying to figure out how to escape and then the escape itself. Most films usually focus on the the second part but Alone breaks that formula slightly. For one thing, the protagonist never does anything stupid throughout the entire film. She isn’t kidnapped because she was gullible or dumb, she doesn’t escape because of plot convenience and she survives because she’s tough. It’s refreshing to see a film of this ilk not resort to stupid shit to keep the plot moving. I appreciate when filmmakers spend the additional five seconds to make their horror films more believable because so many of them can’t be bothered.

Grade: B

Jan. 19—Lensman (1984)

Based on E. E. Doc Smith’s groundbreaking science fiction serial “Grey Lensman” from the 1930s-1950s, Lensman might be a case of too little, too late. Although it’s the first adaptation of the novel, “Grey Lensman” was so monumentally important to the genre, that all of its best ideas were pilfered long before this film came out. It’s the same problem John Carter had decades later, no one gave a shit about the story because they had already seen it a million times before. Even though that story was the inspiration for damn near everything that came out after it, since it took so long to get to the screen, the cow had been milked to death decades and decades earlier.

Lensman has a good enough plot: a young man from the agricultural planet Mquie and his Valerian companion, Buscirk find a dying man with a legendary crystal lens embedded in his hand. As the man was dying, he mysteriously passed on the Lens to Kim. With more companions to come by, Kim must find out the purpose of the Lens before the Boskone dynasty does. It’s very Green Lantern meets Star Wars and I bet that was amazing 80 years ago but now, it’s old hat. But the problem with the film isn’t that it’s rehashing stale ideas that it itself originated but the fact that it doesn’t even do anything interesting with them. I have no idea if the Lens can actually do anything because I can’t think of a single time it’s used. It’s like the Glaive in Krull, it’s very cool looking but since it’s almost never used, what’s the point? The rest of the film is paint by numbers sci-fi adventure shit that lost me by the half way point and eventually became  so boring, finishing it turned into a chore.

Grade: D+

Jan. 20—The Golden Horns (1973)

Although I haven’t seen many of them, the films I’ve seen within the Russian Fantastika genre were all, well, fantastic. Russians tell fairy tales much like a child would, with plot structures built on “and then” scenes that are all crazier than the last. Two children see hunters going after a legendary deer and then they get lured into the woods by goblins and then their mother has to go rescue them and then she gets a ring of protection from the deer from earlier and then she meets the sun, the moon and the wind who point her to Baba Yaga who notoriously kidnaps children and then she goes to confront her with her newfound magic. It’s less of a plot and more like things a child would create to pad out a story but since children are filled with nothing but imagination, the story is entertaining regardless of the absence of logic. It doesn’t make sense but it doesn’t need to, it just needs to hold your attention and it does. I can legitimately say I had no idea where it was going and I was eager to find out.

Grade: B

Jan. 21—Orochi the Eight Headed Dragon (1994)

A remake of 1959’s The Three Treasures (which itself is based on the adventures Yamato Takeru), Orochi the Eight Headed Dragon was intended to be the first of a planned trilogy, but due to it being a box office disappointment, it not only killed any talks of a franchise but signaled the end of Togo’s big budget monster movies. With the exception of Godzilla, they no longer make kaiju films, with this being the nail in the coffin and that’s a shame because if this came out decades earlier, it would be hailed as a classic. With an adventure plot similar to that of old school Harryhausen movies and special effects that rival any Ishirō Honda film, Orochi tells the story of a Prince who is instructed to go on a deadly quest after he accidentally kills his brother. The plot is paper thin and is really just an excuse to get from one set piece to another and since they’re all fun and memorable, it doesn’t really matter why he’s on his quest or what he’s even after. As long as he fights something weird every 10-15 minutes, I’m happy and he does. If you like Harryhausen films from the 70s, sword and sorcery films of the 80s and/or Kaiju films of any era, this will be right up your alley.

Grade: B

Jan. 22—Blackout (1985)

A slow burn TV movie that’s more Agatha Christie mystery than a slasher as the poster would suggest. A police officer (Richard Widmark) suspects that a local husband and father who has recently undergone facial surgery because of injuries received in a car accident is in reality the same man who committed a quadruple murder several years before. Since there’s only two suspects (Keith Carradine and Michael Beck) and one of them is introduced late into the film, a large portion of the runtime is dedicated to the detective harassing the lead and the lead, who’s suffering from amnesia, questioning whether or not he actually did it. It’s a lot of build up but the last fifteen minutes almost makes up for it. Once the killer is finally revealed and they start their killing spree, the film kicks into fifth gear. That section is so good, I don’t know why the filmmaker’s even bothered with the mystery bullshit.

Grade: C

Jan. 23—The Drifting Classroom (1987)

Based on the manga of the same name by Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom is a perfect example of interpretation versus pure adaptation. If you were to translate this story to the screen with minimal changes, it would feel like a dark and surreal Lord of the Flies. An entire Japanese international grade school—and all within—are mysteriously transported to a post apocalyptic desert wasteland. As the story unfolds, the diminishing student body must contend with a whole host of problems such as dangerous megafauna, psychological breakdowns and both students and teachers alike turning feral, all while trying to search for clues about their surroundings and how to get back home. Both the manga and the film deal with the same exact sequence of events but where they differ is the tone.

The manga is extremely violent, with multiple characters getting brutally murdered and some even getting raped. It doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of desperation. The film on the other hand, is directed by none other than Nobuhiko Obayashi, which for genre fans is WTF royalty because he made one of the great masterpieces of the sub-genre: Hausu. If you know that movie, you know what to expect and while it’s nowhere near as good as that film, the tones are similar. They’re both batshit insane. Kids still die in this and there’s an almost attempted rape but there’s also a cute lil alien creature and giant cockroach monsters, so explicit violence is obviously less important to him than the outlandish. It doesn’t all work but when the end result is this entertaining, it doesn’t really matter.

Grade: C+

Jan. 24—Enemy Territory (1987)

One of my all time favorite sub sub genres of film, is the siege film. Popularized by Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (which itself is a slight riff on the end of Rio Bravo), the siege film is categorized as a film in which a small group of people confined to a singular location must defend themselves from people outside trying to get in in order to murder them. Think Green Room or From Dusk Till Dawn or Trespass or Blood Creek or Demon Knight. Two of the best and most underrated ones — Enemy Territory and Self Defense — both have what the other one is missing. One is more serious but lacks a great villain, while the other is a bit more over the top but has a memorable baddie.

While not as realistic as Self Defense, Enemy Territory still provides enough action and thrills to keep you on the edge of your seat. After an insurance salesman (Gary Frank) gets trapped after dark in an apartment building terrorized by a street gang called The Vampires, he must enlist the aid of anyone he can in order to survive the night. The supporting cast is all great (Ray Parker Jr, Stacy Dash, Jan-Michael Vincent) but the MVP is Tony Todd as the leader of The Vampires. He’s not in it enough but every time he’s on screen, he owns the movie. Again, it’s a tad unrealistic in places (Jan-Michael Vincent plays a crippled Vietnam vet who’s entire apartment is covered in sheet metal and his wheelchair feels like it was stolen from a James Bond villain. It can shoot bolts and other projectiles) but not enough to take away from it’s entertainment value.

Grade: B

Jan. 25—Self Defense (1983)

Because of their claustrophobic nature, films within the siege sub-genre are usually the perfect blend of tension and action. The more confined the space, the more desperate the characters are, which in turn creates suspense because you want to find out how they’re going to survive and the answer is always through action. The bigger the threat, the more the characters have to band together to survive, which makes their victory that much more sweeter. Self Defense has arguably the tightest script of any of the Assault on Precinct 13 clones. It explains why they can’t just call the cops (the film takes place during the real life police strike that happened in Nova Scotia), it has likeable characters you want to see survive, their plan to fight back isn’t ridiculous and actually seems plausible and the villains are legitimately horrible. The film starts with them terrorizing a small gay club and after they accidentally kill one of the patrons, their leader comes over to finish them all off but during the executions, one of them escapes. They’re doing all of this just to kill a homosexual because that’s what they do. They’re truly repugnant people but those types of people exist, so they never feel cartoonishly evil. They just feel evil. If you like siege films, Self Defense is an underrated gem well with your time.

Grade: B+

Jan. 26—American Hot Wax (1978)

Biopics, especially ones based on musical artists, are basically cinematic book reports. They’re a recount of all the major beats with some fictionalized melodrama added in for dramatic effect. They’re Cliff’s Notes without any of that fun pizzazz that makes biopics barely tolerable. American Hot Wax ditches that formula in favor of a loose framework in order to wedge in as many musical acts as possible and the end result is a fascinating mess. It’s a film that has no interest in explaining the subject at the center of its story or why or even if they’re important or famous enough to even warrant a film in the first place. If you have no idea who Alan Freed was, what is contributions to rock ‘n’ roll are or what ‘Payola’ is, this movie is not going to do anything for you. This film spends more time on Jay Leno and Fran Drescher bickering (they’re in the movie for about ten minutes and they’re the worst thing about it) then it does on Alan Freed as a character, so if you’re looking for a straight nuts and bolts biography, you’re going to be disappointed.

It’s not about Freed per se, it instead uses him as an anchor in which to tell various different stories. There’s one about an amateur songwriter (played by Lorraine Newman), another about a chauffeur trying to romance Freed’s secretary (Leno and Drescher) and one about a teenager in a Buddy Holly fan club. It’s an odd choice for a structure that I don’t think pays off and I feel as though the filmmakers themselves didn’t really care about the stories either because they’re all dropped in service to the last twenty minutes which is nothing but musical acts. There’s Chuck Berry, Screaming Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis among others. The musical acts (which are also reason this film will most likely never be released on DVD or Blu-ray) are far and away the best thing about it and I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you just skipped to the end just to watch them.

Grade: C+

Jan. 27—The Boy God (1982)

The Boy God is kind of like a live action Kung Fu Panda but instead of a karate obsessed panda fighting anthropomorphic martial arts experts, it’s an equally chubby twelve year old boy who has inexplicably strong skin and the martial artists in this are witches, vampires and werewolves. If that comparison made no sense to you, congratulations, you’re half way to understanding The Boy God. Logic doesn’t exist here. Insane things happen in this film with no discernable reason. The movie starts with the protagonists parents being gunned down by thugs and not but fifteen minutes later, the village is getting attacked by Nazi werewolves and vampires and there’s also a trio of witches who try to eat the Boy God at least three times. I call the werewolves Nazis because you find out that an evil german scientist is behind all of the monster mayhem (and that’s after the Boy God goes to the underworld to battle an assortment of evildoers in order to free his parents who are imprisoned there) and would you believe that the evil german scientist is none other than Josef Mengele? I wouldn’t and I watched the damn thing. This movie is as hard to follow as a child describing their favorite thing while hoped up on sugar and I loved every second of it.

Grade: WTF

Jan. 28—Teen Alien (1978)

Nobody who loves the documentary American Movie, loves it because they like making fun of Mark Borchardt. They can laugh at his incompetence and the cheesiness of the production but the reason they return to it and the reason they quote it isn’t out of malice. It’s a deep admiration for his commitment to filmmaking. Borchardt is not a talented director but it’s his passion that people are drawn to. It’s the same reason there are cults for the films of Don Dohler and The Polonia Brothers. There’s just something about no budget rural filmmakers that certain cinephiles are drawn to and I’m one of them. It’s that “let’s put on a show in the barn” type energy that they all have except the barn is usually the woods and the actors have never read anything aloud before in their lives. Teen Alien bucks that trend in that it doesn’t take place in the woods. There’s an actual location! It’s an abandoned warehouse but still. The acting still feels like everyone in the cast won a contest to be in a movie because that’s exactly what happened.

The plot is paper thin (a group of teens decide to use an abandoned warehouse as a haunted house for Halloween and while there, they find out that it’s actually the hideout of an alien) and boy does it ever stretch out that nothing. You will have to sit through at least 70 minutes of teenagers setting up Halloween decorations and general padding before you get to the titular teen alien and the film is only 90 minutes long. But again, if you’re looking for quality from a rural horror/sci-fi film, you’re in the wrong place. You appreciate them as cinematic time capsules. Back when anyone could shoot a movie on video and as long as it had a good enough cover, it could end up in video rental stores. This is a relic of a different time. A time that doesn’t exist anymore and because of that, watching it makes me nostalgic for the good ol’ days and that’s worth a helluva lot more than technical proficiency.

Grade: C

Jan. 29—When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder (1979)

When a drug dealers car breaks down in a small U.S. town, he decides to stay at a local diner till it’s fixed and while there, he subjects everyone inside to his unique brand of physical and mental torture. Like a kid pulling the wings off of a butterfly, he’s torturing these people for no other reason than because he can. They are there and he’s bored, so to pass the time, he’s going to ruin their lives. Played by Marjoe Gortner, the stranger has a combination of oily preacher charm and the unpredictability of a madman and that’s because Gortner was one of those things in real life. At just four years old, he was famously the “World’s Youngest Ordained Minister” and would travel the country preaching the good word. There’s a documentary about him called Marjoe that covers his fascinating life in great detail, so I highly recommend you check that out if you want to know more about him but I only bring up his past to highlight why he’s so good a convincing people to do whatever he says. Because that’s literally what he used to do for a living and based on this performance, thank God he wasn’t a cult leader or a lot of people would be dead by now. His gift of the gab is that strong and effective. Picture the hotel scene from The Devil’s Rejects but about 40% less awful and replace Otis from that with a close approximation to Charles Manson and that’s this film.

Grade: B+

Jan. 30—Summer Camp Nightmare (1987)

There’s certain stories that can be told over and over again without ever feeling stale. There’s a reason why we keep getting new adaptations of A Christmas Carol or Dracula or Alice in Wonderland, people know those stories and like seeing new versions of them. While not exactly an adaptation of Lord of the Flies, Summer Camp Nightmare (also known as The Butterfly Revolution) has a very similar structure and it’s a structure that I never tire of. Whether it’s in comedies like Camp Nowhere or Heavyweights or in more serious fare like Taps, watching kids pull a mutiny and take shit over is always appealing to me. Like the previously mentioned comedies, this film takes place at a summer camp and follows those film’s plots pretty closely expect this one is more dark. Getting tired of the strict rules, a group of kids decide to take over the camp and because their leader is a power hungry psychopath, shit immediately falls apart. There’s killings, attempted rapes and general disorder. While I wish it went a tad further into the bleak, it’s still dark enough to recommend as a solid thriller.

Grade: B

Jan. 31—The Traveling Executioner (1970)

There have been many articles written about whether or not cult films can exist in the age of streaming or if the abundance of choice has killed discovery. It’s hard for anything to live with you, if you’re getting new shit literally daily. It’s an interesting theory but I have my own reason why cult films are nearly impossible in the 21st century. There’s simply no more weird actors anymore. There’s not a single actor working today that does what Bud Cort can do. I don’t think he picked movies that suited his unique sensibilities, I truly believe that his mere presence warped movies to be weirder. That’s why he’s only in Heat in an uncredited cameo for three minutes, any longer and De Niro’s characters next heist would’ve involved him and his crew in homemade bird suits.

Cort is the cinematic equivalent to a finger in your ass: if you’re not prepared for it, it’s awkward as hell and if you are, it’s a great time. I don’t think this movie was originally supposed to be a black comedy. It’s about a traveling executioner for Christ’s sake but since he’s in it (and only briefly mind you), the tone just magically became more quirky.

Stacy Keach (who’s fantastic in this) plays the titular traveling executioner who, as his job title suggests, guess from county to county with his electric chair and sends death row inmates to the golden fields of ambrosia sizzling like bacon. He loves his work but his latest job presents him with a bit of a pickle: she’s a woman. And not only that, she’s a very good looking woman. As you can guess, he falls for her and the rest of the movie is him scheming to try and get her out. It bounces back and forth between a realistic drama and a goofball comedy from the 70s. The tone is very odd but again, that’s to be expected from a Bud Cort movie. I can’t guarantee you’ll like it but I can guarantee you haven’t seen many films like it.

Grade: B

What movies did you watch last month?

Author: Sailor Monsoon

I stab.