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.
Mar. 1—Message From Space (1978)
Lucas must have given an interview around the time of the release of the first Star Wars where he talked about Hidden Fortress being an inspiration on him because shortly after, the rip-offs started using Kurosawa as their jumping off point as well. The first (and by no means the last) Seven Samurai riff with a sci-fi theme, Message From Space is about a peaceful planet that sends out eight magical walnuts (the film calls them Liabe holy seeds but c’mon, they walnuts) each to be received by warriors who will come together to help them defeat some evil guy who wants to do….something. There’s a peppy princess, a trio of annoying jerk asses, a horribly drunk Vic Morrow and an embarrassed Sonny Chiba. There’s also a robot that looks like a trash can. Damn near the entire runtime is dedicated to rounding up these warriors and let me tell you, it’s nowhere near as exciting as Seven Samurai or even Battle Beyond the Stars. You will not care why they are picked, why they want to fight or even if they succeed. The villains look cool and some of the special effects are good enough to be passable but the quest is boring, almost all the characters are unlikable or forgettable and it’s a tad too long. But the last third does have some entertaining enough action, so it gets a pass.
Mar. 2—Ghost Keeper (1981)
While not technically a lie, the film’s title is extremely misleading. The film does involve a keeper of ghosts if one counts the wendigo, which is, at best, a spirit inhabiting the body of someone, to be a ghost. Why this film didn’t lean into its premise on the poster or promotional art is beyond me, nor do I understand why the film wanted to trick you the viewer into watching it when they could’ve easily lied in another way and been truthful at the same time. They could’ve called it ‘The Blood-Hungry Wendigo’ or ‘Attack of the Snow Cannibal’ and had some insane poster art, like a wild beast man lunging at you with a cleaver and that would’ve been better and more accurate. It still would’ve been a goddamn lie since the “wendigo” is just a weird looking zombie man in a meat locker that kills maybe one person but it would’ve worked better than the boring (and misleading) title it has now. If you’re going to be misleading, at least have fun with it. But fun is a concept neither the director, writer or marketing team has ever heard of before.
Three people are stuck in a ski lodge due to a blizzard or a broken snowmobile or some inexplicable plot contrivance and while there, they slowly get picked off one by one by the deranged owner and operator of the lodge and her murderous son. They have to murder them in order to feed the aforementioned wendigo they have locked in a locker. Why they have the wendigo, how they got it and why they continue to care for it, are questions that I never got answers to or were answered in a way that was so dumb, it bounced off my brain like fat kid on a trampoline. It’s slow, almost nothing happens and not a single character acts or behaves like an actual human being. The leads are in a relationship that makes no sense (he’s allowed to cheat but she isn’t), the female lead’s best friend is openly flirting with her husband in front of her, she also has traumatic brain problems that are mentioned and never addressed again and the boyfriend goes Vietnam war crazy maybe five seconds after the shit hits the fan. It’s utter nonsense and worst of all, it’s boring nonsense.
Mar. 3—Retaliation (1968)
An important stepping stone for many within the Yakuza sub-genre, Retaliation is ground zero for both the director and the stars. This was released two years before Yasuharu Hasebe and soon-to-be-superstar Meiko Kaji collaborated on the immortal Stray Cat Rock series and was right before the Battles Without Honor and Humanity series, which starred Akira Kobayashi. The only one that was famous beforehand was Joe Shishido, but since his film Branded to Kill had only released a year previous, I’m going to include him as an example of a new rising star who got his start with this movie. For many of you, these are just names that hold no significance, so you’re just going to have to trust me when I say they’re all important and indispensable to the genre.
After a long stint in prison, a Yakuza lieutenant discovers that his gang has disintegrated while he was in the pen. Teaming up with an old rival gang who promises him a prominent position if he helps them deal with a rival family, the Yakuza lieutenant starts working his way back up the ladder of crime until betrayal and broken pledges of loyalty force him to take revenge. Brutal, ugly and nasty, Retaliation pulls no punches and doesn’t skimp on the violence. This isn’t a romanticized look at underworld honour — this is a gang of murderous thugs who do reprehensible things for money. There is a certain code they live by but as Pirates of the Caribbean puts it, the code is more of a guideline. The “hero” is only the hero by default. He’s just slightly less horrible than everyone around him. He’s not suave like an American gangster or cool like Japanese gangster. He’s a cold blooded killer they made the fatal mistake of betraying. This radical change to the paradigm paved the way for Fukusaku’s revisionist yakuza pictures of the 1970s and helped deglamorize the gangster film going forward.
Mar. 4—Fat City (1972)
Call it a case of impossible expectations or being sold a completely different film by a misleading plot synopsis but Fat City was a crushing disappointment. IMDB and Letterboxd describe the film thusly: “two men, working as professional boxers, come to blows when their careers each begin to take opposite momentum” and maybe half of that is correct. The film is about boxing and there are two boxers on opposite trajectories but they hardly interact, much less fight each other. 75% of this deals with Stacey Keach and Susan Tyrell yelling at each other, 20% of Jeff Bridges trying to make it as an amateur boxer and 5% of Keach actually boxing. That’s not an exaggeration, this has as much to do with boxing as Silver Linings Playbook has to do with dancing.
Probably less so because there’s at least scenes of them practicing in that and it ends with a dance competition. Keach, who again, is the lead and focal point of the film, is in exactly one boxing match and it’s not even the triumphant end to the film. There’s still like fifteen minutes left after that. This is not a boxing movie. What it is, is a showcase for Susan Tyrell to be as insane as humanly possible for forty odd minutes. She’s Herculean strong in this. She blows everyone else off the screen and that’s saying everything considering Keach and Bridges are at the top of their game here. If you’re looking for a great sports movie look elsewhere but if you want to see an amazing showcase of an actress’s abilities, you’d be hard pressed to find better examples.
Mar. 5—The Odd Couple (1968)
After Abbott and Costello, there was Martin and Lewis and following them, it was Matthau and Lemon and that was it. They weren’t the first comedy duo and few would argue that they were the best but it’s impossible to find one since that can hold a candle. Their chemistry together is magic and they play off of each other like masterful jazz musicians. I can’t tell if they’re riffing or if they’re so good, they can make the script sound ad libbed. It doesn’t hurt that they’re working with debatably Neil Simon’s greatest play. Like a play, it’s structured in three acts. There’s the suicidal Felix bit (which has some of the funniest one liners I’ve ever heard in it), the Felix and Oscar trying to live together part and the last act, which is Oscar trying to kill Felix. It’s never as funny as it is in the beginning but their undeniable chemistry makes the other two parts definitely entertaining.
Mar. 6—Vicious Lips (1986)
In the days of video rental stores, guys like Albert Pyun were gods. They were the independent mavericks that took advantage of the fact that places like Blockbuster needed anything to fill the shelves. It was the literal definition of quantity over quality and the ones with the best covers and posters became honest to goodness hits. The Sword and the Sorcerer, which had an amazing poster by fantasy legend Peter Andrew Jones, was such a massive success, that it bought Pyun the rest of his career. Which, if you know his filmography, is only half a good thing. You can look at The Sword and the Sorcerer is a gift that gave us Cyborg, Nemesis and the underrated Radioactive Dreams or, you could look The Sword and the Sorcerer as the curse that plagued us with Captain America, Alien in L.A. and Vicious Lips. As much as I like the films I like of Pyun, I don’t know if they’re worth a Vicious Lips.
Hell, as much as I love and miss Blockbuster, I don’t even think it was worth movies like Vicious Lips. It has nothing to do with the film’s almost non-existent set design or the atrocious acting or ridiculous costumes and hair or its stupid as fuck plot. No, the reason this film sucks, is because it’s as boring as doing your taxes in slow motion. A piss poor facsimile of Jem and the Holograms get stranded on an alien planet and not a single goddamn thing happens. On screen that is. If you’re a big fan of multitasking and you somehow lost a bet to watch this, you’ll get a shit ton done. You can do laundry, make yourself a sammich, clean up around the house, do a little bit of exercise, take a shower and a nap and at whatever point you get back to the movie, you would have lost nothing of value. Even if you only catch the end credits. Watching television static is more entertaining and rewarding than this.
Mar. 7—Mean Johnny Barrows (1976)
The blaxploitation boom of the 70s isn’t too dissimilar from Cannon Film’s insane output of the 80s. It only lasted for about a decade, it produced about a million tons of shit and only a handful of gems still get talked about today. They were both eras of film that were incredibly important to cinema because they were among the last time independent studios could play in the same sandbox as the big kids. Without those two eras, we wouldn’t have gotten the independent scene of the 90s and studios like A24 might not exist. So in a way, films like Mean Johnny Barrows are responsible for films like Pulp Fiction or Minari. There has to be precedent set to convince studios to bankroll smaller productions and films like these—that were made for pennies and nickels and grossed many more times that—proved it was a viable system. And to be clear, when I say “films like these”, I mean the uber hits within the genre. The Shafts and Superflys and what have you. Not specifically this film because this film was neither a hit or is warmly received by anyone.
Since Cannon is an outdated reference point, let’s compare this to one of the many Blumhouse films released within the last couple of years. If the top five blaxploitation films are your Get Outs, Paranormal Activitys and the Purges, this is like the third best film in their Into the Dark series. Since there’s about twenty plus films released so far in that collection, third place sounds pretty good but again, that’s only if you compare it to films within that collection and not Blumhouse as a whole. This isn’t even as good as the worst Purge movie and the worst Purge movie is the cinematic equivalent to a terrorist shitting his pants while committing multiple war crimes. It’s somehow bad on top of bad. But since that Amurica hating radical has GOD written on his forehead and kills people with a cartoonishly large mallet covered in glitter, you tend to remember it more than the aggressively mediocre TV movie who’s only positive, is that it didn’t make you want to eat your own eyes with a knife and a fork. Mean Johnny Barrows won’t make you eat your eyes but it will make you question your movie watching habits. You could’ve watched any other movie besides this. Hell, you could’ve watched at least fifty other blaxploitation films before you made it to this one but you decided to roll the dice and since you’re lady luck’s bitch, you got triple snake eyes. Next time you decide to clickety clack with a pair of cosmetic dice, make sure you check the film’s Letterboxd score, don’t just watch it because the poster was cool. Don’t be an idiot. Never gamble and never trust posters.
Mar. 8—Boss Level (2021)
What hath Groundhog Day wrought. One of a handful of movies that have the exact same premise, Boss Level is Groundhog Day but this time Bill Murray is played by Frank Grillo, Andie MacDowell is played by a bunch of assassins and the groundhog is Mel Gibson. Joe Carnahan’s filmography can be split into two radically different categories: the realistic dramas (The Grey and Narc) and the mindless action (A-Team and Smokin’ Aces) and Boss Level is definitely the latter. It’s dumber than a box of illiterate hammers and is littered with eye rolling stupid coincidences (everything solution to every problem he comes across just happens to be in the same bar, it takes him almost a half a year of dying every day before he realizes that he’s being tracked, one of his plans involves breaking into the bad guy’s lair with a fake pads and one of the assassins just happens to look identical to him, allowing him to use his ID and he becomes a master at sword fighting in literally less than fifty days) but there’s a lot of action and Grillo looks good without a shirt on, so there’s that.
Mar. 9—Voyage Into Space (1970)
Released around the same time as Ultra Q and Ultraman, Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot was one of the precursors to Power Rangers and its ilk. It laid the groundwork for an entire generation of TV shows about teenagers turning into stunt men wearing spandex and plastic shoulder pads. Apologizes to all of you nostalgia babies but all of those shows were terrible and even on their best day (I’m assuming that would either be the episode with all of the Rangers or the cross over with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I don’t know. I’m just taking a stab in the dark), they’re still nowhere near as fun as the worst episode of Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot. Now, I fully admit that that’s me 100% talking out of my ass because I’ve never seen a single episode of that show but if this film is any indication, than it blows all 280 seasons of Power Rangers out of the water. Actually, technically, I have seen a couple episodes. Four to be exact, because this film is a stitched up cinematic Frankenstein made up of four episodes. One for the beginning, two for the middle and the last for the ending. Whoever edited them all together deserves an Oscar because I never would’ve guessed it was cobbled together from various episodes. I mean, there’s very little plot and zero character development but I just assume that’s par for the course when it comes to kaiju movies. I watch these things to watch giant things punch other giant things till they die and that’s literally all this is. It’s 90 minutes of robot on monster action and I couldn’t be happier.
Mar. 10—Last Gasp (1995)
If you’re the type of guy (or gal, Sailor don’t discriminant baby) that watches horror movies for the nudity and not the kills, than Last Gasp is like getting two Christmases in one year! However, if you’re the type of guy that enjoys the Last Gasp, then you don’t even deserve one Christmas because you should be in prison. This is a soft core porno made with all the finesse and sexiness of a credit card commercial. Combining a Cinemax level skin flick with a slasher film isn’t the worst idea but neither one of those things is properly served. In an age before internet porn, the Cinemax movies at least delivered the “goods”. They knew what you needed: a shameful jerk at 3 am to help you go to sleep. There’s nothing wrong with it. They provided a service and the service was adequate. This on the other hand, provides nothing but the shame and the jerk.
With the jerk being you because you were suckered into watching it. The film is about a possessed Robert Patrick who must continually kill in order to satiate the blood lust of the evil Native American spirit that dwells inside him. If you haven’t guessed yet, all of his victims are big tittied women who, coincidentally, are also cursed by a spirit but this spirit is an evil horny exhibitionist that demands they get naked on the regular. Every single woman, all the time. If I’m selling you on this, let me remind you that internet porn still exists. You don’t need to watch movies just to catch a nipple anymore. Movies need plots and characters and goddamn it, you’re taking your pants off, aren’t you?
Mar. 11—Too Scared to Scream (1984)
Whenever he received criticism for ripping off Hitchcock, De Palma always shot back with “Hitchcock isn’t a director, he’s a genre” and when you see films like Too Scared to Scream, you can’t argue with him. To reveal which Hitchcock film this is, would ruin the twist (and trust me, you don’t want it spoiled because it’s utterly ridiculous) but trust me when I say, this is Kmart Hitchcock with copious amounts of off brand Velveeta cheese. The violence is so tame that you’ll forget it’s not a TV movie until the gratuitous nudity reminds you that this is a R rated theatrical film. The plot is split between a detective (Mike Conners) investigating the murders that keep happening in a fancy apartment complex and the odd maître d’ (Ian McShane) who, because of his eccentric behavior and the fact that the killings all happen on his shift, is the number one suspect. The film does everything in its power to convince you that he is the killer but since you’re not a newborn rube who’s never seen a movie before, you know he’s a red herring but if he’s not the one killing people, who is? I will say, the reveal did get me. Even if I guessed the characters I never would’ve guessed, I still wouldn’t have been able to guess. It comes out of nowhere and makes almost negative sense but for a movie like this, that’s a godsend. Come for baby face McShane and stay for that bonkers ending. Or stay for the tits. There’s a lot of tits in this.
Mar. 12—Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
There’s a bit in the first An Evening With Kevin Smith where the director recounts a story about his time on the unmade Tim Burton Superman movie. He was tasked with writing the script but had to keep adding increasingly outlandish things to appease the producer Jon Peters. He had to add a polar bear fight and an evil robot sidekick (to be voiced by Chris Rock) and remove the signature costume and his ability to fly. Oh, and he wanted the film to end with a giant spider fight. Those are the demands of just one producer, imagine if a whole room of them wanted insane things. That’s the only way I can describe Voyage of the Rock Aliens, a film made by a committee of crazy people.
One wanted a sci-fi film, one wanted a musical and one wanted a parody of 50s films. If that’s not enough, someone suggested they throw in a chainsaw wielding maniac (played by Michael Berryman), a giant, killer squid and Ruth Gordon as the sheriff. Do any of these things congeal into a cohesive whole? Absolutely fucking not but if it did, I doubt it would’ve been half as entertaining. If you’ve ever been shown a drawing of some indecipherable blob by a child and had to piece it together through impenetrable kid logic, than you understand what I mean when I say entertaining. Watching this and trying to figure out how and why it exists, is like solving a puzzle made by a lunatic. The plot is about a group of aliens that come to Earth to enroll in a battle of the bands and while here, they fall in love and run afoul of some greaser punks. I’m not 100% sure I liked it or was even entertained but I can safely say, I’ve never seen anything else like it.
Mar. 13—Conquest (1983)
I’m not the biggest fan of sword and sandals films nor am I particularly hot on director Lucio Fulci but hot damn is Conquest the cat’s tits. The plot is standard fantasy fare: a young man, armed with a magical bow and arrows, embarks on a mystical journey through a mystical land to rid it of all evil and joins forces with an outlaw to take down an evil witch bent on claiming the magic bow for evil. Quite frankly, if you’re watching this for the plot, you’re a narc. You’re the kind of guy who buys Playboy for the articles and asks for socks for Christmas. The only reason to watch this is for the action, the bizarre looking monsters (they look like werewolf woolies) and the evil naked witch. Who gives a shit what it’s about. There’s a reason Frank Frazetta didn’t write comic books — he could tell an entire story with just a painting of a badass muscular warrior surrounded by buxom beauties and terrifying creatures. You didn’t need thought bubbles or multiple panels in order to figure out the story, it was all there already. I’m almost positive you can follow this film if it was on mute. It’s action distilled down to its essential parts. Two guys go here, fight some monsters and then leave. Then they go over here, fight some more monsters and then leave. That’s basically the movie and that’s all it needs to be. It could’ve done with a lot less fog machine and vaseline on the lens but nobody’s perfect.
Mar. 14—Mondo Cane (1962)
Amongst the most controversial movies ever made, Mondo Cane kick-started a sub-genre of similar extreme documentary type films and was the great grand pappy to films like Faces of Death. Documenting the odd, the horrific and the brutal is a recipe for success that would pay off big time thirty years later, so this does deserve kudos for being ahead of its time. But kudos (and an inexplicably Oscar nom) is all this film deserves. Being influential and being good are not mutually exclusive. This was made in a time when a white woman kissing a black man was the most scandalous shit that could ever happen. This was made when Miracle Whip was too spicy for most Americans. This was made when a woman in a cone shaped brassiere was the sexiest fucking thing on the planet. Times were different, so obviously anything that showed a girl’s belly or a pig getting slaughtered, would melt brains. It’s not hard to shock someone but it is hard to keep them watching after they’ve been shocked and disgusted.
There’s not a single element of this film that kept my interest. I wasn’t excited to find out what was going to happen next and I certainly wasn’t shocked by anything I was seeing. The interment has spoiled me. There’s not a single scene in this I haven’t seen before and more hardcore. You will see naked titties in an African tribe, you will see mild animal abuse, a mild amount of violence and that’s basically it. Almost every segment is boring and not a single one was memorable. I’m desperately trying to remember five things that happened in this film and I’m coming up blank. I saw this less than two weeks ago and I can’t remember a single thing about it. It didn’t slide off my brain, it killed itself so that I never have to think about it again. More films should commit harakiri in order to unburden your brain with useless memories of a pointless movie. So thank you Mondo Cane, you’re the best.
Mar. 15—The City of the Dead (1960)
Time to grab your bingo sheets, Sailor has another controversial hot take: I think this is better than Black Sunday. Made at the exact same time, both films have similar plots (a witch curses a town and hundreds of years later, the curse starts claiming victims) and have similar atmosphere (the black and white cinematography is amazing in each film) but I think this one has a better pace. I think Bava is one of the all time greats but that movie is slower than a dying sloth and drags more ass than a dog with worms. This on the other hand, moves like a rocket. The plot is constantly unfolding, with new things introduced to keep you engaged. It starts as a Silent Hill-esque spooky town horror movie, then evolves into a Scooby Doo level mystery and then eventually becomes a full blown action movie with a lazer shooting crucifix and everything. This has given me a much greater appreciation for the director John Llewellyn Moxey, who’s films I’ve always liked but never connected the dots on who made them. He’s behind some of the best made for TV movies ever, such as: Home for the Holidays, Nightmare in Badham County and The Night Stalker. He’s an underrated voice in horror and he and this film need more respect.
Mar. 16—Torso (1973)
If insanity is defined by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, I’m certifiably cuckoo banana balls due to my repeated attempts to “get” Italian horror films. I keep trying to watch ’em and they keep disappointing me. Watching them is not too dissimilar from me in seventh grade trying to learn algebra (or calculus or whatever stupid bullshit math they taught in that grade), I was bored to tears and I got nothing out of the experience but the difference being, I dropped that shit faster than clothing brands drop athletes that have the audacity to smoke the devil’s weed on their days off. I hate math and I’ve done everything in my power to never use it in my life. I hate Italian horror films but much like the warm, sweet embrace of a reluctantly gay Heath Ledger, I just can’t quit it. I want to but they call to me like the most seductive of sirens. Which is apt because like those sailors looking to get it on with a mysterious sexy sea lady, I end up disappointed. I mean, they end up dead and devoured but blue balls is still blue balls. That analogy also works better than math because Torso at least has something to offer. Killer mermaids are usually half sexy, which, by my calculations, is 100% more than 0% boring and stupid, which is all that math is and while Torso is only about 30% good (like the hair and one of the titties), that’s still 70% better than math.
Look, the numbers might not work or even make sense but just know that Torso is closer to dick eating mermaids than math and in this specific case, that’s actually a positive. The film is about a psychosexual killer who strangles women with a scarf and the witness to his crimes who becomes stalked by him. Since she feels unsafe, she invites all of her girlfriends over to her villa and like so much cabin in the woods, they become victims of their own isolation. There’s a bunch of nudity, the killer’s mask is pretty nifty and there’s a stretch towards the end when the killer and the final girl are alone together in the house that’s rather good but none of that is anywhere near enough to recommend this film. One titty and some nice hair do not justify jumping off the ship but it’s better than nothing. And it’s still a million times better than math.
Mar. 17—Mutilations (1986)
A high school science teacher takes his students on a field trip to see a UFO sighting. What they didn’t expect, was that it was a flying saucer that’s taken up residence at a dilapidated farm house filled with alien predators that begin feeding on the students one by one. One of the reasons I resist calling films “so bad, they’re good” is due to the fact that even though it perfectly describes certain movies (like this one), it just doesn’t feel right lumping a micro budget student film in with vanity projects and expensive delusions of grandeur. Not a single person involved in the making of this thought they were making high art. They cobbled together whatever they had and went out and shot a movie, just because they could. This wasn’t made to kickstart a career or to paint the lead actor as a badass sex machine. It was made with the same intentions as a Don Dohler movie — purely for the hell of it and while the end result is obviously amateur, I respect these kids for actually doing it. The first half is a bit slow but once they get to the farmhouse, it becomes a ball. There’s some surprising decent effects, involving a man getting deflated and some adorable stop motion work. This is a real gem for fans films shot on SOV/8MM/16MM.
Mar. 18—Night of the Devils (1972)
The second adaptation of Tolstoy’s story the Wurdulak (the first of which was the third segment in the horror anthology Black Sabbath), Night of the Devils is an interesting twist on the undead/vampire mythos in that it introduces the element of love as a target. Upon damaging his car, Nicola (Gianni Garko) sets out for help, only to meet a mysterious family that lives in total fear of someone or something. At first, they seem like a bunch of superstitious kooks but eventually Nikola realizes the curse they’re all afraid of is as real as it is deadly. What the curse is, is an entity or some other evil force that allows its host body to come back to life but, like all undead things, it needs to kill the living. Not for sustenance; it’s not killing to feed but because of love.
You see, the more love someone has for you, like a parent or significant other for example, the more that person is going to go after you once they die. That’s the Wurdulak—a vampire-esque undead thing that hunts the ones it loves. It’s an amazing twist on the formula, one that I’m surprised hasn’t been done multiple times at this point. On top of that, the film actually lives up to that premise. While the Black Sabbath short is more effective (it would be impossible not to be at thirty minutes), this does a great job of elongating certain things and fleshing out some relationships that’s key for that ending to work. All in all, Night of the Devils is an underrated undead flick, so if you’re a fan of those, I recommend you check out.
Mar. 19—Frances (1982)
The true story of Frances Farmer’s meteoric rise to fame in Hollywood and the tragic turn her life took when she was blacklisted. When it comes to biopics, I don’t mind if they stretch the truth as long as they don’t make pieces of shit more sympathetic. Stretching the truth is one thing but twisting the facts to create a more compelling narrative is horse shit. Captain Phillips wasn’t a fucking hero, Freddy Mercury wasn’t tricked into doing drugs/being gay and Nina Simone wasn’t a drunken failure in perpetual blackface. I only mention this because the biography this is based on, has faced a fair amount of scrutiny over the years and I can see why. For one thing, the Sam Shepherd character is an amalgamation of multiple different people, none of which had a romantic relationship with Frances and the biggest point of contention, is the fact that the film manufactures a lobotomy wholesale.
Frances Farmer led an incredibly difficult life — her career disintegrated, she was in and out of mental institutions for “being difficult”, she was abused both physically and emotionally for years and was blacklisted in Hollywood for twenty years — so making up a lobotomy seems like overkill and frankly demeaning to her legacy but I didn’t have a problem with it. The film is as much about Hollywood’s cruel and indifferent attitude towards actresses during that time as it is about Frances, so stretching the facts seems appropriate because that’s what Hollywood did. It may not have happened to Frances but it happened all the time. The filmmakers are using her story to shine a light on every other story and I think it works in that regard. Having said that, if the film was worse, I probably would have a problem with it. Since it never feels like a cheesy Lifetime movie and has an Oscar caliber performance by Jessica Lange in it (seriously, you need to watch this movie for her performance alone), I think it’s good intentions supercede the controversial untruths.
Mar. 20—Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)
Cobbled together from various influences, Raya and the Last Dragon‘s greatest strengths are also the thing holding it back from greatness. The world and characters that reside in it are all fantastically designed and if this was a three season show, I bet it and they would be great but since the lackluster story is so cliché and trope heavy, it feels like we’ve seen everything this film has to offer before the fifteen minutes mark. I have to give the film credit, it doesn’t just borrow elements from the obvious things (there’s a lot of Avatar: The last Airbender and Star Wars in this), it feels like it borrows from everything. Certain films, like the amazingly bat shit The Visitor, take from so many things, that they stop being copycats and they circle around to being original and Raya almost accomplishes this. The well-worn archetypes and paint by numbers story could almost be forgiven if it was unique or interesting and it just isn’t. I actually kinda dug the lore and loved that it wasn’t a musical or love story but the fetch quest structure and uninteresting characters left me disinterested long before it ended. And it doesn’t help that the moral of the film (trust in people!) feels muddy and ham fisted. I think I would’ve liked this a lot more if it was a TV show instead. It could’ve fleshed out the characters more and had room to spread around all those influences and clichés so they didn’t feel bunched together.
Mar. 21—Firecracker (1980)
If you’ve never gone to a restaurant and just ordered appetizers instead of an entree for dinner, you can’t possibly relate to my occasional need for cheese cinema. If my movie watching was a diet, it would consist of extravagant dishes such as foie gras, pâté and white truffles, as well as gas station sushi, cheap ass nachos and stupid bullshit like cotton candy pizza with gummy bear toppings. I love the Criterion Channel but sometimes daddy needs to feast on trash. But not just any trash. I, like the fanciest of raccoons, have standards. I don’t fuck with mindless comedies, I tend to avoid so-bad-they’re-good movies and I never watch low budget shit released within the last twenty years. If I get the hunger, I always seek out horror movies or action movies I’ve never seen from the 80s and 90s. Anything before that is hit or miss and everything after that is too self aware to be enjoyable. Those two decades are the gold standard when it comes to primo trash because of films like Firecracker.
Films like this don’t exist anymore. Hollywood never made em and the maniacs that did, don’t work anymore. Everyone is too obsessed with making cinematic universes and making movies that make sense and have plots you can follow. Firecracker doesn’t care about any of that nonsense. All it wants to do is entertain you and it’ll throw as many nonsensical action scenes at you as it can in order to achieve this goal. Hell, there’s a fight scene in which the lead incrementally loses articles of her clothing until she’s fighting topless and in panties. This film doesn’t give a shit and we need more movies like it.
Mar. 22—Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)
With each zombie film I watch, my admiration for Night of the Living Dead grows and grows. I still think it’s a tad slow around the middle but the fact that there’s a zombie within the first five minutes, is insane to me. Romero does not get enough credit for how quickly he cuts to the chase. That movie hits the ground running in a way that’s frankly embarrassing to everything that came after it. It’s been 50+ years since it came out and it’s still running laps around fools. And low budget films, like this one, don’t even have the excuse of having no money because Romero made NOTL for less than 5% of the catering budget of a Marvel movie. It gives you the goods up front in order to buy itself the boring bits. Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is the exact opposite.
It makes you wait f o r e v e r to get to the zombie shit and while it is worth the wait, it could’ve gotten there a bit faster. A theater group (lead by an obnoxiously pretentious acting director) head off into the woods to perform a ritual on a corpse. The students go along with this bullshit in order to stay in the troupe (I can’t tell whether this is a satirical jab at Hollywood or not but if it is, it’s not a bad one) but the director’s motives are bit more nebulous to me. The first time they try it, it’s a set up to a prank but the second time, they actually go through with it but what was the end goal? Even if the zombie wasn’t hungry with brain lust, what the fuck was he going to do with it? Take it out on the town? His motivations aside, once the zombies finally show up, it’s a rollicking good trying. You just have to wait a long, long time for them to show up.
Mar. 23—The Little Norse Prince (1968)
It frustrates me to no end how close this film is to greatness. You have a legendary director at the helm (Isao Takahata), you have some of the best animation at the time (outside of the House of Mouse) and has action that gets so close to being a proto Samurai Jack, that I wouldn’t be surprised if this was an influence on Genndy Tartakovsky. But if it was, I guarantee he structured his show to be the exact opposite of this movie. It starts with our lil Sun Prince fighting a pack of wolves (which is terrific piece of action animation) that causes such a ruckus, that it wakes up an ancient rock giant. He has the Sun Prince pull a sword out of his shoulder and in doing so, fulfills an ancient prophecy or some such clap trap and yada yada yada, he’s now a diminutive King Arthur with a magical sword and quest and everything. It’s not the greatest or most original set up in the world but fantasy action is about as deep as a frisbee filled with jello. It doesn’t need to be complicated.
In fact, it works better when it isn’t but unfortunately The Little Norse Prince gets bogged down in so much not fantasy action stuff, that you’ll be begging for him to do anything with his sword. Cut a pizza, open a soda, use it as a toothpick, anything. He gets the sword right away but doesn’t use it again till the finale. The majority of the film involves him fucking around a town with a girl he likes who has a mysterious past. It’s clear to even the dullest and/or blindest viewer that the girl is somehow working for the evil wizard (I forgot to mention the evil wizard earlier. That’s my bad) that lil baby Sun Prince has to defeat. It takes a healthy amount of time for the film to catch up to what the audiences knew like an hour beforehand and when it does, the film becomes fun again. It short, whenever the main character is hitting things, the film is great. Every time he’s not, it isn’t. There’s far more scenes of him not doing anything action related than there are scenes of him doing anything action related, but since the action scenes themselves are much better than the non action scenes, it averages out to about a eh, good enough.
Mar. 24—Happy Happy Joy Joy: The Ren & Stimpy Story (2020)
I’m going the give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt because it was made before the infamous Buzzfeed article dropped, which forever taints the memory of this show. It’s impossible to talk about your love of it without also reckoning with the truth that its creator John Kricfalusi is a pedophile. He targets and grooms young teens and when they get too old, he replaces them with younger models. He’s a horrible piece of shit and the doc should’ve been about that instead of relegating that piece of information till the last twenty minutes. For those who don’t know about his past, the revelation comes as a jarring bombshell that will immediately leave a sour taste in your mouth. Because now you feel somewhat complicit due to your love of the show and because Kricfalusi is given ample amount of screen time and it’s very hard not to like the guy. He’s extremely charismatic and his energy and passion are infectious. Which is kind of a problem because the movie itself almost let’s him off the hook.
They address his past and even interview his victim but it feels thrown in at the last minute just because it needs to be addressed not because the filmmakers wanted to address it. They ask him if he regrets it and what he would say to his victim and when he sheds a couple of tears, they go right back to gushing over his creation. Again, I’m going to be a bit more lenient with them than I should because while his past was known to everyone who’s been in the know for years and years, the horrible details hadn’t really been released yet and if they were, I guarantee the tone of the documentary would’ve been completely different and Kricfalusi most definitely wouldn’t have participated. If you want the true, warts and all story, I recommend reading the book Sick Little Monkeys but if you just want to see a great doc covering a cartoon you loved as a kid, I think this one delivers the goods. It just stumbles when tackling the creator.
Mar. 25—The Silencing (2020)
Even though his career is barely five years old, Taylor Sheridan has proven successful enough to inspire his own copycats. Everything about this film, from the plot structure to the premise to the tone to the casting, feels ripped straight from Sheridan’s playbook. Take Wind River, move it from the snow hills of Wyoming to the woods of who gives a fuck, replace the seventh best Avenger with the second sexiest guy on Game of Thrones and remove any trace of a theme or message and that’s The Silencing. It’s a murder mystery that unravels in a way that makes you think it’s clever but it actually isn’t. A reformed hunter (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) becomes involved in a deadly game of cat and mouse when he and the local sheriff set out to track a vicious killer who may have kidnapped his daughter years ago. The “pathos” they give to Waldau’s character adds nothing, the red herrings make no sense and go no where, the killer has maybe one establishing scene before he’s revealed to be the bad guy and his motives are ill defined and nebulous. If you’re going to rip off one of the most promising new writers, next time do it better.
Mar. 26—Deadly Game (1991)
There are certain plots that have been retold so many times, that they become a genre unto themselves. Take for example The Most Dangerous Game, a novel that’s inspired so many imitators, the imitators have imitators. Even the films that don’t directly rip off its structure, at least owe Richard Connell a check. Some only owe him a couple of shmeckles like the Hunger Games and Battle Royale, while films like Deadly Game owe him royalties plus interest as well as an apology. Seven strangers are brought to an island by a mysterious businessman who intends to hunt them, not for sport but for revenge. That mild twist to the narrative (and I’m using the term twist loosely here), is the only remotely interesting thing about this TV movie. The cast is filled with a ton of that guy actors (Roddy McDowall, Michael Beck, Mitchell Ryan, Jenny Seagrove, Soon Teck Oh and Marc Singer), the action is almost serviceable, the twist at the end is ridiculously stupid (in a good way) and the villain (Fredric Lehne) is pretty great but if you’re looking for something to satiate your need for men hunting men action, look else where.
Mar. 27—Dark Tower (1989)
Every critic or moviegoer who has shit on Poltergeist III, should be required by law to have to sit through this turgid piece of shit. That film has its fair share of flaws to be sure but you can’t say it’s not well directed or has forward momentum. Shit is always happening in the film. You may not like what’s happening but it’s constantly doing something. Take away that film’s A+ direction (seriously, the in-camera mirror effects in that film still hold up) and plot progression and replace them with healthy heaps of absolutely nothing and you have Dark Tower. A haunted high-rise building is killing off people and only Michael Moriarty can save the day. That plot description makes it sound almost kinda like an entertainingly bad Larry Cohen movie or even an almost entertainingly bad Dick Maas movie but even those directors on their worst day wouldn’t make something this inert.
Nothing fucking happens. You find out at the end of the film, that the ghost has a specific target, yet he kills randos for no reason other than the fact that the film needs to hit a death quota. There’s also inexplicable and unexplained plot shit thrown in to pad the length I guess. There’s a handful of dream sequences where Michael Moriarty and Jenny Agutter really want to bone that go nowhere and for some reason, it’s revealed that Moriarty is a psychic? Like why? A film can be filled with as much crazy shit as you want, as long as something, anything, is keeping the viewer engaged. Unexplained crazy shit plus boring shit never works. Case in point: Dark Tower.
Mar. 28—Shoot (1976)
While out hunting, a group of friends stumble across another group of guys and for no apparent reason, the other group opens fire. The hunters return fire and kill one of the attackers. After the fire fight, the hunters regroup at their cabin and begin deliberating. If they go to the police and report it first, they can get ahead of the other group but they’ll be incriminating themselves because there’s no way to prove the other group shot first and they definitely killed a guy. On the other hand, they can sit and wait to see if it’s been reported because the other group doesn’t even know who they are, so maybe they can get away with it. But after a couple of days of inactivity, the leader of the hunters figures out that the other group isn’t going to report it, they’re going to seek revenge and that they need to retaliate first.
A slow burn action drama with strong parallels to the Vietnam war, Shoot is as much a jet black satire of right wing militias as it is a deflation of the white male empowerment fantasy. It’s not a coincidence that Cliff Robertson is not only gun happy but sexually irresistible to literally every woman he comes across. Any other movie would’ve portrays him as the hero but since Ernest Borgnine is the cleared eyed voice of reason, it paints him as at least morally grey. Borgnine thinks he’s crazy but if there’s even a 1% chance that Robertson is right, they and their entire families could be wiped out. The film does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument and makes you seriously consider taking the side of a kill happy militia.
Mar. 29—Phantom Soldiers (1989)
The best action movie you’ve never heard of is also the greatest Chuck Norris film to never exist. The plot of this feels like all of his projects, both past and present, all smashed together into a nacho platter of action. A Texas Ranger leaves for Vietnam to find his brother Michael, a Green Beret who has been reported missing in action. Michael’s squad was searching for a mysterious group of ‘phantom soldiers’ that had been using US-made arms for massacring villages and killing unarmed civilians. The Texas Ranger goes out on his own into the jungles of Vietnam to find his brother and stop these killers. An A.I. created to craft the perfect Norris film couldn’t make a more perfect facsimile of his work. While I’m not a fan of the actor or his films, this actually lives up to his legacy of non-stop action. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this has more explosions than all three Missing in Action films combined and has twice the body count of Invasion U.S.A. If ol’ Chucky was in this, y’all would never stop talking about it, so just pretend he is and have yourself a ball.
Mar. 30—Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)
In the trivia for this on IMDB, it says that this holds the distinction for being one of Leonard Maltin’s shortest reviews ever: “Transylvania 6-5000 stunk. I’m Leonard Maltin, Entertainment Tonight.” The review being so incredibly short isn’t note worthy, it’s the fact that it’s not even his shortest review. This film’s quality was encapsulated in just word and somehow, if IMDB is to be believed, he did it with even less. Is there an episode of Entertainment Tonight in which he points to the poster of the film he’s reviewing and just shrugs or blows a raspberry while giving a thumbs down? I mean, I wouldn’t blame him. Siskel and Ebert would be a helluva lot more efficient if they skipped all the jibber jabber and just gave shit thumbs up or thumbs down. Some movies don’t really require much more than that. What is there to really say about Transylvania 6-5000?
It’s a lame send up of Abbott and Costello meet [insert monster here] that only works if you’re under the age of ten. The jokes are all so badly written, that a lot of them didn’t even register as jokes. It honestly took me 45 minutes to realize that the annoying bellhop and the ostensibly wacky doctor were Igor and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Almost nothing about this works. Every actor (save for Michael Richards, which I have to admit, made me chuckle more times than I care to admit) is left out to dry. Watching Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis (dressed as a sexy vampire no less) flounder is painful. Neither they or anyone else involved in this deserve something this bad. Well, maybe Jefferey Jones. Fuck that guy.
Mar. 31—The First Power (1990)
Of all of the supernatural serial killer movies released within a five year period (The Unholy, Shocker, The Horror Show, Out of the Body, Night Visitor, The Exorcist III, 976-Evil II, Split Second, and Shadowhunter), this is definitely the second best. It doesn’t hold a candle to The Exorcist III but it handily beats everything else. It’s funny that Fallen came out almost a decade after this because this feels like a poor Imitation of that. The plots are nearly identical: a body hopping serial killer (Jeff Kober) goes after the cop (Lou Diamond Phillips) and the psychic (Tracy Griffith) that helped take him down. The major differences being, one is played deadly serious and the other is head injury stupid. I’m pretty sure you can guess which one is which (hint: it ain’t the one with Denzel Washington). But its stupidity is half of its charm. You will see a karate fighting hobo, a murderous nun and more car chases than you can shake a stick at. There’s also a damn good stunt involving a stuntman pulling off a seemingly impossible looking free fall. The First Power is nuttier than a fat squirrel in a box of Cracker Jack but if you like stupid shit, you can do far worse.
What movies did you watch last month?