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Movies in 2021: Volume 2
Personal entry follows.
About halfway through the year, I posted my summaries of the films I'd watched up to that point through 2021. Here's the second half of the list. I am currently on vacation and will likely watch a few more films before the end of the year, but this list is already long enough...
Those marked with a " * " were seen in an actual cinema, not streamed online.
I felt it was going to be a special treat to see another Tarkovsky film on the big screen. While the film was absolutely gorgeous and I loved seeing all the stunning pastoral scenes and camera work, I had barely any idea what the film was supposed to be about. An old woman reminiscing on some of the more mundane, but strikingly personal, moments in her life? Her son doing the same? I'm not sure at all. Lots of fantastic "film magic" scenes featuring water and wind in this one. In terms of cinematics, this is a unique, stunningly-beautiful film. Conceptually however, this one was beyond me.
*REPO MAN, 1984
Ornery sci-fi comedy featuring a young Emilio Estevez drinking, snorting, and driving across LA in search of a Chevy Malibu with three dead aliens stowed in its trunk. Excellent soundrack. Plenty of goofy situations and dialogue. I forgot how good this is, and it's definitely a keeper.
My first Ingmar Bergman film, and I think it caught me at a good time. The film features two women who may or may not be two sides of the same coin, and includes themes of motherhood, psychology, love, and infidelity while butting these two aspects of one person against the other. Is the film really about a nurse caring for her patient? Or is it all in one woman's head: the battleground of her conflicting inner desires?
*CAR WASH, 1976
Mellow dramedy featuring a day in the life of the people working at a Los Angeles car wash. Definitely a product of its time, it was originally conceived as a musical and was eventually edited for TV. This version features noted black actors: Ivan Dixon as a cigar-chompin' shift lead, Antonio Fargas as a cross-dressing twink, Garret Morris as a hustler, Bill Duke as a Muslim convert and potential revolutionary, and Richard Pryor as "Daddy Rich," a con-artist evangelist. George Carlin's turn as a taxi cab driver is pretty forgettable.
*CHUNGKING EXPRESS, 1994
Harmless romantic dramedy (the crime and violent sequences are half-hearted, at best) featuring two loosely-connected narratives. This film served as a breakout piece for the film's director: Wong Kar Wai, but also features luminaries Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung in starring roles. It was okay. I can see why people are/were into Wai's quick visual style. Eating food to stand-in for emotional fulfillment is prominent in the first story, so it's nice to know I'm not alone.
*DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST, 1991
Superb historical fiction, featuring a black family in 1902 in the islands off the coast of the Carolinas. This is their one last family reunion before most of them move up North for the Great Migration. I liked the Unborn Child character both as a device for some clever "film magic," as well as a metaphor for the ascent of the new generation. That character helped me "get it." Although I'm a cultural outsider and share nothing of this history, the themes were universal and the filmmaking was exceptional. I'd be happy to see this again.
Sci-fi anime film featuring themes of memories, the boundaries of science, secret wanting and neuroses, and of course dreams. Apparently based on a novel or manga of the same name. A device that allows therapists to somehow enter and participate in their patients' dreams has gone missing. Lots of whacked-out visuals and creative combination of cel- and computer-animation. Beyond that however this film was merely okay, though I must admit that the 90-ish minute runtime passed by in a flash.
*LA STRADA (Italian: "The Road"), 1954
Critically-acclaimed film directed by Federico Fellini. Excellent film-making of course, but I have serious issues with the story and perhaps I even disagree with Fellini's point of view. The circus performer abuses his woman assistants and runs them ragged, but they are essential to the artist's craft. There may be artists out there who have no muse and no codependent relationships, but their artistry is rudderless and chaotic (as in the actions, life, and death of "The Fool" in this film). So this purity requires that other humans are abused and sacrificed on the altar of artistic vision? I don't think so. Either that, or I'm just not interested in that art.
*KEY LARGO, 1948
Underrated Humphrey Bogart film. This was also my first time seeing both Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall in a film. The supporting cast is also very strong. At first I wasn't impressed and felt that Bogart was mostly flat, but after reflecting on the film, I began to appreciate it more and more. In my view its strength is within its dialogue. Themes revolve around integrity and the sometimes stark difference between talking the talk, and walking the walk. Not as good as Bogart's -The Treasure of the Sierra Madre- and not as quotable as -Casablanca-, but it's still a worthy film.
*TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, 1990
Big, stupid fun for kids and kids-at-heart. Not much to be said beyond that. Although I think I was the audience member who laughed the loudest at the following exchange... In the third act, Casey Jones expresses his anxiety about staying overnight in the sewer tunnels, and the turtles jab him about it.
NINJA TURTLE: Sounds like Casey is claustrophobic.
CASEY: Hey, I ain't never even looked at a guy!
*CANDYMAN (original version), 1992
Has the same 90's vibe and film quality possessed by the original -Hellraiser- film, with the addition of a steady, heavy dose of white guilt. The implied reincarnation angle at the end seemed forced, and I felt that Candyman came across as a deluded ghoul. Has some excellent camera work and practical effects (kissing with bees in your mouth? Fantastic moment!), but in general I don't think this one holds up so well. I wonder why they chose to remake this one. The soundtrack from Philip Glass is tremendous however, and when combined with some of the cinematic establishing shots I felt like I was seeing out-takes from -Koyaanisqatsi-.
*DUNE (original version), 1984
The more times I watch this film (maybe around 8 or 9 now), the more it makes sense and the more I ignore its faults. I speculate that if David Lynch were provided with state support and an uninterrupted budget - like directors such as Andrei Tarkovsky - this film would have been a true masterpiece. I saw this with a friend, who said she felt the most "Lynchian" moments were those that featured the bean-bodied alien, particularly when it was vomiting lasers from its vagina-shaped mouth. A funny coincidence about this and the original -Candyman- film (seen just last month) is that Virginia Madsen, the female lead in -Candyman-, is also in this film as the narrator (the Emperor's daughter).
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL SCARE YOU, 2021
Low-budget - but still earnest - B-horror stuff with some solid criticism of the decline of journalism and "content creators" on sites like YouTube. I was particularly fond of the sequences where VHS tapes were re-created, along with the 90s-style home video material. I contributed to this film's Kickstarter campaign and know several of the production team members.
THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, 1920
A silent film, now over 100 years old. A pantomimed tale of a mad scientist moonlighting as the evil Caligari of legend, who conscripts a patient suffering from sleepwalking - a "Somnambulist" - to commit murders. He commands a sleepwalking patient at his sanitarium to do evil deeds that a typical person would never dare to even attempt when awake. The most remarkable aspect of this film is the set and scenery, which was birthed from German Expressionist theatre. Also has a strangely tragic ending where the main love interest characters go a bit crazy and the doctor walks free to continue his grisly charade. Very good for what it is, and moves at a snappy pace.
A Jennifer Connelly vehicle that just turns weirder and weirder. Dario Argento stole his own introduction of girls being murdered at a private school (already done wonderfully in -Suspiria- 8 years earlier)... Introduces a wheelchair-bound Donald "My Talents Are Wasted Here" Pleasance and his chimpanzee housemaid... Throw in sleepwalking, a girl with an affinity for insects, a crazy mom and her mongoloid son, an exploding motorboat, and a Jewish talent agent beheaded by a panel of sheet metal, and you have yourself one helluva spectacle. How much crack was Argento smoking when he made this? And does he have any to spare?
To understand this film, I had to read up a bit on its director, Andrzej Żuławski. Apparently he was enduring a divorce from his wife at the time of writing and then filming this work, which depicts - stunningly, at times - the breakdown of a relationship. As it happens, both main characters are manifesting the "ideal partner" in different ways. While the man simply envisions their son's schoolteacher as perfection (of course), the wife resorts to murdering and fucking her way to the incarnation of her ideal husband. Sounds like the filmmaker wasn't bitter at all. Meanwhile: beautiful camera work and excellent practical effects. Perhaps this is a psychotic, unfortunately woman-hating, masterpiece?
The iconic, by-the-numbers scary film with a much stronger second-half than first. Directed by Tobe Hooper, the same guy at the helm of -Texas Chainsaw Massacre-, but when produced by Steven Spielberg you know it was destined to have mass appeal. The climax of the film with all the corpses freaking out the family was admirable. "You moved the headstones, but'cha didn't move the bodies you sonofabitch!!!" Nice work, Coach.
Could be blithely explained away as, "a story about evil for evil's sake." I think the filmmaker attempted to capitalize on the popularity of "Breaking Bad" and other nihilist, anti-hero shows out around the same time. It's a collage of increasingly-unsettling moments that really didn't fit together for any particular reason beyond completely distorting the landscape, both figuratively and literally: the house's garden is obliterated after the bodies of the husband and wife are dumped in its pond. Strictly utilitarian camera work, so this is a borderline, "nothing to see here, move along," from me.
LISA AND THE DEVIL, 1973
Maro Bava directed and co-wrote this one. His camera work is exquisite, while his script is near-incomprehensible to the casual observer. Something about a woman that sparked infidelity in a love triangle, now cursed to relive the horror through time (by a demonic Telly Salvalas, who -still- manages to suck on lollipops!). Took itself way too seriously at times, but in the process it still looked great.
BLOOD FEAST, 1963
The Herschell Gordon Lewis exploitation "classic." Established the splatter film genre. Lots of red tempera paint spattered over busty 20-something wannabe starlets and chunks of mannequins. It's about 60 minutes of low-budget theatrics, stilted scripting and staging, the most basic camera work, and incomparable DIY gusto. But for some reason, this still has a lot more life than pretty much any Roger Corman film I've ever seen. Inspiration for countless young film students.
An "edgy" take on mental illness in medieval times, but still beautiful and creepy to behold. A reclusive mother and her daughter are accused of being witches in 15th century Austrian Alps. Because there's literally no support system for the girl after her mother dies (can the term "support system" even be used in reference to 15th century Europe?), the girl eventually embraces that role. Some years later, she has a child of her own, is still hated and feared by the villagers, hangs out with goats -way- too much, and ends up killing and then eating her infant daughter while on a mushrooms-induced, psychedelic trip. The next morning, she... wanders to a mountaintop and spontaneously combusts at sunrise? Wow. In a way, it was a disappointment: whenever drugs are introduced, the rest of the story can be easily dismissed as a bad trip and its supernatural potential is completely lost.
The classic cinema blockbuster from the early '60s. I doubt the real historical Egypt had such sparkly eye shadow and so many plunging necklines. But how can I complain? Script was all right, acting was so-so, the costumes and sets were astonishing.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017
A well-done version of the literary classic. I can't help but feel the ensemble's talents were wasted on such small parts, honestly. However maybe the star-studded cast just wanted a crack at stabbing Johnny Depp, even if only for a film. You could tell director Kenneth Branagh wanted to suck more emotion and feeling from the script, but he hit bedrock too soon. Classics don't have to be deep, but you can't blame him for trying.
ASTRO ZOMBIES, 1968
Wretched camera work, actors filmed while quite obviously drunk, and all-around b-grade foolishness help this thing-on-film earn its reputation in critic's circles as the worst film ever made. Tura Satana being a bad-ass doesn't save it unfortunately, but this one is still worth a few laughs and some astonishment if you're into terrible films.
TURKEY SHOOT/ESCAPE 2000, 1982
Pretty great Australian mash-up of "The Running Man" and "1984." Follows a trio of "deviants" captured by the repressive government, and instead of knuckling under to their oppressors, the prisoners fight back and eventually have their revenge against a colorful cast of sadistic wealthy elites. Excellent practical effects and impressive stunts. Features a leading role played by Olivia Hussey, who played the lead/final girl in the original "Black Christmas" from 1974. I also think the bald German soldier chopped up by an airplane prop in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" had a significant role here. If so, then in this one Olivia Hussey chops off his hands with a machete...!
COUNT DRACULA, 1970
A carefully-crafted, visually-stunning adaptation of the original novel. Features Christopher Lee as the eponymous vampire Count, Klaus Kinski as the insect-munching lunatic Renfield, and an assortment of charismatic European actors for the rest of the principal cast. The supernatural was understated, elegant, and most definitely spooky. Directed by Jess Franco. I'd love to see more of his films.
THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF, 1962
A very early, gothic-horror-inspired thriller by Jess Franco. The camera work was the main draw here, honestly: plenty of strange angles in creepy castles and dreary waterfronts. Another standout feature of this film is that the female lead does more of the detective work, leaving the messy physical stuff for her fiancee (who also happens to be the chief of police). They make a good team. I suspect that this film was heavily-inspired by the original -Frankenstein-, and silent films featuring mad scientists like -The Hands of Orlac-. This was the "uncensored" version of the film, which of course would be considered fairly tame were it released today.
THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRE, 1971
A lesbian vampire seduces a newlywed bride, and two eccentric, former vampire hunters - now vampires themselves - compel the bride to leave her new husband and join their undead sex parties (I guess...?). Complete with fantastic scenery (Rollin's trademark ruined castles and cottages in the French countryside) and evocative multi-coloured lighting, plus a psychedelic score from a college band. I gotta lay off the Jean Rollin films for a while, seriously. -Grapes of Death- spoiled me, and it's been downhill ever since.
Total for 2021: 58