Star Wars: The Force Awakens
2015 • 135 minutes • Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
I have never really been a big Star Wars fan. I’d always found the franchise fascinating, as both a pop culture junkie and an amateur fandom historian, but I’d never developed the deep, enduring affection I’d seen it generate in other people. But something about the run-up to Star Wars: The Force Awakens woke something very strange within me. I watched a fanedit of the prequels. I talked endlessly about how terrible Obi-Wan Kenobi’s life is. I threatened to make Mrs. Captain Phasma sweaters (which will totally happen). I plotted endlessly about what the film could hold. I became, bit by bit, obsessed with Star Wars.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens made me a Star Wars fan before it came out, and now? I am completely composed of Star Wars for the time being and I am loving every minute of it.
1981 • 145 minutes • United Film Distribution Company
Knightriders isn’t, as some might think, the only non-horror film on zombie auteur George A. Romero’s dance card. In his early career, he directed the romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla, and its utter lack of a legacy is proof that something can be willfully faded into obscurity via its creator hating it enough. But There’s Always Vanilla was Romero’s second film, released in 1971; Knightriders, released a decade later, came after a string of horror films, including the sequel to Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead. Knightriders, then, is quite an outlier in Romero’s filmography, but it would be in anyone’s, really: a personal drama about a Renaissance Festival troupe on the brink of collapse doesn’t exactly get butts in seats the way zombies do.
Which makes Knightriders is, even over thirty years later, an honestly refreshing and unique movie. I was surprised by how much I loved this movie, rewatching it recently; I got to the point where I could recognize its flaws but still sink into the film and its world like a hot bath, my eternally tense shoulders actually relaxing for once. It’s slow and awkward and elegiac and shaggy, and infinitely endearing because it is all of those things. And it is easily one of my favorite movies.
2012 • 130 minutes • Columbia Pictures
Anonymous holds a special place in my biography—it’s the film that introduced me to theaters that serve real food while you watch, planting the seeds for my lifelong devotion to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. I saw Anonymous because I knew an underclasswoman in college who desperately wanted to see it. But the only place showing the film was a weird theater on the north side of town, so she needed somebody with a car, a free afternoon, and the willingness to submit themselves to Anonymous. And I, connoisseur of bad cinema, was that somebody. Off we went to Cinebistro, a restaraunt/theater joint with luxuriously cushy seats, a full bar, and twenty minutes of previews. I fell in love instantly.
And as for Anonymous? Well, Anonymous may well be one of the greatest bad movies of our times.
2012 • 111 minutes • Relativity Media
On this, All Hallow’s Eve Eve, let me spin you a spooky tale, dear readers. Of a desaturated period movie from 2012. Concerning a famous American historical figure. Set in the Mid-Atlantic in the 19th century. Whose frames are splattered with CGI blood. Lots and lots of CGI blood. (I guess when it’s digital, it’s free!) And, of course, featuring historically accurate sunglasses.
What’s that, reader mine? No, I’m not talking about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter! No, that would be exciting, because there would at least be supernatural nasties at work (and Dominic West working some sick sunglasses). Although, having not seen it, I can’t authoritatively say if it’s exciting or not. In any case, my kittens, we are instead talking of The Raven, 2012’s other strange high-concept historical movie that came from beyond Grimdark Canyon for what surely must be some good reason. If only the film could think of it.
2015 • 119 minutes • Universal Pictures
Selling Crimson Peak to modern audiences has proved difficult for Universal Pictures this weekend. Difficult to the tune of $26.3 million in domestic and international box offices, which is quite low. Competing against the much more accessible Bridge of Spies and The Martian, both currently in theaters, definitely doesn’t help.
How do you even effectively promote a classic Gothic romance to a marketplace unfamiliar with the genre? Universal’s solution has been to market Crimson Peak as pure horror, playing up the (damnable!) jump scares and atmosphere. And I don’t know if there’s a better solution, although I wish there was so that Guillermo Del Toro could, I dunno, make Pacific Rim 2 and Hellboy 3 with as much money as he needs. I just hope enough people take the gamble as is, because Crimson Peak is well worth it.
My exposure to Gothic romance has been limited to Mary Shelley, two-thirds of the Brontë sisters, and Austen’s supremely delightful skewering of the genre in Northanger Abbey. It’s from the latter that I have any real sense of the tropes inherent to the genre. And even that sense is a little muddled: I spent a lot of Crimson Peak banking on vampires. (I am not spoiling or ruining the film to let you know that no, there are no vampires. Just good old-fashioned wickedness.)
Masters of the Universe
1987 • 106 minutes • Cannon Films
As a connoisseur of bad movies, I am also a connoisseur of bad movie podcasts. (I am, at some point, going to do a podcast roundup, now that I listen to even more of them. I just need to blast through one or two backlogs first.) The best and popular two are The Flop House and How Did This Get Made? I prefer The Flop House (sample episode: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Live!), due to its charming hosts, focus on studio movies, and some kind of East Coast allegiance. Or it could just be that blasting through their backlog got me through the first few months of my current day job. I look forward to every episode. But I do listen to its West Coast sibling/rival, How Did This Get Made? on occasion, if they cover a movie I’ve seen (sample episode: Xanadu, with a great riff on how it could possibly be as over budget as it was). I like it, but I haven’t ever been so excited for an episode that I went out and watched the film in question.
Until How Did This Get Made? covered Masters of the Universe with guest host Tatiana Maslany. Swoon. I’ve been meaning to watch Masters of the Universe since forever—because have you met me?—and this was just the swift kick in the rear I needed to finally sit down and watch it.
1999 • 100 minutes • 20th Century Fox
Says The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of Ravenous:
Part allegorical period horror, part black comedy, and dosed with satirical and homoerotic overtones, the film—a troubled project that swapped directors early on, and opened to indifferent audiences and reviews—remains one of the genuine studio-backed curios of the 1990s.
So, you know, SOLD, especially after completing my summer of Hannibal and wailing in its wake. (Will I ever stop wailing into the floorboards about Hannibal? Not as long as The Hazards of Love is on my iPhone.)
Ravenous is a strange and largely forgotten film, despite being part of Fox 2000 Pictures’ 1999 output, which included cult classic Fight Club. And that makes sense: it’s easier to market disaffected white guys hitting each other than a period cannibal movie far less interested in gore than in damning westward expansion.
But that’s a shame, because Ravenous is just as worthy a cult classic as Fight Club is. It’s moody and atmospheric and deeply weird. It’s a quiet movie in a very minor chord that doesn’t ever succumb to the grand theatrical potential inherent in its subject matter. Cannibals and wendigos are real in the world of Ravenous, but they’re just men trying to survive, no matter how they try (and fail) to frame it.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
based on the television show
2015 • 116 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures
I was tentative about Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Or, to be more accurate, I could scent the weariness coming at it from all corners—yet another film version of a beloved sixties television show? Yet another movie about two white guys in suits (or, as Noelle Stevenson hilariously put it, two Michael Fassbenders)? Yet another stylish but hollow Guy Ritchie action movie? It was so pervasive that I felt awkward about being excited for it. No matter how excited my lizard brain was for pretty clothes and explosions and cuties of all genders, I started to feel certain that I was going to enjoy ninety percent of the film and rage over the remaining ten percent.
But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. surprised me. It nimbly leaps over the low bar of not actively offending human sensibilities by treating its female characters like people and failing to include anything along the lines of Robert Downey Jr. in yellowface in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Of course, there’s only two major female characters and the latter is achieved by a complete dearth of people of color, so that’s certainly an issue. The reason we keep the bar that low is because media still continues to fail it, and it is important to point out how texts fail that bar, even when we enjoy them.
Because, dear readers, I enjoyed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I enjoyed it a lot. I left the theater buzzing, feeling a little drunk off its good vibes, because it’s really the perfect kind of movie to come out at the tail end of the summer—a stylish, light, and fun action comedy.
Stop Making Sense
1984 • 88 minutes • Cinecom Pictures
This is not particularly a review of Stop Making Sense.
I don’t know if that’s something I can actually write. The film is complete and whole and unassailable. I don’t think it read to the audiences who literally danced in the aisles upon its theatrical release in 1984 the same way it now reads to us, a little over thirty years later. Its rightful place as one of the greatest concert films ever made has lacquered it into something quite other, like an alien transmission from the almighty eighties. In “Stop Making Sense: An Appreciation,” Noel Murray dwells on several elements of the film that now appear studied and prearranged that were never planned at all. Through planning, execution, and sheer force of will, David Byrne and Jonathan Demme’s creation has transformed into a unique experience, blasting the Talking Heads’ determined creations almost directly into your brain.
And I find that level of musical intimacy suffocating in a way that I feel guilty about.
2015 • 124 minutes • Universal Pictures
Amy Schumer doesn’t punch hard enough for me.
Let me be very clear: on the basis of what I have seen of Schumer’s work, she does not punch hard enough for my taste. Unlike that Washington Post article, I am not going to pretend to judge Schumer’s comedy on the basis of her entire oeuvre when I haven’t seen most of it. But from what I have seen—“Last Fuckable Day,” “Celebrity Interview,” “Football Town Nights,” and Trainwreck—Schumer seems great at setting up scenarios where she can highlight problematic elements. For instance, in “Football Town Nights,” when a new football coach asks his players to stop raping, we are treated to the black comedy of teenage boys offering up scenario after scenario where rape is acceptable. (“What if my mom is the DA and she won’t persecute?”) But the conclusion, where the coach saves the game by describing football as raping the other team, is disappointing, because it just plays into rape culture. I think we are meant to read that conclusion as more black comedy (look, it’s embedded in the entire system of this game!), but it feels too subtle to conclusively make that point. Obviously, no creator owes it to an audience to be unsubtle, but it sits oddly with me. “Celebrity Interview” does the same; it feels like it’s mocking celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence instead of mocking the system that capitalizes on presenting women with non-traditional interests (but, of course, very traditional beauty) as rare and exotic.
Trainwreck, Schumer’s film debut as both a lead actress and as a screenwriter, falls into much the same category for me. Schumer gets a lot of comedic and dramatic mileage by genderswapping a common romantic comedy male archetype—Amy Townsend works hard, parties hard, and has no time for commitment. The film’s second scene, wherein Amy successfully gets her date to go down on her before she “falls asleep” so she doesn’t have to reciprocate, is a grand thesis statement for the film. But, like Amy in that scene, the film doesn’t go much farther than that.