Everybody’s Doing Marvel Posts

…just in case you hadn’t noticed. Consider this your permission to click elsewhere. I understand.

I’m still dealing with writer’s block… well, perhaps not block, but writer’s naaaaaaah I don’t wanna! with a soupçon of agonizing over whether that’s because I’m better medicated these days and not thinking about death every 30 seconds instead of sex. I had a very unique – at least for me – moment a few weeks back when I paused and thought, “Hey. I feel absolutely normal.” It was uncanny in a very calm way.

Yikes!

I have a Crapfest to write up, but even the pressure of that is not enough to pry me from my hour or so of playing an RPG featuring cute anime girls every night. And realistically, after nine years of piecemeal part-time labor, the last 8 months of suddenly working 8 hours a day, if not more, takes a toll.

So with that as a backstory, let’s launch into the preamble major: As most of you know, I perform in a murder mystery show on the weekends, along with one of my oldest theater friends who lives nearby. We carpool to the show every week, and last Saturday we fell to talking about the Marvel movies. This was triggered by one of the actresses (who insists on telling us each week how much her life sucks, including the insane traffic between Houston and her beach house, gaaaaawwww!!) saying how much she hated Endgame, sight unseen, because it was all her students would talk about all week.

My friend, however, had already found out about Fat Thor and was intrigued. He had tried to watch Infinity War on Netflix and wasn’t impressed, because he hadn’t seen any of the former movies (yes, such people still exist), and I replied of course, he had no emotional stakes in it. He mentioned he had read an article that said you only needed to watch four movies to be up to speed for Endgame. Not being a complete geek like myself, he couldn’t remember any of the movies they chose, and I started mulling over what four movies that could possibly fit the bill. Googling when I got home I found lists of eight and eleven, so that four thing I chalk up to rank optimism.

In case you forgot.

Speaking of rank optimism: he thought he’d be able to find them all on Netflix. I laughed so hard I nearly drove us off the road.

This week the weather in Texas has been giving us lots of ammo to unload on climate change deniers, which meant just about every shoot I had scheduled for work got cancelled, so I sat in my dry office while biblical rains raged outside and did what nerds do: I got evangelical, and wrote up my list with annotations.

And now I’ve probably scared my friend off entirely.

But let’s start. I tried to do this in chronological order of the Infinity Saga arc. I’ve also added more notes, because that is what I do. On the list I sent him, there were no notes for movies essential to the storyline, because that’s how I roll. He didn’t find out about Fat Thor from me.

Gonna try to be as spoiler-free as possible.

* = “Contains Infinity Stone”

Skippable movies say so in the closest to Thanos purple WordPress could give me.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER – I saw a graphic on Reddit where votes were taken and this movie wound up on the absolute bottom of the list, causing me to utter what the absolute fuck in my workplace. Fortunately, they are used to such outbursts from me and likely thought I just needed more coffee. This was one of the most solid Marvel flicks in Phase One, and it kickstarts the whole Infinity Stones thing. And I hate people.

CAPTAIN MARVEL * – comes out on home video in June, which is fortunate for my friend, as he doesn’t intend to start this binge until the Summer. Takes place in the 90s, and the post-credits scene won’t make much sense, seen in this order. As a period piece, you could probably slot it in anywhere in the viewing order. Marvel sure seemed to think so.

IRON MAN – This is where you have to start making tough decisions. It can be considered skippable, unless you’re a Robert Downey Jr. fan. BUT. It has enormous historical significance. It introduces the supporting cast from the comic book, complete with early 60s comic book names: Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts. Jim Rhodes (Rhodey), was introduced later in the series, so he’s spared that cuteness. First of the now-mandatory post-credits scenes, introducing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, and the Avengers Initiative.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK – ultra-skippable. Even the other movies ignore this one. (I don’t mind it, but it’s obvious they hadn’t quite figured out their formula yet)

IRON MAN 2 – My least favorite MCU movie, and therefore skippable. It’s a mess, story-wise; this baby was rushed to the screen, and it shows. Absent a time-proven template, panicky studio interference really cripples it as it jams lead-up materials to The Avengers in any available orifice, and makes them when it can find none. Does introduce the Black Widow and Agent Coulson, though. And Rhodey confiscates an Iron Man suit to become, briefly, the Iron Patriot, and eventually War Machine. Pretty good finish, but often a slog to get there. I’m also assured it’s better than I remember.

THOR – Can be reluctantly skipped, if necessary (I’m always amazed that a movie that takes place on three different worlds still feels so small). Introduces his supporting characters, though, who will get a workout in the next Thor flick.

AVENGERS – Let’s get this damn ball rollin’. This movie and Iron Man made my wife into an MCU geek. Team comics are my favorite comics, so you can bet I love this one. 

IRON MAN 3 – Could be skipped, but if you skip all the Iron Man movies simply because they don’t advance the Infinity Saga, you are hobbling a major part of that saga, which is the Steve Rogers/Tony Stark dichotomy. And this is such a good movie. PTSD is a running thread through the saga, and Tony Stark is definitely suffering it after the events of AVENGERS.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD * – everybody seems to hate this one, but I like it, and I totally loved Endgame calling back on it hard. Far as I’m concerned, Jane Foster took up with Richard after Thor split again after Ultron. Richard seems like a very nice guy.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – on the other hand, everyone loves this one while I’m kind of meh on it. Superb action film – the Marvel formula completely gels here. No Infinity Stones, but major changes that will affect the following movies.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – You know, when I left the theater after seeing this, I felt the same lightness as when I left my first viewing of Star Wars back in ’77. That is no small thing. We start seriously leaning into the Infinity Stones. I think Ronan the Accuser would gain a fair amount of resonance and menace by being able to watch Captain Marvel earlier in the order.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON – Another ragged-on movie. Bah and phooey on the haters. I admit it has much the same problem of Iron Man 2, in shoe-horning in seeds for future movies, then cutting those segments back for time (three hour Marvel movies were not yet a thing). 

ANT-MAN – Sorry Paul Rudd, but skippable if you’re pressed for viewing time. The Ant-Man movies have the lightest tone of all the Marvel movies, so if you’re tired of HUGE EXPLOSIONS and COSMIC CALAMITIES and PEOPLE DYING BY THE HUNDREDS they’re actually quite refreshing.

DOCTOR STRANGE * – Trippy as hell. This is Marvel’s kung fu movie, and I absolutely love the fact that the final battle is fought with wits and determination, not seeing who can punch the hardest.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR – again, no Infinity Stones, but besides having the best fight scene in the series up to that point, sets up so much forthcoming stuff. Also, The Black Panther! And the most adorable Spider-Man ever! (some will argue that Doctor Strange should come after this, but I just can’t make that chronology work)

FUTURE FREEX WEIGHS IN: That last comment was due to one of the cases offered to Strange over the phone that leads to his fateful crash, which seems to be a very direct reference to an injury suffered during Civil War. However, I was reminded by one of a number of YouTube blatherings that one of the threats detailed in Winter Soldier is “Stephen Strange”, which is causing me to consider slotting it before Winter Soldier. I think that actually works.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 – Skippable if need be (both the online lists I mentioned earlier did so), no Infinity Stones, but c’mon! KURT RUSSELL. Oh, and some guy named Sylvester Stallone. Character development! Mantis! I love Mantis!

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING – Skippable. Not much impact on the Infinity saga; mainly notable for the deepening father/son relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, which a lot of people HATE. Nice villain work by Michael Keaton.

BLACK PANTHER – No infinity stones, but essential setup (and really, really good) (this, I believe, is where Netflix’s current offerings begin)

THOR: RAGNAROK – God bless Taika Waititi for making a movie as fully weird as the comics and honoring Jack Kirby. The post-credits scene leads directly into Infinity War, which means it happens at approximately the same time as:

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP – contains what will be important plot points, and is happening at approximately the same time as:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR* – Man, the switch from the end of Ragnarok to the opening of Infinity War is the starkest example of “new artist this issue!” ever translated to the screen. Also best cinematic equivalent of a 12-issue maxi-series crossover event evar (also likely the only-est).

AVENGERS: ENDGAME – Ecstasy. I see people bitching about “fan service” on the interwebs and you know what? I was the fan being serviced. And I liked being serviced. *phbbbbbbt* (I mean, if you’re looking for fan disservice, you can go watch Batman v Superman again, you nattering nabobs of negativity)

By my count that’s 15 out of 22 that are essential viewing – only one more than the professionals. That’s not much of a time savings – what? maybe 12 hours? – and they really should all be watched, sez the nerd who’s already seen them multiple times.

Gosh. Maybe I don’t have writer’s block after all?

 

Hello Again. Suspirias (1977 & 2018)

This growing old shit is fascinating and terrifying at the same time and not necessarily in the same amounts.

My wife had urged me to talk to our doctor during my scheduled follow-up because “You haven’t been yourself lately” and after the usual battery of questions it was decided to up the dosage of my happy pills (I had been on the starter dosage of the original Mother’s Little Helper), and that took getting used to. I spent a couple of weeks feeling like I was wrapped in styrofoam sheets, like some figurine bought on eBay. This week I actually started feeling like a normal human being again, which was novel. I’ll be digging into my taxes soon, which will likely put an end to that.

I could finally afford an ophthalmologist appointment again, and they tried a new prescription on me and there was no improvement. The upshot of that was not that I needed new glasses, but cataract surgery. Oddly, this doesn’t frighten me or worry me too much – it’s outpatient surgery these days, my insurance should cover it. The major impact will be on my jobs – you know, the fact that I won’t be able to lift anything heavier than 10 pounds or bend over for two weeks (both eyes are shot). Nor can I afford the super deluxe lenses that would correct my astigmatism (not at $1200 a pop), so I’ll still be wearing glasses. Hell, at this point eyeglasses are a part of my character. Finally getting a pair that aren’t absolutely essential to survival, progressive trifocals half an inch thick, or cost an arm, leg and kidney will be a refreshing change of pace.

Still, I haven’t felt a desire to write during all that hoo-rah. A look at my Letterboxd profile reveals I’ve only watched 17 movies so far this entire year, which for me is bizarre. Admittedly, most of my viewing has been TV shows – The Umbrella Academy, Doom Patrol, American Gods. I started the video game Battle Chasers: Nightwar for the third time on a third computer and dammit this time I am going to finish it.

But maybe I am back to a point where I can finish this damned piece that I started in, like, February. Wish me luck. Here we go.

Suspiria (1977)

Indulge me for a few minutes. I’m going to delve into a bit of personal history that will eventually land on a point. I’ll try not to vent too much, but once you get a Scorpio rolling…

So way back in the days of The Bad Movie Report I chanced upon an internet article where a guy had actually gone to the various fora available at the time, had folks vote on a ballot ranking the 100 Greatest Horror Movies of All Time (possibly because the AFI had done something similar?), and eventually published the results. Those results, I seem to recall, relied on maybe a hundred responses, not exactly the sort of sampling that gets you published in the real world, to be sure. I in turn grabbed the results (with a link back to the original article, of course), and critiqued the ranking.  I didn’t agree with a lot of it, but some I did. I’m not a big fan of ranked lists, anyway.

And that, as Maus would say, is where my troubles began.

I was immediately pilloried for the rankings. No matter how many times I pointed out that these choices were not mine, the comments and e-mails most ran to “You should really know more about horror movies before doing something like this” sneers. I finally got tired of it and deleted the whole thing (about a year after the original poster deleted his, come to think of it). At which point the e-mails calling me a coward started.

Welcome to the Internet, I know, I know. Hopefully those folks whose entire lives seemingly depended on belittling me and calling my qualifications into doubt, have moved on and are now enjoying their lives as ICE officers and YouTube pundits with a following of three or less. While you’re here, please check out my Patreon.

To the point: one of my more chill, responsible readers (I do not recall who, I’m sorry, I blame my advanced age) pointed out that in my comments on the rankings, I referred to Suspiria as “a middling horror movie”, and wondered if I still felt that way. I responded that I had mellowed toward the movie with age and experience with Italian WTF cinema. It wasn’t that I had watched it again, I just felt I had a better handle on where Argento was coming from when he filmed. Time passed; Synapse spent four years creating a 4K restoration, and that eventually became available on blu-ray, which added some speed to any inclination to revisit it.  Then Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reboot/rewhateverthehell hit home video, and away we go.

First: The Synapse restoration is magnificent, ravishing to the eye. I am glad I waited for it, it is that breathtaking.

Second: I still feel it’s a middling horror movie.

We’ll bypass the SPOILER ALERTS FOR A FORTY-TWO YEAR OLD MOVIE and move right into the fact that Suspiria is the tale of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American who has come to study at a dance academy in Freiburg, only to find out that the academy is run by witches. That’s about as much plot as you actually get. There is plenty of weird, wild stuff happening, but past our opening murder setpiece, everything fits into a one-damned-thing-after-another structure so rococo that you’re going to hurt yourself if you try to fit it into a normal movie. That murder – which, like all Argento’s cinematic murders, are among the few that can actually make me physically wince – serves a plot purpose, as the victim (and her unfortunate friend) know too much and must be eliminated. After that…. uhhhhhh…

  • There’s the famous rain of maggots sequence, which is found to have a (sort of) logical explanation. Squidgy and unnerving, which I guess is the point. Serves to set up the revelation that the Academy’s director, Helena Markos, is actually in the building, instead of jet-setting around Europe. And has no bearing on anything else.
  • The architecture inside the Academy makes very little sense, which leads some to speculate that Stanley Kubrick saw this before filming The Shining. Still, keeping a roomful of razorwire in a third floor storeroom seems… a bit much.

These are, however, points with which I thought I had reached a rapprochement, since in the intervening years I had become a fan of Lucio Fulci’s crawling chaos motion pictures, particularly The Gates of Hell and The Beyond, which employ the same dream logic – okay, nightmare logic – to forward their stories. Why something I accept in those is a sticking point for me in Suspiria is annoying, a personal puzzle that I cannot seem to unravel.

  • I’m still all sorts of put out that the Tanz Academy invited Bannion to study there, and then proceeds to drug her into oblivion and plot to kill her, when it would have been much simpler to not invite her to study in the first place.
  • Then, I’m not at all sure why the blind piano player is such a menace to the coven that he has to be driven out and killed, except oops witches are evil.
  • It had been so long since I’d seen it I’d forgotten Udo Kier was in the movie, with the unenviable role of Dr. Plot Dump, which he immediately hands off to an older actor who tells Suzy that witches are evil and Helena Markos was the worst.
  • Dude, I know some witches and I protest this characterization.

It is this overarching question of why that has kept me from placing Suspiria in what I am told is its rightful place in the horror pantheon. There are some king-hell horror movie bits in it, to be sure, but it lacks that little bit of plot pushing it (and me) forward to a satisfactory conclusion. Though – speaking of conclusions – I do appreciate the Roger Corman-esque protagonist escaping from a burning, collapsing edifice of evil that closes Suspiria. Also that you could tell that it was an Argento movie simply through the device of an important clue hidden in muddled memory suddenly made crystal clear at exactly the right moment to land our hero(ine) in a world of trouble.

Really, I had no idea that Germans loved red lights this much. It’s fascinating to me that Argento and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli didn’t use a Technicolor camera, but used the Technicolor developing process for better control of the truly wild colors in the movies’ palette, and is possibly the last movie to use that process. Despite all my kvetching, if you haven’t seen the original Suspiria, you should, and hopefully this restoration is what you watch. It is beautiful, creepy, and the casting is spot on. No small amount of credit is owed Daria Nicolodi, Argento’s muse for several years, who urged him to move from straightforward gialli into the realm of the supernatural and to feature stronger female protagonists, both good things for his oeuvre.

Suspiria (2018)

So then onto the modern Suspiria, or as I prefer to think of it, oh thank christ finally a plot.

First off, there is no playing cute, plot-wise: there it is, first scene of the movie: they’s witches.

  • Overall, the thrust of the narrative in this version is much clearer; Tanz is now a professional dance company, and the coven is somehow feeding off and using the energies of the young members. Susie (Dakota Johnson, who is pretty amazing in the role) is a prodigy who is being primed to be the recipient of Helena Markos’ soul. All my misgivings about the story of the original movie evaporate.
  • For a movie that took place at a dance academy, the original Suspiria had remarkably little dance in it; this newer version corrects that, and it is a wonderful thing. The fact that the witches derive and utilize their powers through dance is like the unmistakable power of song in The Wicker Man. Both were vital to ancient religions, and this aspect of the movie seems reasonable, even logical.
  • I don’t have enough adjectives to adequately praise Tilda Swinton. She is magnificent as Madame Blanc, the head of the company, taking Susie under her wing, and emotionally torn over the girl’s eventual fate. She also plays Helena Markos and the elderly psychiatrist in that first scene, both under tons of prosthetic makeup. I was also pretty sure that she was the Edna Mode-lookalike witch who commits suicide because she foresees how badly Markos’ machinations are going to end up, but I haven’t found anything to verify this.
  • Jessica Harper’s cameo was a shock. Always good to see her, though.

Guadagnino takes pains to distance himself from the original while still acknowledging its existence; there’s no bizarre lighting and Lynchian lingering on mechanical doors in this opening, but we’re still in the German underground and the film’s title appears as a street sign. Gone is the fairytale technicolor, replaced by a wintery palette that renders the occasional color even more striking. The first Suspiria is relatively timeless, but here we are specifically in 1977 Berlin, still separated by a wall, and the news dominated by the German Autumn and hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. The real world insinuates itself regularly into this version of the story. The original intended vessel for Markos (Chloë Grace Moretz) was “more interested in blowing up supermarkets” than learning the craft.

Turns out things like that, things that give some form of signpost into the story’s intentions, are immeasurably helpful to my enjoying that story. The new version is an hour longer than the original, and I didn’t mind, as I was fascinated by the newer subplots, complications, and the chemistry between Swinton and Johnson’s characters. It has its place in the pantheon, is what I am saying.

The only thing I have left to say concerns my bewilderment at the post-theatrical marketing for the new Suspiria. For a movie with so many remarkable, unsettling images (even if you’ve never seen the movie itself, you have almost certainly seen some of those images), the cover of my blu-ray seems rather bland (it’s from a fleeting moment in the movie, and I guess someone found it evocative), and Amazon’s Prime Video ad (remember, it’s “Amazon Studios presents”) seems to cast it as a coming-of-age domestic drama, perhaps Ladybird but with witchcraft this time.

Then, I despair of the current state of such things, and yearn for the return of actual illustrators doing these ad materials, not just somebody with a semester of Photoshop.

I can dream.

 

 

 

 

The Year Comes for Us

December was kind of weird.

Despite managing to post some reviews from a truncated project, and a Crapfest recap, I was largely off movies for the month. That’s not unusual; Hubrisween – or any similar movie challenge – usually leaves me with a hangover. So I engaged in some other braincell-killing pursuits, until I could bear to watch a movie again. Which is good, because I’m trying to gear up for another challenge in March, one that will ease me none-too-gently back into the world of Movies I Should Have Been Watching. I do really enjoy wallowing in the Cinema of Diminished Expectations, but there are so bloody many conversations I cannot take part in because I was watching Sausage Party instead of A Quiet Place.

Let’s do the non-movie stuff first.

I couldn’t afford a new laptop, but I still needed a portable computing solution, so I got a refurbished Chromebook instead, and I love it (of course, I love it because I’m not using it for its intended purpose). It does everything my phone does, with a larger screen and keyboard. My phone had started to be a transistor radio to me months ago, when I started using Amazon Music to sing me to sleep (their phone app has a sleep timer). I started to explore music podcasts for the same thing, since most podcast apps have a similar timer, or simply stop after an episode finishes. My favorite in this period was Trance Paradise, hosted by Euphoric Nation (yes, I am 61 years old and listen to a lot of Trance). That led me to the Internet radio station After Hours. Now, I sighed, if only I could find a podcast or radio station for my other love, late 60s – early 70s psychedelic rock. Exploring apps on my Chromebook, I find one that has links for Trance stations… and another for largely more electronia, but had the occasional oldies station, so say hello to my other new love, Psychedelicized Radio.

Which is all to the good, as I like music playing while I work, but it wasn’t using the potential of the Chromebook to its fullest. Then, by golly, enter Whizical Digital Imaging and their app, Kaleider. It’s an image-mirroring program that can produce some stunning, moving kaleidoscope images, and though I can find nothing that says it’s triggered by music (it has its own music player) the shifting of the images in time with either of those music stations is often more than can be chalked up to happenstance. This provides an experience that’s closer to meditation than anything I’ve managed in years. If I had this toy back in my heavy acid-dropping days, I would never have come down. I’m reminded of some parts of Ernie Kovacs’ TV show that were simply recordings of classical music with kaleidoscope images. In black and white. This is better.

For instance…

It’s also been fun tracking down images of old black light posters to feed into the program. I briefly considered trying to make a video of Kaleider in unison with some music, but then I realized the reaction would be something along the lines of “Oh, you stoned fool,” and went back to playing Gems of War (something else the Chromebook can do, and my dumpster-diver PC could not).

But what’s this? Christmas, and a number of Amazon gift cards? Hello, suddenly affordable replacement PC! It’s not magnificent, but a very definite step up. (I still can’t play No Man’s Sky, which is something I’ve wanted to do for three goddam years, but hey) What I can do is run Plex, which suddenly put the sneakernet in my house out of business. I had been jealous of my pal Dave’s home networking, and now I don’t have to be! Movies stream like magic to my TV! I feel like I’m finally living in the year 2000!

So. Movies. Let’s do the rare theatrical outings first.

Aquaman: I loved it. The further the DCEU gets from the Snyderverse, the better. As my son Max exclaimed, “There was actual color in this movie!” Strong cast, good director, and the sort of visual overload I once moaned that you could only get from Chinese movies. My major takeaway from The Expendables was “My God, Dolph Lundgren actually learned how to act!” and he is great in Aquaman! I have never been so happy to reassess my opinion of an actor. I’m also impressed that the DCEU hasn’t tried to movie-up their costuming as Marvel did. That didn’t work out so well with Deathstroke in the post-credit scene in Justice League, but damned if they didn’t make the gold-and-green for Aquaman look good. Amber Heard had already proven she could pull off the classic green Mera look. Hell, I didn’t even mind the minor rewrites of Justice League to make the timeline in this movie work.

I know, I know, you’re sick of superhero movies. You’re where I was with slasher movies, romcoms and 80s movies reboots. They’ll fade into the past soon enough. In the meantime, let me have my fun.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: I’m torn. I really, really loved the first one and its videogame-centric worldview. This is a sequel that did everything a sequel should: took our established heroes, gave them new challenges and vistas to explore. The satire is much wider here, but still pretty geeky. Overall, I liked it a lot, I think: the take on the Disney Princesses is pretty funny, and I liked that the animators cared enough that when they’re mucking around the Marvel part of Disney, they included a Stan Lee avatar. I’ll need to watch it again when it hits home video. Also, the post-credit scene was perfectly timed to answer a question that occurred to me.

Speaking of home video…

My local movie resale shop has a deal where if you buy 3, you get the 4th one free, and that is how I went home with Sausage Party (the others were It Follows, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and The Black Cauldron, if that matters). This is the R-rated version. I understand there is an unrated, unexpurgated version out there, and holy shit, am I not interested. The R-rated version pretty much took me to the limits of where I was willing to go. The world-building was fairly okay; the supermarket as a place where food waits for “Gods” – people – to come and take them to the promised land, and those that sit on the shelf too long are gathered by the “Dark Lord” and taken to the hell of the trash can. You probably already know about the overtly sexual relationship between hot dogs and buns, but you are not ready for the oversexed nature of all food. From there we fall into too-easy racial stereotypes as ethnic foods enter into the story, the discovery that the “Gods” are monsters who will eat our main characters and the eventual war between the two, climaxing – quite literally – in a food orgy, which is at least inclusive of all possible gender combos, and has one impossible act. The question that is going to linger with you is why?

Well, I may have given up on Pixels after five minutes, but I’ve seen Sausage Party all the way through.

Not sure what that proves.

“Complete and unexpurgated” had caught me by nasty surprise recently, too, as I had a copy of the extremely strange Italian movie Nude for Satan that claimed to be this. I had gotten really tired of the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie” thing (jesus, people, I was making that joke years ago), posted “Oh, so I suppose you’re going to tell me Nude for Satan isn’t a Christmas movie” and slapped that thing into the player, thinking this was likely a prime candidate for Crapfest. What I didn’t know was that there was a Dutch version of the movie into which some wily entrepreneur had spliced actual hardcore porn footage. There are few things like being entertainingly puzzled by a demented Italian flick and when your protagonist opens a door and reacts in shock, you are slapped across the face by several minutes of well-lit, enthusiastic fellatio. On Christmas Eve, no less. This would happen over and over again, with only a minimal attempt to actually connect it to the movie surrounding it (and often not even that bare – *snicker* – minimum), rendering the plot even more confusing. Something about Satan trying to switch our two stars with versions of themselves from the past, and lecherous giant spiders and oh yes, more porn.

Obviously the only way to follow that up was by finally watching Venom (please do not inquire about this train of thought). I’m okay with Tom Hardy finally getting his superhero movie, but I’ve never been a Spider-Man fan, nor of any of his morning zoo crew. It’s pretty standard stuff, with crusading reporter Eddie Brock (Hardy) finding out that Earth-Sony’s version of a not-stupid Elon Musk (Riz Ahmed) has managed to bring back some alien symbiotes via his own private space program. The symbiotes have to bind with a compatible host to survive in our atmosphere, and most people aren’t strong enough to survive the binding. Brock is, and is soon talking to himself and turning into a whole bunch of shapes as Venom (and biting off a couple of heads). The upshot is that a more powerful symbiote, Riot, has taken over Ahmed, and wants to bring all its symbiote buddies back to Earth to eat us. Venom wants to stop this, which is a character turn that feels entirely unearned, but we agree to let art wash over us. Venom made a ton of money at the cinemas, and I’m not sure why; I don’t regret ceding 90 minutes of my life to it, but it’s not something I’m going to grab people and say “Hey! Watch this!”

Last watch of the year was something I had meant to get to for a while, unsuccessfully: The Night Comes for UsTimo Tjahjanto’s action follow-up to Headshot (preceded by the equally Netflix-produced horror movie May the Devil Take You). Ito (Joe Haslam) is one of the Six Seas, Triad drug lords in charge of keeping the trade efficient and problem-free. When a few members of a village skim the Triad’s profits, Ito and his crew are sent to massacre the entire village as a lesson to others. Ito, however, hits Kill Critical Mass, and instead of letting his men finish off the lone surviving 6 year-old girl, kills them instead, and that is where the problems begin.

Ito’s attempt to leave the country with the girl and start a new life gets very complicated when the other Six Seas want the girl dead to complete their message, and Ito six feet under as well. To do this they call in his childhood buddy Arian (Iko Uwais), as well as the female assassins The Five Lotus Petals. What that really means, though, is this movie is basically one long fight scene, and is already infamous for its brutality. That’s it. Theoretically the movie’s about the different paths Ito and Arian’s lives have taken, but it’s really just a Macguffin surrounded by fight scenes. It’s fun to see Uwais play on his reputation as a good guy.  Julie Estelle (the formidable Hammer Girl of The Raid 2) is on hand as The Operator, an impressively deadly lady whose job is to exterminate the Six Seas. At the end, The Operator, five of the Six Seas and at least two of the Five Lotus Petals are still alive. That’s a sequel I would watch.

You might want to bring plastic sheeting to a viewing, though. Pretend it’s a Gallagher concert.

New Year’s Eve was spent talking myself out of watching The Emoji Movie, on the faulty theory that then 2019 couldn’t possibly do anything worse to me, but I finally decided it was best not to tempt the bastard. Now I suppose I should start thinking about teeing up those movies of (harrumph) quality I was talking about.

Right after The Emoji Movie.

 

 

 

 

A Cosmic Christmas (1977)

Honestly, this impromptu challenge has little chance of success if I don’t toss some short slowballs to myself.

It’s Christmas Eve and young Peter is strolling around town with his pet goose, Lucy (ho ho). After a brief encounter with the town’s young punk ne’er-do-wells (one named Marvin is particularly keen on picking a fight with Lucy, which shows how dumb he is, because geese are frightening), Peter decides to check out what he is sure is a UFO he saw landing in the woods. Peter’s got a pretty good eye, because it is a spaceship, and from it come Plutox, Lexicon, and Althazor, who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Magi. They’re here to investigate a strange stellar event that occurred 2000 years ago, which Peter interprets to mean that they’re here to learn about Christmas.

He takes them into town, where commercialism and petty politics contradict everything Peter has told the aliens about Christmas; luckily he takes them to his own home where his grandmother shares her memories of what Christmas used to be before these durn modern times, and one of the aliens holographically recreates her memories, so Peter’s Mom and Dad get to learn a little bit about the true meaning of the season, too.

Then Marvin crops up and goosenaps Lucy, leading to a big chase that cuts through a mob of townspeople who’ve gathered at the spaceship. Marvin’s bicycle crashes through a fence and then he breaks through the thin ice on a frozen lake; Peter tries to rescue him but gets pulled in, too. The townsfolk form a human chain that winds up short, and the aliens forsake their Watcher ethos that forbids interference and join the chain, rescuing the boys. Everybody makes up and retire to Peter’s home for a good, old-fashioned Christmas feast that would make old Fezziwig proud. The aliens have learned about Christmas, and return to space to spread the word, one supposes. The end.

This was the first of Nelvana Animation’s TV specials, followed closely by The Devil and Daniel Mouse and Intergalactic Thanksgiving. I’m a big fan of Nelvana in this era (so was George Lucas, he hired them to do the animated intro of Boba Fett in The Star Wars Holiday Special, inarguably the most entertaining part of that misfire), it’s so fluid and unique. TV specials like this usually ellide over the religious aspects of the holiday, but Peter goes right ahead and names names to the visitors, which was kind of refreshing after the depressingly bleak secularism of Christmas Evil. That goes largely by the wayside once we’re into Grandma’s Christmas memory, which manages to be warmly nostalgic without becoming overly mawkish. And that climax with the two drowning boys is genuinely suspenseful.

A nice little animated surprise if the kids – or you – are sick of re-runs of The Grinch.

 

 

W: Willow Creek (2013)

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So the question is, how in the hell did I manage to find myself watching two found footage Bigfoot movies in one year? Well, Hubrisween, that’s how.

We’ve got Jim (Bryce Johnson) and his girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) on a road trip. Bryce has got a nice new video camera and a serious wireless microphone, aiming to make a movie documenting his trip to the town of Willow Creek, California, then down to Bluff Creek, which is where Roger Patterson and Robert Gimlin shot their famous Bigfoot footage back in 1967. This is Jim’s obsession, and his birthday is coming up, so Kelly is humoring him by coming along.

The first half of the movie is getting there, which is going to be a problem for some people. Jim is not a good filmmaker, but we do see him improve somewhat with practice. He interviews some real people, Like Steven Streufort, who runs Bigfoot Books in Willow Creek. Tom Yamarone, “the Bob Dylan of Bigfoots”. Shawn L. White Guy Sr., who saw a Bigfoot when she was a child. And Nita Rowley, who runs the Visitor’s Center, and gives the best, most frustrating (to Jim) interview, because she doesn’t believe in Bigfoot, but keeps warning the two about bears and mountain lions. Character actor Peter Jason plays a former Ranger whose dog got torn apart by something in the woods, just in case you were forgetting this was an actual movie (to Gilmore and Johnson’s credit, that actually is possible).

They also meet up with a couple of vaguely threatening guys who warn them away from the forest. Not that this will do any good, mind. Does it ever?

The Bigfoot Burger – why wouldn’t you want one?

Once they actually hit the Bluff Creek area and start hiking into the wilderness (at almost exactly the movie’s halfway mark), you’re going to start to get what most people came here for, and also cement the fact that Jim is an idiot. They brought camping gear, and Kelly claims to have spent some time in the woods, but neither of them brought, say, a compass? After some trekking, Jim wants to push on to the Patterson site, but Kelly demands they set up camp, as light is fading. And so begins what you really came here for.

There are sounds in the night. Jim turns on the camera, apparently the only light they have (idiots). What follows is an 18 minute long single take, as the noises get closer and something starts shuffling around the tent. There is also what sounds like a woman crying, which doesn’t help matters. This scene goes from skepticism to curiosity to fear to absolute terror; it actually gets pretty intense, and what’s remarkable is that it is all conveyed by acting and sound. I generally watch movies with headphones on, which aided the effect immeasurably.

With the morning light, Jim and Kelly make the sensible decision to get the hell out of Dodge, but that lack of a compass I was yelling at them about ensures that they immediately get lost (as if they weren’t already), and there’s not even a Blair Witch screwing with them. For a few moments I thought they were actually going to show some brains and follow the creek to civilization, but something in the bushes scares them back into the woods, night falls again, and, just like the afore-referenced Blair Witch Project, a number of plot threads come together at the end with tragic results. I’m going to give Willow Creek the clear edge on escalating, frightening endings, though.

Willow Creek is not going to be for all markets (as a glance at user reviews at the IMDb will tell you); I’m not even sure fans of slow-burn horror will take to it. I was pretty iffy on it myself until that 18 minute single take, which, among other things, had me wondering what Tarkovsky would have done with modern equipment, unburdened by limitations like the size of a film magazine. If you want more excitement sprinkled through your found footage Bigfoot experience, then Exists is definitely the way to go. But Willow Creek, while lo-fi in concept and execution, does have a couple of scenes that pack a memorable wallop.

 

V: Vanishing on 7th St. (2010)

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Here’s a story that may seem familiar to you: see a title that looks interesting, tag it on Netflix… and then proceed to ignore it for a few years.

Until you need a movie that starts with a “V”, anyway. (I may have lost some of you there)

We’re first going to meet Paul (John Leguizamo)a projectionist at an AMC theater in Detroit, puttering around his domain, headlight ablaze, making sure the latest Adam Sandler movie runs smoothly (all we hear is some really improbable music and the audience’s laughter). There is a sudden blackout, and when the lights come back on, everybody is gone. Literally. All that remains in the theater and lobby is spilled popcorn and empty clothing, still in shapes that suggest the people once wearing them. There are screams in the distance.

Then the lights go back off again.

We are introduced to Rosemary (Thandie Newton), a physical therapist at a hospital, and Luke (Hayden Christensen), a TV reporter who managed to sleep through the whole thing. Like Paul and his headlight, Rosemary was holding a lit match, and Luke’s girlfriend had some candles burning on a bedside table. In the 72 hours that follow, they wander around Detroit, scavenging flashlight batteries and glowsticks, finally winding up at a bar on 7th Street that has a backup generator, its lights keeping the hungry darkness at bay. There they meet a fourth survivor: James (Jacob Latimore), the 12 year-old son of the bartender. They will try to figure out what happened, and how they can get out of Detroit – or if they should even try.

The first 15-20 minutes of Vanishing are absolutely perfect and nightmarish, leaving me wondering why this movie wasn’t better known. Then we settle down in the bar and it becomes a different movie; a kind of a spam-in-a-cabin flick with all the bickering and psychological drama you’ve come to expect. That was a bit disappointing, but it has to be admitted that director Brad Anderson and a quartet of talented actors sell it and keep it moving, breaking up the submarine movie with flashbacks from Rosemary and Luke  – Luke in particular receiving a satellite broadcast, during a momentary resumption of power in his TV station, from Chicago – implying that whatever it is, it’s worldwide, and laying out the rules: Stay in the light, don’t listen to the voices, and only trust the light that is in your hands.

I may have checked the time remaining, but I never once was tempted to press the fast-forward button.

There are going to be those among who will look askance at my describing Hayden Christensen as a “talented actor”, but really, separated from George Lucas’ ham-fisted direction (the man is a brilliant technician but considers actors mere props – and let’s not talk about his dialogue) Christensen is fine. We already knew about Newton and Leguizamo’s talent, and Jacob Latimore has had a good career since. Honestly, the fact that there are two kids giving great performances in this movie is amazing (the other is Taylor Groothuis).

You may have noticed that a couple of paragraphs above, I dropped the name of the director, Brad Anderson; you should recognize that name, as he is the director of, among others, Session 9 and The Machinist, both off-kilter, unusual horror movies. Vanishing on 7th Street was his first, and as far as I know, only apocalypse film, and I’d love to see what he could do with a larger budget on the same subject. He seems to be concentrating on TV more in the last eight or so years, with only the occasional movie, seemingly leaving overt horror behind. Let’s hope not, though.

T: Tears of Kali (2004)

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Oh, hello again, Germany.

I stumbled across this movie while searching off the beaten path for Hubrisween. I fancy myself fairly well-read in the realm of horror, and searching somewhere other than the US and the UK offer strange delights. For me, there is nothing quite like coming across a movie I’ve never heard of. Even better is finding out it doesn’t suck.

We begin in a compound in what we are told is Poona, India in 1983. People on mats, all appearing to be in various stages of suffering as an older man (Pietro Martellanza) walks among them, comforting them. One in particular is Kim (Anja Gebel), quite striking because she is naked. The man asks her where she’s looking. “Inside.” “What do you see?” “Darkness.”

He walks her to a window and asks her to open her eyes. She does, only for a second. He asks her to look outside, “For there is everything. Life. Do it for me.” And he leaves her.

And she walks slowly out of the room, returns to the window, and cuts off her eyelids with a pair of scissors.

From this we go to our first story (yes, this is an anthology) “Shakti”. A writer (Celik Nuran) visits a mental hospital to interview a patient, Elizabeth (Irena-Heliana Jandis), due to be discharged in a week. Years before, Elizabeth had belonged to a cult headed by Samarfan (Joey Bazatt), where she was known as “Shakti”. Samarfan, we will find, belonged to the infamous and experimental Taylor-Eriksson Group, who we saw in that opening. What Samarfan brought from his stay in Poona was a system of meditation and primal scream therapy, first contacting what Jung called “the shadow” in each person and casting it out with the scream. One night, Samarfan was torn messily to pieces, and Shakti confessed to the crime – even though witnesses claimed she was with them all night.

It turns out that the cast-out shadows didn’t simply go away, in Elizabeth’s case becoming a tulpa composed entirely of her rage. The writer has her own agenda, and wants Elizabeth to once more summon her tulpa so a hidden video camera in her purse can capture the proof.

This is a bad idea.

The second story, “Devi”, concerns young skinhead thug Robin (Marcel Trunsch) who has been convicted of beating a Polish tourist nearly to death while hopped up on speed. To avoid jail, he must get 15 hours of therapy, and is referred to the office of Dr. Steiner (Michael Balaun). Robin puts on what he thinks is a good contrite act, only to be countered by Steiner at every turn, until the doctor puts a Vulcan nerve pinch on him. When Robin awakes, everything in the office has been covered in plastic sheets. Dr. Steiner, you see, was in the Taylor-Eriksson Group, where he learned some interesting things about therapy. Here’s a hint: Watch out what you say in your first sentence to your therapist.

As you might guess from that plastic sheeting, this story has the goriest ending of the three.

Speaking of third stories, “Kali” introduces us to Edgar (Mathieu Carrière) a faith healer who is losing his faith. Though not spelled out, the story skillfully implies that his gift left him when he was unable to save his daughter from some disease. He’s drinking a lot more these days.

One of the people who come to him is Mira (Cora Chilcott), who is bent over with the burden of something from her past. Edgar can sense whatever it is, and it is powerful; after a tense bout of thrashing and screaming, it leaves her, and we see a shadowy form slither into the old church building Edgar has rented. Mira was in, you guessed it, the Taylor-Eriksson Group in its final days, when they were experimenting with “the Kali Process”, venturing inward, into “the cellars of the soul, where there is no separation between the living and the dead.” There are things down there that should stay there, but Mira brought one back. And now, free of her, it’s in the dark building. And it’s hungry.

Tears of Kali was originally three short films (each story starts with its own credits) and, indeed, writer-director Andreas Marschall has made quite a few short films, and I’m trying to figure out how to find more of them to watch. You can usually trust that in any given anthology film, you’ll find one great story, one lousy story, and the rest various shades of mediocre; Tears of Kali puts the lie to that by presenting three very good stories – though I will admit “Devi” is my particular favorite. All that work he did on shorts shows in a good, solid movie obviously done with not that much money but a whole lot of skill, commitment and artistry.

It’s probably not a big surprise that Marschall is also known as an artist for heavy metal album covers.