Five Quirky Little Films From Five Different Decades You Probably Haven’t Seen…but Should Watch ASAP

With so much time on our hands these days because of the pandemic many of us have been catching up on our movie watch lists. In the past few weeks I’ve ripped through quite a few films I’d been sitting on for a while, some of which were great (1917) and some…well, not so much (Mad Max: Fury Road). Sometimes it’s funny what ends up in your watch list and when you finally do get around to them it can be a great surprise. I currently have 137 films in my IMDB watch list, and I never quite know how to choose what to watch when I scroll through it looking for a two-hour escape. I’m never really sure how some of the films ended up in my watch list to begin with! (By the way, I recommend choosing one overarching site to keep your watch list otherwise you’ll end up with films and TV show suggestions all over the place. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google. If they all synced that’d be one thing, but they don’t.)

This morning I got to thinking about some of the more indie or lesser-known films I’ve loved over the years and decided to share one to represent each of the past five decades. You probably didn’t see these films, but they all rate among my all-time favorites.

1970s. They Might Be Giants. If quirky is your thing I highly recommend this 1971 film from director Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter) starring George C. Scott as a mental patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and escapes into the streets of New York looking for clues to find his archrival Moriarty. He enlists the help of his doctor, whose name is, of course, Dr. Watson (played wonderfully by Joanne Woodward). You can’t help but love this odd love story that’s really about taking life by the horns and living fully. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the film did indeed inspire the name of the band They Might Be Giants. This film will inspire you to tilt at windmills. The film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and others.

Here’s the original trailer for They Might Be Giants

1980s. Five Corners. In 1987 John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, but in the same year the little-known film Five Corners was released and it is without a doubt one of my favorite films ever. Truthfully, I’m not sure how this film slipped past most viewers because it’s amazing. It was directed by Tony Bill, who is well known for his work in television but not for directing films. Five Corners stars Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins, and in what is certainly a preview of things to come, a remarkable performance by a young John Turturro two years before his breakout role of Pino in Do The right Thing. The story of a few odd and dangerous days in the Bronx neighborhood of Five Corners will never leave you. This film is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime for members and for rent on Fandango.

John Turturro stars as psychotic parolee Heinz in 1987’s Five Corners

1990s. 29th Street. These days it’s all too common for film stars from other countries to play Americans, but this wasn’t always the case. When I first saw Anthony LaPaglia in 1990s Betsy’s Wedding, I couldn’t have imagined he wasn’t really an Italian American from New York. Then a year later he popped up again in 29th Street, a critical favorite that year that did not do very well at the box office, again playing an Italian New Yorker. The thing is, no matter what you see on your screen, the fact remains that LaPaglia is Australian. I know, how can that be? Based on a true story, 29th Street is the story of Frank Pesce, a man from a tough New York neighborhood who wins the lottery. You’d think this would make his life easier, but alas what kind of story would that be. Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan also star in this very funny film. It doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere right now so add it to your watch list for later.

Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia star in 1991’s 29th Street

2000s. State and Main. I know David Mamet is not for everyone, but I love snappy dialogue as much as anyone. Mamet is a genius when it comes to dialogue, right up there with Aaron Sorkin, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. Mamet has written some gems, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, and The Untouchables, but State and Main is nonstop beginning to end poetry delivered by a host of the world’s best actors. It’s the story of what happens when a film crew invades a small town because it’s the perfect location for their movie. The town is at first a little star struck, but soon it becomes clear that these Hollywood big shots have no concern for the town and its residents. State and Main stars William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin (he plays a famous actor with a proclivity for very young women, something a local teen restaurant worker played by Julia Stiles soon finds out), Sarah Jessica Parker, Patti LuPone, and a host of character actors you know and love. Do your best to keep up with the frantic dialogue and enjoy this smart and funny film. Currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.

2000s State and Main is one of writer/director David Mamet’s best films

2010s. In a World… Allow me to just for a moment rave about a very underappreciated Hollywood triple threat. I never saw Boston Legal, so I didn’t know Lake Bell before seeing In a World… when it first came out. But this little film made my top 10 of the year in 2013 and my top 10 of the decade. Lake is the writer, director and star of In a World…, a funny little film in which she plays a voice coach who decides to take on Hollywood’s big boys when the industry decides to reintroduce the campy “in a world” film trailer trope and she looks to become the first female voice to utter those dramatic words in a major Hollywood film trailer. You know the trope, right? In a world where apes are in charge and men are kept in zoos… It’s ubiquitous in the film trailer world, made famous by the late voiceover actor Don LaFontaine. Nobody thinks Lake’s character can break through the glass ceiling, including her famous father (played by the always funny Fred Melamed) who is also in line for the part. This film is a Lake Bell tour de force. She is so funny in it, and as director she brought in some incredible talent to play alongside her including Melamed, the underappreciated Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro (who apropos of nothing met her future wife Stephanie Allynne on set), Ken Marino, Eva Longoria, and Rob Corddry. I have written many times about this film and have insisted ever since that Lake Bell is an American treasure. It’s currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.

In a World where Lake Bell plays a voiceover actress she will make you laugh out loud

I’m not going to lie, it was hard to pick just one quirky little film from each decade so you can bet that these are among the best in my opinion. And yes, these are opinions. As with most art, one person’s endorsement isn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not you’re going to feel the same way. But if you don’t LOVE these five films there’s something wrong with you. 😉

Lifelong Learning Via Documentary Films

With all the down time I’ve had as a result of the pandemic, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the films I’ve marked “to-watch” on my various platforms. I don’t know about you, but when I run across a film or television show I want to see I keep track of it so when I’m sitting around trying to figure out what to watch I have a place to start. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect system because in the current climate we’re forced to subscribe to various platforms to enjoy media. Through one means or another I have access to Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Movies, Disney Plus, HBO Max, YouTube TV, IMDB, and a host of other platforms. There is no great way to keep track of what you want to watch, so as a result I have multiple watch lists. If I had the time and inclination, I could probably cross-reference them all and add them to one single watch list — but who has time for that?

All this is to say I have hundreds of titles available to watch at any given time. Lately though, I’ve been catching up on documentaries. I’ve always considered myself a lifelong learner and often people ask me how I know so much random crap and I usually say I read a ton and I watch educational television and films. Documentary films in particular allow you to do a deep dive on an issue and usually you end up learning something valuable. Yes, some documentaries are more about entertainment and the subject matter can be trivial or frivolous (Tiger King comes to mind), and yes there are far too many true crime documentaries for my taste, although I do watch them sometimes if the subject is of particular interest. I recently watched the Amanda Knox documentary on Netflix because I’ve read a lot about her case and I’m fascinated by the travesty of justice displayed by the Italian court and the focus on a wild but unproven theory about a sexual tryst gone wrong. That poor girl was nearly destroyed simply because she didn’t react “normally” when her roommate was killed.

But what I really look for in a documentary is an opportunity to learn something significant. Some of my all-time favorite docs include Hoop Dreams, Man on Wire, Religulous, When the Levies Broke, Roger & Me, An Honest Liar, Super Size Me, An Inconvenient Truth, Searching for Sugar Man, Sherman’s March, and The Thin Blue Line.

I love me some rock documentaries, especially Amy, Stop Making Sense, and A.K.A. Doc Pomus. I have seen tons of food documentaries, from Food Inc. to Forks Over Knives to The Future of Food. Some documentaries are funny, some are serious, and some are a little of both. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a film is a documentary or a drama, like Zelig or This is Spinal Tap.

These are glorious times if you like documentaries given there are so many streaming sites. Right now I have a few dozen docs lined up in my queue from Crip Camp to 13th to I Am Not Your Negro to What Happened, Miss Simone? I hope to catch up on a bunch of them over the next few weeks given I’m off work.

Earlier this week I watched a documentary that had been in my watchlist for a while but I hadn’t gotten around to it. It is called Disclosure and its about depictions of trans people in Hollywood past to present. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I have to say I learned more about trans people in 1 hour 48 minutes than I had in my previous 54 years on the planet. Disclosure is a series of interviews with trans actors and actresses who share their experiences and thoughts on various key trans moments in film over the years. It features a who’s who of trans actors and actresses, including a few I knew something about like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono and tons I knew very little about. It was so eye opening.

It may be true the world is awakening when it comes to trans people, and while there’s a long way to go I was struck by a few things I learned in the film. I know this makes sense, and of course it’s true, but there have always been trans actors and actresses in film. It’s just that for the majority of the time the average viewer had no idea we were watching a trans performance. It was fascinating to hear from some of these actors and actresses who performed on film for years without anyone knowing their true gender. I couldn’t imagine having to hide such a significant thing about yourself in order to do your job.

The most striking thing I learned in the film was that up until very recently, like the past couple of years, trans people were ridiculed on the screen and we all thought nothing of it. There were a couple of specific (and loosely related examples) highlighted. Most film fans will remember 1992’s The Crying Game, about a man who unknowingly entered into a relationship with a trans woman. While Jaye Davidson was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, (spoiler alert) upon learning he’s been having sexual experiences with a trans woman Stephen Rea’s character reacted by literally throwing up at the thought of it. Imagine how that might have felt if you were a young trans person watching the film at the time? How horrifically irresponsible of the filmmaker. Two years later blockbuster Ace Ventura: Pet Detective spoofed the scene by having multiple characters throw up simply upon seeing a trans person. In fact, a trans person is the villain in the film. This too is a common theme in Hollywood, that of the villainous trans person — from Psycho to Silence of the Lambs.

I never really thought about trans portrayals on film and on TV. Over the past few months I’ve been watching the Showtime series Billions, which stars TVs first significant non-binary character in Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason. They are wonderful in the series, but it took until 2016 for Hollywood to write in a non-binary character with some meat to the part. And as for trans characters, they’ve long been subjected to roles as sex workers, murder victims, or comedic interludes.

Disclosure is ultimately a film about the positive turn underway in Hollywood. Trans actors are being taken seriously, and they are getting roles written as trans to be acted by trans actors and actresses. Orange is the New Black was a breakthrough moment for the trans community with Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset portrayed as much more than a sideline character for comedic relief. In fact, Sophia’s storyline is both heartwarming and tragic and it’s definitely not one dimensional. I have not seen the show Transparent, but I understand that while there has been some negative reaction to CIS actor Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, the show does in fact provide some meaty roles for actual trans actors and actresses including Alexandra Billings who is interviewed in Disclosure. And of course there are the Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana, who wrote and directed The Matrix films and who are setting the bar for trans power in film.

The bottom line is I had never thought much about trans portrayal in Hollywood but it makes sense that popular opinion of trans people will be both reflected by and influenced by film and television. It’s important if we are going to continue to advance as an inclusive society that we recognize the past and fight for the future. We all have a role to play, and educating ourselves is a good start. I’d like to think I’m already a good trans ally for the trans people I know — and I know more and more people transitioning all the time — but there’s a difference between surface-level knowing and deeper understanding. There are so many lessons for the CIS community in Disclosure that I recommend it for everyone who wants to be a better ally.

My Favorite Films of the Decade

I probably spend more time watching movies than most people, but even I can’t get to every film I want to see. While the streaming revolution has helped, there are still only so many hours in the day to sofa surf with a film. But that doesn’t stop me from trying!

The past 10 years of film have left some indelible marks on me. I try to rate every film I see on my IMDB account, so pulling together an end of decade list should be easy, right? Over the past few weeks though as I started going through my ratings I noticed a few things. First, there were no films this decade that I rated as a 10/10. That’s not a total surprise, as I reserve 10s for the films that rate among my all-time favorites. There were however a lot of 9s and 8s, which means there were a ton of films I loved in the 2010s. In fact, there were more than 25 that warranted and 8 or 9 by my system. So for this end of decade countdown I have listed a bunch of honorable mentions to go along with my Top 10, but not all of my 8s made the cut.

The following are films I really loved in the 2010s, not films I deem to be “best of” by some objective or even subjective measure. Also, I didn’t see every film I wanted to over the past 10 years, so there may be a few that get some measure of universal kudos that I just haven’t seen yet. Get Out is one example, as is Whiplash and Parasite. I have those and others on my “to-see” list so they may very well rank among my favorites of the decade but they are obviously not listed below.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order:

  • La La Land (2016). It may not have won Best Picture, but I la la loved it. Gotta give Damien Chazelle credit for reinventing a lost genre.
  • Dean (2016). Demetri Martin is understated and underrated as an actor and storyteller.
  • The Hateful Eight (2015). The second best Tarantino film of the decade. The tension is so thick you can cut it with a machete.
  • The Florida Project (2017). This film made a ton of “best of” lists in 2017. I really like films that show how life really is for some of the country’s forgotten and less fortunate — it reminds me of how lucky I am. And a great performance by Willem Dafoe.
  • Frances Ha (2012). If Noah Baumbach is the new Woody Allen (and I think he is) than Greta Gerwig is his Diane Keaton. The 2010s may well be remembered most for being the decade that Gerwig went from adorable indie actress to certifiable Hollywood royalty.
  • Gravity (2013). I went in thinking Gravity was overrated and I came out thinking Alfonso Cuarón is a fucking genius. That said, Roma is not on my favorites list!
  • Your Name. (2016). I never really gave anime a second thought, but my son dragged me to see this and it was awe inspiring and made me go back and add a bunch of anime films to my watch list. This one is stunningly beautiful. It is fine art.
  • Ex Machina (2014). Really enjoyable thriller about the slippery slope of artificial intelligence.
  • Kill Your Darlings (2013). Beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs along with murder, sex, and intrigue. Here’s more proof Daniel Radcliffe is making very smart choices in his post Harry Potter roles. Mark my word he will win an Oscar someday soon.
  • Lady Bird (2017). Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut proves she’s much more than Noah Baumbach’s muse. Saoirse Ronan is the best actor of her generation and her films are not to be missed.
  • Moonlight (2016). I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a movie theater so moved.
  • Motherless Brooklyn (2019). It may have taken Edward Norton 20 years to make this film about a detective with Tourette’s Syndrome, but it was worth the wait. And yet again Willem Dafoe steals a film (it was a great decade for him).
  • BlacKkKlansman (2018). Wouldn’t be a list of favorites without a film by my favorite director Spike Lee. John David Washington and Adam Driver (who has slowly made his way up my list of favorite actors) are superb in this story of infiltrating the KKK.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). I thought it was a mistake to remake the Swedish versions of this series, but then I saw Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara kill it in this David Fincher masterpiece.
  • 12 Years a Slave (2013). Right up there with Roots and Amistad in terms of best and most important films about American slavery. Maybe the best ensemble cast of the decade led by an incredible performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
  • Argo (2012). Say what you want about Ben Affleck, but the dude directed the hell out of this film which kept me on the edge of my seat until the final frame. Ar-go-fuck-yourself!
  • Spotlight (2015). I’m a sucker for a good journalism film and this one may be the best since All the President’s Men. I still think the Catholic church has gotten off too easily on all this abuse stuff.

In order, my favorite 10 films of the decade:

10. A Star Is Born (2018). I still get chills when I think back on that scene where Ally first walks out onto the stage to sing her duet with Jack. And the way they shot it, it felt like I was at a concert while sitting in the theater. The performances were great and the music was awesome. This film made me a Lady Gaga fan and I had definitely not been prior to seeing it. I don’t care about comparisons to previous versions of the film either. This version is larger than life.

9. Call Me By Your Name (2017). I didn’t see this coming of age film until a few weeks ago but it left a huge mark. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an actor better portray that awkward time between being a teen and a young adult. Timothée Chalamet is already at the top of his game and he’s not yet 25 years old. And the scene near the end of the film where Michael Stuhlbarg tells his son he knows about his sexuality and he loves him — my heart literally exploded.

8. In A World…(2013). The world needs more smart, funny women so we should continue to encourage Lake Bell to keep making movies and TV shows. This little film was Bell’s directorial debut and she also wrote and starred in it. She is a triple threat and a treasure (I even like her silly little sitcom Bless This Mess on ABC). In A World… is exactly the kind of film I love — it sneaks up on you with its smart and clever comedy. And the performances by Bell, Demetri Martin, Tig Notaro, Rob Corddry, Eva Longoria, Nick Offerman, and Fred Melamed are wonderful. Kudos to whomever cast this funny little gem of a film.

7. The Shape of Water (2017). I loved this Oscar winner and really don’t understand the backlash it got from some who saw it only as a weird love story between a woman and a fish. Yeah, he was a monster, but the story was about Elisa and her sad little internally focused world and the creature was meant to be a symbol for everyone who feels a little different. Sally Hawkins was a revelation in this role, saying so much without words. The film is also a wonderful tribute to the monster films of the 50s and 60s, and throw in great supporting roles by Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, and the brilliant and underappreciated Michael Shannon and this film blows it out of the water.

6. Green Book (2018). I never stopped raving about Green Book after seeing it for the first time and I was thrilled when it brought home the Best Picture Oscar. Viggo Mortensen is probably my second favorite actor after Leonardo and he killed the role of Tony Lip. Mahershala Ali deserved his second Oscar for playing Dr. Don Shirley, but Viggo was robbed. This was the rare buddy movie in which both characters came away as better men as they each learned something important about themselves.

5. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Martin Scorsese is getting a lot of kudos for The Irishman, and it’s good, but for my money it’s not even his best film of the decade let alone his career. The Wolf of Wall Street is an hilarious film filled with tremendous and award-winning performances, none better than Leonardo DiCaprio’s. His Jordan Belfort is a tour-de-force and one of the best acting performances of Leo’s majestic career (certainly better than the one for which he finally won an Oscar, The Revenant). This film featured great supporting performances from Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie as well, and it even provides a nice little lesson on what’s truly important in life.

4. Django Unchained (2012). You can argue all you want about Quentin Tarantino’s place among the Hollywood elite, but for my money he’s Top 10 all time among directors. He should get an Oscar just for introducing American film goers to Christoph Waltz! I rate Django Unchained second among the nine films Tarantino has brought us as a director so far (Pulp Fiction is my number one). The unusual story of Waltz’s German bounty hunter and Jamie Foxx’s freed slave as they cross the country working together to bring the worst of the nation to justice is classic Tarantino. And every small role is memorable, from Kerry Washington’s Broomhilda to Samuel L. Jackson’s aging house slave to Leo DiCaprio’s dark turn as slave owner Calvin Candie. Only Tarantino can bring us such difficult subject matter in such a prized package.

3. Baby Driver (2017). From the opening moments of this film, brilliant director Edgar Wright lets us know he’s going for something completely different with Baby Driver. Is he really going to choreograph the whole film to the music? Why yes, yes he is. Hollywood has never seen anything like it, which speaks to Wright’s unique place among today’s filmmakers. It’s part music video, and part action film, and it works beautifully. Like La La Land before it, this film literally revolutionizes the medium. Frankly, it makes the already great performances by Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and (sorry) Kevin Spacey even more remarkable given they had to take Wright’s direction and time every movement to the music. The result is a high speed, musical, and wildly entertaining film.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Look, either you love Wes Anderson films or you don’t. I happen to think he’s ridiculously talented and has given viewers some of the most memorable and interesting films of the past few decades. I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is his best film. It’s quirky and interesting and visually stunning. And it features an all-star cast of Oscar-winning Anderson regulars and a few first timers, including Ralph Fiennes, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe (there he is again), Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, and of course Owen Wilson and Jason Schwartzman. The Grand Budapest Hotel was nominated for Best Picture, ultimately losing out Birdman, but it was a particularly tough group of nominees that also included the next film on my list.

1. Boyhood (2014). As with many films on my favorites list, Boyhood is not a typical Hollywood film. It tells the story of Mason from his early childhood until his arrival at college and it was shot with the same actors over a 12 year period to add to the realism of the characters. It’s really a feat of film making arrogance. But there is no director better to deliver such realism than the master of dialogue and character driven features himself, Richard Linklater. I’ll be honest, my love of Boyhood perhaps has something to do with the fact that Mason’s and his parent’s lives track pretty darn close to my own life. In fact, I watched this nearly three hour masterpiece around the same time my son, Connor, was heading off to college himself. To say that this film jabbed me in my soft white underbelly is an understatement. By the end, as Mason is left on his own at college for the first time, I was left laying on the floor in a heap of Kleenex. I was so emotional afterward I couldn’t think of anything but Boyhood for days. Were the performances by young Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke great? Yes, they were magnificent. But Boyhood struck me on a guttural level that I can’t say I’ve ever felt with a film in my life. It was less a film than an experience. We go to films for a variety of reasons. To escape. To dream. To learn. To be entertained. But every once in a while it’s great to go to a movie to simply feel.

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Dud

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been on my IMDB Watch List for close to seven years, but for whatever reason I never clicked “buy” on Google Play Movies or recorded it off HBO. One reason this Watch List challenge is so interesting to me is because it will force me to finally watch some films that have been languishing in my “get around to it” file. And while I’m not a reader of John le Carré novels, this film appealed to me because I love a good international spy film and the cast of this adaptation is remarkable.

The film stars Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even a young Tom Hardy. That’s a lot of star power. Alas, it wasn’t enough to restart my heart after I nearly fell asleep from boredom after about 20 minutes. I mean, usually I’ll give a film a half hour or so before giving up, but life is too short to waste 30 minutes let alone two hours plus. My wife didn’t protest at all when I hit the stop button on the remote. 20 minutes might be a record for me in terms of giving up on a film.

I know this film has an 85/100 metacritic score, a 7.1 out of 10 on IMDB, and was nominated for three Oscars including a Best Actor nod for Gary Oldman (who finally did win an Oscar recently for Darkest Hour which I still haven’t seen). But boring is boring. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the first two episodes of Killing Eve way more and it’s basically the same plot.

Next Up on the Watch List: Margin Call

Film Review: No Redeeming Value in McQueen’s ‘Shame’

You know that feeling you get when you watch a film and as it comes to a close you think to yourself what the hell did I just watch? That’s how I felt about Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame. Honestly, it’s rare for me to dislike a film as much as I disliked Shame.

Michael Fassbender in Shame (2011)

Shame tells the story of Brandon, played by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, who on the surface appears to be a normal guy but who harbors a secret life of sexual addiction. He spends his nights hooking up with strange women, or hiring prostitutes to fulfill his desires. When he’s not having random sex, he watches porn and jerks off. Even at work. The guy has no life outside of his perverted hobby.

Enter his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who turns up unexpectedly needing a place to stay throwing a wrench into Brandon’s habit. Sissy has her own issues, not the least of which is that she is psychotic…and…well…the tension builds until something’s got to give.

I’m the furthest thing from a prude, so it wasn’t the NC-17 rating that caused me to dislike this film. Nor was it the underlying sexual tension between brother and sister, or the porn, or the gratuitous full frontal nudity on display from both Fassbender and Mulligan. It was the complete and utter lack of story beyond the sex. The film was simply about a guy who has a problem with sex and his nutty sister moving in to take him off his game. Not much happens and nothing is resolved. I have no idea what McQueen was trying to say.

I added this film to my Watch List for several reasons, including the fact that I adore Carey Mulligan as an actress and Fassbender is always intense. But mostly I added it because McQueen is now considered an elite filmmaker having given the world multi-Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave. I even enjoyed last year’s McQueen drama Widows. But Shame is just bad. I can think of many much better films about sexual dysfunction and taboos. David O. Russell’s Spanking The Monkey comes to mind. Or Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal. Sex, Lies, and Videotape. These films are art. Shame doesn’t compare.

Next up on the Watch List project: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Film Review: War Horse Should Have Been Taken Out to the Barn and Shot

War Horse (2011) Directed by Steven Spielberg

War Horse was on my IMDB Watchlist for one reason — it was directed by Steven Spielberg. The director has given us some of the greatest films ever made, and more than a handful of my all-time favorite films. Schindler’s List. Empire of the Sun. Lincoln. ET. Amistad. Saving Private Ryan. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Raiders of the Lost Ark. And on and on. So of course I was going to want to see War Horse. What a waste of two hours and 26 minutes.

This film was more like a 1970s Disney film or an After School Special. It was so corny and predictable from start to finish. Boy meets horse. Boy loses horse. Boy finds horse again. I felt like I’d seen this story a million times before, but with a dog, or a pig, or a pigeon in the anthropomorphized lead role. No, the horse didn’t talk (he’s no Mr. Ed) but he did have a personality that made him feel more human than he is.

There were a few things I liked about War Horse. The battle scenes were cool and really well shot. Not a surprise for a director with the skills of Spielberg. And it didn’t do too bad critically, with a 76% certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. But the review also included this line: “Technically superb, proudly sentimental, and unabashedly old-fashioned, War Horse is an emotional drama that tugs the heartstrings with Spielberg’s customary flair.”

That about sums it up. Yes, beautifully shot but over-the-top sentimental. Oh, and there was one little surprise for me. Scottish actor Peter Mullan played the dad in the film, and once again my mind was blown. I had no idea he was Scottish while he was playing Jacob Snell in the amazing Netflix series Ozark or James Delos in Westworld. This guy is a tremendous actor who I love and now I like him even more. How many times am I going to be blown away be a foreign actor playing an American? I mean, he plays a Brit in War Horse and I thought he was putting on the accent! Are there any good American actors left?

Next up on my Watchlist challenge: Shame (2011)

Film Review: ‘Skin’ a Disturbing, Macabre Mess

The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz).

Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.

One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.

Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.

The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.

The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.

The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.

You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.

So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.

I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist:  Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)

Film Review: ‘Amigo’ Brings to Light the Horrors of the Philippine-American War


Amigo (2010) Directed by John Sayles

I am a history buff, or so I like to think. But honestly I either never learned or simply forgot that the U.S. went to war with the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century. In fact, from 1899 to 1902 U.S. troops invaded the small island nation to maintain control over it following it being handed over to the U.S. following the Spanish-American War. And while the Philippines are strategically located in the Pacific, the war was criticized in America by anti-imperialists including the likes of William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and notably, Mark Twain.

It’s not a war that gets much attention in mainstream cinema, especially given the plethora of World War II and Vietnam War films that have come out of Hollywood. Recently, we’ve even seen a slew of films about the Gulf War and our conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan.

Director John Sayles has a history of highlighting the underdog, whether its organized labor fighting for rights in West Virginia coal country in 1987’s intense film Matewan, or local residents fighting the government in 1991’s City of Hope. Sayles also has a fondness for history, most notably with his 1988 retelling of the Black Sox scandal in Eight Men Out.

One thing you can also count on with a John Sayles film is that he’ll always give you interesting characters and complex stories. I’ve been a dedicated Sayles fan for decades and have seen most of the films he’s directed, including favorites such as the aforementioned Matewan, City of Hope and Eight Men Out, along with Passion Fish, Lone Star, The Brother from Another Planet, and The Secret of Roan Inish. My personal favorite is the 1983 coming of age story Baby, It’s You starring a 24-year-old movie newcomer named Rosanna Arquette. His filmography is tremendous and for an independent filmmaker he’s managed to cast so many great actors who have gone on to stardom — he pretty much discovered actors like Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, and Mary McDonnell to name a few who have each starred in multiple John Sayles films and gone on to award-winning Hollywood careers. It’s enough to make you forget he also wrote the screenplays for Piranha, Alligator and The Howling.

Amigo certainly fits the John Sayles bill. It tells the fictional story of a small village in the Philippine jungle that has been taken over by American troops and used as a base to take on nationalist guerrillas. Things quickly get turned upside down for the villagers, who while are not harboring nationalists are in multiple cases related to guerrillas hiding nearby who are determined to fight to take back their country from the Americans.

The film stars Filipino actor Joel Torre as Rafael, the village mayor who’s brother leads the nearby guerrillas and who’s son has run off to join them. Rafael is stuck between trying to appease the American soldiers while at the same time not turning in his brother and son. We never truly know where Rafael’s allegiance lays, but he’s certainly in a tough spot. It doesn’t help that at the same time his fellow villagers seem unsure of his ability to lead the village. It’s worth noting that Sayles chose to present the film in Filipino with English subtitles except for when the Americans speak. This serves to both create a realistic experience for the viewer and at the same time ensure a level of confusion among the American troops and native villagers that adds to the tension. In recent years Sayles has made several films using subtitles versus Americanizing the characters and this adds to the realism of his films and provides unique opportunities for native-speaking actors.

The American troops are led by Colonel Hardacre, a hard-ass soldier with no soft spot for the Filipino villagers. Played by the underappreciated Chris Cooper, Hardacre clearly doesn’t want to be in the jungles of the Philippines and is perfectly comfortable treating the natives like subhumans. Cooper is a regular in Sayles’ films, perhaps most memorably as the sheriff in 1996’s Lone Star. He’s one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere and is amazing in each role (see Conklin in the Bourne films and as the sexually-confused Marine living next door to Kevin Spacey’s iconic Lester Burnham in American Beauty). Cooper does have an Oscar, which he won for Best Supporting Actor in Spike Jones’ 2002 film Adaptation.

The tension in the film comes as the American troops try to hold the village while at the same times the guerrillas try to disrupt their activities and ensure village leader Rafael doesn’t spill the beans on his brother’s activities in the jungle. The American troops are a bunch of rag-tag kids with little wartime experience and their anxieties play out as the situation gets complicated.

Ultimately the film is heartbreaking, and while it is a fictional story the viewer gets the feeling in real life it very well could have played out exactly as it does in the film. I found the story compelling and intense, and as the story progressed I could feel the anxiety mounting and I was on the edge of my seat. I highly recommend it for the story and the acting, as well as for the history lesson.

It’s also worth noting that Sayles makes no profound statement about the war or America’s imperialistic nature, rather he leaves that for the viewer. Sayles makes films about tough subjects and doesn’t preach (unlike, say, Oliver Stone) but instead provides a realistic view of the situation and leaves the viewer to make his or her own decisions about the politics. Yes, I think Sayles chooses subjects like this war specifically because they are not among the best moments of our history, and for me that’s what makes it good art.

Lastly, I should mention that once again Sayles cast a few young actors that since the time of this film have gone on to bigger things. One of the young American soldiers is played by a 24-year-old Dane DeHaan who is a tremendous actor who most recently is well known for his portrayal of the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn in the Spider-Man films (with Chris Cooper as his father). The other young up-and-comer is D.J. Qualls, who I love as the loyal Ed McCarthy in Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Both DeHaan and Qualls have even more bright roles ahead.

I give Amigo an 8 out of 10 stars.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist: Pedro Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011)

New Movie Review Project Underway

A few years back I decided, for no apparent reason, to watch all of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films in order and blog about each. It took me about 18 months to get through the list, and at the end I felt a sense of accomplishment and at the same time I felt a little sad that it was over. In the years since that challenge ended I have given some thought to doing another list, but I couldn’t quite decide which list to watch.

Over the weekend I was flipping around the Interwebs and found myself going down a rabbit hole on the Internet Movie Database and that led me to notice that my IMDB Watchlist had grown to 136 films going back to around 2011. I’m the kind of guy who keeps track of the films I watch and the books I read, and so over the years I’ve used IMDB to flag films I haven’t seen but wanted to see.

That’s when it dawned on me — I should watch all 136 films and blog about them. It’s a totally random list, but each film made my Watchlist because at some point I wanted to see it. Having a project like this will encourage me to watch more than 100 films I want to see and give me a reason to blog about them.

The list is really diverse. It has mainstream films I just never got around to seeing, as well as indie films and foreign films I’ve read about but have not gotten around to. Streaming services mean it should be simple to get access to these films. The only question is in what order will I watch them? I thought about this and ruled out alphabetical and IMDB ratings. I decided I’ll start with the film that has been on my Watchlist the longest and count up from there. So, watch this space soon for a review of the first film on the list — 2010s Amigo from one of my favorite directors, John Sayles.

Why am I doing this? That’s a good question. Mostly because I love movies and I also love to blog and this project enables me to do both. Also, frankly, I have a lot of spare time at night on on weekends and it’ll give me something more productive to do than watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory.

Film Review: The Hate U Give Delivers Excellent Performances But Comes Off a Bit ‘Preachy’

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Amandla Stenberg as Starr Carter

The Hate U Give is based on the young adult novel by Angie Thomas and it’s perhaps because the story was originally targeted to a young audience that the film version feels a bit like an after-school special. Don’t get me wrong, the message is important for kids and adults, and the film does a very good job of exploring several key race-related issues — but as an adult with what I think is a fairly good understanding of these issues there wasn’t much new here for me and as a result the lessons feel somewhat preachy and the plot felt predictable.

I’m not in any way trying to minimize the black lives matter movement, just simply suggesting that the plot of the film didn’t strike me as powerful the way, say, a Spike Lee or John Singleton film might have handled the subject matter. Of course, as I said, the target audience is young adult so it was perhaps not as raw or emotional as an adult-focused film might have been.

Regardless, there are certainly some great lessons in the film about black lives matter, police brutality, race relations, black-on-black crime, the drug war, teen relationships and several more. In fact, George Tillman Jr squeezed a lot into two hours. The events in the film felt real, from the white/black relationships at the predominantly white school to the community response to police violence against an unarmed black teen. The story was clearly ripped from the headlines and anytime film is used to shine a light on injustice it’s good for the art form.

The plot was indeed predictable, from the shooting to the reaction by both the white and black community. Of course, if you watch the news at all and know what’s going on in the black community in America specifically as it concerns police brutality the plot would be predictable. I think, though, what was not cliche was the depth of the characters, specifically teen protagonist Starr Carter and her father Maverick Carter. Starr, in particular, was a compelling protagonist because she was literally caught between the two worlds of her privileged white school and her crime-ridden home life in the ghetto. This dichotomy pulled at her and her response to the violent act that the film centers around was quite complicated and it evolved as the plot thickened. Her father was also a well-developed character who came up in the violence-infested drug culture and even served jail time, but who used that experience to try to raise his kids to end the cycle of violence and to empower them as black Americans. Maverick Carter was doing more than the best he could for his family given their circumstances, and in fact, tried hard to educate his kids while supporting his community rather than abandoning it. He is quite a noble figure and it should be no surprise that Starr, in particular, was such a thoughtful and mature young woman.

And then there are the performances in the film. The story may have felt like a made for TV movie, but the acting was first rate. Russell Hornsby (Maverick) was tremendous as the fiery patriarch of the extended Carter family and I won’t be surprised to see him rewarded come award season. Hornsby has done a lot of TV and a few films, but I couldn’t place him while I was watching the movie.

Which leads me to the overwhelming star of this film, Starr herself, 20-year-old Amandla Stenberg. Best known for her work as young Rue in the first Hunger Games film, Stenberg’s performance as Starr was breathtaking. She showcased all of her emotional talents in the film, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Whenever she was on the screen, she lit it up with pure charisma. Stenberg brought so much emotion and depth to her character that she has undoubtedly proven she is a tremendous actor and will be a force in the future. I am not alone in declaring Stenberg the next Hollywood “it” girl as I suspect she is on her way to becoming a huge star (pun intended) and we should expect numerous accolades and awards down the road — if not right away for this performance. I wanted to see this film specifically after I read an interview with her in Vanity Fair recently. She is intelligent, beautiful, and quintessentially Generation Z (post-Millennial). She has already set herself apart as a young actress, but she’s also a political activist and LGBTQ advocate who has already been named “Feminist of the Year” (2015) by the Ms. Foundation for Women. She recently reported that she had stopped using a smartphone due to its effects on mental health. The term “woke” may have been invented for her!

In summary, a nice film with a powerful message and incredible performances. I would have loved it if it were a touch less predictable. Or maybe I was just uncomfortable that white people in the film were called out for trying to appropriate the black lives matter movement! Like I said, complicated issues all around and good food for thought.