The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Films I’ve Watched in March 2020

If we’re going to be whipped up into a frenzy then locked out of social gathering options, then I guess I’ll return to writing things on this occasionally-defunct blog. We all know full well that my first love is writing, even if I’ve never quite had the wherewithal to make money at it directly. (I write in professional capacities but you know what I mean.)

I’m still podcasting, though in a much more limited capacity with only one show currently, down from my peak of four (or was it five?) weekly shows at the same time.

Maybe someday I’ll increase the amount I’m podcasting again, but even before the current madness I felt fairly overloaded and burnt out. I’m still doing a Star Wars show, Aggressive Negotiations, while I figure out if there are additional formats and concepts to which I want to lend my talents. There’s also a secret, special project in the works.

Of course, since I’m talking about my voice, I’d be remiss not to mention the audio adaptation of the original Star Trek V: The Final Frontier script where I played Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. It was a lot of fun. Give it a listen.

OK, fine. I’m still kind of busy.  At least I’m not some jackanapes secretly shilling for corporate masters without direct pay and angling for red carpet invites on a fan blog.

Sybok
Oh that’s right. I went there.

Back to the Matter at Hand

Since the title of this blog is “Easing Back Into It,” I’m just going to start off with a list of films I’ve watched and/or revisited since the current mania took hold.

If, for some reason, you want to keep up with what I’m watching, seek out the username “kesseljunkie” on Letterboxd. I log everything there because if services are going to steal my data and sell it to foreign governments and social media ad agencies, I might as well keep track of my movies. All the movies logged here will have links to their respective reviews on that service.

Why I Started with March

I knew that as soon as Matt Drudge started hyping things with bold headlines and red text, the tone and tenor of things would shift gears. That doesn’t have anything to do with wisdom, just the experience of living in the era of the Bad Hatted One has taught that he’s been a bellwether for decades.

I didn’t anticipate the lack of toilet paper at the stores, though. I swear there are certain things I’ll never figure out about y’all and your panic reactions. It’s like we have this primal urge to wipe our butts at the first sign of any trouble. Ask people who grew up in the DC Metro area about what people bought at the first forecast of a potential snowstorm and they’ll simply chuckle and nod knowingly.

For the sake of this blog, I’m just starting the clock at the beginning of March 2020. I had my eye on things across the Pacific before that, because that’s the sort of guy I am, but it seems like a good starting point. The first film was also watched on February 29, but that’s a non-existent fake thing that doesn’t really exist, like Daylight Savings Time, so it counts as March.

Well, they’ll chuckle as soon as they get their car fixed and wipe their butt. But not necessarily in that order. Man, I’m kinda glad I never need to deal with snowstorms again.

An Interesting Observation

The good films I’ve watched have, for a time, started to outnumber the bad, or even the ugly. This is surely a sign of stress in my life, since usually I exercise far worse choices in my entertainment options. Perhaps there’s an inversion principle at play, like when a friend who’s knowledgeable about one specific thing decides they’re automatically knowledgeable about all things for the sake of an argument.

I’ll have to keep an eye on it and see if, as the stresses balance themselves out, I express the return to normalcy by watching bad things on Amazon Prime regularly again. I promise you that Lord Bezos’ algorithms know the sweet spot to deliver that late-night UHF experience to those of us having trouble sleeping. (If you’re too young to understand what that means, it means you’re too young to understand a lot of things…even if you think you do.)

The Good Films I’ve Watched Recently

Anyway, here’s the list of The Good. This includes things that I’ve rewatched for various reasons.

The Game (1997) – The emotionally touching and magnificent third film from David Fincher. Starring Michael Douglas and subverts expectations in an intelligent and meaningful way, while being well-written and structured intelligently. Something that not everything that “subverts expectations” does.

The Edge (1997) – Scripted by David Mamet, and starring Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins, and a bear. Unjustly overlooked and massively interesting film.

Color Out of Space (2019) – An adaptation of an HP Lovecraft tale, starring Nicolas Cage. If that doesn’t get you to watch, I don’t know what will.

Fighting with My Family (2019) – Cheeky and heartwarming adaptation of a true life story.

Mandy (2018) – Also starring Nicolas Cage. One of the craziest movies I’ve watched in recent years. You’ll never forget it. Makes for one hell of a double feature with Color Out of Space.

Fight Club (1999) – Another David Fincher film! Effortless masterwork. Cultural touchstone. Still a classic.

Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) – You: “But I hate Episode I!” Me: “That’s because you’re a philistine.”

Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) – You: “LULZ I hate this one too and people who like it are stupid.” Me, in Southern drawl: “I know. Let’s have a spelling contest.”

The Last Movie Star (2017) – It’s good enough, but never quite rises to the level of Burt Reynolds’ performance. Gets a little too silly for its own good at the end.

Frozen II (2019) – Predictable and flat at points. The plot made me nickname it something playful, but you’ve got to send me a direct message to find out what. Olaf steals the show again. Brilliant use of the technology, though. The animation is stunning at points.

Alien (1979) – Showed it to my kid. She pronounced that it is “Good.” She may remain in the family.

Club Dread (2004) – I would completely understand if someone didn’t like it. It’s a silly, completely forgettable send-up of slasher flicks. It’s the sort of movie Kevin Smith thinks he’s making.

Aliens (1986) – Showed it to my kid. She was a little bored in the first half, then really invested in the last half and stated if they’d killed certain characters she’d go out and find the director and hurt him. I’m…going to hold off on showing her Alien 3.

Panic Room (2002) – This is another Fincher film (this should be serving as a hint about something if you paid attention from the start), and a good one. It’s just not a great one.

The Bad Films I’ve Watched Recently

Here we get to The Bad, which are admittedly far fewer in number than usual.

Kill Chain (2019) Nicolas Cage has a fearless filmography lately, and every so often he delivers a stinker. But if the exchange is that I get a Mandy or a Color Out of Space in the exchange, then I AM FINE WITH THAT. And honestly, it’s just that this movie is a weak imitation of 1990s Tarantino, so it’s not even that it’s “godawful,” it’s just so bland and haphazardly created that there’s no way I could recommend it.

Moonshine County Express (1977) – John Saxon in a low-budget hixploitation flick? Like there was any way I wouldn’t watch it. Don’t judge me!

The Ugly Film I Watched Recently

There’s only one “ugly” film, courtesy of the only known director – outside of Neil Breen, who isn’t really known – to have a whopping four entries on my “Worst Movies I’ve Ever Seen” list. And trust me, when I hate a movie, it’s with good reason.

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019) – There’s lazy, and then there’s Kevin Smith. Imagine getting locked in a room with someone you knew in high school who never learned any new jokes. And the galling experience of knowing he’s making more money than you. I know one person who thinks it’s one of the best movies he’s seen in the last year, but then I’m pretty sure that his inner film critic suffered some sort of serious injury and is just sending random signals begging for the pain to stop.

In Conclusion

So that’s what I’ve watched in March 2020, so far. As I write this there are still a few days left, so I might even cram another entry on here because I’m an overachiever like that.

I admit that it’s sort of a lame way to start blogging again. As a counterpoint, you chose to read it anyway. So you have no one to blame but yourself.

Oh, and as a final note, it’s not that I watch too many movies. It’s that you watch too few.

I doubt, however, if I’ll ever see as many movies as these guys did.

Watching the Remake of “Death Wish” Starring Bruce Willis

Surprise! I’ve got a movie review and I wanted to write, so it’s your (un)lucky day if you happen to read this.

Recently I took the plunge and watched Eli Roth’s remake of Death Wish. For the record, I think the original is good-but-not-great. More than anything, it’s an interesting time capsule about a time when the United States was dealing with a very dark period and its cities seemed to be spiraling out of control. It’s very much an extension of that angst.

I’m aware it’s based on a book, which I’ve yet to read, but the film is much like  other 1970s New York tales; the city was portrayed as a morass of dread and occasional terror. For this reason, it becomes not a revenge fantasy but an exploration of a desperate attempt to reclaim power by a frightened population unsure of the way the world had changed.

When this remake came out, it was labeled as “racist” and “alt-right.” I don’t think that the charge has much merit unless you’re willing to stretch to get to that point. If you really want to see it that way, I can’t stop you. The story is just about an embittered man who handles grief and trauma in ways that aren’t healthy or positive for himself or society. Bruce Willis is just a star who fits into this sort of role if you come at it with a more “action mindset” than the material warrants, which Eli Roth definitely does.

To be honest, I’m more-than-half-expecting these sort of charges to be leveled against the forthcoming film, The Batman. We just can’t resist injecting sizzling hot takes into everything, for maximum attention and online laud, regardless if we’ve actually viewed the material at hand.

An additional hurdle is that the “world building” isn’t there to establish that this city and this time are so overwhelmingly bad, that someone would break down and go vigilante. This is a singular person working out a singular issue on an entire population.

As with so many of my reviews, the following review was originally logged on Letterboxd. Just as few people read me over there as they do here, but so long as I’ve got two channels I may as well use them. I’ve nested some minor differences in here, given this preamble, and cleaned up some thoughts because you deserve more when coming to kessel korner.

Death Wish 2018 Remake Starring Bruce Willis in a Death Wish Remake in 2018 Directed by Eli Roth and Featuring Bruce Willis in a Death Wish 2018 remake.
Also, the final shot of the movie is no longer clever.

My Review of the Death Wish 2018 Remake Starring Bruce Willis

During the first hour of the remake of Death Wish, I was actually impressed with the restraint that Eli Roth was showing (comparatively to his other works). There was some sense of the complex moral issues that the original film brushed up against.

And yet.

The use of “Back in Black” by AC/DC was a clear aural signal that Roth just couldn’t resist the urge to celebrate what was happening. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) ceases to be a tormented survivor and becomes an action hero. Bronson showed the restraint necessary to communicate the inner conflic in the original; here Willis is obviously given the direction to have fun.

As it progresses, Roth then eventually indulges his trademark taste for torture porn. I won’t go into spoiler level detail, but  it boils over in a scene where I stopped looking and listened for it to end. That’s not fun, and it’s not right that the hero takes pleasure in the action. That makes it a simple brutal fantasy and not a nuanced exploration of the nature of vigilantism.

There’s a token attempt to paper over these missteps near the end, but all it does is confuse the tone of the movie. The ending then turns into the most tidy action set piece I’ve seen in a while.

Vincent D’Onofrio is good as Paul’s brother Frank Kersey, and I really wish he’d been given much more time to help explore the more complex themes at play. It seemed like D’Onofrio wanted to drag the movie with him down an interesting emotional road but in the end, the freight train of gratuitous blood and guts had too much inertia for him to divert. His performance unintentionally reveals the shortcomings in Willis’, as well, and makes me wonder what the film could have been like if their roles were reversed.

Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise have good chemistry as the cops struggling to find leads. Like D’Onofrio, you wish they’d had more screen time. Camila Morrone is convincing as Kersey’s daughter, but she doesn’t have very much to do for the majority of the movie. As a side note, the treatment of the daughter’s trauma is actually better than in the original. At least they fixed that.

Rogier Stoffer’s photography is good, too. The film is very nicely composed and the use of color is very effective; the darker scenes are always visually clean.

At the end of it all, it’s just a very frustrating movie. It earns your trust in the first hour, only to squander it when Roth just can’t help his more vicious film-making tendencies.

Revisiting “Blown Away,” Starring Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones

As I continue to trod through 1994 for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party, we’re getting to the thick of the summer season. Naturally we’re hitting on the films that either went on to be big hits (Speed), or were supposed to be prestige pictures but “underperformed” (Wyatt Earp).

That brings us to this review of Blown Away. I remember liking Blown Away when I saw it years ago. I didn’t expect much, and it seemed to over-deliver.

What a difference 25 years makes! It’s not as good as I remember, and in fact isn’t all that good on the whole.

Read on!

Tommy Lee Jones in Blown Away which is a movie called Blown Away featuring Tommy Lee Jones in a movie called Blown Away which is in Boston, as Blown Away Doesn't Occur in Cocoa Beach.
Questionable Accents and Bad Decisions Abound.

My Review of Blown Away, Starring Tommy Lee Jones and Jeff Bridges

This is a mediocre movie that keeps you hooked with the promise of being better through the entire runtime. That’s at least partly due to the terrific cast that Hopkins has in front of the camera.

There’s a tantalizing hint of “the next moment” being when the movie will elevate to the next level. This allure goes through the entire experience, to the point where one climactic scene captures that fire right near the end. By then, though, you realize it’s the outlier, and it rolls into a dissatisfying coda.

Like so many films of the early to mid 1990s, the Irish terrorist/insurgent/liberator plot line is equally indulgent and absolving of those who had noble ideals but didn’t want to cause real harm. Like those others, it also  never truly explains to the audience why “The Cause” was justified enough to reach outright bombing on the streets. It’s just presumed everyone understands.

There are a few moments that ring hollow and carry the faint scent of reshoots. (I write this without knowing if there were.) The lighting keys on certain “outdoor” scenes is off enough to be discordant with other outdoor scenes, and the content of them seems expressly to hit the accelerator on character and story development. It may be that the script was just in need of a little more polish, but if I were a betting man I’d say they were inserts.

The oddest thing is how claustrophobic this movie is, even when set outdoors. It’s photographed as if it’s afraid to show anything at the edges or communicate an actual sense of scale.

The characters also make a few moves later in the film that are clearly designed just to get them into a specific spot to raise tension. There seems to be a natural ending as well, along with one that feels as if it’s just to get us to a specific farewell shot.

I was very much enamored with this movie when I saw it for the first time years ago. On this rewatch for RetroPerspective, though, it felt more like a missed opportunity than promise delivered.

Returning to Batman Returns

For no discernible reason, I decided to revisit Batman Returns, the 1992 sequel to the beloved Batman of 1989. For once I rewatched something that wasn’t from 1994, and therefore not in the mission statement for RetroPerspective on The Nerd Party.

This is a movie that I’ve had a conflicted relationship with since its release. I loved it when I first saw it, and considered it a subversive work of genius. Its portrait of Penguin was disturbing. Its portrayal of Catwoman was complex. Its portrayal of Max Schreck was…weird. It seemed to subvert expectations to change the legend of Batman as a hero into something more broken and

Even as I say it now, I want to believe it.  But it’s all flowery language to account for a messy script, uneven direction, dissatisfying editing, and surprisingly underwhelming photography. There are other films about which we can say these things, but it’s OK to say them about Batman Returns. So I did.

Make no mistake that this is one of those disappointments that I can’t help but revisit from time to time. That’s because in the moments when it does work, it works very well. And though it delivers those moments irregularly, it does deliver them.

If you think I’m way off on this one, let me know.

Batman's Armor is Great in Batman Returns, though, because Batman Returns features Batman's Armor in Batman Returns as if it were in Cocoa Beach.
Batman’s armor was great, though.

My Recent Review of Batman Returns, as Written on Letterboxd

This is a scattered and unfocused movie, but it is a compellingly watchable one. There is something hypnotically bizarre about Catwoman and Penguin. There’s something fascinating and awful about Christopher Walken’s Max Schreck.

The best way to think about the emotional thrust of the movie – because the logical structure is lacking – is that Michael Keaton’s Batman comes across this time as the misfit who made it through high school because he can find controlled expression of his antisocial tendencies. He’s the odd kid who can get along with the administration. As a result, he’s sympathetic to those who can’t.

Burton exceeds the limits of the script by leaning into the visual composition and absurdity that is his trademark. He feels less responsibility to make this Batman film as “rooted” as the first one and just indulge the side of him that produced works like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Big Fish.

It’s not enough to make the movie as a whole satisfying, but it does give great expression to the emotional core from which   the movie is speaking. There are moments of high drama that resonate with those that remember what it felt like to be a misfit and what constant work it was to fit in, and the pain of seeing those that couldn’t.

It’s quite hip now to drag Batman Returns for what it doesn’t do, but I’d rather cheer it for what it accomplishes. Again, it’s not enough to give it high marks, but it does get a passing grade.

I Finally Saw Beverly Hills Cop III and Here’s the Review

As usual, this is one of those reviews that appeared first on Letterboxd.

Once again for RetroPerspective over on TheNerdParty.com, I come upon a film from 1994 that gave me a chance to correct an historical oversight. Why did I miss Beverly Hills Cop III at the time? Aside from critical fizzle, I hadn’t liked Beverly Hills Cop II, and so like any healthy adult I didn’t see the next one.

I held out hope that I’d have the opportunity to buck the conventional wisdom and find a film that had been unfairly maligned. I was ready to let Axel Foley back into my life and find something that, at the very least, was “so bad it’s good.”

Instead, I encountered Beverly Hills Cop III.

Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop III which is a Beverly Hills Cop movie called Beverly Hills Cop III featuring Eddie Murphy but not Craigula.
Eddie Murphy looks just as baffled as the audience.

This movie is terrible. In the litany of 1994 “terrible” movies that I’ve encountered, it’s terrible in a very special way. It’s so bad as to make you *feel bad* for the talented people involved. Unlike Deadfall, this is something where you can’t even come up with a legitimate reason for why things wouldn’t come together.

John Landis was a proven director. Eddie Murphy, though fading by this point, was a major star. Steven deSouza is a successful screenwriter. Everything should have worked. It doesn’t, though. It’s like a band of talented musicians who just can’t get in rhythm together and become a nightmarish supergroup like Hollywood Vampires.

You want this movie to succeed in some way. You see people trying to make something worthwhile. But there is a magnificent lifelessness to the scenes, all the way from how they’re lit to how they’re performed. This is people going through the motions, collecting a check and hoping that someone else will provide whatever’s missing.

The resultant movie is a listless half-narrative that even botches its fan service and callbacks to the first film. This is a movie in desperate need of an identity, without any idea how to build one. It’s constructed as an action film, executed without a sense of urgency or peril. It’s got elements of a comedy film, without the timing or goodwill to execute the comedy for a laugh.

I can say that, for all the great films that came out that year, 1994 had more than enough of its share of stinkers. Beverly Hills Cop III stands out among them because it had the money and the talent to be something great, and instead is the cinematic equivalent of a well-polished turd. Is it as bad as On Deadly Ground? No, it is not. But On Deadly Ground is so insanely bad as to be a modern marvel. Beverly Hills Cop III is terrible in a boring way.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the one truly worthwhile moment in the movie for you. Go look up “George Lucas Cameo Beverly Hills Cop III” and enjoy the only point where there seemed to be any real energy onscreen. Which, given Lucas’ reputation for maintaining a lowly-expressive demeanor, is ironic as all get-out.

Save yourself the precious time and money to see this. It’s not worth it.