2015 Recap

Admittedly, I spend most of my movie-watching time checking out old bad movies and cult films. However, I do try to carve out some time each year to watch current features. Now that we are at the conclusion of awards season, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a non-exhaustive handful of notables that I managed to catch.

Features

Cop Car

Jon Watts popped onto a lot of radars this year when he was attached to the upcoming Marvel/Sony cooperative Spider-Man reboot. Prior to this news, I was only familiar with his work on the hilarious ensemble fan film tribute Our RoboCop Remake, which I have probably watched a few too many times. Cop Car, which he directed and co-wrote, is equal parts tense thriller and dark comedy, which isn’t the easiest line to ride. Kevin Bacon is a blast, and sports a memorably sleazy mustache for the film. The bulk of the dramatic onus is on the two child actor leads, who are both surprisingly serviceable. Their characters are unbelievable and got on my nerves pretty quickly, but once the pressure was on, their annoying minutiae drained away. The concept here was brilliant, the execution wasn’t too bad either. I came at it expecting something like The Hitcher, but found that this was surprisingly pretty humorous.¬† It is a unique little movie that deserves attention.

Ex Machina

I haven’t heard a bad word about this movie. It is imaginative, timely, well-designed, well-acted, well-shot, and absolutely should have been in consideration for best picture.¬† That said, it isn’t flawless –the last act felt like it deflated a bit to me–but it is more than worth the time to check out. I expect a lot of good things in the future from writer/director Alex Garland, as well as from Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander.

Bone Tomahawk

This is a movie that I didn’t hear very much about, but that I really enjoyed. While The Hateful Eight was the neo-western getting all of the attention with its throwback presentation and all-star cast, Bone Tomahawk sports its own team of notable character actors, and an original twist on the genre all its own. Kurt Russell¬† is of course great in it, but I thought the supporting players gave the movie its color: Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons, David Arquette, and most of all Richard Jenkins absolutely nail their roles, and give the world of Bone Tomahawk a lot of vitality. The costuming and makeup work is also stellar, not just in regards to the western aesthetic, but in the creation of an unsettling quasi-human cannibal tribe at act as the film’s looming antagonists. If you are a fan of westerns, Kurt Russell, or just interesting independent movies in general, Bone Tomahawk is something that you don’t want to let slip by.

Beasts Of No Nation

This is a visceral, compelling movie that takes a chronological look at the development of a young boy into a child soldier, and then back again. Idris Elba might be the biggest reason why this movie got the attention it did, but it is fantastic beyond just his memorable performance in it. It is a heavy watch for sure, but I felt that the time seeing it was well spent. As far as the Academy Awards go, I think this film had its odds hurt by being both Black and in the Netflix camp, which is a negative double-whammy in the old, white face of the Academy. Luckily, that’s what the Independent Spirit Awards are for, and that’s where it got its just rewards.

Room

There was a time when everyone thought that this would be the runaway critical darling of the year. Instead, it is in the dead heat pack of Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. Personally, I thought this was one of the weaker Best Picture movies this year, though I do think Brie Larson will rightfully walk away with the lead actress award. Likewise, the concept behind the movie is beyond brilliant, and the first half of the film executes on it very well. However, the movie takes a turn halfway through, which leads the story into a bit of narrative chaos.

Not only does it lose its steam, but it loses its rhythm and logical sequence as well. Events in the story lose their sense of time in relation to each other, and the dots that make up the screenplay just stop connecting to each other in general. The last act feel like just a montage of “things that happened eventually,” and then the movie ends. Despite the movie dealing with interesting ideas and powerful emotions, the structure of the movie doesn’t help prop them up. Also, there are so many tight close ups with handhelds done throughout the film that I lost count. It felt really transparently manipulative for one, but also disappointingly unoriginal. There are other ways to elicit emotions than using that one kind of shot, and this never felt creative in how it tried to do so. To me, it felt like an exceptional IFC film: not a legitimate Best Picture contender.

The Revenant

It is kind of surprising to me that The Revenant has apparently risen to the top of the Best Picture nominee pack. It is certainly a good movie, though their is some contrarian critical backlash on that point, but it just doesn’t feel like a Best Picture to me. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is a solid physical portrayal, and will probably win him his statue. Likewise, Tom Hardy makes for a memorable villain, though his mumbling dramatic style is getting old quite quickly. I was genuinely shocked to see it nominated for Visual Effects, because I found that to be one of the movie’s few notable weak points, and I think those shots will degrade quickly with age. The cinematography is what initially made this movie stand out to me, but outside of a few notable sequences, it isn’t nearly as interesting as I expected it to be. All of the parts of this movie generally work, and the sum product is certainly a good movie, but I felt like it distinctly lacked some intangible qualities that make movies truly memorable. It’ll probably scoop up a lot of statues by the end of the night, but I fear that it will be remembered as a weaker Best Picture in the long run, assuming that is how The Academy goes.

The Big Short

The Big Short is this year’s licorice picture: there seems to be almost as much disdain for it as there is effusive praise. Adam McKay’s intriguing portrait of the housing crisis is a bit of an oddity all around: structure, tone, editing, etc. However, I thought it all worked pretty well, and the movie certainly benefited from having a distinctive point and motivation behind it. I don’t expect it to win anything, unfortunately, but I think it is at the very least an ensemble worth checking out for its performances (Carrell and Bale specifically), if not for its humor and message.

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending is a visually striking, imaginative, poorly-conceived, and ridiculously-executed movie. I think it will be remembered as the best bad movie of 2015 by a longshot, as I’m sure that Fantastic Four, Pixels, The Cobbler, etc. will all appropriately fade away into obscurity. The sheer size and scale of this movie makes it all the more baffling, in regards to both the effects and the cast. Channing Tatum, Mila Kunis, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, and company all wind up looking utterly ridiculous in the bizarre world of the movie, which consistently stays just beyond arm’s length from sensibility or logic. This’ll deserve its own post eventually, but for now, I’ll just recommend checking it out.

The Hateful Eight

I am a little surprised that many are regarding The Hateful Eight as a lesser Tarantino movie. The Academy particularly didn’t seem to care for it, giving it only a handful of nominations (excluding original screenplay and Best Picture, most notably). That said, I have to believe that this is Ennio Morricone’s year for The Hateful Eight‘s score, and I think Robert Richardson and Jennifer Jason Leigh have shots in their respective competitive categories. I really enjoyed the movie, and particularly appreciated the claustrophobic setting, attention to detail, creative shooting, and memorable performances from the stacked cast. I think this movie might grow on people with age, not unlike Jackie Brown. I suspect that the Academy might be tiring of Tarantino and the Weinsteins’ respective antics, and that Tarantino’s unwillingness to break outside of his grindhouse comfort zone may now be hurting his chances in awards season.

Sicario

Sicario, much like Beasts of No Nation, has been mentioned a bit as a notably snubbed movie by the Academy. I think Sicario had four primary powerful elements: the score, the cinematography, Benicio Del Toro, and Emily Blunt. Of those four, the cinematography by Roger Deakins was the standout to me, and I think that is the best chance the movie has for any kind of awards glory, and I think that’ll be a tight race. In any case, the movie is a very tense and eerie portrait of the DEA, the Mexican drug cartels, and the border in general, and deserves to be seen by more people that I think actually caught it. As a side note, I think it pairs well with Cartel Land, one of the nominees for Best Documentary.

Documentaries

Winter on Fire

Winter on Fire is a fantastic portrait of a Ukrainian youth protest that boiled over into conflict and near-revolution thanks to the brutal actions of state police. The transformation that happens over the course of the movie is shocking: the people, the streets, and the tone all steadily decay, darken, and harden as time passes, and the ever-present camera catches the entire process as it happens. If it weren’t for a couple of biographical documentaries of celebrities, I think it would have a really good chance at winning Best Documentary.

Cartel Land

This is a clever and incisive documentary that draws a parallel between the renegade American border patrols and the civilian vigilante groups that rose within Mexico to battle the power of the cartels. This is one of those documentaries that leaves you feeling pretty hopeless at the end, so I’m not sure if it’ll be able to contend for Best Documentary, but it is still certainly worth watching.

Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers was my favorite documentary of the year by a good margin. The story, on the surface, is the bizarre and humorous tale of a lost limb and a curious legal scenario, but the film delves beyond the surface of the situation, and winds up revealing a lot about two intriguing, damaged men with a lot of dark and tragic history behind them.

The Wolfpack

I heard a lot of positive things about this movie before I saw it. The idea of a small army of children being raised isolated from society in a New York apartment, with only a film collection to connect them to their culture, is pretty fascinating. The fact that they thought to make re-creations of these stories with a video camera and rudimentary props is charming. However, the underlying story to it all, about a set of parents who were ok with completely shielding their children from the world, is primarily told between the lines in the documentary, and I suspect there was/is a whole lot more to the family dynamics than what was revealed here.

The Propaganda Game

The Propaganda Game is probably the most interesting documentary about North Korea that you will ever see, just on the basis of its perspective. Instead of taking an “objective” look at the country’s administration and policies, it goes in with the specific goal of being empathetic, and trying to paint the world from the North Korean perspective, which is rarely (if ever) seen by the west. It particularly focuses on a Spanish-born member of the North Korean government, who is himself a fascinating figure. It is not just a movie about North Korea, but also a rumination about the nature of propaganda itself, and the many forms that it can take.

Bargain Bin(ge): Movie Exchange (Houston, TX)

Movie Exchange is a local buy/sell/trade media chain with six locations around the Houston, TX metropolitan area. Like many other similar stores around the country, it has a selection that includes DVDs, Blu-rays, and a smattering of video games, but also notably still has a significant stock of VHS, which is rapidly becoming a rarity.

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The deals on movies were generally pretty good, but I was much more enthralled with the selection of more rare and off-the-wall features (which ultimately comprised most of my haul). Just check out some of the BBC DVDs of old school Doctor Who features below.

2 3Likewise, I was surprised to see a copy of Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper, which isn’t a DVD that you would casually stumble upon every day.
6Anyway, on to the handful of movies I actually walked away from Movie Exchange with:

The Changeling

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The Changeling stars George C. Scott (of Patton and Dr. Strangelove) in one of the most memorable haunted house movies you’ll ever come across, or so I’m told. I’ve never actually seen this movie, nor have I ever come across a DVD copy of it in my travels. I’m a big fan of horror movies that are done well, so I am eager to give this a shot.

Straw Dogs

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Straw Dogs is probably the most controversial movie in Sam Peckinpah’s notoriously violent filmography, and that is really saying something. Dustin Hoffman and Susan George star as a couple who are new residents in a small town, and rapidly become the targets of intense harassment from a gang of vicious locals. This movie taps into a fear that I don’t think it used enough these days in features: the sinister potential of the every-man. Your neighbors, if they were so inclined, could turn your life into a living hell in a mere instant. I can certainly say that Straw Dogs makes a compelling case to avoid the remote countryside at the very least.

Targets

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This movie kick-started the feature film-making career of one of the New Hollywood luminaries: Peter Bogdanovich. While his career has been one with pronounced highs and lows, his first Roger Corman produced b-movie influenced the future of the entire horror film genre by shaking it to the core. It may not be the pinnacle of his career, but I’d dare say that Targets has has about as much influence on film as a whole as any of his later features. This has been a movie on my list to dig up for a long time, and I can’t describe how thrilled I was to finally find a copy of it out in the wild. Keep your eyes peeled, because it will wind up back on the blog before too long.

Zeus and Roxanne

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Look, I don’t really have much to say about this. I honestly felt like I had to leave the store with something at least a little light-hearted after picking up Straw Dogs, The Changeling, and Targets. I mean, that is one hell of a trio of dark violence and depression. So, here is a Steve Guttenberg movie about a cross-species relationship between a dog and a dolphin. If that doesn’t sound like a winner, I don’t know what does.

Bargain Bin(ge): Disc Replay (Indianapolis, IN)

As mentioned in an earlier post, Disc Replay is a small regional chain of buy/sell/trade stores, not unlike MovieStop or Replay’s that I have covered previously. Apparently Disc Replay’s primary stomping grounds are Illinois and Indiana, with a little bit of bleed-over into Iowa, Kentucky, and Michigan.

discreplayindy2After checking out the Skokie location of Disc Replay a few days prior, I decided to give one of their Indianapolis locations a shot on the way back home from B-fest.

What I found was a collection that was less impressive, but with notably better deals than the Skokie location. Whereas the Skokie store had movies ranging from 3.99-5.99, most of the DVDs here were between 2.22 and 3.33. On top of that, the standing deal at the Indianapolis location was “Buy 5, Get 2 Free,” compared to Skokie’s “Buy 5, Get 1 Free.”

discreplayindy1Given the quantity over quality theme of the store, I mostly picked up some relatively more common DVDs on the cheap. That said, there were still a few cool finds:

Sorcerer

William Friedkin is one of a handful of influential directors of the New Hollywood era that many believe never got out of the 1970s. In fact, many hold the opinion that his grand supposed master work, Sorcerer, was of the movies that killed the auteur paradise of 1970s Hollywood. After going over budget, it was vastly overshadowed by George Lucas and Star Wars at the box office in the summer of 1977, and some argue that Friedkin never recovered from the stumble. Personally, I think that Killer Joe and Bug are both pretty good recent works by Friedkin, and that he gets unfairly written off a bit these days. Also, people have been steadily coming to appreciate Sorcerer as a forgotten treasure of the era, so I am interested to give it a shot myself.

Frailty

Bill Paxton is an always entertaining character actor to be sure, who has popped up in everything from Aliens to Slipstream to Predator 2. However, Frailty not only cements him as a genuinely talented actor, but also as a more than capable director. If you haven’t seen this thriller, you are missing out. As an added recommendation, his director’s commentary on the DVD is fantastic. Also of note about this flick: Matthew McConaughey gets to show off his acting chops years before anyone took him particularly seriously.

Cop Out

Cop Out is undoubtedly the most maligned Kevin Smith movie, and the reception to it nearly drove the beloved indie personality out of the business all together. Bruce Willis reportedly didn’t care for the film at all from the start, Tracy Morgan was Tracy Morgan, and Kevin Smith was, for once, working with material that wasn’t his own. It was a bad formula all around, and the result isn’t good.

The Fog

I covered this John Carpenter classic a while back. However, I didn’t actually have a copy until now, so I’m happy to have it in the collection.

Popeye

This is another big time New Hollywood auteur flub. Robert Altman had a long up and down career with some high highs and some low lows, and Popeye is almost certainly one of his biggest dips. While some people hold fond nostalgic feeling towards it, the popular reception to the movie hasn’t softened quite so much in the way Sorcerer‘s has.

Mission To Mars

A while back, I covered a movie called Red Planet, which hit theaters in November of 2000. A few months prior to its release, another similarly-themed Mars movie hit theaters: Brian De Palma’s Mission To Mars. Neither movie was loved by audiences by any means, but I think that the proximity of their releases made audiences and critics react more harshly to them than they might have otherwise. Occasionally, movies with similar themes are released within months of each other, which has the effect of flooding the market. Some examples of this include Armageddon/Deep Impact, Volcano/Dante’s Peak, and The Abyss/Leviathan/DeepStar Six. Typically, the movie that comes first does better both critically and commercially. In this case, however, Mission to Mars and Red Planet were pretty neck-and-neck.

Moon 44

Moon 44 was a feature by Roland Emmerich before he became the Roland Emmerich we all love to hate today, who has helmed such masterpieces as Godzilla, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. I’m interested to check it out, if only for the presence of Malcolm McDowell.

Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

Captain Kronos is a classic Hammer movie that I’ve never seen before. That’s a good enough reason to pick up a cheap DVD for me.

Bargain Bin(ge): The Exchange (Indianapolis, IN)

The Exchange is yet another regional chain of buy/sell/trade media stores, with locations throughout Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

indyexchange1On my way back from B-fest in Chicago this past weekend, I made a quick stop in Indianapolis to check out a handful of used media shops around the city. My first stop was at the 82nd Street location of The Exchange.

indyexchange3 indyexchange4The store has a nice look to it, but struck me more as a games and nerd paraphernalia shop than a place to do much movie hunting. Neither the deals nor the selection were super impressive to me, though I wound up with a ton of movies from picking up two collections on clearance for a dollar each. Here is what I ultimately came away with:

The Pack

To my immense displeasure, all of the horror movies in the store were held behind glass, which means I couldn’t do much reading into them until an attendant could open the case. I made a bit of a gamble on this one, crossing my fingers and hoping it was the Joe Don Baker movie from 1977. Unfortunately, this is not that movie. However, judging from its IMDb score, this 2010 french horror flick is still pretty terrible, and might be delightful serendipitous find.

Howling IV

This is a franchise that I really need to dig further into. As far as bad sequels go, The Howling has more than a handful of them out there.

The Eves

Moon Of The Wolf

Monsters In The Woods

Werewolf In A Girls’ Dormitory

Pelt

Dogman

Miami Magma

Firestorm: 72 Hours In Oakland

Countdown: Jerusalem

The President’s Plane Is Missing

Crash Dive

Death Flight

The Magnificent Seven

C’mon, it was a dollar. I am allowed to watch good movies sometimes. Also, I’m interested to run it back to back to back with Battle Beyond The Stars and Seven Samurai, in chronological order.