Movie Roundup: The Good, the Bad, and the Strange

Thanks to Netflix and the extra free time resultant from graduating grad school, I watch a lot more movies and TV than I used to. I didn’t watch a whole lot while I was in grad school because I had to really concentrate on getting my school work done in tandem with my full-time job and part-time teaching work. It’s nice to watch this stuff now because it gives me ideas of things I want to explore in my writing and provides an opportunity to study how storytelling works in other mediums.

So, on a regular basis, I’ll probably start posting lists like these, of movies I’ve watched recently and my take on them, in case anyone is looking for suggestions of their own or just want to start up a conversation. I’m always looking for further recommendations myself.

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover: A gangster/wannabe gourmand’s wife carries on an affair with a book depository clerk in the restaurant that they all frequent, with the head chef’s blessing. Things go very badly from there. Some very frank sex scenes and violence, though it works well within the overall aesthetic of the movie, which is very theatrical and even painterly at times. The cinematography and set design are lovely, and the soundtrack is great (Michael Nyman FTW; love his work). Some quality performances too. What held me back from really liking the movie was the chilly tone and presentation (which feels Kubrickian at points, to give you an impression of it) and the overlong running time; the movie drags on in places. Good choice if you’re in the mood for tragic love triangles, beautiful arthouse directing, and inventive revenge.

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Mother: Another revenge movie, of sorts, and this one is a doozy. A teenage girl in a rundown South Korean town is murdered; a mentally handicapped young man is fingered for the crime, and his loving (and zealously protective) mother seeks to prove his innocence. The actual story itself isn’t nearly that simple, and the supposed innocence of any and all involved gets substantially called into question by the end. I’ll say this right now: Mother is not a feel-good movie. It’s a tragic family/small town drama more than anything. Bizarrely, it reminded me of Winter’s Bone at times, because the poverty of the town is such an influencing factor for many of the characters (although it isn’t openly acknowledged to nearly the extent in Winter’s Bone). You wind up feeling horrible for just about everyone in the movie. That said, it’s masterfully written and directed (courtesy of Bong Joon-ho, whose movie The Host is high on my watchlist, and his writing partner Park Eun-kyo). Kim Hye-ja gives a stunning performance as the mother, one of the best I’ve seen in recent memory.

Requiem from the Darkness: I used to watch anime all the time in high school, but fell out of it in college. At the time, I simply couldn’t afford to buy much anime, being a broke college student, and I didn’t want to illegally download it. It slipped my mind until recently, when I found a treasure trove of anime series on Netflix. I decided to dip my toes back in the water with this series. It’s a macabre horror series about a writer exploring Bakumatsu-era feudal Japan, collecting ghost stories for an anthology, when he encounters three spirits who roam the land, setting traps for people who have committed atrocities and allowed their guilt to fester within them. Each episode is a self-contained story until the very end, where they wrap everything up. It’s actually a pretty good series. It’ll definitely work your horror jones, especially in the court of body horror, demonic/supernatural forces, and revenge stories (again!). The character design is, um, interesting. The show was pretty low budget, it looks like, but the animators ultimately turn it into a strength. Don’t watch it expecting a masterpiece and you’ll do just fine.

The Man From Nowhere: I kinda went on a streak of watching Korean films, starting with The Man From Nowhere and continuing with a few of the movies on this list. This one’s an action-thriller about a widower with an ex-Black Ops experience who hunts out a criminal gang (would there be any other kind) after they kidnap a little girl who befriends him. Way, way better than similar films, like Taken. The pathos that runs through the movie and the protagonist, Tae-Sik, makes you care a lot more about him and the little girl while he rushes to save her, as opposed to just witnessing mindlessly entertaining action. That said, the action is pretty killer, especially the climactic fight near the end of the movie where he confronts the remnants of the gang in a last bid to save the girl.

Santa Sangre: I’m not a Jodorowsky rookie; I’ve watched El Topo and The Holy Mountain, and I actually enjoyed both of them for what they were. I loved the surrealistic, philosophical imagination of the prior two movies and how fast and loose they played. Santa Sangre is a much tighter, more cohesive affair, though it still possesses that Jodorowsky touch. I’ve heard it described as Psycho adapted by Luis Buñuel, which is actually very accurate. Fenix, a former circus performer who underwent horrible family-based trauma as a child, grows up to aid his armless mother in committing murders. I’m in agreement with Roger Ebert, who essentially called this a psychic trauma horror story – a psychodrama, in more concise terms. It’s a surprisingly affecting movie, all told, though it also features plenty of WTF-worthy scenes and moments, most notably (for me, anyway) a funeral for an elephant and the worst tattoo session ever.

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The Last Circus: I wanted this one to be good, I really did. The trailer is so utterly crazy, I couldn’t help but watch this movie. Another one set in a circus, in fact. Sad Clown Javier, a wimpy sad sack of a man with a tragic history, meets Happy Clown Sergio, an abusive psychopath, and Segio’s trapeze artist girlfriend, Natalia (their relationship is seriously twisted – and unfortunate, given the real world issues of abusive relationships). Guess what? There’s a love triangle, and it leads to tragedy for all of them in the end. The path to that tragedy is the bulk of the movie, of course, and for the most part the movie is entertaining. It’s pretty insane overall, so you can’t ever take everything in it completely seriously, but it’s entertaining, and there’s an eye for historical context that provides an added reading for the events of the movie (it takes place during the Spanish Civil War). It’s a shame the final fifteen minutes of the movie utterly ruin its momentum by finally tipping over from absurd to overblown.

Reservoir Dogs: Hopefully all of you know what Reservoir Dogs is by now, so I won’t say much about it. All I will say is that this was my first time watching the movie (I’ve only ever watched Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies from Tarantino’s filmography). I enjoyed it! Great acting, sharp writing, inventive structure. It’s pretty hyped up as a cult classic, but it didn’t let me down.

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V/H/S: I’m very fond of anthology films, especially anthology horror films. I see them as the filmic equivalent of short story collections. V/H/S is getting a lot of love from people for being the latest, greatest horror anthology. There are some people on IMDB that absolutely rave about this movie. Honestly, I thought it was one of the most obnoxious, useless viewing experiences I’ve had in a while. There were a few inspired ideas and moments, but by and large the movie demonstrates a ton of things I absolutely hate about some contemporary horror movies and the found footage format. The opening story, with three “bros” going out on the town to seduce drunk women and then film sex with them, was so repugnant I almost turned the movie off right then and there.

Three… Extremes: Now this is how you do a horror anthology! Three great directors – Fruit Chan, Park Chan-wook, and Takashi Miike – each contribute a forty-minute film (Dumplings, Cut, and Box, respectively), every one imaginative and grotesque in its own way. Dumplings gets a lot of love for being so blatantly horrifying (it’s about a supposed cure for aging, made from the worst ingredient you could possibly imagine). I’m a bigger fan of Cut, because I’m a big Park Chan-wook fanboy, and especially Box, which is a surreal, sad mini-masterpiece. Three…Extremes is worth watching for Box alone.

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The Good, the Bad, the Weird: This movie was a blast. It’s a Korean western loosely inspired by The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Instead of the American west, it’s set in 1930s Machuria, then under Japanese rule/oppression. The main characters – the titular Good, Bad, and Weird (a bounty hunter, hitman, and thief, respectively) – all chase one another to gain possession of a treasure map, while larger forces, namely the Japanese Imperial Army and Manchurian freedom fighters, chase them. I loved the spectacle of this movie and the glorious, seemingly endless action scenes and chases. There’s a prolonged chase scene toward the end, that takes place in the Manchurian desert, which I consider one of the best of its kind that I’ve ever watched.

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The Secret of Kells: Lovely animated film loosely based on the famed Book of Kells. I got sucked in on the basis of the animation alone, which is so crisp and distinctive, but the story itself is strong as well. Highly, highly recommended.

“Street of Crocodiles”: They have a pretty good collection of short films from the Brothers Quay on Netflix, including this absolute gem of a short film. The animation, puppetry, and set design are stunning. It’s actually a very haunting little film, despite the lack of an obvious, explicit story per se. I took note after note of running motifs and images throughout the film simply because I felt compelled to, because they somehow create this emotional algebra (putting it perhaps too succinctly) that I want to absorb for myself and my writing. Highly recommended.

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Brick: I enjoyed Looper, so I decided to go back and watch Brick, a murder mystery set I a high school in Califorina. At first, it’s really weird listening to these high schoolers spout off Chandleresque dialogue like its second nature to them, but by the end of it I was sucked in. Joseph Gordon-Levitt totally kills his role as the wounded, loner anti-hero who has to make sense of the sordid plot.

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The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Under most circumstances, I would consider Santa Sangre the weirdest film I watched in this batch of movies, but just before that I watched Buckaroo Banzai. Quite the madcap movie; I honestly feel like I need to watch it again, just because the movie throws so much at you and expects you to pick it up and keep running along. Trans-dimensional travel, aliens in human disguise, rock and roll superstar scientists, doppelgangers, government conspiracies, schizophrenic John Lithgows, the works. It is the kind of movie that might prompt someone to label it as “weird for the sake of weird.” That said, it is a fun movie, especially once you throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and just go along without trying to figure everything out.

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Mary and Max: A heartbreaker of a movie with some of the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen. It’s a simple enough story, with a sad, lonely little girl becoming penpals with a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome and the development and challenge of their friendship over the years. The emotional content of the movie is in fact very complicated and even tragic at points, or threatens to become tragic. Ultimately, though, the movie winds up being life-affirming, and it earns that nature without schmaltz or dubious sentimentality.

Trailer Park Boys: God, this show is hilarious. I absolutely love it… well, Seasons 1 through 5, anyway. Season 6 isn’t nearly as funny, and I watched eight minutes of Season 7 before deciding the show was no longer all that entertaining.  Still, I got a big kick out of the show while I could. For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s about the residents of a trailer park in Nova Scotia, initially centered around the misadventures of two drug dealers, shot in a mockumentary style that works pretty well. The show lives or dies on the strength of its characters, but they’re more than up to the task, especially the boozy trailer park supervisor Mr. Lahey. Totally worth it if you’re up for a laugh.

Lo: Check this Netflix description of the movie: “Lovelorn Justin sees his life change for the better when quirky April lands in the middle of it. When she’s abruptly kidnapped by a band of demons, Justin sets out to rescue her, with the help of the hellion Lo, who has an agenda of his own. Hell, musical demons and oversized rats complicate the path to love in writer-director Travis Betz’s horror-comedy hybrid.” This should’ve been right up my alley, yes? Problem is, it’s actually terrible. The “comedy” part of the horror-comedy hybrid is painfully unfunny to the point of being obnoxious, and the acting is annoyingly hammy and distracting. It’s like everyone involved with the movie tried too hard to make it quirky and theatrical. The whole thing feels utterly forced and lame. I turned it off halfway through; I couldn’t finish it. Very rarely do I not finish a movie, even if I don’t think it’s good.

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Die Monster Die!: Rather lame monster movie from the 60s loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Colour Out of Space.” An American scientist who more closely resembles a flat-topped classic gumshoe travels overseas to visit his sweetie at her home estate, which happens to be the creepy old place up on the hill with a tortured family history involved strange meteorites and deformed relatives. Yeah, it’s got Boris Karloff in it, and there’s a certain retro movie monster charm at times, but the script is pretty bad and laughable, especially towards the end. Might be worth watching in a Mystery Science Theater 3000 sense, though.

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I Spit On Your Grave: I know that this is a cult classic of the slasher movie genre, but I found it almost completely unwatchable. I get that the movie is basically an indictment of men who commit atrocious acts against women. The whole point of the movie is a woman getting revenge against a pack of rapists by mutilating and killing them in horrible ways. That said, I found the actual rape scene extremely horrid and hard to watch. I couldn’t watch the whole thing because it hurt to watch it, so I fast-forwarded to the end of it. I get the argument that claims events like this should be depicted as realistically as possible so people can see just how damning these acts are, and in spirit I admire it…except that it’s still very traumatic to watch. I already know that violence against women is something I would never, ever condone or participate in. So, in my perspective as a viewer, it becomes less of a valuable moral lesson and more of an excruciating endurance test, and the rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave really does feel almost completely like an endurance test, which in turn makes me question the morality of the filmmakers. Anyway, I feel like that’s opening up a whole other venue of argument that I would actually like to engage in down the road, so I’ll cut this off for now by stating the other rather damning part of the movie, one that doesn’t really intersect with the moral dimensions of it: it’s truly, utterly boring and even amateurish at points.

Shrooms: I didn’t really care for this movie. It’s about a bunch of American students traveling to Ireland to go explore the woods and trip out on mushrooms – seriously, that’s the main reason they travel over there. Of course, they’re by-and-large unlikeable boors who you won’t mind seeing perish over the course of the movie, minus the Final Girl and her Irish would-be boyfriend. Of course, their Irish friend tells them there are dire consequences if they eat the wrong mushroom, which happens to look very much like the right mushroom they’re looking for. Of course, once he mentions that, one of the Americans ingests the wrong mushroom and gets totally messed up throughout the movie, notwithstanding the serial killer that suddenly starts stalking them. The movie seems to exist solely for the central conceit of the tripped-out victims seeing weird stuff and being killed in grotesque ways, because otherwise the story is pretty predictable and boring. The ending is even worse because they try to pull a total 180 on the perception of one of the characters, which, as opposed to saving the boring movie that led up to it, actually makes it even worse.

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A Tale of Two Sisters: Let’s end with what I would consider a truly great horror movie.  I feel like I’m coming to the party a little late on this one, since it’s been out for a while and it’s a bit of a modern classic of horror movies and Korean cinema. That said, it’s a great movie. It’s genuinely creepy and unsettling, and the movie sustains and builds true tension throughout. It also executes not one, not two, but three game-changing twists, two of which actually surprised me. The really great thing about the movie is that as much as it executes some expected and unexpected horror movie beats, the story is tethered to strong, complex characters with unique psychologies and affecting conflicts. At the core, this is just as much a Shakespearean family tragedy as it is a horror movie, which is exactly the way I like it.

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