John Dies at the End (2012, Don Coscarelli)

Feels like it’s trying too hard to be a cult hit, and the pacing is often weird, with our somnambulist hero Dave always moving and speaking slower than you’d expect, and its universe and logic seem simultaneously under- and over-developed (maybe since it’s an incomplete adaptation of the source comic), but overall a damned fun flick, unlike anything else out there, and a welcome return to weird-movie-making for Coscarelli ten years after Bubba Ho-Tep.

Attempts at plot summary would be ridiculous, but here are some people and things.

Tall Man as dark-eyed priest:

Basement meat monster summoned by Obscure Object snake girl, destroyed by Dr. Marconi phone call:

Paul Giamatti as viewer-surrogate reporter:

Good weapon:

Glynn Turman as evidence-destroying, hero-threatening rogue cop:

Church of Dave & John: clothing and masks optional

Dave nearly falls into pit of Korrok before monster is destroyed by humanity-saving suicide-bomber dog:

Live-Action Shorts watched Nov-Dec 2013

Castello Cavalcanti (2013, Wes Anderson)

Cute – Schwartzmann is a racecar driver who happens to crash in his ancestral village then decides to slow down and hang out for a while.

Aningaaq (2013, Jonas Cuaron)

The other side of a radio conversation Sandra Bullock has in Gravity, with a man in the icy wilderness who doesn’t understand her. It’s fun as a companion short but gets all its emotional weight from the Gravity recall.

Stephane Mallarme (1968, Eric Rohmer)

A visit with a typical pretentious french poet. Or I can’t tell if he’s pretentious since the spoken interview is translated but his written poetry excerpts are not. It’s all starting to seem odd, when the “documentary” short ends and the credits tell me Jean-Marie Robain (of Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer) played the poet, who died in 1898.

“In a society without cohesion, without stability, it’s impossible to create stable, definitive art.”

Weed (1996, Fatih Akin)

A corny-assed comedy starring Akin with Counting Crows hair, who tries to impress his new dance-club friends by claiming he has amazing weed at home, which he does not. So in order not to get killed once the lie has spun out of control, he brings them weeds from the garden, which they smoke and find to be amazing, because potheads have no standards I guess.

El Sicario Room 164 (2010, Gianfranco Rosi)

Similar to Collapse, in that both are documentaries set in a room where a single subject is speaking to the camera, and both are completely terrifying. Collapse left me aimlessly afraid of the end of the world, this one offers a clear action item: Never go to Mexico.

A former “sicario” (drug cartel enforcer) who has escaped with his family tells about his youth (driving cars full of drugs over the border before he was even old enough to drive), training (at the police academy, where 25% of graduates are already working for the cartels) and 20-year career as a kidnapper, torturer and murderer at the behest of an unworthy man, as the now church-going ex-sicario realizes. The drug business basically runs the government, police, and even military, if this guy is to be believed. Never go to Mexico.

M. Peranson:

More so than Police, Adjective, the film that came to mind when watching El Sicario is the still relevant Chambre 666, wherein Wim Wenders set up a stationary camera in Room 666 of the Hotel Martinez during the 1982 Cannes film festival and asked filmmakers like Godard, Fassbinder, Herzog and Spielberg the question: “Is cinema a language about to get lost, an art about to die?” It’s no coincidence that the directors are framed, like the sicario often is, next to a television set.

Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish)

We open on five mumbly hoodie youths mugging a white woman – and the youths turn out to be the protagonists. So I was on the movie’s side from the start, but it only gets better. After an alien from a freshly-landed meteorite claws Moses, the mini-gang-leader, he kills it and takes it to Nick Frost’s weed room. But a hundred more meteors land, carrying far more dangerous creatures – pitch-black hairy wolf-bears with glowing teeth, looking for the slain female. So the kids mount a defense against rampaging aliens using knives, swords and fireworks, joined by the still-irritable white woman (Jodie Whittaker, title character in Venus) and opposed by cops and a mad drug dealer.

Despite all the bloody death, the movie is mostly an action/comedy – the rare successful one. It builds to one of the sweetest minutes of film I’ve seen all year, Moses carrying the group’s full arsenal racing towards a gas-filled apartment, leaping over the blind beasts under a shower of slow-motion sparks.

Luke Treadaway (one of the twins from Brothers of the Head) plays a stoner nature-channel enthusiast who helps figure out the aliens’ motivation. Writer/director Cornish goes way back with Edgar Wright and just cowrote Spielberg’s Tintin movie, so this is his big year.

Chelsea Girls (1966, Andy Warhol)

“Everybody tastes different. But they all taste pretty good.” – Eric

Warhol’s first national hit, breaking outside the New York underground scene – after the widely-discussed but barely-seen sex/art films and before further success with the Flesh/Trash/Heat movies then franchising his name out to movies like Dracula and Bad on which he exec-produced.

Two 16mm projections side-by-side, Zaireeka-like (or perhaps Napoleon-like). Found the reel numbers/titles online along with projection instructions. Think I found out why it ran longer at the High than the listed runtime. The reels were supposed to overlap more, with no long periods of black on one side waiting for its neighbor to run out. As well as shorter, it would’ve been more interesting without all the black, providing new juxtapositions.

Reel #1, right – Nico In Kitchen
B/W, sound for the first few minutes. Nico (some years after La Dolce Vita) gives herself a haircut in the kitchen, drinks “jungle juice.” Eric Emerson (of Heat and Lonesome Cowboys) and Nico’s son are hanging around. Some camera movement here, but not much in the other reels until the halfway point.

Reel #2, left – Father Ondine & Ingrid
“Pope” Ondine (a Factory speed freak) has shoved two chairs together, a woman (Ingrid Superstar) comes in for “confession.” She never quite takes his title seriously – he asks her questions about her boyfriend then berates her for being a lesbian.

Reel #3, right – Brigid Holds Court
Overweight drug dealer “The Duchess” (Brigid Berlin, who had small parts in a couple John Waters films) talks to another girl, answers the phone.

Reel #4, left – Boys In Bed
Exactly that, slight nudity but no real action, some guys (Ed and Patrick) having a conversation I guess, but no sound.

Reel #5, right – Hanoi Hannah
A girl who kinda looks like a boy (Mary Woronov, bewigged wife in House of the Devil, also in Eating Raoul, Death Race 2000) hangs out in a room with a couple other girls, somewhat bullying and tormenting them. One mostly stays on the floor under the sink. This (and presumably #6) was one of the pre-scripted segments.

Reel #6, left – More Hanoi Hannah and Guests
Same room/cast as on the right, but at a different time and without sound.

Reel #7, right – Mario Sings Two Songs
More of the same guys in bed as #4, with some “female” visitors this time (Mario “Banana” Montez, also of Flaming Creatures) and less nudity.

Reel #8, left – Marie Menken
The first color segment. A visiting mother (Menken, director of Go! Go! Go!) wielding a whip is berating her son (Gerard Malanga of Vinyl) over his treatment of his girlfriend – because the girl (Woronov again, sharply dressed in a white shirt and tie) is sitting in the other bed barely moving and never speaking. Mother and son’s conversation get more shrill until they’re lost in the bad sound recording and the Velvet Underground music (droning ambience), but the camera is very active, scanning back and forth the room.

Reel #9, right – Eric Says All
The source of some lyrics in the Sonic Youth song. Eric Emerson stands there tripping, saying whatever’s on his mind, semi-stripteasing. Nice red lighting, shifting about.

Reel #10, left – Color Lights on Cast
Eric and others stand around, talk (no sound) while colored lights scan over them. They seem to be watching the other Eric to their right.

Reel #11, right – Pope Ondine
The Pope again. This time he physically attacks the girl talking with him (Ronna Page), then tries to justify himself, then kills time waiting for the film to run out, asking an offscreen Paul Morrissey if he can leave early.

Reel #12, left – Nico Crying
Nico silently cries, then just looks into space, while great colored light patterns play over her face.

G. Morris:

The idea behind the project was to film various Factory denizens doing what they did best: prattling, prancing, fondling each other, shooting up, screaming, applying makeup, confessing secrets, smacking and upbraiding each other.

Drugs, especially methedrine, were a crucial component of this crowd, and they’re everywhere in The Chelsea Girls. Both Ondine and Brigid Polk shoot up in their sequences, with Ondine doing so ritualistically, while Brigid unceremoniously sticks a needle through her blue jeans.

I don’t get the movie, or Warhol or his “superstars” (the label given to the drug-addled friends he regularly cast in films). But I guess I can see its value as a unique document of the Warhol scene that was inexplicably fascinating people throughout the 1960′s. Probably best expressed by Omar Diop below:

Whether you consider Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls to be fiction or document, it is an event, a rupture in the history of the cinema and an attack on the morality implicit in the image. Chelsea Girls is a monster born in the mind of a dilettante who puts the technical extremism of a Godard to the service of a moral metaphysics of a de Sade. An infernal machine puts on the screen a universe which only obeys its own laws.

The Wire season 5 (2008)

Best show I’ve seen.

Taking suggestions for what to watch next. Current considerations include dramas Deadwood and The Prisoner, Wire-related dramas The Corner and Homicide, or an anthology show like Thriller or Twilight Zone.

The actors, and where I might see ‘em next:

McNutty (Dominic West) I’ve seen in Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, next appearing in John Carter of Mars and the TV show The Hour.

Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) – Treme and The Corner, also played Nelson Mandela in the movie Endgame, and appeared in Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa. Sydnor (Corey Robinson) is from The Corner.

The Bunk (Wendell Pierce) moved on to Treme. Kima Greggs (Sonja Sohn) is in a new medical/crime show, was in Scorsese’s Bringing Out The Dead.

Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) – Miami Vice, Find Me Guilty and a new crime show called Breakout Kings. Carver (Seth Gilliam) – Oz and Starship Troopers.

Prez (Jim True-Frost) was Buzz in The Hudsucker Proxy. I had no idea. Also in Affliction and The Conspirator, and making appearances in Treme. Beadie (Amy Ryan) moved on to the American version of The Office when not pulling oscar nominations for Gone Baby Gone.

Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) was just in Night Catches Us, also in a season of Heroes. Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams) was the thief whom Viggo left naked in The Road, also in Gone Baby Gone (which I’ve long wanted to watch) and Life During Wartime (which I am suddenly desiring to watch)

Bubbles (Andre Royo) – recent movie Super, upcoming Shoedog. Cutty Wise (Chad Coleman) just appeared in The Green Hornet.

Michael (Tristan Wilds) is in the 90210 series remake and the movie Half Nelson. Dukie (Jermaine Crawford) is in the new movies by Joel Schumacher and Whit Stillman.

Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) I remember from 25th Hour and She Hate Me. Proposition Joe (Robert F. Chew) was in a few episodes of the other David Simon series.

Mayor Carcetti (Aidan Gillen) just starred in a British show called Identity, previously starred in Queer as Folk, and was the villain in Shanghai Knights. Norman (Reg Cathey) I’ve seen in at least eight movies, including Pootie Tang and The Machinist.

City Editor Gus (Clark Johnson) was one of the four leads in Homicide. Reporter Scott (Thomas McCarthy) directed The Station Agent and co-wrote Up! Also appeared in Year of the Dog, Duplicity and The Lovely Bones, though I don’t remember him.

Chris (Gbenga Akinnagbe) was in the TV version of Barbershop, also The Savages and the Taking of Pelham remake. Snoop (Felicia Pearson) was just in the news for being arrested on drug charges, but got a suspended sentence, yay.

Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) is starring in Fringe, also appeared in Oz. Rhonda (Deirdre Lovejoy) played somebody’s mom in Bad Teacher.

Rawls (John Doman) is currently starring in a historical drama, was in Blue Valentine, also that Bruce Campbell show and that Glenn Close show. Ex-Mayor Royce (Glynn Turman) was just in Super 8, in the upcoming movie by Don Coscarelli (!)

Bunny Colvin (Robert Wisdom) was in The Hawk Is Dying, Masked & Anonymous and Storytelling. Commissioner Burrell (Frankie Faison) was in Do The Right Thing, Mother Night, My Blueberry Nights and all four Hannibal Lecter movies.

Crank/Crank 2 (2006/09, Neveldine/Taylor)

Crank
Just the combo of stupid/fun I was looking for. Asshole (Jason Statham) gets injected with Speed plot device, has to keep his heart rate up while finding out who killed him, very D.O.A. It’s ridiculous, but knows it’s ridiculous, keeps the energy high and ends up a Shoot ‘Em Up-caliber success

Crank: High Voltage
Just the movie to put a damper on the fun spirit of the first movie, Hatchet 2-style. Cartoon credits and an intro TV reporter calling the events implausible and saying “bullshit” on the air set up the self-aware, even-more-ridiculous sequel, but it devolves into sexist, racist trash that borrows too heavily from the first movie. I always forget to not watch sequels to things I like.

I had no idea that Statham’s best bud was Pedro from Napoleon Dynamite. He was a highlight of both movies. I don’t think anyone else stood out (sorry, Amy Smart) besides Statham himself, who was so good that I’m actually considering renting the Transporter series. I’d originally figured that I’d follow these two movies with Gamer by the same writer/directors, despite its bad reviews, but Crank 2 cured me of that. Also, naturally, I admit that both movies would’ve been better if I hadn’t watched them alone and sober.

Buy from Amazon:
Crank / Crank 2 [Blu-ray]

The Last Ten Minutes vol. 6

Netflix Streaming has got a bunch more movies I would never pay to rent, but which I might watch for free if I was sick or something. I’m sick today, so here goes.

Prince of Persia (2010, Mike Newell)
I see ropes and swords and Lord of the Rings fire-sculptures, and holy crap is that Ben Kingsley?? Donnie Darko has a fake british accent, and he just let his girlfriend fall into the pit of hell before unleashing a crazy amount of ‘splosions and triggering a muted montage of flashback snippets. Then Donnie, who long ago became less cool than his big sister Maggie Darko, discovers that the movie was just a dream he saw in the handle of his magic dagger. All I remember from the video game is that your little man had a more human-like gait than was usual for video games, and it was incredibly hard to avoid falling into pits. As I type this, Donnie is telling a beardy fellow to “listen to your heart.” So it’s safe to say the movie isn’t much like the game, except when the girl fell into that pit.

The Men Who Stare At Goats (2009, Grant Heslov)
“Larry’s dead,” are the first words I hear… guess I won’t be seeing Kevin Spacey. Still holding out hope for Stephen Root, though. Oh wait, there’s Spacey now, wtf. Directed by an actor who played “guy in big suit” in Bug. There’s an LSD prank then all the army base’s goats and prisoners are set free. I’m not detecting much comedy in this comedy, so I guess it got dark and turned into a drama halfway through. Jeff Bridges and George Clooney escape in a chopper, Ewan provides poignant, anti-corporate-media voiceover, and it ends on a dud of a joke. Glad I didn’t sit through the rest of this.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009, Niels Oplev)
A pierced punk rock girl (a “rebellious computer hacker” according to the Netflix description) talking with her mama seems sad. Later, some blond woman is talking about being raped by her dad, cue spazzy flashback with bland music. Punk girl visits hospitalized boyfriend, drops off secret financial records, he writes an article causing a mogul to commit suicide, and punk girl steals a lot of money and escapes to a tropical paradise. Whole thing seems anticlimactic and unengaging. But I guess if The Da Vinci Code can be a huge success, so can this. Still, at least Da Vinci had a big ending (the codex is shattered! Amelie is Jesus’s daughter!) to justify all the dreary exposition. This one wasn’t even exciting enough for me to check out the last ten minutes of the sequels.

Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009, Nishimura & Tomomatsu)
Dubbing!! The fakest CGI ever. Oh, this is one of those direct-to-video Japanese teen movies full of awful music where everyone wears school uniforms. It’s not even as good as Tokyo Gore Police (they share a director). “When you gave me that chocolate, I had no idea how you really felt about me” should not be one of the final lines of a movie with this title. Oh, and Vampire Girl decisively wins.

Factotum (2005, Bent Hamer)
Hooray, Lili Taylor! Long takes + poorly furnished rooms = gritty realism. Poor Charlie Bukowski is having money issues and lady issues. Matt Dillon gets life advice from “Old Black Man” (according to the credits) in the unemployment office, finally gets one of his stories published. I don’t find Dillon’s poetic voiceover very compelling. From the dude who made Kitchen Stories.

Ondine (2009, Neil Jordan)
She is telling fisherman Colin Farrell that she’s not a magical water creature, but just a girl who almost drowned while escaping from something or other. Uh oh, some fellows with pistols and strong accents. What is happening? Colin and the girl live, are getting married at the end. Jordan made a bunch of movies that always look somewhat intriguing but not quite essential.

The Day The Earth Stopped (2008, C. Thomas Howell)
If you start watching a movie ten minutes before the closing credits, the hero and villain are always in the middle of some revelatory exposition scene. All movies are the same. Should you really entrust the remake rights of The Day The Earth Stood Still to one of the teen actors from Red Dawn? Earth starts shaking (I’d hardly say it is standing still) and sepia-toned CGI versions of major world monuments (and a ferris wheel) are falling rapidly towards the camera. I was excited that Judd Nelson is in this, but I’d gotten him confused with Judge Reinhold – who is Judd Nelson? There is yelling and guns and terrible camerawork, then something really stupid happens and I guess the aliens don’t destroy Earth. Shame.

2012 (2009, Roland Emmerich)
Here’s a movie that isn’t afraid to let the world end, or to cast Oliver Platt! I don’t see world monuments crumbling, just a big Titanicky iceberg adventure (Roland must’ve had some ice left over from The Day After Tomorrow) with people yelling and swimming through tunnels to close or open portals and machinery. Oh, surviving mankind lives on arks now, and Africa turns out to be the future, or the home of the our civilization or something.

Salt (2010, Phillip Noyce)
Another movie with a third-billed Chiwetel Ejiofor, and more awful camerawork – only this time it’s awful in a big-budget extreme-cutting sense, not the give-an-idiot-a-camera awfulness of The Day The Earth Stopped. Ooh, the president is down. A. Jolie, handcuffed in FBI custody, still manages to kill Liev Schreiber, whoever he is. The backstory exposition comes a couple minutes late in this movie, then noble Chiwetel lets Jolie escape to kill again. From the writer of Equilibrium (and Ultraviolet, yuck) and director of Rabbit Proof Fence (and Sliver).

Red Dragon (2002, Brett Ratner)
Emily Watson is in a super intense burning-house scene, then a big fake explosion knocks down Ed Norton. This movie marked the end of my needing to see everything Norton was in (Keeping the Faith and The Score had already lowered expectations). Ed’s in the William Petersen role (WP’s on a cop show now). After he and Raiff Fiennes shoot each other to death, we see ol’ Hopkins (in the Brian Cox role) writing letters, and oh Ed isn’t dead actually, and it ends with a cheese-headed transition into an early scene from Silence of the Lambs. Doesn’t look bad, really, but as with all Ratner movies it is not to be taken seriously.

Bigger Than Life (1956, Nicholas Ray)

I enjoyed the crazily over-the-top performances of Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Guitar but didn’t get much of a sense for his filmmaking – unless his thing was casting unhinged actors and letting them loose within overly melodramatic stories. I suppose he also made extreme/sly comments on society with Johnny’s crusading zealot McCarthy figure and Rebel’s mixed messages on masculinity and family units. Well, this one brings it all together, with an extreme (but less “method”) performance by James Mason and a brutal attack on society and family and everything else. I don’t know if it’s that tying-together of the Ray threads or the movie itself, but I’m currently loving it more than the other two.

Good mirror:

Bad mirror:

Scary mirror:

Mason is a schoolteacher who starts experiencing massive pain. Doctor says the pain will get worse and he’ll be dead in months unless he takes miracle-drug cortisone (wikipedia: “a steroid hormone … suppresses the immune system, thus reducing inflammation and attendant pain”). So Mason pops some pills and all is well – he and loving wife Lou (!) and son Richie carry on with their movie-perfect 50′s lifestyle. But it’s not as perfect as all that… schoolteacher salaries were low even back then, so Mason holds a secret after-school job as a taxi dispatcher in order to keep up those perfect middle-class appearances. The cortisone is expensive, and worse, Mason is forgetful – misses some doses and doubles some others, until he’s taking twice the proper dosage and starting to go completely manic from the side-effects. He quits his cab job, tries to get fired from the school, berates everyone he comes across and finally, in a state of biblical delusion, conspires to kill his son. Last-minute rescue (in the form of a stairway fistfight with buddy Walter Matthau, which alone is worth the price of admission) returns Mason to the hospital, where the doctor straightens out his dosage and brings him back to his senses. Hoorah for modern medicine!

Pain chart:

Walter Matthau!

I guess this was the American Beauty of its time, allowing a white suburban dad to rebel against his status and say things that nice people should not say, attracting the attention of the neighbors, to the horror of his wife. Only this was so much better. The wife (as already contrasted with the wife in Close Encounters) is understanding and recognizably human, there’s a reason given for Mason’s outbursts (drug effects, vs. Spacey’s midlife crisis) and a more reasonable ending (it’s too easy to end your movie by having a sexually-frustrated neighbor shoot your lead character to death).

Good praying:

Bad praying:

One writer worked on three decades’ worth of James Bond movies and the other scripted Forbidden Planet which also came out in ’56 – sounds more like the kind of team that would’ve come up with Star Wars than this. Suppose I’ve seen James Mason in Lolita but he made more of an impression here, with his unexplained foreign accent in the California suburbs, his mad energy shaped (if not subdued) by his British schoolteacher’s intelligence. Barbara Rush (who had appropriately just appeared in a Douglas Sirk movie, as Jane Wyman’s meddling daughter in Magnificent Obsession) was just as good, and it’s always nice to see Walter Matthau, here in one of his first roles.

Cover shot:

Barbara Rush, one more time:

Buy from Amazon:
Bigger Than Life [Criterion Blu-ray]