Some movies watched before, during, and soon after the China trip:


The Illinois Parables (2016 Deborah Stratman)

I know I watched it late at night, in Alpharetta, and somehow took no notes, and enjoyed it. Landscapes and history lessons. Sure sounds interesting from the letterboxd writeups! Maybe kinda if General Orders No. 9 was much better, and had been highly influenced by Profit Motive.


Widows (2018 Steve McQueen)

After all the hype – the follow-up to his best-picture winner with an outstanding cast – somehow I lost interest in this by the time it came out, and caught up months later on the seat-back of a plane. It’s overwrought and overstuffed, but undeniably pleasurable in its performances and genre plotting.

I wonder if the male actors were sabotaged in an attempt to draw attention to the heist-gone-bad widows Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez – or if they just misjudged the tone of the movie. Colin Farrell overacts as a cartoon-villain politician, Daniel Kaluuya plays a basic enforcer of a crime boss/politician stalking Viola Davis, and Liam Neeson goes from sympathetic victim to archvillain when he’s discovered by wife Viola (in the movie’s best scene) to be shacking up with the fourth widow after arranging the deaths of his buddies to get away with all the money. Does Viola throw aside spousal emotion for the sake of sweet revenge, killing Liams herself at the end? She does!


Transit (2018 Christian Petzold)

Watched at the Tara, huge, alone. Sicinski’s review says it all.


Us (2019 Jordan Peele)

Watched with Pro at Atlantic Station – on the secret screen with its own bar, not that this mattered. I don’t have a firm handle on the symbolism, but it’s a hell of a thriller regardless. See smart articles by Kyle, Monica, Mike, and Carol.


In Fabric (2018 Peter Strickland)

Watched at the glorious Plaza as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) visits a creepy clothing store during sales week, is talked into buying a cursed red dress by a cheerfully coercive saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed, speaking in retail-poetry). Marianne dates Barry Adamson (a Bad Seed!), gets chastised by boss Julian Barratt, and keeps getting injured until she’s finally killed in a car crash. It’s a strange tone overall, kind of a creeping dread mixed with splashes of comedy – but Marianne is a sympathetic character stuck in a crappy job, being intimidated in her own house by her son’s new girl (Gwendoline Christie of Top of the Lake season 2), so the campy horror-comedy gets overwhelmed by sadness. The dress survives, and gets shared by another guy with a crappy job (Leo Bill) and his girlfriend Hayley Squires (of the latest Wheatley and second-latest Loach), misfortune and death follow, but this time the department store burns down during a consumer brawl.

Strickland:

A lot of us filmmakers have had to do the kinds of jobs these characters do: temping, retail. The challenge is to usher those experiences into one’s films without it feeling like a vendetta, because a lot of those experiences are quite ball breaking. It’s more desirable to find humor there, to take characters like [Sheila’s employers] Stash and Clive and make them funny.


Election 1 & 2 (2005/06 Johnnie To)

Watched a couple of HK double-features on the long flight back from HK – on the iPad, tragically, so no screenshots. These are Hong Kong underworld power struggle movies – Lok (Simon Yam, star of at least six other To films) wins the election that Big D (Tony Leung 2: Evil East) thought he’d bought, so Big D revolts and threatens to start a war. Lok placates the dude, offering him the chairman position after Lok’s two years are up, and the two become friends – until the moment Big D lets his guard down and gets murdered.

Part two is more complicated, starring Jimmy (Louis Koo, the movie star in Romancing in Thin Air) as a businessman using his gangster ties to get ahead, but with plans to go straight – until he’s arrested and forced by the mainland government to run as their puppet chairman. Lok attempts to run a second time, which is against the rules, Kun (Ka Tung Lam, a cop in some of the Infernal Affairs movies) kidnaps some of the elders to get ahead, and Jet (Nick Cheung of Exiled) attempts to eliminate the competition. In both movies, the baton signaling the chairman’s power is hidden as a strategic move, then the baton is recovered through scheming and brutality.


A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2 (1986/87 John Woo)

I alternated these with the Election movies, and they’re either good indicators that John Woo is no Johnnie To, or that the 1980’s were a horrible decade for filmmaking. Gangster Ho (Ti Lung of a ton of Shaw Brothers movies) is protective of his cop little brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). He tries to get out, but they pull him back in! A few years later, Kit and Ho and his best friend Mark (Chow Yun-fat) sort-of team up to take down the gangster boss. The movie’s main attractions are guessing where the shifting loyalties will land, and watching Chow Yun-fat overplay his part as the super-cool guy, a schtik that nobody would fall for (jk, he became a massive star from this role and won the best actor award). At least he definitively dies at the end of the movie, so he won’t be in the sequel.

Part two is pretty much the same movie, Ho and Kit versus new gangster Lung (Dean Shek of Drunken Master), but it turns out Lung is being set up, so they all team up against the new superboss. Kit is killed as his baby is being born across town (by Emily Chu, also Cheung’s costar in Rouge the following year). The movie suffers from the lack of Chow Yun-fat’s stupid energy… ahhhh kidding, he appears as Mark’s identical twin brother, a non-gangster who transforms into a Mark-like badass after about twenty minutes.

Alternate prequels were filmed – producer Tsui Hark made the official A Better Tomorrow III, and Woo adapted his own prequel script into Bullet in the Head (in which Simon Yam played a character named Lok, an unexpectin’ Election connection).


Lu Over The Wall (2017 Masaaki Yuasa)

Schoolkid meets a manic pixie dream mermaid – sort of a Walk On Girl-distorted version of Ponyo. Not as thrillingly nuts as Walk On Girl – surprising, since that’s a teen drinking drama and this one’s about a rock music-loving mermaid. She gets discovered, captured, rescued, etc., less interesting for the story than the wavy-jumbly animation style.


Diamantino (2018 Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt)

Loopy, extremely fun cult flick about a massive soccer star manipulated by his scheming sisters, a mad scientist, and a cop who masquerades as his adoptive daughter. Everyone spends the movie trying to catch him out, but Diamantino is too simply sweet to be scheming.

Lead actor Carloto Cotta also starred in Tabu, and appears in Mysteries of Lisbon and all three of the Arabian Nights. I’ve been rooting for Abrantes since his Brief History of Princess X, so glad this was wonderful. I haven’t watched many movies at the Plaza since getting back, but between this and In Fabric, they’ve been extremely Plaza-appropriate.

We hadn’t even seen a preview for this. A late-2018 animated Spider-man reboot movie sounded like the most skippable thing in the world, but it came out the same week as all the year-end lists, which kept awarding it the Best Animated Feature. Admittedly Ralph Breaks The Internet and Incredibles 2 both suffered from sequelitis, and The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl was too quirky to win awards, but I still didn’t expect some comic-book Spider-man re-reboot to show up and trounce the competition, so we went to see what the fuss was about.

The fuss: this movie is faithful to the comics to the point of emulating their printing quirks: the shading dots, the color layers slightly out of registration, making me feel like I’m supposed to be wearing 3D glasses whenever I pay too much attention to the edges. It’s a Peter Parker Spider-Man back-story re-boot but also extremely self-referential about being this, and contains multiple Parkers and reboots. No wonder it’s from one of the Lego Movie guys, but much wonder that it was allowed to be created on an obviously high budget and released in theaters during Peak Marvel Universe. We (highly) approve.

A country song playing over the production credits, nice color in the opening scene, which features a scarfaced Udo Kier – even before the stylin’ comics-page opening titles, this is already classier than any Puppet Master movie I’ve ever seen. I think it’s considered a reboot… I suffered through the first eight movies, skipped (for now) parts 9-11 (The Axis Trilogy), and rented this as soon as I found it. I’m rewarded with a topsy-turvy world, in which noble Toulon is an evil nazi in a Puppet Master sequel which is somehow decently good and mildly interesting, with lead actors who are actually worth watching (Thomas Lennon of The State and Nelson Franklin of Scott Pilgrim).

I mean I don’t want to oversell it, but we’ve also got Barbara Crampton as a cop, Charlyne Yi, a bartender named Cuddly Bear, a hotel convention with more knife murders than in the previous movies combined, and lines like “This incident is starting to turn into a happening,” from writer S. Craig Zahler (Brawl in Cell Block 99)…

…and a big ol’ “TO BE CONTINUED” at the end. The directors made a bunch of Swedish horror movies together, and will hopefully make at least one more of these stupid killer puppet things, preferably right away.

There’s a new Puppet Master movie out this year, so I am falling behind – decided to watch the last of the “classic” series. It’s the Puppet Master clip show, featuring scenes from the other movies in roughly chronological order, with a framing story of an anti-Toulon woman reading a giant book, presumably the official novelization of Puppet Masters 1-7, then trying to get the secret of eternal puppet life out of some vaguely Toulon-looking guy (Jacob Witkin of the Evil Bong trilogy). She’s an assassin, who conveniently claims to have killed the survivors of previous movies, so no more sequels I guess.

We start with the Greg Sestero movie, go through the nazi era to parts one and two, then the laser tag sequels. With all these craptastic movies crammed into one hour, the few decent performances stand out: Guy Rolfe, and surprisingly Cameron, the asshole computer rival in part four. I thought the flashbacks would be a “best of Puppet Master,” so a montage of murder scenes, but the writer/directors (ashamed, working under pseudonyms) assume we watch these movies because we care about the fleshed-out history of original puppetmaster Andre Toulon, so it’s all the mythology stuff (with some good murders mixed in). As a result, this is probably the best Puppet Master movie – but if you’re some kind of idiot who watched the previous seven of these, then there’s no need for it, unless we’re gonna need all this recapping in order to follow Puppet Master vs. Demonic Toys.

This was fun. Bad guy Sean Harris is back from part five, Henry Cavill is a traitorous team member, Rebecca Ferguson is a badass, Vanessa Kirby (TV’s The Crown) an arms dealer, Angela Bassett the new boss when Alec Baldwin gets killed. Ends with some more impressive-looking helicopter stunts than in part one, a clifftop battle, and nuclear weapons set to destroy a significant chunk of the world’s population beginning with Ethan’s wife Michelle Monaghan.

It’s neat that Netflix is buying up genre movies from the directors of Moon and Gattaca and, um, Suicide Squad, but I keep reading online that they are very bad. Obviously after watching the end of Cloverfield then the entire sequel, I’m gonna check out part three, so afterwards I let the mighty algorithm tell me where to go next, then threw in a Star Wars.


The Cloverfield Paradox (2018, Julius Onah)

The astronauts are stalking each other with guns after accidentally opening a portal to a dark alternate universe. I guess Liz Debicki is the baddie, and Gugu pulls the usual defense, grabbing onto something and blasting a hole in the wall so her assailant gets sucked into space. She sends the plans for the universe-generator to alternate-herself, then hyperdrives back home with a wounded Daniel Brühl – but something is amiss on earth and a Cloverfield appears in literally the last five seconds of the movie. Guess I’ll have to trust the reviews that nothing interesting happened in the first ninety minutes. Onah is Nigerian, is making a Naomi Watts/Octavia Spencer feature next, and the sequel-centric writers worked on Star Trek Beyond and 22 Jump Street.


Tau (2018, Federico D’Alessandro)

Maika Monroe (It Follows) is trapped in a chair, convinces a robot to untie her before the nerdy guy can give her the evil injection, kicks his ass then chops off his hand to get through the security doors, evades Tau (a Decepticon in a fancy living room), initiates the self-destruct sequence then duck-n-covers under a desk as everything very slowly blows up. Supposedly the computer is the voice of Gary Oldman but I’m not hearing it. This looks generic and I feel bad for everyone involved. The director has been doing storyboards for Major Motion Pictures for the last decade and the writer works on a Harry Potter ripoff series for Syfy.


Anon (2018, Andrew Niccol)

Clive Owen is kicked out of his detective agency, goes home and sulks while his former coworkers watch his every move through surveillance gear. “Anon” is Amanda Seyfried, who interrupts a Proxy Dude after he shoots Clive – people can see through each others’ eyes through some Black Mirror tech, so I think Proxy watches himself die. Seyfried just wants privacy in an all-seeing world, knows “the algorithm” to glitch everyone’s eyeball-computers into not seeing her, I guess, but I was more focused on the weird eyelines in the final scene so I may have missed something. Niccol made Gattaca, of course, and I hear his In Time is good.


Mute (2018, Duncan Jones)

Apparently Paul Rudd is dead already, and Rudd’s friend (a moppy blonde Justin Theroux) wants voiceless Alexander Skarsgard (the new husband in part one of Melancholia) to apologize for killing him, drives them to the docks and talks way too much before Skarsgard uses his mute-ant breath-holding powers to dunk them both in the river and drown Justin, then he Finds His Voice to yell at a child. Too bad I didn’t get to see any of the neon Blade Runner stuff from the posters.


The Outsider (2018, Martin Zandvliet)

Oh no, Jared Leto gets shot in the leg after a business deal seems to have gone badly wrong, then the cops bust up his gang’s headquarters, so Jared collects his Japanese girlfriend to blow town, but for some reason he stalks into his rival’s gang meeting instead, challenges a guy to a duel, cuts him down when he refuses, and is allowed to leave, then is recognized as the new boss by his surviving buddies. Movie looks dreary and unfun. This was Zandvliet’s followup to Land of Mine, which played the Ross so I’ve seen its preview a hundred times.


Bright (2017, David Ayer)

Joel Edgerton is an orc, Will Smith his mouthy partner cop who grabs a magic dagger and blowtorches Noomi Rapace to save some girl. I think the orc is gonna die saving Smith from a fire, oh no they’re both fine, but the next day Police Chief Legolas wants to cover the thing up. As far as movies where Will Smith is partnered with a gruff-voiced dude in a dangerous world of magic aliens, it’s not as funny as Men In Black.


The Titan (2018, Lennart Ruff)

Ah, another movie where Sam Worthington gets experimental treatment to transform into an alien (is that what happened in Avatar? I can’t remember). Soldiers led by Tom Wilkinson are trying to shoot him while I guess Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black) and Agyness Deyn (Sunset Song) are trying to help. So many pointless military guys… Sam has a splashy dream-vision and everyone’s suddenly on a plane. “That crazy bastard did it,” says some dude, and I’d like to think Sam used his Titan Powers to teleport them onto the plane but it was probably just editing. Later, Taylor is doing science stuff unbothered by the military, and she gazes at the sky, where her husband lives on another planet, looking like he’s about to start the Prometheus civilization. The director is German, worked on a Daniel Brühl movie called Krabat and The Legend of the Satanic Mill, and one of the writers did Grace of Monaco.


24 Hours to Live (2017, Brian Smrz)

The day after watching First Reformed, I guess if I’m gonna check out the end of the bad Amanda Seyfried movie, I’ll check out the bad Ethan Hawke action flick too. It’s Pushing Daisies meets D.O.A., as dead Ethan Hawke is resurrected for a day as a revenge-zombie to kill the guys who killed him. He comes fucking tearing into a room full of armed dudes and just destroys everyone, while two main baddies sit passively because they’re too damn cool to flinch from danger. The Sam Neill-ish super-confident guy (wow, is that Rutger Hauer?) isn’t quite killed by zombie-Hawke, so Hawke’s friend Paul (not that one or that one) Anderson takes care of it. Hawke is pretty cool-looking in this, anyway. Smrz has been a stunt guy forever, and his other film as director was also about a nearly-dead guy seeking bloody revenge,


Desolation (2017, Sam Patton)

Damn, I thought this might be a Stephen King movie but I was thinking of Desperation. This is the one where a mom and son are stalked through the woods by a psycho, and we’re at the point where they decide to turn the tables. I think they lure the stalker to their camp and have a stick fight, but the camera and editing go all to hell, so who knows. She knocks the dude over with a backpack full of rocks, then the boy kills the hell out of him with stone and pocketknife, which is probably traumatizing. LOL as they finally reach their car and the battery is dead – it’s hard to tell if this movie had any point, and everyone involved is pretty much best known for this.


Rogue One (2016, Gareth Edwards)

It’s not an “original” but I’d better check this out before it disappears. Oh shit, Wen Jiang got blown up already. A little ship rams a star destroyer into another star destroyer and nobody seems to notice until it’s too late. Felicity Jones thrillingly aligns an antenna, is nearly thwarted by an overly talky cape-wearing British soldier until Diego Luna shows up, and the frog/fish pilots receive the Death Star plans, then the baddies blow up the planet so none of these actors had to sign multi-year contracts. It ends with a Vader slaughter and a creepy Carrie Fisher impersonation, and this only brings to mind Sarah Jeong’s Rat Film essay, which was more interesting than any stop-gap prequel-bridging Star Wars movie. Edwards was following up the Godzilla movie I didn’t like, the writers are Chris Weitz (that Cinderella movie I didn’t like) and… Tony Gilroy!

I’d been calling this Hellraiser 9, deciding the 2011 semi-reboot Revelations shouldn’t count, but then, do any of them count? Everything since part two has been direct-to-video fan-fiction. It’s time to admit there will never be another good Hellraiser (but it’s not time to stop watching the damned things, juuuust in case). At any rate, it was funny to watch this immediately after the comic book bondage movie.

Getting a lotta mileage out of those hipster lightbulbs:

New director Tunnicliffe wrote Revelations, has been doing makeup and effects since the Candyman / Hellraiser III days, and has written in a talkative new cenobite called The Auditor, played by himself. “I loathe the modern world.” Auditor and the new Pinhead (Rainn Wilson’s dad in Super) seem to be complaining about internet pornography, to which their solution is a sin-confession house populated by a sin-eater (The Assessor: Clu Gulager’s son), three half-naked women, and a leather gimp with skin-removal blades. I replayed the opening dialogue a few times, and it’s not clear why this house is an improved soul-harvesting mechanism – because nobody plays with puzzle boxes anymore?

While they do their Hostel/Saw torture house routine, our hero Sean “Jay-Z” Carter (Damon Carney of a Hitcher remake) is a burned-out cop pretending to track down a Se7en-style serial killer. After a while the only characters are him, his straightlaced brother (Randy Wayne of bowling horror The 13th Alley) and newly assigned detective Alexandra Harris (of lake house murder movie Rising Tides), so I figured one of them must be the serial killer, and it’s Sean. Sean being the lead detective on his own case means nobody has appreciated all the literature references he’s peppered among the killer’s crazy notes, or even bothered to google their sources until the brother discovers an out-of-copyight novel with a familiar line highlit.

Cop brothers:

Hell brothers:

The days of an obsessed doctor tricking a puzzle-genius girl into opening the hellbox in part two are long behind us – in this one, a panicked cop with a gun to his head figures it out in three seconds (I noted it took seven in Deader). We get dialogue callbacks about the sights to show you and the weeping Jesus, and for some reason, a repeated Clockwork Orange reference and a Nightmare on Elm Street actress cameo.

I always knew Jenna Maroney was an angel:

In the end, a heavenly angel with bouncy hair arrives to rescue the serial killer from demons (this is some nonsense like the internet pornography thing) then he is immediately shot to death by the Lady Detective. Pinhead has some fun with the angel, tearing her apart with his chains in the usual way, then she banishes him from demonic reign and he wakes up as some mortal loser living on the street. On one hand, I couldn’t care less about any of this, and on the other, I hope there’s another movie really soon (make a good one this time!).

I lose track of who’s supposed to be dead at the end of the previous movies, but Loki is alive all through this one, Odin (Anthony Hopkins with an eyepatch) dies here, unleashing Thor’s evil sister Cate Blanchett from interdimensional prison, she’s presumably dead at the end of this since she gets her power from the planet and it’s destroyed by Ragnarok, and Thor is ok at the end, with a new hammer, now wearing an eyepatch like his dad, but they also said his power comes from the planet so I dunno if that’ll be important in later movies. Almost everyone on Asgard dies, including the warrior who becomes a lackey for Cate (Karl Urban: Bones in the new Star Treks), but Idris Elba and some refugees make it onto a spaceship.

So, Thor gets stranded hammer-less on a planet run by game-show-master Jeff Goldblum, teams up with a reluctant Tessa Thompson (the last Valkyrie) and a reluctant Loki, and a very reluctant Hulk, who somehow also ended up here, to steal a ship, fleeing an army led by Rachel House (social services in Hunt for the Wilderpeople) and return to Asgard to fight the rogue sister.

Other highlights: Bruce Banner wanders around confused in a Duran Duran t-shirt, the director plays a hilarious rock monster, Hopkins is entertained by a royal play starring Luke Hemsworth, Matt Damon and Sam Neill as Thor/Loki/Odin, the fun bright colors, the makeup and headgear and some mythic shots that are composed like religious paintings. Mostly we came for Guardians-style entertainment, and this totally delivered – seems like the most rewatchable of the Avengers movies.

Sam Neill as Anthony Hopkins:

Of our original trio, Han Solo has died in part 7, Leia now leads the resistance with second-in-command Laura Dern and Han-like hotshot flyboy Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Luke is secluded on an island refusing to help would-be protege Rey (Daisy Ridley) because he lost control of his last protege Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). John Boyega (Attack the Block) apparently had a larger role jumpstarting the narrative in part 7 – here he’s paired with engineer/love interest Rose (Kelly Tran) trying to help the rickety remains of the resistance escape from Kylo and howling ham sandwich Domhnall Gleeson in their attack fleet. Benicio Del Toro is a smooth traitor to both sides, there are computer-animated characters who don’t quite work, appearances by Yoda, Chewbacca and the robots. I appreciated Rian Johnson’s commitment to filming it all in well-designed visual frames, and this would probably rival the Guardians of the Galaxy movies in rewatchability, but that doesn’t make me happy that Rian is committed to a decade of Star Wars instead of original stories.