Following The Amazon Prime Recommendation Worm #1


I know everyone has been dying for me to do another one of those movie roundup things I used to do. And by everyone, I mean no one. Well, this is gonna be sort of like that again. Late last year I decided to conduct a little experiment. On Amazon Prime you can go to a section marked “Customers Also Watched”. In there is exactly what you think. I thought it might be interesting to pick a movie, then when I finish it, take the first recommendation in that section and keep repeating this until I run out of recommendations. Basically traversing a probabilistic graph like an ant algorithm except there may be no end point and since it’s just me, there’s no convergence on a path. It’s just me following the probabilistic graph generated by what other customers picked to watch after they watched something else. I started on December 18th, 2015. Since I can’t always get around to doing full reviews of things, I thought it would be fun to give you occasional updates with little reviews of each of these films. And boy are there some strange ones. This is going to be a big one with 34 films I’ve watched so far. I’ll try to do these in shorter amounts in the future. We’ll see how long I can keep this up. I will keep poster art out here because of the enormous number of films in this one. Here we go!

  1. Seduction: The Cruel Woman (1985, dir. Monika Treut & Elfi Mikesch) – Last year I watched a film called Female Misbehavior (1992) by Monika Treut. She is a German director who, at least in the 1980s, made really bizarre arty sex movies. This was no exception. While I did enjoy Female Misbehavior quite a bit, this was just weird. But kind of weird in a good way. It follows a woman who runs a place that caters to people’s fetishes. That’s really it. There’s not much to say in retrospect except to make sure you are in that experimental arty mood if you are going to sit down and watch this. If you are, then you could possibly enjoy it. I kind of did.
  2. Satan’s Slave (1976, dir. Norman J. Warren) – This one just wasn’t any good. It was a 1970s British horror film that reminded me of the awful Virgin Witch (1972). It was just plain boring. A girl goes and stays in a house with family and gets caught up in a cult. Or at least that’s the plot summary. It’s just boring stuff that tries to build an atmosphere and has a few “scary” sequences. Not worth your time.
  3. Cruel Passion (1977, dir. Chris Boger) – This in an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. Unfortunately, it’s almost as boring as actually reading the original book. The general story is about a girl who is cast out and goes from place to place being taken advantage of sexually. So wait, that means Lars Von Trier got Dogville from Justine and Nymphomaniac from Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973). Interesting. Far more interesting than this lousy sexploitation movie. She really doesn’t do a whole lot of wandering. She really isn’t taken advantage of that much either. At least it knew how to end itself properly. By that I mean it had her killed off. You are better off with Justine de Sade from 1972 instead.
  4. Her and She and Him (1970, dir. Max Pécas) – This is one of those movies put out by Audubon Films. They brought a lot of foreign sex related films to the U.S. and dubbed them. This was one of them. It’s actually pretty offensive. A naive exchange student from Sweden shows up in Paris and winds up in a screwed up lesbian relationship with an older woman. Meanwhile, a young man is in a messed up gay relationship. Both the lesbian and the gay guy are portrayed as damaged or just plain weird. Of course the two young people end up together and say some stupid things to imply that being straight is normal, but we should still feel sorry for the homosexuals. Do I even have to say skip this one? Oh, except there is one funny goof in this movie. The young girl goes down on the older lady who is standing in a well lit room. Yet, her lower half must be in a different place cause it’s like nighttime down there.
  5. Virgin Machine (1988, dir. Monika Treut) – This movie is about a German woman who becomes fascinated by sexual things outside the perceived “norms”. As a result, she ultimately winds up in San Francisco. It’s arty for sure, but you can still kind of follow along here. There is the scene where the male impersonator simulates ejaculation with a beer bottle. However, the only thing really worth seeing here are the few scenes with Susie Sexpert/Susie Bright. I didn’t know who she was, but she’s apparently well known in my neck of the woods. You can find her online. She has been known as the “Pauline Kael of Porn”. People probably know her best as playing Jesse in the Wachowski’s movie Bound (1996) as well as being a technical advisor on the film. The few scenes with her are rather interesting. I could have watched a whole movie where the lead character just talked to her. Too bad she doesn’t.
  6. The Immoral One (1980, dir. Claude Mulot) – My advice here is to simply not watch it on Amazon Prime. They edited it heavily. Shouldn’t surprise me I guess since it’s made by the director of the porn film Pussy Talk (1975). It’s about a woman who is in a car accident that recovers from her amnesia by listening to audio tapes. It’s just a thin excuse to show her as a call girl going to her clients. Unfortunately, the second anything starts it just cuts away to the next non-sex scene. It’s really abrupt like you’ve just come to the end of a Godfrey Ho movie. And it’s a real shame to cause the lead actress is very pretty and the movie is well shot. The sex scenes are probably very well done, but you won’t see them on Amazon Prime. Too bad. Also, a little strange considering I believe Her and She and Him had hardcore penetration in one scene. Whatever.
  7. Sexus (1965, dir. José Bénazéraf) – Oh, god! This was terrible. It’s one of those movies where seriously nothing happens. I think Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) had more action than this. A girl gets kidnapped and she kind of falls in love with her captors and things fall apart. It’s the worst kind of foreign arthouse garbage. Just stay away from this thing. I really can’t stand Godard. I’m really not even a fan of his first film Breathless. Take Breathless and remove anything enjoyable about it and make it about a kidnapping. That’s this movie.
  8. The Lickerish Quartet (1970, dir. Radley Metzger) – I like my review on Letterboxd: “That was an artsy and pretentious mess.” Yes, it is. It’s about two older people and young man who watch porn films together. Then they go to a carnival and bring a woman back who they think was in a movie they watched. What follows is a film really wanting to be something akin to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961). A lot of arty stuff and a lot of stuff that just screams: “You wouldn’t understand if I told you” nonsense. It even tries to get really meta about it all at the end. Don’t bother with this. Go watch Last Year at Marienbad instead. It’s wonderful!
  9. Sweet Ecstasy (1962, dir.Max Pécas) – Back to Max again. This time he brought along Elke Sommer to be in a film that wants to be something akin to Antonioni’s films with Monica Vitti. Except it’s stupid bad foreign upper class stuff that you saw a lot during this period. My biggest problem with this movie, other than that it sucked, is the burning boat scene. There’s a part where the adult children are on a boat having some sort of auction where they have Elke Sommer tied up. The boat catches on fire and they all flee onto lifeboats. They then realize they left Elke behind and rescue her. Afterwards, they try to punish the guy who accidentally set the boat on fire. They make him do stupid childish things. It’s dumb. But what pisses me off is that while people are fleeing the room where Elke is we can clearly see her tied, not gagged, but not screaming for help. Sorry, but once you see it, then you just keep yelling at the screen that it was your own damn fault for letting them tie you up and then saying nothing as the room burned. Regardless, more worthless foreign stuff.
  10. The Curious Female (1970, dir. Paul Rapp) – It took ten of these, but I finally hit one I would recommend. This movie takes place in the future where apparently a master computer rules over everything. However, instead of making everyone “moral”, it makes them all orgy bisexual loving folks. Some of them gather in a place where they can watch old movies that show how people used to live. It’s certainly is weird. They only watch two films. The first is a silent movie where a vacuum salesman shows up and gets screwed by the lady of the house. Then they watch some movie called The Three Virgins. That makes up the rest of the film. It cutting between the film and the folks in the room watching it, who by the way, are also actors within the film they are watching. The Three Virgins thing revolves around a computer dating business and what happens when a guy comes in looking for a virgin. There’s only two things I really want to mention here. One, is the black lesbian character named Pearl. I watched several lesbian movies directed by women at the beginning of last year from the past 10 years or so and this was a much better character. The movies I watched were like Loving Annabelle (2006) or Bloomington (2010). They quickly turned into basically softcore porn, tried to make lesbianism as forbidden as possible, and just wouldn’t stop to let us actually get to know them a little. Pearl is just a girl who figures out that she’s still a virgin at her age because she likes girls instead. That’s it! We get to know her a bit and she just discovers that about herself. Nice, simple, and positive. Then there’s the extremely over the top gay guy who comes into the computer dating place. He’s an odd duck. He’s every stereotype you can think of, but at the same time he stands up for himself and doesn’t take anyone’s crap. He’s interesting. Oh, also we find out that 13 year old girls are taken to the “elderly gentleman” to lose their virginity in the future. Yes, just the girls. It never says where the guys are taken though and they obviously don’t keep their virginity in the future either. I recommend this one.
  11. Days of Sin and Nights of Nymphomania (1963, dir. Poul Nyrup) – This is just an odd sit. It’s a Danish movie that was again brought over by Audubon Films which means more sex stuff. It’s basically a house party with mostly naked women doing whatever it is they were doing in front of the camera. But then near the end it just seems to turn on a dime into a heist movie that ends with a guy killing a girl, I think, and getting arrested. Some of the stuff with the girls is kind of pretty, but there’s just no reason to subject yourself to this.
  12. Chain Gang Women (1971, dir. Lee Frost) – Spoiler alert! There are no chain gang women in chain gang women. It goes for awhile like a gritty look at men on a chain gang before finally letting a couple of them escape. Then they run into two women. One is attached to one of the guys, but the other rapes her. Then they run into a very young girl who is married to a much older man. They sort of take advantage, sort of go to rescue her, but the old man kills them both and keeps the girl. Just a pointless sexploitation film with a title as accurate as 1,000 Convicts And A Woman.
  13. Savage Abduction (1973, dir. John Lawrence) – This one actually goes under three titles: The Bloody Slaying of Sarah Ridelander, Cycle Psycho, and Savage Abduction. Well, Sarah Ridelander is killed at the beginning, but that death is hardly important enough to be called a “Bloody Slaying” or be in the title. Cycle Psycho at least alludes to the fact that a motorcycle gang is in this, but they are hardly psychos. Strangely, Savage Abduction is the most accurate title. The movie is about a crazy guy who blackmails another guy into getting two young girls for him. He does this because he murders the man’s wife at his request. A motorcycle gang with the word “savage” in their names do the abducting. And by abducting I mean simply pick up two stupid young girls who thought hitching a ride with random motorcyclists was a good idea. The rest of the film is just killing time till it decides it has enough minutes in the runtime to have what little climax it has in store for the audience play out. After Savage Island (1985), I’m beginning to think Fred and Ben Savage are the only good things with “savage” in them.
  14. The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967, dir. Harald Reinl) – More like dangle Christopher Lee in our face, take him away, then bring him back for the end. This was pretty bad. Most of the movie you follow two guys and two girls on their way to some castle. The girls basically overreact in fear to everything. However, the guys underreact to everything just running towards the obvious danger. What a waste of time. Making it in the first place, and then me watching it.
  15. Sacred Flesh (2000, dir. Nigel Wingrove) – Wanna watch nuns have sex with each other while the Mother Superior argues with Mary Magdalene? No? Neither did I. This is just nunsploitation that tries to give itself some meaning with the Mother Superior/Mary Magdalene stuff. If I want something in that vein, then that’s what Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) is for. Seriously, go watch it now. It even looks like it’s available on Amazon now. In the past you had to track down a copy online because the film was being sat on by the studio to a ridiculous degree. Skip Sacred Flesh.
  16. Primitive London (1965, dir. Arnold L. Miller) – And by Primitive London, they mean heavy cynicism and a bunch of stripping. It’s a Mondo movie. Nothing ridiculous like the pond scene from Brutes and Savages (1978) or anything like that. The most interesting things are probably the stripper running from club to club to make money and when they talk to Mods and Rockers. Can’t think of a good stripper movie to recommend really, but as for Mods and Rockers, see Quadrophenia (1979) for the Mods and Rocker (1972) for the Rockers. I’m not sure if it’s become easier to find Rocker now years after I tracked down a copy, but it’s worth it. If memory serves, the movie is easy to find, but English subtitles for the German aren’t. Still worth it. This movie is okay. Nothing to seek out.
  17. The Wild Women of Wongo (1958, dir. James L. Wolcott) – There’s a hell of a title for what is a really boring movie. I know I say boring a lot, but that’s because I never took the SATs. Yeah, sure, that’s a good enough excuse for me. I could explain the plot, but there’s no point. It’s just a 1950s primitive exploitation film that is just some nonsense some people thought up to have some attractive women run around in small outfits and that’s it. No reason to watch this at all.
  18. Bad Girls From Mars (1990, dir. Fred Olen Ray) – Ah, good old Fred Olen Ray. This film tries to be meta about the production of a movie because it’s cheap and that way it doesn’t have to build many sets until it settles on an ending that was already tired even before Sleepaway Camp (1983). And I haven’t even seen that movie yet. I’ll get to it eventually along with Fatal Games (1984), but it’s just a slight twist on the ending of Friday the 13th (1980) because Girls Nite Out (1982) already proved that having it be the mother again was done for. I know I’m getting to be a broken record here, but no. Skip it!
  19. The Nude Set (1957, dir. Pierre Foucaud) – Also called The Fast Set and Mademoiselle Strip-tease. Just a whole lot of stripping. Another primitive exploitation film from overseas. These movies are such a waste of time. I can’t even tell you how unbearable some of them are. However, there is something weird that happens near the end of this film. Up until it happens, the movie is just about a girl and some friends visiting strip clubs. Then seemingly out of nowhere a dream sequence happens that looks like it’s straight out of Fred and Ginger 1930s musical. No joke. And it isn’t even clear that it’s a dream at first either. Then the movie just crashes into it’s ending. Onward! Unfortunately, it’s to more stripping.
  20. Lap Dancing (1995, dir. Mike Sedan) – Think this might have been rushed into production to capitalize on Showgirls (1995)? You’re probably right. Especially when one of the guys even bares a resemblance to Kyle MacLachlan. It’s not good, but at least it didn’t hinge it’s success entirely on a single performance that didn’t hold up like Verhoeven’s film did. As you can tell, I’m not one of those revisionist critics who wants to turn Showgirls and Starship Troopers (1997) into misunderstood masterpieces. They’re both garbage. At least Starship Troopers is entertaining garbage and you can tell yourself Verhoeven was trying to make the whole film like it was a piece of propaganda from the fascist regime within the film. However, you’re better off exploring other Verhoeven films such as Soldier of Orange (1977) or Turkish Delight (1971) that he made before coming to the states. Even Black Book (2006) with its spaghetti western archetypes is more worth your time. As for Lap Dancing, it’s kind of bi-polar. Most of the time it’s just stripping, but then it will suddenly go into full on sentimental mode complete with sad music. It’s about a girl who comes to Hollywood looking for fame and ends up at a strip club that looks like the night club from Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994). Or at least it did for me. Skip! And apparently, I can’t stop referencing other movies. I think it’s a disease.
  21. From The Head (2011, dir. George Griffith) – Want to see a film that will probably make my gems list at the end of 2016 now? See From The Head. It’s an indie film that takes place entirely inside the men’s restroom at a strip club. The main character is a bathroom attendant. People come in and go out delivering there bits (literally and figuratively). It does start to drag a bit, but it still pulls through. I like when they had the women’s restroom break and the ladies just used the men’s and neither the guys nor the girls really seemed to care one bit about using the same bathroom. As they shouldn’t. But then they take that away by having their bathroom fixed. Honestly, I think it needed that to liven things up more, but like I said, it still pulls through. The lead, played by the director, is interesting, and it’s a job I don’t think I’ve ever seen given the attention of a full movie. Worth seeing.
  22. Las Vegas Story (2015, dir. Byron Q.) – There really isn’t anything to say about this. A lady with kids is a prostitute in Las Vegas and we just see her go about her stuff as she moves towards trying to open a male escort business. That’s really it. The only thing I remember of interest is that apparently a girl playing the slots was acting too suspicious as a prostitute on the casino floor to the lead actress by simply playing the slots, but later she and a friend will just go right up to a lady at a bar to try and sell her on buying an escort from them. Didn’t get that. This is one of those that I can’t recommend, but I can see other people getting more out of this than I did.
  23. Birthday (2009, dir. James Harkness) – This on the other hand. I can’t see getting anything out of this rambling nonsense. It’s one of those movies that feels like you are sitting in a college liberal arts class where people who have no idea what they are talking about say things they think are profound in the hopes somebody will be impressed. The only difference is it’s a brothel with David Lynch lighting and the prostitutes are the ones talking. Yep. Boring as it sounds. I love when people call something like this a meditation on something. I’m sorry, but I’ve seen that done. This isn’t it.
  24. The Case Of Unfaithful Klara (2009, dir. Roberto Faenza) – A guy hires a private investigator to follow around his girlfriend. The guy basically strings him along under the pretense of protecting his client from being hurt which has ties to his own personal life. Nope! Nope! Nope! Boring! I didn’t care about any of this.
  25. Extase (2009, dir. Cheyenne Carron) – Speaking of not caring about any of this. I didn’t care about this either. It’s once again people yacking in a room with artsy shots and sets. This time it has to do with God. Wow! What a surprise there. This is just one of those short indie arty modeled on good foreign films films that I think is made by a director to simply try things out and hopefully go on to make something better, less derivative, more coherent, and original. However, her other films look like they are just taking the sex and religion thing and running with it. Next!
  26. A Swedish Midsummer Sex Comedy (2009, dir. Ian McCrudden) – Oh, boy! You mean I get to watch several storylines between several people play out at a party where Luke Perry is brought in so people will go see the movie and the characters keep switching from Swedish to English and back? Wow! Don’t sign me up. This is one of those movies that you would have expected Hugh Grant to be in back in the early 1990s like Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994). People have some issues, they come out at a party, and things resolve. I don’t know what to say about this movie except that it’s so not worth your time.
  27. Camembert Rose (2009, dir. Barnabás Tóth) – It’s an indie coming of age story from Hungary that’s reasonably good. Nothing amazing here. A kid who wants to see the world has a bit of a nutty dad who still loves the hell out of him. He leaves and goes somewhere else for awhile, then returns home. Not great, but I kind of enjoyed this one.
  28. Please, Please Me! (2009, dir. Emmanuel Mouret) – Wanna see a modern day French director desperately try to make his own Jacques Tati film and fail? I know you don’t, so skip this. It has a stupid beginning and a stupid ending with mostly a party sequence in between that acts like a really lame and childish version of the restaurant scene from Tati’s Playtime (1967). Just go watch a Tati film instead. There’s no reason to settle for this.
  29. Strange Fits Of Passion (1999, dir. Elise McCredie) – I’ve heard the mermaids singing, and they are trying to tell us to stay away from Strange Fits Of Passion. It’s about a girl who you will spend the entire film screaming at to please let her get laid already so she can calm down. She even has two gay friends who can see her festering and having the female equivalent of blue balls, but do nothing about it. I wanted to step into the film and punch them in the crotch. I know very few people will get the reference at the beginning of this, so go watch the movie I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing (1987) instead of this movie. So much indie! So much indie! My head is going to explode and dancing suns are going to pop out!
  30. Summer Vacation (2012, dir. Tal Granit & Sharon Maymon) – Luckily, the next film was not only a short, but decent too. It’s from Israel and is about a family who is on vacation when the father runs into a former male lover. Not sure if he’s supposed to be gay or bi, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a nice little film that shows the father’s struggle. Nothing more, nothing less.
  31. Cold Blooded (2007, dir. Sylvie Verheyde) – Back to France for more indie. This movie is supposed to be about a messed up girl and a former soldier, but it’s mainly about the soldier. The stuff with her wasn’t really anything I thought was worthwhile. I could have really just done with a movie about the soldier dealing not only with his past, but his present demons. The lead actor kind of made me think of a French Benicio Del Toro. A definite skip, but I liked the actor and wouldn’t mind seeing him in something else.
  32. Enthralled (2014, dir. Chip Tsao) – This is when Amazon Prime launched me into Asia and I’m still stuck there. This comes to us from Hong Kong. It’s supposed to be about some guys who were friends as kids, then we see them as adults, but if I hadn’t read the plot summary then I wouldn’t have made the connection. As for the dialog and the message, it felt like they kept taking a brick and bashing it into my head to drive home it’s points. The only thing noteworthy here is that a guy sleeps with both the mother and her son. Spoiler alert! The mother tries to kill him, but falls into Niagara Falls and he ends up with her son. I wonder what generation of Chinese filmmakers this guy belongs to. We up to 7 or 8 now? Go watch a Zhangke Jia film instead. I think I’d recommend Platform (2000). Certainly a better option than Enthralled.
  33. Desire (2002, dir. Eung-soo Kim) – Wanna watch a movie about lifeless, soulless, and loveless characters made by a director in love with Zhangke Jia, Robert Bresson, and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman? If you said yes, then what the hell is wrong with you? This is one of those movies I thought was going to kill me. The only film I can think of that it really reminded me of was Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977), but that’s probably just because everything happens with such lifeless acting that Bresson was known for. Heck maybe Marguerite Duras’ India Song (1975) is a more appropriate film to think of based on Desire. I didn’t like either of those movies and they are still better options than Desire. It’s just several people who walk through a series of loveless stuff and empty moments that aren’t what anyone would call life.
  34. Origin Of Monogamy (2013, dir. Min Kyeol) – Sticking with South Korea like Desire, this one was actually not in IMDb at the time. Amazon Prime seems to have a lot of Korean cinema in it, but the titles are alternate and usually not in IMDb. Oh, and of course they don’t subtitle the credits. Heck, even a Korean director quote tweeted me on Twitter, then went on to say that Amazon Prime basically makes Korean cinema more accessible outside of South Korea than it is within the country itself. As for this movie, oh god! The movie begins with a therapist seeing a doctor who tests people for deadly diseases such as AIDS. During the session it comes out that she is manipulating results to make it look like certain men have AIDS which causes them to kill themselves. I’m sure there was more stuff I was supposed to pick up on, but I got stuck on that and that it seemed all the Korean girls wore way too much makeup and lipstick combined with really short dresses. I believe it ends with her deliberately infecting a guy with AIDS so that he will be stuck marrying her. It ends with them in front of a grave stone dressed for a wedding with him looking half dead. I guess that’s where this title comes from. It also goes under the title Sins Of A Marriage.

I got through it! I promise I will try to do this in smaller chunks in the future. Should be interesting to see how long Amazon Prime is going to keep me in South Korea adding these unIMDBd movies into their database.

Playing Catch-Up: Carol (dir by Todd Haynes)


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(Minor Spoilers Below)

Carol is the best film of 2015.

I say that without a hint of hesitation or doubt.  2015 was a wonderful year for movies and I would say that there were at least 20 film released that I would call great.  And, out of those 20, Carol is the best.

Carol opens in 1952.  Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is young, lonely, and living in New York City.  She’s an aspiring photographer who can’t afford a decent camera, a secret bohemian living in a world where morality and culture are defined by the bourgeoisie.  She has a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacey) and he’s eager to marry her and move to France but, try as she might, Therese simply cannot bring herself to feel the same way about him that he feels about her.  Though she lives with him, she refuses to have sex with him.  At one point, she asks him if he’s ever heard of men being attracted to other men and she asks if he thinks the same can be true of women.  Richard says sure, before adding that it’s always the result of “something wrong” psychologically.

It’s Christmas.  Therese gets a temporary job, working at a department store in Manhattan.  From the moment we see Therese surrounded by the Christmas crowds, we realize that she feels totally out-of-place among the rest of the world.  She is withdrawn and quiet and rarely looks anyone in the eye.  That is until she meets Carol (Cate Blanchett).

Carol is searching for a gift for her daughter and accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store.  When Therese arranges for the gloves to be returned to Carol, Carol thanks her by taking her out to lunch.  Soon, Carol is inviting Therese to spend Christmas at her house in New Jersey and a jealous Richard is complaining that Therese has a “crush” on the older woman.

Carol is going through a difficult divorce.  Her alcoholic husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is demanding full custody of their children.  Harge knows that years ago, Carol had a brief affair with her best friend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), and he can’t handle it.  When he stops by, drunk and belligerent, on Christmas, he discovers Therese visiting Carol and he freaks out even more.

(With all the attention being paid to the exquisite performances of Blanchett and Mara, now would be good place to mention that Kyle Chandler does a great job playing a loathsome character.  With his performance here and his role in The Spectacular Now, Chandler has cornered the market on playing abusive alcoholics.)

For New Year’s, Carol and Therese go on a trip and they finally consummate their relationship (in Iowa, of all places).  But what they don’t know is that Harge has hired men to follow them and to get proof of their relationship.  If Carol wants to see her daughter again, she knows that it means seeing a psychotherapist for help with her “problem” and never seeing Therese again…

Carol is an amazing and beautiful film, a portrait of both forbidden love and the struggle to survive in a society that demands total and complete conformity.  In many scenes, director Todd Haynes pays homage to the masters of 50s melodrama, filmmakers like Mark Robson, Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.  The film’s lushly vibrant colors and attention to detail feels reminiscent of the films that Sirk made for MGM, with Cate Blanchett often made up to resemble Lana Turner.  Meanwhile, Rooney Mara often resembles Natalie Wood from Rebel Without A Cause.  One shot in particular, with the shadows of a window bar falling across Blanchett’s face like the bars of a prison cell, immediately brought to mind the end of Ray’s Bigger Than Life.

For the longest time, I have complained about Rooney Mara’s performance in David Fincher’s rehash of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.  Well, I’m prepared to stop complaining because Mara is brilliant in Carol.  Her blossoming as an actress mirrors Therese’s blossoming as a woman.  Rooney Mara is being promoted for best supporting actress but make no mistake.  There’s nothing “supporting” about Rooney Mara’s performance.  Carol is all about Therese and it works because of Mara’s wonderful performance.

Regardless of what may or may not happen with the Oscar nominations on Thursday, Carol is the best film of 2015.  It’s a film that we will still be talking about decades from now.

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Playing Catch-Up: The Big Short (dir by Adam McKay)


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The Big Short is a film that is so critically acclaimed and that has been so passionately embraced by those who enjoyed it that it’s a bit intimidating to admit that it really didn’t do much for me.  (It’s even more intimidating for me to admit that I nearly included it on my list of the 16 worst films of 2015.)  It’s a big, angry movie and, even though it’s not really that good, it definitely taps into the zeitgeist.  It captures the anger, the frustration, and the fears that people (including me) are feeling right now.  It didn’t do much for me but I can understand why others have so passionately embraced it.

As for the film itself, it’s about the housing collapse and the financial crisis of 2008.  The main characters are all people who realized that the economy was about to collapse and who managed to make a profit off of the crisis.  For the most part, everyone gets at least two scenes where they get to rail about how angry they are that they’re making a profit off of other people’s misery.  However, they all still collect their money at the end of the film.

For the most part, our main characters are the type of quirky eccentrics who always tend to pop up in ensemble films like this.  They’re all played by recognizable actors and they all have an identifiable trait or two so we can keep them straight.  For instance, Christian Bale has trouble relating to people socially, plays drums, and looks like he probably has terrible body odor.  Steve Carell has a bad haircut and spends a lot of time yelling at people.  He’s also haunted by the suicide of his brother and he’s married to Marisa Tomei but she only gets to appear in two scenes and doesn’t really do much because this is a film about menfolk, dagnabit.  (I love Steve Carell but this is probably the least interesting performance that he’s ever given.)  John Magaro and Finn Wittrock are two young investors and they especially get upset when they realize that the economy is about to collapse.  Their mentor is played by Brad Pitt.  Since this is an important film, Brad Pitt plays his role with his important actor beard.

And then there’s Ryan Gosling.  Gosling plays a trader and he also narrates the film.  And really, Gosling probably gives the best performance in the film, perhaps because his character is the only one who is actually allowed to enjoy making money.  I think we’re supposed to be outraged when he brags about making money while people lose their houses but Gosling’s so charismatic and the character is so cheerful that it’s hard to dislike him.

(Of course, listening to Gosling’s narration, it’s impossible not to be reminded of The Wolf of Wall Street.  And it’s appropriate because The Big Short is kind of like The Wolf of Wall Street for people who don’t want to have to deal with ambiguity or nuance.)

The film has gotten a lot of attention for Adam McKay’s direction, which is flashy and always watchable but, at the same time, also rather shallow.  For the most part, McKay’s directorial tricks only served to remind me of other movies.  The narration, of course, made me think about The Wolf of Wall Street.  The scenes where characters look straight at the camera and say, “This isn’t the way it really happened,” only reminded me of how much more effective it was when the same thing happened in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People.

And then there’s the celebrity cameos.  These are the scenes where a special guest celebrity is brought on screen to explain to us how Wall Street actually works.  The first time, it’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath and it works well because it admits the debt that The Big Short owes to Wolf of Wall Street.  (Plus, it ends with Robbie telling the viewers to “fuck off,” which is probably what I would do if a huge group of strangers interrupted my bubble bath.)  If McKay had limited himself to just doing it once, it would have been brilliant.  But McKay drags out three more celebs and, with repeated use, the technique gets less and less interesting.

But I guess it’s debatable whether any of that matters.  The Big Short taps into the way people are feeling now.  It’s a zeitgeist film.  People are rightfully angry and The Big Short is all about that anger.  A decade from now, it’ll probably be as forgotten as Gabriel Over The White House.  But for now, it’s definitely the film of the moment.

Playing Catch-Up With 6 Mini-Reviews: Amy, Gloria, Pitch Perfect 2, Sisters, Spy, Trainwreck


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Amy (dir by Asif Kapadia)

Amy opens with brilliant and, in its way, heartbreaking footage of a 14 year-old Amy Winehouse and a friend singing Happy Birthday at a party.  Even though she’s singing deliberately off-key and going over-the-top (as we all tend to do when we sing Happy Birthday), you can tell that Amy was a star from the beginning.  She’s obviously enjoying performing and being the center of attention and, try as you might, it’s impossible not to contrast the joy of her Happy Birthday with the sadness of her later life.

A star whose music touched millions (including me), Amy Winehouse was ultimately betrayed by a world that both wanted to take advantage of her talent and to revel in her subsequent notoriety.  It’s often said the Amy was self-destructive but, if anything, the world conspired to destroy her.  By focusing on footage of Amy both in public and private and eschewing the usual “talking head” format of most documentaries, Amy pays tribute to both Amy Winehouse and reminds us of what a great talent we all lost in 2011.

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Gloria (dir by Christian Keller)

The Mexican film Gloria is a musical biopic of Gloria Trevi (played by Sofia Espinosa), a singer whose subversive songs and sexual image made her a superstar in Latin America and challenged the conventional morality of Catholic-dominated establishment.  Her manager and lover was the controversial Sergio Andrade (Marco Perez).  The movie follows Gloria from her first audition for the manipulative Sergio to her arrest (along with Sergio) on charges of corrupting minors.  It’s an interesting and still controversial story and Gloria tells it well, with Espinosa and Perez both giving excellent performances.

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Pitch Perfect 2 (dir by Elizabeth Banks)

The Bellas are back!  As I think I’ve mentioned a few times on this site, I really loved the first Pitch Perfect.  In fact, I loved it so much that I was a bit concerned about the sequel.  After all, sequels are never as good as the original and I was dreading the idea of the legacy of the first film being tarnished.

But the sequel actually works pretty well.  It’s a bit more cartoonish than the first film.  After three years at reigning ICCA champions, the Bellas are expelled from competition after Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) accidentally flashes the President.  The only way for the Bellas to get the suspension lifted is to win the World Championship of A Capella.  The plot, to be honest, really isn’t that important.  You’re watching the film for the music and the interplay of the Bellas and, on those two counts, the film totally delivers.

It should be noted that Elizabeth Banks had a great 2015.  Not only did she give a great performance in Love & Mercy but she also made a respectable feature directing debut with Pitch Perfect 2.

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Sisters (dir by Jason Moore)

It’s interesting how opinions can change.  For the longest time, I really liked Tina Fey and I thought that Amy Poehler was kind of overrated.  But, over the past two years, I’ve changed my opinion.  Now, I like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey kind of gets on my nerves.  The best way that I can explain it is to say that Tina Fey just seems like the type who would judge me for wearing a short skirt and that would get old quickly, seeing as how I happen to like showing off my legs.

Anyway, in Sisters, Tina and Amy play sisters!  (Shocking, I know.)  Amy is the responsible one who has just gotten a divorce and who wants to make everyone’s life better.  Tina is the irresponsible one who refuses to accept that she’s no longer a teenager.  When their parents announce that they’re selling the house where they grew up, Amy and Tina decide to throw one last party.  Complications ensue.

I actually had two very different reactions to Sisters.  On the one hand, as a self-declared film critic, it was easy for me to spot the obvious flaw with Sisters.  Tina and Amy should have switched roles because Tina Fey is simply not believable as someone who lives to have fun.  Sometimes, it’s smart to cast against type but it really doesn’t work here.

However, as the youngest of four sisters, there was a lot of Sisters that I related to.  I saw Sisters with my sister, the Dazzling Erin, and even if the film did not work overall, there were still a lot of little scenes that made us smile and go, “That’s just like us.”  In fact, I think they should remake Sisters and they should let me and Erin star in it.

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Spy (dir by Paul Feig)

There were a lot of very good spy films released in 2015 and SPECTRE was not one of them.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more disappointed I am with the latest Bond film.  It’s not so much that SPECTRE was terrible as there just wasn’t anything particular memorable about it.  When we watch a film about secret agents saving the world, we expect at least a few memorable lines and performances.

Now, if you want to see a memorable spy movie, I suggest seeing Spy.  Not only is Spy one of the funniest movies of the year, it’s also a pretty good espionage film.  Director Paul Feig manages to strike the perfect balance between humor and action.  One of the joys of seeing CIA employee Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) finally get to enter the field and do spy stuff is the fact that there are real stakes involved.  Susan is not only saving the world but, in the film’s best scenes, she’s having a lot of fun doing it and, for that matter, McCarthy is obviously having a lot of fun playing Susan and those of us in the audience are having a lot of fun watching as well.

Spy also features Jason Statham as a more traditional action hero.  Statham is hilarious as he sends up his own macho image.  Seriously, who would have guessed that he could such a funny actor?  Here’s hoping that he, McCarthy, and Feig will all return for the inevitable sequel.

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Trainwreck (dir by Judd Apatow)

There’s a lot of great things that can be said about Trainwreck.  Not only was it the funniest film of 2015 but it also announced to the world that Amy Schumer’s a star.  It was a romantic comedy for the 21st Century, one that defied all of the conventional BS about what has to happen in a romcom.  This a film for all of us because, let’s just be honest here, we’ve all been a trainwreck at some point in our life.

But for me, the heart of the film was truly to be found in the relationship between Amy and her younger sister, Kim (Brie Larson).  Whether fighting over what to do with their irresponsible father (Colin Quinn) or insulting each other’s life choices, their relationship is the strongest part of the film.  If Brie Larson wasn’t already guaranteed an Oscar nomination for Room, I’d demand that she get one for Trainwreck.  For that matter, Amy Schumer deserves one as well.

Seriously, it’s about time the trainwrecks of the world had a film that we could truly call our own.

Playing Catch-Up: The End of the Tour (dir by James Ponsoldt) and Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)


Two of the best films released last year dealt with troubled artists.

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The End of the Tour opens in 2008, with a writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) getting a call that the famous and acclaimed author, David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), has committed suicide.  After learning of the tragedy, Lipsky remembers a few days that he spent interviewing Wallace 12 years earlier.  Wallace had just published his best known work, Infinite Jest.  At the time, Lipsky himself was a struggling writer and he approached Wallace with a combination of admiration and professional envy.  Lipsky hoped that, by interviewing Wallace, he could somehow discover the intangible quality that separates a great writer from a merely good one.

Almost the entire film is made up of Lipsky’s conversations with Wallace.  We watch as both the somewhat reclusive Wallace (who seems both bemused and, at times, annoyed with his sudden fame) warms up to Lipsky and as Lipsky forces himself to admit that Wallace might actually be a genius.  There are a few conflicts, mostly coming from the contrast between the withdrawn Wallace and the much more verbose Lipsky.  Lipsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) continually pressures him to ask Wallace about rumors that Wallace was once a drug addict.  But, for the most part, it’s a rather low-key film, one that’s more interested in exploring ideas than melodrama.  It’s also a perfect example of what can be accomplished by a great director and two actors who are totally committed to their roles.  Jason Segel, especially, gives the performance of his career so far.

The shadow of Wallace’s suicide hangs over the entire film.  Throughout their conversation, Wallace drops hints about his own history with depression.  Much as Lipsky must have done after Wallace’s suicide, we find ourselves looking for clues to explain his death.  But ultimately, Wallace remains a fascinating enigma in both life and death.

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Love & Mercy (dir by Bill Pohland)

Love & Mercy opens with Cadillac saleswoman Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) selling a car to a polite but nervous man (John Cusack).  The man sits in the car with her and rambles for a bit, mentioning that his brother has recently died.  Soon, the man’s doctor, Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti), shows up and Melinda learns that the man is Brian Wilson, a musician and songwriter who is famous for co-founding The Beach Boys.  After having a nervous breakdown decades before, Brian is now a recluse.  He and Melinda start a tentative relationship and Melinda quickly discovers that Brian is literally being held prisoner by the manipulative Dr. Landy.

Throughout the film, we are presented with flashbacks to the 1960s and we watch as a young Brian (Paul Dano) deals with both the pressures of fame and his own relationship with his tyrannical father (who, in an interesting parallel to Brian’s later relationship with Landy, is also Brian’s manager).  As Brian struggles to maintain his grip on reality, he obsesses on creating “the greatest album ever.”

Love & Mercy is an enormously affecting story about both the isolation of genius and the redeeming power of love.  Whether he’s played by Cusack or Dano, Brian Wilson remains a fascinating and tragic figure.  It’s hard to say whether Cusack or Dano gives the better performance.  Indeed, they both seem to be so perfectly in sync with each other that you never doubt that the character played by Paul Dano will eventually grow up to become the character played by John Cusack.  Both of them do some of the best work of their careers in Love & Mercy.

Playing Catch-Up: Straight Outta Compton (dir by F. Gary Gray)


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Let’s just start with the obvious.

I am probably the last person who would be expected to appreciate Straight Outta Compton.   In the months leading up to the film’s release last year, I doubt anyone expected me to be a part of the audience.  After all, I’m a Caucasian girl from Texas.  I may have been born in Oak Cliff but, for the most part, I’ve lived in suburbs, small towns, and a few farming communities.  When it comes to music, my taste runs that gamut from EDM to more EDM.  I was less than a year old when NWA formed and I hadn’t even heard Straight Outta Compton or Fuck tha Police until I first heard about this movie.  Going into the movie, I knew who both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre were but, otherwise, I knew nothing about NWA.

And yet, with all that in mind, I was in tears by the end of Straight Outta Compton.  That’s proof of how strong a film Straight Outta Compton truly is.  I went into the film with next to zero knowledge of what I was about to see but from the very first minute, it captured my attention and my emotions. From the minute I saw Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) fleeing from a police raid at a crack house, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) dreaming of becoming a success, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) being threatened by both gang members and police, I was totally invested in their stories.

Straight Outta Compton is a big film and director F. Gary Gray is obviously interested in a lot more than just telling a conventional musical biopic.  Instead, he uses Straight Outta Compton to explore what it’s like to grow up and live in the shadows of America.  That pre-credits raid on that crack house sets the tone for much of Straight Outta Compton, revealing a world where the only escape comes from money and where the police are essentially an invading army.

The film also deserves a lot of credit for capturing the excitement of creation.  The scene where NWA records their first album is pure exhilaration and even better are the concert scenes, all of which capture chaos in the best possible way.  Perhaps the best sequence comes when a defiant NWA performs Fuck tha Police while a similarly defiant swarm of policeman make their way through the crowd, all holding their badges in the air.  In that scene, Straight Outta Compton captures the feel of a society at war with itself.

Straight Outta Compton is an ensemble film in the best sense of the word, with Hawkins, Jackson, and Mitchell all giving excellent and charismatic performances.  Somewhat inevitably, Paul Giamatti shows up as their manipulative manager, Jerry Heller.  It’s a role that feels as if it was tailor-made for Giamatti and, needless to say, he performs the Hell out of it.

I’ve read that Straight Outta Compton takes some liberties with the historical facts and it’s true that the other two members of NWA — MC Ren and DJ Yella — are both largely portrayed as being bystanders.  (That said, Neil Brown did have some funny lines as DJ Yella.)  Towards the end of the film, whenever Eazy-E said, “I should have listened to Dre and Cube!,” I was reminded of the fact that Straight Outta Compton was produced by Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and not Jerry Heller.

But, historical liberties or not, Straight Outta Compton is an exhilarating and important film and one of the best of the year.

 

In Like Flynn: CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warner Brothers 1935)


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Australian Errol Flynn made a splashy Hollywood debut in 1935’s CAPTAIN BLOOD, a big, sprawling epic about pirates of the Caribbean. But this captain’s no Jack Sparrow, he’s a virile man of action who leads his crew from slavery to salvation and wins the hand of beautiful Olivia de Haviland in the process. Director Michael Curtiz was given an almost million dollar budget for this one, and he pulled out all the stops, with large-scale battle scenes and the proverbial cast of thousands.

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It’s the year 1685, and England is going through a rebellion to depose tyrannical King James II. Doctor Peter Blood is summoned by his friend Jeremy Pitt to help some men wounded in battle. They’re interrupted by the King’s men, who arrest and charge them with high treason. The rebels are held for three months under brutal conditions before being sentenced to hang. But King James has a more dastardly idea…

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