Gothic & Lolita Psycho (2010)

The great flood of low-rent Japanese exploitation movies with cute girls and lots of gore seems never ending. Some movies are good (Mutant Girls Squad, Machine Girl), but most of them are just bad in a schlocky sort of way. Gothic & Lolita Psycho is one of those, a post-Kill Bill revenge flick that steals from everywhere in some of the poorest ways possible but manages to be just manic enough to not be truly boring about its wholesale theft.

Girl with a tragic past who makes a list of people to kill? Check. Villains with various gimmicks in one-on-one showdowns? Check. Wrinkles about the inhumanity of vengeance? Yep, that too. It’s a full on bucket of cliche, buoyed by a sense of absurdist comedy that manages to keep it from being too serious. An all-Westerner Japanese gang that is beating up the one villain who went straight is a highlight, especially when they break out into a full on acrobatic dance sequence a la the Ginyu Force. Also one of the bad guys steals the entire movie, a one-eyed genki girl named Elle (hey, another Kill Bill reference) who has a cell phone built into the uzi she carries around with her, taking pictures as much as she fires bullets.

This is hardly high art, but its the low-impact cartoonish gore and big personalities that drive this into wholly watchable territory. Plus, minus a few skirt shots, it’s relatively unpervy for a movie of this ilk, which often manages to entangle a healthy dose of sexual kink into its dumb splatstick antics. ‘Only a bit sexist’ isn’t much to commend a movie, but that’s the kind of metric that exploitation films seem to live, unfortunately.

If this whole write up sounds like a shrug, that’s because it is.

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Gloria (2013)

This Chilean finding-herself slice of life comedy is one of those small, quiet movies that should be way more popular than it undoubtedly is going to be. It’s a movie about someone living in a desperate place in life trying to find any sort of meaningful connection to others to justify all the rest of it. That’s all of us all the time everywhere, but in this instance it’s Gloria, a middle-aged woman who likes dancing and her adult children and men despite the fact the latter two don’t particularly seem to know what to do with her and her general insular verve.

There’s a melancholy over the film, a sense of frustration that this is what life has lead her to in its last third, a sense of opportunities long past and a thousand roads not traveled but whose markers still stand on the edges of her vision. The children who tolerate her. The ex-husband she never sees. The well-to-do socialite friends who seem to exist in a whole other world from her. There’s only her, with a sense of self that’s well defined but not impervious to the pains of being human, and how she tries to get on with her life and derive some sort of enjoyment and greater meaning from it.

I love that this movie is so devoted to the interior life of this character, the kind that would never been given anything more than third tier billing in a more conventional (read: Hollywood) production. This is about her interior space, about how she watches the world through huge glasses and only pours her heart out through song in the sanctuary of her car. She dances with abandon but is coy when questioned about it. What past she has is only expressed through the present, but everything that is her now is on display, relevant and here. She isn’t a story, she’s a person, and we’re let in only to see that personhood.

The men she interacts with are left only as impressionistic vestiges on the margins of her life, either too pushy or too old or too middling. The only one she manages any real feeling for is weasley and self-defacing in a way that inspires sympathy and pity. He needs someone like Gloria, his being pleads, to bring color and enthusiasm into his sad subservient life. She’s initially glad to help, and goes out of her way for him, but then finally rolls around to matching the audience’s own disgust when all the good will is extinguished. It’s a messy end, and Gloria is left on the other side wondering how easily her sense of self drifted away in the ease of pouring it into another person. It’s often ugly but utterly honest, and one cannot help but cheer the pure basic humanity of it all.

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Psycho (1960)

It took me until I was 28 to see Hitchcock’s Psycho. Because of that, it’s hard to write about, because I see it now having seen thousands of other movies, many of which were inspired by this one. It’s not a bad thing to catch up on canon films, to be sure, but its hard when a movie is as ubiquitous and over-discussed as Psycho is. Watching it was the most ‘cultural vegetables’ experience I think I’ve ever had, which lead to my impressions being skewed in ways they shouldn’t have.

I didn’t even know there was a plot about missing money. It’s the big surprise about Psycho as someone going into it, that the whole Norman Bates plot is a total misdirection that doesn’t even show up until well into a different movie about a woman who takes off with some money her boss told her to deposit into the bank. It’s the classic red herring, of course, but Hitchcock is a master of red herrings, and honestly watching Janet Leigh drive around in increasing states of paranoia was (because of the aforementioned lack of knowledge) more interesting than any of the slasher stuff or the mystery of Mrs. Bates. It seems ridiculous to say it, but that’s my gut reaction, because I was surprised by how surprised I was by the thing they probably sold the movie on when it first premiered. I’m sure the second half was all kept secret, but that’s the stuff that’s been talked to death.

And honestly, it’s hard to feel much about that sort of thing anyway. I once tried to do a project where I watched and wrote about every one of Hitchcock’s films and got about twenty movies in before I had to bail out. Hitchcock is a strange director, a master of maneuvering plot beats but totally inhuman when it comes to expressing actual genuine emotions or creating empathy. And I think that comes back to bite him in Psycho. The Norman Bates stuff is appropriately creepy, don’t get me wrong, but the whole thing then begins to destabilize when they try to explain it in both psychological terms or in Norman’s own feverish rationalizations. It’s just boring, a lot of dated psychology and really wooden character insights. The interior lives of his characters are never Hitchcock’s strong point, minus a few exceptions that prove the rule, and the movie suffers for it.

But what am I even talking about? It’s Psycho. It’s one of the most impactful movies ever made, influenced a ton of people, and is seen as a classic. Sadly, it’s one of those classics that’s hard to come to from the other end and really appreciate. There’s no tension and no mystery, only filling in the gaps of the bits you haven’t seen and haven’t been talked to death, between the stuff that became so iconic. Psycho, at this stage, to someone who hasn’t seen it, feels completely bled dry.

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The Lego Movie (2014)

I’m really torn on The Lego Movie for one reason, which I’ll just spell out because I’m pretty sure everyone is going to see this anyway and so this is just a final parting thought. I really like that the movie is about this idea of denying toys as toys in order to fill them with importance. I like that the movie mocks people who follow the directions, who build sets as they’re depicted, and goes out of its way to champion the weird ridiculous things you can build by mixing and matching. I like its final act, which veers into such a poignant place of what toys mean to people in a fundamental way. I like the movie a whole lot, is what I’m saying.

But I’m left with some disquiet about the whole thing, on purely anti-capitalist grounds. This is a movie that advocates creativity about a toy company that has blown up in the past decade because of its big directions-heavy models and intricately licensed playsets. It tells you that whatever you build is okay, but then any toy store has Lego Movie playsets that come with instructions to build exactly what you see in the theaters. And it is about the fundamental joy of Lego, which I get and share, but we’re talking about a toy that is very expensive in bulk. The movie has real life playsets in it, but it doesn’t mention that those are thousands of dollars (if not tens of thousands) worth of Lego being depicted on screen. Sure, it’s a wonderfully creative toy, if you have the money to invest in utilizing it.

It’s a strange thing to talk about, but it bears mentioning, because this is a big budget film about a branded product that is sold and marketed to both kids and adults for purportedly very different reasons. Regardless of that, the key reason remains: to make the Lego company a whole lot of money. Which is fine if you’re okay with capitalism as a good, but that same kid today could be given a $30 copy of the game Minecraft or one of the free Lego building tools and create the same kinds of worlds (or even much vaster ones) at a fraction of the cost without fuelling a giant corporate machine that wants to sell you $30-100 playsets in order to engage with its ‘creative’ product.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t a good movie, just that the collision of art and product in a movie where the villain is named Business can’t be ignored. Lego are cool, but they’re also a toy dependent upon certain classist prerequisites to enjoy even on a basic level, much less the extravagant level depicted in the film. That’s not a deal breaker, but it’s the kind of thing that should give one pause when considering what exactly is packed into a message as broad as the one in the movie.

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Oscar Shorts! 2014 Academy Award Nominated Short Films (animated) (2014)

So this is a weirder thing to talk about, because short films are hard to ‘review’ if you can even call what I do anymore reviewing in a formal sense. Instead I just want to talk about each piece briefly, and let that be that. If this isn’t playing in your area (and it probably isn’t, let’s be real, these things get really shafted) most of these will be online after the Oscars at some point? And then you should totally seek them out and watch them. I’ll link to the trailers that are online right now in this, to help. Anyway, there are five nominees and then some also-rans that I’ll get to.

THE NOMINEES

Get A Horse! 

This is the Disney short in front of Frozen and thus it’s probably the one everyone has seen. That usually means that its the one that wins, which I grumble about nearly every year but this year I think is totally deserving. This absolutely captures the sense of fun of old Mickey Mouse shorts but integrates the opportunities of new technology and remix culture into something very modern feeling. The only bummer is that it absolutely is best in 3D, and that’s not how most people are going to see it at this point.

Feral

This is one of those very artistically striking shorts that manages to evoke a lot of feeling despite not actually being that great. It’s fine, and a solid visual tone piece, but by and large its messaging is really simplistic and all the things it evokes about conformity and freedom are really trite and hollow. Sorry, Feral.

Mr Hublot

The quirkiest French thing, Mr Hublot is the only other one of these I could see winning and be okay with after Get A Horse! The story of an obsessive compulsive robot man in a robot city, Mr Hublot is an incredibly sweet story about companionship, loneliness, and accommodating the strangeness of those we interact with in life. This one is the real charmer, a piece that manages to be touching but only skirting the edge cloying.

Possessions

A lush ghost story in the age of samurai in Japan, Possessions is a gorgeous, kind of silly Shinto tale of a wandering man and a hut filled with the spirits of discarded objects. I really like a lot of things about this one, but found the animation of the man himself really distracting. The rest of the world is very intricately painted, but he’s a big lumbering cel-shaded model that looks only slightly better than what would fall out of a PS3 Dragonball Z game, and the jarring incongruity was offputting in the extreme. It’s a technical gripe, but animation is a technical art, so there.

Room on the Broom

I’ve only watched these short compilations thrice now, but each time there’s been these half hour claymation British storybook shorts, obviously made for TV and often with a surprisingly deep list of B-list actors making up the voice cast. This one is better than the last two, but all of them are very quaint in a low key way. This is animation meant to lull and comfort, and it’s very good at that. I don’t mean that as a slight, because I really do miss this kind of animation. I feel like it used to exist a lot on American TV, but either its disappeared or I stopped knowing where to find it, and that’s unfortunate. Not everything needs to be hyperactive to entertain.

And then there were the also-rans, which honestly I liked a lot better because they dare more and are often weirder and more offputting than the actual nominees. Which is a shame, but reflective of the Oscars in general. Either way, here they are.

Highly Commended

A la Francaise

The most funny of the shorts by a mile, this farce depicts the court of Louis XIV as a menagerie of birds in the formal dress of the time, all clucking and strutting as they dance and eat and drink and duel and do whatever it is people do. It is a very simple premise of ‘look at the animals acting like humans’ but its incredibly effective both because birds are inherently weird amusing creatures, but also because in that level of abstraction is a lampooning of historical pomp and circumstance that feels very knowing in turning up its nose at self-importance.

The Missing Scarf

A strange cartoon that acts like part storybook and part education film, complete with 50s-esque narration from George Takei, The Missing Scarf is my favorite of the shorts shown this year. It’s a very silly trifle that unfolds in a very novel way into something much broader and more interesting. It’s a wicked thing, with a sense of humor that is as interested in discomfort as it is joy, and the things its about that I love it for are the things I wouldn’t dare give away. This is the one that I really wish was online to show to people I know.

The Blue Umbrella

The Pixar short that (I assume) was in front of Monsters University. This is a cute but dull boy meets girl story that is obviously a tech demo for some absolutely incredible photo-realistic CG that they’re working on. If they intend to make a movie with that stuff it would be jaw dropping, because I thought for a while at first that this short was actually stop motion using real objects. As a tech demo its impressive. As a narrative piece it is about as deep as the puddles its riddled with.

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Man of Steel (2013)

I’ll be brief, because there isn’t that much to talk about: Man of Steel is brutal and empty and depressingly bland. This shouldn’t be surprising, because Zack Snyder has made his career on making movies like this. I suppose I should feel lucky that there isn’t some sort of Lois Lane attempted rape, really, but instead I’m mostly just sad that this movie is what it is, because there are moments when it tries to be so much better.

Throwing off the idea of a secret identity and just having Clark running around shirtless and saving people is great. Having Lois track him down and know who he is even before he becomes Superman is really interesting. It invests this character as having an identity that’s defined by his Otherness, instead of trying to juxtapose the same hokey stories of secret identity and fear of discovery and all of that. It’s really god damn on the nose (there’s that scene where he’s literally having a crisis of confidence in a church in front of a giant Jesus window, way to sledgehammer home that point), but in its own hamfisted kind of way its trying to at least be about something. That’s more than I can say about a lot of movies of this type.

Then Zod shows up and the punching starts. There’s a whole lot of punching, and heat beams, and space ships blowing up, and whatever. It’s all very pointless because everyone who matters is invincible and everyone who isn’t doesn’t get any weight. Thousands get killed in a city by Zod. Superman blows up a ship full of innocent Kryptonian babies, and the whole thing is too busy relishing CG men punching each other to notice or care that these actions have occurred. Its cartoonish in the extreme and so fake that none of it has any weight, lessons that you’d think people would have learned a decade ago about misusing CG. Just because we can do everything doesn’t mean we should, but a blockbuster cannot care about such thematic concerns when it has to be the punchy fighty Superman because the last one everyone criticized because it was too much ‘about feelings’.

Never mind that the entirety of these fight scenes are ripped right out of the third Matrix movie, where at least there they had some sort of build up but were equally hollow and (rightfully) derided for being so. Never mind that the blu-ray I watched opened for a trailer of the new DC universe fighting game that looked more ‘real’ with its polygonal fighters than this 100+ million dollar movie did in trying to render the enraged bug eyes of a fully wasted Michael Shannon. This is a movie that wants so hard to be cool, and manages a very silly shortsighted 14 year old boy version of coolness that is a total vacuum of worth. It’s pretty terrible.

But what did I expect? This is a movie from Zack Snyder, the king of 14 year old notebook fantasies writ large. And I should have known from the get go, when Russell Crowe flies around a giant digital matte painting on the dragon from Avatar like a solemn Kryptonian Obi-Wan Kenobi. At least he knows the movie he’s in is cheese and acts accordingly.

I don’t seriously score movies, but if I did this would get 1 out of 5 stars for wasting Amy Adams. Everything else is obvious, but not making the movie about her is the only truly unforgivable sin.

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The World’s End (2013)

There are few things worse than disappointing movies, especially when they come from beloved directors. Edgar Wright’s final entry in his unofficial trilogy is one of those films, a movie that endeavors to both be a fitting ending to two of the best comedies of the past ten years and also a thematic summation of what that decade of personal progress has wrought, is one of those movies. It is ambitious as hell, but manages to somehow squander almost all of its goodwill through both fear and stubbornness.

The problem is that it tries to be both a silly genre comedy and a meaningful statement on friendship and sobriety, but the two movies have wildly different focuses and they don’t really serve the same ends. The sobriety movie, the better movie, dominates most of the first half hour and is a surprising departure from prior work. It’s melancholy, angry, and full of the nervous energy of actors who have mostly been pigeonholed operating with a surprising amount of nuance. It’s a very interesting movie, but around the half hour mark it is totally chucked out the window when Barbie Doll robots show up, and all the fight scenes start.

I’m not against a weird action movie inserted into thematically deeper material. Shaun of the Dead manages to use zombies to counterpoint the social stagnation of its heroes in a really smart way. The problem is that robots don’t actually add anything to the proceedings. There are easy jokes about returning back to the haunts of your childhood, but in reality the changes are writ most large in the characters who weren’t there during that, and how different they ended up from their childhood versions of themselves. Instead, it’s a framework used to attach some small scale action scenes (admittedly well filmed, a testament to his evolution through Scott Pilgrim) and some silly but superfluous jokes.

Which would be fine, except those jokes often run totally against the actual themes of the movie. It’s bad enough that everyone just starts going along with the stupid plans of Simon Pegg’s alcoholic train wreck of a character, but it quickly comes all tumbling down when the entire movie then hinges upon them actually stopping to celebrate the selfish, childish idiocy that the movie is ostensibly about moving past. After so many abject lessons about the sadness of adults trying to recapture their glory, the fact that the movie ends with speeches about how the whole of humanity are fuckups and that’s why they’re special feels like a slap in the face. Most of the leads aren’t fuckups. They have problems, but they’re good people who have gone out of their way to try to be there for their shitty friend who is obviously hurting. But hey, let’s raise a glass to being arrested manchildren, hey? It’s our destiny as a people!

I won’t even talk about the stupid epilogue, which manages to take a bad ending and truly seal it as caring more about self-serving genre tropes than being a movie of meaning. By then I was too sad that a movie that started so well had gone so far to avoid being about anything of import. This is supposedly a script that Wright and Pegg have had in them since teenagers, and I think that shows on the screen. Only an adolescent would look at a story like this and think that the choices made are actually good ones, investing in coolness and aloof ‘humor’ over anything with any weight or consequence.

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